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Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011

A Sport That Knows How to Play Ball

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The contrast couldn't be more striking. While the NBA's bickering owners and players seem determined to lose their entire season, Major League Baseball and its players' union have quietly reached a labor agreement that's likely to be finalized this week. It will ensure five uninterrupted years of a sport that learned painful lessons from the ruined 1994 season and the drug scandals of recent years.

The deal will bring big changes: 15-team leagues and season-long interleague play in 2013; two more wild-card playoff teams; expanded luxury taxes for more shared revenue; and blood testing for human growth hormone, an effort to head off the next wave of drug misuse.


Does anyone in the NBA take a hint from this deal-making? How about all those "leaders" in Congress? The Observers aren't betting on it.


Artie
: The best thing about MLB's brave new world is that Houston won't move to the American League for another year. But the Brewers better capitalize on keeping that 106-loss bunch in the National League Central for 2012.

Frank
: The Brewers went 12-3 against the Astros this year, and next season they'll have 17 games with them. Some people have talked about the "difficulty" of winning a six-team division, as opposed to four teams in the A.L. West. But if three of the six teams are Houston, Pittsburgh and the Cubs, how tough is that?

Artie
: Now the Cubs have alleged brilliance at the top with GM Theo Epstein, and they've raided the Brew Crew to grab Dale Sveum as manager. But the players will see the same logo on their shirts, so despair won't be far away.

Frank
: How about the constant interleague play that 15-team leagues will bring?

Artie
: It really doesn't make a difference. We've had interleague games since 1997, and with free agents changing leagues all the time and every team available to watch on all sorts of devices, there's no "sacrosanct" division of the leagues anymore.

Frank
: Football has had inter-conference games for decades and it doesn't diminish the Super Bowl. It won't hurt the World Series either.

Artie
: Just as long as the schedules are relatively balanced.

Frank
: How about two wild cards in each league, probably playing a one-game showdown to join the division winners?

Artie
: As long as it's one game, not best-of-three, I'm fine with it. It will give more weight to winning a division and getting that "bye" into series play, rather than rolling the dice in one game—maybe without your ace starter because you had to use him just to qualify.

Frank
: I'll bet making division titles more desirable was not the chief motivation. Like everything else, it was to make money—more fannies in the seats in more places for more nights. But it's worth noting that if the new setup had existed this year, we would have been deprived of the greatest final-night dramas in baseball history. The Cardinals and Braves both would have already qualified as the N.L. wild cards, and the same for Boston and Tampa Bay in the A.L.

Artie
: There's no guarantee that any system will produce maximum excitement. And there'll still be years where wild cards have better records than some division winners.

Frank
: Let's get back to Mr. Sveum. A good move for the Cubs?

Artie
: I can't wait until the Brewers' rotation pitches against his team. Every starter will go all the way with a pitch count of about 60!

Frank
: Um, you're saying that with Sveum as the hitting coach, the Brewers were free-swingers?

Artie
: Hackin' away, you betcha.

Frank
: Well, that was certainly true of Yuniesky Betancourt, and I guess Prince Fielder when he was struggling. And it's true the Brewers ranked 12th in the league in drawing walks, after being third and fifth in Sveum's first two years as hitting coach. But this year they also were third-lowest in the N.L. in strikeouts and fifth-best in on-base percentage—their third straight top-five finish in that category with Sveum.

Artie
: Wow, maybe it was all Yuni's doing.

Frank
: He only had 63 strikeouts in 584 plate appearances, but also had an amazing total of just 16 walks.

Artie
: That's hackin', all right.

Frank
: There's only so much a coach can do. Rod Carew was the hitting coach in 2000 and '01, but that didn't keep the '01 Brewers from compiling 1,399 whiffs, a big-league record at the time.

Artie
: Led by another shortstop, Jose Hernandez, with 185.

Frank
: Sveum clearly was popular in the Brewers clubhouse in six years as a coach. Players praised him after the 2008 drama when he replaced Ned Yost and the team reached the playoffs. And he stayed around under two new managers, Ken Macha and Ron Roenicke.

Artie
: I know Fielder speaks highly of Sveum, and his presence could be a factor if the Cubs make a push to sign the big guy.

Frank
: My impression of Sveum in the clubhouse was that he's all business, a dedicated worker who never tries to call attention to himself. When he did those post-game dugout interviews on TV in recent years, he didn't look very comfortable.

Artie
: But managers have to talk whether they like it or not.

Frank
: Especially with the Cubs embarking on their latest "grand new era" under Epstein, who knew Sveum from their days in Boston.

Artie
: It'll be a challenge for those dimwitted Cubs fans to learn how to pronounce the manager's name.

Frank
: They just got used to Mike Quade, pronounced "Kwah-dee," and now it's a name that comes out "Swame."

Artie
: When they do catch on, the papers can run headlines like, "Cubs Playoff Drought: More of the Sveum."

Time to Fess Up


Frank
: I'm going to ask my usual question about the Packers' 35-26 win over Tampa Bay...

Artie
: This time the answer is a definitive "Yes." I was nervous! That first half had a lot of weird plays...

Frank
: Like the punter avoiding a rush, dropping the ball twice but still making the first down?

Artie
: Definitely. When games go in that direction, anything can happen.

Frank
: In the second half maybe the oddest thing was Aaron Rodgers making a few less-than-perfect throws.

Artie
: He got perfect again for the clinching toss to Jordy Nelson. But there are definitely some things that need to improve defensively—especially in a short week with the 7-3 Lions waiting.

Frank
: The old editor in me got really ticked at Fox Sports late in the game. They showed film of the 1962 Packers, with Joe Buck noting that was the last time the team started 10-0. But what should he have added?

Artie
: That they didn't get to 11-0 because the Lions pummeled them on Thanksgiving Day, 26-14. Eleven sacks of Bart Starr by Alex Karras and Co. Ugh!

Frank
: Exactly. No one in the Fox research department knew about that game, or took the time to look up '62? Shoddy work!

Artie
: And just like in '62, the Lions have a pass rush that could make a difference.

Frank
: How about the other big football game of the weekend? The Badgers beat Illinois, 28-17, but they were down 14-0 at one point.

Artie
: Nope, that didn't worry me. I knew they'd pound the Illini down in the second half.

Frank
: And they should be able to handle Penn State at home to reach the Big Ten championship game, a rematch with Michigan State.

Artie
: What fries me is that with all the other big teams getting upset, if UW had just beaten Ohio State they'd be the one-loss team outside the SEC with the best shot at the BCS title game.

Frank
: The computers never liked their strength of schedule. But I'm sure some analysts would have talked them up if they only had one loss.

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