Week of June 29, 2018


One out away and a lifetime ago. Arkansas loses the the CWS. 

One of the Best Game Stories You’ll Ever Read

For a beat writer, a game story is kind of a pain. Games end late and you have a tight deadline to make the morning’s paper. Most begin writing their gamers, as they’re known, while the game is still ongoing. When a game changes late, the gamer changes, too. Beat writers today must really hate gamers as they are increasingly irrelevant given the social media landscape. How many genuine sports fans wake up in the morning, open the sports section, and are surprised to learn of the outcome of their team’s game from the previous evening? Whatever the number is, it’s shrinking by the day.

I rarely read gamers anymore, because I either watched the game or followed along on Twitter. But last Sunday night there was something about this tweet that made me click on the Chronicle’s gamer by long-time Giants beat writer Hank Schulman:

Boy, am I glad I did. In the game, an aging and struggling Hunter Pence stepped up in the bottom of the 11th inning, the Giants down a run, with the bases loaded and one out. The moment screamed double play, as the once great Pence has rolled over so many balls the last couple years I couldn’t begin to count. And, sure enough, Pence lunged at an 0-2 fastball that was low and away. He made weak contact toward first base, and at least one out seemed assured. But baseball is a beautiful and weird game that always surprises. Eric Hosmer, the Padres’ first baseman, was playing well off the line. The ball snuck by him. The Giants scored two. The game was over. Pence was a hero.

It was a great moment for Pence, his teammates, and Giants fans. Hank Schulman took the opportunity to produce one of the best gamers you’ll ever read. Here’s how his story began:

The mass of people who have not, and cannot, understand the rush of a high-level athlete in the arena still have an avenue to understand how Hunter Pence must feel to have his skills decline, being forced to outrun the calendar, listening to the couch surfers and microphone jockeys advising him to get lost.

Haven’t most people had one of their passions taken from them, by physical decline or life’s circumstances? Isn’t that sting universal to the famous and ordinary?

Pence is not blind. He knows it’s coming, be it this year, next year or soon enough. He is 35 and hitting below the Mendoza Line. His accolades and World Series rings cannot buy him more at-bats. Only success on the field can.

Now, Hank is a great Twitter follow and a really good sports writer. But that is some next level beat writing. Gamers don’t usually have sports-as-life metaphors. As I said above, there’s not enough time. Maybe in October. But in June?

You should know that Hank was diagnosed a couple years back with cancer. As far as I know, he is in remission. But I can’t help but wonder how much Hank was thinking of his own journey when he wrote that, which makes it all the more affecting. I can’t recall ever feeling compelled to thank a writer for any story, let alone a game story. But I did when I read that. -TOB

Source: Giants Stun Padres on Pence’s 11th-Inning Walkoff Hit”, Hank Schulman, SF Chronicle (06/24/2018)

PAL: I wish I had more to add. I loved it, too.

Athletes and Aging

How do humans age? Why? What happens to our bodies as they slowly break down, year after year, over the course of decades? How is it measured? ESPN’s Sam Miller tells the story, with both science and the anecdotal evidence of five of the best baseball players in the game, all at different stages of their careers. Man, this is a great article.

23-year old Shohei Ohtani:

Thirty-three feels so far away, but it’s already happening. The 23-year-old’s lean body mass peaked sometime in the preceding five years. His bone-mineral density too. He’s at the age when the body begins producing less testosterone and growth hormone. His body, knowing it won’t need to build any more bone, will produce less energy. Male fertility peaks in the early 20s, the same time as pitch speed and exit velocity. Athleticism is, crudely speaking, about showcasing what a body looks like when it’s ready to propagate a species. The 23-year-old’s machine works as it was designed to. It is undamaged, unsmudged, and every circuit in it is trained to carry on his family’s tradition of survival. When you’re 23, the 32-year-old Mark Trumbo says wistfully, “performance is the only thing holding you back.” To watch a 23-year-old athlete is to see the perfect machine running perfectly.

26-year old Mike Trout:

He’s the best player in baseball, but he has, technically speaking, lost a step: When he was a 20-year-old rookie, he might have been the fastest runner in the sport. Now he’s merely fast. As a rookie, he made four home-run-robbing catches; now, at 26, he hasn’t made one in almost a season and a half. Yet he has not yet begun to decline as a baseball player. He’s having, by most measures, the best season of his career, and he’s the easy front-runner for American League MVP. It’s an odd quirk of aging patterns that ability declines before performance does: Exit velocity declines years before home runs do; speed declines years before stolen bases do. Bone density might peak around 20, but ballplayers, most aging curve studies have concluded, peak in their mid- to late 20s.

30-year old Clayton Kershaw:

A year ago, he was considered, more or less unanimously, the best starting pitcher in the world, with a stretch of more than 1,300 innings — the equivalent of six full seasons! — with an ERA below 2.00. Now he’s probably not, and he might rank as low as fifth or sixth. He allows too many home runs; his velocity has been dropping; and he keeps missing time with lower back issues. (Early byproduct of aging: loss of water content in the spongy lower back disks, leading to herniation and other problems.)…The 30-year-old pitcher throws a curveball for strike one, then he throws a fastball for strike two. It’s 87.9 mph. In a start just 363 days earlier, his fastball averaged 94 mph, but today the average is 89. Less than 24 hours after this game, in fact, he will return to the disabled list, the lower back again.

35-year old Justin Verlander:

It’s the seventh inning, the score is 4-0 and the pitcher throwing the shutout is 35. He’s been an ace for most of this decade, but in the past few years, his peers have been disappearing. Jered Weaver and Matt Cain retired last year, at 34 and 32, respectively. Tim Lincecum, 34, was in Triple-A this year until he got released. Felix Hernandez, at 32, now throws in the high 80s and carries an ERA in the mid-5s.

There was a point a few years ago when the man on the mound feared he might be approaching such a fate. He’d thrown an 88 mph fastball in a game, and he thought his career was ending. Now, though, at 35, he might once again be the best pitcher in the game. “Rather than stability, we have lifelong flux,” wrote the authors of the StarCraft study. “Our day-to-day performance is, at every age, the result of the constant interplay between change and adaptation.”

We know, or can speculate on, some things about this pitcher’s body: His mitochondria — the little factories in the cells that produce energy — probably don’t work as well as they used to. His muscles are probably losing elasticity; his tendons and ligaments are stiffer from having less water content; his bones are more prone to fractures or stress injuries. He doesn’t produce as much testosterone or growth hormone as he did in his early 20s, and it’s therefore harder for him to add muscle mass.

38-year old Albert Pujols:

The 38-year-old at the plate used to do everything: one of the best defensive first basemen ever, a valuable baserunner and a multidimensional hitter who mastered the strike zone and homered nearly as often as he struck out. One by one, the systems have broken down: He’s a DH more often than he plays the field; it hurts to watch him run; he almost never walks; and he sets career highs in strikeouts and career lows in almost everything else. His career survives mostly on the basis of one home run per week.

There’s a way of looking at the data to conclude we will all die — 100 percent of the people who came before us did. But there’s also a way of looking at the data to conclude that, in fact, I never will. I’ve been alive for a billion data points and I haven’t died once.

To watch the 38-year-old these days is to see these two arguments smash into each other. It is to watch a dignified man walking alongside, but not yet into, the end. It’s to see an athlete who was once the very best in the world fail, repeatedly, in public, and to see that it’s OK — not at all shameful — to get worse. It’s to see the smiles and the ovations among it all. It’s to see that, ultimately, this isn’t life and death. Just a metaphor for it.

One of the best articles I’ve read this year. -TOB

Source: What Happens as Ballplayers Age?”, Sam Miller, ESPN (06/27/2018)

PAL: “They stop being young sooner than you think.” What a great line, man.

TOB’s right; fascinating read. When we get deep into the weeds, it seems to all break down to the following:

Ballplayers first notice it in the short, explosive moments. “To get to a 97 mph fastball that’s up in the zone, you know you can get it there,” 31-year-old veteran catcher Caleb Joseph says. “It just isn’t as readily available anymore. When you’re 22, it’s always on. You’re like, ‘Do I need to get a lighter bat? Is this how it’s gonna be?’ ”

He laughs, then pauses, deciding which kind of story he’s telling. “I went down an inch this year. I’m still hitting .150.”

Is it that he’s not as strong? That his brain doesn’t pick up the pitch as fast? It could be, but it could also be that the nervous system moves slightly slower as we age, says Corey Dawkins of Baseball Injury Consultants. Joseph could identify the pitch just as quickly, decide to swing just as confidently, swing just as powerfully as he ever did — but the signal from brain to muscles takes a fraction of a microsecond longer to travel.

There’s nothing you can do but get a little older and a little slower. In a game of decimal points, a little is a lot.

Messi & Argentina:

The very first sentence of this Messi World Cup article made me stop. “He’s not having any fun at this World Cup, that much is obvious.”

Shocker. No one will argue that Messi is anything less than an all-time great, and some will argue he’s the best ever, but at 31 years old Messi has still has one unchecked box on his career – winning a World Cup. This might not be his last chance, but it’s certainly is last chance as all-time great player.

Since when is greatness about having fun? In fact, I’m guessing players like Gretzky, Bonds, Jordan, Jim Brown, Woods would choose 3 adjectives to describe their time on the ice/court/field/course before any of them used the word ‘fun’.

The relationship of Messi and Argentina is an odd one, and I’m not sure ‘fun’ has any place in it. While Messi was born in Argentina, he and his family moved to Barcelona when he was 10 or 11 years old. He was already a prodigy, but the club team in Argentina reneged on paying the $1,000/month treatment he needed, and another team in Buenos Aires couldn’t help out due to the economic collapse. Enter Barcelona. Messi had family in Catalonia. A trial was set up. The rest is history.

Messi was considered a dual-national (Argentina and Spain), so he was eligible to play for either national team. Once a player plays a game for one national team, then they’ve made their claim and can’t play for another team. Argentina went so far as to scheduled two matches for the U20 team to prevent Messi from changing his mind. Perhaps they were paranoid – it has always been Messi’s dream to play for La Albiceleste.

So there’s always been controversy around Messi and Argentina. The greatest player of his generation is from Argentina, and yet his entire life from 10 years old on has been rooted in Spain. So it’s not hard to imagine the criticism when Messi and Argentina loses 1-0 to Germany in the 2014 final with the greatest scorer coming up empty, or when they again lost to Germany in 2010 quarter finals 4-0.  He has six goals in 18 World Cup matches. That ranks him tied for 38th all-time. That’s a problem.

All of this has lead folks to question his level of commitment to national team.

Don’t even think about suggesting Messi lacks love for his homeland or pride in being the captain and talisman for its national soccer team. That’s not the case, but the truth is that he doesn’t much like playing for Argentina because it causes him nothing except pain.

He has felt the burden of being anointed as a national treasure at a young age and still carries the weight of his country’s World Cup hopes — no, demands — as much as he ever did. It is a payload that gets heavier with each passing year, every fresh disappointment or missed opportunity.

I read this, and I think about LeBron before he got Cleveland that title. While James was the fulcrum for a city that hadn’t won in 5 decades, Messi was that for an entire country obsessed with one team, one sport. Those forces seem heavier than what James felt in Cleveland. He feels the weight no matter which way things teeter

And Messi’s experience at Barcelona reminds me of the Warriors – a team of stalwarts that in part allows him his moments of genius. He’s Steph Curry. And in that role, he’s won everything. Success breeds success.

It is easier to play with that kind of freedom when you have accomplished everything, and there are no boxes to be ticked for Messi at Barca, where he has won everything worth winning, multiple times, while also collecting a glut of individual accolades

He’s great at being Steph, but can he be LeBron? We’ll see. This article was written before Argentina snuck out of pool play. Messi still has a chance to grow his legend and make his mark on the World Cup, but he will have to do it while carrying the weight of a Argentina on his back. – PAL

Source: “Why Lionel Messi Hates Playing for Argentina in World Cup”, Martin Rogers, USA Today (06/24/2018)

Grief and Football

This week, Sports Illustrated published an excellent piece on the January suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski. The story focuses mostly on the aftermath – the pain and guilt his family feels because of Tyler’s death, and what they could have done differently. It’s a very good article and you should read it.

The story reveals that the Mayo Clinic determined Tyler had Stage 1 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”). Stage 1 CTE is the lowest level, but is associated with depression, and Tyler’s brain reportedly resembled that of a 65-year old man. For a 21-year old who had not played much college football, and at that had played the relatively protected position of quarterback, the news was fairly surprising. While Tyler did play linebacker in youth football, this made people realize if it could happen in this situation, it can happen to anyone at any level of football, and much quicker than people have assumed.

The story is sad, as you’d imagine a story dealing with a family’s reaction to the suicide of a young person would be. But what I find so troubling is that the family either refuses to blame football, or doesn’t care. This might not matter, but the Hilinski family has another son, Ryan. Ryan is also a quarterback, and a very good one. He will graduate high school next year. After receiving offers from programs like Ohio State, LSU, and Georgia, Ryan decided he’d play college ball at South Carolina.

I never like to tell someone how to raise their child. As a parent, I know we’re all doing the best we can. It’s just not my business, and especially for a family like the Hilinskis, it’s hard to know how grief and guilt are affecting them. They say they do not blame football. But…why? Do they not want to blame football, because doing so would mean they played some part in his death by allowing him to play? Tyler’s older brother, Kelly, also played quarterback in college:

Kelly says scared isn’t exactly the right word to describe the family’s relationship to football now. Kelly views the sport as a welcome distraction from Tyler’s death. He says that when he has kids—if he has a son, he’ll name him Tyler—he will let them play football, without hesitation. He wants the boy to learn lessons best gleaned in shoulder pads, to find pain and overcome it.

Can’t your kids learn those same lessons playing other sports that don’t have brain trauma as a core part of its gameplay? And while Kelly says he’d let his kids play football, at the same time he’s worried about Ryan:

“I’m worried,” Kelly admits. “I’m worried Ryan might face the same signs and symptoms that Tyler had and he won’t be the same person that he was.”

That is just baffling to me. I realize the odds are low. Many kids play football each year and don’t suffer those injuries. And yes, kids can be hurt or worse in countless ways and you can’t ever guarantee their safety. But shouldn’t you do your best to limit the unnecessary dangers? And isn’t it possible that the family has some genetic marker that makes them more susceptible to CTE with less brain trauma than other people?

For his part, Ryan says, “I just don’t give a f—. I don’t care. I love this sport. This is not what hurt [Tyler].” This is more or less what you might expect a 17-year old kid to say. And his parents raise the good point that he’s almost 18 at which point he can make these decisions on his own. But, man. I just can’t understand that, after already losing one son, they are not doing everything in their power of losing another. If Ryan develops CTE and becomes depressed like Tyler did, even if the family is better equipped to see the signs they missed with Tyler, preventing his death is not the end. He’d still be a person changed for the worse.

I feel terrible for this family, and I hope my tone here is not judgmental, because that is not why I am writing this. The Hilinski family will never read this, anyways. But as someone who still watches football, though with less glee than I used to, it’s a reminder to myself. Because, at times, I’ll catch myself thinking, “I dunno, maybe I’d let my kids play high school football.” So I need reminding: no. Just don’t do it. Or this could be me:

Instead, upon landing, [Tyler’s mother] steeled herself for meetings with medical examiners and detectives, learning that Tyler had left behind a note. Maybe, the Hilinskis thought, he had explained his decision, told them not to worry, absolved them of their guilt. Then they read the short message he had written and that only made them feel worse. That note—the Hilinskis do not want to publicly reveal the contents—offered no explanation, no I love you, no goodbye.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). -TOB

Source: A College QB’s Suicide. A Family’s Search for Answers”, Greg Bishop, Sports Illustrated (06/27/2018)

Video of the Week

PAL Song of the Week – George Harrison – “What Is Life”

Tweet of the Week

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-D. Schrute

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