Friday, December 22, 2006

Tsk Tsk

For those of you who haven't bought your Festivus gifts for the TWT crew, there's still time. And, as a service, I'm going to help you out by discussing a few literary treasures to consider and some travesties to avoid. I'm not limiting myself to baseball, because all baseball and no hoops make Smitty a dull boy, all baseball and...

I also want to talk about baseball movies, since DVD's make perfect stocking stuffers, though certain baseball films better serve as coasters, these especially. Quick 5 underrated baseball movies:

5. A League of Their Own - Decent baseball stuff, except for Lori whatshername' Petty's pitching. Not Nuke LaLoosh bad, but still. (Incidentally, wasn't she supposed to blow up after Point Break? What happened? And where does Point Break rank on the 'this movie sucks but I'm in' scale, and does Pat Swayze have 3 of the top 5 with this, Road House and "WOLVERINES"? But I digress.) Holds up pretty decently actually, considering how sports movies start to look dated in about 3 years as filming technique improves.

4. 61* - Yeah, it's about the Yankees. But in my mind's eye, from about Jackie Robinson to Bucky &*^&#@ Dent, the Yankees weren't really the MFY's. Plus Billy Crystal is a true Yankee fan from way back, not some band wagoneer who couldn't tell Sparky Lyle from Sparky Anderson. Good stuff about the pressures and stresses on Maris as he chased Ruth.

3. Little Big League - yeah, it's sort of a kids movie, but A) it's a reasonably grownup kid's movie; B) the baseball sequences are about the best anyone has ever done in a movie, (I could watch the end credits with highlights set to Taj Mahal's version of Fats Domino's "I'm Ready" about a hundred times); C) Best. Hidden Ball Trick. Ever. My roommate claims his high school team used the same play. Though he was the catcher and the opposing teams cleanup hitter took his embarrassment out in the ensuing home plate collision. D) It's about the TWINS.

2. Inning 7 of Ken Burns's "Baseball." Just for Buck O'Neill singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I'm not sure I'll ever really forgive the powers that be for not putting him in the Hall of Fame while he was still alive.

1. The Sandlot - Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez! I struggle to describe just how all around kickass this move is. Consider. 1) James Earl Jones. 2) Denis Leary. 3) Kids doing chaw, then puking on a carnival ride. 4) Phenomenal, chill-inducing 4th of July "night game" scene, with Mr. Ray Charles prominently involved. 5) Little Scotty Smalls was in both "Black Hawk Down" and "Mystic River". And of course:

"You play ball like a girl"

Anyway, on to a few of the sports books I perused this year. Y'all probably hate soccer, but I'll still throw out a recommendation for The Miracle of Castle di Sangro and Brilliant Orange.

On the more 'Merkan sports tip, first of all, you can probably skip both "The Devil Wears Pinstripes" and "Blood Feud" unless you've never ever read anything making fun of the Yankees. If that's the case then this blog might, in general, not be your cup of tea. If you want to get your hate on, (especially since my co-bloggers here are rabidly anti-Duke) go with this one. I'm a Duke guy*, but I loved every page of it.

Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side" is not as revolutionary as Money Ball, but is quite good. I'd even suggest that every reads it and then we can do a book club, especially given our recent exegesis on race and class. Anyway, it's about a rich white family who sorta adopted a poor black kid. Who happens to be an athletic marvel and turns into the best O-Line prospect in the land. And also about how left tackle has become the second most valued position in the NFL.

This was mildly diverting, if repetitive. But it's a bout hockey, so I've probably already devoted more time to it than necessary.

As to the meat and drink of this here, collective baseball, and how it has been very, very good to me. First let me direct you to my reviews of "Baseball Between the Numbers" and Mind Game for two offerings of wildly varying quality from the folks at Baseball Prospectus. "Mind Game" is an illustration of the old adage about "Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics," while "Between the Numbers" is a solidly analytical anthology.

Similar, though not quite as wonkish as BTN is Scott Gray's "The Mind of Bill James." Part interview/biography, part hagiography and part Baseball Abstract Light, MBJ tells in short version James' rise to prominence. It is fairly wide ranging with Jamesian views on everything from education to geopolitics. Most intriguing were the descriptions of how James has mellowed to a degree. Whereas earlier in his career, he would bombastically declare that there is no such thing as clutch hitting, he's prepared to back away and opine that there is such a thing, but it generally accounts for at most, 2 to 3 % of performance in those situations. I.e., the primary reason why Papi is a clutch beast is that he's good in general, though he might be slightly better than an 'equivalent' player in that spot.

My favorite sports book of the year was probably "FantasyLand" by Sam Walker. Walker, a baseball fan, but fantasy sports neophyte, somehow wrangles an invitation to the most cut-throat Expert's league in the country. Going head to head against people who are largely professionals (in that the League is more of an advertising venue for their draft guides and previews), Walker's goal is to use hard-core data analysis (he actually hires a NASA rocket scientist to be his numbers guru) while "re-humanizing" fantasy baseball by using his press credentials to gain access and insight into 'his' players. (He goes so far as to make up uniforms which he proceeds to distribute.) Hilarity/insanity ensues.

Finally, and more lyrically is Stephen Jay Gould's Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville. While Gould is something of a fuddy-duddy, (though one of the few people to be able to successfully combine Yankee and Sawx fandom with dignity reasonably intact - being a longtime Harvard professor from the Bronx might do that I suppose...) he was one of the first establishment types to look at baseball scientifically. His essay on why no-one hits .400 anymore (basic thesis, absolute skill levels are better now, but as the difference between the best and worst Major Leaguers has shrunk, in large part because the pool of potential players has grown far faster than league roster space: first was the color barrier, then the beginning of recruitment in Latin America, and now we see the inroads into Asia) must have been mindblowing at the time. It seems so conventional now, but he wrote in 20+ years ago. There were also bits I disagree with - specifically his hatred of the Wild Card for 'cheapening' the regular season. Funny how the only people who make this sort of argument are fans of, well, teams like the Yankees which are going to be in the playoffs or thereabouts every year anyway. All in all, a quality collection, very handsomely written.

So, go forth and give wisely.

* The Alaskan Assassin, baby, we go back...incidentally, my high school is on Wikipedia, how cool is that?

FWIW, this years team is going to be terrible to watch all year. Their best two players (one of whom is Greg Paulus, who, uhm, sucks) either can't or don't like to shoot - I love Josh McRoberts. It's like you took Luke Walton, made him taller, stronger, more-athletic, left-handed and a better ball-handler, yet he was still slightly worse. How does that work?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Old-Time Bradke

I'll leave the hagiography of Mr. Radke to the actual Twins fans on this blog. (From the outside looking in, he always struck me as slightly overrated, much like our namesake, because he was one of the few "name" players in a otherwise facelessly efficient collective. That is until Jo-nasty, Baby Jesus Mauer and F-Bomb came along)

But if he goes, I'd like to remember him for the way he went out:
He suffered a stress fracture of the glenoid in his throwing shoulder in late August but returned to the AL Central champions in the final weeks of the regular season.
To quote random anonymous idiots on TV poker shows "That's what I'm talking about!" No, I actually haven't the first damn clue what you are talking about. But what I mean to say is that Radke went old school for us here. Not "young fellas today have no respect" old school, but Eddie Shoor, Old-Time Hockey, old school.

Coming after a sports weekend where all we're left with is the bitching and moaning about those damn kids, it seems to me like we're forgetting a certain part of the appeal of sports in the first place. This stuff is supposed to be badass. I mean when Zinadine Zidane went all, well, Zidane during the World Cup Final, there was no small part in a lot of us that said "that's frickin' AWESOME". We celebrate the big hits in the NFL in "Jacked Up." We praise the intimidation factor of a Charles Oakley forearm, or a Roger Clemens high heater. Hockey even has the ur-manly Code which governs the game. And of course, HAKA
And the inverse, reverse and possibly Converse of this is the appreciation for "toughness" and "playing hurt." The reason the Dwyane Wade commercial is so effective, why Allen Iverson is so revered, and so on is the ability to "man up" and still get it done.

And yet, when someone goes too far, they are on their own, and we are left with the moral scolds of the sports world (gawd, how I dread Rick Reilly's column this week) shaking their heads in consternation.

My point is this - we celebrate Radke almost literally pitching his arm off, the playoff beard and so forth. We need to learn to accept the downside as well - I may be the first, last and only to make this comparison, but the other side of Brad Radke's pitching with a torn labrum is Carmello Anthony sticking up for his teammates. Punishment and approbation are deserved in this case, but remember too that we created this monster. Sports is an exercise in controlled, contrived and stylized violence. When we pretend that "there is no place for that in the game," we are telling ourselves tales.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Importance of Being Goliath

First of all, before I go into rebutting the eminently rebuttable as espoused by J. Tall-Guy, belated congrats to Mr. Morneau. And by congratulations, I mean Suck It, Jeter. (Damn, that feels good even a month later. Get back to me at next year's All-Star Break, and it might still be fun). No, seriously, enjoy your ill-gotten Gold Gloves while chilling in your manse with Jessica Biel. I'm sure you feel terrible...

On to more pressing business, because in the Corleone-Epstein manner of conducting business, it's just business, never personal. You and others may look askance at the 51.1 milsky for the rights to "the Gun from the Rising Sun," but consider that the traditional econometrics of baseball do not apply to importation of a Japanese supernova. Not to be my normal technocratic self, but the usual models simply do not apply here. While a change to the 4th, 5th or 6th alternate away uniforms may convince some among us to purchase yet more Big Papi Paraphernalia, Red Sox Nation is pretty gear-saturated. Not so the land of Santori Times (ring-a-ding-ding, babe.) Literally a wide new frontier in which Manny can explore Just Being Manny in new and historically interesting ways. Plus, we own a cable network, you heard? I think they have TV in Japan. Just saying.

So, if it gets done, (for your 60th, Pops, I give you the gift that keeps on giving...) this isn't really as case of The Winners Curse, (J.D. freakin' Drew on the other hand, is), D-Mat is simply worth more to the BoSox than to any other team. I mean monetarily, rather than winning percentage of course. But it's just business, son, always business.

The wins and losses Matsuzaka brings will be nice (and I looove our rotation next year assuming Lester is anything close to what he did last season), but our Hundred Years War with the MFY's is, as all global conflagrations must be, fought on multiple fronts. And in this battle, Young Theo has not only kept the Steinbrennerian Nothing from advancing, he has outwitted and outlasted the dreaded Boras. In this offseason of insanity, where Gil Meche, and Juan Pierre, and Vincente Padilla get paid like MJ, how much would the free-market winner for Matsuzaka's signature have shelled out?

Peter Gammons ($, bitches) makes a good point as well:
Rather than the $103.1M over six years (combining the posting fee and the contract), the luxury tax the Red Sox pay is based on the contract alone -- six years, $52M.
So, not only did Theo screw the MFY's, he screwed the Twinks (of course nothing Theo can do can match the arrival of Sir Sid on that front), and the Royals, and the Pirates, and so on. There's only one word for this, and the word is "Awesome."

Being the bully is fun, I can not lie. But it's not really about that right now. Matsuzaka fires the imagination for some reason. Maybe it's the supposedly staggering innovation of his "gyro-ball" which allegedly carves the plate like the slash of a broadsword, dropping down and away from lefties. Or maybe it's the fact that all we really know of him is from grainy YouTube clips and Runyanesque, nay, Bunyonesque tales of ludicrous exploits. It's like it's 1986, and your squad just signed Arvydas Sabonis.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

F-Bomb Meets Black Jesus

FreeDarko hearts F-Bomb:

A long time ago, I had the idea to write a post about Francisco Liriano, and how, being the quintessential Freedarko baseball player
As if you needed further validation of the boy genius. And therein lies the essential heart of the tragedy. Of Felix Hernandez. Of Mark Prior. Of Pedro Martinez. And certainly of Liriano.

Because baseball is not a game that leads itself to an appreciation of style. The game has been so broken down into the subatomic component parts, which makes the game a joy for the brain wizards out there, that there is very little room for the aesthete.

The one exception (aside from the truly transcendent defensive shortstop) is for a certain class of pitchers. Not the raw Hadouken power of a Randy Johnson in his prime or the junkie-fresh goodness of a Jamie Moyer. No, this is a different type all together: the monochromatic genius of Mariano Rivera's one pitch arsenal; Greg Maddux's minimalism; the classical opera of vintage Pedro, four pitches working in concert.

For all the excitement and highlights provided by the day-to-day grind that is a baseball season, they are all primarily functional - a long home-run is nice, but it counts the same as a wall-topper (and more importantly, is identical in the box score). But there are a few things that the seamheadz really haven't quantified. Picture Barry Zito's lollipop curve turning Hideki Matsui inside-out, or the bottom dropping out of the Rocket's 91-mph forkball and you get the idea.

But it goes beyond these exclamation points, to the innate way a true master of his craft has when he grasps the game's inner rhythm, forcing the opposing batters to become a little slow, a little late on every pitch. Shattered bats and pop-outs to the catcher ensue. And above all else, they do it quickly. Circa 1999, I saw Pedro 2-hit the Twins in a game which would have taken about 20 minutes had the Sawx not bothered to hit. I could have sworn he caught the ball from Varitek, stepped on the rubber, and threw without ever really pausing.

That thing which enables the truly special ones to do what they do is so fragile and ephemeral, and the annals of the game so strewn with the corpses, rotator cuffs and ulnar nerves of those who tried and failed, that we know we are lucky to see this potential truly realized. Martinez came the closest, but the Petey we see now is a very pale shadow of the Amadeus we knew. 7-innings of moxie, braggadocio and jheri-curl juice is what we are left with.

It seems so unfair that every young auteur on the scene is stricken down, as if one arm can not survive that much potential locked inside. And just as the jazzy-fizzles at FD weep at the very mention of the word "microfracture," especially when combined with "Amare," we mourn what already seems lost when the Grim Reaper, Tommy John and Dr. Frank Jobe come for the next in line.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


From the Star Tribune:

The Twins have spoken with the agents for righthander Sidney Ponson, a career 80-96 pitcher who was 4-5 with a 6.25 ERA last season in stints with the Yankees and Cardinals, both of whom released him. He was 17-12, 3.75 in 2003 with Baltimore and San Francisco. The Twins likely would sign him to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Big Mac in the Hall?

One question I can’t get out of my head, “Do we want Mark McGwire to be innocent of steroid use, or do we want him to lie about it?” I can’t help but think we want him to lie about it…so we can all look the other way. But haven’t we done that once already with him? And look where it’s gotten us…

There seem to be a few people left who think he should get in…but most seem to fall into one of two categories; A: Don’t elect him…he cheated and is highly tainted B: Don’t elect him…his numbers don’t warrant it and the Hall is too watered down already.

Let me clarify my own personal “definition” of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I believe it is a wonderful concept that celebrates the history of the game and, perhaps more importantly, gives its fans something to perpetually argue about. You can argue all day long the merits of this player or that one…all the while completely biased by your own personal experiences. (I think Jack Morris should be in the Hall…but I realize it’s because of one game that means more to me than any other) But, at the end of the day, I find it ludicrous to argue that the inclusion of a borderline player somehow lessens the achievements or historical placement of the all-time greats. Don Sutton being elected does absolutely nothing to the legacy of Walter Johnson.

Mark McGwire was an important player in the history of baseball, inarguably. Regardless of your opinion of how his overall (non-slugging) stats stack-up against time and memory, his inclusion into the Hall of Fame would NOT water-down the institution.

That leaves us with the peskier side of the “don’t elect him” coin…steroids. Allow me to revisit a concept I introduced way back at the beginning…are we bothered that he used steroids, or that he wasn’t willing to lie about it? For me, it is clearly the latter. The Baseball Hall of Fame is ripe with players of questionable character and tactics, but the list we’ve actually excluded for similar reasons is much smaller. (Pete Rose and Joe Jackson?)

Baseball has always lived on it’s own terms. The rules of everyday life don’t apply…and the fans wouldn’t be nearly as enthralled if they did. It can be alternately more forgiving (Steve Sax) and infinitely harsher (Bill Buckner) than real life.

It is therefore my very strongly held opinion that you cannot punish the players for living in the world MLB has created. Mark McGwire almost certainly used steroids. We knew it then, and we know it now. Why is it okay for everyone involved (fans, media, Bud Selig) to relish in the activities of 1998 while using those very circumstances to exclude a player from the game's history?
It is NOT okay.

Major League Baseball (players and owners) has long lived and died by its own agenda…why change that now? The institution looked the other way (again, this is fans, media, AND officials) for an entire era…how can we possibly ignore that era in the game’s historical depot?
We cannot.

With the exception of discussing the true all-time greats, players are always judged by their performance within their own era. Mark McGwire was inarguably one of the top three sluggers during his era. The fact that the rules were not the same as today should have no bearing on the judgement of his numbers.

Nor should his inclusion into the Hall of Fame somehow protect him from scrutiny. We continue to correctly question the statistics from before baseball was integrated. We continue to refer to the “dead ball” era. There have been careers interrupted by war…by injury…by stupidity. His election would neither exempt him from ongoing criticism nor would it excuse his actions. It’s not about reward, at least for me, it’s about historical context.

The idealized purity of baseball lies within it’s complexity; the feeling of anticipation before the pitcher releases the ball, the appreciation of taking an extra base, and the feeling of sunshine mixing with the smell of leather.

There is no purity in statistics, no matter how complex we manage to make them.

Mark McGwire was a generation defining ballplayer. He should be rememebered as such…for every reason you can think of.