Monthly Archive for June, 2011

Pitchers & Poets Style Academy, Volume 1: The Best and the Worst

Fashion blogs are all over the Internet these days, from the Sartorialist’s style-making streetside photos to 1990s First Basemen Week contributor Jesse Thorn and his men’s fashion blog Put This On. Troops of professionals and weekend stylists scour the streets of Brooklyn and the world snapping portraits of youths in leather shoes and old men in double-breasted suits. I enjoy these image-heavy style blogs. Their subjects are often idiosyncratic and interesting and more bold than your average Joe. Mister Mort, one of my favorites, finds some real characters whose style often includes just one fantastic adornment amidst an ensemble of crazy.

With Mort’s work being a more extreme example, style blogs chronicle this continual tension between the traditional, the contemporary, and the futuristic. Baseball fields are another such battleground, where a few intrepid sports put heat to the glass of tradition and warp it into some novel shape. Others, in my humble opinion, succumb to the overwhelming weight of skewed tradition and/or mediocrity. In any event, I’ve got my opinions, and that’s what I’ll do here.

And so, taking my own turn at the wheel, I present the Pitchers & Poets Style Academy, Volume 1, in which I decide for myself which players’ style on-the-field sets them apart, and which players’ stand out for their sourness.

Note: In this volume, I am taking into account only on-field presentation. I am not bold enough to venture into what some of these dudes wear in their privatest times (Exhibit A).

Fashion Five: The Height of Style

Ichiro Suzuki

Ichiro, whose style has personified the Japanese look in America for a solid decade now, creates harmony among the disparate elements that comprise his rig. A glint of silver in his high tops echoes the shimmer of his batting gloves, which in turn calls out to the silver in the Mariners cap. The neat crest of his pant leg where it meets the high sock, and the close fit of his jersey on his narrow frame accentuate the speed that comes with the silver lining.

Jose Reyes

Dreadlocks are more commonplace now than ever, and now that Manny Ramirez has retired, they can return to respectability as a charming style component, best displayed by Reyes, the kinetic, quick-footed shortstop. What better to trail a speedster as he takes the extra base, like built-in motion lines? Reyes’ modern baggy pants also reflect his kinetic style.

Jayson Werth

Proprietor of the beard with its own Twitter feed, Jayson Werth pulls off dramatic facial hair while maintaining a sense of decorum that a showman like Brian Wilson jettisoned long ago. While Wilson clings to the meme that began last year, letting his boot polish bristle expand, Werth doesn’t fear change, and he’s known to trim down to a soul patch (causing his Twitter doppelganger to enter SOUL PATCH MODE). Beard aside, Werth’s pants and jersey are of a full cut that looks back to an age-old style while remaining contemporary.

Vladimir Guerrero

photo by Keith Allison

For decades, now, this man mountain’s visual style has worked in perfect tandem with the way he plays baseball. Who else could successfully tuck his pant cuffs into his high tops but a player of Vlad’s trademark aggressive effectiveness. Guerrero’s giant legs help the idiosyncratic gambit succeed. Subtract batting gloves, add pine tar, finger tape, and one of the very few successful chin-only goatees, and the swing-away vision of Vlad is complete.

Mike Napoli

I don’t necessarily agree with Mike Napoli’s style. I’m not a gold chain guy. But I respect the completeness of the effort. Chain, tightly bounded beard, ornamental arm tats, hair flowing from his helmet, wide red armtape. If Russell Crowe played a major leaguer, I would expect to see the same full-bodied commitment to the aesthetic. Not since Piazza’s handlebar mustache has a catcher so boldly defied the aesthetic limitations of life behind the mask.

Honorable Mention

Derrek Lee, John Axford, Prince Fielder, B.J. Upton, Hunter Pence (with points off for magic necklace), Derek Jeter, Rickie Weeks. Please feel free to write your own suggestions in the comments.

Fashion Five Hole: The Dregs

Luke Scott

I’m not immune to the impact of Luke Scott’s politics when evaluating his look, but it seems fair to say that his style choices hint at his strange brew of ideas and behaviors. For years, his sideburns have been cut higher than a Monty Burns employee, and the snug fit of his jersey top and his devotion to gaudy Oakley sunglasses suggests an unhealthy attachment to the Reagan Era. And, of late, some kind of
mullet thing has been seen creeping out of the back of his helmet. Also, this.

Josh Beckett

Beckett is, in my eyes, the lead culprit in the disparaging trend of nausea-inducing magic necklaces and repulsive chin beards that are so common in today’s game (there are whole Houston Astros teams from 2007 to 2009 that lionize and emulate Beckett’s style the way hipster ladies look to Zooey Deschanel). Back during his rise to prominence with the Marlins in 2003, Beckett was a fresh faced young power pitcher sporting a chin disaster. Follies of youth can be excused, if only Beckett had abandoned the gaff in the interim. Instead, he’s elevated the chin beard to an art form, like a Thomas Kinkaid painting or a faded tag on a stop sign in Topeka.

C.C. Sabathia

Big men don’t have it easy when it comes to looking good in a baseball uniform. The solution, however, is not to add twenty-four square feet of additional fabric to the ensemble. Plus, he wears his cap less crooked/awesome than he used to.

Hideki Matsui

Sometimes, a single fatal flaw can sink an entire presentation. In Hideki Matsui’s case, it’s the grandpa-grade altitude of his waistline.

Shawn Marcum

With his “roadie for the WARPED tour” multi-leveled beard, his “roadie for Led Zeppelin” bell-bottom pants, and his “roadie for the Chili Peppers” necklace menagerie, Shawn Marcum could front a crappy rock band in any of three decades.

Honorable Mention

C.J. Wilson, Kevin Youkilis, Johnny Cueto, Corey Hart

The Final Game of the Season

It was the sort of field you would expect to see behind an elementary school: the ferrous chain-link backstop, splotches of crabgrass masking divots in the clay.  The playground, ordinarily teeming with playful shrieks and children’s arguments, today fell silent; the wind brushed the leaves of the trees lazily in the summer sun.  In front of the backstop, the earth had worn down by a hundred children digging their toes into the earth, emulating their favorite heroes.  The rubber bases were placed in rough approximation, second base located perhaps a shade too close to third, the diamond more of a rhombus.  I leaned forward into the stretch, rolling the white plastic wiffleball between my fingers, shaking off a nonexistent catcher.  The six year-old boy fidgeted the oversized orange bat, tense with waiting.

Between classes and readings for graduate school, I spend my time with a before and after school program at a nearby grade school.  Ordinarily, there are twenty or thirty children, but today is the last day of school, a half-day, and most of the parents have come early to pick up their children and begin their summer vacations.  For the handful that remains, only I and six hours stand between them and their freedom.

We play with rules that have been engraved in the rules of the sandlot since ages past: the pitcher’s hand, the ghost runner.  Children lead off despite my warnings, and I whip my arm in a fake throwing motion, sending them sprawling back to the bag.  There are no walks, and five strikes to a batter, and too many times I have to remind the younger boys and girls not to stand on the plate.  We track the runs, not because anyone is keeping score, but because the teams switch sides after five runs are scored; without gloves and with the tentative fingers of first basemen, outs are rare.
Continue reading ‘The Final Game of the Season’

The Joba File: Private Anxiety Made Public in Baseball’s Age of Potential

Joba Chamberlain elicits a negative response from the average baseball fan that far outweighs his time spent as a big league pitcher. For a few years, Chamberlain was the lightning rod for Yankee-hating, embodying what outsiders disliked about the team.

The Yankees fan base, meanwhile, accustomed to a team that develops its own foundational members, asked too much of the kid. The Yankees called him up to the big leagues after just a year in the minors. In the hustle to nudge him, with Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes, up onto the Yankees pedestal once occupied by the four horsemen, Yankee fans made him Joba before he was Chamberlain. In the rest of the country, his unique first name became a slight, and a shorthand term for a long-held distaste for the Yankees. Soon, the name Joba came to symbolize a fatigue not only for the team’s ruthless big money practices, but also for the media’s clear favoritism towards East Coast franchises.

That Joba Chamberlain was the symbol of this sentiment is misguided and unfortunate, and more a result of bad timing than anything that Joba did. Because, generally speaking, Joba Chamberlain is the opposite of what people don’t like about the Yankees.

Continue reading ‘The Joba File: Private Anxiety Made Public in Baseball’s Age of Potential’

A River Slums Through It by Jesse Gloyd

Jesse Gloyd is a writer after our own hearts, and we strongly suggest his work at his blog, Buckshot Boogaloo. His Twitter tag is @jessejamesgloyd.

I went fishing on Saturday. I went with an old friend. My friend works for a local art college. He was late, because his car wouldn’t start. We would fish the Los Angeles River. I had wanted to fish the Los Angeles River for some time. There is a stretch of river along the freeway that I have driven by enough to notice the couples with their coolers and their rods camped on the steep concrete embankment. When I was young, I was told to call them rods. I had been calling them poles. They weren’t poles; they were rods. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. I just made the switch in my head. Rod is more Biblical, more dignified. Moses had a rod. Pole is sophomoric, ripe for phallic jabs. Rod is little better, but fishing wouldn’t be fishing without the early morning phallic jab.

My fishing vest was dusty and the leather strap on my creel had broken. I’m not sure when it broke. Time and lack of use seemed to be the culprit. I hoped the artificial flies that were in my pouch would suffice. They were mostly dry and small. Most of them were speckled with dried moss. The moss probably came from a stream in Montana. Colorado was also a possibility. The pockets of the vest were filled with random artifacts: a Leatherman, a plastic box of flies, a screw, a nickel, two pennies, matches, loose tobacco, a pipe, a flask (with some very aged whiskey), and silver toenail clippers. I checked pockets and the creases thoroughly. I was looking for spiders. When I was a child, I remember my dad putting on a boot that he hadn’t worn in some time. He whipped the boot off when his toes touched the soft, decaying flesh of a field mouse. Ever since then I have been afraid of creatures hiding in old clothes.

The part of the river we fished runs about three miles down the street from Chavez Ravine. If you were coming from the south, you would exit Stadium Way. There is a path that runs along a portion of the river that the city river gods have decided to let return to its natural state. Cottonwood and sycamore trees fill the middle, their fallen limbs providing shelter and submerged root homes for carp, largemouth bass, and the fathead minnow. In the evening, from a particular spot, you might catch the glow of the Dodger Stadium lights in the ravine. The reflective radiance has a sort of Close Encounters quality. The stadium’s ominous presence exudes the ambient aesthetic of a space ship converted by mortals and permanently parked in the middle of land once teeming with unsuspecting Mexican immigrants. People rarely question its origin anymore. It is what it is: a shrine to the West Coast, a shrine to the gods of fate and destiny.

Rhetoric aside, the house that O’Malley built is a place where good things have happened. Dodger Stadium is the third oldest stadium in major league baseball. It is a space-aged, symmetrically perfect slice of 1960s Southern California pop pie. Dodger Stadium sooths and excites. Because of its fabled history, because of Vin Scully’s silver-tongued oration always hovering, perpetually grinding out of transistor radios, when things are going good, when things are going well with the team, the place makes you feel like Vicks VapoRub smells. These days, things are not going well. People are getting their heads kicked in. Husbands and wives are fighting. Children are crying. It is a depressing time to be a Dodger fan, which is why we decided to fish. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was one of them.

The rivers of America are metaphorical goldmines. They inspire. They move. Their movement is perpetual. There is something pure about their ever-flowing essence. They are like mystical creatures, primordial sharks. Most rivers are alive and good. They provide comfort and a sense of safe solitude. The Los Angeles River, however, is a soulless beast. It is an exposed concrete nerve whose existence is a daily reminder of the decay of the modern city. It is a vessel of sadness. It staggers along like a drunken uncle. It is the shadow of life. Yes, it has begun to grow green in spots, but the majority of its snaked route is covered with the modern markings of the fall: concrete, graffiti, and Styrofoam.

Rivers, even one as seemingly impotent as the Los Angeles, are often violent reflections of their host city. This was entirely evident as we made our way down the steep embankment toward the water’s edge. The morning was cool. A June haze hung over the city. We had a Stanley thermos and two rods. We made our way down a path that led to a broken section of the barrier between the path and the steep concrete embankment. The concrete extended down to an unnatural slab. The slab became our base camp. A fish surfaced nearby as my friend lit a cigarette. Our prospects seemed decent, but I was a little worried that I should have brought gloves. A set of yellow rubber dishwashing gloves would have been perfect. The river yellowed at spots. I didn’t feel that it was safe to touch the water, let alone a fish. The water looked decent in the spots where it was running, but the pools with the Styrofoam cups, the yellowed foam, and the algae growing alongside the half submerged Ralph’s plastic shopping bag painted the picture, told the true L.A. Story, the story of discarded plastic and bottom feeding fish.

I have seen Frank McCourt up close once in my life. It was at Camelback Ranch. I was at Spring Training with a group of friends. Our intent was to watch baseball, drink beer, and participate in a fantasy draft. I have a foggy memory as to the specifics. Frank McCourt had made his way out to the cheap seats, the sloped grass behind the outfield. His appearance was odd. Most of the questions directed his way were generic. Most weren’t really questions. People were just calling his name. They wanted pictures. They wanted him to stand next to their children and smile. I snapped one myself. He did look cool. He was in great shape. I envied his sunglasses and his hairline.

His appearance came right around the time news had begun to surface about his divorce. His sharp, angular face had a certain glow: a greasy melancholic Gatsby-esque sheen. Something seemed a little off. He looked tired. He was wearing a pink shirt. Thinking back, I have to wonder if he knew there was a good chance everything was about to unravel. Even if he had an inkling, I’m not sure he saw it unraveling to the extent that it has. There have been bright spots on the field, but they have been few and far between. The bright spots seem to have happened in spite of, not because of Frank McCourt. I’m not sure if he knew the flood was on its way, though I imagine the metaphorical rain was beginning to pour and the metaphorical Corps of Engineers rattling around his subconscious were probably beginning to alert him that his survival depended on encasing the bed and banks of his soul in concrete.

The Los Angeles River flood of 1938 was a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. Water rose. Water raged. It licked the tops of houses and brought the houses down. There were dozens of deaths. Men, women, and children were crushed. Cars were stranded, left to writhe and succumb in the mud. Though the flooding was the result of heavy, torrential rain, it was the calloused reaction to the otherworldly wrath that caught the ire of the city and brought about the eventual demise of mayor Frank L. Shaw. Frank Shaw’s fatal flaw came when he uttered the following in a national radio interview, “the sun is shining in Southern California and all is well.” All was not well. Five people died when the Lankershim Bridge collapsed. They tumbled into the angry foam. Three children from the same family were caught and washed away. Radio reporters were hysterical. It was rumored that whole cities had been wiped completely off the map.

Frank McCourt’s strained existence pales in comparison to the corruption that spread like river algae through the heart of Frank Shaw’s administration. The problem is that people can live with corruption. People, sadly, have lived with corruption since the dawn of time. It is the detachment from reality that really seems to drive the masses insane. The detachment is the thing that is most upsetting. As major league baseball was stepping in to seize control of the fabled franchise, Frank McCourt stated, “Yeah, I think we have a very, very good team.” The words were almost as unbelievable as Frank Shaw’s utterance. McCourt may not be as corrupt as Shaw was, but his detachment is spot on. The lack of honest, preemptive humility might be the thread that connects the downfall of both men.

The 1938 tragedy prompted the river to be structurally altered. Tragedy often prompts the altering of structure. The concrete embankment, though something of an eyesore, does make it easy to cast. This would be a good thing if fish were plentiful. Research tells me they are. The spot used to be a fertile ground for migrating steelhead. Grizzly bears were known to occasionally come down and pull specimens from the bank. Things change. The grizzly is no longer a Southern California resident, and neither is the steelhead. The ever-changing ebb and flow seems to be the natural order of things. The river seems relatively stable. Though littered with shopping carts and Styrofoam, control is being given back to nature.

Nature can be a fickle entity. Nature doesn’t discriminate. It calls spades spades. Though we saw several fish jump, none took the bait. We were using small dry flies. The flies were old and weathered. I imagine the bottom feeders saw right through our ploy. There is also a good chance they weren’t buying what we were selling. The specks of Montana moss floating off the bits of feather and steel probably threw them off. The beasts were used to a steady diet of trash. All of my research pointed to the fact that the bottom feeders would eat just about anything. I assumed this also included the delicate artificial pairing of feather and steel. I assumed wrong. When you eat garbage, your body adjusts.

It has been a little over a year since I ran into Frank McCourt in Arizona. From what I can tell, he is beginning to look and feel like post-Popeye Robert Evans, a train wreck whose select moments of brilliance have begun to fade. Frank McCourt knows more about business than I ever will, but I think I know more about baseball. I think my palate is more developed. I wouldn’t be a good fan if I didn’t have such arrogant personal assumptions. I know, not so deep down, that this isn’t really the case. Frank McCourt probably does have knowledge and an understanding of his own river. The problem is that, like Frank Shaw, he is more akin to the carp than the once mighty steelhead. Their decisions and their palate reflect the river that runs through their city. They are slow moving, garbage consuming creatures.

We spent some time navigating the concrete, but we didn’t catch anything. We sipped coffee and watched as our respective flies floated, presumably, past the skeptical eyes of the bottom feeders. As a species, their survival has depended on them discerning what trash to eat and what trash to avoid. We left feeling good about our morning. We understood the river seeing it up close. It also helped me understand my relationship with the Dodgers a little bit better. Sometimes it’s good to examine things in the light of history. Sometimes it’s good to experience things from a distance.

Perspective is key to perfection; perspective is key to understanding the entirety of the journey. As we made our way back to our car, we talked about taxidermy and baseball memorabilia. Things we had found in thrift stores. Hidden gems. A Mickey Mantle minor league program. An elephant’s foot. A fox pelt. Items whose greatness lies in an understanding of their existence in light of the passing of time. A baseball team must be viewed in the same way. Its existence, like that of the river, is perpetual, forever changing, wild, and unpredictable. Baseball teams are not bound by people, but by time and forces outside of our understanding. This is why we hold the bottom feeders to the highest standards. This is why we do our best to, at the very least, keep our own palates in check.

Reviewing the ilovetoscore Scorebook

I promised awhile ago, circa Scorekeeping Week, that I would use and review the ilovetoscore.com scorebook, produced and offered for sale by Michael Schwartz. Well, I finally got out to the ballpark to take it for a spin.

First Impressions

This is a big scorebook, with a dramatic cover and spiral binding. It’s closer in appearance to the rig toted around by the thirteenth pitcher on a twelve-man high school pitching staff, whose most important job is making sure the studs know their own ERA. I’m not a super vain person, and I’m not all that cool, so I was happy to settle in at my seat with the scorebook and get down to business. I am, however, just self-conscious enough to bring a messenger bag with me to conceal this great colorful folio while I walked around town and mingled with the people in the wild.

So, subtlety isn’t on the docket when it comes to the curb appeal of the ilovetoscore scorebook. Its great size demands full attention–befitting scorkeeping as a whole, really–and I had to deflect a few non-scorekeeping-related comments from my companions, among them a certain Pitchers & Poets co-blogger, in order to train my focus and fill out my lineups to prepare for the game. With the scorebook perched on my knees, which I had to pinch together slightly awkward to create a lap-desk, I finally took in the beauty of the blank scorecard.

Usage

This scorecard, as you might have guessed, offers acres of space, with all of the classic spaces for baseball-type information. Four lines per batter in the lineup, space for eight pitchers, slots for date [June 13, 2011], time [7], location [Seattle, WA], wind [present], temp [dropping by the minute], condition [overcast], and attendance [they never announced it]. What I like about these touches is the appreciation for the scorecard as artifact. When I look back at this card in years or decades, I can read not only what happened in the game, but I can also partake in my own inside jokes. That means that right now part of my job is to leave little nuggets for future Ted to enjoy many years from now. Like the one about wind being present. Past Ted is already cracking me up!

Also off the beaten track is the NOTES section, with a few lines for general observations, I guess. In this space, I noted who my companions at the game were (with Eric being among those ranks, this being, amazingly, the first baseball game we attended together). I also logged the existence of the strange farting pantomime that left-fielder Vernon Wells directed towards the drunks in the standing room bar section in center field around the 8th inning. Wells hit a couple of homers that night, one in the third and one in the seventh, so I guess he earned the right to gas a few hecklers.

“Line quality is so underrated” – Eric Nusbaum

The scorecard’s boxes feature baseball diamonds made of dots, providing a structure to work from while also welcoming the substance that a pencil mark provides. The little field also makes a nice palette for the “path of the ball” mark that I used to show where a batted ball went. There are some small boxes within the box within the box that would be perfect for balls and strikes, had I gone that route. As it was, my scorekeeping was already detracting from sociability enough without me marking every pitch.

One gripe: I wanna flip. By this I mean, when I switch from one batting side to another, or when I want to refer back to something that happened to the other team, I would like to flip the book over in a vertical direction. The ilovetoscore.com scorebook requires a horizontal turn, which is oddly cumbersome. Much easier to flip it up and down. I don’t know if the vertical flip is normal, or even possible. But I want it. Maybe I’m crazy.

Final Thoughts

This is a fine, fine scorebook. It’s solid and sturdy book meant for heavy use, and if you love to score you should fill this thing up like Jack Kerouac on a liter of whiskey. What you sacrifice in terms of aesthetics, you’ll make up for with good old fashioned scorekeeping use.

As I kept score, I wanted to be a play-by-play announcer, using the book to comment on the trends of the game and the player performances. Its weight suggests use, and using it engaged my brain and reminded me to share the information I gathered. I spouted figures and facts: who doubled in what inning, how many strike outs were swingless, scanning the tidy boxes that were as wide and clean as an outfield.

The Man Who Couldn’t Hit

On May 25, 1972, Frank Fernandez pinch hit for Cubs starter Bill Hands in the sixth inning, grounded out to third base, and returned to the dugout.  It was his final at-bat.  Because of it, he had unknowingly put himself in the record books.

The at-bat lowered his batting average from .1997 to .1994, thus cementing his career batting average below the Mendoza line.  If the ball had snuck through the infield, or hit a pebble in the dirt, he would be forgotten.  Instead, he is forgotten, but he holds an interesting title in baseball history.

Frank Fernandez is the greatest player in baseball history to hit below .200 for his career.

In 902 plate appearances over six seasons, Fernandez’s career was more valuable (in terms of wins above replacement) than Kenji Johjima, Eddie Taubensee, or Jose Guillen.  This despite never having a starting job or a regular role, seeing many of his plate appearances in a pinch-hitting role, and spending his entire career within the second deadball era of the sixties and early seventies.   His career walk rate is the seventh best of all time among players with 900 trips to the plate.  “I’d like to hit,” Fernandez once complained.  “But I don’t seem to get many pitches to hit.”  Fernandez obviously had a specific definition of what a good pitch was.

His finest season came in 1969, platooning with Joe Gibbs.  In 298 plate appearances, Fernandez hit a career-best .223/.399/.415, with 12 home runs and 65 walks.  Appearing in only half the games that year, he was the fourth-most valuable hitter on the team.

Playing for New York, under the weight of its heroes, Fernandez’s career was a disappointment.  He had dropped out of college at Villanova to play baseball, giving up not only school but his first love, basketball.  He was a busted prospect, flashing enough to whet the appetite of the fan without the singles to support it.  Once, Fernandez took a bases-loaded walk that scored the winning run of the ballgame.  Afterward, reporters asked if he’d been afraid to take the payoff pitch, saying that there’s nothing more embarrassing than taking a third strike with the bases loaded.  It could very well have cost his job.

“I was embarrassed all night long,” Fernandez replied, having made two errors.  “How much more embarrassed could I be?”

Fernandez is remembered today by a single anecdote.  When one is a .1994 hitter, one’s life is fraught with missed opportunities.  For Frank Fernandez, such a life came to a head on August 27, 1970.  Late in the game Fernandez hit a shot off Mike Cuellar down the third base line toward Brooks Robinson.  Usually, this would be fitting.  Instead, this time the ball was hit so sharply that Robinson had no time to react.  The ball hit his shin and ricocheted directly into the hands of shortstop Mark Belanger, who had ample time to make the throw to first.  He didn’t.  The throw sailed wide and Fernandez wound up at second base.  Over the intercom, Baltimore’s official scorer ruled the play an error.

For a man who spent his life desperate for base hits, this insult was enough.  Fernandez was caught in the middle of a philosophical argument: do we judge a man by what he does, or what happens to him?  When the ball left his bat, based on its force and trajectory, it was a base hit.  By the time it reached first, independent of his actions, it had become an error.  Ultimately, Fernandez had no control over his fate.  Upon scoring on a Campaneris single, he took the only thing he had, his batting helmet, and flung it at the heavens in protest.  As tends to be the case in these moments, the act was ultimately futile.  He was ejected, fined $250, and ridiculed.

“All Fernandez is making all the fuss about,” said Harry Caray in the booth, “is whether he hits .200 or .198 this season.”  In fact, it meant hitting .199 or .200 in his career. In the end, it’s a strange and arbitrary demarcation, and yet, like Mendoza, it came to define him.  But to diminish “all he was making a fuss about” is to take a man out of context, to separate his actions so as to filter the life from him.  We can’t judge that play without understanding eleven years of bad hops and diving catches that came before.  Baseball is a game of constant failure, where even the best of players succeed only 40% of the time.  For Fernandez, a backup on the World’s Greatest Baseball Team during one of its least great eras, the weight of that disappointment is all the more crushing.  At some point, it is enough.

(Sources for some of the material in this article include “Yanks’ Catcher in the Wry”, by Frank Dolson, in the October 1968 Baseball Digest, and “An Official Scorer Who Has Lived to Tell About It”, by Bill Christine, in the July 22 1979 issue of the New York Times.)

 

Bud Selig Paid Me A Million Dollars To Stalk J.D. Salinger by Bob Costuz

Bud Selig paid me a million dollars to hand-deliver an All-Century Team ballot to J.D. Salinger.

It sounds incredible, but remember, those were strange times: it was the baroque period of the Steroid Era and Bud Selig was the most powerful man in America. He had reduced the strike zone to the size of a Chiclet. With a single sheet of MLB stationary he made Brady Anderson a home run hitter and Moises Alou a sex symbol. It has been said that in that era Bud Selig was so powerful, when he called the Minnesota Twins, Tom Kelly reached for two things: a 9 mm and a roll of toilet paper.

After sealing the deal with Selig, I called Jim McCarver to see if he was interested in the mission. Thirty minutes later, Jim McCarver and I parachuted out of an F-16. Me and the Vermont turf had a smooth first date. Not so for Timmy: he impaled his leg on a weather vane on his way down. It was gnarly, ruining McCarver’s best pair of Wranglers and compromising his ability to carry out the mission. I dragged him into a nearby barn, gave him a Vicodin and a flare gun. That night as I crossed into New Hampshire on foot, something came over me. It was an indescribable feeling, but the last time I felt it I was covering the Summer Games in Atlanta. That was July 27, 1996.

For the first three weeks of my mission, I perched in an Eastern White Pine across the street from the Salinger compound. I was dressed as a mailman. My plan was to spot Salinger’s Toyota Land Cruiser coming down the driveway, confirm my visual sans binocs, hop down from the tree and head towards the compound mailbox. It is a dogged state for a broadcast journalist to be reliant upon the whims of the fortuitous.

The first time I saw Salinger, it was about eight days in and the Land Cruiser was already halfway down the driveway. I was so busy scraping a melted Snicker bar out of the bottom of my fanny pack that by the time I hopped out of the tree I realized that I had left my ballots wedged in the nook of a sturdy branch. I dove into the ditch for cover. I don’t think he saw me.

Four days later, I had just closed my eyes for a tree nap when I thought I heard the sound of an SUV. It was then that my entire body spasmed and I fell out of the tree. I had kicked my shoes off while I was asleep and my socked left foot landed on a very sharp pile of rocks. The rocks cut into the soft part of my foot. I had to seal the wound with super glue. I never determined the source of the noise. I think it was a bird or maybe one of Salinger’s neighbor’s piglets.

In the wake of those two incidents, I began to feel like Chico Lind in a twelve pitch at-bat with Tim Wakefield. I drank six red bulls a day. I didn’t sleep. A few days later, Selig called me. He told me I had two days to get results or he would cancel the check and bring in Jose Lima.

Message received, commissioner.

That night I took a room in Cornish. I stayed in my room, got drunk, and watched Forrest Gump. It triggered a memory of a story Tony LaRussa told me after the 1988 World Series. It concerned David and the Bible. There was a time when David lived on the run from King Saul. In those days, when his very survival was threatened, David pretended to be mucho loco while eating at King Ashish’s palace. When I woke up I saw that I had written a note above the bathtub ring in sharpie: “It takes leprechaun mask to get the unicorn man.”

The next morning, I bought a riding lawn mower and saddled up with copious amounts of Mr. Pibb. I drove the mower back and forth on the road in front of Salinger’s house. This did not summon Salinger.

The next day I got braver and mowed a series of symmetrical curlicues from the beginning of the gravel driveway to the koi ponds next to the tennis courts. This did not summon Salinger.

The next day I spotted smoke pouring out of the top of the big house and two sedans parked in between the trampoline and the pool. I thought to myself, the stage is set, Costuz, you have an audience and five horses under the hood. It’s time.

I raced past the stone lions near the gates and towards the mandarin grove adjacent to Salinger’s concrete bunker. I must’ve been going fifteen MPHes when I ran over those mandarin saplings. This did not summon Salinger.

The next day I boarded my mower and headed straight past the rock garden and into the flowerbed. I left a few of the more Monet-looking flowers for love’s sake but cut down the rest. This did not summon Salinger.

I couldn’t take it anymore. Salinger was a god without ears. I turned off my mower and looked behind me. In the last week, I had decimated the landscape of the Salinger compound and had nothing to show for it. Drunk on the wine of conquest, like so many conquistadors before me, I climbed Salinger’s porch steps and rapped on the door three times. Several hours later, an old man, skinny and tall like an industrial broom, opened the door. He had a navy revolver tucked into his pants.

“Who the hell are you?”

This message was delivered via Dylan Little whom you can follow on Twitter, where his tag is @orangehunchback. Dylan says, “please remember Joplin. To make a ten dollar donation to the Salvation Army text the word “Joplin” to 80888.”

Weekend Reading: Names

What We Carry, by Ted Berg, on what ballplayers can mean.

Space, Time, and DVR Mechanics, by Chuck Klosterman on Grantland. CK is easily my favorite contributor to the quite remarkable Grantland stable. Here, he explores what is, for me, a regular part of baseball writing: the DVR. For my part, I love sports on the DVR, and couldn’t get by without it (especially on the West Coast).

Dustin Ackley Hath Arrived: A Look at Reactions and Expectations from Pro Ball NW. A chronicle of “giddy.”

Baseball Players and Their Representative Volcanoes, by Jeff Sullivan at Baseball Nation.

Men Whose Names Were Unfortunate in Retrospect, by P&P Visiting Professor Patrick Dubuque at NotGraphs. Alternative title: The Ballad of Mike Stanton: No The Other Mike Stanton.

Good Old Sidney, by Alex Belth at Bronx Banter. First name bases and dog day afternoons.

Finding Jered: Angertainment and the Reluctant Appreciation of an Ace

My wife really eats up Sarah Palin news. She could watch YouTube videos of the absentee Alaskan all day long. Angertainment, she calls it: the practice of watching something because you can’t stand the subject, and bashing them gives you a rush. I watch the Glenn Beck show on occasion, just to see what he’s up to, and to rant and rave with my critiques of his approach, developing counter arguments to share with the dog on our next walk.

Healthy or not, figures like Palin highlight the basic human tendency to create nemeses. Developing an enemy, even an enemy who will never hear the cries of disdain you lob at the television, is a way to locate yourself in relation to others, and to establish your own values in a world of subcategories and splinter groups. Angertainment is a private act that feels public, and while the hot-button political commentators will always play some role, in other arenas it isn’t always possible to predict when and where an entertainemy will emerge.

Enter Jered Weaver. He bugs me. Not in a political way, or a social way. He doesn’t make me feel like the fabric of the game is degrading 1. I just don’t like the looks of him. His California snarl, the styled medium long hair that sweeps up in the back like a ski jump, the defiant angular tilt of his shoulders. He looks like kid in high school who held the parties. I didn’t get invited to the parties, and I wouldn’t have known what to do there if I had been. Jered’s older brother, Jeff, threw out a similar vibe, like he was the one buying the beer. Together, the Weaver brothers create a douchebag dynasty effect, and I can’t help but envision them standing back shoulder to back shoulder, crossed arms, blocking the door out of the locker room just long enough for a towel whip.

Jered Weaver is my angertainment.

The Angels pitcher is clearly–to paraphrase Werner Herzog’s recent line during a guest spot on The Simpsons–a mirror to the soul. I don’t know a thing about his character, or his personality, or the way that he behaved in high school. I’ve never read his side of an interview or followed his career any further than highlights on the teevee. And yet I’ve created a narrative for him in my head, and I’ve imagined a world that we both occupy in which I’ve interacted with him. I’ve predicted the results of the interaction (see above re: whip, towel). Based on a patch of disgusting chin hair, a hairstyle, an intangible comportment I have decided is arrogant, I’ve spun a web of un-reality to match whatever anxieties I harbor about turning 30, about the West Coast, about tall, skinny blonde people, about the act of watching baseball. This angertainment is on me.

Celebrity culture wields such power because of most folks’ tendency to script these narratives, with public personae as the players. It’s a largely automatic response to the stimulus placed before us, manipulating the natural human tendency to form groups and talk shit about other groups. The average gossip blog reader would have an easier time discussing which celebrities they dislike than those that they enjoy. Goats abound these days, while heroes run thin, telling us something about an American need for enemies that probably, if we’re honest, says more about a desperate desire for friends.

Baseball does a lot of the work for us by divvying up allegiances from the start, and much of the inherent entertainment derives from the symmetrical alignment of opposing forces. And, when it comes to angertainment, athletes do differ from general entertainment types and politicians, in that athletes don’t necessarily desire attention as much as they desire excellence, and what they do for a living just so happens to take place in a public sphere. Entertainers and public figures with no trade other than attention, on the other hand, derive their satisfaction and their value from the presence of an audience, and the currency they thrive on is the reaction itself, rather than the transposed currency to look to like wins or hits.

Which means that Jered Weaver isn’t pitching for me. A polarizing politician or talk radio host gains drawing power when someone like my wife tunes in to hear them say something incendiary, because their fan base enjoys it when others frown on their views, enabling them to entrench further, and that in turn strengthens the fan base in today’s new media cycle of violent love and violent hate. Weaver, though, gains little from my distaste. His main goal is to win for Angels fans, not to create a firestorm of opposition that fuels his prominence. The spotlight is his for the taking if he pitches well. Any other attention is fat to be trimmed. If he is really good, he’ll achieve his goal. He doesn’t need hostility–and the attention that comes with it–to heighten his success.

What gets stuck in my craw about Jered Weaver’s physical presentation is the sense of entitlement it exudes. I’m like anybody in that I naturally resent those to whom success seems to come easily. The conceit of Weaver as imagined high school classmate suggests that he is the kid who was a head taller than everyone else, who probably threw harder than everyone else, and who enjoyed a mastery of his pitches that most of his teammates and opponents were unable to touch with a ten foot pole.

The truth, however, is that success doesn’t come easily to very many people, especially in the major leagues, which has laid low many young talents. There is no reason for me to believe that Jered Weaver hasn’t earned his place. In fact, when I had the chance to watch the pitcher work against the Seattle Mariners the other night, I gained insight into his style that directly undermines my irrationally negative attitude toward him.

First of all, in direct contradiction to his presence on the mound, Weaver isn’t a power pitcher. He’s tall, with long arms and legs, and a long wind-up, and when you mix in his sneer and his hair and whatnot, you have painted the picture of a fireballer who, given his frame, you’d think was wild, and that he got by on strength rather than finesse.

But eaver doesn’t throw all that hard. His fastball lives in the high 80s, dabbling in the low 90s. The fastball you might figure would resemble that of another lanky hurler, A.J. Burnett, with a foot of uncontrollable movement, actually travels as true and straight as an arrow, with the precise accuracy of an Olympian. Weaver hits the mitt on par with some of the best, and he’s only walked 26 through 109 innings this year. Before I sat down to watch him against the Mariners, I didn’t think, “Here pitches Jered Weaver the control artist with an elite level of touch on the mound.” I thought, “Jered Weaver. He looks like a dick.”

And I had no idea he had such a good change-up.

Weaver’s change-up is the foundation of his pitching style. He started off a surprising number of batters with the change piece, showing great confidence in it and confounding hitters who may have liked to start with the fastball and work their way down to the slow stuff. This strategy impressed me. It is an odd gambit to start with a change-up. The reliance on its inherent deception, rather than its relationship to other pitches, shows the kind of confidence in it more often displayed by pitchers like Maddux and Moyer. You could even call the change-first approach quirky 2. Before I watched him pitch, I didn’t think I’d ever refer to Jered Weaver as quirky. But there it is, an idiosyncratic tendency that chips away at the preconception I have about him. His inner Zooey Deschanel beats out his outer Lindsay Lohan this round of their best of 9 arm-wrestling match.

The final nail in the coffin of my disregard for Weaver is the fact that he has improved every year starting when he came on like a bullet in 2006. The prominent change-up, the tight fastball, the unfurling motion like a masted ship setting sail, to say nothing of a very good curveball that promises the strike zone before ducking away, these are the products of an artisan, not a jock. From 2007 to 2009 his FIP was in the 4 range, then in 2010 it dropped to 3, and now it’s around 2.5. His strikeout rate has inched upward, and his walk rates downward. A few paragraphs ago, I said that things seemed to come easily to Jered Weaver. Discounting a bang-em-up first season, they didn’t. He has improved, year over year, the way that the analysts draw it up, and he has slowly evolved into the ace that he is now. Such metered improvement can only suggest hard work, and a major league learning curve.

I was way off. He didn’t shut the Mariners out with a complete performance by riding arrogance, but by utilizing a collection of mature, insightful pitches and articulate control.3 The message is in the medium. Message received.

Baseball rewards attention, and that’s all you could ever ask for. I had my preconceptions about Weaver, but when I took the time to evaluate what he does out there, and to take a look at his past performance through the numbers4, I was able to fill in an incomplete baseball portrait. He still carries the swagger and the sneer, and while the details of his personal life are still–thankfully–none of my business, his portrait is now framed by a broader, brighter landscape and lit with a more sophisticated palette.

Celebrity and political media cultures intentionally deprive their viewers of such perspective. Short-sighted, reactionary spite and fear are the fuel that feeds the business. Reasoned consideration doesn’t drive traffic, and the camera’s fast-pan to the next circus freak triggers addictive little squirts of dopamine in our social brains, driving us to seek more and more. More angertainment, a longer role call of entertainemies.

Many complain that baseball is a slow game, like that was a terrible thing. For my money, it’s the rare entertainment that allows a moment to contemplate the players in the drama, to consider the products of our own creation and the effects that they have on us. On the night that Jered Weaver pitched against my current home team, I used the time the bit of fresh air that came in between the cracks of the baseball artifice to consider Mr. Weaver, and to consider myself. I took a look in the mirror, and something new looked back at me.

  1. mostly because there is no “fabric” just like there is no perfect America that existed between 1946 and 1959 that we must return to or else
  2. The term “quirky” is a great way to compliment somebody and put them down at the same time. Quirky may be the most condescending word in english. Didn’t think you were getting of that easy, didja Weaver?!?
  3. Well, I suppose it may have had at least something to do with the Mariners offense….
  4. For whatever drawbacks the statistical revolution in baseball has, its greatest benefit is its contribution to the art of rational, if obsessive, appreciation.

On Narratives and Realignment

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to bring you Patrick Dubuque’s first post as this summer’s Bill Spaceman Lee Visiting Professor for Baseball Exploration. Please enjoy:

“The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

The words “The End” don’t appear in Faulkner’s masterpiece, because the story doesn’t end; it just stops.  In the postmodern literary arena, the traditional story arc has fallen out of favor, replaced by an unflinching, gritty examination of life as is.  Climaxes and conclusions are left for the situational comedy, the summer blockbuster and the Dan Brown spiritual thriller.  Instead, we get the repeating signboards, and the vantage toward the horizon, with the misery of human existence as it disappears and resurfaces ad infinitum.

Baseball is in no way postmodern.  This week, however, a few of its storytellers are modeling with the hypothetical, toying with the concept of realignment.  Authors and readers alike strain to envision a world in which the Mariners play the Padres in late September, as opposed to July, or a future where Carlos Lee is a designated hitter rather than a designated hitter who happens to take the field every inning.  The whole conversation is wonderful off-season banter, oddly timed in its arrival in early June.  Rob Neyer and Al Yellon over at SB Nation present their cases for and against admirably.  My response is to reprint the well-worn cartoon that made the baseball blog rounds several weeks ago:

The important part of the comic (for my purposes) is not the seeming randomness from which the narrative is derived: The Return of the Native is a story essentially extracted from the meteorological effects on British topography, breaded with crumbs of angst.  Instead, what’s worth discussing is the creation of those narratives, a goal that the sport certainly aims to accomplish.  Essentially, baseball is driven by two very separate forces: the desire to have the greatest team crowned as champions, and the desire to have an interesting, dramatic month of playoff baseball.

As fans, we’ve inured ourselves to the fact that the current division and playoff formats are an uneasy alliance between excitement and realism.  Unlike the other major sports (except perhaps basketball), the qualities that reflect a good regular season baseball team do not necessarily lend themselves to the playoffs, where fourth starters are nearly useless and losing four out of seven games is entirely reasonable for a team that lost a third of them up to that point.  Any plan to expand the playoffs simply introduces more luck into the formula for deciding champions, and reduces the importance of the regular season.

What this phenomenon lacks in purity, however, it makes up for in narrative.  A realignment that introduces more teams also provides more underdogs, more parity, and more seventh games.  It’s democracy, in all the best and worst senses of the word.  It provides the hope for victory by diluting that victory, forgetting that too many memorable moments make each of them equally unmemorable.

So we have a hypothetical system designed to add excitement to every season, but people aren’t fans of seasons; they’re fans of teams.  A team’s narrative isn’t meant to be a trifling, six-month one-act play.  It’s a Michenerian epic, spanning years and generations.  Success should come from hard work and skill, the culmination of sweat and suffering and disaster.  So too should tragedy.  It needs its fatal flaw, its catharsis.  To have these results come at the hands of a fluke, a mindless twist of fate, is to render the whole exercise arbitrary, and reduce the work back into a string of random numbers.

Benjy, one of the few Faulkner characters to escape a novel with contentment intact, does so by keeping his gaze on the horizon.  In baseball, this is the meaningless weekday afternoon game in August, the second division teams playing for pride.  It’s baseball for its own sake, just as the existentialists gave up on winning and championed life for the sake of life.