Archive for the 'Memoir' Category

It’s 3 a.m. I Must be Baseball a.ka. Scattered Reflections from Opening Day

I woke up at 2 a.m. and trekked to my friend Kenneth’s house to watch the Mariner’s and A’s kick off the season in Tokyo. Here are some things I noticed and wrote down.

The Tokyo Dome gives the impression that you are playing in the 1970s. The deep, blueish green of the astroturf, and its general expansiveness (no dirt infield) create a quaint throwbacky feel.

Dave Sims and Mike Blowers calling the game from back in Bellevue. I imagine that without a ballpark to stimulate their interest, these two will put one another to sleep by the fourth inning.

This astroturf is SO astroturfy.

It still feels like a spring training game. I think part of that is the relatively subdued atmosphere in the stadium and the general lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding the game. In other words, the only bunting is the kind that Bob Melvin demands from his players for no reason.

Yeonis Cespedes is amazing. His body language is fearsome. He is the best even though he might not actually be the best. At every moment, he looks ready to tackle a mountain lion and then possibly eat it raw. He is going to hit some gorgeous home runs.

Michael Saunders singles in his first at-bat! My favorite spring training moment is a radio interview I heard with Saunders where he talked about zen and his approach to the plate in an extremely Canadian accent. I really hope he puts it all together.

Mariners promo/highlight video showing Alex Rios getting thrown out at second trying to steal. Baseball.

Sideline reporter Jenn Muller on concessions at the Tokyo Dome. They have Bento Boxes. Stacks of them.

Josh Reddick’s angular face and high/tight mullet make me wonder what his deal is.  I feel like he probably listens to P.O.D. Between Reddick, Yeonis, Coco Crisp, Eric Sogard’s 12-year-old nerd deal, the A’s might be the most stylistically diverse team in baseball.

Exchange rate graphic!

Miguel Olive is a grandpa? Kenneth informs me. He is surprisingly bald.

It’s 4:18 a.m. I just opened a box of cracker jacks.

Is that a baby on that wall-ad in the RF corner? Yes. Yes it is. There is also a nearby advertisement with a box with a diagonal exclamation point in it.

Dustin Ackley hits like a left fielder. He stands tall and he’s so relaxed at the plate. Him and Ichiro are a great stylistic contrast. Him and Figgins are a great productivity contrast.

More ad discussion: There is a massive yellow poster with Ichiro’s face above the seats in left field. He is holding something up and there is lots of clutter around him. I wonder what the product is? He hasn’t played in Japan in a dozen years.  It’s easy to forget how famous he still is there.

Further ad discussion: Bunny rabbit with stars next to it. Possibly playing baseball possibly throwing a star in the air.

Kenneth where’s Mark Ellis? Eric: He’s the Dodgers starting second baseman and number two hitter. Magic Johnson can’t fix everything.

Mariners commercials are the best. Even when they don’t work, they work because they are Mariners commercials.

Wikipedia excerpt on the Tokyo Dome: “Tokyo Dome’s original nickname was “The Big Egg”, with some calling it the “Tokyo Big Egg”. Its dome-shaped roof is an air-supported structure, a flexible membrane held up by slightly pressurizing the inside of the stadium.”

Product alert: Pocari Sweat. Google tells me that this is a sugary Japanese sports drink meant for Ion-replacement. It has a mild grapefruit aftertaste.

Yeonis Cespedes is awesome . It’s refreshing to again see a physically dominating player on the A’s.

Useful information courtesy of Root Sports broadcast: Largest cities in the world.

Bob Melvin has Brandon Allen bunt. Brandon Allen pops up.

Eric Sogard is Chris Sabo’s puny little brother.

Instead of wearing Mariners or Athletics uniforms, the ballboy and ballgirl are wearing what appear to be corporate uniforms that include white batting helmets. They are sort of creepy, sitting side by side near the dugout with the white helmets. In a Clockwork Orange sort of way.

Kenneth, at 5:19 a.m., emphatically, “I KNOW WHAT KEVIN MILLWOOD LOOKS LIKE”

How come this game has been going on for less than 3 hours but it already feels like a lifetime?

Can I reiterate how 1970s this whole thing feels?

Brandon League.

A True Nightmare by Ross Allen

Ross Allen is a Cubs fan and former second-rate Division I tennis player.

I awoke several weeks ago from the most searing nightmare. It brought me back to my teenage years when I would awake from horrible dreams involving Craig Biggio, Shane Reynolds, and an antiquated dump known as the Houston Astrodome.

However, this dream was more horrifying than any before because it involved my favorite player, Chicago Cubs slugger Carlos Zambrano, instead of my most hated. Zambrano has been my favorite ballplayer for a decade. I saw his first major league start, the second game of a double header in August, 2001, and have been transfixed by his passion and energy ever since. A man who could develop tendinitis in his elbow from furious online communication with his family is a man I must believe in.

The nightmare began in a half-empty Marlins stadium. At first I thought this was any other regular season game, due tothe general apathy and limited number of spectators. It was the bottom of the 8th inning and the Cubs were leading by three runs. This game, I quickly realized, had much greater significance. The normal post-season banners were out and the chalkboard voice of Tim McCarver* came on. It was just like I was listening to a portable radio at the park. As I continued to curse McCarver and everything he stood for to the random guy sitting next to me, the jumpotron showed infuriating replays of the 2003 National League Championship Series. Eventually the play-by-play man informed me that this was game 7 of the National League Championship Series and the Cubs were nearing their first pennant since 1945.**

The bottom of the 8th rolled by without any incidents. The first out was an easy ground ball to short and the second was a routine foul pop to left field. After the third hitter walked, Cubs skipper Dale Sveum came out to settle Kerry Wood down, and he struck out the final batter on a great curveball away. The top of the ninth went by similarly without incident, my confusion and stress only increasing. As the TV cameras kept moving to Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, who had the weirdest and cruelest grin on his face, I figured something horrible had to go wrong.

The bottom of the ninth started like any other Carlos Marmol save opportunity. He hit the first batter and walked the second. Every count went to 3-2. Marmol’s slider was unhittable, but it also couldn’t hit the plate. A strikeout, a walk, and a strikeout later I was shaking in my seat. The Chicago Cubs were now one out away from heading to the World Series.

What strode to the plate next was something so disgusting and repulsive that I can barely stand to describe it. It was Carlos Zambrano. My Carlos Zambrano walking to the plate in a garrish Miami Marlins uniform. He was the starting pitcher. It was his turn in the batting order. I was conflicted. I had never before been in a situation where I was rooting for him to do anything but hit it straight out of the ballpark. This is the man with most home runs by a pitcher in the DH era. This is the man who could break Wes Ferrel’s all-time mark someday. What is more exciting in baseball than seeing a pitcher help his own cause? What is more exciting than seeing a pitcher win a game with both his arm and his bat?

The at-bat was like any other Carlos Zambrano at-bat ever. It was not long or climactic. There is a reason his slugging percentage is a career .395 and his on-base percentage is .251. The run was never going to be walked in and it wasn’t. The 1-0 fastball, right in the middle of the plate, left his bat so much faster than it left Marmol’s arm. As the ball traveled through the blue Miami air, my dream popped, punctured by the ball I never saw land.

*Imagine for a second how horrifying it is to hear Tim McCarver’s voice in a dream. I haven’t recovered.

**The play-by-play man must have been someone other than Joe Buck, because Joe Buck would not have provided me with such useful information without a million clichés that forced me to rip off my headphones and throw them at the redneck Marlins fan in front of me, who still was asking his friend to explain to him who those six individuals in black were on the field.

Why Couldn’t I Buy A Dodger Hat at Dodger Stadium?

I don’t live in LA anymore. Because of that, I’ve lost touch with the city and the Dodgers in some ways. I’m beginning to suspect that this is a good thing. Until going to a game on Friday I was, if not blissfully, then at least quietly ignorant of the malaise that has set in at Chavez Ravine. The McCourt family, the Bryan Stow tragedy, the on-field injuries, the front office follies: these things have done serious damage to Dodger fans in ways that became much clearer to me.

On Friday, I intended to buy a fitted blue and white Dodger cap at Dodger Stadium. There was nothing strange or difficult about the circumstances. I would only be at one game this year. I knew I needed a new hat. I wanted to take advantage of a friend’s employee discount. But at Dodger Stadium, Dodger caps have become an endangered species.

Before the game, my friends and brother and I wandered into a merchandise store located outside one of the field level entrances. We noticed something strange about the hat selection: there were tons of batting practice caps, tons of Lakers purple and gold LA hats, tons of pink and black and other odd varieties on the Dodger cap, but there were hardly any traditional ones. And the few that store did carry were in odd sizes like 6 7/8 or 7 ¾. No big deal, we figured. They’ll have more inside.

Inside was quiet. “Safeco-esque,” I thought. We sat directly beneath a security camera. There were so many security personnel around that I kept on perking up, thinking incidents were occurring in the area near our seats. But nothing was happening. The beefed up security presence and the thinned out attendance combine to give Dodger Stadium the feel of an empty prison camp where hollow-eyed inmates find slivers of hope in balks by opposing pitchers and chant out MVP for Matt Kemp as if he’s all they have left to cling to.

I realized that on nights when Kershaw isn’t pitching, Kemp actually is all Dodger fans have to cling to. He didn’t disappoint, either, hitting his 30th home run to join Raul Mondesi in the Dodgers 30-30 club and accelerate his run at an unlikely triple crown.

Around the fourth or fifth inning, we set out again to buy a cap on the club level, where a small store is located behind home plate. (The employee discount only applies at the club level and top deck stores). In the club level store there was not a single regular Dodger cap. “This is weird,” said my employee friend, who used to work in merchandising. “We should have caps here.”

We rode the elevator to the top deck, where the concourse was empty and the breeze almost made you feel like you weren’t in the stadium anymore. In past years, especially on Friday nights toward the end of the season, there have been lines to merely enter the Dodgers team store. On this night there were maybe three other fans in the entire place. It was empty. On the television we watched Vin Scully wave cookies around and announce that he was returning for another season. Great news. But once again, only a handful of Dodger caps. None in my size.

At this point, my employee friend explained that the team has been having problems with it’s merchandiser, Facilities Management Inc. You might remember that on August 10th, that merchandiser, FMI, requested protection from the Dodgers in federal bankruptcy court. It turns out, we learned after talking to a few retail salespeople around the stadium, that FMI stopped ordering new merchandise for this season three months ago. Due to low attendance (gate attendance is even worse than the Dodgers’ struggling paid attendance), FMI is not going to make back the $4.5 million it pays for the exclusive right to sell merchandise at Dodger stadium this season. So why sink money into apparel that won’t get sold?

A woman in hushed tones at a field level kiosk explained to me after looking around, as if checking for spies or clandestine microphones, that merchandise has been kind of an overlooked disaster, a symptom of “all this McCourt business.” She slumped her shoulders. She said that a kiosk a few aisles down had a couple of 7 1/2s earlier that night, and that they might still be there.

The kiosk did have two 7 1/2s left. But I couldn’t bring myself to buy one. The employee discount would not have applied and at that point I was too dejected to pay a full $38 for a baseball cap. Somebody else might have wanted it more. Then again, even after the Dodgers won and the vacuously ceremonial Friday night fireworks were launched over Los Angeles, probably not.

It’s Not Love (But it’s Not Bad) by Pete Beatty

You may remember Pete Beatty from “Jim Thome Takes His Rips,” during 90s 1b Week, from his having edited Craig Robinson’s Flip Flop Fly Ball the book, or from his key role in The Classical (pledge drive ongoing!). Pete tweets @nocoastoffense.

When serious rumors of Jim Thome’s return to Cleveland started to bubble up on Twitter yesterday, my first response was sourness. It felt like something between a mercy fuck and an indulgent non-victory lap. Thome is a great guy, a Hall of Famer, and an Indians legend. I love the dude. But he did say in 2002 that they’d have to tear the Cleveland jersey off his back. That was just before he tore the jersey off his back for 85m of the Phillies’ free agent dollars. It still rankles. But I carved out part of Thursday evening to slay those goblins of resentment, grieve them properly, and appreciate what Jim Thome’s return to Cleveland means.

To tell you that, I am starting with a confession: I like to look at pretty girls.

Living in New York City—and spending my 9-to-5 in a part of NY that it’s fair to deem as pacified by cappucino—I spend a lot of time in the presence of unattainable women. I’m not immune to noticing them. This neighborhood sure has a lot. And they’re dressed really well. Also it’s summer. I happen to be single at the moment, too. So I look. That’s part of being alive. Woraciousness is in my nature. The day I don’t notice pretty girls will be a sad day, probably because I will be dead.

I try my level best not to have a destructive male gaze. I temper my heart of a dog by making up stories about the women I see. I look at their shoes, their clothes, their auras, for hints about what their jobs are, who they are, what they’re like. I saw a girl this morning wearing floral print hospital scrubs. She had greasy ringlets and gaudy jewelry, but there was a calm warmth in her eyes that made me think she was a good sister/daughter/mom/girlfriend. There’s a girl I see often on my commute who is around my age. I assume she isn’t into guys because of her haircut. She has “So it goes” tattooed on her left bicep; she is worried about making ends meet, in my story. There’s the mid-twenties-ish lady who gets on the N train at Atlantic-Pacific with peroxided hair, an affinity for neon accessories, and a smoky voice. She’s a lot of fun to know, I imagine, a tomboy with terrible taste in music and guys, but a thorough enthusiasm for life that trumps my brainy cynicism. Or so I have imagined.

These narratives in re the hidden lives of pretty girls are not methodical, but there is a rough set of genre conventions. I try to keep things positive (mental hygiene is important), and I almost always check for a wedding band. I am not a saint.

This was a relatively short but intense summer on the east coast. That day when everyone’s sap rises—and my girl-storytelling season starts in earnest—came late this year. The annual riot of femininity in the male mind didn’t arrive until some weeks into the baseball season, after the Indians had posted a profoundly unexpected 30-15 start. In fact, the beginning of this year’s Indians felt like a month full of that one magical day when tank tops and skirts above the knee get reinvented every year. The Indians were succeeding by being both lucky and good, and it was rewarding to watch. A young, projection-thwarting team playing compelling, if sloppy, ball. They were an obvious regression-to-mean candidate, but fuck math in a summer like this.

Math has a way of fucking you back harder, though. Josh Tomlin’s alchemical command of the strike zone wavered, and a lot of his mistakes have been transmuted into home runs. Every decent bat save for the steady Carlos Santana has spent significant time on the DL. There was the Ubaldo trade, which felt a lot like buying groceries on a credit card. There were flashes of fight through July and the beginning of August, but when Detroit’s Austin Jackson gunned down Kosuke Fukudome to close out a three-game sweep for the Tigers last week, I said my goodbyes to the Indians’ hopes. But this team made me happy, on balance. The minor bummer of their sundowning is a vaccination against hopelessness next year, just like looking at girls in their summer clothes, girls light years out of my league, is an inoculation against loneliness.

And so in its way is Jim Thome’s return. For the same reason I look at pretty girls and make up stories about them, I can’t wait to see Jim Thome in an Indians uniform again. It’s rank sentimentality, it’s cheap, it’s whatever. It’s not a championship, it’s not lasting fulfillment, but it is real. Thome will look particularly ruin-porn-y in the cream alts and the block-C hat. He narrowly missed playing for World Series winners in Philadelphia and Chicago. I suppose I wish for his sake that he’d been on a winner. But seeing him walk back into Cleveland and dance across my laptop screen for this September, I can’t help but notice he’s not wearing a ring. I’m glad, because that leaves room in the story for me.

Will They Suck? Sure

Corban Goble is a Royals fan. He writes about music for Time Out New York.

I’m a Royals fan. And yeah, I’ve taken plenty of shit about it. To people more well-versed in the regal baseball traditions of the East Coast, saying the RoyaIs are your favorite team is a little like saying that Pavement is your favorite band—no one’s going to take you seriously.

But, that’s all just chatter. I can’t claim to be the enthusiast I was in my youth, but I still rep my team in perpetuity. For example, I’m really into royal blue, the color, right now, and naturally that has coincided with the acquisition of many choice vintage Royals items per eBay. When my worlds collide, I seize the day. I up the chaos coefficient and create some real high-concept obnoxiousness. What’s more obnoxious than a white guy in New York wearing a Royals Starter jacket, and acting snotty about it? My point exactly—if that kid weren’t me, I would almost certainly kill him in cold blood.

The last couple Royals seasons were not crushing in any particular way. They were mostly just numbing slates of spectacularly subaverage baseball, muted further by my growing personal disinterest in all things powder blue. The presence of some of the league’s most hateable players like Rick Ankiel, Kyle Farnsworth and Jason Kendall wasn’t exactly an incentive to pay more attention.

What’s more obnoxious than a white guy in New York wearing a Royals Starter jacket, and acting snotty about it? My point exactly—if that kid weren’t me, I would almost certainly kill him in cold blood. The man who brought them together, Dayton Moore, is a product of Atlanta’s John Schuerholz’s front office tutelage. The lessons have only half-stuck. He knows his way around a minor league scouting notebook but filling out a major league roster is his kryptonite. His speech is pocked with phrases like “knows how to win” and “locker room guy.” He’s always pointing to characteristics that are impossible to quantify. And yet he employed left fielder/genuine insane person Jose Guillen at the cost of $11 million for several seasons. He gave Willie Bloomquist (“can play anywhere” but secretly sucks everywhere) $7 million. And then Scott Podsednik for $1.75 million which doesn’t sound bad until you remember that he’s Scott Podsednik.

And for all of his minor league success – he’s taken one of the very worst developmental wings and made it one of baseball’s best (nine prospects in the top 100 as ranked by Baseball America, that’s a record) – Moore has also stifled the prospects he inherited. Remember when Alex Gordon was can’t miss? I do. You’re only as good as your front office allows you to be—Knicks fans who are currently experiencing the baffling re-emergence of Isaiah Thomas know what I’m talking about – and Dayton Moore doesn’t even allow mediocrity.

There have been plenty of reasons to turn my back on the Royals. But that would partially mean forsaking one of my favorite arguments: a debate that starts out as Royals vs. Cardinals but always devolved (evolves?) into whose town is better – and in the past ten years, one town has clearly surpassed the other (unless you’re into seedy riverboat casinos, in which case advantage: the Lou).

And man, it would also just feel weird. Growing up in an environment completely obsessed with its sports teams – my family’s mutual admiration of the Green Bay Packers being an honest-to-God explanation for us getting along, relatively smoothly, for decades, ditto the Kansas Jayhawks – something about my life would feel a little empty without the Royals. Only a year ago I was enslaved by the Zack Greinke march on the AL Cy Young Award, something I, perhaps childishly, I identified with; he’s a weird guy and so am I, and I always root for large-scale success by inordinately strange people (see Wayne, Lil).

Now, I’m only attracted to the roster on a farcical level. Moore’s ensconced in a decade-long dare to assemble the raggedest, most unpopular teammates in one room and see if that counts as a baseball team. It’s like “Major League,” except the fact that Charlie Sheen is absent, practically erasing any hope that some strippers show up. At the end of the day, they still trounce out of the locker room into the sea of pavement that surrounds the Truman Sports Complex, Garmins set to Lenexa, Hallbrook, the Plaza or otherwise.Moore’s ensconced in a decade-long dare to assemble the raggedest, most unpopular teammates in one room and see if that counts as a baseball team.

And yet, as much as I decry, and as much fun as I have decrying for the pure enjoyment of decrying, I still sort of believe it can turn around. The relevant talent evaluators still cite the Royals as maintainers of baseball’s best minor league system, a trove so rich with talent and hard-throwing lefties that not even Isaiah Thomas himself could fuck it up. And while, yeah, a lot of those guys aren’t even going to sniff the majors until 2013—this year’s Springdale Naturals are going to be fucking sick—at least it seems like Dayton Moore appears to be aware they’re going to just have to suck it out until then.

Will they suck? Sure. But, at the end of next year, the payroll will have shrunken to $33 million, thanks to Gil Meche’s weird abandonment of guaranteed cash, expectations will be low, the Mexicutioner nickname will be a long-forgotten relic of the past (he’s a man of honor, Joakim) and Albert Pujols will be shopping for powder blue homes in Mission Hills after signing a 20-year, $600 million dollar deal replete with a line of children’s cleats only available at WalMart.

When you love something that can’t love you back, its hard to shake, because without the give-and-take of some kind of relationship, you really can’t get burned too bad. The extremes are limited; you either don’t care or care too much, and either way, if you get pissed and go away for a while they’ll be there when you return like nothing ever changed.

Also, starting in 2014 or so, PROTECT YA NECK, American League.

Photo via writer and Flickr user Minda Haas

Diamonds and Doodles

Our first guest contributor for scorebook week is Patrick Truby, of There’s No I in Blog. Welcome aboard, Pat.

I’ve always admired neatly kept scorebooks because I’ve never understood them. The act of neatly scoring a complete baseball game seems like an impossible task for someone like me, who is equal parts obsessive-compulsive disorder and messy doodler. That doesn’t make a ton of sense, I know, but no matter how hard I try to be neat and ordered, it’s impossible for me to hold a pencil and paper without turning even the neatest, most organized piece of paper into a splatter of Jolly Rogers and manturtles. This created a ridiculous amount of anxiety when, back in my ball playing days, the task of keeping my team scorebook became my responsibility.

On a few of my teams, bench players rotated scoring the games. Something about using the scorekeeping codes—the lines, colored squares, and backward “K”s—to create a readable account of the game on that grid pattern of boxes and baseball diamonds carried more pressure than a late-inning at-bat with runners in scoring position. I knew eventually I’d make a mess of it all. I doubt even now that I could accurately score a baseball game; basic things, like how to signify that an inning has ended or a player has been substituted, were never important to me. Instead, I got bogged down in the more artistic details.

By far the most important aspect of keeping score for me was creating the most accurate description of how hard and where a ball was hit. Anyone could write “1B” to signify a single. I was more obsessed with depicting how exactly a batter achieved that single. There’s the saying that a swinging-bunt single is a line drive in a score book, but not in my scorebook. I attempted to draw the line to the exact point on the field where a batted ball was fielded. For that swinging-bunt single, I’d have drawn a very light line extending barely past home plate. A fly out near the outfield fence was just as easy. I needed to get the arc of the ball perfect, but that line would no doubt go just to the edge of the scorebook’s outfield line. A line drive hit to left-center might be more difficult. I’d have to find the exact spot where the ball landed on the field and the corresponding spot in the book’s scaled down field. Try as I might, I could never get it down to an exact science. If that line drive to left-center landed behind the shortstop, found a gap, and rolled to the outfield wall, I would be bothered for the rest of the game that I my little baseball pictogram gave the impression that a batter got a triple off a hit that landed in short-left.

In retrospect, my attention to that specific detail may have caused my scorebook doodling. I thought it kept me focused on both the game and the paper before me when really, my inability to draw the perfect lines caused hours of frustration. As games went on, my inner perfectionist would give way to my inner doodler. Lines wavered. Boxes got sloppy. To look at my scorebook, you’d imagine some kind of baseball catastrophe broke out in the sixth inning. I can’t think of words to accurately describe how my doodles ruined a perfectly good scorebook except that, if any of my teammates went back and looked at one of the pages I scored, they’d probably think they were looking at a documentation of the rain and lightning delay that sent both teams to the equipment room for a few hours.

*Photo courtesy of Jenny Ryan

Charlie Sheen Hits Homeruns

Ted likes to make fun of me for constantly retelling the story of when Jack Nicholson said “I’m not a fucking magician, take the cap off the pen,” after 12-year old Eric asked him for his autograph. He likes to call me name-dropper. I’m not a name-dropper, though. I just grew up in Los Angeles — Culver City at that. The New York Times recently said Culver City was a “nowhere” becoming a “somewhere.” But for as long as it’s been anywhere, movies have been made in Culver City. Sony Studios (once MGM) is there.

The point being that there were movie stars around sometimes. One of them was Charlie Sheen, who you may have read about lately. As his meltdown became increasingly legendary, I told Ted that Charlie Sheen could really hit the hell out of a baseball. He was like “huh?” And I said “seriously.”

When I was in high school in the early 2000s, Charlie Sheen would occasionally drop by our field after we were done with practice and take BP. He never spoke to any of us. But he did launch home run after home run. It was one of those slightly surreal things you think little of at the time, but realize afterward are interesting. And now there is video evidence, courtesy of the new and awesome “Let’s Go Dodgers!” Tumblr:

Maybe he’s as awesome as he says he is.

Teaching Sabermetrics

Earlier this year a small Bay Area nonprofit called Tutorpedia asked me to teach a poetry workshop over the summer. Actually, they asked to write a curriculum for a poetry workshop, and then to teach it later, which may seem like a slight distinction, but is not. Seeing as I clearly didn’t have enough to do already – I was also in the midst of a Master’s in Education program at Stanford – I petitioned to write and teach not only a poetry workshop, but a sabermetrics workshop as well.

To my surprise, Tutorpedia not only said yes to my nefarious, baseball-teaching plan, they were thrilled.  They even offered me free Oakland Athletics tickets so I could go to a game with my students.  And so I started crafting my curricula in my ‘spare time.’

Who doesn't love the Oakland A's?

Tutorpedia believes in project-based learning, and I believe in dialogue-driven classrooms, so my model was not, from the outset, stand up and lecture. Rather, the poetry curriculum was to be a series of conversations about famous poems, followed by activities highlighting techniques the poets in question were using, all culminating in the composition (and public recitation) of an original work of poetry. Likewise, the sabermetrics course was designed to give students the skills they needed to perform statistical analysis before sending them off to do independent research projects.

Unfortunately, after carefully putting together my curricula, I found out that no one was signing up for my workshops. And not only me, Tutorpedia was hoping to run dozens of workshops over the summer, and no one was signing up for any of them. Ultimately, three students signed up for my sabermetrics class, and none for my poetry workshop. So be it! If high schoolers would rather learn about wOBA and WAR than enjambment, simile, and pentameter, who am I to argue?

One of my three students ended up having to drop the course due to a family emergency, leaving us at a paltry two – and a brother and sister (and Yankees fans) at that – but nevertheless we trod onwards towards understanding and insight, or at least indoctrination into a different set of beliefs than those you get from watching the Fox Game of The Week. I say that in jest, partially, but it’s also a question. Is it possible to really get students to learn to think critically about anything – even something as trivial as baseball statistics – in just 16 hours of class time? And isn’t critical thinking what sabermetrics is supposed to be about? That’s the real can of worms, I suppose. As sabermetrics have grown more prominent, it’s not clear what the study is about anymore, let alone what teaching the subject means.

Certainly the origins of sabermetrics are in critical thought. At a time when no one questioned the power of batting average and the RBI, advocating statistics like OBP or, even worse, creating new ones like Win Shares, was the kind of heresy that required a great deal of level-headed, penetrating insight and at least a little gusto to boot.  Enter Bill James. These days, however, we have Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, Baseball Analysts, Baseball-Reference, and countless other websites devoted to providing information and analysis about baseball statistics. The old heresy is the new religion.

Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with sabermetrics – I wouldn’t teach it if I were so unfaithful – but rather it raises the question: which is more important, the thought process behind the study of baseball statistics, or the outcome of that process? Which is more important, knowing how WAR is calculated (as much as they let you know, anyway) or knowing more or less how to use it to evaluate players?

Another object of study: Win Probability graphs

I, for one, am persuaded that WAR is a better measure of a player’s value than almost any other single statistic, and WAR formed the basis of the research project – building an all-time Yankees roster – my students and I did at the end of the course. That said, my inclination as both an educator and as a baseball fan is and always will be towards process over outcome. Without the ability to think through a statistic, the statistic has no meaning to me other than the one that other people give me.

How to convey that in eight two-hour sessions? Well, it’s hard. I taught my students how to use excel and basic statistical tools like regression and correlation (which, to their credit more than mine, they understood), and I exposed them to a few of the many sabermetric websites. And in the end I saw that hard work rewarded by rapid – almost immediate – buy-in when we learned about WAR and UZR and ERA+. It remains to be seen whether my students will ever bring the tools of the skeptic’s trade – critical questions, excel speadsheets, and statistical techniques – to bear on the new numbers as we did on the old.  I hope I at least planted a skeptical seed, but the narrative of modern baseball statistics, it turns out, is quite compelling.

In retrospect, the course was perhaps a bit too practical. Maybe the better path towards critical thinking runs through a more philosophical approach. Maybe stepping even further back, teaching less and asking the students to explore more on their own, would have netted a more skeptical attitude. But, taking that approach, what do you do if the students come out the other end convinced that pitcher wins and runs batted in are awesome?  What if being hands-off means letting someone else do the brainwashing?

I suppose the answer, on some level, comes down to the students. Because I was working with a brother and sister who were at least familiar with the existence of Moneyball, I knew they had the potential to dive into concepts like WAR, wOBA, and UZR, but when our initial discussion turned up batting average as THE statistic of choice, I also knew we had some work to do before we got there. Considering the slightly younger-than-anticipated enrollment (I expected high schoolers and got middle schoolers), we had to begin at the beginning, building regression tables to show that, in fact, OBP and SLG correlate way better with winning than batting average or homers.

As I dove into these analytical and pedagogical depths, considering and reconsidering both the statistics I was teaching and my approach in teaching them, I was called back to another world as we were working on the final project. The sister wrote a limerick on the board in a moment of whimsy, likely tired of comparing Red Ruffing’s ERA+ to that of Roger Clemens.

“How do you like my poem?” She asked me.

“That was supposed to be the other workshop,” I told her.

The Stadium Experience: Exile on the Main Concourse

Last week PnP began an exploration of the way we watch baseball in person, namely The Stadium Experience. From the ensuing discussion,  a plan was hatched: I’d go to a Major League game alone  — something I’d never done before —  and write about it.

The three miles between my apartment and Safeco Field encompass some of Seattle’s most notable landmarks: the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square. As I strolled to Wednesday afternoon’s Mariners-Athletics contest, I noticed no landmarks. Instead, I jittered from the two cups of coffee I drank for breakfast. I whistled Replacements songs. I smiled stupidly and repeatedly as the sun made itself at home on the back of my neck.

I was on my way to do something totally familiar: settle in amongst tens of thousands of other fans and watch a major league ballgame. The difference was that this time, unlike the hundreds of games I had attended prior, I was all alone. It would be just me and the baseball.

I sat in the top left corner of the seats pictured here.

Midweek day games offer a rare nostalgia. They hearken back to the era before lights made baseball an evening activity. Unlike evening and weekend games, they feel like special events. In line for tickets, you can imagine yourself in another time and place – 1950s New York, for instance. You can see yourself leaving work early and donning your fedora and climbing aboard an uptown train. You can see yourself at Yankee Stadium watching Whitey Ford take the hill against Early Winn and the hated Cleveland Indians.

I was not treated to quite so dynamic a pitching matchup: Luke French for Seattle and Dallas Braden for Oakland. But I was excited anyway. I was excited to be watching baseball in the first place. I was excited to see Dallas Braden – hurler of an unexpected perfect game, enemy of Alex Rodriguez, and favorite of Pitchers & Poets—take the mound. And mostly, I was excited about the essay that would come out of this new experience.

Watching a ballgame alone and writing about it is a hardly bold, dangerous journalistic undertaking. I knew this. But as I made my way toward the stadium, walking past the tourists and the lunchtime business crowds, the resulting essay began to reveal itself: it would be literary, it would be humorous; it would be gripping and deeply personal in a stream-of-conscious sort of way, but it would also say something keen about our society.

I arrived at Safeco Field to find it bustling with scalpers and senior citizens, bicycle taxis and packs of day campers lit up in matching fluorescent tee shirts. Old New York this was not, but alive it certainly was – especially considering the Mariners’ status as baseball’s preeminent disappointment. In line to buy a ticket – a single ticket, I reminded myself – my jittery excitement began to reveal itself as a discomforting restlessness.

The five minutes to the ticket window passed by slower than my hour-long walk to the stadium. Don’t check your phone, I told myself. Keep it in your pocket. Today is about you and baseball. I glanced around. I fidgeted. Finally, I reached the front of the line. “I’ll take one of your cheapest tickets,” I told the attendant, noting in the corner of my eye that a lone A’s fan was purchasing a single seat in the next window. He wore a Mark McGwire jersey, a peace sign tattooed on his calf, and the kind of beard that delays airport security lines.

This lone Oakland fan was an ominous sign. By the time I reached my seat near the top row of Safeco’s left field bleachers, all of my magnificent hopes for the essay had disappeared. It was as if the entire stadium was populated by men watching the game unaccompanied. Or maybe when you watch a game by yourself, you begin to notice the other solo flyers. The problems remained: how could I have thought something so banal would make for a compelling story? How could I have been so self-centered as to think that my experience watching a baseball game alone would be more edifying than anybody else’s experience doing the same?

The view from my seat.

One row ahead of me sat a balding man who had printed a stack of score sheets on legal paper and brought them to the ballpark on a clipboard. His handwriting was impeccably neat. Each time the Mariners grounded into a double play, he exhaled and marked the action with tremendous care. But for all his perfectionism, this scorekeeper was also agitated. He sighed dramatically at the teenagers whose comings and goings forced him to stand up and step into the aisle every five minutes.

Another nearby solo flyer presented a distinct contrast in style. He was a thin man in his mid-sixties. He nursed a Mac n’ Jacks and dumped an entire bag of peanuts into the cargo pocket of his shorts, chomping on them with no regard for the children seated next to him or the great distance between himself and home plate. The only sign that this man was even conscious of his surroundings came in the fourth inning when he removed his shirt in surrender to the heat.

Coco Crisp led off the game for Oakland. And before I could settle into the rhythm of my preferred baseball-watching trance state, he rocketed a Luke French meatball to deep center field. A double, possibly a triple, I thought. No. Franklin Gutierrez caught up with the drive two steps onto the warning track, and bounced off the wall at full speed a moment after making the catch.

“Holy shit,” I said out loud, “what a catch.”

But there was nobody there to answer.

After the Gutierrez catch, most early action took place around the infield: groundballs and strikeouts. Pitchers French and Braden worked fast, and sitting in the far reaches of the bleachers, I found it difficult to focus on the game. I found myself watching the people around me –watching the way different groups watch baseball. A little boy nearby told his babysitter that the fields he played baseball on were way bigger than this one. He took a bite out of a hot dog that was almost invisible beneath an ocean of ketchup.

As the kid and his brother watched the Mariners Hat-Trick, a video version of Three-card Monte in which a baseball is hidden under one of three caps that are then scrambled wildly across the scoreboard screen, I began to realize the extent to which ballgames are manufactured social experiences. Even the most sacred of stadium rituals are group-oriented – they are meant to illicit a comment, a shared smile, even an embrace. I began to feel that not only were the rituals not for me, but that during them, I was conspicuous in my aloneness.

I felt like the only guy not having fun at a party. I felt like the one Jewish guy at the Catholic Wedding who doesn’t reveal himself until everybody else in the pew drops to their knees, leaving him standing alone, hands in pockets. This became especially visceral during the seventh inning stretch. I stood alone, arms crossed, resigned to a hollow half-singing of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Even stadium food gave me pause. Hot dogs are for everybody and anybody. But what of nachos and peanuts and garlic fries? These are snacks to be shared; eating them alone feels gross and sad and defeatist. That said, after the fourth inning, I left my seat in search of poutine – trying the Quebec delicacy, new at Safeco Field this year, had been a season-long goal. I had embarked on this endeavor in the name of knowledge and baseball. I had sacrificed much in the name of hard-hitting journalism. One act of self-indulgence would be totally permissible.

In the concession line, I ran into a couple friends. They were at the game independently and invited me to join them. “Only for a little while,” I said, “I’m on a mission.” The decision to sit with my friends was a failure in the “watch a baseball game by yourself’ department, but it turned out to be a major success in the “actually see what’s going on in said baseball game” department, as their seats were on the field level just above third base. I stayed with them for the fifth and sixth innings – or the amount of time it takes to eat a portion Safeco Field poutine.

Poutine is simply french fries covered in brown gravy and cheese curds. I took initiative and added some chopped onions to the mix.

Upon taking my leave, I decided not to return to the outfield bleachers. Instead I made my way to the shady first-base side of the ballpark and quietly sidled into an empty row. Vantage point, I realized, is crucial to the solo-baseball experience. From a good seat you can immerse yourself in the details of the game. You can see what kind of gum the first baseman is chewing. You can see the sweat outline left by a chest protector on the visiting catcher’s back. The action becomes more intimate and more immediate.

There were hardly any fans around me. The section had been occupied by a group visiting from a retirement home, and most of the seniors had left early – driven away by the heat. This was perfect for me. I was finally able to settle down. But even comfortable, I found myself unable to fully embrace my own aloneness. It was a constant struggle to dam the torrents of unrelated and baseball and non-baseball thoughts that rushed through my head.

When Mark Ellis hit his third double of the game, I had nobody with whom to share the excitement. I sunk to the level of sending a text message to the friends whom I had just left. It turned out they were not as impressed with the feat as I was. Of course they weren’t. Three doubles from a mediocre veteran on a third-place team in a meaningless August day game are hardly the stuff of local news broadcasts.

But for me, those doubles felt monumental. Everything did. Without the benefit of company, and unable to take pleasure in the stadium’s many distractions, the game itself took on a much greater meaning. I began to think about the players – not just their presence on the field, but their places in history, their roles in my life. Mark Ellis, I thought, is an icon, a relic, the soul survivor of the exciting early 2000s Athletics. I can’t believe I’m watching the Mark Ellis. Is there a lesser player than Mark Ellis with a stronger inherent team identity?

I became at once oblivious to context and hyperaware of it. Everything about the game in front of me in all its unimportant glory became dire and obsession-worthy. It did not matter that neither team would be playing in the postseason, it only mattered that they were playing right now. And yet with each successive .230 hitter, with each successive groundball double play, I could not help but think about the big picture. Where exactly do these two particularly flaccid lineups ranked in the American League and even in baseball history?

$16 well-spent.

In many ways, watching a ballgame alone is like driving a long distance alone. You are focused on what’s in front of you. But watching baseball – like driving – can be a passive activity. When you are pondering the action on the field or drive a lonesome highway, you are dealing with a million potential stimuli, be they beach balls floating down from the next deck or cars merging into the lane beside yours. And then there’s the greatest distraction: the wanderings of your own mind.

In the car, you play games to keep yourself sharp. You count the mile markers. You seek out landmarks. You change lanes just for the hell of it. The same thing happened to me at Safeco Field. I became obsessed with the minor details of Dallas Braden’s pitching performance. Through six innings, he faced only the minimum 18 batters. I lusted for a 27-up, 27-down performance.

When that streak ended, I began to contemplate Braden’s pitch count. Entering the 9th, he had only thrown 92 pitches. Will he throw exactly 100? I wondered. How many complete-game 100-pitch outings have there even been? And really, who cares? I did. I cared.

Braden retired Ichiro and Chone Figgins in a combined five pitches. I leaned onto the edge of my seat. I was probably the only person in the stadium, Oakland fans included, who felt so invested in the outcome of the at-bat. For some reason, this specific and unlikely outcome became the only thing on earth I wanted. Strike one. Ball one. Here it is: the 100th pitch.

Did he do it? No. It took Braden a 103rd and then a 104th pitch to induce a pop up from Lopez. But an asymmetrical complete game victory is still a complete game victory. And a ballgame watched alone amongst tens of thousands of people is still a ballgame watched.  As I made my way toward the aisle and down the main concourse and finally back into the hot sun, I knew I would eventually repeat this experiment without the added baggage of a notepad and a self-imposed writing assignment.  Now though, there was only the long walk home.

The Stadium Experience

The fan was about fifty years old and if it weren’t for the beach ball we never would have noticed him at all. He had a regular middle-aged build, thinning hair, and two boys – maybe twelve and fourteen years old – in tow. They sat across the aisle in our same row. For a few innings there was nothing exceptional about them.

Dodger Stadium will always be my home ballpark. I saw my first game there. I had childhood birthday parties there. I got Hideo Nomo’s autograph at the height of hysteria, I shook the hand of Tommy Lasorda, I walked past Vin Scully, I caught a ball thrown into the crowd by the cannon arm of my favorite player, Raul Mondesi. I even made a foolish vow to not eat another Dodger Dog until they won the World Series. I learned Dodger Stadium – the secrets of its many cavernous stairwells and the physics of its mile-long urinal troughs and the temperaments of its geriatric ushers – the way kids with different childhood interests learned the geography of Middle Earth.

But I was a child then. I appreciated the old scoreboard and the short-lived outfield wall murals and the even shorter-lived presence of King Taco concession stands. But I failed to appreciate the way the stadium’s tiers cascade over you like swooping cliffs when you’re seated at field level behind home plate. (Unless our tickets were for one of the outfield pavilions, which are disconnected from the rest of the stadium, we always snuck down to field level.) I failed to appreciate the unique natural scenery of a stadium literally carved into a small mountain. I failed to appreciate – or cringe at – the genuine meanness that Dodger fans are capable of when confronted with supporters of another team.

I also failed to appreciate the diversity of the Dodger Stadium crowd. It turns out that Chavez Ravine is a fine place for both baseball-watching and people-watching. The crowd is more varied, more eccentric, more bizarre, than any baseball crowd I’ve seen elsewhere – New York stadiums included. The diversity extends beyond race and class and age to fashion and attitude and the very aesthetics of how people pass their evenings. The diversity extends to the fan in the next aisle

He went unnoticed until a beach ball floated down from the Lodge section above. It bounced around once, twice, and finally landed in his lap. He stood up. He looked around. And slowly, without any expression of satisfaction or remorse or villainous superiority, he deflated it. A few people booed, reflexively. The game went on.

“Look at his shorts,” my mom whispered. And I saw them, they were short and white and cotton and their blue pinstripes matched the blue pinstripes on his Dodgers tee-shirt. The whole outfit appeared to have been purchased in the late 1970s. So did the identical shirt his younger son wore.

“What kind of guy wears clothes like that to a baseball game?” I asked. My parents and brothers shrugged He was probably a season ticket holder, we figured. Maybe the shorts and shirt were good luck charms. But wasn’t he cold? The Dodger Stadium breezes are deceptively chilling, even in the summertime.

We remembered that in the 1990s, my dad would bring home free Dodger tickets from work associates. The most common seats were on the second level, the Loge, and they were great. In front of us always sat the same 30-something, bespectacled man. He was noticeable because he always listened to the radio on giant headphones and because he always kept score and because he kept the seat beside him open – and on it he piled editions of Baseball Weekly and printouts of scouting reports and all kinds of other miscellanea. He ate copious amounts of junk food. And he was always alone. The empty seat was just for storage. There is no rule that says baseball has to be enjoyed with company, that it must be a social event. But it seemed so sad. He seemed so lonely.

The fan in the shorts was not lonely. He was, by all visible measures, having a great time with his family. And yet here he was, destroying a beach ball, staring seriously at the game, as if he could have prevented Hiroki Kuroda from allowing Will Venable to crush a 3-run homer by sheer meditative focus. So what was his deal? Did he lose a bet? Or was he just a character, the kind of aberration you see at any public place?

My evening at Dodger Stadium with (most of) the family got me thinking. It got me thinking about men like the fan in shorts and the fan with the empty seat and whether there is a right or wrong way to enjoy baseball. It got me thinking about what, exactly, makes for a positive or negative evening at the ballpark. It got me thinking about how we watch the game in person – in short, the Stadium Experience. For the foreseeable future, I’ll try and explore these things on the blog. Maybe we’ll even ask some friends to drop by and do the same.

King Taco image via flickr user Daniel Incandela