When Apple unveiled its fancy new iPad two weeks ago, it chose a select few partners, each dominant in its field, to help show off the gadget's possibilities. Among them were The New York Times, Electronic Arts and Major League Baseball, which produced a nifty-looking application that will allow owners of the giant iPhone to watch games live wherever broadband finds them.
As the stodgiest of the major sports, baseball's emergence over the past decade as the most wired among them has been a bit surprising. There is a reason, though, why it was MLB and not the NFL or the NBA parading its wares before Steve Jobs' acolytes, and it's hard to overstate the significance of that. The development of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which has developed extraordinary technologies in the last several years and may be worth nearly as much as the two New York teams and Red Sox combined, has been perhaps the crowning success of commissioner Bud Selig's tenure.
Because of this, the news that Bob Bowman, who has run MLBAM since 2000, filed paperwork on Thursday morning to run for the governorship of Michigan is by far the most interesting of the week in the baseball world. What's actually happening is slightly opaque -- "The internal examination continues," Bowman, a Democrat, told the AP -- but while leftfielders and pitchers go here and there, and trends in player valuation change as they will, you can count on one hand the number of people who stand as close to the apex of baseball's power structure as Bowman does. For him to do this is a big deal.
This isn't necessarily a lark, either: Bowman, a former treasurer of Michigan, also has experience in the Department of the Treasury and on Wall Street, and a kind of wry charisma that may play well in a state hardly overrun with blinding political talent. Two implications are worth teasing out.
First, forming an exploratory committee, which will allow Bowman to raise funds while complying with campaign finance rules, is an explicit act of partisan politics, something that central baseball generally stays clear of both for practical reasons and because the game is theoretically an apolitical national institution. Individual power brokers obviously have their preferences -- Selig, for example, has contributed $50,300 to Democratic candidates and nothing to Republicans in the last three cycles, according to a search of records made available by the Center for Responsive Politics -- but expressing preference with cash is quite different from joining one of the parties as a potential candidate.
Second, this has implications for the immediate future of MLB's digital arm. Presumably if Bowman explores and likes what he finds -- and perhaps even if he doesn't -- he'll be leaving his job soon. (A spokesman for MLBAM wasn't immediately available for comment.) There are surely qualified candidates to replace him, but one key to his shop's success is that throughout its existence it has been able to function with a good measure of independence. Given that the 30 teams each own equal shares in the enterprise, that shouldn't be taken for granted. Whether Bowman's successor would do as good a job of maintaining that autonomy is an intriguing question.
From drug policy to labor relations to the designated hitter rule, baseball gets a lot wrong, but it has had digital media spectacularly right for a decade now. You can watch ball games on your telephone, read credible reporting on your favorite team's Web site and check the exact location and speed of any pitch thrown because people made the right decisions on these issues over the past decade. Here's hoping they continue to do so in the one to come.
Frank Thomas' quiet confirmation of his retirement this week seemed a bit sad, just because a player as great as he was deserved to go out to a standing ovation while taking a last victory lap around the field before visiting a street named after him. It's been long enough since his prime that there are lots of fans who never saw him at his best, and others who did but don't remember just what a terrifying hitter he was, so the best thing to do might just be to compare what he did through age 29 with what Albert Pujols has done through the same age:
Thomas: .330 BA/.452 OBA/.600 SLG, 182 OPS+Pujols: .334 BA/.427 OBA/.628 SLG, 172 OPS+
Pujols has dimensions to his game that Thomas lacked, and he'll almost certainly age better, but on pure talent, at their best, and just as hitters, I'd take the Big Hurt -- he was just stronger, with an even better batting eye. The line on him used to be that he was the greatest hitter since Ted Williams, and at least through 1997 it was hard to argue.
As the Great Johnny Damon Soap Opera of 2010 continues, with the Braves, Tigers, White Sox and who knows who else tussling for the famed left fielder's services, it might be worth putting the value of those services in some perspective. Per The Bill James Handbook, Damon projects to hit for a .355 on-base average and a .430 slugging average. Russell Branyan, decidedly not the object of a continental bidding war, projects to hit .336/.490.
Damon is obviously a much better ballplayer. Even at 36 he's still a terrific baserunner, he can hit left-handed pitching, and he has played at least 140 games every year since 1996. You can say none of this of Branyan. Still, Damon isn't much in the field, and if Branyan isn't either, he at least offers some interesting options, as he's a passable first baseman, played a vaguely adequate third base as recently as 2008 and has outfield experience.
That a guy who can be fairly described as the more complete Russell Branyan has several contenders bidding on him with money they claim not to have and seems likely to end the weekend with a multi-year deal in hand may be in part testament to the power of good hair and good press, but should also go some way toward answering why Scott Boras is Scott Boras and you aren't.
• Anyone who says there's nothing to admire about today's ballplayers is losing it. Take Shawn Estes, who recently agreed to a minor league deal with the Washington Nationals. The man last pitched in the majors in 2008. He last pitched 10 games in the majors in 2005. He last finished a year with an ERA below 4.00 in 1997. According to Baseball Reference, he has made more than $22 million in his career. If you can get cynical about him heading to camp with a team that lost 103 games last year, or about that team giving him the shot, you're harder than I am.
• While the move drew round scoffing, the Mets were smart to sign Mike Jacobs to a minor league deal. He doesn't do much well, but he hits a home run once per 19.3 at bats, on par with the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Morneau. If you're going to do one thing well, hitting home runs is it, and Jacobs could be quite useful as a reserve, especially for a team that needs power.
• The oddest thing about the A's releasing Willy Taveras this week was that they had Willy Taveras at all. The man hit .246/.293/.291 over 975 plate appearances in the last two years. We can all argue about the merit of Oakland's sometimes peculiar strategies, but surely all can agree that it's a real shame that this least A's-esque of all possible A's never even got to wear the uniform.