Friday, 11 August 2017

My First Major League Game

Just over two weeks ago I got married and for our honeymoon we journeyed to New York City. Despite my love for American sports, TV, movies, food and so much more, I had never been to the country before. So this was very much a once-in-a-lifetime trip for us, and naturally I had to fit in a ballgame. I gave my wife the options: Yankees or Mets (I wanted both but marriage is all about compromise). She's not much of a baseball fan so, understandably, she didn't really know who the Mets were, so she opted for the Yankees, "The Evil Empire." In my mind it was the preferred choice, so I was more than happy to book tickets to visit the Bronx.

I know what you're saying but hear me out first; as an Indians fan I'm supposed to hate the Yankees, but as a UK fan who never grew up around their apparently insufferable fanbase, I just don't have that hate for them like I'm supposed to. I'm also a big history nut, and the Yanks have perhaps the most storied history in all of sports, so I knew I was going to enjoy that aspect of our visit.

As we were going to be in the city for the first week of August, the only games the Yankees were playing at home were against the Tigers. We flew into JFK on 31 July, the first game of the series against Detroit, so I booked tickets for the Tuesday night game on 1 August. I had been tempted to get tickets for Wednesday's game, a 1pm contest, but I was very aware that, as pale English honeymooners unaccustomed to the New York City heat in August, we would be better off enjoying the cooler temperatures at night.

On the morning of the game we left our hotel and ventured into town for breakfast and to get familiar with our new surroundings. First pitch wasn't until 7pm but I wanted to get to the stadium early, as I often like to do when I see live sporting events. I like to soak in all the atmosphere, especially if it's my first time visiting a new stadium.

We caught the subway heading north and arrived in the Bronx on the D train around 4pm, and the gates didn't open for another hour. It was absolutely roasting in the sunshine so we hid in the shade, admiring the impressive exterior of Yankee Stadium.

We did a quick lap of the stadium and I paused for a photo outside of Gate 4. Before long we saw the lines start forming to get in at 5pm, so we got in the queue. The unrelenting sun cooked the crowd for close to 45 minutes, so once we got into the stadium the first thing we did was seek out water! We then took a few minutes to cool down before exploring. We also picked up free t-shirts upon entry, XXL white Yankees t-shirts with a giant green Vantelin sponsor on the back. They are so big I could pin them to a mast and sail back to America.

This was the view we were greeted to when we entered through Gate 6. Within minutes of the stadium being open, the right field porch was full of fans hoping to grab a toss-up or batting practice homer. For my first time in a baseball stadium it was quite a sight, that unbelievable green expanse filling my eyes, spreading everywhere I looked. And lots of Aaron Judge jerseys.

One of the things I looked forward to seeing most at Yankee Stadium was Monument Park, home of the most distinguished Yankees in history, so we headed there as soon as we could before it filled up quickly.

We got there pretty fast and it wasn't too busy, which was a bonus. Monument Park was everything I wanted it to be, home to some of the most legendary names in the game. I could have spent hours there.

One of the first plaques I saw that really caught my eye didn't actually belong to a Yankee. Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers legend, had a plaque on the wall that I didn't expect to see so I had to get a photo with it. I wrote my final year university dissertation on the man and his life has been an inspiration to me. I wasn't going to miss out on getting a pic!

We spent as long as possible in Monument Park, soaking in all of that history. We saw and read all of the plaques, including Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I paid extra attention to the Joe DiMaggio monument. Of all the Yankee legends, DiMaggio is my favourite, and I have read nearly every book published on him. Its hard to explain my fandom for Joe, especially as he was reportedly a bit of an asshole, but of all the hall of famers from that era, he has resonated with me the most. Maybe it's his 1941 record-setting 56 game hitting streak, or maybe it's because he read Superman comics on roadtrips, I just like the dude so we spent a bit longer with his plaque. After we left Monument Park there is a small little store dedicated to the legends nearby, so I picked up a DiMaggio t-shirt.

We then began making our way to our seats, up, up and up. When I bought the tickets on StubHub months beforehand, it showed you what the view of the field is like, but I still wasn't entirely sure what to expect in reality. I had purchased 2 seats in the first row of section 425, in the infield grandstand overlooking third base. And when we got to our seats, I could not have been happier with the view.

Come on, that's what you call great seats! No obstructions in front of us at all, and for $15 a ticket!

It's safe to say we were pretty happy at this point. A quick comment on the caps of choice: of course I was going to rep the Indians! I saw nearly every team's cap represented at Yankee Stadium that day but I didn't see any other Tribe caps but my own. The wife had previously picked up a Yankees cap the night before, and it was a large part of the baseball experience she had been looking forward to the most, buying a cap for the ballgame and eating hot dogs. If I was forcing her to watch a baseball game on her honeymoon then she wanted the entire American pastime tradition.

Speaking of hot dogs, we decided to grab them before the game started. I didn't want to miss any of the action on the field waiting in line for food. I understand it's a bit of a contentious issue putting ketchup on your hot dog but I'm English, and I'll put ketchup on everything. So yeah, I probably ruined this hot dog in your opinion, but I loved it so whatever.

Soon enough the game got underway. The pitching match-up featured CC Sabathia taking on Anibal Sanchez. It was interesting getting to see Sabathia pitch, as he was one of the first Indians pitchers I learned about when I discovered baseball ten years ago, so it was fun to watch the 2007 AL Cy Young winner. Early in the game the jumbotron highlighted the famous people in the crowd and former New York Knick Amar'e Stoudemire was present. As was Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George, who funnily enough attended the same showing of The Lion King on Broadway we went to the next day. Paul, if you're reading this (of course you are), we weren't stalking you, I promise.

I'm not going to recap every detail of the game, as it happened over a week ago and despite being an entertaining and closely contested game, a play-by-play list doesn't make for fun reading. Instead I've attached some videos below of moments during the game that really stood out to us:

Sabathia started the game well but ran into trouble in the second inning, getting tagged for a 3-run homer by Detroit's John Hicks. Down 3-0, this amazing play by second baseman Tyler Wade stopped the Tigers from putting together another rally. Dixon Machado hits it straight up the middle and Wade, playing the shift, somehow managed to contort himself in the air to make the play. The wife knew a great play when she saw one and clapped in appreciation with the rest of the stadium.

By this stage Sabathia had given up another home run, a solo-shot to Justin Upton, and things were starting to look bleak for the home side, down 4-0 now. Just prior to Didi Gregorius coming to the plate in the bottom of the fourth, I was telling the wife all about Yankee Stadium's famous short right field porch and how lefty batters can hook home runs into that corner. Up steps Didi who proceeded to do just that! I was really hoping we would get to see a home run in our first game (we saw three) but I was especially hoping we'd see a home run by the Yankees. It's a bit more special when the home team hits one out.

In the next inning Detroit were threatening again but third baseman Todd Frazier channeled his inner Brooks Robinson and made this incredible diving stop on a sharp Justin Upton groundball. The home fans around us were especially sweet on Frazier, a Jersey boy, and all rose in applause and recognition for an outstanding play.

As the game neared its end, the Yankees kept things interesting. The inning before saw Didi collect another RBI, his third of the night, to bring the Yanks within one run but reliever David Robertson had put Tigers on first and second in the top of the ninth. When Detroit right fielder Andrew Romine blooped a single into shallow center field, I thought for sure the game was over and the Yankees would not be able to come back from a multiple run deficit. But Brett Gardner charged in from center field, collected the ball on a single bounce and fired home, nailing the runner at home plate to end the inning. It was an awesome moment to see in person and really energized the crowd. 

Sadly the Yankees were unable to come back in the bottom of the ninth. They made it close, getting runners on second and third, but with two outs Clint Frazier could only pop up and the Tigers emerged victorious, running out 4-3 winners on the night.

The result did nothing to spoil our night however (I'm not a Yankees fan after all, even though I do dislike the Tigers). For my first ever game in the flesh, I enjoyed every minute of it, and saw some absolutely brilliant moments. I was actually surprised how fast the game went by, despite clocking in at 2 hours and 59 minutes. On TV the game feels a lot slower but in person I had no issues with the pace at all, in fact it flew by quite quickly. Even the wife had no issues, and I had previously warned her about it being a slow game. In 2012 I went to one of the Wembley NFL games in person and thought that to be much slower, and was quite bored by the end. Not so with baseball and thankfully the whole experience lived up to my expectations.

With my first live game in the books, I'm eager now to see more and hope I can get back to the States in the future to see another game soon. It'd be especially nice to see my Indians next time...

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Sonny Days Or Gray Clouds Ahead?

Sonny Gray is a quality pitcher. At the time of writing, everyone wants a piece of Sonny Gray. He's the hottest girl in school, and guys are lining up to ask him to prom.

He had a rough go of it in 2016, thanks to injuries and inconsistency, but so far this season he looks close to the Sonny Gray of old, the All Star pitcher from 2015. The 27 year-old is probably the most fawned over player on the trade block this month and the Oakland A's have a bevy of suitors willing to part with some golden nuggets in exchange for his services. Contending clubs left and right are putting together prospect packages for Gray, and the Indians are rumored to be one of those clubs. Whoever snags him will have to pay a heavy price however, as demand for starting pitchers this summer is high. A lot of clubs are in the market to upgrade their rotation, and the A's ace represents a significant upgrade for many.

Today I thought I'd run through some potential trade ideas the Tribe could fashion together to entice Oakland to part with their ace pitcher. It's no secret that Cleveland's rotation has been out of sorts this season, with only Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco performing well (although Mike Clevinger is developing nicely). The addition of an arm like Gray's would certainly boost the Indian's chances of success in the postseason.

On paper he looks to be a good match for the Tribe; he's under club control until 2020 and is having a strong season: a 3.72 ERA in 84.2 innings of work, with 79 strikeouts, all for a 113 ERA+ and a 5-4 record. He's been improving as the season has progressed, and his last 3 weeks have been superb, including a 6 inning, 2 hit shutout victory against the Indians on July 14th.

I'll rank the following potential deals with different grades, ranging from "In A Heartbeat" to "Over My Dead Body." Simple enough? Let's begin:

Trade Scenario 1

Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade C Francisco Mejia

How about a straight up trade of Oakland's best pitcher for Cleveland's best prospect? I really like Sonny Gray, and have for a few years now, but I am firmly against giving up Mejia for him. I consider Gray a top of the rotation kind of guy but he's not elite enough to surrender a prospect who could become a marquee catcher for the next decade. With Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez struggling to prove themselves as long-term solutions (their sublime defense aside), Mejia's value is currently much higher to the Indians than it would be for the A's. In the very near future, catcher is looking like a position of real need for the Tribe so it doesn't make sense to jettison the one man already under control who could solve the problem. Catchers that can hit like Mejia don't come around very often; at Double-A Akron, the young backstop is slashing .336/.385/.552 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 10 home runs, 35 RBI and 5 stolen bases. Scouts and experts absolutely rave about the kid's hitting skills, and grade him high defensively too.

Mejia is the sole trade chip the Indians can dangle in front of Oakland that could persuade the A's to ignore the treasures offered by other interested clubs, but if I were Indians Team President Chris Antonetti, I would not be willing to risk losing a future star like Mejia. Even for an admittedly great pitcher like Gray.

Trade rating: Over My Dead Body

Trade Scenario 2

Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade CF Tyler Naquin and RHP Triston McKenzie

This is more like it. Naquin narrowly missed out on winning the AL Rookie of the Year award last season and McKenzie is widely ranked as the Indians' number 2 prospect overall, and their top pitching prospect. The real jewel in this deal would be McKenzie but Naquin is a nice bonus. He's not had the best 2017 campaign so far, spending most of his time at Triple-A Columbus, but he's still young enough to retain some of his former value.  The potential is still there. Would the A's go for someone like Naquin? Given their history of taking guys seemingly off the scrapheap and getting production from them, I think they'd be more open to the idea than perhaps you might think.

Many fans consider McKenzie a 'hands-off' prospect in the same category as Mejia but I have other feelings. My thinking is this: McKenzie could be a superstar, but trading him for a pitcher already established as above-average when the rest of your team is so agonizingly close to competing for a championship, it's a no-brainer. Yes, there's some risk involved with Gray's injury history, so the Indians need to be absolutely sure he's back to full health. If the A's were willing, the Indians could trade McKenzie for Gray in a straight swap, but considering the young pitcher hasn't even reached Double-A yet, Oakland would almost certainly need a sweetener. Naquin could be that guy.

Trade rating: In A Heartbeat

Trade Scenario 3

Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade CF Greg Allen, LHP Brady Aiken and SS Erik Gonzalez

Despite Brady Aiken being ranked above Greg Allen on most prospect boards, I actually think the loss of Allen is more significant in this trade. I absolutely love Allen. If Zimmer wasn't blocking his direct path to the majors, he'd be on track to contribute for the Indians within the next two years. As it currently stands, he still could, but Zimmer has started his career in the majors so well that it looks like Allen will have great difficulty forcing his way onto the big club roster. As a result, the young outfielder has become a pretty good trade chip, one that could come in very handy to acquire a player of Gray's caliber.

Aiken and Gonzalez aren't exactly throw-ins either. Aiken, despite his struggles this year (a 4.10 ERA and 14.1% strikeout percentage at A-ball Lake County), is still considered a top prospect and the former first round draft pick has time on his side to redeem himself.

Gonzalez has featured in 25 major league games this season and has performed well, and is likely to see an increase in playing time until Jason Kipnis returns from the disabled list. This is his opportunity to put himself in the shop window, as the Tribe's infield is already crowded with talent. Similar to Allen, it will be difficult to break into an established group of All Stars, so Gonzalez's future as a major league infielder could lie elsewhere.

The major difficulty with this trade is it's attractiveness. You just know that clubs like the Yankees and Astros have more frills to woo Oakland with, so I don't expect a deal like this would be tempting enough. However it's a win-win for the Indians if they could pull it off and persuade the A's to embrace it more than the other offers out there.

Trade rating: In A Heartbeat


As I've mentioned, the competition for Gray's services is steep. The Yankees in particular are desperate to give their fans October baseball and they need starting pitching, and have a deep collection of prospects they could throw at the A's. The Astros rightfully think this could be their year and have a top 5 farm system to seduce Oakland with, including monstrous prospect Derek Fisher. Even the upstart Brewers are reportedly going all-in to acquire Gray, and could pull off a July trade deal similar to the CC Sabathia acquisition back in 2008.

I always enjoy the hot stove season and the race for Sonny Gray will keep things extra interesting this year. Do I expect the Indians to land him? I honestly think that the other interested teams have flashier prospects, and could be more willing to chuck everything at Oakland to make a deal. Cleveland has some tempting players on offer but I just don't see them risking all of that future talent on one 27 year-old pitcher, still recovering from a bad 2016 campaign. I would love to add Gray to the rotation, don't get me wrong, but there's definitely a limit, and it looks like a 5'10, 180lb switch-hitting 21 year-old Dominican catcher who absolutely rakes.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Sartorial Tribe: 1948 Indians Home

As the years tick by it feels like every new season sees MLB introduce another batch of special uniforms to each team's wardrobe. We've got Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, retro throwbacks and a bunch more. And this got me thinking; the entire aesthetic side to sports has always been hugely appealing to me. I love the uniforms, the logos, the entire design of sporting attire. Baseball in particular has an extremely rich history and has always been a huge factor in my love for the game.

On that note, I thought I would sprinkle in the odd post here and there about the Indians' uniforms, past and present. Uniforms I like, that I love, and some that I hate. I'll try and feature a good variety too, from every era of Tribe baseball. Without further ado, let's look at our entry edition:

What better way to start than with Cleveland's cream of the crop, the best Indians team in the club's history, the 1948 championship side. Their home uniform that season was something to behold, and not only because it was the uniform worn when the Tribe last took home the World Series.

Here's a photo of player-manager and hall of fame shortstop Lou Boudreau congratulating pitcher Gene Bearden after the left-hander had shut down the Boston Braves in Game 3 of the World Series. You'll have already noticed that the Indians script across the chest is very reminiscent of today's uniforms, a certain throwback to the glory days.

An iconic shot of the legendary Satchel Paige from the 1948 season, his first in the majors following a dominant career in the Negro Leagues. The socks stand out immediately and would look good on today's players (and they do, with Francisco Lindor regularly rocking the look). You'll have also noticed the cap with the wishbone C logo, now a staple logo for the Cincinnati Reds, but was used by the Tribe for nearly four decades between the 30's and 70's.

The only blemish on these classic threads is the rather ghastly Chief Wahoo logo on the player's left sleeves. The Native American image that would come to define the Indians was still a couple of years away from becoming the team's primary logo and wouldn't feature prominently on the club's caps until the mid-80's. The 1948 version is, shall we say, less refined than his modern counterpart.

Overall though, it's a vintage uniform from a glorious era of baseball. Many would argue that baseball has never looked better aesthetically than the late 40's (I would argue this, actually). It was a time when the Indians were so stacked with talent, with legends like Bob Feller, Larry Doby, and Bob Lemon representing the Tribe, leading them to their second and most recent championship. And they looked damn good too. Maybe our current group can join their 1948 counterparts and help elevate the 2017 uniform to legendary status? Time will tell on that one.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Exceptional Encarnacion, Back On Track

When the Indians signed slugger Edwin Encarnacion in the off-season, fans got pretty excited. Winter nights were spent dreaming of the Dominican veteran launching 400 ft home runs over the fence at Progressive Field, this time wearing the red, white and navy of Cleveland and not the blue hue of Toronto.

After a winter of anticipation finally gave we to spring, we got our first look at Edwin and his delightful parrot trot as he rounded the bases after a home run in the Arizona sunshine. Opening Day came and went, as did the month of April. And Edwin? Well, he was okay. Actually (lets be honest) he wasn't quite what we expected. He struck out a lot, and he wasn't hitting loads of homers, just 4 actually. By the end of the first month he was batting just .200 with an OPS of .696. Something was definitely amiss and there were quiet rumblings that the Indians had signed a bum.

But Edwin didn't listen to the naysayers and kept plugging away, battling at the plate as he always does, and has done. Since the start of May, Encarnacion's approach has finally started to reap the rewards that fans were craving for. In the last month and half, Edwin has slashed .297/.398/.579 with 12 home runs and 27 RBI, raising his season OPS to a much improved .872. He's been especially hot in the last couple of weeks, slashing .370/.483/.804 over 14 games, with 6 home runs in that span.

And it couldn't have come at a better time. The Indians have been scuffling in recent weeks, their inconsistent play holding them back from making any attempt at leading the AL Central. Then along came Edwin and a trip to Minneapolis, home of the first place Twins. This was an opportunity the Tribe could not afford to pass up, to really put a marker down in the race for the division. And Edwin and the boys did not disappoint. Encarnacion, combining with some stellar pitching and some other contributors on offense, took apart the Twins in a four-game sweep to wrestle back the AL Central lead. “It’s not a surprise that he can literally carry a team,” reliever extraordinaire Andrew Miller said, and Edwin has been doing just that.

This was the kind of performance and the kind of series that clubs look to build upon, to create that wave of momentum that will hopefully carry them to October. Encarnacion has been a huge factor in this resurgence and he'll need to continue this level of performance to keep the Indians ahead in the race for postseason baseball. As a core piece in the heart of the Indians' lineup, you could argue that the Tribe's success in 2017 hinges upon Encarnacion's output. If recent activity is to be believed, then I think we'll be just fine.