The indefinite hiatus is over! Pitchers & Poets is back, in spiffy form as a column on The Classical. We’ll be writing our normal brand of baseball sentences over there on a weekly basis. Click on over. It’s really great to see you.
The title of our most recent post was Hello, Goodbye. We talked about old favorites like Lance Berkman threatening to leave the game and new favorites like Bryce Harper entering the fray.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but there was something prescient about that conversation. Or maybe it was in our heads to begin with and it ended up on the proverbial page because it had to come out somehow. You see, both of us, for our own reasons, need to take a step back from Pitchers & Poets. To say goodbye for a while, and direct our attentions elsewhere. To watch baseball through a different lens.
So we’re taking an indefinite sabbatical from the blog.
This is a melancholy decision. Pitchers & Poets has exceeded our wildest expectations in every way. We’ve become great friends, and made a bushel more. We’ve read great stuff and met brilliant people. We’ve engaged in the great broiling Conversation that is life as a human being. P&P was the ocean-going vessel that connected our islands with your islands, and at full sail she was a pleasure to helm. She hasn’t been at full sail for a while, though.
So as we haul in our sails (is that right? We are hardly Westish Harpooners when it comes to nautical metaphors) on this project, we want to reiterate how important this blog has been for us. And more than that, we want to wholeheartedly thank all of you for reading and commenting, for telling your stories, for hearing out our often unwieldy ideas and for sharing your own. Thank you to all of our contributors, who wrote for no other reason than to join the conversation, thank you to the vibrant community of baseball bloggers who do such great work themselves and who pushed us to be smarter and funnier and generally better. Thank you to baseball, and especially first basemen of the 1990s, for being awesome.
A specific thank you to Patrick Dubuque, who has lent his stellar work to the blog even as our own has flagged. He’s as grok as grok gets. And he’s going places (NotGraphs, specifically), and until then he’s on Twitter @euqubud
In the meantime, the blog will stay up, and hopefully one day we’ll get the Rogue’s Baseball Index back up too. We’ll keep adding the weirdest baseball pictures that we can find to our Tumblr, we’ll be on Twitter, Eric will be at The Classical, etc.
Ted & Eric
Eric:When our friendship was but a timid internet seedling, you wrote a blog called Waiting for Berkman. While the site wasn’t necessarily about the Big Puma, it wasn’t necessarily not about the Big Puma either. Now, almost three years after you and I joined forces at Pitchers & Poets, the Lance Berkman era could be coming to an end. He appears to have torn an ACL this weekend in Los Angeles, and has already floated the idea of retiring. Thank goodness, that in the first day of Berkman’s absence, a pair of large and similarly uncouth rookies performed astoundingly well.
The Cardinals called up prospect Matt Adams, who quite visibly exceeds his listed dimensions of 6’3″, 230 pounds, to replace Berkman at first base. He went 2-4. The Dodgers, meanwhile, won the game on a 3-0, pinch hit home run by Scott Van Slyke, son of Andy. Scott is 6’5″ and weighs 250 pounds. He has a puffy face like Berkman’s and, despite his lineage, a similar bemused working class demeanor.
My question is this: What would the end of the Berkman era mean for baseball? Furthermore, is he a replaceable entity?
Ted: Only if those big rookies actually move with a grace that belies their build will they inherit the Berkman crown. It’s odd to me that such a quietly capable fielder and hitting–so smooth and confident and patient–went down simply catching a routine throw. I felt like I was watching my dad come up lame in a pick-up basketball game; it was the injury of a twilight player.
The potential retirement of the Big Puma marks a kind of turning point in baseball player media relations. Lance was and is a maestro of the old media. When sportswriters needed a sound bit or an observant and humorous sports radio interview, they could bank on Fat Elvis. Berkman didn’t tweet, he talked. He is eloquent and funny as a conversationalist, in contrast to today’s young up-and-coming social media marketeers.
That and he could hit. I’m glad he got a ring.
If this is a year of departures, it’s also a year of arrivals. Are you a Trout guy or a Harper guy? (I’m a Bryce man, myself.)
Eric: Are we already aligning ourselves into camps? I heard John Kruk talking about this on ESPN the other night, and it didn’t even occur to me that anybody was picking sides. But I guess it makes sense. The Angel-faced, fishy-named Trout does present a helluva contrast with Harper and all his stylistic excess.
If this is the Beatles vs. Stones of our baseball-viewing generation, I want to align myself with the Stones. Because a Stones man is what I am. Musically, and I think/hope/hope not aesthetically. But then I watch these guys play. Harper’s super-aggressive, sizzling, kinetic assault on the baseball experience is the more captivating; Trout’s classicist embrace of all five tools, his left-handed game from the right side of the plate, is something more archaically, innocently beautiful.
At risk of reducing this to a Simmonsian level (not that Bill Simmons would ever engage in such old-dude categorization), Bryce Harper is the Rolling Stones and Mike Trout is the Beatles. And yet, despite myself, I find myself preferring Trout. Bryce Harper is changing the way we watch baseball. Mike Trout makes me feel like I’m watching the next Joe DiMaggio. His very swing feels steeped in history. Right now, that’s easier for me to consume and appreciate.
More importantly: Who is the Beach Boys of baseball?
Ted: The Tampa Bay Rays are the Beach Boys of BaseBall. Sunny disposition, coordinated beachwear, and an elevated level of quality that will outlast the schtick….
Give me Bryce Harper. Ordained for years as the second coming, scrutinized like a British royal, called up before his 20th, and how does he respond? By playing baseball with Pete Rose-level gamesmanship mixed with the grade-A talent that he didn’t even bother with at Triple-A. Trout has his appeal, the Dimaggio-like understated disposition, and his footspeed is a totally compelling characteristic. But thus far Harper is the cultural confluence.
Do you think there’s enough going on between the two of these players to create a Nomar-A-Rod-Jeter dynamic at some point down the line?
Eric: Even though I just finished reducing them to stale classic rock archetypes, I’ll now say I don’t even want to go there. For one, I’m not even sure I can explain the Nomar-A-Rod-Jeter dynamic. I was so young, and they were so big. Now I’m old enough that if I was an MLB player I’d be entering my prime soon, and Harper and Trout actually sort of seem like kids. To burden them with that sort of expectation would be unfair. I just hope they are both great, exciting ballplayers for a long time. I hope whatever energy that exists between the two of them only serves to enhance the way each is appreciated. I hope they can be as comfortable in the media landscape as tomorrow as Lance Berkman was in yesterday’s.
The year was 1991. Jose Canseco had gone several weeks without hitting a home run and was becoming alarmed. No matter that this was December, 1991, and the baseball season was still months away from starting. His biceps felt deflated. The rhythm of his heartbeat was far too steady. “I feel empty,” Jose Canseco said to the fish inside his massive, brilliant fish tank, “as if my broad shoulders have been robbed of their broadness.” To clear his mind, Jose Canseco took his pet lion Mark McGwire on a sunset walk through his Miami neighborhood. They encountered an old woman sitting on a lawn chair. She saw Mark McGwire’s dejected face. Then Jose Canseco’s dejected face. “Take this,” she told Jose Canseco, ripping a gold tooth from the back of her mouth. “Swallow it. Next year, you will be traded to the Texas Rangers for Ruben Sierra.”
Using images from the Pitchrs & Poets Tumblr as a creative launching point, our resident Imagineer Dylan Little has put together a series of cipher poems. Can you guess the ballplayer below, as described using the literary tools of the $ubconscious$. (Click the link at the end for the solution.)
You can follow Dylan on Twitter: @orangehunchback.
Billy will never be
as bald as me.
I’d rather party
with an ’82 Eddie
Murray. If little bro
penned a book
it’d be called Billy:
the Pervert Who Holds The All-Time Record For Most Farts In His Brother’s Pool.
I’m not sure I should admit this, because it’ll probably destroy any chance I have of writing for The Classical, but I know nothing about bullfighting. This is at least partially my fault; I have a longstanding rule that when I read the word “bull” in a Hemingway novel, I immediately skip forward to the next chapter. But however elaborate and nonsensical the version of bullfighting that exists in my head, I tend to think of it as a rather graceful sport. The bull charges, the bullfighter glides just out of reach, and the scene continues like a dance until, again in my mind, just before bull or man is bloodily gored in front of thousands of men, women and children. The sky is blue. There are trumpets in the background.
I relate this anecdote to provide context for my mood on Monday morning. It looked to be an arduous week, and so as I prepared my office I gave myself a little treat: I dialed up mlb.tv and enjoyed the phenomenon of position players pitching. There stood Chris Davis, who according to the media guides weighs thirteen pounds less than Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin, as he cast his entire repertoire at the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the 16th. There was the fastball clocking 89, or perhaps a tick faster than Jered Weaver’s, but even more enjoyable was the indecisive knuckle-change that seemed to give up halfway to the plate.
It was one of his mistakes, however, that led to what drew my interest. With a runner on first, one of Davis’ fastballs found itself up and over the plate, and Mike Aviles relocated it to te base of the left-center wall. Marlon Byrd rounded third and met Matt Wieters.
I have, like many people, complained about catchers blocking the plate as they wait for the ball. The home plate collision invoked a new round of controversy after it felled Buster Posey last year, but I’ve long found the practice distasteful. Catchers are no more entitled to the runner’s path than any other fielder. In this case, however, the catcher stood well in front of the plate, stretching out to receive the relay at its earliest point and sweep the tag back over the plate. The throw was true and early. Wieters turned. Byrd threw his left elbow into the catcher’s ribs. The two men sprawled over, the dust billowed, and Wieters held up his mitt dramatically to reveal the ball still inside. The crowd cheered; the inning was over.
The play felt wrong to me. It felt dirty.
I realize I am in the minority in this respect. The rules don’t talk about home plate collisions in the same sense that the U.S. Constitution fails to tackle abortion: like government, the game of baseball evolves, however slowly, as a sort of social contract between the representatives and the People. In this sense the home plate collision is baseball’s pittance to its fans, a rare acquiescence to the natural fan appeal of goonery. Hockey has its referee-sanctioned fistfights, football has its everything; baseball, in comparison, has merely sacrificed Ray Fosse to the altar of bloodlust.
My idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag.I’d like to leave the collisions behind, relegating them to the memories of belt-grabbing and knee-high cleats. My ideal form of baseball is more like my version of Hemingway’s version of bullfighting, an ethereal grace under pressure. In fact, my idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag; every moment in baseball centers on each player’s interaction with the ball, not each other. This renders the tag as the most potent and percussive act in the game, like the flourish of the cape. The rest of the game becomes a sort of waltz, performed either by Kinsella’s ghosts or Plato’s forms, both in some way seeking perfection.
This is romantic of me, I realize. But the game is moving this way on its own accord, becoming more visual and less visceral. The players themselves become less real as they are increasingly separated from the fan by distance, security and tax bracket. The game has become an increasingly televised event as baseball’s culture spreads across the country and globe. And perhaps most vitally, the game itself is no longer held in common between player and fan; fewer and fewer people play the game they love, preferring to watch passively. This is not a sign of decay, only change; we as fans love our game a little differently than we once did. Baseball is more symbolic, less tangible than it once was.
Maybe that’s why I felt so strongly about Byrd’s slide; after all, he wasn’t trying to hurt Wieters, nor break any rules. What he did wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t the baseball I’ve romanticized, that we all romanticize to a certain degree. When Alex Rodriguez tried to slap a ball out of a player’s glove a few years ago, he was condemned, not for his desire to win, but by his gaucheness. This felt the same. The game, for me, is greatest when it is at its most gentlemanly, and it’s a shame that Wieters was unable to flick his wrist and tap the bull as it charged toward him.
I don’t know
how there is meaning in everything
and this is everything
and so there must be a meaning in this
but meaning doesn’t
live in a knee
it doesn’t hold a knee together
meaning isn’t in the sinews
or the marrow
so what does it hold?
between the grass
and the dirt
between the left foot and the right
there is a moment
where something is wrong
but it has not yet happened
and that moment is like two moments
and the two like sixteen
and you wait
for the moments to all pass
so you can know
and for the right foot come down
and it does, because it has to
and then you wait some more
for your words are severed
and the meaning has vanished
and you try to think of a way
to go back to when
you were in the air
but you cannot live in the air
Every afternoon, my Twitter feed is inevitably punctuated with lamentations over a mislaid bunt. It’s an act equated with cowardice, bearing the mark of gray-haired managers conducting mindless and archaic rituals. As a strategy, it’s pointless. As an action, it’s nothing more than surrender, impotent and futile. As a game mechanic, the bunt is broken. Something has to be done.
For most people, especially those of the statistical bent, that something is simple: stop bunting. In our current offensive era, the price of the bunt is too great. For all but pitchers and the most tepid of hitters, the sacrifice of a potential multi-base hit is too great a cost for the chance at legging out an infield single. And the sacrifice bunt is even worse; as Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin note early in The Book, game states simply don’t often [-ed.] justify the strategy. The most intuitive example is the bottom of the ninth inning, runner on first, no outs. The average manager would call for the sacrifice and be thrilled with having a runner in scoring position with one out. And yet in doing so, the team’s odds of winning have dropped from 35.3% to 29.6%. An out is too valuable to be sacrificed, no matter how nobly.
However, there’s an aesthetic power within the bunt. Part of it lies in the sacrifice itself, the unselfishness it shows and willingness to put team before self. Another part rests in deception. We admire the physical feats of strength in our athletes, but we’re doubly impressed by their cunning, their ability to defeat their opponents spiritually as well as physically. The flashing neon green of Rickey’s batting gloves, the brazenness of the shift, Drysdale’s fastball up and in: these are all moments of psychological warfare, a combination of style and strategy, an imposition of the will.
Every sport has its feints, its moments of clever misdirection: football has the draw play, hockey the stick deke, tennis its drop shot. In each case the offensive player uses deception to manipulate the odds in his or her favor. The bunt seems ideal for this purpose. It’s provides the batter with alternatives, an opportunity for hitters to create their own style. The more individuality that can be imbued into the pitcher-hitter matchup, the more interesting that matchup is. The bunt is exciting; it provides us with quick action, snap decisions, bare-handed grabs and throws across the body to first. It seems a shame to throw these things away just because they don’t help one’s team win.
We shouldn’t hate the bunt. We should hate the game for killing it.
There was a time when the bunt was not only acceptable; it was noble. In the 1870s, the National League had just organized, and people were still trying to sort out this what this “base ball” game was all about. A viable strategy in this era was the fair-foul bunt: if a ball landed in fair play and then rolled foul, even in front of the bag, it was considered in play. Enterprising batters would chop at the pitch in an attempt to put English on the ball, spinning it away from fielders. Rather than being shameful, however, baseball culture of the 1870s treated the fair foul bunt as a legitimate and even honorable practice. Henry Chadwick, baseball’s first chronicler and robber baron, defended the play against its critics, countering arguments that the fair foul being easy or cheap as “absurd”.
Few people were able to master the skill; none was better than Ross Barnes, who used it to hit over .400 four out of six years. Numerous steps were taken to restrict the fair foul, including the creation of the batter’s box, moving the plate into foul territory, then further scooting the batter’s box a foot farther back from the plate. None of these change hurt Barnes, who hit .406 in 1876. The following year it was eliminated entirely, not because it was deemed unfair, but because umpires, who at that point lined up off to the side of the plate, had difficulty determining fair and foul balls in front of the plate. The fair foul bunt was soon forgotten, and the bunt itself has been dying slowly ever since.
The umpire stands where he belongs now, and the reasons for banning the fair-foul bunt are gone. There isn’t much chance that it will break or even significantly alter the game. It’s unlikely that hitters would be able to consistently put the kind of English on a 95 mile per hour fastball that Ross Barnes could against the junk of his own era. Scott Podsednik’s major league career is probably still over.
But at the same time, there’s no reason to put up extra barriers against a tactic that’s already disadvantageous enough. It’s time to restore some incentive to the bunt, and perhaps provide an opportunity for style and excitement in the process. Anything that gives hitters more choices and gives audiences something to watch beyond strikeouts and dingers can only be a good thing.
If I have one cause as a baseball blogger, it’s to advance a kind of fandom defined by idiosyncratic love as opposed to institutionalized expectations. That being: More Roger Maris Museum in a strip mall in North Dakota Dakota, and less apocalyptic columnist types freaking out about how buff Jeff Bagwell was or wasn’t in 1999.
Because simply railing from the sidelines about various bullshit is not sufficient for me, I have also recently become a member of The Baseball Reliquary, an L.A.-based organization dedicated to fostering the notion of baseball as culture. The main draw of the Reliquary, for me, was the Shrine of the Eternals — a sort of punk rock alternative to the Hall of Fame. I’ve been reading Jon Weisman discuss the Shrine for years (Jon calls it a “Baseball Hall of Fame for the soul”), and finally joined after a friend sent the most imploring group email I’ve ever received. Here’s a bit of the official description:
Similar to Cooperstown’s National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Shrine of the Eternals differs philosophically in that statistical accomplishment is not the principal criterion for election. It is believed that the election of individuals on merits other than statistics and playing ability will offer the opportunity for a deeper understanding and appreciation of baseball than has heretofore been provided by “Halls of Fame” in the more traditional and conservative institutions.
Right on. This morning I stuck my completed ballot in the mail — and did so joyously. The rules allowed me to vote for up to nine nominees, and as somebody who has argued only semi-facetiously that Jeff Blauser should be inducted in Cooperstown, I obviously used up all nine votes. Just reading about the candidates in the totally fascinating, well-researched pamphlet that accompanied my ballot, was worth the price of admission. Among those nominated? Curtis Pride, David Wells, J.R. Richard, and Charlie Brown. How can you not love a Hall of Fame that elects fictional characters?
Below is a photo I snapped of my ballot:
For those of you confounded by my handwriting, those names are: Bert Campaneris, Steve Blass, Hideo Nomo, Manny Mota, Lisa Fernandez, Dr. Frank Jobe, Annabelle Lee, Dan Quisenberry, and Luis Tiant.
Predictably, I leaned toward Dodger-associated figures and pitchers who ooze weird style. I also thought it was important to take advantage of this more democratic induction process to get women their rightful respect and appreciation in the baseball world. (Cooperstown’s version of induction pretty much automatically disqualified women from anything but second-class recognition.)
The results should be announced on Friday.
P.S.: I couldn’t find it written anywhere that these ballots were supposed to be secret. If I have breached any kind of Stonecutters-esque ethical code, I apologize.
Found poetry is a specific type of poem, particularly common in high school language arts classes, where you take words or phrases from a text and rearrange them to create original poetry. In this case, the following poem is constructed purely out of tweets from Jose Canseco’s twitter account.
Maybe I Am The Phantom of Baseball
Maybe I am the phantom of baseball
I will do anything for one more at bat
I know I can still hit MLB pitching
I can still hit a golf ball 380 yards
I have the hips of a 20 year old
I have a medical condition:
I love the game so much
Even in exhibition
Invite me for an old timers game
I will play
Anything for a look
Still dreaming of that one last
Trip of imagination
Back to the big leagues
I miss everything where did it go