Archive for the 'Thinking' Category

More Zen: In Search of Quality in Baseball

Continuing the Chatauqua I began a few weeks ago with the examination of the now-rejuvenated Chone Figgins, I’d like to ride along with Phaedrus, the protagonist of Robert Pirsig’s novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The first part of the novel devotes its attention to the seeming schism between the romantic view of life and the scientific, the sensory and the logical world. Though very much a scientific person himself, the narrator continues down the road of scientific absolutism to its inevitable endpoint: an emotionless, insubstantial realm of Platonic forms. Everything becomes categorized and understood, but no longer felt. Everything is a number.

To compare this phenomenon to Moneyball is as unfortunate as it is necessary, and so I’ll be as brief as possible. At the core of its well-worn story, Moneyball hides a contradiction: it is the heartwarming tale of a small-market team that succeeds, in part, due to its dehumanizing corporate ideologies. Devalued are the flawed aesthetic input of the scouts, the human but inefficient loyalties to the washed-up veterans. Billy Beane serves as Aristotle, creating and honing systems of thought, cataloging, categorizing. His ability to do this is beyond reproach. His methods bring success, and are thus modeled and reinvented. Those who reject the process are branded as luddites.

Meanwhile, 2,400 years after Aristotle and 20 before Beane, Phaedrus lives and teaches as a professor at the University of Montana. He’s asked one day whether he is teaching “quality” to his students by a passing administrator. He quickly becomes consumed with the notion of quality, what it means and why it matters. Quality is often misconstrued as beauty, the field of aesthetics, but the idea of studying quality itself in some way its own contradiction: to analyze beauty, even to define it, is in some way to bastardize it. Phaedrus continues this line of thinking and decides that Quality not only should not be defined, it cannot be defined. This leads us dangerously close to the precipice of relativism, where everyone’s concept of beauty is internalized and incomparable, meaningless to anyone but ourselves. But quality, whatever it is, avoids the plunge; we all still recognize it in some fashion. We see it by comparing C.C. Sabathia to Sidney Ponson.

It turns out that we have it somewhat easier than Pirsig, in a way. He’s searching for quality in the messy, expansive world of real life; ours is neatly confined to a small diamond. And we have another advantage: we have a shared goal. We all agree on the rules, for the most part. Certainly, there are a few discrepancies: the catcher blocking the plate, the phantom tag at second, or the whimsy of the official scorer. Ask the romantic baseball fan and the scientific baseball fan alike what the ultimate goal of baseball is, and you get the exact same answer: to win. Only the method changes. For the romantics, you win by playing the “right way”. For the scientists, you win by playing the optimal way.

However, quality is not bound to winning as a direct result. The sharp liner caught by a diving first baseman is of greater quality, we would likely agree, than the weak grounder muffed by the shortstop. The result of the play, however, still meets with dissatisfaction (assuming one is rooting for the batting team). The aestheticians and the statisticians both have methods for accounting for this; the former revels in the beauty of the swing, the latter recalculates the batter’s line drive rate. Both are essentially making the same argument: current results may not be indicative of future results. We must reject our initial inclination and think of the long-term.

And yet the divide continues, and will continue. We still argue over the measure of quality. The fault lies in the sport itself; rather, in winning. Take the winning away from baseball and you’d be left with abstract self-expression; there would no longer be constraints on whether to shade your outfielders toward the corners or steal when up by five. Essentially, what you’d have remaining would be bar-league softball, where there’s a score but everyone is too busy playing to remember it. It’s a game where people are walked to set up the triple play. It’s fun.

Baseball can be fun, even for the players whose livelihoods and legacies depend on it, but it’s not meant to be fun. The game is designed to be won or lost, and won at all costs. Phaedrus would have rejected it as a false dichotomy, no real expression of life at all. After all, there are plenty of franchises that are forced to define themselves in some manner other than victory. Excellence, in this case, is the destruction of style and individuality, the reinforcement of conforming to the right and the optimum. This is, of course, what happens to every person in real life, though the forces and the teams are myriad and subtle.

In Pirsig’s novel, Phaedrus rejected both Aristotle and surface emotions. His idea of quality was bound in neither subject nor object, line drive out or ground ball error. Instead, he divorces himself from both and, at the same time, the rules of the game. Quality, he states, is found in the ancient Greek concept of arête, translated loosely in English as excellence. It encompasses respect for the game, and caring about doing well, but leaves the interpretation of greatness to the individual.

Arête is self-excellence, self-reliance; it is not beholding to the world in obedience, nor trying to enslave it through analysis. It is to be part of that world, as well as to be yourself within it. It is Jose Valverde’s celebrations, David Ortiz’s bat flip, and Stan Musial’s somersault. It’s what keeps us (and, really, baseball itself) in business. And it’s what makes it matter.

Jeff Blauser Should be in the Hall of Fame

I saw this headline on Google News:

Voting for Hall of Fame too complicated these days

I so badly wanted the enclosed article to be about the convoluted and absurd process of electing members to the Baseball Hall of Fame that I clicked on the link right away. Alas, it was not about the dumb, difficult Hall of Fame. Rather, it was about the tough moral questions brought on by this corrupt era of steroids.

Now, thanks to the taint of the steroid era, the arrival of the ballot brings dread instead of anticipation, suspicion instead of admiration.

For the second straight year, I look at Jeff Bagwell’s name and wonder if he beat the system while he was also pounding baseballs out of ballparks all across the country. I’d love to vote for him, because he was always a class act whenever I had to interview him and his numbers scream Hall of Famer.

Dread! Suspicion! What is a baseball columnist to do in times like these? After all, this is a world in which terrorists could be hiding under the hedges at the country club and children are just as likely to play soccer as they are tee-ball. Truth is scarce, the Culture is changing. Baseball remains safe. In Baseball things remain the same. There are clear lines drawn between Evil and Good, between Good and Great. Or at least there used to be. (Also: Hall of Fame ballots still come by mail? Really?)

Whining and whispering about which names on the Hall of Fame ballot may have used steroids is a new annual tradition. It’s not likely to go away anytime soon because Hall of Fame voters are losing a grip on the only world that they control — that world of illusions comprised of discarded Gold Glove trophies and dusty Hall of Fame plaques. In their world, morality consists of things like “clutchness” and “being a class act.” It also consists of not hitting home runs between say 1997 and the present because doing so makes you suspicious and suspicions are like fog and fog makes it harder to see.

So we’re stuck with a bunch of writers losing their grip on the one relatively meaningless thing they are tasked with controlling. We’re stuck with poor Bob Brookover at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who after grousing about Jeff Bagwell, concludes that he would rather not have to vote for the Hall of Fame at all because it’s just so damn difficult.

I did not enjoy actually filling out the ballot and I am starting to believe it is an impossible task that would be better left to someone else.

Actually Mr. Brookover, it’s just the opposite. Filling out a Hall of Fame ballot is a super easy, super possible, and totally inconsequential task. All you have to do is look at a bunch of names, decide which ones you like, and then write them down or check the box next to them — I’m not sure how precisely a voter marks his or her choices on the ballot.

Previously I’ve argued that we should let more people into the Hall of Fame because the institution’s purpose should be bringing joy to fans, not operating as a vehicle for exclusion. Along those lines, it seems foolish to let suspicions rules our thinking about a place that is meant to celebrate baseball, not moralize over it. Let’s make things easier, not harder. (Pete Rose and Joe Jackson should be in too, of course.)

I’ve suggested adding fan voting and lowering the threshold for election from 75 percent to 70 percent of writers. I’d like double down on the call for a popular vote — let’s make room for beloved players who don’t have the gaudy numbers — and then go one further. The writer vote should should go by a simple majority: If more than 50 percent of writers think Jeff Bagwell is Hall of Fame worthy, then he is Hall of Fame worthy. And if Atlanta fans can make a compelling case for him, Jeff Blauser ought to be Hall of Fame worthy too.

More speeches. More plaques. More joy.

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!

Why I Write (About Baseball)

Recently I sat amidst the fog of a Seattle summer morning and read a short essay by George Orwell entitled “Why I Write”.  Like Orwell, I recognized at a young age that I was a writer whether I actually wrote anything or not.  I wrote short novels in elementary school, poetry in high school, essays in college, all of them shamelessly derivative.  When I read, I found myself considering what worked and what didn’t work, how the words evoked reactions from me.  Each time I faced my lack of originality and the surplus of talent already out there in the world, and walked away, I came back again.  I think that most writers feel this way, especially in their youth.

Six months ago I turned to the internet and baseball, primarily to find a way to toy with words while escaping the drudgery of the endless string of term papers.  The quarter ended but the writing didn’t.  Last night my wife threw a sidelong glance at me.  “Why do people write about baseball, anyway?” she asked, glancing at the open Word document on my screen.

“Funny you should ask,” I said.

In his essay, Orwell outlines four primary reasons why writers are driven to write, ignoring financial concerns.  They are:

1. Egoism, the desire to accrue fame and reputation, and to prove one’s worth in relation to one’s colleagues.
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm, simple appreciation for the subject matter at hand.
3. Historical impulse, the desire to catalogue the past exactly as it happened and to put events in their correct order.
4. Political purpose, in its most open-ended sense: writing with intent to persuade the reader and alter the world through that connection.

In the realm of sportswriting there will never be any shortage of the first of these four causes.  This is especially true online, where self-promotion and social networking have become increasingly vital to one’s success.  Fame is a sort of social capital for writers, so easily quantified through the number of page views, comments, and followers.  This is neither a good nor a bad thing, and I very much doubt that many people are drawn to the vocation solely or even primarily for the ego boost it provides.  The anonymous internet commenter is always there to provide an instant remedy for such delusions.

Aesthetic enthusiasm, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited to the sport of baseball and the internet does nothing to decrease its sentiment.  Few people would write about baseball if they didn’t already love the game.  If the writing is good it will foster this love in the reader, only furthering their desire to read more.  What makes baseball writing so vivid and varied is that each writer can find (and convey) their own unique appreciation of the sport.  It can be economics, statistics, or militaristic imagery; it can even be poetry.

The historical motive is the least obvious, but perhaps the one to which baseball owes the most.  I am continually amazed at the precision and quantity of data available to the baseball fan, minutia spanning from the alteration of the length of a stirrup to the performance of men who played the game in wheat fields a hundred and thirty-five years ago.  That we have this historical foundation is due to the labor of thousands of determined, admiring fans.  The internet, however, erodes this impulse somewhat, as it’s difficult for the writer to create a sense of permanence in a form of media which is inherently transitory.

Orwell’s own passion came from the political purpose of writing.  He concludes the essay with this line: “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”  Those who have read Animal Farm and 1984 would be unsurprised.  Baseball doesn’t appear as though it would suit Orwell particularly well, but there are certain elements of political struggle present in sportswriting.

The world of baseball naturally lends itself to partisanship.  It divides people into cultural regions, bound to a single baseball team, and demands of them an oath of loyalty.  These regions are peppered with the occasional transplant, who must struggle in foreign lands and can only rely on USA Today and the internet to receive tidings from home.

Because of the remote nature of the game, most fans connect to it through argument.  Some of the most romantic experiences we have with baseball are arguments: the kibitzing of the angry mob on sports radio after the blown save, or the debate at the bar over the Hall of Fame.  The national media takes this argumentation and capitalizes on it, sensibly stoking the fire in order to drive traffic.  Fans from each corner of the country clamber for the mystical quality that is “respect” from the journalism personalities.

We also see this political undercurrent to the never-ending battle between the sabermetric and traditional baseball analysis communities.  These debates are pitched, and much is at stake; Felix Hernandez in part owes his Cy Young award to the charisma of baseball writers, as does Bert Blyleven his plaque.  But as often as these conversations result in good, intellectually stimulating give and take, more often they’re simple diatribes aimed at the already converted.  Edginess and a willingness to ruffle feathers win out over insightful analysis.  Fans are yet again driven to take sides, and the result is an atmosphere eerily similar to politics.

Orwell would have been fine with all of this.  But Orwell lived in a different time, one where he could afford the luxury of moral superiority.  He wrote in the era of Hitler, and in Hitler the idea of an enemy to which all other enemies since have been compared via hyperbole.  It was a time when strength fought strength, one of the reasons we still find that moment in history so appealing.  But as fine a book as Animal Farm was, there is little in baseball that is so black and white.  When it comes to baseball, I find that I can’t avoid being a relativist.

There’s one aspect of writing that Orwell couldn’t foresee, and that’s the blurring of the line between writing and publication.  The act of writing itself, regardless of whether it’s read or thrown away, has the effect of organization, forcing the author to order his or her own thoughts.  The research and reflection necessary for good writing – or even writing that just tries to be good – helps people to improve upon their knowledge.  This is the same with conversation, which helps people clarify their ideas and understand how relevant they are to the world around them.  Every piece of writing is an extension between author and reader, an attempted exchange of ideas.  This exchange can certainly be persuasive.   But in the end it’s primarily personal, an individual expression that may or may not reach the next person down the line.

Here at Pitchers & Poets, there’s little pretense about our preference for the aesthetic.  I believe that everything has to mean something, even baseball.  It’s not enough for me to say that something is good or that this causes this to happen; I’m not even particularly interested in efficiencies or the process of winning baseball games, beyond a clinical, mathematical viewpoint.  I want to write about baseball as allegory, as a symbol for something greater than the game itself and greater than me, myself.  The game is something that connects all of us, forms a framework by which we can develop other ideas about the world as a whole.

My hope is that this framework can attach to the framework of others to build something meaningful.  It’s not a war, nor is it an attempt at a Pyrrhic victory.  I write because I like sharing ideas, and sharing them makes them better.  Why people read baseball writing is a separate discussion entirely.

Style, Sin, and Matt Kemp

Matt Kemp might be the most exciting player in baseball. He has two less home runs than Jose Bautista. He has as many stolen bases as Ichiro. He plays center field (not exceptionally well, according to advanced statistics, but with a hell of a lot of verve). Matt Kemp is everything you could want in a baseball hero, especially a center fielder. He’s glamorous. He’s practically electromagnetic.

He is also my fantasy center fielder. This is a good thing. Matt Kemp is batting .329/.406/.620. He has 18 home runs and 14 steals in 17 attempts. He hit his first triple of the season yesterday in a game that saw him fall a single short of the cycle (we’ll get back to that in a bit). The reason I bring up Kemp, and his place on my fantasy team, and his near-cycle performance, is so I can bring up the following: Despite the fact that he’s my favorite player on my favorite team, and despite the fact that I’m what’d you call a semi-professional baseball fan, I’ve only seen Kemp bat about a dozen times this year.

This is a product of my unwillingness to shell out for This is also a product of something Eric Freeman talked about in his post on Wednesday. He argued that Bryce Harper will force us to watch baseball players as performers, as stylistic actors, and not just as stats-producing robots whose amassed results matter more than the actual physicality of their play. It’s a shame that for me – and for many reasons, I imagine much of America – Matt Kemp’s 2011 season has thus far been relegated to a bunch of high numbers on a screen.

Matt Kemp deserves to be watched. He’s big and fast. He’s handsome. His home runs all seem to go to center and right center field. And when he crouches in his stance and his bat points out over his head toward the shortstop and he steps into a pitch you can’t help but be awed by the quickness of his swing, by how light the bat looks during his one-handed finish, and especially by the inherent and surprisingly understated balance of the entire motion. When Matt Kemp plays baseball, he’s an aesthetic pleasure — even when he’s getting bad jumps on fly balls in center field.

Of course style is what a certain kind of sports columnist can’t stand about Matt Kemp. He spoke poorly of Jeff Kent at too young an age (speaking poorly of assholes is only okay for white veterans who hustle, obviously). He took at-bats away from a sadly washed up and frustrated Luis Gonzalez. He dated a pop singer. He made a handful of overly aggressive base-running mistakes. These are Matt Kemp’s sins.

They bring us to his game last night against the Rockies: Kemp went 3-5; he homered, tripled, and doubled; he struck out twice, once in the ninth inning with Andre Ethier standing on second base. It was the kind of performance no sane baseball fan can argue with. But a single short of the cycle is also the kind of game Matt Kemp would have.

It’s the kind of game that leaves him short of the segment he deserves on Baseball Tonight. It’s the kind of game that a certain kind of sports columnist might use as a metaphor. Sure he went 3-5 with three extra base hits, but he didn’t do the little things. Matt Kemp is all big flies and big style, a certain columnist might write, but where’s the substance? The stuff of victory is made of? Where are the clutch singles? And what was with that ninth-inning strikeout?

I didn’t see the game. I watched the highlights. It was a typically shitty evening for a Dodger fan in 2011. (As a team, the 2011 Dodgers fail at both the stylistic and analytical criteria). A lot of the lineup failed to hit. The defeated bullpen helped Clayton Kershaw blow a game in classic Coors Field form. But Matt Kemp played baseball. He played it the same way he has all year: the way that makes me want to watch more baseball.

Nothing is Frivolous

When I first met Clay Huntington, he was only my friend Janelle’s grandfather. He seemed like an important man. He sat in the press box at Mariners games. He drove a red Crown Victoria. He had something – I didn’t know exactly what – to do with the Mariners’ AAA team, the Tacoma Rainiers.

Now Janelle is my girlfriend. She has been for a couple of years. Clay passed away last week. He was 89 years old. If you live in Seattle and follow baseball closely, or live in Tacoma and follow local news at all, you probably heard about it. The term every obituary has used describe Clay is “civic icon.” It’s a formless phrase, but I think in this case it works. Clay’s purpose in life was defined first by his family, second by his community, and third by baseball.

It’s impossible to talk about him without talking about Tacoma, the Puget Sound, and really the entire Pacific Northwest. When I started this article, I was drinking coffee out of a cup with his face on it from some long-ago function at which he was honored. On Thursday, the Rainiers put together their own tribute to Clay. They carved CH into the dirt behind second base, they presented the family with a customized jersey, they played a video tribute and took care of everybody with a nice suite on the third base line.

Clay was Pierce County Commissioner. In 1976, he threw his hat in the ring for governor of Washington before dropping out due to low polls and sagging fundraising. Clay would have probably been a good governor – the kind of executive who finds compromises where they need to be found, runs the state efficiently, and is legitimately concerned with the well-being all of his constituents. But I’m not surprised his campaign stalled out. Clay was never one for the spotlight, and although a great advocate for causes he believed in, he lacked the requisite taste for self-promotion.

I mention Clay’s politics because they are an integral part of what he taught me. Clay was a journalist, a play-by-play man, a leading force in bringing baseball to Tacoma – and then keeping it there. He founded the Tacoma Athletic Commission and the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame, which this year inducted Edgar Martinez and John Olerud. He was by all accounts loved and respected in the press box, the announcer’s booth, and even in the clubhouse.

His personal interests and mine lined up pretty squarely. I too love politics and baseball. I try, if not always as hard as I should, to be an active citizen. But the special thing about Clay Huntington, the thing that will stick with me, was the way he held these institutions in equal regard. To Clay, baseball was a crucial part of the fabric of the South Puget Sound. It was, if not necessary, then worth celebrating, and worth fighting for, and worth a lifetime of hard work on its own merits alone.

I sometimes struggle with this concept. I tend to write sports off as frivolous. I tend to disparage myself for spending more time reading about baseball than about the burgeoning war in Libya or about local politics or about whatever else that seems, at first glance, more weighty. Sometimes I tell myself I will only write about baseball until the time comes to write about something “more serious.” This, of course, is silly. Sports are plenty serious. They merit our attention not just as important cultural entities, but as enclosed worlds to be respected and appreciated on their own terms.

This is the lesson that Clay understood. Pursue your passions without doubt, without shame, and with a greater cause than your own ego in mind. Until the end of his life, Clay lived this. He went to work at the radio station he owned, typing away on his typewriter. He read every kind of magazine every month. What mattered was not whether he was reading The Atlantic or the Sporting News – what mattered was that he was reading at all.

The Angel of Life

I turned on NPR yesterday to hear a couple of people who were not Frank Deford talking about the Dodgers being taken over by Major League Baseball. If you weren’t aware, the Dodgers have been taken over by Major League Baseball. Although it may not feel that way to fans who have followed the McCourt ordeal closely and to bloggers trapped in the never-ending cyclone of baseball information, this is big and news. National news. It was the front page story on the New York Times website.

I marked the occasion by starting a Twitter campaign to get MLB to appoint former assistant GM Kim Ng to run the team (I’ll take credit for this idea, because why not?). I also marked the occasion by grinning joyously. It may not seem that way, but this is good news. This is progress. For a fan like me, who is willing to sacrifice short term goodies for long term stability – or at least solvency – the MLB takeover of the Dodgers is a good thing.

Another thing I’ve been yelling about on Twitter is the Jewish holiday of Passover. Passover celebrates the ancient Hebrews and their escape – at the hands of god, acting through Moses – from the grip of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his slave-driving, child-killing ways. The comparison I’ve been working with most is recent callup Jerry Sands as Moses. Kershaw as the Angel of Death. And on and on. Now a more apt metaphor has presented itself:

The Hebrews left Egypt only to encounter 40 years of wandering the desert. It took them 40 years to find the Holy Land. This takeover by Bud Selig, this liberation from the hands of the Pharaoh McCourt, is the first step on the Dodgers’ journey to their own land of milk and honey. There may be rough and confusing times ahead. After all, nobody took Bud Selig for a savior. There may be false idols and bland, unleavened bread in our future. But there is also a better day coming. This is a freedom story.

Some other thoughts:

1. The Dodgers are not the Montreal Expos. They are not the Hornets, either. The Dodgers have a history of fantastic attendance. They have a wonderful stadium. There is no reason at all to be concerned about the team leaving LA.

2. This seems obvious but it also seems worth reiterating: so much depends on who the new ownership is. Less depends on how long it takes for MLB to line that owner up. After all, having a limited budget for off-season maneuvering might have prevented the Dodgers from signing Juan Uribe this year. Not such a bad thing to put Colletti on a shoestring.

3. For the first time in my life, I am singing praises for baseball’s anti-trust exemption.

4. On that note, I would love it if somebody could explain the bylaws that make it possible for Bud Selig to actually remove Frank McCourt from control of the team. Couldn’t this lead to a new round of ugly litigation? (This, of course, being the worst case scenario.

5. Somehow none of this seems any worse than Fox and trading Mike Piazza. Maybe it’s because this time I’m 24, not twelve.

Milton Bradley Revisited

I’m getting to be like a concerned parent with all this Milton Bradley stuff. My friend Brett (who blogs about the Mariners’ AAA affiliate Rainiers for alt-weekly Tacoma Volcano), said he can barely stand to watch Milton Bradley play. Brett sees the intense grimacing and the agony in Bradley’s eyes and the tightness with which he grips the bat and can’t help but feel the ominous presence of some future Bradley explosion creeping beneath the surface.

I realized, of course, that Brett is right.* It can be hard to watch Milton Bradley . And for different reasons, I’m probably worse than Brett is. I don’t worry that he will explode – there’s a weirdly maternal sense of denial telling me everything will be okay. Instead, I worry that the world will be cruel to Milton, that it will judge him unfairly, that it will seek out the worst angels of his nature.

*Brett was less right when he told me “To be a Milton Bradley apologist is human, to be a Matt Tuiasasasopo apologist is divine.”

Maybe I need to just accept the facts. I need to realize that the world will never accept Milton Bradley. Unless he hits for the cycle and fixes social security and starts dating Natalie Portman in the next few months, this will be another lost season in the public eye. Milton Bradley himself seems to have come to terms with this reality. To silence – or at least quiet – the boos, he has begun wearing earplugs on the field.

In theory this is not such a bad idea. The earplugs bring their own round of ridicule, but this time the ridicule comes with the knowledge that Bradley actually gives a shit, that he wants to make right, that he hears the world and that the listening is now too painful. But Bradley’s earplugs are more than just a mirror held up to ruthless fans; they are a declaration of independence from them. He’s given up trying to win the public over. He’s isolating himself on the field. If anything, this puts more pressure than before on Bradley to perform.

The earplugs also make me nervous. They make me cringe. Don’t you realize, I want to tell him, that this just makes you even weirder? Don’t you realize that this is not a solution – that you’re addressing only the symptoms? The earplugs can’t drown out everything, they can’t make the media disappear and they can’t silence every heckler. Plus, if something does go wrong, then they are an even bigger joke – and Bradley too is an even bigger joke.

I hope I can soon leave this topic behind. I hope Bradley stays healthy and plays good baseball this year. I know the cringe-factor is part of what draws me to Bradley – the potential for something volatile. But I hope that it fades away and that the emotions we do see – like during that sacred season in Arlington – spill forth joyously.


Worth noting that this all comes couched in my ever-increasing confidence that Milton Bradley is a good person; that his problems are significant, but they can’t define his nature. Mariners broadcaster Ken Levine said Bradley was a tremendously nice guy. He apparently has a sense of humor about himself as well. A fan essay on Lookout Landing last week (thanks Kenneth), described Bradley giving his bat and batting gloves to a pair of kids at Spring Training, garnering a round of applause for the deed, then stiffening up. He scowled and put his finger to his lips and told them “Hey now folks, keep it down!  I have a reputation to keep up here.”

Hank Waddles, who writes for the Bronx Banter and runs Go Mighty Card (a Stanford blog), shared an epic Bradley story in the comments to the Encino Man post from a while back. What it comes down to is that Bradley is an extremely gracious guy when it comes to his community, especially young people in his community. You should read it.

An Unpretentious Jovial Appreciation for Everything

Mike Sweeney never hit 30 homeruns in a season. For this and many other reasons, he was the kind of ballplayer children with big league dreams but a strong sense of their own limitations could aspire to be. If you told your parents you wanted to be the next Barry Bonds, they’d laugh. If you told them you wanted to be the next Mike Sweeney they might shrug their shoulders and say, “well why not?”

This is especially true for those of us who aren’t from Kansas City. I can’t speak to what Sweeney meant in that city, to those fans. As the brightest and longest-burning light the franchise has seen over the last twenty years, I imagine it’s quite a lot. For seven seasons, Sweeney played all-star caliber first base in jovial obscurity. (Be grateful it was not eight seasons, because if it was, I would surely have written a long essay comparing the light of Sweeney in Kansas City to the Jewish miracle of Hanukkah in which a night’s worth of oil burned for eight nights.)

He never did hit 30 home runs. But he did hit .340 once, and .333 once. He also played a few seasons at catcher, which I had totally forgotten about because Sweeney is one of those archetypal first basemen. He’s the kind of guy Ted and I discussed on the podcast last week – the kind of guy who you can’t imagine at any other position. At first base that often reflects obesity or hulking inability to play anywhere else. But not for Sweeney. Sweeney was an archetypical first baseman because you got the sense he genuinely enjoyed it. As he devolved into a designated hitter, you got the sense that he genuinely missed those short chats with opposing first base coaches and base runners.

There’s more, of course. He’s a famously nice guy. He’s a practical joker. He’s a “clubhouse guy.” Sweeney has also been one of baseball’s most notable Christians* for the last decade (makes the Hanukkah metaphor all the more tempting). The Mike and Shara Sweeney foundation’s website features this sentence on its home page:

“We believe that God’s love is so great.”

It’s a perfect sentence for Mike Sweeney The simplicity. The banality. The unpretentious jovial appreciation for everything. It’s as if Sweeney knows that if he played in New York or Chicago or almost anywhere else, his legacy would not be as special: he wouldn’t be the beacon of light in a Midwest town where baseball hope is dead. He’d just be another pretty good first baseman in an era chock full of them.

*He’s a Catholic, to be precise.

Image via flickr user BarryGeo

What I Learned from Scorekeeping Week

by Thomas Hawk

What did I learn from Scorekeeping Week, after baseball fans of different stripes and styles weighed in on their scorekeeping tics and habits?

I learned, mostly, that a scorecard is a living text, and that the act of scorekeeping far exceeds in value what the resulting document offers. Our contributors, commenters, and friends around the web enjoy keeping score, not the kept score. Watching a baseball game, the scorekeeper watches the game, sees something differently, participates in a new way, or in an old way. They grip the scorecard and pencil like the handles hanging down on a subway car, crowded among all the other passengers on this baseball train.

I’ve learned, during Scorekeeping Week, that keeping score is an action, and a scorecard lives brilliantly for a particular time, rolling out in tune to the game like Kerouac’s single scroll of On the Road manuscript. Downhill writing, recording each moment and that moment’s connection between the fingers and the pencil or the typewriter. Recording oneself watching.

Writing a scorecard, you never get to stop. Mistakes happen, the game goes on, the game goes crazy, columns bleed into one another, time marches on. There are no second drafts, no revisions. Downhill writing, time-saving codes that lay another layer of meaning over top, another translation. What’s lost in translation is what is gained.

The personality of the scorer defines his or her scorekeeping. The expressive marks of the emotional fan, like Alex Belth, who only scores the games whose results he cares about, are bound to stray and straggle. The pragmatic baseball broadcaster’s book will be color-coded and clean, a fast and functional reference point to help verbalize the game in real-time. The designer’s book will reflect, from curated cover to the least last leaf, the fashionable modes you’d expect to see in an urban coffee shop or ad firm. The scorecard of the doodler will fill up with lines that wander as the mind that guides them wanders.

The truth is relative, in baseball like in any arena. Witness the Hall of Fame debates, the steroid hunt, the sabermetricians and their resistors. Even professional scorekeepers disagree over the judgment calls. Baseball is said to be a highly quantifiable game, and it is. But for all of the concreteness of scoring a baseball game, of making sure that the indisputable facts go down in the record, the divergences are the most intriguing, when facts give way to debate, and when the complicated spiderweb of action goes madly down in the book like it was written on a Doc Ellis bender.

A scholar named Bruner once said that literature “renders the obvious less so.” Poetry, in other words, makes the ordinary seem strange. The scorecard and the act of scorekeeping translate a simple act–playing a baseball game–into another, equally simple-seeming, but wholly mysterious and reflective one, the art that we here at this blog and countless other bloggers and zine-makers and novelists and journalists pursue at their own risk: the perilous act of writing things down.

Peter, of A Building Roam, put it nicely in a comment on Patrick Dubuque’s Poetics of Scorekeeping (as did Patrick, in the piece itself):

When I was growing up, I always had to escort my grandmother to church (which I hated). She was so devoted that every single time she’d be holding the book, keeping up with everything that was read and singing with every song and I know this was because she was there to have an EXPERIENCE. I haven’t been to church in years and would never go back, but I consider the ballpark to be a cathedral, a site of gathering for ritual, and to keep score is like the grandmothers keeping up with the readings and songs. Having an experience.