Friday, July 14, 2006

All Times a Fantasy

by Matt Sandler

One of the elements of fantasy baseball that we may not acknowledge as a main reason for playing is the small degree of power that we feel it gives us. Surely, this power is false—I’m guessing Trot Nixon neither knows nor cares that I just dropped him—but it does allow us to live vicariously as general managers. The novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) by Robert Coover details one man’s obsessive playing with an early version of fantasy baseball. The game takes over his personal and professional lives and absorbs entirely too much of his time.

The protagonist, Henry Waugh, is a lonely bachelor, 56 years old, living in an unnamed big city. He works as an accountant for a small firm, a job which gives him little personal satisfaction; it just pays the bills. His life mainly consists of playing a dice-based fantasy baseball game of his own devising, with little time in his life for food, sex, friends, and all the other necessities. (One of the best scenes in the book describes a rare sexual encounter that he has with an unattractive woman he knows from the local bar, which contains a sustained baseball-as-sex metaphor equivalent to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”)

The level of detail he creates surrounding his fantasy league is truly frightening. He is in Season LXI of the Universal Baseball Association, and each season involves playing out 84 games for each of the eight teams in the league. Each season takes about two months, implying that he has been at this game for almost ten years without much of a break. It is not just the rolls of the dice that he is responsible for (it should be noted that he plays by himself, not against anybody else). He has created an entire history regarding the league, with commissioners, biographies, deaths, detailed records, and much, much more, all of which he meticulously records in official logs.

It is amazing how many of the scenes take place in Waugh’s mind, as the games come to life in his mind, as do retired ballplayers drowning their sorrows at a favorite bar, swapping tales from their playing days. Waugh creates a whole supporting cast around the league, of sportswriters, groupies, bartenders, political parties, and other colorful characters. If Waugh’s real life were half as interesting as the world he creates in his head, he might be on to something.

The level of involvement that Henry (and the book itself) has in the league is so great that the main plot point is the death of one of the fake players in Henry’s league. This causes Henry to have a crisis that causes major trouble at work, but whether he retains his job, and if he continues playing in the league, I will leave for you to discover.

The book works best as a study in obsession, and as a cautionary tale about what could happen if we get too involved in any habit or hobby. Coover’s writing, which is considered postmodern, takes some getting used to. Here he is describing the funeral for the player:

“Ruefully, the sackbuts poop-poop-dee-pooped , discreetly distant. In bitter cold, through streets draped in black, slowly advanced the pallbearers. Hop, skip, and a long cold shuffle. The frozen corpse rocked in the hollow box: whump! tum-tum-tum clump! Long live the dead queen!”


The noted baseball writer John Thorn describes a whole different layer to the book in a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review. He writes, “Literary critics have sniffed out the allegorical hints in Coover’s tale…Waugh’s name can be condensed to ‘JHWH,’ the transliterated name of God; and although he created the rules and casts the die, each roll of the bones brings to him, to his players and to the reader an illusion of free will.” Certainly, a great deal of the allure to Henry, way beyond being a baseball fan (he never goes to real games), is the power of creation. He has the same feeling as an artist creating a painting out of a blank canvas, or an author creating a novel out of thin air. In his UBA, he has control over a world that is so much more exciting and action-packed than the real world he inhabits, and over which he is losing control, or never had any.

Once familiarized with Coover’s unique style of writing, this haunting and very funny novel lingers in the mind. At one meal, his friend Lou expresses concern about Henry’s recent flakiness at work. Lou asks Henry what he has been so busy with, thinking he has been taking work home with him. But Henry brushes away the concern: “What I do, I do because I want to.”


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

Thursday, July 13, 2006

NY's Great Left Side of the Infield Debate

by Scott Silversten

Where is Terry Cashman when we need him?

Cashman is no relation to New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, but rather the man who recorded 1981’s timeless classic “Talkin’ Baseball,” a song that long ago should have been anointed the official anthem of the national pastime.

For those who are not famliar with the song, the most famous line from the chorus highlighted a decades long debate that still rages inside many of New York’s sports bars...Willie, Mickey or The Duke?

During a seven-year span from 1951 through 1957, allegiances of New York baseball fans hinged on their vociferous defense of the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, the New York Giants’ Willie Mays or Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers as the best center fielder of the time. Despite the departure of the Dodgers and Giants for California following the 1957 season, the arguments have continued for nearly half a century.

The years 1949-1957 are considered the golden era of baseball in New York, as not a season passed during that span without a local team reaching the World Series. The Yankees dominated with five straight championships before Mays and the Giants swept four games from the highly-favored Cleveland Indians in 1954. In 1955, “next year” finally arrived as the Dodgers claimed their only Brooklyn title. The following October, Don Larsen’s perfect game highlighted the last “Subway Series” for 44 years.

Now, as we approach next summer’s 50-year anniversary of the announcement that the Dodgers and Giants would be leaving for the West Coast, it appears New York might be on the verge of another golden era.

And much like the one of the 1950s, this era will revolve around a few special players and a debate that should rage for the next half century: Which tandem is better, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez or Jose Reyes and David Wright?

If not for an ill-advised head-first slide into first base last week by Reyes, all four players would have been in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s All-Star game in Pittsburgh. As it was, Jeter at shortstop and Rodriguez at third base stood side-by-side as one of the most accomplished and decorated tandems in baseball history.

On a daily basis in Queens, it is Reyes and Wright who take the field with all the promise and potential that youth can offer. Where they will take the Mets in the days and years to come are not yet part of recorded history, but rather dreams that exist in the minds of Mets fans young and old.

Baseball is a sport built around discussion and argument. The sport’s leisurely pace and daily rhythms lends itself to debate. No intelligent person would have made a case for Reyes and Wright being better than Jeter and Rodriguez entering this season, but only 3 ½ months later, a real discussion can rage about which is the better tandem. Not tomorrow or next year, but right now!

How many people realize that Reyes actually has a better slugging percentage than Jeter (.427 to .357)? Reyes is also one of the biggest threats in the game on the basepaths, is an adept fielder with a cannon for an arm and is working hard to improve on his biggest weakness, which is plate discipline.

Of course, Jeter has the world championship rings and long ago attained the label of a player who performs in the biggest games. He has been a part of several moments that already live in baseball lore, such as his famous flip play in Oakland. Whether or not such moments garner more weight than they deserve, well, welcome to the great New York infield debate!

The third base argument might be even more fun, as the statistics of Rodriguez (.282 AVG, .390 OBP, 19 HRs, 65 RBI, 61 R) and Wright (.316, .386 OBP, 20 HRs, 74 RBI, 59 R) are very similar through the season’s first half, with the Mets’ star holding a slight advantage.

However, let’s talk “clutch.” Aside from Boston’s David Ortiz, has there been a more clutch player in baseball this year than Wright, who put an exclamation point on his “clutchness” with a huge eighth-inning homer against Florida in the last game prior to the All-Star break.

Rodriguez, as it is so often argued, never comes through in the big situation, so that would seem to tip the argument in Wright’s favor. Although, if we are talking clutch, whose career has been more clutch than Jeter’s?

Both third basemen have struggled in the field this year, but Rodriguez was a Gold Glove-level performer in 2005. Are his errors this season a fluke, a fielding slump or a step backwards for someone playing the position full time for only a third full season?

And here you see how this great debate will evolve, and make no mistake, this will always be an argument between Mets and Yankees fans. For those supporters of the Mets, go ahead and praise Wright for his ability in pressure situations, but remember, you must use the same reasoning when discussing Jeter.

Attention Yankees fans: If you want to argue A-Rod over Wright, please feel free. However, if you dismiss Rodriguez’s failures in “close and late” situations as statistical aberrations, please be advised that the same must be said of Jeter’s success in similar circumstances.

And let us not forget, Jeter and A-Rod have proven their mettle over the last decade, while Wright and Reyes are only 23 and have yet to show they can produce year after year. On the other hand, wouldn’t anybody rather have two 23-year-old studs for the long haul than two superstars who probably are at their peak in 2006?

Really, this what talkin’ baseball is all about.

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Our Day at Shea

by The Fanatic's Wife

Doug and I both agreed that it had been way too long since we had been to a game together. To make up for lost times, we attended the double-header against the Marlins on Saturday. We went with fellow Baseball For Thought-er Rob and his fiancée, so when the boys went into their baseball-induced trance, at least I had some support.

We had great seats: out of the sun and directly behind home plate. The smell of stale beer was carried through the air on the light breeze. The crunch of peanut shells beneath our feet, melted ice cream in a miniature helmet left on the seat, vendors in blinding neon green shirts…ahhhh…Shea.

The first game was pretty good, except that we lost. As Rob's fiancée and I were gossiping about stuff that is of no interest to any men, the Marlins hit two home runs. Boo. Then the Marlins’ pitcher (some dude) walked home two runs. Yay! Then they hit another home run. Boo. Now that is my version of a game summary!

Before the next game started we decided to take a walk to stretch our legs and get the blood flow back into our butts (it happens). Rejuvenated by the wonderful concessions that you can only truly enjoy while watching America’s Pastime, we got back to our seats. Well…not exactly true. While we were in line, the boys kept running in to check out the Mets’ “number one pitching prospect,” Mike Pelfrey. Being the nice, wonderful women we are, we stayed on line and let the boys go back to their seats. Are we good or what?

Ready for game two! Valentin: grand slam and then a three run triple. We were all getting stadium-butt-itis (it’s a technical term) again and had enough faith in our Metsies that they could hold the lead. They won 17-3. Yay!

The Mets know how important women are to the game of baseball. Saturday happened to be “Take HER Out to the Ballgame” Day. We were presented with a Hawaiian print tote bag and hand lotion. Women love products, so it was good. The Mets organization obviously understands what many women go through during baseball season (being ignored, never getting to watch their T.V.) and they rightly acknowledged the contribution and sacrifices women make from April through October. So thank you. And let this serve as an example to men everywhere.

"Wild Card Wednesdays" appears every Wednesday

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Eight All-Star Games That Stand the Test of Time

by Alan Eliot

There's a lot of hoopla leading up to the all-star game, but we've seen all of this before. Well, mostly.

As different as this year may feel, 2006 has been like many others. Every year, people who should make the team don't (Johan Santana, Curt Schilling, and nearly Francisco Liriano, to name a few). Every year, people who should not make the team do (Mark Redman, Bobby Jenks, Derrick Turnbow, etc.). We rant. We rave.

Seven White Sox players in a year where two belong. We rant. We rave. But yet it's nothing new. Nepotism- we've seen that before. Even as nauseating as seen in 2006. Remember in 2001, when no Yankees were fan-selected- but yet we watched Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera and Mike Stanton- yes, Mike Stanton- take the field for the AL.

Today, many of our best will take the field, represent their teams, and take their hacks. One team (probably the AL) will win and one will lose. There will be a hero, or two. There will be exciting moments that get talked about for a week or two, and perhaps get brought up every once in a while after that. In the end though, the events of today's game will probably be forgotten. Nothing new. Just like every year.

Well, just like most years.

Every once in a while, something makes an All-Star game stand out, and take its place among the most memorable all-star games of all-time. Today, we profile some of those that have managed to stand out among all of the rest:

1. "First one" - In 1933, a sports editor for the Chicago Tribune, Arch Ward, concocted the All-Star game as a one-time event that would be an adjunct to the World's Fair in Chicago. That "one-time" event quickly became "first-annual". You can see the lineups for the respective teams here.

2. "Five in a row" - In 1934, the second year of the all-star game, NY Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell struck out five AL all-stars in a row. You may have heard of them: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin. All five batters, and pitcher, are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

3. "Williams hits the eephus" - Rip Sewell pitched in 390 games, going 143-97 over a successful career. Amazingly, all but five of those games occured at the age of 30 and above. Even more amazingly, his career was based on a pitch called the "eephus", meaning "nothing" in Hebrew. The eephus was thrown slowly, and quite high. Often, it would eventually land snugly in the catcher's mitt for a strike. More often, players would take their cuts at a very, very slow ball, and would make fools of themselves. Considering how fat of a pitch the eephus seems to be, it is amazing that Sewell pitched his entire career without anybody homering off his signature pitch. Well, at least in official games. In the 1946 All-Star game, reportedly Sewell threw the eephus by Ted Williams, who swung badly and missed. Williams dared him to throw another one. Sewell obliged. History was made, and the only homerun ever hit off of the eephus was hit by the greatest hitter that ever was.

4. "Seven Starting Reds" - By the late 1940's, with the All-Star game becoming a mainstay of baseball, MLB began a tradition of allowing fans to vote for starters. In 1957, controversy erupted as seven of eight NL position players voted by the fans were Reds. It turns out, a local Cincinnati newspaper printed pre-filled ballots in one of its editions. Reds fans stuffed the ballot boxes, and when the dust settled, Stan Musial of the Cards stood at 1B, and every other NL position player was a Red. Outraged, the commissioner removed two Reds from the game. More importantly, he removed the right to vote for all-stars from the fans. This ban lasted through 1969. The next game with fan voting would also be surronded by controversy...

5. "The Ray Fosse Game" - In 1970, Ray Fosse was an up-and-coming 23-year-old catcher for the Indians. He had just been chosen to his first All-Star game. The game itself was hard-fought, and the NL rallied back from 3 down in the bottom of the ninth to tie it up and bring it into extra innings. In the bottom of the 12th, Pete Rose, playing in front of his hometown Cincinnati crowd, singled, and moved to second on another single. When Jim Hickman singled, Rose knew it would be a close play at the plate. He plowed very hard into Fosse at the plate, in a move that he would be criticized for for years to come. Rose scored. The NL won. Fosse, a righty, dislocated his right shoulder, and was never the same player again.

6. "Goodbye to Cal" - For years, the problem with fan voting has been the phenomenon of popular players getting voted into the All-Star game when beyond their prime- and thus undeserving. Such was the case with Cal Ripken, who was a mainstay at the All-Star game years after he had actually earned it through play on the field. He was loudly criticized for single-mindedly pursuing "The Streak", whereas the last several hundred of those games - several hundred- saw us watch Cal's baseball skills deteriorate in front of our eyes. And yet he played. Such was the atmosphere surrounding the 2001 All-Star game. Cal. Again. Hey let someone who deserves it play! Sure, he was voted in- but based on name alone. Here were his stats up to the All-Star game in 2001, by the way: .240 average, four homers, 28 RBIs (source). But we all know what happened next- in his final All-Star game, in his final season, he homered, and took home MVP honors.

7. "Outrage" - In the 2002 All-Star game in Milwaukee, the NL and AL went into extra innings, knotted at 7 apiece. In a move that tested the limits of the theory that the All-Star game "didn't matter", Commissioner and Milwaukee native (who had also run the Brewers) Bud Selig called the game after 11 innings. No one won. Outrage ensued. Years of watching stars "skip out" on the All-Star game for a nice rest culminated in the most lackadaisical ending of an All-Star game ever, and fans were not happy. The message seemed clear: this game is meaningless. Selig realized quickly his gaff, and changed the rules of the game thereafter: from then on, league that wins the game gets home-field advantage in the World Series. Suddenly, the game mattered. And how.

8. "Perfect Gagne" - From August 2002-July 2004, Eric Gagne of the Dodgers was one of the most dominant pitchers in MLB. In fact, he was perfect. 84 for 84. No blown saves. According to mlb.com, "In the nearly 23 months between blown Gagne saves, 18 teams changed managers...[d]uring the streak he had a 0.82 ERA with 43 hits allowed and 141 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings." Seems amazing. Like Sewell's distinction, this one also has an asterisk near it. It happened, but it didn't. In the 2003 All-Star game, Eric Gagne gave up a 2-run homer to Hank Blalock in the 9th, and the NL lost to the AL, 7-6. A blown save. Sort of.

But that's the way it's always been with the All-Star game, right? We don't know if it should matter or not. It matters too much (Rose), and we get upset. It matters too little (11th ining tie), and we get upset. But that's what's great about the All-Star game- no matter what the outcome, it gives us, the fans, an annual built-in forum to debate baseball.

And every once in a while, the game itself, through the magic of randomness, becomes a forum for a memory that lasts years beyond the hoopla, and the bickering, that we fans seem so eager to place upon it.

We welcome you, in our comments section, to voice your memorable all-star moments. Enjoy the game!

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

Monday, July 10, 2006

Top 5 Reasons to Watch Tomorrow Night’s All-Star Game

by Doug Silversten

It seems every year the All-Star Game comes around and it is greeted by a collective big yawn by the baseball world. Granted, I’d much rather be watching a game that counts than an exhibition. For whatever reason, I’d still rather tune in to even a meaningless Pirates-Royals interleague match-up than the All-Star Game. Maybe it is because that at least in that match-up, the statistics count, and thus there are fantasy implications. Pathetic, I know, but if you’re a fantasy fanatic, you know exactly what I mean.

However, baseball’s All-Star Game is still the best of the major sport offerings. While meaningless, at least there are occasional memories from some games in the past. Remember John Kruk’s classic at-bat against Randy Johnson? Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse? Or how about Bo Jackson’s monster shot in 1989?

So hopefully this year’s game brings another such moment. But even if not, I present to you the top 5 reasons to watch this year’s midseason classic…

5) Jonathan Papelbon – Despite yesterday’s blown save, Papelbon has been simply amazing. 46 IP. 25 H. 8 BB. 47 K. 3 ER. Wow. THREE EARNED RUNS! THREE! I remember during the opening week or so of the season, fantasy players who had Keith Foulke were hoping for a meltdown so Foulke would get an opportunity to close games again. So much for that. Not only did a meltdown never occur, Papelbon’s season is slowly reaching historic proportions. A lot can happen in the 2nd half, and there is every reason to believe than no human being can keep this pace up. However, if he does, we are perhaps witnessing one of the greatest seasons by a reliever in history. Only two really compare. Dennis Eckersley’s 1990 campaign where he gave up a whopping 5 ER in 73 1/3 innings and Eric Gagne’s 2003 season. While Gagne did give up 11 ER in 82 1/3 innings, the 37 hits and 137 Ks are absolutely remarkable. Of course, Gagne did bomb in the all-star game that year, giving up the game winning HR to Hank Blalock. Let’s see if Papelbon can avoid a similar fate in his All-Star debut.

4) B. J. Ryan - Why B.J. Ryan? Well, basically for the same reasons as Papelbon. Papelbon has gotten all the attention, but the Blue Jay’s big offseason acquisition has pretty much matched Papelbons. 42 2/3 IP. 21 H. 9 BB, 54 K, 4 ER. Almost as amazing as Papelbon. No one is criticizing Ricciardi’s move right now to give a closer $47 million, that’s for sure.

3) The National League Infield – Pujols, Utley, Wright and Reyes. Average age: 25. We all know the fans can often get the voting wrong, but they nailed the NL infield this year. And conceivably, if they all stay healthy, this could be the starting four for many years to come. I realize I am often critical of Reyes, but he deserves the start for his first-half performance. And he definitely is an exciting player. Let’s see if he can keep it up.

2) Jim Thome – Comeback Player of the Year? Hell, if he got hurt tomorrow and was out for the year, I’d still give him the award. He’s on pace for an amazing 57 HRs. Plus, from everything I hear and read about him, he is the world’s nicest guy and is very easy to root for. Too bad he plays for a team that, after the Yankees, is the easiest to root against, thanks to their rotten human being of a manager.

1) Home Field Advantage in the World Series – Look, I’m with you. The home field advantage for the World Series absolutely should be based on better regular season record of the two teams. However, quasi-commish Bud Selig says that is not feasible based on “logistics.” I never quite understood that. If a LCS goes to 7 games, you don’t know which city will be hosting the first two games of the World Series till potentially just two nights before the game. They manage that. Granting home field to the team with the better record introduces no more “logistical difficulty” than that scenario. However, having said that, you have to remember that before quasi-commish Bud decided to use the All-Star Game as the decider, they just alternated year to year. What sense does that make? Since that was completely arbitrary and ridiculous, this is at least an improvement. Bottom line, I don’t like it, but it is better than simply alternating. And, hate it or not, it does give you a little more reason to stay tuned to the final out. Especially if your team, like my team, has a shot at reaching the Fall Classic. Thanks to future 2006 NL MVP David Wright’s walk-off HR off Papelbon tomorrow night, Game 1 of the World Series will be hosted by the greatest city of the world.

Enjoy the All-Star Game!

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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