The Northside Lounge
A Chicago Cubs blog with an occasional tangent on pop culture
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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

World Baseball Classic proves just about nothing

Japan topped Cuba 10-6 to win the inaugural WBC Monday. It was a game that both teams clearly cared about, and at least half the crowd seemed passionate about it as well. There were admittedly some yawning white boys in the mix, but the older Japaneese couple with the rising sun flag jumping up and down in the midst of a bunch of guys with Cuban flags seemed more representative.

So Japan is the champion, and their fans are celebrating. This is all well and good. And yet some people think it means more. I'm just going to cherry pick a few choice comments so I can make myself feel good by calling other people dumb today. Here goes!
John Donovan of writes:

So it follows ... the best Japanese team ever, beating the best competition the world has ever offered. Can there be any doubt? Japan is the best.

This is an absurd conclusion on so many different levels. First, the "best competition the world has ever offered" isn't the same as "the best competition there is." You couldn't reasonably make the conclusion with most teams missing many or most of their best players. More importantly, this was a tiny sample size. The US played just six games. When 162 games is often not enough to determine which team is truely the best, six certainly isn't close. Donovan goes so far as to proclaim Japan "the best" based on one lousy game, the 10-6 win over Cuba. The only thing a baseball tournament like this proves is who is the champion, not who is the best.

Hal Bodley attributes Japan and Cuba outdoing the US and Dominica to fundamentals:
If there was one lesson to be learned, it's that Japan, Cuba, Mexico and South Korea excelled at fundamentals. It was so evident these countries played the game the way it's supposed to be played.

Scott Miller at agrees:
It's a whole lot of little things, things once were important in blue-collar America but no longer seem so emphasized in white-collar America. Things like attention to detail and the heavy lifting kind of work that doesn't necessarily get the glory or make the headlines.

There we have it- the results of the World Baseball Classic had more to do with Marxist class struggle than anything else. Its too bad, because I really thought the US team was inoculated against charges of not caring about fundamentals by including the ultimate fundamentalist Derek Jeter (two errors in six games.) Anyway, I hope Hal and Scott enjoyed the final, where Japan (three errors) defeated Cuba (one error and eight pitchers). A purists dream come true.

Sarcasm aside, it was a very good tournament won by a deserving Japan. They haven't proven themselves the greatest baseballing nation anymore than the US hockey team proved they were better than the Russians in 1980, but like the US hockey team they won the championship and they should be proud.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Springtime Baseball

In between games of the NCAA tournament yesterday I decided to flip around the channels and see if by chance the Cubs were on television. To my joy, they were so I flipped up there to see some of the action. I quickly realized this would be a mistake. Turns out it was actually a White Sox broadcast and they were overly eager to remind people who won the World Series last year.

During the opening all the sponsors were the "official (whatever) of the World Champion White Sox". Player graphics for the Sox had a little Series trophy on the left side. I got to hear them talk about the THREE days of ceremonies to be held to celebrate the victory. After the Cubs were retired in the first (with Aramis launching one into orbit) Hawk said, Cubs 1, World Champs coming to bat. The announcers also gave the opinion that the Cubs were the best team in '03 seeming to love the fact that they did not win.

Add all of this to the fact that Rusch was not exactly pitching all that well and I was only able to stomach one inning of the game. Am I happy for the Sox? Sure, about as much as I am happy for any other Series winner that is not the Cubs. Do I want to hear about it constantly? No chance.

NCAA tourney

Like always I am enjoying the tourney this season and my bracket is hanging on by a thread. I was stupid enough to put Illinois in the final four so I am down one team there, but otherwise not doing too bad. My alma mater Tennessee got bounced out and my favorite team the Hoosiers are also gone. I have finally gotten a chance to watch Gonzaga play twice and can honestly say they are a bunch of punks. They are good - definitely better than IU - but having the ref put them on the line over 20 more times than the Hoosiers does not help matters any.

In their opening round game to Xavier they had a very dirty intentional foul and was constantly shoving and clawing at the opposition. Do the refs feel the need to call this? Not at all. If they are not America's sweethearts then they at least the sweethearts to the referee's union. Hopefully they will be bounced soon.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Sky is Falling

I am sure most readers have already heard what was reported in the Tribune today. Mark Prior has some shoulder soreness and will go for a consultation today. Cub fans wait on the edge of their seats to see what will happen. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that much of the season hangs in the balance.

Tribune columnist Phil Rodgers decided this would be a good time to go after the Cubs organization about pitch counts. Does he have a good point? Probably. But with young pitchers even those that are coddled sometimes get injured. I am just not sure that anything concrete can be determined by bringing up specific examples on days when news breaks.

What does this mean for the season? Well it is yet to be determined, but hopefully it does not lead to the type of season the Cubs had last season where they decided to lose in increasingly stupid ways, play fundamentally ignorant baseball, and then blame the injuries for the bad season in September. This was a team that finished lower than the Brewers (the Brewers!?) in the standings and made excuses the whole way. True, players probably liked not being accountable in the media while their manager made excuse after excuse, but the act wore thin.

Regardless of what happens with Prior I am worried about the prospects of watching another summer of listless baseball. Lee and Ramirez are good offensive players and I worry that we are wasting their primes. I guess we just add them to the list of other Cubs who suffered similar fates.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

World Baseball Classic - Day 2

The US played their second game of the WBC and dropped it to our neighbors to the north 8-6. They were down 8-0 when I got home from work and I had given up them. Upstairs tending to my email I hear my wife let out a cheer and turn the station in time to see the replay of Varitek's granny.

That gave me enough interest to watch the rest of the game and the US almost pulled it out. With 2 on in the eight innings Chase Utley smashed a ball to straight away center that would have given the US the lead in most parks. But, BOB has a long porch out that way and the Canadian center fielder caught it at the wall (he actually did an unnecessary Edmonds like jump to pull it down). America would get one man on in the ninth but ultimately came up short.

I guess the bigger issue besides the actual results of the game is my opinion of the entire classic. To be fair, I have not read a lot of commentary on this, so I might be repeating some commonly held beliefs. If so, I apologize. I think overall the WBC is a good idea, but I wonder about the execution. There is not a real good time to play this tourney with spring training and November being the best time.

The problem with playing in spring is the decided exhibition feel the games take when pitchers are pulled after three innings. I am not sure that this will lead to a firm conclusion that team A is better than team B. On the other hand, it is a lot more interesting to watch these games with actual stars as compared to normal spring training games where the ninth innings features number 87 pitching to number 63. Of course players are still going to protect their careers. A Canuck was gunned down at the plate today with the US catcher firmly blocking the plate. In a real game, I think the catcher would have been knocked back 20 feet.

I am interested to see how the US media reacts to the US loss. I hope that the outrage conveyed when USA basketball laid a golden egg in the world championships a few summers back does not fall on baseball. Remember, one game is not a good way to judge an overall team, the managers are not managing like a real game, and most importantly the Dominican Republic and some other teams are stacked. Before the tourney if you give me the option of taking the US or the field, I take the field without batting an eye.

Sabermetrics at work

I had an offsite meeting today at work to get to know the people on my team. One of them game a quick intro presentation where he mentioned a love for sabermetrics (even using the term). I was taken aback from the fact that this is the first time I have heard it at my job. To give some background, I work for a company that is half owned by a grocery chain (rhymes with Smoger)that is battling WalMart for sales. They were struggling before the joint venture but have now (as of yesterday) had 10 growing sales quarters in a row. Life is good for the company.

Our key proposition is that we will understand customers better than anyone else in the world using loyalty card data and custom, insightful analytics. We have so much data that we have taken the guesswork out of many decisions. Think that running a detergent at a 20% discount 4 times a year is better than 30% 2 times a year - well, lets test it. Want to decide which store should get a new upscale coffee- lets test it.

Bottom line is that there is so much math and analytics behind the scenes of the store that we have empowered the client using real results rather than conventional wisdom and conjecture. Doesn't this sound a whole lot like Moneyball and sabermetrics. There is so much in common that again, I was surprised this individual was the first person to mention it and, to my knowledge, the only other person in the company to read about it. By the way, if the job sounds interesting to you, feel free to shoot me a resume.

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Canada 8, USA 6

There are a ton of problems with the World Baseball Classic, but despite Selig's best efforts to make it a failure I have to admit that I'm paying attention to this tournament. Despite it all, the sight of passionate fans waving flags and screaming their lungs out (be it a few dozen for US/Canada or a stadium full for Dominica/Venezuela) gets me going.

That said, the structure of the tournament is so terrible that a big part of me was rooting for the US to get mercy-ruled today. I was literally bouncing around my living room with gleeful anticipation when we trailed 8-0 in the fifth. That dream slipped away, as did the potential joy of A-Rod's pathetic popout ending the game when the Canadian center fielder saw it pop out of his glove, but the result still highlights some of the myriad problems with Bud's baby.

  • Wrong time of year- Most of the players and especially the pitchers aren't in game shape. The tournament could be held at the end of March, mid-summer, or after the World Series, but early March is pretty much the worst possible time.
  • Wrong players- Any international tournament where half the best players skip out lacks credibility. Where are Ichiro and Matsui? Why are most of the missing players happily playing Cactus and Grapefruit League games when they should be representing their countries?
  • Wrong rules- Pitch count limits? Mercy rules? Painful blows to the chances of fans taking the tournament seriously.
  • Wrong format- Baseball simply doesn't work in tiny sample sizes. Its not at all surprising to get results like Canada (leadoff man: Pete Orr, #2 hitter: Stubby Clapp) over the US in one game. Without longer series, results will be so random they can hardly be taken seriously.

I hope somehow these problems are fixed and a credible, viable international tournament emerges. No sporting event on the face of the earth matches the World Cup for sporting passion largely because it is shared by nations competing on relatively equal footing, but a true Baseball World Cup could come close. It would be nice to be able to care about a Star Spangled Nine without wanting them to lose to spite Bud Selig.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Kirby Puckett

You've probably read that Kirby Puckett died yesterday afternoon. Everywhere I've looked on the internet, people are mourning the loss of a beloved man and a great baseball player. Thats entirely appropriate, and fine as far as it goes, and yet...

Its driving me absolutely nuts reading so many effusive comments and stories about Kirby Puckett today, virtually every one of which ignores or glosses over the rather important fact that he was a serial abuser of women. Everywhere I go- from Baseball Think Factory to Fark, commenters are bemoaning the loss of the great Kirby Puckett. Anyone who says anything to the contrary is castigated as a terrible human being for speaking such awful words.

Counting only those incidents that made the papers, he beat up his wife throughout their sixteen year marriage, beat up a mistress he kept throughout his marriage, and dragged a stranger into the men's room of a restaurant where he sexually assaulted her. I understand the desire to accentuate the positive in the immediate aftermath of a man's passing, especially an athlete that gave happy memories to so many people. I can go along with recapping the highlights of his career at the expense of a sober analysis of whether he deserved to make the Hall of Fame on merit. I can accept Twins fans reminiscing about the joy he brought them as children. I can't fathom doing all of this and ignoring the fact that he brutalized women on a regular basis. For me, and presumably for his victims, his passing is not enough of a reason to let bygones be bygones.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Sammy Sosa and the curse of Van Halen

After reading Scott's post a couple of weeks ago about some of Sammy Sosa's exploits I had one rather striking thought. He might be the Van Halen of baseball. I have contended for years that Van Halen would be regarded as legends if their plane would have crashed in 1985 (or even 1995). Call it the Nirvana effect.

Nirvana rightly is remembered as alternative rock legends and trend setters. Of course with the untimely death of Kurt Cobain they never had the chance to put out a bad album and dive into the self parody phase of their career. There is a chance they would have reinvented themselves and stayed current - but contemporaries Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins failed in this regard.

Van Halen have managed to do a lot worse than Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins deciding not to disappear rather they have decided to fight with all former lead singers and even bring in the guy from Extreme for one truly bad album. What has this cost them? Well, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which they should get there eventually), a top of mind ranking on the list of best bands of all time, and generally the respect of the music world.

It is really sad because if you ask 10 rock music fans throughout the David Lee Roth era who they would want to see in concert given one choice and over half would say Van Halen. Even the transition from Roth to Hagar had the same success as Eck moving from starter to bullpen even though the mindset of the music changed(lets say Van Halen songs are mainly about sex and Van Hagar songs are about love) .

What does this have to do with Sosa, well imagine if he blew out his knee in October of 2003 and never plays again. He has 500 homers, comes off a postseason where he almost leads the Cubs to the promised land, and still has decent stats. He would fly into the Hall five years later blowing kisses all the way. Instead he has coped with injuries, massively declined in his skills, fought publicly with the Cubs, dealt with steroid controversy, and most importantly left baseball after no one wanted him instead of leaving on his own terms. In other words, he like Van Halen have become sad self parodies of themselves and will never be regarded as legends as they truly were.

Tickets, get your tickets

There are two things I truly love about spring: 1.) the obvious would be the players reporting to camp to begin baseball and 2.) the new slew of baseball books that hit the shelf. I tend to read books about baseball, poker and business so I am pumped about the new baseball ones. Of course the return of baseball does bring about one of my least favorite things - buying tickets. I get so discouraged since it is hard for the average person to get a decent seat with professional internet ticket flippers working the system.

That said, I did manage to get tickets to the Cubs first two games of the season here in Cincinnati. I am in the lower level via an ebayer for game one and then I am right behind the Cubs dugout for game 2. If anyone out there would like to meet up before the opener in Cincinnati, drop me a line or leave a comment.

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