August 2013

“I found that just surviving was a noble fight”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

Your first impulse is to just let a good, cute story remain a good, cute story and not try to incorporate it with some higher meaning. But in the land of particularly pathetic and/or heartbreaking professional sporting happenstance  — and no land serves that distinction quite like the Land of Cleves — it couldn’t hurt to hold out hope that good karma now graces the Cleveland Indians’ playoff pursuit.

ImageOver the weekend, an 8-year-old Tribe fan by the name of Niko Lanzarotta got to take in batting practice from the field, and the young boy, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at eight months old, asked two members of the team — Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis — to hit a home run for him.

Well, what could they say? Santana said sure, Kipnis said he’d try, and then both players hit the field that night and – amazingly — did just as Niko had asked.

“To see your kid that happy,” said Niko’s father, Mike, in a statement released by the team, “is a great thing.”

Amen to that. And if that’s where the feel-good story involving the Indians begins and ends, we could do worse than to end it with the bright and beaming smile of a little boy.

Then again, the way things are looking right now, the Indians have a pretty good chance at pulling off a feat almost as improbable as fulfilling Niko’s whimsical wish.

Whatever you wish to read into this sort of thing, it’s worth noting that the Indians’ percentage shot at a postseason berth, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, has risen 12 points just in the past week alone (from 21.3 to 33.7, at last check). No, the jump is not attributable to the news that the Indians maybe possibly put in a waiver claim on Kendrys Morales (and more on that in a moment). Rather, it’s climbed because the Tribe has maintained a season trend of beating up on the kind of clubs you’re supposed to beat up on. They swept the Angels in Anaheim, then took two of three from the Twins.

This is how the #RollTribe caravan rolls, when it rolls: through the streets of sleeping cities. The Indians have built their 71-59 record (two wins better than their Pythagorean expectation based on run differential) by going 40-17 against losing teams to offset their 31-42 mark against those currently sitting at .500 or better.

You don’t get docked for this sort of thing. Some might call the Indians a soft contender as a result of that record disparity, but they’re certainly no softer than the A’s team they trail in the Wild Card hunt by two games. The A’s, after all, have 43 wins against losing teams, including 12 inter-division wins against the lowly Astros.

Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright, it’s alright.

Here’s where it gets really interesting for the Indians, though. In the here and now. In a six-game road swing, beginning Tuesday night, against the two teams with perhaps the most realistic shot at home-field advantage throughout October: the Braves and Tigers. The Tribe will follow that up with a three-game set against the fellow Wild Card-contending O’s, beginning on Labor Day.

A trade for Morales – and, to be clear, we don’t yet know which club put in the reported claim on the 30-year-old slugger or if a trade will even be worked out – would be considered a timely one given the laborious stretch the Indians are entering and the need for an injection of offense.

Then again, it would be difficult to call Morales an outright game-changer, given the regression he’s shown after a strong start in Seattle. His 264 AVG and .730 OPS since June 7 are only slightly better than the numbers of the much-maligned Nick Swisher (.241/.718) in that same span. And Morales’ presence would only limit the Indians’ ability to put their best lineup on the field – i.e., a lineup with Yan Gomes behind home plate and Santana at first base or DH – while also creating roster concern for Jason Giambi, who has been an instrumental member of this club.

Color  me doubtful.

Anyway, the focus here is not nearly as much on Morales as it is on the need for the Indians to simply survive a stretch that, once endured, gives birth to greener pastures. The rest of the Indians’ schedule comes against the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins, against whom they’re a combined 30-14 (they’ve yet to face the Mets, who, we now know, won’t be bringing Matt Harvey to Progressive Field).

Of course, to read much into schedule strength is to ignore the very essence of a sport in which a team like the Indians can climb into contention.

The Tribe, after all, is a contender for reasons that, almost across the board, defy all projection or prediction, which is why the fact that we’re having this discussion in late August is such a surprise.

Look at the biggest free-agent expenditures: Swisher is the primary reason the Indians have an OPS output from the No. 4 spot (.754) that is below the league average (.783); Michael Bourn has an on-base percentage (.322) just below the league average from the leadoff spot (.324) and is having the least effective stolen-base success rate of his career (19 steals in 29 attempts); Mark Reynolds disappeared after a hot April in a way few before him have disappeared.

Furthermore, Trevor Bauer, the highly touted trade acquisition, has been a non-factor, relegated to Triple-A, where he continues to endure control issues. And only three qualifying AL shortstops have a lower OPS than so-called cornerstone Asdrubal Cabrera.

Had you known all this in March, you really wouldn’t be feeling Terry Francona’s club.

No wonder some scouts feel this might be Francona’s finest managerial moment, for this club never turned in on itself in the midst of, say, losing eight straight in early June or getting swept in a pivotal four-game set at home against the Tigers earlier this month and following that up with two straight losses to the Angels.

Francona’s temperament has been at least as pivotal as – though perhaps not moreso Imagethan – that of the resurrected Giambi, who has had almost literally nothing but big hits on the field (his is the most impactful .186 average in all of baseball) and provided nothing but positive presence off it, and Mickey Callaway, whom Francona hired at the behest of an Indians front office that viewed him as a rising star in the coaching field.

Callaway has helped eke effective-if-not-flashy results out of an unproven rotation – one that could have come undone when either Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber succumbed to rare finger sprains (this kind of thing tends to happen in the realm of Cleveland sports). Shockingly, it is the rotation that is picking up the slack for a disappointing offense, which has scored less than four runs per game in the second half.

If the Indians can get their bats going in the here and now, they are absolutely a legit postseason contender. Maybe to many, that’s hard to believe.

But I know of at least one little boy who believes in the improbable.

~AC

PS: Those of you who read Indians.com regularly are of course familiar with the work of young Zack Meisel, who has been a big asset to us at MLB.com the last few years. Zack is moving on to Cleveland.com’s Ohio State beat, where I know he’ll continue to do great things while surviving on a daily diet of Chick-fil-A and chocolate chip cookies.

Go get ‘em, Zack.

PPS: I mentioned Bourn’s unexpectedly low stolen-base total, but there is one area where the Tribe’s improved team speed has been beneficial: the double-play tally. The Tribe has only been doubled up in 9.1 percent of GDP situations, the third lowest rate in baseball and the second-lowest team rate in the Wild Card era, trailing only the 9.0 mark set by the 2007 AL Central championship club.

“We were walking on the wild side”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

With 41 games remaining in their 2013 regular season slate, the Indians are nine games over .500, 6 ½ games back of first place and 3 ½ games back of a Wild Card slot.

Everything above is, as of this writing, an absolute fact.

But absolute facts are open to varying degrees of interpretation.

Maybe you’re content with the above, knowing full well that this team lost 91 games last season and that, in Major League Baseball, the climb from 94 losses to even 82 wins – ensuring a winning season – is a steep one that ought to be applauded. Nobody knew quite what to expect from this Tribe team in the first year of the Terry Francona era, but I think a majority of you would have signed up for a winning season, no questions asked. Some small percentage of you would probably still be content with that outcome.

Then again, the Indians kept things interesting enough long enough in the Central against a supremely talented Tigers team that some people can’t give up the ghost of the division chase. Hey, nothing wrong with dreaming big, and even though the Indians’ record against the Tigers is 2-46 (or thereabouts), they do still have three head-to-head matchups and we can’t rule out a late-season surge. Some small percentage of you is still firmly invested in that potential outcome.

Meanwhile, the majority of you, I’d venture to guess, are somewhere in the middle. And the middle, of course, is the Wild Card chase, in which the Indians, according to Baseball Prospectus’ latest postseason odds report, still have a 21.5 percent chance of suiting up in October.

MLB, as you know, expanded the Wild Card format to include two teams last year, so now you’ve got no shortage of standings and scheduling scenarios to pore over on a daily basis.

As I type this, the Wild Card picture looks like this:

wildcard

Whoa. That’s a lot to take in. Tampa Bay, Oakland, Baltimore, Kansas City, New York. And the East and West races are close enough that you’ve got to keep track of Boston and Texas, too.

Rooting for the Wild Card, as you can see, is an onerous ordeal. But I am nothing if not a man of the people. It is my job to distill this mess down to its essence and make your lives a little bit brighter, a little bit more manageable.

And so I encourage you to use this painless, handy guide to navigate your way through the home stretch of the season. Please, please, thank me not with flowers or money but rather with your ever-abiding affection. It’s all I ask.

HOW TO ROOT FOR THE WILD CARD

All right, let’s begin in the here and now, Aug. 16-18. This is easy: You’re rooting for the Tigers, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Mariners.

I know, I know… the Tigers? Woe be the postseason scenario that encourages you to cheer on the very team you’re trying to catch in your division. But to be entirely realistic is to embrace the fact that disposing of the Royals in this AL Central troika is in the Indians’ best interests, and the Tigers, who took the first game of a four-game weekend set, are the best bet to do the dirty work.

It would be helpful if the Red Sox would make like Chris Nelson and crush the confidence of the desperate Yankees, who have left no stone (or Mark Reynolds) unturned in their quest for coherence.

It would be really helpful if the Rockies would jump all over the Orioles, who have lost three straight and have been burned by Jim Johnson’s severe ninth-inning regression. A couple more blown saves from Johnson wouldn’t hurt. Closer controversies can bring a ballclub down.

It would be helpful, too, if the Blue Jays would keep the once-reeling Rays from enjoying an upswing. The Rays just took two straight from the Mariners and were encouraged by the strong return of Alex Cobb. It is in the Indians’ best interest if the Blue Jays put them down a peg.

And while you’re at it, you might as well root for the Mariners against the Rangers. Anything to encourage a brutal battle in the AL West to drag down the respective records of the Rangers and A’s.

All right, so there you go. Seems pretty simple, right?

But wait a sec.

What if… and I’m just throwing this out there… what if the Royals salvage a split with the Tigers, and Detroit’s Central lead remains about where it was… and then the Orioles take the series with the Rox and A-Rod, somehow buoyed by all this attention from “60 Minutes,” propels the Yanks to a thrilling sweep in Boston and the Rays get back on a roll?

Hmm.

OK, well, first things first, you’d have to watch that Rays-Orioles series closely next week and make sure you root for a split and a rainout. Then you’d want to pay close attention to how the Royals fare against the White Sox. Need a big week from the Sox there. And you’ll want to stay up late to root for the Mariners against the A’s (you’ll be accustomed to rooting against the A’s at this point) and the Giants against the Red Sox. Those West Coast games are a pain. You might be groggy and cranky in the morning, particularly if the A’s and Red Sox sweep.

And if they sweep, you’ll want to hold out hope that they run away with their respective divisions so that you can put all your energy into rooting against the Orioles, Yankees, Rays and Rangers. Then again, the Rangers will be at home against the lowly Astros, so maybe they’ll sweep and the A’s won’t and now you’ll want to make sure you’re rooting firmly against the A’s instead. Oh, but… darn… I forgot the A’s then head to Baltimore next weekend, Aug. 23-25. And you can’t root for the Orioles. So maybe instead of focusing on the O’s and A’s, you should devote your time and attention to the Rays. They’re pretty dangerous. But wait, by that point they’ll be playing the Yankees, and we can’t let those Yanks get hot. Man, this is stressful. All right, let’s simplify things and just root against the Royals. We can all get behind that, right?

Oh, shoot, the Royals play the Rays in a makeup game Aug. 26. So scratch that. I told you to be careful with those Rays. Really need the Royals to take that game, unless of course the Royals took care of business at home against the Nationals the previous weekend, in which case you’ve really got to worry the Royals will overtake the Indians. So root against the Royals. But don’t root for the Rays. And then, the next day, root for the Twins against the Royals and the Angels against the Rays and the Blue Jays against the Yankees, but be careful about that Tigers-A’s series, because you never know if that might be the start of the Tigers’ stunning collapse, although it might be the beginning of the A’s surge over the Rangers, in which case you’ll really want the Mariners to beat the Rangers at Safeco. Crap. West Coast game again. You’ll want to have plenty of caffeine handy.

Fortunately, you’ll have the Labor Day weekend to relax. Then again, that could be a stressful holiday weekend, what with the Rays facing the A’s and O’s facing the Yanks and you, sitting there with your special bonus Saturday edition of the Plain Dealer, staring at the standings and trying to tabulate what, exactly, it is you’re supposed to be rooting for. Oh, but don’t forget: The Indians play the Tigers that weekend. You’ll want to root for the Indians, for sure.

Come to think of it, just root for the Indians the rest of the way. My head hurts.

~AC

Foul Balls

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageWe were sitting in the right-field stands at PNC Park, my buddy Mike and I, taking in the rare August sight that is a near-sell-out in a ballpark much too beautiful for the bad baseball it has housed for the majority of its existence.

Mike is a Pirates fan. A real one. He didn’t just board the bandwagon… not that there’s anything wrong with the forming bandwagon supporting a team that has posted losing season after losing season for two decades and now, stunningly, holds the best record in baseball.

Mike used to sit in the stands at Three Rivers, rooting on Denny Neagle and Andy Van Slyke and Don Slaught and Al Martin (though I’m not certain if he was an actual member of “Al’s Army”). He has spent his fair share of hours making the best of a bad situation at PNC, back when the lackluster play on the field was offset, in some small measure, by the occasional Jason Bay bobblehead or commemorative Jack Wilson “Jack in the Box” giveaway.

And the one constant, aside from the results, was this: Mike had never caught a foul ball.

He lamented this fact to me recently, taking note of the national story that a Tribe fan had caught not one, not two, not three but four foul balls on a single Sunday at Progressive Field.

“Man,” Mike said when he heard this, “I’m 0-for-life.”

Imagine, then, the flash of hope, the flicker of anticipation that fluttered in Mike’s Irish heart in that moment when right fielder Jose Tabata turned to the crowd after a between-innings game of catch, surveyed the scene and cocked his arm back for the toss above the 21-foot-wall in right. This is one of the things you have to love about the experience of attendance. Because Tabata, bless his heart, has a .695 OPS and is one of the primary culprits responsible for the Buccos’ right-field plight. Yet in a moment such as this, he can still make a fond memory for some fortunate fan.

On this night, in this seat, that fan was Mike.

I knew it from the moment of release. The ball was coming directly to Mike. It was a no-doubter. He lifted up out of his chair, extended his arms out and, with the God-given athletic skill that once allowed him to serve as a walk-on for the very prestigious, world-renowned baseball team at Ohio University, easily hauled it in.

He sat back in his seat, peaceful, fulfilled.

“I have never caught a foul ball*,” he remarked, studying this inspirational orb, scuff marks and all, perhaps envisioning a spot on his mantle for this treasured piece of memorabilia.

*And yes, technically he still hadn’t, because this wasn’t an actual foul ball. But work with me, people, I’m trying to tell a story here.

But then, just as suddenly as the ball was delivered into Mike’s anticipatory palms, you could feel the eyes upon him. Everybody in the crowd, it seemed, was staring at Mike, waiting, pining, imploring him to give the ball to the little kid sitting two seats to his left.

Mike could feel it, too. I swear to you the six or seven seconds after he came down with that ball felt like an eternity, a full trial and sentencing of a man scrutinized by his own, Pirate-loving peers.

And when the eternity had passed, Mike did the only thing a man in his place could have done without inspiring the ire of every inhabitant of Section 144:

He gave the ball to the kid.

Now, I want to make one thing very clear: I love kids. And I love that baseball, at its core, is a game that caters to kids. Certainly, some people get swept up in the passion of a pennant race at some advanced age and become late-blooming baseball fans. But I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of us who love this game love it because it cosmically connects us to our childhood in some small way. And baseball teams go to great, admirable and always evolving lengths to ensure that experience is passed down to future generations, so that the wheel is always in spin.

The other night, my uncle brought his three grandsons to an Indians game. They wanted to bring their gloves, but my uncle had to tell them their seats would be out-of-range for even the most mammoth of Jason Giambi blasts.

“But just in case,” he told them, “have your hat ready!”

Image

And this is how it should be, true ambition forming in the heart and mind of a young boy and the understanding that, if the fates allow and if he applies himself, perhaps his reverie will be realized. If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme… unless maybe if you’re sitting in Section 749, Row Q.

Anyway, this is what bothered me about what I witnessed at PNC: The hand-off from adult to child felt more expected than appreciated. The kid’s dad thanked my friend, certainly, and the gesture was applauded by the guy sitting behind us. But the whole thing seemed — to me, at least — to have all the emotional magnitude of a $10 bank transaction. It felt like Mike had merely completed his end of some pre-existing agreement written in tiny font on the back of his ticket.

At the risk of sounding insensitive or out-of-touch or just plain grumpy, when did this become a thing? When did giving little kids every foul ball (I would imagine, perhaps naively, that home runs are more commonly acknowledged as the property of the possessor) become part of some binding social contract? Because I know it wasn’t written into the fabric of fanship when I was a kid. When I was young, I could not even conceive of begging some stranger, in word or in enticing or teary eyes, to give me a freebie. The thought never would have even crossed my mind. Or my dad’s mind, for that matter.

I still remember the day Cory Snyder showed up to The Palace, the Euclid High School baseball field, to put on a hitting clinic (yeah, yeah, smart aleck, Snyder struck out in 25 percent of his career plate appearances… he was still a golden-locked legend in my young mind). At some point in the session, my dad stood up and vanished from our seats behind the backstop. I was too engrossed by the glory of Cory Snyder to pay any mind to this disappearance. A few minutes later, my dad, completely out of breath, comes back with a ball in hand. When I was older, he explained that he had outhustled a bunch of little kids half his size (which is really saying something, seeing as how my dad is a tiny Italian-American) to get me that ball — a ball I still have. That’s a father taking care of his son. That’s America. Or baseball. Or a Harry Chapin song. Or something. And if I’m blessed with children of my own one day, I plan to do everything in my power to create those little magic moments for them, too.

But anybody who watched, without the benefit of context, as my dad raced past those kids in pursuit of a ball off the bat of the great Cory Snyder probably figured he was just a jerk.

Point is, we’ve progressed to a point in our culture where such context has ceased to have any value whatsoever. There are people — a good number of people — who are content to give this souvenir away to someone else’s child without even a fleeting moment of contemplation. These are kind and gracious people, and they deserve to be applauded (my friend Mike, it must be noted, has expressed not even a hint of regret or uncertainty about his decision).

Of course, not everybody wants to give it away, and therein lies the difficulty. Catch a foul ball and keep it for yourself, and the moment is captured in high-definition, broadcast on big screens across the region and, next thing you know, you’re Deadspin material. How do you know that guy keeping that ball isn’t out of town on business with a son of his own waiting at home? How do you know he’s not planning to give that ball to his dying mother to fulfill her lifelong quest of owning an object once touched by Greg Dobbs? How do you know he wasn’t recently laid off from his job and ditched by his wife and this precious piece of paraphernalia is the only thing keeping him from jumping off a short bridge?

Or how do you know he’s not just a big baseball fan who always wanted to catch a freaking foul ball?

You don’t know any of this, and, what’s worse, we don’t have any finely stipulated statutes upon which to work off here. What is the age cut-off for both the bearer of the ball and the kid in question? How old is too old to keep a ball? How young is too young to expect a ball? How do you know if the guy giving the kid the ball doesn’t want it more than the kid, who very well might just toss it in his toy box and never think about it again (or, for that matter, toss it back on the field)? If you give a crying kid a baseball, are you encouraging him to waltz through life expecting that all good things will come his way if he whines a little? Are foul balls the new participation trophies?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t know if it’s insensitive or unseemly to even be asking them.

I just know the whole thing strikes me as foul.

~AC

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 62 other followers