Tag Archives: mlb

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? 

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Time for TV freedom for football

There were two big Scottish Cup replays this week. Kilmarnock v Rangers and the Edinburgh Derby between Hibs and Hearts. Both as it turned out resulted in victories for the Championship teams Rangers and Hibs. Either – or both – would have been excellent matches for live TV coverage but neither were shown. More to the point neither were allowed to be shown. That is because there were Champions League matches being played on the same nights (the 16th and 17th) and in a pathetic example of protectionism UEFA do not allow any country to show domestic matches at the same time as Champions League matches. Which begs the question : Why? The Champions League is the globe’s most popular club competition. It does not need protection. Scotland does not even have a team in the Champions League. How on earth would Scottish Cup ties threaten the Champions League’s superiority? And in any case shouldn’t viewers have a choice of what they want to watch? It’s called competition. Every other industry believes in it. The rule is probably illegal anyway. UEFA used to have the opposite rule saying that FAs could ban matches from other countries if domestic matches were on – the infamous Article 14. This rule was eventually declared illegal in court. Sky TV should take UEFA to court to get this rule abolished. It is highly likely they would win.

But this lack of support for consumer choice does not just apply to UEFA. There is a rule in the UK that Premier League matches that kick off at 3pm UK time cannot be shown live on TV (in fact any match that kicks off at 3pm cannot be shown so if say Real Madrid or Barcelona match kicks off at 3pm Sky can’t show that match either). More ridiculously the ban lasts until 5.15pm so that if Real Madrid v Barcelona kicks off at 5pm on Saturday as it did in 2014 Sky cannot show the first fifteen minutes. Pathetic.

What annoys me is that this only applies to the UK. Fans abroad can see the 3pm kick offs live. Even in the Republic of Ireland they get a 3pm kick off live on Setanta Sport. Why should foreign fans get extra games live?

Why football is allowed to get away with this antiquated protectionism is a mystery. Even other sports don’t have blackouts. For example during the cricket season England’s Test and One Day International matches are shown live on Sky but County matches are played during the Tests. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) don’t black out Test matches to protect County cricket so why should football be allowed to protect the lower divisions? Lower division matches are played on Champions League nights when games are shown live so why not on Saturdays?

If I were in charge every Premier League match would be live on TV. With one caveat. In the US every Major League Baseball (MLB) game is shown live on line. But the matches are not shown live in the home team’s market unless the home team agrees.  A UK equivalent would mean that Liverpool and Everton could stop their home matches being shown in Merseyside, the Manchester clubs could do likewise in Greater Manchester and the London clubs could do the same in Greater London.

The Premier League is missing a trick here. Baseball has an internet site – MLB.TV – and a mobile /tablet app – At Bat (the latter I use and it is excellent).  For a yearly subscription you get every MLB game which is not subject to blackout regulations. Why the Premier League does not have a website or an app to stream it’s games is a mystery. An MLB.TV subscription costs up to $129.99 a year. I’m sure there are a lot of fans – especially abroad – who would be willing to pay to see Premier League games on their computer, mobile or tablet and it would be a useful revenue stream for the Premier League. And if the example of baseball is anything to go buy it will not effect TV rights. An example : The LA Dodgers’ current TV deal is worth $8.35 BILLION (yes Billion!) over 25 years. That equates to $334 MILLION a year for one franchise. Puts the money in the Premier League into perspective. But it shows that the existence of MLB.TV and At Bat has not affected the sport’s TV revenue.

But surely the public should have the right to watch the games they want on TV. In society protectionism is dead and free trade is the principle. What has football got to be scared of by enhancing free trade? In fact they should be forced to. The Government should make both UEFA’s rule and the Premier League blackout illegal. Time to get in line with society.

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.

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.