Category Archives: sports

The seventh inning

Bottom 7th, 6-3 Blue Jays – Jose Bautista hits a home run, Ryan Goins scores, Josh Donaldson scores.

I gripped the arm of the couch, impossibly tense. One more inning, I’d told myself. Then I would go see my girlfriend. Yeah, that went well.

I couldn’t remember ever feeling like this. At home, in my living room, my brother watching with me, I was gripped by this game, this dumb sport that I’d followed and enjoyed for years. I was anxious. But the good kind of anxious. The anxiety that comes from being certain something good was going to happen, and wanting it so bad. Of being invested in something with so many other people, and knowing you’ll share it with them when it goes well.

I wanted the Jays to win. I needed it to happen. The season, the excitement, everything that I’d seen and experienced as a fan, had led up to this. So close to it all ending a couple days before, and even forty minutes prior, when the Jays had gone down on a bizarre play.

I didn’t know it then, but I’d seen so many things that inning that I’d never seen before, and would likely never see again. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about dinner, with my girlfriend- I was already late because of this inning, this wonderful inning, with so many ups and downs, elation and heartbreak, everything that makes being a sports fan exhilarating and depressing all rolled into one. I was on the edge, wrung out. But I still needed *more*.

Jose Bautista swung, the Rogers Centre erupted in a deafening roar, the cameras shaking as he circled the bases because it was so loud in the stadium. I jump up off the couch, almost screaming as I pump my fist. I enjoy the moment. I relish in it. The culmination of so many moments I’d had as a fan, and the build-up of that incredibly long, impossible to describe seventh inning.

But I had to go. I had dinner plans with my girlfriend, and I’d already mentioned I was going to be late. I loved the Jays, but she was more important. “Ballgame,” I say to Dennis, confident and certain of a Jays win, smiling as I pulled on my coat haphazardly. “See you later.”

End 6th, 2-2

I haven’t worked for a while. It’s a problem, sometimes. People say, “What do you do?” or “How’s work?” and I have to find a right way to say that I quit my job because I didn’t like it. I didn’t have a plan. Maybe I should have. Maybe that would have helped.

I felt like I didn’t have a lot going for me, back in October. Baseball helped. It was an escape, something fun, somewhere I could go and not have to dwell on how much I felt like I’d failed, or how frightened I was about an uncertain future, or how much I’d been defined by being a banker, and how not having that definition made even the slightest conversation incredibly awkward.

My family, my girlfriend, they stood behind me, even when I couldn’t quite figure out why. I’m always anxious, always unsure of myself, and they wouldn’t let it happen. So when I got excited about the Blue Jays, about them having success for the first time in twenty years, they indulged me. They let me have it, let me enjoy it, let me escape to it.

Top 7th, 3-2 Rangers – Roughned Odor scores on an error.

This wasn’t in the plan. In life, as in baseball, you see things you’d never seen before. And I’d brought that to my doorstep, by leaving a job I’d been at for several years. I brought it on myself, without a net, without knowing what would happen next.

It was Odor that scored the run. Of course it was Odor. He’d been torturing the Jays the whole series, and scored on the most bizarre play I’d ever seen. Aaron Sanchez makes the pitch, Martin casually throws it back, it bounces off Shin-Soo Choo’s bat, and he alertly comes home from third.

I was in a dark place as the umps tried to figure it all out, each minute of them in a headset making the inevitable result agonizing. It can’t end like this. Not on a fluke play, something that no one on either team knew quite how to handle. Don’t let them lose here. It was dumb to be that invested in it as a fan (really, it’s dumb to be that invested in anything as a fan), but in the moment, I was. I needed this.

Bottom 7th, 3-2 Rangers – Russell Martin reaches on an error.

Karma isn’t a thing in life. You don’t get or deserve anything because of something you did in the past. There’s no cosmic balance, nothing to tip the scales in your favor. You do good for good’s sake.

The idea of starting over somewhere else is inevitable now. I’ll have to prove myself to new people, demonstrate how capable I am of doing the job. And I can do it, really. I know that, somewhere deep in my heart. But I get anxious in showing people that. Maybe the fear’s good, though. Maybe I’ll learn something new. That’s the exciting part.

It was Russell Martin who bore the primary blame for Odor scoring, so him reaching on the error by Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus was somewhat karmic. Martin said after the game that he hoped he’d get another chance, and he made the most of it. The Rogers Centre woke up, cheering mightily as Martin crossed the base.

Bottom 7th, 3-2 Rangers – Kevin Pillar reaches on an error, Russell Martin to second base. Dalton Pompey in to pinch-run for Russell Martin.

There was no logical or rational reason why I quit. I didn’t love the job, sure, but no one likes their job all the time. That’s not a thing that happens. But I needed to. It was the right thing to do, in my mind. I can’t justify it or explain it. I had to take that chance, and now, I just need to keep plugging away, putting my name out there until I get one break.

The Jays quickly got another break, with a ground ball going to Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland. His throw to second bounced, and Andrus (remember him?) couldn’t handle it. I had a hard time blaming the shortstop for that one- he was culpable on the Martin play, but this one, it was on Moreland.

The Rogers Centre got louder. I’d never heard it that loud, in all the Jays games I’d watched. Something special was happening. We were all sure of it. The Canadian, Dalton Pompey, came in to pinch-run for the catcher, drawing even more cheers.

Bottom 7th, 3-2 Rangers – Ryan Goins reaches on an error, Dalton Pompey to third base, Kevin Pillar to second base.

I thought it was loud when Pillar got one base. It got louder when Goins got on too. He bunted down the third base line, and I felt my heart sink as Adrian Beltre fielded it, turned, and threw to third to get the lead runner- it was perfect. He’d made the right play.

And then Andrus dropped it.

Even in the moment, as the elated fan in me lost his mind and jumped and cheered in the house, I felt bad for Andrus. He was normally a great defensive player, and had been involved in all three gaffes by the Rangers that inning. Two of them he just flat-out dropped.

That had been a problem, at work- I felt things too keenly, couldn’t separate what I needed to do from what I wanted to do. I’d sell, and feel terrible about it, and then not sell as much as I needed to. I wasn’t a salesman. Not as good as they wanted me to be, and not good enough to avoid feeling anxious about the work when I left the office.

Right then, I was glad I wasn’t Elvis Andrus, surrounded by disappointed teammates, and fifty thousand fans in a deafening dome, failures right in front of me. I’d dwelled enough on mine already.

Bottom 7th, 3-2 Rangers – Ben Revere to first on fielder’s choice, Kevin Pillar to third base, Ryan Goins to second base. Dalton Pompey out at home.

Another heart-stopping moment when Ben Revere slashed a one-hopper right to the first baseman. Double play, I think to myself, already feeling despair at the Jays not scoring a run.

The throw went home, and Pompey took the legs out from under the catcher as he slid in, preventing a throw to first. While the hope was the Jays would score, this was not the worst outcome, given what Revere had done.

Rangers manager Brian Bannister emerged from the dugout, and I felt my heart blacken again, recalling the agonizing seventh inning. Was he really going to try and say Pompey had prevented the double play? If the umpires overturned this, they were probably going to need a police escort to get to the airport, I joked to Dennis at the time, darkly.

The play stood, and the Jays still had the bases loaded, and still hadn’t scored a run. The doubts started to come back: maybe something special wasn’t happening. They could still lose the game.

Bottom 7th, 3-3 – Josh Donaldson singles to right field. Kevin Pillar scores, Ryan Goins to third base. Ben Revere out at second.

I doubted myself enough, I didn’t need to be unemployed to have THAT particular problem. But when you don’t have that thing that defines you, they creep in, taking up residence in a mind that doesn’t have anything else to occupy it.

I’ve found that I feel better when I’m connecting with people: girlfriend, family, friends, people I hadn’t seen in a while. I haven’t been good at that while I’ve not been working. I need to be better. I need to keep at it. I’ll get there. I’ll contribute, be the man everyone else thinks I am. And it’s okay to ask for help from others to get there.

Baseball is weird, in that it’s both an individual sport, and a team one. You need a team to be successful, but it’s individual skills that make a team great. The Jays had many great players, but it was the players being great together that drove them as far as they’d gotten. Get on base, and let others drive you in. You needed both of those things.

Even with the bases loaded, and the American League MVP at the plate, I was nervous. What if it didn’t happen? What if Josh Donaldson grounded into a double play, and snuffed the rally? I couldn’t bear the thought. But the cynical fan, the one who’d seen Jays teams fail repeatedly, nagged at the back of my mind and wouldn’t let go.

Donaldson hit a soft liner, and I was sure it was going to be caught. But it wasn’t. It landed just past the outstretched glove of Odor, and the Rogers Centre again became deafening. The TV guys had to yell to be heard as Pillar crossed the plate, tying the game.

It’s a process: you can’t skip a step. You can’t stop working at it. And you shouldn’t give up hope. Because sometimes, something amazing would happen. I need to remember that, as I keep searching, keep trying to find my place.

Top 9th, 6-3 Blue Jays – Will Venable strikes out. Blue Jays win 6-3.

I arrived at my girlfriend’s house with the game still going, profusely apologizing for being late. And there she was, with her sister, trying to find the game on their TV, so I could watch the end.

It’s hard for a man who gets stuck in his own head to talk about how he feels, but that moment, for whatever reason, really affected me. That she, who honestly wouldn’t care about baseball save for my interest in it, was indulging it, encouraging me in it. Letting me enjoy it, in a time I didn’t feel like I had much else.

But in that moment, I knew what I felt was incredibly wrong. I don’t have a job, sure. I have my brother, who let me exult and despair in the turmoil of the seventh inning, and encourages me as I seek out my place. I had my friends, some of whom I’d put off, embarrassed by my situation. I needed to be a better friend myself. I’m working on it.

I have my family, unwavering and supportive, letting me search and discover, continually reminding me that yes, I’m good at things. And I have my girlfriend, the invisible rock behind the snarky writer you see here. She didn’t care that I was late, or distracted, or emotionally wrung out after “one more inning” turned into 40 minutes and being late for dinner. She cared enough to try and find the end of the game, to let me have this stupid, wonderful, fanatical interest, even share it with me.

So I don’t give up. I won’t give up. I’ll be down sometimes, sure, but I’ll keep plugging, keep finding what I’m meant to do. Because I’ll see something I haven’t seen before, do something I haven’t done, and it will be great.

NFL 2K14

FOOTBAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALL predictions in one sentence or less, as per tradition.
( * for wild cards)

AFC

EAST

Patriots – Yeah.

Dolphins – Not an inspiring bunch behind the perennial leader.

Bills – Might not be terrible, depends on Manuel.

Jets – This, on the other hand, will be hilariously bad.

NORTH

Bengals – I’m not happy about it, because Dalton sucks, but they’re still the best.

Ravens – Hoping for some Ray Rice karma here.

Steelers – Feels like a 7-9 season.

Browns – Jason Whitlock’s “Johnny Bench” nickname for Manziel is the greatest thing.

SOUTH

Colts – Could be 10-6, but still the class of the division.

Texans* – Fitzpatrick being the QB is frightening for them, though.

Titans – Hard to see them getting much better.

Jaguars – Hard to see them getting much worse.

WEST

Broncos – Probably not as dominant as a year ago.

Chargers* – It’s less that they’re better…

Chiefs – …and more that the Chiefs will be worse.

Raiders – Another couple of years of awful football awaits.

NFC

EAST

Eagles – Fun to watch, and mostly good.

Giants – They zig when everyone thinks they’ll zag.

Cowboys – That defense… woof.

Redskins – Trying to make RGIII into a pocket passer seems like an odd fit.

NORTH

Bears – Sorry, Dennis.

Packers* – Always seem to get hurt, lost some of the offense.

Lions – All sizzle, no steak.

Vikings – Upward trending, but a few high fences to leap.

SOUTH

Saints – Though it’ll be close.

Falcons* – Back in black, and hopefully not as snakebitten with injuries.

Buccaneers – Sneaky good late last year.

Panthers – Lost a lot of key contributors.

WEST

Seahawks – A really, really good team, and it kills me to say that.

49ers – Feel like Harbaugh starts to wear on them this year.

Cardinals – A Carson Palmer team almost made the playoffs, and I’m not sure how it happened.

Rams – Bradford done, and so are they, even with a good defense.

MLB 2K14

BASEBAAAAAAAAAAAAAALL

(* for wildcards)

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

1. Red Sox – Smart, deep, and talented, basically the worst.

2. Rays* – Good at baseball, but also the worst, because they employ criminals.

3. Yankees – That infield could be the worst.

4. Orioles – Used to be the worst, then started getting kinda good.

5. Jays – Actually the worst, but could be better if they aren’t super unlucky.

CENTRAL

1. Tigers – Will probably sign Stephen Drew or something because they know how to act like a big market team.

2. Royals – I’ve got a feeling.

3. Indians – That tonight’s gonna be a good night.

4. White Sox – That tonight’s gonna be a good night.

5. Twins – That tonight’s gonna be a good good night alright I’ll stop.

WEST

1. A’s – Some injuries, sure, but they do this (almost) every year.

2. Angels* – Rebound potential in the lineup, though pitching still iffy.

3. Rangers – Might pass the Angels with some luck, but early injuries hurt them worse.

4. Mariners – Need more hitting.

5. Astros – The grand, awful experiment continues.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

EAST

1. Nationals – Back on top, baby!

2. Braves – Arms blowing out all over the place, could be a problem.

3. Phillies – The long, slow decline continues.

4. Mets – Some excitement, but need some more time.

5. Marlins – See above, except less good.

CENTRAL

1. Cardinals – Really, really good, you guys.

2. Reds* – Losing Choo, but pitching’s good.

3. Pirates – Sensing a fallback with Burnett gone, and Lirano (probably) worse.

4. Brewers – A full year of Braun gets them closer.

5. Cubs – Building, but not there yet.

WEST.

1. Dodgers – Way better than anyone else in the division.

2. Giants* – Like the Hudson signing for them.

3. Diamondbacks – Whatever hit the Braves pitchers hit them too.

4. Rockies – Not sure what’s going on here.

5. Padres – The least exciting name goes with what might be the least exciting team (non-Jays division).

Revisionist history: MLB 2K13

Clearing out the draft folder, looking back at terrible predictions. This may not be fun. Old in italics, new not. I haven’t updated with offseason stuff, I’ll save that for when I do previews.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

1. Rays – Portrayed as the plucky underdog, but that pitching staff has some thunder.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. Pitching staff fell off a little, offense struggled, but the Rays kept doing Rays things, finding guys off the scrap heap and getting every last bit of value out of them (including former Jays Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson). They’ll rinse and repeat until the pipeline of young talent stops.

2. Blue Jays* – Offseason winners after flashing some cash, but will be a very tight race.

Actual finish: Last. Everything that could go wrong did: Injuries and ineffectiveness out of the gate and throughout the year doomed the Jays. R.A. Dickey wasn’t an ace, Josh Johnson wasn’t even passable, and Brandon Morrow was hurt. Dead spots at 2B, LF, and C didn’t help, but the starting pitching was the biggest problem, and needs to be addressed (again).

3. Yankees – Lost a lot of punch, getting older/worse/hurt.

Actual finish: Third. At least this was kind of close, with injuries and age finally starting to show up for the Bronx Bombers. Eeven the reliable C.C. Sabathia started to slow down. Even if they re-sign Robinson Cano, they might have another couple years of bottoming out before being good again.

4. Red Sox – Not far off, but need some luck to make the postseason.

Actual finish: First, won World Series. The Red Sox are familiar with the Blue Jays’ plight, having been very unlucky last year (though having Bobby Valentine at manager didn’t hurt that). They may have overachieved some, but there is legitimate talent as well, and they didn’t overpay for what they got in the offseason. Aaaaaand they won it all. I’m almost at the point where I can say that rationally.

5. Orioles – Surprised a lot of teams last year, it won’t happen again.

Actual finish: Fourth. Their placement in the division is mildly misleading, as the Orioles are also a legitimately good baseball team, having grown some talent to go along with the close game luck they got in 2012. Some legitimate starting pitching would go a long way to putting them in the class with the Red Sox and Rays at the top.

CENTRAL

1. Tigers – Victor Martinez coming back and Torii Hunter coming in helps solidify their hold on the division.

Actual finish: First. Great pitching, good lineup, easy division. Max Scherzer being better than Justin Verlander is mildly terrifying going forward for a team that didn’t really need another ace-level pitcher. Given the weakness of the division, the Tigers should be good for a while.

2. Indians – Did good waiting out top free agents, but still need some pitching.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. The Indians rode surprising contributions from an unheralded starting staff and rode out disappointing seasons from their big money acquisitions (Bourn, Swisher) to a late season run that got them into the second wildcard. They’ll need to keep grooming young talent to stay here, but this has to be counted as a successful season for the Indians.

3. White Sox – Lost a couple pieces, need some help from replacements to go higher.

Actual finish: Last. Everyone got old at the same time in Chicago, except for beleagured ace Chris Sale, far and away the team’s best pitcher. With the old guard moving on, and a shallow minor league system, the White Sox may need to bottom out before getting better.

4. Royals – A curious offseason, trading one of the game’s best prospects for a good (but not great) starter.

Actual finish: Third. Hard to tell if this was a successful season or not for Kansas City, who elbowed their way into wildcard contention late on the backs of hot starting pitching. Shields and Santana worked as well as they could have, and Kansas City finished above .500. This might be the peak for them, and they need to improve to really contend for the postseason.

5. Twins – Barren farm system just starting to get restocked, and the major league club is a disaster.

Actual finish: Fourth. Turns out there was a team worse in the Central than the Twins, but less than 70 wins in a cupcake division isn’t much to celebrate. They’ve finally started to build again, and are now waiting for the high ceiling talent they started drafting a few years ago to bear fruit.

WEST

1. A’s – Won the division last year, and the two closest teams got worse.

Actual finish: First. Pretty happy to call this, even if outside of the easy logic I went with, it’s hard to see how they won the division with traditional measurements. Great depth across the board and unexpected no-name contributors (hello, Josh Donaldson) drove the second best team (by record) in the American League.

2. Angels* – Killer lineup, and some questions about the pitching staff.

Actual finish: Third. So much for that lineup. Mike Trout is still amazing, but Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols had bad seasons, and it’s uncertain as to whether they’ll ever live up to their big money contracts. And yes, the pitching stunk. There’s work to do in Anaheim before they’ll be good again.

3. Rangers – Strange to see the Rangers with good pitchers and uncertain hitting, usually that’s Anaheim’s thing.

Actual finish: Second. A late season rally got the Rangers into the second wild card tiebreaker, but they lost, and it might cost Ron Washington his job. There are arguments for that, but the Rangers’ fall had more to do with how much hitting they lost between the offseason (Hamilton, Mike Napoli) and in-season (Nelson Cruz). They’ve got a great organization, so they won’t be down for long.

4. Mariners – Extending Hernandez a great idea, but went after the wrong bats.

Actual finish: Fourth. So the all bats thing played out about as well as most people expected, and the improvement in offense (marginal)led to a downfall in defense. The pitching might be decent, and there’s some young talent here, but they might need a year or two before challenging the As and Rangers.

5. Astros – Beating the Twins out for the worst AL team this year, but bottoming out is probably the right idea.

Actual finish: Last. Yeah, they’re awful. Maybe this bottoming out thing will work- after several years of a barren farm system, it was probably the right call, but it’s a pain to watch. They have some young talent, but for now, they’re an automatic series victory for the majority of baseball.

National League

EAST

1. Nationals – Will be staring down at the division for a while, I think.

Actual finish: Second. A late run couldn’t quite salvage a dissapointing season in Washington. Some hitters underachieved, and occasional injuries kept them from what many assumed was a straightforward path to winning the NL East. There’s talent here, but there’s more to do before they’re back on top.

2. Braves* – Losing Chipper hurts, but the machine will keep rolling without him.

Actual finish: First. A hot start gave the Braves a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, despite an abysmal year from free-agent signing B.J. Upton. Pitching continues to be an organizational strength, and will keep them contending for a while as long as Jason Heyward and Justin Upton keep hitting.

3. Phillies – The solution for them wasn’t to keep getting older.

Actual finish: Third. The Phillies may actually- really- be starting a rebuild now, with a few late season trades, and Roy Halladay having broken down. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will be rotation centerpieces, but with the entire infield getting creaky, this is a team in decline.

4. Mets – Will stay out of the basement (barely)…

Actual finish: Fourth. They did, in fact, stay out of the basement, and by more than I anticipated, courtesy of young pitchers Zach Wheeler and Matt Harvey, among other highly touted prospects. Harvey’s UCL injury puts next year’s progression in doubt, and the Mets need some hitting to go with their young flamethrowers to get anywhere.

5. Marlins – …Mostly because these guys sold EVERYONE to Toronto- thanks!

Actual finish: Last. The biggest difference between the Marlins and the Astros is that the Marlins are further along, and have some talent at the major league level (Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez). There’s still a couple years of growing, but there’s reason for all 12 remaining Marlins fans to be excited.

CENTRAL

1. Cardinals – A great lineup, solid pitching, and excellent prospects ready to step in.

Actual finish: First, lost World Series. This year went almost according to plan for  St. Louis in a surprisingly competitive division, as they kept graduating talented pitchers to the major league level behind an excellent team. The young pitching will keep them great for a while, even in a tough division.

2. Reds* – Not a slight on them, they should be with the Cardinals almost step-for-step.

Actual finish: Third, lost wild card game. Another good season for the Reds ends in disappointment with a wild card loss to the surprising Pirates. The addition of Shin Soo Choo made their offense elite, though their defense and pitching lagged behind. They might need some youth to stay competitive.

3. Pirates – Have started hot and faded the last couple years, figure that doesn’t change.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. The Pirates flipped the script a little, riding a hot start and challenging the Cardinals and Reds all the way, managing to sneak into the wild card game. Even with a playoff loss, this season is a success for Pittsburgh. Questions in the rotation remain, but they’re well positioned going forward.

4. Brewers – Have lost a lot of talent the last couple of offseasons.

Actual finish: Fourth. No surprises hear either, as the Brewers struggled to a fourth place finish. The suspension of Ryan Braun for PEDs didn’t help, but it’s unlikely that he would have made much of a difference. Though Braun will be here for a while, they’ll need a lot of reinforcements to make up ground.

5. Cubs – Still a long ways to go.

Actual finish: Last. Though this was another painful year in Chicago, the building plan is in place, and the path is clear. The trade of Matt Garza brought in more young assets, though a tougher Central division makes the climb a little more uphill for the Cubs.

WEST

1. Giants – Hit all the right buttons the last few years, is that going to change?

Actual finish: Third (tie). As a matter of fact, it did change for San Francisco, as starting pitchers who used to be very reliable struggled through down years. Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito leaving means there will be some changes, and with a veteran lineup, they may struggle to get back in contention.

2. Dodgers – Probably need to hide the chequebook from the owners, but the spending should almost have the desired effect.

Actual finish: First. Early on, the Dodgers scuffled, but the arrival of Yasiel Puig and the return to health of Hanley Ramirez drove a hot streak that gave them a division lead they would never relinquish. Yankees West has shown no fear of a salary cap, so as long as the owners keep fronting money, they’re not going anywhere.

3. Diamondbacks – Trading away talent for grit is a wonderful theory, until you discover that talent can’t be taught.

Actual finish: Second. Though second in the division, the Diamondbacks were a .500 team, with their pitchers struggling to match last year’s output, and yes, missing the talent of Justin Upton in the outfield. But their front office has shown an astute eye for judging talent, so they should be back next season.

4. Padres – Some sneaky-good youth there, but will be well out of the playoff running for now.

Actual finish: Third (tie). The strangest team name in baseball showed some signs of life this year, but franchise player Chase Headley struggled. If he returns to form, and they keep adding offense around him, the Padres might improve next season.

5. Rockies – Expensive offence, but at least the pitching is awful.

Actual finish: Last. Rinse and repeat for the Rockies, who can’t seem to muster enough starting pitching to go with a very good offense. Until that changes, there’s very little reason to think a veteran team will do any better next season.

Intangible evidence

Housekeeping: Importing stuff from the ol’ Xanga blog here. You can go even further back in the archives, and see how terrible I was at this when I started. But nice to have everything in one spot.

The before and after of the 2013 Blue Jays season isn’t something I really want to dwell on anymore. It was a team with great expectations and excitement that didn’t get to what we thought they would. Why they didn’t get there depends on who you ask.

My dad, like me, is a baseball fan, and we’d talk shop throughout the season. One thing he and I always disagreed on was the Jays rehiring John Gibbons as manager. From the moment it happened, he felt uneasy about it.

As someone who frequents baseball blogs in the Getting Blanked/DJF/Tao of Stieb mold, I was quite happy with the re-hire. Gibbons had been, in the eyes of some (and mine, in hindsight), unfairly scapegoated when he was fired previously, and in his prior tenure, shown tactical prowess and progressive thought in managing players, bullpens, and lineups.

This Dustin Parkes piece at the time of his re-hiring reads quite well now, including this money paragraph near the end of the piece:

On the whole, I believe that the hiring is a good one by the Toronto Blue Jays because I believe that John Gibbons is a smart man, and it’s a good thing to have smart people in charge. It’s not foolproof. It never is. Especially not in baseball, where so much is determined by randomness, despite what we think, feel or pretend to know.

This line proved to be unfortunately accurate. The results of the Jays season did little to prove my thesis, and everything to prove Dad’s. Despite spending on a lot of new players, the Jays struggled to a mere one win improvement on the disaster of 2012.

A lot of things happened. Where there is disagreement- whether at home or in the internet- is WHY things went bad. Injuries in the lineup and ineffectiveness in the starting pitching were the main drivers of the Jays’ failure. Good players missed a lot of time, and the Jays’ starters were second worse in the American League in ERA. But there were those who saw John Gibbons as unable to instill a “winning culture”, and maintained that this was a part of why the players underperformed.

Sports has lived for years on the idea of narratives, and I enjoy a good sports story that weaves into the result. Gibbons having a hand in that would be a good narrative. But one of the things I’ve been challenged on the last several years- whether in baseball or in life- is that sometimes things happen, and we won’t understand why. We don’t have all the information.

So, the Jays sucked. Was it because of injuries, ineffectiveness, or the manager? One could go back to the Red Sox of 2012 for an example as to how a bad manager can submarine a season. Bobby Valentine was a disaster from day one, alienating players and media, and showing none of the tactical acumen he’d had previously.

But that Red Sox team was also bitten by the injury bug, missing key players for large parts of the year, and like the Jays this year, had some players underperform. This year, they got a new manager, and won the World Series. So that manager must be good, right?

Who did they get? John Farrell, who’d managed the Blue Jays during that disastrous 2012 season. So he must be a bad manager, right?

Did John Farrell suddenly become a good manager between Toronto and Boston? Ask Sons of Sam Horn, who could rant for 30 or 40 pages on their message board about him. From my perspective, he improved some tactically, but showed some of the same frustrating tendencies that drove me crazy while he managed my team.

So of course Boston went on to win the World Series, and John Farrell almost won manager of the year. There is one thing that several baseball writers in Toronto noted: Farrell seemed happier on Boston. He was smiling. They’d never seen him that way when he was working for the Blue Jays. Was he in a better organization? Had the winning made him happy? Or did he ‘create a winning culture’?

It can become a bit of a chicken and egg discussion. Do we believe that John Farrell created a culture that allowed the Red Sox to thrive, or did they get better players, who performed better than the 2012 team, and that made them all happier/more successful? My argument with my father and others who want to blame Gibbons shows where I’d lean on this, but like most things, I don’t believe it’s that simple. Most things in life aren’t binary, and a baseball team with twenty five players and several coaches can’t possibly be straightforward.

One of the biggest debates in baseball today is how much influence the manager has on how a baseball team performs. They’re not a football or basketball coach, drawing up plays for their team to execute. Their biggest tangible influence is drawing up lineups, managing a bit of in-game strategy, handling the media, and deciding who pitches at a particular time. But there’s so much more we can’t see- what happens in the clubhouse, how they interact with players, how they handle conflict, how they work with the general manager, and so on.

I don’t work in baseball- I work a white collar job, at a bank. I’ve worked for good managers and bad managers in my different lines of work, and can attest to how a bad manager can affect how I perform. When you have someone who’s invested in your success, who communicates your role, and works with you on what you should be doing, it makes for a much better environment, and one I can thrive in. It’s one thing I enjoy about my current employer: The atmosphere is so, so much better than anywhere else I’ve worked.

I’ve also found more success when I’m in the right environment. It doesn’t mean I need to be friends with my coworkers, but if I can trust them, if I can work with them, if they’ll help me and let me help them, that also impacts how I work. That’s not rocket science.

Should this be so at the highest level of baseball? After all, these are highly paid professional athletes, who probably shouldn’t need to be coddled, right? In theory, yes. But athletes are people too, and have different needs and wants. A baseball manager is responsible for overseeing the morale of those twenty five men, for making them a team. Though baseball is a more individualized sport than most; more depends on the skill of individuals than a unit.

The problem is that we as fans only have what we can see to evaluate managers on: The results of the games, how they implement their strategies, how they interact with the media. We don’t see the rest of it, and we can’t measure it’s impact on how the players play. That’s part of why people like Oakland GM Billy Beane initially dismissed the impact of the manager: there’s almost no way to measure it, outside of lineup construction and bullpen management. And sometimes that’s as simple as “play the better guy”.

More progressive thinking has softened this stance. We can acknowledge that there are parts of the manager’s job that we can’t measure or prove. We can optically infer that maybe he handles player X well, or the media, or that he makes strategically sound decisions, but the ultimate deciding factor is the results. It’s easier to replace a manager than 25 players, after all.

So let’s look at the results, which is the primary measurement. For the sake of argument, let’s play the arbitrary endpoint game. Here are four managers:

Manager A: 894-1003. Managed three different teams over 14 years. One division title, two second place finishes.

Manager B: 285-363 – Managed for four years with one team, never finishing higher than third in his division.

Manager C: 851-863 – Managed one team for ten years. Three division titles, though he had three fifth place finishes in his last four years with the team.

Manager D: 305-305 – Managed one team for five seasons. Finished as high as second, with two last place finishes.

So out of those four choices, none of them seem that great at first blush. So when teams interview those guys, they go deeper. They look beyond the results. What is their process? Will they fit into what we’re building? Are they “good people”? Are they smart?

Manager A is Joe Torre, prior to being hired by the 1996 Yankees. A headscratching move at the time because of an unremarkable managing/playing career, he went on to lead the Yankees to 6 AL pennants, and 4 World Series titles. Now retired, he is widely respected as an excellent manager.

Manager B is Terry Francona, prior to managing the 2004 Red Sox. He had a reputation as a player’s manager, that he was weak tactically, and the perception was that he’d been hired because of his relationship with player Curt Schilling. He won 2 World Series titles with the Red Sox, and his being hired by the Indians last offseason was universally praised.

Manager C is Jim Leyland, before he joined the 1997 Marlins. He was always perceived as a “good baseball man”, and benefitted from Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla (two outstanding individual players who had the reputation of being awful teammates) with his ten years with the Pirates. He has now won 6 league championships between the American and National League, and 2 World Series titles. He retired this offseason, and like the two managers before him, has an excellent reputation as a manager.

Manager D is, obviously (if you’ve played the arbitrary endpoint game before), John Gibbons, before coming to lead the 2013 Blue Jays.

Think about the narrative on the first three managers before they had their success. Based on the results, they weren’t good at their jobs. But they ended up winning championships. Was it them? Or the players?

We keep coming back to this because it’s important: the answer isn’t binary. My argument for Gibbons is strengthened by the idea that there’s a lot about the manager’s job we can’t understand and measure, and that the results are a poor indication of the job he’s doing. But that can also weaken it, depending on what we want to believe about the job he’s doing. While it’s dangerous to scapegoat him for everything that went wrong with the 2013 Blue Jays season, we shouldn’t position him as a good manager solely on the things we saw him do right, or based on a nebulous idea that he might be good at things we can’t see.

So Gibbons will likely get another season, from a thoughtful front office who knows much more about his job than I ever will. I support this, but cautiously, because as a fan, there’s a lot I can’t possibly know. He seems smart, and I like how he thinks strategically, but that and five bucks will get me a coffee. Another season like the last will likely put him back on the unemployment line, and continue the neverending debate about just how much a manager really does.

NFL 2K13

FOOTBAW predictions, one sentence at a time. * for wildcards.

AFC

EAST

New England – Yeah.

Miami – Too much sleeper buzz, but solid last year in a bad division.

Buffalo – Manuel hurt already, could be a tough year.

NY Jets – This could be fun.

NORTH

Cincinnati – I don’t like it any more than you do.

Baltimore* – 10-6 team won it all, but lost some parts.

Pittsburgh* – Narrow playoff team in a bad conference.

Cleveland – Better than you think, but employ Brandon Weeden.

SOUTH 

Houston – Almost as easy a call as the Patriots.

Indianapolis – Luck will be better, but team will be worse.

Tennessee – And they’re not even THIS good, really.

Jacksonville – Probably the worst team in football.

WEST

Denver – This Welker/Manning thing will probably work okay.

Kansas City – Upgrading to competence at coach and QB helps.

San Diego – Philip Rivers in a strange, early decline.

Oakland – Right there with Jacksonville.

NFC

EAST

NY Giants – Miss the playoffs one year, win the division the next.

Washington – Won’t get a 7 game winning streak again.

Philadelphia – Can’t help but be better.

Dallas – Could be a 7-9 4th place finish.

NORTH

Green Bay – Best QB in the league and a better defense (hopefully).

Detroit – Was surprisingly competitive last year.

Minnesota – Peterson is amazing, QB and defense have some questions.

Chicago – Trestman won’t stop the slide.

SOUTH

New Orleans – Upgrading from “eeeeeh” to “great again” at coach, still talent here.

Atlanta* – Still pretty good even if they don’t win the division.

Tampa Bay – Made some upgrades, but tough sledding here.

Carolina – Another sneaky competitive team, but need a few more parts.

WEST

San Francisco – Kaepernick in his first full year, defense is class of the division.

Seattle* – PED suspensions now, had the gifted win last year, but these guys are still pretty good.

St. Louis – Maybe we’ll know if Chad Bradford can play by the end of this year.

Arizona – Meh.

The champ is here

I started a post two years ago on the Heat. I almost finished it earlier this year. Wish I’d published it before the playoffs started, but no dice. Down 2-1 in the Finals to the Spurs, it’s interesting to see what I thought before. I still think the Heat win it in the end, though the Spurs have proved to be a more game challenger than I anticipated.

Two years ago in italics, a few weeks ago not. Read on.

*****

It’s early. Not too early to look back, but early.

There’s an old adage about being careful what you wish for, and I think three men in Miami might be learning a little about that.

Lebron James backstabbed the Cleveland Cavaliers in historically awful fashion, a one-hour special that was as self-indulgent as self-indulgent gets. The “all proceeds to charity” bit seemed to be token, and unless their only goal was to get people talking (about someone who was already a worldwide icon), Team Lebron mangled that idea quite nicely.

Chris Bosh didn’t backstab Toronto, but outside of a quick “thank you” on his webpage, has managed to forget the city that he called home for the last several years. He’s had a few headscratching moments with the media, and despite being the third best player on that team, is under the microscope more than ever. Want the publicity of a big market (which he allegedly did)? Here you go, big guy.

Dwyane Wade? Well, he comes out pretty good in this. Got two all-stars to his Heat, and comes up smelling like roses by comparison. Well, outside of turning the Heat into basketball’s answer to the Yankees. That’s a little problematic. He, too, has had some odd moments, in futile attempts to give his Heat an “us against the world” mentality.

Between myself, my buddy Micky, and my brother Dennis, I’m not sure which one of us had the Heat in our “Lebron” pool, save for the certainty that it wasn’t me. But I maintained that the team could not function with two ball-dominant wingmen. They wouldn’t do it- or more to the point, they couldn’t and be successful. Figured that the Heat, having already added Bosh, get some spare parts around him and Wade, and be a much better team already.

Not the first time I’ve been wrong.

I’ve watched the Heat play a few times this year, and it’s been fascinating. For all the incredible athletic talents that they have, they haven’t QUITE figured out how to make them all work together. The defense can be good, though the lack of a big man has hurt them. On offense, it seems like they’re all deferring, waiting for one person to grab the reins, but not wanting to be the one to completely give it up.

Except for Bosh. He’s pretty happy as the third wheel.

It’s too early to write on obit on a team that has yet to play a postseason game and, as of right now, is the third best team in their conference by record, in year one of what looks like a 7 year experiment (by their contract lengths). When they’re on, they play phenomenal defense, and can’t be stopped on the fast break. But the lack of depth has exposed them. No (good) centers or point guards, and only retreads to fill out the roster after injuries knocked out a couple of key cogs.

Basketball is a sport where some chemistry is needed, with how quickly things move and how few players are on the floor at any given time. You need to play together, to have players with offsetting and complementary talents, and guys willing to take lesser roles. History has proven that you can’t buy a championship- witness’ the ’04 Lakers of Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, shockingly upset by a Pistons squad that came in as huge, huge underdogs.

*****

I, uh…. welp. That went well.

Though those Heat didn’t win the first year, they won last year, and every analyst in the NBA wondered how Lebron James would do, without the burden of “needing to win a championship”.

He got better. Much, much better.

It was always breathtaking watching Lebron James play basketball. I thought that even as he eviscerated my Pistons in the playoffs a few years ago, scoring twenty-odd consecutive points in the fourth quarter and overtime, me spewing obscenities at the television, even as I couldn’t help but admire just how GOOD he was.

This year, it’s on another level. The Heat have improved their supporting cast since I wrote them off two years ago, but most of the evolution has been systemic, and flowing from James assuming the reins of that team. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has made very good changes to the offense that have made things easier; even with stars, teams need a good system(see: the 2013 Lakers), and the Heat have that.

A Heat championship this year seems mostly inevitable, with no one able to summon an adequate challenge. The Knicks, Celtics, and Spurs are too old, the Grizzlies, Clippers and Thunder not good enough, and the Bulls too broken.

It’s been interesting seeing the perception of Lebron change. His first year with the Heat, he was the villain, and tried to embrace it. Last year, he let go of that, and the words changed from admonition to admiration, of a man who is probably the most talented basketball player anyone has ever seen. He’s a power point forward: the body of Karl Malone, the offensive and defensive prowess of Michael Jordan, the court vision of Magic Johnson. He’s a threat for a triple-double every night,

Is there any hope to derail the Heat this year? Traditional thinking says that a big team can exploit the Heat’s lack of inside power, so that favors someone like the Grizzlies (if they can get to the finals), or maybe the Spurs (ditto). The Bulls and Thunder have injuries to their lead guards, so they’re unlikely. The rest probably aren’t good enough, even though there are lots of games left to be played.

But the games still need to be played, and one of the great things about sports is that anything can happen. Just hard to see much other than the inevitable Heat win right now.