Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

teixeiraThe last thing I’d ever do is begrudge a player, any player, for going for as much money as the market will give him. 8 years for more than $170 million is a good haul for Mark Teixeira, and it sets him up for the rest of his career, which, if he plays up to the form he currently has, will be as a New York Yankee. So don’t even try to bring outrage about oversized player salaries in a bad economy or saying the league needs a salary cap because the rest of the owners can’t compete. This is invalid because:

a) The Steinbrenner family has clearly managed the franchise well enough in order to have the reserves to spend $400 million in one off-season

b) Just because the cheap-shit owner in your city is sitting on his piece of the revenue-sharing while raising your ticket prices doesn’t make that the Yankees’ fault.

Teixeira in the Bronx is an obvious move. Jason Giambi was off the books, they’ve had a gaping defensive hole at first base for years, they need another power bat. Here’s the problem: now the Yankees are the most talented team on paper. Wonder how that might work out once the season starts? Let them play the games before declaring the Yankees the masters of all once again. There’s still an aging Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui in the outfield, and a defensively suspect Derek Jeter manning short — and don’t think the Red Sox or the Rays will simply fold in fear. The Phillies won last season and the Red Sox a year before that with a core group of players either from the farm system or who made their names with the team. Where is that with the Yankees right now?

(Also, if you’re a NYC taxpayer, how do you feel about billions of your tax dollars funding the new Yankee Stadium while they blow $400 million on free agents? Since when did the Steinbrenners need a bailout?)

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Stealing Signals: From The Cellar To A Pennant

(Highlights video from Awful Announcing. Thanks, boss!)

Rays 3, Red Sox 1 – One home run. That’s all Matt Garza allowed to cross the plate. Watching Dustin Pedroia jack it out in the 1st inning made for a nervous moment for myself and anyone else who’d decided to root for this team who had been down so low for the beginning of its existence against the dominant force in the American League for the past couple of seasons.  But then Garza engaged in the one of the more wonderful sights in a make-or-break playoff game with Boston starter Jon Lester: a full-blooded pitchers’ duel.  Evan Longoria doubled in Carlos Pena in the fourth, then Rocco Baldelli singled in Willy Aybar in the sixth.

Garza then kept it up, changing speeds, striking out nine in 7+ innings of work, and he probably would have been allowed to go eight if Jason Bartlett hadn’t gotten a bad hop on an Alex Cora grounder. Then, it became a mix-and-match for Joe Maddon: bringing in Dan Wheeler to pitch to Coco Crisp and Dustin Pedroia (Pedroia flew out); J.P. Howell to get David Ortiz to ground out; Chad Bradford walked Kevin Youkilis. Then, Maddon brought in David Price, who not only got out of the bases loaded threat by striking out J.D. Drew, he then finished the ninth after giving up a walk to Jason Bay.

Now, there are two days before the Phillies come to town, and while there are questions as to whether the Rays could beat the National League champions, from a city desperate for a title, there are no questions as to whether they belong in the top tier any more, and everyone who watched Price deal is waiting for more.

Stealing Signals: Beantown On The Brink

Rays 13, Red Sox 4 – It started with back-to-back home runs from Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria, continued with a two-run jack from Willy Aybar in the 4th, and only got worse from there. To borrow once again from Mike Patrick’s description of the Alabama-Georgia game several weeks back, there was an old-fashioned butt-whipping in Boston last night, and the Red Sox supplied the butt.  If there is any team you would not have counted out in the past down 3 games to 1, it would be the Red Sox, but this is not the year for them to pull something like that out again, unless I’ve completely misjudged the team at this point through four games (which is entirely possible, given my status as severely amateur analyst.)

Josh Beckett isn’t himself; Jon Lester, their next best bet, got battered in Game 3.  Losing Mike Lowell’s reliable bat was tougher than expected; Kevin Youkilis hasn’t hit at the clip in the playoffs that we’ve been getting used to. David Ortiz’s wrist is a problem despite the triple he hit, and let’s be honest, Youk as the clean-up hitter behind Ortiz isn’t a patch on the intimidation that having Manny Ramirez was behind Big Papi.  (This is not to knock Jason Bay — he’s been reliable and done his part.) It’s just that too many pieces are missing from this Red Sox team right now to make that improbable comeback, whether via nagging injury (also include J.D. Drew) or by the slump (Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Varitek — and how much has Varitek slumped when Kevin Cash, who handles Wakefield, looks like a better option both at the plate and behind it?)

Tampa’s youth movement, led by Longoria, B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, Aybar, and that pitching staff of theirs (repped admirably by Andy Sonnanstine last night) is playing like they know they’ve got house money, free-wheeling, fancy-free, and with so much skill it looks effortless. It’s not hard to pull for this team when all other options stink (I hate both the Dodgers and the Phillies; and I’ve grown kind of tired of Red Sox Nation as a whole, even though I know plenty of very nice and enthsiastic Sox fans), because there are stars there in the making; there are team players there; there’s everything in the Tampa Bay Rays that makes baseball fun to watch.

If any team deserves to succeed and turn around the concept of baseball in Florida, it’s this one.

Stealing Signals: Unlikely Heroes

Phillies 7, Dodgers 5 – Everyone had probably forgotten Matt Stairs existed.  He somehow got traded to Philly after the deadline, clearing waivers from Toronto (and if you only remember him in an Oakland uniform a few years back with Jason Giambi, you’re not the only one.)  But Stairs is the one who helped cap a four-run comeback against the Dodger bullpen. Joe Torre pulled Derek Lowe after 74 pitches, and watched as, eventually, Cory Wade and Jonathan Broxton gave up 2-run homers to Shane Victorino and Stairs in the eighth inning, respectively.  Now, Los Angeles is facing its fate on Wednesday with Cole Hamels waiting his chance to end their season on Wednesday — forced into such a situation because of a lack of a fourth starter in its rotation (a healthy Brad Penny would be nice to have right about now, no?) and an unsteady bullpen without Takashi Saito on hand to close.

Rays 9, Red Sox 1 – I think it would be much better, when B.J. Upton bats, if announcers worked the source for his initials, the nickname “Bossman Junior” into their home run calls for him (Upton’s given name is Melvin Emanuel Upton; “Bossman” was his father’s nickname).  The Bossman struck again, going deep for the 5th time int he playoffs (he only hit 9 all regular season) in the playoffs, and was followed two batters later by Evan Longoria and his fourth palyoff bomb.  The deluge only continued later, as Rocco Baldelli and Carlos Pena added late jacks.  Matt Garza threw six scroless innings to do his part of shutting down the BoSox lineup.

Stealing Signals: This Weekend In Baseball

Phillies up 2-1, but we have a series now: The Dodgers knocked Jamie Moyer around for five runs in the first inning on a series of base hits (Blake DeWitt’s bases-loaded triple being the big one) and hit batters — it got even chippier after that. Russell Martin was hit by pitches twice, and the benches cleared after Hiroki Kuroda buzzed one over Shane Victorino’s head.  Kuroda pitched steadily for the better part of seven innings; a needed tonic after Chad Billingsley stretched the bullpen in Philly on Friday, and the staff gave up eight runs in the Citizens Bank Band Box.  Now, Derek Lowe will line up against Joe Blanton tomorrow, and even on three days rest, he has a bit more advantage in a park more friendly to pitchers than the aforementioned band box.

Red Sox and Rays tied at one a piece: After Daisuke Matsuzaka essentially took it to Tampa in Game One to snatch homefield advantage on Friday, the Rays knocked Josh Beckett for eight runs on Saturday. Scott Kazmir wasn’t having a great day either, and so the score was kept clos, with the game eventually being sent into extra innings on a wild pitch by Tampa reliever Dan Wheeler, who otherwise threw 3.1 great innings of relief for the Rays.  Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, and Jonathan Papelbon did the same great work for the Red Sox, but every Boston fan felt a bit of dread when Mike Timlin walked out for the bottom of the 11th, and you could have written an Easterbrook-like “game over” in your mind after he walked both Dioner Navarro and Ben Zobrist. Replacing Navarro with pinch runner Fernando Perez was the right move, as Jason Bartlett grounded to third as Perez was stealing, keeping them out of the double play and forcing Timlin to walk Akinori IwamuraB.J. Upton hit a ball to shallow right that no one else but Perez would have tagged up adn scroed on — he has home in about nine long, quick strides.

Ill-Advised Championship Series Predictions

NL: Dodgers in 6 games – It hurts me even to type that.  However, I think the Dodgers are just running a lot hotter right now in the second half. The pitching 1-2s seem even in the starting rotation (Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley vs. Cole Hamels and Brett Myers), and they’ve both got grumpy old men in Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux. Philly’s line-up is a Murderer’s Row if hot, the Dodger offense flows more freely with Manny Ramirez in and Rafael Furcal leading off. Brad Lidge is better as a closer than both Jonathan Broxton or Takashi Saito — but I think the Dodgers are playing with house money right now; not a whole lot of us expected them to even be in the NLCS, and will find a way to get to the World Series.

AL: Red Sox in 6 Josh Beckett may be the only starting pitching issue for the Red Sox. Having Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester get possibly two games each of a 7-game series is a good start, and the Red Sox look just as capable of pulling out offense when it needs to. But the Rays have owned the Sox all year; while it’s always different in October, is there enough of a difference? Yes. It probably will come down to the bullpen, when Boston gets to Jonathan Papelbon while the Rays are adjusting and Troy Percival is still hurt. Papelbon is perfectly capable of a two-inning save on a semi-regular basis, or what many recognize as “the Mo Rivera thing” during the playoffs.

Pushing The Narratives

The benefit of my current work schedule is the ability to watch Pardon the Interruption, which remains the only ESPN piece of programming worth investing too much time in.  SportsCenter is not as essential as it used to be; much of the analyst shows focused on individual sports are background fodder. Outside The Lines can be very hit or miss, and is subject to the typical ESPN/mainstream blinders on much of its subject matter. Anyway, back to it.

The Four-Letter’s $3 million a year poaching, Rick Reilly, subbed for Tony Kornheiser on PTI yesterday, via satellite from Denver with Michael Wilbon in-studio in D.C., and parroted what I’m fairly sure may be a common impulse among a certain segment of sportswriters regarding the current state of the baseball playoffs: he stated his preference for a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series, proclaiming the Tampa Bay Rays “bad for baseball.”

We probably need to separate that “bad for baseball” comment into two categories: bad for the sport and bad for the business of the sport. There is a vast difference: any die-hard baseball fan or one who merely follows the sport regularly would say a worst-to-first story is not only good for the sport, but also compelling and justifying smart moves by a front office.  Tampa’s entry into the playoffs already yielded more attention to manager Joe Maddon in SI, a likely Rookie of the Year award for third baseman Evan Longoria, and a front office that assembled a solid starting line-up and a roster of budding stars. That’s good for the sport; it gives some leverage behind the idea that baseball’s uncapped salary structure can still yield good things for teams who use their money wisely.

However, if you look at Reilly’s comment in the business sense, it fits. Tampa was 12th out of 14 AL teams in attendance this year, not helped by the reported shittiness of Tropicana Field, and locals are right to ignore a lousy team in a bad park for a while. That doesn’t change overnight, and it’s also part of the trend of questioning whether Florida is really interested in regular-season baseball. (We really won’t have an idea until both the Rays and Marlins’ new facilities open.)  The Dodgers and Red Sox are two of several “glamour teams”; ones that matter to people outside their home markets (the others, in my eyes, are the Cubs, Yankees, Cardinals, and Braves*.) Those are teams that have bandwagons, intense home fans, and ones who don’t drop loyalties when they move in the age of the Internet and MLB.tv.

Dodgers-Red Sox is an easier World Series to sell, and I’m sure it’s the one Fox is clamoring or as we speak.  The Rays aren’t, although everyone loves an underdog story — because there’s not enough to sell. The lore bheind L.A.-Boston is too much, two big cities, Manny Ramirez back in Betantown, the Sox seeking back-to-back titles, etc.  That’s a narrative that writes columns; that’s how Reilly kind of thinks., and it’s what Bud Selig would love to see. (Philadelphia doesn’t have the same pull as Dodgers-Sox, but it’s better to MLB than the other AL choice.)

The Tampa Bay Rays going from worst to first and capping it with a world championship is just another Marlins team beating Cleveland or the Yankees, or a Diamondbacks bloop single. It’s a blip, and won’t register outside of those of us who pay attention. Of course, you know what happens when the narrative gets openly expressed: the underdog shocks us all, and considering my loathing of both the Dodgers nad Phils, along with a need for Boston teams to cool off, I’m riding the Rays right now.

Fuck the cheap narratives, though. Let ’em do some work. Tampa is full of new stories, and that’s good for the sport.

(*I include the Braves because of their near stranglehold on the South until recently thanks to TBS and the lack of pro baseball anywhere else in that region.)