Week of July 16, 2021

Greenkeeper, but also: bassist in a Cheap Trick tribute band

The Dirty, Underhanded World of College Recru…Sorry, What’s That? Oh. Chess? Ok, the Dirty World of Chess.

The New York Times published a wild and, frankly, shocking story this week about match fixing in chess. The short: achieving the rank of Chess Grandmaster is very lucrative and so people are willing to shelve out big dollars to ensure the rank. Far from the meritocratic sport it seems to be, chess has a match-fixing problem. But it does not stop at match-fixing. It includes winning non-existent tournaments: 

Mikhail Zaitsev, who achieved the rank of International Master and is now a chess coach, estimated that of the world’s roughly 1,900 living grandmasters, at least 10 percent have cheated one way or another to acquire the title. Shohreh Bayat, one of the leading arbiters in chess, describes such arrangements in the plainest terms. “Match fixing,” she said, “is cheating.” Some hopefuls didn’t even have to play a game of chess to get the points they needed: Some tournaments, she said, took place only on paper.

None of this is lost on the sport’s frustrated leaders “We have a dog called Pasquales,” said Nigel Short, the vice president of FIDE.

“I believe it is possible that if I went to the effort, I think I could get my dog a grandmaster’s title.”

The article centers around a story from a tournament in 2002, when then 12-year old Sergei Karjakin became the world’s youngest Grandmaster:

For nearly 60 moves, Karjakin posed subtle and challenging problems to Irina Semyonova, his opponent. Each time, she had an answer, a counter. Karjakin kept pressing, but the game ended in a draw.Suddenly, all of what had been close enough to touch — the label, the fame, the history — was slipping away. But the aspiring grandmaster and his team still had one audacious move left.

With Karjakin’s title as the world’s youngest grandmaster slipping away after his unexpected draw with Semyonova, Karjakin’s father, Aleksandr, approached several players to whom his son had lost points and offered them money to replay their games. Firman said he was among those to receive an offer of cash for an arranged draw.

Malinin, who had points to spare, agreed to replay his game with Karjakin. He said he did so for free and therefore did not consider it cheating. The two replayed a game that normally would have taken up to six hours; in the replay, Malinin said, it was played “in a blitz” — a high-speed variant of chess. Karjakin won.

Minutes later, the newly crowned grandmaster ran into the tournament’s main hall, radiant and proud as “a peacock,” according to Areshchenko, who was present.

This is surprising, but the more you read the less surprising it is: achieving the title of grandmaster means a lifetime of perks. 

More recently, Karjakin lost his status as the youngest to achieve grandmaster, when Abhimanyu Mishra bested him by about two months. While there is no evidence yet of match-fixing, Mishra’s achievement is also very dubious:

Mishra’s father, Hemant, had a lot at stake in seeing his son claim the title. He said he spent more than $270,000 on making his son the world’s youngest grandmaster, and he had been collecting donations online to make their chess dream come true. The small advantages that the money could buy — in scheduling, in opposition, in timing — began to add up as he closed in on his final norm.

Mishra, who described Karjakin as his idol, played in five so-called norm tournaments in Charlotte, N.C., in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021 but did not achieve a single norm. With the deadline to beat Karjakin’s record bearing down, he and his father next traveled to Budapest, where Abhimanyu Mishra played eight tournaments in a row.

At these tournaments, norm-seekers paid the organizers, who in turn paid grandmasters to show up, a legal and common arrangement in professional chess. But the quality was not the same; the average rating of Mishra’s opponents in the Budapest events was nearly 50 points lower than it had been in Charlotte.

In an interview, Arkady Dvorkovich, the president of FIDE, said that there is little sportsmanship at such tournaments. That is partly because the grandmasters, often aging players long past their prime, often lack the motivation to work hard to beat their opponents. “The motivation was quite low for me,” said Vojtech Plat, one of the grandmasters who played.

Again, it all makes sense. Give awful parents a chance to game the system for their kids and they will squeeze through every nook and cranny to do it. But…I gotta admit that I had no idea this goes on in chess. Great read. -TOB

Source: The Dark Side of Chess: Payoffs, Points and 12-Year-Old Grandmasters,” Ivan Nechepurenko and Misha Friedman, New York Times (07/13/2021)

PAL: Heads up: it’s a NY Times kind of week. The next time I meet a serious chess player will be my first, but you can take it to the bank that I will ask where he/she earned norm points. If the answer is “Sardak” then we have some problems. 

Absolutely fascinating look into a game about which I know very little. I like the part about the old grandmasters past their prime taking the money and agreeing to draw so some dad can live vicariously through his 12 year-old. 


 2B: LG

This picture from Bob Levey is supposed to represent our old-standing idea of a what a second baseman looks like (Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros, 5-foot-6, 166 pounds) and the direction the position is heading (D.J. LeMahieu of the Yankees, 6-4, 220). While LeMahieu is playing first base in this pic (look at the glove), he plays the majority of his time at second. Credit…Bob Levey/Getty Images

We’ve posted a ton of baseball stories in recent weeks. Obviously, TOB and I love the game, but there’ve also been a lot of great baseball stories recently. Throw in the The All-Star break (a great time to publish the think piece with no games to report on at the moment), and it makes sense we get a good story from Joe Lemire.

I can’t help but wonder if, to some extent, the number of smart baseball stories is also the result of a game that has undergone such a shift over the last 10-20 years. A wave crested over the past couple of seasons by way of general acceptance of shifting defense, all-or-nothing approach at the plate, and the commonplace of pitchers throwing over 97 M.P.H.. Perhaps we were destined for this ever since sabermetrics became the standard of how organizations assess players and positions.  

Naturally, there’s been a shift in how the game is played, which – as Lemire examines – impacts something as fundamental as the prevailing height and weight of a position. 

Take this stat from Lemire’s story: 

For 50 years, from 1948 until 1998, there was never a time when more than one regular second baseman stood at least 6 feet and weighed at least 200 pounds. In 2019, the last full season, 29 such players took the field, according to Baseball Reference.

I’m going to stop you before you think, bigger, stronger, faster, because this stat indicates something much more interesting. This is a story about what skills are more valued at today’s version of second base, how the positioning of the player impacts the skillset needed to play 2B, and finding a soft spot on the defensive side of things to plug another big bat. 

Historically, 2B is a position where you need a defensive player that, although he lacks the range (and arm strength) of a shortstop, can turn a double play and be a plus defensively. A good infielder with a strong arm would typically play on the left side of the infield.

Front office executives are getting more inventive generally with roster construction, but a confluence of leaguewide trends is making experimentation at second more appealing. Strikeouts rates are at an all-time high and, with fewer balls in play, no position has seen a greater reduction in total chances than second basemen, who are fielding 20 percent fewer batted balls per game than they were in the mid-2000s.

There are discernible reasons for the change. Pitchers are throwing more four-seam fastballs at the top of the strike zone, rather than sinking two-seamers at the knees, leading to more airborne batted balls. Better advanced scouting information is informing more precise positioning, which has led to a preponderance of shifts, and cover for players with reduced range.

Farewell Dustin Pedoria and Joe Morgan. Hello D.J. LeMahieu. Instead of needing an agile guy who can turn the double-play (a less frequent occurrence in today’s game); second base has become a place to stash boppers. Hate the trend, but a great read. – PAL 

Source: Where Have You Gone, Dustin Pedroia,” Joe Lemire, The New York Times (07/14/21)


Aftermath

You’ve seen the video:

Here’s a story about what happens to a kid after he makes a stupid, stupid, stupid decision like you saw Emmanul Durón do in that video. What happens when a kid’s lowpoint becomes a viral video and the topic of sports talk across the country? What’s he do after all the bluster and outrage has been applied to the next video of someone doing something stupid. 

Or, in Jeré Longman’s words:

When a young athlete commits an egregious act, where should punishment intersect with compassion? Does the athlete deserve a second chance? And how does a teenager begin again after facing nationwide disgust and cancellation?

One detail stuck out over the others. After Durón hits the ref, and after he’s been booked in jail for assault, at his lowest most alone moment, guess where his coaches, administrators, teachers?

“No Edinburg coaches or school officials visited him in jail, Durón said. Nor did any coaches speak to him, he said, when he briefly returned to school to take state assessment exams.”

Maybe they didn’t know how long he’d be there, maybe no one thought of it in the chaos of the night, maybe the kid was an absolute jerk (that is not the feeling I got from this story), but—damn—where’s all that talk of team and loyalty when a player really needed some support?

We are obsessed with the meltdown, the lowlights; this story is about the aftermath, and I think it’s actually an important read for kids and parents alike. We are not our respective worst moments (and we aren’t our best moments either). – PAL 

Source: “‘I’m Just a Kid Who Did Something Wrong’,”Jeré Longman, The New York Times (07/12/21) 


BP Pitchers Always Get It In, Part II

Back in May, we wrote about batting practice pitchers, the “unsung heroes who keep sluggers in the zone.” Well, I’m back with a quick one because never is the importance of a good BP pitcher more on display than at the Home Run Derby, which was held on Monday. 

For the second straight time, the Mets’ Pete Alonso walked away with the crown. But the real winner was his BP pitcher, Dave Jauss. Here’s Jauss’ pitch chart:

That’s real dang good. Look at that precision. Here’s an overlay of 4 consecutive pitches:

I was the pitcher for my son’s coach-pitch team this year. There were days I was very much in and very much out of the zone. But my best skill, IMO, was putting it where each hitter wanted it. At 7 years old, most kids do not know how to adjust their swing. They just have a groove swing. A few games into the season one of the other coaches told me he realized I am throwing to the bat and that he was very impressed. I was very proud. I felt then like Dave Jauss must feel now. A BP king. -TOB

PAL: My dad has a coach-pitch highlight that’s worth sharing. The scouting report on 8 year-old me was pretty simple: leftie, dead pull. We were playing a team coached by a portly fella who lived up the cul-de-sac . In a game earlier in the season, portly dad put the shift on me. I was 8. If I’m remembering correctly (keep me honest, coach TOB), coach pitch employs four outfielders (right, right-center, left, left-center, left). This guy had every player on his team on the right side of second base. 

Prior to a second meeting against the team, my dad wants to practice something different with me. He tells me not to do anything different. He tells me something like, “No matter where the ball is, just swing the same.” We end up practicing his pitches to the outside corner. 

Game time: Neighbor guy puts on the shift. My dad tosses a pitch on the outside corner, I hit one to leftfield and make it home easily. My dad could barely contain himself. Little victories, baby. Sweet little victories can get you through the day.

TOB: Awesome.


Hot Take: Giannis is NOT Funny

I’ve been biding my time on this one. For a couple years now, I’ve seen tweets and instagram videos showing Giannis Antetokoumpo (pretty sure I got that without looking it up) making corny, worse-than-dad jokes while everyone falls all over to say how funny he is. Well, I feel like Shooter McGavin here when Doug says everyone is coming around on Happy Gilmore, because I’M NOT, DOUG.

Don’t get me wrong – he’s an incredible player. But he’s NOT funny. Here’s an example:

Title: Funniest man in the league. Almost 2 million views. But that is NOT funny. The jokes are BAD and corny and BAD. Ten years ago, Dwight Howard had this same awful sense of humor and got KILLED for it, rightfully so. 

I was finally compelled to be brave and declare that Giannis is not funny when this week, after Game 4 of the NBA Finals, he was asked why he left the bench for a few minutes during the game. His response?

YUK YUK YUK. This went viral. NBA reporters breathlessly reported it right after he said it, with a general feeling of, “Oh that hilarious rascal!” But, nah, man. That’s not funny. That’s funny for a 4-year old, maybe. But he’s a grown ass man and this stuff is not funny. 

So, if you’re with me, don’t be afraid to stand up and say: Giannis is not funny. Stop acting like it. -TOB

PAL: TOB when someone talks about Giannis’ sense of humor:


Cold Take: Giannis is Really Friggin Good at Basketball

Ok, so he’s not funny. We can’t all be everything. Because while Giannis is not the best basketball player I’ve ever seen (Jordan or LeBron) and not the most exciting basketball player I’ve ever seen (Steph), he is perhaps the most shocking basketball player I’ve ever seen. He does things that just seem impossible. To illustrate, here’s a play from Game 4 of the Finals:

I watched that live and I absolutely howled. That just didn’t seem possible. I read a really good article from Tom Ley that put it in perspective. 

Who else can you imagine making exactly that play, under those exact conditions? I’d argue that nobody else in the league fits the bill, not because nobody else in the league is as big or as talented as Antetokounmpo, but because his entire development arc as a player was leading to this point. 

This block [is] a short, authoritative story capturing everything about what makes Antetokounmpo who he is. He’s the guy who just goes, very quickly, in a particular direction or to a particular spot on the floor, and then when he gets there he just does it, because his body allows him to.

He’s right. Giannis may not be funny, but he is a singular talent, in the truest sense of that term, in the history of the NBA. -TOB

Source: Giannis Antetokounmpo Has His Career Highlight,” Tom Ley, Defector (07/15/2021)


Video of the Week

Tennis players are incredible. Playing against Djokovich must be soul crushing. That dude had 2-3 perfect shots in that sequence and still lost the point.

Tweet of the Week:

Song of the Week: Guided By Voices – “Game Of Pricks”

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Ah, yes I know. I shat where I ate. And I shall now eat where I shat.

L.D.

Week of July 9, 2021


Papa Guinn

With the baseball draft kicking off this Sunday (the first time it’s been during the All-Star break), here’s a great story about a prospect who grew up in Oakland. 

Rickey Henderson was a 3-sport star at Oakland Tech High School, which stands about a 9-iron away from the balcony I’m sitting on at this moment. He loved football, but J.J. Guinn, a full-time Berkeley police officer and part-time baseball scout, saw a different future for the young athlete. More importantly, Guinn made the winning pitch to Henderson’s mom: less injuries in baseball. Once Bobbie, a single parent, made up her mind, there was no changing it. Rickey went to his room and cried. 

The decision went against the views of many of the people who had watched Henderson. Football coaches praised Henderson’s physique and lauded his speed. But in baseball, he found less reassurance. Some scouts were concerned with his arm, his crouched batting stance, and the fact that he batted right-handed but threw left-handed.

Those scouts focused on Henderson’s flaws. Guinn focused on his strengths: Henderson’s speed, athleticism and lateral range. Where others saw impediments, Guinn saw possibility.

Only two M.L.B. teams were present for an American Legion game at Bushrod Park on that day in 1976: the Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers. After Henderson struck out in his first two at-bats, the Dodgers scout stood up. “I’ve seen enough,” Guinn recalled him saying. “I have a plane to catch.”

Henderson homered in his next two at-bats and Guinn feverishly typed out a report to his scouting director. His advice: Sign Rickey Henderson “right away.”

We know how this ended up for Henderson. Guinn’s story is perhaps more interesting. Part-time scout, full-time officer, respected and revered in Berkeley and Oakland.  

From Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Guinn would walk some of Berkeley’s most crime-ridden streets looking to connect with the residents he was charged with protecting. Few of them had seen a Black police officer.

“Most people think these kids on the street are dumb, but they’re not,” Guinn said. “They know if they can trust you. I had to instill that trust. But because I was raised in Berkeley, if I didn’t know them, they knew my children, or I knew their parents. They knew I was for real.”

Rickey and Guinn got together a couple weeks ago. The location: Rickey Henderson’s suite at the Oakland Coliseum. They reviewed Guinn’s original scouting report from 1976. More than an assessment, that report is now a time machine. 

Henderson sat back and listened, smiling as Guinn recited his strengths, and cackling as he recited his weaknesses. The words transported both men back to Bushrod Park in North Oakland, on a warm April afternoon, two months before that year’s draft.

A heartwarming read. – PAL 

Source: After 45 Years, a Cop Still Looks After His Favorite (Base) Thief,Alex Coffey, The New York Times (07/09/21)

TOB: Love Rickey. I randomly saw this tweet this morning and had to add to it:


Ominous Ohtani

As TOB has touched on many times on this blog (and I have been  a skeptic to a degree that approaches unfun), Shohei Ohtani is doing something unseen in the last century of baseball. The dude has hit 30 home runs before the all-star break…and is a starting pitcher, a pretty good one with electric stuff. He throws 101, and he hits 450-foot lasers. 

Before we go any further, let’s break for TOB to tell me “I TOLD YOU” while I eat crow:

TOB: *cracks knuckles*

Pull up a chair, this is a life lesson: When you want to believe and you choose to believe, then you will get to revel in the fruits of that belief. When I wrote about him 14 at bats into his career, sure I could have “taken it easy,” as my friend suggested. But no. NO, dangit. Where is the joy in that, I ask you? This week I saw an article suggesting Ohtani is “breaking baseball.” I saw another saying he is “pushing MLB’s boundaries.” I saw another discussing how he is the first half AL MVP, and it’s not close because what he is doing hasn’t been done since Babe Ruth. I wanted to believe we could see the next Babe Ruth and by god we are seeing it. If Ohtani stunk, I wouldn’t care. But no. Here I am. Rubbing Phil’s nose in the dirt as a good friend should. Today, we celebrate Ohtani. But we also celebrate ME.

OK, back to the story.

Here’s some context for Ohtani’s season from Neil Paine, writing for the data-driven fivethirtyeight:

As I wrote in May, this is a modern Babe Ruth season. But that might be understating what Ohtani has been doing. According to Baseball-Reference.com’s wins above replacement, Ohtani is on pace for 11.7 total WAR per 162 games this year, including 6.7 as a position player and 5.0 as a pitcher. That would be an astronomical tally — none of teammate Mike Trout’s seasons have reached that level; in fact, it hasn’t been done since Barry Bonds in 2002. But even more remarkably, no player in AL or NL history has even come close to producing 5 WAR on both sides of the ball in the same season. Ruth’s best two-way year saw him put up 6.0 WAR as a batter and 3.0 WAR as a pitcher in 1918, one of his last seasons before becoming a full-time outfielder.

And yet, as I first heard Monday from Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo, the Ohtani season doesn’t feel like it’s as big of a deal as it would’ve been if it had happened 10-20 years ago. While it’s written about, I don’t know if my dad—a casual baseball fan— would recognize the name. And I haven’t heard that a nephew of mine has begged his parents to go to a game when the Angels come through town.

That should scare the hell out of MLB. How this guy hasn’t moved the needle on a national level is beyond me. There was a lot of hype, then injury, and now he’s living up to the hype, albeit a couple seasons later. We have the most incredible story of my lifetime, and it seems to be flying a bit under the radar. What does that say about the future of the game? 

Podcast embedded below (jump to the 66:00 mark)

We’ve typed up and shared a bunch of stories about what’s ailing baseball. Here we have what’s fun and great about the game—a charismatic dude from another country upending all modern expectations—and no one seems to pay it much mind. That’s a bad sign for baseball. – PAL 

Source: “Only One Player Has Ever Been As Good As Shohei Ohtani,” Neil Paine, fivethirtyeight.com (06/30/21); The Bill Simmons Podcast (07/07/21)

TOB: This is anecdotal, but I think Simmons Russillo (and the two of us) – white, baseball fans – cannot appreciate the affect what Ohtani’s reach might be for non-baseball fans and people of color. My oldest has a best friend who loves sports. But they are not a baseball family. The dad is not originally from the U.S. – he loves soccer, NFL, and golf, but not baseball. But when the Angels were in town to play the Giants and A’s earlier this year, he texted me and asked if we wanted to go to see Ohtani pitch. Again, this is anecdotal. But I would be interested to see if there’s something to that.


Ichiro Stories

The Athletic did an oral history of Ichiro’s career. Here are the funniest anecdotes:

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Bret Boone, Mariners teammate: Opening Day, 2001. I’m taking my position at second base, and there was a veteran umpire out there, a guy that’s been there forever. He comes up to me and goes, “Boonie, what’s up, how are you doing?” And he goes, “What the hell’s up with your right fielder?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “He runs by me and I say to him, ‘Hey, Ichiro, welcome to America.’” And Ichiro looks at him and says, “What’s happening, home slice,” and keeps running to his position.

Brian McCann, Yankees teammate: One of the first series when I went to New York, I went in to get batting gloves or something out of my locker in like the eighth inning. Ichiro was in full cleats, and he was doing sprints in the clubhouse. In cleats, dead sprints, 40 years old, to go play defense in the ninth.

Young: He got on second base and I was playing second base. At this point, I had no idea if he even spoke English. We were in Texas in the middle of the summer. It was just blistering down there, and I go, “What’s up, man?” He looks at me with a straight face and says, “It’s hotter than rats fucking in a wool sock.”

SPEECHES

CC Sabathia, Yankees teammate: Ichi gave the best speeches at the All-Star Game.

Randy Winn, Mariners teammate: This is 2002. I’m at the All-Star Game and Joe Torre is the manager. Joe brings us all in and says something very nice, very professional, very Joe Torre, very even and monotone.

Sweeney: You could hear a pin drop as Joe Torre’s speaking to us.

Winn: After he finishes, he goes, “All right, Ichiro, what do you have to say?” I was like, “Wow, why is he calling Ichiro? Of all people to say something …”

Jim Leyland, Tigers manager: All of the sudden he pops up: “Let’s kick their fucking fat asses.”

Michael Young, Rangers second baseman: As loud as he could.

A.J. Pierzynski, Twins catcher: And that was it.

Winn: I was like, “Wait, what?” And everybody cheered like, “Yeaaaaah!”

Rick Griffin, Mariners trainer: By the time we got to 2010, he’d added a few more lines to it and had added some more F-bombs.

Young: Every year, whenever the manager said, “Does anyone have anything to add,” everyone would point both their fingers at Ichiro.

Sweeney: It was almost an unwritten rule: Ichiro would always have the last word.

Young: Every year the decibel level would go up a little more to create a different effect. But every year it was the same thing: “Let’s go kick their fucking fat asses.”

Griffin: He dropped many, many F-bombs in many different varieties and different forms. Just screaming and yelling and hopping up and down — and then he walked away and sat down like nothing happened.

Winn: Like nothing happened.

FOOD

Bryant: He literally ate those [chicken wings] every home game for 10 years. Except on a day game he would change it up and he would have a corndog, of all things. He would have two corndogs. These were the cheap, Costco corndogs, and they could not be microwaved. They had to be baked in the oven so they would get crispy.

Chamberlain: During the game, he would only eat plum balls made by his wife. Plum balls.

Griffin: He knew where every single California Pizza Kitchen was in every city that we stayed in. And whether it was five minutes away or 45 minutes away, he had lunch at California Pizza Kitchen. He had double cheese, extra sauce and lightly cooked. Every time.

Griffin: He would come in every day when he got to the ballpark, and he would weigh himself. … And if he weighed 171.8 then he would eat a little more so the next day he would come in and weigh 172. If he weighed 172.3 then the next day he would eat a little bit less so he would weigh 172.

Bryant: He actually started out with nine wings. He came in one year and said, “Chef J, I’m gaining weight, so I can only have seven wings.” And then he did seven wings for a while. And then by the end he was only doing five because he was thinking he was gaining weight.

Bryant: I went up to Ichi and said, “Hey, what do you think of selling these wings out in the stands?” And he goes, “Let me think about it.” I’m not even exaggerating: Four years go by. I get a call from his interpreter in the offseason. He goes, “Chef J, I just wanted to let you know. Ichiro said go ahead with the wings idea.”

SELF CONFIDENCE

Strange-Gordon: If Ichi makes a really nice play, like he throws somebody out or gets a big hit, you’d say, “That atta boy Ich!” And he’d literally go, “It’s obvious.”

Winn: It’s myself, Ichiro, Bret and Edgar (Martinez). Bret said something like, “Ichiro, how do you do it?” And Ichiro, without missing a beat, turns to him, stone-faced, and goes, “It’s obvious.”

Chamberlain: That should literally be the title of your article: “It’s obvious.”

Strange-Gordon: He had just signed with the Marlins, and we hit every day. You know me: I’m just watching everything. I go, “Ichi, question. At the beginning of the second half last year, they told me they wanted me to walk more, so I started taking pitches, but I started to strike out.” He said, “No, no, no.” I said, “So how do I walk?” He said, “You rake first, then they’ll walk you.”

Sele: His first year, in spring training, guys were taking BP, and I believe that he was hitting with Jay (Buhner) and Edgar. They were cranking line drives all over the place, no big deal. Ichiro was just staying inside the ball and just flipping the ball to left field with no real impact. Lou (Piniella) starts to get on him, saying something like, “Son, you’ve got to get behind the ball. Drive the ball.” Ichiro puts his finger to his lips and says, “Shhhhhh. I’ve got a plan.”

McLaren: Lou asked him, “Son, do you ever turn on a ball? Do you ever pull the ball?” He just nodded his head and said, “Sometimes.” And Lou goes, “OK, well, I’d like to see it. I’d just like to see you turn on a ball.” So we start the game that night, and he hits one to right field way back on the berm. I mean, he crushed it. So he comes back to the dugout and he’s getting ready to go down the steps and he stops and he looked at Lou and he says, “Is that turn on ball, Lou?”

-TOB
Source: Untold Stories of Ichiro: Wrestling with Griffey, All-Star Speeches and ‘Ichi Wings’,” Corey Brock, Rustin Dodd, Jayson Jenks, The Athletic (07/06/2021)

Ok, Maybe We Should Pump the Brakes on Robo-Umps

But also, doesn’t the ump have the ability to overrule the roboump? I thought they did. Also, nice work by the song guy. -TOB


Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week: JJ Grey & Mofro – “Every Minute”


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I wish there was a way to know you’re in “the good old days”, before you’ve actually left them.

-Andy Bernard

Week of July 2, 2021


I’m a Surfer* Now, So I Write About Surfing

Big wave surfer Greg Noll died this week. I will be honest – I had not heard of him before. However, you know a piece of writing is good when it makes you really care about someone you had not previously heard of. And that’s what Patrick Redford accomplished with this story on Noll. I mean, just look at this passage from the opening paragraph:

Surfing a big wave is like climbing an imposing mountain, only the mountain disappears in seconds. You cannot point to a killer wave at Mavericks and be like, “I surfed that exact wave there.” All that lasts is the memory.

I mean, holy shit that’s a good line. As Redford relates, Noll is famous for being a big wave pioneer, culminating in his ride at Makaha, Hawaii on December 4, 1969. Noll tells the story in the surf movie classic Riding Giants, linked here. Noll and his ride at Makaha are a precursor to Mavericks. But not long after that ride, which he barely survived, Noll stepped away from big wave surfing. Noll later said:

”For 15 years, my whole thing was to ride a bigger wave than the year before. I was getting so cocky I said, ‘Come on, God, show me a wave I can’t ride.’ Then all of a sudden that day came along, and it kind of blew the cap off the whole thing,”

I particularly like Redford’s closing, though:

In the decades since his legendary ride, aspects of it have come into question. Tomson says he actually captured Noll’s ride on camera, and another surf photographer has three photos of Noll atop the wave. People have questioned the actual height of the wave, and while it’s not altogether possible to come to a definitive measurement, weather historians have shown that the swell that battered Hawaii was genuinely freakish. None of that really matters to me, because the point is the myth. I was not unmoored by Noll’s ride because of the precision of his technique, or the minute details of his fall. The thing that matters is that he did something that nobody had ever done before, that he pushed his defiance of death all the way to the very edge, looked into the void, and was allowed by the monster to rise again.

That is fantastic writing.

*I went surfing twice last month. But I loved it. 

-TOB

Source: Greg Noll, The Surfer Who Became A Myth, Is Dead At 84,” Patrick Redford, Defector (07/01/2021)


A Concise Explanation of Why Soccer is Great

A year delayed, Euro 2020 (like the World Cup, but just Europe) is going on. I’m doing my best to catch a game or two per week, but it’s difficult to carve out time for my very favorite sports, so I have not been terribly successful. 

Over the last few decades, much ink has been spilled about why soccer is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in most other parts of the world. But instead of thinking about what’s wrong with soccer or what’s wrong with U.S. sports fans, I really enjoyed this article from Defector’s Tom Ley about what makes soccer great, as illustrated by an extra time goal from Italy’s Federico Chiesa, which helped the Italians advance to the quarterfinals with a 2-1 win over Austria. The goal was so good that I had to show my kids the next day.

I think I yelped when he blasted that in. That touch with his right foot to knock it by the oncoming defender and set it up for his left-footed volley? That is *chef’s kiss* beautiful. 

Ley makes a good point about soccer, and it’s one of the reasons I love watching the sport:

Soccer can be pretty aggravating to watch sometimes. The game is so hard, and played at such inhuman speeds, that finding a steady supply of thrills in a single game can feel like an act of compromise. You end up hooting at deft turns in the midfield that lead to fizzled attacks, clapping for masterful dribbles that lead to the ball being kicked harmlessly out of bounds, and gasping at shots that miss the top corner by six inches. These moments don’t ultimately change the final outcome of the match, but once you understand how difficult it is to even participate in a high-level soccer game, you can’t help but appreciate them.

In soccer, fans appreciate skill even if it doesn’t end up in a goal, because goals are scarce and if you didn’t appreciate the skill in between goals, it’d be a very boring game to watch. 

In basketball, there is a phrase: “million dollar move, ten cent finish.”  The phrase implies that a great move that ends in a missed shot is not worth much because it didn’t end in a score. This makes sense in basketball, where teams average over 82 combined baskets per game. By contrast, the most recent English Premier League season averaged a total of 2.69 goals per game. Each made shot in basketball is worth far less (more than 30 times less in fact), relatively speaking, than each goal in soccer. So, soccer fans rightly appreciate a million dollar move, even if it does end in a ten cent finish. For example, this is not a goal but it was still incredible:

So what happens when a million dollar move in soccer ends not in a ten cent finish but in a million dollar finish? Bliss. Here’s Ley:

And then something like Chiesa’s goal happens, and there’s no need for compromise. Chiesa’s goal was the product of three genius-level touches—on the head to bring the ball under control, on the right foot to snatch it away from the recovering defender, and on the left foot to fire it past the keeper at a tight angle—that would have earned a polite applause from the crowd had they occurred on their own and not led to a goal. That Chiesa executed all three in a matter of seconds and got the ball into the net puts his goal somewhere in the realm of the miraculous. Repeat that sequence 1,000 times, and chances are that Chiesa would lose the ball out of bounds, have it taken from him by a defender, or fire it wide of the net in 996 of them. But sometimes everything lines up just right, and you get to see three perfect touches and a goal, and soccer is the best damn sport.

Unlike Ley, soccer is not my favorite sport. But…in moments like those, it sure feels great. -TOB

Source: Federico Chiesa Showed Us Soccer In All Its Glory,” Tom Ley, Defector (06/27/2021)


SImone Biles: The GOAT of GOATS

Now, I cannot by any stretch of the imagination call myself a gymnastics “fan.” Sure, like many kids of the 90s, I watched the 1992 and 1996 Olympic teams alongside my parents – Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strugg, Dominique Moceanu. Big names! They rocked. And in the early 2010s, I loved McKalya Maroney’s Not Impressed memes and Aly Raisman leading her team to gold – that was a fun group! But none of them, or any other gymnast that ever lived, compares to Simone Biles.

The lead up to the 2016 Olympics was the first I (remember, not a gymnastics “fan”) had heard of her – and by that point she had already won three straight World Championships – 2013, 2014, and 2015 (which begs the question: why did the 2013 World Champion did not make the 2012 Olympic team). She was also being called perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time. The media narrative seemed set up for her to fail.

Lol, nah bro. She killed it. Team? Gold. Individual all around? Gold. Vault? Gold. Floor? Gold. Beam? Bronze. Hey, look, no one is perfect. But Simone is close. Since 2013 she has competed in every World Championship, besides 2017, when she took a year off. In those 5 tournaments, she has won all five individual all-around golds, all five floor golds, three golds and two bronze on beam, and two golds, two silvers, and one bronze on vault. That is pretty god dang dominant. 

In fact, this is how dominant Biles has been since stepping onto the international scene: at the Olympic trials last week, Biles had an off-day – she had a mistake on uneven bars, a fall on balance beam and stepped out of bounds twice on floor. She won the two-day event, but her Olympic teammate Suni Lee bested her on day two – and it was the first time Biles had been beaten in a single day since March 2013. 

So as we head into the Olympics this summer, you bet your ass I will be tuning into see if Biles can put herself in Phelps-territory. No, she’ll never win as many medals as Phelps. If you ask me, swimmers have an unfair advantage in terms of medal count – multiple relays and distances and strokes allow for numerous medal opportunities – 18 gold medals will be awarded in swimming at this Olympics, in fact; three times as many as the six a gymnast can get. Plus, they have a shorter peak due to the beating their body takes, compared to the low impact of swimming.

Which brings me to the story title: I think what Biles has done over the last eight years is the single most dominant, extended performance by an athlete in history. She is the GOAT of GOATs, and I’m really excited to see what she does at the Olympics.

All that is prelude to this: I read quite a few articles about Biles this week, coming off those Olympic trials where she (sorta) looked human. But my favorite was this one, from Defector’s Kalyn Kahler. The article reads a smidge like my U.S. Open story from 2019 – Kalyn is a big Biles fan, but has never been to a big gymnastics tournament. So when she heard the Olympic Trials were within driving distance, she bought front row seats and got in her car. Her article is a fun look at what it’s like to attend a major gymnastics meet. A very fun read.

Source: The Draw Of Simone Biles,” Kalyn Kahler, Defector (06/28/2021)


Subtopic: Can Simone Biles Dunk a Basketball?

Yes, more on Biles. In a moment, I am going to show you a clip that made me tweet this question: Can Simone Biles dunk a basketball?

Now, I must say here that Biles is listed at 4’8”. I don’t know what her standing reach is. The average standing reach is about 135% of a person’s height, which would put her standing reach at 6’2. That means she would need to get 46” off the ground just to touch the rim. To get the basketball over the rim, she’d need another 10” or so, which would mean a 50” clearance. I am gulping hard right now, because 56” is very high. HOWEVER, I have some evidence.

First, Spud Webb. Spud was 5’7 and had a reported standing vertical leap of 46”, which allowed him to win a Slam Dunk contest. But Spud was not a trained gymnast – he just played basketball. His 46” standing vertical came naturally. So can Simone Biles jump 10” higher, with a running start? This leads me to my second piece of evidence, which is the clip referenced above:

YO WHAT THE HELL. That’s INSANE. Yes, Kevin, it’s a spring floor. I do not care. If she is 4’8, she looks at LEAST 7 feet high there. Give her a running start and I think she can dunk a basketball. Prove me wrong! -TOB


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