MEMORIAL DAY MADNESS

By Murray Chass

May 27, 2012

In less statistically obsessive times – the good old days, some might say – one popular barometer for forecasting teams that would finish in first place centered on Memorial Day. The teams in first place on the morning of Memorial Day, the belief held, would end the season in first place.Memorial Day 225

So are we to believe that the Baltimore Orioles will win the American League East and the Cleveland Indians the A.L. Central? Are the Washington Nationals really going to win the National League East?

Maybe they will, but if they do, they will achieve their status on merit, not on Memorial Day statistics.

Perhaps at one time the Memorial Day guideline made sense, especially in the days of two leagues and no divisions. But narrowing the statistical sample to the current era of six divisions, the Memorial Day barometer barely prevails.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, since 1995, the forecast formula has worked only 58 percent of the time, where 56 of 97 teams in sole possession of first place on Memorial Day morning have ended the season as division winners.

Last season only half of the Memorial Day division leaders were division leaders at the end. Texas, Philadelphia and Arizona made it; Boston, Cleveland and St. Louis did not.

The Cardinals nevertheless crept into the post-season as the National League wild card and won the World Series. As the designated day approached this year, they were in a scrap with Cincinnati for the lead after having held the top spot the entire season.

Washington and Los Angeles are the other two division leaders, both in unlikely positions. The Nationals are unlikely being in first at all; the Dodgers are unlikely for the size of their lead, the largest of all N.L. division leaders.

The Rangers, who suffered an excruciating loss to the Cardinals in the World Series as a repeat A.L. pennant winner, are a repeat division leader this year. The Red Sox are not. In fact, they finished Sunday’s games as their division’s only team with a losing record.

Instead, Baltimore has shocked the A.L. East by leading it for much of the season, though tied with Tampa Bay on Memorial Day.

If the Orioles have been shocking, the Indians have at least been surprising. They are back again. On Memorial Day last year they were in first place by 6 games. This year they reached they are half a game in first.

Dealing with this year’s lead, the Indians are faced with two options. They can use their 2011 collapse as motivation for maintaining their lead, vowing to avoid that experience, or they can sit around waiting for the collapse to occur again.

Last year the Indians had a 31-19 record on Memorial Day, then slogged through a 49-63 record the rest of the season. They finished the year in second place with an 80-82 record, 15 games behind first-place Detroit.

Grady Sizemore2 225Mark Shapiro, the Indians’ president and former general manager, cited injuries as the primary reason the Indians didn’t finish what they started. Most significant were the multiple injuries incurred by outfielders Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo, who each made three visits to the disabled list, and designated hitter Travis Hafner, a two-timer.

Sizemore played 71 games, Choo 85 and Hafner 94.

Sizemore was on the disabled list a total of 11 weeks, recovering from an operation on his left knee, a contusion on his right knee and a hernia operation. His longest absence stretched from July 18 to Sept. 4. But his agony didn’t end there. After the season he had arthroscopic knee surgery.

Choo basically didn’t play the last three months of the season. He suffered a broken thumb when a Jonathan Sanchez pitch hit it, he had a strained oblique and aggravated the oblique and returned to the disabled list two days after he left it.

Hafner was on the disabled list with a strained oblique for a month in the first half of the season and with a strained foot for three weeks in the second half.

As negative as those developments were for the Indians, they had a different experience on July 31 last season that was positive as well as unusual. Only 2 ½ games out of first, instead of trading away a player in line for a big contract, the Indians added one.

They acquired pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez from Colorado. A 19-game winner the previous year, Jimenez had a 4-4 record and 5.10 earned run average in 11 starts for the Indians. His performance wasn’t good enough to catapult the Indians back to first place. In fact, after the trade, the Indians had a 27-31 record.

Based on Shapiro’s comments, the Indians are prepared to take the same kind of step this season.

“Obviously we intend to stay in the moment,” Shapiro said in a telephone interview Friday, “but one thing may have changed here. We feel a sense of urgency, knowing how thin our chances are. We feel like it’s important to have an urgency and improve our chances. There are limits, but not in our desire to do whatever we can.”

In the last couple of decades the Indians have gone through different philosophies. In the mid-1990s, when John Hart was the general manager, they pioneered the practice of signing young players to long-term contracts, guaranteeing still developing players millions of dollars but ultimately saving themselves millions if the players produced as expected.

With players like Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Jim Thome, the Indians became a contender and a league champion, and they set a major league record with 455 consecutive sellout crowds at Jacobs Field.

The Indians, however, are a small-revenue team, and they began feeling the effects of that status, or at least acting the part, as their payroll plummeted from $92 million in 2001 to $41.5 million in 2005. Attendance plunged along with the payroll, though, from a record 3.47 million in 1999 to 1.39 million in 2010, and so did the team’s fortunes.

Now the Indians are ready to be more proactive in their own behalf, knowing if they have a competitive team in a division that isn’t filled with powerhouse teams, they have to go the extra mile toward their quest for first place, on Oct. 3 this year, not just the morning of May 28.

“It’s very early,” Shapiro said, “but we feel a sense of urgency to explore every opportunity.”

TIMES ENDS CONFLICT

There is no evidence of cause and effect, but the Boston Red Sox have enjoyed their most successful stretch of the season – 11 wins in 15 games – since The New York Times Company announced it had sold its remaining share in the team.nyt-red-sox

The announcement, on May 11, was about 10 years too late, as far as I am concerned. That is, in my view, which I have stated previously, the Times never should have bought 17.5 percent of the Red Sox and assorted related properties.

Despite the Times’ contention to the contrary, ownership of any piece of the Red Sox represented a conflict of interest because the Times company owns the Times newspaper and the Boston Globe, the newspaper where most Red Sox fans get their Red Sox fix.

The Times defended the purchase by saying it was the Times company and not the newspaper that owned a piece of the Red Sox. People, however, including fans, make no such distinction. The Times, however, sees conflicts only when its reporters are concerned. The company or the newspaper itself never has a conflict of interest.

On the other hand, the woman who would become its chief executive officer had a conflict of interest in 2001 when the Times was negotiating for a piece of the Red Sox, and she acted on it in a totally inappropriate way.

Working for the Times, I learned in November 2001 that the Times was pursuing Red Sox ownership. The effort had never been disclosed, and Times executives were apoplectic when I called for comment. After a round of denials – imagine that, Times executives lying, and to their own reporter yet – Janet Robinson, the company’s senior vice president for newspaper operations, acknowledged that my information was correct.

But that is not all that she did. When she was finished talking to me, she called the Globe and gave the story to them. In the newspaper business, giving away an exclusive story is an unpardonable sin. Robinson, however, had never been on the editorial side of a newspaper; she was on the business side and obviously was ignorant of proper newspaper practice.

Her subsequent explanation did not acquit her of wrongdoing. She gave the story to the Globe, she said, because it was also owned by the Times company, and it wouldn’t have been right for the Times, and not the Globe, to have a story about the Times and the Red Sox.

No one at the Times newspaper ever chastised Robinson for giving away an exclusive story. On the contrary, when she was pushed out of her c.e.o. job last year, she was handsomely rewarded with a $4.5 million consultant arrangement.

As for the Times company’s sale of its Red Sox share, reports said the Times received $225 million over-all for the 17.5 percent portion it originally purchased for $75 million. That’s about the only way the Times can make money these days.

YESHIVA, THEN YOUTUBE; WHAT’S NEXT?

The annual draft of college and high school players takes place next week, and when it is finished, if you look through the hundreds of names on the list of draftees, you will most likely not see the name Brian Adler. That would be too bad.

Brian Adler 225Adler is a 21-year-old Hofstra University senior who came to pitching relatively late in life but has made up for lost time in a big way.

Pitching for Hofstra’s club team, the right-hander was named the most valuable player in the recent World Series of the National Club Baseball Association. He pitched in three games, winning two as a starter and saving one in relief while compiling a 2.80 earned run average.

That performance, though, is not what caught my attention. What did? During the season he had an 11-0 record and a 1.30 e.r.a., striking out 73 batters in 76 innings. I don’t care what level or caliber of league he was playing in; those are impressive numbers for any league.

Adler pitched for the club team for four years, and speaking candidly, he said, “To be completely honest, the majority of seasons were not as impressive as this season.” But under further questioning he admitted, “I have yet to lose a game.”

His four-year record? 26-0. That’s 26 wins, no losses.

Hofstra has a varsity team, but Adler said he tried out for it only once, in his sophomore year, and “I got cut.”

However, there was at least one Hofstra coach who thought he should have made the team. Fred Cambria is a former major league pitcher, playing briefly for Pittsburgh in 1970. An area resident, he works with the Hofstra club pitchers to get them ready for their season.

“I believe he belonged on the varsity,” Cambria said of Adler. “I was surprised that he wasn’t on it.”

“Every time I pitched,” Adler added, “he said he couldn’t understand why no one ever scouted me.”

Adler is a self-taught pitcher. “I learned how to pitch off YouTube,” he explained.

Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, Adler went to a Yeshiva high school in Westchester County, N.Y., where baseball was not a basic activity.

“I knew I wanted to play baseball,” he said. “I did some research and learned the grip for different pitches.”

Never, however, could he have imagined going from YouTube to m.v.p.

“Coming from the high school I came from, I had no thought of where I am today. If you told me I’d be in this position four years ago, I’d tell you you’re crazy.”

To complete this modern version of a Walter Mitty tale, though, Adler needs to find a major league team willing to give him a chance. Although I have never seen him pitch, I believe that any kid who teaches himself how to pitch, runs up a 26-0 record on a college level and pitches his team to a national championship is worth someone’s attention.

YANKEES SUBJECT OF UNINTENDED HUMOR

The most unintended humorous comment I have seen or heard in years was contained in a New York Daily News article last week about rampant rumors that the Yankees were for sale. I have no knowledge that the story is true or not, but I know silliness when I see it.Hal Steinbrenner 225

The article talks about Hal Steinbrenner, son of George and currently the team’s managing partner, and notes, “according to those who know him, abhors doling out the huge money long-term contracts” require.

The article then quotes an unidentified source as saying, “I think he looks at some of these other owners, throwing $200 million at players and thinks they’re idiots – idiots that unfortunately can affect the way he does business.”

Now let’s see: Alex Rodriguez $275 million, Derek Jeter $189 million, Mark Teixeira $180 million, CC Sabathia $161 million. Are those enough examples to include the Yankees’ owners with those other idiots who affect the way other teams have to do business?

When Hal Steinbrenner was not long out of diapers, other clubs complained bitterly about how Yankees’ contracts affected the way others did business. The Daily News could have used a more credible source than the Yankees’ official its source most likely was.

A high-ranking executive of another team called the source’s comment “silliness.”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.