The momentum builds now, we can practically touch and taste the heightened tension, as Mike Lowell’s rage literally lifts him skyward, and Ryan Braun icily eyes down a game deciding moon shot, preening as he plays an action movie assassin. Oh yes, the merciless dog days have arrived.
God bless us, everyone.
For there are trades to celebrate, executives to excoriate, victories to relish and heinous losses so hellish… prepare for sensory overload, a hypnotic season’s mysteries unwinding by the inning. In Spring Training, the contenders and pretenders gathered, surrounding palm trees swaying, whispering the impossible. Reality intervenes in April, the distilled winter chill slicing and dicing through the Opening Day pomp and circumstance, delivering winners and losers, preparing us for the grind ahead. What has happened to the thirty elite? Who rises or falls, disappoints or enthralls?
The American League East
Tampa Bay Rays:
Perennially hapless, Tampa Bay’s baseball franchise sought to prove wrong a classical Shakespearean assertion concerning the importance of names. It was former Devil Ray Russ Johnson, a talented, hard luck infielder never quite able to attain job security at the Big League level, who insisted the beleaguered club would never escape it’s demons, so long they put “the devil… on a pedestal”. Time often seems designed to make fools of us, yet in this instance, it casts Russ Johnson as a practical baseball prophet. Funny game.
For, the long discussed name change finally became official this past off-season, the Rays’ new ownership casting the devil from their lot. Judging the team from a perch of logic and reason, where no devil ever truly resides, one is left marveling at the peerless work of Andrew Friedman, the young General Manager who previously served as director of player development.
Friedman has made sensible moves, avoiding crippling trades or contracts that could derail his vision, which ultimately arrived a year or two early. His gutsy trade of Delmon Young, netting him Matt Garza and steady shortstop Jason Bartlett, has been an absolute win. Less publicized transactions, such as his acquisition of former top prospect turned suspect Edwin Jackson and reliable reliever Dan Wheeler were solid philosophically, and have paid dividends on the diamond.
Unlike other hapless small market clubs, the Rays have drafted aggressively, grabbing top talent regardless of price tag. Frugal is often foolish, just ask the Padres, usually a well run club that drafted Matt Bush instead of Justin Verlander in the 2004 draft, burdened by the first overall selection. The Rays have experienced no such difficulty, David Price their latest prize. The future couldn’t be brighter for the aptly titled Rays.
What’s in a name?
Surprising player: J.P. Howell.
The former starter has flourished in the bullpen. Acquired for Joey Gathright, who still can’t steal first, but can jump over cars. Eric Hinske could also qualify.
Disappointing player: Carl Crawford
Currently hitting beneath capabilities, part of a largely underachieving offense that would have been in deep trouble without the arrival of Evan Longoria.
Boston Red Sox:
The defending World Champions enjoyed a placid off-season, preferring to simply tweak a roster that cultivated a mind blowing Pythagorean record in 2007. In October, the team made another memorable run, overcoming a 3-1 League Championship Series hole and breaking hearts in Cleveland.
The 2008 edition has been forced to cope with injuries and dissension, the former putting the productivity of David Ortiz in serious question, and the latter provided entirely by Manny Ramirez, who has taken his contractual concerns public. Despite these issues, the Red Sox remain a deadly threat because of their stellar pitching staff, which arguably features three aces, the ascendant Jon Lester, fully acclimated Daisuke Matsuzaka, and overpowering Josh Beckett. While Beckett hasn’t carried the same precise breaker into 2008, his fastball remains wicked, postseason resume bulletproof.
The Red Sox’s key deficiency resides in the bullpen, where the set-up crew has regressed, most notably Hideki Okajima.
Surprising Player: Jon Lester.
Previously dogged by control problems, Lester’s command and repertoire have both markedly improved. He developed a dirty, fading two-seam fastball to right-handed hitters, honed in the winter with the help of Braves Ace Tim Hudson.
Disappointing Player: Jacoby Ellsbury
Dazzled in a 2007 cameo, but his 2008 performance has rendered the Grady Sizemore comparisons patently ridiculous.
New York Yankees:
Eschewing Johan Santana, the Yankees rolled the dice in 2008, praying an impressive stable of young pitchers would deliver, lest their campaign degenerate into an absolute disaster. Unfortunately for them, Phil Hughes was awful before being shut down with a broken rib, and Ian Kennedy completely lost control of his prime secondary pitch, the changeup, rendering him similarly ineffective. Even worse, their ace, Chien-Ming Wang, suffered a freakish injury in Houston, breaking his foot running the bases, trapped on the DL until September.
This was all nightmarish news, to be certain, but the Yankees simply refuse to die, ala Jason Voorhees, hatchet in head yet ever vigilant, pursuing that last camp counselor.
New York’s season floats on because Alex Rodriguez is phenomenal, Mike Mussina resurrected, and Mariano Rivera beyond words. Joe Girardi’s superb bullpen management has turned a potential weakness into a fortified strength; almost all of the Yankee relievers rocking obscene K rates while sharing a steady workload. Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras, afterthoughts just months ago, have become stalwarts. Joba Chamberlain has graduated from the prologue of his career, flashing signs of dominance as a starter. Indeed, the Yankees, despite the devastating loses of Wang, Jorge Posada, and Hideki Matsui, are still knocking at the door, wielding a chainsaw, coming for you next.
Surprising Player: Mike Mussina.
The intellectual pitcher smartly opted to ebb the velocity on his breaking stuff, throwing a wider variety of curves, sliders, and splitters at differing speeds, all while sporting an obscene, and perhaps unsustainable, level of command. It adds up to a remarkable comeback.
Disappointing player: Melky Cabrera.
Despite a promising skill-set, Cabrera’s game hasn’t been the same since ’06, his plate discipline nothing more than a fond memory.
Toronto Blue Jays:
J.P. Ricciardi is still standing, despite the dismissal of manager John Gibbons and instillation of Cito Gaston, which appears, from the outside at least, an obvious ownership choice.
Despite a couple of winning records, the Blue Jays under Ricciardi have been largely forgettable, though injuries did destroy a promising unit in 2007. J.P. tried bringing a grittier attitude to the clubhouse with the additions of Scott Rolen and David Eckstein, but he may have considered the theory that grittiness, when pitted against talent, is often exposed as a fallacy invented by lazy sportswriters.
In any event, the Jays’ will be respectable again, riding the arm of Roy Halladay, an accomplishment that appeared bleak after the shocking release of Frank Thomas and aforementioned dismissal of Gibbons, whose ridiculous saunter to the mound when changing pitchers will be missed.
It must burn hardcore Blue Jay fans to be lapped by Tampa Bay, whose General Manager never publicly rued the presence of the Yankees or Red Sox in the American League East, as if conceding.
Surprising Player: Jesse Carlson.
The 27 year-old rookie has been an invaluable member of a rock solid bullpen.
Disappointing Player: Scott Rolen
Injured at the onset of the season, just hasn’t rebounded the way Toronto hoped, and is being soundly outperformed by Troy Glaus in St. Louis.
Though we pretend to forget now, many analysts had anointed the Orioles as the worst team in baseball before the arrival of April, as the aimless franchise, at long last, fully committed to a rebuilding project. Despite the doom and gloom prognostications, Dave Trembley’s troops deserve an A for effort, consistently fighting for nine innings or more every single night. The cracks are becoming evident, but one hundred loss forecasts will definitely be proven wrong by the likes of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Jeremy Guthrie.
Surprising Player: Jim Johnson.
The sterling relief pitcher relies on a plummeting fastball to coax harmless grounders from the opposition.
Disappointing Player: Daniel Cabrera.
Appeared to finally figure something out earlier this season but… never mind.
American League Central
Chicago White Sox:
There is, of course, a method to Kenny Williams’ madness. Often unfairly derided in the sabermetric community, the White Sox’s GM was deserving of ridicule following Chicago’s putrid 2007. Adhering to amendment instead of total teardown, Williams’ added pieces to his flawed roster, scooping up Orlando Cabrera, signing international free agent Alexei Ramirez, and pulling off a blockbuster for Nick Swisher.
But the most important machination was probably read as transaction blotter filler for the average fan. Those in more knowledgeable circles wondered why the Diamondbacks would abandon such a talented outfielder after one injury plagued season, and Carlos Quentin did nothing to dissuade those questions, breaking through as a star in the Show with Chicago instead of Arizona.
The 2008 White Sox are, in fact, a team that relied heavily on young players finding their potential. Without the solid work of young guns John Danks and Gavin Floyd in the rotation, they wouldn’t be a first place team, and all of Kenny Williams’ hard work this off-season, which included transforming an abysmal bullpen into one of the best in baseball, would have been for naught.
Surprising Player: Carlos Quentin
Carlos Quentin has 27 bombs, a phenomenal OPS + of 145, and a slugging percentage of .555. Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, Eric Byrnes is a much better skateboarder. Jermaine Dye also deserves mention. An age related decline seemed in the offing, but he is enjoying a vintage season. Never, ever count out Jermaine Dye.
Disappointing player: Paul Konerko
It seems like Paul Konerko is barely out-hitting Miguel Cairo these days, as the ghost of 2003 inexplicably returns.
Bill Smith probably worries most Twins fans. Here is a man who totally blew the Johan Santana trade, overplaying his hand, eventually forced to scrounge a downright lousy package from the Mets. Adding insult to injury, he traded homegrown starting pitcher Matt Garza for the prodigiously talented but mercurial Delmon Young, a player who seems to have made it his mission to swing at as many pitches as possible.
Garza felt alienated by prior Twins’ management, complaining to the press after being passed over in favor of the immortal Sidney Ponson, setting tracks for his exit. The latest unhappy camper is Francisco Liriano, dominating the Minors, clearly ready to return and contribute mightily to a team in contention, yet being held down, apparently so Livan Hernandez can attack the hits to innings pitched record.
Despite this turmoil, the Twins rode a shockingly stable pitching staff and explosive offense, anchored by Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer [.400 OBP for a catcher!], toward the upper echelon of an utterly confounding American League Central.
Future outlook: Unknown.
Surprising Player: Alexi Casilla.
The diminutive second baseman is putting together a fantastic season, striking a mere 25 times in 235 plate appearances. Deserves to be in the discussion with Pedroia, Cano, and Kinsler.
Disappointing player: Boof Bonser.
His name is sure to be rattled off by baseball fans nationwide whenever that insane A.J. Pierzynski kamikaze move executed by Brian Sabean is discussed, but he’s essentially a mop-up man at this point, and has been largely a disappointment with the Twins.
The Tigers just may have been doomed as a playoff team the second Steve Phillips proclaimed they would be the greatest offense ever, but in actuality, their real mistake was overlooking the bullpen, whose incompetence decimated them throughout the first half. Most Tiger fans have probably seen enough of Freddy Dolsi to last a lifetime.
The bullpen was of paramount importance to Detroit, because the front five in their pitching staff each came with hefty baggage, issues ranging from age to injury and overuse.
The collapse of Dontrelle Willis was sickening to watch, while the continued failings of Jeremy Bonderman become less mystifying by the season. Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander have seen their performances fluctuate from exceptional to abysmal, though Verlander seems to have turned it around for good in July.
Armando Galarraga has been a revelation, allowing 86 hits in 107 exceptional innings.
While their offense hasn’t fulfilled the bombastic predictions, it is undoubtedly one of the best in baseball. Miguel Cabrera, in particular, has raked of late, though that was inevitable.
Surprise player: Armando Galarraga.
If the Tigers surge in a similar fashion to the Yankees last season, Galarraga’s admirable pitching will be part of the reason. Matthew Joyce deserves honorable mention.
Disappointing player: Dontrelle Willis.
Where has that brilliant, charismatic pitcher vanished? Sad story so far.
Kansas City Royals:
Dayton Moore sure is trying, but he still hasn’t reversed the futures of the Royals. They sit comfortably in fourth place, actually playing two games above their Pythagorean record. Billy Butler hasn’t lived up to expectations, though David DeJesus just might be establishing a new baseline of performance. The young pitching staff has been steady, but not nearly good enough to carry a weak offense.
The strength of the team lurks at the bullpen’s backend, where Joakim Soria, Ramon Ramirez, and Ron Mahay have been lights out. Leo Nunez, when healthy, has an electric arm.
Tony Pena has an utterly unfathomable OPS + of -1. I didn’t even know that was possible. Poor guy.
Surprising Player: Mike Aviles.
Written off by some as a slot signing by a cheap Royals regime, Aviles rescued shortstop from the nefarious clutches of Tony Pena and has probably produced enough to lock down the position.
Disappointing player: Brian Bannister.
His DIPS luck may have run out, but he’s still way better than a 5.40 ERA.
Sometimes, the window closes quicker than we expect. The Indians were one elusive win from the World Series in 2007, where they probably would have wiped out the Colorado Rockies. Alas, the Boston Red Sox rallied, Joel Skinner didn’t wave Kenny Lofton home, and the painful image of Victor Martinez crying alone at the top step of the Fenway Visitor’s dugout became a defining, indelible blight on a marvelous season that came up short.
In hindsight, Tribe boosters are down on Mark Shapiro’s off-season, in which he didn’t even replace Joe Borowski, shaky closer du jour. One could easily argue, though, that the Indians wouldn’t have stood a chance anyway, not with the injuries incurred to cornerstone players such as Fausto Carmona, Travis Hafner, and the aforementioned Martinez.
Despite standout performances from Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee, this just isn’t the Indians’ time. Shapiro was in the right dealing C.C. Sabathia.
Matthew LaPorta could put the Tribe over the top, when the time is right.
Surprising player: Cliff Lee.
The lefthander’s career appeared in limbo following a disastrous ’07. But he has returned with a vengeance, a potential Cy Young winner.
Disappointing player: Ryan Garko
There are many candidates, including Hafner, who has just fallen off completely. But Ryan Garko gets my vote, an awful season that nobody saw coming.
American League West
Los Angeles Angels:
Tony Reagins closed the Torii Hunter deal at Del Taco, in Corona, California. Now, he’s free to watch his team feast on a mediocre division for the duration of the season. The Angels are not as good as their record would indicate, but they are still the undisputed class of the American League West, with a downright loaded staff of pitchers. They are one of the few teams in the game that can roll out five quality starters, without even the slightest contribution from Kelvim Escobar, felled by a devastating shoulder injury.
Ervin Santana adjusted his wayward mechanics, distancing himself from a lackluster ’07 with every quality outing. Joe Saunders has made the leap, ace caliber for the first time in his career. And as if those two weren’t enough, Jon Lackey hit the ground running after escaping the DL, piling up 8 wins in 13 starts.
Though they could use another reliever behind Scot Shields and save record seeking Francisco Rodriguez, it’s a pointless practice to quibble with the Angels’ pitching. The offense may not be overpowering, severely damaged by the immovable Gary Matthews Jr., but it is efficient, opportunistic.
As off this writing, the Los Angeles Angels are the best team in the American League.
Surprising Player: Joe Saunders
Seemed primed for a solid run as a back of the rotation lefty after allowing 129 hits in 107 innings last year, compiling a 4.44 earned run average. The improvement of his numbers across the board in ’08 is staggering. The hits are way down, walks way down, and strikeouts trending up. Can Saunders maintain this pace? Even if he doesn’t, his contribution to the ’08 Angels, in the wake of injuries to Lackey and Escobar, has already been invaluable.
Disappointing player: Gary Matthews Jr.
Not the least bit shocking to anyone beside the Angels, who were crazy to give him that contract, a rare mistake on their part.
Billy Beane isn’t easily fooled. His 2008 Athletics were overachieving big time, arguments being made whether or not he should continue dismantling a core group that peaked with a trip to the ALCS in 2006. So, he waited, and signed Frank Thomas, just for kicks.
But as the Angels began pulling away, the Wild Card likely to arise from the AL East, it became apparent that these A’s were not bound for glory. Beane could have tried leaning on his roster for a .500 season, strictly for aesthetic reasons.
But this is an intellectually dishonest approach, beyond Beane, really, so he dealt Rich Harden to the Cubs, mainly for Sean Gallagher, signaling that the white flag had risen over the Oakland Coliseum. He’ll be ripped in the mainstream press for doing the right thing, for trying to build a consistent Division winner instead of maintaining a nice 85 win surprise. Beane is prepared for the venom, if he were to deal Justin Duchscherer, having a sublime season, or Huston Street, whose velocity has significantly dropped. But he will endure, fully aware this offense would ultimately collapse, or come close, their lineup page on Baseball reference near vomit inducing.
Beane can take the heat. It’s why he is the best general manager in baseball. It’s why he was able to write “Moneyball”, at least according to Joe Morgan. And it’s why the 2010 A’s will be much more interesting to write about than this team of transition.
Surprising player: Justin Duchscherer.
A reliever before this season, Justin has totally blossomed in the starter’s role, doing a pretty nifty Greg Maddux impersonation, for the time being, anyway.
Disappointing player: Daric Barton.
Thought of as the crown jewel in the Mark Mulder swindling, Barton may need more time in the minors, despite his sound approach at the plate.
Ron Washington was in danger of being fired this April, but that’s when the hits started, and just kept coming. General Manager Jon Daniels may ultimately never recover from giving away Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez, but he sure put together an amazing offensive team this season. With Josh Hamilton pounding the baseball, Milton Bradley enjoying a possible career year, Ian Kinsler solidifying his status as a star, Mike Young being Mike Young, and David Murphy surpassing expectations, all the planets aligned for the Rangers to have a magnificent summer with the lumber. Hell, even Ramon Vazquez is getting in on the action.
Unfortunately, in the game of baseball, a team must also pitch to the opposition. If the Rangers had a way to circumvent this rule, they would surely make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Sadly, this isn’t even an option. Nope, they can’t even use a super juiced pitching machine.
Bitterly enough for Texas, they have developed pitching, it just happens to be reaping benefits for other teams. Dealing Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton is imminently defensible. Parting with Chris Young and John Danks is inexcusable, especially with Brandon McCarthy missing in action.
Surprising player: Josh Hamilton.
His play is Hall of Fame caliber right now. That’s surprising to me, anyway.
Disappointing player: Kevin Millwood.
Failing to earn his money for the second straight season. C.J. Wilson hasn’t built off his impressive 2007, but he does lead the league in matching wits with Jeff Pearlman.
“The Mike and the Maddog” radio program is pretty popular out here in New York. The two middle-aged hosts, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, are often criticized for refusing to acknowledge pronouncements and predictions that go terribly wrong, a common occurrence. Listeners even insinuate the two are bad luck, suggesting any team they vouch for ultimately falls apart. In a recent, memorable example, Chris Russo predicted that the Giants would be blown out by the heretofore undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, cackling as he said “This is gunna get sick,” in an obvious attempt to rile Giant fans. We all know how that one worked out. A similar, though far less memorable incident played out in March, as Mike and Chris both backed the Mariners to win 90 plus games.
Well, as Mike so eloquently put it:
“Uhhh, Dog, the Mariners won 88 games last season. Add Bedard. That’s 95 wins.”
I picture Dog chiming in with a solid “Case closed Mike”, but can’t verify this.
Mariner fans, Mariner players, Mariner management, they all wish the mathematics were this simple. I suppose that was strategy behind adding Bedard to a team with a mediocre offense and bullpen due for a drastic letdown. It’s hard to believe, but the Mariner organization really believed they could win a World Series with Jose Vidro as their everyday Designated hitter.
In the aftermath of this carnage, Miguel Cairo has forty starts at first base, and counting. The utter insanity of that sentence is tough to comprehend, but then again, Willie Bloomquist is holding down centerfield, so we’re all going to have recalibrate our crazy meters.
Simply put, the Mariners are worthy of ridicule because they paid so much to earn it.
They are a colossal failure in need of a severe overhaul.
Surprising player: The Mariner Moose
For not killing himself.
Disappointing player: Kenji Johjima.
It’s not every year that a player with a .249 .OBP gets a contract extension. Yeah, Kenji is probably pretty cool with spending the rest of his career in America.
Why do we play these games?
Not sure if I was ever meant to play baseball, but, for a time, if felt perfectly natural. I sometimes wonder if we are assigned dreams before birth, impossible missions never meant for completion, just so we could learn something from the failure.
For many years of my life, I carried within my heart the bitter burden of unrequited love. Such a victory for vanity, that a game could mean this much. To me, baseball rose above the transient emblems of victory and defeat. It was always about the process, fragments of tranquility where existence justified itself. The game held freedom, from that grandiose philosophical doubt, those unconscious and unknowable questions haunting us from birth and chasing us into death. I kept my self, alone, standing stoically at first base, tugging on my uniform sleeves, slapping spit into an oversized mitt… I simply was. Few experiences legitimately compare. As a writer, I am creating, transforming emptiness into something meaningful or wasting space with something negligible. As a player, just being was enough.
I’ve become cynical these days, an unavoidable consequence of regret. Hard to recall being anything more than flawed, though playing baseball at a high level, which I did for a short and ultimately meaningless time, made me feel great. The kicker is, I truly believe we were meant for greatness, and all this loathing, all this anger and all this uselessness, is nothing more than amnesia, forgetting what we already are. Perception taunts us, beckoning our disgust. We compare ourselves with other people, and feel jealous, compare ourselves with the world, and feel empty, compare ourselves with animals, and feel similar, all to avoid looking in. Baseball let me look inside myself, a test already answered. All the joy, fear was real, so was the fight, and I understood without having to understand. Maybe it’s easy for other people, those who never needed something so arguably pointless to find their identity. I doubt it. The truth hides in our futile pursuits, and we can’t help but seek.
Nobody really plays a game for money. This comes after the fact. All the advertisements throw love in our faces, to purify their exploitation. Very few people play baseball solely for love of the game. Many players hate the actual game of baseball, as did I toward the end. The game is a drug, no different from chemical counterparts. We’re hooked, high off a perfect moment, trapped inside our own minds. Does a player play because he loves the game? Does a drunk drink because he loves the taste?
We collect success, run and jump for it, throw and swing for it, think and write for it. It’s not the end result fascinating us, the ultimate length of a monstrous home run, the pretty syntax in a perfectly written sentence, we are addicted to the epiphany, quenched by the clarity discovered in our performance. Brett Favre isn’t having doubts, but experiencing withdrawal. He needs to pump fake like a maniac before scrambling outside the pocket, dodging defenders with an insane smile on his face, his vulnerability securing an identity.
Some special ones prefer it taken away.
I have a confession, and would be remiss in failing to mention it. I was a pretty terrible baseball player, when it counted, anyway. In my younger years, which seem a dream at this point, I could really hit, man. I raked in the third grade, ran the bases with abandon, owned the diamond. It’s laughable, thinking back on it, how embarrassingly important it all felt. I faded as the competition level rose, lapped really, eating the dust of better athletes. Reality is the ultimate consequence, a grand scheme resembling a pinball machine. Random the rule, our feelings inconsequential, we bounce blindly into walls before slamming into each other, until the game is mercifully over. In reality, this article is nothing more than an assorted collection of symbols and slashes, filling a gap. We assign the meaning, because life would be empty without it. No matter how much I knew baseball meant to me, I couldn’t manipulate what I meant to it. Competition refuses this flexibility. Baseball did not need from me what it already had inherently.
There were triumphs, occasional and fleeting. Travel teams were made, game-winning hits delivered, false hope fabricated from dust. But I was humbled, more often than not. There was a playoff game when I was 13, where a vicious line drive eluded my glove and resulted in a grand slam. After the inning, my coach apologized, not for the enraged look in his eyes, but for even playing me in left in the first place. That one stung a bit.
I adapted, though, for survival purposes, becoming the jovial bench player. Hell, my spot on the travel team, secure for three years, probably could be attributed to sheer force of personality. I was kind of useful; able to play all three out field positions with a slight degree of competence, drop down a bunt, hit plenty of cheap singles off the handle and into left field. I even, at rare times, played first base and hit leadoff, our friendly manager nodding toward my past, humoring me in meaningless games that didn’t count in the standings. I was a player the stat heads would loathe: A dirty uniform, nothing more.
Well, I could also draw an occasional walk.
And so it went, my dreams never really exploded into nothingness, life rarely works in such broad strokes. The slide was subtle. When I failed to make the freshman baseball team in High School, my heart broke. I was added to the roster after someone flunked off, but my time with the team was a most miserable experience. I never played, was depressed about other upheavals scattering my life, and discovered the true definition of lost. Playing the game helped me see myself. Not playing, among other things, made me completely lose that sight, wonder if it was ever real in the first place. I began to realize baseball didn’t define anyone as a person, and placing belief in something so fickle was tantamount to leaping off a cliff in the dessert, praying for a cactus to break the fall. Misplaced faith. This realization wasn’t enlightening, but maddening. The next summer, I lashed out at the travel team coach about playing time, the indignation finally breaking me. He was tired of my act. Actually, the whole coaching staff had grown weary of my increasingly poisonous attitude. I had stopped hustling.
I was gone, playing in a different uniform the next summer, on a joke team that rarely even fielded nine. One of my fondest memory from that dysfunctional outfit involved a game wherein our catcher attempted to decapitate a runner with a pickoff throw to first, his intent to injure so obvious that it prompted his ejection from the game. We were forced to forfeit. Nobody else knew how to catch. We went home that afternoon, questioning whether our degenerate roster should ever be involved in another organized game of baseball. Through it all, I kept playing. I was no longer chasing an impossible dream, lamenting a lost cause, but simply searching in vain for the tiniest fragment of that youthful assurance, previously conjured in an effortless trance. I came close, one time. Playing first base, my home sweet home, a game three years ago, I noticed a scout ambling toward the field, right behind our dugout. He was hardly covert, stopwatch dangling from his neck, notebook in hand. The thought dawned on me:
So I made eye contact with the scout, kicking the infield dirt, bending my cap, chattering encouragement, adjusting position according to the trajectory of aimless foul balls, appearing professional while savoring the role. I fielded a ground ball that inning, touched the bag, took it myself, noticed the scout was gone. I smiled… distinctly remember being at peace with it all.
It was my last game. The diamonds would survive without me.
I am equal parts fascinated and repulsed by human behavior. Looking back on it, this guy may have been better served pursuing a degree in psychology, as opposed to journalism.
There exists an intangible, and often irrational, tendril implanted in every single human decision, and my own thought processes are hardly excluded. All too often, our well-furbished facades and fortified insecurities are precisely what land us in intellectual quagmire, where rationality has long departed from the breakfast menu.
Buzz Bissinger, a superb writer by any measure, apparently stepped into a phone booth before appearing on an HBO Special examining American Journalism, transforming from Pulitzer Prize winner to indignant minister, preaching a fiery sermon denouncing blogs. As Bissinger ranted and raved at Deadspin founder Will Leitch, a co-chair on a round table fronted by Bob Costas and inexplicably featuring Browns Wide Receiver Braylon Edwards, his self-righteous charade began resembling desperation. What, exactly, was Bissinger fighting for? How could such an intelligent individual convince himself that blogs represented a legitimate threat to the overall intelligence of America in the future, as ridiculously proposed at the apex of his warlike declaration?
Bissinger shouldn’t be excused for his entirely unprovoked potshots at Leitch, whose calm exterior may have belied something smoldering beneath the surface, but his twisted philosophy doesn’t necessarily need perpetuate. Indeed, it is only through understanding the Buzz Theory that reconciliation can be attained, between bloggers and mainstream writers, their relationship far more symbiotic than presently realized.
Buzz Bissinger is perhaps best known for his book “Friday Night Lights”, a work so transcendent that it remained relevant in our A.D.D. addled society years after initial publication, spawning a critically successful film and television show. “Friday Night Lights” wasn’t just a book about a high school football team in Odessa, Texas, but a meditation on the entire meaning of the sports, the heroes it so ably provides, and the simplified script it so regrettably must adhere to. Years before an epic David Simon creation called “The Wire” introduced the societal chessboard theory, “Friday Night Lights” memorably, and rather beautifully, pondered the bitter fate of disposable heroes. Just as “The Wire” set out to prove “the king stays the king”, changing faces purely incidental, the principal epiphany defining “Friday Night Lights” was that the running back stays the running back, accorded small town fame and adulation no matter name or future. The Permian Panthers were caretakers of a dreamland.
People love playing this game. Simplification. Is there a part of us that somehow enjoys playing a role we never conceived? There’s a wonderful aside in “Friday Night Lights”, political commentary provided by Bissinger, where he incredulously notes an eager horde practically genuflecting at the feet of George Bush, as he reached the crescendo of a speech centered on American values. Whatever the hell American Values actually meant, nobody knew, but Bissinger couldn’t help noticing how dearly the people wanted to believe.
It’s genuine belief that paves the path of the self-righteous, opening the door to hypocrisy, breeding ESPN styled arguments, two sides digging a trench steeped in stupidity. Bissinger versus Leitch was a confrontation between two individuals, who, under different circumstances, may have gotten along just fine. A pity there was more at stake, in this case wildly divergent philosophies regarding the very merit of journalism. Should sports be seen simply as entertainment, coverage colored in this perception? This is Leitch’s appraisal.
But is there anything more? Should there be? Is Bissinger right to opine for W.C. Heinz [RIP], should opinions regarding sports be qualified? And if so, what exactly are the qualifications? It may disgust Bissinger to realize, but this train of thought shares tracks with those mysterious American values. But don’t judge. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to believe. Wanting to believe a journalism degree is evidence of talent and insight, of sound reasoning and selflessness. Wanting to believe in boundaries, balance, access, that the system works and bloggers hate that it does… not that it doesn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to believe in a system validating art.
Upon initial visitation to Deadspin.com, my emotional response was predictable. We’re always a bit unsure when wading into unfamiliar waters, far too quick in assessing on our surroundings, an assuaging mechanism. I thought Deadspin was amusing, though overly apathetic. Here was a place openly advertising disdain for the mechanism of hero worship, a rattrap ensnaring many a sport fan, programming them how to feel. But I soon adjusted, recalibrating my reading in deference to Deadspin’s lifeblood, a constant wail of irreverence, no matter what subject being lampooned. Deadspin was able to thrive because its environment required an antithesis. Will Leitch was intelligent enough to realize the silent majority represented an untapped resource, those disillusioned by the maddening hypocrisy all too often provided by the local newspaper. This is why the site is self-sustaining, despite it’s flaws. A new generation had grown weary of columnists drowning their coverage in a black ink pool of vindictive. Far too often, opinions could be immediately rendered irrelevant by vapid, unconcealed personal bias, the friends and enemies obvious, work stilted and obnoxious. Just as Michael Lewis argued in “Moneyball” that the nonsense ruling baseball analysis had basically created and maintained Billy Beane’s vision of the Oakland A’s, Deadspin was a twisted mirror which sought to reveal sports journalism’s cracked and disfigured face, all the while providing entertaining content on a consistent basis. There never was a bold proclamation that the future had arrived. But to people like Buzz Bissinger, this fact was simply understood. And how terrible it was.
Access represents a significant line of demarcation in the debate. The access is evidence. While a blogger’s writing acumen could be equally sharp, he could never trump the reporter’s most valued card: connections. As any freshmen could attest, success in journalism isn’t nearly entirely dependent on clever turns of phrase or proper syntax. The major players use this to their advantage, playing this fickle game to the extreme. If a big-time story is breaking, the battle doesn’t lie in precise reporting, but racing to establish unsubstantiated rumor as undeniable fact. Networks and newspapers, often falling under the same corporate umbrella, crave instant results within the process, perpetuating an endless cycle where Gore has definitely won Florida, and there’s more than one gunmen on the St. John’s campus.
Sadly enough, the public has become desensitized to this disinformation. Sure, there’s the occasional uproar, but, perhaps knowing our complaints will fall on deaf ears, never an incorrigible call to clean up the system. Those doling out the big time dollars to Rick Reilly and Dan Shaughnessy to write and report are most certainly going to protect their investment. They must be vigilant in maintaining the interest of mainstream readers, convincing them that their contemporaries in the blog universe possess opinions that simply don’t matter.
The journalist can provide reinforcement by making the conscious decision to shill for those cutting the checks [understandable], as Reilly and Shaughnessy have done on multiple occasions, bashing blogs and those who write them with dismissive, immature insults. I personally refuse to accept that Reilly and Shaughnessy actually believe their blanket statements regarding blogs. It’s all about discrediting the competition, a practice that will no doubt stretch beyond this specific instance.
Blogs aren’t the only entities which have their credibility called into question by mainstream news sources. Just recently, JohnnyJungle.com broke the Phil Wait story and didn’t receive any credit whatsoever. As with most things in life, the access factor is connected to cash, plain and simple, frustrating as always.
Are sports and meaning interconnected when endeavoring to write about a game? Do words have the power to elevate an event? Can a simple slip of phrase nullify the impact of a moment? People like Bissinger, word artists, want to believe this, they need to believe this. They want to believe a great writer describing greatness makes the idea real. A great writer masquerades as a magician, in that respect. He attempts bleeding meaning out of a blank page. This can breed an attitude that all the work, every single word of every single article, must mean something, lest the craft be sullied.
Bissinger was right in his critique of the people at the Bush rally, but were they wrong to believe in something, no matter how flimsy and frivolous when placed in the unforgiving context of reality? Bissinger believes his craft has the power to elevate and inspire. To him, Deadspin isn’t righteously indignant, but a sham glorying in degradation, widely read to the point of being dangerous. Perch is everything, frame of mind.
But Leitch is right. The incessant hero worshipping, which always, always leads to hero teardown [now let’s act shocked!], the nonsensical narratives featuring millionaires falling from an artificial state of grace, the downright diabolical, subliminal agendas carried out by self-promoting reporters and networks, this is all garbage that should be exposed as such. Deadspin is far from perfect. Leitch could never even consider censoring his commenting section, but those involved certainly cross the line at times, with a little too much glee for many to stomach.
The unfortunate thing is, Leitch had no beef with Bissinger, and they’d probably share the same disgust at the phoniness poisoning sports reporting. But perch… perch is everything.
The two were simply miles apart.
At least Leitch had the decency not to scream across the canyon.
Everyone is right, for reasons exclusively their own. This is why, as Bob Dylan once said, everybody must get stoned. So long this terrible climate continues to boil, the process is inevitable.
Why so personal? Why is a great author straining his credibility, making blanket statements he probably immediately regretted? [In fact, Bissinger later admitted to enjoying a few blogs]
What drives us to this edge?
Ah, human behavior.
We should put down the rocks sometime. Have a discussion. Stop chasing the ghosts in our mind’s eye.
The future will be safe for prose. People will read Roger Angell, be entertained by Deadspin.
Even more won’t even give a damn about sports, or those of us writing about it.
Did people underestimate the erratic nature of the changeup when evaluating Ian Kennedy? It’s his best secondary pitch, but it’s a very difficult delivery to throw with precision on a consistent basis. I’m reading “Living on the Black” right now, the book about Mussina and Glavine, and I was surprised to find that Glavine, a no doubt Hall of Fame pitcher, claimed a total loss of control of his money pitch over a month long period in 2007. The same malady appears to have affected Kennedy. His change is in the dirt almost every time he tries throwing it. He’s been pretty much an unarmed man on the mound this year.
I find it amusing that Bissinger and others cling to this strange idea that intelligence in the area of analyzing sports can only be certified with a degree in journalism. It really is outside the confines of logic. Good writing beats access any day of the week. It is the reader’s digression in determining whether or not a particular blog has quality content, but the merits of the content should never be disqualified because the writer doesn’t have access. Yeah, Alex Belth [of Bronx Banter] wasn’t visiting the clubhouse before writing his game reports back when he churned them out on a daily basis, but nullifying the analytical, and emotional, content of his posts because he was watching the games at home is an utterly backward notion.
Bissinger’s point of view comes off as simplistic. And it’s disappointing, because I thought Friday Night Lights was a masterpiece. Excellent writing and commentary supported by even better reporting. So I was disappointed by Bissinger’s performance on HBO, to say the least.
Been awhile. I realize this. It’s unfortunate. I absolutely love writing about sports, especially baseball, doubly more if it regards the Bronx Bombers. But, the deadly combo of writing a third screenplay and shouldering a vicious semester of work has left me precious little time for the gloriously trivial pursuit of sports writing. This is a real shame.
But I come forth today with an idea. MLB, listen up!
If one actually considers the idea of an athlete, he may come to the conclusion that these guys, at their core, are expressive performance artists. Sure, there’s competition involved, but it’s really the unique style of each and every individual player that hooks us. The nuance.
If it were ALL about ideals vain as winning and losing, well ****, baseball would be no fun. It isn’t so much the success and failure that sticks with us, but indelible images, the juxtaposition of Ken Griffey’s electricity and grace, Alex Rodriguez’s strength and fluidity, Manny Ramirez’s sleepy intensity.
Style. This is where baseball has it ALL OVER the other sports. The fan can truly know the individual player.
In this vein, I’m of the opinion that baseball should exploit this connection for profit.
Basic capitalism, isn’t it?
So, this is my idea:
Market DVD anthologies of marquee player’s greatest hits. This would especially work for pitchers, but could also apply to position players.
To wit, I’ll use my favorite pitcher, Mike Mussina, as an example.
Dub the DVD set “The very best of Mike Mussina”, or something similar.
Include his most memorable performances over a long and distinguished career spanning nearly two decades.
Inform Moose of this idea, and invite him down to MLB studios for some audio commentary.
Take it a step further. For Mussina’s forgotten masterpiece against the Indians in Game 3 of the ’97 ALCS, track down Chris Hoiles, and have catcher and hurler reminisce about pitch selection and strategy. Do the same with Jorge Posada for Game 3 of 2001 ALDS.
Sure, this inside baseball conversation might be boring to most people, but fans are totally out of their minds. We love this stuff.
How could this idea not work? I’d buy this in a second, ****, I’d overpay.
And, if you, the reader, aren’t a Mussina fan, just extrapolate the idea elsewhere, replace Mike with Pedro, or Randy Johnson, or whoever you want.
MLB could even put together old school compilations, like “The Best of Reggie Jackson”.
Met fans can relieve the thrill of watching Tom Terrific methodically carve his way through a lineup.
And the games can even be delightfully random!
For Mussina, throw in his complete game shutout against the Pirates in 2005. Who wouldn’t want to take a trip down memory lane with the flying Redman brothers, Tike and Mark?
So, there you go. I’m just throwing this idea out there, because honestly, what am I going to do with it?
Simply put, no.
Patterson plays great D in CF. He has fantastic tools but constantly throws away AB’s due to his poor plate discipline. Pitchers would just challenge Womack. Patterson gets himself out. But his plus output at a premium defensive position, superb base running ability, and decent power, make him way, way better than Womack. Womack couldn’t even turn the double play pivot, for Christ’s sakes, and never had the tools to be a top ten prospect. Immerse Patterson in a professional lineup, with coaches diligently working on his approach at the plate, and his big time talent could pay dividends. Think about it: Has Patterson ever been in an organization that legitimately sought to improve his weaknesses? Mr. “walks clog the bases” Baker handled him terribly. And the Orioles are so totally lost that, by my eye, they don’t even have an organizational philosophy.
I have the distinct suspicion that this is all still happening. Just a feeling that Santana will be pitching for the Yankees on Opening Day, Patterson batting ninth and playing center, replacing the departed Melk man.
Hope the dude at “Save Phil Hughes” doesn’t have a heart attack.