Let the games begin

February 28, 2007

After a four month wait, baseball action begins again in a little while with the first Spring Training games of 2007.

I do enjoy listening to Spring Training games on the Gameday Audio service at MLB.com. The radio format suits the laid-back atmosphere that the games are played in.  Hearing Frank Thomas smack a homer in his first at-bat for the A’s last Spring was one of my personal highlights.  The radio commentary is a great way to ease yourself back into the baseball season.  Close the curtains to shut out the British wind and rain, stick on your headphones, shut your eyes and transport yourself to the sunny climate of Florida or Arizona.  The radio announcers will do the rest, letting you picture the blazing sun shining over the diamond and the vibrant green outfield.

They are also generally quite keen to help you picture the attractive females in the crowd and the taste and smell of the hot dogs!  What more could you want!

Fans of the Mets and the Tigers will be able to see their sides in action on MLB.TV in about half an hour’s time, with the Red Sox and the Twins facing each other in a night game.  You can listen to the White Sox-Rockies game on Gameday Audio as well as the Braves’ contest against Georgia Tech.


Hoping for a Clemens comeback?

February 26, 2007

There’s an interesting article on Sports Illustrated.com about the Astros and Roger Clemens. Everyone (well, almost everyone!) acknowledges what a great pitcher Clemens has been and it’s natural to think that the Astros would love to have him back if he decides to pitch in 2007; however John Donovan’s story puts a different spin on things:

“The daily breathless buzz about whether Clemens will retire for good or pitch again, and for whom? When it finally goes away, no tears will be shed in Houston’s clubhouse. The forced acceptance of a teammate — any teammate — who chooses when he wants to begin a season? There won’t be any missing that, either.

The whispered uneasiness about the so-called “Rocket Rules,” those one-of-a-kind, bend-over-backward accommodations that the Houston front office has made for the 348-game winner? The Astros will be only too glad to live without them, too”.

Donovan is quick to stress that the Astros would welcome Clemens back if he wants to join them, but by the same token they won’t be desperately unhappy if he decides not to. Reading through the article, it’s not hard to see where some discontent could fester among the rest of the roster. Of course the Astros want to win and if Clemens can help them do that then many little niggles can easily be overlooked, yet baseball is a team game and if one player (however talented he is) gets an easier ride than the rest then you run the risk of creating a lot of frustration that can boil over at any point.

Last season in particular I felt Clemens’s behaviour was pretty selfish. It’s fine for Roger himself to wait until late in the day before deciding whether he wants to play again or not, but it’s not very helpful for the Astros’ front office when they are trying to build a competitive team. The situation was made worse by the (now changed) rules that meant the Astros could not re-sign Clemens until the season had started having failed to agree a new deal within a specified time period. Still, Clemens seemed happy to sit things out and work his way back on his own schedule and ultimately he missed most of the first half of the season.

You can put several arguments up in his defence, not least taking into consideration his age. Isn’t half a season of Clemens better than none at all? Well maybe, but it’s not unreasonable for the other Astros to feel a bit cheated by it. I can imagine being in their position and not being happy about the “great hero” riding in to town half-way through to try and be the saviour. The way the Astros organisation sat with ball in hand begging to Roger to come back must have been demoralising to the rest of the players as it makes them look kind of pathetic.

I don’t really blame Clemens for all of this. He has earned the right to do what he likes really and if he wants to stroll in at the mid-way point then that’s up to him. It’s down to the team to go along with it or not. I think now is the time for the Astros to make a break from the past and to put faith in the other players. Clemens said recently that he was 80-20 leaning towards retirement and if he’s only planning on doing a half-season campaign then perhaps he should bow out now?

Put your money on Roger leading the Astros to their first World Series in 2007 then!

Money – that’s what I want!

February 22, 2007

As the free agent class of 2006-2007 bagged their lucrative contracts it would have been easy to think that no one else could be so happy, but you would be mistaken.  While I’m sure the likes of Zito, Soriano, Meche and company are quite content with their lot, another gaggle of ballplayers must have been looking on with a smile on their faces.  The only thing better than being a free agent in 2007 is being a free agent in 2008!

Curt Schilling is the latest person to declare that he will be testing the free agency waters after the coming season has ended.  Schilling’s comments are coloured by a degree of pragmatism as he has made this choice due to the Red Sox declaring that they won’t be renewing his contract this spring.  So it’s fair enough for him to be looking at all of his options.

But other players have talked of their impending free agency with unbridled joy.  “I can’t wait to cash in” seems to be the general consensus of many.  Carlos Zambrano’s recent threats towards the Cubs were particularly class-less.  I’m sure most people would agree that Zambrano has due reason to look at the money being handed out to lesser pitchers this winter and think that he deserves a hefty contract.  That’s fine, but does he need to come out publicly and say it?

There’s a large amount of petulant posturing involved here. Even Mariano Rivera has cheekily suggested that if the Yankees don’t meet his demands he might end up with the Red Sox.  Andruw Jones has seemed to conduct himself with a bit more decency, although that may be a consequence of knowing that there’s little point in trying to put pressure on the Braves to re-sign him as they are unlikely to have the financial muscle to do so.  Ichiro has kept fairly quiet so far as well and it will be interesting to see whether he leaves Seattle at the end of the season (or is traded partway through).  If he does, it may be less a case of wanting to cash in and more down to the desire to be part of a winning ballclub.  We shall see though!

While it is difficult to predict where many of these players will be calling home in 2008, a story on MLB.com today about one of Ichiro’s team mates does give you some idea of what you can expect from them during the 2007 season.  The Mariners are apparently “expecting more from Beltre”, which would be reasonable considering the return they have had so far from his five-year, $64 million contract.  Beltre is now the poster child for the “walk year” phenomenon, in which a player has a career year in the final year of his contract so that he can sign a massive multi-year deal before slipping back to his previous level of performance.  Fantasy owners among you may want to study the 2008 free agency class list before making decisions on your roster.  A number of players will have several million reasons to increase their production this season!

There’s a circus in the town …

February 20, 2007

The 2007 Barry Bonds show has officially started, with MLB.com stating that he has reported to the Giants’ training camp today.  Reading the bit about him joking with Barry Zito made me feel a bit queasy!

Most of Bonds’ career has been extraordinary, but 2007 could potentially top the lot.  There is already a lot of tension in the baseball world with the apparent inevitability that Bonds will go past Hank Aaron’s home run record in the near future.  Every home run he hits will increase the tension a little bit more.  Many column inches have been devoted to speculation on what Bud Selig will do if/when Bonds reaches the milestone.  There’s no doubt that it will be a very uncomfortable season for Bud and whatever he does will probably result in him taking a load of flak (not that I mind seeing Selig squirm).

You would hope as a baseball fan that the Bonds saga will not overshadow the many other great stories that 2007 will throw up , but maybe that’s being optimistic.  Bonds is probably going to make history and reach an important baseball milestone, yet few will be able to enjoy it.

I think many people (probably including Bonds himself) just want to get it over with and that sums up what a sad situation it is.

Changing the rules

February 17, 2007

It was announced yesterday that the MLB’s Playing Rules Committee are bringing in several rule changes for the 2007 season (MLB.com has a decent summary). The most notable change is the way in which tied ballgames will be treated if the game has to be abandoned partway through. The game will now be officially suspended and the two teams will carry on where they left off the next time they are scheduled to face each other.

What’s most striking about yesterday’s announcement is that this is the first time for eleven years that the rules have been changed. If only we had that sort of consistency in most British sports! Whether it’s an actual new rule or a dreaded new “interpretation”, they are generally a waste of time. The new Rugby League season started off in a bit of a farce due to the referee calling several “obstruction” penalties when the dummy runner went between the ball carrier and the defence, even though in many cases he did not really obstruct a player from making a tackle.

And we all know what happens in football. Never mind new rule changes every eleven years, we can’t stage an international tournament or a new domestic season without the ruling bodies interfering (predominantly for the worse). Every season some half-wit directive will be enacted by the refs to much fanfare and anger. After a month or two the officials will just forget about it and we carry on as if it never happened, until the next season comes along and they manage to think up another stupid idea. How often do referees march a team back by another ten yards when they argue about a decision? When was the last time you saw a referee penalize a goalie for holding on to the ball for too long (was it six seconds they were given? Does the rule still exist? Who knows?!)?

I’m glad that MLB takes the sport a bit more seriously than the clowns who run football.

MLB.TV 2007 prices released

February 14, 2007

MLB.com have just released the options available to baseball fans for listening and watching baseball over the Internet in 2007.  As always, there is a decent amount of choice to cater for different needs and systems.

The main shift this year is the launch of a MLB.TV Premium package to sit alongside the standard MLB.TV package and Gameday Audio.  In previous years,  “All Access” was the top product.  This combined MLB.TV with Gameday Audio and added a few extras, such as access to condensed games.  The MLB.TV Premium package gives you the “All Access” content and adds to it with a souped-up streaming rate of 700K and the fancy Mosaic feature that was trialed last year.

What stands out to me at first glance is that people who don’t quite want the top package will have a relative bargain on their hands.  MLB.TV is now effectively last season’s All Access package,  yet you only have to pay £46 ($89.95) for it instead of £52.  Considering it seemed reasonably priced last year and a small price hike was expected, that’s a great result .  The slight down side of course is that people can no longer buy MLB.TV on it’s own; however I doubt many will mind paying a bit extra considering the new price and the extras you receive.

MLB.TV Premium does look an enticing package, yet it’s probably best to check that Mosaic will work on your machine and with your internet connection.  My PC is a bit cobbled together and I couldn’t get Mosaic to run when I tried it last year!  There is a demo clip showing what games streamed at 700K will look like and if the clip is an accurate representation (not guaranteed!) then it will be a considerable improvement.  I like to watch games on full-screen mode and I can get away with it by sitting further back from my screen than I would when I’m doing things such as writing blog posts.  The picture isn’t crystal clear, but it’s more than good enough.  Watching the 700K demo clip, I can send it to full-screen and keep sitting in the same place and the picture quality is impressive (again, not perfect but pretty good).  Obviously this has to be balanced against the possibility that the doubled streaming rate might leave you “buffering” every minute or so.

Right now, I’m in a bit of a quandary over whether I should go for the Premium package or not.  Even if I can get the mosaic feature to work, I doubt I will use it much (not least because the time difference means there are far fewer occasions as a Brit when there are six live games going on at one time that you want to keep an eye on).  The 700K picture is fairly seductive though and my 2MB connection should cope!   Premium will cost £62 so that will mean a £16 extra outlay over the MLB.TV package, which isn’t much over the course of the season.  I will have to think it over!

So the main points are:

  • Gameday Audio is an absolute bargain at around £8.  If you haven’t got the spare cash or the technical set-up for MLB.TV, I would heartily recommend investing in this.  Even with MLB.TV, I still listen to plenty of games on Gameday audio over the season.
  • MLB.TV is essentially last year’s All Access package for just approximately £46: an absolute bargain!  The live action at 400K is perfectly watchable and the condensed games (generally 9-10 minutes of highlights of every single game) are fantastic for those of us who can’t spend their days and nights watching live games.
  • MLB.TV Premium will cost you approximately £62 and the extra £16 gets you a much better picture than the standard MLB.TV, and MLB Mosaic.

Don’t forget, you may be liable for a small overseas transaction charge as well depending on who you bank with (generally only around £1).

MLB work on the policy of an automatic renewal, so I imagine people like myself who subscribed to All Access last year will immediately be charged for the Premium package (although you can cancel it before it goes through).

Check out the subscriptions section on MLB.com for more info.

Over before it’s started

February 13, 2007

It’s all too easy to get swept along by the joy of Spring Training beginning again for another year, but spare a thought for players such as Kris Benson.  As you would have probably read, Benson has suffered a partially torn rotator cuff and his 2007 season is currently in the balance.  The Orioles are being cautiously optimistic in hoping that surgery may not be necessary and that a substantial period of rehab will do the trick (which would keep him out for a few months).  Benson himself seems less confident and it looks as though he will end up going under the knife.  If so, Benson will not pitch again until the 2008 season.  What a terrible way to start your Spring Training camp.

Every year you hear similar stories.  Mike Hampton, for example, will come to Spring Training eager to make up for his lost 2006 campaign.  Francisco Liriano will be sorely missed by all baseball fans this year as he becomes the latest player to works his way back from Tommy John surgery.  For all the improvements in conditioning work and medical science, injuries are always going to be a part of sport.  Liriano’s injury highlights the advances that have been made.  Thirty years ago, his career would have been finished before it had barely begun.  Although he will not pitch in 2007, Liriano at least has a fair chance to come back and (hopefully) be a dominant starter for many years to come.

Benson’s injury may not have any bearing on who wins what this year (a harsher critic than me may say it will help the Orioles “win” the AL East wooden spoon), but that’s not the point.  At the very least, the potential surgery will mean a year of his career has been taken away from him.

Several newspapers today carried photos of Michael Owen running on the Newcastle training pitch.  It was good to see him well on the road to recovery as both Newcastle and England have missed him badly, but we shouldn’t forget that however much we miss the players from a fans’ perspective, it must be ten-times worse for the player himself.

Here’s hoping Kris makes a good recovery.