King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Should baseball step aside for presidential debates? Plus: New thinking seeps into the Grand Old Game. And: NFL Week 5 picks.

By Salon Staff
Published October 8, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Friday's second presidential debate conflicts with Game 3 of the Yankees-Twins series, the ballgame starting around 8:15 p.m. EDT and the debate at 9. One reader asks, "Don't you think it's lame that baseball couldn't schedule the playoff games around the presidential debates?"

My first reaction was no, but since this reader was my boss, David Talbot, I figured I should listen further. "Baseball is the all-American game and has particular symbolic significance -- hence all the patriotic displays at games after 9/11," he wrote in an e-mail.

"The country is at war, the war is the focus of the presidential campaign, this is a historic election. This is why the debates, even the vice presidential one, are getting record ratings. It seems to me that it would not unduly inconvenience the league or the teams" to reschedule a game around the debate.

You won't find many harsher critics of Major League Baseball, the company, than this column, but I have to back baseball on this one.

I hate to disagree with the boss, especially since he's been so good to me in the years since the Christmas Party Incident, but why should baseball, of all American businesses -- including Salon -- have to change what it does, surrendering business during its peak commercial season, to accommodate a debate? Should the bars close? Broadway shows? Movies? It's just one night for them. Baseball's on the clock, racing the wet weather.

And anyway, the baseball games were scheduled first. It's been true since 1995 that the first few Fridays in October, there are baseball playoff games scheduled. Couldn't the debate have been scheduled for last Monday, a pre-playoff day off? The third and final debate is Wednesday, when there are two League Championship Series games scheduled. Couldn't it have been pushed back to Oct. 22, a scheduled Friday off before the World Series?

"You know, we have this problem every four years, almost on the same nights," says Rich Levin of the commissioner's office. "We make our schedule pretty far in advance, way before we know anything about when the debates are going to be. But baseball's on a tight schedule because of the weather. Baseball's mostly an outdoor game, and we really can't afford to give up dates."

Levin said the Commission on Presidential Debates did not approach baseball about changing the schedule and he's unaware of any complaints from the public this year despite the high ratings for the debates. In the past, he notes, having playoff baseball has provided a network with a good excuse for not showing the usually low-rated debates.

"It's not only the debates, there's also the Jewish holidays," he says. "But we just don't have enough dates available to accommodate things like that."

Levin didn't want to speculate on what baseball would do if the debate commission did approach with a request to reschedule a night game for the afternoon, say, to accommodate a debate, noting that the response would have to be agreed upon by baseball, its TV networks and its sponsors.

I'm willing to speculate, and I don't think it's hard to guess what the response might be. And I think that would be fine. I don't see a problem with letting Americans make an adult choice between watching a presidential debate and a ballgame, or taping one and watching it later. I mean, I know who I'm going to vote for. I don't know what's going to happen in the Yankees-Twins game.

Am I wrong on this one? I don't think Talbot's being unreasonable here. It wouldn't take much to accommodate the debate if the commission were also willing to give. Starting the debate at 7 p.m. EDT and delaying the start of the night baseball game to 9 p.m. would allow most of the game to be played in prime time with no overlap, though it would be rough on West Coast viewers wanting to watch the candidates. Even starting the debate at 8 would be an improvement, letting viewers choose between missing the second hour of the debate or the first two or three innings of the game.

I just disagree. What do you think? Should baseball reschedule starting times around the debates? It's only every four years. Drop me a line and keep your answers short, please. I'll report back on Wednesday, the day of the final presidential clash.

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Baseball minds are slowly changing [PERMALINK]

How about the way managers are using their bullpens this postseason? We're seeing an awful lot of closers coming in to ballgames in situations other than the usual save setup, starting the ninth with a lead.

The Yankees brought Mariano Rivera into Game 1 Tuesday with one out in the eighth inning, a longtime playoff habit of manager Joe Torre's. But then in Thursday's Astros-Braves Game 2, which the Braves won 4-2 in 11 innings, Houston manager Phil Garner brought in closer Brad Lidge with one out in the seventh. Closers are generally eating bonbons with their feet up in the seventh inning.

The Astros, up 1-0 in the series, were clinging to a 2-0 lead and starter Roy Oswalt had given up a one-out double to pinch-hitter Dewayne Wise and a run-scoring single to Rafael Furcal.

There was then a brouhaha over what Garner did, which was claim the bullpen phone wasn't working, which created a delay of several minutes, either because the phone wasn't working or because Garner wanted to give Lidge extra time to warm up. It's an interesting little mystery, phone trouble or gamesmanship, but we won't worry about it for the moment because it's beside the point here.

Anyway, in came Lidge to protect the 2-1 lead with eight outs to go. Now, for those of you who have heard people, including me, run down the idea of a closer, who have heard talk of "bullpen by committee" and have thought it was insane, this is what it's all about. It isn't, "You don't need a great relief pitcher." It's, "You should use your best pitcher in the most important situation, even if that's not protecting a lead in the ninth inning."

Garner believed that the game was on the line right there in the seventh, so he brought in his best relief pitcher. That's it. And it was a good call. It worked. Lidge wasn't sharp but he got out of the inning with the lead intact, thanks in part to one of the Braves' many baserunning errors of the afternoon, Furcal deciding too late to try to score on a wild pitch and being thrown out.

Lidge then blew the save in the eighth when he gave up a walk and a single and then an RBI double to Adam LaRoche. Garner is being hammered now for leaving Lidge in for too long, but that criticism is off the mark. LaRoche was only the fifth batter Lidge had faced. He hadn't been effective, but he wasn't gassed. And after LaRoche's hit he settled down and got the next five outs, giving up only a leadoff single in the ninth to John Smoltz.

You can argue with Garner over whether that seventh-inning situation was really the point where the game was on the line, but arguing with the idea of bringing in your best pitcher when you think the game is in the balance is silly. The Astros didn't lose the lead because of Garner's decision but because Lidge simply didn't have his best stuff Thursday, as Lidge himself admitted.

Meanwhile, the Braves did something similar with their closer. Manager Bobby Cox brought Smoltz in to pitch the eighth with Atlanta still trailing 2-1. It worked beautifully, Smoltz throwing three shutout innings and even getting that base hit, giving his team a chance to get into extra innings, where they won in the 11th on Furcal's two-run homer.

Most of the media attention being paid to Thursday's bullpen usage is ill-aimed criticism of Garner and either delighted or horrified astonishment at the two closers pitching more than two innings each, which is seen as either a hideous mistake or a delightful throwback to the days of Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter getting eight-out saves while sporting bushy facial hair.

But I think what's interesting is watching what I'll call sabermetric thinking slowly seeping into baseball, little by little. Even two or three years ago it would have been unthinkable that you'd see two top-notch closers brought into the same game in anything but a clear save situation. That's still all you ever see in the regular season, but in the playoffs, when the stakes are sky high, managers are starting to think a little more. I like it.

And it's not just bullpen usage and not just managers. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Braves down 2-1, J.D. Drew led off with a single and then got caught stealing with Chipper Jones at the plate.

This is one of the flash points in the ongoing ideological debate between traditional-thinking and sabermetrically inclined baseball folks. The former tend to love "small ball," with lots of stealing, bunting, moving runners along. The latter basically argue that slugging is the way to get baserunners home, and all that small ball results in running into a lot of outs.

ESPN analyst Jeff Brantley is hardly a favorite of the sabermetric crowd, but he jumped on Drew. "I think if you're J.D. Drew there, you've got to be able to make it if you're going to take off," he said. "You've got a guy standing at home plate that can hit the ball out of the ballpark and put you up by one run. If you're going to steal you have got to make it."

Brantley is kind of a master of 20-20 hindsight, but I swear, even one year ago, this statement would not have been heard on national TV. You'd have heard that while it was a shame for Drew that he got thrown out, you can't fault him for being aggressive, forcing the Astros to make a play. Astros catcher Raul Chavez, after all, had just taken a foul ball to the throat off Jones' bat, so he may have been a little shaky.

Teams running themselves out of big innings only got criticized if the runners made actual base-running blunders, like Furcal's hesitation on that wild pitch. If it was just aggressiveness that got them thrown out, they were immune. A different approach has seeped in to the point where it's starting to shift the debate a little bit. And rightly so. If Drew had stayed put at first, LaRoche's double would have given the Braves the lead.

In the 11th, Brantley showed why it's better to comment after the fact, even if it leaves you open to charges that you're a master of hindsight. With the winning run at second and two outs, Furcal took a big swing and missed an offspeed pitch. "Furcal needs to be thinking about just slapping the ball the other way, not pulling the ball out of the ballpark," Brantley said.

The next pitch was inside. The one after that, Furcal took a big swing and pulled it out of the ballpark.

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NFL Week 5 picks [PERMALINK]

With baseball on the front burner, this column is proud to introduce the new, streamlined for your convenience, two sentences per game NFL picks, with predicted winners in capital letters.

Cleveland (2-2) at PITTSBURGH (3-1): The Steelers don't look great to me, but they're starting to look pretty good in the AFC North. Even with a rookie quarterback.

Detroit (2-1) at ATLANTA (4-0): The Falcons 5-0? You think?

MIAMI (0-4) at New England (3-0): What the Heck Pick™ of the week. I mean, if you're going to What the Heck™ it, you might as well go whole hog, right?

MINNESOTA (2-1) at Houston (2-2): Moss is open. Touchdown!

N.Y. Giants (3-1) at DALLAS (2-1): The Giants have bounced back in a hurry. The Cowboys will throw the kitchen sink at Kurt Warner.

Oakland (2-2) at INDIANAPOLIS (3-1): Touchdown. Touchdown.

TAMPA BAY (0-4) at New Orleans (2-2): There's no reason to think the Bucs can win this game except for the fact that they're playing the Saints. The Saints can outplay you and still lose, and vice-versa.

Buffalo (0-3) at N.Y. JETS (3-0): The Jets really aren't 4-0 kinda good and the Bills really aren't 0-4 kinda bad. But that's what they'll be.

JACKSONVILLE (3-1) at San Diego (2-2): How great would it be if the Chargers won this game, so that after a quarter of a season of hearing all about those surprising Jaguars and almost nothing about the sad-sack Chargers, they'd both have 3-2 records? Very, but I don't see it.

Arizona (1-3) at SAN FRANCISCO (0-4): I think the Cardinals are the better team. But the 49ers are due to have a close one go their way.

Carolina (1-2) at DENVER (3-1): Running back Stephen Davis, trying to come back from injury, is listed as questionable. Even if he plays, the Panthers aren't going to find their missing offense against the tough Broncos defense.

St. Louis (2-2) at SEATTLE (3-0): The Seahawks can pretty much put the NFC West away with a win. I think they will.

Baltimore (2-2) at WASHINGTON (1-3): My Super Bowl pick against my NFC East pick. Whoops.

Tennessee (1-3) at GREEN BAY (1-3): Would any ambulatory quarterbacks in the house please report to the playing field immediately. Thank you.

Season record: 40-20
Last week: 7-7
What the Heck Picks™: 3-1
Minimum number of sentences required to say something even slightly intelligent about an NFL game: 3

Previous column: Yanks let Twins off hook

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