In 1973, Steely Dan released an album called Countdown to Ecstasy. The last hours of the off-season are winding down right now, and the title of the album has been bouncing around in my head like an ad jingle that won’t go away. I feel like a Hawaiian who hears a perfect surf report on the radio at work. Not much focus on the task at hand, but utter concentration on what’s about to happen. The clock is ticking ever so slowly to the first pitch in the new ballpark, and I can hardly wait. The anticipation has prompted some introspection:
In past years, I’ve halfheartedly followed the wintertime comings and goings of my local team, but rarely paid any attention to trades in a larger context. Most years, I would catch a game or two at the ballpark, track the team standings as the season progressed, and watch the local telecast based on the ebb and flow of my honey-do list. By moving into the heart of the Grapefruit League, and living so close to the spring training facility for the reigning World Series champs, my eyes have opened to the baseball world as a whole.
I spent some time with Rick VandenHurk two winters ago, as he was working on his mechanics with his old AAA roommate, who happens to be my son’s pitching coach. Since then, I’ve followed his progress from Baltimore to Toronto, and most recently, Cleveland. I sure hope he finds a way to get his mojo back. As I noted last week, my son’s growing interest in baseball has prompted us to field a fantasy team, and that has been shifting my focus from looking a baseball from a league-centric view to looking at baseball at a player-by-player level.
I have mixed feelings about baseball as a collection of individual players rather than teams that represent a city. On the one hand, I clearly understand both the predictive value and historical context that statistical analysis of baseball has given us in the Moneyball era. However, I think we may have lost some of the character of the game at the same time.
I think that there is an element of simplicity to baseball that is lost when the game is reduced to the analysis of performance statistics of individual players. I kind of miss the days when a manager’s gut feeling and baseball instincts were the factors that went onto deciding the lineup for a day. Today, it’s based on probable outcomes predicted by the output of an Excel spreadsheet with 40 columns of statistical data. Ted Williams became a legend because of his near triple triple crown, his .406 season, and his picture-perfect swing, not because analysis showed that his 1941 WAR of 11.3 was better than Joe DiMaggio’s 9.4.
It used to be that civic pride and a sense of place came from following your home team. As a Dodger fan, I was from Los Angeles, even though my childhood home was in Simi Valley, 50 miles and a mountain pass away. When I left LA in 1977, it was for the DC metro area, and I struggled with the idea of having to shift my loyalty to the Orioles. I sympathize with people who were kids in Brooklyn in 1958. Now that I’m in Miami (close to it, anyway), I’m finding the transition much easier. I suspect it’s mostly because I’m lots older now than I was then, but it really helps that the Marlins (a) don’t suck nearly as bad as the O’s and (b) the Marlins have the good sense and common decency to turn their backs to the designated hitter.
So, I will remain, for the most part, a Sabremetrics Luddite, and cheer like hell for my Marlins tonight. It’s been a long winter, and I’m tired of “Hot Stove” and “Prime 9” on the MLB Network. I’m good and ready to watch a well-executed double play, and to see the athleticism of a centerfielder running down a long fly ball. I can’t wait to eat a hot dog and watch my son pick his heroes. Go Marlins!