Archive for the 'America' Category

On Snake Oil, Gem Mint Rookie Cards, and Dmitri Young


Jesse Gloyd is approaching regular contributor status at P&P. He’s written about fishing in the LA River, and about Satchel Paige on the site. Check out his podcast Buckshot Boogaloo.

Talk of coming back is always inspiring, but it rarely produces much more than the fleeting spark of its initiation. Baseball players seem to endure more than most. Jose Canseco is perpetually coming back. Jose Canseco exists in a constant state of comebackdom—his is a purgatorial existence. He inhabits a metaphorical space where mildly desperate men barnstorm in the shadow of Waffle Houses and Satchel Paige. Dmitri Young seems to be on the precipice of this space. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that he might, indeed, still be able to play baseball, but it will be a hard sell. The comeback is the snake oil of the modern age. Dmitri Young’s agent has stated that Dmitri Young has put in the work, that he is in shape. His age, thirty-eight, is the great common denominator, but we are told he physically acts and looks like a baseball player again. His ability to look like a baseball player is the shine of the bottle, the twisting graphic of the snake in the desert.

Many years ago my dad and I drove out to Rio Mesa High School to watch Dmitri Young play baseball. He was the best amateur I was ever told I needed to watch. He was the only amateur living in the area I made a point to check out. I remember the gravel of the parking lot and I remember watching him through a chain link backstop. I have this blurry image of Dmitri Young swinging. I don’t remember much, but his career was a career I followed, his was a career with which I connected. He was always engaging. When he initially came up and had success, I felt my investment had paid off. His success was a validation. I found some mild sense of worth in his existence as an entertainer, as an athlete, as a person who could direct a baseball with precision.

Two months ago Dmitri Young walked into the winter meetings with the air of a salesman. His product was his person. He had lost weight. He had become a thing of the past again. He claimed that he would again be beneficial to whoever took a chance on him, but like all beneficial things with expiration dates, people wondered whether his had expired. They still doubt. They doubt for good reason. Dmitri Young is trying to play baseball again. Baseball players have expiration dates. Dmitri Young is thirty-eight. He is very much past his prime. He had a trade and he applied his trade as well as could have been expected. He hit and he entertained. He was an artist. He perfected his craft. Even with everything he went through, everything that got in the way—the mess with the drinking and all the reciprocal fall out; he managed to exist as an artist, as a craftsman with a valuable skill.

You can still buy snake oil. It still exists and people use and it might still have some enlightened properties. Snake oil, like Dmitri Young and the comeback, has been marred by years of a perceived lack of usefulness. In the 1980s neurophysiology researcher Richard Kunin found that Chinese water-snake oil contained eicosapentaenoic acid. Eicosapentaenoic acid is a vital omega-3 fatty acid. The Chinese knew what they were doing. The past performance of snake oil was the thing that made it an agent of future success, even if it never was truly utilized properly. The problem with snake oil, the problem that that shaped our collective perception of its existence as something useless, is the fact that it was often impossible for grifters and frontier doctors to procure Chinese water-snakes. Because of this deficiency, grifters and frontier doctors began using rattlesnake oil as an alternative.

Dmitri Young is buying and selling memories of promise.Rattlesnakes and rattlesnake wranglers, the men who tamed the serpents, became the main attraction at the medicine show. Rattlesnakes moved units. The rattlesnake and the rattlesnake wrangler’s ability to tame became the exciting products in themselves. The excitement surrounding the rattlesnake wrangler’s dance with death mesmerized. The excitement helped make rattlesnake oil a valuable commodity. Over time though, the true nature of the oil was revealed. Though abundant, extracting the oil from an actual rattlesnake was a messy bit of business. Grifters and frontier doctors began abandoning the actual oil altogether—pushing bottles of ineffective liquid, often oil and water spiked with red pepper and wintergreen. The masses grew skeptical. Articles were written and investigations were launched. Eventually, the bottles were confiscated and the manufacturers rendered obsolete. Snake oil became snake oil even if in its true state snake oil wasn’t necessarily snake oil.

When he is not making comebacks, when he is not marketing himself as a shadow of a thing he used to be, Dmitri Young can be found selling his near perfect baseball card collection on the world wide web and at card shows across the country. His baseball card collection is comprised of a myriad of Gem Mint 10 graded rookie cards. I went to the auction site where his cards will be on sale in the coming months and poked around a bit. Dmitri Young’s baseball card collection is a good collection. It’s a staggering, enviable collection. The collection looks as if it was an investment, an indulgence. The collection is a tip of the cap to a time and a place. It is a tip of the cap to the beginning of things.

Snake oil too, in all of its forms, is a tip of the cap to the beginning of things. We accept snake oil in all of its different forms because it reminds us of the promise of youth, the promise of rebirth. The problem at the heart of the Dmitri Young’s obsession with perfect rookie card is that it points, whether conscious or not, to the inherent fear that seems to live in the soul of the athlete. The athlete is an artist whose art is rooted in physique and time. Dmitri Young is buying and selling memories of promise. His card collection is a reflection of an unattainable desire. The collection is a cardboard homage to birth, to rebirth. The cards and their quantifiable perfection exude innocence. The cards reflect the nature of youth in all of its simple, beautiful glory. There is an element of memory rooted in their existence. The youthfulness is analogous to the stereotype of the young band that hears their song for the first time on the radio in the car. They are all the same: Brian Wilson with the top down, unable to grow a beard, Ron Cey sans mustache framed next to Mike Schmidt sans mustache.

Dmitri Young worked out for the Pittsburgh Pirates last week. He looked good. He was able to play and create something from nothing. Clint Hurdle said good things. Dmitri was optimistic. His road has been hard, but his journey isn’t new. It seems quite obvious he believes his peace is found on the field. He was never perfect, he was never the best, but he was real. His craft never had to be propped up with red pepper and wintergreen. It was a thing of beauty, championed by many because it was real and beneficial, perfect and good, like the corner of a Gem Mint 1969 Topps Reggie Jackson and the healing oil of a Chinese water snake.

The Final Game of the Season

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

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

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

A River Slums Through It by Jesse Gloyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Recollection of Victory

The generation of kids who are now college-aged came up in the middle of a losing streak. America lost to Osama bin Laden on September 11, 2001, and continued to lose as it bowed under the pressures of war and fear. The losing streak was what they knew, and it has formed their world view. They don’t have the relative comfort that even I do, at age 30, that comes with the ability to draw from the long memory of a pre-terror United States. The generation’s default stance is, therefore, one of defensiveness and fear, symbolically calcified in opposition to an evasive mastermind who posed an indeterminate danger.

In the same way that a World Series win for an historic loser represents, with a single swipe, the quick end to long suffering, this generation of kids places a significance on the capture or killing of bin Laden that trumps the nuance of foreign affairs, or the cynicism of older folks who have seen enemies and crises come and go. That much became clear with the news footage of their celebrations, even if it has been overlooked by someone like me.

And it was with some cynicism that I tried to detect traces of irony among the kids celebrating in front of the White House after President Obama announced the successful secret ops mission in Pakistan. There was one guy dressed up as Hulk Hogan who threatened the sincerity of the crowd, but after watching for some time, I decided that the ebullience of those who had gathered was authentic. It was a young sort of excitement, from people who haven’t known anything different. They know little outside of this world that we live in now, and their celebration reflects their reality.

Part of their world now is the absence of certainty. American wars are questionable and indeterminate, leaders are fallible, morality is clouded. President Obama’s announcement, in light of the last decade’s fog, offered certainty. I have never heard anyone say, “You know, we may be treating bin Laden a bit harshly.” He is the unquestioned villain of our age, and his death is a benefit to mankind. Victory is unquestioned, and these kids are not sitting around to question it, but taking to the streets to celebrate a victory in a way that they’ve rarely been afforded.

What light can sport shed on such crucial international developments? In sport, and in baseball, winning washes away failure. Eight innings of shit gives way to one inning of excellence. Communities need such short memories to survive and prosper, the way a closer’s work requires that his memory extend no further back than his breakfast. Our brains can only hold so much poison before they perish, and it needs tricks to staunch the flow. While the world boils, we allow ourselves the luxury of a short memory, and we call it baseball.

Home Run Derby Live Blog Thing!

Welcome to the Home Run Derby Live Blog Thing!

How to Choose Between Slovakia and Cameroon

A rare interlude in which I try to write about  soccer’s version of the World Baseball Classic:

A great deal has been written about what the international game of football – soccer — can tell us about global politics, human nature, and the deepest darkest corners of our very souls. However, I am concerned that not enough of the opposite has been written. How can global politics, human nature, and most importantly, our own irrational prejudices, affect the way we watch the World Cup? To this end, I have attempted to devise a tiered system that explains how a person’s – namely me—rooting interests in this great tournament come about. What follows are the results of my noble experiment:

  1. The Home Country Goes First
    1. In the grand, jingoistic, tradition of international sporting tournaments, this goes without saying.
  2. Space for the Random Affections
    1. Each of us has personal connections to countries besides our own. There are only 32 countries in the World Cup, so there most people shouldn’t have more than 2 or 3 of these.
    2. For me, these are Mexico (I was born and raised in Los Angeles, which is practically Mexico), and Spain (I studied abroad there and made great friends.
  3. Initial Regional Bias
    1. Different people are drawn to different parts of the world – perhaps because of family history, travel experience, musical or other cultural interest, or just sheer randomness.
    2. I personally apply a Monroe Doctrine approach to my Initial Regional Bias: Central and South American teams are preferable to other parts of the world, especially Europe.
    3. Besides the aforementioned US and Mexico, there are 6 teams left from the Americas. How do I rank them? By a micro version of the categories I will lay out below.
  4. Underdogs and Storylines
    1. As sports fans, we are all caught up in the images of unexpected heroism, of nostalgia, of “transcendent” moments. Basically, we seek magic. This category appeals to that very soft underbelly of the heart.
      1. i.     As such, we are inclined to support the host nation (barring any massive or recent socio-political sins they’ve committed), especially if they are not a traditional powerhouse.
        1. As an extension of that, this year, we support all African countries due to the warm-and-fuzziness of the fact that this is the first World Cup to be hosted on African soil, and that an African country has never won a World Cup before.
  5. Political Sympathy Effect

    My rankings

    1. International competition does not occur in a vacuum, or removed from politics and other global happenings. As much as some columnist and commentators wish that sporting events were “above” regular human events, they are not. Hence this category.
    2. We are naturally inclined to sympathize for countries where political turmoil or natural disaster has caused a great deal of pain to the general populace. Teams from these countries take on an identity similar to this past year’s New Orleans Saints – we find ourselves cheering purely out of sympathy, out of the strange notion that they deserve some kind of reward for their troubles.
    3. This category very frequently overlaps with the Underdogs and Storylines category – in fact, the two are inextricably linked. Many of the best international soccer storylines stem directly from the events of global politics.
    4. For me, Greece falls into this category because I believe its good citizens have been excessively derided by larger European cohorts (namely you, France and Germany).
  6. The Bleh Countries
    1. Some countries you just don’t care about. Like Switzerland.
  7. Application of Disdain
    1. One has every right to hate certain nations or teams – hatred being an undeniable force in the human experience.  These hatreds can be based on history, athletic events, or really anything else. There need be no logic.
    2. For example, an Irishman watching this year’s World Cup would have two immediately logical places to apply disdain: England and France. England for its centuries of oppression and abuse, and France for the appalling hand of Satan goal that destroyed Ireland’s chances at qualification and went un-mended by FIFA.
    3. I, however, don’t hate France or England. This totally coincidentally Jewish writer applies his disdain toward Germany (because I don’t like Angela Merkl’s economic policy, obviously), and North Korea because I feel like their success would vindicate an awful regime.

So there are the 7 tiers. It is an imperfect system no doubt, but in the end I think it does a fair job of explains my gut instincts, subtle biases, and irrational preferences. It does indeed turn out that my rooting interests in the World Cup are a pretty spot-on reflection of my broader world view. No surprise for somebody who is more into foreign policy than he is global football.

So I challenge you: think about why you are cheering and booing the way you are this World Cup. What is the logic to it? How do your mind, your guts, your very soul, sort these 32 nations?

Podcast 15: A Snapshot of America

In episode 15, we give ample time to this month’s most important international athletic event: Major League All-Star voting. We break it down position by position, from Evan Longoria to Placido Polanco and we discover that the current NL outfield of Ryan Braun, Jason Heyward and Andre Ethier is indeed a perfect snapshot of America. Speaking of America, the iconic Astrodome’s future is in limbo, and who better than Hakeem Olajuwon to decide its fate? More questions: When is it okay to give up on a season? When will Denzel get his E.G.O.T.? And who still cares about interleague play?

 
Right-click here to download.

Stephen Strasburg Live

Chief Washington D.C. Correspondent  Helen Thomas Brad Matheson was lucky enough to see the next Savior of Baseball, Stephen Strasburg pitch last night. Here are some of his observations:

Whether you paid $500 on StubHub or $5 as a game-day walk-up (like I did); whether you were practically on the field or your vantage point was on par with the tourists on top of the Washington Monument (like mine was), Stephen Strasburg gave you your money’s worth in DC on Tuesday. Few games I have attended defied the conventions of baseball fandom — sitting while your team is at bat and getting your beer/hot dog while they are in the field — like Tuesday’s K-Fest.

Once you look past the loud boos that greeted thethe two balls Strasburg threw to start the game, Nats fans were better than I have ever seen them. They were on their feet before every strike three, turning to the pitch speed monitor expectantly until it finally flashed triple digits. Strasburg won the game with run support by Washington’s fan favorites Zimmerman, Dunn, and Willingham (nicknamed “The Hammer,” who knew?).

Even when Strasburg wavered in the 4th, the Nats organization was ready to step up with entertaining stadium hijinks. The Presidential Mascot Race featured appearances from a Pittsburgh Pierogi AND some Sausages — an assembly of characters that would normally top the Nationals’ monthly if not annual highlight reel. And Adam Dunn got in on it merely by coming to the plate to his ridiculous at-bat music: Phil Collins  –“In the Air Tonight.” Enough said.

Here’s a disclaimer for anyone who thinks they wants to see Strasburg pitch: if you cherish your excitement for watching a pitcher who throw a 92-93 mph fastball with a respectable 15+ mph drop-off to their off-speed, stay as far away from Strasburg as possible. The 99-81 differential made the opposing pitcher look just as silly as the batters who were bailing out on Strasburg’s curve.

For a team who’s top three single-game attendance records are probably held by back-to-back-to-back games hosting the Red Sox, Tuesday’s Strasburg-mania should go down as the greatest night in the Washington Nationals’ short history. I guess I’ll save my ticket.

Evan Longoria is the New Joe Mauer

Evan Longoria probably just fungoed a ball to some desirous fans in the third deck.

I was lucky to sit behind home plate at last night’s Rays-Mariners game in Seattle. It was freezing. And aside from the cringing and  the averting my eyes with each successive backwards K for Milton Bradley and sad, flailing swing by Ken Griffey Jr, my evening of baseball was perfectly pleasant. This despite the fact that nobody attends Safeco Field on weeknights, and despite the fact that the Mariners committed 4 errors (2 in the first inning, when Ichiro also got picked off first base).

The reason I was lucky to sit behind home plate at last night’s game was that it offered me my first chance to watch Evan Longoria in person. I watched him play catch along the edge of the dugout with some unnamed Ray. I watched him step into the batter’s box with the same off-handedness one might step to the cashier at a grocery store, or the teller at a bank. He doesn’t have a stance, per se. He just rocks gently –never achieving any kind of stillness– and times the explosion of his swing with languid perfection. I don’t think Safeco has seen a prettier right-handed home run swing since the last days of Edgar Martinez.

Aside from the homer, Longoria walked and singled twice.  Maybe it was the crowd of 700’s fault, but his was the quietest 3-4 Hr, BB night I can remember.  It was not a quiet night for the two Rays fans — a couple, both in their mid-20s — seated about ten rows below us, so about ten rows from the field. They wore matching Longoria #3 tee-shirts. Before the game began, when Longoria was done playing catch with his nameless distant partner, he turned toward our section. The guy in the Longoria shirt stood up. Longoria threw a ball toward him — and missed (okay, so he’s not entirely Joe Mauer). Then he disappeared briefly into the Rays dugout.

Moments later, Longoria reappeared with a new baseball in hand. He stood there on the edge of the field, and stared up at the Rays fans in our section. It took a solid 2 minutes before the surrounding Safeco fans awoke the attention of theRays  fan who stood up, probably grinning. Judging from Longoria’s own grin and nod, the two made some kind of eye contact. And with admirable calm, the fan received this second baseball from his shirt-sake, yelled his thanks, and stared at it with wonder.

Then, of course, came the home run — a line drive shot into left center — and the singles and the walk. America, welcome to Evan Longoria.

America and Baseball in Afghanistan

Matt Yglesias recently compared Afghanistan to an ESPN Zone:

A better analogy might be that it’s the ESPN Zone of empires, someplace where from time to time a lot of people feel tempted to go, but when you get there it turns out to be not so great. But it’s surprisingly expensive to stay! Having gone out of your way to get there in the first place, you’re perhaps initially reluctant to just admit that it’s not worthwhile. But you can’t stay forever.

But doesn’t the war effort also remind you of any number of struggling baseball franchises that dump millions and millions into free agents, but are really just piling misguided resources onto a fundamentally flawed foundation that will surely collapse at any moment, leaving the whole venture futile? Kevin Malone? Bill Bavasi? Obama? Biden? Anyone?

One of the very first posts I wrote here prescribed a healthy mid-market approach to managing the economic collapse. Basically I said we can learn a lot from Mark Shapiro and the Cleveland Indians. This was back in March before the season really got going, and before the blog had really found its voice. This time, I don’t have answers.

I don’t have a prescription for our problems in Afghanistan. It sounds trite to even say we can’t just Moneyball our way out of a major foreign policy debacle. So instead of using baseball as a way to make a political point or explain an inexplicable war, I’ll use the war and baseball to do some thinking on American identity and policy. This stuff’s been on my mind lately.

A friend of mine is an Arabic linguist in the Army National Guard. He spent a year in Afghanistan (where the first language is not Arabic but Pashto), and brought up an interesting point about the conflict: the very presence of American troops on the ground there polarizes the country in altogether new ways. Afghans that live near bases tend to Americanize; eight year old kids who were born after the invasion are fluent in English. Afghans that don’t live near bases tend to have grown less and less appreciative of our current foreign policy

Mostly, Afghans want to be left alone. Those who live outside the red white and blue halo of our military outposts know America by its machine gun fire and bomb flashes and the destruction left in the wake of slow-moving, bulky metallic vehicles. Justifiably, these Afghans don’t like this America and they don’t like this America trampling on their culture, trying to instill its own values where they aren’t particularly wanted.

This creates a divide among the people of Afghanistan. An even stronger American presence over there will invariably lead to a rapid Westernization for parts of the country. This is simply what happens when ideas and people rub against each other for long periods of time. As some parts of Afghanistan Westernize and other parts push back against this process, and against American occupation, the country’s fractured sense of national unity will only find itself in even greater peril. The fault lines will be tested and the strains will be exacerbated.

There is a very real possibility that we stay in Afghanistan for ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred more years. As the Obama Administration’s Afghan surge begins to materialize, it’s looking less and less likely that we go the George F. Will route and just cut our losses (Billy Beane! Fire Sale!). America, it seems, will try with all its might to halt the gravitational momentum of history and create a unified and democratic Afghanistan. In this context, I think it’s fair to start talking about baseball over there.

It was inevitable that Afghan children would play baseball. The game is too symbolic, too ripe for media affection, too damn American to not share. In 2002, the Christian Science Monitor wrote what is, to this day, the definitive Afghanistan Baseball Puff Piece:

“Baseball is here to show them the American way, to show them that we’re not here for any other reason than to help out,” says Sgt. Jay Smith, of the US special forces. “We’re not against [Afghans], we’re not against Islam. We can be here together, Afghans and Americans.”

In what is perhaps a historical first, certainly since the fall of the anti-American Taliban regime, children are playing organized baseball in Afghanistan, to the tune of “Take me Out to the Ballgame,” which blares from speakers on a beige psychological-operations Humvee.

In the seven years since that story was published, Afghan Baseball has not quite taken off. But what if we’re talking another seven or fourteen years? Children are products of their surroundings. If their surroundings are US military bases, then Afghan children will grow up comfortable with not just the English language and the presence of heavy artillery, but the best and worst of American culture. This means McDonald’s and Angelina Jolie and it also means baseball.

There is a precedent: Little League has been played by the children of expats in Saudi Arabia since 1954. As more troops and private contractors pour into Afghanistan, the creation of a real official Little League is more than possible. Their parents would not understand, but Afghan kids growing up in the shadows of military bases would know Hanley Ramirez, Joe Mauer, and Tim Lincecum. They would know double plays and the infield fly rule. Afghanistan would face off against Little Rock in Williamsport on ABC. Is it really that far-fetched?

The better question is whether or not this is a good thing. Baseball is not just any other sport in the American identity. Its merits as a game are secondary in importance to its status as cultural touchstone. We as Americans take great pride in the fact that baseball has taken off in East Asia and Latin America. We don’t care who wins the World Baseball Classic, because its very existence is strokes our ego. We tend to think that those who embrace our national pastime are embracing the nation itself – its values, its history, its citizenry.

Baseball in Afghanistan would be more than just a foreign country starting to play a new sport, but how so? It would probably be seen as a victory. Pundits would hail the dawn of baseball as the dawn of a new era in Afghanistan – the proof of a successful foreign policy, the justification of our actions post 9/11. But let’s not be foolish. Even in the confines of this thought exercise, it would be silly to claim that every country who has embraced baseball has embraced American democracy. Japan was baseball-crazed long before it attacked Pearl Harbor. Cuba is still quite baseball crazed.

Baseball in Afghanistan could be looked at as bizarre manifestation of everything that has happened between our two countries since September 11, 2001. It would encapsulate all the rights and all the wrongs of an extended war. It would be the export of something truly American, as American as things get. But it would be the fossil of a failure. It would be completely, entirely inconsequential.

Can’t you hear Glenn Beck now? “Those Afghans couldn’t handle democracy. But at least we gave ‘em baseball didn’t we?”