Author Archive

Well, I guess we can close the file on that one

In the interest of accountability, and laughing at myself, I wanted to take a look at my preseason predictions. I feel like I did OK but not great. Click here for the original post.

 

Things I got right:

* “I think the Yankees are the best team in baseball.” OK, they only had the third-best record, but they had the second-best run differential in the Majors (by one run behind Washington) and they had the best record in the tougher league.

 

* AL Central, five-for-five. I liked the White Sox because of their starting pitching and power, but not quite enough to knock off the Tigers. That’s a win.

 

* Angels to miss the playoffs. I didn’t think they were terrible, but I wasn’t on board with the hype for them as the best team in the AL, or the favorite to win the World Series — and there was a lot of that.

 

* “The Braves are… the most consistently underrated team coming into this season.” Most projections that I saw had the Braves AND Red Sox as being crippled by their collapses, and doomed to additional failure this year. I was half right. The Braves were what I thought they were: an all-around good team, strong in pretty much all facets.

 

Things I got wrong:

* “I think the Red Sox are really underrated this year.” Ouch. Talk all you want about Bobby Valentine, but the biggest culprit here was the same thing it was down the stretch last year: starting pitching. I thought it would be very good. It was terrible.

 

* Marlins third in NLE, Nationals fourth. Ouch again. What’s worst about this is the reason I had them like this. I thought the Marlins would hit, and instead, one Miami hitter after another just cratered. Massively disappointing season for so many of their bats. I thought the Nationals, meanwhile, wouldn’t hit enough to contend, no matter how well they pitched. And, well, they finished fifth in the league in runs scored.

 

* Brewers to finish second. OK, by the end of the year, I wasn’t so far off on this one, but my reasoning was still wrong. They hit really well and didn’t pitch nearly as well as I thought they would. I had the Cardinals to finish third, but the reasoning there was dead-on: there was a TON that could go wrong, and much of it did. It’s a tribute to them that they still took a playoff spot.

 

* Orioles and A’s in last place. *sigh* Not only not to win, not to contend, but last place for both of them. I started seeing things I liked in the Orioles pretty early in the year, but still. Huge misses on both. Not that I was alone, of course.

 

-M.

AL seeding and tiebreaks

Under the new playoff system, more ties are broken by actually playing an extra game than in past years. This has led to all sorts of entertaining potential scenarios being constructed, though it’s now looking exceedingly unlikely that any of them will actually play out this year.

 

But there are still some tiebreakers that are broken without playing an extra game. If the two Wild Card teams finish with the same record, then obviously they don’t play a game to determine where they’ll play their next game. And a tie between two division champions, when there’s not also a concurrent tie between those teams and a Wild Card team or a team not otherwise in the playoffs, is also broken without playing an extra game.

 

Such a scenario is at least possible, if not quite likely, in the American League. The Rangers, A’s, Yankees and Orioles are all separated by a grand total of one game, so it seems like there’s a pretty good chance that the AL West champ and AL East champ will have the same record. In that case, a tiebreaker would apply in order to determine two things: which team plays the Wild Card winner and which plays the AL Central champ, and which team would have home-field advantage over the other in a potential ALCS matchup.

 

So, here they are. If this has already been broken down somewhere else, I apologize, but I haven’t seen it. There’s a pretty healthy amount of baseball coverage out there right now.

 

The first tiebreak, as you would probably expect, is head-to-head record. This is sufficient in three of the four matchups.

 

Yankees-Rangers tie: Yankees would play Wild Card and would have ALCS home field, due to 4-3 head-to-head record vs TEX
Orioles-Rangers tie: Rangers would play Wild Card and would have ALCS home field, due to 5-2 head-to-head record vs BAL
Orioles-A’s tie: A’s would play Wild Card and would have ALCS home field, due to 5-4 head-to-head record vs BAL

 

That leaves one other possibility:

Yankees-A’s tie: A’s would play Wild Card and would have ALCS home field, due to SECOND tiebreaker, which is record within own division. Head-to-head record was 5-5.

 

-M, with Patterson Hood’s amazing new record playing in the earphones right now. Go get it, it’s that good.

Just for fun

So, with six days left in the regular season, we know basically nothing about how the matchups are going to look. Without even getting into one-game playoffs, every single one of these matchups is still in play for when the Division Series start next week.

Rangers vs Orioles
Rangers vs A’s
Rangers vs Rays
Rangers vs Angels
Rangers vs Tigers
Rangers vs White Sox
Rangers vs Yankees
Yankees vs Orioles
Yankees vs A’s
Yankees vs Rays
Yankees vs Angels
Yankees vs Tigers
Yankees vs White Sox
Orioles vs A’s
Orioles vs Angels
Orioles vs Tigers
Orioles vs White Sox
Orioles vs Rays
Rays vs A’s
Rays vs Angels
Rays vs Tigers
Rays vs White Sox
A’s vs Tigers
A’s vs White Sox
A’s vs Angels
Angels vs Tigers
Angels vs White Sox

Nationals vs Braves
Nationals vs Cardinals
Nationals vs Dodgers
Nationals vs Brewers
Nationals vs Phillies
Nationals vs Diamondbacks
Nationals vs Reds
Nationals vs Giants
Braves vs Cardinals
Braves vs Dodgers
Braves vs Brewers
Braves vs Phillies
Braves vs Diamondbacks
Braves vs Reds
Braves vs Giants
Reds vs Cardinals
Reds vs Dodgers
Reds vs Brewers
Reds vs Phillies
Reds vs Diamondbacks
Reds vs Giants
Giants vs Cardinals
Giants vs Dodgers
Giants vs Brewers
Giants vs Phillies
Giants vs Diamondbacks

 

That’s 53 different matchups, by my count. It’s POSSIBLE that there are combinations of wins and losses that would prevent one or two of these from happening. I’m just going off the standings, figuring who can finish in each position that way, so it’s possible that one team winning out to get into a certain spot would require another team to have enough losses to fall out of another spot. But that shouldn’t affect more than 1 or 2 potential matchups, if that many.

 

 

Who, me? Contrary?

So the 2013 schedule came out today. (Well, technically yesterday in the Eastern and Central time zones)

 

And it’s been dissected and analyzed, and I’m a bit of a schedule geek, so I find that stuff interesting. There’s plenty of it around if you care to take a look. But there’s one thing that came up a few times that I disagree with, and why does one have a blog if not to disagree with conventional wisdom?

 

There’s an angle, a point a few people have made, about Interleague play in September. About how, for an AL team going on the road in September for Interleague games, there’s a special disadvantage because they’re doing without the DH in the most important games of the year.

 

And, I mean, when you first hear it, it makes sense. Except there’s a big problem: September games aren’t any more meaningful than any other games. They’re equally important, or maybe even less so.

 

In a literal sense, every game counts exactly the same. You lose a game, you lose a game. There’s not extra weighting for September games. Unlike, say, college football, where the last games are in fact more important because they have more bearing on the polls. Or college basketball, where a team’s final 10 games are a factor for the tournament committee. In baseball, every game counts the same. One win, one loss. If you start 100-0, then go 0-62, you’re in the playoffs. Start 0-81, finish 81-0, you’re not.

 

But let’s go a step farther than that. The most important games of the year are almost certainly in July. That’s when a GM shapes what his team will look like over the final two months. Let’s say the Brewers had exactly the same record they do now, but they had five more wins in July and five fewer in August and September. So they were 49-49 on the morning of July 27, and 23-22 since then. Well, they’d have a better team than they do right now, because they probably would still have Zack Greinke.

 

It’s a credit to them that they’re charging like they are without Greinke, but they’d be better with him in their starting rotation. The Phillies would probably be better with Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence.

 

If you told me a team was going to win N games, say 90, and asked me how I wanted them distributed, I’d want more in July than any other time.

 

Today’s playlist, btw, is “Twenty-Five For the Rest of Our Lives” by the Henry Clay People. Recommended album.

 

-M.

Chalk in the NL

I just finished a story that will go up on MLB.com tomorrow examining a few teams that might be particularly well-built for October. In it, I included a line about how I was leaving out teams like the Nationals and Rangers, because anybody can pick a favorite.

 

The problem is, when I wanted to include at least one National League team, that limitation made it pretty tough on me. I found a team (a team I’ve liked since March, actually), but my heart was less in it. I think there are more of those interesting-in-October teams in the AL than in the NL. The White Sox, the Angels, even the Orioles all look like teams that have some argument for being tough outs in the playoffs. Heck, even the Rays and A’s, if you wanted to make a case, I’d listen.

 

That’s because the two teams that are best built for October in the NL, for my money, are the two best teams in the NL. I know, on Twitter, this would probably earn me an #analysis hashtag, but I really think the Nationals (even without Stephen Strasburg) and the Reds are the teams to beat in the NL postseason.

 

(STANDARD AND ESSENTIAL DISCLAIMER: Nobody has that much more than a 1/8 chance of winning the whole thing. The best team doesn’t win a playoff series that much more than 50 percent of the time, so predicting October outcomes is really a fool’s errand. Anyway, on with the show.)

 

Baseball Prospectus “retired” its Secret Sauce rankings a couple of years ago, but I think the things still have some merit. The idea was that the things that best determine October success are: a rotation that strikes people out, a dominant closer, and an airtight defense. I think there are a couple of other things (though without actual evidence, I’m perfectly open to any skepticism about this theory; it’s based on observation, which is always dangerous) to take seriously: a tactically sound manager and an offense that has at least one of the following two traits: lineup depth and/or power.

 

I believe in the first because I’ve just seen it too many times, managers getting exposed tactically in October and paying the price. I don’t believe, at all, that tactics are all there is to being a manager. In fact, it’s one thing that being on the beat really impressed upon me, that I had that balance wrong. I thought tactics were the vast majority of managing. I no longer do. But in October, while some personal challenges become magnified, many kind of fade away. It’s easier to get everybody on the same page when the goal is so clearly in sight.

 

As for the offensive part, well, the expression (courtesy of my friend Joe Sheehan) is “Ball go far, team go far.” It’s easier to hit one home run than to string several baserunners together against elite pitchers and defenses. But if you don’t have power, the next best thing is depth, as the increased exposure, scouting, video, etc. of a short series should make it easier to shut down one or two or three key guys. (for a second time: I’m not decreeing these things to be so. I could be wrong. They’re based on my impressions, observations, reading, analysis, etc. Just my take. I’ve been wrong more than once before in my life. Anyway, again, on with the show.)

 

Well, look at the Nats and Reds, and especially the Nats. Talk about a rotation that misses bats. Even without Strasburg, they certainly have that. They don’t have a Rivera-class closer, but they have something that IMO is even better: a core of four or so relievers who can dominate. I don’t think you need to go seven deep in October. In fact, I know you don’t. But you do need more than just a closer. Most teams are going to ride 3-4 relievers hard in the postseason. They can do that.

 

As for the offense, as of right now Washington meets both criteria. Believe it or not, the Nats are second in the NL in home runs. They also feature a lineup where Jayson Werth leads off, and guys with 22 and 16 home runs bat sixth and seventh. A rejuvenated Kurt Suzuki is a nice-looking eighth hitter. The more I see this team, the more I like it. They’re a load for just about anybody in the NL.

 

The defense isn’t great, but it’s not bad. And the manager, for my money, is one of the shrewdest tacticians of the past few decades. There just aren’t any obvious weaknesses to exploit here. If I had to pick a team to win the NL (and at some point, I’m sure I will have to do just that), right now it’s Washington.

 

And if it’s not Washington, it’s Cincinnati, which has many of the same qualities. I don’t like the depth of Reds’ rotation as much as that of the Nats’, but the top two guys definitely miss bats. The bullpen, on the other hand, may be even better. They’re potent from the left and right sides, and if Dusty Baker gets creative, Aroldis Chapman could be a 4-, 5-, or even 6-out monster in playoff games.

 

The lineup is just as deep, if not deeper, with seven players who have 14 homers or more. The Reds are right behind the Nats in homers on the year, and they’ve done that with Joey Votto missing a huge chunk of the year. Top to bottom, I’d take the Reds lineup over the Nats lineup. I don’t like Dusty Baker as a tactician nearly as much as I like Johnson, but then, I could say that about most managers. Davey’s awfully sharp. They’re also not quite as good defensively as the Nats according to the numbers, but boy, they look like a pretty good fielding team to my eye.

 

In short, I think the Reds are sort of 90 percent of the Nats, with broadly similar strengths and weaknesses. And while I certainly wouldn’t rule out the Giants’ rotation getting torrid for a month, or the Cardinals hanging six runs a game for a month, as of right now I like the Nats and Reds a good bit more than any other team in the NL when it comes to October matchups.

 

Feel free to call me on this in mid-October when it’s a Dodgers-Pirates NLCS, btw.

 

-M.

 

 

Some thoughts on the Nationals and Braves

This has been fun, setting up shop for a full series, watching two good teams play, actually getting to know the clubs a little bit. Here are a few thoughts and observations that haven’t made it into what I’ve written for the site.

* I really like the Braves lineup, but it’s somewhat susceptible to being shut down by good left-handed pitching. It’s a heavily lefty lineup, though Freddie Freeman for one has been solid lefty-on-lefty.

What will be interesting to see, as they go down the stretch and if they make it to October, is how Fredi Gonzalez handles the tactical pieces he has on his bench. Atlanta has two very nice lefty-killers in reserve: David Ross and Reed Johnson. And that’s convenient, since Jason Heyward and Brian McCann have been the two most problematic players against lefties for Atlanta this year.

By contrast, the Nationals have very little platoon split, and they go left-right-left-right all the way through the lineup. They have dangerous hitters from both sides of the plate. The reason I wasn’t as optimistic about Washington as a lot of people were back in March was that I wasn’t sure they’d score enough runs. But with Jayson Werth’s bounceback, Mike Morse repeating what he’s done and Adam LaRoche having his best year since ’09, this is a strong offense.

* Davey Johnson seemed to let slip the target date for Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown today. He said they would need two or possibly three starts from whoever steps in, indicating that Strasburg will pitch until about the last 10-15 games of the year.

Washington ends the season with 16 games in 16 days, so it sounds like Strasburg make his last start sometime in the Nats’ last full-week homestand, quite possibly against the Dodgers between Sept. 18-20.

It sounds like there’s still a little bit of wiggle room based on changing circumstances, but the way Johnson phrased it today made it pretty clear that they have a date. They just haven’t made it public.

* The Braves’ schedule is intriguing. They’ve got a rough go right now, with a trip to San Francisco immediately following tonight’s game and no off day in between. But after that, it really eases up. They have exactly the schedule you want if you’re leading a race (and they are, leading the Wild Card by three games over Pittsburgh and 3 1/2 by the first team not in playoff position, St. Louis).

They not only see mostly non-contending teams (with the exception of those games against the Giants and one more series with Washington), which is of course nice. But more important, the teams that are chasing them have almost no chances to gain ground directly. After this weekend, Atlanta has one more series in 2012 against another team in the Wild Card race — they end the year with a series in Pittsburgh.

And, finally, the playlist is an assortment of stuff from some of my favorite albums so far in 2012:

Japandroids, “Younger Us”
Bruce Springsteen, “Rocky Ground”
Cloud Nothings, “Stay Useless”
Justin Townes Earle, “Am I That Lonely Tonight?”
Jack White, “Love Interruption”

-M.

A little Friday afternoon blogging

A few thoughts from the past week or so of watching baseball (including three games in person, which was quite nice)…

 

* I talked about this some on Twitter last night, but after seeing the Indians and White Sox this week, and after researching them both quite a lot in advance of seeing them, I’m a much bigger believer in the Sox than the Tribe.

 

As I wrote in my column last night, the Sox don’t have many real gaping weaknesses. The ‘pen has been an issue, but the arms are there for it to be plenty good, and of course there’s nothing easier to fix than a bullpen. Alexei Ramirez’s falloff has been really puzzling, but that’s still only one lineup spot. Elsewhere in the lineup, there’s danger even at the spots where there are OBP issues.

 

Meanwhile, I just don’t see a lot to like with Cleveland. The back of the bullpen has been effective, but beyond those three guys, it’s a problem. And three-man bullpens tend to burn out. The rotation only goes about two deep with any real effectiveness, and the lineup has far too many holes. Chicago’s a better defensive team too.

 

Of course, that still leaves the Tigers, who I’m having a hard time getting a handle on, but my expectation is that it will be a Tigers-White Sox race. The opportunity would have been very much there for the Royals if they had had more luck keeping their starters healthy, but the injuries to Duffy and Paulino just look like too much to overcome.

 

* I find myself believing a little bit in the Mets, even after their rough weekend against the Yankees. The lineup is better than it gets credit for (third in NL in runs scored… yes, really), the rotation is solid and deep, and the bullpen… Well, can it really be THIS bad? The NLE is a fascinating division where there are a lot of strengths and a lot of weaknesses, and I’m beginning to think the Mets should buy.

 

* I’ve also been thinking a bit about paces. Nobody ever hits them, and there’s a reason for that. Remember early in the year, the paces that Josh Hamilton was on? Now it’s Joey Votto, on pace for about 70 doubles.

 

Here’s the thing: we only seem to extrapolate guys’ paces when they’re at their absolute peaks. Earl Webb hit 67 doubles in 1931. That means that on AVERAGE, he was at a 67-double pace. Not at his high point. At one point, in mid-July, Earl Webb was on pace to hit 77 doubles.

 

Over the course of a season, a player has peaks and valleys on the way to his final numbers. He doesn’t sustain his hottest stretch for a full season. Joey Votto is almost certainly not going to hit 69 doubles.

 

Doesn’t mean he’s not having a great season, of course. Just a reminder that hot streaks are considered hot streaks for a reason.

 

-M.

A couple of R.A. Dickey nuggets

I’ll be writing about R.A. Dickey in advance of his start Sunday night, and that’ll appear on Mets.com and MLB.com at some point in the next 24-48 hours, so I attended his news conference at Citi Field today.

 

It was, in a word, fascinating. He’s one of the most interesting, thoughtful players I’ve heard speak, and there was a lot of good stuff in the presser. Most of it I’ll save for the story, but I wanted to pass along two things that I thought were particularly of interest.

 

* The first is an anecdote. He was asked whether he takes note of, or enjoys, or whatever, the reactions of hitters to trying to hit the flutterball. And, well, let’s just say the answer is yes.

 

“I do look at reactions of hitters,” he said. “Not only their swing reaction to the pitch I’m throwing, but their facial expressions. For instance, Adam Jones, the first at-bat [on Monday], I saw him talking to Josh [Thole, catcher] and Josh told me what he said. I saw him giggling after a couple pitches, and that right there tells me that he’s going to be struggling with it all night. That’s a bullet in my gun. I’m out there to win the game, and I’m out there to make him go back to the dugout as quickly as possible. So if I have that, that certainly is ammunition.” (emphasis added)

 

He’s a nice guy and an interesting guy. He throws a pitch that has kind of a “cute, cuddly” connotation. He’s also a competitor, and if you give a competitor an edge like that, well, that’s what happens.

 

* Second was something that I saw brought up on Twitter a couple of days ago (I forget who I saw mentioning it, sorry about that). Dickey was asked whether writing a book this winter, and revealing some traumatic experiences (most notably sexual abuse that he suffered as a child), might be contributing to his success this year. In short, whether having that off his chest might help him, or whether that was a stretch.

 

The response: “I don’t think that’s a stretch. I think that’s good insight. I think any time you feel the freedom to be yourself, it’s going to enhance the other aspects of your life. Whether it’s how you are as a father, how you are as a baseball player. That was certainly one of the things that I was hoping for when I wrote it. And as far as the attention that it’s gotten, I’m certainly flattered and my hope in that is that people will learn from my mistakes.”

 

-M, blogging fiend today.

June 22 and 23, 2002, and beyond — some memories

Pardon kind of a freeform post here. Not that they all aren’t, I guess.

As I’ve mentioned a few times, 2002 was my first year on the beat, and in fact the first year I ever held a beat of any kind. As everyone knows, that’s the year Darryl Kile and Jack Buck died. But it was also the year Tino Martinez stepped in for Mark McGwire, the year that 11 different pitchers started a game for the Cardinals before the end of May, the year the Cards traded for Chuck Finley and Scott Rolen, and the year that Ozzie Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was the most eventful season out of my 10 covering the team.

To top it off, I finagled my way into covering the College World Series for MLB.com that year as well. I was out of town when Jack Buck passed away, and I was out of town when the club held a memorial service for Buck.

And on Saturday, June 22, I was sitting in the press box at old Rosenblatt Stadium one more time, covering the national championship game between Texas and South Carolina, when I heard-but-didn’t-hear something. Surely you all know how that is. Something is said in a crowded room, and somewhere in the back of your brain you’re aware that it was said, but you don’t really hear it. You don’t really process it.

Someone said, “Darryl Kile died.” And I didn’t process it. Then somebody else said it, and I came a little closer to actually hearing it. By the third or fourth time, I actually processed it. This was something that had happened. This was something real.

I got to the work part of things as quickly as I could, but there wasn’t much that I could do. The Cardinals were in Chicago, and my esteemed colleague Carrie Muskat was covering the series. Carrie was on top of everything, and honestly I owe her a huge debt to this day. I remember being in the press box, hearing the news and finally processing it, like it was yesterday. I literally remember nothing else about that day. I’m sure I wrote something off the game. I’m sure I had dinner. I know for a fact that I rearranged my travel plans, but I don’t remember doing that either.

But I know I did it, because I got on a much earlier flight on Sunday than I had intended. I had been scheduled to come back from Omaha sometime in the afternoon. Instead, I adjusted things so I could get on an early morning departure. Flew back to St. Louis, rushed back to my apartment in the Central West End to grab a change of clothes, and made straight for Chicago.

I pulled into a parking lot somewhere near Wrigley at about 3:15 p.m. Rushed to pick up my credential, hustled up to the press box (if you’ve never done that, it’s an endeavor. You take the stairs, and it’s not real close), and basically walked in there right at the moment that the clubhouse was to open.

I walked up to Carrie, tried to take a minute to thank her for carrying the load the day before, and she stopped me before I could even finish. There was work to be done. This is why I love working with Carrie, by the way.

Mercifully, the Cardinals did not open the clubhouse that night. The players didn’t want it, the coaching staff didn’t want it, and I assure you I didn’t want it. I can’t speak for anyone else in the media, but I was extremely relieved. Five years later I was in the clubhouse pregame the day after Josh Hancock died, and I wish I hadn’t been.

They brought a couple of people out to talk to us, and everyone was just in a haze. The game was played in a haze, truth be told. Jason Simontacchi had the unenviable task of pitching on what would have been Kile’s day, and he handled himself as well as could be asked. Kile took pride in the fact that he never missed a start in the big leagues. Taking his spot, under the lights on ESPN no less, was unfair to ask of anyone.

The ensuing days were scarcely any better. We had to write about Kile, but humans grieve in a lot of different ways, and some of these guys simply didn’t want to talk about him — understandably. Matt Morris, who counted Kile as one of his closest friends, just didn’t want to talk about it. As I’ve mentioned here before, Dave Veres was a godsend, because he wanted to talk about his friend. It helped him.

The rest of the season, of course, continued to be tremendously memorable for better and worse. The Cardinals weren’t done losing members of their family; Darrell Porter and Enos Slaughter both passed away in August. The Rolen and Finley trades were huge boosts to a team that played inspired baseball through the summer. The playoff win against the Diamondbacks was uplifting.

And then there’s one last memory I have of that team and that season. I’ve been in a lot of losing locker rooms, including World Series and LCS. I’ve seen some teams take some hits. And I have never, in my time covering baseball, been in a clubhouse as silent, as dejected, as punched in the stomach over the outcome of a game, as the Cardinals after the 2002 NLCS.

They sincerely believed, like no team I’ve been around, that they were destined. They were playing for Darryl and Jack, and for the fans who had their back throughout the season, and for each other with all they went through. There’s always disappointment when a season ends, but that team wasn’t just disappointed. I really feel like they thought they had let people down.

They didn’t, of course. Quite the opposite. That was a remarkable team, and among other things for my money it was the best managing job TLR ever did. But there was no hearing it that night. No “we gave it a good run.” It wasn’t the time for appreciating what they’d done, as far as they were concerned.

Anyway, this is long and rambling, so I’ll stop now. Thanks for reading.

-M.

My favorite — only? — Darryl Kile story

I’m writing a column on Darryl Kile — writing it now, actually, and this blog post is me taking a breather in that process — and the column will be up later this afternoon. As with my remember of Tony La Russa’s career, though, sometimes there’s an anecdote that just doesn’t fit into a story if you want to tell the anecdote right.

 

Kile, as I’ve written and said before, was very tough to cover when he was in St. Louis. I’ve heard that that was not the case when he pitched for the Astros, but by the time he got to the Cardinals, after a stop in Denver, he didn’t like giving interviews. He could be prickly and was always brief. I was in my first year on the beat, my first year on any beat, and in fact had been warned by my predecessor that Kile could be a bear to reporters. He was a big guy, I was a rookie who was totally out of his depth — it’s fair to say I was a little intimidated by him.

 

(Note: please read the column when it goes up, since it’s all about my reflection on the difference between the player that we in the media see and the man that the player is at other times.)

 

Anyway, it was early in Spring Training. I’d been down in Florida for maybe a couple of weeks. The reporters were standing around at the corner of Field 1, waiting for La Russa to come out and hold his customary briefing. Pitchers were tossing, warming up for the day. The nearest pair of pitchers was Kile and Rick Ankiel — Kile near, along the warning track, Ankiel farther, out in the outfield. This was 2002, so Ankiel’s difficulties throwing the ball were already well known and documented. It was a sore subject, to say the least.

 

(Perhaps some other time in this space I’ll share my favorite Dave Duncan story, which also pertains to Ankiel and is extremely funny but would require some heavy editing to fit in a family blog. But that’s for another day.)

 

So we wait, and we watch the pitchers throw. That’s quite a bit of what you do in Spring Training. And after a few, Ankiel throws a ball that drifts a bit, sailing in the direction of the writers. It didn’t sail a lot. It didn’t get away. But Kile had to stretch to get it. And from my angle, it really did look like the ball was coming right at us.

 

So, I said, not loudly and not pointedly, “Heads up.” The universal signal for, “Hey, that baseball could be in someone’s face sooner than later, so you might want to be careful.” Like I’ve said dozens, maybe hundreds, of times over the years at ballparks.

 

Kile caught the ball and immediately turned around. With a scowl, he practically growled, “Who said that?!?!?” I meekly acknowledged that I had, but that I certainly hadn’t meant anything by it. He didn’t follow up, didn’t pick a fight. I’m sure he quickly realized that it wasn’t a shot or a dig at Ankiel — but he didn’t know that at first, and for all he knew until he checked, it might have been. So it was his duty to make sure he had his teammate covered.

 

It was a little thing, but it was very much the essence of what Kile was about when he was around the team. Teammates first, above all else. He’d sent his message — he had Ankiel’s back, and if anybody DID want to get cute, they were welcome to go through him.

 

-M.

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