Saturday, August 17, 2019

Cups of Coffee During the Original Best 32 Days of the Year

My wife is a month older than, and since the early days of our nearly two decades together, I have celebrated what I like to call, “my favorite 32 days of the year.” (She does not find this amusing.)

One of my favorite random factoids is that because she was born in September 1979 and I was born at the end of October, she was alive the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series, while I was not. (She also does not find this amusing.) The other day, something else occurred to me: maybe there were players who played their entire careers in that gap between her birth and mine. Wouldn’t that be fun!

And of course there were, and of course it is! (There are two, actually, and as an added bonus I just noticed that one played for the Pirates and the other played for the Baltimore Orioles, the team the Pirates beat in the World Series.)

The first was Pittsburgh’s Gary Hargis, on September 29 against the Chicago Cubs. With two outs in the 13th inning and the Pirates trailing 7-6, shortstop Tim Foli flared a single to right against Bill Caudill for his second hit of the day. Hargis, the team’s second round pick in 1974, was brought in to make his major league debut as a pinch-runner for Foli. I didn’t understand why this happened so I tried to find a game story or something on Google; nothing doing there, but I DID find video of the game broadcast on YouTube (apparently it was NBC’s Game of the Week). Play-by-play announcer Joe Garagiola didn’t mention specifically why Foli was lifted except to note that he had a bad leg; I also didn’t catch him saying anything about it being Hargis’s major league debut, but did point out that first baseman Bill Buckner made a show of looking at the name on the back of his uniform as if to figure out who this guy was. He eventually moved up to second on Dave Parker’s fifth hit of the day but was stranded there when Hall of Famer Willie Stargell struck out to end the game.

And that was it for Hargis in the major leagues. He was just over a month shy of his 23rd birthday, still a young man, but was done with baseball after two more seasons in the minors. It’s kind of wild to think that all he did as a major leaguer was run 90 feet.

The next day, September 30, was the last day of the season. The Baltimore Orioles visited the Cleveland Indians, with Dennis Martinez getting the start. Martinez had given up three runs, two earned, on six hits when he headed out to the mound to start the sixth. A leadoff homerun by Cliff Johnson and a Ron Hassey single later and he was headed to the showers with the Orioles trailing 4-3.

Enter Jeff Rineer, a 24-year-old lefthander making his major league debut. He stopped the budding rally before it could get started, getting Ron Pruitt to fly out to left and inducing a ground ball from Dave Rosello to start a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.

And that was that. Two batters up, two batters down, and Rineer’s major league career was over. Two Baltimore runs in the bottom of the sixth put him in line for the win, at least, but Don Stanhouse coughed up the lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Orioles lost in eleven innings.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Human Side of Baseball

I attended the induction ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame for the third time this past weekend. The speeches are usually the least memorable part for me - in all those years, I think the best moment was the reaction Pedro Martinez got from the crowd - but this year something stuck.

In Lee Smith's speech, he mentioned that when the Cubs told him they were moving him to the bullpen in 1979, he took it as a negative and wanted to quit the game. Only the intervention of Billy Williams, the former Cubs great turned coach (and eventual Hall of Famer) changed his mind. Williams explained that the game was changing and that relievers were going to be valuable in the future. Smith decided to come back, he made his major league debut the following season, and the rest was history.

This caught my attention because just a few days ago, I began rereading Joe Posnanski's "The Soul of Baseball," his account of a year spent on the road with legendary player, scout, coach, and overall ambassador to the game Buck O'Neil. It's a fabulous book, full of stories about O'Neil and insights into the way he put a positive spin on aspects of his life that would bring most of us to our knees.

One of the great stories in the book was from O'Neil's days as a scout. A young minor leaguer he had signed quit and went home, and Buck was sent to bring him back. He did, visiting the family for dinner, taking the player to soak in the adulation of local youths and remind him how good he really had it, and eventually driving  him back to his team in Texas himself.

The player? Billy Williams.

Who knows if Williams was thinking of that ride with Buck O'Neil when he intervened with Lee Smith, but I love the way humanity interjected itself into the business side of the game and two Hall of Fame careers were the result.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Ballad of Stephen Strasburg

It was the fall of 2007 when my friend Eric and I decided to start a blog about minor league baseball. We were both bloggers already – Eric’s specialty was college basketball and mine was “esoteric bullshit,” at least according to a commenter on Awful Announcing, the blog where we met as commenters and ended up becoming fellow contributors and friends – but the goal here was to just kick back and have fun writing about a sport that was meant to be exactly that.

The timing of Bus Leagues’ debut was pretty typical for the way we approached life in general – for the uninitiated, the bulk of minor league baseball action ENDS in the fall; it was like we showed up to a game in the ninth inning – but we still took to it with a delight that never fails to surprise me when I think back on it. We were just a couple of random dudes, writing about random teams in a random sport, and we had a blast.

We tried to look at the game from a fan’s perspective, since that’s what we were (later, we gained experience as “insiders” and while that was fun as well, and led to a number of remarkable memories, it didn’t spark the same organic joy), which meant that one of the first things we focused on was the players. And ironically, one of the first players to catch our eye wasn’t a professional, but a promising college pitcher named Stephen Strasburg.

In 2019, Strasburg is a ten-year veteran with a career 3.16 ERA and more than 1,500 strikeouts, all with the Washington Nationals. In 2014, he led the National League with 34 starts and 242 strikeouts en route to a ninth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. In 2012, he was infamously shut down while the Nationals were still very much in the mix for a championship, the team putting long-term arm health ahead of short-term competitive goals (they still haven’t reached a World Series). In 2010, he turned in one of the most remarkable debuts in major league history, striking out 14 Pirates and walking none in seven innings to pick up his first career win. And sometime in 2009, Eric dubbed him Lord Vishnu, a nickname that was both completely nonsensical and one of my favorite things in Bus Leagues history.

But the moment Strasburg first appeared on our radar was in 2008, when as a San Diego State sophomore he took the mound one night in April and struck out 23 Utah batters. That was what started it all, both for us and the baseball world in general. That was when Stephen Strasburg announced his presence for all to see.

The reason I thought of this wasn’t Strasburg’s 1,500th career strikeout, which came on May 2nd this season against St. Louis, or his 100th career win, which he recorded on June 4th against the Chicago White Sox. It wasn’t even anything Strasburg did, though he is certainly putting together a nice Hall of Very Good career and looking back on his first decade makes me unreasonably happy. What made me think of Strasburg was a performance over the weekend by Vanderbilt freshman Kumar Rocker, who took the mound for his team in an elimination game and completely dominated Duke, striking out nineteen batters and pitching the first no-hitter in NCAA Super Regional history.

This performance scratches so many personal itches. The name, Kumar Rocker – even if this young man doesn’t reach the major leagues (and his performance this seasons – 3.50 ERA, 97 strikeouts in 87.1 innings – would seem to indicate that he’s well on his way), he should donate his name to someone who does, because that name BELONGS there. It’s like Madison Bumgarner. His size – at 6’4”, 255 lbs, he’s built more like an NFL defensive end than an elite pitcher (and according to his Vanderbilt bio, his father was a standout college football player who went on to play in the NFL). The age – he won’t turn 20 until November; my college “athletic” highlight when I was his age was running the table to win a pool tournament in my school’s game room. All of it together gives me Strasburg bumps. (That sounds weird but I don’t care.)

Kumar Rocker (I want his fastball to be named Harold, the pitch he desperately needs but spends all night trying to get a feel for to be named White Castle, and his out pitch to be Mary Jane’s Last Dance; if he doesn’t have three quality pitches, then GET MORE PITCHES) may be great, or he may amount to nothing. (If he enjoys even a portion of the success that Stephen Strasburg has, he’ll be doing alright for himself.) Most likely it will be somewhere in between, like the rest of us. But at the very least, he brought a nearly forty-year-old mostly former blogger a bit of joy and a flash of memory and awoke that old feeling of “this is great – I want to write about it!” And I appreciate that.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Enoughfulness

Today, I installed an air conditioner, even though it took longer than expected.

I sat in a meeting and actually felt confident that I knew the information inside and out, even though I was careless and forgot to check one small but important piece of data.

I successfully stopped an upset person from making their situation worse, even though I wasn't the first one to react and others handled the more difficult aspects of the intervention.

I made sure a client will have enough meds to last his full vacation, even though it took two trips to the pharmacy and my involvement basically consisted of approaching a sympathetic tech and saying, "This is my problem, please fix it."

I helped a coworker who wasn't expecting it.

held my two youngest boys while they fell asleep, both after choosing to climb into my lap and snuggle in.

Today, I wasn't perfect. I made small mistakes, and I made small impacts. In other words, I was me, and today, I was enough.

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Forty is the New Thirty: End of an Era

Back in the day, I ran this series here and at Bus Leagues called "Forty is the New Thirty." I forget how I first thought of it, but the premise was simple: call attention to the teams that experienced the longest droughts without a 40-homerun hitter.

I have two lists that I try to keep updated: the last player to hit 40 for each team and streaks of more than 10 seasons without a 40-homerun hitter. Usually I wait until the end of the season to update, so I don't get confused and miss information somewhere, but something happened a couple weeks ago that made me decide to write about it the next time I pulled out the laptop (and that happened to be tonight):

Brian Dozier of the Minnesota Twins hit his 40th homerun.

Now, this is noteworthy for two reasons: one, he is only the fourth second baseman to hit 40 homeruns in a season (off the top of my head: Rogers Hornsby, Davey Johnson, Ryne Sandberg...boom - assuming wherever I read that was accurate about the number? NAILED IT). That's a cool fact, but not the one I'm most excited about. I'm way more pumped about number two: he is the first Twin to hit 40 homeruns in a season since Harmon Killebrew in 1970.

The Twins had gone 45 seasons (1971-2015) without a 40-homerun hitter before Dozier took Detroit's Daniel Norris deep on September 12, the fourth longest streak of all-time. That's a fair bit of history to cast aside with one swing of the bat, but Dozier managed to do what Hrbek, Puckett, Mauer, Morneau, and others could not.

The longest active streak still belongs to the Kansas City Royals, who have never had a player hit 40 homeruns in a season in the team's 48-season history. The closest was Steve Balboni's 36 in 1985. The Pride of Brockton, Mass, had seven 30-homer seasons in his professional career, fittingly ending with 36 at the age of 36 in 1993. (He and Rob Deer were basically precursors to Russell Branyan - guys who were put on earth to hit homeruns, no matter what level of baseball they were playing). The Royals have a ways to go to catch the Chicago White Sox, who hold the all-time record with 73 consecutive 40-homerless seasons from 1920-92 (I'm not positive, but guessing I used 1920 as my start point), but are within striking distance of second-place St. Louis, who experienced a power outage for 57 seasons from 1941-97.

(My third favorite thing about the Royals' lack of power historically? The Kansas City Athletics never had a player hit 40 homeruns either, which means no one has ever done it for a Kansas City-based MLB team despite a franchise existing there since 1955 (except for a gap year in 1968). Also, for the record, my two favorite things about the Royals' situation is Steve Balboni's mustache and the fact that I used this to springboard into a small paid research opportunity for ESPN The Magazine several years ago.)

The second-longest active streak (and fifth-longest of all-time) now belongs to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have not had a 40-homerun hitter since Willie Stargell in 1973, a span of 43 seasons. The only other team without a 40-homerun hitter this millennium is Miami; the last (and only) Marlin to hit surpass 40 was Gary Sheffield in 1996. I keep waiting for Giancarlo Stanton to change that, and he keeps letting me down.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

My Favorite Movie Quotes, Version 2.1

I used to do a lot of posts here with quotes from my favorite movies. Stuff that spoke to me in some way. Haven't done one in a while - haven't done anything here in a while, if you haven't noticed - but I was watching "A River Runs Through" it tonight* and an exchange between Craig Sheffer's Norman and Brad Pitt's Paul (the brothers Maclean) caught my attention.

*I decided this week that I was going to work on getting to bed earlier, since my children are no longer waking up in the middle of the night and it doesn't make sense to be up so late. So of course, I fell into "A Beautiful Mind" on Monday (with mental health issues a major professional concern of late) and "River" (a longtime favorite) tonight.

Paul: I thought we were supposed to help him?

Norman: How the hell do you help that son of a bitch?

Paul: By taking him fishing.

Norman: He doesn't like fishing. Doesn't like Montana. Sure as hell doesn't like me.

Paul: Yeah. Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.

There was also an incredible, subtle moment near the end that I had never noticed before. Judt before the boys go fishing with their father (played by Tom Skerritt), Norman tells the family that he is planning on accepting a teaching position in Chicago, halfway across the country. Later, on the river, he tells Paul that he plans to ask His girlfriend to marry him, before leaving the water to sit with their father. When he sits down, his father reaches behind him to pat him on the leg, but comes up empty because NormaN is too far away. He looks, sees where his hand was, and touches his leg paternally. He leans over slightly, wanting to be closer to his son, while Norman, content, doesn't move an inch.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Failure

I have a desk. And a computer. And responsibility.

Ten years ago, I worked for an independent professional baseball team. I started as a public relations intern before moving up to Media Relations Manager after my first season on the job. It was hard work, with a lot of hours at the ballpark, and I wasn't very good at it. This was especially true when it came to the most important component: sales. After less than a year on the job, I was "laid off" the day after the end of the 2004 season.

I had failed before - the occasional bad grade in high school or college, relationships that didn't work out, less than stellar performance at the job that helped put me through college - but never to this magnitude. When I told my mother about the full time position, she had been thrilled. "Your son is gainfully employed!" she told my father.

It occurred to me recently that I had never figured out how to generalize failure. I never saw the loss of a job for what it was, as something on the same scale as those other issues, just bigger and therefore just as possible to overcome. I had graduated with honors despite those occasional bad grades. I had met the woman I would eventually marry despite those other failed relationships. I just needed to pick myself up again and move on.

Instead, my already fragile self-confidence broke. For the next decade, I worked at jobs that rarely required me to take risks. Back Room team member at Target. High school paraprofessional. Direct support professional. Every so often I would talk about wanting more, but it always came down to one thing: no responsibility meant no chance of failure.

Until a year or so ago when I told my boss I wanted to do more. I was a new father for the second time, soon to learn that numbers three and four were on the way, and that sparked something inside me. I was scared of failing at something again, of being proven unworthy, of having ten years of voices in my head by proven right.

But all that was outweighed, for a brief moment at least, by the thought of my children. How could I encourage them to reach high if I myself had given up the first time things got hard? How could I expect them to attempt great things - to attempt ANYTHING - if I was afraid to do the same?

My boss agreed that I was capable of more than I was doing and ultimately offered me a position despite my insistence that others would be better choices, or my descriptions of the myriad ways in which I could fail, or my outward expression of the war between No You Can't and Yes You Can taking place in my head. If you can say nothing else positive in my favor, at least say that no one else in the history of the world has ever tried so hard to talk his way out of a sure thing.

As things were starting to get set up in my workspace, my boss looked around my small office and casually noted that I could decorate however I wanted. The next day I brought in two things that had been in my car, my previous "office": a picture of my wife with all four of our kids and the prayer card from my grandmother's funeral.

The family picture was a no-brainer. My wife has always supported me and told me I'm better than I think I am, and my children are the most important people in the world to me. Those five people are the reason I do anything. I want them close to me.

And my grandmother...there's a story I've told about her many times that only recently struck me for its relevance (this is not an uncommon theme in my life). When I was nine or so, I wanted to learn to ride a bike but had no one to teach me. So the task fell to my Mum-Mum, then in her mid-60s.

We went into her driveway and worked at it, but at some point I started to fall. Though I caught myself, the bike knocked her over. She rolled across the ground and bounced to her feet, laughing and encouraging me to give it another try.

She's gone now, and I've forgotten that lesson too many times. You fall down, you pick yourself up. Something knocks you down, you pick yourself up. As many times as it takes.

I have a desk. And a computer. And responsibility. People are counting on me. And I am going to fail, most definitely, to varying degrees. And when it happens, I'm going to look at my wife and kids and remember that no matter how poorly I do at work on a given day, their smiling faces and excited yells will greet me when I walk in the door. And I'll look at my grandmother's card, the one with the Irish lullaby on the back, and remember that I need to laugh, pick myself up, and try again.

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