On Snake Oil, Gem Mint Rookie Cards, and Dmitri Young


Jesse Gloyd is approaching regular contributor status at P&P. He’s written about fishing in the LA River, and about Satchel Paige on the site. Check out his podcast Buckshot Boogaloo.

Talk of coming back is always inspiring, but it rarely produces much more than the fleeting spark of its initiation. Baseball players seem to endure more than most. Jose Canseco is perpetually coming back. Jose Canseco exists in a constant state of comebackdom—his is a purgatorial existence. He inhabits a metaphorical space where mildly desperate men barnstorm in the shadow of Waffle Houses and Satchel Paige. Dmitri Young seems to be on the precipice of this space. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that he might, indeed, still be able to play baseball, but it will be a hard sell. The comeback is the snake oil of the modern age. Dmitri Young’s agent has stated that Dmitri Young has put in the work, that he is in shape. His age, thirty-eight, is the great common denominator, but we are told he physically acts and looks like a baseball player again. His ability to look like a baseball player is the shine of the bottle, the twisting graphic of the snake in the desert.

Many years ago my dad and I drove out to Rio Mesa High School to watch Dmitri Young play baseball. He was the best amateur I was ever told I needed to watch. He was the only amateur living in the area I made a point to check out. I remember the gravel of the parking lot and I remember watching him through a chain link backstop. I have this blurry image of Dmitri Young swinging. I don’t remember much, but his career was a career I followed, his was a career with which I connected. He was always engaging. When he initially came up and had success, I felt my investment had paid off. His success was a validation. I found some mild sense of worth in his existence as an entertainer, as an athlete, as a person who could direct a baseball with precision.

Two months ago Dmitri Young walked into the winter meetings with the air of a salesman. His product was his person. He had lost weight. He had become a thing of the past again. He claimed that he would again be beneficial to whoever took a chance on him, but like all beneficial things with expiration dates, people wondered whether his had expired. They still doubt. They doubt for good reason. Dmitri Young is trying to play baseball again. Baseball players have expiration dates. Dmitri Young is thirty-eight. He is very much past his prime. He had a trade and he applied his trade as well as could have been expected. He hit and he entertained. He was an artist. He perfected his craft. Even with everything he went through, everything that got in the way—the mess with the drinking and all the reciprocal fall out; he managed to exist as an artist, as a craftsman with a valuable skill.

You can still buy snake oil. It still exists and people use and it might still have some enlightened properties. Snake oil, like Dmitri Young and the comeback, has been marred by years of a perceived lack of usefulness. In the 1980s neurophysiology researcher Richard Kunin found that Chinese water-snake oil contained eicosapentaenoic acid. Eicosapentaenoic acid is a vital omega-3 fatty acid. The Chinese knew what they were doing. The past performance of snake oil was the thing that made it an agent of future success, even if it never was truly utilized properly. The problem with snake oil, the problem that that shaped our collective perception of its existence as something useless, is the fact that it was often impossible for grifters and frontier doctors to procure Chinese water-snakes. Because of this deficiency, grifters and frontier doctors began using rattlesnake oil as an alternative.

Dmitri Young is buying and selling memories of promise.Rattlesnakes and rattlesnake wranglers, the men who tamed the serpents, became the main attraction at the medicine show. Rattlesnakes moved units. The rattlesnake and the rattlesnake wrangler’s ability to tame became the exciting products in themselves. The excitement surrounding the rattlesnake wrangler’s dance with death mesmerized. The excitement helped make rattlesnake oil a valuable commodity. Over time though, the true nature of the oil was revealed. Though abundant, extracting the oil from an actual rattlesnake was a messy bit of business. Grifters and frontier doctors began abandoning the actual oil altogether—pushing bottles of ineffective liquid, often oil and water spiked with red pepper and wintergreen. The masses grew skeptical. Articles were written and investigations were launched. Eventually, the bottles were confiscated and the manufacturers rendered obsolete. Snake oil became snake oil even if in its true state snake oil wasn’t necessarily snake oil.

When he is not making comebacks, when he is not marketing himself as a shadow of a thing he used to be, Dmitri Young can be found selling his near perfect baseball card collection on the world wide web and at card shows across the country. His baseball card collection is comprised of a myriad of Gem Mint 10 graded rookie cards. I went to the auction site where his cards will be on sale in the coming months and poked around a bit. Dmitri Young’s baseball card collection is a good collection. It’s a staggering, enviable collection. The collection looks as if it was an investment, an indulgence. The collection is a tip of the cap to a time and a place. It is a tip of the cap to the beginning of things.

Snake oil too, in all of its forms, is a tip of the cap to the beginning of things. We accept snake oil in all of its different forms because it reminds us of the promise of youth, the promise of rebirth. The problem at the heart of the Dmitri Young’s obsession with perfect rookie card is that it points, whether conscious or not, to the inherent fear that seems to live in the soul of the athlete. The athlete is an artist whose art is rooted in physique and time. Dmitri Young is buying and selling memories of promise. His card collection is a reflection of an unattainable desire. The collection is a cardboard homage to birth, to rebirth. The cards and their quantifiable perfection exude innocence. The cards reflect the nature of youth in all of its simple, beautiful glory. There is an element of memory rooted in their existence. The youthfulness is analogous to the stereotype of the young band that hears their song for the first time on the radio in the car. They are all the same: Brian Wilson with the top down, unable to grow a beard, Ron Cey sans mustache framed next to Mike Schmidt sans mustache.

Dmitri Young worked out for the Pittsburgh Pirates last week. He looked good. He was able to play and create something from nothing. Clint Hurdle said good things. Dmitri was optimistic. His road has been hard, but his journey isn’t new. It seems quite obvious he believes his peace is found on the field. He was never perfect, he was never the best, but he was real. His craft never had to be propped up with red pepper and wintergreen. It was a thing of beauty, championed by many because it was real and beneficial, perfect and good, like the corner of a Gem Mint 1969 Topps Reggie Jackson and the healing oil of a Chinese water snake.

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 Conversation: Location, Dislocation, and A.J. Burnett

Ted: Well, Eric, we are in the dregs of the offseason, after all of the big free agents have signed with their new teams, but before Spring Training begins in earnest. It’s the time of year when, for example, we learn that A.J. Burnett’s no-trade list of teams does include the Los Angeles Angels but does not include the Pittsburgh Pirates. That explains his “Winners are for Losers” tattoo, but does it tell us anything about anything else?

Eric: Has a single top free agent landed at his expected destination this year? Jose Reyes maybe? Nobody saw Pujols to Anaheim or Fielder to Detroit. Yu Darvish had no choice in the matter of which team bid up for his services. What I’m getting at is that for all of our projecting, we have no idea what a given player is thinking at a given time. Maybe A.J. Burnett is a really big fan of the Steelers. Or maybe he’s saying “I’ve had enough with all these high-pressure pennant races and playoff starts and I just want to play baseball.” This brings me to a broader question: If a player is effective — not to say that Burnett is effective — can we begrudge him for choosing to pass up winning and instead being content to swaddle himself in pleasant, low-pressure mediocrity? Baseball players can have different motivations; to reduce them to mercenaries out for fat Borasian paychecks and late-career World Series rings seems silly.

For instance, maybe Albert Pujols didn’t leave St. Louis because of a lack of perceived “respect.” Maybe he left because he was tired of all the obligations and stresses that went along with being ALBERT PUJOLS CIVIC ICON AND HEIR TO STAN MUSIAL. Maybe he just wanted to live in a nice subdivision with his family and have nothing more expected of him than dingers.

Ted: FYI, I have reported your last question to the House of Unamerican Activities, so please ignore the funny buzzing in your smartphone every time you answer a call from one of your commie friends. You see, Eric, professional baseball is about winning. The money, the swag, the buzz; it’s all about winning. I won’t accept any arguments that winning and losing are really just feeble constructs derived to delineate other statistically insignificant entities from one another for the sake of gambling or self-congratulation. I’ll leave that to This American Life.

Really, though, the insanity of this offseason proves that players’ decisions are driven by unseen forces like everything else in this Gladwellian world. A lot of it is about money, but there are subtle changes afoot. For example, Jered Weaver took a pay cut to play in Anaheim, and players now go on the DL for psychological issues. Those are but small fissures in the monolith of money and winning.

That said, isn’t every baseball player an itinerant worker spending half his days in hotels no matter where he signs? Does geography even matter?

Eric: Let’s never use the term Gladwellian ever again. (Talk about Tipping Points, if ya know what I mean). Despite the fact that players spend half of their time in-season on the road, and the fact that they often live elsewhere during the winter months, I do think geography matters. Geography is part of brand. The charm of the Cardinals is not just the pretty birds on the uniform or the history of winning or the echoes of Jack Buck, but the fact that once upon a time they were this frontier team whose radio broadcasts reached entire swaths of America that no other team was reaching. The very location of St. Louis matters. The same goes for the Dodgers moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and the Giants moving from Harlem to San Francisco.

I think players are aware of brand and what it means to be a member of a certain franchise. A.J. Burnett might not have okayed the Pirates specifically because he likes rivers or wants to play in the city of Roberto Clemente, but Hiroki Kuroda certainly chose to sign with the Yankees because they are the Yankees. And the Yankees are the Yankees in part because they play in New York City. We’ve talked before about Pujols’ suburban nature and how well that fits in with the Angels brand and the Angels locale. Here in Seattle, you can’t go a week in the offseason without some story breaking about how Free Agent X doesn’t want to play in the Pacific Northwest.

Location matters. But so does dislocation. Maybe geography in baseball is best understood as negative space. The map remains still while the baseball professional (player, coach, scout, journalist) moves from his offseason home to his Spring Training home to his in-season home, and then criscrosses the country on a jet for six months only to return again to his offseason home.

Besides being hell on relationships, all that moving around has to have some kind of grand effect on the collective baseball psyche right?

Ted: A baseball fan today can travel at the speed of light to any point on baseball map, via MLB TV. For that and other Gladwellian reasons, geography is less important to the fan than ever. It’s not to say that cities and stadia are unimportant, but there’s not doubt that a dislocated fan has far fewer barriers to his or her community. If St. Louis was a clearinghouse for all points West, today no single place can command its citizens. Note, for example, the number of baseball bloggers who are able to follow their team as well as some journalists…from across the country.

As for the players, there’s little doubt that city and state matters, though I’m sure it’s personal and there are just as many mercenaries that could care less where they play. Seattle may well be the most difficult city in the nation to attract players to with it’s brisk stadium and atropical meteorology.

Is there a difference, then, between the fan who lives near its team, and those who track from far off lands?

Eric: The fan experience is different if you’re in diaspora. People around me in Seattle aren’t talking about the Dodgers. The games aren’t on in the background at bars. I can’t casually flip to them on television. For me to be a Dodger fan I have to go out of my way; I have to be conscientious about it. In diaspora, it’s hard to maintain passive fandom.

But you’re back in Houston now, back with your Astros. If there’s a difference you’ll be the person to discover it in the coming moths.

A True Nightmare by Ross Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Nothing’s Ever Wrong: A Fan’s Inquiry Into the Role of the Baseball Rumor

"Whispering" Bill Barrett

There were two astronomically important free agents on the market this off-season, and a constellation of three more high-profile players to fill the offseason skies and guide the navigation of the fleets of baseball’s rumor mongers. Messages like naval mail scattered in the wind and filled the hours and minutes with updates, insights, and, well, rumors.

For Albert Pujols it was talk of massive Miami money, of cratering Cardinals commitment, and shortcomings in Chicago. Speculation gave way to conjecture, built on a foundation of endless assumption. Hundreds if not thousands of blogs weighed in. MLBTradeRumors posted update upon update tracking the subtle shifts in negotiation. Cubs? Cardinals? Marlins?

Then Pujols signed with the Angels, miles away from any team mentioned anywhere. My daily Internet baseball rounds revealed a tenor of surprise among the rumor elite, followed quickly by some analysis, and almost no talk of the light years of time spent getting everything wrong.

Enter Prince Fielder, about whom the star-watchers strung us along with talk of the Nationals, the Mariners, the Rangers, the Orioles. Not a mention of the team that actually signed the guy, the Tigers. The Internet was wrong again, left to mutter awkwardly to itself, recalling perhaps a stray sentence in a post two years ago that may have mentioned off-hand that the Tigers were a possible trade target for prospects, barring a strong play by etc. etc.

Of course I know that “wrong” isn’t just the right term to employ, because our “rumor” mongers use the term to couch their speculation. There is no “wrong” when there is no commitment to the lasting veracity of a statement. A source is not inaccurate to report a rumor, because a rumor somehow doesn’t exist after it’s uttered. As soon as a deal is announced, no matter how far afield from the rumor mill it may be, the rumor mongers post a quick summary of the years and dollars and move on to the next batch of hearsay.

To read back through a sequence of rumors after a Detroit or an Anaheim deal comes out of left field is to see the light of a star that died two weeks ago, to gaze at a subjectless shadow.

Given that, what role do the rumors serve? Is all of this conjecture entertaining?

I thought so, but when the hurried, harried announcement of the most recent signing by Detroit came over the wire, I felt annoyed and misled. I felt that I had wasted a good deal of time thinking about where Prince Fielder would end up, because none of it was right.

I assume, of course, that there is some kind of single truth out there worth pursuing, while the rumor mill relishes vague suggestion and endless redirection. These are, of course, the elements of suspense, of mystery, of surprise. The emotions pegged to false suggestion and redirection have compelled us for eons.

But what suspense contains that baseball rumors lack is a sense of logic, that the puzzle pieces presented early on will come together in a satisfactory–if unexpected–way. Fielder to the Tigers was not a culmination of stratified rumors and logical building points. It was a whitewash, a contract offer that immediately erased all that came before it. Jeannie Vanasco in the latest edition of The Believer teaches me that erasure can have content, the formula this offseason feels more like demolition quickly covered over with tract housing.

If we desire narrative, then the rumor mill has only promised it, then withdrawn at the moment an investment should pay off.

If there is so little correlation between the end result of a trade or free agent deal and the rumors that surrounded it, why are we paying any attention to the chatter at all? When did baseball fandom become an exercise in relentless logistical Lincoln logs?

By way of comparison: last season, I burned out on fantasy baseball. What should’ve been fun was like keeping an accounting ledger. Every day that I had to read up on starting pitchers and bench warmers felt like April 15th. I mention this not to bash fantasy baseball, which I’ve played for longer than I’ve done most anything else in my life, but to draw a parallel between the information burnout of fantasy baseball and the rumor burnout of this offseason.

Ie., somewhere along the line, in both pursuits, there grew, for me, a disconnect between raw streams of data and the game of baseball. Browsing the previous week’s stats to see what no-name fifth starter possessed a fractionally higher K to BB ratio to fill out a sagging roster was as distant from a diving grab over the middle late in a game as a speculative paragraph about Prince Fielder’s favorite breakfast spot in D.C. was from his first day in a Detroit Tigers uniform.

Why do still I read the rumor sites? I don’t derive any tangible pleasure from them that I can think of or articulate. I don’t relish some new piece of gossip or rumor. In fact I feel a little empty inside when a storyline developed over weeks suddenly goes cold and the conversation shifts elsewhere. Yet I return, and read the posts that I don’t care for that much, I relive the sensation I dislike. Yet I return.

Am I addicted? The anticipated rush rarely materializes. I repeat the same act expecting a new result. I search out a non-existent thrill.

I realize now that what I love is news. I am fascinated that Prince Fielder signed with Detroit, and that Pujols eschewed the Cardinals for the West Coast. I want to know where, when, and why. Too often, rumors pass for information, and a confident writerly tone projects credibility where instead creativity forms the core of the message.

The last thing I want to do is deride something that baseball fans enjoy. If speculation tickles your fancy, who am I to steal your thunder. All I can do is talk of my own experience as a fan, and me, I need a break. Leisure gave way to compulsion, without compulsion giving way to satisfaction.

Just in time, too, as the brightest stars are charted and Spring Training is will spring up from the horizon soon. The daytime glow of real baseball will dry the winter’s rumor-dampened sod.

Open Book Baseball: An Interview with Alyson Footer, the Houston Astros’ Sr. Director of Social Media

Footer: "We want to be as much of an open book as we can."

Baseball is known for clinging to old paradigms, and hugging out-moded–ahem, traditional–viewpoints on media, culture, technology, and copyright. Some figures in the baseball media even pride themselves on their vintage-inspired view of the game.

Alyson Footer is no such figure. The Houston Astros’ Senior Director of Social Media has embraced the creative power of new media with enviable depth and enthusiasm, transitioning from veteran MLB.com/Astros.com beat reporter to full-fledged social media specialist as smoothly as Craig Biggio shed his catcher’s gear and took up the middle infield.

Footer’s blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, is equal parts access and analysis, with a panoply of in-depth posts that are as likely to spotlight a backup catcher’s favorite flavor of ice cream as analyze the task ahead of a new GM or owner. With an interdisciplinary sphere of influence that expands to Twitter and Facebook, she is the voice of the Astros in those spaces that we, our readers, and our baseball blogging friends happily frequent.

Footer was nice enough to take time out of her busy schedule to discuss her role in the baseball multiverse, and to talk about talking about baseball.

(Ed. note: any links added below were added by me.)

TED

Your title is Senior Director of Social Media of the Houston Astros, and the tagline on the header of your blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, is “Your behind-the-scenes, all-access pass to all things Astros.” Could you describe your role with the Astros?

ALYSON

Several years ago, the Astros saw that major corporations were creating Social Media departments, designed solely for the purpose of marketing their brand to the younger generation. With the decline of newspapers and the emergence of Facebook and Twitter, the Astros realized they could better utilize their time and money by steering away from traditional advertising and shifting the focus to new media.

The role of Social Media Director spans in a lot of different directions. We have two main Twitter accounts: @astros and @alysonfooter. The Astros handle is more for marketing and promotional purposes, whereas my personal Twitter handle is interactive. I communicate directly with the fans and answer as many questions as possible. I also offer a behind the scenes look at the team through comments, photos (TwitPics) and videos (TwitVids).

Basically, we want the fans to feel that they are part of the process.

I also blog regularly. The blogs serve a few purposes: they offer insight and analysis to team decisions and transactions, they provide a behind-the-scenes view of the everyday goings-on of the team and they provide info regarding upcoming events and promotional initiatives. We cover off the field and on the field activities on the blog and include pictures and videos to accompany the blogs. Basically, we want the fans to feel that they are part of the process. We want them to feel as if they’re there with us even when they can’t be. We want to show our players and coaching staff in a very real way. We want to be as much of an open book as we can. The Astros are a part of the city of Houston, in good times and bad, and the players are important to our fans. The more we can show them as real people, the more fans feel connected. Social Media allows for fans to get closer to the players than ever before. We have a bunch of players with their own Twitter handles who communicate directly with the public. It’s great for both sides.

TED

How have the players responded to the change in media presence and the sense of increased access? Is there a generation gap between the veterans the younger players?

ALYSON

I would say there is a little bit of a generation gap between the veterans and the younger players, but I think it’s in a good way. The really young players coming up don’t remember a world without the Internet. They don’t remember when newspapers ruled the roost. They don’t know from the old days when media contingents were small and didn’t include web sites, bloggers and 300 cable and radio stations.

Today’s players are tech savvy and online savvy and they like to engage in Social Media. Last Spring Training, we had one player on Twitter. By the end of spring, we had about five. That total has nearly doubled and I expect that by the time the season is over, more than half the roster will be tweeting. I think it’s great. The players really enjoy it and it’s a great way to market themselves. They enjoy the back and forth with the fans and everyone benefits from that.

Last year, I met some of the Texans players and they said the entire team was on Twitter. I find that fascinating.

TED

You spent a lot of time as a reporter for MLB.com. What were the cultural or technological forces that led to your switch to Social Media, and how has your approach to baseball coverage and storytelling changed with the change in roles?

ALYSON

It’s easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work.

I covered the Astros for eight years for MLB.com and I loved it. When the Astros created a Social Media position in 2009 and approached me about it, it sounded intriguing. I loved reporting but at the same time, I was doing so much with blogging and Facebook and Twitter that it seemed like a natural transition. As much as I liked the Social Media side of things, my reporting duties took up all of my time and that left very little time for anything else. The idea of doing Social Media full-time was intriguing. And I was able to continue blogging, which was important, because I didn’t want to give up writing. I was ready to move into a different genre. It was a nice transition and I’m glad I made the move.

I try to stay away from straight news reporting, because that is now the job of Brian McTaggart, who replaced me at MLB.com. Because my blog lives on the Astros web site, I didn’t want to be covering the same news stories as Brian. That would be counterproductive. So what I try to do is find off-the-field, more human interest stories to write, and I’ll also reference Astros.com stories a lot and provide some insight or analysis. There are times when Brian and I do overlap, but I think over the course of three years it’s been pretty minimal.

TED

The Astros are in a time of major transition right now. What challenges does this present for you, and how have you had to adjust your approach from covering a regular winner to a rebuilding young team with new ownership?

ALYSON

It’s challenging only because when your team isn’t doing well, a lot of the fan base is unhappy. It’s a lot easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work. So I try my best to explain things in as much detail as I can in terms of the direction the team is headed and what the plan is over the next several years. Fortunately, the new ownership group and front office has a very clear vision as to how to become a contender again, and they have a plan that they will not only implement immediately, but they’ll stick to it as well. That’s hugely important.

It’s easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work.

Other than that, the challenges are minimal from a big-picture perspective. Teams ebb and flow. I’ve been here 15 years and over the course of that time, the Astros have done a little of everything. They won 102 games in ’98 and two years later ended up losing 90. They’ve won a pennant. They’ve lost 106 games. They’ve taken division and Wild Card races down to the wire. They’ve been eliminated before Sept. 1. It’s been all over the map. I approach my job the same every day and hope for the best for the team.

TED

You are a fantastic storyteller. Was there something about baseball that compelled you to contribute your talents to the game? What have you learned about storytelling as a baseball reporter and social media director?

ALYSON

Well, thanks very much for the nice comment! I do love the storytelling part of this job. Even when I was at MLB.com I’d try to find the weird and wacky every once in a while and report on that. I remember one time, half the team spent an offday playing ping-pong at Orlando Palmeiro’s house. They had a fierce tournament and had plenty to say about it the next day in the clubhouse. I was writing it all down and a colleague said, “You’re writing about this?” I live for that kind of stuff – the off-the-wall, random events that inevitably happen over the course of a six-month season (seven and a half months, if you include Spring Training).

I think it’s important for the fans to know and appreciate the people and stories that will live on forever through storytelling. Why keep that stuff buried?

I’ve always loved baseball, but more than that, I’ve always loved the personalities and characters of the game. I don’t spend much time poring over stats – I find a lot of it boring, to be honest – but there’s so much that goes on around a team, and so many great, smart, funny, polarizing players that have come through Houston and so many fantastic stories that the fans have never heard. I think it’s important for the fans to know and appreciate the people and stories that will live on forever through storytelling. Why keep that stuff buried? My general rule of thumb is, if I find something funny or interesting, it’s likely that others might as well. It sounds pretty primitive but it has served us well. And now that there’s a way to share these items with the world, why wouldn’t we?

TED

With the Astros’ 50th Anniversary celebration going on this year, there must be a font of new and old stories coming down the pipeline….

ALYSON

I certainly hope so! We have a slew of old players we’re inviting back for the season-long celebration this year and I would imagine there will be some interesting tales told! I’ll be listening.

TED

There will be a ton of old school Astros looks rolled out in 2012. Which Astros throwback uniform are you most excited about?

ALYSON

If you mean what throwback uniform would I be most likely to tweet or blog about, it would be the rainbow jerseys. I wasn’t here for that era – I got here in 1997 – but Houston fans absolutely love the rainbow look, especially the orange. That’s what I hear from fans more than anything – bring back the orange!

From a sentimental and personal standpoint, my favorite uniform is the blue and gold shooting star that they wore in the late 1990s. That’s what they were wearing when I first arrived to the team and I have some wonderful memories from my first few years in baseball. No matter what you do in your career or how far you get, there’s nothing more special than when you first started the journey. So I have a soft spot for the uniforms Bagwell, Biggio, Ausmus and Wagner were wearing way back in the day.

Pitchers & Poets Podcast 36: Yuuuup!

In episode 36 of the podcast, we explore Manny Ramirez’s campaign to return to the MLB, we discuss the Dodgers-owning hopeful Josh Macciello and his strange, Herman Cain-esque bid for power, the anaconda victim rescue incident at which B.J. Ryan was present though it is unclear what his contribution was, and Ted’s first SABR meeting! At that meeting, I mentioned a fellow who told some great stories about Stan Musial, Nolan Ryan, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle as high schoolers. That fellow was Jim Kreuz, and here is one of his pieces on Nolan Ryan.

 

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13 Ways of Looking at a Hall of Fame Candidate

w.h. audenSince our blog is, after all, called Pitchers & Poets, we thought we would subject a few of this year’s Hall of Fame candidates to the imaginary scrutiny of both a pitcher and a poet of our choosing. Below, see the Hall of Fame analysis of a professional pitcher, and the response from a prominent poet, as you await the final ruling:

Jeff Bagwell

Cardinals hurler and freelance groundskeeper Jim Otten: “Unless steroids make goatees grow faster, you can’t prove anything.”

Poet WH Auden: “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities, and wholly given over to unfamiliar affections to find his happiness in another kind of wood.”

Barry Larkin

Reno Silver Sox hurler Nathan Ginsberg: “One of the best hitting and fielding shortstops of his generation. Writers, you know what to do.”

Poet Allen Ginsberg: “When will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes? When will you look at yourself through the grave? When will you be worthy of your million Christs?”

Bernie Williams

California Angels farmhand Ronald Sylvia: “Probably not Hall-worthy, but he had a great career.”

Poet Sylvia Plath: “His head is a little interior of grey mirrors. Each gesture flees immediately down an alley of diminishing perspectives, and its significance drains like water out the hole at the far end.”

Jack Morris

Old timey Pittsburgh Allegheny Ed “Cannonball” Morris: “Heckuva competitor, good lifetime numbers, and a fine face-whisker set. Probably deserves a shot at immortality.”

Poet Robert Lowell: “He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, a greyhound’s gentle tautness; he seems to wince at pleasure, and suffocate for privacy.”

Edgar Martinez

67th round draft pick for the Houston Astros in 1996 Ben Keats: “I have never met Edgar Martinez, but I once saw him order dinner from across the restaurant.”

Poet John Keats: “He hath heard the Lion’s roaring, and can tell what his horny throat expresseth.”

Tim Raines

Early 80s California Angels starter Dave Frost: “Rock has been overlooked for way too long.”

Poet Robert Frost: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard.”

Pitchers & Poets: 2011, a Year in Review

Now is the time of year when we all take a moment to acknowledge how quickly time slips away, and how the events of January, 2o11, don’t seem like they happened a whole year ago. I’m glad to have done this, though, as I’ve had to the chance to re-examine our efforts on the year, and to appreciate just how much we’ve accomplished here. There are so many great voices represented, and a cabinet of baseball wonders available any time.

So some months did fly by, but we did some great things this year, and we don’t mind checking back in on the mad dashes and the meditative moments. We hope, of course, that you enjoyed the ride as much as we did, and we look forward to future flights of fancy with you, our fantastic readers and fellow passengers on Steamship Baseball.

Scorekeeping Week

Our first foray into themed weeks, Scorekeeping Week was a fine jaunt through the habits of fans and professionals as they log a baseball game’s events.

I interviewed Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims, about his scorekeeping habits, and we learned more about Bethany Heck and her brilliant scorekeeping books. Paul Franz, Alex Belth, Patrick Truby, and Patrick Dubuque offered their stories and memories.

Scorekeeping Week was a quiet, pleasurable affair, and it stoked our interest in themed content. See below for the Frankenstein’s monster that resulted.

1990s First Basemen Week

Looking back at P&P2011, we would be crazy not to give full due to the year’s biggest, insanest phenomenon on the blog. Eric and I started with a simple idea: let’s talk about first basemen from the 1990s, and let’s get as many great writers involved as we can.

We released a salvo of emails, and the only directive was to pick a first baseman and talk about him. The breadth of responses and creative output was amazing, and the response overwhelming.

It all started with a Short Hop on Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas from Jonah Keri, and an essay on J.T. Snow by Eric Freeman. Readers started to understand what we were doing, and the purity of our goal. The nostalgia started to flow, and the content barreled onward, with work from Will Leitch on Pedro Guerrero, longtime reader playwright Larry Herold on Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark, and Jesse Thorn on the grace of Mark Grace.

The 1990s first baseman embodied something beautiful and sad and nostalgic for us and for our readers. The big men stirred the poetic inside us. Tom Ley remembered an encounter with Andres Galarraga, and Joe Posnanski remembered a quixotic slugger in Jeff King. Josh Wilker thought about Carlos Quintana, I went on for some length about Jeff Bagwell and Sadaharu Oh and batting stances, Eric thought on Eric Karros, and how could we forget Dylan Little’s imagined interview with Hal Morris.

And, of course, Pete Beatty cleared the bases with his meditation on Jim Thome and ruin porn.

There are so many more contributors who made this such a great couple of weeks for us at the blog, and the best thing that you can do is click the headline above and read every last one of them. For us, 1990s First Basemen Week was just awesome.

P&P Reading Club: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

he art of fielding by chad harbachIn late September, we started the P&P Reading Club by collectively reading and opining about the above-mentioned best-seller about baseball, life, and the convergence. Hey, just like our little web site here! It was great fun, and again we featured lots of great writers (can you sense a theme in our approach to content development?). Chapters flew by with our posts tagging closely at heel, and we all had a fine time basking in the literature of it all.

Click the header above to find all of those fine posts. Contributors included Carson Cistulli, Adam Webb, Megan Wells, Patrick Dubuque, Pete Beatty, Navin Vaswani, Dayne Perry, Bryan Harvey, Eric, and myself.

The Milton Bradley Saga, Continued

Eric has become something of an expert on the culture of Milton Bradley, and his essay on the troubled outfielder, Encino Man, early in the year, affirmed the honorary. “If individual players can embody Pitchers & Poets and how Ted and I have come to consume and understand baseball, he is one of those players. By his attitude, his place in the ecosystem, his style of play, his perception in the media, he heightens our understanding of baseball.” He revisited the player in April, 2011, around the time Milton started to wear earplugs.

Month-to-Month

In February, we redesigned the site. We still love it.

In those doldrum days, we also got news of Miguel Cabrera’s feisty run-ins with the law, and Eric’s Manifesto called for making nostalgia modern. And hey, do you remember when Albert Pujols still seemed like he’d re-sign with the Cardinals? The measured meter of money spelled bad news for Cardinal fans.

Opening Day meant a live chat, as Eric and I watched 37 games in a row and all at once, while my wife made ballpark franks. It was a marathon.

April brought Eric’s realization that ownership issues were afoot in Dodgerland, and I contemplated the newly settled Cliff Lee. Other topics included Otis Nixon’s hair, the language of Coors Field, and the burgeoning Legend of Sam Fuld. I also discussed the odd couple Rangers, who did well to carry through with the promise I noted.

May, see 1990s First Basemen Week.

June saw us bring Patrick Dubuque into the fold of regular contributors. He immediately started bringing the thunder, as we knew he would. Jesse Gloyd took us fishing in the shadow of Chavez Ravine, I opened the Joba File and learned to appreciate Jered Weaver, and Eric Freeman explored the style of Bryce Harper. Eric remembered Northwest icon Clay Huntington, too, and caught us up on the power and the glory of Matt Kemp.

July was a quieter time, though Aaron Shinsano checked in to provide a scout’s view of the President’s Cup in Korea.

In August, Eric couldn’t get a Dodgers cap at Dodger Stadium, I explored the Best Show on WFMU, Simon Broder viewed the cursed celeb and Amy Winehouse through the baseball lens, Pete Beatty did some girl-storytelling, and Jesse Gloyd brought us thoughts on Satchel Paige.

September and October passed like a hard fall wind as we dipped our heads in literature (see Art of Fielding above), and November brought some pensive missives from Aaron Shinsano with more tales from scouting in Asia, Patrick on injury as metaphor, Brian K on new life without LaRussa, and some chat from me on the retro trend in new uniforms.

Which brings us to December. Eric and I have been hitting the podcast hard, polishing it up and filling it with quirky, enjoyable content so that we can hit the new year in fine stride. Podcasting is the perfect complement to the site, we think, because, really, we’re into conversations first and foremost.

2011 at Pitchers & Poets was a year of backs and forths, of multitudinous viewpoints, of unending conversations, multi-leveled stories and sing-alongs.

Here’s to a happy new year, and a fruitful and thoughtful 2012.

Pitchers & Poets Podcast 35: The Mat Latos Game

In episode 35 of the podcast we feel our way through the offseason’s latest transactions, consider on the antics of one J. Burnitz, and suffer with poor Yorvit Torrealba — he of the suspended from Venezuelan baseball for hitting an umpire in the face. We weave baskets with Derek Jeter and take an absurdly difficult quiz about Matt Latos. Plus, everybody wears masks, especially R.A. Dickey.

 

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Tunes by Jesse Gloyd