More on Buehrle’s perfect game

Everyone will have their own thoughts on, and recollections of, Mark Buehrle’s recent perfect game against the Rays.  I write a weekly column called ‘Weekly Hit Ground Ball’ at BaseballGB which normally focuses on MLB news.  It was therefore the natural forum to record my own experiences.  Why not take a read?

http://www.baseballgb.co.uk/?p=3561

Mark Buehrle: Perfect Game

It doesn’t get any more exciting than that.  Mark Buehrle just pitched the 18th perfect game in MLB history and, along the way, Dewayne Wise made an incredible grab at the fence to preserve the effort in the ninth.

The 28,000 at Cellular Field witnessed history, as did many more of us watching or listening around the world.  It was lucky for us Brits that it came in a day game, allowing us to stumble upon the ongoing events in the evening. When I saw Buerhle was perfect through six innings, I dashed on to GamedayAudio and settled down to listen to the remainder of the game, conscious that leaving my place may well jeopardize everything.

Completely and utterly ridiculous of course, but there we go! No doubt many more of you were following the same sort of rituals.

This evening will live long in the memory.

Amazing comeback by the A’s

Yesterday summed up why an MLB season always holds your interest, even if your team is having a lousy year.  As games are played every day, there’s always a chance that this day might be the one when your team does something memorable.

The A’s did just that against the Twins yesterday.

I was bemoaning Oakland’s awful offense earlier on Monday and with good reason.  If ever there was a team that would appear to be dead and buried after conceding twelve runs in the first two and a half innings, it’s the ’09 A’s.  But somehow they managed to claw their way back into the game and win it 14-13 (albeit thanks to a debatable call at the plate to end the game). 

Unbelievable!

The game also showed why I’m not much of a fantasy player.  The Twins’ Nick Blackburn was blasted for seven runs on thirteen hits over five innings, a pretty disastrous outing for one of my starters.  But do I care? Nope!  My first baseman Justin Morneau’s seven-run barrage wouldn’t have been much of a consolation had the A’s lost either.  As it is, I get the fantasy benefit of his great day at the plate, while enjoying the fact that the A’s still won the game. 

It’s just a shame that Gio Gonzalez was the victim. He really needed a strong outing after struggling so far to turn Minor League promise into Major League results.  Hopefully he will turn the corner eventually. 

MLB Teams: Oakland A’s

My British guide to MLB Teams was put on the backburner for a few weeks.  That was partly due to other commitments and partly due to the identity of the next team on my alphabetical list.

The Oakland Athletics, or A’s as they are normally called, are my team, chosen during my early MLB watching days when I had no better reason to pick a side than the colour of their uniforms (green and gold being close to the yellow and green of Norwich City Football Club, my home town soccer team).  2009 has been a miserable season for the A’s and I’m doing my best not to dwell on it too much; however now that I’ve plucked up the courage to write about them I can see that this year is a good introduction to the organization.

The recent history of the A’s can go back to October 2006.  A mesmerizing run of seasons in the early 2000s saw the team perform brilliantly in the regular season while spending little money compared to their rivals, only to be downed in the first round of the play-offs four straight times.  In 2006, the A’s had surprisingly made their way to the play-offs once again after a two-year break and this time they swept the Twins to finally make it to the ALCS.  Was a fifth World Series win for the Oakland A’s on the cards at last, joining the great (not to mention colourful and controversial) three-peat team of the early Seventies and the Bash Brothers-inspired champs of 1989?

Sadly, no.  The Tigers swept us aside and prompted a rebuilding project by General Manager Billy Beane.  The now Brewers manager Ken Macha was sacked and Barry Zito, the last of the ‘Big Three’ alongside Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, left as a free agent and crossed the Bay to sign with the Giants  in a ridiculous 7 year/$126m deal.  Beane subsequently spent the next two seasons taking an axe to the team, dealing away any player of value (Haren, Harden, Blanton, Kotsay, Bradley, Scutaro etc) to re-stock a barren farm system.

Up to this point, the project has been a success.  The A’s current batch of youngsters is generally considered to be one of the top collections in baseball.  From a fan’s point of view, that’s only something to celebrate if it leads to a winning Major League ballclub down the road and we shall have to see how things turn out over the next five/seven seasons or so. 

So it’s a good time to join the A’s as, hopefully, we are at the start of an exciting period in which we can watch talented youngsters grow (and win?) as a team. 

That success isn’t going to begin this year, mind you.  Most fans expected that to be the case as a very young pitching staff was always going to suffer from some growing pains in the punishing Big Leagues.  The disappointment has built because our offense, poor last year, was supposed to be improved with the additions of veterans Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra.  A postseason berth was unlikely, but we hoped to put together a solid .500 season while enjoying the odd magical performance by our young starters.

The pitchers are living up to their end of the bargain in most cases, not least twenty-one year old lefty Brett Anderson who pitched a complete game against the Red Sox on 6 July and was perfect through 6.2 innings yesterday against the Angels.  However the offense has been a huge let down and as a result we have a 38-52 record as we head into a three-game series against the Twins tonight. 

In baseball, as in every sport, there’s always next year and with the A’s there is reason to believe that things will improve greatly.  Oakland are true underdogs, with a low payroll and low attendances, and any success can be savoured all the more as a result.

Two additional notes:

On the negative side, the threat of moving away from Oakland hangs over the team, something not likely to endear then to Brits.  The most recent plan to move to Fremont has hit the buffers and it’s uncertain where the team may end up if a new ballpark cannot be built in Oakland.

On the positive side, they are one of the few teams about whom you can buy a book in a British bookshop.  The infamous ‘Moneyball’ by Michael Lewis (not Billy Beane!) can be found hidden away in most sports sections and is an essential read, particularly when put alongside all of the controversy it created (which you can spend days reading about on the Internet).  Thankfully the plans to turn it into a film appear to have been shelved. 

Halladay shows why he’s in demand

I just ‘watched’ Roy Halladay throw a complete game against the Red Sox via MLB.com’s Gameday Premium. 

It’s a fun way to follow a pitcher’s performance because it strips away all of the peripheral factors and focuses squarely on the duel between pitcher and batter.  Halladay concentrated on moving his fastball around the strike zone, mixing in the odd curve and change to keep the batters off balance.

Although he gave up six hits and a run, Halladay was his usual dominating self.  I put the FAN audio feed on near the end of the game to hear the emotion of the moment.  Everyone in the ballpark, including Halladay, knew that this could be the last time he pitches in Toronto for the home team.

If this was Halladay signing off as a Blue Jay, it was fitting that he did it in such style. 

Baseball in the Netherlands

Apologies for my lack of updates here recently. I’ve been enjoying myself on a road trip to the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is the main baseball country in Europe, alongside Italy, as their exploits in the World Baseball Classic earlier this year showed.  They’ve got some decent ballparks (in contrast to the UK), which are probably comparable to what you would find in the Minor Leagues.  The Neptunus Family Stadium in Rotterdam is one of the best, if not the best, in Europe and that was where I took in a few games from the World Port Tournament.

The WPT takes place every two years, alternating with the other major tournament in the Netherlands: the Haarlem Baseball Week.  It’s an international competition, normally between five teams.  This year’s entry list was cut to four, Cuba, Japan, Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) and the Netherlands, after the US pulled out at the last minute. 

Cuba prevailed in the final today against the host nation.  Their victory marked an excellent end to a tournament that began with some drama, as star pitcher Arolbis Chapman walked out of the team hotel and never came back, reportedly starting his journey to the Majors.

Read more about the tournament and the Neptunus Family Stadium at BaseballGB.co.uk.

Yankees: Supporting evidence!

After my comments yesterday about people in Britain wearing Yankee caps, it was a funny coincidence that a person on Twitter mentioned the same thing today. 

@davidjlowe tweeted: “I must have seen at least 50 people wearing New York Yankees baseball caps on the way to work this morning…in London! WHY?”

So there you go. I would guess that of those 50 people, only five would have known who Derek Jeter is.  And four of them would have been Americans. 

Oh well, at least it shows Brits taking a bit of interest in baseball, even if that interest begins and ends at a stylish cap.

MLB Teams: New York Yankees

After the Mets yesterday, today we turn to the Yankees.

Walk up to a Brit in the street and ask them about the New York Yankees and most would know that they are a baseball team. That may not sound like much to an American, but it’s more knowledge than your average Brit would possess about any other MLB team.

Therein lies the dilemma with the Yankees.

The fact that they are so well known is because of their illustrious history, an association with excellence and a reputation as one of the most important sports franchises in the world. Their list of former players includes a who’s who of many of the best ever, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and many more. These great players have been part of great teams who have achieved great things, all of which any newcomer to baseball will enjoy learning about, regardless of whether you love the Yanks or consider them to be the Evil Empire.

Although they haven’t won a World Series since 2000, the Yankees are primarily known for being the most successful team in North American sports. Their ability to compete every year is largely a product of their enormous wealth, symbolized in brick form by their palatial new Yankee Stadium. They do not have owners that simply sit there and milk the cash cow for all it’s worth (or to pay off debts, like the Glazers and Manchester Utd FC). The vast revenue the franchise generates is looked at in one way: as a resource to put together the best possible team with the intention to win a World Series every year. Yes, this annoying when you are a fan of a smaller team, but you have to grudgingly respect them for it.

The recent offseason perfectly illustrated the Yankees’ commitment to winning. They signed the best free agent pitcher on the market in CC Sabathia, then got arguably the second-best free agent pitcher as well in A.J. Burnett before completing the set by signing the best free agent hitter in Mark Teixiera (trumping the Red Sox in the process). Perhaps Yankee fans soon become blasé about their team’s pursuit of the top players. I was excited enough when it was announced that the A’s had signed Matt Holliday, despite knowing that we have no chance of keeping him beyond 2009.

Many would have a strong urge to be part of such a franchise, particularly if family allegiances have lumbered you with a life supporting a nondescript sports team with little prospect of great success in the future. With baseball, most Brits are free to choose which team they support. If you are fed up with being a small fish in a sea of sharks, why not get out of the choppy water and hop onto the most luxurious yacht in the marina?

However, what makes the Yankees such a formidable opponent is exactly what puts many people off. The ‘glory hunter’ tag may not sit easily on your shoulders and it’s one that inevitably you will be charged with if you pick the Bronx Bombers. If we go back to that Brit on the street, they may well have been wearing an NY cap. Most British baseball fans quickly learn the lesson that asking such people about the Yankees’ most recent series is only going to prompt a blank look.

Maybe that is part of the challenge though: being one of the few souls wearing the interlocking NY in Britain who doesn’t just know all about their starting rotation, but also the prospects in Scranton.  You can prove that you are a knowledgeable fan, while enjoying the benefits of supporting a team that can field a team full of All-Stars.

MLB Teams: New York Mets

After a brief break, I’m getting back to the task of evaluating all of the thirty MLB teams from a British perspective.  The next two days will be given over to the two teams from New York.

I compared the Chicago rivalry to that of the two Manchester football/soccer clubs earlier in this series.  For the Mets and the Yankees, we can find parallels with the rivalry between Everton and Liverpool FC.  They split their respective cities into two and, while one team is traditionally seen as being the dominant force, both have enjoyed periods of success.

The Mets are the equivalent of Everton.  They both know that their local rival is held in higher regard around the world, but they can point to their own history to show that they are much more than second-class citizens.

It didn’t start off well for the Mets.  In fact, their debut season in 1962 was historically terrible.  Casey Stengel was always good for an entertaining quote, but he was able to excel himself while coming to terms with the roster he had to manage that year.  A 40-120 record at least meant that the only way was up, but they lost 100 or more games in five of their first six seasons. 

That run changed in 1969.  After nothing but ineptitude in previous seasons, they pulled together a 100-62 season and went on to win a World Series in just their eighth season. 

Their only other World Series so far came in the mid-Eighties, coincidentally the same period when Everton enjoyed their most recent run of success.  The 1986 World Series winning team has gone down in history as much for their off-the-field antics as for their on-the-field achievements.  Jeff Pearlman’s brilliant book ‘The Bad Guys Won’ brings them to life in a way that leaves you laughing and shaking your head in disbelief.

As I wrote in my review: “the 1986 New York Mets walked with a swagger, performed with supreme confidence and spoke with unconfined arrogance.  Loveable they were not, but that’s what made them a great team on the field and what makes them such a great source of hilarious stories”.  It’s definitely a book you need to add to your collection if you don’t have it already.

The Mets do come with the big city self-assurance that you would expect from a New York franchise, yet they don’t make you look elsewhere in the way that other big teams like the Yankees or the Red Sox might.  Quite simply, the Mets are a team that will make you suffer.  They don’t do things the easy way and you will quickly earn your supporting stripes if you decide to throw your backing behind them.

Their most recent seasons are a great example of this.  The Mets are set up in a way that screams ‘mass market domination’.  They have one of the highest payrolls in the Majors and make at least one big splash most off-seasons.  When premier players like Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez became available, the Mets paid big money to pick them up (in Santana’s case the money came in the form of a contract extension after he was acquired in a trade with the Twins).  They’ve also been successful in bringing through their own talent, with David Wright and Jose Reyes forming one of the most talented left-sides to an infield that you will find.

With all these resources at their disposal, you would think that the Mets would stroll into a season and sweep the National League to one side in a way that soon becomes a bit boring.  But no, they’ll find a way to make things interesting every time.  Their last three seasons have ended in heart-breaking misery, the sort that Brits are naturally drawn to.  We’re a nation that prefers to wallow in hard luck stories rather than glory in endless victories.  That description sums up the Mets quite well.

New York is obviously a great place to visit, so you can start planning a wonderful road trip to the new Citi Field.  The Mets are also one of the better supported teams among Brits so you will be joining a decent group of like-minded fans, people who enjoy the fact that they are an organization with the resources to be competitive every year, but without the air of superiority that you often find with such teams. 

Raul’s a real loss for the Phillies

It was a shame to read today that Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez has been placed on the 15-day DL.

I have to admit that I was quite critical of the Phillies’ general manager Ruben Amaro Jr when he dived into the free agent market and signed Ibanez to a three year/ $31.5m deal midway through December last year.  The GM was new to the job and had one major hole to fill from the World Series-winning roster, with Pat Burrell being allowed to depart when his contract expired.  Ibanez was undoubtedly one of the candidates to fill that spot in left field, but there were other outfielders on the market and teams were in a holding pattern waiting for the prices to drop.

All teams except for the Phillies, that is. Amaro decided that Ibanez was the guy he wanted and he just went ahead and did what it took to get him. 

Ibanez has been a solid offensive player for years, but he’s also been one of the few fielders who has challenged Burrell’s ranking as ‘scrap iron glove’ of the Majors.  Both have a history of not getting to balls they should reach and too often not making plays when they do actually get there.  Add in the fact that Amaro appeared to have rushed in and bought at top dollar and the deal looked like a potential dud.

Ibanez had played in sixty-two games prior to hitting the DL today.  Over that span he has batted .312/.371/.656 with 22 homers and 59 RBIs: not exactly the sort of stats you would associate with a free agent flop.

Sixty-two games don’t make a season for a position player, and Ibanez needs to continue producing over the next two years to fully justify Amaro’s faith in him, but it’s been a terrific start to his career in a Phillies uniform.

It’s been so good in fact that Ibanez has accumulated more All-Star votes than any other NL outfielder. Hopefully this trip to the DL gives him enough time to rest and he can be back playing in good time to start the game in St Louis.

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