Saturday, April 3, 2010

Saturday News, Notes, & Links

Tomorrow may be Easter, but I'm feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve knowing that Opening Day is just one sleep away. Here are some news, notes, and links on the one year anniversary of the first game ever played at the new Yankee Stadium. I had great seats for that game, my father, brothers and I were in the second row on the field level, directly behind the left field foul pole. Cody Ransom rang a dinger off that pole later in the game; sadly that was the high water mark of his 2009 season. Still, I'll never forget walking onto the concourse and getting my first glimpse of the new Stadium.

  • As we mentioned earlier, the Yankees have essentially finalized their roster, and it's no different than what we thought a week and a half ago. Marcus Thames was officially added the 40 man roster this morning, and Boone Logan was optioned to AAA. All the players who have been nursing injuries: Posada, Cervelli, Aceves, Marte, and Johnson, should be ready to go tomorrow night.

  • Also, as we mentioned earlier, the Yankees signed Chad Moeller to a minor league deal. Moeller lost out on the back up job in Baltimore and asked for his release rather than go to the minors. He's not as good offensively as Mike Rivera, but he has the reputation of a solid defender. He should be a good mentor to Jesus Montero. I'm hopeful that Moeller's contract does not include the opt out clause that many veteran players get on minor league deals. I think it's important the club have a good mentor for Montero all year, as well as a viable emergency option should Posada or Cervelli get injured.

  • The Yankees added another player to the Scranton roster today, when they acquired Robby Hammock. Chad Jennings reported it as a free agent signing, but The Times Pat Borzi says Hammock was acquired via a trade with Colorado for a player to be named later. Hammock has 180 games of Major League experience over five seasons, but none since 2008. He's capable of playing behind the plate and at the infield and outfield corners. He's reportedly ticketed for Scranton, where Jorge Vazquez will start the season on the DL.

  • With the addition of Hammock, Scranton's roster is jam packed with guys who should be playing nearly everyday. Juan Miranda will be the first baseman, but Vazquez will see some time there as well. Kevin Russo, Reegie Corona, and Eduardo Nunez will make up the remainder of the infield, and they should be rotating through the positions to increase their versatility as utility options. But Vazquez and Hammock will also presumably see time at third. In the outfield, Colin Curtis, Jon Weber, Greg Golson, Reid Gorecki, and David Winfree all figure to be on the roster, and Russo may also see time in the corners. Monetro and Moeller will be the catchers, and P.J. Pilittere may also see time behind the plate.

  • The Yankees have officially lost both their Rule Five picks. Kanekoa Texeira used an impressive spring to win a spot in the Mariners' bullpen. The Diamondbacks waived lefty Zach Kroenke, but he went unclaimed and accepted an assignment to AAA in exchange for keeping his spot on the 40 man roster. By right, the Yankees could have brought him back for $25K once he cleared waivers, but as a two time Rule 5 pick Kroenke had the right to declare free agency if that happened. By going unclaimed on waivers and keeping a 40 man spot with the Dbacks, he likely got the best possible deal for himself.

  • For the second time this spring, things got a little heated between the Yankees and Orioles yesterday. As Marc Carig points out, these two clubs have built up a bit of a history over the last year, from Aubrey Huff's fist pumps to A.J. Burnett gesticulating in the general direction of Felix Pie. The Girardi Yankees haven't been shy about coming inside over the past two seasons; this will be something to watch as 2010 unfolds.

  • Jack Curry of the YES Network has a story on Andy Pettitte in which Pettitte drops some more retirement hits. Nothing to see here folks. Firstly, Pettitte says nothing definitive. Secondly, this is no different than anything Pettitte has said each of the last four off-seasons as he's done the Brett Favre dance. Thirdly, there's no reason to believe that it won't continue. The guy can still pitch, and if he didn't want to go out on top after winning each of the three clinching games in the 2009 post-season, there's no reason to believe that this year is any more likely to be his last than 2009 or 2008 or 2007 was. Let's wait until a few pitches are thrown first.

  • Finally, Fangraphs has completed their organizational rankings series, with the Yankees taking the top prize. Here's Fangraphs' look at both the current talent and future talent.

That's it for today Fackers. We'll be back in the morning with all sorts of Opening Day goodness.

Prospect Game: The Kids Are Alright

Well here we are Fackers. It's the final day of Spring Training and we're just one day away from real baseball. Much like the Yankees' starting rotation, Jay and I have limited our innings this spring, trying to preserve some energy after a long 2009 season. But we're in the best writing shape of our lives and are working on some new pitches.

So before we kick things off for real tomorrow night, I suppose we should get in some training of our own with one of signature our game previews. We haven't done one all spring, but today's Spring Training finale offers a good opportunity.

The Yankee regulars will take on a team of the organization's top prospects at 1 PM on YES. Javier Vazquez will get the nod for the regulars. It'll be interesting to see if the mentally weak Vazquez can handle the immense pressure of facing the best minor leaguers the organization has to offer.

According to Chad Jennings, Marcus Thames has officially made the roster, bringing the Yankees' 40 man roster to 39. The final bullpen spot is the only thing up for grabs. Boone Logan is still in camp, and his making the team likely depends on the health of Damaso Marte, and to a lesser extent, Alfredo Aceves. Jorge Posada is in the line up today after missing the last two days with a stiff neck. Catchers Mike Rivera and P.J. Pilittere are still in camp, in case the bumps and bruises of Posada and Francisco Cervelli require a third catcher for the opening series. However, Jennings is also reporting that the Yankees have signed the recently released Chad Moeller, who spent much of the 2008 season with the club, to a minor league contract and that Rivera will be released. As expected, Nick Johnson is not playing today after suffering a bone bruise yesterday. Nick Swisher will DH; Randy Winn will play right, and the rest of the regulars are in the starting line up.

For the Prospects, Jonathan Albaladejo inexplicably gets the start. I guess Manny Banuelos, Jeremy Bleich, Zach McAllister, et. al. had other plans. Albie goes from making the Opening Day roster both of the last two years to starting for the Prospect team this year. Tough break. The Prospects' starting line up features last year's first round pick Slade Heathcott, Corban Joseph, Jesus Montero, David Adams, last year's second round pick JR Murphy as the DH, Colin Curtis, Bradley Suttle, Eduardo Nunez, and Melky Mesa. I'm sure we'll see others, including Austin Romine, as the game progresses.

In light of the recent injuries and the long, boring grind of the spring, these guys are more than ready to get away from Tampa. The prospects will stay behind a few days longer until the minor league season starts. Let's just hope everyone finishes today without any further bumps and bruises.

So as we get a chance to see the kids of the organization today, we'll turn to footage of some of rock and roll's foremost geezers, back when they were just young whippersnappers. In light of the embarrassing Super Bowl halftime show two months ago, I suppose it's nice to have reminder that back when Keith Moon and The Ox were still around, The Who weren't a total joke.

Sometimes, I feel I gotta get away
Bells chime, I know I gotta get away

And I know if I don't, I'll go out of my mind

Better leave her behind with the kids, they're alright

The kids are alright

Chasing The Dragon: Baseball's Quest To Conquer China

When the Yankees face the Red Sox tomorrow night, the largest viewing audience might not be in the United States:
For the first time, Major League Baseball's season opener will be televised live in China, broadcast by five outlets reaching nearly 300 million viewers, MLB announced Friday. The All-Star Game, postseason games and "This Week in Baseball" also will be broadcast in China this year as part of baseball's partnerships with 90 international broadcasters.
It's hard to tell how many of those 300 million Chinese residents who have the option of watching the first game of the regular season will actually tune into the broadcast. After all, it will be about 8:15 on Monday morning in Shanghai and Beijing when the first pitch is thrown.

Aside from American ex-pats, there are few MLB fans in China, especially in comparison to the population of over 1.3 billion. While around 16% of Chinese residents surveyed say they are interested in baseball, fewer than one percent of identify themselves as "loyal fans". Furthermore, that survey likely overestimates the interest due to sampling error. It's impossible to project the results of that study onto the entire population considering that there are hundreds of millions of Chinese that lack access to phone and close to a billion without internet connections and therefore couldn't be reached by conventional survey means.

However, where some might see a country that doesn't care much about baseball, Major League Baseball sees a tremendous opportunity.

After witnessing basketball achieve true global success - now with established professional leagues on all six inhabited continents - the MLB has become increasingly tantalized by the international market. While the sporting landscape in the United States is becoming more saturated by the day, baseball envisions adding new fans by popularizing the game overseas. China, with its massive population, appears to be the largest and potentially most profitable untapped resource for the expansion of the game.

Xie Long, the managing director of MLB China explained, "I believe the sport of baseball has tremendous potential in China. What MLB wants is to agitate this big market and get more people playing baseball in China".

The World Baseball Classic was established with the goal of expanding the game abroad in mind. While the title of the tournament is ultimately decided between countries with established baseball traditions like the U.S., Japan, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and South Korea, encouraging nations like the Netherlands, South Africa and especially China to field teams demonstrates that there are other motives at work. By tapping into national pride via international competition, baseball believes it can generate interest in the sport on a level that extends beyond a tournament that only happens once every three years.

As the largest and most widely recognized name in baseball and in all of American sports, the Yankees have been leading the charge throughout China. They have some goals that are separate from the MLB's (selling Yankee-branded merchandise, etc) but the ultimate aim is the same - to generate interest in the sport worldwide.

Back in early February, executives representing the team embarked on a week-long trip - with their newest World Series trophy in tow - throughout Asia. They stopped in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo, shaking hands, posing for pictures and participating in events and ceremonies. Brian Cashman and Randy Levine were at the front of the pack, glad-handing their way through China and Japan, giving out free Yankees shirts and caps.

Due to the presence of Hideki Matsui on their roster over the past seven years and the ubiquity of baseball in Japan, Tokyo was an obvious stop. The presence on the Chinese capital (Beijing) and its financial center (Hong Kong) on the itinerary were less self-explanatory.


Baseball has been played in China for almost 150 years, beginning when an American medical missionary and native New Yorker named Henry William Boone started spreading the game there with a missionary zeal in the early 1860's. However, today, like it did then, baseball exists only fringe of the Chinese sporting landscape, far behind pursuits like basketball, badminton and table tennis.

In the first years of its introduction to China, baseball quickly began to develop a foothold. The Shanghai Baseball Club was created shortly after Boone first began teaching the game and served as a posh social establishment for the next forty or so years. Around the same time, students in the Chinese Educational Mission began traveling to the United States and returned to their home country with a fondness for what, at that point, was a quirky and decidedly American game.

By the mid-1890's three western-oriented colleges in China had organized baseball teams. But it wasn't until 1905 that a game was staged between two all-Chinese squads on the mainland. After the Russo-Japanese War, which ended that same year, many Chinese students flooded into Japan, where inter-collegiate baseball had become Nippon's preeminent national sport.

While baseball was still far from common in China, it began to attain some historical and political significance in the 1910's. Sun Yat-sen, who learned the game during the spent time in Hawaii as a teenager, was said to have used baseball as a way to train soldiers to throw hand grenades in Changsha, the notoriously unstable capital of the Hunan Province. Years later, soldiers in the People's Liberation Army would embrace the game to such an extent that it would be commonly referred to as "junqiu" or "army ball".

Despite the country's early introduction to baseball, its popularity among students returning from abroad and the game's intertwinement with military history, baseball never achieved the popularity it did in Japan, Korea, Taiwan or even the Philippines. A legitimate professional league was never established, much less embraced.

Eventually, during the reign of Mao Zedong, baseball all but disappeared from China's sporting landscape. Some historians claim that the sport was explicitly banned because it was perceived as a symbol of "Western decadence", but whether or not that was the case, the spread of the game was squelched by Mao's ethnocentric Cultural Revolution.

After Chairman Mao's death in 1979, baseball slowly began to reemerge. Coaches from the U.S. were sent on goodwill missions. The game was used as a vehicle of diplomacy between China and Japan. Youth leagues began to sprout up. This time though, the Chinese took their cues from Japanese style of play instead of the American one.

Major League Baseball's involvement in China didn't begin in earnest until Dodgers' president Peter O'Malley made a visit to the Tianjin Physical and Cultural Center Institute in 1986 and paid for a baseball field to be constructed there. Ever since, the MLB has been making inroads into China, ranging from the grand gestures like the ones made by O'Malley - and more recently by the Yankees - to grassroots efforts to introduce the game to the school systems and establishing youth baseball academies and development centers.

The Yankees, like many of the larger MLB franchises, are particularly tantalized by the untapped resources of talent China may hold. Discovering a player with superstar talent could accelerate the spread of the came throughout the country in ways no contrived ceremonies, press tours, or even youth academies could hope. An article from The Economist explains:
Somewhere in China, reasons Mr Cashman, there is a kid who can throw a baseball at 98mph (158kph). Find him, turn him into a star and he will awaken a nation of fans. He points to the spectacular commercial success of America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) in China after the recruitment of the seven-and-a-half-foot Yao Ming, from Shanghai, to the Houston Rockets, whose jerseys are a ubiquitous presence on the backs of Chinese children.
Just based on sheer probability, there has to be a Yao Ming of baseball in China, somewhere, right? Maybe he's working in a rice paddy or toiling away in a factory, oblivious to the talents he possesses. Perhaps he's fishing somewhere on the Yangtze River or working in a marketplace in Shanghai. With such a massive number of capable and athletic men calling the the Peoples' Republic home, there has to be a few who would be good at baseball if given the chance, doesn't there?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.


Basketball has been alive and well in China for over 100 years. James Naismith created the game at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891 and within four years it had traveled across the Y's worldwide network all the way to China. Basketball has been a part of Chinese culture almost as long as baseball has been played in Japan.

Baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872 and it took another 92 years for the first Japanese player, Masanori Murikami, to reach the Major Leagues. To be sure, there were a host of technological and cultural factors that hindered that initial introduction like arduous and expensive travel and rampant xenophobia that won't prevent the first Chinese player from making that trip. However, the notion that any country harbors Major League talent based on sheer probability is slowly being eroded.

Yao Ming wasn't just discovered by chance. His parents were both professional basketball players and in addition to being freakishly tall and athletic, Yao devoted countless hours to perfecting his craft during his teenage years. He started playing professionally at age 17, and was pressured to enter the NBA draft at 19 but held out until he was 22. When he finally declared his eligibility, he was surrounded by a team of advisors who carefully controlled every aspect of his professional life. Although he was bestowed a great set of genes, Yao wasn't born a great basketball player.

To an even greater extent, great baseball players are made, not born. Yao's 7' 6" frame gives him a physical advantage that doesn't have an analog in baseball. His height allows his easy access to the hoop whereas there are no distinguishing bodily features that guarantee an advantage in baseball. A perfect physiology isn't as important as an ideal throwing motion or batting swing and those have to be honed over time with the assistance of knowledgeable coaches.

In addition to its considerable history in the country, basketball has a lower learning curve than baseball. It requires less - and less expensive - equipment and can be played in a smaller area either indoors or out. In terms of rules and fundamentals, it's far simpler than baseball too.

As Chris Jaffe demonstrated in his book Evaluating Baseball's Managers, widespread knowledge of what are now considered to be the fundamentals of baseball are slow to form. Jaffe explains:
Fundamentals first have to be developed. Then they diffuse. Next, their instruction becomes institutionalized. Once the lessons become second nature to one generation, the next wave can be fully and immediately immersed in them.
It took baseball decades to establish the baseline of common knowledge of the game that we now take for granted. Kids in China don't grow up watching baseball games. They don't play stickball in the streets. They mostly choose between basketball, badminton and table tennis. There is no sport with significant popularity similar to baseball like cricket in India. There isn't even one that requires a hard throwing motion which could be roughly translated to pitching.


Two years ago, a California sports management company created a reality show called The Million Dollar Arm to try to coax pitching talent out of India, offering a prize of $100,000 and the chance to compete for a $1M contract to the winner. Eventually, out of 37,000 entrants, two were chosen. Danesh Patel threw 90 mph during his tryout and won the top prize. Rinku Singh clocked in at 84 and was given $2,500 along with the chance to play in the minor leagues. Their management company held a tryout attended by 30 Major League scouts. Singh and Patel were signed by the Pirates for $10,000 apiece.

They were eventually assigned to the Pirates Rookie Ball team in Bradenton, Florida where they recorded a buoyant account of their journeys in broken English on a blog that carried the same name as the contest. Combined, Patel and Singh each recorded a win but only pitched a total of 18 2/3 innings in their first season. They returned to India last fall and are back in minor league Spring Training now.

Although the Million Dollar Arm contest only staged tryouts in 12 cities, it sampled a wide swath of talent in India, a country which has a fondness for cricket - baseball's closest sporting relative. If the best a nationwide search in India with a (potential) million dollar prize could produce were two low level minor leaguers without much chance of making the Big Leagues, much less becoming a star in them, is it realistic to expect China to do much better?


Spreading a sport to a new country, especially a game as complex, equipment heavy and open-space-dependent as baseball to a nation as impoverished and overcrowded as China, is a tough road to hoe. It's going to require the same missionary enthusiasm employed by Henry William Boone when the game was first introduced to the residents of Shanghai back in the 1860's, along with money. Lots and lots of money.

As baseball officials discovered in their quest to provide funding to a youth program in Cambodia, it requires not only a significant amount of cappital but close and careful oversight of the way those funds are allocated. Where money is being given away, there will always be those who are willing to take it but don't have the ultimate goal in mind.

Even if the programs are successful, will they end up like youth soccer in America where the participation rates are high but yield relatively few fans of the highest levels of the game? Right now the MLB claims that over four million people in China play baseball, but before this most recent initiative, MLB games were hardly televised at all.

The MLB has to consider its efforts in China as a long term investment and one that might not pay dividends for decades, if ever. However, Jim Small, vice president of MLB Asia thinks it could happen faster than that:
We plan on taking advantage of the dynamic climate that is taking place in China right now. With so many things changing so quickly, with information much more accessible through the internet and through other means, it is possible to make changes much quicker now than 10 years ago.
Will those in the People's Republic be watching when the Yankees and Red Sox meet in Fenway on Sunday night? Will they remember to watch the All-Star game when it rolls around three and a half months from now and the postseason 11 weeks after that?

When it comes to expanding the interest in the game of baseball worldwide, China represents the largest potential gain. But that doesn't mean that it's the best bet. It doesn't even necessarily mean that it's a risk worth taking. However the MLB, like any corporation, is set up with the implicit goal of infinite growth and profits. When viewed through that lens, China appears to be a gamble baseball has to take.