Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Watch Mike Trout at a Stadium Near You

We have more choices than we used to.

Baseball might be the national pastime in name only.

It's hotter outside, the games take too long, the ball is hardly in play, there are too many strikeouts, not enough rallies, too much specialization among pitchers, the mound is too high, it is too far back, the shifts ought to be outlawed, the players make too much money, it's the game you used to go to with your dad but your kid doesn't want to go to with you because he likes something else.

We've heard it all.  We also hear how stats can ruin the game because unless you have a math degree from MIT you cannot begin to comprehend the wealth of data that teams have at their disposal. 

All interesting points.  And yet, amidst all of this noise is Mike Trout. 

The Angels' centerfielder, even with some recent slumps, is on target to have the second-best single season for an offensive player ever. 


Babe Ruth once put up numbers that yielded a 14.1 WAR stat; Trout is on pace for a 13.7 number. 

That is ever.  Ty Cobb never did that.  Ditto Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Tris Speaker, Ted Williams.  Name all hitters of all time and none of them -- not Gehrig, not Lazzeri, not Cepeda, Banks, Billy Williams, Frank Robinson, the list goes on  -- ever put up a season like the one Trout is putting up.

I read somewhere that were Trout to have retired before last season, he would have rated as one of the six best offensive players of all time.  That was before last season, where he missed six weeks but still had a top finish in AL MVP voting. 

There is an absolutely awesome, special player out there.

Watch him as much as you can.

World Cup

The World Cup is upon us and save for some Americans and international golf fanatics (who will be focusing on the US Open through Sunday), the sporting world will be locked in on the World Cup.  The Russians are hosting the tournament this year.  32 teams are in, among them Iceland (with a population of 335,000 people), Iran, Morocco, Panama, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Uruguay (with a population of roughly 3 million people).  Among the notably absent -- Chile (with Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal), Italy, Netherlands, United States, Wales (the latter, with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, enjoyed a top-20 ranking for most of the year). 

So what to expect?  Perhaps the unexpected.  Spain, with its rich recent history, on-the-field leadership and star-studded roster figures to be in the hunt, but just incurred a self-inflicted wound by firing their manager two days before the tournament is to start because he elected to become Real Madrid's manager after the World Cup.  That decision cannot help the Spaniards.  Germany and Brazil are co-favorites in the minds of the oddsmakers, but, and these are big buts, the Germans would have to be the first team in decades to repeat and the Brazilians, while always wildly talented, might not have the cohesiveness or leadership necessary to win the tournament.  The Brazilians might be scarred from the thrashing they took in their home country at the feet of Germany in the 2014 World Cup (the Germans slashed and burned them, 7-1, in an unforgettable performance).  Then again, this squad's makeup is different, and that game could serve as a motivator to propel Brazil to the top again. 

France might have the most talent of anyone, but question marks arise as to their maturity and their leadership.  Les Bleus will need some on-the-pitch leaders to emerge if they are to win the tournament.  They certainly have the talent to win it, with a midfielder like Paul Pogba and front-line players such as Mbappe and Griezmann.  They have a veteran goalie in Hugo Lloris, and two talent center backs in Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti.  This team could make a deep run.

It's hard to discuss the World Cup and the contenders without mentioning the teams that are home to the two best players in the world -- Argentina, a finalist four years ago, with Lionel Messi, and Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo.  Both could win the cup, but for Argentina, they need to show that they have a balanced team and a strong enough defense to emerge with the title.  Up front, they have as much supply as anyone, with Messi, Sergio Kun Aguero, Paolo Dybala and Gonzalo HiguaĆ­n.  For any team to have one of those players would be an accomplishment; to have four is an embarrassment of riches.  This team will score.  The question is, will they be able to keep their opposition from scoring?  Then there are the Portuguese, who won the European Cup a couple of years ago and have Ronaldo and a core of exciting young players.  They probably do not have enough to get past the quarterfinals, but with Ronaldo, anything is possible.

Then there is the EPL All-Star team, err, the Belgian National Squad, coached by Roberto Martinez, who is assisted by Thierry Henry.  It is an amazing assembly of talent, especially for a country with only 15 million people.  Need a striker?  How about Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku?  Need a winger?  How about Chelsea's Eden Hazard?  Need a central attacking midfielder?  How about Manchester City's Kevin DeBruyne?  Need good center backs?  How about Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld and Manchester City's Vincent Kompany?  Need one of the world's best keepers?  You have Chelsea's Thibault Courtois.  Oh, and you also have midfielder Dries Mertens, among other non-EPL players, who almost led Napoli to dethrone Juventus in Italy's Serie A.  The Belgians are the dark horse in the tournament.  If they can play together, they can win it all.  Seriously.

There are many others who warrant discussion.  England has a young-ish team, led by one of the best strikers in the world in Tottenham's Harry Kane.  But overall the English lack the talent of the continent's best teams and also Brazil, and they haven't developed a style or flair that the other countries have.  Senegal is a popular pick to get to the knockout stage.  The Nigerians have the best uniforms and some good players, including Arsenal's Alex Iwobi.  Croatia has an amazing midfield, Colombia could surprise some folks, as could Morocco.  Few give, among others, Panama, Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia much of a chance. 

And that leads me to Germany.  You probably were wondering why had I not mentioned them, and the truth is that I was going back and forth on my favorites to win the tournament.  I had the Spaniards up until this morning, when they sacked their manager, Juan Lopetegui, because he had the temerity to accept the Read Madrid job in a way not to the liking of his nation's soccer federation.  Which means that while the new manager is well known to the squad, he is new to the position of leader.  And that chance could be the self-inflicted wound that knocks Spain out of the favorites role.  Read a list of the top 25 players in the world, and with the exception of England's Kane, Messi and Ronaldo, almost all are from Germany, Spain and France, with a handful of Belgians sprinked in for good measure.  I don't think France has the maturity yet, and Belgium has disappointed so much (think the hare in the "Tortoise and the Hare") that my predictions lead to Germany.  They won a title last summer with their back-up players populating the squad.  They are steady, explosive and they don't beat themselves.  In Timo Werner, they might have a breakout striker.  They have Manuel Neuer, when the healthy, the world's best keeper, back in goal; and if he is not ready they have Barcelona's ter Stegen to play the role.  Strong back line, solid at the midfield, strong in the attack.  They will be formidable, and they will wear you down.  I look for them to repeat as champions.

Unless. . .

1.  Spain shakes off its managerial distraction;
2.  France's talent meshes into the juggernaut we all know it can become.
3.  Harry Kane dons Superman's cape and has the tournament of a lifetime.
4.  The Belgians show up and play more like Man U under Ferguson than Everton in its final months under Martinez.
5.  Argentina figures out a way to defend enough.

Should be a great tournament, and I will be there for some of it. 

The soccer world comes together once every four years.  It should be quite the exciting time.