Paul Heinz

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Sports Writing as good as the Watching

There’s a current sports columnist whose prose harken back to the glorious baseball writings of Roger Angell, whose work I hadn’t known until my wife purchased a book called Game Time: A Baseball Companion – a fine, fine read if you like baseball history – and in our current environment of immediacy and “just the facts, Ma’am,” it’s easy to overlook quality work that sometimes appears on the web. Two weeks ago the Cubs and Nationals engaged in an epic battle for game 5 of the NLDS, and Yahoo sportswriter Jeff Passan published a piece with as much beauty, poetry and gravitas as the game itself. The Cubs didn’t clinch the series until 1:15 AM Eastern Time, and Passan published his piece less than four hours later. It would have taken me weeks to produce something as good, and even then it would probably fall short. This guy can write well and write fast. 

And I know, this is what great journalists have been doing for decades, but in a world when news is published as it happens, one revelation at a time, full of errors and retractions, typos and grammatical mistakes, it’s refreshing to know that a guy like Passan can pull off a feat that few are willing to pay for these days. Kudos to Yahoo Sports for shelling out some cash for quality. 

I happened upon Passan’s essay by chance after the Cubs victory, but now I seek out his material, and this morning I was yet again rewarded after last night’s incredible Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, an 11-inning victory for the Astros – their first World Series win in franchise history – and among the best baseball games I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing.

Baseball lends itself to grandiose writing, perhaps more than other sports – something about the pacing of the game, with pauses between each pitch – and it would be easy to overdo it with the writing equivalent of John Facenda’s deep baritone voice narrating an NFL film, and although Passan occasionally dips his toes in the waters of grandiloquent prose (comparing October baseball to a “feral animal best left to carve whatever circuitous path it pleases”), most of the time he just writes really good sentences – nothing flashy, but more than “just the facts, ma’am.” Consider the following:

The fortuity that favored the Dodgers in the third inning, when Bregman’s RBI single bounced off the brim of Taylor’s cap in center and caromed to Pederson instead of scooting by, had evened out by the grace of Diaz being in the right place at the right time.

Nice. Yes, the facts are there, but they’re there in a way that’s pleasant to read.

During the last week I’ve had the pleasure of watching two of the greatest endings to sports games I’ve even seen. One was last night. The other was last Thursday, when the Raiders had two game-winning touchdowns called back in the final seconds, only to score another one – this time official – to win 31–30. Unfortunately, Jeff Passan doesn’t write for football, and nothing I found on-line stood out as anything more than a decent summary of the game.  Perhaps good writers gravitate toward America’s Pastime the way good musicians do Bach, but I have to think that any sport can lead to writing that warrants our attention.

In the meantime, I’m going to tune into the remaining World Series games when I’m able to, and to Jeff Passan's writing either way.

The 2017 Brewers

With the Brewers finishing just a game behind playoff contention, it’s tempting to play the what-if game. Even Brewer manager Craig Counsell admitted as much: "We'll always look back and want more," Counsell said. "We played so many close games that it's an easy season to play 'what if' a little bit. But we were on the other end of those games, too.”

Indeed. The Crew played more close games than any other team in the MLB this season, and overall the results were good, but it’s hard not to look back on some of those early games and ask what if. What if Counsell hadn’t stuck so long with original closer Neftali Feliz? Or second baseman Jonathan Villar? Or centerfielder Keon Broxton? Or starter Matt Garza? Or set-up man Jacob Barnes?

Or a bigger what-if question: what if general manager David Stearns hadn’t inexplicably let second-baseman Scooter Gennett go before the start of the season for nothing in return? This one had me scratching my head last April and now it’s more of a head-slapper, as Gennett went on to hit .295 with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs for the last-place Reds. Avoiding that blunder alone would likely have pushed the Brewers to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Or another transaction that I believe will bite the Brewers in the ass if it hasn’t already: the trade of first-baseman Garrett Cooper for reliver Tyler Webb, who lasted all of two games before returning to the minors. Eric Thames, after performing at a blistering pace in April, proved to be just another Chris Carter: lots of strike outs and a fair number of home runs, but overall a liability (I would rather have seen Jesus Agular get more playing time) and the question of a reliable first-baseman – something Milwaukee has lacked since Prince Fielder in 2011 - remains. Is Thames really the guy you want to go with for the next several years? And are you now reconsidering whether you should have traded a good minor-league first baseman for a lousy reliever?

But let’s face it. If someone had told me at the start of the season that the Crew was going to win 86 games, I would have been thrilled, and the truth is the Brewers showed enormous resiliency, bouncing back from losing streaks and avoiding total collapse in spite of losing not one, not two, but THREE starting pitchers on the basepaths, all three of whom were considered the Brewers’ number one starter at the time: Junior Guerra on opening day, Chase Anderson in June and – the final nail in the coffin – Jimmy Nelson in September. You have to hand it to the coaching staff on this one. Somehow the Brewers managed to have the 9th best ERA in 2017, and even though I really, really, really wanted the Brewers to make it to the playoffs, the reality is they didn’t have enough left in the tank to go any further. They were running on fumes ever since Nelson went down. Had Guerra, Peralta, Taylor Jungmann, Garza or someone else proved to be as effective a starter things might have been different, but such is baseball in the National League. Though the game itself is a lot more entertaining in the NL, sometimes pitchers hurt themselves at the plate or on the basepaths, and this year the Brewers suffered more than their fair share of injuries.

I wrote a blog back at the all-star break about the Brewers who were then 5 ½ games out in front, and I predicted then that the Crew would win somewhere between 81 and 87 wins but fall short of the playoffs. I was right. Just after the break, the Crew went on a predictable 5-11 run that pushed them out of first place, never to return. But although the Brewers only finished one game over .500 after the All-star break, given the history of this franchise and the horrific weeks following the break, the team remained surprisingly resilient. Credit Counsell and his coaching staff, and credit Stearns with some good July acquisitions, including Neil Walker and Anthony Swarzak, not to mention the promotion of reliever Josh Hader, who looks to be a potential pitching stud in years to come.

So what to expect next year? I’m optimistic despite the team setting (yet again) a new record for strikeouts. I can’t say the Brewers will be favorites to win the NL Central, but I would be surprised if Milwaukee ended the season under .500. Yes, that’s very much a modest sort of Midwestern optimism where mediocrity is considered a blessing, but just expecting your team to finish above .500 is a nice change for a team that’s done so poorly for so long minus a few seasons. With outfielders Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson expected to make an impact next year, and with Garza off the books – leaving room for off-season acquisitions – things could get interesting. The big question marks to me are second base (the Crew will likely lose both Walker and Sogard to free agency, and who knows what’ll happen to Villar after a terrible season) and first base (I am not at all convinced that Thames is the answer there, though I suspect Stearns disagrees). And then of course is the massaging of the pitching staff, but there’s some reason for optimism there, too. Brent Suter and Aaron Wilkerson proved to be a potential winning MLB pitchers, and Taylor Jungmann – despite having a terrible time in the Major Leagues – had a tremendous year at Triple A. Perhaps he’s ready now to make an impact at the Big-League level. And even though Counsell loved using Josh Hader as a setup man down the stretch, he’d have to be high not to at least consider him as a starting pitcher for next year. Add to that Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and eventually Jimmy Nelson, once he recovers from surgery, and perhaps the Crew may end up with a decent pitching staff. The relievers lost a lot of games this year – a LOT – but bullpens are something general managers are often able to fix in the off-season.

We shall see. At the very least, 2017 proved to a be an entertaining year for Brewers fans. 2018 will attract higher expectations, but at this point there’s no reason to think the Brewers can’t meet them. It should be fun.

Now let’s just hope the Cubs lay a big old turd in the playoffs.

Bet on the Brewers? Um...no.

It’s been one long writing hiatus (my longest since starting this website),  but in my defense I was extremely busy watching baseball.  When I invested yet again in MLB.TV at the beginning of the season, I had assumed that by mid-May my lowly Brewers would be bringing up the rear and I’d be onto other summertime activities like tending the garden and exercising (oh yeah, and writing). Fortunately, the Milwaukee Brewers have saved me from that fate, and while my tomatoes are suffering from dry rot and my waste line is enjoying recent growth, my Brewers are in first place by 51/2 games at the All-Star Break.

Surprised?  Well, yeah, but perhaps less by the Brewers and more by the other teams in the NL Central.

I had predicted a win total of perhaps 77-83 wins this year, an improvement over last year’s 73, but not enough to make a shot at the playoffs, especially with the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.  And that’s the real surprise, that to date these two teams haven’t been able to get it together.  As for the Crew, well...there’s still time to meet my prediction.  Yes, I’m cautiously optimistic, but I also have a memory, albeit one that regularly forgets where I placed my phone.

As the Doonesbury character Duke discovered back in 1982, it’s never wise to bet your last ten dollars on the Brewers.

Brewer fans don’t need long memories to remember two disastrous second half collapses.  We need go no further back that 2014, the year the Brewers enjoyed the best record in baseball and a 6 ½ game lead at the end of June, only to go 31-47 the rest of the way to finish third with an 82-80 record (which ordinarily would have been a pretty good season for the Crew).

And let’s not forget a decade earlier, when the Brewer suffered the worst second half ever for a team that entered the All-Star Break with a winning record, going 22-53, scoring two or fewer runs 33 times, and finishing last in the division.

And even in 2008 when the Brewers managed to make the playoffs for the first time in 26 years, the Crew had a terrible September, going 4-15 before winning six of their final seven to squeeze into the post-season with a 90-72 record.  It got so bad that final month of the season that Ned Yost was fired as manager with just 12 games to play.

Will the 2017 Crew suffer a similar fate?  Hard to say, but there are a few reasons to remain optimistic.  First, this year’s team has suffered some enormous blows without folding, two of them the result of National League rules.  Opening day starter Junior Guerra lasted just three innings before going on the DL after injuring his leg leaving the batter’s box.  Similarly, Chase Anderson - the best Brewers starting pitcher this season - suffered an oblique injury while taking a swing and will be out likely until the end of August.  Add to that the continued injuries of Ryan Braun (no steroids equals no playing time, apparently), and you might expect this team to struggle.  Not so.  The bench on this team as constructed by general manager David Stearns is deep, so much so that manager Craig Counsell claims his team doesn’t have a bench.  Rather, they have interchangeable parts, all of them formidable, from waiver acquisitions Eric Sogard and Stephen Vogt and trade acquisitions Travis Shaw and Manny Pina,  to utility men Hernan Perez and Jesus Aguilar to recent signee Eric Thames, every day seems to highlight a new hero.  If there’s cause for concern, it’s the alarming number of strikeouts (the Crew one again leads the league in this category) and I have to wonder how the lineup is going to fair against the elite pitchers on the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.  The weakest link in the chain so far is center fielder Keon Broxton, who - despite moments of brilliance and solid defense - can’t seem to find any consistency behind the plate, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he isn’t a Brewer next year.

But if the Brewer position players generally lead one to feel optimistic, the pitching staff may cause a few fans to squirm in their seats.  When Matt Garza is your third most reliable starter, you might concede that the second half could be rough, yet somehow through it all - through injuries to two starters and a bullpen that struggled mightily early in the season, Milwaukee has the 8th best ERA in the Major Leagues.  And recently the starting staff, bolstered by Anderson’s replacement Brent Suter and a reinvigorated Jimmy Nelson, has finally given the bullpen some rest after it was overused for the first two months of the season.  Will the young pitching staff be able to stay strong throughout a long second half?  This is the biggest question mark the Brewers face, and no doubt one that David Stearns is eying carefully.  

If I’m allowed to alter my prediction of the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers, it would be to add 4 games to the total.  Instead of 77-83 wins, I think they have a chance to finish with 81-87 wins.  Enough to win the National League Central?  Possibly, but I doubt it, as I keep thinking the Cardinals and Cubs will eventually find their way and turn the 2017 Brewer season into a pleasant surprise, but not one that includes games come October.

Either way, I’ll be watching baseball and procrastinating on my hope to one day write the Great American Novel.  But will I bet my last ten dollars on the Crew?  Not a chance.  

But next year?  Quite likely.

Who's to Blame for our Topsy Turvy World?

In a recent article by Kadeen Griffiths regarding the upcoming HBO film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, actor Courtney B. Vance says, “The world is topsy turvy, and everyone is out for themselves. It shouldn’t be like that.” This phrase, topsy turvy, has been coming up a lot in conversation lately, because it seems as if our world has truly been turned on its head, and it’s easy to see who’s to blame.

Number 1 seeds are losing to number 8 seeds (the Blackhawks are the first NHL or NBA number one seed to ever be swept in the first round).

Fox News is now holding its hosts to a higher standard than the American public holds its elected officials.

Oscars winners are announced and then withdrawn.

The White House has gone from hosting Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder to Ted Nugent and Kid Rock.

Superbowl leads of 25 points are forfeited in a quarter and a half.

Alternative truth has become a phrase in our lexicon.

And who set the wheels in motions for this topsy turvy world? No, not Trump. He was merely a by-product. Instead, turn your attention to six days earlier during the waning minutes of November 2 when the Earth shifted slightly from its axis and allowed a little rain to fall onto Cleveland, Ohio. I’d gone to bed early that night (just as I would on November 8) and when I awoke after a brief nap, I thought to myself, “Holy shit! I don’t hear fireworks. The Cubs must have actually lost!” The lovable losers had been up 6-3 in the 7th when I called it a night feeling mildly depressed because without the Cubs, Red Sox and White Sox to make fun of, who was left except my lowly Brewers?   

And then I heard it. The sound of fireworks. Yes, the Indians had come back, ready to claim their first World Series since 1948, but a rain delay turned the fate of the world upside down that evening.

Now, my depression that night and following morning can’t compare to the sick, festering depression that much of America has felt since November 8 and will continue to feel as the country unravels, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the Cubs set the wheels in motion. 

Thanks a fricking lot, Cubbies. Enjoy your little victory dance as defending World Champions while the world crumbles all around you. You’re expected to make another playoff run this year, but hey, in this topsy turvy world you started, don’t get your hopes up.

In fact, in this topsy turvy world, my Brewers might actually have a shot.

Recap of the Brewers' 2016 Season

That the Milwaukee Brewers managed to win 73 games in 2016, a full five games ahead of their disastrous 2015 season, is nothing short of miraculous when considering that the team they fielded consisted of so many players with little to no major league experience. Add to that the mid-season trades of four of their more productive players – Aaron Hill, Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith and their all-star catcher, Jonathon Lucroy (all of whom played for teams that made the playoffs this year; more on that in a moment) – and it’s amazing that the team was able to finish as strongly as they did. At the July 31 trade deadline, the Crew was 47-56, on track to win 74 games.  They finished just one game short of that pace during the remaining two months of the season despite fielding a team made up of players who had just spent time in the minors.  Hell, they even took care of the Cubs and Pirates during September. Pretty incredible.

Front and center of the team’s return to somewhat respectability is Hernan Perez, a jack of all trades defensive player who since coming from Detroit a year ago has shown that he belongs in the Major Leagues. Jonathon Villar isn’t far behind. He strikes out a lot, but the guy was one home run away from the coveted 20-60 clubs of 20 home runs and 60 stolen bases, finishing with 19 and 62, respectively. Not too shabby. Strong finishes of Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana and rookie Orlando Arcia, plus a return-to-form season for Ryan Braun – a few nagging injuries and regular off days aside – helped the Brewers hold their own for the most part, even down the stretch. Second baseman Scooter Gennett also proved himself as a capable starter by figuring out how to hit left-handed pitching. His status as an unmovable infielder may make him a short-term contributor to the team as it positions itself for the future, but Gennett has clearly proved himself as a legitimate starter or platoon player somewhere, if not Milwaukee. Chris Carter, who amazingly finished tied for first in the National League in home runs, also led the league in strike outs and batted .222 with only a .321 on-base percentage. A contributor, for sure, but not exactly the first baseman the Crew has been longing for since Prince Fielder’s departure five years ago. If the Crew hopes to compete in a year or two, an upgrade at first base may be needed.

On the pitching side, manager Craig Counsell was able to piece together just enough starting pitching to hang in there until the sixth inning, when he could hand the reigns to a fairly solid relief core that was initially hampered by a bizarre injury to Will Smith but bolstered by performances from Tyler Thornburg, Carlos Torres, and Jeremy Jeffress. Starter Zach Davies proved once again that he’s a force to be reckoned with, and the big surprise of the year goes to starter Junior Guerra, who at age 31 had rookie-of-the-year type numbers before exiting due to injury. I had hoped the Brewers would trade him at the end of July when he was hot, but who knows – the guy could end up being a contributor for years to come.

As a Brewer fan, watching former Milwaukee players enjoy amazing seasons and careers is a constant source of frustration. Last year's Brewers shortstop Jean Segura had a terrific year for Arizona – leading the league in hits and batting .319 – and left fielder Khris Davis finished with 41 home runs for Oakland (along with a piss-poor OBP).  Carlos Gomez finished strong with the Rangers, and don’t get me started on the former Brewers who’ve played with the Royals the past four or five seasons, plus JJ Hardy is still having a great career with Baltimore, etc.  It begs the question: is there something wrong with the Brewers’ coaching staff that can’t get the best out of their players while they’re in a Milwaukee uniform? Add up all the former Brewers in MLB, and you’ve got yourself a pretty damn good team. Of course, being among the smallest two markets in baseball, Milwaukee can’t afford to keep most players around too long, but lately general managers Doug Melvin (until last year) and now David Stearns have been dishing players off before they’re even arbitration eligible, much less free agents. Probably not a formula that can continue for too long if the team hopes to compete in the near future, and one has to wonder if the Brewers could have actually competed this year had they kept onto some of their core players. Perhaps not, and perhaps in a few years fans will reap the benefits of rebuilding, but the organization is going to have to find a way to tap into the talent of players while they’re in Milwaukee instead of seeing glimpses of talent that end up maturing elsewhere.

Still, as a fan, it was a fun season to watch, in that I had absolutely no expectation for this team. Watching young guys compete can be a satisfying endeavor even when the end results aren’t perfect. The Brewers could manage to get back to a .500 team next year and perhaps manage a winning season in 2018, but it’s going to be a tough road. We’ll see if the Cubs continue their hapless ways in the playoffs this year, but make no mistake – they are going to be good for a long, long time, and with a one-game wildcard playoff (which I hate), it may be a long while before the Brewers actually get to play a legitimate playoff series again. GM Stearns may be ahead of where many of us expected the Crew to be at this point, but he and the team still have a long way to go.

Either way, I’ll be watching and likely losing more hair in the process.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved