How does the saying go? “It doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish.” Well, that’s true, but the other thing is that “every game counts,” even the ones in April. The Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox each started out 0-6. If Boston had won only one of those... Same goes for the Atlanta Braves who clearly wish all-star catcher Brian McCann had not been injured those couple of weeks. Whatever. The regular season is 162 games. Every team has significant injuries. Win as many as you can, whenever you can.
Braves were ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Wild Card race by
eight-and-a-half games at the beginning of September. On the last day of
the regular season, the Braves lose a heartbreaker to baseball’s best
Philadelphia Phillies. St. Louis thumps the league’s worst team, the
Houston Astros, and are in the playoffs. The Red Sox were up nine over
the Rays for the AL Wild Card spot.
On the last night of the regular season, the tables finished turning. Call them collapses if you like. Everything changed.
The very bad Baltimore Orioles beat the Sox, scoring two in the bottom of the ninth with two out. Tampa Bay went down 7-0 to the Yankees and then scored six in the eighth and pinch-hitter Dan Johnson hit the tying homer in the ninth with two outs and two strikes. Evan Longoria of the Rays then hit a walk-off homer in the 12th. The day before, Tampa had turned a triple play to stay in the game and eventually win.
That’s baseball. Ya gotta play ‘em all.
THE THEME OF MLB 2011
cousin asked me the other day, before the last day of the season, “What
could be done to make baseball games more exciting?” I told him that I
don’t think the game needs to go extreme. I do think that, in addition
to the Baltimore Orioles returning permanently to the “Happy Bird” logo,
a few adjustments are needed. Use the 40-man roster, but make only 25
players eligible at any given game. Too many pitching changes slow
things down tremendously.
Just to pick up where I left you at the end of last season, baseball still needs instant replay in a big way. I still believe that would not only improve the accuracy of the calls, but ultimately speed up the game. Will that make baseball more exciting to the casual fan? Maybe not. I don’t really care. I think baseball appeals to more types of people than does, say, football. I love—love!—baseball. I would happily watch every game of the year in the MLB Fan Cave. My favorite sport to watch, however, is hockey.
That’s another one that seems a little too complex or inaccessible for many, even though it’s about as fast a sport as you’ll find. Having played both—and basically sucked at both—gives me insights to how difficult playing these sports really can be. And I know that in baseball, there’s always something happening every pitch even if the casual fan can’t see it.
This year, what seemed to be happening on every baseball sports show was a discussion of how to measure player performance. The latest, greatest statistic that baseball’s world of metrics has popularized is “WAR.” The acronym stands for “wins above replacement.”
Simply, WAR seeks to measure the value of a starting player against the likely less-expensive replacement that could be found. So, for example, Matt Kemp, the LA Dodgers center fielder, is having a career year and with five games left had a WAR ranking of about 9.6, the highest in baseball this year. By comparison, Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers left fielder and Kemp’s main rival for the NL MVP this year, has a WAR ranking of 7.2, even though Braun’s team has clinched its division’s crown, something that the Brewers probably wouldn’t have done without Braun’s performance. For reference, in 2004, Barry Bonds had a WAR of 12.4.
In the AL, even though Curtis Granderson of the Yankees is my narrow winner for MVP, his WAR is about 7. Jose “Joey Bats” Bautista, Toronto’s slugger, is at 8.2, and Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury, also an MVP favorite, ranks 8.5, with his teammate Dustin Pedroia at 7.3.
WAR is designed to be able to have one statistic, admittedly comprised of numerous other statistics, define the value of a player. (If you want to know how WAR is calculated, Google “MLB WAR.”) The focus on WAR during all the baseball talk shows is appropriate if you want to get down to one number. It’s one of those tools that tells you little about a team game, unless maybe you’ve got the top 10 players by WAR ranking on one team, including four pitchers. Don’t even get me started on WHIP.
The 2011 season started with a San Francisco Giants fan on opening day in Los Angeles getting beaten into a coma by two erstwhile Dodgers “fans” who reportedly have stronger ties to some local gang. The Dodgers’ season was ending with a surprisingly strong finish on the field and a thoroughly embarrassing procession in bankruptcy court where MLB has asked a judge to force parking-lot magnate Frank McCourt to sell the team. The best single stat to measure McCourt’s impact on the Dodgers is “PAOFITS,” or “paid-attendance-over-fans-in-the-stands.”
by the end of the season, about half the fans who had paid for tickets
were going to the stadium to see Kemp try to become the first Triple
Crown winner since 1967. His teammate, Clayton Kershaw, looks likely to
win the Cy Young this year, with his own pitching triple crown. Kershaw
is tied for most wins (21), lowest ERA (2.28) and most strikeouts (248).
The 2011 season was also about injuries, perhaps the most prominent of which was Buster Posey’s torn ligaments and broken left ankle. Posey, the catcher and key to the San Francisco Giants’ World Series win last year, was playing against the Florida Marlins when Scott Cousins, attempting to score on a sacrifice fly, collided with Posey, who was trying to block the plate. Posey fell back awkwardly and Cousins scored. Posey was out for the season. The Giants also suffered from injuries to their closer Brian Wilson.
Other prominent injuries included Alex Rodriguez, who will not hit 30 home runs for the first time since 1997, his third year in the league. More recently, most of the starting rotation for the Boston Red Sox was beaten up, leaving the team to rely on the Baltimore Orioles to beat up on the Tampa Bay Rays, the team that challenged the BoSox for the Wild Card.
The Atlanta Braves, impressive all year, also started to fold towards the end as the St. Louis Cardinals pressed for the Wild Card spot. Do we even need to talk about the “first to worst” Minnesota Twins? We should talk about the “worst to first” Arizona Diamondbacks.
As always, there were some amazing plays made by players you’d never heard of (Ben Revere, Roger Bernadina, Adam Jones, Sam Fuld) and a lot of unbelievable ones made by Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who also set a team record this year for homers by a Tribe shortstop. Cabrera made the behind-the-back flip to second his own, while just about everybody, most notably Cincinnati’s “Mr. Personality,” second baseman Brandon Phillips, made a glove flip to first between the legs.
A notable accomplishment was Mariano Rivera breaking Trevor Hoffman’s save record. And congratulations to Derek Jeter for becoming the first Yankees player to get 3,000 hits, and to Jim Thome for passing the 600 home run mark.
And finally, can we say goodbye forever to Manny Ramirez? And maybe Carlos Zambrano? A question all to itself: What is up with Nyjer Morgan?
The year ends with big question marks about two certified superstars and where they will end up next season. Albert Pujols, who, despite injuries early in the year, still hit .300 with 37 dingers, was in the last year of his contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Prince Fielder, the Brewers first baseman, is a little younger and has a slightly lower average than Pujols, and has already said this is likely his last year in Milwaukee. The interesting stat to look for in both cases is the dollars each will get as a free agent.
For me, 2011 was a season mostly focused on baseball’s sometimes amusing ownership issues. Of course, the stadium closest to me is in Chavez Ravine. In addition to the Dodgers, the Mets are in the most dire financial straits. There are too many teams and not enough major-league talent. That, I think, was made clearest in Houston as Drayton McLane tries to sell the Astros to controversial businessman Jim Crane for $680 million, the second-highest price for a major league team. Whether MLB will approve the sale remains a question. The biggest concern, reportedly that $300 million of the deal would be debt-financed, is that Crane would become another Frank McCourt. Anyone got Mark Cuban’s phone number?
The last week of the regular season might indeed prove more exciting than any playoffs. The wild finishes in the Wild Card races make the match-ups in the postseason a lot more interesting than they appeared to be a month earlier.
Here’s who’s going to play who in the first round of the playoffs and who’s going to win each round. A lot of my picks are based largely on how teams are playing now, not their head-to-head records.
AMERICAN LEAGUE PREDICTIONS
The Yankees. Again? The Bombers, with the league’s best record, will
play the Detroit Tigers, a team that hits the ball well and pitches
better. This one begins in the Bronx and I figure about three rain
delays in the series. That benefits the Yankees because they could then
pitch C.C. Sabathia and Iván Nova in all four games needed to win.
The Tigers boast Justin Verlander, a lock on this year’s Cy Young in the AL and late-season acquisition Doug Fister, an impressive number two starter. The Tigers also have baseball’s best closer, Jose Valverde, who notched 49 saves without blowing one this year. I pick the Tigers in five.
The Texas Rangers begin at home against the charging Rays. Tampa probably has the best starting pitching of the four teams in the AL playoffs, but the arms are a little worn. Texas just crushes the ball against anyone. The Rangers want to get back to the World Series and avenge last year’s defeat to the Giants. I see the Rangers moving on, deflating the Rays in four. After that, I have the Rangers moving on to the championship.
NATIONAL LEAGUE PREDICTIONS
Phillies. That’s about all you need to say. Unless you also want to say
the Brewers. Philadelphia has all that pitching and all that hitting
and played like the “cheese” they put on cheese steaks down the stretch.
You know? Like crap. The hitting that did not show up against the
Giants last year was again not showing up in the last 10 games of the
year. The Phils starters are pretty much healthy and they’ve added right
fielder Hunter Pence, who has apparently brought some fire to the team.
Philadelphia will play the surprising wild-Cardinals. Philly will throw Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and, maybe, Roy Oswalt at the redbirds. Phenom Vance Worley goes to the bullpen as the long-reliever. Then there’s still Joe Blanton and closer Ryan Madson. They’ll be facing Pujols, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday, always fearsome bats, with the addition of Rafael Furcal at short and leadoff adding a dimension the Cards had missed most of the year. Still, the Fightins move on.
Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the relatively weak west in Kirk Gibson’s
rookie year as manager, get the misfortune of facing the Milwaukee
Brewers. Arizona also saw the emergence of Justin Upton as a star and
benefitted from a solid enough year from centerfielder Chris Young.
Aaron Hill was a late season acquisition from Toronto and is helping
fill holes in the lineup. Ian Kennedy, a former Yankees pitcher, won 21
games as a starter.
Milwaukee has surprisingly good pitching this year, with Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf. Milwaukee has John Axford closing games, being set up by Frankie “K-Rod” Rodriguez, who seems to find ways to say or do the wrong thing at the worst time every year. Milwaukee, whose hitting has been inconsistent beyond Braun and Fielder most of the year, will score enough against a Snakes pitching staff with a combined 3.78 ERA. That’s not much worse than Milwaukee’s at 3.64, but it’s enough of a difference.
I think the Crew win this round easily over Arizona, then falls to Philadelphia in the NLDS.
THE WORLD SERIES
In a Texas-Philadelphia matchup, I’m picking the Rangers. The much-improved bullpen guides me to that selection. Also, the Rangers hit. I mean, they really hit. Philly can hit, but doesn’t always do so. Of course, the Phillies have the best pitching in baseball and that was the same challenge the Rangers faced last year. Still, Texas crushes the ball. Did I mention that?
Where to Smoke a Cigar in the Playoff Cities
I will be watching the games at home and enjoying fine cigars and
beverages, here’s where to catch a puff if you go to the games.
New York City still ranks number one in places to enjoy a cigar. If you’re going to Texas, check out other possibilities in Dallas and Fort Worth. In Detroit, the stadium has a cigar bar in it, a few good places in the city, and Windsor, Ontario, where you can go buy and smoke (outdoors) a Cuban cigar, is just across the river. Tropicana Field, where the Rays play, is the worst stadium in baseball, but has a cigar bar in it.
Without further delay, here’s the list of my recommended places.
American League Cities
Perfecto Cigar Shop & Lounge (extended hours on game days)
306 Lincoln Square (close to the stadium)
Detroit, Michigan / Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Camacho Cigar Bar (in the stadium)
2100 Woodward Avenue
La Casa del Habano (has a patio on which you can smoke)
358 Ouellette Ave.
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
New York, New York
The Carnegie Club
156 West 56th St
Cigar Aficionado Lounge/Cigar Inn
1314 1st Avenue (between 70 and 71)
Salon de Ning
The Peninsula New York
700 Fifth Avenue at 55th Street, roof deck
26 E. 63rd Street
New York Market Center Building
230 Fifth Avenue, 20th Floor, PH
Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL
Cuesta-Rey Cigar Bar (in Tropicana Field)
One Tropicana Drive
243 E. Davis Blvd
615 Channelside Drive
Stogie Castillos Cigar Lounge & Factory
1600 East 8th Avenue
National League Cities
Shaker’s (the only cigar bar in downtown)
422 South 2nd Street
Uhle Tobacco Co. (east of the stadium)
114 West Wisconsin Avenue
Havana Lounge and Cigar (west of the stadium)
9505 West Greenfield Avenue
Mahogany on Walnut, the only cigar bar in town
1524 Walnut Street, 2nd Floor
Magnum’s Cigars, Wine, Spirits
731 E. Union Hills Drive, Suite B10
St. Louis, Missouri
Ritz-Carlton Cigar Bar & Lounge (private club with day passes available)
100 Carondelet Plaza
Charles P. Stanley Cigar Co. & Lounge (closer to the stadium)
1000 Washington Avenue