Category Archives: Baseball

Rebuilding the Democratic party

I have a candidate for the new chair of the Democratic National Committee.

There are a couple of problems. Potential problems. Well, okay: problems. For one thing, my candidate has never worked in politics. For another, I don’t know if my candidate is a Democrat. (JK: he is). And I get that that could be a deal-breaker. If he’s a Republican, he might not be completely committed to, you know, do what the DNC chair is supposed to be do: elect Democrats.

Though he could hardly be worse at it than Deborah Wasserman Schultz was.

Still, I’m making a serious proposal here. I’m suggesting a genuine, thinking-outside-of-the-box pick, fresh thinking. I mean, we’d need to ask if he’s interested, and if he’s a Democrat. But if the answer to both questions is yes, this guy has a track record. 

I nominate Theo Epstein for DNC chair.

Theo Epstein. Team President of the Chicago Cubs. The guy who built the World Series champs. The Cubs had not won the World Series since 1908. They were a bad team, a team of losers. Then they hired Theo Epstein, in 2011. Took him five years to build a winner. Course, he’d done it before. His first gig was as General Manager of the Boston Red Sox, another sad sack franchise, another team that hadn’t won, a team on an 86 year losing streak. He was hired by the Sox in 2002, at the age of 29, the youngest General Manager in baseball at the time, and one of the youngest in baseball history. They won the World Series in 2004. To repeat: the two most storied losers in baseball history hired this brilliant young guy, and in two years and five years, respectively, he’d built them into winners.

He’s 42 years old. He’s never not succeeded, spectacularly. He has no more professional mountains to climb. And he may well be looking for a different kind of challenge.

Here’s the Epstein method. He identifies and acquires underutilized talent. That’s it. He loves data and he loves computer geeks. He puts together a team of really smart guys, and they comb through player personnel records and they find talented guys who aren’t being valued by their teams, guys who, in Epstein’s words ‘are just about to break.’ Look at this year’s World Champion Cubs. Their best player (and team leader) Anthony Rizzo, batted .141 in his rookie year with the San Diego Padres. Epstein traded an okay pitcher, Andrew Cashner, for him, and Rizzo’s now a star. Likewise their best pitcher, Jake Arrieta. Struggled with the Orioles; Epstein traded a back-up catcher for him. Epstein does this all the time. Identify talent; develop it; motivate it; reap the benefits.

Okay, imagine that skill set in the DNC. Because, let’s face it, the number one task of the Democratic party has to be to rebuild the party from the ground up. State legislators, city council members, school board members. In the last election, it was depressing to see all the races in which the Republican was running unopposed. Granted, I live in Utah. Still, the Democratic party needs to compete; we need to compete everywhere. In the last election, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Utah was a woman who worked as a clerk at a grocery store. Nice lady, but she had no credentials. Shouldn’t the DNC have discouraged that? Encouraged her to run instead for the state legislature? Build a resume, get experience, start modestly. Wouldn’t that have been better than just running someone who was going to get clobbered?

That’s what Theo Epstein is great at. Find and identify talented people, put them in a position to succeed, motivate them, coach them up, and give them the resources to succeed. Oh, and one more thing: nobody outworks Theo Epstein. There’s a reason a 29 year old was given the reins of the Boston Red Sox.

He’s also personable, an excellent interview. He’s very comfortable hanging out with rich guys–has to be, to succeed in baseball. And there’s also this; he’s every bit as great at understanding and responding to the needs of ordinary folks. Both in Boston and Chicago, he’s made ‘improving the fan experience’ a high priority. He listens, in other words. He makes sure all the seats are comfortable, all the bathrooms clean, all the refreshments tasty.  He’d be an outsider, if he ran for DNC chair. That’s a good thing. He’s the best possible guy for the job. You know, if he’s a Democrat.

(Which, by the way, he is. He strongly supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with a big donation). When one of his players (Arrieta, in fact), came out for Trump, Epstein responded: “Tolerance is important, especially in a democracy. The ability to have honest conversations, even if you come from a different place, is fundamentally important.” He didn’t reprimand the player, nor did he reprimand Curt Schilling, the famously conservative former Red Sox player, when he spoke out. In both instances, Epstein found an opportunity to have a conversation with the guy. And, with both guys, cordially agree to disagree.

We probably can’t afford him. Epstein makes ten million a year to run the Cubs. But he’s the perfect choice.

In the real world, the DNC chair will probably be Keith Ellison. He’s the only Muslim in Congress, a strong Bernie Sanders supporter, a great choice in most ways. And there are other fine candidates. But really, it should be Theo Epstein. Right man for a tough and important job. Let’s see if we can make it happen.



Baseball advanced analytics, and movies

If you’re a fan of American team sports, you will undoubtedly have come across something called advanced analytics. I just celebrated a birthday, and my son gave me my annual present, the new Baseball Prospectus. It’s a very large paperback book filled with the names of baseball players, and lots and lots of numbers. It does include such traditional statistical measures as batting average, or runs batted in. But most of the numbers are more esoteric: WAR, FIP, TAV. I am famously bad at math. But I devour this book, for one simple reason. The numbers in it help me understand the game of baseball better.

The point of advanced analytics is to look for market inefficiencies. Let’s suppose that your careful examination of baseball statistics leads you to conclude that some particular baseball skill is more valuable than other teams think it is. You may be able to acquire players with that particular skill at a discount. This gives you a competitive advantage. Like acquiring a catcher who is good at pitch-framing. You can get those guys on the cheap.

My son and I were talking today, and we wondered if this same dynamic might be applied to movies. Obviously movie producers have certain beliefs about what qualities audiences are looking for in movies. Number one, they like movie stars. They clearly believe that audiences are attracted to movies that star actors people have heard of and liked in previous roles. If Tom Cruise approaches a studio with the script for an action movie, it’s almost certain to get funded. But the star in question generally needs to be a male, and youngish. Tom Cruise isn’t actually young–he’s 53 years old–but he looks young, and can plausibly play young action stars. Demi Moore was born the same year Cruise was, but she isn’t a legitimate star anymore, because she’s a woman. (She’s also probably a better actor than he is, but that’s also not relevant).

But is that actually true? For example, Liam Neeson is 64 years old, but has reinvented himself as an action movie star in all those Taken movies. Heck, Colin Firth, hardly an exemplar of male studliness, starred in an action movie, and was great in it. Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez and Scarlett Johansson have all starred in action movies within the last year. So has Helen Mirren.

Here’s what I think; audiences are attracted to good movies, and turned off by bad ones. Tom Cruise is still an action movie hero, not because audiences still clamor to see him in movies–most audience members think he’s kind of a weirdo–but because he has a good eye for scripts that showcase his skills.

Would you go see an action movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer? I sure would, if the script was good. Would you go see a buddy cop action/comedy starring Michelle Williams and Maggie Gyllenhaal? I would love to see that movie. Would you go see a sci-fi adventure movie starring Michelle Yeoh, with Michelle Rodriguez as second lead? Absolutely! What about a mainstream revenge action film with Amanda Peet? She’s a terrific actress, and that’s the kind of role she’d rock.

And such are the realities of Hollywood that you, Mr. or Ms. Producer, would save a lot of money in salaries. I mean, it totally stinks that Jake Gyllenhaal (a wonderful, charismatic actor) gets more per picture than his frankly more talented sister Maggie gets. But for the right, savvy producer, that particular brand of sexism could also mean money in the bank. It’s a market inefficiency, and one you could exploit.

Yes, there’s tremendous sexism in Hollywood. No question about it. And it reflects a larger sexism in society generally. But in the world of television, there’s one producer who regularly casts women in action/murder/suspense TV series. Her name is Shonda Rhimes and she’s doing pretty darn well.

Drew Barrymore, action star. Make it happen. Get a pitch-framing catcher, Hollywood. Sexism is, in addition to being reprehensible, a market inefficiency. Trade on the margins, Hollywood, and give some great actresses a chance.

Baseball in Cuba

I watched a baseball game today; not all of it, a couple of innings. It was between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. For Tampa, it counted as a preseason game, which is to say, it didn’t matter at all. For the Cuban team, it was likewise an exhibition. But in the crowd were two Presidents: Barack Obama and Raul Castro. Big deal game, in other words.

But why? Because this: for the first time since the good ship Maine’s boiler blew and we blamed it on terrorists, the United States is edging, tip-toeing towards a policy towards Cuba that makes a tiny bit of sense. In 2014, President Obama normalized relations with Cuba, and re-opened the US embassy in Havana. The next step would seem to be lifting the US trade embargo, which absolutely cannot happen in 2016, because it’s an election year and Florida is a swing state. And Cuban emigres vote.

There remain serious barriers to overcome, the biggest of which remains Cuba’s human rights record. Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report sadly concluded that Raul had kept Fidel’s repressive security apparatus largely unchanged. Freedom House continues to list Cuba as ‘Not Free,’ the category they reserve for the world’s most repressive societies. And so, at the ballgame today, as Castro urged the US to continue normalization efforts–specifically by lifting the embargo–President Obama kept the pressure on for Castro to end arbitrary arrests of dissidents.

But despite the attacks in Belgium early in the day–a situation the President was, of course, able to monitor throughout his Cuba visit–President Obama stayed for the ballgame. And that’s significant. Because baseball is one thing both countries have in common. In fact, baseball is probably now only the third most popular sport in the United States, after football and basketball. In Cuba, it’s still number one.

There have been 193 Cuban-born players in major league history, including two Hall of Famers. Tony Perez is the one Hall of Famer you’ve probably heard of. Slugging first baseman for the Big Red Machine of the ’70s. Martin Dihigo came earlier, with most of his career taking place in the ’20s and ’30s, making the Hall of Fame as a Negro League player in 1977. But there have dozens of brilliant star-quality Cuban major leaguers over the years, including Luis Tiant, Cookie Rojas, Bert Campaneris, Minnie Minosa, Tony Oliva and Mike Cuellar. And of course, some of the brightest stars of the game today are Cuban, including Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Jose Fernandez, and Yoenis Cespedes.

Fidel Castro was an amateur baseball player, scouted, according to legend, by the old Washington Senators. He was a pitcher, had played some college ball in Cuba, but simply didn’t have the stuff to stick professionally. Still, he loved the sport, and the Cuban national team has been an international powerhouse.

But the stories of escaping ballplayers and their threatened families remain. Yasiel Puig is exactly the kind of young superstar that Cuba was always particularly anxious to keep home. He risked his life to escape, though, in a story so spectacular as to seem improbable. ESPN covered it, but I can’t link for some reason. But it left Puig in debt, to the tune of millions of dollars, to some very sketchy customers.

And of course, the whole situation stinks. A young Cuban ballplayer should have the right to play baseball where ever his talent leads him. When the Olympics or the World Baseball Classic rolls around, why not let him go back and play for the national team, just as Dirk Nowitzski does for the German national team in basketball.

And it will happen. Raul Castro is 84 years old, Fidel’s 89. The brothers won’t be in power for much longer.

No, the real question is whether raising the trade embargo even without significant human rights advances by the regime will help, or hurt. Personally, I think it’s likely to help, and think we should proceed as quickly as possible. But I understand the feelings of Cuban-Americans who disagree.

Meanwhile, the crowd in Havana watched a ballgame. The Rays won 4-1. Dayron Varona, from Cuba, led off for the Rays, and hit the first pitch he saw for a routine popout. And then the ball was retrieved, and will be sent to the Hall of Fame. James Loney, from Houston, hit a big home run. Mike Moore was the winning pitcher. And President Obama and Raul Castro did the wave. Normal ballgame stuff, at a meaningless exhibition game. A game that also couldn’t have been more important.

Defining the Baseball Hall of Fame

It’s mid-September. Football season has begun, and basketball season is a couple of months away. The baseball playoffs haven’t yet begun, but the teams who will compete for the World Series have essentially been determined. Which makes this a perfect time to talk about the baseball Hall of Fame.

Rob Manfred, the new Commissioner of Baseball, recently made an announcement that got no publicity and surprised essentially no one. He wrote the officials of the Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville South Carolina, to tell them that he would not reconsider the long-standing decision to ban “Shoeless” Joe Jackson from the baseball Hall of Fame.

For the sake of you who aren’t baseball fans, Joe Jackson was one of the best players in baseball from 1908-1920. But in the 1919 World Series, he was one of several players for the Chicago White Sox who conspired with gamblers to throw the series–to lose on purpose. After a year’s investigation, Jackson, and his fellow ‘Black Sox’ were banned for life from the game. That ban included induction into the American Professional Baseball Hall of Fame. Jackson was, by any statistical measure, a genuine great player. And that subset of baseball fans who continue to agitate for his induction point out that ‘Black Sox’ case was adjudicated in federal court, and Jackson and his teammates were exonerated. Still, he’s out.

I’m not going to argue for or against Joe Jackson. This recent decision by Commissioner Manfred, however, points up a serious problem that the baseball Hall of Fame continues to have, which is growing exponentially worse.  It’s a problem of definition.

What is the Baseball Hall of Fame? Here are two possible answers. One is this: it’s essentially a pantheon. It’s intended to honor the greatest players who have ever played the game. You visit the Hall of Fame primarily to see the room where they keep all the plaques.

But ‘greatest’ is a contested term. It would easy enough to construct a statistical measure of everyone who has played, induct the guys who are above some line of achievement, and not induct the guys who fall short. But the pantheon is about human beings, not stat lines; there are other accomplishments besides hitting or pitching stats that can provide a larger context. Character should also count. So a guy like Joe Jackson, who accepted money from gamblers, who threw games, committed the ultimate sin, the sin against the Holy Ghost, kind of. Not that he was a bad guy generally; by all accounts, he was a genial companion and a generous and kindly individual. But for a sport to survive as a commercial enterprise requires, at the very least, for fans to believe that the players are honestly competing. When the Dodgers play the Giants, our emotional investment in that game depends on our sense that the players on both teams are really trying to win. The Black Sox scandal had to be contained, and the players punished. The continued survival of baseball as a sport depended on it.

That leads me to the second definition of the Hall of Fame; it’s a museum. It’s the principal museum for the sport of professional baseball. When you go to the Hall of Fame, you spend most of your time looking at the various exhibits there, the artifacts and the displays. And it has a library with an unparalleled collection of materials. Anyone doing genuine historical research would have to spend considerable time there.

And that’s also true. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame, and yes, you do spend some time in the plaque room. But mostly, you look at the exhibits. The history of baseball is, certainly, about Willie Mays and Babe Ruth and Mickie Mantle–the great players. But it’s also about Moe Berg, and “Super” Joe Charboneau, and Bob Uecker and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. It’s about ‘Casey at the Bat,’ and Major League, and John Fogerty singing ‘Centerfield.’ It’s about the quirks and oddities of a sport that thrives on them. It’s a museum.

So which is it, first and foremost? A pantheon or a museum? Well, for decades, the HOF got along perfectly well without deciding. The pantheon function attracted visitors (which isn’t all that easy, considering its location–tiny town, upstate New York), and then the museum part entertained them. (And then the gift shop sucked their wallets empty). It was a pantheon, minus one guy who should probably be there, but honestly, who really cares that much about Joe Jackson?

And then the Joe Jackson omission (which happened for good reasons), became the precedent by which Pete Rose could also be kept out. And at one level, omitting Pete Rose makes all kinds of sense. He bet on baseball. Against the rules–rules established in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. Of course, to create a pantheon of the Greatest Players Ever that didn’t include Pete Rose is absurd. He was a great and unique and tremendous player. But, still, fine: it’s a Hall of Fame of everyone except two guys. And Pete set up a booth outside the Hall in Cooperstown, and did a brisk business signing his autograph. Reminding us of who he was.

But then came the home run binge of the late ’90s, and rumors, now proven true, of wide-spread steroid use by most of the best players in the game. And the ‘Pantheon’ function of the Hall of Fame is rapidly becoming completely absurd.

The greatest hitter I ever saw play, and statistically, the great offensive force in the history of the game, was Barry Bonds. He isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and won’t be, because he took steroids.

The greatest power pitcher of the last forty years was either Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens. You could make a strong case for either guy. Johnson was just inducted. Clemens won’t be, because he took steroids.

Sammy Sosa. Mark McGwire. Their home run race, in 1998, was the most exciting thing in the sport, and may have saved it, because so many fans had tuned out after a labor dispute caused the ’94 World Series to be cancelled. Sosa and McGwire have credentials that should make them automatic Hall of Famers. Neither will be inducted, because they juiced.

They aren’t the only ones, but they’re the biggest names. We’ve reached a point where the greatest hitters and pitchers in the history of baseball aren’t in the Hall of Fame. Why? Because “they cheated.”

(We do not know how many players in the ’90s used steroids. The pitcher Eric Gagne says over 80% of the guys he played with during his years in baseball were users. Jose Canseco says over 80%. Other estimates range from 40-60%)

But see, that’s exactly the kind of thing a museum is very good at; providing context and historical perspective. Yes, the steroids era happened. Let’s talk about that. Let’s also talk about the widespread use of amphetimines (uppers), in the ’50s and ’60s, and cocaine in the ’70s and ’80s. Let’s create a super informative display, right there in the museum.

And in the meantime, let’s put the game’s greatest players ever in the pantheon. And yes, that includes Pete Rose and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. And yes, it probably also includes Joe Jackson.

Madison Bumgarner

Last night, the San Francisco Giants, my favorite baseball team–heck, my favorite sports team since I was, like, eleven–won the World Series. If human beings are, by nature, tribal–we Oogites good, you Jookians bad!–sports fandom is an artificial recreation of ancient warfares and hostilities. We choose up sides based on accidents of geography, or on whim, caprice–we find ourselves rooting for laundry. Sometimes even explicitly–we root for the team wearing red socks, though we carefully misspell it ‘sox’ as though to distance or even absolve ourselves of the inherent silliness of the enterprise.

But sports fandom is also a celebration of human accomplishment. In that sense, a great athlete’s accomplishment are similar to any amazing thing done by homo sapiens. When I look at the cave drawings at Lascaux, I’m filled with awe, and also with a sense of human kinship. Watching a great pitcher pitch or a great sprinter sprint or a great gymnast fly is like listening to a great symphony or reading a great novel. It’s something amazing done by a fellow sojourner on this planet.

So today, I celebrate the San Francisco Giants. Which means, this year, celebrating the one reason above all that my favorite team won the championship. It means, above all, celebrating Madison Bumgarner.

Madbum, as he’s affectionately known, is a 25 year old from Hudson North Carolina. In fact, he’s from an area known locally as ‘Bum-town,’ named after his family. He’s distantly related to the actor James Garner. He married his high school sweetheart, Ali Saunders. He gave her a cow for a wedding present, and wore jeans to their wedding. He’s a Baptist. And this World Series, he pitched better than anyone ever has in the history of the game of baseball.

The World Series is best of seven, which means that the first team to win four games wins the series. No single pitcher has won four games by himself, but Bumgarner is the 13th to win three. So let’s say that those are the thirteen greatest pitching performances of all time.  If winning the World Series is the ultimate goal in the sport, then it follows that pitching brilliantly in three games in any series would give your team an immense advantage. Here’s the list of 3 game winners.

Five of the 3 game winners pitched back in baseball’s Pleistocene era, when teams may not carry more than five pitchers, where home runs were rare, and therefore pitchers could afford to coast through some early innings, and rest wasn’t as paramount as it would become. So I’m going to discount the accomplishments of Bill Dinneen, Babe Adams, Jack Coombs, Sam Wood and Red Faber all of whom pitched from 1903-1917. Christie Mathewson of the Giants, however, was 25 years old in 1905, same age Bumgarner is now, and pitched three shutouts in that series. He gave up zero runs in three games. He’s the closest comparison to Bumgarner.

Bob Gibson won three games in pitching the Cardinals to the World Series victory in 1967, won two games in 1968, and was on the mound in game Seven in ’68, losing to Mickie Lolich. I remember that game vividly. I had ‘borrowed’ my Dad’s transistor radio, and taken it to school, and I spent all of recess wandering around the playground at my school, trying to find the best radio reception. Mr. Elkins, the one male teacher teaching at Grandview Elementary saw me, and kept sidling up to me for updates, and he allowed me to have a little longer recess so I could keep him posted.  Gibson pitched games 1, 4 and 7 of the ’67 series, and allowed 1, 0 and 3 runs in those three games. It was an astonishing performance.

The other comparable performance would be Randy Johnson’s in 2001. Johnson pitched a shutout in game 2 of that series, and allowed 2 runs in the game 5 blowout. He then pitched in relief in game 7, and won the game, but he did give up what should have been the winning run in the 8th inning of that game. But the Diamonbacks rallied against Mariano Rivera in the 9th, and Johnson was named MVP.

Bumgarner started game 1 of this year’s series, and won, allowing one late run, a meaningless home run by Salvador Perez. He pitched a shutout in game 5. Then, in game 7, on two days rest, he pitched the last five innings, allowing nothing.  All the pressure in the world on him. The Giants led 3-2 when he came into the game, and that was also the final score.

The greatest World Series pitcher of all time is probably Bob Gibson. The greatest single World Series may be that of Christie Mathewson. But Bumgarner has a collective Earned Run Average, in five Series games, of 0.25. Nobody’s close to that. At the very least, he deserves to be mentioned along with Curt Schilling, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson as one of the most remarkable clutch pitchers ever. And I put him number one. By almost any measure, the Giants should not have beaten the Royals in this World Series. They won because of Madbum. What a remarkable pitcher. What an extraordinary series.


A baseball game

Last night, the San Francisco Giants played the Colorado Rockies in a baseball game. It was a tremendous game, and possibly an important one, if any game in late August can be considered important.  The Giants won, on a ninth inning home run by Buster Posey.  That home run was the headline, and dominated the game stories in the press and on-line. But the game actually turned on three earlier plays. I know that a lot of you who read this blog don’t much care for baseball. But maybe a short discussion of these plays will help you understand the endless fascination some of us have for this remarkable sport.

The first came in the fourth inning. Up to that point in the game, neither team had scored. But with one out, Giants’ shortstop Matt Duffy hit a hard double to left. Second baseman Joe Panik then sliced a single to left, but hit too hard for Duffy to score. So that was the situation; runners on first and third, one out. The Rockies’ pitcher was Franklin Morales, a left handed pitcher. And the batter was Gregor Blanco.

Gregor Blanco does not usually start.  Neither does Duffy. They were in the game to give a day’s rest to the usual starters. Blanco is a fine player in every aspect of the game except hitting. He’s fast, a good outfielder, a fine baserunner.  But he’s a left-handed hitter, and at a disadvantage against a lefty.  And he’s not a terrific hitter even under more favorable circumstances. Blanco did not need to get a hit for Duffy to score.  A fly ball or hard grounder could score him. But Blanco looked badly overmatched on the first two pitches.

On the third pitch, though, Blanco laid down a surprise bunt. In that situation, a squeeze, as it’s called, can be an effective play. There are two kinds of squeezes.  The first is a suicide squeeze.  In this play, the runner on third just heads straight for home plate, trying to steal home.  The batter just has to get his bat on the ball, knowing any kind of bunt will score the runner. But it’s risky. If the batter misses the bunt, the runner will be out by an embarrassing margin. Or the batter could pop the bunt up, leading to an easy double play.

The second kind of squeeze is called a safety squeeze.  The runner holds on third until he can see that the batter has made a good bunt. But he has to time his run home perfectly, not going too early or too late.  And the batter has to place his bunt correctly, right at the first or third baseman, and not to the pitcher, who would have an easy toss home. As it happened, Blanco and Duffy pulled it off beautifully.  Blanco’s bunt went straight to the first baseman, and Duffy exquisitely timed his dash homeward. A run scored, and the Giants led 1-0. But think about it. Duffy has been in the major leagues for three weeks. He’s a young player, just 23, suddenly caught up in the excitement and tension and anxiety of a pennant race. And a safety squeeze requires communication between the batter and runner.  Blanco and Duffy have only been teammates for three weeks. In this crucial situation, though, Gregor Blanco and Matt Duffy executed a difficult play exactly as they were supposed to.

Okay, play two came in the ninth inning. The Giants led 2-1 heading into the ninth, but our best relief pitcher, Santiago Casilla, hit the first Rockies hitter with the first pitch of the inning, then gave up a game-tying double, to Justin Morneau. He got Nolan Arenado to ground out, then intentionally walked the dangerous Corey Dickerson, to set up a possible double play.  Runners on first and second, and the Rockies’ catcher Mike McKenry batting.  And then Casilla, having an off-night, uncorked a horrible pitch.

McKenry is a right handed batter.  The pitch was probably intended to be a slider on the outside corner.  But it completely got away from Casilla, and bounced at least two feet away from the plate, spinning even further away.  Buster Posey is the Giants’ catcher, and our best player. But if that ball got away from him, as it almost certainly would, both baserunners would advance. The double play possibility would vanish–the winning run would be able to score on an out.

Ordinarily, on a wild pitch like that, the catcher doesn’t really try to catch it so much as smother it. He’s wearing all that padding, after all. He wants to limit the damage, get his chest in front of the pitch, let it hit him, and then pounce on it before it can roll too far away.  It’s a tough maneuver, requiring that he move his feet quickly enough to get in front of the pitch.  But Casilla’s pitch was so far outside, smothering the ball just wouldn’t be possible. Nobody can move out of a catcher’s stance and get in front of a ball that quickly.

Posey didn’t even try. What he did was sort of hop and lunge. He hopped straight right, out of his stance, and then reached out with his glove (across his body, remember, since his glove was on his left hand and the ball was heading hard to his right), and just snatched the ball out of the air.  It was the most extraordinary thing.

It’s not the athleticism of the play that amazed me, though. It was the thought process it required.  Immediately upon the pitch leaving Casilla’s hand, Posey had to register what an awful pitch it was, and think ‘I’m not going to be able to reach that ball by conventional means. A shift-and-smother won’t work; it’s too far right and spinning too much. But maybe, if I hop right, I can lunge and reach it. Given the direction and spin, the ball should end up about . . . there. Go.’  And that hop-and-lunge is not a move most catchers practice–I’ve never seen it before, whereas the more conventional shift-and-smother move is one every catcher does hundreds of times. But somehow, in the heat of a pennant race, Buster Posey executed a play he cannot possibly have practiced much (or at all), and made it look actually kind of effortless.

The third big play came two pitches later. McKendry hit a slow bouncer to shortstop, and Duffy dashed in, fielded it, fired it to second, and then Joe Panik, the second baseman fired to first for the double play. The tough play was the pivot at second base by Panik.

The ball wasn’t hit hard enough to be an easy double play. McKendry is quite slow; the problem was Dickerson, the runner on first. He’s a fast runner, and built like a running back, and he had a head start, a quick jump. Panik had to catch Duffy’s strong throw, then pivot towards first and make the throw for the second out.

There are several ways to make a second base pivot. But remember, the runner, Dickerson, doesn’t want the second baseman to make a good throw. He’s barreling into second, ready to clobber the second baseman, if he can reach him. He can’t be obvious about it; the umps will just rule interference, and call McKendry out. But he does want to take Panik out.  And some second baseman, knowing that, will leap and pivot.  But what Panik did was use second base as a kind of protection. He caught the ball behind the bag, touched second, and leaned back, away from Dickerson, and from that position, made the strong sidearm throw to first.

The lean-back pivot is one players practice. A good second baseman will have practiced it regularly, along with four or five other pivot moves.  So in many respects, Panik’s pivot was just a professional ballplayer making the right play for the situation; unremarkable.  But Joe Panik is a rookie too.  As is Duffy. These two young guys, in the middle of a pennant race, in a tough, close game, kept their wits about them and made the play that needed to be made. It was extraordinary in its ordinariness.

And then came the bottom of the ninth inning, and Posey’s game winning home run. But it reminded me that baseball isn’t just about the obvious plays, the big home run or spectacular running catch. It’s about thinking on your feet, staying alert, figuring out, on the fly, what play you should make, and then executing it.  The Giants are among the best teams in baseball at doing the little things, mostly because, I think, they’re an exceptionally well coached team.  But it’s a beautiful thing to watch.


The baseball scrap heap

The 2014 major league baseball season is just past the first quarter pole, which is, of course, much too early to come to any conclusions about who’s best, or who is going to win. But we can see trends and tendencies.  I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and so see everything through a Giants-centric prism, and since my team’s in first place, with the best record in the National League, that prism’s pretty rose-colored.  The lads are doing splendidly.  But which lads?  That turns out to be an interesting question.

There are essentially four ways baseball teams accrue talent. They can do a good job of scouting and drafting and developing, using the amateur draft.  They can get good players via trades.  They can sign star players via free agency.  And the Giants have good players acquired via all these routes.  But the fourth way is the one least discussed.  They can get good players off the scrap heap.

Every major league team in baseball has a minor league system, with hundreds of talented young players learning their craft in smaller cities, playing for smaller crowds, and of course, paid (absurdly) lower salaries.  And every spring, teams draft forty or fifty new players, and have to correspondingly release approximately the same number of minor leaguers.  Those guys, those released minor league players, constitute the scrap heap.  They are obviously talented young men, and many of them have at least a few games major league experience, but for whatever reason, their parent clubs decided they weren’t good enough to keep under contract.  Once released, anyone can sign them, and for not much money. Obviously, they’re flawed players–you’re not going to sign Willie Mays off the scrap heap.  But nobody in baseball is better than the Giants at sifting through those guys and finding useful, productive major league players.

Everyone can do something.  That’s the implicit operative philosophy here; rather than focus on what someone can’t do, why not concentrate on what they can do, and put them in a position to succeed?

This was very much the philosophy of Earl Weaver, the old Oriole Hall-of-Fame manager.  He loved managing limited guys, guys like Benny Ayala.  Ayala couldn’t run, couldn’t field, couldn’t hit right handed pitching, and couldn’t hit a left-handed fastball.  But he clobbered curve balls thrown by lefties.  Weaver would give Ayala 80 at bats a year, all against left handed curve ball pitchers, and Ayala looked like an All-Star.  He couldn’t do anything else, but he didn’t need to.

It was also my philosophy as a theatre director, which I learned from watching Earl Weaver manage.  Everyone can do something.  When I was directing in college, we’d get a lot of kids auditioning who were limited as actors.  But in an audition, maybe they’d show me a spark, suggesting what they were capable of doing.  I’d cast them in a small part, but a part that required the specific skills that actor happened to have.  And they’d shine.  It’s nice if every actor auditioning for your show is Audra McDonald, but that doesn’t happen much, especially for a college production.  I think big business could use an Earl Weaver approach sometimes.  Figure out what people can do, give them a chance to succeed.

Nobody epitomizes this more, this year, than Mike Morse.  The Giants were the worst team in baseball last year at hitting home runs.  Their home ball park is a tough one for home runs, and they just didn’t have anyone on the team that can consistently hit the long ball.  Mike Morse, otherwise known as The Beast, has bounced around; played for Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, Toronto.  He’s a big, likeable, shaggy haired dude, with a huge swing and a mellow disposition.  He’s also a brutally bad defensive outfielder.  He’s slow, and he can’t throw, and his instincts are bad.  And he’s a terrible baserunner.  So the Giants pair him with Gregor Blanco, a very fast runner and a superb defensive outfielder, but not a power hitter.  That combination has given the Giants 10 home runs from the left field position.  Morse starts, and then, if we have a lead, in comes Blanco to play defense. It works.

Another scrap heap guy is our second baseman, Brandon Hicks.  Hicks was drafted by the Braves as a shortstop, made the big club in 2011, disappointed, signed with Oakland, was released, signed with the Mets, was released, and the Giants signed him this year.  Prototypical scrap heap guy.  He swings hard, strikes out a lot, hits an occasional home run, and will draw a few walks.  He’s never hit for any kind of batting average, and still isn’t now, because he strikes out too much.  But the combination of walks and home runs give him value.  The knock on him was that he wasn’t good defensively.  It’s true that he’s a little slow.  But he’s great at turning double plays.  So he’s an interesting mix of positives and negatives. And when the Giants’ starting second baseman, Marco Scutaro, got hurt, Hicks filled in admirably.  And he’s won three games with late inning home runs. Plus he gives the Giants an infield of Brandon Belt, Brandon Hicks and Brandon Crawford, plus odd-man-out third baseman Pablo Sandoval.  Need a fourth Brandon, guys.

A third one is reserve outfielder Tyler Colvin.  Colvin came up with the Cubs, and also played with the Rockies.  He was a pretty good hitter for Chicago, but then, in 2010, was hit by the shard of a shattered bat, which punctured his lung and nearly killed him.  It took Colvin months to recover from that accident, and finally the Rockies gave up on him.  The word for a guy like Colvin is ‘tweener.’  He’s not quite a good enough fielder to play center field, but doesn’t hit quite enough to play left or right. But he’s a terrific reserve, and the Giants are making good use of him.

The best Giants’ scrap-head acquisition, though, has to be Ryan Vogelsong. Once upon a time, he was the Giants’ top minor league pitcher. But in 2001, he was traded to the Pirates, tried to hard to impress the new organization, got hurt, and started bouncing around–Pirates, Phillies, Angels, two different teams in Japan.  In 2010, he and his wife talked it over, and decided it was time to quit.  All that scuffling, and he still hadn’t established himself as a major leaguer.  Time to find a real job. But that winter, the Giants called and offered him a chance to try out for the team in the spring of 2011.  Just a try out.  He made the club, pitched his heart out, and began a long stretch of sustained great pitching that led to an All-Star game appearance in 2011, and a World Series ring in 2012.  He’s still with the team, still defying expectations, but now with a big league contract.  Which means a guaranteed contract for sufficient money that he never has to work again if he doesn’t want to.

That’s the dream.  That’s the hope. And in baseball, it’s achievable.  Even for guys plucked off the scrap heap.  Never give up, because you honestly never know.

The Art of Fielding: Book Review

In 1973, Steve Blass, the ace pitcher for the World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates, found himself suddenly and inexplicably unable to throw a baseball accurately. He was in perfect health, and his arm was uninjured. His difficulties were not physical, but psychological. It wasn’t a matter of courage, or cowardice. He was simply completely unable to do something that he had previously been as good at as anyone in the world. The best article about Blass and his baffling condition appeared in the New Yorker in 1975, written by the great Roger Angell; it was subsequently anthologized in at least two of Angell’s published compilations.  Although previously unknown in baseball history, in the forty years since Blass retired, his odd affliction, ‘Steve Blass’ disease,’ subsequently afflicted another pitcher, Rich Ankiel, two second basemen, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, and catcher Mackey Sasser.  Sax and Knoblauch found themselves incapable of making routine throws to the first baseman; Sasser became unable to toss the ball back to the pitcher between pitches.

And now Henry Skrimshander.  Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, is about a preternaturally talented young shortstop, suddenly afflicted with Blass’ weird syndrome.  But it’s not just a novel about baseball, or even primarily a novel about baseball.  Henry suddenly can’t make routine throws to first, not because he’s been physically disabled, but because he overthinks it, over-analyses the problem, which leads to a crisis of confidence.  And where else would you set a novel about crises of confidence and paralysis-through-over-analysis but in a modern college?

Harbach introduces us to the world of Westish College, a small midwestern 4-year liberal arts school, with high-ish academic standards, somewhat decaying infrastructure, and a really bad baseball team.  And in this world lives Mike Schwartz, literate, well-read, tough, inspirational, a man’s man, who essentially wills the Westish Harpooners (the entire school worships Melville) to improve athletically.  Schwartz is, above all, Henry Skrimshander’s best friend, his mentor, his personal trainer, his coach and conscience and motivator and his captain-my-captain.  And Schwartz has given so much of himself to build up Henry he has begun to wonder who he is, and what he will do with the rest of his life.

The novel also focuses on three other extraordinary characters.   First is Owen, Henry’s roommate; brilliant, gay, kind, utterly sure about himself and who he is, a man who, when a coach yells at him, is neither offended nor motivated by it, but sort of delighted–‘look, I get to study apoplectic rage!’  How very interesting!’  He’s also an athlete; a pretty doggone good hitter, though one who, between at bats, reads in the dugout. Harbach could write an entire novel about just Owen, and I’d read it.  Equally compelling is Guert Affenlight, the Westish college president, a once-fashionable young literary scholar, now slowly decaying as an administrator; no longer a teacher or published scholar, but a generous and charismatic soul.  And finally his daughter, Pella, a bright and beautiful and deeply unsure of herself young woman, who has moved home to escape a terrible marriage, and who has found personal fulfillment working as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.

Affenlight is infatuated with Owen, and they finally do have an odd but convincing romance.  Pella and Schwartz also hook up, and although they’re good for each other, they also fight, mostly over Henry.  And Henry himself is . . . a sage, a mystic, a ninja turned ronin, a priest without vocation.  A lost and despairing artist who has lost his muse.

I’m making the novel sound morose or gloomy.  It’s anything but.  Pella’s marriage is terrible, but we do meet her husband, and he’s a richly comedic creation.  The writing throughout is . . .  alive.  The characters are funny and smart and rich and foolish and capable and incapable and eloquent and tongue-tied.  They’re people.

But it’s also smart.  Even profound.  There’s this, for example:

‘1973,’ thought Affenlight.  In the public imagination, it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam.  Gravity’s Rainbow.  Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream–the year it entered baseball?  It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation–the Modernists of the First World War–would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the real of utmost confidence in same–the world of professional sport.  In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era where even the athletes were anguished Modernists.  In which case, the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.

Do I dare, and do I dare?

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed.

Thesis, followed by a cheeky antithesis.  The rest of the novel is the synthesis; it is both about a radical loss of self-confidence, and the devastation wrought by it, as well as rebirth and redemption.

Or this: pardon the ellipses.

The thing to do, really was to wash the dishes. In fact, she was feeling a strong desire to wash the dishes. . . . the ones near the bottom were disgusting, the plates covered with water-softened crusts of food, the glasses scummed with white bacterial froth, but this only increased her desire to become the conqueror of so much filth. . . an objection crossed her mind.  What would Mike think?  It was a nice gesture, to do someone’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment . . . even if she and Mike had been dating for months, unprovoked dishwashing might be considered strange.  But the dishes weren’t hers and she and Mike weren’t dating.  They hadn’t even kissed.  Therefore, the doing of dishes could only be weird, neurotic, invasive.  And Mike would shrug and never call her again.  She looked down at the white bubbles.  Steam rose off the water. . .  she really really really wanted to do those dishes.

And so maybe I picked the most pretentious literary paragraph in the novel, and followed it by the weirdest internal monologue paragraph. Plus it’s about baseball.  Meh.  You’re thinking that, possibly.  Meh.

Darn it. I’ve blown it already.  And yet, it’s so so good.

One more, then:

By the time they finished,  Owen had said ‘There, finally’ to two pairs of jeans, two shirts and two sweaters.  A modest stack, but Henry added up the price tags in his mind, and it was more than he had in the bank.  “Do I really need two?” he said?  “One’s a good start.”

“Two,” said Jason.

“Um.”  Henry frowned at the clothes.  “Mmmm. .”

“Oh!” Owen slapped himself on the forehead.  “Did I forget to mention?  I have a gift card at this establishment.  And I have to use it right away.  Lest it expire.”  He reached for the clothes in Henry’s hand.  “Here.”

“But it’s yours,” Henry protested.  “You should spend it on yourself.”

“Certainly not,” Owen said.  “I would never shop here.”


So: this:  This is a novel in which every plot turn and incident is surprising, and yet inevitable.  That is to say, everything that happens flows convincingly from the things that happened earlier, but they also catch us unawares.  It’s also a novel in which the dialogue is literate but persuasive; where the characters talk like the really smart people they are, except for the stupider ones.

I want badly for you to pick up this novel, buy it on Kindle or walk into Barnes and Noble or check it out at your local library; read it! in other words.  So I won’t spoil the plot for you.  But as you read it, you will very much want things to work out well for characters you’ve grown to love, and they do, and the last two chapters are splendid and right and fulfilling.  But it’s a twisty road getting there.  So persevere.

And what if you don’t like baseball?  I wondered about this.  I’m fully aware that this novel did not exactly present me with acceptance-and-enjoyment challenges. I love the game of baseball, though I never played it well, (certainly not as well as Henry does), and I admire the way this author gets every baseball detail exactly and exquisitely right, and boy does that contribute to my engagement with this text.  And maybe, possibly, some of you don’t like baseball as much as I do.  Or (shudder) at all.

Then let me recommend it to you all the more.  Because it’s a terrific read, a marvelous first novel from a guy who I sort of desperately hope writes more of them.  It’s funny and smart and real and profound.

I just really liked it a lot.  I read it until late last night, and work early and finished it this morning, and couldn’t wait to tell someone, everyone, that it’s really good and that you should read it.  So.  It’s really good and you should read it.  That’s The Art of Fielding.  By Chad Harbach.  Click this link to buy your own copy.  It’s about baseball, and it’s about life, and it’s sad and joyful and funny and sad.  But enough.  No more overselling.  You’ll get it, or you won’t.  Just, if you don’t, you’re missing out big time.

The World Series

This World Series has been terrific, thoroughly enjoyable baseball from two teams I respect a lot, in which I end up rooting for both of them.  My poor Giants didn’t make the playoffs this year, for what turned out to be good reasons.  The pitching, which in previous years (2010! 2012!) has been the team’s biggest strength, really fell apart this season.  But the hitting also stank.  Plus they didn’t field well.  So they were bad at scoring runs, bad at preventing the other teams from scoring runs, and bad at turning hit balls into outs.  This is not a recipe for success.

The St. Louis Cardinals were very good this year, as they’ve been every year of the last ten. Their scouting department is unparalleled.  Every season, it seems, they have a new crop of young, superbly talented pitchers and hitters coming up from the minor leagues.  (This is also something the Giants are bad at, BTW). Their biggest find this year is a young pitcher named Michael Wacha.  The name is pronounced ‘wocka‘, like the thing Fozzie Bear always says to punctuate a joke. Wacha the pitcher is 22 years old.  18 months ago, he was a college kid.  But he throws the ball 98 miles an hour, knows what he’s doing on the mound, and has been basically unhittable, except by David Ortiz, the Red Sox best hitter, and a guy who the Cardinals seem completely incapable of getting out.

The Red Sox are a fun team to follow too, though.  They’re a storied franchise, a tribute to the enduring power of myth, building a team tragedy on hubris and karma.  Myth: In 1918, they had the best player in the history of baseball: Babe Ruth.  The Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, though, wanted to produce a Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette.  So he sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.  The Red Sox never could win after that, while the Yankees won championship after championship.  Curse Harry Frazee!  Curse No, No, Nanette! It doesn’t hurt that lots of great writers live in Boston, and love baseball.

But then, see, then, the Curse of the Bambino was atoned for, you see, by an offering of human blood.  In the 2004 playoffs, the Sox best pitcher, Curt Schilling, suffered a serious ankle injury.  The sheath supporting his Achilles (more myth!) tendon was torn.  A team doctor thought the loss of that sheath could be compensated for with sutures, and Schilling went out to pitch, badly injured, against the Yankees.  Of course, against the Yankees.  The sutures tore, and blood was visible pouring through his sock.  Schilling somehow persevered, pitched brilliantly, won.  The Sox went on to win the World Series.  Against the Cardinals.  Blood atoning for original sin–I’m telling you, this myth has everything.

And it’s all nonsense; well, except that Schilling really did pitch superbly though injured.  But he wasn’t atoning for sin; he was just a good pitcher playing hurt.  Harry Frazee didn’t invest in No No Nanette in 1918; he produced the musical five years later.  And the Red Sox were indeed cursed, and did bring it on themselves; Tom Yawkey, their long-term owner, was a racist who refused to allow the team to sign any black players until many many years after every other team in baseball had.  So while all the other teams had managed to sign the Jackie Robinsons and Willie Mays and Hank Aarons of the US, the Sox were always at a scouting/team development disadvantage.

Ballplayers are a superstitious lot, however, leading to this World Series most immediately obvious defining characteristic; the Red Sox players’ awful beards.  Left fielder Jonny Gomes, I swear, needs to be cast in the last Hobbit movie; he’s essentially a Middle Earth dwarf.  David Ross’ is even uglier.  Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli look Amish. There is a reason for it, though.

Last year’s Red Sox really sucked. They hated their manager, the players were unhappy, morale was horrendous, and they underachieved.  They traded away some dead wood, brought in guys like Napoli and Gomes (hard-nosed professionals both), and fired the manager.  Their new manager, John Farrell, is on of the most respected in all of baseball, and the team responded with a terrific turn-around season. But Napoli and Gomes thought team morale might improve if they had a beard growing contest.  So they’re an entertainingly scruffy lot, but they’re good; just a team of guys who throw out tough at bats and play good defense and scrap and hustle.

So there’s a bit of a contrast in styles in these two teams; they’re otherwise perfectly matched.  One game turned on a play where an umpire reversed a call, which never happens.  Another game ended on a controversial obstruction call, an obscure baseball rule which was, I was delighted to see, applied correctly to the kind of situation that doesn’t often come up. Another game concluded with a rookie Cardinals baserunner, in the game to pinch-run, having a brain freeze and getting picked off first.  Never seen a game end that way.

The Red Sox have a relief pitcher, Koji Uehara, a Japanese guy who has not, as it happens, grown a beard–possibly because he can’t–who hasn’t walked a hitter since July.  His statistics look like a misprint–no one can possibly pitch that well.  But you watch him pitch, and it’s astonishing; he makes Major league hitters look completely foolish.  The Sox lead the Series 3-2, and I think will win it in 7, mostly because they have Uehara, and the Cardinals relief staff, though very good, isn’t quite THAT good.

Plus the Sox have Papi.  David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, was their best hitter when they won the World Series in 2004, their best hitter when they won in 2008, and by far their best hitter so far in this Series.  I don’t know of any athlete more beloved in their city than Papi is. I think the Cardinals will hang tough behind Wacha on Wednesday, and the Sox will win it on Thursday.  But boy has it been a terrific World Series.  Find a chance to watch it some.




The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just announced their nominees for 2014 induction.  You can vote here. We’re allowed to vote for five candidates, and as usual, I’m really really torn.  Honestly, it wouldn’t break my heart if they all made it.  But two bands in particular seem controversial.  KISS is finally nominated.  And the other band is Yes.

There is, and always has been, a close connection between the  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone Magazine and Columbia records.  This makes sense, because the most important founders of the RRHOF were Ahmet Ertugen and Jann Wenner.  And HOF voters have always despised progressive rock. Jethro Tull is not in the HOF.  Nor is Emerson, Lake and Palmer, nor is Gentle Giant, nor King Crimson, nor the Moody Blues.  Pink Floyd made it, but they were only tangentially prog.

The reality is that the Rock and Roll of Fame voters are largely comprised of rock historians, many of them from Rolling Stone Magazine, who think prog rock sucks.  They think it’s pretentious, they think it’s not really rock and roll.  They think it’s the very definition of terrible music.  And as a lifelong prog rock fan, as a person for whom, in high school, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull and Yes were the sound track to my life, that’s a highly offensive attitude.  So last year, when Rush made it on the ballot (and was voted into the Hall by fans), it felt very much like the prog rock camel’s nose slipping under the tent flap.  This year, let’s bring in the rest of the camel.

Which is another way of saying, yes!  to the fact that Yes made it on the ballot.  And so did Peter Gabriel.

But this year, I’m going to do something else.  I’m going to compare the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees to Baseball Hall of Fame inductees.  I mean, the first is clearly modeled on the second, including the name ‘Hall of Fame.’  Plus I think this might be kind of fun.

Here are the candidates, with my comments on each:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band:  NO.

They were up last year, and I think will be on the ballot every year until they get in.  Someone at the Rolling Stone really really likes this band.  Let me say, first, that blues-based mid-sixties rock bands are not exactly in short supply in the Hall.  They had two great albums, basically.  They played at Woodstock.  I just don’t see their accomplishments as sufficiently substantial to warrant inclusion. Baseball equivalent: Pistol Pete Reiser.  (Reiser was a great young player, very short career due to frequent injuries).

Chic: NO.

Important disco band. I love the guitar lick on “Le Freak.”  But disco is already well represented in the Hall.  I vote no.  Baseball equivalent: Omar Moreno.  (Slick fielder, very fast and fun-to-watch baserunner, couldn’t hit, didn’t stick.)

Deep Purple: NO.

I love Deep Purple.  The opening guitar lick for “Smoke on the Water” is iconic.  Great keyboard work from Jon Lord, great guitarist in Ritchie Blackmore.  Very tough call, but the band didn’t last quite long enough for me to vote for them this time around.  Baseball equivalent: Dave Parker. (Old Pirates outfielder; genuinely great player, not quite HOF material).

Peter Gabriel: YES

One of the great innovators in rock history, a restless explorer trangressing musical boundaries.  Also a guy who reinvented the rock video, turned the four minute mini-movie into an avant-garde art form.  Enthusiastic yes: he’s gotta be in.  Baseball equivalent: Dennis Eckersley (Brilliant starting pitcher, even better relief pitcher; versatile and superb).

Hall and Oates: Blarg.  NO.

Just too top 40 for my taste.  To make the HOF, you have to do more than craft hit after hit.  I get why they’re nominated, but they’re the bottom of the pile this year. Baseball equivalent: Steve Garvey.  (Dodger first baseman, big star, massively overrated).


But a tough call.  I’m voting no, frankly, because I just don’t like their music very much. And everything about their approach seems cynical to me. “You wanna like some music your parents will HATE? Right?”  But they were influential and popular.  (Speak of cynical, though: I don’t think it’s an accident that KISS got nominated the same year Yes was.  The HOF loathes both bands, but recognizes they have very large and vocal fan bases. And while we can all vote five times, only the top vote-getter automatically makes it in).  Baseball equivalent: Jose Canseco. (No one liked his antics, but grudgingly had to admit his gifts).

LL Cool J: NO

One of the great rappers, I think he’ll make it in eventually.  But I like the idea of promoting diversity–having inductees representing a variety of sub-genres.  And N.W.A. is more important, historically.  Baseball equivalent: Bernie Williams. (Great player on those great 90’s Yankees teams, not quite enough resume to be in).

The Meters: NO.

Fantastic New Orleans funk band, though. Really like ’em.  But they had kind of a short career, then became a sessions band, recording with a huge variety of other artists.  A lot of great bands up for induction this year–sadly, for me, they don’t quite make the cut. Baseball equivalent: Luis Tiant. (Red Sox pitcher, fun to watch, contorted his body oddly before each pitch).

Nirvana: YES.

The easy choice this year.  Obvious yes.  Incredibly important band, historically and artistically and culturally.  Baseball equivalent: Pedro Martinez: (incredibly good, but sadly short career, not in the HOF yet, but will be soon).

N. W. A.: YES.

We’re just moving into the rap era.  Because of the Hall’s eligibility requirements–they can’t be nominated until 25 years has passed since they released their first record–Tupac, Biggie Smalls, that generation is just starting to be nominated.  N.W.A. is one of the most influential bands in history, a band that showed the radical political power of rap.  Easy call.  Baseball equivalent: Rickie Henderson (greatest lead-off hitter in history, but not really recognized as great until the Bill James revolution changed how we look at the game).

The Replacements: NO

But I hate myself for not voting for them. I know they influenced everyone from Nirvana to Green Day to Fall Out Boy. And every few days or so, I get in the mood for some DIY post-punk indie and go to my Replacements Pandora station. But I’m not sure they were ever quite . . .  substantial enough for this company. Baseball equivalent: Fernando Valenzuela: (Remember Fernandomania?  So immensely charismatic and fun, and then it all went away).

Linda Ronstadt: NO

A very reluctant no. I love her music, owned several albums, plus had a huge crush on her based solely on her Hasten Down the Wind album cover. I don’t like Hall and Oates and I do like Linda Ronstadt, but I won’t vote for either this year for much the same reason: they had a lot of hits, but weren’t important historically.  Baseball equivalent: Don Mattingly.  (Yankee first baseman; not quite as good as we thought at the time).

Cat Stevens: YES

I love Cat Stevens’ music. I listen to it all the time, and I think there was a time, about 1974 or so, when his music kind of saved me.  I found hope in his music when I was feeling kind of hopeless; he’s honestly one of the reasons I went on a mission.  And I admire his courage; converting to Islam because of the peace he found in it.  I love this guy–he has to make it in.  Baseball equivalent: Barry Bonds. (Controversial choices, but my gosh was he great).

Link Wray: NO

I get his historical importance.  But does the Hall really need another late-50’s guitar player?  Not given the strength of the other contenders.  Baseball equivalent: Bruce Sutter.  (Cubs pitcher, invented the split-fingered fastball.  But was he that great on his own merits?)

Yes: YES

A thousand times yes.  Of course Yes belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To say otherwise is just pure snobbery and prejudice.  One of the greatest bands in history, a band as important to the seventies as the Rolling Stones or Who were to earlier generations.  Baseball Equivalent: Tom Seaver: (yes, Tommy Terrific. That good).

The Zombies: NO

But not a bad choice. Again, though, it’s not like the RRHOF has a shortage of British Invasion sixties bands.  I’m not kidding–Herman’s Hermits will make it some day.  Baseball equivalent: Dave Kingman: (at the end of the day, just another slugging first baseman).

Anyway, I put the link above. Vote! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs your input.  And remember: Yes is, in fact, on the ballot this year.  Just a reminder.. . .