sports


I’ll get started with, appropriately enough, a baseball book considered by many to be a classic of American literature.

This book is in a… strange situation in literature. Don’t get me wrong, I think the book is fantastic, but it’s also shaded by a pretty fun baseball movie which is purportedly based on it but which really isn’t. I mean, the main character of Roy Hobbs is in there as are most of the minor ones, but the movie – and hey, I am not telling you that you should not like it, but you have to respect the difference here – completely gutted the theme of the book in favor of a more general “ain’t baseball grand?” one.

In my opinion “The Natural” is a must-read for anyone who has ever been interested in the Pete Rose case. Gambling is potentially a huge problem in sports because it can affect the outcome of the games. Sometimes fiction is better than dry fact in explaining why things are the way that they are, and this book is like that. I don’t want to spoil the whole thing, but you know that bit in the movie where Roy Hobbs shatters Lightning and then he’s rounding the bases and he’s bleeding and then suddenly it turns into a scene of father and son playing catch? Needless to say, that’s not in the book. The ending is… just a bit darker than that. Without getting into too much detail, this book is a classic American tragedy – since it’s about baseball perhaps it’s *the* classic American tragedy – about a man who attempts to overcome his personal foibles with God-given talent.

I think that the character of Roy Hobbs in the book is a lot more nuanced and, frankly, interesting than the Roy Hobbs of the movie. The movie Hobbs is just an everyday great guy who has an Eddie Waitkus-like run-in with a Baseball Annie but who is otherwise a pretty likeable guy. The book Hobbs is, well, a lot more like we think professional athletes as being today: more than a little arrogant about all things, super-confident about his own ability to play his chosen sport (is it arrogance when you know you’re good?), boastful, brash… to me, the really interesting bits about a character aren’t the things that he can do but that he can’t or won’t do. And unlike the movie Hobbs, the book Hobbs is full of can’ts and won’ts.

So yeah, great book. I should warn you, though: if you’re already a fan of the movie, reading this may make you want to throw it out (or at least see someone remake it).

In retrospect, I used all caps a bit too often. Still, using the magic of copy and paste (don’t you iPhone users wish you could do this? AHAHAHA crap there’s the all caps again), I bring you a goodie from the Johnny Slick MySpace vault about baseball heckling. Heckling is a time-honored tradition that is just not practiced by enough Seattle-ites to be frank.

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Mariner Snaps, Part II

My brother Robert and I once again had those aWesome seats behind third base and this time I believe that my mad heckling skills had a positive effect. To wit:

– First, we came in just in time to see the end of Mariners’ batting practice. The Blue Jays were in town. Fans who know Seattle baseball know how horrible this is. Whenever the Toronto Blue Jays come to town, Safeco Field behaves like a visitors’ park. This goes back to the early 90s at least and probably before. What happens is that thousands of Vancouverians make their way down from their land of back bacon and tocques and cheer for their sub-.500 team because that is the only baseball team they will ever see in their lifetimes on Canadian soil.

Anyway, these Canadians were cruelly heckling Richie Sexson and I felt that I had to step in.

Canucks: “HEY RICHIE SEXSON! YOU WEIGH MORE THAN YOUR BATTING AVERAGE!”
Me: “TORONTO BLUE JAYS! WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA!”
Canucks: “Hey, man. That wasn’t cool!”

I seriously thought I was going to engage in fisticuffs with a Canadian! I was scared. I have seen my share of hockey and know that these people will pull your shirt over your head and then pummel you about your face and shoulders if you let them. I quieted down for a second, but they resumed the heckles of poor Richie Sexson and I had to anti-heckle some more.

Canucks: “blah blah blah the same comment about weight”
Me: “YOU WILL HAVE TO EXCUSE OUR LACK OF CREATIVITY, MISTER SEXSON! YOU SEE, WE ARE CANADIAN AND HAVE NEVER WITNESSED SUN BEFORE!”
Me: “MY HEALTH CARE SYSTEM WAS FEATURED IN A RECENT MICHAEL MOORE DOCUMENTARY!”
Me: “MY COUNTRY DOES NOT ELECT A PRESIDENT AND OUR CONSTITUTION IS ONLY 23 YEARS OLD!”
Me: “I THINK THAT HAM IS BACON!”

This was the one that really got them to be quiet, though:

Canucks: something else about Sexson
Me: “THIRTY PERCENT OF MY CANADIAN POPULATION IS FRENCH!”
Canuck #1: “What did he just say?”
Canuck #2: “I think he said that 30% of us are French.”
Canuck #1: “Man.”

The Canadians did not ride Sexson any longer. That may have been because Mariners’ BP was over at about that time but it also could have been shame.

– Sadly, I did not do as much research as I’d done in the Twins game so I was not armed with players’ middle names so much as I had been before. I had to improvise. I believe this paid dividends with Jays’ catcher Greg Zaun, who is actually Steve Zahn:

First at-bat: “HEY STEVE ZAHN! I LOVED YOU IN SAHARA!”
More in the first at-bat: “ALSO THAT MOVIE WITH JASON BIGGS AND NEIL DIAMOND!”

This last comment earned us an evil stare from a fan (probably a Canadian at that) two rows ahead of us.

Second at-bat: “CAN YOU HELP US, PLEASE, MISTER ZAHN? I DON’T HAVE IMDB.COM HERE. WHAT WAS THE NAME OF THAT MOVIE YOU WERE IN WITH JASON BIGGS AND NEIL DIAMOND? I THINK R. LEE ERMEY WAS IN IT TOO.”
Later: “OH NEVER MIND, WE FIGURED IT OUT.”

Third at-bat: “SWEEEEET CAROLINE!”

That may have been a little on the obscure side. I mean, I explained it, more or less, in the second at-bat, but I don’t think ballplayers have memories like that or else they are concentrating on other things such as baseball.

It’s also worth noting that Greg Zaun was wearing a catcher’s mask that looked like he was a hockey goalie. This crap has no place in baseball and I let him know it.

Me: “HEY, WHO IS CATCHING? IS THAT STEVE ZAHN OR IS THAT A BIRDIE?”
Me: “I AM SURE THAT IF YOU DON’T HAVE A ‘BIG BOY’ CATCHERS’ MASK, THE MARINERS CAN LEND YOU ONE.”

Steve, er, Greg Zaun was removed in the 8th inning and replaced with a catcher who wore a regular old mask. Coincidence? Oh, I think not. However, this was not to be the biggest impact we would have on the game.

– In the first frame, Ichiro bunted his way to first base and stole second on the very next pitch. Jays pitcher Roy Halladay was, shall we say, very aware of Ichiro’s presence for the rest of the inning. At one point I yelled “THERE HE GOES!” during Halladay’s windup and he bounced one in the dirt. Sadly, the Mariners were not able to capitalize on the ball I gave to them and went out with no runs scored.

– Throughout the game, Jays fans were really out in full force. You could clearly hear them boo pro-Mariners calls by the umpires, cheer the few times the Jays did something to cheer about, and make chants such as “LET’S GO BLUE JAYS”. There were even a couple of large Canadian flags being waved around on the first-base side of the stands. It was a bad, bad situation and I had to let the M’s know what country they were in:

To Miguel Batista: “STRIKE THIS MAN OUT FOR FREEDOM!”
To a later relief pitcher for the Jays after the M’s had tattooed him for several runs: “OOOH CANADA! CA-NA-DA CANADA!” (this was how I heard the Canadian national anthem. My brother pointed out that they say Canada a lot in it, and that is a true statement).

– I said this to Frank Thomas and am very ashamed:

Me: “FRANK THOMAS! BARRY BONDS JUST HIT NUMBER 750! IF YOU WOULD HAVE TAKEN JUST A LITTLE BIT OF STEROIDS THAT COULD HAVE BEEN YOU!”

He flew out. Not that at-bat, I don’t think, but later on. Sometimes snaps take a little while to sink in.

– Finally, I really and truly believe that we got a pitcher rattled. His name was Jason Frasor and he was very, very short. Okay, actually he was 5’10”, but that’s still tiny for a pitcher.

Me: “HEY JASON FRASOR! GIVE YOUR DAD BACK HIS UNIFORM!”
Me: “DIDN’T BASEBALL OUTLAW MIDGETS IN THE 1950s?”
Me: “YOU KNOW, THERE ARE HORMONES YOU CAN TAKE THAT CAN HELP WITH YOUR CONDITION!”
Me: “HEY SHORT PERSON! YOU’RE SHORT!”
Me: “HERE IN SEATTLE WE WOULD CALL YOU VERTICALLY CHALLENGED!”

I admit, I hit the bottom of the barrel pretty quickly. Short-person jokes are pretty blah in the first place. There are only so many of them out there.

Here’s the deal, though. Frasor kept looking at us. There wasn’t anybody on third base until he put them there, so he wasn’t checking the runner. He could have been looking in the dugout, I guess, if by “in the dugout” you mean 10 feet over the dugout and directly at us. I think I also saw him crying (this sentence contains a lie). The bottom line is, Frasor walked a batter and gave up two hits after getting behind two other guys. Then he was pulled for a much taller guy I couldn’t think of and didn’t need any snaps for, who helped facilitate the crucial 5-run 7th inning.

I’m beginning to think the Mariners should have me on their payroll.

Okay, so I think that Geoff Baker is a good journalist, don’t get me wrong. I think that beat writing for a sports team is one of the most thankless jobs out there: you don’t usually get to do much more than be the mouthpiece of whichever player, front office person, groundskeeper, or concession stand attendee who wants to give you “inside information”. You can’t just throw that kind of thing away, since fans are reading you primarily for that inside stuff, but at the same time you’re positioned so inside that it’s hard sometimes to talk about something that’s flatly absurd.

That being said, Dave and Derek over at ussmariner.com continue to make questionable moves. Over on their blog, they’ve now banned what they term “Baker bashing”. This coming from the people who say that people who do not vote for their choice of who should be in the Hall of Fame ought to have their BBWAA status revoked. It’s just stupidity.

Whatever issues you have with how Geoff is doing his job, USSM will not be the host for you to air those to the world. I don’t share your judgments about his character, his motives, or the quality of his writing. I agree that he looks a bit like an Osmond, but that’s the extent to which criticisms of Baker himself will be allowed. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to expose the flaws in his logic if he proposes trading Gregory Halman for Eric Gagne this summer or that we’re going to give the clubhouse issues the same amount of credence he does, but we’re putting an end to your ability to be openly hostile in our comments section.

I hate the judging of other peoples motivations, and the assumptions about their character that go along with those judgments. Just as we reject the “Ichiro is selfish because he doesn’t dive” rhetoric, I also reject the “Baker is intentionally creating stories in order to further his agenda” stuff. You cannot judge the motives of another person, whether it’s a player, a beat writer, or me. Stop trying.

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Okay, that’s all well and good, but it raises the question of what you want your blog to be about, Dave and Derek. You say that you want this to be some sort of baseball classroom in which you dispense your knowledge to all who will listen. The problem is, too much of your blog has become people saying “oh guys I loooove yoooou and you are so right!” and finding creative ways to agree with you. Sure, you have the right to ban people who disagree who can’t come up with a good argument. Nobody is arguing that. Having the right to do something does not make it right.

If, on the other hand, the point of your blog is to provide a media outlet for your views, well, you’re doing it right. Banning dissent makes your point look more forceful, I’m sure, the same way Pravda looked more forceful than the New York Times during the Cold War. The complete lack of dissent makes people like me kind of scoff when you talk about being controversial, but then again that was how things were with Pravda as well.

I’ll continue to read the blog, of course, because for the most part it’s thoughtful and well written, but this is just a stupid, stupid way to direct the flow of your reader comments.

Update 8:39am

I had a couple things I wanted to add:

1. The tenor of the post – you attack the subject, not the man – is a good one, but the fact that USSM feels they have to bring this up makes me wonder how attached they really are to the “no ad hominems” rule. A lot of complaining about this particular incident, methinks.

1a. And I think that a big part of why they’re complaining is that they essentially directed their readership into attacking Baker. Statheads (I know this because I am one of them) have a bit of disdain for the the team chemistry arguments that make their way into these discussions too often. There’s good reason for this: more often than not, team chemistry means jack squat. Here’s the thing, though: when one beat writer says that players W and X have a problem with Ichiro (heretofore called player (!)) and then another guy says that players Y and Z don’t, that’s not necessarily a debunking of the first story. The 2008 Mariners would not be the first team to have different factions believing different things about a star player.

But the way the article was pushed on their readership, I feel that USSM was seeking that exact angle. It’s inevitable that when you do that and when you make it very, very hard for people to say “no, you’re wrong” without getting banned, readers are going to find their own ways to agree with you. And that’s your issue just as much as it is theirs.

2. All of which is not to say that Dave and Derek should be blamed for one of their more stupid readers comparing Baker to Jayson Stark. That being said, the complete lack of self-culpability these guys show just amazes me. I mean, as a fellow stathead I mostly agree with what they say, going back to the days when they and I posted on the Mariners Usenet newsgroup. But even going back to then, I don’t know that I have ever seen them actually say “hey, we were wrong about this” or “okay, we are to blame for a little bit of that”. That’s the Pravda angle I was getting at. It’s not that these guys are Godless communists, it’s that the tactics they engage in are, to quote a meme on a message board I frequent, the exact same tactics used by propagandists throughout history.

So I’m definitely not saying people should boycott USSM. I’m saying that one should give a critical eye to all of their statements, even if the people responding to them cannot.

For whatever reason, baseball sure attracts its set of characters. Don’t get me wrong, weirdos can be found in all of professional sports. But there seem to be more of them in baseball than anywhere else. Why is this? My hypothesis has to do with the rarity of the skillset required to play the game at a high level. If you have good speed and are willing to work your butt off through college, you can become a fairly okay NFL running back. In fact, to a point players at that level are often weeded out according to the amount of work they’re willing to do to accomplish their dreams rather than any natural ability. In baseball, on the other hand, if you can make good contact with a 95 mile per hour fastball, or throw a 95 mile per hour fastball for that matter, you can make it in the big leagues without a lot else, because doing those things is really, really hard – pretty much impossible for the average person, in fact.

And yet, you’d expect this to mean that the game’s greatest flakes/nerds/crazies would be most good hit no field types. As you can see, this is not the case at all. The one Hall of Famer of the bunch is a pitcher, not a hitter, and although the other 4 guys managed to swing a bat well enough to stay in the majors, they weren’t exactly league leaders. If Arsenio Hall were writing this blog (and he is not, trust me I know), he would say this is a thing to make you go “hmm”.

5. Moe Berg

There is a fantastic book about this guy out there called The Catcher Was A Spy. Now, you hear that title and you think of Berg as maybe a baseball-playing James Bond, whipping out his special combination bat-gun at a crucial time to thwart an enemy who has no hair. The fact is, though, that spies are in the business of gathering information, and people who do that for a living tend to be the nerdiest people of all. Think about it. Who else gathers info for a living? Economists. Scientists. Journalists are mostly about telling people about information other people have already gathered, so they don’t qualify.

Anyway, the famous statement made about Berg is that he could “speak 7 languages but couldn’t hit in any of them”. It was this facility with language that made the US approach him first in the 1930s, when he was one of many players barnstorming across the world (including Japan). He appeared on the 1939 equivalent of Jeopardy, where he was apparently something of a Ken Jennings of his day. After *that*, he ventured to Europe during World War II, where he spied on resistance movements and spoke with scientists in Italy on behalf of the OSS.

Casey Stengel once called him “the strangest man to ever play baseball.” Casey Stengel. I rest my case.

5. Miguel Batista

Batista actually wrote a book of poetry. Okay, ma

Verbose.

Verbose.

ybe that’s not old skool nerdy in the “I have an entire room devoted to GI Joe action figures DON’T YOU DARE CALL THEM DOLLS” sense, but really, when I think of “professional athlete”, “poet” is the last word that comes to mind. The title of the book translates to “Sentiments in Black and White”. He also wrote a crime thriller about a serial murderer. Before you say that takes him out of the nerd domain, I will ask you… have you seen Stephen King lately? Or, um, ever?

3. Dan Quisenberry

The Quiz gets here for two reasons. First and foremost, Bill James, the grandfather of baseball statistical analysis, considered him a good friend when he was alive. If you’re friends with Bill James, you are probably going to be pretty darn nerdy. I would not be surprised if Bill James has unboxed Stretch Armstrong toys in his closet, if you know what I mean.

Secondly, the Quiz also published a book of poetry. If it gets Miguel Batista in, it sure as heck gets the Quiz in!

2. Doug Glanville

Doug Glanville is pretty much my favorite baseball player ever. Allow me to list just a few of what makes him aWesome:

  • Graduated from Harvard with a degree in physics.
  • Wrote an essay for the board game Strat o Matic Baseball in which he discussed the way they rate fielders. And another one about his experiences with Strat growing up. And another in which he answered other Strat players’ questions. If you don’t believe me, look here.
  • When asked why he had such a good career batting average vs. Curt Schilling, he said it was because one time he and Schilling were playing Everquest, an online MMORPG, and Schilling got his character killed. Sadly, the Jayson Stark article that talked about this has been taken down from the ESPN page (probably because it was drawing in the wrong type of crowd) but you will be able to find many references to it if you google Doug Glanvile Everquest.
  • From the article: “Not enough attention is paid to the off-the-field motivators that create nasty on-field grudges. I believe video atrocities top the list. I’m of the theory that this could be a key explanation as to why some players have tremendous success against certain other players.”

I always wondered how a guy this smart was so unable to understand the concept of taking the occasional pitch and drawing walks. It’s a small, small criticism to make.

1. Curt Schilling

He probably cut himself docking corners.

He probably cut himself docking corners.

Why does Schilling beat out Glanville? First, there is the point that he is mentioned as the prime culprit in the Everquest Incident. If playing video games makes you nerdy, being really bad at video games makes you a nerd among nerds.

Also, this is the man who, when tabletop wargame company Avalon Hill was bought out by Hasbro, swept in and bought the rights to Advanced Squad Leader. If you are a nerd with any level of interest in World War II whatsoever and you have not heard of Advanced Squad Leader, you need to get out of your mom’s basement now and get that thing off of the E-Bay. This is the Dwarf Fortress of tabletop wargames. Dwarf Fortress might even be less complex than ASL. ASL has never been made into a computer game because it’s just too complicated for a computer AI to fathom.

Schilling was an ASL fan from way back. I know this for a fact because when I was in high school I bought a couple versions of the Avalon Hill game Statis Pro Baseball. The 1992 edition (which had the 1991 season in it) had Schilling’s card with all the other ratings they used plus a special “Advanced Squad Leader” rating. The copy I had actually had the back signed. Sadly, my mom threw that game out years and years ago, but I can still remember the joy I had when I learned that yes, even a pro baseball player could be as nerdy as I.

Over on ussmariner (see the blogroll to the side for linkotage) they’ve decided that nobody can be the judge of who is a sports fan (well, specifically, who is a Mariners fan) and who isn’t. Screw that! I am the judge of everything, and fandom is a part of everything. Let me break it down for you.

  • Constantly whining about how crappy your team is: Fan.
  • Constantly whining about how long the games are because they make you miss House so you have to tiVo it: Not a fan.
  • Somewhat pessimistic about the future of your sports franchise in question because the general manager is a mouth-breathing idiot: Fan.
  • Somewhat pessimistic about the future of your sports franchise because they don’t have enough Caucasian middle infielders: Not a fan.
  • Can name the entire starting lineup of the 1987 Minnesota Twins: Fan.
  • Can name the entire lineup of the 1987 Transformers: Not a fan.
  • Own a Doug Glanville jersey because you like his position on cheaters in MMORPGs: Fan, although you are really pushing it.
  • Own a Carl Everett jersey because you like his position on dinosaurs: Not a fan.
  • Think of yourself as the Cal Ripken of your job because you show up every single day: Fan.
  • Think of yourself as the Joey Cora of your job because you cry a lot: Not a fan.
  • In an effort to have a lasting affinity with Michael Jordan, you had the number “23” tattooed on your chest: Fan.
  • In an effort to have a lasting affinity with Ray Lewis, you murdered your girlfriend: Not a fan.

With these words, I thee wed.