THE BIG HIT | What The Forkball?

by Ken Napzok

Ha. 

I mean, really now. 

Haha. 

The most bizarre and troubling baseball offseason in most recent memory has finally come to a close. Pitchers and catchers have reported to camps. Yasiel Puig is still looking for work. And it’s time to not just look ahead — but move ahead. 

But… yeah…. wow. 

The crown jewel trade of Mookie Betts and David Price was called off. A concerning medical report on Twins pitcher Brusdar Graterol weirded out the Red Sox and the deal began to tweeter like a stack of Jenga bricks at that party you promised yourself to leave early from. Then it toppled over and suddenly everyone was staying put… including Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling, who were just pulling into the Disneyland parking structure. 

The Red Sox offseason is going so bad that they couldn’t even give away their young superstar and big-game pitcher. New interim manager Ron Roenicke hadn’t even learned how to spell Graterol before it all fell through.

Then it didn’t. 

I don’t… I mean… what the forkball? 

In the end, we are kind of right where we stood last week. The Dodgers have acquired one of the best young players in the game, a veteran pitcher with something to prove AND the fireballing Graterol. (And Pederson is currently still set to launch 30 bombs in Dodger Blue.) And therefore have stood in front of the spotlight that many others feel should be shining down on other teams that made moves in the offseason. 

I still think the Twins — who did eventually add Kenta Maeda — came out of the winter looking real good. Real good. 

Phew. 

Weird way to end the offseason, but at least we can start to concentrate on spring trai —

Oh, man, then Rob Manfred apparently dreamed up some whacky changes to playoffs that included the teams with the best records getting to choose their first-round opponents like a Game of Thrones character choosing a champion in a trial by combat. 

Ha. Again. 

Alright, look, it’s easy to dump on Manfred and his office right now, but changes in Major League Baseball’s playoffs shouldn’t immediately be tossed aside. Change is good. Sometimes. 

When baseball split into three divisions and added a Wild Card back in the mid-90s like they were hoping the Detriot Lions or Tampa Bay Buccaneers would sneak into the post-season and keep their cities invested, many balked. It was as if the keepers of the sport at the time were spitting on the graves of every pennant-winning ball club that came before. And then it turned out just fine.

Sure — some people think the Marlins winning two World Series without even winning their division is sacrilegious, but you don’t have look any further than this past season to see the positive effects of the Wild Card. The Nationals were a joy to watch from their Wild Card game on. Five seasons from now you generally won’t remember that they were a Wild Card team unless you’re competing in some bar trivia night for a free plate of chicken wings. 

So, I for one, am not going to toss eggs at the commissioner of baseball just because he’s thinking of adding some play-off teams and changing how things are done. At least not right away. 

The problem is that nothing about this proposed move seems to come from a place that isn’t labeled PANIC BUTTON. A lot of panic button moves seem to have come out from Manfred’s office — including the minium three batter rule that is now in effect — in an attempt to make the game popular with an entire generation of fans who want nothing to do with the game. 

Which makes it seem like marketing is the true issue facing Major League Baseball and not suddenly adding new, hip ways to play this timeless game like an undercover cop trying to infiltrate a high school bonfire party. 

“Uh, do all like to smoke the weed or something? What do you like?”

Though The Spirit of Bill Veeck would disagree, you don’t need to suddenly add some bells and whistles to the game to draw in fans. No need to add a fifth base, move the pitcher’s mound, replace pitchers with a batting tee, tie one of Mike Trout’s hands behind his back, or get rid of Umpires and replace them with self-driving Google cars. 

You just need to sell the game that is to those that already love it… and they will, in turn, sell the game for you to those that don’t. 

I know — not so simple. 

All I’m saying is that there appears to be a rush to completely upturn the game of baseball in an effort to boost ratings in the short term as opposed to dealing with some of the cracks at the foundational core. Let’s not overlook that Manfred’s office continues to dump buckets of chaw juice on the Minor Leagues — you know — the leagues full of your future stars. 

You have the future stars. You have the personalities. You have the grand history of the game. 

Use them.

Unless, of course, they got caught completely cheating and have ruined the reputation of the sport. 

Then you should make them apologize… 

Sigh.

I don’t know what that was in Houston. And quite frankly… don’t have the energy to figure it out. 

Never have the words “play ball” been needed to be shouted out like they have now.

Real Fantasy Tips

Don’t do drugs, children. 

Especially in Fantasy Baseball. We all have those players — sometimes specific players and sometimes a certain style of player — that we as owners of a Fantasy Baseball ballclub are unequivocally addicted to. Year after year. Season after season. Free agent signing after free agent signing. These players end up on your roster at any cost.

In the league I’ve been scuffling around in for over twenty seasons now, we call these players our Own Personal Heroin.

I know… that’s harsh and sounds like a Johnny Depp movie from the mid-nineties, but just go with me here.

My co-owner Corey and I have always worked well together when it comes to building a team. Quite frankly it’s one of the most functional relationships I’ve ever had. There are a lot of reasons for the success of this partnership. First and foremost, Corey has insight on par with a professional baseball scout and I have the sense to agree with him. 

Since we both sat down at the draft table together in the spring of 1999, situations like the following have happened many times: 

Corey, “So, the guy I want to draft this year — probably sneak him in late — is this kid Albert Pujols in St. Louis. Bobby Bonilla is going to be out for the first two weeks and I think Pujols will be up to start the season.”

Me, “But what about Pedro Feliz?”

Corey, “Mmmm… let’s go with Pujols.” 

We drafted him for $3 (Feliz went for $10) and I like to think our faith in Pujols was the jolt of confidence he needed to get his career started off right. Throughout the ages, this scenario has played out over and over with names like Adam Dunn (we got him for $1), Roy Oswalt ($5) and, most recently, while I was obsessed with Dominic Smith, Corey urged us to pick up minor league polar bear named Pete Alonso for two bucks in FAAB. 

He did alright. 

We’re not the only Fantasy Baseball owners aware of new young studs coming up through the system, it’s just we have a keen sense of when to get them. Sometimes I feel like we’re drafting them while they’re in high school. 

This has lead to a lot of long term success for our team the Osaka Baseball Concern. (Knife goes in, roto wins come out.) 

However, we also have suffered some severe addictions over the years. Addictions that have cost us titles. Big time cases of our Own Personal Heroin. 

Don’t. Do. Drugs. 

Now, these players aren’t necessarily players that fail for you. We’ve all taken big fantasy swings that lead to big fantasy whiffs. Whether it’s a player returning from injury or a veteran getting one more chance in a what you think is a good situation, you’re going to take those risks. No, no, your Own Personal Heroin can sometimes produce great stats. Wonderful, juicy, sexy fantasy baseball stats… that you overpaid for because during every draft you absolutely salivate uncontrollably at the very need to draft them. 

You spend all this time researching the best bargains, making sure you have a great handle on your budget, and knowing when you can splurge on that extra dollar or two — then — boom — another owner tosses out the name of your Own Personal Heroin and your body starts to break out in hives.

I MUST HAVE HIM.

Then the bids start flying and — what’s really, really important here — the other owners know what’s happening. They know what’s going. They sense your weakness. 

This is not a support group. This is a brutal war in the form of an auction draft with so-called friends. And not one person in those multi-purpose rooms, overpriced Vegas hotel suites, or cramped suburban dens that double as draft rooms are going to let their foot off the gas. 

The bids will keep going. Higher and higher. Sure, one or two of these scoundrels might actually want the player on their team as well, but for the most part they’re just edging the bids one dollar higher — trying to find your breaking point. 

And it never comes.

You just keep going up. $35 — going once, going twice, sol– THIRTY-SIX DOLLARS. 

For Corey and I, one of the specific players everyone in our league knew we would buckle over was Lance Berkman. We picked him up pretty early in his career and the way our league was set up then was you got freeze him one season, top him the next (a secret list of three players you could get for one dollar more than the final bid), and then hold him again the next or top him indefinitely, if you so wish. (Later on, we dumped the Topped Player list.) This led us to having Lance Berkman on our roster for most of the prime seasons of his career… very much at any cost. 

Yes, Berkman could rake. Two forty plus home run seasons, NL leading 128 RBI in 2002, and three seasons with an OPS over 1.000. 

He did well… and we did well with him. However, Berkman the Bargain Slugger was long gone by the 2001 season for us. We often paid through the nose for him and that was often not enough to balance out our roster. This forced us — and it will force you now — into putting too much pressure on those risks you take or too much false hope in those youngsters you sneak in. (We needed Pirates second baseman Warren Morris to come up HUGE in 2000. He did not.) 

This can also apply to certain styles of players. Corey and I love those “toolsy” players — often Pittsburgh Pirate outfielders — that have 30/30 potential and usually end up struggling to go 15/15. 

The same rules apply. Those players come up for bid… and the other owners put the screws to you. 

So, as we head into spring training and race toward your draft, remember this one Real Fantasy Tip: Don’t do drugs. 

This week in baseball history…

… Alex Rodriquez was finally traded. 

It’s fitting that as we watch all of the drama swirling around the Red Sox and their trade-not trade-trade of Mookie Betts, that the calendar is reminding us of another wild ride through an offseason trade that was just as headline-worthy. On February 16th, 2004, those dastardly Yankees — eight seasons removed from pulling on America’s heartstrings in their 1996 World Series run and now an Evil Empire — swept in and seemed to steal the best player in the game from the hapless, cursed Red Sox.

Following his first MVP season in 2003, the 27-year-old A-Rod wanted out of Texas and the Rangers felt they had to make a move. The trade of Rodriquez was THE news story of that offseason. As it should be any time a player of that caliber and that paycheck decides to change his mind about the team he just signed a rather large, long term deal with. The list of suitors was small. Similar to the deal that has captivated our interests these last few weeks, the ability to take on big-money contracts were more important than what your roster actually needed. 

Essentially it came down to the Yankees or Red Sox. Boston’s wunderkind general manager Theo Epstein — just a year into his job — managed to strike a major deal that would have changed the face of baseball on a dime. Well — it was more of a series of deals. The First Son of Boston, Nomar Garciaparra would go to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez and minor leaguer Brandon McCarthy. Manny Ramirez and a minor league pitcher would then go to Texas for A-Rod, who would have then remained at shortstop with the Red Sox. 

It was struck. It was done. It was happening. The Red Sox appeared to have acquired the best player in the game and were all set to watch him loft an absurd amount of fly balls over the Green Monster as they stampeded toward reversing the Curse of the Bambino. 

Then the Major League Baseball Player’s Association had to get involved because the massive contract that Rodriquez had signed with Texas was in need of a mighty restructuring. 

And then the deal fell through…

Enter the Yankees.

Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later headed West to Arlington and Alex Rodriquez went to the Bronx to learn a new position. It was wild. Pure melodrama. Red Sox nation was furious and this was chalked up as another victory by the Yankees in their lifelong blood feud with Boston. 

And then the Red Sox promptly reversed the curse. A-Rod became mired in PED controversies while failing time and time again in the post-season. The Yankees wouldn’t win again until 2009. 

Oh, and that minor league pitcher the Red Sox would have most likely given up? It was Jon Lester — key member of the 2007 and 2013 World Series Red Sox teams. 

Sometimes it pays to hold ‘em. 

Roger Kahn

It would be wildly inappropriate if we didn’t pause to pay our respects to author Roger Kahn, who passed away at the age of 92 on February 6th. 

Roger Kahn was more than just a baseball writer. He was an author through and through, but, in being that, Kahn elevated the mantle of baseball writer and in the process gave us baseball fans some extraordinary looks into the minds and hearts of our heroes of the diamond. 

He is most known for his 1972 masterpiece The Boys of Summer and that would be enough for anyone to hang their hat on, but Kahn had over twenty books to his name and leave us with a beautiful collection of insightful, sentimental memories of loving (and sometimes questioning) this game. 

My personal favorite Kahn work is his 2002 deep dive into the tumultuous clubhouse of the New York Yankees of the late 1970s, October Men. It represents everything I love about Kahn’s words on baseball and everything I crave in any other books about this sport — it digs deep and exposes the egos, the attitudes, and the scars of the players, managers, and owners that we all root for but it never loses sight of the reverence for the game we all have. In other words, you as a fan never have to leave that place of awe for baseball that you’ve had your entire life, but you also aren’t allowed to turn a blind eye to the harsh realities found within it. You must learn to reconcile these things. The game will never be perfect, but your heart doesn’t need it to be. 

Thanks, Mr. Kahn. I hope you’re watching the Brooklyn Dodgers play again. 

Walk Off Quote

“It is dangerous to spring to obvious conclusions about baseball or, for that matter, ballplayers. Baseball is not an obvious game.” – Roger Kahn, A boy of summer.

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Ken Napzok did not report to spring training this week, but he is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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