Monthly Archive for May, 2009

Welcome Back, Spaghetti-Arms

When he managed the Dodgers, I had a strange fascination with Jim Tracy. For one, he has exceptionally long arms that dangle like spaghetti when he walks to the mound for a pitching change. For another, he had (and I imagine still has) a tendency to wear a gold watch on the outside of his long-sleeve undershirt.

But mostly, I was fascinated by his spectacular capacity for consistency. In both Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, Jim Tracy was epically dull, notably un-dynamic, and completely void of compelling traits. Even his career record as a manager, 562-572 ( a .496 winning percentage), is sigh-inducing.

Now Tracy replaces former Venezuelan Professional Baseball League star Clint Hurdle as manager of the floundering Rockies, and I have no idea why. Even on an interim level this might be the least inspired managerial hiring in the history of baseball. When the D-Backs brought in AJ Hinch earlier this season, it was at least a thought-provoking and paradigm-challenging move. The only thing worth discussing about this Tracy hiring is just how unsurprising it is.

The consistent re-infusion of guys like Tracy into the MLB managerial bloodstream creates a sort of stases. Nothing regresses, but nothing moves forward either. What is it that teams fear about new blood? Is there some sort of safe choice reflex that only certain front offices have the capacity to overcome?

It’s not Jim Tracy’s fault he’s dull and ineffective and keeps getting hired. I’m sure old Spaghetti-Arms is a nice enough guy and he certainly won’t screw things up too badly. But this endless treadmill of conventional wisdom that sees retreads getting hired and fired and hired and fired is starting to bore me. So somebody, please, do something.

Poem Of The Week: Polo Grounds

If you’ve heard of Rolfe Humphries, it’s because of his work as a translator. Many people consider his translatio nthe definitive English version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But this poem is about another kind of mythology – that of baseball and time, Carl Hubbell and Jon McGraw and lesser known players like the poet’s father, John Humphries. It was first published in the New Yorker in 1942, so you know it’s good.

Polo Grounds

Time is of the essence. This is a highly skilled

And beautiful mystery. Three or four seconds only

From the time that Riggs connects till he reaches first,

And in those seconds Jurges goes to his right,

Comes up with the ball, tosses to Witek at second,

For the force on Reese, Witek to Mize at first,

In time for the out—a double play.

(Red Barber crescendo. Crowd noises, obbligato;

Scattered staccatos from the peanut boys,

Loud in the lull, as the teams are changing sides) . . .

Hubbell takes the sign, nods, pumps, delivers—

A foul into the stands. Dunn takes a new ball out,

Hands it to Danning, who throws it down to Werber;

Werber takes off his glove, rubs the ball briefly,

Tosses it over to Hub, who goes to the rosin bag,

Takes the sign from Danning, pumps, delivers—

Low, outside, ball three. Danning goes to the mound,

Says something to Hub, Dunn brushes off the plate,

Adams starts throwing in the Giant bullpen,

Hub takes the sign from Danning, pumps, delivers,

Camilli gets hold of it, a long fly to the outfield,

Ott goes back, back, back, against the wall, gets under it,

Pounds his glove, and takes it for the out.

That’s all for the Dodgers. . . .

Time is of the essence. The rhythms break,
More varied and subtle than any kind of dance;
Movement speeds up or lags. The ball goes out
In sharp and angular drives, or long slow arcs,
Comes in again controlled and under aim;
The players wheel or spurt, race, stoop, slide, halt,
Shift imperceptibly to new positions,
Watching the signs according to the batter,
The score, the inning. Time is of the essence.

Time is of the essence. Remember Terry?

Remember Stonewall Jackson, Lindstrom, Frisch,

When they were good? Remember Long George Kelly?

Remember John McGraw and Benny Kauff?
Remember Bridwell, Tenney, Merkle, Youngs,
Chief Meyers, Big Jeff Tesreau, Shufflin’ Phil?
Remember Mathewson, Ames, and Donlin,
Buck Ewing, Rusie, Smiling Mickey Welch?
Remember a left-handed catcher named Jack Humphries,
Who sometimes played the outfield, in ’83?

Time is of the essence. The shadow moves
From the plate to the box, from the box to second base,
From second to the outfield, to the bleachers.
Time is of the essence. The crowd and players
Are the same age always, but the man in the crowd
Is older every season. Come on, play ball!

Americanizing The National Pastime

Today is Memorial Day and the streets of Manhattan are eerily empty. I’ve always appreciated the imagery of this holiday –Naval fleets ashore at major cities, barbecues, three-day camping trips, and lots and lots of flags, even though I’m not sure the festivity jives too well with the somber task of remembering fallen soldiers. Memorial Day calls for reverence and quiet dignity. And although I’m a sucker for the stars and stripes and the anthem and all that stuff, I think baseball gets it wrong today and generally in all matters of Patriotism. Especially with these hats:

There is nothing inherently bad – in fact there is something tasteful and good– about baseball honoring our troops and our country on days like today. But as usual, the execution is cumbersome and overwrought and completely ignores the whole concept of subtlety. An unadorned moment of silence, for example, seems appropriate.

The aesthetics are terrible and strained. The hats every player on every team are forced to wear today and on July 4 and September 11 are a nice idea, but won’t match with uniforms, and make the tribute feel forced and contrived. Much like the confusing “everybody wears no. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day” idea, it sounds really wonderful in theory but falls flat on the field of play. The 162-game season leaves plenty of room for special events and meaningful gestures. No need to make baseball theater out of them.

Promotions like this take away from the quirky, original, and often more powerful statements that individual teams and players can make. The Padres wear those sillyish looking camouflage jerseys, for example, because of the large military presence in San Diego. It’s a fresh tribute for a specific team with a specific fan base and it works well. In the early days of Jackie Robinson ceremonies, it was an honor for certain players to dawn no. 42, whereas now it’s a chore. And the new Mother’s Day tradition of pink bats for breast cancer awareness is graceful and delicate in comparison.

Baseball appears to be on a quest to reinforce its brand as the national pastime by flaunting its history and its American-ness. I don’t think baseball’s national pastime status is even at risk in the first place. The cultural landscape is too well-defined around the sport. But if it is, just calling itself the national pastime is not the answer baseball needs. The answer is making the sport compelling and affordable to watch and play, especially for younger and lower-income communities in which it is struggling.

Ironically, one place baseball is thriving is internationally. The World Baseball Classic proved definitively that baseball is firmly entrenched as a serious sport in not just Latin America and Japan but Korea, Taiwan, and China. And it’s gaining traction in Europe too. A hefty percentage of every major league roster now consists of internationally born players. In that context, the heavy Americana is even less appropriate. Nothing more touching than a bunch of Japanese and Dominican guys honoring our troops.

Consider the Blue Jays, who will be wearing a corresponding Canadian Flag cap. This isn’t even a holiday in Canada, but if we really want to show how much we love our country, I guess these are the awkward politically correct bones we have to throw our neighbors. Of course the proceeds for these caps go to charity, which is not to be discounted as important – but let’s not kid ourselves. The purpose of these caps is informed by public relations, not the desire to be or do good. If we only wanted to do good, the classy flag patch style caps teams used in September of 2001 would be more than enough. They even looked alright for the Expos:

I’m not the first person or the most eloquent to have a problem with the Memorial Day Caps and other baseball-sponsored acts of manufactured patriotism. There has been a great chorus of internet pushback. My favorite comment comes from Phil Hencken in a little panel discussion at the awesome Uni Watch Blog. He writes:

“Wearing the caps once is a gimmick. But wearing them at least three separate dates (with possibly more, should teams wish) –that’s more than enough times to make a complete mockery of the gimmick.”

Gimmicks and mockeries of gimmicks are hardly the stuff of dignity, hardly the stuff I’d say is appropriate to honor our troops. But then again, there are worse things. Jon Weisman, who diplomatically condemned the Dodgers’ 2009 policy of singing God Bless America at every 7th inning stretch, has tentatively embraced the red hats. In his typical balanced and sage-like fashion, he writes:

“As long as they respect one’s right to question authority, to grimace when songs become so overplayed that they become devalued, then go ahead and do your thing. And maybe remind lucky people like me of sacrifice.”

To that end, Weisman has a point. There’s always value in honoring the fallen, and perhaps we’d all be better served to brush our cynicism off for a day. But there’s such a thing as too much perspective, and I’m not ready to embrace the showmanship. Baseball fans are baseball fans and baseball players are baseball players. We’re all capable of thinking for ourselves, honoring our troops, our country, our families, our causes, our religions as we see fit. Baseball is itself a cultural force, inherently and inextricably tied to the fabric of our nation. In that vein, maybe it would be more fitting to celebrate Memorial Day by honoring the scores of players who were killed in World War II.

We don’t need to dress our baseball players up in red hats to honor Memorial Day and we don’t need to dress the game up in outside causes and issues to reinforce its valued place in our society.

Have the Memorial Day you want today. Celebrate what American soldiers have given you and remember the ones you have known. If you go out to the ballpark, enjoy yourself and the game. If you don’t, enjoy the time off and with family and friends. Or not. It’s up to you, and that’s the whole point.

Dear Rick Reilly, What The Hell Is That?

I’m not usually one for ripping on people. When I was about twelve, I had a year-long sports radio phase, in which I listened to all sorts of clowns and callers berate athletes. Sports radio gave way to sports reading – ESPN the Mag and Sports Illustrated became my beacons for sports knowledge and the source of my opinions. Of all the guys in those magazines, Rick Reilly daunted my young mind the most. His stories were sometimes grouchy and sometimes moving and sometimes cerebral. Probably for no other reason than their location on the back page, Reilly’s columns seemed an elevated form of sports writing.

Obviously that was foolhardy and naïve. Much the same way I learned that most of the guys with names like Vic “The Brick” Jacobs were worthless blowhards, I learned that placement on the vaunted back page of SI does not a good column make. Rick Reilly is an imperfect columnist at best. He can be sappy and clichéd and repetitive and over-reliant on dental metaphors. But overall I find him a compelling stylist, with a great sense of empathy and although we often disagree, a tendency to provoke worthwhile lines of thought.

But his latest piece is so bad I want to cry. I want to sit in the dark on the floor in my room and weep for the people who have been subjected to these words, for the spineless editor who allowed them to reach those masses, and for the writer himself who is surely incapable of staring proudly at his reflection in any mirror. The concept is hackneyed. The jokes are flat. The content itself, well, there were more good ideas in the House Republicans’ 18-Page 2009 Alternate Budget.

I won’t go full Fire Joe Morgan on it, but here are some highlights:

The title:

Here’s My Solution For Fixing Baseball: Put Me In Charge.

First problem is the assumption that baseball is broken. Second problem is that, in the first sentence of the article, Rick says he hates baseball:

I personally find baseball so crushingly boring I would happily plunge knitting needles into my eyes to avoid another snap zoom of Joe Torre’s nostril hairs.

Clearly, he’s now set himself up as a credible and very funny potential commissioner. I bet he has some great, original ideas. I’ve taken the liberty of listing them here in order to save you from his commentary.

1. A pitch clock.
2. Mandatory autographs.
3. Olympic style steroid testing.
4. Bad at-bat music joke.
5. DH in the NL
6. More fines. Just because. (Joke).
7. Umpires determine when a game is rained out.
8. Balls that hit foul pole are foul. (Joke, I think?)
9. Age Minimum for draft. No mention of international players.
10. Joke not worth repeating.

Anyway, there’s nothing new here. There isn’t even anything old said in a new way. It’s just lazy, boring, and complacent. It’s the kind of column that makes me wonder why, when so many people are writing about sports with so much energy and curiosity, I would ever bother with Rick Reilly again. It’s the kind of column that makes “mainstream journalism” for all of its resources, look hopelessly stale and out of touch.

Have you guys had already given up on Reilly, given up on all the Paiges and Plaschkes of the world? Maybe that comfy perch at the top of an institution – even a crumbling one – can destroy a writer. It isn’t news that there’s better, hungrier stuff on the blogs. But man, I’d  like to see the old guard put up a fight.

Poem of the Week: “Listening to Baseball in the Car for James Tate”

This semi-divine poem by Gail Mazure celebrates the Red Sox and hope and honors fellow poet James Tate. It encapsulates the fallibility of baseball and the futility of a fan watching or listening but not playing. When you’re done, check out Mazure, who’s written more than one great baseball poem in her day…

This morning I argued with a friend
about angels. I didn’t believe
in his belief in them– I cannot
believe they’re not a metaphor.
Our argument, affectionate,
lacking an animus, went nowhere.
We promised to talk again soon.
Now, when I’m driving away
from Boston and the Red Sox
are losing, I hear the announcer
say, ‘No angels in the sky today’ –
baseball-ese for a cloudless afternoon,
no shadows to help a man
who waits in the outfield
staring into the August sun.
Although I know the announcer’s
not a rabbi or a sage (no,
he’s a sort of sage, disconsolate
philosopher of batting slumps
and injuries), still, I scan
the pale blue sky through my
polarized windshield, fervently
hopeful for my fading team
and I feel something a little
foolish, a prayerful throbbing
in my throat, and remember
being told years ago that men
are only little lower
than the angels. Floating ahead of me
at the Vermont border, I see
a few wispy, horse mane clouds
which I quietly pray will drift
down to Fenway Park, where
a demonic opponent has just
slammed another Red Sox pitch,
and the centerfielder – call him ‘Jim’ –
runs back, back, back,
looking heavenward,
and is shielded and doesn’t lose
the white ball in the glare.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Steroids

Baseball is a self-dichotomizing sport. Rivalries like Red Sox and Yankees, Giants and Dodgers, Cardinals and Cubs are organic and intuitive. The first place team and the last place team seem generations apart. The American League and National League coexist in a state of symbiotic tension. There’s strain between the players and the press, the ownership and the fans, the fans and the fans, the players and the players, the owners and the owners.

This tendency, I think, can be dangerous. Baseball is also a self-regulating sport. Commissioners can literally remove players from the game with the flash of a pen. In an official sense, Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose were flat-out disappeared. The Hall of Fame decides, with vicious and often unjust finality, what player is immortal and what player is merely good. The whole thing, including the old guard media, is very insulated. Hence the struggles for racial integration.

But stark differences and harsh decisions are the manner of baseball; safe or out, honest or dishonest, Maddux or Clemens. Slowness to change is part of it too. Before steroids, that paradigm seemed passable enough. The game worked things out: some guys were piled upon with praise, others simply spat upon, others still faded to oblivion. And baseball slogged through it, draconian and direct as ever, nuance be damned. But all of a sudden steroids are changing the game faster than it can react, and we no longer know enough to be draconian. Nuance is quickly becoming our only option.

Simply put, if baseball doesn’t put on its perspective goggles – and I include the fans and the media and you and me in that definition of baseball – this steroid thing will spiral out of control. It’s bad enough now, with columnists calling for stoning and banishment and chopped off hands and everything. The quickness to react, especially in anger, is an extension of the good guy/bad guy worldview. Life is complicated. We screw up. So let’s step back, reconsider, and not get all huffed up over a problem we don’t quite understand yet. Let’s continue to deal with cases justly as they come up, but trade the histrionics for a sense of history.

Sure, there are winners and losers in sports and good guys and bad guys on television. But things aren’t quite so simple in real life.

Poem Of The Week: Baseball’s Sad Lexicon

This is perhaps the second most famous baseball poem of all time. If not, it contains one of the most famous lines: Tinker to Evers to Chance. Enjoy Franklin Pierce Adams’ work here, and try to remember that there was a time when the words Chicago and Cubs did not add up to inevitable failure

These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double —
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

*Gonfalon, wikipedia points out, means pennant.

Sponsor a Baseball-Reference Page: Ben Grieve

Say yes to outfielder Ben Grieve and you can transform his legacy.

Ben Grieve, of the A’s and Rays, is one of thousands of ex-big leaguers waiting for a sponsor. His page is wide open and for $10 – that’s 7 cents a day for a year or 21 cents for each of his 118 career homeruns — you can give Ben a chance to escape Baseball-Reference (and sadly, real life) anonymity by garnishing his page with a clever anecdote, fond memory, or completely unrelated advertisement.

Player Report:

Ben Grieve burst forth like a tidal wave from Oakland’s East Bay, soaking the American League in the spray of his loping strikeouts and late-inning runs batted in. He was as consistent as the Pacific tide those three glorious seasons in the AL West, putting up an OPS of.844, .840 and .845 in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Then, in the first days of the new millennium, Ben Grieve experienced his own personal Y2K disaster. He was dealt to Tampa in a small-market ménage trios that saw Johnny Damon, Mark Ellis, Cory Lidle (RIP), AJ Hinch (mazel tov), Angel Berroa, and the legendary Roberto Hernandez pack up and move. Old Ben never hit above .264 again. The pop was gone, bogged down in the pulpy Tropicana Field air. Long story short, he played poorly for three seasons in Tampa then drifted around the NL Central for a couple seasons before disappearing from the Major Leagues for good. These days Grieve is a stay at home dad in Arlington, Texas: “The best way to describe my life would be the life of a nanny,” he said. Well nannies need taking care of too. You can help.

Some fun facts about Ben:

-In 1998, Ben was named an All Star and Rookie of the Year. He never won another award in baseball (besides most double plays grounded into in 2000).

-His father Tom (ex-Ranger GM and current broadcaster) blamed Ben’s Tampa Bay failings on excessive pressure from the organization’s management!

-Lots of girls and boys  in the 90s loved making internet fan pages for Ben! Like Jen! Andrea! And Darron! I wonder where those three are now that Ben really needs them.

-WNBA Star (there really is such a thing) Lindsay Whalen is married to a Ben Grieve. But not the same Ben Grieve. This Ben Grieve’s wife is even more anonymous than he is.

Click Here To Sponsor Ben Grieve!

[Have a player you’d like to see featured here? Does your childhood hero need a home? Feel free to send your suggestions to tips (at) pitchersandpoets (dot) com]

Request

Would the person who found this site by searching “Joe Adcock Prick” please come forward? I would like to inquire about your motives. His wikipedia entry makes no mention of prickish behavior.

Much Needed Perspective

Passed along by Dodger Thoughts:

Hi everybody, and a very pleasant Thursday evening to you, wherever you may be. The Dodgers and the city of Los Angeles and all of California and for that matter, all of baseball, still shocked and stunned over the suspension of Manny Ramirez. We’ll have more to say about that a little bit later on — but no one man stops baseball …

-Vin Scully.