Thursday, May 29, 2014

Remembering Doc's No-No on Anniversary of Perfection

For Phillies fans, it was not that long ago that our team was at the top of the National League, with the best starting rotation in baseball leading the way.

Three years ago on this date the Fightins were in the midst of a franchise record-setting 101-win season, and that vaunted pitching rotation included four pitchers who had been collectively nicknamed "The Four Aces" by fans and media.

Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and arguably the Ace among Aces, Roy 'Doc' Halladay. It all seems to be drifting further and further into the rearview mirror now. Oswalt has been gone for a couple of years. Lee is on the Disabled List, and heavily rumored in trade discussion. Only Hamels remains, and is likely to remain, for the foreseeable future.

Halladay finally retired following the 2013 season, one that was frustrating and painful for himself and for fans of both the team and the man whom we had all come to love over the final four years of a brilliant career that spanned parts of 16 seasons, mostly with the Toronto Blue Jays. In what was his 2nd consecutive ineffective season cut short by injuries, Doc Halladay's gifted right arm finally was spent.

But Halladay left behind a tremendous legacy in just those brief closing seasons here in Philly. There was the Cy Young Award that he won following his first season here in 2010, a 21-win campaign that included that 'Perfect Game' on May 29th. There was that magical 2011 season in which he was the Cy Young runner-up for the record-setting Phillies who won their 5th straight NL East title. And there was that 'Perfect Game' against the Florida Marlins on this night, four years ago now.

For my wife and I, there was also a special night with Doc. It came on a cool, damp night at Citizens Bank Park in the 2010 playoffs, in what was the very first playoff game of Roy Halladay's illustrious career. It was what he had come to Philly for in the first place, a chance to win a World Series, in front of a ballpark packed to the rafters with rabid, knowledgeable fans. It was Roy Halladay's dream.

We are 'Sunday Plan' season ticket holders with the Phillies, and back in 2010 our seats were in section 208, row 6. On that night of October 6th, 2010, however, because it was a playoff game, we had been given tickets in section 313. So we were seated up above left field in foul territory, a little ways beyond first base. They were good seats, as are most at the gorgeous ballpark.

The Phillies were up by 1-0 in the series, and as this game unfolded the team staked Halladay to an early lead, scoring a run in the 1st and then 3 more in the 2nd to go up 4-0. Halladay himself had knocked in the 2nd run, and then scored the 4th. It was now up to him to hold that lead, and put the Phillies up 2-0 in the series, within one of advancing to the National League Championship Series.

On this night, there was nothing to worry about. Not only would Halladay hold that lead, he would make history. Somewhere around the 6th inning my father called my cellphone from his home in Florida, asking if I knew what was happening. Did he really think that we were not all aware that Doc Halladay was tossing a no-hitter? I told him brusquely: "Yes, and don't say anything!"

A lifelong baseball fan, as my Dad well knew, I was not going to be the one to jinx our hero.

So the game continued into the 9th inning with Halladay just three outs away from Major League Baseball's first post-season no-hitter since Don Larsen's legendary 'Perfect Game' in the 1956 World Series. That Larsen perfect effort was the only no-hitter in MLB playoff history up to that point. Halladay was going for history here, and we were there to see it.

I had been attending Phillies games since Veteran's Stadium opened back in 1971 in my old South Philly neighborhood. I had attended hundreds of games between the years at 'The Vet' and then at Citizens Bank Park once it opened in 2004. I had never, ever been this close to experiencing a no-hitter 'live' as a spectator. It was thrilling to feel the electricity in the air, and to be experiencing it with my best friend, my wife Deb.

The first two batters of that 9th and final inning went down fairly easily, both popping out. So there was just one batter between Doc, we Phils fans, and the no-hitter, the Cincinnati Reds tough and talented 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips. Doc got the first two strikes, and the fans, already on our feet the entire inning, roared for that final strike to end it.

But Halladay did not get a strikeout. Instead, Phillips barely got a piece of the 0-2 offering, and the ball dribbled out in front of home plate. You could see the entire sequence with perfect clarity from our seats, and a baseball fan who was once a catcher himself could see that this was trouble. Phillips was a speedy runner, the bat had been dropped right on top of the ball, and catcher Carlos Ruiz would need to pounce out and find a grip on that ball quickly, keep from tripping on that bat, and make a difficult-angled throw to get him.

The man known lovingly in Philly as "Chooch", one of our remaining heroes from the 2008 World Series championship team, did just that. Ruiz pounced quickly from behind the plate, barehanded the ball, and fired just over Phillips left shoulder to 1st baseman Ryan Howard, getting Phillips by a stride. No-hitter! History!

As my wife and I hugged and high-fived both each other and everyone around us, the entire ballpark was in bedlam. Fans roared and rocked the place, and the Phillies players streamed out to mob Halladay and Ruiz, who had met in a joyful embrace in front of the mound.

I will never forget that night at the ballpark for so many reasons. It was the first playoff win that I had gotten to experience at Citizens Bank Park, only the 2nd playoff game that I had ever been to there. But mostly I will remember the gift that Doc Halladay gave to Debbie and I, the gift of true baseball history.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There's An MLB Draft Too?

There is always a great deal of publicity and conversation in the sports world regarding the NFL Draft and even the NBA Draft process each year.

But outside of it's most die-hard fans, few others may realize that Major League Baseball also conducts it's own draft process each year.

One of the main reasons that the NFL/NBA Drafts get more publicity is the nature of those professional sports and how they break in new players. The very best, the top draftees, and even many not at the very top of the selection process, become starters or key contributors for their pro teams in their first season of play, or shortly thereafter. So a player taken 1st overall in the NFL or NBA may start and even become a star right away.

In the MLB First-Year-Player Draft, the honor of being selected, even for those in the first round at the very top of the Draft board, is just the beginning of a process of professional development through the minor league systems that frequently takes years to unfold. Most fans of a Major League team have no clue what the player taken by their favorite team in last year's Draft even looks like. In fact, many have no clue of even the name of those players.

In MLB, even the best, such as Mike Trout shown in the picture above after being selected in the 2009 MLB Draft, will take at least a couple of years to play at the Major League Baseball level. That is, assuming they make it at all. There is no more difficult task in all of sport than to hit a baseball thrown by a pro pitcher. And for those pitchers, remaining healthy is a growing challenge and concern.

A look back at four decades of MLB Draft history gives you a good picture of just how unpredictable even the very top pick, the #1 overall selection, will be as far as eventually enjoying success at the highest level. Since going to the current system in 1965, only two of those top draftees are sure-fire Hall of Famers: Ken Griffey Jr (1987) and Chipper Jones (1990), with Alex Rodriguez (1993) to be a most interesting such case one day.

Among the top draftees, a number had strong careers, making an impact on the game for a number of years, though none to that Hall-worthy level. These players include the likes of Rick Monday (65), Harold Baines (77), Darryl Strawberry (80), and a handful of others.

In more recent years, only Joe Mauer (01) is likely to even be in the Hall of Fame conversation at this point. For players such as David Price (07), Stephen Strasburg (09), and Bryce Harper (10), all former top overall selections of recent vintage, it is way too early to even speculate on their talents translating into the longterm success needed to reach the Hall of Fame.

On the flip side, there have been many more notable "busts" selected with the #1 pick than there have been even eventual All-Star selections. Among those forgettable players selected first overall are Steve Chilcott (66), Dave Roberts (72), David Clyde (73), Al Chambers (79), Shawn Abner (84), Paul Wilson (94), Matt Anderson (97), Bryan Bullington (02), Matt Bush (04), and Tim Beckham (08), none of whom made their mark.

Perhaps the best example of the #1 bust potential was catcher Danny Goodwin, selected #1 overall twice, in both 1971 out of high school by the White Sox, and again in 1974 out of college by the California Angels. Goodwin reached the Majors, and played in parts of 7 seasons. But with just a .236 career batting average and 13 career homeruns, he was never a starter.

One week from tomorrow, on Thursday evening, June 5th, the MLB Network will televise the first two rounds of the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft. The process was first televised for that 2009 Draft in which Trout was selected, and has grown in popularity among fans ever since. It is an extremely watchable show, presented exceptionally well by the MLB folks.

Among the top prospects this year are high school pitchers Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek, college pitchers Carlos Rodon, Sean Newcomb, and Aaron Nola, high school shortstop Nick Gordon, college shortstop Trea Turner, high school catcher Alex Jackson, and college outfielder Michael Conforto. There is a high probability that, in some order, these prospects will be among the top 10-12 players selected.

Whomever is picked first overall, history says that the odds are good that they will eventually reach the Big Leagues. They most certainly will get a big payday on signing their first professional contract, which will be for anywhere from $2-7 million dollars. So it will be a happy day full of promise for these players and their families.

However, history also says that the odds of whomever is picked with the #1 overall selection having longterm success at the Major League level are long, and that the odds of their becoming a Hall of Famer are only at about 5% at best. The excitement for the teams and players involved will be just the beginning of a long process that will yield mixed results.

If you are even a marginal fan of our National Pastime, make plans to sit down and enjoy the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft with coverage beginning at 6pm next Thursday on the MLB Network with an hour-long preview show, followed by hours of coverage on the network of those first couple of rounds. It will be a night filled with interesting information on the possible stars of tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Day Baseball Vital to Game's Popularity

The picture to the left comes from the 1984 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres. It shows Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell taking a lead, with Padres 1st baseman Steve Garvey holding him close.

In Game #4 of that World Series, Trammell, a borderline Hall of Famer whose case will continue to correctly be argued moving forward, hit a pair of homeruns to lead the Tigers to a 4-2 victory and a 3-1 lead in the series that they would win a day later. Well, actually they would win it a night later. And that would be end end of World Series day baseball.

That Game #4 in which Trammell homered twice had a starting time of 1:30pm EDT. It would be the last World Series game played completely in natural daylight. The following day's Game #5 had a start time of 4:30pm EDT, but by the time the Tigers were celebrating their victory it would be dark. That would be the last World Series game played in natural daylight at all.

I say "in natural daylight" because Game #6 of the 1987 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Saint Louis Cardinals was played during daytime, but the game was indoors at the Metrodome, and thus was not the beneficiary of a natural daylight atmosphere. Still, at least that game was played at a time when most kids could stay up and watch the entirety.

So it has been 30 years since baseball fans have enjoyed the beauty of the game in a championship setting played when it was most meant to be played, in daylight on a beautiful afternoon under a sun-soaked sky. It has been almost those same 30 since most kids have been able to stay up and watch on TV as a World Series victory celebration takes place.

These days, thanks to more playoff rounds, the World Series is generally played during the last week of October. The average daytime high temperature for that week in Detroit and Boston is in the upper-50's, in Saint Louis it is the low-60's, even in climate-friendly Los Angeles the average daytime high is around 70 degrees.

However, the night temperatures at the normal game time for each of those location is about 20 degrees cooler. As anyone who has ever played the game, or sat outside to watch a game, can attest, baseball was most certainly not meant to be ideally played in temperatures in the 30's and 40's. But because of television network contracts, that is what we usually get - the championship of our national pastime decided in conditions not normally seen all during the rest of the playing season.

Not only is the quality of the experience diminished for the fans in attendance, and the game itself often made more of a challenge for the players in these conditions, but that aspect of growing the game by allowing young fans to experience the thrill of watching a full World Series game has been lost to at least a couple of generations. Who let's their 10-year old stay up until midnight to watch the World Series, unless perhaps it's their hometown team playing?

There is nothing like the experience of sitting outside on a nice, sunny afternoon watching baseball. That experience would certainly be better on a Saturday afternoon in Detroit or Boston or Philadelphia than it would on a Saturday night during the last week of October. It is time for baseball to recognize this vital aspect of their game, and build it into the next television contract, if not amend the current deal.

There should always be at least one World Series game played during full daylight hours. A 2:30pm EDT start time for all World Series games played on Saturday should be the norm, built into those TV deals. There should also be an effort by MLB to ensure that during the regular season, there are at least a handful of weekday games played during daylight hours, ideally with at least one such game every single day.

Day baseball is when many young fans get introduced to the game. There are also many MLB fans who have shift work, and who cannot watch and follow games during night hours. Opening up more opportunities for these fans, even on a limited basis, should be a priority for the folks running the game.

There are billions of dollars involved in these television contracts these days. Having a few dozen of the involved games played during daylight hours by contract would certainly not affect those big deals in any truly measurable way. Meanwhile, the accompanying good will and outreach would be appreciated by many fans currently restricted.

Baseball was meant to be played during the daylight hours, under cloudless skies with the sun shining brightly, on a green grass. The realities of television, and fans ability to follow the majority of the season after work hours during evening and nights is the new reality. That is understandable. But MLB should always be looking for opportunities to embrace more that ideal of the day baseball experience for it's fans.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Phils Fans Warmly Welcome the Millville Meteor

Last night in the top of the 1st inning with the Los Angeles Angels batting against the hometown Philadelphia Phillies, the notoriously tough on the opposition Philly crowd did something highly unusual.

As the opponent batter was announced and stepped towards home plate, the crowd rose together as one and gave the handsome young kid in the visiting uniform a rousing standing ovation. There is no doubt that the kid got goosebumps.

The reason that this Phillies crowd was giving the young Angels centerfielder such an unusually warm reception goes beyond the uniform that he is currently wearing. The reception was because of who he is in particular. The player in question was Mike Trout, and the reason for the ovation was that he is a rarity in pro sports circles - he is one of us.

Michael Nelson Trout was born in Vineland and raised in Millville, New Jersey. He has been a Philly sports fan his entire life, still attending Eagles games in recent years. He tailgated at the 2008 World Series, cheering as he watched his hero, Chase Utley, help lead the Fightins to just their second-ever world championship.

But Mike Trout didn't just cheer, he also played the game, and he played it very well. During high school, like many of the best athletes in the game at that stage, Trout was not an outfielder. He pitched and played shortstop, and even tossed a no-hitter during his junior year in a game against Egg Harbor Township.