Archive for the 'Spring Training' Category

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Sleep Through Opening Day

Nine days ago, I wrote the following passage:

From the airport window, I can see the gray buildings block the horizon where the pavement touches the pavement-colored sky.  The sports pages are riddled with so many copies of Peyton Manning’s face that they look like advertisements.  There’s the usual static interference of the NCAA tournament, where the same four teams (in my mind) advance loudly to the Final Four each year.  Up until yesterday I’d spent the last six months student teaching, arriving at work under the cover of darkness and leaving under similar conditions.  Yesterday morning I woke up to snow on the ground.

I’m dimly aware of the fact that, somewhere, baseball is happening.  There have been people complaining about Chipper Jones, and making fun of the New York Mets, and I’ve missed out on all of it.  I missed an entire Hong Chih-Kuo era, perhaps the last.  Coming back, I’ve been going through the baseball equivalent of culture shock.  Fragments of news flit through my consciousness: Ryan Braun is a villain who is unjustly accused, or a hero who escaped his horrible crimes through a technicality.  Albert Pujols is an Angel.  Leo Nunez is Juan Oviedo.  Fausto Carmona is Roberto Hernandez.  Roberto Hernandez is still retired.  It’s all too much.

Nine days haven’t changed much.  Yesterday morning, I set the alarm clock on my cellular phone and laid it on top of the dresser, out of arm’s reach, next to my battery-powered radio.  I woke up angry, in one of those thoughtless bestial rages that have no real purpose or target, not even Bud Selig.  In the dense, periwinkle moments that followed, I had maneuvered to the dresser, studied the radio on all six faces for several minutes in search of its on switch, and crawled back into bed.  But ultimately baseball could not penetrate the multiple layers of quilt, and when I woke again I found myself mysteriously several hours older, and untroubled by the sounds of the radio which, somehow, I must have shut off in my sleep. Fortunately, Eric was there to provide the insights I was incapable of forming.

I’m not ready for baseball.   After the rigorous, life-halting activity known as student teaching ended a week and a half ago, I spent the following week in Atlanta visiting my in-laws. There I witnessed, as the whole of its sports culture, a single Atlanta Hawks billboard making a pun about the visiting New Jersey Nets.  From there I travelled inward/coastward to Savannah, its downtown so surrealistically divorced from the world of sports (among other worlds) that my encounters with it there totaled an Alex Smith 49ers jersey selling for forty dollars in a comic book store, and a stoned Braves fan staring intently into an antique telephone receiver in a museum.

Since I’ve been back, my life has been fixing coat racks and checking off task lists.  The trees haven’t even begun to bud.  The world and my mind have been in tandem rejecting the concept of spring.  My own team faces the possibility of another 100-loss season.  My fantasy team relies on a closing tandem of Javy Guerra, Jim Johnson and Grant Balfour.  I haven’t been able to let go of this winter, the stress and the worry and the cold.  I haven’t allowed myself to sit down for three hours, even to enjoy a game of baseball.  At some point, I have to.

What better time to start than two in the morning?

At least, that’s what I thought until 1:30, when the hours caught up to me and the rationalization began.  It shouldn’t have to be this hard, I thought to myself, before nodding off for the third time.  This wasn’t Thomas Boswell; this wasn’t Opening Day. Bud Selig and I are both trying too hard. So instead I awoke at seven and scanned the box score.  The Mariners got three-hit, Balfour earned a cheap one-inning save, and little green buds have appeared on the cherry tree outside.  Things are going to be fine.

Zen and the Art of Lineup Maintenance

There are essentially two types of people, we’re told by the narrator of Robert Pirsig’s bestselling classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  There are those of us who resist understanding technology because its permutations terrify us and, recoiling from the possibilities, escape into wishful thinking.  Then there are those who face those permutations, who envision the problems that face us in the future, and prepare for them.  Our narrator counts himself among the later, constantly retooling his machine, checking for problems.  His friend, John, owns a wonderful bike but does not trust himself with repairs; instead he relies on the quality of his cycle and the expertise of the nearest mechanic.  The narrator stresses that there is no malice or cowardice in John’s philosophy.  It is not stubborn or antagonistic.  It simply isn’t the way he thinks.

Pirsig pans out from the vehicular metaphor to present a simpler dichotomy: there are those who prefer to be positive and those who prefer to be realistic.  Pirsig evolves this viewpoint into the romantic viewpoint, which considers the immediate appearance of reality and its aesthetic value, and the classical viewpoint, which revolves around the systems and science by which reality is reasoned and constituted.  The chasm between these two realms is what Pirsig devotes his novel to bridging.  Baseball has its own divide, equally impassible, between its romantics and its scientists.  Though the scientific revolution is well underway, there are many whose realities cannot be touched by it; in fact, every fan has their own Platonic form for the sport that they do their best to reconcile with reality.  Fans must make these compromises, with the game and with each other, just as they do in every facet of life.

There are a couple of matters on which both sides agree, however.  One of these is Chone Figgins.

Eric Wedge recently announced that Ichiro, who has been manning the leadoff spot in Seattle since Rickey Henderson left in 2000, will be moved to the third spot in the order.  The fallout from this move is the ascension of Figgins, he of the .188 batting average and .241 on-base average, to the leadoff spot in the order.  The reaction has been mixed: from scorn on Twitter, to ennui on the local message boards, to the unabashed glee of the beat reporters.   The derision seems unilateral, felt by the romantics and the classicists alike.

Wedge defended his motives in the following quotes:

“I’m confident that Figgins can get back to his old self as a leadoff hitter,” Wedge said. “That’s when he was the Figgins that produced, that got on base, that scored runs. That was really a pain for opposing teams when he did lead off for Anaheim.”

“I feel like, to give him the greatest chance to get back on track and succeed is to give him that opportunity leading off for us.”

The classicist will immediately seize upon the fallacy of causation Wedge commits in the first statement: that Figgins was successful when he was a leadoff hitter, so he must have been successful because he was a leadoff hitter.  It’s a sentence similar to “I ate a doughnut one morning and then got pulled over for speeding; I must avoid doughnuts from now on” that any child could see through.  How could a man who is, by all accounts, proficient as a manager of human beings, commit such flawed logic?  The answer requires returning to the motorcycles.

The refusal to admit defeat, even the possibility of defeat, becomes a virtue.  One of the cornerstones of romantic thought is the appreciation of reality as it is.  Rather than getting bogged down in the invisible details and probabilities that swirl and disappear with each instant, they enjoy peace of mind.  John, instead of worrying about the potential problems with his motorcycle, can devote his ride to enjoying the scenery.  It also provides him with a singleness of purpose, commonly seen in athletics.  It becomes positivity, attitude, confidence.  The refusal to admit defeat, even the possibility of defeat, becomes a virtue.  It banishes the concept of luck as a weakness, an excuse.  It purifies winning into some created wholly from effort, something beautiful and pure.

There is no room for failure in such a philosophy.  This makes the figure of Chone Figgins all the more striking; amidst his biennial freefall, he sat wounded, amnesiac, paradoxical.   His mantra never changed.  As he told the LA Times last year after his season-ending injury: “’I’m going to be great again,’ he said in an uncommon boast. ‘The best part is I’m not worried about it. I’m keeping my head up.’”

Of course, for Figgins, there is little point in saying otherwise.  There’s little point in asking him at all, because as a professional baseball player, we can assume that he will continue to try his hardest to play as well as possible.  Baseball is after all famous for being 70% failure.  The more interesting philosophy is that of his manager, Eric Wedge himself.

The manager of a baseball team finds himself in an inherently difficult position.  He is a human embodiment of the principle of deterministic fallacy: namely, that whatever happened was destined to happen.  We as fans understand that the manager has very little impact over the course of events in a game, especially once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and hurtles toward the plate.  And yet afterward, it is the manager in his office that we listen to, who is accorded a healthy share of praise or blame.  We know that his job is to ensure the victory of his team, but it is also his job to ensure that his players perform to their utmost capability.

Chone Figgins is a perfect example of the deterministic fallacy in advance.  He can only succeed by believing that he can only succeed.  To do this, Eric Wedge must also believe that he will succeed, and if he believes that, he will provide him with the top spot in the lineup.  This will cause Figgins to be a good player at the top of the lineup.

Baseball works like this all the time, despite the fact that it’s pure madness.  It’s romanticism taken to its limit, turtles all the way down.  The power of positive thinking works because people believe in the power of positive thinking, which works… etc.

Which would be fine, if it worked.  But as we’ve seen with Figgins and with Willie Bloomquist and with Rey Quinones, it doesn’t work.  It’s the kind of thinking that gets men called geniuses, when they’re lucky, even though they fail to see the luck.  The worst part is that we have no way of knowing whether Eric Wedge truly believes what he is saying about Ichiro or Figgins; it’s very possible that he’s read Tango’s Book, that he knows Ichiro is being given 35 less at-bats, that he’s creating a logjam of third basemen at Tacoma.  Perhaps he’s in on the lie because he feels he has to be.

And to a certain extent, he does.  Because while we can scoff at the athlete for ignoring the potential for failure, there is another aspect to the culture of confidence that proves much more troublesome: its opposition to uncertainty.  Fans may not be thrilled with Wedge’s solution to the Mariners’ lineup problems, but it is at the very least a solution.  To have the leader of one’s ballclub announce that has no solutions, that his guess is only marginally better than ours, would be unpalatable to the average fan.

Cultures can and do change, once they have enough momentum.This culture of confidence is an inertial state, but it’s not the only possible state.  Cultures can and do change, once they have enough momentum; it was once seen as cowardly to take a walk, or pointless to limit a young pitcher’s innings.  There is a possible world in which hitters publicly accept their slumps, and the media doesn’t attribute them to the first plausible correlation they can think of.  Managers could admit that lineups don’t really matter and that an optimal lineup, that eternal talking point, is worth at most a single win per season.  Some of them do feel this way, but they would never say it.  Because while there are multiple states, the courageous figure who seeks to traverse from one to other will find himself exposed to the glare of conventional wisdom.

That wisdom will erode, and has already eroded to some extent.  One might wish that Eric Wedge were a little more progressive, if only for the sake of Kyle Seager, who will lose several months of development in the name of past experience.  But regardless of what he says, or even what he initially does, what Mariners fans can only hope is that Wedge can fix the motorcycle when it inevitably breaks down.

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Megan Wells at Around the Horn from Aerys Sports.

Well.

Quite a bit has happened since our last check-in on this literary odyssey. Destruction and creation, mostly – relationships forming between O and Affenlight, Schwartzy and Pella. Henry’s apparent total loss of self-identity. During the first week, I felt like a lot of these characters were empty or had yet to be realized in any sort of relatable way. This week, there has been an almost embarrassing abundance of real, sympathetic detail in the interactions with even minor characters.

I found Pella’s interaction with Chef Spirodocus surprisingly engaging. The Chef doesn’t seem to fit in a neat box, but to have a great deal of unexpressed complexity. The sadness of his potato-spooning, the unheralded sacrifice that went into the grocery bag of food, the apparent depth with which he imbued tiny actions – they paralleled Pella’s compulsive drive to wash dishes; paralleled Affenlight’s obsession over the minutiae of his appearance in advance of Owen’s visit; paralleled Henry’s panicked overthinking of each in-game throw to first.

Most of these are day-to-day thoughts and mental states to which I can relate all too well. The new perspective, for me, comes from seeing this mundane side of a baseball field. As a fan – only ever an occasional right-fielder for a women’s baseball league in Chicago – I’ve never really approached the performance of baseball with enough familiarity to have the tiny, obsessive, weighty thoughts that the Westish players do. The moment that stood out, for me, was Schwartzy taking the game – and Henry, really – into his own hands while facing Opentoe. He approached the first-base umpire with all the irritation of someone having a bad day at work, and his temper boiled over in exactly the same way. Familiar sensation, unexpected context.

My question to you, then, is this: has the book’s detail reframed anything familiar for you, or given you a new perspective on something mundane?

Too Many Xs by Jesse Gloyd

Jesse Gloyd lives in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, California, my new favorite American neighborhood. Buckshot Boogaloo is his web site, where you’ll find thoughtful and valuable essays, and the Buckshot Boogaloo podcast.

I’m trying to catch the perfect mood, the perfect literary metaphor for Satchel Paige. I can’t. I can’t seem to put his life in the proper context. I can’t seem to figure out the perfect angle. It’s almost as if he purposefully made his life confusing a roadmap or a treasure map with X’s marking random spots. I can’t blame Satchel alone for my lack of context. My wife is eating cherries next to me. She’s eating cherries and flipping through a People Magazine. I can only turn up my music so loud. I can’t stand the sound of people chewing: the suck, the crunch, and the spit of the pit into the plastic drinking cup. The sounds are mixed up, faulty. They are metaphorically inaccurate.

It might also be metaphorically inaccurate to say Satchel Paige was Methuselah with a golden arm, but I’m not going for accuracy at this point. He threw three innings when he was fifty-nine. Charlie Finley put a rocking chair in the bullpen. Satchel needed his pension, so Charlie let him pitch. There’s a photo of him in the rocker with a nurse by his side. He is statuesque, a lizard basking in the sun. He looks ageless, metaphorically prehistoric. Metaphorically prehistoric sounds nice, it sounds correct, but it isn’t a thing. It’s confusing. It’s faulty.

Age rests at the heart of the confusing map that was Satchel’s existence. Age should be the perfect frame. It should be the mold that we use to cast the essence of Satchel. He was old. He was the archetype of old. He was Methuselah. He was bigger than Methuselah. He was a Patriarch, Biblical in stature. The problem is that age doesn’t tell the whole story. Age is the shadow. Age is the lamppost we use to lean. It helps us steady. It keeps us from falling.

I dedicated a great deal of thought to my grandmother when I was first putting this piece together. I wrote a detailed introduction (and then threw it out with a grandiose sweeping delete). The detailed introduction was introspective and sad. It was a window to a time when I mourned. The bridge was a bit shaky though. Satchel moved too fast to mourn. His type was rambling. He wasn’t easy to pin down. Age turned out to be the only common link between Satchel and my grandmother, age and the ravages of time.

She lived in Texas and moved around. I think her family might have been involved with the circus.

My grandmother was easy to pin down. Her life was rough, but she loved people and she made it through. The Great Depression bit her hard. She lived in Texas and moved around. I think her family might have been involved with the circus. She moved, Satchel moved. Satchel was always running away from situations; my grandmother confronted and dealt. The parallels between the two were forced, they were false. My perception was something of a lie.

Satchel Paige was a beautiful lie. Lying was his trademark, but his idea of the lie was masked. The lie became the story, the tallest of the tall tales. People paid to see him lie. They paid to watch him pitch, so they, too, could have a faulty leg to stand on when telling their own lies about Satchel. Bojangles taught him how to jangle. James P. Johnson taught him how to roll. He got the better of Dizzy Dean on more than one occasion. His lies have been documented. They were beautiful. They were integral. The best lies have a life. His could dance. His could sing. His could juke. His could jive. Understanding the lie, I thought, was the key to understanding Satchel Paige. The lies weren’t truly lies, though, because they weren’t malicious.

His lies were half-baked myths propped up with hyperbole and suspect detail. For example, his pitches, even though they were all of the same ilk, had different names: Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Bee Ball, Hesitation. The names made them strong, the names added to his legacy, they added to the hyperbolic metaphor that was his everyday existence. His pitches were his arsenal, his iconic weapons. But unlike Hobbs’ Wonderboy, Crockett’s Betsy, and Arthur’s Excalibur, Satchel’s pitches were disposable. They were more akin to symphonic movements. They were short, brilliantly violent bursts of poetry. They had voice. They sang. They were balladeers, their melodies existing as a means of bolstering the legend, and confusing the map.

his pitches, even though they were all of the same ilk, had different names: Bat Dodger, Midnight Rider, Midnight Creeper, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Bee Ball, Hesitation. The names made them strong.

He also had rules for living, rules for staying young.

1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.

These rules added to the myth. They became canonical. They helped create the perception. But perception is easily corrupted, especially self-perception. After all, Satchel was always running. He was always looking back. He was running away from women and professional obligations. He rambled. He lied. He sang. He danced.

In 1959 he rambled onto the set of Robert Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country. He played Tobe Sutton, the fictional representation of a Buffalo Soldier. In a sense, his rambling existence owed as much to the Buffalo Soldier as anything. He was a warrior, but he was taken for granted. He had to fight for respect, and the respect that he earned needed the lamppost of hyperbole and metaphor to help prop it up for the masses to accept. It was drunken respect, sloppy respect.

The social ramble ain’t restful.

His involvement with the film was chronicled in the December 1959 issue of Ebony. Director Robert Parrish stated that Satchel had “every possibility to become a definite screen personality.” Screen personality. His legend lived, and still lives, in the deep mine shaft of a nation’s collective subconscious as a personality. He was great, he was magnificent, but his magnificence was hidden by his personality.

Then there was the time that he led a band of Negro League legends to the Dominican Republic. A government official commissioned him to round up the best of the best. His team would represent Rafael Trujillo1. Trujillo was ruthless, but Trujillo loved baseball. While Satchel and his team (a team that featured Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, among others) were playing in the Dominican Republican and being praised for their skill, Trujillo was executing as many as 30,000 dark skinned Haitians. It was Trujillo’s intent to lighten the country. The paradox is chilling. There were rumors of midnight executions. Cool Papa Bell was convinced their time would come if they didn’t play well. Armed Dominican soldiers would line the field. They were veterans of the firing squad. They were veterans of destruction, agents of death.

In the end, everyone made it home fine. The trip lined their pockets and added to the fractured legend that was their existence. The legend and the lies that accompanied Satchel were a needed thing. They increased his status and made him a desirable figure in a rough world.

In 1971 Satchel Paige appeared on What’s My Line? The audience knew to be excited, even though Satchel looked old, weathered. His suit was brown. The atmosphere was camp.

Soupy Sales was curious, “… is that because, you are well known, because of your appearances on television?”

“Nope,” said Satchel.

“Are you known for your work in the theater?” asked Sandy Duncan.

“Nope,” he lied.

“Are you well known?” asked Henry Morgan.

“Yap,” said Satchel, grinning because he was. He was in on the joke. He was always in on the joke. There were times it seemed he was so deeply in on the joke that reality was blurred. Sometimes the line didn’t even exist. His cheek was Kaufman-esque. His cheek helped him make a living and travel the world long after the golden arm had lost its efficiency. When he was on What’s My Line? the arm was hidden beneath the brown sleeve of his brown suit. He seemed pained, distant, forlorn. The laughs may have been some sort of anesthetic to the pain of age, but he had to have had an understanding of his importance.

Maybe perception and understanding are the keys to grasping the metaphorical map. I have a hard time perceiving the existence of my grandmother now that she has been dead for a few years. I can grasp it sonically when I listen to Patsy Cline sing “Faded Love”, which is why I generally skip “Faded Love” when it comes up on random. Too many things seem to be coming up on random. My disdain for the sound of chewing is probably rooted in some self-preserving desire to disconnect. I don’t want to listen to people exist. I don’t want to think about people ceasing to exist. I want everything to float along. I want my life to fill with hyperbolic metaphors. I want these metaphors to take over and numb the pain and sadness that comes with time.

I want to personify hyperbole, because Satchel was the personification of hyperbole. I want to give a life performance drenched in melancholic melancholia, to be the embodiment of embodiment, the era of an era, the man with the golden arm, and the metaphorical metaphor. Satchel was those things.

But the reality is that my stable existence, my duties as a father and husband are far too important, far too meaningful. Satchel Paige wasn’t fond of the social ramble; he wasn’t fond of looking back. This is fine, except that life is too short. We need to enjoy the social ramble, and our very existence depends on us looking back. If we don’t enjoy every annoying sound, and if we don’t let ourselves embrace pain, we run the risk of losing connection with the outside world. We run the risk of fossilizing our essence, of creating a metaphorical hyperbolic legend that stifles reality. We run the risk of creating maps with no real direction and too many Xs marking too many spots.

  1. “Trujillo’s 30 years in power, to Dominicans known as the Trujillo Era (Spanish: La Era de Trujillo), is considered one of the bloodiest ever in the Americas, as well as a time of a classic personality cult, when monuments to Trujillo were in abundance.”, via wikipedia

P&P Pointless Predictions 2011: AL East

Today on SportsCenter Michael Wilbon and Jon Barry (?) hosted a mocking segment about whether the Red Sox had reason to panic after starting the season zero and three. It was right at the top of the show. It lasted just a couple of minutes. I had just eaten a great deal of ice cream and peach cobbler. I wanted to un-eat it.

If any team besides the Yankees and Red Sox starts zero and three, that segment does not happen. Welcome to the AL East, where baseball just matters more. The microscope, the East Coast bias, the New York Media. All that stuff. On its surface, West Coast baseball fans hate it. We are diminished by it. But at the same time, we need it. It defines our “otherness” and makes Barry Zito Barry Zito and gives us the chip we so cheerfully lug on our collective shoulder.

Another thing: AL East baseball is really exciting. This may seem like a trite and obvious statement, because everybody’s always writing about how the AL East is the best division in baseball, but best does not always mean most entertaining. The Yankees have a lineup that crushes the souls of NL West fans. So do the Sox. So do the Rays. So do the Blue Jays. Hell, so do even the Orioles.

Bright lights. Big bats. Let’s get into it.

I think the teams will finish in this order:

1. New York Yankees
2. Boston Red Sox
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles

I realize everybody has the Sox winning the World Series and that they have Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez but I have a hard time picking against the Yankees. For one, the Yankees continue to be the Yankees. For all the shiny pieces playing in Boston now, there are comfortable and less shiny ones in New York. As long as the Rivera/Posada/Jeter trifecta exists I don’t think I can expect the Yankees to be anything but great. And they haven’t been. Even at their Giambi-bloated worst.

The Red Sox are loaded and not at all in panic mode. The Rays are a perpetual motion machine – fascinating and far too mystifying to write about with any brevity. These are not surprises. The top of this division is like a rock paper scissors game. Only geniuses and idiots think they have it figured out.

But the bottom is nothing like that. The Blue Jays are a home run-bashing sabermetric dream. The Orioles are a ragged band of leftovers and craftsmen and yesterday’s hottest prospects today. The division may not be competitive all the way through, but the balance of entertainment value is evenly divided. I care as much about whether Jose Bautista repeats himself and whether Buck Showalter continues to do be far more awesome than he ever was on ESPN as I do about who wins the games. It may be that the Jays and Orioles benefit from the exposure and challenge that comes with playing 50 games a year against the big three (and it is a big three now, at least qualitatively). But I appreciate them for making the most of that opportunity.

I eager await the travails of Brandon Morrow, the frightening xenophobia of Luke Scott, and yes, greatness, no shame in saying it, of the Yanks, Sox, and Rays this year. If there wasn’t an AL East, baseball wouldn’t be what it is today. In other words, let’s appreciate it.

You Gotta Keep Score: Mariners Broadcaster Dave Sims Talks Scorekeeping

“You gotta keep score,” broadcaster Dave Sims told me over the phone. “I don’t know anyone in this business who doesn’t keep score.”

Even early in my conversation with the Seattle Mariners play-by-play veteran, I understand the depth to which this professional broadcaster associates calling a big league baseball game with scoring it. Sims can barely conceive of succeeding at the former without doing the latter.

It isn’t long, either, before a discussion of the broader practice of scorekeeping gives way to the concrete, and I can hear the rustle of looseleaf paper as Sims shuffles through his scorecard from the Mariners-Dbacks game he called earlier in the day. Highly touted Seattle prospect Dustin Ackley‘s day at the plate catches his eye.

“Let’s see,” says Sims, “Ackley walked on four pitches and he hit a double. In my mind’s eye I can see it, and I have it marked down right here. Keeping score helps you tell the story of the ballgame.”

Sims paused, as his scorecard revealed another storyline. “The Mariners were set down ten in a row to start the game,” he said with the same emotion he probably infused the live broadcast with. “Heck, they didn’t have a base hit until the fifth, a seeing eye single by Michael Saunders past the right side.”

He can’t seem to help but to recount the afternoon. It’s as if, scanning his scorecard, the game is replaying itself before his eyes. Give him enough time and one starts to feel that he could extract a week’s worth of stories from the ticks, digits, and colors on his scorecard.

A broadcaster’s job is to describe the game with the accuracy of a reporter and the narrative fluidity of a novelist. Like a reporter, Dave Sims takes very good notes, and, like a novelist, he knows how to interpret and translate these notes into a cohesive narrative. Through the relentless use of his scorecard, Sims turns a plot into a story, and he does it in real time.

Through the relentless use of his scorecard, Sims turns a plot into a story, and he does it in real time.

Sims learned to score from his father at a young age, around six or seven years old, and he found keeping the book a match for his personality. “I’ve kept score all my life,” he tells me. “If you’re a baseball fan, you tend to be anal retentive anyway. Scorekeeping just reinforces it to the nth degree.”

“For example,” he continues, “I’m very anal about keeping pitch counts. Today, I was watching the Mariners and the Diamondbacks, and it’s interesting to see what guys are swinging at. Keeping a good pitch count, I can look down at my book and see that Langerhans swung at the first pitch the first time up and the second time up he took it deep in the count.

“I keep balls and strikes. I keep a pitch count up in the upper right hand corner of the box because it can give you an insight into how a hitter’s doing.”

Dave Sims’ scorebook is a living text. He uses it constantly while broadcasting, moving from the live game situation to the evolving text and back again like an air traffic controller with a radar screen. The scorebook is an irreplaceable key to the practice of broadcasting, and crucial for tracking the through-lines of the game as they play out from the first pitch to the last. Sims’ scorebook, in other words, is not a document composed for historical posterity, but a tool of the immediate world, as crucial to his work as a computer screen to a programmer.

(Speaking of technology, I ask him if he ever uses the Internet during a game. “When I’m broadcasting, I don’t have time to be fumbling around checking the Internet,” he assures me, “but I can go right to my book. You’re seeing more iPads used for some stuff, but I’m not there yet.”)

Sims’ scoring system, which I’ll readily admit was a bit hard for me to grasp in its finer details over the phone, places a premium on the most important narrative fact in a given inning: outs. “The great Bob Wolff told me never to forget the number of outs in the inning,” says Sims. Next up is the need to identify how a hit was made, and Sims logs where the ball was batted to alongside the traditional numbers. What that likely means, I’d guess, is a few more strokes of the pen than the average fan invests, to show a long fly ball or a weak grounder. And a home run, for example, gets an ‘X’ to mark the spot over the fence where it left the yard.

Sims also uses four color-coded highlighters to mark important turns of event. A play marked with a pink highlighter signals that a run was driven in, green means a strikeout, blue a walk, and yellow means that it was an unusual play of some kind (one can imagine a yellow streak highlighting yet another gravity defying catch from Franklin “Death to Flying Things” Gutierrez, or yet another 200th hit of the year from Ichiro). “When I look down at my book,” Sims says, “my eye jumps right to the color. It’s all very visual.”

During Spring Training, when a scorebook can take on the convoluted air of an Enron accounting ledger, Sims marks the starters in black or blue pen (the foundational color is arbitrary based on whatever pen is at hand that day), and the reserves go down in red. He maintains the scorecard just as he would any other broadcast, from each Single-A at bat on down to every last dizzying high-numbered roster manipulation.

“If I’m on the air, I can’t just say, ‘here is some guy.’”

During the regular season, Sims’ scorebook is an oversized ledger with space for a hundred or so games. His book is not as cumbersome as the one used by the late Mariners icon Dave Niehaus, the heft of which, Sims noted, “was enough to give you a hernia.” Sims’ saves his big scorebooks, and his archives go back years. He can look to his own library to find the results of a game from years gone by.

His book is not as cumbersome as the one used by the late Mariners icon Dave Niehaus, the heft of which, Sims noted, “was enough to give you a hernia.”

Whereas, in basketball and football broadcasting, of which Sims has done a ton, there is more reliance on producers for up-to-the-second game information, in baseball, Sims does much of his own tracking, creating his primary reference materials as the events themselves occur. It’s a triangle of action: he watches it, he marks it down, and he talks about it. See, write, talk, see, write, talk. One corner of the triangle informs the other as the space between them gains texture. The past informs the present.

The broadcaster, in completing this three-pronged action, does what the fan himself or herself does, seeing and marking, reacting and learning. When I score a game myself, I feel more confident in discussing the finer points, having at my disposal a reference document that corresponds directly to the facts of the matter. I can argue for a player’s performance because I have equipped myself with information. The insight that a scorecard proffers is distinctly democratic, and the broadcaster who keeps his own score is only trumpeting the fact that what he is doing every fan can also do, albeit without the salary. Every fan owns his or her own story.

“It’s a multitasking job, particularly in TV,” says Sims of scoring and calling a game while throwing cues to fellow broadcasters and sideline reporters and coming in and out of breaks. “But it’s what I’ve trained all my life to do, and I love it.”

Images courtesy of Dave Sims.

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 Measured Meter of Money: The St. Louis Cardinals and the Pujols Gambit

From Bryan Burwell’s column, “DeWitt rolls the dice,” in the St. Louis Dispatch:

The strategy that is unfolding is clearer than ever now. The Cardinals chairman is risking it all in the hope that Pujols and agent Dan Lozano are miscalculating Albert’s value in the open market. When informed that this was some bold chess move he was making, DeWitt shrugged his shoulders and allowed a thin smile to crease his lips.

“I don’t play chess,” he said, ‘so I wouldn’t know.”

This feels like a high school economics problem: baseball’s best player, Albert Pujols, wants an extension, and an historic paycheck to match his historic play. The team’s owner, Bill DeWitt, Jr., through a glib smile, calls what he thinks is Pujols’ bluff, lowballing the Machine and waiting, more or less, for the free agent market to prove him right. The conflict pits the racing pulse of Pujols-level talent against the measured meter of money. The World Series of another game, poker, proves over and again that the mathematician wins the game of chance, not the gunslinger. But audiences still clamor for the gunslinger, and the public calls DeWitt a madman for resisting the temptation of a massive emotional payoff that comes with the big signing.

DeWitt plays Russian roulette with one of the game’s icons while baseball fans flinch because it could happen to their team, and Cardinals fans gasp at the thought of losing baseball’s sure thing. In a column on the subject, Fanhouse writer Ed Price distills the matter to its most basic formula, claiming that “Cardinal Nation is left to choose sides, feeling either Pujols is greedy or the Cards aren’t taking care of their icon.” I, for one, would hope for a more mature view of the art of the deal than this dichotomous summation provides.

I’ve been known to watch the Bravo show “Million Dollar Listing.” It’s a “reality” show about real estate agents in glitzy Los Angeles, and it has a simple lesson that shines brightly through the high gloss and sports car sheen: you can’t beat the market. In the show’s common formula, an owner wants to sell their house for well over the market price. The real estate agent, who are the de facto stars of the show, tell the camera that there’s no way that the owner will get that much. The owner hems, haws, or harangues, but when it comes down to it the agent is always right, because they are the experts on the market, the number. The owner lowers their price, and the house gets sold.

Bill DeWitt

Bill DeWitt must watch the show, too, because he’s following the formula to the letter in his dealings with Albert Pujols. Fanhouse quotes him as saying that, “it’s hard to speculate what the open market really is,” but I don’t believe him. He knows exactly what he thinks the market is. Whether DeWitt is the delusional homeowner who wants a better deal than he deserves, or whether he is the realistic agent who knows what the home will bring, that will bear out when the negotiations pick up again and the real market comes into play.

Pujols, for his part, didn’t get to be a generational great by acquiescing to the demands of others, and his negotiating style plays out thusly so far. He told MLB.com:

“[I’m] not disappointed. Like I say, this negotiation, it happens. Two sides didn’t get together and get to an agreement. And that’s the way it goes. It’s negotiation. You can’t get disappointed. You know why? Because I still have another chance after the season, and maybe we’ll get something done then.”

Those are the words of a realist, and in this case realism means understanding what a rare commodity he is as a player, and trusting the market, just as DeWitt does. Million Dollar Listing taught me that there is usually a number, and it might be somewhere in the middle and it might not, but the various factions come to learn what that number is one way or another.

The Cardinals brass claim that they want to both pay Pujols and have enough money left over to put together a good team. This sounds to me like bargaining bull, as there isn’t a player worth more than Pujols, and a team that loses him quickly has a lot of ground to make up in the lineup. He alone is worth ten or so $3 million players (though you’ll have to check with Fangraphs to learn if that’s really true, it certainly to my eye seems the case).

Of the whole thing, Pujols himself put it well: “It’s a zoo,” he said. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the argument that I’m advancing, because a zoo is a sort of ordered chaos. It can be a little stinky and a feast for the senses, but there’s an underlying balance that dictates what happens from one day to the next. The lions and the tigers have got their number–whether it’s pounds of meat per meal or square footage of a pen–just like the Cardinals and Pujols have theirs.

Passions would dictate that the Cardinals should pay Pujols whatever he asks. It would be a blameless victory for Pujols and everybody else. But baseball’s recent history suggests that the painful decisions of today can pay off down the road. A-Rod left Texas and the Rangers had their best season ever a few years later; the Giants defied logic with a series of mediocre, aging free agents and they won a World Series.

A few months ago I argued that Derek Jeter should stop worrying about money and worry more about his legacy with the Yankees. A few parallels were drawn between the two situations, based on their import to the identity of each franchise. This is a stretch. Pujols is prime time, and Jeter is the late late show. Where the Jeter situation was highly emotional, the participants in the Pujols negotiations seem intent on rational, reasoned discussion in front of the public.

I suppose that the measured emotional responses from each side–excluding Cardinals fans and bloggers, one of whom called the ordeal albertageddon— are appropriate, too, give that the players include a God-fearing man-mountain who puts up huge numbers with little chit-chat, and a Midwest franchise that wins World Series and contends every year without marking up the cultural map too much. It’s a tame zoo, this St. Louis menagerie, more aviary thus far than lion’s den on the national scene. Come November, the predators may yet come out to prey.

Links:

Dave Cameron addresses the issue of one player’s dollar value compared with multiple players making the same cumulative amount of money.

A Christmas Tune

Ted and I sing this every year at the P&P holiday karaoke extraveganza. Guess who sings which part.

Visual Mixtape: Southpaw Relief