It seems no one much believes in going to the videotape. After winning a game with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth to clinch the National League Central division and make the playoffs for the first time in a decade and a half, the Cincinnati Reds celebrated in their locker room with the usual bubbly and with cigars handed out by the team owner. The celebration, including the puffing, was broadcast on local TV.
Everyone watching saw players smoking cigars.
After receiving five phone calls complaining about the smoking Reds, the Cincinnati Health Department's spokesman said, basically, the video doesn't count. "The health inspector has to actually see someone smoking."
There's a perverse correlation between the stance of the Cincinnati Health Department and the blind eye Major League Baseball (MLB) is turning on what the video is showing. The health inspector will follow up, but it's unclear if MLB will consider reforming the system and holding accountable—really accountable—bad umpiring.
On the last day of the regular season, the San Diego Padres played the San Francisco Giants in a game that would decide the winner of the National League West. Andres Torres led off for the Giants in the bottom of the first and hit a ball that clearly—clearly—landed on the left-field line. Fair ball. Except the umpire called it foul. After about a couple minutes of protest and discussion, the call stood. The call cost the Giants a run.
If there's a unifying thread to the 2010 season, it is blown calls. If you need any persuasion to endorse greater use of video review, just think about the blunder made on June 2 by first-base umpire James Joyce as he called safe the 27th Cleveland Indians batter faced by Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga. Galarraga had faced the minimum 26 batters to that point, pitching a perfect game. On TV, live and at full speed, the blown call was clear. A replay in slow motion made it even clearer. And the call stood. The umpire later apologized and shed some tears, having denied a pitcher the ultimate accomplishment. The next day, Galarraga took the lineup card out to Joyce, who was that day's home plate umpire. Galarraga was forgiving, even voicing support for Joyce. Joyce was on the verge of tears, again.
Nice sportsmanship, but who cares? The gentlemanly behavior of the two did not correct the call. A study by ESPN of 184 games played between June 29 and July 11 showed that umpires missed 20 percent of what were identified as "close calls." Why can't baseball commit to getting it right?
"Part of the game," traditionalists argue. Why should it be? "It's the human element," offered a friend who would actually make a very good commissioner of baseball. Yes, but the "human element" that should count—the only human element that should count—is that of the players on the field. The umpires should be invisible and not only when they're good, but always. That's my argument and I'm sticking to it.
To that end, I'm also proposing that not only "boundary calls" on home runs—fair or foul, homer or ground-rule double—be reviewed relying on video from numerous camera angles, but that line calls and calling balls and strikes be left to video review or a machine. Tracking technology—think tennis and hockey—now used in baseball to train pitchers and give feedback to umpires, and sometimes to show on national TV (ESPN's "K-Zone") how bad a call the umpire has made, works well and can be fine-tuned to gauge different strike zones for taller and shorter players. The technology's "judgment" could be heard by the home-plate umpire who would relate the call to the players and the crowd by signaling upon hearing the "beep" for strike and the "buzz" for ball. The strike zones would become consistent within the game and from game to game.
The use of technology might have let us know quickly during the game of September 15 between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays whether a pitch hit Derek Jeter or the bottom of the knob of Jeter's bat. The latter, it turns out, as shown by numerous replays and confirmed by Jeter himself, but only after the game and after the ump's call of "hit by pitch" awarded Jeter first base. The shortstop really should have gotten an Emmy.
Umpires are not happy about the prospect of using more technology to assess human performance. So what? What fan goes to a ballgame to see how well the umpires do? As Don Denkinger, a former MLB umpire best remembered for a blown call in the sixth game of the 1985 World Series that likely denied the St. Louis Cardinals a championship, said to ESPN, "I really wasn't in favor of replay, even after missing that particular call. I believe that replay has gotten so much better and it's so much quicker, that if it's handled properly, they can put somebody in the press box and have them make a decision very quickly and it wouldn't slow the game down."
And still, MLB is not likely to do anything significant to assure accuracy in a game that has become too fast and has too many variables to absorb the increasing number of errors on the part of the umpires.
Despite the fact that it's not always clear who should have won the game, baseball provided some memorable moments this year. Five no-hitters, two of them perfect games. Ken Griffey Jr., an exemplar of what's right about baseball, retired on June 3, but relatively few paid much attention in the wake of the blown call in the Galarraga "imperfect game." Mike Lowell of the Red Sox retired and so did Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus, who won three Gold Gloves in his 18-year career and ends up number seven on the list of games caught. Billy Wagner, the fireballing Braves closer, says he's done after the playoffs. Say goodbye to Mets GM Omar Minaya (fired), Mets manager Jerry Manuel (fired), Braves manager Bobby Cox and Cubs manager Lou Piniella (both retired.) Joe Torre, too, after his first losing season as a manager since he skippered the Braves in 1984. See ya, Cito Gaston (Toronto manager). Hello again to Buck Showalter who took over the Orioles in August and piloted the team to more wins this season than the previous two managers combined.
There were the usual great plays, including one on opening day by Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle, who nabbed the runner by flipping the ball with his glove between his legs from foul territory with his back to first-baseman Paul Konerko after the ball had been hit off of Buehrle's leg and caromed past the first-base line.
There were the usual hopes dashed. Just think of Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals. The hopes faded, for the most part, for the "Don't-Call-Me-Anaheim" Los Angeles Angels when their star first-baseman, Kendry Morales, tried to jump on home plate after a walk-off grand slam on May 29. He missed the plate, broke his leg and missed the rest of the season. That might pale by comparison with the achievement of New York Mets second-baseman Luis Hernandez who broke his foot before hitting a home run on September 18. It was the only homer by a Mets second-baseman, all six of them, all year. The Toronto Blue Jays, which hit 257 team taters, had six guys with 20 or more each, led by Jose Bautista with 54. Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and David Ortiz all again had more than 30 dingers and 100 RBI.
Last year's National League rookie of the year, Chris Coghlan, of the Florida Marlins, tore his meniscus while attempting his best Soupy Sales impression to celebrate a Wes Helms walk-off homer on July 25. The pie-in-the-face ended Coghlan's season. Among other ridiculous moments, Dallas Braden, pitcher for the Oakland A's, ranted on April 22 against Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees for crossing the mound on his way back to first base after a foul ball. A-Rod brushed off the incident by saying he didn't want to "extend [Braden's] 15 minutes of fame." Braden extended his own fame on May 9 by pitching a perfecto against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that was no-hit twice in 2010.
The Los Angeles Dodgers saw their reputation tarnished by an ugly off-field divorce between the owners, or the owner and his wife who doesn't really own the team, but their lawyer—really his lawyer—changed a notarized post-nup dividing assets or... Oh, just let the courts decide.
A legendary owner with his own stormy past, George Steinbrenner, passed away. Oh, and those Cincinnati Reds are in. So are the Texas Rangers. New blood in the postseason. Nice.
Enough already. It's playoff time and you've got games to watch and cigars to enjoy. Here are my picks for the two leagues, followed by suggestions of where you can smoke in the playoff cities.
For the third year in a row, we've had to wait until the last day of the season or beyond to find out who's in and who's playing whom. No matter what happens, there are good places to enjoy a cigar in any of the cities with teams left in the hunt as well as in most of those already setting up their rotations for the playoffs. Here, as usual, are my extraordinarily "accurate" picks for the series.
If there's any justice, and I think we know there isn't, the Yankees and the Rays will end up playing for the A.L. crown and the chance to go to the World Series. The teams battled all year and the division winner wasn't decided until the last day of the season. The Yankees will open against the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. The Yankees should win the series. Barely. OK, maybe not. Yankee pitching consists of C.C. Sabathia, who knows, and Mariano Rivera at the end of games. Rivera has shown himself to be slightly mortal and slightly beatable this year. Andy Pettitte has pitched in four games since July. The rest of the staff is a big "if." The Twins will throw Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing. They recently have seen ballooning ERAs. We could see some real slugfests from two teams with powerful lineups. This is the first year in a long, long time the Twins have an outdoor stadium and weather is going to be a significant factor. The highs will be in the 70s. During the day. Gametime temps will be in the mid-40s. Yankees in four.
The Rays meet the Texas Rangers. The outcome of this series will depend on the health of Evan Longoria, who last played on September 23. The pitching for the Rays is just so-so. I really like the way the Rangers play. Is there a more powerful lineup left playing in the A.L.? If Cliff Lee wins two, the Rangers are a possibility. Plus, ya gotta love that Vladimir Guerrero had 29 homers and 115 RBI after the Angels declined to re-sign him after a miserable 2009. I'd like to see the Rangers move on, but I'm picking the Rays in five.
The Phillies are the strongest team in baseball right now. The "Fightins" are going to be playing late in October and should be favored to win it all behind the pitching of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and a seemingly revitalized Cole Hamels. Philly has the bangers too. Defense could be their undoing. The Phils will have to beat the Reds in the first round and they will. Cincinnati has the N.L. MVP in first-baseman Joey Votto, but not enough else to beat the strongest rotation in the playoffs.
The San Francisco Giants took it to the limit against the surprisingly strong San Diego Padres. The Padres sat atop the weak N.L. West for 131 games during the season and kept playing better than anyone expected. In the last couple of weeks, the Giants had the better pitching and enough hitting, but played just well enough on the last weekend against the Padres in San Francisco. The Giants play the Braves, the wild card entrant. The Giants pitching is the key and should lead the team to a series win in four.
The Phillies will beat the Giants, but this could be the best series of all of them from a pitching standpoint. Problem is that the Phillies have all the postseason experience and are a run-scoring machine.
The series will open in the National League park thanks to the league's victory in the All-Star Game. Home-field advantage means a lot, and in a bandbox like Citizen's Bank in South Philly, the Rays have to pitch a whole lot better than they have all season. Yes, I'm saying it's a replay of 2008. Phils in six.
WHERE TO SMOKE IN THE PLAYOFF CITIES
Again, New York City leads the pack in terms of number of places to enjoy a fine cigar. Arlington, TX, the home of the Rangers, lies in between Ft. Worth and Dallas and has one place within a long walk of the park. Philadelphia really has only one cigar bar and Tampa Bay (really St. Petersburg) offers the only cigar bar inside a ballpark. In Cincinnati, the riverfront bars on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River offer the best cigar opportunities and they are closest to the ballpark. In any case, below are our annual suggestions. Many are listed in our Where to Smoke section of the website. Add your own and let us know of ones we might have missed.
Perfecto Cigar Shop & Lounge
306 Lincoln Square
(close to the stadium)
Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
Golden Leaf Ltd.
3032 Hennepin Ave. S.
Stogies on Grand
961 Grand Ave.
Saint Paul, MN
New York, NY
The Carnegie Club
156 West 56th St.
New York, NY
Cigar Aficionado Lounge
1016 2nd Ave.
New York, NY
160 E. 45th St.
New York, NY 10017
1805 East 7th Ave. (Ybor City)
Highland Cigar Co.
245 N. Highland Ave.
(1.72 miles away, across the Ohio River)
Home of Fitzgerald's Cigar Bar
604 Main St.
The Beer Sellar
301 Riverboat Row
Mahogany on Walnut
1524 Walnut St.
San Francisco, CA
Occidental Cigar Club
471 Pine Street
(between Montgomery and Kearny)
San Francisco, CA
850 Cigar Bar & Grill
(Smoking only in the courtyard)
850 Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA