Football — what we Americans call soccer — rules Scotland’s sporting scene. Rugby runs a distant second, while golf, which was invented in St. Andrews, probably ranks third in terms of popularity.
Baseball barely registers a blip in the country’s sporting consciousness. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t played there. An organization called Baseball Scotland is keeping it alive, with hopes of increasing both interest and participation.
I learned more from one of its members while I was in Glasgow over the holidays.
Xander Harrison, a 24-year-old financial services analyst, plays for the Glasgow Comets. Over pints of Tennent’s Lager at a City Centre watering hole, Harrison told me that Baseball Scotland was formed in 2007 by the Edinburgh baseball club, which previously had teams in the British Baseball Federation, but had become disgruntled with the league organization and costs. There had also been a recognized BBF Scotland Division, and before that a Scotland Division in the old British Baseball League.
There is no organized baseball in the Scottish school system. Harrison began playing around the age 11, when he joined a youth league formed by the Glasgow Baseball Association. His team — one of eight in the league at the time— was the White Sox. That led to his becoming a fan of Chicago’s South Side club.
Outside of the baseball community, few Scots follow MLB. According to Harrison, the New York Yankees are the only team most of his countrymen would be familiar with. And while the stars of football’s Celtic and Rangers are well-known — “those teams are culturally ingrained in Glasgow and Scottish families” — don’t expect nods of recognition when you mention Mike Trout.
Bobby Thomson was born in Glasgow’s east end, just minutes from where Harrison and his teammates take part in America’s Pastime. An hour down the road, Edinburgh’s baseball club plays at Bobby Thomson Field. Fame isn’t universal. The average Glaswegian is barely aware the man who hit “The Shot Heard Round the World” is one of their own.
As you might expect, baseball-friendly playing surfaces aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. There is only one designated diamond in Glasgow, and Edinburgh shares an all-grass field with a football (soccer) team. A few others once existed, but as teams folded or moved locations, they fell into disuse and were eventually repurposed.
Harrison estimates that, league-wide, approximately 65 percent of the players are Scottish-born, while 35 percent are expats. Represented are the United States, Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Australia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and possibly a few others.
Could baseball in Scotland survive without the non-natives?
“I would say we could survive in terms of numbers,” said Harrison. “However, without the expats, perhaps the league would fall into more of a recreational or entry-level category — which, in fairness, it currently is anyway.”
Dave Cameron recently wrote about Eric Thames’ eyebrow-raising projections. Steamer is particularly bullish on the 30-year-old Brewer. It has him posting a .515 SLG and a .243 ISO in 2017. Given that Thames is returning from three years in Korea, and put up nondescript numbers before going overseas, that could be considered pleasantly-surprising production.
I asked Milwaukee general manager David Stearns about the extent to which their own projection system impacted the decision to ink Thames to a free-agent contract.
“As with any acquisition, we did our best to gather all of the relevant information and weigh it appropriately,” answered Stearns. “Among other things, that’s going to include scouting evaluations and statistical projections. As more players play in the KBO, or any other foreign league, and then come back to the States, projection systems are going to continue to improve. Clearly, the translation of KBO stats to (MLB) stats isn’t as straightforward as translating a Triple-A environment to a Major League environment, but it still played a role in our evaluation.”
Stearns declined to elaborate on his club’s projection system, but he did shed some light on the scouting side of the signing. Improved plate discipline appears to have been a selling point.
“Eric has continued to evolve as a hitter, and as a player, since his time at Pepperdine,” said Stearns. “That started early in his professional career in the Blue Jays organization, and it certainly accelerated when he went to Korea. Eric probably saw more breaking balls in his short stint in Korea than he did in his previous professional career combined. Any time pitchers are attacking you in a different manner, you’re going to have to make adjustments, and we were certainly pleased to see how Eric was able to seamlessly adapt to the Korean approach.”
Thames went deep 124 times with the NC Dinos. Just as impressively, he logged OBPs of .422, .497, and .425.
As reported by The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham, the Red Sox will field just one Dominican Summer League this year. In 2014 and 2015, they had two. Due to sanctions imposed by MLB — the Red Sox were found guilty of breaking international signing rules — the organization lacks a sufficient number of players to field more than one DSL club.
The Kansas City Royals have been in existence for 48 years, and their all-time leader in home runs, George Brett, had just 317. No one else has reached the 200 mark. Steve Balboni, with 36, has the most in one season. Only 10 Royals have hit 30 home runs or more.
The lack of power, and a ballpark that suppresses it, hasn’t prevented the team from winning a pair of World Series, and from falling just short on two other occasions. Pitching, speed, and defense have been KC trademarks.
That brand of baseball can be entertaining, but at the same time, home runs are exciting. The club record, set in 1987, is 168, and fifteen teams out-homered the Royals that year. This past season, 23 teams left the yard 168-or-more times. The club that calls Kaufman Stadium home finished dead last, with 147. It could have been worse. Twelve times in franchise history they’ve hit 100-or-fewer home runs. In 1981, they launched the same number that Roger Maris hit twenty years earlier.
Do Kansas City fans ever feel they’re missing out on the fun?
Mike Montgomery had mixed emotions watching the Royals — the team that drafted and developed him — play in the World Series in 2014 and 2015. He admitted as much on the eve of this past season’s Fall Classic, which he experienced as a member of the Chicago Cubs.
According to the 27-year-old lefty, the first year was the tougher of the two. He felt he should be there, “in a what-if kind of way.” The second time around, his thought process was a more accepting, “Man, this is an incredible experience they’re going through. I’m going to get there one day.”
He didn’t have to wait long.
Jorge Posada’s presence on the Hall of Fame ballot got me thinking about Ted Simmons. The latter is thought of by some as Cooperstown-worthy, an honor that hasn’t — and likely never will — be bestowed on him. Posada is probably in the same boat. Great career, but destined to remain on the outside looking in.
Who was better?
Posada slashed .273/.374/.474, and had 1,664 hits and 275 HR. His OPS+ was 121, and he had 44.7 WAR. He made five all-star teams and started twice.
Simmons slashed .285/.348/.437, and had 2,472 hits and 248 HR. His OPS+ was 118, and he had 54.2 WAR. He made eight all-star teams and started twice.
Looking at the catcher leaderboard (from 1960 to the present) Simmons ranks seventh in WAR, with Posada five spots below him on the list. Two Tigers — neither of whom are in the Hall — bookend the newly-eligible Yankee. Lance Parrish is Posada’s arrears. In front of him is a player who dominated his position from 1964-1975.
Bill Freehan slashed .262/.340/.412 and had 1,591 hits and 200 home runs. His OPS+ was 112 and he had 44.8 WAR. He made 11 all-star teams and started seven.
Those accolades don’t necessarily jump off the page, but they certainly catch the eye. The only catchers with more all-star berths than Freehan are Mike Piazza (12), Elston Howard (12), Johnny Bench (14), Ivan Rodriguez (14), and Yogi Berra (18). Only 43 players in big-league history have been an all-star more times than Freehan.
Forced to rank them, I’d go Simmons, Freehan, Posada.
Broadcasters are good story-tellers. Robert Ford is no exception, so I asked the Houston Astros play-by-play man if he could share a good story for this week’s column. Here is what he shared:
“More than a decade ago, when I was the voice of the Kalamazoo Kings, of the independent Frontier League, we were in Chillicothe, Ohio for a Saturday night game that was supposed to feature post-game fireworks. However, there was a lengthy rain delay before the game could start, and Chillicothe had to shoot off the fireworks by a certain time, so there was concern among their staff that they wouldn’t be able to have fireworks, thus losing the big gate they were expecting.
“The great folks of Chillicothe came up with a solution. Right before the fireworks curfew, they would stop the game, shoot off the fireworks, then resume the game. None of the Kalamazoo players or staff were thrilled with this arrangement, as you could imagine. Because of the rain delay, we were already in for a long night, and we had a day game with Chillicothe the next day.
“Sure enough, around the sixth or seventh inning, the game was stopped for the fireworks show. The fans oohed and aahed, and when it was over, they left. What didn’t leave was the smoke from the fireworks; it was like a dense fog over the field. That delayed the game for about a half hour. Once the smoke finally cleared, the game was resumed in an empty stadium.”
Earlier this week, at The Hardball Times, Evan Davis wrote about The Greatest Game Jose Fernandez Ever Pitched. Determined by Game Score 2.0, the outing came this past September in the Miami righty’s last-ever start. The burgeoning superstar tragically lost his life in a boating accident less than a week later.
I have my own recollection.
On April 22, 2014 — shortly before he blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery — Fernandez delivered what might be the most-dominant pitching performance I’ve witnessed in person. In front of a sparse crowd at Turner Field — the announced attendance of 18,275 was wildly overstated — Fernandez out-dueled Atlanta’s Alex Wood in a contest that flew by in just two hours and eight minutes. The final score was 1-0.
Fernandez went eight innings, allowed three singles, walked no one, and fanned 14. Braves batters either flailed — 26 swinging strikes — or, as Ernie Harwell was wont to say, “stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.” Twenty times, Fernandez induced a strike-looking.
I had the pleasure of attending multiple Pedro Martinez masterpieces. I was there for Derek Lowe’s no-hitter, in 2002. What I saw in Atlanta a few short years ago was every bit as impressive. Fernandez was brilliant.
The best pitching performance I witnessed in 2016? There are several contenders — I attended over 100 games and saw a few near no-hitters — but looking back, the one that stands out most was a four-and-a-third-inning start.
Given the circumstances, Ryan Merritt’s performance in Cleveland’s ALCS-clinching win over Toronto — in Rogers Centre, no less — was worthy of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Feel free to raise your hand if you expected it… but I won’t believe you.
The following is a passage from Jeff Passan’s The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports. Passan was describing Daniel Hudson’s reaction to learning he had torn his Ulnar Collateral Ligament for the second time. He’d done so in his first outing following Tommy John surgery and a year of arduous rehab.
“Hudson dropped his phone to the floor when the conversation ended. Everything was for nothing. He was Sisyphus.”
That is splendid prose. Along with being informative, The Arm is a well-written.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At The Chicago Tribune, Mark Gonzales wrote about how Joe Maddon finds it humorous that people continue to second-guess his questionable moves.
Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post weighed in on Colorado’s youthful catching staff, and how GM Jeff Bridich once manned the position with the Harvard Crimson.
Eric Roseberry’s On Baseball Writing podcast is consistently good. His recent interview subjects include Craig Edwards, C. Trent Rosecrans, and Mark Simon.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On the final day of the 1914 season, 44-year-old Washington Senators manager Clark Griffith pitched a scoreless ninth inning in an 11-4 win over the Red Sox. Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker both pitched for Boston that day.
Tris Speaker had eight-or-more triples in 16 consecutive seasons. He had 10-or-more in 13 of them.
On their final weekend of the 1945 season the Washington Senators lost a chance to pull within a half game of the Detroit Tigers when right-fielder Bingo Binks — who wasn’t wearing sunglasses — lost a fly ball in the sun, in the 12th inning.
In 1971 — two years before the DH rule came into effect — Oakland right-hander Catfish Hunter slashed .350/.362/.408 in 109 plate appearances. He homered off Detroit’s Mickey Lolich, who finished the year with 25 wins and a 2.92 ERA.
On this date in 1990, Cecil Fielder signed a free agent contract with the Detroit Tigers after spending the previous season with Japan’s Hanshin Tigers. Fielder hit 288 home runs after returning stateside.