Archive for December, 2005

The pre-New Years blues: news and notes from around the league

Yesterday was a long day. It took me five hours to drive from D.C. to New York and another 90 minutes to find a suitable parking spot. As I’m beat, I’m going to be doing a news-and-notes post tonight. If you want something heavier to read before the end of 2005, check out yesterday’s post on the sad state of affairs down in Baltimore or Tuesday’s column on the rocky off-season for the Boston Red Sox.

  • While I’ve now written on the Orioles twice in two days, Miguel Tejada opened up his mouth again today. Just as the Orioles were saying they are not planning on trading Miguel Tejada, the All Star short stop strongly reiterated his trade demand, saying he’s “more upset” with the Orioles now than he was a few weeks ago.

    I have criticized Tejada for complaining about the Orioles. After all, he knew what he was getting into when he signed his big contract. This time around, however, Tejada seems to hit the nail on the head. In discussing the recent signings, Tejada said, “It’s not what we need.” Boy, is he ever right. If the short stop of the team knows that signing a second catcher, a 40-year-old utility player, and Jeromy Burnitz won’t solve the problems, why doesn’t Orioles GM Mike Flanagan know that?

    I still wonder why the Orioles never got involved in discussions with Brian Giles or A.J. Burnett or Johnny Damon or the Marlins during the fire sale days. Carlos Delgado would have destroyed Camden Yards. It wouldn’t kill Flanagan to pretend to make an effort, and it would appease Tejada as well.

  • As I was driving home, I was listening to New York sports talk radio WFAN. Joe Benigno interviewed Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King for about 35 minutes. King, a well-respected insider who laid his Red Sox cards on the table, basically talked uninterrupted. He had some interesting baseball notes.

    First, for all of the Red Sox fans who think Tejada-to-Boston could be a reality, fugedaboutit, as they say on the FAN. The Orioles are N-O-T trading Tejada to an AL East rival. While I may end up eating these words, King was fairly vehement about that. He expects Tejada to be moved by February but just not to Boston.

    While discussing the Tejada situation, King also talked about Manny Ramirez. According to the writer, Red Sox brass are fed up with Manny’s act. Manny being Manny only goes too far. King said he would be very surprised to see Manny take the field for Boston come Opening Day. What they will get for him is completely up in the air.

  • Does anyone else miss Buster Olney’s blog? For those of us with access to ESPN Insider, Olney’s blog has become a great resource for links to the lead baseball stories across the nation. Whie Olney’s stupid productive outs stat was rightfully derided, his writing has always been top-notch, and his blog is excellent. It’s great that he gets a vacation, but it makes mining for interesting stories that much harder.
  • Willie Nelson makes his own biodiesel fuel called BioWillie. Who knew?
  • Dayn Perry over at FoxSports takes a look at the young Diamondback team. After borrowing to fund their 2001 World Series team, Arizona rebuilt from the ground up. They have an excellent farm system and a lot of tradable older talent to net them the pitchers they need. As Perry writes, it’s not a question of if, but rather when will the D-backs dominate the weak NL West? I would bet the answer to be 2007. Look for them to go head-to-head with a young Dodger team that season.
  • Many of you have asked about my taken on the rebuilt Blue Jays. I don’t think J.P. Ricciardi is finished wheeling and dealing yet this winter, but I promise in January to examine Toronto and their chances of capturing an AL East title. I’m curious myself to see how they stack up with the team that won 79 games last year.
  • Finally, happy New Year everyone. This is my last post until Tuesday, January 3. I’m taking Monday off to enjoy the holiday. Have fun welcoming in 2006, and thanks for stopping by this month.
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Orioles signings show lack of direction

The Orioles are a beaten and beleaguered team these days. They’ve suffered through steroid scandals and disgruntled stars. With eight straight seasons under .500 and just one third place finish among a sea of fourth-place seasons since winning the American League in 1997, the Orioles are a team without much of a plan. No where is that more obvious than in the team’s recent decisions to go with Jeff Conine and Jeromy Burnitz for the 2006 season.

Last week, the Orioles and 39-year-old Conine came to terms on a one year deal. “It looks like he might get more playing time than he bargained for,” Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said about the Conine. That’s quite a statement about a team struggling to retain any semblance of competitiveness in a division that features the Yankees, Red Sox, and a revamped Blue Jays team.

Conine, for a 39-year-old, isn’t awful. Last season for the Marlins, he hit .304/.374/.403 with just 3 home runs in nearly 400 plate appearances. He created 52 runs last year as a part-time player and shouldn’t be anything more than that. However, the Orioles, according to Perlozzo, seem to have greater plans for him.

As far as I can tell, Conine would probably play first base or maybe the outfield. In either case, his production would be far below league average for the position. In the American League, he would have been dead last among first baseman for home runs and second to Scott Podsednik among left fielders. While I admire his .374 on-base percentage, teams need a little more power out of the first base or left field slot.

Furthermore, with Conine hogging a position in the field, the Orioles would be denying Walter Young or Val Majewski a shot at a job. Young, 25, is being groomed to play first base for the Orioles. He had decent AAA numbers and showed that he could hit Major League pitching albeit in just 33 at-bats this season. Due to an injury, Majewski isn’t as close to the Majors as Young is, but he seems to have a higher ceiling. He’s hit well in the Minors and has shown marked improvement over the last few years.

The Orioles are a team that needs new blood. Why should they waste a starting position with a utility player turning 40 in June? I think the Orioles should use Conine as a bench player. He would be an excellent fourth outfielder/emergency first baseman for the team. But to give him a starting job or award him the DH slot now seems like a waste of an offensive position.

A week after signing Conine, the Orioles inked Jeromy Burnitz to a two-year, $12-million deal. In Burnitz, they are getting a 37-year-old strike out machine who plays sketchy defense. Since turning 30, Burnitz has seen his OBP drop from .402 in 1999 to .322 in 2005. Except for one year playing in Coors, he hasn’t hit above .258. But he has struck out 100 times or more every season since assuming a full-time role in 1997.

So now, the Orioles are stuck with an immobile outfielder who may very well be ready to retire at the end of this contract. Once again, the team is blocking a future outfielder – Majewski – and they are clogging up the offense.

Furthermore, looking at Burnitz’s comparables on Baseball-Reference, I get the sense that the Orioles may not get much production from their latest addition. His highest comparable (a similarity score developed by Bill James) is Jay Buhner who retired at 36. Next is Darryl Strawberry who had just over 40 at bats at age 37, and then Ron Gant who had a decent enough season at 37 but only played 102 games. The Orioles expect Burnitz to play ball at a $6-million-per-year level for two seasons when most players like him don’t last much beyond 36. This doesn’t seem like smart money to me.

The Orioles are in an unenviable position. They have faced on-field and off-field problems. In 2006, they’ll be playing three powerhouses – the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays – 57 times. They’ve seen a decline in attendance and a increase in Camden Yards boos. In fact, with the Yanks or Sox in town, it seems as though more fans are rooting for the visiting team.

While the Orioles have seemingly taken the “throw in the towel” approach toward competing in the American League East, they would do well to imitate the team they could finish below in the standings this year. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have shed payroll and have developed a young core of exceptional players. The Orioles keep pursuing over-paid, over-the-hill guys on the edge of retirement. It just doesn’t work as a plan.

The strange twists and turns of Rafael Palmeiro’s tale

On and off for months, I’ve written about Rafael Palmeiro. Back in August, I wrote a column for 360 the Pitch talking about how his steroid suspension dimmed his star power. Today, Palmeiro resurfaces again in the media. This time, he spins his tale for New York Times columnist Murray Chass.

The story begins much the way every recent interview with Palmeiro starts:

Rafael Palmeiro doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if he wants to continue playing the game he has played for the past 19 years, and he still doesn’t know, he said yesterday, how steroids got into his body and prompted a positive test. The two unknowns could be linked.

Cry me a river, Mr. Chass. Despite the best attempts of the article, I just could not find much sympathy for Palmeiro and his plight.

In a baseball sense, Palmeiro’s story is tragic. He testified in March before the House Committee on Wasting Time and Taxpayer Money that he had never taken steroids. In July, he became the latest member of the exclusive 3000-hit, 500-home run club. Then, 17 days later, he became the latest member of the exclusive “suspened 10 games for steroid use” club so in vogue this season.

After his suspension, Palmeiro would return for a few lackluster games before the Orioles sent him home. Later, he threw his on teammates under the bus, saying that a B-12 vitamin shot supplied to him by Miguel Tejada was tainted. For some odd reason, Tejada vaguely asked to be traded from a beleaguered Orioles organization.

Throughout the piece, the author sides with Palmeiro. The star was cleared by the House panel of perjury and trainers with the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers both denied that Palmeiro was on steroids. (On a tangential note, if these trainers were in a position to support Palmeiro, I can only wonder how many athletes they could turn on and name as steroid users during the drug’s heyday among baseball players.)

Yet for this outpouring of support for Palmeiro, I think something fishy is going on here. Somehow, Palmeiro was the only one of the Orioles who used the supply of Vitamin B-12 to test positive for steroids. He’s stuck to this B-12 story like a mosquito to fly paper. But his explanation has never really clicked with me. Something just isn’t right. To me, Palmeiro was found guilty, and he has yet to offer compelling proof that he is indeed innocent.

In Mr. Chass’ column, Palmeiro says, “If something happened that I’m not aware of, an intentional act by someone else, I don’t know. I can’t rule anything out.” Here, Palmeiro wants us to believe that many someone else on the Orioles spiked his B-12 shot! We better call out Scooby Doo and the gang to solve this one. Palmeiro, who calls himself naive in the interview, expects his adoring public to side with him on these conspiracy theory ramblings.

Then, Palmeiro goes on to use his body weight as a defense. He’s always weighed between 195 and 210 pounds during his playing career, he says. Doesn’t that absolve him of innocence? Not so fast. Time and again, medical experts have hypothesized that the beneficial effects of steroids come not in added strength but in faster healing. A player on drugs can heal from injury faster or they can rebound from the day-in, day-out travails of the baseball season. That doesn’t necessarily mean a player will bulk up or put on weight just by using steroids. While some players may use steroids to put on more muscle mass, others, as Matt Lawton’s recent admissions show, have used steroids to numb chronic pain that affects their playing ability.

Midway through the article, Palmeiro talks about joining the Yankees as a backup first baseman. I’m not too keen on this either, and I would be that the Yankees aren’t either. The Bombers already have one first baseman who had to apologize for something steroid-related. I would bet they don’t want another one with actual steroid baggage. Palmeiro says it would be a dream to play for the Yanks. I say keep dreaming, Rafael.

In the end, I don’t believe that steroids gave Palmeiro the career he had. Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest feats in professional sports, and no amount of steroids can, as far as I know, increase one’s ability in this regard. He earned his 3000 hits. Did he earn his 500 home runs? No one will know for sure. But until Palmeiro stops spewing out this exceedingly lame excuses, this fan won’t be able to respect him anymore.

Rocky off-season leaves many wondering whither the Red Sox

The 2005 off-season started out with a bang for the Boston Red Sox. While the team made an early exit from the playoffs, their mid-November acquisition of Josh Beckett sent shockwaves throughout the AL East. However, a general manager conflict, an unhappy slugger, and a few lost free agents have many fans questioning the Sox’s ability to succeed in 2006.

At the end of November, it was hard to argue against the Red Sox chances. They had after all just landed Josh Beckett, a 25-year-old pitcher with a Yankee-killing reputation (albeit in just one game) and were sitting pretty among their American League East counterparts. But all was not well in Red Sox Nation.

Most notable for Boston during this winter of their discontent has been the GM soap opera. Theo Epstein, the darling of Boston, and Larry Lucchino, New England’s own Evil Emperor, suffered a meltdown in their relationship that led to Theo’s untimely departure from Boston and a scramble to find a replacement that would play itself out over the course of nearly a month.

The Red Sox headed into the Winter Meetings with a four-headed GM monster and made out well for themselves. They netted Josh Beckett, a league-average pitcher away from Pro Player Stadium, Guillermo Mota, and third baseman Mike Lowell in exchange for some highly touted prospects. They had seemingly found a starter who could take over for Curt Schilling as the ace of the team if the old Curt Schilling never returned, and they found a replacement for Bill Mueller, the incumbent third baseman who left the team through free agency. But the lustre of this deal would soon wear off.

While the Red Sox eventually named Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington co-general managers, it was too late to repair the damage to the front office. The Boston media had already turned on Lucchino, one of the architects of the team’s recent success, and constant rumors of Epstein’s imminent return may have undermined Hoyer and Cherington’s attempts at establishing their own authority over the club. John Henry, the team’s owner, has addressed numerous rumors that he was reducing Lucchino’s power by denying them, and the players seem skeptical of the team’s administration right now.

On top of the GM soap opera came the news that Manny Ramirez, the soon-to-be 34-year-old slugger due $57 million over the next three years, wants out of Boston. For whatever reason, Manny is unhappy with his situation where he claims to have little privacy and is unhappy with management. So far, the team has not moved on the Manny situation. And who can blame them? It makes little sense for the team to trade a slugger with a career .314/.409/.599 line when they may have to pay his whole salary and wouldn’t be able to replace his bat in the lineup.

Meanwhile, the Sox sent away one of their disappointing players from 2005. After inking Edgar Renteria to a four-year, $40 million deal last winter, the team traded him to the Atlanta Braves for third base prospect Andy Marte. The Sox will also be paying some of Renteria’s salary. While the move was welcomed by both parties, it has opened a hole in the infield that has yet to be filled by a desirable candidate. While Mark Loretta and Tony Graffinino remain viable candidates to play second and short, it’s hard to say these two are the boppers the Sox may need.

With Manny’s unhappiness dangling over the team, the last few days have been disappointing if not disastrous for the team. First, the Red Sox lost their leadoff hitter and one of the chief Idiots Johnny Damon to what their fans call the New York Effin’ Yankees. While one of the chief Red Sox blogs (and one of the best baseball blogs around) has tried to convince themselves that Damon will not be missed, the truth is that the Red Sox are worse without Damon and at a disadvantage now that Damon is still playing within the division for their biggest rival. The Sox may yet find a replacement for Damon, but the defection hurts.

Then, over the last two days, the Red Sox lost out on two prizes: Troy Glaus and Kevin Millwood. The Texas Rangers signed Millwood to a five-year deal with an opt-out option for the fifth year. According to the Boston Herald, the Sox needed Millwood so that they could trade Bronson Arroyo or Matt Clement for a center fielder. Even Evan Brunell, Fire Brand founder and optimistic Red Sox fan, is finding this latest loss a little tough to swallow. While the impact of Millwood’s decision is mitigated by the Sox’s arm-rich farm system, the team does not want to ship off more young pitchers in order to win now. How this will sit with their judgmental fan base in 2006 is yet to be determined.

While Millwood opted for Texas, the Diamondbacks found a trading partner in the Toronto Blue Jays. Once again, the Sox lost out on a key potential cog to another division rival. While Glaus could have given the Sox the flexibility to trade Manny for another slugger or Andy Marte for a short stop such as Julio Lugo as had been rumored, the third baseman will instead head to a revamped Blue Jays team that hopes to give Boston and New York a run for their money next year.

As the Red Sox and their fans look forward to the end of 2005, questions are swirling around this team for 2006. Right now, the Red Sox are full of holes. They have a 32-year-old third baseman coming off a season that saw his OBP drop to .298. They have no center fielder, no leadoff man, and no short stop. Their starting first baseman has a total of 9 games of Major League experience at the position. They do not know whether Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke will resemble their 2005 performances or their 2004 performances, and Matt Clement forever remains an enigma as well. Meanwhile, no one knows whether Manny Ramirez or David Wells will still be on the team come April.

On top of all of this drama, the Sox have dealt with a few significant backlashes from the Johnny Damon deal as well. One was the news from Damon that he decided to jump to New York because of the shaky management picture, and he did not think that Manny would be in Boston next season. He wanted out. Now, it seems as though the Sox cannot land the free agents they want and cannot get the guys they need through trades. Just a few weeks ago, baseball writers thought the Yankees were the team suffering from a lack of free agent interest. It’s funny how the shoe is now on the other foot in this Boston-New York rivalry.

To fill in some of their missing pieces, the Red Sox may have to weigh the options of trading away some of the upper echelons of their farm system. They have quite a few almost-Major-League-ready players who are highly desirable bargaining chips. Other teams such as the Devil Rays, Mariners, and Indians have no real compelling reason to trade away Julio Lugo, Jeremy Reed, and Coco Crisp, respectively, for players of lesser value. But the Sox may not want to trade away future stars right now.

With a few months left before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, the Red Sox off-season is far from over. But the next few months will be key for the Sox hopes of capturing a fourth consecutive playoff berth in 2006.

2005 By the Numbers

With just a few more days left in 2005, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the numbers that shaped the 2005 season. From a spring steroid scandal to a team in the nation’s capital to a second Sox team shedding decades of bad luck, 2005 proved to be yet another unique season for ages.

The 2005 Playoffs: One for the Number
0: Number of home runs White Sox lead-off hitter Scott Podsednik hit during the 2005 season.

1: Number of home runs White Sox lead-off hitter Scott Podsednik hit during the 2005 postseason World Series. Podsednik won game 2 of the World Series with a walk-off shot against Astros closer Brad Lidge. Edit: Thanks to Jon for pointing out my mistake here. Podsednik did indeed homer off the Sox in the ALDS.

4: Number of complete-game victories the White Sox starting rotation threw during the American League Championship Series. The four starters became the first pitchers to accomplish this feat since the 1956 World Series.

88: Number of years it took the White Sox to win another World Series. Their last title was in 1917, one year before the Red Sox won their last title for 86 years.

97: Number of years since the Chicago Cubs last captured a World Series championship.

412: Number of feet that Albert Pujol’s monstrous three-run home run in game 5 of the NLCS traveled. While the Cardinals would fall in six games to the Astros, Pujols’ blast will leave a lasting impression in the minds of Brad Lidge and baseball fans everywhere.

Papi, A-Rod MVP race incites debate

10: Number of games David Ortiz appeared in the field. He saw just 78 innings of action at first base this year.

10: Number of runs Yankees third baseman drove in on April 26. The Yankees beat the Angels 12-4 that night.

15: Number of at-bats David Ortiz had with the bases loaded.

20: Number of runs Ortiz drove in with the bases loaded.

24: Number of points by which Alex Rodriguez captured the AL MVP over Boston Red Sox DH David Ortiz. The award with a final voting tally of 331-307 was one of the more hotly contested MVPs in recent history, and the debate on the Internet raged for weeks.

‘He’s going the distance.’

5: Number of complete games thrown by Roy Halliday in just 19 starts this season. He was on pace for 8 complete games before injuries derailed his season.

4: Number of shut-outs thrown by NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter.

5: Number of shut-outs thrown by Marlins’ ace Dontrelle Willis.

7: Complete games hurled by both Chris Carpenter and Dontrelle Willis. The duo led the NL in that category.

Blue Jay hurlers rake in the dough

42: Number of career saves for B.J. Ryan. The lefty has just one season of closer experience under his belt.

47: Number, in millions of dollars, Ryan will earn closing for the Blue Jays over the next five years.

49: Number of career wins for A.J. Burnett.

50: Number of career losses for A.J. Burnett

55: Number, in millions of dollars, Burnett will earn starting for the Blue Jays over the next five years.

Griffey, Giambi among comeback stars

0: Number of times Yankees slugger Jason Giambi mentioned the word “steroids” in his apology in March. People are still wondering what it was Giambi apologized for.

35: Home runs Ken Griffey, Jr., launched this year. This marks the first year since 2000 that Griffey cracked the 30-home run barrier.

108: Walks by Jason Giambi. After a .208/.342/.379 2004 season marred by, well, everything, Giambi apologized for something and then rebounded to hit .271 with a league-leading .440 OBP and a .535 slugging percentage.

Baseball celebrates progress in combatting steroids

0: Number of times Rafael Palmeiro has taken the blame for his steroid suspension that came just a few months after he told Congress he “never” used performance-enhancing drugs.

1: Number of teammates Palmeiro threw under the bus. He fingered Miguel Tejada as the supplier of a tainted B12 vitamin shot. Tejada has since expressed his displeasure with the Orioles franchise.

12: Players suspended 10 days for violating baseball’s new drug policy.

17: Number of days after become the latest member of the 3000-hit club that Rafael Palmeiro was suspended for violating the drug policy.

26: At-bats for Palmeiro after he returned from his suspension. Palmeiro, who in March testified before Congress against steroid use, was asked to leave the team before the start of September.

50: Days a first-time drug offender will be suspended starting in 2006.

Nationals, Red Sox, Yankees see large crowds

226: Consecutive sell-outs at Fenway Park. The 35,000-capacity stadium has become the New England sports destination.

33,651: Fans per game cheering on the Washington Nationals at RFK Stadium. The 2004 Expos suffered through an average of just 9,356 fans per home game.

4,090,440: Fans who passed through the turnstiles at Yankee Stadium this year. The 2005 Yankees became just the third team in Major League history to crack the 4-million mark.

But who’s counting?

51: Days until pitchers and catchers start reporting for Spring Training.

97: Days until Opening Day 2006

Looking ahead to baseball in 2006

With Christmas and Hanukkah on the horizon, it’s a quiet time of year for baseball. The executives, agents and players all have the next few days off to unwind at home. While some minor signings occurred over the last few days, there was nothing groundbreaking that warrants much new discussion. So I thought I would do a list of stories that await baseball fans in 2006.

1. World Baseball Classic: Spring Training this year is more than just exhibition. For hundreds of players, the games in March will be all about national pride and global entertainment. While in the U.S., baseball fans view the WBC as a marketing ploy, many countries are taking this competition quite seriously. No matter what, it will be fun to see baseball games in March that don’t involve guys wearing number 72 playing first base and batting fourth.

2. A New Basic Agreement: It’s hard to believe that four years have gone by so fast but it’s that time again. This season, the owners and the players will once again work out a new Basic Agreement. The owners may push for contraction, a better revenue sharing system, and a strict drug testing program. The players will resist a salary cap and limits on spending. It’s the same old song and dance, but it’s entertaining.

3. Johnny Damon in the Bronx: A week ago, I would have been shocked at that title, but Johnny Damon is indeed on the Yankees. While many Yankee fans aren’t welcoming Damon with open arms, it’ll be hard for fans of the Bombers to resist the temptation of this star-studded lineup. Can the 2006 Yankees score 1000 runs?

4. The Roger Clemens Sweepstakes: As Clemens and the Astros are not heading to arbitration, the first major story of 2006 is bound to be Clemens’ destination. Will he wait until May to sign with Houston? Will Boston (a town Clemens seems to dislike) and New York (a town Clemens loves) engage in an all-out bidding will? Will the Rocket finally retire? We should know by the end of January.

5. Manny Being Manny Somewhere Else? On the heels of Damon’s departure, Ramirez, The New York Daily News reported, is pushing hard for a trade and would consider the Mets. It’s possible that the Red Sox could be without two-thirds of their World Series-winning outfielders and two important cogs in their lineup come Opening Day.

5a. Shaking Up the AL East: With turnover on the Sox and the new co-GMs struggling to assert their authority, is this the year the Red Sox finish third? Will age catch up to the Yankees and they fall out of first place? Can the B.J./A.J. tandem in Toronto lead the Blue Jays to the playoffs for the first time since 1992? Stay tuned. The uber-competitive AL East should provide great drama.

6. The Year of the Mets: The Mets have their closer in Billy Wagner, their catcher in Paul LoDuca, and their All Star first baseman in Carlos Delgado. They want Manny and another starting pitcher. They’re poised to be everyone’s pre-season favorites for the NL East. Can someone finally unseat the 14-time division champion Atlanta Braves?

7. The Los Angeles Red Sox: Since Ned Colletti replaced Paul DePodesta as the Dodgers’ General Manager, the team has become the Red Sox West. Colletti brought in Grady Little to manager, Bill Mueller to play third, and Nomar Garciaparra to play first. With Derek Lowe as their projected Opening Day starter, it seems that Colletti is trying to bring in proven winners. Add Rafael Furcal to the mix and this team has as good as shoot as any to win a division where 85 wins might just be enough to capture a division title.

8. A Bondsian Pursuit of Ruth: Barry Bonds is sitting pretty with 708 home runs. The Giants slugger, who claims to be healthy and ready to play, is just six home runs behind Babe Ruth and 47 behind the all-time leader Hank Aaron. I’m sure all eyes will be on Bonds every time he steps to the plate this season. As he says he’ll play in the World Baseball Classic, Bonds-mania should build to a fever pitch this summer.

9. Nationals, DC, MLB Working Out a Stadium Deal: Yesterday, I wrote about the failed stadium negotiations between MLB and the Washington, DC city council. As the MLB-imposed stadium deadline is fast approaching, the City Council will have to act. This off-field drama will be the last big story of 2005 and the first big one of 2006. Will MLB call in an arbitrator to mediate the case? Will a failed stadium deal drag baseball away from DC for the last time?

10. Breaking Curses: In 2004, the Red Sox broke years of bad luck. In 2005, the White Sox shed their losing ways. Is it time for the Cubs to reclaim a crown after 98 title-less seasons?

11. Two Books: Finally, as a bonus, there are two books coming out that should attract a lot of attention from the baseball blogging universe. On February 17, just as pitchers and catchers are heading south, Dayn Perry, a writer for FoxSports and Baseball Prospectus, is releasing his book Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (and It’s Not How You Think). Then, on March 20, as we’ll begin to hear more about the collective bargaining negotiations, Bronx Banter writer Alex Belth will see his book Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights arrive in stores. It’ll be a good season for baseball literature.

As the holidays are upon, I want to wish all of my readers a Happy Hanukkah and a Merry Christmas. I hope this holiday season sees everyone enjoying time with family. See you on Monday.

DC, MLB feud a primer in bad business decisions

Major League Baseball, one of the world’s most popular professional sports leagues, is a lucrative multi-billion-dollar global business. But for all of its success, MLB certainly hasn’t handled the relocation, sale, and stadium construction project for the league-owned Washington Nationals with grace or aplomb.

In fact, I could even go so far as to call the current state of things in the Nation’s Capital an unmitigated disaster. Let’s review.

Right before the 2002 season, with contraction ostensibly on the mind, the 30 Major League Baseball owners collectively purchased the Montreal Expos in a deal that saw ownership teams rotate from Montreal to Florida and from Florida to Boston. The cost: a paltry $120 million.

As the owners and players’ association hammered out a new basic agreement in 2002, contraction slid off the table. However, it was clear from attendance figures that Montreal could not sustain the Expos. Whether this was because of an apathetic and poor ownership group or fan dissatisfaction, the world will never know. But for a few years, the Expos’ owners worked with a few locales to find a new home for the Expos.

On September 29, 2004, the day of the last Expos game in Montreal, Major League Baseball announced that Washington, DC, would be the new home of the Montreal Expos. One aspect of the move would eventually prove highly contentious. Major League Baseball worked out a deal with the “winning” city that the city would have to guarantee a stadium for the new team. This is a point of contention that could prove to be MLB’s undoing in the District of Columbia.

Over the last year, Major League Baseball and the Washington City Council have played politics. And they’ve played it poorly. Three council members in favor of the stadium deal were voted out of office. No lease has been ratified by the council. Currently, the mayor of Washington is calling for a new stadium while Marion Barry, an entrenched but troubled DC politico, claims to have enough votes to shoot down the lease. Major League Baseball won’t pay more than $20 million if the stadium construction suffers from cost overruns. Meanwhile, estimates by the city’s financial officer has the cost of the stadium up from $535 million to nearly $700 million.

It’s a bloody mess, and that capsule summary doesn’t even begin to address the complexities and backroom dealings that have gone on between Mayor Anthony Williams, Major League Baseball, and various members of the D.C. city council. But details aside, there is little doubt that this debacle could have turned out well for both groups.

First, Major League Baseball is certainly to blame. The owners know that when they finally sell the rechristened Nationals, they should pull in upwards of $450 million. Spread among the other 29 teams, that’s $11.38 million per team. Nearly everyone could afford their very own Johnny Damon! So of course, these businessmen wanted to ensure themselves the best possible team. While this money could have gone to a privately funded stadium, that plan wouldn’t have made much business sense to a bunch of owners driven by their desire to see a better bottom line.

While the owners have stood firm in their insistence that a stadium be secured before selling the team, the team itself is suffering under their watch. The team’s lack of an owner means that no money is available for free agents, and team leaders are leaving for more lucrative pastures. Esteban Loaiza, a mainstay of the 2005 Nationals rotation, jumped ship for a fairly low sum of $7 million a year. The ownerless Nationals were priced out of the A.J. Burnett sweepstakes and don’t have the resources to field a competitive team next year. In the tight NL East, this team has a near-lock on fourth place.

Meanwhile, the owners were supposed to be in place by the All Star Break, by the middle of August, the end of the regular season, the start of the playoffs, the end of the World Series, before Thanksgiving, before 2006, before the next presidential race, before I retire. Currently, fans aren’t siding with Major League Baseball. No one is sympathetic to a money-making business trying to have someone else pay for its facility. The Expos/Nationals will continue to flounder and will continue to lose fan support as this saga drags on.

Next, Mayor Anthony Williams carries his fair share of the blame. Why would Williams negotiate a deal that forces the District to fund the stadium with no help from local counties and other states? After all, the Nationals do draw a significant number of fans from the Maryland and Virginia areas. It’s not fair for a city with high crime, high poverty, and poor schools to foot a $535 million stadium bill to go along with another $100 million in upgrades to the existing public transit system. In fact, Mayor Williams allowed Major League Baseball to claim an upper hand that it didn’t really have. Had Williams stood firm on a claim that MLB had to find private funds for the stadium, chances are that the move still would have gone through.

Finally, there is the city council. They’re in danger of losing the Nationals. Now, I don’t think the council should accept a bum deal. Instead, they should take a firm stand against this lease but do so in a way that encourages MLB to find an owner and find the funds to build the stadium. There are ways to procure funds that don’t involve bilking the D.C. taxpayers for years on end.

So then, how would do I think this whole debacle could have been avoided? Easy.

I think the owners should have sold the Nationals as soon as it was decided that Washington, D.C., was the team’s new home. With a new ownership group in place, the council could have worked out a deal for a stadium that involved public and private funds. The new ownership team could have built public support by investing in the team and showing Washington that they had a potential winner on their hands. With an ownership group in the place, stadium talks would have wrapped up by now.

Currently, the situation is worsening. Some of the groups bidding for the team have told council members that they will cover the cost overruns, but Major League Baseball is telling potential bidders to stay quite on the issue. They want to squeeze every last cent out of Washington, D.C.

In the end, this saga should serve as a warning to other cities. Don’t let Major League Baseball stick its talons into your potential tax coffers. At the same time, the cities should learn that stadiums built with public funds do not deliver on their lofty economic promises.

So as this tale stumbles to the finish line and either a stadium deal is reached or the process goes to arbitration, the failed sale of the Washington Nationals is one more black mark on Major League Baseball. Too bad this one’s happening in a city whose leading political institution already has its regulatory eye on professional sports. There’s nothing like giving your critics more ammunition.


RSS River Ave. Blues

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