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Tuesday, 18 June 2019 19:34

Roger Dodger – ‘They Bled Blue’

Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball is entangled with its history. Even as we witness magnificent feats in the present, our eyes turn ever toward the past. Whether it is through statistics or stories, baseball fans love to look back.

Author Jason Turbow has a knack for transporting us to times gone by and thoroughly revisiting players and teams from the game’s history. We’re not talking about grainy black-and-white history, however – these are teams whose memories are still vivid in the minds of fans of a certain age.

His latest is “They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen: The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). That mouthful of a title looks back nearly 40 years, digging into the particulars of an iconic franchise during one of the strangest seasons baseball had ever seen.

Seriously – the sport had never seen anything quite like the 1981 Dodgers. From the full-on phenomenon that was Fernando Valenzuela to the era-ending turn from one of the game’s longest-serving infields, from a season split in two by labor strife to the strangest postseason set-up ever, it was a time of turmoil and triumph.

Published in Sports

The Major League Baseball draft is vastly different from those of the other major sports leagues. In the NFL and the NBA and to a slightly lesser extent the NHL, draft picks are expected to join their new teams and start performing more or less immediately.

Not so with MLB.

Due to the sport's massive minor league infrastructure, baseball draftees aren't immediately thrust into the spotlight with the big club. In fact, it's a rarity for a player to have any real impact in the first couple of years after they've been selected. While the other drafts feature names and faces that we're likely to see quickly, we probably won't see our team's baseball selections at the big-league level for at least a little while.

Obviously, this makes draft grading an even more ludicrous prospect in baseball than it is in other sports. Predicting the future is already impossible - predicting the future of an 18-year-old high school pitcher with great stuff and questionable maturity is even more so.

Still, it's fun to look at the choices our team makes - even if we won't get the payoff until sometime further down the road.

So what does Boston’s 2019 draft class look like? There’s no first round pick thanks to luxury tax penalties (although it’s a small price to pay for winning the World Series), so their first selection landed in the second round.

The Sox have added 40 new players to their system. Among them are 27 collegiate players and 13 high schoolers. There are 21 pitchers, 10 of whom are right-handers with just five southpaws. There are 19 position players: seven outfielders, two catchers, five middle infielders and five first basemen.

Obviously, we don’t have space to discuss all 40, but let’s check out the top 10.

(Please note that, as always, we will refrain from assigning any sort of grade to this draft. The notion of grading a draft from which the players are literally years away from contributing to the team that chose them is utter nonsense. We’re not claiming a win or a loss here. This is just a look at who the team has selected, nothing more.)

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One of the longest-standing truisms in the athletic realm is that nothing is more important than inborn natural talent; while practice can make you better, there’s no amount of practice that can compensate for a lack of inherent ability.

But in baseball’s brave new world, with reams of data available at the press of a button, perhaps that truism isn’t quite so true after all.

“The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists are Using Data to Build Better Ballplayers (Basic, $30), by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, is an exploration of the rapidly-blossoming notion that there’s more to it than that. Teams are turning their vast data-collecting capabilities toward the field of player development, trying to find ways to maximize the talent of their players in new and sometimes unconventional ways.

It’s a new frontier, one awash in high-speed cameras and swing gurus. It’s all about spin rates and launch angles and elevating the velocity of the ball, be it thrown or batted. And the people who are the earliest adopters, from the front offices to the fields, are reaping the rewards.

Published in Sports
Tuesday, 04 June 2019 16:01

Red Sox Report Card - May 2019

All in all, not a terrible month. Not a great month, but not a terrible month.

The Red Sox went 16-11 in the month of May, fighting their way back to the right side of .500. However, that’s not nearly enough in the grand scheme of things – they aren’t in fourth place anymore, having climbed up to third, but it’s a distant third … and it’s getting more distant by the day.

It’s not the fault of the Red Sox on the field, necessarily – we saw a fair amount of strong performances out of the team over the course of the month – but five games over .500 isn’t going to cut it when you have a Yankees team hitting its stride (and due to return some injured talent) and a Rays team that is proving surprisingly resilient.

Still, it beats the hell out of the trash fire that was April. And the team is still very much in playoff contention. Here’s hoping that Boston can make the same kind of leap in June that it did in May; we’ll really have something then.

On to the Report Card.

Published in Sports

Welcome to another season of Clubhouse Leaders!

Major League Baseball has by far the longest season in all of North American professional sports. MLB teams play 162 games over the course of six months before landing in October and the postseason. That lengthy stretch leaves room for a lot to happen – and a lot of changes.

We’ve hit the one-quarter mark of the 2019 season. Every team has 40 games or more in the rearview. That’s a significant chunk of baseball – enough for us to start looking at who the highest individual achievers for the season might be. Again, there’s a lot of baseball still to be played – 120 games worth, in fact – but we’ve got enough of a sample size to start thinking about which players might be in line to win MLB’s most prestigious individual awards.

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No American sport is as enamored of its own history quite like baseball. Even as today’s players take the field, the shadows of those who came before are omnipresent. Baseball is as much about what was as it is about what is.

But there are some moments that transcend even the game’s historical affection. These are the times that make the leap from history to legend, the instances and accomplishments that are the foundation of baseball’s long and intricate mythology.

Kevin Cook’s “Ten Innings at Wrigley: The Wildest Ballgame Ever, with Baseball on the Brink” (Henry Holt and Co., $28) is a thorough exploration of one such instance, a single game in 1979 that wound up as one of the greatest offensive explosions in the history of Major League Baseball. That game – a May 17 contest that saw the Chicago Cubs play host to the Philadelphia Phillies – ultimately went 10 innings, with a final score of Phillies 23, Cubs 22; it was the highest scoring game of the modern era.

(It was second only in MLB history to a 1922 game that, funnily enough, featured these same teams; the Cubs triumphed in that one, with a score of 26-23.)

Through a combination of personal interviews and meticulous research, Cook gives an inning-by-inning rendering of the game (known to many as simply “The Game”), breaking down every on-field moment while also delving into some off-the-field exploration into the lives of some of the major players. An historic and iconic MLB moment, the picture painted of a generational contest.

Published in Sports
Wednesday, 01 May 2019 10:20

Red Sox Report Card - April 2019

Not exactly the start that Red Sox fans were hoping for.

In a season where they were expected to be among the league’s best, Boston has instead spent the entire month of April below the .500 mark; they’re currently sitting in fourth place in the division, behind the Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays and ahead of only the lowly Orioles.

It’s not ideal to see a team stumble out of the gate like this – particularly one coming off a World Series championship season and that was projected to contend for another this year – but fans have to remain calm. It’s early yet, and there’s a lot of baseball left to be played.

That said, the baseball that HAS been played hasn’t been … good. The 2019 Red Sox have struggled for stretches in all facets of the game, though they have looked better after an utterly abysmal start to the season. We’re here to talk about what has been, not what we hope is to come.

On to the Report Card.

Published in Sports

Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is defined by its stories.

None of our American pro sports leagues have the same lengthy history within the culture. Nor do they have the same reverence for that history. Baseball is about narrative, a constant tale-telling that is built around connecting the present to the past.

Ron Darling’s new book “108 Stitches: Loose Thread, Ripping Yarns, and the Darnedest Characters from My Time in the Game” (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99) is about telling those stories, all through the lens of his own experience in the game. And he’s got plenty of experiences to talk about – a 13-year major league career where he won 136 games as a starting pitcher and two decades in the broadcast booth.

Darling’s conceit is a simple one: A series of stories about the various figures with whom he crossed paths over the course of nearly four decades in professional baseball. All told, there are 108 tales – just like there are 108 stitches on a baseball.

Published in Sports

Baseball is a team game made up of individual battles, a series of one-on-one confrontations where one man throws a ball and the other attempts to hit it. Yes, the action evolves after that, but at its heart, baseball is about pitcher versus hitter.

The man at the plate has a weapon – his bat – and protection in the form of gloves, a helmet, perhaps some armor in the form of an arm guard or shin guard. The man on the mound has none of that. But he is not unarmed – he has the ball. And the ball can be a formidable weapon indeed.

That weapon is the focus of Tyler Kepner’s new book “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” (Doubleday, $28.95). In it, the New York Times baseball writer digs deep into the myriad ways that players have tried to put the ball over the plate over the course of the game’s long history. It’s an exploration of one-half of that ever-present central conceit of hurler against striker.

Published in Sports
Wednesday, 03 April 2019 13:06

Possible MLB milestones coming in 2019

Baseball is a game that has always held its own history in high regard. And one of the best ways to keep track of that history has been through statistical milestones, numbers that have come to act as a sort of distillation of greatness. Round numbers that represent on-field brilliance in an easy-to-understand way.

Granted, changes in the game are in turn changing these milestones. The way the game is played and the meaning of the numbers being tallied isn’t what it once was; the sabermetric revolution has altered how we look at these statistics. Still, there’s something undeniably special about those iconic career marks. While their relevance may fade someday, we’re not there yet.

Here are a few milestones that might be reached in 2018:

Published in Sports
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