Monthly Archive for February, 2010

The Way You Look Tonight

I’ve made the switch from Times New Roman to Garamond for my every day typing. There was something about Times New Roman that made the words seem intimidating as they appeared on the screen. As if each serif, each dark line was saying something about my soul. It got to a point where I almost didn’t want to write because I didn’t want to see any more Times New Roman on the screen before me. Now I feel reenergized. It’s hard to explain.

This has led aesthetics to dominate my recent thinking. I’m starting to realize how easily affected I am by the way things look. It’s as simple as the difference between a sunny day and a cloudy one. For many years I considered myself impervious to the effects of weather. Then I realized that my music tastes were totally affected by it. Now the same thing is happening with fonts, I guess. And it goes beyond my own writing. Aesthetics have a huge impact on how we consume sports.

Take a look at uniforms. Few subjects are less relevant from a tangible perspective. But few things affect the fan experience more. UniWatchBlog gets insanely high traffic (we know that because RBI once got a very brief mention that sent over approximately 17million visitors). In baseball, not even steroids get as much flack from fans as misplaced black trim on traditional jerseys.

Even Paul Lo Duca hates black trim.

But let’s take this even more inward. The readers of this blog are either well-meaning friends of Ted and I or people who consume multiple sports blogs on a regular basis. And your opinion of PnP is greatly affected by its design. For example, the giant picture of Fernando Valenzuela’s face on our header causes people to think this is a Dodger-focused blog. Regular readers know this not to be the case, but the image probably has the same skill for discouraging Giants fans from reading that Times New Roman does for discouraging me from writing stuff. The Rogue’s Baseball Index, looks old-timey — an aesthetic that carries its own baggage.

What do we look for with sports blog design? Should the visual feel of the site somehow match the tone of the content? Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods does this perfectly. It’s a slightly literary design with a classic-baseball feel. The content is the focus, framed in white amidst a background of dark grays and blues. Joe Posnanksi, meanwhile, opts for pure utilitarianism. His long, long posts are presented on a plain white screen, with plenty of space for his ample reader-polls on the side bar and his weird personal projects on the header.

But those are singular and powerful voices. Their draw is their exceptional content – bells and whistles be damned. What of sites whose appeal lies in humor or news or pictures? What of Deadspin? Deadspin leaves it in the hands of the reader. Here are 6,000 stories. Pick your favorite. Me? I think it looks cluttered. But then again, I like to pick and choose my stories. God knows I don’t want to end up looking at one of their regular slide-shows of nude male athlete self-portraits.

Mustaches were a crucial part of 19th century baseball's aesthetic.

I suppose the goal of a blog design depends on the goals of the proprietors. Do you want to nurture your reader a-la Wilker into a bookish dream-state? Do you want to build traffic through various clicks and links and options? Is your most recent post key? Or is it about the big picture? This is just the first layer of questions. We can peel them back to reveal even more. Does the number of columns on the blog matter much? Do certain colors have certain impacts on the reader? What about the width of the text? Do you like to read a narrow column or a wider one? How does subject matter affect these things?

This all may seem vague and irrelevant. But I don’t think it is. All of our beliefs as baseball fans are colored by colors and indelible images and uncanny associations.  Consider the way uniforms touch the way we remember eras: the classic 1950s and 60s, the colorful 70s, the unfortunate 80s, the surprisingly teal 90s. It goes into the design of our stadiums as well. They evoke the eras in which they are built and the teams they house. The difference between Cardboard Gods and Deadspin isn’t all that different from the difference between Fenway Park and New Yankee Stadium.

I’m curious as to what your thoughts are. Please share them in the comments. For what it’s worth, two of my favorite blogs, aesthetics-wise, are Beerleaguer and Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness. What are yours?

Morning in Baseball Land

Spring has come a little early here in Seattle, so I’m feeling positive as hell. Morning is the time of day I like the most, when it’s too early to disappoint yourself. And this is morning time in baseball land.

It is morning in baseball land when a shoddy feed of a random spring training game means more to me than a rebroadcast of any of the greatest games in history. I’ve seen Willie Mays make The Catch a hundred times, but I’ve never seen Tommy Manzella field a routine ground ball.

Morning in baseball land means that Neftali Feliz is more intriguing than Alex Rodriguez. It’s the spring of his career, too, and just like a day can go sour before lunch, I’ll be watching to see if Neftali–and his colleagues Wieters, Porcello, and Hanson, etc.–will make it to the afternoon.

Morning in baseball land and I’m one mock draft in, warming up the fantasy side of my brain like a relief pitcher. One genius turn of fantasy baseball is that it mimics the patterns of the sport. I anticipate the draft as giddily as I do the season, before the truth of the year sets in and it all plays out.

Morning in baseball land is not optimistic or pessimistic. It ain’t true that anyone could win it. The truths is that none of us knows what stories are about to be told. But we know that there will be stories. Like walking out onto the proverbial sidewalk to see who will brush past you and start the wheels of the day in motion.

Morning time in baseball land is the first page of a very good book. Tragedy, or comedy? Ends with a death or a marriage? That all depends on the starting rotation. Either way, there will be heroes and villains. There will be a story.

There will be a story that the media writes: the career records and the standings. There is also a story that your life writes around the season: what you missed, what you saw, where you saw it from, how you missed it. Why you missed it, and who you missed it with.

That’s the song of the morning, and they’re singing it now.

Weekend Reading: Gearing Up for Spring

The Bike that Draws via jimmykuehnle.com

  1. A dream job for a wannabe catcher: John Harper of the NY Daily News straps on the tools of ignorance and catches a round of bullpen work from Johan Santana.
  2. Roy Halladay is a hard worker, according to Philly.com’s Rich Hofmann. Is it me, or is it mostly just players who are really good that get called hard workers (David Eckstein excluded)? You could work your ass off, stink, and get no pub for it whatsoever. (Which is probably the way it should be).
  3. It’s an old blog post from last year, but this MLBlog entry from Gordon Beckham feels less PR-filtered than a lot of the player blogs. Plus we get to go back to a time when he was a nervous rookie rather than a quickly rising star.
  4. Would or should Rawlings move baseball production operations back to Haiti? Richard Sandomir of NYT asks what it would take, and what the implications might be.
  5. “Branch Rickey made me a better man.” The passing of a Mr. Baseball. I didn’t know who Bobby Bragan was during his lifetime, but I wish I had.
  6. Olympics! Tough out Snowpacolageddonypse with Eric’s round-up of 10 Great Winter Olympic moments over at Tonic.

Notes from the Sporting Doldrums

– With the Super Bowl just concluded, I’m compelled for whatever reason to reflect on the NFL’s championship extravaganza, and a little bit then on baseball’s. These comparisons could probably extend to the sports as a whole, but I’ll let you parse that out. My thoughts:

  1. Super Bowl ads. Lame, misogynistic attempts to send their brand viral, a huge audience handed over to marketeers rather than entertainers. Andy Samberg’s Digital Shorts these were not.
  2. The Who. Has any recent decision felt less connected with the times that we live in? I like The Who as much as the next guy, but it should’ve been Beyonce. Or these guys.
  3. Blowouts are over quickly.
  4. The Super Bowl embodies immediate gratification as an event; a complete culmination focused on a single point. Of late, it has proven worthy as the games have been compelling and exciting.

What is gained or lost in the baseball version, ie. the wide lens that is the World Series?:

  1. Extended gratification. It’s not an event, but a period of time–an epoch–that can unfold like a fat novel or dine and dash like a novella. The Super Bowl on the other hand is an episode of CSI. If your team happens to be in the World Series, you face up to seven games of excrutiating pain.
  2. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver blow. Up to seven games of that, no matter what you do.
  3. Blowouts drag along for days.
  4. The World Series embodies old timey values like delayed gratification, depth, and endurance.

– I realized yesterday evening that the MLB Network is a little over one year old. The immediately high quality of the channel has created the sense that it’s been here all the time, right alongside ESPN. And yet simultaneously I can’t believe it’s already been a year since its birth. Already I don’t know what I would do without it.

– Is there a baseball equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye? I perhaps predictably went back to the book after the death of its author. The pressure within those pages presses the setting into a frieze; melancholy and timeless. Is this how we feel about Joe Dimaggio? (The book was published the year The Yankee Clipper retired) Is this how we will feel about Joe Mauer?


– Non-baseball related recommendation: Uhh Yeah Dude, a podcast which features a couple of guys shooting the bull. (Don’t rely on just the videos on their homepage: listen to the podcast all the way.)

You May Have Noticed…

There is suddenly an advertisement in our sidebar of our home page. That is because Pitchers & Poets has taken on an official sponsor in Barry’s Tickets.  Through their site, and DodgerTickets.org, they offer great deals on baseball tickets nation-wide. Even better, they don’t add a pesky service charge. In the coming week or two, we’ll also work a system out where PnP readers can get 10% off all tickets bought through the website.

Ted and I want you to know that we didn’t go about this process lightly. This blog has grown up a great deal the last six months, and we’d begun to think about advertising some time before the agreement was struck with Barry’s. We want to ensure you that absolutely nothing changes on the site content-wise (same boys you’ve always known), and that we’re still blogging econo. We don’t do this for the money. It’s just nice to have a little something to show for it.

We’ll drop you a line when the 10% discount code is up and running. Meanwhile, please welcome our official sponsor with good eye contact and firm handshakes.

Thanks,

Eric and Ted.

PnP Conversations: Minding the Gap

Optimism.

Eric: Less than one month until Pitchers & Catchers report. Let’s start it this way. What non-roster invitee/subradar acquisition do you think will have the biggest impact in the majors this year?

Ted: That’s a great question, Eric. Unfortunately, I am in the process of memorizing each non-roster invitee for every team in the AL. I’m playing catch-up for when I move into full-on Mariners bandwagon mode. I don’t want to interrupt this intensive exercise by pointing out any particular player. Besides, all I’ve got is radar, so if they’re subradar then I don’t know about them anyway. Let’s just say that my full support is behind any non-roster invitee who is still older than I am. The list shrivels each year.

Maybe I’m getting old and cynical, but I have a hard time feeling optimistic about the old guys in camp. The systems are too good these days to let a player slip through the cracks. I mean, I’m sitting here amazed that nobody has signed Johnny Damon yet, but he’ll probably suck next year. The computers already know it, even if the American people don’t. I think it’s also still a result of the long steroids hangover. Ah, the Steroids Era! When careers never had to end! The cold hard truth of entropy was suspended and we all frolicked in a NeverNeverLand of home runs and swollen heads.

Anyway, I’m getting carried away. Even if a biblical snowstorm is ravaging the mid-Atlantic, spring is approaching, and that’s no time for cynicism and nostalgia. It’s time to think about new, young things. I bet Kevin Millar bought himself a new pair of ostrich skin boots when the Cubs signed him!

So I’ve gone on about the hard truths. Give us some bunny rabbits and Skittles, Eric. Who do you think will shine this year?

Eric: You mean besides Kevin Millar’s gleaming, winning smile? The obvious answer is that the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers will shine this year. Right? Right? Yeah.

In all seriousness, I have high expectations for the math-powered Mariners.I share your creeping feeling that the fans are just a little too optimistic, but you know what? It’s been a helluva sunny winter here in Seattle. So why not?  And keeping things semi-Pacific, I have very optimistic notions about the AL West this year. The Mariners are obviously and (especially if they bring Bedard) significantly improved. The A’s are doing something interesting by signing all these old guys, the Angels lost stuff but probably not enough to make them a below-average team, and the Rangers enter year two of the great Nolan Ryan badassery experiment.

Speaking of which, there won’t be any skittles in the Rangers clubhouse for them this year. As a Texas-native, how do you feel about the rise of Nolan Ryan The Executive? He’s proving to be a pretty fascinating dude, ditching conventional wisdom (pitch counts)  in favor old conventional wisdom (suck it up). I almost see it as a Finley or Veeckesque maneuver. Thoughts?

Nolan Ryan only pretended he knew what pain was for this ad.

Ted: Nolan Ryan judging pitchers’ durability is like Brian Cashman complaining that other teams aren’t spending enough money. The Ryan Express had the most rubbery wing in history, making him the worst possible judge of human arms other than his own. That said, I think he may be tapping into what has long been stewing: a desire for pitchers and pitching coaches to stop being such babies. I have a bit of this in me myself, though I temper this attitude with the mental image of some poor second-year guy sweating bullets and lobbing hand grenades towards the plate while Nolan Ryan grins down from the luxury box in his cowboy hat with his arms crossed.

Suddenly, the “old guy market gap” is gathering steam, which is great because it took the baseball public like ten years to catch up with Billy Beane and his OBP gap. Nowadays, a market gap lasts about fifteen minutes, and that’s before it proves to have any value. I think we can say that Nolan Ryan will probably own the “blow out guys’ arms” market gap for some time. This article here has a good little recap. (editor’s note: No pitcher on the Rangers threw 200 innings in 2009. I don’t know what that means.)

In this era, everybody notices what nobody is noticing really quickly, in what feels like the length of The Sandblast. The amazing thing as that some people still regularly blunder through the process, and seem to ignore all available insight. I’m a fan of one of those teams, the Astros, and the most popular blogger in the hemisphere, JoePos, chronicles the pratfalls of another. In this age of excellence, where there’s so much information and so much insight, there are a few shining lights that tip the balance back to the mediocre. And that is why they play the games.

Here’s a challenge, Eric: I’ve ended with a cliche. I challenge you to start your reply with a cliche, and build off of that like Dayton Moore has built a dynamo off of Billy Butler.

Eric: How about two? They play the games to win and there’s more than one way to skin a cat. What I mean to say is that there’s no right or wrong way to build a roster; there is only winning and losing. These market gaps, whether age, defense, or OBP-based, are only a small part of what goes into assembling each lineup and pitching staff and bench. Take the Twins, whose success seems to be the result of existing in a vacuum, apart from all the hype and all the trends.

When it comes to what goes into each transaction, we are still very much in the dark. Baseball moves slower than politics and the stakes are different. The narrative cycle — is the bottoming out of the veteran market really “news”? — exists more for the sake of the fans than for the sake of the executives. For all we know, for all the tweeting and info-sharing, they are probably still a good seven steps ahead of us. After all, they make the market. We only react to it.

Hang Them All: The Spaceman Talketh

“If I can still walk, if I can still move, if I can still see, I will play baseball.” – Old Cuban man, translated from the Spanish, fr. Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey

Bill Spaceman Lee doesn’t concern himself with dignity. Anyone who talks as fast as he does can’t worry about the occasional joke that falls flat.

Lee is concerned with baseball, and making sure that he plays as much baseball as possible, in whatever game he can find. It’s downright undignified for a pro ballplayer to grow old, and for that pro ballplayer to continue to take the mound after his professional value has expired, but that doesn’t bother Lee. He’ll pitch anywhere, because pitching anywhere is better than not pitching anywhere.

I bring it up because the other day the MLB Network ran a documentary on Bill Lee: Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey.  The film is a kind-hearted venture; half bio and half travel journal. We learn about the Spaceman’s career, watch some (wonderfully 70s) archival video, learn the highlights and the lowlights before trekking with Bill and his baseball club of dumpy dudes as they travel to Cuba to play baseball in pick-up games against Cubans who are of a similar age but look about a hundred times better.

From said archival footage there was an exchange to emphasize Lee’s viewpoint about his baseball shelf-life. The conversation covered Les Expos’ expulsion of Lee from the team after he left the clubhouse for the barroom one game:

News Lady: “You could get blackballed, you know.”
Bill: “Well then I’ll go out to California and grow walnuts or go to British Columbia and grow peaches like I always said I would after I was done playing baseball.”
News Lady: “You don’t care if you’ll be out of baseball for good?”
Bill: “Oh, I’ll never be out of baseball for good. It’s my life.”

The film’s finest feature is Lee’s endless monologue, a spoken-word soundtrack that runs wild through the countryside of the mind, veering from one subject to another, and which usually has something to do with baseball. Lee punctuates his stories with an open-mouthed grin. He illustrates his pitching explanations through gesture (he has massive hands and a farmer’s physicality).

The traveling team is an amateur collection of over-aged and under-talented men who’ve gone to Cuba to play dodgy ball games on sagging Cuban fields, just because they want to. Lee, the only player on the team to have been paid to play baseball at any point in his life, is a lob-baller with bad knees and a big belly, and he’s not particularly good, even against the level competition (though I’d take a team of 50-year-old Cubans over any other national team every time). But Lee is there, and his endless banter boils the otherwise sluggish stew of crappy baseball. He talks ball like he’s twenty. He breaks down his last turn at bat (for yes, he is a hitter, too, and a better one now than he is a pitcher, even if he’s requiring of a pinch-runner) as though he is at Fenway facing Juan Marichal.

(“I’m like Juan Marichal,” he said after cursing his bad knees. “Marichal always played hurt.”)

The thesis: good baseball, bad baseball, it’s all baseball and it’s there to be enjoyed. Treat yourself like A-Rod, because nobody else is going to and there’s no point in standing around waiting for them to.

Lee can’t get over how much Cubans all over enjoy baseball so deeply. “I love Cuba,” he went. “God damn they play baseball for all the right reasons. Cause they like it. They don’t play it to make more money or sell some more satellite dishes.”

The documentary reminded me of the day that I spent with the Spaceman, when I helped out at a baseball clinic that he led one Vermont fall day. It was a modest affair: a rag tag collection of seven or eight people who were clearly more interested in hanging with the Spaceman than in improving their baseball skills. An average age of around forty-five, I’d guess, and as a whole the group showed the coordination and agility of a roomful of broken vacuum cleaners. But no matter, as Bill Lee would entertain them in the manner that they hoped for.

The Spaceman didn’t stop talking. He answered questions all day, most of which revolved around the favorites or least favorites, the toughest, etc. The only answer I remember is that his least favorite hitter to face was Thurman Munson. Ever expounding, Lee went on to describe Munson’s style at the plate, how to pitch to him, his locker room habits, his favorite restaurants, etc., spinning a single word answer into a sonnet.

Lee brought a giant wooden bat with him to the clinic. Custom-made, he explained. The knob at the handle-end was the size of a kid’s rubber football, to provide a counterweight and propel the barrel through the hitting zone, went the idea. Lee, who loved hitting near as much as he loved pitching and talking, took BP with us. He swung the mammoth bat like a heavy gate swinging open, and he lofted pitches around the outfield.

I bring up the bat because numero uno it’s a marvel to behold, and there was a Paul Bunyan effect, especially being up in the Vermont mountains as we were, but numero dos because in the documentary there was a scene in which an older Cuban man, a spectator at one of the games, asked the Spaceman for a bat. Lee looked around himself like the man had asked him for a light, then he said, “Yeah, I gotta bat for you.” And he brought over a wooden model with that enormous knob and handed it over the chain-link fence to the Cuban.

During the baseball clinic’s pitching session, I caught for Lee. It was a pleasure because the lefty threw the ball about 65 miles per hour and he hit his spots. He threw to the attendees too, in a semi-scrimmage. After the paying guests finished their turns flailing at the bat and romping around the bases, I hopped in there and wallopped a Spaceman slow curve to an empty place in right center. Some oohs came from the gang, but I was young and a baseball player to boot. It was a lollipop pitch to hit, and still there was Lee saying “I hung that one.” The truth was, he hung them all.

He hung them all but he never hung them up. And that’s saying something. Fourteen years of organized baseball and I wouldn’t know where to find a full-on game to save my life, and here he’s in Cuba playing the Steel Workers Union and whatever else he can find. And that was him, for the day I hung with him and in the movie and in every interview I’ve heard or read: he finding baseball in everything, when most of us keep trying to find everything in baseball.

Because he talks so much, and because he makes a great soundbite, I pulled a few more quotations from the movie, from Lee and others. They might be verbatim.

Bill Lee quotations from the film:

“I got a secret power: I’m left-handed. It helps.”

In his VW bus in the parking lot of Olympic Stadium, to the parking attendant: “I pitch for the Expos, name’s Lee. I’m pitchin the second game, you wanna let me in?”

“I never quit playing. The Expos released me and two days later two Frenchmen came to my door in Montreal. I woke up in a drunken stupor and they said, ‘Bill, would you want to play in Longay for the Senators, and I go, ‘Well, that’s a sobering experience.'”
“And once the Russians pick up the game of baseball, world peace will be established.”

“Why am I in demand? Because I provide an alternative.”

“It’s funny, it’s a great game. It goes on forever.”

“These people ask me if I’ll go out and throw the ceremonial first pitch. I say, ‘not unless I get to throw all the rest.'”

“What’s wrong with baseball? Nothin…Only at the highest level of the economic structure of baseball are we in trouble. Cause eventually it’ll die at that level. But the kids’ll keep on playin.”

Quotations from others:

“I never passed up a left-handed pitcher in my life.” – USC coach Rod Dedeaux

“What you call a good pitcher, he know what to do.” – Luis Tiant

One Fun Link:

Vancouver Sun Q&A, August ’09

One more quotation, because I can’t resist. On Manny Ramirez leaving Boston:

“He’s the greatest hitter I ever saw. I loved the guy. He’s a prima donna, and he pushed down the traveling secretary. Well, you pick the traveling secretary up, and you dust him off, and you apologize and you go back to work. He’s the greatest I ever saw. I like Jason Bay. I’m not saying anything disparaging against Canadians, because I’ve married two of them.”