11th and Washington

11th and Washington: February 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

From ND to MLB: Brad Lidge

Brad Lidge

Brad Lidge is one of two baseball players whose time at Notre Dame coincided with mine. He pitched from 1996-98, putting together a 13-5 record and 4.86 ERA, with 143 strikeouts in 129 2/3 innings. Though he's worn No. 54 throughout his Major League career, in South Bend Lidge donned No. 20, the same digits worn for the Irish by former Expos hurler Dan McGinn and current Phillies farmhand Jeremy Barnes.

From the 2011 Notre Dame Media Guide
In '98, Lidge and third baseman Brant Ust were the fourth Irish teammates to earn the Big East's player and pitcher of the year awards in the same season, when Lidge was 8-2 with a 4.15 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings. He started 15 of the 16 games in which he appeared and his 93 strikeouts are 10th all-time in Irish history heading into this season, tied with two others (Alex Shilliday in '98 and Brian Dupra last year). On April 18, 1998, Lidge struck out 12 in seven innings in a game vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium, the seventh-highest total by one pitcher in a game for the Irish.

After his junior season in '98, Lidge was the Astros' first-round pick, taken 17th overall -- the highest selection ever used on a Domer and the same slot used by the White Sox to take catcher Ken Plesha in the first draft in 1965 and by the Diamondbacks on outfielder A.J. Pollock in '09. It took Lidge four years to reach the Majors, however, mostly because of shoulder and elbow injuries. He pitched in just four games in the minors in '98, six in '99, eight in 2000 and five in 2001 -- that's 23 games (and 100 innings) total in his first four professional seasons. They were all starts, however, as the Astros continued to groom the hard-throwing right-hander as a starting pitcher.

In '02 that changed. Lidge pitched 24 games at Triple-A New Orleans and another five at Double-A Round Rock, combining for 10 relief appearances between the two levels and racking up a career-high 122 2/3 innings. He also made his Major League debut that season, on April 26 at Atlanta. One week later, he appeared in a game at home against the Mets before being sent down until September.

The next year, Lidge made the Astros bullpen out of spring training and quickly teamed up in the late innings with Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner, whom he credited for taking him under their wings. The mentoring paid off as Lidge posted a 0.69 ERA in his first nine appearances, all coming in the Astros' first 17 games. Almost immediately, Lidge was a key part of the bullpen.

In the Astros' locker The formidable late-inning trio was perhaps no better than the night of June 11 at Yankee Stadium. Roy Oswalt started that game but aggravated a groin injury in the second inning and was pulled having faced three batters without allowing a hit. Five relievers followed, none of them yielding a hit, either, completing the first no-hitter consisting of six pitchers in Major League history. It was the first no-no against the Yankees since 1958 and the first against them at Yankee Stadium since '52. Lidge pitched the sixth and seventh perfectly, striking out two, and was awarded the win. Dotel pitched the eighth and Wagner the ninth.

At the end of the season, Lidge's ledger showed a 6-3 record, 3.60 ERA, one save and 97 strikeouts in 85 innings. Houston (87-75) finished second, a game behind the NL Central champion Cubs and four games behind the wild-card winning (and eventual World Series champion) Marlins. Lidge finished in a tie for fifth with the Marlins' Miguel Cabrera in the NL Rookie of the Year voting (won by Florida left-hander Dontrelle Willis) and his emergence allowed the Astros to trade Wagner to the Phillies for three prospects, making Dotel the closer and Lidge the eighth-inning guy.

The Astros started the 2004 season strong, never falling more than 2 1/2 games out of first place through the first two months. But a mediocre first three weeks of June, during which they went 10-10, saw Houston fall as far as fifth place and seven games off the pace. After a 7-2 loss to the Pirates on June 23, the Astros were 37-34 and five games behind the first-place Cardinals. The next day, Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker acquired Carlos Beltran in a three-team trade that saw Dotel shipped to Oakland by way of Kansas City. Lidge, who had saved two games so far that season, was promoted to closer.

The move didn't pay immediate dividends as the Astros slipped to 44-44 heading into the All-Star Game at Minute Maid Park. The day after the Midsummer Classic, manager Jimy Williams was fired and Phil Garner took over, guiding Houston to a 48-26 second-half record and the NL Wild Card berth. Lidge finished the season with a 6-5 record and 1.90 ERA -- still a career best over a full season -- and 29 saves. He also struck out 157 batters in 94 2/3 innings, the fourth-most in MLB history for a pitcher with no starts, and his 14.93 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio is also fourth among relievers with at least 70 innings, behind Wagner's 14.95 in 1999, Eric Gagne's 14.98 in '03 and Carlos Marmol's 15.99 in 2010. When the Astros dispatched the Braves in a five-game NL Division Series that October, it marked the first postseason series win in franchise history. The run ended there, though, because the Cardinals won the NLCS in seven games.

In 2004 as Houston's full-time closer, Lidge came back to earth a little bit, going 4-4 with a 2.29 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 70 2/3 innings. He did save 42 games, though, good for third in Astros history, just two behind the record 44 posted in 2003 by Wagner and matched in 2008 by Jose Valverde. And Houston won the NL Wild Card again, turned away Atlanta in the NLDS again, and faced St. Louis once again in the NLCS. Lidge saved three games against the Cardinals, but he also lost a memorable Game 5 that you may remember.

Lidge came on in the ninth with a 4-2 lead and Houston needing three more outs to reach its first World Series. He struck out John Rodriguez and John Mabry, both swinging, for two quick outs. David Eckstein and Jim Edmonds were the next two batters up before Albert Pujols, and Eckstein grounded a single to left field and Edmonds walked. Then Pujols, on an 0-1 count, crushed a towering home run that would have left Minute Maid Park had the roof been open. The win forced Game 6 back in St. Louis.

The Astros recovered, though, winning Game 6, 5-1, to advance to their first World Series, where they'd face the White Sox. Chicago took Game 1, and Lidge made his first appearance in Game 2 with the score tied 6-6 in the ninth. After retiring Juan Uribe on a fly ball to center, Lidge yielded a walk-off home run to Scott Podsednik to put the Astros in an 0-2 hole heading home for Game 3. The White Sox completed the sweep at Minute Maid Park.

Lidge pitched two more seasons in Houston, saving 32 and 19 games, before a November 2007 trade to the Phillies with Eric Bruntlett for three prospects. The 2008 season, of course, stands as Lidge's finest in a Major League uniform. He went 41-for-41 in save opportunities in the regular season, winning two other games without a loss and striking out 92 in 69 1/3 innings. The BBWAA voted him fourth in the NL Cy Young Award balloting, the only reliever among the six highest vote-getters. He added seven more saves without a hiccup in the postseason, allowing just one run in 9 1/3 innings across three series, culminating in the final out of the World Series win over the Tampa Bay Rays.

That made Lidge the sixth Domer to win the World Series -- the first since Craig Counsell and the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in 2001. And like Counsell in '97 with the Marlins, Lidge had a hand in the final play; Counsell scored the winning run in a walk-off Game 7 win. The other Series winners who once suited up for the Irish are Ed Reulbach (1907-08 Chicago Cubs), Jean Dubuc (1916 Boston Red Sox), John McHale (1945 Detroit Tigers) and Ron Reed (1980 Philadelphia Phillies).

The past three years haven't been as fruitful. Lidge went 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA in '09 (saving 31 games), then managed 27 saves and a 2.96 ERA in 2010, missing chunks of time in April and May. His 2011 season didn't begin until late July, after rehab stints with Lakewood and Reading, and consisted of only 19 1/3 innings over 25 games. He saved one game, matching his 2003 total. He hadn't had fewer than 19 since then.

This year, Lidge begins a new chapter in his career after signing a free-agent deal with the Washington Nationals. I spoke with him last September in Philadelphia.

Were you following Notre Dame before looking for colleges?
I enjoyed watching them on TV. I watched a little bit of college football, so I was very aware of their mystique and legacy and everything else. But, to be honest, I never thought I'd be going there. When I was in high school, I never really thought I'd ever have a chance to play at a Division I school until I was a senior. It happened kind of late. When I knew it was a possibility, my parents were like, "You're so lucky. It's unbelievable."

What was it that made you ultimately choose Notre Dame?
Recruiting trip. I already kind of felt like it's going to be tough to beat a school like this. The coaches in the baseball program at the time -- Paul Manieri, Brian O'Connor -- they were awesome, even just as a recruit there, and I knew that's where I wanted to be.

In the fall of '97, Craig Counsell came back after the Marlins won the World Series. I covered it for the South Bend Tribune. Do you remember that? Were you in the room for that?
I was. I do remember that. I don't remember exactly what he said. I do remember it was a really cool thing to know that somebody from our school had just done that. And hey, if you can get to the point where you keep playing well, you have a chance to do that too.

One of the things he said to the group was, "One of you guys could be in this position one day."
Right. Which is, obviously, ironic.

I think you're one of five ND alums who's won a World Series. One pitched for the Cubs in 1908.
Oh really? That's going way back. That's awesome.

2007 Topps Brad LidgeYou were drafted in '98 by Houston. What do you remember about that experience? Do you remember getting that call?
Oh yeah. You never know what to expect, but you hear a lot of stuff. On the actual day of the draft, I had some family and some friends over at my house.

[Jimmy Rollins cuts in after hearing about a draft: "Are you talking about fantasy football?"]

You know, if I was playing fantasy football as far back as '98, I would be a pioneer.

I had my friend's dad hook up the internet for us, because that was a big deal in '98. I mean, it wasn't too big of a deal, but it was still -- we didn't have it at our house. I remember following it live as it was happening. People were saying first round [for me], but you don't know. Sixteen picks go by, and I'm like, "Man, I hope I'm not a fourth-round guy." But then, 17 came up and I got drafted and we had a little bit of a party with family and friends.

I'm glad to see the draft getting more attention in baseball. Obviously, the guys don't go right into the big leagues, but it's still very important to the sport.

The draft was an awesome experience for me. I think for a lot of guys, if it becomes more important, it will be a lot more exciting [to follow] for everybody.

Coming up, you overcame a lot of injuries, didn't you?
I did. Right away, I had four surgeries in three years, my first three years in the minor leagues. To be honest, that's maybe the toughest point in my career. I'd say definitely the toughest point in my career, actually, because it's at that point, you don't know if you're ever going to play in the Major Leagues, if you're body's ever going to allow you to do it. I was fortunate in that when I was on the field, I pitched well, so I was able to move up each year, but it was a slow move. Obviously, with the injuries, even though I was throwing the ball well, it still took me four years to get to the big leagues because of the injuries.

What do you remember from your big league debut?
I remember we were in Atlanta. It was a blowout game and it was like the third inning, and our manager was like, "Alright, let's give this rook a try." I went out there and my legs, they felt like jello. That's the most nervous I've ever been, a hundred percent, no doubt, for sure. Miraculously, the first inning, I think I had a 1-2-3 inning, and they sent me back out for a second inning and the wheels fall off. I think I gave up a walk, a double, a single, another walk ...

I looked it up to be sure. I believe you did give up a single to B.J. Surhoff, to lead off, but then you did retire the rest in order. The next two you got strikeouts. And then yeah, the next inning is when the runs came.
Yeah, exactly. It's one of those bittersweet things where you wish it would've gone perfect, but you're just so happy you just got in there, too. But of course, then, two innings, two runs, you're sitting with a 9.00 ERA, too. I think I got in one more outing, against the Mets, and then I got sent back down for a while in 2002. It was really cool, but not exactly what I wanted.

Of your whole career, what's your best memory so far?
Yeah, we'll go with the 2008 World Series. That being said, there are some other memories that stick out that were amazing. In 2003, my first full season, we threw that no-hitter in New York. That was pretty cool. That was a pretty unique experience, if nothing else. I think for me, the clinching games where I got to pitch in Houston. Where we went to the playoffs and won a series for the first time in the history of the franchise, that was a really cool experience for me as well. But I think nothing will be able to compare to 2008.

You said your debut was the most nervous you've ever been, but '08, coming in for the last inning, not so much?
Not as much nervous, but I could feel a more palpable energy at that point than I've ever felt in my career.

What was it like to go back to campus after winning the World Series and be introduced on the field [with the Notre Dame baseball team] prior to a football game?
That was one of the proudest moments of my life. It's cool to go back to your high school and be recognized, but to go back to your college -- and a big-time college like Notre Dame -- is something else. I got to go back with my dad, stand on the field where I watched so many big games and wave to the student body. It was awesome.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

From ND to MLB: Jeff Samardzija

Flinging the orb

I've fallen way behind on my Notre Dame to MLB project, so it's time to pick it up again. In an effort to move things along, I'm going to do something I don't generally like to do -- post a Q&A or two. It's just a personal thing. I don't do that much writing anymore, unless it's on this blog, so I like to weave the comments I get into stories rather than simply posting a transcript. But those long-form explorations of a player's history can take time, especially when I delve deeply into the past -- his early years, his time at Notre Dame, his signing with a team and the climb through the minors. And I'd like to get back to some of that with the older, more obscure players, those who have been forgotten -- or were never really known in the first place.

These next three, all of whom are still active, have come up in the digital age, so their histories are a bit more known. There's not much to uncover there. But I'll still look back a little before getting into the questions and answers. First up: Jeff Samardzija.

Samardzija, as pretty much everyone knows, made his name on the Irish football team, specifically in 2005 and '06 under Charlie Weis. During those two seasons, he established new school records for single-season receptions and yards and in three seasons on the gridiron set all three primary career marks: receptions, yards and touchdowns. His 15 TDs in 2005 remain the single-season record, tied in 2009 by Golden Tate (also an Irish baseball player, drafted by the Giants that year in the 50th round, but now a receiver with the Seattle Seahawks). Michael Floyd has since surpassed all of Samardzija's career marks.

As a receiver, Samardzija made some amazing and memorable plays, two of which stand out above all others for me. The first was a spectacular one-handed diving catch on a long pass at Purdue in 2005. I recall watching that from the 21st Amendment brewpub in San Francisco while on my honeymoon (thanks to my wife picking the place for pregame drinks the previous night, when we went to a Diamondbacks-Giants game).

The second was his thrilling catch-and-run to beat UCLA in 2006. I was at this game, sitting with a Bruin grad (the friend and business partner of a Notre Dame friend) in the corner of the north end zone above the student section. We watched as Samardzija took Brady Quinn's pass and dodged and weaved his way into the south end zone for the winning score. Don Criqui's radio call is outstanding:

On the diamond, Samardzija didn't have any heart-pounding plays like that, but he made an impact beginning in his freshman year, going 5-3 with a 2.95 ERA in 20 games (six starts). He held opposing hitters to a .209 average, easily his best mark for the Irish. In his sophomore season, he started 10 of the 15 games in which he appeared, and by his junior year he was a full-time starter.

2004 2.95 5 3 20 6 0 0 1 64 50 25 21 17 42 2 1 5 0 0.209 3 3 0 3
2005 3.89 8 1 15 10 1 0 0 78.2 85 39 34 30 56 10 3 3 360 0.272 3 10 1 6
2006 4.33 8 2 15 15 0 0 0 97.2 101 51 47 37 61 24 2 3 426 0.272 5 5 3 10
Total 3.82 21 6 50 31 1 0 1 240.1 236 115 102 84 159 36 6 11 786 0.256 11 18 4 19

Jeff Samardzija on the mound After that 2006 season, the Cubs selected Samardzija in the fifth round of the draft. He signed and reported to their short-season Boise affiliate. Before the summer was out, he earned a promotion to Peoria, then returned to campus in August for football camp. After his senior football season and a 2007 Sugar Bowl appearance, speculation began as to whether Samardzija would try to play both baseball and football professionally. He was considered a mid-to-late first-round pick in the NFL, but he didn't stick around long enough to find out. In late January 2007, he signed a five-year deal with the Cubs.

Samardzija spent just one full season in the minors in 2007, going 6-11 with a 4.57 ERA between high Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. He spent 2008 split three ways: 16 games at Double-A, six games at Triple-A Iowa and 26 in the bullpen for the Chicago Cubs, debuting on July 25, 2008, pitching two innings in relief of Ryan Dempster at Wrigley Field. Another split season in 2009 saw Samardzija wearing an Iowa cap for 18 games (17 starts) and a Cubs lid for 20, though two of those were his first starts in the Major Leagues. In 2010, however, he saw action in only seven Major League games -- starting three and compiling a 2-2 record, though with an 8.38 ERA. He appeared in 35 games for Iowa in 2010, starting 15, and going 11-3 with a 4.37 ERA.

2008 Bowman Jeff Samardzija The 2011 season was Samardzija's first spent entirely on the big-league roster and it resulted in career bests nearly across the board: 75 games, 88 innings, 8-4 record, 2.97 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 87 strikeouts, etc. In fact, the only stat in which he did not set a new career mark was home runs allowed -- yielding just five, compared to seven in 20 games in '09.

As the Cubs head into the 2012 season -- pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., on Saturday -- Samardzija will be stretched out to compete for a rotation spot, though at the moment it looks like he'd be eighth (at best) in the pecking order. Barring an injury or a dominating spring, I'd expect Shark to return to the bullpen as the top setup man -- and sometimes closer -- for Carlos Marmol. And should Marmol be traded, Samardzija could become Chicago's stopper.

So here's our conversation from last September, when the Cubs were in New York to play the Mets. We spent a few minutes after this discussing the current state of Notre Dame football, but since that's now both dated and not related to Samardzija's ascension from Eck Stadium to Wrigley Field, I didn't bother to post it.

Did you follow the Irish before you got there?
Yeah, we always kept our eye on them. Became a little more in touch with what was going on over there when they started making their runs in the [NCAA] playoffs, and then my senior year in high school they went to the [College] World Series. I went to some camps over there when I was a kid. I went back and forth. [Valparaiso University] was right there in my back yard. We kind of went back and forth with ND and there, watching baseball and football and so on.

What was it about ND that drew you in?
My decision to go to ND was based more professionally, based on being a student and where I was going to go after my college career. My dad always told me growing up, "You never know what's going to happen on the field." Playing sports is a crazy business -- college, pro, high school -- you just never know what's going to happen. My dad instilled in me early to make a decision based on what I was going to do for a job, pretty plain and simple. And then everything I ever heard about Notre Dame was, you go there, when you leave, you're gonna be in a good situation to have a good life and take care of your family. But fortunately, things worked out the other way and I didn't have to use my degree [in business marketing] too much yet. But hopefully down the road.

What's it like playing baseball there, opposed to football.
It's totally different. Football, you get the silver spoon. Baseball at ND, I don't want to say the bronze spoon -- they get a nice spoon, but it's not as good as the football one. [Laughs.] It's totally different, you're under the radar a little bit more in baseball. You're just kind of playing your sport, you get some fans -- 2,000, 2,500 people -- so it's more intimate. It's a good situation. Football's just so blown up there. Every move is watched, every player is watched. It was almost nice for me to go from football into the spring, summer, and play baseball and kind of unwind. Baseball's always been a good release for me, helps me get away from things.

What do you remember about draft day?
It was awesome. It was pretty much all I could ask for. I was a White Sox/Cubs guy growing up. I was a Cubs fan, but we could [better] afford tickets to White Sox games, they were like nine bucks. I've always loved Chicago. Been a big Bears, Blackhawks fan my whole life. To be able to stick around the city and have that weigh into my decision was huge. Sometimes things fall into place, man. It was kind of funny.

In baseball, nearly all players have an apprenticeship in the minors, whereas in football, you'd go straight to the NFL after being drafted. Did that play into your thoughts at all?
I don't think I ever let myself believe I was going to be in the minor leagues for too long. [Laughs.] I'm not saying that that's the truth or that was going to happen, but I guess I just had my eyes on the big prize and where I wanted to end up. Looking back on it, maybe I should've spent some more time in the minor leagues. But that's alright, I guess you just cut your teeth whenever you get a chance to in the Major Leagues.

What memories do you have from the minors?
I remember being in Daytona, and I was not having a very good season at all, by any means. But I still remember being down there and wanting to be there, you know? And that was a year out of playing football. To realize I was there and having fun, really enjoying what I was doing, baseball-wise, and getting better. Again, I was looking at the big picture and where I wanted to be, in Chicago. To me, that meant a lot to me to not sit there and just loathe over not playing football. That's how I knew -- little situations like that help you realize that you made the right decision, that you did the right thing.

Other than that, the minor leagues are fun, dude. With the bus trips, it's like you're kind of still in college, in a way. In the minor leagues, you learn to grow up, how to balance everything and have an everyday life with baseball.

What do you remember about your MLB debut?
I remember it was against the Marlins. Struck out the first guy I saw. [Alfredo] Amezega, I believe. Threw two innings, I think. It was cool. It was cool for me to come up and get called up by Lou [Piniella], have my first experience under Lou, first half-season under Lou. It was something I think that will be with me for a long time. He's a very interesting guy, to say the least. It'll be a good story down the road.

Do you still follow the Irish?
I'm a little different, man. I watch [football], but it's hard for me to watch. I played there, so I kind of know what's going on, but it's hard for me to communicate with other people about it because they base their opinions on what they see. But ND has a lot of things going on that people don't know about. There's a lot of alumni and a lot of outside influence. I watch, but I take it with a grain of salt. I try to do it just more for entertainment than trying to break it down and scout our own team. I had my fun while I was there, and now I'm happy to take a deep breath and be able to enjoy watching as a fan.

{NOTE: At this point, Jeff and I started chatting like fellow Notre Dame alumni, not as reporter and athlete, about the football team. It was six days after the Irish opened the season with a loss at home to South Florida and a day before they went to Michigan and lost on the final play of the game. After this question about John Axford, Jeff then asks me where I lived while on campus and tells me how much he hated my second dorm, O'Neill Hall, because of the memories it brought back about August football training camp. That pretty much wrapped up our conversation.}

I talked to Axford, he said he stops by campus after the season on his drive from Milwaukee to Ontario.
Everybody usually does. I played with Axford two years, had a good time. Ax is a great dude. I never played with [Brad] Lidgey. He was there a little before me.

Where'd you live?

I lived in Grace Hall, then the first year O'Neill was open.
Oh nice, man. New one. O'Neill, summer camp. I walk in that front door, I'll take a breath in, I'm like ... I start twitching. They put up these big tents, dude. Huge tents. These wood floors down, they put up all these chairs there as our lockers, man. It's hot. You could smell, going from O'Neill into that tent, you could smell that wood. You were just like, "Man, I'm in camp, I know it." You could be blindfolded and you'd know it. I was in Alumni. I just roasted, dude. And I can't sleep when I'm hot. I need it cold. Being from the north, I like it when it's 20 degrees outside and I can put about 10 blankets on. Those windows would be open and I'd have fans just on my face. It's tough man, it's tough.

Jeff Samardzija returns an autograph

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

The random baseball player in Bruce Springsteen's 'We Take Care of Our Own' video

There he is. He pops up during the refrain in the final minute. He fades in next to Bruce Springsteen's head, then fades out in the sun, back to Bruce.

I've just noticed this report that says Bruce will be the leadoff act for tomorrow night's Grammy Awards show. An appropriate place for The Boss. I presume he'll be performing "We Take Care Of Our Own," rather than something off of The Promise, the only thing he's nominated for (in some category about box set packaging or something).

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Friday, February 10, 2012

One last season for the B-Mets?


I wasn't planning another post today, but then the long-rumored news that Ottawa's attempts to bring in a Double-A club in 2013 might mean the end of the Binghamton Mets seemed to become a reality. So that sparked some speculation on Twitter of where the affiliations would end up. For some reason, affiliations in minor league baseball and the shuffling (sometimes scrambling) that happens every two years intrigues me as much as free agency in the offseason. Maybe more. It might stem from the 2002 shuffling period, when I reported on the Red Sox and Trenton Thunder ending their affiliation, opening the door for the Yankees to swoop into Mercer County Waterfront Park.

But I wasn't satisfied with discussing this latest news 140 characters at a time, so I went to look up the most recent info on when the player development contracts are up around the minors. Binghamton is one of those expiring after the 2012 season, as is New Hampshire -- the current Blue Jays affiliate in the Eastern League. And with Double-A baseball back in Canada, the prevailing speculation is that the Jays would move their affiliate to the new Ottawa franchise. (For his part, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous is denying any interest in Ottawa, but that's no surprise considering that, at the moment, there is no team there and his club is under contract with New Hampshire.)

Should Toronto and Ottawa team up on a new PDC, the Mets could potentially move their Double-A affiliation to New Hampshire. Another possibility proposed is that the Twins might leave New Britain for New Hampshire. Minnesota has had its Double-A club in the Hartford suburb since 1995, but maybe the Twins would trade Rock Cats for Fisher Cats and move to the newer facility (opened in 2005) up in Manchester.

Here are all the Double-A affiliations that expire after this coming season, in order from the longest relationships to the newest. In some cases, the relationships go back longer than the franchise has been in that location. For example, the Royals have been in the Texas League since the club was in Wichita in 1995, but it moved to Arkansas (somewhere in the northwest part of the state, I think) in 2008:

League Club Parent Since
Eastern Akron Aeros Indians 1989
Eastern Binghamton Mets Mets 1992
Eastern New Britain Rock Cats Twins 1995
Texas Northwest Arkansas Naturals Royals 1995
Southern Huntsville Stars Brewers 1999
Texas Midland RockHounds Athletics 1999
Eastern Erie SeaWolves Tigers 2001
Texas Arkansas Travelers Angels 2001
Eastern Portland Sea Dogs Red Sox 2003
Eastern Richmond Flying Squirrels Giants 2003
Eastern New Hampshire Fisher Cats Blue Jays 2003
Eastern Harrisburg Senators Nationals 2005
Southern Mobile BayBears Diamondbacks 2007
Southern Tennessee Smokies Cubs 2007
Southern Jackson Generals Mariners 2007
Texas San Antonio Missions Padres 2007
Southern Pensacola Blue Wahoos Reds 2009
Southern Jacksonville Suns Marlins 2009

Now, based on the relationships and/or location, a few thoughts -- with no background or first-hand info; these are just gut feelings -- on which affiliations are most likely to be renewed or not:

No Need to Pack: Indians (Akron), Royals (Northwest Arkansas), Tigers (Erie), Red Sox (Portland), Nationals (Harrisburg)*, Marlins (Jacksonville). These are all geographical fits, including several long-time commitments going back more than a decade.

*I put the Nationals-Harrisburg relationship here because the Pennsylvania capital is a comfy 120 miles from D.C., farther than only low-A Hagerstown and high-A Potomac in the Washington system. However, with the Harrisburg ballpark prone to flooding (it being on an island and all), the Nationals could very well decide they'd rather not have their players in that environment. They could easily choose Richmond (107 miles away) instead.

Comfortable Marriages (likely to re-up on account of not having an option that much closer to the parent club): Twins (New Britain), Cubs (Tennessee), Padres (San Antonio), A's (Midland), Angels (Arkansas). Congratulations, Oakland! You have the western-most Double-A club in baseball! I can't imagine any of the West Coast teams would want to get out of the Texas League -- and I imagine the Giants would love to get in there -- but it tends to be a case of musical chairs. As for Minnesota, they could try to get a Midwestern affiliate in either the Texas or Southern Leagues, but since both of those leagues are entirely below the Mason-Dixon Line, those cities wouldn't be that much closer to Minneapolis than any Eastern League cities.

In a Rut (probably stuck, even if they wanted to move): Brewers (Huntsville), Mariners (Jackson), Diamondbacks (Mobile), Reds (Pensacola). Maybe Milwaukee would like to get one of the Tennessee clubs, putting its Double-A affiliate closer to both the parent club and the Triple-A club in Nashville. And the Mariners might like to get into the Texas League, but they'd have to usurp one of the California clubs from that circuit. The Reds' affiliate moves from Zebulon, N.C., to the Florida panhandle after a three-city franchise shuffle that saw the Carolina Mudcats (previously the Reds' Double-A Southern League affiliate) slide down to the high-A Carolina League, replacing Kinston, N.C., which is now without a club for the first time since the 1970s.

On the Market (three or four that are most likely to be shuffling come September?): Mets (Binghamton/Ottawa), Giants (Richmond), Blue Jays (New Hampshire), Twins (New Britain). All have been discussed above, and the Blue Jays and Twins -- listed in two categories, on purpose -- are really only here because of that speculation regarding the Ottawa franchise. Maybe everyone will be happy where they are and Toronto, Minnesota and San Francisco will all re-up, leaving the Mets in Ottawa (not too far from Buffalo, if the Mets renew with their Triple-A club -- no sure thing, but that's another post). The Giants have been in the Eastern League since 2003, when the affiliate was in Norwich, Conn. The franchise moved to Virginia before the 2010 season. But you'd have to think there's some interest in moving west, even if the options aren't that much better. Ideally, I'm sure the Giants and Mariners would love to find a way to expand the Texas League by two franchises, but that would have to be at the expense of either the Eastern League or Southern League.

One other point: As mentioned in the ESPN New York post linked at the top of this post, Binghamton would likely continue to host an affiliated team in 2013, drawing the Batavia franchise (currently a Cardinals affiliate) from the New York-Penn League. As mentioned in the Ottawa Citizen,

The Batavia franchise has been on the selling block for years. The community owned Muckdogs, playing in the smallest venue in that league, have constantly lost money while being operated by the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings.

That also may be another post. But no matter how it all comes down, it looks like we're in for some franchise movement -- and new logos, uniforms and team names -- in addition to the usual affiliation shuffles this fall.

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'Who'd you get!? Who'd you get!?' Opening those first 2012 cards

I finally found some 2012 Topps cards at a local Target, and even though I was going to boycott them this year for putting Jose Reyes in a Marlins uniform when he hasn't even played a game for them, I couldn't help myself. I bought one of the Target-exclusive 10-pack (eight cards each) boxes and an additional five single packs holding 12 cards each.

First off, the exclusive commemorative patch card in the box was one of the weak "Historical Stitches" meant to resemble the ID stitching sewn onto the jerseys back in the day. I got Bob Gibson, which if it were a patch of his number, I might be more excited about it. But his name? Meh. So that card, along with several others I pulled, I've put up on eBay in team-sorted lots of varying sizes. I'm not expecting too many hits, but figured it was worth a shot. The only ones I knew I definitely wanted to keep were any Mets and a few other players I like. I also have an affinity for the stars who helped me win my fantasy league last year, so I put those aside.

Now, for the Mets. Out of 140 cards, I drew five Mets, which seems like a solid ratio compared to past years, but it's certainly possible that I'm not remembering it accurately. A better ratio? I went 5-for-5 in not drawing black jerseys. Even better: two pinstriped uniforms, two white with blue hats/helmets, and one road uniform.

Here are the five, from least desirable to most (in my mind), with a few thoughts on each:

2012 Topps Mike Pelfrey

Not many people want Mike Pelfrey on the Mets, let alone his baseball card. But it's a beautiful sunny day in the pinstripes, so there's no better look in Queens. And he looks like a cat sticking out its tongue. Here's hoping for a rebound season.

2012 Topps Jason Bay

After two years of underachieving, hopefully this is the year Jason Bay comes close to producing for what he's paid. Right? RIGHT?! The closer fences should only help. He just has to stay healthy. I saw the guy hit a grand slam last season, so hopefully that's a sign.

2012 Topps Lucas Duda

I was torn as to whether this or the next card is my second-favorite, but you'll see why the next one won out. I like Lucas Duda as a promising power source this year, plus the horizontal orientation is nice. And I'm 99.9 percent certain that the photo was taken after his walk-off single against the Padres on Aug. 8 last season. In fact, I believe it's this moment at the 48-second mark: The high-five matches up; Willie Harris is furthest from the TV camera and closest to the first-base photo pit; Terry Collins has come out for a handshake; and Ken Oberkfell is the big head behind Duda's in the video still and his jersey is to the left of Collins' head.

2012 Topps R.A. Dickey

The reason R.A. Dickey is No. 2 should be obvious: Dickey Face! I've also seen it in person in Baltimore, but how can you beat a sunny day in the pinstripes? Plus, it's a great vantage point, probably taken from a concourse with a super telephoto lens. I've seen some of the pros shooting up there several times.

2012 Topps David Wright

And the top Mets card I pulled is none other than David Wright's. This is the first standard base card of Wright that I've drawn in some time. I think any recent ones I have I bought on eBay.

Wanna guess which team showed up the most on cards I pulled? Yeah, the Yankees -- nine of them, including two Jesus Montero cards, one of which was the Target-exclusive red-border variation. I also got Derek Jeter's base card and a couple of subsets that forced Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle into the set. And CC Sabathia came in the form of the 1987 Topps mini homage, the only time you're likely to hear "mini" when relating to Sabathia. (The other two '87 minis I got were David Price -- one of the stalwarts of the pitching staff of my Doherty Silk Sox championship team -- and Buster Posey.)

I'm toying with the idea of buying more -- perhaps a hobby box online -- to see what else comes up, but I'm going to give myself the weekend to mull it over. Of course, it would all be worth it if I drew one of the short prints that are fetching $30 and up on eBay. I have no need for fake a Reyes or Pujols card or a squirrel.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Braves history, give or take 90 years

Similar to the issue I have with the Newark Bears' "incorporation" date, I'm a little bit against the patch on the new alternate jerseys the Braves unveiled this week.

The Braves, of course, were established in 1876 (when the National League formed) in Boston. They were known as the Red Stockings, Beaneaters, Doves and Rustlers until 1912, when they adopted the Braves moniker and stuck with it save for a five-year shift to Bees from 1936-40. They moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and stayed for 13 seasons, all as the Braves. Then, in 1966, they relocated to Atlanta, and it's that year that these uniforms are meant to commemorate.

My problem with the patch is that it says 1876 and "Atlanta Braves." But, of course, the team wasn't in Atlanta in 1876. That pairing just isn't accurate to me. (And the 1966 unis had a much different shoulder patch, but that's another issue.) I suppose a solution would be pairing 1876 and "Braves Baseball" or simply "Braves," but the team just didn't see it that way.

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