Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jim Bowden and the Triumph of Honesty

I'm looking forward to this season, as ghastly as it's going to be, because I've never seen anything like it. It's unusual to see a major league baseball team in this kind of extremity, and it's even more unusual to see one so ready to admit it. I never lived in Pittsburgh or Kansas City, so I don't know how frank frankly awful teams tend to be, but the statements coming from Nationals management seem at least extraordinary, if not unprecedented.

Consider some comments Thom Loverro reports that Jim Bowden made during a recent interview.
"The (major league payroll) budget was a lot lower this year than before. But that was a baseball decision. We certainly could have gone out and spent, let's say $9 million, on three pitcher who would do a better job of keeping us in games or gone and got one Gil Meche for $10 million a year."
Aside from the spasmodic reaction the Meche mention is likely to prompt from Needham, I'm surprised to find a carnival barker like Bowden admitting that the Nats quite easily could have been better than they are, but that they aren't, because, you know, Plan.
"You saw that last year. At the trading deadline, teams that want to win, they don't want second-division starting pitchers, so you can't trade them. That piece doesn't get you anything. That doesn't work long term. Then, you win a few more games and get a worse draft pick, so I don't know if that is worth it.
Hmm. Now, I'm fairly pro-Plan, I guess. It's not that I think that Jason Simontacchi or whoever is a real pitcher, but I do have some confidence in the long-term outlook of the team. As I mentioned at least once before, this is the first time that has ever been true. And that's something. Quite a lot, actually.

However, there's a line that's been crossed here. It's one thing to say that your team is going to be awful. We understand that, as long as there's nothing you can reasonably do about it. But Bowden is admitting here that the Nats could have been competitive but that it was decided that they would not be, and that this decision was made at least in part so that we'd get a better draft pick. That's like shooting yourself in the foot to get a Purple Heart, and I don't know that I'm comfortable with it.

But it's not like Bodes invented this maneuver. A dude named Bimbo figured it out when the Cavaliers did it, for example. And pragmatically speaking, it makes sense. $10 million sunk into the rotation is extremely unlikely to result in a team that going to do anything of note, and it does, as Bodes says, make more sense to invest that money in the farm system. I don't know, are we used to teams trying to compete, or are we used to teams pretending they're trying to compete? I mean, yeah, some teams compete. The good ones. But it's taken for granted that certain proportion of franchises in any sport is going to endure the blows of a losing season in order to build for the future or pocket some easy money or because they don't have the will to fire the incompetents running the thing, and the public relations noises they make to the press while they're doing it don't change the reality of their effort.

So it's not Bowden's tactics that make me uneasy, it's his honesty. And that kind of thing should be encouraged, so I guess he gets a pass.

Whew!

Sometimes you read a story about somebody saying foolish, untakebackable things on the internet, and you're amazed and relieved that bloggers aren't involved. Like this one.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Capsule Book Reviews

OK, time to clear out some of the stuff I've been meaning to review. For a couple years, in some cases.

The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz. Almost everyone in this book is a butt-head of one kind or another, from Henry Chadwick to Bill James. Good read.

Stengel: His Life and Times by Robert Creamer. Great bio. You should read this. My favorite part: Casey sits down next to one of his players and says, "Nobody knows this, but one of us has been traded to Kansas City."

Baseball Dynasties
by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein. Welcome to the graveyard of sabermetric ideas that never caught on! Did you know that Joe Morgan had a .379 ROV in 1975 and an .850 OW%? What useful information, and how he must have contributed to his team's Standard Deviation Score! Nice to flip through when you need to kill a few minutes. Fun inter-capsular fact: The Numbers Game reports that Epstein got fired from the Orioles for being a butt-head.

A Homeric Dictionary by George Autenrieth. I've never seen a book that more perfectly did what it set out to do. It's got every word in Homer, and that's it. The first word is aaatos. Georg doesn't know what it means.

Rogers Hornsby by Charles C. Alexander. Eh. Hornsby is one of the most perfect jackasses that ever lived, and his life is a series of squandered opporunities, opportunities that he got only because he could hit the hell out of a baseball. It's hard to make a biography compelling when its subject is so unpleasant in such a banal way, and Alexander ain't Creamer.

You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner. Here's a gimmick you'll get tired of after about 50 pages. But these things weren't meant to be read like a novel, so it's not Ring's fault.

Lizard Music by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. It's no Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror, but this is a good one. It's best before the lizards show up.

Peach: Ty Cobb in His Time and Ours by Richard Bak. Bak makes a couple of important points: 1) Cobb's racism was considered excessive by his contemporaries, but not to the point that it's the only thing they ever talked about, and 2) dude had plenty going against him even without it. He also says that Al Stump made all that stuff up -- the stuff they made the Tommy Lee Jones movie out of. Like, he never actually murdered anyone. Who knows? Not even the guy Ty Cobb didn't murder could answer these questions.

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. You'd think that if you put Borges, ancient writers who got everything wrong but in interesting ways, and weird creatures together, you'd have a winner. But that's what the 2002 Mets thought when they added Mo Vaughn and Robby Alomar. The results here are similar.

Spalding's World Tour by Mark Lamster. I'm a sucker for dudes with handlebar moustaches and heavy, high-collared uniforms spelling base ball like it's two words, but this was kind of flat. Unfortunately, Spalding and company going on a trip around the world is somewhat less interesting than what was happening in the States at the time. "And then they went here, and Monty Ward hit a triple, and the local newspaper said blah blah blah . . ." Meanwhile, the owners were spending their winter shivving the players right in the back, prompting the eventual creation of the Players League. Which is more interesting than the fact that Cap Anson wasn't good at cricket.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Scott Wolf and Ina Garten Should Feel Pretty Bad About This, Too

I've been taking my baseball where I can get it lately, and that trend continued on Saturday when I ventured on the University of Maryland campus to watch the Terrapins take on the George Washington Colonials.

It was a good time, and I recommend it. Five bucks gets you into Shipley Field, a charming venue that can seat 2500 on plastic bench thingies. And you can win that back just by catching a foul ball, which can be exchanged for "a prize." The fan in front of me who performed that feat chose to keep his, but that's probably a five dollar value as well.

I had the pleasure of watching the Terps complete a three game sweep of the hated Colonials, coming back from a four run deficit to take the afternooncap of a weather-necessitated double-header. Frankly, anyone who went to George Washington -- even Mike O'Connor and L. Ron Hubbard -- should be disappointed in if not ashamed at the poor showing of their 0-6 team. They should also fear the turtle.

So if you can't wait for real baseball to start, consider a trip to College Park. There's free parking a short walk from the park, you can use the bathroom in the student union, and if you squint a little bit, they even look like the Nats. Lafayette comes to town next weekend, and I'll see you there! Just don't boo anyone, because you're probably sitting within earshot of about half a dozen of his closest relatives.

Weird coincidence update: I wasn't the only one there, either. This is just like when me and Harper were at the same game in Pittsburgh.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book Review!

The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell is the story of the only major league pitch that ever literally killed somebody, that thrown by Yankees submariner Carl Mays to Indians shortstop Ray Chapman on August 16, 1920. I liked it. A lot. The book, I mean, not the pitch.

Sowell was either lucky or perspicacious in his selection of a topic to write a book about, because the tale lends itself to entertaining anecdotes, historical information valuable to readers who were born 70 or so years after the incident, and some scary stuff. Sowell covers it all in 93 compact chapters of clear, matter-of-fact prose.

Entertaining anecdote: 1920 was Babe Ruth's first year with the Yankees and the year in which he smashed his own home run record with 54. Urban Shocker, then of the Browns and later Ruth's teammate, used some psychological warfare on Ruth: when the Babe came to the plate, Shocker motioned for his outfielders to come in. Ruth, furious, swung and missed at the first pitch, whereupon Shocker brought the defenders in even closer. Another swing, another miss, another step towards the infield for the outfielders. Ruth swung at strike three.

Valuable historical information: Chapman's death was actually the decisive event in a running battle between the leagues and their umpires on the one hand and the club owners and pitchers on the other over baseballs. The leagues had been pushing for heavily-used baseball to be removed from play, while the owners chafed at the expense ($2.50 each, which seems like a lot for 1920) and the pitchers complained that clean balls were too hard to make break and too easy to hit. The pendulum had just swung in the owners' direction when Chapman was hit by scuffed up, brownish baseball (thrown off the field afterwards and lost to history), guaranteeing that all future hitters would have fresh, clean baseballs on which to tee off.

Scary stuff: Sowell gives us a preview of the Chapman beaning and shows us what can happen when baseball meets skull by relating the story of Chick Fewster. A Yankees infielder, he was at bat in an exhibition game against Brooklyn before the 1920 season when a Fred Pfeffer curveball hit him just above his ear. Fewster collapsed, twitched for a while, and didn't come to for ten minutes. When he did wake up -- and this is the really terrifying part -- he starting losing his vocabulary while talked to his teammates. Eventually he was down to two words, and he was unable to say or write anything else. Fortunately, Frewster recovered and actually wound up having a big league career.

The Pitch That Killed ranges widely, but its core are the stories of Mays and Chapman, and it's hard to imagine two more different men. Mays was a sullen loner, almost universally disliked by reporters, teammates, management, and basically every one else -- when his house burned down, he figured someone who knew him did it. He had a reputation for throwing at batters and for not always putting forth his best effort when he was annoyed with his situation. He petulanty left the Red Sox, demanded to be traded, and almost tore apart the American League when the Yankees violated Ban Johnson's injunction against dealing with him. Chapman, on the other hand, was adored by his team and city, and it seems to have been real affection, not an after the fact halo effect. This fact makes the chapters about Mays far more interesting, but the writing is so brisk that nothing drags.

Chapman's death occurred in interesting times, and TPTK takes its time in getting to its climax, allowing the reader the leisure to enjoy the scenery. Babe Ruth was at his legendary best; carousing, attempting a movie career, getting into almost-fatal car crashes. The White Sox spent much of the season battling it out with Cleveland and New York, but with Chicago in second place and heading into Cleveland for a vital series, the Black Sox scandal broke, and the reigning AL champs limped to the finish line with eight players under suspension. During the World Series, which Cleveland won against Brooklyn, Dodgers pitcher Rube Marquard earned his nickname by getting arrested for scalping tickets. These kinds of stories add color to the basic narrative, and the book is full of them.

In covering Chapman's death and its effects on the people around him, Sowell seemingly takes his cue from the box score of the game, a picture of which is included. A laconic note -- "Hit by pitched ball - By Mays (Chapman)" -- is the only record the box score makes of the incident. Sowell is not quite that reserved, but the book's lack of purple prose actually helps the reader understand the strain under which Chapman's friends operated.

Take, for instance, Tris Speaker, the Indians' manager and centerfielder. Speaker appears throughout TPTK, and at every turn is shown to be a sober-minded leader who has earned the respect of his peers as much through his skills as a manager as through his exploits as a player. Sowell relates a number of incidents Speaker is involved in after Chapman's death: he doesn't attend the shortstop's funeral, possibly owing to a nervous breakdown. A fight -- an actual physical fight -- erupts between Speaker, a Mason and a Protestant, and two of his Catholic players over Chapman's memorial service, perhaps further explaining Tris' absence. Shortly afterwards, Speaker, barely playing and playing badly when he does put himself in the lineup, uncharacteristically blows up at an umpire, who (to his credit) lets him. The reader, instead of being beaten over the head with pathos, is allowed to figure out for himself what Chapman and his death meant to those around him.

One final note: after the Indians' triumph in the 1920 Series, TPTK follows the history of the story's leading figures. The most interesting part of this comes when Col. Tillighast Huston, co-owner of the Yankees, gets drunk. He blurts to a sportswriter, "I wanted to tell you that some of our pitchers threw World Series games on us in both 1921 and 1922." Specifically, Carl Mays and "Bullet" Joe Bush were thought to the be the culprits, and a concerned citizen told a reporter that Mays let the Giants score three runs in the eighth inning of game three of the 1921 Series after a bribe had been given to his wife, who was sitting in the stands and who signaled her receipt of the payoff by wiping her face with a handkerchief.

My immediate reaction was to dismiss these claims, but that's not based on anything other than that I'd never heard them before. Whether or not the Yankees had two championships stolen from them by their own players, quite a few people thought they did. Besides Huston, Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson gave some kind of drunken agreement. Miller Huggins went to his grave thinking he'd been cheated, saying just before he died that any of his former charges could expect help from him if they were in financial trouble, but "I made only two exceptions--Carl Mays and Joe Bush. If they were in the gutter, I'd kick them!"

It's likely too late to establish guilt in this case, but the fact that there were rumors swirling about a matter this important is tantalizing. Someone -- someone without a strict dedication to the truth or any kind of scuples about impugning the dead -- could write a secret history of baseball, coming up with a litany of scandals that (and I'm just brainstorming here) Kennesaw Mountain Landis demanded swept under the rug for the good of baseball. Seriously, you'd make a mint. They'd give Tom Hanks a terrible haircut and make a movie.

But I digress, and now it's time to sum up. The Pitch That Killed is very good, and you should read it. Maybe I'll let you borrow it, but I will be re-reading it, so get it back to me, alright?

Weird Coincidence Update: One year ago almost to the day, a blogger named Ryan wrote a review of The Pitch That Killed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

La Pared, Da Meat Hook

I'm late in getting to the Ron Belliard signing, but I can only echo the prevailing reaction: approval followed by puzzlement. Belliard's a solid player, not old, not injured, and coming off a year in which he won a World Series ring and pocketed four million bucks. He just signed on to ride the bench for the worst team in baseball, all for a massive pay cut. He's going through some legal problems at the moment, but it doesn't sound serious enough to warrant this kind of downgrade. I don't know how they did it. Maybe Jim Bowden's personal charm.

Belliard doesn't even have to be as good as he is to be better than Cristian Guzman. At this point, our best lineup would feature Felipe Lopez at short, Belliard at second, and Guzman on the DL. There are other factors, though. Guzman is our second highest-paid player. He's the biggest free agent signing in Washington Nationals history. He needs to play in order to bail Bodes out of looking utterly incompetent, and he will until it becomes achingly clear that he's too bad to be out there every day or until Apollo, god of medicine and sudden death in men, steps in and takes care of this for us.

I don't root for anyone -- even Mets -- to get injured, but if Guzman's shoulder isn't all better, it solves some problems. Lopez is switching from short to second to clear room for him, and there's no guarantee that it's going to go smoothly. With Bellliard in the lineup, the number of automatic outs is reduced from three (Logan, Guzman, pitcher) to two. Less than that, actually, given that our starters aren't likely to last long enough to get an at-bat most games.

But if Guzman is fine, as his MRI indicates, he can at least serve as a reminder of what Bowden is capable of. If you ever feel yourself getting a little too happy about the guy, the $4 million worth of chubby, .200-hitting suck standing in the infield will bring you back down to earth.

Dmitri Young also signed up, and this is a less sure thing. Young doesn't bring anything with him but his bat, and that was in a steep decline when the Tigers cut him last year. Dmitri was dealing with some very serious personal problems, and the Nats are hoping for two things: that his problems are behind him, and that his performance will rebound as a result.

If Young regains form, he'll go a long way to filling the Nick Johnson-sized hole in the lineup, and he'd certainly be an asset on the bench or the trading block afterwards. But beyond any benefit to a baseball team, I'll mainly be rooting for Dmitri to put his life back together.

PS RONNIE!

Monday, February 19, 2007

One Third

There's been so much actual news over the last few days that my sarcastic aggregator over there on the right short circuited. I hope to have it up and humming away again soon, but in the meantime it's up to me to sift through all this stuff. It's going to take more than one post, and this blog's subtitle, which was intended as a goal for me as well as a warning for you, is becoming increasingly inaccurate. Well, the first part of it, anyway.

The biggest, worst news is the status of Nick Johnson. In September, Austin Kearns broke Nick's femur in what I'm still convinced was a negotiating ploy ("Say, that's a real nice third baseman you got there. It'd be a real shame if something happened to him"). Johnson walked into camp over the weekend sporting what some observers took to be a cocky new pimp strut, but what was soon revealed to be just a run-of-the-mill, busted femur limp. When will he be back? No one knows. Maybe June. Maybe never.

And that's unfortunate. For Johnson, of course, it's just the latest in an awful series of setbacks. Whatever force or entity it is that decides these things decided to give Nick tremendous talent along with the inability to use it. He's far from the first player to have a potentially great career shrivel thanks to injuries, but it's the first time I've seen it from this close up, and it's depressing.

This is a significant blow to the Nats, to the extent that a team that has no intention of competing can suffer one. With Soriano gone (and rich!), Johnson was easily the best hitter on the roster, and a quick look at our options tells us how hard he'll be to replace. Larry Broadway? I'm rooting for him, but when Nick Johnson was his age he'd was already been in the majors -- well, on the major league DL -- for years. The Nats just picked up Dmitri Young, which I like, but no one wants to see him as the everyday first baseman. Travis Lee has an advantage over Nick in the looks department, but that's the extent of it.

A week ago, the Nationals looked like two-thirds of a pretty good team. Yeah, there was close to literally no starting pitching, but the bullpens looks good, and the lineup had real potential. They were like a novel with believable characters, a gripping plot, but no pictures. But now, the novel that is the Nats has lost its best character -- the wise-cracking robot who plays first base -- and there's that much less to recommend it. And someone, by the way, needs to write that novel.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

I Can't Sniff My Soul!

So Thom Loverro maybe did but probably didn't take me up on my offer to get a nice blogfight going to kick off the Washington Times' new blog. We, those of us who can't "get a sniff of the greatness that was Frank Robinson," whatever the hell that means, can't criticize Frank because he's baseball royalty. Which is kind of funny, because Thommy spends the first half of the post basically talking about what a pain in the ass Frank's been. He held a grudge against the Reds for longer than I've been alive and is working on a similarly lengthy sulk with the Orioles. But no, he still deserves whatever job he wants AND is immune from criticism because, hey, 586 homers is about 586 more than any of us ever hit. Sniff the greatness!

Needham's response is entirely adequate, covering the absurdity of Loverro's baseball royalty=immunity from criticism position, the shallowness of his evaluation of Frank as a manager, and the bizarreness of Thom's theologically-based evaluation of Frank's detractors. That was my favorite part: Loverro falls into the trap of the hack sports columnist and can't help but tack a snappy one-line paragraph. The problem, though, is that he's really angry or (almost certainly) kind of drunk, and it comes out just weird and inappropriate.
So if you feel the need to ridicule Frank Robinson, you might want to check your soul. It's missing.
Oh yeah? Well, you . . . wait a minute, my soul? I guess I'm glad he didn't call me a child molester or something, but come on, man. We're talking about baseball here.

This isn't the first time Loverro's taken offense at internet-types questioning Robinson. Over a year ago, he presented a parody of bloggers that was as inapt as it was unfunny.
We've tried to stay in touch with what our fans want, and have closely monitored the various Web sites devoted to the Nationals -- natsfanswithnolife.com, ilovetheo.com -- and have concluded that they don't like the way Frank handles pitchers in the eighth inning with runners on first and second and two outs. So we're going to chose to ignore Frank's 52 years in baseball -- 2,808 games as a Hall of Fame player and 15 seasons as major league manager, including just one losing season during the last four years managing a team made up of players from the Land of Misfit Toys -- and fire him.
Hah hah! That's exactly what we sound like, all having no life and all! No souls, either!

To sum up, Thom Loverro is maybe an idiot, is probably crazy, and therefore a welcome addition to the world of Nationals blogs. We'd better enjoy his time blogging, because I have a feeling that it won't be too long before his bosses tell him that he should probably cut it out.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Pataphysics of Love

Love! Amore! Ove-lay! It's the most lovingest day of the year, or so I've been told, and so today I'm writing a mash to note to my beloved Washington Nationals. When I say "Nationals," I'm referring specifically to the 2007 edition. Nothing about how blogging about the Nats rescued me from a life full of free time or how me and my pappy, just off the boat from the Old Country, used to bond over Expos games at Alfred Jarry Park. I'm saving all that for my ruthlessly plagiarized, defiantly fictional memoirs. How do I love the Nats? Let me count the ways.

1. The Nationals play baseball. And I love baseball, ergo I love the Nats. It's the most romantic logic thingy ever. I'm fairly desperate at this point, which helps, and not just in baseball either. I watched as much of that Caribbean Series as I could, and that thing was awful.

2. The Nationals are going to be terrible. I'm kind of looking forward to that, both as a fan and as a blogger. Obviously, I'd like them to be good, but if they're not, they might as well set some records and give me something to write about. It'll be more fun following a 100-loss team like Washington than an 85-loss team like Baltimore. I'm also enjoying the unanimity: fans, journalists, Vegas, the front office -- no one's pretending we have a chance.

And beyond wins and losses, there things to look forward to. I can't think of any besides Zimmerman, but I'm all blissed out on chocolate and cupids and not thinking very clearly.

3. The Nationals are going to be on TV. This came close to ruining the season for me last year, and I'm pretty sure I saw more Nats content in September -- once I started getting MASN -- than I did the rest of the season combined. And now there's no Paciorek, so that's just a bonus.

4. The Nationals are a lot more likeable this year. I didn't like Frank Robinson. He was lousy at his job, didn't care, and acted as though baseball owed him a living. Tomo Ohka agrees with me on this, and he's a millionaire. I didn't like Jose Guillen, either. He was pretty good at his job except when he was tearing apart a clubhouse with some imagined grievance, backed up by the apologists he managed to attract to himself through a heady combination of personal charm and being good at sports. I lack both of those attributes, so this bothered me perhaps more than it should have.

And now they're both gone! The fact that I don't hate Manny Acta even though he's declared himself willing to fill out a lineup card featuring Nook Logan and Cristian Guzman is a testament to his charisma. Meanwhile, the corner outfielders stepping for Guillen don't seem to have any personality at all, an unmistakeable improvement.

5. The Nationals might not be terrible forever. As upset as I was about my favorite team being on TV maybe once a week, what really broke me last year was Jim Bowden's contract extension. I knew the Nats weren't much when they got here. I knew they were even less than that the second go-round. But I clung to the hope that once real ownership was installed, things would get better. I gave up on that once it seemed the new regime wasn't any more competent than the old.

But I was wrong. Since the Lerner/Kasten takeover, Bodes has been a downright good general manager. I may not agree with the parts of the Plan that involve the steadfast refusal to have any starting pitching, but I do -- for the first time ever -- have some confidence in the long-term outlook of this franchise. And that trumps all the other reasons I had.

Special thanks to the Acme Heartmaker for thematically appropriate artwork.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hogsheads and Hectares and Drams

Spring Training! I say this every year, because every year Spring Training happens to fall within my three months/year blogging schedule: I hate Spring Training. The only thing worse than no news is meaningless news. Piles and reams and gallons and British thermal units of utterly content-free reports from sunny Florida. It gets worse every year. Or maybe I just get older and crankier every year. This time, at least, I'm going to do something about it. If you hate Spring Training like I hate Spring Training; if you don't feel like plowing through the preseason's fortieth article about some busted up, no hope pitcher who's going to anchor the rotation or about how Nook Logan's going to bunt his way to usefulness, look over to your right. I'll let you know if there's anything worth paying attention to. Most days there won't be, but if there is, I'll summarize it so you can take a quick look at it and get on with your day. I guarantee that the turn-around time on these stories will be no more than one month, so you won't have to worry about going anywhere else for your Nats news from Viera. Also from Viera: my new favorite roller derby team, the Space Coast Slashers. I'll keep you posted on them, too.

Blogging is like any other obscenely lucrative, personally fulfilling pastime: success breeds imitation. I started by ripping off defunct video game site Old Man Murray, lifting the editorial approach and several word-for-word jokes from it like a nice watch from a corpse. I was followed, of course, by innumerable imitators, each one adding something distinctive to the template. Timeliness, for example, or diligence or not being a jackass. But now the pros are moving in. Could it be that even as bloggers dream of doing the work of journalists (im in ur internetz, stealin ur jobz!!1!), journalists will prove once and for all just how useless we are?

We may be about to find out. Following the Post's Sports Bog establishing a niche as a sort of a local Deadspin except funny, the Washington Times -- the journalistic world's answer to the LA Clippers -- moves in on our territory with Nats Home Plate. There's already an opening day counter, mad links, a weather report, and a link to a chat with Mark Zuckerman that's due to start in negative eight hours. The blog -- Chatter, which is totally what I'd call a baseball-themed high-end fusion cuisine restaurant -- promises to feature contributions from the Times' all star roster of Nats covering guys, which, if nothing else, could prompt me to figure out who they are. So good luck with that, Times guys, and let me give you some advice: nothing gets the old web traffic going like a knock-down, drag-out, get-someone-fired blog fight, and I'm always up for it. Something to think about, you drooling morons. BRING IT!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Puppies, Kearns

My experience with the Puppy Bowl got off to a fantastic start. I tuned in late but just in time to see my personal favorite, the scrappy and gutty Border Terrier Spencer, plow right into overrated pretty boy Sonny. The violent collision, which ended with Spencer standing over the Puggle like he was Muhammed Ali, was hailed by the hideous animals at the Tailgate Puppy as the reply aired again and again.

The action unfolded as it always does -- which is to say, puppily -- though this year's game was marked by a certain lethargy on the part of some of the pups, no doubt afflicting real life puppy owners with amazement and envy. Harry Kalas' voiceovers lent a gravitas that is sorely lacking in modern major sporting events, too many of have their announcing ruined by manufactured enthusiasm, self-satisfaction, and Joe Buck.

So we all enjoyed the Puppy Bowl. But what's happened since is just a shame. I was pulling for Spencer, but it was obvious to any impartial observer that the Most Valuable Puppy was Viszla mix Larry.

ROBBED!
Larry was all over the field. He started fights, he sniffed butts, and he drank water. That's pretty much all there is to do in the Puppy Bowl, and he excelled all competition in each facet. At first, the MVP voting reflected this; Larry had a commanding lead, and with over 1.5 million (!) votes cast, he looked like he was on his way to joining such titans as Tommy Maddux and Jelani "The Sheriff" Janisse.

And yet when the winner was announced, it was Bomber the Samoyed. Bomber is a dog who not only looks like he was made out of the inside of a pillow, but performed like he was made out of the inside of a pillow. His Puppy Bowl highlight was lounging with one or two of his ridiculous littermates and watching while Larry carried all before him, and for that he wins the MVP.

Bomber: "Duhhhhh."
So what happened? Did Siberian hackers rig the vote to ensure that one of their would win? Did the shadowy organization known only as the "Samoyed Club of America" spread some of their bountiful dues money around? If I'm assuming the worst, it's only because Animal Planet is being suspiciously quiet about the results. While voting was going on, this page gave you the votes for each candidate as well as the number of total votes cast. Now there's only a terse paragraph congralutating the almost certainly fraudulent victor. They're just lucky that the Puppy Bowl is too damn cute to boycott.

Austin Kearns signed a contract extension. You probably already heard about this. $17.5 million gets us three more years of not having to worry about who our right fielder is. Or, a more familiar fear to Nats fans, three more years of not having to worry that our right fielder is going to impale someone on a bat.

I like it. It's a Jim Bowden deal of post-Kasten vintage, so of course I like it. That said, it's not something to get excited about. I've given myself a whole week, and by this point I've given up on feeling the kind of wide-eyed thrill I got after the Vinny Castilla for Brian Lawrence trade.

Is Kearns going to be a $5 million player in 2008? We'd better hope so. Is he going to be an $8 million player in 2009? Possibly. Maybe even probably, and you can bet it would take at least that much to keep him. Kearns isn't a star, and it's interesting that the two projections I bothered to look at have almost identical forecasts for him: identical batting average, identical on base percentage, only 5 points difference in slugging. And that projection is . . . well, it's alright. I'm not going to get too excited about a low 800s OPS from a corner outfielder, even if he is the defensive badass Kearns is reputed to be.

I certainly don't think this deal is worth talking about as an indication of the Nats' long-term approach. Kearns isn't a guy who's going to carry this team into the future. He's useful but not all star-level player who now has cost certainty added to the package, which, if anything, makes it easier to trade him. I would be surprised if his Washington tenure outlasted Cristian Guzman's.

You know what contract was rad? Nick Johnson's. Dude got straight-up ripped off. Now that was an extension to get excited about.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Rojas and Rojas

Anyone watching the Caribbean World Series? It's not good, exactly, but it is an occasion for happy reflection.

MASN has proven itself completely useless when it's not showing a baseball game, but it's showing baseball games in early February, and that's easily worth the two bucks a month my cable system pretended it had to charge me for it. It's even worth sitting through Anita Marks commercials -- you know, the ones where she awkwardly fields ground balls while some guy tells us how talented she is.

It's going to be a long year for Nationals fans, owing in large part to the general lousiness of the team on the field and of the field under the team. The Nats don't have any pitchers, and RFK is the ballpark equivalent of the Nats starting rotation. But look at the Dominican team: they're going to win the tournament, and they've got 40-something Luis Polonia at DH. The Expos gave up on Tony Batista years ago, but in the Caribbean World Series he's a force to be reckoned with, what with his home run power and old man gut and little skinny arms.

And as far as facilities, nothing makes you feel more grateful to be a Major League Baseball fan than realizing that the worst big league field puts to shame Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium's stained putt-putt green.

As I said, it's not good, but I'm still watching it every night. The Mexican team in their cartoon jerseys throwing the ball everywhere but where it's supposed to go is like a marionette parody of the real stuff, and that reminds us of both the quality of major league play and that the big leaguers are only about two months away from getting down to business. There are worse things to watch in February and nothing better to think about.