Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Learning Baseball: Early Season Thoughts

I’ve never been a big baseball fan.  But my first job in New York was as a construction supervisor in the Bronx, and that was enough to make me a casual fan of the New York Yankees at the tail end of their late-1990s heyday.  My wife Sally and I then started going to Bridgeport Bluefish games last year, and we really enjoyed ourselves.  One of the highlights of our sports year was renewing our wedding vows in front of the home crowd at the Ballpark at Harbor Yards, and in the months since, I’ve started to think of myself as an honest-to-God Bluefish Fan.  Which can be a frustrating experience in its own right, but the Bluefish at least have a top-flight beer garden right off the first base line.  
I try to keep my sports frustrations in perspective.

As the 2017 season starts, I’m watching not only the ‘Fish but also the Yankees and Army Baseball as well.  I’m not a baseball super-fan yet, but this is by far the closest I’ve ever followed our national pastime, and I’m enjoying it.  Baseball is on pretty much every night, and that by itself is totally awesome.  The fact that the Yankees and ‘Fish both seem to be out-performing expectations doesn’t suck, either.
As of this writing, the Bridgeport Bluefish are five games into through their opening seven-game road-trip to Sugarland, Texas.  They’re playing an extended series against the defending Atlantic League champions, the Sugarland Skeeters.  What’s unusual about this is that Sugarland is a suburb of Houston and thus halfway across the country from the rest of the Atlantic League, most of which is located in a tight grouping of coastal northeastern states, from Maryland to Connecticut.  
But though the Skeeters are the newest, most far-flung team in the Atlantic League, they’ve enjoyed their share of early success.  The team was founded in 2010 as the Atlantic League’s first non-East Coast expansion team and has already been to two championships.  The won the Atlantic League title just last year.  This was no small shakes.  The Atlantic League has no official affiliation with Major League Baseball, but it’s generally considered the nation’s most successful independent league, complete with an official call-up system and contract buy-out agreement with MLB--the only one of its kind in the nation.  Play is considered about on-par with AA-Baseball, but the teams tend to carry more veterans than you’ll often find on a farm team, with quite a few veterans of AAA and the Majors.  Atlantic League teams want to win.  Minor League teams are more in the business of developing talent for their parents in the Majors.
I talked to my buddy Andy about this via text message a couple of days ago, and he said that though Sugarland is on the opposite side of Houston from where he lives, he’d still been able to follow the game on local radio during his drive home from work.  In some ways, that puts the Skeeters miles ahead of the ‘Fish in terms of local community interest and outreach.  I think the ‘Fish themselves do a decent job of reaching out to their community and putting on interesting community events, but they’re maddeningly difficult to follow in the media.  Perhaps this is because the Bluefish themselves have struggled in recent years.  The ‘Fish haven’t won a divisional pennant since 2010 and haven’t won an Atlantic League championship since 1999.  
Hell, they haven’t even been above .500 since 2011!  
It’s fun to go to Bluefish games, and they have a reputation locally for being a good place for beer connoisseurs to enjoy a nice mixture of local craft brews.  Still, it’s hard to consistently keep asses in seats when you’re not consistently in contention for at least some kind of postseason play, especially when local media aren’t cooperating.  My beloved Bluefish are never on local TV or radio, and even the Connecticut Post doesn’t cover them with any actual dedication.  You can watch (or listen) to games online if you spend $5 for an online ticket via BoxCast.TV, but that’s about it, and even that doesn’t seem to work with any consistency.  
An unfortunately truth is this: it is considerably easier to follow Army Baseball and/or Army Lacrosse online than it is to follow the Bridgeport Bluefish, and this is true despite the fact that I live all of five miles away from the Ballpark at Harbor Yards.  I watched a goodly portion of Army’s four-game homestand against Navy via PatriotLeague.Tv over the weekend for free, and when I couldn’t watch it, I listened to Rich DeMarco’s call via the TuneIn App on my phone.  I did this before and after running Sunday afternoon and again while cutting the grass later in the day.  I also caught parts of the Yankees’ three-game road trip to Pittsburgh on local TV, and I would’ve gladly watched or listened to the ‘Fish—even for $5 once the Yankee game ended—but every time I checked, their link wasn’t working.  Seriously, how does that happen in the 21st Century for a team like the Bluefish, who need every fan they can get?  I love the Bluefish, but they’re not particularly close to successfully leveraging available technology to keep their fan base informed.
It’s an issue because the Bluefish seem to be in real jeopardy of losing their lease with the city.  Though Mayor Ganim was instrumental in getting the team and its ballpark off the ground in the late 1990s, he and the city fathers have recently turned on the team, to the point that Ganim closed 2016 with a Request for Proposal (RFP) for new occupants to take over what is currently the Ballpark at Harbor Yard.  As of this writing, the RFP appears to have drawn three proposals: another lease by the Bluefish, an amphitheater project sponsored by Live Nation and a local land developer, and a would-be professional soccer project sponsored by a group out of Brazil.  I honestly can’t imagine the soccer project working, though perhaps it’s possible that two non-coincident-season sports teams could make more consistent use of the Ballpark if they shared the stadium and its expenses.  Similarly, there is already a music venue at Harbor Yards in Webster Bank Arena, and though it seems like it ought to do well considering its location, reality is that it struggles to book top-line acts against the Arena at Mohegan Sun.  All of which makes me feel like the mayor really just wants to renegotiate his lease with the Bluefish, but...  I’m honestly not sure that the ‘Fish are the most likely contestants to win the RFP.  However, if the ‘Fish could win a few games, put in a postseason appearance, and maybe drum up a little enthusiasm amongst their fan base, it might help.  Better media outreach would probably help, too.
The Ballpark at Harbor Yard, from the Bluefish official site.
Against this backdrop, the Bluefish have started 3-2 versus the defending champs.  They dropped the opener 2-5, won a close second game 3-1, lost a slugfest 13-10, and then unloaded on the Skeeters 7-1 on Sunday night.  Last night they won a pitching duel 2-0.  Starting pitchers Rainey Lara and Jonathan Albaladejo lead the team with ERAs of 0.0 and 1.5, respectively, while closer Zach Grotz has pitched just over four innings with an ERA of 2.08.  Interestingly, the Bluefish as a team have largely tracked Albaladejo’s success.  Albaladejo was a reliever in the Majors; he’s had to re-learn to be a starter with the Bluefish.  That came together for him in the middle of last season, and the entire team turned around and started playing better at about the same time.  Though the ‘Fish finished third in the Atlantic League last year, this was mostly down to their dreadful start.  They were one of the hottest teams in the Atlantic League in the second half of last season.  Thus, if Albaladejo can stay hot, this team may well have a chance to make some much-needed noise.
It’s only April, but I guess we’ll see.  
The ‘Fish have their home opener Friday night, and I’m super-excited for it.  I wish we could go Saturday as well, but alas, the girls have their gymnastics show instead.
* * *
Army dropped three-of-four in its homestand against Navy, and unfortunately, this was considered something of a success because Army’s game-three win broke a thirteen-game Navy winning streak.  Army Baseball might be easy to follow, but the team is 20-24 with more road wins than wins at home.  The Black Knights have done a little better since Patriot League play began, but the team is a long way from what it was when my old squad leader, Major Stephan Reich, was on the mound.  But guys like that don’t come around every day.
To be fair, this is Coach Jim Foster’s first year with Army, and he seems to have the team pointed in the right direction.  This year’s Black Knights already have more wins than they had all last season.  That’s not nothing, and more to the point, it can take time to develop talent at a service academy.
Finally, there’s the Yankees.  They might be the most valuable franchise in professional sports, but they’re third in my heart this season.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Bronx Bombers, but to date they’ve outperformed expectations.  They’re pitched with reasonable success, hit well, and won their share of games, many convincingly.  As of this writing, the Yankees are 11-7, two games back from the Baltimore Orioles and a half-game ahead of the Red Sox.  Tonight starts a three-game road trip to Fenway, marking what the local papers are saying is our first real opportunity to gauge the true strength of this team.
It’s early yet, but it ought to be a decent night for baseball.

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