Archive for the 'Talking Baseball' Category

Why I Want the Rangers to Win the World Series

Sometimes it takes the games starting for the compass needle in my heart to flicker and point me to my true north. My true north this year lies a few miles outside of Dallas. In other words, I want the Rangers to win the World Series.

This is news to me. A professor friend of mine would tell me not to worry about the fact that I am suddenly a Rangers fan — that we are all animals and sometimes we feel strange feelings and that’s all there is to it. But explaining secondary fandom (or postseason adopted fandom) is one of our favorite pastimes here at P&P so I won’t follow my professor’s hypothetical advice. Instead I will just try desperately to explain why I am rooting for the Rangers instead of the perfectly likable teams in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Tampa.

The first thing about the Rangers is that last year I picked them to make the postseason, then to win the World Series. I had little attachment to the franchise before 2010, but the prediction (which had no stakes, I admit) gave me a rooting interest. Maybe that interest is lingering because they were so fun to watch last season and because they came so close to making me look brilliant and because they fell to my sworn baseball enemies the Giants.

The 2011 edition of the Rangers is very similar. They lost Cliff Lee, who is my favorite starting pitcher in all of baseball to watch, but they replaced him with Adrian Beltre, who is my favorite defensive player to watch and sort of a mascot for my baseball fandom. I had my Bar Mitzvah the year Beltre debuted in LA. I moved to college in Seattle the year he moved to Seattle. I had a bunch of terrible personal crises and got laid off the year Beltre was hit in the groin by a grounder and missed a bunch of games.

Anyway, surrounding Beltre they have the most exciting top to bottom lineup in all baseball. Ian Kinsler just completed the quietest 7.7 WAR season ever. Elvis Andrus is still called Elvis and still brilliant to watch in the field and on the bases. Hamilton is a flame-tattooed superstar. Michael Young is a pissy non-MVP candidate who batted .338 out of spite. Nelson Cruz is himself. And Mike Napoli is basically Mike Piazza.

And this is before I get to the fact that their remaining starting pitchers (fare the well in bullpen duty, Ogando) are an ex-reliever, a guy from the Japanese league, and two tallish guys with plain names who throw really hard. Three of them are lefties! Three!
The animal inside me is not a beast but some clawed and antlered thing.
But wait, you say. The Rangers were once owned by the unpopular pre-presidential George W. Bush who often sits smiling in a box on the field level. Their current CEO, Nolan Ryan, is the scowliest jowliest man in all of baseball and more than likely a fascist. And the two are friends! Plus there was that whole Tom Hicks/MLB Rescue debacle. Cheering for the Rangers, you say, is basically the baseball equivalent of voting for Rick Perry in an important primary straw poll.

To this I give you Hank Steinbrenner. And Tony LaRussa. And Chase Utley’s hair. The negatives are out there for every team (though they are harder to spot for the Rays and Brewers, I admit). But Hank Steinbrenner’s asshole comments don’t make Curtis Granderson any less exciting. Tony LaRussa’s faux-intellectual over-managing doesn’t make me want Lance Berkman to lose at what might be his last shot at a ring. And Chase Utley’s hair doesn’t make Vance Worley any less surprising.

So what I’m telling myself here — because really I am who I’m talking to — is that it’s okay to root for the Rangers because Nolan Ryan’s pompous arms-crossed in a windbreaker aura is not enough to cut into the joy of a Ron Washington press conference or Neftali Feliz fastball. The needle in my heart has flickered. The animal inside me is not a beast but some clawed and antlered thing. And though most of my exes don’t live in Texas, my favorite one does. That’s enough. Go Rangers.

In Reading Club news, we continue this week with chapters 18-33 of The Art of Fielding. Try to have them read by Wednesday!

Celebrate Different

Last night I was talking with Eric Freeman about No Hitters. By talking I mean agreeing that it’s pointless and purposefully joyless to whine during and immediately after a no-hitter that the game isn’t as “well-pitched” as other games that aren’t no-hitters. There is inherent value in the sheer improbability of a game like the one Francisco Liriano pitched yesterday. It was a messy, unbecoming, a nerve-wracking, defense-driven spectacle of the highest order.

No-hitters are news because they are rare and dramatic, not merely because they are impressive. As far as I know, there isn’t a contingent of people out there screaming and tweeting that Francisco Liriano pitched the best game of the season last night. There isn’t a contingent yelling about how he’s the league’s best pitcher. That’s besides the point. The point is that there is joy in the string of lucky plays and defense and building tension that defined his performance.

I went to the Mariner game last night. Erik Bedard tossed five of the ugliest no-hit innings in baseball history to open the game. He even allowed a run. Anybody in the park could have told you that it wasn’t a great performance. They would have also told you that they were disappointed — and yet not surprised — when Ian Kinsler broke it up with a double. It has to do with the streak. It has to do with the fact that the baseball fan experience is defined by narrative as much as it is by statistical understanding.

That might be the whole point of this blog. I don’t think we’re working against the grain here. I don’t think we’re anti-sabermetrics. We love and embrace them. They are useful. They make us smarter. But from my angle, a central element of that world is this ill-defined quest to seek out the ‘objective best’ of everything. I think that comes at the expense of the ‘subjective best’ — the most interesting, the most dynamic, the most grok.

The Francisco Liriano no-hitter was an anomaly. Jeff Sullivan from Lookout Landing tweeted that “Since the beginning of the 2010 season, 86 starts have a higher game score than Liriano’s yesterday.” If anything that makes the performance all the more compelling. Sullivan later tweeted that the start was “impressive in a different way than usual.” Damn right it was different. Let’s celebrate different. Francisco Liriano is a pitcher on the verge of total collapse. He — with the help of his team and yes, precarious luck — held it together for something magnificent. Let’s sing about it.

P&P Conversations: The Mystics and Statistics

Eric:

The Cleveland Indians are in first place at 12-4. This wouldn’t matter to me normally. But the Indians are 12-4 on the back of a vigorously healthy Travis Hafner. Grady Sizemore just returned to the lineup after seven years on the disabled list. Matt LaPorta might not suck after all. And Carlos Santana far from sucks. There’s something compelling, and dare I say, inspiring about this mix of resurrected corpses and fresh-faced infants tearing up the American League, right? How long before Omar Vizquel hangs up his White Sox hat and heads out East to rejoin the party in Cleveland?

Ted:

I had no idea that Seven Years in Tibet was based on Grady Sizemore’s career. He should’ve let some people know he was lighting out for the territories. And it’s nice of Hafner to show up the year after everybody stopped drafting him in fantasy baseball leagues.

The Indians right now seem to embody one of the mysteries of baseball: injuries. There are the obvious injuries that can gum up a career, but more common probably are the kind of injury that are barely detectable. Some fiber of shoulder muscle might be weak enough to keep Grok from Grokking, but not enough to keep him from starting. There are a couple of things that I’ve learned about baseball with age. One, deception is the most important part of pitching. Two, injuries (and the greatest injury of all: aging) are just about the most important factor in the makeup of a good baseball team.

Both of these tenets are difficult to detect, and they are boring. But they explain why Greg Maddux was great.

Eric:

I am not quite comfortable with calling aging the “greatest injury of all.” I have a feeling many of our readers who exist outside the scope of professional baseball will not appreciate that sentiment. Anyway, I’m intrigued by injuries as a factor in team success and a measure of player value.

Some word problems that you don’t need to answer:

1. The Green Bay Packers lost their starting running back Ryan Grant early in the 2010-11 season, and yet they went on to win the Super Bowl. Could that happen in baseball with a similarly valuable player?

2. Intelligent people who make careers out of evaluating the relative merits of baseball players are quick to point out that like a sharp batting eye and a strong throwing arm, the ability to not get hurt (durability) is a skill. This is why a guy like Sizemore, for example, is not as good as he seems. Do you buy this premise?

It’s hard to deny that certain players are more affected by lingering and recurring injury problems than others (i.e. Rafael Furcal). But isn’t there also a spiritual or karmic or at the very least luck-oriented side of all this? Isn’t this why we call them “freak injuries?”

Ted:

My response, in math quiz form:

1. Winning is relative, obviously, in that if you lost a player on a great team, it might become a very good team, which would still be better than a simply good team. I think the team question is a lot more complicated than the individual question. Individual performance is graded in such analytical terms these days that the tendency is to say, well, he’s good or he’s bad for this reason and that reason. But a guy like Hafner reminds me, at least, that there’s not a sort of numbers-based reason that he’s been crummy. It’s a human thing: a confluence of muscle fibers and tendons and psychology worthy of the chaos theory. I don’t know what I’m getting at. We all know that life is complicated.

2. I do buy the premise that some guys get hurt more than others, yeah. Those are the heartbreakers, because the fans among us think that faith can out-duel probability. Like right now Indians fans are feeling pretty convinced that Sizemore will be the story of the year. He’ll come back and lead the World Series parade down whatever the main street in Cleveland is. But the odds are that he won’t. He’ll probably get hurt again. The odds always win given enough time. My dad taught me that (not in a gambling way, in a middle school math way) and he’s much smarter than me.

Question is, does it matter? Does the mystery of injury have anything to do with being a baseball fan, besides the mere presence or absence of a player in the lineup? In other words, what does a simple fan do with the mystical veil of injury?

Eric:

Let’s be honest here, we have no idea what the simple fan does with the veil of injury. I’m not even sure what the veil of injury is. But all fans are affected by the mysterious ways of injuries. When a player is limping along, ineffective, grimacing, tragic, it’s the fans who are forced to sit and watch and pity him. When a star like Grady Sizemore goes down with a seven-year ligament tear, it’s an act of urban blight: another factory shuttering its windows and lettings its remaining employees go, another light on the Cleveland skyline turned out, another devastating blow to that city’s poor sports fans.

What I’m saying is, the mystery of injury has everything to do with being a baseball fan. Especially a baseball fan like you or me. We live for the narrative. And think about all the great baseball storylines defined by injury. Think about Mickey Mantle’s knees or Sandy Koufax’s arm or poor Herb Score’s face. Injuries are as much a part of the games as home runs and strike outs.

And this, my friends, is why the Cleveland Indians will finish in fourth place in the AL Central this season.

The Texas Rangers are Fearless and Friendly

At least some part of the public persona of the Texas Rangers as a baseball club is rooted in the assumption that barrel-chested El Presidente Nolan Ryan is watching. The camera frequently finds him in his seat at games, beside his perfectly touched up Texas beauty queen of a wife, watching his team play like a ranch foreman overseeing his hands bring in a herd of cattle. The Ryan Express is, in my imagination at least, noting every lack of hustle and sign of weakness that he sees from his players, and recording it in a dusty card catalogue in his brain for later dressings down. No other MLB team executive commands such an authoritative presence, especially with Mr. Steinbrenner passed on.

The Rangers did right by Ryan last year, with their run to the World Series, and with an undefeated start to the 2011 season through April 6, they seem poised to take the AL West division again.

But there’s a paradox in play. Where their most visible executive is an old school cowboy of a player who despises pitch counts, the Rangers themselves are a charismatic, crowd-friendly team with a cast of characters you’d more likely find at a bar at midnight than at the ballpark on a Sunday afternoon. The Rangers’ best hitter, Josh Hamilton, is a recovering addict with flame tattoos up and down his forearms, Manager Ron Washington has tested positive for some pretty hard drugs, and lefty starter C.J. Wilson is an adrenaline junky who’s hooked on Twitter. (Nolan Ryan’s thinks twittering is what the ladies do when they get together after church. Hey-o!) The team developed a couple of hand signals just for fun, the claw and the antlers, to celebrate good plays on their run to the World Series. This would’ve gotten you shanked if you’d tried those kind of shenanigans in the Bob Gibson era. Just ask Robin Ventura about respecting the game. (Sidenote: Dave Sims let me know on the Mariners broadcast that the Rangers still play footage of Nolan Ryan mashing Robin Ventura’s face before games.)

Madness without discipline is just madness.

This odd couple leadership structure, with austerity and tradition up top and playfulness further down the line, creates a nice push and pull between the traditional and the contemporary for the Rangers, of the sort that breeds success not only in baseball, but at companies like Google and even in artists. Creativity thrives in circumstances when creative energy is constrained by outward pressures. Madness without discipline is just madness.

The word I would use to describe the Rangers as a team is balance. The lineup has a fine ratio of speed and power, including a lot of power. Ron Washington’s honest and likable approach balances out the big personalities on the team and in the front office. He doesn’t go too far in one direction or the other even as the media tries to stir up stories. The hitters in this lineup are cool, comfortable, and unflappable, from Hamilton–who one imagines has seen corners of the country so dark that a major league strikeout is a chocolate milkshake in comparison–to fearless and friendly Adrian Beltre. Even the pitching on this team has outgrown the old big hit, no-pitch Rangers stereotype.

texas rangers ron washingtonThere are whole libraries devoted to the chemistry of great baseball teams, insisting that planets of personality align perfectly to activate some kind of mystically ordained success. But this Rangers group–which I’ll stop short of calling great and call very good–may prove the anti-theory, played out in Little League and the major leagues, that winning teams have good chemistry because they are good, and that bad teams have bad chemistry because losing sucks. The Michael Young mini-saga, for example, evaporated in the Arlington heat as soon as Nelson Cruz hit a home run in each of the first four games of the season, the minute Ian Kinsler popped a few out himself and stole a base or two, and just as quickly as Neftali Feliz ambled out to the mound and closed out a ballgame as calmly as your average cubicle jockey finishing off a Friday afternoon.

Two of the iconic teams in baseball, the Yankees and the Red Sox, play in a crucible of scrutiny and fanaticism, from the front office to the highest seat in the nosebleeds. In those climes, jocularity is a kind of blemish, a sign of weakness in the face of the game’s most unrelenting pressures.

In Arlington, jocularity is a badge. The smiles rise as the baseball flies. The only one who isn’t smiling is Nolan Ryan. He doesn’t pay himself to smile.

Ben Lyon on The Greatest Debates

Pitchers and Poets contributor Ben Lyon, a lawyer in Chicago, pipes up this week with a look back in time, to several of the great debates that have shaped the course of history.

These are heady times for the sports military industrial complex—the ground is littered with forgotten college basketball teams, the opening filibusters over who will get the #8 seeds in the NBA and NHL playoffs are slowly emerging, and best of all, labor strife in the NFL and the NBA is propelling the insurgent LaCrosse, Wisconsin Assessor candidacy of Mike Golic. Faux-outrage is at its zenith in early March.

But what of the pointless sports debates of previous generations? In our rush to find the next menial debate to fill the final 90 seconds of Around the Horn we fail as citizens if we don’t recognize when a seemingly endless debate is finally settled. Will America ever agree that Bobby Jackson deserved to be NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2002-2003?

Doubtful, as too much blood has been spilled, and the wound on our body politic remains too fresh.

And of course who amongst us can forget the fateful summer of ‘92: Young Cleveland Indian second baseman Carlos Baerga has been selected to the All-Star team as a last-minute injury replacement. The upstart Baerga is selected over avuncular Detroit Tiger first baseman Cecil Fielder. Despair commences in certain quarters, with ESPN Analyst Peter Gammons channeling his best John C. Calhoun impersonation when he says, “Baseball is trying to attract fans! And a lot more people would prefer to watch Fielder than Baerga!!”

(If emoticons had been invented at this point, Gammons would have used the following: “ :< ”)

So who did deserve to be in this All-Star game? Thankfully, the Baseball Writers Association of America is here to serve as our philosopher-king and settle this issue. At first glance, it appears that Gammons was wrong. Baerga (pinch hitting for Roberto Alomar Jr.) went 1-1 in the game; using Moneyball Sabermetics, we can calculate that at this pace, Baerga would have gotten a hit every time for an average of 1.000! Fielder did finish 9th to Baerga’s 11th in the 1992 MVP vote; however, they both finished behind Mike Devereaux, thus invalidating this as an argument.

Fast-forward to this winter, when the wise heads at BBWAA finally ended all debate. Carlos Baerga—he of 3 All-Star games, a league leading 444 Assists in 1995, and six triples in 1993 (good for 9th in the AL)—received 0 Hall of Fame votes. In 2004, Cecil Fielder received 1 Hall of Fame vote. By this indisputable math, the career of Fielder is infinity times better than that of Baerga. It therefore goes without saying that a player who is infinity times better than another deserves to make it into the 1992 All-Star game as an injury replacement.

In 1992, a grave injustice was committed. In the winter of 2011, this injustice was definitively rebuked–well for all except Jay Bell who hit only .264 in 1992 but somehow got 2 HOF votes!

More Not Here

I was interviewed about P&P by Phil Bencomo for The Baseball Chronicle podcast. We talk about the origins of this blog, the American Sports Blogging Experience,  the past/future of the whole writing and sports writing thing, and more. As the singer of one of my once-favorite bands said “if you ain’t got roots, you ain’t got shit.”

Phil asked smart questions, and if you’re into that sort of thing it’s worth a listen:

The Baseball Chronicle Podcast

Thanks Phil, for having me on.

Talking Baseball with Jason Isbell

One thing we’re interested in here at Pitchers & Poets is the space where baseball interacts with, well, everything else in our world. Starting now, and then through the off-season, we’ll speak with folks who’s day jobs aren’t baseball-related but are in one way or another notable, about the old national pastime.

Our first interviewee is singer songwriter Jason Isbell, formerly a Drive-By Trucker, currently leader of his rocking band the 400 Unit. He’s from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, and a huge Atlanta Braves fan.  Next month he hits the road headlining the first ever Paste Magazine tour, along with Langhorne Slim, Jesse Sykes, and more.

We’ll get right to it:

PnP: Leadbelly once said that all songs, in the end, are about baseball. With that in mind, have you written any songs about baseball?

Jason Isbell: I’ve attempted to do so, but it’s not something I’ve felt success with just yet.  I actually discussed doing a concept record about baseball with Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, Monsters of Folk) at one point, but I don’t know if he realized I was serious.  He’s an expert on the game, by the way.

PnP: Do you have a favorite actually about baseball song?

Jason Isbell: I love the poem about the mighty Casey, but I guess that doesn’t qualify as a song.  I always liked the theme song to “Talkin’ Baseball,” the show they played after This Week In Baseball when there was an extra long rain-delay.  Campanella is a really lyrical name.

PnP: How did you become a baseball fan? A Braves fan, specifically?

Jason Isbell: I played ball starting when I was 6, so I followed it then.  I guess my Dad was initially responsible.  My grandparents on Dad’s side were very religious -my granddad had been a Pentecostal preacher- so there wasn’t much they could look to for non-offensive family entertainment.  Because I played ball, my grandparents started watching the Braves on TBS, and they wound up getting a lot of joy out of those games.  As I got a little older, I realized how much they valued the afternoons and evenings we spent together watching Braves baseball, and that made the team mean something very special to me.  I wish they were still around to watch Bobby’s last season.

PnP: Are you worried about the Braves in a post-Cox, post-Chipper Jones era? Or are you confident in the future of the Jason Heyward Braves?

Jason Isbell: I loved them in the Gerald Perry, Dale Murphy days, and I’ll love ’em if they lose again.  However, I think they have a lot of strength in younger players like Heyward, Prado, and Infante, so they should be fine.

PnP: I grew up watching a lot of Braves baseball on TBS and found the Carey/Sutton broadcast team almost impossibly boring. What do you look for in a baseball broadcast?

Jason Isbell: I like the unexpected.  I think the guys on Sports South do a good job, because they aren’t always so serious.  They make some really silly comments and crack themselves up fairly often.

PnP: Twitter seems to be your biggest outlet when it comes to expressing Braves fandom. Have you connected much with other fans or baseball press or even Braves players?

Jason Isbell: I’ve spoken to Dave O’Brien at the AJC quite a bit, and there are lots of Braves fans who also follow my music, so it’s nice to keep in contact with them when I can.  Still trying to start a conversation with the Braves organist, because he’s absolutely hilarious.

PnP: How do being a baseball fan and a musician reconcile? Do you sense any of that high school strain between the rockers and the jocks, or conversely do you see the two as having a beneficial relationship.

Jason Isbell: I was not at all a jock in high school, but I know a lot of musicians who were.  I think we can all get along, especially since baseball is a thinking man’s game.  I also feel it’s not a sport that’s only accessible to the relatively wealthy, like golf, so that made it easier for me to get interested.   I would’ve never been able to afford to play golf as a kid, but you can always find an open field and a stick.

Since we recently discussed American Mythology including the subject of this particular tune, here’s a video of Jason playing his song “The Day John Henry Died” acoustic. Thanks to Jason for his time.