A look at baseball’s unpredictable league

To say the American League has been unpredictable lately is an understatement. The last two seasons have seen the AL pennant go to a team that had lost 93 games the previous year (Boston) and one that had not reached the post season for 29 years (Kansas City). So what on earth could happen this year?

We’ll start with what has usually been the toughest division in baseball – the AL East. Since wild cards begun in 1995 the AL East has had two teams in the Division series in 15 out of 20 years. But last year the AL East did not even get the second wild card and a repeat is a possibility. The Red Sox have added Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to an already strong hitting line up but have no ace after failing to resign Jon Lester. The Yankees have one pitcher who is an ace if he is fit – Masahiro Tanaka – and one who was an ace but is past his best – CC Sabathia – but this team is creaking with old age which is why it got wrecked by injuries the last two years and could be so again. It would be nice to see the Blue Jays “do a KC” and end a long post season drought (now the longest in baseball. Post season baseball has not been played in Canada since 1993) and like the Red Sox the offence is good enough – Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin are excellent additions to an offence that already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion but ace Marcus Stroman is out for the year which leaves the Blue Jays relying on 40 year old RA Dickey and 36 year old Mark Buehrle for pitching. The Rays – starting their post Joe Maddon- Andrew Freidman era  – have the opposite problem. This franchise has never been short of pitching but hitting could be a problem – especially as Will Myers was traded in the off season.

The surprise to me in the AL East is how under rated Baltimore are. Baseball Prospectus rates their post season chances at 19.3 % – astonishingly low for a team who did win the division by 12 games last year. True they’ve lost last year’s home run leader Nelson Cruz and Nick Markasis but against that they’ll hope for full seasons from Manny Machado and Matt Wieters. They are not a team of stars – Adam Jones apart  – but they are greater than the sum of their parts and unless Boston signs an ace like Cole Hamels the Os have a good chance of upsetting the odds and defending their division title.

What I’m going to write next could either make me look like a genius or an idiot but here goes. This year could see the end of the Detroit Tigers domination of the AL Central. The team is going for a fifth successive title but stars Miguel Cabrera Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander aren’t getting any younger and already have had injuries pre season. If they miss a lot of games Detroit will be in trouble. They are still capable of making me look stupid but the pressure is on. The team is getting older and their window is closing – especially as David Price will be a free agent after 2015. This could be their last chance to crown their era with a world championship.

Especially as three of the teams in the division are improving. One is amazed that Baseball Prospectus rate the Royals’ post season chances as low as 10.3%. They are the defending AL Champions. While it is true that Billy Butler and James Shields are gone the lights out bull pen and brilliant outfield of last year are still intact. The Royals could win the division or miss out on the post season. The key might be Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas . Both did well in the post season but not in the regular season and will need to reproduce the post season form for KC to win the division.

The White Sox are the wild card here though. Although they lost 89 games last year they did have talent – Jose Abreu and Chris Sale come to mind – and have strengthened with Jeff Samardzia, Melky Cabrera and David Robertson. If Abreu avoids second season syndrome and Sale – a future Cy Young winner – gets fit quick (he’ll miss the start of the season) – the White Sox  – despite all the hype about the Cubs – could well be the team from Chicago playing post season baseball. And the Indians can’t be ruled out either especially if Cy Young winner Corey Kluber maintains his form (the Twins can be ruled out though). The four non Detroit teams have averaged 75.5 wins in the last four years but that will change this season. The Central will definitely send two teams to the post season and like its NL counterpart in 2013 could send three.

That of course will depend on the AL West. The Astros and my team the Rangers (since ace Yu Darvish is out for the season as he requires Tommy John surgery) can be ruled out of contention. The As have gutted their roster but also made interesting moves. They are back in the role of underdogs which they like and while I don’t think they’ll make the post season they won’t fall back into pre 2012 mediocrity either. The two favourites here are the reigning champion Angels and the much improved Mariners. The Angels won’t win 98 games again – especially as Josh Hamilton has got into off field  trouble again – but they still have Mike Trout who is well quite good. The worst they’ll do is win a wild card. But they might not defend the division though as the Mariners look like they have their best team since Ichiro’s rookie season in 2001. Last year they were one game shy of the post season despite run scoring problems. The signing of Cruz will solve that problem as well as offering Robinson Cano protection. While they won’t win 116 games as in 2001 they should at worst win a wild card and are my tip just to pip the Angels. One thing is certain. Unless disaster strikes and ace “King” Felix Hernandez is injured  the “King’s Court” at Safeco Field should see their hero pitch in the post season at last.

So I would say that the Os the White Sox and the Mariners are my favourites for the AL divisions this year. But the fact that none can be regarded as certainties sums up the “junior circuit” which looks like it could be as unpredictable this year as it has been in the previous two.

Can the Cardinals/Giants duopoloy be broken ?

Time was when the American League was the most predictable in baseball. Between 1947 and 1964 the Yankees won the AL pennant 15 times out of 18. But this has changed. In the last five seasons four different teams have won the AL pennant while only the Giants (2010, 2012 and 2014) and the Cardinals (2011 and 2013) have won the National League. So as a new baseball season approaches will there be change in the NL this year?

Let’s start with the team that were celebrating at the end of last season – the World Champion Giants. They have bigger problems than the fact it is an odd numbered year and the Giants don’t make the post season in those years. The offence could struggle. Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse are gone and Hunter Pence will miss the first 6-8 weeks. And it wasn’t the best offence to start with. The pitching would be awesome if all of then were at their peak but that can only be said about post season hero Madison Bumgarner. It will be interesting to see if Matt Cain can come back from injury at or near his 2012 peak but Tim Hudson ,Tim Lincecum and Jake Peavy are surely past theirs. Add to the (easy forgotten) fact the Giants won only 88 games last year in a poor NLWest (apart from the Dodgers of course) plus the fact that the Padres have improved the D-Backs can’t get worse and the Rockies must on the law of averages get a full season out of Troy Tulowitski and Carlos Gonzalez and it adds up to fewer wins for the Giants and probably no post season action this year.

The Cardinals are a different case though. Baseball Prospectus 2015 (page 368) lists the things that went wrong for the Cardinals in 2014 – a list far too long to reproduce here. But they still won 90 games the division and got to the NLCS. Imagine how they could do if fewer things went wrong. They aren’t a lock to win the NL Central – three of their rivals have got to the post season in the last four years and the fifth team the Cubs are stuffed with exciting young talent – but while there is a case for saying the Pirates could win the NL Central one cannot imagine the Cardinals NOT getting a wild card. And as 2011 and 2012 showed the Cardinals with a wild card are dangerous. They are arguably the best run franchise in baseball and will be serious contenders again. Even if disaster strikes and Adam Wainwright is injured one must remember they won the 2011 World Series without him throwing a pitch all season. They find a way.

So if the duopoly is to be broken, who will do it? The obvious contenders are the cash rich Dodgers. Their off season has been fascinating – especially their appointment of Andrew Freidman as President of Baseball Operations. Going from the poor Rays to the rich Dodgers must make him feel that he has won the lottery. But as many lottery winners find out if you are not used to having money you can spend it badly. His moves have been interesting trading Dee Gordon and Hanley Ramirez signing Howie Kendrick and above all trading star player Matt Kemp. The move makes sense – the Dodgers had a log jam in the outfield, didn’t want to lose uber prospect Joc Pederson and probably felt the injury prone Kemp will never return to his 2011 peak. But if he does the fact he went to the division rival Padres means he could come back to haunt them and the fans at Chavez Ravine won’t like that. They should still win the NL West but have one big problem if they want to do what the owners and fans expect – win the World Series. They might have to get by the Cardinals – who seem to have the same effect on the great Clayton Kershaw as kryptonite has on Superman. This gives the Cardinals a huge advantage should they meet again.

So if the Dodgers can’t break the duopoly who can? There is one obvious candidate. The Washington Nationals won the NL East by 17 games had the best record in the NL and had the beat pitching staff in the League. But for a second time in three seasons they did not get out of the Division Series. But in the off season they showed they were determined to change this by signing Max Scherzer. They did not sign this former Cy Young winner to win the NL East. In a division where two teams are on the way up (the Marlins and Mets) but from a poor base – and the other two – the Braves and Phillies -are in decline  – they would have probably won the division any way No. Scherzer has been signed to try and make the Nats post season winners. To stop them being the Oakland As of the NL. This is a declaration that “our time has come”. While nothing is certain in baseball adding Scherzer to a pitching staff so good that even though it has – according to Baseball Prospectus -the best pitching prospect in baseball Lucas Giolito of whom BP says “There are Major League teams that don’t have a better pitcher than him” –  his chances of playing in the Majors are slim – means that if any team can break the Cardinals/Giants duopoly in the NL it is this team.

A previous Washington franchise – the Senators – were so bad the phrase “Washington. First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League*” was coined about them. In 2015 it could be “First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League”.

*The first two baseball franchises in Washington DC  – both called the Senators – were in the American League. It was not until 2005 – when the Expos moved to DC – that Washington became a NL city.

Don’t ruin City’s Euro dream

After an awful week for UK football in Europe it is nice after all the gloom and doom to note there are still two UK teams left in the Champions League. Of course most people will not know this as I’m talking about the women’s Champions League. Both UK teams are very similar but one is involved in a David v Goliath match that shows off the contrast in women’s football and the fear that the football establishment prefers certain types of female football teams.

The match I’m referring to is Glasgow City v Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Glasgow City are an independent women’s team (which means they are not linked to a men’s club).  They were founded in 1998 by two women – Laura Montgomery and Carol Anne Stewart with the express aim of becoming the best women’s team in Scotland and one of the best in Europe. They have achieved just that. Although they compete against the women’s teams of Rangers and Celtic among others they have won the Scottish Women’s Premier League (SWPL)  eight times in a row.  They went from November 2008 to  September 2014 with out losing a League game. And in November 2014 they became the first Scottish female club to reach the last eight of the Champions League with two spectacular come from behind wins against Polish and Swiss opposition. Most of the team are part timers and they play their home Champions League games in Airdrie not Glasgow – watched by just 775 (first round) and 698 (second round).

In contrast PSG are the women’s section of one of the richest clubs in Europe. Stuffed with stars – they include most of the French women’s team that don’t play for rivals Lyon plus star names from Germany, Sweden and the USA –  they are full time professionals who train five days a week and the only difference between them and the men is the crowds and the salary. PSG are the only club who could do what has never been done before and win both the men’s and women’s Champions Leagues in the same season as their men are also in the last eight of their Champions League. Ironically the one thing PSG and Glasgow City have in common is that for both of them it is their first appearance in this stage of the Champions League.

Sadly City’s manager Eddie Wolecki Black said something sinister this week (in the Daily Record of March 18th). He told his team to “enjoy their Quarter-Final as it could be their last”. He said this not because he does not think his team are good enough to reach the last eight of future Champions Leagues but because of rumours that the women’s Champions League might be revamped to become more like the men’s with more teams from big countries and a League section. One suspects UEFA are unhappy that Barcelona, Liverpool and Lyon – three big men’s clubs – were knocked out before Christmas and that Glasgow City and Bristol Academy – the other UK club in the Champions League- are still in.

Bristol Academy are also an independent women’s club. They split from Bristol Rovers in 2005 and they are now linked with the Bristol Academy of Sport at the South Gloucestershire and Stroud college (SGS) – hence the club’s name – and they are the only independent women’s club in the English Women’s Super League (WSL). They play Frankfurt in the Champions League Quarter Finals.

Now to my mind there is room for both independent women’s teams and the female sections of male teams in women’s football. The former give women control and the latter allow young girls who grow up watching the big men’s clubs to fulfil their dreams of playing for them – which because of the gendered nature of football they could not other wise do. However they both have to be treated as equals which the football establishment don’t do. The classic example came in 2014 when Doncaster Belles – the most famous women’s club in the world – were relegated to WSL 2 and Manchester City – the women’s team of one of the richest clubs in the world  – were promoted in their place. But they weren’t promoted on merit. They were promoted because of their financial muscle and the fact that the FA prefer women’s teams that are affiliated to men’s teams rather than the independent women’s teams.

I think I know how the football establishment works, They prefer women’s clubs to be affiliated to men’s for one reason. They want to keep women’s football under male control rather than risk having it run by women who care about it. The problem for women’s team that are affiliated to men’s clubs are they are totally at the mercy of the men. When Charlton (male team) were relegated in 2007 the club had to make cut backs. Guess what team got the chop? the women’s team of course (perish the thought that the wages of the men who got them relegated in the first place be cut). Also what happens if a  club changes ownership? Chelsea, Liverpool,. Lyon and Manchester City are four examples (along with PSG) of male clubs whose current owners have backed the women’s game. But what happens if/when these clubs are sold? There are a lot of sexist men about. What if one of them bought any of the clubs involved and decided to shut the women’s team down? Could he be stopped? The way football in England is run – with a gutless spineless FA who can’t even ban a convicted rapist from playing – does not fill one with confidence.

The football establishment want to control women’s football. They also want to differentiate it from men’s football. That is why the WSL in England is played in summer (yet ridiculously the divisions of English women’s football below WSL are played in winter!) and why this year’s World Cup is being played on artificial turf. They don’t realise there is a thin line between  “difference” and “inferiority” – which is a word many sexists use and playing on artificial turf for example plays into the hands of those who think female football is inferior.

What the football establishment need to do is treat the likes of Glasgow City and PSG as equals. They must not gerrymander the rules to suit the big men’s clubs. They must not destroy Glasgow City’s European dream.

Serena Williams and the punishment of victims

It is not every day that an elite sports person returns to an annual event after a 14 year absence. So unsurprisingly the return of World Number 1 Serena Williams to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001 is a big story.

The background is this. At the 2001 event Serena’s sister Venus defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia to set up a Semi-Final with Serena. After the match Dementieva  was asked who she thought would win the match between the sisters. She said “I think Richard (the sisters’ father) will decide who’s going to win tomorrow”.  I’ve mentioned Dementieva’s remark as I think it had a big part in what happened next.

As it turned out the semi-final never took place as Venus pulled out with a knee injury. The trouble was that the tournament only announced it to the crowd minutes before the match was due to start – although the family said they had told officials hours before. The crowd understandably did not like this and rumours suggested they did not want to play each other. It has to be remembered that at the time the press were claiming the sisters’ matches were fixed (which is where Dementieva’s remark comes into the story).

But there was no excuse for what happened next. When Serena came out for the Final against Kim Clijsters she and her father were greeted by a chorus of boos. In fact during the match fans cheered Serena’s errors. her father responded by raising a clenched fist – the black power symbol – and saying it was “the worst act of prejudice I’ve seen since they killed Marin Luther King”. That might have been taking it too far but the behaviour was racist. How often does an American get booed when playing a foreigner? To show how it affected Serena a chapter in her autobiography was called “the Fiery Darts of Indian Wells” and in it she wrote:

The ugliness was raining down on me hard. I didn’t know what to do. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before…But I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people – mostly older, mostly white – standing and booing lustily like some kind of genteel lynch mob.

Neither Serena or Venus have played Indian Wells since until Serena’s come back this year (Venus is still boycotting the  event ).

But the point I want to make is that no one got punished for this shameful episode. The spectators were not nor was the tournament or Dementieva for her remarks which sparked the whole thing off. The only people that were punished were the victims. In 2009 Indian Wells became a Premier Mandatory event on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour. That means a player has to take part. If she does not it still counts towards her ranking and she gets zero points. So in effect the Williams’ sisters boycott has hindered their ranking. The WTA should be ashamed of themselves for punishing the victims of racism. Whoever came up with the idea of making Indian Wells a Premier Mandatory event should be sacked if they are still in the WTA’s employ. I suspect whoever that person is it is highly likely it is a male and I would be 99 per cent certain the person was white.

Sadly this is not the only example of the punishment of victims in sport. In Russia the chairman of their FAs disciplinary committee Arthur Grigoyants has banned black players who react to racist abuse by gesturing to the racists. He has even said that if they do that they are “so-called, in inverted commas, victims”. Which only proves that Russia is a so called, in inverted commas, civilised country that shouldn’t be hosting an egg and spoon race never mind the 2018 football World Cup.

Not that we in the UK can gloat. When footballer Anton Ferdinand was a victim of racist abuse by John Terry a lot of people attacked him for refusing to shake Terry’s hand before the next game his team played against Terry’s team. Why should he if he didn’t want to? Surely each victim should be able to respond in the way they want and the rules of arrogant sport be forced to accommodate the victim’s wishes. I suspect most people who wanted him to shake Terry’s hand were white.

The point is that we white men have no right to comment on the actions of victims of racism and sexism because we have no experience of racism and sexism ourselves. We do not know what it is like to be called “nigger” and have bananas thrown at us. We do not know what it is like to be shouted at whistled at or groped in the streets like a lot of women do. So how are we qualified to comment on the reaction of the victims themselves? We aren’t. Some can forgive. Some can forget. Some can forgive but not forget. And some can do neither. It is their right.

So it is not our business to comment on Serena’s decision to return to Indian Wells. We must respect both her decision to return to the event and the fact she has chosen to boycott in the past. We must also respect Venus’ decision to continue her boycott. And we MUST not punish the vicitms of discrimination for their reaction. Only the victims of discrimination know what it feels like. Only the victims of discrimination know what its like to suffer. We must respect their wishes.

Olympic football? Women yes, men no.

In a spectacular U-turn that even Nick Clegg would be proud of the English FA has decided that they want Team GB to field both men’s and women’s football teams at next year’s Olympic Games. Having spent the last three years since London 2012 saying that they would not send teams to Rio why have the FA suddenly changed their minds?
One suspects they are trying to put pressure on Premier League clubs to let England field their best players at this summer’s European Under-21 Championships. For the FA have jumped a fence here. Unlike 2012 when Team GB qualified as hosts, both the men and the women have to go through qualifying to get to the Olympics. And for the men the qualifying event is the European Under-21 Championships which are played in the Czech Republic from June 17-30. In the past the FA have found it very difficult to get England’s best under-21 players to play in this event as Premier League clubs (understandably) want their best young players rested. Already there are rumours that Tottenham Hotspur would rather like their wonder kid Harry Kane to spend the summer resting in preparation for next season rather than playing three (at least) tough games in the Czech Republic. The FA might hope that the carrot of Rio might persuade Spurs to let Kane play and thus help under-21 coach Gareth Southgate to do well at the event. For England to book Team GB’s place at Rio (if they want to take it up) they would have to finish in the top two of a group that also contains Italy, Portugal and Sweden.
But should men’s football be in the Olympics anyway? The simple answer is no. The men’s event is an Under-23 tournament with three over age players allowed (which is why there are rumours that Steve Gerrard, Frank Lampard and – oh please no – racist scumbag John Terry might appear as over age players if Team GB qualify). Why FIFA is allowed to get away with this is a mystery. Every other sport at the Olympics has its best players taking part. Men’s football is the only exception. We know why – FIFA don’t want the Olympics to be a second World Cup which it would be with full national teams – since FIFA don’t run the Olympics. FIFA’s approach to football is rather like Mr Burns’ approach to Springfield’s energy supply in the Simpsons – both are determined to maintain their monopoly regardless of what other people think. But until FIFA allows full national teams men’s football should not be in the Olympics.
It shows how seriously FIFA takes women’s football that the women’s event does have full national teams. As the women do not make the money men do they are quite happy for the Olympics to be a second World Cup. The England women have a far harder task to get to Rio. For reasons best known to UEFA this year’s Women’s World Cup is also the Olympic qualifying event for Europe. That means England have to be one of the three best European teams in Canada in order to qualify for Rio. The problem here is that on current form Germany and France are way ahead of the other European teams leaving six teams chasing one spot. That scenario means England would have to finish above two traditional powers of the women’s game – Sweden and Norway. A glance at the top three scorers in France’s Division I Feminine shows how tough that will be. Apart from France’s Eugenie Le Sommer the other two names are Sweden’s Lotta Schelin and Norway’s Ada Hegerberg. If that is not hard enough they also have to finish above three emerging teams in Holland Spain and Switzerland. It will not be easy.
However the FA should only have entered the women and not the men. Women’s football needs the Olympics. The men do not. In fact because of the historical discrimination women have suffered in sport there should be a rule brought in that all Olympic sports should have women’s events but don’t have to have men’s. This way sports whose male versions do not need the Olympics – basketball springs to mind as well as football – would just be represented by women. it would also mean that softball – which needs the Olympics – could be reintroduced at Tokyo 2020 while baseball – which does not need the Olympics – could be left out. We keep saying we want to encourage women’s sport. Allowing sports whose women’s events need the Olympics but their men’s events do not to just have women’s events would help women in those sports while at the same time reducing the number of participants at future Olympics – an aim the IOC has in order to stop the Olympics getting too big. As far as football in the Olympics goes, it should be a case of women yes – and men no.

KP for England? No way

Can someone be sacked even before they start their job? Probably not – which is a pity. For Colin Graves the chairman-elect of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – who starts his job in May – has made a terrible start by suggesting that Kevin Pietersen could return to the England cricket team.
As cricket fans will know (and even a lot of non cricket fans) Pietersen was sacked from the England team in February 2014 after the awful Ashes tour. The reasons for his sacking still apply. The guy is an egomaniac who fell out with most members of the team in Australia. Now some – including Pietersen himself – blamed other members of the team notably Matt Prior and Grahame Swann who are now out of the team. That would be fine if that was the first team he has ever fallen out with. It is not. In his career Pietersen has fallen out with Natal in his native South Africa (2000), Nottinghamshire (2003), and Hampshire (2010) plus two England coaches (Peter Moores and Andy Flower) and two England captains (Andrew Straus and Alistair Cook). You get the picture. The guy is in the wrong sport. Actually it is a non sporting person – UK chat show host Graham Norton – who summed it up best. When Pietersen appeared on his show in October last year to promote his book – Norton said “Reading the book it strikes me that maybe, just maybe, team sport’s not for you?”
What annoys me about Pietersen is this myth promoted by his mouth piece Piers Morgan, that he would be the messiah that improves England’s struggling World Cup team. First of all the England team lost their latest World Cup game not because of the batting but because of hopeless bowling that let Sri Lanka score 312-1 in 47.2 overs with embarrassing ease. It was men against boys. Pietersen is not a bowler. He couldn’t have changed that result. Secondly England have suffered two 5-0 Ashes whitewashes (2006/7 and 2013-14) and two dreadful World Cups (2007 and 2011) and Pietersen was in the team on all four occasions! What makes people think he – and he alone – could improve England’s World Cup team?
Add to that the fact he is 34 years old. He has a history of knee injuries. And he hasn’t batted well since 2012. In his last year of Test cricket he scored 767 runs at an average of 33.35 in 12 Tests with one hundred. This compares to his career average of 47.28. In One Day international (ODI) cricket in his last year he scored 256 runs at an average of 28.44 with no hundreds compared to a career average of 40.73. There is no reason for putting him in the Test team as young batsmen Gary Ballance, Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali are beginning to make headway and need more experience. Why should one of them be dropped for KP?There is no reason to put him in the ODI team either. If as seems likely the current World Cup campaign ends in a flop England should start preparing for the next World Cup – in England in 2019 – at once. By 2019 Pietersen will be 38 years old and is unlikely to be playing anyway. So the only justification for picking him would be for this year’s Ashes. I know the Ashes is important but to pick a guy for one series? A series that England last time were humiliated in despite Pietersen being in the team?
Another problem with what Graves is saying is that the ECB chairman does not pick the team the selectors do. Is he trying to undermine the selectors? There are rumours he might sack National Selector James Whittaker and England team managing director Paul Downton but as they have only been in post for a year that is very unfair. You need more than a year in a job to prove yourself. I suspect coach Moores might get the sack but as this is his second spell in the job that is a different case. He should never have been appointed anyway. His first spell was a disaster. The guy was out of his depth and fell out with most of the team – as well as Pietersen. Nothing seems to have changed. He is still out of his depth.
The last thing the England team needs is the return of the KP circus as it was an over hyped unwanted distraction from the team’s real job – winning cricket matches. Ironically Graves tries to justify opening the door to KP by saying “what happened in the past is history”. But that is the point. KP represents English cricket’s past. It is time to move on to the future.