The Nub

The Surprising Asian-American Players and Voters

The return of Ichiro Suzuki to New York last week with the Marlins reminded us of what a blessing he has been to Baseball in this country. The appreciation is all the stronger because of the possibility this will be the last year of the Japanese star’s magnificent career. Now 41, Ichiro has played 14 seasons in the U.S., 11-and –a-half with the Mariners, two-and-a-half with the Yankees. He was an All-Star in each of his first 10 seasons, earning Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, as well. In 2004, he batted .372, his 262 hits setting a single-season record. Ichiro says he hasn’t ruled out staying on for at least another season, if wanted by the Marlins or another team.

Fans would surely welcome more of Ichiro, despite a regrettable aspect of his presence and that of other Asian-born stars: they overshadow the solid play of our home-grown product – the several Asian-American players about whose lineage most fans are unaware. Among them: KC’s Jeremy Guthrie and the Dodgers’ Brandon League (on the DL), whose names provide no clue to the Asian connection, plus the more readily identifiable Boston’s Shane Victorino, the Cardinals’ Kolton Wong, Minnesota’s Kurt Suzuki and SF’s Travis Ishikawa. Wong has gotten off to a solid start – .292, two-for-two stolen bases and better-than-average defense in 15 games; Guthrie is 1-1 with the Royals. Either injuries or a shortage of early-season playing time have hampered the others. But, if precedent holds, they will make their presence felt before long. All but the Twins’ Suzuki helped their teams to the playoffs last season. And we remember the stunning three-run walkoff homer by Ishikawa in the NLCS that sent the Giants to the World Series and their third championship in five years.

Asian-Americans have long been a low-profile presence in the national ballpark and on its political field. But the group provided a pleasant surprise for the Dem team in a recent Pew survey of party loyalty: “The top Democratic?/?Democratic-leaning groups(give) the party a 69-percentage-point edge among blacks; 36 points among the religiously unaffiliated; 30 points with both Jews and Hispanics; and 16 points among millennials (ages 18 to 33). (But) the Democratic-tilting group that’s most notable is Asian-Americans, among whom Pew found the party had a 42-point edge. Considering that Bill Clinton (failed to attract meaningful Asian-American support) in his two presidential races…this move toward Democratic affiliation—in 2012, Mitt Romney lost Asian-Americans by 47 percentage points—is a substantial change. It’s particularly worrying for Republicans, because Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country.” – (Charlie Cook, National Journal)

Made-up proverb: If I’m feeling anxious, it’s nice to know my adversaries are worrying, too.

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 What We Know after a four-week season sampler: Dodgers, Cardinals, and Nationals remain likely division winners. The Yankees, with a resurgent rotation, will have a strong say in who wins the AL East. The Mets could sneak into the playoffs, but only on the unlikely chance the Cubs, Pirates, Giants and Padres cooperate. The defending AL champion Royals are saying 2014 was no fluke. That four of the five division teams (except Houston) are below .500, suggests the AL West will be a scramble.

Yes, You’ve Heard This Before: Amid the welter of injuries plaguing key players in both leagues, one that has failed to sideline a hurt mainstay is doing most damage. A surgically repaired leg is preventing the Tigers’ switch-hitting Victor Martinez from batting from the left side; worse, it has hobbled him as he tries to run out balls put in play. V-Mart has gone from force to liability. A fair conclusion: The Tigers, further declawed by the absence of DL’d Justin Verlander, are no longer the team to beat in the AL Central.

Tommy John’s Dark Side: “The sobering fact is that one out of every seven pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery never will return to the same level of pitching. And when you get Tommy John surgery at a young age, you are that much closer to your second Tommy John surgery. And a second Tommy John surgery means something else for one in three pitchers: the end of the line.” – (Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated)

Umpires are human: the repetitive work can numb their sensibilities, as happened Thursday in Detroit. In the sixth-inning of a one-run game, Jacoby Ellsbury, leading off third, induced a balk from Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez that tied the score at 1-1. It was the Yankees who called the balk, however, not plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, nor first-base ump Tony Randazzo. Will Little, umping at second, could not have had as clear a view of the balk as did Cuzzi, Randazzo, and third base ump Gerry Davis. It was Cuzzi’s call, but he missed it; Randazzo evidently missed the balk, too. Finally, Davis reacted to the commotion from the visitors’ side of the field, and waved Ellsbury home. The Yanks went on to win, 2-1. Chances are the biggest losers will be the umpires, who must explain to their superiors why they appeared to be caught in a state of vapor-lock.

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(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey. Comments about blog issues are welcome. Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)

 

 

Making the Games of Baseball and Life Uncomfortable

Just as the sight of seagoing pirates can cause panic in crews and passengers of legitimate ships, so does competing against the Pittsburgh Pirates raise the anxiety level of opposing teams. Under Skipper Clint Hurdle, the Bucs consider aggressive play, like league-leading numbers of hit batsmen, their ticket to the playoffs. The formula, along with emphasis on analytics, has paid off the past two seasons. Hurdle is particularly pleased with how pitching inside has kept opposing hitters jittery:

“Our persistence in pitching inside,” he told Gammons Daily, “is something we want to keep doing, even when we’re not getting strikes. When you’re feeling that ball in, as a hitter, it just isn’t quite as comfortable.”

Causing discomfort may be valid on the ballfield, and fun to watch for many fans, but a wealthy and powerful outfit like Team USA should not permit the widespread decline in quality of life that has occurred here since the post-World War II years. Birddogs who annually put together a Social Progress Index that evaluates quality of life on a global basis, made these discomforting findings about the home team:

Standings (top 10 of 133): 1) Norway; 2) Sweden; 3) Switzerland; 4) Iceland; 5) New Zealand; 6) Canada; 7) Finland; 8) Denmark; 9) Netherlands; 10) Australia…16) USA.

Despite finishing third in median income behind Norway and Switzerland in the extended upper level of the standings, the home team’s social services/education record places it in the lowest fourth of the top-20 division rankings. The unequal spread on our income field is an obvious source of the B-minus quality of American life. Less obvious, from our personal standpoint, is the way a few of the many facts of political life put a hit on our sense of well-being: a) 5-4 party line Supreme Court decisions; b) the shock following gun violence that leads to no drastic change in our weapons laws; c) the effectiveness of Fox News in influencing its fans. Awareness of those aberrations in the national ballpark, and others like them, constitute, for us, the cloudy backdrop to a close game begging to be enjoyed for the full nine innings.

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Stat City: Just under three weeks into the season, only one team, the Tigers, has made the top 10 in the major performing categories. Detroit is first in pitching, second in hitting and sixth in fielding. KC leads in hitting, the Braves in fielding. Atlanta has made only a single error in 10 games.

Can Mike Trout…still be only 23? He hit his 99th and 100th homers last night against the Astros, the second a milestone: it made Trout the youngest player to record 100 HRs and stolen bases. Trout’s long balls powered the Angels to a 6-3 win over Houston.

Almost Archie: Arizona rookie Archie Bradley left the game against the Giants Thursday night ahead, having yielded only two runs in six-and-a-third innings. Had the D-backs bullpen defended the lead, Bradley would have been the first pitcher to beat the reigning Cy Young Award winner (Clayton Kershaw) and World Series MVP (Madison Bumgarner) in his first two big league appearances. The D-backs eventually won, 7-6, in 12 innings.

That’s Why: Bumgarner has won only once in three starts, giving up 22 hits in 17 innings, recording a 5.29 ERA. Asked why he’s not as sharp as many anticipated, he said “They call it ‘midseason form’ for a reason. It’s tough to get to that right off the bat. It’s not easy to do.” (quoted by SF Gate’s Henry Schulman)

Streakers: Giants -8, Phillies -6, Mets +6, Dodgers +5

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(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey. Comments about blog issues are welcome. Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)

 

The Felt Need for Fire-Power on Both Fields

Whaddaya know: Ten days into the season, seven MLB clubs are riding in or near the interstate; their team BAs backfiring below .200 or just a few points above. The trend, unmistakable last season, is well documented: here are stats collared by Times-man Tyler Kepner: The average team scored 4.07 runs per game last season, down from 5.14 runs per game in 2000. And pitchers pumped in about 6,000 more strikeouts last season than they did in 2000.”

It all suggests that Cole Hamels is no longer the game’s most coveted trading chip. The Dodgers may have a more urgently needed one in Andre Ethier, whom they’ve been trying to unload while offering to pick up a chunk of his hefty salary. And what about Chris Carter? The rapidly re-tooling Astros might welcome swapping their slugging reclamation-project first baseman for a passel of prospects. And, of course, speaking of first basemen, there’s the Phillies’ Ryan Howard, whom teams can have for a not-so-small fortune.

Fire-power is what ball teams are looking for in this offense-challenged slough. And, of course, Team USA, the world’s largest firearms exporter, is not unhappy to find its products welcome, especially, in the Middle East. We had a modest hope that one of Team GOP’s several would-be national skippers, Libertarian Rand Paul, would sell his idea of slashing defense spending to his fans in deep right field, and perhaps it would catch on with red staters. But, as Times columnist Gail Collins pointed out the other day, Paul’s dovish pitch, which also included support for signing a peace treaty with Iran, was made before he became a freshman senator.

“Now,” notes Collins, “(Paul) has learned that Iran probably can’t be trusted…and he wants to raise defense spending by about $190 billion.”  Paul thus seems to have joined, in the words of Paris-based veteran William Pfaff, “the chorus that congressional advocates of bomb, bomb, bombing other nations into the Stone Age is still singing, with Iraq still in ruins and with more ruins being created by the U.S.-led coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State.”

Any candidate who can curb Hillary Clinton’s enthusiasm for military solutions should be applauded for acting to join the Dem team’s presidential playoffs. Here’s a cheer for former Senator and Rhode Island Skipper Lincoln Chafee, who said the U.S. decision to invade Iraq prompted his announced move toward candidacy last week, I just don’t think the United States president should have voted for that huge mistake,” Chafee said. “And I definitely don’t think the Democratic party nominee should have made that huge mistake.” Chafee was quoted in the National Journal, which gave the story several paragraphs. The NY Times, which devoted a front-page column and 40 paragraphs Sunday to Clinton’s strategy in dealing with Skipper Obama, has yet to report on Chafee’s announcement.

P.S. With so many very wealthy people financing her campaign, can Clinton truly embrace the sort of populism implied in her announcement at more than a level of rhetoric and platitude?”   – Robert Kuttner, Huffington Post

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Looka here: The defending AL champion Royals are the last undefeated team after seven games. And supposedly power-challenged KC is one of only five teams with double-digit HRs; the Yankees, Orioles, Dodgers and Mariners are the others.

Angelic Charge: The injury-riddled Giants have gotten off to a shaky (3-5) start, thanks, mainly, to their their depleted ranks. They badly miss Hunter Pence – out until sometime in May. A healthy (so far) Angel Pagan has been a plus – five of eight extra-base hits and a .292 BA. SF has done well with Angel in the lineup over the last three seasons. Last year was a good example: with Angel, the Giants played at a .577 pace; without him their W-L percentage was .451. Vin Scully has hailed both Pagan and Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez for the “fire” they bring to their teams. Both, by the way, are former Mets.

Unclaimed Property: The Globe’s Nick Cafardo reminds us that there’s still one “name” free agent unsigned for 2015: he’s elite reliever Rafael Soriano, a Scott Boros client. Several teams, including the Mets, have depleted bullpens in urgent need of beefing up. The Tigers may be Soriano’s most likely destination.

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(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey. Comments about blog issues are welcome. Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)

 

Renewing Baseball’s and the Nation’s Focus on African-Americans

Jimmy Rollins shrugged when asked about Baseball’s inner-cities effort to attract African-Americans. “Whatever, best ” he said.   Rollins knows that the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) has shown the sport is doing something, buy decease but nowhere near enough to bring young American blacks back to the time when their elders comprised a fifth of all major league players (a percentage now down to seven percent). MLB has ponied up $30 million in support of the program, pharmacy which has a presence in 200 communities, But Commissioner Rob Manfred must know by now that more resources are needed; for example: a scouting program to reach gifted black athletes who display unusual natural ability in playground basketball; cash support for young prospects to play on travel teams through which middle class boys (and some girls) gain premium experience. And baseball scholarships for promising athletes to prep-school and college teams with programs known for successful player development.

Such an investment would be the equivalent of the millions that make possible the baseball academies in Latin America. Those are training centers that turn out most of the international players who have filled the roster spots vacated by American blacks over the last couple of decades. Bud Selig set up a commission to address the decline of black interest in baseball. It has done little up to now. The new commish can help change that, and should.

Serious focus by Baseball on renewing African-American involvement in the sport would parallel the growing national attention to what seems to be ever-widening black inequality and a police culture that persists in seeing blacks as enemies. Vox’s Ezra Klein notes the trend toward discussion of the race issue occurring in the entertainment game; it’s notable, he says, with the approaching end of the Obama era, as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart leave holes on Cable TV’s Comedy Central roster:

The constant crises of Obama’s early presidency gave the shows plenty to work with at first, but as the sirens quieted and Washington slowly froze into gridlock, the shows began to lose steam. The disappointments of the Obama administration didn’t offer the comic fodder of the outrages of the Bush administration…Colbert announced his move to CBS. Stewart announced his retirement.   Their replacements — Trevor Noah at The Daily Show and Larry Wilmore in Colbert’s slot — are responses to the Obama era. Both are talented black comedians with a particular skill for limning America’s complicated, and often infuriating, racial politics. Their (occasional)work on The Daily Show focused on the racial controversies of the Obama era. And their takeover is a recognition of one of the lessons of Obama’s presidency: American politics isn’t moving past race. It’s moving into it. And so, too, is the news business.”

There He Goes Again: Why were we not surprised to hear that “Where’s Charlie?” Schumer surfaced to go to bat for Team GOP’s (Senator Bob) Corker Amendment challenging the Skipper’s right to decide on the acceptability of the nuclear deal with Iran? Charlie always knows how to swing hard when big-money backing looks precarious, or to execute a discrete safety-squeeze when safer big-money interests are in play.

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This Just In (Almost): NEW YORK – Mookie Betts lifted a sacrifice fly to center field in the 19th inning off Esmil Rogers, sending Xander Bogaerts home with the deciding run as the Red Sox defeated the Yankees, 6-5, in the longest game played at the current Yankee Stadium. Chase Headley’s ninth-inning homer off Edward Mujica erased the first of four Boston leads in the Friday night contest. David Ortiz gave Boston back the lead in 16th with a solo shot off Rogers, but with the clock having moved past midnight, Mark Teiseira celebrated his 35th birthday in the home half of the 16th with a game-tying homer off Steven Wright. In the 18th, Pablo Sandoval knocked a run-scoring single off Rogers to put the Red Sox back on top, but the Yankees again wiped out that lead as Carlos Beltran doubled to deep left off Wright, scoring pinch-runner John Ryan Murphy. (MLB.com)

So Far…so good: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Colorado, Detroit, Kansas City (all 4-0); so shaky: Brewers, White Sox (both 0-4).

Numerically Noted: KC, last in HRs last season with 95, have seven in 2015’s first four games while sweeping the White Sox.   The Rockies, who won 21 away games last year, already have produced one-seventh of that total after taking three-of-three from the Brewers in Milwaukee. TheTigers, meanwhile, set a new AL record by blanking the woeful-looking Twins over 24 straight innings. And they did it minus both Justin Verlander (injured) and Max Scherzer (signed elsewhere).

The Mind-Set of a Superior Hitter: “It’s more like, ‘Ride the wave,’ not, ‘Hit the homer.’ See a pitch, hit it hard, don’t let it get away. Adrian can really hit. He’s a guy who understands…” Don Mattingly on Adrian Gonzalez, who hit five homers in the season’s first three games.

Mega-Hyped Matt Harvey must take a Metsian bow for refusing to stumble on the stage in mid-week against the Nats.

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The Money Game: in Play Everywhere

Kris Bryant, sale Javier Baez, Noah Syndergaard:are three of several players at the center of a squabble over assignment to the minors for financial rather than baseball reasons. Theo Epstein signaled Bryant and Baez would be sent to the Cubs’ farm teams before opening day, buy and followed through. He denies it’s to keep them from getting an extra year’s ML service time. The Mets, having sent back Syndergaard earlier, are also playing the minors-for-money-saving game. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal has it right when he says: “Everyone who loves the sport should be sick of the charade in which a hot prospect tears up spring training, then returns to the minors for at least two weeks to delay his free agency by one year. A player receives a year of service for 172 days. A season normally consists of 183. So for the Cubs (for example) to get an extra year of (salary) control on Bryant, they likely will need to postpone his arrival for at least 12 days.”

Here is Epstein, about sending Bryant and Baez down: We’ve broken in some pretty good young players over the years from Kevin Youkilis to Hanley Ramirez to Dustin Pedroia to Jacoby Ellsbury to Jon Lester to Jonathan Papelbon and we have always given them the benefit of getting into the season in the minor leagues and getting into a good rhythm whether that is on the mound or offensively or defensively and playing in games that count rather than just spring training. We want to let them get into the flow of the season and then we try to pick just the right moment, in our opinion, to have them come up and make their major league debut. A major league debut…doesn’t go quite the right way…if you don’t put them in the right position to succeed. – quoted by David Kaplan, CSN Chicago.com

Bryant and Baez, as well as Syndergaard, can now be categorized as on-deck MLB players – not true minor leaguers – performing for their farm teams. The difference in status came to mind some days ago when, more out of curiosity than commitment, we attended a Political Action Committee (PAC) meeting of a Democratic candidate in New York. The PAC can raise money from individuals for a particular candidate but he or she cannot be associated with how it is spent. We donated $250, the lowest contribution category, well below the $5,000 top amount.

Addressing the bankers, lawyers and other business people who had given under their own names, the candidate pitched an all-inclusive line. He assured them that he and his Dem team-members wanted to make things better for both society’s struggling bench-sitters and its productive hitters. A hitter nearby looked around – we imagined toward us – and said to a fellow thumper: “Not too many ‘minor leaguers’ here tonight.”

At the hundreds of similar PAC meetings around the country, hitters will surely dominate, confirming the ever-growing clout of money in our elections. That power will expand until it triggers enough public outrage to begin what for now is only a dream: a national demand for cash-light minor leaguers again to have a say in how the electoral game is played.

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The Rich and the Not-Quite So: “For 2015, the (Dodgers) have a season-opening record payroll of $272.8 million. That is roughly $53 million more than the second-place Yankees and nearly $100 million – yes, $100 million – more than the next highest in the NL West, the Giants, at $173.8 million. The gap was about $92 million last year, (when) the Giants won a championship for the third time in five years.” (Joel Sherman, NY Post)

The Good and Bad: Oakland, which had the best spring record – 21-9-2 – in the majors, is among leaders in key injuries, as well. The A’s have lost leadoff hitter Coco Crisp (elbow surgery) for two months, and closer Sean Doolittle (shoulder) for a month or more. SF Chronicle’s Susan Slusser sees a bright side: “The team has energy to spare with as many as five rookies on the Opening Night roster — plus new third baseman Brett Lawrie, who bounces around like Tigger after several Red Bulls.”

Tipping Point? “(Joe) Maddon was the modern prototype of a manager, an extension of an exceptional front office that won 90 games five times in six years. Had he stayed with Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay, he would still be marginalized. This is not likely with the rising Cubs. Maddon to Chicago. (Clint) Hurdle with a model (analytics-minded) franchise. (Pirates alumnus Jeff) Banister exporting the new approach to Texas. The shift-happy Astros with analytically-inclined A.J. Hinch. The Orioles over-performing with Buck Showalter every year. The old walls are breaking down, and the best ideas are flowing freely. More than a decade after ‘Moneyball,’… the fully integrated approach of analytics and coaching has arrived. The teams with everyone on board will benefit from the new competitive advantage. “ (Brian Kenny, Sports on Earth)

By the Way: The Nub will be’ll be celebrating the start of its ninth year tomorrow, as the Cardinals and Cubs – Adam Wainright and Jon Lester – match up to open the season.

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(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey. Comments about blog issues are welcome. Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)