derek jeter getty

Derek Jeter: The Last Face of Baseball

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A few weeks ago I wrote a little bit about who might follow Derek Jeter as the so-called “Face of Baseball.” I didn’t think too deeply about it, but in the course of my musings I noted that it may be tough to find one given that Derek Jeter has this quality about him — a mystery and a privacy, however pleasant it may be — which allows fans and the media to project our values on him and say “yep, he stands for what I stand for!”

I didn’t realize that, rather than being an odd quirk of Jeter’s persona that lends him to being the avatar of the game for so many, it’s an essential trait for anyone who would take that role. And that it’s a role — The Face of Baseball — that may now be obsolete.

I learned this by reading Jack Moore’s excellent article at the Hardball Times this morning, in which he explores why it is baseball (and all sports really) have historically needed a “face,” and how the media and marketing arms of professional sports have traditionally served as intermediaries between the sport and the fans and who promote that face. Intermediaries which communicate to fans the values the intermediaries want them to appreciate. This is all based on actual social science Moore talks about in which things like character, discipline, competition, nationalism and the like are appreciated and celebrated by sports fans and which they have come to expect as the primary mode of understanding sports as a default. Values that are even fetishized to some extent, I would argue.

The most prominent intermediary: the sports media. Reporters columnists and TV producers who play up these themes in their coverage. It’s impossible not to see this once you are aware of it. Think any column talking about a player’s character or about what makes him great, separate and apart from the fact that he hits the ball hard. The entire conversation of player character and attitude that utterly consumes sports radio and those shout-fests on ESPN. The little features at the top of or in the middle of broadcasts. The narratives that are applied to the stories of the games.

But Moore notes something important: in the past 15 years or so, the need for intermediaries like journalists and TV producers has become less necessary. We can mainline our sports via the Internet far more easily than we could before. This, for some, leads to a view of the game that is far more data-oriented than stories/values-oriented (think the sabermetric community). For those who still go through media intermediaries, there is a far wider choice of them, including intermediaries which may extoll a set of values which are radically different than the “hero/competitor/champion/gentlemen” values extolled by the traditional sporting press (think contrary bloggers who LOVE flamboyant showboats and don’t get too bent out of shape about PED users). And of course, the mainstream media and those sports yakkers are still out there pushing the idea of “winners” and “competitors” and “class acts” and all of that nonsense.

If the way baseball is consumed and understood has fragmented — and it clearly has — having a single face for baseball is an obsolete concept. For some it may be a hard-working, clean-living, marquee guy like Derek Jeter is assumed to be. For some it may be an entertaining/frustrating force of nature like Yasiel Puig. For some it may not be a face, but a heel. A guy who becomes an anti-hero just like heels have in wrestling since the 1990s. For others it may be no one, as they choose to just have the game pump into their veins via the visceral experience and data.

These are some pretty heady concepts about which I have always been vaguely aware and have promoted in piecemeal fashion, but which I am just now realizing, thanks to Moore’s piece, explain almost everything about what has shaped sports and sports media and the online conversation about baseball over the past several years.  Kudos to Moore for laying this out as he does here.

Eddie Perez likely to be Braves’ interim manager if Fredi Gonzalez is fired

Atlanta Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez, left, stands with manager Fredi Gonzalez during a spring training baseball workout, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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There’s been a lot of rumbling that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez will soon get the pink slip. His team is 7-20 entering Thursday’s action. Historically, front offices — particularly those of rebuilding/restructuring teams — respond to that by making coaching and/or managerial changes.

Per MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, bullpen coach Eddie Perez is likely to fill in as the Braves’ manager on an interim basis if and when Gonzalez is fired. Perez has been with the Braves as a coach since 2007. He played for the Braves in 10 out of his 11 seasons from 1995-2005. Perez wasn’t known for his bat, but was respected for the way he called games and handled the Braves’ then-elite pitching staff.

Bowman notes that Gonzalez isn’t expected to be fired over the weekend. If the team plays well, that could extend Gonzalez’s leash, so to speak.

First baseman Freddie Freeman issued a vote of confidence for his skipper, saying, “I think everything is getting magnified since we’re off to this start. I don’t know if it’s fair to put it all on [Gonzalez] because he’s not a player. We’re the 25 guys [who have to] go out there and play every day. We’re obviously not playing to our capabilities. To say that’s Fredi’s fault is unfair in my opinion.”

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, left, and Kris Bryant celebrate a 7-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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The Phillies and Cardinals got started a little early, finishing up their four-game series on Thursday afternoon. In the evening, we have 10 games on our slate, including Cubs-Nationals.

The Cubs have jumped out to a 20-6 start, looking like baseball’s best — and scariest — team. Entering Thursday’s action, the Cubs have a +93 run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed). That’s by far the best in baseball. The next best are the Nationals at +50, the Mets at +44, and the Cardinals at +41. In fact, the Cubs’ run differential is so good that they have under-performed relative to their expected won-lost record of 22-4.

This is without Kyle Schwarber. This is with Jason Heyward hitting a miserable .211/.317/.256, Jorge Soler hitting .185/.276/.292, and Addison Russell hitting .224/.356/.329. It’s with John Lackey pitching to a 4.32 ERA.

What makes the Cubs so good? They’re on-base machines. The club’s aggregate .364 on-base percentage is second best in the majors behind the Pirates. Dexter Fowler has an outstanding .470 OBP and Anthony Rizzo is at an elite .403. In fact, of their regulars with 100-plus plate appearances, Heyward is the only one with a sub-.350 OBP. The league average is .319. The Cubs steal bases, too, as they’re 17-for-24 (~71 percent) in that department.

The Cubs have baseball’s best pitching staff, which has yielded a major league-best 2.54 runs per game. Only four teams are below 3.00 runs allowed per game. Of course, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta is the big contributor to that with a sterling 0.84 ERA, but Jon Lester has put up a 1.58 mark and Jason Hammel 1.24. Closer Hector Rondon has found himself in only four save situations but has converted each of them with an even 1.00 ERA and a 15/0 K/BB ratio in nine innings. The Cubs’ aggregate bullpen ERA of 2.66 is fifth-best in the majors.

It’s too early to use defensive statistics with any degree of certainty, but even the eye test shows the Cubs to be elite defenders at the important positions, particularly shortstop (Russell), right field (Heyward), and third base (Kris Bryant).

The Cubs’ success isn’t exactly surprising. The club rode five consecutive fifth-place finishes into some high draft picks and that talent is starting to establish itself in the majors. Whether it was fans, writers, or Vegas oddsmakers, the Cubs were preseason darlings.

Kyle Hendricks starts for the Cubs opposite the Nationals’ Joe Ross at Wrigley Field tonight at 8:05 PM EDT.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Baltimore Orioles (Kevin Gausman), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Derek Holland) @ Toronto Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray) @ Miami Marlins (Adam Conley), 7:10 PM EDT

Milwaukee Brewers (Chase Anderson) @ Cincinnati Reds (Alfredo Simon), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ Chicago White Sox (Erik Johnson), 8:10 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Wade Miley) @ Houston Astros (Chris Devenski), 8:10 PM EDT

New York Mets (Jacob deGrom) @ San Diego Padres (Colin Rea), 10:10 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Chris Rusin) @ San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain), 10:15 PM EDT

The Phillies are seeing to it that their minor leaguers eat well

Crop of vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other vegetables.
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For years we’ve talked about how odd it is that baseball teams are in the extraordinarily competitive business of developing highly-trained athletes yet, for whatever reason, it pays minor leaguers virtually nothing and all but forces them to subsist on junk food and other cheap options.

As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, however, the Phillies are changing that. Indeed, they’re plowing serious money into nutritious food options for their minor league players:

The Phillies are teaching their minor leaguers how to play baseball, so why not teach them how to eat well, too?

“We want them to not have to worry about anything other than baseball,” assistant general manager Ned Rice said. “When they’re playing for the Phillies, they’ll have that stuff taken care of for them.”

 

That this is a news story — and it is a good and novel one — is kind of sad in some ways. How teams haven’t been on board with this approach for decades is beyond me.

Tracking baseball’s “Naturals”

The Natural
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Rob Neyer has a great column in today’s New York Times in which he tracks the real life players who, at one time or another, were dubbed “The Natural.” A la Roy Hobbs in the book and movie of the same name.

There are some that a lot of people probably remember: Jeff Francoeur and Ken Griffey, Jr. as “The Natural” come to mind easily. There are some who I don’t ever recall being called “The Natural” but were, apparently, like Terry Pendelton and Karim Garcia. There are also some whose stories were far odder and far more tragic than any version of Hobbs’ tale (oh man, a Toe Nash sighting!). Then there’s Rick Ankiel, whose path may be the closest one to Hobbs’ of them all, at least broadly speaking.

Fun stuff that, in addition to being a walk down memory lane, is also an instructive lesson about how the power of narrative works in sports.