"With the losers let it sympathize, / for nothing can seem foul / to those that win." King Henry in Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare.
Monday, September 15, 2008
PICK UP THE PIECES AND REBUILD ... OR MOVE ON?
I'm trying to decide what I want to do with this blog: resurrect, retool or retire. I heard a single grumbling today that I should start blogging again because at lowest point possible in Ohio sports history (do I need to explain why?), my loyal readership needs me more than ever.
Am I a Rickey Henderson of the sports blogging world or a Jose Canseco? That's for you to decide, but either way, I'm probably going to end my career in the minors. Leave me a comment to let me know what you think.
With a couple of exceptions -- a 12-run outburst against Toronto, notably -- the Cleveland Indians left their bats down in Winter Haven. The only regular starter hitting over .300 is Victor Martinez, who, as a No. 4 hitter, has yet to hit one home run. Though some are starting to come around - Hafner has hit in his last few - the offensive state for the Wahoos is still certifiably anemic.
OK, the complaining and negativity end here, I promise. The Indians are 22-19 and back in first place in the AL Central. What's there to complain about, really?
The starting pitching staff has handcuffs on every single hitter in their American League, going an epic 55 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. As of Friday, it's been a week since the Indians' starters have given up an earned run. In that time span, they threw three complete-game shutouts, if you count Cliff Lee's nine-inning goose egg that amounted to a no-decision (and I count it.) Lee threw a eight innings of shutout ball in his previous start against the Yankees, and two starts before that, he threw a two-hit shutout in Kansas City, sandwiching in there a terrible start in which he gave up a three-run homer and still won. (In some circles, that's known as a "quality start.")
The defense has been stellar. Sure, Asdrubal Cabrera turned an unassisted triple play, but he also has made some mind-boggling catches in the field. Grady Sizemore is running down everything hit in the air to center field, and both Franklin Gutierrez and Ben Francisco have been showcasing their strong arms, throwing out numerous base runners.
To me, the real stunner is Aaron Laffey. Laffey was solid last year as the Tribe's No. 5 during the second half of the season. He logged a 4-2 record with a 4.56 ERA in 9 starts last year and assured that Cliff Lee would stay at AAA (turns out that was a very good thing for Lee). No one really gave Laffey much of a shot to win the No. 5 starter spot out of Spring Training, and they were right. He didn't pitch particularly well in Winter Haven. But he's hit his stride since the call-up, filling in more than adequately for Jake Westbrook, who was tremendous himself before he got hurt. Laffey must stay up with the varsity when Westbrook comes back, in my opinion. Maybe the Indians should try a six-man rotation? It will save some innings from the rest of the staff for later in the season. Can you imagine? A six-man rotation with three lefties and three righties? Three hard-throwers and three finesse guys? Preparing for that kind of versatility would give managers, hitting coaches and hitters absolute fits.
In short, the Tribe has the most depth in baseball as the most coveted position. If they can move Betancourt back to the eighth-inning role, where he is most effective and comfortable, they will be set in the bullpen. And I think Eric Wedge can make this move now, as Masa Kobayashi appears to have the moxy to close out games.
The Tribe loses the designated hitter this weekend as they travel down I-71 to play a set in Cincinnati, but I don't think it matters. They've been playing National League baseball -- scratch that, 1960s era National League baseball -- for the past two weeks. The pitchers hitting my actually help them. Jeremy Sowers starts tomorrow night, and if he twirls a gem, the Indians will have a logjam in their rotation so tight that the only thing busier than Mark Shapiro's cell phone -- with offers from other general managers for a starter -- will be Carl Willis', who will receive calls from reporters who want to feature the next Leo Mazzone.
THE SUPPORTING CAVS: TRADE PIECES GIVE CLEVELAND HOPE
Thursday night, after the Celtics' 89-73 win in Game 2 over the Cavaliers, it started to creep into my mind that maybe the Cavs took a step backward this year. Actually, that thought started in October when the Mavericks embarrassed the Cavs on opening night, when Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic held out for better contracts preceding their subpar seasons and when the Cavalier offense looked inept every night LeBron James didn't have a huge statline.
Then General Manager Danny Ferry made the ultimate shakeup in February. He dealt away half the team for a different half, and he did it with the future -- specifically the playoffs -- in mind.
Down 2-0 in the series to Boston with LeBron James struggling with his shooting touch and Celtic triple teams, enter Ben Wallace, Delonte West, Joe Smith, and Wally Szczerbiak. Thanks to those four "trade pieces," we've got a series again in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Most people label the Cavaliers a one-man team, and there is much truth to that statement. As LeBron goes, so goes Cleveland. But we started to see some things Saturday night as the Cavaliers rolled to a 108-84 victory over Boston: Wallace's energy and interior strength, Smith's smooth elbow jumper, Szczerbiak's smart drives and pops and West's "true point-guard skills," evident by his 21 points. In short, all four contributed at their highest levels at the same time. The steady ZydrunasIlgauskas continued to hit big shots. It didn't even matter that LeBron scored a modest 21, though he did play a tremendous defensive game with numerous steals and blocks.
Wallace, despite his inner-ear infection, showed up with a fire in his belly from the opening tip. His early jams from LeBron dishes set the tone. West calmly tossed up southpaw jumpers that found, to quote Joe Tait, "nothing but the bottom of the net." Smith made the most of his minutes, not only hitting shots but also scraping the glass and the floor for loose balls.
If "these Cavs," the Cavs that played tonight, showed up four times in a series, Cleveland could win not just this series but the whole thing.
It's going to be tough for the Cavs to beat Boston, knowing they would have to win at least one on the road. (They're aided by the fact that the Celtics seem to leave all of their drive and energy in Beantown.) Even if the Wine and Gold could pull off a comeback, it would be equally tough to beat the Detroit/Orlando winner. But with the pieces in place and the personnel puzzle starting to fit together, the Cavaliers have hope. They do, indeed, have a shot.
Consider this "Part I" of my ballpark evaluation series. In 2008, I have the privilege of visiting three of baseball finest and most historic venues: Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium. For all three, my visit is my first. Two weeks ago, I managed to take in a game within "the friendly confines" of Wrigley Field, which -- I'll just come right out and say it -- vaulted itself to No. 2 on my list of favorite ballparks. (Note: Cleveland's Jacobs Field, also known as Corporate-Insurance-Evildoer-based-Mayfield-Heights-Ohio Field, will always be No. 1. It's the park where I grew up with baseball, watching my Indians heroes on the field.) But from a general, adult baseball-lover's point of view, here are my top 10 reflections:
1.) The Cubs pounded the Pittsburgh Pirates 13-1. They turned around the next day and throttled them 13-7. This Cubs team is loaded with talent, something their payroll had a little something to do with, I'm sure. They should be a playoff team and World Series contender again this year. As a Cleveland fan, anytime I can see Pittsburgh take one on the chin, it's a real crowd-pleaser.
2.) The atmosphere at a Cubs game, particularly a weekend game like the one I attended, rivals that of a major college football game (i.e. Ohio State), and that's impressive considering about one-third of the people are present. Wrigley's advantage is that it is nestled in this neighborhood full of 20-somethings who love two things: baseball and partying. (OK, three things ... stock options, as well.) This, my friends, is the quintessential American neighborhood, even if it is kind of a graveyard for former frat boys. Walking to the ballpark for a 12:05 first pitch, people are playing cornhole in their yards and drinking bloody marys. For baseball! This is a foreign -- albeit totally pleasing -- sight for an Ohioan, where if the ball isn't brown and pointy on the ends, you just don't quite "get up" for it as much as you could.
3.) A good mix of kids and families still file into the stands. I like this aspect, and I like that it doesn't seem to bother the hardened Chicagoans that many young adults are getting belligerently wasted around them. After all, baseball is, first and foremost, for kids. It certainly makes me feel like a kid again. But the drunks and the families still seem to get along in the name of the Cubbies.
4.) Upon first seeing the first and the ivy walls, I'll admit, I got the chills a little bit. Maybe that was the 55-degree wind and mist whipping off Lake Michigan but more than likely it was that my baseball pilgrimage was finally complete. My buddy, an erudite wisecracker who is lukewarm on baseball, looked at my euphoric visage and asked me if I was suffering from priapism. I replied, "It's not suffering if you enjoy it."
5.) I wanted bleacher seats, but my buddy and I had to settle for upper deck, just down the first base line from home plate. My view was partially obstructed, but I embraced it. After all, they just don't make ballparks like this anymore. A bachelorette party of at least 10 started their festivities by sitting behind us for the first six innings, while the game was still interesting and while the beer was still flowing from the concession stands. I won't elaborate too much because I don't know who's reading this that isn't 18 or hasn't relinquished their youthful innocence yet. Kids, go look up the word "debauchery," and I'll leave it at that.
6.) I attempted to score the game, which was a bad idea. First of all, it was a 13-1 blowout, and for anyone who's tried to score a baseball blowout, it's kind of like trying to figure out whether or not Roger Clemens hooked up with Mindy McCready before she was 18; it's leads to a lot of disturbing guessing. Secondly, though Wrigley has the "no frills" scoreboard that eliminates the marketing that inundates fans at other ballparks -- and I appreciate that -- it can be tough to track pitching changes, pinch-hitters and double-switches. National League baseball is kooky. My scorecard, I'm sure, has some blemishes.
7.) Cubs fans are uncontrollably jubilant when they score, practically throwing money and babies in celebration. I've never seen so many people whoop and holler before making out, all in response to an RBI ground out to short.
8.) Troths in the bathrooms, no soap and no towels. Even though my chances of getting dysentary or cholera increased slightly, it was nostalgic to feel like I was relieving myself in the 1930s.
9.) The postgame Wrigleyville bar scene dwarfs any after-party at any ballpark anywhere. If anyone wants to dispute this, invite me to your city for a ballgame. The first round is on me.
10.) I snapped my obligatory photo in front of Harry Caray's statue so that I won't have to do that when I returned. I also piped up during "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and actually subbed in "root, root, root for the Cub-bies." I always say "root, root, root for the Indians," but I compromised -- this time and this time only.
Stay posted for my reactions to Yankee Stadium, which should come within a week or so, after I venture back from New York. I'll be watching the Tribe play, so I'll probably need two posts: one on Indians analysis and another on ballpark analysis. In either case, please stop reading this if I try to insert a "you's guys" into my next post. That's when we'll all know that I simply have nothing clever left to write.
This past weekend, I had a chance to take in my first game at Wrigley Field (though I had been outside the stadium to take pictures before). I'll go into more detail about that in my next post, but for now, I wanted to reflect on this ballpark checklist phenomenon that is just one more thing that makes baseball the great American pastime.
Baseball has steadily sunk away from being America's favorite sport, probably beginning its yield to football somewhere in the 1970s when the Super Bowl's popularity exploded and football became more watchable on TV. But baseball is older, has an heir of tradition that is unparalleled, and contains 30 of the greatest sports venues ever constructed -- all of the Major League stadiums.
Obviously, some great ones are extinct and existed long before my time (i.e. Ebbetts Field, Polo Grounds, Crosley Field, etc.) But of the parks that have been active within a generation of my lifetime, I've done well to pay my respects to all of these...I'm struggling to think of a word other than "edifice" or "cathedral" ...the hell with it: edifices. It seems that recently, I have really caught the ballpark bug, visiting Wrigley this weekend and will visit both Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium later this summer. In the meantime, here are a rundown of the "cathedrals" of sport I have visited in my life, distinguishing between the ones I have just "seen" and the ones where I have actually seen the sport played.
BALLPARKS WHERE I'VE ACTUALLY BEEN INSIDE AND WATCHED BASEBALL Jacobs Field (Some corporate hacks might say "Progressive Field") - Cleveland Cleveland Municipal Stadium - Cleveland Great American Ballpark - Cincinnati Fenway Park - Boston Wrigley Field - Chicago Chase Field - Phoenix
SAW THE BALLPARK FROM OUTSIDE BUT NEVER SAW A GAME THERE: U.S. Cellular Field (a.k.a. Comiskey Park) - Chicago Cinergy Field (a.k.a. Riverfront Stadium) - Cincinnati SkyDome; toured the ballpark with parents in 1993 - Toronto Turner Field - Atlanta; passed up a chance to go to a game there this summer and still regret it Old Busch Stadium - St. Louis AT&T Park - San Francisco
Feel free to leave your lists in my comments. If any of my loyal readers would like to go on a ballpark visiting vacation, they should let me know.
MANNY RAMIREZ IS LIKE AN EX-GIRLFRIEND THAT WON'T GO AWAY
If you're a Cleveland Indians fan, Manny Ramirez is like a hot significant other that dumped you years ago -- and, tragically, is still hot, if not hotter, than when you were together.
And it's awkward because you have to see each other once in a while.
I've noticed a few Tribe fans on the b/r who seem to still lust after Ramirez. They long for the days of yore when Ramirez manned right field in Cleveland, slugged doubles and homeruns, and never legged out a ground ball. I'm sure they were even more hot and bothered with Manny's two-run, ninth inning blast off Joe Borowski Monday night that gave the Boston Bleepin' Red Sox a come-from-behind win over the Wahoos. But hot and bothered in a "I-hate-you-but-I-still-list-you-as-one-of-my-favorite-childhood-players" sort of way.
Sure, Ramirez has two World Series rings, and Cleveland has none. And sure, Ramirez has a fat contract, an adoring fan base in Boston and, at the rate he's been playing in the past couple of days, will crack his 500th career home run, oh, I don't know, tomorrow.
That said, I still wouldn't want him back. And I still wouldn't cheer for him if he came to the plate, nor will I when on his first ballot he gets inducted into the Hall of Fame.
It's hard to explain, but I guess it's a pride thing. I understand that in the winter of 2001, when Manny inked his 8-year, $160 million-deal with the Red Sox, he was only acting with business in mind. He essentially took his agent's word as gospel, and it's worked out for him. Despite his numerous mental and verbal gaffes, Boston embraces "Manny being Manny" like they embrace traffic on the Mass Pike. It annoys them a little sometimes, but mostly they laugh and realize they couldn't live without it. Really, the Cleveland diehards who remember watching him develop as a player should be happy for him.
But this is sports. There are winners and losers.
Remember Manny's stunt at home plate last year in Game 4? He admired a meaningless solo shot and showed up the opposition with a pregnant pause and self-exaltation at home plate. That's like when a ex-girlfriend grabs her new boyfriend and makes out with him right in front of you. Completely uncalled for. Casey Blake probably thought about tripping him as he rounded third but refrained from the poor sportsmanship as the Indians were seemingly bound for the fall classic, which they were until the fates intervened (Josh Beckett, Dustin Pedroia) and everything fell apart.
But last year is over. As are all of the years between now and when Manny left the Tribe. I mentioned earlier that when I attend games where Manny plays, I don't cheer. I also don't boo. I don't want to be disrespectful. When your "ex" gives you a cold "hello," you reply with the obligatory head-nod acknowledgement, don't you? That's kind of what it's like. By sitting on my hands and maintaining a stoic silence, I'm making my point. It's over. We've moved on. He's moved on. Let's all try to keep our dignity.
When Manny hits No. 500, knowing that he hit 236 of those with the Indians, I will send an obligatory head nod of acknowledgment in his direction. Nothing more, nothing less.
(That said, you'd better believe I have him on my fantasy team right now. He is raking in the points!)
TRIBE IN TROUBLE: WHY CLEVELAND INDIANS FANS SHOULD WORRY I'm not sure what's shakier right now: the Indians pitching or the economy. And Joe Borowski's disabled-list stint -- after blowing two April saves in fantastically painful ways -- is kind of like the coming economic stimulus. It will provide temporary relief, but won't keep the ball club from getting screwed later. (Most of you will have to pay back that stimulus, by the way.)
The biggest problem the Tribe has isn't even Joe Blow or the closer position. It's the reigning A.L. Cy Young award winner C.C. Sabathia. Sabathia is 0-3 with a preposterous 13.50 ERA after his shelling last night at the hands of the Detroit Tigers. Though most of the damage came in a nightmarish 5th inning, in which Sabathia did not record a single out, Sabathia totally harmed himself by walking five, a troubling trend that fellow starter Fausto Carmona has also shown this April.
Analyst after analyst has said, "C.C.'s gonna snap out of it. He's too good." I sincerely hope all of them are correct. But I wouldn't be me -- the annoying, told-you-so me -- if I didn't point you to this post from the off-season. I proposed the idea that if the Indians couldn't make a trade for Jason Bay or another everyday corner outfielder (didn't happen) and if they couldn't re-sign Sabathia before spring training started on their terms (also didn't happen), then they should shop him -- trade him to get something for him before he bolts at contract's end.
As much as I hate to be wrong, sometimes I hate to be right. This is one of those times.
I got murdered for this idea from everyone who read it because most of them blinded by loyalty to No. 52 and because most of them never read Terry Pluto's book about the Indians, Dealing. I was berated fiercely because one of the names I mentioned was Juan Pierre, who I'll admit delivers an .OPS akin to the attendance at most Florida Marlins games. But, really, I imagined the Indians acquiring an outfielder, a closer (the Indians are without a legitimate one right now) and whatever prospects they could get to fill out the farm. I suggested, logically, they trade him to a place like L.A., which is close to home for Sabathia and has two organizations with the cash capabilities to pay him his astonishingly high market value when he becomes a free agent.
I won't rehash every ounce of logic I spewed there. Go back and read it yourself. But what I will say is that Mark Shapiro -- who is a genius for assembling the Indians core of Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, Jhonny Peralta and Ryan Garko -- couldn't quite put together a safe but bold off-season deal that would have guaranteed the Indians to be a winning ballclub for years to come. He put a little too much faith in Borowski, and he didn't recognize that Sabathia, in all likelihood, was going to go the route of Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez, testing the free-agent waters only to say "Siyanara" to the city on the lake. With no changes or risks coming into 2008, the Indians organization was collectively sitting at a game of five-card draw, holding three 4s and refusing to draw a card. Too bad quite a few hands can beat a three-of-a-kind.
Sabathia may turn this around and go 17-3. The Indians might start finally start hitting, climb out of this 5-10 hole they've gotten themselves into, and play right back to the top of the A.L. Central. But Kansas City is better, Chicago is off to a startlingly good start with revived pitching, Minnesota isn't as barren as everyone says, and Detroit proved tonight how they can play their way back into the race and win the division: scorch everyone to death with the best one-through-nine in baseball.
What does the Tribe have? A lot of question marks. They need a savior, an unexpected pick-me-up from someone we've written off. Maybe it's Cliff Lee or Andy Marte or Josh Barfield. Maybe it's Ben Francisco, who most people are dubbing the next Carl Yastrzemski in comparison to Cleveland's woeful Jason Michaels/David Dellucci platoon. Maybe it's Trevor Crowe, Adam Miller, or Rafael Perez. Call me a pessimist if you want, but it's probably not C.C. Sabathia. In retrospect, though, if he bombs this year, the Indians might be able to overpay for him in the off-season and bring him back.
This rough start is enough to make you wish you could go back in a time to October and shanghai Joel Skinner and Josh Beckett in the night. I'll be watching the Indians at Yankee Stadium in May, and I really hope I don't have to bring a paper sack to wear over my head. Maniac Manny Ramirez's ninth-inning blast Monday was enough to remind us Wahoos of the world that we were so close yet were -- and are -- so far away.