Sunday, March 31, 2013

OK, a ray of hope on Opening Day in KC: My wife didn't give me up for lent, the Royals might be kinda good, and the Weather Braintrust has taken snow out of the forecast... for now

It would be macabre if it were anyone else – any other couple – in any other city. But in Kansas City, it seems somehow natural that Ewing and Muriel Kauffman would build their own graveyard in the middle of the city, plant it to 7,000 varieties of flowers, herbs, trees and scrubs – from lemon trees to orchids – then open it to the public and one very fat cat…. of the pure feline variety.

So it is with Kauffman Gardens on the east end of the Country Club Plaza in a fine green space the city has somehow managed to preserve smack between the two ends of its economic spectrum. Well… it wasn’t the city who preserved this green space, it was Mr. Kauffman – the same way he preserved baseball here. Except for the pests – wedding photographers mostly – his garden has turned into a peaceful oasis for city dwellers to collect thoughts, lament the end of the summer of green and growth, and, especially, to welcome the rebirth of spring.

Which is why I was there in mid-March with a film camera and a hopeful heart. Hopeful, for one, the snows were over.

Hope soon, and dramatically, dashed.

I was also there hopeful about the prospects for Mr. Kauffman’s home nine. Every city is hopeful for the home nine in spring – visions of pennants spring to mind like crocuses in the backyard. But, in this city, at least, hope is always tempered by reality. In my case, hope is always tempered by the reality of rooting for the home nine since the mid-1950s. If you look at the history of baseball in Kansas City across that half-century, you understand why tempered takes on the full meaning a blacksmith would apply.

The combined wins for the Kansas City A’s and the Kansas City Royals since 1955 total 4,182, stacked against 4,860 losses. That’s a winning percentage of just .462, which would be the lowest winning percentage of any team in the era if the names hadn't changed.

I have a friend who became an atheist for two reasons. First, in high school, his best friend gave him up for lent. And, second, when he was younger yet, he prayed in church every Sunday morning across the summer the home nine would win the afternoon doubleheader and they usually dropped both games. He came to the conclusion there could be no God.

So I don’t come by baseball hope easily or in quantity. Yet, on this trip to the Gardens I found myself standing at the foot of Mr. Kauffman’s grave, which is tucked in around a corner nearly hidden in summer by trailing vines, speaking words that even surprised me.

Mostly, I have stood there in September and apologized. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kauffman. This season was horrible. I’m glad you can’t see what they've done to your team. The brain trust… I can’t really explain except to say it’s obvious they don’t give a damn… they only want to do just enough to make a profit.”

Something like that with variations, and I’m reluctant to admit on Easter morning, obscenities.

But this March, I stood at the feet of the great man and couldn't believe my ears. “Maybe," I said, "just maybe, I have something good to report. This spring, there may be hope. They may just have figured this out. Time will tell, but I’m thinking they could be pretty good this year.  There are a lot of ifs… but it’s possible they could actually be kinda good.”

Embarrassed by this outburst and thankful no one other than my extremely tolerant bride could hear, I moved on quickly. But as I finished the first aisle, I silently went over all the caveats – the third baseman and first baseman have to prove they are what the scouts think they are, the centerfielder has to stay healthy and prove he can hit the curveball, something surprising has to happen in right field … The pitching has to be way better than its collective history... the second basemen-- … I’ve been through all of this before. But I didn't want to bother the great man with caveats. It was after all, the first week of spring and more snow was just a rumor.


Here is an image of some orchids at the Gardens from a visit last summer for your reading pleasure:

Lofflin 2012

Friday, March 29, 2013

I don't give a damn about the weather; spring has sprung... just listen to it

I remember the day my wife gave me cardinals. Not the St. Louis Cardinals. Not a St. Louis Cardinals' baseball cap. Not even a single cardinal held captive in a bird cage.

Cardinals, plural. All cardinals. Forever.

That was the day she gave me the words to their song. Pretty...pretty...pretty....pretty...

That's all. Just the words. Since then, I've owned them. Thing is, they were always there. I just didn't know it. They were just part of the static of the city, along with the dump trucks, police sirens, tree saws, car doors banging, kids squealing, and the ringing in my ears.

Now, at this moment, I hear them as clearly as if they are calling my name. And, I'm ready. Ready to fly. Ready to put this long late winter to rest.


Monday, March 25, 2013


Just like most Royals fans, I've had my doubts about General Manager Dayton Moore's decision to send super prospect Wil Myers and a few others packing for starter James Shields and a few others. But today I saw something that gave me a better snapshot of how Moore's purpose this offseason - to build a pitching rotation - should make the team a whole lot better.

And I believe he has done that. Today I saw the potential matchups for the Royals' first three games this season. The Royals open up the year on the road against the Chicago White Sox, a team that has been a consistent contender for most of the past decade. This year should be no exception.

But you know what? When it comes to starting pitchers, the Royals are just as good, if not a little better, than the Sox. And that's something we haven't been able to say for a while. Let's take a look at the probable matchups for the Royals' first three games this season, as well as who started the first three games for the Royals just one year ago:

Game 1, April 1, 2013
Royals: James Shields
White Sox: Chris Sale
Last year's Game 1 starter for Kansas City: Bruce Chen

This is a matchup of Shields, the Royals' centerpiece offseason acquisition and a perennial Cy Young contender, versus Sale, a young starter who had a great year last season but still has a lot to prove. I'll take Shields any day of the week. Chen, last year's Game 1 starter, is now the No. 5 starter for the team. That's pretty telling.

Game 2, April 3, 2013
Royals: Ervin Santana
White Sox: Jake Peavy
Last year's Game 2 starter for Kansas City: Luke Hochevar

Striking similarities between these two starters: Both Santana and Peavy were once viewed as among the best pitchers in the league and with huge upside. But both fell on hard times and a couple difficult seasons. Peavy had a better season last year, so I'll give him the edge here. But I like Santana, and I'm excited to see him pitch for the Royals this year. Last year's Game 2 starter is nothing short of a laughing stock in KC and has been relegated to bullpen duty this year. Meanwhile, the Royals appear to be doing everything they can to get rid of Hochevar through a trade (but of course, nobody else wants him).

Game 3, April 4, 2013
Royals: Jeremy Guthrie
White Sox: Gavin Floyd
Last year's Game 3 starter for Kansas City: Jonathan Freakin' Sanchez

After bouncing between the majors and the minors earlier in his career, Gavin Floyd has been a fairly reliable starter for the White Sox the last couple years. But if Guthrie can even come close to matching his success with the Royals last year - after he was traded from Colorado for Sanchez - then the Royals will have a terrific No. 3 starter. Sanchez was just plain awful for Kansas City last year and ended up on the D.L. before long for Colorado. (Ironically, Sanchez won his first game for the Royals in 2012 against the Angels. Their starter in that game? Ervin Santana.)


After those three, the Royals still have Wade Davis and Bruce Chen to follow up. Davis could be a starter on just about any team in the league. And Chen? Well, the good news is, Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy will probably be battling to replace him after they recover from Tommy John surgery come this summer.

Seven days until Opening Day!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Make Puerto Rico the 51st state now so Americans can cheer the finals of the World Baseball Classic tomorrow, and Americans can remain exceptional

Time has come
to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, whether the Puerto Ricans like it or not.

Then, of course, we could say USA baseball is still alive in the World Baseball Classic. USA baseball, would, in fact, be preparing for the world finals tomorrow.

Instead… Well, the millionaire USA baseball players are back to their Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, preparing for another high-priced season.

But, you argue, Puerto Rico’s baseball team is American baseball. And, in a way, you are right. Many of Puerto Rico’s players are Major League ballplayers; some are even big time stars of American baseball. They may not be Americans by citizenship – though some are – but they are Americans by paycheck.

If you buy the paycheck argument, you can rest easy because American baseball beat Japanese baseball yesterday. The Japanese nine sported no American major league players.

What a relief, eh? After the ‘pure’ major league team was ousted in the semi-finals, it is nice to know a team of American major leaguers – not, perhaps, the white bread players you had in mind, unfortunately – but major leaguers nonetheless – beat the Japanese.

This World Baseball Classic is tough on American chauvinists. We grasp at straws.

The world, our times, our reality, is kind of hard these days on American Exceptionalism. I grew up with this idea. It was everywhere – books, movies, television, the stories your father told. It was Cold War driven, but its roots were much, much older… in fact as old as the republic. And the idea wasn’t always the exclusive province of Sarah Palin conservatives. It was in the poetry of Carl Sandburg and the music of Woody Guthrie. It was deep seated in the notion of ‘The People.’ The People, who despite their crude, often uneducated, always rebellious ways, knew more than the snot nose aristocracy, worked harder, and always prevailed.

Yes, the aristocracy was never – until very recently – the object of American exceptionalism. It was an idea reserved for "The People." It took Palin and Rove and the other conservatives to contort it to include the likes of Trump and Goldman Sachs. They managed to twist the idea into the view that doing anything to limit the excesses of American Millionaires and Billionaires was tantamount to limiting American Exceptionalism. Maybe the millionaire American ballplayers fit that new idea of American exceptionalism – if someone is willing to pay you $100-plus million dollars to play the game you must be exceptional. How could you possibly be out-hit by the relatively impoverished Italians or out-pitched by minor league, or never-been, Puerto Ricans?

Well, here we are, baseball once again a mirror for the reality of its times. But I think for tonight and tomorrow night, I’ll put these silly political ideas away and just enjoy this fascinating world of baseball, in the broadest sense of the word. The passion of the World players in infectious; it is the polar opposite of the American millionaires going through the paces wrapped in cotton by their corporate owners, in the lackadaisical sun of spring training. There, winning is meaningless. In San Francisco tonight and tomorrow night, winning will be everything.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

The US squeezes into the second round of the World Baseball Classic begging the question: Is our World Series really a 'world' series? or is it a presumptuous public relations gimmick?

Win or lose, the World Baseball Classic begs the question: Do Americans still play the best baseball on the planet -- or do they just play the most expensive?

Let me lead off here with a caveat. I do not root for the home team in the World Baseball Classic. I tend to root for Cuba because Cuba is the biggest underdog in the world. Not the biggest baseball underdog, by any means, but certainly the biggest political underdog. This tiny country, hidden in our massive shadow, has suffered under terrible sanctions since 1960. That's 53 years of Cold War retribution, because any notion that sanctions lead to regime change have certainly been wiped away by Cuban history. Why a 53-year blockade? The best answer anyone can mount is that the Cuban economic system is socialist and the government has a record of cruelty to its own citizens. Seems to me we have a few major trading partners, at whose feet we tend to genuflect, who sport the same attributes but against whom sanctions are unthinkable.

A knee-jerk political action 53 years ago, in the midst of the 'Cuban Spring,' has persisted through several enlightened presidents who simply did not have the guts to stand up and say Basta! The Cubans are more like us than different. Nowhere is this reality more evident than between the white lines of a baseball field. How crazy, how out-of-date, how far from reality, are these sanctions? Think of the Cuban Democracy Act this way: Imagine black Americans are still banned, in 2013, from Major League Baseball.

If that were the case, the whole world would look on Americans as idiots.

OK, I didn't intend a political rant. I root for the Cubans because they're underdogs and because they play a stylish brand of baseball. I also root for the Netherlands because in baseball they're even greater underdogs. When the Cubans play the Netherlanders Monday morning at 5 a.m., I'll root for the Netherlanders. It's a simple calculus.

Back to the World Baseball Classic where the home team took a terrible drubbing at the hands of the Mexican team Friday which created much hand-wringing among self-identified patriots. If Ryan Braun and company had lost to the miraculous Italians Saturday, they would have been back to their Grapefruit and Cactus League games tomorrow. But they pulled out the Italian game on one swing of the bat Saturday and finally took the lead over Canada in the eighth Sunday. The television talker wondered aloud why so many teams had given up on the Canadian pitchers, since the big league "all-stars" were handcuffed by them most of the night. He was watching American all-stars handcuffed by 10-year minor league pitchers -- at best. The Americans (North, that is) have not won the World Baseball Classic in two tries.

Don't bring the argument in here about how the Classic happens at an awkward time for American baseball players. If they wanted to win, they'd have started conditioning earlier and brought their A-games to field of play. So far, they haven't.

And don't even think about arguing this isn't a real all-star team. First of all, a real all-star team would consist of many players on other World Baseball squads. Second, and this is what boggles the mind, these players are drawn from an enormous pool of talent -- talent paid in multiples of millions in major league cities and future millionaire prospects in minor league cities. The chauvinist in me asks, how can they not dominate the World Baseball Classic?

Look at the competition. World teams are cobbled together from current major leaguers, former major leaguers, major league nevers, players from major leagues around the globe, players from industrial leagues, minor league prospects, local heroes, and comeback hopefuls. In some places they are just learning the game. I read a comment from a coach in the Netherlands who said when he first handed a baseball to a kid on a practice field, the kid dropped the ball on the ground and kicked it.

Either they want it more, their style of play is better suited to winning, or... they're better players.

All three of which lead to the inevitable question. Is the World Series really a world series or it is a public relations gimmick? Is it really a world series, or is it a pretension, a big fat presumption born of 1900s ethnocentrism which has persisted, like the Cuban Democracy Act of 1960, well past the time when it made sense, if it ever made sense?

Let's just call our end-of-the-season tournament the Fall Classic and get everything back into perspective. A World Series it obviously is not.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Open Letter to Bill James... because I don't have his address and need to know a number

Dear Mr. James,

As a fan and a player fifty years past his prime, I'm looking for a stat I haven't seen before.

I understand the problems with Runs-Batted-In as a measure of a hitter. The arbitrariness of it is obvious, especially if you are blessed with a home team that doesn't get on base a lot, doesn't advance runners, doesn't steal bases consistently, doesn't hit and run and frequently stumbles rounding the bag at third.

As a player, I'm always looking for ways to keep track of value to the team. When you get to my age, you worry about just taking up space.

When I come to the plate and see a couple of fifty-five year old runners on base, I feel an innate duty to get a hit.

So, what I want to know about a player is what proportion of the time he contributes a hit in that situation.

This seems like a better way to get at the value earlier generations sought in runs-batted-in. And, it seems like an essential test of a hitter. We know the negative value of an out in this circumstance. The outcome statistics seem to capture that. And, we know the positive value of a hit.

So, I'm looking for individual values related to this. Phrased as questions: What is the correlation between batting average and hits with runners on? If the two correlate -- which my guess is they should -- are some players more likely than their batting averages suggest to get a hit with runners on base? And, are some less likely? It seems to me this is something good to know and for an individual player to track.

Along with on-base-percentage, how often a player contributes a hit with runners on base seems like a good measure of value to wins while eliminating the complicating factor of how clumsy those runners are. And, since hits contribute slightly more than walks, this seems like a better measure of value.

I put my friend, sabremagician Kevin Scobee, on it. He said go to, but be aware you might never come out. I know what he means because I heard a Fangraphs guy talk at a conference put on by I-70 Baseball's Bill Ivy once and my head was spinning for days.

But, I thought, why not just go to the well. So, I am.


By the way: I played tabletop baseball at The Ballpark on Iowa Street in Lawrence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. You were probably there one of those long afternoons, right?