Wednesday, December 29, 2010

29X Face

What with holiday shopping and trying to finish a big job at work, I missed the news that the New York State Commission on Public Integrity last week fined Governor David A. Paterson $62,125 "for soliciting, accepting and receiving five complimentary tickets to Game One of the 2009 World Series for himself, two aides, his teenage son and his son's friend." The $62,125 civil penalty consists of the $2,125 value of the tickets plus two $25,000 fines and a third $10,000 fine for violating three sections of the Public Officers Law. The commission based its decision on testimony by gubernatorial staff and the Yankees, as well as "an independent handwriting expert and common sense."  Ah yes, common sense.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas at, well, Christmas

In mid-summer, Melvin and I enjoyed "Christmas in July" at Progressive Field and elsewhere in the Indians organization.  Now the team has come up with another novel idea: "Snow Days."

For five-plus weeks the ballpark has been turned into a winter funderland.  There is a ten-lane snow tubing hill, quarter-mile skating path, 3,000 square-foot snow maze and more.  It is Cleveland in December, so the Indians have turned on the heaters in the team dugout and there is a fire pit on the home run porch.  While the concessions don't match the in-season choices, guests aren't limited to hot chocolate.  And if you need something stronger, there is a happy hour most evenings.  The whole thing runs through January 2 and folks can even ring in the new year—complete with dinner, dancing and fireworks—at Progressive Field.

Pretty damn cool, if you ask me.  And a good opportunity to send solstice-time greetings from both of us and best wishes for 2011.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The End of the Beginning

As I (intermittently) listened to New York State Governor David A. Paterson co-host Mike Francesa's afternoon show yesterday on sports radio station WFAN, I was reminded of a statement by Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the Second World War.  After the Allied Forces victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, Churchill said, "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." (R.D. Laing was fifteen at the time, and Scottish as well, so probably no influence on this formulation.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's the Great Pumpkin, Melvin

Well, so much for that prediction. But really, I couldn't be happier with the outcome, given the participants. Seeing all those damn Bushes in the front row in Arlington made that clear.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Season Phinale

To the extent that the team makes it possible, I am a New York Mets fan. The first game I saw in person was at Shea Stadium and since it was 1969, I paid some attention through the end of the Mets' World Series championship. For the most part, however, I continued to think of sports as something a person did, not something one watched. In 1986, I undertook a home renovation. One task was tedious and time-consuming and to break up the monotony I listened to a lot of Mets games. My girlfriend of the time, who I later married and eventually got divorced from, came from a suburban-Philadelphia family who watched a lot of sports and I started to as well. We went to Shea a few times that year, excited again by a championship season. The Mets became a part of who we were as a couple. For a few years we bought a "six-pack" ticket package, then doubled-down with a Sunday plan, and went on to split a Tuesday-Friday plan with two other people. From time to time, we went to Veterans Stadium with family or friends ("phamily or phriends?") to see the Phillies.

The Phillies have been the National League Eastern division champions the past four years (while the Mets finished a collective 326-322) and I have rooted for them in the post-season. Friends who are Mets fans find it sacrilegious that I cheer for the team most think of as our division rivals. When the Phiillies played the Yankees in the World Series in 2008 and 2009, numerous people insisted that as a New Yorker, I had to root for the local team, a geographic imperative that borders on feudal. A female Phillie fan ("phemale Phillie phan?") came to my local watering hole in jersey and cap for last year's decisive Game 6 against the Yankees and suffered innings of abuse from a bullet-headed bodybuilder. He backed off after I told her his nickname is "Fluffy" and she suggested he "go walk himself." My ex-wife is from Philadelphia and so is my dad. I've seen more baseball in South Philly than the South Bronx. I'll root for whom I want (as should everyone else).

Last night was the Phillies season finale (or, in their case, "phinale") as they lost the National League Championship Series to the San Francisco Giants, two games to four. The game probably will be my season finale as well. I had hoped for a Phillies-Twins World Series; I have no emotional investment in a Giants-Rangers match-up. (Melvin declared a lack of interest after the division series.) This was a good year of baseball——the April trip to the Gulf Coast; some Mets games in the first half of the season; the Ohio trip at the end of July; the Newark Bears and New York-Penn League all star game in August; and leading up to post-season, the Phillies, Brooklyn Cyclones, Twins and Brewers . It was kind of like a banquet spread out over several hours; the food kept coming but I never felt full. When my ex-wife and I had the Sunday and Tuesday-Friday plans at Shea, we saw around 15 games there and a half-dozen or so elsewhere. I still consider myself a Met fan, but I find inverting the ratio much more satisfying.

Everybody Must Get Thrown

Photo: dbking, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Congratulations to the Rangers and the Giants on their respective defeats of last year's World Series teams. I don't see how the Giants—described generously as "ragtag"—can go much longer without turning into a monstrous orange pumpkin, so I'm saying Rangers in 5.

Incidentally, rather than watch the last Rangers/Yankees game, I went to round 3 of the Professional Bull Riders finals in Las Vegas. Renato Nunes—one of many Brazilian riders—had a fantastic ride right before the end of the night to surge into the lead (I think). Don't worry, this won't become a rodeo blog. Yet.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder

There is definitely something wrong with me. It used to be that I would pep up every fall and get pretty glum every spring. I thought that living in Stockholm in the winter didn't sound too bad. I couldn't stand the first hot day of the year. And I still don't like wearing shorts, no matter the temperature.

While I've noticed in the last few years that this effect has lessened, I've in the same time developed a distinct and consistent lack of interest in the playoffs, particularly after the first round. This might be due to my fecklessness, team-wise. Really, Yankees/Rangers, Phillies/Giants? Who cares? I might find it in my heart to root for Tim Lincecum's hair, but that's about it.

Anyway, I'm batting around the prospect of a last-minute trip to the Arizona Fall League, but more realistically I'm beginning to plan for next year. Look for us at the New Hampshire Fisher Cats opening homestand.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Short and, Well, Bitter

Yeah, OK, I did go to Game Two of the Twins/Yankees series. Thanks to StubHub, I paid about ninety bucks to sit way up high far down the right-field line, next to a relatively gracious Yankee fan (from Los Angeles), and watch as the crowd grew quieter and quieter. At the end (Yankees 5, Twins 2), we all got up politely and went home. Call me demanding or excessively bitter, but it wasn't at all the right way to end Year One at Target Field.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Man Versus the Empire Brain Building

A still from Playtime (1967), dir. Jacques Tati

My employer’s offices recently moved, and the new space was designed from scratch. Opinions vary about the quality of the result, but no one disputes that the design is a very deliberate one that perfectly reflects the worldview and preferences of the company’s leadership. This isn’t always the case—businesses often move into existing office space and renovate it a bit for their particular purposes, resulting in something that may function well enough but doesn’t fully express the personality of the place (at least as conceived of by management). People buy old houses, too, or new ones that come stamped from a mold. Those kinds of places may also reflect some individual worldviews and preferences, but the idiosyncrasies don’t come through as clearly as they do in a place built from scratch to the specifications of a resident mastermind.

Which is a long way around to saying that after our visit to Target Field, we took a trip to the inside of Bud Selig’s brain.

The day started out better than that, though, with a stop at minuscule Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis, where contrary to all expectations and experience we waltzed right in. A couple omelets and a great dollop of atmosphere later, we were loaded up and ready to drive in the rain into Wisconsin.

Our first stop was the Wegner Grotto—because since 2007 we have become grotto fetishists. This was no Cullman shrine, of course, but a modest assemblage of rough cement sculptures, polished stones, and lots and lots of colored glass shards. There are two sizable caution signs at the site, and a good thing, too—the place practically screams “Welcome to Danger Playground!” and I can only imagine how many children of central Wisconsin have had scarring experiences here.

By all accounts, the Wegners were fairly ordinary people who simply took it upon themselves in retirement to build a grotto somewhat like those they had seen elsewhere. They memorialized events from their lives—in, for example, the replica of the cake created for their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

On the whole, however, the site is modest, and hasn’t a single screaming peacock. The Wegners built a little shrine on their site, but we weren’t able to go in it. From what we could see through the windows, it’s now used primarily as a tool shed. Yesterday’s quasi-religious space is today’s linseed-oil repository—a juxtaposition that turned out to be an apt precursor to our next stop, where yesterday’s industrial refuse is today’s mythic temple.

As despairing of oddity as we were at the Museum of Whatever the Hell in eastern Ohio in July, Tom Every's Forevertron restored our faith in idiosyncrasy and set a new benchmark for monomaniacal environment creation (MEC). This behemoth of industrial refuse is part mythological vessel, part logistical miracle, and part junk welded together by a moderately unstable nut. Located a few miles north of Sauk City, Wisconsin, Every's site is dominated by the Forevertron but also contains countless supporting objects, sculptures, and rusting sculptures of birds playing orchestral instruments.

The full story of the Forevertron and Every's complicated life can be found in A Mythic Obsession: The World of Dr. Evermor, by Tom Kupsh, but there are many appreciations on the web, as well as the official site of the man himself.

The Forevertron is as pure an expression of Every's internal mania as he's going to get in this world, I suspect, but MECs as a class are everywhere, particularly in corporate form from Disneyland and gated communities to shopping malls and our last major stop of the day (finally!), Milwaukee's Miller Park, home of the newly dedicated Shrine of St. Bud, who was martyred in the 21st century by unthinking heathens who could understand neither his saintly dedication to a DADT policy for chemically bloated behemoths, nor his ability to warp time, space, and the National League to bring into this fallen world the miracles of interleague play and the unbalanced schedule.

I have had unkind things to say about St. Bud, and I did boo him heartily (and solo) in Mobile this April. Having now visited the park whose construction he masterminded while owner of the Brewers—with its pimple-like profile, poor field lighting, dark concourse, strange proportions, needlessly complex technological hoo-haw, autocentric location, crappy bars, soggy cheese curds, and vast expanses of concrete—I can say that I have been too kind to the man. Miller Park is a soulless technocrat's vision of what a baseball stadium could be. Being there is like watching a ballgame inside a beer commercial. Perhaps the worst thing I can say about it is that it almost (almost) makes me miss the Metrodome. We did have nice seats, though:

This is one of the benefits of going to see a team that is well out of it late in the season—StubHub is full of people who will take pennies on the dollar for those seats they bought in a fit of optimism last March. To the discomfiture of our neighbors, we cheered for the visiting Reds, who won, 5–2.

The whole scene does make me wonder—wasn't Bud's argument for contracting the Twins that no one went to see them, they were never very good, and their stadium was a dump? Funny how those arguments don't seem to apply 300 miles to the southeast.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Outdoor Baseball is Back!" and so are we

My insistence that Melvin and I include the final season of the Metrodome in last year's cross-country itinerary is old news. Melvin, who lived in Minneapolis for several years, enjoyed sharing this plan with Twins fans encountered along the way, playing straight-man for the inevitable and universal reaction: "Why?" Most, regardless of whether or not my explanation made any sense to them, followed up by asking if I would come back for the opening of Target Field in 2010. Like many questions ("Do these pants make my ass look fat?"), there was only one answer. There was no doubt I wanted to, but I had no idea how that would happen. As it sadly turned out, Melvin and Watson and I went to Minneapolis for today's celebration of the too-short life of Roger P. Miller. Melvin's ex-wife Red also attended the memorial, which exceeded the capacity of the room. All four of us went to Target Field yesterday and Melvin and I will go to Miller Park tomorrow, but two baseball games are not why we made the trip.

Target Field is stunning. This is no "retro-park" but a stadium for the 21st century. The exterior is native Kasota limestone, the large golden blocks rusticated individually to break up the massing, with glass and metal features. Shoehorned into a site where downtown meets the Warehouse District, there isn't a lot of public space outside. This is particularly true on the north side, hard up against a co-generation plant, where most of the walkway is taken up by an ad hoc queue for the light rail stop right outside the stadium. However, Populous managed to make a walkway above a street into a plaza on the south side. I took this picture --
-- to compare to a picture from the same perspective last year.

The tight site results in a very intimate stadium. We sat five rows from the top, albeit above first base, and the seats were excellent. The concourses are comfortably scaled and offer, if you can elbow through the sold-out crowds, fine views of the field. I had a Cuban sandwich, a salute to Hall of Famer Tony Oliva or just marketed that way. It was tasty but maybe not worth the wait--they can only make them four at a time. There are numerous food options, with many local establishments represented. Summit, from St. Paul, was our beer of choice. The beer wasn't the only thing that was cold; it was chilly in the mid-September shade. The Twins are going to the post-season for the sixth time this decade but 2010 will be the first since "Outdoor baseball is back!"

The Twins beat the Athletics 4-2 on Danny Valencia's three-run homer in the sixth. On the way out of the stadium, we stopped to chat a bit with Sam Graves (right), who with Michael Sacks blogs "on baseball, accessibility, Target Field, and more!" On the day we saw Sam, he posted his thoughts on the Twins post-season pitching, scooping Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse by a day. Another post-season debate is who the Twins are better off facing in the division series, the Yankees or the Rays, whichever is the wild card. Having lost to the Yankees three times (2003, 2006, 2009) in the ALDS, the consensus is the Rays. Then again, it's not like the Twins have a choice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cyclones Playoffs 2010

I've softened my stance on the 2001 New York Penn League championship. For nine years I have said there is no such thing as "co-champions." You either won enough games to make the post-season and then beat your opponents, or you did not. The terrorist attacks of September 11 ended the 2001 championship series after the first game and the Brooklyn Cyclones and Williamsport Crosscutters were declared "co-champions." I thought it more honest to say there was no champion; the explanation remains the same. It now seems to me that either the Cyclones or the Crosscutters could have won it all and its not fair to any of the players to penalize them for the cancellation of the post-season. At worst, "co-champions" is only half wrong.

So with that public withdrawal, I'll write something I've never said before: in ten seasons of play, the Brooklyn Cyclones have won their division five times (01, 03, 04, 07, 10), been the wild card twice (06, 09), went to the championship four times and were the league champions in 2001. Like the Atlanta Braves, that record is an accomplishment but one that inevitably seems a bit hollow. In the team's defence, three-game series are a killer. Lose the first game and you can't lose again. The Cyclones have been swept twice in the championship series and three times in the play-offs.

Last year I saw the wild card winners lose the only game at home. In 2007 I was in Coney Island as the Auburn Doubledays swept the championship. The Cyclones lost the first game of this year's play-offs to the Jamestown Jammers and I thought I might again be there for the end of the season. But a work colleague and I saw a scrappy game won 9-8 on a 12th inning wild pitch. Wally Backman managed aggressively; for example, giving runners the green light at third when it obviously was going to be a close play at home. Miguel Ozuna, who I saw three weeks earlier not win the home run derby, hit the only dinger, for Jamestown. But nine of the 28 total hits were doubles. Both teams had four-run innings. There were five stolen bases, all but one by Brooklyn. Six Cyclones struck out 14. And yes, five errors were committed. You get a lot of entertainment for your money at this level of ball. Box Score

Brooklyn finished off Jamestown the next night, setting up a chance for me to see another game, perhaps even be there when the team really did make it to the post-season and then beat both their opponents. The Cyclones lost the first game away, to the Tri-City Valley Cats. Sunday's home game was rained-out and when I got out to MCU Park the next day, dark clouds were massing to the north. The guy at the ticket window told me the groundskeepers had just put the tarp on the field, an hour of rain was expected, and I should go have dinner and come back. I walked once around the stadium while I decided whether or not to just go home. The Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance, memorializing uniformed personnel that died on 9/11, is on the east side of the stadium. I've never understood why it's there but two days after the anniversary, a chilly breeze, storm clouds, sparse crowds, alone--it moved me for the first time. I worked on getting a city street co-named for Firefighter Shawn Powell and without looking for him, or anyone else for that matter, his plaque jumped out at me. His mother died of cancer before we could get the naming through the City Council and his engine company never had the street signs installed, which had been for her benefit.  FF Powell was one of three firefighters and a lieutenant from E207 to die at the World Trade Center.

I decided to go to Nathan's Famous after all. Dinner was what has become my usual, the lobster roll, which I washed down with a quart of Coors. The food stand was the only place around that was out of the rain and it filled up with people waiting out the storm that finally arrived. Half were baseball fans and the rest were an interesting assortment. A trio of casually dolled-up Brooklyn girls walked around and around and finally asked where they could buy beer, which they did despite the unlikelihood of being 21. A guy with bruised doughnuts around his eyes alternated between twitching in front of the overhead menu and running out to his double-parked car. He finally pulled it together enough to place and pick up an order that he took out to his lady friend in the very large, very dark sunglasses. A street person sang along with the background music--Carl Perkin's "Blue Suede Shoes" was probably his best--until management turned off the sound system. So he sang unaccompanied. When he lit a cigarette inside, he was ordered to leave, and the soundtrack resumed. By then, I was ready for a cigarette myself and I waited out the rest of the storm under the sidewalk bridging around the Shore Hotel née Coney Island Theater Building. It rained almost exactly the hour that was predicted. They called the game about 15 minutes after I got back to the ballpark. The Cyclones lost the twice-postponed game tonight. There will be no more baseball in Coney Island this year.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Debutante Ball

Although they didn't wear satin gowns (see Mobile), a friend and I met at Citizens Bank Ballpark for a coming-out party. The Marlins and the Phillies added a 1:00 pm game on Labor Day to make up for one postponed in June. To keep the rest of the starters in proper rotation around the sun, both teams went with September call-ups who had never started a major league game before. We had no idea what we might see and perhaps the managers were feeling the same. Perfect game? Five-run implosion in two-thirds of an inning?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

September: Kane County

We're squeezing in what we can here, as the seasons wind down. Labor Day weekend marks the end of the regular minor-league season (coincident with the expansion of major-league rosters to 40 men), so Watson and I took advantage of suddenly mild weather to drive the hour-plus out to Geneva, Illinois, and the Kane County Cougars / Wisconsin Timber Rattlers game. We'd been saying since moving to Chicago two-plus years ago that this would be an easy one to check off the list of minor-league parks, and indeed it was—though it did require puttering through rather too much of the sprawl that locals insist on calling "Chicagoland." The more I see of that nonsense, the less inclined I am to leave the city, retarculous gas prices or not.

The Cougars are the rather far-flung single-A affiliate of the Oakland A's—all the other teams in the A's system are on Pacific Time. In recent years, teams have been tightening their minor-league networks, which keeps down some travel costs but also deepens a team's presence in a region. Few teams are perfectly rigorous about it—the Cubs are about halfway there, with teams in Des Moines, Peoria, Tennessee, and, well, Boise, but the White Sox are an odd case, with teams that are more or less near one another (Charlotte, Birmingham, Kannapolis, Winston-Salem) but not near Chicago. There was plenty of Cubs and White Sox gear on the Kane County fans—one doesn't need a nuanced understanding of central place theory to wonder if this isn't sort of an obvious place for a Chicago-affiliated team. Don't tell me Oakland execs look forward to their annual getways to the Aurora-Geneva metroplex.

We didn't plan this trip far enough in advance to take advantage of any of the oddball sights in the general vicinity, like the statues of the Cat in the Hat and Dick Tracy in Naperville. With those, the Superman shrine that is Metropolis, and the Ronald Reagan tilt-a-whirl in Dixon, it seems like Illinois is on a quiet crusade to claim all of America's great fictional heroes. Personally, I wish it had been the Cat in the Hat trusting-and-verifying with the Soviets, but you can't have everything. (Or can you?)

Speaking of irritating cartoon characters, the antics of Birdzerk were inflicted upon us again. This was "his" fourth trip to Kane County this year, and the act seems to have worn a little thin. The dancing-with-the-ump routine did seem to feature the actual ump, not a ringer, though, and the Timber Rattlers' Cutter Dykstra was a good sport about "losing his glove." Whatever.

Cutter, of course, is the son of financial genius and deposed car-wash magnate Leonard Kyle Dykstra, who when last heard from was living like an animal. Whether Leonard and Cutter are still on good terms isn't any of my business, but I would like to know how many other former major-league players have named their sons after lesser pitches in the professional repertoire. I don't seem to recall ever hearing about Change-up Boone, Spitter DiMaggio, or Eephus Yastrzemski, but I'm open to correction and amplification.

Anyway, Kane County's a pretty nice joint for single-A. In style and layout it's fairly similar to the Timber Rattlers' stadium in Appleton, but it scores better points on food (Bobak sausages and roasted corn), beer (Two Brothers, from nearby Warrenville), and parking engineering (pervious pavement!).

The Cougar pitchers had trouble with the top of the Wisconsin order—Dykstra and Khristopher Davis were both 2-for-4, with Davis smacking his 22nd home run of the year over the scoreboard in left center—but not the rest of it. After a four-run fourth put the Cougars up 6–4, they never looked back, en route to a 9–4 final. There's but one game left in the season, which is almost impossible to believe. It seems like only yesterday we were at the season opener in Montgomery, but obviously it wasn't.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fast, Cheap, and out of Control

Perhaps the best thing about having a local team fall apart in July (if not June) is that by September tickets are much cheaper and pretty easy to come by. My friend Red—OK, really, my ex-wife Red—was in town for a couple days, and we decided to see if we could get Cubs / Mets tickets. (Little Melvin Jr. didn't come along on this trip, principally because he doesn't exist.) I was figuring for the usual bad or expensive last-minute options, but since the Cubs are freefalling into Pittsburgh-like oblivion this year, the streets are thick with woebegone scalpers. We were able to nab a pair of seats about 30 rows behind home plate for about a third of the usual price, via StubHub.

The Mets aren't lighting up anyone's dance card this fall either, so we got to see a number of recent promotions from Triple-A try to impress their respective lame-duck managers. Mike Quade might actually be the Cubs skipper next year, but in the current sweepstakes for the job, I'm laying money on None of the Above, with Ryne Sandberg about to start a long Ulysses (or do I mean Wally Backman?) act that will land him in the Cubs dugout round about 2016.

Anyway, Mets' latest exile from Buffalo, Lucas Duda, got his first major-league hit, after going 0-for-8 in his first two games. Duda, of course, is a headline writer's dream waiting to happen, but he;s got to do something first. Right now, the best we can hope for is an irate fan in Queens deciding to abscond with the young man's ride ("Duda: Where's My Car?").

On the mound for the Cubs, Randy Wells did his usual Start-Me-in-the-Second-Inning routine, giving up three in the first to set the stage for a long afternoon of scoreboard Ping-Pong. There were 21 hits overall—including Luis Hernandez's second career home run—with the Cubs squeaking out a 7–6 win. These affairs usually take forever and a day, what with endless pitching changes (in this case, Jerry Manuel trying to prove to someone somewhere that he is still doing something), but somehow this one rang down the current after about 2:35's worth of entertainment. Amazing, really. Red and I ran for the exit as an inept and unfamiliar tune rose over Clark and Addison.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Just Curious

If we're in such an age of parity, how come the season is already over in the AL?

And while I'm about it, should we be expecting the Red Sox to sign Barry Bonds now?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Compared to What?

Several times during yesterday's radio broadcast of what turned out to be the Mets 62nd loss of the 2010 season, the announcers pitched, as they have for a while, "Better seats, lower prices." During the 2002-2004 seasons (a collective 212-272 record), I went to Shea many times in September. I bought an upper deck ticket and then found a seat in the loge or mezzanine. The ushers never bothered me. I thought management might just be happy I was there, putting a body on camera, spending money. So I thought perhaps "Better seats, lower prices" might be this idea, only formalized. Nobody likes to cut prices but it's all about the net profit, right? After all, attendance at CitiField is down an average 5,235 per game from the inaugural season and the Mets .500 performance isn't much of an incentive by itself.

I went to, where the promotion is prominently displayed on the home page, and clicked on the graphic. The 20 remaining home games popped up; I checked out a Phillies game. They were the same seats, at the same prices. I replayed the radio ad in my head and figured out the small print, 'Buy direct from the Mets and save' (or something like that). Let me explain something to management: all those season ticket holders already have the better seats and although a fan can over-pay on StubHub if they want to, tickets are being sold at a discount to face value. The Mets can't compete on the field, and they can't compete at the box office. I did buy some Phillies tickets though. I'm seeing them play the Marlins on Labor Day.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Best Part Was the Bison Dog

Once again this year, as summer turns to fall, there are few moments that might be called baseball "highlights" on the North Side of Chicago. Losing four in a row to the Padres isn't the humiliation it might have been in other years, but it's been clear for a number of weeks that the towel has been thrown in on the Cubs' season—and, while we're about it, on Lou Piniella's managerial career. Rod Blagojevich's hair is doing better in this heat than the Cubs are.

Today's series finale was no exception to the torpor and mediocrity that has covered Wrigley 's denizens like a damp and itchy blanket since before the All-Star break. The humidity was rising throughout the day, and there was a restlessness in the stands. Taking the mound for the Cubs was this year's Milton Bradley Award winner for senseless implosion, Milton Bradley. Sorry, no, make that Carlos Zambrano, who continued to build the case for his irrelevance with six innings of work that was uninspired but not actually damaging. He allowed only one run on four hits, but he struck out only one and walked a tedious six. That's great if you have three or four better pitchers hanging around, but on the day after the Cubs sent a record six rookies to the mound in a single afternoon, it's not really a cause for celebration.

An even lesser source of joy was the Cubs offense, which hacked and flailed to little good end in the face of Mat Latos, who whiffed 10 in seven innings to improve to 13-5 overall. A couple of doubles and whatnot in the sixth led to two Cubs runs, giving them their first lead since Sunday, when they somehow beat the Cardinals—though it was short-lived, as the Padres whanged away on Sean Marshall in the seventh until he coughed up three runs and put them up 4–2 with one out, runners on second and third, and Justin Berg relieving Marshall.

Let's see now, mediocre pitching, weak offense, what does that leave? Oh, yes, humiliatingly bad defense. Perennial quadruple-A outfielder Chris Denorfia comes to bat and trickles something down the third-base line. Koyie Hill alertly snags the ball and runs the Padres' Chase Headley back toward third. He doesn't even need to start the rundown because for not entirely clear reasons Will Venable has already advanced from second to third, leaving Headley nowhere to go. So Hill tags him out and tosses the ball to Berg, and they all have a good laugh as they walk toward the mound.

Except that Venable then takes off from third, because the play is not actually over and no one's guarding the plate. Despite a valiant dash from first by Xavier Nady, Venable slides in, putting the Padres up 5–2. Piniella made remarkable time coming out to discuss the matter with the umps, but he didn't have much to lean on—his team had just stopped playing before the play was over. I suppose it's only fitting that this echoes another Milton Bradley moment from about 11 months ago.

I just learned, incidentally, from an obituary of Bobby Thomson, that Yogi Berra attended the famous Shot Heard Round the World game but left early. That traffic on the Major Deegan was always a bitch, even five years before it opened.

After the shock of Venable's Charge wore off, the boos rose. The roster teardown has already begun, of course, with Ted Lilly, the Francophilic keystoners, and Derrek Lee all getting shipped out for a loaf of bread, a quart of milk, and a stick of butter. And the youth movement is arguably already under way—it's actually a little hard to believe that Starlin Castro was at Double-A in April. But there's a lot of rot on the roster still, and more sad, sleepy moments to come. Happy retirement, Lou.

Photo: Jauerback

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

2010 NYPL All-Star Game

The New York Public Library held its, wait, that's not right; it was the New York Penn League that played its all-star game last night. The confusion does give me an excuse, however, to publish this very cool picture of the main reading room in the library's 42nd Street branch, made available by David Iliff on wikimedia by Creative Commons Attribution and ShareAlike license.

From the library, a half-hour ride on the number 4 train and another half-hour on the Staten Island Ferry brings you to the Richmond County Savings Bank Ballpark at St. George, to use its full(y paid for) name. The Staten Island Yankees played host, in the truest sense of the word, to the sixth annual league all-star game. One day earlier, the 55 players were taken to Yankee Stadium for lunch and a tour. "It's been non-stop things to do since we got here," Vermont Lake Monsters pitcher Neil Holland told the Staten Island Advance.

It was the fans who were feted the next day. The stadium opened four hours before game time. Fans got the chance to watch the players work out, take pictures of the Yankees' 2009 World Series trophy and bid at a charity auction on baseball memorabilia. The all-stars graciously autographed everything put in front of them. (Above, Batavia Muckdogs starting pitcher Justin Edwards.) As a friend and I arrived at the ballpark, a man was heading back towards the ferry terminal, four brand new bats covered in signatures and no interest in the game. Every fan got a souvenir cap; this lady made hers a keepsake.

My buddy and I timed our arrival for the home run derby. Marcell Ozuna (above), the Jamestown Jammers right fielder, had a league-leading 15 home runs going into the all-star break, but it was David Freitas of the Lake Monsters who launched the most balls over the wall. Then, Staten Island Yankees manager Josh Paul and Brooklyn Cyclones skipper Wally Backman, who some Mets fans hope will be called up to the big league club in September, exchanged the line up cards that soon became obsolete. Like some youth baseball leagues, every able body plays in an all-star game. Anyone who was keeping score in the bottom of the fifth--when a pinch hitter stayed in the game and there was a pitching change and six defensive substitutions--probably decided it was time for a beer run.

What can you say about a game where no pitcher lasted longer than an inning and most players got two at bats or less? For staff reporter Jed Weisberger, the story was Jose Garcia. The Lowell Spinners shortstop made up for a fourth inning throwing error, which let the National League affiliates score two, by hitting a single in the eighth that brought home the winning run. It was a home-town story for Jim Waggoner, on the Internet edition of the Advance. Staten Island had six players on the roster and Preston Claiborne got the win; Chase Whitley earned the save. Joe Anuta, writing for The Brooklyn Paper, also took the local angle despite the absence of good news. The Cyclones players went hitless and Ryan Fraser blew the save.

2005 NYPL All-Star Game
One of the advertising pitches for minor league baseball is, 'see the players of tomorrow, today.' I have previously calculated that, on average, only two or three players on any NYPL team will make it to "the bigs." But what about the all-stars? Another friend and I attended the inaugural NYPL all-star game, held in Coney Island. I was curious how those 50 players (and two who were injured) have fared in the five years since. It turns out about 20 percent of the 2005 roster is playing in the majors. Generally, pitchers got there faster. Kyle Kendrick (Phillies) and Jensen Lewis (Indians) got their first taste just two years later and Chris Volstad (Marlins) and Bobby Parnell (Mets) had playing time in 2008. Wade Davis is in his first season with the Rays this year.

All the position players have been infielders, no doubt a non-stat. First baseman Steve Pearce made the majors in 2007 but has only played in 42 games in four seasons. Brent Lillibridge (Braves, now White Sox) and Jed Lowrie (Boston), both shortstops, and first baseman Gaby Sanchez (Marlins) all got their first call-ups in 2008. Detroit shortstop Will Rhymes is in his first year in the majors. A bit more than half of the 2005 NYPL all-stars appear to be out of organized baseball altogether, leaving a quarter still in the minors. Half are in Triple-A; three are playing at a lower level than last year.

And how did those guys do on August 23, 2005? Sanchez was the most valuable player, hitting a two-run single in the fifth. Pearce was one of the runs to score. Davis gave up four runs in that inning and thereby took the loss. Volstad pitched a perfect seventh. Three unearned runs scored while Kendrick was on the mound in the eighth. We no doubt saw some future major leaguers last night, but it is impossible to guess who from how they played in the game.

NYPL All-Time Team
The league announced its all-time team prior to the 2010 all-star game. I guess this just couldn't wait, since the announcement came in celebration of the league's 72nd anniversary, not your usual milestone. The players were elected by online fan balloting, the bogus method used to pick the major league all-stars, so I won't list the players selected. (You can read it yourself, if you really want.) Pete Rose, of the 1960 Geneva Redlegs, will at least have this accolade to fall back on.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Going Down

A friend and I got to see Johan Santana pitch a masterful, four-hit, complete game shut out of the Colorado Rockies on Thursday. He struck out the side in the first inning and ten total in a game lasting a brisk 2:18. The Rockies had men at the corners with two outs in the second but Climt Barmes (2B) popped out, ending the only threat. Santana also got a hit, but it didn't figure in the score. Jose Reyes (SS), Angel Pagan (RF) and Carlos Beltran (CF) put two runs on the board in the first. Reyes hit an RBI single in the seventh, then Fernando Martinez (LF) plated the fourth run with a sac fly. Replacement catcher Josh Thole, who is averaging almost 60 points higher than at Buffalo, got a hit. It was almost enough to make me think I've got the wrong title and image at the top.

Almost. The win got the team back to .500 (57-57). It was their first series win since July 29 and only their second in their last 12 (2-9-1), going back to late-June. The team hasn't won back-to-back games--Does two games constitute a "streak?"--since June 22/23. I do something in this paragraph that fans often do but I generally don't: use the first person plural when the team is winning, the third person when the team is down.

So let's remember the phrase coined by Mets closer Tug McGraw in 1973 as the Mets went from last place at the end of August to win the division and the National League Championship. (My ex-wife, a knowledgeable baseball and Mets fan, never pronounced the first word "yuh," but exactly like it's spelled only more so.) The Mets have 15 series and 48 games left to their 2010 season. One-third of those games are against the first place Braves and second place Phillies. Six of the nine games against Philadelphia are at CitiField, where the Mets not only swept the Phillies in May, but shut them out. Can the Mets prove Governor David A. Paterson (".500 team") and former Mets pitcher and current broadcaster Ron Darling ("85 wins") wrong? The most telling fact for me is management's decision to not make any trades before the waiver deadline. It says to me they don't believe.

R.A. Dickey pitched a one-hit, complete game shut-out of the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, the first back-to-back wins in over seven weeks. It was also back-to-back complete game shut-outs, and the fourth shut-out victory at home this season against the Phillies.

The Mets have had success the old-fashioned way, smart player acquisitions and good play, but it's the dramatic wins people remember. The 1986 Mets won the National League East by 21.5 games but Mookie Wilson's hit in Game 6 of the World Series defines the season. The "miracle" season of 1969, when an expansion team that never finished higher than ninth place in a ten team league became the world champions. The late-season comeback in 1973. The 1999 wild card play-in game against the Cincinnati Reds. Come on Mets; let's see some drama.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bear Witness

I saw the Newark Bears on Saturday and had a couple realizations; one easily quantifiable, the other still theoretical. The first is I have seen more Bears games than any other team except (in order) the Mets, Yankees and Brooklyn Cyclones. I was surprised because I am not a fan of independent league baseball (with the exception of the St. Paul Saints where the game is irrelevant to the enjoyment). I wish I could make a logical argument for my disconnection but it's conceptual. In minor league baseball, players generally are advancing towards the major leagues until they aren't, at which point most find another career and some go play independent league ball. Without the developmental framework, I don't have another way to conceive of independent, professional baseball. It's an entertainment product with a weak brand identity?

My structuralist and existential qualms notwithstanding, I have seen a half-dozen or so Bears games. Melvin, who does not suffer from these philosophical questions, has proposed numerous outings while living in or visiting New York City. I always agree to go because it often includes dinner at Seabra's Marisqueria, in Newark's Ironbound section. I have fallen in love with Seabra's Açorda de Marisco, a traditional Alentejo "dry soup" consisting of shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops and cubed bread with an olive oil, garlic and fresh coriander sauce, topped with a poached egg. (Photograph by Ricardo, aka zone41, from Wikipedia.) It all gets stirred together into a delicious fishy, garlicky, starchy, eggie stew.

I saw last weekend's game with my brother, my niece and my older nephew. None of them are baseball fans but it was a social outing for my brother's church, and I appreciate their asking me to join them. Bears starter Kelvin Villa (four years in the Braves organization; a year and nine games as a Royals farm hand) allowed eight hits and walked four in six innings. The Somerset Patriots parlayed that into one run in each of the second, third and fourth innings. The three-run tally might have been higher but for a couple Bears double plays. The Patriots' starter, Brian Adams (42 innings en Marzo y Abril con los Broncos de Reynosa), held the Bears to three hits and a walk while striking out a career-high ten. But then the Bears bats came alive when Adams was relieved by Tim Lavigne (Triple-A, 2005-2007). Fourteen-year major leaguer and two-time all-star Carl Everett hit a long solo home run, followed by a walk and a two-run shot by Eric Munson. As the hero of the game, I will dispense with the parentheses for Munson (no relation to the Yankee catcher), who was a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers in 1999. Munson (mid-trot) spent parts of the 2001-2007 seasons (and one game in 2009) in the major leagues. A career .214 average couldn't keep him in "the show" and the Padres released him in June.

No score in the eighth and the 3-3 tie held. My brother, who had been looking forward to the post-game fireworks since the fourth inning, was beginning to worry about extra innings but he needn't have. Munson led off the ninth and was awarded first when Lavigne hit him. He went to second on a sac fly and after another fly out, Pablo Ozuna (309 games over seven intermittent years in the majors) hit a two-out single to center that brought Munson home. The throw got to the plate first but Munson, a catcher himself, crashed into Jason Belcher (reached Double-A) and knocked the ball lose, winning the game. The fireworks, by July4Ever, were excellent; less bursts of light and more fields of color. A video on YouTube from after the Bears' July 4 game might give a better sense of the distinction I'm trying to make if it had higher resolution.

My second realization is my experience of the Bears, and my hesitant expectations for all independent league baseball, has been colored by the team's home town. Newark is depressed, and that's depressing. Walk down Broad Street and you'll see blight like the former S. Klein department store, which closed over three decades ago. (The clock doesn't work either.) How did this happen? Some point to six days of riots in 1967 that left 26 dead, hundreds injured and property damage in excess of $10 million. (At the fortieth anniversary of the riots, the New York Times prepared a slideshow of historic and contemporary pictures.)

But the civil unrest--sparked by a rumor that a black cabdriver arrested for a traffic violation had been killed by the police while in custody--was as much a symptom of where Newark had been headed for some time as it was the beginning of a new era. Industry had been leaving the city, followed by the white middle class. Much of the remaining African-American population suffered from unemployment, poverty, poor housing, and a general disenfranchisement from a white-dominated political structure out of touch with one of America's first black majority cities. After the riots, many in the black middle class also left. Out-migration accelerated in the 80s and 90s as the largest city in New Jersey went into a death spiral. Poverty worsened. Educational attainment declined and in 1995 the state took over the local school system. Time Magazine called Newark "The Most Dangerous City in the Nation" in 1996.

Cory A. Booker--the smart, industrious and charismatic mayor first elected in 2006--has said he wants Newark to be "America's leading city in urban transformation." Metropolitan New York City is expected to grow by 2.5 million people by 2025, a 13 percent increase. A recent planning document dares to imagine Newark gaining not just a proportionate share--37,000 new residents--but perhaps as much as 50 percent more. The city's population is estimated to have already grown 9,000 since the 2000 census. If the city is going to grow its way out of crisis, it will need to tackle its high rates of unemployment, poverty and crime; rebuild a housing stock that is both deteriorating and unaffordable; and create a new downtown with high-density residential buildings, regional shopping opportunities and connections to the Passaic River.

And why not? Port Newark is the world's fifteenth busiest port. Newark Liberty International Airport is the fourteenth busiest in the United States, tenth for cargo. An estimated 60,000 students attend six post-secondary schools. Three Interstate and two United States highways, plus numerous other roads, serve the city. There is Amtrak service, five New Jersey Transit commuter rail lines, an interstate subway, and two light rail lines. Downtown has handsome public spaces and beautiful buildings from all periods, preserved by lack of investment. (By comparison, the S. Klein mothership on Union Square in Manhattan was replaced by the architecturally undistinguished Zeckendorf Towers.) The 1929 New Jersey Bell Telephone Building (above) was designed by Voorhees, Gmelin, and Walker, who specialized in Art Deco architecture. The massing, reveals and sea-green fenestration make the Mutual Benefit Life Building, from 1957, one of my favorites in the International Style.

However, until Newark can make its assets pay greater dividends for its residents, a trip to "Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium"--and I suspect the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Prudential Center sports arena as well--will remain a melancholy day-trip for many, in spite of good company and fine play on the field.