Monday, August 24, 2009

Juicing the Fun Out of the Game


You may have noticed a lack of updates on the site ever since the “story” broke regarding David Ortiz’s alleged steroid use.  The reaction that I saw everywhere after the story broke was disgusting.  It seems like a lot of people were chomping at the bit to take shots at the Boston Red Sox and their most popular player.  Now the World Series victories are supposedly tainted and of course all of the critics knew all along that Ortiz had to have been using steroids.  The only problem is that nothing about Ortiz’s past screamed steroids unless you’ve got your witch hunt blinders on.

The first piece of evidence that people always point to is Ortiz’s stats with the Twins.  They cite the low home run totals, but for some reason never mention the injuries or low number of games Ortiz played.  Ortiz’s 16.8 AB/HR in 2001 is very respectable.  To put it into perspective, this year Jason Bay’s AB/HR is 15.60, Justin Morneau is 15,75 Ian Kinsler is 16.08 and Ryan Braun is 17.42.  Albert Pujols leads the league with 10.84.

The only numbers that jump out at you are 2005 and 2006.  Ortiz led the American League in 2006 (Ryan Howard just edged him with 10.017) and that tied for the 26th best of all time with Kevin Mitchell’s 1994 season.  Bagwell had a season at 10.256, Frank Thomas had a season at 10.500 and Ken Griffey Jr had a season at 10.825 and they are all players considered to be clean.  I don’t see how these numbers implicate Ortiz.

A lot of people like to think that Ortiz came out of nowhere, but that’s not the case.  Ortiz hit 31 HR in 1997 for three teams between high A, AA and AAA before getting a cup of coffee with the Twins at the end of the season.  He hit 30 HR in 1999 in AAA after a rough start to his major league career.  He was a player that I always picked up as a sleeper in my fantasy leagues so it was frustrated along with the Twins when Ortiz succumbed to injuries and couldn’t translate his minor league success to the big league level.  Ortiz was a solid fielder, but never spectacular (and much better than he ever gets credit for).  When Doug Mientkiewicz showed up with a slick glove and lofty batting average, it led to the Twins deciding to let Ortiz walk.

The biggest factor in the jump in Ortiz’s statistics once coming to Boston was health.  Until the 2008 season, Ortiz was able to remain relatively healthy which he was never able to do in Minnesota.  He fractured his wrist in 2001 which cut short what probably would have been his breakthrough season.  2002 saw Ortiz plagued by knee problems which led to him getting the knee scoped.  Ortiz did what everyone expected him to do when healthy until injuries sidelined him again in 2008.

The other huge factor in Ortiz’s improvement was the help of hitting coach Ron “Papa Jack” Jackson.  Ortiz sang his praises highly and he seemed to straighten out the problems that Ortiz was having by getting him to open up his stance allowing him to get his bat on more pitches and use more of the field.  Ortiz got off to a slow start at the beginning of the 2007 season which was the first after the Red Sox let Papa Jack go.  Reportedly, he made a couple of phone calls to Jackson and found out what he was doing wrong.  He went on to have the highest batting average of his career that season.

Many people pointed to Ortiz’s slow start in 2009 and said that it must be due to Ortiz coming off of steroids.  Of course there’s no way that the injury could be a factor.  Some local pundits said that it looked like Ortiz was having trouble seeing the ball especially since he was swinging late on a lot of pitches.  Whether the new eye drops he started using were the reason or not, Ortiz caught fire after that.  His average is still pretty low, but since June 6th he’s leading the American League in home runs with 19 and as you can see from the chart above, his AB/HR is right where it usually is.

Ortiz maintained his innocence all along, but few believed him.  He held a press conference where the Major League Baseball Players Association stated that he was on the list, but didn’t test positive for steroids.  They haven’t spoken up on behalf of any other player.  It was interesting to hear Peter Gammons touch on this because after hearing all of the details released by the MLBPA about that list, he believes that there’s only around 60 – 70 different names on the list which tested positive for steroids.  Gammons also believe that Ortiz hasn’t ever taken steroids.  That hasn’t kept large numbers of people from continuing to insist that Ortiz took steroids.

What bothers me is that you won’t see one retraction.  For some reason, people would rather believe two “anonymous lawyers” who are breaking the law for a pay day over a ballplayer who hasn’t done anything to cause people not to believe him.  I guess it’s not suspect that the only names leaked this time were a couple of Red Sox by a New York newspaper about a week before a huge Red Sox/Yankees series.

If you don’t believe Ortiz then you can’t believe any player.  Whether it be Pujols, Griffey Jr, Vlad Guerrero or Frank Thomas.  There’s no way that anyone that’s clean is outhitting all of these players who have supposedly taken steroids.  With the Players Union not allowing blood tests for HGH, anyone could take it without fear of being caught.

I never understood the fun in tearing down other teams and/or players.  Hearing “Yankees suck” chants at Red Sox games, Celtics games and concerts makes me cringe.  It makes fans sound petty and sad.  If a team with 26 championships sucks then I wish the Sox would suck a little more.

Nothing good can come of outing these players from the 2003 tests.  If the Players Union allowed for HGH testing and we could definitely know who was clean, I’d be of the mindset that the list should be released, but since we don’t know if people who aren’t on the list are actually clean then there’s no use.  The list definitely shouldn’t be leaked a name at a time and Bud Selig should be doing all that he can to prosecute those two lawyers which leaked these latest two names to the full extent of the law.

Major League Baseball just gave Topps an exclusive license to produce baseball cards citing a need to bring kids back into the hobby as a reason for doing so.  Making kids suffer through their favorite players being called cheats and liars could alienate the kids that are already interested.  I know it has affected my enjoyment of the game and I’m 33 years old.  I can only imagine how little kids have reacted.  I feel badly for young fans of Ortiz, A-Rod, etc. who have to see their heroes torn down by a bunch of adults under the pretense of “the sanctity of the game.”  I don’t even want to imagine how badly I would have taken it if Dwight Evans had been labeled a cheater when I was a kid.

Who knows how fans will look back upon this era in ten, twenty or even fifty years from now.  Right now, it seems like too many fans are of the mindset that every player has used PEDs at some point in their career and don’t believe any of the denials.  There have to be some players out there not using due to the health risks or other reasons and that mindset isn’t fair to them.  A lot of players used before it was against the rules.  Are their accomplishments tainted?  It’ll be interesting to see how this all shakes out.  I have a feeling that baseball’s already hurting reputation isn’t going to get any better.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Blogger Fail

When I moved about a month ago, I changed e-mail addresses as well as physical addresses.  I thought that I had updated everything, but it looks like I forgot to update the address where comments are sent.  I just looked and it seems like I missed a bunch of them.  I have updated the e-mail address and will be going back over past posts to make sure I catch up on all of the replies.  There were some trade offers and stuff that I’ll be sure to reply to.

Sorry ‘bout dat.

Topps and Major League Baseball going steady.

The big news today is that Topps has reached an agreement with Major League Baseball to exclusively produce baseball cards in 2010 and beyond.  Upper Deck had previously reached a deal with the MLB Players Association which probably meant that they knew the writing was on the wall.

While I’m not too disappointed with Upper Deck losing their license, I was kind of hoping that Donruss would be allowed back into the hobby.  I don’t know if an exclusive deal is a good thing for collectors.  Exclusivity has reared its head in the sports video game world and it seems to have annoyed more people than it made happy.  The people that are happy are the video game company though so nothing changes.  Electronic Arts got the exclusive rights to produce NFL games for their Madden franchise, but then lost the ability to make MLB games when an exclusive deal was signed with Take-Two Interactive.

In a way, the same thing happened here.  Upper Deck negotiated the first exclusive deal when they got the right to be the only licensed NHL card manufacturer.  They first lost the ability to make basketball cards when Panini was given an exclusive deal and they’ve now lost the ability to make baseball cards.  Well, baseball cards with team names and logos on them.  It remains to be seen how popular cards without MLB uniforms and logos will be.   For some, if you throw enough autographs and relics in there it probably won’t matter, but personally I don’t see myself buying cards of players in street clothes, generic uniforms or on highly air-brushed cards.

In all honesty, I’m not too distraught over Upper Deck losing their license.  They were in a downward spiral over the past few years and didn’t seem to want to fix their problems.  The biggest problems are the collation and quality issues in their products.  Upper Deck must have used the dullest blades on the planet to cut their cards because the corners always seemed to be soft right out of the packs.  Roller marks have been an enormous issue as well with the worst problem being in 2008 Timelines where every card from one of the subsets had a pair of roller marks through it.  High-end, one-per-pack cards come with dinged corners.  Watch enough box breaks online and you’ll see plenty of damaged cards.

Collation is the second huge issue.  I opened a box of this year’s baseball that had 4 packs containing only 10 cards (and only 1 of the 3 “average” hits).  I’ve written Upper Deck numerous times and sent in my UPC along with the hologram from the box and haven’t gotten anything in return.  Numerous attempts to follow up have been ignored.  Mine wasn’t an isolated incident as the blogosphere was full of stories about how people were missing hits or cards from their boxes.  Upper Deck is careful to word that the expected hits are only an average so if you don’t get anything then they don’t have to make it up to you unlike other companies who guarantee the number of hits contained in a box.

Customer support also became a big issue as of late.  Upper Deck made sure to pimp all of their new releases on their Facebook page, but you’d never see anything on there such as the changes to O-Pee-Chee baseball.  It wasn’t uncommon for e-mails to customer support to go unanswered.

The final thing to me, is that Upper Deck really seems to cater to the high-end collector while not putting a lot of effort or creativity into their lower end releases.  Since I don’t ever plan on buying boxes that contain 2 cards for $200, Upper Deck doesn’t see me as their target demographic.  I don’t even like paying $8 for 4 cards that look like postage stamps.  I tend to buy Upper Deck products a year or so after release once the price drops drastically.  2007 Elements, 2007 Masterpieces, etc.  Of course, you can no longer get damaged cards replaced at that point, but many times you are paying around half of what the boxes used to sell for.

So, it’ll be interesting to see what Topps does with the exclusive contract.  All of the naysayers think that Topps will stop being creative the second they are the only game in town.  I see no reason to believe this.  Topps not only had the better looking baseball releases in 2009, but they also gave you the best value for your money with the best of the bunch being the flagship HTA jumbo boxes.  I pulled cards from those boxes that put many Upper Deck high-end hits to shame.

I think the biggest reason for this exclusive deal is Michael Eisner.  Right or wrong, many people credit him for saving Disney.  If he surrounds himself at Topps with a strong team such as the one he had at Disney then he could take Topps far.  Major League Baseball is at its least popular with kids and they see this deal as a way to get back into the lives of kids.  Will it be successful?  Who knows.  Baseball cards didn’t get me interested in the sport.  I was interested in the sport from playing it and bought the cards to collect the players that I watched.  With less kids playing sports and tickets to sporting events being so expensive, it’s not a surprise that fewer kids are interested in baseball.  When I was a kid, my friends and I could walk up to Fenway on any day that Clemens wasn’t pitching and buy $9 bleacher seats on the day of the game.  These days if you don’t get tickets the day that they go on sale then you’re out of luck for the whole season unless you pay outrageous secondary prices.  Between that and steroids, I think baseball has problems that cheaper baseball cards aren’t going to fix.

Good or bad, it’s going to be an interesting year in the hobby.  Panini will be releasing their first basketball sets and Upper Deck will be releasing unlicensed basketball and baseball sets.  It’ll be interesting to see if their strategy in baseball will mirror that of basketball where they try to sign a bunch of big name players to exclusive deals to keep their autographs out of Topps products.  They’re going to need something to draw people to their unlicensed products.  Improving the issues that they’ve got now will be a huge step in the right direction.