Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It’s December, and real baseball news reminds me spring is around the corner; Request - smart questions for Bill Hancock

It snowed here in Washington this past weekend. This morning it was cold and rainy when I woke up and, even yesterday when the temperature warmed into the 50s at midday the sun was long gone by 5 o’clock.

That’s why they call it December. Of course it won’t even officially be winter for 12 more days. After that, ever so slowly the days will start to get warmer.

No, I haven’t decided my future is as a weather blogger.

It’s funny what happens to me this time of year when I go out in the lousy weather, especially in the morning when I walk down the driveway to pick up the newspapers. I think about baseball a lot. I don’t really care about all the rumors that get thrown out that, if you believe them, Roy Halladay would have been traded 47 times since last July. When Halladay is actually traded, tell me and I’ll be interested. But the real news—trades, free agent signings, radio and TV guys changing jobs even—I love to soak up.

It isn’t that I don’t love college basketball season. I do and I really enjoy walking into a hot gym brimming with noise and anticipation prior to a game on a cold night. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I get a bigger kick out of games like George Mason-George Washington or Navy-Penn than the big time games. The other day Dick Vitale called me about something I’d written a while ago on the blog and he said to me, “I just don’t see you at games very much anymore.”

He’s right. It isn’t that I don’t go to ACC games or Big East games—I do. To be honest, part of it is that I’m just too damn spoiled after all these years to sit in the end zone at Maryland or Georgetown or someplace upstairs at Virginia. A lot of the big time schools—most in fact—have moved the media off press row in order to put in “Spike Lee,” seats and put some more cash into their pockets. I don’t question their right to do it, I simply don’t enjoy it. As I said, I’m spoiled. Plus, I just get a kick out of seeing teams battle who don’t think of the NBA or playing on national TV as a birthright. It’s just more fun—at least for me.

But even though I love college basketball season and tracking the teams in the non-major conferences closely to see who has a chance to play postseason, I still find myself regularly counting the days until spring training.

It isn’t as if I’m one of those baseball guys who heads to Florida or Arizona on February 15th and rents a condo for six weeks. I did do most of six weeks in Florida—with two trips to Arizona thrown in—back in 1992 when I wrote “Play Ball,” my first baseball book. It was fun, but I was also shuttling north for basketball and to get home a couple times. It was also before I had kids.

Nowadays, I usually spend one week in Florida and make it what I call a combo trip. Last year, for example, I stopped in Gainesville to see a Tennessee-Florida basketball game, spent three days at The Honda Classic in Palm Beach and threw in three baseball games before I had to go home to do a basketball tripleheader: Patriot League semifinal in Washington, then a fast trip to Richmond for The CAA semifinals that night.

You see, my life doesn’t suck.

This morning I picked up the paper and read with interest that the Yankees had given up three highly-rated prospects to get Curtis Granderson. Because I like Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski and—like a lot of people—have a warm spot in my heart for Detroit, I really hope some of the five prospects the Tigers got in the three team (Diamondbacks) deal pan out. The best baseball story of 2009, with due respect to the eight playoff teams, was the Tigers return to contention at a time when the city so desperately needed something to feel good about.

The best baseball line of the year as reported by (I think) Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated was what Leyland said to his players in spring training: “Fellas, this is not the year to not run out a ground ball.”

Here in Washington there was another big winter meetings story: The Nationals signing Pudge Rodriguez. A lot of baseball people questioned it because Rodriguez is 38 and has slowed down a LOT since the years when he earned his place in the Hall of Fame. The Nationals, not exactly big spenders on the free agent market most of the time, coughed up $6 million in a two-year contract for Rodriguez. The standard thinking in baseball is that he could have been had—should have been had—for one year.

One of the critics was radio analyst Jim Bowden who called it “another bad signing by the Nationals,” citing the bad signings of Dmitri Young and Paul LoDuca as examples. The irony of that comment being that Bowden was the one who made those two signings when he was the Nats GM.

I think signing Rodriguez was close to brilliant. His on-field numbers can’t begin to tell the full story of his potential value to the team. The Nationals have a 25-year-old catcher named Jesus Flores who, if he can ever stay healthy, has a world of potential. Flores is really smart and will no doubt learn every single day he’s around Rodriguez. Plus, the Nationals have nothing but young starting pitchers, including No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg and who better to nurture them than a guy who has 13 Gold Gloves?

Great move as far as I’m concerned even if the Nats overspent. Did the Yankees overspend on Mark Texeira and CC Sabathia last winter? The Nats can afford to gamble $6 million, I think.

The other news that caught my eye was that Peter Gammons is leaving ESPN to join the MLB network. I think this is a big deal but it may just be because I’ve admired and liked Gammons for so long. He was one of the first true reporters to make the fulltime jump to TV and he brought real resonance to ESPN’s baseball coverage. Tim Kurkijian and Buster Olney are the real deal as reporters too but both would tell you they learned from Gammons—as did we all. Without Gammons, ESPN is a step closer to being just a bunch of ex-players reading off teleprompters and telling us the obvious. Obviously this is a coup for MLB TV.

Right now as I sit here looking outside at a slate gray sky, it is 68 days until pitchers and catchers report; 82 days until exhibition games begin and 84 days until my planned Florida trip. I’m actually fired up.

You see, as you get older it is funny the memories that stick with you. Three years ago, I had to drive to Bucknell on a Saturday for a first weekend in March basketball game. It was a noon game, so I was in the car heading home by about 2:30 and as I fiddled with the radio I picked up an Orioles-Mets exhibition game. I remember steaming down Rte. 15 in Pennsylvania as David Wright hit one out against an Orioles prospect named Hayden Penn.

I have no idea why I remember that moment but when I do, thinking about the snowy road, the stop for coffee in Harrisburg at Dunkin’ Donuts (okay, I may have had a donut too) and seeing in my mind’s eye Wright’s shot carrying out of the ballpark in Port St. Lucie, I smile.

Even now, with all that’s gone on in the game through the years, baseball makes me smile. Even in December.

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Several people asked yesterday about sending me questions to ask Bill Hancock from The BCS on Friday at dinner. I have warned Bill that I may be coming armed with questions from college football fans. So, ask away and I’ll see what Bill comes up with on Friday night. For the record, he doesn’t drink wine. He drinks beer—with ice. Which may explain a lot.

12 comments:

GIANT GLASS said...

OK John,

Here is my question. Can he explain the theory behind "a more important" regular season, when, other than the top 5 or 10 so teams, one loss eliminates you from title contention. So basically, after week one, 50% of the country's teams are eliminated. How does that make the rest of their season "more important" or in any way relevant? Since the regular season is like the playoffs (their words, not mine) should those teams with a loss stop playing at that point?

With a 16 team playoff, you can recover from a loss. Currently, unless you are a preseason top-10 team, you can not. And even the top teams need a lot of help from voters, opponents and computers, once they lose a single game.

Gordon said...

Football is Americas passion baseball is still Americas pass time" .The winter meetings represent what does not work in major league baseball. Every year there is a trade or a series of free agent signings that further throw the the games economic system out of balance.

The Gunderson "trade" was no exception! Yes players got exchanged but the reality is that the Yankees did what they always do, acquire the most talented players regardless of cost. They do it within the rules and because they can. It only goes to prove that MLB needs a hard cap which we will see about the same time as we get a BCS playoff......NEVER!

The luxury tax is not the answer. Teams that truly try to compete like the Rays, Rockies, and Twins still can not year in and year out. It's almost a wonder that more teams like the Pirates and Royals don't take a "why bother" attitude.

Next year the Yankees payroll will be north of 210 million and the Twins south of 80 million. How can the Twins expect to compete on a regular basis? Hopefully Joe Mauer will resign with Minnesota after this season rather than taking the Yankees money. Someone,, anyone has to be the first to say no to them.

Glad to see Peter Gammons got paroled from ESPN. He and Costas will be great on the MLB network. Hopefully Buster and Tim will be next.

I had a question for Mr. Hancock but the fact that he drinks ice in beer tells me all I need to know.

Shaun E in PC said...

Please ask Mr. Hancock whether there will be any consideration to NOT rank teams until mid-Oct. If the highest preseason ranked team wins out, they are in the BCS Championship Game regardless of how and who they played. Would like to see how he spins the merits of preseason rankings.

Mark said...

Good for Gammons.....ESPN is losing the real talent, and going for celebrity/players. Should be interesting to see how it all turns out in the end. I read where Gammons' contract negotiations with the World Wide Leader were fairly heated. ESPN is the show, and the talent is expendable, they believe.

I second Giant Glass's question, but have another (well, many many more). While the BCS, and in turn Bill Hancock, is in place as a partnership between all 11 conferences (cough cough), why are they even remotely interested or concerned with protecting the bowls? The bowls are outside businesses and should ultimately be of very little concern, if any, to the best interests of the institutions and the 'student-athletes.' Seems to me that continuing to line the pockets of outside businesses shouldn't be at the forefront of an argument.

Or, in that same spirit, do the institutions find it better that the money control stays with these businesses and NOT with the NCAA itself, as a playoff would ultimately be run and handled by the NCAA? Is this the unsaid elephant in the room? I guess it could be argued that Hancocks paycheck comes from the Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls.

Gunnar said...

Good to hear Peter Gammons is not leaving ESPN due to a sex scandal. He is a great baseball writer.

The pre and post game shows for nearly all sports are brutal. The ex-player analysis is so overdone. Tom Jackson and Charles Barkley are about the only two that I can listen to.

I like the plus two playoff scenario. Go with a 12 game regular season. If a conference has a championship game (SEC, Big-12) they either need to eliminate it or suck it up into the 12 games. Then have the 4 bowl games (final 8) as is, Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta. They feed to a final four, then to a championship game.

I would ask Mr Hancock why he puts ice in his beer.

Travis Rodgers said...

Beer with ice? That explains more about why the BCS is lacking than anything else I have ever read.

Ed O. said...

John, my question is simple: why would a "plus 1" be so hard? In odd numbered years, make the Orange and Fiesta Bowls the semifinals ON NEW YEAR'S DAY, and then have the Title game a week later with the winners. In even number years, have the Rose & Sugar be the semis. You aren't extending the season, you aren't even adding games (except for 2 teams). Heck, add another BCS game (Cotton Bowl?) to make up for losing "2 spots". It just doesn't make any sense to me why they can't do this. It wouldn't be as great as 8 or 16 teams, but would be substantially better than what we have now.

Bennettar said...

I would like to second Shaun E's question regarding preseason polls. The fact that writers/coaches vote on teams before they step on the field is crazy. The fact that it plays a part in determining who makes it to the BCS championship is ludicrous. Oklahoma and USC began the season ranked 3 and 4, respectively, in the AP and USA Today polls and Cincinnati was not in the top 25. Waiting a few weeks to rank the teams may have changed how the BCS bowls panned out.

John, I appreciate your baseball musings at this time of year. It is also refreshing to hear how much you appreciate your job. As a desk jockey, I often wonder if all the traveling that comes with sports writing/reporting is enjoyable. Sounds like it is...

Anonymous said...

125 days until outdoor baseball in Minnesota!

The Twins payroll won't be below $80 million, it likely will approach $90 million for 2010.

Anonymous said...

I would also like to hear Hancock's opinion regarding preseason polls.

Rich
Denver

Anonymous said...

I'm a betting man....I bet Hancock's answer on that would be - 'of course we want the polls to start later in the season, but we don't control them.' And he's right.

The polls are all marketing pieces of the organizations that publish them. Can you really ask them to give up the exposure they get from them. Does USAToday really want to delay their poll - what good does it do them? Its a business. Kinda like why the bowls LOVE the BCS cartel stumping to continue the bowl system. Its money for their coffers.

Laura's Husband said...

I'm a life-long Tigers fan...Pudge saved the Tigers! He made it O.K. for other players to want to play there again. Perhaps he can do the same for the Nats.