Busting Baseball Crib Notes
I’m old enough to remember hiding “crib notes” in my hand when attempting to not fail a trigonometry exam. Oh c’mon, you did it too. Maybe you scribbled some facts in pen on your hands or arms. Get caught, you get sent to the principal’s office, or worse, get a F on the exam. Aw, don’t act self-righteous about it. I bet you read the Classic Comic version of Silas Marner or dove into the Cliff Notes rather than suffer through the actual, depressing book.
Yeah, yeah, it’s technically cheating, which has me thinking about what’s become glaring demonstrations of cribbing among Major League Baseball players. It’s right there on TV. Catchers sport those flip up things attached to their wrists that contain intelligence on opposing batters. Pitchers and position players doff their caps where they’re hiding cheat sheets on how to play the next guy at bat.
I don’t know the exact wording but I’m imagining something like, “Joey Bagadonuts sucks at hitting sliders,” “Andy Eatme hits to short right field and has bad breath.” This is invaluable intelligence as to how to pitch to or defend against the hitter. But it just smacks of smuggling crib notes into the test room.
OK, I’ll invoke it. What I was a kid, players just, well, remembered things about their opposition or had a feeling about the guy and acted accordingly. Can you imagine a grouchy Nolan Ryan looking inside his cap for advice on how to brush back a batter with a 100 mph fastball? Screw it, he’d just terrorize the guy on general principles because it’s fun.
If Ryan’s catcher had the temerity to flip up and refer to crib notes on his wrist and then actually suggest a pitch based on that information, I’m guessing he’s the one who would get the heater aimed at his head.
Did Willie Mays need notes hiding on his head? Are you kidding? Ball goes up, ball comes down… in his mitt. What’s so hard about that? Nothing, if you’re Willie Mays.
I know, it’s all related to the scourge of sports related Sabremetric, data, numbersnumbernumbers, blah blah blah blah.
Go ahead, without Googling it, tell me what OPS is. Sure, some of you will know, others will pretend they know, honest ones will say, “don’t give a shit.” What’s the guy hitting? Launch angle? It’s baseball, not NASA. The ball’s gotta rendezvous with the fielder’s mitt, not Venus.
I love it when they tell me how fast the ball left the bat. Sure, it lets you know how hard the guy swings but honestly, some of the most effective swings are slow and easy and result in run scoring hits.
All these esoteric stats may be included in these cheat sheets but to me sports is all about training, natural talent, instinct and spitting.
But it would be fun to see the umps crack down on this stuff, like test proctors, ejecting guys for using the crib notes on their wrists and under their hats rather than playing the game using their heads.
Playing By Baseball’s Numbers–My Personal Sabremetrics
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash is being blamed today for making a bonehead move that probably contributed to his team’s loss in the World Series. You see, he pulled the team’s ace pitcher, Blake Snell even though he was tossing a great game…surrendering to the endless babble of numbers, acronyms and abbreviations known as Sabremetrics…or as I call them….”WTFetrics” Cash just didn’t want Dodgers batters to get a third time at the plate against the guy, even though Snell was basically mowing them down.
As a lifelong fan of the national pastime I was content with knowing a batter’s average, a pitchers earned run average and other stats like how many homers a guy hit, bases he stole and runs he batted in.
I get that things have moved along and we now know esoterica that help managers, owners and players supposedly make better decisions on the field and off. Therefore, I’ve decided to go with the flow and adapt this development to my own life.
I started today at noon with my midday repast. As I lifted my ham sandwich to my piehole I asked my meal mate to take some video on their phones that I could later examine to better understand what I have designated my “Lunch angle.” Could I more effortlessly ingest my ham on rye by reducing the angle at which it enters my mouth? By adjusting my lunch angle, I might be able to keep my mouth shut longer, thereby allowing me to listen to the gossip being offered before taking another sloppy, noisy bite. I love anything that improves cognition.
Another stat I find useful is how I measure and regulate complaining. I’ve set a hard and fast limit by establishing a firm Bitch Count. When I find myself getting too whiny, I cut myself off after four complaints within an 8-hour period. Then I engage in a self-enforced cool-down cycle by swilling two fingers of Jack Daniels on the rocks. The same goes for anyone I happen to be with. Hit the Bitch Count and you’re cut off–forced to join me for happy hour until you calm down. Could take several rounds.
The one baseball stat I find mind-numbing is OBP, or on-base percentage. Here’s now the pros figure it: On Base Percentage (aka OBP, On Base Average, OBA) is a measure of how often a batter reaches base. It is approximately equal to Times on Base/Plate appearances. The full formula is OBP = (Hits + Walks + Hit by Pitch) / (At Bats + Walks + Hit by Pitch + Sacrifice Flies)
In real life one can use a similar formula to measure a person’s inability to use tact or diplomacy or Obtuse Bile Percentage. The formula would be expressed thusly as: OBP= Swear words + Corporate slang + Inappropriate hand gestures / Text messages with angry emojis + Selfish demands + Supportive References to Sean Hannity. A perfect score of 1.000 wins the designation as PTB or Perfect Trump Boor.
My final example is the fascinating, yet polarizing stat known as the WHIF…or Wife plus Husband per Issues Fought. It’s fairly self-explanatory and is considered an important predictor of future evenings bereft of connubial connection.
That’s just a start but I’m sure by the end of the season I will have established a new benchmark for UNR or Useless Numbers Referenced. Play ball!
Play Piped-In Ball!
I don’t know about you but I’m excited Major League Baseball is cranking up and it’s not only because of my love for the game. What’s got my juices flowing (and at my age they’re barely moving) is the artificial crowd noise they’re going to pipe into the stadiums since there won’t be any fans.
The Dodgers went one better in a pre-season game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, putting up cardboard cutouts of fans to go with the piped-in din.
I got a taste of it during the telecast of a Detroit Tigers intrasquad game last week and I have to say, that as spooky as it was to see 40,000 empty seats but hear 40,000 disembodied voices sparked all sorts of inane thoughts. Those thoughts included suggesting to Stephen King he write a book called “The Stands” and registering for ventriloquism school to see if they could teach me to throw my voice…from third to first.
But why stop at a simple din and occasional cheers? Why not create audio drop-ins that would include a cadre of unseen bots booing the crap out of an overpaid player who under-achieves or an ump who keeps missing calls? I’m sure the person running the audio could have at his or her disposal a number of disembodied bon mots that could include the traditional “you suck!” to the observant “balk!” to the erudite “you threw a fastball in a hitter’s count? Moron!” It might be slightly hysterical, if not ridiculous to see the targeted player flip the bird in the direction of his ersatz harasser. Then get tossed.
The Houston Astros are giving it a try through the use of a smartphone app that fans can access to express their sentiments. The info is monitored by the staff at the stadium who can them match the crowd noise to the percentage of fans rooting for each team.
Why stop with faux spectators? Every couple of minutes during an inevitable lull toss in the comforting sounds of a vendor hawking hot dogs, beer or an overpriced pennant, then quickly follow that with the sound of a fan hollering, “Hey! Two dogs, two beers!” To add a bit of texture, wait a few beats and toss in “where’s my effin’ change?”
I see a situation late in the game when the tension building all night explodes into an unseen spat between “fans” on opposite sides. Bring in the sound of fists hitting flesh, then add “Pow!” graphics to the screen. Now you’ve got a multimedia experience!
I know all this would really add authenticity to an otherwise inauthentic proposition and the players say they really feed off crowd noise so why not include as many elements as possible to make it seem as real as possible.
Besides, if it works out, maybe they’ll start projecting images of imaginary fans doing the Wave or even “catching” a foul ball or homer. I bet they can create holograms of fat guys with no shirt making their man boobs bounce in time with the music when they’re sure the camera is on them.
It’s all gonna work out! I can’t wait to sing “Fake Me Out to the Ballgame!”
Tearing Down Re-Building
The other day I got a ping on my phone from that it has now been 11 years since any Detroit major league sports team had won a championship. There are several reasons for a team’s inability to win the big prize: bad luck, better opponents and, ah, yes…they’re re-building.
What does that mean exactly? The prevailing definition is the team must suffer some fallow years while young, inexperienced players learn the ropes, gain some seasoning and maybe one day will develop into key elements of a championship team.
What does it really mean? It means your team will suck for an extended period of time because the owners of the team offloaded talented, but high-priced players to avoid busting through the salary cap or simply to save some dough, leaving less expensive over-the-hill scrubs or not ready for the show minor leaguers filling out the roster. Then management crosses their fingers hoping a couple of those kids can quickly morph from newbie to MVP just long enough to win it all. Then it starts all over again. The kids become talented men who know how to play, want either want bigger contracts or test the free agent waters for even more money, so the owners dump ‘em and it’s time to, uh, re-build again.
All this time the tone-deaf owners expect us to pay inflated, major league prices to attend minor-league level games and then wonder why the stands are so empty the vendors can be seen huddling in corners mumbling to themselves, “what am I gonna do with all these goddam hot dogs?” Easy. Beg the owners to stage more “Bark in the Park” nights when hungry bowsers will gladly relieve them of their unsold sausages.
Bottom line is, they’re not doing it right. The whole idea of the minor league system is to constantly develop younger talent that is ready for the big time as the veterans begin to falter or retire. Other positions are filled in through savvy trades and sensible free agent signings. The whole process should be a gradual and constant but that’s not what’s happening.
I often wondered what would happen if other businesses were run this way. Say..in a law firm. A successful firm is stacked with highly skilled, highly paid attorneys who are winning criminal cases and multi-million dollar judgements. The place is flush. The partners are rolling in it. All is good. But at some point the partners realize they could be keeping more money by off-loading their highest paid lawyers and replace them with green rookies straight out of law school. So they pull the trigger. All in the name of, uh, rebuilding! Uh oh. Now the firm is losing cases left and right and their biggest clients have abandoned them. The partners are forced to sell their summer and winter homes, yachts and Bentleys. Despite this precipitous drop in performance, the firm seeks new clients at the hourly rate previously charged when they were flush with experienced barristers…but there are few takers. The firm’s shingle is dangling by a thread. Now..if only they had brought along young, promising rainmakers all along who could gain experience and skill so they were ready when the older attorneys retired or moved on, they’d still be raking in the fees and no vacation homes or ridiculous luxury items would be sacrificed.
It seems like such a simple and logical way of doing things. If you keep the pipeline filled with a constant flow of developing talent, you’ll never have to re-build..because all along you’ve been building.
Closing Shots on Opening Day
Opening Day at Tiger Stadium I’ve never attended an opening day as a spectator, but I do have some clear memories of a couple that I was compelled to cover as a correspondent for CNN. I remember them because one involved almost being beheaded by a ball thrown by a Cleveland Indian, and the second involved mayhem at the old Cincinnati Riverfront Stadium when I covered the banning of Pete Rose from baseball.
I was sent to Tiger Stadium for their home opener in 1995, which occurred only players suspended the strike that began the previous August, wiping out the end of the season and post-season. The fans were angry and tossed beer bottles, baseballs and other debris on the field.
Suspecting the fans would be pissed, I was sent to get some comments from Tigers players before the game. I walked up to giant Cecil Fielder who mumbled some gibberish only decipherable by a code breaker. As I attempted to get the slugger to form actual words, Indians outfield Kenny Lofton decided to take advantage of my vulnerable position and whizzed a ball by my noggin’ so close I saw Sparky Anderson’s life before my eyes. Lofton’s asshole move sparked a chuckle from Fielder who then mumbled something like “igotnuthintosay.” I only know that because a drunk guy in the front row listening to my attempt at an interview was annoyed when I persisted in trying to get the beef slab to give me just ten good seconds of wisdom I could use. He shouted at me, “hesayhegotnuthintosay!” Oh.
I covered the entire arc of Pete Roses’s banning from baseball and that’s worth an entire blog post by itself. But I’ll tell you about the first opening day after Rose was bounced, replaced by Lou Pinella as Reds manager.
We get on the field before the game, which was artificial turf. Not good artificial turf. I’ve been on trampolines with less bounce. Anyway, our first target was team owner Marge Schott. She was not a nice person..banned from managing the team from 1996 to 98 for spewing garbage supporting policies by that great baseball figure Adolph Hitler. Her constant companion, aside from her bigotry, was her dog Schottzie, which she brought to the game. I both the dog and the cur in a front row box seat and I attempt to get some obnoxious comments. Schottzie decides he doesn’t like reporters, hops over the rails and takes a dump at my foot. Marge says she agrees with that comment then goes on to blab blab blab about what a good boy Pete Rose is.
My next quarry was manager Lou Pinella. It was a kick to try to talk to him since I’m a native New Yorker and a big Yankee fan and Looouuuuuuuu was a favorite when he wore pinstripes. Now he wore the scarlet letter R but I didn’t hold it against him. What I did hold against him was that he was a ton taller than I imagined and I was barely able to get the mic up to his mouth. I was glad he turned out to be a cool guy and didn’t let any animals take a crap on my crappy shoes.
And then there was reliever Rob Dibble. Can’t help it. Every time I heard his name I thought of Office Dibble on the old Top Cat cartoon show. When I ask about his feeling about Pete Rose he goes completely bonkers to the point of incoherance in his support of his former manager. Everyone picked up our soundbite which may have been ESPN’s Play of the Day that day.
In the end, between the dog shit and the bullshit our story came out just fine. However, thinking about that distant memory I’m not going to be able to resist, at least once today, hollering, “Hey Officer Dibble!”
Dreck the Halls
I won’t waste time with wordy exposition. It’s time to shut down the various Halls of Fame and replace them with a concept that eliminates subjective voting and often results in unjustified snubs of worthy honorees. I’ll explain my simple and logical substitution in a moment.
The rationale is simple. All too often a player misses a shot at enshrinement for reasons totally unrelated to their performance:
*Not “flashy” enough
*Despite worthy career achievements they’re left off the ballot because the class of candidates is stacked the particular years they are eligible
*Voters/sports writers who have a particular bias against them for one reason or another.
*Despite worthy achievements the player was stuck on otherwise weak teams that didn’t win championships.
*Player spent career, or most of career in small media markets leading to less coverage and attention.
Just this year, beloved former Detroit Tigers second baseman Alan Trammell was finally granted entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but not his long-time double-play partner, second baseman Lou Whitaker who also had a stellar career. In fact, considering the popular stat Wins Above Replacement, Sweet Lou comes out ahead of Tram, 74.9 versus 70.4. Oh sure, you can twist numbers to prove your point and this is just one stat merely to show that two fairly comparable players can be treated very differently.
To go beyond sports, think about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why in the world are the mega-selling innovators, the Moody Blues, only just being admitted to the shrine in Cleveland?
Look, everyone has their examples of egregious snubs and can make arguments one way or another for their favorites to be recognized with a plaque screwed to the wall of a hallowed hall, but its painfully, and obviously apparent the path to admission is seriously flawed.
So I toss up this jump ball for discussion. First, eliminate voting. The venues would contain constantly updated displays of arrays of, say, top 100 achievers all-time in various statistical categories and winners of honors like the MVP, Cy Young award and Rookie of the Year. Bowing to how the games have changed over the years, similar displays would be broken out into various eras in order to place certain accomplishments in a viable context. There’s no voting. The displays are simply updated. Given we’‘re in a technically advanced age, images, videos and career highlights could accompany a player’s listing.
Given the totally objective method of recognizing player’s accomplishments, it’s time to trash the “fame” part of the name. Let’s face it, many of those not admitted to halls of fame are as famous as those who are.
Instead, call these venues Halls of Recognition? Stay with me. You do something great, it’s instantly picked up by the computerized display system and added to the appropriate display. I would think visitors would be somewhat enthralled watching the displays update as the season progresses, and secure knowing the displays would not be the same upon repeat visits.
Look, I love visiting Cooperstown, Canton and Toronto. Haven’t yet been to Springfield. The museum, exhibits, videos and memorabilia are thrilling to see and only add to my enthusiasm for the sport. Who doesn’t get a kick out of seeing Babe Ruth’s giant bowling shoes or taking a photo next to the Stanley Cup? It’s all very cool. But once I walk into the Hall of Fame area of the buildings for me, the joy of the game is tempered, knowing someone who accomplished so much…giving everything to their sport, was unfairly denied the small gesture of recognition.
If we all could call in a Closer
He sat in front of his locker with a towel on his head and took no questions. It was the man the Detroit Tigers depend upon to successfully seal the deal when they’re ahead in a game. The “closer.” Two nights in a row Francisco Rodriquez, K-Rod, did not seal the deal. He did not close the door. He made enough mistakes to allow the team the Tigers were beating to beat them instead. It made me think about this particular arrangement where we call on someone else to finish the job we started then allow them to suffer loathing, both self and external, when they can’t quite get it done.
Let’s say we’re writing a news story. I make the calls, do the research and start to write. I’m almost done but I’m outta gas. The words aren’t coming to me and my fingers are tired from typing. I could also use a stiff drink and a hot dog. No problem. I call in “the closer” who is tasked with finishing my story in such a way it not only the front page lead but is so amazing it goes viral and CNN employs a panel of 27 pundits to parse it and assigns it a dramatic theme song and spooky graphics.
But that’s not the way it goes down. The closer is fatigued from bailing out a half-dozen of my colleagues and depleting his hyperbole supply. By the time I call him into my game he’s got nothin’. He gamely takes the assignment anyway because closers never say “no” when their number comes up or they’re offered single malt Scotch. He taps and taps on the keyboard and I feel editorial victory is imminent. It’ll be my byline all over the paper and CNN will ask me to do a Skype interview with Anderson Cooper who will compliment my journalistic enterprise, and cuff links, while privately I will know it was the Closer who won the day for me. But that’s not the way it went down. The Closer falls short. Working on no day’s rest he coughs up three errors of fact and two blatant personal biases. I’m called on the carpet by the Managing Editor and ordered to personally write the corrections and an apology to the readers for allowing bias to breach the body of my story.
Damn Closer! It was his job to complete my assignment, make me look good and pave the way to that Pulitzer. He apologized profusely and promised to pull himself together for the next assignment. I just don’t know if I can trust him anymore. For now on I’ll have to pitch a complete game..from lead to nut graph to conclusion. But I can’t go on indefinitely like this. In a pique of frustration I stole the one thing that would get the newsroom’s attention and hit my colleagues the hardest. When one hapless scribe padded up to the kitchenette looking to fill his empty mug, he was greeted with Alec Baldwin’s greatest line. “Coffee is for Closers.”
Canadian Like Me
In his 1961 book “Black Like Me” author John Howard Griffin recounted his firsthand experiences with being the target of racism in the Deep South, when he tinted his skin so he appeared African-American.
I thought of Griffin’s experiment and book when I stumbled into a much less high-minded and serious episode of appearing to be someone I’m not. For one night, everyone around me thought I was Canadian.
My daughter’s boyfriend is from Nova Scotia, living here now, and had never been to a night time major league baseball game. Checking the Detroit Tigers schedule a few weeks ago, I noticed that June 7th was “Canadian Tiger Fans Night,” and with one ticket package you received a voucher for a swell t-shirt proclaiming you a Canadian Tigers Fan. So of course, I bit on that faster than a Quebecker on a pan of poutine.
I noticed a difference even before I donned the shirt with a maple leaf and the Olde English D on the front and map of Canada on the back. It happened when we exchanged our vouchers for the shirts and the young man handing them out gave us a little smile similar to the one you might give someone who doesn’t speak English. I wanted to help him relax by saying, in English, “it’s ok, eh? we have t-shirts in Canada too.”
People kept stopping us asking if we were really from Canada and did we come all that way, which is comical, or pathetic, since Canada is just a mile away across the Detroit River. We were also asked to turn around so folks could see the backs of our shirts. One or two asked, earnestly, “What is that, a map of Canada, or Ontario, or…something?” Something. Eh?
It was after the game, though, when I honestly felt the pain of being on the receiving end of either xenophobia, or simply the effects of too many 10 dollar beers in a 75 IQ body. As we walked down the ramps toward the exits, a few morons started shouting at us in their worst Canadian accents, “Hey! You Canadian guys! You enjoy the game, EH? Sorry the Blue Jays lost, but no worries, EH? Did you know this wasn’t a hockey game, EH?” I knew they were idiots and probably drunk but for the first time I felt stung as a target of, if not something as serious and ugly as racism, but, as something I could only define as “differentiation.” I immediately recalled “Black Like Me,” as I looked down at my red Canadian Tigers Fan shirt, a scarlet tee, providing the faux skin disguising me as a citizen of the Provinces, and identifying me as a convenient target of stereotype and ignorance.
But this has a happy ending. One of the offenders, a kid from across the river in Windsor, Ontario, confided that he regretted missing the chance to get one of those t-shirts and herald the fact he’s a proud Canadian Tigers fan. Maybe next year. No worries. Eh?
That Night at Yankee Stadium in ’66 with Joe G and the Scooter
Joe Garagiola was a mediocre baseball player but an All-Star guy. How do I know? Well, aside from reading his wonderful book “Baseball is a Funny Game” and enjoying his self-effacing humor on TV, I had one of those “lightening strikes” nights at Yankee Stadium in August of 1966.
It was what they used to call a “twi-nighter,” a nighttime double-header. The air was stagnant and sticky and somehow my friend Joey and I scored reserved mezzanine seats behind the plate in the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium. The Kansas City A’s were the opponents.
As usual, I arrived at the game very early to watch batting practice when I noticed a couple of familiar faces enjoying a cold drink and some jokes a few rows ahead and to the left of me. Once I realized who they were I grabbed my scorecard and tentatively walked up to them, fearing I’d be told to get lost and not interrupt their conversation. At they time they were the Yankees announcing team and maybe they were strategizing how they’d call the games…or maybe just two pals BSing before they got to work. At any rate my fears were quickly allayed.
The first guy whipped out a substantial pen, said “sure kid,” and scrawled his Hall of Fame name, Phil Rizzuto, “The Scooter,” the Yankees legendary shortstop. The other guy seemed kind of shy and almost surprised a kid would want him to sign too. But he grabbed my pencil, smiled and complied, adding his sprawling signature, to the page. “Enjoy the game…and thanks,” he said.
After the game, as I walked along the warning track on the way to the subway, I quickly bent down and grabbed a blade of right field grass and later Scotch taped it onto the same page as those signatures. That program remains my most important possession, not only because of the autographs and grass, but the warm memory of a couple of legends willing to share a moment and a little bit of themselves with a shy, pimply, 14-year old baseball fan. RIP Joe….and “Thanks.”