Author Archive for Patrick

A Game of Forms

I’m not sure I should admit this, because it’ll probably destroy any chance I have of writing for The Classical, but I know nothing about bullfighting. This is at least partially my fault; I have a longstanding rule that when I read the word “bull” in a Hemingway novel, I immediately skip forward to the next chapter. But however elaborate and nonsensical the version of bullfighting that exists in my head, I tend to think of it as a rather graceful sport. The bull charges, the bullfighter glides just out of reach, and the scene continues like a dance until, again in my mind, just before bull or man is bloodily gored in front of thousands of men, women and children. The sky is blue. There are trumpets in the background.

I relate this anecdote to provide context for my mood on Monday morning. It looked to be an arduous week, and so as I prepared my office I gave myself a little treat: I dialed up and enjoyed the phenomenon of position players pitching. There stood Chris Davis, who according to the media guides weighs thirteen pounds less than Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin, as he cast his entire repertoire at the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the 16th. There was the fastball clocking 89, or perhaps a tick faster than Jered Weaver’s, but even more enjoyable was the indecisive knuckle-change that seemed to give up halfway to the plate.

It was one of his mistakes, however, that led to what drew my interest. With a runner on first, one of Davis’ fastballs found itself up and over the plate, and Mike Aviles relocated it to te base of the left-center wall. Marlon Byrd rounded third and met Matt Wieters.

I have, like many people, complained about catchers blocking the plate as they wait for the ball. The home plate collision invoked a new round of controversy after it felled Buster Posey last year, but I’ve long found the practice distasteful. Catchers are no more entitled to the runner’s path than any other fielder. In this case, however, the catcher stood well in front of the plate, stretching out to receive the relay at its earliest point and sweep the tag back over the plate. The throw was true and early. Wieters turned. Byrd threw his left elbow into the catcher’s ribs. The two men sprawled over, the dust billowed, and Wieters held up his mitt dramatically to reveal the ball still inside. The crowd cheered; the inning was over.

The play felt wrong to me. It felt dirty.

I realize I am in the minority in this respect. The rules don’t talk about home plate collisions in the same sense that the U.S. Constitution fails to tackle abortion: like government, the game of baseball evolves, however slowly, as a sort of social contract between the representatives and the People. In this sense the home plate collision is baseball’s pittance to its fans, a rare acquiescence to the natural fan appeal of goonery. Hockey has its referee-sanctioned fistfights, football has its everything; baseball, in comparison, has merely sacrificed Ray Fosse to the altar of bloodlust.

My idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag.I’d like to leave the collisions behind, relegating them to the memories of belt-grabbing and knee-high cleats. My ideal form of baseball is more like my version of Hemingway’s version of bullfighting, an ethereal grace under pressure. In fact, my idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag; every moment in baseball centers on each player’s interaction with the ball, not each other. This renders the tag as the most potent and percussive act in the game, like the flourish of the cape. The rest of the game becomes a sort of waltz, performed either by Kinsella’s ghosts or Plato’s forms, both in some way seeking perfection.

This is romantic of me, I realize. But the game is moving this way on its own accord, becoming more visual and less visceral. The players themselves become less real as they are increasingly separated from the fan by distance, security and tax bracket. The game has become an increasingly televised event as baseball’s culture spreads across the country and globe. And perhaps most vitally, the game itself is no longer held in common between player and fan; fewer and fewer people play the game they love, preferring to watch passively. This is not a sign of decay, only change; we as fans love our game a little differently than we once did. Baseball is more symbolic, less tangible than it once was.

Maybe that’s why I felt so strongly about Byrd’s slide; after all, he wasn’t trying to hurt Wieters, nor break any rules. What he did wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t the baseball I’ve romanticized, that we all romanticize to a certain degree. When Alex Rodriguez tried to slap a ball out of a player’s glove a few years ago, he was condemned, not for his desire to win, but by his gaucheness. This felt the same. The game, for me, is greatest when it is at its most gentlemanly, and it’s a shame that Wieters was unable to flick his wrist and tap the bull as it charged toward him.

You Cannot Live in the Air

At this point    I don’t know
At this point

                      I don’t know
    how there is meaning in everything
and this is everything
and so there must be a meaning in this

but meaning doesn’t
     live in a knee
   it doesn’t hold a knee together
         meaning isn’t in the sinews
       or the marrow
                     so what does it hold?

between the grass
                  and the dirt
between the left foot and the right
    there is a moment
          where something is wrong
                   but it has not yet happened

and that moment is like two moments
and the two like sixteen
        and you wait
                        for the moments to all pass
                                   so you can know
and for the right foot come down
and it does, because it has to        

and then you wait some more
    for your words         are severed
               and the meaning has vanished
and you try to think of a way
                      to go back to when
                                          you were in the air

          but you cannot live in the air

The Argument for the Fair-Foul Bunt

Every afternoon, my Twitter feed is inevitably punctuated with lamentations over a mislaid bunt. It’s an act equated with cowardice, bearing the mark of gray-haired managers conducting mindless and archaic rituals. As a strategy, it’s pointless. As an action, it’s nothing more than surrender, impotent and futile. As a game mechanic, the bunt is broken. Something has to be done.

For most people, especially those of the statistical bent, that something is simple: stop bunting. In our current offensive era, the price of the bunt is too great. For all but pitchers and the most tepid of hitters, the sacrifice of a potential multi-base hit is too great a cost for the chance at legging out an infield single. And the sacrifice bunt is even worse; as Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin note early in The Book, game states simply don’t often [-ed.] justify the strategy. The most intuitive example is the bottom of the ninth inning, runner on first, no outs. The average manager would call for the sacrifice and be thrilled with having a runner in scoring position with one out. And yet in doing so, the team’s odds of winning have dropped from 35.3% to 29.6%. An out is too valuable to be sacrificed, no matter how nobly.

However, there’s an aesthetic power within the bunt. Part of it lies in the sacrifice itself, the unselfishness it shows and willingness to put team before self. Another part rests in deception. We admire the physical feats of strength in our athletes, but we’re doubly impressed by their cunning, their ability to defeat their opponents spiritually as well as physically. The flashing neon green of Rickey’s batting gloves, the brazenness of the shift, Drysdale’s fastball up and in: these are all moments of psychological warfare, a combination of style and strategy, an imposition of the will.

Every sport has its feints, its moments of clever misdirection: football has the draw play, hockey the stick deke, tennis its drop shot. In each case the offensive player uses deception to manipulate the odds in his or her favor. The bunt seems ideal for this purpose. It’s provides the batter with alternatives, an opportunity for hitters to create their own style. The more individuality that can be imbued into the pitcher-hitter matchup, the more interesting that matchup is. The bunt is exciting; it provides us with quick action, snap decisions, bare-handed grabs and throws across the body to first. It seems a shame to throw these things away just because they don’t help one’s team win.

We shouldn’t hate the bunt. We should hate the game for killing it.

Ross Barnes, Dapper GentlemanThere was a time when the bunt was not only acceptable; it was noble. In the 1870s, the National League had just organized, and people were still trying to sort out this what this “base ball” game was all about. A viable strategy in this era was the fair-foul bunt: if a ball landed in fair play and then rolled foul, even in front of the bag, it was considered in play. Enterprising batters would chop at the pitch in an attempt to put English on the ball, spinning it away from fielders. Rather than being shameful, however, baseball culture of the 1870s treated the fair foul bunt as a legitimate and even honorable practice. Henry Chadwick, baseball’s first chronicler and robber baron, defended the play against its critics, countering arguments that the fair foul being easy or cheap as “absurd”.

Few people were able to master the skill; none was better than Ross Barnes, who used it to hit over .400 four out of six years. Numerous steps were taken to restrict the fair foul, including the creation of the batter’s box, moving the plate into foul territory, then further scooting the batter’s box a foot farther back from the plate. None of these change hurt Barnes, who hit .406 in 1876. The following year it was eliminated entirely, not because it was deemed unfair, but because umpires, who at that point lined up off to the side of the plate, had difficulty determining fair and foul balls in front of the plate. The fair foul bunt was soon forgotten, and the bunt itself has been dying slowly ever since.

The umpire stands where he belongs now, and the reasons for banning the fair-foul bunt are gone. There isn’t much chance that it will break or even significantly alter the game. It’s unlikely that hitters would be able to consistently put the kind of English on a 95 mile per hour fastball that Ross Barnes could against the junk of his own era. Scott Podsednik’s major league career is probably still over.

But at the same time, there’s no reason to put up extra barriers against a tactic that’s already disadvantageous enough. It’s time to restore some incentive to the bunt, and perhaps provide an opportunity for style and excitement in the process. Anything that gives hitters more choices and gives audiences something to watch beyond strikeouts and dingers can only be a good thing.

Found Poetry: Jose Canseco

 Found poetry is a specific type of poem, particularly common in high school language arts classes, where you take words or phrases from a text and rearrange them to create original poetry. In this case, the following poem is constructed purely out of tweets from Jose Canseco’s twitter account.

Maybe I Am The Phantom of Baseball

Maybe I am the phantom of baseball

I will do anything for one more at bat
I know I can still hit MLB pitching
I can still hit a golf ball 380 yards
I have the hips of a 20 year old
I can
I have

I have a medical condition:
I love the game so much
Even in exhibition

Invite me for an old timers game
I will play

Anything for a look

Still dreaming of that one last
Trip of imagination
Back to the big leagues

I miss everything where did it go

The Power Ranking Power Rankings

Note: It’s one of the long-held traditions of Power Rankings that they begin with some sort of preamble. This is not that preamble; that’s why it’s in italics. But if you’re here for the ordinal analysis and want to skip past the metacognition, you can jump ahead by clicking here.

Yesterday, FanGraphs raised the vuvuzela that is Sports Illustrated to broadcast a set of Power Rankings that found the 3-13 Kansas City Royals at #7. Reactions to this decision ranged from indignation and derision to grim mirth. Dave Cameron, naturally, responded in straight-faced kind, having been through this sort of civilized discourse before. The conversation tumbled into a familiar jumble of complaints about timely hitting and defensive statistics. What the debate had in velocity it lacked in command. In this case, it begged the question: what’s the “power” in a power ranking? There’s at least four different ways to look at it.

  • Past accomplishments. Some power rankings start off with the previous year’s champions #1 because “it’s there until someone knocks them off.” Easy alternative: buy an Athlon magazine at the grocery store.
  • Momentum. Some prefer the barometric method, examining the game from the scope of the media cycle. There’s nothing wrong with this, except that momentum doesn’t mean much in baseball, and the teams fly up and down the list like a teeter-totter, killing the ranking’s reputation.
  • True talent. This angle seems to most closely align with FanGraphs’ philosophy at SI, using fWAR to calculate which teams are powerful. This is fine, but the trouble with ignoring the results is that, predictive quality or no, they do count; the Royals are already 7 games back in the division, a significant hole.
  • Championship odds. Nothing wrong with this either, although already does this admirably and teams in weak divisions are treated as being more “powerful” than they really are.

Confusing the picture further is the obligatory flavor text that accompanies each team’s ranking, which varies in direction with whatever the author finds interesting to say about the team in question. Teams who languish at the bottom are treated as hopeless, in spite of the state of their farm team or the process behind their management. Snark is prevalent.

Of course, the primary problem with power rankings is the knowledge that you are arguing about power rankings. They have all the subjectivity of a Hall of Fame argument with none of the permanence or significance. They don’t get your team into a tournament, or give you home field advantage. They’re essentially just words from pundits, which is fine because reading words from pundits is fun. Rob Neyer, as usual, summarizes adeptly: “Really, the only way to make Power Rankings interesting is to throw some crazy shit in there.” It’s all part of the nationwide narrative woven through the season, the glittery veneer that imbues expectations and “respect”.

The concept of respect amongst the media is its own psychological quagmire, deserving of several thousand words. What we have now has spawned from the national media, as the power to write the story of our teams has been wrested from our local beat writers and eleven o’clock sports anchors. But the fact remains: just as much as it’s ridiculous that people care how others see their team, it’s also equally true. The feral popular lust for the power ranking is undeniable. And the numerical ranking isn’t enough; Hollinger’s statistical rankings for the NBA are excellent, but they’re not as satisfying as the traditional rank-and-comment that has proliferated the web.

Why we want power rankings goes, in part, with why we want analysis in general: it’s sports when there are no sports, something to chew on in the morning over a cup of coffee. It’s just another element that sports holds in common with politics, where there’s a second “contest” taking place beyond the primary one, the battle of words. And if this is true, the best power rankings are not the ones that are the most accurate or the most scientific, they’re the ones that give us the most to think or laugh about. They’re power rankings, after all; even though we take them too seriously, we know they shouldn’t be taken so seriously.

With that said, here are the Official Pitchers & Poets Power Ranking Power Rankings for April 25, 2012:

1. Baseball Prospectus: These are the cream of the crop, so elite that they don’t even call them power rankings. Arcane, unexplained statistics to lend credence? Check. Daily updates? Check. Short, two sentence pithy comments? Check. And it’s not even behind the paywall!

2. Grantland: It’s Grantland, so it’s nowhere near succinct. Instead, Jonah Keri devotes quality analysis to each team. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t expect a ranking that takes fifteen minutes to read would rank so high, but it’s not as if people read the parts for other teams.

3. SI/FanGraphs: What it lacks in flavor it makes up for in substance. Their willingness to lean on their statistics in the face of intuition is a plus: if nothing else, it creates conversation, and that’s exactly what rankings are supposed to do.

4. ESPN: The choice to let the SweetSpot writers add their own insight leads to authenticity and inconsistency. As much as a festering pit as the ESPN comment section is, it’s good from a theoretical standpoint that there is one. Probably.

5. CBS: Your baseline, no-nonsense rankings: easy to read and follow. The comments are occasionally thoughtful, sometimes unnecessary, but Matt Snyder’s voice comes through without being overbearing.

6. FOX: Similar to CBS, except without the same vitality in the analysis.

7. It just seems strange for the official website of MLB to have unofficial power rankings; it seems as though if you were going to have a major ranking based solely on popular vote, this would be the place to do it. The fact that the rankings lack an author only adds to the discomfort.

8. Pitchers & Poets: Recursion!

9. Yahoo!: Hasn’t updated since April 5, as far as I can tell. Feels rushed. Aesthetically, the layout could use some polish; it looks like something you’d make using GeoCities.

10. Bleacher Report: Somehow manages to capture the length of Grantland, the informality of Baseball Prospectus, the humor of SI/FanGraphs and the expertise of Tim McCarver. It’s like the Pirates offense of writing.

This completes your inaugural Pitchers & Poets Power Ranking Power Rankings.

Rey Quinones: A Hard Man to Understand

Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I stopped going to classes. It wasn’t that I had better things to do; I spent a month trying to learn how to play the “B” chord on a guitar. Sometimes I would skip class, stay home and read the textbook. On those days I would wake up, shower, dress, and get ready to leave. When the time came to open the door to my dorm room and walk to class, I just… wouldn’t. I’d conjure some imagined stomach pains or blame insomnia. Then the next day, I’d imagine what it would be like to come back when everyone knew I wasn’t there the previous day, and I’d stay home then, too. It became a cycle. There were some classes I signed up for and then never attended even once.

It’s embarrassing to reflect back on that part of my life, not only for my academic failures, but for the sheer egoism I displayed. I imagined vengeful TAs and snickering classmates when in fact I was just a particularly faceless young man in a school of twenty-four thousand. I felt no connection to the teachers or students around me. No one noticed I was missing, except the professors who submitted the grades at the end of each quarter. It’s easy to look back on that part of my life and realize on the fact that there was really something wrong with me. At the time, though, I couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) grasp the entirety of my situation; the moment the time came, I treated it as only a moment. That’s what falling feels like; you don’t have time to think about it because you’re too busy falling.

Run a search for “Rey Quinones” and the majority of the articles you’ll find will be about departure. They’ll utter the names of Spike Owen and Dave Henderson, who left the Mariners in exchange for Quinones in 1986. Or they’ll talk about Mike Dunne and Mark Merchant, the prospects Pittsburgh gave up two years later. The stories are rarely about Quinones himself, only his price. When the Pirates tired of him three months after his latest deal, they found no one left to trade with, so they cut him mid-season. They didn’t even consider sending him to the minors; they just wanted to be rid of him.

Assembling the story of Rey Quinones is like doing a puzzle with half the pieces missing. His name appears throughout the usual sports page fare. He’s a collection of numbers, usually errors, tacked into the third line of game recaps. He’s a series of anecdotes by beat writers, each more improbable and hilarious than the last. He’s a name to be thrown out on deadline day, the trade rehash, the remember-when article. But the one familiar article you never find for Rey Qunones is the “Where Are They Now?” piece. No one asks. No one cares to know.

There was never a question as to whether the kid could play. He had range to spare, plenty of pop in his bat, enough athleticism to make scouts smile. Everyone agreed that Quinones could have been a star. Ted Williams described him as perhaps being a “Frank Robinson at shortstop”, a picture that assaults the imagination. Mariners team trainer Rick Griffin claimed that he could throw a ball from home plate into the second deck of center field.

And yet what we have now are the anecdotes. The most famous of them was the time that Quinones was unavailable to pinch hit one game because he was back in the clubhouse playing Nintendo. (To be fair, he was on World 8-4 of Super Mario Bros.) He failed to show for the start of Spring Training in 1987; when questioned, he claimed that he’d had visa problems. Team president Chuck Armstrong had to remind him that you don’t need a visa to leave Puerto Rico, a U.S. protectorate. Perhaps even deadlier to his reputation were his on-field foibles; despite his strong arm, he often lobbed his throws to first, and booted the routine plays. He showed little in the way of concentration. He left his team without notice or permission to attend his wife’s grandmother’s funeral, missing several games. He suffered from mysterious, nagging injuries that never showed up on the machines. It’s as though the simple act of being Quinones was too exhausting for Quinones.

Former teammate and fellow Puerto Rican Henry Cotto once said, simply, “Rey Quinones is hard to understand.” Three general managers, three coaching staffs, three sets of scouts glimpsed the reserve of natural talent. Three organizations found themselves unable to discern what, exactly, went on in the shortstop’s head. Nor could they find the location of his heart, but it never seemed to be with baseball. Quinones told reporters early in his career that he didn’t need baseball, because he owned a liquor store in Puerto Rico he could live off of. The following exchange, reported by Kirby Arnold in “Tales from the Mariners Dugout”, comes closest to approximating Quinones’ mindset:

[Club president Chuck] Armstrong was walking through the Mariners’ clubhouse before a game when manager Dick Williams called him into his office. Armstrong walked in and saw Quinones there with Williams and general manager Dick Balderson. “Rey, tell Chuck what you just told us,” Williams said.
“I’m a good shortstop, right?” Quinones said.
“You’re a very good shortstop, Rey,” Armstrong told him.
“I could be the best shortstop in the American League,” Quinones said.
“Yes you could,” Armstrong replied.
“I’m so good,” Quinones continued, “that I don’t need to play every day.”
Armstrong was stunned as Quinones continued.
“I don’t need to play every day, and you have other guys who should play so they can get better,” Quinones said. “So I don’t need to play tonight.”

When we were kids, my friends and I would tear up any Rey Quinones baseball card we saw; if we found it at a shop, we’d pay the nickel for it so that we could rip it apart. He was the team villain. The ignominy of Rey Quinones is tempered only by his own obscurity. His antics were nestled within a string of ninety-loss seasons, and the well-known shortstop he replaced, Spike Owen, hit a robust .234 in his time in Seattle. In Pittsburgh his legacy is somewhat more tarnished; it’s rare for a team to lose prospects who unanimously washed out of the league, and have the trade still be seen as a loss. It played no small part in costing general manager Larry Doughty his job. The three months Quinones spent as a Pirate were that bad. When the team cut him, Jim Leyland didn’t hold back: “I thought we were getting someone who wasn’t the best of guys but had talent,” the Pittsburgh manager said. “We got a guy who was a good guy but didn’t show talent.” He added: “I can put up with errors, but not errors with no effort.”

Professional baseball players are held to a different standard than the general population. They’re required to play through physical pain. They can’t call in sick on their birthday. We accept these things, and we’re generally in agreement that players are compensated financially for their efforts. What’s interesting is that we’re far more accommodating as fans for a player’s physical shortcomings than their mental ones. When a player isn’t very good at their job because of the limitations of their skills, we accept it; we’ve seen our share of players like Jeff Kunkel and Rafael Ramirez. But when it comes to the psychological aspect of the job, there is no quarter. Quinones was immature, a head case; there was no help, no place for him. When the Pirates cut him, the shock brought him to tears. He had claimed he didn’t need baseball; baseball, as it turned out, didn’t need him.

The more pieces of Quinones’ puzzle I put together, the more disturbing the picture became. There’s the story of the start of his final season, in 1989. Like usual, spring training had begun and Quinones was the only Mariner yet to report. This time, however, he couldn’t be reached by telephone, and neither his close friends nor his brother could make contact. “I’m his roommate and sometimes he listens to me,” Mario Diaz said. “I would like to talk to him but I know how difficult that is. We don’t live that far apart in Puerto Rico, but I never saw or talked to him this winter. Nobody sees Rey during the off-season.” New general manager Woody Woodward began with salary threats, but was eventually forced to send two scouts to find him. When they reached his home, his wife told the scouts that he wasn’t there. They soon spotted him anyway – hiding in a house across the street, peering through the curtains. He agreed to return to America with them, but he wasn’t gone for long.

After being cut by the Pirates, Quinones returned home to his home in the rough neighborhood of Rio Piedras. The Rangers declared interest in the young shortstop, but he turned them down. He joined the Santurce ballclub during the Winter Leagues, in hopes of impressing another club, and hit well. After a few weeks, he started showing up late for games. Soon, he wasn’t showing up at all.

I’m not sure exactly how, but I managed to turn things around in college. There was no epiphany, no magical moment of inspiration. After an endless string of false starts and disappointments, of broken resolutions, one stuck. I made it to class, and then I made it to another. I made the quarterly Dean’s list after having failed all three classes the quarter before; I hung the certificate on my fridge with ironic pride. I slipped through the giant emotionless university system with a liberal arts degree, a 2.5 GPA, and a little bit of hope. Eventually I spent four more years of college and got my teaching certificate. Now I’m the authority figure that terrified me as a student.

I see kids that act like Rey Quinones all the time. They get sucked into the culture of failure that surrounds their socioeconomic status, and lower their expectations to meet their pessimism. Like Quinones, they struggle with language barriers that prevent them from expressing themselves the way they wish they could be heard. They turn to defense mechanisms, irreverence or sullenness, or they just stop showing up. It’s my job to catch these kids, to make sure they understand the opportunities they have, and to keep them from going through what I did. I haven’t always succeeded; I’m not that good a teacher yet. But my peak years are still ahead.

I don’t know Rey Quinones. Few people have, I think. None of the articles I read ever seem to share much of his side of the story. But I wonder if he ever had the support he needed to be the Frank Robinson of shortstops. Mental illness in sports has come a long way since 1989, but the stigma of being a “head case” still rests on the player, and the team is still seen as being helpless in dealing with the player’s antics. How much responsibility lies where is impossible and irresponsible for me to claim. I don’t know what could have been done. All I know is that in the end, I came away feeling something that I never expected to feel about a lazy, lackluster baseball player: pity.

There’s one last piece of the puzzle. Quinones’ name shows up in one final strange, sad story. Last month the 20th Annual Cabin Fever Auction was held in Bristol, Connecticut. Among the items for bid: a 1996 New York Yankees World Series ring. The ring was given to a member of the Yankees’ administrators by the name of Rey Quinones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s little information about how Quinones joined or left the Yankees, or how the ring made its way to auction (where it sold for $14,153.00). We’re left to wonder whether that ring helped cover the operation costs of a little liquor store in Rio Piedras.

The Reds’ Mane Attraction

Originally from Kentucky, Joshua Lars Weill lives and writes out of Washington, D.C. Follow his take on sports and culture on Twitter at @AgonicaBoss.

For things to work out right on a given night, Bronson Arroyo needs the ball to flutter, fade and drop when it’s supposed to. Never much of a power pitcher, time and toil have made Arroyo even more calculating. When the ball cooperates, the Reds right-hander can still get even the best hitters out with regularity. When it does not cooperate, as it did not almost all of last season, Arroyo is merely a 35-year-old right-hander with a ho-hum fastball pitching half his games in a bandbox stadium.

Which is why despite raised preseason expectations, Cincinnati’s 2012 season won’t come down to how many runs the team scores, how any of its offseason acquisitions perform or whether manager Dusty Baker can avoid his penchant to over-manage. Instead it will come down to Arroyo’s ability to rediscover the form that helped the 2010 Reds win the National League Central. That the sometime-cornrowed wanna-be frown-core rocker is so vital to his team’s success should be more surprising than it is. We’ve just come to accept that it’s how Arroyo operates.

A year ago, with no extra power to reach back for, and hampered by mononucleosis and a balky back, Arroyo’s rubber arm kept flinging the ball to the plate with a fastball around 86-87 miles an hour. Way too many of those pitches came careening right back and over the outfield fences – a club- and nearly NL single-season-record 46, to be exact.

“Last year, I was humping it up there at 86 [mph] a lot of times with everything I had,” Arroyo said in Spring Training this year.

For a guy like Arroyo, who has never shied from being outspoken and who enjoys cultivating a rough-hewn persona, humility comes hard. This is a guy, after all, who in 2009 admitted openly to ingesting a cocktail of over-the-counter supplements that pushed the edge of credulity.

“I do what I want to do and say what I want to say,” Arroyo said then. ”I’ve always been honest. I’m not going to stop now.”

No, the Floridian with the flowing golden locks won’t stop. But he can’t out-tough time, and he’s well aware. Never a hard-thrower, Arroyo has instead relied on guile, an array of pitches – including a big curve and a flat slider – funky arm angles and impressive resilience to craft a better-than-he-should-have baseball career in which he’s won 112 games over 13 Major League seasons. And he’s done it all with a likeable Redneck panache.

It wasn’t clear Cincinnati was getting the better of the trade that originally brought Arroyo to the Queen City. At the time, the Dominican prospect he was traded for, Wily Mo Pena, looked like a Manny-in-the-making while Arroyo looked more or less like the guy the Reds got: a pitcher who strummed guitar in the offseason, would eat some innings and keep games relatively close. At the time he was 28 and a recent World Series champion with the Red Sox. That was seven years ago.

Cincinnati has embraced the offbeat Arroyo, more than tolerating his dude-rock forays.Pena is now long gone, another in a long string of mighty mashers who missed. But Arroyo is still throwing in red-and-white, accumulating innings – he surpassed 200 in each of his first five years in Cincinnati and missed that mark by just one inning last season – and still strumming Pearl Jam covers on that tinny, black acoustic guitar. Arroyo has endeared himself to the locals off the field. The smaller and less cosmopolitan Cincinnati has embraced the offbeat Arroyo, more than tolerating his dude-rock forays and growing to love the goofjock persona he shows off in endorsement ads for various JTM meat products. Fans sense that Arroyo is genuine and true to himself, and that has made him likeable even when his fastball is flying out of the park.

That the Reds chose to re-sign the righty for three years and $35 million in 2010 quantified his value as an affordable, reliable option and as a guy the Reds can trust on and off the field. Forever cash strapped, Cincinnati simply cannot afford to pay Arroyo (or anyone else) $12 million a season to underperform. But when healthy and dialed in, Arroyo is much better than affordable and reliable, as he was two seasons ago.

Arroyo won 17 games for those playoff-bound 2010 Reds, leading the club in wins, starts and innings pitched. That team got timely hitting, strong starting pitching from a mostly young staff and caught the kind of breaks you need to catch to win 91 games in a small market, but it also relied heavily on Arroyo’s leadership and pitching consistency. Last season, with a better on-paper offense than the year before and nearly the same rotation, Arroyo’s home run troubles were a big part of the team’s disappointing sub-.500 finish. Instead of the de facto staff anchor, Arroyo was just an expensive mediocre right-hander on a team lacking a rudder.

So far this season, Arroyo has been even craftier. While he hasn’t seen a major boost in velocity, he has been mixing his pitches even more liberally than usual. He’s relying on his fastball less and his cutter and looping curve much more, just the kind of adjustment a veteran struggling to keep up with rocket-armed youngsters would make. And truth be told, it’s the kind of adjustment Arroyo has to make.

In his second start, at Washington, Arroyo was highly effective in his own way, slotting his arm down and spotting his pitches well. He allowed just three hits and a walk in seven-plus innings, and exited with a 1-0 lead. While his fastball never topped 90, pitches flopped and sank and moved the way he wanted them to. They danced the way Arroyo needs them to to be successful.

Everyone knows and Arroyo knows there isn’t that much left in his tank. His current deal expires after 2013, at which point he’ll be approaching 37 years old. This spring he told reporters, “I feel as good as I’m going to feel … if I’m throwing 85-88 consistently this year, then Bronson Arroyo is going to pitch that [way] the rest of his career.”

So long as the ball cooperates and dances and swoons, maybe that will be enough for a Reds team banking the confident veteran right-hander to stabilize a team with young arms, self-doubt and very little room for error.

More Zen: In Search of Quality in Baseball

Continuing the Chatauqua I began a few weeks ago with the examination of the now-rejuvenated Chone Figgins, I’d like to ride along with Phaedrus, the protagonist of Robert Pirsig’s novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The first part of the novel devotes its attention to the seeming schism between the romantic view of life and the scientific, the sensory and the logical world. Though very much a scientific person himself, the narrator continues down the road of scientific absolutism to its inevitable endpoint: an emotionless, insubstantial realm of Platonic forms. Everything becomes categorized and understood, but no longer felt. Everything is a number.

To compare this phenomenon to Moneyball is as unfortunate as it is necessary, and so I’ll be as brief as possible. At the core of its well-worn story, Moneyball hides a contradiction: it is the heartwarming tale of a small-market team that succeeds, in part, due to its dehumanizing corporate ideologies. Devalued are the flawed aesthetic input of the scouts, the human but inefficient loyalties to the washed-up veterans. Billy Beane serves as Aristotle, creating and honing systems of thought, cataloging, categorizing. His ability to do this is beyond reproach. His methods bring success, and are thus modeled and reinvented. Those who reject the process are branded as luddites.

Meanwhile, 2,400 years after Aristotle and 20 before Beane, Phaedrus lives and teaches as a professor at the University of Montana. He’s asked one day whether he is teaching “quality” to his students by a passing administrator. He quickly becomes consumed with the notion of quality, what it means and why it matters. Quality is often misconstrued as beauty, the field of aesthetics, but the idea of studying quality itself in some way its own contradiction: to analyze beauty, even to define it, is in some way to bastardize it. Phaedrus continues this line of thinking and decides that Quality not only should not be defined, it cannot be defined. This leads us dangerously close to the precipice of relativism, where everyone’s concept of beauty is internalized and incomparable, meaningless to anyone but ourselves. But quality, whatever it is, avoids the plunge; we all still recognize it in some fashion. We see it by comparing C.C. Sabathia to Sidney Ponson.

It turns out that we have it somewhat easier than Pirsig, in a way. He’s searching for quality in the messy, expansive world of real life; ours is neatly confined to a small diamond. And we have another advantage: we have a shared goal. We all agree on the rules, for the most part. Certainly, there are a few discrepancies: the catcher blocking the plate, the phantom tag at second, or the whimsy of the official scorer. Ask the romantic baseball fan and the scientific baseball fan alike what the ultimate goal of baseball is, and you get the exact same answer: to win. Only the method changes. For the romantics, you win by playing the “right way”. For the scientists, you win by playing the optimal way.

However, quality is not bound to winning as a direct result. The sharp liner caught by a diving first baseman is of greater quality, we would likely agree, than the weak grounder muffed by the shortstop. The result of the play, however, still meets with dissatisfaction (assuming one is rooting for the batting team). The aestheticians and the statisticians both have methods for accounting for this; the former revels in the beauty of the swing, the latter recalculates the batter’s line drive rate. Both are essentially making the same argument: current results may not be indicative of future results. We must reject our initial inclination and think of the long-term.

And yet the divide continues, and will continue. We still argue over the measure of quality. The fault lies in the sport itself; rather, in winning. Take the winning away from baseball and you’d be left with abstract self-expression; there would no longer be constraints on whether to shade your outfielders toward the corners or steal when up by five. Essentially, what you’d have remaining would be bar-league softball, where there’s a score but everyone is too busy playing to remember it. It’s a game where people are walked to set up the triple play. It’s fun.

Baseball can be fun, even for the players whose livelihoods and legacies depend on it, but it’s not meant to be fun. The game is designed to be won or lost, and won at all costs. Phaedrus would have rejected it as a false dichotomy, no real expression of life at all. After all, there are plenty of franchises that are forced to define themselves in some manner other than victory. Excellence, in this case, is the destruction of style and individuality, the reinforcement of conforming to the right and the optimum. This is, of course, what happens to every person in real life, though the forces and the teams are myriad and subtle.

In Pirsig’s novel, Phaedrus rejected both Aristotle and surface emotions. His idea of quality was bound in neither subject nor object, line drive out or ground ball error. Instead, he divorces himself from both and, at the same time, the rules of the game. Quality, he states, is found in the ancient Greek concept of arête, translated loosely in English as excellence. It encompasses respect for the game, and caring about doing well, but leaves the interpretation of greatness to the individual.

Arête is self-excellence, self-reliance; it is not beholding to the world in obedience, nor trying to enslave it through analysis. It is to be part of that world, as well as to be yourself within it. It is Jose Valverde’s celebrations, David Ortiz’s bat flip, and Stan Musial’s somersault. It’s what keeps us (and, really, baseball itself) in business. And it’s what makes it matter.

Free Baseball Books on the Internet

The setting: it’s spring, and the growl of the lawn mower echoes over the quaint suburban horizon. You’ve finished checking the gutters, the game is on in an hour, and the breeze is decidedly pleasant. You find yourself in need of a glass of lemonade, a shady spot under the cherry tree you climbed a thousand times in your childhood, and a nice book. This post is designed to supply you with one of these things.

Certainly, in this chrome-gilded age you could go to Amazon or ride your Vespa to the local Barnes & Noble to procure your literature, but I present an inexpensive, somewhat circuitous alternative. That choice is Bookmooch, a six year-old book exchange community that allows users to trade books online, free of charge (postage extra). This charming little Ponzi scheme allows each user to upload a list of books that they agree to mail to those who want them, and request the books of others in their place. This is noble! The only trouble is that every book is treated equally in the eyes of Bookmooch, contrary to the wisdom of Dorothy Parker. Thus, six years later, the website is swollen with the decaying remains of Dan Brown novels and dog-eared Louis L’Amour westerns. There was also one Roger Angell anthology, but I already claimed it.

But enough exposition. The purpose of this article is to provide you with a selection of Bookmooch’s current library of baseball literature, for your perusal and (perhaps) procurement. Today, we’ll focus on the young adult genre. Among your choices:

Honus & Me (Dan Gutman): 2 copies available

Amazon Price: $0.01 used, $1.73 new

Tagline: “The first time I touched a baseball card, I felt a strange tingling sensation all over my body.”

As one reviewer puts it: “This is a nice fiction story not as good but up in the ranks with ‘Field of Dreams’”. This is true in the sense that my writing is not as good but up in the ranks with Joe Posnanski. The story: an impoverished boy finds a way to travel through baseball cards into history, meets Honus Wagner, magically ages fifteen years and plays in the 1909 World Series. Probably, he learns a life lesson somehow. A perfect read for fans of baseball history and minor plot holes.

How Spider Saved the Baseball Game (Robert Kraus): 1 copy available

Amazon price: $0.01 used, $10.00 new

There is absolutely no record on the internet of how exactly Spider saved the baseball game, though our best guess is that he came in at the bottom of the ninth up by three. Meanwhile, there’s a lot going on in that picture: beyond using four legs to hold the bat, and sitting in the box, Spider is stunned by the admittedly heavy movement and poor location on that pitch. Even the catcher seems to be fooled.

Tartabull’s Throw (Henry Garfield): 2 copies available

Amazon price: $0.08 used, $16.00 new

I assume that there is a certain subset of the American population who reads a book about baseball and thinks to themselves, “Sure, that was good, but there weren’t nearly enough werewolves in it.” Those who perhaps enjoyed Sparky Lyle’s “Bronx Zoo” but felt it would have been improved if Billy Martin had eviscerated George Steinbrenner with his fangs, and then fell passionately in love with Marilyn Peterson. Reviews on Amazon are generally positive, and to Garfield’s credit, when I scanned cursorily through the book on Amazon, I couldn’t find a laughably bad line to quote.

The Kid Who Only Hit Homers (Matthew Christopher): 1 copy available

Amazon Price: $0.01 used, $4.99 new

Otherwise known as: The Adam Dunn story.

Thoughts on a Pack of Baseball Cards

Every once in a while, Rob Neyer used to write an article in the spring in which he would tear open a pack of the newest series of Topps baseball cards and spend a paragraph writing about each player.  I thought it would be fun to try my hand at this year’s edition.  Here are the twelve cards I came away with:

#1 Ryan Braun
#73 Brandon McCarthy
#83 Bobby Parnell
#87 Craig Kimbrel
#161 Dee Gordon
#224 NL RBI Leaders
     (Kemp, Fielder, Howard)
#230 Justin Morneau
#232 AL Active ERA Leaders
     (Rivera, Santana, Hernandez)
#262 Shaun Marcum
#303 Danny Valencia
Classic Walk-offs #3: Johnny Bench
1987 Topps Mini #50: Curtis Granderson

All in all, not a bad pack of cards.  Of course, I don’t know how much they’re worth; there are no baseball cards shops with store copies of Beckett around, and all eBay tells me is that none of the individual cards are worth the cost of shipping.  But there’s a good collection of young upstarts and star players; I’m not displeased.

As I examined my collection, however, I found myself thinking more about the baseball cards themselves rather than the players on them.  I have no strong feelings, much less insights, about Danny Valencia, who I’m sure is a fine human being and has probably donated more money to charity than I make in a decade.  Nor does the world need my opinions about Ryan Braun.  Instead, I was thoughtful of the experience of opening the pack, the familiar three-step process of peeling back the foil, just as I had when I was a kid.

The 2012 Topps card, itself, is a strange combination of old and new.  It’s easy to complain about the price: the $2.99 for a pack of twelve cards is nearly ten times the cost of a pack way back in 1986.  This is partially because the 1986 edition was ugly as sin: grainy photographs written on cheap cardboard with monochromatic backs.  Few of the cards even attempted action photography; most featured awkward, unsmiling head shots. Even the font that year was offensive.

But despite the glossy finish and foil lettering, the 2012 Topps card feels strangely conservative; the company has been employing the same white background for a decade, with a few exceptions, and the front border design is cheerfully minimalistic.  The back looks the same as any Topps edition of the past twenty years. Their last amendment was the laudable decision to add OPS to their stat line, but this happened nearly ten years ago.  The photographs are crisp and clean, the benefit of twenty-five years of photographic technology; and yet the pitchers all seem to be in the same pose, their arms drawn back in preparation to throw, while the batters are all swinging through, striding toward first.   The players and the cards both seem to be frozen in time.

The insert cards feel particularly pointless; the “mini” 1987 Topps card, with its familiar woodgrain border and bright colors, is attractive, though it reminds me of Fleer’s failed attempts to market a similar miniature set during that same era.  The Bench card, meanwhile, is nothing special; the front contains three cuts of the exact same photograph, and the back provides a contextually vacant two-sentence blurb about a game thirty-nine years in the past.  The biggest appeal of the card is Bench himself; and yet you can get any number of Bench’s later cards online for a dollar.  Why do we need another?

And that was the unhinging question; once I asked it, everything began to unravel.  If we don’t need another Johnny Bench baseball card, why do we need another Justin Morneau?  Or Danny Valencia?  Why do we still need baseball cards at all?

The photography, slick as it is, can be fairly easily replicated through a quick tour of Google Images.  The numbers on the back can be dug up in sixty seconds through FanGraphs.  The flavor text, though better than the filler that populated the cards in my era, could be easily found on Wikipedia or a Rick Reilly article.

In one sense, baseball cards still survive based on an economic bubble that burst nearly twenty years ago.  People buy baseball cards because they think they’re worth something.  The insert sets that killed the hobby still exist, and while some of them are interesting on their own merits (autographed cards and snippets of game-worn jersey), cards like my Johnny Bench are supposed to have value simply because Topps tells me they’re rare.  It’s up to me to assume that supply in this case doesn’t meet demand, but though the company meticulously lists the odds of every single insert in the set, it can’t quantify the number of people who might want to buy that card.  Few people, I think, can seriously look at baseball cards as an investment; even the few remaining store owners survive because of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering.

So why baseball cards in the online era?  One could see a similar argument to the book-owners holding out against the e-readers: the legitimacy of the tactile experience.  This would make more sense if most collectors wrapped their cards in plastic and boxed them away for safekeeping.  (I’ve already dinged a corner of my Bench card while writing this, eliminating what little value it had.)  One could also argue that baseball cards are essentially toys for kids, but this is hurt by the fact that a factory set is nearly the same price as The Show for PlayStation 3.  It’s hard to imagine kids wanting to play around with motionless pictures of baseball players when they can take control of the players themselves on the screen.

A baseball card conveys ownership over the game itself, a foothold in a single moment in time.That gets us to the heart of the matter.  Though they serve a different meaning to each person, to me, a baseball card conveys ownership over the game itself, a foothold in a single moment of time.  The game is as cyclical as the tide; each season washes over the last and pulls some of it away.  The baseball card fixes a certain point, gives us a young Jamie Moyer and a middle-aged Jamie Moyer and every single Moyer in between.  But cards are no longer the only form of ownership over the game.  The proliferation of out-of-market television games and interleague play have brought the faces of formerly unknown players into familiarity.  And beginning with RBI Baseball and continuing on with the excellent current renditions like The Show and Out of the Park, computer baseball games have allowed fans to create their own attachment to players.

But in terms of creating a literal sense of ownership over baseball players, nothing has done more to push baseball cards to the periphery than the growing popularity of fantasy baseball.  This is why Topps’ multiple online ventures into e-cards have never succeeded: they remain a passive and static property.  They’re still an object to be looked at and read, not manipulated and played with.  Fantasy baseball recreates the economics of the baseball card, the trading and the collecting, but assigns a value to that activity, either through the cash of a payout or the reward of a well-managed team.  It’s difficult for baseball cards to create that sense of artisanship.

In the meantime, baseball cards will remain much the same, hanging next to the Yu-Gi-Oh cards at your local Wal-Mart.  Every year or two, I’ll buy a pack, less to relive baseball than to relive the feeling of opening a pack of baseball cards.  I find myself struggling to explain the disconnect, my reverence for the cards of the past and disinterest in the modern. Topps has certainly made valiant attempts to bridge that gap, with Heritage cards and reprints and commemorations. None of them seem to work. Maybe this is all self-delusion, and I’m only driven by the pull-tab mentality that has ruined the hobby. Maybe my new cards will someday build up the nostalgia of the worthless Fleer and Donruss cards languishing in the corner of my garage.  More likely, they’ll be just an echo, an increasingly fleeting connection to youth.