Tagged: Chicago Cubs

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.

How Good Would Andrew Miller Have to Be to Revise History?

When lefty reliever Andrew Miller was traded by the New York Yankees to the Cleveland Indians last summer, it changed the trajectory of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. Not only did the deal, along with another high-profile trade that sent Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, mark a stark contrast from the Yankees’ normal trade deadline approach, Miller and Chapman were the centerpieces of the two bullpens that reached the World Series.

The 2016 World Series ended up being one of the most watched and most talked about Fall Classics in my lifetime, and as a result, Miller became a household name beyond the hardcore baseball fan community and the cities where he has pitched like Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, and Boston. It was a true Series for the Ages, and Miller put together a brilliant postseason for the Tribe, including being named ALCS MVP. One of the biggest moments of the series was when Chicago catcher (and fellow bearded 2013 World Series Champion) David Ross homered off him in Game 7, but that hardly diminishes Miller’s standing as one of the elite relief pitchers in the game today.

One of the lessons I have taken away from me recent re-watch of Ken Burns’ Baseball is how often great pitchers slip up in these big moments, because you have to be really good to be on the mound in these ultimate high-leverage situations. Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series was an incredible feat not only because of how physically hobbled he was at the time, but also because it was Dennis Eckersley, the best reliever of his era, standing on the mound at the height of his powers for the Oakland A’s. Much of The Tenth Inning, in fact, is devoted to big moments in which Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, could not close the deal in both the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.

What makes Miller so interesting is that unlike Eckersley or Rivera, Miller is not primarily a closer. In the 2016 postseason Cleveland manager Terry Francona elected to throw Miller out there in the highest leverage moments of the game, to shut down the opposing offense, regardless of what inning it was once the starter was out of the game. This unconventional bullpen approach, which flies in the face of decades (or maybe even a century, as I’m not entirely sure when the conventional system of bullpen structure first solidified, and much of “just the way things are done” in baseball dates back to the 19th century, and I didn’t have time to take a deep dive on bullpen usage history for what was supposed to be a quick tangent) of clearly defined relief roles. You have the “7th Inning Guy,” the “8th Inning Guy,” and the “9th Inning Guy,” and the guy pitching the 9th should be your best guy, your closer. Miller’s use in 2016 was a potential game-changer.

Image result for miguel cabrera

The rise of Andrew Miller since he became one of MLB’s best relievers starting in 2014 may very well be enough already to change some people’s minds about his entire career. For instance, in 2007, Miller was traded by the Detroit Tigers along with Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Cameron Maybin, and Mike Rabelo to the Florida Marlins for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. For eleven years, this was widely regarded as one of the most one-sided trades in recent baseball history, and then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has been widely lauded for pulling off the steal of Cabrera, who would go on to win two American League MVPs, earn the first offensive Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and led Detroit to the World Series in 2012.

Cabrera has been one of the best hitters in the game for over a decade, and was still only 24 when the Marlins dealt him to Detroit. While the Tigers consistently contended in the decade that followed, the Marlins toiled in futility. There are obviously other factors involved. Miguel Cabrera was not the only great player on the Tigers during that stretch, and trading Cabrera was hardly the only baseball operations misstep by the Marlins in the years before, during, and since, but there was a clear winner and a clear loser in that trade. My worry now, is that decades from now, or probably sooner, people will go on Baseball Reference, see Cabrera’s page linked to Miller’s page by virtue of that trade, and think maybe that trade was not so bad for the Marlins because of the player Miller eventually turned into.

I can remember in the spring of 2014, when I was working a second shift data entry job, and regularly listening to Red Sox games on the radio the pass the night. This was how I followed the Red Sox in 2013 (all the until Koji Uehara recorded the final out of the World Series), 2014, and 2015, until I got moved to first shift. During one game, I remember, they had Alex Speier, a very knowledgeable baseball writer who at the time wrote for WEEI.com (he is now with The Boston Globe) in the broadcast booth to talk with Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien, and he talked about Miller and Burke Badenhop, who was new to the Red Sox that season and has one of my favorite names in all of baseball (I mean seriously, a ground ball pitcher with “bad” and “hop” in his name?). Speier talked about talking to Miller and Badenhop about the historic trade, about being forever connected to Cabrera, who had signed a record contract extension with the Tigers in the previous offseason. (Side note: after a little bit of research, this WEEI.com article by Katie Morrison that Speier contributed to from May of 2014 has a lot of the insights I remember and more.) 

For whatever reason, this exchange in a game I cannot remember for a particularly bad Red Sox team three years ago stuck with me. Miller and Badenhop both turned into fine Major Leaguers, but even if they did their best pitching after the Marlins, there are ways the trade could be justified.

 

A good cross-sport comparison I like to make to the Miguel Cabrera Trade is the trade that sent Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Boston Celtics (sorry for all the Boston-centric references, it’s what I know best). The Celtics gave up a bundle of players for a superstar, and turned into a title contender overnight. The Wolves have yet to make the playoffs since trading KG, and that trade got Kevin McHale fired as Minnesota’s GM in time. While McHale could feel vindicated by the solid NBA careers Gerald Green and Al Jefferson had (the latter was so promising that some in the Boston media including legendary Celtics power forward/head coach/homer broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn adamantly did not want Big Al to get moved in a trade for Garnett), they were not enough to fill the void left by KG in Minnesota. Like the Marlins in 2008 after Cabrera got dealt, the Timberwolves of that same era were also not helped by other roster building missteps bigger than the one one-sided trade, most notably having back-to-back picks in the top ten of the 2009 NBA Draft, and used them on Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio, both point guards, but neither was Steph Curry, who was taken at #9 by the Golden State Warriors in that same draft.

In spite of the success of the Celtics and the futility of the Wolves in the years that followed, I cannot help but thinking how close it could have come to being different. What if, in the summer of 2007, when the Celtics had already traded for Ray Allen and everybody on the roster not named Paul Pierce was on the table to package in a trade for the third star, what if Danny Ainge had slipped Rajon Rondo and/or Tony Allen instead of Sebastian Telfair in a moment of desperation to get McHale to bite on the Garnett trade? Would the roster have been good enough surrounding the New Big Three to really contend with the Cavs, Magic, and Pistons of the late 2000s?

Similarly, what if Dombrowski threw Justin Verlander into the bundle of players because he was so desperate to reacquire Cabrera, whom Dombrowski first signed as an amateur free agent while GM of the Marlins in 1999? While one great pitcher would not necessarily have turned the Marlins’ fortunes around, it certainly would have made the trade a lot less one-sided. Dombrowski would certainly not have the same reputation he currently had of being a genius trader (which I’m a bit skeptical of as a Red Sox fan, with the Drew Pomeranz trade and such). 

Without venturing too much further in the Miguel Cabrera Trade What-If Rabbit Hole, here’s one more: what if this October, in an American League Wild Card Game or later series-clinching game between the Tigers and Indians, Andrew Miller, in the highest of high-leverage moments of the season, gets out of the inning (and to raise the stakes just a little bit more, let’s say he’s in a bases-loaded jam) by striking out Miguel Cabrera on three pitches? Can you imagine the think pieces coming out “In defense of the Miguel Cabrera Trade”? I certainly can, and it hasn’t even happened yet. That is why I am writing this to get out in front of it.

Ultimately, I don’t think there is anything Andrew Miller can do to validate that trade from the Marlins’ perspective, and not just because he did not put it all together until years after leaving Florida. Miller always had good stuff. His big frame and high velocity made him an attractive prospect, selected sixth overall by the Tigers in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft. During his time with the Red Sox, he was featured in the excellent documentary Knuckleball! as the hard throwing lefty who takes Tim Wakefield’s spot in the starting rotation in 2011 while Wake is in pursuit of his 200th career win. With all the love and respect in the world to Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the two stars of that doc, Miller’s validation and vindication from his role on the 2011 Red Sox is a much lower bar to clear, and it’s fair to say the 2016 postseason did that for him.

While Miller’s reinvention from mediocre and frustrating starter to elite and dominant reliever has been a fascinating transition, but when a new generation browses Baseball Reference years from now and thinks the Cabrera Trade was a fair trade, we must be vigilant and ready to set the record straight. Or maybe Miller will somehow reach a new level of bullpen greatness so profound that he is more famous in fifty years than Cabrera, but I have my doubts. Either way, time will tell.

The State of the Red Sox Going into 2017

The 2016 Major League Baseball season was one for the ages, capped off with an unforgettable World Series played between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. It was a great year for baseball, I could not help but feel like my team, the Boston Red Sox, squandered a golden opportunity, when they were swept in the ALDS by the Tribe. The 2016 World Series, which featured a team built by Theo Epstein and a team managed by Terry Francona, and a half dozen other players between the two teams won earned World Series rings with Boston earlier in their careers, validated so many of my long held baseball beliefs, but was also a stark reminder that those people I believe in–particularly Francona, Epstein, Jon Lester, and Andrew Miller–are no longer with the Red Sox, and now, neither is David Ortiz. Where do the Red Sox go from here?

The David Ortiz Era is over in Boston, and what an era it was. Barring some kind of desire to play on always nagging feet again, and barring some kind of Instagram rumor being any more than that, we are more likely to see Dave Dombrowski or John Farrell go all Rick Pitino on the Red Sox press corps (Side note: having just re-watched that clip for the first time in a while, that press conference feels like a million years ago, but amazingly, Vince Carter is still playing in the NBA) than we are to see even one more Big Papi walk-off hit. The only David Ortiz highlights Red Sox fans should expect now are when the team retires his #34, when they induct him into the team Hall of Fame, and hopefully when the BBWAA votes him into the Baseball Hall of Fame (Although, I’m not sure when that will be. If it were up to me, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jack Morris, and Tim Raines would already be in Cooperstown, and Manny Ramirez would be elected in this year on his first ballot.). It would have been nice for Ortiz, the greatest playoff performer in Red Sox history and of of the greatest of all time, to get one last deep postseason run, but it did not happen. The pitching could not keep up with their hitting, and Cleveland’s pitching was really, really good. Now it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation in Red Sox baseball.

For a decade, Red Sox Baseball was all about David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester. Ortiz is now retired, Lester is now going to be at least equally remembered for being a Chicago Cub as he was for his two stellar World Series winning performances with Boston, and while Pedroia is still here, I feel like going forward, it’s about the kids. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi are the present and the future of the Red Sox, and I am fine with that. These kids are alright, and I am really glad Dombrowski did not have to deal away any of them to get Chris Sale.

Image result for chris sale

I have a feeling the Red Sox’ pitching will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016. I could be wrong, as I thought they were going to be better in the first half of last season than they were, but the way David Price improved in the second half was encouraging, even if he turned back into Playoff David Price in the playoffs. I think Rick Porcello had a great year, but he did steal the Cy Young Award from Justin Verlander. I have to agree with Kate Upton on that one. He has yet to pitch for the Red Sox, but I have wanted for years for them to make a run at Chris Sale. The guy has a bit of a nutty streak in him, best exemplified by that jersey cutting incident with the White Sox last summer, and every picture of him pitching on Google Images looks like his elbow is about to explode, but the dude can pitch, and pitchers with that kind of edge to them have done very well in Boston, from Clemens, to Pedro Martinez, to Curt Schilling, to Josh Beckett (when he cared), to Jonathan Papelbon, to John Lackey, and if any of that attitude rubs off on Price (Porcello showed a little bit of attitude last season too, which I liked), then everybody wins.

I would also be remiss if I did not take the time to mention that Clay Buchholz is no longer a member of the Red Sox, and I am as overjoyed as one can be about something that should have happened three years ago. Clay Buchholz is my least favorite Red Sox player ever, and my least favorite Boston athlete who never (to my knowledge) murdered anybody. Yes, he had good stuff, but his flashed of brilliance were not worth the frustration of injuries and poor performances when Boston needed him. I got off on the wrong foot with him when he first pitched brilliantly after being called up from the minors in the summer of 2007, even throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, but then the Red Sox had to shut him down when he was too fatigued to pitch in the playoffs. I knew he was trouble back then, and when he took a summer vacation in 2013 because his child slept in an uncomfortable position on his shoulder, and then pitched like he did not want to be there in the World Series, I was done. No player has ever done less to earn two World Series rings in Boston. The Red Sox traded Buchholz to the Philadelphia Phillies for a minor league prospect named I Don’t Even Care. All that matters is I do not have to root for him anymore.

Going into 2017, the Red Sox are, on paper, the team to beat in the American League thanks to the addition of Sale. I have my concerns about how sustainable their operation is, though. The 2016 World Series validated how good the people who made 2004, 2007, and 2013 happen were, but with each passing season, fewer of those people are working in Boston. Dave Dombrowski has no emotional connection to that era, and he has not been operating the way Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington were, for better or for worse. The biggest knock on Cherington, who was the initial replacement for Epstein, and a longtime assistant GM to Theo, was that he did not pull the trigger on trades of prospects. With the departure of Mike Hazen (who last year served as general manager under Dombrowski as president) to become general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Red Sox are drifting towards a new philosophy from what helped them win in a bigger way than they have since Dan Duquette was still in charge of the baseball operation.

Dombrowski has shown a fearlessness in dealing prospects from the Red Sox farm system for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz (and even after the San Diego Padres were penalized for improper medical disclosure before the Pomeranz trade, the fact that Dombrowski did not try to renegotiate the deal to get Pomeranz for a lesser prospect than Anderson Espinoza remains a head-scratcher to me), and Chris Sale, which is on one hand refreshing, but at the same time worrying because when he was the GM of the Detroit Tigers, he strip-mined their farm system for an octogenarian owner who demanded the Tigers win now. The Tigers were among the best teams in baseball for a good stretch, even reaching the World Series in 2006 and 2012, but they never won it, and when it was clear they would have to rebuild, Dombrowski was out of a job, and here he is in Boston. The fact that he is operating the same way here as he did in Detroit makes me wonder if he learned from what went wrong there, and while he did have his share of trade success (Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, and David Price, to name three), it’s not the most sustainable way to win consistently. I hope this is what Dombrowski is doing to put his stamp on the team, to make the roster his roster and not Ben Cherington’s roster anymore, but that every offseason is not what the 2015 and 2016 offseasons, with the farm system eventually getting depleted. That is a long-term concern, but it will not be a major talking point in 2017 if the young guys continue to hit. 

Cubs Win! Cubs Win! Cubs Win!

This is an article I wrote for the school newspaper at Fitchburg State University in November of 2016. Before it got a chance to run, the election happened, and suddenly an epic end to an all-time great World Series was no longer news. Now that I have graduated, I am publishing some of my writing from the semester. I plan of writing more in the coming days. Enjoy!

It was a series with a combined 176 years of title-drought baggage, a series where the National League team was at an advantage in the American League ballpark because of their game-changing designated hitter, and it was a series in which both fan bases went into Game 7 convinced their team would lose… and they were almost both right. It was a World Series for the ages, and it had everything baseball fans could possibly ask for.

In the end, the Chicago Cubs won the deciding seventh game 8-7 in a ten inning, rain delayed, thrilling mess of a game in Cleveland, winning the World Series for the first time since 1908, but they certainly didn’t make it easy for themselves. Cubs manager Joe Maddon took starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks early in the game when he was pitching well to bring in Jon Lester as well as Lester’s personal catcher David Ross. Every head-scratching move Maddon made, though, was bailed out by his players playing well. First, Lester threw a pitch so wild it bounced of Ross’ face mask and brought in two Cleveland runs, but then Ross hit a home run off lefty reliever (and fellow 2013 World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox) Andrew Miller. Maddon will go down in history as the manager who oversaw the end of a 108 year curse in Chicago, but he also showed that managing is overrated. Theo Epstein built the team, and the players Epstein picked came up big for the Cubs, but Terry Francona out-managed Maddon and his team lost because the pieces he had to work with were simply not as good as Maddon’s.

As a Red Sox fan, this series validated so many of the baseball beliefs I have held for years. After an amazing seven game World Series that got better ratings than the NFL, it is clear that in 2016, if you were to start an expansion baseball team and build from the ground up, Theo Epstein would be your first choice to run the front office, Terry Francona would be your first choice to run the field operation, Jon Lester is the guy the guy you want taking the mound in a big game, and Andrew Miller would be the guy you want coming out of the bullpen in the highest leverage innings. The Red Sox had all those guys, and won championships with all those guys.

For the Cleveland Indians, it was a series they did not win literally, and could not win figuratively. Terry Francona had to go with a three man pitching rotation and had a much narrower margin for error in the managerial decisions he made compared to Maddon. Cleveland’s entire postseason run was predicated on a great bullpen and Corey Kluber pitching out of his mind every time he took the mound. Given that Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner, was coming off an injury and had never pitched in the playoffs, that was no sure thing. On paper, the Indians should not have beaten the Red Sox (who they swept) or the Toronto Blue Jays (who they bear in five games), and the fact that their season was still going in the tenth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against a 103-win Cubs team is incredible. The Indians and their fans should be proud.

In June, the Cavaliers overcame a 1-3 series deficit to beat a Golden State Warriors team that won a record breaking 73 regular season games to win Cleveland’s first major professional sports title since the Browns’ NFL Championship in 1964. The Indians themselves have not won the World Series since 1948. Against any other National League opponent, the Tribe would have been the feel-good story that baseball fans across America would be rooting for. Now, the Indians have the longest title drought of any team that has stayed in the same place (in football, the Chicago Cardinals won the NFL Championship in 1947, but moved to St. Louis in 1960, and to Arizona in 1988), and their drought is as long as the Red Sox were without winning it all when Mookie Wilson’s grounder went through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series. Heartbreak like this, blowing a 3-1 series lead in baseball just months after overcoming a 1-3 series deficit in basketball, it the kind of thing that will only make it sweeter when the Indians win the World Series in the future.

For Cubs fans, the thing that was never going to happen finally happened. Fans from Bill Murray to John Cusack to Eddie Vedder to 96 year old retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who attended World Series games at Wrigley Field in 1929 and 1932, are finally getting a taste of baseball championship glory. That’s pretty cool to see. There is no fan base that has suffered nearly as long as Cubs fans did, and as jaded as I might be, it’s hard not to enjoy this one.

New Territory for the Yankees

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about baseball’s uncertain future, about baseball’s success as a regional sport may leave it in the dust behind football and basketball on the national stage. I cited my own fandom and the way my friends follow baseball. I am a bigger fan of baseball than most people in their mid-20s, and even though one of my closest friends is named Daniel Murphy (and it’s worth noting that MLB’s Daniel Murphy has followed up his incredible postseason with the New York Mets by leaving for the Washington Nationals and having a career year in D.C.), compelling playoff stories like the Mets or the Cubs or the Royals or the Blue Jays last year just don’t move the needle out of their local markets the way they would in other sports. In my observations of the declining relevance of baseball, I neglected to mention the demise of Boston’s most hated rival and the dull irrelevance of the New York Yankees.

Red Sox vs. Yankees used to be one of the best rivalries in sports, for decades. It was a lopsided rivalry, for sure, and having grown up on the losing end of the rivalry, it mattered that much more. For 86 years, the Red Sox had to measure themselves against the Yankees, after giving up arguably the greatest baseball player ever to New York before his potential was fully realized. The Yankees were a nothing franchise before Babe Ruth, like the New England Patriots before Tom  Brady, or the Pittsburgh Steelers before Terry Bradshaw, or the Dallas Mavericks before Dirk Nowitzki, except magnified by nearly a century long sample size. Babe Ruth made the Yankees the Bronx Bombers, and ever since they had been baseball’s perfect villain. 27 World Series titles, 40 American League Pennants, and a meddling billionaire owner who was basically a more impressive version of Donald Trump. They were the perfect team to hate, and not just for Boston. That was what made October of 2004 as sweet as it was. The Red Sox did not just win the World Series. The Red Sox did not just vanquish their greatest foe. The Red Sox did not just vanquish their demons from 2003. It vanquished 1999 and 1978, and all the other years of “good, but not good enough” that defined Red Sox Baseball from Prohibition to Mission Accomplished. We had just gotten the upper hand over Yankees fans in the rivalry, and then it faded into obscurity.

We’re now in our third Presidential Election year since the Red Sox defeated the Yankees in the most thrilling seven game series (or at least the most thrilling comeback) in the history of baseball, and the Red Sox and Yankees have not met in the playoffs since. The Sox won the World Series two more times in 2007 and 2013, and the Yankees won it all in 2009, but the rivalry just isn’t what it was. If baseball can’t matter to New Englanders as much as it did before 2004, that is especially true of their most hated rival.

In 2016, the Yankees are in a position they are not used to being in at the trade deadline: sell mode. Money cannot fix all their problems. The enormous contracts they gave out to C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira before the 2009 season (which seemed like great deals at the time as New York would not have won the World Series that year without those two players) have hindered their ability to retool on the fly. Baseball has no salary cap, but it has implemented a luxury tax system that when a team like the Yankees or Dodgers cross that threshold, spending more becomes prohibitive. After the 2013 World Series, the Yankees paid top dollar for the dynamic, but oft-injured Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and Red Sox fans weren’t even mad, for the most part. The following winter, when former Red Sox lefty ace Jon Lester was available in free agency, the Yankees were not even in the mix for his services. The Yankees were not dominating in the standings or in hot stove headlines, and it was weird.

This week, Yankees GM Brian Cashman sent controversial closer Aroldis Chapman (who was suspended for domestic violence after the Yankees traded for him from Cincinnati last winter and whose presence will no doubt complicate the feelings of Cubs fans as their highly anticipated 2016 postseason run approaches) to the Chicago Cubs for a haul of prospects, and today sent hard throwing lefty (and 2013 World Series Champion with Boston) Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians for even more prospects. Gutting New York’s stout bullpen like this is essentially waiving the white flag on the 2016 season, but it could set the Yankees up for a brighter future when Teixeira’s and Alex Rodriguez’ contracts come off the books in the coming years. At the same time it raises the stakes even more for a Chicago team that has not won the World Series since 1908 and a Cleveland team that last won it in 1948.

Now Cashman has a chance to show that he’s the talented GM I believe he is. Since he became GM in 1998, inheriting a team that was already really good and had the spending power to add and add and add, his reputation has been just that. I thought that when Theo Epstein left Boston for the Cubs after the 2011 season, that Cashman might try to do something similar. While Theo has the distinction already of being the executive who built a championship team in Boston when no one had been able to since 1918, and now is trying to do that for the lowly Cubbies, I thought Cashman might find another midwestern National League team with over a century of history of his own, perhaps the Cincinnati Reds, to forge a second chapter of his legacy in a smaller market.

If Cashman can make the Yankees great again (gulp!), in this new competitive landscape, then he will deserve a lot more credit than he will likely get. No other team’s fans have any love for the New York Yankees, but there is something missing from baseball season when they are not in the mix. I hate to say this, but for Major League Baseball to be a national sport like the NFL or NBA, maybe it needs the Yankees. And I say that as a fourth generation Red Sox fan (gulp! again).

The Uncertain Future of Baseball

I have lived in New England my entire life, and always took for granted that Red Sox Nation was as staunch a region for baseball fandom as you will find anywhere in North America. The 86 year stretch without winning the World Series gave Red Sox fans an identity, a shared suffering that was passed from one generation to the next. Another city had longer title droughts, but Chicago’s baseball misery was diluted by having two teams (the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 for the first time since 1917 but that was never talked about nearly as much as the Red Sox, let alone the Cubs who still have not won since 1908), and the fact that they ChiSox and Cubs never came as close nearly as many times as Boston did. Winning it all in 2004 was great. For me, that first World Series win will always be the highlight of my sports fandom. Nothing will ever top that American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox. Nothing. Boston teams can win as many championships as they want, and nothing will top 2004, especially anything the Red Sox do, and that’s a problem for baseball.

That last paragraph serves as a warning to Cubs fans and Indians fans, and Mariners fans, and Rangers fans, and Astros fans that your baseball team will never matter as much as it did before your long awaited championship, because it’s not just a Boston problem. The Red Sox have won the World Series two more times since 2004, and the Patriots have won two more Super Bowls, and the Bruins and Celtics each won championships of their own. Boston has done an absurd amount of winning this century. The Red Sox have, along with the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, been one of the models for how to win in modern baseball, so when they’re not winning, instead of getting angry, fans just change the channel. If the Red Sox can’t be relevant, the Pats will be starting back up soon enough and the NBA and NHL have done a great job (the NBA more than the NHL, but still) of turning their 82 game season followed by a two month, sixteen team tournament into a 365 day cycle of relevance with their respective drafts and hot stove cycles. Football and basketball are juggernauts, with football dominating the narrative on national sports radio and TV shows most of the year, and basketball having a real chance to catch football in the United States and catch soccer internationally in the next 20 years. Hockey has a problem in that it’s a regional sport. It’s a niche sport because it matters more than most things in Canada and in certain American cities (like Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh), but in those cities, there will still be interest in the Stanley Cup Final even if their team is not in it. While baseball matters in more American cities than hockey does, it’s relevance is much more localized.

If the Red Sox miss the playoffs, the playoffs do not matter in New England. I know this because I follow baseball more closely than most people in their mid-20s, and while all my friends were in on the Red Sox title run in 2013, it was really hard to get people to talk about all the compelling stories in the baseball postseason last fall, even that super fun New York Mets team, and even with one of my closest friends literally being named Daniel Murphy. The Red Sox have a likeable young team this year, with their top prospects finally living up to the hype we have been sold from the beat writers for years. The offense has been incredible, and longtime designated hitter David Ortiz has been the rare case of a player on a farewell tour, still playing like has always has. The problem is that the pitching is not good enough to keep up with their excellent hitting, and all of this offensive production could be wasted. If things go south, David Ortiz, one of the greatest playoff performers the game has ever seen, could play out the string in August and September in meaningless games, with the fanbase focusing on Patriots training camp and the potential Tom Brady vs. Jimmy G quarterback controversy. If you’re not in a fantasy baseball league (which I have not been in a few years), it is incredibly easy to lose touch with the rest of Major League Baseball. Baseball should be doing a better job of marketing itself. They have as much good, exciting talent under the age of 27 as basketball and hockey, and all three sports are doing better than football in that regard, but the excitement is localized. Red Sox fans are thrilled about Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr., and we see more of Baltimore’s Manny Machado than fans in other divisions, but a star like Bogaerts, or Betts, or JBJ, or Machado, or Mike Trout in Anaheim, or Bryce Harper in Washington, Marcus Stroman in Toronto, or Trevor Story in Colorado, or Noah Syndergaard in New York, or Kris Bryant in Chicago, or Joc Pederson in Los Angeles, or Carlos Correa in Houston does not get the same kind of national buzz (with the possible exceptions of Harper in Trout) as Karl-Anthony Towns, or Anthony Davis, or Russell Westbrook, or Connor McDavid. The pieces are there to generate interest beyond one’s local baseball club. They just haven’t figured it out.

Baseball, in a lot of ways, is trapped in centuries past. It’s a game without time limits, for the most part, that adopted instant replay long after the other three sports, that feels content to cater to older fans rather than actively cultivate new ones. Some of that is a good thing. The idea of following the same team that my grandparents followed as children is kinda cool. My grandfather died in 2000 and never got to see the Red Sox win the World Series, but I got to see them win it twice while I was in high school. Red Sox baseball is a tradition older than any of the other Boston teams, having played their first season in 1901. The Bruins played their first season in 1924 (making them the oldest current American NHL team), the Celtics played their first season in 1946, and the Patriots have been around since 1960. History can only get you so far in modern sports, though. It was the Patriots, not the Red Sox, that first turned Boston’s championship fortunes around in 2002, and it was the Cavaliers, not the Browns or Indians that broke through first for Cleveland, a team that was rarely if ever relevant without LeBron James on their roster. Kids today do not care about Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, or Sandy Koufax. Why should they? Baseball’s history will always be there, but baseball’s present should be what we’re celebrating.

Baseball needs to lighten up a bit. Cool things happen in any baseball game, but there are unwritten rules that prevent players to act like they’re having fun compared to the other sports. Jose Bautista flips a bat after a dynamite home run in the playoffs last year for the Toronto Blue Jays and old school baseball people lose their minds over it. What could be celebrated as a trending .gif the way fans would celebrate a Rob Gronkowski end zone celebration or a menacing Dirk Nowitzki fist pump or a Jaromir Jagr goal salute is condemned as being bad for the game in baseball. A guy like Bryce Harper plays with the kind of swagger people are used to seeing on a basketball court and people call for him to get off their lawn, so to speak.

I want baseball to do well. I want it to stand the test of time, and I want it to still matter in 40 years. For that to happen, baseball is going to need to adapt to the 21st century. Things could be more fun than they are. The powers that be just need to let it happen.

 

Excitement in San Diego

This Major League Baseball offseason has been terrific for trades and player movement, to the point that baseball is taking up time in the 24 hour sports news cycle during football/basketball/hockey season the way the NBA was during the middle of the summer when baseball was the only major sport playing games. The eager waiting of baseball fans everywhere for Jon Lester’s free agency decision did not have the ESPN flair of LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, but jokes about waiting for a new Pope, and anticipating red smoke if the lefty ace chose Boston and blue smoke if he picked Chicago (or orange smoke if he decided to take his talents to San Francisco, but they were out of the running before the Red Sox and Cubs) dominated Reddit and Twitter, and did not seem that far off from the reality of the situation. Not every offseason is this exciting, but 2014 has not disappointed, unless you’re a fan of the Orioles or Athletics (but even then, A’s fans must be used to Billy Beane’s wheeling and dealing by now, and they’ll be contending again soon enough).

One team that usually flies under the radar during the winter, and rarely makes waves during the regular season has been right in the thick of it this offseason, however. The San Diego Padres might not be good this year, but there’s more to talk about with that club than there has been in a while.

The Padres are one of those teams that you might forget are in Major League Baseball if you follow an American League team, and they’re not on the inter-league schedule. In recent years, the National League West has been dominated by the San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Arizona Diamondbacks (who beat the New York Yankees in seven games in 2001) and the Colorado Rockies (who actually beat the Padres in a one game playoff before eventually getting swept by the Red Sox in 2007) have both been to the World Series since Bruce Bochy, Trevor Hoffman and the late great Tony Gwynn led them to a National League Pennant in 1998, before being swept by the juggernaut Yankees. These days, Gwynn is in Cooperstown, but gone well before his time, and Bochy and Hoffman appear to be headed there eventually, with Bochy the skipper behind three World Series winning teams in the last five years, and Hoffman getting a new award for the National League’s best closer named in his honor, but none of them are doing anything to help the Padres right now.

The plight of small market teams in baseball is reflected in San Diego’s baseball club. Adrian Gonzalez was a good player for them, but they traded him to Boston in 2011 rather than sign him to an extension or lose him via free agency. This winter, however, the Padres went on the offensive with their trades, acquiring Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, Wil Myers from the Tampa Bay Rays, and Justin Upton from the Atlanta Braves, three outfielders with All-Star caliber bats. They also flipped veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Red Sox for third baseman Will Middlebrooks. This is a low-risk trade that could potentially work well for both teams. Middlebrooks is a young player with plenty of power who gets injured almost as much as he strikes out, but a change of scenery could be good for him, especially since the Red Sox were ready to move on from him with the signing of World Series hero Pablo Sandoval earlier in the offseason. For the Red Sox, Hanigan is a local kid (from Andover, MA) who could play the role of mentor to young catcher Christian Vazquez, and replace David Ross (who signed with the Cubs to catch for Lester) as the team’s backup catcher.

The recurring theme seems to be a change of scenery, and there isn’t much better scenery than San Diego. I was always surprised that San Diego couldn’t attract free agents on its good weather alone, but it is exactly what these players need. Matt Kemp was a fan favorite and a legitimate superstar in Los Angeles, having been a two time All-Star, two time Gold Glover, and a two time Silver Slugger, but is now 30, and has had injury issues, and has fallen out of favor with the Dodgers. It’s interesting to note, though, that both Kemp and Dodgers owner Magic Johnson were mentioned by name in the Donald Sterling tapes, for being people that V. Stiviano had taken pictures with and posted to Instagram against Sterling’s approval. At any rate, it was probably time for Kemp to head south. San Diego should be a good change of pace after playing his entire career with the Dodgers.

Wil Myers was part of a big trade two years ago that sent pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Kansas City Royals. Myers, a top prospect in Kansas City’s farm system was believed to be a steal at the time, although Shields and Davis were a big part of the incredible, improbable, no joke, very exciting run to Game 7 of the World Series that Kansas City went on this past October. Myers was no slouch, either. He won the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year Award with Tampa, and at 24, still has a promising future ahead of him in the game of baseball. It may be a very Boston-centric sports take, but it might do Myers a lot of good to spend less time at Fenway Park. Myers made a costly error at Fenway in the 2013 ALDS, which helped kick off the Red Sox postseason success that year, and in 2014, he collided in the Fenway outfield with Desmond Jennings resulting in a wrist injury that would derail his season (as well as the Rays’ season, which resulted in Tampa trading David Price to the Detroit Tigers, general manager Andrew Friedman leaving to become President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, and field manager Joe Maddon leaving to become manager of the Cubs). With the Padres, Myers won’t even have to go to Fenway every season.

Justin Upton is another player who could use a change of scenery because things just weren’t working in Atlanta. The Braves had plenty of bats, but had poor plate approach as a team. Upton and his brother B.J. did not live up to the hype that came with them arriving in Atlanta the same year. After the Braves dealt Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals, it seemed as if they were ready to blow it up and start rebuilding.

It’s unclear at this time if the Padres will be good, but it’s the first time I can remember that there is buzz around the Padres in the offseason, and it just might lead to regular season buzz. At the very least, the Giants and Dodgers are looking over their shoulders because the division has a chance to be more than just a two team race in 2015.

You stay classy, San Diego.