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March 6, 2011 [LINK / comment]

At last: Spring (training) has begun!

After enduring bleak, depressing weather for month after month, the long period of waiting is almost over for baseball fans: Spring training is underway! So it's time for me to get my rear in gear and try to keep up with all the action.

Predicting winners and losers is notoriously error-prone, which is one reason it's so interesting to watch the baseball season unfold. Who would have thought the Cincinnati Reds would win the National League Central Division last year? Hardly anybody outside of southern Ohio. (And perhaps my late Uncle Buddy, may he rest in peace.) For what it's worth, here are the Sporting News forecasts:

  • AL East: Boston Red Sox
  • AL Central: Chicago White Sox
  • AL West: Texas Rangers
  • AL Wild Card: New York Yankees
  • NL East: Philadelphia Phillies
  • NLCentral: Cincinnati Reds
  • NL West: San Francisco Giants
  • NL Wild Card: St. Louis Cardinals

For the most part, they are fairly safe, conventional predictions, assuming that last year's performances will be repeated. I pay most of my attention to the Eastern Divisions in both leagues, so I'll simply say that I think the Tampa Bay Rays will once again put the heat on the Yankees and Red Sox, both of which are aging rapidly. Andy Pettitte decided to retire during the off-season, and there are questions about how well fellow veterans Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera will play this year.

For the Washington Nationals, the off-season acquisitions fell short of expectations in the pitching department, but there are signs of hope. Ryan Zimmerman is hitting his stride as the franchise player, coming off a .307 season last year; he ought to do at least as well this year. Adam LaRoche should do pretty well defensively at first base, now that he has been treated for Attention Deficit Disorder, but his batting remains in doubt. Ian Desmond (at shortstop) and Danny Espinosa (at second base) round out a top-notch infield, offensively and defensively. The outfield is in fine shape as well, with Jayson Werth, Roger Bernadina, and Michael Morse. Behind the plate, Jesus Flores seems to be healthy once again, but Pudge Rodriguez will be the starting catcher at least for the first couple months. Wilson Ramos But the main problem for the Nationals, of course, is on the mound. Livan Hernandez has been designated as the starting pitcher for the Opening Day game against the Atlanta Braves on March 31. (Maybe I'll try to get tickets...) Others in the projected pitching rotation include Jason Marquis, John Lannan, and Jordan Zimmermann. Chien-Ming Wang (ex-Yankee), Tom Gorzelanny (ex-Chicago Cub), and Yunesky Maya (ex-Cuban) all have a shot at the #5 position. All in all, there's a lot to be hopeful for this year, and as Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell writes, the Nationals are "cautiously optimistic" about their pitching staff, and about their chances of doing much better than in 2010.

Lo and behold, the Nationals beat the New York Yankees by a score of 10-8 today, as Ryan Zimmerman hit doubles off of C.C. Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain. They Yankees scored all eight of their runs in the fourth inning -- weird. The Nats now have a record of 4-2, for whatever that may signify. See MLB.com.

Too good to be true?

Having gone through the roller coaster of hype over Stephen Strasburg, whose future remains a question mark as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, I tend to be cautious about Bryce Harper. Sports writers routinely compare his to Mickey Mantle or other slugging greats of the past, but until a batter steps up to the plate and faces a major league pitcher, you just don't know how he is going to do. Harper got his first hit a few days ago, but he will spend this season in the minor leagues polishing his skills. That's probably what they should have done with Strasburg.

R.I.P. Duke Snyder

Last week we learned that Duke Snyder -- the Brooklyn Dodgers' star center fielder in the 1950s -- had passed away. All across the country, fans marked the occasion by playing Terry Cashman's nostalgic 1980s song "Talkin' Baseball": Willie, Mickey, and The Duke. Snyder (whose real first name was Edwin) didn't have as high career batting statistics as Mr. Mays or Mr. Mantle, but he did achieve at least one unique record: he is the only player ever to hit four home runs in two separate World Series. Also, unlike either Willie or Mickey, he hit at least 40 home runs in five consecutive seasons. See the Washington Post. That obituary notes that Snider was prone to argue with umpires and occasionally spoke in a derogative way about Brooklyn fans. Hmmm. (It also incorrectly states that the right field foul pole at L.A. Memorial Coliseum was 390 feet away; it was actually 300 feet.)

It's a good for Only the first of that trio is still alive.

(Milwaukee) County Stadium update

I wanted to at least get a second diagram update done during the month of February, and I succeeded, just barely, with Milwaukee County Stadium Milwaukee County Stadium. Unfortunately, however, I didn't have time to announce it properly, or explain the changes. In brief, the bleachers are slightly shallower than before, the protrusion of the press box / mezzanine level is now shown, and the outfield bleachers during the 1950s are now shown more accurately. And of course, the profile is rendered more precisely as well, and the text on that page has been updated. I swear, the choice of this stadium has nothing to do with the ongoing political battle taking place in Wisconsin. smile


March 9, 2011 [LINK / comment]

Life bird: (un-)Common Redpoll

Bird watchers never know what sudden pleasant surprises they may encounter, along with prolonged periods of humdrum routine. Last weekend, thanks to two friends in the Augusta Bird Club, I was lucky to get to see a quite rare "Common" Redpoll for the first time in my life. This bird is "common" in the northern latitudes, but hardly ever ventures this far south, unless food supplies are short in its usual wintering grounds. In that sense, it is similar to Pine siskins or Red-breasted nuthatches. I had to spend nearly a full hour waiting for the avian visitor, during which time I got to see a wide variety of birds feeding on the back balcony of the hosts' home, as well as two Red-tailed hawks and a Sharp-shinned hawk squabbling with two Ravens in the distance. I also spotted a Red Fox lurking along the edge of the pasture. Then, all of a sudden the Redpoll finally showed up, and I even got a picture before it flew away. Triumph! That raises my lifetime total of bird species sighted to 403, as shown on the newly-updated Life Bird List page. Many, many thanks to Beth and Harry Lumadue for sharing their good fortune with other birders.

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll (male), Fishersville, VA, March 5, 2011.

The above photo may be a bit blurry, but it does show the key physical features of the Common Redpoll: the bright cherry red cap, the pale red breast, the streaked lower flanks, the black face and chin, the white eye brow, the short yellow beak, the white wing bar, and the indented tip of the tail. No doubt whatsoever.

I have had quite a number of other birding experiences over the past few months, including two trips to South Dakota, but have not had the time to report them in blog form. I plan to post new bird photos in the near future.


March 10, 2011 [LINK / comment]

R.I.P. David Broder

One of the most respected journalists and political commentators in Washington, David Broder, has passed away at the age of 81. As the front-page article about his life in the Washington Post note, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for covering the Watergate scandal. Former Post editor Ben Bradlee once said that, unlike most other poltical writers in Washington, Broder "knew politics from the back room up -- the mechanics of politics, the county and state chairmen..." He was widely praised for his thoughtful, balanced approach and his detached analytical perspective. Broder has been a regular on Meet The Press for decades, and was especially good at asking very probing questions that put the guests on the spot. He did not play the flattery game at all, unlike many others in his profession, and his honesty and integrity clearly showed. Like one of his colleagues, George Will, Broder was a big fan of baseball and was delighted when the Washington Nationals began playing in 2005.

Over the years, I have cited Broder's writings more times than I can count. As just a sample of his wisdom, in November 2004, he denounced gerrymandering for creating a legislature that is largely immune to public opinion. (That's a relevant point right now; see below.) In September 2005 criticized President Bush and congressional Republicans for reckless spending, with which I concurred. In July 2007, he defied conventional wisdom about Washington politicians being "out of touch" with average Americans. Instead, he wrote: "A particularly virulent strain of populism has made official Washington altogether too responsive to public opinion." (That was years before the Tea Party even got started.) And in January 2009, he wrote that President Bush's greatest failure was in refusing "to ask any sacrifice from most of the American people..."

I walked past Mr. Broder at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, in September 2005. I wanted to say something complimentary to him, but hesitated until it was too late. C'est la vie. As a tribute (extremely modest) to Mr. Broder's career, I am going to mark his passing by getting started blogging about politics once again, after a hiatus of exactly four (4) months. (Last politics blog post: November 10, 2010: "Bipartisan budget compromise?".)

Redistricting begins soon

I was recently compiling population data for use in a redistricting exercise for my U.S. Government class, so I updated my Virginia politics page with some new maps. The Virginia General Assembly will reconvene in April to decide on how the congressional, state senate, and delegates district lines will be redrawn. Much of the preliminary work has already been done, and it is clear that some districts will have to grow significantly, and others will have to shrink. Since the two parties share in control of the state legislature (Democrats in the State Senate and Republicans in the House of Delegates), they will be forced to compromise when it comes to redrawing congressional districts. Presumably, each party will take customary advantage of their majority status in their respective chambers.


March 31, 2011 [LINK / comment]

Batter UP!!! Opening Day 2011 is here!

Along the Tidal Basin in Our Nation's Capital, the birds are singing and the cherry trees are in full bloom, just as the Washington Nationals prepare to play their first game of the season, at home. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, baseball has returned at last! Starting pitcher Livan Hernandez will face the Braves' Derek Lowe early this afternoon, with chilly weather in the forecast. Oh, how I wish I could be there... (Maybe this weekend?)

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama decided not to attend the Opening Day game as he did last year. frown

UPDATE: Livan Hernandez had a quality outing, pitching six plus innings while only giving up two runs, but Derek Lowe did even better, as the Braves prevailed, 2-0. (At least it wasn't as bad as last year's crushing 11-1 loss at home to the Phillies!) Both teams hit safely exactly five times, and for the second year in a row, Jason Heyward hit a home run on his very first at-bat of the season. ball This game was the first time since 1990 that Bobby Cox was not managing the Braves; his replacement, Fredi Gonzalez, got off to a fine start.

Hopes rise for the Nationals

We fans of the Washington Nationals have gotten used to the annual ritual of fleeting hopes for modest improvement, followed by crushing disappointment. I always say, a bad season in Washington is better than no baseball at all. But how long can such forgiving sentiments prevail until the franchise starts to lose money, in which case ... Well, let's not go there.

The good news is that there really is a lot of good news this spring, and the Nationals have good reason to finish much better than in the last couple years. After a very promising start to the 2011 pre-season, the Washington Nationals fell into a seven-game losing streak, and then they rebounded, finishing with a 15-14 record. See MLB.com.

Infielders

One Adam (Dunn) has been replaced at first base by another Adam (LaRoche), who presumably will perform better defensively, while getting a fair number of hits at the plate. LaRoche had an MRI exam on his shoulder, where there is a slight tear in his rotator cuff; that may cause him to miss some games. (MLB.com) The Nats are looking better all the time in this category.

  • First Base -- Adam LaRoche: skilled veteran of uncertain value.
  • Second Base -- Danny Espinosa: high hopes for this young hustler.
  • Shortstop -- Ian Desmond: fine hitter, gradually improving defensively.
  • Third Base -- Ryan Zimmerman: near perfect in almost every category.
  • Catcher -- Ivan Rodriguez: future Hall of Famer still has the "fire."

Ryan Zimmerman missed several games because of a strained groin, but he should be OK by now. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez had a sore calf, and was ably backed up by Wilson Ramos. I was sad to see that they "reassigned" Jesus Flores, because of nagging shoulder problems. That's not a good sign at all. He was a very promising rookie two years ago, and then suffered a shoulder injury from a foul ball that practically ruined his career. The Nationals recently traded their solid infielder Alberto Gonzalez to the San Diego Padres for a minor league pitcher named Erik Davis.

Outfielders

The outfield may be even more promising this year, with two former All-Stars joining the team. The big news this month was that Rick Ankiel beat Nyjer Morgan for the starting center fielder position. After that decision was made, Morgan was traded to the Brewers for Cutter Dykstra, a young infielder. Michael Morse fell into an 0-for-16 slump, but still managed to hit eight home runs during spring training, a good sign that he will continue his 2010 upsurge.

  • Left Field -- Michael Morse: this guy was very impressive last year.
  • Center Field -- Rick Ankiel: another solid veteran who recently joined the Nats.
  • Right Field -- Jayson Werth: the Nats' prize acquisition, a superstar slugger

Pitchers

Fans were disappointed that the Nationals front office was not able to get a top-of-the-line starting pitcher during the offseason (Matt Garza was their main target, evidently), but there is a good deal of potential in their current staff. True, they did get former Cub Tom Gorzelanny, but his performance in recent years has been quite shaky. Pitchers who suffered injuries last year -- Jason Marquis and Jordan Zimmermann -- seem to have recovered, but not Chien-Ming Wang, apparently. Marquis had a rough outing against the Mets recently. Here is the projected starting rotation:

  • Livan Hernandez: the always-reliable workhouse is back for more.
  • John Lannan: had a nice comeback last year.
  • Jordan Zimmermann: recovering from Tommy John surgery.
  • Jason Marquis: recovering from a bone chip in his shoulder.
  • Tom Gorzelanny: newly acquired from the Cubs; ????

Overall, the bullpen situation remains "fluid." Drew Storen is slated to be the closing pitcher, but he may trade off in that role with Sean Burnett. Tyler Clippard was the Nats' best relief pitcher last year, and much is expected of him again.

The future: bright!

Of course, everyone hopes that Stephen Strasburg will be ready to pitch by the end of this season, but the Nationals have no choice but to proceed very cautiously with him. Another (presumed) future superstar, Bryce Harper, was ranked #1 among baseball's Top 100 Prospects, according to baseballamerica.com. Home run expert and loyal associate Bruce Orser has very high hopes for Harper, and he is not alone.

The Nationals drafted a pitcher named Brian Broderick via "Rule 5" provisions (don't ask me), after the St. Louis Cardinals in effect released him during the winter. He had a great outing against his former teammates, and will be contending against Craig Stammen and others for a spot in the bullpen. His specialty is the sinking fastball. See the Washington Post.

Finally, two youngsters hit home runs for the Nationals in Florida last week: Jeff Frazier and Brian Bixler. Who knows where their future may lie?

Chase Field update: at last!?

This is not exactly new news, but the Chase Field Chase Field diagrams are now up to par, with several significant corrections to the perimeter of the field as well as the exterior structure and the profile. Actually, I had released this diagram update nearly two weeks ago, but what with teaching duties and analyzing the legislative redistricting in Virginia and all, I just didn't manage to announce it. That leaves only one more current major league stadium in need of major revisions: Safeco Field. Fortunately, I've made great progress on that one.

Sponsorship renewal

Many thanks to Jack Courtney for renewing his sponsorship of U.S. Cellular Field, where former National (and Red) Adam Dunn will soon be swatting balls out of the park for the Chicago White Sox.

Strike Three review

There was another nice review of Thomas Tomsick's book Strike Three at letsgotribe.com. Dr. Tomsick is the kind sponsor of the Cleveland Stadium page.

Rough crowds out there

Thanks to Facebook friend Bruce Bartlett, I came across an interesting (and opinionated!) piece on "The Meanest Fans in America," at GQ.com. You want to guess which city's fans have the roughest reputation? Triple click over the next line:
The Philadelphia Eagles and the Philadelphia Phillies. smile


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