Monthly Archive for March, 2010

The Monitor; The Heartbeat

Tuesday night, Titus Andronicus rocked the Vera Project in Seattle so hard they made me want to write something. The Vera Project is an all-ages, non-profit, no-booze venue. The handful of high school kids and baby boomer parents in the crowd only added to the rec-center vibe. But with Titus Andronicus every guitar solo is a statement. Every song is a declaration. It doesn’t matter where they play as long as somebody – anybody – is listening.

Most of the material came from their new album The Monitor. I wouldn’t call it a concept album in the Pete Townshend sense, but The Monitor is thematically steeped in the Civil War. Between songs, guest stars read passages from 19th century figures like Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. The songs themselves can only be called epic. Absolutely, fucking, epic. And they sound even better live than on record. Screams and handclaps and violin solos and guitar breakdowns into the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

What does any of this have to do with baseball? Well, not much. The first song on The Monitor, and the first song Titus Andronicus played Tuesday night “A More Perfect Union…” includes a Newark Bears shout out. But the point of this isn’t baseball. It’s writing. The artists that I love the most are the ones who constantly seem to remind me that I’m alive, and that even when it sucks, it’s still something to be excited about. I think a philosopher said something along those lines. Art is a declaration of our humanity.


A More Perfect Union

Titus Andronicus | MySpace Music Videos

Wrecked and drunken rock anthems are not the only way to declare humanity– though I am certainly partial to bands that can pull those off. One of those bands is The Hold Steady, patrons of the badass guitar solo, the crowded lyric stanza, and the reaffirming whoah-whoah-whoah. It fits that at one point on The Monitor, The Hold Steady’s frontman Craig Finn voices Walt Whitman (and not just because both men are/were huge baseball fans). Whitman is probably the greatest declarer of humanity in history:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

It’s easy to write Whitman off as a kook, which he certainly was, especially when we take passages like that out of context. But the thing about Whitman is that you can feel his heartbeat pulsing through every line of poetry. The same goes for the songs of Titus Andronicus. The same goes for the sentences of James Joyce. The same goes for all the art I find affecting, whether visual or musical or literary.

The whole Pitchers & Poets project might not be art in the classical sense. We try to have fun. We don’t pour out emotion like Whitman or Titus Andronicus or even Josh Wilker. But we also strive to go beyond just writing about baseball. It goes back to what a blog is – not a form or a genre but a channel. If a band can sing songs in a Civil War motif and still say something urgent about life, there’s no reason we can’t write writings in a baseball motif and say something equally urgent.

We’re now in year two of Pitchers & Poets. For Ted and I, this has become more than a passing hobby. We are fully, 100 percent, invested. And now we have practice, we have an audience; we have a sense of urgency. We’re going to push it this year, even if that means going beyond baseball. I hope this season you can feel the heartbeats when you visit this website. That means in the posts, in the comments, and even in the podcasts. Let’s make something special.

Revisiting the Tragic Hero: Do We Still Hate A-Rod?

Exactly one year ago today, I posted the first entry in a threepart series on Alex Rodriguez. My goal was to examine A-Rod as a Shakespearian tragic hero. In the meantime, the Yankees won the World Series, and Rodriguez tore up the postseason, erasing doubts, quieting skeptics, and winning the respect of the Five Boroughs. In Part II of that series, I wrote the following:

Which motivates Alex Rodriguez? His love for baseball, or his desire to be loved? The answer is probably a lot more complicated than either choice. Money fits in there somewhere too, and a whole litany of subtle factors I probably couldn’t understand. But more than greed or competitive lust for victory, it feels to me that Rodriguez has been guided by an unquenchable desire to be loved, praised, adored.

It appears that at some point between then and now, A-Rod was able to let all that go. His smiles seemed less contrived, his interviews seem less scripted, and he moves without the burdensome weight of that perceived (and real) disrespect. He is A-Rod unwound. He is perhaps a tarnished hero, but certainly not a tragic one.

The weight of a million tabloid covers is no longer on his shoulders. I cannot imagine that much of the “weird fetishistic personal hatred” I wrote about in 2009 lingers. After all, the Yankees are champions. We entered this season in a balanced, ordered universe.

As for me, the dreaded A-Rod sympathizer, I’ve found that my position has shifted from defensive to apathetic. With less antagonism directed toward him, I care much less about A-Rod’s 2010 travails. Or maybe that’s just because I don’t live in New York anymore. I don’t get the pleasure of seeing the tabloids every morning.

I guess what I want is answers. What do you guys think? Have attitudes shifted in regards to A-Rod? Has New York accepted him? Is he a better nonkeeper fantasy pick than Hanley Ramirez or Chase Utley? Talk to me.

Sponsor a Baseball-Reference Page: Ismael Valdez

There have only been three Ismaels to appear in a Major League Baseball game. The most successful member of these only carried Ismael as a middle name: David Ismael Concepcion. The least successful, Ismael Villegas, appeared in one game for the Atlanta Braves. He allowed 4 runs in 2.2 innings against the Montreal Expos, serving up home runs to Orlando Cabrera and Rondell White. That leaves Ismael Valdez.

For the sake of this article, we’ll just call him Ismael. He was a complicated man: a quiet, occasionally bespectacled middle of the rotation guy. His stuff was so underwhelming that in the 1999 video game Ken Griffey Jr’s Slugfest, his specialty pitch was the eephus-like Super Change. In mid-nineties Los Angeles, he was mostly known for being megastar Hideo Nomo’s best friend on the team – this was such a big honor that my friends and I simply called him that: “Nomo’s Friend.”

I remember one postgame autographic-seeking mission in which a buddy and I were able to finagle the location of Hideo Nomo’s super secret parking spot (he needed one in those days, believe it or not, to avoid the paparazzi masses). After making our way through at least a dozen of Chavez Ravine’s tiered mini-lots, we came across a quiet, mostly empty area. Out came Nomo and Ismael. They signed for a few moments and got into their respective cars: Nomo boarded a quiet sedan with his translator. Ismael raced off in a bright yellow sports car that I think was a Ferrari.

The Z in Valdez indicates that this photo was taken in 2004 or later.

The irony of those years is that Ismael was just as good as the sensationalized Nomo. Between 1995 and 1999, he won 58 games, averaged 200 innings per season, and put up a 3.38 era and a K/BB ratio around 2.5. But he did it all in the shadow of flashier young Dodgers; next to guys like Nomo, Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, and Chan Ho Park, Ismael did not offer much excitement. He was not fun to watch. He was not a good interview. He was simply a professional. Those five unexciting years were the extent of Ismael’s effectiveness as a major league pitcher.

Before the 2000 season, he was traded along with Eric Young to the Chicago Cubs for a package centered on pitcher Terry Adams. In June, he headed back to Los Angeles in another trade. Ismael was atrocious in both cities and everywhere else he pitched for the rest of his career. He bounced around for a few years, never quite catching on in Texas, Anaheim, San Diego, Seattle or Florida. His most notable achievement in those years was the quiet correction of his surname from Valdes to Valdez.

When the Marlins granted the now accurately-named Ismael Valdez free agency after the 2005 season, it seemed he would ride off into the sunset. Perhaps he would pitch for a few years in Japan or his native Mexico, or simply sit on the twenty-odd million dollars he made as a major league pitcher. And that’s how it would have gone, too. He would have remained a fondly remembered journeyman, an underappreciated member of the internationally flavored Dodgers of the 1990s.

Certainly nobody expected his name to pop up in the 2007 Mitchell Report. But there it was, Ismael Valdez. Wikipedia says he was believed to have purchased Human Growth Hormone on the internet, perhaps in a desperate attempt to stave off the end of his career; to keep his fastball from dipping below the mid-80s in velocity. There he was, accusing an Angels trainer of injecting his sore shoulder with testosterone in 2001. Call him Valdez.

Fundamentals: The Key to Success

Along with three friends, I am coaching a Little League team of seven, eight, and nine year olds. All four of us are in our early twenties. Needless to say, we are the only coaches in the league without kids of our own. Our goal? Utter domination. Throughout the season I will keep Pitchers & Poets readers updated on the goings on surrounding the team.

When I played high school baseball, we wore practice t-shirts with the slogan “Fundamentals: The Key to Success.” I found the slogan to be (ahem) fundamentally true, but imprecise and insufficient. We practiced the fundamentals. We were not successful by any definition. But now that I’m wearing the goofy non-cleated coaching shoes, my definition of success has changed. We don’t seek a success based on wins and losses or academic excellence. We seek a success based entirely on fundamentals. Success for a team of eight-year olds means throwing and catching the ball, knowing what base to cover, and not bailing out of the batter’s box.

There is a whole literary universe of coaching essays and books that teach our youth leaders how to mold kids into fine citizens as well as fine athletes. The main catchphrase right now is that we should be Double Goal Coaches, who aim not just to win, but to teach life skills and good attitudes. The whole Double Goal Coach program – and it is certainly a program – is based on the idea that we are either “win at all cost” coaches or Double Goal coaches; its downfall is that it forgoes all nuance for the sake of that good vs. evil dichotomy. After all, there are a million kinds of leaders in the world. It goes without saying that coaches should be good role models, but the Double Goal affectation strikes me as disingenuous.

But this post is not about building character, it’s about building baseball players. The Killer Bees coaching staff is not too many years past the other end of the chain link fence. Unlike other coaches in the league, we have the relatively fresh memories of our own youth sports practices to lean on. We also agree as a coaching staff that the only way to make this group of kids into a decent baseball team is to make sure that they all look forward to coming to practice. Above all, it has to be fun.

When I was nine years old, the age of about half of the Killer Bees players, I had a coach named Joel Spivak. That’s his real name. He was a schmuck. Spivak was like an unfun version of Morris Buttermaker: stoned, chain smoking, screaming. It was the most miserable year of my baseball life. Our practices consisted of the entire team lined up about 300 feet away from a lonely backstop, waiting for him to hit towering fungoes in our general direction between drags on his cigarette. That was it, every practice was the same. Sometimes the balls went over the fence. When they did, we chased them and heaved them in to the kid lucky enough to be cutoff man. I think about half the team quit baseball after that season.


Our goal – never really expressed in these terms – is to create practices that are the opposite of the Spivak Method. We do this mostly by keeping the kids active. There is a great deal of running involved, whether that means races around the base-paths, laps around the field, or situational base-running drills. We also try to instill a level of competition into small events. The most universal of these is the relay race: line the kids up in equally-spread out groups, and let them throw the ball from one end to the other. Whoever gets it back and forth first wins the chance to take batting practice first. When we’re doing things right, keeping their hands up and screaming for the ball becomes part of their fun, not an annoying chore.

Small groups and constant rotations are the key. Like any other good baseball team at work, we run stations. Usually this means one infield station, one outfield station, and one hitting station. Sometimes there is pitching or sliding thrown in. The small groups and constant action are even more beneficial to kids than they are to teenagers or adults. Basically, the constant action keeps the more precocious ones – the little Nick Swishers – busy. In small groups, they are less likely to distract one another.

That said, on Monday we blew it all off. For most of the players, this is the first season of “kid pitch.” We figured that getting these kids to hit a ball not thrown by a coach or sitting on a tee would be a big challenge. Getting them to throw strikes would be an even bigger one. I’m happy to report that we’ve been proven wrong. At our All-BP practice, we unleashed a few of the kids who had been working with Coach Austen in special bullpen sessions. The Killer Bees throw smoke.

Our ace is a tall kid, let’s call him Greinke. He stands on the mound like he’s done it a million times; like he’s the best player out there and always has been and always will be. Then came the lefty, not a big guy, but with a solid arm and a propensity for working fast. Let’s call him Buehrle. And finally, our third pitcher started a little slow. He didn’t bring the heat, but he threw with a quiet confidence. After a couple early walks, he settled in and hit his spot (down the middle is the only spot we’re working with) to retire the side. He’ll be Brad Radke.

In another positive development, we have gone consecutive practices without any tears shed. The kids are throwing and catching the ball with confidence. Routine plays They are comfortable making routine plays in game situations. The fundamentals are coming together. We have also learned that our sponsor is not a bar known for the creepy dudes who hang out by its pool tables, but rather a popular local chain of hot dog carts. Hurray for red and yellow jerseys!

Podcast Episode #3: Walking Hank Greenberg

In the 3rd episode of the Pitchers and Poets Podcast, we talk about texting Joe Mauer, festive family field wear, Walking Hank Greenberg, and the significance of the opening day starter, with specifics!

 

Weekend Reading: Remains

  • Mark Twain’s love of baseball, documented in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” was the subject of a New York Times profile. He once lost an umbrella at a professional game and placed the following ad in his local paper:

FIVE DOLLARS REWARD

At the great base ball match on Tuesday, while I was engaged in hurrahing, a small boy walked off with an English-made brown silk UMBRELLA belonging to me, and forgot to bring it back. I will pay $5 for the return of that umbrella in good condition to my home on Farmington avenue. I do not want the boy (in an active state) but will pay two hundred dollars for his remains. SAMUEL L. CLEMENS

  • Speaking of iconic artists, Walkoff Walk shares an old  commercial featuring Whitey Ford and Salvador Dali.
  • Patrick Truby attempts to assemble a fantasy team consisting of only plus-sized  players over at No I in Blog. My complaint? Not enough Garces.
  • FreeDarko remembers Alex Chilton.
  • “I try to pretend I’m a clock.” Albert Pujols breaks down his own swing using the full power of multimedia over at USA Today.
  • Jake Peavy brought together’s baseball’s best musicians for Woodjock, and David Brown from Big League Stew was there to witness it.
  • And the Rogue’s Baseball Index continues a-humming. New forays into the baseball world around us not once, not twice, but thrice weekly.

The Horse’s Mouth: Before You Get Too High on Yourself

This is not rotisserie league baseball or anything like that. We’ve got to take roster status, contractual status, service time, everything into consideration to try to make the right decision both for now and the long term. – Ed Wade

The general manager of the most peed-upon team in the bigs right now wants you to know that he’s thinking about, you know, things. Things that take into account other things, and things that you aren’t thinking about because you’re having too much fun with your little “games.”

The Game Called Catch (Part I)

Chrissy Wilson is a writer who lives in Reno, Nevada. She recently bought her first baseball mitt. In the coming weeks (or months), we’ll join Chrissy as she breaks in, and ultimately becomes one with that glove.

I’m a late bloomer when it comes to baseball fandom. Neither of my parents were sports people, and I was just never exposed to it. It wasn’t until I reached college and got a job with the Seattle Mariners that the excitement and obsession of being a baseball fan infected me in a way. When I hear my friends’ stories of playing catch in the backyard, trading baseball cards, and growing up with a team, I feel somehow that I missed out on an amazing part of being a baseball fan. I adore the game and am so happy it is in my life. But the fact that I never got to experience that childhood love definitely leaves my baseball story lacking.

My grandfather, in spite of the torture of not having any sons or grandsons, decided his granddaughters would have to be the ones to fulfill his son fantasies. At a very young age, in my church dress and Mary Jane shoes, he put a baseball into my hand and taught me to throw it into an old, worn glove he wore. I stood there in the leave-strewn yard wanting to go inside. But the proud look on his face every time I managed to throw the ball into his glove made it an irresistible game. “You know, girl. You could be a maaaaaajor leaaaague pitcher,” he’d say. “I think there was some curve to that one!” “Steeeeriiiike.” I didn’t really understand what he was talking about it, but like every child, I was intoxicated by his pride. These were my only experiences with the game called Catch.

“You should have a mitt,” he said. He was right.

Fifteen years later, the man who represented the active, masculine patriarch of the family has a hard time walking down the hall at his retirement home for dinner. No more fishing trips, bird watching in the park, putt-putt games. The most we do is sit in his room, him talking about memories of his glory days, me telling him about my exploits in this town. One day I stopped by and told him about a date I had gone on the night before with my boyfriend. We had gone to the Sparks Scheel’s, which (if you don’t know) is the largest sports store in the world. It’s more like an amusement park than anything. There’s a fudge shop, ferris wheel, talking president displays, and games. I told him how I had beat my boyfriend at the shotgun game, and how I threw some baseballs in the simulated throwing booth. He toothily smiled and pumped his fist in the air. “You should have a mitt,” he said. He was right.

As previously mentioned, I am a late bloomer and started playing my first games of real Catch about two years ago with friends, me borrowing their mitts. I had the time of my life and hardly noticed, until hours later, how my arm was almost numb with strain. I kept meaning to buy myself a glove, but just never got around to it. With the recent teasing of warm weather, I headed to Target, boyfriend in tow to help with the purchase. We walked up to the aisle to see a father helping his two sons pick out gloves and bats. Embarrassed of my age, I decided to do a lap around the store before heading back. When we finally arrived at the Baseball Aisle, I was nervous, looking at all the mitts. The boyfriend picked up a $10 softball mitt, placing it in my hands.

“It’s for softball? And it’s awfully cheap?”

“It’s just a mitt,” he replied. “You need a longer one like this if you want to play with us.” By us, he meant a softball league him and his friends are starting in Summer. “Let’s just get you playing the game, before you worry about getting a fancy mitt.”

“This isn’t kickball. I’ll be better at this. I know it.” He rubs the back of my neck with a face that doesn’t believe.

I had joined his friends for a kickball league in the Fall. Most of the games I spent in the outfield where I never saw any action, and when I was up to kick, our captain kindly told me to stand there and hope for a walk. One night, though, we had a rare 12 run lead. So as I got ready to walk up to the plate, the captain told me to hit it if I wanted. I DID want it. It was my moment. I was about to shine. None of them had any idea how hard I could kick that damn ball. I stood there. The ball rolled past far outside the strike zone. “Ball!” Then I saw my moment come rolling up to my feet. I ran up and kicked the hell out of it. To everyone’s amazement it soared through air over the heads of the infield. I was astonished at myself. I had a hit! I imagine that I looked like the cartoon roadrunner, I was so excited and my feet were moving so fast. I was about to show them all.

Easier said than done.

I don’t know exactly what went wrong. But my feet knotted together and I fell, arms flailing, dust rising around my skidding failure of a body. I was mortified. I could hear my team in the dugout to my right. Half of them were laughing loudly. The other half were yelling at me to get up, that I could still make it to first base. I picked myself up and jogged to the base and in the nick of time…..was tagged out. Defeated, I returned to the dugout, sat down and buried my face in my boyfriend’s shirt, wanting to cry. My hands were bleeding, my hip hurt, and I had once again (as I always, always do) failed athletically. I could feel his chest convulsing with suppressed laughter. It really must have been an amusing site, but I never returned to that kickball field.

“Baseball is different,” I told him in that Target store. We eventually decided on a 12”, tan, Rawlings mitt. I tried it on my hand. It was stiff. But I dreamt of all the future wear and tear I was going to earn. We took my fresh mitt, and his worn boyhood one to a local park. In the sunlight and Spring-like weather we ate the picnic we had packed. Once we had rested from our eating, we saw the grey clouds and felt the stinging chill breeze anticipating rain roll in. It’s Spring though, we’d have another chance. But, no, it’s not Spring. In the week that followed, it snowed and temperatures plummeted.

So the mitt that is finally mine sits in the corner of my room, still intact, perfect and imperfect in its lack of experience. And I, like a child wanting to grow up and see the world, sit here looking at my glove, still waiting for my own game of Catch.

From the Typewriter of Roger Angell

Sometimes you come across a Roger Angell sentence that you can’t help but share. This one comes from a mid-July, 1973 New Yorker magazine, in which he’s describing a Yankees game he attended (the ‘first’ preceding this one was his first view of the designated hitter in action):

The other true first, for me and perhaps for everyone there, was the moment in the eighth inning when Yankee catcher Thurman Munson and third baseman Graig Nettles, converging on a bunt by Jorge Orta, made simultaneous bare-handed grabs at the ball and came up holding hands.

Podcast #2: Beginnings and Endings

In this, the second Pitchers & Poets podcast, Ted and I discuss everything from rotisserie chicken to rotisserie baseball. And that’s just in the last five minutes. We discuss a pair of big-time retirements that happened this Winter, namely Nomar Garciaparra* and Frank Thomas. I talk about why I want to be Nomar’s friend, and Ted explains why he prefers The Big Hurt stylistically to his 1990s AL co-star Ken Griffey Jr.

Next it’s onto Spring Training and the early shock of seeing players in new uniforms — especially the hideous alternate jerseys and mesh caps worn in the Florida and Arizona sunshine.  Finally, we bring it around to baseball books, discussing in particular Sam Walker’s 2006 gem Fantsyland**, which leads us, of course, to the all-important chickens.

*This is a cool story: when I was 9 or 10, my mom broke her ankle. In physical therapy, she met this nice young man who was a minor league baseball player for the Red Sox. He was very friendly and polite, she said when she got home, and he signed you and your brothers autographs. He had a funny name. Needless to say, we were quite shocked to see that same guy become Nomar Garciaparra and win the AL Rookie of the Year a short time later.

**Fantasyland was bought for me by my aunt Shelly who heard an NPR interview in which the book was praised. It sat on my shelf for a few months before it was recommended a second time by Corban Goble of Epilogue Magazine. Thank you to both of them making me pick up this book. Buy it here.