The Final Season: The Brutal Hope of Winning

Atlanta 4 – Pittsburgh 2; CJ: 0-4

I often complain about the Braves losing, usually after they drop a few in a row. Like when they started this season 0-4, I instantly thought all ‘doom and gloom,’ that it was a sign they were going to have a terrible season. Deep down, I know that’s a crazy thing to think after only four games, but what can I say? I’m a true fan.

But that tendency to think the worst would probably make it impossible for me to be a Pirates fan. I should ask my family back east how they do it. I mean, they’ve had to endure nearly two decades of losing seasons. And not just losing. We’re talking permanently locked in the basement of the Central division. (Which is somewhat fitting because they have basements in Pitt. We don’t have those in Texas.)

I know a lot of their fans blame it on Barry Bonds. And why not? He’s an easy person to hate. Plus, he doesn’t seem to care when people do hate him. So I’ll blame it on him, too. I mean, if you point to the decline of the Pirates beginning with their big loss in the 1992 NLCS, then it’s not a big stretch to say he’s a big factor. He was a Gold Glove outfielder, and his throw to home in Game 7 to get Sid Bream that cost them the series was pretty offline. And then, after contributing to that loss, he jumped ship and never looked back, leaving after that season for the San Francisco Giants, whom, I’m assuming, could pay him more money. And the Pirates have barely moved forward since.

**Interesting side note (well, I think it is, at least): I’m re-reading this book about the 1992 Braves that my grandparents got me years ago. (A lot of people have supported my Braves habit over the years.) In the book, the author talks about how the Braves were rumored to have tried trading for Bonds. Could you imagine that? Part of me is horrified by the idea. As the author summarized by quoting one anonymous Braves player, than Atlanta would have had the two biggest a-holes in baseball, Bonds and Justice, in the same locker room. That would have been rough on chemistry, I imagine. But on the other hand, Bonds was reallly goooood. He would have made a huge difference to that team. I predict World Series victories in ’92 and ’93 if he’s a Brave. Ok, maybe not. But they would have been even better than they already were. I mean, come on! They would have been awesome. That pitching and his offense! Oh, what could have been. Oh well. It’s probably for the better.

Not better for the Pirates, though. I used to wonder which was worse – watching your team not make the playoffs at all or watching your team lose in the playoffs. Is it tougher knowing from day one of Spring Training that your team won’t win a lot of games or believing your team can win, but, in the end, they don’t win enough?

In response, I thought about what people say regarding expectations. Expect the least and you’ll never be disappointed. For instance, as a Braves fan, I can’t help but expect a lot. (And, ultimately, be disappointed.) But, as a Bucs fan, I thought maybe there was a weird peace in knowing where the team stood relative to the others. That way, when they do manage to get close to .500, fans get excited. So, by that logic, it would be worse to be disappointed at the end of the season than to be pleasantly surprised.

But then I thought about something else: hope. There’s always hope. The hope that maybe this year will be different. That maybe this year they’ll finally put it all together and win again. And that hope is brutal

So then it became clear to me. Watching your team lose in the playoffs is hard. I’ve done that plenty of times. But in those few years when the Braves didn’t make the playoffs, it was harder to watch them struggle to win every game, especially remembering how they used to dominate. That was worse. I mean, in the post season I only had to suffer through four loses after a year of probably 75-90 wins. Granted they were big loses, but there were still only four of them. Compare that to a 162 game season where fans cheer for their team to win every single one, even though we know it’s impossible. That’s a larger amount of suffering and anguish and unfulfilled hope.

And I know from talking with my dad that that hope is always there. Sure, Pirate fans can say every year they know their team is going to be awful, but those old enough to still remember the team’s past glories, to remember Stargell and Clemente, have to secretly hope the tide will finally turn and winning will come back to Pittsburg. ‘Cause that’s the thing about fandom – you can’t help but be hopeful.

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The Final Season: The Hype Machine

Pittsburgh 4 – Atlanta 2; CJ: 0-1

So, the Earth shook today. You probably felt it. It was caused by the “earth-shattering” debut of Bryce Harper, as his talent is literally too much for the earth’s axis to handle. But those aren’t my words. Those belong to one blogger who thinks Harper is seriously the second coming of baseball Jesus (behind Babe Ruth). And he’s not alone. The hype for this kid is easily cranked up to 11.

To be fair, the hype machine has been warming up for a while for this kid. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16, heralded than as baseball’s LeBron James. At 16?! (Pause to think about where you were at 16.) He was drafted two years ago out of quasi-college after he left high school early to play college ball sooner so he could get drafted earlier. (Not enough kids leave college early to play pro sports, but now they gotta leave high school early, too?) And this kid has apparently bought his own hype at a premium because he chose Scott Boras as his agent and held out for a ton of cash until the last second to sign with the Washington Nationals who drafted him. (Holding out for millions as an unproven kid is not a great way to introduce yourself to the baseball world in my opinion.) Not to mention he’s not exactly been the model of good sportsmanship, making the news a handful of times for ejections and tantrums thrown in the minor leagues.

Anyway, it’s not the kid’s behavior that amazes me. Following sports for 20+ years, those actions become par for the course. (I’ll never forget J.D. Drew holding out for more money.) It’s the hype machine, in its full, revved up glory that amazes me. When Harper was drafted, people were actually speculating whether the Nationals would bring him up to the majors right away. At 17! Granted, two years ago, the Nationals needed all the help they could get. Oh, and he did play in college so it’s not like he was fresh out of high school– oh, come on! Were these people serious? He was a teenager who hadn’t had a single professional at bat, yet he was ready for the bigs? To me, that’s the hype machine gone completely out of control.

Yet, not operating at a level we hadn’t seen before. The list of players who have received this kind of hype is miles long, from Lebron to Kobe to Tony Mandarich. And there’s more, so many more that have come or will come. And the level is always set at, ‘It’s a definite that this kid will be successful.’ The sports ‘talking heads’ don’t ever pause to ask ‘if,’ only how – how successful, how big an impact, how much will the player change the game, etc. They use terms like ‘earth-shattering,’ ‘unbelievable,’ ‘phenomenal,’ and ‘potential to be the greatest ever.’

Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes guys bust, like Mandarich or Ryan Leaf or Todd Van Poppel Or sometimes their careers are just good, not great, like Drew or Felipe Lopez. But despite being wrong, the heads just keep talking. I suppose that’s what really amazes me. They see a Ryan Leaf that’s fallen by the wayside and just say, ‘Oh well. But now this guy, he is guaranteed to be a-mazing! A talent you’ve never seen before and will never see again!’

For me, I just find all the hype meaningless. How successful will the guy be? Well, if you wait five minutes (or five years) and watch him play, you’ll know. Now stop talking and show me some highlights, ESPN. But maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, so the hype machine has been in overdrive for the past 24 hours after the Nationals announced they would bring up Harper for his debut. (Actually, 24 hours, relatively speaking, isn’t that long for the hype machine to be running.) And the Nationals did opt to let him spend a couple seasons in the minors, which I think is good, so at least the Nationals seem to have cool heads about all this.

And how did his debut go? Well, he was 1-3 with an RBI and a double. Not too shabby. I’m not ready to put a crown on his head and call him the greatest ever or anything, which I bet some people will be ready to do. I’m more content to wait and see how it plays out.

Anyway, congratulations to Bryce Harper on making it to the major leagues. I hope it’s the start of a long, successful, fun-to-watch career.

The Final Season: Clemente’s Graceful Aging

Atlanta 6 – Pittsburgh 1; CJ:2-4, 2 RBI (12)

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I should say my dad is the main reason I’m a baseball fan. Over the two decades I’ve followed the sport, I’ve watched probably 75% of the baseball games I’ve seen with my dad. A lot of my knowledge and appreciation for the sport comes directly from him. It’s definitely a big part of our relationship.

Usually when we’re sitting together, we talk about sports. Occasionally we talk about family (mostly his big ol’ Italian family back east) or how each other’s work and hobbies are going. He’s big into cars – Corvettes really. He has one, and he spends a lot of his free time tweaking it. We don’t usually get into anything too deep or profound, although once in a while we share our thoughts on life and what it’s all for. But mostly sports.

A year ago we were talking, and I was voicing my frustration at watching Chipper struggle. How it was tough for me because I would see him on TV, and he looked the same, swung the bat the same, but the results weren’t the same. My thought was, if he looked he always does, shouldn’t he be able to play like he always has? Although I knew that didn’t make sense. I also talked about how weird it was that Chipper was ‘old,’ and how him being old made me ‘old’. Well… older. Basically all the stuff I’ve been contemplating through this blog – the end of an era, the end of my childhood, etc.

And my father, a Pittsburgh native and lifelong Pirates fans, said, ‘I completely understand because I went through the same thing with Roberto Clemente.’ He recounted to me how, at the end of Clemente’s career, he was injured a lot, but not with big injuries, just minor aches and pains. He told me that Clemente wouldn’t play through those injuries, much to the dismay of his teammates and the media, because, if Clemente felt he couldn’t compete at the level he believed he should, he wouldn’t play. As a result, the media questioned his toughness, accused him of being too soft. And his teammates were upset, too, because, when he was playing, he still made an impact. The way my dad put it was, he wasn’t a “gamer,” but he was an “impact player” (to use a couple clichés). So while Clemente’s numbers were down the last years of his career, my dad never really saw him deteriorate because if he couldn’t play at the level he wanted to, he didn’t play. So, as a kid, my dad never knew him to be a struggling has-been, just the legend he was.

Any of that sound familiar to anyone?? The similarities to Chipper, in my opinion, are eerie. He’s injured a lot. Media and fans have questioned if he’s pushing himself enough. And he’s said himself that if he can’t play at the level he is used to, he won’t play anymore.

My dad also talked about how he was frustrated by Clemente not playing, as I am with Jones, but that, even as a kid, he understood Clemente’s choses. He understood that Clemente was older and that he inevitably wouldn’t be able to produce like he used to. It was just the way it was. No sense getting upset over it. Plus, my dad pointed out, he still had a young Willie Stargell to cheer for. He said of course he missed watching Clemente play. He swears he’s never seen a more impressive player. He’s often told me stories about going to games and watching during batting practice as Clemente would throw balls in from the outfield wall to second base on a laser-guided line. Easily the strongest arm ever, he says. And while he wasn’t the most graceful player – sort of ran with a weird hiccup my dad says – he played hard when he was in and always seemed to perform when it mattered most.

Yep, my dad loved watching Clemente play, yet he understood he wouldn’t be great forever. So I guess I can’t get too frustrated with Jones. It’s just, like my dad, I miss watching him play like he used to. He never could field for s… well, you know what. He could catch, but he couldn’t throw. Often times, he throws to first wouldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat, as they say.

But man could he hit. And he did it with such regularity. And I think pretty gracefully as well. He maybe doesn’t have the prettiest swing in baseball (that honor forever goes to ‘The Kid’) but it had to be one of the better ones out there. Compact, fluid. According to the announcers, everything – hands, feet, balance – where it needed to be. The kind of swing you teach kids to do. And he could go anywhere with the ball, and often did. I frequently heard announcers say something like, he just hit a pitcher’s pitch, or something along those lines.

And that’s the toughest part of watching the old Chip play. Every time I watch a game, I expect to see the young Chip. And when he isn’t, that’s where the frustration comes from. (Probably for him, too.) It’s kind of like that hope fans never lose that their team will win. While I can’t shake the hope that he’ll perform like he did when he was younger, like he did so many times before, I do understand his getting older is inevitable. And that I just need to shift perspective about it. I need to remember what I used to see and then get excited when I see flashes of it now. But don’t expect it more. Those days have passed. He’s not the player he was then. Yet, he’ll always be the player he was. You follow?

At least this final season, he’s off to a strong start.

The Final Season: Chip’s Bobby Knight Impression

Braves 4 – Dodgers 2; CJ: 1-4, RBI (10)

So this post is going to be a little light on facts and substance, mainly because it’s coming entirely from memory. I tried doing some research to bolster the story, but apparently my Google skills leave a little something to be desired. Anyway…

It’s very likely Mr. Jones played his last game at Dodger Stadium tonight, so I started thinking about my favorite Chipper Jones memory in Los Angeles, and, wouldn’t you know it, the first thing that popped into my head was a game in which Chip got tossed for arguing with an umpire. I don’t know what that says about me, going straight to something negative, but I’m just going to look at it as an example of the human tendency for negative memories to present themselves more strongly in the mind. But I digress. As I mentioned before, since I can’t seem to find any record of this game in question, a lot of this story is going to be conjecture. (Plus, my lack of internet evidence is making me doubt it even happened, as if something isn’t real unless the information cloud can confirm it. What that says about society is too big a question to tackle here.)

It had to be early in his career, as the memory is hazy. It was definitely at Dodger Stadium, though. And I think – but, again, can’t confirm – it was over balls and strikes. And I’m pretty sure he was at the plate when it happened, so it’s likely that he took umbrage with a strike call. I can’t tell you the situation, Braves winning or losing, what inning it is, does it even matter he got tossed, etc. What I do remember quite clearly is what followed his argument and ejection. It was, what had to be, the biggest hissy fit of Jones’ career.

Now, all the details aren’t quite concrete, but this is what I hazily remember: a water cooler actually ending up on the field with a handful of bats or balls or other equipment around it. Or maybe the bats just took a beating in the dugout. Anyway, I also remember, following the explosion of anger, the back of Chip’s head as he walked down into the clubhouse.

One of the reasons I remember it so starkly is, and this point I am certain of, it’s the only time I’ve seen Chipper act that way. Sure, he’s been thrown out of games before. (The best one possibly coming just a couple years ago when he was on the DL at the end of the season, and he got thrown out from the bench. That was pretty funny.) But never before (or since) had he displayed such emotion. Frankly, before this incident, I didn’t even know he had it in him, so it definitely stuck with me when I saw it.

But, to be honest, while disappointed to see him behave that way, I was a little pleased. You kinda like for your favorite player to have passion, and Chip often times seems so laid back about everything. So, to that point, it was a little refreshing to see him get upset. It was like, oh, okay, he really does care about this game. I mean, I was pretty sure he did, but that moment just confirmed it.

Anyway, that’s my starkest memory of Chipper playing in Los Angeles, even with the handful of playoff games the Braves have had there. Chip throwing a mild Bobby Knight hissy fit sticks out the most. On the scale of hissies, it probably only gets a six or seven, cause I don’t think he got much distance with the water cooler, but I’ll give him over a five just for the effort.

The Final Season: Happy 40th!

Atlanta 4, Los Angeles 3; CJ: 1-3, HR (3), RBI (9), R, BB

So, it’s Chip’s birthday today. The big ol’ 4-0. Four decades done and time to start the fifth.

He’s usually pretty good on his birthday, if my memory serves me well. (Should be better than his, at least, since it’s not ancient.) I think he’s hit well overall on this day. I’m pretty sure he has a good number of homeruns, another of which he added today. Or, at least he did before he started breaking down.

And speaking of breaking down and Chip’s birthday, I have really only have one memory of Chip playing on his birthday. (Guess that’s why I don’t remember for sure how well he’s played on the 24th of April.) And, sadly, the one memory I have is… not necessarily a good one, although I know it makes me smile.

It was only a couple years ago, which might be why I can remember it, although not many of the details. Can’t say who the opponent was, or even if the Braves won or not. But it was definitely Chipper’s birthday and… he left the game early. Now, you might be thinking, it’s Chipper Jones, when doesn’t he leave a game early? And to that I say, touché. However, the reason I remember this game isn’t because he left early, but why he did. He hurt his hip. Now, I don’t want to make any jokes (yes I do) because I’m a fan, but of all the things to hurt – your hip – on all the days to do it – your birthday. And not a birthday for turning 25 or even 28. But 37 or so. And, as baseball fans know, by the time you reach the late 30’s, you’re getting up there in age in baseball terms. There aren’t that many players that age.

And he leaves the game because… he hurt his hip. Happy Birthday, old man! I wonder, did Jones tell Jeff Porter, the Braves steadfast trainer, when he came out to help him, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. Or, instead of a stretcher, did they think about getting him a walker to help him off the field? Hopefully one with tennis balls on the bottom? And perhaps they had a clapper installed in his room, both at home and in the team hotels, so if he fell, he could call for help. (Oh, if only I were witty enough to come up with some original hip jokes.)

Am I wrong, though? To make fun of the man who is the oldest player on his team for hurting his hip on his birthday? Ah, who cares? I know I laugh just thinking about it. I also remember, when he was talking about the injury after the game, he said he felt it pop. Now, I’m no doctor, but when you’re dealing with hips, popping sounds can’t be very good, particularly when you’re dealing with an elderly male. Ask any 80, I mean 40-year-old man who has hurt his hip.

Alright, I’ll be fair for just a second, as it is his birthday. And I know athletes hurt hips all the time and that sometimes they can hurt them pretty severely. Bo knows. (As in Jackson. ‘Cause he had bad hips. Apologies, I couldn’t resist.) And Chipper very well could have been in a lot of pain that day. So kudos, Chip, for making it back from your debilitating hip injury and playing until you’re 40.

Oh, and Happy Birthday! 40. That’s not bad. It is over the hill, though, right? Guess that’s why you’re retiring. Good choice.

The Final Season: Ted vs. Rupert

Los Angeles 7 – Atlanta 2; CJ: DNP

Tough loss, particularly since came against the Dodgers. There’s always been a little (possibly made up) rivalry in my mind between these two teams because of the recent history of these two organizations. Mainly, the history of when the Braves were owned by Ted Turner and the Dodgers were owned by Rupert Murdoch.

For those of you that aren’t (too) familiar with Braves history like I am, Ted Turner, the cable TV pioneer that brought the world TBS and TNT, among other things, owned the Atlanta Braves from 1976 to 2007. On the opposite coast, another media mogul, known primarily for enabling Fox News, Aussie Rupert Murdoch got into baseball when he purchased the Dodgers in 1998 from the O’Malley family, one of the more iconic baseball owning families in history (primarily for their role in breaking the color barrier with Jackie Robinson).

Now, come 1998 when the Turner owned Braves first played the Murdoch owned Dodgers, I was already pretty die hard for the Braves, and that year, for reasons I can’t remember (as is common with fights), Turner and Murdoch got into a war of words. It may not have even had anything to do with baseball, because I know the two men weren’t exactly fans of each other in the business arena. And, truth be told, I wasn’t always the biggest fan of Turner. While he had stopped most of his outlandish behavior by the time I became a fan, I heard stories of his antics (like attempting to change a players last name to ‘Channel’ because he wore #17, which happened to be one of the channels Turner owned and he thought it would be good publicity), and what I did hear, I didn’t care for. Even with that, I absolutely, at 16, took sides with Turner. He was a Brave, I was a Brave, therefor, in my mind, Murdoch was wrong. Not only wrong, but a pompous arse as well. (At the time, who knows if my sentiment was justified or not, but, in hindsight, I don’t think I was far off.) And whether or not their disagreements were baseball related, I remember they used the Braves and Dodgers to fight a sort of proxy war, and you know what side I will come down on in and Atlanta – LA war.

Now, granted that history is no longer relevant since it has been many years since those two men owned either of the teams (and, my, how Dodgers fans actually might have missed Rupert with the McCourt debacle), but, as that feud was going on when I was a young fan, it will forever be a part of my mindset. Thus, I think of it every time the Braves and Dodgers meet, and I still love beating the Dodgers a little more than beating some other (non-division) teams.

Although, I do have to say (as I can’t very well post about Dodger ownership and not mention the current situation), I am glad to see the organization get out from underneath Frank McCourt, and I do hope it brings nothing but positive changes to the Dodgers. After all, it’s no fun beating up on a weakling.

The Final Season: Should Athletes Get Paid So Much?

Arizona 6, Atlanta 4; CJ: 0-1

One last thing about money and sports (on a day Chip grounds into one of those $18,000 double plays I mentioned a couple posts ago), then I promise I’ll never talk about it again. Well, actually, I probably will. It’s just too interesting a topic for me. Anyway…

All this talk about what athletes make, and the financial structure they exist in, got me thinking about another question, one I’m sure I won’t be able to answer: If you can pay an athlete millions of dollars, should you? Is there a moral obligation to compensation?

This past offseason, a guy named Albert Pujols signed a tiny, underreported (sarcasm) contract. For the bargain price of $254 million, paid over 10 years, or, (for those math impaired folks) roughly $25.4 million a year, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (and yes, that’s their full name) signed Pujols. That made Pujols one of the top paid players in the league. (Alex Rodriguez is still numero 1.)

Is Pujols (or A-Rod and the like) worth $25.4 million a year? Well, if I was to answer that in line with my previous posts, the market has spoken, so… yes. Looking at his numbers over his 11-year career (.328 BA, 445 HR, 1333 RBI) compared to other first basemen, the MLB market determined he was worth that much. Plus (in my opinion), salary is about more than what a player’s physical ability is worth. It’s also about what the team thinks it will get in return for their investment in that player. In other words, if a team can pay you $25 million, it’s because they think they can make $125 million off of you.

But, should he be earning that much? It’s an interesting question, particularly now, as we are in a recession and a lot of people are frustrated by the huge bonuses they see top executives getting while so many struggle to make ends meet. It reminds me of a debate I had once with some free-market minded friends over the question of moral compensation, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. If you, as an American multinational, can pay a local, rural day laborer in a foreign country $.25 a day to create your product, should you? Or do you have a moral obligation to pay them a competitive wage that is comparable to what you pay your US based workforce? The concept of ‘Fair Trade’ and whatnot. They, of course, said no, arguing there was no moral obligation and companies should let the market determine wage. Besides, they said, it is a competitive salary on a local scale and paying more can have negative effects, like inflation in the local economy. And perhaps they have a point. So then it becomes a question of market definition, I suppose. Should players make as much as the MLB salary market permits or more in line with what the American pay market dictates? Again, that I can’t answer.

So, back to Pujols. As I’ve said, I imagine most people would say, if the Angels want to pay him that much, they should be allowed to. Also, athletes have incredibly unique abilities. They can do things only a very small percentage of the population is capable of doing. On that point, they’ve earned their salaries, not just for being born with the talent, but putting in the work and commitment to get themselves to the highest level.

But should this unique ability be held above all others unique abilities? As I’ve said, I doubt I will ever firmly be able to answer, for myself, this question either yes or no, but I can certainly see the side that would say no. For one thing, there are people that do much greater deeds for our society than ballplayers and get paid far less. Teachers, who are fundamental to the advancement of society through education, are one example. Doctors, who, while they aren’t hurting for cash usually, aren’t paid nearly what athletes are. Social Workers. Some nonprofit workers. Parents. Etc. All do work that directly impacts people’s lives in a tangible way, while athletes just play a game. All that money, in the face of others needs, seems unnecessary.

So, basically, I’ve asked the question and gotten no closer to answering it for myself. I suppose I take solace in knowing so many professional athletes seem to do something, anything, whether big or small to give back and share their wealth. That, at least, sounds morally good.