Spring Training trip wrap-up

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Press pass and booze small.JPGMy spring training trip ended with a flight back home yesterday afternoon.  The tale of the tape:

  • Five games, one rainout;
  • One meal with my mother-in-law;
  • One meal with, and four pieces of new media from, Old Gator;
  • A couple dozen awkward conversations with ballplayers who didn’t know me from Adam;
  • A dozen or so conversations with front office/management/PR types, a couple of whom did know me from Adam, but none of whom would tell me all of their deepest, darkest organizational secrets. Yet;
  • Something like 600 miles on the rental Corolla; no sudden accelerations;
  • A serious shortage of fresh vegetables and salads. It’s hard to eat healthy on the road, especially in Florida, especially when you’re in ballparks all the time;
  • A good 15 anecdotes from writers I was told I couldn’t repeat, and a half dozen dirty jokes that I can repeat, but not on this website;
  • A distinct impression that, Joe Nathan’s injury aside, the Twins are going to be pretty good this year;
  • A distinct impression that the Red Sox, Rays and Phillies are going to do more or less what everyone expects of them;
  • A distinct impression that the Pirates may be even worse than people realize, even if they’re a little better off organizationally speaking now that they’ve accepted reality and allowed themselves to hit bottom;
  • A new found appreciation for how tough a job the beat writer has, especially the ones who have to deal with Tony La Russa every day;
  • An affirmation of what I’ve long suspected but never knew for sure before now: watching games from the press box, while interesting, is nowhere near as cool as watching games from the stands or, in some cases, your own living room;
  • An affirmation of what I’ve long suspected and pretty much knew for sure but was glad to have affirmed anyway: watching games from the press box is 100 times better than working in an office;
  • A chance meeting with the son of a famous, now-retired major league umpire, who is absolutely hilarious. The son, I mean. No idea if the umpire is hilarious, though I kinda doubt it.
  • The surprising realization that gang bangs really aren’t all that fun or, to be honest, satisfying.

Most of all, and most importantly, is that I got a much closer look at the way teams prepare and train for games, approach their jobs and execute in an up-close and personal fashion. There are so many little things you see while watching these guys that impact the way you view what they do on the field. No, not nearly as many as some crusty old beat writers will tell you — contrary to what some of them say, you don’t have to be on the field to understand the game — but enough stuff that I think it will better-inform my writing and analysis going forward.

Anyway, it was a good week. Hope you enjoyed the dispatches from the road. Assuming the content and sheer size of my reimbursement requests to NBC don’t get me fired, maybe we’ll do this from Arizona next spring.

Astros vs. Dodgers is a match made in heaven

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A lot of people who work at the league office or who take paychecks from the Fox network probably wanted to see the Yankees and the Cubs in the World Series. They won’t admit it, of course, but I suspect that many did, as the ratings for a Cubs-Yankees Series might’ve broken modern records. If they are at all disappointed by the Astros and Dodgers winning the pennant, however, they should let that go because they’ve been gifted by a wonderful matchup from a purely baseball perspective. Indeed, it’s one of the best on-paper matchups we’ve had in the Fall Classic in many years.

Before the Dodgers went on their late-August, early-September swoon, this was the potential World Series pairing most folks who know a thing or two wanted to see. At least I did, and I don’t think I was alone. It was certainly the matchup which represented the teams with the two best regular season records and storylines at the time. While Cleveland ended up winning more games than Houston did, for the first time since 1970 we have a World Series pitting two 100-win teams against each other.

Like that Orioles-Reds series in 1970, which featured Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and a host of other All-Stars, the Dodgers-Astros provide us with an embarrassment of big names and future Hall of Famers. Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw and Astros DH/OF Carlos Beltran are destined for induction already. Astros ace Justin Verlander may very well join them, especially if his late 2017 surge is evidence of a second career peak. Houston second baseman Jose Altuve‘s first seven years and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen‘s first eight are the stuff upon which Cooperstown resumes are made as well. People will be arguing Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley‘s Hall of Fame case for years once he retires.

Youth is served as well in this matchup, with each club featuring a handful of the game’s best young players to accompany their big name veteran stars.

The Dodgers will bat their no-doubt N.L. Rookie of the Year first baseman Cody Bellinger second or third in the lineup every game. 2016 Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, who sat out the NLCS with a bad back, is expected to be activated for the Series where he’ll be the Dodgers shortstop. The Astros are actually an old team on paper — Verlander, catcher Brian McCann, starter Charlie Morton, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, outfielder Josh Reddick and DH Evan Gattis are all over 30 while Beltran is 40 — but young players are essential to their attack as well. Shortstop Carlos Correa just turned 23 and he’s one of the game’s brightest stars. Third baseman Alex Bregman, also 23, made the play that may very well have broken the Yankees’ back during Saturday night’s pennant clincher. Age aside, the Astros are the product of a major, multi-year rebuild and many of their players are making their first national splash this postseason.

Beyond just the names and resumes, though, the Dodgers and Astros represent a fantastic strategic matchup. The Dodgers attack this postseason has featured admirable plate discipline, with third baseman Justin Turner, right fielder Yasiel Puig and center fielder Chris Taylor all letting balls out of the zone pass them by while abusing pitches left out over the plate. Astros pitchers not named Justin Verlander, however, have lived by getting the opposition to chase bad balls. Game one starter Dallas Keuchel did this by relying on his very fast sinker. Lance McCullers pitched well starting Game 4 of the ALCS and pitched spectacularly closing out the final four innings of Game 7 mostly by virtue of his curveball, which Yankees pitchers could simply not lay off. Indeed, his final 24 pitches of Game 7 were all curves, many of them low and away. Who will give in first in this series?

On the side of things, Dodgers relievers have made a living by pumping in strikes. Particularly strikes high in the zone from Jansen and Brandon Morrow. There may be no better fastball hitter in all of baseball than Jose Altuve, however, and the team as a whole was one of the best in the bigs in dealing with gas in the zone. This was a big reason why the Astros struck out less than any team in baseball this year while simultaneously boasting the best offense in the game. The Dodgers throw strikes. The Astros make you pay when you throw them strikes. Again, something’s gotta give.

Maybe the suits in New York wanted the Yankees and Cubs. But everyone else is getting exactly what we want: a matchup of the two best teams in the game. A matchup of strength against strength. What is, from a purely baseball perspective, the best World Series we could’ve possibly hoped for.