Waiting for the New Beginning

Watching the Nats game on TV last night was an eerie experience.  We’d had downpours off and on all day (totaling about 4.5”), and the air was that warmish, damp August mugginess that makes one yearn for autumn.  Tanner Roark, he of the W 8, L 12 record and 4.05 ERA, was starting a game that meant little in the great scheme of things for the 62-63 Nats.  Attendance was light on a weekday night that was a late summer “school night” for many kids in the region; random cheers and calls echoed through the sparsely populated grandstands and concourses.  You could hear occasional bats rattle in the dugouts, and a word or two of the many exchanged among ballplayers draping their arms over the railing as they watched the game.  There was a dank gloom, a sense of unfocused malaise, of things coming to an end.

Earlier in the afternoon word had come of two waiver-deal trades.  Daniel Murphy, two-time Nats All-Star second baseman, a student of hitting with a Nats batting average of well over .300, if only a passable fielder, had gone to the Cubs for cash considerations, a mediocre prospect, and the proverbial “player to be named later.”  And Matt Adams, a hulking first baseman/outfielder with huge tattooed biceps, owning 18 homers on the season, went back to St. Louis, where he had begun his career with the Redbirds.  This happened two days after a backbreaking 12-1 thrashing of the Nats by the hapless Miami Marlins, and a day after the dean of D.C. sportswriters, Tom Boswell, had proclaimed the Nats’ season to be deceased.  Apparently the Nationals’ management finally agreed, and was cutting salary obligations to realign the finances to allow off-season acquisitions for 2019.

After Roark completed the third inning, it began to rain.  An assistant showed the umpiring Crew Chief an iPhone image of the incoming precipitation pattern, the ground crew threw the tarp on the field in less than two minutes, and the participants and loyalists among the fans waited it out for nearly two hours.  The stadium looked deserted on TV.  The dank gloom intensified.  Some players apparently watched the division-leading Braves game in the clubhouse, as they throttled the Buckos behind the shutout ball pitched by ex-Orioles starter Kevin Gausman.  A team going nowhere watching a team going somewhere.

Stevenson celebrates homer

Andrew Stevenson celebrates his first big-league home rum

The rain stopped; play resumed with Roark’s start wasted and Matt Grace on the hill for the Nats.  Before you knew it, the Phillies, chasing the Braves and trailing by a single game, were up 4-1.  A “here we go again” sense pervaded the emptying stadium.   But in the bottom of the 6th, stuff started to happen.  Twenty-year-old rookie Juan Soto singled.  Light-hitting catcher Matt Wieters singled him home.  Callup Andrew Stevenson, who drove from Syracuse and arrived at the stadium after the game started, hit a pinch-hit homer sharply to left for a career first.  Second-base backup Wilmer Difo whacked one into the upper deck in right field.  By the end of the inning, a 1-4 Nats deficit was a 6-4 lead.  They later tacked on four more runs, one being a home run by gimpy veteran Ryan Zimmerman, only his 12th of the season.

What was left of the crowd went home happy, having witnessed a rare Nationals comeback win.  The Phillies went back to their hotel two games behind the Braves, beaten in a game they needed to win by a team with nothing to lose.  This is the way baseball fans of the many non-contending teams in each league enjoy the last part of the season.  They take each day as it comes, and savor the baseball played that day for what it means right then and there, not for what it implies for the “playoff picture.”  It’s the national pastime, after all.  Soon it will give way to the frozen tundra of football, the slick ice on the hockey rink, the drafty basketball gym.  And we will all look forward to the day pitchers and catchers report in February.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2018


Notes from an August Baseball Weekend

  • Congrats to Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees, who by virtue of his pitching ineffectiveness, plus his failure to cover home and otherwise fully participate in the game, has become the best-paid 6th-inning mop-up man in the game at $21 million (2017 salary only).
  • In contrast, the Red Sox’ closer Craig Kimbrel faced 6 Yankees on Saturday and Sunday. Didi Gregorius, Yankee cleanup hitter, was the only one of them to put the ball in play.  He grounded out weakly.  The other five whiffed.
  • Aaron “Here Come De” Judge’s splits are fascinating.  Before the All-Star break he hit .329 with a 1.139 OPS.  Since then he has hit .169 with a .684 OPS.  In 58 plate appearances against the Red Sox so far this season he has hit .155, and only .083 in Fenway Park.  He now owns the all-time MLB record for striking out in consecutive games, at 38 and counting.  But the Yankees are still batting him third and playing him every day because he hits some long solo home runs.  Thanks, Joe Girardi.
  • Bartolo Colon, the rotund yet athletic hurler, is 44 years old.  Nicknamed “Big Sexy,” he is 5’11” and weighs 285 (officially).  He’s with the Twins, his third team this season, and with his victory over Arizona yesterday joins 17 other pitchers who have victories over all thirty MLB teams.  Colon is the visual definition of “old and out of shape,” but has enjoyed amazing success.  How to explain this?  A pact with the devil?  Consider that yesterday he pitched 6 innings, struck out 6, and ended the game with an ERA of 6.66.  Coincidence?  I think not!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017

“Dinger” Blanton

Today Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals pitched excellent ball, giving up 1 run and 2 hits over 7 innings, and whiffing 11 while issuing a pair of free passes. After a clean 8th-inning hold by Matt Albers, the Nats led the Diamondbacks 4-1 going into the 9th inning. They brought in Joe Blanton to close out the game.

Blanton has now appeared in 12 games (of 28) and pitched 11.0 innings. Before today he’d given up 5 homers in 11 innings. So while his Earned Run Average was 9.82, his home runs allowed per 9 innings average was 4.09. That’s just homers. He’d yielded 12.2 hits per 9.

Today Blanton faced one batter. Yup, homer #6. So now all those numbers are a little worse. Dusty had seen enough, and Enny Romero was waved in to finish off the D-backs with his 101-mph stuff. Blanton, by virtue of today’s and this season’s performance, earns my portable nickname “Dinger” with his abysmal effort. Indeed, let’s hope we don’t have “Dinger” Blanton to kick around for very long. There must be somebody in Syracuse who could make him just a bad memory.  Even Joe Nathan?  Can’t happen too soon for me.

Hockey Game

About once a year I go to an NHL game at the Verizon Center, often as part of an anniversary gift.  Usually on my own, because my wife Jane is happier to have the evening to relax at home.  Last night was the night, determined by the opponent of the home-town Capitals and the convenience of the date.

The Nashville Predators are in the Western Conference, and so are infrequent foes for the Eastern Conference Caps.  Their logo suggests a saber-toothed tiger.  The name is a little ambiguous, like the Toronto Raptors of the NBA or the even-more-vague NHL Minnesota Wild (a state and an adjective!).  The Wild logo’s vague predator features a more ursine animal profile.  I suppose both these team names are better than those of a prey species, like the Penguins or the Ducks.  Nashville, in any event, seemed a suitable adversary for a team named after a seat of government.  I’d have called the team the “Nashville Sound,” but what would that logo look like?

Even buying the ticket was a new deal to me.  I use Ticketmaster, having found that the discounts on other sites are not dramatic, and that this site provides reliability.  I was not prepared for the ticket format choices, however: an app or my credit card at the gate.  Chose the latter, leaving me more mystified than ever about the “Order Processing Fee” of $6.00.  Amazon can and has recently physically delivered everything from Haynes briefs to a stand-alone printer/scanner to my door in two days with no fees at all.  But somehow the ticket folks need $6.00 to allow some electronic information to flow through their circuits and to send me about three emails.  When I got to the gate they swiped my card and printed out a small slip with the seat location.  They probably made about $5.98 pure profit on that transaction.

Jane dropped me off at the Metro, which conveniently has a stop right at the arena.  Not quite as good as the old Boston Garden, where you could walk right from the North Station platform to the admission gate without ever going outside, but not bad.  I headed straight to Fuddrucker’s for a pre-game burger and fries, and then went in to find my seat.  I wanted to watch the pre-game skate, and I knew getting to the spot would take some time.  I bought a $65.25 (tax included) seat, one of the cheaper available.  It was on the third level (what they called the Second Balcony at the Garden, though we had other names for it), nearly at center ice, three rows from the top, on the aisle.  Actually, it provided a very good view of the whole ice, from a somewhat high and distant perspective.  The shocking thing to me is how expensive these seats are.  For this very ordinary game, the best places in the stands go for nearly $300 apiece (this excludes the suites and other elite locations).  You can’t get a seat anywhere for less than $55.  I remember buying a box seat in the old Garden a couple of times, especially once when I was astounded that some people who’d paid box seat money got there late and missed some action (Don McKenney had scored twice in the first ten minutes on Jacques Plante, if you can imagine that!).  That seat cost me $12, and while I know that was “real money” in those days, it was not the equivalent of $250, and maybe barely of $65.

After a series of escalator rides and a walk almost halfway around the concourse, I arrived about 30 minutes before game time.  The arena was nearly empty.  But I had come to watch the pre-game skate, which began a few minutes later.  Whirling circles of skaters looped around.  A few players stretched or did their private rituals.  Dmitri Orlov practiced his stick handling, but let’s just say that at his best he’s no Brad Marchand.  Braden Holtby, after practicing splits in full goalie gear (!), went between the pipes, and players started giving him shots, some hard and some easy.  Nikki Backstrom got about a dozen pucks at the top of the right circle, and fed them one by one to his linemate Alex Ovechkin, who waited in the middle of the left circle, instantly slamming each one into the now-empty net as it arrived.  Goal, goal, goal, . . . At the end, TJ Oshie ignored his teammates filing off the ice until he was all alone.  Then, feigning panic, he raced for the door, did a flying leap over the boards, and disappeared down the runway.   Then two Zambonis came out to preen the ice.  So did a full-scale inflatable car balloon, powered and controlled like a drone, with 4 little props, advertising some dealership.  Made me wish for one instant that I had a good air rifle for just long enough to take it down.

At the start of the game the arena goes dark.  It is just 7:00.  The seats are now maybe half-full.  The four officials skate around to the very loud music designed to stir up the crowd.  Spotlight beams dart about in the dark.  Two minutes later both teams emerge.  While the Capitals get a full spotlight and a “color guard” consisting of peewee players raising Caps banners on hockey-stick poles, the visiting Predators skulk out in darkness.  Then it’s lights up, honor a soldier, national anthem, and the puck drops at 7:08.  Afterwards I heard a fan describe it as a “sleepy” game.  The Caps, red-hot and leading the Conference by several points three weeks back, had their “bye week” (a dumb idea if I ever heard one) and came back flat.  Since then they had been 6-6-2, including a zip-for-four West Coast trip.  Last night they played tough against a defense-minded Predators club that looked like they’d have trouble scoring in the between-periods peewee game.  Late in the first period a Nashville defenseman, carrying the puck, lost his footing as he was turning to the left of his net to head up-ice.  He fell and the puck skidded behind the other defender.  The Caps suddenly had a 2-on-0 right in front of the net.  Highly touted rookie Jakub Vrana drew the goalie’s attention, passed to (ex-Bruin!) Brett Connolly on the open side, and the Caps had a goal.

Other than that, the game was drowsy.  Some antics with the Caps’ cartoony eagle mascot and a pewee hockey “game” enlivened intermissions.  One team had a girl goalie, and she was interviewed.  A few contests, shooting t-shirts into the crowd, the usual stuff.  As if the sport isn’t enough by itself.  There were few good scoring chances in the actual game.  Both teams had a shots-on-goal number in the mid-twenties.  But the Predators won a whopping 70% of the faceoffs, which kept the Caps from applying constant pressure.  Neither team was good at puck possession, neither goalie was severely tested.  On the one setup Ovechkin got in his left circle “sweet spot,” he completely mis-hit the puck, despite his pregame practice, and it weakly drifted to the boards in the corner.  There were an annoying number of “commercial TV” timeouts, a practice entirely unknown in the old days.  In the third period Tom Wilson of the Caps took a Predator hard but clean into the boards by the team benches.  Another Predator decided to take Wilson on.  Big mistake.  Wilson is unlikely to instigate fights, but he likes to fight, and he’s good at it.  The last seven or eight punches, all hard rights, were thrown by him, and the refs mercifully called it a TKO.  Wilson went to the sin bin, the Predator to the dressing room, not to return.

Unfortunately, the two best shots on goal the Predators took both went in cleanly.  The second was in overtime, when they executed a beautiful set play, luring the Caps up-ice out of their defensive zone and then sending both forwards rocketing in on a 2-on-1.  The left wing had an open shot and did not miss.  I was outa there fast to beat the crowd onto the Metro, which does not put on extra trains for hockey games.  I got a seat on the Orange Line, but a couple of people stood all the way to Dunn Loring.  When I told Jane the game had gone into overtime but ended very quickly, she said “actually it was at 3:12.”  Coulda knocked me over with a feather.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017.

Braves Beat Indians, Then Indians Beat Braves

I don’t remember when Parmenter Elementary School dismissed classes on Wednesday, October 6, 1948, but I do know that I was out the door in a flash.  Something was happening and I wanted to know about it.  The Boston Braves were in the World Series, and this was the day of the opening Series game!

Were they winning or losing?  As I remember, my mom picked me up from school that day, a somewhat unusual event.  And we had a new car with a radio, a 1948 Oldsmobile, replacing the ’37 Chevy that had gotten us through WW II, when there were few new cars available.  It was a cool, gray afternoon, and I might have heard the end of the game at home on the radio, if not in the car.  It was a short game, lasting only 1:42.   So if it started at 1:00, as I think games did then, it may have been over when I got home.

Spahn and Sain

Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain each won a game in the 1948 World Series

I remember people talking about the “pickoff play.”  That play decided the game.  The Indians had started their ace, Bob Feller.  Feller had started pitching in Cleveland in 1936 at the tender age of 17, was coming into his prime when the war started, and lost almost four whole years in the shank of his career (age 23 through 26) in the military.  But in 1948 he was an all-star for the seventh time, going 19-15 with an ERA that had crept up to 3.56 and would never go below 3.00 again.  The Braves threw Johnny Sain, part of the Braves’ famed “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” rotation.  Indeed, the pair had been instrumental in the Braves’ wrapping up the NL flag by winning 14 of 15 games in a streak from September 6 through 21.  At one point the two of them started and won eight out of 11 straight games.  Sain won six in a row, all complete, in the streak, and seven of nine complete-game starts for the month.  His season was 24-15, with a 2.60 ERA.

The two pitchers were throwing a dual shutout as the game entered the eighth inning.  In that frame, Feller walked Bill Salkeld, a slow-footed catcher.  He was replaced by a slightly less slow-footed catcher, Phil Masi [at whose sporting goods store I bought, a couple of years later, a Ted Williams autograph bat].  Masi was sacrificed to second, and Eddie Stanky (a .320 hitter that year) was walked intentionally to bring up Tommy Holmes (a .325 hitter) and thereby create a force play at third.


Pickoff Play that Decided Game 1, 1948 World Series










At this vital juncture Feller and shortstop-player-manager Lou Boudreau tried to pick Masi off second using a timing play in which each one counted to a certain number, and then Boudreau went to the base and Feller wheeled and threw.  It looked like they had Masi, but the ump said the tag was up his arm, and his hand had reached the base first.  There were, of course, no replays, as the medium of television was in its infancy, though this Series was broadcast regionally for the first time.  The still photos have a quality just slightly better than your average security camera these days, since high-speed black-and-white film and telephoto lenses were also in their infancy.  But those photos do seem to show that Masi was out.  Tommy Holmes then ripped a single down the third base line and Masi scored the game’s only run.

That was the game I remember best, because of the close call.  The Indians came back to win it four games to two, and when Feller pitched again he was matched against journeyman Nelson Potter.  Spahn relieved Potter in the 4th, however, and ended up the victor as the Braves rallied for an 11-5 win.  So Feller lost to both Sain and Spahn, never won a Series game in his illustrious career, and ended with a Series career ERA of 5.06.  In the six games of 1948 each team scored 17 runs, all the games except the Spahn victory were close, and the Braves both outhit and out-erred the Indians.  Satchel Paige, in his first big-league year at age 41, pitched one inning for the Indians.  There were two games shorter than the first game in the Series, at 1:31 and 1:36.  The longest took 2:39.  How times change.  Perhaps most notably, the six-game series was played in six consecutive days, with no time off for travel.  I guess the “Water Level Route” from New York/Boston to Chicago must have provided a quick and easy train ride from South Station to Cleveland and back.  And at least you could sleep in the Pullmans.

I don’t know of any other major sports championship ever played between two teams with native American nicknames, until these same two teams met in 1995, when the Braves won.  And this one almost didn’t happen.  The Indians and Red Sox tied for the American league pennant in 1948.  The Indians won a single-game playoff in Boston, when the Sox inexplicably started Denny Galehouse when more skilled and experienced hurlers were available.  Lou Boudreau hit two home runs and the Sox lost 8-3.  We almost had an all-Boston series.  And that Sox loss made the Braves’ victory on October 6 much more special to at least one nine-year-old fan.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016

Leicester City F. C.

It seems that in the world beyond our shores (where they use the term “football” for a sport that actually requires all players except keepers to manipulate the ball with their feet), an upstart football team, Leicester City F. C., the Foxes, have won the British Premier League Cup after beginning the season at 5,000 to 1 underdogs (underfoxes?).  I heard a team member the other night on a sports show make a snarky remark about how Americans can’t pronounce the name of their fair city.

Leicester city

Leicester City F. C. in triumph mode.

Well, as a New Englander born and bred, I can assure all the fine gents of Leicester City that we in the American northeast can and do pronounce it correctly.  That’s because Massachusetts, along with the rest of New England, has its own fair share of English place names, reflecting the origins of our Pilgrim and Puritan fathers, mostly from the south coast of England.  We’re used to places that don’t sound like they’re spelled, such as Gloucester (Glaw-stuh), Leominster (Lemmin-stuh), and Worcester (Wuss-tuh).  Why, we’ve even got our very own local Leicester (Less-tuh) in central Mass.  Of course there’s also Dorchester, Winchester, and Rochester, that are pronounced just the way they’re spelled.  Don’t ask me why; that’s the quirk of the English tongue, that makes America and Britain the “two nations divided by a common language.”

Enjoy the aura of your cup victory and your upcoming play in the Champions League, Leicester City!  We Bostonians know what it means to savor a triumph by an underdog, and we can say so properly.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.

Nats Flat

After the blaring preseason fanfares of spring 2015 predicting a World Series championship, the Washington Nationals had a forgettable season as a team, though their two best players had superstar years. Max Scherzer became the sixth big-leaguer ever to have two non-hitters in a season, while Bryce Harper earned an MVP award at the age of 22, and just might be the “game’s best player,” though definitively calling one player “best” is rarely possible at any single point in time. As a group, however, the Nats stumbled to an 83-79 record; take away the combined WAR of their superstars (17) and they were a 66-96 ballclub.

th-3And that ballclub lost some significant players to free agency at the end of the season, notably pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond. Zimmermann was arguably the Nats’ most consistent hurler over the last four seasons, with excellent WHIP, K/BB, HR/9, and other numbers, though like the entire team he seemed to be in a funk this year. Desmond, age 30 and like Zimmermann a National from his first big league game, had a miserable “walk year,” hitting 20 points below his previous low figure, setting a personal high for strikeouts at 187, and making a stone-fingered 27 errors at his crucial infield position. Still, Desmond has the potential to be one of the better middle infielders in the game, with a number of good years left, and he is a very positive clubhouse presence. Beyond these, pitcher Doug Fister and center fielder Dennard Span had figured to be big losses to the Nats. But Fister lost his spot in the starting rotation and will likely go elsewhere as a long-shot starter, while Span had hip surgery that might be career-ending, and is at any rate very likely could diminish his most important weapon as a player, his speed. In addition to the departed free agents, regular 2015 third baseman Yunel Escobar was traded for prospects.

In 2015 both the manager and the bullpen were well below major league standards, especially for contenders. Shortly after the season the Nationals fired Matt Williams as manager, and made several moves to shore up their bullpen and set up a scenario in which they could trade Drew Storen, who lost his closer’s job three times with the Nats, and Jonathan Papelbon, who proved to be clubhouse poison. The situations of these last two extraneous relievers have not yet been resolved.

The appointment of Dusty Baker as manager came about most awkwardly. It had been strongly rumored for several days that the Nationals had chosen Bud Black for the job. Then they introduced Baker as the new guy. Nationals’ management said later that the Bud Black deal hit a last-minute roadblock, and Baker was never out of the running. Baker almost immediately distinguished himself by defending on-the-market star reliever Aroldis Chapman, whose free agency was put on hold by serious domestic abuse charges. (Chapman has since been traded to the New York Yankees. ‘Nuf said.) Baker also decreed that players of color were faster than white athletes, which appeared to send the message to his new team that he would be evaluating players based in part on ethnicity.

Meanwhile, the trade and the free agency issues cited above have left the Nationals with holes at center field, shortstop, second base, and the starting rotation. One might argue that they have a pressing need to upgrade at catcher, where Wilson Ramos has not distinguished himself either defensively or offensively, and in left field, where Jason Werth is 37 years old.

In the free agency market, where some of these holes might have been filled, the Nationals have whiffed, struck out, failed. Outfielder Jason Heyward left Nationals money on the table to go to the Chicago, where he expressed excitement about helping to end the Cubbies’ 108-year World Championship drought. They were outbid for Ben Zobrist too, and the Reds’ Brandon Phillips declined a trade to Washington after visiting DC and the Nationals. The Nationals have not been in the running for any of the top-shelf free agent starters, opting instead to go with Tanner Roark, a fifth starter in 2014 and a mostly-ineffectual middle reliever most of the 2015 season. For infielders the best the Nats could do was Mets’ second baseman Daniel Murphy, star of the 2015 postseason in the Mets’ ultimately losing effort. Murphy brings a good left-handed stick, with much higher average though less power than Desmond, to the Nats infield. But he’s been as big a butcher with the glove for his whole career as Desmond was for one season.

That’s it, the big acquisition so far. The Nationals appear to be ready to let the holes in the outfield, shortstop, and pitching rotation be filled by erstwhile backups or upcoming young players.  They have failed to pick up available free agents (including star Orioles reliever Darren O’Day), largely I think because players don’t want to come to DC to play for Dusty Baker and a team that does not seem ready to make that step to the highest level. It’s about a day late and a dollar short of the needed talent and sheer organizational will to put it over the top. They may provide lots of day-to-day fun as the boys of summer, but barring future moves the Nats seem likely to be golfing in early October again.

©Arnold J. Bradford 2015