While “Pitchers and Catchers Report” is the warmest phrase in the English language to a chilled Midwesterner in February, the actual charm of exhibition games and training camp battles can quickly wear thin. There is the strange drama surrounding an unusually large crop of unsigned free agents that is definitely a total coincidence and not at all another step by the owners to further reduce the amount of the games gigantic piles of money that goes to the players.
But once you get past that, most lineups and rotations are pretty well set. Prospect mavens are patrolling the back fields for the next stars but there really isn’t a lot of Major League Baseball to cover until the games start counting in a month. I definitely can’t muster much excitement over the Reds decision between ex-prospect Phil Ervin or the punchless bat of Ben Revere, who may actually be the secret identity of a patriotic superhero from Earth 2.
So instead I thought I’d share some quick thoughts on baseball in general. How I think about This Great Game, where it stands and how I watch and follow the sport.
First: The Big Red Machine is the best team ever assembled
I admit that I might be a bit biased. A kid growing up in the city Longfellow coined “Queen of the West” in the 1970’s couldn’t help but think that the Great Eight were gods amongst men. Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, The Big Dog Tony Perez and manager Sparky Anderson are all in Cooperstown. Pete Rose would be there too if he weren’t such an idiot. And I’ll go to my grave believing Davey Concepcion should be there too.
For the better part of a decade, Cincinnati was the center of the baseball world. And it was glorious.
Second: Greatness is relative
Sure the Reds of the 70’s were awesome. But of course, there are other candidates. The Yankee’s of the Ruth and Gehrig era, or the Dimaggio and Mantle era, or the Jeter and Mariano Rivera era are all pretty good as well. The Dodgers of the 60’s, the Cubs of the right this minute might be in that discussion. But all these teams played in different eras and comparing them can be an apples to oranges to dragonfruit conundrum.
As a basic shorthand I try to compare teams by their peers, what the statheads call the run environment. Teams from the Dead Ball Era played a very different game than anything we would see today, or even the post Black Sox years after Babe Ruth showed you could consistently put the ball over the fence. Advanced stats like WAR can be normalized across time, but even they fall short of closing the gap time cruelly enforces.
The ‘27 Yankees had the Murderers Row, but their league was lily white and their best player was a big fat guy who may very well have been legally blind in one eye. The Machine would have destroyed them. The Reds of the 70’s were great, but they thought weight training was silly and rarely if ever saw a hundred mile an hour fastball, let alone the kind of heat brought by even lousy staffs in this day and age when fastball velocity averages 93 mph. Aroldis Chapman would mow them down like a machine gun.
Third: Greatness doesn’t always mean winning the last game of the year.
I’m happy for the Chicago Cubs and their fans, same for the Astros or the Royals. Winning the World Series is awesome. But it’s also a bit of a crapshoot. The best winning percentage in baseball history was the Tinker to Evers to Chance Cubs of 1904 who lost the Series to a White Sox team 23 wins behind them. The modern record holder for a 162 game season was the best Mariner team ever assembled in 2001. Ichiro and gang won 116 games but lost their lone playoff series to the Yankees.
The Reds had one of the most successful runs in recent memory with the Votto, Phillips, Cueto teams led by Dusty Baker. But they never won a postseason series. Meanwhile down the river the hated St Louis Cardinals got to have a big dogpile on the TV in 2006 with an 83 win team that barely even made the playoffs. And the less said about the two flags flying over that monument to graft in Miami the better.
I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of the game’s increasing focus on October (and early November.) Baseball is supposed to be a marathon, not a sprint. The ever expanding post season tournament that apes the other Big Three sports feels ill-suited for a game with so much variance. It takes the big sample of 162 games, 500 plate appearances, 200 innings pitched to separate the signal from the noise and tell us who the best teams, the best hitters, the best players are. Too many great seasons are tossed down the memory hole once the playoffs start.
Well, that’s three… I’m out. April needs to hurry up and get here.
Featured Image by Kris Robinson
“From our Haus to Yours”