Monthly Archive for March, 2011

P&P All-Day MLB Opening Day Live Chat 2011

Bill James, Sigh


Bill James writes an interesting but extremely flawed article about why we’re so good at developing baseball players, but so lousy at developing writers in Slate. Since the piece is called “Shakespeare and Verlander,” and our site is called Pitchers & Poets, I feel obligated to respond. I’ll focus on this quotation:

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

1. It takes exactly one writer to create a great novel, poem, story, play, essay. It takes at least 18 baseball players to play a single baseball game. The demand is different because it requires more baseball players to be entertained than it requires writers.

2. It takes about three hours to watch a baseball game. It takes a dozen to read a novel.

3. Bill James says that if we did the same things to develop and appreciate writers and baseball players, a Shakespeare or Dickens or at least a Graham Greene would emerge from every mid-sized to small American city every decade or two. I think he fails to realize that a fair amount of people consider Graham Greene the greatest novelist of the 20th century. I’m about to finish “The Heart of the Matter.” If the entire world produced a Graham Greene every ten or fifteen years, I think we’d be in good shape. This is a guess, but as it stands now, Topeka probably does produce a crappy but published novelist or two — think the Alex Cora of novelists — every ten or fifteen years.

I think James also fails to realize — or at least fails to note — that there’s a massive inherent difference between writing novels and playing professional baseball. He’s right that they both require a great deal of natural ability and an even greater amount of practice. An old poetry professor of mine would always say that writing is both an art and a craft. Baseball is at best a craft with stunning aesthetic appeal. As much as we like to expound on this blog and assign literary meaning to ballplayers and ballgames, pitching is not art in the same sense that writing a novel is art. It’s more like chess. Pitchers don’t create new universes when they step out on the mound.

I’ll use Philip Roth. When his autobiographical character Alexander Portnoy dreams of being a centerfielder: “oh to be a centerfielder, a center fielder and nothing more,” he’s dreaming about the simplicity of playing center field — the physicality, the freedom, the distance from all of the insecurities and emotional machinations of the novelist. This isn’t to say that playing center fielder is a less worthy activity, it’s just not the same as writing literature.

4. His argument that Topeka is the size of Shakespeare’s London and therefore should be producing the same quality and quantity of literary output is absurd because a.) writers don’t flock to Topeka as a cultural capital. b.) Topeka has to compete with New York and LA and even Wichita when it comes to producing writers while London was the largest, most important city around. c.) There’s a very good poet named Eric McHenry from Topeka. He writes about it a fair amount. Also, as my friend Steve just pointed out, Gwendolyn Brooks was from Topeka

I’ll stop here. I’ve come to really appreciate Bill James more in the last year. He’s a brilliant thinker and brilliant writer. But this is the kind of pop-science crap that Malcom Gladwell would be reamed for if it appeared under his name. The arguments aren’t fleshed out. If you want to say that we should be valuing our writers more as a society, that’s one thing. (And James does make some good points about the dwindling demand for modern classics because the cannon isn’t really getting smaller.) But to say that Topeka should be producing a Dickens every decade because it produces a major league ballplayer? That’s just lazy.

(Also: Long Live Unofficial Royals Week!)

Rogue’s Baseball Index: The Tater Trot

Larry Granillo of Baseball Prospectus — where this will be cross-posted — and the legendary Wezen-Ball contributes this term:

The pitcher glowers over the edge of his mitt, staring in at the catcher. A barely perceptible nod of the head and he sets himself before beginning his wind-up. The batter waits impatiently. The pitch. The swing. The bat cracks as the batter makes solid contact with the fastball. The ball screams off the bat; the pitcher snaps his neck back to follow the flight of the ball. The batter pauses for a second as he watches the ball sail over the fence before running down to first. The home run has been hit and the crowd is cheering wildly.

But the play isn’t over. The batter still has 360 feet to traverse before he actually scores a run. The game is on pause until he touches all three bases and home plate; meanwhile, 40,000 eyes are now focused on him rounding the bases.

No other sport does this, pausing the game while the scoring player runs through a certain, prolonged motion. It’s akin to asking Adrian Peterson to run from one goal post to the other after reaching the end zone before his touchdown can be ruled official. Or telling Kobe Bryant that his basket won’t count unless he does four baseline-to-baseline sprints. Or making Alex Ovechkin skate from goalline to goalline and back before they can ring the light.

That’s what baseball does, though, removing all distraction from the field of play and focusing the stadium’s attention on the batter – a single, lone man – as he runs out his obligation, still excited with his success. This home run trot – this tater trot – is not only a moment of in-game euphoria but also a glimpse into the spirit of the batter. After all, how the player handles this excitement and attention tells us a lot about what kind of person he is.

Does he start running the bases at the crack of the bat, hoping for that double, only to pull up and casually jog the rest of the way home once the ball clears the fence? Does he stand at home plate and admire his blast before reluctantly lumbering around the bases? Maybe he never seems to pick up his head once, running as hard on those first few steps out of the box as he does on those last few steps through the plate? Is there joy on his face throughout the circuit? A smirk, maybe? Or is he stone-faced and officious as he celebrates his success?

The answers will be different for every player. The manner in which a player runs out a home run is, after all, a personal thing, influenced by a lifetime spent on the diamond. This intersection of lifetime experiences, personality, talent, and enthusiasm is what makes each and every tater trot unique and worth watching.

If she had her way all players would be forced to balance a tray of fried potato treats on their heads while rounding the bases.

Tater Trot at Rogue’s Baseball Index, the RBI Wiki.

Invisible Threads

Through the fifteenth century, the people of the Thrace used the phrase, “keeping Hosmer’s contacts away” as an idiom meaning “good luck.”

The quotation above comes from the impressive “A Paragraph About Eric Hosmer Written in the Style of The Golden Bough” at Royals Review, a stylistic exploration of the rituals that define the spiritual life of the typical Royals fan.

I once read the first sixty pages of The Golden Bough. While the work is entrancing, and sort of hypnotically cumulative in its effect, and as deft at building apparent spiritual lineages as Chuck Klosterman when he crafts his pop cultural hierarchies today, I was ultimately stymied by that very density–which read, at times, like a diabtribe from a Monster® energy drink-fueled caller to Coast to Coast AM–and the highly problematic debasement of entire groups of normal human beings to which Will, the author of the very clever and amusing post, alludes.

The appeal of The Golden Bough is its unapologetic conviction that there are threads that connect societies and cultures across time and geography, that there are traits that we share because we are the same. This conviction drives Pitchers & Poets, too, that these invisible threads a) exist and b) are worth stringing out as far as they will go.

Eric Hosmer, The Golden Boy

An Unpretentious Jovial Appreciation for Everything

Mike Sweeney never hit 30 homeruns in a season. For this and many other reasons, he was the kind of ballplayer children with big league dreams but a strong sense of their own limitations could aspire to be. If you told your parents you wanted to be the next Barry Bonds, they’d laugh. If you told them you wanted to be the next Mike Sweeney they might shrug their shoulders and say, “well why not?”

This is especially true for those of us who aren’t from Kansas City. I can’t speak to what Sweeney meant in that city, to those fans. As the brightest and longest-burning light the franchise has seen over the last twenty years, I imagine it’s quite a lot. For seven seasons, Sweeney played all-star caliber first base in jovial obscurity. (Be grateful it was not eight seasons, because if it was, I would surely have written a long essay comparing the light of Sweeney in Kansas City to the Jewish miracle of Hanukkah in which a night’s worth of oil burned for eight nights.)

He never did hit 30 home runs. But he did hit .340 once, and .333 once. He also played a few seasons at catcher, which I had totally forgotten about because Sweeney is one of those archetypal first basemen. He’s the kind of guy Ted and I discussed on the podcast last week – the kind of guy who you can’t imagine at any other position. At first base that often reflects obesity or hulking inability to play anywhere else. But not for Sweeney. Sweeney was an archetypical first baseman because you got the sense he genuinely enjoyed it. As he devolved into a designated hitter, you got the sense that he genuinely missed those short chats with opposing first base coaches and base runners.

There’s more, of course. He’s a famously nice guy. He’s a practical joker. He’s a “clubhouse guy.” Sweeney has also been one of baseball’s most notable Christians* for the last decade (makes the Hanukkah metaphor all the more tempting). The Mike and Shara Sweeney foundation’s website features this sentence on its home page:

“We believe that God’s love is so great.”

It’s a perfect sentence for Mike Sweeney The simplicity. The banality. The unpretentious jovial appreciation for everything. It’s as if Sweeney knows that if he played in New York or Chicago or almost anywhere else, his legacy would not be as special: he wouldn’t be the beacon of light in a Midwest town where baseball hope is dead. He’d just be another pretty good first baseman in an era chock full of them.

*He’s a Catholic, to be precise.

Image via flickr user BarryGeo

Will They Suck? Sure

Corban Goble is a Royals fan. He writes about music for Time Out New York.

I’m a Royals fan. And yeah, I’ve taken plenty of shit about it. To people more well-versed in the regal baseball traditions of the East Coast, saying the RoyaIs are your favorite team is a little like saying that Pavement is your favorite band—no one’s going to take you seriously.

But, that’s all just chatter. I can’t claim to be the enthusiast I was in my youth, but I still rep my team in perpetuity. For example, I’m really into royal blue, the color, right now, and naturally that has coincided with the acquisition of many choice vintage Royals items per eBay. When my worlds collide, I seize the day. I up the chaos coefficient and create some real high-concept obnoxiousness. What’s more obnoxious than a white guy in New York wearing a Royals Starter jacket, and acting snotty about it? My point exactly—if that kid weren’t me, I would almost certainly kill him in cold blood.

The last couple Royals seasons were not crushing in any particular way. They were mostly just numbing slates of spectacularly subaverage baseball, muted further by my growing personal disinterest in all things powder blue. The presence of some of the league’s most hateable players like Rick Ankiel, Kyle Farnsworth and Jason Kendall wasn’t exactly an incentive to pay more attention.

What’s more obnoxious than a white guy in New York wearing a Royals Starter jacket, and acting snotty about it? My point exactly—if that kid weren’t me, I would almost certainly kill him in cold blood. The man who brought them together, Dayton Moore, is a product of Atlanta’s John Schuerholz’s front office tutelage. The lessons have only half-stuck. He knows his way around a minor league scouting notebook but filling out a major league roster is his kryptonite. His speech is pocked with phrases like “knows how to win” and “locker room guy.” He’s always pointing to characteristics that are impossible to quantify. And yet he employed left fielder/genuine insane person Jose Guillen at the cost of $11 million for several seasons. He gave Willie Bloomquist (“can play anywhere” but secretly sucks everywhere) $7 million. And then Scott Podsednik for $1.75 million which doesn’t sound bad until you remember that he’s Scott Podsednik.

And for all of his minor league success – he’s taken one of the very worst developmental wings and made it one of baseball’s best (nine prospects in the top 100 as ranked by Baseball America, that’s a record) – Moore has also stifled the prospects he inherited. Remember when Alex Gordon was can’t miss? I do. You’re only as good as your front office allows you to be—Knicks fans who are currently experiencing the baffling re-emergence of Isaiah Thomas know what I’m talking about – and Dayton Moore doesn’t even allow mediocrity.

There have been plenty of reasons to turn my back on the Royals. But that would partially mean forsaking one of my favorite arguments: a debate that starts out as Royals vs. Cardinals but always devolved (evolves?) into whose town is better – and in the past ten years, one town has clearly surpassed the other (unless you’re into seedy riverboat casinos, in which case advantage: the Lou).

And man, it would also just feel weird. Growing up in an environment completely obsessed with its sports teams – my family’s mutual admiration of the Green Bay Packers being an honest-to-God explanation for us getting along, relatively smoothly, for decades, ditto the Kansas Jayhawks – something about my life would feel a little empty without the Royals. Only a year ago I was enslaved by the Zack Greinke march on the AL Cy Young Award, something I, perhaps childishly, I identified with; he’s a weird guy and so am I, and I always root for large-scale success by inordinately strange people (see Wayne, Lil).

Now, I’m only attracted to the roster on a farcical level. Moore’s ensconced in a decade-long dare to assemble the raggedest, most unpopular teammates in one room and see if that counts as a baseball team. It’s like “Major League,” except the fact that Charlie Sheen is absent, practically erasing any hope that some strippers show up. At the end of the day, they still trounce out of the locker room into the sea of pavement that surrounds the Truman Sports Complex, Garmins set to Lenexa, Hallbrook, the Plaza or otherwise.Moore’s ensconced in a decade-long dare to assemble the raggedest, most unpopular teammates in one room and see if that counts as a baseball team.

And yet, as much as I decry, and as much fun as I have decrying for the pure enjoyment of decrying, I still sort of believe it can turn around. The relevant talent evaluators still cite the Royals as maintainers of baseball’s best minor league system, a trove so rich with talent and hard-throwing lefties that not even Isaiah Thomas himself could fuck it up. And while, yeah, a lot of those guys aren’t even going to sniff the majors until 2013—this year’s Springdale Naturals are going to be fucking sick—at least it seems like Dayton Moore appears to be aware they’re going to just have to suck it out until then.

Will they suck? Sure. But, at the end of next year, the payroll will have shrunken to $33 million, thanks to Gil Meche’s weird abandonment of guaranteed cash, expectations will be low, the Mexicutioner nickname will be a long-forgotten relic of the past (he’s a man of honor, Joakim) and Albert Pujols will be shopping for powder blue homes in Mission Hills after signing a 20-year, $600 million dollar deal replete with a line of children’s cleats only available at WalMart.

When you love something that can’t love you back, its hard to shake, because without the give-and-take of some kind of relationship, you really can’t get burned too bad. The extremes are limited; you either don’t care or care too much, and either way, if you get pissed and go away for a while they’ll be there when you return like nothing ever changed.

Also, starting in 2014 or so, PROTECT YA NECK, American League.

Photo via writer and Flickr user Minda Haas

Vin Scully’s Scorebook

I spoke with Ken Levine, television writer and Mariners’ broadcaster, last week for an article I’m writing elsewhere. The conversation turned at one point to scorekeeping, and he shared this tidbit on Vin Scully:

Normally I can look over somebody’s shoulders, I can pick up their scorecard and I can kind of figure it out. With one exception – Vin Scully. He’s got lines and dots and stuff. I have no idea. You need Navajo code breakers to figure out Vin’s scorebook. I have no idea.

Scully, Levine said, also has the unfortunate habit of throwing his old scorebooks away. (Ernie Harwell, on the other hand, kept everything).

The Jersey Draft

In another fit of list-making compulsion, Ted sent me an email yesterday with some major league player jerseys he would actually wear. His impetus was what he called the “wave of fashion and design” this blog is riding. He sees no reason to stop, and neither do I. After all, Spring Training takes a big turn toward the boring after the St. Patty’s day uniforms get stored up for next year.

The list just came out of Majestic’s top selling jerseys for 2010. No big surprises. But not a very P&P set of players.

Sure Josh Hamilton is on there, with his crazy arm tattoos and rock n’ roll past. Sure Tim Lincecum is on there. But Jeter at no. 1 offers little in the way of excitement. So here we bring you a short jersey-wearing draft.

Eric: John Rauch

I’ve always wanted the chance to mention John Rauch on this blog. For one, he’s extremely tall. For another, he has a cool neck tattoo that I haven’t looked at closely, but from his perch on the mound distinguishes him as both a badass and a dude with better aesthetic taste than most of his fellow ballplayers.

Ted: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Stitch-for-stitch, this jersey is gonna get you the most value. This recommendation is the jersey equivalent of the little per-ounce price they put on the shelf labels at the supermarket. Ten pounds of cheese is gonna save you a bundle on the unit price. Same thing for Salty.

Eric: Milton Bradley

Once, I was merely a Dodger fan supporting his team’s center fielder. Now I am the baseball blogosphere’s most avowed Milton Bradley apologists. Also, it’s sure to be a conversation starter. As in “hey, why are you wearing a Milton Bradley jersey?” “Because he’s complicated. You should read my blog.”

Ted: Jose Valverde

Papa Grande is a real character, with a serious array of rituals and a joyfully haphazard windup. And what’s a jersey for if not to celebrate the game’s entertaining and outlandish personalities. Acceptable replacements: Big Papi, Brian Wilson, Nick Swisher.

Eric: Lance Berkman

I’m surprised Ted didn’t chose this one, as Berkman is his favorite player. I just like guys who seem to be having more fun than anybody else out on the field. Would have to be an Astros jersey though.

Ted: Bryce Harper

Yes, this could be the Mark Prior jersey of a few years from now. On the other hand, I could be getting in on the ground floor of some serious stardom. This jersey choice is the angel investment in the early days of a juggernaut. You’ve seen The Social Network, you know the deal.

Eric: Andre Ethier

Because he was once traded for Milton Bradley

Ted: Ichiro

His $1.3 million contribution to Japan’s relief efforts is just the latest evidence that Ichiro is operating on another level. You might as well jones off of his vibe (see BIRG on Ron Kaplan’s bookshelf) by wearing his jersey. Bonus: it’s got his first name on the back, which is so very European football.

Eric: Tim Lincecum

If he played for any other team, I would likely own a Lincecum jersey t-shirt already. He’s the only UW alum in the league right now, but beyond that he’s a likable character. Character.

Pitchers and Poets Podcast 25: Three Feet Above the Ground

The podcast is back!

In this latest episode, Eric and I discuss alternate scorekeeping ideas, the best and worst cap design list, and the most stereotypical representatives of each position.

We’re still hammering out some details, like getting the podcast back in the iTunes store, but for now you can subscribe in iTunes yourself, or via any RSS reader. Just use this feed url:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/ThePitchersAndPoetsPodcast

In iTunes, just click Advanced > Subscribe to Podcast, then enter that url, and you’re in business.

To download the file directly, right click and Save As:

http://pitchersandpoets.com/podcast/PnP_025.mp3

 

Ben Lyon on The Greatest Debates

Pitchers and Poets contributor Ben Lyon, a lawyer in Chicago, pipes up this week with a look back in time, to several of the great debates that have shaped the course of history.

These are heady times for the sports military industrial complex—the ground is littered with forgotten college basketball teams, the opening filibusters over who will get the #8 seeds in the NBA and NHL playoffs are slowly emerging, and best of all, labor strife in the NFL and the NBA is propelling the insurgent LaCrosse, Wisconsin Assessor candidacy of Mike Golic. Faux-outrage is at its zenith in early March.

But what of the pointless sports debates of previous generations? In our rush to find the next menial debate to fill the final 90 seconds of Around the Horn we fail as citizens if we don’t recognize when a seemingly endless debate is finally settled. Will America ever agree that Bobby Jackson deserved to be NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2002-2003?

Doubtful, as too much blood has been spilled, and the wound on our body politic remains too fresh.

And of course who amongst us can forget the fateful summer of ‘92: Young Cleveland Indian second baseman Carlos Baerga has been selected to the All-Star team as a last-minute injury replacement. The upstart Baerga is selected over avuncular Detroit Tiger first baseman Cecil Fielder. Despair commences in certain quarters, with ESPN Analyst Peter Gammons channeling his best John C. Calhoun impersonation when he says, “Baseball is trying to attract fans! And a lot more people would prefer to watch Fielder than Baerga!!”

(If emoticons had been invented at this point, Gammons would have used the following: “ :< ”)

So who did deserve to be in this All-Star game? Thankfully, the Baseball Writers Association of America is here to serve as our philosopher-king and settle this issue. At first glance, it appears that Gammons was wrong. Baerga (pinch hitting for Roberto Alomar Jr.) went 1-1 in the game; using Moneyball Sabermetics, we can calculate that at this pace, Baerga would have gotten a hit every time for an average of 1.000! Fielder did finish 9th to Baerga’s 11th in the 1992 MVP vote; however, they both finished behind Mike Devereaux, thus invalidating this as an argument.

Fast-forward to this winter, when the wise heads at BBWAA finally ended all debate. Carlos Baerga—he of 3 All-Star games, a league leading 444 Assists in 1995, and six triples in 1993 (good for 9th in the AL)—received 0 Hall of Fame votes. In 2004, Cecil Fielder received 1 Hall of Fame vote. By this indisputable math, the career of Fielder is infinity times better than that of Baerga. It therefore goes without saying that a player who is infinity times better than another deserves to make it into the 1992 All-Star game as an injury replacement.

In 1992, a grave injustice was committed. In the winter of 2011, this injustice was definitively rebuked–well for all except Jay Bell who hit only .264 in 1992 but somehow got 2 HOF votes!