Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

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Why Do Baseball Announcers and Analysts Not Understand Stats?

June 29, 2013

I’m watching the Fox game (Yanks/Orioles–yeah, now it’s OK for me to see the O’s), and Joe Buck is saying his usual silly stuff. Just now: “Lots of people said it was a fluke last year when the Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games, and 16-2 in extra inning games, but they’ve shown that’s not true. Their bullpen is good.”

So I went here, and this year the O’s are 12-11 in one-run games, and 5-3 in extras. So yeah, Joe, last year was a total fluke. They still have a good record, but their bullpen is 14th in ERA and batting average alllowed, and 18th in on-base-plus-slugging allowed. Mediocre at best; not hurting the team, but not a key to their success.

I don’t watch a ton of football or basketball games, but the announcers don’t often strike me as guys who don’t get stats, or who misuse stats. But some baseball announcers seem proud of their inability to understand stats.

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A Day (almost) of Watching Baseball

June 29, 2013

Today I am home from a week-long trip to Seattle. No one else is home. Equipped with my Roku box, MLB.tv subscription, and MLB Network on my cable box, I was planning to spend 12 hours watching baseball. But, thanks to MLB’s antedeluvian blackout rules, I was forbidden to watch the first game of the day, the 1 pm Nats/Mets game. That’s because North Carolina lies within both Washington and Baltimore’s blackout territory. This means that not only can no other team try to broadcast its games into NC, but that the O’s and Nats can choose which of their games I can watch. And since the Regional Sports Network for my area (MASN) has not come to terms with my TV provider (AT&T), I don’t get to watch *any* Nats and O’s games. And without any need to worry about competition from other RSN’s or other teams, MASN is in no hurry to negotiate. And that is because of the misguided thinking that lies at the root of the blackout scheme: that showing games on TV reduces interest in attending a team’s games, and thus is bad for the team.

Apparently this reasoning extends to the first days of radio–teams feared that, with the game available at home, no one would want to come to the park. The opposite is true, of course–exposure to the game increases interest in it. Yet here we are, nearly a century later, and teams still think I will want to drive 5 or 6 hours to watch a team because I cannot see them on TV. Further, I am supposed to want to support a team which won’t let me watch their game today … which they are playing in New York. That’s right–my interest in watching a team whose games I can’t see is supposed to compel me to fly to NYC to watch them. All of which is to say that I spent three hours watching Wimbledon–and reminiscing about one of the more amazing days in my life, just 52 Saturdays ago–instead of the Mets and Nats.

The blackout map is ridiculous–fans in Iowa are banned from watching six teams. The Blue Jays get to black out all of Canada, the second-largest country on Earth. And even though I am nearly as close to Atlanta as I am to Baltimore, I can watch the Braves but not the Orioles. Further, the blackout also applies to my MLB.tv subscription–I pay $120+ a year to see my Red Sox play, but the O’s can blackout those games for me too … unless I am traveling to, say, Seattle, where my viewing is not perceived as a threat to the Orioles. The map is finally being challenged in court, and I hope one day that every baseball fan can watch every game made available to them, or for which they pay a premium to see.

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Perfect Thoughts

June 22, 2012

Last Wednesday I witnessed baseball history. I watched Matt Cain throw a perfect game, just the 22nd in major league history and the first in the 128-year history of the New York/San Francisco Giants. Along with Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, it was one of the two greatest sporting moments I’ve ever witnessed. Both of these games had drama (Can the Canes do it? Can Cain do it?) and tension (So close … almost …YES!!), until at the end I could hardly believe that I was witnessing such an incredible moment. Here are a few things I remember about watching Cain’s perfecto:

I started thinking about a perfect game from the start. I’ve been asked, when did I notice he was throwing a perfect game? Right away. When I go to a baseball game, I always speculate whether I’m going to see a perfect game, or no-hitter, or shutout. Or maybe someone will hit for the cycle, or hit 4 home runs. So when Cain sent down the Astros in order, striking out two, in the first, I noted it. With two outs in the fifth, the guy next to me said, “You know he’s throwing a perfect game, right?” I slapped his arm and shushed him; it is bad luck to speak of such things whilst they are occurring. When Cain got the next guy, I looked at my friend Danilo, who had joined me for the game, and said, “That’s 15 up and 15 down.” Danilo just nodded; he knew, and knew nothing further need be said. That was the inning when the fans near the Giants dugout started standing as Cain returned from the mound. By the 6th everybody in the lower bowl was standing. By the 7th Danilo decided to call his wife Catherine and have her put on the game, but he wouldn’t tell her why. “Bob sure is nervous here next to me,” he told her, but she missed his meaning. I chose not to alert my family in North Carolina; I was afraid I’d jinx it. By the 9th the cheering began as Cain warmed up and crescendoed with Belt’s catch of the 27th out. I could hardly stand still and clapped my hands to vent my nervous energy. I could hardly stop yelling when Cain finished off the last man. The small possibility of the first inning had reached fruition. I got to witness history fulfilled. Not “I was there when Cain lost his no-no in the ninth” but instead “I was there when Cain threw his perfecto.” Undeserved, but so very grateful, to have borne witness.

Luck figures prominently… As a fan you can’t choose to attend a perfect game; you just have to be in the right place at the right time. I got my ticket from my dear and unlucky friend Tommy, who has had Giant season tickets since they were still playing at the ‘Stick and who has not missed a home opener since elementary school. We’d made plans in April to attend this game together; I was in town to teach, and I’d not been to AT&T Park since 2005 (coincidentally, Cain’s MLB debut). But days before, Tommy learned he had to head to Chicago for a business meeting, and his ill fortune became Danilo’s good. The only regret I had about being at this game was that Tommy wasn’t, but he was most gracious. As our friend Brad texted me the next day, “You can’t plan it or buy your way in. It’s total luck.” And joyous, wondrous luck at that.

… For the pitcher too. My presence at the game was pure good fortune: right place, right time. The pitcher has luck of a different kind. He creates lots of it himself; striking out 14 significantly helped Cain retire all 27 batters he faced, because strike outs don’t require any assistance from teammates. But while the Giants had opposite-field hits fall in, and ground balls squeeze between infielders, the remaining 13 balls the Astros put into play were fairly easy to field. With one amazing exception. It feels like standard fare for a perfecto to require one heroic play, and Gregor Blanco provided Cain with one in the 7th. Otherwise the only other hard hit was Snyder’s drive to left in the 6th, which looked to me like a dinger but which Cabrera handled just in front of the fence. This is not to suggest that Cain didn’t deserve his perfection, or that his performance was akin to winning the lottery. In fact, it requires some good fortune, much more physical skill, and even more mental fortitude. Because the pitcher can only record three outs in an inning, his work is broken up by his teammates’ turns at the plate. With each inning, as he moves closer and closer to destiny and history, these intermissions become harder to wait out, and thus leave a heavier weight on the shoulders with each return to the mound. As Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus remarked the next day, what makes ballplayers special is not that they don’t experience nerves; it’s that they feel them but continue to execute at extremely high levels. Cain’s good luck was largely of his own, and partially of his teammates’, creation.

Sport can provide moments of pure emotion. The feeling of am-I-really-here comes in part from witnessing directly the amazing capacity to perform brilliantly in the densest moments of competition. While the surface emotions swirled–anxiety and excitement and joy–beneath them I felt deep appreciation, almost awe that I could watch this game in person and feel my own expectations, and those of the crowd around me, build with each out. We all wanted so desperately to be part of history. Our hopes turned to euphoria when the game was over. Danilo and I took some pictures; like many we just didn’t want to leave the ballpark while the experience was so fresh. Outside many hung around the plaza, taking pictures of the AT&T Park sign lit up, of the Willie Mays statue, of each other. There was lots of high-pitched conversation and occasional screams of delight. I texted friends and family in all caps: “DANILO AND I JUST SAW MATT CAIN THROW A PERFECT GAME FOR THE GIANTS!!” I yelled enough that on my ride back I stopped at a 7 Eleven for throat drops, and it was there that I had the strangest thought of the night. I stood in front of the beer section and remarked to myself: “Why would anybody want to drink alcohol. It just gets in the way of experiencing life directly.” That is the purity of feeling this game provided me. It took a while to fall asleep, which allowed time to photos to Facebook. I awoke after just four hours or so of sleep, my body jerking with adrenaline again. As I drove to that day’s workshop, and even as I began teaching, I kept flashing back to moments in the game and after. The euphoria took a good 12 hours to fade, but writing tonight has brought back glimpses of it. My high school tennis coach, Harvey Smith, once said, “The memories of an event are often greater than the event itself.” If he’s right, then I will be feeling those glimpses for years to come.

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Even the Ground Moves

June 12, 2012

Two Fridays ago Johan Santana threw a no-hitter, not just for my fantasy team but for the New York Mets. The Mets had played 8019 games in over 50 seasons without a pitcher ever throwing a no-hitter for them. It seemed like they never would. Padre fans know the feeling–they’ve yet to see their team throw one (though they’re only in their 44th season).

Two days later I was cutting our lawn, and afterward I could not close the door to our shed. There’s a huge stone with a flat top that looks kind of like a welcome mat at the shed’s entrance. The door has closed for the eight years we’ve lived here, and I imagine for as long as the shed has existed before that. But now it sticks up just enough that I can’t swing the door shut. This stone is massive: I can’t dig deep enough to lever it with a shovel, and even if I could it feels like it wouldn’t budge. There’s been no earthquake or mudslide at our house; everything looks the same, but somehow the stone has moved.

Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent, even things that appear so. The evidence is no further away than a box score, or the earth beneath your feet.

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The Impermanence of Baseball

November 13, 2011

It has been reported that Jonathan Papelbon will end his six-year stint with the Red Sox and head to the Phillies. I want to thank him for his excellent work, especially ensuring leads for the ’07 World Series champs, and wish him the best. I am glad the Red Sox understand that closing is not usually a position worthy of tons of cash–the skill set is easily replicable, and as it’s been said before, getting three outs just isn’t that hard (was it Cleveland’s Doug Jones who admitted that?). The Sox will move up Daniel Bard from the set-up role, and he’ll provide the same kind of psychological safety net for the next Boston manager.

Papelbon’s exit, and the current vacancy in the Sox’s manager’s office, highlight a deeper truth about baseball: its impermanence. I’ve been a fan of this team for over four decades, and it’s easy to think of the Sox as a single entity. Same ballpark for a century, almost no change in the uniform (the current bright-red jersey reminds me of the shift to the two-tone cap in the ’70s), and incremental changes to the roster–all give the illusion that the Sox are an unchanging institution. But it isn’t. The roster doesn’t stay the same for a month, let alone a year. The uniforms are made of different materials, the ballpark gets renovations and repairs every year, and the front office personnel changes too. I am especially aware of this impermanence this winter, as GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona have left the Sox. Theo, with his deep analytical understanding of the game, and Francona, with his firm-but-friendly style and his apparent awareness that the manager’s chief role is to put the best players out there and let them play, have given me a false sense of security. I felt like, in their hands (particularly Theo’s), the team would keep finding good players, develop them, and give them a chance to succeed in Boston. My certainty is now gone. As Jerry Seinfeld said, if you’re a baseball fan you’re actually just rooting for the laundry.

This idea of impermanence is vital to Buddhism. As we look deeper into our experiences, we see that permanence is illusory. My thoughts come and go; the cells of my body are replaced regularly; my personality can show different sides at a moment’s notice; and my desires and interests can be just as fleeting. So it is with the world around me: my family, my home, my neighborhood, can look the same on the surface while they are changing just as frequently as I am.

Good luck to Theo and Pap. Hope you find a job, Tito. Thanks for reminding me that nothing stays the same–even the team my grandfather helped me learn to love.

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Ken Griffey Jr and the Melancholy of Quitting

June 4, 2010

In April 1989 Vicki and I (not to be married for another four months) went to the home opener of the defending AL champion Oakland A’s. After years of mediocrity the A’s had made it to the World Series, where they lost to the heavily underdog Dodgers in five games. That was the Series that started with Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit, how-could-he-hit-it-that-far-when-he-can-barely-walk home run off the almost unhittable Dennis Eckersley.

But all that was now forgotten as the A’s received their league champion rings and fireworks lit up both baselines into the outfield. That night they sent their ace, Dave Stewart, a 21-game winner, to the mound. Stewart was on his way to another 21-win season, and who better to open against than the mediocre Seattle Mariners.

In the first inning Stewart faced Ken Griffey Jr, still only 19 but making his MLB debut. Even in those pre-Internet, only-one-ESPN-channel days, there was considerable excitement about how good this kid might be. In his first at-bat against the league’s most intimidating starter, Griffey crushed a double into the gap. On a line. With authority. I looked at Vicki and said, “Good Lord, two years ago that kid was playing high school baseball in Ohio.” Or something like that. Talk about a future of unlimited promise.

This week Griffey retired. Now 40, he was hitting under .200 without a homer this year. It’s hard to remember that he hit 630 of them, without the benefits of steroids, and made it look easy. When your future is unlimited it’s hard not to disappoint, and mixed with the homages to Griffey this week (he “saved baseball in Seattle,” he “saved baseball after the ’94 strike,” etc) has been talk of what might have been. To some he made it look too easy–he didn’t work out enough, he didn’t study pitchers enough, he was too willing to run into fences instead of preserving his body. Despite all he did, there are still thoughts of what he didn’t do.

The hardest parts of being an athlete are having your skills decline at a young age, and in public view. Vicki and I have been married since 1989 and I’d like to think we’ve still got our best years ahead of us. I was three years into a teaching career in 1989 that still has miles to go and plenty of space for improvement. But for athletes it’s all over in a moment, and the arc of their careers finish at a lower point than they start from. Life is short enough if you think you’re getting threescore and ten, but elite athletic careers are shooting stars, gone before we know it.

At 47 I am now starting to realize that my own life, and body, and work, is an arc and not an arrow stretching interminably upward. I’m doing my damnedest to push back against the inevitable geometry, but Griffey reminds me this week that we all follow that path. Most of us do so quietly and without second-guessing. Best of luck to you, Junior, in the rest of your many days.

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Get well, Yaz!

August 20, 2008

As a Polish-American kid growing up in New England, I idolized Carl Yastrzemski (I could spell his name just now without having to look it up!). He was the best hitter on some pretty average Red Sox teams, but also won the Triple Crown and led the previously hapless Sox to the 1967 AL pennant. No one has won the Triple Crown since. He played in another World Series in 1975, but was unfairly blamed for the team's failures in between. I remember hearing fans boo him in Fenway in the early 70s–I guess he was supposed to win the Triple Crown every year.

But he was widely adored in Red Sox Nation during the last years of his career–I remember the Patriots showing his at-bats on their video board during his last game in 1983–and has assumed his rightful spot in the Sox eternal constellation of stars, just below Ted Williams. My parents gave me a Yaz autographed baseball for Christmas a few years ago and it is one of my most treasured posessions.

Yesterday Yaz had triple bypass surgery. He is almost 69–just a year older than my mom. I wish him a full and speedy recovery.

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