2015 MLB Predictions

Congratulations, baseball fans. You did it. You successfully navigated the miserable winter months. Spring has arrived. And, save for a flurry of offseason moves and meaningless spring training games, you’ve been deprived of the game you love. But the wait is over.

Thankfully, for those of us in Kansas City, the offseason went by much faster this year due to it being one month shorter than it has been the previous 29 years. Still, it’s good to have baseball back.

Before I make my predictions for the 2015 season, let me quickly point out how wildly successful my 2014 predictions were. I, along with everyone else who predicted these things, whiffed on the AL East. I missed on the Pirates too, and made the mistake of picking against the A’s. But 7/10 ain’t bad.

So here we go. Let’s look into the future together. Postseason picks in italics. I’ve added ALCS/NLCS/WS/MVP/Cy Young winners this year too.

AL East

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. Baltimore Orioles
  3. Toronto Blue Jays
  4. New York Yankees
  5. Tampa Bay Rays

Another year of uncertainty in the AL East. The Red Sox reloaded adding Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. The Yankees did nothing and appear fragile. The Blue Jays added Josh Donaldson but are young and lack a rotation. The Orioles were predicted to stink it up last year but ran away with the division and are likely under projected in 2015. The Rays are a dark horse as always.

Typically I refuse to buy into teams that spend tons of money to restock their teams. I think it takes a year to gel as a unit and establish an identity. However, the Red Sox rotation is already strong and on paper this is the best team in the division. Look for Mookie Betts to break out this year too.

AL Central

  1. Kansas City Royals
  2. Cleveland Indians
  3. Detroit Tigers
  4. Chicago White Sox
  5. Minnesota Twins

Another wide open division, and one where I am obviously biased. The Indians return basically the same team but their defense is terrible. The Tigers added Yoenis Cespedes but lost Max Scherzer, and now Verlander is injured. The Royals are defending AL Champs and have lots of swagger, lost Billy Butler, James Shields and Nori Aoki but added Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen. The White Sox had perhaps the best offseason of any AL team. The Twins will not contend.

But I’m picking my hometown boys. People keep saying the Royals got worse in the offseason but I just don’t see it. Morales and Rios are both upgrades. Shields is gone, but Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura both have the potential to match his production. Plus they have three of the most sustainable strengths to their advantage: bullpen, defense and speed. I believe in this team, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Indians and Royals swap spots. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tigers absolutely tank and finish 4th.

AL West

  1. Seattle Mariners
  2. Oakland Athletics
  3. Los Angeles Angels
  4. Houston Astros
  5. Texas Rangers

I’m not going to make the mistake of picking against Oakland two years in a row. The A’s blew up their entire team and look like they’re probably going to win the Cactus League this year too, whatever that’s good for (absolutely nothing). The Angels and Mariners are both really good though and it’s hard to pick one of the three to miss. The Mariners just missed the playoffs last year. If they can stay healthy, I think they’ll run away with this division in 2015. The Angels will likely regress slightly and should still contend, but I think they’ll end up on the outside looking in. Houston will continue to improve – they appear to be trying out the Royals model of success in bolstering up their bullpen. The Rangers are going to be bad.

NL East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. Miami Marlins
  3. New York Mets
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Philadelphia Phillies

While the American League has all sorts of intrigue, the National League is a joke. Washington is going to run away with this division. They were already the best, and then they added Max Scherzer. The Marlins and Mets are both no slouch, but the Nats could win 100 games this year. The Marlins added Dee Gordon, Michael Morse and Mat Latos. They extended Giancarlos Stanton and get Jose Fernandez back from injury. The Mets get their ace back too in Matt Harvey. Plus both teams get 18 games against the Phillies and the Braves which ought to inflate their records a bit. They’ll be in the mix come September.

NL Central

  1. St. Louis Cardinals
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. Chicago Cubs
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Cincinnati Reds

As has become the norm, this division race will be good, but the Cardinals will eventually pull away and the Pirates will separate themselves form the rest. The Cubs obviously got much better with the acquisition of Jon Lester, and if they can get their prospect trio – Kris Bryant, Jorge Solar and Javier Baez – into the majors sooner than later, they could manage to make a push in the second half. But I do think 2016 is their year to return to the playoffs.

NL West

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. San Diego Padres
  3. San Francisco Giants
  4. Arizona Diamondbacks
  5. Colorado Rockies

The Dodgers are only going to be better from last year. They added Jimmy Rollins and dropped Matt Kemp. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher and best player in baseball, in my opinion. You can talk about Trout all you want, but Kershaw has the power to completely dominate a game. The Padres added Justin Upton, Kemp, and former Royal and Ray, Wil Myers. Their biggest addition is James Shields. Their bullpen is dominant too. They could do some damage, but I see them finishing as the first team out. The Giants got much worse this offseason with the loss of Panda, and with the injury to Pence. Plus, Madison Bumgarner is super overrated. The Rockies and D-Backs are…not great.

So my postseason looks like this:

AL: Red Sox, Royals, Mariners, Indians, Athletics
NL: Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates, Marlins

ALCS: Mariners over Athletics
NLDS: Dodgers over Nationals

WS: Dodgers over Mariners

AL MVP: Mike Trout
NL MVP: Yasiel Puig

AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw

Here’s to a great 2015 MLB season! As always, I’ll be rooting for a 1985 rematch. (Which nearly happened last year. So close.)

-apc.

Game 19: Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.

If we’re going to talk about the Nationals, we have to talk about Stephen Strasburg. And if we’re going to talk about Stephen Strasburg, we’re going to have to talk about baseball cards.

So, let’s talk about baseball cards.

Baseball card collecting has been a hobby of mine since I was really young. Like 5. Today, I have thousands of baseball cards. Tens of thousands, probably. I have every base set Topps card printed between 1978 and 1991. I have the rookie cards of every member of the 1982 World Series Cardinals team. (My next project should be to assemble all the 1985 Royals rookies.) I have over 100 different cards of my favorite player of all time, Ozzie Smith, Cardinals shortstop in the 80s and 90s.

A few days prior to my trip to Washington D.C., I was in Philly at Citizens Bank Park. As I walked the concourse, I came across one of the more impressive memorabilia kiosks I’ve ever seen – and by far the most impressive I’ve seen at a ballpark.

The kiosk was owned by Hunt Auctions. They had everything a collector would need: cards, autographed balls and bats and jerseys, a huge selection of World Series pins and programs. And not just current players, and not just Phillies. It was the best of the best. There was a Babe Ruth autographed photo. A Nolan Ryan rookie card I couldn’t take my eyes off. A Stan Musial autographed jersey. And stacks of baseballs signed by everyone from Mickey Mantle to Mike Schmidt.

I found an Ozzie Smith autographed ball at the kiosk that I ended up bringing home with me.

My collection is mostly 80s cards and current players. It bleeds a lot into the mid- to late-70s and early-90s, but for some reason I have an affinity for those 80s styles. Probably because they’re a good balance between cost and value for my wallet. RBI Baseball probably helps a lot too.

The baseball card industry dates back to the late 1800s, but really took off in the 1950s with the introduction of Bowman in 1948 and Topps in 1951. Bowman was bought out by Topps after 1955 which made Topps the only option for the next quarter century. So each player only had one card produced each year.

In 1980, Topps lost an anti-monopoly lawsuit, and suddenly two new competitors emerged: Donruss and Fleer. Sure, they had the same guys pictures on it, but I don’t think Donruss or Fleer ever managed to dethrone Topps, At least not in my opinion – all I ever bought were Topps.

Still, I wonder of Topps felt a little competition because around the same time they started getting creative with their base sets.

Suddenly, Topps was releasing All-Star cards, highlights, record breakers and league leaders from the previous year. They also introduced Topps Traded – a short series after the season that would feature players who had either traded teams or rookies who had been called up mid-season.

img500312C1PW0txLFor example, Ozzie Smith joined the Cardinals in 1982 coming over from the Padres, so his base card is in a Pads uniform and his ’82 Traded is his first Cardinals card. In 1986, Barry Bonds and Bo Jackson got called up to join the Pirates and Royals, so their official “rookie card” isn’t in the ’87 base series, but it is in the ’86 Traded series instead.

Topps also launched its Tiffany series which was the same cards only on cleaner and crisper cardboard. Classy stuff.

Suddenly a standard Topps complete set might have a half dozen different cards of the same player. Throw in Donruss and Fleer sets, and you could find 15-20 different cards featuring the same star players. But which one was the realcard you wanted?

Answer: the earliest Topps card. Those were the “official” rookie cards. And if you have an interest in landing complete sets, the value was defined almost entirely by the rookies in that class (with a little aesthetics thrown in).

nolan-ryanHere’s a quick list of each year’s biggest rookies with the complete set value (according to last year’s Beckett). Let’s start with Nolan Ryan’s rookie card from 1968.

  • 1968 Topps ($3000): Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan,
  • 1969 ($5000): Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, Greg Nettles
  • 1970 ($2000): Thruman Munson
  • 1971 ($2500): Bert Blyleven, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons
  • 1972 ($1500): Ron Cey, Carlton Fisk
  • 1973 ($700): Bob Boone, Dwight Evans, Mike Schmidt
  • 1974 ($400): Ken Griffey, Dave Parker, Dave Winfield
  • 1975 ($600): George Brett, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Robin Yount
  • 1976 ($250): Dennis Eckersley, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph
  • 1977 ($250): Andre Dawson, Dennis Martinez, Dale Murphy
  • 1978 ($200): Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Lamce Parrish, Lou Whitaker
  • 1979 ($200): Pedro Guerrero, Carney Lasford, Ozzie Smith, Bob Welch, Willie Wilson
  • 1980 ($120): Dan Quisenberry, Dave Stieb, Rick Sutcliffe,
  • 1981 ($60): Harold Baines, Kirk Gibson, Tim Raines, Jeff Reardon, Fernando Valenzuela, Danny Ainge
  • 1982 ($80): Brett Butler, Chili Davis, Cal Ripken Jr., Lee Smith, Dave Stewart
  • 1983 ($80): Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Ryne Sandberg, Daryl Strawberry
  • 1984 ($50): Don Mattingly, Dwight Gooden, Jimmy Key, Bret Saberhagen
  • 1985 ($60): Roger Clemens, Eric Davis, Orel Hershiser, Mark McGwire, Kirby Puckett
  • 1986 ($25): Len Dykstra, Cecil Fielder, Barry Bonds, Bo Jackson,
  • 1987 ($25): Rafeal Palmero, Barry Larkin, Greg Maddux
  • 1988 ($15): Ken Caminiti, Tom Glavine

A few notes about that list:

Generally, the value of the sets drops bit by bit each year – which makes sense because older is always rarer and, thus, more valuable. But the value absolutely tanks once you get to the 80s. Sure, they’re way more common, but the fact that there were multiple cards to choose from made each less valuable.

There are 5 instances when the value went up instead of down: 1969, 1971, 1975, 1982/1983, 1985.

  1. Reggie Jackson is the biggest reason 1969 is so valuable. Jackson was enormously popular with Topps and the public. Also it’s the first Nolan Ryan card that he doesn’t have to share with Jerry Koosman.
  2. Ban10The 1971 increase is tougher to explain, and it’s probably a mixture of things (as all of these are). The lack of names in the surrounding years is probably one reason. You have a huge overlap in players from the previous generation of players (Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays) mixed with the next generation (Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench).  The ’71 set also has all black bordering, which makes any dent, scuff or bend extremely noticeable with the lighter cardboard showing through the print. When in good condition, it makes a gorgeous set.Bre1
  3. Yes, George Brett is one reason the 1975 set is worth more, but it also could be due to aesthetics: the duel-colored ’75 Topps set is a favorite among collectors and Topps still does 1975 throwbacks pretty regularly.
  4. The increase in 1982 and 1983 is obvious: Cal Ripken Jr. and the late Tony Gwynn spike those values.
  5. 1983-Topps-Baseball-Tony-GwynnThe 1985 increase is only by 10 bucks. Apparently Topps believes that Clemens/McGwire/Puckett is a bigger deal than Mattingly/Gooden/Saberhagen. Kirby Puckett passing away may have managed to offset the steroid use of Clemens and McGwire. The sharp decrease into 1986 is probably because Rusty Kuntz Rod Carew retired after 1985.

And look how miserable the 1988 set is. The whole set – all 792 cards – is worth a whopping $15. Woof.

Everything changed in 1989 with the introduction of a new fresh brand featuring a rookie who would define a generation of young fans:

  • 1989 Upper Deck ($60): Ken Griffey Jr.

109347When I was a kid, that was the card everyone wanted. It was a huge deal. All the kids wanted Upper Deck and all the kids wanted to be Ken Griffey Jr. It redefined the baseball card industry. I would ride my Dyno bike (no pegs…yet) a couple miles to the nearest card shop (Sports Collectables at 103rd & 69 highway by Skateland South) – and it was all for that UD Griffey rook.

I never managed to find one.

And when I couldn’t find one, I got tired of spending my allowance on Upper Deck cards of guys I didn’t know or care about. So I jumped off the UD ship and starting buying individual cards of the three players I actually cared about: Ozzie Smith, Bo Jackson and Nolan Ryan.

To this day, I don’t own the Griffey rook.

Unfortunately, Upper Deck’s success in 1989 had an unintended side effect: suddenly everybody thought they could do what UD had done and the trading card industry became extremely saturated.

A year earlier, Score had been launched with not much success – probably due to a lame rookie class. To compete, Topps resurrected Bowman in 1989 as well. If the market was going to be saturated, Topps might as well have a majority share.

Leaf – after a couple single-year series in 1949 and 1960 – returned in 1990. Ultra, Stadium Club, Score became Pinnacle, SP, Pacific…suddenly there were dozens of cards of every single player. The industry was flooded with cards.

Suddenly everyone had a dozen rookie cards too. Which one was the real rookie card?

The answer came in 2002 when Topps began branding Bowman as the rookie brand. They started selling Draft Picks and Prospects cards with the phrase “My 1st Bowman” on the card, featuring players who hadn’t even stepped foot on an MLB field yet.

But for most of the 2000s the baseball card industry remained dead. No one wanted cards anymore because 1. The market was still so saturated and 2. all the star rookies from the previous 15 years turned out to have been taking PEDs. The Steroid Era was killing the card industry too.

Then in 2009, Topps became the official trading card of Major League Baseball, which put them back on top. Which brings me to Stephen Strasburg, who was drafted that same year, and who, from my perspective, immediately and singlehandedly resurrected baseball cards.

In his sophomore year at San Diego State, Strasburg posted a 1.58 ERA with 134 strikeouts in 98.1 innings. The following year, he was even better going 13-1 with a 1.38 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 109 innings.

He was, and still is, a strikeout machine.

In the 2009 MLB Draft, Strasburg was picked #1 overall by the lowly Nationals. When he debuted in June of 2010, Joe Posnanski called his start the “most hyped pitching debut the game has ever seen.” And he lived up to the hype going 7 IP, 2 ER, 0 walks and fourteen strikeouts. Although he fell a K short of the debut record, he set a new Nats strikeout record that day. And it was only Day 1.

strasburgFrom February-June 2010, Strasburg was all it took for me to get I back into card collecting. And more intensely than ever before. I hit every baseball card store in KC searching for boxes of Bowmans, and if they didn’t have them, I’d grab boxes at Target or Walmart instead. I went on a midnight trip in Denver that June and hit 3 different Walmarts looking for that card. It was like the 1989 Griffey all over again only now I was an adult spending a salary instead of an 8 year old spending an allowance.

It was Strasburg Fever, and the industry hadn’t seen anything like it in 20 years.

Then…heartbreak.

In July of 2010, Stras went on the DL with inflammation in his right shoulder. A month later, he returned for three starts, before going on the DL a second time, only this time for much longer. He needed Tommy John surgery and would be out for the next 12 months.

As is always the case with pitchers who undergo TJ surgery, there were questions as to whether he would be the same guy when he returned. He came back for 5 starts at the end of 2011 and held opponents to a .179 average, struck out 24 and only walked 2. His ERA: 1.50.

Since his injury, he has a 3.10 ERA with 543 strikeouts. His career K/9 of 10.5 is higher than anyone named Scherzer or Kershaw or Lincecum, albeit in less innings. He made his first All Star game in 2012.

Any questions?

Not until September 2012, there weren’t. That’s when the Nationals sealed a spot in the playoffs for the first time since their move from Montreal in 2005. But the Nationals didn’t want their top starter to get injured again. He had been on an innings limit during the season, and had reached that limit. Playoffs or not, the Nats decided to shut down Stephen Strasburg for the 2012 playoffs.

Since then, he’s been the same guy the Nationals always thought he would be.

He was pitching on Tuesday night in Washington DC. I had never seen him pitch in person, and it was even better than my expectations. He was himself: 1 run on 5 hits with 8 strikeouts in 7.2 innings. His only blemish came in the 8th when he gave up a solo HR to LeMahieu.

I was even more impressed with his mechanics. I had my binoculars with me, watching him from the front row of the upper deck. I noticed two dark spots in the dirt in front of the mound and I couldn’t figure out why they were there. I watched him for a while and realized he was so consistent that his feet would land in the identical spot every single pitch. He would plant with his left foot out in front, and his right leg would fly around and plant in the same place on the first base side of the mound every time. It was mesmerizing, really.

But it was different witnessing him in person than it was looking at his picture on his 2010 Bowman TCP #1.

You see, no matter what collectors might tell you about the worth of their collection or how the 1968 Topps complete set is worth $5k, baseball card collecting isn’t about the their financial value whatsoever.

Baseball card collecting is about nostalgia.

Card collecting is about recalling memories of ballplayers from the past. It’s about remembering the guys you used to celebrate at the ballpark. It’s about seeing Carlos Zambrano’s face and being filled with anger. It’s about the day I learned what a Jheri curl was from Pascual Perez’s gorgeous 1990 Topps card, and how hard I laughed at  It’s about seeing Ken Harvey’s All Star card and laughing about the time he fell behind the tarp at Kauffman Stadium and got stuck.

It’s why I collect Ozzie Smiths and Bo Jacksons and Nolan Ryans. It’s all about my childhood memories.

It’s all about the feelings each card sparks inside your heart. As long as I am making baseball memories, I want to have cards that remind me of them.

I got home from my East Coast Tour and placed my new Ozzie Smith ball along side the rest of my collection. I remembered traveling with my dad and grandpa during the floods of 1993 to catch a 3-game series in St. Louis. I sifted through my 1982 World Series Cardinals booklet and giggled at the sight of Willie McGee’s goofy faced rookie card. He got called up in 1982 and immediately helped win a championship.

I took a look through my pile of Strasburg cards, and noticed something I hadn’t before: new memories.

I’ll forever remember how sickly sweaty it was at Nationals Park that day. I’ll remember how we didn’t have enough time to explore D.C. so we had to jump out of the car, run up and take as many photos as we could of the Lincoln Memorial before my phone battery ran out, and then run back to the car. I’ll remember how I was craving Taco Bell the entire time I was in D.C. and as we were leaving town to drive back to Baltimore, right as I had lost hope entirely, we found one. I’ll remember how the employee at that Taco Bell claimed they didn’t have water.

It’s about more than the cards and their values. It’s about the sentiments attached to each name, team and year.

The reason any of us love baseball cards isn’t because of all profit we’ll all reap when we sell them someday. People used to joke about how our baseball cards would pay for kids college education someday. Well, that didn’t work out. Neither did Beanie Babies. Instead, all my kids are going to get is stacks and stacks of stories about Ozzie, Bo and Nolan. And Ken Harvey. And Stephen Strasburg.

I’m not sure what angle I want to play on this chapter for my book. Perhaps legacy or memorial stones. Is nostalgia spiritual? I guess the roots of the word in Greek is “nostos” (to return) and “algos” (sorrow or pain).  Which is interesting because typically we associate the word with positive memories.

What is the role of nostalgia in our spiritual development? Is there value in longing for the past?

In today’s world, there is quite a bit of future focus. Productivity and efficiency are key values in our society. Don’t waste time because you only get so much of it.

Which has caused the Church to respond with sermons about slowing down and living in the now. And I think rightly so. It’s important to be present to the moment. Don’t work so hard that time gets away from you and passes you by. Notice the world around you. Etc.

But do we spend enough time remembering the past? Is there value in being nostalgic? When is nostalgia helpful? When is it hurtful? What can we learn from dwelling on the past that might help us in the present?

And how does this relate to theology, the early church and spirituality? Hmmm.

Not exactly sure where this ends up, but it feels like there’s a launching point here. But I don’t have time to flesh it out now. That’ll have to come with a lot of research and writing later. For now, on to some game notes.

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Game Notes:

Like I said, Strasburg was phenomenal: 7.2 IP, 1 R, 5 H, 8 K.

But the Nats offense was hot too and put up runs early. Rockies starter, Christian Friedrich (who was optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs two days later) walked the first two batters he faced then gave up a double and single to Jason Werth and Adam LaRoche to quickly make the game 3-0 Nationals.

The Nationals would add to their lead in the 4th. They started the inning with back to back to back to back doubles by Strasburg, Denard Span, Anthony Rendon and Werth.

Here’s another Strasburg memory I’m sure to be nostalgic about someday: him running the bases in the 4th. His leadoff double should have been a triple, but he pulled up at second. Then he only advanced to third on Span’s double. Finally, two doubles after his own, he managed to score from third. A faster ballplayer probably could’ve picked up 6 or 7 bases in the amount of time Strasburg managed 4. It was quite the adventure, and in a closer ballgame the fans wouldn’t have been laughing as hard as they were.

Strasburg gave up a solo shot to LeMahieu in the 8th, but sandwiched two Ks around it for his last two outs of his start. Prior to the HR, he had only given up 4 singles and no one had made it past first base. As the MLB.com headline put it the next day, it was a “Stras-free night for the Nats”.

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Nineteen Down. Eleven to go.

Up Next: Baltimore Orioles.

-apc.

East Coast Tour

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First of all, I need to apologize for the blog silence over the past couple weeks. I spent a week in Colorado running a youth ministry trip and the wheels came off for a bit there. It’s amazing how difficult it is to write when you aren’t doing it on a daily basis. Gotta get back into the routine though, because this upcoming week is going to demand a ton of it.

Because I leave tomorrow afternoon for the east coast.

Eight days. Six ballparks.

And when I get home I’ll be 2/3 of the way through the tour before the All Star Break.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be in Queens to see the Mets. Then on Thursday, a quick train ride to Philly will have me there in time for the USA/Germany match and a trip to Citizens Bank Park for the Phillies game. Then it’s back to NYC for a Red Sox/Yankees rivalry matchup on Friday night.

I’ll follow the Red Sox back to Boston, switch caps, and head to Fenway on Monday evening. Finally, Tuesday morning I fly south for games in D.C. and Baltimore on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

Then I’ll fly home and spend the next 48 hours sleeping, watching Independence Day, and tweeting about how Jeff Goldblum is the greatest actor not named Tom Hanks.

Here’s a look at the pitching match ups currently lined up for this week…

  • 6/25 – Oakland @ New York Mets (Mills vs Wheeler)
  • 6/26 – Miami @ Philadelphia (Koehler vs Hamels)
  • 6/27 – Boston @ New York Yankees (??? vs Nuno)
  • 6/30 – Chicago Cubs @ Boston (Arrieta vs Peavy)
  • 7/1 – Colorado @ Washington (Friedrich vs Strasburg)
  • 7/2 – Texas @ Baltimore (Martinez vs Norris)

Immediate takeaway: I wish I’d bought tickets to Saturday’s game in the Bronx instead of Friday: Lester vs Tanaka. Not that it will matter. Yankee Stadium will take my breath away regardless. The legacy of this team is wild. The theme going into Friday night: Empire, and it’s retiring Captain, Derek Jeter.

Same with Fenway. I loved seeing this game fall into place on the schedule. The two “cursed” teams in baseball, the Cubs and Red Sox, in an interleague battle. Of course, Boston’s curse has been well lifted while the Cubs are well on their way to 106 years without a World Series title. The theme of blessings/curses is going to be really fun to write about.

Finally, I can’t wait to see Stephen Strasburg pitch. In 2009, when he was a pitching prodigy coming out of San Diego State, my buddies and I were on the prowl for every box of Bowman baseball cards we could find. His rookie card was the most coveted baseball card since Ken Griffey Jr.’s in 1989. His injuries (and being shut down in the playoffs two years ago) have wrecked his potential coming into the league. When he’s on, there’s no one better. Can’t wait to finally see him in person.

Lastly, Camden Yards in Baltimore is a ballpark that I am extremely excited to visit. Man that place is majestic with the B&O building in right field. It set the standard for ballpark creations for the future. I’ve got a tour lined up for that one already (along with NYY and BOS, obviously).

It’s fun to see spiritual themes already unfolding as I get ready to depart. Here comes another adventure in pursuit of discovering the Story the God is telling in the game of baseball across the United States! Can’t wait to share these experiences with you all!

I’ll be listening to a lot of Jay-Z and The Roots to prepare. Maybe with some Ryan Adams in the mix. See you tomorrow, New York.

-apc.

Photo Cred: Flickr: leecullivan

Game 4: Turner Field, Atlanta

Welcome to Braves Country.

The first stop on The Smorgasbord Tour: Atlanta. I’ve been to ATL twice in the past for youth ministry conferences, but I had never been to a Braves game before. I went to a Hawks game once – I was one of about 57 people there – but Turner Field was going to be a new experience for me.

I flew in on Saturday night, hopped on the MARTA and met up with my new friend, Wally, on the north side of the city. Wally is the father of one of my seminary friends, and as I was raising support for this project, she sent him the information and he quickly contacted me asking if I had a place to stay while I was in Atlanta. I’m thankful to have gotten to spend the weekend with him.

Spending time in Wally’s condo was like walking through a museum. He is extremely interested in his family heritage and owns countless antique items that each have a special story and memory behind them.

He showed me his Cardinals scorecard from a game he went to at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis when he was a kid. It is framed next to a photo of he and his siblings at the game. When his grandmother died, he asked if he could have her old antique bed. He has a framed receipt listing all the things his grandparents bought at the store on their wedding day. Wally restores old photographs and has an image of his grandfather’s one-room schoolhouse class from the early 1900s. Everywhere I looked I found another antique, and every antique had a family story.

This past December, Wally’s wife, Lynda, passed away due to non-smokers lung cancer. Understandably, it’s been a difficult few months for him. He has spent some time away from work traveling to visit his daughter in Kansas City, his brother in St. Louis and some friends in Tennessee. He’s been back home for about a week now, and everywhere he looks he’s reminded of the past 40 years of life with his wife.

Wally is exploring who he is and what he is going to be about now that Lynda is gone. “My life is like a whiteboard now,” he said this weekend, “and the great thing about whiteboards is that you can erase them and start over whenever you want to.”

He’s exploring his identity, asking questions about himself and his life he hasn’t asked for years. He’s trying new things and new experiences, which is the reason he was so excited to put me up for the past two nights and join me for the Braves game yesterday afternoon.

But before the game, we were headed to All Saints Episcopal Church for worship.

Palm Sunday in an Episcopal Church was a very unique worship experience. Lots of Scripture readings. Lots of call and response. A beautiful choir with a processional and recessional that bookended the service. Everything was ordered and deliberate. They even incorporated intentional segments of silence into the liturgy, which is an option I think lots of churches might benefit from exploring.

I think this is a major part of why baseball can seems so spiritual. There is an order of events in place: batting practice, announcing the starting lineups, the ceremonial “first pitch”, the National Anthem, yelling, “Play Ball!”, the 7th inning stretch, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and sometimes the singing of God Bless America. Baseball is liturgical.

And unlike other sports, there are 17 different breaks in the action for us to process what’s been happening in what we’ve witnessed so far. Time to process the game so far. Time to swap stories and take in the setting. It’s a form of silence that is embedded into the game.

Silence and liturgy are both deeply incorporated into the game of baseball.

Okay moving on to the game.

The Braves are the oldest MLB franchise. They were first the Boston Braves in 1871, then they were the Milwaukee Braves, then in 1966 they became the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves played in old Fulton Country Stadium until the 1996 when the olympics came to Atlanta. They built Turner Field to house the summer events, then converted it to the “Home of the Braves”.

It was a beautiful afternoon for a ballgame – 81 degrees and sunny. My arms managed to get sunburned. I have a calculator watch tan line.

Every Braves employee I met, whether an usher, vendor, or parking lot attendant, had the same thing to say: “Welcome to Braves Country!”

One of my favorite things about ballparks is seeing all the creative ways the club has memorialized it’s past. Since I’d just left Wally’s house a few hours earlier, I was even more attuned to noticing the subtle ways the Braves honored their past.

The parking lot, for example, is where Fulton County Stadium used to sit. They outside wall of the parking lot is the old outfield wall! Such a brilliant move. High five to whoever had that idea.

There are retired numbers and statues of former players all around outside the park. Murphy. Jones. Neikro. Spahn. Aaron.

All around the outfield concourse, they have little signs posted that say “723 feet from home plate” and “581 feet from home plate”. Which is a brilliantly subtle thing that only baseball fans would probably appreciate. The 581 sign was especially cool considering Josh Gibson once hit a ball that far at Yankee Stadium.

But there are two numbers that Braves fans celebrate more than any other: 715 and 14.

This past Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of “715” – the day Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth and officially became the home run king. Hank hit 733 homers as a Brave, and 755 in his career. Hank had finished the 1973 season with 713 HRs.

The 14 is more recent: they were division champs 14 consecutive years between 1991 and 2005. Somehow they only managed to win 1 World Series in that span – 1995. Also surprising: somehow the Marlins won it all twice in that span.

Before the game, we hit the Braves HOF and Museum. It was actually a mejor letdown. You’d think the oldest franchise would have the best museum experience, but it was very lackluster. a fake dugout. An old Milwaukee Braves train car. A leaderboard of all the current Braves leaders in every major statistical category. Fake lockers from each of their most successful years.

The franchise records leaderboard, however, was impressive. Some team records are kinda goofy to read. Like that Ricky Nolasco holds half the pitching records for the Marlins. Or Jim Thome holding the Indians home run record. Or that Michael Young leads the Rangers in hits, runs, singles, doubles, triples…and strikeouts. Usually team records are more of a list of players that just wore the uniform the longest. And for younger franchises, that can make the list a bit embarrassing.

But not for the Braves.

Sure, it’s still a list of the longest tenured players. But those players were awesome, and most of the resulting records aren’t going to change…probably ever. A sampling…

  • Innings: Warren Spahn, 5046
  • Wins: Warren Spahn, 356
  • Strikeouts: John Smoltz, 3011
  • Hits: Hank Aaron, 3600
  • Games: Phil Niekro, 740

But one stat that isn’t going to last much longer: most saves. It’s currently held by John Smoltz with 154, but Craig Kimbrel is going to shatter that mark. My prediction: he breaks Smoltz’s record on May 29.

Kimbrel has been amazing in his first 4 years in the league. In 231 appearances he has 139 saves. Some perspective: Mariano Rivera only had 84 saves in 200 appearances in his first 4 years. He’s averaged 46 saves per season, and he strikes out FORTY-THREE PERCENT of the batters he faces. Outrageous.

But we didn’t get to see Kimbrel. Which is about the only disappointment (besides the HOF) from our trip to Turner Field.

photo-16A couple points about food: Atalanta is the home of Waffle House, so naturally there’s one in the left field concourse. But I wasn’t in the mood for a waffle. I opted for the Georgia Dog instead: a foot long hot dog with crunchy cole slaw and sweet sautéed vidalia onions. Holy smokes. absolutely delicious.

I’ve been to a lot of baseball games, and I’ve never seen in-between-inning production brilliance as I did at The Ted. First, in the minutes leading up to the first pitch, they ran the “Oblivious Cam” where they just found people in the ballpark who had no clue they were on the screen and set a timer counting up the amount of time until they noticed. :30…:45…1:00…1:15…and every second the rest of the ballpark laughed louder and louder.

Two other genius moves: The Grounds Crew Inning and the Hug Cam.

Apparently, first baseman Freddie Freeman has a history of hugging everyone. In the dugout, on the field, in the clubhouse – Freeman is a hugger. The Braves marketing department latched onto this and turned it into a brilliant crowd segment. Unlike the Kiss Cam, complete strangers can hug, kids can hug, anyone can hug. No more awkward pairings on the screen. No more “let’s end with an old couple and celebrate their long marriage” sappiness. They ended with a shot of Freddie and one of the Upton brothers (I think) sitting in the dugout. Freeman saw himself on screen, shrugged, and hugged it out with his teammate.

But the best segment: The Grounds Crew Inning.

Set to the tune of the William Tell Overture, when it came time for the grounds crew to run out and smooth over the infield, they sprinted out of the right field tunnel, ran their lap around the infield, set in three new bases, and sprinted back to the tunnel. The camera crew kept cutting from angle to angle in dramatic fashion managing to turn the Crew into the heroes of the moment.

Final piece on Turner before I move on to the game notes: I think it’s super sad that they’re leaving for Cobb County after 2016. The Braves started at The Ted in 1997, which means they’ll have been there less than 20 years.

I just don’t support the idea of baseball being moved to the suburbs. The Braves ran studies on where their primary customers were coming from, and they know they’ll be a success outside the downtown loop. But there’s something beautiful about a crisp clean ballpark among the busy highways and buildings of an urban center. Instead of a beautiful green paradise in the dirty city, it’s reduced to another clean building among the taupe facade of suburbia.

Overall, I loved Turner Field. And I’m glad I got to visit before it isn’t there anymore.

Game Notes:

The Braves destroyed the Nationals, 10-2.

They hit three homers: Justin Upton to CF, Freddie Freeman to RF, and Andrelton Simmons to CF. All three were absolute bombs. Simmons’ was most impressive – it bounced high off batter’s eye above the CF wall. Probably around 430′.

As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday: I’m a huge Andrelton Simmons fan. I’m a sucker for amazing defense, and that’s his primary game. I’m tempted to make an Ozzie Smith comparison, but he has too much power to compare the two on both sides of the ball. I think Simmons is a future Hall of Famer – bold statement in only is second season, but I think he’s only going to get better.

Simmons went 2-5 with a 3B and a HR yesterday.

Aaron Harang started for Atlanta and he continued the dominance he’s displayed so far this season. In 18+ innings, he’s only given up 9 hits. He went 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K yesterday…his worst showing of the year somehow.

Gio Gonzalez, on the other hand gave up 6 runs in the first 2 innings – 3 in each – but stayed in the game through 6 innings. Ross Detwiler came in and gave up 4 runs in the 7th – all unearned due to an Ian Desmond error at SS.

I picked the Nationals to win this division after Medlen went down. It’s early, and the Nationals are now 7-5…but all 5 losses are to the Braves. The Braves bats are hot right now, and if Harang and Santana can continue to give them quality starts, this Braves team might win their second straight NL East pennant.

Four down. Twenty-Six to go.

Up Next: Texas Rangers