Author: Benjamin Seidel

MLB’s future looks skewed

The Houston Astros were triumphantly crowned 2017 World Series champions one week ago, and with their champagne celebrations and victory parade in the books, it’s time for every other organization and fandom to look toward the near future. Except perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are likely still grieving after having woefully ended up on the wrong side of history once again following one of the closest, most pulse-pounding championship series of all time. That’s more than understandable – it’s perfectly harmless considering their particularly auspicious position. While nearly everyone else will scramble to align potential deals with the upcoming free agent crop, the Dodgers should have their pick of the litter considering their vast financial resources and favorable status as a perennial contender, cementing them as the 2018 favorites if they didn’t already unanimously carry that label. 

See, the scary thing that makes Los Angeles so fearsome is that, despite possessing the largest payroll in baseball, they really haven’t spent a fraction of what they will soon be capable of dishing out. Their MLB-leading $242 million Opening Day payroll can trick some into believing that the Dodgers essentially purchased a National League pennant, but don’t be deceived. A considerable portion of that money is the residual aftermath of several long-term, mistake signings of aging, underwhelming or one-season rental players who weren’t even on the World Series roster. Carl Crawford’s disaster contract of $21 million per year significantly inflates that total, but he was cut in the summer of 2016. Thanks to the emergence of Cody Bellinger, Adrian Gonzalez’s $21.5 per year is now a liability. Trading for Curtis Granderson at the July deadline didn’t net L.A. anything except a $15 million benchwarmer. Scott Kazmir, $16 million. Yu Darvish, $11 million. Andre Ethier, $17.5 million. All of this money is coming off the books with minimal drawbacks in the next two years, leaving the Dodgers with options. For an organization possessing arguably the strongest young core of position players in baseball, options are a scary prospect for any of L.A.’s opponents. 

The same can be said for the Dodgers’ American League (AL) equivalent, the New York Yankees. Featuring a young roster with a frightening parallel to the New York dynasty of the late 1990s – a dominant closer, a multi-faceted catcher and the MLB’s new poster boy – and expecting more electric young prospects such as Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres to emerge next season, the appropriately dubbed “Baby Bombers” finally ditched a decade’s worth of damage wrought by poor free agent signings in favor of the fastest rebuild in MLB history. What’s more, like the Dodgers, a good chunk of their Opening Day payroll of $201.5 million is owed to aging veterans who only served a minimal supporting role in 2017, such as Todd Frazier, Matt Holliday, Chase Headley and C.C. Sabathia. With those toxic contracts now off the payroll and others being removed next year, the Yankees possess arguably more money than God and have barely scratched the surface of their bottomless funds during the last few seasons – essentially, they’re still just biding their time. They’re still waiting to actually compete. You know, the near-AL pennant winner.

Here’s the catch: the next two free agency periods directly align with all this financial liberation and 2018 in particular features arguably the most deep pool of talent ever seen in one winter market. Over the next two years, these players will become free agents: Jake Arrieta, Josh Donaldson, Eric Hosmer, Adam Jones, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Lorenzo Cain, Manny Machado, Andrew Miller and the potential $400 million man himself, Bryce freakin’ Harper. With the Dodgers and Yankees holding complete financial control, they essentially get first pick of whoever they want, supplementing their championship roster with the best all-stars money can buy. Imagine a Yankee team featuring Harper, Machado, Arrieta and Miller in addition to Aaron Judge, Aaron Sanchez and Masahiro Tanaka, or a Dodgers team with those same players rounding out Bellinger, Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw. You’ve just pictured the next decade of baseball. In a league with no salary cap, only other big market teams with a core of young stars under extended club control, such as the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs, will possibly be able to keep pace.

The MLB is on a collision course to become the next NBA, where competition is monopolized and small market organizations are rendered irrelevent. It’s been fun, but it’s inevitable that this era of improbable underdog baseball championships will disappear in favor of a return to a logical routine in which money tips the scales. Welcome to the future.

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St. Olaf winter sports preview, 2016-17

Heading into his second year with St. Olaf, the focus for men’s hockey head coach Mike Eaves is simple: develop a more balanced offensive attack that can consistently produce wins. During the 2016-17 season, the Oles were tied for seventh in the MIAC with 61 total team goals while averaging only 2.44 goals per contest, second to last in the conference. The good news is nearly a quarter of all those scores came from returning all-MIAC breakout star Drew Otto ’19, whose 15 goals and 28 points were tied for the third and fourth highest totals in the conference, respectively. Unfortunately, the next most prominent scorers on last season’s team, J.T. Paine ’17 with 11 goals, Patrick Sivets ’17 with 6 and Steven Sherman ’17 with 5, all graduated, meaning St. Olaf will have to rely on significant improvement from its young supporting cast if it wants to seriously compete this winter. 

However, if its first few games are any clear indication, this issue should steadily improve as the season progresses, demonstrated by the early improvement from Chris Koziel ’20 and Gordon Wells ’19, who have already tripled their goal totals from a year ago to tie for the MIAC lead, alongside Otto, with three apiece through four contests. If they continue impoving, and if the combination of Jude Hull ’18 and Eric Hancock ’19 can remain steadfast in goal – the two managed a respectable .911 save percentage last year – St. Olaf can make significant strides toward a playoff spot as indicated by its early upset victory over MIAC champion St. Thomas.

The same can be said for women’s hockey, though in this case St. Olaf is in dire straits when it comes to addressing a dearth of offense that plagued last season’s team. The Oles’ 44 total goals from a year ago placed dead last in the MIAC, the only team to average less than two scores per contest (1.76). Furthermore, an overwhelming 35 goal gap compared to the MIAC’s best defensive team (Augsburg, 38 goals allowed) means St. Olaf needs to make significant strides this winter if it hopes to become an elite competitor in an otherwise lopsided division. Reading between the lines, however, reveals a relatively young squad that demonstrated significant improvement and resilience last year after two consecutive seasons in which it won three games combined. Furthermore, of those seven wins, six of them came against conference opponents in addition to two ties against playoff teams Concordia and St. Thomas, the latter of which emerged as the MIAC champion. In short, St. Olaf knows its conference opponents and matches up fairly well. If statistical leader Jane Vezina ’18 (11 goals, 16 points) can receive some additional support from a promising crop of first years, women’s hockey could potentially surprise.

Following three consecutive dominant playoff runs, including two NCAA appearances, men’s basketball continued the trend of scoring deficiency among St. Olaf winter teams, finishing under a .500 winning percentage and dropping to a seventh place conference finish for the first time since 2012. Only surpassing 75 points in a single contest four times last winter, the Oles struggled to the lowest three-point shot percentage (33.3), total points (65.5) and turnovers (12.8) per game in the MIAC, now with its top scorer, Austin Majeskie ’17 (318 points), graduated. Robert Tobroxen (312 points), Nate Albers ’20 (255) and Austin Korba ’19 (253), return to give St. Olaf some spark, but they’ll need to dramatically surpass their previous totals and receive enhanced support from a very young roster – Tobroxen is the only senior – if this team expects to keep pace with opponents and return to its former glory. The Oles can hang in there with a respectable defense – 5.4 steals and 2.7 blocks per game both ranked fourth in conference – especially considering Tobroxen placed first and second on the team in each respective statistic last season. But if they can’t score, they won’t see many victories on their way to a likely developmental winter. 

At risk of sounding like a broken record, women’s basketball also needs to generate a more intimidating offensive approach after ranking 11th in the MIAC in points per game (56.6) and finishing in the cellar for field goal percentage (34.1). Makenna Ash ’19 stands out as a top 10 scorer within the MIAC (50.5 field goal percentage and 350 total points) and should step into a more veteran leadership role this season. The dropoff of proven talent beyond Ash is fairly vast, but Ella Skrien ’20 returns to the Oles after being named to the all-first-year MIAC team after producing 9.4 points per game last season. In addition, Margaret Anderson ’19 emerged as a prominent three-point threat, placing within the conference’s top 20 in three-point percentage (30.7), a major asset that should only prove more valuable as she continues to improve as an upperclassman. There’s certainly enough proven talent on this squad to warrant excitement over its potential first above-.500 season since 2013, but several additional stars will need to emerge from an abnormally young team – thirteen of its fifteen roster spots are occupied by either first years or sophomores – in order to make that dream a reality.

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Inside scoop: Swing Dance

As Jazz II was hastily making our way through the opening set of last Saturday’s Halloween swing dance, I started to get an uneasy sense that something wasn’t necessarily going as planned as I played through the lead trumpet part on “The Way You Look Tonight.” Perhaps the finest method for effectively communicating this mental dissonance is to take you through my mindset during the piece’s opening moments, and so I shall:

“Hmm… You know, it feels like we’re rushing. It’s a pretty young band, first concert of the year, that’s pretty understandable. We’re excited. It’s an exciting atmosphere. But man, we really have to chill on the tempo, this doesn’t feel like optimal time whatsoever. Am I doing something wrong? Is it me? Maybe I should stop compulsively glancing at my phone to check the World Series score every few seconds and focus on counting more accurately, otherwise … ”

But before I could continue tangentially drifting into horrific flashbacks of my first time seeing the film “Whiplash,” the persistent problem identified itself during a sudden, surreal epiphany.

“Oh, look at that. At this moment, I do believe we’re a good four to eight measures ahead of the vocal accompaniment. Um… UM…”

Suddenly, as if telepathically sensing my exponential panic, conductor Dave Hagedorn knowingly cut off the band, joking that we’ll take a mulligan and restart. This is normally a taboo when performing, but instead of booing, hissing and otherwise jeering, our audience applauded with encouragement and resumed swinging, as swing dancers are prone to do, as per usual upon our next downbeat. We still rushed – collectively fixing these things on the fly is a herculean task for a band that’s been rehearsing together for less than two months – but held together consistently enough for the dancers to accelerate and align with our more frenetic pace, thus igniting the energy within the Pause to a high that remained consistent for the duration of our set. Somehow, thanks to an auspicious, dynamic interaction between band and audience complimented by what can only be described as fortuitous divine intervention, the entire incident worked in our favor to create a better experience for everyone. 

At this point, I came to a realization: swing dances, for my money, are considerably more fun than your standard Pause dance. 

Let me describe to you my typical experience at Pause dances. First, I arrive, fueled by cautious optimism at having even made it this far beyond the quiet comfort of my dorm room. Second, I use that optimism to attempt and break into the hysteria driven mass of college students partying like there’s no tomorrow. Third, I fail, gingerly moseying over to the corner of the Pause, rolling up into the fetal position like a disgraced pill bug, and proceeding to roll out of the venue in shame, perhaps grabbing a pizza on the way out to drown my self-perceived social ineptitude in delicious affordable cuisine. Now, being a pill bug isn’t all bad – you’re able to inconspicuously hide in tight spaces and some people enjoy your presence – but in an extremely active environment filled with hundreds of likely intoxicated college students, odds are you’re going to get squashed. At Pause dances, I feel squashed. And thus, I roll away.

But the swing dance feels different. Perhaps it’s because there’s tangible purpose behind the event as an outlet to express by synthesizing dance technique and jazz, but there’s a certain amount of intentionality and jovial spirit that’s palpable throughout its duration. People genuinely want to be in attendance in order to communicate a specific passion that they rarely get the opportunity to publicly display – it’s a culmination of efforts from two dedicated organizations that attracts outsiders to the intrigue of our chosen art forms and demonstrates the joy and power of collaboration in the process.

So as I continued the set, frantically switching back and forth between notes on the page and World Series updates, as is natural for anyone caught in limbo between the music and athletic worlds, it became increasingly obvious why messing up so badly mere moments prior was overlooked and even celebrated: everyone is there to have fun at a school dance, which, for me and I imagine many others in the room, is likely not usually the case. Yeah, we rushed a lot. Things got messed up for a bit. But in the end, when everyone in the room was so immersed in their otherwise latent element for even a brief moment in time, it could hardly taint the experience.

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Game 5 is why baseball rocks

We all thought Game 2 was the climactic pinnacle that would come to define the 2017 World Series between the abnormally deep, star-studded Los Angeles Dodgers and the tenacious, explosive Houston Astros. Four days later, it’s nothing but a distant memory, paling in comparison to what can only be described as pure, concentrated insanity on a baseball diamond.

Game 5 is undeniably the most purely exciting game in MLB history. It was so exhilarating, those possessing apathy or even disdain for America’s pastime could momentarily perceive beyond the facade of an ostensibly “boring” sport and come to truly understand why mass participation in its fandom is such a rabid mania successfully ensnaring the hearts and souls of people who dutifully invest into its intoxicating ethos. If you believe the previous sentence to be overly-romanticized, hyperbolic schlock about a superficially mundane sport, you likely didn’t watch the Astros and Dodgers lay it all on the line for over five hours Monday night.

“Oh, there goes Ben, gushing about a children’s game in pretentious vernacular again like the big, dumb manchild nerd he is.” Yeah, you know, maybe. But I would insist that Game 5, an extra inning, 13-12 slugfest thriller, was a staggering microcosm of the myriad unfolding stories between an iconic playoff mainstay and a relentless newcomer playing with a ravaged city on its back. 

With the Dodgers jumping out to an early 4-0 lead behind the best pitcher in the world, Clayton Kershaw, Houston appeared to be in dire straits, on pace to drop two of its final three home games and expecting to return to L.A. down 3-2 in the series. 

Suddenly, the Astro offense awoke and ignited a domino effect of insanity that spiraled out of control long before the contest would end. A four-run fourth inning stirred the Houston crowd into an absolute frenzy, knocking Kershaw out of the contest and shifting the momentum 180 degrees in favor of the home team. Sure enough, L.A. responded immediately with three emphatic runs during the next half inning, robbing Astros fans of hope as soon as they sniffed it. Continuing the turbulent roller coaster ride, Houston icon and likely American League MVP Jose Altuve, the pride of short athletes everywhere, mashed a three-run homer in the following half inning, gridlocking the score at 7 and escalating the energy in Minute Maid Park to an arguable all-time high.

L.A. Houston. L.A. Houston. Back and forth, back and forth, lead change after lead change until the Astros finally emerged victorious after the Dodgers accomplished an improbable three runs with their backs to the wall to send the storybook game into extra innings. What makes this Game 5 in particular so uncanny is the near identical match it shares with each team’s story up until its first pitch. 

The Dodgers, always the bridesmaid but never the bride, consistently jumpstarts regular seasons with a torrential pace, a stacked roster and more financial resources than any organization could hope for, yet always ends up belittled in October for faltering on the biggest stage in spite of their numerous advantages. While only the most cynical of fans could claim they choked in such a closely contested competition, the fact remains that they put themselves in a near-optimal position to stranglehold Houston into submission and once again let a golden opportunity slip through their grasp. While certainly not eliminated, it’s a feeling that L.A. fans have grown woefully accustomed to during the past decade.

The Astros face impossible odds in the middle of a metaphorical hurricane and represent a rare spark of hope for a city in ruin after a disastrous literal one, rising to a herculean challenge and refusing to concede. The people of Houston desperately needed something to get excited over, and, like the 2013 Boston Red Sox before them, the narrative of tenacity and unity that the Astros have consistently displayed through the playoffs, World Series and especially Games 2 and 5 is a perfect match to uplift those devastated by tragedy.

By the time this article is published, Game 7 will have definitively dictated the next baseball champion – if last season’s zany conclusion between the Cubs and Indians is any indication, things could, somehow, get even crazier. However, Game 5 will always be the one to remember, as it not only perfectly encapsulates what it means to follow either the Dodgers or the Astros, but, more importantly, reminds baseball fanatics that the impossible is never out of reach while simultaneously inviting outsiders to understand its potentially unrivaled allure. For my money, it doesn’t matter who wins – Houston and L.A. have already imprinted their mark in history.

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