A Clemens Comeback

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News broke yesterday afternoon that Roger Clemens has signed with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, adding yet another team to a resume that already includes the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, and a handful of affiliated minor league clubs. The announcement, made two months to the day after Clemens was acquitted of all perjury charges, seemed to come out of nowhere. But if we examine the possible reasons for his return to baseball, Clemens’ announcement isn’t too surprising at all.

From a practical standpoint, Clemens may be looking to recover the legal costs of the aforementioned two-year lawsuit, which included a 10-week trial and representation from lawyer-to-the-stars Rusty Hardin. Sure, Clemens earned $160 million over his 24-year career in the majors. But that doesn’t mean that his court case didn’t set him back quite a bit. So what better way to make some extra money than playing the game that has already earned him so much?

But that can’t be his only motivation. After all, if money was sole the issue, Clemens could probably earn it back with a book deal, a series of speaking engagements, or a minor league coaching gig. What’s more, you’d think that coming off one of the most reputationally-damaging lawsuits to strike an athlete in recent years, Clemens would want to lay low for a bit longer

But instead of staying out the spotlight, he’s putting himself right back into it, yet doing so in a way that has traditionally been a boon to cast-off stars. Whether it’s Lance Armstrong returning to the Tour de France in 2009 after fighting a series of doping allegations, or Michael Jordan resuming his basketball career after a lackluster stint with the White Sox, there are few things that fans love more than an athletic comeback. And more often than not, they result in a reputational comeback as well.

Even if the Rocket does tank (which, based on the 87-mph fastballs he reportedly threw in his Sugar Land tryout and the unassuming nature of Atlantic League, seems unlikely), it’s a low-pressure environment on a team with no major league affiliation. It’s not like he’s playing for a Triple-A team with clear intentions to come out of retirement and return to the majors, as he has done so many times in his career, right?

Wrong.

Because if you look a little deeper, there’s no question that this is Clemens’ attempt to play baseball at the major league level one last time.

Having played his final game in 2007, Clemens will become eligible for the Hall of Fame later this year, joining Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire on the Cooperstown ballot. While these players’ achievements cannot be overlooked, neither can the stain on their names and on their records. These sluggers are, after all, the unofficial faces of baseball’s steroid era, and their joint presence on the ballot may effectively ruin all of their chances to get into the hall. Not great company, Clemens must figure, at least from a reputational standpoint.

But if he wows the scouts and makes his way back onto a big-league squad , like his former teammate and (former?) friend Andy Pettitte did earlier this year, Clemens would delay his eligibility by at least five years, effectively skirting the guilt-by-association that may come with this year’s ballot.

So a reputation-boost has everything to do with it, though not in the manner we had originally thought. And the fact that, according to Sugar Land manager Gary Gaetti, Clemens’ comeback has been in the works “for months” may indicate that he’s been mulling the ballot issue for quite a while.

Not to mention that getting back into the big leagues just might get his name back in the record books, as well. Clemens could become the oldest pitcher to win a game in the majors, challenging the record set by Jamie Moyer earlier this year (Clemens is about three months older than Moyer). And if he ends up with a national league team, he could break another one of Moyer’s records by becoming the oldest major-league player to record an RBI.

Signing with a team in the pitcher-friendly NL seems most likely for the Rocket, who played for the Houston Astros from 2004 to 2006. And it wouldn’t be too surprising if that very team, fresh off of firing manager Brad Mills, takes the native Texan back, in an attempt to salvage some piece of their 39-83 season.

Clemens’ signing is already making headlines and making the Skeeters a windfall. Tickets to Saturday’s game at the 7,500-seat Constellation Field, which Clemens is slated to pitch, were sold out by 2:30 pm yesterday, less than two hours after the signing was announced. And general admissions tickets to the game, with a face value of $8, are now selling for upwards of $60 on StubHub.

But for Clemens, it’s not about the money. It’s about capping off a Hall of Fame career by keeping off the Hall of Fame– at least for a few more years.

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No Big Concern: Why Most Americans Don’t Care About NBC’s Tape-Delay Antics

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And you thought Michael Phelps was the only one breaking Olympic records Tuesday night.

In a ratings coup for NBC, the network nabbed a 24.0 overnight rating on Tuesday night, good for the best such night of any Olympics ever held abroad, marking a 4% increase from Beijing and a 12% jump from Athens.

Here’s the translation: 24% of households in the top 56 urban markets was watching as Team USA dominated their way to gymnastics gold, Alison Schmitt fought her way to her first gold medal (and a new Olympic record) in the 200 Freestyle final, and Michael Phelps swam his way to Olympic history, becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time. To put this figure in perspective, consider this: decisive Game 5 of the NBA finals nabbed a 12.6; decisive Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final garnered a 4.0; and Tim Tebow’s nine-second-overtime wildcard win over the Steelers earned a 25.9.

But these numbers are even more surprising in light of the tape-delay controversy taking the microbloggingworld by storm.

Exacerbated by the time-lagged Opening Ceremonies, satirized by the @NBCDelayed Twitter parody account, and epitomized by the Today show promo that spoiled the results of the yet-to-air women’s 100M backstroke, NBC’s decision to defer each day’s major event coverage to primetime has attracted its fair share of critics. Most notable? The Independent’s Guy Adams, who found his Twitter account suspended after posted the (publicly available) email address of NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel, urging viewers to voice their complaints. (For the record, the suspension was Twitter’s idea, and it has since been reactivated).

NBC’s rationale for the time-delay decision is hard to argue with. The network stands to gain far higher ratings, and in turn, far better advertising revenue, at 9 PM than at 9 AM, revenue that they desperately need after paying over a billion dollars for TV rights to the 2012 Olympics. (In comparison, Canadian networks paid $153 million combined for the rights to both the 2010 Winter Olympics and this summer’s games). As NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus bluntly put it, “As programmers, we are charged to manage the business. And this is a business. It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want… We are charged with making smart decisions for our company, for our shareholders, and to present the product the way we believe is best.”

Besides, with multiple events available via alternative channels, every event (well, except the Opening Ceremonies) has technically been available in real time. Between NBC’s affiliate networks, no fewer than six of which air the “lesser” events throughout the day, and the smartphone/tablet/online option showing a no-frills version of even the highest profile events, access certainly isn’t lacking.

Which makes it even more puzzling how NBC is posting record-breaking numbers when a decent number of viewers have already watched the headline events during daylight hours. So what’s behind the staggering, if mystifying, figures?

I could claim that a once-every-four-years event like the Summer Olympics was destined to defy broadcast logic, feeding viewers’ appetite via a network model that would never fly in any professional US sport. (Just try to imagine West Coast residents sitting down to watch the Superbowl three hours after it ended.) Or I could contend that despite today’s unemployment rates, many Americans still go to work every day and, much to their employers’ delight, are actually doing their jobs instead of logging on to the Olympics simulcast. Or I could get all philosophical on you and postulate that a politically- and economically-splintered America is desperate to find something to finally unite the nation.

But I’m not going to go there. Instead, let’s consider the not-insignificant qualitative difference between the live-feed coverage and the primetime airing. Between the uncontrollable choppiness, the oft-blurry picture, and the unexpected system crashes that come at the very moments you most want to watch, the drawbacks of the online stream outweigh the live-access advantage it holds over the nighttime telecast. Consider the primetime experience: the American broadcasters’ passionate commentary; the more varied crowd shots creating deeper visual interest; the juxtaposition of competitive events with biographical and informational highlight packages. Maybe NBC’s strategy is actually what its US audience wants.

The downside that comes with all of this, of course, is that NBC can tailor the telecast to their needs, as they did with the women’s gymnastics final in an attempt to maintain the competitive tension between the Russian and American squads. Nonetheless, there’s a reason why NBC is breaking broadcast records: for a superior viewing experience.

Still, looking beyond the quality, the fact that 24% of urban households are sitting down to watch events whose outcomes are already known is bigger than the game itself. In fact, it marks a shifting landscape in the world of televised sports.

In an era of constant information, readily available and instantly accessible, we have become an increasingly impatient, instant gratification-geared nation. And because of the overwhelming volume of information right at our fingertips, today’s sports spectator has one of two options: maintain the same qualitative focus on a select number of athletes, teams, or sports, or sacrifice didactic depth for informational breadth.

NBC’s recent ratings success indicates that more American viewers, at least from an Olympic perspective, actually prefer the latter. We don’t mind the condensed telecast, or the pre-packaged clips, or the oft-fabricated tension. In fact, we prefer it.

And it’s precisely that highlight-centric mentality that’s keeping NBC from taking the logical next step: airing the events both live and in primetime (as the ESPN-ABC tandem does with many golf tournaments). Because the moment that NBC broadcasts a competition on its network, other non-rights holders are entitled to run clips and highlight reels as they please. Recognizing that a good part of its busy audience would opt for the abridged version if available, NBC instead chooses to postpone, provoking the ire of some, but the viewership of many.

On top of this, we have also developed into a spoiler-driven society, one in which we know a show’s plotlines, twists, and cliffhangers days, weeks, or even months before it airs. (That network TV ratings have suffered in recent years isn’t an information-leakage issue; it’s an online availability issue). Having accepted that spoilers can, and will, deflate the viewing experience, we tune in anyway, breeding a new form of dramatic tension which hinges not on what happens in the end, but how the characters will get there.

After all, isn’t that what the Olympics is all about? More so than in any other sporting event, the backstory is just as important as, if not more significant than, the match itself. Which is why learning the race results hours before they air on NBC isn’t stopping the average viewer from tuning in anyway. We still want to be a part of the journey to finish, be it a thrilling victory or an agonizing defeat. In fact, the audience needs the network’s context clues so desperately that we often don’t recognize it. Ask anyone who has attended an Olympics event in person and they’ll tell you that aside from the “I was there when…” assertion that comes with it, the live experience is inferior to watching it on TV. (Maybe that’s why so many seats have been empty).

So while NBC’s broadcast approach and the ensuing controversy are making waves, the broadcast records underscore the Olympic appeal: win or lose, how they got to, or fell short of, the medal stand is what really matters. And it’s ultimately what we the viewers, especially in today’s sports media environment, truly care about as well.

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Examining the Ichiro Trade

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And New York thought the Rick Nash trade was big news.

In a move that seemed to come out of nowhere, the Yankees traded pitchers Danny Farquar and DJ Mitchell to the Mariners for Ichiro Suzuki on Monday afternoon. And with the Mariners footing the majority of the bill, the Yankees will be paying a mere $2.25 million for the 10-time All Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner.

But what the Yankees received is not the Ichiro of old, but rather the Ichiro of Old. A few months away from 39, Ichiro’s production has declined markedly in the past few years. His batting average dropped over 40 points between 2010 and 2011 (from .315 to .272) and has continued to decline to .261 this year. Ichiro is clearly no longer the player who won the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, nor the batter who set the all-time single season hits record (262) back in 2004.

Yet what the Yankees were seeking, and seem to have gotten, was a quasi-Brett Gardner: no standout at the plate, but still a mainstay in the field and on the basepaths. Ichiro will be filling in for Nick Swisher in right until he returns from his hip flexor injury (presumably by the weekend series against the Red Sox), at which point he’ll be moved to left field, a position he has only played in the All-Star Game.

In retrospect, it’s pretty remarkable that Brian Cashman and Co. had the prescience to acquire Ichiro at the moment that they did. Not only did the timing of the trade, right before the Yankees kicked off their series against the Mariners, make for a touching moment (the Safeco Field crowd cheering on Suzuki as he bowed, with “New York” emblazoned on his chest, to both sides of the stadium, was a heartwarming sight), but it preemptively plugged a hole as well, one that did not exist until the 8th inning of last night’s game.

With A-Rod being placed on the disabled list with a non-displaced fracture (read: broken) hand, Girardi is now forced to reshuffle his lineup, increasing Eric Chavez’s time at third unless the Yankees can squeeze in a trade right before the deadline, which they are reportedly looking to do. All of a sudden, the Yankees have considerably more availability at DH; believe it or not, A-Rod has been the designated hitter 26 times this season, more than he did in the entire 2010 and 2011 seasons combined, and accounting for nearly one-third his starts this year. Chavez has also played one-third of his games at DH, so with A-Rod out of the lineup and Chavez (health-permitting) becoming the primary third baseman, Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones can now fill the role they were intended to play before Gardner got hurt (an injury that has resulted in only 14 and 15 starts as designated hitter, respectively).

Having Ichiro on board makes that all that much easier; adding a member to the current Ibanez-Jones platoon in left will ensure that the aging players (Jones is 35, Ichiro is 38, and Ibanez is 40) to maintain a regular rest schedule. And even if he continues to hit in line with his current stats, Ichiro’s defense and speed make the trade worthwhile (his 16 stolen bases are five more than the A-Rod’s 11, which had previously been the team lead).

But let’s consider the best-case scenario, highlighted by Shane Ryan of Grantland: away from pitcher-friendly Safeco Field (which, after today’s rubber match the Mariners, will be the rest of the season for Ichiro), he is batting .296 with a .313 on-base percentage and a .399 slugging percentage. What’s more, when outside of Seattle and facing right-handed pitchers (which is surely how Joe Girardi, known for his overmanaging, will utilize him), his numbers jump to .322/.349/.476. That doesn’t mean he’s the Ichiro of 3+ years ago, who never dropped below a .300 batting average despite playing half his games in Seattle. But the change of scenery, combined with the change in attitude that many claim the trade will bring, could spell success for Ichiro in pinstripes.

And don’t think that the business aspect of the deal is lost on the Yankees, either. For just over $2 million, the Yankees have imported a marketing machine into the now-Linless New York sports scene, filling the void among Asian-American fans left by Hideki Matsui, who has been designated for assignment by the Tampa Bay Rays and may have reached the end of his career.

Between the 1-5 record and A-Rod’s injury, there has been little good news to come out of the Yankees’ latest West Coast swing. But even under the worst case scenario, the one beacon of hope emerging from their road trip is the marquee outfielder now improbably donning pinstripes.

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Out of the Limelight, Into the Highlights

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​As we gear up for the second half of the 2012 baseball season, New York baseball fans can’t be too disappointed. The Yankees hold the best record in baseball after a tenuous start, going 31-12 since they bottomed out at .500 on May 21. Mets fans can’t be too disappointed either, with their team only half a game behind Atlanta for the first-ever second wildcard spot, in a season which many had expected to be a throwaway, reconstructive year.

​Yet this season has also been a case study in a well-known, oft-cited phenomenon: not everyone is built to play sports in New York. This manifests itself in two ways: sometimes, ballplayers who enjoyed immense success before signing with a New York team are met with struggles on the field, on the court, or on the ice, from which they never rebound. Other times, it’s only once a previously good-but-not-great athlete leaves New York that he becomes the star that the New York teams hoped he would be.

​Which brings us to the 2012 baseball season, which has been a case study in the latter.

​The most prominent example of this during this week is former Yankee Melky Cabrera, now on the San Francisco Giants, who took home the All-Star Game MVP award on Tuesday night, going 2-3 with a home run and 2 RBI. This year, he’s leading the MLB with 119 hits and is batting .353, with a .391 on-base percentage and a .519 slugging percentage. We’re talking about a guy who, in five seasons in New York, never batted above .280 in a given year and averaged .269 over his regular-season Yankee career. Granted, he had a solid series in the 2009 ALCS against the Angels, batting .394 with 4 RBI in six games, but he hit .188 or worse in the four other Yankee postseason series in which he played.

He continued to underwhelm as an Atlanta Brave in 2010, but began his ascent with the small-market Kansas City Royals in 2011, batting .305 BA/.339 OBP/.470 SLG and reaching career highs with 18 home runs, 87 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases. And he’s on pace to reach the 200-hit and 100-run mark yet again this year, which he achieved for the first time last season as well.

But it’s not just the Yankees who are subject to this trend; even the lower-pressure Mets have watched the careers of former players turnaround after they abandon Queens for greener, quieter pastures. In his seven-year career with the Mets, Carlos Beltran was certainly no failure, with a .280/.369/.500 stat line. His 41 home runs and 116 RBIs in 2006 still stand as his career bests, and he averaged as high as .325/.415/.500 in 2009.

Yet Beltran’s production began to decline following his knee surgery in January 2010, which forced him to miss more than half of the 2010 season. And though Beltran had a good start in 2011, his numbers crept upward once he was traded to the San Francisco Giants in late July 2011. After hitting .289 with a .513 slugging percentage in 98 games with the Mets, Beltran batted .323 with .551 SLG over 44 games as a Giant, and has kept it up this year with the St. Louis Cardinals. At the halfway point, Beltran has already reached 20 home runs, a league-leading 65 RBI, and 8 stolen bases, versus 22, 84 and 4, respectively, all of last year. (Not to mention the fact that he technically broke up a no-hitter against his former team earlier in the season.)

But perhaps the most surprising turnaround story of all comes from A.J. Burnett, whose three season stint in New York left much to be desired. With a 34-35 record and a 4.79 ERA, Burnett was often the goat of the Yankee pitching staff. He arrived from Toronto in 2009, coming off a season in which he led the AL in total strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings. And during his Yankee career, he continued to lead the league in many ways, though in a few, um, less flattering categories. He threw the most wild pitches in the MLB in 2009 and 2011; allowed the most walks among American League pitchers in 2009; and hit the most batters in baseball in 2010. Despite his redemptive Game 4 victory in the 2011 ALDS against the Tigers, his career in New York was nothing short of a disappointment, especially by Yankee standards.

Which is why his resounding success as a Pittsburgh Pirate this season should come as a surprise, until you realize that playing in the smallest of markets has everything to do with it. Despite a preseason freak accident (when a batting practice bunt struck his right cheek bone), Burnett has worked his way to a 10-2 record with a 3.68 ERA, his lowest such figure since 2005, when he was still with the Marlins. The Pirates have now won the last 12 games that Burnett has started, and he is serving as a mentor to younger pitchers on the staff as well. Now sitting atop the NL Central with a 48-37 record, the Pirates are 11 games over .500 for the first time since 1992 and are coming out of the All-Star break in first place for the first time since 1997. Plus they also have the easiest second-half schedule in baseball, based on current records.

​Cabrera, Beltran, and Burnett are not the first athletes to undergo a career renaissance upon leaving New York, nor will they be the last. But they are just the latest examples of abandoning the bright lights and big city and finding unexpected success.

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The All-Star Gaffe

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By now you may have heard about the curse of all-star games in professional sports. But when it comes to Major League Baseball, it’s worse than cursed. It’s pretty much just a walking disaster.

The root of the Midsummer Classic’s problem is the game’s identity crisis. Is it a show put on for the fans? Or is it for the players? Or for someone else all together?

In recent years, rule changes have caused the game to take on a split personality, most notably in its fragmented voting structure. The selection rules alone could make your head spin: fans choose the starting position players through online voting; players, coaches, and managers elect eight pitchers (five starters and three relievers), as well as one back-up player for each position; the AL and NL managers then round out the remaining roster members, based on consultations with other league managers and the Commissioner’s Office; and finally, the vote is handed back over to the fans for the 34th and final lineup spot.

These patchwork-esque rules give almost everyone a say, yet simultaneously sacrifice the competition’s consistency and credibility. Why are some players chosen by fans (who more often than not opt for the most popular players rather than the most deserving), while others are elected by players, coaches and staff, whose choices are likely more merit-based? To that end, why do starting position players have to earn their spot by garnering the most votes, while the starting pitcher is not voted on at all, but is rather selected by the all-star game manager?

The most recent victim of the combination of these rules: the New York Mets, this year’s little engine that could whose improbability is second only to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ and whose All-Star prominence is being compromised in two ways.

First, NL All-Star manager Tony La Russa has tapped the Giants’ Matt Cain to start tonight’s game over the Mets’ R.A. Dickey, opting for the perfect game hurler over the knuckleball wonder. Among La Russa’s reasons for this pick are Cain’s “career progression” and starting catcher Buster Posey’s potential difficulty with catching a knuckleballer.

By admitting the latter, La Russa is insinuating that he wants to put the most capable and cohesive roster possible, and in so doing, he is more than acknowledging the importance of the game. If anything, he is overemphasizing it, in turn allowing it to transcend the desires of the fans. The All-Star Game’s significance is something he knows firsthand, after last year’s All-Star Game granted home-field advantage to his Cardinals, who won Games 6 and 7 at Busch Stadium to claim the World Series.

The aforementioned home-field advantage provision was added back in 2003 to provide incentive for victory (and assumedly to boost ratings) following the notorious 11-inning tie in Milwaukee in 2002’s All-Star Game. Yet the Midsummer Classic continues to send mixed messages on so many fronts that it’s unclear whether anyone – fan, player, or coach – even appreciates the rule to begin with. (Just imagine how then-Milwaukee Brewer Prince Fielder felt this past October, knowing that his game-winning home run in the 2011 All-Star Game handed the division rival Cardinals home field advantage.) And it makes us wonder whether the game’s newfound “significance” comes at the price of its essence.

From a statistical perspective, Dickey and Cain are on relatively even footing. With a 12-1 record, Dickey has the best winning percentage among starting pitchers in the league. He holds a 2.40 ERA, has thrown 3 CGs (including 2 shutouts and back-to-back one-hitters), and his 0.933 WHIP is good for 2nd in MLB. Not to mention his unconventional style, which has made the 37-year-old, Kilimanjaro-climbing pitcher into a fan favorite this season.

Then there’s Cain, who has led his Giants with a 9-3 record, 2.62 ERA, 2 complete games (both shutouts, one of which was the aforementioned perfect game), a 1.083 WHIP, and 118 strikeouts. There’s no denying that Cain deserves the start. But does he deserve it more than Dickey? And even if he does, why should the now-retired La Russa, who has no vested interest in the game’s outcome, be the one to decide?

Curiously enough, yet another Giant has thwarted a Met’s chance to shine during tonight’s all-star festivities. Thanks to last-ditch efforts by San Francisco’s marketing department, third baseman Pablo Sandoval eked out a voting victory over New York’s David Wright to nab the starting spot. Sandoval comes in to the game batting a respectable .307 with 8 home runs, 30 RBIs, 30 runs scored, a .362 on-base percentage and .862 OPS.

Compare this with Wright’s MVP-type season thus far, where he is batting .351 (3rd in the MLB) with 11 home runs, 59 RBIs, and 56 runs scored. He also has a .441 OBP (2nd in the MLB) and an OPS of 1.004 (5th in the MLB). Yet he’ll be on the bench watching Sandoval take the field in the bottom of the first tonight.

Does it come down to a double standard, that pitching is too important to leave up the fans, while offense is more expendable? Similarly troubling is the well-intentioned but poorly-executed requirement that each team have at least one representative on the roster. If the All-Star Game is indeed important enough to determine the home-field fate of the World Series teams, shouldn’t both rosters put their best men forward, regardless of team affiliation? That is to say, shouldn’t some combination of players, coaches, and managers, who know the game better than the average fan, be tasked with compiling the most dominant lineup possible?

Or if the game is truly for the fans, why not let them choose everyone on the field, starters included, and in the process, remove this contrived World Series home-field advantage element from the All-Star Game, allowing it to revert to the pure exhibition game that it should be? While the current setup is hardly worse than the previous system (home-field advantage used to alternate each year, with the American League team getting four out of seven games at home in even-numbered years), there’s no reason why Major League Baseball can’t adopt the NHL and NBA’s championship round approach and grant home-field advantage to the contender with the better record.

With so many players slighted each year due to the convoluted balloting system and the inconsistent starting lineup selection process, it’s time for a change. Besides, it’s not like voting protocol is set in stone. On the contrary, selection rules have undergone multiple changes over the course of the All-Star Game’s 79-year history.

Earlier today, Bud Selig already acknowledged that Home Run Derby rule changes may be coming our way after Robinson Cano’s jeer-ridden and homer-deficient plate appearance last night. Let’s hope he’s just as motivated to right the wrongs that will keep Dickey off the mound and Wright off the field in the first inning tonight, and in turn help the All-Star Game adopt a more consistent and credible selection process.

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Word to the Wise

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On Tuesday night, it was the non-catch heard ‘round the world. And by Wednesday afternoon, it became the Dewayne Wise Curse.

Okay, maybe “curse” is a bit of an exaggeration. After all, the Yankees are sitting on a .613 winning percentage with a 46-29 record, good for second best in the MLB (behind Texas). Until last night, they were on a 5-game win streak and have won 25 of their last 33. And they have a 5-game cushion atop the AL East, arguably the toughest division in baseball.

But earlier this week, the Yankees went from rolling to reeling in matter of hours, set off by one of the most contentious calls of this umpiring controversy-laden season.

In a 7th inning play of Jeterian effort (and A-Rodian antics?), Dewayne Wise made a running grab, leaping into the stands to snag a foul ball and ending a rally opportunity for the Indians, who had a man on third and were down 4-0. As third-base umpire Mike DiMuro called Cleveland batter Jack Hannahan out, players, fans, and announcers marveled at the catch (which seemed like a fitting homage to birthday boy Jeter’s memorable leap into the stands, made in a 2004 extra-innings game against the Red Sox).

But when the clip was replayed, we quickly saw that not only had Wise not made the catch (it bounced off the heel of his glove), and not only had a fan in the stands retrieved the ball (he even held it up for all to see), but DiMuro never even asked to see the ball as proof.

(Meanwhile, former Reds and Nationals GM Jim Bowden has called for Wise to be suspended and fined for such “lack of integrity,” a demand with which I completely disagree (and not because of a pro-Yankee bias). Have you ever heard of an athlete, in any sport, immediately telling a ref or umpire who had just erred in his favor, “Actually, your call was wrong”?)

What erupted from all this were claims that the ball always bounces the right way for the polarizing Yankees and that they manage to get away with just about anything. Mets fans were especially irked after the Mets found themselves on the wrong side of a poor pickoff-attempt call in their game against the Cubs the same night.

But as soon as the “Yankees just get it all” talk started up, things started slowly tumbling down.

It began two innings after Wise’s non-catch, when Cory Wade nearly gave the game away. Staging a last-ditch effort, the Indians put up four runs (which, in light of their 7th inning rally attempt, could have won them the game). Soriano came in to replace Wade, securing the Yankees’ 6-4 win, but not without some last-inning anxiety.

At that point, the Yanks had won four straight, the call had gone their way, and they seemed, at least to the rest of the baseball world, untouchable. But on Wednesday morning, news came through that Yankee ace CC Sabathia would be benched due to a left adductor strain, and he was placed on the 15-day DL later that day. It wasn’t exactly the end of the world, as his time off would overlap with All-Star Break and he would only miss two starts, but in a division where every win counts, fans were somewhat concerned.

But they definitely started to worry later on Wednesday, when a 5th-inning grounder from Casey Kotchman struck the ankle of starting pitcher Andy Pettitte, who, after one more pitch, was removed from the game. Pettitte, whose comeback story has struck a nostalgic chord among Yankee fans, was the pitching surprise of the season, with a 3.22 ERA and 59 strikeouts through 9 starts, and a team-best 1.091 WHIP. His presence in the rotation had, according to manager Joe Girardi, united and bolstered the starting pitchers, who are just as responsible for the Yankees’ recent tear as their home run-heavy offense. Reports initially claimed that he would be out six weeks, but it was later announced that he had been placed on the 60-day DL with a fractured left ankle.

To make matters worse, the Yankees suffered yet another ninth-inning scare on Wednesday when Soriano walked Michael Brantley with the bases loaded, narrowing the Yankee lead to 5-4. But he got the next batter to fly out and was able to comfortably untuck and complete the three-game sweep of the Indians.

Still, the Yankee bullpen, the one stalwart in a RISP-challenged and (until a few weeks ago) starting pitching-troubled season, found itself mired in its third consecutive end-of-game threat on Thursday night. After Ivan Nova pitched a 1-run, 7+ inning game, the Yankees entered the ninth with a 3-1 lead against the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox (who, now at 41-35, is actually the fifth best team in the AL and would be in third place in the AL East). But after a throwing error by relief pitcher Clay Rapada and a three-run homer given up by David Robertson, the Yankees found themselves in a 4-3 hole, and couldn’t muster a comeback in the bottom of the ninth (Derek Jeter flied out to deep right to end the game, stranding Dewayne Wise, of all batters, at first).

Why Girardi didn’t bring in Robertson to start off the ninth, instead calling on Eppely and then Rapada, is beyond me. (Girardi didn’t want to use Soriano, who had worked four of the five previous games and, as evidenced Wednesday’s ninth inning, could use a rest.) But it certainly reignited talk of Mariano, whose presence has been missed, though not as much as initially feared, with Soriano converting 17 of 18 saves in his absence.

But now comes the true to test of the Yankee roster, whose batting with runners in scoring position has improved somewhat as of late but is now faced with filling the holes of 40% of its starting rotation. Newcomer Adam Warren will attempt to fill CC Sabathia’s shoes tonight against the White Sox, and Freddy Garcia (who pitched 2 1/3 innings of no-hit ball in relief of Pettite on Wednesday) will assume Pettitte’s role in the rotation. Which means that for the first time in recent memory, the Yankees’ top starter is Ivan Nova.

The Yankees are still in a comfortable position, but face a tough schedule ahead against the White Sox, Rays, Red Sox, Angels, and Blue Jays. In fact, they won’t be playing a sub-.500 team until they take on the Athletics beginning July 19th. So while “curse” may be a bit of an overstatement, the days since Wise’s “catch” should teach non-Yankee fans one thing: the ball does not always bounce in the Yankees’ favor.

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Don’t Take Me Out To The Ballgame: Part II

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In a previous post, I began discussing the Yankees’ attendance woes, chalking it up in part to the New York area playing deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the popularity of this year’s NBA postseason. And with the Kings winning their first Stanley Cup last week and LeBron nabbing his first championship last night, this should no longer be an issue.

Since that post, the Yankees have had a brief homestand against Atlanta, where they averaged 43,007 over three games. This included an impressive 45,094 at Wednesday’s matinee despite the strong heat (likely due to the fact that most kids are out of school and have not yet started summer camp). But this still falls below last year’s average of 45,107, indicating that there are other factors playing in to the Yankees’ depressed attendance figures.

Economics

A second, longer-term concern for the Yankees is in fact related to front office nemesis StubHub, though not in the way that management thinks. Yes, StubHub undercuts the box office by offering, on average, tickets well below face value, which is certainly a motivating factor, particularly in difficult financial times. But there are other economic elements at play, aside from just the cost of a ticket.

One such influence is the fact that as a game nears, ticket sellers often slash prices in a desperate attempt to make back at least some money. Contrast this with the Yankees’ box office, which actually adds a premium for day-of-game ticket purchases (StubHub tacks on fees to every ticket sale, though these are applied regardless of proximity to game time).

Secondly, the Yankees’ ticketing system fails to offer differential ticket pricing, the type of tiered pricing that would, for example, make tickets for a Yankees-Royals game cheaper than those for a matchup against the Red Sox. On the flipside, the free-market model of StubHub and other online secondary markets inherently reflects this distinction, with mass-scale supply and demand dictating the general price level.

These issues are more systemic and can be corrected by the Yankee organization if they are willing to do so. Aside from lowering ticket prices (unlikely) and introducing differential pricing (perhaps a bit more likely), the Yankees could remove that day-of-game premium. They could also look to reduce the marginal cost of attending a game, such as lowering parking fees (which jumped over 50% last season, from $23 to $35), which may encourage more fans to come out to the stadium. Still, the impact of such changes cannot be quantified until implemented, so the change-averse Yankee front office may need to take a risk to yield some rewards.

Attitude

Finally, the third reason for the Yanks’ attendance woes may be the most pervasive and concerning of all: fans no longer value attending a sporting event the way they used to. That’s not to say that fans are avoiding the stadium all together (as the 45.000+ fans who braved the record-breaking heat on Wednesday will attest to). But the advent of HDTV has made the at-home viewing experience that much more enjoyable, replaying pitches, hits, and catches multiple times to give viewers the best possible angle.
But the concern extends beyond just the quality of the picture. The fact of the matter is that the proliferation of internet access and smartphones has broken down the ticketing barriers that existed only a few years ago. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when nabbing tickets to even the blandest of games was no small task. Tickets to unexceptional, mid-summer Yankee matchups “sold out” regularly, even if there were plenty of empty seats in the stadium on game day. Buying tickets secondhand was viewed as risky business, and brought with it suspicions of counterfeit stubs. And scoring seats for a game against the Red Sox or Mets often required connections with a season-ticket holder.

Fast forward to 2012, when tickets can be purchased with the tap of a screen or the press of a button. And that alone has changed our attitude toward sports, consequently impacting attendance, for better but also for worse. Let’s put aside the issue of pricing for the moment, because this really isn’t about that. Sports games are no longer the “clear-your-calendar” events that they have been in the past. With tickets available for purchase up to moments before, going to a game is no longer a huge commitment- it can be, and often is, a last-minute decision, facilitated by 3G, smartphones, and online marketplaces, whether it’s Craigslist, eBay, or StubHub (though StubHub limits restricts ticket purchases to at least two hours before events).

Couple this with frequent day-of-game price drops in secondhand markets and the fact that baseball fans have 81 opportunities to see their home team play, and there’s no wonder why attendance is down this year. And most disconcerting of all is that there may be little that the front office can do in the immediate future to correct for this.

With the Yankees sitting alone atop the AL East and baseball standing alone as the only major professional sport being played right now, we just may see attendance bounce back to prior levels (the homestand against the Braves was a promising indication). But if not, the Yanks may have to make some moves to get fans back out to the ballgame – and snubbing StubHub is far from the answer.

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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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The verdict in the Roger Clemens perjury trial, handed down on Monday, marked the end of The Steroid Era in baseball. Or so everyone is claiming. Ultimately acquitting the seven-time Cy Young winner of all six counts of lying to Congress, the four-plus year trial exhausted countless hours and innumerable tax dollars. And understandably, players and fans alike are more than ready to move on. Even Yankee captain and former Clemens teammate Derek Jeter, who rarely speaks out about current issues, voiced his relief that baseball is done with one of its darkest decades. “I’m happy it is over with,” Jeter remarked shortly after the verdict was read. “I think that it is good for baseball that it is over with.”

Besides, baseball is a fundamentally different sport now, post-Mitchell Report, isn’t it?

Tuesday’s headlines would seem to suggest otherwise.

First, news broke that Phillies rookie infielder Freddy Galvis tested positive for Clostebol, a performance enhancing drug, and would be suspended 50 games after. Filling in this season for the injured Chase Utley at second base, Galvis was batting .226 with 3 home runs and 24 RBIs year-to-date- nothing phenomenal, but respectable for a rookie nonetheless.

Then Tuesday night, Rays relief pitcher Joel Peralta was ejected from the Rays-Nationals game after umpires discovered a “foreign substance” on his glove. It was later discovered to be pine tar. Peralta will likely be suspended up to 10 days by the commissioner’s office.

And while each of these events is disappointing regardless, the juxtaposition to the Clemens trial is certainly telling.

Let’s start with Galvis. The trace amount of substance found in his sample may never have been discovered had steroid usage in baseball never come to the fore. After all, the Mitchell Report, which was released in 2007 and named 89 players suspected of using steroids and other PEDs, led to intensified drug testing in pro baseball. So score one for the post-Steroid Era crackdown, right?

Not exactly. The PED testing process still has it flaws, as evidenced by the fact that players like Galvis continue to take PEDs despite the more pervasive testing. And what’s even more unnerving is the fact that Galvis isn’t even playing right now anyway. Galvis has been on the DL with a back injury since June 6, yet has already begun serving his time. That’s pretty much as punitive as the suspension handed earlier this season to another Phillie, Cole Hamels, whose five-game ban for pitching at Bryce Harper did little more than push back his start 24 hours. And while his reputation may be besmirched from this episode, it’s hard to argue that Galvis’ justice is truly being served.

(On a side note, what did happen with Ryan Braun anyway? Will we ever find out?)

But Galvis’ punishment, or lack thereof, isn’t even the most unsettling part of all. Nor is the pine tar on Peralta’s glove. Rather, it’s how and why Peralta got caught. You see, Nationals manager Davey Johnson knew to ask the umpires to check the glove, and did so before Peralta even threw one pitch in the game, because he had “inside information” about the Rays reliever, who pitched for the Nationals in 2010. Which likely means that Peralta pulled the same act two seasons ago in Washington to his coaching staff’s knowledge, and nobody stopped him.

Rays’ skipper Joe Maddon quickly came to Peralta’s defense, claiming that pine tar usage is “common knowledge in the industry,” used by every team. But in light of Clemens’ trial, which dealt with another “illegal substance” whose usage was glossed over at the time and whose revelation nearly crippled the MLB, how does that make it better? The answer: it doesn’t.

The bottom line is that within a flawed system, cheaters will find a way to cheat. Whether it’s trying newer ways to gain a competitive advantage or resorting to old tricks, kinks in the system can and will be exploited.

So while players, coaches, and league officials are ready to close the book on baseball’s Steroid Era, there is still some way to go. Reforming the penal system, eliminating the tacit acceptance of cheating, and promoting an aura of transparency are the only ways that Major League Baseball can prevent yet another regression.

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How to Beat the Heat: Third Quarter’s the Charm

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With the Finals set to begin Tuesday night, many fans and reporters have picked the Thunder, partly based on skill but also partly because they can’t quite stomach the idea of seeing LeBron with a ring on his finger. In what will surely be a ratings coup for ABC and a marketing jackpot for the NBA, we stand to see Team Anti-Heat – I mean the Oklahoma City Thunder – led by the star that everyone has grown to love take on America’s most polarizing team, fronted by the star that everyone has come to either endlessly love or passionately hate. With Kevin Durant and LeBron James likely to guard one another throughout most of the series, it will be the ultimate battle between the NBA scoring title champion and the league’s most valuable player.

There’s no doubt that most of America hopes that the odds will be ever in the Thunder’s favor. And there’s one way that the Thunder can ensure that they will: do not, under any circumstances, allow the Heat to outscore them the third quarter.

So far in the playoffs, we’ve seen a common thread weave its way through in each of Miami’s playoff series: solid play throughout the first half, albeit a bit lackluster in Heat standards. Then, after a break to rest and recoup in the locker room, Miami would consistently storm back during the third quarter and take control of the game. In each of the Heat’s twelve playoff wins thus far, Miami has outscored their opponent and “won” the third. (Or at least, haven’t lost it. They technically “tied” the Celtics in the third quarter of Game 6, which they were winning by 13 at the half and went on to win 98-79) Regardless of what transpired during the first, second, or fourth, it was that single, post-halftime quarter that made all the difference.

Whether this is a mental ploy that Erik Spoelstra has up his sleeve – play soft at first, let the opponent think they’ve got this game, then catch them off-guard right after the half – is unlikely. But if the Thunder hope to dominate the series – as most Americans outside of Miami-Dade County are anticipating – the third quarter’s the charm.

With each successive series, the Heat have lost an additional game, starting with one against the Knicks, two against the Pacers, and, most recently, three against the Celtics. Will the Thunder hand them four losses and run away with the O’Brein trophy? Only if they can control quarter number three.

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Don’t Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Part I

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News broke late last week that the Yankees plan to sever ties with StubHub at the end of the season. The contract, signed between StubHub and Major League Baseball five years ago, is set to expire this year, and the Yanks want out – ASAP. (The Angels, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs are among the other teams also looking for a new secondary ticketing agency.) Their frustration is somewhat justified: according to SeatGeek, nearly 2/3 of Yankees tickets sold on the secondary market were sold below face value, at an average of $54.14, representing a 17% discount off of the average face value price.

Yet despite the pricing steals at fans’ fingertips, attendance is actually down for the Yankees this year. Through 30 games (not including Sunday’s Subway Series finale), the Yankees are averaging 41,322 attendees per game, good for fifth place in the MLB (which, from a Yankee perspective, is like being ranked fifteenth). That’s a drop of more than 9% from last season, in which the Yankees finished second overall in home field attendance with an average of 45,107, trailing only Philadelphia.

So if tickets are cheaper than ever, logic (and economics) would dictate that attendance should be up. As we can see, this is certainly not the case. So the Yankees have chosen to point the finger at the system.

But management has failed to recognize three other, more cogent reasons this phenomenon is happening: environment, attitude, and economics.

I. Environment

First, the more short-term reason for their problems can been found just down the B line and across the Hudson: for the first time since 1994, three regional teams, between the NBA and NHL, combined for a total of eight postseason series, playing well into April, May, and in the Devils case, June. There is no question in my mind that on Monday, May 21st, the average New York sports fan stayed home to watch the Rangers-Devils matchup rather than catch the Yankees take on the Royals in a game that averaged 39,229 in attendance. (This could also explain why Citi Field attendance is also down nearly 9%, despite the Mets’ surprising run thus far.)

Not to mention the increased popularity of this season’s NBA playoffs, which are bringing in stellar viewership figures. With a 9.1 preliminary rating, Saturday night’s Heat-Celtics Game 7 on ESPN drew the highest overnight numbers for an NBA playoff game on cable since records started being kept in 2003. And with the Heat taking on the Thunder in the marquee Finals matchup, the NBA will continue to take eyes away from YES and sales away from the box office. (The Yankees unexceptional play during the first 40 or so games of the season could also be to blame, though they’ve certainly turned things around recently, going 13-4 since May 21st.) Yet the NHL and NBA playoffs will be wrapping up in the next few weeks (in the NHL’s case perhaps tonight, if the Kings can follow through), and fans will be returning to baseball in no time.

Look out for the next post, where we’ll explore additional reasons for the Yankees’ recent attendance woes.

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