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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rambling On: 2014 MLB Playoff Preview

Please join the irascible Ron Juckett and myself as we discuss the upcoming MLB Playoffs with another edition of our podcast, Rambling On. 

You can check out our playoff preview here: PODCAST LINK

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew


Monday, September 22, 2014

Who Will Replace Derek Jeter as MLB's Elder Statesman?

After 20 seasons of classy winning and racking up accomplishments, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is ending his venerable playing career at the end of the week. Baseball has always seemed to have someone of his caliber as their “dean of the game,” so which current player will replace Mr. November when he steps off the field for the final time?

The entire 2014 season has been a farewell tour for Jeter, who has struggled to a .255 batting average, four home runs and 43 RBIs in 139 games. Some have been annoyed at the adulation that has occasionally bordered on being the modern equivalent of a Viking funeral pyre. But with nearly 3,500 career hits, 16 post season appearances (including five World Series wins) and 14 All Star game nods, he’s kind of a big deal and his departure is a cause for remembrance and celebration.

While nobody can truly replace a player of Jeter’s magnitude, there is some veteran out there who will step into his role as baseball’s revered elder statesman. Here are the most likely candidates:

David Ortiz (Age 38), Designated Hitter for the Boston Red Sox: Although he rarely plays defense, Big Papi is still known as one of baseball best players. With a career .285 batting average, 466 home runs, 1,533 RBIs and eight playoff appearances (three World Series wins), he has the kind of resume that one might expect out of Jeter’s replacement.

Playing in a market like Boston, Ortiz receives plenty of national exposure. However, his outspoken nature and flamboyancy (i.e. bat flips and occasional off-the-cuff public remarks) make him a near opposite of Jeter, and polarizing to some. Nevertheless, he is probably the most likely to be the next player to have a year played in his honor when he retires in the not so distant future.

Albert Pujols (Age 34), First Baseman for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Similar to Ortiz, Pujols has piled up numbers throughout his career, amassing a .317 batting average, 519 home runs, 1,599 RBIs and eight top-two MVP finishes over 14 major league seasons. He is also about to head to the post season for the eighth time and has a reasonable chance of winning his third World Series winning team.

While he’s still a productive player, Pujols current enormous 10-year, $240 million contract makes him seem almost like a sideshow. Nevertheless, the future Hall-of-Famer is in an elite class, which is why he is on this short list.

Bartolo Colon (Age 41), Pitcher for the New York Mets: The portly right-hander has won 203 games with a 3.95 ERA during a 17-year major league career. Despite re-inventing himself in recent years (42 combined wins in the past three seasons), his appearance and a previous suspension for PEDs have all detracted from his level of respect.

Ichiro Suzuki (Age 40), Outfielder for the New York Yankees: Now in his baseball dotage, the Japanese import forged a reputation as one of the greatest hitters the game has ever known across his 23 professional seasons. Between his time in Japan and the majors, his resume includes 4,117 hits, a .328 batting average, 684 stolen bases, and some amazing defense.

A slightly below average player for the past several seasons, Ichiro has held on due to his reputation and ability with his glove. Sadly, he may not even be eligible to succeed Jeter, as there’s no guarantee he will continue playing in 2015. If that is the case, his lack of any sort of farewell tour will be a sad commentary on his relative under-appreciated status.

Others to Consider: Outfielder Torii Hunter (a good but not great player); third baseman Adrian Beltre (just don’t rub his head); outfielder Carlos Beltran (16 career post season homers); closer Fernando Rodney (the rakish angle of his cap is always that of a younger man); closer LaTroy Hawkins (more known for playing for 10 teams in 20 major league seasons than his numbers); second baseman Chase Utley (one of the high-priced veterans still producing in Philadelphia); pitcher Tim Hudson (214 career victories, and about to make his seventh postseason trip with hopes his team will finally win a series for the first time).

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The End Could Very Well Be a New Beginning for the Boston Red Sox

At 68-88, and firmly entrenched in last place in the American League East, the Boston Red Sox are close to wrapping up a pretty painful 2014 season. The sting is particularly acute because of last year’s World Series win. However, some of the signs that the team is flashing over the last few weeks of the lost campaign could very well mark a new beginning for the franchise.

Having dealt ace pitcher Jon Lester earlier this season, and stalwarts David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia aging, it’s clear the Red Sox need an infusion of young talent to help solidify a new identity. Fortunately, the team is flush with prospects, and has had a whopping 15 players aged 25 or younger appear in at least one game this season. The results have been mixed but some of these players have given signs about what their future in Boston may be.

21-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts has hit just .237 with 12 home runs and 20 errors this year. However, having hung in at such a young age and finishing strong down the stretch has done nothing to sway the belief that he is a long-term impact player. In his last 21 games, the right-handed hitter has batted .317 with four home runs and 13 RBI, showing that he is still adjusting and developing—exactly what you want to see from someone his age.

Infielder/outfielder Mookie Betts made his major league debut earlier in the season. After initial ho-hum production, he has emerged as perhaps the team’s most valuable player down the stretch—hitting .285 with five home runs, 15 RBI and six stolen bases in 46 games. Including his time in the minors, the diminutive 21-year-old has hit a combined .329 with 16 homers, 80 RBI and 38 steals. His ability to play multiple positions makes him a strong candidate for a big role with the 2015 team.

Since being a 2011 fifth-round draft pick, Betts has simply gotten better and better with each passing year. In four professional seasons, he has played at seven total levels, and at each stop has done the near impossible of adapting and developing his game almost immediately. It’s difficult to ascertain what his major league future will be, but at this point he appears to be at the very least a solid contributor for years to come—with the potential to be much more.

One youngster whose play has increasingly negatively impacted his Boston future is third baseman Will Middlebrooks. The 25-year-old right-handed hitter battled injuries earlier in the year, the third time in as many seasons to start his career. Unfortunately, when he has been on the field, he has not been able to get on track and come close to matching the high expectations he earned during his rookie season in 2012 when he hit .288 with 15 home runs in just 75 games.

To the contrary, the only consistency Middlebrooks has shown has been an inability to get anything going. In his last 51 games, he has hit a disappointing .181 with no home runs and just 14 RBIs—while striking out 63 times. He has been given a chance to get his once promising career on track but it seems increasingly more likely his time in Boston may be coming to an end.

Finally, although they are too old for the prospect group, the Red Sox are seeing positive returns from two mid-season outfield acquisitions in Yoenis Cespedes and Rusney Castillo. Both natives of Cuba, the two appear to be linchpins of the team beyond the end of the disappointing 2014 campaign.

The 29-year-old Cespedes was the key piece obtained in the Lester trade, as his right-handed power was a commodity sorely lacking in the Boston lineup. He has shown that he may have been worth the steep price of the veteran lefty, as he has hit .262 with five home runs and 30 RBIs in 45 games since switching teams. In addition, his powerful throwing arm, as evidenced by his 15 2014 outfield assists, will be a lethal weapon in the short left field in Fenway Park.

Having not played organized baseball since 2012 because of political reasons in his native Cuba, the 27-year-old Castillo was signed to a seven year contract worth over $70 million last month. Despite an arsenal of raw skills that include great speed and defensive prowess, there is still not enough known about the right-handed hitter to be able to gauge his true ceiling. However, he has been thrown into the fire from the get-go, playing briefly at several minor league stops during their playoff seasons, and now getting a chance at the big league level over the final few weeks.

Castillo has four singles in 16 at-bats with Boston thus far—hardly earth-shattering numbers. The real key has been his ability to look like he belongs after such a long layoff, which is very encouraging for his future. He is a lottery ticket in the truest sense of the term, and 2015 appears to be when he will receive an extended look to see if will pay off or a wasted chance.

The 2014 season may be very disappointing on paper for the Red Sox but there are positives to be gleaned out of the wreckage. Although the impending end of the season is a merciful relief in some ways, it is also marking the beginning of a new dawn for the team and its fans.

Statistics via BaseballReference.com.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ecstasy & Agony of Being a Red Sox Fan: A Review

Being a fan of the Boston Red Sox can be much more than just following the statistics and the standings. Some adherents see their moods and even their very outlooks on life impacted by the baseball team from Beantown. It’s a rite of passage and a birthright for many, and Stanley Harris has outlined his relationship of seven decades with the team in his fan memoir, The Ecstasy & Agony of Being a Red Sox Fan (Critical Choices).

Perhaps more than any other team in professional sports, the Red Sox are known for their polarization when it comes to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. They have provided fans with amazing moments and seasons, while sprinkling in more than a fair share of heart-breaking let-downs. Although the passion can sway dramatically from side to side, fans are generally in it up their necks, win, lose or draw. Accordingly, it only takes a year or a word or two to evoke the best and worst of these memories; 1946, 1967, 1986, 2004, Nomar, The Impossible Dream, The Curse, The Kid, Pedro… The list goes on and on.

Harris takes us through the earliest days of his fandom to the present, detailing how rooting for the team has impacted him. He starts with the 1946 team that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and picks his way through the years- both the lean and the fat. Iconic moments like Bill Buckner letting the ball roll through his legs at first base, and the Carlton Fisk home run in the 1975 World Series are recounted from the other side of the television and field.

The story is told through the lens of Harris’ life, from growing up outside of Boston, to raising a family and living in various parts of the country. Not a “super fan,” he has never had season tickets or shown up to games in face paint, but has maintained a connection to the team since the dawning of his earliest memories. Even when circumstances caused him to stray, he has always returned to the baseball squad that originally captured his loyalties.

An interesting aspect of Ecstasy and Agony is that it is not written from the perspective of a baseball “expert.” Rather, Harris tells his story from his own knowledge base, which comes from attending games, reading newspaper articles and keeping up with his fellow fans. His evaluations of players, front office staff and team results aren’t based on sabermetrics or other traditional methods. His appreciation or disdain comes from his own sensibilities, honed by years of following the Sox.

Although Harris provides statistics and personal memories of teams to help set up his narrative, there are some instances of inaccuracy in those details. However, keeping in mind that this is essentially the life diary of a man’s relationship with the team, if anything it lends to a sense of authenticity of his true fan identity, and separates him from the more encyclopedic analysis of the Red Sox in the past.

The beauty and the horrors of being a Red Sox fan lie in the extreme highs and lows the team can take you. It’s also astounding how entwined a person can get in their connection to 25 men playing a child’s game. These unique qualities of the team from Boston are put on full display by Harris, who has done a commendable job in summarizing what the Red Sox have contributed and taken from his life for so many years.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew