Slipping away, the season(s)

The season is slipping away.

There is the one sense, the Astros sense, in which a season full of mediocrity drives finally home, as the time for miracles (an Astros specialty in the last decade) ticks away. Sometimes even the math doesn’t allow for them (I’m not even going to check the math on the Astros chances. That seems like rechecking a losing lottery ticket, just to make sure I hadn’t misread it the first ten times). In that sense, I suppose the season has already slipped sloppily away. The Pennant threw a hook and now it’s dancing in the sunlight with the Cardinals and the rest of them.

In the second sense, the whole season is slipping away. The WHOLE season, encompassing the broad range of experiences, of games and stories and opportunities and long summer days and giddy spring days. Everything I wanted to do with this baseball season, I’ve either done or I haven’t done. The New Season’s Resolutions go into two piles: Did and Didn’t. As students go back to school and start fresh, the baseball season stales (is “stales” too negative? For Cards fans and Yankees fans, the season is ripening).

Even if I had achieved all of the season’s goals, the nearing end is still a melancholy eventuality, just like the end of anything novel, of anything that aches with possibility, that thrums with adventure and freshness. It’s not like getting to the end of a good book, because even a good book takes a little while to get into, to understand the rhythm of the narrative and the voices calling out. A baseball season is a firecracker from the start, from the first pitch of Spring Training so long ago. If the season is a book, it’s a familiar book that you’ve never read but that you can sense on some deep subconscious level that you will enjoy. And it’s a book that you know you’ll only read in the best time of the year.

Waxing melancholy isn’t much of a way to welcome the postseason, when all of the langor and the mellow of the season is canned like a sardine and lit on fire, when each pitch is as tense as a regular season game’s final pitch. Every pitch is a last pitch in the playoffs. I’m glad the Astros have been there before, that I know what it’s really like. It’s tough, then, to watch the playoffs vicariously. This weird book’s ending is not unexpected, but it lacks for a happy ending. Happy endings aren’t requisite, of course, for a book to be good but really, who doesn’t like a happy ending?



Filed under Taking Stock

A dream deferred: Pence doesn’t make it into the ASG

Alas, the young protagonist wiled away the biggest day of his baseball career riding the pine.

Richard Justice sums it up nicely in a column on the subject.

Pence said he definitely felt like part of the National League team, that he enjoyed meeting Trevor Hoffman and others.

About all he didn’t do was play. NL manager Charlie Manuel, that sly fox, apparently was saving Pence for extra innings.

Pence’s journey is just beginning. He’s 26 years old and in his second full major league season. He’s smart and enormously talented and almost surely will be here again.

“It definitely was a great experience,” Pence said. “I wouldn’t say it was everything I hoped it was going to be, because I want to play, and I want to win.

“It’s disappointing, but it gives me a reason to fight even harder and come back next year and have a chance to play. It was nice being part of the best in baseball, even though I didn’t get to play. I felt like I was part of the game.”

Just to see his face on the TV screen with the big mashers and the basepath thrillers was something else, from my fan’s point of view. Tejada, for his part, laced a nice single up the middle.

On another note, McCarver and Buck have gone beyond annoying. They are limp and drowsy in the booth these days. When Carl Crawford made a fantastic catch against the left field wall, Buck’s tone didn’t waver in the slightest. “And he makes the catch.” McCarver immediately added, “I don’t think that would’ve been a home run. It probably would not have…. Oh, yeah, that would have been a home run.” I mean, good grief, can we not get someone in there who can at least pretend to enjoy themselves during the season’s most a) lighthearted and/or b) important moments? It’s getting to the point where they detract from the experience, rather than just not adding to it. Before it was all the schmaltz. Now even the schmaltz, the Yankees and Red Sox-loving, is exhausted, limping along like a great-grandmother to the market each day, like always.

And this at a time in baseball when the sport is trying to attract young urban audiences. Aside from Buck’s association with football, this pair is about the least appealing one I could imagine to do that, to excite non-fans enough to draw them in. There are the players in place to do so–the Ryans Howard and Braun, Crawford himself, Sizemore, Ichiro (an older player who is still as thrilling as he was on his first day), &tc. Now MLB and Fox need to catch up with their media representatives, on the game’s most prominent promontories.

Spaceman Bill Lee considers McCarver the smartest player he played with. Thats all well and good, but dont use that power, sir, to overanalyze everything.

Spaceman Bill Lee considers McCarver the smartest player he played with. That's all well and good, but don't use that power, sir, to overanalyze everything.


Filed under Media Events

Hunter Pence is an All-Star!

The new All-Star

The new All-Star

Not to gloat on homer-isms, but Hunter Pence’s selection to the All-Star team is a warming sight for an Astros fan mired in a mediocre season.

Since the retirements of Biggio and Bagwell, the Astros have searched for a player to join Lance Berkman as iconic members of the team. Carlos Lee is a great hitter, but often declines the opportunity to sprint down the first base line or impress in left field. Tejada is a fun player to watch, and brings great energy, but the steroid whispers and his altered state of age have deflated most of the potential for unconditional love from the fan base.

Which leaves us with Hunter Pence to play the Robin to Berkman’s laid-back Batman. Pence throws like a goofball, and swings like a goofball, and he looks like Beaker from the Muppet Show. But I’ll be damned if he’s not a player, who complements Tejada’s veteran confidence with child-like enthusiasm and brio.



Look at Hunter Pence’s stats, and they don’t cry out St. Louis, Ho! He’s hitting above .300, which is grand, but he’s on pace essentially to hit 20 home runs and 66 RBI. Not particularly atmospheric…. And Miguel Tejada has made the team, as well–the result of a remarkable .325 average, and his 84 RBI pace–so one can’t claim that Pence is an asterisk, a result of the Every Team Represented clause. Nor was he voted in by an ignorant fan base, but by the players. I can only surmise that the style of the man’s play has measured positively in the eyes of the managers, coaches and players who round out the reserves. Berkman himself (a crowded first base position) and Adam Dunn didn’t make the team.

I’m enjoying the fan’s sense of parental pride with the Pence selection. The same style that makes him remarkable made him improbable. He was only called up in 2007 when he would no longer be denied by the veteran-friendly Astros management, satisfying the desires of the fan base, who sensed a few months before his capacity for success. And now, having upped his on-base skills and his power–as we hoped he would–he’s on the up-and-up, and let’s hope his team follows.

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The bluntness barrier: watching language in the news

Hanley Ramirez

Hanley Ramirez

I was reading an average baseball article from the Miami Herald today–about how Hanley Ramirez thinks his pitcher should’ve plunked the other guy after he got plunked himself–when the article took a little turn to the left, a small unexpected dog leg through the brambles. I’ll quote part of it below. Keep in mind that I’m focusing not on the content of the debate, but on the writerly discourse going on (the italics are mine):

”Everybody knows it,” Ramirez said in a calm voice while dressing in front of his locker after the game. “I think Fredi knows it. J.J. knows it. He was throwing strikes.”

Ramirez, speaking in Spanish, was more blunt with a South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter, saying the Marlins had an ”obligation” to retaliate.

”You know, incredible,” the newspaper quoted Ramirez as saying. “There’s going to come a point where I’m not going to feel protected. I’m going to be scared to hit a home run because I know I’m going to get hit.”

Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald does the right thing, acknowledges his lack of Spanish

Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald does the right thing, acknowledges his lack of Spanish

There’s a lot of layers to this little happening. First we have a player talking to a reporter in English, providing a pretty basic run-down of a pretty emotionally charged event. I don’t know what Hanley’s language proficiency is, nor do I particularly care. In fact, I didn’t think twice about the nature of the conversation, as a newspaper account can strip any conversation clean of character and style. So it’s hard to say what the nature of the discourse is, but point is it was pretty low key.

We start to see a little frustration from the reporter–Clark Spencer–who makes a bold decision: he lifts the journalistic curtain and reveals what must be a common problem/circumstance in today’s pro baseball media. Spencer turns the attention away from the content of the story towards the nature in which the content was delivered to representatives of the media. Ramirez, speaking in Spanish, was more blunt with a South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter. That’s got to sting a little, to not only know but to report that there’s a guy standing right next to you getting the really good quotations because he speaks Spanish. But rather than treat Hanley’s words as those he gathered himself–he was probably standing right there after all–Spencer does the admirable thing, indirectly admitting that he doesn’t know Spanish, and giving the nod to the publication that does by citing their particular quotation.

Not only is there the language barrier, then. There’s the emotion barrier, and Spencer admits this too, acknowledging that Hanley was “more blunt” when conversing in Spanish. This is probably not the most acute choice of words on Spencer’s part, as Hanley is probably better able to express complex thoughts in Spanish if that’s his native tongue, rather than being more or less blunt in one language over another. But for Spencer to cite that increased intimacy between Hanley and the Spanish-speaking reporter struck me as a tender moment–a peaceful eddy of humanity in the raging rivers of up-to-the-minute sporting news.

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Orlando Hudson, the swing

Orlando Hudson and his impressive swing

Orlando Hudson and his impressive swing

Here’s an Orlando Hudson card I made. I had almost no awareness of the O-dog pre-2009, and I still haven’t watched him play much, but what little I’ve seen has me well-impressed. His swing from the left side of the plate is a beautiful thing, where he sends the bat on that perfect flat trip and flips it over his back, the whole thing a perfectly synthesized act. Have an MLB video look here.

It’s a decent place to mention the unfortunate aesthetic prejudice against right-handed swings. I can’t explain it, it’s unfair. But the O-dog’s righty swing, which is probably identical in every measurable way to his lefty swing, just doesn’t look as poetic, as flowing or as singular.

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Just where the draft should be: my low key response to Posnanski’s critique of the draft on TV

Yeah, I saw him pitch, IU pitcher and first rounder Eric Arnett

Yeah, I saw him pitch, IU pitcher and first rounder Eric Arnett

Over at, Joe Posnanski does a general bash of the 2009 MLB amateur draft as a television event.

So, this year, for the first time, they tried to make the First Year Player Draft a television spectacular. They broadcast it in prime time. Commissioner Bud Selig came out to the lectern every few minutes to make a dramatic reading of a name he clearly had never seen before. Then, some baseball analysts talked for a few minutes about that name, and how great that name would become, how that name had 60-power or three-plus pitches — scout talk — and everyone came to the inevitable conclusion that the name would really help the team in the future. Yes, it’s a familiar formula.

Only … the whole production didn’t work at all, at least for me.

On the whole I don’t have a huge problem with this critique, or with the claim that the draft is uninteresting because most of the player-participants will never make it to the majors. I’d add that I’ve never even heard of 99.9% of the players that get drafted.

I’ve got only a few points to add to the conversation, and a few examples of when the MLB draft as a television event in fact shines:

1. When a player gets drafted that you’ve got some kind of personal (or non-television-based) connection with.

For me it was only a tangential connection this year that added something to my viewing experience: a guy whom I watched pitch in a game this year ended up getting drafted in the first round. I was up here in Indiana, where first round studs are rare, and it was a simple treat to see him on the board and know that I’d seen top-rated talent.

And I think I can say that with all of the college and high school baseball getting played (not to mention the amount of minor league ball later on), and with the sheer number of players who get drafted, most baseball fans have some sort of connection with at least one if not more of the players drafted. That sort of connection is more than I’ve felt in a basketball or a football draft. You’re going to connect more with a player you’ve seen while one among several hundred on a random Thursday when you got a hankering for some live ball, as opposed to the not-so-intimate experience as one among 100,000 on a Saturday with all of college-town and alumni-ville turned out.

2. The market for this stuff is growing, and the MLB draft is perfect for the MLB Network.

As much as MLB has tried to make it a major TV event in Joe’s eyes, I think it’s still safe to say that 6 p.m. on the MLB Network is exactly where the draft belongs. It’s a specialized event on a specialized channel, and Bud Selig’s mug is a specialized piece of imagery to tune into. Anyone who is watching the draft already knows the implicit problems, that excitement will wane, &tc. So we don’t have to warn them. Hey guys! This is gonna be boring and slow! It’d be like warning Parrotheads that the Jimmy Buffett concert will involve inflatable palm trees.

The aforementioned flaws do keep it from being a great TV event, Joe’s right, but I happen to think that the NHL, NFL, and NBA drafts are terrible TV events because I don’t care about the NHL, NFL, and NBA. If I did care, they’d be great, and if you do care about the MLB draft, I’m sure it was great. I for one thought it was fantastic to see the brief synopses of each player, and to get a quick sense of the drafting philosophy of my and other teams. More college pitchers, fewer high school infielders, &tc. As long as the commentary is solid, which it was, then you’ve got something going.

I don’t think the MLB draft will supplant Lost anytime soon, but it is what it is, and how often do I get too see Craig Biggio read from a card in a suit?

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A little Biggio milestone custom baseball card fun…

Craig Biggio custom baseball card, 3000th hit

In the continued spirit of Goose Joak’s custom card project, I thought I’d add another custom card. This one commemorates Craig Biggio’s 3000th hit. Remarkably, living as I have away from Houston for a few years now, I was at the game on June 28, 2007.

In town for a wedding, some family members nabbed tickets for the Thursday night game. Under normal circumstances there would’ve been the game we play with historic moments in sports: will the big hit come today, or tomorrow, or on the weekend? If I’ve got one shot, do I shade towards a cynical long view and wait until Sunday, or do I give this living legend near the end of his career the benefit of the doubt and head out there tonight? I had no choice given my schedule, so I had a wholistic approach: if it isn’t tonight, I’m still glad for the second sacker. The journey is more important than the final step. My patience was rewarded with an overabundance of baseball ecstasy.

Bidge needed three hits to reach 3,000 before the game. He singled in the third inning and the fifth. The collective frenzy of the crowd built and built, to the point that there was a constant buzz, literally a humming at Minute Maid Park, the chatty chorus of anticipation and unbelievable good fortune, that we’d all be here and it could happen in the right now. It did, in the seventh, an almost miraculous flurry of hits, more than any of us deserved, much less me the carpet-bagger in town for 48 hours with maybe five Astros games under my belt in the last whatever number of years.

On the fateful hit, Biggio was thrown out at second, but it gave us time to give him his due. One among 27 players in the sport’s history, more rare than the brain can process. He pulled Jeff Bagwell out onto the field.

Bidge would collect two more hits, the final one when he beat out a high chopper to shortstop. It was almost as sweet as the 3,000th.


Filed under Media Events

When an icon rolls through town: thoughts on Randy Johnson

It was a stunning trade, and he does have Star Power

It was a 'stunning trade,' and he does have 'Star Power'

Last night, Randy Johnson got his 300th major league W. I’ll only skirt around a conversation on the relative silliness of the Win stat, made all the more prominent as RJ watched his Giants reliever teammates try not to give up two runs before the Giants gave up another run even if they eventually went on to win the game, &tc. &tc. Point is, Johnson has pitched remarkably well for a remarkable number of years, and if the Win stat shows anything, it’s how frequently a starting pitcher gives his team an opportunity to win, that his dominance extended over so many innings with such consistency that it took his hitter-teammates a little less to wrap up the ballgame.

The MLB Network spent a good hour going over the dips and swerves of The Big Unit’s career, including a Nolan Ryan training video that all but gave the Ryan Express (and some bio-mechanics dude) credit for the 6’10 lefty’s Hall of Fame creds. They flashed a lot of video, jumping from early Randy Johnson to late, with flickering ballcaps changing from Expos to Giants to Dbacks to Yankees to Mariners. And I was able to take a small bit of glee from one of the hats that showed up in the cavalcade: those beautiful 1998 navy blue and gold-starred Astros hats, perched on the head of the Big Unit for one shining half of a year.

’98 would be a good year for the Astros team-wise. With stars like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Moises Alou–along with lesser knowns like the meteoric Jose Lima, Billy Wagner, Carl Everett and the majestically mustachioed Derek Bell–it was just one of those years where the stars would align for a pretty good run.

Team aside, though, the real spark of that season came with Randy Johnson. He was an American Leaguer, so what I knew of him was mostly second-hand, via highlights and national media coverage. I had not, for example, watched him pitch a whole game or considered with any depth his arsenal or technique. What I found when I went to see him play in the Astrodome was an improbably tall and rangy dude, so imposing that the peak of his cap seemed to brush the cieling of the Dome. Pushing the high 90s on the radar gun, and breaking his slider (which I just learned is called Mr. Snappy) that dove across the plate, when he pitched a game it was an event–you could see from the nosebleeds why his pitches were effective, how dominant he was.

He went 10-1 in Houston, with a 1.28 ERA. In 84+ innings, he struck out 116 batters. In the playoffs, where I watched him pitch while wedged into the high-high seats behind home plate with 55,000 other awestruck Astro fans, he hit an RBI single up the middle, which was something like watching a 200-foot crane fling a bowling ball over Buffalo Bayou.

If a star baseball player is one whose presence elevates a fan’s awareness of the game and expands the parameters of what seems possible, then Randy Johnson is a star baseball player. That he’s done it for so long is unthinkable.

In the final pitches of the game last night, there was a camera shot that captured RJ and his son. As the son, brace-faced and mop-headed, struggled to contain his excitement, the Big Unit continued to scowl out onto the field. In a postgame interview, he mentioned that it was nice to get the win, but that there was a lot more work ahead. On nights like those, it bears looking behind a little, too.

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Olbermann is as good at blogging as he is at everything else

Keith Olbermann's Baseball Nerd. He's very good.

Keith Olbermann's Baseball Nerd. He's very good.

Hot on the heels of his electric election commentary, Keith Olbermann started an MLB Pro blog, Baseball Nerd. After briefly ensuring narrow-minded baseball readers like myself that there would be no politics on the blog, he proceeded to turn some of the more insightful, well-argued, entertaining baseball posts. He dances nimbly among the thorny bushes of history, culture, today’s game, players, &tc.

Many celeb-u-bloggers post a few times a month while a surrogate fills in the meantimes with calendar dates and such. I was prepared for similar from Olbermann. Not so, not in the slightest. The man’s brain produces and propels complete sentences into the media atmosphere like a surface-to-air gunner. It’s amazing, I don’t know where you get that kind of motor.

To wit: in his most recent post he finds a thread that ties together cases of the yips. I’ll leave it to you to explore those threads. I’ll say that his is not a rock-solid theory, but certainly an interesting one, and worthy of some meditation.

Baseball Nerd w/ Keith Olbermann

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A baseball-flavored visual design meander

Why shouldn't a catcher's mask look like a futuristic soldier helmet?

Why shouldn't a catcher's mask look like a futuristic soldier helmet?

The Behance Network is an online bazaar trafficking in visual imagery, product design, graphic design, and all manner of effluvia. It’s a good way to survey the design scene (I’m an amateur audience, to be sure). I punched “baseball” into the search cell. Here are a few baseball-related design highlights:

– Designer Francesco Schiraldi takes a new design look at a catcher’s helmet. The flip-up visor is intriguing. Also check out his pitching machine, a War of the Worlds interpretation of that terrifying device.

– Some old-school mascot posters from Bruno Allard.

The SI cover featuring Zack Greinke offers a unique visual perspective. Add to that the World Series cover from last year, the recent Hamels and Pujols covers, and the Lincecum cover from July of 2008, and you’ve got some compelling portraiture from the old standby. Great photography seems to be the key here, with simple design. In the Hamels, Pujols and Lincecum covers, the design highlights the particular style and physical presence of the subject. It’s a keen way to capitalize on that style factor that makes baseball go.

Eschewing blatant cover cliche

Eschewing blatant cover cliche

On the topic of covers, baseball book cover designs most often include a) a player portrait or b) a large, artistic-seeming picture of a baseball. It makes sense, on one hand, and is pretty bland on the other. Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons is a notable exception (I haven’t read the book). Additional compelling cover designs of recent baseball books:

Odd Man Out by Matt McCarthy. This cover takes the action to a place just off camera, in a madcap scramble for some ball, presumably.

The Integration of Major League Baseball features a cover in the style of an old baseball card. Reminds me of the custom baseball cards mentioned in a previous post.

Lefty, Double-X, and the Kid mixes new fontiness with old portraits, to a vintage-modern effect.

On Etsy, handmade products from the masses:

A pretty sweet baseball pillow.
A decorative baseball silhouette.

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