Category Archives: Baseball

Recalling the Cubs last NLCS Game Six 

Saturday could be a historic night in Chicago – to put it mildly. Last night the Chicago Cubs defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-4 to take a 3-2 lead in the best of seven National League Championship Series. The series moves to Wrigley Field on Saturday with the Cubs needing one win to do the unthinkable – reach the World Series for the first time since 1945 (the franchise has not won the World Series since 1908 – which must be a world record barren spell never mind a record in US sport.) The atmosphere at Wrigley will be incredible the tension unbelievable. But the Cubs and their fans will know that recent history is against them…

October 2003 was a strange time. Italian Serie A men’s team Perugia were trying to sign a woman (no seriously), WWE chairman Mr McMahon fought his own daughter Stephanie in a father v daughter “I Quit” match (no seriously), and UK Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith was overthrown by his party before he could lead it in a General Election (a first in post war UK politics). The Cubs meanwhile were 3-2 up in the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida – now Miami – Marlins needing one win to get to the World Series – the same position as they are in right now. What happened next has gone into infamy. 

For seven innings all went well. The Cubs were 2-0 up in the middle of the seventh with Mark Prior showing why he had been the Cubs best pitcher all year. During the seventh-inning stretch Chicago celebrity – and ironically a Chicago White Sox fan – Bernie Mac sung “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” but instead of singing “Let’s Root for the Cubbies” he sung “Let’s Root for the Champs”. Some Cubs fans feared that he was tempting fate but an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh and an out at the start of the eighth left the Cubs five outs away from the World Series. Juan Pierre then hit a double for the Marlins but still no trouble right…

There wasn’t no trouble. In fact there was a lot of trouble. And it started with one of the most infamous plays in baseball. Batter Luis Castillo hit a foul ball to the left field wall. Cubs fielder Moises Alou went for the ball…but unfortunately Cubs fan Steve Bartman stuck out his hand and deflected the ball away from Alou. This meant it counted as a foul not an out and Castillo continued his at bat. Still no problem. Well they wouldn’t have been if Alou didn’t show his frustration at not getting the catch.

And after that play came one of the most spectacular implosions in all of sport never mind baseball. Prior’s next pitch to Castillo was a wild pitch that walked Castillo and let Pierre go to third. Ivan Rodriguez then hit an RBI single to put the Marlins first run on the board. Still no problem. Future MVP Miguel Cabrera then ground the ball to short stop Alex Gonzalez which shouldould have produced at least one out and probably an inning ending double play. Instead he fumbled it and everyone was safe leaving the bases loaded.

Now the wheels really came off. Here is how the rest of the horror show of an inning unfolded: 

Derrek Lee hit a two RBI double tying the game and chasing Prior from the mound.

New pitcher Kyle Farnsworth issues an intentional walk.

A sacrifice fly that gave the Marlins the lead and put Prior in line for the loss. 

Another intentional walk which loaded the bases yet again. 

A three RBI double from Mike Mordecai that cleared the bases and blew the game open putting the Marlins 7-3 up and ending Farnsworth’s night. 

Pierre gets his second hit of the inning off new pitcher Mike Remlinger to score Mordecai and make it 8-3.

And finally Castillo who could have been the second out of the inning in his first at bat pops out to end the inning from hell. The score went from 3-0 Cubs to 8-3 Marlins.

And the series was to all practical purposes over. The shell shocked Cubs still had six outs left but couldn’t score. The series was tied 3-3 and there was a seventh game at Wrigley with Cubs second best pitcher Kerry Wood pitching but I never thought the Cubs would win. And although they went 5-3 up after being 0-3 down – including a two run homer from pitcher Wood – they still lost not to my surprise 9-6. The dream was over. Again. 

Obviously the press and fans in Chicago were not happy. So who do you blame? The logical thing would be to blame the whole team since they were 3-1 up but collapsed. You could blame Prior for the wild pitch, Gonzalez for the error, Farnsworth for not getting any outs apart from the sac fly that was a still a RBI. The whole team lost their bottle. 

Of course they blamed none of those. They blamed Bartman. Even though the ESPN programme “Catching Hell”showed plenty of other fans were sticking their hands out too. Even though the Cubs subsequently had chances to get out of the inning poor Bartman copped the flack. Once the fans found out who had caught the ball – he was lucky Wrigley did not have a Jumbotron otherwise it would have happened much quicker than it did – the fans at Wrigley chanted “Asshole” at him and pointed him out. He had to be escorted from the park along with his two friends and he was pelted with debris and had beer over him. It was ugly and it was shameful. Florida Governer Jeb Bush – brother of future US President George W Bush – offered him asylum while Illinois Governer Rob Blagojevic said if Barman ever committed a crime he would not get a pardon from this Governer (ironically Blagojevic was inpeached on corruption charges and forced to resign – poetic justice). It was not good. The only people who defended Bartman were the 13-14 year old boys in the Little League team the Renegades that he coached. 

Apart from the Renegades the only man who came out of this mess with any credit was Bartman himself. He declined interviews rewards from Marlins fans and offers of $25000 for an autograph and $100000 to appear in a Super Bowl commercial. He apologised (though he shouldn’t have) didn’t make any money out of his “error” and conducted himself with dignity. Sadly but understandably he has never been to Wrigley Field since. But he responded far more better than the fans who should have blamed the players since it was their job to win the game and it was them who lost their bottle so spectacularly. 

So can the 2016 Cubs succeed where the 2003 team failed? It’s likely but not a certainty. The two Dodger starting pitchers that they will face – the world’s best pitcher Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill – both helped to shut out the Cubs in Games two and three. And then they have the curse of 1908 to deal with. But this is a far better team than 2003.They had the best record in the Majors this year. I suspect they will hold their nerve but it will be fun to find out (unless you’re a Cubs fan).

I have one wish. If the Cubs beat the Dodgers then go on to beat the Cleveland Indians – who themselves have not won the World Series since 1948 – to win the World Series I hope Steve Bartman will turn up at Wrigley at the start of next year just like the Red Sox 1986 scapegoat Bill Buckner turned up at Fenway Park at the start of the 2008 season. The Cubs 2003 collapse was not Steve Bartman’s fault. He does not owe Chicago anything. Instead Chicago owes him. Maybe if the Cubs succeed where they failed in 2003 – or even better win the World Series – the rapprochement between Bartman and the city of Chicago can begin. I certainly hope so.

Pitch perfect?

An interesting new TV series started a couple of weeks ago on Fox in America. While I am not going to review the programme – it hasn’t been shown on UK TV yet and I don’t know if it ever will be – it fascinated me because of the subject matter. 

The programme is called “Pitch” and the main protagonist in the programme is Ginny Baker. Ginny makes history when she becomes the first woman to play in Major League Baseball (MLB). The character plays for the San Diego Padres (which some people might see as a punishment rather than a reward). She is a starting pitcher who overcomes her lack of ability to throw 90 mph by perfecting a rarely used pitch the screwball which people have said could get a woman into the Majors. Now as I haven’t seen the programme I’m not commenting on whether or not the programme is any good (although I hope they don’t take the clichéd route of having heroine Ginny fall in love and have an affair with one of her teammates or her team’s manager. Trust me I’ve seen it too often). But what of Pitch’s central thesis? Could a woman really play in the Majors?

First thing I’ll say is that unlike the Premier League in the UK there must be nothing in the rules of baseball or the law of the US that would prohibit a woman playing in the big leagues since MLB have co produced Pitch and allowed the show full access to the Padres’ ballpark, logo and facilities. The programme has the backing of MLB. So with that said is Ginny’s story believable? I’d say no for a couple of reasons. 

First of all Ginny seems to be a one pitch pony namely the screwball. As the not happy guy who loses his place on the roster to Ginny says the 29 other professional teams will be trying to figure out her trick pitch and when they do he will get his job back and she will become the answer to a trivia question. Now a one pitch pitcher can thrive and even dominate in the Majors. The classic example being the greatest closer of all time Mariano Rivera. People said his only pitch was the cut fastball. But it was good enough to keep him in the Majors for nineteen seasons and earned him a record 652 saves which suggests that even if batters knew what was coming most of them still didn’t have a clue how to hit it. But he was a closer. I doubt very much a one pitch pitcher makes it as a starter as she would have to throw to batters two or three times in a game if she was a starter. So I think a female screwball pitcher would be more realistic as a relief pitcher or a closer – which could confuse batters as it would be a contrast to the 90 mph fastball throwers that appear in the Majors. 

But even if our heroine could be a starter it is still not realistic for her to play for the Padres. The Padres are a National League franchise which means Ginny would have to hit. I really can’t realistically expect a real life Ginny to do anything against Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke…and that scary trio is just the elite pitching in the Padres own division  never mind the likes of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Stephen Strausburg, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey, Jason de Grom and Noah Syndergaard that roam the National League’s other divisions. It is more likely that if a woman was to become a MLB starter it would be in the American League where with the Designated Hitter rule she would not have to hit. So if a female pitcher was to reach MLB it in my opinion would either be as an AL starter or a relief pitcher.

But the main reason I can’t see a woman in the Majors anytime soon is because of a lack of opportunity. As I’ve written before since 1974 girls have been eligible to play Little League – but most of them play softball. But the problem is that women’s baseball beyond Little League barely exists so any girl who wants to play baseball at High School has to join a boy’s team where she might not exactly be welcome to say the least. After High School it becomes worse. Only one woman has got a college scholarship for baseball and that was earlier this year when pitcher Sarah Hudek was awarded a baseball scholarship at Bossier Community College in Houston. No wonder girls turn to softball where they can get scholarships. No wonder 2014 Little League wunderkind Mo’ne Davis (who I suspect Ginny in Pitch was based on) has chosen basketball instead. After all she can get a scholarship in basketball and a professional career in the WNBA could occur. There is no professional career for her in baseball.

The only way I can see any hope for women making it to the Majors is if softball is rebranded as women’s baseball and the rules become the same (number of innings, style of pitching, distance between bases among other things). Baseball and softball are so totally different that skills cannot be transferred from one to an other. This is not sexism.I remember seeing on TV Major League hitters trying to hit elite softball pitcher Jennie Finch. Most of them didn’t have a clue how to hit her as the pitching was totally different from what they were used to.

So could women be relief pitchers, closers or be like small men like Dee Gordon and José Altuve who don’t contribute many 400 ft home runs but can get on base regularly and use their speed to steal bases? At the moment we do not know because women have never been given a chance to play baseball throughout their formative years. And unless women can play baseball uninterrupted they will never get the baseball education they need in their teenage years that might give them a chance.

Because of the tradition of shall we say girls being “encouraged” to play softball after Little League we do not know what women are capable of doing in baseball. Right now Ginny’s story can only be a fairytale. But if girls are given the chance to play baseball as teenagers, given baseball scholarships like Sarah Hudek has and if a women’s baseball league is ever set up who knows? 

It is no certainly that the Cubs’ misery will end

There was no baseball played yesterday which is unusual. This is because on Wednesday night the New York Mets completed a four game sweep of the Chicago Cubs to book a berth in their first World Series since losing to the Yankees back in 2000. The result meant the continuation of what must be the longest sporting drought not just in US sport but in world sport. The fact is that the Chicago Cubs have still not won the World Series since 1908 – that is a staggering 39,089 days ago. They have not even reached the World Series since losing to the Tigers in 1945. The “Cubbies” are still the laughing stock of US sport.

But – unlike their disastrous collapse against the Marlins in 2003 in their last appearance in the NLCS – there is no gloom and doom on the North side of Chicago. No scapegoats like poor Steve Bartman who was blamed for their 2003 implosion. Instead there is excitement among the fans at Wrigley that the future will bring victories in the NLCS and perhaps even the elusive World Series win that would shut up all of the US – especially St Louis Cardinals fans who have seen their franchise win eleven World Series since the Cubs last won one. But is the Cubs’ fans optimism justified?

At first glance yes. The Cubs have an exciting crop of young position players like Javier Baez, NL rookie of the year favourite Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Not one of these seven position players will be older than 26 when the new season starts next April. The Cubs were widely considered to have reached this postseason ahead of schedule. If they can add another experienced pitcher to back up Jon Lester and possible Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and the young guns continue to mature the Cubs could go at least one better in 2016.

But it is not a sinecure. First of all history is against them. The 2015 Cubs are the eighth team to be swept in either an AL or NLCS since the Championship Series became a best of seven in 1985. The others being the 2014 Orioles, the 2012 Yankees, the 2007 Diamondbacks, the 2006 Athletics,  the 1995 Reds, and the 1990 and 1988 Red Sox. Of those franchises none made the postseason the next year and only the Red Sox have won the World Series since and that took them until 2004. In fact none of the other teams have even reached the Championship Series since they were swept.

Of course history is no guide but the Cubs have no guarantee of future success. They reached the postseason despite being third in their division this year and since neither the Cardinals or the Pirates are going anywhere in the immediate future there is no guarantee that they won’t at best have to go through the one game play off again and at worst not make the postseason. Also the new NL champions the Mets (it feels strange writing this) will still have the dominant pitching staff that stymied the Cubs in this year’s NLCS. The Dodgers flopped in the postseason again and yesterday parted company with manager Don Mattingly but “The Best Team Money Can Buy” (to quote the title of an excellent book about the Dodgers by Molly Knight) will be contenders again. Nor should we forget that 2016 will be an even numbered year and we all know that the Giants win the National League – and indeed the World Series – in even numbered years!

But the biggest pressure on the Cubs could come from within. This year the Cubs fans were not expecting to do so well. They had finished last in the NL Central and despite the signing of Lester in the off season the Cubs fans were hoping for signs of progress rather than a play off run.

That will not be the case in 2016. The fans at Wrigley will expect at least a repeat of this year’s run or even better – especially if they acquire one of the elite free agent pitchers like David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman or Zack Greinke if he opts for free agency. If they did acquire one of those names the hype will increase. It will start during spring training and increase until the season starts.

My point is this year the Cubs youngsters were able to play without fear as the fans were just happy that they were competing (Cubs fans on Twitter were using the hashtag  “We are Good” almost as if they were trying to convince themselves that they were). But now they know – and the rest of baseball knows. Cubs fans will expect this team to break the longest sequence of failure in sport. But sport has a history of “Golden Generations” that do not deliver trophies as any England football fan will tell you. The pressure on this young team will be huge. Just because the Cubs have a talented generation of players is no guarantee that they will end over a hundred years of misery next year – or even at all.

Fortune favours the brave

So the 2,429* game marathon of baseball’s regular season is over and the postseason is about to begin. And if we have learnt anything from the regular season it is that it is a marathon not a sprint – hardly surprising when the season lasts 162 games – and sometimes fortune favours the brave.

Three of the six division winners – the Royals, Cardinals and the Dodgers – were top on July 12th – the last day before the All Star Break – and no one was really surprised that they were still there at the end of the season yesterday. But the other three division winners no one could have predicted at the All Star Break.

On July 12th the Toronto Blue Jays – no post season appearance since 1993 – were actually below .500 (45-46) and were above only the Red Sox in the AL East. The Texas Rangers were even worse (42-46) and were third in the AL West. While the New York Mets were only two games behind in the NL East  that was more because of the poor quality of the division than their own form. The Mets hit a new low on July 23rd when they became only the second franchise since 1920 to field number 4 and 5 hitters with an average below .180 (for a position player in the majors anything below .200 is considered unacceptable). Against Clayton Kershaw! The biggest surprise was not that Kershaw tossed a complete game three hit shut out but that he gave up three hits. The Mets offence was the laughing stock of baseball and that the idea that these two teams would meet in the post season was absurd. But as it turned out not only will they meet but the meeting has been on the cards since the start of September

So how did the Mets (as well as the Blue Jays and Rangers) turn it round? Well in the case of the first two they both had strengths. The Blue Jays offence was seriously good but they lacked an ace on the mound. The Mets had the opposite problem. Their young pitching staff were outstanding – so much so that Matt Harvey is arguably the third best pitcher in the team but their offence as mentioned above was awful. But to their credit both franchises did something about it. The Blue Jays traded for ace David Price while the Mets traded for hitting star Yoenis Cespedes. Both were gambles especially as they would be free agents at the end of the season so in effect they were “rentals”. But their bravery paid off. Price only started 11 games for the Blue Jays but had a 9-1 record providing them with the missing piece in their jigsaw since the offence was already the best in baseball. Cespedes was so successful for the Mets that some people considered him a candidate for National League MVP despite only playing 57 games for the Mets. His average – .287 – was higher than any of his team mates and his 17 home run tally was the third highest for the Mets. It could be said that for the second year in a row he transformed a franchise’s season (last year the Athletics collapsed after they traded him). While in both cases the new stars were not the only factor it is clear they were a major factor and the teams courage was rewarded.

The case of the Texas Rangers** is more complicated. Experienced players like Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo got their form back after an injury ravaged 2014 and the bullpen – a liability early season – became the best in baseball by September. While talisman Adrian Beltre has been outstanding. But again they had the courage to trade for Cole Hamels – an ace – when it seemed they had no chance of reaching the post season (It was reckoned to be a signing for 2016). But although his ERA was actually higher with the Rangers than it was with the Phillies – 3.66 to 3.64 –  the Rangers won his last ten starts and when needed most he pitched a complete game against the Angels to clinch a remarkable Division win (considering it took until August 15th – the team’s 115th game of the season – to go above .500 for good). I don’t think the Rangers win the Division without Hamels.

Whether the Mets and the Blue Jays win their divisions without Cespedes and Price is harder to say. It certainly helped the Mets that their only rivals the Nationals imploded so spectacularly that two of their players Bryce Harper and Johnathan Papelbon ended up fighting each other in the dugout!*** But they were certainly key players. One suspects that if the Blue Jays, Mets or Rangers are to win a League pennant or World Series Price, Cespedes and Hamels will play a part. Proving that in sport fortune can favour the brave.

* There are 2,430 games in the regular season but a September washout between the Tigers and Indians was not made up as neither team could make the post season.

**I must declare that I support the Texas Rangers but I hope I can write impartiality about them.

***And today Nationals manager Matt Williams and his entire coaching staff were fired paying the price for the failure of a franchise that many – including myself – expected to be challenging for at least the NL pennant if not the World Series itself.

Change post season rules to stop injustice

I spotted an article on Fox Sports.com saying that the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates Neal Huntingdon is not as big a fan of the second wild card rule in Major league Baseball (MLB) as he was when it was introduced back in 2012. Hardly surprising as if the MLB season ended today his franchise would be playing in the single elimination wild card game for the third year in a row. Whereas in 2013 and if this season ended now his franchise would be straight into a best of five Division Series (last year they were tied with the Giants so under the old rules they would have had a one game play off for the wild card which happened anyway) instead they will face a winner take all game – what Fox Sports called “a crap shoot” – which if the season ended now would be at home to the Chicago Cubs.

Now you might expect a guy whose team – the Texas Rangers –  was a victim of the one game play off to have sympathy with Huntingdon but I don’t. This is partly because in 2012 we were tied with the Orioles in the wild card race so we would have had to play them in a one off game for the wild card under the old rules anyway. Secondly any team who only had to win one of its last three games to win the division and can’t even do that does not deserve much sympathy. While I would tweak the system so that the wild card game becomes a best two out of three series – second wild card hosts game 1 first wild card hosts game 2 and 3 – the second wild card is a great idea that makes winning the division more important. For example my team have the second wild card but we are only 2 games behind the Astros in the AL West race and I would far rather win that than take my chances in a wild card game – even though after being the worst team in the AL last year any post season action would be a fantastic achievement – especially with our ace Yu Darvish having not thrown a pitch all season.

But there could be an injustice in the MLB post season this year – and the victims would not be the Pirates but the NL Central leaders – with the best record in MLB – the St Louis Cardinals. If the season ended today the three NL Division winners would be the Cardinals (won 87 lost 50) the Los Angeles Dodgers (79-58) and the New York Mets (76-61). The wild card game as mentioned above would be the Pirates (81-55) v the Cubs (79-57).

So far so straightforward. It is what happens next that in my opinion is the injustice. If the post season started today the NL Division series would be the Cardinals v the Pirates/Cubs and the Dodgers v the Mets. This is because the team with the best record gets the wild card. But here is the anomaly. As – if the season ended now –  whoever won the wild card would have the second best record in the League. The Cardinals reward for having the best record in the League would be to play the team with the second best record in the League. How is that fair?

Pre 2012 this would not have happened because the team with the best record did not play the wild card if the latter came from the same division. If that was still the case if the season ended now the NL Division series would be Cardinals v Mets and Dodgers v Pirates/Cubs – which to my mind is far fairer on the Cardinals who get the post season qualifier with the fewest wins  – which is surely what the team with the best record in the League deserves. If the current system applied pre 2012 the classic Yankees-Red Sox American League Division Series of 2003-4 would not have happened as they would have met in the Division Series instead as the Red Sox were the wild card.

But that system was also unfair because  – again – it sometimes meant the team with the best record did not meet the team with the worst in the Division Series. An example was in 2004 when the Cardinals were victims again. The wild card team – the Astros – were the fourth ranked of the post season teams and the Cardinals has the best record. But because the Astros were in the same division the two did not meet in the Division series and the Cardinals played the Dodgers instead. They went on to meet – and beat – the Astros in the NLCS which by the way is a classic series which in my opinion is underrated in baseball history because of the Red Sox comeback from 0-3 down to beat the Yankees in the same year.

So if I were making up the post season rules this is what I would do. The wild card team would not automatically be ranked fourth. It should be ranked according to its win-loss record. If it has the second best record in the league it should play the third ranked team not the first. Same if it is the third ranked. It should only play the top ranked team if it has the worst record.

Some might argue I’m being unfair to the third ranked division winner but they would still have the advantage of going straight into the Division Series. Even if a second placed team has the second  best record in the League it still has to go through the wild card play in game and burn its ace pitcher. Also – even if the wild card was the second best team – I would still give the division winner home field advantage – games 1,2 and 5 of a Division Series at home. So in my NLDS draw – which would as written above be Cardinals v Mets and Dodgers v Pirates/Cubs – the wild card team would still have to go through the play in game and still start the Division Series with two road games – two disadvantages. Plus the Cardinals would be rewarded for having the best record in the League by playing the play off team with the worst record – which is only fair.

I should also mention another anomaly I think is unfair. In the Division Series and Championship Series the wild card team cannot get home field advantage. Yet in the World Series the wild card can get home field advantage. To my mind that is unfair. If the World Series is between a division winner and a wild card the former should get home field regardless of the result of the All Star Game. This time I will admit bias in that if that had been the rule the Rangers would have had home field advantage in the 2011 World Series instead of the wild card Cardinals but come on I’m entitled to one moan. Aren’t I?

Financial Unfair Play?

The best baseball World Series I’ve ever seen was the 2001 World Series which went to the final game seven and was won by the Arizona Diamondbacks thanks to that rarest of rare things a Mariano Rivera blown save. What made that series memorable was two fairytales were up against each other. A Yankees World Series win is not usually a fairytale but two months after the trauma of 9/11 it would have been (2001 is the one time I wanted the evil empire (as the Yanks are called!) to win the World Series). But to me the Diamondbacks were the real fairytale.

The fact is the Diamondbacks did not exist in 1901. Or 1951. Or even in 1996 when the Yankees started their four World Series in five year dominance that the 2001 Diamondbacks ended. The Diamondbacks did not exist until the Major Leagues expanded in 1998. In just four seasons the Diamondbacks won it all. Some people might complain that the team was all imported but there is no way a new team could compete so quickly otherwise. But in the US they believe in giving everyone a chance to keep the League competitive.

The funny thing is that something similar had been done in European football the team would have been hated. In 1995 UK football had its nearest equivalent of the 2001 Diamondbacks when Blackburn Rovers – bankrolled by millionaire (and life long fan) Jack Walker) won the League title in England for the first time since 1914. Of course the UK being the UK they were derided rather than celebrated on the basis that they had no history and that they owed their success to Walker’s money. Well so what? Shouldn’t every team have the right to dream of winning titles?

Well not according to European football’s governing body UEFA who have introduced Financial Fair Play regulations. Now in theory Financial Fair Play is a good idea as it limits teams to spending what they earn and is meant to stop teams getting into debt. The problem is that it stops people from spending their own money. As far as I’m concerned anybody has the right into spend their money the way they want to (once they have paid tax of course). The likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain (PSG) have been punished for no better reason than they have owners who want to spend their own money and for daring to have ambition. Another example is Wolfsburg of Germany who might fall foul of the regulations because they are owned by Volkswagen who want to spend their profits on the club. And why shouldn’t they?

The most damming criticism of Financial Fair Play is it is an oxymoron. Limiting teams to spending what they earn is fair if they all earn the same. But in European football that is not the case. Because the revenue in European football is unequally earned Financial Fair Play actually preserves the dominance of a clique of big clubs. The French, German and Italian Leagues have clear favourites in PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus respectively. Spain has two favourites in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Only the Premier League in England has four or five teams that might win it because of the investment by billionaires in Manchester City and Chelsea – which the football establishment hate but has made the league more competitive and earned it more TV money which has strengthened the other teams. Financial Fair Play in its current form should be called Financial Unfair Play.

Now I am not against proper Financial Fair Play but you won’t get it in European football. You have to look at the US. They don’t grumble about billionaire investors in the US. In fact US sport is full of them. The prime example is the Guggenheim group who paid $2.15 BILLION just to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers from ex owner Frank McCourt. In 2013 the Guggenheim group’s first full season in charge the franchise’s payroll was $214 million. In 2014 their payroll was $236.1 million. And what have they achieved in those two seasons? ONE post season series victory. Which might – or might not – change this year. My favourite baseball story of big spending gone wrong is the 2009 New York Mets who had a $ 153.5 million payroll – second only to the Yankees – but while the Yankees won the 2009 World Series the Mets won 70 games – only the Indians, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates and Royals won fewer games than the Mets that year. Why?

While part of it is due to the draft system which means the worst teams get the best young talent the fact is that in US sport the income the sport is made is distributed more fairly. Admittedly baseball is not the best example of this in since each franchise negotiates its own TV deals. And when I started following baseball in the 1990s it was like football in Europe is today. To win a World Series in the mid 1990s/early 2000s you had to beat the Yankees, Braves or both. But baseball did not make the same mistake with the internet. The parity in baseball today is probably due to one man – Jerry Reinsdorf the owner of the Chicago White Sox. He came up with the idea of sharing the internet income equally between all 30 franchises which has happened since Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BAM) was set up in 2000. Now baseball got lucky in that few people knew how much – if any – money the internet would make back in 2000. But BAM long ago exceeded its annual revenue target of $660 million. It is this internet revenue sharing that is in my opinion the main reason that every MLB franchise bar one has had a post season appearance in a year beginning with “2” (and the one franchise that has not the Blue Jays  – last post season appearance 1993 – has a great chance of making it this year).

And if I were running football we would have  proper Financial Fair Play. All revenue would be split equally between the 20 teams in the big European Leagues (18 teams in Germany) and also between the 32 teams that play in the Champions League. That doses not happen now. Revenue sharing would level out the playing field without banning billionaire investors. Just like what happens in America. And that is real Financial Fair Play.

Beware the Number one draft pick

As I’ve written earlier there is a lot sport here in the UK could learn from the US. One thing I hope we never have in the UK is the draft – where clubs take their pick of the best young talent. But the young high school/college players don’t have a say in who they sign for. They can refuse to sign – pitcher Mark Appel was drafted by the Pirates in 2012 didn’t sign reappeared in the draft the next year and did sign for the Astros – but can’t go anywhere else. To my mind you should always have the right to choose your employer – but sport is always above the law so that is a pipe dream.

The other thing I don’t like about baseball’s draft is that it rewards failure. The franchises pick in reverse order of their record the previous year. So in 2015 the Diamondbacks – who had the worst record in 2014 – get first pick. I just don’t like the idea of mediocrity being rewarded. An example. The 2003 Tigers stank – they lost 119 games that year. In fact had they not won five of their last six they would have been the worst team in Major League history. Their reward? They got Justin Verlander in the 2004 draft (although as I’ll write later they might not have). In UK sport a team that bad would have been demoted from the division not rewarded with a brilliant prospect.

If I were in charge of baseball I’d copy the National Basketball Association (NBA) and have a lottery. Put the ten worst teams into a draw and decide the first ten picks that way. It means the bad teams still get early picks but there is no incentive to “tank” in order to get the No 1 pick. (I’m not saying that happens. But it could).

One difference between the baseball draft and the (American) Football and basketball ones is publicity. The MLB draft is live in the US – but only on MLB’s own network. While in the UK both the NBA and NFL drafts are on general sports channels but baseball’s not at all. This is partly because even the best talent goes to the minor leagues to learn their trade rather than straight into the majors as happens in the NFL and  NBA. Only one player in the 2014 MLB draft – pitcher Brandon Finnegan of the Royals – played in the majors before 2014 was out. In fact he played in both the College World Series and the MLB one in 2014 and he’ll be remembered for this even if he achieves nothing else in his career.

Whatever I think of the draft I bet there will be a lot of nervous young men on Monday wondering if they will get picked. It must be like waiting for your school exam results to come. And one young man will get a lot of publicity on Monday. Whoever the Diamondbacks pick will be the Number 1 draft pick and his name will get the headlines. I find it fascinating to look at No 1 draft picks for it just shows that – as in all sports – it is hard to guess which youngsters will succeed  – and which ones will fail.

Since the current MLB draft begun in 1965 the Number 1 picks have turned out to be a mixed bunch. Some are famous names – among current players Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez Josh Hamilton  (though he never played for the Devil Rays who drafted him No 1 in 1999 and didn’t make his MLB debut until 2007 – for the Reds) Joe Mauer and David Price were no 1 picks who clearly have become stars. In the future Bryce Harper (definitely) and Stephen Strasburg (perhaps) will join them. Among all Number 1 picks none have made the Hall of Fame but with Ken Griffey Jr (drafted in 1987) and Chipper Jones (drafted in 1990)) both in my opinion first ballot certs coming up for election in 2016 and 2018 respectively that will change. But there have been some failures too.

Discounting the last three no 1 picks* three number 1 picks never played in the Majors. Steve Chillcott (1966) and Brian Taylor (1991) plus one of my two favourite draft  stories.

In 2004 for some reason I’ve forgotten (they weren’t the worse team in 2003) the Padres had first draft pick. They could (as I mentioned above) have picked Justin Verlander.  Apparently they wanted Jered Weaver – who turned into an ace for the Angels-  or Stephen Drew – a solid pro who has been part of a World Champion team – the 2013 Red Sox. But to save money – or so it is believed  – they picked local shortstop Matt Bush. A disaster both on the field – he never made it beyond Double A at either the Padres or the Rays despite reinventing himself as a pitcher when his hitting failed – and off the field – he is now inmate number C07392 in Mayo Correctional Institute after a drink driving incident(not his first brush with the law) in 2012. That pick must be one of the biggest mistakes in all sport never mind baseball**.

If that was a mistake by one franchise the 2009 draft was a case of franchises making a collective mistake. Today Mike Trout is considered the beat player in baseball. But in the 2009 draft he was only number 25 pick. Nineteen franchises missed the chance of drafting him. Two other franchises – the Nationals and Diamondbacks – missed two chances to draft him as they had compensation picks for losing free agents. Instead of Trout my team the Rangers drafted pitcher Matt Purke – who didn’t even sign and when he entered the draft again in 2011 the Nationals drafted him in the third round – suggesting the Rangers had over rated him. And we could have had Trout.

Even the Angels were lucky to get him. They had two compensation picks that year for losing free agents. They used their first on…Randal Grichuk. To be fair not a Bush style disaster. He has played in the Majors albeit for the Cardinals. It was with their second compensation pick that they drafted Trout. And this has led to the most interesting counterfactual in baseball.

The pick the Angels used to pick Trout was a compensation for the Yankees signing free agent Mark Teixeira. Now we don’t know if the Yankees would have drafted Trout but he is from New Jersey and Derek Jeter was his childhood hero. So it is at least possible that in a parallel universe Trout signs for the Yankees and is the heir to the likes of Ruth, Mantle Gehrig and Jeter among others. I wonder if they would send Teixeira back to Anaheim if the Angels gave them Trout? I suspect the Yankees would. The Angels I suspect would tell them to get lost.

The point of these stories is that spotting young talent is an inexact science. Can’t miss prospects fail. Little regarded youngsters can become stars. All sport is littered with both examples. Whoever the Diamondbacks draft number 1 on Monday we don’t know if he will be another Ken Griffey Jr…or another Matt Bush.  And that is the great thing about sport. if it was predictable we would never watch it.

*None of the last three Number 1 picks (all drafted by the Astros) have reached the Majors yet but it is clearly too early to judge. The 2012 top pick Carlos Correa will I predict be called up before 2015 is out. But in contrast Appel (picked in 2013) has a 5.20 ERA at AA level and the Astros did not even sign 2014 pick Brady Aiken partly because of health worries. And since he has now become yet another young pitcher to have Tommy John surgery  those worries seem to be justified. So far you would say the score is one out of three. Just proves how hard predicting the future is.

**Update: On Friday 13th May 2016 Matt Bush made his MLB debut for my team the Texas Rangers striking out the reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson with 97 mph heat.Today he was the winning pitcher in a 7-6 Rangers win over the Blue Jays. Moral of the story : If at first you don’t succeed try try again…

Here’s to you Jackie Robinson

Today’s post is about one of my heroes – even though he died before I was born. He is Jackie Robinson who in 1947 became the first black player to play in modern Major League Baseball (MLB) breaking the sport’s colour barrier.

I say “modern” quite deliberately as the ban on blacks – which lasted for 60 years – is an example of what I call an “invented tradition”. For blacks and whites had played together in the 19th century. Some say the ban came about when Cap Anson shouted “Get that nigger* off the field!” at black pitcher George Storey and refused to accept his pitch and that he was so powerful (like W G Grace in cricket at the same time) that if he didn’t want a black man pitching to him a black man didn’t pitch to him. Wither or not that is true the ban begun.

Except it wasn’t  really a ban because unlike say women playing football with men today there was no law either in the US or baseball itself that forbade integrated sport. It was more a gentlemen’s agreement backed up by threats not to play against any franchise that broke ranks. So the blacks had to from their own Leagues –  the Negro Leagues – so they could play.

It would be nice to say Robinson was signed out of morality by Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey but the cynic in me thinks it was because attendances in the white game were going through the floor. His franchise was down to 5,000 and even Boston was down to 4,000. In sport then as now it’s all about the Green as an American would say.

Two aspects of Robinson’s signing were interesting. The first is that some people thought Rickey was an opportunist thief who was stealing black players from their real owners. This was plainly nonsense as black players belonged in the Majors (Storey won 30 games the year before the Anson incident mentioned above) Secondly most people agree that Robinson was not the best black player in baseball at the time of his signing. Most people thought Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige or Monte Irwin were more worthy of the honour. But sport – and never more so than when one is breaking down a taboo – is not just about ability. Temperament and the ability to perform under pressure are also important. And Robinson was under pressure like no man before or since.

Imagine you are Jackie Robinson. You MUST play well otherwise racists will say your failure to do so proves that blacks are inferior. You are going to get racist remarks and taunts thrown at you. You will have players spiking you as they slide into base or deliberately shove you as they run on to the next base. You have to sit in a blacks only section of a bus depot. You have the manager of the Triple A team you are sent to in order to prepare for the Majors ask for you to be sent to any other Dodger affiliate (quite rightly Rickey refused). And you have to turn the other cheek. For if you get in a fight the experiment is over. (In passing imagine if Robinson had broken the colour bar in 2015 not 1947. Think of the abuse he would have got on Twitter).

Robinson did not get involved in a fight. He played well. His average in 1947 was  .297  and he was Rookie of the Year.  His career average was .311 and he had 137 home runs and 734 RBIs  He helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955. But the key was that he was a success. And when the  pioneer succeeds the rest follow and great players like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays got their chance.Ironically the Negro Leagues who had their best talent “creamed off” by MLB eventually folded. They shouldn’t have been needed – but if they hadn’t existed where would Robinson and the other black players have developed their skills?

There is another reason for baseball to be proud of Jackie Robinson. Because when MLB became integrated in 1947 it was ahead of American society. For in 1947 “Jim Crow” laws which enforced racial segregation were still in force. It was not until 1954 that the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case ruled that racially segregated schools were ruled to be unconstitutional.It wasn’t until 1955 that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white as the law said she should And it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed that US law caught up with baseball. A contrast by the way to sport’s woeful record on gender equality where it lags behind society.

And baseball is proud of Jackie Robinson. In 1997 his number 42 was retired by MLB**. No player can wear it except on April 15th which is “Jackie Robinson Day” in the Majors and every player in MLB wears it. Some idiot on ESPN said last year that Jackie Robinson Day shouldn’t be held very year but that is plainly tripe. After all Martin Luther King Day is celebrated every year and he is society’s equivalent to Robinson. in fact I think MLB should make sure all 30 franchises play on April 15th – weather permitting of course! – regardless of what day it falls on in the same way that the Reds always open the season at home.

Tomorrow when I watch baseball and see a great feat by a black player I will remember Jackie Robinson as but for his bravery under pressure the feat might not have happened. He is sport’s Nelson Mandela. Truly a hero.

*That is two posts in a row the word “nigger” has appeared. I don’t intend to make a habit of it.

**Any player that wore 42 at the time the number was retired was allowed to carry on wearing it until he retired. Fittingly the last player to wear 42 on an every day basis was Mariano Rivera –  a great black player in his own right.

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.