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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Dr. Baseball

Doogie showing more medical confidence than I could feign

Doogie showing more medical confidence than I could feign

My least favorite part of the Steroids Era–brought to the forefront again with the Manny news–is this call for fans to understand the medical & pharmaceutical ins and outs of all of these bizarre hormonal treatments, steroids, HGHs, &tc. I start to feel like a college kid again, who’s stumbled mistakenly into a conversation about pot paraphernalia with the water bongs and the bong bombs and the twigs and whatever.

To wit, this LATimes article, quoted in part:

The medication in question was human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, according to a source familiar with the situation not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.

A high-ranking sports doping authority said HCG could legitimately be prescribed for a man who does not naturally produce enough testosterone, but BALCO founder and convicted steroid dealer Victor Conte said it is often used to replenish testosterone levels at the end of a cycle of steroid treatments.

HCG is one of dozens of substances prohibited under baseball’s policy. Players can call a hotline to check the legality of any substance and can get a therapeutic-use exemption for any legitimate medical use of a banned substance.

So either Manny used to take steroids and is now taking this under-the-table med to replenish supplies of some chemical to some organ, or he naturally produces less testosterone than normal and must resupply his corpus with perfectly legal medication. That quick recap makes it sound like I now understand the situation, even just a little. I DO NOT. I don’t understand the situation at all, but I feel like I should understand it.

I don’t want to feel like I should understand this stuff. I don’t know what aspirin is or how it can treat a headache or a footache equally. I am not a doctor. Don’t make me be a doctor now. I just want to watch baseball.

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Pitch-tipping: the new old piracy

King Kelly, base-skipper

King Kelly, now- beloved base-skipper

Doug Glanville posted a New York Times column about the A-Rod pitch-tipping allegation, in which he argues that:

If in fact there was a pitch-tipping scheme, I would expect a full investigation, not just of Alex but of any player who would share information with his opponent. It is that serious.

It’s a little hard for me to view this whole tipping sidenote with the stern and worried attitude that Glanville presents in the column. In 50 years, such episodes will be remembered fondly, as signs that baseball was still a quirky game with lots of little ins and outs and rules-trifling trickery. Excepting steroids (which I consider an entirely different level of “oh shit”), Pete Rose and the Black Sox scandal, the baseball literati and fanerati look back on most of the gambling and cheating and boozing and fighting from the old days as symbols of freewheeling charm and the anti-establishment nature of the game, with the canonization of rogue leagues and managers and players who were giant assholes. Here I’m thinking of your King Kellys (drank himself to death, ran from first to third directly), and your Ty Cobbs (old X-ACTO-Spikes).

It’s notable perhaps that pitch-tipping to the other team can affect the outcome of the game, in the manner of “throwing” a game. It remains, though, that if Honus Wagner devised a secret code between he and Nap Lajoie, with a double shuffle-left hand twitch-triple-spit, it’d be a fantastic quip about the simpatico between baseball legends. The stories that survive over time are those that transgress. The only incidences of nicety that last are those involving extreme nicety (Christy “The Christian Gentleman” Mathewson comes to mind).

Not so cute when it's contemporary.

Not so cute when it's contemporary.

In times like these, it bears remembering that people used to really fucking hate pirates. The global outrage over this Somali pirate business, with calls for government actions and protections and whatnot, echoes the way populations used to view the pirates of yesteryear. The bastards impeded commerce and scared everybody. Now, of course, our nations most beloved hero is a pirate: Ross Ohlendorf.

All I’m saying is that, as ever, let’s be careful about the nature of our unrest. For there will come a time when we’ll laugh at ourselves and the mess we made back then.

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bigPumaLinks: baseball all the time edition

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– Keeper of the Kohn, on Hulu. This is a documentary about Peter Kohn, the Middlebury College lacrosse team’s retired equipment manager. Kohn’s primary passion is lacrosse, but he made his way out to the baseball fields at Middlebury every once in a while to give us a pep talk, and to manage our equipment for a day or two. I knew little of him back then, and this video goes a long way to tell the man’s story. In early season baseball, Kohn, a master ball-finder, would head out into the trees behind the outfield wall at Forbes Field and return an hour later with three or four of the skankiest, rottenest baseballs you’ve ever seen in your life.

– The e-book revolution reaches the Mariners dugout, as the old (Jarrod Washburn and his paper dinosaurs) and the new (Brandon Morrow and his 3-year-old e-book reader) clash over technology, and bond over content. Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times

– Virginia Heffernan looks at the manner of discourse among reader comments on journalism sites. The Medium – NYTimes

– Fun Start: A concise overview of the season and its funness thus far. David Pinto, Baseball Musings

– Several days ago marked the anniversary of the interesting Bissinger vs. Leitch debate on HBO. Deadspin

– Keith Olbermann‘s apolitical baseball blog, Baseball Nerd, is pretty great, as well-thought and meticulous as you might expect. Baseball Nerd on closers, look-alikes.

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Let’s all watch somebody Twitter: Fox Sports Ohio’s Jeff Brantley and new media

Reds broadcaster and new Twitterer Jeff Brantley

Reds broadcaster and new Twitterer Jeff Brantley

I’ve watched Fox Sports Ohio for the last few days, as the Astros played a series with the Reds. The Fox broadcasters, Thom Brennaman and the former reliever “Cowboy” Jeff Brantley, have an ongoing “plot” along with the Reds broadcast crew, detailing Brantley’s unwilling entrance into the Twitterverse. Jordan Morris, of the great podcast Jordan, Jesse Go!, recently called for an end to the “Jeez, what is this Twitter thing-a-mah-jig” segments on morning talk shows. Fox Sports Ohio has yet to heed this call.

The Scene: Brennaman, the savvy play-by-play voice, baits Brantley into a Twitter convo, telling Cowboy that people are clamoring to know what he ordered on the pizza pie that will arrive, what he thinks of the latest Desperate Housewives epp, &tc. Brantley then says something like “No sir, no way. I’ll be spending time with my family. I’ve got kids at home, I don’t need to be Tweetsing or Twopping or whatever.”

Last night, the plot reached the zenith of its arc. Under pressure from every member of the Reds broadcast team, Brantley manned a Blackberry and began to Twitter on camera. I watched him Twitter. I felt like I was watching a family in the airport, with dorky dad and mom chatting away just happy to be together, while the teenaged Brantley ignored them completely in favor of his celly. You can find the results at his Twitter page, twitter.com/RedsCowboy.

Brantely did use Twitter to repeat what he was already broadcasting to far more than the 700-odd of his followers: “Nix should start!!!” (one of his pet causes of late), “Volquez is looking good…….so far,” “Berkman on deck.”

"Vote Herrera...it will be life-size haha."

"Vote Herrera...it will be life-size haha."

On the other hand, his foray wasn’t limited to simple statements of fact. Fox Sports Ohio staged a poll on who should be the next bobblehead doll at the ballpark. One of the choices was the short lefty reliever and fan favorite Daniel Ray Herrera. On Herrera, Brantley tweeted: “Vote Herrera…it will be life-size haha.” There is wit there, and voice, and a lust for life that has escalated the Twitter role. That is not the tweet of someone who’s hating what he’s doing. With social media, there’s a special place for those who embrace a media’s humorous aspects more quickly. The rewards go to those who know how to work with context and existing knowledge to craft a great tweet. To some, it comes naturally, on Twitter as in life.

To Brantley’s credit, he finally muttered, “I figured it out.”

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