Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Staying Away In Droves

The eminent philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "If the fans don't come out to the ball park, you can't stop them."

Indeed. And it appears nobody's stopping them in places like Cincinnati and San Diego, where teams in the playoff hunt are playing to a lot of empty seats--or, in the case of the Padres, a lot of seats filled by fans of the opposing team.

The last couple of nights have seen an awful lot of Cubs fans at Petco Park as Chicago has badly damaged San Diego's playoff hopes. When the Giants played a key series in San Diego earlier this month, it sometimes sounded like a Bay Area crowd had taken over the place.

The Padres, who've led the division for most of the season, will end up drawing a bit over 2 million fans (up by 200,000 from last year). By contrast, the Giants will top 3,000,000 in a ballpark of roughly the same size.

What's going on here? Padres brass admit they're still trying to win over a fan base that may still be skeptical after years of cheapskate decision-making. But it might go deeper than that. San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa quotes Padres CEO Jeff Moorad as saying the fans are migrating toward less-expensive tickets.

In other words, even with a better product on the field, even with the prospects of a better team in the future, and even in the heat of a pennant race, Padres fans are watching their wallets. And they're apparently not alone. The New York Times reports overall MLB attendance will drop again this year, making it three straight down seasons at the turnstiles.

Sure, a few teams are up. But the fact that pennant-chasing franchises like San Diego, Cincinnati (which drew 12,000 fans for a recent game), Tampa Bay and even Atlanta are playing to less-than-full houses certainly ought to get the attention of the sport's moguls.

San Diego's Moorad is a smart guy. He's a former player's agent who knows the game from many angles. He's onto something. Baseball (and other pro sports) need to wake up to a new reality: the gravy train has ended. The Golden Goose isn't laying eggs any more. Fans are facing the reality of a re-calibrated economy and pennant race or not, they are watching their dollars very carefully.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pass the Maalox, Please

My wife stood in the entrance to the family room for a while before asking, "What are you watching?"

"The Braves and the Marlins," I replied, realizing as I said it how desperately stupid it sounded. Yes, I was hanging on every pitch, listening to the painfully-biased Braves TV announcers as though they held the keys to some inner truth.

I admit it. I've been sucked into the vortex of a pennant race. And I don't want out.

Hell, as soon as Omar Infante's base hit gave the Braves a walk-off win in the 11th, I was off to watch the Cubs-Padres game. I settled in with Len Kasper and Bob Brenly on WGN (a way better combo than the Atlanta bunch) as the Cubs nursed a one-run lead into the bottom of the 9th.

Kasper and Brenly told me Cubs closer Carlos Marmol was on the verge of setting a new single-season record for strikeouts per 9 innings (incredible: he's averaging more than 16 K's per 9 innings). Marmol's slider was electric and he quickly punched out the first two San Diego hitters.

And then the torture began. Yorvit Torrealba reached on an infield hit as the Cubs middle infielders botched the play. Pinch-runner Everth Cabrera, inevitably, stole second. A bounced slider to Chase Headley might have grazed the fabric of his baggy pants and he was sent to first as a hit batsman. Tony Gwynn Jr. coaxed a walk to load the bases.

And then Nick Hundley put a pretty good swing on a Marmol pitch that caught a lot of the plate. For a moment, I had visions of a walk-off grand slam that would have tied the Padres with the Giants for first place in the NL West.

That must have been when I shouted, "No!" That must have been when my wife walked back into the room and said, "I think you're taking this way too seriously."

She might be right. But when Hundley's fly ball landed safely in Sam Fuld's glove, I relaxed. Within minutes, I was sleeping like a baby.

See, pennant races are fun--at least when things are going your way.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Enough is Enough

Hey, Major League Baseball. What are you waiting for? Does someone have to die before you ban those infernal maple bats? The Cub's Tyler Colvin came pretty damned close:
Colvin was immediately hospitalized with a hole in his chest and a potential collapsed lung. He's going to be OK, but if that bat shard had caught him in the carotid artery...well, you do the math.

Enough's enough. Maple bats like the one Wellington Castillo swung have already been banned in the minor leagues because it's obvious to anyone who watches baseball that they're dangerous. They shatter in ways that the more-common ash bats don't, usually producing a heavy broken end, often with a sharp spearpoint.

And they shatter on "good" swings. Don't forget, Castillo doubled into the corner on the swing that impaled Colvin. A few days ago, Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez beat the Giants with a scorching triple into the gap--off a shattered maple bat.

Almost two years ago, Major League Baseball and the players' union agreed on some stopgap "safety" measures regarding maple bats. Guess what? They don't work. The bats are still breaking. Watch a few games and you're likely to see a scary near-miss, to say nothing of what really did happen in Miami.

It's time for the ballplayers (who've dragged their heels on this because so many hitters think the maple bats give them an edge) to step up and demand that MLB ban the bats. Perhaps players like the Cubs' Jeff Baker will take the lead. “It’s just not worth it to me to use that kind of bat,” Baker told reporters after watching Colvin become a human dartboard. “I don’t want that on my conscience.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Explain This

Barry Zito.

Go figure. The guy throws 1-hit ball for 5.2 innings against the Dodgers, gives up zero earned runs, and gets tagged with the loss. If you're keeping track, it's his 9th consecutive loss. He last won on July 16th. Since then, he's 0-9. There have been some very bad outings, but overall, Zito's ERA during that streak is 4.48--not great, but not 0-9 bad.

I've written before about the good Barry/bad Barry syndrome. You may have heard that his career record when the team scores 4 or more runs is 109-6. But when the team doesn't score--and the Giants have only scored 11 runs while Zito was in the game over his last 12 starts--you get the bad Barry.

I'm no psychologist, and maybe Zito would disagree, but here's a guess: when the team is rolling, Zito relaxes and lets it flow, and he's darned good. When the team isn't scoring, he tries to get too fine, and trouble ensues.

And then, there's the potential that this is all just a bizarre confluence of unexplainable forces, and Zito is the butt of some cosmic joke.

I'm going with the last one.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fearless Prediction

Wiping off the crystal ball, with a major caveat: there are no guarantees. Heck, in the middle of a pennant race, your leadoff hitter and star centerfielder can wake up with appendicitis.

But after carefully watching the National League for the last couple of weeks, I'm going to go out on a limb here: Giants fans, start making your postseason plans.

The Giants' just-completed 10-game road trip (they went 7-3) was the sort of test a team has to pass to prove itself playoff-worthy. Taking 3 of 4 in San Diego was, of course, huge. But the real smackdown was the Sunday win, in which the Giants dismantled major league ERA leader Mat Latos while Tim Lincecum had the Padres bitching about ball/strike calls. And don't forget: the Giants won this game just hours after learning that sparkplug Andres Torres may be done for the regular season after an appendectomy. That's character, people. You can have your Yorvit Torrealba chest-bumps.

The Padres' long run atop the West now looks like a mirage. This is simply not that good a team; both the Giants and the Rockies will pass San Diego before it's over. Among other things, it's clear that there really is very little gas left in Miguel Tejada's tank, and the Padres outfield is, well, average at best.

So if San Diego's out, who's in? The Giants play 12 of their last 18 at home. They'll either win the West or finish so close behind Colorado that they'll be the wild card team. "But wait," you're saying. "The Giants are a game behind the wild card standings right now, so if they don't win the West, they're screwed."

Yes, but. They trail Atlanta by a game for the wild card slot (and Atlanta trails the Phillies by a game in the NL East). So it's really a 5-team race for 3 slots: Padres, Giants, Rockies, Phillies, Braves. And since I've already dismissed San Diego (and anointed Colorado), let me deal with the Atlanta/Philly situation.

Each team has 18 games left; 9 home and 9 away. They play exactly the same teams: 6 games against Washington, 3 against the Mets, 3 against Florida...and 6 against each other. Much is being made of the fact that the Phils' last 6 are on the road and the Braves last 6 at home (including the potentially-epic season-ending series against the Phils). But right now, I think the schedule favors the Phils, who have a 9-game homestand coming up while the Braves face a 9-game roadtrip.

Plus, Atlanta's rotation has been struggling lately (Tim Hudson has lost his last 3 starts and Tommy Hanson has one win since the All-Star break), while the Phils have the Roys (Halladay and Oswalt).

I say the Phils win the East by 3 games, and the Braves send Bobby Cox into retirement without a playoff spot.

What I'm not ready to predict is whether the Giants or the Rockies will win the West. My crystal ball isn't that good.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Blue Carpet Conundrum

For years, the most-talked-about aspect of Boise State's football program was the blue artificial turf at Bronco Stadium (as Boise State proudly noted on its athletics website, "Bronco Stadium is the only football field in the world with a blue field." Gee, wonder why?).

But in recent seasons, the Broncos have been edging ever-closer to forcing their way into the BCS Championship game. Their 2010 season-opening win over Virginia Tech means this could be the year. Boise State was #5 in the USA Today coaches' poll going in; Va. Tech was #6.

It's not hard to see Boise running the table and winding up undefeated. They've dominated their mid-major Western Athletic Conference for quite some time. There's still a potential roadblock on September 25th (Oregon State, which might be a Pac-10 force this year). But you don't have to stretch too far to see an undefeated Boise State at season's end.

And then the fun begins. If Boise's the only undefeated team, its inconceivable that they'd be denied a slot in the BCS Championship game. But if one or more other big-time schools end up with no losses, look out, because the Lords of Football (in association with their pals, the Lords of TV) will start the machinations to keep Boise out of the Big Bowl.

The Big Boys love hanging out with the other Big Boys. The Oklahomas and Texases and Alabamas and Floridas hate it when the unwashed like Boise State crash their lucrative party. TV hates it, too, because despite the obvious David vs. Goliath storyline of a Boise appearance in a BCS bowl game, these "small" schools don't deliver the TV ratings.

For Boise State, the season now stretches out like a high wire with no net. Any stumble--even a close win against a San Jose State or a Fresno State--ends the dream. If you like seeing the rich get richer and the fat get fatter, root against Boise State. As the major conferences re-align, there will be fewer and fewer Cinderella stories (read this piece by fellow Alamedan Ray Ratto for a dystopian view of the college football future).

But it you're a real sports fan--if you like a world where the outcome isn't linked to pedigree--you need to hope for a perfect Boise State season ending in a slot in the BCS Championship game.

Just try not to watch too many of their home games. That blue turf is hard on the eyes.