Monthly Archive for July, 2009

Weekend Reading: Lobster And Instant Noodles

For reasons unbeknown to even myself, the Weekend Reading feature disappeared from this blog a couple months ago.  Today Weekend Reading returns, with good baseball-ish reading from around the web. I would also like to make a quick programming note: The blog maybe a little bit barren over the next couple of weeks because Ted and I are both in the process of moving.  We appreciate your patience, and if you feel like filling the void with a Situational Essay, please drop a line.

  • Jonah Keri has a really nice essay on Canadian-ness, Haverford College (Alma Mater of PnP ally Ben), and how Joe Carter is responsible for his happy marriage.

EXT. KAUFFMAN STADIUM — NIGHT
THE MANAGER, LEO, TROTS OUT TO THE MOUND TO TALK TO BELEAGURED PITCHER, DANNY (THERE’S ALWAYS A DANNY). THE BASES ARE LOADED. THE CROWD IS GOING NUTS. IT’S GAME SEVEN OF THE WORLD SERIES.
LEO
You can’t get a good lobster in this town.
DANNY
Last I checked we were in Kansas City.
LEO
4.6 billion pork ribs sold every year and 18.9 tons of beef consumed annually since 1997 –
DANNY
They like their beef, what can I tell ya?
LEO
But you’d think just for variety’s sake.
DANNY
I can still throw my curve.

  • East Windup Chronicle has a hilarious look at the often ridiculous names foreign players used to be given in the Chinese Professional Baseball League:
  • Some standout examples: Pitcher Jose Nunez was originally going to be named “Man-Han (滿漢) ” after a President brand of instant noodles, but the team thought twice after a poor spring training. Jose Cano–Yankee Robinson’s Dad–was named “A-Q (阿Q)”, also after a brand of instant noodles. Former Sinon Bull Timothy Fortugno’s name “Feng Qing” translates to “Amourous Feelings (風情)”, while probably the best name belonged to pitcher Chinatrust pitcher Derek Hasselhoff, who was named “Li-Mai-Ke (李麥克)”, the Chinese name for Michael Knight from Knight Rider. Sinon Pitcher Gustavo Lopez was named “Feng-Kang” (楓康) after a brand of plastic and aluminum kitchen products, one of several Sinon players named after household items.

    *In a semi-related story, my friend Brett went to school in Nanjing and said the English names that Chinese kids gave themselves were often hilarious along the same lines. His roommate (I think it was his roommate) named himself Legolas, for example, after the Lord of the Rings character.

  • Jose Rijo and Raul Mondesi are running against one another for the position of mayor of San Cristobal, in the Dominican Republic. I’d like to take this moment to announce the first ever Pitchers & Poets political endorsement. We will be supporting Sr. Mondesi in his candidacy.

PnP Midseason Quiz Greatest Hits

17 people (including Ted and I) responded to the first-ever PnP Midseason Quiz. Although very proud of this, we are also slightly concerned that the most popular post in the history of this blog is not a well written essay or fun piece of commentary but set of hypothetical questions. Anyway, the questions ilicited some serious brilliance from you guys. So thanks so much for the insight and for the participation. It has been a pleasure reading these. I picked three of my favorite answers for each question to share below:

One reader suggests that ex-Commish Bowie Kuhn is baseballs least deserving Hall of Famer

One reader suggests that ex-Commish Bowie Kuhn is baseball's least deserving Hall of Famer

1. Excluding Rollie Fingers, who has the greatest facial hair in the history of the game?

Alex: Keith Herenandez obviously. That mustache is glorious, plus it makes great fodder for those sexist Just for Men commercials.

Paul Catalano: Oscar Gamble. Great afro and a awesome huge moustache

Walter: Ken Caminiti had some real aggressive facial hair. He looked like a tweaked out biker who just spent the past three years lifting weights in San Quentin or Pelican Bay.

*Worth noting: Al Hrabosky and Mike Piazza led all recipients with two votes each

2. Least enviable inferior big league brother. Example: Wilton Guerrero.

Bob Ferguson: Paul Rueschel. He had under 400 career innings and was the larger of the two Rueschel brothers which is really saying something. The great majority of his career came with the Chicago Cubs. He came up three years after his younger brother and pitched in his shadow for his best 3 ½ season in the majors, which still weren’t very good. In 1977, Tops printed a brother’s card with Paul and Rick both on it, the only problem was they switched up the names. Tops knew about the error but cared so little they never changed it.

Akshay: I am going with the sisterly version of this question. I always felt bad for Kit Keller. Dottie Henson was just too much of a superstar for the Rockford Peaches. (I certainly hope I do not have to explain the reference!)

BBL: Ozzie Canseco is the obvious choice but I’m going with Paul Dean due to the unfortunate barnyard incident he and Dizzy both valiantly tried to stop as children

3. Dave Stieb or David Cone?

Cone wins by a score of 9-4.  Ember Nickel gives my favorite explanation:

Ember Nickel: Cone, because poetic types should be able to talk about pitchers who’ve actually pitched perfect games and not just nearly-perfect ones that represent the subjectivity and meaninglessness of the modern world or whatever.

4. The game is on the line. You have to send a pitcher – any pitcher – to the plate. Who is it?

Pat Allen: A smart aleck answer would be Babe Ruth. A better answer is that it would depend on the situation. For example, for a bunt, it would be Greg Maddux. I don’t know about singles. While an obvious answer for home runs is Carlos Zambrano, he can be pitched to fairly easily in close situations late in the game. Carlos swings too hard (i.e., he doesn’t “stay within himself”), so a smart pitcher can get him. He is only about 1 for 10 while pinchhitting.

Brian Wolff: Other than the obvious early Babe Ruth. I’d say that Micah Owings would probably pinch hit for power better than most bench players out there. He could pull off the next “Rich Ankiel” move if his pitching doesn’t improve soon.

Exiled in NJ: Don Newcombe wasn’t bad, Mike Hampton or Kenny Brett

5. Favorite Casey Stengel managed ball club?

Paul Catalano: 1962 Mets

BBL: 1963 Mets – improved by 11 games over ’62 Mets!

Matthew: I don’t want to go with a Yankees team but the rest of his teams are only memorable for being awful, so I guess I’ll have to pick the 1951 Yankees with the changeover from DiMaggio to Mantle, plus Johnny Mize.

6. Bull Durham or Field of Dreams?

BBL: Bull Durham mainly because I went to Bulls games and the Bull never assaulted my cousin; sadly I cannot say the same of the Winston-Salem Warthog

Ted: Field of Dreams. I could watch James Earl Jones brush the imaginary flies of memory away from his face on a loop for hours.

Marc R: Bull Durham-even though it had way too much sex and not enough baseball

7. Best local broadcast crew, excluding your hometown/favorite team?

Pat Allen: Who cares.

Dave: Gary Thorne for the Baltimore Orioles. He brings a hockey-like intensity to the lovely game of baseball. “SAKIC SCORES!” or “BASEHIT UP THE MIDDLE!”, its all money with Gary.

Bob Ferguson: I have many problems with this question, especially the excluding the only people you really ever listen to part. Also, I don’t really like the crews part either, I generally hate one of the two guys. This really doesn’t answer the question but the best announcer in the game is Steve Stone and the worst is Hawk Harrelson. I gave you one crew at least.

8. Least deserving Hall of Famer?

BBL: Without question Bowie Kuhn (amongst his many crimes: my father once asked him if he slept in the nude and Bowie refused to answer)

Paul Catalano: Bill Mazeroski No offense Bill. But a .260 BA, 138 HRs and a .299 OBP dopn’t really cut it.

Brian Wolff: Roger Bresnahan definitely doesn’t have anywhere close to H.O.F. stats although he did popularize modern catching equipment his 26, YES!, 26 career homers/530rbi/.279avg over 17 seasons while being a great and versatile fielder just does not add up to enough to mention only 1 post season and a losing record as a manager

9. If you could resurrect one dislocated or disbanded franchise, which?

Reeves: The Kansas City Royals. Remember them? George Brett, 1985, fountains in the outfield. Did they become the Diamondbacks or Marlins?

Ember Nickel: Brooklyn is a good choice, though my initial instinct was the Cleveland Spiders. I’d also support returning the Braves to Boston if and only if their mascot would make slightly more historical sense and cause slightly less protesting.

Walter: Les Expos.

10. Most memorable instance of creative technique employed by manager in confrontation with umpire.

Exiled In NJ: Who carried an umbrella to the plate to point out it was raining? Bobby Bragan had a few techniques, including laying down on his back I believe.

Matthew: The Braves minor-league manager could have won if he cut his act by just a little bit. It wound up being overdone even though the grenade act was probably the most original single action I’ve ever seen. Otherwise, it’s the previously mentioned Bobby Valentine facial hair.

Multiple: Lloyd McClendon’s last stolen base.

The Devil and David Eckstein: An Improbable Journey Through the Improbably Cool, Starting with Harry and the Potters

A simple request: I am starting in a random spot, but I will, I promise, bring it back around to pitchers. Consider the first few graphs the poet portion of the program.

A few weeks ago I watched “We Are Wizards” on Hulu. The featured slate of eccentric enthusiasts for J.K. Rowling’s work was, yes, at times a little unsettling. But tucked between the eccentrics was a band that I’ve become mildly obsessed with in the ensuing weeks: Harry and the Potters. If you’re already gearing up to make fun of me for listening to a band whose content is founded on and limited to the plotlines and emotional content of children’s literature, and plays libraries to hordes of eleven-year-olds, I assure you that my wife has already beat you to it. Social acceptance aside, though, you might find as I did with a listen that the spare punchy rock of Harry and the Potters is uncommonly sincere and raw. The hooks hook. You could play it at a party, and if you didn’t tell your guests that it was Wizard Rock, they’d like it.

Harry and the Potters, image from racketmag.com
Harry and the Potters, image from racketmag.com

I am, in my defense, as surprised about my new favorite band as you are. I’m not a massive Harry Potter enthusiast, though I like the movies. I’ve read one and a half of the books. I didn’t fire up the Hulu flick to find a new band. I expected, at best, to see a few goofballs in wizard costumes (mission accomplished). But watching Harry and the Potters–two brothers who wear striped Hogwarts ties and V-neck sweaters–I was taken by their energy, their enthusiasm. It’s rare I think to find a band with so little production and even musicianship that nonetheless just brings it, wailing and ripping for two and a half minutes. There’s even a subversive element to a punk band with such deeply uncool songs in the era of skinny jeans and hipsters and architectural hair and the ever aloof uber-cool. Paul and Joe DeGeorge are not cool. They both look like Harry Potter.

The question I asked myself while I was walking my dog yesterday was, why? Why do I like this band so much? Am I mentally unstable, hoping for an eternal childhood that can never be? Am I just another Peter Panish Michael Jackson, and should I cancel the portrait that I’ve custom-ordered, portraying myself playing volleyball with Professor Snape? Then it hit me. Harry and the Potters sound like and tremble with the same vibe of the mesmerizing folk-rock antihero, Daniel Johnston. I learned about Daniel Johnston via another documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. He’s got some mental health issues, and he began making music in his parents’ basement with a chord organ. In his early recordings, his warbling, at times tender and at times desperate, dances over the pumping air of the organ. If you’re hung up on juvenile lyrics, I’ll ask you to consider Johnston’s plaintive “Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

Johnston is rough around the edges, but his music is rooted in an undeniable earnestness, that shimmering relic of childhood. Pretense is a membrane of complication laid over the bare facts of life, the pursuit of happiness. Music without pretense recalls the dry, cool ground. Daniel Johnston plays the guitar not like a practiced virtuoso, but like a kid who just found a dusty guitar in the basement. Same goes for Harry and the Potters.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston

This is a roundabout exploration of why certain things appeal to me, however unlikely, and why anything appeals to anybody. Harry and the Potters are unlikely. Daniel Johnston is unlikely. But I listen to them both and feel the ground’s heart beat.

I am now going to do something about as annoying as recounting Harry Potter plot points: I will bring up David Eckstein. No baseball player in the last five years has been as equally anointed as he has been reviled, and I’ll assume that most of you PnP readers are up-to-scratch on that whole Fire Joe Morgan line. But I would like, for a moment, to request a momentary reprieve from that long debate, and ask that you think back to a time when a slight smile warmed your features when you first heard his story; before you learned to despise him, and if not him, then his unbidden acolytes.

Isn’t there, in the story of this walk-on, this undersized guy with a terrible arm, that echoes the improbability of Harry and the Potters and of Daniel Johnston? Eckstein’s style was built from necessity in the same way that Johnston developed his raggedy chord organ romping, engaging because it is as far as he can go, but he gets there. Doesn’t David’s very presence at the major league level remark on life’s unpredictability, on the grace of altered expectations? I think it does, but maybe that puts me in league with those who would value the story over the statistics, and those who claim that there is more value in a stirring tale than there is in the subject of that tale’s slugging percentage. Maybe I’m just that romantic, and should be slapped across the face with the latest Baseball Prospectus.

David Eckstein waves his magic wand

David Eckstein waves his magic wand

But being a fan is about being a romantic, after all. Winning–that most prized attribute, more important than any bard’s tale–is a romantic notion; it’s a hope for the future’s euphoria–the climactic soaring chords of a great song–when the last out goes into the books and the dark cloud of loss is lifted; winning is hero-making. A child reads a Harry Potter book straight through in a day with that same sort of hope, that same clammy grip on the binding with which the baseball fan holds the bar top or the nosebleed arm rest. So tread lightly, is all I’m saying, when counting and discounting. We all want to be cool, and some of us are (subscribing to Pitchers and Poets via RSS grants you an automatic five badass points, BTW). In my humble experience, the coolest breezes blow from the most improbable ducts.

Harry and the Potters on MySpace
Rolling Stone’s Rock & Roll Daily Pick of the Day, September 28, 2006: Save Ginny Weasley by Harry and the Potters
Daniel Johnston on MySpace
– For more raw tunes, Eric suggests The Black Lips and Titus Andronicus.

Poem Of The Week: The Base Stealer

Ricky Henderson was inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. We didn’t necessarily mean to ignore that fact (or Jim Rice’s induction), but we have. So PnP makes amends to Ricky the best way we know how.  This  work by Robert Francis, a student of Robert Frost, captures the tension of a stolen base like only poetry and Ricky Henderson can. And unlike Ricky’s career, it’s quite short:

robert francis cardPoised between going on and back, pulled
Both ways taut like a tight-rope walker,
Fingertips pointing the opposites,
Now bouncing tiptoe like a dropped ball,
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on!
Running a scattering of steps sidewise,
How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases,
Taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate – Now!

The Catch

Last month Mark Buehrle, a career .100 hitter, slugged his first career home run on a sunny Milwaukee afternoon. Buehrle seemed to get all his weight into the swing. He lunged at it awkwardly, in that classic flailing manner of American League pitchers in National League parks. His front foot did a Robb Nen double tap. His back foot didn’t quite pivot; rather it slid and almost came off the ground. But as Buehrle scooted head down, around the bases, his line drive soared into the Brewers’ bullpen. The homerun came on a full count fastball, high in the zone and over the middle of the plate. It was just the sort of bad pitch that Mark Buehrle didn’t throw in yesterday’s perfect game, and has rarely thrown in the course of his ten year career.

DeWayne Wise deserves the attention he has received. The catch he made had me shivering and I look forward to watching it replayed the rest of this season and for years on end. But to me, his catch was not the defining moment of Buehrle’s perfect game. The moment that summed it up for me, that really epitomized the performance came in the next at-bat. With one down in the ninth, Tampa Bay catcher Michael Hernandez stepped to the plate.

In a perfect game the pressure on the pitcher is ratcheted up with every out. With each retired batter he is one pitch closer to immortality; one pitch closer to reaching a symmetry so scarce that it can’t be achieved in real life and can only seldom be achieved in the artificial world of baseball. Five outs to go, four outs to go, three outs to go, two outs to go … Mark Buehrle has a regular guy reputation. He doesn’t go for superstition and he is extremely self-aware. By the time he took the mound in the ninth, one has to imagine that his heart was lodged somewhere between his throat and his sinuses.

And after that catch, that space and time and gravity defying catch, everything was turned up a level higher. After that prayer was answered, failure to finish the last two Rays would have been more than just a disappointment, more than just a notable almost. It would have been a poetic let down for Buehrle, his teammates, and all of us who took the time in our day to watch or listen or follow online; for all of us who had attached our own emotions, our own hopes and dreams to that momentary brilliance. He might not have been thinking it explicitly but Mark Buehrle knew all this. At some level, after The Catch, he probably thought to himself, Oh shit, well now I really can’t screw this up.” Watch the replay. You can almost see it in the way he sighs and wipes his brow right afterward

Into the batters’ box, into the concoction of nerves and history and excitement steps Michael Hernandez. If you’re a pitcher and have to face one Ray in this situation, you probably pick Hernandez. He steps up to bat with an on base percentage below .300 and a reputation for nothing really. He’s a backup catcher, after all. Buehrle doesn’t hesitate. He works as quickly as any pitcher in the game and he interrupts the hometown broadcast crew in its post-catch hyperbole with a quick first pitch, fouled back by Hernandez. Second pitch before you can blink is a breaking ball in the dirt. Then an off-speed pitch away, then another off-speed pitch just misses the inside corner. All of a sudden, before you can even breathe, it’s 3-1.

You can almost feel it slip away. This is how these collapses happen too; almost quietly in the wake of the excitement, almost as an afterthought. Before you come down from the high of The Catch, you realize it’s all over. Everything is deflated.

One fastball thrown an inch away from home plate and that’s it. One fastball left over the middle, over the meat, and that’s it. Look how close it came to happening a moment ago. Look how easily it can all end. But instead of slipping, Buehrle took the ball from his catcher Ramon Castro without even stepping off the rubber. He rocked back into his windup, eased into his release, and threw a perfect fastball down and on the outside corner.

Full count.

And then it was never really in doubt. For a moment, failure loomed over Buehrle like the towering stadium seats and lights and noises. But when he threw that 3-1 pitch like it didn’t matter, like this was spring training or batting practice or just another 5-0 game, he won. The curveball with which he struck out Michael Hernandez was obvious. The routine groundball with which he retired Jason Bartlett was practically predetermined.

July 23 belonged to Mark Buehrle. The catch was wonderful, but the recovery, the poise, the finish. Those were perfect.

The Brother Grim

Question 2 from last week’s quiz (follow up post coming soon) has overcome me:

2. Least enviable inferior big league brother. Example: Wilton Guerrero

There are so many answers, so many sets of siblings in sports, and so many tales to tell about the better and the worse. In a way it’s the same old story. Blood and friendship and rivalry: the ancient recipe for brotherhood and sisterhood and everything that comes with them.

Never lose that lovin feeling.

Never lose that lovin' feeling.

So I took my fascination to Google, starting with the man in the quiz question. I remember Wilton Guerrero vaguely from his stint with the Dodgers. He was notable for two things in particular. The first was being the older brother of superstar Vladmir Guerrero. The second was shattering his bat, then scrambling like a child at an Easter egg hunt to pick up the famously corked pieces.

There is little in the way of detailed biographical information about former second baseman Wilton Guerrero available online. He is no longer in the news, except for the occasional mention in a story about his brother (brother, mom visit Vlad Guerrero in Angel clubhouse etc.). Wikipedia says Wilton plays ball in the Dominican these days, but even that claim goes unsourced.

The Google search results for Wilton Guerrero at first glance seem unexceptional. There is his Baseball Reference page, some memorabilia, the Wikipedia entry. But the fifth item down changes all that. It’s a forum link to a website called DR1.com. The title is at once ominous and intriguing and totally shocking:

Will Wilton Guerrero Be Killed?

Wait just a minute. Have I missed something? Apparently not. A quick scan of the forum discussion reveals that there is another Wilton Guerrero out there. He too hails from the Peravia province of the DR and he too is a public figure. In fact, this second Wilton Guerrero is a hard-charging senator in the nation’s leading party, the PLD.

From everything I have read, Senator Wilton Guerrero is an ass kicker. Think Eliot Spitzer before the hooker. He is a bulldog, targeting primarily the corruption of the Dominican government by mostly Colombian drug cartels. In September of 2008, Senator Guerrero announced that drug gangs had placed a 10,000 Peso ($280K) price on his head. But he wasn’t backing down, he told his constituents. He wouldn’t be ruled by fear. Ten months later, he is still crusading.

In a lot of ways, Senator Guerrero is more like the Guerrero brother with whom he does not share a name. Both the Senator and Vladmir Guerrero do things their way and both get away with it. They are aggressive and confident and aren’t afraid of anything. Drug gang threats get spat upon. High and tight fastballs get launched into the left field bleachers. Whether a batters’ box or a legislative committee room, these men are masters of their domains. In their fields, these are important men.

El Senador no toma prisioneros.

El Senador no toma prisioneros.

Wilton Guerrero the second baseman is not an important man these days. Beyond the scope of his family and his community he is basically forgotten. Where his brother and the senator have charged through life as if success was a foregone conclusion, Wilton stumbled through his short big league career.

He was a meek and powerless player from the get-go. At 5-11 and just 145 pounds, he looked buried in his uniform, as if the jersey might swallow him up at any moment. And never did Wilton Guerrero seem as child-like as that June afternoon, leading off a game against St. Louis, breaking his bat, and then scrambling after the shards. It was 1997, his rookie season, and he had already resorted to a desperate act.

But was Wilton Guerrero really that bad at baseball? Next to superstar Vladmir, it’s hard to turn many heads as a light-hitting utility man. Mental errors and the corked bat and a generally lackadaisical style didn’t help much either. But he retired a .282 hitter, with innings logged at every defensive position but pitcher and catcher. Seems like he was at least somewhat useful – like maybe if he had a reputation for scrap and instead of signing from the Dominican Republic, he was drafted in the 87th round, he might have stuck around longer.

Wilton obviously wasn’t drafted. Rather, he was just the lesser brother, the walking mistake (the Dodgers signed him but passed on Vlad), the symbol of unfilled potential. Lincoln said that “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Wilton Guerrero is all shadow to us now.

And maybe that isn’t fair. Maybe we should consider the tree in a broader sense. Because what do we know about Wilton Guerrero the man? Maybe he’s a great father or husband or son. Maybe he volunteers in the community. Maybe he doesn’t. In this world of ours, making it from an impoverished Dominican town to the major leagues is a pretty miraculous achievement; making it form anywhere to the Major Leagues is. But as the brother of Vladmir (or namesake of a Senator I guess?), the standards get changed.

The failed brother in sports is hardly a failure at all. The Wilton Guerreros and Billy Ripkens of the world are placed in this unmanageable context. Instead of being compared to Joe Marginal Infielder, they are lined up with Joe Hall of Famer. That’s tough and it doesn’t take into account the whole notion that glory in sports is at least on one level artificial. Perhaps the Wiltons and the Billys have had happier lives because they didn’t spend long careers in the big leagues. Perhaps they are up at night thinking about it to this day.

Regardless, there are few things in life more ephemeral than glory. Even if your glory is small in the context of your superstar brother, even if your glory is the size of a shard that flew off your corked bat in 1997, it is something to be savored.

Poem of the Week: Playing Catch

A hypothetical exploration in this week’s poem, “Playing Catch,” by poet Tim Seibles, published in Ploughshares. What if all the world’s balls disappeared? What then? How hard will we fall when the crutches are kicked out from under us?:

for Hermann Michaeli

tim seibles baseball cardOn the day the balls disappeared, men playing soccer
suddenly looked like crazy people chasing invisible
rabbits through the short grass. Men playing baseball
became more clearly what they’d always been: bored
teenagers waiting around for something to happen.

Spectators, at home and in the stands, believed
they were being jerked around by a player
conspiracy, that this was the first whimper
of another strike that would cancel all the fun.

On the day the balls disappeared, the sun did not
smear its way up above the dew-damp rooftops as if this
were a day to keep your finger on. And if all the umps and refs
overslept that morning, it only meant they were a little extra
tired of instant replay highlighting their best mistakes.

In fact, it was a good Saturday: sunlight the color of a canary—
everybody was outside! I remember one woman in particular,
alone in the schoolyard practicing lay-ups. Each time
she left the ground she balanced the basketball like
a breakable thing, then let it slip off her long
white fingers toward the rim.

It had been August for more than a month and, as usual,
the televisions were jam-packed with sports: preseason
football, golf, baseball, soccer, some rugby . . . If you didn’t
know better watching TV could make you think the world
was really just a million fields separated by a few
rivers and roads—that life was, in essence, a chance
to love one of the many artificial spheres.

I guess they went all at once or, at least, within
the same fifteen minutes. I had been watching the U.S.
Open Tennis Championships when Pete Sampras, ready
to serve, gestured to the ball boy who quickly
pointed at the other and shrugged, hoping not
to be blamed. People in the stadium began whistling
and stomping their feet. I went to the fridge
and grabbed a plum.

But I remember noticing
a boy and his sister across the street playing catch
in the yard half-framed by my kitchen window.
He had a new red glove. She was a lefty and
brown as coffee, and, just to show off, she whipped
the throw just above his reach.

A moment later
he yelled, I can’t find it—I don’t see it—
it ain’t out here
! She thought he just wanted her
to go get it, just to get on her nerves. She thought
he was just kidding around.

Sponsor a Baseball-Reference Page: Casey Candaele

The Pitch:

Gopher balls might sell Big Macs and steaks, but the savvy marketeer knows that it’s character, not four-baggers, that defines a spokesman. I’m talking about the kind of character sculpted from a career of undeniable mediocrity, in which the only currency is stick-to-it-ive-ness and positivity in the face of sure obscurity. An OPS over .700? No thanks, you’ve probably got a big head about it. Your baseball-reference stats compare you favorably with Barry Larkin and Ryne Sandberg? I bet you don’t even tip well. In this economy, it’s all about value, it’s all about trust.

Well sir, I’ll ask you, then, what better face for the business you want to build than a nine-year utility infielder with fewer career home runs than Carlos Zambrano? Humility, good cheer, and light-hitting whimsy, thy names are Casey Candaele, and thy baseball-reference page is now available for the price of seventeen Big Macs, or 25% of one steak: I’m talking ten American dollars.

Player Report:

Listen, I’m not going to chew your earflap off claiming that Casey Candaele had a noteworthy career, or that he changed the way the game is played. I’ll save that for the bigwigs over at Champion Ford of Alexandria. I’m here to say that Casey was there when you needed him, no matter how sparingly, or even if you needed him to be somewhere else, like upstate New York, or Canada. He’s in touch with the real America, folks, and the real Canada, where there’s REAL MONEY (Canada not included).

If an unremarkable baseball career of no distinction isn’t wetting your whistle, then let me give you an insight into Casey’s aforementioned character. While most of your hot shot big money sluggers were headlining charity golf tournaments and getting roasted by their celebrity friends, Casey Candaele was hosting Naked Batting Practice. According to an old mlb.com article, “Sunday mornings were designated ‘naked batting practice’ days. Candaele would go to the batting cages located near the Astros’clubhouse, wearing nothing more than his Spring Training sunburn, to take a few cuts in preparation of [sic] the upcoming game.” If you happen to run a tanning salon, or coordinate membership for a nude beach, I don’t even know why we’re still sitting here talking all business-like.

Click Here To Sponsor Casey Candaele!

(If you’re some kind of masochist and you want an informed, detailed account of Casey’s baseball career, you’ll find it here.)

[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]

Fountains Of Greinke

Our first ever Situational Essay comes today from Reeves Wiedeman. Reeves has written about hot dogs for SI.com, a Pi savant for The Boston Globe, and the Recently Insufferable Roger Federer at his blog, Meanderings, which he would be honored to have you skim after you get through Pitchers & Poets each day. An aspiring journalist and storyteller, whatever that means, he also likes the Kansas Jayhawks and barbecue.

“Our job is to inject as much joy into people’s lives as we can.” – Royals manager Trey Hillman.

I was born in Kansas City, Missouri on May 1, 1986, six months and four days after Darryl Motley caught the final out of the 1985 World Series (and for Cardinals fans, six months and five days after Don Denkinger astutely called Jorge Orta safe at first). In the subsequent 23 ½ seaons, the Kansas City Royals have yet to return to the playoffs, lost 2,039 games, run through nine managers, and traded away an outfield that would have included Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye for Angel Berroa, Mark Teahan, and Neifi Perez (only Teahan is still with the team).

In short, it’s been a rough 23 years. But it’s been a rough two decades for Pirates, Rangers, and Brewers fans too, with the D.C. area set to join us. What’s unique about the Royals’ struggles is that people like you – Dodgers and Sox and Yanks fans – seem, strangely, to care about the Royals.

It’s often hard to recall that the Royals were once at the front of the national baseball consciousness. George Brett flirted with .400 and Dan Quisenberry made the submarine fashionable. They won – a lot. And perhaps most importantly, they were the little team from the fly-over town who had become arch-rivals with the New York Yankees. And of course, if you were the Yankees’ enemy, you were America’s friend. But then, bad things started happening. Mostly, they lost – a lot. A franchise going on 30 years old, they suffered through an affair with a rich benefactor, the loss of bowel control, and impulse buys: the baseball equivalent of a mid-life crisis.

If I may stretch to draw a different metaphor, the Royals are baseball’s much whiter, much less violent version of The Wire’s Stringer Bell. (Your assignment: identify your team with a fictional character). They came from the wrong side of the baseball tracks, challenged the Powers That Be with good old fashioned hard work and occasionally illicit behavior, and against all odds, won the hearts of viewers everywhere.  (Ed. Note: Spoilers Incoming Of course, Stringer ended up dead: for their part, the Royals had been relegated to the last five minutes of SportsCenter with a Wikipedia entry for the era titled, simply, “Rock bottom.”

But you won’t find a fan of The Wire who wouldn’t give up Marlo and Wee-Bay to have Stringer back for one more episode. Though we still live in a world where it is possible to publish a fictional account of Willie Wilson questioning Sonia Sotomayor, the Royals are now defined not by losses but by a 25-year old right hander and a sense of, well, hope (forget for a moment that they are 14 games under .500). Zach Grienke may be the best pitcher in baseball. And for once, with a long-term contract in hand, he is a Royal that opposing fans can admire for his talent rather than dreaming what he would look like in their team’s uniform. Grienke has, quite suddenly, put the Royals back on the map.

But what’s odd about Greinke is just how much attention he’s gotten. Last season, Tim Lincecum was two years younger and started 10-1 with a 2.49 ERA, but had to wait until July for his SI cover. Greinke started with slightly better numbers, but got his cover by late April. To be fair, we primarily have Joe Posnanski to thank. One of America’s three (give or take) greatest local sports columnists was hired by SI last year, where he has been able to do nearly impossible feats like put the Royals in high places and work Tony Pena Jr. into a column about Andy Roddick. People in high places do wonders.

But I would contend that there is something else going on here: a national affection for everything the Royals embody and, occasionally, actually are. They are from the heartland. They have regal blue uniforms. They have a giant, kitschy crown scoreboard, and fountains that dance between innings. They have a recession-proof team salary. They are baseball in its purest, most uncompetitive, most enjoyable form, and because of that, people who have never stepped foot in Arthur Bryant’s BBQ are able to look at the Royals the same way they look at a toddler, longing for younger more innocent days and hoping the kid grows to do something great.

Which brings us back to Hillman. I cannot name the Royals starting lineup (Note: I just tried and got five of nine). I haven’t seen the Royals play in person in two years, and can’t remember the last time I sat through a whole game on TV. No matter how much you like a team, it’s hard to sit through all that losing.

But it’s not about the losing. It’s about the fountains and the uniforms and Buck O’Neill’s seat in the stands and crying when the team trades your two favorite players – David Cone and Brian McRae – on back to back days. It’s about relaxing in a row of empty bleacher seats, with a beer and a hot dog and a 3-2 game in the 6th. It’s about the joy at team gives you, that a 25-year old baby-faced pitcher gives you. It’s about the quaint hopefulness of a small-market team at spring training each year. And every once in a while, it’s about sitting in right field in a sold out Kauffman Stadium as Ken Harvey blasts a walk-off home run in the 11th on April 18th, 2003 to boost the Royals to 12-3, best in the majors – never mind that they would finish 3rd in the division, seven wins short.

Romancing the Zone (Rating System): Bonnie and Clyde, Digital Eyes, and the Impending Death of Conversation

I watched Bonnie and Clyde this past weekend, starring Warren Beatty and the ridiculously radiant Faye Dunaway. As is my natural inclination, it got me thinking about baseball. The classic film follows the likable but slightly bananas “Barrow Gang” as they rise to prominence as hold-up chiefs and brigands, then rise to mythology in the course of a few years.

Early in his career (in the movie, anyhow), Beatty’s titular hero would rob a small-town convenience store and bellow, “I’m Clyde Barrow, and this here is a hold-up!” No Nixon mask, bandana, or low-slung ball cap; no Unabomber sunglasses or hoodie. Just Beatty’s bedazzling grin and a doff of the fedora and he was off to the next town, to pull another job. Might as well hand out business cards, or an eight-by-five glossy. What struck me was that such a thing was possible back in those days. There was no concrete photo evidence of an act in progress, no surveillance cameras, no holograms on photo-IDs. When something went down–a bank robbery, for example–the sources that the wider public drew upon for enlightenment were subjective, first person accounts and witness testimonials. And those, we know well by now, lead to some crazy shit.

Bonnie and Clyde does a fine cinematic job of rendering this very phenomenon, the distorting effects of such unreliable sources. The Barrow Gang tracks its own progress through the lens of the media, reading newspaper articles to each other as they rumbled down country roads and picnicked beside lakes (with a few kidnappings and moy-dahs speckled in between). The newspapers, in bombastic prose, chronicled Barrow Gang bank robberies from Texas to Chicago, St. Louis and Missouri. According to the media, the Barrow Gang was a continental army, cutting the legs out from under the national economy. The American public was swept up in it, filling like the fabric of a hot air balloon with the flame heat of the newspapers’ bloviations. You can’t check facts, after all, if facts don’t exist.
Which brings me to the baseball hook. This week,word came down from the New York Times of the new digital eye technology, blowing open the Internet baseball conversation like the Barrow Gang bursting in on the local savings and loan. The multi-camera set-up will reportedly track anything that moves on the baseball field, in real time, and display the results as jauntily as a flash game. Every fielder’s speed and steps-taken will be counted, every square foot of a fielder’s range calibrated, every spat sunflower seed’s trajectory vectorized. Basically, the Great Unkowns of baseball analysis will soon be known; the White Whales will be poached. What lies just over the horizon–so close I can hear its mechanized joints lurching like Bigfoot screaming in the night–will strip the ballfield of its mystery. Players will be tracked like so many cod, caught, geo-tagged, and released into the wilds of free agency, emboldened by these oceans of data, or defenseless in the face of ’em.

If there’s one angle of the game that has eluded quantification and incited spirited consternation, it has been defense. Physics layered upon physics, the movement of the ball and fielders, range factors and expectations, good jumps and bad angles: it keeps sportscasters in business. This guy has the best first step in the game, that guy has a nose for the ball, this other fellow grows roots. Derek Jeter being the prime example, as old schoolers sing his praises and new-schoolers bemoan that praise. It’s a great argument, veritably political in the polarization, the play of regionalism and power structure. He’s a winner, screw the stats. Fielding stats are bunk anyway, I’ve watched him, I know. He’s the most overrated fielder in baseball history. Colorful threads in the loom of baseball discourse.

This new system could be the theory of everything, the unification of the big and the small, the micro and the macro. All questions could be answered, unraveling the textiles, the complicated, the confusing, but–to the human eye–the sublime and the satisfying tapestries that clothe of the National Pastime. Who belongs in the Hall of Fame? Just ask four-eyes over there in the corner with the dazed look and the reams of dot matrix print-outs spilling out on his lap.

Computers have taken over the world in part because they are mesmerizing tools, just fascinating to watch, and they answer questions that once seemed unanswerable. So that’s another kind of human majesty right there, and some of that may replace the emptiness that results from all of our questions getting answered. I love computers. I could watch the little digital eyes demo for hours.
But Bonnie and Clyde would never fly today. To be a bank robber in this modern world, you need a brain like a computer. Get cocky, holler out your name to a shopkeep, and you’re done before you started. To rob a bank today, you have to look into the Matrix, decipher its patterns, decode it, and deconstruct it; you’ve got to be postmodern. Braggadocio used to fill newspapers and books. Now it fills prisons (I know this because I’ve watched seven episodes of The First 48).
We may soon say the same of the general manager. Heck, we already do. But this next thing, this camera system, it’s the fucking Pinkertons, and the message board debates, the Jeter-gabbing and the Adam Dunn-bashing and all of that, those passionate unfounded conversations, they are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, telling stories and bathing in canyon pools while something smart and unstoppable tracks them, day and night, across the plains.

Bonnie and Clyde’s Hideout. Go nuts on this collection of photos and info.