Memories of The ‘Stick

With the last 49er game to be played at Candlestick Park tonight, I have been inspired to recall my favorite memories of the cavernous, cold, windy, broken down old girl.

Though I grew up in the Bay Area, I was never a 49er fan, much to my family and friend’s chagrin.  I always cheered for the Giants, but they were a distant second to my first love, all geographical permutations of the Angels.  Still, being that my favorite teams were no where close by, and virtually all my friend and family were Giants and Niner fans, I spent a fair amount of time taking in games at Candlestick Park.  A lot of good memories.  Here’s the Top 7, in no particular order.

1.  Since my dad and I were mostly fans of American League teams, Twins and Angels respectively, I had been to several Oakland A’s games as a kid.  Besides our team allegiances, back in those days, pre-Mt. Davis, the Oakland Colesium was actually pretty nice place to watch a ballgame and was much more convenient to get to than Candlestick.  So, I was already a veteran ballgame attender when my uncle Jeff took me to my first Giants game.  They played the Cincinatti Reds.  Thanks to Baseball-reference.com, I was able to pinpoint the exact date, September 19, 1987.  We had probably the best seats I’ve ever had, five rows directly behind home plate.  At not quite 10 years old, I was too young to really appreciate them.  So that’s not the memorable part.  In the bottom of the sixth inning, I had to go.  My uncle asked if I could hold it.  I said no.  With the Giants still batting we got up to go to the big trough.  As we were about to enter the restroom, the crowd let loose the kind of roar that can only be inspired by a home run.  Specifically, a two-run home run by lightweight shortstop Jose Uribe.  Anytime you miss a home run at a baseball game its a bummer, but when you miss a rarefied feat like a Jose Uribe home run, who hit only 19 in his 10 year big league career, it’s almost a tragedy.  To this day I remember the look my uncle gave me when we heard that crowd erupt.  It’s about the dirtiest look you could give a 10 year old and not have them burst into tears.  He got over it I guess, agreeing to be my best man at my wedding 15 years later.  The funny thing is, according to baseball reference, Will Clark also hit a home run in that game and neither my uncle or I have any memory of it.

2.  I’ve only been to two 49er games.  The first was in November 1998.  It was a Monday night game against the New York Giants.  It was raining.  True Niner fans can probably remember what was significant about that game.  Defensive tackle Bryant Young, an emerging star, broke his leg.  My buddy Jon the Green Beret had procured the tickets from a co-worker.  The seats weren’t great, field level end-zone a few rows under the overhang, but given the precipitation that night they were more than acceptable.  Young’s injury is the only thing I remember about the actual game.  The adventure was getting there.

Jon and I left early enough to stop in San Francisco for dinner.  Jon parked his baby blue VW bug in a surprisingly convenient parking spot near the restaurant and we went inside.  We should’ve known our fortuitous parking was too good to be true.  When we returned to the car, it was gone.  We hand’t noticed the “Loading Zone Only” sign.  There was a phone number for the tow yard on the sign, but these were the days when only high-powered executives and drug dealers carried cell phones.  We hiked around in the rain looking for a pay phone, when we came upon a tow truck and its driver ruining someone else’s day.  The driver directed us to the tow yard and we trekked the 15 blocks.  Being the only one of us with a credit card, I paid the $150 fee and they released Jon’s bug from car jail.  Amazingly, we got to Candlestick in record time and were just sitting down in our seats the same instant as kick off.

3.  Earlier that same year, 1998, Jon, myself, and Jeff his wife Jody all purchased a small season ticket package for the Giants.  It was called the Six Pack.  You got six games, plus a seventh game against the Dodgers for free.  The seats were in right field, in what they called the Family Pavilion.  Theoretically, a family friendly area of what could occasionally be a pretty unruly stadium.  This is where we, along with my buddy Josh the Rev, were sitting for one of the most entertaining and memorable baseball games I’ve ever attended, for both on and off the field reasons.

First the on field stuff.  Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, JT Snow, Russ Davis, and Glenallen Hill all homered.  Rodriguez injured Jeff Kent’s knee sliding into second base.  Fans in left field were mercilessly taunting Hill, possibly the worst left fielder in the history of the sport.  He misplayed two fly balls my five year old daughter could’ve handled.  A fan jumped out of the center field bleachers and ran around the outfield.  He circled Griffey a couple times, slid into second base, then laid down on the outfield grass.  Security initially sent out their apparently oldest and slowest security guard, to nab the fit 20-something.  It was like watching your grandfather trying to catch Barry Sanders.  Finally they sent reinforcements and they were able to take the kid down. The Giants ended up with a 7-6 win, despite all the long balls surrendered.

Now the off field stuff.  It pretty much all started with Griffey’s home run.  He hit it over the center field bleachers, into this sort of no-man’s-land between the bleachers and the right center field stands where we were sitting.  This no-man’s-land was off limits to fans, filled with scaffolds and beams supporting the bleachers.  A few kids ran down from the stands into the area to try to grab Griffehy’s home run ball.  I’d be lying if the thought hand’t crossed my mind too.  A rather girthy security guard waddle-ran into the area to shag the kids out of there and tripped.  He went down like a giant sequoia.  Without bracing himself at all, he landed throat first on a scaffold pipe.  As other security guards and medics gathered to help him, two idiot fans at the top row of the bleachers kept pointing down at him and laughing.  The guard, now on his back, even in his injured state, pointed right back at them and yelled a few choice words of his own.  After a few minutes, two SFPD officers grabbed the two idiots and started to lead them down the back stairs of the bleachers.  One of the idiots tried to pull away from one of the cops and ended up getting a face full of bleacher and a new set of steel bracelets.  As we were sitting behind the bleachers on the other side of no-man’s-land we literally had a front row seat to all of this.

An inning or two later, we saw a whole squadron, maybe eight to ten, SFPD officers on dirt bikes ride up behind the bleachers.  They saw on their bikes for a few minutes, then dismounted and all walked up into the bleachers.  They stood in the back row, just watching the game.  Then they left.  It was very odd.

A little bit after that there was some sort of commotion near the right field foul pole in our section.  About 50 cops emerged out of nowhere, all swarming to that location.  We found out later a drunken fan being lead away by police had tried to grab the cops gun.  Bad idea.

And all of his took place in or near the Family Pavilion.

4.  At one of the games during that 1998 season we witnessed history.  The Giants were facing the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Arizona had a 8-5 lead going into the bottom of the ninth.  The Giants cut the lead to two and had the bases loaded with two outs.  Barry Bonds, who didn’t start that night, came up to pinch hit.  Now, keep in mind, this is 1998 Barry Bonds, as in pre-BALCO, expanding cranium, inhuman muscle bound freak Barry Bonds.  Even before his embrace of the Cream and the Clear, Bonds was likely the best in the game at the time, and already a sure fire Hall of Famer.  But, he hadn’t yet sold his soul to chemistry so his days of being routinely intentionally walked regardless of the situation were still to come.  Which is what makes Arizona manager Buck Showalter’s strategy all the more amazing.  Up by two runs, with two outs and the bases loaded, Showalter intentionally walked Bonds, sending a run to the plate and putting the tying run only 90 feet away.  I had never even heard of anything like that, much less witnessed it in person.  At the time, there was only one other known instance of that happening (it has since occured once more; Josh Hamilton was IBB’d with the bases loaded in 2008).

Ah, but did it work?  Well, since the next batter was Brent Mayne, yes it did.  Despite our best efforts to distract the right fielder, he made the play on Mayne’s low line drive to end the game.

5.  The second 49er game I went to, I have virtually no memory of.  All I remember is where our seats were (end zone, upper deck), who the opponent was (KC Chiefs), and who I went with (my wife).  The only reason this one is memorable is because my wife’s cousin, who was living in Colorado at the time, saw us on TV.

6.  Candlestick was well known for its inhospitable weather.  Cold, foggy, windy nights were the norm during baseball season.  Though, on the rarest of occasions, Candlestick could be quite pleasant for a night game.  I remember one particular night, it was a game against the Dodgers.  I was about 11 or 12.  We brought sweatshirts and blankets, preparing ourselves for along cold evening.  Not only was it a balmy 70ish degrees for the entire nine innings, but the Giants and Dodger fans were very cordial to each other.  Friendly ribbings back and forth, pats on the back, smiles.  It was a….weird night.  Pleasant, but weird.

7.  Jon the Green Beret, my buddy Mike, and I decided at the last minute to take in a double-header.  The Giants were playing the Pirates.  It was 1997.  We got to Candlestick after the first game had already started.  We brought a 12-pack of Mountain Dew with us, only to be told we weren’t allowed to bring it inside.  Being poor college students who couldn’t afford to waste perfectly good soda, we started chugging them right there at the gate.  We gave a couple away to a man and his young son, but we each drank at least three in a three minute span.  I don’t know who we didn’t die.  The Giants won the first game in 13 innings, 6-5.  I don’t remember how.

The nightcap was a pretty dull contest.  Until the ninth.  The Pirates exploded for six runs, hitting two home runs in the process.  The Giants were down 10-1 coming into the bottom of the ninth.  The stadium had just about cleared out and the sea gulls were arriving en masse.  We were in the uppermost of the upper decks.  A combination of desperation, being pretty much the only ones left in the upper deck, baseball superstition, too much Mountain Dew and other baseball stadium junk food had us doing some pretty strange things to try to spark a rally.  After JT Snow hit a two-run homer while I happened to be mimicking George Washington crossing the Delaware, my foot resting on the seat in front of me (no, really), we went berserk.  Three batters later when Rich Aurilia hit a three-run homer after we all did some ridiculous dance, we just about lost it.  When the next batter, Rick Wilkins, went deep after we did both the George Washington and the dance, we thought we’d found the formula for momentous comeback.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The Giants lost 7-10.  But it was just about the best ninth inning I’ve ever witnessed:  12 runs scored and five home runs hit between the two teams.

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A Long Rambling Post About Baseball

baseballWith Ray Lewis the Super Bowl and its insipid hype-machine mercifully behind us (yes my Packers were eliminated early and yes I’m bitter), we can finally move on to the one sport that actually matters, baseball.  How do I know baseball is the only sport that actually matters?  For starters, it’s the only one where people actually care when the players are caught using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).  Ooops, that’s right it’s the only one where the players actually get caught because it’s the only one with a robust–though still imperfect–testing regimen.  No one says boo or BOOOOOH! when an NFL players name is whispered in association with steroids, HGH, or the host of other hard to pronounce enhancers.  Oh sure, when it’s something exotic like deer antler spray used by a vocal, high profile player on the cusp of the Super Bowl it almost become news, but in the end no one cares for some reason.  Yes, the NFL has the ratings and is the unquestioned object of desire of media members everywhere, but only baseball gets dragged before Congress, is pilloried by non-sports media, and tsk-tsked by John Q. Judgementals everywhere.

Why is that?  Because baseball is in institution.  Of the four major sports–or five if you’re into cars I guess–it’s the one that’s been with us the longest.  It’s history is the most revered, its numbers the most adored, it’s Hall of Fame the most sacred, and it’s the only sport completely different from all the rest.  When you mess with the game, from within or without, it makes people mad.  It’s like you’re spray painting on the Statue of Liberty.  You’re disgracing an American monument that’s been with us every spring, summer, and fall for over 120 years.  Baseball is special.

Of course those four things that make it special–its history, its numbers, it’s Hall of Fame, it’s uniqueness–can also be hindrances.  It’s greatest strengths can also be it’s greatest weaknesses.  Observe:

History – Baseball loves its history and proudly wears it as a badge of honor.  It should,  there’s a lot to be proud of.  The great players from the past are given almost mythic status. The Cobbs, Ruths, and Mays’.  Baseball was the first sport to integrate and gave us the great Jackie Robinson.  It’s given us the 1975 World Series, and Kirk Gibson in ’88 (much as I hate to admit it), and Murderers Row, and “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

But sometimes, baseball displays it’s history a little too prominently.  It has a tendency to sacrifice the present for the past.  Baseball has never been really great at promoting what’s great about baseball right now.  The past is great, but if you want to capture the next generation of fans you need to show them why baseball is so great in this generation.  I think baseball has gotten better at this recently, but the NFL and particularly the NBA are light years better at promoting it’s current stars.

Numbers – Baseball’s records are the most known and renown of any of the sports.  Ask any serious baseball fan what the single season home run record is and you’ll get a quick reply; 73.  Or the career home run record; 762.  Or the longest hitting streak ever; 56 games.  Or the “magic numbers” for getting into the Hall of Fame; 3000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins.  Ask a football fan what the career touchdown record is or a basketball fan what the most points every scored is.  I predict they won’t be able to tell you.

But what do those numbers really mean anymore?  In many ways baseball was defined by these great records.  But with the PED scandals of the past decade, and more, they’ve lost much of their luster.  What once was a strength of the game is now a source of doubt and scandal mongering.

A (hopefully) brief aside, if I may.  And it’s my blog, so I may.  Following the recent new PED allegations against Alex-controversy-lightening-Rodriguez and others on Twitter and the host of baseball writers and bloggers I follow, it seems there are two camps that are equally vocal and equally prone to hand-wringing, but on opposite sides of an argument.  A lot of the old guard baseball writers burn with righteous indignation and demand the heads of those who are guilty by nothing more than scant association roll with those who have failed tests.  They call for voided contracts, wax loquaciously about tarnished and re-tarnished legacies, withhold their Hall of Fame votes from those who played in the “juiced” era and were just a little bit too muscular looking and didn’t proclaim their cleanliness loudly enough.

Then there’s the other side.  The baseball bloggers and new wave of writers.  The SABR-types.  Snarkier than their forbears, this group seems to blow off the PED issue as no big deal.  Reasons being PED’s today are medicine in a generation or so, or there are other more morally repugnant issues that traditional writers are not showing an equitable amount of rage over (public money stadiums, DUI, spousal abuse, etc), PEDs are no worse than any other form of cheating, or “how can we know for sure,” and, perhaps most alarming, who cares?

While the old guard writers seemingly want everyone to burn, the new school writers seem like they’re too cool for school, new or otherwise, and too sophisticated to care.  I had a Twitter “conversation” with a pretty well known writer, who writes for Sports Illustrated and Baseball Prospectus, among other outlets, and I said I agreed with his take that there are other things that are worth the outrage (stadium deals, spousal abuse, etc) but I understand were a lot of the anger comes from.  His response surprised me.  It surprised me that he responded at all (and I give him credit for doing so), but his actual response surprised me too.  Here it is:  “Why? Why are you angry?  Why angry now and not at other cheaters? Other drug cheaters? How does this affect your life?”  First of all, I didn’t say I was angry, just that I understood why some were.  Secondly, that last part in particular struck me as disingenuous.  How does this affect my life?  Well, it’s true that it doesn’t, really.  But as someone who writes about baseball for a living, granted in the nuveau statistical analysis vein rather than the hagiographic way of many old school beat writers, he should know better than anybody that this stuff does matter to people.  Yeah, probably more than it should, but it just struck me as an odd and high handed thing to say.  Look, I wasn’t an earlier adopter on the statistical revolution, but I’ve learned to accept it and allow myself to be challenged in my baseball beliefs.  But I think a lot of the writers who write from that perspective can be too clinical and forget that this isn’t all math, analysis  and formulas to people.  It’s memories and feelings and hours spent and PEDs make you feel like you’ve been lied to and taken advantage of all that time.  Like somehow your memories of McGwire vs. Sosa are now tainted and were based on a fraud.  People don’t like to be lied to.  It makes them angry.  And I, unlike this writer I guess, get that.  In their effort to take what I assume they believe is the high road in not using a scattergun to apply the guilty label, they end up taking the high horse road and become just as guilty of the judgementalism they supposedly stand against.

A little nuance and understanding on both sides would be appreciated.  But I guess that’s a little too much to ask for these days.  You don’t amass Twitter followers by being nuanced.

Ok, that aside wasn’t very quick.  Moving on.

Hall of Fame – The baseball Hall of Fame is really the only hall of fame that matters.  Have you ever had a conversation with somebody about whether so-and-so belongs in the football or basketball hall of fame?  I haven’t.  But I’ve spent countless hours debating the merits of countless baseball hall of famers.  Not unlike the numbers though, the Hall of Fame has been complicated by PEDs.  Should users be allowed?  What about someone who never failed a test but is universally assumed to be a PED user, like, say, Barry Bonds?  My thoughts on the issue will wait for another day–this post is too long as it is–but the fact is the Hall debates just aren’t as fun as they used to be.

Different than any other sport – When you really think about it most every other sport is pretty much the same game, just with different equipment.  To wit:

Football – get the ball from one end of the field to the other and into the other teams end zone to score.  You have 60 minutes to score as many times as you can.

Basketball – get the ball from one end of the court to the other and into the other teams basket to score.  You have 48 minutes to score as many times as you can.

Hockey – get the puck from one end of the ice to the other and into the other teams goal to score.  You have 60 minutes to score as many times as you can.

Soccer – get the ball from one end of the field to the other and into the other teams goal to score.  You have, like, six hours to score once…if you’re lucky.

Baseball is nothing like any of these.  There’s no time limit.  No game clock, no shot clock, no play clock.  To quote the late great Earl Weaver:

You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.

The tyranny of the clock has no place in baseball.  Also, it’s the only sport in which the defense  controls the ball.  Of all the sports it’s the one that requires the greatest specialized skill.  Running, jumping, and strength are not enough.  Hitting a round ball with a round bat, that’s the hardest thing to do in sports and one of the most beautiful to watch.

But because it’s different, it’s often misunderstood.  The pace is admittedly slower than the likes of football or basketball, and without a set time limit games can drag on longer then they should thanks to constant late inning pitching changes, batters taking their sweet time adjusting their cups and batting gloves in the batters box, and mound conferences.  The slow pace is off-putting in our instant gratification society.  A single at-bat may take as much as several minutes, while a football play must commence before the 45 second play clock expires and the play itself only lasts about 10 seconds at the very most.  In basketball a shot must hit the rim before the 24 second shot clock expires.

Despite it’s shortcomings–which every sport has in scads by the way–and also because of them I love baseball.  I love it’s history.  Comparing players across the eras is one of the great joys of sports discussion.  What kind of numbers would Ted Williams put up in 2013?  How dominant would Randy Johnson have been in the late 60’s before the mound was lowered?  The comparison’s are literally endless.

Yeah, the numbers aren’t as pure as they used to be.  And honestly, I’m really trying to scrape up a positive out of all of this PED stuff.  Stand by on that one.  I still get excited for the Hall of Fame vote every year, even with all the PED talk that is now inevitable.  They’ve got a lot of sorting out to do; is the Hall of museum or shrine; should a PED user be kept out when someone like Ty Cobb is in.  These are good questions, and while they can be a bummer it also adds another complex layer to the sport we love.  So, silver lining?  No?

Baseball’s uniqueness is what makes it truly great though.  Where the uneducated see inaction, I see a pitcher staring in at the signs the catcher is putting down, the batter eyeing the field looking for a hole, the third basemen creeping down the line expecting a bunt, the outfielders shifting based on the batters spray chart.  All the while my buddies and I discussing why his batting average is so low this year and why doesn’t the manager pinch hit for him.  In baseball the fan has the time to strategize along with the manager.  It’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, it’s armchair managing in real time. In a close game, every pitch ratchets up the tension to near unbearable levels.  Then the batter fouls it off, there’s a brief exhale, and then the pressure builds all over again.  Football is only there for you a couple days a week.  In hockey and basketball your team might play three games a week.  Baseball is there for you everyday, from April Fool’s Day until Halloween.  And I love it.  I love it so much that I’d write a 2174 blog post that almost no one will read about it.  That’s love.

Ando’s 2012 World Series Preview

After a hiatus in 2011–I just flat forgot about it–my Sorta Annual World Series Preview is back! Two of baseball’s most storied franchises, the San Francisco Giants versus the Tigers of Detroit squaring off.  Since I’m a day late already, I’ll dispense with my usual longish, yet eloquent intro and get straight to the breakdown. I know that’s what you’ve all been dying for.

CATCHER:

Giants catcher Buster Posey is well on his way to becoming the most recognized of all men named Buster, surpassing the likes of Buster Douglas, Buster Keaton, and even Buster Brown, purveyor of fine children’s footwear.  After a 2010 rookie season that saw him win both the Rookie of the Year award and a World Series ring, it was hard to see how Buster had anywhere to go but down.  And he did.  His 2011 campaign was cut short by a devastating knee injury, and his once bright future was in question.  Giants fans were cautiously optimistic for his 2012 return, but their fear have been assuaged as Buster put up MVP type numbers in the regular season and looked as healthy as a young thoroughbred.  Are thoroughbreds considered healthy?  Why not?  His postseason has been mediocre so offensively, but he has looked very good behind the plate and it’s only a matter of time before his bat heats up.

Alex Avila was a disappointment for the Tigers (and my fantasy team) this year, after a breakout campaign in 2011.  His postseason performance has been even worse, making Avila’s contribution to the baseball world little else but this amusing profile picture.

EDGE:  GIANTS

FIRST BASE:

The Tigers went back to the future this off season, paying big bucks for former fat Tiger first baseman Cecil Fielder’s slightly less fat first basemen son Prince Fielder.  Big Cecil may be champ at the buffet–though it appears Prince is no slouch despite his vegetarian leanings–Prince is a better hitter than his daddy was.  His power numbers this year were relatively modest (for him), but that can be somewhat expected given the change in teams and leagues and Comerica Parks spacious confines.  His bat has yet to heat up in the postseason, but he is poised to strike at any time with the ferocity of a jungle cat.  A jaguar or panther, perhaps.  Or a Tiger if you want to be so obvious about it.

Most games the Giants will run Brandon Belt at first base.  He’s a streaky hitter who can get hot and is a slick fielder.  But, he is known as the Giraffe, and guess what?  Tigers can eat giraffes.

EDGE:  TIGERS

SECOND BASE:

What can you say about Marco Scutaro?  Not flashy, not especially gifted in any particular facet of the game, just a solid major leaguer who is insanely hot right now.  Hot as in, playing baseball exceptionally well at the moment.  I don’t find him all that physically attractive.  Since joining the Giants in late July, Scutaro hit over .360 in the regular season and is batting .500 (!!!) in the postseason, with seemingly every hit coming with runners in scoring position.  Brian Sabean is a good General Manager, but this is the sort of move that makes GMs look like geniuses.

Similar to Marco Scutaro, Omar Infante was a mid-season acquisition for the Tigers when they acquired him from the floundering Marlins.  Not so similarly, Infante, who started off well for the Marlins, did not do much worth nothing while in Detroit, either in the regular season or the playoffs.  So….yeah I guess that’s it.

EDGE:  GIANTS

THIRD BASE:

Most folks would tell you that the Tigers have a clear advantage at third base, with arguably the games best hitter Miguel Cabrera manning the hot corner.  Most people would say that while Cabrera’s counterpart, Pablo Sandoval, is no slouch, he simply isn’t the same caliber hitter as Cabrera, evidenced by Cabrera’s winning the first triple crown in over 30 years.  Most people would tell you that, yeah, maybe Cabrera is a little heftier than your average third baseman and isn’t the slickest third sacker around, but Pablo is no svelter and isn’t exactly lining his mantle with Gold Gloves either.  Most people would say all these things.  But I’ve just got this feeling that Pablo is going to go off in this series.  Especially game one.  Something tells me he’s going to have a huge night.  Maybe hit two home runs.  Heck, maybe three!  I don’t know what it is.  He’s just got that look in his eye.  He’s already had a tremendous postseason at the plate, and I see that continuing.  Call me crazy.

EDGE:  EVEN

SHORTSTOP

The Tigers’ Johnny Peralta is built more like a third baseman than a shortstop, which is probably why he’s got a little more pop than your average shortstop.  Like his double-play partner Infante, he’s nothing spectacular but he can hit the ball over the fence, which is sort of a big deal in baseball.

Youngster Brandon Crawford will probably get most of the starts for the Giants.  He’s come through with some timely hits lately, but the fact is he’s just not a very good hitter.  Maybe he will be someday, but not now.  What he is is a pretty good defensive shortstop, so even if he continues to struggle at the plate we may still see him out there.  Joaquin Arias could get a start or two if Crawford really struggles, but he is not much of a hitter either.  But sometimes you just gotta do like The Cars say and shake it up.

EDGE:  TIGERS

LEFT FIELD:

Every time I see Tigers left fielder Delmon Young he looks fatter.  He came up with Tampa Bay as a hot shot prospect, and he’s developed into an OK hitter, but nothing near what people, or at least Rays fans and execs, were hoping.  Now with the Tigers, he’s slowly morphing into Glen Allen Hill.  Decent hitter, a little bit of pop, and about as good a defender as a cigar store Indian…with no arms.  Which is why he is usually Detroit’s DH.  But with potentially four games in a National League park, he’s going to be in left field.  He’s a streaky hitter and is riding a good one right now after battering the Yankees pitching staff to garner ALCS MVP status, so he could cause some problems for San Francisco’s hurlers.  In Detroit, the Tigers will probably start Andy Dirks, who besides having an awesome first name, had a nice little 88 game regular season, hitting .322 with eight home runs.

The Giants will start the speedy Gregor Blanco in left.  He’s a good defender and adds the speed dimension on the basepaths, just don’t expect much more or you’ll be disappointed.  Hey!  If we combined Delmon Young and Gregor Blanco into one person, we’d almost have a complete baseball player. We could call him Delgor Yonco and he would be my friend.

EDGE:  EVEN

CENTER FIELD:

Angel Pagan will play center field for the Gigantes.  Pagan has been pretty great for the Giants.  Making great catches out in center field–or almost like last night’s Peralta HR–or coming through with big hits.  Equally as speedy as Blanco, but a little better hitter, his strengths play very well for AT&T Park, as shown by his 38 doubles and 15 triples in the regular season.  Solid player and one of the best sports names ever.

In center for the Tigers, former Yankee prospect who game over in the Granderson deal, Austin Jackson had a pretty fine year.  He improved by leaps and bounds on almost every offensive statistic and played a terrific center field.  Personally, I think he’s poised for a breakout in the very near future.

EDGE:  EVEN

RIGHT FIELD

Giants right fielder Hunter Pence has got to be the most awkward looking professional athlete in the history of professional athletes.  Nothing he does looks natural, fluid, or normal.  He’s grown this scraggley beard and has these crazy eyes that make him look like a meth cook who’s been cooped up in his lab in the Appalachians for too long.  And yet he’s a good baseball player.  After coming over from the Phillies late in the year, he has performed as hoped, but just because he doesn’t look like he has any idea what he’s doing, don’t count him out.

Right field for the Tigers will be some combination of Dirks, Quentin Berry, and Avisail Garcia.  I don’t know much about any of them, nor do I care.  My guess is, they aren’t that great.  Yes, I’m being lazy.  I’ve got stuff to do today and I’m already a game behind.  Cut me some slack!

EDGE:  GIANTS

STARTING PITCHING:

The Tigers have arguably the best starting pitcher in the Majors, in Justin Verlander.  No, its not even an argument.  He is the best starting pitcher in the Majors.  He’s the reigning Cy Young and AL MVP, and even during starts when he’s not at his best, he’s still often better than most other #1 starters.  He was so dominant in 2011 that until you look at his numbers from this year, you forget just how good he really was:  2.68 ERA, 239 strikeouts in 238 innings pitched, a WHIP of 1.06, six complete games, and an ERA+ (ERA adjusted to the players’ ballpark) of 160, which led the Majors.  He’ll likely win the Cy Young for the second consecutive year.  That the Giants did to him what they did to him in Game 1 is beyond enormous.  Before the series started I thought to myself, “Self, if the Giants can beat Verlander at least once, particularly in Game 1, I think they’ll win the World Series.” We still have a few games to play, but you figure the Tigers basically had themselves penciled in for two wins in his two assured starts (they could start him on short rest if there is a Game 7).  The Tigers’ other starters, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fistor, are all more than adequate big league pitchers and have all fared very well in the postseason thus far, but the Giants stand a lightyear’s better chance against any of them than they do against Verlander, which makes their Game 1 win all the more important and impressive.

The Giants’ rotation has been their stregnth for the last several years, and while they faltered a bit this year, some unlikely heroes have stepped up when it mattered.  First among them, Barry Zito.  The much maligned Zito had probably his best regular season as a Giant, though of course nothing worth of his $20 million price tag.  But fans have come to grips for the most part to what Zito is now, a back of the rotation starter at best.  Maybe Barry himself has embraced this as well.  He performed well in some pretty big games, earning a postseason roster spot after being left off in 2010.  He’s repaid the trust with a couple of great starts and for the first time since a certain left fielder roamed the AT&T grass, the chants of Barry!  Barry!  Barry!  could be heard once again as he pitched a gem and drove in a run in Game 1.  You’ve gotta give him credit for handling everything the way he has.  It’s not easy to be a pariah for six years and still keep your head about you and come through when it counts.  Kudos must also be given to Tim Lincecum.  The two time Cy Yound winner had his worst year by the stretch of I-5.  He’s been asked to work out of the bullpen mostly this postseason and has answered the call with grace and performance.  Cain has been good all year, Vogelsong has stepped up recently after a rough second half.  The question if Bumgarner.  Will he bounce back?

EDGE:  GIANTS (BARELY)

BULLPEN:

The Giants and Tigers are both without their usual closers.  For the Giants, Brian Wilson has been out most of the year with an elbow injury.  For the Tigers, Jose Valderde is out with a brain injury.  As in, he’s forgotten how to pitch.  Technically, he’s still on the roster and in fact “pitched” last night.  But he has been atrocious and removed from the closers spot.  I don’t we’ll see him much more unless its a 19 inning game or something.  Detroit does have some other power arms, so we’ll see how any of them fare when they find themselves in late inning situations.

Sergio Romo has been outstanding once again for the Giants.  Equally impressive is his beard, more manicured then Wilson’s but just as menacing.  The Giants have also gotten good work from George Kontos, Jeremy Affeldt, among others.  So long as Casilla stays out of the game when anything is on the line, they should be fine.

EDGE:  GIANTS

MANAGER:

Both Jim Leyland and Bruce Bochy are savvy experienced skippers who have won championships.  Being from the Bay Area I’m more familiar with Bochy’s in game work and he seems to have a knack for pulling the right strings at the right time.  That’s a generic and cowardly way of saying I’m taking the local guy.

EDGE:  GIANTS

MOJO:

The Giants are the team that gets to the brink and battles back.  The Tigers are the team that beat the tar out of the Yankees for a sweep.  Both had to battle for most of the season, though the Giants pulled away in the second half.  I’d go on but…I’m gonna be late for work

EDGE:  EVEN

PREDICTION:

GIANTS IN SIX

They Called Him The Kid

It was the summer of 1989 and I was 11.  I was trading baseball cards with my cousin, four and a half years my junior, as we often did.  I saw that he had a 1989 Donruss Rated Rookie for a guy named Ken Griffey, Jr.  It was early in the season, and though I didn’t know a whole lot about him, I remembered hearing some things about Griffey being an up-and-comer.  I thought I’d make a play for the card.  Not wanting to completely rip off my own flesh and blood, I found a card I thought would make for a reasonably fair trade…a 1988 Topps Danny Tartabull.  Sure, in retrospect it looks like a fleecing—the only stat Tartabull eclipses Griffey in now is Seinfeld appearances—but go look at his stats, they’re better than you think, and at the time Tartabull, of MLB pedigree himself, was something of a rising star also.  Of course, in a matter of weeks it was clear that, as fine a player as Tartabull may have been, Griffey was going to be something special and the value of the two cards reflected that.  At one point not long after the deal the Griffey was around the $5 mark, the Tartabull not more than a common card, maybe a nickel.  From that point forward, all trades between my cousin and me were to be pre-approved by his dad (though in my defense, that same year he offered me a Jose Canseco rookie for a slice of pizza and I declined knowing it was a rip off…for me.  And also that same year, I traded him a Barry Bonds rookie, among a few other cards, for the 1989 Upper Deck Jim Abbot rookie.  A pretty even trade at the time, but I shudder to look up the values of those two cards now).

Anyway, thus began my idolization of Ken Griffey, Jr.  Even though he played for a division rival to my beloved Angels, the Mariners had always been terrible and posed no credible threat (until 1995….sigh).  Plus, I had a soft spot for them since meeting and going to lunch with second baseman Harold Reynolds (now of the MLB Network) a few years earlier.  The Angels had never had a potential star of that magnitude on the roster before.  Even as great as Wally Joyner was his first couple years, he didn’t have the grace or magnetism of Griffey.  Besides, even by ’89 Joyner’s numbers had come remarkably down to earth; he never again even approached the 30 home run plateau after 1987.  So as counterintuitive as it may have been, I was an Angels fan first and foremost, but I always cheered for Griffey, Jr.

Through my formative sports following years he didn’t disappoint.  There was nothing he couldn’t do.  Power, check.  Speed, check.  Defense, check.  Look like you actually enjoy playing baseball, check.  With his hat turned backward, million dollar grin, and picture perfect swing, Griffey took the game by storm.  His posters were on my wall and for a long time my most prized possession was his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card that I got for Christmas that year.  That card still probably ranks in the top three of my all-time favorite Christmas gifts.

I lamented when he broke his wrist in 1995 (though I should’ve been rejoicing), I was dejected when his shot at 62 was taken away by the Strike in 1994, and I was thrilled when he finally won his first MVP in 1997.  By 1999, the question “Is Griffey the best ever?” could be asked and no one would think someone completely insane for asking it.

I predicted that he would take less money to go back to his roots in Cincinnati a year before he did.  Of course, I didn’t actually know anything about Ken Griffey, Jr. other than what I could see on the baseball diamond, but I just felt like that’s the kind of guy he was.  He was different than all those other superstars.  He was a good guy who put his family ahead of the big dollars.  He did things right on the field, why couldn’t he be that way in life also?

That sort of talk is more than a little risky when it’s said about professional athletes.  Time and time again we put them up on pedestals, and then we knock them down.  Most of the time, it seems, they deserve it.

But as the arc of Griffey’s career is now at a close, maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t too far off.

Once he reached Cincy, his career seemed to hit the skids.  He put up good numbers his first year there, but not necessarily Griffey-good.  The next several seasons were a litany of one injury after the other.  From 2001 to 2010 he really only had two of what would be considered “good” seasons.  The rest were mediocre at best, in some cases a disaster, none approaching his former greatness.  Meanwhile, as he was fading and seemingly aging at an unnatural pace, many of his contemporaries appeared to have found the Fountain of Youth…and Muscles.  They were putting up monstrous and unheard of numbers.  Players who would would’ve been considered Griffey’s near-equals rocketed past him in production and those who would not have previously been mentioned in the same breath with him as far was talent was concerned, were also now eclipsing the numbers of even his greatest seasons.

Of course now we know why.  While Griffey was appearing to age unnaturally, he was in fact doing the exact opposite.  It was all the rest who were unnatural.  When Griffey began to break down in his mid-30’s as players had for generations, at similar ages the Sosas and Bonds’ and Palmeiros of the world were playing like their hyped up video game avatars.

Can anyone other than Ken Griffey, Jr. ever truly know or prove that Ken Griffey, Jr. never did any performance enhancing drugs?  No.  But we can sure look at the evidence and make a pretty good guess.  His name has never been whispered, mentioned, shouted, or intimated to have been involved with PEDs.  Did his body change as he got older?  It sure did…a little rounder around the middle.

That is Griffey’s true legacy.  It’s amazing that we still ask the What If question for a guy that hit 630 home runs.  That is, I think, a result of a combination of the otherworldly expectations we all had for him and us still adjusting to the game that is (somewhat) post-PEDs.  We’re still re-acclimating ourselves to the fact that it is more unusual than not for someone to hit 50 home runs in a season.  But I think as years pass and we look back at Griffey’s career and the context in which he played, that 630 number will become even more impressive.  In an era of drug assisted video game statistics, Griffey’s were just as gaudy, but the only assist he needed was that sweet swing.

Here’s a pretty good highlight video.

World Series Preveiw 2009!!

Disclaimer:  I wrote most of this before Game 1 actually started.  Honest.

So here we are on the cusp of another World Series and with it another disappointing display by my beloved Angels in the playoffs against a Beast from the East.  Sure we may have broken out the broom on the much despise-ed Red Sox and avenged the suicide (literally) bunt-that-wasn’t from last year—and trust me, it fell really good…since, you know, I had so much to do with it—but once again the brains had their hearts set on an early winter vacation and costly blunders cost us a shot at the pennant.  Sigh.  But enough about me.

In this, my 7th Annual Monster World Series Breakdown we’ll take a look at two powerhouses and break it down position by position to see who has biggest hypodermic needle.  And it’s the Yankees by a syringe!  Ok, that was a low blow…even if it is true.  Enough already.  As Flight of the Conchords would say It’s Business Time!  You know how I know that?  Because it’s Wednesday.

Catchers – This one really isn’t close.  The Yankees will run Jorge Posada out there most days, with the possible exception of when A.J. Burnett starts, when Jose Molina will be the receiver. Posada is an old hand at this postseason stuff and is a good hitter besides.  Not much of a catch and throw guy, but then again he does resemble Templeton the rat from the old Charlotte’s Web cartoon.  Google it.  You won’t be disappointed.

For the Phils it will be Carlos Ruiz.  Exactly.

Edge – Yanks

1st Base – Here’s where it gets interesting.  Both squads are fielding superstar 1st basemen; Mark Teixera for the Yankees and Ryan Howard for the Phillies.  Their regular season stats are pretty much a wash.  Howard may be slightly more powerful, Teixera makes better consistent contact.  In the postseason however, Howard has been a beast, while Teixera has been mostly toothless, save for the 11th inning HR to beat the Twins in the ALDS.  However, Teixera was a wizard with the glove in the ALCS.  And while I’m pretty sure wizardry counts as an illegal performance enhancer, no one seems willing to call him on it.  Bottom line, both of these guys are studs and therefore cancel each other out…but Teixera did spurn the Angels in the offseason….

Edge – Phillies

2nd Base – As much as I hate to say it, Robison Cano is really good.  He looks like he doesn’t care, doesn’t move particularly quickly, and is prone to the occasional mental lapse, but he puts up huge second base numbers and turns the DP just about better than everyone.  But, Philly’s guy is pretty good to.  Maybe you’ve heard of him, Chase Utley?  Also monster numbers, but more of a middle of the order presence than Cano.  For that and his highfalutin country club type name, Chase Cameron Utley gets the nod.

Edge – Phillies

3rd Base – Pedro Feliz is about as ordinary as a player can get, but a mere four weeks ago would it have been so absurd to give the Edge to the Phillies at this spot?  In his previous three trips to the playoffs with the Yankees that mirror-kissing-Madonna/Kate Hudson-dating-steroid-injecting loosey goosey Alex Rodriguez had 44 at-bats with exactly one home run and one RBI.  Mr. Steinbrenner and son weren’t exactly getting their money’s worth.  Now?  Yeeeeeeeeaaah.  Sorry Mr. Happy.  You are officially a very distant second.

Edge – Yanks

SS – Jimmy Rollins is only two years removed from an MVP season, but doesn’t it seem like a long time ago?  He salvaged a dismal season with a decent second half this year, but doesn’t seem to be the player he once was.  Not to mention he hasn’t done much of anything in the postseason, his game-winning double off Broxton not withstanding.  Maybe he needs to bring back the corn rows.

On the flip side, Derek Jeter had something of a comeback year.  The previous two years saw declines in power and speed and according to everyone who is supposed to know this kind of stuff, he was not long for the shortstop position.  But 2009 proved to disprove those who disapproved of his skills.  Plus as much as I loathe the Yankees, and I do loathe them, there’s something about Jeter and the way he plays that makes you grit your teeth and say, “You know?  That Jeter guy is pretty decent.”  I hate him.

Edge – Yanks

Left Field – When will Johnny Damon just go away?  Every time you think he’s done, he comes back.  He’s like a little gnat that keeps flying into the corner of your eye while you’re driving.  You swat and swat and think it’s gone just when you relax and let out a sigh of relief it flies into your mouth.  That’s Johnny Damon.  A bug that flies into your mouth while you’re driving. Do you realize he tied a career high in home runs this year?!  At least when he had the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer look going it gave us something to distract from his awkward playing style.  Oh, and I’m disturbed to learn that we share the same birthday.  Terrific.

The Phillies will start Raul “I’m the best player you’ve never heard of” Ibanez.  Go look at his stats for the past four seasons.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Crazy right?  It’s about time he got some respect.

Edge – Phillies

Right Field – Nick “I’m the worst player you thought was good” Swisher.  Mr. Moneyball himself.  I’m sure someone thinks it’s pretty cool to walk and strike out 100 times in the same season on a regular basis while batting around .240, but not me.  Never liked him, never will.

For the Phillies it’s another member of the “best player you’ve never heard of” club, Jayson Werth.  The guy is ridiculous.  Why wasn’t he a regular before last year?  Late bloomer?  Late doper?  Whatever the case, this guy is legit.  Too legit.  Too legit to quit.  Hey.  Hey.

Edge – Phillies

Center Field – If I see Melky Cabrera do that karate chop thing he does after getting a big hit again, I’m going to leap through my TV and punch him in the stomach as hard as I can.  You can’t do things like that Melky!  Only good players can!  You’re name is Melky!!!!

For Shane Victorino I reprise what I said last year because I like it so much:  Shane Victorino’s name sounds like a WWII-era patriotic Chef Boyardee product.  “Show Hitler he can’t keep America down by eating your Victorino, now with more MSG!”

Edge – Even

Starting Pitching – Fun factoid, not only will Game 1 feature the last two Cy Young award winners, but they were teammates just last year.  That can’t have happened before.  Both Cliff Lee (Cy Young 2008) and C.C. Sabathia (Cy Young 2007) are horses (in Sabathia’s case almost literally).  Both struggled early in the year but ended up with solid seasons, especially Lee after he was traded to the Phillies midseason where he dominated all that AAAA had to offer.

The rest of the Philadelphia starting staff is a high risk/high reward group.  Pedro Martinez has seemingly revived his career (and jeri curl) in recent months, Cole Hammels was brilliant last postseason, Blanton is serviceable, and Happ has the tools but is inexperienced, if they decide to use him as a starter.  They have the potential to be exceptional or a massive train wreck.  Just what you want in a starting staff.  Personally, I like their chances.  Especially if Don Zimmer makes an appearance.  We know Pedro has no qualms about beating up octogenarians.

After CC the Yankees are also full of questions.  AJ Burnett wasn’t stellar, but wasn’t terrible all year, and always has the potential to be overpowering.  Pettite is about a seasoned a postseason pitcher as you could hope for and still has enough left in the tank physically to go with all that veteran savvy.  After that, if they go with a fourth starter, it’ll be the always dangerous Chad Gaudin.  And by that I mean dangerous to the Yankees.  Very very dangerous.

Edge – Phillies (by a Pedro jeri curl)

Bullpens – The bullpen was supposed to be a major asset for the Yankees going into the ALCS but had some struggles against the Angels.  Joe Girardi’s incessant (and wonderful, from where I sat) micromanaging is partially to blame, but Hughes, Coke, and Joba certainly didn’t instill a lot of confidence.  Of course, their ace in the hole is Mariano Rivera, who has 968 career postseason saves and an ERA of -0.92.  I don’t know how that’s possible, but that shows just how good he is.  The guy has one pitch and yet completely dominant.  It’s the definition of insanity:  continually doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  Maybe he’s not expecting a different result, but I AM!!!!

The Phillies bullpen was slightly above league average during the regular season, and has been very good in the postseason.  But how long can that last with Brad Lidge as closer?  After being perfect in save opportunities last years, Lidge has been horrendous in 2009, blowing 11 saves and posting an ERA over 7.  7!!!  How he kept his job is anyone’s guess, but it may have something to do with no better options.  Yikes.

Edge – Yankees

Benches – For all their cash and willingness to spend it, the Yankees have a shockingly thin bench.  Look at these world beaters:  Brett Gardener, Jerry Hairston, Eric Hinske, and Jose Molina, who may actually START when Burnett pitches.  They do fill roles I suppose, and they’ll have Hideki Matsui to pinch hit in Philly where there is no DH, but none of those guys scares me.

Philly at least has a couple guys that can hit the ball over the fence with some consistency in Matt Stairs and Ben Francisco.  Francisco…FrrranCISco.  That’s a fun name to say….FranCISco.

Edge – Phillies

Manager – Joe Girardi is already on Yankee fans’ nerves with the aforementioned micromanaging, but as long as he stays away from those binders in the dugout he should be OK.  However, after the Yanks missed the playoffs for the first time since 1995 last year with him at the helm and after the Steinbrenners dropped nearly a half BILLION dollars to bring in Sabathia, Teixera, and Burnett, I suspect he’s feeling a little pressure.  If it gets to him and he starts trying to pull all the right strings it could go badly.  And I’m OK with that.

On the other bench you have Charlie Manual, who sounds like a hillbilly who just wandered out of the Ozarks or something.  You wouldn’t think it to look at him, but the guy must be one heck of a manager.  His players love him, and he seems to push the right buttons.  And he looks a little slimmer than last year.  Don’t count out the new self-confidence that comes with weight loss.

Edge – Phillies

Mojo – As much as I hate to say it, the Yankees are freaking good.  They’ve got the big names that are actually living up to their billing and are oozing confidence.  But, if there was one team from the National League that could match them nearly punch for punch, it’s the Phillies.  Other than 3B there isn’t a weak spot in their lineup and they’re pitching has all the pieces if they can figure out how they all fit.  The Phillies have had an easier time of it in the postseason thus far (a few bounces and breaks go the other way in the ALCS and the Yanks could’ve been the ones facing a 3-2 deficit in Game 6) and I, Andy Bauer, predictor without equal think the Philadelphia Phillies have what it takes to be the first repeat World Champs since…the New York Yankees.

My pick – Phillies in 6

Baseball & Frailty

I’ve often said that other than the things that actually matter in life, baseball is my favorite thing in the world.  Occasionally, those things that matter will collide with baseball in a startling way.  Today is one of those times.  Last night I watched Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart make only his fourth career big league start, allowing no runs and striking out five over six innings, only to have the bullpen cough it up in the ninth inning.  This morning on a break at work, I went on the Internet and discovered that Nick Adenhart is dead.  After the game his car was struck by a hit-and-run driver, slamming it into a light post.  He died in surgery about six o’clock this morning.

People die, and die tragically, everyday.  Open the newspaper, watch TV, or surf the web and you’ll see and hear stories about people killed in car accidents, drive by shootings, in wars, disease, or one of any other of endless possibilities.  In just the last couple months we’ve seen stories of police officers gunned down in the line of duty and a group of immigrants murdered while taking a citizenship test.  All unexpected, all tragic.  Nick Adenhart being a professional baseball player doesn’t make his death any more or any less tragic than these others, but perhaps because we often see professional athletes as being at least physically impervious to the pitfalls of this world, it makes a big impact.  Here he was, 22 years old, his whole life and career ahead of him with seemingly nothing to stand in his way to success and fortune.  Now its all gone.  In the case of those police officers in Oakland and Pittsburgh, while we don’t expect our cities finest to be gunned down in the street on a weekly basis, we know that its a dangerous job and that they knew that when they signed up, so while we don’t, and shouldn’t, accept it maybe it doesn’t seem quite as inconceivable.  In a professional athlete we see an insular life of privilege and wealth, not often found amongst the ranks of law enforcement officers.  But now we are reminded–because we already knew it in the back of our minds–that all the money and privilege in the world can’t insulate anyone totally from the travails of life.

And so we’re left to wonder, why?  Why are those whose futures appear so bright taken from us by those who, at the same age, already have DUI convictions on their record and a suspended license?  It isn’t fair.  But we know life isn’t fair, don’t we?  If it was, would a perfect Man have to have died to pay for the crimes of you and me?  This life is frail.  It can seem sturdy and well constructed on the outside, but the frame and foundation may be crumbling and we don’t even know it and it could come to a crashing end at anytime.  The only certainty is Christ.  Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”  All the money in the world can’t guarantee you a thing, but once Christ is in your corner there’s no losing.  No more bullpen to blow a solid start.  He’ll be with you all the way.  If he’s not in your corner yet, don’t hesitate.  I hope Nick Adenhart didn’t.

Ando’s Superfrantasticamazinglyaccurate 2008 World Series Preview

          VS.         

After the Angels were ingloriously eliminated from the playoffs by the Red Sox (again!) I thought I wouldn’t do a World Series preview this year.  Besides being just too painful, my previews always end up being only slightly shorter than the United Nations Charter and only slightly less boring for the reader.  If it had turned out to be a Dodgers vs. Red Sox series, the Manny Returns To Boston hype would have caused me to clean out my ears with an ice pick and I would’ve been unable to write because I would’ve be dead, and happily so.  But fortunately for my wife and child and unfortunately for you, I am alive and well thanks to a Tampa Bay Rays vs. Philadelphia Phillies World Series match up.

There’s no doubt this is not the pairing the TV execs were hoping for, rating only slightly above a Milwaukee/Tampa series in cash reaping potential, or lack there of, but I for one am glad to see some new faces.  It may not be the sexy matchup that will draw in the casual fan, but for us hardcore seamheads it should be a fun series.  The out-of-nowhere Rays, who had never had a winning season in their eleven year history and feature some of the best young, up and coming talent in the league, against a Phillies team who have, frankly, underachieved in recent years, but have finally gotten over the hump.  They’ll trot out a lineup that features probably the games best slugging infield.  Let’s break it down, yo!

Catchers-

The Phillies’ backstop is Carlos Ruiz and while he didn’t hit at all in the regular season (.219 BA, 4 homers) he is at least consistent, continuing his batting futility in the postseason (.200 BA, 1 RBI).  He must be good defensively.  Right?  Where’s Mike Lieberthal!

Meanwhile, the Rays will counter with 2008 All-Star Dioner Navarro, who is a better hitter than Ruiz by a fair margin and, having actually seen him play a little, is a solid receiver.  Look no further than the success of the Rays’ very young pitching staff this year for evidence of that.

Edge – Rays

1st Base-

The first sackers for both teams are all-or-nothing type lefty sluggers.  This year the Rays’ Carlos Pena and the Phils’ Ryan Howard combined for 79 home runs and 265 strike outs andboth sported a batting average around .250.  Both are dangerous to the oppositions pitchers, particularly Howard who was one of only two major leaguers to top 40 bombs this year and led the Bigs in RBI.  But his greatest strength has to be his sweet half-beard.  Crocket would be proud.  Oh, whoops, that’s the wrong Ryan Howard.  Pena is better with the glove, but people don’t care so much about your defense if you can smack a baseball a country mile like Howard can.

Edge – Phillies

2nd Base-

Japanese import Akinori Iwamuraplays a pretty good second base, but for a guy who only hit six home runs all season he strikes out waaaaaaaay too much.  One hundred and thirty one times in 2008.  Yikes.  On the plus side, I’m sure he loves his mother.

On the other hand, the Phillies’ Chase Utleyis probably the best second basemen in the majors.  He hits for power and average andplays solid D.  He had a pretty rough second half of the season and hasn’t done much in the postseason yet, but that just means he’s due, right?  Isn’t that how its supposed to go?

Edge – Phils

3rd Base-

At the hot corner the Rays sans Devil will run out one of the next generations best players.  Rookie wunderkind Evan Longoria (that’s Evan with an N, not Tony Parker’s wife) is already becoming one of the best players in the league.  He hit 27 home runs and drove in 85 despite having fewer than 500 at-bats and, oh by the way, he already has six home runs this postseason.  On top of all that he’s also extremely good looking.  Yeah, I said it.

From the City of Brotherly love will be Peter July Happy, or as his name translates in Spanish, Pedro Julio Feliz.  A former Giant and constant frustration to Bay Area fans, Senor Happy is slick with the glove and sloppy with the bat.  He’s got a little pop, but is a sucker for a breaking ball low and away and has killed more rallies than tear gas with his flailing.  Look for Gregg Dobbs, the Bizzaro Feliz, to get some AB’s.  He’s lousy with the glove, but has been on fire at the plate this offseason, batting a scorching .545.

Edge – Rays

SS-

Jimmy Rollins didn’t have near the season in 2008 that he did in 2007, but is still a very good player who can cause havoc on the basepaths.  An Oakland native and former wearer of dreadlocks, he, like most of the other big guns in Philladelphia’s lineup, hasn’t really gotten hot yet which does not bode well for the Rays.  If Rollins, Utley, and Howard all hit their stride at once, this will be a very tough go for even the Rays’ talented pitching staff.

Speaking of the Ray’s talented pitching staff, they’ve been helped out all season by the shortstop play of Jason Bartlett, so much so that manager Joe Maddon calls Bartlett his most important player.  Now, we all know that Bartlett must have been in the room when Maddon said that and he was just trying to boost his confidence because how can a guy who bats .286 with one home run all season really be your most important player when you’ve got guys like Longoria and B.J. Upton on the team?  But good for Maddon, looking out of the little guys on his team.  That’s managing.  Seriously though, Bartlett is a pretty solid glove, though he made a couple errors in the Red Sox series.

Edge – Phils

Left Field-

The left field pairing is a study in contrasts:  one is fast, one is slow, one hits bombs, one hits singles, one bats left, one bats right, one is black, one it white.  I could go on, but I won’t.  While the Rays’ Carl Crawford–the longest tenured Ray–does his damage on the basepaths, Philadelphia’s Pat Burrelldoes his best work trotting around them.  They’ve both been hitting well in the postseason so far…so…there you go. 

Edge – Push

Center Field-

First things first, how do you end up with B.J. as a nickname when your given name is Melvin Emmanuel?  Answer:  your name is Melvin Emmanuel.  Anyway, after Longoria, maybe even before, Upton has the brightest future of all the Rays.  He only hit nine homers in 2008, but has almost equalled that total in the postseason already with seven, just one shy of the single postseason record.  And unlike a certain Bay Area left fielder and holder of said record, Upton is doing it clean.  At least presumably so, thanks to the crusading Bud Selig, dogged pursuer of truth and justice and noble custodian of our sacred national game and instituter of an infallible drug testing program.  Upton hit 24 homers in 2007, so the power surge shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, but it is impressive.  Plus he’s really fast.

Upton’s counter-part is speedster Shane Victorino, whose last name sounds like a WWII-era patriotic Chef Boyardee product.  “Show Hitler he can’t keep America down by eating your Victorino, now with more MSG!”  Victorino is playing well right now, and will be a key ingredient to the Phillies’ success.  A delicious, pasta-inspired ingredient.

Edge – Rays

Right Field-

Jayson Werth, whose parents apparently couldn’t spell either his first or their last name correctly, patrols right field for the Phils and has been a nice surprise for them and my fantasy team.  He started the season in a platoon with Geoff Jenkins, but tension soon developed between the two and Werthshot Jenkins in the jungle when no one was around.  Wait, I’m sorry that was Platoonnot platoon.  What actually happened is that Geoff Jenkins sucks so Werth got most of the starts and performed very well.  In fact, I think its safe to say he’s werth his weight in gold.  You all have permission to email me crippling computer viruses.

The Rays will counter with a platoon of their own “featuring” a combination of Rocco Baldelli, Gabe Gross, and Fernando Perez.  So far in the postseason that trio is batting a combined .103.  They are worth their weight in poop.  Maybe.

Edge – Phils

Starting Pitching-

I’ve already mentioned the Rays’ young and talented pitching staff several times, but I have to do it again.  Because this is the pitching section of the preview.  All season these guys pitched very well and have carried that over to the playoffs for the most part.  Maddon has gone with Scott Kazmir, James, Shields, Andy Sonnanstine and Matt Garza–who was brilliant in Game 7 of the ALCS–as his four playoff horses and they’ve all performed well.  With a young staff you always worry that they might implode if they get into trouble, but so far so good for the Rays.

The Phillies have a legit ace in Cole Hammels, whose change up is among the best in the league.  He’s been as advertised in the postseason, posting a 1.23 ERA and 0.86 WHIP thus far.  Unfortunately he can’t pitch every game and after him things get a little dicey.  Everyone loves Jamie Moyer and the fact that he’s been able to pitch so well this far into his 70’s, but the fact is he’s the softest of all soft-tossers and in the playoffs you want guys that can miss bats.  The only way Moyer is going to miss anyones bat is if he throws the ball into centerfield instead of to the plate.  He’s been beat up all ready this postseaon with a 13.50(!) ERA in two starts which he only went 5.1 innings combined.  Not so good.  The other starters, Joe Blanton and Brett Myers, have fared better, but in Myers’ case not by much.  One of these guys has to step up behind Hamels or things could get ugly real quick.  The one other plus is that Moyer and Hamels are lefties and the Rays have struggled against lefties all season (though they did do a number on Jon Lester at least once).

Edge – Rays

Bullpen-

And speaking of lefties, that’s a strength for the Phillies.  They have three lefties that can come out of the pen, though only one is really reliable.  But in the right situations those other guys will come in handy, like some No-Doz when trying to read this post.  The other relievers leading up to the closer are all pretty decent with Ryan Madson being the best.  Brad Lidge, the closer, was perfect in save opportunities in the regular season, 41 of 41, and strikes out roughly seven batters an inning.  How is that possible?  I don’t know, the guy just gets it done.  He has five playoff saves already and as long as Albert Pujols doesn’t somehow end up on the Rays’ roster, he should continue to dominate.

The Rays’ pen was very good for most of the season, but broke down towards the end.  Closer Troy Percival went down with old-itis late in the year and has not appeared in the postseason.  He could end up on the World Series roster, but despite his championship pedigree (with the 2002 Angels, just in case you forgot) there’s no guarantee he’ll be effective.  Two other top dogs in the pen, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler have struggled recently, but rookie David Price has emerged as a force and is looking for some rookie playoff magic a la Frankie Rodriguez (also in 2002).  I expect to see him late in close games.  They also have sidewinding Jackson, Mississippi native Chadwick Lee Bradford who came to the Rays just after fighting in the Battle of Vicksburg in the Civil War.  During the fight he received a battlefield commission as a major in the Confederate army.

Edge – Philles, due to Lidge

Bench-

The benches are pretty evenly matched, both having guys that can run and guys that can hit a ball out of the park when it counts (see Matt Stairs and Willy Aybar).  Presumably Aybar will DH for the Rays at home and probably either Stairs or Dobbs for the Phillies.  But these are bench players and thereby less interesting than starters.  Lets not dwell on them anymore.

Edge – Push

Manager-

I’ll admit that I’m partial to the Rays’ Joe Maddon because he was a coach for the Angels for years, has clearly changed the losing culture in the Tampa Bay clubhouse, wears uber-cool dark-rimmed glasses, and once used the word “amorphic” to describe an umpires strike zone.  Plus he has this pollup on the left side of his neck which looks absolutely stunning in HD.  But I won’t count out Charlie Manuel.  The guys been aroundforever, had great success with Cleveland back in the day, and is doing all this with a heavy heart, his mom having died about a week ago.  Don’t discount the “Let’s do it for Charlie” vibe the Phillies might be riding.  That can be a powerful thing.

Edge – Rays, by a pollup

Mojo-

I’m throwing this one out there because the Rays just feel like That Team.  They’re the underdogs, the worst-to-first crew.  They’re young and exciting and appear to actually be having fun.  Not that the Phillies aren’t, but they don’t have that same aura right now.  But that could all change.  Look at the Rockies last year.  Red hot coming in and got absolutely spanked.  Still, I like any team that can take a division from the Red Sox and Yankees, beat the Sox in the playoffs, fairly handily despite the seven games, and has every member, manager included, sporting a mohawk.  Plus, don’t think its a coincidence that the year they drop “Devil” from their name is the year they just happen to get good.  Hmmmmmm.

My Pick:  Rays in 6