The Conversation: Previewing the season, bold predictions, baseball media and more

The Conversation Number1

By Edward Overend

EO: Meaningful baseball is here and I couldn’t be more excited. The daily grind, the soundtrack to the summer, America’s pastime is back. Fans of each team, except maybe the Phillies, arrive at Opening Day with hope that this could be a great year, whether it ends in glory or significant progress. New stars will emerge, old ones will decline. There will be ‘surprise’ good teams and some preseason darlings will be decimated by a star going down.

For as much as baseball loves its statistics, it is perhaps it’s unpredictability that is its greatest strength. In other sports, the list of potential winners is much shorter going in. In baseball, the ‘fairytale’ is much more probable.

That is why it is so much fun to speculate at this time of year. Nobody really knows anything. Projection systems have told us that the most likely World Series matchup is the Nationals vs the Mariners. Neither, of course, have ever made it that far.

It seems there is unprecedented parity across the major leagues.

There are those that tell us baseball is dying, the pace of play is too slow, offence too anaemic. I am presently reading John Feinstein’s Play Ball, about the 1992 season, and these same arguments were being trotted out then. Baseball goes on and the huge local TV contracts being handed out tells us it’s not going anywhere.

Sure it could promote its stars better, of course row upon row of empty seats at Tropicana Field hardly inspire. There will always be things for people to moan at. That’s life and it shows people care.

I thought with 7 months of my favourite sport in front of us, it would be a good time to catch up with Ollie Connolly to see what his thoughts are. So, Ollie, what is it that you are most looking forward to? As a Red Sox man, is it a season of Mookie Mania?

OC: Excuse me? It’s pronounced ‘future first ballot Hall of Famer Mookie Betts.’ I’m extremely excited to see what Betts can produce along with a number of younger Sox players; Bogaerts, Castillo, Moncada (in the minors) and Swihart. But there are two things I’m even more excited for, Miguel Cabrera and Kris Bryant. Two guys at two different ends of their careers and two who I think will define the season offensively.

Bryant has been covered to death but I do want to talk about Cabrera. I raised this point recently and I think it’s true. I don’t feel we appreciate Cabrera as much as we should. He’s an all time great player in an era where people can’t wait to knock the sport. ‘too slow’ ‘not enough offense’ ‘declining attendance.’ Cabrera bucks all that. He’s must see, must watch, day after day. And I have a feeling we’re in for an all time great year. A career defining year. He suffered a bizarre injury last year, a broken bone between his ankle and foot, yet played through it. He got surgery in October and has returned in unbelievable shape. He just looks ripped. The Tigers put Cabrera on an exhaustive rehab program (at his request) using a ton of new age practices to rehab the ankle while preparing the entire of his body to be in the best shape he ever has to start a season.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what he can do and I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be special.

EO: I think he’s going to have to have a great year too. The Tigers have that feel that everything is not far away from going completely tits up. They lost Scherzer, Victor Martinez had a career year but is 36, Verlander is injured again, Joe Nathan has declined but is still closing, at least for now. They are most definitely in ‘win now’ mode but their window is closing and more rapidly than they might care to admit.

I love both Central divisions this year, the National League especially which should be baseball’s most competitive division. I think there’s an argument to be made that any of the 5 teams there COULD win it if everything goes right.

There is parity too in the American League East, probably not of a good sort. It’s the weakest I can remember but there are still some powerhouse offences – Boston is predicted to be baseball’s highest scoring team. However, some of the starting pitching rotations are well below average.

I want to see some novel ways of manufacturing runs. I groan each time I see a sacrifice bunt, which the stats say is a waste (Ned Yost are you listening) but there have to be some new thoughts in this era of lower offensive output.

What I’d really like is MVP seasons from Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig. In a survey conducted recently, they were voted the two most disliked players amongst their peers. Whether this is fair is neither here nor there. What is plain is that they are polarizing enough to be noticed. Great years for them would not only drive two of the World Series favourites but also get the media, and therefore the public, talking about baseball. They are stars whose profiles could explode, something baseball is longing for.

OC: I understand some players and people’s dislike of Harper, but I just can’t comprehend any dislike for Puig. Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts but this is a young man from an incredibly rough background who had to go through an awful lot just to make a decent life for himself with the spectacular talent he has and when he exudes his talent and personality on the field people are up in arms. I just don’t get it. He’s enjoying the game, having fun and he’s better than most of you.

What are you not looking forward too this year?

EO: At least there’s not a third season in a row where a Yankee superstar goes round collecting ridiculous gifts. Instead, we get the opposite, A-Rod. Now, as a Mariners fan, of course he’s not going to be my favourite, but it’s fair to say he’s an all time douche. If he’s at all competent, we shall get incessant talk of PED users and their place in baseball history. I’ve had enough. Let the lot of them in.

OC: I’m looking forward to everything to do with this year, including, A-Rod. At least early on his at bats will be entertaining. The only thing I’m not looking forward too is the continued ‘the baseball world’s sky is falling.’ Listening to all that’s wrong with the sport while so much is going right.

EO: It’s so irritating but it’s become the default position for talking heads. Maybe baseball needs more clowns like Swaggy P who run their mouth off at every opportunity. He seems to get all the publicity despite being incredibly inefficient and on an abomination of a team. Throw in JR Smith and baseball is rescued.

I’m being facetious but the other sports seem to embrace a bit of trash talk and colour. Baseball is lacking there and so the media go down the well trodden path of its losing popularity. Well, if it’s that bad why is every team signing humongous local TV deals? Come on Wilbon etc, why?

Baseball is an easy target. It’s deemed not cool for today’s youngsters. Well, it might not resonate with those more interested in ‘urban culture’ but so damn what? It’s plenty healthy enough, it’s truly multicultural and it’s something the whole family can do. Stick that in your pipe Dana White.

It’s these strengths that the game needs to accentuate. One of the reason’s rugby crowds in this country grow year on year is that the match day experience is family friendly.

Another thing I never look forward to is the damn All Star Game. A Rod is an absolute shoe-in for that fiasco…

EO: What would be better for baseball’s profile? You have 2 options. A Home Run race like we had with McGwire and Sosa, this time between Harper and Trout or a season where 3 pairs of old rivals are battling for divisions to the last day; Yankees/Red Sox, Cardinals/Cubs and Giants/Dodgers?

OC: For baseball fans I think the latter is clearly best. There’s nothing like a pennant race. It’s why we invest every day of the summer in the sport. And pennant races between the biggest names in baseball would be off the charts fun.

For the profile and ‘Sports Center’ moments it would absolutely be the home run race. Chicks dig the long ball. As do all casual fans a home run race that was anywhere near record-setting from any two players would be must watch TV for every plate appearance. It’s the kind of thing that could re-elevate the sport. Unfortunately, it will never be possible naturally.

EO: Speaking of PEDs!! Big Erv (Ervin Santana) has just got himself an 80 game suspension. These will never stop. Anything to get that bit of an advantage.

OC: I’m sure the Twins are loving that four-year, $55m contract right now.

Oh baseball, how glorious.

EO: Middling starters with experience really are the most overpaid players in baseball. You basically pay to eat innings. They are a complete waste of money. Sure, tie up aces long-term but why does a guy like that get such a hefty contract? Why?

OC: The key to the story for me is three more players this week (pitchers) failing drug tests for testosterone. Everyone gets angry initially and calls for larger suspensions. The key is to allow clubs to void the contracts of any busted offenders. Once someone fails, pending appeal, ball clubs should have the option to retain the contract they signed or void it. Now that would be a nice, bold, move filled with consequences for cheating looking to gain an edge.

Speaking of bold, what’s your bold prediction for the season?

EO: My boldest predictions are that neither the Detroit Tigers nor the Los Angeles Angels will make the postseason. It doesn’t take much for ageing ball clubs to decline rapidly and I just have a funny feeling. I feel that in Cleveland and The White Sox will give the Tigers all they can handle and likewise the perennially underrated Athletics and my Mariners will push the Angels really hard.

OC: I like those a lot. I’m going to go individual with my predictions. I think Ryne Sandberg is fired or resigns before the All-Star break. The Phillies are in a mess and no one over there can agree on what path to take to get back to contention. Secondly, I’m picking Jose Altuve to be the third player in history to hit 50 doubles and steal 50 bases. It’s a huge ask, only Biggio and Tris Speaker have achieved it, but armed with the workload of an entire offense and being my man crush I’ve got Altuve setting history.

EO: Jose Altuve is a great story. I remember hearing about how he was at one of these Major League Baseball camps in Venezuela and was not chosen to come back the next day. His Dad said just go back, so he did and look where he is now.

The beauty of making predictions now is that you can look back in a few months time and laugh at how wrong you were. Nobody knows anything and seasons can turn on the strangest things. All I hope for is a load of competitive divisions. The Dodgers and Nationals could walk there’s so let’s hope the rest keep the interest going right into September.

I’d love for a massive new star to emerge, and for the right reasons. Maybe Matt Harvey comes back and carries on where he was before his injury. Perhaps that guy is George Springer, Taijuan Walker or Gregory Polanco. I just want baseball in the news.

I’ll tell you what would be great…Miguel Cabrera making a run at Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. Even if he just got to 40, the publicity would be massive.

OC: It’s going to be an unbelievable season. It’s going to be one of the most fun for some time with all the storylines and parity we have. I can’t wait!

EO: Me too. Let’s Play Ball

You can find Ed on twitter @EdwardOverend and join in the conversation @CTBPod

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