Archive for the ‘baseball’ Category

Reflections on Jackie Robinson Day

April 15, 2009

Upper Deck Blog has only been running for about a week now, but as soon as we launched, I made sure to mentally circle April 15th. I doubt I can do this day justice, but I’ll try my best.

Today marks the 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson taking his spot at first base at Ebbets Field on April 15th, 1947, shattering baseball’s color barrier. Sixteen years before Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Jackie pushed the sport and our country forward, far ahead of his time.

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Looking at Mr. Robinson’s history, it’s amazing that someone could achieve so much good in so little time. We only had him with us for 53 years, but he accomplished a great deal in so many aspects of his life (most removed from the baseball diamond). His most famous quote, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” is inspirational, and at least from my perspective, slightly intimidating. The concept of your life having no meaning unless you influence other people for the better is a hard one to wrap your brain around, for sure.

It’s easy to almost dismiss outright, but then you remember that the man who said it:

  • Grew up in a poor family.
  • Was the first athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track.
  • Entered the military only to be court marshaled for refusing to move to the back of an Army bus.
  • Broke the color barrier in baseball, on a deal with Branch Rickey that for the first three years, he would have to absorb all insults and threats thrown his way, without reacting angrily.
  • Absorbed insults from players and fans alike, along with death threats. Despite this, he managed to still perform on the field at the highest level, while keeping his cool and not retaliating.
  • Became the first black commentator on ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week.
  • Became the first black player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
  • Became the first black person to be Vice President of a major American corporation.
  • Founded the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for families with low incomes.

Once you look at all these accomplishments and the impact they had on others,  Mr. Robinson’s famous quote suddenly carries more meaning. “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” serves as both a proverb and a challenge, with Jackie’s example leading the way for inspiration. My personal favorite Jackie Robinson moment is Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, where he was honored for the 25th Anniversary of breaking the color barrier. Rather than take the moment to bask in his own glory, Mr. Robinson expressed his wish to see a black manager in Major League Baseball. He would die but ten days later, but his wish would come true in 1975, when Frank Robinson became the manager of the Cleveland Indians.

Before this starts to sound too much like a middle school history report, I’ll point out that Jackie Robinson was good at baseball. Damn good. It’s often overlooked, given his other social accomplishments, but the guy could play. Stories of how he could control the pace of a game just by his presence on the basepaths are legendary; the pitcher would get distracted, Jackie would steal second, third, even home with equal parts precision and raw athletic ability.

Mr. Robinson won a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award, was a six-time All Star, and won a World Series with the beloved 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. He had a lifetime batting average of .311, with an on base percentage of .409, both phenomenal stats for his career.  Consider that he only came to the majors at age 28, and you can only wonder what else he would have accomplished had he been let in earlier. Then again, it was his impact that allowed others to follow in his footsteps, having full, complete careers thanks to his efforts. It was too late for the likes of Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige (who did get to finally play in the majors at age 42, sadly we missed many prime years of his talent), but Jackie ensured future players would have that opportunity.

Fast forward to the modern era, and Jackie Robinson’s #42 is retired across all of Major League Baseball. Every park you go to, from Dodger Stadium to CitiField (and everywhere in between), players cannot wear his number, in tribute (Mariano Rivera is the one active exception, as his 42 was grandfathered in).

Today, all players will wear 42 to celebrate Jackie’s memory. A lot has been said about this issue, as players, sportswriters and fans alike wonder if having everyone wear it cheapens the significance. From my own personal point of view, I can say that despite being a huge Jackie Robinson fan (in case you couldn’t tell), I won’t wear a replica Dodgers 42 jersey. Can’t do it. I feel the weight and significance of what that symbolizes is too much to bear, and that it takes a special person who has “earned” the right to don that number. On a personal level, it feels like something sacred.

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If it was up to me, I’d ask each team to pick one player or coach who they feel has earned the right to have the honor of wearing Jackie’s number on this day. That being said, I don’t think it’s something to get too hung up on. Today means far more than the numbers being worn by the players, and if a kid asks, “Why are all the players wearing 42 today?”, it serves a great reminder that leads to nothing but good and inspiration for the next generation.

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On the subject of carrying on Mr. Robinson’s legacy, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda was dedicated at the new CitiField today. Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson, Governor Paterson, and Senator Schumer were among those in attendance.  The Rotunda will be the first part of the stadium you walk through before getting to the field itself, and is a fantastic tribute to Jackie and his life. I think of how important that “first baseball game” memory is for any child in America, and now for millions of kids, it’ll be, “I walked through the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and learned about who he was, and what he did.” I don’t mind telling you, I can’t get enough of the picture above, showing this unfolding before our eyes. On a personal level, I know it’ll be a reminder of the more important things in life, before and after each game I attend back home.

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Why I Hate the Yankees: A Met Fan’s Manifesto

April 12, 2009

We have some VERY cool things lined up for the blog starting on Monday, so before they get rolling, I wanted to tie up a bit of a loose end in regards to my Sabathia post from earlier in the week. Being a Mets fan who dislikes the Yankees, inevitably, I’m always asked to explain this attitude by my fellow Gothamites. Red Sox/Yankees hatred is easy enough to comprehend, but why would fellow New Yorkers cheer against a team that’s so iconic of our city and its history? Is it jealousy? That’s always the first assumption, but it runs a bit deeper than that.

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This is the new Monument Park (and even I have to admit, they did a great job bringing it over to the new stadium). Do me a favor: click on the photo, and look at all those legendary players. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle, Maris, Donny Baseball, and so on. There’s something interesting about that list of sixteen great players though (the great Mr. Robinson removed, as his number is retired across the league). Take a moment, and see if you can figure it out. I’ll still be here.

Give up? Here’s a hint: go back, and count the number of legendary Yankee pitchers. Two. In the most storied franchise’s most storied history, only two pitchers were significant enough to be granted that honor. I should also point out that Guidry was recently added in 2003, so Whitey Ford was all alone out there for a very long time.

On the surface, this seems relatively insignificant. After all, the Yankees are known for their great hitters: guys like Ruth and Mantle whose moonshots were legendary. Which, ultimately, is my point. Since Ruth, the Yankees always have been, and always will be the Broadway feature with the marquee names. Come see the stars, watch a few go over the fence, let’s hear Sinatra sing while we make our way home.

Even the most educated, intelligent Yankee fan (my fiance is a good example of this rare creature)  has to admit that there are many fans of the team who don’t pay attention to the intricacies of the game (like pitching and defense), and pay money for the biggest ticket in baseball to watch sluggers hit. Period. Big lights, big city, and everyone can understand and cheer for a home run. That’s the attraction. The stadium feels more like a mausoleum than a comfortable, warm home.

By comparison, would you like to know who our most iconic figure is? Seaver is wonderful, we all love Straw, Keith and Doc, but at the end of the day, we’re a goofy team in a big city with a history of futility. And to a man, we all love this guy:

A True Icon

A True Icon

Oddly enough, Colin Cowherd went on a rant regarding this very subject a few years back, on his ESPN Radio show:

Here’s what Mr. Cowherd doesn’t get, along with the majority of Yankee fans: we don’t take our team seriously, but we do take baseball seriously. Honestly, you guys are generally the opposite. Victory and adding to the championship rings is priority #1, and the rest is entirely secondary.

And to us, that’s a joyless existence when it comes to being a baseball fan. In the video above, Cowherd talks about how serious and historic the Yankees and their broadcasts are, the pomp and grandeur of it all, and how we need to be more like them. That’s kind of the point: to us, there’s no FUN in cheering for a team that has that sort of air about them. When your expectations are that high, and anything less than a World Series Championship is regarded as a failure (go ahead, ask Mr, Torre his feelings on that one), we’ll gladly take our team in Flushing, warts and all.

Admittedly, there is a generous amount of pretension in this attitude, but it comes from the right place. We moan and complain about the Seaver trade, the years of futility in the late 70s and early 80s, the wasted opportunities for what should have been more championships following 1986, Mo Vaughn and Robbie Alomar, Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, Adam Wainwright throwing the perfect curveball that will haunt me in my nightmares forever as Beltran could do nothing but watch it fall for a strike and the pennant, and two of the most heartbreaking, soul crushing losses to end a season in sports history, in back-to-back years for extra sting. And we embrace having the worst season in baseball history back in 1962 (seriously, we were all very concerned when the Tigers got close to that 120 loss mark in 2003). We take all this punishment, and we keep coming back for more. Want to know why? Because deep down inside, we feel it makes us better than Yankees fans. We’ll roll with the punches, embrace our futility, and still support our team. No matter what.

By comparison, whenever anything goes wrong with the Yankees, you sense their fans are ready to jump off the bandwagon at any given moment. You should have seen the comments Yankee friends of mine back home were making on Facebook after the 0-2 start to the season. You’d swear the season was over, and you could tell they wanted nothing to do with baseball until the team started winning. To us, there’s no fun in that. I say it often, and I’ll repeat it here: if the Mets only win one more World Series in my lifetime and the Yankees win ten, that will be just fine with me. Because I’ll get more joy out of that one championship than the average Yankee fan would out of those ten combined. I’ll feel like we earned it. Yes, our payroll is gigantic too, but there’s no accounting for the emotional toll of our team’s failure and incompetence, historically speaking.

That’s what drives us: in the end, the suffering makes the success that much more meaningful. And it’s something Yankees fans will never experience, much less understand.

Next week: Thoughts on Tiger at the Masters, reflections on Jackie Robinson Day, and a sneak peek inside the Upper Deck building.

Yes, in case you were wondering, we have lots of cool stuff. I’m going to do my best to make you feel jealous.

Nick Adenhart: 1986-2009

April 9, 2009

Last night, I was watching a great game between the Angels and A’s, and I was telling my fiance all about this Adenhart kid who got the start. Top Angels prospect, good guy, finally getting his chance in the rotation where he’d probably stick for good (I had actually read about him in Baseball Prospectus 2009 a few days prior where they really talked up his potential, so the name was fresh in my mind).

And he delivered, throwing six innings of shutout baseball at the age of 22. Against an A’s lineup that featured veterans like Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Eric Chavez. Remarkable feat. In two bases loaded jams that would have intimidated most pitchers with his young age and limited big league experience, he kept his composure, and kept the scoreless performance going.

Tragically, only a few hours after that great start, Adenhart was killed in a hit-and-run accident, when a motorist ran a red light. Two others were killed, and another was seriously injured.

Such a sad story for a young athlete who showed maturity and composure far beyond his years. Following a poor big league debut last year, Adenhart was quick to point out that he was more disappointed in letting down his teammates, managers and coaches than anything else. When he got another opportunity yesterday, he made them proud.

My deepest sympathies go out to the Adenhart family, he was taken from them (and us) far too soon. Not much else can be said.

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Chill Out on CC

April 8, 2009

Admittedly, there are few things in baseball that I enjoy more than watching the Yankees fail with a new, big ticket free agent. Don’t we all? Don’t get me wrong: being a Mets fan, we’ve had our share of horrible signings too. Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar are the reason Steve Phillips is now on ESPN making equally bad strategy calls in 2009, luckily from the commentary chair as opposed to the GM chair in Flushing.

My own team’s hilarious failures aside, let’s get back to the Bronx. The Yankees have made a tradition of signing the biggest free agent available every year, and since the glory days of four rings led by the likes of Clemens, Pettitte, Wells, Cone and El Duque, this usually means trying to fill the large gaps in the rotation by throwing money at the problem. Sometimes this works, most of the time it doesn’t. Yankee fans aren’t exactly known for their perspective or patience, and the much maligned “New York media” doesn’t help matters. The entity that traditionally throws the big can of gasoline onto the fire (and can create a raging inferno out of a tiny spark) is the New York Post. Here’s a retrospective:

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karstens

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For good measure, I need to show you at least two examples of what you’ll see on the front page: one is a classic, the other is more current.

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I was hoping to get some great images of past Post covers bashing on the likes of Hideki Irabu, Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, Randy Johnson and so on, but they’re a bit hard to dig up. I think you get the point though: if you have one bad start, or one bad game in New York, the Post will act like the apocalypse itself has occurred, and there’s a 99% chance the headline will involve an awful, insulting pun with your name in it. And if you’re Kei Igawa or Phil Hughes, just starting your career with the Yankees, you can imagine how demoralizing it is to see these headlines after a bad game. I’m sure if they’re in the middle of a poor start, the prospect of “What are the papers going to say tomorrow?” has to take away some focus from the task at hand.

Even if you don’t read The Post, you see the paper everywhere you go in New York City; in train stations, subways, newsstands, and so on. So if you’re a casual baseball fan (as most New Yorkers are until October), this is the impression you get of the team and the players. Even if you know the Post is sensationalist, these headlines have a way of seeping into the city’s collective subconscious, and before you know it, A-Rod is being booed and labeled a choke artist despite winning two MVPs awards in pinstripes.

Which brings us to Mr. Sabathia. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find any baseball fan with a bad word to say about his character or past track record (I know Boston fans will hate on him because that’s what they do, but seriously? Even this guy?) In my lifetime, I have never seen a player literally carry a team on his shoulders the way he did for the Brewers staff in 2008. It seemed every few days, he was taking the ball on short rest, and pitching complete games.

Unbelievable in this day and age, where pitchers are coddled, and pitch counts are used to protect arms like expensive, fragile glass. CC had free agency and the biggest payday of his lifetime looming, and chose to put his arm at risk. It would have been easy to just start every five days, ask to leave after reaching his pitch count, sit back and wait for the big contract in the winter. However, he went above and beyond the call of duty in a way we rarely see these days, willing the Brewers to their first playoff appearance since 1982. That’s the kind of integrity and team-first mentality that the Yankees have been lacking with many of their free agent signings over the years.

So, while I spent Monday basking in the glory of Santana’s greatness coupled with a poor opening day for the Yankees and their new ace, it dawned on me that Sabathia was going to get his first taste of the New York media’s wrath. What would his first Post headline be? I spent the rest of the day joking with my friends, speculating on what bad pun they’d choose. Here it is:

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Wonderful. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Yankees just flushed $161 million down the toilet! Luckily, baseball is a sport that provides cold, hard facts to go along with sensationalist headlines, so let’s take a look at them. Here are CC Sabathia’s ERA and WHIP numbers, by month during his full career:

March/April: 4.51 ERA/1.393 WHIP
May: 3.33 ERA/1.233 WHIP
June: 3.84 ERA/1.206 WHIP
July: 4.61 ERA/1.404 WHIP
August: 3.21 ERA/1.201 WHIP

September/October: 2.77 ERA/1.084 WHIP

Yankee fans, please take a look at those numbers, take a deep breath, and remember context. Sabathia always starts slow, will settle down in May, and will probably have a rough stretch in the dog days of summer. Be thankful that he’ll turn it on during crunch time in September, where his numbers are off the charts. Be thankful that he’s got a great head on his shoulders, he’s taking the responsibility that comes with his contract seriously, he’s the best kind of teammate you can ask for, and support him.

Most of all, be thankful that he’s not going to react like this guy, or countless free agent Yankee pitchers before him:

"Don't get in my face, and don't talk back to me, all right!"

"Don't get in my face, and don't talk back to me, alright!?"

Old School is Cool

March 30, 2009

Baseball season is finally here! This winter felt especially long thanks to the World Baseball Classic and extended Spring Training (congratulations to Japan for winning a second championship, by the way), but the snow has melted, America is warming up (I didn’t forget you either Toronto!), and our pastime is back. Note: out here in San Diego, we didn’t actually need to wait for snow to melt. However, I am a New Yorker through and through, so I feel your pain.

Over here at Upper Deck, we’re celebrating the new season with the release of 2009 Goudey Baseball on April 28th. There are a lot of cool inserts in this set, but being a baseball geek I have to say this probably excites me the most:

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As much as I’d like to say Upper Deck was printing these back in the 1930s, it just wouldn’t be true. What we’re actually doing here is buying these classic cards back, and putting them into 2009 Goudey Baseball Cards! For an extra twist, you’ll find autographed cards as well.

Think of it this way: about 80 years ago (give or take), a kid opened this Frank Frisch for the first time. The kid kept the card, I’m sure it was traded to his friend, put into storage, and so on until we purchased it. And now, the exact same card is out there again, waiting to be opened in a 2009 pack. Talk about a long journey.

Oh and in case you were wondering, Frisch was no slouch when it came to baseball. The infielder was a key part of the legendary early 1920s New York Giants, who won the National League pennant four years in a row (1921-1924), not to mention winning back-to-back World Series in ’21 and ’22. Among other accomplishments with that team, Frisch led the NL in hits with 223 in 1923. He was traded to the Cardinals in 1927, winning four more pennants, two more World Series titles, and a NL MVP award in 1931. Appropriately, his plaque hangs in Cooperstown.

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And now, you can open his classic baseball card fresh from a pack all over again, generations later. That’s what I call history…

Later this week: we zoom back to the future! 2009 Goudey Baseball also features rare autograph inserts featuring a certain famous golfer.

Click here to find a store near you, and pick up 2009 Goudey Baseball on April 28th!