The Final Season: Close It Out

Atlanta 4 – Pittsburgh 0; CJ: 1-1, R

Final Season Stats: .287/.377/.455, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 111 H, 58 R

Final Career Stats: .303/.401/.529, 468 HR, 1623 RBI, 2725 H, 1618 R

It happened. The regular season ended. It always seems to do that, though, no matter how much I protest. At least this year Atlanta will see the postseason, even if only for a brief few hours.

But this last game also means the last day of blogging for me in this epic marathon gauntlet I voluntarily ran into. Today’s post will mark the 162nd time I have posted in the last 6+ months. That’s… a lot. Even I can acknowledge that. I can also acknowledge that it is not a pace I can maintain. In fact, I imagine this being the last post for at least a few days, if not a week or more. I need a little break.

But instead of waxing philosophical about what the last six months have meant to me or shown me, what I got out of all this, if anything, I’m going to finish like I started – writing about baseball. And not writing about what I feel when the season ends or how I long for baseball during the winter (and I do), but writing about a completely random thought I’ve had about this game I love.

Cue the closers (which is fitting as it is my last post).

I had this great conversation with my dad, as I often due, while watching a baseball game recently. Actually, it was a highlight MLB or ESPN or whoever chose to show during the game we were watching, and it was of Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney finishing off a game for the team. And if you know anything about Rodney, you know he seems like kind of an intense, yet animated dude. He cocks his hat to one side, has a long-ish, unkempt beard, and makes large gestures with his arms when he completes a save.

This display of, what I assume to be, machoness prompted a comment to my dad about how all closers are crazy. His response: “Well, they need to be.” This led to me saying the expected, ‘Go on.’

It’s my father’s theory that, to be an effective closer, you have to be a little left of center. His reasoning is that it takes a special kind of person to get amped up for coming in with the game on the line. Typically, when closers get the ball, their team is up by only a run or two, and they are tasked with making sure it stays that way. Their team has battled for eight innings to force themselves out in front with only one half inning standing between them and victory. “So, here’s the ball, closer, and don’t screw it up for the rest of us.’

Being a closer is a high pressure job, for sure. Your sole purpose is to ensure wins. No matter how good the batters are that you’re facing and no matter what the situation as far as men on base threatening to score, you are to come in and close the door. The stress, the adrenaline, the nerves, the sense of control. I could see how some players would enjoy all that. I, personally, not so much. I’m non-confrontational. Put me in for some long relief early in the game with the team down seven because the starter blew up. That I can do. But close? I’d have a stress-induced asthma, panic, and heart attack all at once. But those guys that do it and are good at it seem to love it. Obsess over it. ‘Give me the ball, coach! I’m ready.’

That sort of reckless disregard for anxiety is probably where the tattoos, beards and antics come from. They let loose both literally, with their pitches, and figuratively, with their emotions and, possibly, self-control.

Don’t get me wrong. I love closers. The Braves have one of the best in the game in Craig Kimbrel, and he is certainly a big part of their success. So definitely love closers. I just think it’s funny how so many of them fit into that characterization. Crazy guy with long hair, wild gestures and Technicolor tattoos. The kind of guy that looks prone to getting into bar fights with bikers. And I realize while Kimbrel may not look that way, he does look as intense as any of them when he’s out there.

The best exception I can think of, to offer a counterpoint, is Mariano Rivera. He was, for what seems like decades, the Yankees’ closer. (He’s hurt now but looking to make a comeback.) He is a guy that calmly goes out to the mound, void of all tattoos and piercing holes and flashy gestures, and mows opponents down like they’re blades of grass, just sitting and waiting to be chopped up. But he seems like the exception much more so than the rule.

But, hey, if it’s late in a game and the team needs to shut the door, I don’t mind a guy with a questionable appearance or behavior. As long as he’s effective, we’re good. Again – as long as he’s effective. If he is, I’ll wear as many fake beards in as many fake colors as I can find.


The Final Season: Error or No Error?

Pirates 5 – Braves 1; CJ: DNP

There was an error in today’s game. A pretty obvious throwing error by Juan Francisco, who was filling in for Chipper Jones at third base. He threw wide right of Lyle Overbay, who was playing first base at the time. The kind of play where it wasn’t hard to put an E6 up on the scoreboard.

But sometimes it’s not so easy of a call. One thing I love about baseball is the amount of subjectivity that exists in the game. It seems to rule the entire game, from whether the pitch was a ball or a strike to whether the guy was safe or out.

But that’s the umpires, and I’ve talked enough about them this season. After all, I do believe they’re out there trying to do the best they can, and it’s the nature of their job to make a lot of judgment calls, and they’re not always calls that players and/or fans like. For instance, just tonight Freddie Freeman was ejected from the game for arguing whether or not he checked his swing during an at-bat. Talk about an objective call. When it comes to checked swings, the ones I see replays of, maybe 10% don’t cross the plate. By far, most of them appear to, yet the umps tend to be more forgiving it seems.

Anyway, enough about the umps. I started this post thinking about scoring in baseball. I love it because, not only can it be super, super subjective, but it also seems to be blatantly biased.

Now, historically there is cause for concern with bias. You see, the person who determines who committed an error, and if it was even an error, is the ‘official scorer,’ a guy that was hired by MLB to do that. But when official scorers were first put in place, they were sportswriters. That’s right. Local hacks were determining whether a guy got a hit or not. Now, you can imagine, the tension that created. Don’t give the guy the hit, how do you think that postgame interview’s going to go? Or how’s the team going to react when a writer charges their guy with an earned run that could have been unearned? Are they going to make it easy for him to do his job as a journalist? I doubt it.

So, with all the bias complaints, MLB finally hired independent scorers in the ‘80’s. Yes, it took that long.

But I think the bias still exists. There are certainly times during a game when you see the hometown batter get credit for a hit on a play that most people would call an error. Particularly on deep groundballs to short or third, maybe the fielder bobbles just a bit but still gets off a throw, meaning he doesn’t completely boot it. The home team gets a hit, the away team gets an error more often than not, I swear.

And I love it. Anyone who wants to believer there’s an exact science to making calls like that is crazy. It’s at least 75% judgment, and on the harder plays, it’s probably 100%. The best are wild pitch versus passed ball. Come on? Again, 10% might be obvious, but so many of them, when I hear what the scorer called it, I couldn’t tell you why. I think sometimes they have to flip a coin.

It’s like with my other favorite sports judgment call, the spot of the football as far as where a guy went down. The refs try to make it look so exact, but guys are scooting to stops or getting buried by piles all over the place. I guarantee there’s no way they could see where the ball was down, but they sure act like they do.

Then they have the audacity to measure for first down! And tell a coach he’s short by two chain lengths! Yes, because our previous spots were so exact that we can tell you with absolute certainty that you are two chain lengths short of traveling exactly 10 yards forward. Give me a break! Shouldn’t there be a plus or minus 5 chain link margin of error or something?

Anyway, back to baseball. What good is home field advantage without a little help from a scorer? And if you get the same treatment in every ballpark, then, by my logic, the home guys deserve a break, because he sure didn’t get one on the road.

Scoring is just another idiosyncrasy of baseball that I love. Because you know the scorers take themselves very, very seriously. Yet, line up 10 of them, show them the same play, and I bet you get at least 40 to 60% make a different ruling than the rest of them.

But it’s part of the game, and if it ever went away, what would we all argue about?

The Final Season: Base Stealing

Pirates 2 – Braves 1; CJ: 0-3, BB

Braves lost, but it’s great to see Michael Bourn out there again. He hurt his thumb sliding head first into second a little over a week ago, and he missed a good number of games after that. But he came back yesterday, had a couple hits and a walk, then one today. Both days he scored a run. Big thumbs up on that (unless it hurts too much).

But it’s also good thing because I think, as the Braves have said from the start of the season, that to be successful, they need Bourn to play well. If they’re going to be a contender this post season, they need Bourn to get on base and get things going. In short, they need his speed.

That got me thinking about speed in baseball and why it’s so important and how tough it is to steal bases. Speed, in the traditional sense, it probably actually not that rare in baseball. These are athletes, so they most all of them (minus Brian McCann and other catchers and most first baseman) get down the first baseman faster than say the average Joe. So, really, it takes exceptional speed to steal a base.

And why is speed so important? It really does make things happen. From the start, it disrupts the pitcher’s motion and distracts from his attention. I mean, most pitchers even have to change their delivery when a guy is on first, going from a full motion to essentially a half one. I would imagine that makes getting the same results with your pitches slightly challenging.

Then, as far as the playoffs, you have the best versus the best, so you’re not going to see a lot of 6-0 games. Instead, you’re going to see a lot of 3-2, 4-3 kind of games. Thus, “manufacturing” runs, or getting a guy on, over, and in, becomes incredibly important. If you have a guy that can get a single and then steal a base to put himself into scoring position, he could potentially score and be the difference maker in your game.

There is certainly an art to stealing. You have to know when to go and when to hang back. You have to know when to go feet first or head first. Or, if you’re Bourn, you never go head first, unless you forget your own rule and injure yourself when you do.

But base stealing is all about picking your spots. Feeling out the pitcher and the defense, and knowing when is the right time. Some managers let guys decide that for themselves, or let certain players decide, at least. I imagine Fredi Gonzalez doesn’t give McCann free reign to run when he wants as he does Bourn. And if you’re a guy like, Bourn, you have to pick wisely. Does the pitcher have a good pickoff move that could catch you leaning? Does he have a quick or slow delivery to the plate? Either way, can I get a good jump on him? Does he throw pitches that are easy for a catcher to glove and release? And does the all-important catcher have a good arm?

And you know what, I bet the best base stealers would tell you it’s all instinct, and not a checklist like I’ve listed above. They just know, and they go. Done and done.

But it’s a thrilling part of the game for sure, holding your breath to see if the guy will make it or not. Then there’s the half million replays for you to play coach-potato umpire. Do you both make the right call?

Base stealing is an exciting, essential part of baseball. Seems like a team has got to have it be successful. Hopefully that means the Braves will be successful this postseason.

The Final Season: 1994 Revisited

Atlanta 6 – New York 2; CJ: 1-2, R, 2 BB

Watched football today, and there was a lot of comments on the return of the NFL’s referees. For the most part, they were positive, but not all.

Listening to them, though, got me thinking about whether or not the holdout was a good thing, or if it was handled correctly. And that got me thinking, as stream of consciousness often does, about the 1994 MLB player’s strike and whether or not it was good for the game.

It’s been 18 years since the strike caused MLB to miss a World Series. 18 years since the league seemed to have irreconcilably disappointed and outraged its fans. Yet here we are today. Baseball is not king of the American sports world. That honor goes to the NFL. It’s probably not even second, with college football ahead of it in terms of popularity. Yet, it’s not dead last. The NHL and the NBA seem to be in much worse condition. So, considering that, was it good or bad for baseball?

First, what caused the strike? Well, what every strike is caused by: money. The owners wanted to limit what players made with a salary cap, essentially, and the players felt that, if ownership needed more money to run their franchises, there were other ways they could do it then by limiting salaries. Essentially, it wasn’t their fault if the owners were short on cash, so why should they feel the consequences? Also, there’s a long history between ownership and players that has led to a lot of bad blood, so they weren’t exactly excited to work together on this.

Thus, common ground couldn’t be found, and the players went on strike in August of 1994 and did not return until April, 1995. As a young kid of 11, I remember not really understanding what was going on. My dad tried to explain it to me, but all I got out of it was that there wasn’t going to be any playoffs that year. To me, that meant no chance to stay up late on school nights and watch baseball with my dad.

I also remember, as a kid, not being angry when baseball came back. I know a lot of fans were, blaming both sides for ruining their game. I know attendance levels were at severe lows and that a lot of people wondered when, or if, they’d come back up. To me, though, I was just glad to see baseball again. Glad to have the chance to sit with my dad and learn about this game I was just starting to love. Plus, there was this young third baseman I thought was cute, so I didn’t have much time for anger.

I also don’t remember the way Tom Glavine was treated. Many years after the strike, when I would read about it, I learned how instrumental and vocal Glavine had been as one of the leaders of the player’s union. When he started playing again, he got it bad from fans, who, after hearing Glavine as the spokesman for the players, had someone they could direct their ire at. Knowing that, I have to say, I’m even more pleased with how Atlanta won the World Series in ‘95. To me, I think he was just doing his job, and it was likely unfair to target him.

But back to if it was good or not? I don’t know. Parity has been achieved to a certain extent, but not entirely. There are some large market teams, like the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Phillies who are consistently competitive. And there are small market teams, like the Royals and Pirates, who don’t seem to be able to get over that hump. However, I am very much aware that three of those teams I listed – the Red Sox, the Phillies, and the Pirates, to a certain extent – would prove that statement wrong this particular season. So like I said, it’s there, but not in its truest definition.

On the reverse, salaries are still going up. The luxury tax, created in place of the salary cap, doesn’t seem to function entirely as planned, particularly when you hear that recipients of (basically) Yankee tax money, such as the Marlins, are pocketing it and not using it to improve their clubs, as it was intended. Rich stay rich, give to poor, and the poor don’t share.

But that said, MLB doesn’t seem to be hurting for cash. Overall the league seems to be having a successful stretch. Attendance is back up and over pre-strike levels at most parks. The fans have forgave and moved forward. I can’t say the strike’s not in the back of my mind when I hear their collective bargaining agreement is up for negotiation again, and I imagine many fans feel the same way, but I don’t think about it all the time or feel betrayed in anyway. Of course, as I mentioned, I didn’t really live through it.

So, I’m undecided to be honest. I’ve always felt, in the sports world, there was a pendulum that swings between players and owners. The Pendulum of Power, if you will. And at different points in history, that pendulum has swayed toward one side or the other. At the time of the strike, it did seem like the owners were asking for too much from the players that they didn’t need and maybe that pendulum, or power, was too far on the owners’ side. Then the players had their strike, and it swung back to center. That’s essentially what these labor negotiations are, an attempt by both sides to retain control. And I think, after the strike, the power balance in baseball was more centered.

I suppose the only trick now is not letting that pendulum swing too far in favor of the players, as it seems to have done in the NBA, for example. Hopefully the players can keep the balance going.

The Final Season: Bobby and Chipper

Braves 2 – Mets 0; CJ: 0-4

It was great seeing Bobby Cox at the ballpark yesterday to participate in Chipper Jones’ tribute. The two of them seem to have a really strong bond, and while I don’t believe it’s entirely unique, it does seem to be rare.

For one thing, it has become quite rare for players to play for one manager for so long. 17 of Chipper’s 19 seasons were spent with Bobby. Add in the fact that Bobby helped scout him and drafted him, and you have yourself a very long relationship. I would imagine, over 17 years, a working relationship with anyone would become strong. I mean, could you imagine working for your current boss for 17 years? Some of you might say yes, but nowadays, I think most of you would shudder.

Yet Chipper did it and, at the end of it all, basically said he’d do it all over again. To me, that sounds like they got along alright. Chipper often used to refer to Bobby as everybody’s favorite grandfather, and from what I’ve seen and read of Cox, that sounds accurate. He was the manager that always pulled for and defended his players. The guy who really wanted them to succeed.

But I’ve written enough about Cox this season. Seeing Chipper and Bobby next to each other got me thinking about comparable relationships and none immediately came to mind. The first was Dustin Pedroia and Terry Francona. The seemed to have a tight bond, but it didn’t last nearly as long as Bobby and Chipper’s. Just five seasons, which, actually, in today’s baseball world, is probably considered a lot.

Derek Jeter and Joe Torre is another one. Jeter and Torre were both rookies in 1996 – Jeter as a player and Torre as a manager. They lasted 11 seasons together. Close, but not quite 17.

But after those guys, I’m at a loss to think of anyone. I could of course go back to earlier decades. Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer have 14 years together but that was through the 70’s mostly. I think it was much more common to stay with one team your entire career. Also, not sure why I picked those guys. They just popped into my head.

Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle also popped into my head. But that one as well, only 11 years. I suppose 17 is quite impressive. I do like to hear Mantle talk about Stengel. Always referred to him as wanting to be everybody’s dad and how, in the absence of his father, Stengel tried his best to step in. There’s a great quote in Ken Burns’ baseball documentary where Mantle admits to always feeling like he let Stengel down. It’s poignant and not at all reminiscent of Bobby and Chippper.

And I imagine, the further back I go, the more stories like this I’ll find. But in today’s baseball world, players move around too much to be a part of a relationship like that. But guys like Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, I bet they can appreciate the bond Chippper has with Bobby.

I do know it is refreshing in this day and age to see a relationship like that between a player and a manager. Just this week we heard disparaging comments from Heath Bell about playing for Ozzie Guillen. He quickly backtracked, but once words are out, you never get them back in. Just ask any Boston Red Sox player that played for Bobby Valentine this season. I bet that team never thought they’d rue the day they booted out Francona. But maybe Tito will be back next season, as I doubt Valentine will make it much longer. However, I really doubt it.

Anyway, it’s awesome that my favorite player was surrounded by such consistency. You know it benefitted his career to not have to adapt to new systems every season or so. Of course, it helped that Bobby was such an amazing player’s coach that every guy seemed to love playing for. Yet, I’d like to think Chipper’s success was a big part of Bobby’s success. A nice, symbiotic relationship.

Congratulations to the both of you and be sure to thank each other a plenty.

The Final Season: Stay Healthy My Friends

Mets 3 – Braves 1; CJ: 0-4

The Braves honored Chipper Jones tonight. Great to see. I felt great for him, watching him get all those accolades. I mean, would you believe Michael Jordan not only knows who Chipper Jones is but also claims to be a fan? Again, I guess I forget I didn’t grow-up in the TBS bubble I think I did. I, along with my fellow Braves’ fans, am not the only one who thinks Chipper is pretty great.

So the ceremony and then… they lost. I had this terribly cynical thought while I was watching Chipper groundout for the third time: Now this is the Brave team I know. Huge crowd in the stands, intent audience at home, and Chipper does nothing and the Braves loose. These are the Braves I know, particularly those teams that made playoff runs back in the early aughts. I know, that’s not fair and is a terrible thought for a team I claim to be a fan of. The night was just a bit anticlimactic, to say the least.

Watching it, I also couldn’t shake this feeling of dread I have for the rest of the season. Well, I guess not the season so much as the playoffs. Well, I guess not the playoffs so much as the play-in game. It’s making me very nervous. I want them to be fully in the playoffs, but I just, well, I have this gut feeling, and it’s not a good one.

I know I’ve written before about my gut feelings and how I tend to believe they’re right (What It Feels Like for a Fan). Well, for some reason, when I think of the Braves playing like the Cardinals in that play-in game, I don’t think it will go well. I have no trepidation about this last series of the season at home. They’ll do fine. Probably win two out of three. Also no concern with the last road series in Pittsburgh. But that could just be because these series don’t matter. I mean, let’s face it. They’re not going to catch the Nationals for the division.

But I had a feeling, when I first heard about this play-in game that the Braves would be in it and that it would be their undoing. Maybe that’s why I was opposed to it from the beginning. To quote Chipper, it’s stupid. The way MLB crammed it into the season without even making it a proper series. Stupid.

I just have a feeling. Again, I could be completely wrong, but I’m nervous for them to face whoever, be it the Cardinals or some other team. And, no, I don’t see them playing the Cardinals as a chance for poetic justice. Why? Well, as I’m outlining in this, I don’t think they’re going to beat them. So now they get the chance to get knocked out of the playoffs basically by the Cardinals two years in a row. That will officially make them a thorn in the Braves’ side.

I could see Atlanta losing that game. And, to me, it sucks that it’s just a matter of one game to keep them relevant. And my gut tells me they won’t win it, and that will break my heart. Not for myself, but mostly for Chipper. Because he wants it badly for the team, and they want it badly for him. And they’ll get close, but I don’t think they’ll quite get it together. But here’s hoping my gut is wrong. It has been known to be so.

But my gut is also telling me that the winner of the Series will come out of the AL, and I’m thinking either the Yankees or the Rangers, whichever wins the ALCS. (That’s called cheating predicting like that.) Even with the Yankees struggling to hold off the Orioles right not, it’s them and the Rangers world, while the rest of MLB is just playing along.

Both teams are very good, and you know that cheesy expression that “steel sharpens steel?” (haha – side note, I just looked that up to see if I was getting that expression right – it’s from the Bible. So much for cheesy.) I think the more those two break themselves against each other, the tougher they get.

Anyway, I said long ago I would just enjoy Atlanta being relevant in Chipper’s last season. And I have tried to. It was a blast watching them win. Good luck, Atlanta, in your, and MLB’s, first ever play-in game. May you win it and get yourselves in the playoffs outright. If not, it’s been fun. Thanks for playing. Thanks for being relevant. I’ve enjoyed it once again. Brought back a lot of memories.

The Final Season: Free Agency

Atlanta 6 – Florida 2; CJ: 0-3, BB

A lot has been made this season about Chipper Jones staying with one team his entire career. And when they say entire career, they mean entire career, as in drafted by Atlanta and never seen the light at the end of any other team’s clubhouse tunnel.

Why is that being brought up so much? Because, nowadays, to say that a player has stayed with one team his entire career is rare, is an understatement. It basically never happens. I can think of one other guy and that’s it, and you probably can, too. Good ol’ Derek Jeter. But even that seems in doubt sometimes. Seemed like this past offseason, when it came time for him to resign, the Yankees made it clear they were more than willing to let him go. That’s sad because Jeter seems more than willing to not leave. Although maybe he’s not as compromising on price.

Compare that to the fact that the Braves never let Jones get close to free agency before extending his contract. They made it clear they wanted him there, and he made it clear he wanted to stay. But I think he did compromise on price. Well, actually, I’m almost certain he did because he’s said as much. He’s said he was willing to sign for less, or to even rework his contract for less after he’d singed, to help the team win by freeing up some cash to get additional talent. And that, the willingness to take less money, is probably why it’s so rare.

Seems like nowadays no one is willing to comprise, neither the team nor the player. They know what they want to make or what they want to pay, and they won’t budge. Seems like it takes a special relationship to make the marriage between ballplayer and team last.

I suppose we could all bemoan how out-of-control salaries, brought on by free agency, are to blame. And, of course, they are. But it’s better than the alternative. Before Curt Flood sued for the right to choose which team he worked for, players were basically forced to keep playing for the same team as long as that team wanted them. This was accomplished via the ‘reserve clause,’ which basically said the team they played for had the first chance, or dibs, on resigning them, whether that player wanted to stay there or not. There was also a little collusion going on amongst owners, agreeing not to sign someone, but what’s new?  (Few people remember, actually, that Flood lost his case, but the case itself set in motion the trip to free agency.)

But I believe baseball players should have the right to choose who they work for just like the rest of us do. And I don’t think too many people would disagree with me. I also think, for the reason of granting freedom, among others, free agency has been good for baseball. Certainly makes the long offseason more interesting. And wouldn’t you maybe get a little bored watching the same guys run out on that field year after year? Maybe not if you’re a Yankees fan, but for everyone else, same story different day probably doesn’t sell a lot of tickets. So I like free agency. Heats things up.

However, I don’t think that’s why it’s not worth it to gripe about the high salaries. I think it’s not worth it because guys like Jones and Jeter, so far, show that it can be done, a player can play with the same team his entire career. If a player is open minded and a team is willing to give a little, a guy can stay with his team as long as he wants.

So it’s not the salaries fault. It’s the fault of the guy who’s asking for it and the teams that are willing to give it. Playing for one team an entire career doesn’t have to be a rarity. It can be the norm if players and teams are willing to work at it. I do think, however, it is an achievement Chipper should be applauded for.