The ’64 Phillies, the ’69 Cubs and the ’14 Brewers

On Aug. 18, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported (and I blogged):

After sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in improbable and relentless fashion, the Brewers now have the best record in the National League at 70 wins and 55 losses, and lead the St. Louis Cardinals by three games in the National League Central.

The Brewers can go 18-19 down the stretch while the Cardinals would have to finish 22-17 just to force a tie for the division lead.

With fewer than 40 games to go, how likely is it that the Brewers make the playoffs? I compiled a handful of projections and put them in a table:

Brewers’ playoff odds, as of 08/17
FanGraphs’ projections mode 82.9%
Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report 88.4%
Sports Clubs Stats’ projections 94.7%

That was on Aug. 18. The Journal Sentinel reported Wednesday:

As the Brewers wake  up Wednesday morning, they have one playoff scenario:

They must finish the season 5-0, have the San Francisco Giants finish 0-5, then go to San Francisco for a play-in game for the second wild-card berth. That would send the Brewers to Pittsburgh for the wild-card game.

What is the likelihood of that happening? The Brewers’ playoff chances are now listed at 0.1%, the only fraction above zero. …

It has been an epic meltdown for the Brewers, especially when one considers they led the National League Central for 150 days. After beating San Diego, 10-1, on Aug. 25, they had a six-game lead on third-place Pittsburgh in the standings.

The Brewers have gone 7-19 since while the Pirates have gone 19-7, creating a 12-game swing between those clubs.

The Brewers last won five games in a row from Aug. 14-19, a stretch that included a three-game sweep in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. Remember how well the Brewers were playing back then? That was before the roof caved in on what has become one of the worst late-season collapses in MLB history.

The headline refers to arguably the two worst late-season collapses in baseball history, or at least the two most notorious. The 1964 Phillies had a 6½-game lead in the National League (in the pre-division days) with 12 games left, and proceeded to lose it all and miss the World Series. The 1969 Cubs were playing uncharacteristically good baseball, and led the NL East by 9½ games in mid-August. But in September the Cubs lost eight games in a row while the previously awful New York Mets won 10 in a row. The Mets — who had set a record by losing 120 games in 1962, when losing 100 games is bad enough, and were 73–89 in 1968 — won the NL East by eight games, then, even more improbably, defeated Baltimore 4 games to 1 in the 1969 World Series.

Readers know I have been skeptical of the Brewers all season long. Hank the Dog notwithstanding, the Brewers’ collapse was pretty predictable because too many players were playing over their heads, and regression to the mean predicts what happens after that. It is nearly impossible to overachieve over an entire season. In fact, I wrote one month ago: “If you believe the Brewers have been playing over their heads (suffice to say that no one was predicting the Brewers would be in first place in late August), regression to the mean predicts an ugly September, particularly given their schedule (harder than the Cardinals’ schedule) and their lack of big-game-experienced pitching.”

The what-if of the whole season probably is the deal that apparently was pursued, but never finished, for Colorado Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau, who could have been the left-handed power hitter the Brewers have lacked all season long. The Brewers did trade for left-handed outfielder Gerardo Parra, which, despite the fact he’s playing pretty well, has had little impact on the Brewers (though he’s been better than outfielders Logan Schaefer, Caleb Gindl and the now-crashing Khris Davis), and relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton.

I liked Broxton’s acquisition better than Parra’s (Broxton could be next year’s closer assuming the Brewers are tired of closer Francisco Rodriguez, even though statistically K-Rod has had a good year), but neither helped with the Brewers’ two main problems. The first, as was pointed out to me by a state championship-winning high school baseball coach, is that the Brewers have no stopper — a starting pitcher who is supposed to stop losing streaks. Pitcher Yovani Gallardo is supposed to be their number-one pitcher, but he’s really a number-three, which means they don’t have a number-one or number-two quality starter. Even though the Brewers’ starters have pitched well of late, there is no such thing as enough pitching.

The Brewers also managed to overrate their offense when they were winning games earlier this season. The best leadoff hitter is probably center fielder Carlos Gomez, except for his low on-base percentage, high strikeout totals, and ability to provide examples for the next How Not to Run the Bases video. Neither right fielder Ryan Braun nor third baseman Aramis Ramirez have had good years, perhaps due to injury. The entire roster outside of Parra (who doesn’t hit for power when the Brewers need a lefty who does), second baseman Scooter Gennett and catcher Jonathan Lucroy is a bunch of swing-for-the-fences would-be sluggers who are unable or unwilling to adopt a different approach.

If you look at successful Brewers teams — the two obvious examples are 1982 and 2011 — this team falls far short. The 2014 Brewers had no one who could hit for average like Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Cecil Cooper. It seemed predictable that 2011 first baseman Prince Fielder would indeed balloon up and lose effectiveness as a hitter, but the problem is the Brewers have never replaced Fielder with a power-hitting left-handed first baseman who was a good hitter as well. This team has a horrible bench, and apparently lacked the leadership provided by Nyjer Morgan and Jerry Hairston Jr. on the 2011 team and nearly everybody on the ’82 Brewers.

The usual response in such cases as this is to fire people, and not surprisingly Brewers fans have called for the heads of general manager Doug Melvin (who I interviewed once) and manager Ron Roenicke. Melvin doesn’t appear to be leaving since he apparently is interviewing candidates for the team’s farm director position. In fact, if you want to blame anyone, this season is probably the fault of the people responsible for talent acquisition and development. Being a small-market team, the Brewers do not have the ability to fill holes by throwing money at free agents. Melvin has always developed the Brewers’ talent from within, with selected acquisitions (pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Zach Greinke, for instance) in promising seasons. If the Brewers have too many free-swinging, undisciplined hitters, that’s how they were allowed to develop.

Maybe Roenicke didn’t manage well this season, but I’m unconvinced a new manager would make a difference with fundamentally unsound players. I’ve read a lot about the Brewers’ failure to play small ball when needed, but there’s probably a reason for that. Gomez is already a potential rally-killer on the bases, and you can probably count on one hand the number of Brewers who could successfully execute a bunt or suicide squeeze.

I’ve read online calls to replace Roenicke, who apparently has become too buddy-buddy with players in some fans’ view, with a hardnosed field general type of manager. (The only name that came to mind was Larry Bowa, who got run out of San Diego not even halfway into his second season there. There was also Bobby Valentine, who succeeded during a surprisingly long major league managing career to turn off nearly everyone who had to work with him.) Such people who want the next Billy Martin don’t understand that that approach doesn’t really exist anymore for a reason. The Brewers have enough problems convincing players to come to Milwaukee without the prospect of playing for an asshole.

The Brewers lack a balanced offensive lineup. There is a huge gap between the starters and the bench, and not all the starters are necessarily starter quality. First base has been a disaster all season. I remain unconvinced Davis is a major league starter-quality player. The Brewers could dump all their bench players and you’d never notice. Roenicke came to the Brewers from the Angels, who when they won the 2002 World Series had a bunch of high-on-base-percentage hitters. That is certainly not the Brewers. (If you play in a hitter’s ballpark, as Miller Park apparently has become, you need not have guys in the lineup who hit 500-foot home runs; you need guys in the lineup to get on base, because eventually they will come home.)

I felt at the start of the season that this was no better than a .500 team, and quite possibly far worse. The problem is this team will get no better than this. The farm system has become depleted, as shown by the failure of anyone from the minors to help the offense this season, and the lack of minor-leaguers to package in a deal for someone like Morneau or a quality starting pitcher.

When you develop from within, you have to make almost all the right decisions, and the Brewers evidently haven’t done that. If you want to wait a half-dozen years, they could trade everybody and start over, but do you want five years of 100-loss seasons?

The person I feel worst for is not anyone on the field. It’s announcer Bob Uecker, who really deserves to get to announce a Brewers World Series while he still can, given the thousands of bad baseball games he’s had to announce since the early 1970s.

 

Football fans despite the football leagues

The National Football League has had, to put it mildly, a rough few weeks, with allegations of child and spousal abuse among prominent players.

Which shouldn’t take away from enjoying the sport, Quin Hillyer argues:

The NFL plays a terrific sport. Amidst all the media overkill of the past few weeks (deftly skewered by NR editor Rich Lowry on Friday), let us remind ourselves why we love the game in the first place, and why even this obviously flawed league with a flawed commissioner is nonetheless a great American institution.

Start with something that should be obvious: Children love to play football because it is just plain fun, and fans love it because it’s fun to watch. And fun, channeled in ways that promote rigor and discipline as well, is a very good thing. Fun, of the right sort, refreshes the mind and spirit, sharpens the enjoyment of life, and makes life’s necessary toils both more bearable and (almost certainly) more productive.

Football is fun to play because it marries physical striving to strategic and tactical thinking, all toward a well-defined end, in the context of camaraderie and group effort, in a game that rewards a remarkable variety of skills and body types. Football is fun to watch, as are other sports, because the awe and artistry of superb athleticism is inherently entertaining. But there’s more: Football’s organization into distinct plays makes it the sport most amenable to having fans put themselves into the coach’s mind, applying their own tactical sensibilities to every one of about 130 plays per game.

The NFL has developed and marketed this aspect of its game to the nth degree. Fans benefit from it. Meanwhile, the NFL’s relentless (and sometimes overwhelming) marketing, creating phenomenal wealth for itself, has another salutary effect. With so much money to spread around, the NFL has been able, better than any other professional league, to create an almost perfectly level playing field (figuratively speaking, of course). Its wealth has helped enable its revenue-sharing system, which, along with its superbly balanced salary cap, gives each team, regardless of the wealth or size of its hometown population, the same chance as every other franchise to create a winning organization. A league where a team from comparatively tiny Green Bay can consistently outclass New York’s Jets — a league that allows organization to be more important than locational wealth — is an enterprise that’s doing something right.

Moreover . . . oh, let’s chuck all this highbrow stuff. It’s all true, but here are the real reasons we love the NFL:

We love the NFL because something elemental in it appeals to us at a visceral level that lends itself to mythologizing. We love the NFL because our minds’ eyes can forever see Johnny Unitas leading the Colts through the gloaming in Yankee Stadium — surgically, inexorably — and we recognize in it the essence of how a well-led whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

We love the NFL for Vince Lombardi’s magnificent tough love. We love the NFL for Bart Starr’s one last push on frozen tundra. We love it for Jack Kemp’s broken trigger finger surgically set at precisely the position needed to grip and throw the pigskin. We love it for Gale Sayers’s speedily balletic grace — and we love it because Sayers loved Brian Piccolo.

We loved it, in our innocence back then, for what remains the most electrifying display of kinetic acceleration the gridiron has ever known, namely all those times in 1973 that a man named Simpson turned on The Juice.

We loved Biletnikoff’s sticky fingers, and we loved Snake’s ball fluttering through the Sea of Hands. We loved the Fearsome Foursome, the Purple People Eaters, the Steel Curtain, and the Orange Crush. We loved Tom Landry’s fedora and Don Shula’s impossibly jutting jaw. We loved Joe Montana’s cool, and we loved Mike Ditka’s bluster. Dandy Don singing that the party was over, and John Madden diagramming how a defense stopped a field goal by inserting a goal-post upright in its path. The Big Tuna being doused in Gatorade — before it became absurdly clichéd — and LeRoy Butler’s Lambeau Leap.

We loved the game’s absurdities: Garo Yepremian trying to throw a pass, Jim Marshall’s wrong-way run, the Raiders’ Holy Roller. We loved its apparent athletic impossibilities: the Steelers’ Swann Dive, David Tyree’s helmet catch. We loved Fran Tarkenton scrambling, Barry Sanders darting, Lance Alworth floating, Ray Nitschke hitting, Dan Marino throwing, Brett Favre and Warren Sapp jawing and laughing — and the incomparable Walter Payton, never too much the superstar to stay in the pocket and pick up the blitz.

And lawdamighty, have you ever seen an athletic performance as compelling as Kellen Winslow’s epic in Miami?

Then there’s the NFL’s unmatched propensity for great storylines. The long-suffering Archie Manning fathering two Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks. The Harbaugh brothers coaching against each other in the Super Bowl. A beer-truck driver who played only one year of high-school football, never went to college, and first got a chance to go pro (indoor league) at 26, became a Pro Bowler in New Orleans. Quarterback Kurt Warner went from bagging groceries to being the Super Bowl MVP. …

You want community concern, public-spiritedness, human decency? Ask the tens of thousands of kids helped by NFL players through United Way charities for lo these 40 years. …

But if you want to see the best of the NFL — to understand how an entire devastated community can be lifted up by a professional sports franchise — never, ever let yourself forget what the Saints did for New Orleans when the NFL ordered owner Tom Benson to keep the team there after the horrors of Katrina. Have you ever seen grown men, a city’s expatriates all across the country, literally weep for joy, uncontrollably, over a first-quarter play in an early-season game? That’s what happened — the stories are legion — when gritty overachiever Steve Gleason blocked a Falcons punt in the first-ever game back in the Superdome after the hurricane.

Thirteen months of pent-up grief, suffering, and fear, all released on one cathartic moment. It wasn’t just that it was the local sports team. It was that so many of the Saints players, in some instances before anyone else, had done so much in the intervening months to help, in word and deed, to resurrect the city.

For all its faults, the NFL works hard, and works well throughout its territories, not just to suck up its cities’ energies but to add to them, not just live off the land but give back to it.

Sure, the ticket prices are way too high. Too many greedy owners demand kings’ ransoms from the public fisc. Too many values are skewed, too much hypocrisy encouraged, too much hype employed, too much trashy entertainment embraced as part and parcel of the NFL experience. Yet for every Ray Rice there is a Manning (any of three) doing charitable work in any of five cities; for every Michael Vick there’s a Starr or Staubach embodying discipline and class.

And, of course, there is the game, the game, the game. Youngblood in the trenches, a Night Train at the corner, and Summerall on the air with winter closing in.

This needs appropriate music:

 

25 years ago tonight

This year is the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which arrived in Georgia the same night as a nationally televised football game at Georgia Southern University:

I’ve announced games during rain (while we announcers were outside), snow, heat, cold and wind. Two years ago, I announced a three-day-long baseball game that started on Wednesday, included a tornado warning, and then was postponed due to lightning. Two days later, the rescheduling having to be rescheduled due to pools of water on the field, the game ended during, of course, a severe thunderstorm watch.

Last year, our second game of the season ended up taking four hours because of a 45-minute halftime lightning delay. We arrived at the stadium around 6 p.m., and left at 11:10 p.m., having announced a game that was literally the length of a Super Bowl.

A hurricane would be a first, though. Hurricanes don’t get up this far north, of course, though the remnants of hurricanes can, as low-pressure areas with geographically appropriate inclement weather.

 

The athletic equivalent of war

University of Virginia Prof. Mark Edmundson is the author of Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game:

Football is a warlike game, and we are now a warlike nation. Our love for football is a love, however self-aware, of ourselves as a fighting and (we hope) victorious people.

Until the end of World War II, it was possible for us Americans to think of ourselves as warlike only by accident. Europe pulled us into World War I. Many Americans wished to stay out. And when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, we had no choice but to fight.

The soldiers who returned from the war by and large believed the United States was finished with conflict, at least for a long time to come. The United States was a peace-loving nation, and it had earned the right to peace.

Then came Korea, Vietnam, three wars in the Middle East and no end of flare-ups around the world. One may think our military engagements have been justified and necessary. But it is no longer really possible to think America is a deeply peaceful, or even a peace-loving nation.

That kind of thinking smacks of the era when the national game truly was baseball. That game is skill-based, nonviolent and leisurely. Grunting effort has almost no part in baseball: It’s about subtle prowess, well deployed. You can win a baseball game without hating your opponents: In fact, too much passion will probably undermine your skills.

But in football, as skilled as its players are, you had best hate your opponent, or at least simulate some hatred for the space of 60 minutes of play.

Football is urban, tough and based to a large degree on the capacity to overwhelm the other team with sheer force. Football is a tank attack, a sky-borne assault, a charge into the trenches for hand-to-hand fighting. Football is following orders and sticking to the strategy. It’s about acting as a unit and taking hits for the group.

Football is generals (coaches) and captains (quarterbacks) and the enlisted guys who play on the line.

Football is about destruction. Sure, you win by getting more points than the other team, but to get more points, you generally have to slam the life out of your opponents. You try to do away with their skill players — by violence. Knock out the first-string quarterback and chances are you willwin.

It is beautiful, to be sure. The wide receiver competes with the ballet dancer in grace and style. The runner recalls the flashing leopard, the tiger on the move. It’s lovely to watch. War can be beautiful, too, one understands. The bombs create a memorable light. The crack of rifles is its own music.

The rise of football over baseball is about a change in America’s self-image. We’ve been ready to fight always (ask the Indian tribes or the Spanish who controlled much of the Southwest), but we haven’t been ready to admit it. Now it’s harder to escape the truth.

When people are willing to get publicly enthusiastic about football, they are showing a willingness to get enthusiastic about struggle and strife — maybe even about war, if they feel it is necessary. Granted, almost all games are sublimations of war. But no game is as close to war without slipping over to war as football is.

Aristotle thought the purpose of a violent spectacle was to purge dangerous feelings from the audience. Tragedy discharged the excess of pity and fear that built up in individuals. They left the theater feeling clean.

But Plato says something different. Plato fears we become what we behold. See violence enacted on a stage and your capacity for violence will increase. To Plato, football would feed a national capacity for violent action and be fed by it in turn.

From this point of view, football and war could enter a mutually energizing relation with each other: the more football, the more war; the more war, the more football.

If the modern world is truly a place where a nation must be ready to fight constantly to survive, then perhaps football serves a general good. But whether the only way to thrive as a nation and a people is through the capacity for warfare, one can certainly doubt.

The poet William Blake looked forward to a day when the wars of swords would be over and when men and women would hash out their differences through argument and imagination, through what he called the arts of mental fight.

May that day come soon.

I’m not sure if Edmundson’s close is an indictment of just war or football as well. Chess as a spectator sport is unlikely to become popular, in the latter case. Edmundson’s quoting Plato is belied by the fact that football does not come close to the amount of off-field violence that has been found in soccer. (Including the Futbol War of 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras, which started with, yes, a soccer World Cup qualifying match, and ended with 3,000 dead Salvadorans and Hondurans in 100 hours. American football also has nothing in its history like the 1985 European Cup final, where 39 people died and 600 were injured before the final, and the match was played because of fears of more violence had the match been canceled. As far as football, Aristotle tops Plato.)

I also think Edmundson’s depiction of football as “urban” is inaccurate. Other than big cities in Florida and Texas, football is more a small-town sport. There are no football-power high schools in Milwaukee or Madison, though there are in the Milwaukee suburbs. The urban sport is really basketball. But come to a small town in Florida and Texas, and even in this state, and you will see where football rates.

It should be obvious that the modern world is truly a place where a nation must be ready to fight constantly to survive. It also should be obvious that, unless you think that such concepts as freedom and self-determination are unimportant enough to fight those would take those away, yes, the only way to thrive as a nation and a people is through the capacity for warfare.

More on the warlike game later.

The season that begins tonight

With high school football starting tonight (or later this afternoon, in my personal case), Buzzfeed passes on truisms from the ultimate high school football coach, Dillon Panthers coach Eric Taylor from NBC-TV’s “Friday Night Lights”:

1. He taught us to keep our composure.

2. And the importance of being punctual.

3. He taught us responsibility.

17 Important Life Lessons Coach Taylor Taught Us

5. He taught us character.

6. And how to earn people’s respect.

12. And to tell the people close to you that you’re proud of them.

17 Important Life Lessons Coach Taylor Taught Us

16. And how to be champions.

17 Important Life Lessons Coach Taylor Taught Us
17 Important Life Lessons Coach Taylor Taught Us
17 Important Life Lessons Coach Taylor Taught Us

17. But most importantly, he taught us these six words to live by…

17 Important Life Lessons Coach Taylor Taught Us

Come to think of it, this doesn’t have to apply just to high school football. Or to high school.

Bet on the Brewers?

I am highly dubious about the premise of this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story:

The math keeps getting better for the Milwaukee Brewers.

After sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in improbable and relentless fashion, the Brewers now have the best record in the National League at 70 wins and 55 losses, and lead the St. Louis Cardinals by three games in the National League Central.

The Brewers can go 18-19 down the stretch while the Cardinals would have to finish 22-17 just to force a tie for the division lead.

With fewer than 40 games to go, how likely is it that the Brewers make the playoffs? I compiled a handful of projections and put them in a table:

Brewers’ playoff odds, as of 08/17
FanGraphs’ projections mode 82.9%
Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report 88.4%
Sports Clubs Stats’ projections 94.7%

Those percentages all went up compared with last week’s projections.

For a further explanation on the accuracy of baseball forecasting and why I use FanGraphs’ data, click here.

Click on the link, and you’ll get additional data, if that’s what you want to call this, about the Brewers’ chances beyond just getting into the playoffs as of earlier this week.

The more up to date data can be found at FanGraphs, and you get a different set of predictions there. Those projections have the Brewers and Cardinals tying for the NL Central title, with 88 wins each. The Brewers there, as of Wednesday, had a 52.8-percent chance of winning the NL Central, where the Cardinals had a 42.9 percent chance of winning the Central. That may seem like a lot, but it is actually the second closest projection (the closest is the AL Central).

One reason you probably shouldn’t buy this is that the Brewers and the Cardinals have seven games against each other in September. The Brewers are 5–7 against the Cardinals, and the Cardinals made trades to get better pitching (though that pitching hasn’t been better so far), and the Brewers haven’t. What would be worse, frankly, is for a repeat of 2011 — the Brewers get the wins over the Cardinals in the regular season, and then the Cardinals get the last laugh in the postseason.

The other is that this tries to predict based on past performance. If you believe the Brewers have been playing over their heads (suffice to say that no one was predicting the Brewers would be in first place in late August), regression to the mean predicts an ugly September, particularly given their schedule (harder than the Cardinals’ schedule) and their lack of big-game-experienced pitching.

Even if you buy this, you shouldn’t get your hopes up of a deep playoff run. The Brewers have just an 8.8-percent chance of getting to the World Series and a 2.8-percent chance of winning the World Series.

This Debbie Downer act of mine (but I am far from the only fan who feels this way) disgusts Gene Mueller:

The Brewers are atop the National League Central by three games as the new week begins, fresh off a sweep of the Los Angeles freakin’ Dodgers.  It’s a lofty perch they’ve held since well-before you mailed in your income taxes.  Think about that for a second, fans: a club given paltry-at-best chances of contending has been in first place for more than four months. …

But from Opening Day on, when the team’s early success was a pleasant surprise until these back-to-school-days of summer, there’s been an undercurrent flowing among fans, one that oozes doom and gloom, one that reeks of pending despair.

Jonathan Lucroy is an MVP candidate. Aramis Ramirez is strong and steady at third. Carlos Gomez is remains a beast.  Ryan Braun fights gamely on even though he’s left with only one functioning opposable thumb.  Starting pitching? No worries–beyond a pleasant surprise, in fact.  So what’s not to love?  Why are so many True Blue members of the Brew Crew so…blue?

They worry about Braun’s functionality. They fret about first base where Lyle Overbay isn’t the doubles machine we loved during his first tour of duty and where Mark Reynolds is prone to the whiff between prodigious homers.  They don’t care to see Rickey Weeks sharing time with Scooter Gennett at second. They worry about Jean Segura’s slide at the plate, and Khris Davis’ issues in left field. And, they live in mortal fear about the bullpen.

Solid points, indeed, but enough to take the shine off what’s been a season for the ages so far?

A team is the sum of its parts and the bottom line for the Brewers so far is that it’s a club good enough to lead a division where no one’s caught fire.  The Cards, Pirates and Reds haven’t gone on any daunting win streaks, but then again, Milwaukee hasn’t, either.  The Brewers July swoon served to fortify the doubters, and the lack of a torrid streak keeps many wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.

St. Louis is always a threat, and the Redbirds are due to get some starting pitchers back in September, just in time for the kind of run many fear could undo the Brewers–there’s something about that red parakeet that strikes fear in the heart of even the most fervid Milwaukee seam head–while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are contending despite injuries to key position players.  It would be nice to see some of these clubs falter, but that hasn’t been the case.

The big worries for Brewers fans should be injury and the pop-gun offense: the team lacks depth among position players and losing a big bat could be a death knell.  The attack?  Milwaukee seems to score just enough to get by but too often goes into funks that leave its hitters estranged from home plate.  It’s those kind of slumps that can be enough to thwart a late-season push during a critical series, or bounce a team from the playoffs in an early round.

The trade deadline came and went with GM Doug Melvin making a deal for another outfielder, Gold Glover Gerardo Parra.  It wasn’t enough for some fans, but the asking price for other available talent seemed too high with more than a few clubs hot for Jimmy Nelson.  Sometimes, the best trade is the one you DON’T make.  That said, don’t think Melvin is done looking for help, as deals can still get done (once those involved clear waivers).  He’s not the kind of guy to sit on his hands, especially when the club is this close to the playoffs.

Cheer up, Brewers Nation!  This is the kind of season many dreamed of but few thought would happen.  Not only is your team contending in a tough division, it’s leading the pack in late August. This could be a fantastic late summer that could segue into an exciting autumn.  And, even if the worst happens, how can anyone say they’re disappointed by the kind of baseball we’ve been treated to in 2014 (factoring out a large hunk of July, of course)?

Well, for one thing, 88 projected wins isn’t that impressive, even if it’s second best in the National League. That right there probably tells you what you need to know, that the National League isn’t very good this year. The Cardinals’ odds of winning the World Series are 5.3 percent, which indirectly proves a point about the value of pitching in a short playoff series. And Melvin has nine days to get better pitching before the playoff roster deadline.

 

Today’s game is brought to you by … no one

The National Football League season starts in four weeks.

That may not be as noticeable in the NFL’s lesser markets, as determined by success, or lack thereof, of their teams. The NFL has a rule that blacks out TV broadcasts if the game isn’t sold out within 72 hours of kickoff (or 48 hours if the NFL grants an extension, which it usually does when asked).

This is almost never an issue in Wisconsin, though it almost was last year when the Packers’ playoff game against San Francisco went deep into the week before it was sold out. Home NFL games — even playoff games such as the Ice Bowl — were always blacked out in home markets (in the Packers’ case, Green Bay and Milwaukee) until the early 1970s.

Federal Communications Commission commissioner Ajit Pai believes the blackout rule should be wiped out, and took the opportunity of an appearance in Buffalo to say so:

There’s no better place to discuss that topic than the City of No Illusions. This city has a rich sports tradition—the Bills, as you know, remain the only team ever to win four consecutive conference championships—and Buffalo is legendary for its loyal sports fans.

In some places, fair-weather fans find it easy to cheer for the home team. But Buffalonians don’t have that luxury. They’ve suffered their share of disappointments. As one local writer put it earlier this year, “If you are a sports fan in Buffalo, you know the words let-down, heartbreak and emptiness.” Brett Hull’s triple-overtime goal against the Sabres in Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup. The Braves of the NBA leaving town in 1978 to become the Clippers. And, perhaps most painfully—wide right.

Unfortunately, the heartbreak isn’t even limited to the playing field. Over the last four seasons, nine Buffalo Bills home games have been blacked out in Western New York. And that’s where the FCC comes in.

Late last year, the FCC announced that it would consider eliminating its sports blackout rule. League blackout policies can prohibit local television broadcast stations from airing games. And if the local stations can’t broadcast it, the FCC’s blackout rule prohibits cable and satellite companies (within a local blackout zone) from carrying it. This hurts fans who can’t go to the game. …

In the wake of the FCC’s announcement last year, hundreds of people around the country have given us their opinions on whether the sports blackout rule is necessary today. … And one of the most persuasive proponents for getting rid of this rule has been Buffalo’s own Congressman Brian Higgins. …

To be sure, Congressman Higgins and I don’t agree on everything. He backs the Bills. I cheer for the Chiefs. He’s a Democrat. I’m a Republican. But there are at least three things that can unite Buffalo and Kansas City partisans and folks of all political stripes. First, there’s admiration for Marv Levy, who coached both of our teams with distinction. Second, it has been, is, and always should be the Buffalo Bills. And there’s also this: The time has come for the FCC to repeal its sports blackout rule.

Why do I say that? After carefully reviewing all of the arguments, I don’t believe the government should intervene in the marketplace and help sports leagues enforce their blackout policies. Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners.

During my time at the FCC, I have consistently stressed the need to get rid of unnecessary regulations—of rules that have outlived whatever usefulness they once might have had, of rules that keep hard-working American consumers out of the end zone. The sports blackout rule is just such a rule. …

Right now, the FCC is officially on the side of blackouts. We should be on the side of sports fans like Jon Neubauer, who told WIVB News 4 “I can’t make it to every single [Bills] game, [but] I’m still a huge fan.” I want the FCC to help fans like him watch the stars of tomorrow: the next Andre Reed, who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame (and who has stood up for Buffalo of late); the next Thurman Thomas, who made it to five straight Pro Bowls; and the next Jim Kelly, whose brave battle against cancer inspires us even more than all of his on-field heroics.

Admittedly, if the FCC’s job is not to stand up for the private interest of NFL team owners, it will be standing up for the private interest of Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN, which broadcast the games.

The NFL, meanwhile, isn’t taking this sitting down, reports The Hill:

Just in time for kickoff, the National Football League is pushing federal regulators to keep a rule on the books that forces cable and satellite companies to black out some games. …

The league argues the rule helps teams sell tickets and creates a compelling stadium atmosphere, allowing the NFL to keep games on free television.

League lobbyist Ken Edmonds and other officials met with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s legal adviser last Thursday “to emphasize that the FCC’s sports blackout rule remains necessary and in the public interest,” according to a filing made public this week.

NFL officials told the FCC that the league is working with teams “to make blackouts exceedingly rare” by letting them lower the bar of what counts as a sold-out game, and noted that attendance has increased and the number of blackouts “has dropped dramatically.”

Last year, for instance, just two of the NFL’s 256 regular season games were blacked out.

“Although the League has taken a variety of steps to accomplish that goal, the blackout rule has been a critical contributing factor to that success,” league lawyers wrote.

In recent weeks, the NFL has also sent thousands of letters to the FCC from football fans who want to keep the blackout rule alive. The league also set up a website this summer calling for fans to “protect football on free TV,” offering links to contact Congress and the FCC.

The battle is being waged over the airwaves, too.

[Lynn] Swann, the Hall of Fame wide receiver and former Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate, said in an interview with the NFL Network over the weekend that the rule “helps grow the game and helps maintain it.”

“We need to make sure to protect the game so the widest number of people possible can view it and keep it on free TV for those people who don’t buy cable packages,” said Swann. He has been taking his pitch to local sports reporters and editors across the country.

When the rules were first adopted in 1975, teams said they were necessary to ensure that fans kept attending games in person instead of just watching them on TV. The potential for games to be blacked out encouraged people to buy tickets, they say, and maintain the revenue stream.

But critics of the rules argue that times have changed. The blackout rule allows NFL teams to be immune from the normal pressures of a free market and disproportionally hurts teams in smaller cities, they say.

For now, it looks like the reformers may be winning out.

Last December, the FCC unanimously voted to move forward with a plan to end the decades-old rules.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pushed strongly for the commission to finalize that process this summer.

So far, the FCC is still reviewing the arguments and has yet to place the item on its agenda.

In the meantime, officials at the commission have held several meetings with the Sports Fan Coalition, a group pushing to kill the blackout rule.

Even if the FCC did get rid of the rule, leagues like the NFL would still be able to negotiate individually with broadcasters, cable providers and satellite companies to black out some games.

One therefore wonders why the FCC is getting involved if the blackout rule could be negotiated between the NFL and its broadcasters anyway.

There is a big issue Pai could have brought up that is an even better rationale for eliminating the blackout rule. With exactly one exception (for instance, MetLife Stadium, home of the Giants and Jets), every stadium built since 1997 used at least some taxpayer funds, and most used a majority of taxpayer funds. (That includes Lambeau Field, the early 2000s renovations for which were paid for by a 0.5-percent Brown County sales tax.) Even the stadiums that didn’t use a majority of public funding for building construction certainly used public funds for infrastructure, including new roads to get to the stadium.

That doesn’t mean that taxpayers should get into NFL games for free. That does mean that taxpayers should at least be able to see what’s going on in the stadiums their tax money built, in this case by having home games on TV.