Wednesday, October 26, 2005
by James Mathewson
Good Morning! By the way, if you missed yesterday's posting, be sure to click here to read the Q&A with Mark Sheldon, the Twins beat reporter for mlb.com.
Secondly, head over to Stick and Ball Guy's site today where yours truly was the participant in his first round of Pepper! of this offseason. It's always fun, and this year, he allowed me an extra ten words per topic. For those of you that don't know what Pepper! is, SBG picks ten topics (baseball, football, basketball, other), and I get 60 words to express my thoughts on said topic. He will ten post his thoughts in 60 words or less as well. It is interesting to see if we agree or disagree on the topics.
One more thing, I have to thank a reader who pointed out that I was wrong in my Chuck Knoblauch trade update yesterday. I said that the player that the Twins drafted as compensation for losing Cristian Guzman was Andrew Thompson. Thompson was taken with the 80th overall pick. The Twins compensation for Guzman came with the 85th pick, which the team used to draft left-handed pitcher Brian Duensing from the University of Nebraska.
Remember a few weeks ago when I said I was only going to post four days a week in the offseason and that I was just going to take Wednesday's off? Well, that lasted one week. But we're back again this week with another Why Baseball article. This is now the third such article. The first week, Roger wrote an essay on why he has enjoyed baseball so much. Last week, it was Drew Boatman who shared his love of baseball. If you are at all interested in writing an essay telling us how you feel about the game and why, please e-mail me. When I receive the e-mail, I will try to give you a timeline of when I would want your essay, so you can wait to put your words together. If you would like to know more specifically what I am looking at from this, click here for my introduction to the series. I hope that many of you will take the time to participate because I think we all can learn a lot from other's experiences.
So, without further ado, I present Why Baseball?, by James Mathewson:
But first, a little bit about James:
James Mathewson (a.k.a. cmathewson) writes for many area publications. He writes travel pieces for MPLS ST PAUL, business articles for Twin Cities Business Monthly, outdoor articles for the Boundary Waters Journal, and technology articles for ComputerUser and eServer magazines. He gets his pen name from his father, C. (Bud) Mathewson Jr., and is also a great admirer of a shirt tail relative with the same first initial and last name—Christy Mathewson.
I have always been a sports fan. Growing up with three of my five brothers close in age to me and with a neighborhood full of boys my age, we were always playing sports. We had nearby Lynhurst Park in South Minneapolis to play team sports, and we played them all: baseball, football, soccer, and hockey. Well, all except basketball.
We also followed all the sports, including Gophers’ basketball. A few years before I was born, the Vikings were a football expansion team and then the Twins came to town. The North Stars began not long after I could talk about sports. The three teams occupied most of our conversations around the breakfast table. And since my parents always had several radios around the house tuned into ‘CCO 24/7, we heard all the sports calls, sports reports, and, of course, Sid Hartman’s “Sports Hero.” We fought over Sid’s column at the breakfast table; and I can honestly say I learned to read through Sid’s column.
But of all the sports, baseball was foremost in our household. Part of it was the Twins’ success. From 1965 to 1970, the Twins always had great teams and nothing spurs fans like success. But even after the Twins faded in the standings and the Vikings became a perennial playoff team, The Twins were first in our hearts. My parents were part of the Greatest Generation, which is why baseball on the radio was such a central part of their lives.
Of all my parent’s 11 children, I was most fond of baseball. Part of it came from wanting to spend time with my dad. He didn’t play catch with us or come to our games. There were too many of us and he was too busy trying to keep us all fed. Plus, as the youngest, he was in his mid-50s when I played ball and he’d already had his first heart attack. So he probably couldn’t have played catch if he had the time or energy for it.
When he had free time, he loved to sit with my mom and a beverage and listen to Herb Carneal call the Twins game. I gravitated to these settings to be near him. The subtlest inflection in Herb’s voice helped us understand the difference between a slow roller and a made-to-order double play; between a close pitch and a bad call; between a routine fly ball and a great catch. I spent countless evenings while my buddies were playing kickball in the street, sitting with my parents in the backyard or the living room and watching the game unfold before my mind.
Oddly enough, the years that cemented my love affair with the Twins were the mid-70s, when Gene Mauch was manager. Thanks to the stingy Calvin Griffith and the advent of free agency, Mauch had some of the worst teams in the league talent-wise. But he won dozens of games he shouldn’t have by sheer guile; and you could tell Herb loved every stolen victory. Herb’s knack for conveying the options before the manager—whether he would sacrifice or hit-and-run; whether he would bring in the lefty with a right handed pinch hitter on the opposing team’s bench; whether he would pinch hit for a good fielding shortstop late in the game—kept the listener in rapt attention. Herb didn’t just call the game, he gave you an education on the subtle complexities of the game of baseball. And I couldn’t get enough of it.
Baseball was the sport I was best at and I found it an endless fascination. Of course, I kept up on the statistics, such as they were. I listened to every pitch and kept track of pitch counts and ball-to-strike ratios. I followed the team so closely it began to interfere with my playing of the game. I even passed up summer league one year to spend more time with my parents in front of the radio.
Eventually, I became a one-sport player and, even though I was best at baseball, my one sport was hockey. My brother Mark was all conference at Holy Angels and I was supposed to be the next Mark. So, even though I never quite grasped the concept that you can’t skate as fast as you can all the time and be effective in hockey, I was pushed into making hockey my one sport. But as my baseball playing days faded, my fan days blossomed. In the summer of 1977, I could tell you from one at bat to the next what Rod Carew’s batting average was.
Just when it seemed the Twins would have a great team to go along with a great manager, everything fell apart. First Larry Hisle and Lymon Bostock (God rest his soul) left for free agency. Then Calvin did the unthinkable: He traded Rod Carew. I never forgave him for that. Rod was my hero and I thought it was sacrilege that he would be in a different uniform. I stopped being a Twins fan overnight and didn’t follow the team, or baseball, for nine years.
I convinced myself that I would never miss it. I did all kinds of things to keep myself busy. I raced sailboats and bicycles. I taught fitness at the Y and worked at Great Harvest Bakery. I went to seminary for a year only to meet my future wife, graduate from college and get married. And in 1987—the year my dad died—I rediscovered the Twins. My wife Beth says if she had known about the sleeping Twins fan within me, she would have never married me.
The ’87 Twins awakened a sleeping giant and the giant has only grown within me since then. In those nine years, the business of baseball and the Twins franchise had changed completely. Calvin Griffith was gone, and his cronies from the old days of baseball had been replaced by a team of young executives with an understanding of what it takes to win. The Twins were fun to watch because they never quit. They were led on the bench by a manager who could rival Gene Mauch in strategy if not personality. And they were led on the field and in the clubhouse by a spunky center fielder who had all the tools. Kirby Puckett would replace Rod Carew as my new Twins hero.
The new executives systematically rebuilt the scouting department and the farm system; which gave me another outlet for the nine years of pent-up Twins fan to geek out on. Each spring, I would buy the Twins media guide from the Pro Shop. Throughout the year, I used that guide as the basis for an extensive notation system on rising Twins stars, augmented by the weekly minor league report in the Mpls. StarTribune. Being a Twins fan was no longer just a six-month obsession; it was year round. As soon as the World Series was over, the General Managers would meet. Then the owners would meet. Trades and free agency and all kinds of deadlines finally gave way to spring training. And the cycle would repeat itself with the seasons.
This was my model through the glorious 1991 season, when I watched from behind home plate as Kirby made The Catch and hit The Homerun. And this was my way of life through the dark years of the 90s, when promising minor leaguers like Rich Becker and Scott Stahoviak could never seem to sustain a major league career.
As salaries from New York to LA careened out of control, pundits from the papers predicted that the economics of baseball would not allow a team with so little capital as the Twins to compete. The conventional wisdom said the best you could do was to promote three good players a year from the minors, even with a strong system. With the Twins budget, you could only afford them for four or five years. So the best you could do was fill a half of a team before you had to start over again.
Though my obsession waned a bit in the mid-to-late ‘90s, I never lost faith. Every year, Terry Ryan would sign a couple of bargain basement free agents. Then, when his team inevitably was out of contention, he would trade these players for minor leaguers. I noticed that several of these new players were the same age, and, if he managed to combine this extra talent with the guys within the system and bring them all up together, he could have something special. In 1999, my dream came true, with 19 rookies—almost a whole team—promoted at the same time. After that team took its lumps, it became the core of a team that would have a winning record for five consecutive years.
The ’99 Twins revitalized my enthusiasm for baseball and the Twins. I can’t really imagine being a fan of baseball without the Twins. Which is why I didn’t follow baseball after Calvin’s betrayal. And I almost lost my obsession with baseball when Carl Pohlad offered his team up for contraction. But let us not speak of that unfortunate time. The Twins survived contraction and matured into a great team, in part because of revenue sharing and other advances that led to the contraction debate.
Rather than using paper to follow the Twins’ system, I use the Internet now. As the former editor in chief of ComputerUser.com Web site and magazine and the current editor at large of that publication, I am somewhat of an expert on the Internet. So the Internet became the tool to further deepen my obsession. Through the Internet, I discovered sabermetrics, Baseball Prospectus, and all the blogs.
Even though I had one of the first blogs on the Internet with ComputerUser, I never thought to blog on the Twins until Twins Geek offered any member of Twins Territory the opportunity to have their own blog on the site. Ultimately, my writing on that site allowed me to write this column. Which brings me back full circle to the question: Why baseball?
Though my interest in baseball has evolved over 40 years, the game has not. It is still a game where one bounce can turn the whole game around against all odds. It is still a game that can hinge on a strategic decision as much as a chess match. It is the only game in which players have to earn their way to the majors through years of minor league development. It is the only game in which I regularly see something I’ve never seen. It is the only game that so closely mimics life that I find myself regularly gleaning inspiration from the way players fight through adversity and struggle to maintain consistency. It is the only game that is simply too complex to admit of exact numerical analysis. It is the only sport in which body type and athleticism are less important than being able to play ball.
In short, baseball mirrors life. What better way to hone my craft than to write about baseball?
So, there you have it. Another terrific Why Baseball article! Thank you James for taking the time to write up this article. I think it was great! Let me know what you think. If you would like to ask me or James and questions, please feel free to e-mail me.
I know I made this comparison immediately after seeing JD Durbin throw for the Twins for the first time in 2004. However, as I was watching Roy Oswalt pitch last night, all I kept thinking is that he is what I envision Durbin becoming. I was excited thinking about that early in the game, when Oswalt was dominant, but then he had the one bad inning when he allowed five runs.
When I see Jason Lane hit a big home run, and a huge RBI double in the 8th, all I think about is that he, like Michael Cuddyer has with the Twins, has spent a couple of years playing a role for the Astros. This year, he was finally given an everyday job, and even through struggles, the team stuck with him, and kept him in the lineup every day. He responded with 26 homers, and has had some huge hits this offseason. Cuddyer is a year younger, and I feel he could be equally productive as Lane, who is actually almost two years Cuddyer's senior. Just given a chance.
Chris Burke, thought much of the year as being a platoon player, has become an every day player whether in the outfield or at 2B. He was a 26 year old rookie with just a handful of at bats in 2004. Next year, Jason Bartlett will be a 26 year old second year player. Let him play every day and get comfortable, and let's just see what he is capable of!
Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan are so similar. Both have fastballs in the mid-to-upper 90s. Both have just nasty sliders that they break off sharp! Nathan also does throw a slower curveball. But both are among the top four or five closers in baseball.
OK, the game is heading into the 12th inning. Both teams have used their bullpens. Both used their closers. There has been a lot of strategy, and still no winner. I'm not as young as I used to be, so I will now be heading to bed. By the time I wake up, it will either be a 3-0 lead in the series for the White Sox or a 2-1 Sox lead, if the Astros are able to win.
12:48 am - We're now headed to the 14th. Uggh! I should be sleeping!
12:54 am - After an incredible Morgan Ensberg double play on a Paul Konerko ball, Geoff Blum hit a line drive over the right field fence to give the Sox a 6-5 lead. Phil Garner throws a chair!
1:04 am - After two infield singles and a walk, Ezekiel Astacio walks Chris Widger to bring in a second run, giving the Sox a 7-5 lead. Phil Garner brings in Wandy Rodriguez, and this time, I really do go to bed! Oh, by the way, Mark Buehrle is warming up as if he will come in for a save!
7:47 am - Welp, Wandy Rodriguez came in and got a strikeout to end the top of the 14th. Damaso Marte got the first two outs of the bottom half of the inning. Mark Buehrle came in and got a save by getting that final out, and the White Sox now are sitting pretty good with a 3-0 lead heading into tonight's Game 4. The Astros send Brandon Backe to the mound to face Freddy Garcia in an elimination game.
I want to recap what is going on with the Twins prospects in the Arizona Fall League. I also think that each player has a little different goal going into the Fall League, at least in the eyes of the organization, so I want to briefly discuss those as well as where they could be in 2006.
Matt Moses - His numbers looked pretty good before yesterday when he went 0-5. He has now only played in eight games and had 31 at bats, so an 0-5 can drastically drop his numbers. He is now hitting .278/.323/.419 with a double, a homer and three RBI. He also struck out three times yesterday to drop his BB/K rate to 1/7. Defensively, he has just one error at this point. In my opinion, Moses had an excellent season at Fort Myers. He would have been moved up to New Britain sooner if not for an injury. Once he hit New Britain, he did struggle, but don't forget that he is two to four years younger than most AA players. No matter how well he does in the AFL, he will start 2006 back at New Britain. I think Moses is here simply to give him a taste of playing against many other great prospects.
Denard Span had a nice 3-5 day yesterday. He stole his fourth base (in six attempts). He has played LF and CF (switching with Top 10 prospect Lastings Milledge of the Mets) in 15 games. He is hitting .279/.317/.367 with three doubles, a triple and 6 RBI. To me, the Rochester OF was older in 2005. I assume that Doug Deeds and Alex Romero will move up to Rochester. Span only moved up to New Britain at the halfway point of this season. I think, to some degree, there was a chance that a remarkable performance by Span would have given him a chance to move up to Rochester. Remarkable not only includes hitting, but showing an ability to get on base, improving his base running and base stealing. I of course can't measure that without seeing him play, but I think Span has held his own. That said, I still see him being in much the same boat as Moses. Probably will start the season at New Britain again, where he is still young for the level, and getting a chance to compete with other top prospects. I expect Span to move up to Rochester during the 2006 season.
Garrett Jones - Jones has played 14 games so far, some at 1B and some as the team's DH. He is hitting .269/.339/.577 with four doubles, four homers and 16 RBI. He is showing some power, which is no surprise. I think that results in the AFL are a little bit more important for Jones, simply because he has now spent a full season at AAA. He should be one of the more advanced hitters there. He is still fairly young for AAA, but there were a few things that Jones needs to improve on before the team will likely deem him ready to help at the Major League level. First, he does not walk very often for a power hitter. He has done a decent job in this small sample size, with an isolated discipline of .070. Again, very small sample size. Another problem he has had is a poor strikeout rate. Well, he hasn't done well in that category so far here.16 strikeouts in 57 plate appearances is less than one in four. That is not good! He also has two errors at 1B. I say these things not to say that he can't play at the big league level. Look at Ryan Howard. He strikes out all the time (slight exaggeration!). Jones is still young and he rose through three levels of the Twins system in the last two years. He has shown a lot. A second season at Rochester is not a bad thing at all. He will just really need to show some improvement in 2006.
Glen Perkins - Perkins has done well in his three AFL starts so far. He has no record, but in 12 innings, his ERA is just 1.50. He has allowed just nine hits and walked two, and he has struck out 16 hitters. Like most top college pitchers, Perkins swiftly moved through rookie league, low Class A and then High Class A. At midseason, he moved up to AA New Britain, the level when these pitchers have a tendency to first struggle. Perkins struggled. Primarily with his control and consistency. The Fall League gives him more of an opportunity to prove that he belongs in the same category as other top prospects. And so far, he has done that. He has shown that he can compete and succeed against the best. Again, we have to remember that it is a very small sample size. One bad start could make all his numbers not look as impressive. But what Perkins needed to do, and has done, is show that he is a legit prospect. I suspect that he will still start 2006 at New Britain, but with a solid start, a move up to Rochester is certainly a possibility.
Travis Bowyer - In five relief appearances and 7.1 innings, Bowyer is 0-1 with a 9.82 ERA. He has given up 12 hits including three home runs. On a positive note, he has walked just one and struck out nine. To me, his numbers in Arizona mean absolutely nothing. Of course, you would love to see better numbers, but the Fall League is not all about statistics. In Bowyer's case, it is strictly to continue working on a second or third pitch to go with his 97 mph fastball. With the Twins, we did see the semblance of a changeup and an occasional slider. He needs to become much more consistent with those pitches, and throw them in real game situations. My assumption is that is exactly what he is doing in Arizona. He is throwing those other pitches because it isn't about being successful in the minor leagues, it is about becoming successful at the Major League level. So, he needs to keep working on those other pitches whether they are hit or not. That is the only way to develop them. With Bowyer, if he has even a second quality pitch, he has a very good chance at spending the 2006 season with the Twins. If he still needs to work on them, he will be back at Rochester.
Ricky Barrett - In six games and 7.2 innings, Barrett is 0-1 with a 9.39 ERA. He has given up 12 hits, seven walks and two homers, with six strikeouts. His numbers weren't good going into yesterday, but then he had a bad performance. In 1.1 innings, he did not give up a hit, but he gave up two earned runs because of four walks. That was Barrett's problem much of the 2005 season, and really in previous years too. Barrett's selection for the Arizona Fall League was the only surprising choice for me. There were plenty of other choices that would have made more sense, like Jason Miller, Boof Bonser, Pat Neshek, Nick Blackburn or Errol Simonitsch. But there must be a reason that Barrett was chosen. I can only think that they are trying to determine where he is, and where he could get to. Can he be a big league left-handed reliever? Maybe the Twins just want to know. They have to make a decision on him before the Rule V draft. First, they could determine if he should be added to the 40 man roster. Secondly, they have now given every organization the chance to see him, so maybe they could work a trade for him with one of them?
And on that note, I am going to call it a day. I certainly hope that you have found the "Why Baseball" article by James worth reading, and I hope that many of you will be interested in participating. I will be back tomorrow with Roger's Twins minor league pitcher rankings. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail me.
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