Monday, September 10, 2012

How much winning is enough winning to change fan culture?

Like Neil Armstrong when he set foot on the Moon and looked at the Earth, there is a tendency to see things different the farther you are away. You see habits you never noticed in friends, family, and as long as you still have the means of observation, the society you came from. From afar here in Afghanistan, my view on the US and the Tampa Bay area has been interesting.

As we enter the home stretch of election season and of baseball season, the US seems like a truly divided culture. The people over there (over there from my perspective, that is) have seemingly dug in and picked their side. Those who object are wrong, and there is no middle ground.

Maybe it has always been like this, but American politics has become very much like sports. Maybe we have always thought in regards to winners and losers. Just like in sports, everyone is divided.

A few weeks ago, I engaged in a brief twitter conversation with Tampa Bay Times writer Michael Kruse in regards to fandom in Florida. Kruse’s claim was that Floridians are not good citizens and that their lack of citizenry is one of the reasons people don’t go out to support the Rays. Kruse bases this idea on the premise that while many people come to Florida to live, they don’t come to join communities and become active Floridians in their local community whether through sports or anything else. The Floridians who move here from all over the country or even world bring with them their own ideologies and interests and keep those ideologies during their time here, staying divided and never modifying their interests for their current environment.

On one hand, why should they? In these days of overarching, easily accessible media, where I am typing about a team in Tampa Bay from 8,000 miles away and people can follow their former hometeam from a new home just as they would from their old home, it’s easy to not have to care about what happens locally. The internet makes it easy to stay in touch with the people you left behind as if you are still next door.

I’m an example of this right now. I stay in touch with friends and family while living on an Afghanistan base I don’t often leave from. When our Internet connection is up, I email, Facebook, Tweet, and blog as if I was still in town. More importantly for Kruse’s theory, I also stay up on my Tampa Bay and Rays news. I brought my affiliations and fandoms with me and I keep rooting for the hometeam even though they are nowhere close to my current “home”.

But like a snowbird who only comes to Florida for the winter, I am not someone who matters in the grand scale of Afghanistan. Here there is a big effort to bring villages, tribes, and people into the fold of an overarching national government. Many of these villages are populated by tribes who have no relationship with their immediate neighbors, no less a government center hundreds of miles away. Many times the chiefs and leaders of these tribes see no benefit in joining the national government or even a more local overarching district or provincial government. These tribes are sometimes even against the national government and give support to the Taliban and other anti-government organizations.

Sound familiar? In a way, the idea of affiliation and winning over hearts and minds is the same in sports as it in government. People have to buy what you are selling. If they don’t, they don’t show up, in the seats or at the ballot.

With this concept in mind, something amazing happened in Afghanistan this year during the Summer Olympics. Afghans from across Afghanistan and all over the world united over a victory. A victory that won Afghan competitor Rohollah Nikpai his second bronze medal in tae kwon do as well as won Afghanistan it’s second ever medal.

According to reports, for one day, Rohollah Nikpai unified Afghanistan.

Although it would be foolish to think one bronze medal could turn around a country that has known little but division and strife for the last 30 years, Nikpai’s win does show that sports provides some possibility for social unification. US hockey’s win over the USSR in 1980 may be our best example. Our national morale was low in the late 70s and perhaps the win aided our national turnaround in the 1980s. Beating the Russians got people talking about America and chanting “U.S.A” and meaning it. It gave them something to be proud of.

There is no doubt most people like to be on the winning side. They like winners. People rally around winners. Winners tend to boost public confidence. And most people do want to fit in, but unfortunately our current state of Florida is so divided it is socially acceptable not to root for the Rays.

So what if the Rays win it all this year and the year after and the year after? Would they slowly build an overarching culture of support? What is the point in which neighbors and local peers start to pressure newcomers to leaving behind their past affiliations and cheering for the local squad? How many wins would it take to create a Central Florida-wide rabid fan base? How many wins until “the bandwagon fans” show up in mass for every game? How long until the Rays become part of our culture?

My worry is that we as Americans might be so numb to winning and athletic victories that no story, no cast of characters, or no heroes can win over a city anymore. Especially one as diverse as the Tampa Bay area. We might rally around our national athletes in the Olympics, or a small town might rally around their local high school football team, but cities might be currently spoken for to an extent.

Another important point in the case of Rohullah Nikpai is that the media helped point people in the direction of rooting. Due to the normally dire situation in Afghanistan, the media painted an overwhelming picture of support. There were no dissenting views on Nikpai’s run for a medal. They didn’t interview a farmer without access to the news or worse yet, a Taliban person who might have been anti-Nikpai. The media was pro-Nikpai. Having the media shape support in the direction your want is imperative.

Of course, most media has to take an unpartial view. But that’s where public relations and other offices come in. They are there to counter bad messages with good – see where the source of dissention is and try to sway it. I wonder if there is anyone in the Rays front office who analyzes what the media says about the Rays, especially in regards to national media. In my estimation, most national media posits positive comments on the players, management, and front office, but typically negative comments about everything else. Just as a college team saturates media outlets with Heisman campaign propaganda, maybe the Rays or even a highly dedicated group of Rays supporters need to send the national media members pictures of sell-outs, stories of fans enjoying the games, and things that might move reporters out of their negative mindset.

No matter how much a team wins or who wins, however, there will always be a segment of the population too new or too engrained in their ways to be swayed. Using the Nikpai example again, although I was rooting for him in Tae Kwon Do events, if Afghanistan was playing against the US in basketball or swimming or something Americans care about, I, as a new “resident” would have probably kept my US affiliations and rooted against Afghanistan.

Winning is just part of the social engineering solution to win hearts and minds and make fans. It takes a combined effort of victories, marketing, advertizing, good media relations, and social peer pressure to turn people into fans. Some may never convert, but hopefully in a generation or two, the seeds will be planted for positive change, and new habits, either in government or in sports fandom, will take hold.

Imagine if one day, people put aside the bickering and their foreign affiliations. Imagine if one day, people of Central Florida all supported one team. Imagine if they were unified in their support of the Rays. It’s easy if you try.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Star Wars Day Shirts and the Power of Rays Fans

Ever since Star Wars Nights became a thing a long time ago in stadiums far, far away, I swore I would go to the first one in Florida. I am of course a huge baseball fan and have been a Star Wars fan since I was knee-high to a Jawa. So being at a Star Wars promotion at a ballpark near me was something I had to do. It was like Luke needing to go to Dagobah to visit Yoda before he died.

Alas, Star Wars Nights and Days have invaded Florida baseball stadiums quite often since late last season when the Marlins hosted the first Star Wars promotion in the state as part of the Stand Up to Cancer effort. Unfortunately, I was unable to make the game due to the fact that I had no money and nowhere to stay around Dolphins/Pro Player/Joe Robbie/Jimmy Buffet Stadium. So I missed out.

Going to Afghanistan this year I knew I was going to miss out on some great Rays baseball. I knew I was going to miss out on friends and fellow fans and some great times. But I never thought I would miss out on a Star Wars promotion at Tropicana Field. As Leia never considered that Luke might have been her brother when she kissed him, the thought of missing a Star Wars Day or Night never crossed my mind.

Needless to say, I was bummed out when I knew my odds of going to the game were lower than 3,720 to 1. As a matter of fact, I had a better chance of beating a Jedi in a mind reading contest than I had of making the game. So I did what any huge Star Wars and Rays fan would do, I started campaigning for some commemorative swag, specifically one of the Star Wars Day t-shirts featuring Darth Vader’s head and a Rays logo.

Once I realized these shirts were available, I took to twitter and began pestering @RaysBaseball. For a few days the week of the game I asked @RaysBaseball if they could send a shirt to me in Afghanistan. I was even more than willing to pay for it. Whatever it took, I wanted a shirt.

Yet there was no reply. Like C-3P0 wandering the sands of Tattooine, it appeared my cause was lost and missing out on Star Wars-themed baseball celebrations would be my lot in life. Then, out of the blue a rescue appeared. Fellow Rays fans and twitter friends @MandaGator, @Raynaadi, and @BayCrab3 asked me if I had heard from the team and if not, they would do what they had to so that a Star Wars Day shirt was shipped to me in Afghanistan. When I told them I hadn’t heard from anyone, @BayCrab3 said she would hook me up.

Fast-forward to early this week. A week after getting a box of Rays-related goodies from a few of my old co-workers, I received my box from @BayCrab3. Inside were bags of snacks, some Rays stickers, and my very own Rays Star Wars Day shirt!

(Note: I did eventually hear from Jonathan Gantt of the Rays a few days after I gave @BayCrab3 my mailing address. He told me he was on a hunt for a shirt for me. I politely told him that my fellow fans were already coming through.)

So thank you to @BayCrab3, @mandagator, @rayaandi, and all the other Rays fans who helped me in my epic quest to get a Star Wars Day shirt. May the Force Be With You Always!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Q&A: Dunedin Blue Jays Community Relations Coordinator Vincent Caffiero

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I thought was one of the more interesting promotions in the Florida State League this year, the Dunedin Blue Jays "Turn Back the Clock Night". After writing the post, I decided to contact the Dunedin team and ask about the promotion, how it came to be, and how it went.

Big thanks to Craig Dunham for setting this up and many thanks to Vincent Caffiero for being so kind as to answer our questions.

Bus Leagues Baseball: How did the idea originate? Was it though the Dunedin Blue Jays, the Dunedin Historical Society, or a combination of both?

Vincent Caffiero: This idea came about through the Dunedin Blue Jays. Obviously throwback uniforms are something that everybody does. We just wanted to do our own twist on the promotion. The Dunedin Historical Society was asked later on in the process if they wanted to be involved. It was a no brainer, as the Historical Society already hosts vintage baseball games. Additionally, their director, Vinnie Luisi, is a big time baseball historian. He even wrote "New York Yankees: The First 25 Years" and "Baseball in Tampa Bay".

BLB: Was this the first turn back the clock night in Dunedin Blue Jays history? What was done to prepare for it?

VC: I’ve only been here since January, so I wasn’t sure if the Dunedin Blue Jays have done a throwback night before. They have been here since ’77 and have done many promotions! To prepare, I did some research through the historical society, and read up on the uniforms of the time. Some of the staff spent an entire week having fun with some of the slang of the period. You couldn’t go 15 minutes without hearing someone tell a “dame,” about being “the bee’s knees."

BLB: I am very curious as to why 1929, as there was no Dunedin team or Florida State League at the time, nor any Blue Jays.

VC: 1929 was chosen because it’s smack-daddy in the middle of some of the biggest moments in professional baseball history. We wanted to pay homage to the golden era of baseball. I wanted to pick a year where Ty Cobb and the dead-ball era were still relevant, but on their way out. I wanted a year where the greats of the golden age like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were still relevant. Finally, I felt it important to include a year in which the Negro Leagues were really gaining ground. The whole point of this night was to get people talking about baseball history, so I wanted a year that was inclusive.

It was less important to include the professional baseball history of the city of Dunedin, because there wasn’t any. Another factor, was that the Tampa Bay Rays have done a very good job of “throwing back,” to a lot of the great minor league teams in the Tampa Bay area. That approach has been tapped out. Also, on a practical level, it is much more difficult to get the license of actual teams of the period. It is a process that we wanted to avoid, in exchange for artistic and logistical freedom.

BLB: What did the Dunedin Blue Jays staff change to fit in to the theme of the night? Was anything done differently?

VC: Luckily for us, in 1929 baseball parks were using PA Systems, so we didn’t have to cut out the Public Address announcer. We changed all of the music, and even gave the players walk up songs from the likes of Cab Calloway and the Piccadilly Players. We had 25 cent Crack Jack, which is probably a bit expensive for 1929, but we did have to take some artistic liberties! Fans also played Bingo which was actually invented in 1929. The staff also dressed in period attire. We had a lot of fun with this night, and it showed!

BLB: Who made the uniforms? What were the influences used?

VC: I designed the uniforms to look much like those of the period. This meant simple and elegant. We opted to remove the piping from the sleeves and had just royal piping down the buttons. The hat had a white crown and blue bill to fit the look of a 1929 uniform. I used the 1930’s Homestead Grays as one of our biggest uniform inspirations. I knew that the uniforms couldn’t be authentically wool or flannel because of the heat, so we went with a normal modern material. Uniform Express produced the uniforms, and they did a great job!

BLB: I saw pictures of the staff in 1920s era clothing. Was that found locally or through the same provider of the uniforms?

VC: These clothes were a hodgepodge of thrift store and modern store finds. Men’s fashion has not changed much in 100 years. The main difference is that in 1929 a man was expected to where a hat and suite almost everyone he went- including the baseball park. Southern summers were so hot, that men would often ditch the coat and wear knickerbockers instead of full pants. Nonetheless, long sleeves and high socks still covered almost all exposed skin.

BLB: Who designed the flyer? That was very impressive.

VC: Thank you! I happened to be the one behind the flyer. I took an actual 20’s baseball postcard/advertisement and fit in all of our relevant information. It was fun to make and really turned out nice. It wasn’t your typical stiff, impact lettering over a bright background-type of modern baseball flyer. I hate those.

BLB: Did you contact any other teams who have done turn back the clock nights? Did they provide any advice?

VC: I did use other throwback nights as inspiration, but did not specifically contact any of them. The Tampa Bay Rays are a great example of marketing that always keeps their “Turn Back The Clock Nights,” fresh and unique. I was lucky enough to be working with their organization last year during their “Tampa Smokers” night.

BLB: Do you see the Dunedin Blue Jays making more trips to the past in the future?

VC: Unfortunately the team lost the game that night. I can’t imagine the players and staff being on board for another 1929 night, as I imagine the uniforms were a source of blame. Baseball has got to be the most superstitious games on the planet. However, I can see the Dunedin Blue Jays having fun with alternate uniforms honoring baseball’s rich history in future seasons. Fans were able to take home some really neat autographed jerseys, while raising over $2,500 for the Dunedin Historical Society. The night was a success, so I’m sure we’d like to do this again!

(Photo from the Dunedin Blue Jays Facebook page taken by Charles Gehring.)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dunedin Blue Jays use RBI Baseball to Promote Playoffs

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

Any baseball fan who lived through the early days of the Nintendo generation holds a special place in their heart for RBI Baseball. Of course, with the passage of time and the retirement of every player in the game (can you believe Julio Franco actually played 20 seasons after the game was released?), RBI Baseball became a distant memory, replaced by more high-fangled and less-cartoonish MLB video games.

Fortunately, some artistic video folks have taken to recreating recent baseball moments using the 8-bit graphics of RBI Baseball. There have been recreations of the White Sox 2005 World Series win, the Dodgers win in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, and the Mets win in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, for example. But as far as I can tell, these were done for fun by amateur video makers waxing nostalgic about past celebrations. To my knowledge, no team has ever utilized RBI Baseball to create excitement for an upcoming game.

Enter the geniuses behind the scenes for the Dunedin Blue Jays. Try to watch the below video and not get geeked about the upcoming Florida State League playoffs.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

My Problem with the Fox Sports Florida Girls

In late 2011, in an attempt to “bring a fresh look and feel in the delivery of content on TV and the digital platforms”, Fox Sports Florida took a page out of Maxim Magazine and created the “Fox Sports Girls”, a marketing device geared towards the 18-35 male demographic. These two 20-something attractive women joined the network to “guide viewers through the outstanding lineup of live games and programming”.

They might be amazingly nice, sweet, intelligence women off the air and away from Fox Sports Florida, but the Fox Sports Girls are a slap in the face to female sports fans everywhere. In a time where we have more female athletes than male athletes representing our country in the Olympics, for a major sports network to stoop to horrible female sports fan clichés to attract more male viewers and page views sets female fandom back at least 30 years. I would expect that from some of the sports blogs out there or perhaps an alcohol promoter, but not a regional sports network.

According to recent statistics, women make up 46% of baseball fans. For you non-math majors, that’s almost half. They are buying tickets, merchandise, and equipment. They are a growing part of the game at every level, from the playing to watching to reporting. They are no longer outsiders. To quote Wendy Thrum of SBNation,
“Some keep score at the game, while listening to the radio broadcast in their ears. Some have favorite players instead of favorite teams. Some can name every member of her team’s 40-man roster. Some can’t even name the starting rotation. Some love the Victoria’s Secret-inspired team gear. Some wouldn’t be caught dead in it, or in any gear that’s pink or sparkly.”

They are fans. And they come in all shapes, sizes, and interest levels.

But I can almost guarantee the Fox Sports Girls aren’t there to appeal to the female fan base. They are for the eyes of the other half of baseball fans. The ones who have been playing the sport for years, the ones who it has been socially acceptable to like baseball since the day they were born, the ones who stereotypically need no introduction or motivation to watch more sports. The ones with penises.

This is how Fox Sports Florida looks for “new and unique ways to create a deeper connection with our loyal and passionate fans”? By showcasing women on their website and asking them “What is the most important quality you look for in a man?”, “The celebrity or athlete you would most like to go out on a date with?”, and “What is more romantic flowers or chocolates?”. With so many women in the Florida sports fanbase, this line of questioning is completely embarrassing and uncalled for.

The coup de grace of chauvinistic shilling and in a move that I am surprised didn’t completely isolate their female viewers, in March of this year, Fox Sports Florida held a “Go to the HEAT Game with the FOX Sports Florida Girls Sweepstakes”. Yes, because that is exactly what female fans want to do: go to a basketball game with two girls known for being network eye candy.

What I find particularly insulting is that Fox Sports passed over so many great Florida-based female sports voices for women they only use for appearances and photo shoots. There are women out there that speak well on camera, do radio shows, write well, and know as much about sports as any man. In Tampa alone there are women such as Jenna Laine, Sarah Tyson, Roxanne Wilder, and Lynne Austin. Those are just off the top of my head. There are also dozens, if not hundreds, of women active on twitter and facebook contributing to sports conversations.

Florida in general has been an extraordinary launching pad for women to achieve success in sports media. Erin Andrews started in Florida; Pam Oliver went to Florida A&M; Tiffany Simons, current broadcast reporter for the New York Mets, sat next to me in class at Florida State; Jenn Sterger also went to FSU; MLB Social Media Coordinator Whitney Holtzman went to the University of Florida and worked as an intern with the Rays before getting her current gig; and of course, Laura McKeeman is the current broadcast reporter for the Rays and other Florida sports on none other than Fox Sports Florida. And there and have been many other women who have hosted radio shows or worked other jobs behind the scenes to foster the great Florida sports scene we hold dear.

(By the way, contrast the usage of the Fox Sports Florida Girls and McKeeman’s thoughts on her looks and her profession in this article. I’d like to ask McKeeman what she thinks of how her fellow sports media women are being used strictly for their appearance. Notice there are no questions on McKeeman’s Fox Sports page about her ideal man or whether she likes chocolate or not.)

I don’t know where Fox Sports Florida found Jordana and Annile. Like I said, they might be amazing women and great people, but I don’t think they are doing right by women by subjecting themselves to the whims of an obviously antiquated view of female sports fans. Optimally, I would like to see all women (and guys who support the cause) boycott Fox Sports Florida until they replace the Fox Sports Girls concept with women who are more than just glorified network mascots. Women who know sports and can talk about sports in more than just clichés and general questions.

Women who at least know how to hold a bat.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Dunedin Blue Jays Turn Back the Clock and Create a Fantasy History

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

Earlier this season, the Tampa Bay Rays held a “Turn Back the Clock Night”, dressing up in 1979-style Tampa Bay jerseys. There was only one problem: there was no Tampa Bay Rays or Devil Rays in 1979. Whereas some teams have worn jerseys of teams that have left their city, long-forgotten minor league teams, or honored Negro League teams long since passed, the Rays might have been the first team to create their own historical look.

Now the Dunedin Blue Jays are following the Rays and hosting their own fictional “turn back the clock” night this Saturday. Hosted by the Dunedin Historical Society and Museum, the promotion will bring the Dunedin ballclub back to the year 1929, 48 years before the team existed.

At first glance, I really like the turn back the clock promotion. I am a history fan and the Dunedin 1929 jerseys are really sharp. I like the look. I could definitely have pictured a team in Florida wearing a similar style jersey. Even better, they are auctioning off the jerseys after the game to raise money for the Historical Society, so fans can own and wear the jerseys to games in 2012 and beyond.

(Additional note: why haven't other teams in Florida done "turn back the clock nights" in their respective cities? I'd love to see the Daytona Beach Admirals or the West Palm Beach Sun Chiefs take the field again.)

I wonder why the Dunedin Blue Jays picked 1929 as the year to fictionally throw back to. Following the epic Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 and rolling into the Great Depression, there was no Florida State League from 1928 to 1936. Maybe that’s precisely why they picked 1929. It is a fictional team playing in a year that no organized baseball existed. The Dunedin Blue Jays opponent, the Stone Crabs of Port Charlotte, also hail from a city that was without baseball in the early days of the Florida State League. So it is a fantasy exhibition between two teams that did not exist in a year where baseball did not exist. I guess that makes sense.

That said, I am not really keen on re-writing or creating a fantasy history. There was no team, so hence, there should be no time to turn back to. Unless the Dunedin Blue Jays are imagining a world where Dunedin had a team and the Florida State League had a league in 1929. In that case, they shouldn’t be the Blue Jays, being that name also assumes in this fictional past that Toronto had a major league team, which they didn't get until 1977. Perhaps they should have played on Dunedin’s Scottish heritage and named the team the Highlanders for the day.

It’s less of a stretch than the Mercury Mets.

Speaking of, these “time transformational” promotions kinda remind me of Major League Baseball’s "Turn Ahead the Clock" promotions from 1999, although the uniforms are better. I wonder how soon until a minor league team throws itself back to 1955, and tops it off with a visit from a Delorean and Marty McFly and Doc Brown impersonators.

Great Scott, that would be heavy.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Follow-up on the Carl Crawford foul-mouthed fan

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the heckler who harassed Carl Crawford before a New Hampshire Fisher Cats game. I wrote that fans will be fans and people will be people and some people just don't like certain types of other people. It's not pretty, it's not fair, nor in most circles is it socially acceptable, but it is life.

However, one of the caveats I mentioned was that "if the person who called Crawford a “racial slur” has a history in the area of racism then he becomes a public figure and then perhaps the locals can do something about it".

Not only does the person in question has an alleged history of hatred, it also seems he is was a public figure prior to the incident. Double whammy.

Recent reports say the heckler was now-former Leominster, Massachusetts police officer John Perreault. Sure enough, as a public figure, Perreault faced the reaper for his actions. Not only is he accused of harassing Crawford, but Perreault also has a history of not being nice to black people.

According to Perreault's lawyer, Joseph Sandulli, Perreault said derogatory words to Crawford to insult his play, not his race. Perreault was accused of calling Crawford a "Monday", which before this incident was best known for being a day of the week. That's obviously not how Perreault meant it. According to Urban Dictionary and Indian-Canadian comedian Russell Peters, Mondays can also be "a word that can be used to describe a black person without insulting them with them knowing". Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

The other half of the battle is the counter-attack. Perreault was fired from the police force on Thursday the 26th.

So Perreault tried to insult Crawford without him knowing, only Crawford or someone else knew the word Perreault was using and now Perreault is out of a job.

Fans will be fans, but some fans are idiots.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fan insults Carl Crawford, national media springs into action

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

Last week, a fan in Manchester, New Hampshire heckled rehabing Red Sox outfield Carl Crawford. Besides calling Crawford "overrated" and "overpaid", the fan also allegedly called Crawford a name insulting Crawford's race.

ESPNBoston thought this was a big deal.

I don't.

Fans are fans, by-and-large a cross-section of the people of the area, and are rarely public figures. It is not news that some anonymous people dislike people of different races, creeds, colors, sexes, or religion. That's human nature. Here in Afghanistan, this is a daily way of life. We should not be surprised by it. Racism, sexism, and all the other -isms didn't suddenly disappear with the election of President Obama just as they didn't vanish in South Africa with the election of Nelson Mandela.

Is disliking people based on factors not tied to their personality wrong? Yes, of course. Should it be tolerated at a ballpark? Absolutely not. But is it worthy of an article on No. If Carl Crawford had a problem or was made uncomfortable, he could have alerted security and let the ballpark personnel deal with the problem. Maybe he did, the article doesn't make that clear.

Heckling is by nature verbal harrassment, and is usually not tolerated in any workplace. No matter what they say, if that ballpark wants to move the person, remove them, or wants to make an example of the person and never let them back in, that's their perogative. The ballpark is a privately owned venue and fan behavior, verbally, physically, or anything else, is regulated by ticket purchase.

On a national level, I don't want to know if fans are calling players "racial slurs", just as I don't care if play is stopped if a player wants the fan removed from earshot. Honestly, I don't care. It's not news. It's a local issue.

Carl Crawford's rehab is national baseball news. Is he hitting, is he running, and is he justifying his huge contract?

We can worry about social attitudes or what causes people to dislike others somewhere else. And there we can dedicate real study to it. We can use the issue of security incidents at the ballpark to see if there is an underlying stigma of racism in New England. Are there
other incidents in public businesses? Are black people in the area more inclined to police harassment, employment discrimination, or anything that would effect their ability to be contributing members of society?

Now if the person who called Crawford a "racial slur" has a history in the area of racism then he becomes a public figure and then perhaps the locals can do something about it. Perhaps they can discriminate against him. If he is a private business owner, for example, perhaps the people of his area can boycott or do something else to show him that his actions will not be tolerated.

But again, that's a local issue, not one for or any other member of the national sports media.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Brewers to stay in Viera, whither the Nationals?

A quick bit of news coming through Our Sports Central's Florida State League feed. According to OSC, the Milwaukee Brewers have renewed their player development contract with the Brevard County Manatees through the 2014 season. The Brewers have used the FSL Manatees franchise as their High-A Florida State League team since 2005. Via OSC, 27 ballplayers have made it to the Major Leagues after playing with the Milwaukee farm club, including Ryan Braun.

Viera's Space Coast Stadium is unique among FSL stadiums, hosting one team during the spring (the Washington Nationals) and the other during the FSL season (the Brewers). The Brewers oddly opt to spring train in Maryvale Ballpark in Phoenix despite a 600 mile difference between the drive from Pheonix to Milwaukee (1,882 miles and 30 hours by Google Maps) and the drive from Viera to Milwaukee (1,297 miles and less than 22 hours by Google Maps). Meanwhile, the Nationals have located their High-A minor league franchise, the Carolina League's Potomac Nationals, play in Woodbridge, Va., much closer to Washington DC than anywhere in Florida.

(That, by the way, seems to be a trend for the Nationals, who opt to keep most of their teams close, being second only to the Braves in the NL East in closest farm teams. Maybe it's a way to keep costs down in order to move some of the admin costs to player retention or actual development. Meanwhile, the Brewers are last in the NL Central with an average distance of 970 miles from their developmental teams and the big league club.)

Perhaps the Brewers could combine their overhead and look to Florida to spring train as the Nationals have been eyeing other training locations, citing long travel times between their Viera location and other Florida spring training stadiums. In recent years, most spring training teams have colalesced around the Phoenix area in the Cactus League and the Tampa area in the Grapefruit League. A trip from Viera to the Red Sox/Twins spring training location of Fort Myers, for example, is over 200 miles and takes over 4 hours. Moving to Viera if the Nationals leave would allow the Brewers to lean on the Brevard County staff for spring training administration, possibly minimizing costs. Although they might incur longer travel times and pay more for gas and busing traversing the state of Florida during March and April.

So would staff pay and the reduction of their trip from spring training to Milwaukee outweigh the cost of traveling around Florida for a month? To be honest, I am not sure.

Either way, Space Coast Stadium was where I saw my first ever Minor League game and I am glad someone is going to keep playing there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peralta’s Pine Tar Problem and the Gripe of Grip

I wasn’t going to comment on the current suspension of Rays pitcher Joel Peralta. My initial thought was that he did something wrong, got caught, and had to face the reaper. It happens. But then I started unraveling the sweater and peeling back the layers. The situation is far stickier than I thought (pun intended).

First of all, why now? Peralta has pitched for the Rays since 2011. No one before the Nationals brought up the fact that Peralta utilizes pine tar on the pitching mound. Why did it take Nationals manager Davey Johnson to play that card? Why didn’t one of Peralta’s former teammates, perhaps from an American League team the Rays play more often and in more meaningful contests, drop the hint to their respective managers? Or did those players say something and their manager not execute?

Looking at the 2010 Nationals pitching staff, there aren’t many candidates who now pitch in the AL, as many of the National staff have remained with the team or are out of baseball. But there are a few. There is former Nats closer Matt Capps, currently pitching for the Twins; current Tigers pitcher Collin Balester; and Brian Bruney, who pitched for the White Sox in 2011. Of the three, I would think former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen would be the best candidate to try to get an upper hand on Joe Maddon. But in 2011, Guillen’s last in the AL before heading to Miami, Peralta pitched scot-free. Perhaps Bruney never saw Peralta’s proclivity for pine tar during his time with the Nationals.

But the problem isn’t “who dun it?”, but rather “why now?”. Was it, as JoeRaysFan pointed out, a continuation of the Davey Johnson – Whitey Herzog feud from 20 years ago? If so, that is not only awesome, but very pro wrestling-esque of Johnson. Has anyone contacted Herzog for a quote?

This whole mess has brought up a lot of huffing and hawing from both those who say Peralta is an old-school cheater and those who say it is not a big deal. According to Jason Turbow, Sports Illustrated writer and author of a book on baseball cheating, pine tar is part of “baseball’s competitive process” and Johnson should only have requested Peralta remove the sticky substance from his person and return to the pitcher’s mound. Johnson, as Turnbow points out, even used the tactic before, asking umpires to check Dodgers reliever Jay Howell during the 1988 playoffs. Like Peralta, Howell was ejected.

What Turnbow fails to mention, however, is perhaps Johnson’s move was psychological. Perhaps it was simply a way for one elder grandmaster to take a chess piece away from a younger master. In a sport where managerial decisions play a key role, removing an option, especially from someone as calculating as Maddon, could potentially swing a game.

Is Johnson opening up the can of worms Turnbow insists he is? Possibly. Is it malarkey that a pitcher can be ejected for using something that aids his grip on the ball? Again, possibly. But the bottom line is that although pine tar does not give the illegal aerodynamic advantage of sandpaper or vasoline, it is still illegal by the rule book.

Of course, the most effective way a pitcher can avoid the possibility of an opposing manager signaling the umpires to check him is to not use pine tar.

If only it was that simple.

In the LA Times, former Major League relief pitcher Brandon Donnelly came to the defense of Joel Peralta (h/t DRaysBay). According to Donnelly, pitchers frequently use pine tar to ensure the ball does not slip out of their hands and possibly lead to an injury. Turnbow also uses a Chris Carpenter quote to the St Louis Post-Dispatch that echoes Donnelly. It is a valid point, as no one wants to see anyone hurt, especially from a 90+ mile an hour fastball.

However, there is already a rule and action taken by umpires in a regulated setting to ensures slippage does not happen. Inacted in the 1920s after a Carl Mays pitch slipped and killed Ray Chapman, MLB Rule 3.01c states:

The umpire shall inspect the baseballs and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed.”

Before every game, baseballs are rubbed in a special goop made from mud originating in a top secret locale the Delaware River. This special goop has been made by Lena Blackburne and his clan of special mud masters for years, and is approved and sanctioned by Major League Baseball.

Hence the illegality of pine tar.

But the monopoly of mud from a top secret location given to umpires and used in a secret room before a game leaves several questions that need to be asked.

Who watches the umpires rub the balls? Is there a proper way to rub the balls? Is there a ball-rubbing regulator? (Sorry, but these questions need to be asked!)

Who ensures the process is followed? Has anyone researched the mud? Is there an independent body that regulates the mud? According to the mud people, the composition of the mud is a secret. So could it be less thick in some years? Who represents the pitchers in the preparation of the mud?

Besides former Tigers hurler Kenny Rogers, we don’t often see starting pitchers using pine tar. Maybe the baseballs used in the early innings have a better grip than those used later in a game. Umpires have so much to do before a game, it seems difficult to believe that one of them spends time to rub down enough baseballs for an entire game’s use. Maybe they run out by the later innings. How many baseballs are prepared per game? What about the next game? Are they re-rubbed before the next game if they are not used? I would be curious to see if there is any grip resistance difference between new baseballs put in play in the first inning and baseballs put in play by the later innings.

What about rosin? Pitchers have the rosin bag to dry their hands in case of sweat. The powder from the rosin bag is supposed to help grip. Is Peralta a frequent rosin user? I don’t think I have ever seen the rosin bag replaced in a game. Could it be empty by the time set-up men come into the game?

We know MLB regulators have their flaws, as evident in the Ryan Braun steroid debacle, so why not make the pre-game baseball-rubbing process open and transparent, especially if the actions of the players on the field are dependent on it?  We could have a situation, perhaps even this year if the Nationals advance to the playoffs, where a manager uses the pine tar tactic to have an ace reliever tossed from a key postseason match-up. Imagine if it swung the outcome of a World Series.

If Peralta and Donnelly are to be believed, what we have here is not pitchers trying to get an unfair advantage in regards to ball movement. They are not trying to alter the normal flight of the ball. If we take them at their most honest, they are just trying to get a grip. And perhaps getting a grip is a legitimate gripe.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Sugar Land Skeeters Sign a Big Name Pitcher ... For Real This Time ... Wait, Maybe Not

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

(Update: Skeeters, never stop being you. Seriously.

The same day everyone wrote about how Scott Kazmir was joining the Sugar Land Skeeters, the Skeeters website had a headline that stated "Two-time AL All-Star, former Major Leaguer join Skeeters". Of course, "AL All-Star" doesn't always mean American League. In this case, it means Atlantic League. And that convenient comma between "All-Star" and "former", that can mean two separate players. In this case, it does as the Skeeters signed Steve Moss (Atlantic League two-time All-Star) and Luis Figueroa (formerly of the Blue Jays. Giants, and Pirates). Gotta love the Skeeters.)

A few months ago, Brian wrote about the Sugar Land Skeeters "announcing their presence with authority" by signing a former Major League pitcher named "Liriano". While most would associate that surname with Francisco Liriano, the Liriano in question was actually former Brewers and Phillies hurler Pedro Liriano.

Issuing press releases like that are par for the course in the bus leagues.

Sometimes, however, there is no ruse to the reports.

On Wednesday, Ken Rosenthal of reported that the Skeeters really signed a former Major League All-Star. One without a common surname. One with the last name "Kazmir", as in former Tampa Bay Rays moundman Scott Kazmir.

The move makes sense for both parties. The fledgling Atlantic League ballclub will get a nice boost in publicity and probably attendance.

For Kazmir, the Skeeters are not far from his home in Houston and should give him a place to attempt to rebuild his career, which disintegrated faster than an Acme Disintegrating Pistol. The Skeeters also have some other ex-Major Leaguers which Kazmir can work with, such as Gary Majewski and of course, the aforementioned "other" Liriano. The Skeeters also have a pair of veteran ex-Major Leaguers on their coaching staff, manager Gary Gaetti and pitching coach Britt Burns.

That Kazmir will be working with Burns is interesting. From 1980 to 1985, Britt Burns was one of the top lefties in the American League, an all-star who twice finished in the running for AL Cy Young. He ended his 8-year career after the 1985 season when a degenerative hip sidelined him. He played his last full season at 26 years old. He attempted comebacks with the Yankees in 1990 and the Red Sox in 1991 before walking away from the game for good. He ended his career with a 70-60 win-loss record and an average season of 13 wins and 12 losses.

By comparison, from 2005 to 2009, Kazmir was one of the top lefties in the American League, a two-time all-star who led the league in strikeouts in 2007. He ended his 8-year career (if it is indeed over) in 2011 when various injuries and a diminshing fastball sidelined him. Although he pitched 1.2 innings for the Angels in 2011, he played his last full season at 26 years old. He ended his career with a 66-61 record and an average season of 13 wins and 12 losses.

The Skeeters finally have an ex-All Star.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Q&A: Kevin Gengler of

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

Every so often, we like to talk to other writers who spend long hours chronicling the exploits of those in the Minor Leagues. Kevin Gengler of is one such writer. Kevin has been covering the Rays system for several years and has become one of the premier go-to subject matter experts on things minor league Rays-related.

Kevin has been an e-migo of the site for a while, having Mike as part of the RaysProspects 2011 Predictions and working with Scott on the RaysProspects Future Considerations podcast. So it was only natural that we have him here.

Bus Leagues Baseball: How long have you been blogging about the Rays minor league system and what got you interested in the Rays minor league teams and players?

Kevin Gengler:I had started and stopped a Rays prospect blog in 2006-2007, mainly because it wasn't just something I could commit to every day. And with the strong work being done by DRaysBay and RaysIndex even back in the losing seasons, there wasn't much of a niche to carve out.

BLB: Why blog about it? Did you feel there was a gap to be filled in the blogosphere?

KG: RaysProspects in its current form came to be in mid-2008, and I do think the team winning and the increased interest created a gap. Doug Milhoan created a blog to write about the team's pitching prospects, so I e-mailed him asking if he'd be interested in having me on and we could cover the whole system.

BLB: Were you a minor league baseball fan before you started blogging about the Rays minor league system?

KG:The minor leagues and prospects were always interesting to me, as far back as seeing Nomar Garciaparra with the Trenton Thunder as a kid. Some years down the road I stumbled on a link to a Baseball America Top 100 prospects list, and to read these scouting reports and projections was pretty fascinating.

BLB: Did you look at any other organization-based blogs before starting RaysProspects and if so, what influences did you take from them?

KG: I don't think we were influenced much early on by other sites. Over the years we've tried to adapt some things from other sites (like SoxProspects and Phuture Phillies) and tweak them, but overall there really hasn't been much that we've seen and said "we should do that here."

BLB: How do you follow each team? Do you watch all of their games, get your information from their websites, or get your news via twitter, etc?

KG: is obviously the biggest source of information with the boxscores every night. Being on Twitter is nice too, in addition to the teams I follow three beat writers who do a great job (Adam Sobsey for Durham, Stacy Long for Montgomery, and Micheal Compton for Bowling Green). If the Rays are off or played an afternoon game, I'll listen to a radio broadcast online or check out the Bulls on

BLB: In recent years, there has been a large growth of Rays blogs, both at the major and minor league level. Do you think this is a good thing, and has it affected your blogging at all? I noticed for example, you have incorporated several other writers on to your site.

KG:I think it's a good thing, and for us, bringing Jim Donten into the fold was great. He's provided pictures and info from Charlotte in addition to notes on the system as a whole as he's done a lot of the recapping work. He and Nick Hanson, who was also in Charlotte, are great to get the boots-on-the-ground perspective. BurGi, a fan from Germany, has done a terrific job on the stats side.

BLB: What Rays prospect do you think your audience follows or has followed the closest since you started?

KG: Tim Beckham, because he was the #1 overall pick, is always going to be a hot topic of conversation, especially when it gets into a pedigree vs. production debate. Henry Wrigley's just about the opposite of that, an unheralded guy who's been a run-producer, but he's a lot more popular with our audience than I would've expected.

BLB: Some of the Rays prospects through the years have been as close to “can’t miss” as you can get. But are there any “under the radar” prospects that have really piqued your interest? Did they end up making the big league club?

KG: My track record on sleeper prospects isn't terribly great (Jason McEachern and Ty Morrison were two of my favorites, but neither has made "the leap"), but Alex Cobb is a player I was higher on than most after his season at low-A in 2008. He has taken steps forward each year and it looks like he could settle in as a back-end starter. As a site, we were also "in" on Jeremy Hellickson pretty early.

BLB: Have you seen any/all of the Rays minor league teams live?

KG: Living in New Jersey makes this pretty tough, as the teams are mainly located in the south. I've been able to see the Hudson Valley Renegades, who play in NY, but the Durham Bulls are the only other team that plays in a league with teams relatively close.

BLB: You have a podcast with Scott Grauer, who also writes for us. Can you tell us a little about that, how that is going, and what has the reception been?

KG:For me, it was something that I had just wanted to try my hand at for a while, and to bring a different dimension of coverage to the site. It's been going well, I feel, and the experience really makes you appreciate the podcasts that do a really great job. It's nothing huge, but we've had Jim Callis (of BaseballAmerica) and Kevin Goldstein (of Baseball Prospectus) on for episodes and people definitely liked hearing two guys who write about prospects for a living talk about the system.

BLB: Do you feel a sense of pride when some of the prospects you have been writing about for years make it to the big league club? Do you ever feel as if you are handing over one of your own to the MLB-level bloggers?

KG: I'm not sure about pride, but I do like when a player is called up and he's not a complete mystery because I've followed him for the past few years. A nice of example of this is when some chatter was out there earlier this season that Matt Moore might have been tipping pitches. It made sense immediately to me because I had noticed that same thing watching him on last season, so I was able to jump into the video from his major-league start and, along with Scott, make a post on DRaysBay showing it.

I'm not necessarily handing them over, but I hope our coverage is able to give fans a better idea what to expect when a player does get the call.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Cowbell Kid’s Twitter Dilemma

A few weeks ago, Cork wrote about the return of a former Tropicana Field “legend”, the Happy Heckler. Cork goes back with the Rays longer than I do, and he gave the history of the Happy Heckler and discussed what his return means to the fan environment of Tropicana Field.

With the Rays short on famous fans these days, it’s good to see the Heckler back.

In the last few years, another famous Rays fan has been all but missing in action as well. Born shortly after Rays owner Stu Sternberg made popular the cowbells as symbols of the Rays, the Cowbell Kid quickly became legendary in the Tampa Bay area for his antics and actions at Rays games. He was loud, colorful, and charismatic. ESPN showed him, newspapers wrote about him, and Bay News 9 did a feature on him. And with the Rays growing in popularity, he was the face of the fandom, a phenomenon that was set to blow up and finally put Rays fanatics on the map.

Then, like Keyser Soze, he vanished. There was no more Cowbell Kid to coordinate our cacophony club. No more Pied Piper for our percussion posse.

Here is where I have to admit, I know the Cowbell Kid in real life. He is a good dude who ended up getting a night job that limited his ability to go to games. He also started taking college classes in a pursuit of a career change. So I definitely can’t fault him for putting the Cowbell gimmick on temporary hiatus.

The problem is he really hasn’t.

Although he hasn’t been to a game, hasn’t banged his bell, and hasn’t donned his big blue ‘fro in a while, yet he still tweets under the twitter handle “@CowbellKid”. Yet very few of his tweets are about the Rays. He tweets about his job, his classes, and other extracurricular activities, as many of us would.

But we are not tweeting under the handle of one of the biggest Rays fans ever. We are the face of fandom for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Cowbell Kid was, or perhaps still is. ESPN still showed clips of him leading the charge as late as last season.

(What this says about the fact that the Rays have had a dearth of charismatic fans in the last few years is a whole other article entirely.)

The bottom line is that Cowbell Kid needs his own personal twitter account. It’s time to make @CowbellKid its own entity in the his universe, one independent from the regular everyday activities of the man beneath the wig. @Cowbell Kid needs to be more or less “a character twitter account”, tweeting from the perspective of the blue-haired cheerleader and head bell banger. @CowbellKid should be about the Rays and talking about the Rays from a fan’s perspective.

“Going to the game. Boston sucks. #GoRays!”

“Banging my cowbell. A Yankee fan just told me where I can stick it. Banging louder!”

Cowbell's personal identity should keep to another twitter account. One where he can talk about going out for beers, staying out all night at the Hard Rock Casino, or meeting members of the opposite sex. Those aren’t what people should be reading about when they read about the Cowbell Kid, unofficial mascot loved by young and old. They are the actions of a normal guy living life in Tampa.

Now I am not advocating that he turn @CowbellKid into a shill rah-rah pro-Rays account. The freedom the Cowbell Kid has over official mascots such as the Raymond, the Phillie Phanatic, or Mr. Met is that if he doesn’t like something, he could and should express his opinion. But if I was wearing the viking helmet, the sunglasses, the Rays jersey, and elements of the Cowbell Kid costume, I would keep the tweets Rays-related. The Cowbell Kid should eat, breathe, sleep, and live Rays baseball. That’s the character we are used to seeing at the Trop and that’s the one that should exist in social media.

And you never know, maybe he could one day tweet about his grand return to Tropicana Field.