Monday, November 23, 2009

A Poker Story Not For the Squeamish

Now that one of the least satisfying baseball seasons in memory is over, I have vanished into The Void that will exist in my soul at least until the start of spring training. Even the hot stove provides only so much warmth here in the wilds of upstate New York. In my job at the Hall of Fame, I get to disappear all winter into baseball's past, and that's fine, but it isn't the same without the daily smorgasbord of games being played.

I've also had a chance to focus more on poker lately, my second-favorite game and a significant part of my pre-Cooperstown life. I landed a gig writing a newspaper book review which I'll post here as soon as it is published. The review was of the new book by James McManus, who wowed everyone five years ago with his best-selling Positively Fifth Street, his riveting blow-by-blow account of finishing fifth in the main event of the 2000 World Series of Poker. Now he has written a history of poker titled Cowboys Full, a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in the game.

One point McManus hammers home is that poker is the ultimate American game because it reflects the melting-pot growth and strength of the nation. In poker, anyone can play and anyone can win; you don't have to be the best player at the table to win the next pot, and you don't even have to have the best hand if you can out-maneuver your opponents. Poker is also the most international of games, as I discovered when I worked in a poker emporium in San Jose ten years ago. In that setting, Caucasians were very much a minority. A ten-handed game would usually include players from five or six countries; Vietnamese and Filipinos were the most plentiful, but there were natives of Japan, Cambodia, Korea, Thailand, and Mexico, along with assorted Arabs and African-Americans. You can't have more of a melting pot than that, or a more democratic game in which they could compete on an equal footing.

McManus discusses the importance of poker in politics, another realm in which bluffing, intimidation, and intuition are key virtues. Most presidents of the past hundred years were avid poker players, with Eisenhower and Nixon showing the most skill. Several future presidents used poker as a means to become part of the prevailing political power network. Their common link was a sense of being outsiders who needed a way to become "one of the boys" and found that getting invited to play the power-brokers' games worked very well. This strategy was used by Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and most recently Barack Obama. He used low-limit poker games to become a cog in the Illinois political machine, and the rest was history.

I experienced the same thing (without the political overtones) back in the mid-1970s when I got a job teaching at the University of Montana in Missoula. Montana still maintained a Wild West image, and I wondered how I might fit in, a little Jewish kid from New York in the wilds of cowboy country. Poker turned out to be the vehicle for my acceptance there. This was my first experience with legal poker, played in the back rooms of bars. I remember the first time a friend showed me one of the games, filled with rough-hewn faces and a vigilant dealer. My friend pointed to a cabinet behind the dealer. "Know what's in there?" he asked. Nope. "A gun. In case there's trouble." Thanks, Wild Bill. I sat down to play anyway.

The place to play in Missoula was the Oxford Cafe, a two-room cross-section of America if ever there was one. Open 24 hours a day, it had a counter where you could eat, a bar, a keno nook, a blackboard with sports action you could bet on, a pool table, and a poker room in the back. The clientele included cowboys and Indians, professors and lowlifes, Senator Mike Mansfield when he was in town, businessmen and drunks, and a colorful array of poker players. Some of the players were seasoned pros, some rank amateurs like the guy who would follow his weekly visit to his shrink by doing penance in the form of blowing off $500 or so at cards. There was an exile from North Carolina who called himself Shot, a guy who chain-smoked while hooked up to an oxygen tank, a guy known as Dick the Lawyer, and many more. The little Jewish kid fit it as well as anybody.

And then there was Art Wall. Art was in his mid-80s when I knew him, and in his youth had been part of a Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Talk about the Wild West! Art was still tough in his eighties. One night he was jumped by three youths behind the bus station, but subdued them and held them down until the police arrived. He was stooped but powerfully built, with huge gnarled hands. He would play poker for two or three days at a time, disdaining sleep but drinking steadily. Because he hadn't bothered to get his cataracts fixed, he had a hard time seeing his cards, and would take a long time to play. Though he could be ornery after a certain amount of drinking, he was a popular figure in the game, though that was maybe because he was a steady loser who never seemed to run out of money. Only one thing about him bothered anybody at all: he always had chewing tobacco in his mouth, and was always spitting into a big bucket stationed next to his chair, which would get pretty disgusting by the second or third day of one of his binges.

It was on one of those nights when four or five of us got involved in a pretty good pot. It was Art's turn, and it was $20 to call. He brought his hold cards up to his eyes for a closer reading, then peered at the cards on the table, then reached toward his tall stack of yellow $5 chips. He missed his aim and sent the whole stack flying off the table--and into his bucket, where the accumulated spit swallowed them up. We all flinched and tried to keep our chicken fried steaks from coming back up as Art put his cards down and plunged one of his big paws into the bucket.

"Jesus, Art!" we gulped while he focused all his attention on finding his chips amid the sludge. "Are you gonna call?" "Just tell us what you're gonna do, Art." "Come on, Art, let us know," we pleaded, but nobody could distract him from his rummaging. This went on for a couple of minutes, while our disgust multiplied. "Are you calling or folding, Art?" "For chrissake, Art, what are you gonna do?" Nothing we said seemed to penetrate his glazed-eyes semi-consciousness. Time stopped as he peered down at the bucket and swirled his hand around the slop.

Finally that big arm came up, and with it a large handful of chips--we couldn't see much of the yellow beneath the brown slime. He swung his arm around and slammed his hand on the middle of the table. "I raise!" he growled. Well, I've never seen a bunch of guys fold their cards faster. We couldn't get out of that pot fast enough. I know I couldn't get out of the room fast enough. I fled outside to the Montana night chill to calm down my innards.

I'd like to think that Art was bluffing. It would be a hell of a move, wouldn't it, knocking over the chips on purpose and making everyone wait for him to gross us right out of the pot. That was poker in the Wild West of the 1970s.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

IBWAA Announces 2009 Awards

This summer I signed up for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, a group formed by Howard Cole of baseballsavvy.com. As the community of internet columnists and bloggers continues to expand rapidly, it is clear that these dedicated writers are just as keen about observing and analyzing the baseball scene as the mainstream members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. The main difference is that the BBWAA members get to vote on the annual awards and the annual Hall of Fame election. The IWBAA was created in part to allow its members to partake in the fun of voting, providing an alternate voice (maybe even a consensus) to the BBWAA voters.

The IWBAA vote was conducted in the same fashion as the BBWAA vote, concluding on the final day of the regular season. Our winners are being announced this week, as outlined in the press release put out yesterday by Howard Cole, excerpts of which are included below. Our choices look right on the money, and I say this not just because the four major award winners happen to be the four I picked (I did have different choices for the Rookies of the Year).

I urge you to contact your favorite internet writers and get them to check out the IBWAA (contact information is at the bottom of the page). Being part of this group can benefit all of us, linking disparate voices in the wilderness to confirm that we really are paying close attention to the game we love.


IBWAA ANNOUNCES 2009 CY YOUNG AND MVP AWARDS

IBWAA American League (AL) CY:

Winner: Zack Greinke (Kansas City Royals)
2nd Place: Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners)
3rd Place: CC Sabathia (New York Yankees)
4th Place: Justin Verlander (Detroit Tigers)
5th Place: Roy Halladay (Toronto Blue Jays)

IBWAA National League (NL) CY:

Winner: Chris Carpenter (St. Louis Cardinals)
2nd Place: Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals)
3rd Place: Tim Lincecum (San Francisco Giants)
4th Place: Josh Johnson (Florida Marlins)
5th Place: Javier Vazquez (Atlanta Braves)

IBWAA AL MVP:

Winner: Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins)
2nd Place: Mark Teixeira (New York Yankees)
3rd Place: Derek Jeter (New York Yankees)
4th Place: Kendry Morales (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
5th Place: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers)
6th Place: Zack Greinke (Kansas City Royals)
7th Place: Evan Longoria (Tampa Bay Rays)
8th Place: Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners)
9th Tie Carl Crawford (Tampa Bay Rays)
9th Tie: Kevin Youkilis (Boston Red Sox)

IBWAA NL MVP:

Winner: Albert Pujols (St. Louis Cardinals)
2nd Place: Ryan Howard (Philadelphia Phillies)
3rd Place: Hanley Ramirez (Florida Marlins)
4th Tie: Prince Fielder (Milwaukee Brewers)
4th Tie: Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado Rockies)
6th Place: Tim Lincecum (San Francisco Giants)
7th Place: Chase Utley (Philadelphia Phillies)
8th Place: Andre Ethier (Los Angeles Dodgers)
9th Place: Chris Carpenter (St. Louis Cardinals)
10th Pl: Ryan Braun (Milwaukee Brewers)

The association's Rookie of the Year (ROY), Manager of the Year (MOY), Comeback of the Year (COY) and Executive of the Year (EOY) awards were announced Monday, November 9, 2009 and Tuesday, November 10, 2009. Winners are as follows:

IBWAA AL ROY: Elvis Andrus (Texas Rangers)

IBWAA NL ROY: Tommy Hanson (Atlanta Braves)

IBWAA AL MOY: Ron Gardenhire (Minnesota Twins)

IBWAA NL MOY: Jim Tracy (Colorado Rockies)

IBWAA AL COY: Aaron Hill (Toronto Blue Jays)

IBWAA NL COY: Chris Carpenter (St. Louis Cardinals)

IBWAA AL EOY: Brian Cashman (New York Yankees)

IBWAA NL EOY: Dan O'Dowd (Colorado Rockies)

The IBWAA was created in July 4, 2009 by Howard Cole, editor of BaseballSavvy.com, to organize and promote the growing online baseball media, and to serve as an alternative voice to the Base Ball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).

Association memberships are open to any and all Internet baseball writers, with a yearly fee of $20. Discounts for groups and scholarships are available.

For more information on the IBWAA, please visit the temporary webpage here, http://www.baseballsavvy.com/internetbaseballwriters.html. In the coming months, the IBWAA can be found at www.InternetBaseballWriters.com.

Contact:
Howard Cole, Acting Director, IBWAAbaseballsavvy@aol.com

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankees Announce Plans For New Stadiums

In the wake of their first World Series title in a faith-shaking nine years, the Yankees announced plans to construct a succession of new ballparks which will allow them to play in a new stadium every year.

"It's clear to everyone," said team owner Hank Steinbrenner, "that all we needed to do to get off the schneid was move to a new park. It worked in 1923, and it worked again this year. Even Chris Berman made the connection. So the solution is simple."

Club officials unveiled plans to tear down the original Yankee Stadium next week, bulldoze the site, and begin construction on a new Stadium which will be ready for use in 2010. Meanwhile, sufficient room will be cleared in the same neighborhood for a third ballpark site, with a fresh facility on that site erected by the 2011 season. As that construction continues, the current Yankee Stadium will give way to wrecking crews so the new park there can open in 2012.

"It's going to take a lot of work to have the first one done by next April," said Steinbrenner. "However, once we get the hang of it, we expect to churn one out on each site every three years like clockwork."

The same design will be used for all the facilities, though some amenities will be sacrificed for the sake of the continuous turnover. For instance, most of the outfield seating between the foul poles will be on benches, not chairs. "Partial view, partial seat" will be the operative principle, but as Steinbrenner noted, "Once we can guarantee that every year's team will win the title, people will flock there no matter how uncomfortable it is."

Financing for the multiple venues will come from a variety of sources, but primarily from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Despite winning election to his third term as major, gazillionaire Bloomberg was considerably sobered by his narrow margin of victory. "Thank God I had Mariano Rivera come on board the last couple of days to secure those final votes," said Bloomberg. "However, it's clear that my plummeting support from voters means that my political legacy will be totally down the drain by the next election. Therefore I'm turning to the Bronx for a more lasting legacy."

Bloomberg will put up $1 billion per year for the first three new ballparks, with financing for further construction coming from a complex formula whose details are being negotiated. "The essence of it," said Bloomberg, "is that the Yankees will pay me back a certain amount, perhaps $4-5 million, for each game they lose. I'll also get a certain percentage of ticket sales, and then of course there's the protection money. In addition, the city will levy a $5 surcharge per ticket for all fans traveling to Citifield to see those losers play. If that's how they want to waste their money, we may as well get a piece of it."

One special feature of the new Yankee Stadiums will be a private box for former mayor Rudy Giuliani to be located midway between the on-deck circle and home plate. "I'll have a better view of the opposing pitchers," said Giuliani, "and can tell the next Yankee hitter what to expect. Plus, my throat gets too sore from having to yell at the umpires all the way from the dugout."

In a related development, Steinbrenner revealed that he has filed papers to formally adopt Pedro Martinez and will pay his new son $1 million a year to pitch batting practice.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Double-Edged Sword of Three Days' Rest

I was prepared to write a post-World Series blog today, but Cliff Lee and Chase Utley changed my mind, sending the Series back to Yankee Stadium for a nifty Game 6 matchup between Pedro Martinez and Andy Pettitte. So I'll hold most of my thoughts on the Series and focus today on what is looming as the key factor in who winds up winning the title.

Columnists and bloggers have been going nuts the last few days over the different approaches taken by the two managers in deciding who will start which game this week. The consensus is that Charlie Manuel blundered in holding Cliff Lee back until Game 5, while Joe Girardi showed fortitude in bringing back C.C. Sabathia for Game 4. This may have been fueled in part by the perception that Sabathia is the kind of pitcher who'd go out there every day if he could, while Lee is a laid-back guy who could take today's start or leave it with equal enthusiasm.

Perhaps just as significant was the fact that Lee has never started a game on three days' rest, while Sabathia did so over and over again in 2008 and, at 290 pounds, is a "horse" in every sense of the word. Then there's the overall tendency of World Series managers to lose games in which they trot a starter out there on "short" rest. But as some writers have noted this week, starters working on three days' rest have pitched effectively most of the time even if they haven't actually won the game.

Like chess players determining when to deploy their most powerful pieces, Manuel and Joe Girardi faced different dilemmas after the Yankees took a 2-1 lead in games. The Phillies had a more urgent need to win Game 4, and Lee seemed to be the obvious choice. The defending AL Cy Young Award winner had allowed only two earned runs in 33 innings in this post-season and completely stifled the Yankees in winning Game 1. For purposes of logical decision-making, Manuel had to assume that Lee would win his game (if Lee couldn't beat the Yankees again, his team was toast). Winning Game 4 with Lee would not only square the Series, it would make him available to start Game 7 if it came to that, again on three days' rest but still wearing the cloak of invincibility. Holding him back for Game 5 would risk not only going behind 3-1 but also removing him from the rotation for Game 7.

It seemed like a no-brainer, and Manuel has indeed been accused of having no brain for deciding to give Lee that extra day of rest. Sure enough, Joe Blanton--who won Game 4 for him last year--was ineffective, and the Phillies did fall behind 3-1. Sure enough, Lee won his start last night, pitching strong ball for seven innings before weakening. Now we're told that he'll be available for relief work if there is a Game 7. Fine. It worked for Arizona in 2001 when Randy Johnson came back (with no day of rest) to close out the title game in relief. But Phillies fans can't help thinking that if Lee had won Game 4 instead of Game 5, there was a good chance for that momentum to carry that to a Game 5 victory and a lead going back to New York.

In chess terms, Manuel let his queen--his most powerful piece--get stuck in a defensive mode instead of using it aggressively. That's the opposite of what Girardi did with Sabathia, his big weapon. Sabathia wasn't great on three days' rest in Game 4, but he was good enough to win--until his bullpen blew the lead and forced the team to rally in the ninth inning against Brad Lidge. Not that that was so tough to do. Not only did Girardi gain a 3-1 lead in the Series, he could give Sabathia another three days of rest in case he needed to bring him back again for Game 7.

The trick is that starting Sabathia on short rest triggered a chain reaction in the rest of the Yankees rotation. Girardi also committed himself to using his other two starters on shorter rest. Last night, A.J. Burnett got drilled early and often, allowing six runs in two-plus innings. Whether that was because his stuff was missing due to the short rest or because the Phillies made smart adjustments at the plate doesn't matter. "We didn't pitch," said Girardi after the game, explaining the loss. In essence, the Series is where it probably would've been if Girardi had sent Chad Gaudin or some other sacrificial lamb out to pitch Game 4 against Lee and brought back Sabathia in Game 5. The games were split, and the Yankees secured the lead that gives them two chances to win the title at home.

But the chain reaction is still in effect for tomorrow night's game. The starters are both old in baseball years. Pedro Martinez turned 38 last week; Andy Pettitte turned 37 in June. One will be pitching Game 6 on five days of rest, the other on three. That sounds like a big advantage to me. That was Girardi's big gamble. He felt that winning Game 4 to take a 3-1 edge would not only put his team in a spot from which 26 of 31 World Series contenders have gone on to win the title, it would also demoralize the opposition.

Not so soon. Apparently the only person it demoralized was Cole Hamels, who said--after getting hammered in a Game 3 loss--"I can't wait for the season to be over." Hamels' teammates understandably got in his face about this self-centered, defeatist attitude, making it fascinating to see whether Manuel trusts him with a Game 7 start if it comes to that. Meanwhile, those teammates had no trouble with Burnett, and they're prepared to pick on another short-rest pitcher when the battle is rejoined at Yankee Stadium. Will Girardi regret committing himself to four straight games with a short-rest starter, or will Manuel regret limiting Lee to two starts? Either way, the writers will have plenty to say about it.