Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Everything You Never Imagined You'd Know About the Hidden-Ball Trick

I met Bill Deane at the Baseball Hall of Fame library in 1991, when he was the Senior Researcher there, and I've been marveling at his research expertise ever since. He's in the handful of top researchers (by that I mean dogged, tireless, and ingenious) I've ever watched in action, along with Tom Shieber, Peter Morris, and Herman Krabbenhoft. So when Deane comes out with a book that reflects searches over a three-decade period, I pay attention.

Finding the Hidden-Trick: The Colorful History of Baseball's Oldest Ruse (published by Rowman & Littlefield, available at www.rowman.com) began as one of a legion of odd-incident lists Deane compiled while poring over microfilm game accounts and box scores. For instance, a list published in the Home Run Encyclopedia covered incidents when a player's final career at-bat was a home run. As the compilation of hidden-ball tricks grew, in part thanks to the arrival of retrosheet.org and a greater availability of batter-by-batter game accounts, even more possible successful ruses cropped up. Enlisting the aid of SABR brethren who tracked down documentation of this or that possibility, Deane found enough published coverage confirming 264 of them to create a whole book about this unique and controversial sports stratagem. I for one am very glad he did.

One of the delightful things about reading this book is the discovery that the hidden-ball trick (HBT henceforth, following Deane's example) has always been controversial. It involves a degree of deception that preys on the unwary. Like a three-card-monte artist, the perpetrator of the HBT uses both visual and verbal distractions; Deane titles the chapter about 1950s HBTs "Step Off the Base a Minute, Will Ya?" The ball has to be hidden somewhere, and the cooperation of the pitcher is vital, as he must stall in the vicinity of the mound until the runner can be induced to leave the safety of his base. Rules have been enacted to charge a balk to a pitcher who takes the mound with a ball, which means that to execute the HBT, the man without the ball often works harder than the man who has it. In addition, the umpire has to call it! We also learn that in recent decades, more of the blame for being caught has fallen on base coaches than on the runners.

Because it can be seen as crossing the lines of sportsmanship, the HBT has faced opposition, notably from Ban Johnson, who tried to outlaw from his precious American League. The Sporting News editorialized against the play as late as 1945. The National League took the longer view that if a runner is stupid enough to get caught, that's his lookout. Despite all the arguments, ejections, and even fights resulting from HBTs, that view has prevailed. The earliest HBT documented by Deane occurred in 1872--in the major leagues. It occurred many times in baseball's even more primitive days, which is why it was first called "an old trick" as early as 1876. It has been an old trick ever since, but one that spikes excitement in the ballpark. It still endures, though only five successful attempts have been made since 2000.

We learn about the controversies and the excitement mainly through Deane's decision to include nearly every newspaper account of the 264 successes as well as chapter about near-misses. This is a double-edged sword. The good news is that it allows us to hear over 125 years' worth of reporters' voices. As anyone knows who has read newspapers of a century ago, the styles were highly entertaining, and they are all of that here. As a sample, here is I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune in 1910: "J. Evers was made the victim of the moth-ball-scented trick by none other than Fred 'Bone' Merkle. . . .Merkle stabbed him, and the umpire saw it. There was great joy among the bugs who love the Trojan, we don't think so."

The bad news is that we get less of Deane's own voice. Apart from the introductory chapters and brief comments before the decade-by-decade discussions, Deane is satisfied most of the time to provide the "according to" for the next HBT account and to add a smidgen or two of color to summarize the event. I miss the authoritative, wryly humorous narratives and patient, judicious explanations of his previous book, Baseball Myths. Not that this tone is absent from the parade of HBTs--it just isn't there often enough.

As always, Deane is meticulous about presenting his research. He has identified the greatest perpetrators of the HBT--Bill Coughlin, a third baseman with Washington and Detroit in the early years of the American League, was the leader with nine and likely the target of Ban Johnson's indignant abhorrence of the play. He also pulled off the only HBT in the World Series, playing for the 1907 Tigers when he tagged out Jimmy Slagle of the Cubs in a play labeled by the Spalding Guide  as "ancient and decrepit."

Second all-time was the wily Miller Huggins, a Cardinals second baseman whose brain power propelled him to a Hall of Fame managing career. The only other Hall of Famer to turn the trick at least three times was 19th-century first baseman Dan Brouthers. On the other hand, plenty of Hall of Famers have been victimized by the HBT, 32 to be exact. Notable names on the roster of dunderheads include the quick-witted trio of Tinker, Evers and Chance, Willie Mays (though, regrettably, no details are provided), John Montgomery Ward (twice in one season), Jimmie Foxx, Orlando Cepeda, Gary Carter and, most recently, Rickey Henderson (victimized by first baseman Rafael Palmeiro in 1998).

This treasure-trove of baseball tales makes for a fast, entertaining read. My own reading of it was somewhat marred by alarms going off in several Pet Peeves areas of my baseball-editor antennae. It grates on me to read about "a Cub victory" or a "Brown shortstop," but it grates more when an author is inconsistent in usage, as when Deane, in the space of half a page, refers to a "Robin rookie," a "Reds first baseman," and "the Giants' Jim Hamby." They can't all be right; two of them are, which is why the third grates on me. Deane is also inconsistent about verb tenses. Though his own text is in present tense, applying the present tense to quoted passages written a hundred years ago can get tricky. When a present-tense quote is followed by Deane informing us that someone else "recalled" it years later, I find it disconcerting. Finally, he keeps telling us that The Sporting News or another publication "writes" the quote that follows. Newspapers do a lot of things that people do; they report, note, declare, assert, explain, suggest, and even say things, but the one thing the papers do not do is write. Only people write.

Despite those fleeting annoyances, I recommend Deane's book for many reasons: the sheer wealth of lore he excavated; the shrewd way he organized it; his compelling quest for documentation, and the sometimes glowing, sometimes grumbling accounts by generations of reporters.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Monday, January 5, 2015

Everything You Know Is Wrong: Pedro Martinez Edition

There are many fine baseball discussion groups on Facebook, and naturally I keep an eye on the Hall of Fame group. With the BBWAA election of new Hall of Fame members coming up tomorrow, the discussion has been hot and heavy. Today, I found myself in a strenuous debate with one of my closest baseball friends, Bill Deane. During our separate tenures as researchers at the Hall of Fame library, Bill and I were often besieged by people lobbying for against this or that player's rightful place in the Hall of Fame. Usually we're on the same page, but not this time.

Bill's contention was that Pedro Martinez was a "thug" on the mound, based primarily on his high frequency of hitting batters with pitchers. I disputed this contention, and the debate took off from there. Bill came up with a wonderful statistic. He cited Martinez's career ratio of HBP to walks as empirical evidence that when a pitcher with pinpoint control like Martinez--the only pitcher with more than 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks--hits a batter, it isn't merely a pitch that "got away" from the hurler. There must have been something purposeful about it, and if Martinez chose to hit that many batters, it must be because he is, at heart, a thug.

Here's the exact stat that Bill cited: Martinez has a HBP:W ratio of .185, or nearly one hit batter for every five walked batters. Bill also noted that Bob Gibson, probably the most mean-spirited pitcher of our time, had a far lower ratio of .076 and said "see if you can find someone higher. I got on baseball-reference.com, checked the all-time HBP list, and within a few minutes found that Joe McGinnity had a ratio of .220, quite a bit higher than Martinez. Eddie Plank was not far behind Martinez at .177. When I posted this response to Bill's challenge, he answered, "If you had to go back to Joe McGinnity, I rest my case."

I have no idea why he thought that my finding someone higher proved his case, but there you go. I tried a different tack I pointed out that Greg Maddux's ratio was .137, or 80 percent higher. By Bill's logic, that would mean that Maddux was nearly twice the "thug" that Bob Gibson was, which is ridiculous, as anybody who watched them pitch knows. Any stat that makes Maddux look so much thuggier than Gibson cannot have any significance.

At this point, I googled Martinez and HBP and found several references to a remarkable 2013 article in the New York Daily News, in which Martinez declared that "probably 90 percent" of the batters he hit were on purpose. “You have to actually make (batters) feel uncomfortable all the time if you want to have success," he said, echoing a basic truth of major league baseball.

The article included a dandy story by Martinez's former Boston teammate, Kevin Millar, about a game Martinez pitched against Roger Clemens. After Clemens drilled Millar with a pitch, Martinez asked Millar whom he wanted to be drilled in retaliation. As Millar told it, “First pitch to (Alfonso) Soriano — wham! Up near the neck. Next batter, (Derek) Jeter — wham! Up near the neck. Pedro later told me, ‘You tell Clemens, he hits one of mine, I take two of his.’”

That does sound like the Pedro Martinez we know, taking his retaliatory responsibilities quite seriously. Does that kind of action constitute thuggery? Perhaps. I decided to take a closer look at all those hit batters. Retrosheet.org has an entry for each player titled "Top Performances," which lists the games on which a player compiled the highest stats in an array of categories.

For Martinez and HBP, 16 games are listed, one in which he hit three batters and 15 in which he hit two batters--including Game 5 of the ALCS, in which he plunked two Yankees--Miguel Cairo and Alex Rodriguez. Clemens did not pitch that day, and no Red Sox were hit by pitches. So Millar wasn't referring to that game. I determined to find out when this happened.

The 3-HBP game came in 2006 when he pitched for the Mets against the Nationals, plunking Jose Guillen twice and former Yankee Nick Johnson once. Later that season, he got two Phillies in a game he left after one inning with a leg injury. Four of the other instances occurred when he pitched for the Expos. So that left ten games with the Red Sox in which he hit two batters.

Although I went through all ten of those before taking the next step, I'm going to jump ahead here and note that while Martinez pitched for Boston from 1998-2004, Kevin Millar played for Boston from 2003-2006. So the Clemens game would have had to take place in 2003 or 2004. Martinez hit two batters in a game three times in those two seasons, including the 2004 ALCS game mentioned earlier. That left the games of March 31, 2003 and August 28, 2004.

On August 28, 2004, they played Detroit, and the HBPs occurred three innings apart. No Red Sox were hit in that game. On March 31, 2003, the Red Sox played Tampa Bay. Kevin Millar was hit by a pitch in that game, so maybe that was the event that got confused in his memory. But no. Martinez hit Al Martin in the fourth inning, Millar was hit by Joe Kennedy in the following inning, and the last HBP came in the seventh inning. So that wasn't it either.

I still hoped to track down the game Millar might have referred to, having seen enough tales based on faulty memories to suspect that was the case here. In 2003, he was hit by five pitches, including once by Roger Clemens at Yankee Stadium. It happened in the second inning, and it's true that Alfonso Soriano was also hit by a pitch in that game. However, it was Ramiro Mendoza who nailed him, and it happened three innings later. Jeter followed the HBP with a single. That doesn't fit Millar's story either.

In 2004, Millar led the American League by getting hit with a pitch 17 times. In late April,. he was hit at Yankee Stadium in back-to-back games. The first time it was by Paul Quantrill in the 12th inning, and Martinez didn't pitch that day. The next day, Javier Vazquez got him in the second inning. Pedro was the pitcher--maybe this was it! But no. Not only did Pedro not hit anybody, Soriano had been trading away to Texas. That disqualified Millar's 2004 season, though it was fun to see that he was hit three more times by Yankees pitchers that season. Even Mariano Rivera found him. But Martinez didn't pitch in any of those games.

I had one more thing to check. Both Soriano and Jeter were hit exactly once in their careers by Martinez. This took more digging, but maybe I'd find that they happened back-to-back and that Millar was only hoping it was because Martinez came to his defense. In 2002, Martinez hit two Yankees in a game twice, and both times it was same player--Jason Giambi the first time and Robin Ventura the second.

On July 7, 2003, at Yankee Stadium, Martinez plunked Jeter for the only time in his career. It happened in the bottom of the first inning. The Retrosheet box score tells us that Soriano led off by striking out, but he left the game after that inning. Perhaps Martinez didn't hit him, but merely brushed him in a way that caused Soriano to pull a muscle ducking out of the way. Jeter also left the game after two innings, possibly with a sore neck if that's where he was hit. On the other hand, Millar did not bat in the top of that inning, and the Yankees' pitcher that day was Mike Mussina, who didn't hit anybody.

Well, maybe Millar was hit the previous day by Clemens and Martinez was exacting justice the first chance he got. That theory went out the window when I saw that Andy Pettitte pitched the previous day and did not hit Millar or anybody else. Jeter, however, was hit by John Burkett.What was Millar thinking about when he told that story a decade after it supposedly happened? I have no idea.

So where does that leave me? Bill Deane did get around to answering my point about Greg Maddux, saying, "Maybe hitters didn't mind getting hit by Maddux's 85 mph stuff, as it seemed the only way they could get on base." That might have some validity. Over the course of Maddux's career, opposing batters had a .250 lifetime average and a .291 on-base percentage. So taking a cutter off the elbow pad would seem to be an acceptable way to get on base against the winningest pitcher of his generation.

But what about Pedro Martinez? In his career, opposing batters had a .214 average and a .276 on-base percentage. That shows that Martinez was a much tougher pitcher to hit than Maddux, and even though his fastball measured 5-8mph more than Maddux's, it still seems like a better percentage for them to take that heater off the elbow pad. Just because I ducked a high-inside heater from Bill Deane and scratched out an infield single, it doesn't follow that a major league hitter would be above taking a free base from the hardest-to-hit pitcher since Nolan Ryan took his total of 158 hit batters and retired.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Get Your Tickets Now for the "Good Riddance" Tour

This past week, the entertainment world witnessed the conclusion of the most massive odyssey of over-the-hill talent since the Eagles staged their "Hell Freezes Over" tour. By all accounts, the finale of Derek Jeter's career was a success. Shortly after Jeter singled in the game-winning run in the ninth inning of his last game at Yankee Stadium, Pope Francis announced that this feat qualified as one of three miracles needed for official canonization of the fading shortstop as "Saint Derek."

It is anticipated that Jeter's feat of playing more than 2,700 major league games without being ejected will soon be recognized as a second miracle, leaving him only one shy of the sainthood already conferred upon him by the media, social media, and normally reticent fans of the New York Yankees. The year-long deification of one baseball player was carefully orchestrated by the team, which sacrificed its chances for customary post-season success by keeping Jeter in the everyday lineup and the vital #2 position in the batting order despite a level of performance which qualified him for the major league title in WBR (wins below replacement player).

The Jeter tour involved ostentatious ceremonies in every ballpark he visited for the last time. He was showered with praise and presents, and extolled for his manly virtues in addition to his former talents on the field. Pundits posed the premise that he was (A) the greatest shortstop ever; (B) the greatest Yankee ever; and/or (C) the greatest human being ever. This continuous adoration had been denied previous Bronx Bombers greats such as Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, who both announced their retirement after final subpar seasons; Babe Ruth, who was unceremoniously dumped after hitting just 22 home runs in 1934; and Lou Gehrig, who quit abruptly when stricken by a fatal disease.

A modest dress rehearsal for the Jeter tour was held the previous season, when Mariano Rivera experienced a similar succession of farewell ceremonies. The glorification was ramped up in 2014 for Jeter, and many media observers have been wondering how the Yankees could possibly build on the momentum of the back-to-back baseball bacchanals.

Thus there was little surprise last night when the Yankees announced plans for a third consecutive season-long opportunity for fans across the country to express their deeply felt feelings for a long-time Yankees celebrity. While Jeter was taking his final at-bat at Fenway Park, where he has often been forced to swallow his pride, Yankees vice-president Yogi Steinbrenner addressed the two New York newspaper men who lost a bet and were unable to make the trip to Boston.

"In 2015 we will be bringing back Alex Rodriguez to play shortstop," the announcement began. "It will be his final season in the majors, so we'll be putting together what we're calling the 'Good Riddance' tour. It will be our version of the popular show 'Let's Make a Deal.' Alex is all about making deals, whether it's with general managers, agents, commissioners, or steroids suppliers. As you know, we've made every effort to avoid going through with the rest of that ridiculous deal he made when he came here. Well, this is the deal we've made with him, if he wants to come back for one more year.

"Remember how on that show, you might win a car but you might also get stuck with a 'zonk'? Well, in each city Alex visits for the last time, he'll get zonked. Teams are invited to give him the tackiest, most worthless gifts they can concoct. The more offensive, the better. We're already working on plans for his Yankee Stadium finale. Our head groundskeeper is busy mapping out a 'GOOD RIDDANCE' design to be mowed into the outfield grass behind shortstop. I don't want to give away too much now, but we've begun negotiations with some guys over in Jersey on a 'contract' you'll have to see in person to believe.

"Each final stop on the road will begin with a press conference during which Alex will be bound and gagged and forced to every local smart-ass reporter tell him off. He'll be confined to the clubhouse during pre-game practice, so he can make a grand entrance during the ceremonies. We think the fans will enjoy those tremendously as each team tries to unveil the most offensive tribute of the tour. For instance, we've heard that the teams in Texas, where they like to 'do things bigger,' will be giving him a 20-foot-long syringe. We also expect that he'll be presented with bags and bags full of hate mail from fans in each city. We're urging fans to get their tickets now--they won't want to miss this unique event in baseball history."

Yogi Steinbrenner shared one more item with the snickering reporters. "In honor of Jeter's retirement," he said, "and in anticipation of A-Rod's return to the middle infield, we are giving the shortstop position from Yankee Stadium to Jeter. Henceforth, that part of the infield will be a 10'x15' hole in the ground, which we hope and anticipate A-Rod will be able to fill perfectly."

Reached around 3 AM en route from one girlfriend's Manhattan apartment to another's, Rodriguez acknowledged his legal obligations according to the latest revision of his latest deal. He promised to perform at a higher level than Jeter did in his swan song. "I'm guaranteeing at least six home runs and a .630 OPS, and I pledge to reach at least four ground balls hit to my left," he said, then laughed. "I'm kidding. It doesn't matter how I play. Just give me my money and I'll go away forever. Good riddance to you, too, Baseball."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Fine Book about a Forgotten Ballplayer

For four years, I was privileged to serve on SABR's Deadball Era Committee's "Larry Ritter Award" subcommittee, three of them as the chairman. The Committee's award honors Lawrence Ritter, whose magnificent The Glory of Their Times introduced most of us to the rich period from 1900-1930.

There are plenty of books published every year on Deadball Era topics, and we had ten to twelve to choose from each year, many of them first-rate. The book I just finished reading is the 2014 winner of the Ritter Award: Mike Lackey's Spitballing: The Baseball Days of Long Bob Ewing ($19,99, by Orange Frazer Press). It would have been a solid contender for the award in any of the years when I was on the panel.

Bob Ewing had about as unpretentious a major league career as any biographical baseball subject. The right-handed pitcher grew up not far from where Lackey spent several decades as a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, in central Ohio. The farmer's son was 24 years old by the time he got around to playing professional ball, mainly in nearby Toledo. Five years later, he made it all the way to Cincinnati, and he won 108 games for the Reds over the next eight seasons.

Apart from their place of origin, Ewing appealed to Lackey for his average qualities. As he puts it in his Introduction: "While the feats of a few have been immortalized, cast in bronze and enshrined in Cooperstown, the struggles and triumphs of hundreds were written on water. Their was but the fleeting and uncertain celebrity of the sports pages, apportioned and reapportioned from one day to the next by [Ren] Mulford and the other chroniclers who served as the Greek chorus to the great drama of baseball in its early days."

Like everybody who writes well about the Deadball Era, Lackey is a meticulous and dogged researcher. What sets him apart is his writing and his organization of material. The style isn't flashy and doesn't sound like anything you'd read in a newspaper. Its strengths are precision, clarity, and perspective. The inevitable side-trips are navigated smoothly, and once the point is made the narrative returns to its central subject.

While many baseball biographies suffer from repetitiousness and/or excessive game-by-game recaps, Lackey neatly ducks these pitfalls. Relying on the accounts of Cincinnati sportswriter Ren Mulford and others, he presents as much solid evidence as he can. The rest is made up of thoughtful discussion of significances and possibilities. Lackey takes us inside the baseball world of 1900-1910, and I found the exploration full of one revelation after another.

Ewing, after making a name for himself at Toledo, struggled in his early years at Cincinnati, and his whole tenure there was marked by mediocre support from a team that struggled to sneak into the first division. Late in 1904, he unveiled a spitball, and from 1905-1908 he averaged 307 innings pitched, 28 complete games, and 17 wins, with an aggregate E.R.A. of 2.20. A gangly 6', 1 1/2" tall, "Long Bob" became the first National League purveyor of a pitch that caused reactions of awe mixed with disgust. Lackey takes us through the whole spitball controversy in general and how it affected Ewing in particular.

A good measure of a writer's talent is our willingness to follow him/her along on wherever the narrative might lead us. I felt more than willing to take Lackey's "Grand Tour of Long Bob Ewing." It is both thorough and thoroughly readable, with extensive notes and a fine collection of photos (in the one on page 140, Ewing bears an eerie resemblance to Lon Chaney Sr. in "The Phantom of the Opera"). It tells a worthy story solidly, with little extraneous material.

Though not overly colorful as a player, Ewing found a second career as an earlier version of Barney Fife. Elected sheriff of his home county in Ohio, he moved into the jail, where his wife cooked for the prisoners. While they were there. Within a month, he was taking a prisoner to New Hampshire, stopped along the way,  and left the prisoner on his own honor, so the prisoner escaped. Soon after, Ewing's car was stolen almost right in front of him. A year later, his office let a murder suspect escape, and that was followed by another homicide. The last section of this book is the icing on the cake with its account of Ewing's misadventures in office.

I knew very little about Bob Ewing before I read this book. I know a lot about him now, and I learned even more about the era in which he lived, struggled, thrived for a while, and experienced baseball's growing pains.If you want to read a baseball book which helps you to see what it was like long before we were born, and to learn from it, get your mitts on Mike Lackey's book. Larry Ritter certainly would've loved it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Roger Angell, Then and Now

At a party last weekend attended by a number of savvy baseball historians, I managed to wow them with a little artifact I didn't remember I had until a few weeks ago. Going through one of several cartons of old correspondence, I found the letter reproduced below, sent to me in 1980 by Roger Angell.

Only a few hours before I passed the letter around, Angell received the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for outstanding contributions to baseball journalism. He was the first non-member of the BBWAA to win the award, and it was long overdue. After all, he's been writing about baseball in the "New Yorker" since the Spink Award was created in 1962. For decades, the consensus has been that he is the best baseball writer of the past two generations. Only the absence of beat reporting in his resume gave the BBWAA an excuse to snub him all these years. Finally, at age 93, he received the award this year.

I wish I had also found the letter I wrote to Angell that prompted this fine response. I do know that I wrote to him after reading a "New Yorker" piece titled "Sunshine Semester," written in April 1980, after his annual trek to spring training. It later served as Chapter 10 in the Angell collection titled Late Innings.The content of my letter can be gleaned from his response. Here it is, followed by my discussion of the events which prompted his original essay as well as his comments to me:
                                                                                                                                                     May 27
Dear Gabriel Schecter:                                                                                                  
Please forgive my long delay in responding to your lively and generous letter about my recent baseball piece. It's extremely gratifying to hear from a fan who really cares about the game and who has gone to to [sic] the great trouble of writing back. I am feeling very cheerful about the old game, now that the strike has been averted, or at least postponed. For a while there, I really thought the owners were going to make it happen; their vengeful masochism knows no bounds--or almost no bounds. From what I hear, we should all be grateful to Edward Bennett Williams and the new Houston owner, whose name is McMullen, I think, who saved the game from the hard-liners. Every year, I tell myself that I won't underestimate the stupidity and greed of the owners, and then I go right ahead and underestimate it.

Yes, I noticed that Garcia threw in Singleton as a young AL player, but he said it, so I kept it in. And yes, I guess I should have mentioned Yount, but of course the Brewers have so many good young players that it's hard to get them all in. Now I see that Bamberger will be back in the dugout in a couple of weeks--good news for us all, because he is a fine fellow. I'd like to see the Brewers win, but this new Yankee club looks very tough. The new Yankees are also a pleasant bunch to visit--an amazing contrast to their clubhouse in recent years.

Thanks again for writing.

Roger Angell


I'm glad that Angell was feeling cheerful enough about the game to write to a total stranger (and I don't mind that he misspelled my name, joining the always-expanding list of people who have done so). In "Sunshine Semester," he had expressed doubts about his obsession:

"Each year, just before spring comes, I begin to wonder if I shouldn't give up this game. Surely it must be time for me to cut short my abiding, summer-consuming preoccupation with scores and standings and averages, and to put an end to all those evening and weekend hours given to the tube and morning hours given to the sports pages. Is there no cure for this second-hand passion, which makes me a partner, however unwilling, in the blather of publicity, the demeaning emptiness of hero worship, and the inconceivably wasteful outpourings of money and energy that we give to professional sports now?. . . .Every year, I think about such things, often in the middle of the night, and I groan and say to myself, 'Yes, all right, this is the last year for me, no more baseball after this.' But then, a few days or weeks later, back in the sun in Arizona or Florida in March, I change my mind."

In his Spink Award acceptance speech, a mere 34 years after he wrote the above, Angell still lamented being an unwilling partner in the crasser aspects of baseball. As so often happens with the things we love, their essence captivates us at the same time that the business of it manages only to appall us. So it was with Angell in 1980, when a strike by the Players Association cancelled the final week of spring training. The players also voted to strike again on May 23 if their dispute with owners was not resolved (hence Angell's relief four days after the deadline). In April, he despaired of the prospects for a resolution:

"I cannot pretend to any mild neutrality about the issues involved; it has been perfectly plain to me from the start that the twenty-six owners and the league presidents and their advisers have determined that the basic structure of free-agency, which has governed the movement of senior players (players with six years' service in the majors), must be radically altered or they will close down the game. They are serious about this."

Angell devoted the next five pages to listing the owners' arguments and debunking them--the eternal hand-wringing about rising salaries, the claim that owners were losing money even while the value of their franchises was multiplying, the pleas of poverty in an industry that was booming, and their insistence on controlling the movement of every employee in their business, even if it meant shipping a happy and productive employee to another city where he had no desire to be. (Yes, employees. To this day, I've only heard one player express this truth; Greg Maddux, after the Braves declined to renew his contract in 2003, stated bluntly that he had been "fired". Here is Angell's final point:

"Finally, it should be understood that in the opinion of a great many baseball people--including this sideline expert--the owners' idea of allowing a club that loses a free agent to tap the middle levels of the buying team's roster will effectively put an end to the entire free-agent process. Very few clubs--perhaps none--would risk adding a free-agent star if this meant losing a solid current player or a coming star. . . .The owners' offer does stipulate that only an owner who has lost a 'prime' player--that is, a player for whom at least eight other clubs have said they intend to bid--can pick from the signing team's roster, but there is nothing in the proposal to prevent every club from making a token bid for each free agent from now on. The owners, it is plain, wish to turn back the clock. The players, for obvious reasons, refuse to give up the rights they have earned."

Hence the comments in Angell's letter about the close call that spring. A couple of maverick owners slowed down the hard-liners who wanted to undo the victory gained in the courts by the players in 1975-1976. The strike, as he noted, was "averted, or at least postponed." One year later, it struck with the force of a hurricane, shutting down the major leagues for two months. But in May 1980, we baseball fans--and Angell, above all, is the consummate fan, relishing and describing every aspect of the game on the field with the appreciation and discernment of an art lover at a great museum--could breathe easy, sit back, and enjoy the summer-long distraction of games, games, games.

The bulk of "Sunshine Semester" reviewed doings in spring training in 1980. In addition to my two nitpicky points to which Angell responded in his letter, I'm sure I mentioned some of the wonderful writing and insights which prompted me to contact him. Here is an assortment of gems from that essay:
  • [after detailing the lengthy manual for young players prepared by the Milwaukee Brewers, which included 18 reminders about taking a lead off first base, 23 cutoff plays for first basemen, and 34 hitting tips] "One of the wonders of baseball is that every aspect of the game is visible, but another wonder, I know now, is how much of it we can watch, summer after summer, and never see at all."
  • [describing the unique batting stance of John Wockenfuss] "Wockenfuss waits up there in a righty stance, with bat held high, and with his lead, or left, foot placed on the ground a bare inch or so in front of his right foot, heel to toe. He opens up with the pitch, of course, but until then he looks exactly like a man trying to play ball while balancing on top of a back-yard fence."
  • [on Mets general manager Frank Cashen] "He is a rounding, Cagney-size man, with sandy gray hair, a pleasant, Galway-touched face, and a businesslike manner. Here, out in the hot morning sunshine, he was wearing gray pants, a blue oxford button-down Brooks Brothers shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a green golf visor, and a tan knitted tie--the only necktie I observed anywhere during spring training."
  • "Clubhouse churlishness, in any case, is not a new phenomenon, and these recent outbreaks bring to mind the bad-tempered Jerry Grote, an excellent catcher with the Mets for many years, who habitually sneered at and foully reviled members of the New York press who had written less than rave notices of his work in a given game. Then, early in a season near the end of his tenure, it was observed that Grote was trying to be a tad more lovable and sweetly forgiving in his demeanor toward the same writers, at least to the point of no longer addressing them with homosexual or incestuous epithets. One columnist, making note of this unexpected sociability wrote, 'Why is Jerry Grote saying hello when it's time to say goodbye?'--a line first coined, about another player in another time, by the late Frank Graham."
  • [on Billy Martin, newly managing the A's after leaving the Yankees] "Billy, in his office, looked unchanged--the same cold eyes, hollow cheeks, and thin, apache-dancer's mustache. He is fifty-one years old, but he still has an infielder's body; his hands are large, with long fingers. He often bites the corners of his fingernails as he talks. He speaks in a quiet, low voice, almost a monotone."
  • "Young teams are fun to watch, but no one on the Mariners is more entertaining than Willie Horton, the club's designated hitter and senior statesman. Horton is thirty-six now, and his increasingly senatorial embonpoint, when viewed--as I have viewed it--at widely spaced intervals, gives the curious impression that his head is shrinking. Lately, he has adopted a unique, forward-topping, Leaning Tower of Pisa batting stance, which he checks, just short of demolition, as the pitch is delivered."
  • "Earl Weaver, a Torquemada-like persecutor of the arbiters. . ."
I could read such musings all day long and endlessly marvel at his ability to see how one thing resembles something quite unrelated, like John Wockenfuss balanced atop a fence or Willie Horton's head seeming to shrink as he put on middle-age weight (yes, I had to look it up--"embonpoint" means stoutness). The other thing that sets Angell's essays apart are the quotes. Perhaps no writer has ever been a better listener than Angell, whose quotes get to the heart of the matter and the spirit of his subjects. I'll finish off here with three dandy quotes from "Sunshine Semester":
  • Earl Weaver: "I don't go in so much for that strategy. You have a man on second base and one out, and the batter hits a ground ball to the right side and he's out at first, and everybody says 'How pretty! How nice!' But that makes two out, and then the next man comes up and swings from his ass to score the run from third and he strikes out, and everybody says 'Look at that stupid son of a bitch!' If you're always givin' yourself up, the way the book says, they'll say nice things about you, but what you're really doing is passing the blame along to the next man."
  • Billy Martin: "Each club you go to, you change your style. Here I'm molding. When I managed at Detroit, there was a lot of ability and some good older players, and I had to break up cliques. In Minnesota, they had great talent, so it was more a question of working on finesse. Texas was like this club, with a lot of young arms and inexperience. When I went to the Yankees, I had to throw the freeloaders out of the clubhouse and stop the country-club atmosphere."
  • Dave Garcia [on attending an NFL game with Don Zimmer]: "Zim loves football. . . .I said, 'Zim, I'll tell you what. I got this piece of paper here, and I'm going to keep score.' He said, 'Hell, Dave, there ain't no way to keep score in football,' and I said, 'Well, if a wide receiver is out in the open on the field, and the passer hits him on the hands with the ball and he drops it, isn't that an error?' Zim said yes, he guessed so, and I said, 'All right, now it's the same thing, only this time the passer throws the ball five yards over his head. Isn't that an error?' And Zim said sure it was. So I said, 'What about missed open-field tackles, and what about the blockers opening a big hole in the line and the runner running someplace else and getting nailed for a loss?' And Zim said, 'Hell, yes--all errors.' Well, sir, I watched the kept score, and when the game was over I counted up, and there was twenty-eight clear errors on my piece of paper. I showed it to Zim, and he said, 'God damn! And that doesn't even count all the errors they made there in the line, where you can't see what's happening.' So don't anybody try to tell me which is the harder game to play."
I'll leave you with that. Do yourself a favor. Pick up the nearest Roger Angell volume and start reading. Anywhere. It doesn't matter whether you've read him before or never at all. You'll want to follow him wherever he travels on the baseball landscape, and you'll wish he could live forever and keep writing more. As we baseball folk like to say, he's on a pace to. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

My Favorite Whatever

In the blog I posted the other day, I carped about the all-too-common practice of referring to teams in the singular even when it is clear that the speaker or writer is referring to the entire team. Part of my tirade consisted of my response to the question: "Are you a Yankee fan?" My response: "Yes. I like Ichiro. Which one do you like?"

A couple of people have responded to this sarcasm by saying (more or less), "Fine, your favorite Yankee is Ichiro. Since your main team is Cincinnati, if I committed the hideous sin of asking 'Are you a Red fan?' what would be your answer? Would you just name one guy or would you admit that you like the whole team?"

My reply: "Yes." Of course I would.

Upon further review, I wondered what smart-ass response I could come up with if asked "Who's your favorite. . ." for each franchise. Here you go:

Red: Erik the
Astro: the Jetsons' dog
Ray: Charles
Ranger: Aragorn
Cardinal: Richelieu
Twin: Danny DeVito
Angel: Gabriel, of course
Royal: Grace Kelly
Cub: Jimmy Olsen
Tiger: Tony the
Mariner: Coleridge's ancient one
Brave: Huxley's new world
Dodger: Jack Dawkins (see Dickens)
A: 11th-grade English
Marlin: the one that got away from Ted Williams
Brewer: Gerard Adriaan Heineken
Giant: Gargantua
Indian: Crazy Horse
Rocky: Raccoon
Pirate: Jean Lafitte
Philly: cheesesteak
Blue Jay: Stellar's
Oriole: Bullock's
Diamondback: crotalus atrox
Padre: Father Flanagan
Yankee: Hank Morgan (see Twain)
Met: the one where Pavarotti sang
National: League [Senator: Alan Simpson] [Expo: 1964 NY World's Fair]
White Sock: what I wore to play on my high school tennis team [plus one gray one]
Red Sock: Schilling's bloody one

There you have it. Any more questions?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Vin Scully Is Wrong, and I'm Right

Yes, the title of this piece is a sensationalist headline, designed to grab your attention and draw you in to read further. Vin Scully is wrong--about something, perhaps about only one thing--but my point here is not to single him out for criticism. He is far from the only baseball announcer to make an all too common mistake.

Vin Scully's voice is the most recognizable to make the mistake, and he does it at the start of every broadcast. "It's time for Dodger baseball!" he announces in the most pleasing voice ever to grace the airwaves. But wait--there is no such thing as "Dodger" baseball. That would be game played by a lone Dodger. The games Scully has been announcing since before even I was born are played by the "Dodgers." That's the name of the franchise: Dodgers.

Think about it. Would it be correct to say "The Dodger scored one run yesterday" or "The Dodger will be on the road next week"? Of course not. It's the Dodgers. The team scored one run. The team is going on the road. Yet here's Vin Scully telling us he's about to describe something called "Dodger baseball." Just because our most beloved broadcaster says it before every game, it is not necessarily correct. In fact, it's dead wrong.

Scully would be correct if he said, "It's time for Dodger Stadium baseball," but he doesn't say that. When I've brought up this issue to many people, their response has been, "Well, in that case, why is it called Dodger Stadium?" Or Yankee Stadium. Or some other team's stadium. The simple answer is that because the "s" sound is already present in "stadium," it is linguistically more difficult to ask a speaker to double up on the sound. Try it. You have to pause slightly between words when you say "Yankees' starting lineup" if you wish to say it correctly.

There have been a handful of exceptions to the ballpark-naming rule, most tellingly Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The builders of that venerable cookie-cutter did not merely wish to honor one veteran; they wanted to honor all veterans,and however you wanted to pronounce it, that was fine. Similarly, you couldn't call the Pittsburgh cookie-cutter park "Three River Stadium" without maligning at least two of the rivers.

Other exceptions were Royals Stadium (now Kauffman Stadium), Seals Stadium (the first home of the San Francisco Giants), and my favorite of all, the only home park of the team immortalized in Ball Four, the Seattle Pilots. That park was named after the man who opened it in 1938, the man who owned the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, and, not coincidentally, the Rainier Brewing Company. It was called Sick's Stadium. Much better than Sick Stadium, a moniker which could fit all too many places where major league ball has been played. But I digress.

There is only one instance when it is correct to use the singular form of a team name:  when you are talking about an individual player. Vin Scully would rightly say "Sandy Koufax is the only Dodger to pitch four no-hitters" or "only a Dodger would think of doing something like that to a Giant." But it would not be correct to say "Sandy Koufax joined Carl Erskine as the only Dodger to throw more than one no-hitter." If there were two of them, they were Dodgers, not a Dodger.

When someone goes out on a low-hanging limb and asks me "Are you a Yankee fan?" my response (these days) is "Yes, I like Ichiro. Which one do you like?" In earlier times, it has been Paul O'Neill, Ron Guidry, Bobby Murcer, Jim Bouton, and Moose Skowron, to name nearly every Yankee of whom I have been a fan. My smart-ass response is usually followed by "I mean the team? Do you like the team?" "Oh, the team. No, I'm not. You asked me about individuals." Any attempt my interlocutor makes to continue this line of questioning is met with further obfuscation and/or ball-busting. So don't get me started!

Of course, Vin Scully is not the only broadcaster to refer to his team erroneously in the singular. My "local" team, the Mets, has a very fine lead announcer in Gary Cohen, but he drives me nuts (albeit not a long jouirney) every time he says something like "Duda drove in the Met run in the second inning." Partly I'm dismayed because this means that the team's scoring is probably over for the day, but mainly it's because the team scored the run, and the team is the Mets. Cohen is a lifelong fan of the Mets, as I am, and he should know better. If he wants to say "Duda was the first Met to score in the eight-run second inning," that is just fine with me. I might doubt his veracity, but not his usage.

I do a lot of baseball reading and edit a lot of baseball books, and I can report that the average writer treats the singular and plural as virtually interchangeable. The manuscript I'm looking at right now says "Pirate hurler" in one paragraph and "Pirates pitcher" in the next. Yet both pitchers were employed by the Pirates.

Perhaps the height of confusion came in a rare baseball article a year ago in the AARP magazine. Here's a sentence from the article: "Veteran fans can see a little of Juan Marichal, the Giants right-hander of the 1960s, in the high-kicking rookie on the mound — or a touch of Dodger legend Pee Wee Reese in the soft hands of the new kid at short." 

There you have it, in one fell-swoopish sentence: the team from San Francisco is the Giants, while the team from Los Angeles is the Dodger. Do you suppose the AARP writer got his information from listening to Vin Scully? That would be a shame.

I know it's my problem that the confusion grates on me. Perhaps it's one of those usage quirks that we should indulge simply because it has existed for so long, like referring to the "foul pole" even though it's in fair territory. I guess my beef is that it is not simply a conscious choice to perpetuate an accepted phrase. More and more, the singular and plural are being used interchangeably because the speaker/writer hasn't thought about it at all, much less thought it through enough to realize that when you refer to something about a team, you should use the team's actual name.

Would a political observer discuss a "United Nation peacekeeping effort"? Did disc jockeys herald "Hey Jude" as "the latest Beatle #1 hit?" Are we witnessing the dawn of a new era in "United State" soccer? Of course not.

Come on, Gary Cohen, get with it! Are you a "Met" fan, or do you like the whole damn team?

The subject of apostrophes and the possessive case will be discussed at the next breakdown.

          *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

A couple of people have responded to this carping by saying (more or less), "Fine, your favorite Yankee is Ichiro. Since your main team is Cincinnati, if I made the mistake of asking 'Are you a Red fan? Which one is your favorite?' what would be your answer?" Here's a list of what my response would be for every major league team.

Red: Erik the
Astro: the Jetsons' dog
Ray: Charles
Ranger: Aragorn
Cardinal: Richelieu
Twin: Danny DeVito
Angel: Gabriel, of course
Royal: Grace Kelly
Cub: Jimmy Olsen
Tiger: Tony the
Mariner: Coleridge's ancient one
Brave: Huxley's new world
Dodger: Jack Dawkins (see Dickens)
A: 11th-grade English
Marlin: the one that got away from Ted Williams
Brewer: Gerard Adriaan Heineken
Giant: Gargantua
Indian: Crazy Horse
Rocky: Raccoon
Pirate: Jean Lafitte
Philly: cheesesteak
Blue Jay: Stellar's
Oriole: Bullock's
Diamondback: crotalus atrox
Padre: Father Flanagan
Yankee: Hank Morgan (see Twain)
Met: the one where Pavarotti sang
National: League [Senator: Alan Simpson] [Expo: 1964 NY World's Fair]
White Sock: what I wore to play on my high school tennis team [plus one gray one]
Red Sock: Schilling's bloody one

There you have it. Any more questions?

Friday, June 6, 2014

On Writing a Book

Late in "Alice's Restaurant," after Arlo Guthrie chides the audience for not singing the chorus with enough gusto, he says he'll give them another chance. Strumming his guitar slowly, he says they'll just have to wait until the melody "comes around on the guitar" again, getting more laughs as he noodles for another fifteen seconds. Finally the melody does indeed "come around" again, the audience gets to sing along, and does a better job, allowing the song to proceed to its conclusion.

That's how it works for me when I contemplate writing a book, or at least a manuscript that aspires to be a book. I include both categories because I've finished a dozen manuscripts, the first six fiction and the second half-dozen nonfiction. The former sucked and are scattered in cartons around this house. The latter are available in book form. But the mental process for me is the same in creating manuscripts both good and bad. It involves two phases, both of which can seem daunting and interminable. I think this must be true for most, if not all, writers. Let me explain.

The second phase--the actual writing--is easier to understand. It involves the execution of the plan you've put together based on research, outlines, goals, themes and writing conditions. If your preparation is strong and you can put sentences and paragraphs together, the writing takes care of itself. I have a friend who is currently bicycling across the country from California to New York. Even though he has planned every route to be followed on the trip, he is physically limited in how far he can bicycle each day. He knows that if he keeps at it every day and pays close attention to where he is on at any given moment, he will get the most out of the experience and eventually reach the end of the road.

That's how you write a book. Every word is a choice, as is the structure of each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter, and so on. You can't write it all at once, even though you must keep the whole scheme vividly inside your head at all times. You keep pedaling and pedaling, one day at a time. At some point, you get there.

When I wrote my first book--Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw's Giants--I wrote nearly every day for four months to complete the first draft. My "writing conditions" were not ideal. I was working the graveyard shift, which is disorienting even if you don't have authorial aspirations. To get to work at 1:15 AM with sufficient rest, I needed to get to sleep by 6 or 7 PM, something I was seldom able to manage. With short sleep and strenuous work, I needed to regather my energy after getting home in the morning. No matter when I began the day's writing, there was always the sense of walls closing in on me. The longer I pushed the writing, the less sleep I would get before work.

What worked for me was not trying to get too far each day. Because my story involved Faust's day-to-day experience as well as the daily newspaper reporting of that experience (which occurred in 1911), I set my goal as covering one day of Faust's story in each writing session. Each afternoon, I'd put myself in a kind of trance, first by reading what I had written the day before, then looking at the next day of the story and trying to think like a person reading those daily accounts of Faust's doings. What did I learn yesterday? How much do I know? What new information will be presented to me today? How does it change my view of Faust? That's what I needed to write.

I devoted one full day of my weekend to writing, one marathon session (12+ hours) per week during which I advanced ten to twenty pages. I tried to do a page or two every other day, and gradually the pages accumulated. One day, I wrote the final page. My first draft was done. From that point I merely had to do two more drafts, wade through the editorial and publication process, and two years later, voila! It was a book.

The first phase is trickier though on the surface it seems simpler:  starting. Pulling the trigger. That's where I always have to wait for the melody to come around on the "gee-tar."

One problem writers have is that our ideas are not sequential. We do not hold just one idea for a book or a story in our minds at a given time. There is always a swarm of ideas filling our minds, each trying to crowd the others out. They're at different stages--germs of ideas, solid ideas, ideas which have generated a certain amount of research, ideas which are closer to being fully realized, ideas which have been organized, and ideas which are ripe to be written. But they don't exist in isolation, and they get in each other's way. I liken this collection of ideas to a kaleidoscope that is constantly spinning and shifting. On a given day, this idea might seem the most vivid, or that pattern might suddenly become so crystal clear that I can write the whole thing in my head. The next day, everything has shifted. The gorgeous image I had yesterday has been replaced by a murkier one. Tomorrow, it might return, or some other image might appear in indelible form. But it can easily be gone the day after that.

Ideas are also like the notes of a song. Each note has its own essence and qualities, but only when you put them together do you discover the melody and chords that constitute an entire song. Just as that audience had to listen to Arlo Guthrie working his way through all those other notes before the melody came around and they got another chance to sing, the writer has to endure to a cacophony of notes filling his head before he can discern that melody so clearly that it is ready to be written. Even then, it isn't that simple. There is that other matter of starting the actual writing. That is a matter of sheer will. You can daydream all you like about how great it's going to be when you've done it, but you still have to get your ass on that bicycle and start pedaling, knowing the process will take a long time to unfold.

Here is a brief summation of the cacophony of book ideas clamoring inside my head. First, there are the baseball ideas. I've been researching pitching for years, particularly relief pitching, and will have to share that with the world someday. Two decades ago, I started work on a book about Marvin Miller's early years with the Players' Association (I interviewed nearly three dozen people, including Miller), a story that needs to be told. I'd like to write biographies of several players, including Ernie Lombardi. And people are always asking me when I'm going to write something about my eight years as a researcher at the Hall of Fame. Sure.

I still haven't written "the great poker novel" I began organizing in my head three decades ago during my previous life as a poker dealer in Las Vegas. But that's fiction, and I think I long ago learned my lesson about my failings as a novelist. Instead, I have three great ideas for nonfiction books about poker. Or at least I have three great titles. Strangers I Have Known will be collection of a few dozen tales of poker characters. Anatomy of a Cardroom will about my sole two-year fling with management, about starting a new poker room from scratch which is still going strong 25 years later. The Other Side of the Table will be about dealing, including my five years of dealing the World Series of Poker. Did you know that I'm the Curt Flood of poker dealers? That story has to be told. About a decade ago, I wrote over 100 pages of that one and it was mostly good, but I stalled and have not returned to it (except in my head). The problem with all the poker books is that even though I love the game of poker, I hate the poker industry, so I seem happier by ignoring the whole thing. Except that ideas, memories, and scattered notes are always percolating in my brain.

Then there's the book I should be writing. I did start writing it about a year and a half ago, getting 100 or so pages done before I felt some false notes and stopped. The whole thing hadn't taken on a fully realized shape and tone in my head. So I waited, and I'm still waiting for the melody to come around. In fact, I was motivated to write this blog by the sensation that it is finally turning into a song I can set to paper.

It will definitely be the most important book I've ever written, the kind of book that could even change lives. That makes it simultaneously the most exhilarating book to write and the most daunting to launch. It will be titled Travels With Dialysis and is based on blogs my wife Linda and I maintained during cross-country trips made late in the summers of 2012 and 2013.

There are no good books about dialysis written from the patient's point of view. In fact, there are only a couple of books on the subject at all, and they don't say very much. Linda and I had a lot to say in our blogs about the daily roller coaster of life on dialysis, a ride whose careening jolts are multiplied when you hit the road. Most dialysis patients have their hands full simply coping with a disease that requires medical intervention at least a few times a week just to keep them alive. For them, travel isn't even a consideration. Travel would be a wonderful thing, but the physical strain and the logistics of arranging for dialysis as a visiting patient loom as insurmountable obstacles.

Linda and I proved, however, that it can be done. Our first trip lasted 31 days and involved dialysis treatments at a dozen places around the country. The second trip took 24 days and ten dialysis treatments on the road. Each trip included dialysis on an Indian reservation, about as exotic a prospect as can be imagined by a patient in central New York. The National Kidney Foundation carried links to our blog on its website and its Facebook page, and we connected to people from every part of the United States.

Our trips couldn't have been more inspirational, and at least some percentage of the nation's several million dialysis patients could benefit from reading about how we did it. Wouldn't it be great to write something that would encourage people to travel and explore the world despite the obstacles? Something that would improve the "quality of life" for people who might otherwise be preoccupied with the quantity of life remaining?

More than that, Travels With Dialysis will be about the entire experience of living with kidney failure and dialysis. Our experience has been that unless people have direct knowledge of dialysis, they have no clue about what it involves. The reality is both worse and better than people imagine. So I want to enlighten everyone about the daily realities. That was part of the problem I had during my false start on writing the book. The structure is pretty clear-cut. We have our blogs from each day of the trips as an anchor to the narrative. All I have to do is elaborate on what each day brought into our lives.

But it's never that easy with an ambitious book, at least it wasn't in my initial attempt. To what extent is it a traditional travel book--where we went, how we got there, what we saw, etc.? Between the two trips, we visited nearly two dozen friends and family members, so how much should it be about those people and why we spent our precious time with them? How and where do I fit in all the factual information about kidney disease and the dialysis treatments themselves? What about my dual ideal readership:  dialysis patients who need to be inspired and everyone else who needs to be educated?

Those are the notes that have been bouncing around my brain since I set the tale aside early last year. They've had to share space with all the thoughts about baseball tales and poker tales, not to mention all those nagging little bits of real life which all too often drown out the daydreamy notes of future writings. I've been through this before, of course, for several decades and counting. At least I understand the process. At least I have learned that to force something onto the page before it is fully realized in my brain is a futile exercise.

I have learned to wait for the melody and the chords to come around on the guitar. I know that to write a book like this (essentially in my spare time), I have to go to sleep contemplating the next day's work and wake up with it seething in my synapses. It has to be all there, loud and clear, before I can pull that trigger.

In the last few weeks, I have heard this book's notes more prominently, and I feel the tune is finally coming around. It is now two years since we planned that first cross-country trip, enough time to give me a better perspective on why it was so important to experience and so complicated to achieve. I'm getting clearer answers to the questions I noted three paragraphs above.

Driving home from Cooperstown the other morning after dropping Linda off at the dialysis center, the whole thing was right there in my head. That clarity dissipated, as so often happens with so many other ideas clamoring for attention. But it wasn't pushed out of my head or even to that ever-present back burner. It wants to be front and center. Our story wants and needs to be heard, and it is getting close to being ready for the telling. All I have to do is keep that focus sharp enough to make the daily commitment of time and energy necessary to get it written. All I have to do now is start.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Nothing Beats a Sunday Doubleheader

I'm old enough to have come of baseball age at a time when Sunday doubleheaders were common. In 1961, the first year I paid close attention to the major leagues as my father and I rooted his hometown Cincinnati Reds to the National League pennant, the Reds played 19 doubleheaders, a dozen of them on Sundays. I attended two of them, both in Philadelphia thanks to my father driving us the nearly through hours from northeast New Jersey.

The first Philadelphia expedition was in mid-June, and we were a bit late, listening to Jim Maloney walk in a couple of early runs before finding a parking spot. We got a break when the Philadelphia policeman sold us a pair of tickets at face value--in the first row by the field, between home plate and the Reds' third-base dugout. Howie Nunn had relieved Maloney by that point and shut out the Phillies the rest of the way as the Reds rallied to win, 7-2. In the nightcap, Jim O'Toole pitched a slick ten-hitter as the Reds swept, 10-0.

On Labor Day, we made the drive again, and I can still vividly remember the first four batters of the first game. Elio Chacon led off with a beautiful push bunt for a single. Eddie Kasko hit a wicked line drive to left-center which barely cleared the wall for a two-run homer. Vada Pinson followed with a ground single up the middle, and Frank Robinson hit a towering shot to left field. From our seats behind first base, it looked like the kind of drive that might clear the roof. Instead, left fielder Johnny Callison made a leaping grab to rob Robby of a home run, and he made the relay in time to double off Pinson. It didn't matter. The Reds had already provided enough support for Ken Johnson, who tossed a four-hitter to win, 5-0.

Have you figured out the pattern yet? In 24 innings, we had yet to see the Phillies score a run. It was worse than that. Johnson's shutout gave the Reds an 18-1 mark against the Phillies that year, with the loss coming the night before. In the nightcap, Ken Hunt held the Phillies scoreless until the fourth inning, when they went ahead, 2-1. "Nuts!" snapped my father. "They scored--we're going!" He was joking, but it was 3-1 by the time we left after the sixth inning. The Phillies went on to win that one, 5-3.

As an original fan of the New York Mets, I saw a number of memorable Sunday doubleheaders during the 1960s. At the top of the list is the twin bill at the Polo Grounds on June 17, 1962, just two months into the franchise's existence. That was the infamous day when Marv Throneberry tripled but missed both first and second bases, an early milestone in the exasperation of manager Casey Stengel. That happened in the bottom of the first inning of the first game. In the top half, a young Cubs outfielder had smashed a sky-high blast that looked like a three-iron shot as it climbed and sailed into the center field bleachers, only the third ball hit to that spot. That outfielder was Lou Brock. The rest of the day did not maintain the same pace of unique occurrences, but so what? I had twice as many chances to see something amazing, and I remember the day more than a half-century later.

The idea of seeing two major league games in the same day is alien to the younger generations of baseball fans, but if you've experienced them, they are a joy. We know what a travesty it is that the folks who run baseball now force some teams to take the day off on Labor Day! So it was a "whoopeee" moment when the Mets got rained out on Friday and I learned that my ticket for the Sunday game against the Diamondbacks would now get me a good seat for a doubleheader. I owe that opportunity to the Wilpons. If they had spent enough money to put together a team that folks couldn't help wanting to see, Citi Field wouldn't have had enough available seats on Sunday to give rain check customers two games on a single admission.

How I came to be going to the game in the first place is the more important story. I attended the game with two good friends, whom I met about 50 feet and a dozen years apart at the Hall of Fame library, but who didn't meet each other until yesterday. I met Dan Heaton in 1991, and close to a decade later, he did the terrific editorial work on my first two books, Victory Faust and Unhittable! That wasn't surprising, since he has now put in about two decades as an editor at the Yale University Press. In recent years, he has become a season ticket holder at Citi Field, attending 15-20 games and moonlighting as a StubHub entrepreneur.

I met John Russell in 2003, when he approached the desk where I was stationed in my first year as a Hall of Fame researcher. I have written about him before, as my nominee for the "best baseball fan" I know [here's the link: http://charlesapril.com/2012/03/greatest-baseball-fan-i-know.html]. The essence of the story is this: as a child in England, he saw American soldiers playing baseball. This was in the 1940s, and he never saw another game until the 1990s. In between, he became a fan of the game and listened to the World Series and other treats on U.S. Armed Forces Radio.

But John didn't see another game played until he retired in the 1990s and set about to see all of the major league ballparks. This year marks his 20th trip to the U.S. to watch baseball, and he has seen well over 200 games. Several things are unique about the way John has achieved the remarkable record (even the more remarkable when done by an Englishman) of seeing at least three games at 41 different parks. He has seen at least one series; this isn't some fly-by-night lark to see how many parks he can tally, but rather an excuse to explore the cities which host major league baseball (and a few minor league sites).

That's the other thing about John's approach. He doesn't drive, relying instead on public transport and, more often, his own feet. He's a museum hound and a railroad nut, attends concerts and other public events, and values few things more than a fine meal. Somehow, along the way, he became a Mets fan, so recent trips, which have involved fewer and fewer new ballparks, have seen him attending more Mets games. That was his plan on this trip, which he thinks might be his last (unless the Braves hurry up with a new ballpark or the Athletics move somewhere). All eleven games he attended were Mets games, starting with the four-game series against the Yankees, followed by three games in Washington, a three-day detour to Cooperstown, and four final games at Citi Field.

I had a fine time with John while he was here for his third Cooperstown visit. We explored some of the museum together for the first time, and he came over for dinner one evening, when Linda wowed him with a perfect roast, mushroom sauce, and an onion tart. But we looked forward to the game together on Sunday afternoon. After all his travels to this country, after close to 250 games, after sharing with me his annual written account of his latest adventures, it seemed fitting that I would join him for what might well be his final game. We had never gone to a game, though we've been corresponding about the game for eleven years and counting. It was about time.

After some confusion about tickets, Dan came up with the perfect solution. He has two season tickets in section 414, right behind the plate in the third row of his section. He gave his other ticket to John and was eventually able to secure the one next to it on StubHub. First thing last Thursday morning, I drove John to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer, near Albany, so he could return to New York City in time for that night's Mets victory over the Dodgers.

Three days later, I followed the same route, leaving home at 5:30 AM for my big adventure. I caught the 7:15 train, which is the best argument I know of for the pleasures of train travel. Instead of making the 200-mile drive to the ballpark, paying for tolls and parking, dealing with traffic and fatigue (this would be a day-trip), and making the long drive home into the wilds of central New York, I saved time, money, and effort by taking the train. It left Rensselaer at 7:15 and traveled almost entirely along the Hudson River. Most of the time, you could've spit in the river, a handy alternative with no spittoons aboard the train. I worked on some editing while letting the rolling hills and bluffs pass by, enjoying a couple of sandwiches which would largely free me from stadium food.

Originally our plan had been to go to the (single) ballgame between the Mets and Diamondbacks, then repair to Manhattan to kill a few hours before putting me on the last train (departure: 9:15 PM) back to Albany. John had even picked out a restaurant to take us to for dinner. It would be a perfect cap on the night before his flight back to England. Dan, who normally makes day-trips from New Haven, was also staying overnight in Manhattan before attending today's day game against the Pirates.

Instead of all that time in Manhattan, we got a second ballgame, and we were all delighted by the prospect. I had put Dan and John in touch via e-mail a couple of months ago, and they hit it off right away, as I expected. Just as John is the biggest non-American baseball fan I know, so Dan is the biggest American fan I know of the most popular game of the rest of the world. He even takes a leave of absence from work to watch every match of the World Cup. John is the semi-official historian and spokesman for the Aston Villa Football Club. Both men are also way more obsessed than even I am about travel logistics. Of course they'd hit it off.

After two and a half relaxing hours on the train, I was met by John at Penn Station, from which we walked eight blocks to Times Square to pick up the "7" train to Flushing at its terminus. A half-hour later, we arrived at Citi Field, 25 minutes before the gates opened and 15 minutes before Dan arrived. Within minutes, he and John were deep in conversation, discussing football and schedules. Here's a photo of Dan and John, looking like brothers:

Here's another image of them, along with one of The Apple, a great place for pre-game people-watching even though there was a cacophony of noise from a nearby carnival and a Chevrolet barker:

We spent an hour by The Apple before heading into the ballpark for a stroll before taking our seats. For the next seven hours, we savored a splendid day at the ballpark. It was a gorgeous day, belying a prediction of isolated thunderstorms. The temperature gradually rose to 81, and I came home with a ruddy tint to my bald spot. "It's a beautiful day for baseball!" I declared at the first pitch. "Let's watch two!" 

Our whole area was filled with laughter the whole day. The three of us were "on," as were the father and son in front of us and a leather-lungs a few rows back. The gentleman next to me--who bragged to me about attending the game where Marv Throneberry missed first and second--had a wonderful, robust laugh where he exercised regularly whether there was a punch line in the vicinity or not. Most of it was "you had to be there" humor, but we loved every bit of it. I got a lot of laughs, for instance, by showing everyone where I had marked "Oliver Fucking Perez" on my scorecard when that miserable wretch was brought in by the Diamondbacks. 

The crowd thinned out considerably after the first game, a dreadful game in which the Mets squandered 16 baserunners, scoring just once thanks to five double plays, and lost the game when Daniel Murphy dropped the throw on a force play with two outs in the ninth inning. The game was good only as a source of material for our sarcasm and running jokes. Only the leather-lungs and the guy with the great laugh remained for Game 2 in addition to our merry trio. Here are John and Dan looking slightly thrilled by Daisuke Matsuzaka's performance in salvaging a split (with the laugher top left):

The second game did have more brighter moments: Matsuzaka not only gave the Mets six solid innings in his first start of the year, he singled in their first run; David Wright made the defensive play of the day with a great sliding catch of a popup near the dugout; Daniel Murphy had three hits, and five on the day; and we saw the first (and possibly the last) four-hit game of Anthony Recker's career. Unfortunately, I had to do something I don't like doing--namely, leaving before a game ends. Between games, we calculated the time when I'd have to leave in order to get back to Penn Station without any stress for my 9:15 train, the last train home. At that, I wouldn't get home until 1 AM. The magic answer was 7:30. I remember grumbling at one point, "Dice-K has thrown seven pitches in eight minutes. At that rate I won't make it past the fourth inning." That got us joking about the slowest pitchers we've ever seen; my candidate was Steve Trachsel.

I wound up leaving Citi Field after the top of the eighth inning. I had only a ten-minute wait before heading back on the "7," and alit in Times Square at 8:20. That was perfect. I had one hour to walk eight blocks. I enjoyed the walk just as I had enjoyed people-watching at The Apple and on the subway. There were a lot of people wearing Rangers and Canadiens jerseys in honor of Game 4 of their conference finals, in action down the block at Madison Square Garden.

I grabbed a snack along the way and relaxed in the waiting room at Penn Station, wondering whether the Mets had held onto the 3-2 I had worked so hard to get them. At 9 PM, I went out to the big board to see if they had posted the track for the Empire train. They hadn't. A large group had gathered, and when they announced the train to New Jersey and Washington, most of the crowd raced off to get to the head of the boarding line.

A moment later, as I stood above the stairway, staring at the board, I felt someone putting a bear-hug on me. It was John. He was delighted to have found me. He and Dan had stayed till the end of the game, of course, a 4-2 Mets victory. John set himself the mission of greeting me one more time at Penn Station, partially to satisfy his curiosity about whether I could actually have witnessed the final out and still made my train. As a veteran of train travel, he just had to know. The answer was yes. 

He also wanted to exult one final time in how this doubleheader was "the apotheosis" of his American travels. It was a perfect day for baseball, and he had a much different experience from being on his own in other ballparks. He had Dan and me and a half-dozen innocent bystanders for entertainment. "You never know somebody until you've sat next to him at a ballgame," said John, who had sat  between us. Whatever could he have meant by that? I can't wait to read his British-eye view of that long-neglected but still glorious American tradition, the Sunday doubleheader.