The baseball season is almost over and, while I plan to be focused on baseball for the entire offseason, you could be forgiven if you preferred to shift your attention to other, lesser sports to get you through the cold winter months. But truly, baseball should never be too far from your brain, given that there’s always a hot stove burning. So here are some ways that you can use baseball to inform your understanding of what happens in other sports, and vice versa.
Theo Epstein is Nick Saban
I’m not really a college football guy, but it seems like Nick Saban had it pretty good. He had a great job, for which he was well compensated and lauded at Louisiana State University, and had great security after leading the Tigers to a National Championship in 2003. That should probably be enough for any man, but Saban wanted more.
Considered a genius, Saban bought into his own press and allowed himself to be wooed by Wayne Huizenga, who offered him the chance to coach the Miami Dolphins in the NFL, who had gone 4-12 the previous year. Saban jumped at it, saying “I just felt like this opportunity was one of the best that’s ever been presented to me.” He claimed to relish the challenge of rebuilding, “We’ve never taken over successful programs. We’ve taken challenges that were difficult, worked hard and had an effect in a positive way. That’s one of the reasons I feel I can be successful in this challenge.”
He couldn’t. Two years later, Saban was 15-17 as an NFL coach and decided, after months of denying that he was interested in it, to return to the NCAA as the head coach at the University of Alabama.
Theo Epstein is faced with a similar choice. He has it pretty good in Boston, with a ton of front office support, near carte blanche to run the franchise as he sees fit, more money to spend than almost any other team I the league, and as much job security as anyone in the game today. As an added bonus, he’s helped bring two World Championships to Boston, breaking the “curse,” and gets to work in his hometown. Not bad.
So why is he entertaining offers from elsewhere, I wonder? Sure, going to the Cubs or the Angels and successfully turning them around would cement him as one of the elite GMs in baseball history, but he’s also upping his degree of difficulty, similar to how Saban was exposed in the NFL as a mediocre coach at best, interchangeable with most other gamecallers.
This is not to say that Epstein is mediocre. He’s clearly in the top echelon of GMs working right now. But because of the rise of stat-friendly GMs around the game, the gap between the Epsteins of the world and the Alex Anthopouloses of the world has shrunk considerably. Without the massive advantage in payroll he enjoys in Boston, and given the likely payroll crunches coming in LA (due to the Wells contract) and the continued imposition of the Soriano contract in Chicago, Epstein wouldn’t have nearly as much free capital to buy his way out of any miscalculations. It’s also worth noting that, while the Angels have star power in line with the Pedro and Manny Sox that Epstein inherited, the Cubs simply are starting from a different place than the Red Sox were when Epstein took them over.
All of which is to say that any move Epstein makes to leave Boston is far more likely to wind up a disappointing venture than an unbridled success. Epstein is an excellent GM, but he’s not a wizard. He cannot conjure a World Champion out of the ether.
AJ Burnett is Jim Jeffries
Making the rounds on the Internet this morning is the beautiful AJ Burnett poster you see to your right. It’s nice to believe in something. It’s fun, before reality sets in, to let your reason get clouded by blind optimism. To hope against hope for something to go your way, no matter how unlikely that is.
Unfortunately, some people wind up hoping for the wrong things. In the early part of the 20th century, African-American heavyweight Jack Johnson was decimating the boxing world, but the World Heavyweight Champion Jim Jeffries refused to face him. Indeed, Jeffries retired undefeated rather than lose his belt and stayed away from boxing for six years. Johnson, meanwhile, continued to pummel opponents, and won the title from Tommy Byrnes in 1908. Johnson defended his title willingly and often against white opponents. Racist white boxing fans, who viewed boxing as a natural vehicle to prove white superiority, were driven mad by Johnson’s prowess. Even Jack London extolled the need for a “great white hope” to take the title back.
Jeffries answered the call in 1910 (reportedly for a $120,000 payday), saying “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. . . . I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all,” and many white Americans placed their faith in the undefeated Jeffries. They were wrong. Jeffries was tough, but Johnson was the better man. Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel in the 15th round. It’s not just that whites were wrong in their racism (though they undoubtedly were), they were wrong about Jeffries, who had to drop 100 lbs to get back into the ring.
It’s not necessarily too late for Burnett to come back strong. He did pitch well in his last regular season start, but Burnett has simply been abysmal since July, posting a 6.56 ERA. His strikeout and walk ratios have been fine during that stretch, but Burnett has allowed homeruns to 4.4% of the batters he’s faced, and has allowed a ridiculous 25 wild pitches this year when no other AL pitcher has allowed more than 15. Burnett still has his stuff and could pitch well, but let’s face it: he’s not going to. Yankees fans would be better off hoping that A-Rod turns it around, that Derek Jeter finds the on switch, and that someone finds Tino Martinez’s phone number fast. The Tigers are only throwing Rick Porcello out tonight, but the Yankees can’t seem to hit anyone right now.
Strug probably isn’t a big deal up in Canada, but she is down here. In 1996, the United States team had never won an Olympic gold medal against the former Eastern Bloc’s gymnasts, but finally had a chance thanks to a tremendous squad that included Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, and Kerri Strug. The US actually held the lead in the team event going into the final event, but the US women were unable to land their vaults cleanly. Strug severely injured her ankle on her first vault and watched while the Russians clawed back. With one performer left on each side, Strug learned that a successful vault would clinch the gold for the US. So Strug dug deep and delivered a terrific 9.712 on one leg to clinch before collapsing in pain and being carried off the mat by her coach.
Similarly, the Rangers need Matt Harrison to show up tonight against the Rays and Jeremy Hellickson. The Rangers may have the lead going into this afternoon’s contest, but Matt Moore is on the horizon for Thursday’s game in Texas. This is the same Matt Moore who struck out 11 batters in five innings against the Yankees on September 22nd and who shut out the Harrison’s Rangers in game 1 for seven innings. The same Matt Moore who posted a 1.92 ERA in 27 minor league starts and struck out 210 batters in 155 innings. The same Matt Moore who will be the new prospect overlord going into next season. The same Matt Moore who is a beacon of freedom and justice. Look at his handsome face, Texas, it is gaining on you. If Harrison can’t land this start, the chances of the Rangers winning the gold this year look incredibly slim.
*I originally intended for this to go up a couple hours ago. Let’s all just pretend that it did. As it stands, Harrison has allowed two runs through four innings with 9 strikeouts and Matt Moore seems to be warming in the Tampa bullpen.