The Most Marketable Athlete of All Time Debate… Sharpening the Spikes In A New Era

August 20, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan and Sports Geek.

Ty Cobb was one mean son of a gun. The enormous chip on his shoulder drove him to play with reckless abandon, for his own safety and the well-being of those around him. He shot his mouth off routinely, often in order to play head games with his competitors. He was despised and feared by opponent and teammates alike, but he was an undeniably talented athlete and a larger than life character. His ruthless aggression is something missing in today’s kinder and gentler baseball era. I can’t help but wonder if his star would have burned even brighter if he played in the modern era of baseball.

Obviously any argument for Cobb’s marketability as a modern superstar must first acknowledge his greatest character flaw, overt racism. I want to be clear that I make no excuses for his prejudices, because there are none. Regardless of whether the racist rhetoric he put forth was a product of the times or his environment, being born and raised the segregated South just two decades removed from the Civil War. His racism mars his legacy as one of the greatest players in baseball history.

But the beauty of this scenario is that it removes Cobb from the circumstances that undermine his achievements. A Ty Cobb playing in the majors today would have been raised in a time of integration and greater equality. He would have played alongside a diverse field of players at all levels of baseball, to say nothing of having a group of handlers to steer him away from this potentially career killing controversial attitude. Contemporary athletes have entourages dedicated to ensuring athletes have positive images. Certainly no one could leash his wild temperament, but it is plausible that an exceptional agent , publicist, or even life coach could help him avoid some of the nasty pitfalls of his past. There is still no guarantee that any of this would endear him to those in his clubhouse or around the league, but it should at the very least minimize the greatest blemish on an otherwise impressive career.

With a clean slate in modern baseball there should be little doubt that Ty Cobb would take the league and world by storm. He has the story, personality, and tools to be a icon larger than any other in sports today.

Somewhat of a lesser known aspect to Ty Cobb is the fact that he overcame and was driven by a tragic youth. When Cobb was entering early adulthood his mother accidentally murdered his father. Cobb’s mother mistook young Cobb’s father for an intruder and shot and killed him. It was believed that his father suspected his mother of an adulterous affair and was lurking outside their bedroom to catch his wife in the act. It was a pivotal moment in Cobb’s life. In his own words, “My father had his head blown off with a shotgun when I was 18 years old – by a member of my own family. I didn’t get over that.” It certainly stirred something deep within the tortured ballplayer, pushing him to play with a ferocity that baseball had never seen.

Such a tale of adversity would make him more popular and marketable. The public likes underdog tales like Cobb’s because they create an emotional connection. When the public sympathizes with a celebrity, especially an extremely talented one with an electric personality, there is no telling what shortcoming they are willing to ignore. NFL icon Ray Lewis is living proof of that. He was once alleged to be connected with a double murder, but people don’t generally associate him with what would otherwise be a career defining incident. In light of years of dominance and personal loss, people view a more complete, likeable, and marketable Lewis. Now, when people think of number 52 they think of his intense persona, on field successes, and the story of how he overcame the hardships of his youth. A modern Cobb would surely be no different. He wouldn’t want sympathy though just a chance to take out his frustrations on the competition, which was something he excelled at.

What speaks the loudest in terms of Cobb’s contemporary appeal is his unrivaled ability. The achievements of his career are mind blowing. He won 12 batting titles, nine of which were consecutive (from 1907-1915). At one time he held nearly 90 MLB records, some which still stand today. That type of record breaking play would make him an instant success. If he received a Wheaties cover endorsement each month for every record he held, we would be looking at pictures of Cobb every morning for the next seven and a half years. At one time he held the career record for hits, runs, stolen bases, games played and at bats. Comparatively, he is like a mix of Pete Rose, Ricky Henderson, and Cal Ripken, Jr. But even more impressive is the fact that he still holds the record for career batting average with an astonishing .367 average. The man could flat out hit the ball anywhere he wanted, though that was hardly the most notorious aspect of his game.

Ty Cobb’s style of play offers something different, something that modern fans have never seen – the most brutal base running in MLB history. Everyone knows baseball fans love the long ball, but Cobb would have disagreed. He felt placing the ball, something he could do like no other batter, required more skill. He didn’t care for power hitters like Babe Ruth. It is even reported that to prove his belief –that hitting homeruns was easy and required less skill – he once changed his grip and hit three home runs in the same game. Instead of the easy homer, Cobb let his deadly feet do the talking.

Ty Cobb stole bases in an unruly fashion. He owned base stealing the way Roger Clemens owned the mound, and just like the brutish bat throwing hurler, Cobb would defend what was his at all costs. Rumors spread, adding to his legend that he even sharpened his cleats to take out any runner that dared to guard the bag. In a modern context that alone might make him an anti-hero and fan favorite in the process. But Cobb didn’t just steal the occasional bag. He stole them all. On 54 occasions Cobb stole home plate. A steal of home is an immediate SportsCenter highlight and it is something he did with regularity. On four occasions he even turned a single into a run by proceeding to steal second, third, and home plate. There’s a Nike campaign if I ever saw one.

Obviously the current MLB player is probably faster and more athletic than in Cobb’s day, but a great deal of Cobb’s prowess is bound to have survived in modern baseball. Looking around baseball today there are fewer villains that fans love to hate than in the past. Alex Rodriguez probably tops the list of contenders for that title, with his swagger, but Cobb’s antagonistic style and unique skill set would set him apart today. He would be controversial and innovative, electric and volatile. He would fit in with today’s stars just fine.

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The Early MLB All-Star Voting Start Debate… A Royal All-Star Game?

April 29, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

Another season, another desperate promotional crawl toward the MLB All-Star game this July. And, of course, if you promote something enough through various media outlets then it simply MUST be important, right? That’s the only possible explanation. Well, if that’s the rule you live by, I hope you’re enjoying your Furby and Pet Rock. I have some GREAT Snake Oil I’d like to sell you, too.

Too often sports marketing becomes about repetition of message and not quality of product. No example better illustrates this fact like Major League Baseball’s promotion of All-Star voting for fans. Fans are asked after a short three weeks of actual baseball to vote on which players deserve to play in the All-Star game – you know, that game that decides home field advantage for the World Series. Sure, it is an exhibition game, but it is also a game designed to award the best league with home field advantage. Are you ready to pick those players in April, knowing full well that those players might be deciding if your team gets home field advantage in the World Series? I know I’m not.

This debate depends entirely on context. What is the context for the fans voting in the All-Star game? Are fans expected to pick the best players across the league to represent their preferred league in the All-Star game? Or, are fans simply voting for their favorite players? It seems that there is a substantial disconnect here. Fans are voting based on popularity in the current structure. Allowing fans to vote after three weeks of actual games is absurd because fans have very little sample size to go off of. The kicker is, of course, that the All-Star game is a game fans and players alike want to win.

So, to recap. Fans want to vote for their favorite players early and often. A smaller faction of fans, coaches, and players want to win the game to secure home field advantage in the World Series… a goal that the best players are required to accomplish. The equation simply does not add up, and the early voting perpetuates the problem. Any democratic situation requires the electorate be informed, but in this case the electorate is misinformed with bad information with a small sample size.

Popularity dictating the vote does not seem to make sense, then, because, popular players are not always the best players. And, the inverse is true also in that the best players are not always popular. The problem is, the best players a few weeks into April will not be the best players still after June 1. Consider this very real scenario, folks. If voting were ended right now here is a likely starting lineup for both sides:

American League
1B Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
2B Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
3B Ty Wiggington, Baltimore Orioles
SS Yuniesky Betancourt, Kansas City Royals
LF Scott Podsednik, Kansas City Royals
RF Shin-Soo Choo, Cleveland Indians
CF Franklin Gutierrez, Seattle Mariners
C Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
P Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins
DH Vladimir Guerrero, Texas Rangers

National League
1B Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals
2B Martin Prado, Atlanta Braves
3B Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants
SS Ryan Theriot, Chicago Cubs
LF Andre Ethier, L.A. Dodgers
RF Kosuke Fukudome, Chicago Cubs
CF Michael Bourn, Houston Astros
C Ivan Rodriguez, Washington Nationals
P Mike Pelfrey, New York Mets
DH Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

Do those lists showcase the best talent in MLB, across the board, that is most deserving of an All-Star game apperance? No. Some of the players deserve recognition, but many will likely fade after the adrenaline of April wears off. And frustrated All-Star managers will be left holding the bag. I mean, do the Royals REALLY deserve that much All-Star attention? As a business issue – are fans going to PAY to see the stars from ROYALS? No, but then we’re back at the popularity scenario where the best players are not guaranteed a roster spot. The entire conundrum can be avoided easily if fan voting does not begin until a reasonable amount of baseball has been played.

Plus, if the World Series home field advantage depends on this game, why aren’t the selected managers able to build the type of club they want in order to win the game? Taking fan voting completely out of it, there is potentially a great deal at stake. It doesn’t make sense to put every manager in a difficult situation by forcing underqualified players on them in a playoff series that is a must win should their team reach the World Series.

If fans must be included in the voting, at least recognize that there is no baseball value in beginning the vote this early. It is an effort to pander to fans – an effort I find both insulting and useless. There are some aspects of the game that should be taken seriously, like contracts and championships. Opening the vote even earlier to fans makes a mockery of contracts by triggering All-Star incentives in contracts for players that do not deserve them, and by forcing less skilled players on managers charged with the responsibility of winning a game.

Allowing fans to vote at all is enough. Opening the vote up after three weeks into the season just stuffs the roster with questionable players and works against the goal of the game being taken seriously. Restore pride in the All-Star game… or just don’t bother.

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The 2010 Best Rotation for the Money Debate… Marlins Rotation Delivers Greatest Pitching Value

April 7, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Bleacher Fan.

Well, the Florida Marlins are up to their old tricks again. The not-so-lovable cheapskates have again stockpiled talent in a very under-the-radar manner. While the offensive talent is debatable (for another day), the pitching rotation talent is secure. In fact, for the money, the Marlins have the best rotation in baseball.

For proof of my seemingly bold statement take a moment and review the salaries of each pitching rotation in baseball. The Yankees… it is hard to argue with the money that organization has spent on pitching considering it did earn a World Series championship. Still, $63M-plus is a lot of money just for pitching. The Cubs are laughably overpaying for that mishmash of talent that includes Carlos Silva as one of the more highly paid members of the staff. The top ten are all over $30M, 11-18 on the list all surpass $20M, and 19-27 all exceed $10M for a five-man rotation. The most value is found in the sub-$10M range.

Now, I have written here at The Sports Debates about how great I believe Seattle’s rotation is this season. I have also sung the praises of the San Francisco Giants. For me, however, the Marlins provide the most value. They feature a lot of talent considering the measly price tag of $9.6M for an entire five man rotation.

Josh Johnson ($3.75M committed for 2010 season) – when healthy – may be one of the top pitchers in the National League. The 2009 season finally yielded health and consistency for Johnson, who was able to squeeze in over 200 innings. Johnson struck out nearly 200 (191 to be exact) and had an impressive 3.23 ERA. The 15-5 record – along with two complete games – solidifies both his role as the staff’s ace and the fact that Johnson is still part prospect.

Former Chicago Cubs farmhand Ricky Nolasco ($3.8M committed for 2010 season) will prove the rule – just wait. What rule? The rule that ex-Cubs become great. Former Cubs’ minor leaguers, once traded, always seem to have nice careers (can you tell I’m a Cubs fan??). Nolasco battled injuries and confidence dips last season but often showed flashes of potential. In 2008 Nolasco posted a 3.52 ERA and notched 15 wins, very reachable goals for the hefty right-hander. Nolasco showed in the final two weeks of the 2009 season that he has the ability to be a dominant pitcher. In his last three outings he struck out 33 batters and gave up just five earned runs.

Third in the rotation is Anibal Sanchez ($1.25M committed for 2010 season), a young right-hander who already has a no-hitter under his belt. Like Nolasco, Sanchez has battled injury problems, having made only 32 starts in the last three seasons. Sanchez did, however, manage to make 16 starts in 2009 and post a promising 3.87 ERA. In his last seven starts in 2009 Sanchez had only one start that was not a quality start (going 4.2 innings in a game the team still won 11-3). In those same seven starts Sanchez only gave up 12 earned runs.

Fourth is the mercurial Chris Volstad ($420,000 committed for 2010 season). Many of you may know him as the pitcher who had a 2.67 ERA in April last season, when you most-assuredly picked him up off of waivers in your fantasy league. No doubt you were not too pleased when his ERA ballooned to nearly five in May, then nearly seven in June. He averaged an ERA of over nine in the last two months of the season. Nevertheless, if Volstad can extend his magical April touch to the rest of the season he will be tough to face.

Newly acquired Nate Robertson (who is still getting the vast majority of his salary paid for by the Detroit Tigers) is not being counted on to be a major contributor. But, because most of his cash is coming from Detroit, anything Robertson gives the Marlins is gravy. He will have the time to regain his pitching form without the high(ish) pressure and expectations in Detroit. If Robertson can stay relatively healthy and pitch 110 innings, the Marlins are getting another value-oriented contributor to the rotation.

The Marlins have a pitcher-friendly ballpark and a fast and athletic defense, too. The actual talent of the pitchers is, of course, the most important reason why the Marlins’ rotation provides the most bang for the buck. But when the pitchers are not getting strike outs, a speedy defense has their collective backs. The combination of pitchers with great stuff – even no-hitter stuff – and the defense behind them gives the Florida Marlins the best rotation for the money in baseball this season.

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The Most Important Player on the Hot Stove Debate – The Man of the Year is the Man of the Offseason!

November 19, 2009

Read Sports Geek’s argument and Loyal Homer’s arguments about who will be the most important player on the hot stove during this MLB offseason.

Following the historic collapse of the Detroit Tigers during the final weeks of the 2009 baseball season, change is inevitable for the Motor City. For a team to be THAT close to playing October baseball – only to have the opportunity snatched away in extra innings of an extra game – it is foolish to assume that the Tigers’ front offices will be content to just leave things alone. Instead, general manager David Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland will be spending the next few months trying to determine exactly what went wrong, and who are the best people to help fix those problems.

Additionally, there are several key players from the Tigers who become free agents this offseason. With several very expensive contracts already on their books (such as $10M in 2009 for the disappointing Dontrelle Willis and $19M for Magglio Ordonez), the Tigers are facing the prospect of a very costly next few seasons.

With the inevitable winds of change blowing on the horizon, the Tigers must look for any way possible to add talent to the team without adding to the payroll. One option considered, an option that could have a very large impact on the league, is to shop around All-Star centerfielder Curtis Granderson. After publicly acknowledging that Dombrowski was willing to make a trade with Granderson, several teams immediately began to express an interest in dealing for the 2009 Man of the Year.

Granderson is a rare talent in baseball. Although his 2009 batting average of .249 was low by his standards, he has been one of the top leadoff hitters in the American League over the past four seasons. Despite the lower than normal batting average last season, Granderson still managed to hit a career-high 30 home runs along with eight triples and 23 doubles. On the base paths Granderson also accounted for 20 stolen bases last season.

It is his unique combination of speed and power that make Granderson so appealing. Helping to sweeten the deal is the fact that the Tigers seem desperate to reload the roster on the cheap. Because the relative cost in order to get Granderson into their lineup is low (he will likely be dealt for a handful of prospects), Granderson could become the steal of the offseason.

One such team that has seemed very excited about the possibility of bringing Granderson on board is the Chicago Cubs, who are currently paying more than $12M a year to Kosuke Fukudome to play center field. Fukudome was a very highly sought after free agent from Japan, and the Cubs were quick to sign him to their roster for a $48M deal over a four year period. Halfway through that contract, however, Fukudome has not performed nearly as well as Granderson, but makes nearly four times the salary. Granderson would bring better hitting and fielding to the Cubs in the center field position at a fraction of the cost.

Two other teams that could be in the market for Granderson are the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels. The Yankees face the likelihood of losing Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon to free agency during the offseason, and will be in need of an outfielder. Because the World Series champs are ALWAYS interested in making a deal, it would not be a surprise at all to see Granderson in pinstripes by the time April rolls around. As for the Angels, there is some question as to where he would fit in because they already have a marquis centerfielder in Torii Hunter. Nevertheless, the Angels organization has expressed an immediate interest in dealing for Granderson.

No matter where he ends up, Curtis Granderson is a difference maker both on and off the field. With so many teams seemingly interested in him, the Tigers will have plenty of offers to chew on over the next few months. Whether the Tigers ultimately deal him away or not, his reported availability should have a huge impact on the league. With so many big-market teams apparently interested in him, Curtis Granderson could make for the blockbuster trade of the year!

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The Speaking the Unspoken Rules Debate – The Speaking of Unspoken Rules

August 12, 2009

Read Sports Geek’s argument that it is ok to come out and speak about the unspoken rules and Bleacher Fan’s argument that players and coaches should not speak the unspoken rules of their sport

The city of Chicago is fortunate enough to have two teams in wild card chases (with the Cubs also being in a division race.) Entering play on Wednesday, the Cubs are three games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and three games behind the Rockies in the wild card race. Meanwhile, the boys from the South side enter play Wednesday trailing the Detroit Tigers by two games in the American League Central. It is going to be wild!

Something else has happened involving the White Sox, though.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, perhaps feeling the pressure of the pennant race, spoke out in frustration last week. This is something he rarely does (just a hint of sarcasm here). The White Sox have been getting drilled in all parts of the body over the past month by blazing fastballs from the opposing teams. Guillen has had enough, and he is going to do something about it. He has issued a warning to every team the White Sox play from here on out.

“If I see someone hit my player, and I know they hit him on purpose, it’s two guys going down. I don’t care if I get suspended,” Guillen said. “I rather have me suspended for two games than have my players on the DL for 30 days.”

Now, it is common for a team to plunk a batter at some point after their player has been drilled. It is just part of the game and most people, sans Kevin Youkilis, accept it. I know, as a fan, if one of the players on the team I am rooting for gets drilled, I want someone on the other team to get hit also. Not headhunting or anything, but maybe right in the back. After that, all is forgotten and everyone moves along.

But Ozzie “The Non-Wizard” Guillen has upped the ante. On one end of the spectrum, he has really sent a message to his team that he has their back and that the constant beaning of the White Sox has got to stop. On the other hand, he has really put his entire pitching staff under a microscope and put them under a lot of pressure. If Mark Buerhle comes inside on Miguel Cabrera and unintentionally hits him, the home plate umpire, knowing Guillen’s comments, could toss Buerhle out of the game.

Sounds like a debate to me.

Is it wise to speak the unspoken rules of baseball?

Sports Geek will argue that it is ok to speak the “unspoken” rules while Bleacher Fan will argue that it is not something that a player or coach should do!

Game on! The loser either gets thrown out of the game or gets beaned by a Loyal Homer fastball (and we all know that’s a real heater!)!

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The MLB 2009 Division Race Debate – The AL Central Hollywood Blockbuster

July 13, 2009

Read Loyal Homer’s argument that the NL East is the best division race for the second half of the MLB season, and Sports Geek’s argument that it is in the NL Central.

The MLB 2009 Season, Part 1, is now at an end. What have we learned so far?

We’ve also seen the Mets struggle with injuries, the Dodgers get off to their best start in 32 years (maybe Manny was doing them a favor by sitting out 50 games!), and we saw the AL dominate interleague play once again (perhaps a little World Series foreshadowing?).

So, which division race will be the most exciting to watch as we move into MLB Season, Part Deux? For me, it’s gotta be the AL Central. Hollywood writers couldn’t have created a more perfect set-up for the drama, excitement, and eventual payoff that will come from this race. No other division in baseball is going to offer as much as the battle between the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins.

Let’s break it down:

This will be a three team race.
Out of all three teams at the front of the AL Central, none have emerged as a clear favorite. When you consider head-to-head standings between these three teams, the Tigers (the current AL Central leaders) are a combined 6-10 against the White Sox and Twins. At the same time, the White Sox are a combined 9-8, and the Twins (currently the farthest back from Detroit) are a combined 10-7 against each other.

While the Tigers have built an early 3.5 game lead in the Central, their inability to perform against their primary competition calls into question whether or not they will effectively hold onto that lead.

There is little to no potential for a consolation prize.
In the AL Central, more than any other division, the race will truly be for all the marbles, meaning that the losers of the AL Central race have the least likelihood of contending for a wild card spot, as the likely winner will either come from the AL East or AL West. It’s do-or-die, and do-or-die is high drama.

To put it another way: Which is more exciting to watch in a seven game postseason series, game one or game seven? Game seven is more exciting because it’s do-or-die. Sure, teams WANT to win game one, but losing game one doesn’t mean you go home. There is greater pressure to succeed when you are in a do-or-die situation, making the stakes much higher.

This race is timed to peak perfectly.
What is rule number one for any great story? Don’t climax too early (okay, so that’s a rule for more than just story-telling, but I digress…).

In any race, the most dramatic games are when the contending teams actually play each other. People would rather watch the drama unfold on the field than watch for scoreboard updates from across the league. When I look at the close of the season for the White Sox, Twins, and Tigers, I have to stand up and cheer!

Rather than close their schedules against teams like the Indians, the Royals, or the Orioles, all three of these teams are scheduled to close their respective seasons out in epic fashion by facing off against each other. It’s the equivalent of starting the playoffs two to three weeks early.

In the Detroit Tigers final five series, they play the Twins and Indians, and then they play the White Sox, the Twins AGAIN, and then the White Sox AGAIN! That means 13 of their final 16 games are played against the very teams trying to knock them off the top of the mountain. When you consider their previous performance against those teams (winning only six of their first 16 combined meetings), it seems like an uphill battle… and they’re currently in first place!

The White Sox, in similar fashion, finish by playing Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, and then Detroit again. That makes for nine of their final 12 games against the other contenders.

Last, the Twins wrap up against the Tigers, the White Sox, the Royals, then the Tigers and Royals one more time (10 of their final 16 games against the division’s top teams).

The AL Central race will not be decided until the final games of the season, and will be decided ON THE FIELD, where the champion will be crowned because they earned it in blood, sweat, and tears!


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