Friday, June 30, 2006

Movie Review: The Sandlot

by Matt Sandler

We all know that no sport wears its history on its sleeve more proudly than baseball. Not only does this mean that baseball fans are more aware of players and records from the past than fans from other sports, but the sport in general is meant to evoke nostalgia and remind us of our childhoods. Sometimes this sepia-toned “isn’t it a grand sport, and wasn’t it better back when it was just a game” way of approaching baseball can be laid on a bit too thick. A good example of this is the warm-hearted but overly sentimental family comedy The Sandlot (1993).

The movie takes place in 1962, when fifth-grader Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) moves with his mother (Karen Allen) and stepfather, Bill (Denis Leary) to a Los Angeles suburb towards the end of the school year. He is a shy and somewhat awkward kid who has an uneasy relationship with his stepdad, and does not feel comfortable pressuring his stepdad to teach him how to play catch as he had promised. Wandering around the neighborhood, he stumbles on a sandlot where eight boys around his age are taking batting practice. Too shy to approach them, he stands in the outfield, happy just to observe. When he embarrasses himself by bumbling a catch and a throw, he assumes that his “life is over,” which is a nice moment that emphasizes the over-inflated sense we ascribe to incidents when we are kids.

After a pep talk by his mother in which she emphasizes that she wants him to make friends and that he has permission to get into a little trouble, he again has the nerve to leave the house. Upon his second visit to the sandlot, the best and most forceful player in the group, Benjamin Franklin (Benny) Rodriguez (Mike Vitar) invites him to join the group, much to the other members’ disgust. They may be outsiders to the rest of the kids in the community, but they are a tight-knit group, and are reluctant to allow in a member who clearly does not know how to play the game. Just when Scotty is about to give up again, everything clicks for him, thanks to some help from Benny, and all of a sudden he can catch and throw as well as the others.

We get to know the other eight members of the group. Besides Benny, the two teammates that stand out the most are the feisty chubby catcher Hamilton Porter (“The Great Hambino”) (Patrick Renna) and Michael “Squints” Palledorous (Chauncey Leopardi), so nicknamed because of his glasses. Their performances are clearly the most enjoyable in the movie. Renna seems like he could be plucked from the old “Our Gang” series—he is proudly pudgy, carries on an incessant banter at home plate to distract the batters, and protects his friends with fierce loyalty. Like Porter, “Squints” reminds us of kids we knew growing up who defended themselves against bullying by adopting a persona—the fighter, the prankster, etc.—that enabled them to be surrounded by protectors. He stars in one of the best scenes of the movie, as he concocts an ingenious scheme to steal a kiss from the town babe, Wendy Pfefferkorn (Marley Shelton).

The plot is mostly low-key in the movie, although it clearly tries to emphasize that things that we look back on with amusement now can be sources of drama and terror when we are children. (The adult Scotty, voiced by the director, David Mickey Evans, narrates. I’m guessing that Evans, born in 1962, was partially named after The Mick.) After Benny busts a ball with one of his powerful hits, Scotty swipes a signed Babe Ruth baseball from his stepdad so they can continue playing. One of the odder themes of the movie is that Scotty is amazingly clueless about many of the things that almost every 11-year-old boy would know. He doesn’t know who Ruth is either by name or by one of his famous nicknames, and he has never heard of a Smore. Sometimes we wonder if he moved to California from another state or another planet.

Scotty hits the Babe Ruth ball over the fence, into the yard of the “mean old” Mr. Mertle (James Earl Jones) and the terrifying dog that he owns, referred to by all the kids as “The Beast.” Evans does a clever job of showing the dog mostly half-seen or in silhouette, to emphasize how he is bigger in the kids’ minds than he really turns out to be. One scene shows the kids developing ever more clever devices to retrieve the ball without having to climb over the fence or ring Mr. Mertle’s doorbell. One of these is an amazingly huge Erector set that would almost certainly be beyond the means of your typical group of eleven-year-olds.

The rest of the movie is filled with nice but basic moral lessons for the intended audience of kids. The group of nine players has a black and a Hispanic, and nothing is made of this in the entire movie. Whether this was true anywhere in the country in 1962 I am not so sure. You can also probably guess that Mr. Mertle—and the “Beast,” really named Hercules—are not as scary as the kids imagine them to be.

“The Sandlot” tries to capture some of the same wonder and reverence for our childhoods as “A Christmas Story,” but that is a better movie than this one. “The Sandlot” strains too hard at times to impart moral lessons, when some more amusing anecdotes would have done the trick. Still, there is one scene that is pretty breathtaking. On July Fourth, due to the light provided by a local fireworks display, the kids are able to play at night. As the kids stare in wonder both at the fireworks and at Benny mashing homers, we are reminded again that we’re pretty damn lucky to live in a country that loves baseball so much.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan", appears alternate Fridays.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Time to Revisit Black Sox Scandal?

by Scott Silversten

There are many moments throughout history that remain fascinating simply because we will never know the whole truth.

No matter how much we yearn, the complete events onboard the hijacked flights of September 11 will forever remain a mystery. Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? What was it like on Titanic? Fictional movies have done more to explain, expound and often, distort, events such as these.

In baseball parlance, mystery has always surrounded the events leading up to, and following, the 1919 World Series. That year, eight members of the Chicago White Sox, or the "Black Sox" as they would become known, allegedly conspired to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.


Nearly 87 years after the Black Sox scandal, baseball fans still wonder about what actually took place. Most know only what was depicted in Eliot Asinof’s book, Eight Men Out, and the 1988 movie of the same name staring D.B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson.

For those who are unaware, the simple story is this: Eight members of the White Sox, upset with the way they had been treated by stingy owner Charles Comiskey, accepted money from gamblers and fixed the Fall Classic. The players were brought to trial, but acquitted. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis punished the eight players with a lifetime banishment from baseball.

However, fascinating new theories are being raised in Burying the Black Sox – How Baseball’s Cover-up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded by freelance baseball researcher Gene Carney.

I, for one, was not aware of this book until reading Bill Madden’s column in Sunday’s New York Daily News. And after reading Madden’s piece, I immediately...read it again. I also cannot get my hands on that book too soon.

According to Carney’s research, Jackson testified during a 1924 trial in Milwaukee that he first received money following the World Series and immediately told Comiskey and White Sox General Manager Harry Grabiner of the transaction. Carney claims that Jackson was told to keep the money and to keep quiet.

Jackson, of course, was one of the greats of his time and the best player in the 1919 series, hitting .375 with a homer, six RBI and no errors. Defenders of Shoeless Joe have used that performance in a failed attempt in recent years to get Jackson back into baseball, and thus, into the Hall of Fame. His detractors have said that even if he did not perform poorly, he knew about the fix and never came forward.

In announcing his fateful decision, Landis proclaimed, "...no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball."

Now we are faced with the possibility that Jackson did come forward the moment he was given money, and that the cover-up was perpetrated by Comiskey, who feared the dismantling of his talented team if the rumors of a fix were confirmed. Once the fix did become public, Carney argues that Comiskey might have conspired with Landis to banish the eight players in an attempt to preserve baseball’s clean image.

As history has so often noted, Comiskey was essentially concerned with the bottom line. His thriftiness is probably what drove the Black Sox to make the decisions they eventually did, and his fear of future financial losses might have been the impetus for any cover-up in the scandal’s aftermath.

Earlier this year, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig used the publication of a book about Barry Bonds and BALCO as a reason to launch his first investigation into the steroids debacle that has engulfed the sport in recent years.

While he is at it, Selig should also investigate the theories put forth in Carney’s tome and possibly move toward rectifying a true baseball injustice nearly a century old.

Baseball fans and historians may never know the whole truth about the events of October 1919, but we are now faced with the realization that the game was perhaps denied a full career by one of its most legendary, and infamous, individuals.

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

Indeed.

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Preseason Predictions: How We Doing So Far?

This week on Wild-Card Wednesdays, columnist Doug Silversten takes a look at how the Baseball For Thought columnists are doing with their preseason predictions as the season reaches its halfway point

As hard as it is to believe, the end of this week already marks the halfway point of the 2006 baseball season. While there have certainly been some surprises (the Tigers and Reds perhaps the most prominent examples), for the most part, the season has gone as expected. In fact, that is usually the case. Every year there are a few surprise teams that hang around a lot longer than expected. However, at the end of the year, thanks in large part to baseball’s remarkably unfair economic system, pretty much the same bunch of teams make the playoffs each year. Sure, there may be 1 or 2 “new” teams reaching the postseason, but, for the most part, the core remains intact each year.

Given that, it is no surprise that our columnist predictions so far are greatly on target. So, let’s look back at our preseason predictions to see how we are doing so far:

Let’s start with our AL predictions. Here were our predictions:

AL:
East: Red Sox 4, Yankees 4
Central: White Sox 5, Indians 3
West: A's 6, Angels 2
Wild Card: Angels 3, Blue Jays 2, Indians, White Sox, Yankees
Champion: A's 2, Indians 2, Yankees 2, Red Sox, White Sox

Cy Young: Johan Santana 4, Roy Halladay 3, Randy Johnson
MVP: Alex Rodriguez 4, David Ortiz 2, Vladimir Guerrero, Travis Hafner

For the most part, we are right on target. Clearly, the Tigers are the one team we all overlooked, but other than that, only maybe the Rangers are clearly missing.

Randy Johnson is certainly not winning the Cy Young, but everyone else on the awards list certainly has a shot. While we are only halfway home, our columnists certainly seem to have nailed the American League.

Let’s check out our NL predictions:

NL:
East: Braves 4, Mets 4
Central: Cardinals 8
West: Dodgers 6, Giants, Padres
Wild Card: Braves 3, Mets 2, Phillies 2, Brewers
Champion: Cardinals 5, Braves, Dodgers, Mets

Cy Young: Jake Peavy 4, Pedro Martinez 2, Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets
MVP: Albert Pujols 6, Carlos Delgado, Andruw Jones

The only team we, along with most prognosticators, were way off with is the Atlanta Braves. However, overall we are again right on target. We missed the boat with the Reds, but who didn’t? Our Cy Young picks are a bit off, but none embarrassingly so. Overall, looks good.

Our World Series picks? See below:

World Series Champion: A's 2, Cardinals 2, Yankees 2, Mets, Red Sox

Well, considering all 5 of those teams are either in first place or less than 4 games from it, right on target again. Not shockingly. Name those 5 teams every year, and thanks to their payrolls, they will be right there at the end. Of course, the only exception is the A’s, and that is because of the best GM perhaps in the history of the game, as we discussed in Monday’s column.

Finally, how about Barry Bonds. Our average prediction:

Number of HR's Barry Bonds will hit: 30.6 (SD 3.6)

Barry Bonds is on pace for…. 23 HRs.

Hey, not bad. If Bonds has a 2 HR game tonight, he’ll be on pace for 27, right within 1 standard deviation of the mean. Wow, we’re good.

We’ll check back in October to hand out our prediction awards. Enjoy the second half!


"Wild Card Wednesdays" appears every Wednesday

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

And Reyes Makes Three...

by Alan Eliot

Jose Bernabe Reyes, superstar.

Sort of.

You may remember him being referred to as "super-prospect" when he was finally called up, to great fanfare, in 2003. As we've seen previously on this site here and here, Mets management continually refers to him as part of the young nucleus of the NY Mets for years to come, along with Beltran and Wright. That's a lot of confidence to have in what seems to be an overrated and error-prone shortstop. However, it took young Jose until the middle of his 4th MLB season to finally show the league, and the fans, why so many were so high on him.

True, last year he showed glimmers of talent. After two seasons cut short by his own fragility, he had a breakout season of sorts in 2005. First off, he calmed critics by lasting a full season. He played in 161 games, and led the league in AB (696) and PA (733). Second, considering how much mention is made of his speed, he finally showed the league what he could leg out in a full season, leading the NL in both triples (17) and SB (60).

However, 2005 was also a year of huge red flags for Reyes. He ended up leading the league in a few categories that are not as coveted. While his fielding and arm are both highly touted, he still led all SS in errors (18). Youth. Learning. Fine. What was more damning, however, was his inability to adjust to the leadoff position. It famously took Reyes 118 AB to procure his first walk, and ended the season with a dismal 27 BB and .300 OBA. This statistic in particular makes his 190 hits, good for fifth in the NL, seem more of a minus than a plus- it points more to his inability to walk than to talent. Any average hitter given 700 AB would be one of the league leaders in hits. So what?

Partially due to his low OBA, he was in the top ten in the NL for worst OPS for an everyday position player, at .687 (9th). He also led the league in outs, with 536.

And partially due to some of the above statistics, Jose Reyes has continued to irk Mets fans such as resident columnist Doug Silversten, whose second favorite baseball topic next to "Moneyball/I heart Beane" is "Jose Reyes is overrated/sucks/needs to be traded before it's too late and everyone realizes how much he sucks". True story.

In fact, in response to a Newsday article from May 21 claiming the A's were interested in trading Zito for either David Wright or Reyes, Doug replied, "No way Beane wants Reyes."

Doug's position has softened recently- thankfully- and the telephone tirades have stopped.

Why? Reyes has been on an absolute tear. His recent 13-game hitting streak includes 7 straight games with first-inning hits, a Mets record. He also scored 19 runs, fueling the Mets' offense. According to the AP , he went 32 for 57 (.561) over that span, and raised his BA 56 points, from .246 to .302. In that same span, he had three 4-hit games (currently leads the league in 4-hit games with 5) and even hit for the cycle, the ninth in Mets history. He's also won NL Player of the Week Honors two weeks in a row.

Through 73 games: BA .302, OBA .361, H 98, 2B 19 , 3B 10, SB 34.

Not even halfway through the season, Reyes has already hit more HR (8) than in 2005 (7). More important, he's learning how to take a walk- his 29 BB is nothing extraordinary, but it does eclipse his entire 2005 total (27).

In the AP article, Reyes himself offers a glimpse into his recent change of luck by showing that he's maturing as a hitter: "I feel real good right now," he said. "I made a little change in my swing. A lot of pitchers were throwing me off-speed pitches outside. I tried to pull the ball before. Now I'm staying with it."

Jose Reyes, for the time being, has become a feared member of the NY Mets lineup. For years pitchers knew that Reyes was a nuisance on the bases, but also knew he would get himself out by chasing balls out of the strike zone, or by popping up. It appears that his increased selectivity has finally translated in vastly improved statistics. He currently leads the league in runs, SB and triples.

And for the Met fan who tends to get a little overexcited: ESPN Projected Statistics for Jose Reyes as of 6/27/06:

G: 160, AB 712, R 147, H 215, 2B 42, 3B 22, HR 18, RBI 79, SB 75

The question of Reyes coming down to earth is not if but when. Of course Reyes can't continue on this torrid pace for any reasonably extended period of time. That matters little, as for the first time in his four years at the major-league level, he has lived up to the incredible hype that has surrounded him. And while he may never become the superstar that many project him to be, both fans, and Reyes himself, have seen the what Reyes is capable of when he learns to take a pitch.

I can't argue with some fans like Doug- it's true- he does pop up way too much,and swing at bad balls, and generally annoys baseball purists by oftentimes forgetting his role as lead-off batter- to get on base. But remember: he is 23. He's still learning. And for the time being, it seems that he's finally capable of making that adjustment to the majors, with excellent results.

Reyes joins a large portion of the Mets who are leading the voting at their respective positions for the All-Star game- a pool that includes David Wright and Carlos Beltran. No doubt in light of recent events, Mets fans are already dreaming that this scenario plays out for many more summers to come.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, June 26, 2006

Straight A's for Billy Beane

by Doug Silversten

Who is the best all-around player in the game? That’s certainly a good way to get an argument going with some baseball fans. I would say Albert Pujols. Another might say Alex Rodriguez. A third would answer Vladimir Guerrero. All three of us would have legitimate claims to having the "right" answer.

Let’s try another question. Who is today’s best pitcher? I say Johan Santana. You say Pedro Martinez. No easy answer, as despite Pedro being "on the decline," his overall numbers this season are strikingly similar to Johan.

Who’s the best manager? You say Joe Torre. He certainly has the record and a great ability to deal with the New York media. Solid choice. I still say Bobby Cox, despite the Braves’ struggles this season.

Now, how about the game’s best general manager?

Unlike with the other questions, there can be no discussion. No debate. One GM is simply on a different playing field then the rest. And if you don’t already know the answer, then you haven’t been paying attention (or haven’t read the title of this column).

Billy Beane is the game’s best general manager. That’s it. Stop talking. No argument possible.

About midway through another season, and yet another Billy Beane A’s team finds itself in the playoff hunt...with a payroll within the bottom 10 of MLB...mostly comprised of unknowns.

Unknowns you say? How about future hall of famer Frank Thomas? How about future Cy Young award winner Rich Harden? How about 2004 Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby?

Um, all of the above have missed considerable time on the Disabled List this year. And this doesn’t even count Huston Street, the 2005 Rookie of the Year, who missed about two weeks, although he never landed on the D.L. The only true “star” who has played all season would be third baseman Eric Chavez.

Plenty of teams have injuries though, right? Look at this year’s Yankees.

Hogwash.

Sure, the Yankees have had injuries to some superstars, but when you have a team full of them, you can afford to lose a few. Here is a list of Yankees who have not spent any time on the D.L. this year: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Randy Johnson, Johnny Damon. Cry me a river. Combine that core with the Royals bench, and you should have a contender.

The A’s, on the other hand, shouldn’t be able to afford the loss of key players. Depth and low budgets don’t go hand in hand. Yet, they did. Like they always do.

The A’s may miss the playoffs again for the 3rd straight year. If they make the playoffs or not is almost irrelevant and critics who point to that miss the point. Beane puts a contender on the field EVERY YEAR, despite a low payroll. From 2001 to 2004, the Mets had one of the highest payrolls and yet floundered each year. Yes, the Yankees, Red Sox and Braves (until this year) put out consistent contenders. However, with the resources they have, it is tough to credit the GM. It’s like Bill Gates buying every lottery ticket and then complimenting him when he wins.

Other teams with low payrolls occasionally make a run, although not as often as you think. But when they do, it is usually a flash in the pan. No low-budget team is as consistent as the A’s. The closest is the Twins and a) they always had a higher payroll b) were never as good as the A’s and c) didn’t do it for as long as Beane’s teams have.

Look, bottom line, Beane is, bar-none, the best GM in the game today. There is no comparison. No one comes close. What he has done with the payrolls he has had to work with in this era of competitive imbalance is absolutely, positively, truly remarkable. Reserve that spot in the Hall of Fame for him.

Next question.

Doug Silversten's column, "The Big Picture", appears alternate Mondays
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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