Archive for the 'Baseball the Teacher' Category

Finding Jered: Angertainment and the Reluctant Appreciation of an Ace

My wife really eats up Sarah Palin news. She could watch YouTube videos of the absentee Alaskan all day long. Angertainment, she calls it: the practice of watching something because you can’t stand the subject, and bashing them gives you a rush. I watch the Glenn Beck show on occasion, just to see what he’s up to, and to rant and rave with my critiques of his approach, developing counter arguments to share with the dog on our next walk.

Healthy or not, figures like Palin highlight the basic human tendency to create nemeses. Developing an enemy, even an enemy who will never hear the cries of disdain you lob at the television, is a way to locate yourself in relation to others, and to establish your own values in a world of subcategories and splinter groups. Angertainment is a private act that feels public, and while the hot-button political commentators will always play some role, in other arenas it isn’t always possible to predict when and where an entertainemy will emerge.

Enter Jered Weaver. He bugs me. Not in a political way, or a social way. He doesn’t make me feel like the fabric of the game is degrading 1. I just don’t like the looks of him. His California snarl, the styled medium long hair that sweeps up in the back like a ski jump, the defiant angular tilt of his shoulders. He looks like kid in high school who held the parties. I didn’t get invited to the parties, and I wouldn’t have known what to do there if I had been. Jered’s older brother, Jeff, threw out a similar vibe, like he was the one buying the beer. Together, the Weaver brothers create a douchebag dynasty effect, and I can’t help but envision them standing back shoulder to back shoulder, crossed arms, blocking the door out of the locker room just long enough for a towel whip.

Jered Weaver is my angertainment.

The Angels pitcher is clearly–to paraphrase Werner Herzog’s recent line during a guest spot on The Simpsons–a mirror to the soul. I don’t know a thing about his character, or his personality, or the way that he behaved in high school. I’ve never read his side of an interview or followed his career any further than highlights on the teevee. And yet I’ve created a narrative for him in my head, and I’ve imagined a world that we both occupy in which I’ve interacted with him. I’ve predicted the results of the interaction (see above re: whip, towel). Based on a patch of disgusting chin hair, a hairstyle, an intangible comportment I have decided is arrogant, I’ve spun a web of un-reality to match whatever anxieties I harbor about turning 30, about the West Coast, about tall, skinny blonde people, about the act of watching baseball. This angertainment is on me.

Celebrity culture wields such power because of most folks’ tendency to script these narratives, with public personae as the players. It’s a largely automatic response to the stimulus placed before us, manipulating the natural human tendency to form groups and talk shit about other groups. The average gossip blog reader would have an easier time discussing which celebrities they dislike than those that they enjoy. Goats abound these days, while heroes run thin, telling us something about an American need for enemies that probably, if we’re honest, says more about a desperate desire for friends.

Baseball does a lot of the work for us by divvying up allegiances from the start, and much of the inherent entertainment derives from the symmetrical alignment of opposing forces. And, when it comes to angertainment, athletes do differ from general entertainment types and politicians, in that athletes don’t necessarily desire attention as much as they desire excellence, and what they do for a living just so happens to take place in a public sphere. Entertainers and public figures with no trade other than attention, on the other hand, derive their satisfaction and their value from the presence of an audience, and the currency they thrive on is the reaction itself, rather than the transposed currency to look to like wins or hits.

Which means that Jered Weaver isn’t pitching for me. A polarizing politician or talk radio host gains drawing power when someone like my wife tunes in to hear them say something incendiary, because their fan base enjoys it when others frown on their views, enabling them to entrench further, and that in turn strengthens the fan base in today’s new media cycle of violent love and violent hate. Weaver, though, gains little from my distaste. His main goal is to win for Angels fans, not to create a firestorm of opposition that fuels his prominence. The spotlight is his for the taking if he pitches well. Any other attention is fat to be trimmed. If he is really good, he’ll achieve his goal. He doesn’t need hostility–and the attention that comes with it–to heighten his success.

What gets stuck in my craw about Jered Weaver’s physical presentation is the sense of entitlement it exudes. I’m like anybody in that I naturally resent those to whom success seems to come easily. The conceit of Weaver as imagined high school classmate suggests that he is the kid who was a head taller than everyone else, who probably threw harder than everyone else, and who enjoyed a mastery of his pitches that most of his teammates and opponents were unable to touch with a ten foot pole.

The truth, however, is that success doesn’t come easily to very many people, especially in the major leagues, which has laid low many young talents. There is no reason for me to believe that Jered Weaver hasn’t earned his place. In fact, when I had the chance to watch the pitcher work against the Seattle Mariners the other night, I gained insight into his style that directly undermines my irrationally negative attitude toward him.

First of all, in direct contradiction to his presence on the mound, Weaver isn’t a power pitcher. He’s tall, with long arms and legs, and a long wind-up, and when you mix in his sneer and his hair and whatnot, you have painted the picture of a fireballer who, given his frame, you’d think was wild, and that he got by on strength rather than finesse.

But eaver doesn’t throw all that hard. His fastball lives in the high 80s, dabbling in the low 90s. The fastball you might figure would resemble that of another lanky hurler, A.J. Burnett, with a foot of uncontrollable movement, actually travels as true and straight as an arrow, with the precise accuracy of an Olympian. Weaver hits the mitt on par with some of the best, and he’s only walked 26 through 109 innings this year. Before I sat down to watch him against the Mariners, I didn’t think, “Here pitches Jered Weaver the control artist with an elite level of touch on the mound.” I thought, “Jered Weaver. He looks like a dick.”

And I had no idea he had such a good change-up.

Weaver’s change-up is the foundation of his pitching style. He started off a surprising number of batters with the change piece, showing great confidence in it and confounding hitters who may have liked to start with the fastball and work their way down to the slow stuff. This strategy impressed me. It is an odd gambit to start with a change-up. The reliance on its inherent deception, rather than its relationship to other pitches, shows the kind of confidence in it more often displayed by pitchers like Maddux and Moyer. You could even call the change-first approach quirky 2. Before I watched him pitch, I didn’t think I’d ever refer to Jered Weaver as quirky. But there it is, an idiosyncratic tendency that chips away at the preconception I have about him. His inner Zooey Deschanel beats out his outer Lindsay Lohan this round of their best of 9 arm-wrestling match.

The final nail in the coffin of my disregard for Weaver is the fact that he has improved every year starting when he came on like a bullet in 2006. The prominent change-up, the tight fastball, the unfurling motion like a masted ship setting sail, to say nothing of a very good curveball that promises the strike zone before ducking away, these are the products of an artisan, not a jock. From 2007 to 2009 his FIP was in the 4 range, then in 2010 it dropped to 3, and now it’s around 2.5. His strikeout rate has inched upward, and his walk rates downward. A few paragraphs ago, I said that things seemed to come easily to Jered Weaver. Discounting a bang-em-up first season, they didn’t. He has improved, year over year, the way that the analysts draw it up, and he has slowly evolved into the ace that he is now. Such metered improvement can only suggest hard work, and a major league learning curve.

I was way off. He didn’t shut the Mariners out with a complete performance by riding arrogance, but by utilizing a collection of mature, insightful pitches and articulate control.3 The message is in the medium. Message received.

Baseball rewards attention, and that’s all you could ever ask for. I had my preconceptions about Weaver, but when I took the time to evaluate what he does out there, and to take a look at his past performance through the numbers4, I was able to fill in an incomplete baseball portrait. He still carries the swagger and the sneer, and while the details of his personal life are still–thankfully–none of my business, his portrait is now framed by a broader, brighter landscape and lit with a more sophisticated palette.

Celebrity and political media cultures intentionally deprive their viewers of such perspective. Short-sighted, reactionary spite and fear are the fuel that feeds the business. Reasoned consideration doesn’t drive traffic, and the camera’s fast-pan to the next circus freak triggers addictive little squirts of dopamine in our social brains, driving us to seek more and more. More angertainment, a longer role call of entertainemies.

Many complain that baseball is a slow game, like that was a terrible thing. For my money, it’s the rare entertainment that allows a moment to contemplate the players in the drama, to consider the products of our own creation and the effects that they have on us. On the night that Jered Weaver pitched against my current home team, I used the time the bit of fresh air that came in between the cracks of the baseball artifice to consider Mr. Weaver, and to consider myself. I took a look in the mirror, and something new looked back at me.

  1. mostly because there is no “fabric” just like there is no perfect America that existed between 1946 and 1959 that we must return to or else
  2. The term “quirky” is a great way to compliment somebody and put them down at the same time. Quirky may be the most condescending word in english. Didn’t think you were getting of that easy, didja Weaver?!?
  3. Well, I suppose it may have had at least something to do with the Mariners offense….
  4. For whatever drawbacks the statistical revolution in baseball has, its greatest benefit is its contribution to the art of rational, if obsessive, appreciation.

Nied’s Chain by Tom Ley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chasin’ Castro

catcher jason castro injures knee

I haven’t written about it in a while, but I’m an Astros fan. Please, hold your applause until the end.

As a team, the Astros are in the awkward tween stage right now, lurking around the punch bowl at the edge of the MLB dance floor after the jettison of two of their long-time icons, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt.

The core of young Astros (if a blob of Jello like this team can be said to have a core), includes third baseman Chris Johnson, first baseman Brett Wallace, and catcher Jason Castro, none of whom are highly anticipated prospects anymore, and they are the likes of which only an Astros fan could invest much effort in watching develop.

That said, an Astros fan could, a few days ago, muster some excitement about this campaign. This would have been the first year when the three youngsters from Ed Wade’s rebuilding process were to be chucked onto the field from day one to prove it in practice over theory.

And then Jason Castro blew out his knee, and will likely miss the year.

The only solace of Astros fans this year–with the playoffs so unlikely and barring a miracle–will be to watch to see if some big leaguers emerge from the pool of wannabes. When Castro’s knee gave out, 33 percent of that potential pleasure pool spiraled down the drain.

As quick as I could read the news that morning, Astros Spring Training transformed from a place of youthful optimism to a purgatory of scrap heap catching talent and aging retreads.

Watching a team like the Astros, you spend more time hoping against disaster than celebrating success. Much of the pleasure of young players comes from learning that they can hold their own, and that they are as good as you hoped they would be. Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles, the most likely to fill Castro’s new shoes, have failed numerous times to pull that sword out of the stone. Castro’s turn had come, and now it’s another year of waiting.

I shouldn’t be so pessimistic, even if, when it comes to the Astros, the rest of baseball is. Nobody knows where the next surprise will come from. Anyone can make an educated guess, but there were 15 teams that overlooked Lance Berkman in the first round of the 1997 draft (Pick #15? Jason Dellaero), and 22 rounds passed before Roy Oswalt was drafted in the same year. Pessimism didn’t foresee Jose Bautista’s explosion last year, and who knows what 2011 may hold.

Instead of moping, I should just wait around and hope for some kind of Texas miracle, like an oil geyser spouting up from beneath the flagpole in center field, or Nolan Ryan coming out of retirement.

There’s one lesson in spring: cliches are easily busted, just as quickly as a ligament snaps. Or maybe cliches aren’t busted, maybe one simply gives way to another. The youngster trying to make his mark on the game quickly becomes the promising young player whose chance to make his mark is cut short by a chance injury. If the fragmentation of cliches is infinite, do cliches exist at all?

The Surest Prop of Their Power: Ancient Egyptians and the Power of Sabermetrics

In doing some research on goodness knows what, I came across a few paragraphs by the scholar of ancient literature Edith Hamilton, in her book The Greek Way. Hamilton loves the Greeks, and has not much fondness for the Egyptian approach to intellectual freedom, or the lack thereof.

She describes the class of priests, for whom knowledge and discovery were only a means to strengthen their hold on their power over the common person. “Great men must have built up that mighty organization,” she wrote, “but what they learned of old truth and what they discovered of new truth was valued as it increased the prestige of the organization.”

She goes on to describe how, in maintaining their power, the priesthood had to closely guard its knowledge and keep it from getting to the outside. “To teach the people so that they would begin to think for themselves, would be to destroy the surest prop of their power.” Ignorance breeds fear, she says, and, according to Edith, “in the dark mystery of the unknown a man cannot find his way alone.” Who is available to guide him, but, oh hey look, a priest!

“The power of the priest depended upon the darkness of the mystery.”

Now granted, these are issues that humankind has struggled with for millennia: freedom of speech, the spread of knowledge, etc. But it’s always nice to stumble across a reminder that the days we live in now are monumental. Information is everywhere, and the means and tools to achieve and disseminate insight feel infinite.

Hamilton’s words caused me to take pause for a moment or two and acknowledge the remarkable work of the sabermetricians around the world who labor towards deeper insight for no other reason than to advance the level of discourse for everybody. They don’t do it for profit or for private power, but for the power of the community, as specific as it may be.

The sense of expectation that comes off as arrogance is not, I don’t think, arrogance, but a demand for a higher level of discourse, and a battle against ignorance. That’s a far cry from the Egyptian priests and their covetous protection of knowledge and insight.

And you’ve got to hand it to the courts, too, for opening up sports statistics to the wide world and the world of profit, enabling outfits like Stats Inc. to flourish, and for powerhouse analysis machines like Fangraphs to spread crazy quantities of knowledge to baseball fans and other analysts.

So let’s take a day and declare amnesty for the feisty sabermatrician. On this day, we’ll forgive the acerbic commentary on unenlightened fans, we’ll assume that every sabermatrician has the good of the sport in mind, and that he or she doesn’t live in anybody’s basement.

Sabermatricians, you are keeping us all free from baseball ignorance, lighting the dark and mysterious hallways of the mind and granting power to the people.*

*This refers, of course, to the period before they sign on with a front office and put their once-democratic insights on lockdown.

Getting off the Schneid

One of my day jobs involves blogging for a Jewish themed website called Jew-ish.com. In that capacity, I wrote a post today inspired by Roger Angell about Getting off the Schneid.

The crux:

The Rangers’ victory, Angell wrote, “took them off the schneid.” I’ve never understood this phrase. I like it. As a child, I liked hearing (Jewish) sportscaster Chris Berman draw it out like schneeeeiiiid on ESPN. And soon, I figured out its meaning by context. But I never knew where it came from. To a non-sports fan, to somebody who did not as a child watch hours upon hours SportsCenter, what the hell could a schneid possibly be? And how would one get off a schneid?

The term, it turns out, like many of our great expressions, has Yiddish roots. It came to baseball by way of gin rummy, a card game once popular amongst my grandparents.  In Yiddish a “schneider” is a tailor. And in gin rummy slang, to be eliminated from a game is to “schneidered”—as in cut out from contention, the way a tailor cuts cloth.

Hence “the schneid” in baseball as a losing or winless streak. No word on which early 20th century sportswriter or p.r. man first used the term in the baseball sense, but our crack research staff is on it.

The Strange Grace of Players Trading Places

image via Flickr user abbygdawson (click-through)

You would be hard-pressed to find another franchise that’s had a two-day period the likes of the Astros recent whirlwind. Not only in terms of volume of activity, but when you consider that the Astros traded away the two players who have defined the team for the last decade. Two pillars, gone, in two days.

As I mention occasionally, deep down I’m an Astros fan (despite a recent diversion to the Mariners). I grew up on them, cut my teeth in the Astrodome, etc. Lance Berkman has been one of my favorites since he played at Rice University in Houston. He’s charming and self-deprecating (“I think any great performer or athlete has to have a little bit of a gut to be great.” – from an interview with Dan Patrick). He has a sweet swing. In short, he’s a great franchise player, who is both likable and awesome.

Oswalt isn’t as likable, but his manner of pitching makes up for that. He’s always had a somewhat distinct style, with his hard, straight fastball, excellent command and a loopy curveball. His stern-faced business-like manner was the counterweight to Berkman’s more jovial nature.

Other Astros came and went–great players and nobodies–but there was always the feeling that Berkman and Roy-O would be around. They were the main planetary bodies and the rest of the team orbited around them. They were drafted by the Astros and came up with the Astros, signing large contracts when they didn’t need to. If timelessness and aesthetic consistency is your baseball jam, then these two were Hall of Famers.

They’re gone now. Both of them. In days. Even from my displaced POV, this is a shock. Like if your parents sold off your childhood home and moved to a condo without telling you. Reasonable, yes, and probably necessary. But strange and disconcerting nonetheless.

The sense that there’s nowhere left to go home to. But that’s growing up for you, and growing older, and the most any of us can do is make a home with what we have, right where we’re at.

Today, I’ve got my Berkman t-shirt on. It’s clean, and fits me well. And I look forward to see him wear Yankee pinstripes, odd as that may be to say. Great players should play on big stages, and though he’s past his greatest days, his swing is still pretty and he does well what the Yankees like in their players: getting on base and playing well calmly. Same, too, for Roy Oswalt, though he’ll be in the same league. He’ll show some new fans what he does well, and that’s something.

There is pleasure to be had in seeing something well-known and beloved in a different setting. You can’t stand still, after all. You’ve got to move forward.

Jump to: it’s a couple of days since I wrote the above. I’ve watched Berkman play in two games. In the first, he went oh-fer. Today, he had a ringing single. In a reverse of roles, I was as glad as a parent to see him get his first Yankee hit. Watching Lance make his way in the big wide world, out of the comfort zone of Houston. When others bestowed praise on him, I accepted it personally.

The brain adjusts quickly to change, even if previously the prospect seemed unbearable. My brain’s new challenge is to accept the Lance Berkman of the Yankees, and the Roy Oswalt of the Phillies, and to get on with it, taking pleasure where I may as the Astros (slowly) nurture new heroes. After all, Chris Johnson‘s having a pretty good month….

Sailing to Byzantium

The author of this post is Paul Franz. Ted and I invited Paul to contribute to Pitchers and Poets with the idea that he would bring a new perspective. Already, he has wowed us by writing an insightful essay built around a poem by W.B. Yeats.  Please welcome Mr. Franz to PnP with open arms. For more of his work check out Nicht Diese Töne. –Eric

There comes a moment in the career of a topflight ballplayer when he is no longer a star. The moment is often followed, in short measure, by an even more painful moment when the player is no longer even league average. Then he falls to replacement level or below. Finally, the player retires, often because no one will sign him, or because his team forces him to.

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Sometimes the process is protracted, like it was for Ken Griffey, Jr., whose injuries kept him off the field for the better part of the decade. The Kid pushed back into the All-Star Game and even found his way to the MVP discussion with big years towards the end of his stay in Cincinnati, but upon his return to Seattle he found himself unable to field, unable to run, and, increasingly, unable to hit.

Sometimes the collapse is more rapid, like it has been this year for Todd Helton. The Toddfather hasn’t been a star for quite some time, but he was well above average last season, plugging along with his 10-20 homer bat and his consistently high, .400 plus OBP. While his body was clearly falling apart, only this year has Helton lost the rest: he’s not walking as much, he’s striking out more, and the power is all but gone.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

It’s at this unfortunate stage where a player’s “character” and “leadership” start to stand out. Media, fans, and other players will talk about the wisdom of players like Griffey and Helton, their joy while playing the game, and their tremendous skill. They’ll talk as if that skill is immortal, as if this season’s numbers are only a blip, a slump that will undoubtedly end any game now. No doubt those magnificent numbers Griffey and Helton put up in the late 90s – when today’s stars were watching after their Little League and Legion games – speak to the vain, unarticulated hopes of Franklin Gutierrez and Troy Tulowitzki: some players, great players, are different. Those players are forever.

It”s hard to blame someone who has spent his entire life being paid millions of dollars to do something because he was so much better at it than almost everyone else for refusing to believe that he can’t do it anymore. You might as well ask a writer not to write, a musician not to play, or a chef not to cook. Baseball is, in fact, much crueler than that, because it is the realm of the young, caught up in body and motion and justly irreverent towards the stuffy work of the mind. What right has some number-cruncher to tell Griffey he’s not good enough? What does Helton care for his line-drive percentage? It is difficult enough to ask for self-knowledge from any man or woman, let alone from a ballplayer.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

No wonder so many baseball players stay in the game as announcers, coaches, and scouts. That innate knowledge is something they must share, because it is in leaving the game that they truly understand it. Meanwhile their statistics are engraved into the History of the Game, a testament to their superior ability. At last they are satisfied to take a less agile form, to leave the field quietly. A lucky few, like Griffey, will have busts made in Cooperstown, commemorating their prowess, and acknowledging that, really, they are the stuff of myth. For the rest, well, not everyone makes it to Byzantium

Lines in the Sand

Bryce Harper got ejected from a JUCO World Series game recently, and for me what was more interesting than the delicate personality traits of a 17-year-old kid is the taboo that he put in the spotlight: drawing a line in the sand. Jonathan has the story on his B3 blog.

Harper was ticked about a bad call on a pitch off the plate that got called for a third strike. In the course of his griping about the call to the umpire, he swiped at a spot in the dirt with his bat, presumably where he thought the pitch crossed–or in this case failed to cross–the plate. The swipe (which for my money kicked a bit of dirt at the ump as well, which is unacceptable at the college level) ticked off the ump, who tossed Harper post haste.

An astute commenter, astrostl, on Mayo’s blog pointed out that, in fact, making a mark in the dirt to show where you thought the pitch was is an instantly toss-worthy offense, even at the highest levels. To very resoundingly argue his point, the commenter pointed to a video of Ichiro Suzuki’s first ever ejection from an MLB game. Hard to argue the speed with which he was heaved.

I hadn’t ever heard this unwritten-type rule before, and it was enlightening to have an online reading experience start with the slightly bratty ejection of a kid who in a few days will be The Business, and end with a new piece of knowledge that I will look for in MLB11: The Show.

Portrait of a Man Out of His Depth

If you’re into awkward conversations, people discussing issues they have no professional knowledge of, and winter hats in the summer, watch Manny Delcarmen play Dan Savage (many NSFW words) for ten minutes over at boston.com.

Link

Pew Pew Pew! Baseball Demonstrations from the Booth

I enjoy it when retired pitchers turned broadcasters in expensive ties grab a baseball that some intern had to scare up for them and demonstrate how to throw a cutter or a circle change. The starched cuff of a fine dress shirt, a little bling on the fingers and slow demonstrative arm gestures remind me of Little League, when the dad who was also a lawyer would pull up in his beamer and teach the kids a thing or two before heading off to the steakhouse to make deals.

My dad never worked nine-to-five, so I suppose there was something mysterious about these well-dressed, clean-shaven dads. I didn’t envy them. In fact from the beginning I thought it was tacky to put a glove on and toss it around in business clothes. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t appreciate, at the time, the tightening noose of time that each day presents.

But I digress. The reason I brought it up is because FackYouk has an awesome dramatization of an Al Leiter broadcast booth demonstration. What he is demonstrating, I have no idea. I do know that is is Magic®.

via a Reader share from WalkOffWalk