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The Canadian Roots of Modern Baseball

I am an absolute sucker for baseball history. Hours upon hours have been lost to deep dives into the SABR Bio Project or the spiraling wormhole that is Wikipedia. It’s amazing what little nuggets of strange-but-true ephemera you can unearth as you sink into over a hundred years of baseball. If you’ve watched Ken Burns: Baseball, you’ll know that even 10 episodes is not enough time to cover the breadth of what the sport is and what it has achieved.

Because the game’s history is so rich and expansive, there’s a habit, as with all history, to pick and choose the aspects of the historical record that best fit with the present tone. We may have even been convinced it started with Abner Doubleday, as popular myth has long-contended. But as it turns out not even Doubleday himself ever made any such claim, and in digging into the roots of where baseball really began, I found that the answer might fall much further north than previously believed, with a game in Ontario, Canada, that may just be the first game of baseball ever played in North America.

If you look at the origins of baseball, it is generally believed that the first game took place in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. An account from Abner Graves was the source for this claim, but there are a lot of issues when you approach it with any real historical method. For one, Abner Doubleday never visited Cooperstown and definitely did not do so in 1839, when he was attending West Point. Add to this that Abner Graves was only five years old in 1839, and that in his later years he was confined to a ward for the criminally insane after murdering his wife, and you might begin to understand why we perhaps should not take his version of history at face value.

As I researched Canadian baseball’s history for another piece, I came across a mention of a story about a game very similar to baseball, played in Beachville, Ontario. In an 1886 letter, Dr. Adam Enoch Ford recounted attending an event that “closely resembled our present national game” a full year before Doubleday was credited with inventing it. The game in question took place on June 4, 1838, and as you’ll see from the excerpts that follow, it may not be exactly baseball as we know it, but it’s definitely more like it than a game that never actually happened in Cooperstown in 1839. Read the rest of this entry »

The Detroit Tigers Should Be Better Than This By Now

The 2021 Detroit Tigers are terrible.

I don’t say this out of cruelty or to beat a dead horse, but to continue on with this piece, it’s important to understand that the team is very, very bad. It took them five weeks to notch their 10th win of the year. Future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is hitting a mere .160/.259/.253. The incredible hot starts of Akil Baddoo and Wilson Ramos have cooled, and with the sole exception of Matthew Boyd, the team’s pitching staff seems to be struggling mightily against all comers.

For fans, it’s feels like a familiar story told year after year, only it seems to be getting worse over time. And it’s becoming a story that’s getting a lot harder to listen to without a mounting sense of frustration, because in terms of a rebuild, the Tigers appear to have been abandoned by their contractor with only a rough hewn foundation to show for it.

To truly get a sense of where the Tigers find themselves now, we must first understand just how bad this team is in a historical context. To do so, we have to compare the first months of 2021 to the Tigers’ two worst seasons historically: 2003 and 2019. In 2003, the Tigers came close to making history as the worst team in the modern era. They lost 119 games versus just 43 wins, coming within one loss of tying the 1962 Mets for most single season losses. For the franchise, it marked a turning point and a trend towards improvement. By 2006 they made it to the World Series, had a Rookie of the Year winner in pitcher Justin Verlander, and won 95 games. Read the rest of this entry »

Erasing the Mendoza Line

When Mario Mendoza played his last season in the majors in 1982, he appeared in just 12 games and batted a paltry .118/.118/.118; his wRC+ was -41. If all you know about the former shortstop is that his name has become synonymous with failure at the plate, those numbers likely aren’t all that surprising.

During Mendoza’s time with the Mariners in 1979 and ’80, he struggled to keep his average above .200, inspiring teammates Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek to tease him, dubbing the elusive mark “The Mendoza Line.” The joke might have ended there, but Royals slugger George Brett caught wind of the phrase when he got off to a sluggish start to the 1980 season, to the amusement of Bochte and Paciorek. According to Mendoza, his Seattle teammates told Brett, “Hey, man, you’re going to sink down below the Mendoza Line if you’re not careful.” Brett later mentioned it to ESPN’s Chris Berman from ESPN; it spread from there.

There’s a bit of a poetic twist to Brett being the one who helped popularize the expression. He started the season telling Berman, “The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who is below the Mendoza Line.” And while his early-season returns were below his lofty standards (he hit .245 in April, albeit with a 137 wRC+ and just a .245 BABIP), by mid-September he was hitting .394 ahead of a series against the Mariners, with a real chance to finish the season with an average above .400. Brett only went 2-for-11 that series, though, with three hits robbed by Mendoza himself; he ended the season at .390.

In terms of the actual statistic itself, the Mendoza Line is generally understood to be the .200 batting average the shortstop chased in 1979 (he ended the year hitting just .198). What it truly represents, however, is the point at which a player’s offense makes them a liability to their team, regardless of their defensive abilities.  Read the rest of this entry »

A Brief History of Nelson Cruz Humiliating the Detroit Tigers

On April 6, Minnesota Twins slugger Nelson Cruz added a new feather to his cap of many accomplishments: he became the king of the Tiger killers, those elite hitters who seem uniquely capable of besting Detroit Tigers pitching at every turn. After hitting all three of his 2021 home runs against the Tigers this past week, Cruz look the top spot among active players on the leaderboard of all-time home runs against the Motown team. With 26 regular season homers, he usurped the title previously held by Alex Gordon, and can rightfully claim his place as the biggest thorn in the Tigers’ paw.

For Tigers fans, the only surprising thing about this fact is that it hadn’t happened years earlier.

If you’re a fan of a team that has shared a division rivalry with the slugger, ask yourself: do you remember the first time your favorite team was personally victimized by Nelson Cruz? My first memory of having my hopes crushed by a Cruz home run is from Game 2 of the 2011 ALCS. The Tigers were vying for a rematch of their 2006 World Series rivalry against the St. Louis Cardinals, but one thing stood in their way: the Texas Rangers.

In Game 2, with the Tigers leading 3-2 and heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, a 31-year-old Cruz came to the plate against Max Scherzer. He absolutely crushed a home run to tie the game for the Rangers. It was a tie that would last for almost two and a half more hours. As the game headed into the 11th inning, Cruz came to the plate again with the bases loaded, this time against Ryan Perry. With the game on the line and the crowd restless, howling over every foul ball, Cruz obliterated an offering from Perry for a game-winning grand slam. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cruel Case of Canadian Baseball Fandom

This is Ashley’s first post as a FanGraphs contributor. Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, Baseball Prospectus and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who’s On Worst.

There is no magic quite like that of Opening Day. It’s hard to explain the sensation of being part of a crowd of like-minded baseball fans, brimming with enthusiasm over the return of the game after a long, cold winter. It will make otherwise rational people gather en masse in 20-degree weather in the hopes of seeing their beloved team get the first win of the long 162-game season.

It’s a unique level of fervor, one that draws us like moths to the porch light that is the ballpark.

For fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, though, it has been two years of Opening Days without baseball close to home, and the absence of their team north of the border has at times made it difficult to feel connected to the sport they love. To make it worse, blackout restrictions and the elimination of a dedicated Blue Jays radio broadcast (the audio from the television broadcast will be simulcast to radio listeners) have further limited access to the only Canadian major league team. Read the rest of this entry »