Monday, August 27, 2012

The "Hunt" for October...

In all professional sports spanning the United States, reaching the playoffs in Major League Baseball is one of the most difficult and exclusive achievement. The "Hunt" for October baseball is daunting, arduous, and a mentally taxing feat of any professional athlete, as well as the veteran core managing their path.  Before 1995, 30 teams clawed their way through 162 games at a chance to be one of the 4 (then 6) teams with the most wins vying for a Pennant Championship. Two teams from the National league, and two from the American League. If you win the Pennant, you reach the Holy Grail of Championships, a best of 7 World Series. Since 1995, MLB has decided to bequeath a generous opportunity upon MLB teams to reach October baseball for 4 more teams, and in 2012, expanded it further to give 10 teams an opportunity at October Glory.

It began in the early 1900's with a shocker trade between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees that sent the most famous polarizing figure in baseball from defending the Green Monster to building his house in the South Bronx, Babe Ruth. For a measly share in a Broadway Production, Boston Red Sox coughed up the most famous player of baseball to the New York Yankees, whom began their dynasty on World Series appearances (Yankees tout the most World Series Championships, 27). Through the 20th Century on through the first decade of the Millennium, with so many teams, so few spots, there are a handful of owners deciding to bloat their payroll to attract players whom they believe will be the answer to acquiring a ticket to October. Depending on the audience (as well as allegiance, shall we say), and choice perspective of phrases, many fans observe bloated payrolls, and scooping up the greatest of athletes to pack the field as attempts to "Buy" a championship. "There's no such thing in Sports. Some organizations spend", was an opinion given by John Kincade of ESPN regarding an observation given at the most recent blockbuster deal between Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, sending Adrian Gonzales, Josh Beckett, Clay Crawford, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers. As a San Francisco Giants fan, I had to pick my jaw up from my car floor, as well as many other words not legal to express by the FCC, I personally disclosed back at the radio (yes, sports dorks yell at the TV, and when in car, the radio) ending with "Those mother bleepin bleepin Dodgers bleepin bleepin owners are going to buy their way back to the postseason!"  What is the popular opinion? Have team owners bought their way to a World Series ring? Or, is it a matter of willingness to spend the money to acquire a team to produce now whom management and owners feel would be the best option to produce on the field, put tushes in the seats, and an appearance in October? Or, is it truly a statement by the owners to invest in a dynasty and their future? As by my disclosed biased comments, opinions vary based upon if you're a fan, media, or players. 

Let's take a closer look at some historical acquisitions and collection of teams in modern day baseball era... Let's begin with the most dominant team in baseball, New York Yankees. Yankees have been blessed to have a collection of owners through the years that brought a requirement of "Winning" as the standard within the clubhouse. NY Yankees owner Dan Topping had claim and ownership on the 'player' market back in the Hey Day of the Yankees success in the 1960's; The most spectacular trade in the Day was a 12 player deal the Yankees made with the Kansas City Athletics that sent the likes of Ken Boyer, Art Ditmar, and Bobby Shantz to the Yankees, securing a Pennant rich future for the popular pinned-striped club. As reported at various sports statistics site, this statement plainly advises, "The Yankees thoroughly and cruelly dominated MLB in those days, and one of their chief mechanisms for doing so was to keep an extra stable of players within their reach". If anything, regardless of owner, New York Yankees maintained the the same mission, Be the most prominent and winningest franchise in baseball history. So far, they've succeeded in their goal. Of course, they've taken risks, and spent quite a bit of doe to make that a fruition.  George Steinbrenner acquired the New York Yankees in 1973, and continued the expectations of Yankee fans to produce a Pennant winning product. There were dark days of Yankee history throughout his ownership, yet he began his intentions on the right foot when he brought Reggie Jackson on to the Yankee squad. In the dark days of "Summer of Sam", New York Yankees brought back winning ways in 1977 and 1978. With legal issues, it took Steinbrenner almost 20 years to rebuild another run at the World Series Championship. It eventually paid off for George and the Yankee fan base when they won World Series rings in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009.  I cannot begin to list the number of players and monies spent in between World Series appearances. It seemed there wasn't an All Star free agent or prime prospect untouchable to sign or trade to the pin stripes! 

There were other teams during  (what will be known as) the PED (or what I would like to reference as Power) era that raised eye brows on acquisitions and payroll expansion. Let's take a look at one of the most dominant franchises in the 1990's and its 'polarizing' owner, Ted Turner and the Atlanta Braves. Ted Turner culminated one of the most dominant pitching and offense producing franchises of the 1990's. Atlanta seemed to be the perennial team in contention and actually vied for a World Series Championship between 1991 and 2005. Other mentions during the "Power" era of baseball would be the Cleveland Indians, Florida Marlins, and yes.... my beloved San Francisco Giants.  Let's recall some of those whom played for the Cleveland Indians during their mid-1990 run appearing in the playoffs, and World Series in 1995- Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Jose Mesa, Charles Nagy, and Paul Assenmacher... That team was stacked! In 1993, Pittsburgh Pirates fans were decimated by the news of Barry Bonds going to the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates were dreaming of postseason play with one of the greatest players to be in their line up since the likes of Roberto Clemente. Of course, San Francisco was hoping to build a perennial power house around Barry Bonds to bring them October Schedule opportunities year in and year out. Unfortunately, that did not pay off for almost a decade, when San Francisco finally fielded a pitching staff and position player combination to get them to the World Series in 2002. San Francisco was 2 innings and a few outs away from hoisting the World Series trophy when it all unraveled in Anaheim.  It took San Francisco almost another decade to shock MLB as well as their fans fielding a home-grown team of utter rookies (along with a handful of outplaced veterans, stragglers if you may picked up from previous World Series success teams such as the White Sox and Phillies) winning the World Series Championship sweeping the heavily favored Texas Rangers in 2010! Everyone rebutted the feat as "Lightning in a Bottle", a "fluke". Yet, they beat heavily salaried and talented teams such as the Atlanta Braves, and Philadelphia Phillies... So, was it a matter of "prime performance" at "prime time", or was the San Francisco pitching staff, and managing the batting line up the core of winning? 

Let's not forget the most infamous team accumulated in the "Power" era that's tagged most as a team "Bought" for a World Series ring, the 2003 World Series Champion Florida Marlins. Let's take a peak at their roster: Ivan 'Pudge' Rodriguez, Derek Lee, Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell, Alex Gonzales, Todd Hollansworth, Juan Pierre, Juan Incarnacion, Miguel Cabrera, Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, and  AJ Burnett as player highlights. It was the first year a "Wild Card" got in and went all the way! Before the floors were dried in the locker room from the World Series celebration, the Florida Marlins ended up dismantling the team, which begged the question even further of their goal to acquire a ring, then move on... You would think most teams would have goals of "Dynasty"... Not with this team, or ownership group. They obviously were done with one. 

Boston Red Sox and their genius youthful GM of the Millennium, Epstein, weighed money of their own to acquire an amazing line up and pitching staff that finally broke the curse of Babe Ruth and a World Series Championship (first one in 86 years) when the 2004 Boston Red Sox came back from being down 1-3 against the hated Yankees, and swept the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals whom everyone thought La Rosa, Renteiria, and Puljos would mop the floor with Boston... Big Papi, Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Varitek, Johnny Damon (to name a few) had other outcomes in mind... They were rewarded with the most amazing moment in my memory banks, winning the World Series Championship for the first time since 1918! 

Okay, let's return to modern times and today's reality! The Los Angeles Dodgers have pulled  the most significant deal off waiver wires in recent MLB history. The deal ultimately involved 9 players all together. It sent the likes of Adrian Gonzales, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto to Los Angeles Dodgers, and sent picks and prospects to the Boston Red Sox. Los Angeles Dodgers absorbed 260 million in acquired payroll on the deal. The ongoing debate rumbles through the sports pages and radio discussions if this is a move to win NOW, or establish components for a legacy to acquire a potential Blockbuster television deal to blow away lucrative numbers acquired by the likes of Atlanta Braves, and New York markets (rumblings mark the TV deal north of 6 billion in potential revenue). I've heard coifs, rants, and raves from both sides of the isle; everything from "going all in" to win the NL West now and get to the playoffs, to the new ownership intentionally sending a significant message they are serious about returning to winning in Dodger Blue franchise tradition. Last World Series appearance by the Los Angeles Dodgers was in 1988. When rumors began to circle amidst social media, reactions popped up with a gamut of reactions. Attention immediately took an about face heading up Northbound to see (if any) reaction disclosed by Dodgers' nemesis, none other than the San Francisco Giants. As news broke of the waiver buster deal about to be confirmed, a closed door meeting commenced at the SF Giants front office involving Brian Sabian, Bruce Bochy, and Larry Baer. Funny enough, the timing came when Larry Baer, and Brian Sabian normally appear weekly on the local radio Giants flagship station, KNBR. Larry Baer followed through with his commitment and appeared with Tom Tolbert and Eric Byrnes last Friday a little after 5pm PST. Larry Baer commented regarding the "Precedent' of the potential acquisition, and what that would mean for the NL West, knowing both teams still had 6 head-to-head games between one another, and SF Giants with a 3 game lead in the standings. Baer was not shy of disclosing how it would be nice to acquire another piece in the batting line up, as well as in the bull pen, yet other teams have already laid claim on components they felt were right for the club. So, for now, the are content with "Standing pat with the team we have on the field" versus risking their future on an unknown component.   Of course, if something shakes loose in the upcoming weeks (say, Cody Ross, for instance), I don't think San Francisco would hesitate in picking up a commodity that has brought success in past back on board. 

Other reactions I've received personally were from a dear distinguished sports colleague Len Berman, stating, " This would be precedent setting, the largest "waiver wire" blockbuster". Howard Bryant, Senior Writer for ESPN Magazine had this to share in conversation regarding the bold move, " My first thought that this was a total repudiation of the Red Sox former GM, Theo Epstein. The Red Sox squeezed as much juice out of the orange to the tune of two World Series titles and a rewritten culture; but this current group had run its course. The message on Crawford and Gonzalez to me was this: it didn't work. You weren't what we thought you were. My next was that while I understand the new owners of the Dodgers want to be bold, the truth is that each of the three big players in the deal- Josh Beckett with his back, Adrian Gonzalez with his shoulder, and Carl Crawford with Tommy John surgery... all have significant injuries. The Dodgers have a huge population, a terrific fan base, a mega television deal, which makes them in great position to make a high-risk, high-reward play. I'm just not sure these three guys were the ones to bet on. " Adrian Gonzales went on to hit a 3 run homer on his first at bat for the Dodgers. Josh Beckett was rocked in Colorado on his debut start for the Dodgers.  San Francisco remains 2.5 games ahead in the NL West with the month of September to play out.  What is your take? Does the Dodgers acquisition make  the list as one of the "Heralded Trades" of all time in MLB history?  The outcome of this move is yet to be determined... we have a month and a week, maybe a year and a month, and a week before we will truly know the impact of the moves made by the brass of the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Here are a list of trades made through MLB history to refresh everyone's memory of moves made between ball clubs ultimately "Hunting" for a trip to October! 

(footnote: Hanley Ramirez, and Adrian Gonazles actually have been swapped in trades between teams, and now find themselves playing together for the LA Dodgers... One of the most successful coaches of NY Yankees, Joe Torre, found himself on the trade block as a player back-to-back-to-back seasons)