Monthly Archive for September, 2011

Get to Readin’! The P&P Reading Club Is Go For Launch Next Wednesday

he art of fielding by chad harbachPitchers & Poets Reading Club participants, it’s time to pick up your copy of the scorching hot best-selling novel The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, because we are about to get rolling!

This week, we’re going to feature some thoughts from our team of writers, who will reflect on their expectations, some ideas about reading baseball books, and more in preparation for next week’s big start.

Here’s the plan: We read a pre-determined set of chapters, and then we write, Tweet, and talk about that selection on the week’s Wednesday.

For next Wednesday, we’ll be discussing chapters 1-17 of the book.

If it’s food for thought you’re after as you anticipate and dig into the book and look to get the old brain cells firing, consider this review of The Art of Fielding at Slate, this interview with Chad Harbach by Pitchers & Poets contributor Corban Goble for The Awl, and this review by Alan Cheuse at the Trib. That should get you started.

This week, we’ll feature some early thoughts from our contributors-slash-conversation starters

Here’s the overall reading schedule.

  • Tuesday, September 27. Chapters 1 – 17
  • Tuesday, October 4. Chapters 18 – 33
  • Tuesday, October 11. Chapters 34 – 52
  • Tuesday, October 18. Chapters 53 – 72
  • Tuesday, October 25. Chapters 73 – END
If you need to take it up another notch, try this on for size:

Logan Morrison: I am a Human Being, Damnit

Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes movie in which James Franco trains a super-chimp to live as a sort of hybrid of a puppy and a human child? The super-ape learns very quickly, becoming more and more human. But oh no! He is taken away from James Franco and placed in the care of evil public ape-facility owner Brian Cox and his acne-ridden employee Draco Malfoy.

The super-ape, Caesar, can only take so much abuse from Cox and especially Malfoy. Eventually, sick of it all, he strikes back at Malfoy and in a dramatic moment, speaks for the first time. It looks like this:

Anyway, when I read the news about Logan Morrison’s grievance against the Marlins this morning, I thought about Caesar and Malfoy. Today, Morrison stood up for all-ape kind and said NOOOOOOOO.

In no way, of course, am I trying to make the case that Morrison or his fellow MLBers resemble apes — only that owners treat them as subhuman commodities.(Fantasy owners do this too. And all fans. Even me, sometimes. But if P&P is anything, I hope it’s a force for reminding people that baseball players are more than just a walking statistical output machines, even when those players are Eugenio Velez.)

Here’s what Morrison actually said:

“I want to stand for what’s right. The players’ association agreed I should apply for a grievance. It’s not an easy decision or a decision I took lightly. It’s about protecting rights. Guys who have been here for a long time want to make sure their rights won’t be stepped on.”

Obviously that’s more tempered than the Morrison we’re used to. But it’s not far from the truth about him. Never in all of his tweeting and talking and all of that has Morrison struck me as un-serious about his team, about playing baseball well.

Over two years ago (wow) I wrote a post called “Nate McClouth and the Modern Indentured Servitude.” I wrote this:

Trades, and the whole idea of trades, are really kind of insane.

Where else on earth can supposedly competitive entities, allegedly separate businesses, legally traffic in humans like they can in sports? What other environment would encourage something like that? Critics bang fantasy baseball for overlooking the human aspect of the sport, for reducing players to their statistics, but they forget something. Fantasy GMs are trading imaginary rights. Real GMs trade human beings.

This also applies to the way some organizations play fast and loose with moving players between levels. That Logan Morrison was needlessly called down is totally obvious from a statistical perspective. But what about the fact that the Marlins in all likelihood lied about the reason for the demotion?

The grievance is a worthwhile endeavor at the very least. Not just for Morrison (who is the right mix of wronged,  savvy, and on courageous) but for all players who are misled by management, and for fans who would rather have an intellectually honest front office guiding their favorite team.

That intellectual honesty question is another post for another day. But I’ll say this: it seems obvious that management, players, and fans can benefit from relationships that are more honest and, even accounting for the inherent conflicts, somewhat less hostile.

The Inaugural Pitchers & Poets Reading Club

Here at Pitchers & Poets we don’t shy away from the literary side of things — the site is called Pitchers & Poets, after all–and lately we’ve all felt the drive to take our literary pursuits somewhere new. We think the recent publication of The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach provides the perfect opportunity to do so.

(For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s a much-hyped and well-received novel centered around a small college baseball team in Wisconsin.)

With that we’d like to announce the first installment of the Pitchers & Poets Reading Club.

As a part of the reading club, we’ve invited some friends and fellow baseball writers to join us as we work through the The Art of Fielding a few chapters at a time. We’ll discuss the book, our feelings, and whatever else comes to mind as we move along, and hopefully generate conversation with you — the readers — who will read along with us at home. The plan is to read a certain number of chapters in a given time period with everyone tagging along, and at the end of each predetermined reading section we’ll provide our thoughts and invite fellow reading club members to participate. (Expect to read somewhere in the range of 100 pages every week.)

We’ll ask you (politely) to contribute your thoughts in the comments section, then bump a lot of those comments up the book club posts themselves. There will also be live chats, tweetathons, and whatever else comes to mind.

Our reader/commenters will include Dayn Perry and Navin Vaswani of Fangraphs’ NotGraphs, Adam Webb of Everyday Footnotes, Pete Beatty who edits books and is futurely of The Classical, and of course … us.

So pick up the book on your digital reader, at your local independent bookseller, or from Amazon if you hurry. We start next week with preliminary expectations, hopes, and fears. Then there’s no waiting for slackers.

The Chains of Victory: Stephen P. King Calls It Quits by Clam Simmons

Clam Simmons is a librarian living in New England. You can find his ongoing investigation of the 1994 Kansas City Royals at the Royals Review. Clam also heads up the Twitter division of the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute at 826 Boston. You can follow his crypto-tweets @bostonbigfoot and regular tweets @orangehunchback.

stephen kingNew England’s favorite gargoyle was cloistered in a lighthouse. His beacon was a hundred miles from the nearest anything. The smell of glue was everywhere. I could not tell for sure but it seemed that the sea tower was the barren womb of a sea god. It was a poor sanctuary from the water, mist covering my glasses and the wave’s salty plates constantly breaking in my ears. There was no electricity and the bully clouds outside turned the inside of the lighthouse into a whitewashed moonscape. Using my cell phone for light I discovered a typewriter sitting on top of a girthy manuscript. The typewriter sat on top of a pleather office chair. It was chained to the ground with irons. Stephen P. King was silently stationed on a Victorian ottoman facing the manacled office chair, a Franklin stove weakly dithered behind him. It must have been casual Friday in the lighthouse because King wasn’t wearing any pants. He wore a yellow smiley face t-shirt and five months of beard.

The master of horrors apologized for forgetting his khakis and scurried out of the lighthouse in his flip-flops. Left alone I climbed the observation deck. The outlook was dim and the lens was shattered. Glass covered the ground like ice. Maybe the lord of darkness had destroyed it in a fit of inspiration. Maybe it was done to spite the modern pirates and lobstermongers. Either way Stephen King would never had made it as a 19th century lighthouse attendant. When I found a bullet casing on the windowsill I decided it was time to leave. As I made for the exit I made note that the sullen tin cup sitting on the stone floor was the only tangible evidence that King had a human’s traditional concern for sustenance. I had to escape before the host of this literary séance returned.

New England’s favorite gargoyle was cloistered in a lighthouse.

Of course Stephen King came back before I could reach the door. He was carrying a couple of green twigs. He was wearing khakis. They were completely soaked but King seemed chipper.

SK: I usually try to dry them before the company shows up but you’ve caught me at high tide. Say that three times fast! Try, dry, high, tide… hey! You’re not trying to leave are you? Ha!

The unshaven lord of terrible genius offered me his ottoman while he placed the moist twigs on top of the stove’s vaguely orange coals. I have always been a sucker for hospitality. It is my weakness and will be my downfall.

SK: Clam, do you have any dry receipts?

I handed my ferry receipt to the King and he examined it before putting it in the stove.

SK: I’m going to have to cut our time short. When those fresh logs are charred I am going to reclaim my stool and get back to my project.

With the sensitivity and respect due for a writer’s in-utero project I asked him if he could possibly describe the project or at least reveal its basic design.

SK: It’s called Alien Sex Planet. It’s 1300 pages long but it feels like an 1800-page story and I think I’m going to have to cut out a 700-page scene. It involves an exile from the original colony of ancient aliens who in a fit of Onanis releases his seed into the atmosphere only to have it evolve into the planets of an alternative solar system. Of course the exile turns out to be the heir to the throne of the ancient alien kingdom, typical fodder.

As King described the power of ancient alien sperm I begin to feel my soul choke. Somehow Stephen King could sense it. He was not without tender psychology.

SK: By the way, thank you for responding to my inquiry on craigslist…you wouldn’t believe the sort of nut-brains out there pretending to be legitimate ghost-writers just to squeeze me of my greenbacks. But seriously Clam, I was very impressed with Elvis Horse Man. You have talent, if you prove yourself you might be able to go places.

I thanked Stephen King for the compliments on Elvis Horse Man. I was very proud of that work. I also stated that I would be very pleased to help with the memoir. Not only was I excited at the prospects of working alongside the definitive master of paranormal barbarism, I was desperate to take a bite out of the debt I had accrued in my five years in the MFA program at Butterman College. Stephen King laughed. He was either unfamiliar with Butterman College and its fabulous faculty to student ratio or the cost of a quality education at the best liberal arts college in the Ozarks. As Mr. King revealed his autobiographical “morsel” he busied himself by plucking hairs out of his beard and watching them smolder in the cinders of the stove.

SK: In 1986 I fell in love with Boston’s baseball team. When that white orb snuck past the gates of Buckner’s legs and the baseball team lost the great contest, it was a big deal. My eyes were opened and I saw horror on the faces of the baseball men and the sadness on the faces of the fans of the Boston baseball men. It was like witnessing one of the cataclysms in my work. It became my duty to commiserate with the despairing horde and to cheer for Boston’s great baseball club, the Red Beans. For several years I found the comfort of familiarity with the puritanical denial of the whole thing. It was great fun. I shared the baseball fan’s curses and roots for the changing field of heroes. I was a big Mo Greenwell fan. I loved Mike Vaughn. I cheered for Nomar Offerman and Jose Valentin. These were my favorite baseball men. I had sympathy for them. They were like the doomed characters in my books, the characters I make likeable only so that when they die on page 940 it will be a horrible experience for all my readers. The Boston Beans had no chance. But then about eight years ago the Red Sox team won the big contest and everything had changed. I felt as if the prisoner I had created to suffer had escaped from the jail with turds in his mouth. Yes, I was joyful for the success of my Red Beans for an hour or two but all the narrative tension was gone. I knew that my cheerings for the Boston baseball men must end. But by that point everyone assumed that I was unconditionally passionate for the Boston baseball team. Everyone gave me free tickets to the game. The seats were great, how could I waste them? I’d take a newspaper, a rough draft anything to distract me fm the winnings on the field. Sometimes, in the pennant chase I would hide inside the belly of the Green Monster with my friend, Manny Man.

Then the baseball club wins the big contest again. Clam, I am tired of triumph! Release me from the chains of victory! Tell the world Clam Simmons. Tell the world properly and I will not only let you ghostwrite my memoir, but I will give you all my pictures with me and the Boston baseball men!

Release Me From The Chains of Victory!

Brian McCann Has Never Been a Train Robber

Bryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April.

The best Westerns do not feature the men who laid the tracks for the railroad’s methodical predictability, and seldom do they make heroic the movements of a conductor checking his watch for an estimated time of arrival or of a gritty man, hunched over and sweaty, shoveling coal into a hot furnace. No, the best Westerns feature the men who threaten the set path with dynamite, upending the train’s metal cars, blowing open the safe’s cold door, holding passengers and employees at gunpoint, stealing the business man’s gold, and preventing the execution of plans laid in hard steel. In short, watching too many westerns can make a person believe that the only way to be a hero is to become the personification of riotous freedom. And, if you come to believe that rebellion is the stuff that makes men courageous, then you can also come to believe that order is a lukewarm drink sipped by quiet men. And baseball is full of quiet men.

Brian McCann has never been a dynamo, and he’s never been a train robber. There is no mystery to the Braves catcher. He’s homegrown and ripe with familiarity–another ballplayer taught to swing a bat by his father. And, if he were in a Western, he’d probably have a green visor and an accountant’s arm bands, because the truth of the matter is that Brian McCann’s game has always been calculated, reduced or enhanced by a score on an eye test, a vision-correcting prescription, or how many starts can a catcher make without blowing out his knees. Nothing about Brian McCann has sparked our imaginations to run wild about whether he’s killed a man, got a family somewheres, or just how far can he hit a baseball. By consistently hitting around twenty home runs every season, he’s shown himself to be a power hitter that always makes contact, and there’s something less dramatic about a slugger who doesn’t come to the plate with an all or nothing mentality. In other words, Brian McCann, in all of his chubby generosity, has found a way to be too dependable for his own good, for his style of play is not as inspiring as say a Buster Posey’s, who has risked his very life protecting the plate. And, while announcers, fans, and analysts weep over his tragic sacrifice, the cuddly McCann is discussed in a manner that, like his name, suggests he is merely capable. Both men are catchers, but only one is followed through swinging saloon doors by hushed whispers and pointed fingers. Only one of them is a gunslinger, and Brian McCann is not that man.Brian McCann, in all of his chubby generosity, has found a way to be too dependable for his own good

To have a torrid passion for the game of Brian McCann, an individual would have to be in love with the catcher almost as much as they are in love with the game of baseball itself, for even his game-winning hits, whether in the All-Star game or a meager regular season outing appear to be the work of percentages, that they were due to happen, like an accountant playing the odds in poker, rather than the mythos of The Natural’s Roy Hobbs or Jason Heyward’s spring training blasts. And, while McCann’s swing is round and smooth, it’s delivered in a very matter of fact style, lacking the poetry of Ken Griffey, Jr., the killer instinct that rode Fred McGriff’s line drives like a bullet, or the freakish monstrosity of a Barry Bonds lightning strike. And it also lacks the same static crackle that resonates from the bat when Chipper Jones sends one flying for the fences, but I doubt there’s any science behind the difference; the physics of Brian McCann hitting a baseball 400 feet are the same as when any of those other guys do it; so why then doesn’t a Brian McCann home run have the same scorched earth effect as it sizzles down our optic nerves and is engraved upon our brains?

Somewhere along the line, the career of Brian McCann became less than the sum of its parts. He was too quiet, too underrated, too underappreciated, and there was a storyline that was all too easily available for defining his career; a metaphor that was perhaps too perfect to do anyone any good, even if that somebody happened to be a Major League baseball player who hits clutch grand slams with an air of regularity.

Cowboys and baseball players are the quintessential American heroes, but how many cowboys wore glasses? Then consider not just the Western genre but all of Western literature, and ask the same question: how many of our heroes wear glasses? The list probably isn’t much longer than Atticus Finch, Harry Potter, and Ben Franklin; a pacifist lawyer, a moping teenage wizard, and a bald tinkerer, not exactly the vivacious, muscular archetypes of the sports world.

For the longest time, no matter who was calling the game, the discussion about Brian McCann began and ended with a mentioning of his glasses. Were they fogging up? Was he wearing them? Was he not? To Lasik or not to Lasik? What did he see at the plate? Behind the plate? He was always at the crux of where the baseball universe unfolds with a Big Bang crack of the bat, but he was reduced to a pair of eye glasses, or spectacles, which has the same root word as spectator. Think T.J. Eckleburg, gold rims and blue sky, in a Braves uniform and a catcher’s mask, and you have Brian McCann reduced into a passive symbol, like a teddy bear at bedtime, watching, listening, not saying a word; his whole world limited by a flimsy pair of frames.

A few days ago, Ted wrote a great column that revolved around the general principle that familiarity with the limitations of a subject breeds disinterest, and maybe even disappointment, because it is the idea of unlimited potential that spurs the imagination to run wild. To back up his statement, Ted cites the example of how a city’s enthusiasm wanes drastically after a team is mathematically done with its season. Another example of this principle can be found by looking at the television show Lost, and how more people watched when the island could be anything they as a viewer imagined it to be, but the more the show proved that the island was really nothing more than a physical hub for the characters’ physical time on earth (or a wampeter, a la Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle) and the real focus of the show was simply the characters’ relationships with one another the more people split into camps that admitted confused frustration, hurled scornful disdain, or heaped on praise.

And people’s reactions to the show’s ending, especially the negative ones, seemed to be founded on the stubborn belief that the show should have been what they imagined it to be, rather than what the writers wrote it to be. And the same vehement reactions can be seen in how the average fan reacts to a prodigious athlete when his/her talents wind up less than what the fan had hoped and longed for. And that’s the challenge with rooting for a player like Brian McCann: the response to his play on the field is never visceral, because he is, to quote long-time NFL coach Denny Green, who we thought he was, and, therefore, we will never be surprised nor disappointed with his play.

When McCann came to the Majors, he was twenty-one years old and viewed as the obvious sidekick to future face of the franchise and (then) can’t miss kid, Jeff Francoeur. Chipper Jones was thirty-four and still hitting well over .300, but the search for the heir apparent had already begun and McCann garnered very little consideration for the position. Francoeur was the guy on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hitting his way into the hearts of the fanbase, and McCann was prepping to give the Hall of Fame introduction. Now, it’s five years later and Francoeur is in Kansas City and less than we wanted him to be, Chipper Jones is one more injury away from a church softball league, and the young phenoms, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward (well, one more than the other), are all the rage, and McCann, who carried the Braves’ offense single-handedly for the first half of the season, has had his thunder interrupted by Dan Uggla’s hit streak. In some ways, it’s as if McCann’s baseball cap is already faded blue, like a synthetic throwback, that, somehow, he got old without a legacy.

So, while the only catcher to hit twenty home runs in each of the last four seasons (including this one) inhabits a universe that is neither shrinking nor growing, he does shed his skin, like a snake giving us the chance to every so often admire his sheen.
There are athletes who explode into our worlds, announcing themselves like hurricanes, threatening to decimate what was, leaving the past in a haze of grainy black and white photographs, and then there are those who catalogue the scope of their world in mechanical increments, without our knowing, and we find them one day like a bear in the attic, bridging us to some mundane, insignificant moment when we may or may not have learned something. And, while scratching our heads for the memory, we say to ourselves:

“Damn, Teddy Ruxpin sure could talk, couldn’t he?”