We continue with my series of weird division-by division pseudo-previews. We did the AL East two weeks ago and the AL Central last week. I’m out of toddler TV shows (or I don’t have four left that I feel strongly about, at least), so it’s time to switch things up with the AL West.
I’m not the world’s biggest Star Wars fan, which means I’m probably in trouble with somebody no matter what I do. But I do like the originals, and Lucas has been in the news a lot lately with his weird rewriting of history, and his re-releasing in 3D a movie nobody liked, and his take-my-ball-and-go-home interview with the New York Times. So here’s how the teams in baseball’s smallest division are like various things having to do with Lucas, heading into this final year of being baseball’s smallest division:
Remember a couple of years ago when the Rangers were bankrupt and everyone thought they were in big trouble? Well, it turns out they’re doing just fine for themselves. It’s sort of like how everybody was afraid of making Star Wars…
It’s a bit hard to believe this now since it’s probably the most famous film in history (if you didn’t already know it, which you probably did), but the original Star Wars, technically Episode IV – A New Hope, came very close to not being made. Science Fiction was very much the realm of television, and comic books, and low-budget B movies. The kind of high-tech, expensive space opera Lucas wanted to make seemed crazy, silly, a film without an audience. When he did find a studio desperate enough to take the chance, various difficulties delayed the release of the film from Christmas into late May, where the fears were that the opening of the blockbuster Burt Reynolds film Smokey and the Bandit would quickly bury the silly little space flick. Of course, none of that happened; Star Wars was an instant smash, outdoing Smokey and approximately everything else, ever.
It wasn’t all that long ago that similar doom-and-destruction prognostications were being made about the Rangers. In 2009, it came to light (as was often suspected) that then-owner Tom Hicks had seriously overextended himself and the team. In 2010, the Rangers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The perception of them then was more or less the same as those of the Dodgers and Mets now — a team that was in serious trouble and was going to take years to crawl out of the hole their inept ownership had put them in. And, well. It wasn’t so much creative vision and persistence as it was the forgiving American bankruptcy laws, new owners with a lot of money, and a huge TV deal that brought in even more money. But, two consecutive World Series appearances and a really expensive Japanese free agent later, they’ve established themselves as the clear-cut best in the division. As with Star Wars, all those worries are a distant, foggy memory and seem kind of ridiculous now.
Billy Beane and the Athletics swooped in and grabbed Yoenis Cespedes when no one had even mentioned their name when discussing him. Very sneaky, a little bit like Blue Harvest.
After the enormous, almost unprecedented popularity of the original Star Wars and the even better The Empire Strikes Back, interest in the third film was exceptionally high. Also, the kinds of third-party service providers all films need to engage also felt they could charge Lucas a premium on Empire, figuring the film’s budget was so high they could get away with it. So Lucas (and/or any of the hundreds of people working with him) came up with an idea to allow Return of the Jedi to fly under the radar: create a whole new dummy film you can pretend to be making, one nobody would really be interested in. The “film” was called Blue Harvest, a supposed horror film with the tag “Horror Beyond Imagination,” without, of course, attaching Lucas’ name or any of the major players’. They created a Blue Harvest logo, and people walked around with the logo on hats, shirts, and so on. It kept the media and crazy fans off their backs, and presumably saved themselves some money, too.
The Athletics were just as deceptive up to yesterday. Yoenis Cespedes might be the biggest international amateur prospect we’ve ever seen, rightly or wrongly, and he’d been connected to a lot of teams — Cubs, Marlins, Phillies, Yankees, etc. Meanwhile, the A’s had pretty much been doing A’s things — trading away veteran pitchers, bringing back prospects, acquiring middling corner outfielders and first basemen. It was reported as late as yesterday morning that the Marlins were close to locking Cespedes up. Then, suddenly, he belonged to the A’s. Not sure the A’s and Cespedes’ names had ever even been mentioned in the same sentence, and suddenly he was theirs, for four years and $36 million. Sneaky. Deceptive. Blue Harvesty.
The Mariners really seem to have their heads in the right place, but it hasn’t made things better. And people are saying kind of similar things about Red Tails…
The LucasFilm-produced Red Tails, about the Tuskegee Airmen, premiered a few weeks ago, with a huge marketing and promotional push. It seemed like a can’t-miss sort of project: an action-packed war film, based on true events, casting light on some too often ignored, minority heroes? Produced by Lucas? It’s like the template for a blockbuster and the template for a hit with the critics, combined in some way.
Well, that didn’t happen. It had some initial box-office success, but as of last weekend, it had grossed a total of $45 million, right about what last weekend’s #1 flick (The Vow) took in this weekend alone. And the critics weren’t big fans either; Red Tails gets a “rotten” rating of just 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. The general critical consensus is that it feels wooden, corny, overdone (not unlike the Star Wars series, but that sort of thing doesn’t work nearly as well when the setting is closer to home). All the pieces seem to be there, but the puzzle never quite comes into view.
It’s been about three and a half years since Jack Zduriencik took over as GM of the Mariners, and immediately became the stat geeks’ new favorite exec (I know he was mine). They drastically improved their defense, bringing in Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, among other things. Those 2009 Mariners won 85 games, a 24-game improvement over the prior year’s squad; there were warning signs, too, but things seemed to be headed in the right direction, and then Z made what looked like a very reasonable deal with Chone Figgins and swung a trade for Cliff Lee, and the 2010 Mariners were a popular pick to win the division. Of course, they lost 101 games, same as 2008, and improved all the way to 95 losses in ’11. Still, it’s hard to look at the Jack Z era and point out moves he did that, at the time, were wrong. You can point out things he didn’t do — acquire offense, mostly — but there’s nothing that really stands out as a foreseeable disaster. Figgins seems to have completely lost his game; age might finally be catching up to Ichiro; Gutierrez can’t stay healthy. Even if those things come through as expected or hoped, though, Z probably hasn’t gotten them enough offense to be anything more than mediocre. Virtually everything he’s done has been “right,” or at least defensible — the final product just hasn’t come together.
The Angels are trying to solve all their problems with big flashy names and money. Which, his critics will tell you, is what Lucas has been doing since at least 1997.
Everyone loves to rip on the three Star Wars prequels, and I won’t pile on too much here. There are also the remastered originals, which most seem to agree were not improvements. Then there are the spinoffs, miles and miles of spinoffs, and merchandising. The Clone Wars cartoon series. Lego Star Wars movies and video games. Young Indiana Jones, Lego Indiana Jones, etc., etc. The big bombshell in the NYT article linked above was supposed to be Lucas quitting the business of making new films (new Star Wars ones, anyway), but his detractors would argue that he did that quite a while ago; he (well, primarily his studio) is not creating new stuff, he’s just repackaging old stuff in flashier packaging. Where the original Star Wars succeeded by being a whole brand new, creative thing that you might argue no one had ever really done before, the franchise now is just about repackaging the same stuff to get your money for it again. That’s not to say it doesn’t have actual value — the Knights of the Old Republic video game series has largely been terrific, for example — but it’s still style over substance. There’s nothing really new going on there.
That’s kind of a gloomy way to paint the team that just brought in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. And it’s not like the Angels are doing anything any different from most other teams. It’s just that this was the Angels’ year (among a couple other teams) to go crazy and spend a bunch of money rather than depending on home-grown or other cheaply available talent. There’s just something that seems a little less…creative about the type of offseason the Angels have had. It’s fun to watch draftees rise through the ranks and turn into baseball players — like Lucas’ persistence and ingenuity in getting the original Star Wars made, and the rewards that brought for him. The Rangers’ Yu Darvish, expensive as he was, brings a similar kind of uncertainty. On the other hand, the Angels just went out and threw money at the best overall player and probably the best pitcher on the 2012 free agent market. Their fans are justifiably excited, and they’re a better team for it, and they may well challenge the Rangers for divisional supremacy in 2012. It’s just been a lot more of a LucasFilms/LucasArts “hey, look at this shiny new thing!” offseason than an Episode IV type of offseason. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except for the fact that I might be the only one that thinks that analogy makes any kind of sense.