Friday, June 30, 2006

Give me an "O" for Optimism

Exploring what makes Baltimore a great baseball town, and the O's a "loveable loser."

By Matthew Taylor

Those who know me best would hesitate to call me an optimist, especially when it comes to sports. I've gotten better over the years, but watching an O's game with me can still be a torturous affair.

A leadoff walk is more than a reason for worry; it's the reason that the Orioles have been terrible for so long and the reason they'll never be good again. If that leadoff walk happens to occur during a Yankee game things get worse by bibilical proportions. It means that God hates me. That he's testing me. Like I'm some kind of modern day Job with nosebleed seats and the box scores. Inevitably I fail His test and declare, "To Hell with it, I refuse to love my pinstriped neighbor as myself!"

Is there a Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of baseball fans?

Despite an occasional gloomy nature, my being an O's fan does reflect some inherent level of optimism. Or at least blind loyalty masquerading as optimism. Why, after all, do we cheer for the Birds? It's clear they're not going to the playoffs this year, just as they haven't every stinking year since 1997. They may not even have a winning record for a ninth straight season. That's almost a decade of futility!

Aaron Koos has identified the .500 mark as a worthy goal for this season, which alone should've driven his ultra-scientific CAP average to at least Ted Williams territory. And I'll admit, I too get excited about the prospect of finally finishing the season at sea level. At least it would suggest that our ship hasn't yet sunk. Do they make T-shirts for this sort of thing? Can you merchandize mediocrity?

The point is that deep down in our feathered souls we must have some belief that things will get better, that they must get better. So on a grand relative level, we're all optimists, even if our behavior in front of the television, next to the radio, or in the stands at Camden doesn't suggest as much. Baltimore fans may be underdogs, but there's something to be said for our ability to endure the stormy weather. We're approaching a 10-year rain delay in the standings, yet we still check the forecast and pack the sun tan lotion. Creedence Clearwater Revival may as well have been describing the condition of being an Orioles fan when they wondered, still they wondered, "Who'll Stop the Rain?"

Having established that we, as O's fans, must deep down be optimists, it's time to consider other options for our fanbase that extend beyond overall record, games behind, and winning streaks. So I pose this question: "What would it take for the Orioles to become a lovable loser?"

As long as we're mired in mediocrity we may as well consider the factors that could make the O's the Cubs of the American League and allow us the same treatment as Chicago's National League fans who, when sporting their home team's cap, are so often greeted with the words, "Go Cubbies!"

The Red Sox broke their curse, and now they're just another rich franchise seeking to dominate this free agent era of disparity. So there's a vacancy in the AL for a lovable loser. It's time to log on to our own sports version of and wink at baseball fans leaguewide. We'll identify our own curse, examine Baltimore's quirky traditions, and figure out just what it is beyond on-field performance that makes it great to be an O's fan.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I'll examine these factors and more in greater depth. Consider this my baseball thesis. Working title: "The Lovable Loser: Why It's Great to Be an Orioles Fan."

I'm not beating up on the Birds. Quite the opposite. I want to make the case that among baseball towns Baltimore is more Chicago than Milwaukee, more peanuts and Cracker Jacks than Microbrews and $7 Buds.

So join me on this journey, and add your insight along the way. Or you can just put up your umbrella and stubbornly keep singing our unofficial theme song . . .

"Long as I remember the rain been comin down. Clouds of mystry pourin confusion on the ground. Good men through the ages, tryin to find the sun; And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain?"

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Great Experiment, Week Ten: Playing to Win, Playoffs Be Damned

Who says .500 isn't a worthy goal?

By Aaron Koos

If you were listening to the Orioles’ radio broadcast during the rain delay of the second game of Wednesday’s doubleheader with the Phillies, you might’ve heard an entertaining segment where Joe Angel and Jim Hunter interviewed a pair of baseball superfans, Ben and Scott. These two college students from South Carolina left June 6 on a 30-city, 44-day tour of America’s pastime.

Extremely well-spoken, and apparently well-rounded with interests spanning beyond baseball – from tennis to girlfriends to online poker (how they’re financing this trip) – Ben and Scott are living proof that even if baseball has serious problems, this is still a magical sport.

For a fan that has lost his religion, hearing about Ben and Scott’s pilgrimage was inspirational and heartening. And, best of all, they’re fellow bloggers, so you can read about their journey and see great photos of the ballparks here.

Also on Wednesday, John Eisenberg of The Sun had a good column questioning the wisdom of acquiring Russ Ortiz when the spot in the rotation could go to a homegrown, young arm like Adam Loewen who could use the experience. I generally agree with Eisenberg, but there is also something to be said about not throwing a young pitcher to the lions before he’s ready. Why rattle Loewen’s confidence and give him the opportunity to develop bad habits? I trust the team’s decision that Loewen can get the experience he still needs in the minors.

And, if Mazzone and Ortiz can indeed rekindle the veteran pitcher’s career (he won 36 games in two seasons with Atlanta), it might help the Orioles get above .500. Clearly the playoffs aren’t an option again this year, but perhaps striving to avoid the ninth losing season might be a worthwhile goal. Following Wednesday’s day-night sweep of the Phillies, the record stands at 37-42, and a winning season certainly seems within the team’s grasp. Is there any value in playing for a winning record if you’re not in postseason contention? I think so.

Look at that. This week I’m listening through rain delays, feeling inspired by other fans, and rooting for a winning record, despite no shot at the playoffs. My CAP average – the ultra-scientific system that rates my abilities as a fan in the categories of Current Knowledge, Ardor, and Participation – should soar. And, it has, all the way to .213. Certainly not a lofty average, but the highest it’s been in 2006.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Great Experiment, Week Nine: Where Have You Gone, Mr. Robinson?

The syringe replaces blue collars

By Aaron Koos

I know the Orioles aren’t the only professional sports team with a dark side, but there was a time when the organization seemed fairly wholesome. It was a team that respected its elders and showed up for work every day. The club was built on the shoulders of hard workers like Brooks Robinson who stressed fundamentals over flash. They might not beat you with brute strength and raw talent, but this bunch of blue collar underdogs could find ways to get it done.

At least that was my perception of the Orioles, and maybe it was naïve. But it was fun to root for that type of team. Well, those days are over now.

Not only have the Orioles been touched by the performance-enhancing drugs scandal that now consumes major league baseball, but it appears the club could be at the very epicenter of this problem. Maybe every team eventually will have its own discovery of steroid and human growth hormone (hGH) use, but a decade ago, would you have expected that one of the clubs most frequently associated with the unfolding scandal would be the Orioles?

Yet, that appears to be exactly the case. The Orioles are a dirty club, and by the way the news has broken so far, one of the dirtiest. First, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa were called to Washington to testify before Congress on steroid use in baseball, and they weren’t called just because of Baltimore’s proximity to D.C. Six months later, Palmeiro failed a steroid test and pointed fingers at his teammates. This season, former Oriole reliever Jason Grimsley was busted for hGH. And Sunday, David Segui, who last played for the Birds in 2004,
admitted to hGH use. If you want to pretend that the common denominator of playing in Baltimore is completely meaningless or coincidental, then go ahead. I, however, won’t get fooled again.

The first inklings of an O’s drug culture surfaced in 2003 with the sad death of 23-year-old Oriole reliever Steve Bechler due to complications resulting from his use of ephedrine – a speed-like “dietary supplement” that has since been banned. And then there are the questions about other Orioles, past and present, who may not have admitted to drug use, but who are highly suspect.

The Orioles haven’t endorsed steroid use, but on two separate occasions the club sent a clear message that it was willing to forgive and work with cheaters when the team signed Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa after both had well-documented corked bat incidents with other teams. Clearly, giving a wink to corking bats isn’t an endorsement to use ephedrine, hGH, or stanozolol, but it certainly does point to a bend-the-rules, whatever-it-takes, just-don’t-get-caught philosophy on cheating.

Now MLB investigators want to meet with Sam Perlozzo on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. He may not know anything about what all these players were doing, but he's one of the few Orioles that at least knew every one of the players implicated in the investigation. He's one of the only people within the organization qualified to answer questions, because he's one of the few people that has actually survived the Angelos era in a leadership position.

And that may be exactly at the root of the problem. Besides longtime ballboy Ernie Tyler, Sam Perlozzo is one of the longest-tenured members of the organization, spending most of his time in Baltimore as a base coach. Numerous leadership changes in the front office and clubhouse during the Angelos reign may have created a chaotic environment where nobody was focused on making sure the seamier side of professional sports didn't get out of control in Baltimore.

Thankfully, it wasn’t always this way in Baltimore. This month, the Maryland Science Center opened an exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings in Baltimore that will run through January. The featured painting, “Gee Thanks, Brooks,” is the famous rendering of Brooks Robinson signing a baseball for a young fan. According to
The Sun article about the exhibit, it was the only solo portrait of a named baseball player ever painted by Rockwell.

Often criticized for illustrating an idealized America that never was, Rockwell didn’t have to stretch the truth much for “Gee Thanks, Brooks.” A Hall of Famer, Brooks was the genuine article then and still is today. The Orioles would do well to ask players to create more “Gee, Thanks” moments for fans than “Oh, Jeez” moments that have become commonplace. Incidentally, Brooks Robinson has his own blog where he talks about the Rockwell exhibit and other baseball-related topics.

Despite being depressed by more news of the Orioles' cheating ways, my CAP average – the ultra-scientific system that rates my abilities as a fan in the categories of Current Knowledge, Ardor, and Participation – has risen slightly. I’m now averaging .207. Hey, at least we took two out of three from the first place Mets. Wow.

Further reading:
Selections from The Sun -

Fan reaction to Grimsley and Segui (hint: CAP isn't the only disenchanted fan)

Peter Schmuck on the steroid controversy "hitting home"

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Listening In Behind Enemy Lines

Learning something from Yankee broadcasts

By Christopher Heun

I am an Orioles fan living in New York City.

That might sound like a terrible misfortune – to be surrounded by Yankees fans on their home turf – but the truth is, they couldn’t care less about me; it’s the Red Sox they hate. When the Orioles visited Yankee Stadium last September, I sat in the upper deck, proudly wearing my O’s hat. I got no reaction. But the dude in the Red Sox hat and jersey who walked through? Entire sections of people booed and cursed him. And the Sox weren't even playing.

Earlier this month, when the Yankees visited Camden Yards, I decided to listen to the local broadcasts of the games on WCBS 880 AM. Listening to an opposing team’s announcers guarantees an honest appraisal of your side, and hearing what the Yankees flagship station in particular has to say is sort of like eavesdropping on the popular kids at school: you may not admit it, but you want their approval.

I made some notes of the more interesting comments by play-by-play man John Sterling and his sidekick, Suzyn Waldman. Before I get into it, a few words about them.

Sterling has just the right voice to call a game on the radio and an authoritative tone that suits the Yankees. His signature call after every New York victory, though, is an incredibly annoying attempt at a vibrato flourish that sounds instead like a cross between a choking victim and a broken lawnmower: “The Yankees win! Thuh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh Yankees win!”

Waldman became just the second woman in Major League Baseball history (and first in about 40 years) to serve as a full-time color commentator when she joined Sterling in the booth last year. She has two decades of experience reporting on sports for WFAN radio in New York, but despite that, there’s plenty of vitriol directed her way on the Internet, much of it based on the opinion that she “doesn’t know the game.” (Imagine what they’d say if they knew
she grew up a Red Sox fan in Massachusetts.) She comes across as a brassy broad full of the usual anecdotes about the players.

What I like about the pair is that they aren’t afraid to call out Yankee mistakes, something you rarely hear from home team announcers, in Baltimore or anywhere else (though Joe Angel does an admirable job of toeing the line, particularly since he knows his former partner, Jon Miller, was run out of town by owner Peter Angelos for not cheerleading). Last Friday night, for example, when Derek Jeter was hit by a pitch, Sterling and Waldman noted, rightly, that he stands close to the plate and dives into pitches. Then, a few plays later, when he was thrown out at third to end the inning, they gently pointed out that Jeter had broken a cardinal rule: never make the third out at third base.

(Waldman then felt the need to turn the mistake into a compliment by adding that the heads-up defensive play that nailed him at third was “just the kind of play Jeter would make.” I wouldn’t be surprised one day to tune in to a play-by-play of Jeter walking across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium to Manhattan.)

Such unabashed homerism should be expected, of course. My complaint about the Yankee broadcasts has to do with the overwhelming number of ads during the actual game. (This is, of course, how the Yankees afford their $200 million payrolls. The YES TV network raked in $44 million in ad revenue last year alone.) Much of the time Waldman’s sole duty seems to be merely reading commercials. In the top of the fourth of one game, I counted four ads read in-between the action – and that’s not counting sponsors for the first pitch of the game, the first Yankees run, the first Yankees home run, the grand slam inning, the 15th out, and any pitching change. Even the broadcast booth itself has a corporate tag. Waldman repeats every game that Hideki Matsui’s at-bats are brought to us by a Japanese restaurant, even though a wrist injury will keep him out of the lineup until at least August.

So, with that as context, this is what I overheard:

“In Baltimore, it’s always a threat to rain. In the summer it can rain almost every day.” Sterling. Saturday, June 3.

What? The weather that day (like most other days) was pretty much the same in New York City as in Baltimore: overcast and drizzling. The two cities are only 220 miles apart, but to hear some people tell it, you’d think they were on different planets. My personal favorite is when people who live in New York (or Connecticut or anywhere north of New Jersey) come to Maryland and think they’re “in the South,” confusing direction with a place.

“The Yanks have always hit – and won – here.” Sterling. Sunday, June 4.

He’s right. As annoying as it may be, the Yankees are 54-25 at Camden Yards since 1996. However, Sterling poured it on a little thick June 8 when the Yankees were back in the Bronx hosting the Red Sox.

Looking at the out of town scoreboard, he noted that the Orioles had drawn just 17,637 for their game with the Blue Jays after three consecutive sellouts over the weekend. This is not a direct quote, just a paraphrase, but he said something to the effect of, “They should be thankful when the Yankees come to town, it’s a sellout. That’s a chunk of change.” So is the Orioles’ share of the luxury tax that the Yankees and Red Sox pay. That’s enough. Yankee fans can stay home. Oriole fans don’t want their money, though Peter Angelos surely does.

“One of the things the Orioles are not good at is paying attention on the field and someone should have paid attention to their catcher.” Waldman, Saturday, June 3.

Context: Nobody bothered to cover second base as Johnny Damon attempted to steal in the sixth inning. Tejada ran over and speared the throw, saving the runner on third from scoring. This is what I was referring to when I said that listening to an opposing team’s announcers guarantees an honest appraisal of your side. Ouch.

“He’s not a savior, he’s a pitching coach. Give him some talent. He’s a good pitching coach.” Waldman. Sunday, June 4, talking about Leo Mazzone.

She mentioned that Daniel “Cabrera says, ‘I always walk people’” and reached the conclusion that Mazzone’s powers of influence were “blown out of proportion.” About Rodrigo Lopez, Sterling offered this gem: “He can throw what he wants. He’s a veteran.”

What? That’s just nonsense. Cabrera will never be more than “a big talent” – or whatever empty platitude you choose – until he stops walking a batter every inning. Lopez, who’s inconsistent at best, should be soaking up all the advice he can get.

“Perlozzo couldn’t believe [Corey] Patterson couldn’t bunt. They went one day and worked all morning in spring training and in that spring training game he got a hit with a bunt, and he’s got 10 or 11 of them this year.” Waldman.

She told this story twice over the weekend. It’s an interesting anecdote, because it’s the first I’ve heard of it. I don’t believe it’s ever been reported by The Sun.

When Patterson stole second and third base in the bottom of the seventh inning Sunday with the Orioles leading 10-4, igniting Larry Bowa into a rage, Sterling and Waldman said they really couldn’t blame Patterson for running. For the record, the very next night, with the Yankees leading the Red Sox 8-2 in the second inning, Alex Rodriguez stole second base.

No discussion of a Yankees series in Camden Yards would be complete without mentioning the amount of fans rooting for the visiting team:

“I talked to some people outside the stadium, ‘What, did you come down from Jersey?’ They said it’s easier to get tickets here. They can’t get tickets at The Stadium.” Waldman. Friday, June 2, in which she noted the throngs of Yankees fans dates back to 1996 and ‘97.

“A standing ovation for Randy Johnson in Camden Yards. Shows you how many Yankees fans are in this place. He’s even tipping his cap.” Waldman. Saturday, June 3.

During the top of the first on Sunday afternoon, Joe Angel on WBAL gave a long pause as Jeter came to the plate and the stands filled with cheers:

“Well, you hear the ovation like that, you wonder why Jeter isn’t wearing a home uniform. Last night Randy Johnson got a standing ovation as he left that game. They tell me in New York that he has not received that kind of ovation in Yankee Stadium this year.”

Angel imitated his Yankees counterpart at the end of the game with this:

“Yankees lose! Thuh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh Yankees lose! And the Orioles are in the win column here on this Sunday afternoon! They win the finale 11-4. Sunday dinner’s gonna taste real good. And we’ll be back with the lovely totals right after this.”

Lines like that are one reason why I’m an Orioles fan who lives in New York City and listens to Joe Angel over the Internet.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

They're Playing Our Song (But Better) in Motown

Can Flanagan learn anything from the turnaround in Detroit?

By Christopher Heun

This may sound familiar to anyone who follows the O’s: a team with an eight-year losing streak gets off to a surprising fast start, sits comfortably in first place on Memorial Day and gives its fans big hopes for the playoffs.

This year, the Detroit Tigers are impersonating the 2005 Orioles so closely that they began the season with a hot-hitting infielder swatting home runs at a Ruthian pace – Chris Shelton in the role of Brian Roberts – and have just now endured an injury to a lefty starter – Mike Maroth as Erik Bedard.

Chances are, the Tigers will throw out the rest of the script rather than mimic the implosion that befell the Birds a year ago – the steroids, the finger-pointing among teammates, the drunken driving arrests, the piles of losses – but they probably won’t make the playoffs, either. More on that later. (Actually, see the next post).

The strongest similarity between the two clubs is how bad they’ve been for so long. Oriole fans like to think they have it tough, but anyone who roots for the Tigers has suffered even worse: Detroit hasn’t produced a winning season since 1993, four years longer than Baltimore, and they haven’t made the postseason in 20 years. Twenty years! We’re talking the days of Trammell to Whitaker to Evans.

Much of the coverage about Detroit this year has focused, rightly, on their pitching, which leads the league in ERA. That’s where the similarities end with the 2005 Orioles. These Tigers, with an impressive quartet of young starters, aren’t a flash in the pan.

So, if they have rebounded so quickly after losing 119 games in 2003 and 90 more each of the two seasons since, why can’t the Orioles manage that, too? Can Mike Flanagan learn something from his general manager counterpart, Dave Dombrowski?

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I don’t think so.

The Sun’s Peter Schmuck pointed out in a recent column that Dombrowski took a risk before last season when he signed the “chronically injured Magglio Ordonez to a huge contract that – even in the glow of the team's terrific start – still could come back and haunt the franchise.” That’s right. Although the five-year, $75 million deal included an injury clause that would let the Tigers off the hook if Ordonez suffered a repeat of his knee problems in 2005, there’s no such protection for the remaining four years.

But then Schmuck also wrote that “the important thing is, the Tigers were bold and now they are beautiful, though there is still a long, long way to go.”

Huh? What’s bold about giving $75 million to a gimpy slugger? Or giving a combined $39 million to Troy Percival, Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers, who are all over 35? Because that’s what Dombrowski has done the past two off-seasons. That’s not bold. That’s dumb. You can’t spend your way back to respectability. Exhibit A: Albert Belle.

Percival, 36, the former Angels closer, hasn’t pitched this year and only appeared in 26 games last year, recording eight saves. The Orioles thought about signing Jones, 38, but didn’t – thankfully. About Rogers, Ken Rosenthal wrote this: “A scout offered a succinct indictment of Rogers' two-year, $16 million deal, saying, "It's $8 million a year for a 41-year-old guy who throws 84 mph.”

The Tigers have an $82 million payroll this year, $10 million more than the Orioles. That doesn’t mean much, since Flanagan tried to throw Angelos Confederate bucks at the same players Dombrowski signed.

In Dombrowski’s defense, he has a track record for building champions from scratch (see: Marlins, 1997; and Marlins, 2003, two years after he left Florida but had put major pieces in place). He managed to assemble his current starting corps in Detroit with a combination of shrewd trades. He dealt for Jeremy Bonderman in 2002 (giving up Jeff Weaver, his best starter at the time), and Nate Robertson in 2003, then drafted Justin Verlander No. 2 overall two years ago. Mike Maroth, the other starter besides Rodgers, came to Detroit via trade under the reign of Dombrowski’s predecessor, Randy Smith.

Dombrowski also stole shortstop Carlos Guillen from Seattle in 2004 and picked up Shelton in the Rule V draft. And, he gets credit for attracting top scouts. “Dombrowski scored a major coup last month luring scouting director David Chadd away from Boston,” Peter Gammons wrote in November 2004. “Chadd is one of the game's best talent evaluators, and not only is he further empowered in Detroit, he was attracted by the loyalty that most Dombrowski employees feel toward their boss.”

You don’t hear that sort of praise about David Stockstill, the Orioles director of minor league operations, or Joe Jordan, the scouting director. Until recently, the Orioles' farm system was dry, but things are looking up: Baseball America ranked it 13th out of 30 last winter and the 2005 draft, the first headed by Jordan, “looks like it could be a monster,” Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus told The Sun.

For the record, when outfielder Nolan Reimold and pitcher Garrett Olson show up in Camden Yards, the credit goes to Jordan.

So, the point is, the Orioles are going about their business pretty much the same way as the Tigers: scouting out young talent and trying to complement it with a mix of veterans. Only the Orioles aren’t getting favorable results as quickly.

It’s not like winning baseball is a secret formula. “I think we have a quality club,” Dombrowski told the Washington Post last month. “Our starting pitching is very solid, which puts us in a position where we can compete on a daily basis, and we also have a very solid bullpen that allows us to shorten the game. There are just some shortcuts you can't take. Doing this takes time, and you just hope you don't run out of time before people's patience runs out.”

Undoubtedly, Flanagan and his assistant GM, Jim Duquette, would agree.

"In baseball, anything can happen, especially if you get good pitching," Duquette told The Sun before the season started. “The offense for the [world champion] White Sox was one of the worst [in runs scored] in the American League last year. The majority of the teams that get to the playoffs are the teams that pitch and play defense. That's why our focus has been on that direction.”

Right. Sounds good. Until you hear the rest of his quote:

“We do think our starting pitching is our strength."

That’s enough to make you wonder if the guys pulling the strings in the Warehouse really know which end is up.

News Flash: The Tigers Are Human

They won't make the playoffs unless they play Kansas City 25 more times

By Christopher Heun

The original title for this post was The Tigers Aren’t That Good, but that would be inaccurate. They are a good team, just not as good as their record.

As impressive as their 35-15 mark on Memorial Day may be, they very well could miss the playoffs. Like the 2005 O’s, their schedule for April and May was easy; only five wins came against teams with a winning record on May 29. They’ve won all of their eight games against Kansas City (14-41) but lost all three versus Chicago (34-22). (They split two games in Baltimore last month.)

Last week the Tigers started a stretch of 13 consecutive games against the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox and Blue Jays. They lost five of the first seven heading into Tuesday night's game at Chicago.

As well as they’ve played the first two months, Detroit hasn’t run away with the AL Central. With a slim 2.5 game lead over the White Sox heading into their series tonight, the Tigers could slip to second place by next week. If they don’t win their division, they’ll have to win more games than the likely runner-up in the East, Boston or New York, to keep playing in October. What are the chances of that?

Manager Jim Leyland did his best to put his spin on losing before it even happened, like a politician on the Sunday morning chat shows, when he said this to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated before Memorial Day:

“I disagree with the people who say, ‘Now we’ll find out if they’re for real.’ We’re for real. Are we going to keep up with this torrid pace? No. People will think it’s because of the teams we play. No. We can’t keep up this torrid pace no matter who we play. But we’re legit. We’re not some fluke team.”

Memo to Jim Leyland: nice try, but you’re losing because you’re playing winning teams for a change. Of course, they’re also losing partly because Shelton, who had nine homers by April 17, has only hit two since and managed just three extra base hits in 64 at bats since May 14. (Against New York and Boston pitching he was hitless in 17 ABs). And the starting rotation, often cited as the team’s strength, endured its first injury Friday when Mike Maroth underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow. The Yankees bombed his replacement, Roman Colon.

The Yankees are another story. Despite running triage in their locker room, they keep winning. First Hideki Matsui is lost to injury, then Gary Sheffield. That doesn’t even count Carl Pavano, who hasn’t even played in a game yet this year, and Shawn Chacon, who will likely come off the 15-day DL later this week.

I’m tired of hearing how every contending team faces a test whenever it plays the Yankees. Crank up the hype machine, the team from the Bronx is in town. Why shouldn’t it have been the other way around, particularly for their series in Detroit, given that the Yankees opened with a lesser record, hobbled by injuries to Matsui; Sheffield, who missed three of the four games; and Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter, who both missed two (although replacing Jeter at short is a blessing in disguise, since he is truly below average defensively, one of the worst fielding shortstops in the game, as Baseball Musings proves.

Regardless, the Yankees came within two outs of a sweep, which should tell us something about their depth. Melky Cabrera has been hitting like Miguel Cabrera and Andy Phillips has turned heads too.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Great Experiment, Week Eight: Who You Calling Superstitious?

If Tejada's bats are full of hits, can he share with everyone?

By Aaron Koos

One great aspect of baseball is the sport’s enduring indulgence in superstition, unexplainable phenomena, and general quirkiness. Today, Rodrigo Lopez told The Sun that his preference for being caught by Javy Lopez "could be superstition, whatever."

Lopez may try to minimize his statement by throwing in a nonchalant “whatever,” but after the Lopez-Lopez battery recorded their third win in a row Sunday, you can bet that Sam Perlozzo won’t dare break that streak of luck next time Rodrigo is scheduled to take the mound. Because, while all athletes usually profess to some superstitious behavior, baseball players’ collective obsession with luck and taboo approaches a level of mental illness.

I once knew a college baseball player who absolutely freaked out when I innocently picked up his game bat. I didn’t know the rule that “NOBODY TOUCHES THE BAT … EVER!” I thought he was kidding, until I was not so politely escorted out the door to keep him from taking batting practice on my skull. I can only imagine what sacred rituals were performed to remove the impurities I had inadvertently transferred to the bat.

You see, I didn’t understand that hits actually reside inside bats, and there is a finite number in each bat. This isn’t the theory of just one psycho, either. The belief is widespread and persistent, and Major League Baseball is Chock Full O’Nuts.

Struggling Kevin Millar was pinch-hitting on May 14 with the Orioles trailing the Royals with two outs in the ninth when his bat broke. Miguel Tejada tossed Millar one of Tejada’s own bats, with which Millar then proceeded to drive in the winning run. Millar later commented that the bat actually felt awful in his hands, but he still used it because it belonged to Tejada and therefore probably had some hits left in it.

Later, when Millar was relaying the story to reporters in the clubhouse, he motioned to Tejada that he still had the bat, but wasn’t in any hurry to give it back. Apparently, Tejada smiled and gave the thumbs up sign, but I doubt he was in any hurry to claim it back either, given Millar’s string of luck – or lack of it. It would probably take a voodoo high priest and truckload of mojo to restore the bat to Tejada’s liking.

There are hundreds of great stories about baseball superstition, from curses involving Bambinos and Billy Goats, to rituals you can see every night in every park around the country, like players hopping over the foul line or donning rally caps.

The personal superstitions of individual players are the best. Wade Boggs is one of the most notorious worshippers of Lady Luck, religiously eating fried chicken before each game of his 18-season long career, but he had a whole litany of ritualistic, bizarre habits that you can read about here.

Here's a sample:
During night games, Boggs stepped into the batting cage at 5:17 and ran wind sprints at exactly 7:17. (Once, in Toronto, a devious scoreboard technician changed the clock from 7:16 to 7:18. Boggs reportedly threw up.)

I don’t know what it is about Boston, but Fenway Park seems to be at the epicenter of baseball’s Twilight Zone. On a visit there several years ago, I realized that Nomar Garciaparra is one obsessive compulsive dude. The day I was watching him I noticed that he was constantly twitching, hopping, wiping, and tapping while he was in the field – like he was being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I don’t think he was relaying signs either, unless they were from extraterrestrials.

At first I thought he was just keeping loose, but as the innings wore on, I realized I was watching a superstitious obsessive-compulsive disorder ritual that he carried out before every single pitch. It was so involved that he didn’t even slide his glove on until the split second before the pitcher released the ball. It was nerve wracking to watch. It’s not something you normally pick up about Nomar in TV coverage, and I’ve never really heard it widely discussed. Is this well known? Whatever he’s doing now, though, he should probably continue; he’s currently hitting .369 for the Dodgers … knock on wood.

If you have a favorite baseball superstition or quirk, please post a comment to this blog – especially any Orioles-specific oddities. We’d love to hear about them, or about any lucky charms or rituals you use as a fan. However, if you are currently “helping” the O’s (sub-.500, fourth place, 8.5 games back), you might want to consider either switching up your routine, or doubling your efforts. Whatever. (As Rodrigo would say.)

Oh, as for my CAP rating – the ultra-scientific system that rates my abilities as a fan in the categories of Current Knowledge, Ardor, and Participation – it dropped significantly these past two weeks. Just as I predicted, exciting season finales during May sweeps, and a long, often un-televised West Coast road trip just about drove me away. I’m only averaging a dismal .097, and if I don’t watch out I’ll be designated for assignment soon.

Luckily, I’ve got this blog to keep me involved.