Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Puzzle #7 Solution

RG2015.7 Hardest/Harder - Solution

RG2015.7 Easier/Easiest - Solution

B2 (and its accompanying clue) was the seed, and I also liked the entries as B2, D2, and I2, as well as the clues to D2, H1, and J2. I didn't like that the first three Medium blooms (crossing the Row A entry) as well as the first three White blooms were all similar in that they all started either in the top left triangle of the bloom or the bottom right. These are the easiest way to work with blooms in constructing the puzzle, and also the easiest to work with while solving; as it's the natural inclination to see those three-letter halves as the start or end of the bloom, so I like to change them up (see the ABUSES bloom in Row B, where the A starts in the bottom left and ends in the bottom center of the bloom - it's harder to parse that bloom from a solving standpoint). Sorry if this doesn't make much sense.

I'd like to say it's a special time of year, as baseball's Opening Day traditionally is a red-letter day on my calendar. This year, however, there was no such anticipation. See, I'm a fan of the Minnesota Twins. I was too young to personally remember the glory of winning World Series in 1987 and 1991, so I essentially came of age watching the club go through its horrendous 1993-2000 run, when they didn't field a winning club in any of those years, and usually lost over 90 games in those seasons. Still, I couldn't wait for the season to begin, and when it did, I made sure to watch as many games as possible. We would cook hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill to mark the occasion. As I aged and moved onto college and adult life, I did my best to continue this tradition, and it was easy to do so when the team was riding the gravy train of winning division titles and regularly competing in the American League, as they did for much of the first decade of the 21st century.

Now the team has turned into a laughingstock, a paradigm of stubborn management and pathetically old-fashioned philosophies. In an era where sabermetrics (as famously espoused in the book and movie Moneyball) have shaped the strategies of the modern baseball front office, the Twins are stuck in the old-school scout-driven methods that, while useful, are as a standalone approach falling woefully behind in today's game. The team's habit of bringing back older players that have a history with the team has translated to a "comfortable shoes" syndrome, exacerbated when the faults of these players (which are easily quantified with even basic analytic numbers) are scoffed at and rebutted by the front office by such lines as "they pass the eye test." (See the signing of Torii Hunter, the once-great defensive outfielder who has regressed in his old age to a below-average defender, for some front office pearls on how they believe Hunter can still catch 'em with the best of 'em).

The biggest culprit would normally be general manager Terry Ryan, a former scout who helmed the front office during its '90s malaise and also turned it around in the 2000s, only to resign in 2007, citing burnout. In a trademark Twins maneuver, they promoted from within in '07, handing the job to Ryan lapdog Bill Smith, whose failed tenure was the epitome of the Peter Principle. In an even more trademark Twins move, they brought Ryan back after they stripped Smith of the role after the 2011 season. In perhaps the most Twins-esque move, instead of merely firing Smith then, they reassigned him to his previous role (see also the handling of "firing" longtime manager Ron Gardenhire after last season; instead of moving on, as like any failed relationship, they embraced Gardenhire's value to the club, and the former manager put in a few appearances at spring training this season). It's "shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic" if I've ever seen it.

However, the folks most to blame here are the owners, the Pohlad family, who has permitted the echo chamber of the upper management to permeate as long as it has. The organization is supremely deaf to any outside voice. When some writers and critics ask what the team is doing to evolve in terms of analytics (which is what all of the successful clubs are doing now), they point to Jack Goin, their token stats nerd they hired a few years ago, but the fact is Goin or any other person with a new approach has little to no say in actual roster decisions. Anyone with a high school diploma and a pocket calculator could have predicted, for example, that the re-signing of Mike Pelfrey after a disastrous 2013 campaign would not have been prudent. Ryan, though, would cite such acute analytical philosophies such as the "eye test," "he can hit 95 on the radar gun," and "guys are better in the second year after Tommy John" as reasons why not only a new contract was in line for Pelfrey, but a two-year deal was warranted (sidenote: Pelfrey clearly hadn't improved health-wise in 2014, and had a 7.99 ERA in less than 24 innings before going on the shelf for good in early May).

Because the team won the American League Central six times in a nine-year span from 2002-2010 (a division that, for the exception of perhaps one season [2006], was either the worst or second-worst division in baseball), Terry Ryan and the owners received confirmation that their way worked. To an extent, they even marketed this approach, known around these parts as the "Twins Way." Forefront to this approach was solid defense, fundamentals, "small ball" and "doing the little things." (Note that this leaves out the fact that they had the best pitcher in baseball during this period, Johan Santana, and had two hitters win MVP awards. This is similar to the flaw of Moneyball, which stressed the lack of bunting and base-stealing as keys to the Oakland A's success, and ignored its top-notch pitching staff and MVP performances from such players as Miguel Tejada).

What used to work in 2002 doesn't always turn out to have the legs that you may have imagined it once had. BlackBerry used to be dominant in the mobile market; now it's a quaint device that's ridiculed if it's seen "in the wild" today. The Twins, similarly, are a BlackBerry competing in a league of Apple iPhones and Samsung Galaxys.

What should be done? Well, clearly not what was done this year. Based on outside sources such as Baseball America, the Twins have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball. As many as six or seven of their prospects would, individually, be the top prospect for many teams today. But the Twins broke camp with exactly zero of these blue-chippers on the big-league team. Outfield prospects Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks were shipped to the minors in favor of a veteran centerfield platoon featuring Jordan Schafer (he of the career .229 batting average) and something named Shane Robinson, a 30-year-old career minor-leaguer. Cuban slugger Miguel Sano was sent down for the perennially average Trevor Plouffe, who though serviceable is far from a cornerstone on which to build the club, as Sano potentially can be. Their two best starting pitching prospects, Trevor May and Alex Meyer, were bypassed for veteran slop-tosser Tommy Milone; when free-agent signee Ervin Santana was busted for steroids last week and a spot opened in the rotation, the brass didn't take it as an opportunity to give one of their young guys a chance, but instead gave the job to Pelfrey, the latest in a series of moves that typify this backwards-minded, 2004-oriented organization.

So as Opening Day came this year, it was with a wave of apathy rather than anticipation. Ninety losses seems almost assured again, which if it happens this year would be the fifth straight reaching that figure. After Phil Hughes gave up a couple of Tigers home runs in the middle innings on Monday, I flipped the channel over to Better Call Saul re-runs. Sure, I'd already seen the episodes AMC was running. But in a similar sense I've already seen these "episodes" of Twins games too, for five years now. At least with Bob Odenkirk, you're guaranteed to be pleasantly entertained.


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