Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2019

Problems That Won’t End With The Series

What a difference a couple of days make. Just as a game can look very different in the 6th inning than it did in the 2nd, come the playoffs momentum in a series can easily shift between the contestants. That’s because with so much at stake over each short series, every opportunity to put a game in the win column is vitally important. When the Nationals and Astros headed east from Houston after last Wednesday’s Game 2, the upstart Washington nine held a two games to none lead and probably didn’t really require an airplane to take flight and wing their way back to the nation’s capital. Now after two contests at Nationals Park, the World Series is knotted at two games apiece and the once-desperate Astros are the squad with the wind at their back.

As this is written the teams are getting ready for Game 5, the last contest of the year to be played on the Nationals’ home field. By the time many readers are perusing this paragraph, the results of that game will be in the books and the teams will be headed back to Minute Maid Park to put the final exclamation point on the longest season. Should Washington win on Sunday, the Nationals will still face the great challenge of closing out the Series on the road, but at least they will head back west with the lead. But if Houston wins yet again, and the Astros odds improved with late word that Washington’s Max Scherzer has been scratched from his scheduled start due to injury, then for the first time since 1996 the first five World Series games will all have been won by the visiting team. Since that was the season the Yankees took four in a row from Atlanta after losing the first two games at home, the Astros surely won’t mind the comparison. Even if the visitor win streak stops at four, only a daring gambler would have put any hard-earned cash down on a prop bet predicting that outcome.

But the warning that appeared in this space after the first two games still holds true. It was too early then to be planning a parade, and it remains too early to do so now. The only certainty is that this year’s Series is not going to end Sunday night. So, with more baseball still to be played, there’s time to step back from the action on the field and consider a couple of less pleasant topics; two unrelated and very different issues that have hung over this Fall Classic like dark clouds threatening a rainout.

The first is the inexcusable pace of play, an issue that has become all too familiar to fans of the Great Game come this time of year. The first sentence of the previous paragraph could really have two meanings. The obvious one is that the Series won’t end Sunday because neither squad faces elimination in Game 5. But even if one team was vying for its decisive fourth win, it’s still very nearly certain that with the game being played on the East Coast, the end would not come Sunday night, but rather sometime after midnight, in the nether hours of Monday morning. Two of the first four contests ran more than four hours, with the average length of the quartet being just six minutes short of that mark. That’s nearly an hour longer than the average regular season game, and that three hour-plus time is in turn hardly laudable, as evidenced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s focus on reducing it.

That focus needs to produce real results soon, whether by imposing ball or strike penalties on pitchers and hitters who dawdle, eliminating warm-up throws for relievers who have just spent ten minutes warming up in the bullpen, or requiring hurlers to face a minimum of three batters. Postseason contests are going to take longer – the commercial needs of TV networks shelling out millions of dollars for broadcast rights will always make that a certainty. But since they are also the most watched games of the year, that’s even more reason to address pace of play in areas that MLB can control.

There have been multiple commentaries on the 86-year gap between World Series games in Washington. But those historical perspectives have mostly missed one especially telling contemporaneous account of Game 3 of the 1933 Series, before which President Franklin Roosevelt threw out the first pitch. The local paper reported that FDR then stayed for the entire game, despite it running “almost two hours.” In modern playoff games, the two-hour mark usually comes in the 5th inning.

Four hour games try the patience of even the most dedicated fan. But, along with MLB’s insistence on starting every contest in its championship round after 8 p.m. East Coast time, they ensure that the young fans who baseball claims to be trying to attract are, or should be, fast asleep by the time of the final out.

The second major distraction during this Series has been the Astros’ contemptible initial response to Sports Illustrated’s account of assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s misogynistic outburst at a group of women reporters, one of who is an outspoken advocate for domestic violence victims, during the team’s post-ALCS celebration. Taubman’s profane taunting was bad enough, but it would have gone down as one fool’s idiotic ravings had the Astros not launched a scurrilous attack on Stephanie Apstein, the SI reporter who broke the story.

Once multiple witnesses put the lie to Houston’s claim that the incident as reported by Apstein never happened, Astros management started backtracking. But that process moved at a pace like that of a postseason game, and along the way general manager Jeff Luhnow conceded that the team’s original statement attacking Apstein had gone through multiple levels of review within the Astros’ organization. About the only person in authority who seemed to have a clue as to just how bad the Astros looked was manager A.J. Hinch, who immediately distanced himself and his players from the incident.

If Luhnow’s assertion is accurate and not just an attempt to spread responsibility so broadly that no action beyond the firing of Taubman is feasible, it speaks to a culture that is both defensive and benighted on a critical issue, begging the question as to whether that attitude is limited to just domestic violence. As Hannah Keyser, baseball writer for Yahoo Sports put it, the Astros should “want to know if and why journalists might not feel comfortable in their clubhouse,” adding that the team should “treat the broader societal culture that too often tolerates or downplays domestic violence as the adversary instead of the people who take issue with it.” For a franchise that may soon be celebrating its second title in three years, and as such is one of the Great Game’s most visible, it’s neither a good nor a welcome look.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 24, 2019

Nationals Defy All Expectations But Their Own

It is the Great Game’s great irony, the baseball gods’ inside joke that they often choose to play on us come October. From the chill days of early spring through the high heat of summer and on into the bright colors and cooler temperatures of autumn, the longest season unwinds in its slow and steady pace. One hundred sixty-two games, each of equal value in the standings; yet their sheer number minimizes the outcome of any one, shrinking it until its importance matches the agate type once used to print daily box scores on the back page of newspapers’ sports sections, back when there were newspapers with sports sections big enough to have a back page. In truth a pennant race is six months long, yet the first appearance of the phrase is far more likely to coincide with Labor Day than Opening Day. Until then it is as if the impact of any single contest is more theoretical than real. The important story is the one being told by the accumulation of all those games into a narrative of the season.

Then the playoffs come along, and all the certainties formed over the preceding months along with the predictions of pundits and fans based upon them, can crack and then crumble in the space of a few plays, a handful of at-bats, sometimes even a single swing. The sedate procession of the regular schedule gives way to the mad dash through short postseason series, and we are all reminded that there really is a reason why our heroes actually play every game.

An important lesson of that reality is that it is far too early for anyone to be planning a parade. The World Series is still best-of-seven, not first team to two. Perhaps, before it is over, the expectations born of Houston’s gaudy 107-win regular season record, the best in the majors, will be met. When the final out is recorded maybe the players leaping into each other’s arms on the infield at Minute Maid Park will be wearing Astros uniforms.

But that sentence is location-specific because it’s an outcome that can now only take place on Houston’s home turf. Through the first two contests the result between the foul lines has brushed aside conventional wisdom like an inside fastball sending a batter to the dirt. Certainty has been no match for the unexpected as the Washington Nationals have claimed a two games to none lead that is even more commanding than the numbers suggest since both victories came in Houston. With the Series shifting to D.C. the Astros will need to extend it to at least six games, and a return trip to Texas, in order to complete a comeback.

As befits the postseason’s pace, in each Washington win the game turned in just a few moments. Tuesday night it was Houston that jumped on top on the strength of a two-run double by Yuli Gurriel in the opening frame. But the Nationals battled back, knotting the score with solo homers by Ryan Zimmerman and Juan Soto. The blasts surely boosted confidence in the visitors’ dugout, proving that Houston starter Gerrit Cole, who had not lost a game since May, was not unhittable. No one seemed more possessed of that self-belief than the 20-year-old Soto, who came to the plate with two on and two out in the top of the 5th. The Nats had already pushed one run across to take a 3-2 lead. But with starter Max Scherzer closing in on a hundred pitches, that margin was unlikely to last across multiple innings of work by Washington’s bullpen.

Soto saw six pitches from Cole. He calmly watched the first four, three of which were out of the strike zone. He finally swung at the fifth, missing to run the count to full. Then on the sixth offering of the at-bat Soto hammered a line drive to left, plating a pair of runs to expand Washington’s margin. In the end the Nationals would need all of that edge in the 5-4 final. The five runs might not have been enough, but in the 8th Houston’s George Springer chose to stand in the box and admire his drive to right field, thinking it would clear the fence. Instead it bounced off the top of the wall and back into play. While Springer’s double scored the Astros’ fourth run, had he been running from the start he would have easily reached third base with just one out in the inning. Two at-bats, both of which produced doubles. But the first felt momentous, the second anticlimactic, and that difference told the outcome of Game 1.

The following night the Astros had runners on first and second with only one out in the last of the 6th. With the score tied 2-2 it was Houston’s best chance to finally break a game open. Instead Stephen Strasburg got Carlos Correa to hit a harmless infield pop, and then set Kyle Tucker down on strikes to quiet the crowd. Astros manager A.J. Hinch then sent Justin Verlander back out to pitch the 7th, after the veteran had needed 98 pitches to navigate the first six innings.   Washington catcher Kurt Suzuki hammered the second pitch he saw over the left field wall for a tie-breaking home run, and center fielder Victor Robles worked a patient at-bat through seven pitches before finally drawing a walk. That was it for Verlander, but the flood gates had opened. By the time Houston batted again the Nationals had scored six runs on the way to a 12-3 thumping of the host squad. In four consecutive at-bats against tiring starters, two by each team, the complexion of the game shifted irrevocably in Washington’s favor.

Casual fans – and there are many this time of year – are likely stunned to see the Astros leave the comfort of home in a deep hole. A desperate Houston squad will surely be geared up for Game 3 Friday night at Nationals Park. But they will also surely find a sea of red-clad Washington faithful, who have waited generations for the World Series to come to town. Those fans know that after a horrible start, the Nationals played as well as any franchise in the Great Game over the final four months of the regular season. Now their team has run off eight straight postseason victories. Two more and they can plan that parade. Those games must still be played, which means anything can happen. But who can blame Washington fans for believing that their team will finish the fight?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 20, 2019

In The Bronx, End Of A Decade To Forget

The evidence now allows us to posit a new hard and fast rule of the Great Game, certain that at the very least our assertion cannot be disproved anytime soon – as in for at least the next ninety years. Whatever outcome other periods may produce, in every century the decade of the teens is a hard time to be a fan of the New York Yankees. When Jose Altuve’s 9th inning walk-off home run sent the Houston Astros to the World Series very late Saturday night, ending the Yankees’ season, it marked the tenth straight year, from 2010 through 2019, that New York failed to reach the World Series. The last calendar decade in which the Yankees were shut out from participation in the Fall Classic was the 1910s, which was also the first full decade of the team’s existence in Gotham.

A century ago things changed rather dramatically with the arrival of a pitcher turned power-hitting outfielder by the name of Ruth prior to the 1920 season. In the 1920s the Yankees played in six World Series, winning three of them and beginning to build a winning tradition unlike any other franchise. The 2009 title was the franchise’s 27th, and its 40th appearance in MLB’s championship round. Along the way there have been droughts of more than ten years – eleven seasons from 1965 through 1975, and fourteen from 1982 through 1995 – but within the admittedly artificial construct of calendar decades, each one has seen at least one trip by the Yankees to the Series, with all but the 1980s seeing championships as well.

Which makes the current string of early winters in the Bronx a big deal, at least for Yankees fans. To be certain, given the overall success of the franchise no fans in Boston or L.A. or any other big league town will be organizing a pity party, nor will anyone be starting a GoFundMe page to help the Steinbrenner family afford a higher payroll. Any baseball writer would be quick to point out that over the past ten years no team had more regular season victories than the Yankees’ 921. The Bombers also made seven trips to the postseason including four to the ALCS. That’s more appearances in the penultimate playoff round than any other American League team.

All of which would lead many analysts to ascribe New York’s drought through the teens to greater parity across the Great Game. The standard offer of proof for that argument is the fact that no team has won consecutive titles since the Yankee’s three straight championships from 1998 through 2000. But a closer look suggests what that really proves is the inherent randomness of the short series that comprise the playoffs, from a one game Wild Card contest to the best-of-five division series to the best-of-seven format in the final two rounds. For while there may in fact be parity in the big leagues, it is among a handful of franchises that clearly stand above the rest.

In the same decade that the Yankees failed to make it to the World Series, the San Francisco Giants won three championships and the Boston Red Sox won two. Should the Astros prevail over the Washington Nationals in the Series that begins Tuesday evening, Houston will join the Giants and BoSox as winners of multiple titles. Even if the Nats prevail, Houston is already assured of being one of seven teams with multiple World Series appearances during the decade. That list includes Texas and Kansas City from the American League and St. Louis and Los Angeles from the senior circuit in addition to the Giants, Red Sox and Astros. In total those seven franchises account for three-quarters of the World Series contestants in the decade.

Yankees fans are right to wonder what has held their team back, despite all those regular season wins and ALCS appearances. The mounting evidence suggests that, as unlikely as it might seem given New York’s reputation built under the late George Steinbrenner, the answer now that the family’s next generation is in charge is a reluctance to spend money at crucial times.

Burdened with an aging and expensive roster in the early part of the decade, Hal Steinbrenner made clear his belief that a team did not need to have a $200 million payroll to win a title. He’s right, as plenty of teams on the list of championship prove. But since the Yankees were already in luxury tax territory because of prior contractual commitments, Steinbrenner’s desire to bring payroll down limited the offseason options of GM Brian Cashman. The general manager did a brilliant job of rebuilding the club, making it younger and cheaper, without the season or three of tanking that is now in vogue. But more recently, while New York’s payroll has again climbed, the Yankees remain reluctant to go beyond whatever internal guidelines they have set from season to season.

That limitation has shown most clearly in the team’s lack of quality starting pitching. New York passed on Gerrit Cole two years ago because the Pirates wanted Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier in return, and Cashman deemed that too high a trade price. But Cole will be pitching for Houston this coming week, while after a very promising 2018 Andujar missed almost all this season following labrum surgery, and for all his talent Frazier has yet to play a role beyond occasional backup for the big league club. Then last winter the Yankees were outbid for Patrick Corbin because Cashman refused the left-hander’s demand for a six-year deal. The advanced analytics that are now de rigueur suggest that out years of a contract that long will give the team very little return. But in the present day, Corbin will be pitching for the Nationals in this year’s World Series.

Instead of the top pitchers available the last two offseasons, the Yankees signed J.A. Happ and James Paxton. And this year, Cashman asserted that the plan was to rely on a lights-out bullpen. But that was a plan born of necessity. Ultimately the team had so little confidence in Happ that he was demoted to the bullpen for the playoffs, and while Paxton was very good in Game 5 against the Astros, in Game 2 he couldn’t make it out of the 3rd inning. Meanwhile over-relying on the relief corps left several of its key members worn out by the start of the ALCS.

Meanwhile the Yankees continue to draw more than three million fans a year, and ancillary business lines like the YES network, the most-watched regional sports network in the country, add to the cash flow. That must certainly please Steinbrenner, who made clear early in his tenure that he was much more attuned to the bottom line than either his famous father or other members of his family. But Yankees fans hold their team to a higher standard, one that they have come to expect will be met given the franchise’s long and glorious history. Measured against that, Altuve’s home run put the exclamation point on a decade of failure. As yet another winter comes too soon to the Bronx, the question is whether that view is shared by Steinbrenner and Cashman.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 17, 2019

The Sound Of Joy, Loud And Clear Through The Ether

It was getting late, the tail end of a disappointing day. It had been many hours since the early morning departure from New Hampshire, the beginning of a four hour drive along the familiar route across New England and down to the Connecticut suburbs of Gotham. The trip that began on I-95 just outside downtown Portsmouth wandered off the great highway that connects the principal cities of the East Coast onto several of its Interstate brethren. I-495, the outermost of the two circumferential roads around Boston; I-90, which at the start of its 3,000 mile east-west journey from one ocean to another is better known locally as the Mass Pike; then I-84 and I-91, from Massachusetts southwest to Hartford, then due south to New Haven. Together these roads bisecting the heart of southern New England form a more direct line to New York City than simply staying on I-95, which hugs the coastline. But in New Haven the two paths come back together, so the drive to Stamford ended with twenty miles on the same highway on which it began.

After checking into a local hotel for the overnight stay, the journey continued by train, the Metro North commuter rail providing the easiest and fastest way to traverse the final thirty miles to the south Bronx, home to Yankee Stadium. There the home team faced off against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.

The Yankees were dominant in the first game of the series, played three nights earlier in Houston. But after winning that contest by a score of 7-0, New York’s offense went quiet in Game 2. Despite the 3-2, 11-inning loss, Yankees fans were optimistic after the split on the road. But those bright hopes faded with the late afternoon’s setting sun once player introductions were completed and the game began. The Astros scored one in the 1st and another in the 2nd on solo home runs by Jose Altuve and Josh Reddick, while on the mound Gerrit Cole allowed plenty of Yankees to reach base, but none to cross the plate. When Houston stretched its lead to 4-0 in the 7th, the once boisterous crowd grew quiet.

The eventual 4-1 loss, coming on the heels of the overtime defeat at Minute Maid Park, did not doom New York’s postseason hopes, but it certainly made the road to a 28th title considerably more difficult. That knowledge dampened the spirits of fans leaving the Stadium, and a couple hours spent in the constant swirl of Midtown failed to lift them. The visit ended abruptly with a sudden realization of the time, followed by a mad dash across town and down into the bowels of Grand Central, to track 105, just in time to catch the 10:44.

The sprint was worth it since this train is scheduled to reach Stamford considerably earlier than the next available option. Still the 10:44 was a local, meaning there would be more than a dozen stops along the way. Contemplating the late hour and the ride ahead as the cars emerged above ground at 90th Street, it seemed that checking on the night’s second game, the potentially decisive matchup between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals, was as good a way as any to pass the time.

A glance at a phone that is likely smarter than its owner showed the Nationals comfortably ahead. But then a closer look focused the mind and stirred even a Yankees fan out of his post-loss lethargy. As important as the 7-4 score was the game’s progress. In Washington they had played 8 innings. Quickly an app was loaded. The first screen displayed the box score, that eternally helpful summary of every Great Game contest ever played. The Nats plated seven runs in their first at-bat, an outburst that surely sent the packed house at Nationals Park into a state of delirium. In a deep hole after just one inning, the Cardinals did their best to chip away, scoring one in the 4th and three more in the 5th. What the basic numbers on the screen didn’t reveal was that after two quick outs St. Louis had loaded the bases in the 8th, generating untold anxiety in the crowd. But veteran Matt Carpenter, sent up to pinch hit, sent a grounder to second that was monetarily bobbled before being corralled by Brian Dozier, whose ensuing throw to first retired the side and ended the threat.

Fingers stabbed icons on the screen, and after a moment the voices of Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler are heard. The pair comprise Washington’s broadcast team on 106.7 The Fan, home station for the Nationals radio network. Decades from the days of and on a device infinitely more complex than the old hand-held transistor receivers, a fan is once again listening to a ballgame in real time. In the age of GameDay and Statcast and myriad other high-tech tools that instantly transmit game information, radio remains the means by which millions of fans follow the exploits of their favorite team. Nats fans who do so are intimately familiar with the voices of Slowes and Jageler. The former began his career in St. Louis, tutored by the likes of Jack Buck and Bob Costas. He has been calling Nationals games since the franchise relocated from Montreal in 2004. Jageler joined Slowes in the booth the following season. Together they have seen Washington go from a perpetual loser to a frequent contender, and they have called the heartbreaking plays of multiple postseason series that ended in defeat.

As the 9th inning begins it is immediately clear from the timbre of their voices that the two announcers are as excited as the nearly 44,000 fans in the stands. The roars from those fans becomes a steady backdrop, even as the words from Slowes and Jageler come faster and faster, threatening to tumble over one another. Kolten Wang flies to left for the first out, then Matt Wieters pops out to catcher Yan Gomes.

Now the Nationals are on the brink of ending years of playoff heartbreak. In the radio booth, his voice steadily rising to a shout, Slowes has the call as Tommy Edman bats against Daniel Hudson. “Two out, nobody on here in the top of the 9th inning! Nationals Park in a frenzy! The Nationals are one out away from a first ever trip to play for baseball’s World Championship! Here’s the kick! Now the pitch! Fastball is hit in the air to left center field! Robles calling for it! He’s under it, waiting! And he makes the catch! He makes the catch! Bang, zoom go the fireworks! The National League championship winning ‘Curly-W’ is in the books! And for the first time since 1933, we’ll have a World Series in the nation’s capital!”

The 10:44 rolls on, the miles and stations remaining to Stamford steadily dwindling. Other passengers give no thought to the celebration that is starting as Washington players storm the field a couple hundred miles down the I-95 corridor. But in the first car, one fan has captured the moment, the excitement, and the pure joy, as if he too were in the stands at Nationals Park. The long day is not so disappointing after all. Not when a fan is reminded of why our heroes play, and why we watch and listen.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2019

A Busy Week For The Coaching Carousel

They are high-profile and pressure-packed positions. They are also precious few, which helps explain their desirability. Counting the top professional leagues of the four major North American sports – the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, there are less than 125 jobs with the ultimate responsibility for guiding a team’s play on the biggest stages of our games. Add the WNBA and the top men’s and women’s soccer leagues into the mix, and the number still does not begin to approach 200, making what is often referred to as the coaching fraternity an extremely exclusive club. Whether the title is head coach or manager, whether one’s office is the sideline or the tight confines of the back row of a team box or the top step of a dugout, the job of field general is one of the most coveted in sports.

Then again, as the past week reminded fans everywhere, while these positions can and often do lead to a fair measure of fame and decidedly comfortable fortune, one attribute they lack is permanence. No matter the league or team, the first rule of a managerial or coaching opening is that candidates for whom job security is important need not apply.

On Monday Jay Gruden, who somehow managed to survive for more than five seasons the seemingly permanent dysfunction that characterizes Washington’s NFL franchise, was fired after his team began this campaign by dropping its first five games. At the end of the week Gabe Kapler, a surprising choice when he was named manager of the Philadelphia Phillies two years ago, was told he need no longer report for duty at Citizens Bank Park. In between, proving that not sacking the field leader can sometimes be as controversial as doing so, word leaked out of the Los Angeles Dodgers front office that Dave Roberts would be back next year, despite what many pundits and more than a few fans saw as one more year of costly managerial decisions at the most critical time of the year.

During his five full seasons in charge of Washington’s football fortunes, Gruden provided little evidence that he was the second coming of Joe Gibbs. Actually that should read “third coming,” since among the long list of head coaches who have spun through owner Dan Snyder’s revolving door in the two decades he’s owned the team was the great man himself, back for a four-year stint during which Washington qualified for the playoffs twice, or once more than it had in the eleven years since Gibbs’s first retirement. But in fairness to Gruden, whose previous head coaching experience was in Arena Football and the short-lived United Football League, he did manage to guide his charges to a couple of winning records while having very little say over roster decisions.

Then in 2018, with Alex Smith at quarterback and the seemingly endless soap opera of contract talks between Washington’s front office and QB Kirk Cousins finally over, Gruden’s team won six of its first nine games. The promising start included home wins over the powerful Green Bay Packers and hated division rival Dallas. But Washington fans had barely started to hope when fate, in the form of the inherent brutality of America’s favorite sport, intervened. Smith suffered a devastating injury in Week 11, and backup quarterback Colt McCoy went down with a leg broken nearly as badly as Smith’s just two games later. Washington limped to a 7-9 record, and with no established presence over center this season, the bitter beginning was almost inevitable.

What is interesting about Gruden’s dismissal is not that it occurred – the coach himself told the media he had assumed it was coming for a couple of weeks – but that he leaves town as almost a sympathetic figure. So despised are Snyder and the owner’s front office henchman Bruce Allen that fans in Washington have come to expect disarray and defeat. That’s why FedEx Field looked like Gillette Stadium during a Patriots practice when New England visited for what proved to be Gruden’s last game, with the stands mostly empty and fans who were there wearing Tom Brady jerseys by the hundreds. The center of Washington’s sports world has moved from the Maryland suburbs back downtown, where the NHL’s Capitals and WNBA’s Mystic play, and where the Nationals have come home from St. Louis with a 2-0 lead in the NLCS.

Three hours up the I-95 corridor, the dismissal of Kapler after two seasons in the Phillies dugout was also not surprising, but for very different reasons. This was not a case of a head coach taking the fall for a front office that failed to provide a contending roster. In fact, it was just the opposite. After forcing fans to suffer through three straight years of ninety-plus losses, team president Andy McPhail and GM Matt Klentak believed they had the nucleus of a contender built on youth and a handful of veteran free agents when Kapler was hired in the fall of 2017.

Philadelphia finished 80-82 in 2018, but that was a fourteen game improvement over the prior season, and both the front office and fans realized that the team was still a piece of two away from being complete. That led to a busy offseason, with trades for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto and the signings of All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson. Then the Phillies won the biggest offseason prize of all, giving Bryce Harper 330 million reasons to love the City of Brotherly Love.

But all that money and all that talent failed to coalesce into a contending team. McCutchen and Robertson suffered season-ending injuries, Segura hit below .300 for the first time in four years, and Harper’s first year in Philly made his seven-year deal look very, very long. After a season of exactly .500 ball, it was a classic case of not being able to fire the entire team, so the manager had to go.

The width of the country away, fans couldn’t possibly complain about the regular season performance of the Los Angeles Dodgers since Roberts took over as manager four years ago. L.A. has won more than ninety games each season Roberts has been filling out the lineup card, and this year’s team set a franchise record with 106 wins. After back-to-back World Series appearances ended in disappointment, this was the year that was going to be different.

That proved correct, but not in the way fans had hoped. The Dodgers didn’t make it back to the Series, or even to the NLCS, instead losing the divisional round in five games to the Washington Nationals. The Game 5 defeat was especially bitter with L.A. surrendering a 3-1 lead in the 8th and then losing in the 10th. Roberts’s decisions to let Clayton Kershaw pitch the 8th, and to send Joe Kelly out for a second inning in the 10th, were both lambasted as particularly bad calls.

Of course, if Kershaw hadn’t yielded consecutive home runs, and if Kelly hadn’t loaded the bases before serving up a grand slam ball to Howie Kendrick, the popular view might be different. But given what happened, fans and pundits quickly pulled out their lists of other real or imagined miscues by Roberts in the postseason. But to their disappointment word quickly came that Roberts would return.  It was somewhat surprising, given the usual focus on immediate results, but perhaps proof that at least sometimes the baying mob does not get its way.

While Dave Roberts lives for another day in Dodger blue, Gruden and Kapler wait for their phones to ring. That they will is really not in doubt, with Kapler already scheduled for an interview with the Giants. The coaching fraternity is elite and gaining entry is difficult. But once granted membership few ever really leave. Like itinerant preachers or the traveling salesmen of pre-internet days, they just move on to some new town.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 10, 2019

The Other Side Of Ecstasy

For every winner there is, necessarily, a loser. This is the grim and inescapable truth of our games. Oh sure, there are always situations in which a team or player does better than expected or can take some specific positive from an otherwise disappointing result. But measured by the ultimate outcome, our sports are zero sum games. That reality was brought home in especially brutal fashion Wednesday evening, when both of this year’s National League Division Series were decided, each in a climatic win-or-go-home Game 5. In the wake of an evening that both began and ended in dramatic fashion, joyous fans in St. Louis and D.C. are preparing for the Great Game’s next postseason round; in Atlanta and L.A. though, the emotions are very, very different.

There was virtually nothing in the first four contests between St. Louis and Atlanta to suggest what the capacity crowd at SunTrust Park was about to see as the scheduled time for Game 5 approached. Each of the previous games had been close. Two were decided by just a single run, and the most lopsided score, though the description doesn’t really apply, was Atlanta’s 3-0 shutout of the Cardinals in Game 2. In addition, while both teams were 1-1 on the road, the visiting team had not scored first in any game, with Atlanta’s 3rd inning tally in Game 4 two nights earlier the only run pushed across by the visitors through the first three frames in the entire series.

Against that backdrop it would not be surprising, even given Game 5’s import, if some fans were a bit slow to arrive at the suburban ballpark that took the place of downtown Turner Field in 2017. For the Atlanta faithful, perhaps being slow to find one’s seat was a blessing. That’s because before the home team even came to bat the Cardinals had opened a double-digit lead, scoring ten runs in the top of the 1st inning. Having barely begun, the decisive Game 5 was all but over.

What made the outburst even more painful for those Atlanta fans who were prompt was that their side contributed mightily to the onslaught. Much of the enormous hole in which their team found itself by the home half of the opening frame was dug by poor pitching and shoddy defense. In baseball’s year of the dinger, the Cardinals plated their ten runs without benefit of a homer. What St. Louis did have, courtesy of Atlanta, was four men on base by walks, one runner reaching on an error by first baseman Freddie Freeman, and a second safely aboard when a curveball that produced a swinging strike for what should have been the third out, instead got away from catcher Brian McCann, allowing Marcell Ozuna to race to first even as Kolten Wang trotted home with the Cardinals’ tenth run.

After that record-setting performance – most 1st inning runs in postseason history – the remainder of the game was played in front of a crowd that understandably would have been more boisterous had it been attending a funeral. But St. Louis wasn’t done, adding another score in the 2nd and two more in the 3rd to stretch the advantage to 13-0. The best Atlanta could do was avoid the final humiliation of a shutout, thanks to Josh Donaldson’s solo home run in the 4th.

If the Cardinals succeeded, like no playoff team before, in taking the home crowd out of a big game, the Dodgers’ partisans who filled the old stadium at Chavez Ravine were not similarly silenced by anything the Washington Nationals did in the early going of Wednesday’s second Game 5. Rather it was the home side that scored first in L.A. After Walker Buehler set the visitors down in order to get things started, Joc Pederson and Max Muncy greeted Washington’s Stephen Strasburg rudely, with leadoff batter Pederson lacing a ground-rule double to left that was initially ruled a home run, and Muncy following with a two-run blast to right center that didn’t need to be reviewed. When Enrique Hernandez led of the last of the 2nd with another homer, the Dodgers led 3-0 and many in the crowd were settling back for an enjoyable evening in southern California.

But as bad as the Nationals were in the first two months of the season, they were as good as any club in the majors over the final hundred-plus games. Strasburg found his groove, and Washington got on the board in the 6th on a double by Anthony Rendon and an RBI single by Wild Card Game hero Juan Soto. Perhaps a few L.A. fans had a moment of doubt when Clayton Kershaw was called upon to relieve Buehler with two outs in the 7th, since the big left-hander, for all his accomplishments, has often struggled in October. But Kershaw fanned Adam Eaton on three pitches, giving Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ample reason to send him back out for the 8th.

That’s when Kershaw was greeted by back-to-back homers off the bats of Rendon and Soto, erasing L.A.’s lead. But while the morning after analysts are having their way with Roberts for calling upon Kershaw, there was nothing in the moment to cast doubt on his management.

That’s less true about his later decision to have Joe Kelly pitch multiple innings. Signed in the offseason by the Dodgers, Kelly had a rough spring on the mound, but eventually proved reliable in one inning stints. Tuesday he quickly retired the Nationals in order in the 9th. But with the game now in extra innings, Kelly just as rapidly unraveled in the 10th. A leadoff walk to Eaton followed by a Rendon double, forced Kelly to intentionally walk Soto to set up a force play at any base. But Howie Kendrick made sure the only players touching the bases were wearing Washington uniforms by blasting a grand slam over the center field fence. In a matter of four batters and a few minutes, a taut tie was turned into a comfortable 7-3 lead for the visitors. Not long after, the stunned L.A. crowd watched their team’s season end.

A shocking beginning and a stunning finish. In the wake of both there will be pundits who point to the rosters of both Atlanta and the Dodgers and predict continued and even greater success for both franchises. Perhaps their forecasts will prove prescient, but that does nothing to ease the present pain. Atlanta and Los Angeles are warm weather cities, but winter has come early to both. For fans of the home teams, Wednesday proved a good day to arrive late and leave early.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 6, 2019

A Stand Up Win In The Bronx

Throughout the 162 games of the longest season, each major league club sets the prices for seats at its ballpark. Eighty-one times at every stadium across the land, fans go through the turnstiles having paid what the home team has decided the market will bear. Many clubs now use dynamic pricing models, with the cost of a ticket fluctuating based on demand. Fans of the powerful and popular franchises can, if they so choose, relieve themselves of several hundred dollars for just one seat in a premium location. But as much as fans love to complain about ticket prices, it is also true that at every stadium there are many value-priced sections from which one can take in a game for about the price of a visit to the local cineplex.

Then the playoffs start, and the power to set ticket prices passes from the individual teams to Major League Baseball. Once again, prices will vary, based not on demand – most postseason contests are played in front of full houses – but on the relative importance of the game. Division Series tickets are less expensive than ones for the World Series, and even within a single playoff round prices rise for the later games that are potentially decisive. The one certainty is that for any postseason game, anywhere in the ballpark, the price will be several times what the home club charged for even the most in-demand contest during the regular season.

Which brings us to one of the great oddities of sports, one of life’s eternal mysteries. Having paid an exorbitant amount for their seat at a playoff game, whether in the farthest reaches of the upper deck or down on the field level, most fans almost never use it.

That was certainly the case Friday evening in the Bronx, where the Yankees hosted the Minnesota Twins in the first game of the best-of-five American League Division Series. It was the ultimate day of each postseason for fans of the Great Game – the one day have four games, from early afternoon until late at night east coast time (as is the case this year, a second such day can occur depending on how long each series lasts). The Yankees and Twins drew the third time slot, and fans were already on their feet when New York starter James Paxton toed the rubber shortly after seven o’clock.

Paxton’s first year in pinstripes since being traded from Seattle last November was a tale of two seasons. He was very good in the early going and utterly dominant at the end, but through late spring and early summer his starts were episodes that no doubt he, and certainly Yankees fans, would be happy to forget. Fans worried about which Paxton would show up quickly learned that the answer was a bit of both. The Twins took a 1-0 lead when Jorge Polanco, the second hitter in their lineup, homered to right field. But around that mistake Paxton struck out the side in the 1st inning.

Minnesota scored again in the 3rd when Nelson Cruz mirrored Polanco’s blow, but New York fans finally had reason to cheer in the bottom of that inning. With an assist from an error by Twins first baseman C. J. Cron, the Yankees plated three to take their first lead of the postseason. The score remained 3-2 until the 5th, when Paxton yielded a double and an RBI single, once again around a pair of strikeouts. That was enough to convince New York manager Aaron Boone that it was time to call on his bullpen. Adam Ottavino was the first in an eventual parade of six relievers, each of whom was greeted by fans on their feet and cheering the new arrival’s name.

The 3-3 tie lasted only a few minutes, with New York again taking the lead on a bases loaded double by Gleyber Torres in the bottom of the frame that pushed two runs across. The Twins, who led the majors in home runs during the regular season with 307, one more than the Yankees, hit their third of the night in the top of the 6th, but all three dingers were solo shots, and 5-4 was as close as Minnesota would get. New York’s offensive power finally asserted itself, with two runs in the 6th on a pair of homers and then three more in the 7th when, after Twins reliever Kyle Gibson walked the bases loaded, D.J. LeMahieu cleared them with a double to left. The 10-4 lead was enough to cause a few fans to do something they had barely done all night, take a seat.

They didn’t remain sitting for very long. Once again, the crowd was on its feet and cheering when the bullpen door swung open and closer Aroldis Chapman began his jog in to the mound for the top of the 9th. They cheered even louder when, with one on and one out, Chapman fanned Cruz on a 98 mile-per-hour four-seamer. One pitch later it was over, when Eddie Rosario hit a pop foul that catcher Gary Sanchez caught for the final out.

It was just one victory, with ten more needed before a parade up lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes can be planned. While the Yankees used a Didi Gregorius grand slam to again bludgeon the Twins on Saturday, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers remain the World Series favorites for most pundits. But for the jubilant though tired fans who headed for home and presumably a chance to sit down after a game that stretched to more than four hours, the obstacles to New York’s 28th championship could wait for another day. On Friday the Yankees gave their faithful just what they wanted by getting October started with a victory. Now if only MLB would price playoff tickets for what they really are – standing room only.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 3, 2019

Nationals Beat Their Demons, And The Brewers

It didn’t happen all at once. Rather, the enthusiasm and accompanying crowd noise seeped out of Nationals Park slowly but steadily Tuesday night, like a Goodyear that’s picked up a little 2-penny nail gradually deflating as it rolls along the Beltway that circumnavigates our nation’s capital. To be certain, there were those among the nearly 43,000 fans comprising the sea of red that filled the stadium’s three decks who tried hard to wave their rally towels and shout their support for the home team as this year’s National League Wild Card Game played out. But as the early innings became the middle frames and then turned to that point in the game where the remaining outs start to be counted down, more and more of their neighbors grew quiet and pensive.

After all, they had been tortured in like fashion before. This was Washington’s fifth trip to the postseason in the past eight years, and each of the previous forays into October had ended in disappointment, often in excruciating fashion. The first, in 2012, set the tone for what played out again and again at the end of subsequent seasons. The Nationals rallied from a two games to one deficit in the NL Division Series, forcing a Game Five against the Cardinals with a dramatic 2-1 walk off win in Game Four. One night later, in front of a raucous home crowd, Washington leapt out to an early lead and then held on, taking a 7-5 advantage to the 9th inning. The visitors were soon down to their final out with one runner on, when the game turned in stunning fashion. Two walks and a pair of two-run singles later, St. Louis had a 9-7 edge and was on its way to the NLCS, even as fans who only minutes before had begun to celebrate looked on in stunned silence.

Two years later it was the Giants turning hope to despair for Nats fans, followed by the Dodgers in 2016 and the Cubs in 2017. Four trips to the NLDS and still Washington was looking for its first series victory. Even more dispiriting, three of the series had ended with the visiting team celebrating at Nationals Park, where Washington had lost eight of eleven postseason contests.

It was thus entirely understandable if doubt gnawed at many in the full house when the Milwaukee Brewers led 2-0 after Washington starter Max Scherzer had thrown just seven pitches. Trent Grisham drew a leadoff walk on a full count, then Yasmani Grandal lined the first pitch he saw into the Nationals bullpen in right field. Eric Thames followed with another long ball to lead off the second as Scherzer continued to labor. National’s shortstop Trea Turner countered with a solo home run of his own in the bottom of the 3rd, getting Washington on the board.

There the score stayed, 3-1 in favor of Milwaukee, even as the innings began to click away. After his ragged start Scherzer settled down and held the Brewers in check through five frames, then Stephen Strasburg came on in the first relief appearance of his career and fired three shutout innings. But Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell countered with Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter, and Drew Pomeranz, who together shut down the Nationals’ offense through the 7th. Other than Turner’s home run Washington batters managed only two singles off the trio of Milwaukee hurlers.

That allowed Counsell to turn to flamethrowing closer Josh Hader in the bottom of the 8th, with the Nationals just six outs away from another playoff disappointment. One batter later the counter ticked down to five, as Victor Robles went down swinging. When Hader hit Michael Taylor on the hand to put a runner on first, the red-clad thousands clung to fading hope. But there was little to stop a sense of dread from spreading through the stands like a virus when Turner fanned for the second out.

Then in the time it took Hader to throw thirteen pitches to three batters, everything changed. The frustrations of postseasons past were washed away, and Nationals fans discovered that October baseball can mean something other than disappointment. Ryan Zimmerman flared a broken-bat single to center, sending Taylor to third. Anthony Rendon then worked a walk to load the bases. That brought up 20-year-old Juan Soto, runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, who was even better at the plate this season. He lined Hader’s third offering to right for a clean single. Even as Brewers right-fielder Grisham charged the ball, it was clear that Soto had likely tied the game. That was until Grisham put his glove down, and watched in horror as the ball skipped beneath it, headed for the right field fence. By the time he could wheel and retrieve it Soto’s liner had cleared the bases, giving the Nationals a lead they would carry into the 9th and ultimately to a meeting with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS.

In that moment, as energy and roars returned to Nationals Park, fans of the Great Game who may not have followed Washington closely this season saw the resilience that has come to symbolize the team. On May 23rd, after dropping a 6-4 decision to the New York Mets, Washington was twelve games under .500 at 19-31, just a game and one-half ahead of Miami and the NL East cellar. It would have been easy to give up on the year, to conclude that the departure of Bryce Harper had robbed the Nationals of the confidence needed to contend. But after that date the Nationals went 74-38, a record that matched the Dodgers and was only a half-game behind the Astros for best in the majors. While the denizens of Chavez Ravine will be favored in the next round, those who call Dodger Stadium home should take nothing for granted.

When Grisham finally retrieved Soto’s hit and fired the ball in, the Brewers managed to catch the young Nationals hero in a rundown. But by that time the go-ahead run had been plated. As TBS’s announcer Ernie Johnson Jr. rightly said, “they tag him out but nobody in this joint cares!” What they cared about was something that had been far too long coming to Nationals Park – the joy of winning in the postseason and advancing to the next round. It didn’t happen all at once Tuesday night. Until it did.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2019

Titles Don’t Buy Love Like They Used To

More than six months after the A’s and Mariners got things started with a pair of games half a world away at the Tokyo Dome, the regular portion of the longest season has come to an end. In keeping with recent practice, all fifteen games Sunday started at or very close to 3:00 p.m. Eastern time; the idea being to heighten the final day drama of remaining pennant races. It’s a fine concept rendered almost entirely moot this year. All ten playoff teams were already set, with the only outstanding question being whether the NL Central champion would be St. Louis or Milwaukee, with the team that missed out on the title, which turned out to be the Brewers, traveling to Washington for Tuesday’s Wild Card Game against the Nationals.

With many teams having so little at stake not just on the last day but for some time, several franchises had already moved into offseason mode, starting to shape the club that will take the field next spring. As is usually the case, a few didn’t even wait until the final day. The Padres dismissed manager Andy Green with more than a week of games left to play, after a second half collapse that saw San Diego go from exactly .500 at the All-Star break to the NL West cellar. Green’s firing wasn’t even the first anticipatory move of the coming winter. That dubious honor went to the Red Sox, who parted ways with Dave Dombrowski, the team’s president of baseball operations, earlier in the month. Then on Sunday, before either the Cubs or Pirates took the field for their final 2019 contest, those two clubs announced the firings of managers Joe Maddon and Clint Hurdle.

Like Green in San Diego, the 62-year-old Hurdle had the misfortune of presiding over an utterly forgettable two-plus months of baseball by the Pirates following the All-Star Game. As with the Padres, Hurdle’s team entered the break still very much part of the postseason conversation in both the NL Central and Wild Card races, only to have a horrid second half. By losing nearly two of every three games since mid-July Pittsburgh is now assured of its worst record since 2010. As with the Padres, that’s the kind of result that tends to get managers fired, if only because, as managerial defenders often point out, it’s not feasible to fire the entire team.

If the dismissals in San Diego and Pittsburgh were unsurprising, the firings of Dombrowski and Maddon were, at first glance, more mystifying. Barely ten months removed from a championship parade through downtown Boston, the Red Sox removed the executive who assembled that 108-win team. On Chicago’s North Side, in addition to winning the 2016 World Series, until the current season the Cubs had never won fewer than 92 games in Maddon’s four previous years at the helm. But a deeper look reveals that each of the two firings, one of an executive and one of a field general, says much about the nature of professional sports in our age of information overload and miniscule attention spans.

Dombrowski’s time in Boston didn’t end abruptly because the Red Sox were arguably the biggest disappointment in the majors this season, or at least not entirely for that reason. In just over four years at Fenway Park, Dombrowski did what he was hired to do, in the exact same manner that he had in Miami and Detroit – quickly deliver a winning franchise by stocking up on proven talent, either through the free agent market or by trading away minor league prospects. In Boston that meant immediately turning a team that had endured back-to-back losing seasons after capturing the 2013 World Series into a division champion with 93 wins in both 2016 and 2017. Then came the 2018 juggernaut, a team that steamrolled all opponents from Opening Day right through the final out of its five-game World Series triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While Dombrowski’s approach works – he also won a title in Miami and his Detroit teams went to the World Series twice – it carries both a high dollar price tag in the short term and a potential long term cost in terms of talent. The Red Sox and their fans used to complain long and loud about the free spending ways of that division rival down in the Bronx. Under Dombrowski Boston quickly became the team with the highest payroll in baseball. In order to procure some of that high-priced talent he also drained the team’s farm system. Now owner John Henry has expressed his wish to bring salaries down so he can escape MLB’s luxury tax. Doing that will require reshaping the roster, but Boston’s limited reserves in its minor league pipeline could mean a few seasons during which contending will be a challenge.

In Chicago team president Theo Epstein ignored Maddon’s body of work and focused instead on the trend line which the Cubs appeared to be following. Maddon was the NL Manager of the Year after leading Chicago to the NLCS in his first season on the North Side, and the almost magical end to a title drought of more than a century followed in 2016. But the following year the Cubs were soundly beaten by the Dodgers in the NLCS. Last season the team didn’t come close to the league series, losing the division in a one game playoff and then losing the Wild Card game at home. This year, a late season losing streak – Chicago lost nine in a row and ten of twelve over the last two weeks – slammed the door on a possible return to the playoffs. That steady regression, which was recently noted in this space, in turn allowed the Cubs’ front office to question Maddon’s easygoing style, which of course was considered his biggest plus when he was hired.

Within a couple days fans should get a break from news of major comings or goings, since MLB discourages teams from doing anything to distract attention from its playoffs. But it’s certain that once a World Series champion is crowned there will be others joining Maddon, Dombrowski, Hurdle and Green on the list of the unemployed. Of course, some will not be there for long. The very attributes that seemed so appealing not that long ago in Chicago and Boston (and Pittsburgh and San Diego as well), only to suddenly become liabilities, will again be viewed as assets by some other owner or front office. But the firings, especially by the Red Sox and Cubs, should remind fans that in our games, as in life, professional worth is all too often measured not by the full list of achievements on one’s resume, but by the answer to the more pointed question, “what have you done lately?”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 26, 2019

The Limits Of Losing Now To Win Later

Turn out the lights in Philadelphia. Shut it down in Chicago. But please play on in Oakland and Tampa – okay, it’s really St. Petersburg. As the longest season’s calendar turns at last to its final weekend, the closing contests offer precious little drama. Five of the six division races are decided, and whichever club loses out on the NL Central race between the Cardinals and Brewers will be, along with Washington, one of the two National League Wild Card teams. That leaves the chase for the two AL Wild Card slots as the only outcome still in genuine doubt. As this is written three teams, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland, are separated by a pair of games for the last available tickets to the postseason, albeit potentially for a mere nine innings.

But if this weekend’s concluding contests are mostly about deciding which teams have home field advantage in the three rounds of the Great Game’s playoffs, having the final standings essentially set allows for some early observations about how best to achieve every franchise’s goal of playing into October. Those standings suggest that what has become the favorite approach of front offices throughout the majors offers no certain path to success.

Thanks largely to the recent championship seasons of the Cubs and Astros, the idea that the challenge of building up is best met by first tearing down has gone from an exotic notion to conventional wisdom in just a few short years. If Moneyball was about doing more with less, that is, putting a high quality product on the field while spending less money on payroll by focusing on advanced metrics; the new scheme is to do next to nothing with as little as possible by fielding an admittedly inferior team that carries a payroll to match, while husbanding both dollars and draft picks for future seasons when a core group of young prospects finally comes into its own. As popular as it has become this approach makes the line between rebuilding and outright tanking extremely difficult to discern for fans who are expected to endure years of minor league ball at major league prices.

In Chicago a bad team got worse after Theo Epstein arrived from Boston prior to the 2012 season, but that was the plan. As Epstein, who had taken the Red Sox to a pair of titles, purged the Cubs’ roster of veterans and slashed salaries, the team lost 101 games that first year and fared barely better the next two. But just as fans were growing understandably impatient, the rebound began with a trip to the NLCS in 2015, followed by the blessed end of the Cubs’ 108-year championship drought the following season.

A thousand miles to the south, the Astros were on a similar trajectory, fielding a young and unproven roster that predictably racked up more than 100 losses for three years running starting in 2011, and improved only marginally in 2014. Then the flame of hope was lit by a trip to the playoffs in 2015, and two seasons later Houston followed Chicago’s title with one of its own. The back-to-back championships by franchises following the same path to glory convinced many front offices of the wisdom of the approach.

As this year’s playoff picture has come into focus, the one participant most clearly seeking to replicate the Cubs and Astros story is Atlanta. The franchise subjected its fans to four straight losing seasons from 2014 through 2017, including the last three in a row with at least 90 losses. Then last year, as young pitchers Max Fried and Julio Teheran, and dynamic outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr., began to realize their potential, the team surged to the top of the NL East and Acuna was named the league’s Rookie of the Year. This year Atlanta is again atop its division and will host the NL Central winner in the Division Series.

Perhaps one night in the last week of October, jubilant players wearing Atlanta uniforms will pile on one another in front of a stadium full of cheering fans, celebrating the third championship in four years won by a team espousing the lose now, win later philosophy. Maybe, but also maybe not. If Atlanta does fall short, perhaps the approach will lose a bit of its luster.

After all, while the goal of every franchise each season is to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, the broader objective is to build a team that can contend over the long haul. Against that standard, the results are less clear. Certainly Houston, winner of the NL West for the third year in a row and the team most likely to enter the playoffs with home field advantage right through the World Series, the reward for having the best regular season record, is showing considerable staying power. But the Cubs have been a different story. Following the 2016 title, Chicago made it back to the NLCS in 2017, but last year the team was one and done, losing the NL Wild Card game to Colorado after a second place division finish. This year the Cubs won’t even get that opportunity after collapsing down the stretch to third place in the NL Central standings, good for nothing more than a free pass to an early winter. What’s worse, baseball operations president Epstein has made it clear that the disappointing result will likely mean a major reshaping of the team.

The Cubs are not the only cautionary tale. After supplementing homegrown players like Aaron Nola and Scott Kingery with a trade for Miami’s young catcher J.T. Realmuto and signing superstar free agent Bryce Harper, the Phillies were primed for a title run. This after not having a winning season since 2011, and losing 91, 99, and 96 games from 2015 to 2017. But all those pieces never quite fit together in Philadelphia, and now the team must take two out of three over the final weekend to manage the modest goal of a winning record.

Maybe next season will be better for the Phillies; maybe the Orioles, Blue Jays, Marlins and Tigers, four other teams pursuing the teardown philosophy, will quickly reach the day when they stop torturing their fans and start winning. But of that group only Toronto appears close to turning things around, and as Philadelphia just proved, there are no guarantees.

Meanwhile Oakland and Tampa Bay, the two franchises vying with Cleveland for the AL Wild Card slots, have resisted the temptation to gut their rosters. Both play in subpar stadiums in smaller markets, and consistently rank near the bottom in salaries. But over the last ten seasons the A’s have had just two seasons with 90-plus losses, half the number of their years with more than 90 wins. For their part the Rays have lost more than 90 games just once while winning 90 or more six times. Both franchises have relied on the value approach that less than two decades ago was revolutionary, and now is deemed old school. Far more frequently than one would expect in those small markets, both have been contenders. Fans in Philadelphia and Baltimore and Toronto and Miami and Detroit and perhaps even on the North Side of Chicago, would surely trade years of heartache for that.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »