Showtime’s “The Franchise” looks like a winner

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Last week, the premium cable network Showtime offered viewers a sneak peek at the reality series it has been working on since last October with the World Champion San Francisco Giants.

When plans for the series were first announced this past winter, it came as great news for the baseball-watching world. Finally, something in-depth and beautiful was going to be produced about our sport.

We’ve seen HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which shines a light on one NFL team each preseason, tracking players both popular and anonymous in stunning quality. Every frame of “Hard Knocks” is a delight. The soundtrack is always perfect, the drama feels impeccably genuine, and the stories make you care — truly and deeply care — about a group of professional athletes who are usually so well media trained that real feelings don’t get out.

HBO’s “24/7” series leading up to the NHL’s Winter Classic was a landmark in sports television programming. Combining the visuals and sounds of “Hard Knocks” with a bruising and non-stop action sport like hockey, it was a program that reached beyond entertainment. “24/7” made hockey cool again to the casual sports fan.

Now it’s baseball’s turn.

Showtime isn’t HBO. In most ways, it’s merely HBO’s awkward second cousin. So there was reason for speculation that Showtime’s version of a sports documentary series might not be as crisp or impactful.

About 10 minutes in to “The Franchise,” that worry is carried away. Early shots feature manager Bruce Bochy lighting a stogie in a dark room, Barry Zito stepping out of an Audi convertible, and outfielder Andres Torres throwing blocks of stone and running up farming hills in his native Puerto Rico.

We also meet Freddy Sanchez’s family. The second baseman has been with his wife since high school, and now he’s throwing pitches to his son in a massive mansion foyer. Sanchez’s wife can’t hold back tears as the topic of the World Series is brought up. “We almost lived in our car,” she says, recalling the old days.

There’s a lot of Brian Wilson, but he doesn’t dominate most of the plot lines and it seems as though he might be taking a more honest and less goofy approach with the Showtime filmmakers.

At one point he tells the camera:

“When you’re a young pup coming up, you have meetings about media. And controlling the media. Dealing with the media the past five years, I’ve learned to hone in on what kind of message I’d like to send. Even if it’s in a sailor’s outfit. You think, ‘Oh wow, here goes again. Being crazy.’ But maybe he’s just being smart.”

Wilson is being smart. He has only been an elite major league closer for three years, and yet he’s made himself a household name. Relievers don’t typically get invited to be regular talk show guests.

Wilson also has it right about controlling the message. Baseball fans will often form opinions on players based on the doses of sound bytes they hear after a win or loss. We think we know these guys, but those quotes typically carry about an ounce of authenticity, maybe less.

Authentic is Brandon Belt, a 23-year-old from Nacogdoches, Texas, trying to break camp with the big league club for the first time. When Bochy finally has Belt in his office at the end of the preview episode and tells the youngster that he has made the Opening Day roster*, the kid is thrown. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, shedding tears in front of coaches and front office members whom he has been trying to impress for going on three years. Belt slowly gets up out of the chair in front of Bochy’s desk and makes his way toward the office door that leads back to the players’ part of the clubhouse. Then he stalls. He doesn’t want his teammates to see that he’s been crying. Bochy knows this situation well and tells Belt in that Jeff Bridges-like tone of his, “You can take your time, you can hang with me a while. If you want a beer, grab a beer.”

Belt has a seat on the couch, holding a can of Bud Light. “I don’t even know why I’m crying right now,” he mutters, hand covering face. “You should be, it’s a big moment,” Bochy responds.

The preview only runs a half-hour long, but you get the feeling that this series is going to be pretty special. It officially begins Wednesday, July 16 and will presumably run through the end of the baseball season.

*Belt hit just .192 with one home run and a .569 OPS across his first 60 plate appearances and was demoted to Triple-A Fresno on Wednesday afternoon.

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.