The Sunday Notes: Goodbye 2015, Hello 2016
So, 2015 is now a permanent part of our history as 2016 will take baseball shape this week when we find out who the writers voted into the Hall of Fame.
If you will allow me this time around, instead of giving you a few links to read I thought I would share a few thoughts on the year past and a few words on the season to come.
–Imagine being a kid in the Kansas City area this fall.
For most of your life, the Royals were an afterthought. A memory from those of us who remembered the 1970s and 80s with the fondness of a grandparent talking about The Beatles or color television. They play in a beautiful stadium, but are also-rans.
Enter the expanded wild card and the Royals, and Pittsburgh Pirates, gamble to just make the playoffs. Kansas City defied all of us in 2014 and forced the San Francisco Giants to the limit. Was there any self-doubt after running into Madison Bumgarner at the end?
The Royals played in 2015 as if they were still playing with house money at a poker table. A lessor team would have folded when the Houston Astros broke open Game 4 of their American League Divisional Series in the seventh inning. Not KC. By the time they made an out in the eighth, they were ahead. That tenacity, Alex Gordon’s game-tying homer in the ninth in Game 1 of the World Series or not swinging at whatever poor Jacob deGrom threw at them in Game 2, sets this year’s champions above others. No matter the score or the inning, Kansas City was never out.
The bullpen was incredible.
For the first time in thirty years, the championship landed at Kauffman Stadium. When next October rolls around, do not be surprised if Ned Yost has a big say in who wins the crown in 2016.
–Fans in New York and Chicago should feel good too.
The Mets have a staff of young starters who dominated summer nights and the National League. As with the Royals after 2014, the experience of making the Series will make them a better team. As the Washington Nationals floundered and fought with themselves, not only did the Mets pick up the baton, but ran with it. Now, as they go into 2016, fans in Queens are energized, and the players watched first-hand how to win.
–Meanwhile, in Chicago, the Cubs surprised everyone by making the National League Championship Series.
In baseball’s toughest division, Joe Maddon’s team swept the Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year awards for the second time in history, the first since 1983. With a core of sluggers, led by Kris Bryant, Chicago is in great shape to contend the next few years.
Instead of other teams snickering with how Maddon gets his team ready for games, maybe they should study how he makes teams click. With Tampa and their frugal payroll, you could understand why he needed to be so hands-on to get the most out of a lot of players better suited for an episode of MacGyver than the playoffs. In Chicago, on the other hand, he has a much bigger pot of money and the pressure of ending a century of championship futility. Neither changed him and the on-field product improved.
–The biggest surprise, at least on this end, was the rise of the Houston Astros.
Yes, the team we all need reminding they are an AL team now made the Wild Card game and beat the Yankees in New York before meeting the Royals and KC’s inevitability. Again in a huge football market if you field a compelling team then people will watch and enjoy.
It is hard to tell whether Houston is at the start of a nice run or a one-year wonder. What we know is they were not afraid of success and brought good baseball back to southern Texas.
–When I took over the Sunday Notes from my good buddy Andrew Martin, the first column was right after Jose Bautista’s bat flip in that incredible ALDS Game 5 in Toronto. Along with Game 1 of the World Series, that half-hour at Rogers Centre between the blown calls, muffed plays and Bautista’s emphatic response will go down as the most memorable games of the year. We should not be afraid to show emotions doing our jobs. Bautista did and 50,000 roared. Isn’t that what sports are all about?
A third of Canada watched Blue Jays playoff games. Every game.
–We have a galaxy of stars right now in baseball rivalling the other golden eras of the game.
As good as Angel slugger Mike Trout and NL MVP Bryce Harper are, they are 25 and under and have yet to hit the prime of their careers. Want to know what it was like having Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays playing at their best, we have it right now in Anaheim and Washington. These two are special. Enjoy it.
Clayton Kershaw’s starts at Dodger Stadium are breathtaking and a healthy Giancarlo Stanton in Miami is great to watch. The Marlins Home Run fountain, however, is a beauty only a mother could love.
–Baseball’s initiatives to speed up games went better than expected. Minutes melted off games, around six for a full nine innings, and the belief of being rushed did not happen.
Full replay had a few bumps and bruises, and the trend in the playoffs for managers to steal outs by seeing if a runner on second left the bag under a tag was annoying, but getting calls right from a central location worked. As with other rule changes, the powers that be need to review the progress ever year. It would also be nice to get decisions quicker and done at the stadium, but for the first year it went well.
–If I was a betting man, I would be hard pressed not to have a few dollars on Kansas City repeating. Their plate discipline is amazing, and that bullpen is historic.
I also like the Mets, Cubs and St. Louis making the most noise in the National League with—as much as it pains me—the Yankees, along with Toronto in the American. (I think Boston is improved, but not sold yet on another World Series return.)
–As we bolt forward onto the year to come, we should take a moment to remember those not making the trip with us.
Ernie Banks and Yogi Berra’s passing was front-page news. With legacies as big as their cities, both men will be remembered by the most casual of fans as being a rich part of the game.
Fans in certain cities will remember Dean Chance, Dave Henderson, Joaquin Andujar and Jim O’Toole. With large personalities, their presence lit up stadiums and televisions, giving hope to our inner and actual child.
Us lifers also mourn Floyd Youmans and Eddie Milner, gifted players bowled over by life and such baseball lifers such as superscout George Genovese and Braves coach Bobby Dews. Those of us blessed with writing about the game will miss Joe Strauss.
–That’s it for 2015. The proper notes return next week to chat Hall of Fame.