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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Week of March 26, 2021

R.I.P. Elgin Baylor

NBA great Elgin Baylor died this week. He was 86. As is the case with athletes before my time, I learned more about him in the past few days than I’d ever known. Bill Simmons referred to him as the “forgotten pioneer” of the NBA. Simmons, who hasn’t written a column in years, read a portion of his Page 2 story about Baylor from back in 2008. This detail was a stunner:

It’s impossible to fully capture Elgin’s greatness five decades after the fact, but let’s try. He averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds and carried the Lakers to the Finals as a rookie. He scored 71 points against Wilt’s Warriors in his second season. He averaged 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds in his third season — as a 6-foot-5 forward, no less — and topped himself the following year with the most amazing accomplishment in NBA history. During the 1961-62 season, Elgin played only 48 games — all on weekends, all without practicing — and somehow averaged 38 points, 19 rebounds and five assists a game.

Why was this better than Wilt’s 50 per game or Oscar’s season-long triple-double? Because the guy didn’t practice! He was moonlighting as an NBA player on weekends! Wilt’s 50 makes sense considering the feeble competition and his gratuitous ball-hogging. Oscar’s triple-double makes sense considering the style of play at the time — tons of points, tons of missed shots, tons of available rebounds. But Elgin’s 38-19-5 makes no sense whatsoever. I don’t see how this happened. It’s inconceivable. A U.S. Army Reservist at the time, Elgin lived in a barracks in the state of Washington, leaving only whenever they gave him a weekend pass … and even with that pass, he could only fly coach on flights with multiple connections to meet the Lakers wherever they happened to be playing. Once he arrived, he would throw on a uniform and battle the best NBA players alive on back-to-back nights — fortunately for the Lakers, most games were scheduled on the weekends back then — and make the same complicated trip back to Washington on Sunday night or Monday morning. That was his life for five months.

The idea of that situation in modern times is so bananas. 

On a more personal tip, Kurt Streeter paid tribute to Baylor by re-telling a family story in which Baylor played a large part. His family knew it well, texted him about it as soon as they heard the news that Baylor had passed. It’s a perfect story, in that it captures the folklore nature of sports. Our brushes with greatness. TOB seeing Willie Mays. My Joe Mauer tales. 

Baylor floating
Mel Streeter

Streeter’s dad, himself passed away 15 years ago, knew how to tell the story, which makes sense, because it sounds like he told his kids the tale enough times to workshop it. 

Per Streeter: 

“Did I ever tell you about the time I played Elgin Baylor?” my father would say as he looked into my eyes, filled with wonder no matter how many times he’d begun this way.

“Elgin couldn’t score on me, no he couldn’t. Not in that first half he couldn’t.”

How perfect is that opener? It tells you everything you need to know about the second half. The story goes much deeper than Streeter’s dad facing off with an all-time great who, along with Bill Russell, changed the way basketball was played. 

I wish now that I had asked my father more about his one-and-only game against Baylor, more about that league and those times. But dad died 15 years ago. As close as we were, some of his history will always be cut off from me. I don’t know what team he was on when he played against Baylor. I don’t know if it was a big game with high stakes — like the battles that helped decide who would head off to the A.A.U. national championship.

Thankfully, I have a firm recollection of the look on my father’s face as he spoke of how, in a head-to-head matchup between two tall, lithe and powerful forwards, he held Baylor to two first-half points. Oh, and dad never let any of his four sons forget that while he was holding down Baylor, he was lighting up the scoreboard. Even before my older brother Jon knew I was writing this column, the moment he heard about Baylor’s death he sent me a text with his own recollections of our family’s well-told tale: “Dad scored 11 in the first half!”

Two great reads about a “forgotten pioneer”. Both are worth reading in full. – PAL 

Sources: Elgin took the game to new heights”, Bill Simmons, Page 2 (10/08/08); “The Time Dad Locked Down Elgin Baylor”, Kurt Streeter, The NY Times (03/23/21)


I’m Guessing That High School Baseball Won A Lot

I was looking up opening day details, and I just stumbled upon this factoid, ℅ Thomas Harigan over at MLB.com: three pitchers from the same high school will make opening day starts for their MLB clubs. It’s those young guys pictured in the tweet at the top of the post, each first round draft picks.

Jack Flaherty (Cardinals), Lucas Giolito (White Sox), and Max Fried (Braves) all went to Harvard-Westlake in the L.A. area. What’s more, they were teammates! It’s not like one of them is 34, another 29, and another 24; they were on the same team. That’s crazy, right? That’s crazy. – PAL 

Source: 1 high school has 3 Opening Day starters?!”, Thomas Harrigan, MLB.com (03/25/21)


How 3D Printing Is Making Sports Safer

I started reading this, and thought, “Oh yeah; why haven’t they been doing this for years?” An engineering lab at Auburn has been 3D printing guards for football players based on body scans. And while joints aren’t yet on the table, the relatively early results have been very positive. 

Per Andy Staples:

Why do the custom guards protect better? Physics. A guard that isn’t designed to fit a player’s body won’t allow the force of a blow to dissipate evenly. So certain points on the body must absorb more force. A guard made to fit the contours of the athlete’s body reduces that issue. “There are no what you’d call stress concentrations,” Zabala said. “It dissipates the stress out over the entire surface. It’s 100 percent contact area. If you can distribute the load over the entirety of the surface, then it’s safer for anybody.”

And the idea that a guy could bruise a ribs in the first half of a game and be wearing a custom guard by the second half is pretty incredible. It doesn’t take long to see the applications to other sports as well.

The story then becomes less about the idea and more about making a business out of it. 3D printers are common, so what makes XO Armor positioned to take this concept and turn it into a large company? What’s stopping another competitor from joining the game

The current plan is a subscription model with athletic departments and franchises, but they wonder if there’s a future where the company partners with sports orthopedics across the country. I mean, in three years will TOB be backing dudes down in the pickup game some XO Armor? 

I enjoyed the read, but it sure read like a glowing company review from a very popular college football writer. I wouldn’t mention this, but TOB sent another story from The Athletic, one written by the great Marcus Thompson, about the rapper Macklemore finding the healing power of golf…and by the way he started a golf clothing line. Curious to hear from folks as to whether or not this Staples story read a little like an advertorial for XO Armor.- PAL 

Source: Auburn ingenuity: Custom guards to protect injuries making impact on college football and beyond”, Andy Staples, The Athletic (03/24/21)


Video of the Week: “Two Cheeker” – Kruk is the best.


Tweet of the Week:

Song of the Week: Anderson .Paak – “Make It Better (Feat. Smokey Robinson)”

What’s my problem, punks like you, that’s my problem. And you better not screw up again Seinfeld, because if you do, I’ll be all over you like a Pit Bull on a Poodle.

-Lt. Bookman

Week of March 19, 2021


A Moment of Genius Fandom   

There are cool sports traditions, and there are ones that can feel oh so forced. Here’s a story about a very, very cool tradition from a soccer team in San Sebastián, Spain. The idea, over a half century old,  may have been the product of a hallucinatory haze. I’m already in. How about you? 

Here it is: a single fan shoots off bottle rockets just outside the stadium when a goal is scored. One rocket means the opponents scored, and two rockets shot off means the home team, Real Sociedad, scored. This fantastic idea was courtesy of Patxi Alkorta. Now, his great nephew carries on the tradition. 

One theory is, back in the day, the rockets were an easy way to let the fisherman out in the Bay of Biscay know how the game was going.  The real genius of the idea is not necessarily the rockets, but the code. Per Rory Smith:  

That the tradition’s appeal endured, though, was not only because it was something unique to San Sebastián — “the fans see it as something that belongs to us,” said Iñaki Mendoza, Real Sociedad’s club historian — but because of the simple genius of Alkorta’s idea: that perfect moment of suspense between the two bangs, the silence filled by hope and dread.

“When people are walking through the city on the day of a game and they hear the first rocket, they wait in suspense for the second,” Mendoza said. “And when they hear it, they resume their walk with a smile, because La Real has scored.” Izagirre described it as “a beautiful moment, where everyone is waiting.”

As the team has played to an empty stadium over the past year, the tradition has taken on another angle. While it’s not about breaking news (everyone has it on their phone), but it reminds folks that the game is not being played in a tv or some far off place but rather right there in town, and sometime soon they will be there to see it. – PAL

Source: The Rocketman of San Sebastián”, Rory Smith, The New York Times (03/18/21)

TOB: Oooooh that moment of suspense must be incredible. 


No Direction Home

A handful of folks reading this considered working in sports as a dream job when we were younger. Maybe one of your friends gave it a shot, or maybe you did, and it becomes clear pretty quickly just how difficult it is to break into that industry. For one, you’ll likely get paid shit for a good amount of time,  because the teams – whether it’s the Minnesota Twins or the Sioux Falls Canaries – know how common this dream is this dream is and they pay accordingly, and that’s if you’re lucky. Most folks have a hard time finding a spot to begin with!  Per John Gonzalez: 

That’s the tricky part of the whole dream job thing, especially in pro sports when there are only so many of those to go around in the first place. Unless you’re extremely charmed, there comes a time when you wonder how long you ought to keep chasing after it—and how far you’re willing to go

It’s only a matter of time that the dream is replaced with the reality that it’s likely going to take a long time and a lot of luck in order to get the job you imagined as a kid.  As Adam Tatalovich says, “Not everybody can be Erik Spolestra. Not everyone is coming in as the intern and then you become the head coach. I always knew these jobs would only last for so long.”

Tatalovich is the feature in Gonzalez’s story, and he’s an interesting dude. Tatalovich is a basketball scout, which was a pretty nomadic existence before the pandemic. Back in February, he was working for Guangzhou, a team in the Chinese Basketball Association. There’s a break in the CBA season in January around Lunar New Year. Most coaches and scouts step away from the job and go on vacation; instead, Tatalovich went to Turkey to meet up with a legendary coach there. And thus began his odyssey. Tatalovich hasn’t been back to Guangzhou since. 

March bled into April, and April gave way to a host of concerns—chief among them that he was officially unemployed and his prospects were limited. The woman Adam rented his Airbnb from in Belgrade let him convert it from week-to-week to month-to-month. Clothes were another issue, but that was hardly new. A lot of his belongings were left behind in China. He had an apartment’s worth of stuff stuck in storage and out of reach in Sacramento. He left behind a couple of bags worth of clothes in Australia. More of his things were scattered at friends’ houses all across the United States. All he had was the bag he packed for what he thought would be a quick holiday when he left Guangzhou.

How he spent his time and how he found his way to a job with the Knicks, and what he calls the absence of a nest – I found it all to be a distinct story and point of view on the last year. – PAL 

Source: The COVID Odyssey of One NBA Scout”, John Gonzalez, The Ringer (03/15/21)


RIP Marvin Hagler

Marvin Hagler died this week. He was my all-time favorite fighter. He didn’t take shit and he was tough as hell. Charles Pierce wrote an excellent tribute to Hagler this week, and I suggest you read it. But more importantly, if you even kinda like boxing, watch Hagler’s fight against Tommy Hearns, which in my opinion is the greatest single performance in boxing history. If you think boxing is slow and boring, just spend fifteen minutes watching this fight, and you see how two guys elevated the sport to its purest form.

Two guys, at the peaks of their career, absolutely gutting it out. Incredible. -TOB

Source: Marvelous Marvin Hagler Wouldn’t Bend,” Charles Pierce, Defector (03/15/2021)

PAL: I’d never seen this fight, and TOB is not overselling it. Honestly, this has to be up there in the pantheon of greatest sports ‘highlight’ ever. It’s incredible. Aside from the absolute grit from both of these guys, a few things stood to me, a complete boxing novice. 

  1. Hagler, a lefty, could switch stance and punish in a right-handed stance. 
  2. Hearns’ hands are is so fast. On those long arms, his punches are like a whip with an anvil on the end of it. 

And I heard this anecdote a couple times in the past week that Pierce references, too. After a debatable loss to Sugar Ray Leonard, Hagler walked away from the sport with his brain and some money. He moved to Italy and never game back. Leonard wanted a rematch. Big money. 

Later, when promoter Bob Arum came to New Hampshire to pitch a rematch with Leonard, Hagler’s response carried the sound of a great iron door, closing.

“Tell Ray,” Hagler said to Arum, “to get a life.”

That’s good stuff. 


What Happens When a Football School’s Basketball Team is Better Than the Football Team?

This was a very entertaining article. Here’s the premise:

Every American college that has a big sports culture is either a football school or a something-else school. While a few might identify most closely with lacrosse, baseball, hockey, or volleyball, the most common alternative to football schools are basketball schools.

The article focuses mainly on Michigan and how the basketball team the last few years has been much more successful than the football team. So has Michigan become a basketball school? No, not even close. The issue is the emotional connection, and for whatever reason, certain fanbases have a deep connection with one sport over another:

Coaston got hooked on the Wolverines at their 2005 win over undefeated Penn State, when Mario Manningham caught a walk-off touchdown as time expired. “The highs would be some of the best moments I’ve ever had,” she says.

The most crushing recent loss to the Buckeyes came in 2016, when Michigan came inches away from stopping Ohio State on fourth down to lock up an overtime win. “The emotions I had had about Trump winning in 2016—I was like, ‘I’m fine, I know I can handle this,’ ” Coaston says. “ ‘For the work I do, this is a really important moment, but I’m ready for it.’ I had put all of those emotions into a box, and then I’d shoved that box into Michigan football, and then the Michigan–Ohio State game happened in 2016, and I was like, ‘Ohhhh, no. The box exploded.’ There is no emotional safe space for pretty much anything.”

The box exploded is an all too accurate way to describe it. So is this:

“I don’t think I ever have thought about a Michigan basketball loss more than like a half-hour after it ended,” Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley, a fan since he was a kid in the ’90s, says, “whereas there are Michigan football losses from, like, 18 years ago that I still think very vividly about all the time.”

Swap Cal for Michigan in that paragraph and it’s eerily accurate for me. 

The author suggests a school cannot switch what kind of school it is. But I disagree, because it happened with Cal in the early 2000s. Cal had been a basketball school, with a very strong basketball culture and a passionate fanbase that packed its arena for every game. And then, over a span of 2-3 years, that flipped. The reasons for that are many and involve a rather unique confluence of events – the football team got good, the basketball team was involved in a pay-for-recruits scandal, and the beloved basketball gym was torn down and replaced with a sterile, sucky arena.

Still, this was a fun article and a nice primer for the start of the NCAA tournament. -TOB

Source: “Why So Many College Sports Fans Feel Miserable All the Time,” Alex Kirshner, Slate (03/17/2021)


Video of the Week:

Tweet of the Week:

Song of the Week: The White Buffalo – “Sycamore”


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What evidence is there that cats are so smart, anyway? Huh? What do they do? Because they’re clean? I am sorry. My Uncle Pete showers four times a day and he can’t count to ten. So don’t give me hygiene.

-Elaine Benes

Week of March 12, 2021

*this is a COVID-19-Shutdown-Anniversary-Free Zone*


*my heart!*


Snack Shack Queen 

Snack shack food is some of my favorite food on the planet. Burgers, brats, even frozen Snickers. You can do a lot worse at plenty of places. There’s something about eating that kind of food outside that’s perfection. 

I found this story about Carletta Brown. She runs the Hill House (on top of a hill, yes) – Lake Chabot’s version of the snack shack. While the course is rough around the edges, Carletta’s grilling is the very best part of golfing there. 

As a purveyor of great burgers in the area (Tempest still holds it for me, but 4505 on Divis is no joke, either), and as someone who recently wrote a story that features some randos really, really enjoying their round at Chabot, I am ashamed to say I have not had the Carletta Burger at Chabot. Time to step my game up. 

Brown is every bit as positive as she is portrayed in this story from Grant Marek. What Marek fails to mention is she can (and does) make an f-bomb sounds downright chipper. And the Packers love is real. She finds joy in her work, takes pride in it, and loves interacting with people. In other words, Brown is the kind of employee that makes a place special. About that burger:

 What you’re getting is an ungodly combination of a 1/3-pound of burger, lettuce, tomato, onion, two types of cheese (both doused with barbecue sauce), a split hot link (also cooked with barbecue sauce bled into it, with the cheese tucked into the link) and four pieces of bacon. According to Brown, in total, there’s roughly “a pound of barbecue sauce.”
…Carlotta’s burger has reached the kind of lore that there are stories of some locals who hike all the way up the first few fairways to get one of her burgers … even when they’re not golfing.

TOB – I think we must play a round in order to properly review the burger (you can have a sausage) for our audience. – PAL 

Source: This is the Story of Carlotta Brown: The Woman Behind One of the Bay Area’s Most Loved Burgers”, Grant Marek, SF Gate (03/04/21)

TOB: Maaaaaaaaaaaan, the Snack Shack. The absolute greatest. Nachos. Pizza. Slush Puppies. Discovering the no flavor Slush Puppies (this might sound gross but the Slush Puppy base was basically simple syrup, so “Plain” became the hot shit at my little league). Big League Chew. Bubble Tape. Chili dogs. Warheads. I could go on. 

There it is, from Google Street View. The South Tahoe Little League Snack Shack. It’s had a paint job, for sure, but it’s still the same ol’ Snack Shack. The thing about the Snack Shack is the snacks were great, but the other thing about the Snack Shack is that it was a central place for a big chunk of my young life. There are few joys more pure than chasing and getting a foul ball and then sprinting to return it to the Snack Shack for a free Slush Puppy. This is not hyperbole – when I think of being a kid, and how fun being a kid was, I almost always first think of long Saturdays at the Little League field – especially when I had an 8 or 9am game, and got to hang out all day after, running around like a hooligan with my friends. My dad umpired a lot and my mom was league president and then co-Snack Shack coordinator – so, from basically 3rd grade until 8th grade we were at the field all Saturday, all spring from morning until dusk. 

And, friends, let me tell you – there are few powers available to a 12-year old greater than having a mom who runs the Snack Shack. Long line? Psh, walk into the side door, and grab a slice of pizza, and tell whoever was working to put it on your parents’ tab (thanks mom and dad!). That is real power. 

Now, I live in the city – and one of my great reservations about doing so is that my kids will not know the joy of the Snack Shack. This problem is one of the few things that makes me consider moving to the suburbs. The city is just too big – the fields are scattered across the city, and each is a single field. There’s no central location with four fields, like I grew up with, to see and be seen and to snack. Instead, people just show up for their game and then go home. There is no shack. There are no snacks. What a shame.


A Prospect to Build a Dream On

You know that Louis Armstrong song, A Kiss to Build a Dream On? That song plays on loop in my head every March, as I scour Spring Training box scores and scroll Twitter and tune into sports talk radio, looking for those little nuggets of hope that an unheralded prospect will turn into my team’s next difference maker. 

21-year old Heliot Ramos has been in the Giants’ system since he was 17, and he’s very much making his presence known this Spring Training, hitting mammoth blasts all over the field (3 big home runs and a double off the top of the wall in his last two games). Do not get me wrong, I am so excited about Heliot that I am thinking aloud of starting a food cart outside Giants Sunday games called Heliot’s Elote y Helado (alternatively: Heliote y Heliado), and tweeting things like this on a Sunday afternoon:

But Heliot was a known quantity coming into this Spring, and I’m here instead to talk about Jason Vosler. 

I know, who? Well, Vosler was a former late round pick by the Chicago Cubs, out of Northeastern – not exactly a baseball hotbed. In the minors, Vosler always showed good plate discipline and a good sense of the strike zone, but never much power. And then he made a swing change. I’ll let Giants fan Roger Munter explain:

So it was time for a checkup with the swing doctors. I don’t play a swing doctor even on TV, but the term that has followed Vosler around much of his career is that he suffered from an overly “rotational” swing. I don’t want to get into the whole “rotational” versus “linear” swing debate (though I promise you a quick google search will produce a mountain of information for you to wade through), but I read Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting when I was young, and The Kid was the progenitor and original advocate of “rotational” hitting, so I think it’s probably a good thing. Rotating around a single axis, Ted believed, brought the large muscles of one’s core into one’s swing as a power-generating force, rather than relying on just the strength of one’s hands and wrists. The general visual analogy used is that a rotational swing uses the power of a pendulum, while a linear swing creates whip-like power snapping the bat on a more direct path to the ball.

Here’s a short video explaining what this is, but the short of it is that Vosler was over-rotating, causing his swing to be too long, which made him slower to the ball and cost him power. So, he fixed it. From Munter, here is Vosler in college on the left and in 2019 on the right:

The impact was immediate. Vosler began to hit bombs – 21 in AA in 2018, the second most in his league. He hit at least twenty the next two years, too, after having hit just 17 combined in the three years before his swing change.  But Vosler was blocked at third base in the Cubs system, by Kris Bryant, so they dealt him to San Diego after 2019. He’s blocked there, too, of course, but had a great Spring in 2020:

In March of 2020, the now-26-year-old did something he’d no doubt been dreaming about for more than a decade — he reported to major league camp as a non-roster invitee for a talented and deep San Diego Padres team. And, mixing it up with Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Manny Machado, Vosler was the talk of camp, going 9-for-20 (.450) with a homer, three doubles, three walks and two strikeouts. Dude knows how to light up Arizona! Manager Jayce Tingler said that Vosler was having “as good of at-bats as any of our guys” before spring training was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the impression he’d made garnered Vosler an invitation in July to Summer Camp and he’d spend the year at the Padres Alternate Site, waiting for an opportunity that didn’t come. He was, again, buried on a depth chart behind guys like Machado and Rookie of the Year 2nd place finalist Jake Cronenworth

So the Giants signed him to a major league deal, which surprised some people. After all, Vosler has never had an appearance in the bigs. As Munter notes, though, Vosler checks all the Giants boxes – he is a Yaz profile come to life, per Munter:

  • Overlooked because he didn’t pop on traditional scouting grades.
  • Long history of patience, walks, and good swing decisions
  • Swing change unlocking power
  • Approach geared to swinging only when maximum damage can be generated

Vosler has not disappointed this month. His numbers: 

.500 BA/ .500 OBP/ .813 SLG/ 1.313 OPS

Pretty friggin good. Will Vosler be the next Yaz for the Giants? Man, I don’t know. But that’s why I love Spring Training, and that’s why I loved this story by Munter – it’s a story, and those are numbers, to build a dream on. 

P.S. I wrote this on Monday morning. Since, Vosler has gone 0 for 8 with 5 strikeouts and one walk. LOLLLLL *shrug* -TOB

Source: Should Jason Vosler Excite You?Roger Munter (03/10/21)

PAL: “P.S. I wrote this on Monday morning. Since, Vosler has gone 0-8.” What a perfect end to a spring training prospect story.

I liked the rhythm of this paragraph: 

So who is Jason Vosler, exactly? Well there are several answers to that question. Vosler is a cold weather guy. He’s a swing change guy. Not surprisingly, he’s a “good swing decisions” guy. And he’s frequently been a “victim of numbers” guy. But most importantly, he’s a serious “overcoming the odds” guy — Vosler has never been high on anybody’s scouting card, prospect list, or dynasty team. Step by step, he’s walked a long, lonely Cinderella path, well away from the limelight for many years, until suddenly finding himself in that most incredible of positions, the precipice of a dream come true.

You know what else is so great…or maybe the worst about the story? It keeps some delusional dream alive for a bunch of guys not half as good as Vosler on his worst day. The fantasy is given new life: that scouts really were focusing on the wrong numbers, that all it took was a person to see things differently in order for a guy like Vosler to get a shot. That one tweak to the swing was the difference between 14 home runs in three seasons and 20 homers in one season.


Former College Baseball Player Explains Some Hitting Shop Talk

Some people hate Twitter, because of the Discourse. But I still think it’s great because you get to curate what you see. I don’t need to see the toxic stuff. I get juuuuuust enough politics to stay informed, and then so much baseball and basketball. This week I stumbled upon this amazing and confusing conversation between former major leaguer Trevor Plouffe and current major leaguer/former MVP Josh Donaldson, delving into the depths of hitting mechanics. 

And, I won’t lie, a lot of it was so far over my head. So I asked our boy here to translate. I don’t know if you know, but Phil played college baseball – there are stats online to prove it and everything. So, Phil, what’s going on here? Please translate. -TOB

PAL: Very pedestrian stat lines. This is going to take a minute. I think I caught about 75% of what Plouffe and Donaldson are talking about. I’ll do my best here to translate key points. Of course, there’s a chance I am wrong on a lot of this. One thing I’m sure of – my buddies back at Augie will let me know. 

Hand slot: Slot = start of hand path to the ball. Where his hands start indicates the line his hands take to the ball. Think of it in 3D. Not just an uppercut, downward path, or straight line, but do his hands push away from his body (common for guys who hit the ball opposite field a lot or pull in towards his body (more of a pull hitter). 

Clicks in the zone: Yeah, no idea what Plouffe is talking about. 

TOB: If I may jump in here – I believe he means frames/clicks as he reviews the video. Three clicks in the zone means the bat is in the zone for 3 clicks/frames of the film, which is good. If a bat is in the zone for 1 click/frame, that’s too short and hard to hit – the more time the bat is in the zone the better the chance to make contact. Back to Phil…

Yes Yes No Hitter: This connects to the intent to swing idea. Every pitch, the hitter should have the same approach in terms of physical movements. Every pitch – swing or take – should be 90% the same. That last millisecond of recognition is when good hitters decide to take a pitch. Every pitch, as the ball is in flight: yes (I’m going to swing, recognizing pitch), yes (I’m going to swing, recognizing location), and then they decide whether or not to swing. Great hitters do everything the same every swing until that last moment of recognition. 

More forward lower half and upper staying back: This is hard to do, and so a lot of hitters (myself included) would either overcompensate and stay back to the point where I had no momentum going through the ball, or I would get out front with my entire body.  You have to come through the ball by getting your lower body moving towards the ball, but the trick is to keep your hands back and your front shoulder on the ball. That’s where the quickness comes from, and that combined with the big strength from the big muscles in the legs, butt, and core is where power comes from. 

General: Donaldson always rubbed me the wrong way. No reason, really. Ok; fine, maybe it was the hair! But this made me really like him. I’d like him even more if he stays healthy and mashes for the Twinkies. 

TOB: re Donaldson. My favorite tweet was at the end when he tells Plouffe, who had a few nice years there with the Twins, what was wrong with his swing and why his career sputtered out. It was brutally honest and kudos to Plouffe for accepting the way-too-late diagnosis. But – how disturbed is Josh Donaldson that he either (a) knew off the top of his head from having played against Plouffe what was wrong with his balance, or (b) took the time to check his swing during this conversation? Either way, it’s some real grinder shit.


Minor League Experimental Rule Changes? UGH! Wait, Actually…

I don’t like significant rule changes in baseball. I like baseball just how it is. But while I am a traditionalist in that sense, I am at odds with those traditionalists who want to curtail innovation. See, The Shift. In my opinion a team should be able to position its defense however it would like, because there is no rule saying otherwise. Moreover, as we have covered here before, the shift is not new – teams have been doing it for decades – they are just shifting more often now as data not previously available instructs. Not only that, but deep dives into statistics show that the shift is basically neutral in its impact. 

With that said, here are rules MLB is implementing across the minors this year, which are experimental and could be coming to MLB soon:

Skip the larger bases rule in AAA and go right to the shift rule in AA. Despite what I said above, I am ok with the rule that the infielders must be, ya know, on the infield. Over the last few years we’ve seen guys thrown out at first after hitting a 100 MPH laser 100 feet past the infield, because the shortstop has not only shifted, but is essentially playing at a softball rover depth. Baseball is entertainment, and it should be fun – watching a team scoop up a weak grounder that can’t dribble through what would have been a hole is one thing; watching a team play with a cheat code and take away a line drive by playing half way between the infield and the outfielder is another. 

While we’re here, I also love the high-A pickoff rule. Pickoff attempts are legitimately boring and almost always fail, while stolen base attempts are fun as hell. This rule will make it harder for pitchers to pick guys off, and easier to read when they are and aren’t. Sight unseen, I’m a big fan. I’m less thrilled at the low-A pickoff rule. Once you put a limit, and once a pitcher hits his limit, it’s going to allow runners to absolutely tee off on the bases. Stealing bases is fun, but runners taking off with impunity is not.  -TOB


Video of the Week

Yes, more Jomboy.


Tweet of the Week


Song of the Week  Cannonball Adderley – Autumn Leaves (feat. Miles Davis) 


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Feels like an Arby’s night.”

-David Puddy

Week of March 5, 2021


The Eyes are on the Eyes of Texas

 

 

If you missed it, University of Texas football players created quite the stir last fall when they began refusing to stay out on the field and sing the school song, Eyes of Texas, as has long been tradition. They did this because the song has roots in racism, and good for them. The reason this is a story again, in March, is because the players correctly are not letting it go. But also because a reporter obtained e-mails sent by boosters to the school complaining about the players, and boy howdy are there some doozies. Before we get to the e-mails I have to add this. I have been to two Texas games in my life – one in Austin, the other in Berkeley. But as I read this article I realized I have no idea how Eyes of Texas sounds, or what the lyrics are. So, as I was reading, I decided to pause and go read the lyrics to the song. And, wow. Not only are they dumb as hell, but I also found out the song is set to the tune of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad! That is so hilariously stupid. Why the hell do these people care about a nursery song with dumb lyrics? I went back to the article and then read this:

Texas is not the only school that would make this choice. But it is the one school that’s in the position of forcing players to go along with this particular song, which if you haven’t heard it, is sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” A banger, it is not.

 

I laughed out loud. A banger, it is not. Many of the emails threatened to pull donations – some of them claiming to have donated over $1,000,000. Again – imagine first loving a football team so much you donate SEVEN FIGURES, and then getting so upset at the idea of a dumb song set to I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THE RAILROAD not being sung by players who don’t want to sing it. The hell?  Two of the emails from boosters, however, lay it all bare

“Less than 6% of our current student body is black,” wrote Larry Wilkinson, a donor who graduated in 1970, quoting a statistic UT-Austin officials have stated they’re working to improve. “The tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog….. and the dog must instead stand up for what is right. Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school ….NOW!”
“It’s time for you to put the foot down and make it perfectly clear that the heritage of Texas will not be lost,” wrote another donor who graduated in 1986. Texas also redacted that name. “It is sad that it is offending the blacks. As I said before the blacks are free and it’s time for them to move on to another state where everything is in their favor.”

THE BLACKS. That’s really all you need to know about this story: rich, white assholes want to exercise their power over others. A story as old as time. -TOB

Source: “UT Needs Rich Donors”: Emails Show Wealthy Alumni Supporting “Eyes of Texas” Threatened to Pull Donations,” Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune (03/01/2021); In ‘Eyes of Texas’ Debate, Texas Chooses Donors Over Doing What’s Best for Players,David Ubben, The Athletic (03/01/2021)

PAL: I laughed at that line, too, TOB: “A banger, it is not.” Winning is the most valued tradition, and that comes from talented players competing for your school. It may not feel like it, but the power here lies with the players and students, not with a few boosters who try to bully the school to shape it around their incomplete, childhood memories of the school and its football team from back in the ‘good ol days’. 

If the players, especially good ones, don’t want to stand and sing the song, then they don’t have to, and if the team punishes them, the team will lose more. More games, and more recruits. Fewer big-time recruits will go to Texas – because who wants to play for an average team that prioritizes some booster and his/her obsession with a dumb song? As the anonymous booster points out, there are plenty of other schools where they don’t have to do that, and I’ll add this: plenty of other schools with better football programs. If the school bows down to these boosters, then program will become more insignificant than it already has become. The school is worried about money drying up now? Keep losing and see what happens. 

It’s easier to argue over symbolic traditions than it is to address what U.T. fans and boosters care about most: the team hasn’t been a title contender in over a decade. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and – perhaps most painful – Oklahoma have left Texas behind. There isn’t an easy solution to that problem, so they turn their attention to a song, to preservation in the name of ‘heritage’. 

Again, winning is the most valued tradition, and that comes from players. This situation is a hell of an unfair burden to put on a kid—to choose between what feels wrong (singing an old minstrel song in the name of tradition) and what you love (playing football). And for a few, that fight could lead to the end of their football days (being benched or not having a scholarship renewed). One thing’s for sure: the adults in the room will be no help. The coaches get paid a lot, and they want to keep cashing those checks. Guess who’s behind writing those checks. 


Hustler

I know very little about pool. Billiards. We played in the basement growing up, and I like to play at a bar. Pool is a great conversation starter. Other than that, and Minnesota Fats, I know very little. Some guys like to wear a vest when they play, right? What’s that about? Efren Reyes is a pool legend. He’s considered the best pool player in history in the same way Wayne Gretzky is considered the best hockey player – it’s not really up for debate, and no one is looking for one. Reading his story from the perspective of someone who knows very little about the game only made this story from Eric Nusbaum and Adam Vllacin even better.  The opening is fantastic: 

Efren Reyes would rather not have become the most famous and universally praised pool player in the history of the world. Would rather not have gone pro or been the subject of a million YouTube highlight reels or won every single pool tournament known to man. Would rather not have become so successful, so universally admired that there is a literal X-Men character based on him. 

Going pro, getting famous—this was all a last resort. Because what Efren Reyes really wanted to do was hustle.  

He was born in a town called Mexico, in the Filipino province of Pampanga, about 40 miles up the highway from Manila. When he was a kid, the family moved down the highway and into the capital. Efren had an uncle there who ran a pool hall called Lucky 13. Efren started hanging around the pool hall, watching the older men—the good players and the bad ones—while working as an attendant, and goofing around at the empty tables. 

Who among you is not reading a story about a Filipino from the town of Mexico who would go on to become the best pool player ever and the inspiration of a comic book character?  I am thinking about what else to add to this story to convince you to read it. What other details, what other quotes. The more I think about it, what else do you need that’s not in that opening? OK, here’s Reyes dominating: 

Go read the story already! – PAL Source: The Greatest Pool Player In History Just Wanted To Hustle”, Eric Nusbaum and Adam Vllacin, Sports Stories, ℅ Defector (03/02/21) TOB: I had never even heard of this guy, but now I love him. If for no other reason than this anecdote relayed in the story:

At the inaugural Derby City Classic in 1999, he won the “Master of the Table” award for best all-around player. At the ceremony he refused his trophy. “I play for money,” he said as he accepted his $25,000 check.

CTC. Cut that check, baby!


Succeed?

Well, this is interesting – two businessmen, working closely with female athletes, are trying to turn the existing concept of a sports league on its head. Or, at least, re-invent it from scratch. They wondered why women’s sports, in particular, don’t seem to have huge professional followings in the U.S. So, they did some research:

In their research, four trend lines in fan behavior stood out: 1) Supporters were more likely to exhibit passion about individual players than they were about entire teams. 2) They were engaging with sports on a variety of platforms, just as likely to play in a fantasy league or consume highlights on Instagram as they were to watch actual games. 3) They were increasingly interested in athletes’ personalities and off-field lives. And 4) They took close notice of “values orientation,” the standards and ideals that a league and its athletes center on.

In other words, the existing model of professional sports has been difficult to navigate for any upstart league, particularly for women’s leagues, which tended to be shut out of mainstream media coverage. But if you were building something new—if you weren’t necessarily worried about filling stadiums in a dozen different markets or landing a major cable deal; if, instead, you marketed directly to an existing segment of fans—you could make it work.

Ok, so – a league in a bubble, with fandom not centered on regional ties? This doesn’t sound all that revolutionary so far. But the devil is in the details, and when they say they are throwing out the 20th Century American Sports model, they are not kidding:

At the start of each season, a small number of players would be named as captains. Those captains would draft teams in a live-streamed event, promoted as much as any game, which would mix personality (Who’s picking whom?) with strategy (How are they approaching the intricacies of roster construction?). These teams would then play one another over the course of the next week. But while each game would look and feel familiar, with a winner and a loser, what really mattered would be the individual stats, kept with a unique scoring system, tailored to the sport, that accounted for offensive and defensive performance. These individual numbers would be tracked on a leaderboard, and at the end of each week team captains would draft anew, remaking their rosters to form completely new teams. Finally, at the end of the season, rather than a championship squad, there would be one woman atop the leaderboard. Your fill-in-the-blank-sport champion.

Uh, wow. That is certainly different. But they’re not done:

Every player would earn the same base salary but could activate performance-based bonuses that doubled or even tripled that takeaway. They’d all play in one city (Rosemont, Ill., for softball; Dallas for volleyball…) to cut out the costs of traveling and operating multiple stadiums, and to facilitate the creation of media content around the players, who’d be living and spending time together, getting drafted by their fellow athletes each week. They’d all have ownership stakes in the league. And they’d make decisions together, on the rulebook and on marketing strategy, all the way down the line.

Officially wild. Baccellieri, long one of my favorite writers and Twitter follows, succinctly explains the rationale:

Fans can follow individual athletes they already know from college or, say, from Instagram, rather than try to embrace brand-new teams with whom they have no history, no local connection.

This makes some sense. Two of my favorite Cal players of all time are Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch. When they got to the NFL, I rooted for them, but with some reservation – though I have my issues with the 49ers, they are still the team I grew up rooting for and rooting for Rodgers or Lynch often meant rooting against the Niners, usually indirectly, but often very directly, including in the playoffs. If the NFL followed this model, instead, I could unabashedly root for those two guys . I could root for Ozzie Albies or Fernando Tatis, Jr., because I like to watch them play, without worrying about what their good performances doe to my team’s playoff chances. Because I’d have no team. I’d just have My Guys. And we all know I love My Guys. That’s not to say that I want MLB to change to this model – hell no. But I see the logic for a niche sport, like women’s softball. The fanbase is small but devoted, and most start following players in college. After college it becomes difficult to follow the players – the teams, and even the leagues, are forming and folding all the time, and it becomes hard to invest in emotionally, as three of the sport’s best players all agree:

The existing model for professional softball was untenable. The average annual salary in NPF was around $5,000. The number of viable teams fluctuated each season. As much as they loved the game, they’d never banked on softball as a serious career. Almost no one could. 

This is true of a lot of sports, for men and women. Even Women’s Soccer – I have lost count of how many teams Alex Morgan has been on (I just looked it up and it’s 7 in 10 years, geeze).  If, instead, I could follow her on Twitter, see her highlights, and be able to see she is kicking butt on the “leaderboard”? I dunno – I think I really would pay more attention. And that’s what Athletes Unlimited hopes. They don’t just want to reach diehards. By focusing on national (“all 30 softball games ran on TV or were streamed by ESPN and CBS; 22 of the 30 upcoming volleyball matches will be on CBS or Fox subsidiaries”) and social media, they hope to reach everyone:

“There’s going to be your volleyball fans, your lacrosse fans—those are the people who are always watching, it doesn’t matter the format, right?” says Jessica Mendoza, a softball player turned ESPN analyst and now an Athletes Unlimited board member. “But now there’s going to be a guy who likes to gamble! Now he’s going to watch a women’s lacrosse game and notice stuff he never would have noticed. … And it’s not just one guy like that. There are hundreds and thousands, and they absorb sports for different reasons. I think, ultimately, a lot of them are going to walk away and be like, I like watching women’s volleyball. I like watching women’s softball. Not all of them, but I think a lot of them—and that makes me happy.”

This is an interesting concept, and a really good read. -TOB Source: Welcome to the Grand Softball Experiment,” Emma Baccellieri, Sports Illustrated (02/26/2021)


Winter Surfing Looks Awesome and Miserable

I love a good photo essay, and the NY Times has this cool thing going during the pandemic where they feature a photojournalist taking the viewers to places in the world a bit harder to get to these days. In this most recent installment, Ryan Carter captures winter surfers on Lake Huron.  Per Carter: 

In recent years there’s been a significant increase in the popularity of lake surfing in North America. Unlike ocean surfers, who often depend partly on tides, lake surfers rely solely on strong, sustained winds. The stormy winter months often bring the biggest waves — and therefore the best surfing conditions.

The photos are surreal. The snow, the ice, the flurries, and the surfboard. It’s like surfers found the last place on earth – a deserted lake town. It all feels a bit apocalyptic.  Check out all of the photos in the link below. – PAL 

Source:Surf’s Up. The Temperature Isn’t.”, Ryan Carter, The New York Times (03/01/21)


Video of the Week: A couple excellent jomboy breakdowns.


Tweet of the Week:


Song of the Week: Anderson .Paak, Feat. Rick Ross – “CUT EM IN”


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I gotta focus. I’m shifting into soup mode. 

-George Costanza

Throw Strikes!

An Incomplete Guide of What Not to Shout at a Baseball Game

Spring is so close. Baseball teams have returned to Arizona and Florida. Daylight Savings—the good one—is just on the other side of next weekend. Maybe there’s an end to this pandemic up ahead, and with some luck, each of you reading this story will soon enough find yourself in a lawn chair watching a baseball game on a long, warm, golden evening. Can you feel the grass between your toes? Don’t forget the sunflower seeds. 

We’ll all be rusty on the situations, players and spectators alike. Understandable; it’s been a minute. While the kid playing right field may have forgotten where to throw the ball on a single with a runner on first and two outs, you may have forgotten what to yell at the game. 

Nothing is everywhere at a baseball game. It permeates. For nearly 200 years spectators have filled the nothing between the pitches with chatter. We are compelled to be heard in that nothing. Of course, leaving the nothing as silence is no good either (games with empty stadiums is a recent reminder), but often the nothing is filled with counterproductive, self-evident, too late, passive-aggressive, not-as-clever-as-you-think crap. 

There are any number of sentiments fitting to yell at a baseball game, but there are a handful of phrases that need to be removed from any spectator’s rotation. They gotta go, regardless of intent. That’s what we’re here to start. 

With the help of friends, family, coaches, parents, I’ve collected the following list of things to avoid shouting when at a baseball game. Consider this a living document. Send me what I’ve missed. We’ll work together on it, and in the process we’ll make games, especially youth sports, just a little less dumb. 

Keep your distance, and keep yourself from yelling any of the following at the ballgame.  

Throw strikes! If nothing else comes from this list other than one less person shouting Throw strikes! at a baseball game, then this story will have been worth it.

To the folks who yell that at a game, I ask you: what in the goddamn hell do you think all pitchers, ages 8 to 80, is trying to do? I promise, their intention was not to walk the previous four hitters. Just because they struggle to throw a strike doesn’t mean they forgot the purpose of their presence on the mound. All pitchers, at every level and every game, are trying to throw strikes, so stop shouting that.

Focus! Question: would someone yelling Focus! while you worked help you keep your attention on the task at hand? Similar: Keep your head in the game! 

Tie goes to the runner! You’re superhuman? You have a slow motion feature in your brain? Oh, you don’t? So then maybe ease up on the retired gym teacher umpire making a judgement call on the bang-bang play. In fact, just resist the urge to yell rules, made-up ones—like “tie goes to the runner”—or otherwise.  

Trust your arm. How does one trust his or her arm? Can an arm betray trust? Can an arm earn trust? This phrase is typically something a father will say to his child who he thinks is superior to the hitter. Trust your arm, in other words, is “your average fastball is more than this kid can handle.” Or, consider this: maybe the pitcher isn’t trusting his/her arm because it sucks on that day and the last four batters have hit standup doubles. 

He’s not looking to hit. One of my favorites, ℅  my college buddy Kevin Wiessner. While the spectator is saying this to the pitcher, this is just as much directed at the opposing team’s hitter. He’s not looking to hit is saying no less than “this player is bad at hitting a baseball. So terrible that you, pitcher, don’t need to waste time thinking about pitch selection or location. The only way this hitter hurts you—the only way— is if you can’t throw three strikes.”  

He’s not looking to hit is the combination of Throw strikes! and calling an opposing player trash in one succinct phrase. 

Watch the junk! God love him, my dad would yell this anytime I had two strikes on me in an at-bat. Thinking about a curveball with two strikes is an effective way to watch a fastball go by and strikeout looking. We’ve all been told hitting is very hard, and it happens in less than a second. My advice: don’t put ideas into a kid’s head the moment before he/she needs to make a decision.

In fact, no instruction is helpful from the stands during the game. Practice is the time for instruction. The batting cage is time to work on technique and approach. If you want to fill your kid’s head with bad info, at least do it away from the game. That time is over once the game starts. 

If you’re in the stands, then you are not the coach, so don’t coach. I know it might feel like it, but your 11 year-old’s MLB draft stock will not be impacted by the fourth at-bat in the 9 AM consolation game at the weekend tournament 50 miles on the other side of nowhere. 

Special consideration for “don’t” coaching from the stands. The only thing worse than shouting stay down at the infielder who just a ground ball go between his legs is to shout don’t come up!  Same goes for don’t lunge (when hitting), don’t nibble (when pitching). If you’re committed to shouting dumb things at a baseball game, at least shout what you want. 

Just a long strike! A favorite phrase of the dad who fancies himself the funny guy in the crowd. Typically this one comes out after an opposing cleanup hitter who hit puberty three years before the rest of the kids sends a pitch 400-feet on a line, just foul. While technically true—the foul ball is a strike—psychologically, this was not just a strike. Anyone at the game feels it and knows it to be true. A missile foul ball can be far more damaging to the pitcher’s psyche than a ground ball with eyes.

I understand the intention of trying to get the pitcher to move onto the next pitch, but we can get there without drawing attention to the ball that cratered the hood of a SUV in the parking lot beyond right field. 

Besides, everyone knows a foul ball – be it a bunt or a moonshot – is a strike. It doesn’t need to be said, and it does not deliver the positive reassurance proposed in the phrase. 

Just ‘lets’ us score more! I have saved the worst for last. This is not a common phrase—thank god—and we must keep it that way. 

This embarrassment is the wordcraft of an otherwise excellent coach and mentor. He knows who he is, and it is out of an abundance of respect that I don’t call him by name. Future generations of his family don’t deserve the burden, so great is this crime against the game. 

Coach would like to shout this, almost with a sick glee, when the opposing team was in the frenzie of scoring several runs in an inning. There’s a momentum that comes with the opposition putting together a big inning. With each run, the weight gets heavier, and it gets harder and harder to get out from under it. Even an out is an act of mercy. 

That’s when he’d shout it: Just ‘lets’ us score more! 

What it felt like: 

5 runs deficit? Not a problem! 

8 runs? We’ve done it before! 

10 runs? What an awesome opportunity! 

First, the opposing team scoring a lot of runs did not then let us score more runs. A victory required more runs. Second, big comebacks happen not through blinding positivity, but through a plodding, steady persistence. 

The rebuttal to my argument is that the phrase is about a mindset, of course. It’s not meant to push blind positivity. It’s more of a PG version of an “f-it” mentality. It’s about avoiding a dugout of moping. Moping leads to a little less hustle, and no team’s coming back from a big deficit feeling sorry for itself.

All of that is true and right, but there’s got to be a less lame, bright-eyed way to convey that point. Just ‘lets’ us score more is like yelling “just ‘lets’ us swim!” to the townspeople as the dam breaks. 

So what are some good phrases to yell at a ballgame? It’s pretty simple: heap specific praise on players, especially on the young ones. 9/10 things you shout should be positive. Don’t be the a-hole who only chimes in when his/her kid does something.  If you’re consistently praising all the good stuff, then it’s fine to call out a lack of hustle and mental mistakes, but maybe go with “we” instead of a kid’s name.

You might be wondering, “Who is this guy to tell me what to shout at a baseball game?”

I’m no one, man. But on this, I am right.

– Phil Lang, 03/03/21

 

Since we’re here, we can quickly cover off on some other sports, too, including basketball, hockey, soccer, volleyball, swimming, and more. 

Here’s a start of running list of phrases to avoid: 

Get the ball

Jump

Run

Skate

Shoot

Dribble

Kick (swimming)

Over (volleyball)

Let’s hear some chatter

Look alive

Take the body

Move it

Keep your head in the game

Walk it off

Box out

Any swearing at a youth game, because you’re better than that. 

Not exactly a phrase, but this still ought to go: holding up four fingers to signal the 4th quarter of a football game, as if to say your team owns the fourth quarter. How unoriginal can a “tradition” be? 

 

Week of February 26, 2021


“Good-Looking Ballplayer”

This is a story about the unlikely source material that helped inspire a new way of thinking and evaluating talent in baseball. 

Daniel Kahneman (Cal grad, TOB) and Amos Tversky wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book about behavioral economics. These guys were not baseball dudes. Kahnman won a Nobel Prize in economics. The book barely references baseball, but it’s a major influence on many general managers, executives, and scouts throughout the game. 

Most of us are aware of Moneyball — both the best-seller Michael Lewis book and the Brad Pitt movie (really holds up as an all-time great sports movie) which in large part details how the Oakland A’s took a fresh look at the stats to find undervalued players. They needed to— the team couldn’t compete with the big market teams in terms of paying big-name players. 

In the movie version, one of my favorite scenes is when Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) sits down with all the old scouts and tries to explain how the team needs to take a different approach to evaluations. The scene is a perfect example of what Kahneman and Tversky defined as “the representativeness heuristic” — the idea that assessment is heavily influenced by what is believed to be the standard or the ideal.

While there were other baseball influences at play in Oakland (Bill James’ work on baseball statistics, to name one), it’s no wonder that many decision-makers in today’s game credit the economists’ work in Thinking, Fast and Slow as having a major impact on how they try to evaluate talent for their teams. 

Orioles Assistant General Manager, Sig Mejdal, is one such decision-maker. He worked at NASA prior bringing his biomathematics brain to baseball.

He says:

“When we look at the players standing for the national anthem, it’s hard not to realize that quite a few of these guys are far from stereotypical or prototypical. Yet our mind still is attracted quite loudly to the stereotypical and prototypical.”

Other executives who likely have a raggedy copy of the book in their office: Andrew Freidman (Dodgers), John Mozeliak (Cardinals), Sam Fuld (Phillies). I’d bet my next paycheck the Giants Farhan Zaidi is on this list, too.  Excellent read. – PAL 

Source:This Book Is Not About Baseball. But Baseball Teams Swear by It.Joe Lemire, The New York Times (02/24/21)


Baseball Players…SMH. In an article I otherwise would not have shared here, about how MLB/MLBPA negotiations regarding the expanded playoffs and universal DH are going, Andrew Baggarly included this note from Giants’ MLBPA rep Austin Slater which raised my eyebrows, about player attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccine:

“It’s case by case how each player feels about (the vaccine),” Slater said. “It’s a decision they need to make individually and with their family. All you can do is provide information and point them in the right direction when they have questions. Hopefully that’s enough for people to make the decision.”

Wait, uh – what? Case by case? That sounds like a whole lot of vaccine resistance amongst baseball players. But then a thought hit me that made Slater’s comment make a lot more sense: Baseball players are generally pretty quiet about their politics, but we hear enough rumblings to have a good idea that as a whole they lean heavily right, and will you look at this:

According to the recent Gallup poll, the rate of willingness to get the vaccine increased in both Democrats and Republicans with 91% of Democrats (compared to 83% in December) and 51% of Republicans (compared to 45% in December) willing to get vaccinated.

Oh. Wild. To be clear: 500,000 people have died in this country alone, and somehow the percentage of Republican anti-vaxxers has soared. Last January, the percentage of Republicans who believed it is important to vaccinate kids was 79% (down from 93% in 2001), as compared to 92% of Democrats. That was bad enough, but a year and 500,000 dead later, the number of Republicans who are willing to get the COVID vaccine is 51%? 

-TOB

Source: Giants Need Expanded Playoffs; Union Rep Austin Slater Says it’s a No Go For Now,” Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic (02/25/2021)


Golden Years Softball League

Every time I return to Minnesota, I’ll do the Body By Bennett run. I can’t remember which of the siblings authored the name the 4-mile loop through Central Park, around Bennett Lake, and back down Transit, but the name stuck. In the spring and summer months, somewhere between 1 and 1.5 miles, the trail passes the softball complex. On weekdays, starting the senior softball leagues are ripping. They dominate the fields on weekday afternoons, when everyone else is – you know – working. 

So when I saw this essay from Abby Ellin about her 83-year old dad’s softball league, I had a good feeling I’d be sharing it with you. She doesn’t disappoint. This guy may as a well be playing at Central Park in Roseville.

There are sweet moments and hilarious moments, too. Their rebellion to sitting down or sitting out on life is inspiring. Although, the chatter is a bit different: 

“You get the vaccine?”

“I keep trying, but every time I go to the website it crashes.”

“The Democrats are keeping the vaccine for political reasons.”

“That’s a conspiracy theory!”

Then there was movement on home plate. “I need a runner!” yelled batter Carl Slutz, who at 86 is one of the league’s oldest players. It was a good day for Slutz (“It’s pronounced ‘Slootz,’” he stressed). If he got a hit in this at-bat, he would be 5 for 5.

I love that these old guys are filling their days doing something that — for many of them, I assume—they’ve loved since they were young boys. It’s something that buoyes them in this world instead of waiting for whatever’s next. 

Not my dad.

Playing sports has centered him for the past eight decades. He has been voted the most valuable player a few times. He was out on the field the day after one of the worst moments in his life, when my sister died. The camaraderie and oxygen were more critical than ever. Besides, what good would staying home have done?

“It’s not going to change anything,” he said. “I didn’t play well, let’s just say that.”

It reminded me of something Neil Lewis, 87, one of the Golden Years’ commissioners, told me last year. “When you get old, if you just lay around and watch TV you’ll go to hell, in plain English,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your mind going.”

Not so long ago I’d say I’d never play in a softball league. Didn’t appeal to me enough to make it a priority once a week. I loved baseball when I played. Softball felt so casual, and I loved how intense baseball was for me. I relented and played in a few softball leagues in SF. Nothing stuck. We should give it another go, TOB. These old dude’s seem like they’re having a blast. 

A heartwarming essay worth the five minutes to read in full. -PAL

Source: The Retired Boys of Summer Play On”, Abby Ellin, The New York Times (02/25/21)


Aww, Man Julius Randle was named an All Star this year for the first time in his career. His mom recorded a congrats video and they played it on the jumbotron at MSG, as Julius looked on.

That’s cute and all, but after the game Randle provided some context that took it from, “Aw” to “I’m not crying, I’ve just been chopping onions”: 

“It was definitely amazing,” Randle told reporters after the game. “Throughout the course of this past year, it’s definitely been tough on all of us. But my mother, she hasn’t been able to leave the house; she’s a diabetic. We’ve been extra cautious with her.”

Dang, man. Can we get this woman a vaccine, please? -TOB

Source: Here Is A Delightful Surprise Message From Julius Randle’s Mom,” Patrick Redford, Defector (02/24/2021)


Video of the Week:


Tweet of the Week:


Song of the Week: Aaron Frazer – “Over You”


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I worked out with a dumbbell yesterday. I feel vigorous. 

-Frank Costanza

Week of February 19, 2021

 

TOB and PAL after bringing the heat each and every week.


What is the *Point* of College Sports?

For decades, athletics were seen as an integral part of most college campuses. Sure, there were outliers – like one-time Big 10 football powerhouse University of Chicago deemphasizing athletics and dropping football in 1939. But for the most part, college sports have had a good run. 

Sometime around the 1980s, though, college football and men’s basketball went from big money to stupid big money. Around the same time, public colleges started to lose public funding as a share of their overall revenue. Tuition went up. Competition for admissions went way up. And over the last few years we have found ourselves in this perfect political storm: football and men’s basketball generating a lot of money, which subsidizes the other sports, while football players and men’s basketball players don’t get paid. As it happens, most football and men’s basketball players are persons of color, and most players from most of the other teams are white (especially in the so-called country club sports). 

But that’s not all, because while football and men’s basketball subsidize the country club sports, so does the campus at large. Public funding and student tuition covers the deficit that most college athletic programs run each year. This has led colleges to cut smaller sports, especially smaller men’s sports, in order to reduce budget deficits. But it hasn’t been enough at most schools.

Then, in 2019, the USC/Stanford college admissions scandals brought to light an ugly truth that had been a poorly kept secret: upper-middle to upper-class, mostly white parents have been gaming the admissions systems for decades by guaranteeing their children admission to top colleges, and at least partial scholarships, by having them compete in low-participation sports. Like fencing. And crew. And field hockey. And lacrosse. And synchronized swimming.  Nowhere was this more prevalent than California. The top 4 colleges by Olympic medals are: USC, Stanford, UCLA, Cal. 

Sure, these Olympic medal winning athletes are world-class athletes who come from all across the world to further their training while getting an education. But there are also the kids who fill out those rosters, not with any realistic aspiration for Olympic glory, but to get into a top school and enjoy the perks of a scholarship.

Stanford, in particular, has dominated the country club sport circuit, having won the 25 out of 26 Directors Cup awards since its inception in 1994. The Directors Cup is an annual award given to the college “with the most success in collegiate athletics,” as determined by a points system “based on order of finish in various championships.” After finishing second in the first year it was given, Stanford has won the Directors Cup every single year – 25 times in a row. A large part of their success are the Olympics sports, yes. But it’s also the fact that Stanford has subsidized a massive athletic department – not just in terms of world-class facilities, which they of course have, but also in terms of sheer size – 36 athletic programs, as far as I know by far the most in the country (Cal is way up there at 27; most schools have around 20).

With all that backstory in mind, this article about Stanford’s decision to cut 11 programs and the uproar that has ensued is fascinating. The news was released last summer. After this year, Stanford will cut men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling. “The 11 sports represent roughly one-third of the school’s 36 sponsored athletic programs, account for 240 athletes and include programs that have produced 20 national titles and 27 Olympic medals.” 

This almost happened about a decade ago at Cal – most notably to baseball. But Cal Baseball raised $10M and saved itself, at least for now. Stanford’s sports tried to do the same – raising enough money to endow the sport in perpetuity. And some have succeeded at raising that money:

In a six-month-old fundraising effort, team leaders have raised pledges of $40 million to fund the 11 discontinued squads, and at least three of the teams have raised enough to self-endow, fully covering their operating expenses permanently.

Wow, hey, nice job. So now those sports are reinstated, just like Cal baseball was, right? Well, uh:

Presented with this information, university leaders are steadfastly committed to their decision, showing no signs of restoring the teams.

Oh. Stanford claims a budget crisis – a $12M deficit, to be specific, and also claims cutting these eleven sports will save it $8M annually. But if the sports self-fund, doesn’t that solve the budget issue? Nope.

Using the university’s own financial figures, 36 Sports Strong generated a study to show that the elimination of the 11 sports is only a minimal budgetary impact and attributes the department’s deficit to an 84% increase in salary and benefits over the last decade, much of it tied to football and men’s basketball. On Tuesday, leaders of the group presented their financial findings to Stanford provost Persis Drell during a 35-minute Zoom call, where they also pitched a proposal: Reinstate the 11 sports and give them a five-year runway to self-endow, not just their own programs but also all 34 nonrevenue sports at Stanford. “It was like we were talking to an empty suit,” says Kathy Levinson, a former three-sport athlete at Stanford in the 1970s who is leading the 36 Sports Strong movement and was part of Tuesday’s meeting. “I would say she was immovable.”

So what’s going on here, then? I know that at Cal, the land that sports facilities are on is valuable and takes up a lot of space that could go to more academic buildings or student housing, an especially important concern in Berkeley, where the housing market remains spiked. But have you ever been to Stanford? There’s room there. A lot of it. They don’t need the land. There’s another theory, though:

Many members of 36 Sports Strong theorize that the university, in part, eliminated sports to create admission flexibility. Stanford is one of the few colleges in the U.S. at capacity academically. In this theory, the university would now have the freedom to fill classroom spots occupied by athletes with those who may generate more tuition or carry a higher academic acumen. Stanford’s athlete population was one of the highest in the nation at 12%, or one in every seven students. “Maybe there was concern that 12% of the campus population was too much,” says Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist based in California and a Stanford graduate himself. “The university admission process is trying to custom-craft a campus community.”

Aha. Stanford denies that allegation. But I don’t think I believe them – do you? Because now we come full circle. Is Stanford embarrassed by the admissions scandal and the ugly truths it revealed about how many of Stanford’s 36 sports are used to leverage admission for kids who are not otherwise qualified? Is Stanford trying to pull a 1930s University of Chicago and de-emphasize athletics? Are athletics still important to a college campus? What about when the sport is lucky to get a handful of spectators per game? Because if this isn’t about that, then why would Stanford deny reinstatement for these sports, especially the three that have already raised enough money to self-endow forever? 

Now, I get why the alumni of these sports and the current athletes and their families are upset. But that $8,000,000 they are saving, conceivably though not actually, could be redirected to the revenue generating athletes at an average of about $90,000 per year. Or it could be used to reduce Stanford’s outrageous tuition. Or fund important research. Or do so many important things besides guarantee admission to a top university to someone whose parents have the money to get them into fencing at a young age. I mean, look at that photograph of the Stanford men’s crew team at the top – do those look like world class athletes to you!? 

I don’t know, Stanford’s decision seems like a step in the right direction, if you ask me.

Also, Go Bears! -TOB

Source: “‘This Is for the Next Generation’: Inside the Fight, at Stanford and Beyond, to Save Olympic Sports,” Ross Dellenger, Sports Illustrated (02/12/2021)


Wherever You Can Find Ice

Saw this story in the NY Times, and I wondered if this would’ve even made it into the St. Paul or Minneapolis local section of paper. Still, I’m a sucker for a back-to-basics story. 

The premise: a lot of ice arenas are closed in the New York area, so people are finding other places to play hockey. These backyard rinks run the gamut: some cost a couple hundred bucks, while other folks go all out. 

Per Kevin Armstrong:

First-timers learned to negotiate inconsistent thaws and freezes, and anxious hosts added umbrella insurance on top of homeowners insurance in case injured visitors filed lawsuits. Like-minded neighbors knocked down fences to share space for rinks, while others complained about noise created by pucks crashing against wooden boards. With ice time at a premium, backyard rink owners were flooded with requests for open skating times.

One person who was in the perfect position for the unexpected D-I-Y rink boon: 24 year-old Dylan Gatsel. He developed a prototype backyard rink kit a couple years ago. EZ ICE Rinks sales are through the roof.

These outdoor rinks in backyards have been a longstanding tradition in Minnesota. I skated on backyard rinks all the time growing up. Three of my five siblings build rinks and make ice every year. 

I wondered this fall if the pandemic couldn’t have been a once-in-a-lifetime nostalgia marketing opportunity. High school hockey is huge in Minnesota, with over 100K fans attending the 4-day state tournament in the Xcel Center in downtown St. Paul. I’m guessing that’s a no-go this year. They should’ve brought it back to the basics this year and had all high school hockey games on outdoor rinks, including the state tournament. The documentary all but shoots itself (you can already see ESPN sending SportsCenter there), the merch sales would’ve been insane, and it would’ve celebrated everything Minnesotans like to identify as. 

That could’ve been sweet. – PAL 

Source: With Indoor Rinks Closed, Players Turn to ‘Speakeasy Hockey’, Kevin Armstrong, The New York Times (02/15/2021)


A Good Headline Matters

I have no strong feelings on Blake Griffin. He was possibly the last truly great men’s college basketball player (for me, only Trae Young comes close). He had good dunks and he was funny-for-an-athlete. He sneakily evolved as a player, and I thought his series against the Warriors in 2014, when the Clippers beat the budding Warriors dynasty in 7 games in the first round, literally in the midst of the Donald Sterling scandal, was really good. 

I say this because the Pistons announced this week they’d be sitting Blake while they try to find somewhere to trade him. The dude is only 31, but when so much of your game is built on athleticism and you suffer a series of lower body injuries, 31 suddenly seems very old. And when I first heard the news I shrugged. He was traded to Detroit just over three years ago. January 2018! And I had basically not thought of him since.

Ordinarily, I would have never read more than a tweet-length message about this story. But as I said at the top, a good headline matters. And when this news hit, I saw a really good headline:

Well, that piqued my interest. And damn if the article wasn’t thought-provoking. It was interesting to read a Detroit native’s perspective on Griffin’s 2+ seasons in Detroit:

If Griffin ends up in the Hall of Fame — and I think he will — he’ll be remembered as a Clipper. However, in Detroit, I think it’s safe to say the people saw him as one of them. Griffin arrived in the Motor City with a “Hollywood” label. There were the commercials, the comedy and the high-flying antics. They disguised the fact that he’s a Midwesterner from Oklahoma. When Griffin was on the floor for the Pistons, he truly embodied the grit that the city loves to see from its athletes. He played through injuries and pain. He dove for loose balls. He got in opponents’ faces. When there was very little to be thankful for in regards to basketball in Detroit, Griffin swooped in and gave the best version of himself to a franchise that didn’t always deserve it. Griffin gave everything he could to Detroit when he was able to. That shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s a nice tribute, and a nice piece of writing. -TOB

Source: How Should Blake Griffin Be Remembered in Detroit?James Edwards III, The Athletic (02/15/2021)

PAL: Dude, thank you for calling out the headline. A good headline can absolutely make me stop, and I feel like a lot of sites gave up trying a long time ago. Agreed on the quality of writing. I liked the angle, too. 


NBA Janitors

TOB’s take on the importance of a headline was in my head as I perused this AM and came upon this story about former NBA first-round draft picks trying to get back to the league and the perspective shift that requires. Excellent read. 

The idea is that these dudes drafted in the mid-to-late first round are super talented players with skill sets centered on being focal points on a team. When that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason (bad play or bad luck), and they find themselves out of the league, a shift likely needs to take place in their game in order to make it back. It’s not necessarily about putting up huge numbers in the G League or elsewhere. As Laker Alex Caruso (undrafted) put it, it’s about understanding the job you’re interviewing for. 

Per Jordan Teicher:

Lakers guard Alex Caruso went undrafted in 2016, but in a November appearance on The Old Man and the Three podcast, the former G Leaguer explained the lesson non-stars need to learn in order to fit in: “They don’t realize the position they’re trying out for. It’s like going to a job interview thinking you’re going to be the CFO of the company and they’re looking for someone to clean the bathrooms.”

Caruso represents an interesting wrinkle to this story. The expectations connected to an undrafted vs. first round draftee that didn’t make it on the first go-round. 

Again, from Teicher: 

The likes of Danny Green, Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Seth Curry improved in the G League before sticking in the NBA. However, those success stories are usually about undrafted players or second-round picks, not people who enter the NBA with a first-round pedigree.

“There is a stigma attached with a guy who didn’t make it the first go-around,” said Jim Clibanoff, director of scouting for the Denver Nuggets. “It’s such a recalibration for some of these kids. … How does the kid respond to it? We talk about hunger and desire, and that manifests itself in how you react to adversity.”

Good read. – PAL 

Source: Getting to the NBA Is Hard, but Getting Back May Be Even Harder”, Jordan Teicher, The Ringer (02/16/2021)


4,560

With fatherhood less than a trimester away, I find myself thinking about my dad’s hall-of-fame run as a sports dad and the kind of sports dad I hope to be. Check it out here to see my rudimentary math skills on full display. Here’s a taste:

Parents are like driving instructors when it comes to their kids’ emotions around sports. They ride shotgun while the kiddos take the wheel. The kids try their best to navigate the highs and lows of the wins and losses, to get the feel for triumphs and slights, all the while mom or dad are ready to take control, slow down, and get everything pointed back in the right direction if things get out of hand. 

Game in, game out. Every drive home maneuvering around every bad call, success, substitution; every interaction and how it proved so-and-so really did think such-and-such. 

The more I think about it, maybe the teenage years are the emotional equivalent of teaching the kid to drive a stick shift. 

Full story here. -PAL 


Video of the Week


Tweet of the Week


Song of the Week Durand Jones & The Indications – “Giving Up”


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“I wanted to eat a pig-in-a-blanket in a blanket.”

-Kevin Malone