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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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An Oriole Fan’s Early Lament by The Hot Stove League Fires

Baseball has never seen a week like the first one in December. Especially when you consider that the annual “winter” meetings are not taking place, appropriately in Disney World in Orlando, until the second week in December. That was when the big action was supposed to occur. But with every team loaded with at least $25 million of new television cash, the owners couldn’t wait to dish it out.

Free agent signings galore – the biggest being Robinson Cano bolting from the Yankees to the Seattle Mariners for a 10-year contract worth reportedly $240 million. Never mind that the long-term contract never works out – see under Angels, Los Angeles of Anaheim, Pujols, Albert and Hamilton, Josh. Seattle has been a loser for so long that it just felt it had to reward the fan base with a big splash.

The Yankees have not been inactive. Shortly before Cano left, they signed free agent catcher Brian McCann away from the Braves on a five-year deal. For seven years Jacoby Ellsbury took his center field/base stealing talents from the Red Sox to the Yanks. And now word comes that Carlos Beltran, the former Met who starred in the last two post-seasons for the Cardinals, will fulfill a dream to play for the Yankees while Curtis Granderson moves crosstown from the Bronx to the Mets.

Meanwhile down in Baltimore, a disturbing quiet settles in. My Orioles are doing nothing except losing less prominent but useful free agents like pitcher Scott Feldman who went to the Astros (who after successive 100-loss seasons have nowhere to go but up). And outfielder Nate McLouth is going down the Beltway to the Washington Nationals.
The Birds instead offered a far cheaper contract to the always-injured left fielder Nolan Reimold.

Even worse, the Orioles traded its erratic but often effective closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland A’s for yet another minor league second baseman Jemile Weeks. This move cut into the emotional core of Oriole fandom. A home-grown Oriole like Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis, Johnson had lived through the worst of the Oriole bad years and his 51 saves in 54 chances in 2012 were a big part of their great comeback season.

He even moved his permanent home from upstate Endicott NY to Sarasota where the Orioles have at long last established a great spring training and all-season base. Johnson took the high road when learning the news. He expressed deserved great pride in being a part of the Orioles turnaround.

“Baseball is a business,” we hear that endlessly but the loss of Johnson for so little in return was a blow to me almost as severe as seeing Manny Machado on that gurney after injuring his knee in Tampa Bay late last season.

Machado is reportedly recovering well from his surgery and could be ready for Opening Day. But it will be a far different Oriole team from the 2013 squad that finished out of the playoffs yet still eight games over .500. I am nervous when general manager Dan Duquette says publicly that he is happy with his starting rotation that still lacks an ace and durable pitchers and now has a huge hole at the back end of the bullpen.

Branch Rickey liked to talk about addition by subtraction, i.e. getting rid of a player who
would not be missed and allowed opportunities for others to step up. Oriole manager Buck Showalter is talking that brave game publicly. But it is hard not to feel uneasy about what the future holds for a young fan base (and a youthful curmudgeon like yours truly) that brimmed with hope in the last two seasons after nearly three decades in the darkness.

In the meantime, here’s a plug for a very interesting read: Jamie Moyer and Larry Platt,
JUST TELL ME I CAN’T: HOW JAMIE MOYER DEFIED THE RADAR GUN AND DEFEATED TIME (Grand Central Publishing). The book is dedicated to the late Harvey Dorfman, the sport psychologist who rescued Moyer’s career (and many others like Roy Halladay).

Dorfman is a prominent figure in the book. His penetrating epigrams begin every chapter. "Hoping you will do something means you don't believe you can" and "When we fail to learn, we've learned to fail" are two examples of his tough-love method.

Moyer also provides revealing profiles of other unknown helpmates. He livens up the read with good anecdotes about pitching for the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners and his home town 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. He also adds in stories about his life as the son-in-law of basketball's Digger Phelps.

In short, JUST TELL ME I CAN'T is a detailed often inspirational saga that both baseball fans and general readers should enjoy.  Read More 
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