Monthly Archive for October, 2009

Obvious and Mysterious: An Intuitive Taxonomy of Pitching Watching

The first two World Series games have featured some fantastic starting pitching. Perplexing pitching, in which in one notable case the Great Baseball Equation–on one side the input of the pitcher and on the other the output of the hitter–doesn’t seem to the naked eye to balance out. In other words, what the pitcher is doing with the ball doesn’t seem to suggest the results, or lack thereof, produced by the hitters.

Cliff Lee’s start a couple of days ago was particularly impressive. As I watched him throw, though, I was struck with the strangeness of his dominance. Something about it didn’t register. What he was sending plateward didn’t seem to jive with the results. Hitters were puzzled by slowish fastballs up in the zone. Swing after swing missed the ball by what seemed like yards. Lee wasn’t throwing 98, and he didn’t feature a prime-Zito curve or a prime-Clemens splitter or a prime-Lidge slider.

That got me thinking about the sort of fine pitching performances that you see, and what it is that you’re seeing. I came up with two basic categories of pitching greatness: the obvious and the mysterious.

Moby Dick

Obviously Great Pitching

Billy Wagner threw the ball a hunnerd miles an hour. I once saw Vinny Castilla jack a high fastball into the seats, but few hitters he faced could get the bat around quick enough to touch one. The heavy fastball is the most obvious of all difficulties: less time to react, etc.

Lots of pitchers build off of a great fastball with a second and third pitch the effectiveness of which is pretty clear. Smoltz and his killer slider; Clemens and a trap door split-finger; Pedro Martinez and his big curveball. There are many examples. The pitchers beat hitters with high cheese above the zone, and with bottoming-out breaking stuff that hooks back into the zone.

Obviously Great Pitching is the viewer’s innate sense that the pitcher has outgunned the hitter, that talent and mastery from the mound has out-dueled talent and mastery at the plate.

Note: it’s clearly an inexact science, this exercise. What I’m going on more than anything is the fan’s mental register of what s/he’s watching, in an attempt to label a phenomenon that is fleeting and imprecise.

Which brings us to the converse, which I believe was on display while Cliff Lee made Alex Rodriguez and company flail like Little Leaguers through the course of twenty seven outs:

orient expressMysteriously Great Pitching

Pitching is at its core an exercise in deception. “He was fooled on that pitch,” is a key phrase in describing the contest between pitcher and hitter. The best pitchers use the exact same arm slot and body action for each of their various pitches, such that a hitter is unable to use the few milliseconds given him to determine what the baseball will do on its way to the plate.

This may sound like an obvious statement, but clearly there are situations in which a lower degree of deception can be compensated for with a higher degree of pure stuff, as in the case of Billy Wagner and his fastball. You know it’s coming, but it’s still so hard to hit that the deception factor is mitigated.

Mysteriously Great Pitchers, on the other hand, are masters of a far more elusive art, which is to say capitalizing on pitches that taken on their own are relatively benign, until they are deployed in varying sequences and rhythms and speeds and locations. You could call it Highly Contextual Pitching. All pitching is contextual, of course, but these mystery pitchers seem to grasp the sense of the whole, of each batter as a code to break, rather than a bat to miss.

Jamie Moyer has survived for years moving between 69- and 82-mph, as perhaps the finest example of the beguilingly contextual master (2009 excepted, perhaps). Greg Maddux, throwing hula hoops and slinkies and UFOs, simply embarrassed the best by exploiting their most vulnerable traits, manipulating tendencies and insecurities like Hannibal Lector. Tom Glavine used to do the same, inching his way from the plate with change-ups until batters and umpires each lost a sense of where the strike zone should have been.

Success, for these pitchers, is not a matter of winning each pitch as much as it is a matter of shaving away each hitter’s confidence with each pitch, until the line between what just happened and what will soon happen is blurred and pitching like a small boat on a big ocean. The mystery comes from the fact that you can’t see any of this. It’s all on the inside. Only the outcome shows.

Repeatedly during Cliff Lee’s Game One, I simply couldn’t understand how his pitches were succeeding so profoundly. 87-mph cutters letter-high were getting big dramatic swing-throughs from elite hitters. 84-mph something-or-others garnered the same. In a wrap-up on MLB.com Jim Duquette referred to Lee “controlling bat speed.” And just so: instead of the pitch that he wanted to throw, Lee seemed to be throwing the pitch that the bats wanted to miss.

“You gotta be unpredictable,” Lee told a microphone afterwards. “You’ve gotta show ’em stuff they haven’t seen before. Don’t get in patterns.”

nostradums

As you’ll never get a dot matrix-printed readout of a hitter’s thought processes, his conscious and subconscious mental calculations, or his fast-twitch tendencies, it’s impossible to know why he’s missed a pitch that appears otherwise eminently hittable. But in a great pitching performance, the pitcher himself seems to have some deep knowledge of all of these factors. You want “this,” thinks the pitcher. Therefore I will make you think that “this” is what you’re getting, but instead it will be “that.”

2.5 hours later, those hitters will grudgingly praise the pitcher’s mix of pitches, his command, his stuff. But no simple terminology can capture what has happened, the depth of the accomplishment. Describe a sunset or a break-up in 10-second bullet points and you’ll find as much success.

Postscript

If an at-bat was a piece of writing, a literary endeavor, then the Obviously Great Pitcher is Jack Kerouac, bellowing his intentions proudly and shamelessly (Kerouac’s “Greatness” is perhaps open to debate, but you get the idea). The Mysteriously Great Pitcher, then, is Vladimir Nabokov, trading on the reader/hitter’s sense of expectation, undermining that preconceived notion of what “should” happen by presenting something that seems plausible but that proves in the end to be a mirage, a narrator whose credibility begins to fray at the edges, or a change-up that fades tragically from the strike zone.

On the Road cover

nabokov

PnP’s Ill-Advised Prognistications: 2009 World Series Edition

Here at Pitchers and Poets, we make little claim to insider baseball knowledge, tireless analysis, or sabermetric wizardry. As such, we’re about as qualified to break down a series as we are to fix the hitch in Alfonso Soriano’s swing or repair the windshield wipers on your Saab. But if we let a lack of insight or knowledge stop us, we wouldn’t be here today.

So on with the World Series predictions!

Zoltar from Big

Yankees:

Hero

Eric: As much A-Rod harping as I’ve done this postseason, I think this series comes down to the bottoms of the orders. This, to me, is where the Yankees really separate themselves. I think Robinson Cano will do something crazy and awesome. He was almost as good with the bat as Utley this year.

Ted: C.C. Sabathia will win a couple of games in a dominating fashion. He’s riding the wave of new vitality a year gone from the Brewers sending him out three nights a week to throw 13 innings at a time.

Goat

Eric: I really don’t trust AJ Burnett in any situation. That includes our personal lives.

Ted: Any Yankees reliever whose cousin isn’t Ruben Rivera.

Etc.

Eric: Before the series is over George Steinbrenner will emerge from his cavernous hiding space and make headlines by accusing Ryan Howard of rampant steroid use.

Ted: In the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game, down by a run with a man on first and two outs, the Yankees will send out their secret pinch-hitter: Joe Torre.

George Steinbrenner

Phillies:

Hero

Eric: Jayson Werth continues to be one of baseball’s most underrated players. He is so tall, and his soul patch is so strong, that there’s really no stopping him. I expect Werth to hit a home run off Joba Chamberlain in a key late-inning situation.

Ted: Ryan Howard’s offseason nutritional regimen doesn’t get as much pub as The Petit Prince’s vegetarianism, but Ryan’s slim, trim, and energized enough to keep slugging away. He is the star, and he will continue to be the star for the Phillies. Big fella hit a triple; anything is possible.

Jayson Werth

Goat

Eric: Charlie Manuel, who in another life could have been a paternalistic judge or attorney in a John Grisham novel, will do something silly. He’ll probably leave Pedro Martinez in a game too long. Managers do that against the Yankees.

Ted: BRAD LIDGE BRAD LIDGE BRAD LIDGE.

Etc.

Eric: Shane Victorino will be awkwardly mistaken for a male escort while wandering through the lower east side. A hilarious sitcom-like outcome will ensue.

Ted: Disapproving of Nick Swisher’s childish antics and lack of respect, Puritanical southpaw Cliff Lee will bean him in the lower back. Lee will later refer to the pitch as The Two-Seamer of Almighty Retribution.

Overall:

Eric: As I said in the NY Daily News interview: Yankees in six, A-Rod hits 11 homers.

Ted: The Yankees won in seven games two weeks ago. Derek Jeter hit 6,000 pitches the opposite way, forcing a reversal of the earth’s orbit and sending us all back in time. Welcome to the future.

Derek Jeter

Frickin’ A-Rod or: How I Learned to Stop Wallowing and Grudingly Support the Yankees

Rooting for the bad guy always sounds so good in theory; there is a sexy excitement to the whole thing, a contrarian pride, and a Clint Eastwood danger. But in practice, it never works. At the movies, you find yourself unable to shake the momentum of the action, somehow hinged to the values of the hero, reasonably off put by the villainous secrecy, shady Russian accents, and grandiose threats of the bad guys. Somehow, you always come home to the good guy.

But this is baseball. And the lines aren’t so clear. And the winners aren’t scripted. So when I tell you that in this World Series I am rooting for the Yankees, I don’t expect that to change. No doubt the Yankees are the bad guys: George Steinbrenner as a grumpier Auric Goldfinger and Ryan Howard as James Bond. The Yankees represent everything evil about baseball – the monolithic corporate model, the financial gluttony, the designated hitter rule – and yet I find myself, thrust by the violent and unexpected winds of time into their corner.

Maybe thrust is the wrong word. This has been a slow process. My hatred for the Yankees has certainly faded in recent years. It’s a well documented fact; it confounds my friends and absolutely infuriates my girlfriend. But how did a cooling of hatreds morph into an unabashed rooting interest? What chain of cosmic calamities could have made a Yankees fan of me?

1. Childhood fascination with old Yankee legends

I spent a great deal of my childhood reading baseball books, especially biographies. Many of these books documented Yankee stars: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and especially Mantle were pillars of my childhood. And as much as I hated the 90s Yankees of that childhood (and names like O’Neill, Boggs, and Brosius still send a shiver down my spine) there was always a disconnect between those Yankees and the Yankees. I did not realize this until quite recently, but because of the books, because of the history, my loathing for the Yankees never went beyond those specific teams and the culture surrounding them. It never extended to the franchise in its entirety.

2. Living in New York City

Before I moved to Brooklyn, I had this image of Yankee fans as self-righteous, greedy, and pompous. But even at the Yankee game I went to, I didn’t see this. Sure, Yankee fans are brash. But people in New York City are brash. That’s just the way it is. I had also always associated the Yankees with a more upper crust fan base. Intrinsically, I figured the Yankees to be the wealthy man’s team and the Mets to be the working-class team. This may be true to a point, but I don’t know that. I didn’t see it. Small sample size example: the dudes on my softball team, who were mostly tow truck drivers, were split down the middle: half Yankees and half Mets.

3. The rise of the Red Sox and awful Boston sports fans.

Along those same lines, Boston fans have really emerged has the epitome of the self-satisfied, bragging, obnoxious sports fans. Part of this has to do with winning a lot, and you can’t really begrudge them that. But it’s still annoying. The Red Sox, in many ways, have come to represent the same thing as those 90s Yankees teams. Bill Simmons and co. have made me, at the very least, more sympathetic to the Yankee cause.

4. My weird Alex Rodriguez fascination.

In the early months of this blog, I wrote a threepiece series wondering if Alex Rodriguez was a tragic hero in the Shakespearian sense. It was a bloated, meandering, and borderline pretentious essay. But the sentiment from whence it came remains valid. Excerpt:

I’ve lived in New York for two months. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this city it’s that people here absolutely despise Alex Rodriguez. It’s more than steroids hatred, or sucking in the postseason hatred, or trying to usurp heartthrob Jeter’s iconic place status. No, this is a kind of weird personal fetishistic hatred. I’m not sure if it starts in the media and spreads to the man on the street or vice versa, but listening for A-Rod banter in the Subway and reading the tabloid headlines off newsstands has become a hobby of mine. The A-Rod chatter has sunk to the point where people are merely disagreeing over how much and why they dislike the guy.

The act of writing those posts got me invested in A-Rod. I wanted to see him succeed just for the sake of tracking his image, his legacy. The hatred from New Yorkers just didn’t seem just. So I began to root for him, not in the interest of redemption, but in the interest of a break. The guy just needed a little space, a little room to breathe, little time to just be.

So yeah, I like A-Rod. I want him to do well.

5. The Dodgers lose to the Phillies consecutive years in the NLCS.

Okay fine. This post could have been three sentences long. It may be petty, but at this point I wish to inflict all human misery on Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Chase Utley, Ryan Madson, and pretty much every resident of Philadelphia. Never underestimate the power of bitter frustration.

Ted and I have talked a lot lately about what a free-floating fan is supposed to do during the playoffs. These are strange times for the non-Yankee non-Philly fans among us.  While we haven’t reached any profound conclusions as to how to behave in these end days, we can at least consider what makes us tick, what factors dig us in, get us invested. For me it is a combination of geography, childhood experience, and player intrigue (which really amounts to cheering for the narrative). But above all that, it is a savage desire to see the team who wounded me feel a similar, burning pain.  And maybe that’s the real allure of the bad guy. Honor be damned. Maybe deep down in all of us there’s an unquenchable thirst for revenge.

What do you guys think? Everybody’s gotta root for somebody. So what biases played into your decision. Is it friends? Is it revenge?

[awesome Greenpoint photo via flickr user svar]

PnP Conversations: Of Men and Robots

Ted: You okay, buddy? Clearly this year’s playoffs have spurred in you a Van Gogh-esque creativity, as evidenced by Fernando’s Tears in the header image (Fernando’s Tears is a great name for a blog about dejected playoff exitees).

Eric: I”m okay, actually. The aftermath of Monday’s game was much worse for me than yesterday’s. If Game 4 was an unexpected knife wound to the stomach, Game 5 was a controlled bloodletting. There is actually a sense of weird psychic relief for me right now; this postseason run, more than any I can remember, really wrapped me up emotionally. Perhaps it was the fact that I had spent the past six months blogging about baseball. Perhaps it was that last year at this time, I was working 90+ hour weeks a political campaign and just didn’t have the time/emotional energy to get wrapped up in baseball. Either way, I sort of feel like I just passed a bladder stone. It was painful. And I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But the worst is over. Plus, I’ll realize in a few weeks that this was, on balance, a great season to be a Dodger fan.

Now to you: Who do you got in the World Series? Yankees (may Angels?) or Phillies? Or are you just rooting for the umpires at this point?

Ted: That’s a really good point. I went through an era in Astros baseball that was full of the emotion that you describe, including a trip to the World Series in ’05. The playoffs for a committed fan are intense. Every pitch offers the possibility of annihilation. It is the antithesis of the lazy Sunday afternoon regular season game, in which the lulls and gales of one game are rhythmic and calming. The playoffs feel like a constant 60-knot blow, and as a fan you’re a lowly midshipman, gripping the rigging tight with every lurch of the ship and watching your captain navigate without your input. When it’s over, your hands are raw, your eyes bloodshot.
In the last few years, my team has been nowhere close. It keeps me calm, and lets me look outward a bit more, something like the old timer spinning yarns in some port-town saloon, telling tall tales of turbulent times from a becalmed bar stool. I’m not saying I don’t want to set sail again, but I can appreciate the decreased blood pressure that comes with time ashore. To switch metaphors to something more appropriate to your last year’s experience: for the last few years, I’ve been the Al Gore of baseball fans, and you are the Sarah Palin. Rogue!

I’m all Yanks at this point. It’s come to that. I’m enjoying the successes of a strong baseball team. The Phillies have their charms, without question. They are a strong team themselves, and Lidge’s rejuvenation is thrilling to watch. But I can’t help being–with a fluttering attention span that is all-too-typical for me–a little tired of the Phillies. They won it all last year, obviously, and there’s something great about repeating, but a repeat team is inherently less interesting than a newcomer, if you can call the Yanks newcomers.

I’m glad you have the right perspective–a great season to be a fan. Baseball is competitive as all hell. It’s hard to get into the playoffs, and it’s hard to win even one series. The competition itself must be the reward. The win-only mentality is like staking your happiness on the nightly lottery numbers. (Easy for me to say.) When we’re not a fan of either team, we watch for the competition, the struggle, that shines out the trappings of laundry.

Though I haven’t touched on it, I’ll change lanes and ask you about what you brought up: what about the umpires? Do they piss you off, or is human error compelling? Are the stakes too high for mistakes? Should we expect perfection on every pitch?

Eric: You know Ted, I have always thought of you as the grizzled Simpsonsesque Sea Captain of the blogosphere. I like that metaphor. But the Al Gore/Sarah Palin thing is lost on me. If anything, we’re both Al Gore. I’m strung out post-2000 Al Gore with a beard and an identity crisis. You are the settled-in, wise Al Gore with a Nobel Peace Prize and a sense of greater purpose.

I’m going to skip most of the Yankes/Phils stuff because I have a post on that coming soon. But the Lidge rejuvenation is a story I’ve been kind of blind to. I suppose if I was to really pull emotions out of it, I’d be happy for the guy. Hell, I am happy for the guy. He’s not a head case necessarily, but he’s the perfect example of how baseball is 90% mental and half physical. He’s at once dominant and vulnerable. There’s a lot wrapped up in Lidge.

As far as the umpires, it hasn’t really pissed me off. I generally think the stakes are never too high for mistakes — after all, it’s merely a baseball game. The range of emotions an umpire can elicit amazes me. After all, we’re talking not about shit going down in hospital rooms or the annals of the New York Stock Exchange or the halls of the US Capitol. We’re talking about a few mistakes that may or may not determine the outcome of a baseball game. The holier than thou cries for robotic intervention amuse me more than anything. Perfection is something to strive for, but it’s not attainable. Ever. Not by man or robot. (I never thought I would find myself writing a sentence like that on this blog. We’ve really turned into an Isaac Asimov society this postseason). So my opinion on the umpires is this: it sucks when they make mistakes, but it’s going to happen, it’s going to give us something to talk about, and it’s really not that big of a deal.

I read somewhere, I can’t remember where, an article about West Coast teams losing in postseason games played in East Coast ballparks; something about the warm weather/cold weather factor. This is something we talk about a lot in football. And we just saw it with the Dodgers and Angels. Do you think it’s temperature that causes those teams to lose in the big bad Northeast? Or is it something else? I don’t really buy any arguments about “intensity” and “pressure” and “playoff atmospheres.” Baseball is baseball. Or maybe it isn’t?

Ted: I’m with you all the way on umpires, I have nothing to add but my support. And By Man or Robot should be a Will Smith movie.

Cold weather baseball blows. It hurts. It’s annoying as hell. I can’t even imagine mis-hitting a baseball with a wooden bat. Well, I can imagine it, and it’s something like grabbing an electric fence with both hands. I think there are players who are better at blocking out the sheer aggravation that comes from playing a summer sport in chilly weather. Some can’t block out the potential hand-numbing stinger that lurks around every corner. It’s got to have an impact, but no one in their right mind would admit to it. Hints might come from which players is wearing the more ridiculous facemask on the field. Clearly, for those players, warming up their ears is worth wearing the most ridiculous of field costumery. I’d like to see a study of statistics as they correlate to the temperature-to-headwear-to-performance ratio. You show me a middle infielder with a full ninja mask in 45 degrees, and I’ll show you the Mendoza Line.

Eric: I agree. It hurts to play baseball in the cold. I’ve done it too, and it’s not fun. Then again you are from Houston and I am from Los Angeles. We are, for all of our lives’ journeys, sunshine boys. I remember a David Justice card from my youth in which he is wearing the Ninja Mask. It always made me laugh. Why would anybody wear something so silly, I thought to myself, staring out the window at another 78 degree November afternoon.

PnP Conversations: Horse-Hopping and Lid Popping

standing cat

Eric: So talk me down a little bit. Last night was very nearly a sit in your bedroom in the dark drinking a twelve pack and listening to the same Wilco record for six hours type of night. Somehow, I pulled through. Lean On Me came over the radio in the car as I drove home from the bar. Perspective doesn’t really work in those situations, but maybe a little bit of tenderness, a little bit of soul music does.

Anyway, after games like last night’s, and really an entire shattering weekend of sports, I begin to question the role fandom has in my life. Maybe it’s just a weird reaction. I intellectualize to cope. So here’s the question: Is it worth it? Fandom is 90 percent misery. You open a bit of your heart only to have it whacked across the room by a man with a 33 inch Louisville Slugger. So what are we doing? Why do we put ourselves through it — after all, the identities of these teams are arbitrary. Seinfeld said we’re rooting for laundry. If not that, geography? But you and I both choose not to live in the cities of our favorite baseball teams. What the hell, Ted?

Ted: Eric, it’s gonna be alright. Everything’s gonna be oooooo-kay. What you have described to me are not only the trappings of fandom, but also the trappings of love. Since the dawn of time (an era very accurately depicted by Jack Black and Michael Cera in Year One) man has hurled himself into emotionally risky situations. Simply put, it’s worth it. The risk of engagement is worth a) the crush of disappoint and more importantly b) the thrill of victory. You know it with the rush endorphines on that first kiss, and you know it when your team clinches the playoffs and maybe if the gods are with you the World Series. This is what we humans do. Besides, what else is there? Chess in the park? Maybe you’d prefer to be a human battery in the Matrix? Incidentally, I’ve been doing some pretty serious conspiracy theory research, and one alien expert in the 90s described humans in relationship to the alien species that live under the earth as being “bags of food.” So things could be worse, and they are, according to this guy (editor’s note: he was also a racist and sexist and totally insane). In this context, I’ll restate it to say that we are bags of food to the species of anxiety, doubt, pleasure, and purpose that live in our brains.

So, like I would say to a buddy who feels tremors in the foundations of his relationship with a high school sweetheart: just take a deep breath, it might not be as bad as it seems. Things can turn around, you’re being overdramatic. Do some pushups, write a letter to Vin Scully. You know, things that make you feel good. Anyway, it’s only a 2-game deficit. It’s not over yet.

Okay, now that you’re back: I talked to a guy the other night who thought that CC was going to fall apart under the pressure of the playoffs. He’s looked pretty great so far, and this guy totally agreed with me about Posada and Molina, so he seems smart. Thoughts? And this postseason continues to offer up some really special game-winning hits and circus tricks, no?

And well, alright, I’ll turn the dagger again: as a fan, would you rather lose a blowout or a game-losing hit, a la Rollins last night? Sorry. Just answer the question.

alien_beach

Eric: You are one cruel SOB. You remove the machete from my chest with gentle precision, only to turn and giggle to your friends on the other side of the room, and then shove it back in three inches deeper. But I will answer your questions. In the immediate aftermath, the walkoff loss a la Rollins is much worse. But then with a little perspective, you realize that there’s a lot less shame in that kind of loss. Also, with that kind of loss means you actually got to enjoy a baseball game for three hours, whereas with the the blowout, there’s no pleasure to be found at any point. So in retrospect, I’ll take the hard-fought heart breaker. Those kinds of losses are what it takes, I suppose, to remind a man that good or bad he is more than just a giant bag of food.

Anyway, when it comes to the Yankees, it sounds like your friend is, no offense, an idiot. What on earth would make him think that CC would suck in the postseason? One bad start with the Brewers? He handled the pressures of being a New Yankee this year with even more than his usual heavy grace, and once you get that done it really ain’t so hard. Postseason? To a guy with his stuff/confidence? Whatever says old CC.

One of my favorite parts of the playoffs in any sport is deciding who to root for as the scenarios unfold. We’re down to 4 teams now. 1 of whom I adore, and 3 of whom i abhor. If things go badly Wednesday (or Friday or Saturday), I’ll have to take stock. I think I previously asked how you pick a team with no horse in the race. When the one you’re riding drowns, you’re given no choice but to change horses in midstream. How do you switch? NL/AL loyalty? Geography? Random prejudice?

Ted: When picking a new playoff team to root for, there are two distinct options: 1) you root for the team that beat you. When they win, you can say that you were beaten by the best, or 2) you root for every other team, as an act of petty revenge.

For the record, I disagreed with this guy about C.C., but it was one of the more controversial statements I’d heard in some time. Also, he is a Red Sox fan. But also, he admitted that he was a huge fan of Posada and Mariano Rivera. And he was from Panama, so when he said the names Posada and Rivera it sounded fantastically musical and lent a certain weight to his arguments (which I agreed with anyway). Also, he told me never to tell any of his friends that he said any of that, except the C.C. part. So his assertion that C.C. would flop may have been an overcompensation for his clear affinity for other prominent Bombers. These things are complicated.

To pursue the tangent, is there a better baseball conversation than one in which one of the participant says something ridiculous and totally wrong? You can see it in their eyes, the lighting of the fuse and the watching while you blow your lid. And you are happy to oblige and go ballistic with streams of logic and aesthetic argument. This friend is unlikely to bend or he wouldn’t have lobbed the original blaspheme to begin with.

monte cristo comic

Eric: When picking a new playoff team to root for, I normally choose option 1. But this year, if it comes to it, I will pick option 2. Petty revenge is hard to beat.

And those baseball conversations, yes, they descend like gifts from the heavens. Intellectual supremacy at our fingertips, to be picked like a low-hanging apple at the end of Autumn. You can blow your lid, and just wipe the floor with the guy, you can remain calm and mock him quietly, you can just tell him plainly that he’s wrong. There are so many ways to assert ones superiority when chatting with the immensely incorrect. Good times.

PnP Book Review: Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America’s Pastime

In Robert Graves’ fictional memoir of the bumbling Roman emperor’s assent to power, I Claudius, the title character finds himself in a library with two of his era’s most prominent historians. Just a teenager at the time, Claudius gets into an awkward situation. The two rival historians, Pollio and Livy, press young Claudius to declare which of them is superior. Who’s the best historian in Rome? Claudius answers diplomatically: He says that if you value presentation and language, Livy is the greatest. But if you value interpretation of fact, Pollio is superior.

Game Six, Mark Frost’s history of the penultimate game of 1975’s World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds, seems to find itself squarely in Livy’s camp. The book’s unique and ambitious form – taking us through the game pitch by pitch and interspersing background stories between plays – might well be the best way to write about a single sporting event. Unfortunately, the execution of this form results in a plodding book that feels longer than any extra-inning baseball game.

Frost does not outwardly disregard truth and accuracy for the sake of the story; Game Six is exceptionally detailed and well-researched. It’s just that Frost does not let sourcing or subtleties get in the way of his literary concerns. Attempts to heighten the drama, such as using italics to place readers in the minds of players, go without explanation and become clumsy disruptions. The reader is left wondering whether Frost learned what the player was thinking via interview, or whether he is merely abusing his literary license.

Indeed, the book’s undoing is not Frost’s prose, but the way he flexes his authorial presence. In addition to the use of italics, Frost finds odd and unexpected ways to insert himself and his values into the narrative. One player, mentioned in passing, is accused of living an “unexamined life.” Carl Yastrzemski, meanwhile, steps to bat with “more sheer guts and gritty work ethic than any man who ever played the game.” Guts and gritty work ethic are obviously unquantifiable, yet Frost employs such intangibles to evaluate players as casually as another writer might use On Base Percentage (which Frost does use after a clumsy page-long explanation of the statistic). The hyperbole and the repeated harping on old school baseball values make a tried and true old school baseball book out of what could have otherwise been a fresh entry into the genre.

Game Six is a difficult to review because it seems to reach in so many different directions. Foremost is the action of the game, which carries the narrative momentum forward, and even constantly broken up by various back stories, manages to maintain coherence. Frost writes in enough detail, and with enough perspective, that even taken alone, the game sequences would never be mistaken for a newspaper recap. His description of Carlton Fisk’s famous twelfth-inning home run, allotted an entire chapter, merits a special mention for its lyricism.

Then there are the various back stories. If the action of the game is the book’s engine, then these histories are its cargo. They are what make Game Six valuable, but also at times what make it unbearably weighty. These are histories of commentators and coaches, players and owners, even of the franchises, their cities, and of baseball itself dating back to the 19th century. Their goal is a raising of the stakes. Framed by all these things, the game is meant to take on greater significance. But while none of the stories seem extraneous, their vitality and immediacy are inconsistent; some lend urgency to the action on the field, others are merely anecdotal.

The most notable back story, and the one that occupies the largest part of the book, is that of Cuban born pitcher Luis Tiant, who started the game for Boston. The sections on Tiant are splendidly detailed, humorous, and soulful. It almost seemed as if half-way through the writing of Game Six, Frost realized that the project he should have embarked upon from the start was a Tiant biography. And for all the problems presented by this one, so great is the author’s affection for Tiant that I will go ahead and preemptively recommend El Tiante by Mark Frost, to be released by Hyperion in 2012, despite its likely propensity for sappiness. (Seriously, somebody needs to write a Tiant bio).

The affection Frost has for his subjects, with the exceptions of Boston manager Darrell Johnson, broadcaster Joe Garagiola, and a few bench players, is also part of the book’s downfall. Everybody is a good guy and it’s hard to create a tense story or engage readers when readers are given a reason to root for essentially every character. Even then-Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, a notable racist, gets away with little more than an offhanded slap on the wrist. But then again, this reader is a Dodger fan, with no particular interest in either the Red Sox or the Reds. Boston fans might have very strong feelings about Johnny Bench, and Reds fans might feel the same way about Fisk.

But therein lays the Game Six’s ultimate flaw. It is exceedingly difficult to make one of the most discussed and replayed moments in baseball history seem brand new, to make old rivalries burn hot. Before picking up the book, a reader knows that Fisk’s home run will crash into the foul pole and that 24 hours after that, the entire city of Boston will be deflated by a Joe Morgan single.

It is possible to render the past, as the Roman historian Livy did, with literary verve. But for a variety of little reasons more than any overarching one, Frost is unable to lift Game Six from the ever-growing pile of generic baseball histories. It stands apart in ambition, – the form, the detail, the specificity are all admirable– but not in execution, as the story is bogged down in traditionalism, sentimentality, and bizarre choices.

PnP Conversations: The Balanced Equation and Variables

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Ted: So, Eric, what’s the most compelling storyline for you going into the next round of the playoffs? The impact of Nick A.? The charisma of Andre E.? The Yankees and their undeniable goodness? It’s down to four of the most competent teams in the league now. What jumps out at you?

Eric: No surprise that for me it’s Dodger-centric, but not the way it should be. Tonight should be all about Clayton Kershaw’s full immersion in the limelight. Unfortunately all that light, and perhaps all the sun over Chavez Ravine is clouded by the weird and sad and kind of juicy news that Dodger owners Frank and Jamie McCourt are splitting up. Could this story have broken at a worse time? Reports are that the split has already created front office fault lines and that the divorce could throw the future of the team’s ownership into doubt.

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How much does this actually have an impact on the players and coaches? I don’t see this storyline as an obstacle per say–Joe Torre knows a thing or two about overcoming kooky ownership situations– but it does throw a bit of rain on the Dodgers’ so-far smooth postseason. You mentioned Adenhart briefly in your question. So I’d like to follow up with this: With such small margins for error, and four balanced clubs remaining, do off-the-field events have a meaningful impact between the lines?

Ted: I think there’s a distinction to be made between off-the-field events and team mojo. One can certainly impact the other, as we’re seeing with the Angels, and really the determinate is how such an event makes the team feel. If I can cite my own meager baseball career for a minute, there’s a big difference between a team that shares a collective goal and a team full of players working basically on their own. What coalesces a team might be the random chance of personality, as we’ve seen with the 2005 White Sox and the 2004 Red Sox, or an external something-or-other like the Adenhart situation. You can easily punch holes in this lovey dovey assessment, but when it comes down to it, the theme of these conversations has been the craziness of the playoffs, and team chemistry has a remarkable way of making interesting, unexpected things happen.

Either way, it’s a necessity, that collective vibe, so I will say yes, external events do matter, as they apply to a team coming together. For the record, no, that divorce thing will have no impact on anything but the children.

That said, another recurring theme is that individual players catch fire. Kershaw is a great example of a young gun who as they say doesn’t know any better than to pitch his game. Last year’s Hamels, perhaps (and we’ll see tonight if that’s true). The Phillies ooze confidence and well-roundedness as a team. Kershaw, the young and hungry, will face a team full of postseason experience and confidence (Lidge being the very important exception, though his confidence seems to be budding at the right time).

You know, I just thought of something, which includes the ruinous act of “looking ahead”: what about a World Series between the Yanks and Joe Torre?!? How sweet would that be….Thoughts? (though I’d be a little shocked if you were willing to draw back your gaze away from this one game tonight.

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Eric: I agree with everything you said right there, so I’ll just go ahead ans answer your question. As scared as I am to speculate beyond Clayton Kershaw’s first pitch of the first inning tonight, I do think a Yanks-Dodgers series would be sweet. I also think an Angels-Dodgers series would be sweet. From my decidedly western coast and LA-native perspective, by far the two most compelling storylines involve the Dodgers reaching the World Series. That said, the Phils defending their title against the once-again-colossal Yankees would be great, as would seven games between the Phils and the emotionally charged Angels. If you don’t have a horse left in this race, I don’t think you can lose. You’re gonna get a great show.

Now that my gaze has been drawn back, I’m a little overwhelmed by possibilities. I try to keep a steady perspective. The Dodgers will win or they will lose. There is absolutely no way to accurately predict which of those two results will occur, and all speculation is worthless. I just need to be satisfied with the knowledge that they are capable of winning a seven game series against any team. It’s hard, but that’s what I need to do.

But with that out of the way, let’s turn it over to the AL for a moment. Most folks I talk to seem to have handed this series to the Yankees already. It’s not hard to do, especially considering the fact that as a friend recently pointed out, their 8th best hitter is Johnny Damon. But the 3-man rotation does make them seem vulnerable — going to it seems almost like an admission of guilt when it comes to pitching depth. Plus the Angels can really freaking hit too. Kendry Morales is probably the most underrated player left in the postseason. I think they’ve got a hell of a shot at winning the AL, especially if they take a game in the Bronx.

Am I completely misguided?

Ted: It’s not that your wrong. You’ve just caught the Angels spirit:

Mel Clark: I’ve got nothing left.
George Knox: Yeah, you do. You’ve got one strike left.
[turns to dugout, Roger walks out flapping his arms like angel’s wings]
George Knox: You’ve got an angel with you right now… just got here, and he’s going to help.
Mel Clark: The kid sees an angel?
George Knox: Yeah, he must. That’s the signal.
[gradually all players and crowd, even those in the office, stand and flap their arms]
George Knox: [moved by seeing the crowd] It could happen.
Mel Clark, George Knox: Okay.
George Knox: [laughs] Go get ’em for the championship!

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The Long and Wandy Road

Just a quick programming note. I have an essay  up on Wandy Rodriguez over at Walkoff Walk as part of their “This Guy Is Playing Golf Right Now” series.

And fear not Astros fans, this was given the Ted Walker seal of approval:

This Guy Is Playing Golf Right Now: Wandy Rodriguez

The Pitchers & Poets Spooky Scary Postseason Quiz

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Brendan Ryan and The Rogue

Editor’s Note: We will be accepting answers through Tuesday October 20th. That’s a one-week window from publication for those of you who wish to be included in the best-of post. (But really, the act of answering is a reward in itself.)

It’s that time of year again. Postseason baseball, and little kids dressed up like Spiderman. In honor of the season, we bring you our second ever Pitchers & Poets Quiz. This time with the duel themes of Halloween and The Playoffs. Our previous quiz was hugely popular (by our meager-as-fun-size Snickers bars standards), and we hope that you enjoy this one too. Answer the questions you care to answer in the form of your choice: essays, sonnets, rambles, and insults are all welcome. Just be sure to place them squarely in the comment section:

1. The 2009 Playoff Yankees: same old overpriced trick, or sparkling new, glorybound treat?

2. The postseason always seems to be prone to fluke performances and freak accidents. Closers blow saves. Left fielders drop routine line drives. Journeymen pitch like ancient heroes. Is this just statistical randomness at play, or do supernatural, paranormal forces bewitch the arms of hurlers and jinx the mitts of Gold Glovers?

3. Scariest Halloween nickname: Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky, Vlad “the Impaler” Guerrero, or Jack “the Ripper” Clark?

4. If you could put your own postseason curse on a team, which team would it be? What would the backstory be? Get creative.

5. Which overused historical postseason baseball highlight have you seen so often that you want to  dump a bucket of blood a la Carrie on its head? Which underused moment in history should be prom king?

6. More effective Cardinals postseason disguise: Brendan Ryan as The Rogue or Albert Pujols as a banjo hitter?

7. Hypothetical situation: a new rule requires admitted and convicted PED users to wear a scarlet letter of shame on their uniform during the playoffs. Do you support or oppose this rule? Why or why not?

7b. If not, what behavior would merit the scarlet letter treatment?

8. Name the horror movie villain who best corresponds to the postseason’s remaining closers: Mariano Rivera, Jonathon Broxton, Brad Lidge, and Brian Fuentes.

Answer away! Like last time, we’ll compile our favorite responses in a massive best-of post.

Weekend Reading: Mays, the Babe and a Botch

Willie Mays installation by Thom Ross

Postseason play is heating up big-time. In the baseball season’s transition from endings to beginnings, a number of people around the game have looked back a ways in this past week:

  • Artist Thom Ross is on a mission of unforgetting. In this case, he’s toting his mural of the famous Willie Mays catch to the scene of its enactment: he and friends placed the installation on the exact spot that the catch was made. SI.com
  • Recently undiscovered home video footage of Babe Ruth at the bat confirms that he took his sweet time about it. New York Times
  • Fangraph’s Dave Cameron ensures surly Cards fans that Thursday’s loss wasn’t all Matt Holliday’s fault. Fangraphs
  • Paul DePodesta reminds us of the trials and the tears of a career in baseball’s front office. It Might Be Dangerous
  • Stuart Shea offers a poem to the soon-to-move-on. Bardball