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Jeff Cox for Baseball Commissioner
Tuesday, 1 November 2005
Karma Bites Houston in the Ass-tros
"The Houston faithful left, perhaps the most disillusioned baseball fans in the world. Except for maybe those of the Cubs." -- Mike Lopresti, Gannett News, concluding the U.S.A. Today story on Game 4 of the World Series.

The immediate question is whether Lopresti is ignorant of baseball fans or ignorant of English. Of course, the glaring sentence fragment might provide a clue.

Making fun of Cubs fans is always easy sport, but they are not disillusioned. Maybe Lopresti intended to say delusional.

Cubs fans deserve a World Series team. Cubs fans sustain hope despite Biblical setbacks (See the Steve Bartman piece elsewhere on this website). Cubs fans forgive and support. They put up with Sammy Sosa well past his ability to help the team. They tolerated and even idolized Harry Carray long after he lost the ability to enunciate. Whether any manager ever deserves to be fired is debatable, but the Cubs always have a reasonable case to make against an outgoing manager.

Cubs fans are many of the qualities Astros fans are not.

The Astros have a lot to answer for: plastic grass, any number of uniform embarrassments, Gordy Pladson, broken bat home runs into left field seats that would seem claustrophobic to Little League batters, Milo Hamilton, George Bush, and Chester Charge.

The Houston Astros, in the entire franchise history, have won seven division championships. Four of those came during one five-year period, the five-year tenure of one manager, Larry Dierker. The team forced him to resign.

Sammy Sosa had to not show up for work before the Cubs would run him off.

Houston's former third baseman, Phil "E-5" Garner, managed a team of has-beens and rookies to the World Series in 2005. The team probably won't fire him for at least three more years.

I hope Lopresti is right. Stripped of the illusions, Houston fans might become real students of the game. As for the Cubs fans, they're back in familiar territory, tied for first-place from now until April.

--Jeff Cox, would-be baseball commissioner, Oct. 27, 2005

Posted by Jeff Cox, would-be commissioner at 1:32 PM CST
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Monday, 27 June 2005
Selig says 'Like it or else'
Busybodies decided in 1973 that baseball might have evolved badly, into a struggle in which pitchers could never hope to catch on to hitting. One idea led to another and the designated hitter began. One league resisted and one made the experiment permanent. That’s America -- choice and the freedom to disagree.

Now, Bud Selig now wants to try the designated hitter in National League ballparks for interleague play (USA Today, June 14, 2005), thus giving people what they don’t want. He is like the persistent parent pushing vegetables to a child, “Come on, try it.”

Worse, he confuses the theoretical with the attainable.

Frequently people try what they probably should know they don’t want. Experimentation begins many addictions.

Sometimes people even try what they cannot believe keeps failing, theocracy for example. U.S. voters, having observed that we had a democracy and Iraq didn’t, swung hard to the party of the religious fundamentalists.

Sometimes people even refuse to stay with what obviously works. The U.S. House of Representatives, having realized the First Amendment protects free speech, voted to amend the Constitution to prohibit burning the nation’s flag.

Of course, the First Amendment requires reading, so maybe a television age doesn’t know the difference.

Meanwhile, a major department store sells bath towels in the design of the flag, seemingly without incident. Thus, burning the flag stirs Congress, but drying one’s rear end on the flag does not. Self-righteous know-it-alls seem willing to tolerate desecration of the flag from people who don’t criticize, just as Selig is willing to tolerate fans who go to the ballpark and watch what they’re told.

Selig is tinkering with the part of the universe that works. Part of baseball’s appeal is the unpredictable playout of simple and objective truths. Maybe the right theocracy would work or theoretically we could condemn repugnant speech without jeopardizing the marketplace of ideas, but a pitcher batting .071 is a pitcher batting .071.

People who follow baseball know the differences between American League and National League baseball. In exchange for not watching a competent pitcher look like a fool with a bat, American League fans tolerate station-to-station baseball. National League fans prefer an occasional hit-and-run, bunt -- or opportunity to see the other team’s pitcher look like a fool.

Democracy takes the entirely illogical step of subordinating ultimate truth to majority vote, but baseball is different. Baseball is a more refined competition between values and styles. The truth lies in the fan, not the game, and Selig wants to force-feed fans what they have been trying to avoid.

No one needs the baseball commissioner for help picking a style of play. Fans have seen the television. They understand the other league’s style of play.

The designated hitter changes the game, but fans knew what they were in for before they reached the ballpark. The fans have choices.

Football and baseball represent choices from sometime early in August until the end of October. Maybe Selig would like to surprise World Series fans with a game between the New England Patriots and the Saint Louis Rams.

Baseball provides a haven where people can discuss what they like without denying the truth of the other person’s position. Maybe Willie Mays is a better all-time outfielder than Barry Bonds because of better defense and speed, but Bonds has hit more home runs, and no one can argue otherwise. Mays is better for one fan, Bonds for the other, just as one league is better for some fans but not all.

Maybe Selig is merely marketing, figuring even criticism is attention.

After all, criticism is the reason for a democracy. No one needs the protection of the Constitution to say what a genius the president is or how nobel the American cause in Iraq might be. Government goons will not shut down a press that praises our policy makers. The First Amendment is precisely for the protection of criticism, including flag burning.

If flag burning becomes illegal, protesters can always set fire to copies of the Constitution.

Jeff Cox, would-be baseball commissioner, June 27, 2005

Posted by Jeff Cox, would-be commissioner at 8:01 AM CDT
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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Eternal springing

Every spring brings new paeans to baseball, poetic accounts of the beauty of the new season and hope springing eternal. Forget that. I may not have time next season to write such obligatory nonsense. Baseball should focus on that which remains. Toward that goal:
--A new season will again bring new hope for the Chicago Cubs. Better pitching, fewer cleanup hitters striking out, a more unified clubhouse and quicker outfielders will lead to -- another disappointment. The Cubs no doubt will point to the Red Sox and the 2004 World Series as proof of the possible, and no doubt the Cubs will win again, eventually. However, the smart fans will keep their hopes carefully under control. Leave this prediction forever.
--Players will continue to hit record numbers of home runs. The steroid issue is important as a reminder of how drugs will make people stupid, but all Americans are bigger every year -- even the ones who use food as their primary addiction. Meanwhile, the baseball stays the same size. Regardless of whether fans should like home runs, the fact is they do. Baseball will keep using tightly wound balls, Minute Maid (Minute Made?) Park, extra batting practice and timid pitching. The home run is here for good. Leave this prediction forever (or at least until good sense makes its arrival in Houston -- i.e., forever).
--Veteran players will set amazing new records. Some new Clemons, Henderson, Furcal, Finley, Bonds type star will embarrass much younger opponents with a combination of savvy and surprising strength for such an old guy. To some extent, this expansion of opportunities for 40-year-olds is a function of the expansion of the major leagues. More teams need more players, and a few old guys stick around longer than they would have, and baseball is enough about luck, that a few of those old guys have great years. Mostly the change is about better medicine, better training and better pay, all of which minimize the aches. Partly this phenomenon is about intelligence. Baseball players rely mostly on instinct and reflexes, but part of the game is thinking. As classrooms full of college freshmen prove every year, experience comes with age. Leave this prediction forever.
--Fans will make fools of themselves going after foul balls. Afterward, the souvenirs will gather dust, forgotten, until some grandchild eventually loses them in the weeds at the edge of the playground in some gathering darkness. Before that happens, though, grown men will leap over seats, dive into concrete steps, screen out children going for rebounds and otherwise act completely goofy while trying to grab some connection with the game. Leave this prediction forever.

Jeff Cox, would-be baseball commissioner, March 10, 2005

Posted by Jeff Cox, would-be commissioner at 9:02 AM CST
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Saturday, 24 July 2004
While People Were not Watching the Game . . . .

George "Sneaky" Tenet was the best coach in the league for intercepting signs. No one completely understood his talent even on the rare occasions when he tried to explain, and that wasn't often. After all, circumstances change. With modern baseball's job insecurities and jockeying for advantage, today's teammates could be next year's opponents. Everyone respected Tenet, though, and when he said the other team was going to squeeze home a run, a fast decision was necessary.

"Don't look at the third-base coach. He's been doing this too long to give away anything. Look at the first-base coach. His eyes just popped out of his head. They're going to squeeze on one of these next two pitches. There's the batter touching his nose now. That's probably the acknowledgement."

The manager of the Oil Burners was George "Alfred E. Newman" Bush, a man who batted .53 in his big league career thanks to Al Gore standing still too long in left field on one of Bush's 19 official at-bats. Gore should have caught the ball, but the official scorer that day was a friend of the family, and the fly ball became a triple. Bush spent the next decade talking about third base. Now, thanks to a gift from Ralph Nader, the family acquired a baseball team, and Bush was managing. He had some success early, thanks to some great players left behind by the former manager, Bill "Chancre" Clinton.

"Hit him, that will stop any squeeze nonsense," Bush said.

All the chatter in the dugout turned to stunned silence. Jaws dropped. Everyone turned and looked at Bush, hoping to see some indication of a joke.

"Hit him, I said. Bean him."

The batter Bush was proposing to dust off was Hussein "Mad As" Maskharah. No one liked him. Maskharah was a bully and an opportunist. He had little ability as a baseball player, but was famous for stepping on other players, slinging his bat at the opposing pitcher, and refusing to slide going into any base. The other players called him "Mad As" because of his crazy ways. Maskharah routinely swung so that his follow through hit either the catcher or the umpire. At first base, his position in the field, Maskharah rarely bothered to catch pick-off throws. He just insisted the pitcher throw at the runner instead. The rumor was that "Mad As" punched out two teammates who tried to date his daughters. People laughed at the club's press releases when one of the rookies went on the disabled list with an "eyeball strain" and the other missed four games with a "smashed groin," but no one talked to the girls ever again.

Colin Powell, the bench coach, finally broke the silence. "I don't think we should bean him yet, George. Maybe we could just fake a pick-off at third base and then have the pitcher turn around real fast to see if the runner has left first like he's trying to get a jump."

"Oh, that play never works," Bush said. "The last time that ever picked off anyone was when the German team scared France into surrendering in the last Olympics. No. Bean the big creep. He tried to run over my daddy once in a playoff game."

"But he hasn't done anything yet," Powell said. "The umpire will kick our pitcher out of the game. It's the bottom of the ninth, and we're tied. Let's give him a chance to strike out."

"All the more reason to bean him now," Bush said. "Do you want the guy running over Prince Saud over there at first base? Hit him. Hit him hard enough to take him out of the game. And don't let me hear anything from Byrdbrain over there about it being illegal either. I want to hit that guy."

Richard Byrd woke up briefly and cracked a joke about the redneck who became a patrician.

Powell wanted to know what if the guy wasn't squeezing, and Tenet wanted to know what if the pitcher missed, but the tradition says to always follow the manager's orders, so Maskharah was dutifully beaned. Fans started throwing hotdogs and beer at Bush's players. In the confusion, the runner from third stole home. Tenet apologized and left the game after he realized the third-base coach had actually been flashing the "take" sign. Clinton and Nader wrote books, and Gore said "I told you so" in such a way as to put Byrd back to sleep. Bush claimed the team was safer and ordered the trainer to ignore the injuries to the pitcher, who was beaten by Maskharah's teammates. The arguments lasted long into the evening. The reclusive team owner, Dick "No Nickname Necessary" Cheney, had friends with Haliburton sell more tickets to the fight, and generous tax laws meant the fans in the stands could no longer afford to go home.

. . . and finally, people remembered they had a choice.

Posted by Jeff Cox, would-be commissioner at 7:52 AM CDT
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Thursday, 1 July 2004
Democracy Means Everyone Wins Sometimes
America's lust for excellence in a winner-take-all society threatens the basic democratic right to pursue happiness -- a right Thomas Jefferson should have defined as an afternoon in the cheap seats of a ballpark. Beer company ads on television cannot pay all the payroll costs. Fans are going to have to decide whether they like the game or like winning. Not everyone can have both.

Baseball, because the schedule is long, held out longer than football and other sports in keeping reasonable prices. Indeed, a fan can still walk up to the Cincinnati ballpark on game day and buy a ticket for $5, a reasonable price in a society that charges $10 for a roller coaster ride in Las Vegas. Describing the location of the seat is a little tricky. They're in the neighborhood of halfway between third base and the foul pole, a million rows up. If the cheap fan wants a beer, a souvenir, or a parking space, the cost goes up, but at least in theory, $5 still buys a seat in America's first baseball city.

Baseball has another advantage over other sports. The worst team will occasionally beat the best team. Any team can go on a hot streak. Even the 2003 Detroit Tigers won 43 times. A reasonably optimistic fan can always hope for the best.

Americans like winners, though, and success feeds an addiction that requires more talent and more money. Payrolls expand, and the money has to come from somewhere. The cheapest seats in Saint Louis, where the team wins most of its games in most of its seasons, start at $9, but the cheap seats are not available for every date. The New York Yankees have game day seats for $10, but the Yankees make some of their extra money from selling caps all over the world.

The fashion among curmudgeonly fans is to compare Derek Jeter's salary to that of a teacher or a medical research assistant and bemoan misplaced values. That's probably fair, but even the quickest and strongest teacher won't be able to sell $10 tickets to watch a math lecture from the bleachers. Who has the most value to society doesn't dictate economic policy; supply and demand do.

The better comparison is between the superstars and their teammates.
Alex Rodriguez is a great infielder, one of the best. He makes the best salary. Hector Luna was acquired by Saint Louis on a Rule Five draft from Cleveland. He made the team as a backup shortstop thanks to a good performance in spring training -- and because the Cardinals didn't want to give him back to Cleveland, as baseball's rules would have required if Luna had gone to the minor leagues. In a home run hitting contest with Luna, Rodriguez would win--by plenty. He will have a better fielding percentage, a better hitting average, a better slugging percentage and better commercials. Rodriguez is a better shortstop, but he isn't 90 times better, which is approximately the difference in salaries.

The shining moment of baseball's democratic possibilities for justice came with Alex Rodriguez's first play as a Texas Ranger, right after he signed the contract for $26 million a year. He tripped over his shoelace.

From the cheap seats Luna and Rodriguez are going to look about the same turning a double play. One of them might be slightly quicker or have a slightly stronger throw to first, but have them swap uniforms, and many fans won't know the difference, a theory Houston stars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio proved in an exhibition game in Tuscon a few years back.

Luna is obviously the much better value in terms of batting average points per dollar; he is hitting in the middle-200s. Rodriguez is more likely to hit the game winning home run.

The solution is for fans to look deeper into baseball, beyond the won-loss record into the individual opportunity. That's where baseball excels. In every baseball matchup, one player wins and one loses. Either the batter hits safely or he doesn't. He steals a base or the catcher throws him out. He makes the bunt or the pitcher jams him. Moreover, in baseball, the underdog wins a large percentage of the time.

Luna filled in at third base for Scott Rolen, a superstar of Rodriguez caliber but struggling along at about $17 million a year less. Luna had a couple of errors and a couple of hits. He didn't embarrass himself, and the team won. That is human accomplishment in the major leagues. It's worth celebrating -- and it is affordable.

The alternative is more luxury suites, fewer cheap seats anywhere, more television commercials between innings, and more logo marketing. The owners cannot help the fans keep prices down. They face supply and demand issues of their own. Asking the players to turn down inflated contracts is silly if not communist. The fans have the means to control baseball's excesses -- by enjoying the success of the individual, if necessary the individual on the losing team in the small market.

A million Cubs fans can't all be wrong.

Posted by Jeff Cox, would-be commissioner at 8:34 AM CDT
Updated: Thursday, 1 July 2004 8:40 AM CDT
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