February 25, 2019
Ignore that snow on the ground outside, baseball fans, because spring training is here! Pitchers and catchers reported for Spring training two Wednesdays ago, and the full squads reported last Monday. For most teams, the first practice games were held on Saturday, another sign that baseball is right around the corner. Opening Day for 28 teams will be Thursday March 28, about as early as baseball can start. For the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A's, the first game will take place at the Tokyo Dome in Japan on March 20; see the newly-updated Anomalous stadiums page.
The preseason game scores mean absolutely nothing, of course, but it is nonetheless worth pointing out that the Washington Nationals won their first two games: they beat the Houston on Saturday 7-6, on a walk-off double by Adrian Sanchez, and they beat the Cardinals 12-2 on Sunday. Today they lost to the Braves 9-4, but as mentioned above, practice games don't count.
The main drama throughout this off-season has centered upon two free agent slugging superstars: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who spent six and a half years with the Baltimore Orioles and was then traded to the L.A. Dodgers last July. It has been a strange, slow-moving spectacle full of whispers, like a kabuki theater. Well, last week the San Diego Padres announced that Machado had signed a $300 million, 10-year contract with them, the biggest free agent deal in Major League history. This followed many weeks of speculation about the Phillies and other teams. See MLB.com. Whether he proves to be worth that much money is anyone's guess. Machado has been a very consistent hitter over the past four years, with between 33 and 37 home runs and a batting average between .249 and .294 each year. He seems to have personality issues, however, and one wonders if he will be content playing on a team that is not as likely to make it to the postseason.
Meanwhile, Bryce Harper continues to keep us all in nerve-wracking suspense as he weighs his options. Much as I despise recirculating rumors, it seems appropriate to mention that he met with Philadelphia Phillies over the weekend, and it seemed all but certain that he would sign with them. (The Phillies were scrambling after Machado signed with the Padres.) But today it was reported that the Dodgers are pursuing Harper once again, with meetings in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Mark Lerner (son of the Nationals' principal owner Ted Lerner) said that his family had not even spoken with Harper in months. Eegads. The upshot is that the Nationals are no longer the team is he most likely to sign with.
On Saturday, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote a rather harsh piece saying that Harper is on the verge of signing the "least satisfying nine-figure deal ever." He thinks that Harper probably wishes he had accepted the $300 million for 10 years offered to him by the Nats' owners at the end of the 2018 regular season. The fact that the market for free agent players has fizzled means that he will be lucky to get terms even slightly better than that deal, and it probably won't be on friendly terms. His agent Scott Boras certainly deserves some of the blame for that, but suspicions linger that the MLB owners tacitly cooperated to keep salaries down. "There was no collusion!" (Why does that sound familiar?)
Personally, I think Bryce has every right to bargain for the best terms he can get, but there's more to it than just money. If Harper is man enough to set aside his pride and sign a new contract with the Nationals, he will in all likelihood go down in history as one of the greatest players to ever spend the bulk of his career with one team, and he will retire as a happy, beloved, satisfied man. We'll see. This whole free agency thing is no picnic.
Could the Nationals get by without Harper this year? Absolutely, yes. But it sure would be easier to win a division title and go deep into the postseason with him on board.
A week or two ago, I also updated the Washington Nationals page with head-to-head win-loss records to include 2018. It shows the provisional starting pitcher rotation, which ought to rank at or near the top of all 30 MLB teams:
* New players
Nats' ace pitcher Max Scherzer has been vocal about various problems he has observed in the sport. Last week he complained about the decline in competition among baseball teams, brought on by sky-high salaries that leave some smaller-market teams completely out of the loop. Something indeed needs to be done about that. Then over the weekend he argued against the proposed use of a pitch clock to speed up the pace of play; they are emperimenting with that in spring training games. To Max, it just ruins the fabric of the game. He pointed out that too many foul balls are a bigger reason why games drag on longer than they used to. See the Washington Post.
(Stop me if you've heard this one before.) So, a few weeks ago I realized I needed to make a few small tweaks to the Polo Grounds diagrams, and before you knew it, yadda yadda yadda... Once again, I found myself deeply enmeshed in a new set of puzzles and mysteries that were finally solved, yielding big (for me at least) revelations. I guess that is to be expected when so much time (12 years) elapsed between the previous diagram update in 2007. There were a lot of needed improvements to catch up on!
For the record, here are the significant changes since the January 9 update:
Note that even though the center field distance marker changed from 483 to 475 when the Polo Grounds were fixed up for the arrival of the Mets in 1962, home plate did not move forward by eight feet as stated by Lowry in Green Cathedrals (2006). I checked several photographs very carefully, and it's clear that the foul line intersected the dugout at the same point during the Mets' stay there as it had previously. The longer distance (483) was probably to the wall at ground level, and the shorter distance (475) was to the front of the building 15 or so feet above the ground.
* This seems to be a significant discovery on my part. I have begun calculations to pinpoint the origin of the mistaken distances. Discrepancies of 5-7 feet are tolerable, but once you get to ten feet or more, it's a real problem. I have likewise indicated misleading distance markers for Tiger Stadium, Dolphin (Hard Rock) Stadium, and perhaps a couple others.
Brooklyn Dodgers' pitcher Don Newcombe passed away at the age of 92 last week. He was one of the first African-Americans to join the major leagues, following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson. He debuted in 1949, and was named NL Rookie of the Year after winning 17 games. He remained with the Dodgers (aside from military service during the Korean War) until their move to Los Angeles (1958), soon after which he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He ended his career with the Cleveland Indians in 1960. Problems with alcohol and controlling his temper seemed to affect his performance. At the Polo Grounds (see above!) on October 3, 1951 he was the starting pitcher in the deciding game of the three-game playoff between the New York Giants and the Dodgers. He left the game in the bottom of the ninth inning with a 4-2 lead and one out. In from the bullpen came Ralph Branca, and then Bobby Thomson came up to bat for the Giants. The rest, as any baseball fan knows, is history...
In case you didn't know, the refrain in Terry Cashman's nostalgic song "Talkin' Baseball" referred to Newcombe:
The Scooter*, the Barber**, and the Newk***
* (the Yankees' Phil Rizzuto) ** (the Giants' Sal Maglie) *** (the Dodgers' Don Newcombe)