Why This Year’s MLB Home Run Derby Might Be the Most Exciting One Yet

I hate to do this to you, Faithful Reader (and yes, there’s a reason that’s singular), but this post is essentially just a link to this week’s work.

Today for Esquire, I wrote about the changes coming to Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby. You should definitely check it out. If you’re here, come a little further.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.

 

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When $90 Million Isn’t Enough

A man you most likely haven’t heard of is going to say that $90 million isn’t enough.

Jimmy Butler, a swingman for the Chicago Bulls, is expected to turn down the Bulls five-year offer. The 25-year-old is a not a superstar – he’s outshined publicity-wise by teammates Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah – but is efficient, reliable and versatile. And his value will increase. This deal is the second max offer Butler will decline. (He said nah to the Bulls offer last November.)

The reason Butler continues to reject the Bulls is because he wants a shorter deal. Butler is betting on himself to improve in this next one- or two-year window because that’s when the salary cap’s lid will be blown off.

Butler, if he plays well this year, avoids injury and receives the maximum again, stands to sign a contract worth north of $129 million.

“That’s a sin,” a friend, and avid basketball fan, texted me last week. “A (basketball) player does nothing to contribute to society. Absolutely nothing.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe he has a point about not contributing to society. Regardless, that’s not the point I’m going to debate here.

That’s because we – the fans – give pro sports the money to pay the players. And the reason Butler keeps saying no is because he sees the future.

Last October, the NBA finagled ESPN and Turner Sports into forking over a total of $24 billion for nine years of The Association’s content. To put it in perspective: Currently, as per the deal signed in 2007, Turner and ESPN pay the league $930 million annually. That figure will rise to $2.6 billion when the new TV deal takes effect in 2016-17.

The NBA nearly tripled the value of its product in a decade. It’s a 180 percent increase from the 2007 deal. The 2007 deal was a 21 percent jump from the previous deal. The NBA has remarkably increased profitability since the turn of the century.

Stark is the juxtaposition of NBA success with the rest of the TV landscape. TV profitability has plummeted due to a combination of DVRs, internet streaming, more channels, fragmenting audiences and cord cutting.

The NBA’s success stems from the fact that live sports are the one block of programming seemingly immune to this downward spiral. Its viewership remains flat – or even has increased – recently. Forbes calls live sports the, “Audience Aggregator.” In the cord-cut, DVR’d TV wastelands, advertising firms are realizing that live sports are the one place where they can reach attentive audiences. Wanting to guarantee itself the audience and advertisers, ESPN and Turner sports pounced.

The reason they leapt on the deal to keep the NBA’s product exclusively on their channels is the same reason Butler forgoes payment now – because of us, the consumers.

Here’s the thing: We the common people give Butler the opportunity to make that money. We set the proportional salaries for the NBA’s stars and scrubs relative to the salary cap because we the viewer dictate that salary cap when we watch.

Every basketball fan who flips on the NBA during the season is putting money is players’ pockets. Every person who tuned into this year’s captivating Finals gave Butler reasons to say no to $90 million. We inflate television deals (and the salary cap) because we flock en masse to TNT or ABC to watch the games. We keep advertisers interested in the cable packages and the cable packages interested in the programming. And the live programming interests us.

We vote with remotes.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.

Never Leave The Game Early

Sam Blum uncapped his metaphorical Sharpie, ready to write in the New York Yankees as winners.

Sitting in the fourth deck behind home plate in Yankee Stadium on a pleasant June night, I couldn’t argue with him when he said the game was over.

The Yankees held a dominating 8-1 lead entering the top of the ninth inning. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim looked as confused in the field as most fans feel when trying to decipher where the team actually hails from. The Angels had squandered seven runners (five in scoring position) so far. The stars weren’t playing well; neither Mike Trout nor Albert Pujols had a hit. Boring game.

Blum wanted to leave. He didn’t enjoy seeing a big Yankees win and the New York Mets (his team) were about to begin a game out west against the Arizona Diamondbacks. I balked at his suggestion. I never leave a game early.

But honestly, other than principle, I didn’t know why I wanted to stay either.

Stephen Drew, the former Red Sox shortstop and current New York Yankee, the same one who might’ve had the worst playoffs of all-time in 2013, had two home runs which, off the bat, looked like little pokes over the first baseman’s head. That’s what you get for playing in Yankee Stadium with a 314-foot right field porch.

To increase frustrations: Whenever the Angels seemed primed to score, Kirk Nieuwenhuis came to bat.

Blum knew Nieuwenhuis – and his disappointments – from his Mets days, which had ended recently. New York had traded the outfielder to the Angels for cash a week earlier, on May 27. The Mets didn’t receive any players. It’s not being traded for 10 maple bats, but that’s still pretty bad – as was Niewenhuis’ .079 batting average in 40 games.

After a lead-off double in the second inning, Nieuwenhuis reached (on an error) and was promptly picked off. That was the beginning of his 0-for-5 day. He also ruined my night, but more on that later.

Even though I wouldn’t leave early, Blum wanted to beat the crowd to the subway, so he asked if we could go down a few levels to stand watch the last half-inning. I acquiesced. As we climbed down the stairs, it opened on to the street and out towards the subway. I stared out at the street for a second, and quickly climbed back up the steps to the second deck while Blum’s calls of, “You’re crazy!” followed me.

Blum became more exasperated when he saw what we’d stayed to watch. Angels manager Mike Sciosia had waved the white flag, subbing scrubs for stars. Mike Trout was replaced by Grant Green. (Who?) Albert Pujols sat down for Efren Navarro. (Who?) Erick Aybar’s night finished as Sciosia went with Taylor Featherson. (Owl.)

But suddenly, after a Johnny Giavotella single and Featherston double, the Angels were threatening. I looked at Sam and jokingly said, “Watch this comeback.”

And then, something remarkable happened.

Green singled, Navarro walked, Kole Calhoun singled. The Angels scored twice, still had the bases loaded and hadn’t recorded an out!

Esmil Rogers, the Yankees pitcher, was sent to the showers and the Yankees brought in Dellin Betances.

Here’s the situation: One of the American League’s nastiest pitchers – who hadn’t allowed a run in 29.1 innings – facing the bottom of an Angels batting order, which is one of the worst offenses in baseball?

The rally was cute. It was fun. But it was also over.

The numbers indicated that a dominant pitcher versus a bad offense wouldn’t produce many runs.

Baseball is a game of numbers – except when it’s not.

The two home run game by Drew should’ve told me that earlier.

Betances was getting squeezed, the booing Yankees crowd thought. He walked in a run. Another dribbler snuck through the infield. All in all, the Angels first eight batters reached and the tying run stood on second base with still no one out. This type of thing doesn’t happen in real life, I thought.

And then who comes up to bat – the only hitter not to come up this inning?

Captain Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

What’s he do?

What he does best. Strike out swinging on a 3-2 pitch.

But it’s OK. There’s still a chance.

Giavotella smacks a ball toward the hole between third and short, but the Yankees short stop made a nice play. Didi Gregorious flipped it to second for the force out, but the Angels got within a run.

8-7 Yankees. Top of the ninth inning. The tying run, 90 feet away.

Then Sciosia pinch hits for Featherston, the guy who smacked a double off the wall to start the inning, for Carlos Perez, a rookie with 20 games of MLB experience.

Perez strikes out. The game’s over. The Angels still lost, just by six fewer runs.

And later, I think, Blum said he was glad we stayed.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.

LAST NOTE: June 10, the Angels designated Nieuwenhuis for assignment. June 13, the Mets claimed him. Comedic genius.

The Jubilant (and Strange) Scene at the Belmont Stakes

Getty Images/Rob Carr

Getty Images/Rob Carr

ELMONT, N.Y. – As American Pharoah rounded the third turn and pulled away from the field, the man in the navy blazer turned and – to no one in particular – screamed, “BRING ME MY MOTHERF*CKING MONEY!”

He seemed not to care about the Coors Light slopping from the glass in his right hand onto his white shirt and khakis.

As the horse grew closer, men jumped up and down, shaking the bleachers and slapping one another’s backs. A woman – who said she’d traveled globally for horse racing – stopped screaming as her voice caught. Three girls popped small champagne bottles and the corks flew over the raised hands.

Even Navy Blazer’s continued bellows were drowned out by the crowd as the horse neared the finish line. I am not a horse racing fan – this was my first time at the track – but suddenly, I felt caught up. Numbly, I felt myself cheer wildly and high-five strangers.

American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown horse in 37 years.

Sitting at breakfast, my friend Sam asked me to come to Belmont with him, which he was covering. I agreed begrudgingly because the ticket was $10 and there was an outside chance at history.

After buying the ticket, I realized my error. For breakfast, I had thrown on thrice-worn board shorts and an old, stained, The Office-themed “Scott’s Tots” t-shirt. That would not do for one of the only sporting events in the country where the dress is as much a competition as what happens on the field. But I didn’t have time to go home.

Of the 90,000-plus in attendance Saturday, I saw one other man without a collar.

Wanting a better view of some of the earlier races, I slipped into the “Club section” – credit my mother’s lesson about always assuming an air of belonging – where my ugly-duckling complex worsened.

There, an usher grimaced at me. She asked me politely to leave – though it may have had more to do with my absence of a green club wristband than the presence of a t-shirt. As I turned to go, a hand grabbed my shoulder.

A stumbling, well-dressed blond man seized hold of me and shouted at the usher that I belonged. I must’ve misplaced my bracelet. (The same usher had just evicted this man from the reserved seats, perhaps prompting his rebellion.)

“Hey!” he shouted. “Stop disturbing my friend, uh…” – a glance at my shirt – “Scott! He’s with us. We love Scott.”

Already frayed from his earlier belligerent protests, the usher harrumphed and left. The pinstriped, straw-hatted man guffawed and stuck his hand out.

Jesse, a “former frat star” at Lehigh, was rolling with his frat pack. The four of them smelled of liquor and smoke. Right then, that smelled like victory.

After a few races, Jesse & Co. went to the bar. I met up with Sam. We didn’t really know how to bet the horses, but we picked the ones with middle-of-the-road odds. Consulting an elderly woman, she explained what the numbers on the slip meant (which is almost nothing). But we really learned the meaning of gambling by playing and, of course, losing.

Sam left to keep working and I sat for a while, attempting to conceal my non-club-level clothing and taking a rest. (We arrived at 11 a.m., the big race post time was 6:50 p.m.)

Women wearing colorful dresses and ludicrously-shaped hats strutted in heels higher than Jesse. Men in loud suits bought expensive champagne and tallboys, carrying them back to the seats.

Benches facing the five televisions with racing coverage filled with men furiously scribbling in notebooks and, sometimes, shouting at the screens, at a horse, to run faster. Sweaty men tore up betting slips in line to wager more. Later outside, one man, sitting at the top of section 308, launched into a rage as the horses came out from the tunnel for the race preceding the actual Belmont.

“Are you f*cking joking?” he yelled as he grabbed his head. “My horse is overweight! She’s got fat legs! My horse has fat legs!”  (The horse finished a close second.)

Before, the Belmont was relaxed, even abuzz with nervous energy; waiting on history. Not a hint of Hunter S. Thompson’s purported decadence or depravity.

But after, with a rush on the ticket offices to claim the winners, the scene was madness: Inebriated patrons in bizarre clothing stumbled in a mass of cacophonous voices towards the little windows. It seemed like a disorienting, non-childproofed version of a Mad Hatter tea party.

Despite the excitement and the energy, it felt strange watching. A man clutching two champagne glasses dozed off on a bench. An announcer shouted over the TV, “That’s why this is the greatest sport in the world!” The owner of the horse accepted the Triple Crown hardware on TV and said he’s never felt prouder of a horse.

But I thought: What does that horse care? He’s going to go back to his paddock tonight and cruise for sugar cubes like any other night. He doesn’t know what he’s just won.

I thought of the words that a man had said to me while waiting for the race to start.

“Your first race, huh?” he said. “Sh*t, if Pharoah wins today, you might never need to go to another one.”

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.

Bartolo at the Bat

A cheer rose up from the crowd, arguably five times louder than any other that afternoon.

The announcer dragged out his last name – “Co-looooooon!” – as the clapping continued.

Bartolo Colon, the unlikeliest professional athlete on Earth, ran out of the dugout, hopped over the chalk and slowly ambled out to the mound.

For New York Mets fans, there’s #HarveyDay and #SyndergaardDay (two of their top pitchers), but for baseball fans not emotionally invested in Mets success, there’s only one, and it’s #BartoloDay.

That day was Sunday. And something remarkable happened.

When I disembarked from the Long Island Railroad, Citi Field, home of the Mets, was about 100 feet away. Built in homage to Ebbets Field, Citi Field is the child of Fred Wilpon, Mets owner. It’s a beautiful stadium, modern and clean and spacious. I entered through the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, a thoughtful tribute to baseball’s color-barrier breaker, and a cool way to make your way into the ballpark.

My friend Sam had bought us seats in the third deck behind home plate and I marveled at the view from the seats. In Fenway Park, the resident stadium of the Boston Red Sox, there was nothing like that available to the public. Ditto to spacious concourses. It was also affordable – $20 per seat the day before the game in seats with this view. Not bad at all.

IMG_0194

A group of public school middle-schoolers sang the National Anthem and, towards the end of it, a rumbling could be hard from far off in left field. It was a beautiful day, but I was surprised there was going to be a flyover. A series-ending game at home against the struggling Miami Marlins (albeit a divisional match-up) didn’t seem important enough.

A jetliner flew over the stadium, but not exactly in a flyover. Apparently, Citi is close to La Guardia Airport, so planes flew over frequently throughout the game. It felt a little disconcerting to see large planes consistently come over the left field fence during the game. Sam said that they usually re-route the plans when the Mets play, but not that day.

Maybe even the airplane passengers wanted a glimpse of Bartolo.

And why wouldn’t they?

Colon has lived an improbable, strange baseball life.

He broke into the league at 24-years-old with the Cleveland Indians in 1997. He pitched awfully his rookie year, then bounced back his sophomore season to become an All-Star. His performance then bounced around, reaching peaks of a 4.09 Earned Run Average and valleys at a 2.55 ERA.

He had his worst ERA as a pro (5.01) in 2004, and then in 2005 he won the Cy Young. He faltered and, by 2007, with this ERA well above six, he seemed done. From 2006 to 2009, he had 47 combined starts. Healing from shoulder surgery, he didn’t throw a single major league pitch in 2010.

Then he returned and was… good?

What? How?

Some say the steroids (he was suspended 50 games in 2012 and his name has been linked to Biogenesis), some say magic. The former crowd probably got it right.

This season he continues to be the most predictable pitcher in baseball – he throws his fastball 85 percent of the time. Yet, even at a tepid speed of 88 miles per hour, he’s succeeding. He’s tied for the MLB lead in wins with eight. (Though, to be fair, his ERA is 4.72, but run support is something, right?)

I’ve buried the lede here. Very buried. But Colon is something of a cult hero.

He’s the most un-athletic-looking athlete…possibly ever. And for that, people love him.

Being a pitcher means he doesn’t have to run or field that often, but he does pitch in the National League. That means he has to hit.

And oh, do people love when he hits.

A Twitter account popped up, @BartoloAtBat, within minutes of him signing with the Mets. Gary Cohen, the Mets play by play man on WPIX calls it, “The most exciting at bat in baseball.” And the stadium feels a special buzz – as it did Sunday – when Bartolo digs in at the dish. People perk up in their seats, side conversations die down and normally loud hecklers stop talking and watch.

Colon’s goal this year was, he said, three hits. He had two entering the game – and it was only May!

In his first at bat, with a runner on second, Bartolo offered a bunt at the first two pitches. Then, later in the at bat, he swung away.

And how glorious it was.

I will always wonder if Bartolo could’ve reached third. This year in baseball has been christened as “The Year of the Triple” and – if Bartolo had done it – the Internet might have really broken. But instead, Bartolo chose not to hustle and ended up on second. Perhaps he felt that he’d properly chastised Marlins center fielder Ichiro Suzuki for disrespecting him and playing so shallow, and that a triple might just seem over-the-top.

Anthony DiComo of MLB.com pointed this gold stat out: The ball left Bartolo’s bat at 96 miles per hour. Bartolo has not thrown a pitch that hard in over two years.

And the cheer that rose from the crowd then, as Bartolo stood on second with his second extra base hit, in his 18-year career, was the loudest heard all day.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.