Monday, September 29, 2008

Tigers fans deserve standing ovation

        A friend called today to ask if I am happy that the Tigers’ season is finally over.
        I told him my emotions are mixed.
        Part of me certainly is happy because I am tired of writing about losing.
        However, part of me still can’t believe this season unfolded the way it did.
        I saw it. I lived it. But I can’t believe it.
        And I can’t explain it. Nobody can.
        I have covered a lot of crummy Tiger teams in my time. I have been on hand for the somber endings to a lot of losing seasons as the team and the seasons sobering limped to a melancholy close.
        But I never witnessed anything like the scene I saw at Comerica Park during the final two games this year.
        A total of 81,129 tickets were sold for those last two home games. Of course, those tickets  were purchased when pennant fever was rampant.  Nevertheless, that was almost half as many tickets as the Tigers sold for the entire season in 1904 and again in 1906 at old Bennett Park.
        I know because I covered those two losing Tiger teams, too.
        Tens of thousands of fans showed up for the final two games this year _  not to boo or grouse or second guess, but rather to laugh and to cheer and to have a good time.
        Under the circumstances, considering this season’s colossal disappointment, it was incredible.
        Jim Leyland was so moved he teared up in his office after the next-to-last game.
        “I couldn’t believe that,” the Tigers’ grizzled manager admitted.
        “I looked around the park and I was thinking, ‘We’re in last place _ and look at all these people.’ ”
        For the second year in a row, the Tigers lured more than three million people through the turnstiles _ 3,202,645 to be exact.
        They deserved a better show than the one they got.
        They were the only ones who didn't embarrass themselves this year.
        But I wonder how many of them will rush out to buy tickets next season.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mulling over my Cy Young Award ballot

        A year ago, I was one of 28 writers empowered to elect the American League MVP. After spending the final month of the season studying, analyzing and comparing their credentials, I cast my vote for Magglio Ordonez over the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez.
        There was no doubt in my mind then  -- and there is no doubt in my mind now --  that I made the right choice.
        Not everyone agreed. That’s putting it mildly. I lost count of the number of  people  -- especially New Yorkers, as usual blind to their own provincial bias _ who cried foul. I caught hell.
        Those votes annually rotate among the baseball beat writers in each A.L. city. This year, I will be voting on the Cy Young Award.
        No controversy, no debate, no question there. The winner has to be Cleveland’s Cliff Lee, right?
        Not necessarily.
        Lee’s numbers are dazzling: 22 wins, just two losses, a 2.41 ERA.
        Even Denton True Young, also known as Cy, would be impressed.
        Lee is certainly a great story. Banished to the minors last year and excluded from the Indians’ postseason roster, Lee went to spring training hoping to land a job as Cleveland’s fifth starter. 
        Instead, he is enjoyed a year for the ages.
        Another thing I like: Lee throws strikes.  Only once this season has Lee walked more than two batters in a game.       
        However, 14 of his wins have come at the expense of teams with losing records -- including five against the Kansas City Royals. And the list of Lee’s victims includes  Dontrelle Willis, Livan Hernandez, Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn, and rookies Clayton Richard and Chris Lambert.
        Give Toronto’s Roy Halladay the six runs a game that Lee has gotten this year, and Doc would at least be 22-2, too, instead of a misleading 19-11. Toronto has scored two runs or less in eight of Halladay’s 11 losses this year.
        Halladay has pitched more innings (237 to Lee’s 216 1/3), completed twice as many games (8), and struck out more enemy hitters (220 to 162).
        Although Halladay pitches half of his games in a ballpark that favors hitters, batters are hitting just .239 against him compared to .251 against Lee.
        Ask the hitters in the Tigers’ clubhouse and a lot of them will tell you they think Halladay is the best pitcher in the league.
        Of course, they don’t have a vote.     
        And where would the Los Angeles Angels be without Francisco Rodriguez’s record 60 saves? Not counting the days until the playoffs begin, I can guarantee that.
        But, as my annual Hall of Fame ballots will attest, I have never been a big fan of reliever pitchers, as crucial as the role of the closer has become in today’s game.
        To paraphrase Jim Leyland, if a pitcher can’t get three outs in the ninth inning before he gives up three runs, he doesn’t belong in the big leagues. For me, the save is a somehow hollow statistic.
        And all of those single-inning saves aside, I don’t even think Rodriguez is the best relief pitcher in the A.L. For my money, I’d rather have Boston’s Jonathon Papelbon, Minnesota’s Joe Nathan or New York’s Mariano Rivera.
        The Tigers would be headed for the postseason this year if they had a closer of that caliber. But I doubt they have enough confidence in Rodriguez to shell out the mega millions he is sure to demand on the free agent market this winter.

Friday, September 12, 2008

No postseason? No problems

        This is the time of the year when the sportswriters who cover baseball’s top teams spend as much time trying to navigate the mind-boggling maze of postseason travel possibilities as they do writing their daily stories.
        Believe me, it is a complicated chore that can make your hair hurt.
        Since nobody yet knows who is going to play whom or where or when in the playoffs, you have to make a myriad of conflicting hotel reservations to cover every conceivable contingency _ only about one-fifth of which, at most, you will eventually end up using.
        Who will win their divisions? Who will the wild card be? Which days will your team play?
        And you can imagine how much fun it is trying to book all of those flights at the last-minute to get you where you need to be _ with hundreds of other people, fans and writers and regular customers, trying to get on those same planes to make those same trips.
        When the Tigers were rained out during the American League Division Series in New York in 2006, I exhausted the charge in my cell phone, then spent an additional hour on a press box pay phone, just trying to arrange a flight home.
        And because I wasn’t able to book my flight to Oakland for the second round of the playoffs until the day before I departed, I got stuck in a dreaded middle seat _ between two fat guys, one of whom chomped on Pringles all the way west.
        Thanks to the Tigers, I don’t have any such worries this year.
        Of course, that means more work for my wife. She is already on the second page of her “honey do” list.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Shhh. Instant replay at work.

        Just inside the tunnel behind home plate at Comerica Park, bolted to the concrete wall across the corridor from the umpires’ dressing room, there is a locked 4-by-4 foot gray box.
        “Property of The Office of The Commissioner of Baseball,” it reads. “For use by authorized Major League Personnel only.”
        It’s the infamous “replay box.”
        It is top secret and very hush-hush. The Tigers’ public relations people claim they can’t talk about it without permission from Major League Baseball. Writers walking by the box on their way to and from the field are supposed to turn their heads and shield their eyes.
        However, I have it on good authority that the mysterious box contains a flat-screen TV, a remote control, and a telephone that will provide the umpires with a direct link to mission control in New York.
        Technicians at baseball headquarters --  sequestered in what I have been told is a 18-by-24 foot  room known as the Network Operations Center, filled with computers and TV screens, on the fifth floor of a former bakery in Manhattan’s meatpacking district --  will provide the umpires at every ballpark in the country with as many different views as possible of any home run in question.
        The umpires will then uphold or reverse the call -- fair or four, over the fence or not.
        But be forewarned: Baseball’s entire high-tech replay system will be at the mercy of the local television feeds.
        And, as we have seen, those are not always conclusive or fool proof
        Earlier this month Placido Polanco launched a long, high ninth-inning fly ball down the left field line at Comerica Park. The third base umpire called it foul. Jim Leyland asked him to check with the home plate umpire to see if a replay was warranted. The umps huddled and, without any electronic intervention, decreed that their original call was correct.
        Based on the one TV replay I saw, moments after the play, I thought the ball was definitely foul. But when I reached the Tigers’ clubhouse after the game, several of the players were gathered around TV sets in the video room, watching replay after replay after replay.
        From some angles it looked like a home run. No question. From others, it definitely appeared foul. The more they watched, the more uncertain it became.
        Ultimately it came down to the umpires’ judgment, just as it has in baseball for more than 100 years.
        There have been more than 2,000  games played this season --  and, at most, maybe 25 questionable home run calls that might have qualified for instant replay.
        For that, baseball has spent $2.5 million setting up the replay system -- or $100,000 per disputable call, maybe five of which would have been overturned.
        Everyone is in favor of getting every call right. But it seems to me, the umpires have been doing a pretty good job of that for the last century or so.
        What’s next? Balls that are trapped by diving outfielders? Balls that just miss the chalk lines?
        I fear this is, indeed, a dangerous, slippery slope.
        Unlike pro football, where coaches can call for an instant replay by hurling a red flag out on the field, baseball managers cannot request a replay. If they could, Jim Leyland joked he might grab 160-pound infield coach Rafael Belliard and throw him out on the field to get the umpires’ attention.