cold takes

untimely baseball shortform

Baseball, Writing and Despair

Adam Kilgore Emma Span Michael Lewis
Adam Sobsey Eno Sarris Michael Schur
Alex Speier Eric Koreen Mike Lupica
Allen Abel Erik Malinowski Mina Kimes
Andrew Zuber Ernest Hemingway Mitchel Lichtman
Andy McCullough Gary Parrish Nathan Bishop
Anna McDonald Gary Smith Patrick Dubuque
Arden Zwelling Geoff Young Peter Gammons
August Fagerstrom Gordon Wittenmeyer PFT Commenter
Barry Svrluga Grant Brisbee Randall Mell
Ben Lindbergh Greg Howard Ray Ratto
Benjamin Hochman Holly Anderson Red Smith
Beth Bethel Jamey Newberg Rembert Browne
Bethlehem Shoals Jared Dubin Rian Watt
Bill Barnwell Jason Clinkscales Richard Deitsch
Bill James Jason Concepcion Richard Griffin
Bill Lyon Jason King Ring Lardner
Bill Madden Jason Parks Rob Arthur
Bill Petti Jason Whitlock Robert O’Connell
Bill Simmons Jay Jaffe Roger Angell
Brett Taylor Jay Yencich Roger Kahn
Brian Phillips Jeb Lund Russell Carleton
Bruce Arthur Jeff Passan Ryan Young
Carson Cistulli Jeff Pearlman S.L. Price
Cee Angi Jeff Sullivan Sahadev Sharma
Charles Pierce Joe Posnanski Sam Miller
Chris Ballard Joe Sheehan Sam Smith
Chris Brown John Choiniere Sean Mcindoe
Christina Kahrl John Lott Shea Serrano
Dan Moore Jon Bois Simon Kuper
Dan Szymborski Jonah Keri SL Price
Dave Cameron Jonathan Bernhardt Spencer Hall
Dave Stubbs Julie DiCaro Stacey May Fowles
David Foster Wallace Kate Fagan Steve Rushin
David Halberstam Kate Morrison Steven Rosenbloom
David Roth Katie Baker Tabatha Southey
David Wallace Katie Sharp Thomas Boswell
Dayn Perry Ken Arneson Tom Tango
Dillon Friday Kiley McDaniel Tom Verducci
Dirk Hayhurst Lee Jenkins Toni McIntyre
Drew Creasman Luis Medina Trill Ballins
Drew Magary Matt Ellis Will Leitch
Ellen Etchingham Meg Rowley Wright Thompson
Emily Gregorcic Michael Baumann Zach Lowe
  Michael Farber  

Recently I read an article that was written so well that it made me sad. After thinking about it, I put out an anonymous poll with one question: what are up to three sportswriters that, when you read their work from time to time, fill you with a sense of awe bordering on despair? That make you feel like hanging it up, if only for thirty seconds?

It wasn’t a scientific survey, nor a particularly representative sample. But the results say something, I think. The 150 ballots returned 136 different names. And though reporting gets most of the fame (and most of the money), it’s interesting to see so many different types of writers and so many different types of writing. There’s longform, human interest, analysis, statistical analysis, comedy, poetry, and scouting; professional journalists, freelancers, amateurs, dead comic strip authors, and novelists.

The idea wasn’t to make people dwell on the fact that they feel inadequate sometimes, but the opposite: we all get so busy staring at other people’s greatness that we don’t notice people staring at our own. There is so much writing in the world, so much amazing writing, that there’s no way anyone could write it all, even though it’s our instinct to feel like we should.

There remain troubles. The untimely demise of Grantland heavy-handedly reminds us that quality and money are often nearly inversely proportional. And there are inequities and imbalances that prevent us from having a true meritocracy. There are names absent from the list that deserve to be there, deserve to be envied. They just need to be found.

But as a powerless observer I can afford to be an apolitical optimist, and what I see is that there is more room than it often feels like. That we can all combine our individual, necessarily limited perspectives together, on something as arbitrary and pointless as the game of baseball, is an amazing thing. I’ve liked baseball ever since I was a kid, but it’s the community that follows it – and creates from it – that I truly love.

Keep it up, everyone.

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The Nightmares of Baseball Players

ring_baseball

Earlier this week, or perhaps last week, or perhaps two days after my daughter was born in 2013, Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh of the Effectively Wild podcast considered whether baseball players have bad dreams. They quickly surmised, probably correctly, that the modern athlete rarely has nightmares, with their confidence already polished into a perfect, unquestioning state.

But I’m not interested in what is; my realm is what should be. And so I present to you: the nightmares of several ballplayers.

Eric Davis: A long fly ball is hit to deep center, and Davis gets a good jump. It gets caught up into the wind, however, and he has plenty of time to settle under it at the warning track. He looks up and notices how blue the sky really is, and for a moment he worries that he’s lost it. But he hasn’t, and the ball floats down easily for him. Right before the catch, however, the wall topples on him from behind, crushing him.

Angel Hernandez: Hernandez strips out of his gear and slips out of the stadium. On the sidewalk a father is talking to his son. “Boy, that umpire sure was terrible, huh?” the father asks. “I didn’t even really notice him,” the son answers.

Michael Pineda: After a one-two-three top of the first, Pineda comes back out for the second only to find a smear of pine tar on his arm that he doesn’t remember putting on. He worries that people might notice, but he pitches anyway. After getting up 0-2, he looks down again to see his entire arm coated in brown. Someone must surely notice, he thinks, beginning to panic. He can’t walk off the mound, he can’t leave, but even though everyone is acting normally, he knows they’ll all attack him as soon as they see. They’ll kill him. His entire jersey is stained with pine tar now, and he’s alone on the mound, sweating, drawing each individual breath knowing that he’s going to die. Then Showalter climbs the top step of the dugout, and asks for time.

Chuck Knoblauch: It’s a two-hopper to the second baseman, and on contact he’s already starting to overthink the throw. He fields the ball cleanly, but when he tries to make the transfer his hand gets stuck in his mitt, and he can’t pull it out. The runner rounds the bases as Knoblauch watches, paralyzed by the jeers of the crowd.

Carlos Gomez: Just like a normal plate appearance, except that every ball the pitcher throws is coated in blood.

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The Rough Day

Crayones de cera

Dear Sylvie,

The evening ended the way it always does: I picked you up and gave you a hug and a kiss, and you patted my left arm roughly and told me, “hug.” Then you sat down with your mother to read your books before bed, and we blew each other kisses as I backed out the door into the darkened hallway.

I went downstairs to catch the end of the game on the radio, but it was already over. I’d missed a win, the first in a while. It was a quarter to ten: a blue, featureless night. I set the alarm to 5:30 and brushed my teeth, and slumped onto the couch. It had been a rough day.

It had started with promise. I came home from work to find you in the possession of new crayons, stronger than your old ones, and you sat at the table and scribbled lines onto paper. The cat jumped up on the table to check this out, and mood altered. “No!” you called out. “No no gato. My picture.” You began to cry. The cat was a visible threat, despite the fact that he wanted nothing to do with your drawing other than perhaps to sit on it and receive pets. But you couldn’t risk that. You couldn’t risk the possibility that he might force you, in some way, to share.

Everything is yours, right now. “My book,” you tell us when we try to read to you. “My milk.” When your mother hugged you and said “My Sylvie,” you answered, flustered: “No. My me.”

You are nearly two years old. Now that objects have gained permanence, they’ve also earned the possibility of absence, and it’s terrifying. This is much a part of you as the omnipresent tears dangling above reddish stain of your chapped cheeks, where the molars stab at you, or the placemat you knock off the table to watch it fall to the floor, or the five plates of food, rice and plums and strawberries and pasta and beans, that spent the evening simmering in the lukewarm air.

“Ice ceam,” you demanded during one gentle sortie, staring at the most recent offering at your altar. “Me ice ceam.”
“One, dinner,” I said, employing your new knowledge of numbers to introduce cause and effect. “Two, ice cream.”
“One ice ceam,” you answered.
It’s working well.

Before the lights went off I read some more Montaigne, one of his shortest essays: “That the Profit of One Man is the Damage of Another.” He’s railing against a long-dead Athenian, who put a mortician to death for profiteering on the death of his colleagues. “A judgment that appears to be ill-grounded,” he argues, “forasmuch as no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another.” He lists professions who do well when times are bad: doctors in plagues, architects by earthquakes, merchants by the sin of greed. Curiously, he fails to mention his own line of work.

Baseball is equally bad about this. It’s diverting to render baseball as a metaphor for life, but one of its more troubling translations is in the competition: that for all the aesthetic merits, the end results are zero-sum. In last night’s game, for example, Fernando Rodney had his own bad day. In one inning he gave up a warning track fly ball, a home run, a sharp line drive out, a walk, and a caught stealing to escape the game. The natural reaction was that Rodney was terrible, and he probably was; the troubling concept is that it wasn’t really imaginable for him to be fine but the opponents better. Someone has to be bad, to lose. That’s how the game, all games, generally are.

Sometimes, teaching you anything feels impossible; it’s like reading the definition of a word and finding more words you don’t know. I can handle yellow and cat and squash, but causality or sharing seem utterly beyond my capabilities. If Montaigne can’t figure out how trading can help both sides, what chance does a toddler have? How do you teach cooperation in a culture steeped in winning and its obligatory counterpart?

Maybe it’s just a matter of providing examples, a thousand instances of a posteriori to build your values on. Maybe you just have to learn. That sharing makes us feel better about ourselves, that other people being happy is okay, and that losers don’t always have to feel bad about the way they lose. And that your father might still love you even when he doesn’t give you ice cream.

Jon Jay Left His Feet

Several weeks ago, Ryan Zimmerman hit a double, and Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay looked foolish.

According to the metrics, according to the scouts and the fans, according to the line drive that Jay snared later than game to send it to extras: according to all these things, Jon Jay is a good outfielder. For a moment, he was not, and earned a highlight.

jay

Lives are not lines or arcs: they are scatterplots. They are not, as we’d like to believe, a constant evolution, but instead a series of moments, discrete and disconnected, that we continually absorb and react to. The hot takes are not hot because they burn; there is no time to burn. They explode, and vanish. Such was the case with on Jay, who somehow made perhaps the worst dive of all time, and one that was immediately forgotten.

Players make mistakes all the time. They swing at bad pitches, hang breaking balls, get thrown out on the basepaths like nincompoops, and make pickoff throws to the tarp in right field. Players make mistakes, and we thrill at the schadenfreude, and forget. But Jay’s dive was different: it was no error. There was no evidence of his failure. Zimmerman received no extra base. The world chastised Jay not for his weakness but for his gall.

It’s exactly why I’ve discovered that I love Jon Jay’s dive, two weeks later. Not because it failed, and not because it displayed some showy, self-aggrandizing grit. Those are later moments. The one I treasure is just before.

jonjay

The ball, in this blurry photograph, is next to the “PIT” on the scoreboard, slicing right. In baseball terms, Jon Jay no longer exists. He cannot make the play. Perhaps he has misread the arc of the line drive, struggled to find his balance on contact. Those were earlier moments. At this exact moment, his actions no longer pertinent, Jay leaves his feet.

It’s a meaningless gesture, an admission of his triviality, an act of defiance against an uncaring universe. It has no impact on the play, or on life. It has nothing to do with the flight of the ball, or the oncoming ground, or any of us. It is apart. In that moment of failure, Jon Jay is free.

What Does Phil Niekro See?

philPhil Niekro sees Bob Horner, crouching uneasily at third awaiting the pitch, sees the rippling powder blue of his oversized, wrinkled pullover. And in it he sees the ocean.

He hears the crowds rolling like waves, pleasant baseball cries like seagulls signaling a long-sought shore. He hears distant shanties, shapeless and rhythmic, beating at the pulse like a whip. He feels the warmth of the sunlight baked into his neck like a memory. He smells it, too, the sharp relief of saltwater, a purity so uninterrupted that it loses its flavor. It’s so thick, the air, sometimes, that he has to rub it from his eyes.

As he opens them again he sees the rolling red tide wash over the sides of the boat, hears the harsh nasal tones of the bosun shouting words he and the others do not hear and already know, his arms aching with hours of rowing. He can taste the whale, soft and plaint under jaws too tired to chew, the flavor of red meat straining through his teeth and into his cheeks, rich and red like bison. He sees the glint of the morning sun on its skeleton hung from the mast, gleaming white as his own hair. He feels the heavy blanket of endless afternoon.

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In and Out of Print

I published my first book when I was eleven years old. Fresh off my victory for top fifth-grade writer in my school district (for a landmark collection of poems, headlined by “My Digestive System Makes a Wish”), I set upon my passion project: a science fiction novel. I don’t remember anything about it, now. I typed it up on sunny afternoons on the family Macintosh Plus, and while I still have the floppy with the file, I have no way to read it. It must have been more than five pages long. After spending twenty minutes printing it on the dot matrix, I made a gorgeous cover out of construction paper and submitted it. It was my first hint that I was not a novelist.

I spent my twenties trying to write novels, because I was bad at the guitar and I thought those were my only two options. They rarely made it past a thousand words, mostly because I was a poor, shy, white male and had nothing to write about. A few ideas clung to life for a dozen pages: a romantic comedy about a guy with chronic fatigue syndrome, whose consciousness randomly snaps forward minutes or hours into the future; and a narrative about the afterworld, where lost souls collected in random makeshift purgatory-cities and fought off boredom and despair that caused them to die again, and disappear. Now that I write that, the second synopsis still sounds pretty good. But plot is hard enough without discorporeality, and so it never went anywhere.

I published my second book a couple of weeks ago.

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April 27, 2015

jay

Dear Sylvie,

This afternoon we sat in the grass in the warm sunshine. You helped me water the strawberries, raking the moist earth with your little plastic shovel, flecking your clothes with mud, stepping on the tender leaves with your boots. We collected rocks and you commented on each one, placing them in my palm and taking them out again, organizing them in some inconceivable, shifting pattern. You were fascinated by these rocks: all basically round, all basically beige, some small and some large. I wanted to extract that excitement out of you, distill it into some elixir.

A blue jay flew and landed on the dead tree growing out of our deck. You won’t remember that tree, because it’ll be gone soon: a beautiful cherry that flowered when we bought the house, six years ago, amid one of those random April two-inch snowstorms. It struggled through one more season and then died, branches crumbling in every windstorm, moss shedding onto the deck like the remains of a cemetery bouquet. The blue jay sat trembling on a weak, thick branch, and you cried out to it, “Hello, bird!” For a moment I couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t answer.

We watched birds for twenty, thirty minutes. At first you ran toward them, and they disappeared behind the trees or onto roofs. But you heard the songs with your cupped, little ear; you knew that the birds were never really gone, and that was the thing I wanted to make sure you understood. There were two jays and the shadow of a hummingbird high in the sky. You pointed at them each time and called out, “there it is!” until your mother came home and we had to go to dinner.

It would have been fitting if the Mariners had played the Blue Jays tonight, but they didn’t; instead, it was the last place Rangers. The games are quick these days, and even with a rain delay, I only caught the last half inning as the Rangers attempted one last comeback against Mariners closer Fernando Rodney.  We listened to it while I gave you your bath. Rodney is known for being climactic, in the good and the bad way, of testing the edge of one’s nerves. But this particular story had no climax. The Mariners won easily, 3-1.

We put you to bed, and then I went to bed as well and read Montaigne. Montaigne wrote a little like the way I’m writing now, wrote self-indulgent and personal and pointless recollections that he hoped people might read. They did, and it’s good that they did. The book’s first essay is about idleness, and how the free time of his retirement unleashed rather than calmed his mind. “[It] …creates in me so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without order or design, that, the better at leisure to contemplate their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of itself.” It’s a fancy way of saying that he was a writer, and that he needed to write. It’s an unconscious element of drama, a glimpse of turmoil.

I don’t know if you’ll be a writer, if you’ll feel that same pang of guilt that comes with writing, and not writing. It’s strange that we all feel the need to justify it, as if it’s an element to a story, a character motivation. But even though I’m writing about it, today was no story, had no rising or falling action. Today was just existence, just pinecones and bibimbap and a win expectancy chart that looked like a straight line. You will have your own drama someday, your own Fernando Rodney Experiences.  But never feel guilty for the days that are easy wins.

Baseball Variations: Traitor Baseball

tapAs we lurch toward the centennial of the Black Sox scandal, it’s as good a time as any to remember the most interesting aspect of the disaster: how the corrupt baseball players went about betraying their comrades. Advocates of Shoeless Joe Jackson quote his World Series performance, which included a .375 batting average and zero errors. Swede Risberg worked harder for his pay, slashing .080/.233/.160. But Nemo Leibold had nothing to do with the fix and still only got one single and one walk in 19 plate appearances. Finding a cheat amidst the wild jungles of small sample size baseball is no easy thing.

Cheating is bad. But what if this kind of cheating weren’t actually cheating: what if taking a dive were part of the game? What if traitors were baked into the game?

This isn’t something you could do over the long-term, of course, particularly in the major leagues; it’d be better suited for an exhibition game, or perhaps a summer camp activity. Especially since this is baseball based on a time-honored summer camp favorite: the party game, Mafia.

The concept: teams are chosen randomly, by giving each player a facedown playing card. Players are not allowed to reveal their cards. Red cards play against black cards. The twist is that two people from each team, the players who draw the queen and king, are not actually playing for their own team. They are the traitors, and have been assigned to be double agents.

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Considering Famous Military Generals as Managers: Douglas Haig

haigWelcome to the second entry in a long-running series, in which we take select well-known military leaders and rip them out of their historical context, unfairly gauging how they would perform in the role of professional baseball manager. Despite the endless font of human conflict in human history, we remain in the Great War, this time selecting the commander of the British Expeditionary Forces, Field Marshall Douglas Haig.

Few leaders have suffered so much ignominy in victory as Haig, whose tactics not only decimated a generation of young men, but did so in perhaps the most senseless of fashions. Beloved in his time, history hasn’t been kind on this particular mustache, and now he is probably most famous for being satirized by Stephen Fry as General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth. “The Butcher of the Somme” threw wave upon wave of his soldiers into no-man’s land, over broken earth, barbed wire, poison gas, and machine gun turrets.

Strategic Tendencies: Haig cut his teeth on the Boer War, where he developed a fondness for the quick strike capability of cavalry. Twenty years later, he was still searching for mobility to provide him with an early, decisive blow against the enemy, destroying their morale. The running game would be a major part of his arsenal. An inveterate optimist, Haig would call a hit-and-run every time a runner reached first, because he couldn’t imagine that the hitter would swing through the pitch.

That same philosophy of manifest destiny would cause him to overwork his pitchers badly, in part because he would believe they could draw on that last little ounce of magic, and in part because changing strategies mid-battle was a sign of weakness.

Defensive Philosophy: You don’t win wars or baseball games by defending. It’s a fact.

Roster Construction: Haig wouldn’t worry about relief pitchers, reverting to a fifties or sixties-era bullpen. Instead, he’d provide himself with a large bench, mostly of fleet runners, and expend them early and often in order to press any hint of advantage.

Chemistry and Leadership: Despite his failures, Haig hung on to his job in part because he was able to swim in the center of the political spectrum, showing loyalty to his subordinates until it became politically dangerous to do so. As a manager, Haig would be very hands-off; he’s the kind of guy who would visit the mound, have his pitcher tell him he could get the next guy out, and believe him. His mediocre public speaking skills and boundless, repetitive optimism would have made him a legendarily terrible postgame interview.

Best Fit: Haig is a man who fought as if there were no tomorrow, both in terms of courage and foresight. So, the San Diego Padres.

A Modest Sacrilege: Making Pitchers Worth Triple

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets

Witnesses of National League baseball are aware that pitchers are terrible at hitting, and the numbers prove that they’re getting worse each day. The designated hitter looms over the league like global warming, a depressing inevitability, threatening to wipe out the rich tradition of the double switch. What was once a weakness that encouraged strategy is now a perfunctory strikeout, a waste of everyone’s time.

Pitchers in 2014 hit at a .122/.153/.153 clip, the worst in baseball history. At least until 2015, when they’re even worse, mustering a mere .099/.115/.117. Their collective wRC+ is -34, which would be okay if the average were zero. It’s not. It’s 100.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can actually instill even more strategy into that dreaded ninth spot. All it takes is a light rule change that would probably ruin the game. It’s a single sentence:

Any time a pitcher reaches base and manages to get all the way around to score, it counts as three runs.

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Lesser-known Unwritten Rules of Baseball

escobar

Brett Lawrie’s shenanigans, and the retaliatory shenanigans and pre-emptive shenanigans that naturally resulted from them, have forced a sleepy media to turn its attention to this nearly-forgotten aspect of America’s game. You’ve already read about take-out slides and stealing up K runs in the Nth inning, but here are some other behaviors that, while not technically against the rules, are generally frowned upon by those within the game.

 

Baserunners using the first baseman as a captive audience for performing impressions.

Crying out “Whoopsadaisie!” while sliding into a second baseman on the neighborhood play.

Attempting to convert the religion of opponents in the middle of the game.

Refusing to leave the batter’s box after a strikeout to end the inning, even after the teams have switched sides and another batter is ready to step in.

Taking off their batting gloves after a base hit and handing them to the first base umpire to deal with.

Baserunners stepping on the pitcher’s mound and drawing emojis on the dirt with their feet.

Catchers using small sample size when trying to distract and infuriate an opposing batter.

Failing to cover your mouth when you yawn.

Fielders tossing a ball into the stands, but intentionally throwing it to a bunch of drunk college bros instead of the child sitting next to them.

Pitchers asking the batter what type of pitch they’d like, and then after receiving a response, replying “Okay, we’ll see.”

Instead of using eye black, painting a realistic second set of eyes below your real eyes just to gross opponents out.

Robinson Cano, Modern-Day Werewolf

When I was a young boy, around three or four, I had two cartoons. This is not an indictment of my socioeconomic status, but rather my age: this was the early eighties, when entertainment was still in its nascent form. I had two cartoons, and I also honestly owned a set of Pick-up Sticks. The two cartoons were television specials hand-taped onto Betamax cassettes: one Garfield, one Bugs Bunny. Because I was a child and because children can consume infinite animation, I watched those videos over and over.

There was only one problem: I was allowed to watch the Betamax, but I was not allowed to operate the Betamax. My father worried that the forbidden knowledge of the VCR would end in me recording over his collection of Poirot movies, so I was forced to rely on him for the starting, and the stopping.

This is important. It is important because my episode of “Knighty Knight Bugs” happened to be taped over a recording of An American Werewolf in London, with the cartoon ending specifically at the moment when the eponymous werewolf tore out a man’s throat.

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