Friday, May 01, 2009

First Visit to Citifield

This account of a day at the Mets' new ballpark on April 29 is by my friend Eric Rolfe Greenberg, celebrated for his novel The Celebrant. Anyone wishing to comment should do so on Eric's Facebook page.

First visit to Citifield yesterday --

I was there two hours before game time, the better to scout the ballpark. Missing from the somewhat remodeled subway station: the black-and-white wall sign near the exit that read, simply, "Baseball" -- and a telling omission, because Citifield, as currently marketed, is not so much a ballpark as a destination. The stadium's outward aspect is a pleasing red brick, to the main entryway behind home plate, the "Rotunda," named for a similar, if more humble, extension at Ebbets Field, which had ticket booths. This rotunda is dedicated to Jackie Robinson, with appropriate heroic pictures and inscriptions. In these and all other tributes to Robinson -- and he deserves this much and more -- I continue to think of two elements of his character and legacy that are overlooked among all the rest.

He was fiercely competitive; Leo Durocher, his first manager and later, when running the Giants, his rowdiest opponent -- once said "He didn't just come to play; he came to beat you. He came to ram the bat up your ass." What Robinson showed was not so much that a black man could play big league ball -- of course one could -- but that a black man, in the early 50s, could LEAD a major league team. They were "the Jackie Robinson Dodgers" in every regard. When Giants pitcher Larry Jansen was intimidating Dodger hitters with high, inside heat, it was Robinson they looked to to deal with the problem -- which he did in classic manner, bunting to the first baseman to force the pitcher to cover first, then running him over at the base. In this instance Jansen opted out, leaving second baseman Davey Williams to take the charge, and Robinson -- a former All-America footballer who played both offense and defense at UCLA -- knocked Williams severely. Williams left the game; Jansen lived to pitch on, but there were fewer inside fastballs. And -- correct me if I’m wrong -- Robinson's 1955 thievery was the last straight steal of home in World Series play. It came late in the second game and narrowed the score of an eventual loss, but it awoke the Dodgers, who won the next three games and then, in the seventh game, the Series. By the way, Yogi Berra to the contrary (to this day) notwithstanding, Robinson was safe. The reason I know he was safe was that a run went up on the scoreboard and the number of outs remained the same. If he'd been out, the reverse would have obtained.

Behind the huge numerals 42 which are set back in the Rotunda is a massive retail operation, which I skipped, under my long resolve never to wear the Met logo on purchased goods, on the grounds that I haven't earn the right to such display by making the club as a player -- in which case I'd get it all for free, anyway. I'd abandon this position only if the Mets staged a promotion I think of as "Jake Pitler Day," a tribute the ancient, gnarled first base coach of the Dodgers whose major contribution to the club, in Roger Kahn's felicitous phrase, was "to absent himself on Jewish holidays," a statement of ethnic solidarity with a hefty slice of Brooklyn's fans. Pitler became irrelevant with Koufax's arrival and stayed home when the club moved to Los Angeles. I somehow envision a Jake Pitler Day at Citifield, with the winner of an essay contest permitted to don the uniform and coach one inning at first base. I'd put on the uniform instanter and, probably, be buried in it.

One rides the escalator to the field level to find oneself in what to all appearances is a food court in a shopping mall, or -- with higher ceilings -- some part of the endless promenade of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Follow along a wide, curved passageway and one finds, for the first time, that there's a baseball field in the middle of all this! There is it, off to your left, with the food court continuing to your right. It is no doubt a convenience to fans that the field is visible from these bars and grills, but one is robbed of the enduring moment offered by all parks in my prior experience -- that of marching up a narrow ramp under the grandstand to find, suddenly and almost unexpectedly, that great expanse of gold and green stretched out before one's eyes. Another regret.

Two impressions follow from this first look at the totality of the stadium's interior. The first is that no facing is bare of advertising; walls, fronts of the various seating levels, and large ironworks extending skyward all support billboards or electronic running signs that tell you, essentially, to turn around and go give them money. The Pepsi Pavilion sits above Mo's Alley ("Gotta Go to Mo's!"). Only the center field wall, the hitter's backdrop, is clean of these urgings; I was distressed to see that the walls are black and the home run lines a vivid orange -- Giant colors. Booooooooo!

The second impression is the irregularity of the grandstand and thus of the outfield fences. I am bothered by the fact that these irregularities are inorganic. Boston's Fenway has a short left field and high wall because the dimensions of the lot imposed the shape, being rectangular; one could have a grandstand and bleachers in right field but not left, because that's where the block ended. Ebbets Field was a mirror of the same: a grandstand in left, a high wall in right with Bedford Avenue beyond the fence. The Polo Grounds was oblong because the lot was oblong, enforcing short lines and a huge center field (and left-center, and right-center -- someone knew, in the 1880s, that one day there would be a Willie Mays). But these nooks and crannies -- and there are both, nooks being spaces that go outward from the interior, crannies spaces that come inward -- are entirely manufactured. So far there have been more triples at Citifield than home runs, which is a remarkable statistic; I challenge Tim Wiles at the Hall of Fame Library, copied on this, to see how often this has happened over the course of a season, and where, especially since the end of the dead-ball era.

They've given odd names to seating areas and levels, none of them in any way connected to the team or to baseball. There's an Excelsior level (oddly, not the highest level, either) and Caesar's boxes and an Acela club. None of these are reflective of any reality I can connect to the game, the club, or the history of either.

Everywhere, subliminally, there are dollar signs on the seats. Behind home plate, above the field level, is a section for kings, a parterre box, to use the operatic equivalent, removed and isolated and entirely royal, and one's first thought is of what they cost. The average hourly wage in the US is $18.50, the average weekly earnings (pre-tax and deductions) is $616.19. What one can make out of this is a vibrant argument against the concept of the flat tax. It would take some doing, I realize, and it would be denounced as socialism to the extreme, but I have an idea that would democratize the seating entirely. Tickets should cost not a flat sum, but instead a percentage of weekly income. Depending on the opposition and the day of the week, those seats cost $375 on average -- which is to say, sixty percent of the average weekly wage. If this formula was applied to millionaires -- that is to say, people earning $20,000 a week -- they'd cost $12,000 per. Let's call this excessive (I'm in a bipartisan mood) and say that instead, twenty percent would be a fair price. So sell them to millionaires for $4,000, and to average wage-earners for $123, still a hefty expense but not out of line for a superb back-of-home, unobstructed, food-service-to-your-seat location. Minimum wage-earners would pay $66. And apply this throughout the park; seats high in the outfield grandstand are currently priced at an average very nearly equal to the average hourly wage; charge millionaires $500 per for them.

Of course, as Shel Silverstein once pointed out, in an egalitarian society the Cubs would win the World Series once every 30 years, which is over three times better than what they've been dealt under capitalism.

I was encouraged to find that prices for food and necessaries -- scorecard, yearbook, etc. -- are right where they were last year; a Nathan's hot dog (and there are no others) cost $4.75, which is half the price charged at the new mausoleum in the Bronx. But -- no free pencils.

The game began, and it was a fine one with multiple elements one cherishes for their familiarity -- the slumping slugger (David Wright), the gutty ace without his best stuff but snuffing out threat after threat with necessary outs (Santana), the reliever committing the cardinal sin of walking the first two hitters he faces and then either wiggling out of it (Lindstrom) or allowing the tying and winning runs to score (Putz, who will not earn his preferred pronunciation if he does this often again). And it was a weekday afternoon, all sunshine, which remains my favorite ballpark experience. Three triples, one home run (Tim! get to work!) The home team didn't win, and it WAS a shame.

Between the lines, it's all the same. The game, the game itself, always rescues itself from its surround. And withal, it's not a bad place to watch a ballgame.

Eric Rolfe Greenberg

30 April ‘09

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Big Picture

These remarks were delivered at the first annual conference of SABR's 19th Century Baseball Research Committe, at Cooperstown on April 18, 2009:

Thanks to Peter Mancuso and to the previous 19th Century Baseball Research Committee chairmen, some of them gathered here (I see Fred Ivor-Campbell and Bob Tiemann ... but not Mark Rucker, John R. Husman, or Paul Wendt). But for truly making this occasion necessary, my thanks must go to you in the room and all our colleagues in this robust research committee, which has grown from an initial 20-something to now some 550. Such success would have been unimaginable to Mark and I back in 1983.

Within the well-deserved context of self-congratulation that marks this first annual gathering, what I’d like to talk about today is the state of research into early baseball, that former dark side of the side of the moon: how far it has come in the 25 years that coincide with the tenure of this committee, and where it may yet go, for we have only scraped the surface and returned with a few moon rocks.

It may seem incongruous for a gang of mythbusters to be gathering here in the town that, to a significant extent, Abner Doubleday made. And yet the location is apt, for however it may have found its way here in Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a great institution with a legacy all its own and a keen sense of the interplay between myth and what we think of as history—that is, what happened. Legend, which runs alongside fact in such a way as sometimes to undermine it and sometimes to enrich it, offers clues to a history not found in news clips.

For example, while there is no need to recite for this audience the story of how Abner Doubleday came to be anointed Father of Baseball by the Mills Commission, it may come as news to some that Mills never bought the tale of two Abners and pursued the real story even beyond the end of his mandate at the end of December 1907. In the report he issued at that time he wrote:

"I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, [first president] of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is to-day, was brought to the field one afternoon by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says ‘the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.’"

It is possible, he continued, "that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for, promising to furnish you the indicated data when I obtain it, whatever it may be."

Mills was wondering whether an upstate Wadsworth, perhaps one of the Geneseo clan, might somehow have brought the Doubleday diagram to New York. The requested data about the mysterious Mr. Wadsworth never emerged, and the Wadsworth connection was not again the subject of published curiosity, though Louis F. Wadsworth has been a more or less constant preoccupation of mine since the time we launched the 19th Century Baseball Research Committee. Only in very recent years has his story, with all its implications for baseball history, unfolded. (No, he did not carry a diagram from Cooperstown to New York City, but I will not say more at this time.)

Today we dismiss the Cooperstown myth—that baseball was played here before the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club played it in New York City. After the Doubleday myth was thoroughly exploded, serially, by Will Irwin and then Robert Henderson and then Harold Peterson, journalists and even serious students of the game could be relied upon to say, “Baseball grew up in the city, not in the country.” That is in my view untrue-- even if baseball as a game for grownups evolved in the city as a nostalgic reenactment of the joys of youth, those joys were rightly understood to be agrarian. My best guess—and I assure you it is not mere guesswork—is that the American game of baseball grew up, if not exactly here in Cooperstown, then in multiple variants and locales in the Housatonic Valley triangle of Western Massachusetts, Eastern New York State, and New York City. Future General Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with it, but then again Alexander Cartwright had little to do with “inventing” the New York Game.


Questions about baseball’s evolutionary tree (or as better conceived, bramble bush) have tended to dominate the listserv activity of this committee, as some of our most active researchers have taken up mental residence in the antebellum period. But when Mark Rucker and I first believed that such a group would be valuable, our concerns were quite different. On September 30, 1982, we sent out a letter to some 30 individuals—mostly collectors, which will explain some of the language below—known to have an interest in early baseball, especially its visual record. That letter read, in part:

"To whom it may concern: Knowledge of baseball from the 1860s to the 1890s, the era of earliest organization, has till now been restricted to a very few. With more information continually appearing, the opportunity for research is expanding, as is interest in the earliest known teams and players. To accommodate this growing fascination, and to widen the possibilities for gathering information, we propose a new S.A.B.R. committee dedicated to the Nineteenth Century game."

The committee will compile photographic and factual records of individuals and clubs from the New York Knickerbockers to the end of the century. Considerable attention will be focused on the late 1850s, the 1860s, and 1870s, where it is most needed. A particular goal will be to assemble a photo file (copied from original sources) of all major teams and players, a virtually unattainable task, but one which should give the committee long life. The committee’s job must be pure research, and will not be a vehicle for the selling and trading of documents."

Among the concerns of the new committee, approved by SABR in 1983, was the relative absence of this century’s players from the Hall of Fame. This continues as something of a preoccupation. In a letter from Rucker and myself to research committee members in October of that year we wrote:

"We hope the [accompanying table, with interests of members accompanying their names] will help communication among us. The way to exploit the talents in this committee is through continual exchange of information and advice. We hope someday to have a large group of us assembled in one place where a close rapport can develop. Until then, however, consistent contact through the mail is our best way to learn from one another."

Our 19cbb list has served this function far better than anyone might have imagined in 1983. Email and the internet had in fact already been invented but would not come into widespread use for another decade. This gathering today is the first meeting as Mark and I envisioned it (the SABR annual get-together is dedicated almost exclusively to structural review of committee activity).


Long before 1983 there were historians and researchers and aficionados of early baseball whose accomplishments are singular because they were, in one respect or another, first. We don’t have time to discuss each of them in detail, but let’s at least call the roll of pre-committee notables. Some were shoebox and scrapbook fillers like Frank Marcellus, John Tattersall, Tom Shea, and Mike Stagno, not storytellers but vital to the statistical annals. Others had a highly personal stake in how the game’s history would be told—Henry Chadwick, Albert Spalding, Al Spink, Will Rankin, Will Irwin. There were the revisionists—Robert Henderson, John Rickard Betts, Harold Peterson. There were the academically trained historians—Harold Seymour, Foster Rhea Dulles, David Voigt, Melvin Adelman, Steve Riess. And there were the campfire writers, who stoked the flame of memory—the great Lee Allen and the unfairly neglected Robert Smith. There were the one-book wonders like Seymour Church, Irving Leitner, or Preston Orem. And you will tell me later, I hope, to which giant I have forgotten to give props.

Since 1983 we have seen many dramatic finds and studies, many of which attach to this group, individually or collectively. Some of us have used up our lifetime allotment of 15 minutes of media fame, including George Thompson, Ted Widmer, and yours truly. Some have produced ground-breaking larger works that continue to inspire researchers—David Block, Peter Morris, Paul Dickson, Dean Sullivan, Larry McCray, Bob Tiemann, just to name a few. Others have published articles that have transformed prior understandings of well-worn topics—Richard Hershberger, David Ball, Fred Ivor-Campbell, Randall Brown. Everyone in this room today has heard of Doc Adams and Jim Creighton.

Oh, I could go on. But it’s time to wrap up with the matter that even for antiquarians is of the highest interest: what to do next. Not all of the baseball myths are hundreds of years in the making. Some are rather modern, and are worthy of reexamination. I offer these falsehoods as but five of twenty that might be rattled off without much head-scratching:

1. William Hulbert founded the National League because the National Association was drowning in drink, corruption, and scheduling nightmares related to weak co-op nines.

2. When the pitching distance moved back 10 feet in 1893—truly 5 feet, but that’s another story—many pitching careers were ruined (like those of actors from the silent era after The Jazz Singer).

3. Albert Spalding was a ruthless capitalist rather than a sentimental idealist and mama’s boy.

4. Professional baseball play began with the Cincinnati Reds of 1869.

5. The reserve clause was an evil mechanism designed to assert owner rights over those of the players.

Just as holding this meeting in Cooperstown may be seen as paradoxical, so may the success of our committee members in discovering new details, especially amid the newly digitized historical newspapers. For decades, writers on early baseball were given to grand pronouncements supported by highly selective if any evidence. Today we have reams of evidence which appear to contradict many bits of received wisdom and general understanding ... but we seem a little short on synthesis. We need to knit together the diverse findings and make sense of the larger vista now afforded to us.

I have a friend, Dan Diamond, who knows more about hockey than any of us knows about baseball. His favorite term of derision for a marketing type or corporate suit was, “He’s a big-picture guy”—by which he could have said, “he doesn’t really know much about anything.”

As I wrote in the current number of Base Ball, just off press, we would do well to contextualize the game in a way that expands our understanding not only of baseball but also of the nation whose pastime it is. But because both the devil and the angels are in the detail, we still need to find that first name for the “Sullivan” who played two games for New Haven in 1875. I am pleased to think of myself, like each of my colleagues in the 19th century baseball research committee, as a small-picture guy.

--John Thorn

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Oh, Plaxico!

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, January 29, 2009:

Fans of the New York Giants can only grind their teeth and shut up as they watch the Arizona Cardinals (nine wins, seven losses in the regular season) represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. First, the Giants snuck into the finale last year, so mazel tov to Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and supporting cast; if the Cinderella slipper fits, wear it. Second, the Giants didn’t deserve to wear the slipper this year because (a) they were returning champs and started their season 11-1 and (b) they shot themselves in the foot — or rather, Plaxico Burress shot himself in the thigh, with an unregistered handgun in a public venue, leaving the Giants to limp home with a 1-4 record in their final five games. 

Coach Tom Coughlin, quarterback Eli Manning, and the rest of the crew said all the right words about concentrating on the players on the field rather than those who took themselves off it. But the absence of their star wide-out proved fatal to their chances, because opponents no longer had to double-cover any Giants receiver and safeties could creep up to assist in defending against the run. Taking Plaxico out meant, in effect, giving defensive opponents an additional player.

I’ll admit to having disliked Plaxico in the years before he gamely led the Giants to the Super Bowl despite an ankle that at any point in the season would have justified his shutting down for the year. Until then he had seemed as pouty and narcissistic as Terrell Owens without his dedication to running crisp routes or blocking. Often Plax would jog through his routes if he was not the primary receiver, or maddeningly he would break off a slant pattern or a post, hanging his quarterback out to dry for a seemingly inexplicable interception.

Because he could make Eli look awful, Plax could also make him look great. He was the Most Important Person on the team, he knew it, and his successful preseason holdout for a contract commensurate with his status proved it. By his self-indulgent and uniquely idiotic exit from the season and almost certainly from the Giants (if not the NFL altogether), the heroconfirmed his feet of clay. But in his absence, while Joe Torre made headlines by blasting Alex Rodriguez in his new book with Tom Verducci, we are left to ponder whether superstardom is good for anything, in any sport.

Is an all-star aggregation the way to go, like those the Yankees have attempted to field in recent years? Or is that like a ten-course meal of all desserts?

Is a no-name team like the 17-0 Miami Dolphins of 1972 the ideal, because no one will stumble over an ego, his own or a teammate’s? Or is that formula for victory too fragile because significant burdens are dispersed among teammates of varying abilities, all of whom must perform to expectation if they are to achieve victory?

It’s easy to go down the middle here and say that a mix of stars and spear carriers is the way to construct a club, that developing a team via the draft and the farm system is the key. In this scenario free agency is useful only when adding a missing ingredient that will provide a middle-of-the-pack team with a championship run. But teams have spent their way to the top, ever since Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, a team of imported salaried players, went undefeated against a nationwide opposition drawn from local ranks.

“Thou shalt not covet” is a commandment that does not apply in sports, especially in New York, where having a fat wallet is supposed to be good for something. Even as the Cardinals line up to play against the Steelers on Sunday, Giant fans are already blogging about throwing money at Arizona’s second star receiver, the evidently disgruntled Anquan Boldin, to replace the perpetually disgruntled Plaxico.

Horrible free-agent signings (Mo Vaughn, Bobby Bonilla, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown,  ... one could go on) have not daunted the city’s baseball owners from going after the next new star, even if it turns out they have only bought someone else’s former star. In some seasons the Yankees have made a brief show of fiscal responsibility and trust in the youngsters, as when they declined to pursue Johan Santana and gave a chance to the kids from Triple-A. Were they wrong then, and right now, as they bring on board at hefty salaries C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira? Were they right to rely upon Scott Brosius and Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O’Neill in their glory years, and wrong to bring in Alex Rodriguez and then re-up him?

What does having a star do for a franchise? (For obvious reasons we must set aside golf and tennis and other mano a mano sports.) Let’s leave aside the clear benefits of having a gate attraction, building credibility with fans and confirming their faith, the flow of free advertising via slow-news-day coverage — all of that is well understood. But what is the effect on the field? How does it differ in each of the major team sports?

In baseball the starting pitcher, and increasingly the reliever, is disproportionately important in any given game, but he will appear in only a quarter to a half of the scheduled contests, so a star at an everyday position would seem more valuable. Yet modern statistical measures indicate that even the greatest players in the game’s history—Ruth, Williams, Bonds, et al.—might contribute only six to eight wins over the course of a season beyond what an average player might have contributed in their stead. This is enough to make a pennant winner of an otherwise second-place club, but by itself is not likely to be enough. A .500-level club (81-81) would advance, after buying a Ruthian figure like Manny Ramirez as a free agent, to perhaps 88-74. Pick up more stars and you may, like an overzealous weightlifter, get too musclebound to comb your hair.

In basketball, when the Boston Celtics added proven stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to their own Paul Pierce, the betting was that the team would need three basketballs. (Back in the day, when the Knicks added Earl Monroe to Walt Frazier in the backcourt, the requirement was thought to be two balls.) But because none of the three had ever won an NBA title, they sublimated their egos to the team cause and became champions. In this sport a star like Kobe or Lebron will have a profound effect on every game because the opponent must use two players to hound the star, or just write off his 30 points and seek to contain the others. In either case, average players on the Lakers or Cavaliers may look like world-beaters, as journeymen on the Chicago Bulls did during the Jordan era. 

Why in soccer or hockey, games that produce so few goals, is a Beckham or a Gretzky so highly prized? Maybe these sports help to provide an answer as to why in some sports a star seems to provide a better path to victory than a system. Not only does the star have an effect on how open teammates may be, as in basketball, but their own ability to score through sheer individual talent will have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of the game.

Which brings us back to pro football, and Plaxico. In a game that is at every point eleven against eleven (in baseball it is most often one against nine), no one man should make the difference between victory and defeat, not even the quarterback. Each player’s purview of responsibility is interlaced with another’s. In this sport more than any other one ought to be able say “There is no ‘I’ in team” without prompting a snicker. The Miami Dolphins of 1972 — with their “no-name” defense and an offense built around lunch-pail guys like Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, Bob Griese and Paul Warfield (and like the Giants, an adroit offensive line)—remain, despite the challenge by the New England Patriots last season, the best team ever.

Plaxico, you done us wrong. Your disregard for your teammates and your fans will make your return impossible, no matter your contrition. But we need a stud at wide receiver or Giants fans will seek to trade Eli Manning for the man he replaced, Kurt Warner.

This is New York. Let’s get Boldin.

--John Thorn

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Poster Girl

The current essay--"Poster Girl," about Ethel Reed--may be found at my blog more typically associated with arts and letters:

--John Thorn

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Change We Need

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, November 6, 2008:
On Tuesday night America got the change it needed and wanted. All of us, Republican and Democrat, can now forget Ashley Todd, Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, and other campaign pranks. Barack Obama will be our new leader, which is both gratifying and astonishing to most of us over the age of 60 — which is to say anyone with recall of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s. Over nearly two years of campaigning we might have anticipated the outcome, if not how emotional we would feel about it: as autumn came to John McCain’s candidacy, an Obama victory was hardly an upset. Yet that scene in Chicago’s Grant Park at 11:02, when the Western polls closed and the clear outcome could be officially declared, well, that was a moment that every American will install in his scrapbook of indelible memories. Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon? When John F. Kennedy was shot? When Bobby Thomson hit the home run that turned an entire baseball season upside down? Or when the nation turned its helm over to an African-American?

Regardless of policy successes and failures to come, a new America begins now.

It has been said with some justice that without Jackie Robinson there might have been no Martin Luther King. (Yes, I know that without A. Philip Randolph, or Marcus Garvey, or Frederick Douglass, Robinson’s path might have been different.) Is it too much to say that without Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods, beginning with their onset to professional sports in the mid-1990s, there might have been no Barack Obama, at least not now? Like our President-Elect, Jeter is biracial (ambi-ethnic, Halfrican-American, pick the term you prefer). Woods is multiracial, or as he likes to say, “Cablinasian” — short for Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian. However, both athletes are termed black in common parlance because of America’s pernicious tradition that one drop of African blood makes one black.

Voters have accepted Obama as a black man of high merit not because they think him half white but because who, in this day and age, wants to be white anymore? Non-Hispanic whites are projected the Census Bureau to be than 50 percent of the total population by 2050 and America will look like Brazil by century’s end. “There may have been a sense that [for minorities] being white was part of the process of being assimilated,” said John R. Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York at Albany, in a 2003 article in the New York Times. “There's a trend toward rejecting whiteness as a way of expressing success.” This was said in the context of emerging patterns in marketing and advertising, and may go some way toward explaining the broad appeal of racially blended pop stars Mariah Carey, Jessica Alba, Halle Berry, Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, et al.

But unscripted sport, particularly baseball, is more culturally transformative than staged entertainment, more intricately linked with national memory. As the oldest and most hidebound of our major sports, baseball has, paradoxically, the capacity to ease in the most revolutionary change. It shocked no one when, in 2003, the Yankees named Jeter their captain. As Monte Irvin said, “Baseball has done more to move America in the right direction than all the professional patriots with their billions of cheap words.” On Election Night 2008, it would not have been amiss for baseball to take a bow.

But you come to this column not to read about politics. So let’s look at another national dilemma. The World Series, born in the 19th century, needs an overhaul if it will endure through the 21st. The most recently concluded example was a dud, but it fell in line with those that came before. We have not had a World Series extend to a seventh game since 2002. We haven’t even had one go to Game 6 since 2003. In the most recent instances (2004-08), the five losing teams COMBINED for two wins.

In the 2008 “Fall Classic” the Philadelphia Phillies vanquished the Tampa Bay Rays in a fifth game that commenced with five and half drizzly innings on a Monday (following upon a 90-minute rain delay) and concluded with three additional innings on Wednesday. The fifth game was the least watched in recorded Series history (since 1968), and the average viewership of 13.6 million for the whole Series was a staggering 4 percent decline from the previous low of 15.8 million for the Cardinals’ five-game victory over the Tigers in 2006.

Once upon a time, the glory of our national game was the length of its season, which rewarded tortoises, foiled hares and culminated in a climactic contest between two clubs that had not faced each other (or any team in the opponent’s league) all year. Today, however, with interleague play, a wild-card system, and a three-tiered postseason competition, the season may run from the end of March to the beginning of November. (For 2009, Opening Day is delayed to Monday, April 6 because the triennial World Baseball Classic runs to March 23, impinging upon conventional spring training regimens.)

I have written previously about my opposition to interleague play and the wild-card (“Baseball’s Silly Season,” New York Times Op Ed, October 22, 2005). But this time let’s focus on the weather, about which everyone talks but does nothing.

Baseball began as the sport that tracked the pageant of the seasons from planting to harvest, and perhaps to this day we still feel its archaic rhythms. The long season has been the game’s glory, but now it has bled beyond its seasonal bounds. The problem has been not only that the season ends too late but also that it opens too soon. Moreover, America is no longer agrarian, and baseball is a game whose future will be increasingly on TV, the internet and other emerging technologies; the venue is decoupling from the revenue. All the same, we’ve got to play the damned games or there won’t be anything to broadcast.

So how do we eliminate freezing and/or gale conditions for games played in the Northeast prior to mid-April and after the third week in October? I have a plan, and for part of it baseball will need to go back to the future.

1. At the turn of the last century, when Major League Baseball consisted of 16 franchises in 11 cities, none west of St. Louis or south of the nation’s capital, clubs would abandon their spring training grounds and embark upon a lucrative barnstorming tour of locales where no top-rank ball was played — in the Carolinas, for example. They would wend their way north for a mid-April Opening Day, “bringing the news,” as Buck O’Neill liked to say, and making money and new customers. We could do this again—opening the regular season not in Japan but in the spring camps and Southern states, at collegiate and minor-league baseball parks.

2. Return to the best-of-nine World Series format frequently employed in the first two decades of the last century — only this time with the first four games split between the contestants, and anywhere from one to five games slated for a warm-weather or retractable domed site, selected well in advance, as is done for the Super Bowl. If this “Super Series” of one to five games runs into November, so what? The last weather-threatened games will have been played by the end of the third week in October, and the hometown crowds will have been assured two games apiece, which is what they’ve been getting lately anyway. This system has the additional benefit of eliminating the home-field advantage for an ultimate game, which preposterously has been awarded to the league winning the All-Star Game. The first four games of the Super Series can be played on Tuesday through Friday, with a finale, if necessary, on Sunday night so as to bump up against college or pro football minimally.

3. Expand from the current 30 clubs to 32 and realign them into four divisions for each league. With this new league structure, every one of the eight teams contending in the postseason will have won a divisional title in the regular season—no more wild card gatecrashers. However, until the expansion takes effect, remodel the playoff structure to reward winning in the long season. Penalize late-awakening wild cards by giving them only one home date, and that in the middle of the best-of-five opening series.

Change We Need.

--John Thorn

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Forty-five years of mixed memories.

Let's Go Mets

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, October 2, 2008:
This year was hard, but last year was harder. Such are the crumbs on which Mets fans, bred for heartbreak by their National League ancestors in this town, must feed.

Yankee fans, accustomed to greatness, were stunned once it became clear they would have to yield their playoff seat, assured for 13 consecutive years, to the upstarts from Tampa Bay. But philosophically they chalked up the outcome to a rash of injuries, over-reliance upon unproven pitchers, and a new field manager. Next year, in a new stadium, with C.C. Sabathia every fifth (or fourth) day will be different, they tell themselves

The same might be said for the Mets, who stumbled into an odd symmetry with their rivals. In their final year at their doomed ballparks, each club finished with a record of 89-73, more or less on merit. Statistical analysts rely upon baseball’s “Pythagorean Theorem,” a formula that estimates a team’s winning percentage given their runs scored and runs allowed. (Tracked historically over all of baseball history, trust me, it works.) In its rough form, precise enough for this discussion, it awards an extra win beyond the breakeven point (81-81 over a full season) for every ten runs scored beyond those given up. The 2008 Mets scored 799 runs and allowed 715, yielding a predicted record of ... 89 wins and 73 losses.

The Yankees’ run differential (789 scored, 727 allowed) predicts a mark of 87-75 ... so they marginally outperformed their talent level. A thorough review of the Yankees’ season and their objectives for 2009 awaits another day. Suffice it to say here that their problem is NOT, despite what you may read elsewhere, pitching. In 2008 they allowed 50 fewer runs than in 2007 but scored an amazing 179 fewer.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Mets pitchers yielded 35 fewer runs this year than last while scoring about the same (804 to 799). The earth shuddered whenever manager Jerry Manuel waved to the bullpen, but once Billy Wagner went down with injury, there really was no choice but to play an out-by-out matchup game for the last three innings of any game that John Santana didn’t start. Even pitchers of previously demonstrated ability like Pedro Feliciano, Aaron Heilman, Joe Smith, Luis Ayala, Scott Schoenweis, and Duaner Sanchez blew up from overuse. Of those just named, the first four finished among the top seven in the league in appearances, with Feliciano heading the list at an absurd 86 games.

Santana led the league in ERA, and with adequate bullpen support would easily have won 20 and perhaps the Cy Young Award, rather than finishing 16-7, 2.53. But the other starters must shoulder their share of the blame for not going deep enough into the game to lessen the late-inning pressure.

The Yankees’ Mike Mussina, who at age 39 became the oldest man in baseball history to win 20 games, has an interesting theory as to what is expected of a pitcher in the high-scoring post-expansion era, when complete games have become rare and a notional “quality start” (six runs pitched with three or fewer runs scored) has become a reasonable management goal. Mussina told Tyler Kepner of the Times this week that good pitchers win half their starts, i.e., that the combination of their losses and no-decision games do not exceed their victories. “He has done that almost precisely,” Kepner wrote, “going 270-153 in 536 career starts.” In 2008 Moose won 20 of his 34 starts while losing only nine.

By that measure of success, Santana came close with 16 victories in 34 starts (the bullpen blew nine games in which he departed with a lead). But look at the record of the Mets’ other principal starters:

Oliver Perez won 10 of his 34 starts
Mike Pelfrey won 13 of his 32
John Maine won 10 of his 25
Pedro Martinez won 5 of his 20

And yet ... for all the pitching failures, the Mets allowed fewer runs than all but five other NL clubs, and four of those made it into the playoffs. General Manager Omar Minaya should welcome help from faraway places (like Kansas City), especially in the closer role (KC’s Joakim Soria is a stud; try not to grind your teeth about Ambiorix Burgos), but don’t blow up this staff.

A further recommendation: rehire Jerry Manuel to manage. In the games after Willie Randolph was shown the door, the Mets went 55-38, a .591 clip that translates to a full season record of 96-62 (the Phils finished at 92-70).

Patient readers may be scratching their heads by now — so how did this team, with three players who scored 110 or more runs (Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, David Wright) and three who drove in 110 or more (Beltran, Wright, Carlos Delgado) — ever lose a game, especially in the months when Wagner was around? Here comes the distressing part: after them, no Met drove in as many as 50, and only Church (with 54) scored that many. The Mets could be pitched to in the late innings. The catching platoon of Brian Schneider and Ramon Castro did not hit. Second base was a black hole, with 38-year-old reserve Damion Easley and Argenis Reyes combining with creaky Luis Castillo to create the weakest output at this position in the majors (the endearingly energetic but hopeless Reyes, in 110 at bats, had neither a double nor a triple while batting .218). In the final four games of the season, the Mets’ starting second baseman was 35-year-old September callup Ramon Martinez, who had been in the minors all year long. The Phils, meanwhile, put Chase Utley in their lineup every day.

Reyes, Wright, Beltran, and Carlos Delgado gave the Mets a “big four” arguably unmatched in baseball in 2008. But in their wish to depart Shea Stadium with a bang rather than a whimper, Minaya bet big on experience, notably with Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez, Oliver Hernandez, Easley and Castillo. The unexpectedly rapid development of Mike Pelfrey eased the pitching miscalculation while the out-of-left-field arrival of Fernando Tatis addressed the lefthanded tilt of the Met lineup that Alou’s re-signing had been intendeded to offset. But Tatis’s late-season injury, when added to the ineffectiveness of Ryan Church after his return from post-concussion syndrome, furthered by the season-long deterioration of the prematurely aged Castillo, led to a further reliance upon rookies and retreads.

Not to knock the contributions of Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans, Robinson Cancel, Brian Stokes, et al. — but with the possible exception of Murphy, who will work this fall in Arizona to smooth his play at second base, the future fortunes of the club will not depend on any of them. Minaya needs for 2009 the same thing he needed at the beginning of this season — a righthanded bat in left field, and it would be naive to look to Tatis or Evans for that. In 2008 twelve men started at least one game in left. (Remember Andy Phillips? Chris Aguila? Brian Clark? Angel Pagan? Trot Nixon?) This cannot be repeated.

While you’re at it, Omar, get another starting pitcher — or two, if some team is willing to overpay for Perez, whose chronic midgame wildness renders him at best a Number Four man in a rotation. Get a hitter to play second base or catcher — simply decide where defense is more important. Typically the greater need for defense is behind the plate, so it might be prudent to retain Schneider. Will Murphy play second base deficiently? Yes. But limited range at that position is a Met tradition, with Ken Boswell, Wally Backman, Tim Teufel, Carlos Baerga, and Edgardo Alfonzo in his later years.

Should you pick up Delgado’s option? Of course. It will cost $12 million, but a buyout will set you back a third of that, so his effective cost in 2009 will be $8 million, a price at which no free-agent alternative will be found. If Pedro wishes to come back on a one-year deal for that amount, roll the dice and re-up, hoping that the models of Jamie Moyer and Mussina will inspire Pedro to remake himself yet again.

As I said, on to the Yankees next time. But Omar, if you want to talk about any of this, give me a call.

--John Thorn

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Yankee Doodle Metrosexual

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, September 4, 2008:
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots open their NFL season at home on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. Good thing, too, because I have been worried about him. A nagging injury, cloaked in mystery in the typical Belichick style, had kept him out of all four preseason games. Leaks to the press had localized the problem in his right foot but I had come to suspect that Brady hurt himself at a midsummer photo shoot for this month’s Esquire magazine, when the play calling may have stretched the quarterback beyond his preferred practice.

For the cover of the magazine poor Tom was poured into a wasp-waisted wool suit by Gucci which forced him to hold his breath dangerously. The tightness of the two-button jacket was rakishly offset by an unbuttoned collar and a tie positioned strategically askew. His shoes were credited—and I’m not making this up—to a cobbler named A. Testoni. Brady’s raging five o’clock shadow was not credited to Richard Nixon, but his close-cropped hair was ascribed to “Pini Swissa for Pini Swissa Salon.” (This was clearly the head guy at the shop on Newbury Street in Boston—he even traveled with Brady to the Super Bowl and, ignoring Delilah’s cautionary model, cut his locks the night before the game. The Giants are properly grateful.)

Two crotch-focused shots offset the crotch-focused prose of the story inside, ostensibly the inside story about Tom Brady, superstar. “A big man. Taller, thinner, slower, quieter, and—it must be said—a little more milky white than one might expect. In the glinting angle of a limousine-crafted profile, he brings to mind someone beautiful and iconically male—Tyrone Power, perhaps.” Really.

Further into the story the writer, Tom Chiarella, quotes Tom as saying, “I like home magazines.” ... “It’s hard,” he smarmily continues, “to think of the Brady all squoogie at the sight of a duvet cover or a teak spice rack.”

What is going on here? Have our sports heroes and our media culture gone metrosexual? Is this male impersonator in Esquire the stoic quarterback whom sports fans had cast in the mold of Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees? Or is he truly a Yankee Doodle Dandy, a mincing cartoon? Before we hit the table of contents of the September issue we are made to run a gauntlet of 34 pages of soft-porn ads, from the glowering ambisexual models promoting Hugo Boss or Prada to the glistening torso of David Beckham to the artfully moussed Roger Federer.

The unexpectedly high viewership of the Summer Olympics on NBC owed much to the record performances of swimmer Michael Phelps, but maybe even more, in this new age of spornography, to his preposterously low-slung Speedo, awarded a gold medal by viewers of varying sexual proclivities.

Oh, why should I grumble? Has it not been ever thus? In the years before the Revolution made it America’s patriotic anthem, Yankee Doodle was a song of derision that the British heaped upon the ignorant colonialists, calling them so stupid that they could only hope to attain a foppish stature. The first verse and refrain, as generally sung by children today, run thus:

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up
Yankee Doodle dandy
Yankee Doodle round the world
As sweet as sugar candy.

This seems a mild enough if not fully fathomable jest—hardly a slander. How then to account for the eponymous hero’s enduring power as a figure of fun? What precisely was a Yankee, or a Doodle or, most intriguingly, a macaroni (surely it was not just pasta)?

Some savants trace the history of Yankee Doodle back to a harvesting song of 15th century Holland, Yanker dudel doodle down, sung by laborers who were paid with a tenth of the grain and all the buttermilk they could drink. Others find echoes of the melody in the equally old English rhyme Lucy Locket (“Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it; Nothing in it, Nothing in it, But the binding round it.”) In the days of Cromwell, one of the nicknames which the Cavaliers bestowed upon the Puritans was “Nankee Doodle.” An Albany-area tradition attributes a 1758 incarnation of Yankee Doodle to Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, a British army surgeon, wit, and musician who is said to have written it while at Fort Crailo, to mock the ragtag New England militia serving alongside the redcoats.

No matter; the essence is that it is a song of insult. For our current investigation we need look no further back than 1775, when after the battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental army, under General Washington’s command, was encamped in the vicinity of Boston. The Tories were then singing to the old tune of Lucy Locket these lines:

Yankee Doodle came to town
For to buy a firelock;
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.

Thomas Ditson, of Billerica, Massachusetts, was the one tarred and feathered for attempting to buy a musket in Boston in March 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June turned the tables, as Yankee Doodle came to be sung by the patriots. The complete Americanization of the song followed as Harvard student Edward Bangs penned the following during George Washington’s presence at the Provincial Camp in Cambridge in 1775.

Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we seed the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy;
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.

Following General Burgoyne’s surrender of British troops to the Continental Army on October 17, 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey wrote:

…the name [of Yankee] has been more prevalent since the commencement of hostilities…The soldiers at Boston used it as a term of reproach, but after the affair at Bunker’s Hill, the Americans gloried in it. Yankee Doodle is now their paean, a favorite of favorites, played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the Genadier’s March — it is the lover’s spell, the nurse’s lullaby…it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.

Although musicologists have not found an 18th-century version of Yankee Doodle with the immortal line “He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” the jibe may well have originated about the time of the Macaroni Club, established in London in the 1760s for men of polymorphous sexuality. By 1772 the macaroni was a national infatuation, even spawning a magazine not unlike the current Esquire. According to contemporary Thomas Wright, “the macaronis were distinguished especially by an immense knot of artificial hair behind, by a very small cock-hat, by an enormous walking-stick, with long tassels, and by jacket, waistcoat, and breeches of very close cut.... Macaronis were the most attractive objects in the ball, or at the theatre. Macaronis abounded everywhere. There were macaroni songs; the most popular of these latter was the following: —

“Ye belles and beaux of London town,
Come listen to my ditty;
The muse, in prancing up and down,
Has found out something pretty;
With little hat, and hair dressed high,
And whip to ride a pony,
If you but take a right survey,
Denotes a macaroni.”

Named for the vermicelli-based pasta enjoyed by cultivated young Englishmen on their 1760s tours of Italy (thought by the English to be a particular den of perversion, even more so than France or Spain), the macaroni came to embody the consumption of continental fare in intellectual and moral spheres as well. Old-fashioned Englishmen came to identify macaroni culture with all that was effeminate and outlandish. As The Macaroni; A New Song put it in 1772:

His taper waist, so strait and long,
His spindle shanks, like pitchfork prong,
To what sex does the thing belong?
‘Tis call’d a Macaroni.

Between yesterday’s macaroni and today’s metrosexual there may not be much to choose. In a 1994 article in The Independent titled “Here Come the Mirror Men,” Mark Simpson coined the term.

Metrosexual man: the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are), is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade. In the Eighties he was only to be found inside fashion magazines such as GQ, in television advertisements for Levis jeans or in gay bars. In the Nineties, he’s everywhere and he’s going shopping.

In Salon eight years later he added:

For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturized heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn’t shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image – that’s to say, one who was much more interested in being looked at (because that’s the only way you can be certain you actually exist). A man, in other words, who is an advertiser’s walking wet dream.

Call me retrosexual.
--John Thorn

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cheers from the pressbox to Jerome Holtzman (1926-2008)

The Closer

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, July 31, 2008:
For baseball fans and, particularly, knights of the keyboard and bullpen, last week was book-ended with sorrow and joy. On Saturday July 19 at age 81, the venerated baseball writer Jerome Holtzman met his Maker while eight days later pitcher Goose Gossage entered the game’s Valhalla with induction into the Hall of Fame, capping a 22-year career as a relief pitcher of the old school. By that last phrase I mean a reliever who was called in to put out the fire whenever it happened to erupt, not merely a closer in the current style, one who enters the game in the ninth inning with no one on base, succeeds at a rate of 90 percent or higher and, for a winning club, amasses 40 or more saves in a season.

Gossage owed no small measure of his success to Holtzman, who in addition to being “the dean of baseball writers,” may fairly be said to have invented the very thing that measured a reliever’s success: the save. Certainly “inventing” is a term that is fraught with peril for the history of any field of innovation, more so for a game that long embraced Abner Doubleday as its Edison (or Tesla). And it is true that Pat McDonough — who oddly enough went on to become “the dean of bowling writers” — developed a similar stat in 1924 which he called “games finished by relief hurlers”; its first appearance in print came in the New York Telegram three years later.

At about this time the game’s first great reliever, Fred “Firpo” Marberry, had complained that “if the relief pitcher holds the opposing club in check, he gets no credit. The pitcher who preceded him and couldn't stand the pace wins the game.” As the decades progressed, a little-noticed trend was taking shape: fewer complete games, and more clubs employing relief specialists. From 1876 to 1904, 90.5 per cent of all games were finished by the pitchers who had started them. In 1924 to 1946, that figure was nearly halved (45.9), in then in 1959 to 1978, nearly halved again (25.7). By last year the percentage of games had nosedived to 2.3 per cent.

Holtzman recognized in 1959-60 that something dramatic was happening on the field that was invisible in the box score and, by extension, at the bargaining table when relievers came to negotiate their salaries for the next season. As he told Darrell Horwitz in an interview in 2005: “Elroy Face was 18-1 with Pittsburgh in 1959. I was traveling with the Cubs. The Cubs had two relief pitchers: right-hander Don Elston and left-hander Bill Henry. They were constantly protecting leads and no one even knew about it.” It burned him that Face was piling up wins by blowing saves and then having the Pirates rally for him.

Holtzman, then with the Chicago Sun-Times, came up with fairly rigorous rules for crediting saves, and The Sporting News began listing the league leaders during the 1960 season. In Holtzman’s rules, to gain a save a reliever needed to face the potential tying or winning run and his team had to win the game. Interestingly, a pitcher did not have to finish the game to earn the save, but only one save could be awarded per contest. Think how this definition, were it in force today, might impact managers’ use of their best bullpen pitchers.

By 1969, the year in which Major League Baseball made the save an official statistic, Holtzman’s original definition was simplified to credit only a reliever who finished a game that his team won. In 1973 the save was redefined again so that a reliever had not only to finish the game but also to find the potential tying or winning run on base or at the plate, or, alternately, to pitch the final three innings of a victorious contest (whatever the score when he entered the game). In 1975 the rule was liberalized to include a reliever’s game-ending appearance of one inning or more in which he protects a lead of three runs or less; or his entrance into and ultimate completion of the game with the tying or winning run on base, at bat, or on deck; or his pitching three innings to the game’s conclusion.

Now that the complete game has become a near anachronism — this past week also provided the Mets, courtesy of Johan Santana, with their first of the season, matching the Yanks’ season total via Chien-Ming Wang — interest focuses increasingly on the closer and his motley band of setup men. In 1979 I wrote a book now quaintly titled The Relief Pitcher: Baseball’s New Hero. Apart from a painfully thorough review of bullpen history from the 1860s to 1978, which I closed with a profile of the Yankees’ new star Goose Gossage, I also made bold to predict bullpen trends.

“Gossage represents the future of relief pitching,” I wrote, “which rests in the hands of the power pitchers. This trend, slowly developing since the introduction of artificial turf a decade ago, repudiates the wisdom of the past 75 years, that in the pinch what was needed was a sinkerballer who could ‘throw those grounders’ and get those double plays....” One day soon, I concluded, “it will be meaningless to think of the starting pitcher as primary and the finishing pitcher as secondary; they will be equally important. We are not really far at all from that being the truth.” If my crystal ball has proved cloudy, I point out in defense that I wrote the book at a time when smaller ballparks were being phased out for larger ones, astroturf was supplanting grass, and a ball hit in the air was a better outcome than one hit on the ground.

Now that we are deep into the age of the closer, who piles up saves and thereby adulation, not to mention dollars, it may be instructive to contemplate both Gossage’s career, in which he compiled more than 50 saves of two innings or greater duration, and Holtzman’s original definition of a save — which supposed that the crisis in a game could come at any time, not only in the ninth. Any Mets fan who has witnessed the bullpen blow up in the eighth while Billy Wagner awaited his star turn may testify to the truth of that.

Not all runs are created equal — that is the presumption in MLB today. A run allowed or prevented in the ninth is more valuable because either your team or your opponent will be unlikely to respond. But this is the same thinking that has yielded the illusion of clutch hitting — that a .220 hitter who bats .320 with men on base in late innings, is a star rather than a game-long slug and drag on the offense. It has turned out that clutch hitting by lesser players is not a repeatable skill but the product of chance, and the best hitters in the clutch over a career (a stretch long enough to reach a statistically meaningful conclusion) tend to be the best hitters in your lineup ... the ones you bat in the middle of the order.

What if “saving” a game by marching on the field in the ninth, accompanied by the blare of your designated song, were as much an illusion as clutch hitting? Bill Felber did an ingenious study of this question for Total Baseball in the mid-1990s. After reviewing all closely contested games in each of three years (1952, 1972, and 1992) he concluded: “Although the styles managers employ to wrap up victories have changed over the decades — and although the salaries paid to relief pitchers have changed even more — the results have not. Major league teams today blow late-inning leads at almost precisely the same frequency they did twenty and even forty years ago, when there was no such thing as a closer or set-up man, bullpens were commonly refuges for failed starters, and managers signaled for relief help only at the moment of absolute peril.”

When Holtzman came up with the save, those pitchers who were not starters breathed a sigh of relief. Gossage made a Hall of Fame career with hard-earned saves; he was not a “designated hero” like Dennis Eckersley, who in 1992 won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards for garnering 51 saves, only 10 of which reflected his protection of a one-run lead. The system developed by his manager, Tony La Russa, so widely emulated today, disproportionately rewards one reliever in the same way that in football place-kickers seem to win or lose football games in the final minute, minimizing the efforts of real players who spilled their blood over the previous 59 minutes.

The former plight of the unrecognized relief pitcher led to the creation of the save. The creation of the save has now in turn yielded the over-recognized closer. And fans are the worse for it, enduring games that are a half hour longer because of bullpen machinations productive of largely nothing. The beauty of baseball has been that it is a players’ game not, like football, one micromanaged at every stage by coaches.

The predictable end of the relentless advance of specialization in baseball was envisioned by John McGraw in the 1920s, who when asked what he thought about the idea of having a designated hitter, replied that “one might as well go all the way and let a club play nine defensive players in the field and then have nine sluggers do all the hitting.”

--John Thorn

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's a book ... no, it's a reader... no ... it's radiovision.

People of the Book

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, July 17, 2008:
I work at a computer. I prowl databases for late-night fun. I don’t leave home without a mobile phone. I shop online. I maintain a blog. I have been an early adopter of electronic gizmos from Bowmar Brain to Kaypro to Kindle, with many white elephants in between (Sony Data Discman, Psion handheld, Silver Reed palm-sized copier ... I could go on).

All the devices named above do one thing or another better or faster than a book, but none does so well what a book does. The book embodies tradition. It provides escape, and it makes connection. It transports us to other times and places and states of being.

I am a book person. I love the heft of a book, its smell, its design, its perfect marriage of form and function. I love running my fingers over the raised ink in a book set by letterpress.

People of the book may be not only voracious readers but also driven collectors. From the old and rare to the second-hand and remainder, the books with which we surround ourselves in our homes signal to visitors who we are, at a deep level. They also remind us, as we occasionally peruse our collections of well worn or guiltily unread tomes, of who we once were and still hope to become. Books furnish a home and burnish our souls.

Book people will shop in a chain store but will prefer a privately held one. Book people will buy a new or a used book at Amazon or Alibris when they know what they want to find ... but they will look for a used or antiquarian dealer when they want a book to find them.

And here we have a dilemma: not only is the number of such shops shrinking but, of those that remain, an increasing number regard their brick-and-mortar presence as a sideline and online sales as their bread-and-butter. Walk into a second-hand bookstore and try to haggle good-naturedly in the time-honored way and the proprietor will look up the volume on his computer and assert that the price is fair, and let that be an end to the discussion. No matter that the book cited online is a first edition in fine condition and his volume is a tattered fourth, with unsubtle traces of a library pocket. The thrill of the hunt — the chance of finding a rarity in the dollar stall outside the shop — is gone, unless one treks north to the book barns of New England.

But that is the lament of a foiled antiquarian, worthy of derision. Why not simply shift focus: find good books at great prices in places where they ought not to be — in antique shops, flea markets, library sales. To people of the book, such advice is as if Howard Carter had been told to look for Tut’s tomb in Kansas.

If the collecting of books is an only slightly diminished hobby, and the making of books projects no end (never have so many bound things been published, though one hesitates to call them all books), then one wonders if the reading of them is an endangered activity.

I read online A LOT, starting with the New York Times over morning coffee and extending into the night with vintage newspapers from paid database services, or public domain works from free sites such as Google Books or Project Gutenberg, or contemporary works from Questia, a paid service but well worth the money for its ease of search and clipping and shelving features. All of these combined to make me, in the estimation of my lady friend, an ideal candidate for Amazon’s venture into electronic books, the Kindle, which she purchased for me at Christmas.

The Kindle is a Jetson-inspired object that provides a satisfactory reading experience on a train or plane, with a black-on-gray display that is easy on the eyes and on battery life. But you’d never pick up a Kindle at home in preference to a printed product, or even read the morning’s Times on it rather than on the web. Its operating system is pleasingly invisible — one learns how to use the device in just a few minutes—but the amazing thing about the Kindle is its always-on Sprint wireless connection, permitting a lightning-fast shopping experience. Get an itch, order a book from the Amazon store, and it downloads to your device almost instantly. This is one interesting gizmo, and it can even be used, imperfectly, to surf the web and fetch email.

But as an electronic book the Kindle is, like its predecessor Rocketbook, either an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or adult male; or an attempt to smooth over the gap between one technology and its successor, like radiovision (the name Charles Jenkins preferred for his 1928 invention of a mechanical television system). Or the electronic book may simply be a mightily unappealing prospect, like an electronic hug. And yet, our captains of industry think that this is the way we will all read one day.

The move from print to pixels replaces a highly successful technology (movable type, sturdy paper, etc.) with a less satisfactory one. It is an answer to a problem no one perceives, except for the proverbial literary traveler on a slow boat to China who would rather schlep a Kindle than a dozen books. Ah, you say, but moguls cut from this same cloth made a craze of the bottled-water business, so why not the Kindle and its kin?

Recent history provides illumination. The calculator replaced the slide rule overnight in the 1970s because it was smaller, faster, more accurate and, quickly, cheaper. I paid $80 in 1971 (the CPI-adjusted $428 of today) for a Bowmar Brain whose equivalent may today be found at the dollar store. In 1971 dollars, $80 was not far from the cost of the Kindle, whose onset will not hurtle the book into oblivion alongside the slide rule.

Why do even those of my vintage only barely recall Bowmar’s name? Because it was an assembler of its products, buying semiconductor chips from such companies as Texas Instruments. Envious of Bowmar’s profits in the early 1970s, the latter (along with other semiconductor manufacturers), entered the calculator business, conducted a ruthless price war, and drove Bowmar into bankruptcy by 1975. Texas Instruments was vertically integrated, as Bowmar tried to become too late in the game.

Reflect upon Amazon’s ambitions for vertical integration. Before creating the Kindle they almost squashed ebook sales when they bought Mobipocket and barred other formats from their retail site. Print-on-demand titles now have to go through Amazon’s supplier, putting the squeeze on that industry. Amazon shoppers love the “Search Inside This Book” feature, but the online giant had Trojan Horse motivations for offering it. Several publishers who gave Amazon the green light to use its PDF files in the Search feature subsequently authorized the conversion of those files into its proprietary ebook format.

But do not fret about the Kindle. Despite the ebook reader’s several virtues, Amazon has almost surely committed a blunder in its razor-and-blade business model (yes, the Kindle cost $399 at launch but it will be half that price soon enough). The device that people of the book truly need to fear is the one that is already ubiquitous ... the mobile phone.

The current Authors Guild Bulletin reports that of the ten top-selling books in Japan in 2007, five were written as cell phone novels. “Many cell phone readers have never read a novel before, according to Japanese publishers. These books owe a lot to popular comic books. The New York Times said many of the cell phone novels read like diaries.”

Information may or may not want to be free, in the decade-old web paradigm inimical to author interests, but in the modern age it certainly wants to be mobile. In a time characterized by vibrant and stable community — say, the 19th century — the solitude of reading a book was a delicious experience: escapist retreat, like today’s audio-visual forms. In a time of loneliness and anomie — say, the present day — readers will tend to value media that promote or simulate community.

A 21-year-old Japanese who goes by the single name Rin actually wrote her first novel on her keitai (mobile phone) when she was at recess in high school, punching short, crisp sentences with her thumbs to display on her small screen. “Novels I had read had more words. My stories have fewer words and are very easy to read,” she said.

Rin later released her novel, Moshimo Kimiga (If You ...) on a website, where its popularity prompted a publisher to issue it last year as a 142-page hardback book. Her story about a high-school romance and the couple’s fight against the girl’s illness (this seems to be the winning formula for keitai shosetsu— mobile-phone novels— especially the illness part) sold 400,000 copies and was ranked second on the nationwide bestselling fiction list in the first half of 2007.

People of the book, be afraid. Be very afraid.

--John Thorn

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Don't Stop Believing

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, June 5, 2008:
Nine years after a crowning, unique achievement in baseball history, and after two entire seasons spent at home in the Dominican Republic wondering where his career had gone, Fernando Tatis recently returned to the major league scene as an inspired contributor to the dispirited New York Mets. In the space of just a few days, his late-inning hits won two ballgames, the admiration of his teammates, and the adulation of a new fan base. His twelfth-inning walk-off double in the first of these contests overcame a one-run deficit and may turn out to have saved his manager’s job.

On another comeback front, the famous-long-ago rock band Journey, missing the signature tenor of Steve Perry since 1995, kept trying to recover their sound and their audience. Searching for his clone, the band hired and fired a couple of lead singers in the interim until they found one on, of all places, YouTube — and residing in the Philippines, no less. This week Journey, fronted by its new 40-year-old chameleon vocalist Arnel Pineda, issued a new CD to bewildered but favorable reviews. “The album ... is, actually, good,” wrote a clearly surprised Ben Ratliff in the New York Times; “the band seems to have taken rock vitamins: it feels alive.”

Journey’s comeback may have been overshadowed by Pineda’s own: he had struggled along the piers of Manila, where as a boy he had collected scrap metal, bottles and newspapers to survive. As he told a Philippine reporter in January of this year, he always kept a positive outlook, thinking, Gaganda rin ’to, which may be translated as “Things will get better” or even “Don’t stop believing.”

Hillary Clinton ran a valiant if doomed race against time and math yet, conquering neither, kept running as if her power switch was stuck in the on position. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” she offered, echoing Yogi’s tautological wisdom, but what she may have really meant was that it wasn’t over until she said it was over.

Lost in the post-primaries squabble over concession etiquette was her still compelling argument that projecting to the electoral college come November, she appears to win handily while Obama may struggle. Also lost was that her comeback from the political-operative incompetence of the caucus states showed not only relentless drive but also simple courage.

What a long strange week it’s been, with hope and renewal and denial and anger all contending for the top rung. Just hold on, the still, small voice had seemed to say, and the finish line will extend magically ... another day, another season, another tour. These Comeback Kids — Hillary, Fernando, and the members of Journey — have each struggled against what seemed inevitable defeat and, if only for a moment vanquishing it or shoving it to one side, merit at least our grudging admiration.

The pump had been primed for Journey’s return to the top when the Chicago White Sox selected their 1981 anthem “Don’t Stop Believing” as their theme song on the way to winning the 2005 World Series. It became the fire-up music of all Detroit sports franchises, too, for its opening-stanza line “Just a city boy ... born and raised in South Detroit.” But the song’s ultimate return to glory came when, after closing out last year’s final episode of The Sopranos, it catapulted to the top ten of iTunes downloads — a comeback from the dead of perhaps unparalleled dimension.

Unless you think of Tatis, who on April 23, 1999, playing for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Los Angeles Dodgers, did what no one had ever done before and no one is ever likely to do again. He hit two home runs with the bases filled in the same inning ... and against the same pitcher (Chan Ho Park). In that season, when he was a rising star aged 24, he hit 34 home runs and 31 doubles, drove in 107 runs, and even stole 21 bases. He signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract. The road to Cooperstown opened wide.

But he never approached those numbers again, and after four more years of dwindling production with the Cardinals and the Montreal Expos and a failed spring-training trial in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Tatis found himself back at home at San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic waiting for the phone to ring. For two years he stayed home with his wife and five children. After flirtations with the Baltimore Orioles and the Dodgers he landed with the New Orleans Zepyhrs, a Mets farm club for 2007, where he played alongside similarly washed up teammate Chan Ho Park.

Today both are back in the big leagues and contributing big time, Park again finding a home with the Dodgers. The two even faced each other in a single plate appearance of a game last week. What drove Tatis, at age 33, to stick with baseball, despite the indignity of diminished stature, salary, and playing time? His older children told him they wanted to see him play in the majors again. Fernando is now playing the game with a verve that his teammates would do well to emulate. He is happy to be back on the big stage.

So is Journey, whose combined CD/DVD “Revelation” floods into WalMart stores this week (the exclusive retail outlet except for the band’s website, And while there are those who hate the power-ballad era and its fossil remnants, the boomer audience never really left Journey’s side.

Senator Clinton is finding it hard to give up the big stage of Presidential politics. A return to Washington as the junior Senator from New York, with an obstructed view of both the Majority Leader’s chair and that of the Armed Services Committee, seems unpalatable. Negotiating her way onto the ticket will require a position of submission (if only to reality), not strength, and thus is unlikely to prevail. Why she would want the second position is a mystery anyway.

As Hillary considers her next destination, the glowing screen may be a beacon in the dark. “Don’t Stop Believing” was Tony Soprano’s jukebox choice, along with “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” sung by Tony Bennett, selected but not heard before the abrupt blackout (other jukebox options for those who would treat the series finale as a mini-episode of Lost were: “Who Will You Run To,” “Magic Man,” and Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.”) When the Clintons made their celebrated YouTube parody of the Sopranos finale they chose “Don’t Stop Believing” as the background track ... but her jukebox choices for campaign song included “Get Ready,” “Don’t Look Back,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Suddenly I See,” as well as the song ultimately selected for the campaign, Celine Dion’s insipid “You and I.”

Unsolicited advice, from one not unfamiliar with misfortune: Don’t stop believing, but do stop bereaving. Focus on the good times. And as baseball players know, not every hit is a home run, and some days it rains.

--John Thorn

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”

Kessler at the Bat

This previously unpublished riff on the immortal "Casey at the Bat" is by Mikhail Horowitz, bon vivant, raconteur, performance artist and, you should be so lucky, friend.

It looked, well, all farcockteh for the Putzville nine that day;
The score—don’t ask—was 4 to 2. You heppy now? Hokeh.
And so when Plotkin plotzed at first, and Schwartz popped up to third,
Already y’hay sh’may rab-boh was in the ballpark heard.

A couple shlumps got up to go, the others shrugged, and stayed
(For box seats on the field, hoo boy! their tuchuses they paid);
They thought, If only Kessler maybe gives the ball a zetz,
We’d shimmy through the shtetl and forget about the Mets!

But Stein preceded Kessler, as did his nephew, Moe,
And Stein a real shmegegee was, and Moe was just a shmo;
So maybe now for Kessler they should bother not to wait—
Moshiach had a better chance of schlepping to the plate.

But Stein, he blooped a bingle, and his mother cried, Mein Gott!
And Moshe clubbed a double, I should drop dead on the spot;
And when they finished running and bent wheezing at the waist,
There was Moe verklempt on second and Stein on third, vershtast?

So now from all those Putzville fans was such a big to-do,
They rose and davened in a wave, a hundred shofars blew;
A host of angels wept to hear a thousand chazzans sing,
For Kessler, Rebbe Kessler, he was coming up to swing.

There was schmaltz on Kessler’s tallis as he stepped into the box,
In his beard were crumbs of matzoh, small piece cheese, a bissel lox,
And when he shook his shtreimel, drenching half the fans with sweat,
No goyim in the crowd could doubt—’twas Kessler at the bet.

And now the mystic, Kabbalistic pitch comes floating in,
And Kessler’s brow is furrowed, and he slowly strokes his chin;
He comprehends that long before Creation had begun,
This pitch existed somewhere . . . but then he hears, “Strike vun!”

From the stands (donated by the Steins) the whole mishpocheh moaned,
A yenta started kvetching and a balabusta groaned;
“Hey, ump!” an angry moyel cried, “I’ll cut you like a fish!”
So, nu? They would have cut him, but Kessler muttered, “Pish!”

With a smile of pure rachmanis, great Kessler’s punim shone,
He stilled the boiling moyel, he bade the game go on;
He yubba-dubba-dubba’ed as the pious pitcher threw,
But he yubba-dubba’ed once too much—the umpire shrugged,
“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”

“Feh!” cried the maddened Hasids, and Elijah echoed, “Feh!”
But a puzzled look from Kessler made the audience go, “Heh?”
They saw his payus rise and fall, they saw his tzitzits twitch,
They knew that Rebbe Kessler vouldn’t miss another pitch.

The smile on Kessler’s punim now is more profound, and keener;
He glows with all the preternatural light of the Shekinah;
And now the pishka-pishka pitch so big and fat it gets;
And now the air is shattered by the force of Kessler’s zetz!

Oy. Somewhere in Jerusalem a grandson plants a tree;
A klezmer band is playing—so, the clarinet’s off-key;
And somewhere else a shmoyger with the rebbetzin has flirted;
But there is no joy in Putzville—mighty Kessler has converted.

(“The name is Kelly, if you don’t mind!”)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Halcyon days? Polo Grounds crowd, 1908 playoff game.

As the Fan Turns

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, May 8, 2008:

For 35 years now I have been pursuing, in varying precincts, the Great Story of Baseball, looking at the statistical record, the historical archives, and the daily action on the field. Lately I have turned my attention to the individuals surrounding me in the stands, or those silently communing with me before television shrines, and it seems to me that fandom has taken a troubling turn.

This was brought home forcibly last week when Carlos Delgado, the Mets first baseman who has been excoriated at the ballpark and in the media, broke out of a month-long slump by smacking two home runs in one game, then denying the fickle fans' behest to a curtain call at the dugout steps. It was his home run, dammit, and he would decide how to celebrate it. He was not a marionette, he implied.

As players have wrung ever money from the game — redressing a century of wage slavery — a chasm has come to separate fans from the objects of their admiration. (Players have always taken a dim view of them.) Older fans may long for a return to the days when a Brooklyn boy might bump into Gil Hodges on the streets of Bay Ridge, but they know that ballplayers have fled the lunch-bucket fraternity for good.

Younger fans, however, have taken matters into their own hands through the strange revenge of fantasy baseball, which encourages them to act like oldtime owners, holding full sway over their chattel. In turn, this view of ballplayers as mere property — rather than members of a team and champions of civic pride — has spawned a mob hauteur. For an increasing number of today’s devotees, the players are game pieces whose failure to perform to expectation triggers simmering frustration, even rage. The logorrhea of the blogs and talk radio further fuels fans’ impatience and sense of entitlement.

It may well be time for a gentle guide on etiquette and right conduct — how to be a fan, for those who have forgotten or never truly knew.

A ballgame has many features in common with theater and ritual, from rousing emotions and suspending disbelief to experiencing catharsis. But baseball is not a staged drama or religious rite, with their preordained outcomes, but a real life struggle in which we sense that risk is everywhere present ... if in the end without real consequence for our lives. Baseball in America is a sort of faith for the faithless, and its seven virtues are the same as those of religion — faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence, and moderation. Let me explain.

Adults who come to the game late tend to make rational decisions about which team to embrace, as a forty-year-old might choose a marriage partner; it can be a cold and dispiriting business. A child, however, selects his team for a range of reasons he or she only dimly understands at the time; call it love. It would not be too much to say that reason does not enter into this choice; it is almost entirely a matter of faith. What must be comprehended at the outset, however, by even the youngest fan, is that a rooting interest is not to be reversed lightly. A youngster who wavers in his allegiance may not amount to much. Defeat is a challenge to faith, but it must be borne.

A fan’s hope is like the unreasoning, inexplicable love of Krazy Kat for Ignatz: each blow to the head is merely a love tap, binding victim ever more closely to assailant. (Some may call this neurosis.) Although maintaining faith can be a struggle in the face of present misfortune and injustice, hope is forward-looking and, thanks especially to spring training, cyclically renewable.

Charity enables the fan to appreciate the human frailty of the players. A child may regard these Hessians as heroes but a grownup fan may not. Disbelief may be suspended, especially in April, but a real baseball fan embraces reality before the end of October forces it upon him. Closers blow saves; infielders make errors on routine plays at awful times; cleanup hitters strike out with men on base. Yes, playing the scapegoat is part of the tribal role for which players sign on. Yes, this is the game you played when you were young and from a distance it still looks easy. But No, you would not have done better in their place. As an attitude borne in silence, charity is commendable. Voiced in defense of a player sorely abused in your presence — now that is a true virtue.

Fortitude is staying until the game is over, even when your team trails by ten and the traffic will be murder. Fortitude need not be exercised solo: rally caps, crossed fingers, thunder sticks, whatever fetishes you need to get you through the game, they’re all okay. Sure the players are important, but the outcome of the game depends upon you. Remember that.

Justice is being fair with others, even Yankee fans. Look upon these benighted souls with bemusement. Winning isn’t everything, and debilitates character. Let them pursue victory heedless of the ruin that awaits them in the next life. Can they gnash their teeth as you can? Certainly not. Right conduct, even in the face of provocation, will get you somewhere (though not with girls). As Mark Twain said, “Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Exercising prudence helps one to avoid excesses of optimism. When Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs on Opening Day of 1994, he did not go on to hit 486 for the season. Don’t extrapolate from today’s good fortune. Don’t bet on the law of averages. Think twice about getting that tattoo of today’s hero. Be calm and serene even when your insides are jumping with joy as your team has come back from three down in the ninth. This will deter gloating by others when your team blows a three-run lead in the ninth.

(Okay, just kidding on that last virtue. Ya gotta believe. Ya gotta enjoy. And ya gotta suffer. That’s the human condition, not simply the arm’s-length world of fandom.)

So, to toll the seventh of fandom’s virtues: employ moderation in all things, including moderation. You know that you are not playing shortstop for the Red Sox, though your emotions are racing as if you were. But face facts — there’s no stopping that rush of testosterone or fancied pheromones when your team improbably snatches victory at the last. Winning has its rewards. Enjoy them, even while knowing, at the back of your mind somewhere, if you can recall where your mind went to after that walk-off homer, that losing is the superior instructor.

[Portions of this column are based upon my essay in Anatomy of Baseball, SMU Press, 2008.]

--John Thorn