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August 14, 2007 at 10:32 AM

When to cheer

That was quite the discussion held in the previous post over the Richie Sexson comments from last night. Thought I’d continue it somewhat over here and answer a couple of questions. First off, it’s been proven that there is no point in sliding into first base from a speed perspective. To do it when a first baseman steps off his bag and you want to avoid a tag is one thing. But sliding for speed is like leaning in to the tape at the end of a 100-yard dash. You’re better off pretending the tape is five yards beyond and aiming for that goal. My track coaches always taught that and it held true. The best way to maintain your speed is to keep pumping your arms and legs and not to add resistance by doing something like sliding. Ichiro applies the same philosophy when it comes to catching balls hit in front of him. He believes he has a better chance at getting to them if he keeps sprinting forward instead of leaving his feet.
Saw something on corked bats as well and the TV show that found they cause balls to be hit shorter distances. That is likely very true. Thing is, that’s not why big leaguers cork their bats — the ones I’ve talked to anyway. Bat speed is the real reason. Replacing wood with cork makes the bat lighter and allows it to get around on pitches faster. Sometimes, that’s all a good power hitter needs to hit the ball over the fence. It doesn’t matter if the home run flies 400 feet instead of 430. It’s putting yourself in a position to hit that home run, which a corked bat allows by making the hitter’s reflexes that much quicker. It’s the same thinking used by those who say Barry Bonds should not be criticized on the steroids issue. It takes reflexes, hands and bat speed to hit homers, they say — regardless of how much stronger a hitter can become through steroids. Corked bats enhance those other, non-strength factors, even if they do remove some of the muscle impact.
To “Mariner Optimist” I agree the upcoming schedule is a potential season-wrecker for the M’s. But no playoff year is ever easy. I was down on the field talking with Dave Sims about it yesterday. Who could have picked a better schedule to get a baseball blog’s hit count up than the one upcoming? I mean, never mind this road trip to Minnesota and Texas. How about having to come home from that and take on the Angels, then embark on a two-week, playoff-type road stint to Cleveland (wild card contender), Toronto (best pitching in AL since All-Star Break), New York (wild-card contender) and Detroit (wild-card contender). That’s why going 6-1 over the past seven games was so imperative. Imagine if the M’s had gone only 4-3? They’d be losing ground in a hurry with all of those games still looming. You have to win games like the one last night.
Why did John McLaren bring in John Parrish in the seventh? I don’t have to ask him that one to know the answer. Parrish wasn’t acquired for mop-up duty. He was brought in for big situations and had one last night. It wasn’t exactly a tie game in the eighth. It was a 3-1 game the Twins looked to want no part of getting back into until Parrish kicked the door wide open for them. But a manager has to know what he has going forward when his front office trades for a guy. Now he knows a little bit more. But I won’t fault him for the move. You can’t fault every move a manager makes that doesn’t work out.
Which brings us back to today’s discussion.
We’ve talked about fans being unduly critical of good teams and whether or not Seattle fans are justified in booing the M’s more frequently now that they are actually playing meaningful baseball games.
Well, what about the media? It isn’t only the fans in places like Boston and New York that can be severely critical of good clubs. The media is often worse. Is that fair? Well, as you might expect, I say yes. But with a qualifier.
There has to be a point in all the criticism where a media member can step back, take a look at the bigger picture and say that, OK, all of the previously stated stuff might be true, but what is the end result? If that result is winning, then all the other stuff eventually has to be filtered through that lense.
Hey, I grew up in Montreal when the Canadiens hockey team was expected to win the Stanley Cup every year. And not just saying it, like they do in Boston when fans “expect” a team to win a World Series despite having only done it once in 90 years. I mean, it was a real expectation. The Habs had won four in a row, six out of eight and 22 times total by the time I was 10 years old in 1979. More than the Yankees or any other team in pro sports (I don’t really count all of Real Madrid’s soccer titles in Spain because that’s one league in a single country out of many other European leagues). I remember being at the old Montreal Forum in 1982 when the Canadiens lost for the first time in 28 home games (to the eventual cup finalists from Vancouver no less) and the fans booed Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson for screwing up. They also booed the team plenty. If the Habs lost three in a row, the coach was always in danger. That’s just the way it was and while the team didn’t always win championships, it usually had a darned good team year after year (until money changed the sport’s dynamics but that’s another story).
WARNING: Obligatory Toronto reference ahead.
Anyway, that’s the atmosphere I grew up in, so I know all about the baseball culture in New York and Boston. Never did understand places like Toronto where fans were overly polite and usually got stuck with lousy teams (until buying a pair of World Series titles in the early 1990s). Toronto fans began changing baseball-wise in the late-1990s. By 2000, they were starting to boo and boo plenty. Just ask David Wells, or read his autobiography where he talks about it. Curiously, that boo point occured six or seven years after the team’s last playoff appearance — roughly the same as here in Seattle. Coincidence? Maybe.
The media in Toronto was also getting tougher, up to four daily papers and three natioinal television networks in a highly competitive market. Still nothing like New York or Boston but tough in its own right.
Seattle has nowhere near the same degree of media toughness, with only the two city-based dailies, a couple from outside the city (only one of which travels), KJR and FSN to worry about. But this market does have something that Toronto didn’t have. A blogosphere that is very critical of the Mariners’ front office and players. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It just is much more critical than I saw in my last stop, where the blogosphere served by and large as a house organ for anything the team did.
I think that’s a good, healthy thing. It’s the foundation of democracy. And I do think forums like this one and others out there (USS Mariner, Lookout Landing) serve to keep fans’ eyes open and adopt a more discerning attitude.
But with that attitude comes some responsibility. The responsibility to the truth.
When a team is 16 games over .500 and in a position to make the playoffs if the season were to end today, then the criticism has to be put into context. You can’t keep harping on a team’s run differential when it is obviously not going to matter one bit in a particular season. I think we’ve all reached the point where we can stop talking about the M’s and their run differential. The bullpen is obviously negating a lot of the need to have a big spread between runs for and against by winning virtually every close game it’s a part of.
Can we criticize Bill Bavasi for his off-season pitching moves? Sure we can. I don’t think he did a particularly good job, even if Miguel Batista is having a career year and Jeff Weaver is having an improved second half. But Bavasi does have to get his props for Batista and for some of his other moves, like signing Jose Guillen and — like it or not — trading for Jose Vidro. Since early July, when his job was being placed into question, Vidro has turned his season around. His slugging percentage in the second-half (nearing 100 at-bats already, so the sample size is growing) is up to .480 and that’s more than acceptable. I’ve said before that his on-base-percentage of .370-.380 means he only needs about a .450 slugging percentage to be an effective DH. Well, he’s surpassed that and his double-plays have decreased significantly.
True, his over-all season might not have great numbers right now. But he has become a key part of a lineup that is helping the team win despite a starting rotation with a sub-.500 won-lost record. So, in the end, perhaps we have to give more credence (and importance) to the Vidro acquisition than to some of Bavasi’s off-season pitching moves.
That’s what this discussion is about. About being able to change perspectives on things, alter the weight of the importance we give certain matters, when the end results appear to show a different formula at-play. Was it critical for Bavasi to obtain better starting pitchers than he did when the offense and bullpen appears to be helping the team win in-spite of a mediocre performance over-all from the starters so far? When it all shakes down, the possibility that the hitting acquistions were of greater import could be the defining point.
This is all I’m saying. My view is that a critical media and fan base does help a team get better by keeping the toes of said team to the fire. But there also comes time to applaud the things that go right, as any advocate of constructive criticism can tell you. And I’m not trying to glorify the type of media member who waves pom-poms year after year and then goes “Told you so!” when something finally works for a team. Those kinds are of no use to me, nor –in the long run — the average fan. But if you are going to criticize, you also have to be able to propel that criticism through a different prism if things begin to work.
That’s the toughest thing for any good media member to do. See the forest for the trees so to speak, when covering the immediate result night after night. But trust me, the last thing I or anyone else wants to do is write stories that say “Mariners did this wrong” and “Mariners did that wrong” right up until Sept. 29, only to come up with a season-ending story that says “Mariners win the division!”
That is just not an accurate recording of history. So, some of us are trying very hard to figure this M’s team out on a day-to-day basis. We write about what they did wrong, but have to ease up when they do right. Yes, there are plenty of individual John McLaren moves we can question night after night. But in the end, he is 6-1 in his last seven games. He is barely a month into his first managerial job. That’s when you have to look at the big picture.
Is the big picture entirely there yet? No, it’s still being painted. But the stuff I see now looks a lot different than I thought it would back in April. And that, my friends, is why they play the games.



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