Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The State of Baseball and The Big Red Machine

I've not been afraid to voice my frustrations with the current state of Major League Baseball. Call me simple and/or old-fashsioned, but the game has changed in a number of ways, and I'm not sure how it has kept my interest at all.

For starters, there are too many games. I'm sorry, but 162 games (excluding the playoffs) is just too many! The season has become painstakingly long, especially when you combine spring training and the playoffs with 162 regular season games. Yes, I know this was changed almost 50 years ago, but doesn't this take away the relevance of each individual game? Not to mention, with current ticket prices, how can most cities expect to sell out games? This is no longer cheap entertainment.

Games have also become much slower, largely due to the fact that pitchers have become more and more deliberate, especially in later innings. Don't get me wrong, I understand that there is plenty of mental strategy involved in baseball, but 20 years ago, the average game was 30+ minutes shorter.

This slowed pace can also be blamed on GMs attempting to protect their investments (starting pitchers). Just look at the dramatic drop in complete games in the last 20-25 years. Everytime a pitcher is taken out of a game, a new reliever has to come in and warm up. This process takes at least 5 minutes, for each pitching change.

For all of its faults, baseball still holds a place in my heart and many others. Because it's not as fast paced as football, basketball, or hockey, you can go to the ballpark, kick back with a beer, relax, and enjoy the game.

Of the four major sports in this country, baseball is the least socialistic, which is both a good and bad thing (as long as their are enough team owners out there that are willing to spend money). My friend Jon has always told me that if an MLB team (or any professional sports team) wants to have success, their owner has to be willing to invest in the team, no matter how much it costs. Owning a team is not just a business, but it is also a hobby, and you have to be willing to spend money in order to succeed in that business/hobby. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, he is exactly right. Just look at the New York Yankees.

All of this has led me to talk about the rejuvenation of the Cincinnati Reds. My dad was a fan of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, and I became a big fan during their stunning sweep of the Oakland A's in the 1990 World Series. Since then, they've only made the playoffs once, after winning their division in 1995 (after sweeping the Dodgers in the NLDS, they were swept by the Braves in the NLCS). In the strike-shortened season of 1994, the Reds won the division, but there was no postseason. The Reds haven't finished a season with a winning record since 2000. Amazingly, they currently have a half-game lead over the Cardinals for 1st place in the NL Central division, which is the latest in a season the Reds have led the division since 1999.

Scott Rolen, hitting his 300th career home run, in Cincinnati's 7-3 win over the Phillies.

Cincinnati leads the NL in team batting average, runs scored, hits, RBIs, and slugging percentage (they are 2nd in on-base percentage, 3rd in home runs, and 4th in stolen bases). They have a young outfield (Gomes, Stubbs, Bruce), with a veteran leadership throughout the majority of their infield (Rolen, Cabrera, Phillips, Votto*, Hernandez). Edinson Volquez is scheduled to return to the rotation immediately following the All-Star break, which will really make this rotation even more competitive (Harang, Arroyo, Cueto, Leake).

The real shame in all of this is the fact that the city of Cincinnati has yet to realize that the Reds are a contender at this point (Tampa still has this problem, even after their great 2008 season). As of last night, the Reds are only averaging 22,600 fans per home game (Great American Ballpark seats ~42,000), which is the 3rd worst home attendance in the NL, ahead of the Marlins and Pirates.

I visited the old Riverfront Stadium for Reds games once or twice as a kid, but I finally attended a Reds game at Great American Ballpark a few weeks ago. My plea for the city of Cincinnati - please support your hometown team!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wimbledon's Marathon Match

For most US sports fans, tennis doesn't make their list of "must see" sporting events. If it weren't for the fact that I play regularly, I doubt I would enjoy watching it. However, for the many sports fans who missed out on Wimbledon's epic 1st round match between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, you missed something that I doubt we'll ever witness again.

Isner, who is currently ranked 19th in the world, was pre-seeded 23rd at Wimbledon. For Isner's 1st match, he drew the unseeded Mahut, who is currently ranked 148th in the world, and had to progress through a qualifying pre-tournament in order to be eligible to play (since he didn't qualify automatically). Mahut was seeded 27th in the qualifying rounds. He survived three qualification rounds, beating Frank Dancevic easily in the 1st round (6–3, 6–0), Alex Bogdanovic in a 2nd round marathon (3–6, 6–3, 24–22), and Stefan Koubek in the final round in five sets (6–7, 3–6, 6–3, 6–4, 6–4), in which he came back from a 2 sets to none deficit. Thus, Mahut had already played an unusually large amount of tennis in the week before the main tournament even began.

The Isner-Mahut match was scheduled to begin on Court 18 (a non-showcase court), on Day 2 (Tuesday) of the tournament. Three earlier matches were scheduled on Court 18 for that same day, so the Isner-Mahut match didn't begin until 6:13pm local time.

Isner converted the only break of service in the 1st set, winning 6 games to 4. Mahut bounced back, converting the only break of service in the 2nd set, winning 6 games to 3. The two held serve throughout the 3rd set, but Mahut prevailed in a tiebreaker, winning 7 games to 6 (9-7 in the tiebreaker). The 4th set lasted over an hour, with both players holding serve and forcing another tiebreaker. Isner prevailed this time, winning 7 games to 6 (7-3 in the tiebreaker). After Isner leveled the match, at 9:07pm local time, the match was suspended due to darkness. Little did everyone know what was about to happen the next day.

I was in the middle of quarterly meetings at my office last week, so I wasn't really paying attention to the early matches at Wimbledon. In fact, I didn't even know that these two were playing in the 1st round, so the coming news came as quite a shock to me.

The match resumed on Court 18 at 2:05 pm local time on Day 3 (Wednesday). I got word at lunch time (~5:30pm local time) that this match was tied at 30-30 in the 5th set! Both players just kept bombing away, racking up aces, and continuing to hold serve. Every half hour or so, I was checking the score. 39-39. 45-45. 50-50. 55-55. Finally, not long before I headed home from work, the chair umpire decided to suspend the match for a 2nd day, due to darkness, with the score tied at 59-59. Neither player could break serve!

[For those of you unfamiliar with tournament scoring rules in tennis, typically, if a set is tied at 6 games apiece, the winner of that set will be determined by a tiebreaker. The two players alternate serving every two points, and they play until someone scores 7 points. The winner must also win the tiebreaker by at least 2 points. During all rounds at Wimbledon (and a the finals of the other 3 major tournaments), a tiebreaker isn't used to determine the winner of the final set. Instead, the two players continue playing until they have achieved a two game advantage, no matter how many games it takes. ]

On Day 4 (Thursday), the match resumed at 3:43pm local time. At this point, the match had already lasted exactly 10 hours, and it was anyone's guess as to how much longer the match would continue. With renewed energy, both players continued to bomb away, serve after serve, game after game. Finally, with Mahut serving, down 30-40 and trailing 69 games to 68, Isner ripped a backhand winner past Mahut to put an end to the match. After 11 hours and 5 minutes of play spanning 3 days, Isner was finally victorious, 6–4, 3–6, 6–7, 7–6, 70–68. The match broke a number of tennis records:
  • Longest match (11 hours, 5 minutes)
  • Longest set (5th set - 8 hours, 11 minutes)
  • Most games in a set (5th set - 138)
  • Most games in a match (183)
  • Most aces in a match by one player (Isner - 113)
  • Total aces in a match (216 - Mahut's 103 aces were the 2nd highest number by a player in a match)
  • Consecutive service games held (168 - 84 for each player)
John Isner collapses after converting his final break chance in the 5th set.

I hated to see either of these players lose, especially after battling for so long. I can't even begin to imagine the mental/physical toll this match took on both Isner and Mahut. Sadly for Isner, the next day he had to play an early morning 2nd round match against unseeded Thiemo De Bakker. Isner was downed in just 1 hour and 14 minutes, losing 6-0, 6-3, 6-2. Amazingly, Isner failed to produce a single ace in the match, and he received neck and back treatment while clearly battling fatigue. In fact, Patrick McEnroe even tweeted that Isner had "no skin left on his toes."

I will be shocked if we ever see a tennis match this long ever again. Even Isner agrees, saying in a courtside interview, "Nothing like this will happen again, ever." It is likely that Wimbledon could change their 5th set tiebreaker rule next year, which would prevent another marathon match like this from taking place. In the meantime, tennis must enjoy this moment in the sun, because no one expected John Isner and Nicolas Mahut to steal a few moments of fame from the World Cup.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My Facebook Hiatus

It's been quite some time, but I've decided to delve back into the blogging world, thanks in part to my hiatus from Facebook. There are a number of topics that I plan on writing about, and I think this is an excellent arena for sharing my thoughts, along with those who choose to join me.

Most of those who know me realize that I'm a huge sports enthusiast. That is one major purpose of this blog - to celebrate sports. In addition to other choice topics, we'll discuss a number of sports/sporting events from an array of different angles - cultural, political, fanaticism, etc.

Usually the summertime does not create a lot of opportunities to talk about miraculous events in sports. However, this month has been a huge exception with the World Cup, the Mahut-Isner match at Wimbledon, Tiger's continued golf struggles, another Celtics-Lakers finals rematch, a resurgent Cincinnati Reds baseball club, the penalty phase for USC athletics, and a host of other happenings. Stay tuned for my next post!