Thursday, July 14, 2011

Satan Is Teal

Before it all went horribly wrong
I have an existential problem with the Florida Marlins, and I don't think I'm alone. In fact, I think I'm in good company in saying that the Marlins are the least interesting and least authentic team in baseball. Created to serve a market that doesn't want them and owned by a cynic who has shown no interest or aptitude for running a baseball team rather than, say, a downmarket grocery store, the Florida Marlins serve no earthly purpose save to "balance" the schedule.*

Aesthetically, they don't work either. How many teams are named after sea creatures? There are no Boston Lobsters, Houston Swordfish, or San Diego Spiny Crabs. Sure there are some minor league teams that use "Sharks" in one form or another, but Marlins? Oh, grrr, a fish, eek. Also, they wear lots of pale blue. Has a team in pale blue ever won anything of note? (This sounds like a job for Uni-Watch!)

I'm put in mind of this last question because of the recent arrival here of Craig Robinson's Flip Flop Fly Ball, a book derived from his blog of the same name. Robinson has heroically taken on the task of trying to improve the way we look at baseball-related data. While there's something powerfully simple and appealing about the box score as an information-transmittal mechanism, it does lack visual pizzazz. Some of his pages are marvelously clean, engaging, and entertaining.

So is Robinson the Edward Tufte of baseball statistics—the man who could do for baseball visuals what Bill James and a generation of sabermetricians have done for the statistics themselves? No. He's too whimsical, and too many of his figures actually don't reveal anything fresh about the underlying data—they just represent them in different ways. His treatment of how franchises have evolved is about as useful as Massimo Vignelli's unintelligible New York subway map, if as stylish. Printed form doesn't do his work any favors—the blog is a more compelling medium for what he's up to.

Deep in Robinson's book is a figure that shows the rise and fall of the powder-blue road uniform. If his data is correct, that color scheme peaked in 1980 and 1981, when nearly half the teams in Major League Baseball sported something in that style. After that it came a swift downhill plunge, with the Expos the last to cave in after the 1992 season—meaning, of course, that the color was sitting there untouched when the Marlins were unnecessarily transmuted into existence in 1993. The story since then is well known—two World Series appearances, two teardowns, much financial chicanery, a secondary role in the ongoing epic of Cubs heartbreak—and it doesn't get any prettier with age.

Which brings me, finally, to Thursday's Cubs / Marlins game (in which, let it be said, the Marlins wore black). The second half doesn't promise to hold too many gems for the Cubs, and this game turned out to be a nasty harbinger of bad times to come. While the Brewers are making splashy deals to amp up for a playoff run, the Cubs are hoping they can salvage some sort of farm-system depth in exchange for Carlos Pena, Kosuke Fukudome, and (please, Lord) Carlos Zambrano.

The first pitch of the game, as witnessed by our old friend, Big Post
Matt Garza and Anibel Sanchez each pitched well and deep into the game. Thanks in part to bobblehead-of-the-night Geovany Soto and a solo shot by Marlon Byrd, the Cubs were up 2-0 after eight, with Carlos Marmol coming in to close. What followed was agonizing for all concerned—except the Marlins. Marmol proceeded to walk three in a row—throwing only one strike among them—and seemed to have lost all command of all his pitches. Before hairless Mike Quade pulled the plug, Marmol had coughed up the lead via a bases clearing double by Greg Dobbs. Things were so bad that pinch runner DeWayne Wise actually fell down on his way from third to home yet still scored the go-ahead run. Kerry Wood and James Russell came in to deal with the wreckage, but it was 6-2 by the time the half inning was over, en route to a 6-3 final.

Was Marmol cold? Confused? Doing a bad Dock Ellis impression? It's hard to say. Even the difficult-to-flap Quade said afterward, "That was pretty bad." Personally, I think he had some bad fish.

*By "balance," of course, I mean "unbalance."

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