Friday, May 29, 2009

Blindsided By Science

I don't know what happened to me and science. When I was a kid I was going to be an astronomer, and there was no reason to think I couldn't do it. I was a math whiz, as my father discovered when I was four years old and could calculate batting averages in my head. I was fascinated by science and attended a year-long National Science Foundation program at a nearby college when I was in high school. I was the captain of the freakin' Math Team in high school. But it turns out that I wasn't that gifted at science, only at playing with numbers. Good thing I work with baseball statistics now. Give me Carl Hubbell, not that telescope guy.

Twice this week, I was reminded of my relative ignorance of science. The first time was Tuesday morning, when I made my usual morning visit to my wife, Linda, at the dialysis center. She goes to dialysis at 6AM, and on Tuesday and Thursday I drop her off and spend a couple of hours at my office, writing blogs or catching up on correspondence. At 8:30, I bring her a cup of coffee so she can wake up (she usually sleeps through the treatment) and go to work. Linda is the poster child of the dialysis department, going from four hours of having her blood circulated and cleansed right over to a full day of work. You can slow her down, but you can't stop her.

Well, she got slowed down Tuesday morning. Just as I walked in, bells were going off, and she was going into atrial fibrillation--that is, her pulse doubled and her heart started pounding with an irregular heartbeat. I stayed with her for a couple of hours until she was admitted to the special care unit. At one point, she had a sharp pain in her jaw for a minute or two. It reminded her that in the middle of the night, she had awakened with sharp pains in both shoulders, a pain which also passed momentarily.

The doctors got her stabilized, and we got the official diagnosis from her cardiologist. He declared, referring to the double shoulder ache, "you had a teensie-weensie heart attack." Whoa there, Doc! Don't get too technical. What could we make of that? I knew this was better than what Damon Runyon would call "slightly dead". It depends on where you put the emphasis. He put more weight on "teensie-weensie," a clinical term I've never heard in a hospital. The atrial fibrillation was essentially a self-administered stress test, which she flunked, confirming the attack. But it was teensie-weensie!

Does that count? Do you put that on your resume? "Yes, doctor, I've had two heart attacks, but one was only teensie-weensie." It's like Arlo Guthrie wondering if he's been sufficiently rehabilitated from littering to join the Army and kill people. If you take a couple of pens home from work, is it a teensie-weensie case of embezzlement? I had a tough time wrapping my head around this concept, but much to my astonishment, I only had to wait another day to experience another example of it.

Wednesday had a much better start than Tuesday. The cardiologist did a heart catheterization which disclosed a blockage in an artery feeding Linda's shoulder. One stent and a little spackle later, she was doing fine. When I left work that afternoon, I went home for a little dinner before joining her to watch the Mets game from her hospital room. At home, I got on the computer for a half-hour, mainly to set my fantasy team lineups, and then had some dinner. When I returned to the computer, there was an ominous message on the screen. At the top it said, "if this is the first time you're getting this message, restart your computer now." I didn't wait to read the rest of the screen, quickly turning the machine off, but I did have time to see the last line: "Begin erasing physical memory."

That's something you never want to see on a computer. I restarted the computer and got nothing. I had a choice of two prompts: F2 or F10. Neither one did me any good. I did get an invitation to "insert boot disk and press any key," but when I inserted my recovery disk, I got the same message. I think I repeated this enough times to press every key on the keyboard, but nothing worked. So I called my geek (try http://www.amgeek.com/), who said, "that doesn't sound good." He said he might have to see the machine this time (he lives an hour away), unlike the last time around, when I invited a state-of-the-art virus over for the weekend. Before I did that, he suggested that I turn the machine off and let it sit overnight. "Maybe it's just heat," he said. Of course I didn't know what that meant. It was a cool day, and I'd only had the machine on for about 45 minutes. Could the heat have come from the nineteen porn sites? I just didn't know.

So I waited until morning to turn on the computer. Hit the F11 ("start recovery") button, waited a minute, and there was my friendly old computer screen, good as new. Nothing erased, all my files and favorites intact, as if (almost) nothing had happened. A little stent, a little spackle, and good as new. It was, to get technical about it, a teensie-weensie crash. Or, as my friend Tim Wiles put it, "a teensie-weensie hard[drive] attack."

It's Friday morning, Linda is home, and I'm writing this on the computer that scoffed at me two nights ago. I don't understand how computers work in the first place, so naturally I'm in a fog about why it would completely fail to recognize its own hard drive one night and be perfectly fine the next morning. I just hope that whatever knowledge of science I do acquire from this point forward is learned one little teensie-weensie bit at a time. That's plenty for me to handle, thank you.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Two Games at Fenway Park -- Part 2

If the May 23rd game between the Mets and Red Sox is the only major league game I attend this year, I can still say I saw one of the best games of the season. Most of the way, it was a tight pitching duel between Josh Beckett and Mike Pelfrey, full of great fielding plays, but in the ninth inning it became a special and memorable battle.

After the first inning, we thought it might be one of those four-inning marathons that are old hat to Fenway Park crowds. The Mets scored a cheap run in the top of the inning on a two-out infield hit by Carlos Beltran, an error by Beckett on a wayward pickoff throw (a questionable strategy since a knee injury was relegating Beltran to designated hitter duty because he couldn't run well enough to play the outfield), and an RBI single by Gary Sheffield, who has been a big surprise as a productive cleanup hitter in place of Carlos Delgado. The Red Sox came back with two runs on singles by Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, a double steal, and Kevin Youkilis' two-run hit. Pelfrey threw close to 40 pitches getting through this inning, which took about 45 plodding minutes.

The tone of the game changed, and the action began to zoom by, when Beckett and Pelfrey found their stuff and took over. Beckett had a wicked breaking ball to go with his high heat, and the Mets scratched out only a trio of singles against him in the next seven innings. Youkilis helped with two lunging grabs of hard-hit balls, and shortstop Nick Green made a nice running catch on a bloop by Daniel Murphy that saved a run. But for the most part the Mets were no match for Beckett's stuff, and when they did hit the ball hard it was right at somebody.

It was a somewhat different story with Pelfrey. For one thing, he was striking batters out for the first time all season. In 41 innings before this start, Pelfrey had amassed 11 strikeouts, which is about the number you'd expect from a batting-practice pitcher. Saturday night he fanned six Red Sox. In between, he yielded only three hits in his last six innings, but he was helped quite a bit by his infield defense, which had all but sabotaged Johan Santana the night before. One of the toughest plays for an infielder is a high chopper which they have to take on a half-hop, a do-or-die play. Both David Wright and Ramon Martinez made the play successfully behind Pelfrey. Luis Castillo made a great stop on a wicked shot by Mike Lowell to end the first inning.

Tight defense, tough pitching, and a fast pace all made for a dramatic one-run game, and then came the ninth inning. That's when I got to witness first-hand the ceremonial production number known as a Jonathan Papelbon Save Opportunity. It begins with a little silent prayer at the bullpen gate, then a quick fist-bump with Boston police detective Billy Dunn (the bullpen security force) and a determined jog across the outfield while the speakers blare an Irish tune by the Dropkick Murphys. He pauses again at the edge of the infield for another private meditation on the joys of performing before a crowd that is going nuts from the music and the moment. Jason Varitek waits at the mound for a few short words, as if further motivation is needed, and with the crowd in an uproar, he prepares to polish off another Red Sox victory and lower his ERA (a sparkling 0.95 at that moment) a little more.

That it did not turn out that way proved a shock to everyone in the ballpark. Yes, Gary Sheffield was patient enough to start the inning with a five-pitch walk, but that was just a small bump in the road for Papelbon, who proceeded to strike out David Wright and Jeremy Reed on seven pitches, all fastballs in the 96-97mph range. The two Mets flailed helplessly at the ball, totally overmatched. As Ron Darling put it on the telecast, Papelbon fanned them "as if they weren't even standing there." So when rookie catcher Omir Santos took his .265 season average and one modest home run (albeit the first grand slam at Post-Shea Park) to the plate, the outlook was not rosy for the visiting nine. Out there in the right field grandstand, I was surrounded by quite a few Mets fans, and I didn't hear anybody yelling "all right, Omir, we've got 'em now!" or anything like it. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Santos would do well to nick a foul ball or two before biting the dust. Even if he got a hit, the on-deck hitter, Ramon Martinez, had even flimsier credentials as a hitter likely to do anything dangerous to a Papelbon fastball.

So it was that a mighty gasp swept through the crowd when Santos ripped Papelbon's first pitch on a line drive rising up toward the top of The Monster. It scraped the top of the wall and bounced back toward the field. The third base umpire signalled the ball still in play, no home run. Confusion prevailed as Sheffield, rounding third, saw the throw coming on and pushed off the third-base coach, Razor Shines (what a great baseball name!), and retreated to third just as the throw sailed past the catcher. Papelbon backed it up, and Sheffield held third--for now. The Mets immediately protested that it was a home run, and from where I sat it did look like it got over the yellow line atop the wall. But it happened so fast and so unexpectedly. Who knew?

In 2000, my last trip to Fenway, there would have been no problem. The ball would have cleared the wall and disappeared into the screen, or it would have hit the top and bounced back. With those four rows of seats up there, it wasn't that simple. Of course, the people up there knew where the ball had landed, and so did the folks at home. It was only we poor schmucks sitting there in the rest of the park who had no idea. On the other hand, in 2000 there would have been no remedy, no way of changing the no-homer call. Today there is, and that's what happened next. The Mets prevailed upon Joe West and the umpiring crew to discuss the play, and they decided to make use of the current instant-replay system in place since last August. West vanished through the Red Sox dugout, and the rest of us waited with all the anxiety of fathers waiting for childbirth to occur. Would the Mets' rally be stillborn? Did Santos really blast a two-run home run off The Riverdance Kid? What the hell happened? Only the people at home knew for sure. All we could do was wait and buzz, fret and fuss and speculate.

After a couple of minutes that seemed like hours, West emerged from the dugout circling his hand over his head, telling us that Omir Santos did indeed hit a near-miracle home run. Stunned, Papelbon had to wait a few more minutes while Red Sox manager Terry Francona argued with the umpires, possibly claiming that Sheffield should be called out for making contact with the third-base coach. There's supposed to be no such contact, but the home run rendered that moot. Francona sat down, and the inning ended on a terrific leap by Lowell to spear a Martinez liner.

That took us to the Red Sox half of the ninth, when Santos' near-miracle was parlayed by the Mets into a series of mini-miracles. The suspense for my little cadre of Mets fans began during the long delay after Santos' hit, when we noticed J. J. Putz warming up alone in the Mets bullpen. "Where's K-Rod?" we asked. A few minutes later, when the Mets officially had the lead, our tone changed a little. "Where the hell is K-Rod?" As in, "now they really need someone to save the game, so where's our only pitcher who can overpower these guys?" Again, we didn't know what the folks at home had learned from the announcers, that K-Rod had been felled by pre-game back spasms and wasn't available. We figured something like that, but didn't know.

J. J. Putz had a couple of great seasons as a closer with the Mariners, but has been inconsistent so far as an eighth-inning specialist for the Mets. He was the man heading into the bottom of the ninth of the 3-2 game, and he immediately got in trouble (as Papelbon had) by walking the leadoff hitter, Youkilis. The next three batters treated Putz as if they were playing tee-ball, each one hitting the ball harder than the last. Al Gore fooled more people when he claimed to have invented the internet than Putz did on Saturday night. Yet somehow he got away with it.

First, Jason Bay hit a smash down the third-base line on which David Wright made a ridiculous diving backhand stab, saving an extra-base hit. He picked himself up and hurried his throw to second, wide and well short of the bag. Luis Castillo had to handle a wicked half-hop while stretching like a first baseman, but he managed to snag the ball and keep his toe on the bag to record the miracle force play.

J. D. Drew was next, and J. D. drilled a J. J. not-so-fastball to right field--but right at Angel Pagan, who didn't move a step, bracing himself as if lounging in a rocking chair and leaning forward just a bit to catch the ball. That was escape #2 for Putz.

Finally, there was Mike Lowell, who took several pitches to find one worth feasting on. Bay was off with the pitch, which Lowell ripped toward the hole between short and third. Martinez, who has committed a bunch of errors while filling in for Jose Reyes, took a couple of quick steps to his right, left his feet, and much like Wright a couple of batters earlier, got his glove on the ball shoulder-high as he landed face-first on the dirt, yet another miraculous grab. There was no option to get Bay at second, so he righted himself and winged the ball toward first on a low, fast hop, which novice first baseman Daniel Murphy handled in time for the game-ending out. Lowell slammed his helmet down, quite justifiably. The Mets fans went nuts. The Red Sox fans went nuts in their own special way. And everyone went home knowing they had seen one helluva game with a ninth inning that was one thrill after another.

Two Games at Fenway Park -- Part 1

I've gone to two games at Fenway Park in the last few weeks, or more accurately I've gone to Fenway Park for two games. I've been to Fenway Park plenty of times, have seen at least 50 games there, including 25 in 1991 when I counted the games as research for a novel I was planning to set on the Red Sox. The novel went nowhere, but I got a ton of great Fenway memories, and just about every game was exciting. There's something about that "lyric little bandbox" that engenders excitement. No lead seems safe with The Monster lurking out in left field and inviting cheap doubles and high-fly home runs. Crooked-number rallies happen all the time, and even when they don't, you're on the edge of your seat with anticipation.

The two games from this year certainly fit that description, but I'm not going to talk about the games themselves here (that will be Part 2). I want to talk about how I experienced these games at Fenway. Because the visiting team in both cases was from New York, the games were my excuse to be at Fenway to sell my new book, This BAD Day in Yankees History. I was aided in my efforts by the best sausage vendors in the Fenway neighborhood, the stand run by Robert Coppola, family and friends. Located for 25 years at the corner of Van Ness and Ipswich, in the shadow of the right-field grandstand, Robert's roost is more inviting than ever. Compared to fighting through the packed mayhem on Yawkey Way, it is possible to enjoy your sausage (or chicken or steak tips) in relative peace and quiet in the spacious intersection out by Gate B. I met Robert and the gang back in 1991, when I used to be able to park my van on Ipswich and stay overnight while attending all three games of a series. You can't park on that short block any more (except to pay $30 for lot parking), but you can still get that same great sausage sandwich with sauteed peppers and onions.

Robert was kind enough to let me set up a table so I could sell books, and I was out there for about eight hours the first time around, with the Yankees in town. The hostility between visiting Yankees fans and the hometown Sawx faithful was continuous and unabashed, but strictly verbal. I had thought about going inside to watch the game, but wound up staying outside, and passed the game most agreeable with my friend Justin Booth, who writes a column for http://www.bostonspastime.com/. Little did we know that the game would last 4 hours and 21 minutes, one of the lengthiest nine-inning games in baseball history--though not that excessive for a Red Sox-Yankees game, which is usually a laborious marathon requiring the players to take a lot of time mapping strategy, discussing possibilities, checking in with all outposts and constituencies, and occasionally even throwing a pitch that only prolongs the process.

Justin had never stood outside Fenway during a game, and we shared this strange perspective on the action inside while conversing on baseball history, Red Sox history distant and recent, the psychology of Red Sox fans (getting more like Yankees fans all the time), and even our non-baseball lives. We caught a lot of the game action on a nearby radio, and there was plenty of action, with the Yankees blowing an early 6-0 lead and the Red Sox eventually prevailing 16-11. The roars from inside were frequent and fervid, especially from the fourth inning on when the Red Sox scored in every turn at bat. Our talk seemed more important than the game, even though Joe Castiglione was going nuts on the radio every couple of minutes and the sounds of the game drifted out to us from the nearby grandstand. It was strange, like relaxing on the beach while shark attacks are going on a hundred yards away, feeling detached from all that nearby frenzy. Every so often the police would emerge from Gate B with a spectator or two ejected from the park. One excitedly told Robert that he wanted to race back in and run across the field, but he was talked out of that foolishness.

As much as I enjoyed Justin's company and the passing parade outside the park, the wait for the game to end was too grueling, and I resolved to get a ticket to see the game I attended this weekend, with the Mets in town. I thought I could get a standing-room ticket, but no. The Red Sox have created a Good Thing out by Gate B, a "no-scalp" zone in which people who have extra tickets they don't need (usually season-ticket holders) can sell them for face value to people who have assembled to purchase tickets. I was told by the man running this program that I couldn't buy a standing-room ticket unless I had a military pass or some other special permit issued by the Red Sox. Just as I was joining the line of people waiting to buy no-scalp tickets, a young couple approached me and asked if I needed one ticket. They had driven up from New York for the game but one of their party of four couldn't make it. "We paid $100 for it," said the leader of the pack, "but you can have it for $50." I said no thanks, I'd try the line. A few minutes later, the offer went from $50 to $40, and I looked at all the people ahead of me in line, then looked over at the sausage stand where I had books waiting to be sold, and I said sure.

Besides, the couple offering me the ticket fit my criterion for another side-mission on this day: to give away some copies to people I felt "deserved" a present, namely couples where one person was wearing Red Sox apparel and the other was wearing something Mets-related. There was no shortage of such couples, and I gave away seven or eight books to them. Indeed, more than once the reaction was "great--we do both hate the Yankees!"

Thus I was able to see the Saturday night game from inside Fenway, my first game there since 2000, when I attended a three-game series with the Mets. That one was memorable for a couple of things. One day, there was a massive power outage in the Fenway neighborhood and the lights didn't go back on until almost game-time, leaving about 35,000 Red Sox and Mets fans stranded outside the park, milling about in search of electricity (for Robert and the other vendors, it was a record-breaking day since people didn't have much to do but eat and drink). The final game of the series was the one in which Carl Everett went nuts and head-butted umpire Ron Kulpa, earning a 10-game suspension.

On Saturday, I went in right before the start of the game and made my way to the rear of section 10, about two-thirds of the way down the right-field line, where my seat awaited. I wedged my way into the wrong row, but found myself next to a man in a Mets cap sitting with a woman in a Red Sox shirt. I had brought two copies of This BAD Day in Yankees History in with me, and they earned the first one. After the inning, I moved down to my actual seat, and handed the other book to the folks who had sold me the ticket, Scott and Staci. I sat next to their friend John, who's in the memorabilia business and talked baseball (and baseball trivia) with me through the whole game.

It was great to be in Fenway again. Only a few things have changed since 2000, most notably the seats atop The Monster, which had a bearing on the game as it turned out (see Part 2). I like seeing the seats up there, four rows stretching from the left-field grandstand out to the center-field bleachers. The other big change is the playing of "Sweet Caroline" after the top of the 8th inning. I wasn't prepared for the enormity of the sound as seemingly everyone in the ballpark belted out this song which would make me switch radio channels but in this setting made the park seem more festive. When the music paused for 37,000 people to scream out the lyrics on their own, it was one big party. Maybe this is the result of the team winning two titles this decade. Back in 1991, a game at Fenway provided temporary joy when the team was ahead, but it was tinged with the knowledge that some sort of doom was impending and the team just wouldn't win what mattered most. Now, with two titles under their collective belts, the fans can take time at every game to celebrate something together, even if it's just a Neil Diamond sing-song.

Oh yeah--one other change at Fenway since 2000: the two additional championship banners.

Despite the glamor of a winning franchise, and despite all the credit the team's management deserves for preserving Fenway rather than building a new mega-stadium, the ballpark itself is still the same old uncomfortable pig-sty. For the two people on my left, the action around home plate was just a rumor, thanks to one of those big Fenway posts. From my seat, I had to lean forward to see the pitch come to the batter, and I didn't know the home plate umpire was Joe West until the ninth inning. The seats are cramped and the rows narrow. New parks have drink holders in front of every seat, but that's not an option in the Fenway grandstands. They would make it impossible for people to squeeze past you to get out to the aisle or back to their seats. So you sit there with your beer in your lap and hope that the person next to you doesn't nudge it onto your lap. You peer around the pole to catch a sliver of action, and you wait for the next smash off, or over, The Monster. Twice we got to rubberneck apparent fights in the next section over but couldn't really tell whether the guy had help falling down.

This game, a 3-2 thriller all the way, lasted a little less than three hours, making it 90 minutes shorter than the earlier game where I stood outside. I wish that had been reversed. I would much rather have spent all that extra time watching the action inside Fenway, still my favorite place to watch a game.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Spitballs and Knuckleballs

Lately I've been reading Jim Bouton's immortal Ball Four to my wife. (Try reading to your spouse; it's romantic and it brings the words to life.) Mostly I read novels to her, but aside from Darryl Brock's If I Never Get Back this is the first baseball book we've read together. Once again I'm delighted by Bouton's irreverent humor, but this time I'm paying more attention to his continuing experiment with the knuckleball, which was his ticket back to the major leagues after arm problems robbed him of his prime. Bouton's brother taught him the knuckleball when he was a kid, but he didn't get serious about it until he reached the stage of desperation to keep playing the game he loved.

I'm more tuned into Bouton's struggles with the knuckleball because I recently read (to myself) a wonderful volume produced by Tom Mahl titled The Spitball/Knuckleball Book: How They Are Thrown, Those Who Threw Them, a 250-page compendium of everything you could want to know about these two exotic pitches and the pitchers who threw them, and quite a bit that you never would have thought of. It's visually striking, featuring photos and diagrams of the grips used by the knuckleballers, including a terrific 18-photo sequence of Fred Fitzsimmons throwing the "knucklecurve," also known as the "dry spitter".

Mahl leaves no possible area of inquiry unexplored. He begins with the Deadball Era (roughly 1900-1920) when the spitball flourished (two Hall of Fame pitchers, Ed Walsh and Jack Chesbro, won 40 games in a season because the spitball taxed their stamina less than other pitches would) along with other "trick" pitches in which pitchers applied a variety of slippery and disgusting materials to the ball which made it dive and dip and drive batters crazy. Offensive production was meager, but in 1919 Babe Ruth smashed a record 29 home runs and the men who ran baseball saw the possibility of creating a more appealing brand of baseball to attract fans in the prosperous period following the end of World War I.

Examining the 19 rules changes made after the 1919 season, Mahl concludes that they were chiefly designed to increase run production. Outlawing the trick pitches was the chief--but by no means the only--means of making things easier on the hitters. Facing a simple diet of fastballs and curves delivered on brand-new baseball (another change) which had more life in them, hitters ruled the 1920s. Slugging in the Ruthian mold blossomed, run totals soared, attendance surged, and the whole game entered a Golden Age.

Except for the pitchers, of course. A limited group of pitchers who relied primarily on the spitball were allowed to keep throwing it for one year, after which their exemption was extended so they could use it for the rest of their careers. Notably, of the 16 pitchers who continued to use the spitter after 1920, three put together Hall of Fame careers: Stan Coveleski, Red Faber, and Burleigh Grimes. Grimes didn't retire until 1934, not before he contributed two World Series victories to the champion 1931 Cardinals.

Mahl includes short biographies of every pitcher who threw the spitter, explaining their varied techniques, their reliance on the pitch, and their successes. This includes not only the grandfathered hurlers of the 1920s but later practitioners who threw illegal spitters. Many of the latter were tutored by Frank Shellenback, dubbed by Mahl "the Johnny Appleseed of the Spitball." Shellenback won only 18 games in his two seasons in the majors (1918-19), but pitched 19 years in the Pacific Coast League, winning 295. So he knew what he was doing, and he was willing to teach his techniques to anyone who would listen. After his playing career ended, he spent much of the next three decades as a major league coach and part-time advisor, and Mahl explains how his tenure coincided with the rise in major league pitches being accused of throwing the spitter, including future Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Gaylord Perry.

For me, Mahl's most compelling chapter is his overview of the history of the knuckleball. First perfected by Eddie Cicotte during the Deadball Era, it largely disappeared before enjoying a rebirth in the 1930s. Why then? Because, Mahl explains, after 12-15 years of getting pounded by carefree hitters, pitchers sought new pitches that might befuddle the men with the big sticks. The knuckler not only has a lot of movement (like the spitter) but the degree and direction of its movement is unpredictable (even to the pitcher). Usually gripped not with the knuckles but with the fingertips, it is propelled forward rather than thrown, yielding little spin and a sphere subject to the caprices of wind currents. If properly harnessed, it is a potent weapon, and it has created three Hall of Fame careers as well: Ted Lyons, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Phil Niekro. Of course, its unpredictability is also its curse, making it difficult to control. Mahl, however, makes a strong case that those who have thrown it the most (i.e. starting pitchers) have walked far fewer batters than the pitch's reputation would suggest.

What I've outlined here is only a suggestion of the depth and breadth of Mahl's comprehensive study. He has the lore, the images, the statistical evidence, and above all the thoughtful understanding needed to convey to readers the enduring charm of these quirky pitches. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning exactly what pitchers do to preserve their advantage over hitters.

The Spitball/Knuckleball Book is available from www.trickpitchpress.com.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Investigators Believe

For those of you who haven't been to Cooperstown, be advised that it is not the crossroads of civilization. The Norman Rockwell-esque village (of roughly 3,000 people) is in a rural area in central New York, the kind of town where you have to drive a half-hour to go to a movie or buy a pair of shoes. It is surrounded by farms and even smaller towns, and more people are occupied by growing vegetation than by growing their investment portfolios.

Last week, the local newspaper from Norwich (a little town an hour west of Cooperstown) reported the arrest of one of its citizens on charges of growing 56 marijuana plants in a room attached to his garage. Police estimated that his current crop was worth $50,000, which would have made him pretty wealthy for central New York. The front-page article noted that the man is 75 years old (but hasn't lost his entrepreneurial spirit), but the hilarious thing was the final sentence/paragraph of the article. It read: "Investigators do not believe that this was his first time cultivating marijuana."

Duh. That is truly a brilliant piece of investigative work. Would anyone have imagined that he just took it up as a retirement hobby? Did the man claim it was his first time? Did he tell them, "gee, I just got that starter kit over at the WalMart, and next thing I knew there was 56 plants"? I guess the investigators saw through that one. When two-time American League batting champion Ferris Fain was busted in California for cultivating a sizable marijuana crop when in his 60s, he admitted that he'd been growing it for years, pleaded no contest, and got off with four months of house arrest (as the San Jose Mercury heading expressed it, "Marijuana farmer has grass-roots support"). Fain 'fessed up and paid his price.

When you're caught red-handed like that, you have to be a man and level with people. There's no point pretending that it was some fluke event for which you had no responsibility. For me, it wasn't a coincidence that the Norwich man got busted the same day that Manny Ramirez drew a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs--and promptly blamed the positive test result on some unrelated prescription medication he got from his well-meaning physician. Manny bragged that he had passed more than a dozen drug tests over the previous five years, so it had to be an innocent accident that some strange thing found its way into his body to cause that positive result.

In denying his use of steroids, Manny was just following the path forged by other users--Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez, to name two--who issued disclaimers that they never used or would use steroids but who subsequently flunked drug tests. Methinks they doth protest too much. If Manny passed 15 drug tests in five years, all it proves is that what we keep hearing is true, that the drug manufacturers are way ahead of the enforcers and can easily produce new forms of PEDs that can't be detected, and by the time tests are devised which can detect them, new undetectable variants will have been created. So it's hard to believe any denial these days. In the court of public opinion, you're guilty until proven innocent.

If that's the case, how did Manny screw up so badly that he got caught? Apparently the red flag was an abnormal increase in his testosterone level. In other words, it wasn't the tester that got him, it was the testes. Investigators determined that he used something called HCG, or "human chorionic gonadotropin." It isn't a steroid but rather a naturally occurring hormone which in manufactured form is used to reinvigorate production of testosterone in weightlifters whose own production has sagged from steroid usage.

Manny claimed that he got this medication from his doctor. As reporter Jayson Stark noted, unless Manny was having problems with ovarian cysts, his doctor wouldn't have prescribed HCG. I visited the website http://www.steroid.com/ (and this stuff is so evil that three minutes on the site caused my computer to crash) and learned some very interesting things. The drug is used "to induce ovulation and treat ovarian disorders in women, as well as stimulate the testes of hypogonadal (underproduction of testosterone) in men." It is recommended following a cycle of heavy steroid usage because the body needs to restore its ability to produce testosterone. Though it is banned by the IOC and can be detected in urine tests, we are told that it is useful when athletes are worried about failing a test because their testerone level is too low, though they run the risk of getting a too-high reading, as Manny discovered.

It's a delicate balance, a pharmacological tightrope that the athlete walks once he starts putting dubious crap in his body. Every short-term or performance-enhancing effect brings side-effects which must be endured or combatted, meaning even more dubious crap thrown into the body's internal test tube. As the website so elegantly explains, "Its use during long or extremely high dosed cycles can be most beneficial where the effects on the hypothalamus causes a depressed signal to the testicles. The result of the depressed signal leads to what is known as testicular atrophy (shrunken nuts)."

See, that's where we've all been wrong about steroids. We've figured that it takes a lot of balls for athletes to think they could get away with using this stuff. It turns out that the problem is a lack of balls. Gonads--go know.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mets Relievers Struggle Wherever They Go

The more things change, the more they stay the same. For Mets fans, that means the continuing struggles of their bullpen, which yesterday blew their third game of the week. A winter makeover left Pedro Feliciano as the only holdover from last years corps of incendiaries. The investment in Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz seemed to solidify the back end of the bullpen, but in today's topsy-turvy system of utilizing relievers, the two big studs would still have to depend on those lesser lights to get them to the 8th inning with a lead. At the end of spring training, general manager Omar Minaya decided to discard veteral Duaner Sanchez (over manager Jerry Manuel's objection) and cast his lot with a group of unproven yoots. They've actually pitched better than most Mets fans would believe by the staff's overall performance. Though their blowups have been dramatic, especially this week, they've done better than the non-Santana starters, with one notable exception.

Aaron Heilman was jettisoned in the Putz trade, but his role has been amply filled by the other Seattle pitcher included in that deal, Sean Green. That role is Primary Train Wreck. Yesterday's ugly loss at Philadelphia was all the more painful because we could see it coming so clearly. Green had two major debacles in April, a five-run outburst in St. Louis and a garish loss earlier this week at Post-Shea. In that one, Manuel put him in to start the 7th inning with a 4-3 lead. Bobby Parnell had gotten through the 6th inning after starter Livan Hernandez faltered. Manuel pinch-hit for Parnell, who has a very solid 1.59 ERA so far this season. I'm not sure I would have lifted him, but he did.

That wasn't the problem. The problem was putting in Green, who promptly walked a couple of guys, gave up a hit, and finally blew up completely by serving up a home-run ball to Jorge Cantu, who had already homered once in the game. So much for the lead. Once the game was lost, Manuel brought in Brian Stokes for his usual mop-up duty. Let's look at Stokes for a moment. He's 29 years old and has pitched in the majors since 2006. He got a few starts with Tampa Bay that year, then had a mediocre year in their bullpen in 2007 before the Mets acquired him. Last year, he joined the Mets in August, logging 24 games with the Arsonists with a decent 3.51 ERA. He was mostly a mop-up guy, threw a couple of disastrous outings onto the September fire, and the best thing you could say to him--apropos of what happened yesterday--was that he walked only 8 batters in 33 1/3 innings.

Stokes has pitched 11 innings this season and allowed one run (unearned). Again, most of those have been mop-up innings, including the five outs he recorded after Green blew the game on Tuesday. Where was Stokes yesterday when Green torched the game in the 10th inning? Resting comfortably in the bullpen. Manuel used almost everyone else in the bullpen, thanks to Oliver Perez managing to balloon his ERA up to 9.97 in two-plus innings of work, including walking geriatric Jamie Moyer with the bases loaded. Manuel started with the major-league debut of Ken Takahashi, who looked very good and got them through the 5th inning. Maybe Takahashi will be the lefty (unlike Casey Fossum) to take the load off of Feliciano, who has worked in a ridiculous 14 of the Mets' first 23 games.

Feliciano pitched the 6th inning yesterday after the Mets jumped ahead 5-4 and surrendered a game-tying home run. Parnell pitched the 7th, and Putz entered in the 8th. Putz has had a couple of tough outings but I like his chances for getting the job done over the long haul of the season, and he looked great yesterday, mowing down six straight Phillies and taking the game to extra innings. That's when Manuel faced the choice that seems to perplex a lot of managers these days. After his team failed to score in the top of the 10th (thanks to Carlos Beltran grounding into a double play with a runner on third), he had his choice of three relievers. He had his closer, Rodriguez, but you'll almost never see a manager put his closer into a tie game on the road. His thinking is, "I know he won't give up a run, but even if we score in the 11th he'll have to pitch a second inning to close the game, so if I use someone else I can save him for when we do get a lead." I've lost count of the number of times this has happened this decade, and how often that closer--the team's best reliever--never gets his ass off the bullpen bench because some inferior pitcher loses the game. Look at it this way: is the outcome of a game more in doubt when you have the lead or the score is tied? That's a no-brainer. There's no margin for error in a tie game. So get your best pitcher in there!

Most managers won't do that, and Manuel didn't want to do that. So he had a choice between Stokes and Green. Let's see. Neither one pitched the day before, so rest wasn't a factor. What else might Manuel consider? How about ERA? Well, he had Stokes at 0.00 or Green at 8.49. That would seem to be a no-brainer, but evidently it wasn't that simple. Maybe there was some subtle psychology involved. He had Stokes, a guy who has been slotted into mop-up duty, and because he hasn't given up any runs in that role it must mean that he's comfortable there, so why would we mess with his head by putting him into a high-pressure spot. He had Green, who has been slotted into that guy-before-Putz role, a vital role on a staff these days, and because so much has been staked in putting him there it's important to build up his confidence after the recent disasters, so inserting him in extra innings with the game on the line would be a chance to restore everyone's faith in him.

Interesting theory. I think it's bullshit, but managers tend to think that way today, and in my desperate search for some reason why Manuel used Green instead of Stokes, it's all I can come up with. So in came Green. With one out, Pedro Feliz scratched out an infield single, and Green promptly hit Matt Stairs with his next pitch. That's when the sinking feeling arrived, the sickening certainty that Green was about to torch the 10th. Why such a powerful feeling? Because we've seen it so often before from his predecessor, Heilman, with his just-hit-a-deer-with-my-pickup-truck and his penchant for nibbling his way into walks until he came in with enough fat pitches to get pounded. So it was with Green. He did got a fly ball for the second out, but walked pinch-hitter Chris Coste to load the bases. My wife and I could hardly bear to look as he threw two wide pitches to Shane Victorino, putting himself on the verge of defeat. How many Mets fans out there were thinking the same thing? Most, I'd guess. Green worked the count to 2-2, then threw two pitches well out of the strike zone, not even tempting Victorino to swing. End of ball game.

So what's the lesson here, Jerry? It seems too obvious to happen. When the Mets put Oliver Perez on a boxcar to the minor leagues, they should make room alongside him for Green and his nearly-as-bad 8.76 ERA. Then give Parnell and Stokes a chance to do the heavy lifting between the starters and Putz-Rodriguez. Between them, they've allowed just two earned runs in 21 1/3 innings. Give them a chance! Hope Takahashi can buttress Feliciano from the left side, and in the meantime, try to do something about the two real problems on the team so far: starting pitching and too many stranded baserunners.

Mets fans: it could be worse. Really. They could still have last year's bullpen crew. Here's what they did in the last few days. On Thursday, Scott Schoeneweis--of the Diamondbacks--was pressed into action in the 7th inning at Milwaukee. The score was tied, the bases were loaded with two outs, and Prince Fielder was coming up. Let's bring in that lefty who's so great against lefties (.178 batting average last year) but who struggles against righties (.333 batting average against). You know what happened next, right? He walked Fielder and was left in to face righty Mike Cameron, who doubled in the other two inherited runners. There went the game, a 1-1 tie to a 4-1 loss in a mere two batters faced.

At that, Schoeneweis had a better day than Heilman. I shouldn't say anything bad about him now that he's halfway across the country, and actually he's pitched pretty well--until Thursday. He came in to pitch the 10th inning at Wrigley Field, and faced six batters. The carnage: a single, two doubles, two walks, and one batter safe on an error, totaling six runs allowed, one loss, and an ERA up to 4.91.

Finally, there's Sanchez, who landed in San Diego after the Mets released him in March. He's struggling, too, with a 6.14 ERA when he entered the game in Los Angeles Friday night. That was a terrific pitching duel between Jake Peavy and Clayton Kershaw, scoreless through eight innings. Sanchez took care of that in the bottom of the 9th. Orlando Hudson singled, and Sanchez wild-pitched him to second. That provided an excuse to walk Manny Ramirez intentionally, but with two outs, Sanchez did his impression of Sean Green, issuing unintentional walks to Matt Kemp and Russ Martin, forcing the winning run to step on home plate.

There you are. Things are bad, but they could be worse. The guys they dumped have showed that they deserved to be dumped. Of the current crop of relievers, only one has proved totally useless. It's time for Jerry Manuel and the powers-that-be to take stock, face the facts, get rid of the guy who can't do the job, and give guys who are pitching well a chance to make a difference. Maybe a couple of them will do so well that they can be traded for a hitter who can drive in some runs.