Monthly Archive for November, 2011

Uniforms in Retrograde

The Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles have each announced that they will revert to previously employed uniform logos. The Blue Jays will go with a slightly modified version of the bird head silhouette they sported from 1977 – 1996, a design that for me is indelibly linked to Joe Carter’s 1993 home run. The Orioles, on the other hand, return to the cartoon version of their titular bird, which I and I’m guessing many other would quickly connect to Earl Weaver and his successes in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Those changes, together with the new look of the Miami Marlins, have brought the aesthetics of baseball uniforms to the front of the hot stove conversation.

The first trend that comes to mind, obviously, are the reversions to old logo and uniform designs by Toronto and Baltimore. These choices reflect a broad trend toward designs of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, spurred, on one level, by the Internet and all of its brilliant highways and bi-ways. One of the most common currencies online today is any reference to old and nostalgic media products–from TV shows and movies, to toys and fashion. Functioning much the way such references do in live conversation, allusions to a shared childhood or past experience create a quick bond between strangers, and tap into a collective sense of childhood or adolescent or at least past sense of well-being, ie. nostalgia. There is no greater compendium of nostalgia than baseball, and the Internet has allowed us–P&P, with our 1990s First Basemen Week and our tumblr are right in the thick of it, after all–to share the love with breathtaking speed and efficiency.

Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania describes a fixation on retro matters as slowing down time itself. Describing the 2000s: “The sensation of moving forward grew fainter as the decade unfurled. Time itself seemed to become sluggish….” One factor he cites is the wide availability of content from every era. iPods act as oldies stations, according to Reynolds. Pop culture struggles to move forward with its eyes cast continually backward at “our own immediate past.” Eerily, Reynolds asks, “what happens when we run out of past?” The answer seems to be: we become a culture of snakes eating their own tales, a culture so self-referential that it stagnates into a narcissistic morass. Maybe we’re already there. Have you seen Glee?

Clearly, in the case of the Blue Jays at least, team management catered to the desires of their fans. A series of terrible logos sealed their fate, and public distaste for the steel-blue logos featuring highly emotional birds was rampant. Emma Yardley commented, via Infield Fly, that “The modern uniforms look, well, cheesy. While I do actually prefer the black, navy and slate grey (the classic uniforms should lose the red in my opinion), the lettering font is dated and no style-conscious person would ever put that on their body. It makes me ask, why did they change it in the first place?” I have yet to find anyone of a disparate opinion.

Something needed to be done, and twice the Blue Jays created new designs (let’s not forget the short-lived juiced Jay of 2003) that flopped hard. What else but to throw the grounded pick-up truck into reverse? Lots of baseball conversations revolve around the idea of risk, and risk aversion. The Blue Jays have succumbed to aesthetic risk aversion. They are done crafting new ideas, new design, and it’s back to the visual identity that taps into the Blue Jays fan’s pleasure sensors. A team of 25 Joe Carter’s will trot out onto the field in 2012.

As for the Orioles, I admit to having zero awareness of Baltimore or the nation’s call for a change to what I considered the classy design of the Orioles logo and jersey. ‘Duk of Big League Stew, however, hails the return of the cartoon bird, going so far as to call it “triumphant.” He goes on, however, to keenly highlight the risk and reward dynamic of the baseball uniform: “But given the choice between the O’s bowing to a fan-requested nostalgia trip and the San Diego Padres ignoring the wishes of their fans, it’s an easy decision every time.” The Padres’ resistance of the retro wave washing over the clubs whose logos aren’t timeless enough to keep has led to a general backlash. That, in my opinion, has more to do with the specific choices–ie. the uniforms are non-descript and repulsive at the same time–than simply the shock of creating something new.

In Baltimore, as many commenters have noted, the switch to an old design, though charming, means little as long as they field such a shabby team. Such a notion denies the importance of aesthetics, putting visual design several levels behind performance in baseball’s aesthetic hierarchy. This being Pitchers & Poets, I’m not ready to accept that hierarchy. I see baseball culture more as a galaxy, filled with planets of varying sizes and gravitational pulls and orbits. One planet is performance, another a team’s logo, yet more for architecture, history, radio broadcasters, etc. etc.

In Miami, of course, nostalgic relics are more elusive. Marlin World Series victories fit into what I’d put under the “recent” umbrella, unlike the Orioles’ generations ago dominance and the Blue Jays generation-ago run, and besides, during their heyday the Marlins had the same uniforms and logos that they do now. What element of visual culture could they bring back, besides a Gary Sheffield bobblehead doll? With a mostly shifting roster lacking sufficient bulletproof stars to bind the generations–Hanley Ramirez has come close, but he was absent for the World Series wins that have thus far defined the team. Josh Beckett would have done the job had he stuck around–and with poor fan support and a dire need for new energy with a new stadium, the Miami Marlins are a fine petry dish for design innovation, and they have jumped off of the yacht into strange waters. Orange, yellow, and blue waters.

One could argue that the audacious neon of the new design recalls the 1990s and its hypercolor shirts fluorescent kidswear and Zubaz pants. The eyeless Marlin would not look out of place on an OC Surfwear t-shirt. But also there’s the culture of Miami itself, the pastel brilliance of art deco architecture and Caribbean culture. The logo, to my mind, smartly walks the line, without committing itself to one or another vision of itself. An art deco hotel’s facade, the sun setting on the water, a Daytona surf shop: the design is complex enough to compel the viewer/consumer to dream a little.

The questions is: do these designs stop time? Are they inhibiting some more crucial, life-affirming advance into the future? Yeah, probably. Or maybe not. What am I, some kind of genius?

Each design has a relationship with time, however. Aesthetically, the Orioles and the Blue Jays are telling their fans, with their designs: think about this particular time period in the past, when this player and that player played, and how we should be like them. The Marlins, on the other hand, aren’t telling. They are requesting the favor of viewership and trust, and a future that features those favors. Like any situation requiring trust, there will be resistance. And maybe not all that much resistance. This review of the new uniforms by Ted Hill at Fishstripes is a reasoned consideration, and he even calls for a more bold use of the new color scheme.

(A fascinating aside would be a consideration of the remarkable amount of influence baseball fans have had over changes in uniform. Maybe it’s the market making the choices, and drops in sales preceded the Orioles and Jays changes, but it certainly feels like public sentiment is at an all-time aesthetic high. Then again, the Padres went their own way.)

Like a work of art, a baseball uniform is something that you’ve got to live with before rendering any final judgment. Time and experience ferment or sour the mix. Speedy judgements lack the richness of experience. In that sense, the Orioles and Blue Jays reversions deny fans the opportunity to learn about something new, or to mine a new aesthetic experience. To paraphrase Donny Rumsfeld, the silhouetted blue jay and the cartoon Oriole are known knowns.

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding: The Final Chapters

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Adam at Everyday Footnotes.

There are many criteria we can use to judge a novel: our emotional investment in the characters, the ferocity of the drama, our remembrances of the book weeks, months, years later. Somehow each novel determines its own criteria. The two criteria that TAF will be judged by are its efficacy in making the reader want to learn what happens next (aka page-turnability, aka unputdownableness) and its total avoidance of literal exhumations.

You win some, you lose some.

It’s interesting (perhaps), there’s actually a literary term for a scenario in which, say, the protagonists of a novel exhume a body and the act is treated as smelly and frustrating but not especially more upsetting than a standard (first time around) funeral. That term, of course: batshit crazy.

Do we have to accept this batshit crazy ending literally? I argue the following is at least as reasonable: Henry never leaves the psych ward (ever), he never gets drafted by the Cardinals (even in his delusions Starblind bests him), he never fixes things with Schwartz (it would take a seriously damaged mind to imagine that this group would repair their friendship with an act of body snatching and reburial at sea on the last day that they are all on campus together). In short, chapters 77 and 79-82 take place entirely in Henry’s mind.

Is what I’m suggesting any more unrealistic than the idea that Owen (of all the characters!) would enlist a friend who recently finished a stint under psychiatric care to help exhume the body of his months-dead lover?

(If there’s some way to include the entire final game — and Henry’s inexplicable decision not to coach first base in the final inning, seemingly quitting on the team once again — into my psychosis theory, I’m all for it. I couldn’t get that to work.)

Good book, bonkers ending.

Injury as Metaphor

It’s often the case that sportswriters are in the business of creating metaphors.  Certainly, there’s plenty of work to be done with regards to reporting the day’s events, at least until the robots take over.  But eventually, given the cyclical nature of sports, writers are tasked with making those events mean something.  In the old days, this was done by converting athletes into avatars, heroic young men who represented their adopted hometowns, and whose accomplishments on the field added to the local lore.  Recently, those familial bonds have weakened, and writers have been forced to become more creative in their meaning-making.

One element of baseball nearly untouched by this narrative shift is the injury.  The tale of Kerry Wood isn’t much different than that of Gary Nolan, at its roots. Injuries are a part of the game, and yet they feel somehow unnatural, defacing what should be a predictable career arc.  They can destroy the best intentions of the craftiest of general managers, or reduce a star player to a cheerleader.

What’s fascinating about injuries is that they’re a symbol for both strength and weakness, a duality, “like all really successful metaphors,” as Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 work Illness as Metaphor.  Sontag devoted her attention to the disparate legacies of the great diseases of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: tuberculosis and cancer.  As she declares in her introduction, “illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking”.  In baseball – and I understand the dangers of using the same metaphoric instinct in connecting the two – injury is much like illness, treated as something more than itself.

Much as disease is the harbinger of old age and inevitable death, injury is a failure of the body.  And yet, there is glory in injury.  The annals of baseball history are filled with men who overcame their injuries and their pain: Schilling bleeding into his sock, Gibson limping around the basepaths.  The player who fights through his pain is treated as heroic; masculinity demands that they ignore and even hide their injuries, even to the detriment of their own team.  There is no duplicity in this; each player is convinced that no injury can stop him, just as he must convince himself that every slump is about to end.  Much like cancer patients who are shielded from the realities of their illness by well-meaning doctors, the first cure for any disease, as with any injury, is positive thinking.  “A happy man won’t get the plague”, goes the proverb, but the dangerous subtext to this philosophy is that those who do suffer must share at least some of the responsibility.

The key to the glory of injury is that it must be painful without being debilitating.  Perhaps this is why, with the exception of Schilling’s sock and a few other rare examples, the glorious injuries always belong to the hitters.  The hitter complains of his hamstrings, breaks an unidentifiable bone in his wrist, and still manages to make the violent, split-second swing that brings victory.  Pitchers have no such luck.  Like cancer, the pitcher’s ailment is unseen, insidious, terrifying.  A man can be perfectly happy and healthy, wielding pinpoint mechanics, and a single pop in the elbow or shoulder can end it immediately.  Such occurrences are the natural target for dread, and the player is quickly shuttled away, exiled from his former family, to the wasteland of rehab and extended spring training.  His life, the camaraderie and routine so carefully fashioned, is torn away in ragged fashion.

Perhaps the most striking and somber characteristic of injury, as with illness, is its ability to corrupt the identity of its victim.  We see it in Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, who watches himself die in public before going through the actual process; Kafka’s cockroach goes through his own labrum issues in the Metamorphosis.  Those players whose body parts fail them become those body parts: Tony Saunders became a broken arm, Tommy John a ligament.

Perhaps no recent player has lost control over his own identity more so than Mike Hampton, whose body disintegrated after signing an 8-year, $100 million contract. Hampton became a symbol for disappointment, his salary a yoke on multiple franchises.  He underwent Tommy John surgery, tore an oblique, tore another elbow tendon, pulled a hamstring, strained a pectoral muscle, and tore his rotator cuff.  He said of his infamous contract:

“It’s unfortunate,” Hampton said. “I’ve thought about it quite a bit. Shoot, when I sign a big contract, I want to be underpaid, not overpaid. Even though I wasn’t as successful as I would have liked to have been, it wasn’t from a lack of trying or lack of work or lack of want. I did everything in my power to be on the field and help my team win a World Series. I can look in the mirror and face the guy looking back and know he’s telling the truth.”

Hampton became a perpetual joke despite working just as hard as any other person to succeed and earn his salary.  We tend to assume that because a ballplayer makes a certain amount of money, he cannot feel the pain of his injury, the loss of being able to do what he loves.  Instead fans feel as though their money has been stolen, as though the player should lose that, too.  They deserve it for failing the team.  The weakness of the flesh has become a weakness of the spirit, malevolent and blameworthy.

Nowhere is the contagion of disease more glaring than when the ailment is psychological.  Here’s Sontag’s metaphor breaks down; she speaks of insanity as the modern equivalent of consumption, with romantic souls shipped off to sunny climes to relax and breathe the salt air.  Baseball, despite its emerald fields and warm spring evenings, is hardly a restorative place.  It’s a world of machismo and spitting and dirt, of single-minded purpose and execution.  Thinking is left for the analysts.  So when a player succumbs to psychological issues, his exile is doubly damning; it’s seen as being by choice.  Zack Greinke, speaking about his battle with social anxiety, commented that “depression is still a four-letter word.”  It’s easy to think back on the spiral of Henry Skrimshander from Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, whose identity is not only altered by his injury, it is completely erased.  His exile has made him unutterable, non-existent.

This is exactly the sentiment that Sontag was worried about: that illness and injury leads people to blame the person for their own suffering.  Injuries are frightening and unpredictable; it’s human nature to ascribe some cause to them, something we can control or at least understand.  It drives us to clutch at correlation, argue over the inverted W and the pitch count the training regimen, excessive or nonexistent.  By rationalizing the suffering of others, we explain away the possibility that it may someday arrive for us.  We blame the player for failing to live up to our expectations, the achievements we have awarded him in advance.

Situational Essay: Zen and the Art of Scouting by Aaron Shinsano

Aaron Shinsano is a baseball scout based out of Korea, as well as the co-founder of the influential Asian baseball blog East Windup Chronicle.

Before I started scouting I was a writer. So even as I started to scout I knew I’d be writing about it in some capacity. Eventually.

Call it one of those silly whims writers take further than the average person, since, they’re writers and all, but before I really started to learn how to scout I got the idea that it’d be cool to write a book called “Zen and the Art of Baseball Scouting.”

I did realize that before I wrote the book I’d have to live it first. My idea was exactly what you’d presume – to take the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and view baseball scouting through the lens of the its central metaphor, which, to put it crudely is something like: “life’s a journey, so don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Thing is, in addition to never having scouted baseball, I’d never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Oh, I’d tried to read it. A number of people had recommended it to me. In college, I used to housesit for a family that had it on the bookshelf. Another time, a woman in a yoga class I was taking told me I ought to read it when she heard I liked to write. Finally, I received my own used copy as a gift from a woman I was dating just before I moved to Korea.

She was training to be a pilot, and we used to fly all over Northern California in her 1950-something Cessna together. I hedged on reading the book for a few weeks. That I ought to have read it started to weigh on both of us, so I brought it on a trip we took from Livermore, California, to Grass Valley.

Riding in that plane always freaked me out, and I can remember clutching the book on the flight like one might clutch a bible in the same situation. The flight was at night, which added a layer of sheer terror. It could have been any old book, but once we finally landed safely and I uncurled my sweaty fingers from the spine, the book had accumulated even more importance than before.

It’s a pink paperback edition with old yellowed pages and it’s on the shelf to my left as I type this. It looks like the kind of book printed during the 70s or 80s, when one would have found it in one of the Top 10 best seller slots, sandwiched between two romance novels with dye cut holes outlining roses, at a grocery store. The print was tiny and almost unreadable.

I wasn’t head over heels about the woman, which is probably why we both started wondering why I hadn’t started the book. I applied to and had been accepted to a grad school in Korea and we broke up right after that. At that point I started reading the book, projecting a transformative experience upon it as I relocated across the ocean.

I won’t portend to know a lot about Zen, but I know a few things. Zen means a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, Zen is free verse living. Improvised living. Doing without thinking. To me, Zen is having a bemused look on your face. You’re judging, but you’re completely open to the idea that you’re wrong, because you know that’s just how life is. You’re ready to attack, but you won’t, because you’re going to be too busy laughing.

image by Infinite Jeff (click through)

There’s plenty of Zen to be had in baseball. A good pitch mix is Zen, especially when you throw exactly what the batter isn’t expecting. The ability to vary a slider, like Marmol’s when it was going really good during 2008-2009, is Zen. I might argue Japanese pitchers have a good idea about Zen, which makes sense since it was born in that culture. Think of someone like Yu Darvish, who seems to throw 50 different pitches 50 different ways, few that actually appear to be much like the last. That’s Zen pitching.

There’s Zen in the field as well. Like when a shortstop checks a runner back to third and guns the ball to first. A run down has a lot of Zen. I’d be willing to bet Joe Maddon has read or studied some Zen in his life. In hitting, batters need to constantly make adjustments. Certainly, this requires Zen.

So it stood to reason that there’d be plenty of Zen in baseball scouting as well. After all, it 1. involves baseball, which I’ve already defined as Zen. And 2. was confusing to me, as I knew very little about it. My approach to learning about baseball scouting would have to be Zen, because I knew I was in for a great deal of frustration, at least initially.

There wasn’t one way for me to acquire the ability to scout baseball. I felt I knew baseball, especially the statistical side of the game. I’d never played baseball professionally, which meant I’d stopped being around the game on a day-to-day basis in my early 20s.

I knew that the ability to scout baseball was going to be something I would have to absorb over a long period of time. Today, I’m thankful I realized this then. I even thought of something I’d read in a sushi cookbook, years before I’d even imagined moving to Asia. I kept it in the back of my mind, almost like a mantra, about how in Japan master sushi chefs usually spend their first seven years exclusively learning how to make rice correctly.

That was all fine and good and a nice attitude to start, but when I started to sit down and watch baseball with a team sheet in front of me, I quickly understood that in scouting I had entered the realm of a very different game. To take what’s happening on the field, and somehow fill 15-20 boxes is an arduous task at best. Mind-melting at worst.

Hence the need for Zen acceptance–and the possibility of a Zen book about scouting! At that time, team sheeting a game seemed like it was nothing less than conducting a symphony. Take for instance the concept of grading a player’s run tool, which, in difference to grading a player’s hit tool or range, is less subjective. Every scout has a stopwatch. You start it when a player hits the ball and stop it when he touches the base. Simple enough. There are adjustments. Some runners are faster first to third. In Asia a lot of runners cheat out of the box, especially those hitting from the left side. But for the most part, run times, like fastball velocity, is as simple as reading a digital number and writing it down.

Now, to record run times for all 18 position players plus a handful for pinch hitters and/or runners, is an achievable task and, in the early going, felt like a fairly full day of scouting. It takes some doing, and not every player hits the ball and runs to first during a game, but you can make some headway. And, as I learned later, you can watch a player doing other things involving running and estimate how fast they are, even if they don’t offer a perfect “hit-to-base” run time.

But again, I’m talking about one box out of about 40.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance always left me cold, both then and now. Or, I should say, then and recently, because I won’t try to read the book again. Three strikes and you’re out.

I like the idea of it as a period piece. A guy riding a motorcycle through the Midwest during the 1960s. They break down, go camping, he teaches his son about fixing motorcycles, they laugh, they cry.

The thing I can’t get past is the heavy-handedness in the book. Zen is a lot of things to a lot of people, but one thing I don’t think it should ever be is elitist. Zen doesn’t spend a lot of time looking out, and if it does, it isn’t judging. So far as I read, the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance spends an awful lot of time judging the people around him, labeling them as “not awake,” while he runs around in this calm, “aware” existence. Bullshit. That’s about the worst thing you can say about a person…that they aren’t alive or that their life is on autopilot. People do this all the time of course, usually while the other person is thinking the same thing about them.

I should probably give the book the benefit of the doubt, or suspend my own disbelief, like I might if I was watching an action movie. The book was written during a time when Zen was a new frontier in the west, still only recently brought to the states when people were merely looking to extrapolate themselves from what they felt was a prevailing culture they did not see eye to eye with. And, it should be noted, taking a lot of drugs. But anyone who knows anything about Zen or “enlightenment” realizes it’s a constant journey, not an endgame scenario or a mountain you climb up so you can look down at all the people trying to get where you are.

Likewise, I think scouting is also a constant journey. A lot of scouts, and even some organizations, would seem to have you believe it’s not. For my money, the best scouts are the ones that admit they’re still learning, even at age 70. The ones that just thrive on ego, well, they probably think they’ve got it all figured out, just like the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But life, like scouting and baseball itself, is an inexact science. And I don’t think there’s any point when you can say you’re done learning.

Situational Essay: A Cardinals Fan Reflects on the End of the La Russa Era

Brian Kist writes the blog Punk On Deck. He’s on twitter, too, @punkondeck.

The Cardinals did it.If I based fandom on general managing style or minor league makeup, I might have difficulty justifying this, my favorite team’s success. But since I, like most fans, root for laundry, I don’t have an obligation to defend or laud how it happened. The Cardinals are the World Series Champs. They just are.

I watch baseball because it’s fun. Attempting to degrade or justify a team’s results is not fun. Personally, I like a more sabermetric approach to the game than the Cardinals have practiced over the years. Yes, things are getting better, but the team still feels like a throwback to an earlier era. Transactions like giving Kyle Lohse a four-year deal after a career season is the type of alienating personnel move I’m talking about. Fans like me have had to put aside management techniques and blindly follow the birds on the bat. It’s quite a feat to get a respectful, yet lukewarm response when you announce your retirement immediately after managing your team to a World Series title.

But now Tony La Russa has retired and there’s one less thing to defend out of laundry loyalty. To say LaRussa was polarizing is a misnomer. He had the people who disliked everything he did on one side and the people who merely respected what he did on the other. Not too many outside of friends, colleagues, and family were raving fans of his style. LaRussa played every game as if it were his last but with the caveat of being loyal to a fault to underachieving veterans. This style made him a great (the greatest?) playoff manager, but a chore to observe during the heat of the summer. It’s quite a feat to get a respectful, yet lukewarm response when you announce your retirement immediately after managing your team to a World Series title.

and while I was not a fan of LaRussa’s managing, I will say that, in an odd way, I admire the way he went out. He spent the last few days before the end of the World Series talking to reporters, opining about what he doesn’t like about Moneyball. He didn’t like how it portrayed scouts and he had issues with the emphasis on on-base percentage (I know that isn’t the point of the book. I suspect LaRussa knows this, too.). Then he wins it, in uber-Tony-mode, making more pitching changes than any manager in the playoffs ever. After the parade, he drops the mic and points at the big baseball scoreboard. There’s nothing you can say to him after that. The final out was recorded, and somehow, he was on top.