Monthly Archive for October, 2010

Situational Essay: That’s Not Water, That’s Gasoline

Ted and I are pleased to publish a post written by a real authentic Texas Ranger fan — one who has watched every one of their games this year, regular and postseason. His name is Larry Herold, and his play THE SPORTS PAGE won the 2010 Texas Playwriting Competition. He’s at www.larryherold.com.

Section 40, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, last week. The Rangers are leading the Yankees 5-1 in Game 6 of the ALCS, leading the series 3-2. Nine outs to go and we couldn’t say the words: “The Rangers are going to the – ” “Shut up, shut up, shut up, don’t say it. Not yet.”

This was not superstition. Ranger fans are not afraid of summoning the ghosts of Dave Roberts or Moises Alou or even Bill Buckner. What have they do with us? Not a thing. Those guys were part of glorious traditions of struggle in front of millions of fans in famous ballparks, while the Rangers, to this point, were… nothing.

This was not, ‘speak not of it, because how sad would it be to come this far and jinx it.’ No, this was something bigger, something that made you feel more tingly than a Robinson Cano strikeout: the Rangers were the better team and they were going to win.

The Rangers, born of the Senators’ (2nd) failure, long the joke of the American League, hitters of meaningless home runs, desperate takers of steroids… A team that traded Sammy Sosa for a bag of balls, that had a baseball bounce off its outfielder’s head for a home run, that had a manager quit after one day on the job, that’s been ignored for 40 years by a town in love with football… That team was going to put all that shit in a trash can and slam down the lid. They were going to send “the most storied franchise in the history of blah blah blah” home empty – a day early, no less – and then drape the bunting for the World Series.

The idea of it was almost too big to say out loud. It sounded crazy, even whispered to yourself. “Holy shit,” said the guy in front of me, with three outs to go, “We’re going to the, to the— the next round.”

Maybe “ignored” by Dallas is too strong. Baseball has been embraced around here as a nice little summertime diversion until the big kids put on their pads. The Rangers averaged a little over 30,000 fans a game this year. Not bad. In August, the Cowboys drew 20,000 fans – to watch practice.

There’s baseball lovers here. Hell, Ty Cobb played here, in the Cotton Bowl. Okay, he was 64 and it was a stunt, but when you’ve played three playoff series and won only a single game, you’ve got to search hard for bright spots. For years the Rangers’ highlight film consisted mostly of clips of Nolan Ryan throwing his sixth and seventh no-hitters as a Ranger. Oh, and Nolan giving a beat down to Robin Ventura. (They sell signed copies of that photo in the gift shop.) For Texans, that the same guy is atop the Rangers’ management pyramid as they make this run is breathtaking.

There’s also baseball haters. The TV stations and talk radio hosts and newspaper columnists have been snickering for years at the poor Rangers, contrasting their haplessness with the Cowboys’ success, and now those same cats can’t wait to plant their butts in those free World Series press box seats. Just hope they don’t hurt themselves jumping on and off the bandwagon.

I still can’t get my arms or my head around this fact: the Rangers are going to the World Series. How full is our bag of Halloween treats:

Pitcher C.J. Wilson goes to management last spring and says, “Hey guys, like a lot of relievers, I secretly think I’m wasted in the bullpen. How ’bout letting me start?” They do. And he goes out and posts a top-10 ERA.

General Manager Jon Daniels waits until Cliff Lee has one arm in a Yankee uniform, then calls the Mariners and says, “Oh, Justin Smoak is the key to a deal? Why didn’t you say so? As of this moment, he’s available.”

Josh Hamilton, slumping, wakes up one morning and says, “At the age of 30, I just realized batting practice is not for putting on a home run show. It’s for learning to take balls the other way.” MVP.

Alex Rodriguez, who said he’d never have come to Texas if he’d known it was going to be “me and 24 kids,” stands frozen, staring at a curveball thrown by a kid, 22-year-old Neftali Feliz, ending the ALCS.

Come on, it doesn’t get better than that. Oh wait, it does. The Texas Rangers are going to the World Series.

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After Game 1:

The Rangers’ weaknesses all exposed on the same night. We’ve long known Vlad Guerrero is a liability in the field, but his mistakes never looked so glaring as they did last night. And Michael Young, known locally as “The Face of the Franchise,” is the team’s all-time hits leader, a beloved force in the clubhouse, and a matador at third base. He’s a model citizen, never ducks a tough question. He’s changed positions twice for the good of the team. He’ll make $11 million this season, a chunk of which he’ll donate to charity, and he can no longer field his position. That’s tough to watch.

I’m still calling Rangers in 5. For one thing, I remember the meltdown in Game 1 vs. the Yankees. Next day, Texas played as though it had never happened. For another thing, I have a ticket – a good seat, at a too-high price – to Game 5 of the World Series.

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After Game 2:

Ouch. Now I know how Yankee fans felt during that 10-3 loss to the Rangers last week. Feeling like every break went the other way. Like every decision backfired. Watching previously dependable pitchers get on the mound and seize up. It’s painful to watch, because you know these aren’t “your Rangers.” This is not the kind of ball they played to win 90 games. But it’s their first trip to the big stage and a dash of nerves and a skoche of bad luck swirled in a cauldron with eye of newt and wool of bat can cook your goose.

Having said all that, now is the not the time to panic. You dream of a sweep on the road, hope for a split, and plan to lose both games. The Rangers have not lost a World Series game at home. If they do, then we can panic.

Flip Flop Flyballing: Brian Wilson

For Eric and me, we do what we do in the medium of words. Other people, like friend of the blog, friend of the podcast, and friend of humanity Craig Robinson, have a way with images (well, and words, really). If you aren’t already tracking his Flip Flop Fly Ball Tumblr blog, go ahead and do so.

One of Craig’s latest illustrations (with a few words appended) says more than many millions of words across the web can:

CR: "Brian Wilson. Whenever I see his face, I can’t help but imagine him as a Cyclops."

Rooting Interests

Texas Rangers fan antlers

via Flickr user keko1984

We spend a good amount of time parsing out which team we’re rooting for in the playoffs. Eric and I go back and forth about these concerns, mostly because it’s a fun way to talk about the players and personalities of the teams and the players. You root for a team because of the vibe that it throws off, then you break down that vibe and, voila!, a baseball conversation.

Which brings us to the impending World Series match-up. I can’t decide which team to root for between the Rangers and the Giants.

Both teams are riding the momentum train, the hard-work train, and the eccentric Jesus Christ Superstar train. They each have their running jokes, their pleasing mix of old veterans and young burners. They both feature some fantastic hairdos, and they both have players who play the game with aggressive joy. Neither has spent much time in the spotlight or the postseason in the last few years. Each is a kind of transplant from traditional East Coast bastions of culture.

Michael Moore is trying, it seems, to make this into some kind of culture war in his tweet: “The wk b4 election, the World Series matchup couldn’t be a better symbol of the war at home: San Francisco v Texas, w/ W. in the front row.”

That’s bullcrap. This series is not a war between, but a celebration of cultures. Of the cultural reps for each team, Brian Wilson is a New Englander who went to LSU playing in San Francisco who touts S&M paraphernalia in interviews, and Josh Hamilton is a tatted addict from North Carolina playing in Texas who instigated the use of an antlers gesture to commemorate running fast, which his Latin teammates have wildly embraced. Each of these players is their team rep because they appear to have the support and admiration of their teammates.

Both of these teams are filled with the reclamation projects and the kids and the kooks that make the playoffs great for the distillation of participants that draw the individuals closer. Making it tough to choose which to root for, though in the end these matters of affinity work themselves out on the reptile brain level, and tend towards the involuntary.

For example, I like the Giants and their band of starting pitchers right this moment, but when I see Elvis Andrus throwing a claw the dugout, I involuntarily grin.

Here’s a pretty good explanation of The Claw & Antlers, which is a fine name for a men’s fraternal organization or a pub.

Letting it Go

When I was a kid, I wore a lot of sports apparel. A photographic retrospective of the caps and tee shirts, dugout jackets and hoodies I wore from the ages of five to seventeen would probably border on modern art. But things changed for me. There came a point I no longer wanted to give my appearance over to my sports allegiances. There would  still be a few caps and shirts,  and there would still be fandom. But I no longer wanted the teams I cheered for to define my identity, or at least the way people perceived that identity.

There are, however, people who do want that. For a million reasons, there are people who go out there every day dressed as if in surrender to the higher cause of the Boston Red Sox or Oakland Raiders. There are people who dress up in Willie Stargell jerseys because they want express their old-time love of the game and there are people who do it because they think Willie Stargell jerseys look cool. That’s all well and good.

My interest is in the complete surrender — the folks who show up to the game rocking team merchandise down to the official licensed league socks; the folks who wear a jeans, a pinstriped Jeter jersey, and a Yankee cap out on Friday night; the folks who wear the gaudiest, proudest, multi-colored tee shirts of their favorite player. The folks who would wear one of these:

shirt h/t to Robert Baly at Vin Scully is my Homeboy

You are out there. You who would wear this shirt, or a Pujols or a Mauer version outside of the ballpark or the bar.  And I want to know why that’s so (other than its ridiculous, overwhelming brilliance that leaves me undecided as to whether I’m in love or entirely disgusted).I want to know if I’m wrong in saying that surrendering to a shirt like this one — or to other varieties of full team regalia — is giving up a bit of yourself.

And if I’m not wrong,if it really is a form of surrender, then why do you do it? Why does anybody? Is it the basic appeal of being a part of something larger than yourself? Is it regional pride? Cultural identification? Sheer oblivious? Fervent, patriotic, extremely blind team love?

There are socioeconomic factors at play here, obviously. Age, class, and race have something to do with the way people dress and the way people express their fandom. Also worth considering is the fact that international sports fans have different approaches. You don’t see a lot of Italians running around on Saturday evening in Andrea Pirlo jerseys…

(Please discuss, if you’d like…)

Flashback: A New Hope

From  Episode IV of the PnP Podcast (“A New Hope”) published April 2, 2010:

Eric: I think the Texas Rangers will win the AL West.

Ted: I think that’s a bold pick, I think that’s a fun pick, I think that’s an American pick.

I am as of yet unsure of Ted’s rooting allegiance in this World Series. He is obviously quite smitten by Pat Burrell. But for the record, I’m Rangers all the way. Antlers.

Style Guide

Jesse Thorn is a style maven, podcaster, radio host and all-around fun person who creates a lot of great entertainment content of all kinds on the web. When he talks about baseball on his podcast, Jordan, Jesse, Go!, however, his co-host Jordan Morris makes fun of him doggedly. When he does get to talk baseball, it’s under a cloud of barely veiled boredom and tenuous tolerance. It’s nice to see him cut loose.

Dressing for the Occasion, Put This On

Neftali’s Smile

Neftali Feliz let loose the last pitch of the baseball game between the Rangers and the Yankees, and as the umpire rung up Alex Rodriguez, the young closer’s face morphed from stern and focused to jubilant so quickly that you could only see it happen, like all the best action from Shark Week, in slow motion.

There was no self-conscious and deliberate removal of the chewing gum before diving into the fray that came quick on the heels of that last pitch, as we saw from A-Rod when the Yanks clinched the World Series last year. There was none of the stoic celebrity that Jeter carries with him like a suit, his days of doing anything you could call “unbridled” having passed. Same goes for the gray-haired Posada, and for the gaunt-looking Mariano Rivera, who I imagine would enjoy a bubbling sesh in the tub with some Epsom salts over a screaming, hooting scrum to celebrate, what, just an ALCS win?

Last year was a screening of Cocoon, as the old Yankees guard walked the red carpet one more time. This year, the young ones are in the foreground.

And “young” could refer to the franchise as much if not moreso than the players on the team. The Rangers, like the Rockies of 2007 and the Marlins of 1997 and the Dbacks of 2003, are a fresh franchise to see so late in the game. With all of its variety, you’d think that baseball would have sent every possible iteration of teams to the big dance in October, and so it always feels something of a privilege to see somebody new.

As hokey as the end-of-game celebration has become, when the cameramen start to outnumber the players on the field with their steadicams poised in front of them like burning trash cans, it’s still this beautiful thing, to watch these guys whose arm health is worth a-buh-zillion to fling themselves onto a pile, risking tendons and knees and elbows. You don’t see that from a franchise that’s been there before.

You probably watched this yourself, but at the peak of the Ranger pile’s density and madness, DLed reliever Frank Francisco found himself on the second layer up from the ground, pinioned by someone on top of him across the back of an anonymous player who was on all fours by somebody, in a sort of Dante’s Inferno of tangled bodies. Francisco couldn’t move, and the television audience watched as he struggled for a beat or two, realized his predicament, and grinningly gave up on trying to wriggle out, letting his arms sag in a kind of shrug of happiness. He gave himself to the pile, sacrificing himself on the altar of the poor sap trapped underneath his 250 pounds.

Isn’t that what we ask of these guys: sacrifice? That’s the core of it, anyway, despite the contracts and the fame. Dive, chase, fall, flop, swing, crawl, hop, trip, in the name of this game. We’re asking them to hurl themselves onto a pile so that we can do the same in our minds, grinning at the legs poking out of the bottom and the clown who takes a running leap onto the top of it.

The dogpile when you were a kid was a way to nominally humiliate someone, to pile on top of them until they’re gasping and groaning for air. But it was also a way to get closer, to occupy the same space as these friends, these people, who you know but don’t know, who you worry might be robot clones, or just projections of your own consciousness, not independent sentient things that feel the way you feel. Digging a knuckle into a rib to get a bark of pain was a way of range-finding, and of scouting out the boundaries between yourself and somebody else.

Baseball reminds us of those fall days of our own. Dogpile, Texas Rangers, so that we, too, may dogpile.

In the Shadow of the Burrell

In the last podcast episode, my wife expounded on the magnetic draw of the fuming intensity of Pat Burrell. His physical presence and his facial expression and his statued stance; it all typifies how I’ve perceived the Giants as a team for a long time: a statuesque team, low on speed, high on mediocrity.

Over time–the slow baseball time that only the most patient fans think in terms of–the team changed. They drafted a phenom, and had a few good young pitchers evolve into good pitchers period. Now they’re a good team, with just a few vestiges of the old style, the Burrells and Aaron Rowand, a hero in Chicago and a forgotten toy on the shelf in San Francisco.

photo via flickr user teamtraveller

When you field a team full of Pat Burrells, we all fall asleep and forget about you except to say every now and then that you’ve heard they play in a nice stadium.

But when you put Pat Burrell out there with a team full of otherwise exciting players, players who flash talent and charisma, then Pat Burrell becomes a venerable figure. You can almost write the Pixar movie, where Burrell emerges from the shadows, covered in cobwebs, to impart upon the colorful, energetic rabble the value of sticking to it and of finding a quiet place in the mind to fill with hate and fury.

For Burrell exudes fury. Quiet, deadly, the intense dislike for the ways of the world that kept him from becoming, say, a hall of fame hitter, or that cursed his glove to mediocrity. Each at bat is the latest and maybe the last chance to strike back at fate.

Who could play the flip side of that coin but the phenom himself, Tim Lincecum, whose success was only very lightly prophesied by anyone, and which has come in droves and droves, even to the point that the Giants are looking like a real damn team in the honest to goodness playoffs themselves. Lincy is guided by a chorus of young men singing at the top of their voices at 12:45 in the AM, at the the height of revelry before anyone starts to think about getting on home.

In the quiet moments, if there are any, do Burrell and Lincy talk to each other? Can an aging slugger offer anything of value to a double Cy Young winner with a rubber arm? Is he the old cop and Lincy the young buck? Big brother, little brother? Older cousin, the one that taught you how to pack a dip?

The teams that invite conjecture like this are the great teams, the teams where you can’t help but wonder how they get on. There are those teams. Then there are those other teams that play like a single organism, like the team that got Rowand his big old contract not so long ago, or Big Papi’s teams. What good is a team if you don’t have questions about how it gets on?

And what good is a player if you can’t think about how he makes conversation when the cheers die down?

Podcast 24: Tim Olerud

In this latest episode of the podcast, we discuss Steven Seagal, quitting reading books, the Giants, Jeff Kent, Halloween costumes, and we converse about Pat Burrell and magnetism with special guest Caroline.

 

To download, right click here: Pitchers and Poets Podcast Episode 24

Poem: “Hyla Brook” by Robert Frost
Intro: The Clash
Outro: Canned Heat

PnP Conversations: Baseball in Stereo

Ted: Eric, I realize we’re in the middle of an exciting playoffs, and we’ll get to that. But right now I have a confession to make: I support the designated hitter.

There, it’s out. It’s on the table. It hurts me to admit it. I have always, until these playoffs, believed in the old ideas: that every man should hit for himself, that tradition should bear out, that a pitcher hitting pushes managers to rely on strategy. I was wrong. It took this season for me to realize it.

This year I watched way more AL baseball than NL, which is a first for me. At first I was startled when the lineup turned over without a flailing twirp in the lineup. Then I got used to it. Where AL teams had in the past seemed bloated and excessive, like a genetically modified factory turkey, as the season carried on these lineups took on the feel of normalcy. All these good hitters, all in a row! Maybe this is how it should be.

turkey by flickr user bucklava

Also, someone quoted somewhere the startling yet reasonable fact that the NL is the only league in existence in which pitchers are required to hit. As that point hit home, I started to feel like such singularity smacked of petulance rather than tradition.

So there I was, on the brink, not sure where I stood, watching very little NL ball. Then the playoffs, the NL games. The pitchers hitting, to my AL-ized eyes, was something of an abomination. The flailing, the absence of skill or style. This is how AL fans must see the NL! I realized. I was horrified. My mind was made up.

But these pitchers sure can pitch! We called the no-hitter in our last conversation (close enough, anyway). So what’s our next on-point prediction for these 2010 playoffs, Eric?

Eric: I see your point; the Ranger and Yankee lineups strike me not as bloated turkeys but as sleek killing machines — no inefficiency to be found in the mechanisms of their run-scoring. It’s as if the American League is played stereo and the National League in mono. But I find myself itching to defend the NL, in all its nostalgic, idiosyncratic glory. The Senior Circuit. The Double Switch.

In other words, I appreciate the inefficiency of the NL; I appreciate the intricacy, the moving parts, and yes the strategy. I’ve been playing a lot of MLB 2k8 lately (don’t judge me; it’s convenient and the franchise mode is surprisingly tough), and I’ve found playing in the NL a much more dynamic experience. There is something lost with the DH — something gained, but also something lost. That said, it’s all just a game anyway, right? So if the NL took the plunge, I’d merely moan for thirty seconds and then start to wonder if the Dodgers could sign Adam Dunn this offseason.

ghetto blaster by flickr user rpm1200

As for these playoffs, how about Elvis Andrus stealing home? Oh wait — that already happened. I predict the Rangers beat the Yankees. How about that? Bold, right? I’ve always found the prediction game a silly one with teams because all I am totally unable to separate the emotional and the intellectual. In other words, I just pick the team I want to win. Go Rangers.

We return to this topic all the time but it seems a valid one. The exciting postseason pastime of deciding which team to get behind — only to watch the games and realize that sometimes your instinct decides these things for you for you. Example: Despite my Dodgers fandom, I was pondering not hating the Giants for this series. The Phillies have caused me a lot of strife lately. The Giants are fun fun fun. Tim Lincecum (maybe still) knows who I am from the many times I interviewed him when we were both at the University of Washington. And there’s the underdog factor.

But as I watched the Phillies come to the plate down at the end of Game One, all I could do was root for Jimmy Rollins to hit a double and devastate Brian Wilson (a total goon, at least in my rendering of the playoff narrative), thereby lifting the people of Los Angeles to collective joy.

Oh these playoffs are surprising times. And for the first time all year, I’m starting to realize how sad it is that baseball’s almost over. Has the specter of looming offseason doldrums hit you yet? Did it just happen right now? Sorry about that…

Ted: No, the looming specter of the offseason has not hit me, and I consider it a tad sacrilegious (can sacrilege come in “tad” form, or is it an all-or-nothing prospect?) that you would bring up such a prospect in the heat of the pennant battle. That reminds me: during a broadcast, Ron Darling and John Smoltz started to talk about spring training, and some drive from one Florida town to another. I could have punched them. This is no time for such talk. This is the time when spring don’t mean shit. So I will now commence ignoring the concept that time exists past Halloween.

I get your argument for the pleasant familiarity of a broken system, ie the DH. After all, we here at Pitchers and Poets often praise the inefficient, or the pleasantly unaware, the pleasures of intuition and flagging data input. I guess I’m just following my gut, though. I think the older I get, the more I’m willing to set aside matters of principle and embrace the mechanism of entertainment. The DH is entertaining, and that’s maybe the only argument I can make for it.

animated steve carrell via flickr user cineypantalla01

Intuition and rooting, yes, it’s a complicated tango. I want to root for the Giants, myself, but can’t help but enjoy Roy-O pitching for the Phils, and enjoy that he and Brad Lidge are bookending the game once more. But I still can’t root for the whole team. I’m a fragmentary supporter right now. I dig Lincecum (I’m totally sure he remembers you, just like I’m sure Jose Cruz remembers when he coached me in 14-year-old Babe Ruth), I like that Pat Burrell (who I’ve just in my head nicknamed Despicable P — ha!) has been reborn anew, and I like Kung Fu Panda a lot, but I can’t put it all together. For the Phils, I can’t like their all-too-familiar postseason lineup that much, though they’ve got some remarkable players on their team.

AL-wise, once again, I don’t want the Yanks to win, but they’ve got Lance Berkman driving in runs. And I don’t really like the Rangers. Josh Hamilton creeps me out with his combo of junkie vulnerability and religious zealotry, and they still haven’t shaken the band box, popcorn, all-hit old reputation in my reptile brain. Yet I love Cliff Lee, and I double-love Elvis Andrus, and I like Vlad Guerrero.

In short, I’m torn. So in a way I sort of lose, but I also sort of win, in that whatever teams go the distance I can find something to enjoy. I’ve got some kind of baseball version of diplomatic immunity. It’s kind of cool.

Here’s a random question: can a team win the World Series with Mike Fontenot playing third base?

Eric: Yes, technically it is possible. But my instinct is that this team can’t. The reason? By playing Mike Fontenot at third base, Bruce Bochy is denying America the joy that is Pablo Sandoval. This is typical of Bochy, who in recent years has also elected to deny America the joy that was his well-defined Padres era mustache. For a team like this year’s Giants to win the World Series, it would take some sort of rising. Not The Rising, like Springsteen’s The Rising, but a regular rising — as in to form an identity that is greater than the sum of its crazy parts.

The Giants have so much weirdness. Taken as individuals, Despicable P and Aubrey Huff and Big Panda and Timmy and the Ghost of Barry Zito, and even god forsaken Brian Wilson are all delights. Misfits. Characters. Inglourious Basterds,the lot of them. Yet the Giants, for all the unlikely winning, have yet to become the full-on, fun-timing band of gypsies that they are capable of. This team should sing like the Pirates of the 1970s. They should be the kind of team America wants to get behind. But they remain — to reuse an appropriate metaphor from earlier — a team that projects itself in mono.

This is partly because of Bochy’s management — of which Fontenot’s unlikely presence is a direct result. Ron Washington would never be so stodgy as to play a utility guy instead of a slugger, struggling or not. (Then again, Washington has the DH at his disposal…your point about entertainment value is starting to make sense.) And the Rangers, even with a slightly less magnificent set of kooks on their roster — an ex-junkie Jesus-freak, a shortstop named Elvis, an unlikely Nelson Cruz, a Japan reclamation project, etc. — manage to capture the imagination and at least for me, play in stereo.