Monthly Archive for March, 2009

Weekend Reading: Albert Pujols, Japan’s Yu Darvish, SABR Archive

Something for everybody this weekend, and even a Thomas Friedman reference:

First, Joe Posnanski is at his best in this profile of Albert Pujols for Sports Illustrated. Pujols isn’t the most charismatic guy, and with the numbers he puts up it’s easy to kind of look at him like some sort of baseball Terminator.But what makes Pujols interesting, at least in my view, is precisely that. Nobody outside of hardcore fans and select Missourians seem to know or care about Albert Pujols, despite how insanely good he is.  JoePos  meditates on heroism and dives into all the important questions surrounding the stoic, god-fearing, Dominican baseball robot in St. Louis:

Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, has been about heroes. Ted Williams went to war—twice—and hit a home run in his last at bat; Hank Aaron hit home runs by night while stuffing the racist letters he received into a shoebox during the day. Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, and Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in a World Series game, and Cal Ripken played every inning every day. There is a good story about every baseball hero, and the best of those have always involved a child, a home run and a corny ending. Will you hit a home run for me, Babe? Sure I will, kid.

Albert Pujols has a baseball hero story like that. He has just about the most amazing baseball hero story you have ever heard. But does anyone want to hear a baseball hero story these days?

Second, the Wall Street Journal has a great piece on the geobaseballpolitical relationship between the United States and East Asia, especially Japan. It focuses mostly on Yu Darvish. You might know Darvish as Japan’s resident half-Iranian WBC-curiosity/Nippon Ham Fighter ace/Teenage Hearthrob. Turns out, Darvish’s biography reads like a Tom Friedman column on the joys of globalization. (h/t Spolitical):

Japan’s rising star might not have been raised there at all had it not been for the hostage crisis at Tehran’s U.S. Embassy that started in 1979. Mr. Darvishsefad, the son of a travel agent, left Iran for the U.S. as a 17-year-old aspiring soccer player and met his Japanese wife-to-be when they attended the same college in Florida. They moved to Japan, but he expected to spend only two years there before returning to the U.S. to get a Ph.D. — until the rupture in U.S.-Iran relations led him to worry about increasing hostility there.

Last, for all the stat-heads up there, the Society for American Baseball Resarch (SABR) has begun digitizing its archives. Every issue from 1972 to 1989 is available and Walkoff Walk has already dug up some gems:

• A 1972 article showed correlation between World Series winner and Presidential election winner, around two decades before the news media noticed, en masse, that a recent Redskins’ game result decided election winners. Truly, SABR was a revolutionary organization from the very beginning.

• Another 1972 article, “Birds, Bees and Baseball,” contains the following anecdote, which I must reproduce in full:

A record for distance in throwing a frog probably was established close to 30 years ago by Donald Atkinson, an umpire in the Georgia-Florida League.

Atkinson was working behind the plate on a very hot day in a game between Moultrie and Albany. He was in his shirt sleeves with a canvas bag in which he kept his supply of balls slung over his shoulder.

In the fifth inning one of the Albany players hit a foul fly that went over the grandstand. Atkinson reached into his bag to get another ball. What he got hold of was a live frog. He let out a yip and threw the frog half way to the next county. He never did find out which player had sneaked the frog into the bag.

Baseball Funnies: Ichiro, Lasorda, & The Babe (Sorta)

Two funny baseball anecdotes passed on by friend Josh:

Comic:

New goal: find more comics, links, stories that do what this strip did: take old golden baseball cliches and turn them on their heads.

…and this priceless exchange between Ichiro and Tommy Lasorda, as reported in the NY Times Bats Blog:

Tommy Lasorda, the tournament’s official mascot, held court during batting practice with several Japanese players. Ichiro Suzuki stopped by and spoke passable English with Lasorda, who in turn spoke passable English with Suzuki. Ichiro kept pointing to Lasorda’s circumferentially-challenged midsection and saying, “How many months?” Clearly unfamiliar with certain idioms, Lasorda answered, “I’m 82 years old.”

The Death Of A Pitcher

So this piece has been selected for the 2010 edition of Best American Sports Writing. Pretty amazing. It’s one of the first serious posts I ever did for this website and something that honored or not, I’m very proud to have written. If you’ve found it via the book (or news of it being in the book), then thanks for dropping by. I hope you enjoy it. -eric.

I.

They ran the bases for Jaime Irogoyen. His family, his friends, and his teammates were all there at Estadio Carta Blanca in Juarez, Mexico at 11:00 AM on January 17. I like to imagine they were still dressed up from the funeral; that they came straight from church. I like to imagine that they filed out of the dugout in their suits and lined up behind home plate like Little Leaguers.

In my version they all stand silently for a while, unsure of what to do. There is no pitcher to get things started. No base coach to windmill them around the diamond. They stand silently in the quiet sanctuary of the empty stadium. They scratch their heads and ponder life and death and the way a baseball field can make everything outside its lines or walls or fences disappear. Finally an old man (maybe a grandparent or a coach) grumbles impatiently; he knows death well. Let’s do something, he says. Vamanos.

The first person to run is Jaime Irogoyen’s sister. She jogs with her eyes on the dry clay in front of her, rounding each base perfectly, so that her foot only barely touches the inside corners of the bags. The old man who grumbled before nods at her technique. The next mourner runs and the next one. Each waits for the person before to reach first base before taking off. Each runs with his or her head down so as not to offend the imagined pitcher. After all, Jaime Irogoyen was a pitcher.

II.

Estadio Carta Blanca was built in the early 1970s, an era of rapid and unregulated economic growth for Mexico. Oil production and manufacturing rose sharply, but rampant corruption and poor fiscal management marred all that. Times that should have been prosperous became trying; as jagged and hard-to-navigate as the Sierra Madre mountain range that begins just a couple hundred miles southwest of Ciudad Juarez.

The reason for Estadio Carta Blanca’s construction was hopeful: the return of big league baseball to Juarez. The city hadn’t had a franchise in the top league, La Liga Mexicana, since los Indios de Juarez of the 1930s. Now, after years of second tier American minor league and Mexican semi-pro clubs, los Indios de Juarez were coming back. They threw their second first pitch as a franchise in 1973.

Like any expansion team, los Indios struggled their first few seasons. But in 1976, they tied for first in their division. In ’82, led by former Dodger and Red pitcher Jose Pena, they won the championship. Celebrations were short-lived. At the end of the ’84 season, after two years of hectic swirling rumors, the franchise was sold and moved to Laguna. After just a dozen seasons, seasons that saw a stadium built, a championship won, and a fan base develop, the Indios de Juarez were defeated for good.

But the name of the team, like the stadium, still lingers. Now the name, los Indios de Juarez, belongs to a local university. In the springtime, you can watch the kids play under the lights at Estadio Carta Blanca. You can close your eyes and imagine all the empty bleachers are full of screaming fans from a bygone era. It seems that in Mexico, the institutions of baseball can outlive governments. Regardless of the times, history is echoed through stadium speakers even as it is occurring.

III.

More than 7,000 people have died in Mexico’s drug war since 2007. A plurality of those deaths, nearly 2,000 of them, have occurred in Chihuahua, the border state in which Juarez is the largest city and Estadio Carta Blanca the largest baseball stadium. The persistent, increasingly macabre march of murder in Juarez is almost cinematic in its over-the top gruesomeness. But this is not a movie. Decapitated heads really are being found in ice chests across the country. Bodies really are piling up in the alleyway behind the Starbucks in Tijuana. Morgues really are overflowing. A New York Times headline called Mexico’s drug war a Wild Wild West Bloodbath.

To be sure, not all of the dead have been innocent. Many of the faceless (or headless) corpses belong to corrupt police officers, wily drug-runners, and gutless gunmen. But many more don’t. Many are mothers struck by stray bullets, innocents misidentified by flailing cops and soldiers, well-meaning immigrants trekking to America, robbed, raped and killed by their hired protectors. Some even are students and baseball players.

IV.

There was precious little media coverage of Jaime Irigoyen’s death. In the United States, our press has not yet begun putting human faces on the bedlam below our Southern border. In Mexico, there are so many dead, so many exceptionally tragic stories, that it is hard for journalists to single them out. Why is Jaime Irigoyen’s death more notable than that of any other innocent civilian caught in the crosshairs of anarchy?

From what is available, in both English and Spanish, it becomes possible to piece together a story. Jaime Irigoyen was 19 years old, a law-student at Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez and a pitcher for the school’s baseball team, los Indios. Judging from available information, he was a good one too. As he got ready for bed on the night of January 12, 2009, that was his reality: baseball, school, girls probably.

But those interests were soon to become historical facts; the kind that are recollected in obituaries and recalled years later by nostalgic relatives. As the Irigoyen family watched television in their Juarez townhome, just miles from the Texas border, a group of masked commandos approached their house and knocked the front door down. They surrounded the family in the living room. “Him with the glasses,” a soldier said, pointing at Jaime who sat quietly in just his shorts and socks and those glasses. They dragged him from the couch, gagging him and blindfolding him as his family stood by screaming. Then, with no explanation they took him away.

The soldiers forced his son into an unmarked SUV and sped off down the dark residential streets. Jaime’s father was able to follow them at first. But after ten or fifteen desperate minutes, the captors lost him and disappeared into the Juarez night.

Jaime’s mother reported that like many of the 3,000 soldiers patrolling Juarez on President Felipe Calderon’s orders, the men who took her son spoke in Southern Mexican accents. But otherwise, the family had no clue as to who they were or why they had come. Her son was merely a student, a baseball player. He was just a good kid.

The next day, with some friends, the Irigoyens staged a protest outside a local military base. Jaime’s parents demanded to know the whereabouts of their son. But the military denied any involvement, releasing the following statement:

That whoever deprived him of liberty were dressed in military-style uniforms in no way says they were soldiers. We call on the general public not to be fooled by criminal gangs.

As if it made any difference to Jaime’s family whether the men who took him were soldiers or not. As if criminal gangs were somebody else’s responsibility completely, and the military had more important things to worry about. Regardless, it was not long before the Irigoyen family got its answer. Just 30 hours after he was taken, as his family stood outside the chain-link fence that kept helpless desperate people like them from spoiling orderly military procedure, Jaime Irigoyen’s body was found dumped on a Juarez street. His eyes were still blindfolded and his mouth was still gagged.

The military never accepted responsibility for Jaime’s death, but most in the media have chalked the murder up to a case of mistaken identity. Some speculate that a low-level informant, perhaps under the strain of torture, misinformed some police or military officer. But nobody will ever really know. Nobody but the men in the masks.

V.

The memorial at the stadium did not happen quite as I imagined. The real version is much more organized. Jaime Irigoyen’s casket is brought to home plate on the shoulders of his teammates. The teammates, dressed in jeans and their blue caps and jerseys crowd alongside family and friends. There are strangers there, come to mourn the death of a pitcher, the death of potential, the state of a nation so unraveled it could let things come to this. Photographers from local and national newspapers take pictures, and reporters try to make themselves invisible but still get a sense of things.

The bleachers really are empty, and some of the mourners really are dressed up in suits. The service at the church is to take place right after the baseball stadium memorial. Once everyone has spoken, everyone who was going to cry has cried, and every available memory has been shared if not digested, Jaime’s teammates lift the casket once again.

They hoist the heavy box upon their shoulders, in it their friend and the idea of their friend and the weight of symbolism nobody can help but feel. They make their way around the base paths; a gesture they realize is cumbersome and ironic. After all, Jaime Irigoyen was a pitcher. But nobody says anything like that.

VI.

December 2, 2008. 46 days before the kidnapping

An editorial by Luis Carlos Martinez on out27.com, a Mexican baseball website, addresses the growing violence in his city of Juarez. He suggests that fans turn to baseball for comfort, for relief. In the column, he refers to a promising young pitcher named Jaime Irigoyen.

Talk is unavoidable, but in the midst of these violent outbreaks that reign in our city, we must turn to something that offers a more flattering panorama. Baseball continues as an interesting alternative to divert our attention from these lamentable events.

Bullets come and bullets go, but the sport is still king. Those of us who love baseball are convinced that the show must go on, that praying to our Creator; we can remain a part of this baseball family. And through it all, the various tournaments in all categories and of all ages will continue to unfold throughout our beleaguered city.

Our most recent major tournament went off without a hitch. Behind great work on the pitcher’s mound by youngster Jaime Irigoyen, los Indios de La Universidad de Juarez, won the first division at the third annual Hector Molina Interleague Baseball Tournament.

A nation can’t let violence get in the way of living, especially when living is sometimes the only thing one can do to escape from the mental prison that violence creates. Bullets come, bullets go, but baseball stays. What other option do we have? Even when those bullets are spraying the infield dirt, splitting bats, and landing in the bleachers, baseball has to go on. Even as war plucks off baseball’s innocents and blood seeps over its innocence, it must go on. Even as the clubhouse ranks are thinned, baseball must go on.

Luis Carlos Martinez could never have known that less than two months after his column was published, Jaime Irigoyen, the youngster who led his Indios to victory, would become a casualty. He could have never known that the game he turned to as a refuge from tragedy would soon bear witness to one. Or that Jaime Irigoyen would soon become a story much more prescient than any strikeout or tournament victory. He could have never known that so soon, the only option left on earth would be to run the bases and try to forget.

Poem Of The Week: ‘The Crowd At The Ball Game’

Poem Of The Week: The Crowd At The Ball Game By William Carlos Williams

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them —

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius —

all to no end save beauty
the eternal –

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied —
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut —

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it —

The Jew gets it straight – it
is deadly, terrifying —

It is the Inquisition, the
Revolution

It is beauty itself
that lives

WBC Diplomacy: Hugo Chavez Is Touchy

Another great thing about the World Baseball Classic: potential for awkward international political incident.

If you think the Obama administration calling out Rush Limbaugh and CNBC was bush league or unpresidential, get a load of Hugo Chavez. Chavez has now expressed his displeasure with some expat Venezuelans who booed Magglio Ordon at Saturday’s WBC game against the Netherlands in Miami. Ordonez is a friend of the controversial Presidente/Generalisimo and did a commercial in support of Chavez before last month’s term limits referendum. From the AP story:

Chavez lamented that his friendship with Ordonez prompted catcalls from the mostly Venezuelan crowd during the team’s 3-1 victory over the Netherlands in Miami on Saturday, saying the fans who booed the Detroit Tigers slugger “have no shame.”

“Everyone has the right to think about politics,” Chavez said after reading an article about the incident from The Associated Press. “This is shameful.

“Viva Magglio, and all our patriots!” Chavez added.

Ordonez, who went 0-for-3, said he felt “ashamed” by the way Venezuelans in the crowd reacted every time he stepped to the plate. Fans cheered loudly when he struck out in the fourth inning.

Magglio’s children, Magglio Jr. and Maggliana had no comment.

Weekend Reading: ‘As They See ‘Em’ (First Chapter)

New York Times theater critic and reporter Bruce Weber (not the basketball coach) went to umpire school to write a book. That book,  ‘As They See ‘Em’ is out now.

Read the first chapter here.

Or save yourself twenty minutes and read this very short paragraph from the end of that first chapter:

In umpire nation, Applebee’s and Chili’s are high-end establishments, steak is a gourmet meal, and, for some reason, lite beer is preferable to regular beer. It’s a place where the playing of the national anthem before a ball game is serious business, where women are discomforting, Jews are a novelty, homosexuals are unwanted, and liberals tend to keep their opinions to themselves.

Umpires, it turns out, are a lot like other  middle-aged, middle-America, blue-collar white guys.

It’s easy to suspect that Bruce Weber has not spent a great deal of time between the coasts. It’s also easy to suspect that this will be a book in which a coast-dwelling, fairly wealthy writer romanticizes a profession he sees as ‘honest’ or ‘gritty,’ but then realizes 2/3 of the way through that the lifestyle is a lot harder than it looks and really not for him. Just guessing.

Thursday Links: Growing Up, Growing Old

‘Soccer Is Ruining America’ says Steven Webb over at First Things, it corrupts our youth. The answer? More Baseball. He’s really serious, and Britain is none too pleased. (h/t on all this to Andrew Sullivan.) Everybody just needs to look to Nomar and Mia.

A father on NPR wonders if the steroid era will somehow contaminate the apple pie innocence of his son’s passion for baseball. Apparently oblivious to baseball’s history of corruption, racism, labor abuses, and other generally wily misbehavior. (h/t Shysterball).

Josh Wilker at the painfully-honest-perspective-on existential-questions-factory Cardboard Gods: What a grim one-direction-only conveyor belt is life!

Also, feel free to go back and read Tuesday’s poem of the week. It’s got some childhood baseball action going on.

Bonus Material: The young and the very old.

Michael Phelps calls certain unnamed youthful indiscretion ‘bad mistake.’ No word on whether he was referring to the bong or the fact that there was a camera in the room.

92-year old Senator Robert Byrd, is on Twitter and apparently in the hands of a powerful jelly bean lobby. (Editor’s note: this blog is on twitter too, but only just barely).

The Netherlands Wins!…Or Is It Win?

I have not watched a single inning of the World Baseball Classic. And it shouldn’t have taken a jaw-dropping upset to remind me what a shameful thing that was. But it did, and I missed the Netherlands edging the Dominican Republic in extra innings last night 2-1. Yes, you read that right. The Netherlands. And apparently it was their second time beating the DR in this year’s tournament. Unbelievable. I didn’t even know the Netherlands had a team.

Since the second every-other-spring classic started getting media attention, my baseball-watching friends have consistently shat upon it. There’s the atrocious thirteen inning rule to complain about, the conspicuous absences of so many stars, the fact that this is Spring Training and nobody is mentally prepared for ‘important baseball’ yet. There are a million reasons not to watch. My spoken excuse is a good one (“don’t own a tv”), but in my heart of hearts I know its bullshit. Truth is I just didn’t care about the World Baseball Classic.

I repent. A game like last night’s rises sharply above the whiny, apathetic static of my nonexistent television. In the Majors, you don’t get guys named Englehardt, Randall Simon, Van Klooster, and Duursma digging in against Pedro Martinez. You might get a crucial 11th inning error by Willy Aybar, but you sure don’t get Yurendell De Caster coming around to score on it.

Plus, there’s the excitement. I’ve been working on an post that glances on Mexican League Baseball, and in my detailed, methodical internet research, I’ve noticed that Mexico really gives a shit about the WBC. From what I can see so does Panama, Venezuela, Cuba, and Korea. With the exception of maybe Canada, everybody else cares! And we should too. Losing at the American Pastime is embarrassing in the same way losing in basketball at the Athens Olympics in 2004 was embarrassing.

The easy argument is that we don’t need the WBC. We Americans are confident in our boys’ ability. Fair enough. We invented the sport, we host its most important league, and we put on the damn tournament, isn’t that enough? Probably. But our ego and indifference don’t cause the players to perform with any less passion, the fans to cheer with any less fervor; our ego and indifference don’t dull the excitement or weirdness of the Netherlands beating the Dominican Republic twice…at baseball.

So World Baseball Classic, Team Netherlands (and Netherlands Antilles), obese first baseman Randall Simon: I apologize for my neglect. From here on out I will do my best to watch your games, read your box scores, and write about you. Because beneath the flags and the stupid rules and the odd presence of Randall Simon this is still baseball. And damnit reader, that’s why we’re here. You and me. We like baseball.

Poem Of The Week: The Man into Whose Yard You/Should Not Hit Your Ball

Because this site is called Pitchers & Poets, and because we all need a little more poetry in our lives (I really believe that but only in the literal sense), this website will include some poems. They won’t be especially hard poems. No Keats or Byron, no Milton, no Shakespeare. In fact, there won’t be any poems at all by dead Englishmen because dead Englishmen didn’t write about baseball.

I hope you take the time and read the poems as we put them up each Tuesday. Comment on them. And if you like a particular poem, check out others by the author.

So I give you the inaugural poem of the week, by Thomas Lux.

The Man into Whose Yard You/
Should Not Hit Your Ball

each day mowed
and mowed his lawn, his dry quarter acre,
the machine slicing a wisp
from each blade’s tip. Dust storms rose
around the roar, 6 P.M. every day,
spring, summer, fall. If he could mow
the snow he would.
On one side, his neighbors the cows
turned their backs to him
and did what they do to the grass.
Where he worked, I don’t know,
but it set his jaw to: tight.
His wife a cipher, shoebox tissue,
a shattered apron. As if
into her head he drove a wedge of shale.
Years later, his daughter goes to jail.
mow, mow, mow his lawn
gently down a decade’s summers.
On his other side lived mine and me,
across a narrow pasture, often fallow —
a field of fly balls, the best part of childhood
and baseball. But if a ball crossed his line,
as one did in 1956
and another in 1958,
it came back coleslaw — his lawnmower
ate it up, happy
to cut something, no matter
what the manual said
about foreign objects,
stones, or sticks.

Introducing The Baseball Mixtape

One of the goals here is to keep tabs of baseball and its representation in art. Some of it will be popular, some of it won’t. So along those lines, I’m starting the Baseball Mixtape project. Call it a collage of baseball sounds, new and old. Check out the tab up above, the list in the sidebar, and the unobtrusive music player down below.

I’ll try to keep this jukebox fresh with close and loosely related baseball songs, clips, and other media fun. If you have any suggestions for the Baseball Mixtape, feel free to send them in via email or comment.