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

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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

Week of August 17, 2018


Proving Your Worth

Of all stories about PEDs and baseball, I don’t think I’ve ever come across an article that put forth the explanation Jonathan Tjarks asks us to consider: in some cases PED usage is used to justify of a massive contract and not a tactic to sign a massive contract. With Seattle’s Robinson Canó, the $240MM man, returning this week from an 80-game PED suspension (tested positive for a diuretic used to mask PED) Tjarks walks us through a interesting argument:

The conventional cynical wisdom is that players use PEDs to boost their stats and secure massive contracts, but what if we sometimes have it backward?  In an interview for ESPN with Peter Gammons in 2009, Alex Rodriguez said he first began taking steroids in 2001 after signing a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers. A-Rod put a huge spotlight on himself by signing that deal, which was worth more than what Rangers owner Tom Hicks paid for the franchise. His performance had to be almost superhuman; otherwise, it would be judged a failure.

Baseball’s free agency rules (once players get to the majors, their salaries are controlled for six seasons). No open market until after that sixth year with the big league club. Considering a lot of players spend two, three, or even four years in the minors, we’re talking about team control for eight, nine, or even ten years! This rule makes it very rare for players to hit the open market while still in their prime (which is somewhere between 26 and 28).

Unless a player is a prodigy like A-Rod, who reached the majors at 18, he won’t hit the market until he’s past his prime. Under the current system, Aaron Judge won’t be a free agent until he’s 31. Jacob deGrom won’t be a free agent until he’s 32.

In other words, the Yankees paid Canó 58MM for nine hall-of-fame seasons (a complete bargain), and the Mariners will pay $240MM for not that (a rip-off). These 10-year contracts never work out because the players are simply too old when they are eligible to sign such a deal.

Tjarks went back a generation for another comparison:

Just look at two of the greatest players from the previous generation: Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. Bonds spent his first seven seasons with the Pirates before signing with the Giants at the age of 28. Griffey spent his first 11 seasons with the Mariners before signing with the Reds at the age of 30. Both were sure-fire Hall of Famers before they signed with their second teams. Both were paid $95 million between the ages of 30 and 38. The difference is that Griffey produced 13.3 WAR over that stretch, while Bonds produced 77.8 WAR.

PED use is why Bonds is not in the Hall of Fame and Griffey is. But would San Francisco fans be willing to trade the second half of his career for Griffey’s? Bonds won back-to-back-to-back-to-back MVP awards and turned the Giants into an elite franchise. The Reds never even made the playoffs with Griffey.

Of course, there is another possible explanation. Players take PEDs for all the reasons: to get into the bigs, to stay in the bigs; to sign a contract for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and to sign a contract for hundreds of millions of dollars. I choose D – all of the above. – PAL

Source: Canó and the Impossible Contract”, Jonathan Tjarks, The Ringer (8/14/18)

TOB: (My response inspired by of one of my favorite memes):

Phil I want to address this issue. You KNOW I don’t care if athletes use PEDs. BUT!

I think this argument is b.s.! I won’t dispute that Robinson Canó, who has a massive contract guaranteeing him huge amounts of money until he’s 41 was not taking PEDs to play for his next contract. It was not “about” making money. HOWEVER! I do not buy that athletes like Canó, A-Rod and (ALLEGEDLY!) Bonds took PEDs out of some selfless need to live up to the expectations created by their massive contracts. It’s ego, bruh. Plain and simple. When Bonds (ALLEGEDLY!) took PEDs, it was (ALLEGEDLY!) in response to the fame garnered by juiceheads McGwire and Sosa during the 1998 home run chase. Bonds, suddenly, wasn’t the biggest name in baseball and he couldn’t take it.

Sidebar: I’d also like to take this opportunity to say that I am surprised everyone so blindly accepts that Griffey was clean, when there is some evidence to suggest he was not. First, he got a lot bigger right after 1998, just like Bonds. Natural aging? Maybe. But no one gives the benefit of that doubt to Bonds. Second, right after he goes to the Reds in 2000, his body starts breaking down. He was only 30, and he suffered repeated and severe soft tissue injuries: pulled and torn hamstrings especially plagued him. As you may know, anabolic steroid use can lead to muscle tears. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

So, yeah. I don’t care if Canó took PEDs. But I’m also not going to allow Tjarks to let him off the hook for his actions to say it was out of some altruistic need to live up to his paycheck.

PAL: To be clear, I am not suggesting Tjarks is right; I’m just saying he makes a compelling point on Canó’s behalf. The delayed free agency leads to players being at or past their prime when they sign their big contracts, which can lead to the PED use. I have’t heard that one before.


The Birth of College Football

As TOB mentioned to me, it’s frustrating how many great articles and stories are on The Athletic, which doesn’t allow readers any free views in order to sample the goods. I’ll do my best to share big chunks of this story, because it’s a doozy.

Did you know the popularization of college football ban be traced back to WWI, and that it was military bases and academies that brought the game to the masses? I didn’t.

As top college athletes enlisted in the war efforts and universities struggled to find enough bodies to field teams, more players who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play at the college level were given a chance to participate. The sport became less of an elitist pastime and more of an everyman’s game.

College football became seen as more “American” as military training camps put together teams to face off against themselves and universities. And when the flu ultimately passed and congregating was again allowed around the country, the communal feel of a football game proved valuable.

Back in 1916, the game was used as a way to keep soldiers healthy…and by healthy I mean STD-free:

The view of football being valuable to World War I military training can be traced to a breakout of venereal disease.

In 1916, national guardsmen who were stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas — patrolling territory near the U.S.-Mexico border — suffered from an outbreak of sexually transmitted disease at their camp.

“These young Guardsmen, with nothing to occupy their free time, swarmed into the nearby camp towns to look for fun, but found venereal disease and cheap alcohol instead,” James Mennell wrote in The Service Football Program of World War I: Its Impact on the Popularity of the Game.

With the U.S. creeping closer to involvement in World War I in 1916, the need for healthy, young, STD-free American males became greater. So on the recommendation of War Department Secretary Newton D. Baker, the Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) was created.

With U.S. involvement in WWI seeming more likely by the day, the war efforts became widespread. Many former college athletes were enlisting, and more and more college men were joining the ROTC. However, there was a general concern that the 2-year and 4-year ROTC programs weren’t churning out prepare soldiers fast enough. This lead to the Student Army Training Corps,  a university-driven military training curriculum. At that point, nearly every male student was a part of the SATC; they were eligible for the draft if they weren’t a member. The SATC allowed them to continue their education without a draft hanging over their heads.

And just like that, you have 400 colleges across the country training soldiers with the military leadership – right up to President Wilson – seeing football as a key component of the soldiers’ training.

And right as the game, made popular on bases and college campuses alike, was gaining national attention, the flu hit. It’s hard to fathom the scale of it all, but this stat rattled me:

More children under 9 died in the United States in 1918 than during the next 25 years combined. In the span of those 12 months, the average U.S. life expectancy dropped almost 12 years.

The result was very few games played in September and October of that year. People missed the game, and in November charity games were set up to raise funds for the United War Work Fund. People came out by the thousands, eager to cheer.  The ceasefire and Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, and the second wave of the flu was dissipating.

For a nation that had suffered deaths abroad and at home, November football came as a respite. For the American military, it proved to be one of the most useful tools in helping to win the war. And for the future of the sport, the 1918 season proved to be one in which the game was taken up as American and democratized for many.

When you think about the origin of college football, which pre-dates professional football, the modern-day alignment with the military makes a bit more sense. In fact, I’m shocked that I’ve never heard the story of how football spread across the country by way of a war effort. I’m shocked I haven’t read the words of Penn’s Sol Metzger on a bumper-sticker somewhere:

Now our American game of football teaches us nothing if it does not build up our spirit. College spirit, bred of football, is close kin to patriotism. And this spirit of the American forces is nothing more than college spirit of a high and nobler order.

All of this football because some soldiers got VD. Actually, that sounds about right. – PALSource: A season of influenza and influence: How World War I and a pandemic in 1918 changed college football forever”, Chantel Jennings, The Athletic (8/14/18)

TOB: Interesting article. Phil did a good job tying it together, but I had to call attention to this section, where a doctor laments all the deaths due to the 1918 influenza pandemic:

“One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don’t know.”

I can’t stop laughing at his nonchalance. Sure, who doesn’t mind seeing twenty people die. But yeah, 100 per day? That sure does get on my nerves, too


Video of the Week


Tweet of the Week


PAL Song of the Week: Aretha Franklin – “Chain of Fools”


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“No, no. AIDS is not funny. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

M. Scott

On The Force or On The Tag: Part II

Read Part I of the series here.

Read Part III of the series here

On The Force Or On 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. 

This pic doesn’t do the field justice. Rickey Henderson Field is a treat. 

Goddamn, do I love being on a baseball field. It didn’t take very long into our first practice of the season for that realization to slap me across the face.

There is a rhythm to a baseball practice that folds perfectly into a long summer evening. Its signature characteristic is held in a pause, like that moment before a rocking chair returns forward, when momentum gathers. The pause is in every fundamental phase of the game. You can feel it in the moment between when a pitcher sets and starts his delivery. It’s right there, after an infielder releases a throw across the diamond to first to complete a double play. It’s with the outfielder, too, as he waits for the fly ball to drop after he tracked it down, his feet set to catch and throw back to the infield in one motion.

Once the techniques have been explained and strategy and positioning has become instinct, baseball practices come down to repeating the moments immediately preceding and following these pauses. That’s where the rhythm comes alive. 

But finding this rhythm with a team takes some time together. It takes – you guessed it – practice, and if there was one thing made clear to me when I had met with Glen, the league coordinator and umpire from part 1 of this series, it was that this league wasn’t about practice. Quite plainly, this league was about players getting in the requisite amount of games in order for the best of them to qualify to play in All-Star tournaments. The coach of said All-Star team: Glen.

A ten-game season with no more than a practice or two with fifteen year olds who weren’t playing travel ball (as I understood at the time)?  I hauled the jerseys and equipment bag to the back field at Caldecott, genuinely worried that I was about to coach kids who had no interest in the game but had agreed to play one more season only after their parents insisted that they “had to do something this summer” or get a job.

And what All-Star league were we even talking about here? It’s hard to keep track of all of the leagues in youth baseball. There are leagues named after Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken; there are leagues associated with veteran organizations (the V.F.W., American Legion); there’s AAU and the post-Little League divisions of Little League. And then there’s club ball.

Had I been asked to coach a team, or was about to oversee a five-week tryout?  

I hung the uniforms on the fence, noting the the absence of uniformity in youth sports. But that was OK, because I also had an unused, homemade fungo bat that a woodworking buddy of mine had given to me.

Hand on the bible – I was as excited to use this new fungo as I was to meet the players. Hitting a grounders and fly balls with a wooden fungo puts the soul at ease. Some garden. Some meditate. Some drink. Give me hitting fungos for my mental health.

As the first of the players meandered back to the field, I knew that I had to make some concessions immediately. I was a stranger – to the players and the league – and this was casual baseball. Five weeks, ten games. We didn’t have time to start from beginning on anything. I wasn’t building a program, but I didn’t just want to only fill in a lineup card either. I would have to find that middle ground as I went.

The view of the San Francisco Bay from up near the Caldecott Tunnel on a summer evening is postcard material. It’s one of those moments that washes away any gripes about the cost of living, the tech soul-sucking, and general superiority complex that come with the Bay Area. The sun inches down into the Pacific and behind San Francisco far off on the horizon, and you fall for the beauty of it all for the ten thousandth time.

The fields at Caldecott, however, were dreadful. They were depressing, dry, deserted landfills of bad hops and knee injuries. There were those little colored flags the power company uses to indicate buried wired littering the outfield. I was told that a water pipe had burst up by the fields, which led to a dispute between I believe Parks & Rec Department and the Utility District. As they argued, every blade of grass on the field had shriveled and died, and every gopher within a 100-mile radius helped tunnel out the entire outfield. The fields were beyond repair. A million dollar view wasted over a busted water pipe.

Beautiful view. Bad photo. Dangerous field. 

It was with that marvel of a backdrop and on that lawsuit of a field where I met six of my players. The Warriors were playing in the NBA Finals that night, so the other eight guys on the team didn’t show. It was an optional practice. Like I said, casual baseball.

  • Larry  (C, P)
  • Ricky (LHP, 1B)
  • Abe (OF, P)
  • Steve (3B, P)
  • Bill (Utility, P)
  • Hank (SS, P)

In their minds they were all pitchers, anyway. They saw the new coach as an opportunity get an inning or two in before I would realize they were imposters. As far as I could tell, we had one pitcher for sure: Ricky, the tall lefty with a whip of an arm*.

It didn’t take long for my concerns about the players’ collective interest to dissipate. I knew we were going to be just fine halfway through our warmup game of catch. These guys knew what they were doing. They weren’t there out of obligation. They enjoyed playing the game – it was evident in how they carried themselves. They knew each other, and they at least knew to play catch in the outfield. I could work with this!

We had one hour, which is 45 minutes after warming up, and we were going to spend it getting as many swings, field as many grounders, and shag as many fly balls as possible.  There were two options of how we could approach the practice: reps or situations, and we simply didn’t have time to work on situational defenses like bunt coverages, first-and-third plays, and tandem cuts. Hell, we needed to review the most obvious signs for bunt (belt), steal (sleeve), and hit-and-run (both sleeves) before we could to worry about middle infield read plays.

I hit fungos with my new bat and threw batting practice in the cage. It was sublime to be back in that paused rhythm – it was in the batting cage and across the infield. 

crack hit a grounder

hop hop hop

field grounder, set

throw then catch

crack hit a grounder

hop hop hop

field grounder, set

throw then catch

 

Give me a Gatorade, a bag of seeds, and a five-gallon bucket of balls and leave me to it. I’ll throw batting practice until it’s too dark to see.  

I should point out that there were two other volunteer coaches on this team: Jeff and Paul. Like me, they were in their 30s (maybe younger) and had no prior affiliation with the league. Super smart guys and enthusiastic, but I don’t know how much baseball they played growing up. Quite honestly, a they had a hard time throwing a baseball smoothly, they had an even harder time hitting fungos, and I would find out at our first game that neither of them knew how to keep a scorebook. It was never discussed, but I just assumed head coaching duties from the jump.

Paul couldn’t make the first practice, so Jeff (a lefty) and I switched off throwing BP and hitting infield/outfield to the guys. With six players, it worked perfectly: two guys would hit in the cage while the other four players took grounders and fly balls.

I was standing behind the protective L-screen in the cage when I looked over to see Jeff choking halfway up my brand new, homemade fungo. He was hitting balls off the end of the bat. He was hitting handle shots. I was sure that the next swing would be the last and the thin-handled bat would crack, breaking my heart along with it. I would find out at the end of practice that Jeff had popped a blister while using the fungo. His blood was splattered up the handle.

The Matt Scanlan fungo (@scatmanlan), complete with some blood specs up at the top of the taped handle. 

Bleeding blisters and terrible field aside, the practice was a complete success. There was some talent on the team, but I was more encouraged by the personalities amongst those six player. I wouldn’t say any of them were confident – a little cocky, sure, but what fifteen year-old is truly confident? Instead, they wanted to be confident. They weren’t afraid to ask me about the Warriors-Cavs NBA Finals, or crack a sarcastic joke. If guys missed a grounder, they asked for another one before I moved onto the next guy.

I could work with that.

I had come to the practice worried about all the crap outside of the lines. The act of running the most basic of practices reminded me what matters is throwing BP and hitting grounders and, even if for just a moment, finding that rhythm with the players. I also left knowing what I could effectively coach in ten games: I would reinforce that desire in them to be confident, and do so enthusiastically.

***

Coach the practice, manage the game.

Show me a coach yelling out adjustments to the hitter in between pitches and I’ll show you a guy that could never hit or can’t remember what it feels like to be overmatched at the plate. Show me a coach that thinks the secret to getting a kid to throw strikes is to yell at him to throw strikes, and I’ll show you a team that’s tuned out its coach.

As a whole, a baseball game is slow, but it’s won or lost in moments of complex intricacy and bursts of speed. A player has to be loose, quick, and precise at the same time. In other words, baseball is are about reacting. Consider all of the body movement that goes into a pitching delivery. Every part of the body – from toes to fingertips – needs to be in sync in order to hit a specific portion of the strike zone. A pitcher might have a mantra, but he’s not thinking through every speck of his delivery on every pitch

Or consider the timing and hand-eye coordination needed to, as Ted Williams put it, hit a round ball with a round bat squarely. Then imagine trying to do that while the coach yells about watching for the curveball moments before the pitch.  

Someone can’t simultaneously react and think about how to react. The how – the coaching and instruction – takes place before the game. You study before the test. During the game, a coach manages the situation, and players react. Bad coaches coach during the game.

Before our first game, I promised the guys I wouldn’t coach during the game. We could talk situations between innings, but I would not instruct the players on pitching or hitting. I remember calmly making that point, but I was so damn excited.

To begin, Rickey Henderson Field (pictured at the top of this post) was the opposite of our practice field. Some of the real heros of youth baseball are the grouchy maintenance guys or the retired volunteers who make it their daily mission to maintain a beautiful ballfield. These fellas are uptight about things like properly folding a tarp, but one cannot argue with the results. It’s more than worth it in exchange for the joy of playing on a diamond with a lush green infield and a clay mound. Buy your local version of this guy a beer the next time you see him. Get him a nice cigar.

I had seen six of our players at practice the night before, but amongst all of them I had the worst idea of who should play where and bat when in the lineup. These guys had been playing against each other or together for years, so I handed the scorebook to the the first player to show up – Mikey – and told him to fill it out. We won 11-0, so I think Mikey had it right.

We made one error and walked no more than four batters. Five extra base runners is not that bad for a youth team. The other team gave us ten extra base runners – five walks and five errors. 

I didn’t do much in that game. There’s not a ton to manage when you’re up big and your pitchers are throwing strikes. Best thing a coach can do in that situation is grab a handful of seeds, let the guys play, and keep track of a good thing and a thing to work on for each player.  

One player in particular stood out. Bill pitched the first four innings and hit cleanup. His body was growing faster than he could keep up with, and every part of his game had some grunt to it. My kind of player. He went up to the plate to drive something. He toed the rubber to strike the batter out. I was embarrassed that it took me – a lifelong catcher – until the last game of the season to realize this guys was a born catcher. He had the mentality for it, and most guys don’t. 

The second game of the weekend was far less of a lean back affair. We were down to the rich kids with coordinated bat bags until our last at-bat. Strikeouts absolutely killed us, especially with runners on base. You have to make the opponent make a play in the field. Again, the odds of a team fielding a ball, making an accurate throw, and catching that throw in time to get a runner hustling out of the box cannot be more than sixty – maybe seventy percent – in youth baseball.

It was a close game, and I felt my old player juices goings. There was some chirping going on from the other team’s bench as Ricky was dealing, striking out pretty much everyone in his relief appearance. It was remarkable their bench was talking shit while their teammates struck out. Also remarkable was how easily I let this chirping get to me and how quickly I forgot that I was twenty-one years older than the players.

After he ended the inning with another strikeout, I met Ricky at the foul line with a fist bump and more or less told him that’s how you shove it up their asses.

I have no problem with the sentiment of my message to Ricky. That is how you shut up a bench. The way I communicated it was something else – that was me chasing a feeling of being a player. I loved those moments of friction back in the day, but those are the types of games-within-the-game that players own. Coaches need not apply.  

Of course there are times when a coach showing his competitive fire can wake a team up. This was just not one of those times.

It wasn’t until Jim’s two-out, opposite field double off of the fence that we got a run across. It was a 3-1 count, so he sat on fastball. Most impressive is that he didn’t try to pull the outside pitch on a 3-1 count. Not many teenagers are looking for something out over the plate to drive the other way. The other team called timeout after his hit, so we were able to chat quick chat.

I asked “how did that feel?”

He shook his head, smiled, and said “unbelievable!”

Hell yeah, it did.

We ended up winning the game 5-4, scoring three runs in the bottom of the seventh thanks to two errors, two hit batsman, and two walks. You can’t make this up, folks.

I left the field knowing I had a good group of guys. I also left the field shocked. Not one of our players at the first two games knew how to keep a scorebook**. This would not, could not continue. 

Most of all, I left thinking about Tony Lang and Jay Rabeni (my brother and brother-in-law). These guys made coaching look fun.

***

Joy, enthusiasm, and garbage bag jackets. Tony Lang (first coach on the left) and Jay Rabeni (second coach from the right). These two kept the game fun at all times. Yours truly (first row, first on the left) was still mourning the end of of Kirby Puckett’s playing career, as indicated by the ’34’ on my hat. Dave, Sr. is the super tall pitching coach and dad to Big Dog (the super tall kid). John Kurtis (last coach on the right), older brother of Jay (middle row, first from the right) also helped out that year. 

Looking back on it, Tony and Jay were just pups in their mid-twenties when they coached our team for three years growing up (ages 13-15). If wealth was measured in zest, then I haven’t come across wealthier men than Tony and Jay when they coached.

They were great because they loved it as much as us players did. When Tom Stanoch would glide over and make yet another diving play in centerfield, it was all Jay could do to keep himself from running out there and giving him a high five in the middle of the game. When Jay Kurtis and Elmer made another double-play look routine, Tony was pimping it on their behalf from the dugout, saying something along the lines of “too easy.”

I think back to our practices, and it was all about reps. About that rhythm. Infielders would take grounders for half an hour, outfielders would be working on their angles until dusk had turned to just plain night. Hitting was an assembly line of drills. We would alternate between soft-toss, reverse toss, back toss, two-tee drill, and live pitching in the cage. Dave, Sr., the manager and dad to Big Dog, would be concocting his next Tom Seaver lecture/demonstration with the pitchers off on the side. And so it went, the same practice, more or less, for three years. It was the best.

Photo courtesy of Matt Lang. A lot time spent in these cages growing up.

There were a lot of elements that went into making that team the most fun I ever had playing baseball. The parents genuinely liked each other and were swept up in Tony and Jay’s enthusiasm just like us player. The players appreciated each and every guy on the roster. We were’t all best friends, but we were a team. It also helped that we were just young enough so that no one was really worried about the next step. But at the center of this was Tony and Jay’s enthusiasm. Everyone could see how much they loved being there. It was infectious.

But here’s the thing – as passionate and enthusiastic as they were – neither Jay nor Tony ever lost sight of the game’s relative importance. It was always a game. It was game to win, to improve, and to take pride in; but it was always a game.

A couple stories come to mind when I think about them as coaches.

Timmy Fisher is on the mound pitching at Concordia Academy. I’m catching, and I had caught Timmy since we were in Little League on Kent’s team. At that point I know him as a pitcher backwards and forwards. When Tim had it going, he just found outs. For all of you Giants fans, he had a little Johnny Cueto to his game with the variations to the delivery, which is hilarious when you consider Timmy was fifteen.

When Timmy didn’t have it going, he’d let anything distract him, whether it was the umpire’s zone, the state of the mound, a button on his jersey. Timmy also didn’t understand the notion of a filter. He acted on how he felt 100% of the time.

So the game at Concordia is not going well and Timmy’s throwing a bit of a tantrum on the mound. Tony comes out to pull him. Timmy doesn’t even wait for Tony to get to the top of the mound. Instead, he drops the ball and walks off, passing Tony on his way to the dugout. A stern conversation in the dugout no doubt followed, but I remember Tony laughing about it shorty after the incident. It was a such a Timmy reaction, and only he could make that funny. Tony didn’t take it as an affront to his coaching. Timmy disrespected him – yes – but Tony knew it wasn’t about him. Timmy was just pissed off and he hadn’t learned how to sit in that without doing something stupid. 

Jay was the same way, too. He got into Eric Wikstrom one time for not sliding into third on a close call. I mean, Jay was in Wik’s earhole, rated R style, giving him everything he had, but I can’t imagine Wik ever questioning whether or not Jay liked him. Not for a second.

I know they taught us technique and refined our approach, and thinking back on it I am astonished at the amount of time they gave to that team (we must have played 35 games a summer at least), but no specific tips remain as clear as much the joy. The joy we had playing for them and the the joy they had coaching us.

I come across players and parents from that team every now and again when I’m back home. Hell, Jim Sabean, Jesse’s dad, recently knocked on my parents’ door one afternoon while he was working on a power outage down the street. The memories from those summers always come up. They come up quickly, and always with a smile. – PAL 

Read Part I of the series here.

Read Part III of the series here

A couple notes here (as if I haven’t written enough): 

In the overview of this series, I make it a point to call out the importance of my having no prior affiliation with any of the players and the league in which I coached. Obviously, that was not the case with Tony and Jay. You might think I’m cutting it both ways here, but I do think there is something different in an older sibling coaching. What I know is true, and what I know the players and parents from that team will tell you is that Tony and Jay were there for all of the kids.

I also want to call out that Tony and I spent my entire youth in the cage and working on defensive catching drills. Jay would throw to me, and so would my other brother Matt. All of them were so generous with their time, because all I wanted to do was go up to that cage and hit. This series isn’t about the bond of brothers over baseball. Maybe that’s what I should write about next, but this series is about coaching teams, not just me. – PAL

Additional footnotes:

*Ricky told me later in the that he could catch. My response was he had two responsibilities on this team: throw cheddar and hit nukes (this came right after the LSU’s Todd Peterson made headlines by lying to his coach about hitting in high school in order to get an at bat in a key college game)

** Hank, who wasn’t at the first two games, did know how to keep a book and restored a shred of my faith in young baseball players.

 

Week of August 10, 2018


Why Baseball’s Shift Actually Hurts the Defense

We’ve written a few times about the increasing use of the defensive shift in baseball, as recently as last month. The concept of the shift is simple: For hitters who pull the ball a lot, put more defenders in that area to increase the likelihood of an out. It makes sense, and teams have gone to extremes to use it over the last few years. The story we featured last month involved hitters who face shifts explaining why they insist on trying to hit into/over the shift instead of just slapping a ball to the vacated spot on the opposite side of the infield. Essentially, it’s not as easy as it sounds and it takes the bat out of the hands out of your power hitters.

But, as the use of the shift has soared, so too have the statistics on the shift’s effect. Surprisingly, the shift is actually hurting the defense and increasing scoring, albeit slightly. While the shift does have the effect of reducing BABIP (batting average on balls in play) by roughly 18 points on the most shifted hitters, scoring actually increases when a shift is employed. Two articles I read this week illustrate this.

The math here is pretty interesting, as laid out by Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus:

I looked at all hitters who had at least 100 plate appearance without The Shift. If a batter had a .300 BABIP without The Shift, then in the 200 plate appearance that he got in front of The Shift–if The Shift was exactly as good a defense against batted balls as a standard two-right/two-left alignment–we would expect 60 hits from him. If The Shift is a better defense, we’d see fewer than 60. If it’s worse, we’d see more. Now, we know that because of small-sample-size weirdness, you can’t always trust the results you’d get from this sort of analysis on an individual level. But if we sum across the league, we can get a good idea on how The Shift is doing in the aggregate.

We see that the Full Shift “took away” 493 singles, but it somehow gave back 574 walks. It seems that the primary effect of The Shift is to change the way that a batter reaches first base, and it seems that he is standing on first base more often. You can’t throw him out if he gets to walk there.

So why is this happening? A summary from Sam Smith of ESPN:

Even though the shift is good at gobbling up ground balls and line drives, it has the secondary effect of making pitchers throw more pitches out of the strike zone. They don’t appear to be pitching to the shift — by throwing more pitches on the inner part of the plate, for instance — but merely pitching away from contact, nibbling more and throwing fewer fastballs. This all means more balls. More balls mean more walks, and they also mean more hitter’s counts, which means more doubles, more triples, more home runs and fewer strikeouts.

Home runs are also up against the full shift, as the hitter attempts to lift the ball up and over the shift more than he would against a normal defense. Carleton suggests that the issue for pitchers nibbling and issuing more walks is mental, and could be fixed – but until then, he suggests defenses utilize the shift only against the most extreme pull hitters

I find this issue most compelling because of the fact some people around the game, including MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, have suggested banning the shift in order to preserve offense. This always seemed like an overreaction to me. But the numbers show, at least right now, that the shift isn’t decreasing scoring, but increasing it. Just another example of why it’s good to collect data before reacting. -TOB

Source: MLB Myth-Buster: The Shift Isn’t Curbing Runs; It’s Creating Them”, Sam Smith, ESPN (08/07/2018); Baseball Therapy: How to Beat the Shift”, Russell A. Carleton, Baseball Prospectus (05/22/2018)

PAL: No rules banning positioning of players. The game will correct itself, because there’s a competitive advantage in the truth. I was listening to the Dan Patrick Show this morning while walking Max, and a guest pointed out that the split finger fastball wasn’t popularized until the 1980s. The game had existed for over 100 years, and then something different came about and revolutionized pitching. Guess what, it happened again in the 90s with the popularization of the cutter. The shift will be worked out. Either it will prove ineffective, or hitters will have to evolve. In the long-term, these are the cat-and-mouse games that make sports interesting.


Summer Internship: Cape Cod League Broadcaster

The Cape Cod Baseball League is a wood bat summer league where some of the best college ball players are invited to play. While to the crowd the games might be, as The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis describes it, “a chance to put a capper on a perfectly Rockwellian day”, The Cape League is a serious nesting area for future big leaguers. According to the CCBL, there were 306 Cape Cod alumni in the Majors in 2017. That’s an incredible 25% of all big leaguers after they expand to the 40-man roster.

It’s not just a training ground for players. Curtis digs into the broadcasting internships started by the Vegas Knights radio play-by-play announcer, Dan D’Uva. D’Uva started the internship program with a friend when he was in high school back in 2002, and he continues to oversee the internship program to this day.

There’s a lot to like about this story, but I especially enjoyed reading how serious D’Uva and this years interns, Josh Schaefer and Cooper Boardman, take it. This is about teaching a craft. D’Uva and the boys seem to really have a coach-player relationship. When D’Uva’s in town, they go over the game ‘tape’ just like players do, only their classroom is the pressbox. D’Uva asks which of the two pupils wants to go first, then they break down an inning of announcing from the night before. All of this is focused on kicking the habit of mimicry.

When you attend the Cape Cod finishing school for broadcasters, you don’t just submit to daily critiques. D’Uva is waging a war against baseball broadcasting cliché. Young play-by-play announcers’ heads are filled with clichés: “free pass,” “the bump,” “knock,” “new slab of lumber,” “campaign,” “Hi again, everybody,” “Farewell from …” They use these words and phrases because they think that’s how announcers are supposed to sound.

After calling the first inning against Yarmouth-Dennis, Cooper swiveled around in his chair. “I said ‘clubbed’ three times in that inning,” he announced to the press box. “I don’t know why. I don’t say that.”

D’Uva told me: “One thing I’ll say is, ‘Don’t be a pretender. You’re not acting the part of a broadcaster. You are a broadcaster.’”

Other useful notes D’Uva passes onto the boys include:

  • Don’t say ‘just in the nick of time’ when you can say ‘safe’ or ‘out’. Too many words. Your listener is thinking,‘Spit it out.’”
  • Add the detail of how close the play was AFTER you make the outcome clear.
  • When you say ‘big game in the east division’ and tell me Harwich is leading Orleans, I expect you to then tell me what place those two teams are in and how many points separate them from each other and from Chatham.
  • Tell me what happened.

It’s easy for us to sit back, watch games, and make a comment here or there about the defense or the hitter’s recent hot streak, but it is no doubt craft to call a sporting event. Much like the players, the Cape Cod League will be as good as it gets for a few years if Schaefer and Boardman take the next step in their journey to a big league stadium. They will be calling low minor league games in towns like Elizabethton, Tennessee and Pulaski, Virginia. These are a long ways away from the postcard experience that is the Cape Cod Baseball League. – PAL

Source: “The Cape Cod Finishing School for Broadcasters”, Bryan Curtis, The Ringer (8/6/18)

TOB: Good read, and this was a bit of a flashback for me: I was taught many of those same lessons in my first year law school legal writing class: don’t use the passive voice; be thorough but make your point succinctly. Anyways, their summer sounds like a friggin blast.


 The Most New York Times Sports Article Ever Written

Ever wonder where the phrase “out of left field” comes from? Ever wonder why it out of left field and not center field (seemingly furthest “out there”) or right field?

How about “hands down” or “back to square one”? Your lazy wait is over (I mean, you couldn’t looked these phrases up before now if you really wanted to know).

Here are my favorite three idiom explanations, ℅ Victor Mather:

Back to Square One

As with many terms, there is a colorful explanation of the origin and a more prosaic and realistic one, though both originate with competition.

First the colorful one: When soccer was first broadcast on the radio in the 1920s in Britain, there was concern that fans would not be able to visualize the field well. So the field was divided into numbered squares, with charts published in newspapers. That way the announcer could say, “The ball is passed into Square 4, then dribbled into Square 6,” and fans used to watching games in person would understand what was going on. Square 1 was the area with the goalie, so a pass back to Square 1 would be a restarting of an offensive move.

The Oxford English Dictionary deflates that theory though, pointing out that the term’s use really began in the 1950s, some decades after the soccer broadcasting scheme stopped. It suggests the term actually comes from board games like chutes and ladders, in which players can find themselves sent back to the start.

Hands Down

It sounds like it might be from a card game, but it actually comes from horse racing. When a jockey has a race in the bag, he can relax his hold on the reins and stop urging the horse so hard.

Out of Left Field

In 1961, William Safire devoted a Times column to the topic and put forth numerous ideas, including that left field was often deeper than right in early baseball stadiums, that weaker fielders were put in left and that left fielders tended to play farther back.

A more colorful explanation is that behind the left-field wall at the Cubs’ West Side Grounds, in use from 1893 to 1915, was a mental hospital whose patients could sometimes be heard making bizarre remarks during the game.

One other note of importance: don’t sleep Bill Shakespeare when it comes to sports idioms. He’s responsible for two that made the article – there’s the rub and Wild-goose chase. As you go into the weekend and are wondering what the hell to talk about at tonight’s happy hour or cocktail party, casually bring up that you read this delightful little article in The Times about sports phrases. Just make sure you do so with an old fashioned or Manhattan in your hand. Keep it classy. -PAL

Source: We Use Sports Terms All The Time. But Where Do They Come From?”, Victor Mather, The New York Times (8/6/18)


How One of the World’s Best Sherpas Ended Up Working Retail in Manhattan

This is an interesting look into the life of Serap Jangbu Sherpa, one of the world’s best sherpas, who scaled 11 of the 14 highest peaks in the world, including the most dangerous, K2, twice in one year. Serap retired a few years back, and now works unassumingly in a sporting goods store in Manhattan. The story looks at his young life, how he became a “Sherpa” (which is actually the name of the ethnic group), how and why he ended up working retail in Manhattan, still only aged 49, and tells of some of his most harrowing treks. For a taste, here’s one such story:

Just before midnight on May 11, with four other Sherpas and two Koreans, they started up the North Col from the third camp and arrived at the summit at 11 a.m. They remained on the summit for 90 minutes, then Park and Serap started into Nepal. They climbed down in alpine style, connected to each other only by a thin lightweight rope, seven millimeters thick and 50 meters long.

Serap led, even though he’d never come this way before; he’d only ever reached the summit from the north face. They were climbing blind at 29,000 feet. Coming down the Hillary Step at 12:30 p.m., one of Park’s crampons caught an old rope, and he slid to the edge of the exposed rock face. His headlamp flew off, dropping 8,000 feet to Camp Two.

Serap slammed down his ice axe and tied their rope to the handle. If Park fell, Serap would be pulled off with him.

Serap held the rope tightly; anything more than walking at that altitude felt impossible. After half an hour of wriggling to push himself up, an exhausted Park managed to grab onto a rock for support and with his other hand free his crampon.

A good read! -TOB

Source: The Sherpa of New York”, Ryan Goldberg, Deadspin (07/25/2018)


Imagine Being So Rich You Wouldn’t Miss a $150k Deposit

Tommy Fleetwood is a British Golfer. There’s another Tommy Fleetwood who also plays professional golf, and lives in Florida. British Tommy recently earned $150,000 in the British Open. But the European Tour accidentally sent the winnings to Florida Tommy, who had played in some European events in the past. Oops. Here’s a screenshot of Florida Tommy’s banking app.

Florida Tommy was honest, and alerted the proper people of the error (though it is a crime to spend money accidentally deposited into your account), and British Tommy got his winnings.

This is a bit of an unremarkable story that I normally wouldn’t bother writing about, except for this quote from British Tommy:

“I honestly didn’t know anything about it. I wouldn’t even know if I’d been paid or not because I don’t really look.

Oh, goddamnit. What a rich bastard. “Ohh, I’m sooooo rich that I wouldn’t notice not getting paid $150,000.” Screw you, pal. -TOB

Source: European Tour Sent Tommy Fleetwood’s $150K To The Wrong Tommy Fleetwood”, Patrick Redford, Deadspin (08/09/2018)

PAL: Send the money my way. I’ll notice it everyday.


Video of the Week: 121 MPH exit velocity. Holy crap.


PAL Song of the Week: The Avalanches – “Because I’m Me”


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