Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Resurgent Rangers Could Really Surprise

Last year, in a rather unspectacular display of punditry, I predicted the Texas Rangers, freshly endowed with Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, would win 100 games. Of course, they crashed and burned in an unprecedented blaze of injury, securing just 67 victories and being so bad as to net the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft. 

Accordingly, this year, I dramatically altered my perception of Texas, picking them to once again finish in the cellar, especially after Yu Darvish and Jurickson Profar were lost to long-term injuries.

Therefore, through the first forty-five games of the 2015 season, one could argue that both viewpoints have been satisfied. On the one hand, Texas produced a truly awful start, with a 7-14 record in April affirming my suspicions that some kind of hangover would be felt. But, more recently, they've shown signs of morphing into the juggernaut I once envisaged, with a resurgent offence exploding into life and leading the Rangers to consistent success.
Prince Fielder, hub of the resurgent Rangers.
Now, with a steady string of reinforcements on the way, Texas figures to continue improving, to the point where the team may ultimately fly under the radar right into the heart of a complex American League playoff race.

Right now, the Rangers are the hottest team in baseball, having won six consecutive games, including a sensational sweep of the Yankees in New York during the Memorial Day weekend. Texas also took a series from the Red Sox last week, before thumping the Bronx Bombers by a combined score of 30-15 in a three-game set. The Rangers also outhit the Yankees 40-25, then proceeded to beat the Indians 10-8 on Monday, improving their overall record to 22-23, just three-and-a-half games out of the second wildcard spot.

Undoubtedly, an offensive outburst is fuelling the Texas revival. Over their last ten games, the Rangers are averaging 10 hits, 6 runs, and 2 home runs per contest. Just a fortnight ago, Texas looked doomed, with Choo slumping badly and apathy setting in. Now, they've soared into contention, and, in the month of May, led all of baseball in runs scored, home runs, total bases, slugging percentage and OPS. After much struggle and worry, this team is finally a force to be reckoned with.

Quite frankly, it all begins with Fielder. As Reggie Jackson would say, he's the "straw that stirs the drink." Prince is the catalyst, the instigator, the menacing superstar on whom the Rangers rely for production. I always thought he would succeed in Texas, where the ballpark fits the profile of his swing beautifully. Now, for the first time as a Ranger, Prince is back to full health and back to his irrepressible best, hitting .365 with 9 home runs, 33 RBI and 66 hits without missing a game thus far. Fielder also has 22 multi-hit games, and 10 multi-RBI games, including his last four, during which he hit .550 and slugged 1.250. 

Ultimately, Prince is having an MVP-calibre season and, slowly but surely, his performance is proving contagious. Adrian Beltre endured a slow start but is quietly rounding into form; Delino DeShields, a Rule 5 pick, is finally fulfilling his potential as a blazing spark plug atop the batting order; and even Choo, often derided following a poor start to his Texas tenure, has shown signs of life in recent weeks. Moreover, Elvis Andrus has improved of late, with 11 RBI in May, while Josh Hamilton, re-acquired from Anaheim at almost no financial cost, will likely provide some pop following a very strong rehab assignment.

Thus, rookie manager Jeff Banister finally has plenty of options, and plenty of hope. I was very impressed by his dignified approach early in the season, when positive results were not forthcoming. Where many others would've become discouraged or panicked, Banister remained stoic and confident. He believed in his players, and he believed in the process. Now, his Rangers are rounding into form, and raising eyebrows across the league.
Jeff Banister, a manager with hope.
Essentially, this recent winning streak has told us a lot about where Texas is as a team. To rattle off six consecutive wins, including two at Fenway Park, three at Yankee Stadium, and the series opener in Cleveland, is mightily impressive. That kind of run is typically only authored by teams of tremendous character, teams of terrific leadership, and teams heading to the postseason. 

Obviously, there is still plenty of work to be done. Texas remains six-and-a-half games behind the surging Houston Astros, and the team's pitching, led by Yovani Gallardo, has been fairly mediocre. But by mid-summer, the team should have several pitchers back from injury, and the Rangers think tank, spearheaded by Jon Daniels, has always been highly creative in searching for ways to improve the roster. Accordingly, one wonders whether Texas may once again become 'buyers' at the trade deadline, in the hope of making another run at October.

Such a decision will, to a large extent, depend on how this team plays over the next four to six weeks. If Banister and Fielder can keep the Rangers ticking along, perhaps a handful of games adrift of a playoff berth, at the end of June, then Texas could become a major player at the deadline. However, even if they regress to the mean in the coming days and weeks, at least this recent winning streak has entertained and energised Rangers fans, who've endured plenty of hardship in the past eighteen months. 

It's been a wonderful stretch of winning baseball which, at the very least, has enlightened what was becoming a pretty gloomy outlook in Texas. For that, Rangers fans must be incredibly grateful.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Absurd Allure of Miami Marlins Baseball

Marlins Park, a monument to absurdity.
There is something morbidly fascinating about the Miami Marlins, baseball's strangest and most anarchic team. 

They play in a cavernous, lurid stadium with no baseball tradition; wear loud, unconventional uniforms that assault your eyeballs; and possess, in Jeffrey Loria, a controversial owner who is often one phone call away from blowing up the entire operation. 

But, strangely, there is a buzz and vibrancy to Marlins baseball quite unlike anything I've ever encountered; an overwhelming sense of happening which makes it impossible to switch off their games. More often than not, you'll feel almost guilty for watching such a capricious and soulless team, but there's nothing you can do. The Marlins, for better or worse, are must-watch TV, because wonderment and bewilderment are guaranteed in equal measure.

The team often resembles an elaborate circus more than a baseball club, but when, for instance, Giancarlo Stanton, the hulking franchise icon, steps to the plate, there's an implacable drama and an irresistible entertainment factor which, I'm rather ashamed to admit, excites us. 

Deep down, we know rooting for the Marlins is sacrilege, because they're just so un-baseball-like, but, aside from the tiresome gimmicks, it's impossible not to admire their play. How can any baseball fan not love watching Stanton, the ultimate freak of nature, or Jose Fernandez, an electric pitching prodigy? How can we not be excited by Dee Gordon, that scampering ball of raw dynamism, or Christian Yelich, a fine young outfielder with a princely air? 

The Marlins' exciting core.
There is a definitive energy and vitality to everything this team does, which gives it that most rare of qualities in baseball: a truly infectious personality. At the bottom line, this team is fun to watch, because you truly never know what is coming next. 

For instance, last week, Stanton joined an exclusive pantheon by hitting a ball entirely out of storied Dodger Stadium. Then, a few days later, he hit one even further back home at Marlins Park, giving him three homers of at least 465 feet in the space of five days. Quite frankly, I try to catch every Stanton plate appearance, because each time he steps into the box, there's a chance we'll witness some kind of obscene, previously unseen feat of brilliance.

Giancarlo has the most expensive contract in the history of North American sports, which, undersigned by such an impulsive owner, makes for a fascinating sideshow in itself. Moreover, assuming good health, the 25-year old slugger has a legitimate shot at 500 or 600 home runs before his career is finished, so there's a realistic sense of watching history in the making.

However, there's always a caveat with the Marlins, always some kind of restriction on hope. On a surface level, I enjoy watching their games. But, deeper, I know it's essentially pointless to invest anything stronger than distant interest in the team, because, sooner or later, Loria will grow impatient and knock it all down. Right now, the Marlins have assembled a legitimately great young core which, I believe, has a World Series championship in its future. Yet, all those years of development and building are constantly in jeopardy, due to the owners' thorough petulance.

Jeffrey Loria, a misguided owner.
We saw it in 1997, when Loria presided over one of the cruellest, most devastating fire sales in baseball history, totally destroying a championship club; and we saw it in 2012, when a host of marquee free agents were signed to seduce fans into buying season tickets at the new ballpark, only to be traded before the ink dried on their contracts. Hell, we even saw it this weekend, when Mike Redmond, a well-respected manager who steered Miami to a 15-win improvement last season, was unceremoniously fired and replaced by Dan Jennings, the team's General Manager, whose only coaching experience came three decades ago on a college team!

This is the septic and unstable environment in which the Miami Marlins operate, and it's a crying shame. It's sad that Stanton, the leading power hitter of his generation, looks set to play the majority of his career in the baseball abyss. It's discouraging that Fernandez and Gordon, two sensational young heroes, are tucked away in that hideous stadium, playing before 20,000 empty seats each night. It's galling that such a galaxy of stars is controlled by Loria, who, by design or complete myopia, makes it practically impossible for them to succeed.

Since forming in 1993, the Marlins have made the postseason only twice, but, on both occasions, they somehow managed to win the World Series. Therefore, despite being almost a century younger than some rival teams, Miami has won just as many championships as the Mets, Indians, Phillies, and Cubs. Moreover, they've enjoyed such young superstars as Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez and, of course, the current crop. But, again, even this is tinged with pathos. Just imagine what the Marlins could have been, and what they could have achieved, if the meddlesome owner didn't have a maniacal need to interfere; if, for once, the team could luxuriate in managerial and philosophical continuity.

I've enjoyed the Marlins start to this season, with a lively and appealing brand of baseball making for terrific entertainment. I even began to consider the team possibly venturing back to the postseason for the first time in twelve years. But, then, Loria got mad, and it reminded me anew why, essentially, Miami baseball is a tragic tale destined for eternal damnation. By making such a ludicrous appointment of manager, the owner has basically killed off another season of Marlins hope, wasted another season for a core of tremendous players, and found yet another way to transform his team into the foremost laughingstock in baseball. 

It's the same old story. 

It's why nobody will ever take the Marlins seriously.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

How the Houston Astros Lost their Identity

The Astros' 20-12 start to the season has surprised the baseball world, and enabled a whole new generation to experience the unadulterated thrill of winning Houston baseball. But, for older, more experienced fans, this latest renaissance is more than a little disconcerting, for it reveals the extent to which we simply no longer recognise this team.

The logo, once iconic, has been transformed into a cheap and nasty mess; the ballpark, once coursing to the vibrant beat of the summer game, now resembles a soulless mall; and the players, once destined for repeated success, now seem as surprised as everybody else that they're even above .500.

Of course, the Astros are baseball's foremost chameleon, seemingly rebranding every couple of seasons. In its 53-year history, the team has had two different names, six different logos, and played at three different stadiums. Moreover, the Astros have changed uniforms with peculiar regularity, and even recently switched from the National to the American League.

Accordingly, unlike the Yankees' record of perpetual success, or the Cubs' identity of consistent ineptitude, the Houston Astros represent entirely different things to entirely different people, largely dependent on age and era. For instance, to the grandfathers amongst us, the word Astros will always conjure images of Rusty Staub and Joe Morgan screeching around the monolithic Astrodome, while, to the fathers, this team will always be synonymous with Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz, and lurid jerseys of yellow and orange. 

Pettitte and Clemens, Astro Aces.
The Astros I grew up watching in the new millennium were an incredibly exciting, entertaining and almost mystical team. They had the irrepressible Lance Berkman, the pesky Craig Biggio, and the classy Jeff Bagwell. They had an enchanting starting rotation, headlined by Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt. They had a shutdown closer in Brad Lidge, and, in unheralded stars like Brad Ausmus, Morgan Ensberg, and Adam Everett, a dominant veteran core. It was a pleasure to watch that incarnation.

And watch I did. The 2005 World Series, which pitted the Astros against the Chicago White Sox, was the first one I watched in enrapt concentration. To hell with school in the morning, I was staying up through the British night to soak in this most wonderfully beguiling spectacle. I couldn't get enough of baseball after watching that Series and, though the Sox eventually swept it, that Astros team, and that Astros era, will always have a special place in my heart. I will never forget those magical childhood nights watching baseball on my small bedroom TV, live from a cacophonous Minute Maid Park, which made my heart flutter with all its immense eccentricity. Such memories are priceless.

Therefore, what happened to the Astros in subsequent years was deeply saddening. As Bagwell and Biggio retired, and Clemens and Pettitte returned to the Bronx, the heart of Houston baseball began to splinter. However, ownership was famously afraid of embarking on a full-scale rebuild, electing instead to sign costly and ill-conceived free agents in the hope of catching a lucky break and prolonging the team's window of contention. However, in a practical, long-term sense, this strategy served only to deprive Houston of first-round draft picks and, ultimately, drained the organisation of sustainable young talent. Accordingly, by 2010, the bottom had fallen out, with the 'Stros finishing below .500 for the second successive season.

Things got a whole lot worse before they began to get better. As Houston proceeded to lose at a historically bad rate, the few remaining relics of those bygone glory days were traded away. Berkman became a Yankee. Oswalt and Hunter Pence went to the Phillies. Michael Bourn was dealt to the Braves. In 2011, the Astros lost 106 games, a franchise record. Unfortunately, that record would be broken in each of the next two seasons, as Houston lost 107 and 111, respectively.

By this time, the team had a new owner, in local businessman Jim Crane, who agreed to move the team from the National League Central to the American League West beginning in 2013. That year, the Astros also underwent a total rebrand, with the introduction of a classless new logo and a fairly banal array of uniforms, meant to speak to the team's original design. Meanwhile, attendance slipped to just 1.6 million, down almost 1.2 million from the team's lone pennant-winning season.

The new, and decidedly uninspiring, uniforms.
In my eyes, the Astros ceased being the Astros when they changed their identity so harshly. I could understand all the losing to procure young talent for down the road, and I could even tolerate Rick Ankiel getting regular playing time in the outfield. But changing the fundamental appearance, face and culture of the organisation stepped way beyond the mark. 

Sure, the new logo bears a resemblance to the earliest incarnations, but, nowadays, it simply looks outdated and boring. Moreover, there was nothing wrong with the identity so laboriously established throughout the 2000s. Thus, watching the Astros became akin to watching a new expansion team taking residence in one of your favourite stadiums, which, incidentally, has also been marred by a totally misguided paint job that left it dark and gloomy.

You could argue my mawkishness is somewhat misplaced. After all, the original Yankee Stadium has been demolished; Fenway's Green Monster has been transformed into a giant corporate billboard; and Wrigley Field now bears a Jumbotron bigger than Venus. We live in a different age. But, deep down, I can't suppress that nagging disappointment with the Astros. It's just sad that they couldn't appreciate the richness and authenticity of their own identity. It's just a shame that they ripped it all up and regressed to the soulless norm.

Thus, I've found it immensely difficult to climb aboard the Astros bandwagon this year, and likely never will, because no matter how good this swashbuckling team is, and no matter how far they may go, they will never be the Astros I knew as a baseball-obsessed kid, which is a crying shame.