Tag Archives: New York Mets

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.