Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Trading Advisory: Time to make the draft more interesting

Things that can be traded/swapped:

Baseball Cards
Rare Coins
Candy (think Halloween when you got all that candy corn that you hated and had to trade it to the weird kid that loved it)
Spit (sorry, I had to)
Animal Furs
Carbon Allotments
Sea Shells
Wives (see "Wife Swap")
Almost anything else in this world

Things that can't be traded:

MLB Rule 4 Draft Picks

The reason usually given for this is that the draft is built to enable the weakest teams to rebuild. Give weak teams top picks, and they'll reload with top talent.

Yet in past drafts signability issues inhibited some teams from acquiring the best available talent at their slotted pick (see Ricky Porcello, J.D. Drew, Buster Posey, etc, etc. etc.). Cash-strapped teams instead picked slightly less talented kids deemed more signable.

Instead of harming low budget teams, the ability to trade picks might actually benefit them. They could trade down slightly, still get the caliber of player they would've otherwise have drafted, and also receive some sort of compensation in return.

For example, let's say Pittsburgh has the first pick in the 2011 draft, and suddenly Superman decides to play baseball. Yet Superman is demanding a $30 million signing bonus--otherwise he'll just continue to wear his ugly, too-snug blue suit, and continue to hit criminals instead of homeruns. Well, Pittsburgh can't afford this bonus. In the current system, they might simply skip Superman and instead take Johnny HS Shortstop, who will sign for 1/10th of Superman's asking price. Superman will fall in the draft to a team that can afford his asking price.

With the ability to trade picks, Superman will still fall to a team that has more money. But in order to obtain him, they will have to trade up in the draft. Pittsburgh will be able to negotiate with other teams and take the best offer. They might still end up with Johnny HS Shortstop, but they'll also be compensated one or more already established prospects.

This is a more free-market system, and so some will fear its usage. It allows for less control, but I believe it would work very well.

The trading of picks would also make the draft much more interesting, and the draft needs a serious shot of RedBull right now (as does Bud Selig). More options and more possibilities equates with more speculation. The draft becomes a chess match, and drama ensues.

There's been some talk of doing this very thing. (Darren Heitner's piece, and comments from Michael Weiner of the MLBPA.) In fact it will probably be discussed in the negotiations for the next CBA, along with another suggestion: a strict slotting system.

I understand the merits of a slotting system, and in the past I have brought up the idea of using it, but only if the savings were then distributed to minor league players. Any money taken away from draftees should be shifted to the pockets of starving minor leaguers.

The likelihood of this re-distribution is low though. Instead, the savings would not be passed on to minor leaguers, but would instead go to the overall budget of teams. Minor leaguers would remain poor (see my Baseball America piece on minor league salaries here.)

Lost in all of this is the fact that the MLBPA will be negotiating with owners on this and a host of other issues. Many decisions will have a direct influence on minor league players, and these players will have not a single sole representing their interests. Instead they'll just get swept to the side like Friday night garbage, gladly accepting the shillings that they're given, worrying not about collective bargaining agreements, but instead about curveballs and lifelong quests.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New Suitcase Chronicles entry

Excerpt from my latest "Suitcase Chronicles" article, in which I reflect on the differences between college ball and pro ball: Hope you enjoy!

Emotion is often conditioned out of players in pro ball. Early in my career, I sprinted back to the dugout after my initial spring training pitching appearance. An older teammate started laughing.

"Oh, you run back to the dugout. That's cool," he said with sarcasm, the official language of minor league baseball.

"Yeah, it's called hustling," I replied.

"Save the hustling for when it actually matters. That right there is just eye-wash."

He then told me to watch some of the big leaguers pitch.

"They're all business," he said. "The only place they run is to the bar after the game."

Hope you enjoy!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Baseball, Rainbows, and Pearl Jam

I usually don't like big arena concerts. Well, that's not completely true.

I'm not a big arena snob. I don't dislike them just because it's cool to dislike them. It's just that I usually prefer smaller venues. I'd rather see Blind Pilot with 20 other people than see an Eagles reunion with 20,000 other people. Maybe it's just that I'm socially claustrophobic. Or maybe I just like cheaper beer--not to mention cheaper admission tickets. Either way, I usually find the smaller concerts to resonate on a more personal level.

As is the case with most generalizations, there are always exceptions. Recently in fact I went to a large venue concert that was not only outstanding, but also resonated as clear as a perfect fifth.

The concert was Pearl Jam. The venue: Scottrade Center in St. Louis. It ranks among the best shows I've ever seen.

One of my favorite teenage bands, the gods of flannel and grunge packed the house. They played almost all their greatest hits, but this was not the reason for their excellence that night. Eddie Vedder, their irreplaceable frontman, was the reason for my captivation.

Vedder controlled an entire arena of souls that night. With each movement of his hand and each note of his voice, every limb of every body reacted. He was a true master of puppetry.

One moment in particular stood out. He neared the edge of the stage as the night neared its inevitable end. With a bottle of wine in one hand, he took a seat upon a speaker. He placed the wine on the floor beside him and lit a cigarette. The guitars and drums continued to play behind him as he took a long draw from the cig. He exhaled slowly. With the smoke swirling around him, he took a look around the entire stadium. His long hair became curtains as he glanced onward. He smiled. And continued to smile as the music played on. Another drag on the cigarette. Another look around, now with his legs crossed. Another smile.

He was a man on top of the world. In that moment, he was free of everything. Completely satisfied, the worries of the world disappeared for a fleeting instant. All the killings in Darfur, all the oil in the gulf, all the dirt on the walls of one's personal existence. For a moment they all ceased.

I don't know if Vedder is a happy man. He might wake up every morning angry, with an insatiable desire to torture baby bunnies. But I know in that moment I was looking at a man in a state of contentment. It was a beautiful thing.

I once dreamt of gaining that feeling from baseball. For six years I rode the rainbow it offered. I fiercely clung to its slickness, yearning for the ultimate gratification that it might one day deliver. Yet I never reached the end of this rainbow. The ride was as brief as a ride at an amusement park.

But there are other rainbows to be found. I'll spot one soon, and when I do, I'll start climbing again.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review of "A Player to Be Named Later"

I guess I miss the locker room a little bit. Perhaps that's the reason I recently decided to view "A Player to Be Named Later." It's a documentary which profiles four minor league players over the 2001 season of the Indianapolis Indians, an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Honestly, I found it only mildly entertaining.

Some might think I dislike the very genre of documentaries. In this world of 10 second soundbites, video games, and attention spans shorter than a subway stop, a lot of people have dismissed documentaries as dead as the AM radio.

Others might simply think that since I've seen the sausage being made, I don't find the making of it interesting.

But this is not the case. I tend to like documentaries--usually the rougher the better. If I'm watching a documentary on open heart surgery, for instance, I want to see some blood flying around. I don't want to just see someone talking about severing and sewing an aorta, I want to see it. I want the rawness that documentaries sometimes provide, and which Hollywood never provides.

So despite its tendency to lead to open heart surgery, the making of sausage is usually interesting.

"A Player to Be Named Later" does show some of baseball's inner workings (sausage making), but in focusing on Triple-A, the viewer finds mostly older guys whose careers are nearing an end. The youthful optimism--not to mention youthful energy--is gone for them. The result is a film starved action. It also has less drama than it should.

The movie does have its moments. My favorite character is Brad Tyler. He's an aging veteran of 32 years who has spent 11 seasons in the minors. He knows his career is nearing an end. Yet he still wishes to play. He's no longer a starry-eyed 22 year old bouncing around in the Midwest League, but in his mind and heart he believes he can still play, despite hitting only .248 the previous season. Baseball has been all he has known for his adult life. How can he turn his back on it now?

Tyler has a family though. They follow him around wherever he goes. He's quickly released by Indianapolis early in the season. He goes to Mexico for a couple of months. The family follows and together they live in a little shack. He is picked up by Cincinnati and is sent to Louisville. His family follows. At the end of the season he's even shipped to Double-A Chattanooga. This time it seems his family stays behind in Louisville.

It sounds like all this moving around and familial stress would make for a great story, and I believe it could've been. It's just that once Tyler is released by Indianapolis he's almost treated as a supporting character. We don't see enough of him. We're instead given snapshots of his year, such as when he misses his daughter's birthday because he was sent to Louisville. The storyline is never completely developed.

This is one of the weaknesses of the film as a whole. It focuses on four players, but I'm rarely drawn to any of them. Marco Scutaro makes for an interesting story, but I don't see enough of him either. We're just given bits and pieces of each player, and the result is a fractious picture.

The chosen men are well-spoken, but they aren't talkative enough. Many ballplayers are somewhat guarded when it comes to the media, and this proves true in this documentary. In order to make these things work, you need some people with personality. From the very beginning, all four of these men seem a little too tame.

As usual, the wives are slightly better. They're more open to discussing their feelings and the inner-working of the family. They even talk of allowing their husbands to "chase a dream," as if its a requirement in their life. Everything else should be put on hold.

The film does give the viewer inside access, which is no doubt a joy to many. Discussions with Brewers' personnel are given, providing the viewer a look at how ballplayers are seen and evaluated by clubs.

Since it has this inside access though, a tremendous amount of editing has no doubt been done. As part of the agreement to provide access, I would assume the Brewers reserved the right to edit (I know I would if I were the GM). The result is that yes, inside access is offered, but there's no conflict. Somehow we only hear one or two F-bombs in the entire movie. And we never see a disagreement between players or the coaching staff.

We're watching men with testosterone for Zeus' sake. Even in Triple-A there should be some conflict.

I've been saying for years that the real drama and action happens in A ball. Here the guys are younger. Far fewer have families, and so they carouse at the bars much more often. They pick up girls and get hammered. They bring girls back to their hotels. They have poker tournaments all night. They yell at each other more often. They have pre-game antics in the clubhouse. They do crazy stuff in the showers. They erupt after bad games. They interact with host families.

They're still growing up.

If someone could somehow capture that, then they would have something.

But that type of access would be hard to get. That's most likely the stuff for a work of fiction (see my review of "Sugar".

"A Player to Be Named Later" is a film to be seen by hardcore baseball fans. These fans will most likely find it somewhat satisfying, but in the end it will simply leave them yearning for more.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Q&A: War, Korea, and Sadowski

Hope everyone's Memorial Day went well. Since a large number of our veterans served in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, I thought this would be a good time to mix War, Korea, and Ryan Sadowski (Yes, Giants' fans, he's still alive). He's my best bud after all, and he's in Korea. And I've hardly mentioned him in months.

Sadowski's currently playing for the Lotte Giants in South Korea after briefly playing for the San Francisco Giants last season (no escape from the Gigantes). He has a very keen eye for things, and so I wanted to get his perspective not only on Korean baseball, but also on the ongoing crisis between North Korea and South Korea, specifically as it relates to baseball players.

Here goes:

GB: What has been the hardest thing about playing in another country, specifically about playing in S. Korea?

RS: The most difficult part of being a foreign player in the KBO are the expectations that are set before you arrive. I had a sub-par start in my first month and was battling some elbow discomfort and people were ready to send me home. After some rest (I skipped 1 start) and 5 consecutive quality starts, everybody loves me...for now.

GB: Has the level of baseball been what you expected?

RS: I really didn't know what to expect. I have heard people say that this compared to AA baseball and others say that it compares to AAAA baseball (above Triple A/below MLB). Players do things that would be considered Bush League back home on a regular basis. They watch home-runs constantly and fist pump after strikeouts in blowouts. They lean into pitches and draw lines for umpires, but all of that is okay here.

The top level of players are major league players. It explains their success in the olympics and WBC. Other younger players would be considered top prospects in the minor leauges. LHP Ryu Hyun Jin stands out, and would probably be a major league superstar. He won the gold medal game against Cuba as a 22 year old. He's 24 now and is impressive to watch. He struck out 17 in a game earlier this year.

I guess the only way we will know is if the Milb creates a AAAA league and sends them to Korea.

GB: Moving to the ongoing event between the two Koreas. Do players discuss these sorts of things in the clubhouse? In the States, political events aren't really discussed by players too much. Try turning from MTV to CNN and you'll get food thrown at you. But this isn't just a political event. This involves, as you once told me, people of the same blood living across an arbitrary line. I'm sure there are some mixed emotions?

RS: I guess I have the mentality of a Korean. I really don't like to think about it. Americans are much more confrontational than Koreans are. Before Japan attacked Korea in the early 1900's, Korea had been a peaceful nation for over 500 years. It's tough to find a time in American history where there were 50 years without war. Actually, it may not exist. Nobody here wants to see war. I think everybody on the team is well aware of the situation, but they don't want to think about it. Today, there was an unexpected fireworks show after the game. My pants are going to need some extra bleach.

GB: In Korea I've read that all males are subject to conscription laws. Have many of your teammates served in the military? Are some of them approaching the time constraints before which they must serve?

RS: Most of the older players have served in the military. I have talked to a few of them about their service. Most went through basic training and had standard military jobs. My Korean is limited, but I have talked to one player about his time in the military and he was a driver of large trucks.

There are 2 standout players that still need to serve in the military. Our starting shortstop who has the defensive ability to be a starting shortstop on any major league team will have to serve after this season. One of out starting LHP's is 23. He throws 87-91 with a devestating slider. He would be a AAA prospect in a good organization or may be in the big leagues with a team that is developing talent at the ML level.

Nobody in Korea is exempt from serving in the military. If a player wins a gold medal at the Asian games or any medal at the Olympics, he can avoid full time military service. That person must go through basic training in the off-season and serves in something similar to the reserves in the US.

After somebody has done their 2 full years of military service, they are a member of the group that is similar to the reserves for the next 7 years. If war were to start, I think many of my teamates would be called into action.

GB: Has anything changed on the streets as this has unfolded? I assume people are still living their lives as usual? Has attendance suffered?

RS: The threat of fighting has existed in Korea for the past 57 years. I think people have learned to live with it. Nothing has changed since I have been here. I'm sure people are a bit more aware of the situation at hand, but they still show up to our games ready to go nuts. The fans in Korea think a baseball game is an event similar to American Football or Soccer in South America or Europe.

Thanks to Ryan for that. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail, and one of my best friends will arrive home safely in a couple of months.

If you'd like to learn more about Sadowski's experiences in the KBO be sure to check out his video blog on YouTube. He post it every single day under the name "Incugator." There's some good stuff there.