Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Somebody Else's Fantasy

It's that time of year: workplaces and campuses everywhere are abuzz with the frenzy of the fantasy baseball draft. Fantasy-league managers are scouring various sources, looking for the hidden gems that will give them bragging rights all summer long.

Me? I'm sitting it out. Again.

Every year, I try to explain to my fantasy-smitten friends why I think these leagues are a pox, a blight, a blasphemy. And every year, more people play and more words are published and broadcast about fantasy baseball. I'm losing this battle.

My antipathy toward fantasy baseball has its roots in a tragedy in the summer of 1979. An enterprising young journalist named John Genzale had coaxed me and a few other baseball nuts into playing a new game: we'd submit a roster each week and score points based on the stats racked up by the players we chose. In those pre-Internet years, we tallied our numbers from newspaper box scores.

I've since learned that we were probably pioneers; the "Rotisserie League" created by Daniel Okrent in New York didn't launch until the following year. But we were way out in the woods of South Lake Tahoe and had no idea we were trailblazers.

Anyway. I was in the "newsroom" at KTHO Radio in South Tahoe on August 2, 1979 when the bells on the AP teletype machine started ringing (yes, children, bells really did ring when big news broke, even when your "newsroom" was formerly a bathroom in the converted motel that housed the radio station). The bulletin told of the death in a plane crash of Yankees star Thurman Munson.

My first thought: "This is big news!" My second thought: "Wait...isn't Munson my catcher?"

Naturally, I assumed I'd be able to replace a dead catcher in my lineup.  Wrong. Genzale, who would go on to a remarkable career in journalism and academia, acted "in the best interest" of our little game and forced me to wait until the weekly roster change.

It seemed wrong then and still does, 34 years later. I've used the Munson Incident as my excuse for avoiding fantasy baseball ever since. But the reality is that I have much deeper reasons for steering clear of fantasy baseball.

There are basically two flaws in the fantasy world. First, I'm a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan. I love the game of baseball, but once the season begins, I bleed orange and black. In fact, I don't really trust folks who say they're fans but don't make the emotional investment in a team. Sure, I keep track of how other teams and players are doing. But I damned sure don't want to be watching Matt Cain facing Joey Votto in a key at-bat with a little voice reminding me that Votto is on my fantasy roster and a three-run homer would be good for my team. Not!

My other problem with fantasy baseball (and fantasy sports in general) is that they reduce complex games to small sets of data. They tend to focus on a few statistics (hits, RBI's, home runs, ERA, strikeouts, etc.) while ignoring the broader sweep of the game.  Notably, most fantasy leagues ignore the role of defense. If they pay any attention, it's often the token inclusion of a stat like "outfielder assists"--hardly a true measure of an outfielder's overall defensive value.

As a consequence of the above, fantasy players tend to fixate on one-dimensional big-leaguers: mashers who can't play defense. This is why folks in our newsroom are horselaughing one colleague who used a second-round choice to take one of her favorites, Brandon Crawford, when Hanley Ramirez was available. His current injury aside, history says Ramirez is an offensive threat but a defensive liability. Fantasy ball cares not a whit for Crawford's defensive prowess.

I like to tell my fantasy-besmitten friends that I love baseball too much to reduce it to fantasy baseball. I feel differently about baseball strategy games (I grew up on Strat-O-Matic, APBA, and Gil Hodges' Pennant Fever); these simulations attempt to include all of baseball's nuances.

There's always a chance, of course, that the flood of modern advanced stats will find its way into fantasy leagues. (Vanessa, you'd feel better about your Brandon Crawford choice if "Defensive Runs Saved Above Average" was included; he was almost 20 runs better than Hanley Ramirez last year). If that happens, perhaps I'll be back. But I'll still be ticked off about that Thurman Munson deal.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Classic In Name Only

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig's bombast to the contrary, the World Baseball Classic is little more than a transparent attempt to add some hype to the normally-lazy days of spring training (and you'll note, I refuse to use the capital letters--Spring Training--that baseball has adopted in yet another effort to aggrandize itself).

Four years ago (and quick: tell me who won the 2009 World Baseball Classic), Selig was moved to declare, "I think this is tremendous. Long after I'm gone this is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and you can count on that." Hard to know if he's right since he won't go away, but if you define "bigger" as "being flogged mercilessly by the poobahs of baseball", Selig may have a point.

The weekend brawl between Mexico and Canada (and we always thought our US neighbors were so peaceful) gave the whole enterprise a black eye, figuratively and literally. It happened because a Canadian batter bunted for a base hit with a 6-run lead in the 9th inning. That's a breach of baseball etiquette, except this isn't really baseball. 

Apparently unbeknownst to some of the Mexican players, notably Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz, the World Baseball Classic uses run differential as a tiebreaker.  Cruz strongly suggested that Mexico's pitcher throw at the next Canada hitter. He finally nailed Rene Tosni on the third try, and that's when the fight started.

You could blame Cruz, or pitcher Arnold Leon, or any of the players who duked it out. But how about blaming the Lords of Baseball, who created a format that looks like the game these guys play for a living but isn't exactly the same? To amplify: had Mexico been sitting on a 9th-inning lead, logic would have dictated Sergio Romo be on the mound. But WBC rules forbade that, because a pitcher can't pitch for three straight days in this tournament.

Of course, the MLB teams that lend their players to this enterprise do so unwillingly. Does anyone really think Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean are thrilled to see a third of their starting lineup, one of their starting pitchers and their closer exposed to full-bore baseball midway through training camp? God forbid one of these guys gets hurt, and of course, nobody can really guess how this will affect them come September or October.

Selig and his crowd think baseball needs boosting overseas. Really?  The sport seems to be doing just fine in the places where it's taken hold. Japan, Korea and Taiwan have active pro leagues, and of course many Latin American countries have a deeply-embedded beisbol culture.  Naturally, Major League Baseball benefits greatly from this: 28% of the players on Opening Day MLB rosters last year were foreign-born.

The reality is that the world serves as a giant farm system for the Big Dog, Major League Baseball. Any kid anywhere who wants to really make it big wants to play in The Show, and the WBC does nothing to enhance that.

At the end of the day, I'm left with the sneaking suspicion that the whole enterprise is yet another way to sell a few shirts and caps and tickets. No problem there, but please, let's not pretend  otherwise.  This whole charade in which ballplayers dig up their grandparents' birth certificates so they can play for, say, Italy just adds to the silliness.

I wouldn't miss the WBC if it just faded away. But Bud Selig is nothing if not relentless, so I doubt this thing is going anywhere.  So, a few suggestions:

  • Use minor-leaguers, amateurs and college players. If the real goal is to develop the sport, use up-and-coming talent.
  • Set it up more like the World Cup in soccer, where countries qualify over a period of several years (the US is automatically "in", of course). Then play the 8-team "finals" over the course of a week or ten days in one city, like the College World Series.
  • Do away with this "run differential" idiocy. That's not baseball. 
  • Require participants to actually be from the country they represent. Grandpa's not good enough.
With these changes, the biggest problem the WBC faces--its interruption of spring training--would vanish. It would become a nice little sideshow to the start of the Major League season.

And Canada and Mexico could still have a fight if they wanted to.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Midseason Form

To those who think baseball spring training games are just a way for ballclubs to shake off a little rust before hitting the golf course, I offer two words: Dusty Baker.  Oh, and two more: Kirk Gibson.

You may have heard that the two got into it at home plate while exchanging lineup cards before a Cactus League game. Seriously: before a Cactus League game.

What the heck? When you hear what ticked them off, it seems so petty: Baker's Reds were playing Gibson's Diamondbacks at the D-backs' Salt River Fields complex.  The location is important because that made the Diamondbacks the home team and gave them the option, under Cactus League rules, to use the designated hitter--or not.

And this is where things start to go off the rails. Typically, in the first couple of weeks of exhibition games, National League teams will use the DH, waiting until the last few games to give their pitchers a few at-bats. But Gibson has a new starter, Brandon McCarthy, who is not only imported from the American League but is also coming back from that skull fracture sustained when he was hit by a line drive.

So Gibson, understandably, wanted his guy to see some live pitching. Baker had his own issue: outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has a sore leg and Baker wanted to let him DH so he could avoid any extra wear-and-tear in the field.

Remember: it's Gibson's decision. He made it, notified the Reds, and the sparks flew when Baker produced a lineup card with a DH penciled in. A mild Scottsdale afternoon got ugly as the two exchanged unpleasantries. And Baker, who never met a grudge he couldn't carry, kept the flames burning. He ordered star pitcher Johnny Cueto to stand stock-still and take three strikes when he batted.

What do I think? I think Baker is still searching for a new nemesis now that the longtime burr under his saddle, Tony LaRussa, has retired (the two were frequent combatants as Baker managed the Giants, Cubs and Reds while LaRussa ran the Cardinals). And I think Gibson's hard-guy routine is designed to build some esprit de corps on a team struggling for identity in the Giant-and-Dodger-dominated NL West.

And I think I will make a note of June 21st: the first regular-season meeting between the Reds and D-backs this year.

By the way, Dusty: it's in Phoenix. And yes, the pitchers will hit.