Monday, November 24, 2008

Leftover Thoughts About the MLB Playoffs

I had originally intended to write an extended postmortem on the World Series, but I found myself even weeks later still in a funk about the Rays' performance. Whining didn't seem entertaining or appropriate, especially when you consider that even the Rays' appearance in the World Series was a tremendous gift of the Baseball Gods.

Besides, looking back, I'd already talked about much of the origins of the failure. And while I could have gone into the specifics of the loss, there doesn't seem to be much call for it. Even though hundreds of thousands of women Obamaniacs across the country probably verge on the orgasmic when you mention Nate Silver and the numbers "538," probably few are interested in Nate's "secret sauce" in the WXRL, FRAA and EqK9 sense.

Suffice to say that, in the quantifiable sense (WXRL), Rays' manager Joe Maddon continued making inexplicable and barely defensible bullpen moves, repeatedly sending out the skill-poor and luck-middle-classed Dan Wheeler, despite having to propel him onto the field via the giant barbecue fork in his back. Meanwhile, in the gritty, gutty, Ecksteiny and amorphous world of baseball instinct, the Rays' batters probably beat themselves. Wound up tight with the pressure of the stage on which they found themselves, their at-bats seemed desperate, their swings enormous and incommensurate with the situation. Put simply: they were trying too hard.

At the time, I sat naturally disappointed and at least thankful that the giant runny amounts of egg on my face obscured some of the horror. At the start of the post-season, I dismissed BJ Upton as overrated. At the time, he might have been. His power numbers hadn't equaled early season projections, and it seemed that he often went out to run the bases after having left his brain in the dugout. (In my defense: he committed at least two boneheaded blunders on the bases in the postseason.) Yet while his teammates' bats went silent, Upton seemed determined to win the games on his own, memorably tying one game with what seemed like a walk, two stolen bases and a race home on a passed ball. Also, during the ALDS and ALCS, I think he OPS'd something like, I don't know, three jillion.

Since none of these observations was strictly necessary, the leftovers I'd planned to include with them lingered on my hard drive. Now that I haven't the volition to pick over the carcass of the Rays' season, I've got nowhere to put these without them sticking out like sore thumbs. But screw it.

Mike Scoscia Might Be the Saddest Person in Baseball:

I'm not sure how to describe that expression's unfolding, but at the time it seemed like the dawning of genuine anguish. It reminded me of that scene where Lisa Simpson tells Ralph Wiggum that she doesn't like him at all. Only she does it into a microphone. In front of the entire audience at a Krusty the Clown annual TV special. On live broadcast — which Bart then plays back on VHS, advancing the tape frame by frame and saying, "Watch this, Lis. You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half."

In Scoscia's case, his expression came from an umpire's calling Jered Weaver's pitches on the outside corner for balls. Scoscia shouldn't have been so upset. Both the Angels and Red Sox pitchers alternately got that outside corner for strikes and for balls within the same game. If I remember correctly, Red Sox pitcher Jon Lestercancer slayer and no-hitter hurler, who pitched in the background during one of the worst ten-minute spans of play-by-play I've ever heard — actually got an identical pitch called for a ball and then for a strikeout on the same batter. The officiating this postseason often ran the gamut between unstable and unforgivable. I don't know a single fanbase whose teams were represented in this year's playoffs that didn't regularly respond to calls with outrage and grief.

Scoscia might well have been reacting with just a kind of generalized dismay that he was witnessing an awfulness of peculiar consistency. If he wasn't, if these expressions represent his reaction to mundane, incidental injustices, then I dearly hope never to see the man after he's endured a real-life tragedy. The effect must be soul-rending.

What should concern him most is that his team couldn't beat Boston, but the team that did played Scoscia-style baseball. (Joe Maddon was a bench coach on Scoscia's Angels.) The Rays attacked the basepaths, stealing seemingly at will, combining "smallball" elements of speed and advancing the runners with more productive sabermetric approaches like taking walks and hitting for power.

The main difference between the two teams comes in age brackets: the Rays are young and have the speed of youth; the Angels, by baseball standards, are a team of the middle-aged and downright old. The Angels, by rights, had about two opportunities to put Boston away in the ALDS, but they frittered them away by playing a high-speed game they simply don't have the wheels for anymore. The best example was probably Vladimir Guerrero, running on two legs held together by cobweb-remnants of cartilage and baling wire, trying to take two bases on a bloop hit and getting gunned down at third by a mile. If Scoscia doesn't want to look so dismayed next October, he's going to have to change his coaching strategy to accord with a team that just doesn't have the legs for that mixed style speed-and-power ball. They're going to have to ape the Red Sox instead, taking walks to increase their OBP and staying put once they get there.

Almost All Red Sox Fans Seem to Own iPhones; Also Are Assholes:
I have no idea what this signifies, but I pointed this out to a friend of mine when we stood in line for beer during game one of the ALCS at Tropicana Field. Because getting to a game at Fenway Park costs about as much as a down payment on a car, an awful lot of Red Sox fans will simply take the train to Baltimore or a cheap commuter flight down to Tampa to see the Red Sox on the road and, incredibly, save money in the process. Because of the Fenway factor and because it was the first game of the ALCS, an awful lot of Sox fans were running around. And, like I said, all of them seemed to have iPhones.

I wish I understood what lesson can be gleaned from that, but I have to admit I was a little distracted at the time by the sudden discovery that Red Sox fans mistakenly believed that they were in a race with Yankee fans to determine which fanbase was filled with more unregenerate, insufferable dickheads. I never thought I'd see anyone who could equal this almost fantastic piece of human garbage I saw wrapped up in a Jeter jersey and NY cap at a Rays game a year ago, but in just the time it took to get a beer, I saw about half a dozen Sox fans who looked like they'd proudly wear Burger King crowns with the words "Asslord of Fandom" written on them and beat the shit out of that guy with lead pipes. I refused to wear my Sox cap for weeks afterward, mostly out of concern for not being tainted by association.

I suppose what makes no sense to me is that, once you take the Sox fans out of the equation, something like 99% of all iPhone owners I've met have been extremely cool people. So why the corollary? Or is it a red herring? I bet it's the herring thing.

Philadelphia Phillies Outfielder Shane Victorino Looks Like Ren Hoek or Peter Lorre... I Can't Decide:

I can't settle on one and seem to go back and forth. Depending on the camera angle, Victorino always seems like he's either about to beat his teammates while yelling, "You EEEEDIOT!!!" or grab them by the lapels and beg them for the letters of transit. I know next to nothing else about him, aside from the quality of his play, but he seems like a cool guy, so I almost feel bad making the comparisons. Although the Lorre thing shouldn't be taken as a negative, since Lorre himself was a cool guy, despite being typecast as a creep or a monster.

Going to the ALCS Game One Was a Blast:
Despite sitting somewhere in front of Bob Uecker's reserved seating and behind six unbelievable Massholes, I'd forgotten how great playoff baseball is. Unless you're talking about New York, Boston, Philly, Chicago or St. Louis, the quality of fans in attendance at playoff games jumps by about a thousand points. (Ironically, in those areas, fan quality plummets in the postseason because all the working-class regulars get priced out by corporate types indifferent to the game.) Everything seems momentous: the languid pace of baseball somehow being electrically languid instead of the sort of thing you do after work or on a weekend to unwind and drink magical $8 Budweiser.

The area around Tropicana Field, especially at Ferg's Sports Bar, was like Mardis Gras or, for the Tampa area, Guavaween or Gasparilla. I smelled barbecue every five feet and pot smoke every ten. I kept missing the exposed breasts, but apparently that's because I didn't stay in one spot and let the breasts come to me. Everybody was getting loaded. You couldn't go ten feet without coming across another impromptu kiosk with a girl selling tallboys that had been chilling in ice-filled yellow industrial garbage bins.

Nothing will ever equal my attending the Earthquake Game in '89, but this was pretty close. Even if I hadn't enjoyed it for myself, I could have enjoyed it for Tampa Bay. It was wonderful to see such a sense of community revelry. And of course, on a personal level, it was really great to get to go there with a friend I've known for ages. Had I been on my own or without someone who was busting out jokes on everything, I probably would have been slightly more furious about the price of seats so high up inside Tropicana Field that the people checking the tickets at the bottom of the stairwell were Sherpas.

Worse, nobody else would have understood what I was laughing at, later, back near Ferg's, when I saw a portable ATM on the back patio. It was ten feet tall and 100% metal, except for the brightly lit plastic sign at its top. Three industrial-sized electrical cables ran into it. It was standing on a wooden palette. In two inches of water. It would have been nice if the Rays had won, but nothing will replace watching drunk after drunk after drunk line up to what amounted to some kind of Zoltar Machine of Dollars or Death.

But why end on a down note? Since we were talking about Mike Scoscia and The Simpsons, here you go:

See you for Spring Training!