Monthly Archive for November, 2010

Visual Mixtape: Southpaw Relief

I, Human

A crazy article from the New York Times

StatSheet, a Durham, N.C., company that serves up sports statistics in monster-size portions, thinks otherwise. The company, with nine employees, is working to endow software with the ability to turn game statistics into articles about college basketball games.

This strikes me as a novelty. The text produced by the software is terrible to read and the analysis itself is hardly worth reading it for. “Over the last four seasons, Washington is 1-0 against Long Beach State,” goes  the final sentence of this especially compelling game preview. But it does make for a worthy discussion point.

If computers and the internet brought the democratization of sports news and analysis, then why not also the mechanization? Is this a logical progression? Are robots capable of providing not just information but analysis that people actually want to read? The CEO of StatSheet obviously thinks so.

Gerard Cosloy of  Can’t Stop the Bleeding jokes that one day soon we’ll be longing nostalgically for Bleacher Report, with its tremendous brand sporting insight. My thought is that integrity-wise, the robot sites aren’t too far removed from Bleacher Report –a site that, by all appearances, levers cheap and free labor into page views, often at the expense of decent content. But overall, I tend to agree with Cosloy’s facetiousness.

Robots can’t win — at least not yet. The reason is complexity. As the linguistics expert in the Times story notes, robots can’t write nuanced sentences. Bleacher Report writers (in theory) can. And for sports analysis to be even decent, it has to do more than spit statistics and canned catchphrases out in seemingly random order (although this strategy works very well in radio). Decent sports analysis is about ideas and perspectives — this is true whether the analysis is wonky like the work on FanGraphs or Ken Pomeroy’s site, or news and gossipy like much of, say Bleacher Report’s content, or generalist and frequently long-winded like the writing this website.

What Do You Do With An Aging Player?

Derek Jeter and the Yankees are currently embroiled in some low-hum sort of back-and-forth about how much they’ll pay the young legend for his final years of service. Will it be an insulting 15 mill a year, or a peaceful 20 mill a year, who knows? What’s notable about the negotiation is that Jeter has anywhere near the leverage to make this thing fair.

Here’s where I come from: I watched Craig Biggio slip and slide into statistical face-slappery as he got older. He played out his big money contract past the point when he was earning his keep, and when he and the Astros got back to the table, he took a monster pay cut because he wanted to play for the team what brung him, and the Astros were happy to oblige. The Astros side of the bargain was to give this guy, this scion of Houston, a spot on the baseball field from which to work a little longer, until he got to 3000 hits and we carried him off down the road on our shoulders.

The feeling at the time was that the Astros were doing Biggio a favor, and he was repaying us fans and the team with his glowing presence and the pleasure of his Hall of Fame credential-building. The money had less to do with it than anything. The currency in those negotiations were the good vibrations exchanged from player to fans to owner to fans to player: a big drum circle of love.

What does that say about Derek Jeter and the Yankees? I think it says that Jeter should be happy enough with the 189 million he put away for his prime years contract and change what he thinks of as the currency in this latest transaction. Because the money, for an aging player who is sufficiently wealthy, is about the last thing that he should be worrying about. The currency is the career.

Eyes open, Derek, and take a look at Brett Favre. Is he worried about some extra scratch at this point, or is he floating psychologically speaking like a man in a lifeboat out at sea, wondering where the hell the ocean liner underneath him went? Of course Jeter is unlikely headed for any kind of outright shame or embarrassment, but the general point is, with me bringing up both Biggio in the good guy sense and Favre in the d-bag sense, is that the negotiations for these fellows who are Hall of Famers in their craft involved not how the money would flesh out in the twilight years, but how the twilight years themselves would look. Biggio’s last years glowed like the dying embers in the fireplace of an Aspen ski lodge, because he made it so, he negotiated that with his employers and with his fans.

Favre’s career has barfed itself and passed out in a nightclub bathroom, because he showed up to the negotiations half in the bag and has stumbled around the place since then, alienating most everybody he gets near.

My point is that the currency of the late years in a career is not dollars for this caliber of player. Rather, it’s the way that you negotiate your positioning with the team and with the fans. When Jeter’s slowdown reaches the point that it inevitably will, when he is a wildly overpaid shortstop clogging a roster spot because he makes too much money to cut him, well that will play out as a badly negotiated contract. Not for his bottom line, of course, but for the bottom line of his legacy.

I feel like a schmuck for bringing up the “legacy” deal. It’s just a sleazy way to admit that we are all sitting around in judgment of our fellow man and woman, waiting to decide how we will perceive them after their tours of duty in the public eye are complete. Ooh, how is his legacy, is her legacy in tact, how many miles across is that legacy? Yes, that’s our job as fans, but at the core of it there’s this awful human truth that what you did 15 years ago either doesn’t matter or has become such a tired topic of conversation that it’s more important right here and right now that we’re all extremely happy with how much you’re being paid as a dwindlingly competent baseball player.

So the currency here isn’t money, and it’s not really even doing “the right thing.” Rather, the currency is in the perception. Negotiating the final years of a masterful career is about positioning oneself skillfully between the fans who want a winner on the field but who never really want Derek Jeter to leave or to diminish, and between the team, who want to win and to grab new players and to honor their old guys but see that they get along on their way. Upset the fans and you find yourself an albatross in the public eye and you tarnish your legacy and everyone’s in a sour mood (an example that comes to mind would be Carlos Lee, not a super elite player but a well-liked one who is basically the easiest joke in the Astros fan arsenal). Upset the team, though, and you’re out on your ass before you’re ready to stop playing (this is, of course, highly unlikely in Jeter’s case, but then who thought Favre would ever don a Viking’s jersey?).

Take care, Derek Jeter, is what I’ll offer. There will be a time when your brain tells your body to grab that sharp grounder, and your body will disobey. You will probably feel like the physical world is turning its back on you, that the rules were changed when you were looking away. The rules didn’t change, they’ve always been the same. Where there’s a variable, it’s in choosing who is waiting for you at the crossroads when it’s a new road you’ve got to travel down.

The Promised Land

A box set reissue of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ came out this week. It is my belief that music box sets are perhaps the biggest rip off in modern society.  The ‘Darkness’ set, called ‘The Promise,’ features 21 unreleased tracks and a documentary on the making of the album — one of my favorite albums ever — but I won’t be buying it.

Nonetheless the event merits discussion. Or, at the very least, ‘Darkness’  merits discussion for being a great rock record. Like any great record, it hits me in the guts. The music is forceful and soulful and all that. The lyrics are tight and evocative and detailed.

But what really makes ‘Darkness’ appealing to me is that I dig it on an intellectual level. I dig the process behind it. I dig that more than any other Boss records (at least the ones I know, I’m not an expert) ‘Darkness’ is emotionally focused. As a somewhat creative person — or at the very least a person interested in the process of creating — I dig that if you look closely, you can see the wheels turning behind the songs.

‘Darkness’ reminds me a lot of a great novel or film. Not because it’s particularly cinematic — ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Nebraska’ have it beat in that category, but because of the way it establishes a consistent voice, consistent themes, and then works enthusiastically and and with confidence within that space.

It’s a hard balance to strike. On one hand, you want to be ambitious. You want to say something important and dramatic and powerful. You want your songs or poems or short stories to be, like all ten tracks on ‘Darkness,’ universal declarations of hope and despair. But on the other hand, you don’t want to lose yourself in the mess. Because that emotion, if it comes from somewhere, comes from you. This for me is the artistic Promised Land. It’s what I strive for when I write fiction; it’s what we strive for on this blgo when we are feeling ambitious.

Anyway, if you want to spend more time thinking about ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ I point you to this NPR interview of Springsteen by the actor Ed Norton.  He talks a lot about the album: about the songs he leaves off, the mood he wanted to set, etc. etc. Comes highly recommended.

Conversation: A Hangover is a Good Thing

Transcript, if you don’t speak robot:

Ted: Well, Eric, it is now baseball’s offseason. Are you ready for the Hot Stove season?

Eric: To be honest, no.  I am not ready. I am still in a state of World Series hangover. But I am using this time to rethink my approach to the offseason, to consider how one best enjoys the rumor mill. I’m asking myself, is hanging onto every last Jon Heyman eyebrow flicker, Ken Rosenthal bow tie tug, unsourced tweet, a rewarding and self-realizing process?

Ted: On the contrary, I’m excited to focus all my attention on Cliff Lee as he rocks away in his rocking chair on the outskirts of some Arkansas town, evading questions about the Nationals while he caresses the pelt of his latest kill. Who needs the metropolitan world centers, with all of their commerce and noise pollution, when you can track Jon High man as he searches for a Wi Fi connection. But seriously, a world series hangover is a good thing. I was amazed how quickly the news cycle turns to free agents. I mean, Brian Wilson’s beard hasn’t even dried out yet.

Eric: Are you? I think instead of watching Cliff Lee’s every movement this offseason, I am going to strive for something even more ambitious: I want to embody Cliff Lee. I want to go at the offseason with an easy precision and chill attitude he demonstrates on the mound; I want to act as though nothing matters a wit even though deep in my heart, somewhere, I know the stakes are high. Or to use a baseball cliche, I want to let the game come to me. Speaking of baseball cliches, how about that Joe Morgan?

Ted: Joe Morgan is proud of your hard-nosed approach to the offseason. That’s how he will approach his recently elevated role in meal preparation at the old homestead. If he doesn’t show up on TV somewhere, I admit I will miss him, the way I miss Full House after school: it wasn’t good, but it was there. Who is this Hersh hizer fellow, anyway?

Eric: Ten ex-Dodger pitchers I would rather listen on Sunday Night Baseball than Orel Hershiser: Tom Candiotti, Eric Gagne, Pedro Martinez, Ramon Martinez, Chan Ho Park, Scott Radinsky, John Wetteland, Mike Fetters, Hoyt Wilhelm, and of course Fernando Valenzuela.

All I Wanna Do is Dream

These water cooler clips are all the rage these days, so I thought I’d have a little fun with the xtranormal video creation tools and some of baseball’s current events.

The Talk of the Town

Some brief notes of congratulations:

1. Friend of P&P (and occasional contributor) Reeves Wiedeman has published his first article, a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker: Far From Haiti.

2. Another friend, Josh Cohen, has launched an online interview project meant to capture the joy and spirit of another sport (also a far more effective method for commuting than baseball is) cycling: The Bicycle Story.

3. Yet another friend, Drew Fairservice of the recently redesigned Blue Jays blog Ghostrunner on First has joined up with Rob Neyer as part of the Sweet Spot Network. Obviously well-deserved. Congrats.

So Much Depends

One of my favorite classroom activities revolves around a little sixteen word poem by William Carlos Williams. The Red Wheelbarrow is a classic, rightfully famous for so many reasons, not the least of which how it hones in from the broadest of openings to build a specific and detailed image in a single sentence.

The activity is this. I ask students to write a sentence beginning with the words “so much depends.” It’s that simple. If I’m in a science class, I might add the addendum that the sentence should be about science, or about the environment. If I’m in a literature or poetry class, on the other hand, I might ask students to focus on themselves, or I might just leave it open.

The results are often fascinating. I’ve seen simple, but elegant phrases like “so much depends on aloha,” or the more concrete “so much depends upon a community working together.” Perhaps the greatest lesson, for me as a teacher, is how much depends on context, on how much the immediate environment dictates and shapes what students produce.

Strangely enough, though I frequently ask students to engage in this exercise, I rarely do it myself. During the recently completed playoffs, however, I’ve been thinking about how much little things alter a short series, and how fitting The Red Wheelbarrow’s opening line is to a team trying to win a championship. Or, perhaps more importantly, how fitting that line is to a fan watching.

With that in mind, I want to offer a few observations of my own, but I also would love to hear from anyone else. How does your “so much depends” end?

So much depends upon a long fly ball, deep to left, beyond an outstretched glove.

So much depends upon an aging Columbian shortstop, swinging his hardest one last time.

So much depends upon the number and wiggle of a catcher’s fingers.

So much depends upon a Yankee captain’s dollars and pinstripes.

So much depends upon out three.

So much depends upon a series lead with your ace on the hill.

So much depends, but so little seems to matter, when your home team watches instead of plays.

Situational Essay: The Last Harrah: The Last Senator, The First Ranger, The Eternal Man

Toby Harrah of the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers

Ben Lyon is a lawyer living in Chicago. He alone knows what it must be like to occupy his own impressive mindspace, which I liken to a shoebox full of baseball cards, each of which can speak.

It’s only appropriate that in the solemn hours following the end of the Texas Rangers’ run at victory, he takes a look at another who was the last of his kind: the Last Senator, Toby Harrah.

In his 1971 rumination on the failed presidential candidacy of Edmund Muskie, Hunter S. Thompson wrote that living in Washington D.C. “tends to provoke a powerful understanding of the ‘Westward Movement’ in U.S. History.” It remains unknown whether Thompson was referring to the Washington Senators II (1961 1971), but they lived his advice, fleeing D.C. in order to fulfill their destiny of becoming the most Republican professional sports team (see: Texas location, 10th-amendment-invoking flag on uniform, horrid specter of W. looming over everything, and Nolan Ryan’s history of beating on youths).

Shockingly, this move to the Southwest occurred just 2 years after the pinnacle of achievement in Senators II history: a stellar 86-76 record so inspiring that two of the Senators II faithful (aka, my father and uncle), met the team at the airport upon their return from a slightly-above mediocre road trip. (Welcoming tepid baseball teams home is actually what late 1960’s boomers were doing at airports then—not spitting on returning Vietnam vets, contrary to ongoing conservative mythology of the last 40 years).

In contrast to the recent glory of ’69, the 1971 Senators went out meekly, with two notable exceptions:

1. the final game of the season/ever vs. the Yankees that was forfeited due to “ruffians” (my father’s quote) running onto the field; at the time my father was either (a) one of these ruffians (b) in Vietnam (c) playing tennis.

2. a mid-season game at which my father’s friend stated he had seen “minor-league” teams better than the Senators, thereby causing my uncle to start launching canisters of tear gas into the stands.

The one man who bore this escape from D.C. longer than all others was former Senator/Ranger Toby Harrah, the last ever “Senator” to play in the majors. According to his Wikipedia entry (obviously written by one of the many current employees in the PR department of Toby Harrah, LLC), he was involved in “three of the most unusual feats in Major League baseball history.” One of these “feats” also involved Larry Sheets, who, as a Baltimore Oriole in 1987 (the last year of the Harrah Era), had his greatest season—and it was Larry Sheets who the children of suburban Washington D.C. had to turn to for mustachioed heroics, because the Senators had long ago left us to fulfill a manifest destiny of lower taxes, plentiful stadium parking, August games in 150- degree heat and Steve Buchele’s perm.

All of which is to say that if the Rangers win the World Series [editor’s note, being the obvious] and the Republicans re-take the House of Representatives, I will attempt to kick every Republican/Ranger in the shin with the LONE exception of Toby Harrah—for to look at a 1987 Toby Harrah Topps card and see (in small type—smaller even than the Jerry Koosman card in the same set) was to see statistics earned as a Washington Senator!

How to mend a broken heart indeed.