Monthly Archive for April, 2010

Podcast 5: Surprisingly Modern

Surprisingly Modern

Welcome to Podcast no. 5. In this edition:

-Eric gets the score of the Dodgers-Pirates Opener wrong. (Some fan).

-Ted defends Obama’s White Sox/Nats Opening Day ensemble.

-Fantasy Baseball and what Ted refers to as “the sliding sports.”

-More about facial hair than you ever want to hear.

-Everth, Alcides, Elvis, and Asdrubal

-Nolan Ryan: Surprisingly Modern for 65 Years.

-The Batting Stance Guy (and his co-author)’s new book.

-We read a Frank DeFord column out loud.

-Josh Wilker: The Opposite of Batting Stance Guy

-The Pitching Coach as Public Figure.

 

Chatting: Early Season Predictions from My Friend Ben

Book Review: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker

Cardboard Gods: an All-American Tale Told through Baseball Cards is not, as its cover and title may indicate, an innocuous book. It is not even a book about baseball cards. Instead, it is a book about baseball fandom, and how fandom ties into family and memory and childhood in 1970s America. In the truest sense, Cardboard Gods is a memoir – a caringly and unusually crafted story that turns the quiet internal desperation of growing up into something palatable and significant without relying on melodrama. Baseball cards are the mechanism. Author Josh Wilker is his own subject.

Wilker himself is what separates this book from the typical Biography fare at Barnes and Noble. Wilker’s is not a glamorous story. He is not a head of state, a commercially successful author, or a star athlete, and the book is defined by the author’s hyper-awareness of this fact. The chasm between the baseball card collector and the ballplayer on the card is as vast as the Green Monster is tall. Wilker writes about an encounter with Red Sox star Jim Rice that he had as a ten year old:

“He turned toward me. I was too shocked to say anything. After all my years of worship, I couldn’t believe a god could hear me, that a god could look me straight in the eye.” Wilker’s imagination is so powerful, his mythmaking so comprehensive, and his daily life so distant from the Cardboard Gods themselves, that the very notion of Jim Rice’s actual humanity marks a turning point. The Gods are shown to be human. “Life got more complicated after that,” Wilker writes with rueful bluntness.

The paradox of all this, is that as the book develops, it becomes increasingly clear that the titular Cardboard Gods are not deities at all. Rather, they are minor characters, useful in providing historical context, in marking the passage of time, and in propelling certain anecdotes. At their best, they seem to serve as proxies for the real god in the story: Wilker’s older brother Ian. It is much easier for Wilker to come to terms with Steve Garvey’s disingenuous smile and J.R. Richard’s hard luck than the blemishes of his older brother.

The undercurrents of hero worship and brother worship are united in a gut-punch chapter toward the end of the book’s second section (there are four). Topps 1978 #655: Lyman Bostock, which takes place just weeks before the Jim Rice incident, finds young Wilker alone at night with this brother, desperately questioning his own existence and the meaning of the universe.

“I…went and sat on the stairs and gripped my stomach with both hands, rocking back and forth, overpowered by the idea that someday I would not exist,” Wilker writes (he has a knack for stating major crises in simple, heartbreaking prose). The 27-year old Bostock, Wilker had learned that day, had been shot and killed in the backseat of a car – a case of mistaken identity. To calm his distraught younger brother, the fourteen year old Ian Wilker reads trivia questions out of a baseball almanac – “Who is the all-time career leader in triples?” “Who’s the all-time single season leader in doubles?” – until finally, the existential crisis passes.

Josh Wilker might love the Boston Red Sox, and his favorite player might be Carl Yastrzemski. But not even the great Yaz can read him trivia questions when his parents aren’t home. Ian is the God Wilker shares a room with, the God he can copycat. In the end, it is this relationship that carries the book forward. Not the reader’s desire to see another picture of a baseball card, or read another story about those players. I found that after a while, I was barely noticing the players on the cards – they only mattered in as much as they shed light on the story Wilker was telling about himself. In the same manner that form fades to the background of a great epistolary novel or carefully metered poem, the baseball card conceit fades here. Baseball cards augment the content, they do not define it.

The persona of the 40-something copy editor who lives in Chicago and writes movingly introspective essays about the baseball cards of his youth in rural Vermont is familiar to readers of the Cardboard Gods blog, which began publishing in 2006. Wilker’s blog has been featured in the New York Times and praised across the Web by outlets including ESPN.com. But his book is not a rehashing. The content in Cardboard Gods is all new. Wilker expounds on details that were merely brushed upon on the Web, such as his nontraditional family life and his relationships with his father, his mother, and his mother’s longtime boyfriend Tom (all three briefly lived under the same roof).

There is a point, around the Lyman Bostock chapter, in which Cardboard Gods becomes more than a memoir. It becomes more meditative. Without ever stating them explicitly, the book asks serious questions of fandom. What does it mean to make imaginary heroes of ordinary men, to make a religion of the statistics on the backs of baseball cards? At what point does fandom cross from being an interest to a lifestyle? As the book progresses, and Wilker struggles to at once free himself from the grip of the Cardboard Gods, and come to terms with his permanent seat at their altar, these questions become so poignant and pressing that it becomes almost impossible for the reader to continue without thinking these questions through for him or herself.

We may not all have had the same hopeless devotion to our baseball cards as a young Josh Wilker, but we have all lost ourselves in something imaginary. We have all sought refuge in the order of inconsequential places only to realize that the real world is in fact chaotic. In Wilker’s world, this means that the Gods turn out to be men. It fits that the most unabashedly human of the Gods (and the only to be the subject of a Warren Zevon song), Bill “Spaceman” Lee, is among the many writers who have praised Cardboard Gods in advance of its release.

The Spaceman has faced down his own hopeless devotion to the game. He has seen its ugly side. He would no doubt agree that true faith and true love, whether in baseball or religion or romance, are meant to be grappled with, questioned frequently, and reflected upon. Wilker’s faith is the furthest possible from unexamined. He is forced to accept the decided un-godliness of his Gods. Lyman Bostock is shot dead. Jim Rice is just a man who turns at the sound of a young boy’s voice. Steve Garvey is so clean cut he has to be a phony. J.R. Richard becomes homeless, living under a freeway. And the book’s final God, the Great Yastrzemski, strikes out.

Buy the book on Amazon here.

Life in The Show, Volume 1

Eric has his Little League baseball team, and me? I’ve got the Playstation 3. So in the spirit of one downsmanship, I will be tracking my year on the virtual field, playing MLB 10: The Show, a masterpiece of a baseball video game and the pinnacle of the form.

I picked up my copy of The Show with little hesitation on the day it was released, at my local neighborhood big box store. It’s the centerpiece of my video game collection and the one game that can’t–barring some apocalyptic fundamental change–disappoint me year to year.

Dodging the blue shirts to grab my steal-proof copy empty box, I presented it to the girl at the front, who went searching for the actual game. On her way from the cash register to the Actual Game Bin, she forgot what game I was buying, so I had to declare aloud my commitment to the baseball franchise.

It was worth it. The Show is as purty as ever, with the detailed improvements that a veteran of baseball video games can really geek out on, like more lifelike throwing animations and more dynamic fans who actually–gasp!–reach down for ground balls skittering along the wall in foul territory.

Some would argue, accurately, that there isn’t all that much different with this year’s version, and that perhaps I put down my hard-earned for little in the way of innovation. I, however, budgeted for the 2010 version just as soon as A-Rod spit his gum out and jumped onto the World Series-winning pile, so I’m pretty happy with the cosmetic upgrades.

After a hiatus last year, I’m back into the online gameplay in 2010, as I usually reserve the long-form Road to the Show mode and Franchise modes for late in the year and the offseason, as a form of relief from the online format. For now, though, in the fresh new early season, it’s human versus human.

The year in The Show started off choppily in 2010. There were quite a few glitches to dance around in the first week of play, particularly in the online iteration. Simple online match ups quickly led to frustrating freezes and whacked out statistics. First, it was the intentional walk glitch, which brought the sleek supercomputer to its knees and required a reboot every time I tried to give someone a free pass. The rub was that whovever shut down their system first would get credit for the win, so there were a few times that, in my stubborn refusal to cede a win, I left the system running in its frozen state while I walked the dog, trying to wait out my equally frustrated opponent.

There’s also the typical annual imperfection of the online play. The Show is a timing game, and the briefest bit of lag can mess up a pitch or a swing. In the past, like in the early days of The Show on the PS2, you’d get online with a gamer who seemed to be tapping into The Show’s servers via dial-up from in an Internet cafe in Manila. Buster Keaton films have been smoother. This isn’t so much a problem these days. Now it’s more the occasional blip that comes unexpectedly when you’re trying to strike someone out with the bases loaded, and you end up chunking a fastball to the backstop or right down the pipe.

My team this year, for the most part, is the Seattle Mariners. They are also my newly adopted bandwagon team for the real season, so it makes sense because a) there’s that emotional affinity and b) I like their defense. The Show’s 2010 version seems to have a ramped up RANDOM-O-TRON that guides fielding play so there are way more glancing balls, blatant gaffs and balls scooting under gloves than in the past. The 3rd-ranked Mariner defense goes a good way to mitigate the negative impact of the new defensive crazy.

There’s a problem with my online play this year, though: I totally stink. Back in 2005, the typical sports gamer hadn’t yet discovered the hidden gem that was The Show. I was literally something like the 90th best player in the country. By now though every Madden addict fresh from football season picks up a copy of The Show and commits his fast-twitch motor skills and Mtn Dew-fueled attention to the National Pastime. I don’t stand a chance, and I’m currently fighting my way back to .500, ranked–and I’m not making this up–72,126th.

My highlight so far? In my only game playing as the Red Sox, I threw a no-hitter with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield against what was no doubt some frustrated ten-year-old with an itchy swing finger. The gimpy servers never did log the game, though, so my achievement–the first no-hitter I’ve thrown in a baseball video game ever–is currently lost in the data cloud, floating like a Wakefield knuckler in digital purgatory.

My favorite pitcher is, expectedly, “King” Felix Hernandez and his hammer down curveball and 97 MPH heat. My favorite hitter? A glitch in the Matrix has granted Jose Lopez Team MVP status. He gets the job done, verisimilitude and sabermetrics be damned.

As for The Show, it’s just getting started. I’m just gonna play it one game at a time, give it my best shot, and Good Lord willing, things’ll work out.

It Takes Tui

Just when you think that baseball is becoming too specialized, when stats are taking over, when the media has made the game into some freakish mutation that used to be a game, you see something like I just saw in a rain-speckled spring training game between the Giants and the Mariners.

Matt Tuiasosopo, a utility infielder who made the big league team by a shoestring, hit a home run off of some lefty number 77 pitcher for the Giants. It was a pretty good little shot in a game that probably could’ve been called by the umps at that point, such was the heavy drizzle and the nearly vacant stands in what was the last spring training game of the year before the real deal starts tonight. Tui rounded the bases on the trot and the TV broadcast followed a giddy woman in the left field stands who got ahold of the home run ball.

When Tui returned to the dugout after touching the plate, he may as well have grounded out to that number 77 pitcher. Not a single player moved to offer him a simple high-five or fist bump, or even glance in his direction. There was nary a flicker of recognition. As Tui took off his batting gloves and stowed his bat and helmet away in the cubbies, the whole of the Mariners bench treated him as though he’d made the rounds with each of their wives and girlfriends.

At about the ten-second beat, Eric Byrnes starts to crack, glancing up mischievously. Then he stands and wraps Tui up in a big bear hug. With the first crack in the facade, the rest of the team jumps over, grinning, patting Tui on the head and slapping five and laughing. Don Wakamatsu even turned around from his manager’s perch to give him a high five (though his smile was muted, being as it is so close to baseball that matters).

If you can find me a box score that tracks moments such as this, I’d commit my sharpened Cubs pencil from Wrigley Field to it in a heartbeat.

On Sabermetric Transparency

Over at Walkoff Walk, 310toJoba (somebody get this guy a first name), writes about the mega-awesome-super news that Bill Simmons, the internet voice of the Sports Media Industrial Complex has officially embraced sabermetrics. This is a major (if inevitable coup) for the stats-y baseball blogosphere. If no longer the Voice of the American Sports Fan, Simmons remains influential. He is also useful as a bell weather.  As Simmons goes, so goes the sports fan.

Anyway, 310toJoba asks many great questions of the article, and hits Simmons for his navel-gazing and the back-handedness of his compliments. It seems futile to point out that a Simmons column without navel-gazing has yet to be written. And as to the back-handedness, I didn’t really read the article as pejorative. But perhaps that’s because I’m not a numbers guy myself and this is not a numbers blog.

But once again, that’s not what I’m here to write about. 310toJoba says the following of The Sports Guy’s desire to understand what goes into making these statistics:

On the one hand, I appreciate his efforts to attain a better grasp on the stats as a whole; he consistently tries to find out how they’re calculated. Good on him. On the other hand, perhaps Simmons is getting a little too overzealous and missing the point.

And later:

Again, it’s admirable that he wants to go all the way with his newfound obsession, but he comes off as being condescending and too in depth when there’s no need to be.

310toJoba then honorably admits that he has no idea how many of these stats are calculated and questions whether actually understanding the formula would make him a better or better-informed baseball fan. All this amounts to the typical argument “there are smarter, better suited people to do this, I’ll just trust them.” (Not an actual quote).

And here is where I find myself disagreeing with Mr. 310. I think Simmons’ desire to understand the formulas is entirely reasonable. And I don’t see how it is in any way condescending. Here he is admitting to the great wide world that sabermetrics are better than traditional numbers at measuring baseball performance. That’s still a pretty big deal, and for people to embrace that notion, they have to understand why these numbers are better.

There is a tendency among people at the forefront of change and new ideas to assume that the masses will somehow intuit why their proposed changes and new ideas are better. This assumption is why Americans were so vehemently opposed to Health Care Reform – they just saw it as an amorphous blob set forth by people unwilling to explain it in a palatable manner. So when guys like Joe Morgan (or Lindsey Graham), say that these ideas are wrong, or un-American, or will have horrible consequences, the urge is to recoil from them. The remedy to all this is spelling out exactly what these new ideas amount to, and doing so in simple and tangible terms. Just saying “trust us, it will be better,” is not enough.

The baseball stats we grew up with are very easy to calculate. If they aren’t counting stats like runs or runs batted in, they are equations with few inputs requiring basic arithmetic. Walks Plus Hits Divided By Innings Pitched. Okay Simple. We trust those stats because we have a good grasp on what exactly they are telling us. And we know that although not perfect, they are not necessarily bad. Baseball was just fine without sabermetrics. So who are you to tell me that this newfangled stuff can make it better?

I’m not sure it’s enough to just have some smart person tell you “OPS+ is a great metric for offensive performance!” and just believe them on blind faith. I’ve grappled with this myself. I am a pretty sabermetrically literate guy. But I hate relying on statistics I do not fully understand. It often feels like I am arguing on a foundation of quicksand; like somebody could open the curtain and reveal that Bill James is as phony as the Wizard of Oz, and because I don’t fully understand how to calculate UZR, I too will be revealed as a phony.

Obviously, I know this is not the case. I know that smart and well-intentioned people are doing this research to help our understanding of the game. But I know this because I write a baseball blog, and because I’m a curious guy who has tried to learn the formulas. I am not inclined to take it on blind faith that new stats are better stats, and neither are most other baseball fans. It might take, as Simmons says, only ten minutes to be a better informed fan. But it takes more than ten minutes to figure out how VORP is calculated. Does being able to rattle off advanced stats really make one a better informed fan? Or is there some obligation to learn how the gears grind beneath the sheen of the number itself?

PnP Podcast Episode IV: A New Hope

Sorry for the technical difficulties in getting this up. In Episode IV: A New Hope, Ted and I get ready for Opening Day. Among the topics of discussion:

1. Sad veterans getting cut (Kevin Millar) and happy veterans making teams (Mike Seeney!)

2. Free Garko and the Independent Ryan Garko Fanbase

3. The low quality of Spring Training television broadcasts.

4. Denard Span’s mother and why she is stealing perfectly good foul balls from little kids at the ballpark.

5. Our own foul ball chivalry (or lack thereof)

6. Predictions Predictions Predictions.

7. Whose the better Italian-American catcher? Chris Ianetta or Mike Napoli?

 

The All-Meteorological Team via EFQ

The All-Meteorological Team was published in Elysian Fields Quarterly, the baseball journal whose publishing status remains hazy. Horowitz does a fantastic series of All-Something Teams, of which this is just one.

The All-Meteorologic Team
By Mikhail Horowitz

C – Blimp Hayes
1B – J. T. Snow
2B – Gene Freese
SS – Andy High
3B – Sammy Hale
OF – Curt Flood
OF – Tim Raines
OF – Larry Sheets

RHP
Rich Gale
Dave Frost
Mark Clear
Ken Cloude
Dave Weathers

LHP
Lou Sleater

BENCH
Ernie Gust
Razor Shines

MGR
Bobby Lowe

My PnP honorable mentions include:

Mike “The Human Rain Delay” Hargrove
Dexter Fowler
Coco Crisp
Jeff Clement (okay, that one’s a stretch…)