Jul 06, 2010, 06:08AM

Year of the Umpire and the Atlanta Braves

A chat with Craig Calcaterra, the popular and idiosyncratic baseball blogger who isn’t shy about expressing strong opinions.

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Following the Major League Baseball season is more complicated, confusing and fun, than even a decade ago with the proliferation of bloggers and statistics adherents available online. It makes you wonder about the “magical” season of 1998, when the mainstream sports media was silent about Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, with their odd physiques, if MLB commissioner Bud Selig, desperate to erase memories of the divisive ’94-’95 strike, would’ve felt the pressure from web-only sportswriters who smelled a rat. Below is an interview with Craig Calcaterra, touching on subjects ranging from the blood money the Yankees will have to pay Derek Jeter this fall to President Obama’s quandary about the immigration controversy. Calcaterra can be found each day at Hardball Talk.

Splice Today: You had an interesting post on July 1 about how Alex Rodriguez is subject to more scrutiny than other players, possibly because of his immense talent as well as tabloid-seeking off-field behavior. And you singled out Dustin Pedroia as a guy who gets away with pranks and the kind of boasting that would be back-page headlines in the New York Post if A-Rod did the same. Good point, but don’t you think a lot of it has to do with the mammoth contracts A-Rod has secured, as opposed to Pedroia signing a hometown discount extension with the Red Sox?

Craig Calcaterra: I’m sure a lot of it has to do with that, but I was searching for an explanation that was grounded in some reasonably defensible human impulse like, say, that we think less of Pedroia’s talents because of his stature or something. I kind of whiffed on that point though, because based on reader feedback it’s obvious that people still resent A-Rod’s contract and probably always will. You’d think that we’d be past that nearly a decade later, but apparently not.

ST: Still on the Yanks: what kind of contract do you think Derek Jeter ends up with in the off-season? Seems to me the Yanks have to pony up serious blood money: at least five years at $20 million per.

CC: I think you’re right on the total—it’ll be a $100 million deal or something close to it. But don’t count out Derek Jeter’s own resentment or, at the very least envy, of Rodriguez’s contract. I wouldn’t be shocked if he and the Yankees did that $100 million over four years just so they could say that Jeter is a $25 million man too. A-Rod makes more than that at the moment, but by year four of a Jeter extension, they’d be making the same amount. If they put some fancy mutual option in for a fifth year he’d make more, and could retire making more per year than A-Rod. Maybe I’m over thinking this. Money shouldn’t matter, though. We just learned that the Yankees bring in something like $600 million a year against a $200 million payroll. They have wiggle room.

ST: Some say this is the Year of the Pitcher, with Ubaldo Jimenez leading the pack (although Roy Halladay has suddenly become sort of pedestrian, at least for him), and guys like Josh Johnson and David Price not far behind. I’d argue, though, that it’s the Year of the Umpire; it seems every few days an ump is either apologizing for a blown call or is blasted in the media (in all forms) for getting it wrong. Umpires, compared to most Americans, are compensated well, but it’s not an easy job given the travel and derision. What do you make of the focus on umpires?

CC: I think the focus is justified. Not so much for the simple mistakes—they happen, even in high-profile situations, as our friend Jim Joyce has learned—but for the increasingly confrontational demeanor some umpires have taken this year. I can’t recall a time when umpires were more willing to instigate fights like they have this season. If I were Vice President in charge of baseball operations I’d make a hard rule that umpires will not, under any circumstances, be the aggressor in an on-field confrontation. If they do it, they’re calling balls and strikes in the bush leagues.

ST: In our conversation last December you promised not to make the Orioles the butt of jokes in your work this year because “they’re moving up.” That hasn’t happened, of course, since the team is worse than ever and I imagine it’s like a morgue in the clubhouse. What do you think went wrong with the team, considering all the promising young pitchers they have? Is it just a culture of losing?

CC: I’m usually the last one to attribute a team’s failure or success to unquantifiable things like culture and motivation and whatever, but that’s the best I can do with the Orioles. There’s too much talent here for this team to be so bad. As the season started going sideways, I started hearing whispers that Orioles’ spring training was profoundly lackadaisical and that many of the young players were rather complacent as they broke camp, secure that they had a job and believing that they merely needed to show up in order to be successful.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s the only thing I’ve heard that comes close to explaining the awfulness that has been the 2010 Orioles. That rests on Dave Trembley’s now headless shoulders. I don’t think the problem will be solved, however, until a permanent replacement is found because Juan Samuel, for all of his charms, was part of that spring training too, and nothing has really changed since he took over.

ST: Baseball players, and athletes in general, aren’t known for getting involved in the political issues of the day. But the draconian, in my opinion, anti-immigration bill in Arizona seems to have awakened some players, with some even calling for a boycott of the 2011 All Star Game in Phoenix. What do you make of this? And, since we traditionally throw a bit of politics into these interviews, what do you think President Obama ought to do about the immigration controversy? Frankly, I wish some members of Congress had the balls to speak out against the hateful Nativists who’d like to deport every last immigrant, legal or not, back to where they came from.

CC: Most people are apolitical about issues that they don’t perceive to affect them, especially if taking a stance on something may alienate important constituencies. Ballplayers are generally well-to-do, so many of the political battles of the day simply don’t affect them all that much, and when you have a fan base to consider there’s little percentage in wading into controversial topics needlessly.

The Arizona immigration law is obviously different, however, because no matter how hard its supporters attempt to portray its language and intended effect as equitable and reasonable, there can be no denying that its enactment and popularity owe much to simple racial hostility. That understandably moves, say, an Adrian Gonzalez or a Cesar Izturis, who rightfully feel like they and other Latinos are being targeted. Though I am dubious of boycotts and the like, I was happy to see the MLBPA and several of its prominent members come out against the law.

Obama—and any other politician—is basically screwed if they try to tackle immigration right now. There are two aspects to immigration reform: (a) border security; and (b) dealing with the 12 million illegals here now who, whether you like it or not, are an important part of our economy and culture. You have to do both, really, because you can’t simply shut off the border and pretend that there aren’t millions of people living in limbo, and you can’t just grant green cards to the illegals because that will create a huge incentive for further illegal immigration.

A tough border security bill would probably pass with 60 percent of the vote right now, but Obama likely wouldn’t do that on its own, because merely tightening the border and deporting the low hanging fruit will play poorly in the Hispanic community, and Democrats see that community as an electoral difference maker for them going forward. But no comprehensive (i.e. border + naturalization path for current illegals) would pass right now, especially with unemployment so high. It’s just political suicide.

My guess: nothing happens. And yes, I agree with you 100 percent that politicians need to do whatever they can to beat down the Nativists. It’s an ugly discourse, made all the uglier by the fact that most of the people spouting hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric are only a couple or three generations removed from their immigrant ancestors themselves.

ST: What’s happened to the Phillies? Last March, in making predictions for the season, I went the blue-chip route and said the Phils and Yanks would meet again in the Series, with Charlie Manuel’s crew winning this time. This may not correlate, but the Phils appeared to go south not longer after Ruben Amaro Jr. (who has to be one of the worst GM’s in baseball) gave Ryan Howard that ludicrous $25 million/per year extension, thus enraging other GM’s who need to either sign or peddle their own sluggers. Do you think the Braves win it this year, with the Bobby Cox karma playing a part?

CC: I was one of the very, very few baseball writers who actually picked the Braves to win the NL East. Part of it was because I was a fan, but I tend to be pretty clear-eyed about the Braves, and I wouldn’t have made the pick if I didn’t see their strengths and the Phillies’ obvious weaknesses. Those weaknesses: the bullpen as a whole and the rotation behind Halladay and Hamels. The injury bug has killed them too, and no one predicted the offensive swoon of May and June, but the pitching has been a bigger drag than a lot of people expected it to be. Basically, just about everything that could go wrong has, and I feel more comfortable about my Braves pick today than I did back in March.

ST: I’ve written off David Ortiz for two seasons in a row now, only to be proved wrong when he rediscovers his swing. Do you think the Red Sox will re-sign him or will Theo Epstein (who had to be on the verge of releasing the palooka late in April) will play it safe and let Ortiz go?

CC: I think they let him go, but not before making a half-hearted effort to get him on a Hideki Matsui-$5 million deal, which I’m going to bet he won’t take. I think the Red Sox have done pretty well subscribing to the “It’s better to cut bait on a guy a year too early than it is to cut bait a year too late” philosophy.

ST: What team has surprised you the most this year, in each league? And biggest disappointments?

CC: Biggest surprise in the NL: the Padres. A lot of people have lost their jobs depending on young pitching, but it’s worked for them. Biggest surprise in the AL: probably the emergence of Brennan Boesch in Detroit. He had some good minor league numbers, but I totally pegged him to be one of those AAAA guys who could maybe hit some homers in the bigs but who wouldn’t necessarily wow you. He has wowed thus far.

Disappointments: In the NL it’s probably the Phillies. Even if I didn’t have them in first, I had it neck and neck all year and I certainly thought they’d be better than they are. I have to say the Orioles in the AL. I didn’t expect them to make the playoffs or anything, but I thought they’d take a big step forward and throw some scares into contenders down the stretch. I guess they could still do that if they get their shit together in the second half, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

ST: I get dizzy reading the various schemes for realignment of the leagues, with, for example, moving the Rays out of AL East to the Central, or even mixing and matching the American and National Leagues. Are you in favor of this? And on a related note, why do you think the players’ union hasn’t pressed the NL to adopt the designated hitter rule? Obviously, it’s a bonus for aging players to extend their careers and you’d think the union would be all for it.

CC: I’m against just about every proposed realignment scheme I’ve seen. The only reason to realign is if geography or logistics dictate it. Realigning based on temporary competitive conditions would be silly and reactionary. Yes, I know it seems like the Yankees and Red Sox have been dominant forever, but their hegemony isn’t unprecedented and it isn’t permanent.

On the DH, I think that the union heads would love to see it simply because it’s another roster spot for a veteran, but despite the perception Don Fehr gave off for so many years, the MLBPA really does keep its finger on the pulse of its membership, and there is a fair amount of opposition to the DH among players.  Born designated hitters like Adam Dunn don’t want to be pigeonholed as DH’s because, while the position may raise salaries in the aggregate, it often reduces salaries for the guys who get stuck there. Also, there are a fair number of deluded pitchers who think they can bat and like to. I’m personally anti-DH, so this doesn’t bother me in the least.

ST: You churn out a lot of copy each day. How long, on average, does it take you to write a post, and do you feel the competition of countless other baseball writers online?

CC: It really depends on the post. I can rattle out a “Jon Heyman is saying Player X is going to be traded to Team Y and here’s what I think about it” post in about five minutes. My weekly Power Rankings post, however, can take three hours, partially because I get bored halfway through it and start reading celebrity gossip pages. My daily “And That Happened” recaps take around an hour and a half, though I split that up between the night before it goes live and early that morning. Overall, though, I’ve rarely had any problem churning out two-three posts an hour over a nine-10 hour period.

As for other writers, I can’t say I feel competition in the sense of “I really want to beat that guy,” but I am acutely aware of the fact that I’m not anything special and that there is an ungodly amount of baseball content out there. I remind myself daily that if I slack off in terms of either quality or quantity readers will find other places to get their baseball news and opinions. I don’t wanna lose my readers, so I use that to motivate me.

ST: A common question you see all the time in various sports or entertainment magazines/websites is “What’s the best baseball movie of all time?” Field of Dreams and Bull Durham almost always top the list (I have a Kevin Costner problem, so I dislike both), with a few thrown in for Sandlot, Major League and The Natural. I simply can’t understand why John Sayles’ Eight Men Out isn’t universally considered the best baseball movie. It had everything: great acting, the Black Sox scandal, courtroom scenes, history and gambling. What more could you ask for?

CC: I think Eight Men Out is fantastic, and I’m not just saying that because Matewan is one of my favorite movies of all time (it was filmed near my home when I was a kid and covers a subject—the coal mine wars of the 1920s—that is close to my heart). I think the real problem is that it just hasn’t been seen by as many people. [John] Sayles is not pabulum, to put it lightly, and the lack of cheap, manipulative sentiment (Field of Dreams; The Natural) or quotability (Bull Durham, Major League) really cuts down on its popularity scores.

ST: As a Braves fan, you must be pleased with Jason Heyward. Do you think he’s completely legit, or might he pull a Gordon Beckham and slide back next year?

CC: He’s the real deal. He went on a month-long slide due to a thumb injury, but if it wasn’t for that he’d still be tattooing the ball. A young player can be successful if he’s merely smart or if he’s merely physically gifted. Heyward is both of those things. He hits the snot out of the ball, he has a mature approach at the plate and he has shown the ability to adjust, all at age 20. If he stays healthy, he’s going to be a superstar.

ST: I understand that teams want to protect their investments, but don’t you think the “rules” attached to young pitchers are getting out of control. A rookie I can see, but now the Yanks’ Phil Hughes has rules and while he’s still young, hasn’t he earned the right to make 30 starts?

CC: Yeah, I think we’ve gone a bit overboard with it, but Hughes might not be the best example. The hardest data we have on young pitcher injuries involves guys who go from pitching a relatively small number of innings one year and taking big leaps the next. Hughes, because he was in the pen last season and was being babied the seasons before, still barely only pitched 100 total innings last year, so it may be a bit much to push him towards 200 this year.

I think the bigger problem is the rush to put perfectly good starting pitching prospects like Hughes (and Joba before him and Aroldis Chapman in Cincinnati and Neftali Feliz in Texas and Jenrry Mejia on the Mets and on and on and on) in the bullpen at the start of their careers. Bullpen arms are a dime a dozen and you shouldn’t take something that is scarce—a promising starting pitching prospect—and relegate him to relief duties before he shows he can’t cut it in the rotation.

If the Yankees had kept Hughes a starter and gradually upped his workload as he rose through the ranks, he’d be poised to pitch 200 innings by now. As it is, he’ll need one more year—and depending on how babied he is this season, maybe two—before they’ll take the leash off him. Seems like a waste to me.

ST: Finally, does Orel Hershiser bug you as much as he does me on ESPN’s Sunday game of the week? I just can’t deal with his goody-two-shoes personality; it’s bad enough that the still-great Jon Miller has to balance Joe Morgan’s nostalgia for the great Reds teams of the 70s and his concentration on second basemen.

CC: Hershiser doesn’t bug me, really. I think three-man booths are awful, and the person who tends to suffer the most is the newbie, which is Hershiser in this case. Like any of the third wheels in the Monday Night Football booth over the past decade, Hershiser feels like he as to go with quick shtick and thumbnail caricature in order to get his points across. If he had some room to breathe—say, if Joe Morgan were, um, promoted to emeritus status—I bet he’d spread his wings, cut down on the gimmicky goody-two-shoes stuff and show himself to be a pretty good announcer.

  • I'm not quite sure if the balance of power in the divisions is cyclical anymore. Look at the Yankees and Red Sox, they both have enough money to sign any free agent on the open market. Unless the Henry's or Steinbrenner's somehow lose a large amount of their fortune, they will be competitive for many years to come. It's the same concept with the Rays, they will not have as much spending cash as the other two AL East giants until they change ownership or the current regime decides to open their wallets. Right now, yes, the Rays are a very good team, and will likely make the playoffs, but who says they will next year, or the year after that. Right now, they have enough MLB ready prospects for the coming departure of Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena (who they actually won't miss much), but eventually other key cogs in the Rays machine will leave, too, and what'll happen then? Let's say that they finish within the top 5 records in the majors for the next two years. After those fine two years, after 2012, Garza, Niemann, Bartlett, Upton, Howell, Navarro, Shoppach, Aybar and couple other I'm forgetting will all be free agents. Certainly they won't be able to replace those guys through their farm system, since they wouldn't have had any high first round picks, and since money is tight, they wouldn't have been able to sign any high upside over slot picks. So unless the Rays get lucky with the draft, it looks like they won't be competitive for long. Their window for success is extremely small, with only 4 possible playoffs berths. If MLB realigned certain teams specifically, they could ensure that the Rays would be competitive for a much longer period of time. It's the same idea for the Orioles, or the Royals, or even the Padres. Of course, if MLB realigned the teams once and only once, the same problem would eventually appear again. That's why it makes most sense to realign the ballclub's every 5-10 years, to prevent never ending dynasty's. I mean really, do you think the Orioles would feel so complacent if they were in the NL West or AL Central? I don't think so.

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  • It's profoundly disillusioning to hear a smart, otherwise reasonable commentator like Craig refer to a legitimate and desperate state effort to enforce immigration laws that have been cynically ignored by the Federal Government for political reasons (the Dems) or to keep cheap, exploitive labor (the GOP)as a "Nativist," racist or "anti-immigration" policy. Anti-illegal immigration is the opposite of "anti-immigration." Sacrificing a nation's control over its borders and the rule of law to the avoidance of ethnic-based searches because they offend political correctness is an absurd trade-off, and shows an illogical and dangerous set of priorities. I submit to a search every single time I fly, because its the only way to ensure safe flights. I don't resent it, nor do I see the reason (I have an artificial hip that sets off alarms) as proof of insidious bias against seniors or those with fake hips. Any citizen of the U.S. should be similarly willing to be searched if it will help control illegal immigration.

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  • Realignment based on how good or bad a team is might be the dumbest thing I've ever heard. It's good to see someone agrees (thanks Craig). Will Boston and New York always be powerhouses? Maybe, maybe not. Will Tampa still be a force in 10 years? Who knows. The only thing we can be certain of is that this idea is nothing more than a short-term fix.

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  • As long as the Yanks and Sox have money, they will always be a power house. If one of them does have a losing season, they'll respond drastically in the free agent market and make sure to win the next year, just look at 2006 for the Red Sox and 2008 for the Yankees. Because the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Rays play in the AL East, their window of success is very small. As I explained before, they'd be trading in 4 years of wins and possible playoff berths for upwards of 10 years in the basement. And I agree that it would a short term fix, which is why MLB should realign the teams every 5-7 years or so. This is all coming from a Red Sox fan, mind you. I just think this would be best for baseball.

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