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October 5, 2016

October Baseball again

Here’s the idea: at the end of 162 games, each league has a pennant-winner based entirely on wins and losses during the season. That’s it. No World Series, no playoffs, just the season and the pennant, the way Uncle Nick Young meant it to be. Also, no All-Star Game in July. In October, after the season is over, we have an All-Star mini-season of 21 games in six cities. Actually, seven cities, or six cities and a town: the first game is a Hall-of-Fame Game at Cooperstown, NY. Then they do a four-city tour of three games each at the second- and third-place cities of each league, and then four games each at the two pennant winners. Obviously, the league that wins 11 or more games is the champion for the year.

That was how I wrote up my preferred end to the season, back in 2010. My Giants hadn’t won the World Series since 1954. Since then, they have brought three championship trophies back to San Francisco, and now they are playing the Wildcard Game. For those uninitiated who have read this far, the Major League Baseball championship is currently determined thusly: there are two leagues, each with three five-team divisions. The teams with the best record in each division advance to the best-of-five quarter-final round, called the Division Series (a misnomer, as it does not determine the division champions). The fourth quarter-finalist (called the Wildcard) in each league is determined by a single game played between two non-division-winning teams with the best records in that league, irrespective of their divisions. The winners of the quarter-finals meet in a best-of-seven semi-final round, called the League Championship (which does, in fact, determine the champion of each league) and the winners of those matches play in the best-of-seven World Series to claim the trophy.

It’s a pretty reasonable set-up for building interest in the final games, and thus building revenue for the league. It’s also a month of baseball that is very different from the kind of baseball played during the season. For one thing, in the Giants last Championship year, they played 17 games in 29 days; the AL winning Royals played only 15. Last year, the World Champion Royals played 16 games in 28 days. In a normal four-week stretch during the season a team might play 24 or 25 games. Teams are compelled to use five starters in the regular season and only four in the playoffs (and sometimes three). Madison Bumgarner started six of those 17 playoff games in 2015 for us—more than one in three!—as opposed to 33/162 or almost exactly one in five during the year. A team can ride one hot batter for a couple of weeks during the summer as well as in the fall, but in October it counts. I hate that.

My Giants will be playing the Mets tonight for the chance to play the Cubs in the NLDS. I don’t know what odds people are giving, but I am optimistic that we will win tonight. Why wouldn’t I be? It’s even possible that we’ll manage to win the whole thing again; I’d put the odds no worse than 9-1 against. Such fun! And yet… after all the joy and excitement of the last seven years, I haven’t changed my mind. If they wanted to set up Major League Baseball to suit me—and they should not—I still like the All-Star mini-season better than the postseason. It still annoys me that teams get built for the playoffs, and it even irritates me that the great Madison Bumgarner is (somewhat) overrated because of his postseason heroics.

I mean, so long as there are playoffs, I’m happy to be in ’em every other year. But if any of y’all were wondering if Giant Success had changed my mind about October Baseball, well, not yet it hasn’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 20, 2016

Giants Baseball, from May to August (and then some)

I haven’t been writing much about my Giants lately, but what the heck—after all, I have form in writing off this team late in the season in years they win the World Series, don’t I?

So, for those of you who don’t follow the game, the Giants had the best record in baseball for the first half, winning 57 games and losing only 33. They have the worst record in baseball over the second half so far, winning 22 and losing 38. I believe (that is to say, I’ve heard it said but haven’t looked) that no team in the history of the major leagues has finished with the best record in the first half and the worst in the second half. This is not a choke, and I’m not sure it even counts as a collapse. It’s something much, much stranger than that. It’s baseball.

I have had the impression that there have been two problems in the second half that we didn’t have in the first half: the bullpen keeps blowing leads, and our leads aren’t big enough that we win anyway. And that’s largely true. The bullpen’s record in the first half was 18-11; in the second half, they’ve been 6-12. That’s terrible. On the other hand, ignore the wins, because the bullpen shouldn’t get credit for the offense scoring runs in the late innings, right? So really, the bullpen blew 11 leads in 90 games during the first half (12% or so), so if they kept up that pace, they would have blown only 7 (and a third) instead of twelve in the second half. That’s a big difference, that’s five games. If we were 27-33 in the second half, it would be bad, but not appalling.

But… here are the stats for the pitchers in the first half and the second half, and here are the team totals. I don’t look at ERA for relief pitchers, because that’s totally hinky, but look at the combined WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) in relief: first half, 1.299; second half 1.249. That is, slightly better in the second half. Slightly higher strikeout rate, slightly higher walk rate. Individually, our main disaster, Santiago Casilla, despite being so bad in the second half that he was demoted and fans have been howling for him to be cut from the team entirely, has actually slightly improved his WHIP (1.240/1.238). Our most used pitchers, Hunter Strickland and Javy Lopes, have also improved, in the latter case substantially. The results have been lousy, but not because they’ve started giving up more hits and walks. Just games, really.

Here’s an odd thing: in May, the Giants went 21-8; in August, they went 11-16. That’s a mighty big difference. I mean, that’s huge. Let’s look at the bullpen: in May, the combined bullpen struck out 59 batters in 325 plate appearances; in August 77 in 345. That’s certainly not a problem. 72 hits off relief pitchers in May; 76 in August. Not a problem. 23 walks in May, 29 in August, that’s a bad trend but still, we’re talking about one extra walk out of each hundred plate appearances, a good deal less than one a game. Runs off the bullpen: 36 in May, 35 in August. Results 7-1 with 10 saves in May; 2-4 with 5 saves in August. Must be the hitters, then.

In May, the hitters got on base at a clip of .323, which isn’t terribly good, and certainly isn’t as good as August’s .334. They slugged at .379 in May and .419 in August; hit 19 homers in May and 22 in August. And scored 114 in May and 120 in August. So it can’t be the hitters.

In truth, the difference between August and May was the starting pitching. In May, the starting pitching was outstanding. They threw 189 and a third innings, 27 and two-thirds more than in August (that is, going more than an inning deeper into each game, on average), and gave up six fewer home runs, walked seventeen fewer batters and struck out sixteen more. In May, the starting pitching altogether gave up 58 runs; in August, 76. Given that they pitched more innings in May, it works out to the starters giving up about a run per nine innings more in August than in May (2.75 v 3.75).

In other words, the problem with the team is not so much that the bullpen has been blowing leads, either because the bullpen suddenly stinks or because the hitters haven’t been scoring enough. It’s that the starting pitching isn’t handing over the kinds of leads they were in May, because they have been only above average instead of extraordinary. Or, maybe, it’s just baseball, and who the hell knows what’s going on.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 1, 2016

100 Wins for Matt Cain

I want to write something about Matt Cain getting his hundredth win. I am terribly distracted by the trade deadline, though—my Giants just traded the future away for the present, as contending teams do, and it has suddenly become very important to conceptualize the appropriate exchange rate between putative 2016 wins and putative 2018 wins. Still, a hundred wins for Matt Cain at last.

First of all, of course pitcher wins are a ridiculous stat. They make no sense even on their own terms, and if somebody introduced the stat now, without any history to it, nobody would it seriously. Still, since it has been a thing for a long time, those of us who grew up with the stat use it even if we don’t believe in it, and for all its flaws comparing one pitcher to another, the benchmarks can remind us about how few pitchers have what we would call a great career. And should spark some sort of appreciation for those who do.

Matt Cain is not one of those pitchers. He was a great pitcher, and had six very good seasons, but not a great career. In June 2012, I wrote that he will be the greatest pitcher ever to drop off the Hall of Fame Ballot after the first year. I also said that after 2010, it would have been easy to imagine him finishing with a record something like 145-160, but that was harder to imagine in June 2012. He finished his seventh season with 85 wins and 78 losses. He was 27. The next year, he was lousy. Since the end of that 2012 season he has 15 wins and 27 losses in 72 starts; he is now 31 years old, and the chances of him getting another twenty-five wins are vanishingly small, I’m afraid.

Compare him, maybe, to Jose Rijo. He came up early, spent a little time in the bullpen, so it’s not a good comparison in terms of career, but when after his age 27 season his win-loss record was 83-68. Finished his career with 116 wins.

Maybe a better comparison is Javier Vasquez. After seven seasons, he was 27 and had a record of 78-78. An All-Star. And unlike Matt Cain, he had seven more years, a couple of them very good. Finished with 165 wins. No way Matt Cain is getting there.

Perhaps we should compare him to Chris Tillman. Tillman’s having a good year. He’s 28 and he’s 70-45. That’s a hell of a record, isn’t it. What odds would you give that he wins a hundred games? He only needs thirty more, after all, that’s two good years. Matt Cain didn’t have those years. Chris Tillman might, but then again, he might not.

What about Rick Porcello? Porcello was never as good a pitcher as Cain, but hell, after eight years in the majors, he’s 99-80. He may win his hundredth game his next time out. He’s twenty-seven years old. What odds would you put on him winning two hundred? A hundred and fifty?

Let’s consider, for a moment, Camillo Pascual. After his age 27 season (in 1961) he’s 72-100. Wins twenty in 1962. Wins twenty-one in 1963. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? That can happen! Finished his career 174-170. That’s… fewer than two hundred wins.

What I’m saying is that a hundred wins is awfully good. Right now, there are only 28 pitchers in the majors with a hundred wins. Some of them aren’t getting very many more. Kyle Lohse is at 147 wins and may not make it to 150. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young in each of his first two seasons—nobody does that!—and has 109 wins and may never get another one. Maybe he will! Maybe he’ll get ten more. I doubt it, though.

Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball for years. An astonishing display of dominance. His record is 125-58; he’s 28 years old and hurt. He’ll probably get to two hundred wins, sure. But would you bet on it?

John Lackey has 173 wins. 173! That’s amazing. He’s 37 years old and he’s 8-7 this year. That’s wonderful. Wonderful. He could win fifteen this year, plausibly enough. That would get him to 180. Would you bet on him getting to two hundred?

There are two players in baseball right now with more than two hundred wins. C.C. Sabathia and Bartolo Colon. They are amazing. Appreciate them. They’ve been good, and they’ve been lucky. Appreciate the good, and appreciate the luck. There have been so many great pitchers that didn’t have those careers. You probably are thinking of one or two of them right now. Great pitchers with back luck, or bad injuries, or just not enough years.

Matt Cain almost didn’t reach that 100-win benchmark. Now he has. It’s a silly benchmark and doesn’t mean anything, but it means so much.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 5, 2015

Relief pitchers at the bat

So. In last night’s glorious victory, my Giants managed to get Jeremy Affeldt to the plate. Mr. Affeldt is a relief pitcher with a total of nineteen plate appearances in fourteen years in the major leagues. That is somewhat misleading, actually, since nine of those at-bats came when he was a starter in the American League: Since coming to the senior league in 2006, Mr. Affeldt has appeared in 576 games and has ten plate appearances. Including the one last night, which was his second of the year.

I should say—I assume that any Gentle Reader will know that in baseball, pitchers are expected to be terrible hitters. There’s a reason for this: pitching is by far the most valuable skill for a baseball player to have, so a good pitcher who can’t hit a curveball gets to keep playing, while a good outfielder who can’t hit the curve gets as far as the Cape Cod league and then nowhere. This gets heightened, as the incentives on young pitchers are toward specialization, and then, well, the point is that pitchers can’t hit. In the junior league, they even have a sort of mercy rule where pitchers don’t even have to try. It’s embarrassing, frankly. Even in the National League, though, where starting pitchers have to take their turn at the plate, they do so every five days, and often leave the game after two or maybe three at-bats. Relief pitcher, however, like Mr. Affeldt, hardly ever get to hold a bat in a game, and there’s a reason for that.

Except… I’ll pause a moment here to ask the baseball-savvy amongst y’all to guess how many pitchers have batted for the Giants in relief appearances this season. Quick guess, c’mon. No, more than that. OK, I’ll give: nine different relievers have batted, for a total of twenty-two plate appearances. I looked up other teams with similar records: the Mets have brought three relievers to the plate, the Cubs and the Nationals four, the Pirates and the NL team from greater Los Angeles five. Nine seems like a hell of an outlier.

This is a thing that has bugged me about our manager, Bruce Bochy, for some time. I have written before about his propensity for the double-switch, which burns an extra guy off the bench. I hate that. To be fair, though, our starting pitching is weak—our innings pitched per start is league average (5.9), more or less even with the Cubs, but the Mets league-leading average at 6.3 doesn’t seem like such a humongous difference. Well, our percentage of starts that aren’t crappy (the official name of the stat is Quality Start, but I think of it as Not-crappy Start, which is a useful distinction) although at league average (again, about even with the Cubs) is significantly below the Mets. They have endured only 35 crappy starts; the Dodgers and Pirates 42, the Nats 46, the Giants have survived 51. Sixteen more crappy starts from starters potentially means more than sixteen opportunities for a relief pitcher to bat, but that still doesn’t make up for the difference between the Giants 20 and the Mets three. Even the Cubs have only 14 relief-pitcher plate appearances, and their starting pitching is if anything a touch worse than ours, as counted by going deep into games.

The roster construction contributes as well, of course: the Giants have effectively a four-man bench. They are carrying thirteen pitchers, the eight starters on any given day, and then the backup catcher, two outfielders and an infielder. You can’t burn the backup catcher too early, in case you need him later, and on any given day one of the three remaining players may be day-to-day, meaning not hurt enough to be off the active roster but not really well enough to play. The Cubs also carry thirteen pitchers; the Pirates, Mets, Dodgers and the Nats are currently carrying 12, but I don’t know if that has been true all season. At any rate, presumably the Giants and Cubs have the extra relief pitcher because they don’t have as good starting pitchers, so that one problem has two ways of making it extra-likely that the relief pitcher comes to bat. Joe Maddon for the Cubs, however, has managed to keep it confined largely to long man and sometime starter Travis Wood, giving only three chances for his other relief pitchers to come to the plate. It’s true that Giants long man Yusmeiro Petit has eight of the relief pitcher plate appearances, and I suppose I’ll toss in former starter Ryan Vogelsong’s two as he appears to be taking a long man role, but that still leaves seven other relief pitchers making twelve outs. Twelve! That’s insane! Who sends relief pitchers up to the plate like that?

Well, and that would be certain Hall-of-Fame manager Bruce Bochy, the guy with three pennants in five years, plus winning those exhibition series against the junior league. Which means… I’m starting to wonder if it’s Bruce Bochy that’s got the right idea, and everybody else who is wrong.

Not that it’s good to have relief pitchers with bats in their hands. It’s clearly bad. But everything is a trade-off, isn’t it? Perhaps we have all been exaggerating how bad that actually is, enough that we have been making the wrong choices to prevent it. Think about strikeouts for a bit—strikeouts are obviously bad for hitters, and modern statistical analysis has not changed anybody’s opinion about that. If anything, we’ve recently started valuing contact more in the sense that we recognize that batters have less to do with the rate balls in play turn into outs or hits than we previously thought, and so in some sense when the ball goes into play, anything can happen. On the other hand, when I was a kid, a high strikeout rate for a batter was only acceptable for a power hitter: it was recognized that more strikeouts for more homeruns was a reasonable trade-off, because everybody digs the longball. More strikeouts for more walks, for instance, would not have been considered valuable at all. Now, a guy who sees a lot of pitches, strikes out a lot, walks a lot, gets his singles and doubles but not a lot of homeruns, well, he wouldn’t be a star, and it sure as hell is irritating to watch him strike out, but at least some people will be willing to accept the tradeoff. Maybe relief pitcher plate appearances are like that. Maybe my Giants are getting enough benefit out of the roster, the double-switches, the pinch-hitting early in the game, to make up for all those outs.

It doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 23, 2013

The Americans and the Perfectos

Your Humble Blogger had already been musing about the old-fashioned air surrounding some of the World Series commentary before seeing the Grauniad’s note called Red Sox vs Cardinals: an old time World Series with a new spin, by Harry J. Enten. He points out that there are only nine teams (out of 30) who have been playing in the same city since the founding of the Junior American League in 1901. Those of course are the founding Junior American League teams from Cleveland, Boston, Detroit and Chicago and the venerable Senior National League teams from Philadelphia (est. 1883), St. Louis (1882), Cincinnati (1882), Pittsburgh (1882) and Chicago (1876). Go Chicago! Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation!

So. How often does that happen, that the World Series is between teams from those nine sticks-in-the-mud? Quick trivia question: what was the last time, points for… 2006, St. Louis and Detroit. Hah! You forgot about 2006, didn’t you, and you thought it was a trick question, and that the answer was the last time the Red Sox and Cardinals met in the World Series, in 2004. Or did you think the Yankees played in New York in 1901?

And of course the two teams in each league playing in the League Championship Serieses’s were all at least 112 years old, but the one that shall remain nameless moved to California a few years ago, so perhaps that doesn’t count. Last year, the four were again all 1901 or earlier, but two of the four had moved, including my very own Giants. When was the last time that all four teams in the LCS were still representing the cities they represented in 1901? Now that one is a trick question: it has never happened that all four teams in the LCS were still representing the cities they did in 1901. Unless I missed one—I kept getting confused by the Baltimore Orioles.

Anyway, all that’s sorta interesting, if you care about the illusion of permanence (all is vanity, remember) and the history of the game. I do take issue, however, with Mr. Enten’s comment that Woodrow Wilson could watch this World Series and say "hey I know these teams". First of all, why President Wilson? Why not Teddy Roosevelt, who was actually Vice-President of the United States when Ban Johnson formed the Junior American League. I think. I’m not sure about the timing, there, in 1901. Still. Maybe the Woodrow Wilson idea is that the American League team from Boston was called the Americans until 1908 (the Cardinals had settled on their name in 1900, it looks like). But if you are admitting that there were no Red Sox in 1901, well, then, where’s your old-timeyness?

And here’s the other thing: this is the Boston American League baseball team in 1901:

Boston Americans team picture

And the 1903 St. Louis Cardinals. Here is the 1901 Boston roster and the Cardinals roster.

I’m not saying that a Red Sox-Cardinals World Series isn’t historically whatnot and all. I’m just saying that you should probably be careful about overstating the thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 24, 2013

Baseball, ten years on

So. Ten years ago, I wrote about Baseball here on this Tohu Bohu, and maintained that Major League Baseball did not have a competitive balance problem. I said There are currently no well-run teams that have not competed for a division title in the last three years. That was 2001-2003, the last three years at the time, and I listed as poorly-run teams those from Detroit, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Texas, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego, Colorado, and Milwaukee.

What constitutes success for a team in a 30-team league over ten years? If the answer is only a championship, then at least 20 teams are going to be unsuccessful, which makes it an unuseful definition for me. A pennant? Two playoff appearances? A couple of 90-win seasons, whether you actually make the playoffs or not? Let’s see how those teams have done.

Since 2003, the Detroit Tigers have won two division titles and a wildcard and won two pennants and had three 90-win seasons, the Tampa Bay (redacted) Rays have won two division titles and a wildcard and won one pennant and had four 90-win seasons, the Baltimore Orioles have won one wildcard and had one 90-win season, the Texas Rangers have won two division titles and a wildcard and won two pennants and had three 90-win seasons, the Cincinnati Reds have won two division titles and had three 90-win seasons, the San Diego Padres have won two division titles and had one 90-win season, the Colorado Rockies have won two wildcards and one pennant and had two 90-win seasons, the Milwaukee Brewers have won one division title and one wildcard and had two 90-win seasons.

It hasn’t been a great decade for each of those teams, but then of course if you want competitive balance, not everyone can have a great decade. Still, each of those teams—eight teams I had specifically singled out for both crappy results and crappy management—have had substantial success over the last ten years.

Oh, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have had one 90-win season and one wildcard, as of… now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 7, 2013

Everybody Fucks Up Sometime

So. My Giants stunk on ice for June (and the last bit of May and the first bit of July), and won last night. So there’s that: at this point I’m happy for any game that goes into the W column. But in getting there, we made total idiots of ourselves on national TV.

The headline version is Batting out of order costs Giants a run. I’ve seen this reported as something like Buster Posey batted out of order, which is clearly wrong: Mr. Posey batted where he was told to bat. The mistake was not his.

For those who don’t know this particular baseball rule, essentially there is an official lineup which is signed by the manager and presented to the umpires (and the opposing manager) before the beginning of the game; the manager is not allowed to change batting order during the course of the game except for substitutions. If the team does not follow the lineup correctly, the opposing manager can call them on it and the offending team is penalized one out—the way it works is that the other manager waits to see if the batter gets a hit, and if he does, alerts the umpire and the hit doesn’t count and the penalty out goes up on the scoreboard instead. Is this a good rule? Dunno. C.L.R. James thought that the whole business of not letting people sub in and out during the game took away good strategy options. Be that as it may, that’s the rule that exists.

What happened last night was this: one lineup—let’s call it lineup A—was released to the press and the public and put up on the scoreboard and in the dugout.

Buster Posey batting in third ahead of Pablo Sandoval was in some sense news, at least to the extent that it was highlighted in the pre-game blog post on the San Jose Mercury News site. The manager Bruce Bochy was actually asked about the lineup before the game began, and he evidently rambled a bit about it not mattering whether Mr. Posey batted third or fourth.

Then Mr. Bochy signed the card with what we’ll call lineup 1, which was the same as lineup A except with Pablo Sandoval hitting third, ahead of Buster Posey in the cleanup spot.

When the whole thing came down in the first inning, I guessed that Mr. Bochy had just signed and handed over the wrong lineup—that is, that he intended Mr. Posey to hit third all along, but gave the wrong lineup to the umpire. After the fact, though, he says that he meant Mr. Posey to hit fourth, and that somehow the wrong lineup got posted in the dugout (and everywhere else). Some of the blame appears to be on the tech guys, since evidently they have only just this weekend installed a screen with the lineup and active-roster information in the dugout. Evidently in June they were still scrawling names on a dried scrap of naugahyde with a charred stick. I’m not sure how this is a technical problem to do with the display, though, as this was the lineup that everybody had. Except the umpire and the other manager, I mean.

Well, and here’s my question: Which scenario is more embarrassing for Mr. Bochy and his people? The one where he screws up and costs us an important out by handing the wrong lineup to the ump? Or the one where he fails to notice that the wrong lineup is on the big screens in the dugout and the clubhouse and the scoreboard—and fails to understand the reporter that asks him a question about it—and then on top of that fails to notice that the fellow who he thinks is supposed to bat third is not getting up to go into the on-deck circle and the other fellow is? And continues failing to notice it during the course of the at-bat?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 1, 2013

29-25

I happened to notice, the other day, an old note of mine from January 2010, when I was feeling Despondent about my Giants. Specifically I was despondent about the signing of Bengie Molina, but included in that was a general despondency about the team being in a good-but-not-good-enough period again: they aren’t a team that should be looking to Win It All this year, said I. And, of course, they did win it all in 2010 and again in 2012. Which is a lesson about taking anything YHB says seriously.

My guys are 29-25 right now, exactly a third of the way through the season (if my arithmetic is correct) and four games over .500. They’re a game and a half behind the D-Backs and a game ahead of the Rockies, and a wonderful six games ahead of the bad guys. I’d rather be in first, of course, but they are doing fine: a good April, a mediocre May. If they play like they did in April, they will win the division; if they play like they did in May… they might just win the division anyway. If they go back and forth—well, call it 87-75, and while it’s short of a Good Team, it’s solidly a Pretty Good Team. And as implied above, I have started to expect the team to do better than I expect them to do. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 18, 2013

Numbers Game

Now that Jackie Robinson Day is over, I will just vent my spleen a trifle about how unpleasant and wrong-headed YHB finds the now-traditional observance of all the ballplayers wearing number 42. The Jackie Robinson Foundation and MLB are now using iam42.com. And you know what? Jackie Robinson deserves some proper respect. I get that. He was a Dodger, but still, respect for being first.

You know who else deserves respect? Larry Doby. #14, Larry Doby, of the Cleveland Indians. Because he also had to put up with a whole hell of a lot of racism, and came through it to play in the major leagues. Jackie Robinson was not magic, any more than Rosa Parks was magic, or Martin Luther King, Junior for that matter. The people who came after them still had to put up with shit, and they don’t deserve to be forgotten. Larry Doby was a Hall of Famer who broke the color barrier along with Jackie Robinson, and to have everybody in baseball wear 42 and nobody wear 14—well, that’s just wrong.

You know who else doesn’t deserve to be forgotten? Hank Thompson. Wore #7 for the Saint Louis Browns ninety days after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Do you think he put up with any less shit than Jackie? Hank Thompson was no Hall of Famer, just a good, solid third baseman, mostly for the Giants (where he wore # 16), and no, unlike Jackie Robinson, who as everybody knows was selected because of his nobility and self-control, Hank Thompson was a drunk who would kick your ass as soon as look at you. And he was a black man who played Major League Baseball in 1947. And his team-mate in St. Louis, Willard Brown, played only twenty-one games in MLB, wore # 15. Wasn’t Willard Brown a hero, too?

Sam Jethroe wore #5 for the Boston Braves in 1950, as the only black man to play for a Boston team. Think he had to put up with much? Bob Trice wore #23 with the Athletics in 1953, the only black man to play for a Philadelphia team. Was he not a hero?

Look, it’s great that Jackie Robinson was Jackie Robinson, and I have no problem with MLB having a Jackie Robinson Day. What I object to is the deliberate effort to erase every other African-American player in the early years of integrated baseball. The story we tell ourselves about the integration of baseball in 1947 is that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. That’s the story we imply about the lack of integration in 1946: that we needed a Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball. We needed his nobility, his outstanding talent, his self-control and self-sacrifice. And I’m glad, really, that it was Jackie Robinson. But what if the St. Louis Browns had give a Hank Thompson or a Willard Brown a chance to put their uniform on in September of 1946? Sure, it would have been a failure—there might have been a brawl, and maybe even some serious injuries. And they would have played. And then somebody else would have come up next—maybe Jackie Robinson or Larry Doby or someone else—and then someone else and someone else. The reason Hank Thompson didn’t break the color barrier is not because he wasn’t good enough, or noble enough, or sober enough. It’s that no white team let him. It’s because of irrational prejudice, discrimination and hate.

The story we tell ourselves about the Civil Rights movement is that Rosa Parks just suddenly refused to move to the back of the bus, and then Martin Luther King had a dream, and then suddenly everybody realized that segregation was wrong. What’s wrong with that story has nothing to do with the greatness of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. It has to do with erasing everybody else, and all the work that a whole movement put in for decades. It has to do with erasing our own history—our history as white people, as black people, as Hispanics, as Jews, as Northerners or Southerners or Midwesterners, what we were doing at the time, and for years and years before and after.

Jackie Robinson was first, yes, and a hero, and a great American. The story we have started telling ourselves about him, though, can’t be a great story—a true story, a story about ourselves that isn’t just a lie to ourselves—if we want all the players to wear that 42 and to erase #14 and #7 and #15 and #5 and all the other numbers.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 21, 2012

Win Now!

Your Humble Blogger gives up on the Giants a lot.

I’m not actually sure what I mean by that—I certainly don’t stop listening to games, or watching them, or rooting for the Giants to win them. I don’t stop reading about the games and the players, and about their upcoming opponents. Nor has it ever occurred to me to root for some other team instead. No, what I mean is more the moment when I look at my team and say these guys stink. Or even, as has been happening lately, these guys are okay, we had a fine season, but those other teams are simply much better.

I think that’s a part of being a fan of a sports team, at least most of the time. Even Yankees fans, even Man U fans, even, um, do they play hockey these days? Anyway, sometimes you just look at the your guys, and you look at the other guys, and you think it would take a miracle.

I’ve done that a bunch of times this year. I gave up on the regular season when Melky Cabrera admitted using performance-enhancing drugs and was suspended the rest of the year. Frankly, in addition to thinking that we would not be able to win the division without the offense that Melky (and, presumably, the drugs) were providing, I felt that winning the division with the offense that he had provided through the first hundred games would be unsatisfying.

It turns out I was wrong about the unsatisfying part, and as it happened we walked away with the division to the point where few analysts seem to have responded that it was the Melky-juice that made the difference that got us there. And, you know, we get to play more games after the end of the season, so that’s cool.

After the first game of the Reds series, I almost gave up; their ace went down hurt and we still couldn’t win. And then after the second game, I did give up: we played poorly and looked utterly out of our league. That was fine; we had a perfectly good year, and the Reds were clearly a better team.

And then—we won three games in a row and the Reds went home to paint the garage. I don’t know what happened, or how, or why, but, you know, we won!

In this series against the Cardinals, I must say I again gave up, particularly after Game Four, when we played poorly and looked utterly out of our league. Again, that was fine; we had a perfectly good year, and the Cardinals are clearly a better team.

The thing about this Giants team, I think, even more than last year’s, is that when they lose, they often look terrible. I think this is because Hunter Pence is such an awkward, gangly, insectoid-alien goofball, who makes great catches and horrible errors, twitchy GiDPs and line drive home runs with the same ineffable unreality; Brandan Belt does resemble a baby giraffe, and appears at the plate as if he would rather do anything than swing the bat; Pablo Sandoval is actually reminiscent of the Disney Character that gave him his nickname, alternating between being unable to bend down on a routine grounder and levitating to snag a line drive without apparent muscular effort, except in masticating that bubble gum, and then there’s his cartoon eagerness to swing from the dugout at pitches that Brandon Belt can’t bring himself to risk his bat in proximity to. Those three look bad while playing well, frankly, but when the breaks go against them they look awful.

Also, so far we have started the worst pitcher in the National League. And also Barry Zito. I feel a little rueful about giving up, but come on. Matt Cain lost, and then we started a pitcher with an ERA+ of 67. And then Barry Zito. Was Barry Zito the second-worst pitcher to make 30 starts in the NL this year? Probably not; Edinson Volquez and Tommy Hanson were pretty bad. But he’d be in the discussion, wouldn’t he? And yet—

So what I’m saying is that I am going to try really hard not to give up on my Giants any more this year. I mean, yes, it’s possible that tonight will be their last game of the year anyway, but I believe they will play tomorrow, too. My Giants really are the best. They have intangibles and fire in the belly and spark in the eye. They have momentum. They have grit. They are gamers. They are clutch.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 8, 2012

Bleeding Black and Orange

So. It’s like this.

Saturday evening, I’m blowing up balloons for my playoff decorations, and I realize that the black balloons I bought are not black at all but purple. I can’t blame the party store, as it says purple right on the package, and it’s not like I am unfamiliar with the concept of uninflated balloons appearing black but revealing themselves to be purple or dark blue when filled with air. Still, there I am with purple balloons, which are obviously no use at all. So I figure that it’s getting close to game time and I really don’t want to go out again (I live in Connecticut, so the game starts late; the children are in bed already at this point), and after all I have black streamers and orange streamers and orange balloons, and it’s pretty festive. So that’s all right, I think to myself, and settle down.

And the Giants lose.

So. Obviously, the next day I go out and purchase some black balloons and inflate them and add them to the decorations. I mean. There’s no point in taking chances, right? So before game time Sunday night, I have black and orange balloons, and black and orange streamers, and also, just in case, some Oreos with orange filling, which are frankly pretty nasty, but hey, it’s the playoffs.

balloons.jpg

Only the Giants get crushed.

So. The question is: how do I prepare for Game Three on Wednesday? My instinct is to put up more balloons and streamers, but they have not been working so far. I am in Connecticut, so the option of breaking the string by watching in a bar is not really on, and besides Game Three starts while the kids are up and can watch a little live baseball (I have forced them to watch the condensed games the morning after, because being a baseball fan is about strength of character) in the house with the decorations—if the decorations are not bad luck. Should I take them down altogether? Put up red balloons, hoping for the bad luck to fall on the other team?

Fortunately, I have a travel day to explore my options.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 3, 2012

My Giants

I have been meaning to write about my Giants. This seems like a good time—we’re leading the division, and we’ve just voted three of our guys to start the upcoming All-Star game. We have the second-best winning percentage in the league, and are about to start a series with the Washington Nationals, who (believe it or not) have the best record in the league. Even the traditionally Giants-skeptic BP Adjusted Standings have us at the top of the division and among the best in the league, and they give us an 83.5% chance of making the playoffs, which is the highest in the league.

So, are we good? Do we stink? How are my Giants doing?

Honestly, they’re doing pretty well. I’m not sanguine about it—this offense isn’t actually very good, and the thing about a team built around starting pitching is that any pitcher might clutch his shoulder at any moment and that’s it for your year. You want more detail? Sure, what the heck.

The offense: The Giants brilliant plan to have three center fielders suffers from the obvious problem that it’s a terrible, stupid plan that relies on Gregor Blanco, the White Shark, suddenly being a good hitter. And, you know, maybe, or maybe he just had a really good month. It also seems like doing without the traditional power-hitting corner outfielders is something you don’t want to combine with doing without traditional power-hitting corner infielders. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Panda, but counting on him to play at the top of his game for anything like a whole season is just… optimistic. So far he’s had one season where he was good, one season where he was out of shape, and two seasons where he got hurt. On the other hand, keep in mind that their middle infield is slugging .320 right now—this is a team that could improve its offense drastically by adding a league-average hitter. I would describe them as having two good hitters (Melky Cabrera and Buster Posey) and one good-but-fragile hitter, with the possibility of Brandon Belt being good as well, and no reason to think that Angel Pagan will stink. That puts them close to an average offense, with (as I say) some easy opportunities for trading up.

The pitching: Wow. Here’s the thing: We have had three extraordinary starting pitchers this year. And Tim Lincecum. Who has not been good at all. I don’t think he’s finished, though; I don’t expect another Cy Young season out of him, but I expect him to be fairly good again at some point. So I actually think that—barring injury, of course—I expect the starting pitching to be better in the second half than it was in the first. Which is very, very good indeed. The bullpen is good as well (particularly Sergio Romo, who I consider underused) but the great thing about the starting pitching is that we don’t need to use our fourth or fifth best relief pitcher every few games. We do use them, of course, for one or two batters, because Bruce Bochy is like that, but it’s only for one or two batters, and often the game isn’t even on the line.

The competition: The team we beat out of first place without letting them score any runs is suffering from massive injuries. We’ve been there. It stinks. They aren’t going to win the division without their two best hitters. I would have sympathy, only they are evil, and deserve no better than woe. The Padres and Rockies stink, and the Diamondbacks are a fairly good but not very good team. They could be improved by trades, or by Justin Upton going nuts, so I don’t count them out. But they’re really the competition, and it sure looks to me like (barring injury to a starting pitcher, again) the Giants are a better team.

In other words, it’s a pretty good team. Not too stinky. Potentially quite good. I have hopes of a division title, possibly more than 90 wins. And, of course, if they do make the playoffs, anything could happen. Anything at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 15, 2012

Perfecto!

So, this:

First of all, Matt Cain. He’s really, really good. Last week, I happened to repeat my prediction that he will be the greatest pitcher ever to drop off the Hall of Fame Ballot after the first year. It’s kind of a joke. Sort of. Two years ago, it was easy to imagine an outstanding career, borderline Hall-worthy, ending in a won-lost record close to 145-160, no awards, very few Cy Young votes, and only two or three actual votes on the ballot. That’s less likely now, I would guess, with a perfect game to go along with his perfect 2010 post-season on the way to a World Series victory. I hope people do come to realize how good he is, although of course I will resent those latecomers as well. But seriously, guys. Matt Cain.

The other thing, though, is that as good as Matt Cain is, this was a fluke. The video clearly shows (a) a near homer, knocked down by the wind, (2) a called strike three that was about six inches high, and (iii) a ridonkulous catch by Gregor Blanco (the White Shark) in straightaway center field, which is particularly astonishing when you remember he was playing right field at the time. There was also a ball hit down the line that was called foul, that from what I have heard was actually foul but was close enough that it could have been called fair, and would have been a double. The twenty-seventh out was a bad-hop grounder that could have been beaten out. If any of those things is different, it’s not a perfect game.

Of course, that’s true of any perfect game. The difference between a perfect game and a not-perfect game is often something that’s outside of the pitcher’s control. A gust of wind, a fielder’s misplay, an umpire’s call. If, for instance, out third-baseman had bobbled the ball a little longer and the batter was safe at first, and then Matt Cain had struck out the twenty-eighth batter he faced, it would have been an even better pitching effort. But it wouldn’t have been a perfect game. A perfect game is a fluke.

What isn’t a fluke is that Matt Cain is very, very good—good enough that he put himself in a position where if a handful of flukes fell his way, it would be a perfect game. While any pitcher could, in theory, be the recipient of enough flukes and oddball things to wind up with a perfect game, in fact the pitcher has to be throwing very, very well. There was only one ball that needed to be knocked down by the wind, only one that needed to be an inch foul. Only one crazy superman catch in the outfield. You don’t have to be a great pitcher to throw a perfect game. But if you are a great pitcher, it’s a little less impossible.

As El Lefty Malo said: Tonight wasn’t the proof, it was the reward.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 12, 2012

The Double Switch

Can someone explain to me about the double switch?

In baseball. The double-switch in baseball. When the manager changes pitchers and simultaneously changes a defensive position, so that the new pitcher comes in to a different spot in the batting order, and the new defender comes in to the batting order where the pitcher was. The idea of it, as far as I can tell, is that the manager wants to replace a pitcher is up next (or next inning) with a relief pitcher who he expects to want to keep in to pitch the following inning, and wants to avoid pinch-hitting for him. Given the way the game is currently played, it seems to me this should be rare.

  • It takes a starter out of the game. Sure, sometimes, you want this. In the last inning of a close game, or a game that has become close, you may want to get your aging shortstop out and your slick-fielding light-hitting young shortstop in. Of course, if that’s the switch, you are guaranteeing that the slick-fielding light-hitting young shortstop will be up next inning (in what was the pitcher’s spot), so there’s that. It kinda defeats the purpose. If you are going to be bunting with the guy anyway, why not just let the pitcher bat?
  • If there’s a rally the next half-inning, of course, the pitcher’s spot may come up anyway. If it does, there will probably be men on, and there’ll be another pinch-hitter gone as well as the pitcher you wanted to keep in. You could figure out some odds, based on the OBP of the batters, how many batters would be needed, and on the pitcher you think they will be facing, so you would have some sort of if the chances of the new pitcher’s spot coming up are more than X formulation, but it wouldn’t be very accurate. My feeling, though, is that the double-switch is pulled in anticipation (or at least hope) of some offensive production.
  • Most teams have umpty-’leven relief pitchers now, anyway, and no actual mop-up man. As far as I can tell, most of those guys are capable of pitching against a few batters two days in a row, or three days out of five, or whatever. Managers don’t seem all that concerned about saving the bullpen anymore. That’s not a bad thing (although The Book on how to use relief pitchers is seriously sub-optimal) but it does mean that it shouldn’t be that much of a problem to just bring in your guy, get your out, and then pinch hit for him in the next inning and bring in someone else.
  • Most of all, it burns a bench player for little reason. When the new pitcher’s spot comes around, you are going to pinch-hit for him, and you have one fewer choice on the bench to do it with, because you put the one guy in already. If you only have five guys on the bench, and one of them is your emergency catcher, it seems like that’s a resource you want to conserve.

Let’s take an example, shall we? You yank the pitcher and do a double-switch. In your half of the inning, it’ll be your 6-7-8 hitters, so you pull your cleanup hitter and put your pitcher in the 4 slot, and the back-up guy in your 9-slot. The next inning, you go through an extra batter—success!—so following your relief pitcher getting another three outs, you start with your 1-2-3 guys. But your 1-2-3 guys can hit (hypothetical), so the pitcher’s spot comes up with men on base, and you need to pinch-hit. Which you do. You now have one position player and two pitchers out of the game. At the end of the inning, though, you will need to put another pitcher in, so you now have two position players and two pitchers out of the game. You may have some choice about who is coming out, now, depending on what positions your pinch-hitter can play, but either way, you have gone through two position players and two pitchers by the end of the inning.

If, on the other hand, you had not pulled your cleanup hitter, but instead kept your relief pitcher in the 9-slot, you would have had to pinch-hit in the bottom of the inning, and then put your new relief pitcher in the 9-slot again. Now, in your next time at bat, when the 4-slot comes up and you have men on base, guess what? You have your clean-up hitter hitting cleanup. Amazing! At the end of that inning, you have burned through two pitchers and one position player. Your second relief pitcher has pitched a full inning, but is able to keep pitching if you want him to.

So if you have a mop-up guy that you want to have in for more than one inning, it seems like the double-switch is the wrong way to go about it. And in general, with the way rosters are set up and the way relief pitchers are used, I would think that it would be better to use up an extra relief pitcher than an extra position player. Right?

The reason I am asking here is that Bruce Bochy, manager of my San Francisco Giants, loves the double switch. He seems to be disappointed if he ever has to pull the pitcher without pulling another player as well. Yesterday, Tim Lincecum was getting shelled, and had to be pulled in the third inning, and he switched out the clean-up hitter. Eight batters later, he had to pinch-hit in the 4-slot. In the fifth, he switched back to put the pitcher in the 9-spot. In the seventh inning, that spot came up and he pinch-hit; at the end of that inning, he left the pinch-hitter in to put the pitcher in the 2-slot, which made no sense to me at all, as the 2-slot was coming up the next inning, and when it did, he pinch-hit, of course. He pinch-hit with the last guy on the bench, our starting catcher who had been given the day off because he had been diagnosed with shingles. We were down by eight runs, at that point, and it was the eighth inning. Had we somehow scored a bunch of runs in that inning, we could easily have been in the position of having to have a relief pitcher bat in the ninth with the tying run on base.

That was an absurd situation, in an absurd game. We didn’t lose that one because of the double-switch, and really, at the time of the first double-switch we had a win expectancy of 3%, so it seems silly to complain about managerial moves at that point. But Mr. Bochy uses the double switch a lot, and while I do get the sense that other managers don’t use it quite that much, it seems to me that it happens far more than it should.

Or, at least as likely, I am missing something. Am I missing something?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 30, 2012

Replacement Level

Just to be clear: As our regular second-baseman is injured, the Giants are planning to start Emmanuel Burriss as our interim regular second baseman. And have released Mike Fontenot.

Now, stat-heads will have looked at those two pages, noticed that there isn’t anything that Emmanuel Burriss does better than Mike Fontenot, and concluded that, wait for it, perhaps Jeff or Christopher would like to chime in here, Manny Burriss is swinging the bat well this Spring.

It’s worth, I think, taking a moment to look at the Burriss/Fontenot choice in order to talk about the way we humans make decisions. In addition to the common fallacies that stat-heads complain about, there’s a more fundamental thing that stat-heads have been driving at for a decade now, that this choice brings into high relief.

The most persuasive fantasy here is the Small Sample Size illusion, and in particular the version that states that the most recent sample is the best one for predicting future performance. While at-bats are not entirely independent events, we have plenty of baseball history to show that a good month does not indicate a good year. In the rest of life, we also have a tendency to think that a streak of good performance (or bad performance) will continue. If you have a good couple of months for your (f’r’ex) cholesterol numbers, or your grocery bills, or your mood in the morning, it may well be that there is a reason for the improvement, but it may also just be that the coin came up heads a bunch of times in a row.

The next fantasy is the Audacity of Hope, or in this case just clinging to hope. We (Giants fans, but particularly the Giants organization, I would think) had high hopes for Manny Burriss; we wanted him to be another success story of the farm system. He isn’t. But when he has a good Spring Training, there’s the pull of Hope, to say that he really will be that success story. Mike Fontenot, on the other hand, has already done everything we hoped for and more. Nobody expected him to be an All-Star when we picked him up. Nobody was really hoping that he would be good enough to be a regular starter at second, since we had a second baseman, even if he was a trifle brittle. We wanted him to be a replacement, which he was. But Manny Burriss still carries with him some hope. It’s not unlike the sunk costs problem, except instead of an expensive contract burden, it’s hope. This—both the sunk costs problem and clinging to hope—is obviously applicable to a bunch of real-life problems. In particular, I’m thinking of support for politicians that are clearly not going to win the primary or the general election, or even continued support for politicians that have clearly shown themselves not up to the elected task, but I support them in a primary for a higher office, because I retain such fond hopes.

I also think that the front office connected the Hope with some idea that Mr. Burriss is younger than Mr. Fontenot. Which, you know, he is. Four and a half years, in fact. If Mike Fontenot were 27 and Manny Burriss were 23, I might say, what the hell, keep the kid, you never know. But in basebally years, Manny Burriss is not a kid anymore. He is probably done improving, which is particularly nasty because he hasn’t actually done any improving for years, now. Mike Fontenot is done improving, too, by the way, but what with having been better than Manny Burriss for a couple of years already, my money would be on Mike Fontenot continuing to be better than Manny Burriss, even if neither of them are very good. This isn’t the sort of thing that’s widely applicable, except to the extent that I think we are our current cultural moment thinks of twenty-somethings as still in their youth, unready to settle to a task—and thinks of middle-age as starting at sixty.

But the big point I wanted to make is that Mike Fontenot is a Replacement Value utility infielder. And Emmanuel Burriss is not that good.

I think the big stat-head thing over the last decade or so was this idea of measuring value against potentially available replacements. In the past, it was more common to compare people to average players, or even to good players—when Batting Average was the most important thing, people compared anyone’s average to .300 (good) or to .250 (average), not to replacement level. Similarly with home runs, the question being whether your guy could hit a ton of dingers, or hit an average number, not whether it was easy to pick up somebody cheap who could hit just as many.

Mike Fontenot is a replacement level player. Any team, caught all of a sudden without a second baseman, should be able to pick up somebody who is just as good as Mike Fontenot. Actually, today any team can pick up Mike Fontenot, which goes to show. He is an excellent example in my eyes of what we’re talking about when we talk about Replacement Level. Is he good? No, he’s not good. Is he average? No, he’s not average. Well, not everyone can be average; that’s why they call it average. Is he within shouting distance of average? Yes, he probably is within shouting distance of average. Is there somebody out there being cut this week by some other team who is just about as good? Without actually looking at the transaction log, I would guess that there is. But Emmanuel Burriss is worse than replacement level. A team with a replacement level player would win about a game a year more than a team with Emmanuel Burriss.

One thing that statheads really have been pushing is that Major League teams really should not have any players on the roster that are worse than Replacement Level. Unless of course there’s some powerful reason—your terrible player is beloved by the fans, at the end of the career, and for one more season and (one always hopes) a handful of at-bats, it’s worth losing a roster space to sell more season tickets. Or there’s the argument that such-and-such a player is half a coach, already, transmitting wisdom to the young ’uns. Or—hey, he had a great Spring Training! He’s in the best shape of his life! </headdesk>

The thing is, while this insight is widely applicable, it’s actually very difficult to apply properly. Baseball statisticians argue about what is the appropriate line for replacement value, and they have an absurd amount of data. The lesson to learn is not really that you should cut loose from your workplace, classroom, community theater production, rock band, D&D campaign or household anyone who isn’t pulling their weight. The lesson to learn is that replacement value is a tricky thing. A CEO, for instance, probably doesn’t have a good handle on the replacement value of a truck driver, or even of a subcontracted transportation service. She may think she does, but she probably doesn’t. A constituent probably doesn’t really have a good handle on the replacement value of the town’s mayor. You may think you know what a replacement level house painter is, and you may be right, but you may not be. And if you feel really, really sure about it—remember that the Giants feel really, really sure about Emmanuel Burriss and Mike Fontenot.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 18, 2012

Tim Wakefield

I don’t have any clever insights to Tim Wakefield’s now-completed career; Gentle Readers who care will know where to go for those. I just wanted to point out something that is probably not going to be emphasized in the retirement columns and blog posts, but that I always associated with him and his career. And that’s how amazing his story already was by the time he was thirty.

For those who missed it: he’s a 21-year-old eighth-round first baseman with the Watertown Pirates in the New York-Penn league in 1988. He bats .189 and slugs .308. But he hangs on. The next year, in the New York-Penn League and the Sally League, he plays some first and third, and even second. He still can’t hit (.216/.255/.330) and his professional baseball career is over. Except—like a lot of guys, he fools around with a knuckleball when he’s playing catch, and the manager—U.L. Washington in the only year he manages at any level—gives him a shot on the mound. And his career is not over.

In fact, despite struggling at Buffalo in 1991, he is up in the big leagues at the end of July 1992 for a Pittsburgh team that (a) goes into his first game tied for first place, (2) has won the division two times hand running, and (iii) knows it will lose its two biggest stars at the end of the year to free agency. They need a young man with a big future, and while he is already 25, he is that rarest of all things, a young knuckleballer. He could pitch forever. And here’s his first game. It was Timsanity. The rest of that year he starts thirteen games and finishes four of them, going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA and giving up only three home runs. Out of nowhere.

I know this is painful for a certain Gentle Reader, but take a look at the 1992 Playoffs. The Pirates can’t hit John Smoltz in Game One and get absolutely crushed in Game Two. Game Three is Tim Wakefield and Tom Glavine, and Tim Wakefield outpitches him to get a complete game victory. The Braves win Game Four (I don’t remember John Smoltz giving up those runs, do you?) but the Pirates win Game Five at home to send it back to Atlanta (I almost typed send it back West to Atlanta—do y’all remember that Atlanta was the champion of the National League West that year?) and another Glavine/Wakefield matchup. And Tim Wakefield throws another complete game, winning on the back of a Barry Bonds-led 8-run second inning. And then, you know, they lose Game Seven in the ninth—but they are only in Game Seven at all because of two complete games by the rookie Tim Wakefield, only three months in the Big Leagues and a star.

And then they next year, he’s through. He starts out OK, a fine April with one bad outing, but by mid-May he can’t get anyone out. He manages one Quality Start out of six before they move him to the bullpen in June. In July, he’s sent down to AA, where he stinks, and although they bring him back up for a few starts in September, he starts 1994 in Buffalo, where, I’m afraid, he stinks. He doesn’t get called up at the end of 1994, and the Pirates release him before the start of the season in 1995. His career is over.

Only it wasn’t. The Red Sox signed him, gave him four starts in Pawtucket, and brought him up at the end of May. He gives up three runs in his first four games (pitching 33 innings), and is a star again. His ERA is a full run lower than Roger Clemens (who is in the twilight of his career), and he and Mo Vaughn lead the team to the division title. He was 28 years old, and his career had ended twice. The first time almost a stillbirth, the second a spectacular flame-out. To come back at all was astonishing and improbable; to come back and be great was one of the great baseball stories. To come back and pitch for fifteen years

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 21, 2011

List of the Day (yesterday, of course)

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t given up the Tohu Bohu. I’m still posting; I’m just not actually posting anything. I opened a word processor the other day to write this I’m still here post and didn’t get anything typed at all. Not that I’m horribly busy—I am quite busy, but not to the point of panic. I’m afraid this Tohu Bohu has taken a bit of a lower priority than some of the other stuff, on the assumption that it’ll still be here.

Don’t be fooled, though, into thinking that I’m posting again just because I am actually posting something. I am just popping my head in to comment that the main thing I learned from this list of teams with three good young pitchers is that there aren’t enough major leaguers called Hooks.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 17, 2011

Ouch, whine, lose

Nobody wants to listen to somebody whine about the players on his favorite team getting injured, but I need to vent for a minute.

Since the beginning of the year, as my Giants attempt to defend their championship, they have had to put on the DL their everyday (or expected to be everyday) second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, center fielder, and right fielder as well as two starting pitchers (in the rotation), the closer, the set-up man, another reliever, the guy we picked up to replace our right fielder, our primary bat off the bench, three utility infielders, the guy we picked up as a stopgap replacement for our injured middle infielders, and our top first base prospect.

I am not exaggerating. Well, and I suppose I should mention that our closer didn’t actually miss the full 15 days, as he went on the DL during spring training, but all the rest of them missed at least two weeks (call it 10% of the season, if you want to compare it to other sports) and most of them much more. Chris Quick compiled a quick chart of the highlights which lists only the notable ones (and doesn’t include Carlos Beltran). I don’t remember ever following a team that had such a combination of quantity and severity of injuries.

Last year, everything seemed to go right, which is true of any pennant-winning team. This year, everything seems to go wrong. I suppose I oughtn’t complain.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 16, 2011

The Big Mo

So. England is the Top Nation for Test Cricket. There’s a formula of some kind for deciding who is Top Nation; the ICC does the math and presents a exceedingly goofy mace to the Top Nation, and England’s captain should be wielding that thing for a few months, at any rate.

The India-England series this summer has been in some ways a letdown just because India has seemed like a shambles. Their best bowlers have been unfit, and their best batsmen (who have been the best batsmen in the world for ever so long) have looked old and unfit. And the whole feeling of the series has been of a team that couldn’t summon up enough fire.

Your Humble Blogger is scarcely a stathead, you know. But in baseball, my feeling is with the sabremetricians. When people talk about team chemistry, or about momentum, or about coming through in the clutch, or about the intangibles, the mystique and aura of a winning team, the importance of a loose clubhouse, I think that’s all bullshit. It’s often fun bullshit, and I’m in favor of sitting around bullshitting about baseball, but in point of fact, there aren’t teams that know how to win. The better team wins, usually, but baseball being baseball, the worse team wins pretty often, too. Players have bad days, pitchers come to the mound with no stuff at all, guys lose focus in the field—those things really do happen, but that’s all in the stats already, and you don’t actually need intangibles and chemistry to talk about them. And as for momentum… it’s not that I don’t believe in momentum, it’s that momentum switches from one side to the other in one bounce of the ball, one hanging curve, one swing, one close play. My Giants can have momentum for six innings and lose it for three, and get it back in the tenth. Just because the momentum is going one way doesn’t mean shit about who is going to win the game—your best bet, in fact, is to ignore momentum and expect that the team that is better at scoring runs will score more runs, and the team that is better at keeping runs from scoring will have fewer runs scored against them.

In other words, if I can have only one of Momentum and Matt Cain, I’ll take Matt Cain. I’d rather have Albert Pujols than have all the intangibles in the world.

And when people write about cricket, and talk about momentum, and keeping the pressure on, all that intangible stuff, my reaction is to assume it’s bullshit for cricket just as much as for baseball. Cricket seems to have some cultural similarities to baseball, including an instinctive conservatism that goes along with a love for the history of the sport, as well as a fondness for statistical records and averages. I have read some fairly minor essays about the possibility of using sabermetric-style tools to improve a teams outcomes, but I haven’t seen much of the kind of dissemination of stats-minded tropes and tricks that I have seen on the baseball side over the last decade. Things like a preference for On-Base Percentage rather than Batting Average as a gauge of how much good a batter is doing, and of WHIP or K/BB rates over ERA (or certainly W-L-S) as a predictor of a pitcher’s future. Of course, there’s the odd situation that the most common stats in baseball for a hundred years were oddly designed and didn’t line up well with talent, contributions or predictions. Perhaps Cricket’s stats—runs, strike rates, economy, wickets taken—are just better stats, and need less updating. Or the record-keeping may not be up to snuff in (f’r’ex) separating a bowler’s skill from his mates’ fielding; it appears that a few teams have put some effort into improving fielding in the last few years, and that seems to have made a difference. Certainly England looked much, much better in the field than India, but how to quantify that? Particularly, when the difference on a single ball in cricket can mean the best player goes out for ten instead of a hundred?

Well, anyway, what I was saying is that I react, these days, to talk of momentum and pressure and all with skepticism, not that such things exist but that they really have an effect on the game. I do wonder, though, whether it’s true for cricket. I mean, I have been wondering about the game anyway—the difference, as I say, between being dropped at ten or going on to a hundred is so huge, and so many factors are involved. In baseball, the difference between the bat missing the ball entirely and barely grazing it can be huge (a pop-up on the first pitch of the at-bat being about as bad as an at-bat can be, while the swing-and-miss leaves open the possibility of a home run) but can often be not all that huge (I could look up the WPA difference in different circumstances, but I won’t). As far as I can understand, though, there really is no limit to how big one player’s time at bat can be to a game. Two hundred runs? Two hundred fifty? Three hundred? It’s all happened. If Dravid and Tendulkar had batted for two days and collected the draw, it would have been awesome, but not well within the realm of the possible (as various worried England supporters kept saying)—so whatever takes their wickets is huge. All a baseball batter can do is hit a home run, only one. If there’s no-one on base, and you are two runs behind, you cannot do it alone, not even in theory. In cricket, you can eliminate a hundred run deficit all by yourself, at least in theory, and in practice, too often enough.

Does that leave more room for intangibles? Does the sight of a batter in his eighth or ninth hour at the crease make a difference? I don’t know, and I do wonder. Perhaps it’s just that I haven’t read, and maybe nobody has yet written, the equivalent of the BABIP and FIP stuff that changed the way I look at baseball. Or maybe it’s just that different a sport.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 8, 2011

My Giants

So, Your Humble Blogger is a Giants fanatic, as Gentle Readers know. And yes, the Giants won the World Series last year, so that’s all right. But of course this year’s team is not last year’s team, which is what happens every year to every team, and this year is (so far) very frustrating. Not that last year wasn’t frustrating in August, come to think of it…

Anyway, the thing about this year has been that I go back and forth about whether the team is any good. This last couple of weeks has been an excellent example: We took two out of three from the Brewers in Ess Eff, then went to Philadelphia and took two out of three from the Phillies. At that point, I said to another Giants fan that really, while I understand that the offense stinks, I still like our chances against any team in the league. That is, there isn’t any team the league that I look at and think we would be hard-pressed to win a five or seven game series against. Not that the Giants were better than the Phillies—not by any definition of better that makes much sense to me—but that we would manage to get the wins somehow. We were 61-44, and the thing is, when you are two-thirds of the way through the season, that’s the team you are, not some sort of small sample size fluke.

Then we got swept in Cincinnati, lost two out of three to Arizona in Ess Eff, and lost three out of four to the Phillies in Ess Eff, and as I was listening to those games or reading about them the next day, I was thinking how does this lousy team ever beat anybody? Yes, our pitching is good, well, great, but in those ten games we scored 22 runs, and that counts our sweet 8-run explosion that put us back in first. In the other nine, yes, it was 14 runs. Now, of course if you throw out the best games you will look lousy, but perhaps think about it in quintiles: Lowest Q averaged 0 runs, then 1 run, then 2 runs, then 2.5, then the top Q at 5.5 runs. Compare any team’s to that. The Mets during those 10 games, when they went 4-6? Lowest Q was 0.5, then 2.5, then 4, then 8, then 10.5. Or what about the Pirates, who lost all ten games? Lowest Q is still 1, then 3, then 3.5, then 5, then 6. The point is that the Giants have more low-scoring games, and their high-scoring games aren’t as high-scoring—it’s not just that they have bad nights, or that they can’t handle particular kinds of pitchers. It’s that they can’t score runs.

Is that just the last ten games? Well, let’s see. We’ve played 115 games, so the Qs would be 23. The lowest is 0.61, then 2.0, 2.91, 4.39 and finally the top Q of a whopping 7.43 (y’all should assume I’ve made some egregious arithmetical error in this, by the way). Not quite so bad as the last ten games, but still awful. Let’s compare that to a meh offense such as the Cubs: 0.96, 2.48, 3.74, 4.96, 8.48 and better in every quintile, and it’s not even close.

I put these into quintiles, by the way, because somehow it’s easier for me to think about quintiles then average-plus-variation, and I think it gives more of a sense of what is actually going on without resorting to the raw data. I like Qs for economic data specifically because it makes it easier to keep an eye on the top and bottom, which are of interest for separate reasons. For baseball, it’s more the opposite, that quintiles make it easier to ignore the outliers. It’s one thing to say that the Giants score an average of just under three and a half runs a game, and another to say that the middle quintile is under three runs a game.

And of course, it’s not bad luck. The Giants don’t score runs because they don’t do the things that make runs score. They don’t draw walks (third worst in the league), they don’t hit home runs (also third worst), they don’t hit for average (again third worst), they don’t hit for power (second worst slugging), and they aren’t fast (fifth worst in both stolen bases and caught stealing, third worst triples). They strike out a fair amount (fifth worst or eleventh out of sixteen), for what that’s worth. There isn’t anything they do well at the plate or on the bases. They just stink.

On the other side, of course, they have fantastic pitching, and they don’t get scored on because they don’t do the things that let runs score. They have given up the fewest hits and the fewest home runs, and struck out the most. They do give up walks, though. Still, they don’t give up a lot of runs. While they don’t throw that many shutouts, they throw an absurd number of 1- and 2-run games, and the Q3 against them is just about exactly 3.

So. The question, then, is which of my attitudes is right: is this the team that can go straight-up with any team in the league, or is this the team that shouldn’t be able to beat anybody, ever? I don’t know. I don’t know if I ever will know. Even if they will the World Series again.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 1, 2011

baby steps for Giants, or Together We're Less Lame

Your Humble Blogger wrote at some length about the It Gets Better project, back in October when it was in the news. Since that time, it seemed as if the trend was for straight grown-ups to tell gay teens that it gets better, which is true, but somehow if Dan Savage as a successful person is somewhat alienating for the putative gay teen-on-the-brink, how much more would Barack Obama, as a straight successful person, seem to have irrelevant experience. So I admit to a trifle of resentment—while, of course, it’s far worse in my opinion for prominent and successful people to not participate. Sorry, everyone. It’s a no-win situation, and you can only make it better by making it better.

I bring all this up because my Giants have recorded an It Gets Better video. And I’m thinking (a) seriously, what’s with Sergio Romo’s facial hair, and (2) is someone coming out? No, nobody’s coming out.

Digression: As I’m listening to the game yesterday, I think I hear Jon Miller say that our rookie, Brandon Crawford, was dating college pitcher Gerrit Cole, who is projected to be a top pick in the next week’s amateur draft. And Jon Miller and Dave Fleming are chatting about it quite casually, to the point that I thought that they must have planned out how to deal with his coming-out in advance, wanting to let the listeners know that it wasn’t really a big deal, after all. It turns out, of course, that it’s Amy Crawford, Brandon’s sister, who is dating young Mr. Cole. Still no out professional ballplayers. End Digression.

Anyway, I am proud of my Giants, who have become the first professional sports team to lend its official imprimatur to an It Gets Better video. Really. The first. Eight months, has it been, or nine? Seriously, that’s the first? Well, it’s Ess Eff, and we’re the World Champions. Maybe everybody was just being courteous and waiting for us to go first.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 6, 2011

Say Hey

Willie Mays saved my life.

This is not actually true, but it’s truer than you might think. Back in high school, I had recovered from my suicidal tendencies enough to function, attend school and, y’know, not kill myself, but I was still wallowing in misery and woe. This was probably simple teenage angst to some extent, of course, which doesn’t mean it didn’t suck. But some of it was that I was still walking around suicidal, indifferent to my failure to either die or live. You know. Depressed.

And my Dad took me out of school one February day to go to an Old Timer’s Game.

Now, I grew up in the desert; we didn’t have Major League Baseball back then. We had a Pacific Coast League, the triple-A farm team of our beloved San Francisco Giants, the Phoenix Giants they were called in those days. The town had only a tenuous connection to the big-league club, with not enough fans to make it worthwhile for a local station to broadcast the games (I grew up listening to Vin Scully and the Hated Team, because that’s what was on the radio, although we could sometimes, at night, in the right weather, catch Lon Simmons or Al Michaels for a few innings. It wasn’t a Giants town, though—it was that other team’s town, as much as it was anything, but baseball ran a distant third to basketball and football (tho’ again no team locally in those days; locals seemed to mostly root for Dallas). Spring Training was in town, of course (as were the Cubs and a few others, not so many as there are now), which generated some interest, and the parent club did on occasion attempt to stir up some sort of interest, either in them or in the AAA club. This Old-Timer’s Game must have been one of those.

I have a few distinct memories. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny and warm without being oppressively hot—the sort of day that explains why people all over the Midwest spend thousands of dollars to be in the Valley of the Sun during February—and we were sitting, as we usually did, along the third base side. Juan Marichal did his famous high kick, obviously more in fun than to get more power driving the pitch. Willie McCovey stretched out to take a throw at first. And Willie Mays (who was allowed to participate for the first time after Peter Ueberroth lifted the ban) drew a bead on a fly ball, held out his glove like a basket, and let the ball fall in.

Baseball fans have more reason than anybody to keep in mind that our memories betray us constantly. We remember very clearly a favorite player’s at-bat against, say, Steve Bedrosian in a Braves uniform, and it turns out that Bedrock had already gone to the Phillies by that time, so maybe it wasn’t him, or it was the Phillies, or it was some other player batting. Gabe Schechter has written very movingly about being the guy at the Hall of Fame that people called to ask what day such-and-such an event took place, when it never did. Last Week Mike Krukow got the details wrong talking about his own MLB debut. And Joe Posnansky writes in a magnificent essay called Willie Mays turns 80 years old today about a famous moment that he can’t find any actual record of in the box scores. So really, I am not making the claim that any of this actually happened the way I thought it did.

But in my memory, that moment when I saw Willie Mays make a basket catch—that’s the moment when I decided I wanted to live.

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 14, 2011

Ashes, Ashes, we all stand up!

Your Humble Blogger did not post a note about the result of The Ashes, only in part because no Gentle Reader is at all likely to care. However, just in case, I will note that (a) England retained the Ashes, winning three Test Matches and losing only one; (2) England looked good, but Australia looked worse than England looked better, if you know what I mean; (iii) Alistair Cook batted for two thousand one hundred and seventy-one minutes during the five five-day Tests. That’s just ridiculous. 766 runs. He has five thousand Test runs, and he’s only just 26. And not bad looking, either.

All in all, it was a vastly entertaining hundred and twenty hours of sport. Alas, it was in the other hemisphere, and I didn’t stay up late, or at least not very late, more than once or twice. I read about it the next morning in the newspaper, like a wild animal in the wilderness, although I did read it on-line and not printed in ink on pulped tree.

I will say that there didn’t seem to be any real doubt that England would retain the Ashes, at least not after November 29th at lunchtime. There was, of course, the possibility that they would blow it, but the comeback on that first day set the tone for me, and even when they collapsed in the Third Test to even the series, they looked like the better team with the better chance. That said, I didn’t need to sweat the outcome of the series to enjoy the cricket; there was plenty of excitement day to day and hour to hour. Even the fifth match, after Australia could no longer take the Ashes and England only needed a draw to win the series, the absolute crushing that England bestowed was breathtaking. When the team you root for is really good and is playing at their best, it’s just fun to follow them.

This has been a good autumn/winter for my sports fandom, hasn’t it? My Giants won the World Series and England retained the Ashes in Australia. Things aren’t looking so good for my Terriers, though; sixteenth-ranked and dropping. Well, and it’s early yet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 6, 2011

Proven Guilty, or not

Joe Posnanski is my favorite sportswriter, and one of my favorite bloggers on nearly any topic. I don’t link to his stuff very often here in this Tohu Bohu, often because I don’t have anything to add to it. His recent note on The 40th Anniversary of the Washington General’s win was lovely, for instance, but other than recommending that people read it, even if they aren’t interested in sports, I don’t have anything to say about it. I do have some things I could add to his excellent recent Hall of Fame pieces, and perhaps I will write about them at some point.

But of course what actually gets me to write about something is disagreeing with it. And I disagree with some of his Innocent Until Proven Guilty post. Actually, I don’t disagree with the main point, which is that it is preposterous to refuse to vote for a great player’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame because he might have used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. But the discussion, which was sparked by an essay by Ed Price, centers on whether innocent until proven guilty is a legal idea or a more general idea. Mr. Posnanski calls it “a fundamental right of society”. And I disagree. Or, at least, I don’t entirely agree.

I suspect that the disagreement is over the word proven, and might be washed away by defining our terms somewhat better. Mr. Posnanski does concede that a legal reasonable doubt standard might not be appropriate for the Hall of Fame, but insists that the basic concept must hold anyway. I’ll quote:

If an employer charges you with stealing petty cash, if your parent charges you with breaking the living room vase, if your friend charges you with backstabbing her at a party, don’t they need at least SOME standard of proof? Every single day of our lives, we are faced with some test of innocent until proven guilty, and it seems to me that those words are not about legalities, they are about common decency.

And yet I lock the door to my house when I leave. Every day when I walk around the library that employs me, I curse the imbeciles who leave their valuables lying around where anyone could pick them up. Yes, it is nice to assume that the whole population of the library or of my metropolitan area is honest and immune to temptation, but seriously? Not. I assume that somebody out there is guilty, and I do so without proof.

You can argue that these are general cases, and that he is talking about the specifics. That’s a legitimate distinction—I may be traducing people in general, but I am not traducing anyone in specific, nor does any honest person lose anything when I lock my door or carry my laptop to the men’s room. Or if I assume that anybody driving after dark on New Year’s Eve is drunk and high, altogether without evidence. But I think that in many ways that skepticism is as important to society as the common decency that Mr. Posnanski encourages.

And it does apply to individuals. If I am hiring a babysitter, do I assume the hopeful candidate is capable and honest, or do I get references? I get references. My current employer got references when they hired me; they didn’t assume that I was honestly describing my work history. We often require some evidence that a person deserves hiring, promotion, dessert, a good grade, a vote, a roll in the hay, a handout, a smile. The standard of evidence is going to be different for different things, as it should be. But there should be one.

Now, it is very important that the skepticism I’m talking about be held in tension with the innocent until proven guilty value. That's why it's so incredibly important to apply it to legal matters, and not just in criminal court but across the government. The assumption of innocence is an absolute bedrock to equality under the law. And (as we see in times of crisis) when we are willing to give it up as a more general social value, it will deteriorate in the government as well. And to that extent, Mr. Posnanski’s rant is a valuable one, a necessary one, a good deed. But it’s not all there is.

Back when there was a good deal of discussion of whether Clarence Thomas created a hostile work environment for Anita Hill, many people said that he was innocent until proven guilty, and that therefore it would be wrong to deny him lifetime tenure on the Supreme Court. I said that it would be wrong to imprison him, perhaps, or to fine him, and frankly wrong to fire him from the seat he held on the bench at the time without some more formal and rigorous investigation, but that it was perfectly reasonable to withhold promotion. That was politically motivated, no doubt, but I think it’s still a reasonable stance. But then, I do think that the preponderance of evidence was against him, so perhaps that’s the standard I was holding for that matter. Or even a lower more-likely-than-not standard. And given that a plaque in the Hall of Fame is permanent, and that being denied it doesn’t really damage a modern player very much, perhaps a where-there’s-smoke standard is defensible.

But my point, really, is that even a Big Hall guy like me should assume that any given player—Kirk Rueter or Roger Clemens—should not get a plaque until there’s some proof that he should.

And that you shouldn’t leave your laptop lying on a table in the library. Even if you are just going to the restroom.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 30, 2010

From generation to generation, not to mention various buddies

I often refer to myself as a third-generation Giants fan. That’s only sort-of true, as it wasn’t my Grandfather, may he rest in peace, who took my Dad to the Polo Grounds. It was his Uncle Adolf, my Grandmother’s brother, who as I understand it arranged for my Dad to play hooky and meet him at the ballpark, now and then. They would sit up in the stands behind left field; he talks about how his uncle would arrive looking immaculate in a wool suit, and then, as the sun came around and the line of shade moved, he would take off the jacket, and then the tie, and then the shirt. The whole group of men, in fact, would wind up stripped to the waist—the old newsreel footage of suited and hated men in the stands was taken before the game got underway, he says.

Anyway, he was born in 1935, as the Giants’ historic era of dominance was coming to an end, and I assume he has no memory of the World Series losses in 1936 and 1937. Not only because he was a toddler, but because I doubt his parents would have had it on the radio. Possibly, just because of the peer pressure, but my Grandfather never followed baseball. I always thought he found all sports silly, actually, but when he was in his nineties and the satellite TV came in, he turned out to be passionate about soccer, so I suppose you can take the boy out of the old country, but you can’t take the old country out of the boy.

Anyway, Giants fans suffered through some lousy years when my Dad was growing up. After three pennants in five years (1933, 1936, 1937), the Giants wouldn’t sniff another pennant until my Dad was seventeen. The 1950 season ended with a nice couple of weeks, winning nine of their last eleven after they were eliminated, ending in third only 5 games back. And then 1951 happened.

My Dad’s story is this: he cut school for Game One, traveling to Brooklyn with his buddies but unable to actually get in to Ebbets Field to watch the Giants win against Ralph Branca. He cut school for Game Two. He cut school for Game Two, getting tickets somehow and watching the Giants get demolished with Jackie Robinson homering off Sheldon Jones in the first inning to start the Bums toward a 10-zip final. Then his mother found out he had been cutting school, so he had to go to school and could not go to Game Three and the Shot Heard Round the World. It’s a great story, not any less great for being implausible, and much better than an implausible story that placed him at the actual game.

Well, anyway, the Giants won the pennant, and made a run at it the next year with a great September but fell a few games short. In 1953, they fell to the second division, but then in 1954 they cruised to the pennant and swept the Indians for the World Championship. My Dad was 19. The next year they finished six games over 500 and never led, falling into third in May and staying there. In 1956 they were a second division team, twenty games under .500, and were even worse the next year. And in 1958, they left town.

My dad did not stop being a fan, although he was heartbroken. In 1992, when I was 23 and living in San Francisco, the Giants announced their move to Florida, and he sent a postcard saying that the Giants left his town when he was 23, and he never got over it. Fortunately, the move didn’t happen, but that’s later in the story. What did happen was that the Giants settled in Ess Eff and improved quickly, winning the pennant in 1962. My Dad was 27 by that point and married, and had moved out West himself, settling in my home town of Phoenix AZ, too late for the Giants farm team, which had moved out to Tacoma in 1960. For the rest of the decade, the Giants were pretty good but not good enough, enjoyable but heartbreaking, with the famous string of five consecutive second-place finishes. With the advent of division play, they did finally reach what was now a postseason in 1971, although they didn’t win the pennant. I was two years old, and I have no recollection of that team, although I am informed that I listened along with the rest of the family.

That was the last gasp for the Giants being competitive for quite a while, though. I grew up in what I call the Mike Ivie years, although of course Mike Ivie was only there from 1978-1981; he just seems to me to symbolize the Giants of my youth. They are probably best described as the Johnnie Lemaster years of futility, 1975-1985. Mike Ivie was one of the first baseman in between Willie McCovey (in 1973) and Will Clark (in 1986); two great players who were stars on pennant-winners sandwiching a series of mediocrities, or good players in their last years, or guys out of position. Mike Ivie is my Schenectady for Enos Cabell and Willie Montanez and Steve Ontiveros and all the guys who passed through.

In those years, from before I remember until I was sixteen, they were never really in contention, never really very good. I was a fan, anyway. Not a lot of Giants fans in Phoenix in those years; there were a pretty good handful of Cubs fans and a lot of fans of that team from Ell Lay. Enough of those that there was a local station that carried the games, so that Vin Scully selling Extra-Long Farmer John Hot Dogs is the sound of my youth. We sometimes could catch the Giants game, if the weather were right, for a few innings, but mostly we got updates from Vin Scully and the box scores in the morning paper.

I took a fair amount of grief as a Giants fan in those years, although certainly nowhere near as much as my Dad did growing up in the Bronx in the forties. I went to Spring Training every year, not only a few games but the workouts, which in those days were held at a local public park. The Giants’ AAA team had come back to Phoenix, and we went to a few games a year at Muni, hoping to see future stars. We did some, but as with all minor league teams, the Max Venables and Rich Murrays stay around and the Jack Clarks move on pretty quickly. Every year, we would try to get to a few games in Southern California; there were trips to LA where we would make the six-hour drive on Friday, catch three games, and then drive back on Sunday. We would take a vacation on Coronado off of San Diego, timed so we could go in to see the Giants at Jack Murphy for a game or two. That was pretty much it; no SportsCenter in those days. Oh, sometime in the mid-eighties, we got cable, and we could watch the Braves games; it was a big deal when the Giants played the Braves and we could watch.

I went away to college in Fall 1987, and spent four years largely away from the Giants and other fans. A terrible coincidence, as my Fresh Fall was the first time in my memory that the Giants won their division. I had spent the Humm-Baby summer following the day-by-day struggle between the Astros, the Reds and the Giants. A week before I left, all three were within half a game. In September, as we pulled ahead, I was busy with classes and new friends (I don’t know the exact date I met my Best Reader, but it was probably, oh, the day Will Clark hit a homer in the tenth off Wally Ritchie. That would have been the week I discovered that the Giants home games didn’t turn up in the box score in the next morning’s Inquirer. Brutal. I did listen to the playoffs on the radio, but mostly by myself. I didn’t know any other Giants fans at college, and while I took the time to listen, I can’t say I was truly heartbroken when Jose Oquendo hit a home run off Atlee Hammaker and our season ended. Two years later, I watched part of a few Cubs games on television, and listened to a bit of the Series on the radio, but was more worried about my brother and sister-in-law who lived in Oakland being safe after the quake than heartbroken about being swept.

Over those years, I did get to a few games at Veterans Stadium, but Bad Things happened to the Giants in Philadelphia. I think I was at this game at the end of my Fresh year. I’m pretty sure I was at this game before my Sophomore year; my room-mate from the year before picked me up at the airport, and then gave me a ride to campus after the game. I was definitely at this game. I wasn’t at this game, though. I was at this game, in pretty good seats, and I was at this game in even better seats—and I can still hear the crowd when Gary Carter came in to pinch hit. I was also at this game in crappy seats, if I remember correctly, although I don’t actually remember Von Hayes hitting that walk-off. And I believe I was at both this game and that game, my last games in that terrible place. If you clicked through all of those, you can imagine how low my confidence was in the last game of the NLDS this year.

When I bullied my Best Reader into moving to San Francisco with me in 1991, my adult Giants fan history began in earnest. Pretty nearly every home weekend, we went to a day game, sat in the bleachers, and rooted for the good guys. We watched the local broadcasts in the evenings, and I listened to the road games while I worked. After the team was sold (but kept in Ess Eff) in 1993, we lived through the Last Pennant Race; we went to a dozen games that year, picking up same-day bleacher seats for $5. We were there for this game, when the Giants came back from 5-0, from 11-6, and from 12-8 in the ninth to beat the Braves 13-12 in the eleventh. I think we were there at this game, when Paul Kilgus got Will Clark, Matt Williams and Barry Bonds one-two-three to get his only save of the year, our fifth loss in a row to drop us two games back. We were definitely there for this game when Robby Thompson hit what appears to be the only walk-off home run of his career.

We left California in the summer of 1994, but fairly soon the internet and cable gave me lots of info on the games, and I was able to follow their 1997 and 2000 division-winning years pretty closely. My Perfect Non-Reader was born in the summer 2001, and the Giants won the pennant in 2002.

So. The Giants won the pennant when my Dad was two, and then not again until he was sixteen. The Giants won the division when I was two, and then not again until I was eighteen. They won the pennant when my daughter was one, and then not again until she was—nine? She suffered through four or five bad years, but most of that time she was too young to care. Nine years old is a great time for your team to succeed, it seems. Well, and she is too young to stay up and watch the late games, but then she can watch the condensed games in the morning, and isn’t that something my Dad couldn’t have imagined when he was nine. Tonight, though, we’re letting her stay up: the game starts at seven our time, and could well be over before ten, and she doesn’t have anywhere to be tomorrow morning (Hebrew School being cancelled for some reason unrelated to baseball), and I would have loved to have watched a Giants World Series game with my parents when I was nine. I didn’t have that chance, and my Dad didn’t have that chance, and I sure hope we enjoy it.

And that we win, of course—but you know, mostly I hope it’s something she gets to tell her grandchildren, who will be sixth-generation Giants fans: the Giants won the pennant when I was nine, and my Papa let me stay up late to watch one of the games with him.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 26, 2010

Baseball in October

This is probably the ideal time for Your Humble Blogger to admit this thing: I don’t like Major League Baseball playoffs. In general, I mean, I don’t like the playoffs. I’m enjoying these games—well, by enjoy I mean that I am totally wrapped up in them, my mood swinging from despair to ecstasy, jumping up and down in triumph or frustration, all that sort of thing. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Because my Giants are in it, and even though they kinda stink, they are my Giants, and I want them to win it.

Having said that, though, most years my Giants aren’t in it, and I don’t give a damn who does win. If you go to a web site where fans of the Cubs or the Tigers chat, if there is anybody there at all these last couple of weeks, they have probably had a conversation about how to decide which team to root for in the playoffs. Because they don’t really care—they may hate some other team and be willing to root because of that, or they may have a favorite ex-Cubbie or ex-Tiger and be willing to root because of that, but really, they are done. They will probably watch the games, or some of them, if there isn’t something else worth doing, but that’s as much because this is the last chance to watch baseball before a long cold winter as out of wanting to watch these games.

As for me, it’s more than not giving a damn about them, because I actively dislike them. They are, as Billy Beane famously said, a crapshoot, and it’s irritating to me to hear people talk about the series as if there is a serious argument to be made that the Giants are better than the Phillies because they won four games from them—and as if there were not a serious argument to be made had they only won three. The whole thing devalues the long season, and I like baseball because I like the long season. Or I like the long season because I like baseball. Or, at any rate, what I like about baseball is the long season, and I am irritated, even when the Giants are in the playoffs, by the focus on these few games as being meaningful, as opposed to those April games when the team is finding its feet (hint: below the stirrup socks) or the September games when they are trying to stay healthy. They are all meaningful, because that’s what baseball is: a long season where every game counts.

The good thing about the playoffs, of course, is that the teams are all good teams, or at least they aren’t terrible teams. It is fun to watch good teams play each other in the playoffs, although of course it’s fun to watch good teams play each other all year long, and it happens pretty frequently. People argue that the players are at their best in the playoffs, but then people also argue that certain players are “chokers” who don’t rise to the occasion. Those seem incompatible to me. Plus, just from watching the playoffs this year, some players are banged up, some players are playing way above their heads, some players are stone cold, some players are nervous because of the extra pressure, and some players are pretty much playing like you might expect. And that’s true every year, and I haven’t seen any empirical evidence that most players (or the best players, or the bit players, or any consistent groups of players) do rise to the occasion.

In fact, I have occasionally said that I would enjoy an extended all-star series nearly as much as I enjoy the playoffs. And, having said that, I feel like I should say it publicly, and say it when the Giants are in the World Series so it doesn’t seem so much like sour grapes. Here’s the idea: at the end of 162 games, each league has a pennant-winner based entirely on wins and losses during the season. That’s it. No World Series, no playoffs, just the season and the pennant, the way Uncle Nick Young meant it to be. Also, no All-Star Game in July.

In October, after the season is over, we have an All-Star mini-season of 21 games in six cities. Actually, seven cities, or six cities and a town: the first game is a Hall-of-Fame Game at Cooperstown, NY. Then they do a four-city tour of three games each at the second- and third-place cities of each league, and then four games each at the two pennant winners. Obviously, the league that wins 11 or more games is the champion for the year.

The current post-season is set up for 19 games with a ridiculous number of days off; my 21-game all-star season should be done by Hallowe’en, I would think. And of course the home city’s team gets the gate; there is a huge benefit to finishing third over fourth in your league.

The benefit, to me, is that you could really see all-star baseball: with a 40-man roster playing a mini-season, you still might not see pitchers trying for complete games, but you would see the starter go twice through the lineup, and maybe three times. And that’s the thing—by the nature of baseball, watching Zack Greinke face the best National League hitters once is fun, but doesn’t really tell you very much about them. Watching him face them twice, and then do it again five days later, and then again five days after that, well, that’s a different kettle of proverbial altogether. Similarly, you might see infielders and outfielders learning to work together in the field, you might see batters responding to game situations, and you might even see the managers (presumably this year’s pennant winners) reacting to being two or three games behind.

Of course, every fan would have somebody on the league’s team to root for, even if that player didn’t make it into very many games, but then you could root for your league more seriously, because of course it really would count—not because of home-field advantage in some other, more important series, but because this is what there is. And, I hope, the players would take it seriously because (in my imaginary world without playoffs) this is what there is—well, and there would be RINGZ and money at stake, too. But mostly, it would be the best players playing the best players in something that is close to what we see from April to September—which is not what happens in October with the current system.

So. Look, I am deliriously happy about my Giants winning the pennant, and I am looking forward to this World Series like I haven’t looked forward to a World Series since, well, 2002. Which is my point, really. I mean, I’m only going to look forward to the World Series every eight years or so, or maybe I’ll get incredibly lucky and have three pennants out of five, and then nothing for decades. I could live without that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 23, 2010

In other news...

The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

This is particularly notable because Bad Things happen to the Giants in Philadelphia. And that Philly team is awfully good—a significantly better team than my Gigantes, honestly. But this time, this time the Giants win the pennant.

Oh, my. Oh, my, my.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 16, 2010

Placeholder

Your Humble Blogger was working on a Shabbos Frivolity post, but I didn’t manage to finish it before the Giants game started. I did try to work on it during the half-inning breaks, but clearly that was not working.

So. Maybe tomorrow. Because I’m pretty damn sure I’m not going to have any energy left for blogging by the time this game is over.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 12, 2010

Rather be in Philadelphia

Today, I have been trying to appreciate how good the Giants are. I’m not sure it’s working.

Here’s the thing: in the last year or two, Giants fans have forgotten about waiting for Boof Bonser. We know, of course, that there is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect, but we also knew that Timmy would save us, and he did. We knew that Madison Bumgarner would save us, and he did. We even knew that Buster would save us, and he did. We knew that Pablo Sandoval would save us, and (for a while) he did.

And it’s not like any of us are anything but grateful. Except about the Panda, of course. But Giants fans are utterly thrilled to have such good young players come up through our system and succeed in the majors. We don’t take it for granted, really we don’t.

There’s succeeding in the majors and then there’s Tim Lincecum.

Here’s a point, OK? I remember when Jason Grilli was drafted. And Nate Bump. Two first-round draft picks, 1997 and 1998. We traded them both for Livan Hernandez, who by the way was worth three wins in 2010, a dozen years later. Mssrs Grilli and Bump were a Giants success, in the sense that we received value for them, which we did, whatever our bitter memories say. But in terms of their own successes, well, Nate Bump did make it to the majors and pitched in a hundred and fifty games with Florida’s bullpen over three years. He is still pitching in the International League, according to The Baseball Cube, so there’s the fact that he has been paid for playing ball for a dozen years, even though it was only three years in the majors. I can’t call it a successful career, although of course these things are relative.

Jason Grilli, though, came up for a cup of coffee in 2000, and played in the majors through parts of 2009. True, it was an up-and-down sort of thing, but he appeared in 238 games (mostly out of the bullpen), and had one year (with the pennant-winning Tigers in 2006) when he was pretty darned good. He was never a star, but he was a useful player on a good team for a couple of years.

Tim Lincecum has won two Cy Young Awards.

See, what I’m saying. There’s success, and there’s Tim Lincecum.

And I think that, at least to some extent, that’s thrown my perceptions off, and I think a lot of other Giants fans, too. We know that our guys are good—I think a lot of us are, paradoxically, proud of the unjustified obscurity in which Matt Cain has been laboring so long—but we seem to take almost for granted that a prospect will either flame out altogether or be historically awesome. It’s hard for us to (for instance) accept that Nate Schierholtz is a success by rational standards. And we see Madison Bumgarner come up as a twenty-year-old and pitch a hundred innings with an ERA of 3.00, and we like it, I’m not saying we aren’t crazy about it, but I don’t think we are as blown away by the sheer shock of a twenty-year-old kid making eleven quality starts out of eighteen.

See, I have been saying all year that this team stinks. Yes, 90 games is the line between a good team and an OK team, and we passed that line. Yes, we are four wins from the pennant. But frankly, this team stinks. We scored eleven runs in four games against the Braves (mostly by the benefit of errors), and managed to win the series because the stinky Braves offense (depleted by injuries, which ours is not) only scored nine runs in four games. Line us up against the Phillies and you will see that they are better at 7 of the 8 positions, and not too shabby behind the plate, either. Yes, our starting pitching is terrific, and our bullpen is terrific, and I don’t expect to keep the Phillies down to two-and-a-quarter runs a game. Nor am I at all confident that we will improve our run-scoring against the Phillies pitching. The Giants are, maybe, an average offensive team, if they don’t swing at the outside slider. Which they do, all too often.

On the other hand, we have Tim Lincecum starting Game One, and then Matt Cain starting Game Two, and then Jonathan Sanchez starting Game Three—and then we have Madison Bumgarner starting Game Four. I have to think that having a fourth excellent starter to throw at the Phillies lineup has got to be a plus. Not that I think it will help our guys in Game Four to be seeing Doc Halladay again. Familiarity doesn’t breed that.

So. On the one hand, I tend to agree with the money, which calls the Phillies something from a two-to-one to a three-to-one favorite. After all, a team that can beat you two ways is just much more likely to win than a team that can only beat you one way. On the other hand, I need to attempt to appreciate that the Giants really can beat you by keeping runs from scoring, and that it’s awfully good to be the second-best team in the league—or the third-best, and I think it’s hard to argue that there are three National League teams better than the Giants. Unless you are BP’s adjusted standings, which count fifty runs we might have expected to have given up (based on equivalent runs) that did not, in fact, score against us. So maybe fourth-best.

See? I’m just saying, it’s hard to appreciate these Giants.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 3, 2010

Whew

The Giants win the division! The Giants win the division! The Giants win the division!

Well, and it doesn't quite sound the same. But I gotta say, it's a lot better than losing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 29, 2010

Free Buster! Wait, what?

YHB has not been baseball blogging much these last few years, because, honestly, what’s the point? I mean. We freaking stink. We have a pitcher who is beginning his career in the most startling and awe-inspiring fashion ever (argue it if you want), and a starting rotation that is as good as any fan could hope for, and we are wasting it away with a crappy team. It’s depressing if you care about it, and if you don’t care about it, then why would you want to read about it on this Tohu Bohu?

But look—let me start a ways back, will you? Just stay with me on this. Our organization (that’s the team, the minor leagues that feed in to the team, and the management and coaching) has very obvious strengths and very obvious weaknesses. Our strength is in pitching. Over the last decade or more, we have been a superior team in all aspects of pitching. We have identified amateur pitchers and drafted well, we have brought people up through the system well, we have identified pitchers on other teams that we would like to acquire, we have incorporated them into our system well, we have handled pitchers well once they are on the team, we have kept pitchers healthy, and we have done a good job of keeping pitchers who are useful and dumping ones who are not. Over the years there have of course been some disasters, but on the whole, this has been a team with consistently above-average pitching. In the thirteen years of the Brian Sabean era, we have been in the top five in the league in pitching five or six times (depending on how you count), and in the bottom five only two or three times. I give full credit to Brian Sabean for heading up an organization that has very good pitching, on the whole.

Now hitting is another story. In the last five years, we have been consistently hanging around the bottom third of the league in almost any measure you care to use. Across the board, terrible. Before that, well, before that there was Barry Bonds, who distorts the field. Since then, stinkage. And just like we were good at all aspects of pitching, we stink at all aspects of hitting: identifying talent, either amateur or professional, coaching, training, anything. What has been conspicuously bad for a very long time, however, was our inability to draft or and bring up young position players through our minor leagues. We haven’t had regular starting position player brought up out of our system since Bill Mueller left in 2000. OK, you can count Fred Lewis starting 108 games in 2008, if you want to, but that’s just exactly two games out of three.

But, you say, we did have, of all things, two great young catchers coming up through the system: Pablo Sandoval, signed in 2003, and Buster Posey, just signed in 2008. Now, a good-hitting catcher, that’s something special. Of course, prospects often turn out to be less sparkly up close than at a distance, but still: two young catchers who can hit. That is something for an organization to be proud of.

And I may have mentioned this, but our starting catcher last year was Benjie Molina, who was one of the worst hitters in all of baseball. And our starting catcher this year is Benjie Molina, who is by at least some measures hitting worse this year than last year. OK, by other measures he is hitting somewhat better, but still, a very bad hitter indeed. And a lousy defender this year as well, dropping pitches and throwing out 5 of 34 stolen base attempts. On a lousy hitting team, there are three guys who really have stood out as stinking up a lot of plate appearances: Benjie Molina, the injured Mark DeRosa, and centerfielder Aaron Rowand.

What should an organization do? I mean, here’s your team, here are your strengths, here are your weaknesses, here are your two young fellows who can play a tough position behind the plate.

What the Giants are doing today is bringing Buster Posey up to the majors and starting him at first base. Let me say that again: first base. With Pablo Sandoval playing third base, as he has been for them since he came up.

Did you notice that neither Benjie Molina nor Aaron Rowand play first base? But one of them plays catcher. I think it’s Benjie Molina.

Now, it’s very easy for baseball fans to criticize what their organizations do. I know that. I do. I know that they have access to lots of information I do not. I am aware that even if I did have that information, I wouldn’t have the experience they do, or the tools they have. I even at least dimly realize that if I were General Manager of the Giants, we would stink even more than we do.

But this is just fucked. Two young good-hitting catchers turned into two young corner infielders, and more at-bats for Benjie Molina. It’s just fucked.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 20, 2010

Despondent

Well, there are days lead me right up to the edge of giving up on hope for humanity.

I mean, seriously. How could the Giants resign Benjie Molina? I know, I was the one who was all in favor of offering him arbitration, and what we have now is something close to what we would have had if we did offer him arbitration and he accepted, which was my worst case scenario. But we declined arbitration, which meant that we were unwilling to take the risk of paying Benjie Molina six million dollars for one year, against a benefit of getting a draft pick. Instead, we have no draft pick, and we have signed Benjie Molina for four and a half million—with a million and a half extra if he starts a bunch of games (which he will, if he is healthy and Brian Bochy remains manager). Whoo. Hoo.

Now, it has become one of my Rules of Baseball Griping that a team essentially cannot be hurt by a one-year contract. And the Giants are not, at the moment, in a position where a one-year contract could hurt them much. They are a fairly good team, probably an 82-win team, maybe not that good. They may get lucky (either actual luck or the players-are-better-than-they-look kind of luck that isn’t actually luck) and get into the playoffs, but they aren’t a team that should be looking to Win It All this year. The difference between having Benjie Molina and Buster Posey (or Yorvit Torrealba) would be maybe a game or two over the course of the year. There is nobody they would be spending that six mil on that would improve the team all that much more, so for the most part it seems to be taking money out of the pockets of the owners and into Benjie Molina’s pockets, and that is that. And, of course, it’s taking from me the fun of watching a young phenom, but they have made their judgment that the young phenom is too young to be a phenom, and as much as I would rather watch the kids, that’s a baseball judgment that makes sense. And if they don’t want to rush Buster Posey, they have to get somebody, and for all that Benjie Molina is a fucking out machine on flat tires not a very good hitter any more, this won’t hurt them much for this year, and won’t hurt them at all in 2010.

But… but…; but… what were they thinking? This whole offseason has been an accumulation of slight improvements that won’t hurt much, can’t help much, and add up to the same amount of money they might have spent on a star. And the way they did it&#—give up a prospect in trade for Garko, and then dump Garko, and then sign Huff? What did we get for the prospect? Give up the potential of a draft pick to avoid being stuck with Molina, and then sign Molina? What did we get for that draft pick? These people have no idea what to do with their resources. They have no plan. They are flailing around in the dark, and they are going to flail themselves right out of their window of opportunity, because having the greatest young pitcher in a generation means you have a responsibility to use the rest of your resources to support him.

But year after year, we do this shit. It is disheartening and depressing, and the GM has two more years on his contract, and an ownership that believes he is worth keeping.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 4, 2009

No draft in here

So, my Giants have declined to offer arbitration to Benjie Molina. For those who don’t follow baseball (and would still like to read the rest of this note), the situation is this: for certain players, at the end of a contract with a team, the team can offer arbitration, after which the player has a week to accept or refuse. If offered and accepted, both sides present an independent arbitrator with figures for a salary for the next year. The arbitrator chooses one of the two figures (and no other number), and that’s the contract for one year. If the player refuses arbitration, he becomes a free agent, and may sign with any other team. However, the team that signs the free agent gives up a draft pick in the next amateur draft, and the player’s previous team gets that pick. If the team does not offer arbitration, the player becomes a free agent, and may sign with any other team, which team will not give up a draft pick.

It’s more complicated than that, of course. There are type A and type B players, and the team and player can agree on a contract after agreeing to arbitration but before the hearing, and so on and so forth. But in simplified form, the game rules are this: First turn, the team offers or does not offer arbitration. Second turn, the player accepts or refuses. And so on.

Now, here’s Benjie Molina. He appears to be considered the best catcher currently available through free agency. This may, in fact, be true. He is also a devastatingly bad hitter at this point in his career, and likely to be worse next year. And the Giants have a devastatingly bad offense, of the type that cannot carry another offensive liability. What do they do?

Well, let’s rank the outcomes from the Giants point of view first. Best outcome: We offer, Mr. Molina refuses, we get a draft pick and are rid of him. Next: We do not offer, we get nothing but are rid of him. In either of those, we probably pay league minimum or near it to some cast-off as a backup and start Buster Posey. The next three are versions where we offer and he accepts, where he wins (say, $8 million), where we come to an agreement before the hearing ($7 million), and where we win ($6 million). I’m making those numbers up, by the way; it’s possible that the Giants would be gutsy and ask for a pay cut and that the arbitrator would agree that an OBA at the bottom of the league deserves it, but I don’t think so.

Now, from Benjie Molina’s point of view, and his agent’s. Best outcome, a two- or even a three-year contract, probably for at least $6M/year. This would be from the Mets, most likely. Not from the Giants, anyway, who have a Silver Spikes-winning catcher, who will be expected to start in 2011 if not earlier. Second Best: a one-year contract for $8 million or so, either from arbitration victory or negotiation. Third Best: a one-year contract for $6 million or so, either from arbitration loss or free agency with a total lack of interest around the majors. Worse: no contract at all, an incentive-laden one-year contract for $3 million plus, or at absolute bottom a minor league contract. Worse than that: trying to outrun a vicious assassin sloth.

And then we all try to assign likelihood. Once you have decided you don’t want to rehire the guy, the only reason not to offer arbitration is if you think he will accept. But by accepting, he’s giving up a chance at an extra ten million, or at least five million. On the other hand, by accepting, he’s taking a chance on there not being any interest at all. So you guess.

It seems to YHB that in a case like this, the team should almost always offer arbitration. The worst that happens from the team’s perspective is a one-year loss, a substantial one, surely, but not all that great, particularly for an organization with a $100 million on-field payroll. The gains aren’t that great (a draft pick), but they do exist. The really hard thinking is on the player’s side: the gains and losses are in the millions, and that’s a bigger chunk of his money than it is of the team’s. But it seems that teams routinely deny arbitration in exactly these cases. Am I missing something?

After all, the worst that happens is that you overpay a player for one year. Most teams are overpaying one or more players every year; it’s hard to judge who will be good and who will stink. The real risk for a team is a long-term contract, where you can overpay a player for five years. You could pay $50 or $70 million over market. Or under; you have to guess the career path and the market’s ups and downs. It seems to me that long-term contracts are where a baseball team should be risk-averse; offering arbitration seems like the wrong place. But there are Gentle Readers who are better at game playing than YHB, there are GRs who know more about baseball, and there are GRs who know more about economics and statistics and all that sort of thing, so I’d be curious to know how y’all’s instincts go on this one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 15, 2009

Wait 'til next year! Or three years from now, anyway!

Your Humble Blogger has not been writing much about baseball, largely because I don’t think I have much to say that would be of interest to anybody other than a fan of the Ess Eff Giants (and, of course, not necessarily to such a fan, but then, if I let that stop me there will be no writing at all), so I try not to out with the details unless I can think of a way to link them to something of more general interest.

I have no such ideas for linking the news that Sabean, Bochy receive two-year extensions. Our General Manager and Manager were at the end of their contracts, you see, and the Giants put together a winning season despite stinking up the league, and the Powers That Be have decided that midstream is not the place to change dead horses. Or something. All I know is, they are the only guys we’ve got.

Now, it is true that the close you follow baseball, the more complaints you will have about any GM and Manager. They will do something to piss off any fan, or rather, there are enough fans of Major League Baseball that the cumulative overlap of piss-off triggers is the whole damn plane. I’m thinking here, of a Venn Diagram, you know—this circle is the things that piss me off, and that circle is the things that piss off my father, and they overlap quite a bit but not altogether, and that circle is the things that piss off his cousin, and that doesn’t overlap quite so much, and the upshot is that everything the GM does pisses somebody off, and (this isn’t actually proved by the Venn Diagram, but is implied by the Completeness Theorem) if he is in the job for long enough, everybody will be pissed off at least once.

So I am aware that if they did turf Mr. Sabean and Mr. Bochy, then I would just be irritated anew by the new blood. I do know that. Mr. Bochy gets up YHB’s nose, but not so far as Mr. Alou did, probably slightly further than Mr. Baker, much further than Mr. Craig, and so on and so forth. Being a fan is being pissed off, at least in baseball, where a very good team loses sixty games a year, and wins despite having some bad players and some bad decisions. So my crankiness over this rehire is tempered at least somewhat by the knowledge that the baseline, as it were, is annoying.

But. Here’s the thing. Or a thing, anyway. The Giants appear to have no plan, and no way of making a plan. They don’t seem to understand that while their cleanup hitter did have a reasonable slugging percentage of .442 (not All-Star quality, but in the Shane Victorino region), his on-base percentage was .285, which was the worst of any regular starter in baseball, one of only three that dipped below the .300 mark. Let me say that again: the guy who made outs at the fastest clip of anyone in baseball not only played for the Giants, but batted fourth. It’s not that Bengie Molina can’t hit, it’s that he can’t hit clean-up. He’s a seventh-spot guy, with a little pop in his bat, but you by jingo don’t want him to have any more at bats than you can help, and certainly don’t want him following your high-OBP guys, who are in your one-two-three spots. Right? Except, we don’t have guys like that, and we don’t start them one-two-three when we do.

I mean, Pedro Feliz can help a team if he’s batting seventh. Right? But a GM has to start with a Pedro Feliz by grudgingly admitting that on the whole, one thing and another, with the good fielding and a little power, and he isn’t very expensive, well, you can afford to have a Pedro Feliz on your team, if you’ve got Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez (and you think you have Jimmy Rollins), or if you’ve got Barry Bonds and . You don’t start with the idea that he is your all-star, the center of your offense and the foundation of your lineup. And anybody who thinks that Bengie Molina is anything other than a Pedro Feliz, a luxury you are carrying on your team for some other reasons and because all the better options are unavailable or unaffordable at the moment.

Now, Brian Sabean didn’t understand that about Pedro Feliz. And he doesn’t understand it about Benjie Molina. And there is no reason to think he will understand it about the next guy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 25, 2009

Ashes to ashes, junk to junkyard

A month or so ago, Your Humble Blogger wrote about The Ashes, a series of five (this time) cricket Test matches between England and Australia. And here it is the end of the series and England won! Huzzah! Well done, lads.

For those who are not even remotely interested in cricket, but for some reason want to finish reading this note rather than painting the garage, please be aware that this is not a note about the details of strategy or skill, either of cricket or of baseball, which I will be bringing in to the note all to soon. Don’t sweat the sports stuff; there will be some questions and ideas that I think will be at least mildly interesting to those of you who don’t follow team sports. Maybe. We’ll see.

But first, the Ashes. The exciting moment—well, and by moment read three-hour stretch, only a moment in cricket terms—was an utter collapse by the Australian batters in their first innings at the final Test. And as I was reading about it, utterly stunned by the extent of it, it occurred to me that this was something really unique in team sports. That is, a difference in scale that is big enough to be a difference in kind: a reasonable first innings might last five or six hours or more, possibly much more, spread over two days or even three (depending on a variety of things). At lunch on the second day, Australia were 61 for naught and looked pretty good to carry on batting until the end of time. At tea, they were 133 for 8, and England was going to rake their Ashes. The point being that this was a collapse of the entire batting side, seven of the eleven players being out for single digits (which stinks, for those with no basis for comparison). In theory, at any point the Australian side could have turned it around, started batting well, and it would have been a very different match. But they didn’t. Once the slide started, it picked up pace and each new batter seemed to pick up where the last one left off.

This sort of thing is not altogether unusual in team sports. It doesn’t happen as much as you might think; the most usual thing is for some players to have a bad day and others to have a good one, or for the momentum to be all on one side for a while before unexpectedly changing. But it does happen, and I think most (if not all) fans have had the experience of seeing their team being unable, for a game or a half, to make a shot, complete a pass, or hit the ball. Or, more happily, having that happen to the other side, while your own team has everything fall exactly right. But the experience of watching wicket after wicket tumble for England seemed different from that. Perhaps I was fooled by the scale of the series, six weeks or so of back-and-forth play balanced just so, before collapsing. Much like the whole season of play leading up to a championship game, when (f’r’ex) a bad penalty is followed by three goals in ten minutes and it’s all over. But more so, and to me, much more so.

Now, let’s talk about baseball for a minute.

Before the beginning of the season, in the early spring when the crocus were still under the frost, my Giants were expected (by YHB, among others) to have a lousy year. Eighty-one wins out of a hundred and sixty-two would have been considered optimistic, and as for playoff hopes, well, nobody had any. Not this year. Then they startled everybody by winning more than they lost, and even those most careful observers did think they were playing over their heads, still, wins you don’t deserve count just as much in the standings as the ones you do. Not that they were good, exactly. But maybe, what with one thing and another, they would luck into the playoffs, and once the playoffs start, it’s all a crap shoot, anyway (warning: playoffs not actually a crap shoot).

So here it is late August, and what has become clear is that in order to get into the playoffs, the Giants are going to have to win a bunch of games against the Rockies, whether they deserve them or not. And lo, we head into Denver for four games, and lo, lo, we win the first one. And lose the second. And the third. Gruesomely, exposing the team’s weaknesses, in case there was any doubt about them. And then the fourth, well, last night was not a good night. Giants fans have had worse, but not by a lot. I mean, it could have been an inside-the-park home run they gave up.

Anyway, a few observations about the game, in light of the Ashes, occurred to me. First, and most obviously, there’s the sports thing that happens when even when we were winning, the fans (counting me and most of the people at the McCovey Chronicles site) felt certain we were going to lose. And when we were tied. There was just a feeling about it. Those feelings are often wrong, but…

The other thing is that our manager utterly mismanaged the roster, with some help from the GM. We used up all our reserves early (except one who was too injured to play but hadn’t been withdrawn from the active list, because, you see, the hell with it), which meant that our relief pitchers had to bat with men on base in extra innings. Of course, eventually, so did theirs, but ours started earlier and had less success.

C.L.R. James pointed out in Beyond the Boundary that baseball has a unique and bizarre rule: players removed from the game for a substitute cannot return in that game. Mr. James feels that this limits strategy far too much; as a born baseball fan, I find all the switching around in basketball and hockey confusing and uninteresting, and this whole business of football having three different teams is just, well, anyway. I think baseball would be a very different game if you were allowed to bring a pitcher back after a rest; I think cricket would be a very different game if you couldn’t. I am inclined to think that the baseball way is very American, but I don’t have any well-articulated basis for that. Perhaps you all could help.

And finally, there’s the scale of time. This was one game out of a hundred and sixty two, one series of four games in late August with weeks left in the season. In another sense, it’s a whole season blown, and in another yet, it’s a hundred and twenty-five year old ball club. There’s always next year. The Ashes series is just about the same age as baseball, but then, they play for a couple of months every other year or so. If I am reading the schedule correctly, the next international Test cricket for England will be in December in South Africa; they don’t play more than fifteen or so series at that level all year.

Does a culture’s sport infect their non-sport culture? C.L.R. James says that the two are not distinguishable, that it is nonsense to try to discuss the cultural times and the sporting styles and preferences separately. When, a few years ago, basketball was the big time, did the rhythms of that game, the suddenness and speed and the ability of one man to dominate the field of play, did all that influence the way we walked and talked, the books and movies and the politics, too? Does the resurgence of baseball go in hand with an interest in slower, steadier work? Or is it all about the television singing and dancing and cooking competitions, really?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 31, 2009

Libraries and Jim Rice

Is anyone’s reaction to a sentence like the first sentence of Restore the noble purpose of libraries, a column by William H. Wisner in the Christian Science Monitor, to say once?

That sentence, bye-the-bye, is Libraries were once a sacred secular space of silence and reverence—a place where one automatically lowered one’s voice. And yes, they were that once. Perhaps twice. And you know that a column that starts like that is going to have a bunch of other really mockable stuff, too, such as Scholars are made through the quiet study of one chapter at a time and …librarians put themselves out of business one printout at a time… and, well, you get the idea. Or if you don’t, click on through and read (as they say) the whole thing.

Now, when I happen across such obviously mockable stuff as Mr. Wisner’s column, I try to dig under the mockability to get to the actual argument, because sometimes the argument is really good (or at any rate, the author is on the Side of the Good Guys) and I feel I can usefully restate the point with my own style of mockability. Or, you know, sometimes the author is Wrong Wrong Wrong, and I can make a really good point of my own in opposition to the point under the stuff about librarians thumbing a ride into history.

In this case, however, I am stumped. I have no idea what Mr. Wisner’s point is. I mean:

  • Good Stuff: Silence, the Enlightenment, knowledge, patience, television, the word librarian, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English, reciting whole books from memory, free coffee, humor, humanity, art exhibits (on shoestring budgets), Mr. Wisner’s erudite and presumably hushed conversation.
  • Bad Stuff: Noise of any kind (except Mr. Wisner’s erudite and presumably hushed conversation, printers (mentioned four times), information, technology, library schools, the phrase “information scientists”, the Internet, videos, cellphones, postmodernism, giant Ponzi schemes.
  • Uncommitted: those little USB drives, tea, the Tale of the Wife of Bath (in modern English), database concordances, smaller Ponzi schemes, Twitter.

Pretty much, the whole article is I like the stuff I like, and I don’t like to add paper to the printers.

No, seriously, what does it mean to say that Information on the Internet may come across as authoritative, but much of it is one giant Ponzi scheme, especially in the hands of the young…? In what sense a Ponzi scheme? I mean, I think he’s talking about Wikipedia, but the only sense in which that’s a Ponzi scheme is that people who came along early contributed information, and people who came along later… read that information? If the defining feature of a Ponzi scheme is that it keeps going by using latecomers’ investments to pay off early investors and create a façade of profit, then who are the early investors, who the latecomers, what’s the profit, who is leaving on a virtual boat with virtual sackloads of virtual money? Not that Ponzi got away with the dough, but if it’s a Ponzi scheme, then somebody must be propping up something, right?

And there’s this: In some libraries today it is actually impossible to find any place quiet enough to simply read and study undisturbed. I’m sure this is true. I’m sure that the librarians regret that they can’t manage to keep some quiet areas. But (a) libraries largely do allow people to borrow a lot of material so they can take it away and find some other place to read and study undisturbed, (2) almost any library I have ever had any contact with has made serious efforts to provide some area for quiet study, and (iii) what the hell is so privileged about silence, anyhow? He really hocks about silence, and presents as self-evident that scholarship cannot exist without it. This is simply false. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! People are different, one to another, including Scholars, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun.

And—this seems to really be the point of the thing—Mr. Wisner’s insists that there is an Ideal Library, and that libraries must hew to that idea or perish. Mr. Wisner seems to feel that all libraries should focus entirely on the needs of scholars, either scholars that exist or scholars in embryo, as it were. This is not just wrong, but crazy. There should be libraries that have scholarship as their main focus, and others that focus on other things: education, community service, entertainment, whatever. If you are going to argue that those shouldn’t exist, then, well, you have to make that argument. Actually, I think it’s harder to make the argument that there need to be libraries devoted to scholarship (by Mr. Wisner’s understanding of that term), or that those libraries should not, in their devotion to scholarship, accommodate themselves to other things.

Now, this is all here in the Tohu Bohu not only as an example of how I read stuff on the Internet (first: mock, second: attempt to understand, fifth: mock) but because another thing happened that happens to me a lot. I made a connection between two things I read on the same day that aren’t properly speaking related at all. This was one, and the other was a note by the great Joe Posnanski with A Thought About Jim Rice. Jim Rice, for those of y’all not interested in baseball, was a very good player who has recently been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mr. Posnanski has spent a lot of pixels (and some ink) arguing that Jim Rice was not a Hall of Fame player, and did not vote for the fellow (he gets a vote, so it matters somewhat). But when the man was given his plaque and put in the Hall, Mr. Posnanski enjoyed it. As a fan. And his post, I think, is about that tension between being a fan and wanting to see Jim Rice in the Hall of Fame, and being an analyst and deciding whether Jim Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame.

You see the connection?

Here’s where I saw it: Mr. Posnanski is able to distinguish between what he personally likes and what is measurably good. Now, that is much easier to do in baseball, where everything is written down. And there are definitions of good, there, that do mean something different from what an individual personally likes. And you can be a big fan of a player, vastly enjoy watching the player, and even be thrilled by seeing their plaque in the Hall, without being able to argue that the plaque really belongs there.

I think Mr. Wisner is unable to distinguish between things he likes and things that are valuable. Or, perhaps, between claims that things are good because they give him pleasure (like the memory of Jim Rice at the plate or close reading in a silent room) and claims that things are good because of their utility to other people. The latter claim requires lots of evidence, but if you are going to tell people to pull the plugs on their printers and video machines or vote for (or against) a player’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame, you’ll need that evidence. And more—you need to be prepared for the evidence to come to the other conclusion, and then to argue that conclusion, even if it’s not the one you wanted.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 8, 2009

We All Fall Down

Well, and the first day of the Ashes is over. England did OK, it seemed to me, but then I don’t actually know anything about cricket.

At one point as I was following along on the Gaurniad’s site (and they have a bizarre little doo-hickey for following along that is like a cross between Gameday and a FlowingData contest; I’m not sure if I like it, but I can’t seem to take my eyes off it), my Perfect Non-Reader asked me who was winning. It’s more complicated than that. And it struck me, at that moment, that they had been playing for, oh, five or six hours at that point, and that it was Day One of a contest that would be going on for more than six weeks. Sure, there are a bunch of days off in there, but it’s perfectly plausible that all five tests will go to five days, and that most of those 25 days will have—what—six hours of play? Certainly more than a hundred hours of playing time, taken all together.

Now, I’m a baseball fan. I like a nice three-hour game, and I love the 162-game season. That’s a hundred and sixty-two games against two-dozen other teams, though. At the end of the year, there are a few playoff series that are multiple-game head-to-heads, and honestly it isn’t my favorite form of the game. But still, the long series are best-of-seven, and an unusually long series might take a total of— well, let’s take a look at some recent ones. Last year, five games of 3:23, 3:05, 3:41, 3:08 and 3:28 for a total of some sixteen and three-quarters hours. In 1991, the Diamonbacks and the Yankees played a remarkable seven-game series with two extra-inning games. Total game time: 23 and a half hours. That’s a lot. But let’s say that sometimes we see two top-notch teams playing each other in a series that takes almost two weeks and maybe conceivably as much as 25 hours of playing time.

Absolute minimum, if there is a good deal of rain and a blowout or two, four times that for the Ashes. Maximum of a hundred and fifty hours of play, more or less, not counting lunch breaks and tea breaks. Oh, and by the way, there are eleven men on a team plus two reserves.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 29, 2009

Stinking up the league, and winning

It’s been a while since Your Humble Blogger was moved to write about Baseball. I just haven’t had much to say on the topic, other than grumbling, of course. My Giants stink. The interesting thing is that my Giants have the second-best record in the National League, despite stinking. They are on a pace to win 88 games, which is not a stinky record at all, despite stinking. They are nearly on a pace to win 90 games, which is a good working definition of a Good Team, and they are doing it while stinking up the league.

Now, some Gentle Readers, those that don’t follow the NL in any depth but are familiar enough with the game to know what is meant by stinking and winning, may at this point be perplexed. Surely, y’all may be saying, surely if they are winning, they can’t be that bad, as the point of the game is to win. And there is something to this, in general: my observations of the team are biased, the statistics presumably are not, so if the statistics (including that record of wins and losses) tell me the team is good, well. Who am I going to believe, the facts or my own eyes?

The problem is that the rest of the statistics aren’t very impressive. In 74 games, we’ve scored 295 runs; that’s second-worst in the league and third-worst in the majors. An average offense, such as the Mets or Pirates, is at 333 runs. That’s more than half a run a game more than us. And here’s this: the Washington Nationals, as a team, have drawn 307 walks, most in the League. 10th in the league is the Florida Marlins with 262 walks. Fifteenth in the league is the Astros with 230 walks. The Giants, sixteenth and last, have only 174 walks. That’s right; a walk a game less than the second-worst team. Our On Base Average is an atrocious .302, worst in the league, of course, because we are hacking away like anything, but are we making up for it by hitting the ball hard? Well, first of all, we have 536 strikeouts, seventh-worst; it’s not like we’re putting the ball in play all that much more than anybody else. But our slugging percentage is at .385, three points above the last-place Padres, and a good fifteen points below average (good would be another ten points above that). We are weak on the long-ball (tied for fourteenth) and middle-of-the-pack in doubles and triples, so our total bases come in fourteenth. There isn’t a single offensive category where we break the top five. And, I should point out, we accomplish this largely with having a stable of consistently crappy hitters, rather than with a few good hitters balancing out the crap.

Oh, and we don’t have any good hitters who are hurt, or who are hitting well below expectations. That’s the team we came with.

So how are we winning any games at all? Well, we don’t give up very many runs: the fewest in the League, in fact, and the fewest Earned Runs, too, if that matters. We’ve given up only 62 home runs, second-least in the league, and we have struck out 586, most in the league. Walks are in the middle of the pack. How are we keeping the runs down? We have two wonderful starting pitchers. Depending on how you stack them up, they are two of the best five, or anyway the best ten starting pitchers in the league. That’s wonderful, and they really are great. But that’s two days out of five; there’s another pitcher who is, again depending on what stats you like, is about average, and another who is about average. Not great, not lousy.

And the bullpen is fine. Not great, not lousy. Our Closer has lost four games and blown four saves. Two of the losses were blown saves, but two were not; that’s six crappy games, not counting 4/18, where he didn’t get the loss but came in tied and gave up the hit that scored the winning run. Anyway, going by Blown Saves + Losses, which is easy to eyeball, he has 8; Brad Lidge has 9, but then Brad Lidge stinks, too (A WHIP of, say, 1.5 stinks: Lidge has 1.94 so far), and other than him, I don’t see anybody with more than 5. There are other guys in the bullpen who don’t stink. And some who do.

So. There’s my team. Two great starting pitchers, a handful of non-stinker, and a whole lot of stink. And forty wins. There’s a lesson in that. I just wish I knew what it was.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 13, 2009

Book Report: The Basement Baseball Club

When Your Humble Blogger brings the little ones to the library, the Youngest Member makes a beeline for one particular computer: the one with the TumbleBook set-up. This is a semi-animated read-aloud deal; the Y.M. likes to watch and listen to a couple of Caillou stories. And no others. Any attempt to choose any other story will end in howls of defiant woe.

Now, YHB has never liked the little bald canuck. So I prefer to browse for myself whilst the Youngest Member is under the spell. However, I have to stay within eyesight of the little momser, since (a) otherwise the librarians will get all stern and whatnot, and (2) if his incessant fiddling with the keyboard and mouse results in the halting of the software, I’ve got about ten seconds to get it started again before he raises the fucking roof.

Digression: It turns out that when your darling little one, the fruit of your loins and the apple of your proverbial, is playing at the library’s extensive play kitchen, and he is clawing half-a-dozen plastic cookies out of the hands of the other toddlers while hollering “Share! Share!!! SHARE!!!!!!” at the top of his lungs, the other parents laugh at you. End Digression.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that I have a pretty short tether, and yet I have to find something or I will wind up watching Caillou’s papa build him a treasure chest for his toys again. And the nearest shelf to that computer section is the chapter books on sports. So I picked up The Basement Baseball Club, by Jeffrey Kelly, and got so engrossed in it that I wound up checking it out and taking it home to finish.

Somehow I never read this one when I was a kid. Probably because it hadn’t been written yet. It seems like it’s one of those books I read when I was seven or eight. The kids play various games and have various problems. One of the reasons if feels seventies to me is that the problems are all fixed by simply facing them; our narrator turns out to have a severe fear of heights which he overcomes with the help of some public shaming at the pool’s high dive, and the main plot involves a kid with tremendous athletic skills who was traumatized by having accidentally killed another kid in a hardball game the previous year. And who overcomes his trauma because the neighborhood sandlot team needs him. You know. On the other hand, it was a lot of fun, and it’s not like I am thrilled by a more realistic portrayal of trauma, phobia or mental illness in books for seven-year-olds. So there’s that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 15, 2008

Little Mastery

Your Humble Blogger will attempt to express why this week’s Test Match between England and India is one of the most impressive, theatrical and moving sports events I’ve ever followed. Which presumably means that now is an excellent time to skip to the next thing on your aggregator, which may feature pictures of cats with amusing captions. Check back later; it’s always possible that I’ll get to Music Monday before the end of the day. No, seriously, it’s possible.

In the meantime—y’all, being the high-information Gentle Readers that you are, and the humane and compassionate and above all gentle Gentle Readers that you are, probably did not think about the vicious attacks in Mumbai in terms of sport. Individual loss, yes, international geopolitics, perhaps, longterm effects on the cause of environmental stewardship, wouldn’t be surprised. Maybe some of you have found something nice to say about the Lebovitchers; Your Humble Blogger got as far as I wish people wouldn’t kill them and the web site is actually well-put-together before I went back to shaking my fist and shouting about the big menorah. I hope you had better luck; I am normally an easy-going fellow, but the Chabad get so far up my nose they can shukl in my sinus cavities. But we were speaking of cricket.

You see, England’s national team was in India, having begun to perpetrate a series of one-day matches in preparation for two Test Matches.

Perhaps I’d better start with some terms. There are three (main) forms of cricket: the new, quick and novice-friendly Twenty20 matches, which can be played in an evening; the One Day International (ODI) rules, which take all of a day, from morning to dusk; and the Test Match, which takes five days from morning until dusk, which consists of two innings for each side. Let’s see. An over is, for purposes of this note for non-cricket lovers, a set of six instances of the bowler throwing the ball and the batter trying to hit it (or not); an innings is when one team’s entire batting side has its turn to bat. Since there are eleven players on a side, and players bat in pairs, an innings lasts until ten men are out (or something else happens which ends the innings, which I won’t bother with at this point. In an ODI, if ten men get out before the 50 overs, their innings is done. The point is to score runs, and runs come in large numbers, or so it seems to those of us used to baseball or other low-scoring games.

The mark of a batter being really successful is to score 100 runs; truly remarkable scores of twice or even three times that are possible, but a baseball fan might think of a century (as it’s called) being like going three-for-five at the plate with a home run and a double. It’s an excellent day, and when you talk about the match later, you will talk about the player that got a century.

Is all this at all clear? Your Humble Blogger does not himself know very much about cricket; I follow it in print over the internet, and enjoy it tremendously, but I’m not sure I’m even getting it all right, much less making it clear to y’all. I’m not planning to write up an over-by-over description of the Test; I’m only trying to get some terms out in front so that I won’t have to break up the story by having to define them in the middle.

Anyway, the England side is in India, and—I should probably mention that their last International Test Match was with South Africa, and they were destroyed so embarrassingly thouroughly that the captain of the team not only handed over the Captaincy but resigned from the team. The hope of a few years ago that England would become the dominant team, or even one of three or four nearly-equal powerhouses, seemed to be diminishing to a hope that they would bounce back to be a legitimate competitor of Australia, the West Indies and the other great sides. India, on the other hand, had recently demolished Australia, and was in the enviable position of combining on their team the declining years of legendary players with the newly-seasoned confidence of young stars. On the other hand, the introduction of competitive commercial twenty20 cricket in India (the the India Premier League) has threatened to drain Test Cricket of talent, not only in India itself but throughout the cricketing world. That’s the situation when England’s side arrives in India for its tour.

The ODI matches were excruciating. Just pathetic. There were five of them, and the best you could say for England is that in two of them, they had a position of some strength before collapsing ignominiously. The other three were just sad. It’s not that anyone had particularly high hopes for England going to India, but it would have been nice to pick up one of the five, or at least perform at a level that would give hope to England’s supporters that they were in for a chance in the Tests. Frankly, at that point, if you asked me whether it would be better if they just canceled the rest of the tour and went home and painted the garage (or garridge), I would have given it some serious thought.

And then maniacs tried to invade Mumbai, for no apparent reason.

And the England squad went home.

And then there were meetings and whatnot, and it was decided that the Tests could continue, although the second one, which was going to be in Mumbai, would be played elsewhere. England’s players met to decide whether to accept the invitation to return, and after the captain made it clear that it would be a consensus decision, that they would not return with a partial squad or force unwilling players to go, they did come to a consensus to go. Presumably the Indian squad had a similar decision to make; although the early reports that the gunmen were searching for and singling out Britons and Americans seems to have been false, if terrorist madmen were to take it into their heads to cause the uproar that would certainly follow an attack on India’s beloved cricketers, one would imagine them doing so at a Test against the English side. And leaving aside security concerns (which can’t really be expected to be rational anyway), the Indian side are likelier to know people who are connected to the Mumbai attacks, while of course most of both sides have played with lots of players from all over South Asia, and the Mumbai attacks seem to be (possibly) a big push down the slide toward subcontinent-wide chaos.

What I’m saying is, I don’t think anybody would really have blamed either side for insisting on rescheduling the Test for next winter, or for simply cancelling it. Nor, I think, were expectations really high for the quality of the cricket; much of the talk beforehand was about the difficulty of preparing for a match under the incredible conditions.

Digression: On the other hand, England has essentially refused to go to Zimbabwe. International cricket was having a very hard time deciding whether to expel Zimbabwe, but the players were pretty sure they weren’t going to play. Good for them, says YHB. Although I usually prefer increasing sport and culture contact rather than isolating rogue nations, I don’t think anybody should go to Zimbabwe, possibly ever again. End Digression.

So. The first day, England bats, and kicks Indian ass. The opening stand knocks in 118, and Andrew Strauss gets 123. Then there’s a kind of minor disaster in the middle of the order (OK, a major disaster, when Ian Bell is out for 17 and the captain, Kevin Pietersen for 4), but Mr. Prior settles in for 53 not out, and when the inning is over, England is sitting on a very tidy 316.

When India starts their innings, on the second day, England is bowling very well, particularly Graeme Swann, who in his International Test debut gets two wickets in his first over, including getting the great-but-struggling Rahul Dravid out lbw for only three. On the third day, Mssrs Dhoni and Singh held a nice partnership but India was all out for 241 shortly after lunch, leaving England a lead of, I can do this, 75. A very good lead to have, but England has shown themselves perfectly capable of blowing through their inning for a tiny total to add to it. Still. Nice to have a lead.

And then Mr. Strauss hits another century mostly in a stand with Paul Collingwood who hit 108 himself (over 6 hours of batting), making up for Mssrs. Bell (7) and Pietersen (1) and propelling England to an innings total of 311 before they declared, leaving India chasing a preposterous 387 and facing a devastating loss. Even if they managed to score a tremendous total, surely they couldn’t get through all that before dusk on the fifth day, could they?

Except... in the afternoon of the fourth day, Virender Sehwag (the Nawab of Najafgarh) hit 83 in about twenty seconds of batting, and the fifth and final day dawned with India needing 256, with their opening batsman, Gautam Gambhir, paired with Rahul Dravid. And then! Mr. Dravid is caught out for four! And coming to bat is the Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar, Mumbai’s favorite son. And Mr. Tendulkar is not going to sit down today, ladies and gentlemen. He has forty Test centuries under his belt, and one way or another, he is going to keep batting until the either the game is over or the sun goes down.

V.V.S. Laxman goes down for 26 just after lunch, and Yuvraj Singh steps up with 163 to win. England’s bowlers (particularly Monty Panesar) and fielders are not looking dominant, and the runs are piling up. At the tea break, Mr. Tendulkar has 65 and Mr. Yuvraj 45, and they are looking immovable. They’re in no hurry, taking singles and blocking and generally looking like mountains. The runs keep piling. After 90 overs, India has 348. After 95 overs, 368. And in the 99th over, with 383 runs, Mr. Tendulkar is sitting on 99 runs. He’s been batting for five hours, remember.

I’m trying to think of an American sports celebrity to compare Mr. Tendulkar to. I’m not coming up with one. He’s scored more runs than anyone in Test Cricket, and more runs than anyone in ODI, either. He’s had more half-centuries than anyone in Test Cricket, and more centuries. He’s a superstar, the best batsman in the world in a cricket-mad country. He’s the captain of the new Mumbai Twenty20 team, and his willingness to join the league (and make buckets of money) is part of what made the whole IPL feasible. He’s like, oh, imagine if Barry Bonds been born in Pittsburgh, had stayed with the Pirates or returned to them, not been widely considered an asshole and a cheater, and still broken both the single-season and career home run records. And then, imagine that people cared as much about baseball as they do about basketball and football combined. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

And it’s his hometown that was attacked, and it was his force (according to the Guarniad, anyway) that pushed for the resumption of cricket this week, and, of course, it was his boundary for four that gave him his 41st Test hundred, and gave India the fourth-biggest fourth-innings comeback in Test history, and some good news, anyway, for his hometown.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 5, 2008

Or has time re-written every line?

One of the highlights of my recent trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was when my father and I saw the statues of famous fans, and my father said “That’s Hilda Chester!” and I said “Oh, right, the cowbell lady” and he said “I remember her. She used to sell peanuts at the racetrack.” My father had never been to the Hall of Fame, and had wanted to go for sixty-something years, and he was not disappointed.

It will not, I think, entirely come as a surprise to Gentle Readers that my father collects baseball books, specifically books about the Giants. One thing he had his eye out for, as we wandered through the memorabilia shops that line the Main Street of Cooperstown, New York, was a book about the Giants to add to his collection. Book collecting of that kind, of course, has been less interesting lately; even though he isn’t on the internet himself, when a book comes out about the Giants he is likely to hear about it, and then he can pass along the title and author to his local Borders and wait for them to produce it for him. While we were in the bookstore at the NBHFM itself, I spotted a book called Victory Faust, pointed it out to him, and he purchased it, very pleased with his success. When we wandered in to the Giamatti Research Center, we wound up chatting with a fellow there and mentioning the purchase, and he said “Oh, Gabe’s book. Would you like him to sign it?” Well, yes, that would be nice. So we waited for him to get back from his lunch, and then had what turned in to an hour long chat with Gabriel Schechter, author of the book, Jeopardy! champ and (it turns out) blogger.

Now, having read that far, this note turns out to be about a note that Mr. Schechter wrote over at Never Too Much Baseball called Remembrance of Games Past. In it, he writes about people asking him (in his capacity as researcher at the NBHFM) to find the box score for the first game they ever saw. The problem as you can imagine, is that not only do those people not recall the date, the things they do recall (the final score, the starting pitcher, who hit a home run) are often not true. They use Retrosheet these days, and can narrow it down pretty well, often to the point where the fan can pick one and be happy. Mr. Schachter then talks about his own memories of his first game, and how it doesn’t correspond to any game that was actually played. It’s a great little essay about reference library work and human memory. And baseball, of course.

I don’t have any way of knowing my first major-league game; it may well have been while I was a babe in arms. I have used retrosheet to look things up, often discovering that a game I thought was against the Braves was actually against the Reds, or that there is no way that I could actually remember a particular thing that I think I remember that happened when I was three. Or maybe I did. Our family used to go to a few games a year out in California, and there are memories from those trips that I know I invented to match family stories of them, but I don’t know which memories are real and which I made up.

My Perfect Non-Reader has, in her Box of Things to Keep, the box score from her first game, so she’ll presumably never have that question. On the other hand, she won’t remember it. I suspect the next major-league game we see will be the one she remembers; I doubt it will be this summer, but maybe next year. I wonder what she’ll remember from it. I definitely remember my Giants from 1976, but there aren’t any players from 1975 that I really remember seeing that weren’t also on the team the next year, so I suspect that 1976 is as far back as I remember. But what do I remember?

Johnny Lee Lemaster, ineffectually waving at balls as they went past him. Darrell Evans, but I remember him at third base; he went back to third when Willie McCovey came back to play first in 1977. Strangely, I have only the vaguest memories of Willie McCovey, and none at all of him at first base; the first-baseman I remember seeing at the bag is Mike Ivie, who didn’t come to the Giants until 1978. I remember Chris Speier at second, I remember John Montefusco and Ed Halicki and Bob Knepper. And Gary Lavelle, of course. I couldn’t tell you who I got to see pitch in person and who I heard on the radio and who I watched on television, but I remember their names and I remember liking John Montefusco more than he deserved, and Bob Knepper evidently less. I can’t say that I remember any events, any home runs or shut-outs or dramatic finishes, not from those years. Later, in the 1980s, there are things I remember. I believe I was at this game, for instance, when I was fourteen. But my memories of all those games I attended when I was eight or eleven are of taking off my shirt to tan in the hot sun, learning to keep score neatly enough to be allowed to write it in my Dad’s book, being amazed at the size of the JumboTron (which always had a few burnt-out bulbs making a hole in the image), the smell of sunscreen and peanuts, and of slowly learning to follow the game on the field, learning to watch the fielders rather than the ball, learning to guess when the runner would go, learning to fill the time in between pitches with baseball rather than with a demand for tasty treats.

In the Hall itself, my father looked at the plaques for players that he had seen, starting in the post-war years, really, and going on into the present (he has partial season tickets at the used-to-BOB). But when Gabe Schechter asked him about going to the Polo Grounds, what he wanted to talk about was his uncle starting the game in a fine suit, and as the sun came around to beat down on those right-field seats, the man would take off the jacket, and then the vest, and the shirt, and finally the undershirt and watch the rest of the game stripped to the waist.

One thing that’s great about people: Gabe Schechter finds them a box score and prints it out. What leaves his hand is a piece of paper, but what the fellow gets is the smell of peanuts or the feel of the little pencils, the sound of the elevated train or the companionship of a half-naked uncle. And even when the piece of paper says that the home run or game-saving catch or three-hit game never happened, the memories are still there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 1, 2008

Book Report: The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant

Your Humble Blogger was going to begin this note with the idea that surely all y’all Gentle Readers know the plot of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, because surely all y’all have seen Damn Yankees. Then it occurred to me that maybe you haven’t. Maybe it’s an old-fashioned show these days. High Schools must still put it on, yes? “You’ve Gotta Have Heart”, “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” and “(think about) The Game”. Well, anyway.

The plot, for those who don’t know it, is about a nice middle-aged man who is a fan of the Senators. This is the fifties, and not only are the Senators in the cellar, but the Yankees are in a stretch of dominance that is unparalleled. The book is published in 1954; the Yankees won the World Series in 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1953. They actually didn’t win the pennant in 1954 (the Indians won the American League pennant), but they won the pennant the next four years hand running, and nine of the next ten, for a total of fifteen pennants in eighteen years. Anyway, Joe sells his soul to the devil in exchange for not only a young healthy body but a supernatural ability to hit the ball. Joe then signs with the Senators in the middle of the season, hits forty-eight home runs in fifty or so games, and hits .545 while the Senators win every single game he plays in.

Yes, yes, yes. I was thinking about steroids, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 30, 2007

Prioritizing, Giants Baseball style

The baseball year is over (well, for some of us), and according to Chris Haft, who writes for Major League Baseball, the Giants have made a decision about top priority for this offseason.

The Giants, by the way, enter the last day of the season tied for last in the majors in runs scored (with the Nationals), 25th out of 30 in home runs, 15th in walks, tied for 28th in on base percentage, dead last in slugging percentage, dead last in OPS, and 29th in XBH. Oh, and our best hitter is not coming back, the fellow who led the team in homers, walks, OBP and SLG. There are a handful of young players, so there’s the possibility of improvement just by those players improving, but then there are a handful of old players, who are likely to decline. In other words, we had the worst offense in the major leagues, and we the roster we have signed for next year is significantly worse yet.

So, what is our top priority? Relief pitching.

Our relief pitching is 10th in ERA (which isn’t all that good a stat for a particular relief pitcher, due to some oddities, but isn’t all that bad a stat for a staff), 7th in Runs against, 14th in WHIP, 7th in SLG against, and 15th in OBA against. Not a good bullpen, but not an awful one.

So, how do we know that we improving our relief pitching would help?

“The Giants have played 93 games decided by two or fewer runs, most in the Major Leagues. Significantly, they're 39-54 in those contests.”

I am aware that Bruce Bochy has forgotten more about baseball than I will ever know. I’m just a schmuck with a blog. But it seems to me that if you have good pitching (Team ERA good for 10th in the majors, WHIP 14th, SLG against 7th, OBA against 15th), and you have lousy hitting, then you will play a lot of close games. This is not the fault of the pitching. If the Giants had scored more runs, those games would not have been close. If the pitching had given up fewer runs, those games would still have been close because we would have lost them 3-2 instead of 4-2. In those close games, by the way, they are 38-54; in the season they are 70-91, so they are 32-37 in the rest of the games. This surprises me: this team has won 32 games by more than two runs? How?

Look, this team getting below average offense at first base, second base, third base, shortstop and probably catcher. And the left fielder is leaving. That’s six lineup positions to fill. Sure, we could carry one slick-fielding weak-hitting position player. Conceivably two, if the fielding really is good, and it is. So. We need a first baseman, a second baseman and a left fielder, and maybe a catcher, just to pull our team up out of the bottom third offensively. Or we could worry about who is going to pitch seventh inning. It’s not easy to prioritize, but it’s not that hard.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 8, 2007

Now he belongs to the ages, if they’ll have him

The sun had sunk entirely under the waves of the Pacific Ocean. Nobody was surprised by that. You could set your watch by it, if you happened to have a newspaper and a good view. You could, again, set your watch by the moment the sun crested the Oakland hills the next morning. Some things are like clockwork.

Other things, though, are not bound by the gears and cogs and hands of time. The greatest mediums cannot predict them. We can note their occasioning: nine minutes before nine of the clock, the seventh day of August. At eight-fifty, the crowd had hopes. At eight fifty-two, they had a memory.

They knew when the sun had gone down, they knew when it would come up. They didn’t know if the sun would shine on a Giant still tied to a number like a boulder, every pitch a peck at his liver. They didn’t know if it would grow again, that void inside, to be pecked at again tomorrow by another pitcher. Some things punch the clock, some things do not. And some things are timeless.

The sky was black, as black as if the sun would never keep its appointment in the East Bay. The ball stood out white against it, as fine a target as you could imagine. As fine as it was the last pitch, or the one before that. Our boy from Riverside had walked up to the plate twelve thousand, five hundred and thirteen times in the Senior Circuit. Maybe that’s not quite a hundred thousand pitches, or maybe it is. Seven hundred and fifty five of those hundred thousand pitches had landed over a fence somewhere, in the Bay, out at Candlestick Point, across the country where Three Rivers meet, on Waverly Street, in a swimming pool, in bleacher after bleacher in thirty-six ballparks.

People speak highly of the Venus de Milo. Some say that the Mona Lisa is the most beautiful thing in the world. And some prefer that perfectly timed sunset on the ocean side of a Gate of Gold. There are partisans for the Northern Lights, and they will tell you that not knowing when they will make their appearance only adds to the ethereal beauty. And some will tell you that the homerun swing of Barry Bonds is the most beautiful thing in a world full of beauty. A twitch of muscle, a moment in time. Unpredictable and inevitable. A white ball in a black sky.

Note: Your Humble Blogger wasn’t actually going to write about this again, but somehow the idea came forward that if Mr. Bonds had been covered by the sportswriters of 1907, rather than 2007, the reports this morning would have been very different indeed, and this note came from that idea. Of course, in 1907 Mr. Bonds would not have been playing Major League Baseball, no matter how good he was, and in 1907 Dave Brain led the majors with 10 home runs for the Boston Doves (now playing in Atlanta). Roger Connor was the home run king with 138, a record set in 1897 and not to be broken until 1921, when a certain Baltimorean hit 59 in a single year, and chicks have dug the long ball ever since.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 5, 2007

Seven Hundred and Fifty-Five

Your Humble Blogger is still blogging. Really. It’s just that real-life business and a comment-spam outbreak have combined to distract me for a while. But it’s cool.

I note, by the way, that Major League Baseball seems to be perpetuating a minor part of the bizarre controversies surrounding Barry Bonds and the Deathly Hallows Home Run Chase. They’ve been narrowly following the vitally important question of exactly what Mr. Bonds will be donating to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The final news is that Bonds gives historic helmet to Hall, that is, “As promised, Giants slugger Barry Bonds presented the batting helmet he was wearing when he hit his 755th home run on Saturday night to a representative of the National Baseball Hall of Fame after the game.”

Just in case people forgot that he was an asshole and that Major League Baseball wasn’t worth watching, they wanted to make a bit deal about Mr. Bonds selfishly wanting to keep all the stuff he was wearing, and maybe sell it, later, for a gazillion bucks. Now, honestly, I think Barry Bonds is a bit an of asshole, and more than a bit of one, and I am not really weeping for him in all this. It’s just another example of MLB’s anti-marketing. Give it a rest, boys!

Mr. Selig’s released statement on the 755th homerun? “No matter what anybody thinks of the controversy surrounding this event, Mr. Bonds' achievement is noteworthy and remarkable.” One of the little ways Your Humble Blogger likes to entertain himself when reading the official releases from Major League Baseball on this topic is that they acknowledge the existence of controversy, but never acknowledge that the controversy is about anything. Notice that—what anybody thinks of the controversy. But clearly, if you think that Mr. Bonds has cheated, and think that the controversy is merited, then Mr. Bonds’ achievement is not so noteworthy and remarkable as all that, anyway, is it?

Well, actually, it is. I mean, let’s be clear about this: for the last ten years or more, many of the great sluggers of the game have been (a preponderance of evidence leads us to believe) using chemical enhancements not legally obtainable without a prescription. Of those, two have hit 70 in a year. During those years, Mssrs McGwire, Griffey, Sosa, Palmeiro, Thomas, Rodriguez, Thome, Ramirez, Sheffield, Giambi, Bagwell, Helton, Gonzalez, Conseco and Belle (a bit earlier) have had tremendous power. Great, great hitters having great, great years. Doping? Sure, I believe it, some of them, some of the years. Hard to believe that they were all clean. And none of them—none of them—have touched what Barry Bonds has done. Not even close. So I suppose that his achievement even compared to what other “cheaters” have done in those years is remarkable and noteworthy.

And I think my last comment on the subject is this: it’s terrific that Mr. Rodriguez has hit 500 home runs. He is amazing, the best hitter in baseball, awesome, fantastic, etc, etc. But it’s just silly to predict that he will hit another two hundred and fifty home runs. I hope he does. I hope he busts the record, and that Ryan Howard busts his record, and ten we have thirty years of low-scoring baseball, and then another power burst and another fellow breaks the record. But career records are just ridiculously hard to break. I mean, first you have to do the incredible and hit 500 home runs, a Hall of Fame career in itself. Nobody does that. I mean, out of hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands, twenty-two people have done it. Lou Gehrig didn’t hit 500 home runs, and he slugged .632 in his career. Willie Stargell didn’t hit 500. It’s just incredible. But then—then, you have to hit another hundred, and nobody does that at all. And then after that, after you were great and then were great for another two or three years, then you have to hit another hundred. That means, now, that having reached a Hall of Fame career already, A-Rod will have to (a) step it up just a notch, and (2) keep it at that stepped-up level for at least five years. Now, now you are at 700. Another two years to go.

Like I say, I hope he does it, and I hope that in 2014 or 15 or 16 or whatever, if he becomes the Home Run King, people have some sort of idea of just how much better he has been than very, very, very good hitters over a very, very, very long time. And that he gives his helmet to the Hall.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 16, 2007

10,151-8,684, if you want to know

So. The Philadelphia Phillies lost their 10,000th game. It was bound to happen eventually. Gentle Readers may not be aware that baseball fans, when they talk about a pitcher with a great many losses on his record, will say that you have to be awfully good to lose that many games. And it’s true; a pitcher who isn’t awfully good won’t get a chance to lose fifty games in his career. Sadly, this does not apply to teams. Despite an astonishing display of awfulness from, say, 1918-1948, during which they only broke .500 in their 1932 78-76 fourth-place triumph and only broke .450 one other time and only finished as high as fifth in the standings three times, they continued to play major-league baseball, or at least to play against major-league baseball clubs. And eventually they recovered somewhat. They’ve still won more games than the Red Sox.

I’ve occasionally suggested that I would enjoy a relegation system for baseball where the bottom team or two in MLB every year (or every five years, or something) would be sent down to the minors, to be replaced by the top team or two from the minors. This set-up would make life interesting for bad teams in August and September. The problem is that it would utterly destroy the farm system. Speaking as a Giants fan, that would be ... well, I think I would enjoy a relegation system. But it’s not what we have, and I suppose it’s a good thing for the Phillies.

Just to point this out: if you played a hundred and fifty games a year for a hundred years, and you lost two-thirds of those games, that would be ten thousand losses. NBA and NHL teams play 82 games a year, NFL teams play 16. Premier League FA teams play 38 games a year. I think rugby Super League teams play 32 games. Major League Baseball teams play 162 games a year, mostly playing six days a week for six months. County and college teams have been playing cricket for a long time, but I suspect ten losses a year is a lot for a cricket side. Of course, in baseball there are no draws.

But my point about this is just that baseball teams play twice as many games a year as any other sport. There are a lot of things about the play of the game that evolved the way they did because it’s an everyday game. The rosters and the way pitchers are used, for instance. You could imagine a version of baseball where they only played one game a week, and each team was allowed only, say, eleven men on a roster, with an ace pitcher, like a quarterback, playing almost all of almost every game. Or a version played three games a week that used a game clock in some way, forcing much faster play. Or perhaps rougher play, never developing the rule that you can’t get a player out by throwing the ball at him. Maybe the amazing fielding we take for granted wouldn’t have developed; the worst-fielding team in the league last year made fewer than one error a game and converted 97.8% of chances, where a hundred years before, the best-fielding team made an error and a quarter a game and converted only 97% of chances, and in 1884 the Phillies (before they were called the Phillies—Kill, Quakers, Kill!) committed four and three-quarters errors a game, converting only eight of every nine chances. If they played once a week, maybe they wouldn’t have started wearing gloves.

It didn’t happen like that. In 1884 the Philadelphia team played one hundred and twelve games, losing 73. In 1907, they played one hundred and forty-seven games, losing only 64 (and coming in third!). In 1947, they played one hundred and fifty-four games, losing ninety-two (and tied with the Pirates). From 1975 to 1984 they went 862-693; my Giants in those years went 752-815. Base Ball became baseball, with closers and the rabbit ball and pinch-runners and gloves and the first two foul balls counting as strikes and the designated hitter and no spitballs and the rosin bag and lights and balks and the batter can’t call for a high pitch anymore, either. Ten thousand losses. You gotta admire that. Not so much the Phillies, although the truth is that they are more fun to watch than the Giants this year, but the league, and the country, and humanity in general. Ten thousand losses, and you know I’ll be rooting for them tonight.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 10, 2007

Suspended disbelief

Heigh-ho, Gentle Readers, Your Humble Blogger is back again, all connected and whatnot. Love that phone company.

I know, I know, Gentle Readers, you were left without YHB’s deep-but-broad analysis of the Big News of the Day, and all. I know that it wasn’t so much of a shock as we might have expected, and that really, the outrage comes from the fact that we kind of expected it. But really. America’s national nightmare is just beginning.

He isn’t even the Neifi Perez of baseball without stimulants. Surely Major League Baseball should be hanging its head in shame, not flaunting all the so-called superstars who happen to have never tested positive. Neifi Perez. Neifi Perez. Baseball will never be the same.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 12, 2007

Movies, films, flicks

Yes, it’s every Gentle Reader’s favorite time, that bit where Your Humble Blogger writes a few lines about a bunch of videos. OK, fine, but look, I could be writing whole entries about this stuff.

  • It’s probably a deficiency of some kind, but I think that the Kids in the Hall’s I've lost my indian drum! bit is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television. I’m not a huge KitH fan, generally, as their most skit-like things often don’t work at all, and their completely bizarre stuff either works or doesn’t, as bizarre stuff does. Oh, and if you don’t find it funny, don’t worry—it’s like Zippy the Pinhead. It’s not that you didn’t get it, it’s that you didn’t think it was funny. There isn’t anything to get.
  • Why is it that (in movies, anyway), people think if they can just get onto an airplane with a suitcase full of money, their law-enforcement problems are over? I mean, Your Humble Blogger hasn’t ever worked in an airport, but it’s hard to believe the conversation doesn’t go something like this:
    FIRST SECURITY GUY: Damn, that’s a heavy bag
    SECOND SECURITY GUY: What the hell’s in that?
    1ST: Yeah, let’s open that fucker up!
    2ND: Holy Fuck!
    At which point, either they just take the fucking suitcase or they call some real police in. My guess is they take the suitcase. I mean, here’s you, with a trail of dead bodies behind you (most of them you didn’t kill, I know, but tell it to the judge), and the airline tells you that your luggage seems to be missing, and they can’t explain it, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten onto the airplane back in Wichita Falls. Who are you going to tell that you are owed two million dollars in stolen money? Of course, you could just take it as a carry-on, because certainly nobody is going to question a fifty-pound carry-on that x-rays show contains nothing but bundles of paper the size of dollar bills. Particularly on an international flight. Nope. You get to the airport, you’ll be just fine.
  • So, I finally watched Fever Pitch, and even though I had very low expectations, I was disappointed. For one thing, they totally did not show what it’s like to be a baseball fan. All the fans in the movie talk about being fans, but they don’t talk about baseball. Nobody started an argument by saying that Jason Varitek was better then Jorge Posada, or that David Ortiz should be playing first base so that Manny Rodriguez could DH, or that Mo Vaughn was a fat, lazy, overpaid selfish bastard who was a liability on the field and at the plate. I know that Mo Vaughn hadn’t been on the Sox for ten years at that point, but that is what being a Red Sox fan is like. There are guys in the bleachers who will tell you what a bum Harry Hooper was, and how Cy Young was a lazy, overpaid, bastard and they’re glad they got rid of him.

    For another thing, they totally did not show what it’s like to not be a baseball fan in Boston. I know the female lead wasn’t Boston born and bred, but the movie implied that she had been living there for five years, more or less, so when the male lead tells her he’s a Red Sox fan, she should know what he means.

  • Ushpizin is a profoundly good movie. I disagree with the main characters religious opinions, and I don’t really trust the ending, but the religious struggle of a man with a vile and violent history and a deeply devotional faith is not only instructive but surprisingly cinematic. I was disappointed that Ben Baruch dropped out of the movie, though, as he was on his way to becoming one of film’s great schnorrers.
  • In mentioning good movies, I saw and enjoyed I Know Where I’m Going. It’s true that it goes downhill after the opening titles, but that’s just because the opening titles are so unbelievably wonderful. And the rest of the movie is very good. If you like that sort of thing. If you don’t think that war-time British romance movies are swell, then you’ll probably be annoyed by the annoying things rather than charmed by the charming ones. Also: pipers.
  • Your Humble Blogger’s reaction to the movie of the The History Boys, to no-one’s surprise, was primarily frustration that I am too damn cheap and lazy to have gone to see the thing on stage. Well, and it was the right decision, too. But, damn.
  • The interesting part of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was the bit about making the murderer live with the slowly decomposing body of the victim. Very Lorca, if I’m getting that right. Sadly, there was a lot of other movie to fit that in. Ah, well. Lovely scrub brush. Sometimes I miss the desert.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 7, 2007

collusion is good business

You know, YHB hasn’t written much about baseball for a long time, mostly because I don’t have that much to say, but I happened to look at Jonathan Mayo’s last-minute projection for today’s amateur draft and was moved to ask Gentle Readers all: if you were MLB (the business entity), and you hired reporters to among other things get leaks from the constituent clubs to make news that you could report about your own events, would you want those leaks to be accurate?

On one hand, if the actual draft is now full of surprises, it makes their reporter look like an ignorant moron, and decreases the value of their news service. On the other hand, if the draft follows Mr. Mayo’s script, it decreases the value of their ESPN-televised commodity.

In other words, do you, as MLB, tell the front offices to clam up, to loosen up, or to lie?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 21, 2007

Book Report: The Dreyfus Affair

I first read The Dreyfus Affair: A Love Story back in 1993 when it came out in paperback. I saw a copy signed by Peter Lefcourt and thought it looked interesting enough to pick up. And I enjoyed it and all, but not enough to make me want to reread it for fourteen years.

It’s about a couple of baseball players who fall in love. Randy Dreyfus is married, and suddenly finds himself attracted to his teammate DJ Pickett, who (unbeknownst to him) is a closeted gay man. The two start an affair, which is eventually exposed and leads to plot complications. It’s quite a fun book.

The odd thing about reading it fourteen years later is seeing what has dated and what hasn’t. The attitude toward homosexuality has changed somewhat, but not all that much. There still aren’t any openly gay ballplayers in any major-league sport, although several have come out after retirement. I think that a fellow who found himself with a crush on a teammate would go through quite a bit of the same stuff Mr. Lefcourt imagines in this book. On the other hand, if such an affair were exposed, I can’t imagine the commissioner of baseball expelling the players from baseball. Certainly not during the season or the postseason. On the other other hand, I think the likelihood of a violent attack on one or another of the players is very high, possibly higher now than fifteen years ago.

But what has really changed since the book was written is baseball. Our main character is a shortstop on a pennant-contending team in the last year of his contract. He’s leading the league in batting average, hit a ton of home runs, had a ton of RBIs, fields well, is a young shortstop and is negotiating a three-year contract for $20 million. That’s a total of $20 million, more or less $7 a year. Just to give you an idea, in 2001, Alex Rodriguez, who was essentially all that, signed a ten year deal for $250 million. That was six years ago. Derek Jeter signed for 10 years and $189M in 2001, Miguel Tejada signed for 6 years and $72M in 2004, in 2005 Edgar Renteria signed for five years and fifty million and Orlando Cabrera signed for 4 years and $32M, Rafael Furcal just signed for three years and $39 million and Carlos Guillen just signed for 4 years and $48M.

Not just the money, though. The book was written in 1991 or so, and even though it’s set in 1998 or so, after the round of expansion that in real life engendered the Marlins and Rockies (but not the Devil Rays & Diamondbacks expansion, which was in 1998 in real life but no part of the book), there are only two divisions and the playoffs are one round and then the Series. More important and more subtle, Mr. Lefcourt doesn’t predict the offensive explosion of the mid-90s, so the numbers of homeruns are low. I don’t remember how many Randy Dreyfuss had at the end of the year, but I remember an implication that having 40 at the beginning of September was plenty to challenge for the league lead. When he was writing, Cecil Fielder was hitting 51 for the Tigers, which was a Big Deal because it had been twenty years since anybody hit 50. Since then, 21 players have hit 50.

Also, in an important game, the visiting team still had their closer pitching in the 12th. Not impossible, but surprising. More likely was the home team’s manager telling the batter to finish it, because their crappy relief pitcher was out of gas and he didn’t have anybody else. Actually, I really liked the manager, who didn’t give a crap about the gay thing, the contract, or anything except getting the runner from first to third.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 11, 2007

Book Report: Iowa Baseball Confederacy

So I admit that I got to W.P. Kinsella through the movie Field of Dreams. I saw the movie lo these many, and a few years later caught hold of the book Shoeless Joe and was impressed not only by the book but by the substantial differences between the (very good) book and the (very good) movie. Eventually I sought out more of Mr. Kinsella’s stuff, and found a bunch of very good short stories, particularly the ones set in the baseball world, even more particularly the ones set on the small, baseball-mad country that shares the island with Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Marvelous stuff. I should find a copy of that collection, whichever one it was.

Anyway, I had never got around to Iowa Baseball Confederacy, which is often talked about as being the little sister to Shoeless Joe, a somewhat inferior but still quite good ghost story about baseball, family and loss. Well, that’s crap. Confederacy is a brilliant book, scads better than Joe. Although I must admit I haven’t read Joe in donkey’s, so perhaps what is really going on is that I have grown into Mr. Kinsella’s novels, and that when I get back to Joe, it will be scads better than Confederacy, and then when I get back to Confederacy again, it’ll be scads better than Joe. I hope so. But I doubt it. I think Confederacy is just better. Spookier. More evocative. More dangerous. Bigger.

Joe is, after all, really just a story about one Iowa farmer who lost his father, and his quest to reconnect with him (or his memory). There are bigger themes, sure, and the quest touches our larger cultural senses of loss and acceptance, because it’s a good book, but the story is in the end about one Iowa farmer who lost his father. I don’t think that Confederacy is about one Iowa business man who lost his father, although Gabriel did lose his father, and that loss is again central to the book. The other one of Mr. Kinsella’s Big Themes, about the way the American Indian fits into our (North) American myth is also central, though, and that picks the book up into another tier, I think.

I don’t know, actually, whether many Native Americans (or citizens of First Nations, or what you will) read Mr. Kinsella’s stuff. The handful of Navaho and Apache that I went to school with or worked alongside in summer jobs were not big readers, or if they were, they didn’t communicate that interest to me. Not that I was ever very close to any of them, other than physical proximity, and the sort of impersonal intimacy that timing movements on a factory line seems to have. I have had chatting acquaintance with, as far as I know, only a handful of other tribe members in the years since I started reading Mr. Kinsella’s stuff. I could Google for information, but I’m afraid to discover that his reputation is as a racist, arrogant and offensive appropriator, which would sadden me if I were to learn it from an acquaintance, but irritate me if I were to learn it from the intarwebs. You know.

One last question for Gentle Readers: Are ghost stories generally considered specfic? Confederacy has not just ghosts but time travel, alternate history and elemental battles between gods, so I am happy putting it on the specfic shelf, but as a general rule, is a ghost enough to make something skiffy? I think Inside Job has nothing skiffier than a ghost (well, possession by the spirit of a dead fellah) and it won the Hugo, but then it was by an eight-time Hugo-winner, so that’s different, right? But is Joe, or Field of Dreams, for that matter, specfic or not?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 15, 2006

Book Report: Pennant Race

One of the great things about library book sales—well, I suppose any used book sale, but I seem to go to library book sales more often than other kinds, more often even than used book stores—is coming across some book you haven’t thought of for years, but loved at the time, and then buying it for a buck, reading it and finding out that it really is magnificent.

Or awful, of course, which is also interesting. Pennant Race falls into the magnificent category. It’s cheating a bit, in this case, because Jim Brosnan’s baseball diary is often mentioned as one of the great baseball books, second (in many people’s opinion) only to his earlier diary The Long Season. I am hoping to pick up Long Season at some library book sale some year soon, but for now, I’m just thrilled to have Pennant Race. If you like baseball at all, Gentle Reader, and haven’t read Mr. Brosnan’s books, there is a treat waiting for you.

Baseball is different now than it was in 1961, of course. The starting pitchers for that team included Jim O’Toole, who started 35 games and got two saves, and Bob Purkey who started 34 and saved 1. Of course, Mr. Brosnan, the closer with sixteen saves and 34 games finished, feels it necessary to explain what a save is, which he does by essentially describing it as a tool for contract negotiation. Which it is, but who admits that these days? Mr. Brosnan talks a lot about money, coming off a good outing with the confidence that his mortgage is safe and worrying after a bad one if he needs to find another source of income. I imagine things are different, now; the bonus babies in the Reds bullpen have a few thousand in the bank against a short career. After everything, the lowest-paid rookie in a bullpen these days should be able to feed a family for ten years on one year’s salary. And a good thing, too.

As I settled in to re-read the book I was looking forward to a few anecdotes about Frank Robinson, a source of great sportswriting copy over half-a-century of baseball. I was disappointed. It was clear that Mr. Brosnan did not spend much time with him. Most of that is that Mr. Brosnan’s natural home was the bullpen, and most of the book is set there, with the cast of relievers attempting to keep their minds on the game. Or not. Out of the bullpen, in the clubhouses, trainer’s rooms, hotels and buses that make up the rest of the book, he hangs around with, no surprise here, the relievers that he spends game time with, that he’s closest to. Fair enough. But I don’t think I’m entirely imagining a sense that the two also were kept apart by race—not that I think Jim Brosnan is or was a racist, particularly, but because the black players stuck together and the white players let them. That probably happens to some extent these days, although I suspect mostly it’s monolingual Anglophones of whatever race hanging around together and those who are comfortable in Spanish letting them. I have no idea. But—Frank Robinson! MVP of that Pennant Race, towering and possibly tragic figure in baseball history, and he would barely break the index. Hmph.

One last thing—it was a very strange experience reading about the games Mr. Brosnan’s Reds played against the Giants. It was almost as if he wanted the Giants to lose.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

August 5, 2006

Issues in comparative themanology, or Yer Blind, Ya Bum!

Sometimes, it seems, an umpire will blow a call. It’s happens. These things are, in fact, part of the game. And sometimes, when an umpire blows a call we can tell, sitting at home, that the umpire blew the call. It’s not a judgment call at that point. Either the ball touched him or it didn’t, either it hit the ground or it didn’t, it was on one side of the line or the other. The camera knows, the umpire does his best. What I’m saying, sometimes an umpire will blow a call. Umpires know this, players know this, viewers know this. It happens.

So, now and then, there is a proposal to take the call to the camera, or at least have some avenue of appeal, when the ump blows a call. Because nobody wants the ump to blow a call. It’s bad for the game. On the other hand, there are problems with the cameras as well, and there are concerns about the authority of the umpire and the rhythm of the game, and sportsmanship in general, so instituting such an appeal system does come at a cost. And every time the proposal is made, there are just enough people in the right place who judge that cost just high enough to defeat it.

And then an umpire blows another call. And everybody gets all upset.

Which is why Asif Iqbal said that the Pakistan Cricket Board’s opposition to such an appeal process “reveals a nostalgic respect for the values of the British Raj and Empire which some may find creditable but which I do not see as being in the interest of either Pakistan or Asian cricket. That was a value taught by our colonial masters because unless they inculcated that sort of servile discipline in us there was no way that 300,000 British civil servants would have been able to rule 300m people.”

Oh, Gentle Reader, did you think I was talking about baseball?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

May 28, 2006

Good, bad, indifferent

In the middle of Anthony Lane’s nastily hilarious review of The DaVinci Code movie, he observes, “Movie history is awash, of course, with fine pictures that have been made from daft or unreadable books; indeed, you are statistically more likely to squeeze a decent movie out of a potboiler than you are out of a novel of high repute.”

Oddly enough, Your Humble happened to see a couple of very bad movies this past week, and I had a not altogether unrelated observation to make: Why do people remake excellent movies, but never crappy ones? There are loads of movies that had perfectly good concepts, but which were badly written or badly executed or badly performed, and you would think that a good film-maker would take one look at a movie like that, see where they went wrong, and be able to make a much better movie, a good movie in fact. Taking a movie where the writing, the performances, and the direction, are all magnificent and making even a halfway decent remake seems much much harder.

Take The Ladykillers. The basic premise is only OK: A group of criminals rents a room from a little old lady, steals a massive amount of money and then they split on each other and the little old lady thwarts them, resulting in the criminals getting killed and the little old lady winding up with all the loot. It’s a good concept, but it’s obvious on first glance that the movie depends on the execution. In the 1955 movie, written by William Rose and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, the wonderful performances by Alec Guinness and particularly Katie Johnson are untouchable. The screenplay is wonderful, the pacing is superb, and the supporting performances are all quite good, and have moments of brilliance. So even if a filmmaker is an absolute genius, and gets the perfect cast (which he wouldn’t), and all the money in the world, and everything goes absolutely perfectly, and every wild vision of the remake gets onto the screen just as it was in his head, you will end up with ... a disappointing, but pretty good movie.

Now, the Coen Brothers/Tom Hanks remake does not have all those things coming into place. Well, at least not in the first half-hour, after which I stopped watching. It wasn’t awful, it just wasn’t really ... no, it was awful. I like the Coen Brothers, or at least I absolutely adore about half of their movies, and I like Tom Hanks, but blech.

But my point isn’t really about this, as for all I said above I can’t really blame the Coen Brothers or Tom Hanks for wanting to remake the movie, and they clearly had a lot of fun with it, and a fair amount of people seemed to think it was good. No, my point is about the other lousy movie I saw last week: Mr. 3000. Now, this is actually a very clever idea for a movie: a baseball player who is a self-centered jerk quits in the middle of a pennant race when he gets his 3,000th hit, telling the assembled sportswriters that they can all go fuck themselves, now, because they have to put him in the Hall of Fame. Nine years later, he’s five votes short when the Archive discovers that a three-hit game got counted twice (don’t worry about it, it’s plausible enough for a movie) and he retired with 2,997 official hits. Faced with having to buy a ticket to get into the Hall, and his self-identity as “Mr. 3000” crumbled, he makes a comeback at 47 with his old team, now in the cellar, to try to get 3 more hits in September. Along the way he learns humility, teamwork, and all that he missed when he was in the game.

Bernie Mac plays the aging jerk, and he’s actually terrific, as far as he goes, but the movie is so badly written and paced and slapped together that it just doesn’t work. Even the good ideas (Paul Sorvino as the silent stone-faced manager, and Michael Rispoli as the sidekick) are butchered or buried. And even Mr. Mac isn’t so good that I couldn’t imagine somebody else, ten years from now, being even better. Worst of all, I have no sense that anybody connected with the movie liked baseball or baseball movies in the slightest. In other words, a remake would not only almost certainly be better than the original movie, but could very easily be a really good movie. But will anybody make it? No. Because nobody remakes crappy movies.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

February 28, 2006

Here I am

It’s been surprisingly easy not to blog. What has it been, a week? Your Humble Blogger has been traveling, although traveling in such a manner that it would have been fairly easy to slip in a Tohu Bohu note, if inspired. I haven’t been.

Yes, I know. The Vice President of the United States shoots a fellow in the face, the Republican Party eats its own liver over an incredibly minor matter of which profit-making company will shortchange our port security needs (I know! Let’s give the contract to Americans like Halliburton!), a woman was inducted into the Hall of Fame and my Terriers were ranked # 3 nationally. Lots to blog about. Plus I’m three books behind.

I’m not burnt out, at least not how I understand the term. I just haven’t felt like blogging. Part of that, I imagine, is that I have been spending a lot of time trying to get my lines in my head, which is slow going indeed. And part is ... well, I don’t know what the other parts are.

Actually, I suspect that one part is that I’ve been meaning for some time to write about lobbying, what it is and how it works and what aspects of it are good and bad for democracy, or at least for us. Which would be a lot of work. I mean, I could just shoot off my mouth, by moderately accurate, and make my point while getting at least a few things dead wrong. Or I could do some research. And really, if I’m going to do some research, it should be on eyewear from 1785.

Speaking of research, and wasting gobs of time that could otherwise be spent actually blogging, did y’all know that British Pathé has some 3500 hours of old newsreel footage available online? So if you want to watch footage of London-to-Paris air service in 1919 or Princess Elizabeth inspecting the damage after the Blitz, well, off you go.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

January 24, 2006

22 days?

A couple of recent January arguments about which is the Bestest Baseball Team Ever Ever Ever brought the usual sort of musing about what best can mean in that context, when it occurred to me to pose myself a question sufficiently different that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it addressed: What was the best season ever for a team’s fans? Knowing that the whole thing is un-answerable, in large part because people, even baseball fans, even fans of the same team, are different, one to another, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun, it’s still entertaining, I think, to ruminate on what the criteria would be that would put a team on the top of the list.

First of all, I think we have to leave out any team that doesn’t make the playoffs (or the World Series, or the Temple Cup, or in pre-postseason days win the Pennant). As much as my own favorite year as a Giants fan was 1993, I can’t say that I enjoyed that year as much as Braves fans did. So we need a winner, and I would think that winning out, that is, winning the World Series would be enough of a plus that I’m not sure any team that doesn’t win the Series would make a Top Ten. That said, I wouldn’t weight a Close Series Victory all that much over a Close Pennant Race Victory; the fans of the team with the CPRV would have more fun more days than those with bad league competition but a CSV. Also, of course, fans of a Great team will have more fun than fans of a Good team, so that comes into play as well.

But what else? I’m inclined to think that fans of a team that has grown up together, as it were, would enjoy the success more than fans of a cobbled-together team. On the other hand, the first Great Year in a while would be more fun than Yet Another Good Year. In other words, fans of the 2004 Red Sox had a lot of fun breaking the drought, but did so without many long player-fan relationships (such as Tim Wakefield’s, Jason Varitek’s, or even Derek Lowe’s). When my Giants won in 1954 (for instance), they had Wes Westrum (since 1947, regular since 1950), Whitey Lockman (since 1945, regular since 1948), Davey Williams (since 1949, regular since 1952), Hank Thompson (since 1949, regular since 1950), Alvin Dark (since 1950 as a regular), Don Miller (since 1948, regular since 1950), Willie Mays (regular since 1951, not counting service), and Monte Irvin (since 1949, regular since 1950). In other words, a fan in 1954 had been rooting for most of the same people for five years (although the pitching was new, with the exception of Sal Maglie); I would think that such a history would make a Big Year more enjoyable. On the other hand, the core of the 2005 Red Sox was together in 2003, so maybe that’s long enough, when it’s not just your drought but your Dad’s.

The great teams of the 20s were clearly more dominant than any team today can be, which causes trouble when comparing teams, but a different kind of trouble when comparing fan experiences. It’s great when your team is dominant, but too much dominance takes the drama away. How would you weight a close finish, versus a mighty winning percentage?

Also, how do you weight for likeable players? Worse, for superstars, whether they are likeable or not? How much fun are rookies? How much fun are All-Stars? MVPs and CYAs? How much fun were the 1980 Phillies to root for? The 2001 Diamondbacks? The 1945 (wartime) Tigers?

I haven’t done the numbers, but at a guess, the final answer would be the fans of Ron Swoboda, of Ed Kranepool, Jerry Grote, Bud Harrelson, Cleon Jones, of Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver and Tug McGraw, and of Gil Hodges, too. At least, if I ran the numbers, and the 1969 Miracle Mets didn’t turn up in the top five, I’d guess something was wrong with my algorithm. And if the 2006 Giants are in the top, well, if they are any fun at all to root for, it’s a testament to the game of baseball, that’s all I have to say.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

January 11, 2006

A blogger's perogative?

Five Things I Have Been Persuaded to Change My Mind about Since College:

Note: These are not things that I have changed my mind about due to exposure (such as a newfound fondness for Early Music or the realization that there is a reason to drink decaffeinated tea). These are issues, mostly minor ones, where somebody expressed a view that I hadn’t held before, and I subsequently Changed My Mind based on that expression. I also include the presentation of new evidence as part of persuasion, if the evidence was (in my memory) arranged as a persuasive tactic, rather than being sort of independently uncovered. For instance, the revelation that the Ba’athists in Iraq did not, in fact, have a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons was not presented (to me) as part of an effort to persuade me that the invasion was misguided, although it would have been a useful part of such persuasion.

  • Batting Average is inferior to On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage as either a measure of past performance or a measure of future performance. Although in my teens I did more or less adopt the idea that a .300 hitter might be a “soft” .300 hitter, I generally took HR and RBI as a sufficient way to complement BA. It wasn’t until I started reading Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Primer (now part of the Baseball Think Factory) that I really Changed My Mind about BA.
  • It’s OK to use literally as an intensifier, singular they, and hopefully to describe the speaker. By the end of my college days, I was becoming more of a descriptivist and less of a prescriptivist, understanding that much of prescriptivism was William Safire getting to decide who was in the Semi-colon Club. Still, there were some things that just bugged me. The boys over at Language Log have used a variety of means to persuade me to give some of those up, mostly historical examples. For instance, it’s clear that literally has been used as an intensifier at least as long as really, and that as they essentially mean the same thing, there is no reason to allow one and disallow the other. Words mean what people say they mean.
  • Even if personal property is a fiction, it is both a useful and a necessary fiction. Don’t be alarmed, I still call myself a socialist. But even though I still have been unable to persuade myself that personal property exists in any philosophically meaningful sense, I have been persuaded (by Gentle Readers, among others) that any social system with a reasonable chance at either justice or stability needs to include some version of property rights (albeit not necessarily placing them at a high priority or considering them sacrosanct). To some extent, I must admit that this change of view is related to the aging process and the accumulation of Stuff that has gone along with it, but mostly I think it has been actual suasion.
  • Damn, that’s only three. Hm. Steroids are bad for baseball. Mostly, I don’t much care, one way or another, but my previous feeling was that on the whole people wanted bigger, better athletes, and therefore it was in baseball’s interest to provide them. After the recent revelations, I think that a large amount of baseball’s fan base does, whether I agree with them or not, draw the line at performance-enhancing chemicals that are not widely available over-the-counter, and therefore baseball would risk alienating that fan base by encouraging or even allowing widespread use. And since baseball does, I think I perceive, rely more on its fan base than other major league American sports do, and less on casual ticket-buyers and television-watchers, they oughtn’t alienate their fan base. I’m not sure this really should count as persuasion rather than exposure, since mostly it was exposure (in conversation and on the Baseball Primer) to people who persuaded me that (a) they were fans, and (2) they did draw the line at steroids, and enjoyed the game less because of them. A combination, you understand.
  • There really was an organized attempt by people within the Republican Party, using the Republican Party resources and structure, to subvert the will of the people in the Ohio Presidential Election in 2004, resulting in an essentially fraudulent choice of electors, and therefore a misfire in who holds the office of President. This is not, by the way, the Black Box theory, that holds that the machines made by Diebold did not count votes correctly, although that may also have happened. This is about closed polling places and otherwise suppressed turnout in predominantly Democratic areas, in a deliberate attempt to deny people their franchise. I know some Gentle Readers thought that was obvious from the beginning, and others still think it’s crazy talk. My own initial reaction was that such accusations stemmed from the frustrations of the Democrats at losing another election that they felt they ought to have won, together with the sort of wildcat voter-suppression activities that have always been part of the system. Since then, though, I have been persuaded that there really was an organized effort to suppress the vote, and that the effort was effectively organized within and by a profoundly corrupt State Party.

That’s five. I’m not sure I could come up with very many more. It would be easy to come up with Five Things I’ve Changed My Mind About Since College, which would include things such as my willingness to change the Hebrew in the prayerbook for greater inclusiveness, or that I actually do want to raise at least one child, but the fact that this is much harder to do makes it more interesting. I don’t think it’s coincidence that four of the five don’t particularly require me to change my actions, and the other just requires that I refrain from some complaining that I used to do. The things that involve actually doing something (like changing my diet, say, or my reading habits, or my purchasing patterns, or exercising, or like that) are more likely to change only after prolonged exposure, rather than through conversation. That doesn’t mean that rhetoric, as one aspect of the exposure, didn’t play a large part in that exposure, but it wasn’t sufficient. Of course, that’s all going by my own interpretations of my memories; it’s likely that others would have perceived different causes and effects.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

September 27, 2005

Baseball in autumn

Seems like every year at this time, I think to myself, “What a good year to be a baseball fan.” I know that’s not an altogether fashionable sentiment, but there it is. Here we are a week from the end and there are only eighteen teams with the big E in the standings, and two of those aren’t technically eliminated from the wildcard. Aside from the fun of the Sox and the Yankees, and the other Sox and the Indians, and the Phillies and the Astros, and even the longshot A’s and Mets and Marlins, my Gigantes have an outside chance to become an answer to a trivia question, and in the process bring up one of my deep philosophical baseball questions: what does it mean to call a team the best team in baseball?

In one sense, of course, one could define best to be more or less equivalent to champion, and to say that the World Series winner is the best. This argument begins from the idea that the goal of each team is to win the World Series, and that therefore the 29 teams that don’t win clearly and obviously failed at that goal, while the one team that does win succeeded, and the best team must be the team that best accomplishes that goal, that is, the winner of the World Series. This is a consistent definition, but a dull one. Furthermore, it gives you a definition of best that doesn’t imply a definition of better; logically, any two teams that fail to win the World Series are equivalent failures. Even if you allow that getting to the playoffs is in some sense closer to winning the World Series and therefore better, a really interesting definition of better, an idea of better that sparks the most interesting conversations, should allow you to compare any two teams, even the Rockies and the Royals, and talk about which one is better.

Furthermore, I don’t think that the goal of each team is to win the World Series. Or at least, I don’t want that to be the goal of each team. In YHB’s world, the goal of each team is to win as many games as possible. Of course, this is a pre-division idea—heck, this is a nineteenth century base ball idea. For me, the post season is post, after, the real season, and is really just an extended exhibition. Lots of fun, and I’m on the whole glad they do it, but really irrelevant. I know, I know, that’s not the way the teams think of it, and if I entirely disregard the way the teams define their goals, I’m living in a fantasy world. But it’s a nice world.

Here’s the question: If the Giants were to sweep the Padres and then sweep the D-Backs, finish at 80-82, roar into the playoffs with a healthy Bonds, Alou, Schmidt and Benitez with lots of off-days, knock off the Braves and then the Phillies (who not only nab the wildcard but somehow beat the Cardinals) and then smack the White Sox around and win the World Series, would they then have been the best team in baseball in 2005? Remember, they lost more games than they won in the regular season.

The thing is, the Giants that I can imagine actually winning the World Series have little to do with the team that played in April, May, June, July and August. Did I mention that Bonds would be healthy and have lots of off-days to rest? That Benitez would be healthy? I didn’t mention that we would have a major-league center-fielder, and that wasn’t true for most of the year. The team that had Reuter and Fassero in the starting rotation, that had Deivi Cruz, and Tucker and Ellison and Marquis Grissom in the lineup, that team can’t be the best team in baseball, can it? I’m not talking about Noah Lowry having an ERA of 5.07 before the All-Star Break and 2.59 since then; that’s the sort of thing that happens with real championship teams. I’m talking about the actual active roster, and whether the team that is represented on that roster is the same team as the one on the field in October.

In reality, of course, my Giants are not going to be on the field in October. In reality, the interesting question is not whether the Giants are better than the Cardinals (they aren’t) but whether they are better than the Twins or the Nationals. And just totaling up the wins doesn’t answer the question; I would look at the strength of the schedule, and at the luck involved. I’d look at the components of wins, the runs scored and the runs given up, and even at the components of those runs—the teams’ rates of outs and extra-base hits, the earned and unearned runs, the starters and relievers, the bench strength, the peripherals, all that stuff. I’d try to balance the strengths and weaknesses of the teams, and I’d totally fail to come up with a persuasively definite answer, but I’d have fun trying, which is the point. And I could do that with the Cardinals and the Angels, or whoever wins the pennants, and if I had a bunch of friends around to do it with, I’d enjoy talking about which was better nearly as much as I’d enjoy watching the Series.

Unless the Giants are in it, after all. Then it’s late nights in front of the TV, all by myself (most likely), eating my liver. And it doesn’t get better than that, does it?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

August 26, 2005

based on the novel

So, rereading Cold Comfort Farm reminded YHB what a great job the filmmakers did creating the movie of the book. I'm very interested in the problem of adaptation, generally. I think it's one of the great challenges of our technological and social moment, when people want different versions of things in different formats, and there may be a real demand for a particular story, world and characters in the form of a book, a movie, a videogame, a website, an audio production of some kind, a DVD (which may be identical to the movie, but may not) and possibly others. I know, much of this is not new, and adaptations are as old as the theater, but the combination of a proliferation of forms, and a more or less discrete consituency for each form makes it both quantitatively and qualitatively different.

Anyway, that's all musing, but it does bring up a question as old as the moving picture: should an film adaptation of a book or short story be "faithful" to the original, or should the film makers cut loose? The answer, of course, is that either way can work, and that it depends on the book, the movie, and the team involved. That's a lame answer, but it's the right one. Luckily, though, the answer can evoke another question, or even better, a couple of Top Fives.

Top Five Close Adaptations:

  • Cold Comfort Farm: Book by Stella Gibbons, film directed by John Schlesinger and written by Malcolm Bradbury. Not only do they keep almost all the plot, but almost all the dialogue is taken directly from the book. They do combine several minor characters, and cut out two or three sub-plots. Mostly what makes this perfect is the realization of the characters by brilliant, brilliant actors, primarly the magnificent Eileen Atkins as Judith, Ian McKellen as Amos, and Freddie Jones as Adam. Oh, and Rufus Sewell is the perfect Seth. The look of the thing is great, but mostly it is the book come to life, which is pretty much the definition of the category, right?
  • The Maltese Falcon: Book by Dashiell Hammett, film directed and written by John Huston. It's good. It's very good. Oddly enough, Humphrey Bogart isn't much like Sam Spade (tho' he is wonderful), and Mary Astor isn't convincingly slick, but everybody else nails it. Again, it's the characters and actors that make this work so well, particularly Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman, and Elisha Cook as the gunsel, Wilbur. They chicken out at a key point, but they didn't have much choice, since it involved nudity and it was 1939 or so.
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Book by A. A. Milne (and The House at Pooh Corner), film directed by John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman and written by eight or ten people under the aegis of Walt Disney. I'm aware that some Gentle Readers will object to this film's presence on the list. Yes, there are songs (by Sherman and Sherman, and they are quite good) and some of the chapters have the plot all wrong, but on the whole they get the characters and dialogue very nearly right. They take a few liberties (the gopher is, as he says, not in the book), and most notably they get Tigger out of the tree in a way that is unique to animation. Still, the bulk of the movie (or movies, as it is really a series of shorts) is just a realization of the stories, and it works very well indeed.
  • Scrooge: Short Story (A Christmas Carol) by Charles Dickens, film directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and written by Noel Langley. It’s been perhaps ten years since I saw the movie, and longer than that since I read the story (I think I’ll dig it out this year), but my recollection is that it’s quite a close adaptation. It works, in part, because Alistair Sim is so wonderful as Scrooge, but also because Dickens’ writing is incredibly cinematic, both in character and in atmosphere.
  • The Shawshank Redemption: Short Story by Stephen King, film directed and written by Frank Darabont. This is one of a very few instances where I read a story, liked it, and then saw the movie adaptation and loved it.

By the way, I’m not considering adaptations of plays, obviously, and as with all Top Fives I am almost certainly forgetting something that ought to be on the list.

Top Five Free Adaptations:

  • Field of Dreams: Book by W.E. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe), film directed and written by Phil Alden Robinson. They took the basic idea of the baseball field in the corn and undead evil pirate ballplayers (ok, undead dishonest White Sox ballplayers) and made an entirely different story around it. The book is about the protagonist's desperate and crazy attempt to be with his father again, and all the plot points are leading up to the father's appearance, and the closure that brings. The movie is about the fellow discovering that he needs closure with his father, and discovering that he really is a father at heart, too. And, of course, saving the farm. Anyway, by having different (but related) concerns than the book, the movie works, and brings something new to the nearly identical plot points.
  • The Wizard of Oz: Book by L. Frank Baum, film directed by Victor Fleming and written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Wolf. Teenage Dorothy and ruby slippers and singing, and the whole thing being a dream after all, but really the bulk of the movie is taken right from the book. Well, except for all the bits they left out, and the new bits. And what makes the movie, after all, is E.Y. Harburg's song score. That's the most creative, and what makes the movie a new and wonderful thing.
  • Fistful of Dollars: Book by Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest), film directed by Sergio Lione and written by Victor Andres Catena and Jaime Comas Gil. I know that this is more directly inspired by Yojimbo, which was also very freely adapted, but I haven't seen Yojimbo yet. Anyway, what both films do is take Mr. Hammett's basic idea of an unnamed outsider coming in to a corrupt and violent town and eventually cleaning it up by pitting all the gangsters against each other, and place it in another place and time. Some of the plot points are still there, in a way, but mostly the filmmakers just took the idea and ran with it. Of course, that's what they did with Last Man Standing, too, and that was dreadful.
  • The Princess Bride: Book by William Goldman, directed by Rob Reiner and written by William Goldman. Perhaps it's cheating to have the screenplay by the author, but it works. Mr. Goldman writes himself a new frame, totally changing the audience's view of the story, and cuts mercilessly at the plot. At the same time, the actors do a marvelous job of bringing the characters to life, particularly Andre the Giant, Mandy Patankin and Wallace Shawn as the Gang of Three. Much of how well the change-of-frame works is due to Peter Falk as the grandfather, but the part is written to play to his strengths.
  • The Big Sleep: Book by Raymond Chandler, film directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. They make a total hash of the plot, and the whole thing is turned into a sort of screwball comedy, but dang, does it work. In fact, they make a good movie from an OK book, which is hard to do.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

August 5, 2005

Hey now

OK, here's another question for Gentle Readers. As y'all are aware, YHB is a baseball fan, and although circumstances have prevented me from paying as close attention as I often do, and other circumstances have prevented my Giants from being any good, I still spend some hours every week reading about, listening to, or watching baseball. So when my recent travels happened to coincide with the All-Star Break, it was a relief. Not only would I not miss much baseball (as they do not play the day before or the day after the All-Star Game), but I wouldn't miss baseball much, if you know what I mean. It's always frustrating to read the paper and find no box-scores, and being on the road, I likely wouldn't read the paper and experience that.

So my question is for any Gentle Reader who is a sports fan: do you find, in the sport you follow, the All-Star Game to be a highlight of the year, an amusing diversion, or a frustrating annoyance? Would you prefer if they didn't play one at all?

Not that I necessarily would prefer not having an All-Star Game in Major League Baseball. My real preference, might be to replace the current post-season with a barnstorm All-Star Tour, but that won't happen. And, you know, I have enjoyed the All-Star Game in the past, although I can't remember the last time I did. Maybe when the Big Unit threw one to the backstop.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

May 2, 2005

Sweep!

As previously noted in this Tohu Bohu, the Venerable Order of Giants visit Colorado to play the Rockies on May 17. Your Humble Blogger is now pleased to add the information that the Pirates of Pittsburgh come to Pac Belle on May 9. Future matchups that also look potentially favorable include the Cincinnati Reds (July 4), the Kansas City Royals (June 7), the Fresno Grizzlies (July 12), the Rupert Mundys (August 8), the Arkham Inmates (September 18), the St. Sebastian’s School for Girls Titans (October 3), and the Lambeth Bishops (tentatively scheduled for 2008).

Sadly, against major league competition, we are 5-10.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

April 23, 2005

Feh.

The Giants play the Rockies again on May 17th.

That is all.

April 20, 2005

Warning: Inside Baseball Inside

So, I played a fair amount of APBA growing up. APBA, for those who don’t know, is a simulated baseball game based on statistics, similar to Strat-o-Matic or Pursue the Pennant. The players are field managers, mostly, setting lineups and controlling things such as pitcher changes, pinch-hitters, and sacrifices. In the version I played in the late seventies and early eighties (a dice, cards and boards version) the manager also made all the decisions about steals, trying to score from second on a single, throwing to second or home, and so on. Player autonomy was very limited; I imagine in the modern computer versions you can give players the green light to steal when the chance is more than n, or even take into account players who make a habit of trying to stretch hits. Anyway, the point is that I managed some dozens of games before I was bar mitzvah.

The correlation between a misspent youth simulating ball games via dice or computer and a stathead take on baseball strategy seems to be high enough to accept the plausible causality. I’ve heard it said that a GM should, before hiring a manager, insist that the candidates play a 54-game sim season with the previous year’s team, to learn whether the fellah has any idea how to manage. And, you know, I have some sympathy with that. A lot of the insights of sabermetrics are well illustrated by that kind of sim. The value of OBP, for instance, or the dangers of giving up outs, either by bunting or by attempting risky steals. The frequency of the Big Inning (in a high-scoring environment), which makes that first run less important. The order of the lineup being less important than you’d think. The goofiness of the Save. The ideas behind the Run Expentancy charts (not to mention the Win Expectancy book we’ll see someday).

The problem, though, is that although it would be nice for the manager to be aware of all this stuff, it doesn’t prepare the manager for the actual game very well. Well, and there’s another problem, which is that very few managers are hired or valued for their in-game skills, but rather for their communications skills. The manager’s primary job, it seems, is as communicator, both as the team’s voice in speaking with broadcasters and as the front office’s voice in speaking with players. And, I suppose, as the players’ voice in speaking with the front office, although I suspect that is not high on the employment criteria. Other aspects of the communicator’s job are equally important, mostly keeping players happy and productive and having the good clubhouse atmosphere so beloved of curly-haired sportswriters. Some of that stuff really does have to do with winning games, by the way; I’m convinced that Dusty Baker (to choose an instance at random) had a skill to keep players on a winning streak, that is, to parlay a few wins into a hot month by kicking up players’ expectations of themselves, and keeping the players thinking they can win any game, even when they are down by four or five runs. It’s hard to know if that is real, but it’s what I perceived when Mr. Baker led the Giants. Of course, I’m convinced that Mr. Baker is a magnificent hitting coach who performed that job throughout his tenure as manager, and that helped the team more than the streak thing. But this has become a digression.

Anyway, the tricky thing to keep in mind is that in the middle of an actual game the manager always knows more than the statistics can tell him. In the specific case of the Run Expectancy chart, the manager knows the base-outs condition, but also, for instance, whether the pitcher has already thrown a hundred pitches. Whether the batter is fast or slow, and whether the runners are fast or slow. Whether the first baseman is a three-hundred-pound, eight-hundred-slugging block of immobility. Whether the batter can beat out a bunt, or at least come close enough to maybe force a wild throw. The manager knows (or can know) the batters OBP, and thus the likelihood he will make an out (although this is clearly misleading in many ways), and also the OBP of the next batter, and the next. The manager knows, or can know, not only the general information about platooning, but the specific splits of the batter and the pitcher, as well as the guys on the bench and in the pen.

Well, and all that may be included in a really good sim, but then the manager knows more than that. He knows where the wind is blowing, and whether the infield is in shadow. He knows if the batter has been drinking. He knows if guy on deck has the flu. He knows if the pitcher seems to be having trouble with his mechanics. He knows if the batter is smarter than the pitcher, or if the pitcher is smarter than the batter. None of that is going to be in the sim, and it would be disastrous for any manager to ignore all of that specific information to adhere to what the Book or the Odds tell him to do.

Sadly, of course, much of the specific information that the manager knows in any given situation is false. He may “know” that the batter hits worse if he’s been drinking, or that he hits better, depending on the manager’s feeling about drink rather than the batter’s actual state. He may “know” that the pitcher is weakening, when in fact he has been unlucky. He may “know” that a batter is clutch, when he has only been slightly better in the clutch than his normal stink-on-ice level. Or worse, of course; the manager may be remembering a memorable clutch hit and forgetting many clutch ground outs. The sim will not help the manager distinguish between what he knows that’s so, and what ain’t so, particularly if the sim is not accompanied by a tutorial in risk analysis, or for that matter statistical assessment (to identify the lessons that really are in the sim). So. The lessons of statistical analysis can overwhelm good decisionmaking. Of course, you could argue that this is only true if the lessons are learned incorrectly. True, true. And yet, there is little chance of them being learned correctly, or at least within a correct framework.

My point? Just that it seems to me that Felipe Alou’s use of the bullpen smacks to me of a stathead manipulating APBA cards. Yes, there is often a slight statistical edge to be gained by going through three pitchers in an inning. That edge may even (possibly) justify the cost in less flexibility in later innings. But unlike APBA cards, pitchers have good days and bad days, and even if you can’t predict which day it is for each of your relievers, I have to think it’s a bad idea to go through three or four relievers every day, hunting for that one that whose dippidy-doo is dippidy-don’ting today.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian. War

April 18, 2005

averaging six, winning half

The Venerable Order of Giants have scored 67 runs in their first eleven games, six at Pac Belle and two at Chavez Ravine, all without Barry, four without Moises (who was oh-fer the games he did play).

That is all.

No it isn’t, no, wait: Our bullpen ERA is down to 6.19, including our Proven Closer’s 9.65 (6 R in 4.2 IP over 5 appearances, with one blown save and no strikeouts) and Tyler Walker’s identical 9.65 (only 5 R in 4.2 IP over 5 appearances, though, and no unearned runs). Our starters’ ERA is 4.92, including Woody’s 7.62 (12 R in 13 IP over 3 starts), and the unbeatable Noah’s 6.17 (8 R in 11.2 IP over 2 starts). Did I mention that in eleven games we have seven relievers who have seen action in five or more games?

At this point, when Barry comes back, we’ll hand him a ball and send him to the mound.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

April 13, 2005

Spring, sprang, sprung

Your Humble Blogger has lived in four very different places in the US, with four very different climates. Somehow, I forget that.

I grew up in the desert. Spring, in the Valley of the Sun, generally lasted six to eight hours, usually on a Tuesday, for some reason, and primarily functioned as a warning. Yes, the desert in bloom is breathtaking, and the discovery that Spring is happening (usually the first or second week in March) should signal all right-thinking Arizonans (and you’d be surprised how many there are) that it’s time to take the afternoon off, drive out into the desert, and enjoy the ocotillo, the prickly pear, and the ludicrous saguaro blossoms. And then make damn sure their air-conditioning works, and maybe play that last round or two of golf before closing yourself in for the summer. Actually, real desert rats (as I used to be) found that first batch of 90-degree March days invigorating, particularly back when you could go to Spring Training games for a couple of bucks.

In Ess Eff, Spring was a political matter. No, that’s a joke. In seriousness, Spring was a matter for the calendar, and for the events that came at that time. Spring meant the beginning of baseball season, of course, and there were various seasons (theatrical, musical, academic) that started or ended in April and May. Spring was not, though, a natural phenomenon; sure, some of the trees grew leaves, and there were different flowers blooming, but there was patchy ground fog, clearing by midday, with a high of 72, just like all the rest of the year. The sun was shining in the Mission, and on the other side of Bernal it was raining.

In Boston, Spring was wonderful, but it was a wonderful relief. The ground was muddy, which meant it wasn’t frozen. The big piles of ice finally melted. Each snow held the promise that it was the last. By the middle of April, you could decide to stay outside on a lunch hour, if you nursed a hot beverage. Winter, by that point, had been so long, and so cold, and so dark, that when Spring battled it back, you wanted to shout and sing with triumph. We made it! This round of crocus buds may not freeze!

Here, though, in the north of the South, Spring is a breathtaking panorama of color. Crape myrtles, magnolias, cherries, dogwood, redbud, and something that I think is a flowering pear, in addition to the daffodils, the azaleas, the Scotch broom, and all the rest of it. It’s got nothing to do with Winter, which wasn’t that bad, and it’s got nothing to do with Summer, which won’t be. It’s a thing in itself, a verdant extravaganza, wasteful and preposterous and aggressively beautiful.

Oh, I’m aware it’s got something to do with the fact that I’m out of the city, here; I drive along fields and the river, and there’s a lot more grass than concrete. Every street is lined with trees, not all because they are planted there either. I’m convinced, though, that if I were to spend Spring in Raleigh or DC, the effect would be similar (if dampened); Spring is different here.

No point, other than it’s a big, big country, different from one part to another, which I forget in my internetitude, and remember when the world reminds me.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

April 10, 2005

Sweep!

The Venerable Order of Giants have scored 33 runs in their first six games, all at Pac Belle, all without Barry, four without Moises (who was oh-fer the games he did play).

That is all.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

March 29, 2005

Is it a meme?

OK, now in the category of Least Meme-y Thing that somehow seems like a meme anyway, Your Humble Blogger, in Wikipeding Bobby Short, clicked over to the list of people born in 1924, and was entertained, in a Book of Lists way, for long enough to decide to make a list of 26 of them, all alphabetical and whatnot. My criterion was pretty much whichever name most made me think about the person the name was attached to, or at any rate most caught my attention. Try it yourself, Gentle Reader, but with some other year (you could try using a d6 for the decade and d10 for the year, or use two d10 and add to 1861 or something to avoid having to decide between Shia LaBeouf and Lindsay Lohan). Anyway, here’s mine for 1924:

  • Lloyd Alexander. An easy win over the evocative Joan Aiken and Chet Atkins, so I suppose actually being in a room with the man counts for something.
  • Lauren Bacall. This was hard, as I was tempted by Billy Barty, Marlon Brando, Jack Buck, and Poppy Bush, not to mention James Baldwin. But I had to go with Lauren Bacall.
  • Truman Capote? Wally Cox? Jimmy Carter? No, I’ll go with Shirley Chisholm.
  • Stanley Donen. Doris Day was second. Larry Doby was third.
  • E is a bit scarce. I’m going with George Economou, who turned out to be who I thought he was. If I had remembered who Billie Sol Estes was, he clearly would have been the selection, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to count people I have to look up.
  • Sad but true: Norman Fell
  • Even sadder: I didn’t recognize a single G. Having been clued in, it’s probably a toss-up between Bill Grundy and Bette Nesmith Graham (who should be an N, right?)
  • I gotta go with Buddy Hackett in a tough competition over Al Haig, Benny Hill and Charlton Heston. On the other hand, I’ve never heard Al Haig tell the joke that starts “Two faggots were fucking a dead alligator on a city bus...”
  • I go for Daniel Inouye over Lee Iacocca. I’m that way.
  • At the moment, Maurice Jarre is on the first page, and he’ll be tough to beat ... Hm. J.J. Johnson edges him.
  • I’m going with Ted Kluszewski over Don Knotts and Ed Koch. I still think that baseball card image was foreshortened.
  • Frank Lautenberg over Sidney Lumet, but ask me again tomorrow. Minority report for Jean-Francois Lyotard
  • Robert Mugabe, although he has competition even among crazy African dictators. In other categories, it hurt to pass up Rocky Marciano, and I suspect in a weaker year, Mssrs Mandelbrot, Mancini, Marvin, Mastroianni and Murphy, would be in with a chance, not to mention Big Maybelle
  • Lyn Nofziger. So sue me.
  • O is a weak one. Yuri Orlov? I’m going on to P
  • Bud Powell. Geraldine Page was second, Jacques Pepin third
  • No Qs
  • Hard to turn down Nipsey Russell (not to mention Bill Rehnquist), but for me it’s Al Rosen by a country mile
  • Allen Sherman is in the lead, I think, although Bobby Short got me here in the first place, and then there’s Telly Savalas, Phyllis Schlafly, and George Segal. And Rod Serling.
  • I’m surprised that Margaret Truman rose to the top, but there was limited competition.
  • Leon Uris wins by default, but it’s hard to imagine him out of the top five anyway, right?
  • Atal Bihari Vajpayee edges out Sarah Vaughn and Gloria Vanderbilt in a surprisingly tough letter
  • The Divine Miss W (that’s Dinah Washington) wasn’t bothered by serious competition here, although the likes of Slim Whitman and Ed Wood might disagree
  • No Xs. No surprise
  • I haven’t heard of any of the three legitimate Y names, and I refuse to consider Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia a Y. It’s not just that I don’t recognize their names (like Yuri Orlov), but I seriously had never heard of them. Can I substitute Sal Yvars?
  • Finally, Muhammed Zia ul-Haq wins by default, although I had heard of him. He’s no Benazir Bhutto
OK, that’s that. If you have as much fun reading it as I had compiling it, well, I’ll be surprised.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

February 26, 2005

going, getting, returning

So, Your Humble Blogger was having this little conversation about pilgrimage, and we got to wondering about modern versions. In particular, I’m looking for things that we (mainstreamish Americans) do that involves (a) traveling to a particular place, (2) getting something whilst there (particularly of the tangible remnant variety, not just the commemorative spoon), and (iii) feeling afterward that the visit changed the visitor, with the souvenir of the visit the visible mark of the internal change.

In fact, I was just wondering about the importance of actually visiting anywhere. I get all misty-eyed at Fenway Park, at least until I remember how uncomfortable the seats are. I think, in a sense, some baseball fans make a pilgrimage to Fenway, but I don’t think they come away with any sense other than having done it. Similarly, for baseball fans, the National Baseball Hall of Fame is moving, but not that big a deal. A fan who has not visited the Hall of Fame doesn’t feel inferior, as a fan, to one who has.

The closest thing I could think of is the Vietnam Memorial, where people went and took rubbings, bringing home the paper impression of the names. Do people still do that? Or was it really just the close relatives of the dead, making it a collection of personal pilgrimages rather than an American pilgrimage? And is it just about closure, rather than about personal transformation?

I’ll expand the question, because I think it’s interesting: Where in the US is it important to actually visit in person? By important, I don’t mean important in the sense that everybody should do it, I mean that there is some important difference in physical presence, some reason to travel there. Other than the obvious, I mean, if you don’t actually go to Disneyland, you can’t ride the rides, and that Sidewalks of New York feeling is not easily represented at a distance. Those are, in a sense, technical problems; if you could, then there would be no reason to go. For a pilgrim, there’s something that happens at the pilgrimage site that couldn’t happen anywhere else, and which produces a change in state that couldn’t happen by reading about the site, or seeing it on TV.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

January 29, 2005

sports, days, nights

King Kaufman, who happens to be one of my favorite sportswriters (by which I mean he annoys me less than other ones and occasionally tells me something I didn’t know), recently ruminated on his favorite Sports Days in the year. There were quite a few responses, as you might guess, some of which Mr. Kaufman includes in a more recent column. So. Do I have ten? Because, you see, I’m not so much a sports fan as a baseball fan, so it’s very likely that nine or ten out of the ten will be baseball-related. Still, it’s fun.

First, of course, is Opening Day, the best and holiest day of the year. As Mr. Kaufman said, there’s little point in going on about this. Either you know what I mean, or you don’t.Yes, baseball, and yes, the Giants. Earlier games don’t count, even if they are played in North America and involve the Reds. I’ve only actually attended Opening Day once, in San Francisco in 1993, in outrageously good seats. I went to a game late in Opening Day weekend in Boston, but it wasn’t quite the same. Oh, and it’s Opening Day; night games don’t cut it.

Second is definitely Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April. This is a Boston-specific sport holiday. They play morning baseball (actually starting around eleven, so it’s closer to midday), and when the game is over, as you head up to Kenmore Square, you watch the runners go past. I usually don’t care who wins the Boston Marathon, and besides, they are so ludicrously fast (and the game so leisurely) that they’ve finished long before the game is over. They do show the finish on the JumboTron (or whatever one calls the 21st Century descendant thereof), which is fun. If you have to work, go by Kenmore between five and six; they will still be running. One year I passed the route whilst walking home from work, and was shocked to realize that the losers, the pathetic people trailing in four hours after the winners were awarded their laurel leafs and chowdah were blowing by me.

Third is the Beanpot. If y’all don’t know about the Beanpot, it’s a remarkable thing: there are four Division I hockey teams in Boston/Cambridge/Newton, and they play a tournament every winter. Is there anywhere else in the country where there are four Division I teams in any sport in a metropolitan area? And these are not suburban colleges twenty miles outside of town, these are all on the T (although Harvard is on the Red Line, Northeastern is on the E, and BC is a goodish walk from the end of the line). First Monday in February, there are two games, and on the second Monday there’s a consolation game before the winners play. It’s best when rivals BC and BU play in the final. It’s best when BU wins. Oh, and yes, it was better when they played in the Garden, but it’s still pretty cool to go to the Whatsit Center and see a sold-out college hockey match. Or, this year, any hockey match.

Fourth, I think, is the last day the Giants are in contention. Ideally, of course, this will be Clinch Day, but even if it’s Elimination Day as it was last year, it’s an exciting day. I won’t say I look forward to Elimination Day, but I pay a lot of attention.

Fifth, pitchers and catchers reporting. 18 days, 22 hours, 26 minutes as of ... now.

Sixth, the World Cup final. Let me point out that I don’t actually watch it, but I love being in a city when it happens. The jubilation is beyond belief. Watching the French and the Brazilians abuse each other remains a highlight of city life generally. It would be disappointing for the Americans to win, as their celebration wouldn’t entertain me at all, I suspect. Although, if it’s a pigflyer idea like that anyway, we may as well suppose that if there was an American team good enough to win, I might watch and enjoy the match itself. By the way, I know it’s not an annual event, but rules are not rules in this sort of thing.

Seventh, hmm. I’m running out of ideas. Oh, the NCAA hockey final. For now, I could actually make that the last game the BU Terriers play in the NCAA tournament, but as I grow further from BU, I enjoy the final more, whoever is in it. If I can get it on TV, that is. Hockey GameCast is just annoying, even with audiostreaming radio. And can I get Mike Eruzione on color, please? I can’t explain why watching hockey is improved by having him say “Get the puck in front of the net, and good things happen” but it is.

Eighth is Bay-to-Breakers. Again, I have never watched it, either in person or on TV. I’ve never cared who won. It’s all about the slideshow (or the newspaper) the next day. It’s so Ess Eff.

Ninth is The Game. I don’t care which one. Wherever you are, there’s a The Game. It’s Berkeley/Stanford or Harvard/Yale or Army/Navy. In my current neck-of-the-woods, it’s William&Mary and James Madison University (although really it’s UVA/Tech). I don’t remember what it was in Philadelphia (Penn/Villanova?). If you are actually at a college, this may not be football (ASU/UofA is basketball, and was pathetic twenty years ago and I suppose still is). You know it’s a The Game if the local newspaper interviews the guy who made that play in 1976 every year beforehand. Or if they interview people in another city who either travel back every year for it or set up enormous game-watching parties with alums wearing their colors and looking goofy for the photographer. This, by the way, is another one I can do without watching, I just like the idea of it, and I like the articles in the paper.

What’s ten? Um, well, er, I’ll go with the day back after the All-Star Break. Really the day after that, when I can read box scores again. I loathe the All-Star Break, not because I dislike the game, which is sort-of fun, but because there are three days with no games. Feh.

I was considering other baseball days, of course. The first actual Spring Training game, or at least the first one I listen to over the radio. It’s lovely to hear baseball again after the long winter, and there are often daffodils nearby, which make it extra nice, but the actual games aren’t even remotely interesting, and there are usually a fair number of scrubs playing who are neither Major Leaguers nor prospects. There’s the first Giant-Dodger game of the year, which is always thrilling, but no more so than the others. There’s the Trading Deadline, but that’s more of an annoyance than anything else, despite how much time and effort I put into following the rumors. Fourth of July baseball is great, whether your team is in first or not. I always like Memorial Day, when I do my annual Hope and Faith list. And, I suppose, there’s the last day of the regular season, when the final numbers are posted, the last playoff stuff has been decided, and we can start talking about the awards. Well, start the last phase of talking about them. Do they still do the A’s/Giants day/night double-header? Or did interleague play kill that?

Are there others in other sports? I like to watch the Stanley Cup finals, if there are any. I have an odd fondness for the Head of the Charles regatta, which extends to looking up the winners sometime the following week. I do try to catch some of India/Pakistan Test Matches over the internet. I like the idea of the Masters green jacket, although I couldn’t care less who wins or loses, and I’d pay to be excused from watching. Oh, shoot, I forgot about the Kentucky Derby. Slip that in there sixth, ahead of the World Cup final. I do research before the Derby (tho’ not enough) and by post time have a preferred victor, and I watch the damn thing if I can, and usually watch it several more times by the end of the weekend. The Preakness wouldn’t make the top ten, but the Belmont probably would, maybe ahead of Bay-to-Breakers. The Breeders’ Cup and the Dubai World Cup wouldn’t, although I like to read about them later. If I wind up living somewhere closer to a track, the first day of the racing season might well make the list, although it didn’t at either Golden Gate or Suffolk Downs. Too much competition, I suppose.

What else ... I have a bit of a soft spot for Wimbledon, although if they stopped holding it I probably wouldn’t notice for a few years. I don’t give a crap about the FA Cup. I neither could nor could not care less about March Madness, although I tried betting one year just to see if it made the thing more interesting. I have even less interest in the Super Bowl. I don’t follow the Olympics at all, although I suppose I would watch the hockey if I happened to come across it.

Oh, of course, the Filene’s basement wedding dress sale. Damn, is that on FSNE or NESN this year? Somebody should tape that for me.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

December 12, 2004

Book Report: The Great American Novel

It was probably a mistake to pull The Great American Novel off the shelf for another read-through, but I more or less enjoyed it anyway. Philip Roth must be amused by the idea that if you search Google for “the great American novel” the first thing that comes up is his book. Still, it’s a little too headline-ripped for my taste at the moment. So, for your depression, here’s a little excerpt from the conversation between rookie phenom Roland Agni and seventeen-year-old sabermatrician and chemical genius Isaac Ellis, after Isaac offers Roland some adulterated Wheaties for his last-place teammates.

“But—but, if I feed the boys these Wheaties—is that what you want me to do?”
“Exactly! Every morning, just a little sprinkle!”
“And we win—?”
“Yes! You win!”
“But—that’s be like throwin’ a game.”
“Like what?
“Like throwin’ it. I mean, we’d be winnin’ when we’re supposed to be losin’—and that’s wrong. That’s illegal!”
“Throwing a game, Roland, is losing when you’re supposed to be winning. Winning instead of losing is what you’re supposed to do!”
“But not by eating Wheaties!”
Precisely by eating Wheaties! That’s the whole idea of Wheaties!”
“But that’s real Wheaties! And they don’t make you do it anyway!”
“Then how can they be ‘real’ Wheaties, if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do?”
“That’s what makes them ‘real’!”
“No, that’s what makes them unreal. Their Wheaties say they’re supposed to make you win—and they don’t! My Wheaties say they’re supposed to make you win—and they do! How can that be wrong, Roland, or illegal? That is keeping your promises! That is being true to your word! I am going to make the most hopeless baseball team in history into a team of red-blooded American boys! And you call that ‘throwing a game’? I am talking about winning, Roland, winning—what made this country what it is today! Who in his right mind can be against that?

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

October 28, 2004

Sox don't lose!

... and the best part is when the Yankees come to Fenway, and the guys in the bleachers start chanting “2004! 2004!”

Actually, I didn’t even watch the games. I followed part of each one on Gameday, and read about them afterwards. I’m no longer Bostonian, and I’ve never cared that much about the exhibition games after the season is over (unless the Giants are in them). But, y’know, well done. Woo. Hoo. and wait ’til next year.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

October 2, 2004

90-70, so far

Among the good things about winning last night’s game is the fact that now, whatever happens this afternoon, we start the last day of the season with a chance to play another game. Even if the Giants lose today, and even if the Astros (and the Cubs, I suppose) win, that will only eliminate us from the division and guarantee the Astros a 163rd game. If, following that, the Giants win and the Astros lose, we play that 163rd game.

And, of course, if the Giants win today, then they enter the last day with a chance to be either the division champion or the wildcard, or, of course, to have to go home and paint the garage after 162.

There’s also the fact that an embarrassing sweep by the Hated Ones would have been an awful (although, YHB must admit, not unexpected) way to end the year. And that ‘90 wins’ is as good a definition of any as a good team, and that was our 90th win. So.

One way or another, it has been an exciting season to be a Giants fan.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 22, 2004

Fall fell fill foll full

Didja all have a nice equinox, Gentle Readers? I think the idea of claiming that Fall commences with the equinox is pretty silly (and winter begins on Midwinter Day, right?) but hereabouts it does seem to be just tipping over into Autumn. Which isn’t news, but the two things I was thinking vaguely about blogging (this Air Force Times summary of the Nat’l Guard story, interesting mostly by being in the Air Force Times, and this hysterically funny parody of David “there are three kinds of people in the world: those who can do simple arithmetic and those who can’t” Brooks) both got picked up by A-list bloggers, and I didn’t have anything interesting to say about them other than thinking they were, you know, worth linking to.

Oh, and the Giants are a game and a half back. And really a half-game ahead in the wildcard, now. We’ll probably still have to go home and paint the garage after 162, but I’m getting my money’s worth out of September.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 18, 2004

No, not that 700 club

Yes, possibly the best hitter ever. Certainly the most feared. But the point is, we beat the Padres, and are still on course for my Path to the Postseason.

Sadly, the Cubs are not co-operating; they have won five in a row, and I hope they have won the admiration of baseball fans. Let there be no talk of curses, but on the other hand the kind of non-goat-related collapse that V.I. Warshawski has been dreading for months would come in handy just now. On the other other hand, it would be extra sweet to beat LA for the division title if it means they have to go home and paint the garage after 162.

By the way, can we just take the whole conversation about the wild card, and the unbelievably exciting Sox-Yanx series being demeaned, and the upcoming Dodger-Giant battle being demeaned, and all, as assumed? Day by day, I'm having a lot of fun, but not as much fun as eleven years ago.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 15, 2004

More baseball, I'm afraid

Yes, I’m focusing on baseball, mostly because there are three weeks left in the season, and every game seems to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. Really, these games don’t count any more than the ones in May, and if we’d won some more of those, we’d be cruising now. But never mind, here we are.

My Giants are one loss behind the Cubs for the wild card; the standings say we’re half-a-game ahead, because we have two more wins, but if the Cubs win all the rest of their games, we can’t catch them. I’d call that a Cubs lead. Florida has the same number of losses as the Giants, but four fewer wins; Houston is a legitimate game back with one more loss and one more win. San Diego is behind them (three losses and three wins behind SF). We still have three to play against Houston and six against San Diego; the Cubs play two against Florida.

Anyway, it seems obvious to me that in this five-team scrum, somebody is going to break out. Some team is going to win thirteen out of their last seventeen, or fifteen out of their last twenty. Fearless prediction: the wildcard will have more than ninety wins. That may be the Giants, but here’s the thing: in addition to the nine games we play against wildcard competitors, we play six against the division leading team from down south. And we’re only five losses behind them.

What I’m saying is this. If the Giants are going to make the playoffs, they’re going to need to win twelve or thirteen games to do it. Say we sweep the Brewers: that’s two. Of the six against the Padres, we take four or five. Of the three against Houston, we take two. That’s eight or nine wins out of eleven, which means that not only have we knocked the Astros and the Padres out of it, but we’ve at least held our own against the Cubs and Marlins. It also means, though, that we’ve held our own against the Dodgers, and we still need to take four or five out of six. And if we do that ...

Another way of looking at it: if I’m right, the Giants will either have something like 92 wins or not make the playoffs. If we sweep the Dodgers, they would have to win eight of their other twelve games to stay in first. If we win five of six, they would need seven of twelve. They may well do it (they’ve won 84 of 144 so far this year, which is, um, seven of twelve), but they may not.

On one level, of course, it doesn’t much matter whether we win the division and start the playoffs on the road in Atlanta or win the wildcard and start the playoffs on the road in St. Louis. We’re not the best team in the league, and I fully expect either team would beat us handily. And, after all, in a short series anything can happen. So perhaps it’s best to focus on simply getting to play more than 162 games. But another way of looking at it is this: it doesn’t really matter what the Cubs do. Yes, if they win all the rest of their games, they win the wildcard. But if we win all the rest of ours, we win the division.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 13, 2004

MVP

With two weeks left in the season, a baseball fan is supposed to make some wild claims for who deserves which awards. So here goes, for the MVP; I’ll try and make an attempt at the Cy Young award soon.

Well, and how do I figure out this one? The first step, for me, is to get a list of ten or so of the best players. One good way to do this is via the Baseball Prospectus and their EqA and RARP table. EqA is an attempt to make a single metric for offensive production which accounts for context, such as whether the hitter plays in a pitchers’ park or a hitters’ park, and so on. RARP is how much better a player is than the others at his position, purely in terms of offense. Anyway, I pick off ten names from that list. Then I look at their stats, primarily OBP and SLG, but also counting stats and RBIs (which I know are team-dependent, but show actual hits in useful situations). I’ll probably look at home-away splits. Most years, I’ll narrow it down to a few players based on those, probably each one at a different position, and it’ll be a case of deciding between those players. My tiebreakers are defense, which is mostly anecdotal as I don’t trust the metrics, and if RBIs come into play the rate numbers with runners in scoring position, and then the really context-based matter of how much the games counted. That last will only really come into play if I’m stuck between two and I can’t really decide.

Anyway, here’s the initial list:

AL: Melvin Mora, Ichiro! Suzuki, Carlos Guillen, Vlad Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Eric Chavez, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, Miguel Tejada

NL: Barry. Also, Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, J.D. Drew, Mark Loretta, Scott Rolen, Lance Berkman, Todd Helton, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Beltran, Hideki Matsui?

And here are my thoughts as I narrow down:

AL: Manny Ramirez seems to be pretty clearly the best hitter in the league again. Gary Sheffield and Vlad Guerrero are up there too. This Travis Hafner is pretty good too, hunh? But if I’m looking for a reason not to give it to Manny, it’ll be his defense, and Hafner’s a DH, so Manny still has a very slight edge, there. Does Gary Sheffield or Vlad Guerrero make up the gap in fielding? I’d guess not, but I’m not sure. Anyway, there are three very good outfielders, all pretty close to one another. Any other positions? Tempting to keep Pudge in the running, too, but he’s not that much better than the other catchers. Melvin Mora had a hell of a year at third base, as did Eric Chavez, but Chavez missed a lot of games. Carlos Guillen had a hell of a year at shortstop, much better than Miggy Tejada. There aren’t any standout second basemen; David Ortiz DH’d too much for me to want to give it to him over one of the outfielders who hits just as well.

So, I guess I’m left with Manny Ramirez, the best hitter but a bad fielder at an easy position. I have a sense that Carlos Guillen is a good fielder, at a hard position, and Melvin Mora a below-average one at a pretty hard position. I’m inclined, slightly to call Carlos Guillen a tad more valuable, but it’s really close. Manny’s got great ‘clutch’ stats, too. Hmph. Maybe, um. Oh, heck, Manny. No, Carlos. No, Manny. Oh, hell with it.

NL: Damn, he’s good. There’s just no way that he’s a bad enough fielder, and Scott Rolen a good enough one, to make up for a gap like that. And just for fun, with Runners in Scoring Position, Barry Bonds has a SLG of .969—remember, that doesn’t count the one hundred walks. Entertainingly, it looks like Barry has come to the plate 164 times with runners in scoring position and has 64 AB out of it, and Scott Rolen has come to the plate 161 times with runners in scoring position and has 144 AB out of it. One way to look at it—Rolen has 42 more RBI in those situations, so he’s done a better job of knocking people in, which is important for winning games. Another way—Rolen has 52 more outs, so he’s done a much worse job of keeping rallies going. Anyway, I’m just amusing myself with numbers, here, because nobody is as valuable as Barry Bonds this year. Again.

But the most important thing, I think, is who the awards should be named after. It seems dopey to have the pitchers’ award named after Cy Young, but the MVP not named after anybody. How about the NL MVP being the Hank Aaron award, and the AL the Babe Ruth award? Or maybe it would be better to celebrate high peaks for a single-season award like that, and call it the Rogers Hornsby and the Ted Williams? I don’t know. Your suggestions welcomed.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 10, 2004

A Fan's Life (for half-an-hour)

Your Humble Blogger is a baseball fan. I know some of my Gentle Readers are fans, and some are not. For those who are not, here’s a taste of what it’s like. I’ll probably bore those of you who are already fans, since I’m trying, here, to talk to people who don’t know anything. By the way, I started writing this two weeks ago, now, so some of the stuff in it is kind of old, but the point is to give an impression of a half-hour or so of fandom, rather than to release breaking news about the baseball season.

Last week, on the 29th of August, my Giants played the Braves, in Atlanta. In the sixth inning (out of nine), the Giants were ahead five to three, which is a nice lead but not an insurmountable one. The Braves are trying to “stay in the game”, which means stay within three runs or so. The Giants are trying to “put this one away”, by which we mean getting a lead of five or more runs, making it hard for the Braves to catch up. It’s getting late in the game, so things are getting urgent. The Giants have already taken out their starting pitcher, and have a relief pitcher in; the Braves starter is still in.

Let’s put the game in context. It’s the 29th of August. The Braves are leading their division pretty handily, and are certain to make the playoffs. The Giants, on the other hand, are well behind in their division; they are “five-and-a-half games back”, which means that they need to win six more games than the division leader before the end of the season thirty games from now in order to catch up. There is also a Wild-Card spot in the playoffs; the Giants after the Cubs and Padres games earlier in the day, the Giants are a half-game back, which means if they win this game, they will be tied. In short, the Braves can afford to lose this game, but the Giants can’t.

Now, the sixth inning starts. Marquis Grissom, our elderly (thirty-eight) right-fielder leads off with a single. Russ Ortiz, the Braves pitcher, walks Dustin Mohr, which puts him on first base, and moves Marquis Grissom to second. Rally, rally. Now, it’s our pitcher’s turn to come to the plate. Jason Christensen is a relief pitcher, who rarely holds a bat; pitchers are notoriously bad hitters, and relief pitchers even more so. So if he comes to the plate, it will almost certainly be an out. Three outs to an inning, twenty-seven to the game. Outs are the equivalent of a game clock; when you run out of outs, the inning or the game is over. So, the Giants manager, Felipe Alou, pinch-hits for Jason Christensen.

OK, pinch-hitting. In baseball, once somebody has been in a game and left, that person is through. You can’t come back off the bench later in the game. There are twenty-five players on the roster; eight of them are on the field at their positions, one (our starting pitcher) has already left, and one (our relief pitcher) is leaving. In addition, there are four starting pitchers who are not available, since they either are still resting from a recent game or are needed for the next game or two. So, our bullpen has 6 pitchers, and our bench has 5 players. Felipe Alou has decided to decrease the odds of making an out here and now, at the expense of having more options later. So he sends Ricky Ledee up to the plate. Ricky Ledee is a bad hitter, having a streak of outs that is absolutely atrocious, but he’s got a better chance than Jason Christensen. I’d guess he has a maybe a one in three chance at getting on base. Maybe less.

At this point, the Braves manager, Bobby Cox, decides that Russ Ortiz is through, and replaces him. They send Tom Martin in as their relief pitcher. He’s trying, of course, to maximize his chances of getting an out here, as with two men on base, a hit is likely to score a run. So they bring in a left-handed pitcher, to face our left-handed batter. Because of the way the pitch comes across the pitcher’s body, and the way the batter stands, right-handed pitchers, in general, do better against right-handed batters than lefties, and vice versa, and so on. Since Ricky Ledee hits lefty, they put in a lefty. Tom Martin isn’t a very good lefty, but he’s a lefty, and Ricky Ledee has only, say, a thirty-percent chance to get on base against him.

I’m listening on the radio (through the internet). When there’s a pitching change, the new pitcher has a chance to warm up, and the broadcasters have a chance to go to commercial. I go in to the kitchen and get a cup of tea. On the radio, people are urging me to buy local Atlanta stuff. I come back and wait. The suspense is killing me.

Felipe Alou pinch-hits for Ricky Ledee with Cody Ransom. Now the lefty-righty matchup favors the Giants again. Cody Ransom also can’t hit; he’s got about a thirty-percent chance of getting on base as well. Actually, he has a more pronounced lefty-righty split than most, so it’s possible that against a lefty (such as Tom Martin), he may have as much as a forty-percent chance of getting on base. Remember what’s going on: men on first and second, the Giants lead by two in the sixth, if the Giants lose this game they fall behind in the wild-card race, and further behind in their division. I’m drinking tea. Ricky Ledee has gone out of the game; we now have only 3 players left on the bench. One of them is the backup catcher, by the way. We only have one backup catcher, and if we use him up and our starting catcher gets hurt, we’re in trouble, so Yorvit Torrealba is not an option in the sixth. So really, after this set of maneuvers, we’re down to two players on the bench.

Now, Tom Martin pitches to Cody Ransom, and Cody Ransom bunts. What does that mean? It’s a ‘sacrifice’, a deliberate attempt to make an out in a particular way, moving the runners up. The batter hits the ball softly, making the infielders come in to get it, leaving nobody to cover the base while the runners advance, meaning that the only out is the easy one at first. It’s a trade. You give up one of the three outs in the inning to advance the runners. You only want to do it, in my opinion, if there’s a good chance of an out anyway, and as I said, Cody Ransom had a good chance of making an out anyway. But, um, couldn’t Ricky Ledee have made that sacrifice? For that matter, couldn’t Jason Christianson have done it? Now, we’ve got two more men out of the game, and an out. I am, quietly and with dignity, screaming at the radio.

Next man to the plate is Ray Durham, a good hitter. Bobby Cox walks him intentionally. This is a sort of sacrifice on the defensive side; they give up a chance to get him out (Ray Durham will get on base around 35% of the time), but they won’t give up a run, since first base is empty. They do get a couple of benefits (increased chance of a double-play, a force play at the plate makes it easier to get the out there, which would prevent a run scoring), but they have a couple of drawbacks as well (a walk drives in a run, a double might score three instead of two) and, most important, they have given a free pass. Ray Durham won’t make an out. I am, quietly and with dignity, mocking Bobby Cox, who can’t hear me.

The next batter is J.T. Snow, who has been hitting very well lately, but hits lefties particularly badly. This is the match-up that Bobby Cox wanted when he walked Ray Durham; it’s probably the match-up he wanted when he put Tom Martin in two batters ago. Most batters have a difference lefty-righty, but J.T. Snow has a pronounced difference. Stinks on ice is the technical term. (Remember that the Giants could have pinch-hit for him, but the obvious choice of pinch-hitter, Cody Ransom, was used up bunting already). So. Strike one, called (he didn’t swing, but the umpire says it’s in the strike zone). Ball One. Ball Two. Strike Two, called. Ball Three. Have I mentioned that the Giants really need to win this one? He doesn’t swing at the next pitch either, and it’s called Strike Three. I respond quietly, and with dignity, and make my language fit for those around me (the Perfect Non-Reader is in for her nap).

Now there are two outs; one out left in the inning. Bases loaded. Pedro Feliz up. And Bobby Cox pulls Tom Martin, to have Kevin Gryboski face him. Righty-Righty. You know. Back to the kitchen for more tea. More ads for local Atlanta stores. More quiet dignity. More suspense.

Pedro Feliz steps in against Kevin Gryboski with the bases loaded and two outs. And here, Gentle Reader, is where I’ll bring up the thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while whilst listening, that Bobby Cox and Felipe Alou have been thinking about, and that the baseball fans among you will have seen coming: Barry Bonds is the next batter. For the non-fans among you who manage to ignore the game entirely, Barry Bonds is the best hitter in baseball this year, was the best hitter in baseball last year and the year before and the year before that. Not only is he the best slugger, but (and this is key) he is the hardest to get out. If Barry Bonds comes up this inning, with men on base, there is a very good chance runs are going to score, and the Giants are going to take a very nice lead. On the other hand, Happy Pete (as I call him) is a reasonably good hitter but scarcely certain to get on base. And Kevin Gryboski is really pretty good against right-handed hitters. So if they get him out, the inning is over, and Barry doesn’t bat until the seventh, when there will be nobody on base. If they can’t get him out, not only will at least one run score now, but Barry Bonds will be in a position to crack the game wide open.

Digression: If we wanted to pinch-hit with a lefty, here, to get a better match-up we would use, let’s see, Ricky Ledee. Oh, no, so sorry, he was used up earlier this inning, remember? We do have one other lefty, Michael Tucker, but somebody would have to replace Happy Pete at third base, which we could do with Edgardo Alfonso, except that he’s being given an off-day to rest. Mssrs Tucker, Alfonso and the aforementioned back-up catcher Torrealba are the only remaining Giants on the bench at this point. A good radio announcer will mention things like who is on the bench, and what the managers’ options are, but it’s nice to have all the details and stats available on-line as I’m listening as well. End Digression.

So. Giants are ahead five to three. Bases loaded. Two outs. Kevin Gryboski, right-handed relief pitcher faces Pedro Feliz, right-handed batter. Ball One. Ball Two. Remember, a walk not only brings home a run (and a three-run lead) but brings Barry Bonds up with the bases loaded. Did I mention that Barry Bonds hit a single his first time up? Or that he hit a home run his second? Or that he hit another home run his third? No? Let’s go on, as is YHB’s wont, quietly and with dignity.

Strike One. Damn. Next pitch.

A soft ground ball to Chipper Jones at third! He has no play! Safe all round!!!! Giants six, Braves three, and here ... comes ... Barry! Bar-ry! Bar-ry! And here’s the pitch... through the infield for a hit! Dustan Mohr scores! Ray Durham rounds third and scores! The Giants lead eight � three! Hurray! This game is ours! Haha! Hahahahahaha!

Um. I’ll save y’all most of the rest. A.J. Pierzynski strikes out to end the inning; the Giants ultimately win 9 to 5. You’ve got the idea. This was the most exciting half-inning, but it was only one-half inning out of eighteen; this was a fairly exciting game, but it was one game out of a hundred and sixty-two. I don’t listen to every game, but I listen to as many as I can. This year I’ve listened to about forty, I’d guess. In 1993, I listened to, watched on tv, or attended something in the area of 120 games. Most of them have some moments like the top of the sixth, 29th August, 2004. Some of them were much, much more exciting.

                                          ,
-Vardibidian.

July 13, 2004

All-Star Break

Your Humble Blogger is far out of baseball country, but the All-Star Break is here, and besides I haven’t been reading any other news either, so it’s time for the Hope and Faith report. Now, I don’t actually care very much about ‘competitive imbalance’; not only did I never think there was much of a problem, but I wouldn’t actually care very much if there was. I’d like to get rid of bad owners, of whom there are more than a couple, but I have no particular interest in making sure that each team only wins one World Series every thirty years. I say this as a Giants fan; my Giants haven’t won a World Series since well before I was born, and I’m clam-happy. So there.

Also, I loathe the wildcard, so the fact that Hope and Faith includes the wild card makes my argument a trifle kaleidoscopish; I’m using something I would happily abolish to argue that a problem I don’t care about doesn’t actually exist. Still, I’ve been doing it for years, now, so here we go again. In the Senior Circuit, there are four teams whose fans may now give up hope: the Pirates, Les Expos d’Norfolk, the Rockies, and the Eighteen-and-a-half-backs. Those teams suck. For the Diamondbacks, sucking is a new thing; after a bad expansion year, they have been over .500 every year, and made the playoffs three years out of five. Oh, and they won a World Series. So that’s all right.

The Rockies, well, they are going through a rough patch. They’ve been sub-.500 five of the last six years, and haven’t made the playoffs since 1995. This isn’t close to a historic stretch of uselessness, but it is dispiriting, particularly as the owners aren’t totally incompetent, nor are they clearly refusing to invest in a good team on the field. There isn’t a structural problem, though; the Rockies are in a Big Market (whatever that means), and should come out of it soon.

Les Expos d’Norfolk are, well, that’s just sad. I mean. One bad owner, then another, then thirty at once. There ought to be a law. If there is any reason to support drastic changes to MLB’s structure, it is these hapless real-life Rupert Mundies, and the fans thereof. Exhibit number one on the get-rid-of-crap-owners case was Mr. Loria; and I know he’s had different results on the field elsewhere. He’s still a bad ’un. I still think that Montreal is a Major League city, and that therefore there should be a team there with a competent owner who is willing to invest, but if MLB can’t or won’t find that owner, well, what can be done.

And the Pirates. Well, they were awfully good in the 1970s, weren’t they? Can’t we focus on that? Seriously, if there is any town that was once Major League, and is no longer, and therefore justifies having a team removed from it, that town is Pittsburgh. It is simply not a Major League town anymore. That doesn’t excuse bad owners and worse GMs wasting money on long-term contracts for losers; they could be occasionally competitive, and they haven’t been for five years. Still, it’s hard to believe that the Pirates will be more than occasionally competitive ever again. Sorry.

Houston fans, by the way, should not be giving up hope and faith, despite the fact that they will not make the postseason this year. They are four and a half out of the wildcard, and playing .500; an injury or two to St. Louis and they could even win the division. They won’t, of course, but the point is not that everybody gets to root for a winner every year, just that everybody gets to delude themselves that their team might win, right?

The American League is probably more dire. Kansas City may well be, like Pittsburgh, no longer Major League, but then with the filth running the team there is no way to really know. Baltimore has finished fourth for six years running and has to hope for a seventh; Toronto was good for a long time without ever sniffing even the wildcard. That’s a brutal division, and it sounds like a structural problem, and if it goes on for another ten years, I will admit that it is one. Seattle is having its first hopeless year in a while so the coffee-suckers have no cause to complain. Tampa Bay fans, I think, are the only others in the Junior Circuit that should give up now, and they have some reason to start thinking about next year.

Anyway, that’s nine teams out of thirty who are out of contention now; by my math that’s twenty-one teams still in it. By the way, those twenty-one all have some chance of winning the division. Chicago, Cincinnati and Milwaukee have to hope for St. Louis to fade, but that’s likely enough. Cleveland and Detroit are in worse shape, but they are as likely to win the division as the wildcard; if either gets hot, it will probably be against teams in the division, and will stack up losses in those columns. Boston, perhaps, is the team playing for the wildcard, but that has as much to do with psychology than the standings and schedule. They have nine games left against the Yankees, six at home; if they win even six of those, they are in it for the division title.

My point is not that there’s no reason for anyone to complain. Complaining is an important part of being a fan. My point is that there are only four teams which seems to be Problems: Les Expos, due to more than a decade of bad ownership; the Royals and Pirates, due to both bad ownership and the decline of their home towns; and the Rockies, whose problems may have to do with physics being tricky. The Orioles, Devil Rays and Bluejays are unlucky, certainly, and I sympathize, but don’t think that will last much longer. Competitive imbalance, whatever that actually is, doesn’t seem to be preventing most of the teams (twenty-six or at least twenty-three out of thirty) from being competitive most years.

And that’s just focusing on Hope and Faith; in almost every other way, this is the Golden Age of Baseball as well. We have astonishingly good players; Clemens and Bonds are far more dominant than anyone in YHB’s youth, and Maddux and Albert and others are pretty damn good, too. I can listen to radio broadcasts whilst overseas, and replay individual at bats by clicking on the box score. I have more information in better format than my father had at my age, or his father before him. Well, his uncle. Anyway, baseball’s in pretty good shape, no matter what the Commissioner tells you.

In short, go Giants!
-Vardibidian.

May 29, 2004

Book Report: The Thrill of the Grass

Your Humble Blogger is a pretty big W.P. Kinsella fan, so it shouldn’t be at all surprising that I liked the collection The Thrill of the Grass (NY: Penguin 1985). I liked some stories more than others, of course. “The Battery” is a terrific example of the sort of thing people call his magical realism; it’s right up there with the Baseball Wolf in my favorites. It’s goofy, sure, but its goofiness works; the goofiness in “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon” and “How I Got My Nickname” doesn’t, so much. Mostly, though, this collection is like the stuff of his I don’t like quite so much, the quiet stories of bush-leaguers (in more than one sense) and their girlfriends, stories of love, usually, and of love gone, and of love gone sour. “Nursie” and “Driving toward the Moon” and even “The Firefighter” belong in that category; it’s not a category of stories I seek out on a regular basis. Heck, I’ll usually skip them in the New Yorker. These have, usually, just enough baseball to slip me into their world, and I like them all right, once I’m there.

The best story in the collection is the title one, though, a perfect evocation of being a baseball fan in the world. Mr. Kinsella can squeeze out the sweet disappointment of baseball better than anyone I’ve ever read; not only the disappointment of losing, but the disappointment of growing up and not being Mickey Mantle, and even the disappointment of growing up and finding out what the Mick was really like.

It’s set during the midsummer of 1981, and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it, or even for those of you who haven’t read it for years. It isn’t really about the plot, anyway, it’s about the “ritual for true believers”, about the oddly magnificent, simple liturgy of baseball. It’s about how things always used to be, and how much baseball is a part of that myth. “Baseball is meant to be played on summer evenings and Sunday afternoon, on grass just cut by a horse-drawn mower,” says one of the characters, and I sympathize with his stupid, reactionary, imaginary, ahistorical nonsense, because I want that to be how baseball is meant to be played. Not really, not when I’m thinking about it, any more than I want a just, wise king.

Or, one supposes, any more than the fellow in the other story really wanted his father to come back from the dead and have a catch.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

May 18, 2004

Perfection

Oh, well done, Big Unit. I'm happy for you, and for baseball.

By the way, it turns out than YHB can enjoy baseball even when the Giants stink.

March 28, 2004

Blogroll, of sorts

Your Humble Blogger doesn’t have a blogroll, nor need one, I think. But the news that The Invisible Adjunct is hanging up the old keyboard reminds me that I’ve been meaning to note down a few blogs I read and enjoy.

The problem is, after spending a day and a half between that last sentence and this one, I really only have a very few, and most of those I have, I have already mentioned in this Tohu Bohu more than once.

I look at the Daily Kos every day. I look at the main column, read the intros, and then scan the diaries to the right (at least, that’s how it’s set up on my screen). I maybe read three actual entries a day. Kos himself writes with the snarky tone that I associate with blogs generally; DHinMI is even more snarky, but tends to get a bit deeper into topics, tho’ still without much value added except his style. The analysis is dreadful, but they do draw my attention to stories I would otherwise not get until the next day. In addition, the group there acts as a sort of focus group, picking which outrages to get het up over, and which to sneer at, and which to more or less let go. It’s an interesting attempt to form an actual on-line community; I hope somebody’s studying it for a dissertation.

I’ve mentioned Nathan Newman in this Tohu Bohu a few times; his blog is outstanding. He focuses mostly on labour issues, but his reactions to current political events are historically informed, well-written, and not altogether predictable. He appears to understand the way politics works, and is a pragmatist. He and I share a good many assumptions (though we come to different conclusions on specifics fairly often). Also, he writes clearly, which is a plus. It’s really a terrific blog, but he hasn’t built up a decent community in the comments section. Which is too bad, really.

Rhetorica is my favorite blog in the blogger-I’ve-never-met category. Andrew Cline is interested in the use of rhetoric, the reporting of rhetoric, journalism, the presidency, the public interest, and the public. It’s an endlessly fascinating subject (ok, it’s endlessly fascinating to YHB) about which he writes with both insight and wit. Half his entries I wish I could have written myself, and half are things I never would have thought of, and require a good deal of thinking before I can agree or disagree with them. Again here, he would benefit from a dozen or so regular correspondents, but that’s scarcely his fault. He responds to comments quickly and gently, but seems to have few long-term readers with whom to have an ongoing dialogue. My own comments there are generally fawning in nature, which doesn’t really help.

The Blogging of the President is an attempt, I think, to form a community of well-read, well-spoken people to discuss the campaign in great depth. In my arrogant opinion, it hasn’t succeeded yet, and I doubt it will, but it’s an interesting attempt. The bit that is most active is the BOPNews blog with regular posts from a half-dozen or so people who are, for the most part, intelligent, well-informed, and interesting, if pretentious and annoying (about which YHB can hardly complain about). Also, it’s pretty clearly dissolved from a blog about, well, about the Blogging of the President to a pretty random blog without a brief. I still check it, and on rare occasion post to it.

Clutch Hits, over at the Baseball Primer, has been my favorite baseball blog/chat site for a couple of years, but I’ve drifted away during this off-season. In a month or two, they are going to a registration-based system, which might help entice me back, but what will really get me back is the opening of the season, and (I hope) more discussion about the teams and the players.

While I’m on the baseball topic, I check the fairly new Phillies Foul Balls pretty frequently; the writer is an old college buddy, a good writer, and a good baseball guy. It’s a specific Phillies site, though, so prepare to be depressed (haw, haw). Good, decent, Giants fans can check Westwood Blues and Waiting for Boof, both of which are entertaining, if you know what they’re talking about.

On a more personal note, I of course read my gracious host, and enjoy it tremendously, and I would certainly read my servermate, PoI, if Dan would post now and then.

Other old college buddies have Livejournals; for now I approximate the friends list by using irilyth’s list, which in addition to irilyth himself, has gannet, whose magnificent journal I’ve mentioned in the past, along with several others, whose journals are mostly of interest to those who know and care about them. I sometimes refer to these as ham-and-eggs journals, as the journalist may well post more or less the information we might have conversed about if we lived on the same block, such as what he or she had for breakfast. I’m terribly glad that some of my friends have ’em, as I’m such a terrible correspondent.

There are others I look at now and then. I’ve just started reading John Scalzi’s Whatever, which appears to be entertaining. Alas, a Blog is enjoyable. Jeanne, at Body and Soul,lets her character come through very well, in a political blog. For some reason, I do read Margaret Cho’s blog despite finding it more annoying than amusing. I’ve just noted Easily Distracted, which I’m hoping becomes worth reading regularly.

That’s pretty much it. And I’m not, on the whole, looking for more. Suggestions would of course be appreciated, but I may not manage to follow them up. I know there are brilliant, entertaining, compelling, challenging blogs out there which would knock my proverbial socks off, but there are brilliant, entertaining, compelling, challenging books, too, and my brilliant, entertaining, compelling, challenging Best Reader to spend a life with, and my brilliant, entertaining, compelling, challenging Non-Reader to be raised, and brilliant, entertaining, compelling, challenging meals to be eaten as well, and brilliant, entertaining, compelling, challenging naps to be, er, well.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

November 14, 2003

steroids, and attitudes

Your Humble Blogger has been, for his sins, reading a thread about steroids over at Baseball Primer. There are interesting things about the discussion (along with the usual noise) but it occurred to me that people's attitudes about steroid use in sports can be, perhaps, a window in to more general attitudes.

In the discussion between, say, 'cmr' and 'Steve Treder', I noticed that they did, in fact, agree on much of the universe. They both appear to think that the use of steroids to enhance performance is, on the whole, a Bad Thing, and that any system which is set up to force young men to make a decision between long-term health and short-term success is unfortunate. I don't even think they disagree on whether steroid use (without a doctor's approval, predicated on medical need rather than competitive desire) should be legal. The question is what steps should be taken to decrease the dangerous use of steroids and reduce the health risks. One side is for testing everybody and punishing those who break the ban. A different take is to provide counseling and information for everybody, and use combinations of social pressure, education, and supply-side enforcement.

Is this the argument about steroids or about abortion? I mean, most people think abortion is wrong, but differ about how best to reduce it, and whether (and how) to punish those that resort to it. Many people think the use of marijuana is wrong, but don't want criminal charges brought against recreational users. Prostitution is dangerous, morally and emotionally degrading, and exploitative, and it's illegal in most places, but lots of people want to deal with it in a different manner. People certainly should wear protective gear whilst motorcycling, but that does not mean that everyone agrees that we should enforce laws mandating it.

I think it's a bias, a mood, a mindset. Lots of people are simply reluctant to ban a substance or activity, even if it's bad. Others see the force of law as a useful tool to achieve ends, and are perplexed by reluctance to use that tool. Just something I was reminded of.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

October 16, 2003

Big Game

Well, and Pedro meets Clemens tonight for the pennant. This is something we won't see again, baseball fans. Mr. Career Value (and quite possibly the best Career Value in a hundred years) against Mr. Peak Value (who may well clutch his shoulder after any pitch, be carried off the field, and never play ball again). Neither of them are at their absolute best this year, but if Grandaddy says he saw Lefty Grove pitch against Walter Johnson, do you ask whether they were having their best years? And the Rocket is having a better year than the Train did in 1927, and Pedro's ERA this year is better than Lefty's was in 1927.

And then there's the whole Sox/Yankees thing, which even more than usual has the class undertones. A tuxedo-clad Yankee team faces a cowboy-booted Sox team that shaves the tops of their heads but not their chins. The Yankees, you feel, are most likely to be indicted for insider trading, while the Sox are more likely to be beaten by off-duty cops in a bar brawl. And, you know, the Sox. The Yankees. Bucky Fucking Dent.

So. I'm not predicting a pitcher's duel—heck, I'm not predicting anything, except that Clemens is unlikely to wear Ninja Turtle shoelaces. Enjoy the game, y'all.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

Why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball just ONE foot higher?

September 24, 2003

Baseball

OK, there's less than a week left of the baseball season, and there's been a ton of excitement. Last night, the three divisions in the American League all got clinched (well, the Yankees clinched a tie), and the wildcard races widened (sorry Jeff). It's been a terrific season (particularly for Giants fans such as Your Humble Blogger).

Meanwhile, this terrific year has occasioned lots of argument between wild-card enthusiasts and opponents. I number among the opponents, as it happens, but it occurred to me this morning that many of the arguments arise, in part, from disagreement about what the wildcard is intended to do, rather than whether it accomplishes its goals.

First, of course, the wildcard is intended to increase revenues for Major League Baseball. It has. On the whole, I don't care.

Second, the wildcard is intended increasing attendance (and ratings) for games in September. It does appear to have done that; I haven't really looked at the numbers, but I am told by people I think are pretty reliable that the September numbers have gone up. I don't know whether this comes at the expense of July numbers, but judging from the overall gate success of major league teams, there isn't much to complain about.

Third, I suppose, the wildcard is supposed to counter the alleged competitive imbalance in baseball. The main problem with this is that there isn't actually any competitive imbalance in baseball, or not enough to do anything about. There are currently no well-run teams that have not competed for a division title in the last three years. That's somewhat tautological, as it would be easy to look at any team that's been below .500 the last three years and conclude that it is badly managed. On the other hand, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Texas, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego, Colorado, and Milwaukee have all actually been badly run (with the possible exceptions of San Diego, which is rebuilding and had some bad luck, and Cincinnati, which had brutal luck and preferred to toss the towel rather than compete). Fans of the other seven have enjoyed a lovely combination of refusal to invest in the current team with foolish investment in overpriced veterans and, in many cases, pathetic handling of the farm system, leading to a team that is neither competing nor rebuilding, and feh to them.

Of course, once you start looking at competitive balance, you run into another set of definition problems: is the problem the teams that do well every year, or the teams that do poorly every year? Is the problem that there aren't enough teams in the pennant races, or that the races resolve themselves early?

There is another issue, which the wildcard is (I think) not meant to address but which comes up in the arguments. Is the winner of the World Series the Best Team in Baseball? Is that important? Is it fair? One of the complaints that I have (and many the anti-wildcard gang have) is that it increases the chances that a team who shouldn't even be in the playoffs will win the World Series. That is largely subjective, of course; there are many people who would argue that the Angels were, in fact, the Best Team in Baseball (or at least the American League) last year, while I would say that as they couldn't beat the A's, they weren't even the best team in their division, and so (arguing from the lesser to the greater) weren't the Best Team in Baseball.

My point is that the wildcard is not intended to ensure that the Best Team in Baseball wins the World Series; it was not devised or implemented by people who particularly care whether the Best Team in Baseball wins the World Series, and so my complaint about it goes right past its intent. Not that my complaint is therefore invalid; but it won't necessarily be persuasive.

August 4, 2003

Looking here, looking there ...

On Baseball Primer's Clutch Hits, every month or two somebody posts something like "Miguel Tejada is better then Nomar Garciaparra; you have to see him every day to know how good he is." Thirty or forty posters then respond that to compare the two, you would have to see them both every day, or neither. It's a pretty basic human perception thing; I do it all the time myself, but it gets up my nose when someone else does it.

The Daily Kos did it recently when Kos more or less endorsed Gov. Dean. I don't object to the endorsement; but in it he says:

The formula to Dean's success is simple: He speaks like a Democrat, particularly the part about opposing Republicans. That resonates with those of us who saw DLC-types lead our party to disaster in 2002.
"Don't attack Bush!" say the frightened DLCers. "He's too popular!"

This (and other language) suggests that the other candidates are reticent about Our Only President. I don't know why, but I've noticed that most people who support one candidate or another seem to think that the other candidates are too reticent about attacking Pres. Bush. Bob Graham is certainly not reticent, as his home page has links to him "blaming" and "blasting" the president. Dick Gephardt talks incessantly about the administration's "failed" economic plans. John Kerry is starting an online petition to "oppose President Bush's plan for lower pay, longer hours, and unpredictable work schedules." Sen. Kerry is also scarcely reticent about other aspects of the administration's failure. Rep. Kucinich, Carol Mosely Braun and Rev. Sharpton are, as you would expect, frank and forthright in their opinions. The only candidate I would characterize as reluctant to criticize Pres. Bush is John Edwards.

This is not to denigrate Gov. Dean. Heck, I don't even know at this point whether I prefer the positive tactics of Sen. Edwards. It just struck me as a good example of the cognitive problem. If you are following Howard Dean closely, it likely means you are taking your eye off the others; that's fine, but then you should be cautious with your comparisons.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

July 29, 2003

Hummmmm, Baby

Sorry to be quiet for so long. Worn out, I guess. Plus, Your Humble Blogger has had the joy of watching his beloved Giants win pretty nearly every day, which is new, different, and wonderful. On the other hand, I can't figure out how they're doing it. They're a good team all right, definitely a solid 90-win sort of team. But how come they're on a pace to win a hundred games?

The Giants have a team EQA of 0.272, which is behind the Cardinals and the Braves for third in the NL (and ever so slightly ahead of the Marlins' 0.271 EQA). So they score runs at a pretty good clip. Michael Wolverton's Support Neutral Winning Percentage pegs the Giants starters at .527, behind the Diamonbacks, Dodgers, Marlins and, just barely, Les Expos. The starters are actually 46-29, a very nice .613 winning percentage, which shows how nice it is to get run support. Atlanta's SNPct is .507, by the way, and St. Louis' is .476, so the Giants have, according to this stat, better starting pitching than the teams that hit better. And the bullpen? The Giants rank about in the middle, by Adjusted Runs Prevented, better than the Braves and Cards, but worse than the teams with good pitching. On the other hand, in the Bullpen Support totals, the Giants are next worst (to the Braves) in the league. So, according to the Baseball Prospectus stats, the Giants hit very well, their starting pitchers are good but not dominating, and the bullpen is average to bad. Which is about what I would have said about them ... but then how come they have the second-best record in baseball?

By traditional stats, the Giants again look pretty good but not great. The team ERA (not broken down into starters and relievers) is 3.78, again not as good at the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, and this time the Phillies move ahead (due presumably to their superior bullpen). They do lead the league (or are at least tied with the Marlins) at getting teams to ground into double-plays, although their lead over Atlanta and Colorado is only one DP. They don't strike out a lot of hitters (10th in the league, but about even with Atlanta and a bit more than St. Louis). They don't give up a lot of home runs (thank you Pac Ball Park), but they walk quite a few. Using those stats, it looks like the Giants have the fourth or fifth best staff in the league; as they play in a pitchers' park, that probably overestimates them. I won't go into as much detail with the offense, but similarly, the unadjusted stats make them out to be the fifth or sixth best-hitting team, which underestimates them.

Back at the Baseball Prospectus, Clay Davenport has an Adjusted Standings page, where he compares the actual standings to what he might expect the standings to be, given the teams statistics. Three teams stand out as doing much better than expected: the Royals, the Braves, and the Giants. This is actually clear from the Pythagorean standings without all of Clay's work, but there it is. Three teams are overachieving, or lucky, or something. I have no idea why. I mean, I'm all happy about it and everything, but honestly, it does seem like the Cardinals and the Phillies are just about as good as the Giants, but the Giants have 67 wins, the Phillies have 57, and the Cardinals have 54. And I don't really know why.

Not that I'm complaining, you understand. Still, the only time in Your Humble Blogger's life that the Giants had a ten game lead at the end of July was 1993.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

May 14, 2003

Yep, another Baseball column.

Your Humble Blogger went to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this winter, so now that there's active discussion in the baseball world about what constitutes a Hall of Famer, that qualifies me to chime in, doesn't it?

If you're just joining the baseball world, Rafael Palmiero recently hit his 500th home run. Raffy has been an awfully good player for an awfully long time, but he's never been the best player in the league, and has never really been the best first baseman (or DH) in the league, either. Part of that is that he's been playing during the same years as Historic Greats such as Bonds and A-Rod, but also through the peak years of players with high peaks (and less durability), such as Clark, Gonzalez, Thomas, Galaragga, McGriff, McGuire, Mattingly, and Fielder. So the argument about whether he should be inducted into the Hall of Fame is, in large part, a question about peak versus career value in judging HoF candidates. If you favor career value, you think he's a no-brainer. If you think that you can't be in without being dominant at some point, you aren't convinced.

Now, it's time for a short digression to some thoughts I had about the HoF during the most recent phase of the Pete Rose controversy. I came to the realization that there are three Halls: the room with the plaques in it, which is the actual Hall of Fame; the museum part, which is where most people spend most of their time, and which has more pictures of non-inductees than inductees; and the Hall of Fame in the hearts and minds of baseball fans. Pete Rose is not in the first, is in the second (although neither his famed Reds nor the Wheeze kids of Philadelphia are done justice), and well, you will have to decide whether he is in the third for yourself. The categories are all overlapping and cross-influenced as well; if somebody shows up in enough of the museum stuff (Nolan Ryan, for instance) it will influence the voters for the plaque, as well as the hearts and minds of fans. If a player is prominent in the hearts and minds of fans (Tony Perez, perhaps? or Cepeda?), that also will influence the vote, as well as the museum. And, of course, if a player is inducted, it will affect how people think of him (Harmon Killebrew?)

On the other hand, if (for instance) Gossage is not inducted, he will still be in my personal Hall. I remember him coming in at the end of a game in Jack Murphy in 1984 or so and the crowd going nuts; he was feared beyond reason, and was a Star in a field without a lot of star power (at the time).

So if you think Raffy should be in the Hall of Fame, then he's an inductee into the Hall of your heart and mind, and that is no mean feat (is Roger Connor there?). Nothing in the discussion, or the eventual vote, can or should take that away.

That said, for an actual plaque in the Hall, my question has become this: Ten years after the induction, would a ten-year-old ball fan get excited about either seeing the plaque, or seeing the player at an old-timer's game? Ten years ago, Reggie Jackson was inducted; I can't imagine a ten-year-old baseball fan today who wouldn't be thrilled to meet him. Tom Seaver, the year before, or Steve Carlton, the year after, are also obvious. Rollie Fingers, also a 1992 inductee, makes my list, but then I saw him pitch; ask a nearby ten-year-old if they'd like to meet Rollie.

The year I was born, Stan Musial and Roy Campanella were inducted. I have my own issues with Campy, but there's no question they both pass the ten-year-old test. The next year, Lou Boudreau was inducted, and I ought to have been excited to see him, although I wouldn't have been at the time. That's part of it, too; if you count too much on charisma or mediageniety, you wind up thinking that Jeter is a Hall of Famer, just because he's in the comic books. You have to make some allowances, sure. The previous year Ducky Medwick got in, and I would have been excited about him, because I'd read more books about the Gas House Gang than about the Indians of the 40s (not sure why, they had that Feller with the Indians, not to mention Bob Lemon, and in that pennant-winning 1948 year, Satchel Paige).

Anyway, the question is whether Raffy passes the ten-year-old test. It's a tough test, not only because it's hard to predict which images will last, and whether that hard-working second-best thing will be as romantic as it seems now to many people, or whether with careers getting longer, and more players playing well into their late thirties and early forties (if that happens at all) his longevity and consistency will be seen as out of the ordinary. That's leaving aside the issue of predicting Raffy's future; he could certainly make it easy on everybody by having a tremendous year next year, getting an MVP, and nailing down the Hall right then. Anyway, if I had to decide right now, I'm inclined to say put him in. I'm imagining a kid whose father uses Raffy to teach about the value of consistency, hard work, preparation, and persistence (with Junior Griffey as the grasshopper?) and, looking at it that way, I like the idea of a Raffy plaque (and thus side with the career-value).

Sorry, no statistical analysis. On the other hand, no dick jokes, either.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

May 7, 2003

Take me out to the [proprietary information deleted]

The other day, Your Humble Blogger went to see a Major League Baseball game. I'd tell you more, but on the back of the ticket it says:

By the use of this ticket, the ticket holder agrees that: (A) He or she shall not transmit or aid in transmitting any information about the game to which it grants admission, including, but not limited to, any account, description, picture, video, audio, reproduction or other information concerning the game (the "game information") ...

So, I'm not allowed to tell you who won, or who played, or what the score was. I would not have been able to say, in response to a question from a fellow in a nearby seat who took his eyes off the play, whether it was the second baseman or the shortstop who got the putout on a caught stealing (not that I'm saying there was one; that would be "game information").

I think I can say, without violating the above, that I had a good time. I'm not sure; perhaps I should check with my attorneys first.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

April 7, 2003

Baseball

Baseball is one of Your Humble Blogger's passions; I expect that I will write about it as often as the brilliant and necessary Jon Carroll writes about cats. Enough to annoy those who read this Tohu Bohu for its rigorously wrongheaded philosophical enquiry, but not enough to turn it into Aaron's Baseball Blog.

Anyway, given my preference for rigorously questioning things I believe, I naturally fall into the so-called "stathead" camp of baseball fans, although my actual skills and statistical analysis could generously be described as non-existent. What it actually means is that there are a bunch of things traditionally held to be true (for instance, that a lot of RBIs is a sign of a good player, who you can expect to get a lot of RBIs if he's traded to another team) which I no longer believe to be true. I have been, in these cases, convinced by people who do know something about statistical analysis that things which appear to be true, and which are intuitive, do not hold up.

So. Bullpen use. The Boston Red Sox have, more or less, rejected not one but two ideas about bullpen use. The problem with that is not only the risk that they might be wrong (and traditional use might be right), but that if they have no success, they will have no real way of knowing which idea led to the failure.

One of the ideas concerns the efficient use of the resources already existing in the bullpen. Most teams have a Closer, one go-to guy out of the bullpen whose job it is to come in when you really really need him. Except ... most teams use the guy only in the ninth inning, when ahead by one, two or three runs. A save situation. Some analysis shows that the time when you absolutely need a fireman is in the seventh inning of a tie game, when no manager in the major leagues would use a Closer. The arguments in favor of the New Idea � are primarily statistical; the arguments for the current conventional wisdom are primarily about the emotional and physical state of the people involved. I would be very interested to see what happened to a team that tried the New Idea� consistently for a year.

The problem is that the GM, Theo Epstein, has endorsed the other Idea which I have thought for a few years now, that having a Closer in the first place is not worth the money. Rather, I would put it that there are only two or three Closers worth the money at any one time, and there are 30 teams, so there are a bunch of teams overpaying their closer. So the Sox decided that they would spend their money elsewhere, and have no one fantastic relief pitcher in the pen, but a bunch of mediocre guys. The reasoning, by the way, is that no matter how you use him, a closer really only helps in close games, and it's better to have a team that regularly crushes their victims, not one that regularly wins close ones. We'll see about that, but so far...

  • Game one: lost 6-4, bullpen blew it.
  • Game two: won 9-8, bullpen nearly blew it, but held on.
  • Game three: won 7-5, bullpen successfully holds lead.
  • Game four: won 14-5, bullpen not really relevant.
  • Game five: won 8-7, bullpen dreadful but good enough.
  • Game six: lost 2-1, bullpen blew it.
  • Game seven: won 12-2, bullpen not really relevant.
If current trends continue, the Sox will win 116 games and have a bullpen that stinks on ice. Current trends won't continue, of course, but I think it's worth noticing that in seven games, the bullpen stunk four times, twice was fine but didn't really have much impact, and only once really contributed to a victory. And the Sox are 5-2. Still, that doesn't tell us anything about the best time to use a Closer, if you have one.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.