Monthly Archive for August, 2010

The Stadium Experience: Getting There

The magic of attending a baseball game may begin when you present your ticket at the gate, but no spell can be cast without adequate preparation. Before the first pitch the would-be attendee faces a gauntlet of decisions, ranging from checking the schedule for the presence of the home team to pondering whether skipping work on a Wednesday afternoon to watch the 5-starter is really acceptable. The alchemy of preparation may have numerous permutations, but there are four ingredients of particular importance, namely: Who, What, When, and How. Without these, which arise for every game-goer, the stadium might as well not exist.

Image from flickr user "terren in Virginia"

Who am I going with?

Whether it’s the wife, a college friend, a co-worker, or an awkward uncle, choosing a partner or group of co-attendees is a precursor even to picking a game. While this is a relatively simple question, the process of making this choices says a lot about the potential attendee. For example, the less authoritative personality is not likely to choose at all, rather waiting for the game to come to him in the form of an invitation. The gregarious carouser, on the other hand, is wont to invite five or six friends, especially if he’s got someone to impress. The especially magnanimous, but secretly lonely, man will offer to buy everyone’s tickets and beers if only they’ll come along, while the lazy and anti-social man will just drag his wife along for fear of getting in contact with – and being rejected by – anyone else. One might justifiably wonder how he has a wife in the first place, but that’s beside the point.

Any one of us might be any one of those people at any time, or we might default to a single game-attending modus. Regardless, whether we follow habit or not, having answered “who” we proceed to “what.”

What game are we going to?

The all-mighty schedule imposes certain limitations on this question. If the home team is in the backwaters of Pittsburgh and Washington for the next week the game-going impulse will not be immediately satiated. If, on the other hand, the darkened dates on the calendar indicate a glorious 14-game homestand, the proverbial cup runneth over.

Having perused possibilities, choosing a particular one – or, hey, maybe two or three – is a relatively simple function of available money (lets call that “M”), and time and date of games (call it “T”). Taking the result of “Who,” (or W) as a coefficient, each potential game (“G”) is scored as follows: G = T / W*M. That is, the likelihood of going to a given game is equal to the convenience of the date, factoring in who is going and how much it’s likely to cost. I might have the formula slightly wrong, but I trust some enterprising sabermetrician will spot the error and correct it.

When do we get there?

The question comes with the all-important corollary, “What do we eat?” Ballpark food has its advantages, but price is not among them. On the other hand, there are some fans who insist upon arriving an hour before the game to sit around and watch players stretch and take batting practice, which makes a pre-game meal and drink a trickier proposition.

The other corollary, here, is “How are we getting our tickets?” Scalping is a viable option, but is best done right before the first pitch, when the fickle baseball-ticket market suddenly shifts in the buyer’s favor. A baseball ticket is a rare thing that can be worth as much as one hundred dollars one moment, less than ten a few minutes later, and nothing at all the next day. Finding the right time to strike is vital.

Buying online, or buying walk-up, on the other hand, requires a somewhat earlier arrival, as the line at the ticket-office is liable to make even the most optimistic fan despair for humanity. Questions that might arise, especially if first pitch is imminent, include: “How can it take so long for the guy in front to buy a single ticket?” and, “Why would they hire a deaf saleswoman?” and, if the home team is playing everyone’s favorite lovable losers, “What are all these freaking Cubs fans doing here? This isn’t Chicago!”*

*The reader should disregard this last question if he or she is, in fact in Chicago.

Are we there yet?

How do we get there?

Finally, the most important question of all. Having settled the simple stuff, the real getting to the park must be negotiated. Public transportation, a nice walk (if you live close enough), the horrors of driving and parking, or some combination of the three are all valid options. While location has a lot to do with the decision, here, it doesn’t change the finality. Once the car is fired up, the train is boarded, or those first steps out of the apartment have been taken, the stadium experience has begun. It’s only a matter of time before, settling into his seat, the stadium-goer can sit back and let the game wash over him, talking with his particular whos. Cue National Anthem, starting lineups, and first pitch. Put aside all troubles and worries, including the very effort of getting there.

As a coda, I want to address the absence of the other two classic journalistic questions: “Where” and “Why.” I have left these out because the former is exceedingly simple and the latter exceedingly complicated. In other words, if “Where is the stadium?” is an important question in your particular game-going experience, you’re clearly in an unusual situation. If “Why am I going to the game?” is an important question in the pre-game process, well, you’ll just have to answer for yourself.

Podcast 21: Nostalgic Wasteland

For this podcast, we wrote a bunch of words on a piece of paper and dove in:

  • Read a Poem
  • Harry Potter
  • Jim Murray
  • Song Lyric Web Pages
  • the Base Message
  • Punk Rock Phase
  • Baseball Style
  • Jimmy Buffett
 

To download the episode, right click the link: Pitchers and Poets Podcast Episode 21

Link:

Some Common Weaknesses by Carson Cistulli

The Stadium Experience: Cooperstown Connection

The bats were wooden, and the baseball players were young and green. The stands were mostly empty but for behind home plate–in the shade of the grandstand–where chatty ladies in hats and large sunglassed filled the spaces between the mens’ one-liners about hot dogs and heart attacks. The sun burned bright even as it set, there in the early evening in Cooperstown, New York.

There were the Cooperstown Hawkeyes, the local side, and another team from another small New York town wearing forest green. They were likely the best players from their colleges, schools with names like Catawba Valley and Shippensburg; Civil War names. But this wasn’t the Cape Cod league. These kids weren’t on the fast-track to signing bonuses. They were playing so they didn’t have to live at home for the summer. They were playing to play, the way most of us did. They don’t make it big out of the New York Collegiate Baseball League.

My friend Paul and I were in town for the Hall of Fame, and only made it to Doubleday Field for the game because it happened to fit into our rigorous weekend itinerary. But there was also the appeal of watching an actual live game in a place where so much of the baseball is stuffed and mounted.

In other words, after a solid eight hours of peering into display cases, reading tidy little placards, and poring over newspaper clippings in the research library, Doubleday Field felt as wide as the Polo Grounds. The dust that a second baseman kicked up at Doubleday was living dust, an activation of all the incantations down the street in the museum.

(A note vis-a-vis the research library: they’re awesome, they’ll help you find out about whatever you want, especially if you give them a day or two of advanced notice. Also, the director of research at the library, Tim Wiles, sung Take Me Out to the Ballgame on account of the book about the song that he co-wrote. If you heard the kind of conversations he got to have during his workday at the library, you would be jealous. He talks about it in this episode of the Cover the Bases podcast.)

Doubleday Field leads a double life. Often, like medium-sized baseball fields nationwide, it plays host to modest events such as this Hawkeyes game, in which young people play ball in front of some parents and friends, and a light dusting of randoms like me and Paul, who could go for a little baseball, whatever the flavor.

But then there are those weekends when its kinship with the Hall of Fame pays off in glory. Some of those days are past, as the Hall of Fame game between two big league teams which is done with as of 2008. But on the Sunday of the very weekend we were in Cooperstown, there was the Cooperstown Classic Old Timer’s Day scheduled that would surely fill the stands and feature some of the greats of the recent past. We saw a few of these guys, in fact, at a forum at the local high school: Ozzie Smith, Rollie Fingers, Bob Feller (who I presume at 90-something years old didn’t pitch, but it wouldn’t shock me if the old curmudgeon did), Goose Gossage, Harmon Killebrew, Phil Niekro. Apparently Jeff Kent and Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten were there too.

Point is, Doubleday Field still sees its share of grandiosity. That in itself adds a little sparkle to a humble game like the Hawkeyes matchup here. Knowing that pro players have attacked those close-in fences and kicked at the mound lends a little touch of the magical to what would otherwise be your basic summer league game.

We were not, of course, the only fans at the field. There were other goofy groups of men, who clearly had the same thought we did, the urge to watch some real baseball and the organizational wherewithal to find this one on the schedule. These weekend warriors were the ones in Carlton Fisk Red Sox jerseys and bright white sneakers. Nice cameras hung from their necks, and their pallor suggested paperwork over surfing.

And then there were the locals. Round about the third inning, the sun was pointed directly at my forehead, so we bought a few hot dogs from some softball players working concessions en route to the grandstand behind home plate, where there was a roof and some shade. Under the roof, the crack of the bat echoed a little and there was got a nice view of what everybody else was up to.

Down near the backstop, I thought I saw a scout with a radar gun, but it turned out it was a Coke Zero bottle in his hand. A row below us, a college girl stretched and preened her tan summer legs. A young girl with a brown lab puppy stood around as groups of people cooed and petted it.

On the drive home from my high school baseball games, my mom would talk about what my teammate’s families were up to: news about brothers and sisters and moms and dads, who got into what college, who was dating whom, who was going to military school. She was like a Pony Express rider the way she absorbed and broadcast all of that news.

“You know they’re tryinna getta liquor license for the field, huh?” said a bald, middle-aged guy who had a minute ago made an excuse for his second piece of pizza. “Finally have a decent party here. Serve beer.”

“They been trying for years,” said a plump woman settled in down the row from him. “They’ll get it this year. I’m on the alcohol board.”

Conversation meandered among them, with the woman providing the narrative drive and the three men down the row providing comic relief and nonsequitors. “Ochocinco!” the bald guy said at one point, for no apparent reason. “Ochocinco!”

When a foul ball shot back against the backstop screen, the woman said to the bald guy, “If they get ridda that net you’d have a lot more patients!” Then he told a story about a Lifesavers factory. It made sense at the time, if only just. It made sense was that we were at a baseball game and that a story was being told that someone had read in a newspaper.

Down below, the game got slow, the starting pitchers lost their handle. There are no lights at Doubleday Field, promising a foreseeable and merciful conclusion. But we didn’t wait around. We had some local beer in the trunk of the rental car, and a view from the motel porch that was calling our name.

Did I mention that Phil Niekro threw out the first pitch? Well he did, and throughout the game the PA announcer asked Niekro-related questions and if you ran up to his table with the answer you’d win a free piece of pizza. “There’s Phil,” said Paul as we found our seats behind home plate. I couldn’t make him out, though. He blended right into that small crowd.

Teaching Sabermetrics

Earlier this year a small Bay Area nonprofit called Tutorpedia asked me to teach a poetry workshop over the summer. Actually, they asked to write a curriculum for a poetry workshop, and then to teach it later, which may seem like a slight distinction, but is not. Seeing as I clearly didn’t have enough to do already – I was also in the midst of a Master’s in Education program at Stanford – I petitioned to write and teach not only a poetry workshop, but a sabermetrics workshop as well.

To my surprise, Tutorpedia not only said yes to my nefarious, baseball-teaching plan, they were thrilled.  They even offered me free Oakland Athletics tickets so I could go to a game with my students.  And so I started crafting my curricula in my ‘spare time.’

Who doesn't love the Oakland A's?

Tutorpedia believes in project-based learning, and I believe in dialogue-driven classrooms, so my model was not, from the outset, stand up and lecture. Rather, the poetry curriculum was to be a series of conversations about famous poems, followed by activities highlighting techniques the poets in question were using, all culminating in the composition (and public recitation) of an original work of poetry. Likewise, the sabermetrics course was designed to give students the skills they needed to perform statistical analysis before sending them off to do independent research projects.

Unfortunately, after carefully putting together my curricula, I found out that no one was signing up for my workshops. And not only me, Tutorpedia was hoping to run dozens of workshops over the summer, and no one was signing up for any of them. Ultimately, three students signed up for my sabermetrics class, and none for my poetry workshop. So be it! If high schoolers would rather learn about wOBA and WAR than enjambment, simile, and pentameter, who am I to argue?

One of my three students ended up having to drop the course due to a family emergency, leaving us at a paltry two – and a brother and sister (and Yankees fans) at that – but nevertheless we trod onwards towards understanding and insight, or at least indoctrination into a different set of beliefs than those you get from watching the Fox Game of The Week. I say that in jest, partially, but it’s also a question. Is it possible to really get students to learn to think critically about anything – even something as trivial as baseball statistics – in just 16 hours of class time? And isn’t critical thinking what sabermetrics is supposed to be about? That’s the real can of worms, I suppose. As sabermetrics have grown more prominent, it’s not clear what the study is about anymore, let alone what teaching the subject means.

Certainly the origins of sabermetrics are in critical thought. At a time when no one questioned the power of batting average and the RBI, advocating statistics like OBP or, even worse, creating new ones like Win Shares, was the kind of heresy that required a great deal of level-headed, penetrating insight and at least a little gusto to boot.  Enter Bill James. These days, however, we have Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, Baseball Analysts, Baseball-Reference, and countless other websites devoted to providing information and analysis about baseball statistics. The old heresy is the new religion.

Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with sabermetrics – I wouldn’t teach it if I were so unfaithful – but rather it raises the question: which is more important, the thought process behind the study of baseball statistics, or the outcome of that process? Which is more important, knowing how WAR is calculated (as much as they let you know, anyway) or knowing more or less how to use it to evaluate players?

Another object of study: Win Probability graphs

I, for one, am persuaded that WAR is a better measure of a player’s value than almost any other single statistic, and WAR formed the basis of the research project – building an all-time Yankees roster – my students and I did at the end of the course. That said, my inclination as both an educator and as a baseball fan is and always will be towards process over outcome. Without the ability to think through a statistic, the statistic has no meaning to me other than the one that other people give me.

How to convey that in eight two-hour sessions? Well, it’s hard. I taught my students how to use excel and basic statistical tools like regression and correlation (which, to their credit more than mine, they understood), and I exposed them to a few of the many sabermetric websites. And in the end I saw that hard work rewarded by rapid – almost immediate – buy-in when we learned about WAR and UZR and ERA+. It remains to be seen whether my students will ever bring the tools of the skeptic’s trade – critical questions, excel speadsheets, and statistical techniques – to bear on the new numbers as we did on the old.  I hope I at least planted a skeptical seed, but the narrative of modern baseball statistics, it turns out, is quite compelling.

In retrospect, the course was perhaps a bit too practical. Maybe the better path towards critical thinking runs through a more philosophical approach. Maybe stepping even further back, teaching less and asking the students to explore more on their own, would have netted a more skeptical attitude. But, taking that approach, what do you do if the students come out the other end convinced that pitcher wins and runs batted in are awesome?  What if being hands-off means letting someone else do the brainwashing?

I suppose the answer, on some level, comes down to the students. Because I was working with a brother and sister who were at least familiar with the existence of Moneyball, I knew they had the potential to dive into concepts like WAR, wOBA, and UZR, but when our initial discussion turned up batting average as THE statistic of choice, I also knew we had some work to do before we got there. Considering the slightly younger-than-anticipated enrollment (I expected high schoolers and got middle schoolers), we had to begin at the beginning, building regression tables to show that, in fact, OBP and SLG correlate way better with winning than batting average or homers.

As I dove into these analytical and pedagogical depths, considering and reconsidering both the statistics I was teaching and my approach in teaching them, I was called back to another world as we were working on the final project. The sister wrote a limerick on the board in a moment of whimsy, likely tired of comparing Red Ruffing’s ERA+ to that of Roger Clemens.

“How do you like my poem?” She asked me.

“That was supposed to be the other workshop,” I told her.

Connie Mack Style

Just a quick link, I wrote a blog post over at AlwaysBeSuited.com, a new men’s fashion and style concern from my friend Dave. The subject is Connie Mack, for 50 years the uber-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics and since then the baseball legend, and his preference for suits in the dugout:

Connie Mack remains an icon of style in an otherwise uniform environment. Mr. Mack, as everyone called him, was a businessman and a baseball man who coached the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years. No coach has won more games, over 3,500, and no coach has looked better doing it.

He wore a tailored suit and the hat to match in the dugout, for every single game. He was rarely, if ever, known to waver from that uniform, a gentleman among the brawlers and ruffians of the early century. Only the baseball scorecard that he kept at hand and used to direct his outfielders suggested his occupation.

Here are a few facts and quotations, Mack-related and detachable collar-related, not all of which made it into that post:

  • Mack managed the same team, the Philadelphia Athletics, for 50 years. His attire matched the respect he required of his players, who referred to him only as Mr. Mack. He managed five teams to a World Series victory.
  • “[Baseball] is a game which is peculiarly suited to the American temperament and disposition; … in short, the pastime suits the people, and the people suit the pastime.” – Charles A. Peverelly I enjoyed the reference to suits, if only for the pun
  • Columnist Red Smith wrote: “Many people loved Mack, some feared him, everybody respected him, as far as I know nobody ever dislike him. There may never have been a more truly successful man. He was tough, human, clever, warmly wonderful, kind and stubborn and courtly and unreasonable, proud, humorous, demanding, unpredictable.” According to the stories, he was as willing to offer up as ass-kicing as he was to extend a helping hand.”
  • 1912: The Yankees introduce pinstripes for the first time, though it’s a myth that they added the stripes to thin the ample figure of star hitter Babe Ruth, who didn’t play for the Yankees until some years later.
  • The detachable collar was invented by a woman in Troy, New York, in 1827. Hannah Lord Montague, frustrated at the gnarliness of her husband’s shirt collars, decided to cut one of them off, wash the crap out of it, and sew it back on. A friend noticed the innovation and made it into a product. When a collar is detached, you can starch it until its the hardness of a pine board, and thereby gain the sternness of appearance that a commanding presence like Connie Mack would prize.
  • “I remember: Connie Mack always in same dugout seat in business suit, with high-starched collar, scorecard in hand, waving his outfielders into position.” – Allen Lewis, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, featuring memories of Connie Mack Stadium upon its closure

Podcast 20: Dante’s Legacy

In this episode of the podcast, we rehash the rehashing of the Clemens-steroid situation, talk up the Derrek Lee trade a bit, give due praise to Moises Alou and delve into the best of the 2nd generation major leaguers.

 

To download the episode, right click and Save As here.

Applicable PodLinks:

The Hold Steady

Roger Clemens and perjury and blah blah blah

MLB.com’s story on upcoming 2nd generation players

Dante Bichette

Ed Sprague

Tiny and Bobo the Clowns (Not Safe for Sanity)

The Big Announcement

Pitchers and Poets was unknown to me back in 2009, when I came across a beautiful, haunting piece of writing about a dead young pitcher and a family’s tribute on the baseball field, The Death of a Pitcher. The piece’s author, a heady young upstart named Eric Nusbaum, was taking the game of baseball in his hands like a wet glob of clay, slapping it onto the wheel and forming it into something dense and glowing, and I knew it.

Well, I wasn’t the only one to take notice. Others out there, the taste-makers of the sports writing establishment, found Nusbaum’s blip on the radar as I did. They felt the same chill when they read about Jaime Irogoyen’s passing, and about a community’s need for the game. And the taste-makers acted.

Now, I am proud as hell to announce the coolest thing ever:

Glenn Stout, series editor of The Best American Sports Writing anthology, and this year’s guest editor, Peter Gammons (!), have selected Eric Nusbaum’s piece, “The Death of a Pitcher,” to appear in this year’s edition, The Best American Sports Writing 2010.

Eric works his tail off for this blog. He works his tail off to create engaging stories, and he’s a pleasure to work with. I couldn’t be happier that he’s been picked for such a substantial collection of writers and writing. He deserves it.

The edition is available for pre-order on Amazon, releasing on September 28, 2010. Check out the entire lineup of writers and work on Stout’s blog.

The Stadium Experience: Exile on the Main Concourse

Last week PnP began an exploration of the way we watch baseball in person, namely The Stadium Experience. From the ensuing discussion,  a plan was hatched: I’d go to a Major League game alone  — something I’d never done before —  and write about it.

The three miles between my apartment and Safeco Field encompass some of Seattle’s most notable landmarks: the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square. As I strolled to Wednesday afternoon’s Mariners-Athletics contest, I noticed no landmarks. Instead, I jittered from the two cups of coffee I drank for breakfast. I whistled Replacements songs. I smiled stupidly and repeatedly as the sun made itself at home on the back of my neck.

I was on my way to do something totally familiar: settle in amongst tens of thousands of other fans and watch a major league ballgame. The difference was that this time, unlike the hundreds of games I had attended prior, I was all alone. It would be just me and the baseball.

I sat in the top left corner of the seats pictured here.

Midweek day games offer a rare nostalgia. They hearken back to the era before lights made baseball an evening activity. Unlike evening and weekend games, they feel like special events. In line for tickets, you can imagine yourself in another time and place – 1950s New York, for instance. You can see yourself leaving work early and donning your fedora and climbing aboard an uptown train. You can see yourself at Yankee Stadium watching Whitey Ford take the hill against Early Winn and the hated Cleveland Indians.

I was not treated to quite so dynamic a pitching matchup: Luke French for Seattle and Dallas Braden for Oakland. But I was excited anyway. I was excited to be watching baseball in the first place. I was excited to see Dallas Braden – hurler of an unexpected perfect game, enemy of Alex Rodriguez, and favorite of Pitchers & Poets—take the mound. And mostly, I was excited about the essay that would come out of this new experience.

Watching a ballgame alone and writing about it is a hardly bold, dangerous journalistic undertaking. I knew this. But as I made my way toward the stadium, walking past the tourists and the lunchtime business crowds, the resulting essay began to reveal itself: it would be literary, it would be humorous; it would be gripping and deeply personal in a stream-of-conscious sort of way, but it would also say something keen about our society.

I arrived at Safeco Field to find it bustling with scalpers and senior citizens, bicycle taxis and packs of day campers lit up in matching fluorescent tee shirts. Old New York this was not, but alive it certainly was – especially considering the Mariners’ status as baseball’s preeminent disappointment. In line to buy a ticket – a single ticket, I reminded myself – my jittery excitement began to reveal itself as a discomforting restlessness.

The five minutes to the ticket window passed by slower than my hour-long walk to the stadium. Don’t check your phone, I told myself. Keep it in your pocket. Today is about you and baseball. I glanced around. I fidgeted. Finally, I reached the front of the line. “I’ll take one of your cheapest tickets,” I told the attendant, noting in the corner of my eye that a lone A’s fan was purchasing a single seat in the next window. He wore a Mark McGwire jersey, a peace sign tattooed on his calf, and the kind of beard that delays airport security lines.

This lone Oakland fan was an ominous sign. By the time I reached my seat near the top row of Safeco’s left field bleachers, all of my magnificent hopes for the essay had disappeared. It was as if the entire stadium was populated by men watching the game unaccompanied. Or maybe when you watch a game by yourself, you begin to notice the other solo flyers. The problems remained: how could I have thought something so banal would make for a compelling story? How could I have been so self-centered as to think that my experience watching a baseball game alone would be more edifying than anybody else’s experience doing the same?

The view from my seat.

One row ahead of me sat a balding man who had printed a stack of score sheets on legal paper and brought them to the ballpark on a clipboard. His handwriting was impeccably neat. Each time the Mariners grounded into a double play, he exhaled and marked the action with tremendous care. But for all his perfectionism, this scorekeeper was also agitated. He sighed dramatically at the teenagers whose comings and goings forced him to stand up and step into the aisle every five minutes.

Another nearby solo flyer presented a distinct contrast in style. He was a thin man in his mid-sixties. He nursed a Mac n’ Jacks and dumped an entire bag of peanuts into the cargo pocket of his shorts, chomping on them with no regard for the children seated next to him or the great distance between himself and home plate. The only sign that this man was even conscious of his surroundings came in the fourth inning when he removed his shirt in surrender to the heat.

Coco Crisp led off the game for Oakland. And before I could settle into the rhythm of my preferred baseball-watching trance state, he rocketed a Luke French meatball to deep center field. A double, possibly a triple, I thought. No. Franklin Gutierrez caught up with the drive two steps onto the warning track, and bounced off the wall at full speed a moment after making the catch.

“Holy shit,” I said out loud, “what a catch.”

But there was nobody there to answer.

After the Gutierrez catch, most early action took place around the infield: groundballs and strikeouts. Pitchers French and Braden worked fast, and sitting in the far reaches of the bleachers, I found it difficult to focus on the game. I found myself watching the people around me –watching the way different groups watch baseball. A little boy nearby told his babysitter that the fields he played baseball on were way bigger than this one. He took a bite out of a hot dog that was almost invisible beneath an ocean of ketchup.

As the kid and his brother watched the Mariners Hat-Trick, a video version of Three-card Monte in which a baseball is hidden under one of three caps that are then scrambled wildly across the scoreboard screen, I began to realize the extent to which ballgames are manufactured social experiences. Even the most sacred of stadium rituals are group-oriented – they are meant to illicit a comment, a shared smile, even an embrace. I began to feel that not only were the rituals not for me, but that during them, I was conspicuous in my aloneness.

I felt like the only guy not having fun at a party. I felt like the one Jewish guy at the Catholic Wedding who doesn’t reveal himself until everybody else in the pew drops to their knees, leaving him standing alone, hands in pockets. This became especially visceral during the seventh inning stretch. I stood alone, arms crossed, resigned to a hollow half-singing of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Even stadium food gave me pause. Hot dogs are for everybody and anybody. But what of nachos and peanuts and garlic fries? These are snacks to be shared; eating them alone feels gross and sad and defeatist. That said, after the fourth inning, I left my seat in search of poutine – trying the Quebec delicacy, new at Safeco Field this year, had been a season-long goal. I had embarked on this endeavor in the name of knowledge and baseball. I had sacrificed much in the name of hard-hitting journalism. One act of self-indulgence would be totally permissible.

In the concession line, I ran into a couple friends. They were at the game independently and invited me to join them. “Only for a little while,” I said, “I’m on a mission.” The decision to sit with my friends was a failure in the “watch a baseball game by yourself’ department, but it turned out to be a major success in the “actually see what’s going on in said baseball game” department, as their seats were on the field level just above third base. I stayed with them for the fifth and sixth innings – or the amount of time it takes to eat a portion Safeco Field poutine.

Poutine is simply french fries covered in brown gravy and cheese curds. I took initiative and added some chopped onions to the mix.

Upon taking my leave, I decided not to return to the outfield bleachers. Instead I made my way to the shady first-base side of the ballpark and quietly sidled into an empty row. Vantage point, I realized, is crucial to the solo-baseball experience. From a good seat you can immerse yourself in the details of the game. You can see what kind of gum the first baseman is chewing. You can see the sweat outline left by a chest protector on the visiting catcher’s back. The action becomes more intimate and more immediate.

There were hardly any fans around me. The section had been occupied by a group visiting from a retirement home, and most of the seniors had left early – driven away by the heat. This was perfect for me. I was finally able to settle down. But even comfortable, I found myself unable to fully embrace my own aloneness. It was a constant struggle to dam the torrents of unrelated and baseball and non-baseball thoughts that rushed through my head.

When Mark Ellis hit his third double of the game, I had nobody with whom to share the excitement. I sunk to the level of sending a text message to the friends whom I had just left. It turned out they were not as impressed with the feat as I was. Of course they weren’t. Three doubles from a mediocre veteran on a third-place team in a meaningless August day game are hardly the stuff of local news broadcasts.

But for me, those doubles felt monumental. Everything did. Without the benefit of company, and unable to take pleasure in the stadium’s many distractions, the game itself took on a much greater meaning. I began to think about the players – not just their presence on the field, but their places in history, their roles in my life. Mark Ellis, I thought, is an icon, a relic, the soul survivor of the exciting early 2000s Athletics. I can’t believe I’m watching the Mark Ellis. Is there a lesser player than Mark Ellis with a stronger inherent team identity?

I became at once oblivious to context and hyperaware of it. Everything about the game in front of me in all its unimportant glory became dire and obsession-worthy. It did not matter that neither team would be playing in the postseason, it only mattered that they were playing right now. And yet with each successive .230 hitter, with each successive groundball double play, I could not help but think about the big picture. Where exactly do these two particularly flaccid lineups ranked in the American League and even in baseball history?

$16 well-spent.

In many ways, watching a ballgame alone is like driving a long distance alone. You are focused on what’s in front of you. But watching baseball – like driving – can be a passive activity. When you are pondering the action on the field or drive a lonesome highway, you are dealing with a million potential stimuli, be they beach balls floating down from the next deck or cars merging into the lane beside yours. And then there’s the greatest distraction: the wanderings of your own mind.

In the car, you play games to keep yourself sharp. You count the mile markers. You seek out landmarks. You change lanes just for the hell of it. The same thing happened to me at Safeco Field. I became obsessed with the minor details of Dallas Braden’s pitching performance. Through six innings, he faced only the minimum 18 batters. I lusted for a 27-up, 27-down performance.

When that streak ended, I began to contemplate Braden’s pitch count. Entering the 9th, he had only thrown 92 pitches. Will he throw exactly 100? I wondered. How many complete-game 100-pitch outings have there even been? And really, who cares? I did. I cared.

Braden retired Ichiro and Chone Figgins in a combined five pitches. I leaned onto the edge of my seat. I was probably the only person in the stadium, Oakland fans included, who felt so invested in the outcome of the at-bat. For some reason, this specific and unlikely outcome became the only thing on earth I wanted. Strike one. Ball one. Here it is: the 100th pitch.

Did he do it? No. It took Braden a 103rd and then a 104th pitch to induce a pop up from Lopez. But an asymmetrical complete game victory is still a complete game victory. And a ballgame watched alone amongst tens of thousands of people is still a ballgame watched.  As I made my way toward the aisle and down the main concourse and finally back into the hot sun, I knew I would eventually repeat this experiment without the added baggage of a notepad and a self-imposed writing assignment.  Now though, there was only the long walk home.

Podcast 19: The Dark Waters

Quick Note: I just saw that this podcast was our 250th post at PnP. That’s pretty hard to believe. -eric

image via flickr user jenko72

In this episode, we tread in dark waters, exploring what makes this year’s Reds team cool, the strange nature of baseball fights, and the perils of Dave Cameron’s nu reality.

 

To download the file, right click here.

An Ear for Human Tendency: Pointing Out A Great Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball Column

via flickr user rogerchoover (click-through)

There’s something a little grating about the fantasy baseball posts and trade/contract rumors that look to 2011, even in the thick of the 2010 season. It suggests a level of obsessiveness that’s a little uncomfortable for me, like people who plan their next vacation while they are still on their current vacation.

That said, I’ve found an exception to the rule: this Yahoo! fantasy baseball article, 10 Questions: 10 for ’11, by Chris Ryan. On the surface, this would seem to be your typical fantasy post about booms and busts and draft picks and what-have-you, which is well and good, that’s why I was reading it to begin with.

But I started to enjoy this column on a slightly different level, as I started to get its logic. The questions in question are basically, “Who is next year’s X,” in which X is the player that embodies one of the 10 fantasy baseball phenomena.

Here is an example:

Who is next year’s … post-hype pitcher who causes owners to exclaim “damn, I can’t believe I forgot about that guy” when said pitcher lives up to his billing in Year 2.

2009 Version: Clayton Kershaw
2010 Version: David Price
2011 Version: Brian Matusz

There is some explanation as well, but what really got me interested was the identification of these phenomena, and how on point they are. “Yes!” I found myself saying when I saw David Price’s name on this list. His hype was enormous, then he had a “mediocre” year as like a 21-year-old so everybody forgot about him, and now he’s the stud we all expected. The space of a year wiped our brains of his potential, which he–and deep-down baseball people, too–obviously didn’t lose sight of.

It’s a simple idea, but Chris Ryan has rendered it perfectly in these questions. He’s used his eye for pattern to shed some light on our common experience as baseball fans and fantasy baseball players, the way that Chuck Klosterman so often does in his work on music and popular culture.

Here’s another one, ’cause they’re fun:

Who is next year’s … can’t miss youngster who disappoints on a season-altering scale?

2009 Version: Chris Davis
2010 Version: Gordon Beckham
2011 Version: Starlin Castro

This one’s also perfect because I totally disagree with him, mostly because Starlin is on my fantasy team. I drafted Gordon Beckham this year, and experienced the season-altering disappointment. Ryan’s in my head!

Anyhow, I just thought I’d point out what I consider a fantastic example of how a little insight, some research, a good ear for human tendency and a laptop can change the world.