The Rangers are one win away from their first championship while the Cardinals need to win in order to force a seventh and deciding game.
Let’s Go Base-ball!
Saturday night, 9 PM reservations for four. Two in our group celebrating an anniversary, one of them pregnant. We show up a little early hoping a table is ready. “We’re running on schedule,” says the sleek hostess with dark hair so shiny we see our reflections.
We try the bar, but it’s just a trough at this point, crowded with diners who didn’t have reservations. I love the idea of being able to eat at the bar, but what about people who need to use it as a bar? I guess they need two bars. Our pregnant friend is a trooper but I see her look longingly at the seats.
Several tables look like they are going to leave at any moment, but then they never do. Nine PM approaches and the hostess walks over and assures us that we are going to be seated shortly. “In their laps?” I thought to ask but kept it to myself. Our pregnant friend is shifting weight from one foot to the other and smiling through it all. I learned that dance from my bad knees and bad back.
Nine fourteen. Now everybody is looking at me. Tension is filling our tight space in the walkway between the bar and the tables we long to occupy. I made the reservation, I should be the one to complain. But I’m staring at the hostess the whole time. She’s keeping track of us with an appropriate level of concern. Maybe it’s a relic of my bachelor days, but I can tell when someone is paying attention to me.
A terrible minute passes where my best friend, his pregnant wife and my wife all stare me down trying to get me to act on our growing unrest. But I wait. And yes, the manager gets a whisper from the hostess and he’s on his way.
“I’m so sorry about the wait. I thank you for your patience,” he says. “Can I help in any way?” I ask if he has an extra seat available for our pregnant friend. He does. Our friend sits and relaxes for the first time since we got there. “Now we can wait forever.”
We wait for fifteen more minutes, not exactly forever, and receive one more visit from another contrite manager. We finally sit down and enjoy a lovely meal. And when we talk about the wait, which we only do for about thirty seconds, we talk about how well they handled it and how they defused the tension.
Privately, I think they could have found that chair the second we walked in, but I can also chalk that up to not asking for it sooner. I don’t mention it though, because I don’t want to spoil the good mood.
And then, there’s this:
Class is in session.
Since Game 6 is cancelled tonight, you’ll have time to check out this long piece on Howie Spira by Luke O’Brien over at Deadspin:
Howie recognized opportunity when it arrived in 1981, from the San Diego Padres. Dave Winfield was a four-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner, and one of the best athletes on the planet—drafted out of college in 1973 by pro teams in three sports. Howie had introduced himself to Winfield a year earlier when the Padres were in town to play the Mets. A few months later, the Yankees inked the outfielder to the richest contract in baseball—$23 million over 10 years—and Howie started in with the blandishments.
“I was focused on Dave like a horse with blinders,” he said. “He was going to be the wealthiest, most powerful ballplayer, and I made up my mind that that was the place for me.”
Howie sent a dozen long-stemmed roses to the secretary at Winfield’s charity. The flowers were Howie’s calling card. When he played at journalism, he sent roses to almost every girl who worked for the Mets. Hit on most of them, too. Winfield’s secretary agreed to go on a date. “We had dinner,” Howie said. “And she was the dinner.”
A Short Story
By Ben Belth
“Take him, Joey. Take him!” Glenn said. It was late in the day and late in the season. Import Corner wasn’t going to the championship game for the first time since he started coaching Little League five years earlier, and Glenn was frustrated.
It was the top of the final frame, the score was 0-0 and Joey, his star pitcher, was throwing a perfect game. It should have been exciting but like everything this season, it felt like a grind.
When Glenn started coaching, baseball was easy. He had an eye for talent and kept his team stocked with good players. Three years in a row, he won the championship on autopilot. During the tryouts for his fourth season, just when he started to get bored with the whole Little League thing, he spotted Joey, a pint-sized boy with big eyes and sure hands. Joey could handle the bat enough to bunt and would crouch down and you couldn’t pitch to him. When he got on, he could run the bases like crazy. He was the ideal leadoff man. Glenn took him with the first pick and aimed for the championship again.
They won it again that year, and Joey was the coup of the league, the only rookie that went to the traveling All-Star team. He walked a ton, stole bases, and was fine with sitting on the older kids’ laps for the crowded post-game car rides for ice cream. He was easy. Glenn would watch him play, holler “Take him, Joey,” and it was like activating their secret plan.
But this season was different. Glenn’s daughter Sara joined the team, one of only two girls in the whole league. That wasn’t easy. She made it even tougher by being the best player on the team. And Joey didn’t want to work walks or bunt any longer, he wanted to hit home runs. Never abandon a good thing, Glenn warned him but Joey didn’t listen and suffered. They all suffered. No matter how much encouragement Glenn heaped on him, Joey couldn’t hit. And without Joey on base, the team didn’t win. No matter how many doubles Sara hit that year, it wasn’t enough.
Their final game was against Fire Department, the first place team. Joey warmed up on the mound knowing there’d be no championship game for him, no All-Star team selection. He was in his final year of Little League and who knows what happened after that. He’d let everyone down by thinking he could be more of a player than he actually was.
Then he brought a perfect game through 5 and 2/3 innings.
It was the top of the sixth, two out. Fire Department was at bat. Will, a free-swinging lefty, came to bat. “Take him, Joey, Take him.” Glenn snapped, trying the old refrain again.
Will swung and missed at the first two pitches. He stepped out, took a sign from his coach and dug back in. He took the next three pitches, all balls, never lifting the bat from his shoulder.
“Take him, Joey.” Glenn tried again, but it came out sounding more like a scolding. Joey made the next one close but the ump called ball four and Will ran down to first. “Swing the bat, you putz.” Glenn said as he trotted out to the mound. He put a firm hand on Joey’s cap.
“Guess you can relieve me now,” Joey said.
Glenn shook his head. “The game is still yours. Just throw strikes.”
Dave was next, Fire Department’s best hitter. After he swung through the first pitch, the next was in the dirt and rolled away from the catcher. Will jogged down to second without a throw.
“Christ,” Glenn said, “Forget the runner, Joey, make the pitch. Take him.”
Dave hit the next one into center field and Will scored standing up. It didn’t seem to matter when Dave was thrown out at third. The perfect game, no hitter, and shut out were all gone.
Import Corner dragged themselves into the dugout and hung their heads. The 8th and 9th hitter went quickly and Joey came up with no one on. Sara was on deck so they still had a shot. Glenn gave Joey the bunt sign and Joey nodded. But the bunt attempts went foul, so with two strikes, Glenn let him swing-away. Joey crouched as low as he could and the next three pitches were high and the kids in the dugout started cheering.
The pitcher adjusted and threw one right down the plate. Joey closed his eyes, swung and hit the ball. He opened his eyes in time to see it heading towards the hole between third and short. He took-off for first but the ball arrived just before him. Joey heard the ump call him out, but didn’t stop running. He ran into foul territory, flung his helmet against the fence, and yelled as loud as he could. The parents in the bleachers quietly moved away and his teammates kept their distance.
“Hey take it easy. Jesus.” Glenn said, coming over, “Settle down. You gave it your best. Right? No one tries harder, Joey.”
“I can’t freakin’ hit.” Joey said.
There wasn’t much Glenn could say. But after a long silence he tried anyway. “You played for me for two years,” he said. “We won a championship last year. You came one out from throwing a perfect game.”
He gave the boy a stiff hug. “A perfect game.”
They walked back to the rest of the team. That was when Glenn decided to send Joey to the All-Star team. He’d break the news to Sara over dinner. He knew she could handle the disappointment. Not everyone could.
[Photo Credit: Mike Reinhold.com]
Of his writing regimen, Dexter says: “It’s work. You’re pulling stuff out, like I did with Spooner, that doesn’t want to come out. The only time I really enjoyed the process was writing Spooner. I didn’t want it to end.”
For Dexter, the most essential quality a novelist must possess is the ability to entertain his or her readers. “There’s nothing more important than that.”
It’s a good mystery that most entertains Dexter. In Philly, Dexter became a regular at the Whodunit bookstore, where he first met Tex Cobb. He likes Mike Connelly’s stuff (“He knows what’s he’s doing”), and Scott Turow (“He always aims high. You can see him really trying”), and just about anything by Elmore Leonard.
Among more traditional novelists, Dexter admires Padgett Powell, Thomas McGuane, Tom Wolfe, and Jim Harrison. But it is friend and author Richard Russo (Nobody’s Fool, Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man, Empire Falls) who is Dexter’s absolute favorite.
“I got a call from The New York Times some time back, asking me what the best novel of the last, I forget, 25 or 50 years was,” Dexter recalls. “And I told him it was Straight Man,” Russo’s poignant 1997 novel about a wisecracking professor trying to navigate his way through a highly dysfunctional English department at a central Pennsylvania university.
Dexter’s respect for Russo is mutual. In an e-mail, Russo writes: “Pete Dexter has always been a writer after my own heart: sly, yet deeply honest, full of twisted wit and spirit. He wears both his prodigious talent and knowledge of the human heart ever so lightly, as if they’re hardly worth mentioning, a mere parlor trick, and not the stuff of which great art is made.”
Dexter has this wonderful ability to get to the heart of something without hitting directly on the head. He creeps up on the outside, or up from beneath, in a way that is surprising. He’s a huge talent but he doesn’t let his talent that get the better of him. His prose is restrained without being forced. And he doesn’t coast. Writing is not easy for him, every sentence, every word, is worked over until it’s right. Steve Lopez, the accomplished columnist, said that Dexter is “the guy who makes you want to give it up, sell shoes, take up heavy drinking, or just shoot yourself.” And that’s true. But he also makes me want to try harder.
“He’s some kind of genius,” Richard Ben Cramer told me recently. “He’s just ferocious.”
“The Gulf Stream,” By Winslow Homer (1899)
I remember looking at this picture as a boy. I wondered how the man on the boat could appear calm, sharks around him, a storm in the distance. The picture, which is part of the permanent collection at the MET, didn’t make me anxious so much as me aware that death is unavoidable. I tried to think what I would do in that situation. And I admired the resolve or the acceptance of the man on the boat.
Over at the Daily Beast check out this list of the 20 unhealthiest cereals. Some might surprise you.
Then again, some of the most delicious crap, won’t.
In 2008 the Yankees missed the playoffs and had a hole at first base. They hoped to remedy both that winter by signing Mark Teixeira. Healthy as a horse, Teixeira has delivered homers, RBI and defense as expected and the Yankees have been in postseason all three years he’s been on the squad. They also won their first championship since 2000.
No buyer’s remorse there right? Who’s gonna argue with 111 home runs and 341 RBI in just three years? Two Gold Gloves to boot? A runner-up for MVP? Just keeps getting better and better with big Teix. Until it gets worse.
Yankee fans are shaking in their boots about the rest of Teixeira’s contract and here’s why: it looks like he can’t hit righties anymore, and out of six Postseason series with the team, he’s been dog poop in five of them.
These are not minor quibbles nor inventions of the back pages and call-in radio programs. These are the legit facts. Teixeira’s batting average against righties has fallen from .282 to .244 to .224 in the last three years. And his cumulative postseason triple slash with the Yankees over 123 plate appearances is .170/.276/.302. Eighteen hits in 106 at bats.
The postseason futility is a bummer and not a small reason why the Yanks have been bounced in 2010 and 2011, but it’s not predictive. He might have a good series down the road and help them win another title. And all those games when he didn’t hit, he was out there making some good defensive plays. If he choked because he was scared of the big stage, wouldn’t he be bad in field as well? He sucked, but it’s over
The real concern when it comes to his performance is the decline against righties. Has he hit bottom? Will this trend continue? Will he rebound?
Let’s look at the damage. His overall average has declined from .308 the year before he joined the Yanks to .292 in his stellar 2009 campaign to .256 and skidding down to .244 for a pedestrian-yet-productive-2011. Obviously, the shrinking average indicates Teixeira is trading hits for outs. But let’s try to figure out what’s going on in that exchange.
First thing we have to do is to separate his left-handed stats from his right-handed stats. His right-handed season was excellent – in fact, he’s hit for big power and good averages all three years as a Yankee. That’s no surprise as he has always hit lefties well. He’s hitting more homers, maybe due to Yankee Stadium’s cozy corners, but overall, he’s a carbon copy of the guy the Yanks thought they were getting.
His left-handed stats paint a stark contrast. At first glance, everything looks down from his career norms, and it is, in absolute terms. But diving into the components, we find it’s not that simple. Even as the batting average plummets, Teix is walking and whiffing with the same frequency, and his ISO (SLG – AVG) is also at his career norm. So if he’s turning hits to outs, they are not turning into more strike outs (phew) and the hits themselves are just as powerful as ever.
So where are the hits going? When Mark Teixeira bats left-handed, he often faces a shift – an extreme defensive alignment where the opposing infielders give up ground on the left side of the diamond to overload the right. Teixeira, a pull-hitter from the left side, hits a lot of balls into the shift and very few the other way. He loses some hits to the shift and he’s not making them back by exploiting the vacancy on the right side of the infield.
Could the shift account for most of Teixeira’s troubles against righties? Looking beyond batting average to his average only on balls in play, this theory starts to make some sense. As a left-hander, Teix had a pitiful BABIP of .222 (and only .256 in 2010). For the meat of his career his BABIP has been reliably between .290 and .314. Eureka?
If Teix is the same player he always was, and opposing teams have figured out exactly where to stand to rob him of singles, then the case should be closed. Teix is losing singles from the left side of the plate because of the shift.
But Teix is not exactly the same hitter he always was. The shift is playing a part, and Tyler Kepner cited Yankee research this summer which indicates it’s stealing 20 points off his average from the left side, but it’s not the whole story.
In the last two years Teixeira has seen career highs (or close to them) in O Swing % (the amount of time he swings at pitches outside the strike zone), FB% (the percentage of contact that results in fly balls) and in IFFB% (the percentage of contact resulting in pop ups on the infield). Since we already know his walks and whiffs are not changing, we know that the result of these tendencies is a sacrifice of line drives and ground balls, both of which go for hits more often than fly balls and pop ups.
What kind of balls in play will the shift snare? Mostly ground balls and line drives. Teix is surely losing some hits there, we can see it happen. But since his whole batted ball profile is transitioning away from ground balls and line drives, the shift can’t be solely responsible.
I find it hard to believe teams weren’t shifting on Teix in 2009 or on previous teams. We know Giambi faced shifts before Teix even entered the league, why would the opposition wait until 2010 to try it against Teixeira?
While we can’t be certain, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone sure sounds like a confused hitter, mired in a slump, trying to hack his way out of it. When that hitter swings at pitches outside the strike zone, pitches that are harder to drive with authority, he gets jammed and pops out. He gets under high fast balls and hits towering fly outs. And he yanks outside pitches right into the teeth of a shift.
Frustration leads to desperation. Desperation leads to poor decision-making. And the batting average continues to fall, caught in a negative feedback-loop. It’s possible the pitchers are getting wise as well. In 2011, Teixeira saw a fewer percentage of pitches in the strike zone than ever before. (That must be why the walks stayed the same even though Teix was swinging at slop.)
Teixeira faces a combination of four factors eroding his average from the left side. The shift, hitting more fly balls and pop outs, swinging at bad pitches more often, and of course, some good old fashioned bad luck on balls in play. He can rebound from the bad luck and rededicate himself to not swing at bad pitches.
But if Teixeira wants to hit a respectable average again, he’s going to have to make some alterations. He’ll need to take the ball to all fields to punish the shift when the location of the pitch dictates. He’ll need to revisit film from earlier in his career and try to figure out why he is hitting so many harmless pop outs. He’ll need to exchange those easy outs for liners and hard grounders. Some of those will end up as outs because of the shift, but he needs Kevin Long’s support to ride those out and stick with his new (old) plan.
Jason Giambi had a fine Yankee career. But his .260 batting average was a far cry from the .308 average he brought with him. He had to deal with the shift and injuries and whatever it was that going on and off steroids was doing to him. He never found a way to reclaim those points of batting average after his first year, but he still mashed with homers and walks and was a part of many great offenses.
Teixeira can do all of that minus a few walks and play good defense as well. If the worst case is that Teix is now a .250 hitter, that’s a bummer and he won’t be worth his contract, but he’ll still be good. But from what we’ve seen and heard of the guy, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be satisfied down there. He’ll work his butt off to improve, and luckily, the Yankees just have to go to fangraphs.com to pinpoint where he needs to direct his attention.
All statistics from fangraphs.com & baseball-reference.com
[Images via nj.com & southernbelle.mlblogs.com]
By John Schulian
While “Xena” began to kick out residual checks, I plunged back into the hellhole that was “Hercules.” My foremost problem was finding road-tested veterans and bright young writers to take a shot at a freelance script. They wrinkled their noses at the thought. A syndicated show? A cartoon with human beings? Better they should starve and wait for “NYPD Blue” to call.
The glossiest freelancer we got in my tenure was Melissa Rosenberg, who now writes the “Twilight” movies and delivered a splendid script. Most of the time, however, I was dealing with freelancers who couldn’t write or were connected to someone whose ass Rob Tapert was kissing. I remember telling the worst of them that there were only two words in his script I ever wanted to see again, and then taking a call from his network executive wife, who told me she thought he’d really knocked the assignment out of the park.
Things started to turn when I brought in Bob Bielak, whose credits included “Tour of Duty” and “In the Heat of the Night,” to freelance three scripts at the end of the first season. He came through in a big way, which convinced Tapert to give the gate to our season one writing staff, the useless Brit and the petulant kids. So it was that Bielak and I marched into the second season as the smallest staff in television. Reinforcements never showed up.
I wish I’d had the brains and courage to give assignments to the lean and hungry newcomers Tapert and Sam Raimi had lured into non-writing jobs with their horror-movie cred. God knows the kids have gone on to do great things. David Eick was one of the masterminds on “Battlestar Galactica.” Liz Friedman, who worked herself into an ulcer on “Hercules” and “Xena,” survived to become a highly regarded writer-producer on “House.” And then there was Alex Kurtzman, who was a go-fer the last season I worked on “Hercules,” a great kid who, like Eick, was always asking questions about writing. He and his partner, Roberto Orci, now write zillion-dollar action movies like “Transformers” and they’ve got a hit TV series too, “Fringes.” Liz wound up writing for “Xena” and Alex and Bob were the last to run the “Hercules” writing staff, but I was gone by then, done in by the ceaseless in-house battles that left me increasingly surly.
The lone moment of grace I can recall from that period occurred as I was driving to work on Ventura Boulevard. I pulled up next to a city bus that was stopped for a light, and there on its side was a large print ad for “Hercules” and another for “Xena.” They were my babies, just like they were Rob Tapert’s and Lucy Lawless’s and Kevin Sorbo’s. I’m not sure I ever felt prouder of those shows than I did then.
Fifteen minutes later I was back in the soup, dealing with directors who promised to do one thing when I met them at Universal and went native once they got to New Zealand. Tapert was no use whatsoever in reining them in. The actors were running amok, too, especially Hercules himself. Sorbo was jealous of Lucy’s instant success as Xena, and he wanted us to change the tone of “Hercules,” make it darker, quirkier, more violent, the way “Xena” was. Apparently wiping out a horde of mercenaries in loincloths wasn’t enough for him.
Sorbo thought he was going to be the next Harrison Ford, when it was a far safer bet that in 10 years he’d be the answer to a trivia question. But that is not to say that I didn’t appreciate what he did for the show. He was the perfect Hercules, as far as I was concerned, and I told anyone who would listen that very thing. But insecurity runs through actors like a fever, and Sorbo had it bad. I left cooling him out to Tapert, who never seemed to want me to have any kind of relationship with our star. That was fine with me. I had words to put on paper. But then Sorbo tried to make more of himself by running down the quality of the scripts in an interview with Newsday. Believe me, I knew they weren’t going to make anyone forget Shakespeare or Sam Peckinpah, but they were as good as you were going to find on a syndicated action show. When I wrote a letter to tell Sorbo as much, I challenged him to be a pro and do his job. If he didn’t want to do that, he could go to Tapert and Raimi and get me fired. And if that still wasn’t good enough for him, we could go out in the parking lot the next time he was in the States and he could try to kick my ass.
Sorbo was on the phone minutes after my assistant faxed him the letter. He said he’d been misquoted. Bullshit. You don’t give an excuse like that to someone who was in newspapers for 16 years. Then he said he didn’t want to fight. And he certainly wasn’t going to get me fired. Oh, no, Kevin Sorbo swore, he wasn’t that kind of a guy. Of course, all I heard after that was how Sorbo’s agent was saying he wouldn’t sign a new contact unless I was gone.
It took him six months, maybe more, but he got me. After 48 episodes of “Hercules,” 15 of which I wrote and another 25 or so that I re-wrote, I packed my bags and headed for the door. Tapert, after all the betrayals and backstabbing, told me it was the worst day in the life of the series. But had he stood up to Sorbo and his agent? No. Had he gone to the Universal brass and said I deserved a deal that would give me an office and a steady paycheck while I spent a year or two writing pilots? No. Had my agent advanced that argument, when such a deal was standard for someone who had delivered the goods the way I had? No. I’d helped put Universal in a position to make millions upon millions of dollars, but there were none of the traditional parting gifts for me.
Years later, David Eick told me how he and Liz Friedman had looked at each other after I’d been gone long enough for them to get a handle on what had happened. “We said, ‘John really got screwed.’”
This is one of those silly arguments for which there is no answer, of course. Just something fun to get heated about. For what it’s worth, we are talking about a great Mets team, but one who was a strike from blowing the whole season. It’s a good match-up but I can’t go against the greatest season in baseball history.
Theo Epstein is in Chicago, Ben Cherington replaces him in Boston, and John Lackey will miss the entire 2012 season on the count of he’s scheduled to have Tommy John surgery.