Articles by Jonah Keri

A listing of all the articles written by Jonah Keri for the RotoWire Blog.

Ranking MLB Stadiums, Part 1

Chris Jaffe, an excellent writer for The Hardball Times and one of two Jaffes at the top of my recommended baseball reading list, has penned a fun feature ranking his favorite baseball stadiums. It’s such a good idea, I had to nick it for myself.

One advantage I have over Chris (and even the biggest baseball nerds) is a history of baseball road trips. The mid-to-late 90s were a blur of frantic 400-mile drives, TripTiks, ballpark beverages and pitcher heckling. Those trips enabled live baseball viewing in every major league market but one (that white whale will be revealed shortly).

Start by reading Mr. Jaffe’s piece, and feel free to consult the fine series done by ESPN.com’s Page 2 a few years ago as well.

Then move onto Part 1 of this seven-part series reviewing the 34 MLB stadiums — both past and present — that I’ve attended for a major league game. Note the eight criteria considered in stadium rankings. In no particular order:

Food
Location/Views
Seating
Architecture
Fan Support/Noise
General Atmosphere
Value
Bonus Features

One final note: Though I’ve been to a bunch of parks as a member of the working press, those trips weren’t factored into the rankings. These were all tickets bought on my own dime, with a lot more obnoxious behavior than any press box would allow.

34 Candlestick Park (San Francisco)
: The only redeeming quality found upon my visit to the Stick in 1994 was Deion Sanders playing in the game for the opposing Cincinnati Reds — I’m not ashamed to admit I owned a Deion baseball/football poster in my youth. Prime Time aside, we were treated to lousy weather (windy and chilly even in the middle of summer due to the stadium’s location on wind-blown Candlestick Point), a dead crowd and drab overall atmosphere, and football-in-mind seats that defined multi-use stadiums in those days and made sitting anywhere down the baselines a battle for worst neck cramps. There are a few other highly forgettable stadiums on this list, but the Stick gets the honor of last-place for being an abysmal place to watch a game in what’s otherwise a fantastic city — one that’s since built one of the best venues in all of North American sports, no less.

33 Exhibition Stadium (Toronto): Saw two games at the Jays’ old park before the opening of Rogers Centre. The second time, I was about 10 years old, and went with my dad. We had decent seats, in the infield. Yet even in the better seats, we were forced to sit on metal football-style bleachers rather than proper chairs with backs. This wouldn’t have been too bad, if not for the fact that it was pushing 35 degrees that day (that’s 95, for you Yanks), with a relentless sun beating down from a cloudless sky. Funny story: Turns out metal conducts heat really, really well. We Keri men are a pale, blue-eyed, light-haired bunch, which made sitting there exposed to the elements even more painful. And just to make the day that much more unpleasant, the Jays fell behind something like 13-3 by the 3rd inning of this afternoon game — against the lowly Indians no less. I probably left maybe three baseball games early, out of many, many hundreds, before my 30th birthday. This was one of them.

The only thing preventing me from ranking Exhibition Stadium last, given the park’s concessions were dreadful, seating configuration ridiculous and atmosphere funereal, was its unique location. If you were willing to brave the icy, lake-side evening temperatures, you could spend the day adjacent Exhibition Place riding roller coasters and strolling the midway, then hop over for a Jays nightcap. Pretty sweet.

32 RFK Stadium (Washington): When we hit RFK in 2007, the last year of the park’s existence as the Washington Nationals’ home field, I expected a rickety, old stadium unfit for baseball. That’s exactly what we got. Throw in that DC was the city that poached my beloved Expos, and you’d expect a ranking of 149th out of the 34 stadiums listed.

The reality wasn’t nearly that bad, though. Blessed with the compact architecture that defines many old stadiums, our upper-deck seats behind home plate were pretty damn good for the price. The game we saw wasn’t heavily attended, but fans seemed genuinely enthusiastic about baseball, even in the Nats’ third season of futility. My favorite part of the trip was probably the Metro connection. This was as close as I’d ever come to childhood memories of exiting Pie-IX station to see the Expos play at the Big O.

31 Riverfront Stadium (Cincinnati): Your basic, multi-use, cookie-cutter stadium, but it trails some other, similar parks for its lack of rabid fans (St. Louis) and its inferior waterfront location (the Ohio River is more pleasant when crossed with two others in Pittsburgh, for some reason). Food was lame, configuration stunk, crowd noise didn’t travel well, etc.

But the worst part, by far, was our encounter with stadium security. We visited Cincinnati the weekend of June 14-16, 1996. How do I remember the dates so clearly? First, June 16 was my buddy Andrew’s 22nd birthday, so we were psyched to hit the town, get hammered, then see the Expos battle the Reds. The Spos took the first two games of the series, much to our delight. On the Saturday night, we all went out drinking. This was our core group of Expos lunatics, the same guys who’d been going to games together at the Big O for years. With one exception: One of my buddies dropped out at the last minute. Since we’d already bought all the game tickets for our multi-city trip and booked hotels, we needed a replacement. So my friend Brian invited his roommate Mark.

The new guy seemed pleasant enough. As we wound our way down from Canada, he even told us of a 60 Minutes special he’d watched on a special drink. Really, what’s it called, we asked. Jagermeister, Mark said, beaming. Jagermeister either not being a big drink choice in Montreal, or just generally off our radar, none of us had tried it, so we figured we’d give it a shot. We go out, hit multiple bars, end up in this packed place. We start ordering beers. My buddy Elan, the engineer with the gut of steel, then starts buying rounds of tequila shots, because the man likes his tequila. This was already getting out of hand – we’re all plastered by now. Then Mark chimes in: Guys, we should try Jagermeister now! Ummm…sure! What the hell, our collective judgment was fried at this point.

Jagermeister turned out to be…not the best choice. We all got violently ill, to the extent that my then-girlfriend (now very forgiving wife) had to call security to break down the doors to two of our group’s rooms and make sure people didn’t asphyxiate. It took 10 years before I could even hear the word Jagermeister and not want to toss my cookies.

The next morning, everyone was recovered, except for myself and the birthday boy. I was, let’s say, still refunding. Andrew, meanwhile, was completely passed out. While I waited in the hotel lobby with my dead weight friend, the rest of the group made a late-morning Burger King run (ugh), plus one other stop: They’d gone to a local store and bought a bunch of brooms and mops, anticipating a possible Expos sweep. I could nearly see the face of death by this point, but had to admit the broom-and-mop run was inspired.

We get to the game, hand our tickets over to the ticket-takers — and are quickly told we can’t bring brooms and mops into the ballpark. We begged and pleaded, told them our friend Andrew was in a vegetative state, and these household cleaning implements were the only way we could see a flicker of life in his motionless body. No dice. They took away our brooms and mops. And the Expos got blasted, 7-0.

Screw you, Riverfront Stadium.

Cross-posted at JonahKeri.com

Gaming The Hall of Fame

Cross-posted at JonahKeri.com

Tony LaRussa is in the news today, saying his "dream" is to see new Cardinals hitting instructor Mark McGwire pinch-hit in a game this season

Never one to miss a trick, Rob Neyer pounces on the deeper meaning of LaRussa’s pie-in-the-sky gesture. As things stand, McGwire has little to no support for getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. The big obstacle, of course is baseball backlash’s against performance-enhancing drugs, and McGwire’s status as a poster child for the PED era. As Rob explains, if McGwire gets into a game this season, his Hall of Fame eligibility clock is temporarily stopped, and he doesn’t go back on the ballot until 2016. By pushing the timeline back five years, McGwire could benefit from a more accepting attitude among voters, as the BBWAA welcomes in new blood and PEDs in general potentially lose some of their stigma.

I would LOVE for this to happen.

First off, I think voters should elect Hall of Famers primarily for their accomplishments on the field. Players like McGwire, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez all possess overwhelmingly good numbers – so vote ’em in. If we start disqualifying players for taking advantage of the loopholes of a given era, you can toss everyone out of the Hall of Fame. Players of Willie Mays’ era dipped into giant bowls of greenies, proudly displayed in every clubhouse. Players of Babe Ruth’s era played against white players, and not even the best white players; with no scouting and no farm systems around, happenstance was many players’ ticket to the big leagues, and many big potential talents probably never got a shot because they were never discovered. If LaRussa’s gambit helps McGwire get in the Hall of Fame, great. He’s a big part of baseball history, and should be acknowledged as such.

But there’s another reason I’m for LaRussa’s idea. There are many enlightened, thoughtful people in the BBWAA, people who take their jobs seriously, and put a great deal of effort into selecting players for induction. But there are also some voters who game the system, whose cognitive dissonance and egos drive them to make up arbitrary rules about who should and should not get in based on their own whims. Forget PED-linked players for a second. We see players fall short because some voters don’t find it proper to vote in anyone but Hank Aaron on the first ballot. Other voters decide they’re moral watchdogs, so they’re going to make one of the greatest second basemen of all-time wait, because he once did something rude and insulting on TV. I especially enjoyed the story told by @SportsByBrooks on Twitter today, noting that one BBWAA member wouldn’t vote for Bert Blyleven this year because he wanted to stick it to the ex-pitcher for lobbying on his own behalf. There’s nothing in the rules against gaming the voting system, so they’re going to do it.

Splendid. So Tony, go ahead and use Mac in some meaningless September game this season, and extend his Hall of Fame clock by five years. It might result in voters’ attitudes toward McGwire improving in time for his election — or it might be viewed as a stunt and actually backfire. But it would certainly send a statement about power and responsibility, that if one faction wants to bend the rules to their advantage, another faction can do the same. In fact, Tony, don’t just send Mark McGwire up to pinch-hit for his one plate appearance of the 2010 season.

Have him bunt.

Scheduling Travesty

Saturday brought a treasure trove of college basketball action for hoopheads. Two of the first games of the day featured top-ranked Kansas hosting Michigan, and number-two Texas hosting 10th-ranked North Carolina.

Kansas was already universally regarded as the top team in the nation, and did nothing to damage that reputation in its 75-64 win over Michigan. But Texas had more to prove, having gone through the early season and with the best Opponent FG|PERCENT| in America (31|PERCENT|) while facing mostly cupcake opponents.

Facing Carolina and its big and deep front line, the Horns left no doubt that they’re a worthy number-two. Dexter Pittman was especially impressive, scoring 23 points and snatching 15 rebounds, with an astounding 12 boards coming on the offensive glass. Pittman’s Carolina counterpart Ed Davis got his stats, going for 21 and 9. But Pittman still dominated the matchup, pulling rebounds over Davis’ head again and again, swatting the lefty on one second-half drive and generally making a much bigger impact on the game despite playing fewer minutes.

Fellow Longhorns Damion James (25 points) and Avery Bradley (20) joined Pittman in the 20-and-over club, with James adding 15 boards and Bradley showing more than enough speed and athleticism to cement his place as an excellent third banana on an elite team. Bradley and fellow freshman J’Covan Brown give Texas a speedy perimeter element that makes the team balanced and dangerous this year, and a legitimate threat next year when Rick Barnes’ stellar 2006 freshman class departs (imagine if Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin had stayed until their senior seasons too!).

The only regret here is the schedule. Despite being Big 12 rivals, Texas and Kansas will only regale us with one regular-season match-up, on Feb. 8. Yes, the two teams are good bets to meet again in the finals of the Big 12 tournament, and an all-Big 12 national championship game, while wildly premature to predict, is certainly a possibility. But there are plenty of college hoops junkies out there who tune in well before March Madness rolls around. And the bloated membership of the former Big-8 conference means we’re only assured of 40 minutes of action between these two great teams and bitter rivals.

I’ll be rooting for overtime(s).

Rethinking Pickup Hoops

There is a scourge out there, killing pickup basketball, the holiest of pastimes. It strikes without fear, without mercy and without remorse. Its name? Mathematical incompetence.

Imagine for a moment that home runs were worth double in baseball. A solo shot becomes worth two runs, a two-run homer counts for four runs, three-run bomb for six, grand slam worth eight. Wouldn’t MLB teams immediately go out and acquire every big, fat guy who ever hit 30 homers in a beer league, defense and speed be damned?

Now let’s say field goals were worth six points instead of three in football. Wouldn’t NFL teams load up on kickers at the top of the draft? Wouldn’t we see a new generation of football prodigies, sired by Morten Andersen instead of Archie Manning?

This is the problem plaguing pickup hoops. In nearly every pickup game I’ve played for the past 10 years, the scoring system has been the same: 1 point for a basket, 2 points if it’s a shot from beyond the three-point line, game to 11. It’s a quick and dirty way to track the score and play a fast-ending game, so that the hordes waiting on the sidelines get a chance to play too.

I’m all for quick games. But the idea that 20-foot jumpers should be worth twice as much as any shot closer in is completely insane.

Change the scoring system in any sport even a little, and you have the potential for seismic changes in how the game is played, who excels, which players become elite, and which ones become marginalized. Make a major change, and it scarcely resembles the same sport. If the NBA adopted this rule, Jason Kapono would be the reigning five-time MVP and Craig Hodges would still be playing.

It hits home with penny-ante games on random Tuesday nights too. I’ve been fortunate enough to live close to various college campuses for the past decade. That’s meant regular games at USC, the University of Washington and the University of New Hampshire. It’s been tons of fun, but also a challenge.

I’ll let Wooderson explain.

That’s what I love about these high-school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.

Replace "girls" with "guys", "high school" with "college", and "love" with "hate", and you understand the challenges a 30-something dude with a lot of heart and a broken jumper faces in his thrice-weekly runs. Still, hustle, set screens, use your height to rebound and block shots and you can at least not embarrass yourself, with gusts up to usefulness.

Unless, of course, you play by these ridiculous rules. Making long jumpers worth twice as much as other shots turns anyone with a decent stroke into a superstar, even if he never passes the ball, never drives to the hoop, or even takes a step inside 20 feet. It nearly obliterates the utility of players with any other skill set, with the exception of a good screen-setter or the guy who relentlessly crashes the offensive glass so he can pass back out to teammates.

Now, my days of hoisting shots are long gone, and I understand my role in a game. But who goes to the gym to spend the bulk of two hours standing still at the top of the key and absorbing defenders, all so Tim Legler can dribble around you and fire up a jumper? How much fun is it when your biggest contribution comes from killing yourself on the off chance you’ll grab a loose ball, just so you can toss it back out to your Legler teammate for another long bomb?

There’s a simple solution to this problem. Make field goals worth 2 points, and 3-point field goals worth (gasp) 3 points! Game to 21. Play goes just as quickly, you’re still rewarded for superior shooting range, and everyone else can get back to playing a normal game.

Sadly, bringing up this all-too-logical solution elicits sneers at best, mocking derision at worst. I weep for the people who find that adding 2s and 3s up to 21 is too much of a burden on their fragile brains. Better to watch five guys scamper around halfway out to half-court until someone gets an open inch and can launch a shot vaguely in the direction of the basket than perform first-grade math in your head. And hey, if you can bury one in four shots from beyond the arc under existing pickup rules, you’re a playground legend.

I know I sound old and cranky and Andy Rooney-ish with this screed. You know what? That’s fine. I will gladly sacrifice whatever shred of basketball cred I have left in my old age if it means making a better game for the next generation of slow dudes with lefty hook shots who hustle a lot. Nothing less than the fate of global pickup hoops is at stake.

Peyton Manning – Great Quarterback, or the Greatest Quarterback?

Forgive the Colbert reference for the moment, and forget that he just put up one of his iffiest performances of the season. Now let’s ask the question: When Peyton Manning retires one day, will he go down as the greatest quarterback in NFL history?

It’s a nearly impossible question to answer, for many reasons.

First, obviously Manning has a long way to go until retirement. His main lieutenant for a decade, Marvin Harrison, is out of the league, but Manning’s still going strong, and may well be peaking right now – not an uncommon occurrence at a position where experience and smarts can matter as much as raw athleticism.

Second, what’s the best way to gauge quarterbacks’ performance against each other? This isn’t baseball, where a home run is a home run, no matter the era. Football is a far more dynamic sport, having experienced huge changes over the past generation. QBs are far more accurate today than they’ve ever been (well except for you know who), QB ratings are much higher than they’ve ever been, and teams pass more than they ever have, with short passes even favored over run plays in many short-yardage situations. Newly-preferred stats such as Yards Per Attempt give us a better idea of quarterback performance across eras, though even then, how do you compare, say, a great system passer in a West Coast offense with some of the gunslingers of NFL days gone by?

Here’s what we do know: Manning already ranks 5th all-time in passing yards and 3rd in passing touchdowns. On the flip side, he’s just 13th all-time in YPA, behind such present-day luminaries as Matt Schaub. He also trails many of the most prolific winners of all-time, well behind legends like Terry Bradshaw and even current rival Tom Brady for Super Bowl rings. Of course, Manning has plenty of time to add some titles to his ledger, with the Colts either the favorites or co-favorites this season, depending on who you ask.

Other questions crop up:

If Manning isn’t a candidate for greatest of all-time, what about simply most valuable? Where would the Colts be without him, given they usually lacked the Lawrence Taylor-like defensive superstars that other Super Bowl teams possessed?

Did Manning make Harrison and Reggie Wayne into the all-world receivers they became, or would they have been stars playing with Billy Volek too?

Or is there just too much noise to make a clear determination, in contrast to baseball, where Walter Johnson…uhhh, Cy Young…uhhh, Roger Clemens…or Greg Maddux…is the greatest pitcher of all-time?

Maybe these questions can’t be definitively answered at all. What do you think?

How Are Those NBA Sleepers Doing?

Just over a month ago, we checked in on three potential sleepers for the NBA season. How’re they doing so far?

Before the start of the season, I predicted a sizable bump in scoring from Al Horford, with a jump from last season’s 11.5 ppg to a 15 ppg rate this year a real possibility. While that call has proven a bit too ambitious to date, Horford is tallying 13.8 ppg. The team made noise about getting the ball to Horford more in the flow of the offense. But hasn’t always been the case. Instead, the 23-year-old bruiser has upped his efficiency across the board. Horford’s shooting a career-high 57|PERCENT| from the field, while also nudging his FT|PERCENT| to a career-best 74.3|PERCENT|. He’s averaging a double-double for the first, with his RPG up to 10.3, while also blocking an impressive 1.8 shots a game. Horford was touted as a sleeper in some other places too. But the jump in production across the board has met even the most optimistic of forecasts. He’s a keeper, and he may have room to improve.

The Sixers’ new Princeton offense figured to be an interesting experiment: What happens when you meld an offense that promotes crisp passing with NBA-caliber talent? For Thaddeus Young, the answer has been surprisingly disappointing. The third-year forward has struggled with his shot, watching his FG|PERCENT| dip to 42.4|PERCENT| (down from 49.5|PERCENT| last season and 53.9|PERCENT| the year before). Some of that looks like a small-sample size fluke, though: Young’s shooting stroke and track record suggest a player who’s unlikely to hover around 26|PERCENT| from beyond the arc all year long — either that or he’ll just stop shooting treys altogether, a welcome move for the Sixers if a letdown for owners hoping Young would build on last season’s 56 made treys. Say this about the Georgia Tech product, though: Young’s touching the ball more this season, with his minutes (36.0), assists (2.4) and turnovers (2.5) per game all on the rise. Once Young gets a better feel for the offense and picks his spots, he could start producing impressing bulk stats for a player who went late in most drafts.

So, um, guess all the people who wanted the Blazers to take Kevin Durant over Greg Oden were right, huh? While Durant makes a run at a scoring title or five for the next decade-plus, Oden’s progress remains slow. His numbers are up from last year, with the 59.6 FG|PERCENT| and 75|PERCENT| FT|PERCENT| looking especially tasty. But Oden’s a non-factor on offense outside of putbacks. Portland rarely looks for him inside, and 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds a game aren’t lighting up anyone’s team. Foul trouble remains Oden’s nemesis. He’s averaging 4.2 a game, which has kept his minutes at 24.2 per contest. A happy medium is what’s needed here: Oden’s aggressiveness has contributed to his lofty 2.4 blocks a game, but overaggression has him on the bench watching Joel Przybilla far too often. There’s plenty of time for development, fortunately — Oden looks 51, but he’s still just 21. With that said, pre-season optimism may have been a bad idea, at least for the near future.

3 NBA Sleepers To Watch

In basketball more than most sports, players can make big leaps in statistical production as their careers progress. In baseball, for instance, a starting pitcher or hitter who’s a couple years into his career but already a regular might have room for improvement, but he’s already getting about as much playing time as he’s going to get and as many opportunities to succeed as he’s going to see.

Not so in the NBA. Since it’s a team sport, young players usually have to work to gain the confidence of teammates and coaches, to ensure more passes are thrown their way, more minutes are given on the floor, and eventually, more plays are drawn up for them in the huddle.

Here are three players who fit that mold this year, and thus qualify as potential sleepers in your drafts.

Thaddeus Young: Not only does Young get dinged for his youth and lack of big seasons on his resume to date, he’s also a player who gives you a little bit of everything, such that he gets overlooked when the late rounds fly by and you’re looking for a shot-blocking specialist or a three-point bomber. He should see a bump from last season’s 34 minutes per game, which combined with a jump in his responsibilities, will yield some nice number. Pencil him in for 18 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1 3pg, and a big 1.5 spg at the small forward spot.

Al Horford: When you’re a talented player entering your third season, your coaching staff is making lots of noise about getting you the ball more and you’re already a productive fantasy force, there’s a lot to love. But even with Horford getting plenty of mid-round attention, he might be undervalued in your league. Center-eligible in Yahoo leagues and already banking about a block and a half per game and more than nine boards per contest, Horford has the potential to jump from fantasy asset to minor fantasy star if he starts scoring more. The scouting reports rave about his improving step-out jumper, and Horford’s strong enough and aggressive enough to get to the line a lot. Look for him to average a double-double this season with an increased role, and don’t be surprised if his ppg jumps from 11.5 last season to better than 15 this year.

Greg Oden: There’s nowhere to go but up, right? In Oden’s case, it’s been injuries more than lack of confidence from others or lack of a prominent role that’s curtailed his production. He may never play 35 minutes a game, given both his fragile body and propensity for foul trouble. But even at 25-28 minutes a game, Oden could become a prolific shot blocker and efficient rebounder, with enough scoring to make things interesting. He’s still getting no respect in the drafts I’ve see.