Archive for the 'Reflections' Category

Referees shoulder an unfair load of the blame

I’m not one to rush to the defense of a referee. In high school, as a catcher, I experienced my fair share of bad calls, questionable strike zones, and umpires who were trying to attract more attention than they deserved. But this tendency to blame referees is starting to get out of hand.

In Sports pages across the nation, NFL referees are getting a bad rap for blowing big calls in the Super Bowl. The part-time referees are to blame, the columnists argue. The Super Bowl was fixed. The NFL wanted the Steelers and Jerome Bettis to win, Seattle Seahawks fans say.

Not that blaming the refs for a team’s on-field failures is anything new. The NBA referees have been called everything from inept to incompetent to blind, the old classic. NFL referees routinely come under scrutiny this time of year as they have been accused of idol-worshipping Patriots QB Tom Brady year after year.

And, as this is a baseball blog, I would be remiss to neglect Doug Eddings, A.J. Pierzynski, and the phantom dropped third strike from a pivotal game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship Series.

Everywhere, it seems, umpires are the scapegoats for losses. Costly plays are magnified and overanalyzed. Bad calls are replayed to no end, and sports talk radio hosts roast these umpires and referees alive.

Umpires have become victims of technology that has surpassed human capabilities, and it’s not fair to them. During a game, an umpire does not have the luxury of super-slow-mo TIVO’d instant replays. They have to decide in a split second or two whether or not the ball hit the ground, whether or not the receiver made enough contact with the defender to prevent the defender from getting to a pass, whether or not the pitch was inside or outside, high or low.

Meanwhile, the rest of us sit at home and are inundated with graphics and flashy videos. FOX slows down their centerfield camera angle to show us that, well, maybe the ball hit the ground and maybe it didn’t. ABC shows us that, well, maybe Ben Roethlisberger crossed the goal line and maybe he didn’t. But we can’t come to that conclusion until after watching the same shot 10 times and slowed down so that Tim McCarver or John Madden can give us a frame-by-frame analysis of the questionable call.

As armchair referees, sports fans have been exposed to the magnified failings of referees. Forty years ago, we might have had an idea that the referees had messed up. Did that ball hit the ground? Who knows? The TV feed was live and replay technology was in its development stages. But with the arrival of the computer age, replay technology allows viewers at home to see beyond the immediate action on the field.

Some sports have decided to take full advantage of the technology. The NFL allows for reviews. Although, the Roethlisberger touchdown this week and the Troy Polamalu overturned interception two weeks ago make me wonder if the technology is really improving officiating. Other sports, like baseball, do not make use of replay. The umpires, league officials say, have always had the last word on the field, and that tradition stands.

In my opinion, replay technology is slowly become an evil in the world of sports. It allows fans to blame something other than their team’s poor play for a loss. Did bad officiating lead Seattle to a botched set of downs with one minute left in the first half on Sunday? Did bad officiating lead to poor clock management with 30 seconds left in the game? Did bad officiating lead to a punt attempt on fourth down and six minutes left in the game?

Unless Mike Holmgren was reffing the game and trying to coach at the same time, the answers to those questions are no.

It doesn’t stop with Sunday either. A bad call in Chicago in October may have cost the Angels game 2 of the ALCS, but they then went on to lose three more games in a row. That one bad call couldn’t have cost them the series as fans of the time tried to say.

Replay technology is tricky business. It can undermine the authority of those charged with making calls on the field, but it can also make fans forget that their teams are fallible. It is a technology that could improves sports, but so far, no one has quite figured out how to implement it successfully.

Blame the refs for making bad calls, but the teams on the field have much more of an impact on the games’ outcomes than do the officials.

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Pondering burning out, fading away, or leaving on top

I’m a big fan of the FX cop drama The Shield. I’ve been watching regularly since a friend showed me the first ten episodes of the first season. After a stellar fourth season featuring Glenn Close, the fifth season, which started yesterday, has all the markings of the show’s final season. It’s longer than any other season, and the protagonist Vic Mackey may finally have to answer for his checkered past. It’s clearly being billed as the final showdown.

Interestingly, The Shield is also at its peak. The reviews this week for the new season were glowing, and the acting is fresh and intense. The story lines are still gripping, and the characters are better than ever. Nothing seems tired yet. For an industry that often insists on milking stale shows for all they’ve got until they are rotten, it’s refreshing to see a show’s creators decide they want to go out on top.

To paraphrase Neil Young (or is that Jack Black?), while The Shield isn’t exactly burning out, it sure ain’t fading away.

This baseball off-season, the free agent picture couldn’t be much different as a group of aging sluggers seem more intent on fading away than bowing out gracefully. Led by Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa, a group of nearly-definite first-ballot Hall of Famers haven’t yet come to grips with the march of age pushing ever onward.

Piazza, the former Met catcher, is the poster boy for this group. Piazza, who just turned 37, is one of the most prolific offensive catchers in the history of the game, but he’s fallen hard and fast this decade. In 2000, Piazza led the Mets back to the World Series for the first time in 14 years. In a five-game Series that was exciting for New Yorkers only, the Mets lost handily. But that year, Piazza had a season to remember.

For the Wild Card Mets, Piazza hit .324/.398/.614 with 38 home runs and 113 RBIs. He couldn’t quite capture the MVP, finishing third to Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds, and Piazza never matched those totals. In 2005, he finished as a shell of his former self. In just 113 games, he hit just .251/.326/.452 with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs. Never a great defensive catcher, he has become a liability behind the plate. The Mets, playing in the DH-less NL, opted not to re-up with Mike.

For all of the wear and tear Piazza has suffered through, he’s not ready to call it quits. While no one is knocking at his door, Piazza thinks he can still help out the right team as a Designated Hitter and back-up catcher. Slowly, the rumors have dried up though. Originally, the Twins, Orioles, Blue Jays and A’s were interested, but one-by-one, the suitors have stopped calling. The Angels have denied any interest.

Could Mike’s swan song really be with Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic? Just 3 home runs away from 400, Piazza would choose to keep going, but at what cost? Is it better for him to latch on with a directionless team for a few at-bats or just call it quits now? Hang up the spurs; sit back and wait for Cooperstown to come calling.

In the same boat is Sammy Sosa. Tarnished by a bad attitude, a foot injury and a shaky appearance before Congress last season, Sosa had his worst season since the first George Bush was president. Just four years removed from his 60-home run, 160-RBI campaign, the 36-year-old hit .220/.295/.376 with just 14 home runs and 45 RBIs. Like Piazza, Sosa is nearing a milestone; he is just 12 home runs away from becoming just the fifth player to hit 600 home runs.

He may have to get there as a member of the Washington Nationals, playing literally down the street from the scene of the infamous steroid hearings. While being on the Nationals is worse than being on, say, the Royals these days, Sosa’s stock has fallen so far that he will have to take an incentive-laden contract to play in an extreme pitcher’s park. If he duplicates last season’s success, he may not even reach 600 this year. Fade away or hang it up? That’s always the question.

Sosa and Piazza aren’t the only two trying to find a few more at-bats before succumbing to age. Frank Thomas, also 37 and coming off a 2005 lost to injury, may land in Oakland. Thomas has spent his entire 16-year career as a member of the Chicago White Sox, but he’s topped the 74-game plateau just twice in the last five years. Why tarnish a legacy for one more season in a different uniform?

Last but not least comes Rafael Palmeiro, waging finger, infected B12 shot, and all. Palmeiro gained fame by becoming the third member of the 3000-hit, 500-home run club. Then he became a member of the Steroid Club. After testifying that he never, ever used steroids, Major League Baseball found out that, well, maybe he wasn’t telling the truth. Palmeiro has yet to find a new home, but will anyone give the disgraced slugger the chance? He tried to throw a teammate of his under the bus, and his legacy comes now with a big black mark that may even shatter his Hall of Fame hopes. Palmeiro burned out last year. Now he’ll fade away this year.

So as the last few months of the Hot Stove League wind down and the last few episodes of The Shield carry me toward the start of baseball season, I’ll be witnessing two different sides of one coin. The Shield will go out on top, and fans will remember it for a long time. Meanwhile, Piazza, Sosa, Thomas, and Palmeiro will fade away, aging sluggers trying to recapture the glory days of their careers before facing the long, hard path toward retirement.

Baseball blogging as an exercise in entertainment and self-improvement

Over at The Juice, Will Carroll’s sometimes-outlet for blogging, the Baseball Prospectus author penned an interesting piece this weekend on the current state of baseball blogging.

Ostensibly, Carroll wrote to bemoan a lack of top-notch talent among baesball bloggers. In his typically controversial style (important player on a playoff team, anyone?), he wrote:

So I looked again. I’m not sure that right now I could name the ten best baseball bloggers. Maybe my eye for talent is miscast. What I don’t see right now is the next Jaffe, Belth, or Gleeman, but what I do see is what feels like the start of a sea-change in blogs. We’re shifting from revolution to evolution and the use of the blog metaphor by ESPN, newspapers, and even teams could well supercede the bloggers by mere weight of marketing and distribution.

Will’s challenge to name or not name the ten best bloggers, however haughty it may be, got me thinking: Why do I blog about baseball?

For two years now, I’ve toiled away writing about baseball. I’ve written for a group blog over at Blogspot; I’ve written a column for an independent site that has now gone to an all-Podcast format; I still write for one of conglomerate blogging networks that Carroll mentions. I’ve never seen a cent of compensation for the time I’ve spent writing, and I don’t include any of these sites on my résumé because employers just don’t give much weight to something you can do without any modicum of talent.

What amounts to an unpaid, uncredited hobby comes with a lot of sacrifices. Some nights, I write well past when I would like to be in bed. Other nights, I just don’t have the time to put in an adequate amount of research. Most of the time, what you see and read has been read by no one else so it’s raw and unedited. As someone who edited his college paper and is used to seeing works go through multiple revisions with feedback from multiple perspectives, it’s odd to see something I write get “published” as a first draft.

Meanwhile, I am just one of hundreds of baseball voices on the Internet. There are professional sports writers for sports-oriented Web sites, the Peter Gammonses and Jayson Starks, the Ken Rosenthals of the world. Then, there are the newspaper guys of various stripes. I don’t always like or agree with the words of Tyler Kepner, Murray Chass, Bill Plaschke, or the most infamous of all Dan Shaughnessy. But I am jealous of their readership; just be dint of their being published in a newspaper means they have readership on a magnitude of at least 40,000 times what I see. Are they 40,000 times better than I am? Probably not. But that’s beside the point.

Then, there’s everyone else in trying to cut it as a baseball blogger. That blogroll is a woefully incomplete list of sites. You have conglomerates and individuals who have built up followings. You have your David Pintos and your Baseball Toaster teams. You have everyone on Blogspot who want to write for themselves and people on MVN and SportsBlogs who enjoy the benefits of an established network.

But what all of those discordant voices mean for baseball is that despite its popularity, baseball blogging, as Will and others have written in the comments to his post, carries with it a different set of results than political blogging. Whereas in politics, bloggers have made waves in the mainstream media (and I’m thinking about Dan Rather here), in baseball, bloggers have been somewhat responsible for the growing acceptance of statistical thinking in baseball. But even that should be credited to the approach of people within the game, and plenty of writers – Plaschke among them – look down upon the stats community.

In my mind, baseball blogging isn’t necessarily about creating a seachange or making waves. Rather, it’s about making people think about the game as they watch it and enjoy it. What does it mean for our team that they signed a 32-year-old coming off of two injury-field years? How does our ballpark affect the way our new slugging second baseman will hit? Do other people agree with me about Curt Schilling’s attitude, Dungy’s decisions? Did they notice that interesting article? It’s not really about changing the baseball world.

So all of this – a rather rambling look at the baseball blogging world – brings me back to my original question: Why do I write about baseball? I write about baseball because I like to think that if 150 people read what I write, that even just 10 of them will think about it. I write because maybe something I say is an original idea, and someone just like me stops to think for just one minute about what I write.

I write for the feedback too. I am always trying to become a better writer. I try to make a better argument and hone my style. So please leave me feedback. That’s the lifeblood of any writer. Writers can only improve when someone else tells them how to be better.

Finally, I write to share my love of baseball with like-minded fans. Millions of baseball love baseball, and I like to connect with other fans. I’ve made great friendships through baseball, and I hope others have too.

In ending his piece, Will Carroll wrote, “At this time next year, the ten good bloggers had better be doing what Belth and Jaffe did.” Belth is currently writing a column for Sports Illustrated’s Web site. Sure, I’d love to be doing that. But at this time next year, I just want to see a few more people reading my site, responding, telling me that I’ve improved as a writer, and that what I’m writing is encouraging dialogue.

While my own analysis may portray blogging an exercise in vanity, I don’t mind. While Carroll looks for baseball bloggers to be something else, something that he doesn’t articulate, I just want to entertain you and improve myself at the same time. That doesn’t seem like it’s too much to ask.


RSS River Ave. Blues

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