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Love for the game a learned pastime

June 17, 2012

Baseball has never been just a game for me. It is thrill and glory and fresh-cut grass. It is adrenaline and scuffed cleats and crisp double plays turned under mock-summer lights. It is gleaming fields on Opening Day and wind-frozen fingers raised in postseason triumph. But most of all, it is my father and me and pine tar memories that extend far beyond the lines.

As far back as I can remember, being daddy’s little girl has always involved a bat and glove. My earliest baseball memories turned our tiny backyard into a sun-streaked diamond. I was Don Mattingly with a pink bat, hitting a plastic ball likely far too dense for a six-year old without a helmet. My father, who was my Dave Righetti–no matter what the broken garage window said–lobbed pitch after pitch, patiently waiting for me to chase swinging strikes all the way to the back fence, and cheering me on when mighty hits cleared the swimming pool. It was there, in front of the swing set and next to the minefield of my mother’s flower garden, that baseball and family became intrinsically linked.

Though the core of the game remains, the changes in statistics and the way information is disseminated have given me an edge over my father in keeping up-to-date on the latest news. I throw fantasy ball tips his way during our draft–though he manages to beat me, every year–and I still have to remind him that he doesn’t have to read about day games in the paper the following morning. But when I was growing up, he was my number one source of information. Every summer evening, we’d sit in front of the television, watching Winfield and Kelly–and later Williams and Jeter–while my favorite fan explained the infield fly rule, suicide squeezes, and how it felt to watch Mickey Mantle patrol center field on a sunny day in the Bronx.

My father’s enthusiasm for my enthusiasm never wavered. With patience stretched nearly to inhuman limits, he interacted with me graciously while I recited baseball songs I’d painstakingly written, outlined charts and graphs of the Yankees’ likely starting lineups, and threw a ball against the side of the garage until I was sure it would crack. The September I hung a “magic number” countdown on my bedroom wall, he woke me up every morning asking how many pages I’d been able to eliminate at game’s end. In 1996, he helped me craft a postseason scrapbook, bringing New York newspapers home from work and saving every sports section he could get his hands on so I could preserve the memory of my first World Series.

When the wins turned into championships, and the trophies multiplied, our playoff rituals became more frequent. Though he could never quite stay up for west coast games and extra innings, October  victories welcomed wake-up calls at 1am, and clinching wins warranted a trip to the TV room to watch the celebration.Over the years, he’s confessed to me that his postseason mornings are a little bit darker when he gets to sleep through the night.

No one understands how I feel about baseball like my father. He knows that the sounds of a ballgame on a night just chilly enough to need a sweatshirt by the eighth inning are better than any music–followed closely by the throwback crackling of play-by-play on AM radio. He knows that there’s never any shame in crying over a blown save, just as there’s never any shame in crying over an improbable victory. He knows that baseball is family and loyalty and perseverance and that a game of individuals would be nothing without the team. We’ve seen underdogs triumph and champions fall, but the love for the game is as predictable and constant as the stitches on the ball.

Baseball has never been just a game for me. It is backyard wiffle ball and slightly damaged flower gardens. It is homemade lineup cards and postseason wake-up calls. It is minor league baseball on a chilly night and scoreboard updates cutting through the static. But most of all, it is my father and me and a lifetime of learning exactly what it means to love the game.

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Pettitte brings big leagues to baseball-loving Rochester

May 6, 2012

A Sunday afternoon in May at a minor league ballpark likely held no distinction for Andy Pettitte. Just a stop on the road to the big leagues, it couldn’t have been much different than any other whistlestop bandbox in any American mid-size city.

For the 13,854 packed into beautiful Frontier Field, in the High Falls neighborhood of downtown Rochester, Sunday was pretty special. In the 16-year history of the ballpark, that has seen concerts and competitions, major leaguers–both of the the rehabbing and demoted variety–and, for one summer, the visiting Baltimore Orioles, no single ballplayer has provoked such excitement.

For the crowd and the 240-game winner, the outcome was trivial. Pettitte threw his predetermined 90 pitches, which took him through five innings. The defense behind him was shaky, which is par for the course in the minor leagues, and some big league outs fell for hits, leading to three earned runs for the lefty’s likely final tuneup before he heads to the Bronx. But Pettitte was healthy, the sun was out, and the excitement radiating throughout the stadium was palpable.

Rochester knows its baseball. Once named Baseball City, USA, the Flower City reveres its local sandlot legends as much as its industrial ones. Mr. Baseball, former world champion manager Joe Altobelli, is a beloved and frequent presence at Frontier Field. The Ripken (yes, those Ripkens)  family, with ties to the Rochester region since the 1970s, has a place in the city’s heart. And the Rochester Red Wings themselves are community-owned, with local shareholders owning pieces of the franchise to ensure that the organization never leaves the city.

So it was unsurprising when grandstand and suite tickets to Sunday’s game sold out within four hours of the ticket office opening, with lines snaking around the parking lot. And with good reason. The big lefty is embarking on his 17th season in major league baseball. He owns the record for most postseasons wins, has a career 3.88 ERA,  notched three All Star Game berths, and made four Cy Young leaderboard appearances. Andy Pettitte is contemporary baseball royalty.

Fans clamored for tickets all weekend, with the Red Wings playing diligent host by providing updates on availability to the major news outlets, as well as social media.  Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle devoted the front page of its sports section to the lefty’s arrival. Though Pettitte would be pitching for the Empire State Yankees, this was the Red Wings’ coup–and the team didn’t disappoint.

Though capacity is still under 14,000, the atmosphere at Frontier on Sunday was big-league. Vendors circled the outdoor concourse, hawking programs and commemorative t-shirts as fans poured through the gates.  Fans chattered with total strangers in the stands and along the field about Pettitte and baseball, sharing stories of games long past and musing on games yet to come. Though the garb held a decidedly Yankee flavor, other teams were represented throughout the crowd, joining like-minded fans in silent solidarity.

As game time neared, the crowd around the third-base dugout grew to four and five deep, phones and cameras trained on the clubhouse entrance. And when Pettitte emerged, clad in a warmup jacket and boasting his familiar stride, anticipation boiled over into exhilaration. Without self-consciousness, the city that hasn’t had a major league sports team since the 1950s welcomed the four-time champion like an old friend. There was no need for Pettitte to be lights-out, and no season on the brink. He was pitching, he was in pinstripes, and he was there.

Sunday afternoon was time frozen for the 13,854–a suspended moment when Frontier Field became the bigs. Pettitte wasn’t on a dutiful mission back to the Bronx, but putting on a show for the ballpark and the city. And when he completed his tour, and emerged briefly after the chants of “An-dy Pett-itte” swelled to unignorable levels, the lefty belonged to Rochester. If only for a few hours.

Humber’s perfection speaks to the everyman

April 24, 2012

Go ahead. Start your love affair with Philip Humber.

No one could blame you.  The former first-round draft pick with sky-high potential had plummeted to everyman long before he reached baseball immortality. Though he once electrified the Mets organization with his crisp curveball, by the time Humber took the mound on Saturday afternoon in Seattle, he was more Willy Loman than Nolan Ryan. But after the dust had cleared on his 12th career win, and 27 Mariners had been retired, the 29-year old owner of a formerly bright future found himself on the bottom of an improbable celebration pile-up, career finally made.

Of all the pitchers slated to start that afternoon, the struggling journeyman might have been the least likely to hurl baseball’s 21st perfect game. Both 2011 Cy Young award winners were set to toe the rubber, along with James Shields, Tom Gorzelanny, and Roy Halladay–who pitched a perfect game of his own.  But the day belonged to Humber, the small-town Texan who captured the hearts of the baseball world for one magical game–even if most of them had no idea who he was.

Though not quite an allegory–those were the Mariners that Humber faced, not the Red Sox or Yankees eating up broadcast time on the opposite coast–when viewed against the backdrop of Major League Baseball and all its superstars, Humber’s  hyperspeed coming-of-age story as it played out on national television felt awfully symbolic.

Drafted in 2004, Humber showed signs of being the next great pitcher when he signed for $3.7 million with the Mets. Possessing electric strikeout stuff with a smooth 11-5 curveball and a power sinker, the Mets’ first rounder looked to be ready for big-league action within a season.  But Tommy John surgery slowed the fast track to greatness, shutting Humber down until the following year. That would prove to be a portend of disappointing things to come.

In 2008, the baseball world watched in rapt attention–and later bored apathy–as the Johan Santana saga dragged into January. Though higher-profile prospects were posted by the Yankees and Red Sox, and for a while it seemed as though the Twins were going to settle for nothing short of Derek Jeter, negotiations broke down. By the time the dust settled, Santana was in a Mets uniform and New York had gutted its mediocre farm system by sending Humber and other mid-level prospects to the Twins in a bizarrely disappointing deal.

It was under those circumstances that the whole of the game was introduced to Humber: as the co-headliner in an anti-climactic trade that pleased almost no one. But for Humber, who now had to live up to Santana’s legacy as well as his own potential, the everyman story wasn’t about to become heroic any time soon.

In the three full seasons following the trade, Humber posted an ERA just under 5.00. in the Twins’  and Royals’ farm systems, while serving sporadic time in the big leagues.  But just as Loman toiled in futility under his own melancholy, Humber found success by persevering, and his breakout campaign was a only little hard work and circumstance away.

In 2011, Humber landed with the Chicago White Sox, where he began to retool his arsenal, adding an overwhelming slider that would, only a season later, be the key to his induction into baseball history. When an injured to White Sox ace Jake Peavy opened the door for Humber, he closed it behind him, finishing 2011 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.178 WHIP in 163 innings. Humbly (as it were) proving that sometimes success is nothing more than hard work coupled with a series of small decisions, Humber continued to pitch without flash or fame, wealth or endorsements.

It should be no surprise that Humber’s fairy tale moment on Saturday came with warm acclaim beyond that of his incredible feat. He is the anti-Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum, who seem to possess an other-worldly talent that emerges seamlessly on the mound. Though it would be egregious to say that Humber scratched and clawed his way to greatness–he was an acclaimed first-round pick given opportunities not afforded to most aspiring big leaguers–his appeal as an identifiable hero is very real.

It’s human nature to be drawn to the underdog story. As much as we love the fantastical and supernatural, the heroes that resonate most are the ones who look like we feel. The reason we root for Holden Caulfield to find his place in life is because we see ourselves in his wandering confusion.  This is why there will always be a place for players like Humber beside the Derek Jeters and Matt Kemps.  And when that final slider hit the dirt, we held our breaths. Not only to revel in the glory that is the perfect game, but for the man to whom it would forever belong.

Nova, Kennedy find success in versatility

April 22, 2012

Ian Kennedy is not an imposing mound presence. At six feet and 190 pounds, 2011’s 21-game winner appears even smaller, with throwback stirrup socks and a beard that looks more like a child playing dress-up than a Cy Young vote-getter.  And even now, at 27, as the former first-round pick is climbing toward his prime after a change of scenery and a breakout season brought him league-wide acclaim, Kennedy’s success holds remnants of striking juxtaposition to his appearance, despite all he was billed to be at the start of his career.

Ivan Nova is an imposing mound presence.  At 6’4″ and 225 pounds, the broad shoulders and resolute gaze of the Yankees’ youngest rotation piece give him a confidence beyond his years. Indeed, Nova’s self-assurance and ability to make in-game adjustments head up his scouting reports, despite a series of early disappointments in his young career, including boomeranging between leagues after a failed Rule Five pick by the Padres sent the unprotected prospect back to the Yankees.  At 25, Nova’s story is beginning anew, and he’s surprising everyone–except himself.

But for both men–the USC standout whose talent was overshadowed by the bright lights of the Bronx and the big man who was never supposed to be more than a low-risk, mid-level prospect with a cocky grin–the mound has become a welcome home. And a full complement of pitches has been the path back.

When a first-round draft pick out of a high-profile school tops out around 91, he’s a finesse pitcher in the vein of David Cone or a late-career Mike Mussina, craftily maneuvering through a lineup by out-thinking hitters, as he was drafted to do. But despite the forgiving labels and attainable precedents, Kennedy struggled in New York. Whether because of his own lack of confidence or because the organization pushed him before his time had come, Kennedy foundered, his hitch-step strut off the mound belying his defeats. So when the righty featured in a three-team deal following the 2009 season, baseball balked. Kennedy was fresh off surgery to remove an aneurysm from his pitching arm, and Arizona had surrendered two solid pitchers in the trade. To many, it looked as though Kennedy had simply become another cautionary tale of a high-draft arm that weighed its pitcher down with expectation.

But Kennedy’s true value wouldn’t be revealed until his statement-making 2011, and it came about as the result of a finesse pitcher who finally learned to use his strengths.  Though always possessing an above-average knuckle curve, the righty has begun to refine it, mixing the pitch with a stellar changeup and serviceable cutter. Mixed with  a fastball that Kennedy has learned to command, the four pitches give Arizona’s ace a full, working arsenal for the first time in his career.  In 2011, Kennedy’s walks per game plummeted to 2.2, down a full 1.0 from his previous  low.  His WHIP was 1.086–far and away the best mark of his career and nearly unheard-of for a low-90s pitcher. When the curtain fell on September, Kennedy’s campaign earned him a Game 1 playoff start and votes for NL Cy Young and MVP–a far cry from the pitcher who won all of one game with the team that drafted him. Finally, Kennedy had become the finesse pitcher he was groomed to be.

When a solid, undrafted free-agent from the Dominican tops out around 93, he’s a back-end starter at best, who projects to succeed only if he can out-pitch his own potential.  Unlike Kennedy, Nova was not blessed with the expectations of a first-round pick.  He wasn’t a crafty pitcher with elite pedigree from a West Coast MLB-feeder school. He was grit and determination and a pedestrian fastball that relegated him to the lower levels of the Yankees’ farm system, leaving once when New York failed to protect him in the Rule Five draft, only to be returned when San Diego couldn’t use his services.

But a full complement of pitches takes several years to develop, and Nova saw results slowly, languishing in low-level minor league clubs before making the leap to AA in 2009. From there, Nova and the Yankees didn’t look back. In each successive season, the big righty took steps forward, putting up a 12-3, 2.86 campaign in 2010 before being called up to the big club for a trial run with the contenders. But it was 2011 that would be Nova’s coming out party, and he handled it with an aplomb that would quickly become typical.

After amassing eight wins for the Yankees through the first half of 2011, Nova was sent back to AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre to make room for Phil Hughes, who was returning from arm fatigue rehab. Rather than show petulance that might have been well within his rights, he approached the demotion with a calm maturity, expressing his hope to pitch his way back into the Yankees’ rotation as soon as possible. Nova’s wish was granted three weeks later when the big club called on his services for a double-header, and his rotation spot would never be relinquished.  When his Rookie of the Year bid was complete, the Yankees’ new number two starter would put together a record of 16-4, including 12 straight wins, and an ERA of 3.70 (3.18 after his return).

Beyond the confidence and stalwart mound presence are the tangible: four solid pitches, including a plus sinker, a four-seam fastball, a 12-6 curveball, and a relatively new circle changeup. When the fastball fails, the big righty has shown an innate ability to make in-game adjustments, leaning on his off-speed pitches when necessary. In high-leverage situations, Nova bears down, featuring a higher strikeout rate and lower opposing batting averages and on-base percentages than in lower-stress moments. Most importantly, the 25-year old has become a force to be reckoned with every fifth day, looming large even through mediocre appearances. Though the confidence is deep-seated, the results are finally living up to the expectations Nova always had for them.

Success doesn’t have to be measured in velocity, and flash doesn’t equal substance. Both Ivan Nova and Ian Kennedy are proof that versatility can be as valuable as power and a level head can be as essential as seeing three digits pop up on the radar gun–even if the path there isn’t exactly smooth sailing.

On the Comforting Convergence of Faith and Baseball

April 6, 2012

I’ve always felt more comfortable evangelizing baseball than any part of my faith. Both are so much a part of me that I could swear they were running through my veins with my blood, carrying a kind of oxygen that fuels my sense of right and wrong,  ruination and redemption, death and rebirth.

But where faith feels personal, in its natural allowance of an ecumenical berth, baseball is unifying celebration.  It blurs language and color, age and economic line.  It is praise for the hero without being individualistic.  It is black and white, with comfortable grays. Where faith makes me feel peaceful and whole, baseball is unadulterated joy.

Still, there they are: faith and baseball, faith and baseball, beating along in a natural simpatico and intersecting at all the important places.

It feels like more than just convenience that baseball would begin in the spring. After sweltering through the summer and winding down just as the leaves begin to turn that sickly gray that signals impending hibernation, it emerges fresh and new with the buds on the trees–more than a passing metaphor for the hopefulness of Game 1 of the 162.  Rebirth is a stirring theme in baseball; for me, it coincides neatly with another Resurrection.  Whether a literal revival of life or a reawakening of hope for a fresh start, the arrival of spring promises both in spades.

Both take my breath away.

I value forgiveness as a virtue. Not as a means of assuaging the conscience, but simply as a concession to our humanity. Rarely is there an individual who isn’t needing and deserving of a second chance. Life gives us utility roles when our legs give out and breaking balls when our velocity decreases. My faith tells me there’s large-scale forgiveness waiting on the ballfield beyond this life, but absolution can come from unexpected places here on earth.

Profoundly and strongly, just as faith allows, the role redemption plays in baseball is as  much a part of its fabric as Kentucky bluegrass in the outfield.  As long as players have laced up the cleats, salvation has been present between the lines. In the patchwork nature of its team play and the soothing catharsis of its timeless structure, baseball allows for atonement of all kinds. Whatever frailty–whatever weakness that crafts what it means to be human–there is saving grace on the other side, even if it’s middle relief.

In many ways, baseball is an easier version of faith.  In both, I appreciate the greatness of the tangible and seek to understand the glory of the intangible. But in the search for meaning behind what seems inexplicable, a sacrifice bunt with a runner on second pales in comparison to global poverty or genocide. Still, there is value in the perceivable answer, even if it seems baffling.  The joy in escapism–in baseball or novels or excellent cinema–is the way reality lingers just past our fingertips.

When the hows and whys weigh too heavily, I turn to baseball. In its parallel lessons  it feels familiar, but where it diverges from faith, it becomes a blessing of its own.

The Great Closer Shakeup

March 31, 2012

“The other team is sitting in the dugout thinking, ‘We’ve got no chance. It’s over.’ This guy walks into the game, and they’re done.” –  “Goose” Gossage, on Mariano Rivera

A great closer is as valuable as an original Honus Wagner card in mint condition–as just as rare. More often than not, teams spend years trying a combination of homegrown talent and open market pickups to find that needle in a haystack with a fastball of gold and guts of steel. Nothing can bring solidity and confidence to a ballclub like a reliable closer who knows his ability.

Indeed, that rare mix of  skill, fortitude, and just enough swagger to keep hitters cowering is often the difference between a championship team and one that spends each offseason parsing every near-win that could have brought them to October.  So elusive are the truly elite closers that teams have begun shattering contract records in an attempt to keep them in the home whites.  In 2008, the Yankees gave Mariano Rivera–admittedly the gold standard for stoppers past and present–a three-year, $45 million contract–by far the largest for a reliever in baseball history.  And so, the precedent had been set. In November 2011, the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon, Boston’s famed closer, to a contract that can max out at $75 million over six years. For a 30-year old in a high-stress position, Papelbon’s big payday should demonstrate just how desperate teams have become to lock down their ninth inning in capable hands.

Further complicating the hunt for the essential closer is their relatively short shelf life. For every Mariano Rivera is a Joel Zumaya or Jonathan Broxton, whose flashes of brilliance burned out quickly from injury or ineffectiveness. Because of the high levels of stress endemic to the position, mechanics can easily be thrown out of line at the tensing of a leg or the hitch of an elbow. To expect a pitcher to compete at a near-perfect level–the best closers usually have a WHIP hovering just south of 1.00– for longer than one aligned season is an improbable  dream.  What makes Rivera so remarkable is that his fifteen-year closing career is an aberration, not the rule.

For all the annual uncertainty surrounding how effectively teams can secure saves, the league complement of closers generally remains static for a few years at a time.  Which is why 2012’s baseball-wide ninth inning shakeup is the most dramatic one since Eric Gagne graduated from the record books to the Mitchell Report and faded from baseball history.

Pot-stirrer Papelbon began the carousel, which should be no surprise to anyone who pays even half-hearted attention to his personality. The mammoth deal he signed with Philadelphia ends his tenure with the Red Sox, for whom Papelbon logged 219 saves and posted a 1.018 WHIP over seven seasons, including three saves in their 2007 championship World Series.  For the Phillies’ part, their closer status had been far from certain since Brad Lidge’s perfect 2008, despite a surprisingly effective 2011 from volatile pitcher Ryan Madson. If Philadelphia looked to compete with a suddenly loaded NL East, the pitching-heavy team needed to do everything it could to solidify the defensive side of the ball, since their aging offense is equal parts unpredictable and unable to walk.  In Papelbon, the Phillies get a formidable mound presence and the ability to mow down an offense, especially from the stretch. Though he appeared to tire deep into September, Papelbon should benefit from needing to pitch fewer innings following the Phillies’ terrifying rotation.

Left without their all-star closer and facing a season of uncertainty for the first time this decade, the Red Sox turned to Oakland stopper Andrew Bailey, three years younger than Papelbon and coming off a bit of a down season, with an ERA that had jumped nearly two runs from 2010, but with plenty left in the arm. He was a bargain, too, at about $4 million, and with impressive setup man Daniel Bard waiting in the wings, the Red Sox could do worse than to give the former Rookie of the Year a legitimate shot.

But what of Philadephia’s former closer, who once missed eight weeks with a broken toe after kicking a chair in frustration? Madson will rake in $8.5 million in 2012, but he won’t pitch a single inning.  On March 24th, right-hander opted for Tommy John surgery after an MRI revealed a torn elbow ligament. What was once one of the best offseason deals has become a payroll drain for Cincinnati. Taking Madson’s place and putting his hat into the wacky 2012 closing ring is lefthander Sean Marshall, a wild card who brings a steady history of improvement in effectiveness and control to the Reds from the cross-division rival Cubs.

Then there is Joakim Soria, the Royals’ young stopper who perennially ranks among the league’s best and who looked to lead a resurgent Kansas City team into 2012. His season will go the same way as Madson’s. But in a twist of fate only baseball could provide, Broxton will be given a chance to prove that his stint with the Dodgers wasn’t a fluke when his role with the Royals transitions from intimidating setup man to primary stopper.

Speaking of transitions, an exploration of the otherworldly ninth inning wouldn’t be complete without the curious case of the Houston Astros and their $11 million closer. The Astros who lost 106 games in 2011. The Astros who blew 50% of their saves the same year. The Astros who haven’t been relevant in their competitive division since the last time Roger Clemens suited up. Those same Astros thought their best option to close out games in an admitted rebuilding season was staff workhorse Brett Myers, whose 216 innings pitched were the most notable stat of his 2011 campaign. For the $11 million his new closer will make in 2012, which amounts to nearly 20% of the club’s payroll, new GM Jeff Lunhow must feel confident that his former starter’s value best lies in the occasional save opportunity the shaky rotation will offer. Of all the new faces and new homes on the closer carousel, the pitcher traveling the shortest distance might have the most bizarre story.

Whether any of the changes to baseball’s ninth inning will have significant impact on the standings remains to be seen. But if history has revealed anything about the path to the postseason,  the value of a pitcher who  can put his teammates at ease and his opponents on edge as the outs begin to expire can only be measured in the weight of a World Series trophy. Sometimes he comes in the form of a $75 million man and sometimes he’s an unlikely journeyman just handed the ball.

And even though the unpredictable ninth inning will look even more unfamiliar in 2012, the goal will always be the same: “This guy walks into the game, and they’re done.”

Empirical evidence, not projections, tell the real story

March 25, 2012

One of the most distinctive aspects of baseball is its marathon-style season: in the 162-game grind, what happens in April is often irrelevant by September. Still, predictions run rampant. Analysts craft pre-determined outcomes based on the information available prior to the season, which consists of little more than verbose guesswork. But the nature of the game allows little more. Anything from injury to clutch coaching join the intangible and inexplicable in a grab-bag of outcomes that can change at the drop of a lucky cap.

One recent and notable example of this is the case of the 2011 Red Sox. In March, they were the best team in baseball. By September 28th, they were an historical collapse come to fruition.  In injury and lethargy, the Red Sox were, ultimately, their own undoing, but spring prediction made them seem bulletproof.

This is not to say that pre-season predictions and rankings are useless wastes of internet space–and goodness knows, that is a precious commodity reserved for the intellectual set . If done right, they provide a primer for the uninitiated and debate fodder for the more serious fan. And, if nothing else, they serve as a low-risk way for analysts to exercise a smug sense of satisfaction for correctly calling an underdog’s surge before it was popular. (We’re an insecure lot. Sometimes we have to pat ourselves on the back, even if we’re the only ones.)

But preseason picks are, by their very nature, based on mathematical projections and guesswork. Factors like maturity and team chemistry weave between the statistical lines, but can’t support any kind of respectable commentary on the game without solid, empirical evidence. This observation of the game between the lines–instead of the one played out on paper–is the antithesis of the lifeblood of sports analysis. In short: some of the greatest baseball moments are those that simply happen.

Consider the 2011 World Series. In Game 6, a very talented Texas Rangers team with a solid offense and a surprisingly heroic relief corps was on the brink of a championship. With two outs in the ninth inning, all closer Neftali Feliz had to do to achieve baseball immortality was induce any sort of futility out of David Freese, St. Louis’s above-average but unremarkable first baseman.  Feliz could have induced a ground out–Freese’s ground out/air out ratio was 2.25 in 2011. He could have thrown a few fastballs by him–Freese struck out once every five at-bats. Instead, on a 1-2 count, Freese shot a ball into the right field gap, scoring two and tying the game.  When the dust settled, an unlikely hero with two career triples to his name stood on third, an instant hero. In a blink, the entire series had shifted, because an unheralded part-time infielder had bested one of the game’s elite closers on one hittable pitch. That moment in time couldn’t have been predicted by Bill James himself, but it made all the difference in the world.

In many ways, despite the comfortable predictability of baseball, the game is made up of a series of moments like that one. Even with its finite number of outcomes, each pitch can feel full of endless possibilities in the right atmosphere. On that fateful September 28th, when the Orioles brought the winning run to the plate, the Red Sox were anything but comfortable. Even with their  sizable payroll advantage and their all star closer on the mound, victory was no guarantee.  Running out of time and running straight into the brick wall of a season coming to a devastating end, the Red Sox felt that moment to their core. Down to the final regular season inning, that moment in time felt bigger and more important than any consoling PECOTA projection could have.  And when Robert Andino–a backup utility man with 64 career RBIs–brought home the winning run, everything that should have happened or was supposed to happen became irrelevant.  The Red Sox and the Orioles, teams 21 games and $80 million apart, would spend the 2011 postseason as spectators. The intended outcome had been whittled away by injuries, poor work ethic, a touch of bad luck, and that final moment when Nolan Reimold touched home plate.

Explanations and predictions fit well with our human desire to anticipate and understand everything we come across. Billions of dollars are poured into efforts to predict the weather so we are never caught off guard.  Wall Street traders make their living tracking the markets.  And, just as in industries with far more to lose, the neatness of baseball provides solace when it can be parsed and prognosticated. But there is value in appreciating what we understand to be true because we are experiencing it. At its best, baseball projection serves as a guideline for fans and analysts alike, offering fantasy league help and calming the hype. At its worst, it likens baseball to spending a beautiful sunset wondering why the sky is red.

Nearly 2500 games will be played in 2012. That’s 22,500 innings full of opportunity.  Some of the season’s biggest heroes may still be in minor league camp and some of the league’s biggest superstars may be all but forgotten by May. But if fans and analysts alike forget to enjoy the series of capsulated moments that make up baseball, a large part of the heart of what makes baseball so appealing turns into a confusing deviation from the plan.  Measuring the game in statistics and patterns has merit–it adds a tangibility to what can sometimes seem arbitrary. But without the Freese triples and Andino singles that make up the long season, winners are  determined by power rankings and probability. In a game like baseball, the outcome should never be decided outside the lines.

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