Thursday, 3 March 2011

To be the man.....

Perhaps it is an inevitable by-product of the free agent era in Baseball, or something more representative of a change in the ethos of the professional sports locker room in general but there appears to have been a marked decline in teams sporting an individual, or small group of individuals, who can clearly be identified as “the man” on their respective teams.

The most obvious case in point being that only three Major League teams (Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox) have officially designated captains.

This in itself raises an interesting question as we head into the 2011 season: does success come from a close knit community of players which, while clearly including players with varying levels of experience, has no clear leader, or it is necessary to have a talisman on one’s team in order to be successful.

From a brief look around the league it is easy to see that there are team which adhere closely to both models. There are the ‘team-first’ teams (San Francisco, Oakland, Philadelphia (although this is more to due with their embarrassment of riches that anything), Tampa Bay – although the signings of Manny and Johnny Damon may alter this, Pittsburgh etc) and there are also those teams which clearly have players who we would consider “the man”.

The concept of “the man” is a difficult one to define. It is not simply about highly developed leadership skills. For example Jason Varitek is clearly no longer “the man” in Boston, his age has caught up with him and he is now a part-time player. That isn’t to say that his influence and skill at handling pitchers aren’t of value, but he clearly no longer possesses the intangibles that make a player “the man” (in fact it is highly unlikely that he ever did – Boston was Pedro and Nomar’s team throughout Tek’s peak). Nor is simply being the best player on the team enough to gain “the man” status – Alex Rodriguez has never been “the man” in New York, nor is Hanley Ramirez “the man” in Florida. Being “the man” is therefore a subtle combination of character and leadership abilities coupled with prodigious skills on the field.

The undisputed “men” in baseball at the moment would appear to be:
Texas: Josh Hamilton
New York Yankees: Derek Jeter
Chicago White Sox: Paul Konerko
Seattle: Ichiro
St Louis: Albert Pujols
Boston*: Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis
Atlanta: Chipper Jones (for how much longer who knows?)
Minnesota: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau
Cleveland: Grady Sizemore (although this is dwindling by the day)
Colorado: Todd Helton (soon to be succeeded by Troy Tulowitski)

*Boston represents an interesting conundrum and was the example (surprise, surprise) I had in mind when writing this piece. Boston has seen dynastic shift over the past two decades in terms of who its “men” were. In the early nineties “the man” was undoubtedly Roger Clemens. The Rocket eventually gave way to Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez. Due to Nomar’s injuries and eventual exit from Boston I think one could argue that Curt Schilling briefly co-held the position of “the man” during 2004. Following the World Series victory Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz emerged as “the men” in Boston. Post 2007 however, with the departure of Manny (both from Boston and from his senses) and Ortiz’ decline the Red Sox have clearly been Pedroia and Youkilis’ team. The key issue for the Red Sox this year, and one that ties in nicely with the question I posed at the start of this entry is how the signings of Crawford and Gonzalez will affect this dynamic.

Adrian Gonzalez was the undisputed “man” in San Diego for several years. While Crawford was never “the man” in Tampa, he was a prominent figure in the clubhouse and, along with Evan Longoria, probably the closest thing the Rays had to “the man” – definitely (curiously along with the sadly retired Rocco Baldelli) Crawford was “the man” of the last few years of the Devil Rays.

Are we about to see another dynastic shift in Boston? Youkilis has given up his position to accommodate Gonzalez. This can be viewed either as a relinquishing of “man” status to the more skilled newcomer, or a re-enforcement of Youk’s status as “the man”, a demonstration of his team-first mentality and ability to lead by example both on the field and off.

Certainly the Red Sox have a enough star power to morph into the sort of “team” team the Phillies have become – after all Josh Beckett was “the man” on the 2003 Marlins, John Lackey was “the man” (with Vlad Guerrero) on the Angels for years. Surely all this assorted “manhood” can combine to turn the Red Sox into a $150m a year version of the 2010 Giants.

Personally I think this is unlikely. While Crawford and Gonzalez will undoubtedly become influential players in the clubhouse (Gonzalez especially amongst the Spanish speaking players) I doubt there is to be any serious challenge to the hegemony of Pedroia and Youkilis. However the pressure will certainly be on both of them to bounce-back from disappointing 2010 seasons to ensure that their authority over this 2011 Red Sox team (which has no business not winning the AL Pennant if not the World Series) continues.

Ultimately the success of the teams which can boast a “man” speaks for itself. They have clearly achieved greater success than the (typically small market) “team” team. Every term that heads into Spring Training talking about the amazing chemistry of their team (which is invariably composed of B and C grade talent) secretly wishes they had an Albert Pujols or a Derek Jeter around which to focus their amazing team-spirit. It is the hope of every GM who drafts a potential superstar such as a Bryce Harper hopes that that player fulfils both their projected talent, but also is able to emerge as “the man” on that team.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The All-Star Team of my (baseball) Lifetime!

Once again shamelessly stealing from the brilliant Joe Posnanski I’ve decided to open my 2011 blogging season with the All-Star team of my lifetime.

I should mention that, whilst born in 1985, I did not start to watch baseball (due to living in the United Kingdom) until sometime during the 2002 season. My earliest baseball memory was watching Boston beat Cleveland in September 2002 and falling in love with the Sox after watching Manny Ramirez take Charles Nagy deep early on. Therefore consider this team the All-Star team of my ‘baseball lifetime’.

We’ll go American League and National League with the DH in place. In the case of players who have played in both leagues I’ll group them into the league in which they spent the majority of 2002-2011.

American League:

Catcher: Joe Mauer (Twins)

- As much as I would like to vote V-Tek in on the basis of unparalleled ability to handle a pitching staff, one simply can’t argue with catchers who win multiple batting titles.

1st Base: Jim Thome (Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers, Twins)

- Just a hitting machine and, by all accounts, a thoroughly nice chap. Should reach 600 HR this season – yet doesn’t seem to get his due as one of the greatest power hitters the game has ever seen.

2nd Base: Robinson Cano (Yankees)

- A new one but there is just no one close at this position in baseball at the moment. Pedroia is a close second, Cano beats him for consistency and offensive production.

3rd Base: Eric Chavez (Athletics, Yankees)

- The most exciting defensive player I have ever seen. The last few years have been painful but I will always love the Eric Chavez of 2002-2006. It upsets me greatly that he is going to camp with the Yankees. Surely Boston could have given him an invitation – anything’s better than Yamaico Navarro.

Short-Stop: Derek Jeter (Yankees)

- My second Yankee on the list. A-Rod may be the superior player (although given all the PED controversy, who knows). Defensively over-rated and seemingly in irrevocable decline Jeter is still the face of baseball for me during my time as a fan. I only wish I had been able to catch some of Nomar’s glory years in Boston...

Left Field: Manny Ramirez (Indians, Red Sox, Dodgers, White Sox, Rays)

- A complete liability in the field and in the club-house but I can’t help but love Manny. The absolute best hitter I have ever seen.

Center Field: Josh Hamilton (Reds, Rangers)

- Josh is getting dangerously close to being the best player in baseball. The only truly complete player in the game. Torii Hunter would have won this spot if he hadn’t gone to Anaheim.

Right Field: Vlad Guerrero (Expos, Angels, Rangers, Orioles)

- Vlad in his prime was the only opposing hitter who would make me genuinely fearful whenever he stepped up to the place. Just a ridiculously good hitter. It makes me sad to see him playing for the Orioles in what is probably his swansong year. He deserves better. Narrowly edges out Ichiro.

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz (Boston Red Sox)

- PEDs or no PEDs everyone loves Big Papi. The 50+ HR years are long gone but Ortiz is still a great character and, providing you don’t count April and May, a great hitter.

Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay (Blue Jays, Phillies)

- An absolutely master. Halladay is so far and away the best pitcher in baseball at the moment they should probably retire the Cy Young for the foreseeable future.

Closer: Mariano Rivera (Yankees)

- There can be no debate, the greatest closer who ever lived.

National League:

Catcher: Brian McCann (Braves)

- Not a choice I’m particularly enthused by, but McCann nudges Yadier Molina for the best catcher in the NL during my baseball watching experience. Unfortunately I only caught the last few years of Piazza in New York. I always had a soft spot for Paul Lo Duca but frankly he doesn’t hold a candle to what McCann has quietly achieved in Atlanta.

1st Base: Albert Pujols (Cardinals)

- The Cardinals offering Pujols less annual salary than Teixiera and Howard is a slap in the face to the man who is a close second to Manny Ramirez as the greatest hitter I have ever seen.

2nd Base: Placido Polanco (Phillies, Cardinals, Tigers, Phillies)

- Just a great, great all-round player, here primarily for his role on the World Series Tigers of ’06. Bonus points for looking like Glen Quagmire.

3rd Base: Scott Rolen (Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Reds)

- Was great to see Rolen have a resurgence last year as part of the surprising Reds. Was an absolutely beast with the bat and the glove in St Louis.

Short-Stop: Hanley Ramirez (Marlins)

- Poor defensively and, seemingly, kind of an ass but wow, he’s good.

Left Field: Barry Bonds (Pirates, Giants)

- I only caught the final years of Big Barry, credibility gone, joylessly advancing towards the HR record. I’m on the fence about Bonds and the whole steroid issue (usually I don’t think it was that big a deal) but the fact remains, he could hit.

Centre Field: Jim Edmonds (Angels, Cardinals, Padres, Cubs, Brewers, Reds)

- St Louis players seem to be dominating my NL team (only fair really as they have been THE NL team of my baseball lifetime). I loved Edmonds for the same reason I loved Rolen – great hitter, exciting fielder and played with a ton of heart.

Right Field: Matt Holliday (Rockies, Athletics, Cardinals)

- Although no longer a right fielder I will never forgot how good Holliday was in 2007. Quite how he failed to win the MVP award is completely beyond me.

Designated Hitter: Lance Berkman (Astros, Yankees, Cardinals)

- Just a fantastic slugger. Had the weight of the world on his shoulders trying to replace Bagwell in Houston but coped admirably.

Starting Pitcher: Pedro Matinez (Dodgers, Expos, Red Sox, Mets, Phillies)

- He’s here more for the work I saw in his last few years in Boston than for anything since (although he was fantastic in his return for the Phillies in 2009) but those three years I saw in Boston were amongst the greatest of all time. An undisputable first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Closer: Trevor Hoffman (Marlins, Padres, Brewers)

- Now mercifully retired Hoffman is a clear choice for San Diego’s second ever Hall of Famer. Honourable mention goes to Billy Wagner.