Spring Surprises

Look Who’s Number One!

Survival of the Front Runners

Blaze Update

The Return of Joe Koukalik

Well well well… Look who’s in first place!

Everyone is surprised to find the Minnesota Twins in first place for a change. After starting off at 1-6, AND losing their top starter, Ervin Santana, to a 80-game suspension (Performance Enhancing Substance. How’s that for Orwellian? Double plus Ungood!) just 2 or 3 days before the season started, the upstart Twins have been one of the best teams in baseball, playing two separate stretches of 9-1 ball, and inching into first place over the vaunted Royals of KC.

If you are a local you can undoubtedly remember the boo-birds circling overhead after that 1-6 start. The Twins are Terrible, they don’t spend any money, they don’t try to win, they don’t improve the club, blah blah blah blah blah…

Know-it-alls. Front-runners.

Everybody’s on board the bandwagon now, of course, now that they are winning. (And where did that expression come from? Jumping on the bandwagon? What the heck is a bandwagon anyway? (I suppose it’s pretty self-explanatory.)) Well, that’s baseball, and that’s the crowd, the teeming masses yearning to be winners, and it’s probably the same everywhere. Everybody loves a winner, and it’s very easy and tempting to kick somebody when they are down. (If just to say, you are down, and I am not. I couldn’t be down, because I am up here, kicking you.)

Visigoth cap

The probably says something very basic about people. I suppose it’s Darwinian. When the Visigoths were winning, everyone was a fan, it was probably the smart thing to do in Visigothia. Visigoths probably did not take kindly to criticism, even to well-meaning and constructive criticism. I think, back in the day, nobody took criticism well; probably it was the first step to being tied to the stake in the village square.

So anyway the Visigoths had a good run, and everyone rooted for the Visigoths, everyone had Visigoth pennants and bumper stickers and promotional swords and coffee mugs and 574 Championship and Theoderic-the-Great t-shirts. And then the Visigoths luck ran out. It always does. And then we had never liked the Visigoths. The Visigoths don’t want to win, they don’t do what’s necessary, they’re terrible, they stink. Booo. Lousy Visigoths. Go Byzantium!

Yes, it’s probably all in our genes; it’s the survival of the front-runners, and natural selection. It goes back to pre-history, I suppose, when everyone was a Neanderthal fan when they were doing so well, everyone loved the Neanderthals, and then – BOOM! – and suddenly nobody liked the Neanderthals and they got kicked out of the league. We can’t help it.

Genes Rule!

Now, where was I? Do I need to make a cap for the Neanderthals now?

The Twins lost yesterday, to the hated Brewers (what an insipid name for a ball club!) of Milwaukee, but the Royals also lost to Texas, so the Twins still have a 1 game lead. Things look promising for a summer of baseball and scoreboard watching. How have the Twins done it? Well, Paul Molitor I think has a lot to do with it. And the pitching has been remarkably good, so let’s throw some credit at pitching coach Neil Allen. 3.91 ERA this year, 4.57 last year. The hitting seems spotty, no one is really leading the way. Maybe Torii Hunter, who’s had some key hits. But so far, I think, it’s the pitching, and hopefully that will continue. Nothing seems more fragile and tenuous than pitching. Those guys are delicate little flowers out there on the mound. One thing about the Twins, they seem like they’ve got some young arms still in the minors.

The other big surprise in baseball is in the old National Pastime Baseball League, where the lowly and nearly forgotten Louisiana Blaze… well, let’s let the commissioner of the NPBL speak:

the blaze hold the best record in baseball

Yes. We RULE.

Well, okay, maybe not so much anymore. A few teams have surpassed us, and it’s early in the season. Still, it’s getting on towards the all-star break, and we cling to a half-game lead. A nice surprise after finishing 6th, 6th, and 4th in the last three seasons. Perhaps we are the Minnesota Twins of the GEL South.

The Blaze are also thriving on pitching. We’ve gone back to a starting four rotation, anchored by Unethical Chad McCall and Rubeun Chaix, who won the Top Pitcher award last season. Joe Koukalik has also made his debut this season – a bit of a surprise, due to an injury on the staff. (Delicate little flowers.) You may remember Koukalik’s great gread great great grandad, (perhaps not enough greats there,) who pitched a bit for the old 1904 Millers. (And no, I haven’t forgotten the ’04 Millers. There’s just not enough time in the day, is all.) Anyway, young Koukalik has been a bit of a pleasant surprise. I had to send Jimmy Ray “Big Daddy” Hardwhistle down, he was struggling, and I hope he comes back, because a baseball name like that doesn’t come along every day, and I’d hate it if he had to languish in the minors. And speaking of good baseball names, I’ve got a powerful young first baseman busting the ball down in AAA, name of Thornton Swackhammer. I have high hopes for Mr. Swackhammer.

hey, get a klu!

Ted Kluszewski’s birthday today.

Even though I’m not what you’d call a Reds fan, this is still one of my favorite baseball cards. (I wonder if that little guy on the uniform, with the moustache, I wonder if he’s got a name?)

 

No, they don’t make ’em like Big Ted anymore.ted smTed was born in 1924, making him a lot older than me. He’d be celebrating his 90th birthday, I guess, if he was still alive, which he ain’t. Ted passed away in 1988, at only 63.

Couple of things about Ted. He was a four time all-star, 1953-56, and led the majors in home runs in 1954. (With 49.) Plus he led the National League first basemen in fielding average five times. He had 15 inch biceps and cut the sleeves off his jersey because they restricted his swing. He was the hitting coach on the Big Red Machine teams of the seventies.

Okay, one last tid-bit, from the SABR bio:

What separated Kluszewski from the rest of the musclemen was his off-the-charts discipline at the plate. He totaled 31 fewer strikeouts (140) than home runs (171) in his four peak seasons. Of the 10 times in major-league history that a player hit at least 40 homers with fewer strikeouts, three were by Kluszewski. The others on the list: Lou Gehrig (twice), Johnny Mize (twice), Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, and Barry Bonds.

 

Pretty impressive list to be at the top of.

Happy birthday, Mr. Kluszewski, sir.

Good game.

 

a little taste of the minors…

nine billion g webNot long ago, looking at the card of Roman Mejias, I noted that he lead the Pony League in swipes in 53, and the Big State League in doubles in ”54. Pony League? Big State League?

Looking for more information on these, I came across Mike McCann’s Minor League Baseball Page, One Man’s Quest to Visit Every Major and Minor League Baseball Team. And on that website there is a complete list of minor leagues.

Here I find that the Pony League was maybe more correctly written as the PONY League, for Pennsylvania, Ontario, and New York. The PONY League was a class D League, and existed from 1939-1956. The original teams included the Niagara Falls Rainbows, the Batavia Clippers, the Jamestown Jaguars, the Olean Oilers, the Bradford Bees, and the Hamilton Red Wings. This League went away in ’56, but was replaced in ’57 by the New York – Pennsylvania League, which still exists today. Batavia’s team is now called the MuckDogs, and Jamestown’s team is now the Jammers. Those are the only two remaining clubs of the original set. I like the name MuckDogs, but their logo was pretty bad. There’s now a team called the Vermont Lake Monsters — which I wonder how they got Lake-Monsters-logothat name — and they had the best logo that I saw of the bunch. It’s not that great, really, but I do like the name Lake Monsters.

The Big State League was a class B league from 1947 – ’57. This League was exclusively Texas, with teams originally in Sherman-Denison, Gainesville, Wichita Falls, Paris, Austin, Texarkana, Greenville and Waco. Favorite name: Wichita Falls Spudders. (Second favorite: Paris Red Peppers.) ParisRedPeppers45The Big State League’s Spudders were about the third Spudder team; others existed in earlier leagues. The name, incidentally, comes from a term used in the oil industry – a person who prepares and operates a drilling rig for oil wells.

wichita falls spudders

There are a lot of defunct baseball leagues out there. They are generally named by geographic territory they used to play in, like the Alabama Florida League, or the East Dixie League. Baseball Reference.com lists over 30,000 current and former minor league teams, and they say “this list is not exhaustive…” (I guess that depends upon your point of view.) I think it must be hard to tell when a club is an old club or a new club with an old name, because what they are doing here is listing every season for every team in a location. For example, they list 64 teams in Duluth, Minnesota, but that means there is 64 seasons of minor league play in Duluth, split up between the Duluth-Superior Dukes, Duluth-Superior White Sox, Duluth Dukes, Duluth Marine Iron, Duluth Heralds, Duluth Cardinals, St. Paul Apostles/Duluth Whalebacks, (one season, in the Western League – I wonder what the story was there. I like “Apostles” for a team name…) the Duluth Freezers, and the Duluth Jayhawks.

There is some confusion about those St. Paul Apostles. At least, I’m confused. Wikipedia says that the Apostles played in 1889, and were apparently managed  by an Irish immigrant named John Barnes. In 1886, Wikipedia says, he was associated with the St. Paul Freezers, and in 1887 the St. Paul Saints. In ’88 he took a year off, apparently, but in 1889 he was back at it, with the St. Paul Apostles. Barnes is kind of an interesting character; he apparently spent ten years in China promoting physical fitness?

Anyway… Baseball Reference.com says the St. Paul Apostles existed in just 1884, were also known as the St. Paul White Caps, had a 2-6-1 record and finished 9th out of 12. Apparently this was a “short season” league.

St. Paul Apostles logo round

Meanwhile, back on the Duluth/St.Paul team, there were a few great names: Kid Baldwin, Scrappy Carroll, Bones Ely, Bill Goodenough, Jouett Meekin, Rasty Wright, and Crazy Schmidt. I’d love to have baseball cards for Bones Ely and Crazy Schmidt. Bill Goodenough sounds familiar; perhaps he went on to other adventures in professional baseball.

He was, after all, certainly Goodenough.

wichita-falls-spudders-1930

old tyme base ball

Here we are, in the heat of the playoffs, and we’ve got four classic teams left in the running, the Tigers against the Red Sox, and the Cardinals against the Dodgers. So far, in keeping with baseball’s increasing irrelevancy in the National Dialogue, I have not watched classic tigers logoany of the games. From a distance it seems like all the series were close and competitive, and especially the Tigers-A’s series, going the full five games, with the Tigers winning 3-0 behind Verlander in the final game. Verlander had an off-year this season, with a 13-12 record and a 3.46 ERA, so it was nice to see him come up with a big win here. I do feel for the A’s though, for some reason. Probably boston red sox 1960-1975because of the Moneyball book, and wanting Billy Beane to win the series.

All major league sports go on too long. In the next century there will only be a week-long hot stove league. Playoffs will extend the game into February, with the world series being played in early March. The season will be a long slog aimed at eliminating the two worst teams in each league. After the season there will be a 7 game wild-card playoff aimed at classic 20s cardinal logoeliminating the third worst team, and the winner of that series will be the wild card in the next seven game series between the three less worse teams. All the early losers will descend into the losers-bracket, for more exciting action. If all goes well, there will be about 150 playoff games, slowly whittling the contenders down to brooklyn Dodgers logothe two lucky champions to play in the World Series, just prior to the opening of spring training.

Needless to say, I think baseball has lost some drama by extending the playoffs endlessly. Unless you live in one of those playoff cities (and soon everyone will live in a playoff city by default) it’s hard to generate much interest for those early games. I think the playoffs initially made sense, East Division vs. West Division, though they should have been best of seven series from the beginning. Now there is just too much, too long.

The best records in the two leagues:

Boston     97-65
Oakland   96-66
Detroit      93-69

St. Louis        97-65
Atlanta           96-66
Pittsburgh      94-68
Los Angeles   92-70

If this were the old days, where the season was actually a pennant race, rather than a play-off race, we’d be having a Red Sox – Cardinals World Series. We’ll see if it comes to that. It’s a fairly rare occurrence these days, where the best teams over the season wind up playing in the series. The playoffs are a whole new ball game. Who’s peaking at the right moment? Who has the hot hand? Who’s healthy? In a seven game series, pretty much anything can happen.

… game time

baseball spinner

beautiful old spinner sold on Etsy, photo provided courtesy of Elizabeth Rosen

As I was saying, there are all sorts of baseball games out there. When I was young we had a dice game that was based on crude statistics, a simplified Stratomatic. But there are endless variations — board games, played with spinners or dice, darts, and different kinds of card games. Everyone can play.

HardBall - 1985 - Accolade

HardBall – 1985

The Age of Computers has ushered in a whole new way of playing the game. In the beginning a lot of these were mostly pretty simple arcade games, such as Hardball. But as computing power improved, so did the games. As the game players tended to fall into different camps, the games also tended to focus on different aspects of play. Some players liked to swing the digital bat and knock some pixels around in the arcade experience, while others are looking for true to life statistical simulations, making the game results as close to the real thing as possible. Some games tried to meet both of these audiences, making it optional to play either the arcade game of the statistical sim in one game. One of the better games in this area was Earl Weaver Baseball, which allowed you to operate as manager or as player, and had pretty realistic game simulation for its time, including the option to play entire seasons without having to play them game-by-game.

earl-weaver-baseball-2 -3

Earl Weaver II – 1991

Earl Weaver was a big success, and, in fact, after a long hiatus, its creator has been working on an EWB app for the i-phone. (Not sure if that’s out there yet, though.)

For the most accurate simulations, though, it seems like the text-based games have always been the best. They didn’t have to spend much time or effort on developing any quasi-realistic animation of the game, focusing instead on statistical accuracy and data, while relaying the game action through scrolling text on the screen, which resembles a radio play by play.

I came across a few nice options online in this area. WhatIfSports, for example, allows you to pit two historical teams against each other and generates a simulated game practically instantly. Interesting, but not very involving. Here’s a shot of a simulation I ran, the 1969 whatifsports samplePilots vs. the 1969 NY Mets, at Shea Stadium. Seventh game of the World Series. The game wouldn’t let me give Bouton the start, perhaps because he only started one game for them during the actual season. Sorry Jim. Here the Pilots whip the Mets, 3-2 to win the Series. Bouton pitches, but the knuckleball apparently isn’t knuckling, because he gives up singles to Grote and Shamsky, uncorks a wild pitch, and Boswell drives in the tying run with a fly ball sacrifice before Bouton gets out of the inning, with the game now knotted up 2-2. The Pilots win the game in the 9th, though, with Rollins getting an infield single to drive in Comer. Pilots 3, Mets 2. The Miracle Pilots take it all.

It looks like WhatIfSports offers a number of options for online play in simulated leagues. However, for this sort of fun they will charge you a small fee.

Another example is Out of the Park Baseball, which I came across awhile ago, when I noticed that they provided a free download of the 8th edition of their game. (They’re on edition 14 now, I believe.) Even in the 8th edition, this is an excellent text-based game, giving you a ridiculous amount of options for setting up leagues, replaying historical seasons, or setting up whole new fictional leagues. There is also an “online league” option, which allows you to run a team in a league and compete with other players around the world, and a thriving online community that talks baseball pretty much non-stop. One advantage here, over WhatIFSports, is that after you purchase the game, the online play is free. (Unless your league decides to update to the latest version of the game; OOTP 14 runs about $40 right now.) 

Which is how I became the proud owner/general manager/manager of the Louisiana Blaze.

blazeball - c

What could be better, I thought, for the Year of Baseball, than actually running a team and winning the World Series?

But before I go into all that, I’ll just drop this in, from IBIS World’s 2013 look at fastest growing industries:

Fantasy Sports Services have been gaining popularity as more consumers go to the internet to compete in these social sports games. The industry develops software, and markets an online platform for multiplayer fantasy sports. Fantasy sports are games where participants act as general managers to build teams that compete against other fantasy owners based on the statistics generated by real individual players or professional teams. The most common variation converts statistical performance into points that are compiled and totaled according to a roster selected by a manager that makes up a fantasy team. These games have been around for more than 25 years and played in tight knit social circles, but the internet really helped push the envelope for transforming Fantasy Sports Services into a full-blown industry. Over the past 10 years, fantasy sports services have experienced explosive absolute growth of 241.0%. Fantasy Sports Service firms will continue cashing in on the general move toward more mobile content, which will help bring revenue up at an annualized rate of 7.6% over the five years to 2018.