Monday, June 5, 2017

Putting the Super in College Baseball



Super Regional bound!
The idea of combining March Madness with the NFL's Wild-Card Weekend with MLB's League Championship Series sounds like something that could never happen.

But it does, and it's called the College Baseball Super Regionals. Where Cinderalla can win (March Madness) it lasts a while but isn't overly drawn out (Wild-Card Weekend) (I'm looking at you, NBA playoffs where teams play four games in two weeks) and there's still a World Series to play when it's over (MLB).

If you're not familiar, the Super Regionals are a best-of-three played on (usually) three consecutive days, and the winner goes to the College Baseball World Series in Omaha. 16 teams make the Supers, only 8 go to the World Series. All three Super Regional games are played at the same location, but in game two the host team is the "visiting" team to make it seem slightly more fair.

Rarely does the host team breeze through. I've seen visiting teams rock home team's worlds by winning two straight (Oregon, predicted to waltz to the Series one year, lost on a walk-off in game two and hasn't sniffed Omaha since). 

As you might expect, these things are intense. Even with metal bats, they tend to be low-scoring affairs that aren't decided until late in the game. And it seems like at least four are going on at the same time, which is an additional March Madness part of the equation.

The metal bats, artificial turf and the fact that it's "college baseball" tends to make plenty of people- even big-time sports fans- ignore the Supers. That's a mistake. If you like March Madness and Bowl Games and the "amateurism" of college sports, the Supers are a ride you need to experience.

There are only two teams you should be rooting for if you're just coming into this now.

The top underdog and Cinderella this year by far is Davidson, who you may know more for college basketball and a certain best NBA 3-point shooter of all-time known as the Baby-Faced Assassin. Davidson went into the Chapel Hill regional as the four-seed after a middling season (13-11 in the A-10, not exactly a powerhouse conference and then winning the conference tourney) and given no chance. Well, they ripped through it demolishing host and number 2 overall seed North Carolina twice.

They will play at Texas A&M, who won the Houston Regional (though since Houston's about 2 hours from College Station it wasn't exactly a tough road trip) by also not dropping a game. That Super Regional will be in College Station so if Davidson is to advance it will again require winning all games on the road.

If Davidson wasn't gathering the all Cinderella headlines, Sam Houston State would be able to play the part equally well. The Bearkats (not a typo) were the 3-seed in Lubbock (Texas Tech) Regional and didn't drop a game as well to make their first-ever Super Regional. (Fun fact that will win you money: Sam Houston State is not in Houston. Instead, it's in Huntsville, Texas, about an hour north.)

So, please, do me a favor. Ignore the "ping" of the bat (hard to do, every time I hear it I exclaim "Ping!") and try on the Super Regionals. You'll be glad you did.

Bearkats "kan't kontain" their excitement
photos courtesy: charlotteobserver.com, twitter.com/bearkatsbsb

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sgt. Pepper's Most Important Club Band


Pepper's People

There’s a big difference between “Most Important,” “Best,” and “Favorite,” but those terms tend to get used interchangeably when they’re not.

The most biased of the three is “favorite,” because it is the term most based- at least in theory- on personal experience. It’s why there are 700 brands of peanut butter in the grocery store, because everyone has their personal “favorite.” Chunky or creamy? Oil at the top or not? Roasted or boiled? All-natural or just mostly natural? Combined with jelly or not? (Whoever invented that was most assuredly high at the time of invention and creation.) Really chunky or just kind of chunky?

The toughest use of the word “favorite” is in the world of art and other personal expression. Your “favorite” piece of art is just as valid an opinion of somebody that has years of study and training in that field. If you don’t like cubism then Pablo Picasso is never going to be your favorite artist and there’s nothing a passionate Picasso person can do to change your mind. If you think impressionism is just a bunch of dots that don’t add up then going to a Monet exhibition isn’t high on your agenda.

I bring this up at the start because while The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” rapidly approaching its 50th birthday in June, is the most important Beatles album and the most important album in the history of rock’n’roll. You can make a good argument that their “best” album is their final studio outcome, “Abbey Road,” and my personal “favorite” is “Rubber Soul.” (If you ask me that 90% of the time- sometimes I’ll answer Pepper and sometimes I’ll answer Abbey before drawing a sharp intake of breath and going back to Soul. "Revolver" will also come to mind but I’ve never actually given that as an answer.)

But in terms of importance- both to their careers and the history of rock- “Sgt. Pepper” wins the “Most Important” category and there’s nothing that comes close, because anything that comes close came *after* “Sgt. Pepper,” which allowed your (wrong answer of) "Most Important Album" to be created.

That part gets forgotten when discussing “Sgt. Pepper’s” place in history. Like I said at the top, people mix up “Most Important” with “Best” and “Favorite.” The “Most Important” film of all time isn’t your “Favorite” and nor is it the “Best” film of all, it’s 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” which was the first American film to use the now-taken-for-granted concepts of multiple storylines, on-location shooting, camera movement, cross-cutting, and just being a typical “Western.” Nothing complex that you watch today, from “Lost” to “Mad Men,” and especially “Game of Thrones,” exists without “The Great Train Robbery,” just like no rock release exists without “Sgt. Pepper.”

Pepper is the “Most Important Rock Album of All Time” because it was the first rock album to be a full presentation from start to finish, beginning with the first thing you see, the cover art. Nobody in rock had gone to that much trouble for a rock album cover. Even the second-most intricate rock album cover art to that point, the “Revolver” cover, was just Beatles friend Klaus Voorman doing a line drawing and inserting some photos of the lads where he wanted (including John Lennon in a suit of armor he had named “Sidney”). The Pepper cover was done up as a proper photo shoot, with months of planning in advance and several dozen people involved.

The next thing that Pepper did- which again, had never been done on a rock album, and probably nowhere else except a “Sing Along with Mitch Miller” album- was the printing of the lyrics. Nowadays we search for song lyrics all the time. To have them with the album (if you buy the physical CD/LP/8-track/Cassette) is just an automatic. But it had never been done before for a rock album. The lyrics to the songs had never been considered important (there’s that word again) enough to include. Not to say there weren’t some damned clever rock’n’roll lyrics before then (think of pretty much any Chuck Berry song, and of course The Beach Boys and “Pet Sounds,” the final big Pepper inspiration), but they had been summarily dismissed as non-important by the guys in the suits who made the final album decisions.

George Martin and lads in studio during Pepper sessions, January 1967
And there lies the most important thing that “Sgt. Pepper” ever did, which is taking complete control of the album away from the suits. While Beatles producer George Martin is rightly hailed as a genius for how he helped the Beatles grow from “Love Me Do” to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” part of his genius was not forcing the four young musicians into the corner that the music establishment had placed rock’n’roll in 1962. If they wanted to make an unconventional sound, he let them make an unconventional sound (starting 1964’s “I Feel Fine” with intentional amplifier feedback is an obvious example, and so is George Harrison’s use of the sitar starting on “Rubber Soul” in 1965). If they wanted anything done differently, he didn’t make them change their vision- he tried to make it come true using his vast knowledge of recording techinques and encouraging studio engineers to "think outside the box" (decades before that stunningly overused executive-speak term was created).

So, while George Martin is officially listed as Pepper’s producer, he saw his role as taking what the band wanted to do and making it happen. And not, as was typical for many other rock producers at the time, giving the band some material they didn’t want and making them do it his way. When John Lennon wanted crazy steam organ sounds for "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," Martin didn't say it was impossible. No, instead he took a reel of steam organ tape, had an engineer cut it into four- or five-inch strips and then throw the strips in the air, let them fall to the ground, and put them back together the way they landed. The result? Crazy steam organ sounds. Played backwards, upside down, and upside down and backwards.

It helped that before he produced The Beatles, Martin produced comedy records for Peter Sellers and the like and got used to very unusual sound requests. When his young musicians then asked for creativity, Martin was coming from a place that saw unusual sound as just another element in making innovative records. Although his look was buttoned-up, his mind was anything but. Martin's credit in helping The Beatles grow will always be underrated.

When people tell me that U2’s “The Joshua Tree” is a better album than “Sgt. Pepper,” I try not to argue too much, because what they’re really telling me that they like Tree better than Pepper. They can have that opinion.

But when you look at Tree- based on a specific theme, intentionally-photographed front cover, printed lyrics, complete artist control over the songs, instrumentation and running order- you see “Sgt. Pepper’s” fingerprints all over it. Every member of U2 will tell you they couldn’t have done what they did for Tree or their entire career without The Beatles and “Sgt. Pepper.”

Every rock artist that came after The Beatles and Pepper will agree with that statement. And even if there is a rare artist that won’t cite the Liverpool lads as an influence, that band’s major influence will tell you that The Beatles made their career possible.

And that tells you all you need to know about Pepper. “Best”? Arguable. “Favorite”? Always a lively debate.

But “Most Important Rock Album of All Time” isn’t a debate. That was obvious 50 years ago, and it’s still true today.     



Monday, April 10, 2017

Welcome to My Fantasy Baseball Life

With this guy on the club, you always have a chance

Every year I join the same fantasy baseball league, and every year I stop updating my fantasy baseball league around, oh, May. So I thought if I wrote down what's happening in my fantasy baseball league, I might stay interested.

And, you might feel better about the issues you're having in your fantasy baseball league. Or, you might feel a lot better about not being involved in a fantasy baseball league. Probably option B.

First, about the league. I'm fairly certain I'm the youngest person in the league, because I was invited to play by a good friend of mine who retired young. Not as young as I am now, but young enough. And the majority of the league is made up of people that he knows from various enterprises. So I assume they're all about his age, so they're probably retired as well.

So because- if my original theory is correct- they're in a fantasy baseball league and retired, they have more time to research players than I do, because I am in a fantasy baseball league and not retired.

When I realized this, I stopped doing several changes to my pre-draft rankings. I did this because they actually read the Street and Smith's Guide so they know more about the random players than I do, but also because the Street and Smith's Guide goes to print in December, and the pre-draft rankings are adjusted to reflect what is actually happening in March when the draft happens. I theorized that I am actually going to get a more accurate draft.

The thing I hate most about fantasy baseball is a player only being able to play one position. Having middle infielders who can play 3B, SS and 2B are so much more valuable to me than a guy who can only play 3B. One year I had Brock Holt of the Red Sox and he was eligible at every position except pitcher and catcher.

So when I checked my auto-draft... of course, I had three first baseman who could only play first base, my second baseman could only play second base, my shortstop could only play shortstop.... and so on and so on and so on. Now, those three third baseman are Anthony Rizzo, Albert Pujols and Chris Carter, so I'm not really complaining about them. In fact, everything looks okay if- and only if- I remember to change them around depending on their off days and injuries.

To sum up my fantasy baseball team:

I don't like having guys who can only play one position. I have 14 position players and 11 of them can only play one position.

I am a San Francisco Giants fan and have no Giants but 2 Dodgers.
Whaddya gonna do? He's good.

Do you find that certain players seem to follow you around in auto-drafts? For years I had Daniel Murphy and Kyle Seager. I feel like Daniel Murphy was on my team five straight years. Now they're gone but Corey Seager and Chris Carter keep showing up.

In theory if I keep paying attention I should be good: in addition to everyone else mentioned, I also have Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Jones, Adam Duvall, Jason Heyward, Corey Seager, Yadier Molina and Justin Turner.  I ditched Denard Span (yes, the only Giant) and David Peralta for Marwin Gonzalez (who can play all 4 middle infield positions) and Travis D'Arnaud (because you need two catchers).

Pitching seems a bit iffy- I won't bore you with that list today. Just be satisfied that you're just reading about a fantasy baseball league, not actually in one.

photos courtesy: mlb.com, sportingnews.com
   

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

March Madness Misses the Madness




Does the first weekend of March Madness seem more mellow nowadays? It’s not because you’re getting older (even though you are).

It’s because the best part of the first weekend has gone away, and that’s due to the reason most great things which accidentally became great go away- money.

Let me take you back a few years.

You flip on the only network showing the games, CBS, to watch the first games of the tournament on Thursday, because there are “only” 64 teams in the tournament. Greg Gumbel does his intro. And then, on the screen, the games list. “We’ll start you all out with Duke and Iona in Greensboro,” he says, because Duke always seems to lead off the tournament and play in Greensboro. “Then, at 12:10, the 4-13 match-up in Buffalo, Oklahoma and Santa Clara,” because before “pod seeding” if you were in the East you played in the East first-round site. “At 12:15, Vanderbilt and Creighton in New Orleans, and at 12:20, Oregon and Seton Hall in Detroit.”

All games started within 20 minutes of each other. And that meant all the games finished within 20 minutes of each other. And that led to the origination of the network flipping back and forth between the games that were coming down to one-possession finishes. As Gumbel explained it some years ago, they had all the games up on monitors in the studio and were changing their focus from one game to the other. So why shouldn’t the fans get the same experience?

It was the embryonic origins of the Red Zone Channel, flipping from the best game to the best game to the best game and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. It used to be the only time that could happen. Now, it happens all the time.

Except in March, where it originated.

Since the TV contract now stipulates that every game is on, four networks show four different games for the first weekend. In using my made-up example above, Duke-Iona would be on CBS, because it’s Duke. The other three games would be on TNT, TBS, and TruTV (which everyone forgets even exists except for one week in March).

And that leads to the biggest issue with game-flipping, which is that it stopped occurring. It almost never happens because the games are such staggered starts. Duke-Iona would still start at the top of the hour but the second game in my scenario, Oklahoma and Santa Clara, wouldn’t start until 12:40 at the earliest. Vanderbilt and Creighton at 1:10. And Oregon-Seton Hall at 1:40. And why is that? Because it allows for a pre-game show on each network. By staggering the starts by a half-hour or more, there’s very little opportunity to go back and forth between frantic finishes happening in different places.

It does still happen, albeit rarely, and this is the only way it does: There is a 20-minute gap between games in each location. If the first game in a location goes short- or long- then the second game could start around the same time as a game in a different location that lasted about as long as it should.

For instance, say the Oklahoma-Santa Clara game went long. So, the Michigan-North Texas game could start about the same time as the Georgetown-Washington State game (because the Vanderbilt-Creighton game was a blowout- Blue Jays win, of course). And that could mean a frantic finish with two games coming down to the wire at the same time.

But that’s the only way it could happen. Because sometimes, you get what you want- but not what you need. And what we need is more flipping back-and-forth.

March has lost a little bit of what made it so Mad in the first place, and we can thank our insistence on watching every game- and the extra money it brings in- for the change. 

illustration: Wikipedia
   

Thursday, March 9, 2017

2017 #MLB Weekday Day Game Breakdown


Proper baseball.

“Day baseball is for love, night baseball is for money.” 

I just made that up, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?

Day baseball is baseball as nature intended. It brings you back to the joy of the game. It also means you are probably taking a day off work. Would going to the Cubs game in Ferris Bueller's Day Off mean so much if it was at night? Hell no, because it's a Day Off, not a Night Off.

 The first real baseball games took place some 30 years before electricity, so the pure baseball game is the one played in sunlight. Going to a day game is the best way to get back to the roots of the game (aside from the “no coloreds” part of the roots.)  For the first 100 years or so in the major leagues, day baseball was normal and night games were weird. Now, of course, it’s completely reversed. Night games are normal and day games are weird. 

Night games really took hold when the World Series started playing evening games in the early 70’s. Even though Major League parks had lights starting in the late '30's, the creation of Monday Night Football helped push the World Series to experiment as an after-dark event. The ratings were huge, and the famed 1975 Series featuring the Reds, the Red Sox and Carlton Fisk- especially Game 6- cemented night baseball as a thing. The spillover to the regular season- allowing more people who worked 9-to-5 to go to games and thus bring in more revenue- not just in attendance but with more people at home watching on TV and the resulting higher-priced commercials- was inevitable.

Day only still exist on weekdays because of the travel schedule. Weekday day games are known as “get-away games” because the visiting team- and quite often the home team- go to the airport right after the game to get to their next series. For an example, the San Francisco Giants can have a day game at home on Wednesday and start a series in Pittsburgh on Thursday because they’ve arrived in Pennsylvania at an almost reasonable time to get some sleep. To have a night game in San Francisco on Wednesday and a night game in the Steel City on Thursday would be irrational. 

So weekday day games, fortunately, still exist. They are dwindling in number, but they still exist. The Chicago Cubs, as you might expect, were the last big holdout of weekday day games. But as the popularity of the new World Series Champions (still looks weird) continues to increase, that means more night games to cash in on.

Of course before lights were installed at Wrigley the Cubs played close to 50 weekday day home games a year (and 81 day games total, but that includes weekends). Not long ago the Cubs played more than 40 weekday day games a year, both home and away combined, and that led the major leagues by far. But that number is dropping. According to my calculations (which may be wrong, I warn you), the Cubs still lead the majors in weekday day games, but they play just 31 in 2017.
I am concerned. 

Here’s an annotated list of weekday day games by team, in descending order. I’m including Opening Day (where nearly all teams have an afternoon weekday start), Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day even though they are holidays because that increases the number.

Chicago Cubs: 31

The Cubs have more weekday home games (25) than any other team has day games combined home and away except the Rockies (14 of Colorado’s 26 day games are at Coors Field).

Colorado Rockies: 26

The Rockies used to have an awful lot of 2pm starts, which is pushing it as far as my “day game” definition goes, but this season they rightly start at 1:10.  The Mariners used to have plenty of 3pm starts, and the Angels at 4, but those are rightly mid-afternoon games. 2 is pushing it but is acceptable as far as I’m concerned (and I’m the one making the list).

Detroit Tigers: 24

Milwaukee Brewers: 22

Oakland A’s: 22

Minnesota Twins: 22

Really surprised the A’s are tied for 4th. The Giants across the bay have tremendous success with their weekday day games, here’s hoping the A’s continue the trend. The A’s have 13 home weekday games, the Giants have 10 non-holidays (Memorial Day, and Opening Day as well).

St. Louis Cardinals: 20

Cincinnati Reds: 20

Everybody in the NL Central except the Pirates has at least 20 weekday day games total (the Bucs have 16) and those numbers are inflated by the fact that those teams play the Cubs at Wrigley more than anybody else. There are even a few instances where the Brewers play a day game at home on Wednesday and the Cubs have Thursday and Friday day games at Wrigley, which is one of my bucket-list weekday day game trips.

Giants weekday day games are often lightly attended
San Francisco Giants: 19

Chicago White Sox: 19

Arizona Diamondbacks: 19

Philadelphia Phillies: 19

Cleveland Indians: 17

San Diego Padres: 16

The Padres should play way more weekday day games at home (same for their neighbors to the north, the Dodgers and Angels). San Diego is made for weekday day games in the summer. Even the D-backs, who play in 110 degrees, have more weekday day games than the Padres.

Pittsburgh Pirates: 16

Florida Marlins: 16

Kansas City Royals: 15

Washington Nationals: 15

New York Yankees: 15

Toronto Blue Jays: 14

Tampa Bay Rays: 14

New York Mets: 13

Houston Astros: 13

It is humid as hell in Texas in the summer yet the Astros- in a dome- have twice as many weekday day games at home than the Dodgers- 6 to 3. Does that make sense to you?

Seattle Mariners: 13

Los Angeles Angels: 13

Only one of those Halos games is a home game.

There are 4 of these on weekdays. 4.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 12               

Boston Red Sox: 12         

2 of the Red Sox’s 4 home non-weekend day games are Opening Day and Patriots Day. That shows you what increased team popularity does for weekday day games. It sends them away.

Atlanta Braves: 11           

Texas Rangers: 9

The Rangers have 3 regular day home games, which is acceptable because of summer in Texas. Same with Atlanta.

Baltimore Orioles: 9

The Orioles have exactly one weekday day home game that is not on a holiday (Memorial Day or Labor Day) and that’s Wednesday, May 24th against the Twins. The Orioles have a beautiful ballpark that would be an awesome place for a dozen or more weekday day contests. From this alone I am convinced the Orioles are a joke franchise. (I don’t like the Angels either)

The schedule is set. How about a road trip? (Here’s my proposed itinerary from last year.)

photos: the author, Boston-Discovery-Guide, NY Daily News,


Don't be Sloane.