On the Force or the Tag: Part V

On The Force or the Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. Read earlier sections:

The dugout in which the meeting with Calloway happened. 


Memory is Duct tape. It’ll hold together bits of truth well enough for us to get on with the day.  

The season ended abruptly. My fiance and I had scheduled a trip to Denver on what was to be the final weekend of games. It was not a good look for the coach to be absent, but the last weekend of games were cancelled anyway. They couldn’t find any umpires.  

Following the previous game – what become our last – I told the fellas how much I enjoyed coaching them. I encouraged them to call if they ever wanted me to throw batting practice or hit fungos. There were a few thank yous from parents and players in the parking lot, but no one was pretending the season was more than it was. In total, I coached eight games, one practice, and one batting practice session with Zack.

Regardless of the brevity of the season, these are my guys now. That’s how this coaching gig works. My wish for them is that they find a calling, they work very hard to master that calling, and they feel the buzz of success regularly. If they need me, I hope they know I’ll answer the call.

I enjoyed every player on the team – truly – and they seemed to like me enough, too. If fate would have it so, it would be a welcome surprise to bump into any of my guys in five or ten years and get an update on how things are going.

My account of this season and the relationships forged with these players is just that: one account. In truth, there is a high likelihood that at least one player on this team did not like me. Someone felt that I had picked favorites, and he wasn’t one of them, and that I didn’t know squat about baseball. I would bet these were the topics of conversation at that monument of adolescence – the car ride home from a game with a parent.

Some portion of that story occured. How can I be so sure? Everyone who has ever played a sport at any level has had at least one coach who didn’t mesh, whether the coach knew it or not. My coach was Chris Calloway.  

I framed this series as a thank you to the great coaches throughout my baseball life. What I haven’t mentioned is I’ve spent as much time thinking about Calloway (not his real name), as any other coach I ever had.

I end with Calloway because baseball’s ultimate lesson is failure.

***

The high school field at Roseville. They can keep leveling and re-edging that field until the end of time, but it will always be a crap field. In the background you can see the hill and Highway 36 where we’d have to shag foul balls.

Calloway played the part of a coach convincingly. While he was no tactician, he was pigeon-toed and sauntered across the infield like a coach. He’d yell odd phrases from the dugout – Get foul, you communist whore! –  that sounded gruff, coach-like, but he also tried to pass off obvious objectives of the game as wisdom – you gotta throw strikes, hit the ball hard. He’d chew leaf tobacco and work hopelessly on our p.o.s. high school field during the summer while his dog ran along the fence line. His aura dripped baseball coach, but it wasn’t the real thing.

To Calloway, my enthusiasm for the game was a book picked up, thumbed through, and never read. I was another player to him, and that did not work for me. I worked hard to be more than just another player, and every other coach prior to him had encouraged me. Calloway didn’t care how much I cared. I grew to hate him for that, flatout. I resolved to prove him wrong and extract his respect without ever knowing what evidence would be sufficient proof I’d succeeded.

The goal was a D-I college baseball scholarship. I’d mapped out a plan in detail. 200 swings a day on the tee in the basement. Long-toss three times a week throughout the year. Blocking drills, framing, working out in the gym. I quit hockey – in Minnesota! –  to focus on doing everything I could to reach this goal. These were not sacrifices; I enjoyed every bit of it. I was fifteen, and because high school baseball is played during the spring, that meant I would likely need a scholarship offer after the summer season (Legion ball) of my junior year. I had two years. Not much time.

I started out ahead of schedule. Calloway asked me to join the varsity tryouts during my freshman year. In exchange for catching bullpens, I was allowed to practice with the upperclassmen. There was no chance I was going to make the varsity roster as a freshman – I knew that – but with that time I was able to assess the catcher pecking order in the program up close.

Jack Rose was the senior left-handed cleanup hitter with a cannon arm. Quick hands and a big ass. Borderline all-state catcher. Rose was graduating, and he gave me rides to the tryouts in his wagon. He was not my concern. Nico Roll was my concern.

Roll was one year ahead of me. A three-sport athlete with all of the physical ability to be good-to-great in just about any sport. He was a running back, a winger, and a catcher. He could hit, he could throw, and he could run. These are the measurables that show in a tryout. Nico also thought about Wu-Tang Clan far more consistently than he thought about baseball. That was not something that showed in a tryout. If anything, a lack of interest can be easily misread as an ‘even-keel approach’ in the short time frame of a tryout.

The following year, my task was quite plain coming into tryouts. In order to stay on schedule for a D-I scholarship, I had to beat out Roll at catcher. I was more consistent defensively, a left-handed hitter, and cared about nothing but baseball. I’d been working at it every day since the gym tryouts the previous year.

Roll was a more powerful hitter, and I already mentioned the speed. His best was pretty damn good, but he rarely showed it. Catcher is a position that will make a mess out of a guy if his head isn’t in it. The catcher is the captain on the field, the only one that has the entire field in front of him. To put it in Kent Anderson terms – every ball’s coming to me, know what I’m going to do with it – the catcher needs to know what every player on the field is supposed to do in every situation. Simply too much happens all of the time for someone with an occasional interest in baseball to play the position.

It was hard to tell who had the edge, and I waited for Calloway’s announcement. I finally had to ask. We were walking out by the loading docks in the back of the gym. Roll was going to start. Calloway seemed unsure why he even had to say it out loud.

It was the first moment in my life in which I encountered another’s talent that outweighed my desire. All things weren’t equal. Hard work had not paid off on my expectation, and I’d lost to a guy that didn’t care. Worst of all, Roll was a junior, meaning I’d sit behind him for two years. By the time my senior year would come I would miss most any chance to get a scholarship. This was not the plan.

And then, without warning, Roll was caught dipping in class before the season opener. Mandatory two week suspension. There I was, starting a varsity game as a sophomore playing against Cretin at their legendary diamond in St. Paul. I hit the ball hard a couple times that game, and I remember a walk-off hit against Coon Rapids. After the Coon Rapids game Calloway referred to my hit as something along the lines of a ground ball with eyes.

Cretin-Derham Hall. High school field of Joe Mauer and Paul Molitor. 

I don’t remember much else from those two weeks other than being extremely happy and feeling like I was where I was supposed to be. I played well, I think, and it wasn’t crazy to hope that I’d continue catching after Roll’s suspension. Who knows if the stats would prove my memory correct or not. Memory is Duct tape.

Roll served his suspension and was back into the lineup shortly thereafter. I was the designated hitter for a couple games, and then I was on the bench taking my turn shagging foul balls along Highway 36. I hated shagging foul balls at that field. You had to walk behind parents and students to climb over the chainlink fence and search for a baseball in high grass along the highway as cars and semis blew by. Put on an orange vest, and it’d be difficult to distinguish a bench player from a minimum security prisoner doing highway cleanup.

I was certain Calloway had it out for me and was going out of his way to screw me. He was drawn to athletes over ballplayers. In Minnesota, that meant he liked the hockey players that also played baseball. I’d quit hockey to become a ballplayer.

He liked Roll. Calloway once brought Roll a Sport Illustrated article about the Pirates catcher Jason Kendall. The story is about the two sides of Kendall: the surfer bum and the hard-nosed, always dirty, win-at-any-cost ballplayer with a huge wad of tobacco poking out of his cheek. Roll had the laid back portion of Kendall down (and the tobacco*), but he wasn’t hard-nosed. He wasn’t a ballplayer.

Calloway was trying to inspire Roll. In retrospect, I understand Calloway trying to jumpstart a player, but you can’t coach a kid to care. Kent, my Little League coach, could tell that from a game of catch with a ten year old. Still, it hurt to see Calloway try with Roll and wonder why he wouldn’t try with me.

The easy answer would be that I didn’t need it. That I already had the drive. That, of course, is disingenuous bullshit. I was a teenager, not a monk. How about an ‘atta boy’ every now and again?

At one point, I even had a meeting with Calloway to try to figure out what I could do differently. In a moment I’ll always regret, I had my older brother, Matt, join us in the dugout. I cried. I was failing, and I didn’t know how handle it. That moment remains utterly embarrassing and emasculating.

***

In the end – what do you know – it worked out. It took me a long time before it sunk into my teenage brain that I couldn’t control Calloway. What I could do was keep up with the daily 200 swings off of the tee and keep taking one more step back on the long toss.

You win by outlasting them. You care more for longer, and eventually the people between you and what you want quit. It’s not always the cinematic moment, the walk-off hit. In many ways, success is attrition.

I don’t think Roll even finished his senior year of baseball. What’s more telling – I can’t remember.  

I didn’t get that D-I scholarship, but I got some money to play at Augustana College, a D-II school (2018 D-II National Champs!). We played damn good ball for Coach Holm, and the team rode buses across Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska playing baseball in decaying minor league stadiums and through spring time snowstorms. We caravanned across the gray, wet belly of America on a diet of Euchre and orange peanut-butter crackers.

About to ride back from Greeley, Colorado with a NCC conference championship. Left to Right: Bergie, Wally, Kroeger, Schultzy, O-Dog, yours truly in the headphones, Walzy in the background with the looooooong cargo shorts, and Sammy’s chest far right. 

I was lucky to play a bunch all four years, to be captain two of those years, and to help win the first conference championship in the program’s history. My grandpa, my dad, my brothers got to see me play college baseball. Mom, too. She’d sit watch like a sentinel in that Sioux Falls wind galloping across the Dakota plains.  

I also spent my time sending writing samples to authors, drinking beers with teammates who would become lifelong friends, learning to play the guitar, and streaking across the quad. I read Tim O’Brien, John Fowles, and Steinbeck with a pen in hand and slipped terrible love letters into the shadows beneath dorm room doors.

After all those great times, why do I still think of those days with Calloway? Why do I still want to extract that goddamn, worthless respect out of him? Why does a part of me still need him to know I wasn’t a phony?

What bothered me as a teenager and what bothers me now are different points. As a kid, I wanted to play, to be great, and be recognized for it. As I saw it, Calloway wouldn’t allow that to happen, which of course isn’t entirely true. If I was an obvious D-I scholarship player, I would’ve taken Roll’s starting spot at some point.

As an adult, Calloway’s wasted opportunity bothers me as much as anything. He coached with no joy. It offends me that he held that Varsity Baseball Coach job for years, keeping it away from a coach who could’ve been to other players what Kent, Tony, Jay, and Holm were to me. It also bothers me at how quickly I panicked when Roll was given the starting gig. It took me too long to toughen up and deal with the situation by simply controlling what I could control, which was my effort and attitude.

But If I’m going to write about it like this, if I’m going to critique a man twenty years later, then I need to unwrap the Duct tape and examine all of the bits of truth that remain, not just the ones that fit within my emotional truth.

For as uninterested as I remember him to be, Calloway gave me a key to the baseball storage closet so we could get in the old gym and take B.P. anytime we wanted. That was our practice space throughout the winter, during the time the coach couldn’t be working with the players.

He also must have recommended me for a fall wood bat league that ultimately allowed me to catch the attention of my college coach. He spoke well enough about me to have Augustana offer me a scholarship. Without his endorsement, it is highly unlikely that happens. That is a huge detail I’d overlooked until writing this.

And we need to leave room for one other consideration. When we think of coaches, we let the title stand in for the entire person. We don’t think of them sitting at a cubicle the eight hours before they go to the field, and we can’t imagine them in the role of spouse, parent, son, or daughter. We have no idea what people carry on their shoulders on any given day, month, decade, or lifetime.

I have the right to share this story – my story – but I don’t want to be so self-centered as to not even acknowledge that Calloway was more than a coach, and there were parts of his life I didn’t see that impacted our relationship. These are not excuses, but it’s not always about us. Maybe it’s even rarely about us, and we need to leave space to remember that.

So it’s OK if some of the guys I coached this summer didn’t like me, but I hope they believe I care about them. I hope they work hard so they compete and expect to succeed in the moments when real life is at stake, whether that success comes as a cinematic moment or as the invisible victories of persistance. Kent, Tony, Jay, Holm – that’s what they gave me, and that’s about as big of a gift as it gets.

I also hope they know I will throw them B.P. and hit them fungos until it’s too dark to see. I’ll do it because I love to coach, but I’ll also do it because there’s no place I’d rather be than on a baseball field. – PAL

FOOTNOTES:

*I’m realizing now that tobacco is at the root of this chapter. Calloway chewed while working on the field, Roll was suspended for dipping in class. Kendall always and wad in his cheek, and I took up the nasty habit early in college (and have since quit).

A huge thank you to TOB for reading and editing these five chapters. Over the several years we’ve been doing 1-2-3 Sports!, I’ve come to love his writing and trust his opinion immensely. Also, a big thank you to Jay Kurtis for digging up some vintage pics from Little League, and to my mom and dad for digging up old team photos from cardboard boxes in the basement.

 

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Week of September 14, 2018


90s College Football Coach Fashion is “In”

This is one of the weirdest and funniest things I’ve ever read. In the 1990s, and still today but especially then, college football coaches had some terrible style. I mean, look at Bobby Bowden here:

The chunky white shoes. The heavily pleated and baggy khakis. The nearly mono-chromatic jacket/pants combo. That is seriously offensive to my eyes.

But, somehow, and until this article unbeknownst to me, the 1990s college football coach’s fashion is now IN. Like, IN-IN. Like, seriously High Fashion in, as illustrated to hilarious length by Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards. Edwards does a masterful job showing photos of college football coaches from the 90s, like Bowden, Steve Spurrier, and Lou Holtz, and recreating their outfits with the latest from top designers, costing thousands of dollars. For example, this pic of Spurrier?

Edwards recreated it for nearly $2,500, including these horrendously ugly sneakers for $895:

There are a few more examples. The story is creative, funny, and kinda mind-blowing. Fashion is friggin’ weird. -TOB

Source: Get The Look: Khaki-Loving 1990s College Football Coach”, Stassa Edwards, Deadspin (09/12/2018)

PAL: Hilarious. Most enjoyable read of the week.


The Incomparable Aaron Rodgers

Look, y’all know me. You know I’m biased. I’ve told the story on this very blog at least a couple times about how I said Aaron Rodgers would win a Heisman the very first time I saw him throw a pass (he didn’t, but multi-time NFL MVP is even better). But I’m sorry, I just can’t help it, and you’re going to have to sit through another gushing story. It’s not my fault. He’s the best quarterback to ever play the game, and that’s just how it goes.

I got home from a day out with the kids Sunday night just in time to see a Bears linebacker land on Rodgers’ leg early in the game. Rodgers was carted off and I dreaded a second straight season in which I couldn’t share his highlights and strut about my prophetic quarterback scouting skills and laugh in the face of any idiot trying to tell me Brady is better because of the rings.

So, I turned the game off. I let the kids watch CoCo or something. They went to bed, and I flipped back just in time to see Rodgers put the capper on a comeback, all the way from a 20-3 fourth quarter deficit to a win. The man limped back out, probably drugged out of his mind, and did stuff like this:

LOOK AT THAT THROW. ON ONE LEG. You can make fun of me all you want, but it’s throws like that which keep be coming back to football despite its problems.

The Ringer’s Robert Mays, himself a Chicago Bears fan, waxed poetic on how insanely good Rodgers is, and in particular on that throw:

The third quarter came and went without much fanfare, but dread began to creep in for Bears fans at the 13:59 mark in the fourth when Rodgers fired a missile directly into the hands of wide receiver Geronimo Allison for a 39-yard score. The strike—which brought the Packers within 10 points—was vintage stuff, a throw that no other quarterback past or present could have made. Standing on the left hash mark near midfield, Rodgers dropped the ball into a window the size of a shoebox, between the outstretched hand of cornerback Kyle Fuller and the back-right corner of the end zone. The play design was nothing special, the separation minimal, and yet none of it mattered.

The Bears’ party may have been spoiled, but it was spoiled by one of the best to ever do it, as Rodgers channeled the height of his power when a franchise and a fan base needed it most. Chicago’s day may come, but for now, the king in the North remains.

Hell yeah. And to be clear, Rodgers really was hurt and might not play this weekend against the Vikings. Speaking of the Vikes, Xavier Rhodes, one of the best corners in the game, published a Player Tribune article this week, and said:

You ever seen that movie Wanted?

The one where they shoot a gun and the bullet curves?

Well, there was this play against the Packers — it was early in my rookie season, the first time I played against Aaron Rodgers. Jordy Nelson was in the back of the end zone. I wasn’t on him, though. Josh Robinson was. I was underneath. When Rodgers threw it to Jordy, it went right over my head. But right when Rodgers let it go, I knew Jordy wasn’t gonna catch it. The trajectory of the ball was off to the right.

Then, as the pass went over my head, I turned around just in time to watch — and, man, I promise you, the ball bent back to the left, barely missed Josh’s helmet, and dropped right into Jordy’s hands.

I was immediately like, It’s over. If THIS is what the NFL is like, I’m never getting any picks!

A lot of guys had told me that Aaron Rodgers was a different breed, but now I’d had a front-row seat for it. This guy was out there throwing curveballs.

It was great coverage. There was nothing Josh could do. Nothing nobody could do. When we got back to the sideline, it was like those Thanksgiving Day games against Stafford. Our coaches weren’t even mad. They saw the replay on the jumbotron, and our DB coach just shrugged his shoulders and was like, “I don’t know what to tell you.”

And if all that wasn’t enough, we get this late in the week:

I AGREE, TOM. BY GOD, I AGREE. To ape a line or two: Aaron Rodgers is the best there is, the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be. Forever and ever amen. -TOB

Source: Aaron Rodgers Hero Ball Is the Bears’ Recurring Nightmare”, Robert Mays, The Ringer (09/10/2018); The 7 Best Players in the NFC North. Period”, Xavier Rhodes, The Players Tribune (09/11/2018)

PAL: Can a person get a restraining order on someone else’s behalf? 


Sisters of the Poor Fat with Cash

I saw the headline and I knew I’d be sharing this story. Early in the college football season, we see a lot of lopsided scores. The big-timers from the power five conferences schedule ass-kickins with smaller schools from conferences we’ve never heard. Every once in a decade, we get a stunner like like Appalachian State beating Michigan, but most every time it’s an ass-kicking.

The smaller schools do it for the money, and the money is better than ever.

It seems like a no-brainer for a school like San Jose State. The players love the opportunity to play in front of 100,000 fans in Austin and potentially catch someone’s attention. The fans love traveling to iconic college football stadiums, and the revenue goes a long way in helping keep the 21 other teams at the school up and running.

The cost of flying a team, coaches, staff, school officials and equipment across the country and paying for hotels and meals can eat up as much as $100,000 from the payout. But even after taking that into consideration, there’s plenty left over.

San Jose State has a $26.5 million annual athletics budget, with which it fields 22 varsity teams, 13 of them for women. A school needs to have 16 overall teams to stay in Division I of the NCAA. Nearly 6 percent of this year’s budget — $1.525 million — will come from the school’s two big revenue games (Oregon $1 million; Washington State $525,000).

The Chronicle’s Tom FitzGerald writes a no-nonsense article clearly explaining something I’ve always wondered about. I can’t ask for anything more from a sports story. – PAL

Source: College Football ‘Revenue Games’: How San Jose State Makes Millions,” Tom FitzGerald, The Chronicle (09/13/2018)

TOB: I’m a bigger college football fan than Phil, so this article was not news to me, but I do want to point out this amazing coachspeak by SJSU’s head coach, when:

“I think you get beat up playing football,” he said. “We got beat up just as much playing Cal Poly last year as we did playing Texas or Utah. Football’s a physical game. Sometimes there’s a certain amount of good fortune in staying healthy.


RIP Jeff Lowe

I didn’t know of Jeff Lowe before reading this story, but his passing really got to me after reading about him. There is something so thrilling and primal to great climbers. To watch them climb is to witness someone truly alive. For a man who climbed routes thought impossible to die from a degenerative disease feels unnecessarily cruel. I mean, how cool is this guy:

There is something incredibly powerful in the simplicity of climbing. Get to the top. I envy people like Jeff Lowe. In a time when I feel I’m acquiring more, I see these people who care about one thing, and shed the rest. From afar, it’s romantic and inspiring. – PAL

Source: “Jeff Lowe, Pathfinder Up the Face of Mountains, Is Dead at 67”, Daniel E. Slotnick, The New York Times (09/11/2018)


Video of the Week


PAL Song of the Week – Elton John – “Son Of Your Father”


Tweet of the Week


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I can do six weeks standing on my head. I’m a sexual camel.

– George Costanza

Week of September 7, 2018

People who have birds for pets. Man, I just don’t know. 


Nike’s Amoral But Important Kaepernick Ad

The biggest story in sports this week was Nike’s powerful ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, which they unveiled on Labor Day:

It was the 30 year anniversary of their first “Just Do It” ad. I, for one, applauded. Nike, as it turns out, has been paying Kaepernick the last two years as the NFL has either colluded to keep him out, or collectively and cowardly refused to hire him for fear of the “distraction”. Nike will also be kicking off a larger ad campaign around Kaepernick, including a Kaepernick line of apparel. Later in the week, they even released a video ad:

They are doing it, and doing it big.

A lot of words were written about this story, but I thought the best came from The Ringer’s Michael Baumann. His story succinctly summarized the events leading up to this, and then provided a quick explanation of Nike’s motivations; they are a billion dollar corporation after all. But Baumann closes with this explanation of why, though, Nike’s business decision is still important:

Nike betting on Kaepernick is encouraging for those of us who find his message not only inoffensive but worthy. A major corporation has put a financial stake in the idea that the people who either oppose Kaepernick’s message or choose to misunderstand it are a small minority whose arguments can be ignored. Amoral though it may be, Nike apparently believes that people who believe in racial equality are more numerous, and more passionate, than those who oppose it. It’s comforting to know that someone does.

Amen. -TOB

Source: Nike’s Big Gamble on Colin Kaepernick”, Michael Baumann, The Ringer (09/04/2018)

PAL: Wieden + Kennedy, Nike’s creative agency, knows exactly what it’s doing. They show the extraordinary sports stories in all shapes and colors – they’ve been doing it for decades – from sports icons like LeBron to “regular” folk living inspired lives. I know I’m inspired by the athletes captured in this ad. Yep, they are good at making a commercial that makes me want to get off my ass and go for a run. But don’t confuse Nike as anything other that a business first.  

Nike might now be a social justice warrior in the pejorative online shorthand but is practically antithetical to the concept in any other context. Nike is a for-profit company, worth tens of billions of dollars. You can’t build a multi-billion-dollar company from scratch in 54 years if social justice is anything approaching a primary concern. Companies like Nike are by nature aggressively amoral.

So people can burn their Nike stuff and rip the company to shreds in the name of patriotism, but know that a multi-billion dollar business with a market research division the likes of which is hard to imagine, has made a bet that most of us understand why Kaepernick went to a knee. He isn’t as bad for business as the people who speak out against him are. Those folks shouldn’t take it personally; it’s just business.


Minor League Angel Investor

Michael Schwimer, 32,  didn’t have much of a career as a big league baseball player, but his company, Big League Advance, could make a tremendous impact on the lives of many minor leaguers living on less than minimum wage.

As Jack Dickey summarizes in his SI column, Schwimer’s company, Big League Advance, proposing a solution to a problem for many minor league players:

[T]he company offers baseball players lump-sum payments now in exchange for an agreed-upon share of any future MLB salary. Players pick the percentage of their MLB paychecks to sign away—the model spits out only a nonnegotiable price per percentage point. To date the company has signed 123 players with an average payment in the neighborhood of $350,000, and it plans to sign hundreds more.

A little bit of math brings you to the conclusion that Schwimer and his team of analysts are looking for a minority of players that actually make to a big league contract in order to generate the majority of the revenue needed to turn a profit. The business model also offers a compelling financial option to the minor leaguers who continue to be classified as season apprentices, which means many of them make less than $1,000 per month.

…Similar models have long existed in golf and boxing and other non-team sports. Wealthy benefactors stake a young pro as he works his way up; in exchange, once he advances, the athlete kicks a predetermined share of his winnings back to his investors. If there are no winnings, the investor is out of luck. Baseball wouldn’t at first seem to need such a model: Boxers and golfers are independent contractors, responsible for all their own travel and training expenses, while baseball players are employees, who travel on team buses and receive instruction from the team’s coaches at the team’s own facility.

But that’s where the sorry state of minor-league pay comes into play. Players without large signing bonuses to spend simply aren’t able to afford healthy food and offseason training; with BLA’s cash they can.

If BLA is in the futures game, then it needs to be able to see value before everyone else, and in the era of sabermetrics, that’s not as easy as understanding that wins for a pitcher or batting average for a hitter aren’t the most telling of stats. Not only does the model have to see value sooner, it likely has to value different data points. All of this is used to set a non-negotiable price per percentage point of future earnings.

Turns out that model, if it produces results, is valuable to more than just setting a value between BLA and a minor leaguer. In fact, there’s easier money, with nowhere near the upfront cost, in selling the data directly to the teams.

The company is two years old and it’s already raised $150MM and some real sports data big-timers have joined the team. I am no financial wiz, so I am naturally intrigued by this concept. I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes the next big thing in baseball, and I wouldn’t be shocked if this turns out to be some white collar crime. Either way, it’s an intriguing idea. – PAL

Source: Future Considerations: Why Ex-MLB Pitcher Michael Schwimer Is Investing in Minor League Longshots”, Jack Dickey, SI.com (09/04/2018)

TOB: I think this sort of thing has been going on a while – as I recall, some company did or does this with student loans. I find it rather parasitic, but I do see how it helps minor league players in the short-term. Maybe if MLB paid them a livable wage they wouldn’t have to give away future earnings.


Football as Told By a Non-Fan

God, this killed me. A writer who doesn’t watch football but has seen some games at various places in her life explained the rules of football as she understands them. A sample:

The teams flip a coin to determine who gets to go first. The team that goes first holds the ball and throws it to each other. The quarterback does the throwing. Usually the point of the first throw, and every first throw after a team gets the ball during the game, is to trick the other team into thinking that they are going to throw it somewhere else. After that, the other players throw the ball around while trying to get closer to the finish line or end zone. When a player loses control of the ball because he’s tackled or drops it and someone on the other team picks it up, the game reverses direction. It goes on like this for a long time.

She gets some right, some wrong. But her ending nails it:

At the stadium, the chicken fingers are great. At home, it’s all about the dips.

It’s true! No one denies this! -TOB

Source: The Rules of Football As I Understand Them”, Katie McDonough, Deadspin (09/06/2018)

PAL: Chicken fingers are the worst.

TOB: You’re REALLY going to enjoy what we’re doing this weekend, that everyone will read about next week.


Yeah, Sure, Shorten Men’s Tennis Grand Slam Matches to Three Sets

Tennis is a sport that I somehow spend 10x more time reading (or writing) about than actually watching the sport. Basically if Federer is in a Grand Slam Final, I drag myself out of bed to watch because I think it’s cool that he’s still winning at his age. But other than that, my tennis exposure is limited to Sportscenter highlights and articles that I read. Which is why, while reading this article, I found out something rather fundamental to the sport: previously I thought all men’s matches were best-of-five sets and all women’s matches are best-of-three sets. But as it turns out most men’s matches are also best-of-three sets, and only the Grand Slam events are best-of-five. Well, I’ll be damned.

As I don’t watch tennis, generally, this doesn’t affect me in the slightest, but I have to say this makes sense: why change the rules for the Grand Slams? Why have any sporting event take six hours, as many men’s best-of-five set matches take? Andy Murray may have put it best:

“As a player, I really like best-of-five; it’s been good to me,” he said. “I feel like it rewards the training and everything you put into that. But then, when I sat and watched the match — that Nadal-del Potro match in the commentary booth — it was an amazing match, it was a brilliant match, but it was really, really long to sit there as a spectator for the first time.”

The match, which lasted 4 hours 48 minutes — long, but well shorter than either of the subsequent men’s semifinals — disrupted Murray’s day.

“That evening I had a meeting planned, and I missed my dinner,” he said. “People that are sitting there during the week watching that all, I don’t think you can plan to do that. A lot of people are going to be getting up and leaving the matches and not actually watching the whole thing. The people while in the stadium loved it, but I don’t think it — as well, what happened in the semifinals — is good for tennis.”

So, sure. Makes sense. Cut it to three. Many agree, but as you can imagine, many don’t. The article delves into the competing arguments. -TOB

Source: Men Should Play Best Of Three Sets, And Anyone Who Says Otherwise Is A Weenie Like ESPN’s Brad Gilbert”, Laura Wagner, Deadspin (09/05/2018)

PAL: That’s so odd that the majors have different rules than the rest of the tournaments. I don’t care how many sets they play, but I found this rationale for 3 sets confusing:

In today’s professional tennis, racquets are more technologically advanced than ever before, players hit harder than ever before, conditioning is better than ever before, and as a result, the rallies last way longer than ever before.

I don’t understand how better racquets and hitting the ball harder work in concert with better conditioning to make rallies last longer. Wouldn’t hitting the ball harder with a better racquet make rallies shorter, which is countered by better conditioned players?

TOB: Yeah, I think it’d make sense if they left out the “players hit harder” part, and left it at the racquet technology, which makes shots more accurate. Either way, it seems the results are the same: the matches have gotten way longer.


OHTANI WATCH

It’s been a while, let’s see what our hero Sho has been up to…

OH NOOOOO! On Wednesday morning the Angels announced Shohei needs Tommy John surgery. This is terrible news for baseball fans everywhere, as we’ll not see Ohtani smashin’ dingers and throwin smoke until, likely, the 2020 season.

Sorry, I’m getting word of some new developments. I see. Ok. Well, despite needing TJ surgery on his pitching elbow, Ohtani went ahead and DH’d that night. He hit a dinger.

Ah, yes, I’m being told he hit another.

Mmhm, ok. Yes, I’m being told he went 4-for-4 with those 2 dingers and a walk. With an elbow that is barely connected. He’s not human! I sure hope we see him back sooner than 2020. He finishes his pitching season an ERA of 3.31 and he struck out 11 batters per 9 innings. Thus far, he’s hit 18 dingers in just 249 ABs, and an OPS of .946. He’s real good. -TOB

Source: Shohei Ohtani, Who Needs Tommy John Surgery, Is Still Out Here Smashing Dingers”, Laura Theisen, Deadspin (09/05/2018)

PAL: Ohtani will pitch less than 300 innings in his major league career. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the way I’m seeing it.


Video of the Week: 


PAL Song of the Week: Khruangbin – “Maria Tambien”


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I found the best tentist on the east coast. He personally tented Giuliani’s first and third weddings. And I got him. I got him!

-Nard Dog

1-2-3 Sports! Week of August 31, 2018

2018 Little League World Series Champs: Hawaii


Why Is Tennis So Concerned About Women’s Wardrobes?

The U.S. Open started this week, and the early round matches were overshadowed by two stories of men trying to control women’s bodies, and the clothes they wear on those bodies while they play tennis.

First, before the tournament began, the head of the French Federation, in charge of the French Open, which took place, uh, back in May and June, announced that the cat suit that Serena wore during the French Open this year would be banned in the future. Let’s set aside why the hell this announcement was made now (seriously, I can’t figure out why), and consider why it was made at all. Here’s a picture of Serena at this year’s French Open in the cat suit.

It’s tight, sure, but she’s covered from neck to ankle. Compare this to most women’s players, who play in tank tops and skirts or tight shorts. So, what’s the big deal? Why the ban on the cat suit? This reeks of a racist double standard, if you ask me. Serena previously said the outfit is functional, as she’s been dealing with blood clots and the tight outfit promotes circulation. She also said it makes her “feel like a warring.” To her credit, though, she shined this idiot on, saying that she’d never wear the same outfit twice, anyways. I also liked the response of her sponsor, Nike:

Damn right.

If all that wasn’t enough, during the early rounds of the U.S. Open, French player Alize Cornet (damn, what a cool name), was penalized for “changing her clothes” on the court. Here’s the video:

Cornet had previously been wearing a dress, but because it was so damn hot that they’ve instituted special heat breaks during the tournament, she changed (off court) during a break into this shirt/skirt combo. When she got on the court, she realized the shirt was on backwards and *gasp* quickly flipped it around, revealing *gasp* a sports bra! The match umpire penalized her pursuant to a rule prohibiting “players” from changing clothes on the court.

First, if I were her lawyer, I’d be jumping up and down about this because while she did briefly remove her shirt, she did not change her clothes. Same clothes, bro. Where’s the change?

Second, and please sit down because this is going to shock you, but this rule about changing clothes on the court does not apply to the men, who often change shirts on the court without issue. No, I know. It’s crazy. Come on. Didn’t we get over this nearly twenty years ago when Brandi Chastain won the World Cup and tore off her jersey to reveal her sports bra? Are we really going to roll back all this progress?

It would be nice, as Billy Jean King said, and my mom echoed, this week, if men would stop policing women’s bodies. -TOB

Source: The French Open’s Banning of Serena Williams’s Catsuit Defies Explanation”, Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated (08/26/2018); U.S. Open Umpire Hits Alize Cornet With A Bizarre Code Violation Because She Briefly Took Off Her Shirt”, Laura Wagner, Deadspin (08/28/2018)

PAL: First and foremost, no one gets to tell Serena Williams anything. You could make the case that she’s a top-5 athlete of all-time.

Yeah, I watched the HBO docuseries Being Serena, and you should, too. While it’s a bit of a puff piece, it also shows what an absolute badass, smart, thoughtful, super athlete she is. The French Federation needs Serena a hell of a lot more than she needs the French Open. What’s more, the argument made no sense. She’s had a history of life-threatening blood clots. The outfits promote circulation. Full stop.

As for the Cornet story: the umpire sucked that day. I don’t want to go as far as to call him a coward, but he really sucked that day. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the guy that memorized the rule book and stopped thinking for himself before he could buy a beer. He saw Cornet doing something completely normal – shit, I put my shirt on backwards – and his first thought was (in a computer voice) “Is this an infraction? I am told yes. Must punish pursuant to the rule book.”

I will give the US Open credit for setting the record straight, and doing so in plain English:

TOB: Kudos to the US Open. Thanks for pointing that out. Also, a question for you, bud, that came up after a fantasy football draft this week: Is Serena the greatest athlete of our generation (we went with anyone born beginning January 1, 1980)? I said LeBron edges her out. Like Serena, he’s arguably the greatest to ever play his sport, but I give him the nod because being great in a team sport is tougher than a solo sport, in my opinion. I am splitting hairs here, but Serena only has to worry about Serena. LeBron has to win with guys who do things like forget the score of the game in the closing seconds. Another possibility: Pujols, who made the cut by 16 days.

PAL: The team wrinkle is a good point, TOB, but giving birth seems like a pretty big hurdle for an athlete. Other athletes that come to mind:

  • Simone Biles – she might be the strongest candidate of the bunch. Seems to be considered the greatest ever in her sport.
  • Shaun White – Revolutionized one sport (snowboarding), became one of the best in another sport (skateboarding) – icon of the alternative sport generation.
  • Usain Bolt – I know he was just running, but he expanded the spectrum of human capability. To watch him run at his peak was otherworldly.
  • Michael Phelps – without a doubt the best swimmer ever. However, this is ostensibly an individual sport with an inordinate amount of medals up for grabs.
  • Too soon, but Mike Trout career is on an unprecedented trajectory. Needs to win something.
  • Messi & Cristiano Rinaldo…but neither of them have won a world cup.

Harbaugh’s Gotta Win Now

On February 3, 2013 Jim Harbaugh was coaching against his brother in the Super Bowl. On December 30, 2014, Harbaugh was introduced as the head football coach at Michigan. That does not happen. Young NFL coaches who bring a team to the Super Bowl don’t find themselves back in college within 2 years.

I can say I’d never seen up close anything like Harbaugh’s rise from Stanford to the Niners, and then to Michigan. This was a guy who could turn around a football program very quickly and compete with the very best. And he seemed to do it by willing it to be so. The more he won, the more his oddities shown through, which was charming and fun because he was winning.

I find the Harbaugh sideshow compelling, but The Ringer’s Roger Sherman writes the hell out of this story in explaining why Harbaugh and his antics just might be at a crossroads this season. Why is that? Because 8-5, Michigan’s record last year, makes Harbaugh’s hot milk takes and recruiting antics a little less charming. Because a Harbaugh team has zero wins against Ohio State and is 1-2 against Michigan State. A Michigan Man he might be, but the Wolverine honeymoon is officially over.

One of the major differences between his previous stops and Michigan comes down to the quarterback position:

At each of these stops, Harbaugh’s strength was coaching quarterbacks. In San Diego he coached Josh Johnson, who was named a finalist for the 2007 Walter Payton Award—the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy—and became the first Toreros quarterback to reach the NFL. At Stanford, Harbaugh coached Andrew Luck, who was the runner-up for the actual Heisman in 2010 and 2011, got drafted no. 1 overall in 2012, and now appears in stock brokerage ads in between injuries. Harbaugh coached Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers, and Kap emerged as one of the most dynamic playmakers in recent memory. Now, he donates a lot of money to charity while being called the antichrist by about 40 percent of the country.

You’ll notice none of those QB success stories come from Michigan. In his three years there, Harbaugh hasn’t yet found one that’s been good. The opportunity appears to be presenting itself this year:

Now Michigan has Shea Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss and the top quarterback recruit in the class of 2015. Patterson, ostensibly, is the block of raw quarterbacking talent Harbaugh has been waiting to sculpt.

The major difference between Michigan and every other job Harbaugh’s had is this: it’s not a stepping stone. Returning to Michigan was the “coming home” move. While he surely could go back to the NFL, he’s entering his fourth season at Michigan, which equals his longest tenure at University of San Diego, Stanford, and the 49ers. He was able to turn it around quickly at each of those stops. Maybe it’s just taking Harbaugh a little bit longer at Michigan, but he’s getting paid too much money (north of $7MM per year) for much more patience.

 

Sherman puts it this way: “This is the year for Harbaugh to prove there’s a method to his madness. Because if not, he’s just a weirdo getting paid extravagantly to produce mediocrity for a program used to excellence.”

Solid read. Great writing. – PAL

Source: The Fading Novelty of Jim Harbaugh”, Roger Sherman, The Ringer (8/29/18)

TOB: I have more than a couple thoughts on this. First, Harbaugh’s turnaround at Stanford was absolutely miraculous. That team was so bad, it’s hard to believe now. They got destroyed by everyone. Hell, they lost to FCS teams. Before Harbaugh, they hadn’t been to a bowl game in 8 years, under Ty Willingham. In the previous 5 years, they went 16-40.

But what people don’t remember is that the turnaround did not happen overnight. In his first 3 seasons, Harbaugh went 4-8, 5-7, and 8-5, before exploding in 2010 at 10-1, capped off by a win in the Orange Bowl. It took Harbaugh a few years to recruit the guys he wanted – big, tough, smart. He recruited so many tight ends, it became a joke. But he converted those kids, cleanly or not, into defensive lineman and offensive lineman. And suddenly he had a fast and athletic but strong team. They manhandled their opponents. The turnaround in San Francisco was more immediate, but looking back the Niners had a similar squad.

It must be noted that while Michigan was not as bad before Harbaugh as Stanford was before Harbaugh, the previous two Michigan coaches, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, combined to go 46-42. Harbaugh stepped in and went 10-3, 10-3, 8-5.

Yes, he’s struggled to develop a quarterback at Michigan. But I disagree with Sherman’s assertion that his previous turnarounds were all because Harbaugh developed a QB. At Stanford, his first two seasons he did not have any notable QB. In fact, Stanford fans were mad that Harbaugh let Luck redshirt his freshman year instead of getting him in there. As I said above, Harbaugh’s Stanford teams (and his 49er teams) were built on very good offensive and defensive lines. That takes time to develop in college – you have to change the culture and recruit.

Besides, on quarterback issue, as Sherman notes, Harbaugh will have Shea Patterson this year. Shea is the real deal. I mean, yes, Cal got a pick six against him last year to seal a Golden Bear win, but the dude can drop dimes.

Point is: I’m not in the business of doubting Jim Harbaugh. He’s proved too many people wrong too many times. Also, give me 28 wins over 3 years PLEASE.


Barry Bonds + Beetle = End of Ash Baseball Bats

When I think of a wooden baseball bat, I see a Louisville Slugger. I wouldn’t know it before reading this article, but I actually see an ash bat. For much of the 20th Century, ash bats were the standard in the hands of big leaguers, but the same cannot be said for the 21st Century. We are now in the days of maple bats. Vince Guerrieri’s story is a exploration of why maple has become the wood of choice of over 70 percent MLB players.

Reason number one: Barry Bonds.

Bonds hit his first 400 or so home runs using Louisville Slugger ash bats, but he had switched to maple by the time he hit the two big milestone homers of his career: No. 73 in 2001 and no. 756 six years later. When Albert Pujols knocked in 130 runs for a National League rookie record in 2001, he did so with a maple bat, as did Miguel Cabrera in 2012 when he became baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.

Bonds was turned on to maple bats by way of Joe Carter. Carter, who had spent the prime of his career with the Toronto Blue Jays, was given a maple bat after a local carpenter, Sam Holman,  had been tinkering with different types of wood. Earlier, he’d had a conversation with a lifer baseball scout who was complaining about how easily ash bats were breaking.

Carter loved the feel, the sound, i.e., the intangibles of the bat. He brought his passion for maple to San Francisco (and to Bonds) when he was traded near the end of his career

So Bonds is jacked up and hitting a homerun every 6.52 at bats (still an absolutely staggering stat, regardless of what he was on) with a maple bat. That same year (2001) Albert Pujols was setting records with a maple bat as well. His 130 RBI in his rookie season remains an NL record. If I’m a player in 2001, I wouldn’t need to see any data. I’d just say, “Give me whatever bat Pujols and Bonds are using.”

One year later, scientists discover another problem for ash bats:

In 2002, scientists discovered the emerald ash borer, an insect native to northeastern Asia, in southeastern Michigan. The beetle eats the tree’s leaves, but the females lay their eggs inside the tree—and the larvae tunnel through the tree, feeding off it and ultimately killing it within one to three years. By 2016, the emerald ash borer could be found in 25 different states—including New York and Pennsylvania, home to most of the ash trees used for baseball bats—killing an estimated 50 million ash trees in the United States. Maple bats, all other things being equal, are more expensive than ash, but the emerald ash borer is making ash scarcer, to a point where, Rathwell said, ash might become as expensive as maple.

As interesting as the beetle subplot is, it doesn’t have any impact on MLB player’s preference. If they want an ash bat, then there’s still plenty of ash to provide baseball bats for what I’m guessing +/- 1,000 players to hit in a major league baseball game over the course of a season*.

The real question is whether or not maple outperforms ash, and the answer is no.

The rise of maple bats has come as baseball has seen an increase in strikeouts and home runs, but again, relation does not imply causation. Jim Sherwood of the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said the conclusion of a 2005 study was that the ball goes just as far off maple as it does off ash. Lloyd V. Smith, an engineering professor at Washington State University, went even further, telling the Washington Post, “If Barry Bonds had not been swinging maple when he broke that record, I don’t think anybody would even be talking about maple right now.”

I encourage you to click-through to the article to find some really great anecdotes about the history of the baseball bat. It’s legitimately fascinating. -PAL

* Napkin math that gets me to around 1,000 players to hit in a MLB game – Multiple the following by 30 (number of MLB teams):

  • 25-man roster for much of the season MINUS AL pitchers
  • Mid-season call-ups PLUS additional 15 players on the expanded rosters
    • A good chunk of 40-man roster is made up of pitchers
    • AL pitchers don’t hit
    • NL relief pitchers rarely hit

Source: How Maple Bats Kicked Ash And Conquered Baseball”, Vince Guerrieri, Deadspin (8/28/18)


An Insight into Baseball Prospect Rankings

This year, 19-year old rookie Nationals’ outfielder Juan Soto exploded onto the scene, doing things at 19 that no one has ever done.

Before the season, his average ranking was 42nd across Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, FanGraphs, and ESPN – the four major rankings services. He was called up on May 20, and immediately started destroying major league pitching, with an OPS of .998. No one saw this coming, except for former Nats’ GM and current contributor to The Athletic, Jim Bowden, had Soto as his 7th best prospect before this season.

So, how does a player that good slip, relatively speaking, under the radar? Two simple answers: lack of minor league at bats. Soto suffered a couple of injuries the last two years, and as a result had only gotten 147 at bats above rookie ball. And in those at bats, he only hit three dingers. Still, he must have been passing the eye test – how else to explain a prospect even being ranked Top 50 with so few at bats? So, I’m giving the scouting services a break on this one. Even if his low ranking did cause me to pass on him in early May in my prospect keeper league. Grr. Anyways, click the link. Lots of interesting stuff on how scouting works. -TOB

Source: How Did Juan Soto Surprise So Many of Us?”, Eno Sarris, The Athletic (08/28/2018)


Ode to Manu

Upon his retirement, I’d just like to take a moment to say thank you to Manu Ginobili, one of the best, most entertaining, and most innovative players of his generation. Manu popularized (if not invented) the so-called Eurostep (though he’s not European).

He played with a joy that was infectious, which made him impossible to hate, even when he was crushing your team in the biggest moments of the game. Spurs fan Shea Serrano writes lovingly about Manu, and what he meant to that team and that city. It’s a good read, and a solid tribute to a guy who deserves it:

He is, in all ways and in every way, beloved in San Antonio: an untouchable, unimpeachable, unassailable cultural figure. Nobody who has ever worn a Spurs jersey has ever been more beloved than Manu Ginobili. (Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were also both supremely beloved, but Tim, a savant so gifted that he always existed above the fray, was a basketball god we worshipped from afar, and Tony, the little brother of the trio, always seemed just out of reach.) Even in Manu’s extra-worst moment, and even after having been deemed the reason his team lost the most coveted thing in professional basketball, the idea of trading him was simply too outlandish, too dumb, too inconceivable to tolerate for even one second. That’s Manu in San Antonio. That’s San Antonio with Manu.

There’s also a great anecdote that says so much about what it means to be a fan, which brings both so much good and so much bad, after Manu played horribly in the 2013 NBA Finals, which the Spurs lost to the Heat in 7 games:

But so everyone was fussing about Manu and saying this and saying that and pointing out how bad he looked and yelling about how much he hurt the team (“DANNY GREEN WAS PLAYING LIKE AN MVP AND MANU COULDN’T MAKE A LAYUP?!”) and blah blah blah. And it was all very bad and very negative. And so finally, after what felt like six hours of talking but was probably somewhere nearer to 10 minutes, one of the younger cousins asked, “Do you think the Spurs can get anything good for him when they try to trade him this summer?” And the first uncle, the very vocal leader of the Anti-Manu Coalition that had formed in the backyard, looked at him. He looked as dead at him as anyone has ever looked dead at someone. And he said — and I will never forget this — he said: “You can’t fucking trade Manu Ginobili. He’s Manu Ginobili!” Then he took a big breath. Then he yelled, “HE’S MANU GINOBILI!”

I’m not a Spurs fan, but my favorite Manu moment is this one, against the Sacramento Kings, on Halloween night in 2009.

Yes, a bat interrupted the game, and as crew members struggled to catch it, Manu sized it up and then just swatted it out of midair. He swatted a BAT out of the sky! On Halloween night, of course. Then he picked up the bat, like it was NBD, and handed it off to someone to get rid of. What a boss. We’ll miss you, Manu! -TOB

Source: Manu Forever: Reflecting on the Retirement of a Legend”, Greg Wiss, Sactown Royalty (08/27/2018)


Post-Concussion Symptoms, as Told by a Loved One

Giants outfielder Mac Williamson started the year on fire. He crushed AAA pitching so severely, that he forced the Giants to call him up to the bigs. And for four glorious games, he continued his hot streak in the majors. But in the fifth inning of a game against the Nationals on April 24th, while tracking down a pop fly in left field, Mac stumbled on the bullpen mound and crashed into the wall.

It was scary, but Mac seemed ok. In fact, he stayed in the lineup and in the bottom half of the inning he crushed a dinger, his 3rd in 5 games for the Giants. But soon after, he was pulled from the game, and was later diagnosed with a concussion. Mac, the team, and the fans, hoped he’d miss a short time and then return to lockdown the left field spot, giving the Giants their first home run hitting threat there since Bonds retired over a decade ago.

Things did not go as hoped. As told on her blog by Mac’s girlfriend, Kaitlyn Watts, Mac has suffered from post-concussion symptoms for over four months, unable to concentrate, needing extreme amounts of sleep in order to function, among other things. It’s sad and scary.

But what’s crazy to me, reading this, is to not only read how badly this affected him, but how long it has done so and compare it to how concussions keep football players only a week or two, at most. Similarly, the Yankees Clint Frazier has missed basically the entire season because of a concussion. Brandon Belt has missed large parts of two seasons to concussions. And football players get knocked out cold and come back the next week? Football is in trouble.

As for Mac, Kaitlyn reports that he is finally doing better, after recently shutting down baseball activities for the year. Hopefully Mac returns next year, and picks up where he left off – crushing dingers. -TOB

Source: Dealing with Mac’s Concussion”, Kaitlyn Watts, The Lymey Gypsy (08/27/2018)

PAL: What’s crazy to me is that someone other than the Cleveland Cavs owner still chooses to type Comic Sans.

Williamson’s story is no-doubt scary. And I agree – the length of time during which he’s simply not himself reinforces something we all need to understand – that not all concussions are the same and they affect people differently.

Having said that, reading Watts is like reading a homecoming queen’s diary.

TOB: COLD. BLOODED.


Newsflash: A Player Being Disoriented is Not Funny

Miami Dolphins’ linebacker Kiko Alonso made a tackle in a game last week that caused him to be so disoriented he ran to the wrong sideline. It looked to me like he was so disoriented that even as coaches from the other team were telling him he was on the wrong sideline, he seemed to be completely bewildered by what they were saying for a few seconds.

his was not funny. This was scary. Why, then, are the idiot announcers chuckling along at this? Is it the 1980s? Don’t we know better by now? Geeze. I hope Alonso was given tests for a concussion before he re-entered the game. -TOB

PAL: I think you need see the video that includes the hit for folks to get an idea that, yep, he definitely smacked his head on that play.

It seems like an otherwise light moment in a pre-season game, but these are the clips are kids will watch in fifteen years when we know even more about concussions. They’ll look at us incredulously, and ask, “People thought it was funny?”


VIDEO OF THE WEEK

South Tahoe High School’s “It’s Never Over Till It’s Over.” God, it’s even better than I remember from when I was a kid. Incredible shot.


PAL Song of the Week – R.E.M. – “Strange Currencies”


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You give me a gift? Bam! Thank You note. You invite me somewhere? Pow! RSVP. You do me a favor? Wham! Favor returned. Do not test my politeness.

– Drew Bernard

On the Force or the Tag: Part IV

On The Force or the Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. Read earlier sections:

Photo c/o Jay Kurtis (third from left, back row of players). Youth All-Star teams leave an amusing footprint. At least six of the players from my ten year-old “All-Star” team (if you can even call it that at such a young age) didn’t play baseball by the time they were in high school. I’m first from the left, front row.


The league coaches were to meet at a cafe after our Sunday game – game eight of the season – to discuss all-star selections. Despite there being a vintage sports bar with the sturdy name George & Walt’s no more than half a mile away, we were to meet at a cafe at four in the afternoon. Is there anything more Berkeley than that?

After a close win earlier that day, our team had improved to 7-1 on the year. Larry, our catcher, even hit a no-doubter home run to left. I couldn’t have been happier with the players. They were starting to pick up on how I managed a game – always the aggressor, always putting the pressure on the other team to make plays – and guys were seeing the same opportunities I saw. Hank didn’t need to be told to try to drop down a bunt for a hit. Abe would give me a look while he took his lead from second base, as if to say “They ain’t holding me, coach…” I’d give him a quick nod and he’d steal a bag.

We were getting to know each other’s tendencies just as the season was coming to an end. I was also just getting a sense of where the guys was as a players – what their strengths were and how I could help their weaknesses. I wish we had ten more games and a dozen practices. I walked to the cafe with best guesses on all-star selections and no understanding of the inner workings and politics of the league. At least I had the latter.

By the grace of god, the cafe was closed. We found an Italian restaurant with a circular table in the front corner and ordered a round of beers. The Five Families, it was not. Glen, the ump from Part I, coach of the green team, and coach of the all-star team, was running the show. There was Bobby, the coach of the grey team and local high school athletic director, and two other dads that helped with the All-Star Team. I can’t remember meeting them prior to the all-star selection.

The great thing about sport is that it’s a meritocracy. That’s the bullshit line they feed you. In reality, there is nepotism, politics, and cliques at every level of baseball (and every other sport), from coach pitch all the way to the professionals.

There was a dad up the cul-de-sac from where I grew up that stacked a coach-pitch team. I was nine. Brothers, fathers, relatives of elite players magically find jobs within organizations or take up roster spots in the minor league system. Jake Mauer, older brother of Joe Mauer, was drafted in the 23rd round by the Minnesota Twins the same year Joe was the number one overall pick coming out of high school. Jake was an excellent D-III player, but hit .256 with 0 home runs and 82 RBI in over 1,000 minor league at bats spread across five seasons. Was another team really going to draft a D-III position player in the middle rounds? In basketball, does Austin Rivers get as long of a leash in the NBA if his dad isn’t Doc Rivers, his coach and GM? We all know the reality here.

And yet I walked into the selection meeting holding onto this cliche – sport is a meritocracy.

Glen started the meeting by informing us what positions were already filled unless we had any objections. He had this tick where he’d nod along to his own words when he spoke, and he always had this matter-of-fact tone that would trick me into almost agreeing with him. He could say something like, “You know, the Mazda Miata is a hell of a sports car,” and for a fraction of a second, because I wasn’t really listening in the first place, I’d start to nod before catching myself.

To be fair, he was coaching the team and he had the final say, but it was the exact opposite tone that ought to be set for a meeting like that. I barely knew my team; I was not going to start cutting down players from other teams.

Glen also also found a way to work into the conversation that this group of all-stars was one win away from the World Series last year.

I heard “World Series” and my instinct was to think that must be good, but I caught myself.

I finally realized he was talking about capital ‘L’ Little League. Our players were 14 and 15 – they were are a couple years removed from the games ESPN airs from Williamsport. Turns out Little League has divisions all the way up to 16 year-olds.

As I mentioned in previous sections, after the traditional Little League (10-12 year olds) there are a bunch of leagues teenagers play in. Club teams also really start proliferating at this age, so I didn’t know whether or not the team’s previous success was impressive. Was it the equivalent of the NIT, the NCAA, or a made up tournament that’s an excuse to get 16 teams from across the country to fly to some random town for a week and stay at a Holiday Inn with a water park next to it*. I couldn’t be exactly sure where this league fell on the competition spectrum, but there was zero chance it represented anything close to top tier baseball for 14 and 15 year olds. There were some solid players, but there was just no way.

I will give Glen credit; the dude was not afraid. At one point pretty early on he told Bobby plainly that Bobby’s son wasn’t going to make the team. At first, Bobby agreed, saying that it was his kid’s fault anyway. He had struggled with his grades and hadn’t played ball until the league started.

It was a refreshing response that quickly soured. Within twenty minutes Bobby had pivoted his son’s lack of playing from a weakness to an untapped potential. He sprinkled in his case for Junior to make the team as the conversation meanered between roster decisions and last year’s team being, you know, one game away from the World Series.

If AJ was going to be the shortstop, then Junior might actually not be a bad choice at second since they played together already. They turn a nice double play.

He really is  just getting into form and was surely going to be better in the all-star tournament.

He does better against better pitching.

I’ll say one thing – you won’t be hearing from his dad if he’s sitting on the bench.

I sat back and enjoyed the show, noting that not one guy questioned whether or not Glen’s son was in fact the best catcher in the league. Glen’s son was a perfectly fine player, but I’d seen Bill (not our usual catcher) catch three innings for us in the game earlier that day and it was clear he was already a better catcher than Glen’s son, who also happened to be left-handed**.

In that moment, I failed. I should’ve asked the table, “Are we sure Glen’s son is the best catcher?” For all of the parents who spend their summers watching the coach’s kid hit lead-off, for all the kids who take their turn sitting out innings while the coach’s son somehow avoids it in all the meaningful games, for the grandparents who drive to god-knows-where to some god-awful tournament to watch their little lamb of love get two at-bats all tournament – for all of them, I should’ve asked.

I wimped out, and before long it was my turn to make a case for my guys. Maybe that’s the tax we pay the moms and dads that volunteer all of their extra time to coaching.

“Right off the bat, these are the guys on my team that I think earned it,” I said. “I’m not looking at what positions are up for grabs. These guys played best in the eight games I’ve coached.”

“OK, but we have specific needs.” Glen nodded along to his own words. “Honestly, we’re just looking to fill a couple spots.”

“I’m going to tell you who played well, and you can do what you want with that.”

I made my selections.

“How the hell is Larry not even up for a nomination?” Glen asked.

I knew it was coming. Larry’s home run earlier that day guaranteed this was coming. The kid made solid contact for the third time all season and all of a sudden I am an idiot for not nominating him for the all-star team.

As a catcher, he was passable in all areas but didn’t stand out in any. Glen’s left-handed son was a bit better than Larry behind the plate. Again, this was an assessment based off of 8 games and one practice, so I’m not saying Larry didn’t have talent or the ability to be a very good catcher. I’m just saying I hadn’t seen it at that point.  

There were the obvious choices – Ricky, Bill, Abe – and then there were the secondary guys – Jim, Hank, Steve.  I also nominated Mikey, a clear second tier guy. He was a versatile player that could give some innings on the mound, play multiple infield positions, and he’d always battle at the plate.  

Glen was surprised, then said flatly, “that’s great to hear.” He hemmed and hawed, and the imminent ‘but’ hung like a rain cloud ready to burst.

“We just had some problems with Mikey’s dad in previous years.”

There it was.

“What kind of problems?” I asked. The smell of bullshit was as strong as a bag of rotten lettuce.

“You know, wanting to know if his kid was going to play in a particular game. Complaining about playing time. Stuff like that.”

“I couldn’t tell you who Mikey’s dad is,” I said. “So no issues this year, for what it’s worth.”

Bobby jumped in. “I don’t have time for parents like that. Life’s too short.”

Was it a coincidence that Mikey could play second, just like Bobby’s son, as well as pitch?

“Plus, he’s not available from July 9-13, and that’s the first week of our tournament games, so…”

I conceded that it was Glen’s team, but I reiterated that Mikey could play a versatile role on a team that would be playing a bunch of games in a short amount of time, and that other players being considered would be missing time as well.

“What about Zack?” Glen asked.

Zack was a left-handed hitter who always wore an Orioles t-shirt under his jersey. You could see all the tools and the mentality to be a key player on a solid team, and he was the only one to show up for a voluntary batting practice session earlier that week, but there was no way around it – he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat in the month we’d been playing. His hitting was obviously correctable – he wrapped his bat on the load and landed on a straight front leg on his stride –  but there was simply no way he earned a spot on an all-star team this season.

His father, a really nice guy who saved my ass by keeping the book during the games, just so  happened to be the on the league board.

I articulated Zack’s struggles at the plate and his lack of a distinct position. Glen told me he could see Zack play the same role he did on last year’s team (the team that was one game away from the World Series) as a pinch bunter and runner for late-game situations.

I held back a laugh. I came into the meeting confident it would be some measure of a farce, but it was at this moment – the moment when I was being sold the merits of a pinch bunter on an all-star team – when I realized exactly how much of a waste of time this was.

It wasn’t long after when the waiter came by and asked if anyone needed another beer. The group hesitated.

“I’d love another Lagunitas,” I said. The other dads, looking for an excuse to say yes, joined in. If I was going to sit through this meeting, I might as well have another beer while it happens.

Pic c/o Jim Lang. The Lions Club All-Star Tournament was an honor. A self-contained weekend tournament at the Chaska Athletic Park in Chaska, MN (one of the best fields in the entire state, pictured below). If you look closely, you’ll see a bleach job under my cap. 

 

No, baseball is not a meritocracy, but it has the same shape as one.

Here’s the truth: baseball is a meritocracy for Tier One players. Their skills outshine the politics, cliques, and all other forms of youth sports poison. There’s never a debate about Tier One players like Ricky, Bill, Abe.

The meritocracy crumbles when we get to those Tier Two players – Mikey, Hank, Jim, Zack, Steve. Adults start pulling up bullshit about parents (not the kids) or thin rationale like pinch running or bunting ability. It’s pathetic to hear an adult use flawed logic to crap on a kid.

What about putting Mikey on the team based on how he played this season instead of keeping him off the team because of what his dad did in previous seasons?

Put in the right situation, Tier Two players make good teams great. Put in the wrong situation, Tier Two players quit before high school.

Hovering above all of this is a universal sports truth people forget all of the time. Tier One kids rarely stay Tier One throughout their teenage years. Tier Two players can become Tier One over the course of a single season. Kids fizzle. They grow at different times. Their interests change. Coaches – good and bad – will label a kid, and that will stick to him far longer than it should.

I was lucky enough to be taught the expectation of success when I was ten years old. If I did my job, then I’d be in a moment to succeed. We would practice those moments, and success would come more times than not. This is the single most valuable piece of baseball I carry with me to this day. When parents and coaches start horsetrading for a meaningless all-star team, they are messing with that equation of success for the Tier Two guys, and that’s where meritocracy is most needed***.

The selection meeting was an odd way to cap an otherwise great week. Joe pitched his ass off for four innings in a close game. To see a young lefty like that pitch backwards – using his off-speed stuff to get ahead early in the count, then freeze hitters with a well-placed, two-strike fastball – is uncommon. He knew he had something special going, and it was a treat to cheer him on as his dad watched from over my shoulder.

I was able to work one-on-one in the cage with Zack for an hour on Friday and actually coach. Before that hitting session I had wondered if Zack was losing interest in the game and going through the motions a bit, but I learned that he was just down because he was struggling at the plate. He was there to get better, and he left the cages with a much improved swing that day.

I got to see Bill catch, and immediately realized he was supposed to be catching all along.

Those were the moments that mattered to me. Those are the reasons you want to coach, but I know that making the all-star team mattered to the kids, and that’s why that meeting was the worst part of coaching this past summer.  

***

Larry hit a bomb to left on the sandlot-esque field in the game before all-star selections. Guess who’s name came up at the all-star meeting? Talk about recency bias. 

Let’s assume for a moment that this season started differently. Instead of receiving a roster a few days before the first game, let’s pretend there was a tryout, and I filled the role of Kent Anderson playing catch with kids. What kind of players would I look for? How would I assemble a team at the fourteen and fifteen year-old level?

First off, I would need a small roster. Give me twelve players, then everyone – players, coaches, parents – knows that all the players are going to get plenty of time on the field. I eliminate a source of stress and awkward conversations right away. If the kid makes the team, the kid’s going to play a lot. I never understood having a big roster at the youth level.

I’d put together a team of guys that can pick it in the field and pitch over guys who can swing it. A team can manufacture more than enough runs to win at the high school level. I want a team that takes away hits, extra bases, and runs.

I’d look for versatile players, which is obvious when you consider I’d only have three guys on my bench. I’d coach them to be very good at one position and at least know what’s going on at a second position. Substitutions are way overused in the youth game (no doubt due in part to rosters that are too big). It is so often the case that baseball players get locked into one position at an early age and never learn how to play somewhere else. Just because a kid caught when he was eleven does not mean he should be the de facto catcher when he’s fifteen. This rigidity has never made sense to me. This also makes for a more interesting summer for players. Specialization in youth sports is boring and absurd.  

Aside from starting pitching, I’d need five or six kids that can throw strikes and give me an inning here or there. Give me a guy with a live arm and we can teach him to spot a fastball and mix-in a changeup. 

My three best defensive players would play catcher, shortstop, and centerfield, regardless of where they played in previous seasons. I also would not stick a liability at first base. A first baseman can save a lot of extra bases at the high school level.

We would be the aggressors in all phases of the game, especially on the basepaths. We would make the other team execute under pressure.

At the high school level (call it ages 14-18), the game’s currency is bases. A walk equals an extra base (more if there are already base runners) for the offense and against the defense. An error, a missed cutoff, taking the wrong angle on a ball in the gap – these all lead to extra bases. Sure, there are teams out there that can rip at the plate, but the vast majority of games are won in part due to the giving or preventing of extra bases.   

With that in mind, I’d keep track of the following stats:

  • Team, Individual On Base Percentage (OBP)
  • Team, Individual Fielding Percentage
  • Team, Individual Strikeouts (hitters)
  • Walks + Hits / Innings Pitched (WHIP)
  • Team +/- (think of it like hockey or basketball)
    • Team Extra Bases Given (errors, walks, missed cut-offs, etc.)
    • Team Extra Bases Taken

In practices, I would channel Tony and Jay and we’d get into the rhythm of reps: double-plays in the infield, tracking fly balls in the outfield. Tee work, soft toss, cage work. I’d like for each player to get fifty swings and fifty defensive reps every practice. I’d channel Kent and drill team defense until it became a choreographed dance with all nine players moving based on where the ball is hit. We’d also make sure to take BP on the field at least once a week and crank the tunes loud, because there is nothing better than a pocket full of sunflower seeds, jamming to some tunes and shagging batting practice.

Practices would never be longer than ninety minutes.

And in the games, I’d take Coach Holm’s lead and trust my players. I’d manage the game, but I’d enjoy the hell out of having a an up close view of them taking control of a ball game.

Maybe it was dumb luck, or maybe Glen was nice to the new coaches afterall, because if I was able to put together a team, it wouldn’t look all that different from the team I was able to coach this year. – PAL

Read Part V: “The Other Coach”

Footnotes:

* Per the Little League site: “The culmination of the International Tournament is the Senior League Baseball World Series, featuring teams from around the world. All expenses for the teams advancing to the World Series (travel, meals and housing) are paid by Little League International.”

**Here’s a great article that attempts to explain why there are zero left-handed catchers in Major League Baseball.

***Our team had 6 players play on the All-Star Team. Mikey was not one of them. Larry and Zack did make the team, which won the Northern California tournament before losing out in the Western Regional.

****After reading Part II (link below) Jay texted Tony and me the following:

..I would literally be staring at the clock in my  office willing time to move faster so I could bolt out a 5:00 and get to practice or a game. Loved every second I coached that team. Loved the way Tony managed a game and prepared practice to maximize time. One of my favorite memories was bribing you guys to be better bunters using Big Macs in concentric circles with $1, $5, $10 distances to get you guys to focus. Will never forget going to McDonald’s with Tony to order 22 Big Macs…

Catch up on the previous sections: 

Part I, Part II, Part III

Week of August 24, 2018


Bonds getting B.P. while AT&T Park was being built.


HOT TAKE ALERT – Thirsty Managers Need To Stop

Over it.

Lou Piniella throwing the base. Lloyd McClendon taking the base. That minor league manager for the Braves throwing pretend grenades. Hacks! Every last one of them.

I’ve never found it funny, even when they seemed genuine. Now they are these elaborate, unfunny forced performances. If I wanted to see that I’d go to an open mic poetry reading. Boom, roasted. 

The latest is this dumbass with a wiener-themed jersey running the bases like a geriatric. Lame.

Managers: cool it with the ejection performance. Nobody came to the game to see you. You come off like an unfunny version of Drunk Uncle.

Signed,

Get Off My Lawn

– PAL

Source: Enraged Baseball Manager Caps Off Excellent Meltdown With A Fake Home Run”, Patrick Redford, Deadspin (8/23/18)

TOB: Phil, now: 

Kidding, bud. I see where you’re coming from, and the over-the-top crazy ones get old for me. But I like this. For me, it’s all in the commitment. If he had just taken a swing, it’s not notable. If he had run around the bases will gesturing demonstratively at the ump, I’d think it was weird and contrived. But, although contrived, the way he sells it really wins for me. As he ran to first I wondered if he was just gonna grab a base. But then suddenly he’s headed toward second, and it’s a real trot. I laughed! The details get me, especially the high five to the third base coach. Baseball is fun, and I like when people keep it fun.


DeGrom and the Cy Young

The fate of the win will be decided this year. For most of baseball’s existence, a win has been one of the central measurements for a pitcher’s success. The point is to win the game, so on the surface measuring a pitcher by how many wins he earned made sense.

The greatest winners of all-time are also considered some of the greatest pitchers of all time:

  • Cy Young (#1, 511 wins)
  • Walter Johnson (#2, 417)
  • Christy Mathewson (#3, 373)
  • Greg Maddux (#8, 355 )
  • Roger Clemens (#9, 354)
  • Randy Johnson (#22, 303)

Sure, there are the exceptions. Bob Gibson  (251), Pedro Martinez (219), and Sandy Koufax (165) were every bit as devastating as the guys at the top of the win list, but 300 wins, like 3,000 hits, remains an magical number for pitchers. In the history of the game, 23 pitchers have won 300 or more games. By comparison, 32 players have collected 3,000 hits.

I remember Uncle Gary quizzing me at The Green Mill one time – he asked what’s the one baseball record that will absolutely never be broken. Cy Young’s 511 wins was his answer. Hard to argue with that, as it’s unlikely we’ll see another 300 game winner in our lifetime. Bartolo Colón sits at 240 wins and appears to finally be done, while Vallejo’s C.C. Sabathia is at 238 with no more than a couple years left playing.

Relief pitching has played an increasingly more important role on teams in the thirty years I’ve been watching the game. Starting pitchers simply don’t stay in a game as long as they used to in the days of Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. Johnson pitched for 21 seasons and averaged 25 complete games per season. The Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, widely considered a modern day “workhorse” pitcher, has 15 complete games in his entire ten year career.

The game done changed. Most of us know this, and it’s fine. But that W/L record is still a stat that a lot of people look to when we get to this time of the season and start thinking about the pitcher most deserving of the Cy Young award.

In 2010, Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young with a 13-12 Won/Loss record. Other than that, only two non-relievers have won the award with less than 16 wins (TIm Linceum with 15 and Fernando Valenzuela with 13).

This year, Jacob deGrom might settle the debate for good. DeGrom currently has a started 25 games, he has a league-leading 1.71 ERA, and an 8-8 win/loss record. At the time of publication, the Mets have 35 games remaining, which means deGrom somewhere between six and eight starts left in the season (I’d bet no more than seven, and only because he’s chasing a Cy Young). Considering how little run support he’s received from the Mets this season, it’s hard to imagine deGrom getting to 12 wins this season. If he won the award, it’s likely deGrom would do so with the lowest non-reliever win total in the history of the award.

Neil Paine digs into the historical context of deGrom’s season, writing, “Among qualified pitchers with a non-winning record, deGrom has the second-best ERA in history. We can all agree, I think, that his record has told us basically nothing about his performance this year.”

Historically speaking, a mediocre W-L record will kill your Cy Young chances, with Felix Hernandez’s 2010 victory (while boasting a 13-12 record) standing out as an extremely rare exception to the award’s overall rule. DeGrom’s candidacy could end up reinforcing that policy, since the Cy tracker’s leader, Max Scherzer, is running second in pitching WAR and has a more traditionally acceptable 15-5 record. The voters could tab him for the award as a (cop-out) way of straddling the line between new- and old-school evaluation methods.

But they could also give it to deGrom as the reward for 2018’s most outstanding pitching performance — which the award’s own language purports to honor. Whether that happens will be another signpost along the mainstream media’s path toward accepting newer statistics and casting aside old relics like wins.

If there was ever a dog days of summer baseball read, this is it, folks. My favorite part of these old school vs new school stories is digging into baseball records for about two hours. Walter Johnson career was insane. 21 years. I had no idea Gibson didn’t win 300 games. Sandy Koufax’s given name was Sanford Braun. These are the fun wormholes. – PAL

Source: Jacob DeGrom Is Breaking The Cy Young Formula”, Neil Paine, fivethirtyeight (8/17/18)

TOB: I actually think it’s already settled. DeGrom’s 8-8 is not any worse than Felix Hernandez’s 13-12. Felix got a few more decisions, which is in many ways out of a pitcher’s control, and that’s about it. Frankly, I don’t even think it should be in the Cy Young discussion. Now, if a guy approached 30 wins, I’d be tuning in (no one has won 30 since Denny McLain’s 31 in 1968; it was Lefty Grove in 1931 with 31 before McLain; Bob Welch’s 27 is the most in my lifetime). That would be exciting.

But generally, wins for a pitcher are flawed because while it’s hard to win a lot of games without being very good, it’s very easy to not win a lot because of things out of your control, as DeGrom is showing. Hell, the year Felix won the Cy Young at 13-12, the league leader in wins was Roy Halladay, with 21. But Halladay had only two fewer losses than Felix – he was 21-10. How’s that possible? While Felix had NINE no decisions, Halladay had only TWO. Without diving into game logs, it’s hard to know what happened: was Felix not getting run support? Was his bullpen blowing leads? Probably a mix of both.

Point being: wins don’t tell you a lot about a pitcher. I haven’t dug into the numbers yet, but if DeGrom is the best pitcher in the league, but he keeps getting Cain’d, then he’s the best. Give him the dang award.


Unfunny Man Does Unfunny Thing

Giants pitcher Derek Holland has been a pleasant surprise in the team’s rotation, helping the team hold a sliver of a postseason hope for much of the summer. He’s currently sporting a 3.75 ERA, the second lowest of his career, and the lowest by far in five years.

But somewhere along the way someone decided Derek Holland was funny, and so baseball media has trotted him out a number of the times over the years to do his tired Harry Caray impression, which is not in fact an impression of Harry Caray, but is actually an impression of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impression. In other words, he’s stealing a guy’s bit, but I digress. While cutting to Holland during the 2010 World Series and allowing him to unleash that terrible “impression” during the game annoyed me, people are allowed to be not-funny.

What they shouldn’t be allowed to do, though, is what Holland did this week. In an appearance on MLB Network, along with team’s massage therapist Haro Ogawa, Holland unleashed an offensive “Asian” impression, right up there with Mickey Rooney’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. MLB Network’s Chris Rose and Kevin Millar embarrassingly laugh along. This is not a high crime or misdemeanor, but it amazes me that people still think that sort of thing is funny.

Holland apologized, which is fine. We can move on. But my editor pays me by the word, so you had to read this. -TOB

Source: “Giants Pitcher Derek Holland Uses Asian Team Staffer For Stale, Racist Jokes On MLB Network“, Avery Yang, Deadspin (08/23/2018)


Barry Sanders’ 1988 Season Was Bananas

Thirty years ago, in 1988, little known Oklahoma State running back, who had spent a couple years backing up future NFL Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas, burst onto the scene to produce without question the greatest season by a single player in college football history. Barry ran for 2,850 yards and 42 TDs, both still single season records, in just 12 games (the only two guys who have come close to Barry’s 2,850 didn’t even touch 2,600, and did so in 14 games). Check out this crazy chart from the article:

And if you remember Barry from the NFL, you know he wasn’t just hitting huge holes and running to daylight. Barry made daylight. In fact, this article’s best contribution is Barry’s rarely seen high school highlight tape. It’s fantastic.

For my mind, he’s the best running back who ever lived. Fun read, with lots of good quotes from his college teammates and coaches. -TOB

Source: “Behind the Scenes of Barry Sanders’ Untouchable 1988 Season“, Jake Trotter, ESPN (08/22/2018)


Hug Your Loved Ones

Man, this one will get you. Melissa Lockard is a writer for The Athletic. Last week, her husband, Chris Lockard, passed away of a rare form of cancer. The cancer was only discovered in June. Just one day after he died, Melissa published a very touching tribute to Chris. Here’s my favorite part:

When we started dating, the 49ers and Packers had a brief rivalry. Ultimately, it was that rivalry that made me know I wanted to marry him.

In January 1999, the Niners and Packers met in the NFC wild-card game at the ‘Stick. I was supposed to fly back to Evanston for school the day before the game, but there was a huge snowstorm in the Midwest and it pushed my flight back to the day of the game. As it would turn out, my flight was one of the last to land at O’Hare for a week (a flight a few hours later ended up stuck on the tarmac for hours, leading to the airline passenger bill of rights).

This was back in the day before most people had cell phones and Uber was just a word you said before “awesome, dude.” Getting from O’Hare to Evanston in the winter could be a bit of a challenge. The El involved going all the way downtown before coming back out to the suburbs; cab drivers were often reluctant to get you there, preferring to go into the city, and the weather could make it a tough ride. Chris had come down from Green Bay a few days earlier but had caught a bad cold and was laid up for most of that weekend. When I talked to him before the flight, I told him it was OK if I took a cab back rather than him picking me up at the airport. Instead, he made me a deal: “if the Packers win, I’ll pick you up. If the Niners win, you’re on your own.”

The flight, for whatever reason, was filled with Wisconsin football fans returning from the Rose Bowl through SFO. The pilot knew his audience and piped the radio broadcast of the game through one of the channels at each seat. As the game wound down to the final seconds, I was torn between wanting the Niners to win and wanting a ride back to campus. Steve Young dropped back to pass, he stumbled and the signal for the station turned to static. It took me several minutes before I overheard a devastated Badger fan explain what happened after Young’s stumble.

When I got off the plane, I immediately began thinking of how I was going to hail a cab in the snow. I reached the end of the walkway tunnel and there was Chris with a funny grin on his face. “I thought the Niners won,” I said. “They cheated,” he replied, “but either way, I didn’t want to eat dinner without you.” How can you not want to marry a man like that?

Read this, and tell your loved ones you love them. Although this is in the Athletic, they have not put it behind a paywall, so even if you don’t subscribe, you can give it a read.

Source: A Love For All Seasons“, Melissa Lockard, The Athletic (08/16/2018)


Video of the Week: 

Tweet of the Week: 


PAL Song of the Week: The O’Jays – “Now That We Found Love”


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“Dwight, you ignorant slut.”

-M. Scott

On the Force or the Tag: Part III

On The Force or the Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. Read the other sections: 

 


Photo by Brent Hoegh. The dugout can be a funny, odd place. My college team partakes in the 2 out, 2-2 count routine. I’m sitting on the bucket with the catcher’s gear. 

Joe and Ricky, my two left-handed pitchers, were slouched in the dugout chatting during the middle innings of a blowout. Our team was on defense, so the dugout was vacant. I sat at the end of the dugout closest home plate watching our catcher, Larry, frame pitches. If there was one skill set I could coach, it was the catcher position. We were in our second weekend of games, and I had yet to give Larry a single note.

After the lefties tired themselves of guessing what pitch our pitcher would throw next, Joe offered up this nugget of perspective to Ricky.

“Remember when we, like, used to care about every play?”

I turned my entire body sideways to observe the oblivious lefties.

Ricky acquiesced with a nod, but he cared. Joe cared when he pitched, sometimes. But to Ricky, competition was instinctual. On the mound, he would self-diagnose and tweak his delivery. In right field he would remind the first baseman that he could be throwing to first on a sharp single to right. Still, it was easier for Ricky to agree with Joe than admit he cared, which makes sense when you remember these dudes were fifteen.

“I care about every play,” I interjected. “And – not for nothing – this is the dumbest conversation I’ve ever heard in a dugout. Your coach is ten feet from you!”

They chuckled and gave spare tire apologies that were just enough to carry them out of the current predicament.

I laughed a little, too. I wasn’t a robot coaching the team, and this wasn’t military training. If nothing else, it was a genuine moment in a lopsided game. Every exchange a coach has with players can’t be aggressive, binary, win-or-you’re-a-loser coachspeak. For one, that’s b.s., and kids have precise bullshit detectors. Also, a coach can’t demand more from a team without genuinely knowing and caring about the individuals. Kids will tune out a coach that speaks at them, and they will hesitate to give more to a coach who doesn’t know them.

That is all true, but there was another truth jammed between Joe’s words: there is nothing more damaging to a young baseball team than a blowout win. Nothing.

Do you know what happens when you’re leading a game by 10+ runs? Players stop competing. Hitters don’t sprint to first on a dropped third strike. Pitchers have to be told to step off the rubber because they forget to pitch from the stretch with runners on base. Outfielders miss their cutoff man. Players stop competing, and lazy-ass baseball ensues. Lazy baseball is so much more contagious than competitive baseball. Lazy baseball is boring to play, unbearable to watch, and infuriating to coach.

It should come as no surprise that we lost our next game*.

***

Players learn nothing from winning big. In the vast majority of youth games, a blowout only reinforces what everyone at the game knew before the first pitch: one team has more ability and skill than the other team. A blowout fools kids, sometimes coaches as well, into believing their skill is more important to their success than their approach, which is an idiotic interpretation of success in youth sports.

The correlation between skill and success is crap for everyone, in all facets of life, save maybe a hundred true geniuses throughout history. Hell, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is essentially a book about minimizing this 1:1 correlation. The other side effect of skill-first thinking is that it tamps down any possibility for a team to realize its full potential.

Coaching skills isn’t hard. To be able to get players to consistently execute baseball fundamentals is a prerequisite for any coach (I would hope). There are hundreds of drills cleverly designed to correct technique and improve a skill. If a hitter opens up the front shoulder on every pitch, then try reverse soft toss. If a catcher’s throw down to second misses wide, then draw a line in the dirt from the back corner of home plate to between the catcher’s feet and tell him to make sure his lead foot lands on the line when he makes the throw.

Technique doesn’t even have to be explained; if the results change a player’s outcome for the better then he will commit to it immediately.

To coach approach, however, is to change the way a group of players thinks about the game. Results are rarely immediate when coaching approach, and it’s harder to correlate a shift in thinking with a positive change in the individual baseball stats, e.g. batting average, fielding percentage, earned run average**. We’re talking about establishing a team culture here, about maximizing potential, which is how I define success. It’s a much higher degree of difficulty, and a hell of a lot more fulfilling for all involved.

My approach is to “win the inning”. This is not an original concept – the late University of Texas coach Augie Garrido has an entire documentary about it (any baseball nut will love this). Jay, my youth coach, was a big “win the inning” believer, as was Coach Holm in college.

Quite simply, to win the inning asks players to think of the game as one inning – one turn at the plate, and one turn in the field. The seven-inning or nine-inning game the rest of the folks are counting as a game doesn’t matter if your team can focus the inning at hand.

Win the inning is about making a habit out of competing moment to moment. It requires every player on the team to seek out what he can control and contribute in the moment immediately before him. For younger players (under about ten), win the inning is a fun way to get keep the game fresh, but this is a philosophy at its core.

Making a spectacular catch in the outfield. Hustling to backup the player trying to make that spectacular catch in the event he misses it. Hitting a two-out homerun. Beating out a grounder for a hit, which brings the homerun hitter to the plate. All of these are winning plays. While only two of them require talent, a coach has to get players to believe that the hustle plays are valued as much as the spectacular plays. They all more clearly contribute to winning an inning, but the essential, unspectacular plays get forgotten when a team reflects on seven or nine innings as a single entity.

After an inning is over, everyone resets. Start over and forget what just happened, good or bad. By minimizing the scope, you maximize the importance of the details. In those details you will find a team’s potential realized. In those details is where build a culture.

Getting kids to buy into this approach is hard, because – newsflash – we do keep score in seven and nine inning increments, folks keep statistics, and long-term improvement is hard to demonstrate in a short season. Players know when they’re kicking a team’s ass and when they’re getting their ass kicked. It’s right there on the scoreboard. Again, you’re asking them to redefine success, while knowing everyone else in their life – parents, future coaches, baseballreference.com – measures success by how many hits they had or how many innings of shutout ball they pitched.

There’s no guarantee you’ll get a team to buy-in on, but it’s worth trying. Why? Because “win the inning” is the more fun version of baseball. Teams that learn how to compete inning-by inning win against teams that have more skill. Stealing a win feels the best. Teams that expect and value everyone’s contribution create a more inclusive environment. I don’t know about you, but work is more fun when everyone is pumped to be there.

No one wants to play the game where everyone stands around watching the one stud throwing a shutout and driving in a couple runs. That shit is boring for everyone besides the aforementioned stud who will likely flame out before he can legally buy a tin of tobacco.  

Also, the games of our youth we remember are not the blowouts, and we don’t remember our batting average (god, I really hope none of you remember your youth stats); The games we remember are the games we stole.

***

By the second week of the season I was able to get an initial feel for all of the players on the team. These idiots were loveable. I loved how Hank never stopped talking to the pitcher and infielders between every pitch. I loved how the twins Chris and Tyler would track down a sure double in the same way and make it look so casual. I loved how Bill fumed when he missed an opportunity to drive a couple runs in with two outs. These were good kids with a little bullshit to them. Just the way it ought to be.

Watching a game from inside the backstop and interacting with young players was like being home. I belong on a baseball field more so than any place else.

***

Jeff Holm, Coach, didn’t recruit me to play ball at Augustana (2018 National Champs). I was on the North Shore of Oahu when the coach that had recruited me called and told me he was taking a job at Kansas. My sister and brother-in-law were house-sitting for this big-time lawyer, and I remember looking out at the Pacific Ocean between Pipeline and Sunset Beach from the kitchen of this quintessential beach house and wondering what the hell this meant for me. Then I remembered I was in Hawaii for the summer learning how to surf the small summer waves and resolved to worry about the whole baseball thing when I returned to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Back row, L-R: Al Shaffer Kevin Wiessner, Sam Everson, Ben Iverson, Troy Wunderlich, and recent Augie Sports Hall of Fame inductee Owen Hoegh. Front row, L-R: Ryan Nett, Phil Lang, Aaron Barber, Coach Jeff Holm, Travis Pugliese.

Knowing what I know now, the idea that Coach was the random guy brought in to replace the guy who actually recruited me is hard to chalk up to simply good fortune.

Coach quickly became a mentor. First and foremost, he would like you to know that, despite being a squat fella with a penchant for DMD (Diet Mountain Dew to the uninitiated), he was a killer in the racquetball court and not a bad basketball player.

In all seriousness, he showed me the character and selflessness enthusiasm requires. Being jaded is so easy, so cliché. Coaching at the college level is flatout different from high school. Obviously the skill level is higher, but more importantly a college coach is leading a team of players who know the game, and many of them have an idea of what their approach to the game is. College players are eager to get better, but set in their ways. They won’t buy into a culture blindly.

Some initially mistook Coach’s enthusiasm for one-dimensional cheerleading, but he understood both the game and the importance of building a relationship with his players. Even by 2002, the Bobby Knight days of drill sergeant coaches was on the outs, and Coach understood that.

Teammate, roommate, left-handed pitcher and now coach Ryan “Gramps” Nett put it this way:

Coaching myself, I think he was ahead of the curve on quite a few things in terms of new school ideas. (1) Relationship building with players was really important to him, understanding each player and letting us know he genuinely cared. (2) Showing players teammates worth. I think of the guys he could have cut and didn’t because he wanted everyone to understand providing opportunities is important. Whether they play or not, they’re still worthy of being part of the team. (3) I think now in the age of “win at all cost” he was ahead of wanting us to compete and not worry about wins and losses. That the little things in the game will carry us through a successful year but also hopefully a successful life…Always brought his boys around, enjoying a good laugh during the game, asking about girlfriends, family, classes. Kids now feel a lot of pressure, and with him it was only the pressure I put on myself and that says a lot because he was relying on 18-22 year-olds to be successful for his livelihood. I think it’s pretty special to show that trust in kids.

I spent two summers in Sioux Falls. Coach and I would workout and go for runs in the morning (I miss that summer college schedule!). We talked about baseball exactly never on those runs. He cared about me as a person, and that made me compete even harder for him as a player.

Augustana University had less than 2,000 students at the time I was enrolled, and we competed in the now defunct North Central Conference with big state schools that have since gone D-I like North Dakota State, University of Nebraska, Omaha, Minnesota State, and South Dakota State. In his second year at the helm, Coach led us to Augustana’s first men’s team conference championship in school history.

Anyone that played for Coach knows that he has a terrible habit of yelling out really lame phrases after the opponent did something good. The best/worst example of this was when an opposing team would hit a home run.

As the hitter was still rounding the bases, Coach would shout, “Just lets us score more!” The mere memory makes me shutter. It was such a Little League coach thing to say.

I hate to admit it, because – again, so lame – but the sentiment was right. Coach was shoving us into competing in the next moment, even while the last moment had yet to finish. He was friendly, but he didn’t care about being your friend, or being cool; he cared about you. He was a dork, but he’d kick your ass when it came to competing. He was always pushing you to the next moment, and we competed to win the next inning, never doubting he had our best interests in mind.

I think about how Coach would have handled that blowout when Ricky and Joe pondered the importance of every play, and I think about what Garrido tells his players after a loss – “This isn’t about some goddamn game. This is about our lives. Don’t you get it?”

I agree with Garrido. It is about our lives. Joe and Ricky are talking about a game, but long after the games are over, will they compete at work, will they make the hustle plays in their relationships? I wonder if they would’ve heard Garrido’s wisdom if he was screaming it at them, but I know they’d hear it coming from Coach. – PAL

Up next: Part IV – “An Insider’s Account of An All-Star Selection Meeting”

Footnotes:

*For a breakdown of how we lost, check out Part I of the series.

**a positive change will happen to individual stats, but it might take more time and opportunities than a youth season presents

Catchup on the series here: 

Part I

Part II