A great time visiting the Cactus League

KPCC “Morning Edition” Host Steve Julian and I had a terrific time in Arizona late last week watching the Angels and Dodgers play spring training games.  As I wrote in my last posting, the Cactus League fans are particularly knowledgeable about the game and truly dedicated to their teams.  It makes for some fun conversations.

Saturday afternoon, Steve and I were at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona to see the Dodgers play Cleveland.  After taking our seats a few rows behind the Indians’ dugout, the fan in front of us turned around and asked “are you Larry Mantle?  I was wondering if I’d meet you here.”

The fan was a Los Angeles resident, also named Larry, who heard me mention our annual trips on air.  It turns out that Larry comes every year and brings one of his grandsons to the games.  Joining him this time was grandson Adam of Calabasas.

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Steve Julian's and my annual spring training roadtrip is underway

“Morning Edition” host Steve Julian and I are off to Arizona for our annual trip to indulge in spring training baseball.  Every March for more than a decade, we’ve taken a few days to watch the Dodgers and Angels field combinations of established major leaguers who’re getting into shape, and promising minor leaguers trying to make an impression.

Spring training is particularly fun for baseball fans because of the comparative intimacy of the games.  Instead of 50,000 seat stadiums, the games are played in front of crowds of just a few thousand.  The sounds from the field are more immediate and encompassing than at Dodger or Angel Stadium.  The fans are also more into the games and less into the ancillary entertainment than you’ll see during the regular season.

It’s a fun mix of vacationing families, retirees, local businesspeople stealing away for a couple of hours, and baseball-loving friends like Steve and me.  For me, it’s about as relaxed as I’m able to get. I tune out much (though not all) of the news and focus on unwinding in the sun. 

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The battle between humans and computers at the heart of "Moneyball"

As a sports fan, I’m always glad for movies and books that relate the intricacies of professional sports.  My interest began in the 1970s with Jim Bouton’s inside-the-locker-room classic, Ball Four

I was also excited to read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball when it came out, given that it profiled a pioneer in using computer analysis to determine future player performance, Oakland As General Manager, Billy Beane.  The book was terrific, though I thought it shortchanged the art of player assessment in favor of statistics.

Beane showed how much a team could be improved by incorporating additional sophisticated measurements into the mix.  However, in my opinion, a General Manager ignores the subjective judgments of scouts at his own peril.

What’s so wonderful about baseball is its mix of art and science.  The artistry may be squishy to measure, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to success.  You can’t simply reduce player assessment down to numbers, particularly when players are young and largely unformed.

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Rebuilding the Dodgers

My family and I took in the Dodger game last Friday night, along with a surprisingly respectable crowd for a losing team with players better suited to being reserves or minor leaguers.  Fireworks must have been part of the draw.

I was struck by the body language of the players.  Though the players must know they have no chance of competing for a playoff berth, or even a .500 record, they don’t look defeated on the field.  Over the years I’ve seen losing teams going through the motions, but that doesn’t appear to be true for the Dodgers.  It makes it easy to cheer for them.  They may be anemic hitters, but their effort is solid (with the exception of a Juan Uribe wave at a ground ball to third).

The front office is, of course, another thing.  Bankruptcy is just the symptom of much deeper problems besetting the team.  I’m more concerned about the barren minor league system than the team’s finances.  They might be related problems, but there’s a serious shortage of talent that will haunt the team for the foreseeable future.

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A no-holds-barred Steve Soboroff

Thursday morning on AirTalk I had the chance to continue our coverage of the Dodgers saga with team vice-chairman, Steve Soboroff.  He’s a familiar figure in Los Angeles from his run for mayor and his leadership of the controversial Playa Vista project.

Soboroff is now Dodger owner Frank McCourt’s right-hand man, having taken the job just a couple of days before Major League Baseball appointed a monitor to oversee the team’s financial operations.  Though most of us would’ve considered that bad timing for our new job, Soboroff seems to be relishing his new underdog role as defender of McCourt.

Our half-hour conversation Thursday was wild, with Soboroff launching a passionate defense of his boss, complete with the charge that MLB is engaging in a sham investigation of the team’s finances.  He went on to describe MLB monitor Tom Schieffer as hobnobbing with players instead of doing the job commissioner Bud Selig assigned him to do.

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