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First 2016 Thoughts on Orioles + Shout Outs to Columbia Lions/Wisconsin Badgers/Gelf Magazine

The first pictures from the spring training camps in Florida and Arizona are always tonic for the soul of this baseball nut. Nice to realize that every team will remain 0-0 until early April when the records start to count.

I find it ridiculous to rank teams before games really matter, but the 24/7/365 world of punditry requires endless copy. The Orioles were recently ranked by many “experts” in the bottom third echelon of the 30 MLB teams.

The rating might have inched a little higher with the Birds’ recent signing of former Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers right hander Yovani Gallardo. Then again it might drop because suddenly on Feb 25 former Rockies/Astros/Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler changed his mind on signing a three-year deal with Baltimore. He decided to return to the Cubs on a one-year contract for reportedly $8 million with a mutual option for 2017.

Fowler's sudden reversal cost him millions of dollars because late last year he turned down a $15.8 million one-year "qualifying offer" from the Cubs. (The number was based on the yearly average of free agent contracts signed in the last few years). Fowler’s rejection meant that any team signing him had to give a high draft pick to Chicago. That obviously decreased the market for his services.

Fowler now returns to the Cubs for barely half that money and a mutual option for 2017. The Orioles keep the draft pick and presumably will hope that the Cuban defector Dariel Alvarez, oft-injured Nolan Reimold, and maybe at times newcomer Mark Trumbo and versatile slugger Chris Davis can patrol right field successfully.

The “qualifying offer” system will be one thorny issue to work out this year between players and clubs as they negotiate a new Basic Agreement that expires before the end of the year. At least there has been over 20 years of labor peace in baseball and fortunately there does not seem to be any strike or lockout issue looming.

The “qualifying offer” system may need some tweaking but I don't think it should be scrapped. For the first time players actually accepted the offer. Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, recovering from Tommy John surgery, doubled his salary by agreeing to a one-year contract. Veteran Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus also decided to stay in Houston.

What is fascinating about contracts in all businesses not just sports is how unexpected consequences can arise after the ink is dry. Most famously in the 1976 Basic Agreement that brought free agency to baseball, the owners wanted a non-collusion clause. They
were fearful that agents could collude to bring multiple players to one team.

As it evolved, it was the owners who colluded in the mid-1980s about offering anything to free agents. And the Players Association won two grievance in front of two arbitrators that led to over $300 million in penalties levied on the owners.

Now, happily let me return to stories of the beautiful game and not the often ugly business.
The Orioles look like they will go with an all right handed starting rotation in 2016. They will need bounce-back years from the probable Opening Day starter Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez near the back end. Ubaldo Jimenez could be slotted second or third with newcomer Gallardo in the other position.

The recently married Jimenez has loads of talent but has found it very hard to repeat his delivery. Oriole mound mavens Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti (son of onetime Mets catcher Harry Chiti who was the player to be named in a trade for himself) have helped streamline the mechanics for Ubaldo – one of the great first names ever in baseball.

The key for the mound staff may well be Kevin Gausman, who at last will not be shuttled back and forth to Norfolk’s Triple-A farm club. He will be expected to pull his weight in the rotation. Another important piece may be Dylan Bundy who is out of options and hopefully at last healthy. Both Gausman and Bundy throw very hard as do closer Zach Britton and converted shortstop Mychal Givens.

I love my team and always try to find a glass at least half-full. But I just KNEW that Bundy was ultimately headed for the DL when I read that this number one draft pick participated in an intense workout program as a high school phenom in Oklahoma.

Sure enough he has been injured regularly since he turned pro. So has his brother Bobby another Oriole pitcher lacking the high ceiling of Dylan. Dylan is out of options so he must make the team or be put on the waiver wire. Bundy’s saga will be one of the stories to follow in spring training.

The online Gelf Magazine organized a very stimulating evening in Greenwich Village on Tues Feb 23. First up was prolific Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated discussing his latest book (written with Tufts social psychology prof Sam Sommers), "This Is Your Brain On Sports: The Science of Underdogs, The Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon."

Among the tidbits that Wertheim shared was being in a Fenway Park crowd with a Red Sox fan wearing a Manny Ramirez uniform. When Alex Rodriguez came to plate, said fan shouted, "A-Roid, A-Roid!" Our guy is always misunderstood, Their guy is a crook.

ESPN producer Justine Gubar has penned another crisp sounding title, "Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan." Among the adventures this intrepid reporter engaged in was going to Columbus, Ohio during the scandals that cost head football coach Jim Tressel his job. She was pilloried on-line but bravely met her accusers.

Last and certainly not least at the Gelf evening was the very witty Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal who talked about his first book "Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living." He confided that his original title was "Remember Your Pants," his one advice to the Little League team he was coaching.

Gay rightly considers "psychotic parents" the biggest scourge in sports - those misguided folks who heap their unfulfilled dreams upon their children and will fight umpires and other parents to meet their warped goals.

A final tip of my cap to my two alma maters' basketball teams - the Columbia Lions at 8-2 in the Ivy League going into the last four games of the season. If we beat Princeton Fri night Feb 26, Penn the next night and Brown and Yale the first weekend in March, the worse Columbia can do is tie for the title. Tall order indeed because Yale is 9-1 and Princeton 8-1 but nice to be in the hunt for first time in decades.

And how about my Wisconsin Badgers who have won 9 of 10 in Big Ten play after losing a lot of early season games and their legendary coach Bo Ryan to retirement. His handpicked successor Greg Gard has brought back Ryan's formidable "Swing" offense with its excellent spacing on the court.

Looks like Wisconsin will have a chance, albeit a long shot, to compete in March Madness and harbor dreams of a third straight entry into the Final Four.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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On The Eve of Pitchers and Catchers: College Basketball and Pro Baseball Thoughts

It’s a special time of year with the days growing longer, college basketball season heading to a regular season climax with my two alma maters Columbia and Wisconsin in the hunt for post-season action, and of course spring training camps ready to open next week.

Columbia’s chances for its first Ivy League title since 1968 took a major blow on Saturday night when Princeton rallied to tie the game with 5 seconds left in regulation. After falling behind by 7 points in overtime, the Tigers finished the game scoring the last 12 points in an 88-83 victory.

Unheralded freshman guard Devin Cannady came off the bench to score a career high of 23 points, hitting the big buckets both inside the paint and outside beyond the three-point line. Yale remains undefeated in the Ivy League 14-game regular season tournament with Princeton having just one loss and now Columbia saddled with two with six games to go.

Meanwhile down at College Park, Maryland, Wisconsin avenged a loss in Madison with a convincing 70-57 victory over the highly ranked Terps. Forward Vitto Brown notched his second straight career high with 21 points.

Junior Vitto Brown is one of the nice versatile stories in college sports. He sings with his family vocal group, Shades of Brown. They performed a national anthem before one of the Badgers home games last year and probably will do it again.

Another fine forward and singer is Yale’s Brandon Sherrod who actually took off last season to travel the nation and the world with Yale’s Whiffenpoofs. He has returned to become a force up front with Justin Sears, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year. Sherrod also set a NCAA record last month with 30 straight field goal attempts without a miss.

It is a pleasure to be well into a third decade of labor peace in Major League Baseball with neither side saber-rattling about the upcoming negotiations for a new Basic Agreement – the old one expires at the end of this year.

It was interesting though to read Tony Clark’s recent complaints about the current system. Clark, the former major league first baseman with primarily the Tigers, is in his second year as executive director of the Players Association.

He is upset that some veteran free agents like shortstop Ian Desmond formerly of the Nationals, outfielder Dexter Fowler formerly of the Cubs (and Rockies-Astros), and righthanded starter Yovanni Gallardo, formerly of the Texas Rangers, are still out on the market.

Clark is a very eloquent fellow but each of the three players mentioned above turned down a $15.8 million one-year qualifying offer from their former team. Not exactly chump change - that number was computed based on the average of free agent contracts in the past few years.

If a team signs Desmond, Fowler, or Gallardo, it will have to forfeit a first-round draft pick, a valuable commodity given the insane prices of veteran free agents, esp. pitchers.

Most teams would like to have their full rosters set by now but that is not always the case. In 2014 the Orioles did not pick up key free agents starter Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz until the last week of February. So we’ll see what happens before the games begin for keep on April 3.

I was amused by a heated exchange between Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo and analytics fanatic Brian Kenny on Russo’s “High Heat” MLB TV network show on February 12th.

Kenny was insisting that Kenny Lofton and Jim Edmonds were Hall of Famers though he admitted that only the numbers said Lofton, a good player and great athlete but not a Hall of Famer, belonged in Cooperstown.

The case for Edmonds is even weaker but the analytics people are riding high now in powerful places – new media, television, and big name universities. They are convinced that longtime sportswriters and fans have only limited insight into the game.

Their fanatic belief that the endless barrage of their new statistics tells us so much amuses me except that it is not funny when the ascendancy of the new statisticians continues to cost scouts, the real pillar of the game, their jobs. Over 100 lost their positions when the book “Moneyball” came out, and another wave of pink slips is happening now. An outrage!

Well, that’s all for now – always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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