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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Uninspiring '09 Season Can't End Soon Enough

Allan Simpson        

If the 2009 major-league baseball season seems endlessly long this year, it really is. The season doesn’t come to a close until Oct. 4—the latest end date in the game’s 100-plus-year history.


Frankly, it can’t end soon enough for some.


This has been an excruciatingly long, uninspiring and even depressing season on many counts—starting with the unfortunate and untimely death of young Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart. The riveting, compelling moments and the feel-good storylines that have engaged us in seasons past have been few and far between in 2009.


With less than a week to go this season, there have been no tangible pennant races to speak of—not even one where a division lead, or even a wild-card spot, has seen a changing of hands in September. The Minnesota Twins remain within striking distance of the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central, and the Atlanta Braves have the Colorado Rockies in their sights for a National League wild-card berth, but both those scenarios developed only in the waning days, with little fanfare, and were somewhat anti-climatic.


There has been little semblance of a day-to-day, down-to-the-wire pennant race that has defined a season past—even the game itself. Frankly, there’s even little sense of anticipation this year that the post-season will be any more compelling—especially given the lack of October drama over the last four or five years.


The eight teams that have qualified for post-season play this year (or are almost certain to qualify) are all familiar faces as they’ve been there in the last year or two, with the exception on the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers—the participants in the 2006 World Series. Coincidentally, the Elite Eight have payrolls that are in the top half of the major-league scale, including six of the top nine, and the gulf between baseball’s haves and have-nots was as wide as ever this year.


Where was the feel-good story that came from Tampa Bay’s electrifying worst-to-first dash in 2008, culminating in an improbable berth in the World Series? Or even the Milwaukee Brewers advancing to post-season play for the first time in 26 years? No inspiring Josh Hamilton stories, either.


Among the 22 teams that didn’t (and probably won’t) make the playoffs this year, there aren’t many that can find a way to put a positive spin on the 2009 season. Probably only the Braves, Twins, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners come to mind. Conceivably the Florida Marlins, and maybe even the downtrodden Kansas City Royals for their late surge and the remarkable season enjoyed by pitcher Zack Greinke. But that’s about it.


Even the Texas Rangers, who made a half-hearted run at their first playoff berth in a decade, had any reason for joy compromised by the franchise’s uncertain future in the wake of the issues that have gripped team owner Tom Hicks’ financial empire.


Almost every non-playoff team had significant issues in 2009, either on or off the field—both, for sure, in the case of the New York Mets. Their season was a disaster in every way imaginable, from start to finish.


But much the same could also be said for the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals, and perhaps two or three other also-rans.


It was even a depressing campaign for those lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs, whose season held enormous promise only to fall far short, and culminated in the overdue suspension of malcontent outfielder Milton Bradley. The White Sox may have underachieved to an even greater degree, and manager Ozzie Guillen was every bit as unprofessional as Bradley in letting us know it.


Sure, the New York Yankees, the game’s marquee franchise, rose to prominence again in 2009 after missing the playoffs a year earlier for the first time since there were no playoffs in 1994, but at what cost to the overall best interests of the game?


The team’s $200 million-plus payroll borders on obscene—much like the cost of the premium, behind-the-plate seats at new Yankee Stadium that the Yankees attempted to foist off on us early in the season, before they quickly came to the realization they’d gone too far in pushing the limits of greed.


And yet it was the Yankees, with their almost limitless revenue streams, who swooped in and signed talent the likes of C.C. Sabathia (the A.L. leader in wins) and Mark Teixeira (the A.L. leader in RBIs), not to mention A.J. Burnett, leaving most of their competition with the futile feeling of almost needing to bankrupt their own clubs just to keep up to the mighty Yankees.


Admittedly, the Yankees were only playing within the rules, and deserve some credit for a classy remake of venerable of Yankee Stadium, and identifying Sabathia and Teixeira as difference-makers.


But there’s no denying that the Yankees were baseball’s winningest club in 2009, and it was just another example of the rich getting richer in baseball, and competitive balance in the sport continuing to be a joke. The problem here isn’t so much a Yankees problem, but a baseball-wide problem.


For four straight years, and nearly a fifth in 2008, Major League Baseball trumpeted a new attendance record, a sign of the game’s unparalleled popularity—yet also symbolic just how much big-league baseball has, regrettably, crossed the line from being just a game, our national pastime, to big business, where the almighty dollar is the bottom line.


With the economic troubles that took hold of the country late in 2008 and sent it spiraling into recession-mode for the next several months, baseball was put on notice that it would be impacted too. Not only was it not realistic for Major League Baseball to build on its envious attendance record this season—and it didn’t come close—but it put a number of clubs on notice, too, that some significant belt-tightening might be needed.


But while the slump in attendance this season has been significant, certainly upwards of 10 percent (if actual fans in seats counts for anything), the reasons may extend beyond just a recession, the simple explanation. It may speak as much to the uninspiring season that is slowly, almost painfully coming to a close.


Massive sections of empty seats have been commonplace in a lot of big-league venues this season, as have numerous games with maybe a couple of thousand fans—especially in September, when the allure of mesmerizing pennant races has normally kept stadiums abuzz right to the wire.


Only the eight playoff qualifiers—and the losing-immune Cubs, of course—filled stadiums down the stretch to any degree of consistency. Front and center again were the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and it’s no coincidence that no teams may have embodied the depressed, even hopeless state of the 2009 season more than the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ three American League East opponents, namely the Rays, Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays.


Tampa Bay was a rags-to-riches success story in 2008, yet it never fully capitalized on its first foray into post-season play by seeing the customary spike in attendance the following year. In fact, attendance has been so flat at Rays games this season that the club was unable to cough up the cash to sign its first two draft picks, and was later forced to trade pitching icon Scott Kazmir for no immediate return, ostensibly because his contract was coming up for renewal in the off-season and it didn’t have the anticipated resources to keep him and the rest of the roster intact going forward. Something had to give, and it was the talented Kazmir. Not surprisingly, a demoralized Rays team quickly nosedived once Kazmir departed.


The Orioles haven’t had a winning season since 1997—or since the days they routinely sold out Camden Yards. They finished last in the A.L. East for the second straight year while drawing the fewest fans in Camden’s 17-year history. Granted, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the O’s as they have assembled some impressive young talent, but much of that optimism dissipated as the team struggled badly down the stretch.


The Blue Jays took a double financial hit this year with the depressed state of the North American economy, and another significant dip in the value of the Canadian dollar. They also stumbled after an encouraging start, were forced to give away promising but underachieving outfielder Alex Rios for no return, just to clear payroll, and couldn’t sign three prominent early-round draft picks, two of whom were Canadians. Moreover, the franchise remains in a state of flux in the wake of the death of owner Ted Rogers, and attendance at the Rogers Centre was a fraction of what it was from the club’s hey-day in the early 90s. The team hasn’t returned to post-season play even once since winning back-to-back World Series in 1992-93.


Realistically, what chance do the Rays, Jays and Orioles have for sustained success in the foreseeable future, much less one or two years of even challenging for a division title when they must overcome the formidable Red Sox and Yankees in the A.L. East, and the ability of those clubs to spend almost at will—if only in their attempt to one-up each other, to say nothing of their excessive spending just to cover up their own occasional mistakes in judgment.


It’s one thing for the Yankees or Red Sox to blow off the signing of a Jason Giambi or Julio Lugo, but quite another for the Blue Jays to recover from a regrettable long-term deal given to Vernon Wells.


Certainly, not all the transgressions that have been apparent with this 2009 major-league season are attributable to the utter lack of a meaningful pennant race, or the financial woes of a number of clubs and their regrettable, short-sighted personnel decisions—even if they did bring on much of the trouble themselves.


The game has not been played to a consistently-high standard this season, befitting Major League Baseball, either. The quality of basic, fundamental baseball has taken a significant hit, and only reached a newer low with every dropped fly ball or pop-up, and every bases-loaded walk—not to mention every botched cut-off or relay play.


Mets second baseman Luis Castillo was hardly the only established big leaguer this season to mess up a routine pop-up. His just happened to come with a game on the line that turned a certain Mets mid-season, inter-league victory over the hated Yankees into an instant, crushing defeat that seemed to define the Mets season.


Yet Castillo’s kind of misplay only became symbolic of the increasing and disturbing number of occurrences this season where we were subjected to routine pop-ups or fly balls clanking off the gloves of infielders and outfielders alike. All too often, games ended on walk-off walks when pitchers (big-league pitchers) couldn’t throw simple strikes to save their lives.


Oh, for the days of pre-game infield drills, the most overt way for big-league clubs to at least demonstrate to the average fan that the game’s basic fundamentals are still being practiced and preached. Where have they gone?


Sheer futility at the big-league level reached even new heights this season when the Pirates became the first franchise in modern professional sports history to experience a losing season for the 17th straight year, and Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds broke his own season record by striking out more than 200 times for the second year in a row.


The never-ending steroids/performance-enhancing drugs saga continued to rear its ugly head again, implicating the likes of A-Rod, Manny and Big Poppy. That Manny Ramirez, whose utter lack of respect for the game knows no bounds, blew off his 50-game suspension with a shrug, and was actually welcomed back to the game warmly by a fickle fan base, may point squarely to the level of disrespect that the game is held to now—at least in some quarters.


By most accounts, baseball has always been held to a higher standard than other sports, in large part because of its rich, hallowed past. It was rare that overt acts of unsportsmanship, or simply showing up another team, were condoned or even occurred without impunity or retribution. Players, themselves, normally policed or monitored that kind of indignity.


But acts of excessive celebration, trash-talking and even taunting that have become commonplace in basketball and football for years, cheapening those sports in the process, began filtering their way into the baseball culture with increasing frequency this year—much to the dismay, even regret of old-school players and fans alike. Out of sheer respect for the game, baseball has always seemed to be above these kinds of shenanigans.


But boisterous, head-slapping, home-plate mob scenes have not only become standard fare this season as part of the typical walk-off celebration, they have occasionally gone over the top in excessive, even tasteless enthusiasm. How many shaving-cream pies to the face are enough?


Although the game has been dull, depressing and disrespected in 2009, there have still been a number of feel-good moments or themes to remind us, once again, just how special, entertaining and even uplifting baseball at its best can be.


We need to look no further than the diversion, and even joy, that the Detroit Tigers have brought to an economically-challenged city and state; and to the team chasing the Tigers in the A.L. Central, the Twins. No organization conducts its business with more responsibility and integrity, plays the game on the field the way it was supposed to be played, and generally honors the tradition of the sport more than the Twins. Though it looks like they’ll fall a little short of a playoff berth, it’s been refreshing to see that club, for all the challenges it annually faces, with a chance still to reach post-season play as the end of the ’09 season draws near.


In fact, the doubleheader Tuesday between the Twins and Tigers represented two of the few meaningful, must-see games of the entire 2009 season.


The amazing seasons being enjoyed by Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols; possibly the two best players in the game, have been very uplifting, too. So has Ichiro’s record hit streak and Derek Jeter’s record-breaking hit. The resurgence of Chris Carpenter has been a feel-good story, as has the continued success of The Freak, Tim Lincecum. But too often this season, negatives have outweighed the positives.


Even the baseball draft, which falls under the domain of Major League Baseball, received its rightful share of criticism this summer, for any number of reasons, even as the draft received more buildup and more exposure than any baseball draft ever.


Not only were record bonuses again paid out—often recklessly, especially in some of the later rounds, and all against the backdrop of a sour economy—but a vast majority of the premium players picked in June wasted away a summer by holding out and not playing at all. Then, who could blame them?


Why would an early-round pick be inclined to sign before the imposed mid-August deadline, when he knew full well that most clubs, backed into a corner by a hard deadline, would eventually and inevitably trip all over themselves in their haste to not only throw around often-wasteful signing-bonus money, but offer much more money than what they had intended to even two months earlier?


If nothing else, the short-sighted system that we have become subjected to disrespects those players who signed immediately after being drafted, who accepted what they believed was a fair offer from the team that drafted them at the time they were selected, and did the right thing by putting in a summer of valuable development time in the lower minors.


If this year’s draft didn’t drive home the point, once and for all, to Major League Baseball, that the present system isn’t hopelessly broken—with bonus payments continuing to escalate, with rich clubs just getting richer, and with players and agents alike being enabled to exploit an unenforceable system—then nothing will. And yet we’re stuck with the current system for at least two more years.


Perhaps most distressing, more and more high-ranking club officials (baseball people) have quietly expressed the opinion that they feel more disjointed than ever from an increasingly-corporate MLB, and have little or no faith in the commissioner’s office to get it right once and for all next time, to get this flawed draft system fixed in the next go-around with the Players Association.


For the future well-being of the game, at all levels, it’s apparent that bonuses need to be reigned in, that talent needs to be distributed in a fairer and more equitable manner, and the signing deadline needs to be changed—both to get players signed and out playing quicker, and to give colleges that unexpectedly lose a player in the draft more time to find an able replacement.


Issues related to the draft’s current problems don’t even begin to address some of the chaos inherent in the player-procurement process on a more world-wide scale. Cheating and other sordid improprieties continue to be commonplace surrounding the scouting and signing of underage, and largely untested foreign players, mostly from Latin America.


And that just begs yet another question: Why should American players, playing largely an American game on American soil, be subjected to a restrictive player draft, ostensibly limiting their rights to negotiate with only one club, when a foreign player, with little vested interest in baseball in this country and likely to send the bulk of his bonus money abroad, can negotiate on the open market with all 30 big-league teams, and often secure a larger bonus than an American of equal talent in the process? How un-American is that?


The purpose of this dialogue isn’t to address all of baseball’s ills—whether short-term or long-term. It’s more a focus on 2009, but it’s safe to say that many of baseball’s warts were very exposed this season.

Continue to Part II

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