Monday, April 11, 2011

Masters and Mariners

The final phase of the 2011 Masters golf tournament will probably go down as one of its more exciting finishes, if such a term can be applied to golf. At one point on the final nine holes, six players were tied for the lead at 10 under par. 21-year-old Irish “phenom” Rory McIlroy was not among them; entering the final round with a four stoke lead, and still leading at the turn, McIlroy proceeded to an implosion of historic proportions, wilting like a twig in a bonfire with a plus-seven on his back nine—finishing an incredible 10 shots off the lead, a 14 shot swing over 18 holes. Having become the latest “darling” in a post Tiger Woods golf world, the over-confident and over-lauded McIlroy quickly became an afterthought after the 12th hole. Although he ultimately fell short of victory, the story of this tournament was a familiar face: Tiger Woods. Having essentially bogeyed his way out of contention in the third round, people seemed stunned to see his name miraculously shoot-up the leader board on his front nine, tying for the lead at several points, and still only one-shot behind when he completed his round. I work on Sunday, and the television in the break room was glued to NBA basketball until a few people noticed on the Internet that Woods might actually have a chance to win; at that point the TV was turned to the Masters, and people kept watching to see if the golfers remaining on the course had a bogey or two to force a play-off that Woods would be a part of. It wasn’t to be, but no one should underestimate the effect that Woods’ charge had on interest in the final result.

Local commentators like “The Groz” can slobber all over young European players if it turns them on; but like the fact that outside the Williams sisters (when they are not nursing injuries), tennis has no Americans who excite anybody in this country enough to pay attention to it, the same will be for golf. Because golf has not only been viewed as an elitist, country club sport (Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino were popular because they broke the mold)—as well as a racial divide in the sports world—what Woods represents is something else altogether: A person who by popular prejudice supposedly couldn’t have the “genetic” ability to do so, dominated the game like no other for at least a decade. Woods gave to the alienated and disinterested a vicarious connection: If he could do it, anything was possible for the previously excluded. The casual fan can’t identify with any of these “young guns,” especially the Europeans, except those who have always responded negatively to Woods’ success. When Woods when on a sabbatical in 2008, television ratings for PGA events fell 50 percent, and when Woods is not a factor in a tournament, interest also drops, just not as dramatically. The last thing golf wants is Woods as a nonfactor—or no Woods at all. The sport will survive without Woods, of course—but like hockey, it will return to being a niche sport on the fringes of fan attention.

Pity the poor Seattle Mariners baseball fan. After a two and zero start to the season, judging from local commentary you’d think that a 162-0 season was closer than a 2-160. The Mariners and their fans have quickly fallen (way) back to reality. Outside of last season’s Cy Young winner, Felix Hernandez, there is no one on this squad that a contending team would deal with to make themselves “better.” There is only one “positive” thing left for the diehard to find worth speculating about: Will Ichiro reach 200 hits again this year? It is certainly fascinating for the amateur statistician. On the surface, Mariner fans should be proud to be able to cheer for a player who not only has tied the MLB record for most 200 hit seasons (10, with Pete Rose), he’s done it in consecutive years. Right? The slap-happy Ichiro certainly has made “pitcher-friendly” Safeco Field his plaything, but his recent loathing to steal bases to make-up for his lack of extra-base hits—and the lack of hitters able to launch baseballs to Safeco’s stratospheric fences on a consistent basis—means that he has not been a particularly productive player, averaging less than .5 runs scored per hit as the lead-off man; until late last season, he was threatening to break the dubious record for fewest runs scored on 200 or more hits. This would certainly be profoundly embarrassing to a true lead-off specialist, like Rickey Henderson.

Perhaps some people are wondering if there is a correlation between the Mariners' losing ways and Ichiro’s hit production. To that purpose, I’ve drawn-up the following table:

Year Hits Won-Loss
2001 242 116-46
2002 208 93-69
2003 212 93-69
2004 262 63-99
2005 206 69-93
2006 224 78-84
2007 238 88-74
2008 213 61-101
2009 225 85-77
2010 214 61-101
2011 9 2-7

I admit that despite the fact I’ve explored the problem six ways to Sunday, I cannot ascertain a direct relationship between these numbers. One interesting fact is that in 2004, Ichiro nearly became the first player in major league history to have 200 more hits than his team had wins. The season following Ichiro’s MLB record for hits (and singles) was his career low for hits. In his five best seasons, the Mariners had a 430-380 record; in his five “worst” seasons, the Mariners were 377-433. In those first ten years, the Mariners have actually had five winning seasons and five losing seasons, and are only 3 wins from being .500 overall; the 2001 season perhaps skewed the record a bit, but when the Mariners have been bad, their badness was multiplied by several factors. Their badness hasn’t seemed to be particularly troubling to the aloof, expressionless Ichiro, who is probably satisfied that he is the “best” player on a bad team, because everyone tells him he is.

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