Results tagged ‘ Albert Pujols ’

2012 Previews: A.L. West

Imagine for a second this scenario: a New York team wins consecutive pennants. They lose the first World Series to a lightning-in-a-bottle fast-finisher from the other league. They lose the next year to another one-month-wonder despite twice being one strike away from sealing the deal in Game 6. The New York team owner – one of the most famous men in sports – has to decide whether or not to retain his popular, African-American manager after the latter tests positive for cocaine. This was after he built the batting order around a recovered addict, who then falls off the wagon in the weeks before he was to get a nine-figure contract extension.

Can you picture that? It would be Armageddon every day at that ballpark as the media – not just in New York but nationally – struggled merely to decide whether these misceants were to be called the worst chokers of all time, or a bunch of druggies, or the team with the owner who needed to be run out of the game on a rail for letting such tainted underachievement continue. It would be, to adapt Dorothy Parker’s phrase to baseball, a Fresh Hell every day.

Of course, you don’t have to imagine anything here but the geography. This is not the imaginary story of the most controversial New York team of all time. It’s the 2012 Texas Rangers – and only their worst headlines – and in one of the most meaningful and revealing truths about baseball, and sports media, and America itself, they remain one of our feel good stories.

It’s not just New York, by the way. The 180 degree difference in how the New York Baseball Rangers would be treated, would also be true of the Boston Rangers or the Philadelphia Rangers or the Los Angeles Rangers. Regardless of the venue, it’s amazing, and it’s real.

And it’s relevant to a preview of the American League West because it means what is largely the same team can try it again for the third straight year – without Josh Hamilton being traded for Ken Phelps or Ron Washington being replaced by Dallas Green. There are only two notable changes: a real closer in Joe Nathan, and C.J. Wilson being swapped out for Yu Darvish.

The former move seems to reduce the variables; the latter may do the opposite. Darvish is the prototypical Japanese pitcher – with slight deception in the delivery, a mastery of five pitches and about four subtle varieties for each of them, and a rubber arm (at least for awhile). But Darvish is something Nomo and Matsuzaka and the rest are not: he is a Giant. He is 6’5”, 215, meaning he’s bigger than Nathan and Colby Lewis, and at least taller than Josh Hamilton. So the four different fastballs come in as fast as 95.

Watching Darvish against Colorado last week was watching the biggest kid in Kindergarten playfully slapping all the other ones. Half of them fell unconscious to the floor. The others? He missed them and he fell to the floor. The Rockies got their licks in, but in six at bats against him, Cargo and Tulo struck out six times and didn’t look close on any of the swinging strikes. It is almost a given (since we still condescendingly look at even Japan’s greatest veteran stars as our freshmen) that Darvish takes the Rookie Award in the AL. He may take the Cy. He may also go 12-15. The question isn’t whether or not he’ll make American batters look bad most of the time, but whether he might make American pitchers look bad most of the time.

The Rangers have competition in Orange County, but the ANGELS are the most tragically snake-bitten of all teams, and investments like the zillions spent on Wilson and Albert Pujols have always ended in tears – usually the late Gene Mauch’s. Despite the addition of Pujols and the resurrection of Kendrys “Just Shake Hands” Morales, the Cherubs are nowhere near a match for Texas offensively (hell, the ’27 Yankees might not be). The Mark Trumbo third base play comes at considerable defensive risk, and the bullpen remains a series of risky albeit probably good gambles. Ironically, for all that money, the difference-maker for Mike Scioscia might be his fifth starter, either retread Jerome Williams or rookie Garrett Richards, who at times looked lights out this spring.

There might be something to watch in SEATTLE. My affection for Jesus Montero’s opposite field power has been elaborated upon here before. But there is a flock of young hitters around him who might also blossom, and not just Dustin Ackley. Smoak, Carp (hurt), Saunders, Liddi, Gutierrez (hurt), and behind them Catricala and another Fernando Martinez might make the Mariners Wild Card eligible in a year. Probably would’ve helped if they hadn’t traded Doug Fister, because the rotation gets dicey just about the time you ask “Kevin Millwood is still alive?”

My friend Bob Melvin gets his first full year managing again, in OAKLAND. He loves to do it and was born to do it, and if anybody can drag this team back into respectability after its latest re-casting, it’s Bob. Unfortunately, even though he only played 11 games there in his career, Bob might be the best first baseman he has, and that’s a problem. The base hits get thin once you get past the exciting Jemile Weeks and the possibly exciting Yoenis Cespedes. And I won’t write anything long-winded on the latter for fear of being accusedof being Cespedes-sesquipedalian.

Sorry.

It’ll be fun watching the A’s continue their role as baseball’s breeding and/or training grounds for B+ pitchers. Mulder, Zito, Hudson,  Harden, Haren, Street, Gonzalez, Cahill, Bailey, Anderson, et al. The new names are De Los Santos, Milone, Parker, and Peacock and maybe baseball can get on the stick and get the A’s into San Jose before they become eligible for the A’s Alumni Association, too.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST FORECAST:

TEXAS wins again, with Darvish filling the Wilson vacuum. LOS ANGELES/ANAHEIM/THE OC, afflicted by some calamity, still has enough to claim a wild card. SEATTLE approaches .500, and OAKLAND does better than you’d think.

UNRELATED NOTE:

Love the Braves taking a flier on third baseman Juan Francisco. He may amount to nothing, but he is capable of a Jose Bautista like breakout, and he’s no more of a load defensively than Cabrera or Trumbo. He was dying a slow death in Cincinnati where I believe Dusty Baker never played him two games in a row. Because he isn’t 37.

10th Annual Topps Pack Opening Day

For years, as part of my moonlighting as an unpaid consultant for Topps Baseball Cards, I have engaged in a ritual involving a few company executives and a few (brand new) boxes of that year’s Topps set. The first box to come off the production line is ceremonially opened, either on television or at Topps HQ, and then we quietly pillage through whatever’s available pack-wise.

Today we turned it into a happening.

This started when I ran into my colleague and fellow collector Greg Amsinger at MLB Network two weeks ago. Greg is giddy enough about cards that I once almost distracted him from a Yankee Stadium live shot by advising him that my collection included three Honus Wagners. When the Topps gang and I set the “ripping of the first packs” for today, I asked if I could invite Greg along.

Ka-boom.

Next year, maybe we'll televise it

Greg brought a camera crew, Topps put up a display including blowups of the cards of Pujols and Reyes in their new unis and the one-of-a-kind gold card inserts, they assembled the entire 2012 Baseball Production team, I dressed up in my Matt Moore First Win Game-Used uniform, they fitted up a conference room full of unopened boxes, and pizza, and I had to give a little speech, and half of the staff snapped photos on their phones and their tweets out even before I finished talking (insert your own joke here; I actually had to be brief for a change as I’m still under doctor’s orders to not try to ‘project’ with some severely strained vocal cords and throat muscles).

Suddenly we went from four guys sitting in a room going “nice shot of Braun” to a veritable orgy of pack opening. It felt like snack time at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and I must say, for something that was made ‘bigger’ than in years past at least in part to utilize the presence of a tv camera, this organically and spontaneously turned into a really fun ninety minutes in which the pride of the employees – to say nothing of the imminent promise of spring and another MLB season – were in full bloom.

A veritable orgy of pack opening (or what my room looked like in 1967)

Before we get inside the packs, and a really exceptional effort by Topps this year (to say nothing of a sneak peek at their next issue, 2012 Heritage) a couple of fun images.

For some reason Greg didn't want to take Pujols back to the office

Why shouldn't cardmakers sign card boxes?

The Topps production team all signed the first box that was part of the ceremonial presentation depicted above. They do it at aircraft factories and they do it on the first production runs at Apple – so why not? And on the right is that display I referenced complete with the Pujols and Reyes blow-ups. I have no idea how poor Amsinger, Cardinal diehard that he is, got past this graphic testament to the fact that Albert has surrendered his legacy in St. Louis and is now tempting the curse of Almost Every Angel Free Agent Contract Ever (Amsinger, when I pulled a Mark Trumbo card today: “It should say third base on his card. Where else is he going to play for them?” Me: “First. After you-know-what happens.” Amsinger: shakes head dolefully).

A leap in photography

Over the last few years, Topps has been steadily improving the photo quality of their base set, but this year a great leap has been made. The photos are better sized and framed, more interesting, more innovative, and with the ever-increasing improvements in the mechanics of photography, crisper and more compelling. The embossing makes the names difficult to scan but the shots here of David Robertson and Jose Altuve are really terrific and virtually every square quarter-inch of the card frame is filled and filled cleanly. There’s a design decision here, visible in the Altuve card, to sacrifice the tip of his left foot to minimize dead space – and I think it works wonderfully.

And then come the fun cards. There are SP’s (single prints, if you’re not a collector – cards that you know going in are much scarcer than the regular 330 cards) that include Reyes and Pujols sent by the magic of computers into their new uniforms. When you consider that as late as 1990 Topps was still airbrushing the caps of traded players – literally hand-painting logos over the original one, not on a photograph, but on a negative measuring 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches) – let’s give the computer a round of applause.

The flatfootedness in the Reyes card makes it a little clunky but it gives you a pre-Spring Training hint at how the new Miami uniforms are going to visually ‘feel’ once the rechristened club takes the field.

Two years ago the theme of the SP’s were the Pie-In-The-Face celebrations, mostly enacted by the Yankees’ A.J. Burnett. This year the premise is celebrations and mascots, and in the case of the former, particularly the Gatorade Bath:

145 Butler (l.) and 145 Butler SP

Butler, caught just as the orange goop explodes but before he’s lost under it, is a classic card. But, to my mind, the SP version of Mike Morse’s card 165 and its suspension-of-the-wave is an instant All-Time Great:

I betcha it hits Wilson Ramos

But 48 hours after the cards reached dealers and collectors, most of the publicity has surrounded the short print of #93 Skip Schumaker.

For the record, those are Schumaker's left foot and ankle

The Cardinals’ second baseman is said to be ticked off – and I happened to see Kevin Millar, serious for the first time in months, take unnecessary umbrage at the St. Louis Rally Squirrel squeezing Schumaker out of frame – but remember, for every one of those cards, there are several hundred of the regular one on the right here. Happy? Nice boring five-cent card compared to one that’s rather crazily being bid up to more than $200 on eBay?

Players take the baseball card photo a lot more seriously than they would have you believe. Several inscribe cards bearing particularly unflattering pictures with notations about how much they hate the photo. On occasion players won’t even sign their cards based solely on the choice of image.

The real trick for the Schumaker SP 93 will be not to get the player to sign it – he’s noted for a good heart, I’m sure the charity possibilities will be raised to him and he’ll sign a bunch. The problem is going to be getting that Squirrel to sign the card. Incidentally, the squirrel isn’t a Topps first; a card of “Paulie Walnuts,” a squirrel who occupied a foul pole at Yankee Stadium, was issued in 2007.

I promised a preview of Topps Heritage 2012 and that’s coming – but one more aside first. I thought I’d pay off the day I scared Greg Amsinger with my Wagner boastfulness by bringing the famed T206 scarcity to Topps to link up the past and the present. He didn’t know it was coming, which is why he’s been caught mid facepalm on the right.

And lastly, Heritage. They’ve done another meticulous job matching up the set celebrating its 50th anniversary, the vibrant 1963 design, in which the glowing colors of ’60s Topps were first evident: A lot of star players on this sheet – and forgive the waviness of the photo: it’s a sheet.

Two cards in particular jumped out at me: Reyes again in what looks like a photo actually shot at the news conference announcing his move to Miami (although that could easily be a little misdirection) and C.J. Wilson in Angel garb.

One note on deadlines: Chris Iannetta is shown with the Rockies in the Topps set, but has already been updated to his new Angels’ uniform in the Heritage issue.

Miami In A Vice

They have gone out and spent the money on what looks like a fabulous and distinctive new ballpark.

They have gone out and spent the money on what is an often fabulous and always distinctive new manager.

They are evidently willing to go out and spend the money (“in the range of five years, $18-$20 million a year,” per Buster Olney on ESPN) on Jose Reyes and might be able to snare Albert Pujols as well.

They even went out and spent the money on rebranding themselves as a city, not a state, and on some decent looking new uniforms (although the basic premise of the attire struck me as an adaptation of the original 1977 Toronto Blue Jays’ unis, with orange substituted for powder blue).

And I think it will all end in disaster.

As the 20th season of Marlins baseball looms, there is still almost no evidence that South Florida is a major league baseball community, or that it wants or needs big league ball. The entire dynamic could be changed by the new roofed stadium, but the certitude about that – and the willingness to wager literally hundreds of millions of dollars on that certitude – is, to me, unjustified. With the caveat that I know from sopping-wet experience that Joe Robbie/ProPlayer/Whatever Stadium was a miserable place to watch a ballgame, I still think that it’s mortifying that the Fish averaged 37,838 fans per game in their inaugural season of 1993, and 33,695 in 1994 – and never came close to that figure again.

I mean, not close. The World Champions of 1997 played before an average house of 29,190. Otherwise they have had just five seasons of more than 19,007 paid admissions per game, and four that were below 15,766 a year.

Team president David Samson thinks some improvement on the squad and the ballpark will convert a city that has for two decades been saying ‘you fill me with inertia’ will suddenly convert into producing “30 to 35,000 every single game.”

This was a city that could not support AAA baseball in the ’50s, and never again tried higher than A-ball. And I don’t buy the idea that a high-priced indoor facility in Miami proper rather than it a remarkably hard-to-get-to corner of Fort Lauderdale is now going to entice 37,000 fans away from everything else the city offers, especially at night. Pujols and Reyes would be hard to resist. Then again the Marlins fans of nine seasons ago resisted the 2003 World Champions (except for 16,290 of them each game). I’m not even sure how a $95,000,000 investment in Reyes and lord knows how much in Pujols would translate into profitability or even break-even status.

Reyes alone will not do it – ask the Mets.

As if these doubts were not enough, late last night the impeccable Clark Spencer of The Miami Herald tweeted something to make Miami fans shiver:

Source: H. Ramirez is not at all pleased at prospect of changing positions if #Marlins sign Reyes; the two aren’t the friends many portray.

When the Reyes rumors first started, Spencer had quoted Hanley Ramirez with words that bring honor to the role of wet blanket: “I’m the shortstop right now and I consider myself a shortstop.”

One can easily see where all this will go if a) Ramirez and Reyes squabble; b) Reyes gets hurts again; c) the Marlins don’t sign enough new talent to compete in a daunting division; d) the fans don’t show up; or e) all of the above, in any order you choose. When the ’97 Marlin World Champs did not yield a new stadium, 17 of the 25 men on the World Series roster were gone by mid-season 1998 and three more by mid-season 1999.

Imagine Jose Reyes being traded in a fire sale in the middle of 2013. Or Albert Pujols.

SPEAKING OF ALBERT…

A quick thought about the new Cardinals’ manager.

I met Mike Matheny during the nightmarish 2000 NLCS when Rick Ankiel was hit by the same psychological trauma – damage to a close male relative or friend who had taught him the game – that befell Steve Blass, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, the ex-pitcher-turned-author Pat Jordan, and others. Matheny had cut up his hand opening the odd gift of a really big hunting knife, and had to turn over Cardinals’ catching to Carlos Hernandez.

Matheny was devastated, but less for himself and far more for what his absence meant to Ankiel. I don’t know that this has been reported since the time Ankiel’s problems crested (I know I put it on our Fox broadcasts of the Cards-Mets playoffs), but Matheny told me that several times during the season Ankiel had begun to spiral out of control the way he did in that heart-stopping start against New York. “But I could calm him down, I was able to stop him. Last night, watching it, I felt helpless. Worse, I felt paralyzed. I could’ve talked him out of it.”

Consider this in the later context. Ankiel was collapsing under the weight of his father – who had driven him throughout his youth and into his career – going to prison for drug-running. The problem would run Ankiel out of the majors the next year and make him an outfielder two years after that. Yet Matheny was somehow able to encourage him, reassure him, or simply bullspit him, into overcoming this set of complex psychological phenomena.

Put that into a skill set that includes good game judgement, an ability to easily relate to everybody from batboys to announcers who wouldn’t give anybody a hunter’s knife as a present in a million years, and all the other non-healing powers a manager is supposed to have, and I think it’s safe to infer Matheny will be a pretty good big league skipper.

Can You Hear Me Now?

As we approach 24 hours after the bizarre bullpen screw-ups that may have helped to cost the Cardinals Game 5 of the World Series, one question crystallizes out of the haze:

Seriously?

Tony LaRussa expects us to believe that his bullpen was told to get closer Jason Motte and lefty specialist Mark Rzepczynski ready, but heard only “Rzepczynski”? And following that disaster, they were again told to get Motte ready but instead thought they heard “Lance Lynn”? That the noise was so deafening and the bullpen phone so reminiscent of a string-and-juice-can, that they missed the name of the number one guy down there, and then mistook one name for another that doesn’t sound anything like it?

And most importantly, after it happened once, nobody double-checked the second time they tried to get Motte warm? No “repeat it for me! Spell it!”? Nobody down there with a sense that in a sport where the bullpen coach was blamed and fired for Bobby Thomson’s home run (“Erskine is bouncing his curve,” Clyde Sukeforth said in 1951, sending the other pitcher warming, Ralph Branca, to his Dodger doom), that screwing it up once was a fireable offense?

Even if the bullpen staff is – so to speak – off the hook in the responsibility equation: are there no monitors? Are there no coaches who don’t think Jason Motte and Lance Lynn aren’t the same guy just because they both have beards? Did we really luck out last night because Bruce Sutter didn’t find himself warming up? LaRussa and Dave Duncan never noticed the wrong pitcher was throwing? When it was shown on tv? The second time?

If all of these questions are legitimate, there should have been people fired this morning, LaRussa included. My guess is the questions are not – they’re too amateurish to be believed of the worst manager in baseball, let alone LaRussa.

And if that’s true, it raises two more and far more disturbing questions: why is LaRussa lying and what really happened?

What? You want to know about the Albert Pujols “I called the hit-and-run then chose not to swing” fantasy? Don’t get me started. Let’s just chalk that one up to extra-terrestrials.

Cardinals To Win Series

Firstly, Rangers fans should be delighted by the headline – my 2011 predictions have been execrable (according to this blog, the series opens in Atlanta tomorrow night with the Red Sox as the visitors – or maybe it’s in Boston; maybe I got the All-Star Game wrong too).

Worse still I have a great affection for Ron Washington, his third base coach Dave Anderson, and his Game One starter C.J. Wilson. Beyond that, there is no love lost between me and Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa. The purist in me is offended that the regular season is so irrelevant that what it proved was the fourth best team in the National League is my pick to win the Series. And I happen to hate team catchphrases and don’t particularly care about whether the Cardinals’ flights are happy or morose.

Sigh.

Sorry, CJ

Forgive Me, Wash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nevertheless, here are a few points that made this forecast unwelcome but necessary. You know that dreadful Cardinals’ starting rotation? Its post-season ERA is a nauseating 5.43 – and the Rangers are at 5.58. That anemic St. Louis line-up with the pitcher and the relief pitchers and a few popgun bats off the bench all hitting? It’s batting .288, getting on base at a .345 rate, slugging .448, for an OPS of .793. The awe-inspiring Texas line-up so deep with the DH that Boomstick Himself hitting way down there in the seventh? .259/.330/.434/.764. Having thus far played one more game than the Rangers, the Cardinals have outscored them 62 to 55.

Speaking of Boomstick, what if that tweak in Game 6 of the ALCS, that seeming oblique injury, merely hinders Nelson Cruz in the Series? What happens to a slugger who can’t twist his body fully without searing pain? Cruz has been fragile enough that to begin with his health is always in doubt. Worse still, there are probabilities in play here, and if your performance in the Division Series was 1-for-15 with no homers and no RBI, and then your performance in the Championship Series was 8-for-22 with six homers and 13 RBI, your performance in the World Series is much likelier to look like the first set of numbers than the second.

The DH “thing”? The Cardinals led the majors in hitting on the road, finishing third in road home runs behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. The Cardinals, thought to be comparatively weak sisters at the plate, basically led the National League in every offensive category except home runs, and struck out the fewest times in the NL. To be fair, Texas struck out even less – 48 times less – but without pitchers hitting the stat is slightly deceptive for comparison purposes. Cardinals’ pitchers struck out 111 times as batters during 2011, meaning their eight position players (and pinch-hitters and DHs) only struck out 867 times in total.

Then there is the little matter of the efficacy of starting three lefthanders against the Cardinals (in point of fact, if all three games scheduled for Arlington are played, St. Louis would face the three southpaws in a row). I appreciate the fact that the Cardinals did better against righties than any other NL team (and overall sit behind only Texas throughout the sport), and I’m aware that the key to beating the Cards this year has been to make Lance Berkman bat from the right side, where he is useful but not a force. But it still strikes me as inherently dangerous to offer Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, a blossoming David Freese, and Allen Craig the opportunity to face the likes of Wilson, Holland, and Harrison. To me the play is to bag one of the lesser two and opt for Alexi Ogando, rather than waiting for Holland to blow up again and then going and getting Ogando. Against lefties in the post-season the Cardinals battered Cliff Lee, were bewildered by Randy Wolf, and held their own in a loss to Cole Hamels.

The bullpens have both been superb – the Cardinals’ particularly – and the fact that neither team had to go to a seventh game in the LCS means both sets of relievers are likely to be fresh. If there is one intangible in Texas’s favor in this series, it’s that they’ve faced Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski this year, with some success. In fact they hung a loss Rzepczynski as recently as July 23, even though the Eyechart Man was effective against David Murphy (0-2) and Mitch Moreland (0-1) in four appearances. As images of Rzepczynski nearly getting Pujols killed Saturday night dance in the heads of Cardinals fans, it is trivially noteworthy to remember that his loss in Arlington nearly three months ago resulted from his own throwing error on a Moreland sacrifice.

So if you want to get an exotic wager in on the weirdest thing that could happen in the World Series, it would be Rzepczynski blowing an inning, or a lead, or a game, by picking up a bunt and running face first into Pujols for a solid E-1 and possible concussion.

Of course, just picking the Cardinals is an exotic enough wager.

What If Albert Were Really Hurt?

The early indications on the hamstring injury that caused Albert Pujols to exit early from the Sunday Night game against Cincinnati are mild and not dramatic.

But what if it were the other way around? What impact would a serious hamstring injury have not merely on the Cards’ extraordinary dependence on Pujols, but on what would shape up as the most extraordinary free agency since Alex Rodriguez left the Mariners in the winter of 2000?

What would happen to his $30 million dollar dreams if he didn’t play again this year? Or was hamstrung by the hamstring, or any of a hundred other calamities? Not wishing him any of these in the slightest, but that limp last night made the prospect of an injury that could cost a man $200,000,000 very real indeed.

I would guess the answer is no, but it is wonderful to speculate if the thought even crossed his mind when Pujols told reporters:

“I just felt a little tight, and I just pulled off. I think I prefer it tight than a blown-out hamstring, you know? It’s something that, I have to deal with it. It’s been rough here the last week or so with the rain and all that, and our bodies take a little beating.”

To say nothing, theoretically, of our wallets.

Pitchers Warmed Up…Where?

Veteran baseball people were barely done scratching their heads at the sudden rush to declare Opening Day starters in February – to tentatively hint at a violation of the mix of superstition and inchoate fear they call “tradition” – when injury claimed a pitcher who was merely scheduled to start the Spring Training opener.

Adam Wainwright may not only miss pitching in this Cardinals’ camp; he may not experience Spring Training again until 2013. The ligament damage near his elbow is profound enough to shelve him until sometime during the ’12 season, and could have as big an impact on a team and a franchise as any such injury in recent history, maybe since Sandy Koufax’s retirement put the Dodgers into a funk that lasted eight seasons. Not only does it neuter a Cardinal team that fell behind Cincinnati last season, and Milwaukee last off-season, but it could even impact the team’s ability and willingness to commit huge money to Albert Pujols next off-season.

The larger question pertains to the feeling that these injuries happen more now than they did ‘in the past.’ This question itself has been around long enough to become a baseball tradition of sorts. Surely they don’t happen that much more often. Koufax quit before his fragile elbow might have snapped like a twig. Don Drysdale retired in mid-season just three years later. 1958 Cy Young winner Bob Turley blew up a year later. And countless careers ended as did Mel Stottlemyre’s: with a run in, a man on, and nobody out in the top of the 4th at Shea Stadium on June 11, 1974 (he’d come back for two more innings two months later, then pitch a little the following March, but his rotator cuff was gone).

But the reality is that more pitchers today are warned in advance of these potentially career-ending events. Wainwright isn’t necessarily a victim of some awful turn in pitching mechanics, but rather the beneficiary of greater understanding of their impact, and far greater options in terms of repair. Given how little pain he reported, if this ligament issue had sprung up in Spring Training 1911, he would’ve tried to pitch through the pain, because contrary to today, his livelihood depended on not resting an injury. He might’ve struggled to an 11-12 record this year, had constant pain, started ’12 0-3 and wild as anything, and gone to the minors, never to be heard from again.

Still there is the nagging suspicion that we are doing something to our pitchers that makes Complete Games chimerical dreams, and the four-man rotation and the nine-man staff as comically antiquated as the horse-and-buggy. Denny McLain spent August 29, 1966 – as The Sporting News merrily noted – “struggling to a 6-3 decision over the Orioles…McLain allowed eight hits, walked nine, and struck out 11.” He threw 229 pitches. Two seasons later McLain started 41 games (and won 31 of them). Three years later, he started 41 games (and won 24 of them). The other stat – 51 Complete Games in the two seasons – was not repeated not because of arm problems but due to a suspension for associating with gamblers (the arm problems came a year later).

We know pitchers no longer “save” anything for the 9th Inning (that went out with Jack Morris; it used to be true of the top 25 starters in each league), and that without a fastball in the high 80′s you will now never get signed, and unless something else about you is spectacular, even that will only get you a career serving as the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotter Prospects in the minors.

sc0014e7b6.jpgBut I have long wondered if one tiny change of rituals might have contributed just enough to the wear-and-tear on pitchers to have actually made a difference. The ritual is represented by the smiling fellow at the left, Galen Cisco, the long-time pitching coach who hurled for the Red Sox, Mets, and Royals from ’61 through ’69.

On August 7th, 1964, Al Jackson of the Mets gave up three runs in the first inning. The next day it was two off Cisco; a day later, one off Tracy Stallard in the first. Then came two consecutive scoreless firsts, followed by a doubleheader in which Jackson surrendered one in the first of the opener and Stallard three in the first of the nightcap. Finally on August 15th came the deluge: six first inning runs off Jack Fisher. So as they sent Cisco out to start on August 16, manager Casey Stengel and coach Mel Harder did something radical.

Cisco promptly retired Tony Gonzalez, Dick Allen, and Johnny Callison, and an ecstatic Lindsey Nelson told his Mets radio audience: “Galen Cisco, who warmed up in the bullpen, where there is a mound, in an effort to be better prepared in the top half of the first inning, gets them out in order!”

Your inference is correct. In 1964, starting pitchers did not automatically warm up in the bullpen. When I first heard this old tape I was flashed back to the summer of my tenth year, and the newfound joy of seeing a doubleheader from behind the screen at Yankee Stadium. There, in my mind’s eye, are the starters in the nightcap, Stan Bahnsen of the Yankees and Joe Coleman of the Washington Senators, warming up, on either side of the plate, throwing to catchers whose butts are pressed up against the backstop.

Years ago, Cisco, by then pitching coach of the Phils, insisted to me that he had been no trailblazer, and he had warmed up in the bullpen before August 16, 1964, and that other pitchers had, too. But I know I saw Elrod Hendricks, wearing a mask, warming somebody up long before a game at the new Yankee Stadium, dating it no later than 1976. I was on the field and I had to walk all the way around he and his pitcher. I photographed Goose Gossage throwing, and throwing hard, to somebody in front of the visitors’ dugout in New York that same summer, and it was four years later that I got trapped in a space beyond the third base camera well at Shea Stadium because Scott Sanderson and another Expo twirler were airing it out, pre-game.

Somewhere in the twenty year span of the ’60s and ’70s, the idea that relievers warmed up in the bullpen because they had to “get ready fast,” but starters should warm up from a rubber just on the foul side of either the first or third base foul line, changed into what we see today: everybody warms up in the pen, before, during, or after a game, and again between starts.

Ever had a workout with a trainer? Or just a well-led class at a gym? From yoga to weights, if the guy or gal wants to punish you, they’ll have you do whatever you’re doing, on an uneven surface. Incline or decline, it’s tougher if you’re not on flat ground. To really burn you, they’ll even have you stride downwards or upwards as you lift that weight or try to balance on one foot.

This is not offered as an explanation for all of the woes of the modern pitcher. But a warm-up pitch thrown from a mound is a distant cousin of a pitch to Pujols with two on and nobody out in the 5th. A warm-up pitch from the flat ground is a distant cousin of…playing catch. In short, if Denny McLain had 229 pitches in him on one day in August, 1966, he didn’t use up 20 or 30 or 50 of them before they played the Anthem.

Maybe that’s why Casey Coleman of the Cubs is really one percent likelier to get catastrophically hurt (and 90% likelier to not throw a Complete Game) than his dad Joe did that night in the Bronx (WP: Coleman, 7-7. CG. 11 K, 2 BB, 2 H, Time: 2:37).

Just a thought.

 

 

Albert Pujols: Sign The Contract (Updated)

UPDATE:
Ken Rosenthal of MLB Net/Fox Sports now tweets that the Cardinals’ offer referenced below may average closer to $21 million, not $25 million a year, but hints the offer could be for ten years rather than eight. This makes that mountain of Do-What-Makes-You-Happy a little steeper of a climb. On the other hand, Albert Pujols is in pretty good shape.
I must confess to being amazed to have just heard a panel discussion among three of my favorite people in baseball – Jerry Manuel, Dan Plesac, and Harold Reynolds – in which they insisted Pujols was absolutely right and the Cardinals were absolutely wrong, and Pujols just could not keep his head up were he to have only the tenth highest salary in baseball. Jerry Manuel actually said other players might taunt Pujols by saying “you only got how much, Albert?”
If you cannot turn around and say “I got 21 million dollars, how much did you get?” you’d have to have the thin skin of a grape.

Seriously? Who’s going to taunt him? Joe Mauer? A-Rod?

ORIGINAL POST:
The first time the Major League Baseball Players Association went out on strike during the regular season, I was a gung-ho Yankees fan of 13, whose father had just stunned him with the announcement that there would be no vacation that year because he had spent the money on season tickets at Yankee Stadium.
The strike postponed the kind of triumph only a 13-year old can fully savor with breath-shortening joy: Walking in to The Stadium not as just a fan, but as one of the regulars. And I still supported that players’ strike, on the easy-to-digest premise that if my father had the right to change jobs when his contract was up, why shouldn’t Mel Stottlemyre? 
With rare exceptions, like its stance on testing for performance-enhancing drugs (in particular the 2002 strike-averting agreement), I have had few major disagreements with the union’s positions, even as I literally paid for my support with increased ticket prices. There are two simple truths at play here: a) this is America, and provided you do not break the law you are entitled to earn as much money as you conceivably can; and b) the idea that “player salaries alone caused ticket prices to go up” is nonsensical: it assumes that if salaries were still what they had been in 1972, the owners would never have raised prices, even though it has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that fans at every level have willingly paid those prices, and have in fact bought more and more tickets, the more the prices have gone out. Average salaries were stagnant for half a century, and ticket prices still went up.
This long preamble is presented because I’m going to do something I have rarely done. I am going to suggest that a superstar player of extraordinary ability and consistency is completely in the wrong in his contract negotiations, and needs to make a decision based on common sense, and not one based on pressure to feed his agents, and not one designed to keep feeding a salary growth curve that is acceptable to the Players Association, and especially not one based on 21st Century America’s assumption that getting more money out of it is an acceptable explanation for any human conduct.
That player is, of course, Albert Pujols.
We do not have exact numbers here. We know that with today’s artificial deadline imposed, Pujols insists he will not negotiate with the Cardinals until the off-season and that he has set himself on a path towards free agency next winter. It is widely reported Pujols is seeking a ten-year deal worth an average of $30 million a year, and it is now reported he has been offered an eight-year deal worth an average of more than $25 million a year.
He should take it.
Period.
There is, in fact, a point past which you and your family and your descendants, and your agents and, if you wish, everybody in your neighborhood and your home town, can be rich forever unless they screw it up. There is, in fact, actually a point past which your employer can no longer make even $1.98 in profit by paying you $200,000,000, and will have to let you go elsewhere. And there is, in fact, actually a point in which going somewhere else jeopardizes everything you’ve done in your career, and indefensibly hurts the employers and fans who have helped you achieve this salary range, and – most importantly – risks your happiness and satisfaction in the career you feel privileged to have.
I don’t know where you think that point is, where the numbers blur and the low end of the deal and the high end of the deal are at such exalted levels that the difference they make becomes merely theoretical. I once changed jobs and saw my income jump to $42,000. Trust me: in context, it was all the money in the world. For others the figure might be $100,000. Or a million. Or ten. 
It is one thing to be paid at that figure and find your employers embittered at you, or somehow abusing you, or somehow undermining you, or somehow denying you whatever achievement you desire (in baseball, read “another World Series”). Then, one departs, whether the salary offer is $30,000,000 a year or $30,000. That’s a case of looking for friendlier pastures rather than merely financially greener ones.
But if $25,000,000 a year from people with whom you are happy seems like some kind of failure or risk or insult to you – if you are willing to trade away a place you like, and a team you like, and fans you like, and their loyalty and love that will only increase if you stay – you have divorced yourself from reality.
I am sure some people who have left good environments for more money have made the right choice. I would’ve thought CC Sabathia would have said so, and then suddenly he’s talking about taking the opportunity to opt-out of the rest of the deal he hesitatingly signed with the Yankees two winters ago. Sometimes the money is so much more that you have to go even if you are not going to be as happy. But anecdotally, every time I’ve changed jobs and money was even just the second most significant factor, it has led to unhappiness. 
If I asked you tomorrow to take a 20% pay cut but guaranteed that you would continue to be as happy with your job as you are now, and the money would cover you and your family practically forever, and that your action would make you more popular at work than you are now, you might very well say yes. You might very well say yes even if your pay is $30,000 and you only like the job a little bit. Logic would suggest that as the actual salary figure increases towards the $25,000,000-to-$30,000,000 range, it would be easier to bite the bullet on the 20% and invest it in happiness and satisfaction.
Reality suggests it’s quite the opposite. And we can debate for days how much of that is the result of the madness of modern society, or the inherent insecurity of mankind, or just greed. But it’s true nonetheless. And it will take an exceptional human being to rise above the pattern and stake a course for himself and say “You think I’m going to leave this? For 20 percent? Are you nuts? Just because you can make more money elsewhere doesn’t mean you should, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean you have to.”
I always had the impression Albert Pujols was an exceptional human being.
We’ll see.
AS A POSTSCRIPT:
Are the Cardinals a major market team?
MLB has never issued any guidance as to what it considers big or small.
Here is one I cobbled together for myself, based on the early information from the 2010 Census and other sources. The numbers represent “Metropolitan Areas” and that’s open to wild manipulation, but these are pretty conservative (Boston’s number had to be inflated to include Providence, 1.6 million, and Hartford, 1.2 million)
01 New York               19,171,091
02 New York               19,171,091
03 Los Angeles           12,981,199
04 Los Angeles           12,981,199
05 Chicago                   9,645,498
06 Chicago                   9,645,498
07 Boston                    7,432,655
08 Texas (D/FtW)         6,594,145
09 Houston                  6,008,273
10 Philadelphia             5,996,008
11 Florida (Miami)         5,592,350
12 Washington             5,574,546
13 Toronto                   5,623,450
14 Atlanta                    5,564,840
15 Arizona (Phx)          4,480,865
16 Detroit                    4,383,093
17 SF-Oakland            4,375,470
18 SF-Oakland            4,375,470
19 Seattle                   3,459,059
20 Minnesota              3,302,016
21 San Diego              3,088,312
22 St.Louis                  2,839,292
23 Tampa Bay             2,764,537
24 Baltimore                2,704,060
25 Colorado                 2,604,006
26 Pittsburgh               2,354,523
27 Cincinnati               2,185,149
28 Cleveland               2,091,286
29 Kansas City            2,067,585
30 Milwaukee              1,559,667
By almost any measure here – top 50% versus bottom 50%, sheer numbers, St. Louis is a small market. You will notice Houston is clearly not, even though for years it has pretended to be. Data involving cities not on this list is by itself fascinating. The two Texas markets have grown by more than a quarter since 2000, and neither of them includes the 2,000,000 people in and around San Antonio, and another 1.7 million around Austin and Round Rock. The San Antonio, Sacramento, and Orlando “markets” are now all just about the size of Cleveland. Portland would fit right between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. 
And if you could perfectly place a franchise somewhere in Virginia where people in Richmond and people in Newport News could all think of it as theirs, it would have a market to draw from of 2,912,685 – big enough that in theory the Cardinals could think about moving there.

   

Foul Balls; And 2010 Forecasts: NL East

Before we
wrap up the National League forecast, the Denard Span incident this afternoon
in Tampa (he hits his own mother with a foul ball – and she is wearing one of
his uniforms at the time) called to mind three equally unlikely events with
players and fans and balls flying into the stands:

1. August
17th, 1957. Richie Ashburn, who got to the Baseball Hall of Fame largely by
virtue of his ability to keep fouling off pitches he didn’t
like, until he got one he did like, fouled one off into the stands
at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. It struck – of all people – Alice
Roth, the wife of the sports editor of the newspaper The Philadelphia Bulletin. They
had to carry Mrs. Roth (and her broken nose) off on a stretcher. While
they were so doing, Ashburn, who was still
at bat and still fouling pitches off, hit Mrs. Roth with another foul
ball.

2. Of
course, on June 17th, 2000, Chuck Knoblauch of the New York Yankees picked up a
ground ball and threw it wildly towards first base. It instead hit a fan
sitting behind the dugout, breaking her eyeglasses. The fan, of course, was my
mother.

3.
And perhaps the unlikeliest of the events: After Span got hit, the Associated
Press was reminded of the Bob Feller incident (reminded by Bob Feller, of
course). On May 14, 1939, when the Hall of Fame flamethrower was still just 20
years old, he threw a pitch at Comiskey Park which some member of the White Sox
fouled into the seats – striking Feller’s mother. May 14, 1939 was, of course,
Mother’s Day.

Now to
finish up the NL:

ATLANTA is
the obvious sleeper, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. If Troy Glaus and
Jason Heyward produce as Atlanta expects them, Bobby Cox will have a
competitive final year. If they exceed expectations (and Heyward gives off the
vibe of a Pujolsian, From-Day-One-Superstar) the Braves might actually air out
the division. The rotation gets a little sketchy behind Hanson and Jurrjens,
and there is little or no room for injury (if Glaus gets profoundly hurt or
Heyward is Jordan Schafer
, Eric Hinske and Omar Infante will be playing nearly every
day). And of course it would not be the Braves without another new closer.
Here, updated from its first appearance in this space last summer, is the Bobby
Cox bullpen honor roll:

1. Joe
Boever, 1990

2. Mark
Grant and Kent Mercker, 1990

3. Mercker
and Juan Berenguer, 1991

4.
Alejandro Pena, 1991-92

5. Jeff
Reardon, 1992

6. Mike
Stanton, 1993

7. Greg
McMichael, 1994-95

8. Brad
Clontz, 1995

9. Mark
Wohlers, 1995-98

10. Kerry
Ligtenberg, 1998

11. John
Rocker, 1999

12.
Ligtenberg and Mike Remlinger, 2000

13.
Rocker, 2000-01

14. Steve
Karsay, 2001

15. John
Smoltz, 2001-04

16. Danny
Kolb, 2005

17. Chris
Reitsma, 2005

18. Kyle
Farnsworth, 2005

19.
Reitsma, 2006

20. Ken
Ray, 2006

21. Bob
Wickman, 2006-07

22. Rafael
Soriano, 2008

23. Manny
Acosta, 2008

24. John
Smoltz, 2008

25.
Soriano, 2008

26. Mike
Gonzalez, 2008-09

27.
Soriano, 2009

28. Billy
Wagner, 2010.

If FLORIDA
could make just two starters out of Anibal Sanchez, Nate Robertson, Andrew Miller, Sean West,
Ryan Tucker, Rick Vandenhurk, and Chris Volstad, the Marlins might be the
favorites. By mid-season this could be the most potent offense in the league,
because all Florida needs to produce seven house-wreckers in a row is for one
of the following three kids to live up to his promise: Logan Morrison, Gaby
Sanchez, Mike Stanton (if the Heyward-esque Stanton explodes to big league
quality, you put him in the outfield, you put the fabulous Chris Coghlan back at second or third,
and move either Jorge Cantu or Dan Uggla to first). Florida’s biggest question
mark is the bullpen, where Leo Nunez may or may not succeed.

All that
can be said about NEW YORK is: Sigh. I love the people who run this club, from
the ticket takers to the owners. But this year the wheels could fall off even
worse – and farther – than last. I think Jason Bay is a legitimate power
source, and I thought Jeff Francoeur a steal, but that begs the question of
what the Mets now expect from the guy who is still their top offensive
prospect, Fernando Martinez. If Bay, Beltran, and Francoeur are to be the
outfield for awhile, why is Martinez still there? Plus, the silence
about Beltran is ominous. The
ominousness of Daniel Murphy’s bat is silent. And there is nothing – nothing -
dependable in any of the three categories of pitchers, except for Johan
Santana, Pedro Feliciano, and Frankie Rodriguez, and the latter is just another
closer now. It is absolutely plausible that by June 1 the only questions will
be whether or not to give Ike Davis a taste of the majors, whether or not to
start screwing up Jenrry Mejia the way the Yankees messed with Joba
Chamberlain, and if some Japanese team will take Luis Castillo off their hands.

I’m not
the only person who believed Buster Olney’s story about PHILADELPHIA and Ryan
Howard – if not the plausibility of a swap for Pujols, then at least internal
musings about his decline against lefthanded pitchers and his decreasing
success against breaking pitches. When you are chewed up and spat out by Damaso
Marte, you are not exactly still in the same league as Pujols, or Adrian Gonzalez
for that matter. I’m a little suspicious of the assumed improvement in putting
Placido Polanco in at third (he’s 34, he fell off appreciably last year, he is
moving to a tougher position). Raul Ibanez seems to represent that Sword of
Damacles hanging over any team trying for three in a row (if you haven’t had a
significant position player injury in the first two seasons, you’re going to
in the third). I am not sold on the
rotation (Blanton, Contreras, Moyer, Kendrick – two of these guys must do well),
and the bullpen looks to be sketchier than a year ago.

There are
ways WASHINGTON can suddenly stop being a last-place team (the Ian Desmond
decision was superb – it needs to be followed by similar decisions involving Drew
Storen and Stephen Strasburg, and maybe new limbs grown by Jordan Zimmermann
and Chien-Ming Wang – quickly). Also, I think he’s a quality individual, but
the retention of Jim Riggleman as manager – after ten seasons that have produced
only one finish better than third (a weak second for the Cubs in 1998) – makes
little sense here. Unless Mike Rizzo is thinking of Pat Listach or Rick
Eckstein as a future big league manager, respectability for this club is going
to be the time it takes them to swap out Riggleman plus
the time it will take to break in his
replacement. Why not skip the first step?

DIVISION PREDICTIONS:
I’ll take the long odds that the Braves’ breaks fall the right way and Cox goes
out with a winner in a tight race over the Phillies. The Marlins will hit a ton
but waste the brilliance of Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco by using 11
different fifth starters and half a dozen closers. The Mets will have their
nightmare collapse and be wondering if they can unload not only Castillo, but
maybe Beltran and Reyes, too. They will finish a few games ahead of the
Nationals – but only a few.

Tillman1967.jpg

LEAGUE PREDICTIONS: As mentioned, I like the Braves, Reds and the Rockies for the division titles. The Wild Card would seem to be a battle between the Phillies and the Giants – I really like San Francisco’s rotation, and I really do not like Philadelphia’s chances of getting through another season without physical calamity. So let’s assume the Rockies finish with the best record – they should handle the Giants, and the Braves’ experience should make them favorites over the Reds. An Atlanta-Colorado NLCS? I think the Rockies win that one, as much as I’d be rooting for the man I always greet as the guy the Braves once traded to the Yankees for Bob Tillman, who had been traded to the Yankees for Elston Howard, meaning Coxy was as good as Elston Howard….

2010 Forecasts: NL Central

Having already tabbed the Rockies for a possible runaway in the West (pursued perhaps by the Giants), we move to the Central:

CHICAGO
may represent a startling fact about this division – there not only isn’t a
great team here, there isn’t even a good one. The starting line-up is
five-eighths made up of guys who significantly regressed from 2008 to 2009,
plus Marlon Byrd. The new ownership seems to have already committed to the age-old easy way out of worrying more about the ballpark than the ballclub. Larry Rothschild has gratefully plugged Carlos Silva and Tom
Gorzelanny into his rotation. The bullpen is headed by a shaky Carlos Marmol
and not one experienced right-handed set-up man. The Cubs are a mess.

It still
didn’t make any sense for CINCINNATI to invest in Scott Rolen, nor bring back
Ramon Hernandez, and with considerable irony, this might as well still be 2007
when the Reds were pinning their hopes on Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce. Their
epiphanies – Bailey’s last September, and Bruce’s during his injury – must be
lasting for the Reds to compete. But there is at minimum some sense of upswing
in Cincinnati. Dusty Baker gave Drew Stubbs the chance to play last year, and
might even find spots for Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake, and Yonder Alonso this season. The
bullpen is strong, the rotation potentially deep.

For years,
Terry Francona’s top lieutenant, Brad Mills, has deserved a major league team
to manage. He may yet get the chance – for now he’s stuck with Houston. There
is an outfield and there are two starting
pitchers (providing Roy Oswalt isn’t seriously hurt, and doesn’t go home to his
ranch in sheer frustration). The rest of the line-up, and the pitching staff, are disaster areas, made no better by today’s news than Lance Berkman’s bionic knee is ‘cranky.’ Things could brighten somewhat if
Matt Lindstrom harnesses his talent, and if Jason Castro or J.R. Towles squat
up behind the plate, and if three fans turn out to be viable starting pitchers.
Otherwise, this is a franchise that has gone to seed.

What’s the
psychological saw about repeating the same unsuccessful action with confidence
that this
time it
will succeed? The Brewers are confident Dave Bush, Doug Davis, and Manny Parra and/or Jeff Suppan constitute three-fifths of a pitching staff. They’re certain Rickie Weeks and
Corey Hart will harness their talent. Everybody knows
this is the year Yovanni Gallardo
leaps to the forefront of NL starters. This is a recording. The Brewers will be
deceptively entertaining as long as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are around,
and they could get a wonderful spark if Carlos Gomez decides not to style his
way out of the game before his 25th birthday. But all the bullpen depth in the world
isn’t going to help that rotation.

PITTSBURGH
deserves better. Surely they are, on average, a better set of players than the
Astros. But nothing seems to progress in Pittsburgh; Andrew McCutchen and
Garrett Jones arise fully grown from the minors, but Freddy Sanchez and Jack
Wilson are dished off. They make a seeming salary dump to Atlanta and in fact
rip the Braves off, selling Nate McLouth at his high point, opening up a spot
for McCutchen, and getting the remarkable arm of Charlie Morton – and Morton is
the only guy in the state who doesn’t believe he has
a remarkable arm. And still, if
lightning strikes – if Pedro Alvarez, Chase D’Arnaud, and Tim Alderson were all
productive big leaguers by June 1, they’d suddenly have an actual real-life
.500 team. And a .500 team might run away with this division.

Pittsburgh can hope, because
ST. LOUIS is the most overrated team in the majors. Albert Pujols glitters so
brightly, he makes you forget that the rest of the infield is an assortment of
Brendan Ryans and Felipe Lopezes and David Freeses. Chris Carpenter and Adam
Wainwright were so dominant that they obscured the reality of what happened if
you actually beat them on consecutive days – the Cards’ season would be snuffed
out in a sweep. This is a team that was ready to trot out a rotation in which
Kyle Lohse, Brad Penny, and Rich Hill would pitch more often than did Carpenter
and Wainwright (the first light bulb going off: giving the fifth spot in the rotation not to Hill but to Jaime Garcia). The bullpen is a jumble, the bench non-existent, and lord help
Tony LaRussa if Yadier Molina is really hurt or Pujols’ back is cranky for more
than 45 minutes at a stretch.

PREDICTIONS:
You know what? I’ll take the long-odds bet on the dice coming up for the Reds
and not the Cardinals. It’ll be an exciting race, to see if you actually can
get into the playoffs with 79 victories. Chicago third, Milwaukee fourth just
ahead of Pittsburgh, and Houston sixth, unless they decide to conserve energy
and just forfeit all games in lieu of much needed fielding practice and weeding
through resumes of infielders and pitchers.

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