Friends have been asking, “Isn’t it about time to bury the baseball season?” One supposes so. Although to this moment there’s been no basketball, and only a little hockey worth discussing, while the NFL’s standard warfare doesn’t really growl into shape until you near Thanksgiving.
Still, the implication of the question is reasonable. Baseball decidedly does hog too much of the limelight, especially hereabouts. Some – your host admittedly included – don’t mind that, finding baseball to be easily the most compelling and complex of all sporting subjects. The game simply seems to be deeply dug into our very DNA – especially hereabouts.
The past season, now ending, has been a near perfect example. It ran pretty much 12 months, beginning precisely when last year’s World Series ended in yet another Rangers’ defeat. With the Red Sox having failed to even make the playoffs, questions about what they intended to do about it raged and when they began sniffing about the likes of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, said questions exploded.
Further factor into the equation the consuming interest in the Yankees’ thankless pursuit of Cliff Lee, the controversy over ludicrous signings like Jayson Werth, and the furious scouting of the scrapheap for bargains, and you have a Hot Stove Season that boiled over and before you knew it pitchers and catchers were reporting again to spring training.
Then, at the other end of the spectrum – after the endless ups and downs of another interminable regular season – you had the epic flame-out of your beloved pets that brought all of New England to its knees. Six weeks later the furor only begins to die, while the fallout only just begins to form.
This is baseball. Rather than apologize for it I’m predicting the same thing is about to happen all over again.
Meanwhile, we have the recent World Series to ponder and if you actually watched the entire interminable mess – inning after inning for seven whole fairly endless games – you are equally annoyed about all the adoring mush being dispensed by people, most of them card- carrying knights of the keyboard who were presumably awake, describing the thing as “a classic.”
Anyone who thinks that clumsy seven-game confrontation of stumblebums was a “classic” could only have seen the last four innings of Game Six which, while wild and wacky and undeniably entertaining, hardly ranks as a monument to championship baseball. And that was the best of what this series offered. Who were those jesters out there managing the Rangers and Cardinals; Ron Washington and Tony LaRussa, or Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy?
The only thing the 2011 World Series proved, for better or worse, is this: Wretchedly played baseball that becomes almost comic in its desperation, like something borrowed from an old Keystone Cops’ movie, can be wonderfully entertaining and especially good for the ratings, but it never has, does not now, and never will constitute “classic” baseball. And you can quote me. In terms of artistic merit, this Series bordered on the laughable, I thought, and in the end you didn’t care who won for the meaning of it had been lost.
Listing even the more notable blunders over the seven games would swiftly fill this space and now that it’s over and in the books that would serve little purpose. But the one that state the case best obliges mention. And that would be David Freese’s electrifying triple that saved the Cardinals in the ninth inning of Game Six.
It came with two out and two strikes and his team down by two runs. Freese scorched the ball but it was hit right at Ranger right-fielder Nelson Cruz. Only Cruz was playing too shallow (manager’s mistake), got turned around and reacted to the ball uncertainly (because he was hobbled by a groin strain) before stabbing at it futilely as the game-tying runs scampered around the bases.
It should never have happened. For openers, Cruz should not still have been in the game, his groin problem having flared earlier. The defensively superb Endy Chavez, who pinch-hit in the top of the ninth, should have replaced him in right field. Indeed, Manager Washington did just that in the tenth inning, but what in the name of Abner Doubleday was he thinking in the ninth inning?
Freese’s shot should have been caught, even by the limping Cruz, and surely would have been caught by Chavez, instantly ending the game, the Series, and the season and they’d be parading around Texas all winter. On that one badly botched play, the entire Series and indeed the entire season turned. That is the glory of baseball. But the baseball featured at this World Series was consistently bad baseball and it reportedly has many baseball people grumbling all over the Republic.
Freese’s blow, along with his rather more authentic game-winning homer two innings later, won him MVP laurels for the Series. Now, maybe, he can also learn how to handle pop-ups. You can find irony in any scenario if you look hard enough.
At least the thing is over along with the season, which clearly runs too long, which probably accounts for the shoddy play late in post-season. At the end, half the pitchers on the staffs of the World Series combatants could barely lift their arms. And next season runs even longer – by a full week – extending into November, if we are really lucky, which further lessens the likelihood of improved quality of play.
But that’s next year’s problem. First we get to deal with another gala Hot Stove season with all of its dark, free-agent intrigues, and pulsating warfare in the trade market and it’s a welcome respite. In fact, some find it the best time of the baseball year. You gotta love those winter meetings. And it all begins with the dispensing of the annual awards. Here’s how one handicaps that field:
Most Valuable Players: In the A.L., it probably goes to Justin Verlander, which is dead wrong but hard to deny. Competition is thin. The Red Sox candidates – Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury – got rubbed out by the great collapse. Robby Cano wins it some year, but not this. The Jays’ Jose Bautista will get votes, though playing for a loser hurts his cause. So will the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, but his rap sheet doesn’t help. It’s Verlander and one of these years maybe they’ll wake up and make pitchers ineligible.
In the N.L., Brewers bash-brothers Braun and Fielder contend but it should go to the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, overcoming an industry-wide loathing of the L.A. brand under the ownership of Frank McCourt.
Cy Young: In the A.L., this is the prize Verlander ought only qualify for and richly deserves and he may win it unanimously. The challenges of New York’s C.C. Sabathia and the Angels’ Jared Weaver melted in the stretch.
In the N.L., the Phils’ Roy Halladay (19-6 and 2.35) probably edges the Diamondbacks Ian Kennedy (21-4 and 2.88), whom the Yankees discarded for reasons they’ve never explained.
Rookie of the Year: Most deserving is Tampa’s stylish Jeremy Hellickson, but the most impressive kids to debut this year were his teammates, five-tool outfielder Desmond Jennings and imposing lefty Matt Moore. Both have the potential for greatness. In the N.L., your guess is as good as mine. The Rays spread-eagle the major league field when it comes to player development, especially pitchers. No team does it better.
Manager of the Year: In the A.L., it’s Tampa’s Joe Maddon in a cakewalk. It should be unanimous; maybe every year.
In the N.L., the Phils’ Charlie Manuel has never won, hence the sentiment on his behalf, but it’s more likely to be neck and neck between the Brewers Ron Roenicke and the D’Backs Kirk Gibson, two rookie managers who piloted their teams to playoff berths. It says here it’s Gibson.
Unfortunately, there are no team awards for lousiest finish, most disgraceful exhibition in a pennant race, least class or grace under pressure, and sorriest exhibition by alleged professionals . Because you know who would win all that stuff in a breeze. But enough of that for now. Let the Hot Stove Season begin.