Monthly Archive for June, 2011

Nied’s Chain by Tom Ley

Tom Ley writes at Word’s Finest. He contributed to 1990s First Basemen Week with The Big Cat and the Water, about Andres Galarraga. You can email him at leyt345(at)gmail(dot)com.

I once sat in a hot tub with David Nied on a crisp Arizona night.. I was just a kid at the time, and so my recollection of the evening in question animates itself in my head as more of a half-remembered dream, clouded by the passage of time and the thick haze of over-chlorinated steam.

There are a few things, however, that stick out from that night. The first being that Nied was wearing a hideous gold chain, not unlike the one that is featured so prominently in this un-grok, cringe-inducing photograph. The second thing I remember is that there was a palpable sadness hanging over David Nied while he sat alone in that hot tub. His face was wet and his hair was slicked back, as if he had just finished splashing water onto his face and head the way that the gritty police detectives from the movies do when they are trying to wash away the filth of a day spent picking through the gristle of a crime scene. He was doing that thing where you drape your arms over the edge of the hot tub and slouch the rest of your body into the hot water, a pose that lent itself perfectly to the wistful sadness that was on his face.

I was in the hot tub with my brother and another friend, and despite our youth we were smart enough to figure out that David Nied did not want to be bothered on this night, and so we all boiled slowly in awkward silence together. I remember that I spent most of my time in the hot tub staring at Nied’s gold chain, all glistening and tangled in his thick patch of chest hair. I stared at the chain to prevent myself from meeting Nied’s own gaze, which was fixed on something that was just as harrowing as it was invisible. He was staring the end of his career dead in the eye.

For those of you who don’t know (most of you, I imagine) who David Nied is, allow me to pause and give you a little bit of background info.

David Nied was the first overall pick of the 1992 MLB expansion draft. He was selected by the Colorado Rockies, who had won the first overall pick thanks to a fortuitous coin flip. At the time, it had appeared that the Rockies had just won the lottery.

It’s important to understand that selecting David Nied had a lot more impact on the Rockies organization than any first overall pick from the amateur draft would have. The fanfare and pomp surrounding a top amateur draft pick is usually tempered by the knowledge that it will be a few years before that player is seen in the majors. Even players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who are otherworldly talents, have to spend time toiling away in the minors. So it’s understandable when fans have a hard time getting overly excited about a player who they know won’t be making a serious impact at the major league level for a few years.

Nied was different, though. He gave Rockies fans plenty to be excited about because he wasn’t some prep star who needed a few years of seasoning. He was a major league ready prospect who had been lighting it up on the Braves AAA affiliate and briefly as a major leaguer at the end of the 1992 season. The Braves had decided not to protect David Nied from the expansion draft, giving the Rockies the opportunity to steal him.

The Braves decision not to protect Nied seemed foolish at the time because of numbers like these:

Those are the statistics for the Braves AAA pitching staff from the 1992 season. The first three names on that list would go on to help from one of the most formidable pitching staffs in history. The fourth name would eventually enjoy a few dominant seasons as the ace of the San Francisco Giants’ pitching staff. At the time, David Nied was these men’s equal.

“I thought I was going to be protected. Frankly, I’m shocked I wasn’t protected,” Neid told the AP following the expansion draft.

In less than five years, Nied would be retired from baseball.

David Nied started the first game in Rockies history. He lasted five innings, gave up two runs, and walked six batters. I imagine he was pretty nervous. Two starts later, Nied went up against Dwight Gooden and the New York Mets. He ended up throwing the Rockies first ever complete game shutout. He didn’t walk anybody in this game, and 83 of his 114 pitches were thrown for strikes, and at one point in the game he retired 20 of 21 straight batters.

Nied was impressive enough to compel Tom Friend, who was covering the game for the New York Times, to write the following sentence:

“David Nied, sort of the Shaquille O’Neal of major league baseball, silenced the New York Mets here.”

As far as I can tell, Friend is comparing Nied to Shaquille O’Neal without irony. In order to give the analogy some context, let me remind you that at the time this article was written, O’Neal was in the midst of his rookie season with Orlando Magic. This was a season in which he averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds a game while doing things like this. O’Neal was an absolute force of nature who was not to be fucked with, and Friend’s willingness to compare him with David Nied says a great deal about the potential that lived inside of Nied.

Unfortunately for Nied, outdueling Dwight Gooden in his third start as a Rockie would prove to be the high point of his career. Sidelined by a series of injuries and a labor strike, Nied never became what so many thought he could have been. Nied retired quietly in March of 1997, after being traded to the Reds and optioned to the team’s AA affiliate. He had joined the Rockies as a potential force of nature, waiting to be unleashed. He left them like a gentle, almost imperceptible breeze.

The true sadness of David Nied’s story is that it doesn’t even qualify as a tragedy. You won’t ever hear Rockies fans grumble about David Nied and what could have been. Nobody will talk about the lost empire that Nied could have helped build with Todd Helton. Whenever a Rockies prospect struggles, you won’t read any “I hope this guy isn’t the next David Nied” columns in the local sports section. David Nied is a ghost. He may as well have evaporated right before my eyes along with the steam from the hot tub on that night in Arizona.

The un-tragedy of Nied’s career illuminates one of the crueler aspects of baseball. Unlike other sports, the game never slows down long enough for us to properly mourn those who left it before their time.

I have only recently become a serious fan of the NBA, and yet I can tell you all about the tragic falls of Sam Bowie, Kwame Brown, Penny Hardaway, Derrick Coleman and Len Bias. NBA fan bases are often defined by the ethereal monuments that they build in honor of those who should have been but never were. There is no doubt that Portland fans will still be talking about Greg Oden ten years from now. Christ, the greatest basketball blog of all time is named after one of these aborted superstars.

Some may call this tendency counterproductive and perhaps even a bit masochistic, but I find it to be rather beautiful. Each misty-eyed recollection of lost potential reminds us that the game is ultimately about the players, because they are what compels us to watch. We form personal connections with them as we become invested in their successes and failures, and when they flame out too soon it feels like an occasion for mourning. It’s this mourning that reminds us that our connection with them and others ever existed in the first place.

Baseball, however, has no time for eulogies and funeral pyres. A game that is so often defined by failure leaves no room to contemplate its impact. When someone like Nied fails so completely we have a hard time finding much to say about it because, well, failure is essentially what the game is designed to produce. Every day players are chewed up and spit out by the incredible degree of difficulty that the parameters of the game present, and then they are expected to wake up in the morning and do it all over again. Baseball is hard, and it’s supposed to do what it did to David Nied. His failure was nothing special.

I asked my brother if he remembered anything from that night in the hot tub with David Nied. His recollection was much different but just as hazy as mine. All we really agreed on was the fact that Nied was wearing that hideous gold chain.

A Song and a Sabbatical

Hi all, a quick note: I (Eric, if you didn’t read the byline atop this post) will be outside the country as of tomorrow and until mid-August. That means there will be no baseball and hence no baseball blogging in my life. But P&P is far larger than me.

Ted will hold things down this summer (he always does, really) with some fine guest contributors helping him out. Principle among those is Patrick DuBuque, the talented writer of The Playful Utopia, who you may know from his two previous posts here, or his new-ish role at Fangraphs’ NotGraphs blog.

Now that that’s over with: a song. During 90s 1B Week, Corban Goble wrote about the theme song to Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Grffey Jr on Nintendo 64. I played that game a lot, mostly at my cousins’ house. One of those cousins, Travis, is an awesome musician. He sampled the theme song in creating this:

 

Style, Sin, and Matt Kemp

Matt Kemp might be the most exciting player in baseball. He has two less home runs than Jose Bautista. He has as many stolen bases as Ichiro. He plays center field (not exceptionally well, according to advanced statistics, but with a hell of a lot of verve). Matt Kemp is everything you could want in a baseball hero, especially a center fielder. He’s glamorous. He’s practically electromagnetic.

He is also my fantasy center fielder. This is a good thing. Matt Kemp is batting .329/.406/.620. He has 18 home runs and 14 steals in 17 attempts. He hit his first triple of the season yesterday in a game that saw him fall a single short of the cycle (we’ll get back to that in a bit). The reason I bring up Kemp, and his place on my fantasy team, and his near-cycle performance, is so I can bring up the following: Despite the fact that he’s my favorite player on my favorite team, and despite the fact that I’m what’d you call a semi-professional baseball fan, I’ve only seen Kemp bat about a dozen times this year.

This is a product of my unwillingness to shell out for MLB.tv. This is also a product of something Eric Freeman talked about in his post on Wednesday. He argued that Bryce Harper will force us to watch baseball players as performers, as stylistic actors, and not just as stats-producing robots whose amassed results matter more than the actual physicality of their play. It’s a shame that for me – and for many reasons, I imagine much of America – Matt Kemp’s 2011 season has thus far been relegated to a bunch of high numbers on a screen.

Matt Kemp deserves to be watched. He’s big and fast. He’s handsome. His home runs all seem to go to center and right center field. And when he crouches in his stance and his bat points out over his head toward the shortstop and he steps into a pitch you can’t help but be awed by the quickness of his swing, by how light the bat looks during his one-handed finish, and especially by the inherent and surprisingly understated balance of the entire motion. When Matt Kemp plays baseball, he’s an aesthetic pleasure — even when he’s getting bad jumps on fly balls in center field.

Of course style is what a certain kind of sports columnist can’t stand about Matt Kemp. He spoke poorly of Jeff Kent at too young an age (speaking poorly of assholes is only okay for white veterans who hustle, obviously). He took at-bats away from a sadly washed up and frustrated Luis Gonzalez. He dated a pop singer. He made a handful of overly aggressive base-running mistakes. These are Matt Kemp’s sins.

They bring us to his game last night against the Rockies: Kemp went 3-5; he homered, tripled, and doubled; he struck out twice, once in the ninth inning with Andre Ethier standing on second base. It was the kind of performance no sane baseball fan can argue with. But a single short of the cycle is also the kind of game Matt Kemp would have.

It’s the kind of game that leaves him short of the segment he deserves on Baseball Tonight. It’s the kind of game that a certain kind of sports columnist might use as a metaphor. Sure he went 3-5 with three extra base hits, but he didn’t do the little things. Matt Kemp is all big flies and big style, a certain columnist might write, but where’s the substance? The stuff of victory is made of? Where are the clutch singles? And what was with that ninth-inning strikeout?

I didn’t see the game. I watched the highlights. It was a typically shitty evening for a Dodger fan in 2011. (As a team, the 2011 Dodgers fail at both the stylistic and analytical criteria). A lot of the lineup failed to hit. The defeated bullpen helped Clayton Kershaw blow a game in classic Coors Field form. But Matt Kemp played baseball. He played it the same way he has all year: the way that makes me want to watch more baseball.

Bryce Harper and the Elements of Style by Eric Freeman

Situational — and surprisingly topical!– Essay today by Eric Freeman, who usually writes about the NBA for Ball Don’t Lie. Follow him on Twitter at @freemaneric.

Yesterday’s big baseball news concerned Bryce Harper, all-everything prospect for the Washington Nationals currently playing for Hagerstown in the Sally League. In case you haven’t seen, Harper is hitting the ever-loving fuck out of the ball, posting .342/.435/.623 averages with 14 homers, 32 walks, and 12 steals in 232 plate appearances. On Monday, Harper caused a stir after one of those homers when he watched it for about 20 seconds and mimed a kiss at the pitcher as he rounded third base.

For the most part, the play has brought Harper criticism for being an immature asshole (see here and here). That opinion is accurate in the most basic sense: only dickheads tend to show up pitchers, and Harper has a stupid mustache and nascent mullet, as well. He’s baseball’s version of an ’80s ski movie villain, just with more natural talent than any other prospect in the minors. (In other words, he will render Colby Rasmus insignificant as soon as he puts on a big league uniform.)

Yet while Harper is clearly a jerk, he’s also perhaps the most important player to come along for MLB marketing purposes since Derek Jeter (or, if you want to depress everyone, Harper’s organizational teammate Stephen Strasburg). I say that not only because he’s ridiculously talented, but because he’s very clearly a personality. Jeff Passan gets at some of Harper’s value in this excellent column for Yahoo!, which focuses on Harper’s role as a villain for a sport that hasn’t really had a compelling one since Barry Bonds retired. It’s a good point, especially now that Alex Rodriguez has reached a point of moderate acceptance and most of the Red Sox’s best players are either short or fat (i.e. stereotypically lovable).

However, I’d go farther still and say that Harper is even more important than Passan lets on precisely because he’s a budding star who must be discussed in terms of what it’s like to watch him play rather than just how much he produces. One side effect of the sabermetric revolution has been that most baseball stars are talked about almost exclusively in terms of their production (and rightfully so, because, well, they’re awesome at the sport). That trend has been compounded by the fact that a lot of today’s best hitters are stylistic vaccuums (see: Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, and Ryan Braun, to name three) incapable of being described in terms other than “steady” and “really good.” The upshot of these factors is that discussion of the sport tends to shy away from treating baseball like a spectator sport and instead turns it into a confluence of events. That’s not to say that people don’t like watching baseball anymore; it’s just that we discuss what happened without spending much energy on describing how it happened.

Harper demands stylistic discussion of his every move in a way that even Bonds didn’t at his most controversial. (Bonds is an arrogant jerk, but he really pissed people off when he started threatening a beloved historical record. His personality didn’t change much over the course of his career.) As Grant Brisbee said earlier today for Baseball Nation, Harper is divisive like Bonds, but the things that divide people are not tied to whether his accomplishments are tainted. He’s either an asshole, a big dumb goofus, or a wrestling superstar whose first at-bat against Brian Wilson will take place at King of the Ring. No matter the opinion, Harper is discussed in the context of how we watch him play the game.

Harper has the chance to force MLB and its fans to face baseball as both an aesthetic experience and an athletic competition. Style matters to longtime fans and potential ones alike; we give exciting players like Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen short shrift when we discuss them as producers first and as performers at a distant second. If Harper becomes a national lightning rod, he could force people to explain what they like to watch on the field instead of what they want on the stat line.

Nothing is Frivolous

When I first met Clay Huntington, he was only my friend Janelle’s grandfather. He seemed like an important man. He sat in the press box at Mariners games. He drove a red Crown Victoria. He had something – I didn’t know exactly what – to do with the Mariners’ AAA team, the Tacoma Rainiers.

Now Janelle is my girlfriend. She has been for a couple of years. Clay passed away last week. He was 89 years old. If you live in Seattle and follow baseball closely, or live in Tacoma and follow local news at all, you probably heard about it. The term every obituary has used describe Clay is “civic icon.” It’s a formless phrase, but I think in this case it works. Clay’s purpose in life was defined first by his family, second by his community, and third by baseball.

It’s impossible to talk about him without talking about Tacoma, the Puget Sound, and really the entire Pacific Northwest. When I started this article, I was drinking coffee out of a cup with his face on it from some long-ago function at which he was honored. On Thursday, the Rainiers put together their own tribute to Clay. They carved CH into the dirt behind second base, they presented the family with a customized jersey, they played a video tribute and took care of everybody with a nice suite on the third base line.

Clay was Pierce County Commissioner. In 1976, he threw his hat in the ring for governor of Washington before dropping out due to low polls and sagging fundraising. Clay would have probably been a good governor – the kind of executive who finds compromises where they need to be found, runs the state efficiently, and is legitimately concerned with the well-being all of his constituents. But I’m not surprised his campaign stalled out. Clay was never one for the spotlight, and although a great advocate for causes he believed in, he lacked the requisite taste for self-promotion.

I mention Clay’s politics because they are an integral part of what he taught me. Clay was a journalist, a play-by-play man, a leading force in bringing baseball to Tacoma – and then keeping it there. He founded the Tacoma Athletic Commission and the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame, which this year inducted Edgar Martinez and John Olerud. He was by all accounts loved and respected in the press box, the announcer’s booth, and even in the clubhouse.

His personal interests and mine lined up pretty squarely. I too love politics and baseball. I try, if not always as hard as I should, to be an active citizen. But the special thing about Clay Huntington, the thing that will stick with me, was the way he held these institutions in equal regard. To Clay, baseball was a crucial part of the fabric of the South Puget Sound. It was, if not necessary, then worth celebrating, and worth fighting for, and worth a lifetime of hard work on its own merits alone.

I sometimes struggle with this concept. I tend to write sports off as frivolous. I tend to disparage myself for spending more time reading about baseball than about the burgeoning war in Libya or about local politics or about whatever else that seems, at first glance, more weighty. Sometimes I tell myself I will only write about baseball until the time comes to write about something “more serious.” This, of course, is silly. Sports are plenty serious. They merit our attention not just as important cultural entities, but as enclosed worlds to be respected and appreciated on their own terms.

This is the lesson that Clay understood. Pursue your passions without doubt, without shame, and with a greater cause than your own ego in mind. Until the end of his life, Clay lived this. He went to work at the radio station he owned, typing away on his typewriter. He read every kind of magazine every month. What mattered was not whether he was reading The Atlantic or the Sporting News – what mattered was that he was reading at all.

Just a Hitter: Watching Top Prospect Anthony Rendon in Person

In the last few days I have attended the 2011 NCAA Regional Playoffs at Rice University’s Reckling Park, where Rice played Akron State in the first round and Baylor in the second. Sunburned and baseball happy, these are my thoughts on Rice’s star hitter and upcoming MLB draftee Anthony Rendon.

Anthony Rendon is the designated hitter. When his Rice University baseball teammates jog back to the dugout at the end of their fielding half, one of the country’s best amateur hitters greets them cheerfully, playfully spurring them on with a green towel that will eventually make its way back over his head to fight the Texas heat. Rendon’s enthusiasm seems fueled by a restless desire to take the field himself, knowing that the best he can do right now is use his spare time as a cheerleader.

In the batter’s box, he is at ease in the role that best suits him. The last time I saw such relaxed hands from a Rice hitter was an evening I shared with Lance Berkman, circa 1998, when he sent a home run towards the Medical Center on a path reminiscent of the Life Flight helicopters that buzz overhead. Rendon starts by standing upright, then dramatically draws his hands back and loads up, essentially morphing his stance from one style to another before the pitch is thrown. Then, he hits the ball:

2 for 5 with an RBI on Friday against Alcorn State
2 for 4 with an RBI on Saturday against Baylor

Rendon hasn’t hit any one ball the farthest–he’s homerless in the couple of days I’ve watched him–but if you were to add up batted balls for total distance, I’m sure he’d lead the way. His outs are deep, well-struck line drives, showing the sort of loft and backspin that I can only imagine will translate nicely to wooden bat play. That, I reckon, is what the scouts see.

The kid is under some pressure. He was the only player I saw that garnered a round of applause at the mere mention of his name. He’ll likely be among the top picks in the draft. In an MLB.com article Rendon revealed a personality that contrasts the PRed up Bryce Harper and other high profile amateur players, who have already mastered sound bite dropping and cliche slinging. “I really didn’t think it would be this big,” Rendon said of his popularity and accompanying scrutiny over the last few years. “Honestly, I don’t even want it to be that big. I just wanted to be a guy that liked to play baseball. I just wanted to be an everyday player. I didn’t want to be the big name in the game that’s going to take over and everybody looks at. I don’t like the attention.”

Injuries have rendered him an incomplete player for the moment, a hitter alone. Any hesitation about his ability has been stirred by his injury history, letting slip the “assured first overall pick” crown that have marked the last few drafts.

Like a musician who checks in with the rock critics, Rendon reads the online chatter about his prospects at the higher levels, and perhaps unlike a musician, he works to address those points of weakness. “I know one of the writers said since I had 12 errors my freshman season that I’m not a good defender,” he said. “That got under my skin. I did take that into consideration and said, ‘I’ve got to prove this guy and everyone else wrong.’ That’s why I came out my sophomore year and really worked at it and had four errors. I feel like I put an end on that note.”

One reading is that he’s too wary of criticism. Another reading is that he knows when someone is right, regardless of where it comes from. Yet another reading is that the kid isn’t oblivious to the nature of the media, and that he has a sense of the world around him. That’s a kid I draft.

“It’s one more step closer to my dream,” he told MLB.com in the same article, “to what I really want to do — just play baseball and not have to worry about anything else.” There’s a difference between worry and awareness.

And while he may not field, he certainly walks, and hits.

For a look at what he’s accomplished as a hitter, note that,according to ESPN: “[Rendon] won national freshman of the year honors in 2009, hitting .388 with 20 homers and 72 RBIs. Last year, he took home the Dick Howser Trophy as the national player of the year after hitting .394 with 26 homers and 85 RBIs.” This year, he’s batted .327 with just 6 home runs, a figure that, given my impressions of his swing and his sterling reputation, is the result of the new bat situation rather than a fall-off in skill. And besides, his on-base percentage is .522. He’s struck out 32 times this year, against 79 walks.

When I go to a college baseball game, or a minor league baseball game, for that matter, I want the best prospects in the game to do something cool while I’m there. Baseball, of course, doesn’t always oblige such un-baseball-like expectations. We fans are supposed to be patient, to respect probabilities and likelihoods. Often, the best you can do is try to sense a top prospect’s aura. I saw Andrew McCutcheon play for a few games in Indianapolis, for example. He didn’t hit any triples or do much else, but he had an aura. (Now, that said, an aura can be aided by a reputation, but that’s another conversation.)

Anthony Rendon didn’t hit home runs, but he hit, and that was what I wanted to see. He didn’t play the field, but he hit. He drove in runs by putting the ball in play, hard and soft. He took his walks, he didn’t give up easy outs, and he waved his towel.

Sidenote #1: As I finish this piece, the Owls lead the Cal Golden Bears in an elimination game, having lost one yesterday to the Baylor Bears. Bear bear bear.

Sidenote #2: For my money, Rice second baseman Michael Ratteree will be a name to watch in next year’s draft.

Sidenote #3: I took these pictures, though you can find lots more nice ones by other people on Flickr.

Pitchers and Poets Podcast 31: The Next Guillermo Mota, with Chris Crawford

Eric and Ted bring on Chris Crawford of MLB Draft Insider to discuss the upcoming amateur draft, but not before a brief remembrance of Eric’s online sim baseball days. Chris gives us some insight into his operation, tells us some funny scout stories, and helps us understand the important stuff like how to pronounce Rendon — as in Anthony. Later, Ted and I discuss parkour-savvy baseball fans, home-plate collisions, and a better world in which every team as a Molina.

 

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 http://pitchersandpoets.com/podcast/PnP_031.mp3

Remember to check out Chris Crawford at MLB Draft Insider and on Twitter @CrawfordChrisV.