My Long National Nightmare is Over

Thursday, June 16 2005 @ 08:10 AM EDT

Contributed by: Jordan

Oh baby, don’t it feel like heaven right now
Don’t it feel like somethin’ from a dream
Yeah, I’ve never known nothing quite like this
Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part.

My 2005 Game Report record: 1 golden win, 5 losses. Thank you, Theodore Lilly.

I’ve gotta say, the last thing I expected was that my season-long Game Report losing streak would end in a Ted Lilly start against the best team in the National League, following a whitewash at the hands of the same team the previous night. Baseball’s great that way.

A few thoughts on last night’s Blue Jays victory.

--> Ted Lilly can win ballgames. Granted, it helps when the Cardinals don’t have Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds or the surprisingly effective David Eckstein in the lineup, as was the case last night. Even Albert Pujols can’t do everything himself. But Lilly was unquestionably on top of his game, and the reason isn’t hard to fathom: he threw his damn fastball (and last night, especially, his sinker). The more Lilly plays and nibbles with his breaking stuff, the more hitters lay back and pound the fastballs when they do come. This has been obvious pretty much since the day he arrived in Toronto, if not the major leagues.

This is nothing new to anyone outside the Lilly household, of course, but when he leads with the heater and features the breaking stuff, he’s very tough to beat. When he tries to do it the other way around, he gets launched. The trouble is, there’s no telling, from one start to the next, whether Lilly will bring his A-gameplan to the mound. Whatever physical gifts Lilly possesses – and they’re considerable – they come packaged with a quirky personality that could easily be mistaken for sheer bloody-mindedness. “Ted the Tease,” Magpie called him last night, and it fits. It’s one of the reasons why he’s not in the ballclub’s long-term plans, and will very likely be shipped out if he can string together enough performances like last night to interest a playoff contender.

--> I actually think Russ Adams is doing better than the numbers would indicate. His June stats have been awful (.214/.241/.286), but to my mind, his approach at the plate still seems sound. He’s seeing a lot of pitches and I think he’s getting good swings. He ripped a double for the only hit off Chris Carpenter two nights ago, and he had another safety last night. It’s slow progress, and you can see how hard he’s trying, maybe too hard. But I don’t think he’s really pressing yet, and I don’t think he’s overmatched or losing his focus. A few bloop hits here and there, and I think you’ll see the confidence grow and the batting average rise. He is a good hitter, and I believe he’ll be fine if they run him out there every day.

--> Judging from last night’s game, you’d never have imagined that Aaron Hill has spent most of the last several years playing shortstop. He’s taken to third base as if he belongs there – in the third inning, he handled all three chances, including a slow bouncer on which Lilly almost blocked him from making a play. He started a critical double play with the bases loaded in the 8th inning that turned the game around, and another in the ninth for good measure. His arm is more than equal to the long throws from the hot corner, and what he lacks in range, he appears to make up for in sure-handedness. And frankly, anyone who would stand at third base with a glove on his hand and with Albert Pujols in the batter’s box is a far braver man than me.

I have to imagine that, way above the field, JP Ricciardi is looking down at this first-round draft pick and thinking about his incumbent corner infielders. He knows that he has an aging and rather brittle third baseman on the disabled list with $11M coming to him the next two years, as well as a competent but otherwise unextraordinary first baseman with about $10 million on the way during that time. He’s got to be looking at Aaron Hill and thinking that here’s a guy who could fix three problems at once: how to upgrade the offence in the infield while freeing up salary room and providing the team with a tradeable veteran. If the 2006 Blue Jays opened the season with Corey Koskie at first base and Aaron Hill at third, I would not be the least bit surprised.

--> Boy, does Gregg Zaun look tired. And if I were the only thing standing between Ken Huckaby and four at-bats per game, I’d be tired too. Recognizing that the current situation was mostly beyond his control, JP Ricciardi really has to find some catching help, even if it’s only of the Pat Borders variety. Surely there’s another Molina brother hanging around, looking for a chance to don the tools of ignorance. They’re probably like the Sutters and Zendejases; they just churn out professional sports players like widgets.

--> Hey, here’s a fun thought for you: Larry Walker, starting DH, 2006 Toronto Blue Jays.

--> You have got to be so patient with young players. Alex Rios has been in the big leagues for more than a year, but he’s just now beginning to come into his own. His batting average is off this month, but he’s starting to find his power stroke: 6 doubles and 2 homers halfway through June, after just 8 doubles and 2 homers in April and May combined. It’s a slow and painful process, watching a hitter find himself at the big-league level, but Rios is absolutely getting there. The thing is, he’s needed more than a year just to get to this point: Russ Adams and David Bush, not to mention Aaron Hill when he finally slumps, are more polished players, but they’re still going to take just about as long to steady themselves. If you find yourself getting impatient with rookies and second-year players, try to remember the one-year rule, and try to dwell on the rewards of patience.

--> If the technology had allowed me to do so, I would have stepped through my TV screen last night and administered a swift kick in the groin to the moronic fan in the front-row seats who leaned way over the railing and picked up Aaron Hill’s live-and-very-much-in-play extra-base hit down the right-field line. In case you missed the 5th inning: Blue Jays leading 3-0, Shea Hillenbrand at third, Eric Hinkse at first, one out, Aaron Hill delivers an opposite-field liner into right field, which rapidly rolls into foul territory as So Taguchi gives chase and the batters circle the bases. Then Moron Fan, along with several others, leans over and grabs the ball, turning the play into a ground-rule double and, in theory, sending Hinske (who had scored) back to third base.

The first-base umpire made a judgment call, however (apparently, anyway), that Hinske would have scored from first base regardless of the fan interference, and allowed his run to stand. Tony La Russa didn’t really argue it, which surprised me slightly, but any way you cut it, the Jays caught a huge break. What I really hope is that that fan (a) was summarily ejected from the ballpark, (b) was showered with abuse and peanut shells by the nearby fans who actually know something about the game, and (c) was unofficially roughed up by security personnel in a dark tunnel underneath the stadium before being tossed. Since I’m pretty sure that only (a) is both likely and legal, I’ll have to content myself with that alone. But it just frustrates me no end that people come to a ballgame with no understanding of the fact that (a) you don’t interfere with the play on the field, and (b) you most certainly don’t do it when the home team has runners zipping around the bases. Talk about reinforcing the stereotype of hoser Canadians who don’t understand the game….

--> Speaking of my TV screen … I just can’t stand it anymore. I have to say it: the TSN broadcasts are almost unbearable. Look, I know Rod Black is a wonderful guy, does all sorts of great work for poverty-stricken children in Africa and elsewhere. And for all I know, he’s a fine figure-skating announcer (Mrs. Gideon interjects at this point to vehemently disagree). And Pat Tabler, while he’s not the most exciting guy to listen to, knows the game and can make salient points when paired with Jamie Campbell. But I just can’t stand listening to this combination anymore. And it’s for one simple reason: they’re not talking about the game.

They’re talking about virtually everything else: Canadian Olympic baseball hopefuls, the new Yankee Stadium, the prevalence of right-handed power hitters in the list of the Top 5 RBI producers in the last five seasons, what Pat is going to be doing on Friday when Rance Mulliniks is filling in for him, what colour shirts they’re wearing tonight, the odds of a political revolution in Bolivia, whatever – guys, there’s a baseball game going on. Right there, on the field, below you. Talk about it!

In the third or fourth inning, Lilly was in a groove, firing strikes and getting three straight groundballs pulled to Hill at third base. Did that mean Lilly was throwing strikes with his fastball and thereby getting the hitters to pull the breaking stuff on the inside half of the plate? Or was that just the effect of a really good, moving, sinking fastball? I really wanted the announcers to pick up on that and analyze it: what’s Lilly doing here that’s working so well? Are those in fact off-speed pitches that the Cardinal batters are chasing, and if so, what does that say about the excellent pitch selection by Zaun and Lilly? Considering that Lilly has been the rotation’s enigma all season, does this sort of performance indicate he might finally be getting his groove back? Or is he likely to fall back into old habits next time out?

These are the things I need my team’s announcing crew to discuss and hash out. That’s the value-add that I want when tuning into a broadcast. What I get instead, in addition to the relative trivia mentioned above, is drive-by commentary on the game, as if mentioned in passing (…"that pitch was called a strike, so it’s 2 and 2 to Zaun… Rios has had a great night tonight, a double and a single … Marquis is struggling with his control out there…”). The guys need to take a lesson from Ted Lilly: lead with the hard stuff, the trenchant commentary, the analysis, the unfolding story of the game in the context of the night, the homestand and the season. When you’ve established the nuts and bolts of the analysis, then you can throw in a bunch of change-ups about how the Orioles are the surprise team of the AL East and how miserable the weather’s been in Toronto the last few days. Steak first, then sizzle.

So anyway, there are my comments on the game. Following a little more grousing to come, I’ll finish up with a Media Roundup.

Interleague Play: Krusty No Like

With the Cardinals on their way out of town (surprised and disappointed with a 1-2 Canadian visit, I imagine), the end of the interleague schedule draws ever closer. It’s fairly ironic that the Jays’ next interleague opponent is Milwaukee, a long-time AL club that would give the Blue Jays fits back when the Brew Crew was in the AL East. Then the Nationals come to town, and when the obligatory “former Expos” stories have passed into history and that series is done, we’ll see the end, for this season anyway, of my least favourite feature of the modern game.

I dislike interleague play today only slightly less than I did when it was first introduced in 1997. Back then, I thought it was a shameful and unnecessary break with decades of valuable tradition, cheapening the thrill of the World Series and pulling baseball even further down to the level of other sports, all for the sake of short-term revenue gains, cheap marketing gimmickry and short-sighted post-strike public-image damage control.

Today – well, actually, today I hold pretty much the same opinion. It’s just that I don’t get quite so upset about it. I think one’s natural store of adrenalin and one’s resignation towards life’s vagaries must dwindle and grow in tandem. I still believe there was no good reason to tear down the longstanding brick wall between the leagues, and that interleague play is yet another engineering project powered by greed. But my outrage capacity just isn’t what it used to be. The rage is always the first thing to go.

The shame of interleague play is what we’ve lost to it: the unique nature of the game’s championship series. It wasn’t just that baseball’s final two playoff teams hadn’t met during the regular season; it’s that they couldn’t have met. For historical reasons (and fascinating ones, too), the World Series started out as a grudge match between rival leagues, and for a long time, everyone from owners to players to fans took that distinction pretty seriously (the “Junior Circuit” wasn’t just a nickname, it was an insult).

The American League and the National League were always leagues, just like the National Football League or the National Basketball Association. They are (or rather, were) distinct entities, with their own presidents, their own administrations, and their own characteristics. For years, the NL was the speed league, with power pitchers and rabbit-like baserunners, while the AL was the bomber circuit, with crafty breaking-ball hurlers and burly sluggers. Even the umpiring crews were different, and thanks mostly to a bizarre equipment quirk (the nature of the chest protectors the umpires wore), the strike zones were different. When the AL introduced the designated hitter in 1973, the NL refused to follow suit, and the gap between the two widened further.

Most of that has changed now, and actually, by and large, it’s for the better. Free agency was the biggest battering ram in striking down the ramparts between the leagues, and George Steinbrenner notwithstanding, it’s been a good thing. The AL and NL Presidents had become figureheads with the evolution of the Commissioner’s office, and the umpiring situation had deteriorated so badly that radical changes were required, including merging all the umpires into one major-league crew. Players had long since ceased to care which league won the All-Star Game (and despite Selig’s nonsense about the All-Star winner getting home-field advantage in the Series, they still don’t). And while the DH gap continues, I’d really rather see it disappear altogether or be used in both leagues. Consistency is a virtue, in moderation.

But the one thing that remained sacrosanct through all these changes was that the leagues were still widely considered two separate entities. Baseball doesn’t have the American Conference and the National Conference; but thanks to interleague play, that’s what we now might as well call them. Before interleague play, there was a genuine sense of excitement when the World Series started, because we were seeing two teams match up that had never met in the regular season. The Series was special precisely, and only, because of that feature unique among the major sports.

Fittingly, the last pre-interleague Series, in 1996, was a great one. It marked the return of the Yankee dynasty in a thrilling 6-game victory over the star-crossed Braves that featured a host of future Hall-of-Famers and a rare comeback from a 2-0 series deficit. And equally fittingly, the first post-interleague Series was one of the worst in memory, Florida’s mercenary Marlins in a sloppy, draggy 7-game win over the surly and unpleasant Cleveland Indians.

And every time interleague play rolls around, we see another classic World Series matchup diminished, in a small way, by a subsequent interleague series. The 2000 Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets was a bust, in no small part because the tremendous thrill of this long-anticipated matchup had been given away cheap to Fox Sports for a meaningless Saturday afternoon contest years before. Last night alone, we saw three former World Series matchups acted out in pantomime fashion. The 1960 Pirates-Yankees Series, ended by the first walk-off home run in Series history, was replayed to much less effect in the Bronx. The all-time great 1975 clash between Cincinnati and Boston became a little less special with the current series between today’s putrid Reds and the defending champions at Fenway. And the classic 1984 Series between the Padres and Tigers was – okay, let’s not exaggerate; that Series was a snoozer, as was last night’s San Diego-Detroit tilt.

But still, what was the last World Series matchup that hasn’t been since replayed in interleague competition? (That’s a rhetorical question, not a trivia challenge, but feel free to track down the answer if you like.) I do think, in a certain sense, that even past World Series like these get a little devalued when the teams meet again under vastly different and less inspiring circumstances.

Now, some fans will defend interleague play, claiming that the “excitement” of seeing great teams and big stars from the other league makes it worth while (overlooking all those must-see Colorado-Kansas City games, apparently). To them, I’d pose one question. Once the novelty has worn off – then what? Several years from now, when every National League team has finally made its way to Toronto for the obligatory series at Rogers Centre, when the Dodgers and Braves have become about as familiar to Jays fans as the Orioles and Devil Rays – then might we ask what the point of all this was? Is that when we’ll realize that the “excitement” was never about seeing the other league’s teams, but was only ever about that familiar and longstanding urge to get what’s long been denied to us, to have our grasp exceed our reach?

I dislike interleague play. And having thought about it, it’s not so much because of its impact on baseball – since after all, it really is just a game, and games have to evolve, for good and for bad. I think I dislike it because of what it says about us. And that’s why I’m looking forward to the end of the Washington series and the completion of this year’s annual blight on the game’s landscape.


Blue Jays recall Gross (Sun) - Gross is in Toronto to take over from Gold Glover Vernon Wells, who'll miss the Milwaukee series as he wife prepares to give birth to their second child. I assume Alex Rios will shift over to centerfield, but I'm not sure who'll play right field against lefties like Doug Davis, Friday's Brewer starter (Sparky presumably gets the call in left field). I suppose Gross will have to do his best against the southpaw. Unlike his last recall, Gross has actually been swinging a hot bat in Syracuse, and while I wish the Jays would find him a regular spot, that will probably have to wait till after a Frank Catalanotto trade (unless Gross himself becomes trade bait).

Gaudin sent to minors (MLB) – Maybe John Gibbons saw the results of the latest Batter’s Box poll. I'm not sure why Gaudin was surprised by his demotion, as he apparently was -- he's not helping the Blue Jays at the moment and he's sure not helping himself. He'll be back, though, probably as a reliever, and I think he'll be contributing a lot more in future appearances.

Ricciardi not anxious to trade (MLB) – I’m not sure that headline is entirely accurate. I think JP would gladly make a deal right now if someone offered him a useable bat. But the market is quite dormant at the moment, as it usually is in June when half of baseball is theoretically in the wild-card hunt. You can’t force a trade, and you never want to deal from a position of weakness, which is where the Jays are right now. You also don’t want to exacerbate that position of weakness by giving interviews that result in headlines like “Ricciardi anxious to trade.”

Q & A with Jon Lalonde (Baseball Analysts) – The Blue Jays’ Director of Scouting pulls into Rich Lederer’s interview chair for an interesting and enjoyable chat about Ricky Romero, Zach Jackson, and other scouting-related issues of import. I don’t think it’s a slight on Rich’s excellent piece to say that you’ll be at least as impressed, if not moreso, with our own upcoming Batter’s Box interview with Jon, who took the time to speak at length with our own Gerry McDonald, Mike Green and Pistol. That’s a lot of online media work for a guy who’s been pretty busy signing no fewer than 23 players chosen in Tuesday’s draft, including 4th-round outfielder Ryan Patterson and 6th-round catcher Josh Bell.

Today's collection of SLAM Sports! synonyms for "defeat," as listed on their baseball page:


Gagne may be gone for the year (Star) - There are a lot of unhappy fantasy baseall players out there this morning, but Paul DePodesta is unhappier than any of them. Both Paul and the roto-heads are going to find out how much they can count on Yhency Brazoban for the balance of the year. Big hit to the Dodgers' hopes this season, and just another reason why you don't take a closer in the first three rounds of your draft. Hopefully, the news will be better than expected for the pride of Mascouche.