Monday, 26 October 2015

When Fairytales Collide: 2015 World Series Preview

The 111th World Series will begin tomorrow night in Kansas City, as is seemingly the norm in our post-modern baseball age. Twelve months ago, the hometown Royals played host to the mighty San Francisco Giants at Kauffman Stadium, authenticating a new era in our beloved game. Those upstart Royals were excitable, fresh-faced and raw, a radical by-product of fiscal equality in the Major Leagues. They eventually lost to a sagacious foe in seven attritional games, but, a year on, Kansas City seems wiser and hungrier for the experience. Now, the Royals enter their second straight Fall Classic not as sweetheart underdogs, but as slight favourites over the New York Mets, who have inherited the Cinderella role from their Series opponents.

The greatest show on turf. Image credit: Sporting News.
In 2014, Kansas City enjoyed the affection of the baseball-watching world. Their presence in the postseason was novel and refreshing. Their brand of baseball was alive and enthralling. They were fun. Yet, this season, much of that goodwill has eroded, to the point where neutral fans are likely to root against the Royals this time round. Many observers fell out of love with Kansas City as they brawled and sneered their way to another American League pennant, and many believe the innocent swagger of '14 has transformed into an arrogant strut this year.

Accordingly, the Mets will be the darlings of a nation over the next week. There has always been something inherently lovable about New York's “other team,” but those feelings are likely to intensify as the Amazins' participate in their first World Series since 2000.

In many ways, the Mets are similar in composition and character to the 2014 Royals. Terry Collins' team is young, precociously talented and set for a long run of sustainable success. Whether 2015 will be the first jewel in a potential dynasty remains to be seen, but this fascinating team bringing energy to Citi Field should make for an irresistible Series.

So, aside from the banner storylines, what are the actual keys to success on the field in this Fall Classic? Well, if this age of parity has taught us anything, it's that baseball is perhaps more unpredictable now than at any stage in history. From one day to the next, one pitch to the next, we're unable to predict the outcome of Major League Baseball games with anything approaching certainty. Thus, attempting to preview the World Series can be a perilous task these days, but let's give it a whirl.

First Pitch Boiling Point
The most important aspect of this Series, and therefore the most crucial in trying to predict an outcome, may be the Royals' offensive proficiency early in the count, and how the Mets combat that. New York has a superlative rotation of mesmeric young pitchers. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz have ice in their veins and fire in their arms, but, on paper, their collective approach would appear to play right into Kansas City's wheelhouse.

The Moneyball enlightenment placed extreme emphasis on working the count deep and seeing as many pitches as possible to draw walks and wear down opposing starters. However, in our advanced age of specialised bullpens, with more relievers throwing 95-mph or harder than ever before, the incentive for knocking an opposing starter out of the game has been significantly diminished. This year, the Royals have eschewed the old approach of patience in favour of more aggression early in the count, when pitchers are often at their most hittable.

During the regular season, Kansas City ranked 29th of the 30 Major League teams in pitches-seen-per-plate-appearance, while their walk rate was the lowest in all of baseball. However, the Royals ranked 3rd in team batting average, 7th in runs scored, and were the hardest team to strikeout in either league. This speaks to an ultra-aggressive approach early in the count, which, coupled with a tremendous ability to put the ball in play, has fuelled the Royals' success.

In addition to being deadly early in the count, Kansas City is also a phenomenal fastball-hitting team. Indeed, only two teams scored more runs on fastballs than the Royals this year. From a New York perspective, this doesn't bode well, because Met pitchers threw a fastball 61% of the time this season, eighth highest in the Majors. On the surface, it appears that the Royals would have ample opportunity to showcase their greatest strength and deadliest weapon: fastball hitting early in the count.

If we dig a little deeper, those suspicions are confirmed. In his career, Matt Harvey has thrown a first-pitch fastball 63% of the time, and opponents have hit .336 and slugged .565 off of him in those instances. So, basically, when the Royals are most ready to hit, with no balls and no strikes, Matt Harvey is very human. You could even argue he's very vulnerable.

This trend is repeated with Syndergaard, who throws a first-pitch fastball just 38% of the time, but who sees opponents hit .333 and slug an absurd .714 off of those deliveries. Admittedly, Noah has only thrown 247 such pitches at the big league level, which is a less than adequate sample size, but this has to be worrisome for the Mets when mapping a strategy.

Steven Matz also struggles with first-pitch fastballs, allowing a .330 average and .550 slugging percentage, but his sample is even smaller than that of Syndergaard, so we can't read too much into those results. Jacob deGrom, on the other hand, is fairly good at minimising first-pitch fastball damage, with opponents hitting .262 and slugging .410 off of those pitches.

Of course, the Mets will have access to this data. They will know the tendencies of their own pitchers and the strengths of a deceptively potent Royals offence. Therefore, New York may alter its approach and gameplan in a different way, perhaps by throwing more off-speed stuff early in the count to get Kansas City off-balance at the plate. And once Met pitchers have indecision in their opponents, they're truly deadly, ranking 8th in strikeout percentage, 2nd in walk percentage and 2nd in WHIP.

Thus, the outcome of this World Series may hinge on the Mets' ability to nullify the Royals' hitters early in the count, and, subsequently, on Kansas City's ability to take advantage of their opportunities or adjust if they seep away.

Shorten the Game
The Royals' blueprint for success in this Series is fairly well known. In aggressive fashion, they will attempt to ambush the opposing pitcher early and put up runs either by running into a home run from one of their big boppers, or by playing small ball with the speed and selflessness native to Ned Yost's philosophy. The Royals then hope to entrust an early lead to their starter, before passing the baton to a formidable bullpen in the sixth or seventh inning. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis are an elite one-two punch that rarely coughs up a lead, so the Mets will be hard-pressed to come back once they're down in the late innings.

Therefore, much like last year, the first six innings of each game in this World Series will be crucial. While tremendously talented, the Mets starting staff can be uneconomical at times, throwing too many pitches and creating high-stress situations. In order to succeed, the Mets need to extinguish the Royals' desire for offensive blood early in the game, and get some length out of their own starters. New York has a very good closer in Jeurys Familia, but the bridge to him is shorter and more precarious than that which Kansas City has built to Davis. There is thus more opportunity for the Mets to slip and drown.

Home Sweet Home
Traditionally, a lot has been written about home-field advantage being less important in baseball, compared with basketball, gridiron and hockey. However, the ability to host the first two games of a Fall Classic always strikes me as crucial. Indeed, 23 of the last 29 World Series champions had home-field advantage, which is pretty compelling evidence.

Of course, the Royals hosted four games in last year's Series, including the pivotal opener and the sudden-death Game 7, but were still unable to win. Accordingly, you could argue that the overarching unpredictability of baseball, especially in modern times, is more powerful than any one individual case of home-field advantage, but I still like the comfort of playing in your own ballpark, with the support of your own passionate fans, twice before even jetting off to the other city. It provides a sacred opportunity to complete half the job in familiar surroundings, which anybody would be foolish not to covet.

Who Wants it More?
Once the postseason winds down and we're left with two teams ready to compete in the World Series, I always like to see which team is hungrier. Obviously, every player years to win. The attainment of a World Series ring is the ultimate reward, the Holy Grail of baseball. But once the pennant is won, I'm eager to see how content each team is. Do they celebrate excessively? How strong is their desire to progress even further? How intense is their will to win it all?

This year, the Mets have to resist the temptation to feel happy with all they've achieved thus far. In spring training, they were written-off. By most estimations, the Nationals were slated to win the division flag by ten, maybe fifteen games. Therefore, that New York should upset the odds and experts by storming to the pennant is a titanic achievement, but also one fraught with peril. The Mets are now the lovable underdog, the fuzzy feel-good story. Yet, they must not enter the World Series thinking they have nothing to lose, that they're just happy to be here. That would be the ultimate death knell. Every opportunity to win a ring is precious, as the Mets' fifteen-year pennant drought attests. Thus, they have a lot to lose, just like the Royals. They must forget what they've achieved in the past, and show that their appetite to write another chapter in the fairytale is equal to that of Kansas City.

As outlined above, trying to prognosticate baseball is fundamentally asinine. That's why I believe anybody who actually bets on ballgames should receive a free psychiatric evaluation with their receipt. Anyhow, since it's now fashionable to predict a winner before any major sporting event, here's my best effort:

Royals in six.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Happy Birthday, BYB Hub

On October 24th, the Bleeding Yankee Blue Hub will celebrate its first anniversary. While many of you may still will be unfamiliar with the concept, it has played a big part in some of my most successful articles here at Suicide Squeezin', and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody involved, and wish them luck in developing the network even further.

My first experiences with the BYB Hub came during research for this piece on the universal popularity of the Yankees' brand. I was able to interview some influential Yankee fans, experts and writers after initially reaching out to the Hub, and their insights are what made that article one of my most popular yet.

The piece was later featured on the BYB home page, where it received tremendous exposure and was welcomed extremely well by Yankee fans. I gained many Twitter followers through that piece, and struck up some truly brilliant conversations about the Yankees and baseball in general. I've made some great working relationships through the BYB Hub. But, more importantly, I've made some terrific acquaintances, and developed strong bonds with like-minded people.

Essentially, the BYB Hub is an opportunity for bloggers to share their work and gain greater exposure, by agreeing to cross-promote and have their articles displayed on the network. It is a great proving ground for new baseball writers to get their blogs off the ground and generate a real buzz about articles they're proud of, such as my project on the Yankees' brand.

If you're a baseball writer keen to get involved, don't hesitate to contact the BYB Hub through the main site. Moreover, if you're just a reader with specific interest in baseball, head over to the Hub, where you'll find a wealth of passionate and intelligent articles on a variety of subjects, from a slew of different perspectives.

Give the Hub a chance. I guarantee it will be a welcome addition to your baseball experience.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

On the Mystique of World Series Rings, and the Pursuit Thereof

For any baseball player, the ultimate aim is to win a world championship. A guy can have All-Star talent, produce at Hall of Fame levels, and win a slew of personal awards, but if, when retirement beckons, there is no World Series ring in the cabinet, his career will always be tinged with melancholic sadness. 

Without winning the ultimate prize, there will always be caveat, a qualifier, an imaginary asterisks floating in the public conscience. The player will always harbour deep regrets, because, more than anything else, triumph in the Fall Classic defines success and fulfilment in the world of Major League Baseball.

The Holy Grail.
Therefore, an actual World Series ring, awarded to each member of the winning team since the 1930s, is undoubtedly the Holy Grail of America's National Pastime; this almost mystical token of success rivalling the Olympic gold or World Cup winners medals as the most elusive and sacred in all of sport.

Without doubt, winning a World Series championship requires more toil, heart and commitment than almost anything else in the athletic realm, further imbuing the ring with an iconic, mythic quality. Clearly, it can be seen as the definitive accolade.

Omnipotent players: those who won a lot

If the attainment and possession of a World Series ring is the ultimate barometer of baseball success, the greatest players are arguably those with the most hand jewellery. Accordingly, let's take a look at the top twenty players with the most rings, throughout baseball history.

Most World Series rings as a player, all-time top 20
1. Yogi Berra, 10
2. Joe DiMaggio, 9
3. Bill Dickey, 8
4. Phil Rizzuto, 8
5. Frankie Crosetti, 8
6. Lou Gehrig, 8
7. Han Bauer, 7
8. Mickey Mantle, 7
9. Babe Ruth, 7
10. Johnny Murphy, 7
11. Tommy Henrich, 7
12. Herb Pennock, 7
13. Whitey Ford, 6
14. Vic Raschi, 6
15. Allie Reynolds, 6
16. Red Ruffing, 6
17. Joe Collins, 6
18. Lefty Gomez, 6
19. Jerry Coleman, 6
20. Eddie Collins, 6

The first thing that jumps out from this list is the New York Yankees' thorough dominance of baseball history. Of the twenty most-frequent World Series-winning players, the first nineteen won at least one ring with the Bronx Bombers. Moreover, of those nineteen players, all but Ruth and Pennock won all of their Series rings with the Yankees, a fact which further illustrates the pinstriped monopoly. 

Even by narrowing the timeframe of our search to the past thirty years, the Yankees' penchant for persistent success comes shining through. Here's the list of players with the most World Series rings since 1985.

Most World Series rings as a player, 1985-present, top 15
1. Derek Jeter, 5
2. David Cone, 5
3. Paul O'Neill, 5
4. Andy Pettitte, 5
5. Mariano Rivera, 5
6. Jorge Posada, 5
7. Luis Sojo, 5
8. Ramiro Mendoza, 5
9. Orlando Hernandez, 4
10. Chuck Knoblauch, 4
11. Tino Martinez, 4
12. Jeff Nelson, 4
13. Mike Timlin, 4
14. Bernie Williams, 4
15. Javier Lopez, 4

Thirteen of the aforementioned players won at least one championship with the Yankees, with the majority winning multiple rings in the Bronx. Mike Timlin, a longtime reliever with the Blue Jays and Red Sox, and Javier Lopez, a lefty specialist with Boston and San Francisco, were the only non-Yankees to make the list.
Magnificent managers 

In addition to the most successful players, I'm also fascinated by those managers who've won multiple World Series rings. In this regard, let's take a quick glance at the all-time top ten.

Most World Series rings as manager, all-time top 10
1. Joe McCarthy, 7
2. Casey Stengel, 7
3. Connie Mack, 5
4. Walter Alston, 4
5. Joe Torre, 4
6. John McGraw, 3
7. Miller Huggins, 3
8. Sparky Anderson, 3
9. Tony La Russa, 3
10. Bruce Bochy, 3

I find Bruce Bochy's presence on this list extremely intriguing. It really puts his recent achievements with the Giants into sharp historical perspective; their three World Series titles in five years catapulting Bochy into the same echelon as the true immortals of baseball management. That Bruce has been able to tie legendary greats such as La Russa, Huggins and McGraw is a testament to his skill. Bochy is clearly one of the greatest managers who ever lived, and watching him chase the ghosts of Mack, Stengel and McCarthy will be a major thrill in years to come.

Desperate pursuit: those who never won 

Such is the regard in which World Series rings are held, and such is the significance of winning a championship in defining a career, every player yearns to triumph in the Fall Classic. When a player reaches his mid-30s and still has no ring to show for years of exertion, desperation takes over. Late in a career, many players yet to win a championship will forgo extra money in the hope of signing with the Yankees or Red Sox and taking one last run at the a World Series mountain. For some, this ploy works. But for many, it doesn't. Accordingly, for the sake of balance, let's take a look at the twenty-five guys who played the most Major League games without even reaching the Fall Classic.

Most games played without a World Series appearance, all-time top 25
1. Rafael Palmeiro, 2831
2. Ken Griffey Jr., 2671
3. Andre Dawson, 2627
4. Ernie Banks, 2528
5. Julio Franco, 2527
6. Billy Williams, 2488
7. Rod Carew, 2469
8. Bobby Abreu, 2425
9. Luke Appling, 2422
10. Mickey Vernon, 2409
11. Buddy Bell, 2405
12. Torii Hunter, 2372
13. Ichiro Suzuki, 2357
14. Sammy Sosa, 2354
15. Jose Cruz, 2353
16. Brian Downing, 2344
17. Frank Thomas, 2322
18. BJ Surhoff, 2313
19. Chris Speier, 2260
20. Andrés Galarraga, 2257
21. Ron Santo, 2243
22. Tim Wallach, 2212
23. Joe Torre, 2209
24. Tony Taylor, 2195
25. Aramis Ramirez, 2194

Unsurprisingly, this list is dominated by the Chicago Cubs, who have infamously failed to win a World Series since 1908 and haven't even competed in the Fall Classic since 1945. Dawson, Banks, Williams, Sosa and Santo all likely rank among the ten greatest Cubs of all-time, but as the list demonstrates, they played a combined 12,240 games without ever reaching the World Series. Such is the tragedy of baseball.

It's also interesting to study a list of active players who've waited the longest for a mere opportunity to win a ring. Here are ten contemporary players with the most games played and no World Series appearance to date.

Most games played without a World Series appearance, top 10 active players
1. Torii Hunter, 2372
2. Ichiro Suzuki, 2357
3. Aramis Ramirez, 2194
4. Alex Rios, 1691
5. Adrian Gonzalez, 1648
6. Brandon Phillips, 1608
7. Adam LaRoche, 1605
8. Victor Martinez, 1579
9. Jose Reyes, 1562
10. David Wright, 1546

This list is very surprising, because all ten players were very good during their prime years. However, it just goes to show that baseball is a team game, with a player's fate resting largely in the hands of his teammates.

So, how about this year's postseason? We're currently at the League Championship stage, with teams just a few precious wins away from securing the pennant and advancing to the Fall Classic. The Mets, Cubs and Blue Jays are at this stage for the first time since 2006, 2003 and 1993, respectively, while the Royals are seeking a second successive trip to the World Series. Accordingly, let's take a look at those players still alive in the current postseason who've waited the longest for a shot at the Fall Classic.

Most games played without a World Series appearance, still alive in 2015 playoffs, top 5
1. Alex Rios, 1691
2. David Wright, 1546
3. Michael Cuddyer, 1536
4. Jose Bautista, 1403
5. Edwin Encarnacion, 1353

This list shows just how starved certain franchises have been in the modern baseball era. Bautista has played the majority of his career with the Blue Jays, while Wright is a lifelong Met. Those two teams have struggled for much of the past decade, so it's great that they're finally getting the opportunity to shine on a big stage. As for Rios? Well, the guy just seems to be plain unlucky. He's played for four teams in a twelve-year career, and, prior to this season, never even reached the playoffs! On average, Rios' teams have finished 15 games out of first place, a quite astonishing statistic.

Thus, you're now familiar with the true hard luck stories of Major League Baseball. But one of the great things about this beautiful and beguiling sport is its ability to convey emotion and tell stories of incredible human effort. Accordingly, if your team has already been eliminated, how about rooting for a guy who has never had the opportunity to experience a World Series? 

Root for Alex Rios or David Wright, consummate professionals who've given the game so much, and deserve their moment on its biggest stage. 

Root for Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion, prolific entertainers who've authored many smiles, but too often in the baseball wilderness. 

Root for the underdog, because everyone loves a rags-to-riches story, especially when it comes to the World Series, that most mystical and elusive of prizes.

*All statistics correct at time of publishing. 'Games played' totals do not include postseason play. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Bedlam in Toronto as Blue Jays Advance

The mainstream said baseball was dying. It was too old, too boring, a jaded anachronism. Well, after watching the hair-raising, stomach-churning, mind-blowing war between Toronto and Texas in Game 5 of the ALDS last night, I will beg to differ.

This was more than a baseball game. This was grown men, rich beyond comprehension, straining and yearning and hungering for sporting success. This was prime athletes, united by extremes of raw talent, laying their bodies on the line to stave off agony and welcome euphoria at the end of a gruelling season. This was a city, starved of baseball glory, stomping and wailing and whining in the brutish throes of desperation, in the sweet utopia of success.

Jose Bautista and the greatest bat flip of all-time.
On a basic level, all the Blue Jays did was trump the Rangers and advance to the American League Championship Series. No trophies were awarded, no titles decided. Yet, to have such a parochial view would be folly. This meant so much more to those involved. It was the culmination of a remarkable comeback, from two games down to ultimate success. It was the exclamation point on a simmering summer of baseball fever; the moment when the will of a populace meshed with the talents of a team to create an unforgettable verse in this game's ceaseless symphony.

One day, somebody will write a book about this mesmeric Game 5, and it will be a bestseller throughout the sporting world. ESPN will probably commission a documentary about it, complete with drama and hyperbole. However, nothing could match the experience of watching it in real-time. There was a throbbing importance to the game, a clashing of strong desires that coursed beneath the action. It was trench warfare in cleats.

The game had more plot twists than a Mexican soap opera; more mood swings than a Stephen King novel; more drama than an episode of CSI. Texas had the lead twice and saw it trickle away twice, courtesy of defensive misplays and booming home runs. Toronto, on the other hand, was down on the mat twice, once in the most befuddling of circumstances, only to locate reserves of squealing determination and emerge victorious.

As the basic mosaic of a crazy game unfurled, an abundance of subplots added yet more intrigue and emotion to the wider experience. The gargantuan crowd of 49,742, oscillating between torrential hostility and rumbling jubilation. The brawling players, desperate to survive, advance and win. The smouldering city, totally engrossed with baseball for the first time in two decades.

Of course, every great movie needs a happy ending, a definitive crescendo, a crowning glory. Fortunately for Toronto, and perhaps for baseball, one bonafide megastar was on hand to provide it. With two on and two out in the seventh inning, score tied at three, stadium in anarchy, Jose Bautista saw a 97-mph fastball from Sam Dyson and swatted it high, deep and far into the left field madness. As Rogers Centre howled in the bedlam of achievement, Bautista produced the greatest bat flip ever recorded, before trotting around the bases as the diamond quaked beneath him. Just like that, the Blue Jays had a lead they would never relinquish.

So now, Toronto steams right on into the ALCS, where Kansas City, the reigning champion, awaits. Just five or ten years ago, this would've been a humdrum matchup, fodder for those who insist that baseball is an endangered species. But, right now, it's the bat-flipping, heart-stopping, pulse-racing embodiment of all that is great about the modern game.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Cubs Topple Cards in Wrigley's Greatest Night

A ballpark has stood at the corner of Waveland and Sheffield Avenues in Chicago's North Side for 101 years. A beautiful place, with an indelible legacy in the history of American sports. Wrigley Field, the ancient, ivy-covered burial ground of baseball dreams, has witnessed a lot through the eras, but never anything quite like yesterday, when its downtrodden tenant clinched a postseason series at home for the first time since time immemorial.

For the Cubs, this was a two-pronged catharsis. Not only did they finally prove an ability to win big games at home, but they also showed a capacity to beat the St Louis Cardinals, that sneering bully who has made their life hell in perpetuity. 

Glory at Wrigley Field. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
The Cubs and Cards have waged a lopsided war since 1903. Chicago holds a slight edge in the all-time series, but many conclude that this isn't a true rivalry. Rather, it's more akin to an older sibling picking on his younger brother. St Louis has finished ahead of Chicago every year since 2009. St Louis has won 11 World Series titles since the Cubs' last triumph, 6 since the North Side last hosted a Fall Classic game. And, accordingly, St Louis fans have grown with the birthright that we're always better than the Cubs, no matter how bad things get.

Finally, the Cubs have changed. Slowly but surely, they're defeating their demons, one round at a time. In this, the first playoff edition of a flagship baseball rivalry, Chicago mustered a hundred years of courage to topple St Louis at long last. With fearless play and deceptively precocious talent, the upstart Cubs proved that they can beat the best organisation baseball has to offer. From top to bottom, that's what the Cardinals are. They're the paragon of sustainable success, of exceeding means and markets to experience glory in the fall. Yet now, that aura has been demolished, at least in the minds of Cubs players, executives and fans. Rather like Theo Epstein's Red Sox defeating the Yankees in 2004, his contemporary Cubs have lanced a boil, destroying all narratives of Cardinal superiority in the process.

When Stephen Piscotty lunged and missed at a breaking ball in the dirt from Hector Rondon late last night, ending Game 4 of the NLDS, Wrigley was transformed into a maelstrom of jostling, jubilant humanity. It was okay to cheer. It was fine to smile. Hell, fist-pumping was encouraged. Where once fear reigned, belief now resided. Where once nerves percolated, excitement poured forth. Where once the Cubs lost, in excruciating and somewhat iconic style, they finally won, in a heart-stopping fashion all their own.

After losing the opening game of this series in St Louis, the Cubs buckled down and produced a remarkable fight back, winning three straight to secure a place in the National League's final two. In that opening encounter, Mike Matheny managed a flawless game for St Louis, pushing all the right buttons, entrusting all the right players, who triumphed through obscurity in true Cardinal fashion.

However, it was almost like Joe Maddon tipped his cap to Matheny at that point, acknowledged his masterful management, then proceeded to raise him. In games two through four, Maddon's genius was on full display. From daring squeeze plays to adroit bullpen management, Uncle Joe exhibited his boundless capacity for excellence, all with a cunning smile, all with a knowing calmness rare in Wrigley annals.

In the five seasons previous to this wonderfully enchanting one, the Cubs lost 57% of all games they partook in. Now, they are just four wins away from reaching their first World Series in 70 years. That is a phenomenal turnaround, an inspirational recovery. And it has Wrigleyville alive like never before.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Glimpse of the Future: Cubs and Astros Advance

The Wildcard round is baseball's newest, most exhilarating toy, and this year, it was deeply illustrative of our game in the modern realm. There was euphoria for the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, paragons of front office mastery both, and there was agony for the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, franchises that cannot navigate October anymore. These contemporary Cubs and Astros originate from the same gene pool, with wonderful intellectuals building a sustainable, homegrown juggernaut from the ground up. Now, they're advancing in the playoffs, as their fans continue to dream the improbable dream.

Cub Courage
This Cubs team is different. We thought that in April, as Joe Maddon cajoled remarkable results from a young roster, and we thought that all summer, as Chicago braced itself for postseason baseball. Last night, in a raucous PNC Park, deep in America's industrial heartland, all that hope and belief fizzed and bubbled into something tangible, something finally worthy of unrestricted celebration, as Jake Arrieta bamboozled the Pirates and secured the Cubs' first playoff win since 2003.

It was billed as a baseball hipster's dream: the nimble Pirates, fashioned by Neal Huntington and managed by Clint Hurdle, against the upstart Cubs, created by Theo Epstein and managed by Joe Maddon. Two philosophically aligned teams; two division rivals; two cities straddling the border between excitement and paralysing nerves. 

The Cubs and Pirates have been going at it for hundreds of years, but rarely have these grand old dames of baseball been so good simultaneously. This Pittsburgh incarnation won more games than any other since 1909, while the Cubs secured more victories than they have since 1935. The Bucs had the second-best record in all of baseball this year; the Cubbies were third. 

Thus, in every respect, this was set up as a war of attrition, a winner-takes-all showdown between two teams alike in creation and virtually identical in production. Except, that narrative never played out, and this game was never that close. Not really. 

Essentially, Jake Arrieta scotched any such notion, burrowing into his own zone of immense concentration and pitching a stupendous shutout, the first by a Cub in October since 1945. And we all know what happened that year.

This game, this constant oscillation of drama, hinged like so many on the arms of two men, and the subtle juxtaposition between them. 

For the Cubs, Arrieta was supremely confident, to the point of serene belief amid the gathering cacophony. After producing the greatest second half by a pitcher in baseball history, he now has an approach striking in its simplicity: put the ball where I want to, and they don't stand a chance. For nine innings, that was basically the case, as Jake yielded just four hits while striking out eleven, en route to victory.

Arrieta stormed around the field and one could almost see his internal monologue of defiance. A fire raged deep within, but he maintained a cold, calm and calculating visage. He was in command, and nothing was going to stop him reaching the end goal of victory. Not 40,889 screaming fans. Not a bench-clearing brawl. And certainly not the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Meanwhile, for those Pirates, Gerrit Cole was just a little less confident, just a little less assure. And in October, when the merest inches and smallest twitches matter, that was just too much to overcome for Pittsburgh. Cole was animated and ever so slightly agitated from the start. He was human, while a strike-throwing cyborg lurked in the other dugout. 

Kyle Schwarber took advantage early, putting the Cubs up with an RBI single in the first, then mashing a long two-run bomb into the Allegheny in the third. The Cubs would add another run in the fifth as Dexter Fowler went yard, but it was hardly necessary. Arrieta was in complete control.

When the Pirates did muster an opportunity, with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning, Arrieta induced a sweet double play. Just as the Cubs could feel the ropes at their back, they came out fighting like a heavyweight champion. In previous years, under different regimes, they would've crumbled, succumbed to the schoolyard bully. Not anymore. Not this year. Addison Russell flipped adroitly to Starlin Castro, who heaved the ball onto Anthony Rizzo, ending the inning and extinguishing hope in Pittsburgh.

An inning later, following a messy brawl that resembled one last desperate attempt by the Pirates to penetrate Arrieta's stoicism, the Cubs got another huge double play. From there on out, it was pretty much a stroll to the finish line, which has rarely, if ever, been written about the star-crossed Chicago Cubs.

When Arrieta got Francisco Cervelli to line out softly to Castro on his 113th pitch of the night, the North Siders had their first postseason win in the post-Bartman epoch. More importantly, they took the next step forward in the enchanting quest to win a first World Series in 107 years.

Next up for Chicago? The St Louis Cardinals, a fearsome foe who the Cubs have played 2,361 times since 1892, but never in the postseason. The Cubs are evidently in the mood for rewriting history this year, and the greatest chapter of all just got a few pages nearer. 

Houston Heroics
The Astros continue to amaze. After losing 590 games in the six years between 2009 and 2014, Houston exploded in an orange blur of belief and precocious talent this season. Under the studious tutelage of AJ Hinch, the 'Stros kept playing their intoxicating brand of ball and kept winning games, even when experts said they couldn't, even when the odds laughed in their collective face.

All summer, Houston just kept rolling, an enflamed ball of raw talent and brash iconoclasm. On Tuesday, this carefree group of vibrant, fresh-faced youngsters stormed into the thunderous coliseum that is Yankee Stadium and just owned the night. Totally owned it. 

This was the Astros' first playoff game since 2005. This was the largest crowd for any Astros game since 2010. This was a sudden-death fight against the venerated Yankees, at prime time, in New York City, beneath the twinkling lights, before 50,113 sets of eyes. The Astros were supposed to be intimidated. They were supposed to run out of gas. Yet, the opposite happened. They were entirely unfazed, and they seized the moment with an energy and vitality that is impossible to dislike.

The Astros, dressed in lurid orange, were nimble, lithe, bristling with potential. The Yankees, worn down by the heavy pinstripes of history, were tired, heavy-legged, panting to the finish like a limp dog. Greatness occurs at the confluence of talent and bravery. The Yankees know all about that. Well, so do these Houston Astros, who matched impressive skill with the poise and guts required to breeze past the Bronx Bombers in October.

Consider Carlos Correa, the 21-year old shortstop who hit third on the biggest stage of all. He's never played anywhere like Yankee Stadium; he's probably never shared any building with 50,000 people before. Consider George Springer and Jose Altuve, who've never played a more meaningful game, but still managed to make telling contributions with the glove and bat. And consider Dallas Keuchel, the young ace who made the Yankees look foolish on three days rest, earning comparisons to Greg Maddux and soft-tossing Houston to the ALDS with six innings of three-hit, shutout ball.

On a night when this version of Yankee Stadium was louder than ever, with fans clapping and chanting like times of yore, the Astros rose to the occasion. Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez launched solo home runs, and Altuve knocked in another run, while the hosts managed just three hits and manipulated just two men into scoring position, as the light went out on another fruitless season in the Bronx. The Astros' remarkable victory was confirmed with three flawless innings from the bullpen, and Houston danced a victory jig on the Stadium infield. 

In many ways, this was even more dramatic than Moneyball, even more improbable than that cinematic creation. The Astros entered the 2015 season with a $70 million payroll, second-smallest in the Majors. The Yankees, meanwhile, paid their players $219 million. That the former should slay the latter and advance to the American League's final four is highly indicative of baseball's changing economic climate. Nowadays, the money a team spends isn't as important as the people it employs to utilise it. Intellectual firepower within the front office is just as important as superstars on the field. With Jeff Luhnow at the helm, the Astros are a prime example of how to build a Major League Baseball team in this age of parity; their core of cost-controlled, homegrown talent providing a lengthy window of sustainable opportunity. 

That window is now firmly ajar. With victory over the mighty Yankees, Houston advances to an ALDS meeting with the reigning Royals. It will be the Astros' first playoff series in ten years, back when their incumbent shortstop was just 11 and their current ace was 17. That says a lot about the Houston Astros, but it says even more about the shifting landscape of Major League Baseball.

Friday, 2 October 2015

On the Sweet Monotony of Baseball

How do you feel after a long haul flight? Even in this age of increased legroom and comfort, taking a plane from one destination to another is still a disconcerting ordeal. It usually takes me a couple of days to overcome the tiredness, rebalance my eardrums and get back up to speed with the world. A simple task like unpacking the case can seem like a gargantuan challenge a few hours after landing, let alone playing in a world class sports league before watching millions.

So just take a moment to contemplate the life of a Major League Baseball star, traipsing from airport to hotel to ballpark and back to airport; visiting too many cities to name, too many time zones to comprehend; all while playing a three-hour game every single night.

The physical toll of America's National Pastime is well documented, but the immense mental and emotional stress it imparts is largely unseen, like that encountered by a touring circus or show. However, it's very real, and very complex.

People in the stands only see a ballplayer in uniform earning millions of dollars for playing a child's game. They don't see the human side; the gnarled underbelly; the quiet chaos of a life on the road. They don't see a guy who arrived in Boston at 2 am on a plane from Toronto, got to sleep at 4, woke again at 9, got to Fenway for 11 and started the game at 1. They see only statistics on a scorecard, digits in the win column, not jet-lag in the soul or weariness in the body.

Could you tolerate that constant exertion? Could you tolerate being away from your family for weeks and months at a time, missing chunks of your children's growth? Could you survive in the big leagues, regardless of an ability to hit the curve?

The few that do are worthy of huge praise. They are devotees to the sweet monotony of baseball, a game without a clock but possessing a very real, very oppressive calendar. Yes, they get paid better than any sportsmen in the world, but life isn't all about money. It takes a certain amount of fortitude and courage to play 162 baseball games in 26 weeks and not succumb entirely to the trauma of it all. Regardless of salary, that's a struggle deserving of respect.
The grind.
No other sport plays so many games. Baseball's seemingly infinite schedule is totally unique in the athletic lexicon. Here in Britain, whenever I first tell people that each Major League team plays a minimum of 162 games every year, they're totally dumbfounded. It's impossible to envision Manchester United playing almost nightly for six months in the Premier League, with just fifteen days off in that span if they're lucky. That's what makes baseball so special, so different, so authentic. The game is mightier than those who play it, which adds a whole new dimension to the experience.

If you factor in 30 exhibition games in spring training and hopefully 12-20 in the playoffs, the very best Major League teams can play well over 200 games each season, which from March to October resembles an eight-month odyssey of constant repetition. Accordingly, baseball isn't a sprint, but it also isn't a marathon, that one-off endurance event usually followed by months of recuperation. Rather, baseball is an almost sickening tale of obsession; a ceaseless war of mind-numbing monotony; a relentless rhythm of terrific tedium.

The thought of 200 games per year is an imposing one, but even that number doesn't scratch the surface of what effort is required to navigate a Major League season. Not only does baseball have more games on its schedule than any other sport, but in turn, each one of those games takes longer to consummate than anything else in the athletic realm, with the exception of test cricket and snooker.

The average length of a Major League game this year is 2 hours and 54 minutes. If we extrapolate that to a 162-game season, that's 469 hours, or 19 whole days of play. Then, if we factor in the players arriving two hours before a game and leaving two hours after it, they spend 1,117 hours on average at ballparks during the regular season alone. That's 46 whole days. Add in two months of spring training and a few weeks in October, and we're looking at over 1,500 hours, or 64 days, spent in stadiums per year. If we expand that again to encompass a full 15-year career, a successful player will probably spend over 900 full days at the ballpark. That's over two-and-a-half years spent showering, dressing into uniform, stretching, hitting in cages, watching video, dealing with media, and playing baseball. That's a monumental task, regardless of how well somebody is paid.

In 2013, a Wall Street Journal study found that, while it usually takes three hours to complete, a baseball game typically includes just eighteen minutes of actual action. Thus, the players have a lot of hours to fill, a lot of time to waste, eating sunflower seeds and staring out at a game of startling inaction.
Time to kill, hours to waste.
Consider the life of big league catchers, who squat behind home plate and call signals for roughly 150 pitches per game, replicated perhaps 140 times per year. Consider the grind of big league umpires, who call upward of 300 balls and strikes per game, and are castigated for making a single mistake. And consider the plight of big league announcers, who spend more time in the booth than their own bed, and speak to the fans more than their own families.

For those involved, it's easy to see how a basic striving for Major League survival can obfuscate the romance and love they feel for baseball. But, for fans, all of that is of minimal importance. We only see the finished product, like a video game or movie. We take comfort in the banality and extract identity from the unending routine of baseball, that most beautiful of symphonies.

As fans, we watch the games of our chosen team, spending those same mounting hours with our favourite players, announcers and fellow rooters. We experience the same grind, but it invigorates us, provides us with sustenance, and allows us to live vicariously through a team or superstar. Baseball provides structure to our summer. We don't always know what tomorrow will bring, in terms of work and interaction, but from dawning spring through looming fall, we do know that the boys of Mudville will be waiting every night, ready to enlighten our mood through their mastery of repetition.

To us, baseball is often just a three-hour visual experience. We watch the game, enjoy its undulating beauty, then switch off the television and head for bed. The players, however, keep moving through the night, like pixies twinkling underground, before resurfacing again when we need them tomorrow.

That exacts an incredible toll on players, who deal with immense pressure on top of huge physical discomfort throughout a season. In some quirky way, Yogi Berra was correct when he said that baseball is "ninety percent mental and the other half is physical." That sentiment is heightened in our modern context, where games take thrice as long as they once did and players are scrutinised like never before. Much more stress and psychological strain is placed on players nowadays, and it's a wonder they don't succumb entirely to exhaustion.

Within the enormous, daily grind, on that slow but relentless road, all manner of emotions arise on a Major League team, which is a sharp encapsulation of society, compressed to boiling point. These guys share the euphoria of success and the agony of failure; the frustration of slumps and the anger of living in close proximity to teammates who make them laugh, cry, joke and rage in equal measure. The emotion lingers and blends into a complex broth that, by late September, can often be toxic.

Ultimately, there is a huge juxtaposition between how we enjoy baseball as a surface pastime, and the immense effort, dedication and sacrifice that goes into creating The Show. Baseball presents a clean and glitzy image, honed by PR gurus and marketing experts, but beneath that veneer, there is a grimy tale of sleepless superstars, nomadic enigmas and tired intermediaries. They're the guys who give so much so that we can enjoy a sport of rich entertainment, and they're the guys who deserve more respect and deeper compassion from the fans as a result.