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It’s All Fun and Games (‘Till Somebody Brings Up the Money…)

Beyond ways to speed up the game, baseball might be facing bigger challenges.

John Collins

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State of the League’s (dis)Unity

How apropos…as all focus was on President Trump in Washington delivering the State of the Union Address last week, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was out in Los Angeles doing very much the same; discussing the state of the game at MLB’s Quarterly Owner’s Meetings.

The week began with a few widely accepted updates for the league in 2018, as well as an elucidation on some of the positive trends developing in the game. After far too many injuries from bats and balls flying into the stands, all 30 teams have announced they will be extending the protective netting this year.

Wahoo! Finally, a decision. (Image: Yahoo.com)

It was also reported that the Cleveland Indians will finally be removing their controversial Chief Wahoo logo from all elements of their uniforms by 2019.

Commissioner Manfred continued by celebrating the influx of young, exciting talent entering the game and their marketability, the success the MLB Advanced Media, and the health of a robust, growing economy for the game. Yet as in politics, not all is sunshine and rainbows…there were also many divisive issues afflicting the league that emerged.

Manfred, who has long advocated for shortening games and establishing rules to improve overall Pace of Play, brought up a few of the proposals that he and the owners have suggested recently. These include everything from the implementation of a pitch clock to a limit on the number of mound visits per game; financial incentives for faster play, establishing shorter commercial breaks, and even the idea of bringing back the bullpen cart was floated out there by some.

I Want One! (Photo: MLB.com)

Players have resisted the measures, although after proposing them over a year ago, Manfred now has the power to institute them unilaterally prior to the season in 2018. While he now has that ability, the Commissioner has long said that he would much prefer to have agreement from the Player’s Association with any changes made. That’s why the updated Pace of Play proposal delivered at the Owner’s Meetings was a much watered down version of previous iterations.

Instead of forcefully implementing the original proposal suggested- including the addition of a 20-second pitch clock for 2018- Manfred has tried to be responsive to the members of the players association that disagree. That’s what led to the updated plan announced at the meetings last week, which calls for:

  • The time-of-game goal for 2018 would be to play games in under 2 hours, 55 minutes; if 2:55 or longer then an 18-second pitch clock would be put into effect for the 2019 season. If the average game time was under 2:55 in 2018, then MLB would play in 2019 without a pitch clock, and the time-of-game goal would be 2 hours, 50 minutes. If that goal wasn’t met, the use of a pitch clock would be triggered for 2020.
  • MLB would implement a six-trip limitation to the number of mound-visits allows per game.
  • Specific times would be established for pitchers to warm up between innings and for hitters to approach home plate to promptly restart play; but no penalties would be attached for 2018 with a review at the end of the year.
  • MLB would withdraw its request for a between-batter timer if the union is willing to reach an agreement on the pace-of-play initiatives.

This attempt at collaboration was met by the Players’ Association with anger, animosity, and a declaration of their displeasure with the state of free agency and some of the other issues they see as much more troubling for the league. The association’s Executive Director, Tony Clark, actually responded to the Pace of Play proposal with a curt statement that read: “As we sit here today, the first week of February, our focus is on the 100-plus free agents still available.” Players like Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen brought up the idea of a potential strike in the future (and they’re not talking about pitch location…) with powerful agent Brodie Van Wagenen going as far as suggesting a holdout leading up to Spring Training in two weeks.

The always vocal Scott Boras has decried the situation as a “non-competitive cancer ruining the fabric of the sport.” He sees teams like the Pirates, Marlins, and Rays more focused on rebuilding than contending, and believes that the current system has a major flaw. Teams are being pushed to one of two poles: either making a concerted effort at contention or tearing the franchise apart and focusing on a full-blown rebuild. The lack of a middle ground has “removed hope and faith from the fan,” and is what Boras believes is responsible for the free-agent freeze. While the league as a whole is making plenty of money, the average team payroll is expected to drop for the first time in years.

How all of this gets resolved definitely merits watching, as it is going to be incredibly significant to the players, teams, and fans of Major League Baseball. Labor relations between the players and the league haven’t been this divisive for decades. The last time the situation was this contentious was 1994, and we all know what happened that year (a strike that ruined the season, disrupted the league, and is what some believe led to the steroid-era).

With spring training just a few weeks away, “it’s getting late early,” as the sagacious Yogi Berra would say. Will the 100+ free agents still available be signed with their teams? Which of Manfred’s proposed rule changes will actually be implemented to improve Pace of Play? All will definitely be addressed in the league’s next Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2021, if not sooner. Let’s just hope there’s not a bench-clearing brawl…

Break it Up! Break it Up! (Photo: NatsEnquirer.com)

A Communication major from the University of Southern California, with eclectic experience in the sports, business, and the entertainment industry, John Collins is the baseball writer at Front Office Sports. An avid sports fan and highly opinionated writer, John is of the firm belief that Bull Durham is far superior to Field of Dreams and looks forward to you telling him otherwise. Reach out: John@frntofficesport.com any time!

Baseball

Original Grain: Offering Fans a Sporty Way to Tell Time

John Collins

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When a Watch is More than a Timepiece (Image via Original Grain)

*This piece is part of John Collins’ ongoing article series called, “It’s All Fun and Games (‘Till Somebody Brings Up the Money…)” where he focuses on the lighter sides of sports business while tying it back into the topics driving the conversation in the industry. 

Tune in to a New York Yankees or Chicago Cubs baseball game this year, and you’ll be sure to see something rather unique. As Yankee announcer John Sterling says in the recurring Original Grain commercial, “It’s not just a timepiece; it’s a piece of time.”

Original Grain is an innovative company dedicated to creating watches and accessories out of steel and wood that are not only crafted at the highest possible level, but also offer customers something unique. Company co-founder Andrew Beltran encapsulated it perfectly: “Watches tell stories.” Well, in this case, these speak sports.

The incredibly cool timepieces I’m talking about are what Original Grain calls it’s “MLB Collection.” They’ve taken wood reclaimed from seats at the old Yankee Stadium- the classics from 1923- and used it to create a line of limited edition 42MM New York Yankees Swiss Watches that feature the historic material. After nearly salivating at the idea of someday owning one of these Bronx Bomber beauties, I had to know more. How in the world did such an interesting partnership develop, synergizing wristwatches and sports memorabilia into something so distinct and unique?

We had a chance to catch up with Andrew Beltran, who co-founded Original Grain with his brother, Ryan, in 2013 and got to hear their “trailblazing” story. It was while returning from military deployment (he had been serving overseas) that Andrew decided to stop in Hong Kong and meet up with his brother, who was teaching in the region.

During the visit, Andrew noticed a wooden watch his brother and a few others were wearing, and instantly felt a surge of nostalgia and flood of positive memories. The rustic timepieces reminded Andrew of his youth; camping and bootstrapping in the Oregon woods, as adventurous children are apt to do. When he mentioned this to Ryan, the entrepreneurial brother liked the idea, realized that he could probably find sourcing, and a company was born.

The brothers started producing unique wooden watches and accessories with the goal to provide fashionable, high-quality timepieces that exuded personality and signified a certain “brand lifestyle” celebrating individuality. Every piece was different; carefully crafted with wood, all of which “has its own story.” The company grew, attracted funding, and started developing different versions like the “Brewmaster” made with reclaimed beer barrels, and the “Barrel,” featuring wood from barrels used in the making of Jim Beam bourbon (their first corporate partner).

Original Grain’s products sold well; the Beltran brothers’ brainchild was largely successful. Taking stock of the situation, Andrew and Ryan were moved to do something to express their gratitude to one of their primary investors- James Brennan- on his upcoming birthday.

Brennan is a New York guy the brothers frequently saw wearing beautiful Rolexes and other luxury watches. They also knew that Brennan grew up as a passionate Yankee fan, so they decided to create a gift melding the two hobbies or interests together. The Beltrans had one of their watches made using seats from the old Yankee Stadium, and gave it to the investor on his birthday.

The savvy investor was elated; not only astounded at the incredible gesture, but also recognizing instantly that this was something they had to share with others and could bring to market. Original Grain secured licensing with Major League Baseball and started producing the limited edition New York Yankees Watches. “That’s where the idea started, and the Yankees are known for their passionate fanbase, so it was only natural…” Beltran said of the decision to feature that particular team at the beginning.

Taking seats from the old Yankee Stadium, which had been torn down after hosting its final game in the 2008 season, Original Grain produced 2008 gorgeous Swiss Watches, capping it at that number to honor the stadium’s legacy (not to mention the seats’ scarcity). With only around 400 remaining, the Yankees watches were obviously a hit.

That popularity inspired Original Grain to expand the MLB Collection. Coincidentally, this decision corresponded with the incredible story of the lovable-loser underdog Cubs finally coming through and winning the world series in 2016. “It just fit with the OG branding and ethos,” Beltran mentioned.

Cubs Edition (Credit: Original Grain)

In this case, Original Grain actually became the first watch company to partner with the Chicago Cubbies, and was even the “Official Timekeeper” at Wrigley Field for a year. While they no longer hold that position, Original Grain has maintained partnerships with the Cubs, Yankees, and MLB; and continue seeking new ways to expand into what they’ve found to be a rabid fanbase.

“People love watches, people love sports; the partnership has really elevated the product. They’re no longer ‘just watches;’ this sports memorabilia crossover has brought the brand to a whole new level…” is how Beltran described it. These limited edition versions are collector’s items, perfectly positioned to target sports fans and watch connoisseurs alike; creating family heirlooms to be treasured and passed along for generations.

Specifics weren’t covered, but Beltran did provide a bit of a sneak peak and offered a tease of a few of the sports-themed watches and products Original Grain will be coming out with. We’ll be sure to keep an eye out!

**(Oh, and bonus points to any loyal readers that launch a Kickstarter campaign of GoFundMe page to get a certain writer one of those Yankees watches before the supply runs out!)**

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The Sandlot Turns 25 and MLB Celebrates Across The Country

MLB & Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment team up to commemorate the silver anniversary of timeless family comedy with special events all season long.

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The Sandlot screening at Angels Stadium on Saturday, April 7th (Photo by LA Angels).

Released on April 7th, 1993, The Sandlot cemented its place in film history as the quintessential children’s sports movie.

The story goes like this: a group of kids in a small town spend their summer playing around a rundown baseball diamond they’ve christened The Sandlot. After welcoming a new dorky kid nicknamed Smalls into the mix, he gets himself in “the biggest pickle.” He smashes a baseball, signed by Babe Ruth, over a fence into a backyard guarded by a monstrous dog known as The Beast.

The film is set in 1962, and to many fans feels timeless; a perfect representation of America.

All season long, MLB will honor The Sandlot with everything from awesome merchandise to ballpark screenings. There’s even a special 25th anniversary Blu-Ray, which comes with Topps cards of the whole gang.

During spring training, the Milwaukee Brewers paid tribute to the cult classic, reenacting a famous scene from the film.

Now upon its silver anniversary, The Sandlot is still being embraced by a new generation of players.

Speaking with Todd Radom, a designer and brand consultant in the sports industry, he discussed the league’s promotion of the ‘90s film.

“It makes sense on a number of levels. The kids who grew up with this movie are now part of a coveted demographic. There’s really no learning curve or barrier to entry in making the connection, so it really represents a win/win partnership,” he said.

Digging even deeper, Radom pointed out iconic moments from the film that stood out from his branded eye.

“The inclusion of the original Los Angeles Angels cap. That really cements the connection to place and time for me. On another note, the fact that Babe Ruth is depicted without a Yankees “NY” uniform is a win. Ruth never wore the “NY” uniform as a player, so the authenticity is something to be commended,” he points out.

What about this film resonates with baseball fans of all ages? Radom was quick to explain.

“It’s safe to say but it’s true, the film has it all; nostalgia and friendship, the value of teamwork and aspirations. All of this was framed with sweetness, sincerity, humor, and a scary dog,” he summarized.

Yankees slugger Aaron Judge dawned a shirt last season paying tribute to the movie and it went viral.

@thejudge44 Best Caption plzz

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21 ball clubs are participating this season with movie screenings and minor league teams are getting in on the action as well.

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders plan to honor the kid’s movie with a bobblehead giveaway, an appearance by Hamilton “Ham” Porter, and autograph signing July 28th.

Talking with Mike Ferrin, the Arizona Diamondbacks pre & post game host and MLB Network Radio contributor explained his admiration for the film and the league’s acknowledgment of its history.

“The reason teams got together to promote the movie is because it exemplifies our fondest memories of baseball. Those neighborhood games were a great opportunity to play, have fun, and enjoy baseball. There’s an innocence to that film that helps to romanticize baseball,” Ferrin said.

Another nostalgic fact is the connection adults have looking back on the film to our younger years.

“I love the fact the movie makes a big deal out of the things we thought were a big deal when we were 12, but really aren’t. I think it’s a big reason why the movie is so memorable; it captures a feeling we all can relate to,” he said.

Some of the most memorable moments of the movie come from the dog.

“When they’re trying to get the ball back from The Beast. The Timmy and Tommy Timmons collaboration, and Timmy’s line ‘We’ve been going about this all wrong. I blame myself’ is my all-time favorite. I can’t tell you how often I use it,” he reminisced.

Silver Anniversary Blu-Ray Edition (Photo by 20th Century Fox).

Further details of this unique collaboration include co-branded merchandise available for purchase online and at retail stores, giveaways of the Blu-Ray film and The Sandlot-inspired PLAY BALL t-shirts that will be worn by players while taking batting practice during each club’s official PLAY BALL WEEKEND activation this season.

PLAY BALL WEEKEND features a variety of youth engagement activities and was designed by MLB to celebrate youth baseball & softball participation in communities throughout the country and in Canada. Also at select club themed nights and MLB events, the film’s director, David Mickey Evans, and members of the original cast will attend and participate in pregame activities. All clubs hosting a themed game are working with Boys & Girls Club of America to benefit local club affiliates.

Play Ball Batting Practice Shirts (Photo by MLB).

The special 25-year anniversary Blu-Ray edition of The Sandlot is now available in stores across the U.S.

Friends and families looking to participate with their local ballpark can find more information and summer activation dates here.

As the Great Bambino said, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”

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Un-Corking the Bat: Playing Catch with Randall Thompson of Dugout Mugs

The company was built out of a way to combine a passion and a potential business opportunity.

Austin Weaver

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The evolution of the Dugout Mug. (photo via Dugout Mugs)

“If you are good to the game, the game will be good to you.”

Randall Thompson; founder of Thompson Mug Company, and its All-Star Product, the Dugout Mug, lived by this mantra from the time he took up the game as a kid in Central Florida to his time in professional baseball.

Thompson’s passion for the game earned him a preferred walk-on spot at Florida Tech, where he went on to quickly earn a scholarship after his first season. Thompson’s play at Florida Tech also got the attention of pro clubs which led to signing with the Toronto Blue Jays as an undrafted free agent in 2011.

Thompson saw his professional career end in 2012 when he was released by the Blue Jays out of extended spring training. Like many players, Thompson looked to stay involved with the game, returning to Florida Tech to coach the pitching staff.

As a pitching coach, home runs are something you want to avoid unless of course, it’s a business idea.

Sitting in the dugout as the hitting coach offered a lesson to “focus on the hands,” a business was born. The hitting coach, as part of his lesson, cut the handle off of the bat and left the barrel on the bench.

It was in that moment Thompson asked himself, “I wonder if I could drink from that?”

It was July 2014 when Thompson produced the first sketches of the Dugout Mug, and from there he was ready to throw his first business pitch.

Thompson with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
(Photo from Dugout Mugs)

Thompson earned his degree from Florida Tech in Business Administration with a focus in Marketing. That formal education provided a great foundation for running a business, but the lessons taken from the field also provided anecdotes for how to face both adversity and success.

“In the business world, just like on the field, you have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You can’t overthink things, and you have to have confidence in yourself. You have to be willing to take some risks, while also being wildly persistent and present.”  

In baseball, a batter hitting over .300 is considered outstanding, meaning you can fail 7 out of every 10 tries and still be considered among the best. That same mindset applies to the business world. “You have to be able to admit your mistakes, and you have to be ok looking like a fool, the same way you do when you step on the baseball field,” Thompson offered.  

With as many bats as Mariano Rivera broke in his career, it’s only right he has his own Dugout Mug! (Photo via Dugout Mugs)

The persistence learned from baseball helped ease the transition to running a business for Thompson.

“The most challenging part of starting a business is being patient. Everything always takes more time and more money than you anticipate. There is a TON of work that goes into developing a product or launching a business before you ever see a tangible result. You have to be ‘ok’ with spending a while, even a few years sharpening your axe before chopping down the tree.”  

For players or coaches looking to move into a second career, Thompson points back to the fundamentals of the game for advice.

“In tee-ball, it’s common for kids to run the wrong way or throw the ball into the ground. We all have to start somewhere and most times – we suck. Patience, consistency and persistence are what got you to an elite level on the field, the same will happen off the diamond.”

For Thompson, he always loved the game and had no idea his big debut would come after his career was over.

“You can’t feel like your best days are behind you. You hold a set of skills that can be applied to the ‘real world’ that will make you successful beyond your wildest dreams. If you are unsure of what your next love will be and don’t know whether to move left or right-jump up and down, don’t get stagnant or feel bad for yourself.”

Dugout Mugs offers custom mugs as well as Officially Licensed MLBPA mugs! (photo via Dugout Mugs)

While Thompson has found his new passion, there are still parts of the game that influence his behaviors in the “boardroom.”

“Standing on the mound and competing at a high level is a lot of fun and a huge rush. To me, I find it difficult to replicate those ‘on-field’ feelings but that also helps me stay from getting to up or down in the business world.”

Finally, like most former athletes, the comradery that exists among teammates and even competitors on the diamond is something Thompson misses.

“From long bus trips, overnight stays in hotels to tarp slides and dance-offs in the rain, you make some of the best friends you will ever make and create a bond that is unexplainable.”

For more information on Dugout Mugs or to check out their products visit them HERE!

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