Monthly Archive for July, 2009

The Pitchers & Poets Not-Quite Midseason Quiz

Wilton Guerrero

Hi, my name is Wilton. My brother is Vladmir.

Editor’s Note: This quiz will be open through the end of this weekend. So please submit your answers by Sunday night (July 26) for consideration in our completely meaningless “Best Of” follow-up post.

Sergio Leone & the Infield Fly Rule not only has the best name (and arguably best banner image) in the history of blogs, but makes great reading. Like fair trade coffee and the novels of William Faulkner, SLIFR takes a little while to get into. But if you have even the slightest interest in movies, it’s a must-read. The Quarterly Quizzes they do are especially awesome, so in the great tradition of blogs stealing ideas from other blogs, I give you a picture of Wilton Guerrero and the first ever Pitchers & Poets Not-Quite Midseason Quiz.

Please drop your answers in the comments. You don’t must, but we’d love to see you explain your choices. In fact, we’ll even post results with our favorite responses/rationales at a later date:

1. Excluding Rollie Fingers, who has the greatest facial hair in the history of the game?
2. Least enviable inferior big league brother. Example: Wilton Guerrero.
3. Dave Stieb or David Cone?
4. The game is on the line. You have to send a pitcher – any pitcher – to the plate. Who is it?
5. Favorite Casey Stengel managed ball club?
6. Bull Durham or Field of Dreams?
7. Best local broadcast crew, excluding your hometown/favorite team?
8. Least deserving Hall of Famer?
9. If you could resurrect one dislocated or disbanded franchise, which?
10. Most memorable instance of creative technique employed by manager in confrontation with umpire.

*Note: you don’t have to answer every question. You aren’t being graded.

Poem Of The Week: Stickball

This week’s poem (h/t Reeves — please click that link) meanders across a suffocating New York afternoon. We’re in the 40s or 50s in a working class neighborhood and the weather is scorching — I mean it’s Do The Right Thing hot outside. You’ll feel it in a second when you read the thing. Any poem that uses “bleachered” as a verb is alright with me, and this one, written by Chuck Sullivan and first published in Esquire,  sure does:

In the middlepoets_chuck sullivan baseball card
of the concrete heat
boys manning our
sneakered positions tarred
in the block’s summer field

We hustled out
fates into shape
on the city’s sweating face
in the lean, bouncing grace
of our broomstick, rubber ball game
bound by the sewers and parked cars
of our Outlaw Little League

While on the sidelines
dreaming in our cheers
the old men watched
bleachered on brownstone stoops
and iron fire escapes
making small book on the shadowy
skills of stickball stars
lost in the late-inning sun
of the stadiumed street’s
priceless, makeshift diamond

*Edited with another Ted Walker baseball card*

Baseball Mixtape: Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Words to win my heart: Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a bad motherfucker.

So begins this Dylan-esque tune by Jonathan Coulton, geek-folk troubadour. The lyrics weave their way from old Kenesaw himself, to Shoeless Joe Jackson, to the singer Joe Jackson — oft mistaken for Elvis Costello — of Is She Really Going Out With Him fame.

Thanks to Ted for the suggestion and the cool new Turntable logo.

Jonathan Coulton – Kenesaw Mountain Landis

****Programming Note: Pitchers & Poets is now on Facebook and we want to be your friends.****

 

Nate McLouth And The Modern Indentured Servitude

When I was young and green and full of vigor, I read the sports page every day before school. And by read I mean read through; I looked at the standings, the box scores, a few columns or articles, and finally the Transactions. The Transactions were always tucked somewhere amongst the horse racing odds and high school football scores – hidden in the crowded back pages. Some days it took longer to find the Transactions section than to read it.

There was something so nonchalant about the Transactions. The print was tiny; the language was terse and mechanical. No byline here: this was pure information, like you’d find in a box score, or the stocks page. All suspensions, signings, trades, and waiver wire claims are treated with the same banal objectivity.

After all, what’s a transaction but an exchange? St. James Place for B&O Railroad or $2.95 for a bottle of detergent – it’s all the same. In this context, Roy Halladay for prospects looks just like Joe Triple A for a Player to be Named Later.

monopoly-man-chance-card

There’s something both egalitarian and inhumane about the Transactions. In one sense, it’s only fair that all these moves get equal mention. To the teams involved, to the players whose lives are affected by a cross country trade or disheartening demotion, the newsworthiness of the transaction is completely irrelevant. But on the other hand, the offhandedness of it all, the blasé list of players swapped for one another as mere commodities reveals something kind of startling:

Trades, and the whole idea of trades, are really kind of insane.

Where else on earth can supposedly competitive entities, allegedly separate businesses, legally traffic in humans like they can in sports? What other environment would encourage something like that? Critics bang fantasy baseball for overlooking the human aspect of the sport, for reducing players to their statistics, but they forget something. Fantasy GMs are trading imaginary rights. Real GMs trade human beings.

It goes without saying that baseball is a business. But the existence of a financial bottom line does not preclude human emotion from its rightful place at the center of well, humanity. When the Pirates traded their best player, Nate McLouth, to Atlanta last month, we were all surprised. Teammate Adam LaRoche was a little more than that:

“It’s kind of like being with your platoon in a battle, and guys keep dropping around you. You keep hanging on, hanging on, and you’ve got to figure: How much longer till you sink? … I’ve still got to be in here telling guys it’s going to be fine with Nate gone. Well, you can only do that for so long until guys just kind of … well, they know.”

The war metaphor may be overwrought, and the rumors that Pittsburgh players held a candlelight vigil for their departed center fielder turned out to be false, but it seems obvious that beyond just baseball and business for the teams involved, the trade mattered on a human level to these guys. Not to mention the three prospects who packed it up from one minor league city to another, and their teammates, and their families, and so on.

We try to hold onto the things we can hold onto – the routines and the consistencies that define our lives. We need those to stay sane, to maintain the notion that we control at least some part of our destinies. The circumstances are obviously different for professional athletes – they are living a worldwide dream, making inconceivable amounts of money (at least at the highest levels), and achieving a kind of rare glory. In that context, the travel and the grueling seasons and the complete lack of control – one man’s fate (where he lives, who he works for) resting on the whim of another man – doesn’t seem so strange, or so undesirable.

I’m not here to lament the state of professional athletes because they get traded. It’s part of the game. We fans grew up with trades, with waiver wires, and disabled lists, and so did they. But it’s not for nothing that athletes covet No Trade Clauses. With the No Trade Clause, they are liberated from the fear and uncertainty of that Transactions section. They can start families, and at least for the length of their contracts, know that only by their own consent will that family be uprooted for job considerations.

This is not an argument for the elimination of trades – they are a vital part of what makes baseball and sport in general so compelling. I just find it strange, borderline illegal even, that such a system exists. And it could only exist, I suppose, in a realm of simulated competition like Major League Baseball, where the real (economic) battle isn’t between franchises on the field, but between baseball and other forms of entertainment.

Athletes are in a strange position. They are the most fundamental ingredient for major sports as we know them to exist. But in a business sense, they are expendable, they are products, albeit valuable products, on display. That it took so long for Free Agency to take hold is a testament to how skewed the system, with its antitrust exemption really is. If Curt Flood was a Well Paid Slave, does that make our current crop of athletes Well Paid Indentured Servants?

Poem Of The Week: Missoula Softball Tournament

This week’s poem is an ode to baseball at its most local and summer at its most hopeful by Richard Hugo, a great Seattle poet (and like Tim Lincecum and myself, a great UW Husky). Dig Missoula Softball Tournament, and this 1973 Topps edition of Richard Hugo, courtesy of Ted.

This summer, most friends out of townrichard hugo card
and no wind playing flash and dazzle
in the cottonwoods, music of the Clark Fork stale,
I’ve gone back to the old ways of defeat,
the softball field, familiar dust and thud,
pitcher winging drops and rises, and wives,
the beautiful wives in the stands, basic, used,
screeching runners home, infants unattended
in the dirt. A long triple sails into right center.
Two men on. Shouts from dugout: go, Ron, go.
Life is better run from. Distance to the fence,
both foul lines and dead center, is displayed.

I try to steal the tricky manager’s signs.
Is hit-and-run the pulling of the ear?
The ump gives pitchers too much low inside.
Injustice? Fraud? Ancient problems focus
in the heat. Bad hop on routine grounder.
Close play missed by the team you want to win.
Players from the first game, high on beer,
ride players in the field. Their laughter
falls short of the wall. Under lights, the moths
are momentary stars, and wives, the beautiful wives
in the stands now take the interest they once feigned,
oh, long ago, their marriage just begun, years
of helping husbands feel important just begun,
the scrimping, the anger brought home evenings
from degrading jobs. This poem goes out to them.
Is steal-of-home the touching of the heart?
Last pitch. A soft fly. A can of corn
the players say. Routine, like mornings,
like the week. They shake hands on the mound.
Nice grab on that shot to left. Good game. Good game.
Dust rotates in their headlight beams.
The wives, the beautiful wives are with their men.

TV: Watching an Episode of Baseball Tonight, All the Way Through

I don’t know if I’ve ever sat still and watched an entire episode of Baseball Tonight before. But on the 4th of July, at midnight, when I probably should have been out somewhere watching colorized, simulated cannonfire, I decided to do just that. These are my notes from that hour. Humble nod to Chuck Klosterman, who once in a fit of apparent insanity clearly watched 24 hours of VH1 Classic.

11:56 p.m. – Who else is watching Baseball Tonight at midnight on American Birthday: 2009? And of this minuscule party, what percentage is some number of sheets to the wind right now, prone on the couch with a hand on the carpet to stop the spins, hoping that some baseball highlights will usher them into a needed sleep? Will the anchors slow down their delivery a few beats per minute, to cater to this impaired demographic? Slightly unrelated inquiry: What would Peter Gammons be like drunk? I’m guessing the trade rumors and word-of-mouth insights would flow unfiltered, one insider baseball Jägerbomb after another, blowing the minds of anyone within a fifteen-foot circumference.

11:58 p.m. – I’ve tuned in at the conclusion of Sportscenter. First, SC undercuts the impact of the show that’s on in two minutes by offering a quick-burst highlight package of a few games, stuffing them into the broadcast in the waning minutes. Then it’s some Rick Reilly-style closing coverage of the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. The anchors went to fade-out by quizzing each other about hot dogs: “How many hot dogs could you eat?” Awkward search for a hilarious reply. “Ever been to Coney Island?” Nope. “Crunch time? This is MUNCH time.” “Did you know that 26 million hot dogs get eaten at baseball games every year?” And scene.

12:00 a.m. – The opening images of your Baseball Tonight feature Lou Gehrig’s heart-rending speech, being celebrated in MLB games across the country. BBTN shows a clip of the speech, but rather than simply showing it, they display it on a sort of simulated screen within a screen, as though the Gehrig speech was showing at a drive-in, and BBTN dispatched a cameraman to film it. Such is the nature of ESPN highlights programming these days, that they very badly want viewers to remember that they are watching something, that a major production is underway, that this is a Pretty Big Deal here. The Gehrig speech is always stirring, though, in a way the antithesis of the popping madness of the BBTN intro.

Well, it was sort of like this

Well, it was sort of like this

12:01 a.m. – The crew for this doubtless relatively unpopular time slot include anchor on the left Steve Berthiaume, in the middle former infielder Eric Young, and on your right former infielder Fernando Vina. Absent are the familiar BBTN heads, pro’s pro Karl Ravech, cantankerous defender of the Old Manner John Kruk, and the sober pro’s pro Peter Gammons. A meat sandwich on a pro’s pro bun. I don’t mean to suggest that Kruk is not professional–it’s a hard job and not anyone can do it–but he does seem to relish the role of the common man, as baseball’s most recent incarnation of the old archetype, the hidden hope that your average Jack might hide within him a formidable batting average.

Berthiaume strikes me as one grain in the sandstorm of rotating SC anchors. He hasn’t left me with an indelible impression. Eric Young, as a commentator, has a shrill voice and much enthusiasm, which I can’t fault. Vina’s facial hair makes me uncomfortable, and his style on TV is the same as it was on the field: serviceable, but a little stiff.

12:04 a.m. – Every MLB player and coach is wearing the special red USA baseball cap, regardless of team. An MLB.com article has this to say about it: “This promises to be the most patriotic display of an American baseball cap since Bruce Springsteen stuffed a red one into the back pocket of his blue jeans on the cover of his “Born in the U.S.A.” album nearly a quarter-century ago.” Which part of the titular ballad of a Vietnam vet do you think they have in mind? Is it: “Sent me off to Vietnam / To go and kill the yellow man”? Or perhaps: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary / Out by the gas fires of the refinery / I’m ten years down the road / Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go”? Maybe it was the penultimate refrain, which could just as easily describe the 2009 seasons of MLB veterans like Magglio Ordonez, Chien-Ming Wang or Jason Giambi: “I’m a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A.”

12:08 a.m. – In the first true batch of highlights, EY heralds Manny Ramirez’s first home run back from his hiatus with a cry of “souvenir city!” without any hint of irony. Vina praises his hustle, especially in the field. A Joe Torre interview quiets the BBTN ecstasy for a moment with a calm, reasoned post-game interview before the gang launches back into praise for Manny’s timing, and notes his standing on the all-time home run list (tied with Jimmie Foxx for 16th). Quoth one of them: “He is one of the greatest hitters of all time, that’s why we keep bringing this up.” I’m still waiting for the PED sideswipe (it will not arrive).

12:09 a.m. – The answer is no, the anchors do not augment the pace of their presentation for the drunk.

There’s an interesting dynamic on this and other MLB highlight shows, namely the MLB Network’s. The anchorman does what you’d consider to be traditional SC-style rundown that we’ve seen for years. The commentators, meanwhile–the retired pro ballplayer types–verbally hop around this way and that, injecting their hasty insights around the linear narrative of the anchor.

BBTN: The style is a kind of verbal pepper

BBTN: The style is a kind of verbal pepper

12:12 a.m. – Some Red Sox highlights. Berthiaume can’t believe what a bad inning Takashi Saito had. He really can’t believe it. His disbelief is fervent. One of them says, AAARrrdsma, pirate-style. Honestly, I thought Berthiaume would be the neutral one, the straight man, but he’s going on and on about Takashi-friend.

12:20 a.m. – Time for a rundown of the latest Mets melt-down, Independence Day Edition. Berthiaume is equally amazed at the suckiness of the Mets defense. “They’re throwing it all over the field here! This is Bad News Bears stuff!” Berthiaume is really doing a lot of editorializing here for the host-type moderator guy. “Howard is really becoming a better defensive first baseman.” He doesn’t seem content to let EY and Vina do the Little League-coach style barking.

Feature alert! They just froze a shot of Mets catcher Omir Santos. They zoomed in on his eyeballs, to somehow illustrate that he took his eyes off of a pop-up behind the plate. “Look at his eyes!” Vina’s shouting. “Where are his eyes?” The evidence as to the actual focus of Santos’ gaze is certainly not as cut-and-dry as Vina purports. The zoomed-in eyes are grainy and pixelated. Did I inadvertently flip over to Cheaters? I’m a little uncomfortable.

12:27 a.m. – SC commercials really are as funny now as they always have been. Who writes these?

12:32 a.m. – Tigers and Twins. Justin Morneau has a Fred McGriff-style helicopter follow through. Now there’s a great player that I NEVER see play. Morneau, ripping into another pitch. He literally hits exactly like the Crime Dog, from the stillness of his hands to the pace and follow-through of the swing. One reference I found to this phenomenon comes in a NYTimes piece on the batting stance guy, Gar Ryness: “In [Ryness] parlance, the former star Fred McGriff “Morneau’d it” at the end of his swing by curling his bat over his head in the style of Justin Morneau, the current Twins first baseman.” Why on earth McGriff Morneaus it, rather than Morneau McGriffing it, is something I will never Morneau.

McGriffin' it? Or Morneauin' it?

McGriffin' it? Or Morneauin' it?

12:36 a.m. – A new skill for the new baseball fan is to pick your fantasy team members out of the endless barrage of highlights. They pop out from the crowd like ex-girlfriends from a high school yearbook. For me, Edwin Jackson catches my eye, and Mike Napoli, etc., for no good reason beyond the fantasy angle.

12:39 a.m. – White Sox rookie Gordon Beckham face-plants on a headfirst slide into second, where his hands get caught on the dirt and no longer let him glide like Rickey along the surface of the dirt. I’m glad to know that what humiliated me as a 14-year-old can happen to a pro, albeit a youngster. Beckham then gets clocked by a baserunner, then he hits a homer. This after maybe 350 at bats in the minors.

12:41 a.m. – I am going strong. I’m not bored at all, and my general compulsion to change channels every 30 seconds remains at bay. There’s a feeling of satisfaction from actually watching the show, the way you would, say, an hour-long drama. I’m so used to the low commitment threshold of BBTN that this marriage is refreshingly stable. I don’t need to change channels, I’m solid. My dog, conversely, is dead asleep on the bed, dreaming about Fernando Vina’s goatee.

12:42 a.m. – A special feature! With the crack crew of former middle infielders at their disposal, the BBTN team will focus on the architecture of the 5-4-3 double play. Third-to-second-to-first. It’s about time some old jocks took to the simulation field. Oddly, EY and Berthiaume opt to leave their jackets on. Vina is the only one sans his coat, and as such he looks like he poorly judged his present company, like the kid who wears khakis and penny loafers to the pool party.

The demo was solid, a lot of talk about footwork. EY really winged the ball hard to Vina, though they were no more than ten feet apart. But Vina grabbed the screamer like it was nothing and finished off his phantom double whammy. Vina, having fake-doubled him off of fake-second base, real slaps Berthiaume on the ass and says, “thanks for coming.”

12:47 – A good way to keep me glued to BBTN: tease me with upcoming clips of Tim Lincecum throwing seven innings of sweetness.

12:52 – The episode starts to wind down with an array of summary-type segments, like That’s Nasty, in which they go through the strikeout hammers of the day (Timmy’s got a few of them), oohing and ahhing at the curveballs and the high and tight fastballs and what not. Then it’s on to Touch ‘Em All, with some impressive home runs of the day, and finally it’s the Web Gems, where BBTN now puts much of its branding stock. They keep score, now, which is charming while at the same time an empty sort of pleasure. A single great play is fine for TV, but it overlooks much of our baseball education of the past 5-10 years, that one great play does not make a great player. Add enough of them up, I suppose you’ve got something. But anyhow, it’s fun, and maybe I’m just getting a little melancholy as these wrap-ups portend the end of an era, the end of an hour.

12:59 – There you have it. I barely registered the hour, it flew by. Soon the dolphin-sounds that announce the beginning of SC will ring out in the galactic void of the transitional graphics. Steve, EY, Fernando, I can’t promise the same attentions ever again, but on this night, my hour was yours.

This evening's holy trinity

This evening's holy trinity

Happy Independence Day

From  Pitchers & Poets, Rick Monday, and the E Street Band:

Rick Monday, patriot

Rick Monday, patriot

The Coup of the Keyboard Gods

The Keyboard Gods wear moustaches

The Keyboard Gods wear moustaches

One recent web discovery of mine is the world of customized baseball cards, in which Photoshoppers and baseball card fans create the cards that they want to see, and share them with others. (I’ve even taken a few stabs myself).

As far as I can tell, the lively GooseJoak is the reigning Big Papi of the genre, driving as he has the creation of a totally new set of cards with contributors from all over the place. (Another notable is The Phillies Room and the Chachi Set, overlooked examples in the comments would be fantastic). Not until I began following these original works did I really think about what makes a baseball card great, even when I collected them as a kid. The DIY baseball card movement prizes the novelty of a card, the design, the photography, the humor, and the player stories (often times a handsome new card comes with a summary enjoyment of that player’s recent success and/or failures). And a fine moustachio gets the proper respect. Imagine a card, and that card can exist.

In addition to the original sets, there are scores of tribute cards around, with older card designs doctored up to depict current and recent players, to charming if slightly uncanny effect. Nostalgia gets a ratchet up, as new players–still young, not yet lost to time and entropy like the original occupants of that card’s housing–haunt the old, deeply familiar past designs. It’s like if Brad Pitt popped into Rick’s Place in high definition:

Brad Pitt pops in on Rick's Place

At the core of it, this custom card movement (let’s call it a movement, why not?) is a usurpation of the very traditional power structure represented by very traditional baseball cards. As with everything else in this New World, new media has thrown back the curtain on the supreme unalterable authority of the great and glorious Publisher. By compiling a complete and community-built baseball card set, and altering history and perception by re-purposing old card design, the movement is taking control of childhood, of nostalgia, and of the idea of collecting. Collecting and creating overlap, blurring the lines between buying and being. As The Phillies Room put it, “For the past several years, I’ve created my own Phillies cards. The major card companies no longer produce cards for players like Eric Bruntlett or Clay Condrey, so I took matters into my own hands.” Taking matters into one’s own hands sends marketers to the bathroom with a sour stomach.

[Aside: In the hands of the people, “baseball” cards have traveled to some interesting places. The Big Lebowski sets (master list here) has truly stirred the imagination. In Jeremy’s Custom Cards, a blogger is on an autobiographical journey via self-made trading cards. Cards with non-baseball subjects is hardly a new idea, but as of now there is an absence of the sort of formalized licensing restrictions, and new cards are produced instantly and they spread through a network of producers. When there are no limits between the producer and the consumer, the result is a very charming and anarchical pleasure loop. The Lebowski set in particular commemorates, like baseball cards, those moments when one feels part of a team. The Dude, Walter and Donny are after all the Bad News Bears (someone get to work on that card set, por favor) of marginal early nineties Los Angeles, struggling for survival and triumph not on the baseball field, but in a film noir wasteland.]

As little as I know on the topic, I sense that baseball card companies have been and are still attacking their market–in this attention-deprived modern age–with a GW Bush-style shock and awe approach. From jersey cards to autographs to bat chips to refractor hologram exploding gold-plated limited edition what-have-you, they are going bigger, rarer, and more expensive. Cards are rare as they leave the factory, valuable before anybody’s assessed their worth. Economist I am not, but it sounds to me like the same approach that the villainous sub-primers took to the housing market.

One interesting note that seems to acknowledge the new landscape: eTopps, a service (which I don’t entirely understand) that allows collectors to buy a card online, track its value, and sell it off again, without ever coming into physical contact with it. It seems to veer a little bit towards the cold and calculating (a reason I stopped collecting cards back in the 90s), like buying pork futures or some such. But at the same time any and all paper-based industries in this webby world of ours will need to view their operations in just such a novel manner. (You can have the cards delivered to you, after all…). And there’s also the magical mirage card, the Topps3DLive-something-or-other: when you put it in front of a webcam, a computer generated image pops up onscreen and plays little games.

Creepy dancing toys in the palm of your hand

Creepy dancing toys in the (virtual) palm of your (actual) hand

Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods has built a tour de force from the creative potential of baseball cards. With his own sort of usurpation, Wilker transforms his cards from an artifact of the player’s life and career and brand, to an artifact of his own emotional life. He reclaims a commercial product as a cultural one. We all do this, I think, but not so often with Wilker’s vehemence and frankness. The lowliest Cardboard Gods–that is to say those with the least commercial value–rise like zeppelins into the summer sky. Wilker’s work casts off the trappings of the market in favor of the flavors of life and of baseball, just like the custom card makers do as they–and only they–crown their Keyboard Gods.

Proceed with caution vis-a-vis the video below. It may drive you away from the traditional baseball card power structure forever. When I bailed on cards back in 1993 or so, I think in my recessed reptile brain I knew that the below apocalyptic dystopia was the inevitable endgame.