Baseball Without Fans is Weird, But It’s Worse Than That
Grant Brisbee went to the Giants’ home opener this week, and wrote about how deeply weird it was to attend a major league game with no fans. But what really got to him was not the lack of fans in and of itself, but the realization of the impact this has had on all the people who depend on sports to scratch out a living:
There are no cardboard cutouts for the workers who aren’t there, the vendors and the people behind the concession stands. When I was a vendor at Candlestick in 1998, I saw how hard they worked. Back then, there was a pre-game draft to see who would sell what, and the first pick went to the person with the most consecutive games. I was very much part-time, so I would be stuck with the bottled water during night games. They did not sell like hotcakes. They sold like ice-cold water at a Candlestick night game. But there were astounding, Cal Ripken-like streaks among the vendors, and they got the hot dogs for the night games and the malts for the day games. They earned them, and the commissions were sweet.
And while I’m sure this has changed over the last two decades, but you could absolutely make a living as a vendor. You just had to hustle. And do Stanford games when they fit into your schedule, and Cal games, and Earthquakes games. When some weird EPL exhibition came rolling through, they were there. I would lope through the stands half-heartedly, just to get to the eighth inning, where I could turn my stuff in and grab a seat for the final two innings. They would charge up and down the stairs, even during the Tuesday night games against the Expos, knowing that every bag of peanuts sold was a few cents in their pocket. They would be there every weekend, and when the Giants were off, they would be somewhere else, doing the same thing.
They’re devastated. Emotionally, financially. Devastated. Stadium workers will get a one-time grant, or a couple hundred bucks a month, and the unemployment will help if it keeps coming, which isn’t guaranteed. But it’s one thing to remember that fans were supposed to be in the seats instead of cardboard cutouts. It’s another to remember how many livelihoods depended on the sport. Still depend on the sport.
And things aren’t much better outside the stadium:
The local devastation is at its thickest as you cross the Lefty O’Doul bridge toward Lot A. There are no bacon-wrapped hot dogs that curl up in a cloud like a cartoon finger underneath your nose. There used to be a line of them. There used to be a guy who drummed on buckets for cash, and he would always draw a crowd. There would be other musicians and street performers. Across the bridge would be the people selling bootleg apparel, and they wouldn’t be doing it, night after night, in the cold, if it wasn’t helping them navigate life in some capacity. And seeing as they don’t sell a Misfits/Giants mashup shirt inside, I was thrilled to have them. But there’s no foot traffic, so they aren’t there.
This experience was understandably troubling. Despite getting texts from friends and family telling him how lucky he was to see a game in person, he wasn’t so sure:
I’ll go again this year, COVID-willing. But right now, I’m kind of looking forward to pushing a button, listening to some fake crowds, studying a few sliders, then pushing the button to turn it off, while thinking about nothing but the snacks in my well-stocked fridge. I can do this because I’m spoiled. I don’t need to be reminded that baseball exists in the real world, because I’ve always lived in a fantasy world, even in the Before Times, writing about sportsball instead of getting a job.
But baseball does exist in the real world, and that place right now? Kind of a mess. The baseball is normal, but the devastation is not.
Source: “Giants Baseball is the Same, For Better or For Worse; Everything Else is Not,” Grant Brisbee, The Athletic (07/29/2020)
PAL: Excellent stuff from Brisbee. Another portion that really landed:
There was baseball played, and there wasn’t much missing in the actual game. It was like a single spire in the middle of a limitless canyon, though. The games on TV, with the piped-in noise and the humanoid shapes, helped me forget for three hours at a time this week. The live game did the same, but only while it was going on. It’s everything from before and after the game that made me prefer the TV experience.
The other night, Natalie and I watched The Weight of Gold, the HBO doc about olympic athletes and their mental health struggles after the olympics are over and everything their lives have been built around is removed. And while the doc was good-not-great, it was very clear the timing of the release was geared towards playing just before the summer games, which of course reminded me that we should be sharing the best of the best from the olympics and paralympics right about this time.
So the olympics were on my mind when I came across this exceptionally-written story about Milorad Cavic. Name sound familiar, but can’t quite place it?
He’s the guy who Michael Phelps beat by .01 of a second in the 100M butterfly in Beijing. It was Phelps’ seventh of the eight golds he would end up winning in those games, surpassing Mark Spitz record and solidifying his place as one the absolute greatest U.S. Olympic athletes of all time (but watch out for Simone Biles).
This is a story about that guy. The Cal guy with dual citizenship in Serbia and the U.S.. The guy that went out fast, knowing the race would come down to whether or not he could hold off a late Phelps kick. The guy who may have touched the wall first (just not hard enough), and the guy Phelps hasn’t spoken to since. He’s treated as a hero in Serbia. He lived there for a bit after Beijing. Now he’s a swim coach in Washington, and he’ trying to reconcile with that one one-hundredth of second – to be recognized for the race he swam – for being in that moment with Phelps – while not letting that one one-hundredth define him, because he was hardly more than a kid then, and that can’t be what his life is about.
This John Gonzalez story is one of my favorites from the year so far. Please read it. Some highlights for me:
On the review of the finish, and the main reason for the lingering conspiracy about the results. After the race, the Serbian coach and Serbia’s chief of mission (odd title, I know) went to the control room:
Schubert figured there would be an immediate protest launched by the Serbian side challenging the results. Mike Bottom assumed the same thing. He coached Cavic at Cal, and he was in attendance as a coach for the Croatian team. Bottom immediately sought out Branislav Jevtic, Serbia’s chief of mission for the Olympics. “I had to grab hold of [him] and basically put him against the wall and say, ‘You have to protest this,’” said Bottom, now the head coach at the University of Michigan.
That’s what happened. Initially. In the control room at the Beijing Olympics, officials monitored races and had the capacity to roll back footage in the event of disputed results. That process was supervised by Omega, the official timer of the games—and a longtime sponsor of Michael Phelps.
There are differing accounts about what happened next. Schubert, Bottom, and Cavic all agree that Schubert marched into the control room, where Schubert said Omega refused to show anyone the footage and that officials from the company maintained the system operated correctly. Good enough for Schubert, who said he left—and left Bottom behind in the room.
“Bullshit,” Bottom said when I relayed Schubert’s recollection, insisting he was never inside the control room. “That’s bullshit. That’s total bullshit. That’s absolutely bullshit. I was protesting. But they were not letting me in that room. They did not let me in that room. Only Schubert went to see it. Now, there might have been other people in there, but I sure as hell wasn’t in there. If I had been in there, I wouldn’t have the feelings I have today. I would have seen the actual finish from the Omega cameras, which no one, even the next day, got to see.”
That last part became a publicity problem that fueled the ensuing controversy. Omega and FINA, the governing body of international swimming, refused to release the footage. At first, Omega told The New York Times it would provide footage to journalists, only to reverse course and claim “FINA decided not to release any timekeeping images to the media.” According to the Times, a reporter from the International Herald Tribune tracked down Cornel Marculescu, then FINA’s executive director. Marculescu was defiant and declared that Phelps was “the winner no doubt” and stated, incredibly and on the record, “Even if you could see the pictures, I don’t know how you could use them.”
And later, more on the touchpads:
The real culprit here, the cause of all this controversy as far as Cavic and Bottom are concerned, was the Omega timing system itself. It is also the official system of the NCAA and FINA and has a near stranglehold on global competitive swimming—which drives Bottom mad because he believes there are better timing pads on the market. He mapped out the mechanics—the system, which he called “the worst pads being made right now,” are activated when the swimmer touches the plastic exterior, sending a signal to a metal plate that stops the clock—but all you really need to know is that a certain amount of force is required to trigger the timer. According to Omega’s press booklet, “just 1.5-2.5 kg is enough to immediately stop the clock.” That works out to 3.3 to 5.5 pounds of pressure. In theory, it is possible that Cavic touched the pad first, but Phelps touched it harder when he threw in a half-chop stroke at the very end while Cavic glided into the wall. Schubert subscribed to that notion; he said, “We see light touches all the time.” Meanwhile, Bottom—who wanted it noted that there are “no sour grapes” and called Phelps “a friend of mine”—questioned whether there was an issue with that specific timer in that specific lane at those specific games.
Bottom had a good reason to remain curious. That very next day in 2008, in the very same lane 4 in which Cavic had glided to the wall, American Dara Torres placed second in the 50-meter freestyle. She also lost by one one-hundredth of a second. Torres won 12 Olympic medals over the course of five games from 1984 to 2008. It was the slimmest margin she had ever lost by in a career that spanned more than three decades.
The day before her race, Torres watched Cavic and Phelps and couldn’t believe the result. She kept thinking to herself that it had to be “the worst feeling in the world to lose that way.” She was right. For years, she said she was “consumed” by it and what she could have done differently. Where Cavic still thinks about picking up his head and gliding into the wall, Torres obsesses over whether she had touched the wall hard enough. In the final race she ever swam before retiring, the anchor leg of the 4×100 meter freestyle relay in Beijing, she made sure to hit the wall as hard as possible—and subsequently bent back her thumb, tearing a ligament. She had surgery after returning to the States.
But more than all of this controversy, I was drawn to what seems to bother Cavic the most: not being acknowledged by the man who was .01 faster than he was on that day. More than a gold medal, that’s what seems to weigh heaviest on him, that’s what has his thoughts seem to orbit when it comes to that race and what’s taken place thereafter:
“People ask me, what kind of guy is he? I have no idea what kind of guy he is,” Cavic said. “You have no clue who that is. You can call it a rivalry, but dammit, other rivalries they can talk. They can shoot the shit. We don’t need to talk about the race. I just want to know the person that, until the rest of my life, I’m going to be pegged to.”
Cavic yearns “for human connection.” The way he explained it, he and Phelps went on a journey together, one only the two of them truly understand. Being denied that connection has deeply frustrated Cavic. He still wonders “why did this guy never want to talk to me?” During one of our interviews, he openly daydreamed about calling Phelps. Maybe he’d tease Phelps and say, “I won that fucking race,” and maybe Phelps would bust his balls and say, “Nah, I got you.” Cavic called Phelps “the GOAT” and “the father of gods” and “one badass motherfucker.” For better or worse, and whether they liked it or not, they crossed paths in a meaningful way. Cavic acknowledged all of it, but he freely admitted he longs to have that same professional courtesy returned. He told me “that’s essentially what the greatest want”—to be “acknowledged by their peers.” All these years, Cavic has waited for a nod that never came, one to signal “I was a worthy adversary and that I just was as much a part of his story as he was a part of mine.”
“I can’t say why it bothers me,” Cavic said. It sounded to me like he just had.
A fantastic read. – PAL
Source: “Hitting The Wall”, John Gonzalez, The Ringer (07/29/20)
Has The Designated Hitter Finally Prevailed?
This MLB season promises to be crazy for any number of reasons, but one small detail I haven’t spent much time thinking about until now is how the NL will employ the designated hitter for all games this year. A temporary rule to lighten the load on pitchers and to bring some form of uniformity to schedules with an even higher portion interleague play than usual.
Next year, we’ll get back to normal, right? Not so fast. As Claire McNear outlines in her story for The Ringer, the DH was meant to be a trial in the American League back in the day.
It is, in theory, a temporary change. But given that the MLB players’ association pitched the introduction of the universal DH just last year, and that owners at the very least seemed open to negotiating, it’s entirely possible that the DH is here to stay in the NL; an early 2020 proposal by the MLBPA that was ultimately not adopted also included it in 2021. In the AL, too, the adoption was initially meant to be temporary, beginning with a three-year trial period. But after just one season, AL owners were so delighted by the buzz that the DH created that they made the change permanent.
I grew up on DH baseball, and I’ve watched the Giants play NL ball for the last 15 years. The DH makes the game less interesting, and any rationale advocating for its inclusion falls short on the only part I care about: watching the game in its most interesting form. Adding the DH to the NL brings us one step further down a dark road that has made home run highlights bland, hit-and-runs obscure, starting pitchers grinding out a seventh inning unheard of, and strikeouts nothing to be ashamed of. We need more approaches and interpretations to the game, not less. – PAL
Source: “A Brief History of the Arguments About the Designated Hitter”, Claire McNear, The Ringer (07/22/2020)
Gabe Kapler’s Decision to Kneel During the Anthem is Not an Empty Gesture
As you may recall, after Gabe Kapler was hired in December he gave an interview that had me ALL over the place. He said some REALLY vapid sounding things, but then said some things that had me very encouraged. Six games into this season, I’m pleased with him as a manager, though the same size is small. But more than that I am happy that he’s the leader of my favorite team.
Last week, Kapler became the first coach of any major sport to kneel during the national anthem in support of the BLM movement. That week, Kapler posted a very powerful message on Twitter, that suggested to me his decision to kneel was not just lip service.
And in the days since, I read this very interesting story about Kapler’s parents, Judy and Michael. Both were very involved in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement:
“And I developed, at a very young age, very, very strong feelings about how unfair our society was,’’ Judy said. “I don’t think that the phrase ‘systemic racism’ existed at that time, but it was very clear that everything was not equal.”
So, Judy joined the fight. She got a job with the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, which coordinated anti-war parades. That’s where she met Michael, idealistic and freshly arrived from Los Angeles, and the two enjoyed a courtship with a distinctly ’60s bent.
“We went to demonstrations. We connected,’’ said Judy, who spoke for the two of them in this interview. “And don’t forget, it was the late ’60s. The women’s movement was happening, and everything was happening. Stokely Carmichael was happening. Malcolm X was happening. The Black Panthers were happening.
“So there was a lot of peaceful and non-peaceful stuff going on. I aligned myself, as did Michael, with peaceful protests and the right to stand up for things we thought were important and valid.”
As a result, Judy bore witness to some of the biggest events of a tumultuous decade.
There was King’s landmark speech.
“It was amazing. It was beyond amazing,’’ she said. “It was moving and it was everything you probably feel when you hear it now. … It was just being there and being amongst the hundreds of thousands of people who really were understanding the terrible inequality that existed in the country and how people had to come together to make a difference.”
There was the March on Washington to end the Vietnam War in 1965.
“I organized all the transportation that went from New York to Washington,’’ Judy said. “I was in charge of all the buses and all the trains and all the cars. That was my job. Thousands and thousands and thousands (of people) … I was young and had a lot of energy.”
There was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where thousands of protestors rallied against the Vietnam War and the political status quo.
“What I was doing there, interestingly enough, was working for the National Lawyers Guild, volunteering,’’ Judy said. “I was bailing people out of jail. The mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, was arresting them and beating on them. And I was sitting in a courtroom and bailing them out of jail.”
That is really cool. And as a parent there are certainly some lessons to be learned from Judy and Michael:
In a way, this is what his parents wanted, far more so than raising a professional athlete. Michael used to teach his youngest boy to question authority, to never follow blindly. The lessons were hardly subtle. When Gabe was in elementary school, his father guided him through the pledge of allegiance, asking him to scrutinize every word, especially the final six: “… with liberty and justice for all.” Was that really true?
“And this is how it all ended,” Judy Kapler said by phone on Saturday. “With Gabe really deciding he had an opportunity to make a difference. That’s what he did and I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Me neither. -TOB
Source: “How His Parents’ 1960s Protesting Shaped Gabe Kapler’s Decision to Kneel,” Daniel Brown, The Athletic (07/20/2020)
Re-Examining My Support of the Promotion/Relegation System
For years, I thought the English soccer league’s promotion/relegation system was incredible. The bottom few teams of each league get sent down each season to the next-tier league, and the top few teams of each league move up. In theory, it keeps teams from tanking, and gives smaller teams a dream to dream on.
But then I watched the first two seasons of Sunderland Till I Die, an excellent Netflix series that provided a behind the scenes look at Sunderland Football Club in the season after their relegation from the Premier League (England’s top league) to the Championship (the second league). The demotion was so devastating – affecting the players, the coaches, the trainers, and even non-football side employees like cafeteria workers and salespeople. It even devastated the town’s proud fanbase. The city was already going through a Detroit-like, decades long recession (its heyday as a ship-making hotspot had long since passed). Making matters worse, in the season covered by Season 1, Sunderland was relegated again. Just one year removed from the Premier league, the storied club would now be playing in League One (England’s third league; confusing, I know).
And I realized: relegation is not just an interesting thing for fans to follow. It has severe effects on the club and the surrounding economy, as laid out by this article in the Athletic. Relegation costs a team an estimated $130 million. If you’ve been in the EPL for a while and get sent down, it’s a major shock to the system. One executive likened it to “trying to catch a falling knife.” The money dries up and as you can imagine major layoffs ensue. Without the money to pay coaches and scouts, you can’t find new players. Forget about paying for better players. A vicious downward spiral ensues. In one extreme case, Bradford Football Club found itself in the fourth division just six years after being relegated out of the Premier League in 2001. They have never recovered, though did manage to get back to League One (remember, the third tier).
So, while relegation/promotion seems fun for fans, that doesn’t seem to be worth enough to overcome the wide-ranging negative effects of the yo-yoing of the teams on the fringes.
“‘Like Trying to Catch a Falling Knife’: The Fallout of Premier League Relegation,” Daniel Taylor and more, The Athletic (07/25/2020)
The Rarest of Baseball Plays
Baseball’s back! Kinda. I mean, it’s nice to have the games on. And there’s something disturbingly comforting to shaking my head at the Giants pooping one down its leg against the Dodgers. I’m also very much looking forward to posting stories about new sporting events, but here’s a history pull from Phil Miller.
The subheading from Miller’s Star Tribune says it all: “It hadn’t been done before the Twins did it July 17, 1990, and it hasn’t happened since.”
The ‘it’ refers to the Twins turning two triple plays in one game. It hadn’t happened in the more than 134,000 MLB games prior, and it hasn’t happened in the roughly 67,000 games since. There aren’t many singular occurrences in a game with the longevity baseball celebrates.
As Miller points out, what’s even more odd is how ho-hum both triple plays are. In both cases, Gaetti get’s high hop to his right at 3B, bringing him to third base pretty much in stride, then throws to 2B for the quick turn to 1B. Hell, the runners are even moving on the pitch in the second triple play, and it’s not even close at any base:
What’s most charming about this story is our guy, Kent Hrbek. Underrated mullet in the 80s. The ultimate air conditioner commercial guy in Minnesota, is just the best. On the triple plays, Hrbek had this to say: “It’s a cool memory, but you don’t hear about it much anymore. It had to be the Twins, who never get any praise anyway. If the Yankees had done it, they’d have it on TV every day.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Also I would love to hear any other singular events in baseball. Send them our way! – PAL
Source: “Kent Hrbek Savors a 30-year-old Memory: Two Triple Plays in a Game”, Phil Miller, Star Tribune (07/17/2020)
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