Friday, December 10, 2010

Return to the Winter Meetings

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

There are many baseball-related advantages to being a Tampa-based writer. I am 30 minutes from MiLB Headquarters, within an hour from at least five minor league ballparks, and the Rays are only a hop, skip, and a jump across the bridge. But one of the biggest baseball-based advantages to living in Tampa is that I'm in close proximity to the Swan and Dolphin Hotel, frequent host to the Baseball Winter Meetings.

Back in 2006, in one of my first-ever blog posts, I chronicled my first trip to the Baseball Winter Meetings. It was a fun time, highlighted by interactions with Ozzie Guillen, Omar Minaya, Jim Leyland, and Tony LaRussa. I was a fan, and they were larger than life baseball personalities. I was in awe.

Four years later, I find myself in a different phase of life. I'm obviously still blogging, but this time my goal is to be taken a little more seriously. I'm no longer blogging about baseball under an alias and I've reached out to various other writers through the years for support and advice. Although I may still clown around under an afro wig at a game, I now consider myself a legitimate writer.

Albeit a part-time one.

And that is a big disadvantage in a place like the Winter Meetings. Wandering the halls and lobbies of the Swan and Dolphin Hotel, I saw plenty of professional baseball reporters in their natural habitat. They were tapping away at their Blackberrys, tweeting rumors, breaking news, and using their network of sources like they were case workers at Interpol. All the big names were there: Jason Stark, Tim Kurkijan, and even the legendary Peter Gammons.

I was just a guy with a green notebook and pen that ran out of ink.

Of course, even though my chances of rubbing elbows with baseball's bourgeoisie were slim, I did take in the sheer magnitude of one of Disney's finer resorts. Trust me when I say the Mouse spares no expense. Giant Christmas trees, Santa Claus displays, and a quartet of carolers singing the sounds of the season were only a few of the temporary decorations. The hotel itself is also extravagant, with giant swan statues adorning its facade, fountains and columned walkways connecting the various buildings of the resort, and various restaurants, to include the famous Shula's Steakhouse.

Even though I didn't do much socializing with baseball's elite, I did talk to a few people. The first, and from a bus leagues perspective most important, was Minor League Baseball President Pat O'Conner. You may remember my interview with Mr. O'Conner from a few weeks ago. Fortunately, O'Conner remembered it as well. So we talked for a few minutes, but as the head of the organization responsible for organizing the Winter Meetings, Mr. O'Conner was quite busy.

So I continued my aimless wandering, once nearly running into Nolan Ryan and his bodyguards. I don't know if he was lost on his way to the Rangers' dinner reception or if he walked with security because of his stature as an all-time great, but seeing Nolan Ryan with a posse in tow did not surprise me at all. I think at this point Nolan Ryan has transcended baseball and become a legend - one of our few remaining links to the typical American, John Wayne-type hero.

A few hours later, I met with a few friends of Bus Leagues Baseball. Fellow MiLB fan Nykki aka @Nyk29 and fellow blogger Evan Brunell. Nykki was there for the job hunt, having traveled all the way from Washington State to be involved in baseball. That's dedication and best of luck to her.

Evan, on the other hand, was there with Over plates of overpriced salads, we talked about our backgrounds; how we knew the not-quite-legendary co-founder of Bus Leagues Baseball, Eric Angevine; our equal admiration for Tim Wakefield; and the latest news and nuggets from the day in baseball.

After finishing dinner with Evan, I decided to walk around the lobby a few more times to see what I could see. Within minutes I was a few steps away from former manager and front office guru Jack McKeon as he talked about his use of Josh Beckett in the 2003 World Series. I also talked briefly to Tampa Bay Rays owner Matt Silverman. As a Rays part-time season ticket holder, I thanked him for putting on a good product. I don't know if ownership people hear that very often, but I thought it was good idea to tell Silverman that I enjoy myself at his events.

As it was getting late I made an effort to network with at least one more writer before I making my grand escape. After seeing a tweet by Craig Calcaterra, friend of e-migo Jonah Keri and Blogger-in-Chief at HardballTalk at NBC, I figured I would take a chance to say hello to another complete stranger.

So I tweeted Calcaterra, namedropped Keri, and asked Craig if I could meet him. Craig was kind enough to meet up with me and talk blogging for a few minutes. In exchange for my business card, he imparted on me some writing and career advice - non-guaranteed words of wisdom for making it in the highly competitive field of sports writing.

And with that, and as rumors stopped and the baseball's bourgeoisie engaged in a late night cocktail hour, I again exited the Baseball Winter Meetings and made the trek back to Tampa, this time a step wiser and more networked than I was four years ago, but still with much more work to do.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Psycho about Cycles

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

(This post isn't about the minors, sorry. But it is, of course, about baseball.)

The most recent issue of Baseball Digest had an interesting feature on cycles. A few things struck me by surprise:

* There have been more no-hitters in Major League history than cycles, 268 to 266. There were six no-hitters in 2010 and only four cycles. I wonder if anyone has a graphic representation of no-hitters versus cycles. Have they ever been more than 10 apart?

* People called 2010 "The Year of the Pitcher", yet there were four cycles. In 1968, the most famous "Year of the Pitcher", only one batter hit for the cycle, Jim Fregosi. Ironically, Fregosi is best known for being traded for Nolan Ryan, the author of a record seven no-hitters.

* There are only two teams who have never had a player hit for the cycle: the San Diego Padres and the Florida Marlins. There are only two teams who have never had a player throw a no-hitter: the New York Mets and the San Diego Padres.

* The baseball media usually makes a big deal of former New York Mets who eventually threw no-hitters (Seaver, Ryan, Cone, Gooden, etc.), but did you know four ex-Padres eventually hit for the cycle? Kevin McReynolds (SD 1983-1986); Gary Matthews, Jr (SD 1999); Mark Kotsay (SD 2001-2003); and Jody Gerut (SD 2009) all hit for the cycle after leaving San Diego.

* To date, only two ex-Marlins eventually hit for the cycle: Greg Colbrunn, who played for the Fish from 1994 to 1996 and again, Mark Kotsay, who manned the outfield for the Marlins from 1997 to 2000.

Lastly, looking up no-hitters and cycles, for some reason the MLB website lists them in different formats. No-hitters are listed chronologically and cycles by team. I wonder why. Aren't no-hitters more of a team effort than cycles? No teammate helps a player hit for the cycle, whereas eight other players help a pitcher attain a no-hitter.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Interview with Pat O'Conner, President of Minor League Baseball, Part 4

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

A few weeks ago, Bus Leagues Baseball had the privilege of sitting down with the President of Minor League Baseball, Mr. Pat O'Conner, at Minor League Baseball Headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mr. O'Conner was gracious enough to answer all of our questions and talk with us for nearly an hour.

This is Part 4 of our 4-part interview. Part 1 was Monday. Part 2 was on Tuesday, and Part 3 was featured on Wednesday.

An Interview with Pat O’Conner – President of Minor League Baseball

Bus Leagues: Before I go, I have a few miscellaneous questions. First, do you have a favorite league to visit during the year?

O'Conner: That is like asking a father which one of his kids he loves best.

There are two or three things that go on my calendar in January with respect to blocking time. I am huge fan of what we call our “marquee events”, which are the Triple-A All-Star Game and the Triple-A Championship Game. As long as I am able, and as long as there no unavoidable conflict, I think those are marquee events. We are not shy about telling Triple-A baseball that we think those are marquee events for all of Minor League Baseball. So I like to go to those.

Earlier, Steve (Densa – Media Relations Director) mentioned the “Appy League” tour. This is the purest form of baseball in the Minor Leagues. It is the Appalachian League and it is ten teams. All the teams are by the Major Leagues but owned by local, mostly not for profit, booster clubs and groups. I’ll go in and call the league president and say I can be there Thursday, I gotta leave Monday morning and that’s it. He takes care of the rest. It’s really great. We go and there are booster club picnics and we meet people. It is just the purest form of professional baseball. It is where kids go – literally kids 18, 19, 20 years old – to be indoctrinated into professional baseball. So that is a very special trip for me.

Outside of that, what I have found after almost three years is that getting there is getting increasing difficult, to travel 200-plus days. But being there is just as much fun as it ever was. So you work through getting there.

When I go to a game, I’ll do all the media that they need me to do, I’ll sit with the owners for a while, and then I come up missing for 20-30 minutes and I walk the ballpark. One, I want to see the ballpark through my eyes and two, I want to see the fans. It kinda validates what we do. So I think that within a favorite places, my favorite part of every trip is being in the ballpark and being with the fans, being with the players, and getting to know them, as well as saying hi to the staff and meeting them.

When I go to a city and I talk to an owner, there are two questions I’ll ask: one, I want to know what you’re biggest worry is everyday and two, what can we do for you? And from there, it takes care of itself.

Bus Leagues: You mentioned meeting the players. Is there a player – whether he made to the Majors or not – who really stood out to you?

O'Conner: Well, when I was in the Texas League in 1983, we had a shortstop, a 20-year old (ed. 19) Venezuelan named Ozzie Guillen. And every day they were home, Ozzie would spend 15 to 20 minutes in my office sitting right across my desk just like you are. And we would talk about anything and everything. And he did that every day. He went home that winter, worked with Luis Aparicio, came back, was traded to the White Sox, and the rest was history.

That’s something I will never forget.

I learned to eat payaya from Joaquin Andujar. He was on an injury rehab in Kissimmee and he said, “Have you ever had payaya?” I told him I didn’t know what it was. So he brought me some. Just little things like that.

I’ve got those stories. Some of them are funny. Some of them I don’t want to repeat, but they are all part of it.

When I ran a ballclub, I went into the manager’s office before and after every game. I’d ask, “what do you need?” and “what do you want to do?”. I would tell them before the first game of the season, “I am not going to question what you do, but I might come and ask you why you did it.”. So I can learn. Things like that.

I had a pitching coach when I was in Kissimmee named Jack Billingham. He lives over in New Symrna now with his wife. Just a quality guy. When you are there seven years together you form some special bonds.

Sal Butera was a manager of mine for years. Rick Sweet was a one year manager of mine. When I saw Sweet and he finished his second or third year in Louisville, he’ll come up, we’ll give our bear hug to each other, and he will say to whoever is in the room, “This is the best GM I ever had.”.

You don’t do this for 30 years and not have those kind of stories. Which one is my favorite depends on what mood I am in when you ask, I suppose.

Bus Leagues: What are some of your favorite promotions, either of this year or of the past?

O'Conner: I saw one this year that without a doubt moved me more I have been moved in the last thirty years. I was in Winston-Salem, and there are several clubs that do this, but I saw it in Winston-Salem. We are at the ballgame, and I am up in the suite with the owner and we just had a bite of lunch, and we were watching the game, and it was the third inning. I just happened to look down on the field and both teams were getting out of the dugout and standing on the foul lines. I was thinking that it was too early for “God Bless America” and I asked myself, “What are they doing?”.

Then they bring out this group from the home dugout and it has this little girl and she is obviously a cancer patient and her hair is all but gone. They make this announcement that with her is her treatment team from Wake Forest Medical College and that she is in fact in remission. And they talk about what she had been through and they recognize her parents and her brother and sister and her doctors and nurses and the treatment team. They play this music and the teams are on the lines watching this with the two managers at home plate.

Then this little girl runs down the first base line high-fiving the home team, jogs the bases, then goes down the third base line high-fiving the visiting team, and touches home plate. Now I walked away. I couldn’t stand it. It was the most moving emotional thing I had ever seen in my life.

She gets to home plate and in the meantime they had brought up an autographed bat and the two managers did a photo op, and then she goes off the field.

My first reaction as a purist was “What the hell are they stopping the game for?”. And I was all but in tears when she was done. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life. Absolutely.

And to see Class-A ballplayers who were obviously in to it, of course the ones that knew about it were obviously more so, but they all stood there, they all clapped while she was running, and they all gave her the high-five. To see anyone from 20-to-25 years old who you might envision not caring, or not understanding. It was the most amazing thing I had seen in 30 years. Without a doubt.

I used to think when I was in Vero Beach that the 100-foot long ice cream sundae was the coolest thing, you know? We’ve had the sumos and the other funny stuff. But I have to tell you, and maybe it is because of where I am in my life and my career, that that was the most amazing thing I had ever stood through in my entire life.

Bus Leauges: That is one of things I see. The players might not be there for very long, but the fans are. The communities are. And the families are. And they embrace the players for that year.

O'Conner: Exactly. I used to tell my players that from a management standpoint it’s not that I didn’t like them, it’s that I didn’t want to see them the next year. If they were there the next year, we didn’t do our job. Our job is to move them on.

The fans understand that. Sure they like the guy, but they are quite content with saying they knew him when he was here. Not, “I’ve known him for six years, he is a good friend of mine.” I want to see you when you come in to Atlanta and I can drive up there, or you come in as a visiting player to Tampa. Our fans understand that. When we do host families in some of our cities and we do those barbeques and picnics, those things last lifetimes. Those are friendships and relationships that last. I don’t what other sport or what other type of environment you can create those kind of lasting relationships.

Bus Leagues: My last question is: what do you love about baseball and what have you loved about it?

O'Conner: That there are 27 outs per side. It is very hard for me to sit and watch an entire baseball game. It’s not that I am not a fan. I am very much a fan of the game of baseball and the 27 outs per side. I can sit and watch a game.

Let me tell you a story: when we got into the umpire business in 1997, my world changed because I had to look at a ballgame differently. I used to watch games with umpire supervisors and they would say, “Did you see that?”.

I would say, “Yeah, he missed the cut-off man”.

They would reply with, “No, the umpire didn’t do this, that, or the other”.

But to sit and watch a baseball game is a work of art. To understand why he is holding his glove up to his mouth like that and the wheel play. The things you pick up after watching 2,000-plus baseball games in 30 years. It is especially difficult having gotten into the business in operations, it is difficult for me to sit there and watch a game because I never did that. I was always taught if you are going to run a ballpark, you have to be in the ballpark, and the only way to be in the ballpark is to move. So when I go to games with people, after three or four innings, chances are I am going to stretch my legs and take a walk.

But to go back to something you talked about with the fans. When I go out now, I’ll go and do the things I need and want to do. But I like to walk. Because there is that generational aspect. You will see kids, parents, and grandparents – sometimes in the same family unit – at these ballparks. And it validates everything we do. It makes every airplane flight worth it. And it makes every long day worth it when you see kids smiling, parents sharing quality time with their kids, and the seniors not being excluded. It’s a little Pollyannic but that’s part of our story, that’s part of our benefit to communities, and that’s part of our legacy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Interview with Pat O'Conner, President of Minor League Baseball Part 3

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

A few weeks ago, Bus Leagues Baseball had the privilege of sitting down with the President of Minor League Baseball, Mr. Pat O'Conner, at Minor League Baseball Headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mr. O'Conner was gracious enough to answer all of our questions and talk with us for nearly an hour.

This is Part 3 of our 4-part interview. Part 1 was Monday. Part 2 was on Tuesday, and Part 4 will be featured on Thursday.

An Interview with Pat O’Conner – President of Minor League Baseball

Bus Leagues: In your biography, it says that one of your priorities is to “deal with digital assets”. Is there a push to capitalize on the Web as a medium for Minor League Baseball, especially with the decline of the local newspaper industries? How is Minor League Baseball adapting to the change in multimedia?

O'Conner: It is critically important to our long-term success for a few reasons.

One, we cannot generate new revenue much more than we are doing now. When I talk about new revenue, I am talking about real growth, where we are capitalizing and operating at a fairly high capacity of our local markets. So the need and the desire for more revenue has to come from two ways: one, artificially from price increases in the current structure, which there is very much a ceiling for. And in this economy it is a very low ceiling. You just can’t raise ticket prices and concession prices and sponsors just can’t pay more. So if you want to have growth, you have to have what I call “real growth” and that comes from new sources.

So if you are operating within a certain capacity within your market, there are two things that we have done: one is that we are reasonably comfortable that we are not operating at maximum capacity, because we are not tapped into the diverse markets on the fringe of our mainstream within our team markets. The second is to get more of the pie. You have to make the pie bigger. So you have to expand your universe. And the internet allows you to expand your universe, to not only connect the dots between the 160 cities, but to go beyond the borders and go international and truly worldwide.

The Web is critically important for a second reason. In order to connect the dots, expand your universe, or operate outside of your current market, you have to go talk to people in ways they are currently talking. And that is digital and it is social media and it all of those wrapped up into one and it is ever changing. It is like The Blob from the old science fiction movies – it is never the same on any two days. The Web is our growth for the future, it is the communications mechanism for the current, let alone the future. There is no question about that.

So what we were able to do is to bundle the vast majority – 155 of our 160 clubs – and create, for lack of a better term, a baby BAM (Major League Baseball Advanced Media). We have BIRCO, the Baseball Internet Rights Company, doing the bundling. There is a power of one in that industry. The sum of 155 pales in comparison to the one of 155. You bundle every club and add up what they can do individually, it pales in comparison to what 155 can do together. So there is that synergy and that “power of one”. That is what we have been able to capture. We are getting our feet on the ground, but it is a very complicated business to deal in and it especially difficult because it changes constantly. We have a great partner in BAM where effectively all of professional baseball is under one engine, which creates tremendous synergy and horsepower.

I think it is future. You know, people go where they want to go. You can’t force people to buy what they don’t want, and you can’t talk to people who don’t talk back. So we can’t get into a situation where we are sending out media and it is falling into a big black hole. We have to go to where people are. And that is certainly digital.

Bus Leagues: One of the things I noticed is that in recent years all the minor league teams are under the umbrella of sites, whereas in years past, teams would have their own sites.

O'Conner: Yeah, you had to Google and find the sites. And you had to know who you were looking for. Now you can Google “Minor League Baseball” and it brings you right to It is truly a full service web site. It has the reach to link into not only, but also all of our affiliations and relationships. It really has centralized the ability to go to one place and access professional baseball.

Bus Leagues: I see teams also utilizing things like Facebook and Twitter to push their information.

O'Conner: Absolutely. And that is where if you have a solid base and you have a foundation that deals with the core issues, then these fingers can go out. Let’s face it, there are clubs in our 160 who don’t have the interest, the resources, or the capabilities to do some other things. But the way we are structured, it doesn’t hold back those who do. And in fact, there will be a residual benefit for those who can’t, won’t, or don’t just by the fact that others are. They will plow the fields and it will be easier for us to come in from behind and bring all of them into the fold. So it is a “better late than never”.

That was one of the biggest challenges in forming BIRCO and bundling our rights. Of 160 clubs, we had some that were truly in the dark ages from a technological stand point to others that were on the cutting edge. And what you don’t want to do is to bring down the leaders to bring up those trailing. So we’ve kinda been able to bring the group up through BIRCO and merchandising platforms and things we’ve done to offer to them while at the same time giving them as much flexibility as possible to operate their site from a local perspective.

Bus Leagues: What are some of the guidelines you have in regards to putting local perspective to the sites?

O'Conner: Well, it is a menu and an inventory where there are certain pages. Certain pages are reserved for BAM and national spots to deal with. It is all spelled out in the agreement. It is designed to allow for enough centralized inventory to drive the collective cost but not hamper them on their local ability to generate local inventory and to value-add locally. If you are doing something with a major sponsor and you want to value-add, you can still do that.

Part 4 tommorow!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Interview with Pat O'Conner, President of Minor League Baseball Part 2

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

A few weeks ago, Bus Leagues Baseball had the privilege of sitting down with the President of Minor League Baseball, Mr. Pat O'Conner, at Minor League Baseball Headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mr. O'Conner was gracious enough to answer all of our questions and talk with us for nearly an hour.

This is Part 2 of our 4-part interview. Part 1 was Monday. Part 3 will be featured on Wednesday and Part 4 on Thursday.

An Interview with Pat O’Conner – President of Minor League Baseball

Bus Leagues: You’ve been president since 2008, and of course one of the biggest factors to effect sports since 2008 has been the economy. How has Minor League Baseball dealt with the balance that on one hand you become a cheaper entertainment alternative, but at the same time there is the potential that less fans could afford to go to a game?

Pat O'Conner: First, I would slightly modify your proposition that we “become” a more affordable, we have always been a more affordable alternative. We tend to do as well or better than size-specific or size-comparable industries in downturns., because we are there, and we are always there, and we don’t have to retool. We don’t have to change our pricing structure to adapt to a downturn in the economy.

So, yes, we do feel it and it is necessary for us to react but it is not a total retooling. In a downturn in the economy, people know we are there and we become the alternative to the more expensive or the more time-consuming or more elaborate plans. They won’t go to the beach, they’ll go to a few more games. They won’t go to grandma’s for a week, they’ll go to a few more games. People are going to commune and recreate. They are going to do that. This country is based, in large part, on that. They are going to get together, and they are going to get together in like mind to do like things. So we are not only affordable in bad times, we are always affordable.

We deal with these times by becoming more entrenched with the communities we are already in, and becoming more of an option, and we will value-add. We will value-add to the point where we will do things with concessions – kids eat free, etc. We have had clubs respond to their communities, where have been pockets of unemployment and allowing the unemployed to come to the game for free. We’ve had fans who have felt severe cutbacks and they get some benefit.

So that’s how we deal with it. I don’t think there are less fans that can afford to come to a game but it is that more fans are forced to make significant or difficult decisions on what they are doing with their discretionary income. And we like our chances when we get into that analysis. When a family decides “What are we going to do?” and a ten dollar bill gets the whole family in, I’ll stack that option against going to the movies or doing anything else of value.

So we do well. We are a collection of 160 small businesses scattered throughout the country. If you take the size of our businesses and you compare other sectors of the economy with businesses our size, we do very well comparatively. Our downturn was less than 4% last year and about a half of a percent this year in attendance. We actually sold as many tickets in 2009 as we did in 2008 from the standpoint of the walk-up was much better. Of course, we were down in season tickets and pre-season because it follows to reason that if you are a man or a woman with two kids, you are not going to buy season tickets in March and pay for the entire year. So what our clubs did was perhaps offer mini-plans or “pay as you go”.

Also, businesses weren’t scheduling picnics for employees because they didn’t know if they were going to have 200 or 20 by August. So those were the impacts. But as far as the family unit and the individual, they came out as strong in 2009 and 2010 as they ever have.

Bus Leagues: You mentioned local entities and local businesses. How do you maintain control while still providing the freedom for teams to cater to their local markets?

O'Conner: Well, we are philosophically by choice a states’ rights organization, if you think of it in a governmental sense. We provide the four corners of an agreement that secures aspects out of their control, namely relationships with Major League Baseball and the intra-league relationships that are necessary to keep the group together. It is all contained in our constitutional bylaws and you maintain control through a system of governing bodies. We have the board of trustees, which is the policy making element, and we have the Council of League Presidents, which is made up of the president of each league, which executes the policies set forth by the board.

It’s kinda like there is law and order because people believe in it. There is a set of rules and our job is not beat them over the head with it, but to make them aware. Our primary job is to create an environment that allows them to excel in their local market. Not to tell them how to do it. I can’t tell you what’s going to work best in Salt Lake City. I would be arrogant and overconfident in my own abilities to think that I could. Just like I can’t tell you what’s going to work in Sacramento or in Bluefield, West Virginia, but I guarantee I could get on the phone with the guys from Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Bluefield and they can tell us. So it’s what I want or we want, it is what is best of the teams. And that is the role of this office – to keep them honest. And to secure relationships beyond their control – with Major League Baseball, with the media, with major sponsors in a national scope that is out of their control – that creates an environment that allows the teams to do well.

Bus Leagues: I noticed a lot of the teams are staffed by interns and volunteers. How hands-on are you in regards to employee guidance?

O'Conner: Well, at the team level, those again under the states’ right model, are decisions for them to make. We do deal with them on governing rules and laws in respect to labor and that kind of thing. But in regards to telling them you have to have to have so many people, and you have to do this, and you have to do that, no.

In December of 2009 however, we rolled out a diversity initiative. It is as strong of a statement as we have taken in respects to aspects of the business at the local level. But it is not a mandate. It is a vision created in this office that allows us to deal with what is becoming an ever-changing world on the outside. The public and this country is undergoing a transformation in its makeup. So what we have done is laid out five pillars. Employment at the Executive Level and Employment at the Middle and Lower Management Level are two of the five pillars that allow us to diversify our workforce and our employee census in order to deal with a more diverse public.

So outside of that, we don’t get involved in the manning. They have to name an ultimate authority, there has to be one go-to person in each organization. Outside of that, they are under rule by not only NA agreement and league by-laws, they are obligated to run a vibrant and ongoing entity. And it is inherent in that that you will need some number of people, but it not specified.

Bus Leagues: How does the Mexican League fit in to Minor League Baseball and your relationship with Major League Baseball and how did they become a AAA-league?

O'Conner: It is a history lesson. There is historical significance that goes back to the days of Max Lanier. There was a period, back when (Happy) Chandler was the commissioner.

The long and the short of it is it got to a point where the big leagues were going down and tapping into the Mexican League talent. And almost in retaliation, the Mexican Leagues came up and signed what would have been at the time the equivalent of free agent players. Under the reserve system, they were exactly free, but they didn’t have a valid contact. So they signed contracts with Mexico that were lucrative. And basically, it created a bidding war for talent. So to resolve that issue, there was a gentlemen’s agreement between the Mexican League commissioner and the Major League Baseball commissioner to recognize each other’s authority and recognize each other’s contracts and in fact fold them into the structure that is Minor League Baseball and we agree to accept them as members.

Their designation as AAA was probably appropriate at the time, and I think it is still appropriate. But understanding the sovereign nature of baseball in Mexico, they are in the agreements, and there are aspects of it that are applicable to them, and aspects that are not. There are some cultural differences and there are some business things that happen. For instance, if you go to a Mexican League game, you will conspicuously see logos everywhere – pants, shirts, butts, jerseys, legs, backs, everything. That is a cultural difference that came to us 50-60 years ago that way and it has been allowed ever since.
There are some things with Mexican labor laws, for instance, that make the signing of players slightly different. Reserve systems, bonuses, and other things that are different in this country. Nothing in the NA agreement or in the Professional Baseball Agreement supersedes federal law or local law. It is the same thing there. And there are some things that are unique to Mexican labor laws that have been folded in.

So that is a historical relationship, one that quite honestly, is very difficult to manage from the standpoint of the cultural differences. The purpose of the league is not necessary to develop players for beyond the Mexican League. They do sell players, and there are trades and exchanges, but that’s not their primary business. Their primary business is to win baseball and to win Mexican League Championships.

So that sets it apart. But it is far more appropriate to have the Mexican League in with us than to not have it with us.

Bus Leagues: How cognizant are you of fan safety?

O'Conner: Well I think we are very cognizant of it and we are very aware of what goes on. We try to stay on the front end of options and changes and that. Again, this is an element of the local nature of it. The fans and the ballclubs will come to a mutual agreement on what is acceptable as far the constraints, the ability to move around, to be behind a screen or not behind a screen. We are aware of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and other acts and we make sure our clubs are aware of them. But as far as going in and dictating exact what needs to happen, we don’t do that.

Part 3 tomorrow.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Interview with Pat O'Conner, President of Minor League Baseball Part 1

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

A few weeks ago, Bus Leagues Baseball had the privilege of sitting down with the President of Minor League Baseball, Mr. Pat O'Conner at Minor League Baseball Headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mr. O'Conner was gracious enough to answer all of our questions and talk with us for nearly an hour.

This is Part 1 of our 4-part interview. Part 2 will run on Tuesday, Part 3 on Wednesday, and Part 4 on Thursday.

An Interview with Pat O’Conner – President of Minor League Baseball

Bus Leagues: You were the general manager of a few teams, assistant general manager, and head of Florida Operations for the Astros. From that position, you became Chief Operating Officer of Minor League Baseball. How was the transition from a local to a national perspective?

Pat O’Conner: Well, for me it was really a natural progression. In my career – and I advise young people on this even today – I never tried to make lateral moves. I always tried to make sure the next move was more responsibility, and broadened my interest and knowledge of the game. And the fact of the matter is when I was with the Astros, I had the opportunity to meet Mike Moore, who was at the time running the Tampa club. Mike came over under Sal Artiaga, who was president before him as his chief administrative officer. So when Mike got elected he approached me and the first time he approached me I was involved in some things with the Astros I just didn’t want to give up on, working for Dr. John McMullen. So he (Mike) came back.

So the transition was fairly seamless in that as I have moved forth in my career it was just a natural progression. I think that going from a local or regional league setting to a national setting the same principles apply, you just have to apply them over a broader field of clubs. You have more clubs, with more interests.

During my time with the Astros, I was very blessed to work with people who allowed me to experience all aspects of the game so I thought when I came to this job I brought a major league perspective and a minor league perspective - having run clubs and having been on the other side. So it really wasn’t that big of a challenge. And the business is the business. The budget was bigger, but it was still a budget. Employee relations were still employee relations, we just had a few more people to deal with. So I think from the inside out it was a multiple, not an exponential increase in work or in the kind of work.

As a central office serving clubs, when you ground yourself in the principle that we are here to serve the clubs, if you keep that approach – that we are thinking, working, doing for the clubs and do it as a club operator – then it goes together very well.

Bus Leagues: I know this is a very broad question, but what are your responsibilities as president?

O'Conner: I’m responsible for this office. Putting together the budget, executing the budget, staffing this office to meet the needs of the clubs. This is more of a constitutional responsibility. I have primary responsibility for all of our business with Major League Baseball, so I am the primary liaison with them on our Professional Baseball Agreement and any ancillary agreements that derive from that relationship – for example, our relationship with BAM, our relationship with licensing, our relationship with umpires, our relationship with security and investigations. I am the one who is ultimately accountable. Then I have a staff of roughly 40 who are responsible for carrying it out.

Then there is also the face of the organization aspect that is no delineated in the rules but I become the face and voice for what we are trying to accomplish.

Bus Leagues: What is your schedule throughout the year, both during the season and in the offseason?

O'Conner: On a day-to-day basis, we are, it’s fair to say, six months ahead of the calendar. So we have been working for the last three or four months on the Winter Meetings and the offseason plan, and we are deep into our budget for 2011.

As for my schedule, I’ll do somewhere between 180-200 days a year on the road. I travel that much. Like I leave Tuesday morning for the World Series and I’ll come back when it’s over. During the season, I try to be here half the time, week-in and week-out. But I try to make it to see at least one game in every league per year, and that’s 16 domestics and three foreign leagues. I don’t go to Venezuela and I sneak in and out of Mexico. So in a 22-week season, to get to 16 different destinations is somewhat of a challenge.

But when I am here, I try to keep reasonably normal office hours. But when I am on the road, it’s a laptop and a cell phone.

Bus Leagues: How many games do you attend?

O'Conner: I see about 30 a year. Somewhere between 30-35. I do a tour of one of our rookie leagues and I saw all 10 cities in three years. I’ll go in for a week and I will see games every night. It’s important for me to be there to show the support of this office to what they are doing and the recognition that they are a part of what we are trying to accomplish in a bigger scheme of things.

Bus Leagues: How is your relationship, having come from the Florida State League, with the FSL?

O'Conner: Oh, it’s fine. We’ve done some things through the years that I don’t think they are particularly fond of, with Vero Beach and some other things. But I was in the league at the time when Chuck Murphy was first elected, and there are board members on that board still who were there when I was there. So I think we have a very good relationship with them. Unfortunately, based on my travel and the close proximity to the Florida State League, I don’t do as much with the Florida State League as you might think, even though it is right here. Overall though, I think we are fine.

It is a great group of guys over there. I thought my time there, in the late 80s through the early 90s, was probably one of the better leagues that I was ever a part of or that was ever put together, when you consider where we were with facilities, where we were with a board of directors, and where we were with our direction, it was a really good group.

Bus Leagues: You mentioned Vero Beach. Now we have Vero Beach and Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, neither of which are being used as minor league facilities. What are your thoughts on the future of these locations?

O'Conner: Well, the Florida State League now has 12 teams and it is and always has been so closely tied to Spring Training sites, with the exception of Daytona, which has historical significance in the league and plays in the historic Jackie Robinson Field. But Daytona is probably the exception to the rule. Of the 12 clubs, nine of them are owned by the Major League operations so it is always going to be subject to the bigger picture, and that is Major League Baseball’s relationship to Florida in respect to Spring Training. And this is a very cyclical phenomenon of Major League clubs owning their teams or do they want to have affiliate relationships with their teams. Right now it is in a downswing, where teams said, “Let’s not own them”. We pulled two out in roughly 2000-2001 (ed note: the Kissimmee Cobras and the St. Petersburg Devil Rays).

St. Petersburg, because of the Rays, it’s not a good Florida State League market. It’s tough enough now competing with Dunedin, Clearwater, Tampa, Sarasota, and Bradenton. You know, the Rays owned the club and decided to sell it and you know it wasn’t a good marketing initiative for them to have it.

The facility in Vero Beach is available. Really, what determines success for a private-owned or a non-Major League owned club is the market. And that market is a little light. It is a smaller town and under a Major League-owned scenario, you can make it work because of all the ancillary benefits of housing your players there, training them there, you can set up a base of operations for rehabs, as well as for mini-camps, tryouts, and all of those kind of things. Without a Major League tenant, I think that Vero Beach is going to be without Minor League Baseball.

Bus Leagues: How has the hype of prospects such as Stephen Strasburg helped Minor League Baseball? For example, you are now seeing these prospects on SportsCenter.

O'Conner: I think you have identified how it helps us. It brings a level of awareness in a national forum. It brings the national spotlight to the individual cities and the concept of playing in the Minor Leagues. It is a tremendous reward and benefit to the local club and the local fans, to be able to see these guys when they come through.

They are generational-type players. Go back before Strasburg, I don’t know who the one before that was. You go back to years ago with (Dave) Winfield and (Bob) Horner and David Clyde and those kids. When they came into baseball, they went straight to the big leagues and it was a different world. But the impact is tremendous. It brings a level of media exposure, a level of hype –to use your words – that is very hard to duplicate that environment without that kind of element.

Bus Leagues: I noticed that there are sometimes Major League players performing rehab assignments during the Minor League playoffs. Does that somewhat alter the competitive balance?

O'Conner: It could. But if you have a Major League player who’s been on the shelf, how effective is he going to be when he comes back? In a perfect world, in a vacuum, yes, it probably does. You are bringing in a player of much higher caliber in a setting where you would expect him to do exceptionally well. Is that fair? It’s probably not fair from a competitive balance standpoint, but you can’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

One, I don’t know of any Major League organization that would DL and schedule to rehab a player to win a Minor League playoff game. Ok, so it is an unintended consequence to have that player involved in the playoffs. And you can’t always pick when players get hurt or when players are ready to rehab and come back.

The bigger picture is that Minor League Baseball, while it is affordable family entertainment in 160 cities around the country, has this inherent tie to Major League Baseball to be the research and development arm of their player development. Part of that by extension is rehabbing players. Our goal is to get and keep players in the big leagues. 90-95% of the time it is through the development ranks. A kid comes in, work his way up to Triple-A and then on to the big leagues. Occasionally there is the opportunity where there is a need. And quite honestly, geography and availability determine where most of those rehabs go. So it’s not that they will put a player in a playoff situation if they can help it, but sometimes that’s the only option available especially if that’s the only minor league team they have. You can throw all the simulated games, all the bullpens, and all the batting practice you want , if you are not competing in live competition, you are not able to test your hamstring, feel if your elbow is going to respond, and do the things that are necessary to get you back to the level.

So I think from a purist stand point, there are those who would say that we would rather they not be in there, but one, it adds excitement, and two, it serves a bigger purpose.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New inductees into the Florida State League Hall of Fame

(This post was originally posted on Bus Leagues

In an attempt to recognize its history and bring awareness to the great players who have passed through its ranks, the Florida State League Hall of Fame inducted 11 new members on November 10th.

Originally thought of in 1998, the Hall of Fame held its initial event in 2009 and has celebrated new members at an annual public gala held in a different hotel ballroom throughout Florida. In 2009, the induction was held in the Plaza Resort and Spa in Daytona Beach, and this year's event took place in the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort.

While the Class of 2009 featured all FSL alumni who made it to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, the Class of 2010 focused more on local achievement.

Inductees included:
Carlos Delgado - First Baseman, Dunedin Blue Jays, 1992
Sid Fernandez - Pitcher, Vero Beach Dodgers, 1982
Dan Keith - First Baseman and Manager, Sanford Cardinals and First Baseman, Daytona Beach Islanders, 1955
Stan Karpinski - Pitcher, St. Augustine Saints, 1946-1949, 1952
Jim Leyland - Manager, Lakeland Tigers, 1976-1978
Felipe Alou - Manager, West Palm Beach Expos, 1989
Terry Reynolds - Executive, Vero Beach Dodgers, 1980s
Charlie Blaney - Executive, Vero Beach Dodgers
Marvin Goldklang - Owner, Fort Myers Miracle
Frank Decker - Owner, Lakeland Tigers, 1972-1992
Ed Hickox - Umpire, 1983, 1984, 2004

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Cold Dome of the Soul

Ever since B.J. Upton meekly popped up for the final out of the final game of the Rays’ 2010 season, nearly every scribe, blogger, writer, and analyst following the team has penned his or her ode to the past seven months of Bay Area baseball. Some have written of disappointment, some of joy, and others of promise. Yet they all convey the overall emotion of a fan’s love of both their team and the game of baseball.

After every baseball season, whether good or bad, whether I rooted for a winner or team that lost hope after the second week of April, I am reminded of “Green Fields of the Mind”, a brilliant essay written by former Major League Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. Although it is over 1,300 words, the first 91 are among the most poignant ever written about baseball.
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

Giamatti’s essay discusses his passion for following the 1977 Boston Red Sox, a team that won 97 games yet finished 2.5 games behind the eventual World Series Champion New York Yankees. Giamatti goes into depth discussing their eventual elimination and how a simple fly ball to center drained the life and feeling from all of the New England faithful.

(Note: if baseball had the wildcard in 1977, Giamatti would have never written his piece. Boston would have made the playoffs thanks to winning the season series over a Baltimore Orioles team that also finished with 97 wins and 64 losses. In a 2010 world, the Sox would have clinched the wild card on the day prior to the one Giamatti wrote about and played the Kansas City Royals as the Yankees would have coincidentally played the Texas Rangers.)

Of course, it is not only those in New England whose passion comes to an abrupt halt. In every region of America, wherever fans follow their favorite team, wherever fathers and sons play catch, or wherever people pack stadiums or bars or living rooms, there is a feeling of emptiness every October.

Even in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

For us here in the Tampa Bay area, it begins at FanFest, when we re-awaken to baseball and explore the new facets of the upcoming season – whether it be a new player, new member of the announce team, or a new feature of the ballpark. There is a joy not unlike a family reunion, when you greet the friends and “family” you parted ways with the October before. You are together again for another season.

(From 1999 to 2007 that exchange was not unlike the reunion of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.

Fan 1: Together again, huh?
Fan 2:
Wouldn’t miss it.
Fan 1:
How we doin’?
Fan 2:
Same as always.
Fan 1:
That bad, huh?

Then of course came the “new hope” of 2008.)

Following Fan Fest, we have the added advantage of seeing our team up close and personal during Spring Training. We are not as beholden as the rest of the baseball nation in relying on beat writers and bloggers to tell us who is winning a positional battle or who is going to make the team. We can make the short jaunt to Port Charlotte and see it with our own eyes.

Then comes the magical moment of Opening Day – a day that should be a national holiday – where every fan has hope and everyone is in first place, if even for 24 hours.

The real thrill, and one we are barely getting used to, is when our team remains in first, or at least in a battle for first from April to October. It is a fun ride. One of scoreboard watching and magic numbers*, wild cards and aces. One I will miss. One I shared with friends, family, and the entire Rays community, both online and at the ballpark. Sure we’ve fought, we’ve argued, and we’ve blown a few gaskets, but that’s what a family does. And now that our summertime reunion is over, as Giamatti said, we are left to face the fall alone.

(Isn’t it fitting that for most teams, “magic” numbers make hope disappear? Almost as if David Copperfield or David Blaine waves a wand and makes teams vanish from relevance.)

As for me, I’d like to thank Cork for my midseason call-up and now that the season is over I hope we can talk about extending my contract. Keeping it team friendly, of course.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Battle for the Passion of the Florida Sports Fan

On August 3rd, 1980 more than 16,000 people packed Tampa Stadium for the “Last Tango in Tampa”, a Championship Wrestling of Florida event featuring the best wrestlers of the day. Through a sweltering heat – the air was “hot and heavy” according to announcer Gordon Solie – fans watched legends such as Andre the Giant, Nikolai Volkof, and Dusty Rhodes duke it out in the squared circle. According to the Tampa Sports History blog, fans “came from all corners of the state” to see the show and be part of what was then the largest crowd to see a professional wrestling show in the State of Florida.

Besides record-setting wrestling crowds, 1980 was a good year in the turnstiles for other Tampa-area sports clubs. While the Tampa Bay Bucs were drawing over an average of 62,000 per game, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the local professional soccer club, were also setting their franchise attendance season record. The sports fever wasn’t exclusive to Tampa either, as the Florida State Seminoles were also averaging nearly 52,000 per game, a surprising 101% of their stadium capacity, and over 125,000 people sat in the bleachers to watch the Daytona 500.

With two pro teams and three college football powerhouses (FSU, UF, and the University of Miami), there was no doubt in 1980 Florida was a football state that dabbled in soccer, pro wrestling, and the occasional NASCAR race.

As the population of Florida exploded from 9.7 million in 1980 to 18.5 million in 2010, so too did its sports climate. While Championship Wrestling of Florida folded (only to return as Florida Championship Wrestling in 2007) and the Rowdies folded (only to return in 2008), nearly a half-dozen major league teams joined the fold. The state is now home to a third NFL team, two NHL teams, two NBA teams, and two Major League Baseball teams. And that does not include representatives in the Arena Football League, the XFL, the Senior Professional Baseball League, the Lingerie Football League, numerous minor league hockey teams, a gaggle of minor league basketball teams, and an alphabet soup of professional wrestling organizations. And the Florida State League is still alive and well. And the University of South Florida is now a force to be reckoned with on the state college football scene.

Strictly from a major professional sport perspective, whereas there was once only two teams (the Bucs and Dolphins) for slightly less than 10 million people, there are now nine major professional sports teams (the Bucs, Dolphins, Jaguars, Magic, Heat, Lightning, Panthers, Marlins, and Rays) for under 19 million people.

Earlier this week, New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell explored the difference between passive support and passionate, active support, particularly as it pertains to online communities.  Whereas Gladwell peered into the world of social media as the platform of his examination, he could have easily looked into any group of people spread too thin trying to follow too many things. Although programs such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and YouTube are great for getting out messages or receiving and following messages from a group of people, as Gladwell postulates, actions based on these social media messages are rare.

How fitting then that one of this week’s major admonishments of the active support of the Tampa Bay Rays came via social media – posted on my Twitter feed ironically somewhere between Lightning pre-season scores and press release statements from the Bucs coaching staff.

But David Price wasn’t the only public figure lamenting lack of active support.  On the same day Price and Evan Longoria called out the people of the Tampa Bay area, Orlando Sentinel writer Andrew Carter stated that average attendance to Florida State football games had dropped drastically from over 80,000 in 2006 to barely over 60,000 in 2010, a nearly 20% decrease. Granted, the performance of the Florida State Seminoles had been lackluster at best over the last decade, but this season was supposed to bring new hope in the presence of new head coach Jimbo Fisher and Heismann Trophy candidate Christian Ponder.

Meanwhile, on the exact same day the Rays and Orlando Sentinel stated their claims, President Obama likewise called out his Democratic support base, calling their apathy “inexcusable”. This from the same president with 5.5 million twitter followers and who was widely praised for his ability to utilize the Web in the 2008 elections.

So is apathy a local dilemma, a regional calamity, or a national trend?

Perhaps apathy is the wrong term. Perhaps, like the expansion of sports teams in Florida, “the creators” – both online and through other media – have over-bombarded people with too many messages. People are expected to be masters of sports, politics, movies, television dramas and sitcoms, music, video games, and their personal lives. They are given RSS readers, DVRs, Netflix, and two terabyte hard drives to handle all their information (maybe that’s just me). Those who can surf the never-ending wave of content are looked at as a new breed of Renaissance Man (or Woman). Those who can’t are buried in information and must resort to passive observation in lieu of active participation.

A few weeks ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote an interesting piece on his Blog Maverick website. In his post entitled “The Fan Experience – Never Look Down”, Cuban responded to the question of why people would go to an NBA game instead of watching the game on their 50-inch hi-def televisions. Cuban, one of the brightest media minds in the business, stated that his goal as an owner was to sell an experience – similar to that of a wedding. Fans should see more than a basketball game, Cuban claimed, they should see lights, cheerleaders, and other excitement. They should never have a chance to look down and their eyes should always be on the next part of the show.

I would add that they should also not regret seeing Monday Night Football, “Gossip Girl”, and “How I Met Your Mother” – shows that were on the night Price and Longoria made their infamous statements.

(For those curious, I was at the local Hooters, enjoying the environment and watching both the Rays play the Orioles and the Yankees play Toronto.)

Interestingly, way back in 1980, Championship Wrestling of Florida promoter Dusty Rhodes had the same ideas as Cuban. According to a quote by Rhodes’ biographer on the Tampa Sports History blog, Rhodes “envisioned the (Last Tango in Tampa) as an experience, not just a series of matches” and “he not only wanted a wrestling match, but he wanted to create a spectacle: an outdoor show with all the bells and whistles.”

This may be why the Rays are at a disadvantage. Not only are they competing with a lower person-to-team ratio than the Bucs had in 1980, and not only are their potential customers saturated with entertainment, but thanks to a reliance on tourism, many of their neighboring businesses live and die on the same concept. Like Las Vegas, tourism is Florida’s bread and butter. Hence entertainment is everywhere, from Busch Gardens to the beach to the local adult establishments. And with such a widespread battle for the hearts and wallets of both residents and tourists, Florida sporting events have become a place for purists or diehards. Fans want an overall entertaining experience, something they can actively and passionately participate in.

(This is one of the reasons attendance at local wrestling shows has gone from 16,000 to barely 100. By selling only wrestling, the average viewer has become bored. But throw in WWE pyrotechnics and soap opera storylines and fans will pack arenas worldwide.)

(Also, on a related note, I think the Seminoles may be in worse shape than the Rays. Unlike the Tampa Bay Area, Tallahassee has little to offer besides football and a visit to one of the best old-fashioned blues bars in Florida.)

Assuming non-diehard fans would eventually forsake their multimedia following for three hours of entertainment at Tropicana Field if given the right incentive, what can the Rays do to win the battle to for the passions and wallets* of Florida sports fans?

(Not quite the famous “hearts and minds”, but dang close.)

The Rays concert series has been successful, but has led to the odd phenomenon of fans not arriving until the late innings. The Great Ticket Give-Away* was a success. But what else can they do?

Perhaps the Rays could cross-promote with other entertainment establishments, similar to how the Magic are pairing with Disney. Perhaps they could plot a move to green pastures, somewhere where they face less competition – if such a place exists. Or they could continue their current course, fight the elements, promote their brand of entertainment, and hope the dismal Florida economy swallows the other forms of entertainment, leaving them as the only show in town.

*A week before the Rays’ 20K ticket giveaway, held a contest giving away the exact same amount of movie tickets.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

When Tis Noble to Boo

There is a well-worn cliché that baseball is a game of failure. It is a game where even the greatest hitters of all-time fail in more than 60% of their attempts. It is a game where most teams lose 33% of their games and there are years when 50% is better than average. And even though our local nine are in stride for five score victories and one of the greatest seasons in franchise history, they too have tasted the flavor of failure.

During those infrequent moments where all is not well in The Dome of the Great Orange – when the jaws of victory slacken and defeat escapes, briefly allowed to run wild before being embraced like a stray feline – there often grows a murmur of discontent among the viewing masses. From the party deck of the proletariat to the box seats of the bourgeois comes a sound most frequently reserved for the enemy. A sound that when spelled out looks similar to a Halloween surprise. But for the fans it means something far different, it means a nightmare of a sight they would rather not have seen. It means the rancid smell of losing and its agonizing stench has permeated not only the nasal cavity but the entire cranial cortex.

To paraphrase the modern day poet DMX, losing makes fans lose their mind and act the fool, act the fool.

But why? Why do people who claim their heart beats true for the Rays unleash a bevy of boisterous boos at the first sign of failure, especially if they know failure is an inherent part of the game?

Many, many moons ago, before the Rays, before Evan and Carl, before baseball, before The Babe and Ty Cobb, and even before America, before Honest Abe and George Washington, there was a group of London-based fans called “the groundlings”.

The groundlings – lower case “g”, mind you, not the 1980s comedy troupe of the same name – were the poorer members of society and as an escape from their daily rigmarole, would frequent the playhouses of the day. Unfortunately, however, the groundlings weren’t the most behaved bunch nor were they the most educated. They would boo and jeer and often miss the nuances, the plays on language, and subtleties of a performance. According to Henry Crosse, a religious spokesperson of the day,

“…the commonest haunters are for the most part, the leaudest persons in the land, apt for pilferie, periurie, forgerie, or any regories, the very scum, rascallitie, and baggage of the people, thieves cutpurses, shifters, cousoners; briefly an uncleane generation, and spaune of vipers…for a play is like a sinke in town; whereunto all the filth doth runne: or a byle in the body, that draweth all the humours into it.”

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the groundlings would even throw food at characters they did not like, similar to how fans of the Insane Clown Posse recently treated singer/celebrity Tila Tequila.

And yet the groundlings acted this way while watching some of the greatest stories of all-time by some of the greatest playwrights since antiquity. They are most well known, as a matter of fact, for their deplorable behavior during the plays of Shakespeare.

Looking back at the groundlings we have to ask ourselves, why? Did the groundlings not realize the historical impact of what they were watching? Did they not know they were watching greatness and performances of the highest level?

The answer to these questions is simple. The groundlings acted for the same reason fans boo players at Tropicana Field. Because they were emotionally invested.

For all its numbers and stone cold analysis, baseball is an emotional game. It might lack the physical contact of football, the constant motion of basketball and soccer, but what baseball lacks in action, it makes up for in suspense. The entire game watching experience is hinged on the epic showdown between pitcher and batter. Both players and fans ride a growing wave of emotion through every pitch, every at-bat, and every inning until the final out is recorded.

Players use the wave of the game for different purposes. Emotion from the first pitch fuels Jonny Gomes’s passion and desire to play with reckless abandon. The ability to surf atop the wave and use it for his own advantage is why Rafael Soriano appears as calm as he is.

The growing suspense of baseball affects fans as well. It is the reason they cheer more for the last out than the first. It was the reason 43,000 Houston Astro fans were suddenly silent after seeing Albert Pujols launch a Brad Lidge slider deep into the night sky on October 15th, 2005.

Fan response can also be viewed through the spectrum of basic crowd psychology. Many spectators are easily influenced by their fellow fans. This is especially true for drunks and children. If a father boos, his son or daughter is likely to follow suit, seeking affirmation through imitation. Drunks, of course, are easily impressionable in their own right. All it takes is one to boo and the others, not wanting to be left out, will gleefully join the cascade of negative expression. The children might not know better and the intoxicated attendees might regret it in the morning, but for that instant – that one moment in an inning in a game in a 162-game season – booing feels right.

Proximity to the action is also a factor in crowd response. The closer fans are to the action, the less likely they are to remember the big picture. Like an infantry soldier on the front lines who sees the battle and hears the bullets flying by his ear or an aforementioned groundling, who is pressed and packed into the front rows of the great theaters of yesteryear, those at the place of the action often lose the larger perspective. They often stare transfixed on one single tree, forgetting the form of the forest.

There are also fans who boo due to unfulfilled expectations. If a fan expects Evan Longoria to hit a home run every at bat, they may boo if he only hits a triple. Such actions are of course highly suspect and lack any knowledge of baseball reality, where home runs are not frequent and failure is the nature of the beast, but they could occur. A man from Mars or any other visitor unfamiliar with the game could want to see home runs and nothing else. They paid their money with those expectations and have hinged their dollars to their desired outcome.

Unfortunately, there are many analysts out there in the baseball community who take offense to fans booing home team players. Although they consider the human element for players as a caveat to any errors in statistical analysis or process, they do not allow for a shift in the overall psyche of the crowd. Just as an all-night bender could affect a player, conditions such as traffic, the weather, the economy, alcohol, or a bad day at work could affect how a fan reacts to the actions on the field. And, as I mentioned, when it comes to boos, one drip could easily start a flood.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Feared Tropicana Temple Style

Back in the day, in the prehistoric pre-Devil Raysian era of 1991, aspiring hip-hop producer Robert Diggs (aka the RZA) brought together nine rappers under the banner of the Wu-Tang Clan and revolutionized the hip-hop genre. In his book “The Wu-Tang Manual”, Diggs discussed his method of utilizing each individual voice for a particular part of a song. He used certain rappers for their tenor flows, others for their bass tone, and the remainder for their soprano key.

(Note: I don’t know music terminology very well. Those are his words, not mine. So if I got the distinct sound of the voices wrong, I apologize.)

The same techniques used by the RZA are also used by Joe Maddon as he moseys along his well-beaten path to the pitcher’s mound to replace one bullpen moundsman with another.

Whereas Diggs perfected situation usage in hip-hop, Maddon’s methodology emerged on the baseball mound in the late 1980s when living legend (and Tampa native son) Tony LaRussa shattered the traditional conception of the bullpen and re-organized it in an almost Henry Ford-esque assembly line fashion, with each man filling a particular role on the line to victory.

For LaRussa and his Oakland A’s, no longer were non-starters the roamers, wanderers, nomads, and vagabonds of the baseball community. They were late-inning assassins, arms ready and willing to provide reinforcement when necessary. Under LaRussa, former starter Rick Honeycutt, who started over 200 games from 1978 to 1988, became one of the best one-inning relievers in baseball and Dennis Eckersley was transformed from 20-game winner to Hall of Fame closer.

What was once revolutionary is now the norm. To the chagrin of baseball fogies and a small segment of irrelevant traditionalists, bullpen arms are absolutely essential to victory, and hence are no longer selected haphazardly – like arrows in a quill – but are brought into the game with an almost scientific precision, like a golfer selecting a club or a military general picking a force to exploit a hole in the enemy’s line.

Whereas other sports are increasingly celebrating the multi-positional flexibility of their athletes, with small forwards playing center in basketball and quarterbacks doubling as running backs and vice versa in football, relief pitching in baseball is now one of the least free form of any sports positions and is not probably most akin to field goal kicking. And like field goal kicking and other positions of strict utility, bullpen pitching now comes with a high personnel liquidity. Whereas the greats of the position are stable in their roles and uniform, the average bullpen pitcher, like the average field goal kicker, borders so close to replaceable that with one too many errant appearances, he becomes just that – replaceable.

For all his modernity and non-conformist ways, as I mentioned earlier, Joe Maddon executes his bullpen operations similar to the other 29 managers in baseball. If anything, with the support of the Rays’ top secret hovel of sabermetric Keebler elves, Maddon is even more exaggerated in his actions than his peers – more Kasparov than Queen of Hearts.

When used properly, a modern bullpen forms together like the classic kid’s cartoon hero Voltron, with each piece combining to create an unstoppable giant sum. And the Rays’ pen is no different. With Maddon at the helm, each member of the Rays relief corps brings a unique style similar to the old kung-fu flicks of yesteryear. As the Rays are one of the best bullpens around, it is only fair to compare them to one of the most famous kung-fu classics of all-time.

The Rays’ 5 Deadly Venoms”:

Choate, Wheeler – toad style. Immensely powerful, and when properly used, almost invincible.

Sonnanstine, Cormier, Qualls – snake style. Masters of control and best when staying down.

Balfour – lizard style. The lizard relies on speed and is a fitting animal for the Australian.

Side note: One of the things I find interesting about Balfour is that usually guys who light up the radar gun on the field have eccentric personalities off the mound. Pitchers such as Rob Dibble, Joel Zuyama, and Brad “The Animal” Lesley all made throwing hard an offshoot of their overall lives. Balfour, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fit that mold. He is the quiet Dr. Jekyll off the field (wrestling experiment with Jim Hickey aside) but becomes Mr. Hyde when on the bump – as Orlando Cabrera can attest.

Benoit – centipede style. Quick and strikes fast.

Soriano – scorpion style.  When bit by the scorpion, your life (or the game) is over.  The scorpion is also the only style represented in the constellations, as Soriano was the only member of the bullpen represented in the Anaheim during the midsummer classic.

When working together, these styles provide an almost impenetrable security net over any lead, a force stronger and more celebrated than the assembled sum of any amalgamation of martial masters. As Madden sits back like the old kung-fu abbot, his “students” stroll in from the bullpen and eliminate their opponents one-by-one, making a night at the Trop like an afternoon at the kung-fu cinema.

If only we can get the RZA to create a dub track for Kevin Kennedy’s voice.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Farewell to Claw Digest

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

Having been in the sports blogging game for almost five years, I can honestly say it's a tough gig. Writing for the love of a player, team, sport, or league can take a lot out of you. You have to read about or watch them every day, you have to find something to write about, and then you have to publish. And a majority of the time, it's all for a pittance.

Some bloggers get lucky. Some develop systems and schedules that make publishing about a team easy. Some have nothing better to do but throw their all into a blog with the hopes that someone will discover them and pay them for their interest (admittedly, the chances of this were greater five years ago).

But constant blogging takes a toll, especially if it's for a niche interest such as model airplanes, Bigfoot hunting, or even minor league baseball. To spend even an hour a night blogging when you know only a few dozen people are reading and sharing your love can make whatever you are blogging about seem to be more of a chore than an expression of passion.

At worst, blogging about a niche can pull you away from things you would rather be doing, such as enjoying your hobby or worse, missing out on moments with the real life people in your life.

And it is that inability to spend time with loved ones that is causing blogger Jim Donten to close down Claw Digest, his blog on the Charlotte Stone Crabs and the Gulf Coast League Rays.

I've been following Claw Digest since Jim started blogging this spring. I even interviewed him for this site earlier this season. His blog was very informative, with a heavy dose of stats, player performances, and match-up data. It was apparent he had a love for the Stone Crabs and GCL Rays. As a fan of Minor League Baseball, the Florida State League, and anything related to the Tampa Bay Rays, it will be sad to see him go.

But I know Jim will not be gone for long as he has camoed at and I'm sure we will probably see him in there again in the near future. Or we may see him on twitter, where many niche bloggers have gone to ply their wares, trading extensive posts for 140-character comments.

Spoken from experience, sometimes it's best for bloggers to travel in packs. Sometimes the wilderness of the blogosphere is too much for one person to take on alone. Although some bloggers do their best Bear Gylls and survive on bugs and berries for a while, in the long run they often find it's best for their sanity to re-join civilization and ally with a group of like-minded folks. It takes the pressure off having to provide constant content and in many cases it also makes for a more well-rounded site for the readership.

So Jim, best of luck in your future endeavors and thanks for all you did at Claw Digest.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Legacy of Carl Crawford

Last Tuesday, on the same night he felt the collective sympathy of all male-kind, Carl Crawford celebrated the eighth anniversary of his major league debut.

Following his inconspicuous 1-for-4 debut on a 78-degree summer night in Toronto in 2002, Carl Crawford became an oddity in the dome of little talent. Through the years, he became our first home-grown star – the first selected to the all-star game for his merit, not just because someone had to be there in a Devil Rays cap.  He was the first Devil Ray to consistently lead the league in something positive – the only shining piece amongst Naimoli-funded scrap heaps until Scott Peterson claimed he could fix Victor Zambrano in five minutes. But whereas Scott Kazmir and his strikeouts put butts in the seats, Carl Crawford and his stolen bases never drew public enthusiasm. Perhaps because stolen bases are often the first prize of expansion teams searching for a quick buzz. Many a pitiful team has put a speedster on their roster in the hope he steals a base or two. Chuck Carr owes his Marlins career to this practice.

As time progressed and the franchise metamorphasized from perennial chum to a well-oiled machine that could play havoc with Empires and stymie the dominance of Nations, Crawford was forged into the leader of the new respectable Rays. He was the model of consistency, a piece to build a dream on.

Rarely however is a slap-hitting speedster the type of player to bring a team from worst to first. That title normally goes to cornerstone first basemen like Albert Pujols or once-in-a-generation moundsmen such as Stephen Strasburg. Keeping Crawford was the Sternberg Regime’s first declaration of unorthodoxy.

While the Rays exercised the Devil and began to win more often, Crawford began to lose whatever position he had as “franchise player”. His steady 60-watt stardom was rapidly eclipsed by the Hollywood looks and Jeter-esque poise of Evan Longoria. While Evan jumped off helicopters and talked to pretty girls on trolleys, Carl held down position number seven, just as he did in 2002.

Despite no longer being the mainstream face of the Rays, Crawford has continued to see his own career accomplishments grow. While taking the field with more teammates than anyone else in franchise history, he has become the team’s career leader in numerous categories, some due to his skill and others based strictly on his tenure.

In these last eight years, Carl Crawford’s impressive tenure has put him in elite company in the local sports community. By playing in approximately 58% of the Rays franchise games, Crawford has played a role in a more of his team’s games than legendary Tampa Bay Bucs cornerpiece Derrick Brooks (under 50%). Only Lightning mainstay Vinny Lecavalier has played in a larger percentage of his franchise’s total games (nearly 64%).

Unfortunately, Carl Crawford receives far less acclaim than Brooks, Lecavalier, Warrick Dunn, Marty St. Louis, Mike Alstott or others who sit in the pantheon of recent local legends.  This lack of fame can in part be attributed to his personality – a quiet mix of consistency and professionalism – but some of the fault must lie in his location of daily business.  Whereas the other aforementioned Tampa area sports stars played a majority of their games within Tampa city limits, where prominent powerbrokers sitting high in the SunTrust building can be reminded of their presence and corporate support is more accessible, Crawford almost anonymously plied his wares over the cultural chasm that is the Tampa Bay.

For many who do see him on a regular basis, Crawford’s consistency has numbed them of his accomplishments.  No longer the only shining diamond in a domed coal mine, he has become “Just Carl”.  A 3 for 5 day, with a triple and two stolen bases?  That’s “Just Carl”.  Same as it has been since the days before Google went public, before Martha Stewart went to jail, and before American troops tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein.

Of course, there are also those who attempt to make Crawford’s lack of standing a reflection of his ethnicity or upbringing.  They point to his astrological neck tattoo as a symbol of his “street” persona.  They point to where he was raised, the Near Northside of Houston, not far from the “Fifth Ward” made famous by old-school rappers The Geto Boys, as proof that he cannot be a pillar of community.

Whereas casual racists attribute BJ Upton’s flaws to his race, those leaping to geographic and cultural conclusions in order to pin flaws on Crawford show nothing short of overt racism, fear of the unknown, or a sad journalistic tendency to grasp at straws.

The sad reality is that Crawford will never be more popular than he is now and as his career winds down his exploits will be less frequently celebrated. Despite carving a niche as one of the best leftfielders in today’s game, his skills are not quite those of an all-time great, a step or two below those of Rickey Henderson.  Unfortunately, he was the victim of being born 30 years too late and not playing during the 1980s, a time when his athleticism, speed, and defense would have been celebrated since his first day. Playing in the aughts meant Crawford had to wait for baseball’s steroid testing to eradicate a bastardized style of play that made him an anomaly. If he played during the 80s and not during the Bondsian Era, perhaps he would have competed with Henderson, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and other great speedsters who were born to run.

Perhaps one day, when all is said and done, Crawford finds a love similar to that given to Willie Wilson, one of the better supporting actors in the cast of long forgotten championship Royals teams, coincidentally also led by a famous third baseman.

Crawford is the perfect reflection of the Rays’ rise to respectability, quietly efficient and cost effective.  With the exception of a recent possibly ill-worded compliment of his former field general, he has made few waves in the Rays’ ocean.  He has been our prophet, foretelling days of greatness, and after his departure, whether following this season or sometime in the future, he will be the first homegrown Ray with his number retired.  On that day, we will raise his 13 to the rafters – a tribute to the steady consistency and professionalism of “Just Carl”.