Week of April 9, 2021

Lee Elder breaking barriers at Augusta in 1975…and making it look good. His caddie should’ve been an extra in Caddyshack, FWIW.

A Modest Proposal: The Gonzaga Tax

On Monday night, Gonzaga got absolutely sonned by Baylor in the National Championship game. It came as absolutely no shock to me. In a group text before the game, the question was posed: “Who ya got?” After a flurry of “Gonzaga” responses, I was the lone “Baylor” response. At halftime, with Baylor up 10, I said, “This was too easy. Gonzaga plays a shit schedule every year.” The game summed up well by this:

Or this:

And it’s true. I will never take them seriously as a true basketball power. They get to fatten up all season on the backs of schools like Portland, San Diego, Pacific, Santa Clara, Pepperdine, and San Francisco. Folks, those are not tough games. Gonzaga gets to coast through the regular season, resting players if necessary, and show up fresh for the tournament. They were 31-0 this year, and to their credit they did play two or three tougher teams in the pre-conference season. But they still get to get healthy and win easy games for three months. 31-0 is nice…but when it includes 17-0 in the WCC, there’s not a lot you can glean from that. In fact, Gonzaga is 92-3 over the last five seasons in conference (and 182-13 over the last ten seasons in conference). It’s just like Boise State in its heyday under Chris Peterson – they played a bunch of cream puffs and then had one tough game all year, for which they were supremely healthy and amped up, and then celebrated when they beat a major conference team that lost two or three times in its own conference. 

And yet Gonzaga has built up a reputation on these inflated records. After first crashing the scene as a Cinderella in 1999, they’ve been considered a national power for at least 15 years. And with that cream puff schedule, they are almost always over-seeded, thus giving them an easier road through the tournament. And yet, come tournament time, they always crash and burn. In the last twenty tournaments, they have gotten by the Sweet 16 just 4 times. For most programs this would be good – but for a program who gets seeded like Gonzaga does, it’s not.

Put Gonzaga in the Pac-12 and see what happens to that record. I’m not saying they wouldn’t be upper half. They would probably be upper third most years. But they aren’t going 92-3. That UCLA team that outplayed Gonzaga over the weekend lost seven conference games this season, including its last four. Beginning the day after Christmas, Gonzaga played one team (BYU) that would not have finished dead last in the Pac-12 this year. 

Thus, my proposal: until Gonzaga moves to a stronger conference, they should have a seed tax – whatever seed the tournament committee wants to place them at, drop them three spots. Gonzaga will then be appropriately seeded. -TOB


Nine Innings with Cousin Wolf

An old buddy of mine has pulled off quite a feat. Matt Halverson, a musician who records under the name Cousin Wolf, had a really good idea a decade ago. Nine songs, each about a major league baseball player. 

I told you it was a good idea. But here’s the thing – not a lot of people care about a good idea. As just an idea, Nine Innings, is a fun topic to run through over a bunch of beers while watching an entire ballgame at a bar—What would the Ken Griffey Jr song be? What about Kerry Wood, or – hey how about a Vlad & Vlad Jr song?

And that’s where an idea like this almost always ends: last call. To make it more than a good idea, someone needs to write the damn songs. And guess what? They have to sound good, and maybe even say something. I can promise you that is a challenge. No matter the ambition or intent, the songs have to be good.

Excellent music video idea.

Halvy’s songs are good. Good – what the hell does that mean? To me, a good song has something that brings me back to listen. By that measure, the two songs Cousin Wolf has released so far – “Kevin Elster” and “Roger Maris” are good, and a yet-to-be released “Dave Dravecky” is real good. Not only that, but Halvy wrote excellent essays about the story behind the songs. 

On “Kevin Elster”, he writes:

In the sixth game of the 1992 season, Elster hurt his shoulder, and he missed the rest of the year and all of the next. He played a handful of games with a few different teams in 1994 and ’95, and suddenly, it was 1996. Baseball was on a steroid-fueled trajectory toward unheard-of power numbers, and Elster hadn’t had a starting job in years. So, he signed with Texas — in part because his brother lobbied on his behalf — where he planned to compete to be the backup shortstop. 

Now, in those days, the Texas Rangers clubhouse was also one of the game’s steroid hubs. Ruben Sierra in the early ’90s was one of the first notable and obvious users, and that carried right through to steroid godfather Jose Canseco and busted teammates like Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers, and eventually Alex Rodriguez.

In fact, Canseco wrote in his tell-all book “Juiced” that he introduced Pudge, Gonzalez and other Rangers players to steroids between 1992 and ’94.

So, back to Elster. In 1996, when young Benji Gil got hurt during spring training, Elster became the starting shortstop and had by far the best season of his career at age 31, hitting .252 with 24 homers and 99 RBI.

He parlayed that into a million-dollar free-agent deal with Pittsburgh the next offseason, and though he played parts of three more big league seasons, he never again came close to the success of that magical ’96 campaign.

One of the crazy parts about that era of baseball is that we just don’t really know who did what — or what impact it had. But I know for myself, as a kid shortstop in the ’90s who just loved playing baseball, that if I’d been given Elster’s option to either take the same juice everyone else was taking and enjoy a few more years in the game, or take the high-road home, who’s to say what I would have done? And with all the focus on the stars who broke records and shattered fans’ innocence, would anybody even care after all these years what Elster did or didn’t do during that 1996 season?

On “Roger Maris”, Halvy has this to say about his fellow Fargo, ND native:

Maris had worked for most of his life to become a good baseball player, and in 1961, after a few really excellent seasons, things came together in ways no one had seen coming. In some ways, he gotten better than he’d ever intended.

And his reward for happening to become exceptional? To be told that he should be somebody else. To play in front of too many who saw him only as not a legend, as not immortal, as not The Babe or The Mick or the Yankee Clipper.

Original artwork from Zach Scheet, Halvy’s neighbor growing up.

You read those two excerpts, and you realize that Nine Innings isn’t just a good idea; it’s an idea in the hands of someone who can actually make the idea worth your time. Halvy can’t help but see baseball as a way into all those big questions we ask ourselves. That sure resonates with me. 

I can only call him Matt Halverson ‘Halvy’ because that’s what I called him back in college. We played ball together, drank some beers, and I too often lost at caps to him, Sammy, Lou, and Timmy. High Life returnables. 

Halvy and I spoke Wednesday. The intent was to discuss the project in full, but we haven’t talked for many years, so we caught up, with baseball and this project mixing in when it suited us.  

Before I share some of my favorite exchanges, please go to https://www.cousinwolf.com/music/nine-innings and check out Halvy’s project in full. His writing is every bit as good as the songs, and he’s got seven more songs to release! – PAL 

Source: Nine Innings”, Cousin Wolf

Excepts from the old friends catching up

On my one ‘issue’ with the project:

PAL: I have to ask you, as a Twins fan, you’ve three guys on your list that played for the Yankees. What the fuck, dude?

MH: I honestly that at the end had the same thought. And I’m like, no Twins. Three Yankees seems like such a cliche in and of itself. I honestly didn’t know who Carl Mays had played for when I was already like midway through writing about him. I just knew his name as having the guy who killed Ray Chapman with a pitch. And so that one was a little bit like, ah shit, another Yankee, but like Maris and Gehrig, I kind of wanted to write about from the beginning. 

On Lou Gehrig: 

PAL: I was listening to “Lou Gehrig”. We are older than Lou Gehrig was when he died. He had a 17-year career and died. He was younger than us. That actually caught me.

MH: And the fact that he, like, died so publicly, like to me that was what that one was really striking, too, is he gets this disease that’s going to take apart his body in a very short time. That’s one hundred percent going to happen. And there’s no hope. And he still has to be this legend. He doesn’t just get to be a man who’s, like, terrified and dying in a hurry and all this stuff he’s got to let go out and, you know, be the Iron Horse and be Lou Gehrig and be a myth, be a legend until he dies. And to do it all.

How baseball’s place has changed roles: 

MH: I’ve always loved baseball, but like five years ago, I just realized that I was still in a couple of fantasy baseball leagues that were just a job for me that I didn’t want anymore, or it’s like it would feel so good to not have to check that stupid thing every day, you know what I mean?

For one thing, my oldest is 12 and he’s my stepson technically. And we’ve been playing catch for ten years now. And it’s been like one of the great joys of my life to connect with them in that way and to be like coaching them and playing so much baseball. 

I was reading this Samurai book, and it talked about this idea of like through one thing, knowing thousand things. You know, like you can’t know everything about everything, but like if you work really (hard), you can know everything.

And it was I kind of realized it like it didn’t matter what I had bought into as a kid. I had done that. I poured myself into something. And I really like giving baseball all I had and taking it as far as I could at that time and been steady with it for, you know, forever. And it was these things that I almost thought of myself as not being able to do, you know, to be that persistent with something, to be that steady with something. 

On the idea of sidekicks (Roger Maris, and Kent Hrbek…of course): 

MH: With like Roger Maris, I knew what I was writing the whole time, and so I wanted to create a beginning of like ‘what the fuck’s going on?’ and then a middle of like (Maris…and Halvy) finding my way to finding myself and the resolve to do this and then a triumphant ending.

MH: Yeah I feel like Hrbek to me always seemed like Puckett’s sidekick all those years, you know, and like underappreciated. My dad was always talking about how the crime that Don Mattingly won all those gold gloves and Hrbek never got one. 

PAL: I feel like that was a very common stance among midwestern fathers in the 80s and 90s.

MH:  I discovered in some baseball reference rabbit hole that Hrbek finished second in MVP voting to Willie Hernandez, the reliever. In like eighty four, Willie Hernandez, the Tigers reliever, won Cy Young and MVP in the same year. But I did not realize that Hrbek had his best season and finished second in MVP voting. If they don’t the MVP  to some chump reliever,  how differently is Hrbek’s career remembered? It seemed like his third full season. He’s an MVP that sets him on just like in many people’s minds, a different trajectory from there.

PAL: Willie Hernandez? What the hell? A reliever who had a nine and three record with a one nine era and thirty saves won the Cy Young and AL MVP?


Ohtani Is Here, Again

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ll recall how excited I was for the arrival of Shohei Ohtani, the slugger/pitcher, when he arrived to MLB a few years ago. Early on, we saw flashes of what he can do – big dingers at the plate and electric stuff on the mound. But injuries derailed things, including Tommy John surgery. After 2019, there were rumblings the Angels might ask him to choose – hitting or pitching.

But 2021 is a new year and Ohtani is back. New manager Joe Maddon is reportedly encouraging Ohtani to not only pitch and hit, but to try to play every day, or close to it. In his first start on the mound and it was fun as hell. In the top of the first, he threw a fastball 101 mph. In the bottom of the first, he hit a 451-foot bomb, with an exit velocity of 115 mph.

And that seems like the Ohtani promise, finally fulfilled. Hopefully, this time, he stays healthy. -TOB
Source: Let Us Have Ohtani,” Tom Ley, Defector (04/05/2021)


This is Goofy

White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez got hurt just before the season began and will likely miss the whole season. Apparently he is beloved by teammates because they acted like he died. They hung his jersey in the dugout and everything.

I mean, what the heck? The dude tore his pec – he’s not dying! Here’s Defector’s Chris Thompson hilariously roasting the whole hilarious scene:

The Chicago White Sox kicked off their season Thursday night without departed outfielder Eloy Jimenez, who at the tender age of just 24 years old was suddenly ripped from our world by a God whose purposes are never more mysterious than when the good are cruelly cut down in the prime of life. Coming off a promising sophomore season and primed for a bright future, Jimenez must now lift his White Sox teammates in spirit and memory, from a place beyond the grave. But Opening Day would not be complete—would not be right—without a tribute to this fallen teammate, and so the White Sox took some time during pregame ceremonies to touchingly memorialize their lost brother-in-arms.

First baseman* José Abreu carried a Jimenez jersey lovingly signed by all his teammates out onto the field for player introductions, along with a pair of Jimenez’s batting gloves. I just know that Jimenez was looking down on this moment from a better place, and appreciated this truly moving ceremony. Please, excuse yourself from whatever you are doing so that you may process the deep emotions in private.

LOL. -TOB

Source: White Sox Send Eloy Jimenez To The Great Baseball Diamond In The Sky,” Chris Thompson, Defector (04/02/2021)


Video of the Week:

We showed you the highlight last week, but now you get it with that Jomboy commentary.

Tweets of the Week:

Song of the Week: Parcels – “Tieduprightnow”

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All right, I’ll tell you what. You look like nice people. I’m going to help you out. You want a beautiful name? Soda…All names sound strange the first time you hear ’em. What, you’re telling me people loved the name Blanche the first time they heard it?

-George Costanza

The Pocket

My year of running through a pandemic.

The pocket. A hell of a lot of words have been strung together in attempts to explain why people choose to run long distances. Before the pandemic, my explanation had a word count of two: the pocket. 

The phrase comes from music. When the members of a band, especially the rhythm section, lock into the groove perfectly, they call it being “in the pocket”. It goes beyond playing at the same tempo; each beat has a shape. 100 beats per minute can feel staccato, with the band attacking right on the first edge of the beat, or a band can slide into the very last nook at the back of the beat. Listen to pretty much any D’Angelo song to hear a band playing on the back of a beat, and think of “Imperial Death March” from Star Wars to hear a rigid attack. The pocket is a feel, created by all players adding their element at the exact right time and emphasis.

For years, runs were about finding the pocket with my breath and footstrikes. It wasn’t as simple as finding the same mile pace: some days I found the pocket at a 07:12 pace, and other days I’d find it on the other side of 07:45. I’d consider it a good run when got into the pocket within a mile or two. I breathed in through the nose for three strides, then out through a loose jaw for three more. A heart rate broken into triplets.

IN-THROUGH-NOSE

OUT-THROUGH-JAW

IN-THROUGH-NOSE

OUT-THROUGH-JAW

IN-THROUGH-NOSE

OUT-THROUGH-JAW

Once I’d find it, few thoughts passed through my mind. The pocket was meditation, and I could run for hours in it. When I finished, my mind was power-washed. My body: elastic, spent. More than a P.R. or adding a marathon to the count, I ran for the pocket. 

Like everything, the pocket changed last March. 

In the early months, I tried to leave the pandemic at home, but I ran past evidence of it everywhere. Senior hours and lines forming outside Piedmont Grocery. Homemade “wear a mask” and “stay home” signs taped to bay windows of spacious homes I dreamed of affording. I’d run down center of an empty Grand Ave.—a main drag that leads to a San Francisco-bound freeway entrance at 7:30 AM on a weekday. It wasn’t long before the feigns had medical masks hanging from their ears. 

Fear came with me on a lot of those runs. I tried to find the pocket with it, to figure out where it could fit in with my breath and footstrikes, but fear made me pull up and stop on two occasions.

In normal times, stopping in the middle of a run was a no-go. The reason for stopping didn’t matter—an untied shoe, forgetting to silence my phone, even a turned ankle—all of them messed up the rhythm. To stop out of urgency, to make a call that couldn’t wait until I finished, was something I’d never experienced. 

The first time I stopped on the northwest side of Lake Merritt by rowing docks and the Lake Chalet restaurant. The NBA had just suspended its season. As odd as it may sound to future generations, a sports league shutting down sticks out as the first major decision to put the world on hold. Many shutdowns would come soon after, and on that morning on The Daily podcast a journalist was discussing when the borders would closed to international travel. My brother-in-law was in London at the time, on his way to a backcountry ski trip in the Swiss Alps (of course he was: all of his trips are essentially bringing to life the Instagram photos from outdoor apparel companies). 

I called my father-in-law. I told him Jack needed to find a flight home, that day if possible. I’ve recently become marginally comfortable giving my father-in-law feedback on his golf swing, so to call Don and say his son needed to get back stateside was beyond the range of our communication in March, 2020. Yet, to wait the four miles until the run was done felt like a wasting of very important minutes.

I stopped in front of the lamp further back to make the call to Don.

Don agreed, and so did Jack once he saw future flights from the U.S. to the U.K. getting cancelled on dates before his scheduled return flight. He bought a one-way ticket on one of the last commercial flights back to the states, having never made it to Switzerland. Good fortune, as it turned out: they checked passports at the gate to see if people had been outside of the U.K. before letting passengers board. Switzerland would’ve presented an issue. It would be months before commercial flights from the U.K. came into the states. 

Not long after, I stopped a run near the top of the hill on the way to Lake Temescal. The only thing worse than stopping on a run is stopping in the middle of a climb. 

I can’t remember if I called my brother, Tony, or if he called me, but we talked about Mom and Dad. We spoke of the nightmare scenario so many would experience: Mom or Dad getting infected and dying alone in a hospital. We discussed telling them they had to stay home. Although nearly 40, I was (and am) very much getting used to telling my parents what’s in their best interest, although they may not sense my hesitancy.  

I could hear Tony turning over the idea in the silence between my heavy breaths. Even that early, my head was always on a swivel when on runs, ready to pull the Buff over my nose and mouth if I saw someone approaching. No decision was made. It wasn’t Tony’s to make, but there’s still an authority coming from the oldest of the six of us. Least I felt it. We hung up.

I was so far from Minnesota at that moment. I’d felt far from home before, but there on the hill the feeling didn’t come from a distance or homesickness. I was far from home in the sense that I didn’t know when I’d be back. Would I be allowed to go home? Would interstates set up barriers at state borders? It sounds crazy, but at that point last spring Spain and Italy weren’t letting people leave their homes except for groceries. 

I returned to the climb, but it took an extra moment to get the legs chugging again.

Tony called back a half mile later, just past the parking lot at the top of the hill. Yep, he was going to text the rest of the family. It was too much of a risk with Mom’s history of pneumonia and aspiration issues. Delivering food for Meals on Wheels, going to the grocery store, church, bookclub— all of it had to pause until we had an idea of what the hell was going on. 

From that moment until a few weeks ago when my parents were vaccinated, the anxiety of the nightmare kept churning. 

The collective unknown that came with the pandemic took months to accept. I’d check the stats every morning as if they were box scores: positive test rates, hospitalization numbers, deaths. I’d search for any indication that a turn in the right direction was coming. 

When there wasn’t proof, I’d cling to blind faith that things would get better.  Maybe there was something to warm weather helping tamp down the spread, or that the virus would just fizzle out, or the geniuses would figure out a simple treatment that would get us back to normal in a few months. We knew so little (remember when we were scrubbing down out groceries and weren’t super eager to pump gas without a glove?). The collective unknown is the component of the last year I will try and fail to capture for our future kids. 

Now, when I run those routes and stride over those hidden, autobiographical markers, I think of when I stopped.


As spring led into summer, more and more runs were open-ended. An appreciation for the enormity of the pandemic settled. There was nowhere to go, not much to do, and an end wasn’t in sight. Those were the facts. 

So I ran with no route in mind. I looped back in the direction of home when I had enough. Finishing was a release, but it came with a malaise when my stride switched from running to walking.

The pocket became a place to formulate, not to meditate. I bungled the peculiar rhythms of new thoughts and disagreements. Fitting them into the triplet of breaths and footstrikes was a struggle.

I would false start on rebuttals for a brother. I’d privately consider if a sister was right, and I was angered when I was sure she wasn’t. I’d stew over my parents letting it slip that they were still delivering Meal on Wheels. I get pissed at myself for avoiding a disagreement over the phone in favor of a comfortable conversation molded around empty pleasantry. I’d fester at what I assumed they thought about my take on the pandemic, and I’d be quick to note the times they didn’t ask. I’d wonder if we were in a Bay Area bubble of overreaction, and then I’d remember what the infectious disease experts were saying. 

‘Agree to disagree’ wasn’t going to cut it when it came to this virus and how it could spread through people that display no symptoms. Damn right it was personal; how long would it take for me to get over passing the virus onto a stranger who then was hospitalized or worse? Could I forgive the friend, the neighbor, the family member if they got my parents sick? 

Every interaction on any given day had the threat to go there. Everyone was on edge at all times. Over days, weeks, months the reminder was constant: we did not agree on what the greater good meant. There was a corrosion in all of it. 

When I’m stuck, I either write or run. This last summer required a lot of both. 

I’m sure it took hundreds of miles to get my head around the varying points of view held by the people I love the most. I didn’t agree with them—not even close in some cases—but I understood how they got to their outlook. Each of our most pressing concerns before the pandemic were only magnified by it. Since the beginning, we’ve found our COVID lane through circumstance as much as science, and that includes most of us whose opinion falls in line with Dr. Faucci. Of course, therein lies the problem when it comes to COVID. 

Take our circumstance: Natalie and I were lucky enough to keep our jobs through it all. That was never a persistent concern, and we figured out how to work from home. We don’t have kids. We have a little money saved. Of the very few worries we had in our life before the pandemic—and by any measure they were few—the health of our parents was near the top. I worried about Dad’s mobility and diet. I worried about pneumonia with Mom. Natalie’s parents both had their turns with cancer. Of course, those concerns only spread with COVID and how the risk of serious issues increased for those with compromised immune systems. What other reason did we need to wear a mask and stay home if that’s what would help keep the older population around us safe? It wasn’t too much to expected those around our parents to do the same. Anything we could do in order to give the smart people more time to figure out a treatment was worth it. 

For healthy family members that owned or worked at small businesses—where working from home wasn’t an option —guess what their point of view has been? Risk assessment wasn’t as one-dimensional for them. Or how about the folks with kids trying to find their place in school? Or grandparents whose love in life is to be around their kids and grandkids? A year to folks in their 70s is not the same as a year to people in their 30s. 

It took time, but I learned how to run with both my outlook and the realization that many people I respect had an understandable reason for their outlook. Some days I could find the pocket with all of that in my mind, on my shoulders, in my chest. I’d run fast and smooth. I genuinely don’t know if that should be a point of pride. 


Natalie and I joke that our first year of marriage should count for more than a year. 2020-2021 should be a pandemic-adjusted marriage season due the sheer amount of time couples spent together. 

We tried all the COVID distractions to keep our minds busy in that 100-year old rental, with our wisp of a landlord and her never-ending divorce living below us: puzzles, cards, one (and only one) tik-tok dance, Tiger King. At that point, it was unclear if being outside was even advisable, and I waited for the news that the Bay Area would go into full lockdown, meaning limited time outside the house. That would’ve crushed me. 

Maybe Natalie knew that subconsciously, because that’s about the time she became possessed by the idea of organizing a half marathon. 

We can all get caught up in an idea while passing the time watching TV, but the next moment is the crucial one. While most of us let the idea float by, Natalie reached for the laptop. Within the hour, a flyer was designed with flamengo included for strictly aesthetic reasons. She sent out a group text to Chris, Katelyn, and Basma. Chris and Basma were immediate yeses, Katelyn would be closing in on the third trimester come race day on July 11. I was assigned the role of course architect and asked to present some East Bay route options. Elevation change was a chief concern. Natalie does not mess with running hills. 

Natalie went overboard for a race that would feature all of three competitors, and this little project brought an energy that was so needed. We quickly christened it the “Quarantine Crawl”, and for the next twelve weeks there was a familiar old purpose to a run. T-shirts with the aforementioned flamengo were ordered. My wife is the greatest. 

I ran the long runs with Natalie and Basma (Chris was on the other side of the bridge), mostly along the bay between the Emryville and Berkeley marinas. We’d run with Treasure Island, then the San Francisco skyline, then Alcatraz, then the Golden Gate Bridge over our left shoulders.

They would find their pocket on a few of the runs. It would happen in that silent acceptance found far from the beginning and the end. Conversation would slow to a drip of monosyllabic encouragement. They’d sync up their breath and strides. It was cool to watch them get to a place so meaningful to me. 

We’d splay out on B’s stoop afterwards with a cold drink. They’d recap the different phases of the run, proud and exhausted. I would bask in their sweat-stained accomplishment. And after a couple early route mishaps, the Quarantine Crawl was a success, complete with 3.5 spectators: Natatlie’s parents, Katelyn with Emerson in her belly. 

(A quick aside to anyone thinking about a DIY road race: it has been my experience that, when designing a running course, chalk arrows on the sidewalk are not 100% reliable, so limit the amount of turns. Better yet, just bike with the racers).


Then came the fires. 

A dry lightning storm, an event described in The New York Times as a “freakish siege of thousands of dry lightning strikes in Northern California — a weather event on a scale not seen in decades” sunk Natalie and I in late August and early September. Everyone had a pandemic low point, and that was ours. 

Dry lightning? In Minnesota, lightning came with thunder, followed by rain. The only dry lightning I’d heard of prior to August was from Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad

I ran the morning these pictures were taken before the Air Quality Index spiked. Forget dystopian; as I ran, I wondered if we were entering apocalyptic territory. It wasn’t hyperbole. Didn’t feel that way at least. There was no pocket to be found that morning, and it was obvious I wouldn’t be running in the coming weeks. With ‘outside’ added to the list of closures, my world became even smaller that morning.  

At the time, we had an unhinged president already sowing voter fraud months before the election (not knowing what would follow at the Capitol on January 6), a country in the depths of a racial reckoning, a pandemic, and now flames raged across the western half of the United States. We were trapped under smoke miles thick, amongst other things. 

This is the same lake pictured above when I stopped to call my Father-In-Law. Photo credit: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

There was no longer comfort at home. That old house Natalie and I were renting couldn’t keep the smoke out. The windows were old and cheap, and all the window frames were rotted. Smoke came in as easily as the spiders Natalie despised. We went to my in-laws’ house. They had new windows, and we needed clean air. Natalie was six weeks pregnant with our first child. 

I was exhausted. Of course I had reasons to be happy and grateful, but come fall it took such effort to reach those states of mind. Sometimes I felt like a fool to look for the positive. Optimism and obliviousness—it was hard to tell which current was which. 


The smoke cleared (for the season), and I was running the first day the AQI dropped back into the yellow zone. In the winter months, we’ve adapted in this time before we finally beat back the pandemic (as of writing this, over 30% of the country has been vaccinated, with about 3M receiving shots each day). Caution has replaced fear in our neighborhood. We’ve found ways to be happy and be with friends. Turns out, outside is a great place to be in most any weather. Park hangs have long since replaced Zoom calls with friend groups. Beer gardens are heaven, and we all can find the beauty in the orange glow of a propane heat lamp. 

I’ve never run more than I did in the last year, even years training for multiple marathons. Cue the Jackson Browne from the Forest Gump montage.

Along the way, I’ve become familiar with so many other runners in the neighborhood. Each one of them gets a head nod when we cross paths. There is the young dad with his two daughters who would run a lap around Rose Avenue every morning, face shields and all. There is the bearded guy I’d pass near 40th and Broadway most mornings. Always in his red shirt (man, I hope he owns multiples). Dude must’ve lost 40 pounds in the last year. There was the mom with her daughter and son, maybe 10 and 12, heading up that same hill to Lake Temescal where I stopped to talk to Tony about Mom and Dad. There is the old guy – the same shape and stature as Dad, who prefers his afternoon walks with a cigar. I love the smell of his cigars. There is the other old guy – has to be late 70s – who is still running. If you watch his arms, elbows held up high and pumping, he’s running, so don’t worry about his cargo shorts and walking feet.

And then there is this little girl. Our little girl. I want to write her name, but Natalie and I are keeping it close until she’s born. We call her by her name all the time. I’m saying it in my mind right now. I love the full name and the nickname, too. It sounds good sandwiched between laughs, and there’s a nice weight to the full name for when I’ll need to be stearn. She’ll be here in a month or so, but she’s already my running buddy. She’s in the pocket with me, racking up the miles. 

And that would be a sweet end to this look back. Far too sweet for a pandemic retrospective.

The very sound of the word— pandemic— annoys me. Alway will. I’m over it. I’m over talking about it, debating it, having it lurking on the periphery of every goddamn thought. The threat in every conversation to go there. The edge. I’m over it. We all are. 

I want to leave it behind. Yet, even after the vaccines, even if it were eradicated, the pandemic will show up in moments we don’t expect. There’s a shared trauma the scope of which we won’t grasp for years.

I have little idea where life will take us, but I’ll be there running. On some otherwise forgettable run, I might smell a familiar cigar, or I’ll see a line forming outside a grocery store. Something will trigger a memory of the pandemic and break my triplet of breath and footstrikes. I’ll lose the rhythm, but only for a short distance. I’ll remember how to run in a pandemic. I’ll play the rhythm by heart, and I’ll find the pocket again.

-Phil Lang, April 7, 2021

Week of April 2, 2021

Happy Opening Day, folks!

*When a League Changes its Games, What Do We Do with the Record Books?

This week the NFL voted to officially expand its regular season to 17 games. I take no strong opinion either way – if the players are for it, then it seems fine to me. But The Ringer’s Riley McAtee asked an interesting question: How will a 17-game season impact NFL record books? As in 1961, when people derided Roger Maris for hitting 61 home runs in 162 games when Babe Ruth’s record of 60 game when teams only played 154 games, you have to think there will be healthy skepticism at some of the records that will surely fall. 

For example, we are definitely heading for the first 6,000 yard passing season (remember when 3,000 was the gold standard??). We’ll likely get 2,300 yards rushing. Maybe 25 sacks? Basically every major statistical record is in jeopardy, with teams playing 6.2% more games. So how will those records be treated?

My guess is that, as with Maris, as the record is broken (assuming it is not broken until Game 

17), there will be people who will howl that the record doesn’t count. That it deserves an asterisk. That the previous record holder is the true record holder. But as time passes, people will forget. Enough players will pass the old record holder, even in just 16 games, that eventually it won’t matter anymore. 

The career numbers are even more fascinating. A player playing 15 seasons gets almost an entire extra season of games. Is Emmit Smith’s rushing yard total in jeopardy? Probably not, as the league has moved away from running and away from featured running backs. In fact, is Smith’s record the only untouchable record? If nothing else, the debates about this stuff should be fun. -TOB

Source: How Will a 17-Game Season Impact NFL Record Books?Riley McAtee, The Ringer (03/31/2021)

PAL: Single most insane stat from this numbers-heavy story: George Blanda threw 42 interceptions in a 14-game season back in 1962. George, my man, the check down is your friend.


How a Meme Becomes a Meme, as There’s a Drive into Deep Left Field by Castellanos and That’ll Be a Homerun, and Why One in Particular is Funny

Last year, longtime Reds’ announcer Thom Brennaman was caught on a hot mic using a gay slur. It was no accident. He was referring to some unnamed city (ahem) as being full of that slur. It was not good. Not long after, word had made it to Thom that his comment had gone out on the air, and he left the broadcast mid-game, first offering an apology. As apologies go, it was not good. He did not directly apologize to the group of people he slurred, and even apologized to his employers. But it was made so much worse by the fact that, mid-apology, without missing a beat, Brennaman casually called a home run by the Reds’ Nick Castellanos.

The awfulness of the slur and the awkwardness of the call went viral over the next couple days. But then, slowly percolating in the Twitterverse, a meme began to rise weeks later. A copypasta, as it’s known, in which people began copying and pasting Brennaman’s home run call, “as there’s a drive into deep left field by Castellanos and that’ll be a homerun. And so that’ll make it a 4-0 ballgame,” and using it as a non-sequitur for comedic effect. It started to catch fire. A few funny examples:

This article breaks down how and why this joke went viral and why it works as a joke – which I really enjoyed. Sometimes you don’t know why something is as funny as it is, you just know it is. But I enjoyed reading why this works:

Then there’s the syntax. The home run call is itself a non sequitur, which enables the Castellanos call to be linked to any preceding sentence just as logically (or illogically) as it was when Brennaman first uttered the infamous lines. Just stick in a comma, add an “as there’s a drive,” and you’re good to go. “The ‘as’ is the killer [word] there,” Ingall says. “It lends itself with that ‘as’ to memeing so well.” The “drive into deep left field,” Baccellieri observes, is also perfectly situated between the “big-picture seriousness” of the “man of faith” clause and the “melancholy vibe” of the headset sentence.

It’s a pretty fun read about how the internet turned a bad story into a good one. -TOB

Source: How ‘A Drive Into Deep Left Field by Castellanos’ Became the Perfect Meme for These Strange Times,” Ben Lindbergh, The Ringer (03/29/2021)

PAL: How can a story be this good while being so much longer than it needed to be?Still, this is a pretty fascinating exploration of the construction of a joke written, revised, and perfected by committee. 

What stands up to replays is the timing of the home run. As Lindbergh highlights in his opening, all of the variables that had to line up exactly so in order for Brennaman’s home run call to slot into his apology without missing a beat. Lindbergh revisits the at-bat later on when he writes:

If Castellanos had taken strike two, maybe Brennaman could have submerged himself in that sea of sorrys and avoided disproportionate attention. “If it was just the formulaic apology, then there would have been an eye roll and maybe some commentary about that,” Milner says. “We would have moved on. But the incongruity of him calling a play in the middle, it just further punctuates how rote this must have been, that he wasn’t even heartfelt enough to get through it without turning to this play call.” The apology’s performative nature was laid bare, all because of a drive into deep left field by Castellanos.

Can’t say I’ve ever read a story like this one.


Video of the Week:

Can’t do that, Cody.

Tweet(s) of the Week:

Song of the Week: Cousin Wolf – “Kevin Elster”

More on this story, the songwriter, and the ambitious project next week.


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You’re crying from Home Alone?

-Jerry Seinfeld

Abolish the Infield Fly Rule

Two years ago, while wondering why the dropped third strike rule exists in baseball, I wrote the following:

Baseball has some weird rules, but you can usually figure out why the rule exists by playing the alternative out to its extreme conclusion: It’s usually trying to prevent something from happening that people decided was unfair. For example, the infield fly rule exists because defenders intentionally let routine fly balls drop to the ground in order to get a double play, instead of taking the out.

I stick by that descriptive statement but I stand before you now to say this: the infield fly rule sucks. It’s TERRIBLE. It needs to go. As I said in that paragraph – baseball has some weird rules, and most of them were not in existence when the game began. Instead those rules were created as a reaction to ways in which players subverted the blank spaces of the rules to their advantage. 

But there are problems with the infield fly rule – first, it’s both hyper-specific and non-specific.  On the hyper-specific end of the spectrum, the rule is only invoked when there are runners at first and second or the bases are loaded, and less than two outs. Speaking from experience, this gives umpires something extra to think about before a pitch on top of the umpire’s other duties. You have to know when the rule is in play based on those guidelines or you won’t have time to realize it after the ball is hit. On the non-specific end of the spectrum, the ball must be a “fly ball” but specifically not a line drive (which is absolutely getting into a wide swath of gray area) that “can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort.” And what the hell that means is really open to interpretation. As the comment to the MLB rule states:

The umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder-not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder.

Yes, the infield fly rule can be invoked when the ball is hit into the outfield. It can also be called when an outfielder in fact makes the play. And what the heck constitutes “ordinary effort”? Worst of all, if I am reading this right, the infield fly rule can be invoked when the ball is foul (“not by some arbitrary limitation such as … the base lines.” WHAT!? That isn’t even consistent with the reason for the rule!). What a mess.

The aftermath of the play is the most confusing. “When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk.” What does this mean in this context? Can a runner tag up and go as soon as the umpire calls the batter out, the same they would after the ball is caught? Or, if the rule is invoked can a runner advance before the infielder catches it? And if they advance before the infielder catches it and then the infielder catches it, can the runner be thrown out for leaving early? I think I know, but the rule is not clear, which seems problematic.

The infield fly rule has always bugged me for these reasons. But it gnawed its way through my brain this week as I read How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius, by Anthony Greene. In the book’s opening chapters, Greene dives into the 13 original rules of basketball, as written by Dr. James Naismith, and how players worked within the rules to innovate the game to make it better. Here’s Greene, quoting NYU professor and game designer Eric Zimmerman:

“You can tell that Naismith was thinking about exceptions,” Zimmerman says of the first set of rules. “Trying to figure out the loopholes players will try to exploit.” But the exploitation of rules is vital to a game’s evolution. Essentially everything related to basketball that isn’t contained within its original thirteen rules developed because some player somewhere at sometime fudged with them.”

Remember what I said up there about baseball? Baseball’s weird rules were created to “prevent something from happening that people decided was unfair.” But Greene makes the compelling case that this is wrong. The thirteen original rules of basketball prevent “running with the ball,” but permit “throwing” and “batting” the ball “in any direction.” The rules, as written, expected players to be stationary. But it did not take long for some Ivy League boys to find the blank space in the rules – dribbling. Did Naismith find this innovation cheating? Did he try to stop it? Nope. Instead he called it, “one of the most spectacular and exciting maneuvers in basketball.” And he’s right. Again, from Greene’s book:

“It is a subversion,” Dr. Shawn Klein, a philosophy lecturer at Arizona State University, tells me. Klein specializes in the ethics of sport, and I reached out to him to better understand the moral (or amoral) underpinnings of dribbling. “That’s probably the best word for it. They were adhering to the rules, but they were subverting the expectations of how those rules would be followed.”

Reading this angered me more than ever about the infield fly rule – the first player to intentionally drop a fly ball was a genius. Incredible creativity! And that play is exciting as hell. Early in his book Greene speaks to another game designer, Colleen Macklin. 

[Says Macklin} “A lot of game rules are modified or changed based on what the player wants. Basketball rules are modified in order to make the game more interesting to the spectator.” When she watches basketball she sees players both following and exploiting rules for the benefit of us fans. The result, she says, is “one of the most beautiful things you can see.”  

Macklin loves Hickey’s example of the Dr. J behind-the-backboard layup, as it alludes to the kinds of decisions game designers must make. “When it happened, she says, “everyone was like ‘Oh my God, we’ve never seen such a graceful move before.’ And so you have a choice there. The NBA could either say it’s not allowed, or they could be like, ‘Yeah, let’s let that happen.’ The right choice is obviously, ‘let’s let that happen.’” 

The infield fly rule is terrible for this reason – it is, by umpire fiat, a blown dead play. Yes, the runners can advance but they would be stupid to do so. Imagine an infield fly without the rule – if a player decides he wants to try and get a double play, he runs a great deal of risk – if he turns down the sure out, there’s a chance the ball bounces away from him and he gets no outs. Or maybe he does it perfectly. Either way, that is entertainment. And you don’t have to use your imagination to know how exciting that would be – in recent years I have seen players (particularly Javy Baez) do this on line drives. For example:

That is such an exciting play, in a HUGE moment of the NLCS. And not only was it exciting, it did almost backfire – instead of first and second with two outs, Baez almost ended the play with first and third with two outs. Now imagine that skips by him when it hits the outfield grass – chaos. Each time something like that happens, everyone watching agrees – wow that was a heads up play and wow that was fun. 

Which is why MLB flat out got the infield fly rule wrong. Players subverted the rules in an entertaining way and baseball decided to litigate that fun out of the game. It’s not too late to fix it though. Let’s abolish that stupid rule forever. I’m looking at you, Theo.

Happy Opening Day, everyone! -TOB


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