What the new TV ratings poll tells us

The Sports Business Journal analyzed the television ratings of each Major League Baseball teams. Surprising upstarts like the Houston Astros increased its ratings six-fold while the television mess in Los Angeles led to bottom five finishes for the Dodgers and Angels. But the main focus of the article was about the boom in Kansas City for the Royals’ television rating. The team averaged a 12.33 rating as of last week, which is a 90 percent increase from 2014. The most newsworthy aspect of this is that, if the ratings keep rising, the Royals would be the highest rated baseball team since 2002 (baseball’s dying, remember?) when the Mariners pulled in a 13.2.

This, I think, is largely due to marketing, management and finance. The 2014 Royals were surprisingly good with young talent and likeable superstars and seemingly parlayed talent into good performance to fan enjoyment at the game to fan identification with the team to a higher, more active fan base. It all started with the management to bring stability to one of baseball’s worst clubs in the early 2000’s to commit to excellence and rebuild over the long haul, investing in large quantities of cheap, high-potential young players. With a stable, level-headed manager he led the management’s assets to success and marketing took it from there. Finance is just, as per usual, reaping the rewards and assuring that monetary gain today is invested wisely. But the crux is marketing and turning success into profit. Without the marketing, there’d be no rise in TV ratings and no more money in the bank.

The implication of the poll’s release is a positive one for baseball. Yes, Kansas City’s increase is great for baseball there, but it doesn’t indicate an industry-wide trend. St. Louis also rose 31 percent even though the team didn’t improve that much. (The Cardinals owned baseball’s best record, but are consistently good, so it’s not an unbelievable increase.) However, the Houston Astros rose nearly 500 percent, the Chicago Cubs more than doubled and six other teams rose by more than 50 percent. On the flip side, the bottom four teams only fell by about 30 percent, which shows that baseball is gaining ratings in the 2015 faster than they’re losing them.

While Sports Business Journal doesn’t directly discuss any strategy or approach taken by a single organization, I think it’s interesting that I am seeing the results of a hard-working organization, mostly the marketing department. I would say that Kansas City’s approach is obviously working. From watching MLB.tv a lot this season (and consistently tuning to Kansas City games) the team heavily markets players, which, normally is a no-no. Theoretically, marketing departments should shy away from marketing players, but the Royals are in a unique position. The team’s star players (Moustakas, Hosmer, Ventura, Finnegan, Santana) are all young and under club control for at least two season after this one. Barring a trade (which no is inconceivable), the Royals will have the same stars, the same core, heading into 2017, which will be more than long enough for the marketing team to have run its course. So while the Royals are in a unique place, its decision to buck convention and market its young stars is clearly paying dividends.

The Man Who (Kind of, Sort of, Maybe) Changed the Course of Baseball

When the 2015 Major League Baseball season ended Sunday, the Philadelphia Phillies got a win, barely avoiding triple-digit losses and finishing with a final record of 63-99. On the same day, the Kansas City Royals beat the Minnesota Twins 6-1 to secure the American League’s best record, finishing with a record of 95-67.

But the worst team in baseball and the best team in the American League are linked by more than just their polar finishes. Seven years ago, one man flipped between those franchises. And the two club’s fortunes changed.

In 2008, the Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays in a five-game World Series. Things seemed to be going well in Philly. Young ace Cole Hamels won series MVP; 28-year-old Ryan Howard played in every game that season while posting ML-leading numbers of 48 home runs and 146 RBI; homegrown talents Bretty Myers, Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell played key roles in the World Series win.

That year Kansas City finished 75-87, fourth-worst in the American League.

In the offseason, Baseball Hall of Fame General Manager Pat Gillick retired after three years with the Phillies. (Phillies fans got another blow when legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas died in the next season’s first month.) The Philly front office promoted 43-year-old Ruben Amaro Jr., whose story reads like folk lore. His first job with the team was in 1980, as a batboy. He then played in the big leagues and, in 1998 when he retired, was immediately hired as a Philadelphia assistant GM.

But Amaro Jr.’s success came at the expense of another Phillies’ assistant, Mike Arbucke. Arbuckle was an assistant GM himself, waiting in the wings since the 1990s. He was the scouting director who drafted Howard, betting on his power over swings-and-misses; who drafted Hamels and his broken arm in 2002; who drafted Phillies greats Rollins and Chase Utley. Arbuckle had already been passed over when the organization hired Gillick in 2006 so when Arbuckle didn’t get the job, he left the team and headed to Kansas City, near where he grew up. The Royals hired him as the senior adviser to the GM.

And the two teams haven’t been the same since.

In 2009, Amaro’s first season as GM of the Phillies, the team lost in the World Series. The next season, the Phillies lost in the National League Championship Series. In 2011, the team won 102 games but exited earlier than the season previous, after the Divisional Series. The Phillies won 21 fewer games in 2012, going 81-81. The next two seasons the team only won 73 games. This season, 63.

In 2009, Arbuckle got to Kansas City and the team won 67 games, two more than the year prior. Then the team started building. From 2009 to 2015, the Kansas City Royals improved every year, raising its win totals from 67 to 71 to 72 to 86 to 89 in 2014, the same year the team made a World Series appearance with a dominant bullpen and young star power. In this stretch of drastic improvement, the New York Times took notice of Arbuckle.

This season, Arbuckle’s Royals enter the postseason as the American League’s No. 1 team, guaranteed home field throughout the playoffs and with a blend of young and veteran talent.

Of course, Arbuckle is not solely deserving of credit. Royals GM Dayton Moore is the one who signed catcher Salvador Perez and pitcher Yordano Ventura; he drafted third baseman Mike Moustakas, designated hitter Billy Butler and pitcher Greg Holland; he made moves for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.

Arbuckle’s change in employment may have just been a coincidence, but even on that 2014 World Series team, Arbuckle’s fingerprints are there. On the roster, and pitching in high-leverage situations, was 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan. On the roster were two more Arbuckle first-round picks, shortstop Christian Colon and pitcher Aaron Crow.

While the Royals success in 2014 may have been due to Moore more than Arbuckle, the Royals future success could rely on the transplant from Philly.

And the Phillies, in a golden age hangover, still has one more season of the bloated Howard contract. The team no longer has hometown heroes Rollins and Hamels, spun this season for cents on the dollar. The public disdain for Amaro is widely documented. 

Since 2009, Arbuckle’s and Amaro’s careers have gone in separate ways. Only one of them is a General Manager. And only one of them has a chance to touch a World Series trophy this fall.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. 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. 

Summer Recap 2015

Sunday, when I returned to Syracuse from Maine, I stepped off the bus and felt thoroughly too cold. It was jarring. When I left Friday, Syracuse was balmy, too hot even. A sweltering 93 degrees on day. This was more my speed. I know this Syracuse.

But putting on sweatpants for a trek downtown signaled to me that summer is over. I’d been ignoring the signs for weeks, but I now I have to give up.

So in homage to summer, here are some of the adventures I traveled on since May:

It all started when I got the Esquire gig.

Before I left campus, I had to illegally stream a boring boxing match and found out why boxing is dead. In more realizations before New York, I tracked Bill Simmons’ saga right after leaving ESPN for Part I and then in Part II the one month later fallout was dissected.

Then I got to New York and THINGS STARTED HAPPENING.

I saw Bartolo Colon, Least Likeliest Major Leaguer to Hit a Double, hit a double.

I saw an unbelievable baseball game in Yankee Stadium featuring a crazy comeback in the ninth inning that a friend of mine wanted to skedaddle early from.

After that, history in Belmont Park as American Pharoah raced to the Triple Crown. I was totally under dressed and under duress.

Coney Island, Brooklyn, a train ride away, was the site of summer’s greatest moment: The Hot Dog Eating Contest, and the summer’s greatest man: George Shea.

I also got time this summer to write a story about Strafford, New Hampshire’s own, Bobby Wegner, he of the 7-foot-8 stature.

Then I started wandering around Harlem. First, I went to historic basketball court, Rucker Park.

Then I realized Harlem represents the struggle baseball and basketball are having for national attention.

It struck me, through my friend Joey, that relationships are like saving baseball games…everyone will blow some every once in a while, just have the confidence to come back out and pitch.

Lastly, and most dreadfully, I spent a lot of time at Citi Field and sort of fell in love with the New York Mets. I’m sorry, everyone.

Then I came home. And after subjecting me to a summer of dreadful offense and atrocious pitching, the Red Sox did a nice thing for me.

(End note: This is a list of me getting very lucky and being in the right place at the right time. I feel #blessed to have been able to do all this. Thanks so much to my family and my friend Sam Blum, who made many of these adventures possible.)

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. 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. 

Is Baseball Dying? Observations from Harlem, and the Internet.

It’s Wednesday night and the sun is setting in Harlem.

I’m on my way to Rucker Park to watch some basketball. Walking with sunglasses on and ear buds in, trying to interact with people as little as possible, a basketball hits my leg. I look up. I’m standing at the intersection of 155th Street and Bradhurst Avenue, just inside Washington Heights territory. A small kid in a white ribbed tank top sprints toward me, scoops up the ball without looking up and runs back to the mob of kids on the playground.

There are, by rough guesstimate, 60 kids on the playground. There are basketballs being chucked from all over, maybe eight or nine balls being shot. It seems like a strange cross-section of the childhood games “500” and “Tackle the Ballcarrier” as the kids try to snag a rebound and shoot the ball before being hit by other kids.

Directly adjacent to the basketball court is two baseball fields.

There isn’t a single person on either of them.

***

That image became imprinted on my mind.

A basketball court—its lines barely containing the teeming, writhing mass of children fighting for just a few basketballs—sitting directly beside an empty baseball field. It seemed to me a split-pane visual representation of how baseball, “America’s national pastime,” is dying and basketball, the sport with the gargantuan new TV deal, is taking over.

But I kept thinking, “Did I catch the park on a bad day? Is that a fair representation of how things are?”

So I went back.

***

It’s Saturday afternoon and the sun is burning hot high in the sky in Harlem.

There’s a tournament on the basketball court now. Two dozen kids who appear to be too young to play dribble balls on the sidelines. On one of the baseball fields, a man in a white ribbed tank top and Dominican Republic World Baseball Classic cap is hitting grounders down the third base line to a small boy.

Por favor, inténtalo. Sólo tartar,” the older man spits. “Please try. Just try.”

Later, repeatedly, he says, “Sé serio. Be serious.”

My rudimentary Spanish catches half that, but “Papi,” the man leaning against the fence and watching this defensive drill, translates the rest. Papi won’t tell me his real name—he’s involved in a “legal process” which would make “the use of his name undesirable”—but says he lived on Floor 11 of the apartment building across the street for nearly 20 years before he recently moved down a few dozen blocks into the Sugar Hill neighborhood.

“Hardly never,” he says about people coming out to the baseball fields in the summertime. “Maybe six or eight times a year people play ballgames there, but [sic] not hardly. Not even catch.”

Papi isn’t the only one who sees children abandoning the game. The Wall Street Journal wrote about how “the casual young player is vanishing.” The New York Times columnist asked if the game was over. The New Yorker wrote baseball’s obituary, too. Deadspin, in true Deadspin fashion, wrote “What’s Wrong With Baseball?” It’s so common to hear the “baseball-is-dying” narrative is dying, and that it’s due to the old white men fans, that Chris Rock wrote an on-color joke about it.

A 2014 Harris Poll found that baseball is the favorite sport of 14 percent of its responders. Granted it was second behind the NFL (35 percent), but it finished just above college football (11 percent). The Week went as far as to say that baseball’s decline in popularity correlates with the crumbling of American Character.

NBC baseball guy Craig Calcaterra points out that defining Who We Are in this day and age by one pursuit, especially sports, is foolish. He also points out that worrying about baseball’s health is productive if you want to be nostalgic, or if you’re a writer with a Very Important Social Commentary Point.

For every obit baseball gets, there’s a clever thinkpiece refuting that claim (oftentimes from Calcaterra himself). There’s talk of baseball team’s valuations rising and the Forbes article which, on its own line in the story, in bold, read: Don’t Be Stupid, Fan Interest Isn’t Measured By Participation.

But it’s true. Participation is down nine percent. I can read it online from The Washington Post and I can see it in front of me. But I can’t get anyone to confirm to me that the ballfield is empty most of the time, more than just the two days that I’ve been there. Papi’s testimony is the best I can get. Seventeen other people declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Big Al” Williams, whose older son plays for a Bronx team in basketball the tournament and who came down to watch, says he doesn’t often venture into Harlem, but that his son’s friends  mostly play baseball in Harlem at Riverside Park, a few blocks away.

So maybe I’m at the wrong park. But the point still holds: Kids aren’t coming out to play baseball.

I thank Papi for his time, for regaling me with stories about the neighborhood which are all hilarious, but highly questionable in accuracy and unprintable in decency.

It’s been three hours. I’m leaving with a narrative in mind. I see what’s happening here. Baseball is dying. People don’t care about it anymore.

I stash my notebook in the front pocket of my backpack and zip it up. I start to walk away when I see some blue-and-maroon shirts walking down the block. I check the time; it’s a quarter to 3 p.m.

It’s a baseball team. They’re going to practice.

A Welcome Home

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Jackie Bradley Jr., he of the .198 batting average in 423 plate appearances just a season ago, blasted a shot to deep right-center field for a home run. It was his second of the day.

I turned to my dad to high-five him. “What?” I shouted, incredulous and wide-eyed.

The offensive outburst for the Red Sox–the team went on to win the game 22-10 and Bradley Jr. collected two home runs and three doubles–was the best welcome home present I could’ve asked for. Boston (51-64) had played horrendous baseball all summer while I watched from my apartment in New Jersey. I watched every other game, inevitably catching a Rick Porcello shellacking or a Wade Miley walk-fest. (But hey, Miley works quickly, so the poor play was over quickly.)

Miley was on the hill again that day, against “King” Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners. My dad had won a raffle for seats in the New England Sports Network box so I told him that while the seats would be great, the game wouldn’t.

King Felix (14-6, 3.11 ERA) is one of the best pitchers in the American League, albeit all of baseball. Miley (6-7, 4.68) wasn’t one of the worst, but he was close.

And 2.1 innings later, King Felix–the great King Felix–had been chased from the game after allowing 10 runs across 12 hits, including three home runs.

Sitting at a restaurant-style bar seat outside the box enjoying non-baseball foods like sushi and diced fruits and veggies we cheered as the parade of Red Sox hitters came to the plate and, inexplicably, got hits. In a very non-Red Sox fashion, the team played well. Well, for seven innings. Then, Miley departed and relievers combined to give up eight runs over the last two innings. That made me smile–if only because the Sox had a comfortable, still double-digit lead. It made me see the same team I watched all summer was still there.

But that afternoon, as my father and I cheered on a potent Red Sox offense–the team hadn’t scored that many runs in one game since 1912–it was a wonderful welcome home.

 

Mariano Rivera and Sealing the Deal With Girls

At that indeterminate point between “late” and “early,” the door to my dorm room was flung open.

My friend Joey walked in and sat on the end of my bed and put head in hands. He was thrilled. The night had gone well with a girl he’d had an interest in for a while. Sitting in the dimming glow of liquid happiness and the harsh glare of hallway lights, he wanted to know how he could get it done. This wasn’t the first time my door had opened late with Joey seeking a conversation.

He had been trying to bridge the gap between Friend-dom and Relationship-landia for a while. He’d been putting in the time–helping with homework, texting consistently, making time to see her.

I remember putting on a shirt and getting out of bed and know that, at some point, Joey somehow ended up on the floor of the hallway. Other than that, not much else. But that night I gave the most inspirational speech I could muster. I drew on what I knew.

I told him he was a big game starting pitcher who’d just pitched eight innings with a slim lead. Joey had been taking care of business and setting himself up to succeed all game long. He’d navigated tough spots, but he’d answered the bell when called upon.

Now, the only thing left to do was close the deal.

I repeated myself quite a bit in my attempt at Knute Rockne, but eventually arrived at the best advice I could give my friend.

Twenty minutes later, Joey’s roommate texted me, “Just walked into the room and Joey’s watching Mariano Rivera highlights?”

I had jokingly told Joey that if he wanted to close the deal, then he should watch the career highlights of the man who’s saved the most games in Major League Baseball’s history.

Unfortunately, things didn’t end up working out between Joey and the girl. Hey, for the 652 games Rivera did save in the Bigs, he also blew 73 of them. After all, the game at which Rockne gave his legendary speech, Notre Dame went on to lose 45-10. Maybe that was my fault. Maybe I should’ve showed him this instead.

Either way, like Rivera and like the rest of us, Joey will get another chance to go out the mound and pitch.

Sundays and the Summer at Citi Field

I put my arms out and tensed up. The ball sailed high and then arched down, down, down. The home run struck a metal support beam between the first and second decks and caromed back into the field. The right fielder, Bryce Harper, walked away and ignored the ball.

Absolute bedlam in Citi Field.

Lucas Duda had just hit his ninth home run in 8 games–his ninth home run in his last 10 hits–to put the New York Mets in front of division rival Washington Nationals on Sunday night. Duda’s home run was also the third home run of the third inning for the Mets and sent an already-frenzied Citi Field into pandemonium as the eventual 5-2 win put the Mets in a tie for first place atop the National League East–the latest in the season the Mets have been in that position since 2008.

My friend Sam Blum, an avid Mets fan, hyped up the evening as “the biggest game in Citi Field history.” Of course, Citi Field was only opened in 2009, but for the recently-suffering fan base, you could tell by the first pitch that Sunday night was different. From the first pitch, an unusually-full Citi was boisterous, clapping hard and cheering their Mets–willing them–into first place as New York swept Washington, which is impressive for a team that was 9-33 against the Nats entering the series.

The weird part about the game was that I found myself cheering along and hanging on every pitch. I found myself rooting for the Mets, which is an absolutely strange concept considering one of my team’s worst memories is played in a Mets Greatest History montage before each game. (Plus, Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy’s walkup music is The Dropkick Murphy’s “Shipping Up To Boston,” which seems unethical, if not worse.)

But in the six times I’ve been to Citi Field this summer, it’s been impossible not to love the atmosphere. Make no mistake, I’m a Red Sox fan and always will be, but instead of watching horrendous baseball for an hard-to-love team as I’ve done throughout the summer on MLB.tv (thanks, Justin), it’s been fun to get caught up in a pennant race for an underdog team that was scoffed at in the preseason and that’s often considered second-rate in its own city. Everyone projected the Nationals prolific pitching rotation to will them to the World Series, but the best stable of pitching has actually been in Queens, not the capital.

The dominant, young Mets arms are incredibly fun to watch. With nicknames like Thor and the Dark Knight, and hair like this, they’re just enjoyable to watch. The Mets now have three of baseball’s most likable players in Yoenis Cespedes, Wilmer Flores and Juan Uribe. And not only that, they win. In the six times I’ve been to Citi, the Mets have won five times. (The Mets are 5-0 in games I’ve attended with Blum.)

I wasn’t joking about how likable Uribe is. According to Molly Knight’s great new book, Uribe is the only one could handle the young, reckless Yasiel Puig with the 2013 Dodgers. Uribe is known to walk around the clubhouse smoking a cigar and laughing. His at bat picture just looks like a guy to content to be playing baseball for a living. Plus, I love his walkup music. (Skip to 1:00.)

The thing about Flores is how much Mets fans love him. Flores is the guy who cried when he thought he was being traded, then got to stay because the Mets nixed the deal because of Carlos Gomez’s hip. (That’s the most Mets move ever.) (Skip to 1:00.)

But now Mets fans LOVE Wilmer Flores. He pinch hit Sunday night and got a standing ovation. “Everyone loves someone who wants to be a Met,” Blum said. Flores promptly doubled.

Those sort of stories are what make me actually enjoy going to Citi Field and enjoy cheering for the Mets. For now. It’s a summer thing, I’m sure.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. 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.