We Win!

The AirHogs beat the Captains tonight, 3-1, so the teams split the four-game series. The AirHogs are in first place in the division by six and a half games, with Shreveport in second. It’s interesting that on the way home, I realized that I wasn’t happy or elated by the win, I was relieved. That’s how bad this umpiring crew has been. (Yes, I’m bitter.)

Since tomorrow starts a new series with Ft. Worth, hopefully, we’ll have a new officiating crew. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many crews in the area, so I’m sure we’ll recognize them. If nothing else, a change would be good, even if it is the equivalent of changing a dirty diaper for one that is merely wet.

My next project in my copious spare time is to learn how to become an umpire in the American Association. The procedures for affiliated and major league ball are on the MLB website, but the only mention of umpires on the American Association’s website is the email address for the director of umpires. I think I will drop him a short note, asking about the procedures and qualifications. Hopefully, if I’m polite, he’ll answer it when he gets through all of the hate mail and protests he must receive.

I must apologize for bitching about the umpires as much as I do, but after seeing AAA ball in Nashville and the Frontier League in Lake Erie (with a two-man crew), I have to say that many of the American Association umpires would not last in another league. Their indecision and their wrong decisions make you start to question every call. When I  hear players yelling at them about the strike zone moving, and see someone thrown out at first because there was another out on the play that wasn’t called verbally so the defense threw to first for a force-out double-play, I started to realize that I may not be paranoid, they may actually be incompetent.

To me, this is unfair to the players and the fans. The players deserve to have a consistent strike zone and umpires that keep the game moving and officiate fairly. The fans deserve umpires that don’t interfere with the outcome by making bad calls.

The most distressing aspect to me is that the umpires often seem hesitant. This just builds distrust. You’re a freakin’ umpire – you cannot be second-guessed. There is no video replay. Just make the call and stand by it. If you can’t make the call with confidence, right or wrong, you need to find another profession.

Blind

Shreveport-Bossier Captains 4, AirHogs 3

I’ve calmed down enough to not say “A day that will life in infamy”, but I’m still pissed.

An umpire is not supposed to affect the outcome of a game, but Danny Hymel and the rest of the truly inept officiating crew at QTP tonight did just that. Hymel called an obviously foul ball fair, which gave Shreveport a two-run home run in the top of the ninth. They won the game by one run.

I was in the stands, watching the ball fly off towards the outfield, thinking “F*ck!”, and then I saw it turn foul and land far outside the foul pole. Whew. Then Danny called it fair. F*ck! Everyone with functional eyes protested, but the Three Blind Mice gathered together and discussed it, and I have never seen a call reversed, so the ruling stood. AirHogs lose.

It is disappointing to me that a game can be lost by an umpire unable to be in the proper position to see a ball go foul. This is the second time this week a foul ball has been judged fair, but this is the first one that lost a game and doubled our closer’s ERA.

After some of the bizarre calls last year, I really hoped that we might get some umpires that actually knew the rules and how to work a baseball game. Unfortunately, no.

The real pity is that the league’s umpiring crews must be local, as we see the same idiots again and again. It’s hard enough beating our opponents without having to put enough extra runs on the board to beat the umpires as well.

It’s interesting that the American Association website doesn’t say anything about requirements for being an umpire. I think I will ask, because now I’m actually interested in the procedure, assuming there is one. MLB and MiLB sites have detailed instructions on how to become an umpire, and the progression from minor league to major league. I guess in independent ball you just need a blue shirt.

Sold!

The El Paso Diablos announced new ownership yesterday – the Tigua Indian tribe which lives in and around the city are now the majority owners. The Diablos were a sister team to the AirHogs until the AirHogs were sold earlier this year, as both were owned by Ventura Sports Group. With the sale, Ventura goes from owning two teams to none in less than six months. Their website still shows both, and all the rest are “coming soon.”

Ventura will have an American Association expansion team in Laredo, TX starting next year, and Pete Incaviglia has been announced as manager.

I find it very interesting that a lot of the comments in the El Paso press about the sale echoed what was heard in Grand Prairie a few months back – team not doing well, attendance falling, stadium needs repairs.

If Ventura ever update their website (an unlikely proposition), I will be interested to see how this is actually declared a victory for them – which is how all sales will be spun by both sides.

The other parallel is that both the AirHogs and the Diablos now have “local ownership.” The AirHogs new owners live in Dallas (and own Shreveport and Amarillo teams – but field and team management are local or semi-local) and the Diablos owners are in El Paso and own other businesses there.

I never thought that “local” would be critical to team ownership, but it was mentioned in both sales as a positive. The El Paso press actually specifically mentioned that Ventura was from Wisconsin – and it reminded me of a Pace Picante sauce commercial long ago: “New York City???? Get a rope.”

Hopefully, the finances in El Paso aren’t in the same disarray the AirHogs apparently were, so the tribe can make it work. The Diablos do seem to have a relatively large, dedicated fan base, and very little competition in the area, so that will help. They also have the worst record in the division, which will make a negative difference eventually.

It will be interesting to see how long the “Wisconsin” company stays in Laredo. Since their website says they are owners (not any more, but coming soon), operators (“we put fans in stands”, except in Grand Prairie and El Paso) and developers (perhaps, it may be secret), they don’t seem to have a lot to do.

Magic

I’ve now been in three different ballparks in the past week. After missing AirHogs games because of a business trip, it occurred to me that the Metroplex is not the only place in the universe with minor league baseball.

So, last week, while I was in Nashville, I did a quick Google Maps search for “minor league” nearby the hotel, and found the Nashville Sounds. In a bizarre coincidence, they were playing the Round Rock Express, so there was actually a Texas team for me to cheer on. When I realized I was probably the only Texan in the crowd, I cheered quietly. They lost.

I got home in time to see the AirHogs sweep El Paso this weekend.

Now, I’m in Cleveland on yet another business trip. The AirHogs are in Shreveport, so I’m not missing any games, but I might as well find a game if there is one around. There are a number of minor league teams, but AA is having its All-Star game, so teams aren’t playing.

Then, I found the Lake Erie Crushers who play in the Frontier League and their stadium was about a half-hour from the hotel, so I bought a ticket online and headed out after work. They were playing the Windy City Thunderbolts, so since I had no obvious loyalties, I cheered for the home team. It’s safer.

The ticket was $14 online with a dollar service charge. Here’s the view from the seat:

My seat for the game

$15 Seat

I decided I might as well keep score since I was alone, so there were fewer distractions than usual. (If you have an Android, look at 6-4-3 for keeping score.)

Since I was keeping score, I had to get the lineups. While I was copying down player names and numbers, I saw an interesting fact on the wall – Windy City is leading the division. Guess who is in last? Maybe I was cheering for the wrong team after all.

The game started and I realized the Frontier League uses a two-man crew for umpiring. While this is one less person to blow a call, it’s a lot less coverage in the field.

Windy City scored two in the first to jump out to an early lead. Uh oh. Lake Erie added one in the bottom of the first to keep it close.

Three up, three down for Windy City in the second. Perhaps there was a chance. Lake Erie scored four in the bottom of the second and chased Windy City’s starter. Yes, there is a chance, indeed.

After that, the pitchers settled down. Windy City added two runs in the fourth to draw within one.

Now, the magic.

It’s difficult to get the soul of a team from reading lineups a half-hour before the game. So, you have to go by the sound of the crowd. Lake Erie was still leading 5-4 going into the ninth inning, and there was one last pitching change.

The PA said “Ruben Flores” and the crowd roared. It was the minor-league crowd equivalent of Mariano being introduced. Since the final Windy City pitcher had used only nine pitches to close out the eighth, I thought “This guy must be good.”

Three outs from victory.

First batter. Two strikes. Then, a foul. Then, a third strike that got past the catcher, so a man on first. Hmm.

Second batter. One ball. Pop-up – 1-3 for the out, but a man is now on second. Don’t you usually try to throw out the lead runner? No panicking. Yet.

Third batter. Strike. Lined to short, 6-3 for the second out. Tying run is now 90 feet from home. Again, lead runner, no? Ruh-roh.

Fourth batter. Thinking this would have been a good time for “three up, three down”, but so it goes.

The fourth batter is the one player I actually recognize – Chase Porch, who played for Pensacola last year. He’s 0-3 on the night, so he may be due. One good hit, and we’re going to extra innings. One really good hit and we lose.

Suddenly, I’m very involved emotionally.

Foul. Strike one.

Foul. Strike two.

The magic of baseball is that a great defensive play can win a ball game just as easily as a great offensive play. Sometimes, you get a great hit to win a game. Sometimes, you need defense. With two out and a man on third, you need perfect defense.

Third pitch. High foul pop-up behind the plate. I was sitting almost directly behind home plate, and I lost the ball, but I saw the catcher running towards the backstop, almost directly at me.

He fell into the backstop (which was mesh, so flexible), almost falling into the first row of seats. He came out of the mesh. The ball was in his glove.

Ball game.

Wow.

That is the first time a ball game ended because of something that happened literally three seats from me. I couldn’t get a photo because I couldn’t react that quickly. (So much for “baseball is slow.”)

Lake Erie wins, 5-4.

I’m a Crushers fan now. I’m especially a Kyle Shaffer fan, because that was one hell of a catch.

Here’s the box score, for posterity.

Scattered Thoughts

I can’t believe hockey season went longer than basketball season – and they both go on too freakin’ long. Congratulations, Mavericks! Next year, try to close it out sooner.

On to more important sports.

Baseball can make anyone an obsessive-compulsive about statistics. I was in Nashville for a customer meeting, and after my wife mentioned she was late for the AirHogs game, I thought “This is the South. There has to be a baseball game around here somewhere.” So, a couple minutes with Google later, I found the Nashville Sounds – the Milwaukee Brewers’  Triple-A team, and they play a couple of miles from my hotel. As an added bonus, the Round Rock Express was in town, so I could see a Texas team, specifically a Texas Rangers’ team.

Side note – parking $3, ticket $14, beer $6, beef brisket sandwich & fries $7. Total $30. I think that’s under my meal limit. 

This was a pitchers’ duel – the Express had three hits but couldn’t score any runs. The Sounds had one hit, but it was a home run, so they won 1-0.

I looked at the stats at the end of the game – Scott Feldman, the Express starting pitcher (on rehab assignment from the Rangers) went 5 innings, walked 2, struck out 5, gave up no hits. He only faced 17 batters and he only threw 73 pitches. (I was surprised he came out, actually.) Derek Hankins came on in relief and faced 7 batters. He didn’t walk anyone, struck out 4, got 2 to ground out (the six outs that made up his two innings of work), and gave up one hit – a home run. 24 pitches, 17 strikes … one over the fence. Beau Jones closed by getting three batters out – two ground-outs, one fly-out. Three up, three down. So, three pitchers, a one-hitter, a 1-0 loss.

For some reason, I’m now just obsessing about this. 4 out of 7 struck out. 57% strike-out rate. 17 strikes out of 24 pitches is 71%. 1 pitch out of 24 is 4%. 96% not bad is usually good, but not in baseball. Almost three-quarters of his pitches were strikes, but he still lost the game.

On the other hand, if three pitchers can limit your opponents to one hit, don’t you think somebody should score them some runs in support?

I am going to try to stop obsessing now.

The other thought wandering around my head lately has been how a team is directed – inward or outward, and does it make a difference to the fans? With the change in managers in Grand Prairie, the team seems much more focused on the game – not that they weren’t focused over the last few years, but it seemed like they were more accessible to the fans. Once the game started, that was it – it was heads down, back to work, but the rest of the time, they either chose to interact with the fans or were directed to do so.

It made being in the Booster Club fun, because the players were always around, and they recognized the booster club members.

This year, they’re off to a great start and they’re kicking the crap out of some of their opponents, but sometimes the fans almost seem to be an afterthought. They are circling the wagons and the team is in the center. While I do think it helps minimize the possible prima donna issues on the team, it means the team is looking inward and not outward.

I assume that a lot of the attitude trickles down from the management – do they see the team as family entertainment playing a game or as a unit that must win all the time? (A related question – is the manager supposed to be a baseball evangelist who draws fans to the park or a general waging war, assuming victory alone produces fans?)

So, a question I’ve been asking myself – Is it preferable to follow an average to above-average team that will acknowledge the fans readily and interact with them when possible or follow a championship quality team that apparently doesn’t know you’re there?

I’m too old to hang with the players or try to keep up with them, so it’s not about socializing for me. There are quite a few players (and a few alumni) who are on Facebook, so I can ask questions and get feedback. A few of the guys will always say “Hi” before the games. It’s just I’ve sensed the overall mood has changed.

I’m not sure I prefer winners who are playing for themselves. I think I would prefer winners that were playing for the fans.

Maybe I’m thinking too much about baseball.