Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Commissioner is a Son of a Bitch

The first Commissioner of Baseball, or any other sport, was Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. His name was the only good thing about him-- actually a possible second good thing about him was the fact that he eventually died, paving the way for the integration of baseball. As a federal judge, Landis jailed Wobblies, including Big Bill Haywood; he also managed to get Jack Johnson, an amazingly successful boxer and the first super-star black athlete, banned from boxing and sent to jail on a Man Act conviction for mailing his white girl-friend a railway ticket—these sterling credentials inspired the team owners of major league baseball to offer him a job cleaning up baseball in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal. Landis was only interested in accepting the gig if he was given sole authority over all aspects of organized baseball. The owners couldn’t see how they would make money selling tickets to games that were widely known to be fixed, so they agreed to Landis’ demands and the office of Commissioner of Baseball was formed.

Due to his racism, and the fact that anyone who jailed Big Bill Haywood is an official enemy of Sam’s Mets Blog, Landis goes down as a particularly offensive commissioner. However, the Commissioner is almost by necessity a son of a bitch. Chosen by the owners, they are charged with keeping the fans, players, owners, advertisers and broadcasters working together in something that does not deteriorate into chaos or harm the bottom line. The commissioner is a little man who sits behind a desk and pushes pencils; he is charged with making sure the athletes—the big, the strong, the fast, the wild and the stupid—follow the rules. It is our love of athletes that draws us to sport, and the little man behind the desk pushing them around becomes a son of a bitch by necessity.

Current baseball Bud Sielig actually did something that I approve of this week by deciding to follow Bonds until he hits his record breaking home run. I’m not that big of a Bonds fan, and am not untroubled by his legacy, but it’s the damn home run record and Seilig’s the damn commissioner, so the guy might as well be there. It took Sielig long enough to decide to go, that his uncertainty about it allowed him to accuse Bonds implicitly, without actually coming out and making an accusation: exactly the sort of miserable, gutless behavior that is pretty much required of any commissioner. I hope that Bonds goes into a vicious slump that coincides with a hellish heat waive and that Bonds and Seilig both spend all of August sweating in ballparks and accomplishing nothing.

Anyway, it’s Basketball Commissioner David Stern who is really pissing me off this week. Recently it was revealed that one of the officials, Tim Donaghy, was a compulsive gambler, with mob connections, who had been betting on games that he officiated and making calls to alter them. I spent most of the winter listening to NBA fans crying about how poorly officiated the games were and how disgustingly little the league was doing about it. I was never really sure if they had a point, but they did. As Basketbawful (a good read and an inspiration to start this blog) points out, this proves that the officiating in the league in general is so god damn bad that a cheating, gambling, psychopath can fit right in with all the other crummy officiating: the NBA never found out about the guy, until the FBI filled them in. What makes this completely frustrating is that the David Stern regime has routinely sided with officials against players. It is important to understand that in basketball this has an overtone that is not quite present in other sports: an integral part of the spectacle of the NBA game is watching the large black men at the mercy of the calls and whistles of the officials, who tend to be shorter and whiter than the players that they adjudicate.

In an insultingly irrelevant press conference, Stern, however, admits no responsibility for any of this, and acknowledges no larger crisis in the league’s officiating. Instead, he wastes everyone’s time by describing the (obviously completely worthless) methods that they had in place to ensure that the thing that had already happened wouldn’t happen.

COMMISSIONISTIC FOOTNOTE: For the first years of his job, Sielig was the acting Commissioner and not the official one, which meant that the position was technically vacant. The owner of the Texas Rangers, a one George W. Bush, spent a fair amount of time angling for the job. The corollary to this little factoid seems to be the old ‘what if Hitler had been a successful painter? Would he have just done that with his life, and never been a dictator?’ question, which was the very debate that inspired a high school history teacher of mine to curtly tell the class that hypothetical history was a waste of everyone’s time. But would a country that at least felt like a democracy and wasn’t involved in pointless, murderous wars be worth living in if baseball had been reduced to a miserable, totalitarian travesty? Would I be willing to make that trade-off? Yes, yes I would.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Comrade Met-thusala Will be Pursuing New and Exciting Siberia

So Julio Franco has been designated for assignment, which means that if no one claims him off of waivers (and I don’t know what that means) or trades for him, in 10 days he will be a free agent, which, almost certainly, means the end of his Mets career.

I meant to introduce this as a running gag much earlier in the blog, but last year, mainly in the lead up to the post-season as pitcher after pitcher went down with injury and remained cheerfully optimistic about the situation and refused to contemplate the team’s impending doom, my Dad and I started to joke about the similarities between the Mets’ website and the Soviet Newspaper, Pravda, and eventually started referring to Comrade-Coach Willie Randolph (whose assurances were treated, by, as essentially the equivalent of wins). One of my plans for when I am finally shit out of ideas for posts was to cut and paste a bit into Word and then use the Find-and-Replace feature to change “runs” for “tractors,” “player” for “worker” or “comrade,” and “the Atlanta Braves” for “decadent Western capitalist bourgeoisie pigs.”

Anyhow, during the past year or so, in which I have (embarrassingly) read virtually every piece to appear on Mets-Pravda, none of them have seemed quite so Pravda-ish as the announcement of Franco’s designation for assignment. It perfectly evokes the feeling of being written by a harassed, low-level functionary whose only purpose in life is to flatter half a dozen sprawling, petty, and incompetent bureaucracies, all of which have the power to ship the writer off to Siberia for life, if they feel that his reportage does not do justice to their heroic endeavors on behalf of the people.

According to Mets-Pravda, Comrade Franco had, in fact, formed the resolution to leave the club, even before the members of the Politburo, in their wisdom, decided that they were better off without his services. Franco, apparently, thinks that his goal of playing until he is fifty (a little over thirteen months from now) would be best served by going somewhere where he could play more often. The Mets, apparently, felt that their goal of winning a championship would be best served by having a pinch hitter who could, you know, hit.

Indeed, Franco has, apparently, been feeling that he has been receiving inadequate playing time since last year, and it was only perseverance and optimism that kept him around Flushing for this long.

The Mets were motivated in their decision to release Franco by a desire to keep Sandy Alomar around, who is a spring chicken at a mere 41. Alomar frees up Ramon Castro to pinch hit; with a 3rd catcher they don’t have to worry about Lo Duca having to leave the game (due to injury or ejection—neither unlikely) after Castro has been used and handing the catcher’s mitt over to a guy with a god-damn knee brace. But they were also wanted to have his “leadership” around.

But according to Mets-Pravda, wasn’t Franco coming through with leadership by the tractor-load? And what 48-year old ball player would think that he could get more playing time on a baseball team other than the one unhinged enough to sign him in the first place? Was Franco’s deranged desire for more chances to ground weakly to second turning him into a team cancer? Was he the one tampering with their mojo and leading to a break down in team-chemistry?

An alternative theory, which touches on an issue that various people on the internet had picked up on before Franco was even released, is that there is a slight conflict inherent in having Franco as a player, and Ricky Henderson as a coach. Franco and Henderson are contemporaries and Henderson has been adamant that he can still play—once MLB was done with him he knocked around in semi-pro and independent baseball, and re-stated his desire to play recently, in response to the Yankee signing of Roger Clemens. Franco on the field would have been a constant provocation to Ricky, and probably Franco’s release was necessary, just so that Willie Randolph wouldn’t have to listen to his hitting-coach constantly asking to pinch-hit: “hey Willie, those guy’s can’t hit as good as Ricky. Why don’t you let Ricky hit? Ricky might even steal a base.”

GAME IN PROGRESS NOTE: It’s official: when I grow up I want to be El Duque. After walking the pitcher, with two outs, to load the bases, and giving up two runs as a consequence, what does he do in his at bar in the next inning? Singles, and then steals freaking second, the second or third steal of his entire American career. That guy is the man… either that or Ricky’s tutelage is already paying off.

in honor of Ricky....

these are some good Ricky stories.

Non-Mets teams had better watch the FUCK out:

‘cause the Mets just hired Ricky third-person-talkin', base-swipn’ Henderson as a hitting coach. You are completely screwed.

It’s funny. I feel weird about people who become convinced that the management of the teams they root for posses god-like intelligence, since the how well managerial moves come out in the end almost always boils down to luck. But this… this one is really something.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what this team needs to be the dynamic, unstoppable team that it was last year, to give it that championship edge that it seems to have been lacking all season. Looking around at other Mets blogers, I found that this feeling was pretty universal. There had to be something out there, a solution to a problem that no one could really put their finger on. It wasn’t a personnel move, unless it could be possible to trade Delgado ’07 for Delgado ‘06. Perhaps Willie Randolph should have had some clubhouse fit or something to fire up the troops… but that seems more embarrassing than motivating when you think about it. You keep thinking about it, realizing why different solutions would be ineffective or meaningless (it seems unlikely that Baltimore actually would get into a Rain Delay for Franco-stein trade), and then settle with the not-to-comfortable realization that the team is in first place after all, so things can’t be that bad.

What I’m saying is that, although I had been thinking about it for weeks, I had no conception of what the Perfect Move that the Mets needed was, until I saw what they had actually done, and what I saw was beautiful.

The Mets lack of walks has hurt them; Henderson is the Master of Walks. The Mets aren’t playing with the enough ‘fire;’ who, in the history of the game, has been more fiery than Ricky? If there are any serious doubts about Reyes’ hustle (and I don’t really think there are), but if there were, who better to have around him than Ricky? If you could pick one player, out of the history of all of baseball to try and impart, not only their prodigious skills, but also their passion, intensity, and desire to win; if you could try and endow the team with the spirit of any one baseball player, is there any sane doubt that it would be Ricky Henderson?

Oh, who the hell am I kidding… this might or might not work, but at the worst, the Mets fans get a half a season of Ricky quotes and stories. And, you know what? no matter how we finish, that means we win.

There is also a pretty funny little irony: when Ricky was with the Mets in 2000, the Mets fired their hitting coach. When a reporter asked Ricky how he felt about the firing, he had never even rheard of the guy.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

All-Star Game

bThere are players who play the game and get by largely on the strength of physical skill. Others have more cerebral games, they search for mental edges in the battle between pitcher and hitter, manipulating the count and the strike zone to their advantage.

Rare, however, is the player who is able to keep himself completely focused on the big picture, and use a mind numbing level of strategery to manipulate, not the outcome of individual games, but the course of the entire season-- such a player is Billy Wagner.

What was he thinking when he gave up the decisive two-run homer in last night’s All-Star game? He was thinking “If the Mets play a game 7 in the World Series, I want it to be Jack Kerouac-style: on the road.” Why? Well, the abysmal Scott Shcoenwise hadn’t surrendered an earned run on the road, until the most recent trip. Both Carloses hate hitting at Shea. On the whole, the Mets have a slightly higher winning percentage on the road, than they do at home. And there is speculation that Willy Randolph had a traumatic experience with a cow-bell when he was a child—and the clanging of the cow-bell man evokes a Proustian anguish of memory that impacts his in-game decision making.

So only Wagner’s cunning and guile was able to negate the runs that Reyes and Beltran had recklessly put up, and people whose first reaction was “Well, if we lose game 7 on the road, we’ll have Billy Wagner to thank for it… although chances are we’ll be thinking less about the fucking all-star game, and more about the save he just blew,” are considering the thing only on the meanest, and most rudimentary level—regretfully ignorant of the game of chess transpiring in the back-ground.

My other All-Star game observation is that the commentators seemed to be unusually un-judgmental about steroids, and particularly accepting of Barry Bonds. The sense is, and they almost discussed this openly, that they are sort of preparing for a time, not necessarily in the immediate future, when people are retired and it becomes revealed that god damn everyone in baseball was on steroids in a period that began in the ‘90s and might or might not be ending now. When this time comes, both the sports-media establishment and Major League Baseball do not want to look like complete and utter jack-asses—and want to avoid inquiries into what role the people who made money selling tickets and providing commentary on the home-run races of the ‘90s had in encouraging, implicitly or otherwise, the chemicals that made these races possible.

The baseball establishment has begun to realize that by being shrill about steroids, they are very much like a serpent devouring its own tail. At the end of the day, the only capitol in baseball is the players themselves—not only their accomplishments and records, but also the drama that they provide as human beings. If the current, anti-steroid stance is maintained, revelations of massive steroid use will serve to massively de-value this capitol; and while being moralistic about steroids was fun and sold papers, it is just dawning on them that, at the end of the day, it might put everyone, from the commissioner to the hot-dog vendors, out of a job.

Indeed, baseball is beginning to realize that some sort of re-habilitation of Barry Bonds needs to take place if he is ever going to posses the home-run record. Since Bonds was always antagonistic to the media and kind of a jerk, they thought, until recently, that they could write him off with an asterisk and be done with it. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that Bonds is a symptom of a larger culture and the asterisk placed by his name would reflect on an era of baseball as well. The only way to avoid, probably damning, judgment on the entire era, is to rehabilitate Bonds in the public’s eye: he has already promised A-Rod his support if he ever approaches the record, something that Hank Aaron has denied him; we are inundated with stories of players going to him to discuss hitting; we are shown glimpses of his relationship with Willie Mays.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

I cold sent this e-mail to SNY...

… Unfortunately, after I sent it I realized that I had left out the line about how Keith’s crime, doing a whole bunch of blow in the ‘80s, was a mistake also made by people as respectable and upstanding as George W. Bush, and that it didn’t stop him from becoming leader of the free world and talking to Jesus:

Dear SNY,

I am a life-time Mets fan and watch almost every game. I generally find the SNY broadcasts by far the best broadcasts in baseball and having Ron, Keith and Gary call games is one of the great advantages of being a Mets fan in 2007.

I have to say, however, that I was fairly annoyed by Keith Hernandez’ handling of a question posed by Gary Cohen about amphetamine use, during Friday night’s game against the Astros. Cohen had asked Hernandez about the use of stimulants in baseball, in relation to the recent suspension of Detroit’s Neifi Perez. Hernandez responded vaguely in a broadly critical manner, mentioned that amphetamines were given out by trainers in the ‘50s, and kept on promising to elaborate during the following inning; if he ever finally did, I missed it. There was very little of any substance to take away from what he said, aside from the fact that he seemed not to want to discuss it.

What is irritating is that anyone who is anything more than the most casual of fans knows that illegal substances are not something that Mr. Hernandez is entirely unfamiliar with. Hernandez’ testimony in the Pittsburgh drug trials and his admissions of cocaine use are all public record. Hernandez was given a suspension as a result of this and he was only able to play in the legendary 1986 season by agreeing to donate part of his salary to drug programs and do community service.

While Cohen was discussing amphetamines, and Hernandez used cocaine, it seems slightly disingenuous for Hernandez to discuss stimulants as if this was something that was foreign to him, something that he might have known was going on in the clubhouse but chose to remain aloof from. Obviously, I appreciate the fact the Hernandez regrets his mistakes and is reluctant to bring up embarrassing aspects of his past, however none of this is secret, and any fan who enjoys Hernandez’ commentary enough to look him up on Wikipedia knows about his involvement with the Pittsburgh drug trials.

My feeling is that baseball fans do not feel overly vindictive about player’s mistakes; what irritates the fans is when things are with held from them. Even the fact of steroid use is not so much a problem to the fan, as the fact that it is impossible to know the extent of steroid use. I think that a fan’s first desire is for knowledge about the game, and that we are not overly interested in making moralistic judgments against our favorite players. Given this, and particularly if Hernandez did indeed learn from his mistakes, it seems like the interests of Mets fans, and the interests of baseball, would be best served if Hernandez, and other players, were to frankly discuss their past and relate it to current issues in the game.

If, on the other hand, there are issues that Keith is deeply sensitive to and things that he is extremely reluctant to discuss, it would be best if Gary Cohen would take this into account and avoid those subjects, and spare us the spectacle of Keith sounding like a small time politician trying to avoid answering questions about what happened to the county’s budget surplus.

Outside of this minor point, I greatly enjoy the coverage of the games and appreciate the excellent job that SNY does of covering the Mets.

Keep up the good work.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

‘Bloody Sox’ Schilling Teams Up With The Man Who KILLED CHEWBACCA

So, while doing research for the QuesTec post, I ended up trawling around on the ol’ web for Curt Schilling information, since it was Schilling who actually took a bat to a QuesTec camera. One of his many interests, which his current lengthy DL stint is probably giving him time to pursue, is a videogame development company that he founded, whose goal is to create games to compete with World of Warcraft. Schilling himself is an avid fan of Everquest, which is an older World of Warcraft-esqu game: you can read forums where he posts about the game, under the name “Ngruk.”

Schilling’s game company was initially called “Green Monster Games” but he changed it to “38 Studios,” because he couldn’t get anyone to believe that his choice of name had nothing at all to do with the out field wall at Fenway—he claims that it was proposed to him by a foreigner who had never even heard of baseball.

And, one of the minds enlisted to create the new company’s first game is R.A. Salvatore. Salvatore normally makes his living turning out fantasy dreck by the pound, but he once took some time off to write “Vector Prime,” a Star Wars novel set after the events of the movies, in which Chewbacca dies—which death caused a predictable controversy amongst Star Wars fans. (I actually think that the reports of the Wookie’s death were exaggerated—I thought I heard him providing color commentary during Saturday’s game on Fox)

On some level, it makes sense that a man who plays a game for a living should be interested in games where you actually play at ‘life,’ since part of the appeal of the massive online multi-player genre seems to be that you control a character’s entire development and activities. On the other hand, it flies in the face of stereotypes and contradicts common sense: you play those games because you want to be a hero, someone mythical or larger than life. Curt Schilling is a hero: he helped break the most famous curse in baseball, while blood leaked out of his foot on national television. Why does he feel the need to supplant this by killing digital dragons? And since when do jocks even know how to use computers?...oh right, since the ‘90s.

The Called Strike in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

For all the other changes that have taken place in baseball in the last decade, there is one aspect of the game that has reached dizzying new frontiers and gone relatively unnoticed: namely the ability to know for sure weather or not any given pitch was actually a strike or a ball. Previously, a pitch existed only in the moment in which it was thrown and the only mark that it left was the call made by the umpire-- now nearly every pitch made in baseball is recorded and subject to the scrutiny, not only of fans and announcers, but also of players, coaches and umpires who look at tape for a greater understanding of the game.

In terms of the actual ramifications of this new knowledge, perhaps the most practical implication is the use of the QuesTec system in certain ballparks (of which Shea is one). However, it seems that the televised replay becoming an increasingly prominent feature in more and more fans experience of the game should probably be regarded as the frontier on which this change began. With evidence to back them up, announcer’s claims that the home team was being victimized by the umpire lost their air of paranoia; and the fact that any fan watching on television could tell that the umpire did not constitute an absolutely irrefutable and impartial source of judgment, was probably what lead MLB to the QuesTec experiment.

It is important to keep in mind that the QuesTec system makes no changes in the game in real time. It only records the way in which umpires interact with the strike zone, and forces them to take that information into account the next time that they call a game.

And, while many pitchers claim to be victimized (good ol’ Curt Schilling once smashed a QuesTec camera with a bat), the relatively un-invasive way in which this information has been assimilated into the game constitutes a rare instance of Major League Baseball clearly understanding the somewhat complex ideas behind the basic realities of the sport. Specifically, strikes come into existence only by being called by an umpire. The location, in actual space, of a pitch has nothing to do with the call; the only important thing about a pitch is the impression that it makes on the umpire (ahem, Paul Lo Duca). The activity called “pitching” can only be said to take place in the presence of an umpire to call strikes—otherwise, one is just throwing a ball.

The images that they show us then, the stopped frame showing the birds eye view of the batter with the little blur of the ball clearly hovering an inch or so on the outside of the plate, are lies. Or perhaps, they are merely a record of nothing, ghosts of a moment that persist in a feeble contradiction of the truth.