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Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox

Dig this nice appreciation of Mark Buehrle by Rany Jazayerli over at Grantland:

Everyone makes mistakes. One of mine is that it took me a long time to appreciate Buehrle, and not just because every time he pitched for the White Sox, I had to listen to Hawk Harrelson sing his praises. I mean, Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round out of some college no one had heard of,2 he almost never hit 90 on the radar gun, and he didn’t strike anyone out. Sure, he reached the major leagues just 14 months after he signed as a draft-and-follow in 1999, but he was never a top prospect. He wasn’t much of a prospect, period. During his first full season in the majors, I fixated on his mere 126 strikeouts in 221 innings far more than on his 16-8 record, 3.29 ERA, or AL-leading 1.066 WHIP. He was a junk-tossing left-hander, and those guys always get figured out eventually.

Only, Buehrle hasn’t gotten figured out, and he’s currently helping fuel the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff hopes. Despite pitching in arguably the AL’s best home run park for hitters for most of his career, he’s produced only one bad season: 2006, the sole year when his ERA+ dropped below 100 and, conveniently if less meaningfully, the only year when he finished with a losing record. He’s been consistently above average without ever being elite. He’s earned a single Cy Young vote just once, in 2005, and the category in which he’s most often led the league is hits allowed, four times.

He’s led the league in hits allowed four times because he throws a lot of innings, and because he gives up a lot of contact. And he gives up a lot of contact because the one thing he does not do is miss bats. After getting called up midseason in 2000, Buehrle struck out 37 batters in 51.1 innings, a ratio a tick higher than the league average at the time. He’s posted a below-average strikeout rate every season since, and has struck out 150 batters just once in his career.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]

We Interrupt These Playoffs…

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Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce weighs in on the many problems with Donald Sterling:

But there is one problem that never can be solved. This is because what is a problem for you might not be a problem for the good old boy network of plutocrats that actually own the games into which you pour your devotion and your money. And, even if you decide to stop spending the latter to satisfy the former, it may not really matter. The odds are that, through the largesse of television and the legerdemain of modern accounting, you can’t solve it that way, either. There never has been anything you can do about a bad owner. That one is out of your hands.

Which is where we find ourselves today in the case of Donald Sterling, the alleged racist slumlord owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was an alleged racist slumlord, and a confirmed terrible owner, for three decades before audio surfaced of a conversation that was reportedly between him and a woman named V. Stiviano, who appears to have James O’Keefe’d him. (Is there more? Of course there is.)

The league is investigating the audio, but by now, half the world has already weighed in, including the coach of his team, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, LeBron James, and the president of the United States. All of them agree — as does any advanced carbon-based life form — that if the recording is authentic, the comments show that Sterling is undeniably racist, undeniably revolting, and undeniably rooted in the mind of a man who would have to yield his moral pride of place to algae. There have been a number of calls for the league to strip Sterling of his franchise. This, I confess, makes me more than a little nervous. Taking someone’s assets because of what they think and say, no matter how grotesque it is, sets off all kinds of alarm bells in my First Amendment conscience. The league certainly is within its rights to suspend him, for as long as it wants to suspend him. There were also calls for the Clippers players to make some kind of public statement. Before Sunday’s Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors, they did just that, when they removed their shooting shirts at center court and turned their red warm-ups inside out.

Vos Macht a Yid?

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James Hughes has a fun piece over on Elliott Gould over at Grantland:

Despite being a Dodgers fan, Gould was pulling for the Pirates in the playoffs. “I’m into wishful thinking,” he said. “But the abstraction of rooting for a team, and personalizing it, affects me emotionally, and I don’t want to be affected emotionally by what other people do. Life is not about winning and losing. Even when people talk about luck, there’s a deep part of me that doesn’t believe in it. I believe in timing.”

My conversations with Gould inevitably circle back to sports, reinforcing his resemblance to his character in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming — the father figure who always seems to call at the right time to “discuss the Knicks-Bulls exhibition game” at dizzying length. On October 9, the day after Andy Pafko died, I called Gould for his reaction. “Pafko had the biggest forearms I ever saw. He came up to the Catskill Mountains when I was staying there and hit a softball over the biggest tree in center field. It was breathtaking.” He recounted how thrilling it was when the Cubs traded Pafko to the Dodgers in 1951, and rattled off the other players acquired in the deal: Johnny Schmitz, Wayne Terwilliger, and Rube Walker. “I’d have to look at the roster and tell you who I remember, because I don’t lie. It’s too easy, being inventive and creative, to spin things.”6 He scrambled around for a baseball almanac to verify his claim, but laughed when the only book at arm’s length was The Complete Conversations With God.

Gould so often couches his reminiscences with allusions to sports and sense memories from childhood that his response to whether he had any allegiances to the Brooklyn Nets came as no surprise. “No, none whatsoever,” he said, bluntly. Had the franchise started from scratch and not been a New Jersey transplant,7 would he feel the same way? “What comes to mind is Jell-O,” he continued. “Then I was thinking more in terms of My-T-Fine chocolate pudding, which my mother used to make. She would pour it into little cups and let me clean the pot. That’s Brooklyn to me, that’s home. The Nets? That’s not Brooklyn to me.”

Anybody Out There?

Over at Grantland, check out this beautifully-presented story by Brian Phillips: “Out in the Great Alone.” 

[Photo Credit: Regina]

Under Pressure

Over at Grantland, Bryan Curtis has a piece on the Arizona immigration law at spring training:

The Arizona law, known as SB 1070, went into effect in September. Six months later, half the players in baseball have reported to the greater Phoenix area. More than one-quarter of those players are Latino. Even though every one of them is fully documented, SB 1070 has made major leaguers into unwitting test subjects and spring training into a simulated game of “Who looks suspicious?” “The Dominican ballplayer that speaks Spanish, in the eyes of some, that’s ‘reasonable suspicion,’” says Raul Grijalva, a Democratic U.S. congressman from Tucson.

“I got a driver’s license,” Herrera says. Every time Herrera ventures outside the ballpark, he makes sure he takes it with him. Talk to Latino players in Arizona and you find them constantly patting their pockets for licenses, green cards, passports.

“I carry them all the time,” says Martin Prado, a Venezuelan-born third baseman with the Diamondbacks. “Just in case. You never know.”

[Photo Via: It's a Long Season]

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

Nice long feature on Coco Crisp and the art of stealing bases by Jonah Keri over at Grantland.

[Photo Credit: vanderwal]

Life Coach

The acclaimed author Neal Gabler has a long piece on coach Larry Brown today over at Grantland:

At the age of 72, with the Naismith Hall of Fame on his résumé and his standing as the only basketball coach ever to have won both an NCAA championship and an NBA championship, you have to wonder why Larry Brown is riding the team bus nearly four hours down I-35 through Waco, Georgetown (not that Georgetown), Round Rock, and Austin to San Marcos and Texas State University; why at six one morning, he drives his Chevy Malibu to a Houston high school to scout a kid while Coach K flies in on his private jet; why last July alone he hauled himself around the country to Philly, Indiana, Las Vegas, Orlando, two outposts in the Texas hinterlands, and Hampton, Virginia, where John Calipari of Kentucky and Bill Self of Kansas, two of Brown’s closest friends, sat seigneurially in the stands focusing on three or four prime recruits; why he spends his afternoons on the practice floor teaching basketball to hardworking young men who are not and will never be among the basketball elite and who, Brown jokes, have to Google him to find out who he is; why he tolerates games in half-empty arenas where the cheerleaders are louder than the crowd and where he can’t help but pop up off the bench during nearly every possession, gesticulating at his players like a ground crewman directing a plane to the gate, and why he risks suffering the losses even though his veins bulge, his face reddens, and he has been known to break out in a rash during a game; above all, why he has left his family back in Philadelphia — his beautiful young wife and his teenage son and daughter, whom he adores — to live in a residential hotel in Dallas, where he eats takeout food and spends most nights alone.

“He doesn’t need this,” admits his assistant coach, Tim Jankovich. “He could be drawing a 4-iron around a tree.”

So why is Larry Brown subjecting himself to this?

Check it out.

[Photo Credit: AP]

Men at Work

Check out Michael Weinreb’s appreciation of Donald Westlake over at Grantland:

Westlake admired Hammett’s laconic ability to tell a story without delving into sentimentality; he never liked Chandler and some of the others much at all, and while he published some private-eye novels under a pseudonym, he also recognized the shortcomings of the form. In 1960, he wrote his first novel under his own name, The Mercenaries. He was young and voracious, and he produced so much that he required multiple pen names to keep up with his output: In 1961 alone, he published nine books under three different names.10 And then one day around that time, Westlake went to visit a friend in New Jersey and took the wrong bus home and wound up on the wrong side of the George Washington Bridge. He trudged across the bridge, and the wind and the tension of the bridge inspired in him the idea of a character whose “speed and solidity and tension matched that of the bridge” itself. He thought of a man who looked a little like Jack Palance, a man seething with anger, a man who, when offered a ride by a Samaritan while walking across the bridge, tells him — “for reasons none of us have been able to figure out,” Block says — to go to hell. This was the catalyst, and this became the opening scene of the first Parker novel, The Hunter.

One evening Block traveled to Westlake’s apartment in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn and read the first chapter. Block asked if he knew where it was going; Westlake assured him he’d figure it out. It was how he worked on most everything: He called it the “narrative-push” method, in which one chapter leads to the inspiration for the next, and nothing is outlined. In his first draft of The Hunter, Westlake landed Parker in prison at the end, because, in the early 1960s, that seemed the natural denouement for such a remorseless persona; his paperback editor at Pocket Books, Bucklin Moon, found it compelling enough that he asked Westlake if he could devise a way to more easily position Parker for a follow-up. Westlake obliged. The Hunter was published in 1962, and the following year, Westlake published three more Parker books. In the sequel, The Man With the Getaway Face, Parker visits a plastic surgeon who alters his appearance, and then he robs an armored car; in The Outfit, Parker schemes against the mafia; in The Mourner, Parker attempts to abscond with a 15th-century statue and slugs an asthmatic hoodlum in the process; in The Score, Parker and a band of professionals manage to rob an entire small town over the course of an evening.11

More than anything, Westlake once said, these are books about a man at work. Parker is strangely puritanical, in that he does not permit himself to even think about sex until a job is complete. During a holdup, he learns the first names of the people he’s holding at gunpoint, in order to soothe their egos. Parker and his catalogue of partners carry their twisted Protestant work ethic from job to job: It is fascinating how much of the text focuses on the process of criminality, on scenes of men sitting around a table in front of blueprints, on the notion of preparing for the worst and then accepting that things might go off in unexpected directions regardless of how much you plan for them. There are double-crosses and betrayals and outright failures, and the world is indifferent to all of this suffering, but Parker soldiers onward. And I imagine all of this has at least a little to do with the way the author felt when he sat down at his typewriter every morning.

Lede Time

Over at Grantland’s essential Director’s Cut series, Michael MacCambridge dusts off another gem: John Lardner’s “Down Great Purple Valleys.”

Can’t beat this lede:

Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.

That was in 1910. Up to 1907 the world at large had never heard of Ketchel. In the three years between his first fame and his murder, he made an impression on the public mind such as few men before or after him have made. When he died, he was already a folk hero and a legend. At once, his friends, followers, and biographers began to speak of his squalid end, not as a shooting or a killing, but as an assassination — as though Ketchel were Lincoln. The thought is blasphemous, maybe, but not entirely cockeyed. The crude, brawling, low-living, wild-eyed, sentimental, dissipated, almost illiterate hobo, who broke every Commandment at his disposal, had this in common with a handful of presidents, generals, athletes, and soul-savers, as well as with fabled characters like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed: he was the stuff of myth. He entered mythology at a younger age than most of the others, and he still holds stoutly to his place there.

 

Fail Better

Over at Grantland, Jonathan Abrams has a piece about two veteran ball players,  Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace:

“You’re not going to beat Father Time,” Stackhouse said. “He’s going to catch up with us all. But I think we can manage him. I think that’s what I learned to do. Playing less minutes, absorbing a little less of a role than I would customarily want … taking my wants out of the equation and putting other people’s at the forefront.”

What Stackhouse said next grabbed my attention:

“When I was pushing, pushing, pushing for what I really wanted, it seemed like I never really got it.”

I think that’s right. We all feel that to some degree. When I’ve made a drawing or a painting or when I’ve written something, it’s never as good as I think it could be. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better–that’s what keeps us going.

I often come back to these words from William Faulkner:

As regards any specific book, I’m trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive. But I think even that is incidental to what I am trying to do, taking my output (the course of it) as a whole. I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world…I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don’t know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep trying in a new way. I’m inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time. Though the one I know is probably as good as another, life is a phenomenon but not a novelty, the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.

[Picture by Joel Robison]

You Can Go Home Again

The Marvelous One returns to Brooklyn. Over at Grantland, Bryan Curtis has the story.

Excuse Me As I Kiss the Sky

Over at Grantland, check out Jonathan Abram’s oral history of The Greatest Team that Never Was.

Saint and Sinner

Over at Grantland, here’s Bryan Curtis on Josh Hamilton:

By now, you and I could recite the outlines of The Story: Hamilton, baseball’s no. 1 overall draft pick in 1999, falls under the sway of crack and cocaine; abandons his wife and daughters; gets clean; gets acquainted with God; and in a semi-damaged, heavily tattooed state, leads Texas to the franchise’s first two World Series appearances.

While Texas fans still love Hamilton’s “story of redemption,” ESPN’s Jean-Jacques Taylor noted the other day, Hamilton “has abused that goodwill.” Not by having a bad season: Hamilton hit 43 homers, just one fewer than Miguel Cabrera, and posted a .930 OPS. No, Hamilton abused it by hitting into a first-pitch double-play ball against the Orioles and looking at just eight pitches in four at-bats and, with a frequency that seemed to accelerate when the Rangers needed it least, behaving like a flake.

Before we dive into how Texas fell out of love with Josh Hamilton, I want to be clear that I’m not making fun of Hamilton’s religion. I’m not questioning the events of The Story. What I’m suggesting is that Hamilton has become a prisoner of it.

…It’s not defending Josh Hamilton to say that he became despised this year for many of the things that, in the confines of a redemption narrative, once made him beloved. The Story swallowed the man. Hamilton seems like a reasonably friendly, occasionally defensive guy who is teetering on the edge of sobriety, who is prone to inconvenient bouts of detachment, and who gets hurt a lot. When he goes to his next team, I hope a new story will start there. But I have a sinking feeling that every time he loses a fly ball, Hamilton will again be a prisoner of redemption, trapped in a tale too flawless for any man.

 

Speed Kills

Over at Grantland here’s Jonah Keri on why Mike Trout is the AL MVP and not Miguel Cabrera. That said, Bobby Valentine has a better chance of keeping his job than Trout does of winning the MVP.

[Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images]

 

 

And You Knew Who You Were Then

Over at Grantland, check out this great piece on the Red Sox by Charlie Pierce:

The franchise needed a year like this. It needed a year like this not just because it was forced to clear out the lumpy deadwood in the clubhouse, though it certainly needed that. It needed a year like this not just because it was a humbling experience that let the air out of the inflated hubris that had been keeping the franchise’s collective ego aloft since the wonderful autumn of 2004, though the franchise certainly needed one of those, too. The franchise needed a year like this because people like me are getting older and we missed the days when being a Red Sox fan wasn’t so much work. The franchise needed a year like this because we kept telling young folks that it wasn’t always like this, that, in fact, things can be much worse than simply piddling away a playoff spot to the Rays in September, that baseball — Red Sox baseball — can be so thoroughly, unremittingly awful that you can stop worrying every game to death long before it’s time to get back to school.

And, yes, it is sometimes possible that good seats indeed will still be available, phony shutout streak or no.

From a strictly baseball sense, this looks like a middling- to long-range rebuilding process. The manager has to go. The farm system is nearly desiccated, and there isn’t enough talent on the roster to contend anytime soon. Neither Jon Lester nor Clay Buchholz looks remotely like a consistent no. 1 starter anymore. Also, it doesn’t look as though life in the American League East is going to get any easier. (Sooner or later, even the Blue Jays will forget to underachieve.) And I don’t want to hear anything about rebuilding that most noxious of all marketing department curses — “The Brand.” Sooner or later, you realize that no matter how many things you can find to commemorate, The Brand is simply whether you win or not. Stop losing, and your Brand is all bright and shiny again.

So, I rather enjoyed the second half of this Red Sox season. I was reminded of all the afternoons I spent with my grandfather, watching lousy baseball while, bit by bit, he drank and smoked himself into the Beyond. Those were good days, and isn’t that what the baseball people tell us the game is all about? Generations, sitting together, watching players bumble and stumble while the old folks teach the young’uns new and exciting curse words? Let Ken Burns set that to banjo music. I’ll be in the Parakeet Bar, waiting for the show to begin.

[Photo Credit: ]

Let’s Get Small

Charlie Pierce visited the Yanks in the Bronx this weekend. Here’s what he found:

If the Yankees rally and do anything in the postseason, when the game really becomes a serious television extravaganza, you might be able to point to this weekend as to when the season really righted itself. It had been building for a while. Injured players — including Saturday’s hero, Nova — are beginning to come back to the lineup. (Andy Pettitte and Brett Gardner are also expected back soon.) All season, the team had looked like the Island of Misfit Cleanup Hitters, a bunch of guys — Eric Chavez? Raul Ibanez? — who’d been big noises elsewhere, but who were manifestly out of place as the spare parts they obviously are in New York. (Part of this has to do with a Yankees farm system gone ragged.) The team had a weird, patchwork personality this year, and only the collapse of every other team in the American League East except Baltimore — most notably, the transformation of the Boston Red Sox into Mystery Zombie Theater — kept New York from serious trouble throughout most of August. But, over the weekend, in his first start since coming off the DL, Nova appeared to solidify their pitching and then, on Sunday, in the process of driving poor Matt Moore around the bend, the Yankees showed a real gift for manufacturing runs on the basepaths.

[Photo Via: Stuff Nobody Cares About]

Are the Rangers Cursed?

 

Over at Grantland, Bryan Curtis asks: Is Good Luck in the Cards for the Rangers?

An hour before baseball’s trade deadline, I sat in a room on Long Island while a portly, mysterious man studied the ancient object I’d set before him. I didn’t know much about Professor Sánchez. I’d found him in the back pages of a Spanish-language newspaper. He spoke little English. He never gave his first name. Professor Sánchez is a mentalist.

“Profesor,” I said in crummy Spanish, “my favorite team is the Texas Rangers.” I nodded at the object I’d placed before him: a throwback Rangers cap from the era of Geno Petralli. “Do the Rangers,” I asked, meeting his eyes, “have any … curses?”

The Curious Case of Daniel Bard

Tonight, Carl Crawford is expected to be in the line-up for the Red Sox. Kevin Youkilis will be in the house too, starting for the visiting White Sox. And Daniel Bard will still be in the minors. Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce has a story on Bard’s interesting and horrible season:

There was an ill-starred attempt to make him a starting pitcher, which seemed to get deeply into his head. He started thinking like a starter, not like the blow-them-away reliever he had been. He was nibbling, trying to induce ground balls, the way starters are supposed to do it. As a starter, he was 5-6, with an ERA over five. He had 37 walks as opposed to 34 strikeouts. He hit bottom on June 3 against Toronto, his last start in the major leagues so far this season. He lasted 1⅔ innings, walking six and hitting two dudes besides. He told the Red Sox he thought he should be a reliever again. They sent him down to Pawtucket.

There were whispers that it might be gone from him for good, that whatever it was that had brought him to the majors had abandoned him at 27. The whispers were in Boston, but they carried down Interstate 95 to this small ballpark tucked amid the abandoned factories. Outside Gate A at McCoy Stadium, there is a cyclone fence covered with canvas billboards that display some of the players who have passed through Pawtucket on their way to the big club in Boston. The very last of these, right where the fans entered the park for this weekend’s series with the Buffalo Bisons, is a picture of Daniel Bard, his arm like a whip, throwing the ball very hard, looking very young.

In the clubhouse, as he got ready for whatever fresh hell baseball was going to hand him this day, I told him about that extraordinarily vivid evening in Fenway a few years earlier. “The first time I hit 100 was in college, I think,” he mused. “It was some time ago, and it was kind of a gradual thing. It was cool, like when you hit 90 in high school. It doesn’t really mean anything. It just sounds cool.”

He still looked very young. He sounded very old.

[Photo Credit: Charles O'Rear via It's a Long Season]

Biggus Dickus

 

Over at Grantland, Michael Schur presents this Requiem for a Hardass:

In his prime, Youk was an elite hitter, and he fielded two positions quite well. His OPS+ from 2008 to 2010 were 144, 146, and 157 (all OBP-heavy), and over those three years he was among the five or so very best hitters in most ways that matter. He was one of the best players in the game. But what made him special was how weird it was that this was true.

Kevin Youkilis is one of the most oddly shaped human beings in professional athletics. His torso is giant and cylindrical — he looks like a cartoon poor person wearing a barrel. He is completely bald — like, aggressively bald, like he hates hair — except for a fiery red goatee bush that tumbles out of his face like Play-Doh from a fun factory. When he hits, he stands with his feet so close together the ump could tip him over with one quick index-finger jab to the sternum — an action that must have been tempting for many umps over the years — and as he raises the bat above his head and aims the barrel back toward the pitcher in a manner any Little League coach would surely curtail (“No, Kevin, not like that, that’s all wrong … just … is your dad here? I need to talk to him”), his hands are a foot apart on the handle of the bat, and he then slowly slides them toward each other as the pitcher moves through his delivery. It’s fucking insane. (“Kevin? Buddy? Hands together, buddy. See? Like this? … Is your dad here?”) From this stevedore’s frame, alopecic head, and just completely goofy stance came a truly elite ballplayer. Who is also kind of a dick.

[Photo Credit: AP]

The Fix was In

At least according to everything I’ve read. Here’s Rafe Bartholomew’s  ringside account of the Pacquiao-Bradley fight:

There didn’t seem to be a single reporter on press row who gave the fight to Bradley, and if there was, he or she must have been too ashamed to admit it. I overheard HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman saying he scored it eight rounds to four for Pacquiao, and that he thought doing so was being generous to Bradley. Ten rounds to two, nine to three, and even 11 to one in favor of Pacquiao were more common spreads among journalists who covered the fight. So when people tried to understand why Pacquiao lost a fight where he landed 82 more power punches than Bradley and 12 more jabs while connecting on a much higher percentage of his blows, it’s no surprise that foul play came immediately to mind. Anyone who searched for a rational explanation for this result was bound to come up empty. After that, what’s left but whatever cloak-and-dagger machinations you care to imagine in a sport controlled by a handful of powerful promoters with varying agendas and overseen by a patchwork of ineffectual state athletic commissions?

Ah, if only George was around to weigh in on this one.

[Photo Credit: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver