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Coping With The No-Baseball Blues, Installment 3

The silly season of baseball free agency is upon us. Mark my words there will be a bevy of big free agent signings coming out of the winter meetings in Nashville starting on December 7. It must happen because programming at the MLBTV network is counting on it.

Just like in late July at the non-waiver trade deadline there must be trades to satisfy the needs of the network programming. Whether the trades and free agent signing are wise moves is another story. And woe be the team that makes moves for the sake of making moves.

The Detroit Tigers got a early jump on the signings by nabbing former Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann for a reported $110 million over 5 years. The figure if accurate - and who really knows? - is in the ballpark of the $23 million a year that Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been making in recent years.

His teammate Zack Greinke, who arguably had a better 2015 than Kershaw, has become a free agent so he can capitalize on it. I don't begrudge free agency to players but I do not like the incessant 24/7 coverage with the money rubbed into our faces.

Zimmermann is the first pitcher to have had Tommy John surgery to earn a contract of over $100 million. At least that is what many sports news agencies are breathlessly reporting.

At 29 Zimmermann may still be pitching well five years hence. He certainly is a tough competitor.

I thought the yanking of Zimmermann by former Nats manager Matt Williams with two out in the 9th inning of a playoff game in 2014 was a great blunder. Zimmermann was pitching a shutout and reliever Drew Storen couldn’t finish it and the Nats lost that game in the 18th inning. (In hindsight, the 2015 Nats never recovered from Williams’ poor decision.)

However, the big question with long-term contracts is how long the fierce competitive desire will remain with such job and financial security.

Immortal horse racing jockey Eddie Arcaro once phrased the warning beautifully:
“It’s hard to get up early in the morning when you are wearing silk pajamas.”

The Orioles are facing head-on a similar question with powerful first baseman Chris Davis. Through agent Scott Boras, Davis reportedly wants a contract starting at least 5 years and maybe over $25 million per year.

Count on MLB network to be covering this saga minute by minute before, during and if necessary after the Nashville winter meetings. Of course, the "winter" meetings don't really happen during winter but that is one of baseball's harmless quirks.

The throwing of money at mediocre players is not harmless but Let The Buyer Beware remains a basic premise that good organizations must always keep in mind. Since there are not that many good organizations, expect a lot of wasteful spending in the days ahead.

Meanwhile to cope with the no-baseball-on-the-field blues, I continue to follow my two college/grad school alma maters’ basketball teams, the Columbia Lions and the Wisconsin Badgers.

Both are struggling, Wisconsin not surprisingly because of heavy losses from last year’s Final Two team. Columbia, alas, is finding the curse of expectations a heavier burden than expected. They lost two one-point games over the weekend and have slumped to 3-4 for the season.

Big Ten and Ivy League play do not start until January so no need to press panic button. Or so I remind myself constantly.

That’s all this time. Always remember: “Take it easy but take it!”
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Quandaries of September Baseball

Orioles manager Buck Showalter always has something provocative to say. Though his team is relegated to a spoiler role this September after an AL East title in 2014, he is like the man in the old EF Hutton commercial: When he talks, you listen.

Showalter says that a major league season is really four seasons: Spring Training, Regular Season (through August), September, and October (and in the case of 2015 early November – a potential World Series 7th game is slated for November 5.)

Showalter and many others in the baseball trenches, including Yankees manager Joe Girardi, has a problem with the September season. They are upset at the expansion of rosters after September 1st. As many as 15 extra players can crowd dugouts when minor league seasons are over and prospects are called up to provide reinforcements.

Showalter has been vehement on the need for a limit on the number of active players for any game. He argues persuasively that it should remain 25, just the way it is earlier in the season. The rest can be “taxi squad” members, inactive for the day's game but available for duty in future games.

[TRIVIA INTERLUDE: Do you know the origin of the term “taxi squad”? The powerhouse Cleveland Browns football team of post-World War II fledgling All-America Football Conference – AAFC – were owned by taxicab magnate Arthur McBride. They were so loaded with talent that rather than lose good players in a roster crunch, McBride put surplus talent on his taxicab payroll to keep them.]

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem any groundswell of support visible for season-long 25-man active rosters. For managers like Showalter and Girardi who think long and hard about relief pitcher-batter matchups late in the game, the extra roster members make life more difficult than necessary.

Baseball wasn’t always run this way. For many seasons after World War II and perhaps into the 1960s, rosters of up to 35 were the rule through mid-May. Then cuts were made to send the extra men back to the minors for more playing time.

That makes more sense to me, but right now it seems the system is designed to reward the poorer teams who can bring up fresh faces in September to give their fans some hope for next year. But success in September can be very illusory.

New York Mets fans will remember how Mike Vail’s splashy September in 1975 - .307 BA, 3 HR, 17 RBI in 162 ABs - led them to trade proven run producer Rusty Staub. That didn’t work out very well did it? Vail never came close to establishing himself and Staub went on to many more productive years.

This is not a dig at Mets fans that should be enjoying every moment of their spectacular rise to the top of the NL East, aided in no small measure by the spectacular flop of pre-season World Series favorite Washington Nats.

Don’t worry, Mets fans, about whether Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes will re-sign for the future. Or how many innings suddenly Dark Night-like (instead of Dark Knight-like) Matt Harvey has left in his arm.

Enjoy every moment of this surge, and when the time is near, then worry about how to deal with likely playoff opponent L.A. and the Dodgers one-two punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. After all, since starters even great ones rarely throw complete games, bullpens determine victories these days and LA's isn't outstanding. Kershaw also has had a history of post-season failure that could linger.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. There is much of September left and sometimes pressure and fatigue can create slumps.

“Yaneverknow,”, Joaquin Andujar loved to utter his one word of explanation of baseball. And RIP Andujar, 62, who died earlier this week of complications from diabetes.

For now, as always, remember: Take it easy but take it!
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