it’s always good to be in first…

Let’s see now. Where were the Twins last year at this time?

Well, that would be 8-26, last year, and it already felt like late August for the poor Twins fan.

 

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It Is Good To Be In First.

Well, so much for the run at best season-opening winning streak. The Twins drop today’s game, 6-2 in Chicago. Given recent history, we are well satisfied with a 4-1 record to start the season. Curious about fast starts, I did a little research and found that the ’87 Brewers and the ’82 Braves hold the “modern” record, both starting their seasons 13-0. The all time mark is held by the St. Louis Maroons of the old Union Association, who started the 1884 season with a 20-0 mark.

The Brewers failed to make the playoffs in ’87, and the Braves were eliminated in the playoffs. The Maroons, however, were the Union Association champions in 1884, finishing the season with a impressive 94-19 record.

The Maroons mark is a bit suspect, though, due to the nature of the Union Association, which many say was not a true “major league.” (The other leagues at the time referred to it as the “Onion Association.”) The Union Association only lasted the one season. Four of the original 12 teams folded during the season, and one moved. And so perhaps the 20-0 mark is a bit suspect, perhaps not an actual “major league” record. However, there’s no denying that it’s still quite a nice start to a season.

I was unable to find a picture of the legendary Maroons of ’84, so here’s a picture of a slightly later edition. A dapper bunch. The Maroons joined the National League in 1885, and played there in 1886 as well, before moving on to greener pastures in Indianapolis. (The old St. Louis Browns of the American Association were too much competition for the Maroons. It was a Brown town.)

[How can there not be a picture of the ’84 Maroons? Ridiculous. There’s gotta be one out there. But, so far, unfindable. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Cardinals organization is to blame.]

But: I digress.

It’s nice to start the season with a few quick wins. However, talking baseball with Ghost today, we decided that it doesn’t have the same impact as starting the season with a string of losses. Starting with losses at the start of the season is like the kiss of death. If you start your season 0-9, you are, unfortunately, pretty well done for the year. There’s no coming back. But if you start out 9-0, it seems like soon enough you find your self in second place, or clinging to a tenuous lead. Early season losses seem to have a greater impact than early season wins. This probably says something profound about the nature of human existance, but it’s a bit late in the day to go down  that road. Suffice to say that even though things are good now, it’s a long way to Tipperary.

 

 

Baseball and Philosophy, edited by Eric Bronson

With the coming of spring and new hope and new adventures, I’ve pulled a few old baseball books off my shelves, dusted them off, and cracked them open, searching for wisdom. I’ve owned this copy of Baseball and Philosophy for probably 6 years or so, and never managed to get past the first inning. (The book is divided into innings instead of chapters, with two essays in each. Nice.)

The book is a collection of essays written primarily by college professors, who examine various philosophical questions raised (for some) by baseball. Questions such as:

  • Is it rational to believe in the Cubs, or in any religious faith?
  • If and when everyone is cheating, is it still cheating?
  • Does a team have an ethical responsibility to play ball?
  • Is the intentional walk unethical?

Yes. Serious, thought-provoking questions indeed, and I’m sure questions that all of us baseball fans have considered at some time, if only subconsciously.

Despite these hard-hitting questions, the book in the past just didn’t resonate with me, for some reason. Despite the fact that the first article in the bottom of the first hit very close to home, a piece called “Minnesota’s ‘Homer Hanky Jurisprudence:’ Contraction, Ethics, and the Twins,” by Paul Horan and Jason Solomon. This is where I always got hung up – perhaps because the top of the first — “There’s No Place Like Home!” by Joe Kraus — also did not capture my attention so much, and, well, sometimes it’s two strikes and you’re out.

However, this being spring, fresh starts, new beginnings, I gave it another chance, and this time I steadily made my way through all nine innings and then the post game “press conference” pieces. This time I generally enjoyed the book — though with any collection of essays you’re going to find some you regret and some that shine.

This time, for some reason, I found the bottom of the first to be of more interest, as the authors discussed the legal and ethical issues raised by the foul, nefarious, dastardly and underhanded attempt of Major League Baseball, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, and, it must be said, even the Twins’ kindly owner, Carl Pohlad, to contract the Major Leagues and erase the Twins and the Montreal Expos from the roster of Major League teams.

Whereas, in the past, this article lost me somewhere in the second page, this time I persevered, and found it to be a nicely illuminating essay. Perhaps I was over-tired when I picked this book up in the past. (Not an unusual state of being for me.)

As some of you may recall, in late 2001, the owners voted 28-2 to eliminate two teams from the major leagues. (I’m not sure who the two nay-sayers were, but I imagine them to be, for appearance sake, the owner of the Expos and also Carl Pohlad.) “The teams to be contracted have a long record of failing to generate enough revenues to operate a viable major league franchise,” sayeth Mr. Selig.

This, naturally, created something of a stir. A lot of pointed questions were asked, and, in fact, in December of 2001, Commissioner Selig appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, where he attempted to weasel his way out of some of these pointed questions.

League financial data was turned over to the committee, which revealed, according to Mr. Selig, that Major League Baseball was in Terrible Financial Shape, and that 25 of the 30 major league teams lost money the previous year. Congressman Mel Watt of North Carolina raised the point that it sounded like most of the teams were failing to generate enough revenues to operate viable major league franchises, and then asked how contracting just two of the teams would fix baseball’s large systemic problems.

As the hearings went on the talk turned frequently to the generous tax subsidies given to baseball, and to their anti-trust exemption, and, well, things became increasingly awkward for Snidely B. Selig.

(Riveting video of these congressional hearings on the CSPAN website! Representative Watt appears at about 1:36 in the video.)

Major League Baseball (Mr. Selig) was essentially arguing that this contraction thing was just a simple business decision, an accounting problem, a question of income and outrun. Sound financial management by the guardians of our national pastime.

Minnesota Superior Court Judge Harry Seymour Crump looked at things a little differently, however, and on November 16 Judge Crump issued an injunction that ordered the Twins to stay in Minnesota for 2002, saying basically that this was not just a dollars and cents issue, and that the citizens of Minnesota would suffer irreparable harm if the Twins did not play their 2002 season in Minnesota. Judge Crump, according to the authors, picked up on baseball’s unique position in the law, which rests in part upon a utilitarian notion of the public good. Baseball, and the Twins, provide intangible assets to the community that no monetary damages can possibly recompense.

In a particularly low point for team public relations, the Twins and Major League Baseball appealed the decision, and the essay points out the awkward position they found themselves in. After years of claiming a special legal standing and status, they were now claiming, oh, hey, we’re just a business, just like everybody else… except for our anti-trust exemption. Other than that, just like anybody else. Business as usual. Nothing going on here. We aren’t so special, really. Uh, well, in some ways we are, but here, no, not in this case. You see?

All in all, I found this to be a nice little article about baseball’s odd position in the law and it’s requisite responsibilities.

The best article in the book was written by Professor Ted “The Panther” Cohen, of the University of Chicago, “There Are No Ties at First Base.” This seemed the most personal and heartfelt essay in the book, and it was also the funniest.

Ted is a guy who knows the rules of baseball, and he oversees a pick-up game for kids and parents in a local park. In one game there is a play at first base, and the runner and the ball arrive at the base at the same time, and a bit of an argument ensues:

Then an adult loped in from the outfield and with calm, good sense, and an intention to soothe, spoke softly but firmly, commanding immediate quiet and attention. “It was a tie. Let’s let him be safe.”

It was a perfect remark. It was generous and also fair. It was paternal but not patronizing. It satisfied all the children: the batting team was given a runner at first, the fielding team was given respect.

But it was wrong. I alone knew it was wrong, and had anyone else known it, I would have been alone in feeling the necessity of saying so. “If it was a tie,” I said, “then you don’t have to let him be safe; he was safe.”

The other adult turned his calm on me: “I know it’s a convention in baseball that ties go to the runner.” With that remark he put me with the children, I suppose, as if I were a perverse child and perhaps a bright one, but a child still. I had a brief thought of letting it go at that, but that thought faded like a weak throw from the outfield, and I became the kind of child-adult who is too much for any sensible man to handle. “It’s not a convention,” I said. “The rule says that the runner is safe unless the ball arrives before him. If the ball arrives at the same time, then it doesn’t arrive before him, and so he is safe.”

The other adult was silenced. The older children were in awe. I was trembling with a sense of moral triumph. I can remember nothing else from that game.

I reallyenjoyed the Panther’s quiet sense of humor in this piece. When one second baseman’s father says to him, “You’re being obnoxious,” Cohen writes:

“All the children who play regularly know this about me… but they sense that this goes with the order I give to the game…. They seem to like the structure I supply, the umpiring, and the authoritative commentary on the rules, and I think they are attracted by my obtuse scholasticism.”

After the initial “rhubarb” regarding the tie at first base, Cohen realizes that he must check the rules. “I had spoken with confidence, but I was not really sure.” He discovers, unfortunately, a contradiction in the rules, which state:

A batter is out when after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base.

but also:

Any runner is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner.

In the first instance, the ball/tag has to beat the runner. Tie goes to the runner.

In the second instance, the runner has to reach the base before the tag. Tie goes to the tag!

Cohen, naturally, finds this troubling.

“With all that charm, and with their natural appeal to my philosophical sensibility, the rules had won me over. Now I found them wanting at their core.

On the other hand, I anticipated that statutory immortality that would be due me. I would effect a change in the rules. It was unlikely that I would be given a footnote in the rule book, but I might well find myself in a Roger Angell essay…”

Well, I’m not going to tell you how this all works out. Perhaps the title gives you a clue. But it was a delightful read, and I learned later that it won a Pushcart Prize in 1991.

All in all, this was a worthy little book of baseball, if not of philosophy. Sometimes it was a bit difficult for me to catch the philosophical nuances. Sometimes it seemed like they were stretching a bit. The articles on the Zen of Hitting and Japanese baseball were pretty interesting, as was the article on Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition. Some of the Press Conference pieces at the end seemed a bit cursory.

Ted “The Panther” Cohen passed away in 2014, at age 74. Good game, Panther.

I suppose the Twins are training, now…

…and I suppose I should make some note of that.

But last season took a lot out of me. As my high expectations (i.e. World Series) were not just “dashed.”

There isn’t really a word for what they were.

Perhaps “eviscerated” comes close.

Well, anyway, these are the Twins, so they have regrouped and apparently are in Florida again, spring training, as it were, and thinking of the future, and planning for the upcoming season. They’ve got a brand-spanking new front office, new GM, new coaches, a new “pitch-framing” catcher, a new old third baseman, and everybody should still have a bad taste in their mouth from last season. (59-103, lest you could possibly forget.)

Anyway, I’ll have to touch base with the Twins soon — and forgive them — and get up to speed on the doings over there.

And I should also let all you Blaze fans know: The Louisiana Blaze, my team in the National Pastime Baseball League, are Champs! Yes! Yes!  Champions of the NPBL! We RULE.

The NPBL is a computer baseball league that uses Out of the Park Baseball simulation software, which provides an incredibly realistic baseball management experience. I assumed control over the Blaze back in 2050, and my 19-year long-range plan worked pretty much to perfection, as we win the title in 2069 (after finishing third in our division.)

I think more on this later. There were at least a couple good stories there. Suffice to say that “We rule!” and also that it’s also spring training in the NPBL, and last year is last year, we have left it behind and are thinking of the future and planning for the coming season.

Which makes me think that baseball is a zen sort of sport. There’s no yesterday, and there’s no tomorrow. There’s only NOW. And now the Blaze are working on the usual drills, enjoying an off day after winning a 5-3 spring game yesterday. And the Twins are also enjoying an off day after winning a 2-1 win spring game yesterday. And everything is good.

Now if only the Millers could win a game…

 

Diamonds are Forever

With baseball season just right around the corner, I’vediamonds-are-forever picked up a copy of Diamonds Are Forever at my local pre-owned book retailer. This is a good-sized book published in 1987 by the Smithsonian Institute, 159 pages full of baseball art and stories about the game we love.

The writing is mostly excerpts from longer works. Writers include John Updike, (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,”) Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Roger Angell, Thomas Boswell, W.P. Kinsella, William Kennedy, Donald Hall, Steven King, and more. I hope Philip Roth is in there, but I haven’t spotted him yet. (Which reminds me, perhaps it’s time I re-read his The Great American Novel again. It’s been a good long while.)

baseball-and-becket-b-sm

I really bought this book for the art. Some of these are familiar, and some I’ve never seen before. I loved this picture, to the left, of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett going toe-to-toe with an umpire. A lot of people don’t know that Beckett managed the White Sox for a few years back in the late 40s. Those were very dramatic years for the White Sox, though they didn’t win a lot of games. They were more focused on illuminating the tragi-comic nature of the human condition, by means of a legendary gamut of absurdist plays. One of the most well-known of these was the play of second-baseman Sonny Godot, who would take the cut-off throw from the outfield, but then keep the ball in his glove, pretending that he didn’t have it, though the whole crowd knew it was there. All the opposing runners would round the bases and score. Even though he did this every time, he continued to get cut-off throws, game after game. This was baseball for the thinking fan, the deeply thinking and ruminative fan, and, thus, the White Sox did not draw so well in those years. Which was just the way Beckett liked it. “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on,” he would say to the baseball reporters. In the end, a lot of the White Sox fans complained that they no longer understood the point of the game, and eventually Mr. Beckett got canned, which is the fate of all of us. Beckett-ball had its brief moment in the sun, and then that was it, back to Paris for Mr. Beckett. He never managed a professional club again, and, in his later years, denied that he had ever managed at all.

Anyway, back to the book. What’s not to like? Classic baseball prose. Any kind of baseball art you can think of. And it’s springtime. What could be better? Play ball, already.

third-base-b-sm

 

 

Ralph Branca

I suppose as a professional baseball player you have to get used to losing. Year after year, all the teams go at it, only one team gets to walk away as winners. What is that? About 3% of the players can think of them selves as winners in a given year? (roughly?)

So there’s the run-of-the-mill losing, that bad ball clubs, the mediocre ball clubs, day-in day-out losing. I suppose that becomes less stressful in some ways. Then there are the teams that are actually in contention. I suppose losing would be harder on them, because there was more of an opportunity to win in the first place. When there’s a decent chance to win, then you might think more about the bad call, the dropped ball, the extra base, the cut-off throw. The woulda-coulda -shoulda. That sort of second-guessing would be harder to deal with and take awhile to get past.

And then there’s Ralph Branca. October 3rd, 1951. Coming into the deciding game of the playoff, pitching for the Dodgers with a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the 9th. There’s a couple of runners on, one out, and Bobby Thomson coming up to the plate.

Branca pitches.

Thomson swings.

There’s a long drive.

The Giants win the Pennant.

The Giants win the Pennant.

This takes losing to a whole other level.

Of course it’s a team game and there were a lot of other plays made and not made in the game that might have made a difference. But Ralph threw the pitch that lost the game.

The picture of the aftermath is probably the best picture of baseball ever.

bobby-thompson-and-ralph-branca-b-fr-sm

There you have it. That’s what the game is all about. That’s what life is all about.

baseball-ying-yang-c-fr

Branca was a pretty good pitcher for the Dodgers, winning 21 games for them in 1947. He made the all-star team in ’47, ’48, and ’49. Then he got hurt in a clubhouse accident in ’52, hurt his back, and never regained his pitching form. He used to go around to the old timer’s games with Thomson, who passed away in 2010 at 86. They became friends, and donated some money from joint appearances to charities.

Ralph Branca passed away today, in Rye Brook, NY, at age 90. Three time all-star, 21-game winner for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Good game, Ralph.

8 and 25. Seriously.

man.

 

brutal.

 

Just…

 

 

utterly

 

 

 

brutal.

 

I have to say, this club is not this bad. No.

Nobody is this bad, really.

Okay, maybe the Atlanta Braves, but probably not even them.

I know that spring training is just spring training, but this team went 19-11 in the spring. That’s the team I thought we’d be seeing this year. Where did they go?

I suppose this is one of the weirdly attractive things about baseball. Inexplicable, relentless catastrophe.

Of course, a lot of people will be happy to explain it. In fact, they saw it coming. Could have told ya.

But to be playing this bad. That’s pretty inexplicable. This goes far far beyond injuries and strikeouts and OPS and young ball players who lack experience in major league ball. This gets all the way down to the absolute nature of reality and existence.

Reality and existence: utterly brutal.

Life is full of suffering.

oh yeah.

grimreaper2