Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Subtle Charms of Spring Training

The secret about spring training got out a long time ago. Nowadays, the quaint ballparks of Arizona and Florida fill up with sun-seeking fans and the teams charge regular-season prices. I've already expressed my dismay about this trend.

But I'm here to tell you that there is still a way for real fans to have a meaningful (and reasonably priced) spring training experience. It's simple: show up before the teams start playing exhibition games.

Sure, you'll have to actually know Angel Villalona's backstory to know how remarkable it is to see the young Giants prospect taking ground balls with the big club. Or, staying with this photo, recognize Ricky Oropesa as a guy who put up huge numbers in his college days at USC.

And yes, you'll have to find enjoyment in watching the likes of Brandon Crawford and Marco Scutaro rehearse their double play turn, over and over again.

If all you care about is the final score, this isn't for you. But if you appreciate the finer points of the game, come on down. In the week between "first full-squad workout" and "first exhibition game", you'll see teams work on the little things that win or lose games in the heat of summer.

I watched Giants third base coach Tim Flannery working with everyone from relief pitchers to veteran outfielders on baserunning. How many times has a Hunter Pence or an Angel Pagan been through this before? Yet it's important; that extra base gained from a good read on a line drive could be the difference in a game in August.

Batting practice? Sure, everyone loves the long ball (and when big first baseman Brett Pill hits them, they stay hit). But watching Scutaro and Buster Posey hit line drive after line drive to right-center gives one fresh appreciation for their singular talents. And you don't have to know anything about Kensuke Tanaka to recognize a Japanese import: just look at his batting stance and swing.

This first week of workouts has a languid feel to it. There's plenty of room to stretch out in the nearly-empty ballpark. Kids gently badger players for autographs ("Mr. Posey...pleeeeeease!") but otherwise, it's quiet. Just the snap of ball into glove and the rap of the fungo bat. Oh, and Shawon Dunston's laughter--a constant.

Sure, you'll need a roster to identify all these guys, but somebody will offer you one. For free. The kindly folks who work at the ballpark will recognize you by your second day, and you'll wind up meeting somebody who tells a funny story about the sleepy Colorado Rockies players staggering into a nearby coffee shop each morning before their workouts ("nobody orders decaf").

Yes, it can seem a little weird sitting in the stands to watch ballplayers stretch. But the experience is, I think, humanizing for both fans and players. You'll never hear someone boo or jeer; the intimacy of this setting renders that sort of behavior unthinkable. You might see a lady call out to Andres Torres, "Welcome back!" and watch Torres spin around with a big smile on his face and say, "Thanks! It's great to be here!"

I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bargain of the Century

Long ago, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell famously said, "on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team." It's worth noting that Bell died in 1959, long before the current edition of the Oakland Raiders took the field.

But that's just mean. My actual goal here is to salute the Raiders. Pro Football's Dynamic Organization, as the late Raider boss Al Davis liked to call his team, has just dropped some season ticket prices to an astonishingly low level.

As part of a plan to shrink capacity at the Coliseum to about 53,000 (and make TV blackouts less likely), the Raiders have cut some season ticket plans to $250. That's $25 a game (the NFL continues its rapacious practice of making buyers pay full price for exhibition games).

You read that correctly. Sure, these are up in the top deck at the Coliseum, but still: $25 for an NFL ticket.  The league average is almost $80. Just for kicks, I ran some numbers. Let's say that instead of paying for that Raiders ticket, you grabbed a seat at the bar at Pican in Oakland's Uptown and watched on TV. A couple of tasty mint juleps will set you back $24, and you haven't even tipped the bartender. Or eaten.

In fact, a $25 Raiders ticket is a bargain of historical proportions. My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker recalls his family held Raiders tickets when the Coliseum opened in 1966. They cost $6.50 a game.  Adjusted for inflation, that's about $46 today, or almost twice what the Raiders are now charging.  

The Raiders say they are hoping to create a "vibrant game-day environment with a community of season ticket holders." Good for them. A full stadium beats the heck out of a swath of empty seats. Of course, a winning team really helps with that "vibrant game-day environment" thing and the Raiders haven't been one of those in a decade. The last time the Raiders had a winning record, they went to the Super Bowl.

These low prices come as the Raiders face a 2013 home schedule that will include visits by the Broncos, Steelers, Redskins (hey, maybe RG3 will have a miraculous recovery!) and Eagles (come see new coach Chip Kelly import his brand of madness to the NFL!).

The fact of the matter is, ticket sales matter less and less to NFL teams every year. Teams already get close to 2/3 of their revenue from the NFL's TV packages, and that particular pot of gold is about to get a lot heavier. Annual NFL TV revenue will jump to around $8 billion starting next year when new contracts kick in. The Raiders get exactly the same share of that as any other team.

With that kind of money from TV, the league can almost afford to ignore actual paying customers. The Raiders may be on to something here: if the NFL wants to keep its product from being a purely television spectacle, it's going to have to look at ways to convince people to abandon their HDTV's and come to the stadium. A cheaper ticket sure helps.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Another Meaningless Record

Is there a more hollow phrase anymore than "That's one for the record book"?

I ask this in the aftermath of the bizarre game between the Warriors and the Rockets that saw Houston tie the NBA record for 3-point goals in a game. The Rockets were winning in a blowout on a night where the Warriors had apparently made up their mind not to let guards Jeremy Lin and James Harden beat them by driving to the basket.

The Warriors packed their defense all night to prevent the drive, and the Rockets responded by kicking the ball out for three-point attempts. It worked.  They tried 40 and hit 23 for a crazy 57.5% long-range shooting percentage.

So far, so good. Just another example of two teams engaged in the kind of physical chess match that is at the heart of sports.  And then, the record book got involved.

By mid-4th quarter, Rockets coach Kevin McHale had cleared the bench. But this time, "garbage time" was accompanied by chants from the crowd for "one more three!". See, they wanted to say they were there when a record was set (that's a whole lot more fun than saying you stayed to the end of a blowout win).

So now, the Rockets' benchwarmers get busy trying to hoist up threes. And the Warriors, who have let Houston gun away all night, suddenly decide they need to guard against the three.  And then, Houston scrub Patrick Beverley is handed a free path to the basket. He accepts this largesses by slamming home a dunk and then mugging his way past the Warriors bench.

And then it's really on. Warriors coach Mark Jackson makes it clear Houston will not get that record-setting 3-pointer. The Warriors accomplish this by committing a series of hard fouls on Houston shooters. Predictably, there's jawing, shoving, etc.

In the aftermath, Jackson defends his team's approach, saying he's "old-school". "If you're going to try to get the record," says Jackson, "we're going to stop it."

Silly me.  I thought the point of the whole exercise was to win the basketball game. You're playing a Western Conference opponent, and your big concern is the record book? Mark Jackson is a smart guy, a good basketball coach. He should know better.