Sunday, May 1, 2016

Man Versus Ball: A Review

George Plimpton was an author best known for participating as an amateur in sporting events and writing about his experiences.  His perspective and unique writing style exposed an entire new genre of sports journalism. Although he passed away in 2003, his influence remains, as evidenced by Jon Hart’s Man Versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures (University of Nebraska Press, 2013).

In a very Plimptonian way, Hart documents a number of experiences he has had in the sporting world. These include working (for years) as a vendor at major league baseball games; playing semi-pro football; amateur caddying; working for several years as a ball boy at the U.S. Open; and professional wrestling.

Hart’s most interesting venture is his vending, which began as a writing assignment but continued well past that as an actual job. The politics of the trade, along with the little things most people would never think of when buying a hot dog or cotton candy at a game (taking time to find proper currency to give to the customer may increase the likelihood of simply being told to keep the change).

It may be a matter of self efficacy but Hart spends much more time discussing the challenges he faces when working with each experience than the successes. In particular, his time as a player for the Brooklyn Mariners, a semi-pro football team, and his foray into wrestling did not come naturally to him.

In most cases, instead of using real names, Hart comes up with nicknames for the people he interacts with during his adventures. This proved a little difficult to keep up with who was who but ultimately didn’t detract too much from the stories. It would have also been helpful to have a bit more insight into his professional writing and how much that impacted his decisions to immerse himself in these experiences.

A lot of people casually dream about participating in sports, professional or otherwise, but seldom go to the lengths Hart did to find out what all the fuss is about. He writes in an easy style that engages the reader, and acts as a conduit to let us all know what it’s like to do such things as sling hot dogs in Shea Stadium or get clotheslined in a wrestling match. I’m more than happy to let him experience them for me but am also entertained by reading about how he came to have such an eclectic résumé.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Steven Wright Is Pitching Himself Into Permanent Status With The Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox have gone through their fair share of pitching woes over the past several seasons. Despite signing a blue chipper in David Price last offseason, the 2016 season has still been one of inconsistency for their staff. While it seems there is still work to be done, the surprise emergence of knuckleball starter Steven Wright may end up going a long way towards fortifying the team’s starting rotation.

The 31-year-old right-hander has pitched in parts of four seasons with Boston since coming over from the Cleveland Indians in a 2012 trade. A second-round draft pick in 2006 who began his career with a more traditional repertoire, he ultimately switched to the knuckler after stagnating in the minors. His acquisition seemed like a good idea, particularly in light of the success fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield enjoyed in Boston for 17 years.

Until this year, Wright has been on a yo-yo between the big league club and Triple-A Pawtucket. To date, he has appeared in 29 major league games (14 starts), going a combined 8-7 with a 3.56 ERA. An injury this spring to young hurler Eduardo Rodriguez created an opening for him to begin the year as the team’s fifth starter, and he has run with it, going 1-2 with a microscopic 1.40 ERA in his three starts.

Rodriguez is nearing his return, and given his potential, should be back in the rotation. However, Wright has made a strong case that he should keep his job and be considered as a long-term option at starter. In addition to his strong start to this season, he has also been much more effective starting than coming out of the bullpen. His 3.36 ERA in his 14 career starts, along with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.24 WHIP are all more than respectable numbers.

Truly successful knuckleball pitchers are few and far between. It’s a pitch that must be thrown with such feel and command that there aren’t many who can master the offering enough to translate it into a successful career, but it’s looking like Wright might be joining that exclusive club. Although approximately five out of every six pitches he throws are knucklers, he also mixes in other pitches that have made him a challenge to face. In addition to a curveball, he throws a fastball that averages about 83-85 MPH and is hard enough to warrant batters being sent a bottle of fine liquor after feeling its impact.

Poorly thrown knuckleballs can quickly translate into home runs, but what Wright has shown pitching at Fenway Park, a notorious bandbox, has been impressive. In his career, he has a 3.23 ERA and allowed a home run every 9.2 innings at home as opposed to marks of a 3.82 ERA and a home run allowed every 7.9 innings on the road.

What the Red Sox need is a dependable starter at the end of their rotation who can keep the team in games and give them a chance to win. Through the first 17 games, Boston starters have lasted at least six innings just nine times, and three of those efforts were turned in by Wright. The team is also second to last (ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles) in average length of starts (5.1) and in runs allowed per game by starters (5.13, ahead of only the Houston Astros). He is giving them exactly what you want to see from a fifth starter and has earned an opportunity to continue in that role beyond his current status as an injury replacement.

No matter how deserving, higher paid veterans and well-regarded prospects have a tendency to squeeze out lunch pail guys like Wright. In this case, there may be a developing path towards keeping him in the rotation. Joe Kelly has struggled mightily (8.2 innings in three starts) and was recently placed on the disabled list with shoulder trouble. It’s a tough way to get a job but at the very least it will keep him in the Boston rotation longer than originally planned.

Wright may not be a future Cy Young winner but if he keeps pitching the way he has to start the 2016 season he is setting himself up for a lengthy and successful career with the Red Sox and helping sort out what has been a problematic starting rotation. All he needs at this point is Boston to continue believing in him and handing him the ball every fifth day.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Carl Mays Interview: Ray Chapman's Death

One of the most tragic events to ever take place on a baseball diamond was the 1920 death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, who was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch in a game against the New York Yankees. Some thought that the right-hander never showed the kind of remorse or visceral reaction he should have in light of the circumstances, which helped create a reputation that follows him to this day (nearly 50 years after his death). However, he did go public shortly after fateful pitch to talk about what had happened and the aftermath that ensued.

Mays did not speak about the Chapman incident often but there is a written record of his thoughts about his role and the ensuing reaction. Below, excerpts are in italics along with my reactions. These quotes come from an interview he did in the November, 1920 issue of Baseball Magazine (which was reproduced by didthetribewin.com).

Although Chapman’s death was an accident, Mays became a scapegoat as a bad guy in the aftermath: “A ball player is not often called upon to discuss his own faults. Usually those failings are played up behind his back, a certain courtesy forbidding their mention to his face. It would be foolish, however, for me to ignore the widespread criticism of which I have been the unwilling butt. For there have been weeks at a time when I could hardly pick up a newspaper without finding my own name assailed by writers, players or owners indiscriminately.”

With Chapman’s death being a first, it was likely a natural reaction to find someone or something to blame. Mays, who was known to be taciturn and willing to let his fists speak for him, was an easy target. Obviously, he threw the fatal pitch but there has never been anything to suggest an iota of intention behind it, and making him shoulder the blame was unfair.

Mays was painfully aware that he was not a popular person:It was long ago made very apparent to me that I was not one of those individuals who were not fated to be popular. It used to bother me some, for I suppose there are none of us who wouldn’t prefer to be well-thought of. But I was naturally independent and if I found that a fellow held aloof from me, I was not likely to run after him. Evidently I didn’t impress people favorably at first sight. After they knew me better, I was generally able to be on friendly terms with them.”

“When I first broke into baseball, I discovered that there seemed to be a feeling against me, even from the players on my own team. When I was with Boise, Idaho, I didn’t have a pal on the Club until the season was half over. Then the fellows seemed to warm up a bit and we were on very good terms for the balance of the season.”

With 207 career major league victories (and another 75 in the minors) and a 2.92 ERA, Mays had a career that should have put him in the conversation for the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the six votes he received on the 1958 ballot has been the extent of his support for inclusion.

Mays used perceived slights against him to help fuel his success on the field: “My fellow players on the Providence team didn’t seem to like me and I wondered why. I always have wondered why I have encountered this antipathy from so many people wherever I have been. And I have never been able to explain it even to myself, though I have one or two theories on the subject. I did get genuinely discouraged at Providence and, of course, feeling as I did, was unable to do good work. In fact I lost all interest in my work. I wrote to my Uncle telling him I had about decided to give up baseball. He is no doubt responsible for my being identified with the game at present, for he replied with a mighty stiff letter in which he handled things straight from the shoulder and without gloves. In brief, he told me if I failed to make good, he would consider me a quitter and that is a word I never liked to take from any man. So I decided to brace up and see what could be done.”

Even Mays’ playing style set him apart from other players. He was renowned for his extreme submarine pitching delivery and thought nothing of standing up for himself when it came to his contract. He was also quick to temper, and was once fined for throwing a ball into the stands and striking a fan in the head during a game.

In an eerie premonition, Mays once joked he would have to get in trouble to get any true recognition in baseball:I remember a conversation I had with my wife about this time in which I told her my baseball career had been singularly free from trouble. I said to her in a joking way that perhaps it would be necessary for me to do something out of the ordinary to get my name in the papers. But I needn’t have been impatient. For could I have looked into the future, I would have seen trouble enough headed in my direction to satisfy the most ambitious trouble seeker who ever lived.”

Mays was right on the money with this. Even though he had a career adjusted ERA+ of 119, which matches Hall of Famers like Warren Spahn and Bob Lemon, his accomplishments as a player are largely forgotten and overshadowed by his role in Chapman’s death.

Just because he didn’t like to discuss it didn’t mean Mays wasn’t sorry about Chapman’s death:The unfortunate death of Ray Chapman is a thing that I do not like to discuss. It is a recollection of the most unpleasant kind which I shall carry with me as long as I live. It is an episode which I shall always regret more than anything that has ever happened to me, and yet I can look into my own conscience and feel absolved from all personal guilt in this affair. The most amazing thing about it was the fact that some people seem to think I did this thing deliberately. If you wish to believe that a man is a premeditated murderer, there is nothing to prevent it. Every man is the master of his own thoughts. I cannot prevent it, however much I may regret it, if people entertain any such idea of me. And yet, I believe that I am entitled to point out some of the many reasons why such a view is illogical.”

“I am a pitcher and I know some of the things a pitcher can do as well as some of the things he can’t do. I know that a pitcher can’t stand on the slab sixty feet away from the plate and throw a baseball so as to hit a batter in the head once in a hundred tries. That is, of course, assuming that the pitcher actually wanted to hit the batter in the head, a thing which is absurd on the face of it.”

The bean ball is an unfortunate tradition in baseball, especially during the time of Mays and Chapman. However, there has never been any evidence that the pitch was thrown on purpose. In an age before video and instant replay, people across the country formed their opinion on this event based on past biases and imagination instead of facts.

Even if Mays had been trying to hurt or maim Chapman, such an outcome would have been highly unlikely:But to actually kill a man it is by no means sufficient to hit him on the head. Walter Johnson with all his terrific speed has hit batters on the head and yet they have not died. Fairly often a batter gets hit on the head and seldom is he even seriously injured. There is only one spot on a player’s skull where a pitched baseball would do him serious injury and that is a spot about his temple which is hardly half as big as the palm of my hand. Suppose, to meet some of these malicious slanders that have been directed against me, we assume that a pitcher is enough of a moral monster to deliberately murder a batter at the plate, a batter with whom he can have no particular quarrel and from whose death he could not possibly benefit. What chance would he have of perpetrating such a crime? He would have to hit that batter, and what is more, hit him on a particular part of the skull of very limited area.”

It’s interesting to note that while Mays was subjected to the blame game, Chapman’s death did nothing to change the culture of pitching inside or even hitting batters on purpose. Batting helmets were still decades away, so the fact that such a sobering result came from this one play is indicative that most people likely knew in their heart of hearts that this was an accident.

In the aftermath, Mays didn’t know what to do and took the counsel of others. This probably helped make things worse for him: “Almost everything I have done or haven’t done since that time has been criticized. I have read newspaper comments which blamed me for not going to the Club House to see how seriously Chapman was injured. The fact that I was a pitcher on the mound and had no opportunity to go to the Club House means nothing to these people. When I was finally taken out of the game, Chapman had already been removed in an ambulance and it was then too late for me to see him.”

“I did not go to see Mrs. Chapman when she was in town. I could not, under the circumstances, bring myself to undergo this ordeal, though I would have done so if any good would have come of it. I did suggest doing so, moreover, to Colonel Huston, and he advised strongly against it on the grounds that it would be a trying experience for Mrs. Chapman. I was guided by his advice in the matter. I wrote to her, however. I did not go to see Chapman after his death. I knew that the sight of his silent form would haunt me as long as I live, and since no good would be accomplished from my going, I decided not to do so. It is possible I was mistaken in this attitude, but it was certainly through no lack of respect for Chapman or his friends. I have been bitterly criticized for pitching again so soon after this terrible tragedy. I can assure anyone who has made such a criticism that it was no easy task for me to take up my work where I had left off.”

This was pretty clearly a damned if he did, damned if he didn’t situation. That being said, his decision to hold back and not reach out to Chapman or his family only strengthened preconceived notions that he was an uncaring jerk who may have thrown the bean ball on purpose.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Can The Boston Red Sox Solve the Pablo Sandoval Situation?

A mere 18 months after signing a lucrative free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox, third baseman Pablo Sandoval has for all intents and purposes become a pariah with his new team. Having lost his starting job at the end of the recently concluded spring training, his future with the team is unknown, and at the same time feels untenable. With four seasons remaining on his deal, it’s incumbent upon the Red Sox to find a solution, but what can be done?

A career .290 hitter with three World Series titles to his credit in eight years with the San Francisco Giants, Sandoval arrived in Boston with big expectations. His introduction was a major letdown all the way around, as he hit just .245 with 10 home runs last year and was widely criticized for his perceived weight and conditioning problems. There had been hopes for a fresh start this year but frankly that was never going to happen unless he showed up to camp looking like a Gap model and hit home runs at a prodigious pace. To the contrary, the media has jumped at every chance to point at his girth and how that has contributed to his failings. There has been the gratuitous spring training belly photo, and most recently, the video of his belt breaking after an aggressive swing in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

I’m no health professional but as someone familiar with having a few extra pounds I’m comfortable saying Sandoval does not seem to have the body type where it could reasonably be expected that he is going to ever going to play at 185 pounds. We don’t have access to his actual weight but he doesn’t appear to be appreciably larger than when he was with the Giants (although one former trainer recently claimed the third baseman has a problem with food). The Red Sox knew what they were getting into (which included past weight issues with the Giants) when they signed him, so for anyone to hold that against him now or to “fat shame” him is pretty disingenuous.

During his career, when he’s produced, he’s been affectionately known as “Kung Fu Panda,” with fans delighting in his production despite his lack of a traditional professional athlete’s body. On the other hand, when he’s not doing well, he’s portrayed as a slob who is never far from another unflattering photo op or pratfall. Interestingly, he has a reputation as a hard worker on the field and as a good teammate, so his sins could actually be much greater.

Still just 29, redemption may be available down the road for Sandoval. It’s just hard to imagine there’s any way that could happen in Boston. Youngster Travis Shaw has taken his starting job and produced enough that removing him from the lineup would only create another strike against the veteran. For now, the recent addition of Sandoval to the disabled list has bought both parties some time. However, there are already conflicting reports that that transaction was either because of an actual medical issue or the start of his official exit out of town. This has become a “Carl Crawford Conundrum;” a term any Red Sox fan will recognize. It’s likely a waste of his time and a waste of the team’s time to prolong his stay much longer.

Including this season, Sandoval is due approximately $78 million on the remainder of his contract. To say it’s going to be difficult to move him would be an understatement. In all likelihood, the Red Sox would need to pair up with a team that has their own onerous contract and would be willing to do a swap. Given the amount of money involved, it’s a near certainty that Boston will need to sweeten the pot with a (good) prospect or two. The scenario that has gotten the most play in the internet rumor mill is sending the third baseman to the San Diego Padres in exchange for pitcher James Shields.

The right-handed Shields has been an above average pitcher for the better part of the last decade but is now 34 and has thrown at least 200 innings for nine consecutive years. The $63 million he is owed over the next three years (with a $2 million team buyout option in 2019) is no small afterthought. The disparity in money between him and Sandoval would also necessitate Boston including young talent in the deal, as the money does not match up.

Trading Sandoval for a pitcher like Shields may solve one issue but it could create even more. Bringing in the veteran hurler, who is no lock for prolonged above-average performance (which is desperately needed for a team still trying to get its starting pitching on track) for the remainder of his deal, would not only likely dip into the team’s strong farm system but would also tie up a rotation spot that could go to some of the promising youngsters currently on the farm. Talented prospects like Henry Owens and Brian Johnson, who have already had a hard time cracking Boston’s veteran-heavy staff, might find that their top value to the team is shifted from the mound to trade chips.

In theory, standing pat and doing nothing is another option but in that scenario, the team would have to be prepared to reap what it sows. To date, Sandoval has been a good soldier, saying and doing all the right things. However, the way he is being portrayed as a galoot in the media, combined with him seeing his stock fall by the day, means that may not last long—and understandably so.

There are no do-overs in baseball, especially when it comes to contracts. Pablo Sandoval has not worked out the way the Red Sox envisioned when they inked him to such a large contract, creating a situation where it will likely be in the best interests of both parties for a change of scenery. There may be opportunities for that to happen but the team and its fans best steel themselves for the fact that there will be no perfect solutions. 

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