Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"You Couldn't Be Any Hotter": Easter, 2011

Easter has come and gone for the household of The Hungry Preacher, and all that's left is the memories, the pictures, the presents, the candy, and the eggs.  We decided to go all Christmas on Easter this year, and gave the girls actual wrapped, significant presents.  The younger one was under the weather and was couch-bound, which made for an awkward angle to open her large present:

And while the girls may remember this Easter for the resurrection and the presents, we will remember it as the year that we discovered what may be the greatest weakness of both of our daughters: They can't find eggs worth a lick.  Like, if they were in a room that was empty except for a chicken sitting on a nest and told to find the egg, they MIGHT find it, but anything trickier than that gets REAL iffy.

Of course, we have photographic evidence to back up this diagnosis.

CASE #1:  See the green, egg-shaped thing about a third of the way from the top of this picture, and about half-way across from left to right?  The thing that it looks like our younger daughter is staring directly at?  She wasn't.  This picture was taken after about 3 minutes of her looking on the shelves, and prior to another three minutes of looking on the shelves, with Beth saying pretty much the whole time things like, "Look on the shelves.  No, not that shelf.  That one.  You're looking right at it."  Our daughter eventually said, "Mommy, I don't think there is one on the shelves."

CASE #2:  This one was snapped after playing the "hotter/colder" game, and me literally running out of ways to say how hot she was getting.  After "It's like you're in the center of the sun" came my utterance of the title of this post, "You couldn't be any hotter."  As she leaned farther over the cabinets, I said, "You're like an inch away from touching it."  Not seeing it within an inch of her hands, she started moving her feet around on the floor, assuming that it was with her feet that she was so close.  (It was actually her eyes that we within an inch.)

CASE #3:  Again, don't let the head angle or the direction of the eyes fool you.  It only LOOKS like my older daughter is staring right at the purple egg in the lower left corner of the picture.  It was still about 30 seconds before she saw it.

Fortunately, it's only about once a year that the struggles of our daughters in this area come to light, and it's rarely in a life or death situation.  And we have committed to loving them through this struggle, and have full confidence that they will be better, stronger people because of it.

Happy Easter.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Addressing Alien Concerns (PART 2)

I'm pretty sure this post will be dated April 14 by blogger.  You may be thinking, "Have the aliens introduced time travel to Rob?"  Oh, there are many possible explanations--who am I to say that the aliens DIDN'T cause me to time travel, then brainwash me regarding the details?

But posted dates notwithstanding, the important thing is the "PART 2" component of this title.  It will be followed soon by PART 3, and was preceded by PART 1.  Check out that link for an introduction to this post.  Then continue reading ways to fix all that is wrong with MLB according to unbiased intergalactic perspective.

2.  CHANGE POST-SEASON QUALIFICATION AND FORMAT.  With 32 teams, you really do need 8 teams per league to qualify for the post season to keep enough fans interested.  But instead of the current arrangement of 3 division winners plus 1 wild card team making the playoffs, use the four-divisions-of-8-teams arrangement and switch that to 2 and 2 (division winners and wild card teams).

This is a little outside the box for a lot of people.  Most proponents of expanding to 32 teams have suggested 8 total divisions of 4 teams each, while doing away with the wild card altogether.  There are 2 big problems with that.

First, it becomes a lot more likely that a team with a .500 or worse record will qualify for the playoffs because they were the best of only 4 teams in their division.

Second, no matter how you split up the divisions, the Yankees and the Red Sox will be in the same division.  Do we want them to be in a 4 team division that is rationed only 1 playoff spot?  Any volunteers to join that division as teams 3 and 4?  Rays, you in?  Orioles?  It’s already considered an anomaly when EITHER the Yanks or the Sox DON’T make the playoffs—Blue Jays fans, want to wait for NEITHER of them to make it?

It’s quite conceivable that the 3 best teams in a league could all be from the same division, and if only one of them made the playoffs each year, most fans would notice this pretty quickly and become disillusioned about it.  So make it 2-and-2, and if both Wild Cards come from the same division, so be it.  It just means all the more that they’ve earned it.

If the Wild Cards come from 2 different divisions, let them play the winner of the other division in the first round of the playoffs.  If they’re from the same division (i.e., one division would have 3 playoff teams), pair the best win/loss record among division winners with the worst win/loss record among wild card teams, regardless of their divisions.

Once you’ve got the teams qualified, for the love of all that’s good, let them play a 7-game series!  I already talked about how silly it is to have a 5-game series as the first round of the playoffs.  To summarize: It’s REALLY silly.  It serves as “the great equalizer” for playoff qualifying teams.  That sounds vaguely appealing, but the time for equalizing is actually when you’re establishing things like revenue sharing, team payrolls, balanced schedules, and fair drafts.  The postseason is the time you want the best teams to, well, win—based on the talent they have demonstrated for 162 games.  It’s NOT the time to create an artificially level playing field with short and oddly scheduled series that (at best) only marginally favor the team with the best record.

So make the first round 7 games, just like the other rounds.  Interesting thing: I’ve done a lot of research for these posts, and have seen a lot of point/counterpoint arguments on almost every topic.  And it may be out there, but I did NOT come across a single argument in FAVOR of the 5-game series.  It may literally be the case that not a single person likes it.  So just add 2 games already.

One of the objections to adding the 2 games is that the season will run too long.  Since the 5-game series take either 7 or 8 days to play, it’s a little hard to take this objection TOO seriously, because obviously the powers that be don’t care THAT much about shortening the season.  But post-season compression is relatively un-trodden ground.  So let’s trod there.

Want a shorter season?  Play the first 2 rounds of the playoffs in 8 days each.  That’s a 7 game series in 8 days, which is REALLY bucking tradition, since 7-game post-season series are ALWAYS: 2 games, travel day, 3 games, travel day, 2 games.  Back when pitchers pitched on 3 days rest, this allowed a team’s ace to pitch games 1, 4, and 7.  That doesn’t happen anymore.  With pitchers needing 4 days off between starts, you’ve got to start 4 different pitchers in a series anyway.  Why not play the series with one day off?  The day off actually doesn’t even need to be a travel day: Players spend all season playing in one city one night and another the next.  Why do they suddenly need time to sight-see during October?  If you really want to keep the World Series as a 9 day event, fine.  But if you compress the games in the first 2 rounds, you could actually add the 2 more games to the first round and STILL have the first 2 rounds take fewer calendar days than the current arrangement does.

The added bonus is that this arrangement will allow for games to be more reflective of the regular season, since teams had to play 7 games in 8 days pretty much the whole season in order to get to the post season.

SPINNING THE NEW POST SEASON TO THE PLAYERS: Might not be much to spin.  I would think the players would generally be in favor of having the post season more accurately reflect the results of the regular season.  I also suspect they wouldn’t mind being done with the whole season a couple of days earlier than usual.  I’m not sure what the objections would be.

SPINNING THE NEW POST SEASON TO THE OWNERS: Owners would be drawn to the financial allure of 2 more playoff games.  However, they would probably risk losing some funds from the networks who get to call the shots on how the playoffs are scheduled.  The networks couldn’t care less about playing 5 games series in 8 days, or 7 games series in 10 days, for that matter.  What they and the owners DON’T want are 2 things: 1) series that overlap start times, and 2) too many day games.  ‘Cause those things hurt ratings and lose money.

Probably, the owners would want to have their cake and eat it, too, meaning adding 2 more games to the first round of the playoffs but still letting the networks schedule the games in whatever manner they think will net them the most funds.

Since Bud Selig’s idea of taking a stand against the networks’ gauging of fan interest as a guide for scheduling games (and, thus, indirectly influencing their outcomes) is declaring that the World Series will NOT be scheduled for November, we may want to lower our hopes just a smidge on how likely this schedule compression is going to happen.

Owners, of course, want their money now, and the idea of sacrificing cash today in order to build a loyal fan base that will provide more cash tomorrow is lunacy.  But maybe they could be persuaded of the wisdom of this approach?  Possibly?  Since cold hard numbers supporting this “investment for a lucrative future” notion would be impossible to provide, maybe a subjective argument could be at least mildly persuasive?

Here’s one: I remember the Rays playing the Phillies in the World Series a couple of years ago.  I remember pulling for the Rays, thinking it was about time they had something to show for their years of futility, as well as for their devotion to scouting and player development.  I, like much of the country, saw the Rays as David to the Goliath that was the Phillies, and it was an intriguing story.  And what I remember about the World Series is this: the teams sloshing around in near-freezing rain while the announcers wondered if the Series clinching game could be won a team sitting in the clubhouse after the umpires declared there would be no more baseball that day.  That’s really it.  That’s all I remember.  And I’m a baseball fan with a pretty good memory.  It should have been as embarrassing to MLB as the infamous tie-game all-star game was, because at least the all-star game was unapologetically a show more than it was a competition.

So, owners, was it worth the few extra bucks you got for letting the networks insert days off into the post-season schedule?  Selig’s decree that November is off-limits for the World Series is fine, but with a little aggressiveness, we could be talking moving things back by 2 WEEKS rather than 2 days.  Squish the calendar days in which the first two rounds are played, and cut the days off in between each round (if the teams want more than 1 day off, tell them to sweep!).

Owners, this will help keep the postseason from being a joke.  At some point, that might pay off financially.

Also, this compact post-season scheduling will keep fans interested in the series by keeping in the forefront of their minds that this IS actually a series, and not just some games scattered around by networks—which is what it seems like.

It’s also OK for games to overlap.  If you have to have 4 games scheduled on the same day, how about 12:00, 2:30, 5:00, and 7:30 (Central Time).  (Side note: if you do that, don’t automatically schedule New York/Boston/Philadelphia for the prime time game, which is good for ratings, but bad for the integrity of the series.)  The integrity and continuity of the series that you save will make up for (possibly even financially) the lost advertising dollars for those 30 minutes when baseball fans who would normally be watching all 4 games consecutively (a lot of those types, are there?) will have to pick one or the other.

Here's a visual as to how the first round of the post season could be scheduled.  Notes:
a)  The days at the top of the column are arbitrary--I don't really know or care which day of the week the series start on.  But it's one day off after the regular season, and one day off before the next round.
b)  I'm still not crazy about one series having just one game before a day off, but that could be tweaked.
c)  Keep in mind, also, that odds are at least one of the series will NOT go all 7 games, so scheduling of games 6 and 7 could be shifted later, losing the earlier and less profitable start times.
d)  Though this table doesn't indicate it, the start times for each series would rotate, so everyone gets at least one game at each time slot.


So now that the post-season is fixed, let's move on to the regular season.

3.  STREAMLINE SCHEDULING.  When I was your age, we didn’t HAVE to walk barefoot through 10 feet of snow to get to the baseball stadium.  In 1985, the baseball season started on April 8, with game 7 of the World Series being played on October 27.  2011’s World Series is scheduled to end on October 27, but the season started on March 31.  It is actually to MLB’s credit that they’ve only added 8 days to the season despite adding an additional round of playoffs (especially if you let yourself forget that the additional round of playoffs is only 5 games long).

But condensing should be explored, preferably on the back end of the season.  Chop off a week of the season.  Don’t just cut the number of games, though—even I’m not THAT extreme.  The easiest and most obvious solution is to add a few more double headers back into the schedule.  Those stopped getting scheduled a few years back when owners realized that they could make more money charging two separate tickets.  Of course, they can, but then they went and added that extra post-season series, drawing out the season on two separate fronts.

But if each team had, on average, one double header scheduled each month, and if MLB could decide to be a little more aggressive with scheduling the post season on their terms, the season could open on March 31, and game 7 of the World Series could be scheduled for right around October 15.

SPINNING A STREAMLINED SCHEDULE TO THE PLAYERS:  So far the players have looked remarkably cooperative in my efforts to improve Major League Baseball, and again I’m not sure what the objections would be from the MLBPA, or at least what objections that may have that wouldn’t get trumped by the benefit of being done with the regular season a week sooner.

SPINNING A STREAMLINED SCHEDULE TO THE OWNERS:  It’s that whole revenue thing again, and again I would suggest that in the long run, ensuring that the World Series will not be mistaken for a motocross event is a suave financial move.

But in the short term, it would be hard for the owners to look past the loss of 3 home-dates worth of attendance per team.  Roughly, the average, league-wide attendance is about 30,000 per game, which means that’s about 90,000 tickets lost per team.

Of course, there are a thousand variables for what a team makes per ticket sold, and those variables vary from team to team.  But for argument’s sake, let me suggest a few ways in which those tickets can be made up for.

a)  Establish a marketing push to point out to fans the bargain of getting two games for the price of one.  Maybe some people like the idea of getting two games for the price of one, and would buy a ticket to a double header when maybe they otherwise wouldn’t have bought a ticket at all.  Let’s say that adds about 5,000 people worth of revenue, and decreases our initial 90,000 figure to 85,000.

b)  Remember that the dates that would lose scheduled games are coming straight from the end of the season.  Attendance for those games is generally below average, sometimes by quite a bit.  So owners aren’t really losing 30,000 a game—probably more like 20,000.  So that drops the 85,000 figure to about 55,000.

c)  Schedule double headers for Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day, and spin them as “celebration events,” complete with things like fireworks or concerts in between games (turning these double headers into something in between traditional double headers and day/night double headers).  Conceivably, attendance could be given an additional boost for these games, up another 5,000.  That brings us down to 50,000 lost fans.

d)  If the double header plan were accompanied by the expansion plan, then MLB could make a new concerted effort to open the season in warm weather cities.  This has been tried before, but it was already difficult to work out a schedule with 15 teams per league—adding this extra variable made it all the more difficult.  With 32 teams, warm-weather scheduling shouldn’t be too difficult, though.  Then, the number of early-season rainouts could be reduced, lessoning the risk of scheduled-in-advance double headers competing with the make up dates for rain-outs as the season progressed.  Also, with teams playing nothing but 3 or 4 game series, their days off are more likely to coincide, adding more flexibility for rescheduling rain outs.  So fewer rain outs, accompanied by more flexibility in rescheduling those rain outs, could translate into another 10,000 fans coming to games that they otherwise would have skipped.  We’re down to 40,000 lost fans.

e)  OK, fine—one of each team’s scheduled double headers could be a day/night double header, with a separate ticket for each game.  Not very traditional, but it saves a game’s worth of revenue.  So let’s say that’s another 30,000 fans passing through the turnstiles, reducing the “lost fan” total to 10,000.

Of course, this math is all very speculative, and some teams would be hurt more than others by losing a home date, even one in October.  But my point is that the adding of 3 home double-headers per team is not so simple as “losing 3 dates”.  Major League Baseball is nothing if not painfully uncreative in building a money generating fan base, and “losing 3 dates”, if accompanied by a little bit of creativity in scheduling and marketing, could very possibly result in a financial wash for MLB.

MLB's problems are getting close to being solved.  Stay tuned...


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An Artist Explains Her Art (Titanic Edition)

I had some technical difficulties last Friday with this post, and then the video itself turned out to be too dark.  So I had to re-shoot the video (the talent was very patient through the re-shoot), but I think we've got everything in order now.

I do actually have 2 daughters.  Seems like it's just so happened that the older one has been the subject of many of the video posts on WPFF.

A bit of background: My older daughter is pretty ambitious with her drawings and even the media she uses for her art (she'll regularly poke her head out during her quiet time and call something like, "Daddy, I need some tape").  She also remembers a lot of what she reads and hears, and these details often get incorporated into her work.

The poster in this video is something that she did during her quiet time a couple of weeks ago, without any prompting or instruction from me.

The first take of this video (the too dark one) actually had a perfect little visual at the end.  So I went ahead and added it to this clip after the fade out.  Enjoy.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Addressing Alien Concerns (PART 1)

Whether you’ve been recently abducted by (other) aliens or have just been busy gardening or flying kites, and have missed WPFF’s critically acclaimed “Alien Perspective” series, here are the concerns have been expressed to me by aliens the last few weeks regarding Major League Baseball.

So far, they have asked:
"Why are divisions so numerically unbalanced?"
“Why do some teams have a payroll that is 4, 5, or even 6 times that of other teams?"
“Why do baseball players get to chew tobacco while they're playing?"
“Why are Americans discriminated against in the MLB draft?”
“Why is the scheduling of the MLB post-season so goofy?”

Today, I begin offering suggestions that will, taken collectively, address these 5 concerns. Some of the suggestions are more directly related to the concerns expressed, while others will address the concerns more indirectly.

As students of baseball history know, as recently as the 1950’s, players as young as 18 years old were often hired to play for pennies a second, sometimes for 6+ hours a day, often in unsanitary fields covered with dirt and saliva. Some teams forbade facial hair, required slacks to be worn on charter flights, and provided clubhouse buffets that sometimes contained cuts of steaks that came from meat packing plants that were poorly regulated.

Thankfully, the players unionized, and those working conditions have become a thing of the past.

However, these days any change in anything having to do with players and owners must be agreed upon in collective bargaining—think Democrats and Republicans, but without the love and respect. So change is tough, but needed. Here’s what to do:

1. EXPAND. Add 2 more teams. This HAS to happen. 30 teams in 2 leagues just doesn’t work in baseball. It makes for off-the-charts wacky scheduling, and the divisional imbalance that it necessitates is inexcusable.

There are a handful of cities that have either expressed or been rumored to have interest in welcoming their very own MLB team: Portland, Las Vegas, Norfolk, Mexico City, for example. Let’s say, for illustrative purposes, that Portland and Las Vegas are the best candidates (this page is crazy fun and suggests that Riverside and Montreal are actually the only 2 North American cities “primed to host” an MLB team). Here’s what the divisions COULD look like, with minimal league shift among current teams:

Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays

Kansas City Royals
Las Vegas
Los Angeles Angels
Minnesota Twins
Oakland A’s
Seattle Mariners
Texas Rangers

Atlanta Braves
Cincinnati Reds
Florida Marlins
Milwaukee Brewers
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates
Washington Nationals

Arizona Diamondbacks
Chicago Cubs
Colorado Rockies
Houston Astros
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals

2 leagues of 16 teams. 4 divisions of 8. 14 games against each division rival. 8 games against each team in your league’s other division. That comes out to 162. I’m drooling. I mean, having one league of 16 teams and one of 14, with divisions of 6, 5, 5, 5, 5, and 4 is a great idea and all... OK, I can’t even say that with a straight face.

The internet tells me that another round of expansion isn’t seriously on the table right now for several reasons: the unlikelihood of 2 more metro areas being able to support teams in a down economy; the attendance issues of many teams already in existence; the void of talent to fill up 2 more rosters (plus minor league teams); the grumpy old owners who might have the areas of their TV contracts infringed upon, to name a few.

But remember that paragraph above where I talk about 2 leagues of 16 teams? 4 divisions of 8? And so on? Even with the problems that adding 2 more teams raises, it’s STILL worth it. Those problems are generally already lived with—why not live with them in a league setting that at least lends itself to some semblance of a fair and balanced schedule?

SPINNING EXPANSION TO THE MLBPA:  50+ more jobs. No spinning needed.

SPINNING EXPANSION TO THE OWNERS:  Depends on the owner and the location of the expansion teams. When the Expos moved to Washington D.C., MLB gave Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos millions of dollars for all of the Orioles fans that were going to fall in love with the new girl down the street. It was a nice gesture that established two truths: 1) Americans can be just as adamant as Canadians about NOT going to baseball games (shout out to Nationals fans!), and 2) any area in the country that has been laid claim to by any MLB team as “part of our fan base” is, in fact, part of that team’s fan base and must be bought from the claiming owner by MLB before it can be infringed upon by a new or relocating team. So what’s a Seattle Mariner’s fan living in Portland worth? Probably less than an Orioles fan living in D.C., but more than an Arizona Diamondback’s fan living in Las Vegas. The point is, after MLB bent over for Angelos, any owner feeling infringed upon will darn well find out EXACTLY what their vagabond fans are worth, real or hypothetical. This will make it hard for any team to ever again be birthed or moved. But if the other 28 owners (assuming only one per new team feels infringed upon) are on board, things could happen. Aside from mentioning the expansion fees, tell those 28 owners these things:

a) the schedule will be way more balanced and fair, and will lay the groundwork for other money making ventures, like more playoff games and interleague play;

b) divisional realignment could emphasize geographic rivalries like never before, which could lead to more money; aside from isolated adventurous fans traveling to watch their team play, MLB could realistically sell ticket and travel packages encouraging fans to “Road Trip With Your Team” if those road trips could be consistently regional. Mariner’s fan? Take a train down the coast for the M’s last game in Portland and, two days later, their first game in Oakland. MLB could probably find willing partners in the travel and hotel industries. Imagine being able to go to the MLB site and being able to click on any “road trip” for your favorite team. Game days, travel options (plains, trains, and buses), and hotel availabilities with to-and-from-the-ballpark shuttles would pop up, with package pricing for any budget. Or, limit the number of options, but charter a plane or train for fans. Block off a wing in a hotel. My friends did that for their wedding; MLB could probably figure something out that would be both a blast for fans and profitable for the teams.

c) though it’s been a few years since I chartered an airplane, I’m guessing a balanced, region-heavy schedule could cut down on all sort of travel costs. 2 game series would be a thing of the past. Home stands could, almost without exception, be 9, 10, or 11 games. Total travel miles could be cut by thousands: teams like the Oakland A’s would get more games against Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas, and schedule-makers could more easily group together their road games against east coast opponents. Though it would vary from team to team, of course, would a savings of $1 million a year be out of the question? Owners would like that;

d) finally—and this may be the most persuasive-to-owners argument for expanding—“giving” the union 50 new jobs may help persuade your employees to make some concessions (real or perceived) in other areas of the sport.
What are those areas? Check back tomorrow.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 5)

After this post, the aliens will question no more. They are exhausted. They are jet lagged. They couldn't get tickets to any opening day games. Someone told them to bet a lot of money on the Red Sox winning at least one of their first 6 games. And they are frustrated that they will have to wait until next week for all of their concerns to be addressed.

Which brings me to my next point: The readers of WPFF will have to wait until next week to read the solutions to the aliens' concerns. In the interest of pleasing all of the people at least once a week, I wanted to stick with my initial commitment NOT to use both of the regularly scheduled WPFF posts on baseball. So next week I will address the concerns--probably using a "bonus post"--thereby solving all of the problems of Major League Baseball as identified by aliens. Then, having achieved intergalactic peace for the foreseeable future, I will take a break from writing about baseball for a while.

So today I will discuss the final of 5 concerns raised by aliens who watch Major League Baseball:
Why is the scheduling of the MLB post-season so goofy?

The aliens are especially concerned about the first round of the playoffs. The current arrangement is this: The 3 divisions winners, plus the remaining team with the best record (the "wild card" team) make the playoffs. The first round of the playoffs is a best-of-five series. In each league, the team with the best record plays the wild card team, unless the wild card team is from their same division. In that case, the team with the best record plays one of the other division winners (the worse one).

The scheduling of this first round is goofy, as the aliens put it, in at least two significant ways: the length of the first round of the playoffs and the scheduling of the first round of the playoffs.

First, the length of the series. 5 games. The first team to 3 wins takes the series. Without any perspective, this length may not be striking. But consider that these 5 game series come on the heals of a 162-game schedule. This is the longest season of the "big four" North American sports, but the first round of playoffs will be over in 5 games (and maybe as few as 3). 5 games is the equivalent to 3% of the regular season.

Here's how the other sports compare:
-NBA: 82 regular season games, 7 game series, equivalent to 8.5%
-NHL: 82, 7, 8.5%
-NFL: 16, 1, 6%
-MLB: 162, 5, 3%

So percentage-wise, baseball's first round of playoffs is LEAST likely to have a result in line with the regular-season records of the teams playing. History backs this up. Since each big 4 sports adopted its current playoff system (disregarding minor tweaks), here are the win/loss records of teams with the best regular season record in their league/conference in their first round of post-season play:
-NBA: 49-3 (.942 winning percentage)
-NFL: 32-10 (.727)
-NHL: 23-9 (.719)
-MLB: 21-11 (.656)

(In addition to making the case that the best team in baseball doesn't win its first round playoff series as much as it should, you could point out that the wild card team in MLB wins its first series MORE than it should, to the tune of a 17-15 record in their first round of playoffs. The sample size is small, but one might expect that a just playoff system has a differential greater than "4" between series wins for the best and worst team of each league over the course of 16 years.)

So the sport with the longest season has the smallest margin of error for the first round of the post season. And the teams with the best record are historically more likely to be upset in their first playoff series than those in other "big 4" sports.

Objectively, the unpredictability of a 5-game series runs counter to the idea of playoff seeding in the first place. The idea behind "seeding" is to give the best team the best chance to prove that they are indeed the best team, and the hope is that the best team from each league will play in the World Series. When this consistently doesn't happen, it undermines the credibility of the World Series.

Subjectively, it's pretty frustrating for fans. You root for your team for 162 games, you pay to see them play, you get excited when they finish with 104 wins--and then they lose 3 out of 5 games to a team that squeaked into the playoffs with a 85-77 record? Yeah, it's frustrating, almost enough to make you not care so much about the regular season.

With the 5-game series being intrinsically poorly-equipped to mirror a team's regular season success (or lack thereof), the least MLB could do is NOT add any other variables that would further disconnect the expected results of the series from the actual results. Which brings me to the aliens' other beef with the first round of the playoffs: the scheduling of them.

Quick quiz: How many days does it take for a MLB team to play 5 games during the regular season?
A. Usually 5
B. Sometimes 6
C. Once in a blue moon, 7
D. Never 8
E. All of the above

Did you guess "E"? Wow. You're good. Here's another one:
Taking into account the answer to the above question, how many days would you take to schedule a 5-game playoff series, assuming you wanted the results of the playoff series to fairly reflect the results of the season?
A. Usually 5
B. Sometimes 6
C. Once in a blue moon, 7
D. Never 8
E. All of the above
F. At LEAST 7, sometimes 8, depending on what the networks want

Did you guess "F"? You could be the commissioner of baseball.

Baseball is 50% pitching, and a good chunk of that is starting pitching, which varies from day-to-day in the regular season of baseball. If you have a dominant starting pitcher, you will be tough to beat about 35 times a year when that pitcher starts. If you're lucky, you have two dominant starters. Teams these days need at least 5 starters to get through the year, and the combined quality of those 5 pitchers will go a long towards determining if you make the playoffs. Teams with 2 dominant starters and 3 guys plucked off the scrap heap probably won't make the playoffs. Part of the beauty of having a 162-game season is seeing how the balance of starting pitchers plays out for each team. A team with 4-5 pretty good starters may do better than a team with 1-2 dominant starters and 2-3 poor ones.

Then come the playoffs. Last year, for example, the Reds faced the Phillies in the NLDS. Their schedule was this:
October 6: Game 1
October 7: rest
October 8: Game 2
October 9: rest
October 10: Game 3
October 11: Game 4
October 12: rest
October 13: Game 5

The Reds were a great example of a team with 4-5 good starters, but no dominant ones. The Phillies were a team with 2-3 dominant starters, then a drop-off. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out! If the Reds can steal a win from one of the Phillies aces, then pick on the weak links in games 4 or 5, this could be very exciting!

Or, we could build enough days off into the scheduling of the series that the Phillies can start just 2 different pitchers in 4 of the 5 games. The regular season, a team MIGHT get to start their top 2 pitchers in about 45% of their teams games. In the first round of the playoffs, the Phillies could have started their 2 aces in a whopping 80% of the games with a normal 4-days of rest. It so happens the series didn't get that far--the Phillies swept in 3--but the point remains that playoff series are often won or lost by the teams that get there.

What the aliens find especially bizarre is that NOT all of the series are scheduled in this way. The other 3 divisional series were somehow crammed into 7 days. Only the Phillies and Reds needed 8 days. The disturbing fact is that of the 8 playoff teams, some would have benefited quite a bit more than others by having 8 days to play instead of 7. The Phillies and the Giants are probably the teams that would have most benefited, due to their top-heavy rotations. The Reds would are probably the team that would have been most harmed by having 8 days to play.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but do you think anyone at any of the networks or MLB offices would have liked to have seen the small-town Reds advance to the next round ahead of the big-market Phillies? Truly I'm just blowing smoke here. I don't know who decides who plays on what schedule. But the fact that some teams benefit more than others from the 8-day schedule SHOULD be enough for players and teams to at LEAST cry foul, if not conspiracy.

Having a 5-game series after a 162-game schedule is like taking the top 8 finishers of a marathon and then lining them up for a 100-yard dash. The contests are only kind of similar, and there is little or no flow from the marathon to the dash.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the 5-game series is that it is the great equalizer to the ridiculous payroll disparity among teams. If you have to live with some teams having 6 times the payroll of others, the least you can do is effectively randomize the results of the playoffs, right? Uh, right?

OK, if we have settle on that, fine. First let me make some suggestions for fixing this whole mess. Next week. :)


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Best Seminary Assignment Ever: "Home"

I took a class at seminary on the parables, and for our final project, the teacher gave us the choice of either taking a test or creating something artistic based on one of the parables.  The only thing I had to think about was which parable to write about.

I landed on the parable of the prodigal son (as it's come to be called) in Luke 15.  This is what I wrote.  Enjoy.



One more day of zombie living, barely caring and barely giving
A second thought to a single thing I’ve done this wasted day.
In the mirror stares these hollow eyes in a face I barely recognize
And I lean and strain to study close the indifferent disarray.
“Who are you and where am I?” I ask but he just won’t reply;
It’s almost like this face is me and no longer a fa├žade.
It seems like only yesterday I did the things like laugh and pray
That people do when people say they’re following after their God.
I don’t know how it came to this; I can’t pinpoint a Judas kiss,
But somehow, sometime, somewhere down this narrow road I’ve veered off track.
There’s no one thing that I can pick that if I do would do the trick
To take this shadow life and take the hands of time and turn them back.
And as this blank reflection fades in the evening’s fast increasing shade
The streetlights stream in just enough to show me I’m alone.
My face becomes a silhouette; my heart is cold and hard and yet
Somewhere deep inside I long to find my way back home

Moonlight mixes with the light from the city’s too-alluring night
And in these eyes I see the void left from those blurry nights of mine.
Too much vodka and too much gin, no self-control, and too much skin,
And a few too many times of saying, “Just this one more time.”
I know full well I should have known this fruit would grow from the seeds I’d sown
But the reaping seemed so far away and the planting seemed so fun.
So now the sickle’s blade has cut straight through my soul and left a rut
Too wide to stitch, too deep to fill with women, whiskey, wine, or rum.
O God, O God, what have I done? Who is this ghost-man I’ve become?
Why is he staring at me like I cut those wrinkles in his face?
He looks like me but he’s just a shell who smells like death raised up from hell.
Oh, go away! Just let me rot and crumble in my foul disgrace!
Let me wither, weep and ponder why I ever dared to wander
From the one who gave me love like none I’ve ever known.
I’m buried in this sad regret, choking on “what if’s,” and yet
Somewhere deep inside I hope some day I’ll make it home.

These blank, dark eyes serve to remind of better days I’ve left behind
Days of gazing at the clouds and days of long forgotten dreams.
Yeah, the eyes, they still remember gentle, understated splendor
Of drinking from the river full of water that redeems.
These vivid, distant memories are a sharp contrast to the face I see
And to the echoes of the voices haunting, bounding in my head.
I guess I thought there was so much more than the things I’d always settled for;
My needs were met but I wished for wants; now I’m wishing I was dead.
Why did I think my fantasies of no responsibilities
Could be a destined, guided glimpse into the promised land?
This grass looked green from the other side, but the rotted roots have long since died
And I’m sick of looking at this face and I’m sick of drinking sand.
I want to cry but would anyone count the tears of a wayward son
Who’s burned his bridges, cut his ties, and declared his life his own?
I’ve lost it all and gained a debt I could never hope to pay, and yet
Somewhere deep inside I know it’s time to go back home.

So damn this life of death and sorrow; it’s time to find a new tomorrow;
I don’t know what awaits me then but I know what’s waiting now.
So you there in the mirror let’s head out into the clear where
We can find the outbound tracks and jump the first train out of town.
The morning sun is breaking and there’s nothing here worth taking
So let’s hurry and we’ll make it to the wayward son express.
Rolling free, now I can dangle my feet while I dare untangle
All the things I’ve done and all the things I still need to confess.
This taxing, tattered list is long, but as these big wheels rumble on
By the crystal streams, I sense a hope that’s growing from a kernel.
All I can do is hope for grace, and hope to feel the cool embrace
Of the one whose touch is cooler than the river’s springs eternal.
These hopeful dreams invoke a smile and I roll by rolling valleys while
I breathe a wind more filled with hope than any that has ever blown
The sky’s aglow, the sun is set; it’s a hundred miles more, and yet
Tonight’s the night I’ve dreamt about; tonight I’m going home.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Something I Thought I'd Never Write: "If I Could"

I'm one of those people who was never really excited about having kids.  I wanted to get married.  And once I discovered that my wife-to-be wanted to have kids, I figured I'd go along with it.  It seemed like the courteous thing to do.

But babies, especially, unsettled me.  They were unreasonable and non-communicative, which was a terrible combination.  I mean, both of those things?  If it were one or the other, I figured I could make them at least stop crying--but both?  Sheesh.

And the pooping.  I tend to gag when I see a dog poop from a distance.  It took me about a year of picking up after my dog nearly every day before I could do it without gagging every time.  But actually cleaning poop off of another person?

Unlike most people, I looked forward to my kids' teenage years.  At least then I could communicate with them.  They probably wouldn't like me, but at least they would know what I was saying.  I asked my wife if she could raise our future kids until they were about 10, then I could take it from there.  She told me it didn't work like that.

There was one time I was awkwardly interacting with one of my wife's sister's kids (i.e., my niece).  I found out later that Beth and her sister were off to the side assessing my skills at relating to children, and Beth's sister offered, "Well, maybe when you have your own kids, he'll be more like he is with Poozle [our dog]."  Poozle I could connect with.  He liked to wrestle and snuggle.  He would sit or go lay down when I told him to.  He pooped in the yard.  I could leave him alone for hours at a time.

Everyone says it's different with your own kids.  Yes, it is.  I truly can't explain why I loved my daughters so much when they were born.  The love that was born in my heart when my children were born into this world is one of the strongest evidences for God that I have in my life.

Turns out, kids like to wrestle and snuggle, too.  And they can be trained to poop in the toilet.  They don't ALWAYS do what I say but, unlike Poozle, they are capable of following directions with multiple steps.  And I would do anything I could possibly do to help them grow and show them love.  That's the seed of this lyric: that I WOULD do anything that I COULD.  The harder thing, I have found, is realizing that there are some things that I simply can't do.  Some things are out of my hands, and some things--like being hyperprotective--actually do more harm than good.  So I never dreamed I'd write something like this--a love song to my daughters--but now it seems completely natural, especially since my kids like music so much.

My older daughter, in particular, liked music from when she was a little baby.  I would regularly play and/or sing "Bright Lights" by Matchbox Twenty and "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" by U2, each of which has a chorus that begins with "Baby, baby, baby."  Hearing the chorus often calmed her down when she was upset about something.  Sometimes I would sing it as quietly as a whisper, just in her ear.

Once, Beth and I were hanging up window treatments in the nursery.  My older daughter was plopped on the floor next to us, too small to move, and big enough to express her displeasure.  With me on the stepstool, and Beth handing me curtain rods and screws and the like, our daughter was lying there, screaming, waiting for us to be done so she could go to bed.  Hanging curtains is annoying enough.  Add the soundtrack of a screaming baby?  Shivers.

We were both trying to soothe our daughter to no avail when Beth, near the end of her rope, said to me, "Sing to her."

Flustered, I stuttered, "I feel pretty self-conscious....  we'll be done in a second-"


So I sang my best Bono: "Baby, baby, baby...  baby, baby, baby...  baby, baby, baby light my way."  Immediately, our daughter quieted and looked up at me, hypnotized no doubt by her daddy's angelic voice.  I repeated the line about a dozen times until we were done with the curtain.

It was right around that time that I had been jotting down some of the ideas in this lyric, but it was that moment that I decided that the lyrics needed to have a "baby, baby, baby" chorus, harkening for all time back to my daughter's favorite songs from her youth.

I rounded out the rest of the words and came up with a distinct (from U2 and Matchbox Twenty) melody for the chorus.  And this is the finished product.  Enjoy.


     If I Could

If I could I would take it all away from you
If I could I would never let you cry
If I could I would take on all your pain and sadness
And give you wings to help you sail the sky

If I could I would hold you far away from
All the dangers that I know you’ll face
If I could I would take fragile heart of yours
And fill it full with peace and hope and grace

And baby, baby, baby, maybe
By the time you understand
The words I’m writing to you as you sleep
I’ll figure out all the things I can’t do
And give you to the one who can
The one we pray each night your soul to keep

If I could I would make this world your playground
Where you’re picked first and never skin your knees
I would give you courage to stand up to the bullies
And reveal their insecurities

If I could I would always kneel and laugh with you
To watch the waves disintegrate our castles in the sand
If I could I would affirm that heart that makes you you
And be there when you cross the street to always hold your hand

And baby, baby, baby, maybe
By the time you understand
The words I’m writing to you as you sleep
I’ll figure out all the things I can’t do
And give you to the one who can
The one we pray each night your soul to keep

If I could I’d distill that glowing smile
And figure out the thoughts that make it be
Then take those thoughts and let you always think them
So your smiles will reflect an inner peace

If I could I would pass on all the lessons
That I know can only come through wounded dreams
If I could I would lead you through the valley
To the living, healing, hope-restoring streams

And baby, baby, baby, maybe
By the time you understand
The words I’m writing to you as you sleep
I’ll figure out all the things I can’t do
And give you to the one who can
The one we pray each night your soul to keep