Tagged: All-Star Game

Life after Never: The 2017 Chicago Cubs

Image result for miguel montero jake arrieta

It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.

The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco. 

As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.

In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.

The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.

Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.

As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.

This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians  in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.

I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.

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The Case for John Scott

January 19, 2016 edit: Today, the NHL decided to make things right and confirmed that John Scott will be attending the All-Star Game in Nashville and will serve as the captain of the Pacific Division’s All-Stars despite getting traded to Montreal and being assigned to their AHL team in Newfoundland. Good job, NHL. My angry take on the matter from a couple days ago has been neutralized for the most part, but you can still read it below.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The National Hockey League has proven once again how out of touch it is with its fans. Not since the 2012 Lockout, in the months when before I started this blog, and was using my university’s newspaper as the outlet to vent my frustrations about the issues that plague the sport I love have I been so angry with the powers that be. I had mellowed out a bit as a hockey fan since then. Sure, Gary Bettman isn’t a great commissioner, but my focus was turned to the overwhelming incompetence of Roger Goodell at the helm of the NFL. Sure, the hockey owners are a collection of billionaires who made Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life look like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but NFL owners were no better, and in fact far worse given how much more profitable their league is and given that NHL player contracts are fully guaranteed, while NHL contracts are not. I had accepted that the NHL would not become bigger than the NBA, but recognized that the NBA was doing a lot of things really well from a business standpoint, and started to root for them to overtake the NFL in popularity. I thought there were things the NHL could do to improve their standing, and borrow from the way the NBA was growing their fanbase, and I thought that was working. All of that may still be true, but this week I cannot help but feel disgusted by the NHL, and feel sorry for John Freaking Scott of all people.

For those who haven’t been paying attention (and I can’t blame you if you haven’t), the NHL this year decided to change the format of the All-Star Game yet again. In the past, they’ve done Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference like the NBA always does, American players vs. Canadian players, North American players vs. European players, and had team captains pick the teams like it’s kickball in middle school gym class, and those are just the formats I can remember off the top of my head. This year, after the success of changing the regular season overtime format from 4 on 4 to 3 on 3, they decided to make the All-Star Game 3 on 3 as well. It is my understanding that there is still an aspect of the captains picking teams system (I’m not entirely sure, and I honestly don’t care enough about an exhibition game that has been seemingly changing on the fly as long as I’ve been following hockey), but the game itself would be injected with the fun skates-on-fire chaos that exists when each team has two fewer players on the ice. Considering all the different ways the NHL has tried to shake up the All-Star Game, and considering that they haven’t even played the All-Star Game half the time this decade because it gets cancelled any time there’s a work stoppage or the Winter Olympics, the NHL All-Star Game shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and should be fun, right?

Enter Jeff Marek of Sportsnet and Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports. They host the popular hockey podcast Marek vs. Wyshynski, which I have pitched to my Boston area friends as Felger and Mazz if Felger and Mazz only talked about hockey and pop culture, and if Mike Felger was Canadian and sounded Canadian. They had the idea on their show of trying to get John Scott of the Arizona Coyotes, a career enforcer in an era when that role is declining faster than seven footers with no shooting range who can’t hit free throws and running backs taken in the top ten of the NFL Draft. According to Scott’s Hockey Reference page, the 32 year old Michigan Tech alumnus has played for six NHL teams, and has amassed a whopping five career goals to go with 542 penalty minutes. Marek and Wyshynski thought it would be amusing to see 6’8″ John Scott in a 3 on 3 situation, skating against the likes of Patrick Kane or Alex Ovechkin, in a situation that his coach would never trust him in a real game.

Marek vs. Wyshynski planted the seed of John Scott’s All-Star candidacy, but it was Reddit that took the idea and ran with it, because that’s how the Internet works in 2015-16. Scott ran away with the All-Star vote, and in doing so, generated more interest for the NHL All-Star Game than I can ever remember. One would think that the NHL would be excited about the publicity, that even if the buzz around the All-Star Game was Internet trolling (albeit in maybe the mildest form of trolling I’ve ever seen), at least it was generating buzz.

We live in a world where people feel like they need to be outraged about something at all times. That’s why Donald Trump is leading in the polls, that’s why air in a football in a blowout of an AFC Championship Game was treated like something that should actually be of concern, and that’s why members of the hockey media who for years thought of the All-Star Game as nothing more than a pointless exhibition are now upset over the sanctity of their precious tradition being tarnished by a goon like John Scott being voted in. Measures have been taken to take the All-Star rosters out of the hands of the fans, to prevent a national tragedy like this from happening again, but the way John Scott has been treated has been far worse.

Pacific Division All-Star Captain John Scott, as voted on by the fans.

Before I go any further, I should say that I am no fan of John Scott the player. In 2013, I wrote a post on this very blog saying that Scott gives hockey a bad name. I think the only reason he’s in the NHL is because he can fight. I am one of those people who believes that fighting still has a place in the game, but that fighting for the sake of fighting is a thing of the past. The best era of Bruins hockey in my lifetime could be called The Shawn Thornton Era. Shawn Thornton signed with the B’s after winning the Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, and was a fixture of the team and the community until 2014. During that span, the Bruins became relevant again, made the playoffs every year, won the Stanley Cup, came within 17 seconds of Game 7 in another Stanley Cup Final, and won their first President’s Trophy in over 20 years. Thornton was the team’s enforcer, but was more than a fighter. He could actually play hockey, and while he was never any kind of offensive juggernaut, he did score ten goals in the 2010-11 season. That is my idea of what an NHL enforcer should be, and John Scott does not fit that mold. That being said, John Scott the person seems like a pretty funny guy (one time, he scored a goal and then had a t-shirt made depicting himself scoring a goal), and a family man. He seemed to be playing along with the joke quite nicely, and was excited to be a part of the All-Star festivities in Nashville with his wife (who is expecting another child) and children. One of the great things about the constant sports coverage we get thanks to the Internet is that we get to see the person behind the name, behind the actions on the ice that we may not like. It’s good to remember that the guy who is a punchline in hockey forums and on sports talk radio is actually a person, too. It’s all in good fun, or at least that’s what most people working outside the NHL offices who pay attention to this trivial story seemed to think.

According to Bob McKenzie, the NHL and the Arizona Coyotes asked Scott to bow out of the All-Star Game, and he refused. In response to that, the NHL did their best to make John Scott go away. This week, the Coyotes send Scott down to the minors, which is not unusual for a guy like Scott, who has been straddling the line between the NHL and AHL his entire career, and yesterday the Coyotes traded him to Montreal, where the Canadiens promptly assigned him to their AHL affiliate in St. John’s, effectively ending his eligibility for the All-Star Game unless the Habs decide to call him up to their NHL roster.

The weirdest thing about the way the John Scott situation was handled by the league is the way they passive-aggressively gave it the “nothing to see here” routine that made it a much bigger deal than conducting business as usual. Sending him to the AHL is one thing, but Arizona trading him to Montreal is another. I found out about Scott getting traded because I got a news alert from the Yahoo Sports app on my phone while I was at work. Because I’m too lazy to adjust the settings, I usually only get alerts that pertain to the Bruins (and the other Boston teams), unless it’s a really big deal. For instance, last week, I did not get an alert about the Ryan Johansen/Seth Jones trade between Columbus and Nashville even though two good young players taken with high picks in recent years moved in the deal. I had to find out about that one on Reddit, but “All-Star Captain John Scott has been traded to Montreal” was something my phone needed me to know right away.

If Scott got to play in the All-Star Game, it would be something to tune into. He wouldn’t be the first enforcer named to the All-Star Game. When Mike Milbury was coach of the Bruins, he selected Chris “Knuckles” Nilan to the All-Star team, and people were mad about it then, but at the end of the day, who really cares? The fact the Gary Bettman or whoever is pulling the strings with the Scott fiasco is going this far to discredit the fan vote seems to forget that the fans who vote for John Scott are the same people who are what make the NHL a viable business. If the league wants to grow, expanding the game to non-traditional hockey markets is certainly important, but so is embracing the weirdness of the fans you already have. John Scott’s All-Star candidacy should be celebrated for what it is: lots of people online trying to tweak with the fabric of an ultimately meaningless exhibition of a game that kids play on frozen ponds, but somehow the economy supports a system in which adults can get paid to play. It’s all supposed to be fun, and that should be obvious. Then again, this is the same league that has cancelled all or part of three different seasons because the billionaires are afraid of making too many players into millionaires at the expense of the fans, at the expense of the customers. Great, now I’m mad about the lockout again. Thanks, Bettman!

Exit Sandman

In the days and weeks leading up to the 2013 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, the narrative presented by sports media in Boston and around the country was that of a once great event, that has plummeted in TV ratings and is no longer something sports fans get excited about. They said making the outcome of the game determine home field advantage in the World Series ruined the game itself. They said baseball had fallen out of the national discussion and would never catch football or basketball again. They said kids these days don’t have the attention span for a sports without a time limit. In the eight inning on Tuesday night, the great Mariano Rivera reminded us why we used to love the Midsummer Classic.

Mo Rivera is a living legend. He is the greatest closer in the game has ever seen. He is a five time World Series champion who has played his entire major league career for the New York Yankees. He is the last player to wear the number 42, after MLB stopped issuing it in 1997 to honor Jackie Robinson. He is easily the best baseball player his homeland of Panama has ever produced.  As a lifelong Red Sox fan, he was always a player I was afraid to see come into the game because I knew what he was capable of–a very different kind of fear than what I get whenever the Red Sox’ closer of the day takes the mound. Mo is a model of consistency, and a true professional in every sense of the word. He, along with Derek Jeter, was always yearned  to see in a Red Sox uniform, and as America rolled on like an army of steamrollers, with Rivera marking the time (enough with the baseball cliches already!) he became impossible for even the most passionate Sox fan to hate. It seemed like he would pitch forever, which is why it was such a shock when he announced this spring that this season would be his last.

Credit needs to be given to American League (and Detroit Tigers) manager Jim Leyland for deciding ahead of time that Mo would pitch the eighth inning no matter what. With the National League being the home team, there was a chance that the game could end before the bottom of the ninth, and Rivera might not have gotten this last hurrah. In the bottom of the eighth, Mo’s entrance song “Enter Sandman” began playing and Rivera was the lone player to take the field. Players from both leagues stayed in the dugouts to give him a standing ovation. Yankees fans and Mets fans alike were on their feet to salute one of the all time greats and genuine class acts the National Pastime has ever seen. Though an international superstar and an icon in North America’s largest city, Rivera never let his fame get to him. He tipped his hat to the crowd, appreciating them as much as they appreciated him. He recorded a perfect inning and ended his All-Star career with an unforgettable moment. That’s baseball. That’s what it’s all about.

The reason we still have an All-Star Game is for moments like this. With cable TV and the Internet, you could watch and follow any team from anywhere in the country if you wanted to, so it’s no longer the once chance to see the stars from the other league. It is, however, a chance for legends to be appreciated with the whole world watching. My favorite All-Star moments as a kid were when Ted Williams threw out the first pitch at Fenway in 1999, when Pedro Martinez struck out five of the six juiced up batters he faced that same year, and when Cal Ripken Jr. hit a home run in his All-Star swan song in 2001. Rivera’s final All-Star Game ranks right up there. The game also does a great job of showcasing the next generation of superstars. Rivera, Jeter, and David Ortiz will not be around forever, but there is a lot for baseball fans to be excited about with guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado taking their places.

Thanks for the memories, Mo. The game is losing a true great, and I’m sad to see you go. Then again, I never tried to hit your cutter, so I’m sure most of the hitters in the American League don’t feel the way I do.