Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Culmination

Have you ever been reading something and heard someone say the word you're currently reading? That's happened to me quite a few times, and it's always strange. Throws you for a loop.

Well, I was laying in my hotel bed in Utica, NY on Friday night, reading a book and listening to Ben Harper when that phenomenon hit, although it wasn't a single word -- it was an entire phrase, ringing in my ears at the same time I scanned it with my eyes: "Some things never change."

My father, God bless him, is still an anal-retentive, short-fused sonuvabitch. My other mother (she doesn't like the term 'step mom') is still the sweetest person on Earth.

And Tony Gwynn is still being overshadowed.

All it took was one healthy swipe across the land at the jam-packed Clark Sports Center on Sunday to see it: the overwhelming barrage of Halloween orange-and-black, the Animal-Planet-meets-the-Cartoon-Network phalanx of realistic Orioles and goofy animated Orioles, the saturation of "8"s that would make any NASCAR race envious. Maybe the tables would be turned if the Hall of Fame was in, say, Phoenix or San Francisco. But it rests comfortably in the idyllic rolling green fields of Cooperstown in upstate New York, a relatively short drive from Baltimore, where they have many heroes to cheer. San Diego has but one.

Sure, I'm biased. I've taken my online persona from the man. Tattooed his uniform number in roman numerals on my forearm and made some combination of my nickname, his name and his number just about every log-in and password I have (don't worry, I'm broke). Aside from a few paintings an old college roommate gave me, my walls are bare save a plaque with his rookie card (Fleer) above which hangs his autograph, which rests just under the 1998 Tony Gwynn Starting Lineup figurine purchased on eBay for half of what it cost to ship it.

Why? What compels a tall, lanky white kid from Denver to be so obsessed with a short, stocky black man from San Diego? It has to be something more than the way he'd slap an 0-2 curveball through the 5.5 hole on the left side for yet another single, right? Right?

I got my answer on Sunday. We didn't get a chance to put our stuff down on the lawn on Friday or Saturday, so we arrived at about 8:30 am. The whole front area was full. We found a place straight back from the stage, about halfway up the hill.

They announced that, because of impending rain, they were changing the order. Gwynn would go first, followed by Cal Ripken Jr., then a short tribute to Bobby Doerr, followed by The Ford C. Frick Award to Denny Matthews and the J.G. Taylor Spink Award to Rick Hummel. (Which ended up being a damn shame, because more than half the people left after Ripken's speech. I somehow convinced my father to stay. It didn't rain a single drop.)

Bud Selig got announced and was resoundingly booed. This made me smile. Then Gwynn came up. I ran down the hill and got as close I could to the giant huddled mass in front of me. I took some pictures, then took a knee, Little League-style, with both elbows on the up knee and the arms going in different directions. The wet, muddy grass digging into my kneecaps made up for the fact that I was in baseball prayer mode next to a garbage can.

His speech may not have been the most memorable ever (although some sources report he said "passion for the game" 114 times, I only counted 37), but it was deeply honest. The man knows hitting; that's exactly what he talked about.

Now It's 1:40 am early Tuesday and I'm fire-engine red all over. On the drive to the Hall of Fame Monday morning, I needled my father about running a red light. He pointedly told me to "shut the fuck up" and then, just in case I had the same horrid hearing as he did, repeated it with the adage that he didn't want to go out of his way in the first place. He just wanted to get me back home and get the hell out of New York before rush hour.

We got to the Hall as it opened at 9 am and there was already a beastly line. My admission is free for life because I donated a ticket stub that I found in a book of the July 4th 1983 Dave Righetti no-hitter, so I rolled in and was immediately told that it would be an hour or an hour and a half to see the plaques. I tried to sneak up and maybe get a shot over everybody, but they thought of that. The plaques were hidden behind a wall. I got a t-shirt at the gift shop and bounced. My father probably wasn't too happy to hear that I didn't do the thing that I specifically made him go out of his way so I could do, but it didn't matter: I was shutting the fuck up all the way back.

These things happen on vacations, though. It's not what I'll remember. I'll remember drinking with my father at the Italian restaurant across from the motel and him telling me about "Trygve," the black kid in college that got him into smoking dope (and the previous revelation that my father's had a small bag of weed in his drawer for "fourteen years"). And I'll remember playing catch with him in the damp grass behind the Hess station and outside the Motel 6.

I'll remember staying up until two in the morning on Friday to finish Tim Kurkjian's book, "Is This a Great Game, or What?: From A-Rod's Heart to Zim's Head - My 25 Years in Baseball" so that I'd be prepared when he signed it. When he finally did on Saturday morning, I asked him to sign the manuscript I just finished, "Is This A Great Wait, or What?: My 25 Hours In Line to Meet Tim Kurkjian." I'll remember him putting his head down and laughing. I'll remember telling him that, way back when, I was supposed to be the next Steve Rushin. I'll remember him telling me that I'll never be as good as Steve Rushin. I'll remember pointing out that he rarely uses semicolons; I'll remember that I said I noticed because I use them too much. And I'll also, until the end of my days, remember asking him if Harold Reynolds' firing was justified. (I don't want to get him in trouble with the Bristol Sith Lords, but let me just say I don't think he thought it was.)

I'll remember being witness to the greatest collection of baseball talent ever assembled in one place: 55 Hall of Famers plus the two new ones. I'll remember that, aside from the former Orioles, Willie Mays got the biggest standing ovation (which would've been dwarfed by Hank Aaron, had he been there). I'll remember saying their nicknames to my father as they were introduced: Rapid Robert. The Kid. Tom Terrific. The Baby Bull. Mr. October. The Chairman of the Board.

But most of all I'll remember the standing ovation given to my favorite player after his induction speech into the Hall of Fame. And I'll remember that, when it ended, it officially closed the book on my childhood. Because when you're older and grown up with bills and 401ks and company softball games you don't have the "favorite player" as it exists for its purpose. The posters, or the Fatheads, or the t-shirts exist to draw the youth into the game, entice them, and keep them there. I'll remember seeing the thousands of kids running around that day with Gwynn or Ripken jerseys on and thinking to myself, "they never saw them play in person."

It's not a shame, or anything sad, really. Great players come, and great players go. But the man who drew me to my team -- who made me a fan -- validated my efforts, and my time, by being so dedicated, so spectacular, so amazing, that he ended up as only one percent of all who've ever played the game to earn a bronze plaque in the Hallowed Hall. So in the coming days, months, and years I'll check the scores to see if my favorite team won its game. And the rock-solid testament to Tony's excellence will still be there, hanging, for any and all to see.

Luckily, some things never change.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Completely Worthwhile Proposal

Photo courtesy Chricket Go Queek Queek
Thanks Paul.

I love the AL East. I really do. Despite my hatred of the Bombers, it's great that they exist. I am in love with the Red Sox. Always have been. I have nothing but love for the Blue Jays. I think it's cute that the Orioles still field a team. I harbor no ill-will for them, either. In general, I like their teams from the past and their forthright belief that they deserve a future that Old Man Angelos won't give them.

It's the Devil Rays that kill me*. A more pointless franchise (yes, that includes the Rockies) does not exist in baseball. Possibly in all of sports. I understand the small payroll and young team, but this is the same excuse I hear every year. It just ain't happening for these guys. They are are the AAAA of the American League. THis is not to say that they couldn't compete in a different division that the Payroll Division, but the rules are the rules.

In fact, I'm all for losing the team. There, I said it. Let the Marlins own the nation's wang. Let the transplanted New Yorkers cheer against the Mets in the NL East. However, I am NOT in favor of contraction. This leaves the best and brightest of this young team to the top bidders in the league. Instead, I have a plan to make my beloved AL East all the better. Combine the Orioles and D-Rays**. Then, the cast-offs will find jobs in other markets.

The Orioles are closer than many think to being a threat. I like their starters-- three of them at least. Sure, this wouldn't help their insufferable bullpen all that much, but look at the rest of the league. Boston is all starters (minus Okajima and Papelbon). New York is old and all starters (minus Rivera). Toronto is, well, hurt. Right now, the Orioles could make a respectable later-than-May run at the East with this pitching:


Reyes (7th-9th)
Ray (Closer)
Fossum (Long Relief)
Shuey (mop-up)
Bradford (Weird arm/lefty guy)
Burres (Long Relief/Spot Starter)
Baez (Roster Spot/ They Paved Paradise...)

So, that's not the strongest set of pitchers, but Bedard has become more consistent, Kazmir could pitch with, you know, pitchers, and actually get better rather than flounder near .500 with flashes of brilliance. Chris Ray could look around him and see a few helping hands and not feel the pressure of the world on his chest, and Reyes has pitched well in the AL in case Ray falls apart.

The lineup, then, could be:

Carl Crawford (LF)
Nickie "The Fish" Markakis (RF)
Wiggington (1B)
Tejada (DH)
Mel Mora (3B)
Brian Roberts (2B)
Brendan Harris (SS)
Corey Patterson (CF)
Raul Hernandez (C)

You've got Boom Bitch, B.J. Upton and Iwamura on the bench or you can let Mora go since he's a little older. Either way, I can see that lineup scoring a lot of runs with a combination of speed, youth and rejuvenated power. Plus, you can move Markakis and Patterson up and down the order depending upon who you play.

Though, I have not tried to figure the salaries for taxation, look at who you've dropped. The bulk of the Shawn Camp all-stars (aka AAA pitching staff) of the Rays are gone. The Orioles roster of relievers is thankfully depleted. The dropped crew can try their hands as the new Tampa Bay Devil Rays (affiliate of the Orioles) begin their first season in their rightful AAA league. Or they can try new teams. It's completely up to them. They could make some decent Major-League-experienced trade bait (maybe for a catcher that makes contact on either of these rosters). Either way, both the Orioles and the AL East bolster themselves.

I know it's insensitive to kill a team and devastate a small fan base, especially since they've never had a chance to see their team succeed. Also, admittedly, this is still a fairly weak team. Face facts, though, Tampa Bay has been a place where good players grow to leave and old players go to die. It's depressing to watch their 100 loss seasons and hurtful to know what it feels like when Orioles cry. At least this way, one of the two is competitive without having to try and lure away stars that just want the Steinbrenner or Henry cash, anyway.

* Yeah, I was thinking about this while the two teams played each other last night.
**The only catch? Angelos HAS to sell the team beforehand. I can't have that guy messing up my brilliant ideas.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Outside the Aviary: "Against All Odds"

Tonight, I watched something I didn't think I would see. I watched a kid younger than me beat a fantastic offensive team in their own home while the Red Sox lead the division. He garnered comparisons to Chris Young (from Orel Hershiser, no less) by getting out of jams and making the right pitches. He let the defense work when he couldn't strike his man out. He snuck in his offspeed stuff after using his fastball to get ahead early. He didn't let his walks beat him. Jon Lester went to work.

At times, I would say that Lester looked like he could contribute for the rest of this season. This is astounding seeing as how he struggled before a prolonged DL stint last season and lost his command at critical times throughout his young career. The Indians weren't often fooled by his pitches, yet they never hit the important ones. The Grady Sizemore home run aside, Lester gave them chances for walks and cut fastball singles, but never the chance to hurt him terribly. This is the pitcher I saw last season, before his injury. It's the guy that seemed calm in the face of whatever confronted him-- whether it be a bases loaded situation or AAA options being mentioned when he couldn't get out of the fifth inning.

Or cancer.

I remember reading that Jon Lester was diagnosed with cancer and thinking... damn, that kid had a shot. I'm not gonna say his courage or anything other than the luck of finding the disease early had anything to do with his comeback. I'm not a doctor. Nor do I care to offer my opinion on how or why Jon Lester came to be a fantastic feel-good story amongst the Vick/Donaghy/Bonds face-off amongst the talking heads in sports. All I know is, eleven months ago, the Red Sox were all but out a pitcher. I mean, even AIDS cowers in a corner when Cancer enters the room. Yet, Lester made his pitches tonight, answered his post-game questions and now he waits for his next start to see if he or Kason Gabbard will be the fifth starter when Curt Schilling is ready to pitch again.

In fact, I get the feeling that tonight had nothing to do with courage. I think Lester came out and threw the ball. He listened to his catcher, trusted the lead his offense gave him and did what came naturally. It was the same thing he did with his doctors and family a few months ago, the same thing he did with his coaches and teammates in the minors and the same thing he'll do when Theo Epstein and Terry Francona decide if he is ready to contribute every fifth day come August 6th-- Schilling's scheduled return. The courage part is hard. Tonight was easy. Tonight, Jon Lester got to have some fun and beat a playoff-ready team.

Tonight, Jon Lester beat the Cleveland Indians. That seems easy, compared to amateur oddsmakers (like myself) who wrote him off eleven months ago. Courage takes on many forms when a 22-year-old kid takes the mound for the first time in the majors. Or battles cancer. Tonight was neither of those things. All Jon Lester did was go to work tonight. And win. That had to feel right, though it looked wrong. I couldn't believe what I saw. Neither could his parents.

All along, however, Jon Lester looked like he was doing something normal. He was doing his job.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Escape Engine the 4th

(Editor's note: Escape Engine will be a series of baseball features on this site. The first month of the series will focus on bullpens.)

The fast rise and fall of a bullpen is a tragic thing to watch. A month of fantastic pitching could just as easily crumble as continue, as anyone knows, but to predict such a fall is divine. Since sportswriters mention bullpens more than they actually talk about them, we've decided to devote a little time to some contenders' bullpens (with little focus on the closer, since they get enough airtime already). This week we've focused on the Boston Red Sox, currently 8 games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East at 56-37, which is also the best record in all of baseball. We have them winning the AL pennant, if you must know.

Let me preface this by saying that this is a punishment post. Well, not really. Aside from my obvious allegiances, I do root for some AL teams, and the Sawx are definitely one of them. The reason is, quite simply, I hate the Yankees. Is there any better reason to do anything than pure, vitriolic hatred? Adolf Hitler says no. FOX News says no. PETA says no. And if there's three people/organizations I aspire to be like it's Hitler, FOX News and PETA.

Anyway, at a little get-together at a Mets game almost a month (?!?!) ago, Business or Leisure? and I had a little bet. I took the A's, he took the Mets, and the loser would have to do the Escape Engine for the other's team. The Mets won 9-1. So, technically I lost, but not really.

Oh, we were supposed to race pantsless or something, too. That idea got scrapped pretty quick.

Onward and upward, friends.

Land of rising suns, falling ERAs: Remember the fervor over the Daisuke sweepstakes? The incessant coverage, the back-door dealings, the sealed envelope bids, the puffy jacket at the airport? Seems like eons ago, doesn't it? Now we're just past the halfway point in the season, and while Dice-K's been good, he's not even the best Japanese pitcher born in a town with the letters T-O-K-Y-O on the team. That would be Hideki Okajima of Kyoto, the far less-known of the two overseas signings. All he's done is win the fan's vote for the All-Star game while posting an absurd 0.79 ERA and a sick 0.86 WHIP. A lot of foreign pitchers -- especially Japanese and Asian ones -- have unconventional windups and deliveries, and Okajima is no different. The best part about his, though, is that when he releases a pitch he looks down at the ground. His head whips, flings violently down, and he's not looking anywhere near the plate. It's a fun thing to watch, but it must be a bitch to hit against. No matter, because he's got good stuff that he locates well and keeps down in the zone. Head fling or not, that's how you get badass numbers.

Late innings: I was going to make a joke about Mike Timlin being 40, but he's actually 41. Wow. Has anyone ever seen him without a shirt on? I'm guessing his arm is connected to his shoulder by warm Twizzlers and plumber's tape. Don't get me wrong -- I love the Bulldog (he looks like my friend Dave) and he's still putting up respectable numbers (3.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and a .260 BAA) -- but at some point the ol' truck is going to blow a gasket. He's already been on the 15-day DL twice this year. Brendan Donnelly has been out for about a month now, and Manny Delcarmen's been up and down between Pawtucket and the big club all year. He's only thrown about thirteen innings this year, but he's done a decent job.

Middle innings and long relief: Joel Pineiro. The words roll off the tongue like "syphilis" and "asphyxiation." He used to be a starter. Not anymore. Now he's a mediocre reliever with numbers that don't equate to his four-million-dollar salary. What's my boy going to be when he grows up? "No, no son. Neural surgery is hard work. You've got to go to school for twenty-something years, work really hard, and look at brains. Don't you want to work in middle relief and make five big ones a year while you get lit up like the Vegas strip?" An ERA of 5+ and a K-BB ratio of barely better than 1-1 isn't really getting the job done, especially for someone who once won 16 games.

Long-term Eye: With Okajima setting the table for Jonathan Papelbon to clean up, there may be no better one-two punch in the league (aside from Elijah Dukes roughing up his nanny). Timlin still continues to plug away, but the return of Donnelly will be key. He's been through pennant races and the rigor of the post-season, and will assuredly mentor the younger guys. Plus Jon Lester could come back in the next month or two and, if Curt Schilling ever gets back to form, that would put either Julian Tavarez or Kason Gabbard into a long relief role. That would give Terry Francona more options, and would increase the possibility of Tavarez throwing the bullpen catcher into the stands. And that's always a plus.

Fun Fact: Timlin really does look like my buddy Dave. I promise. Once I track down a picture, it's on.

Projection: This team doesn't have many holes, but middle relief could be one. Could be. The Sox might try to make a minor deal toward the deadline, but I think they'll go to the party with who brung 'em. So far, the starters have been solid enough and getting deep enough that it really hasn't mattered. With a handful of solid single-inning-eaters like Timlin, Javier Lopez, Kyle Snyder and Okajima, the bridge to Pap-smear looks like a relatively short one that's easy to cross.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Guys, I think I am pretty "NOW."

Here are my reasons:

Rugged good looks.
fantastic jumpshot.
Knowledge of various subjects.
I wear an armband.
Cool name.
I wear socks.

There's more, but isn't that already enough?

I mean, what else do I need for "NOW"ness, right?

Maybe a spread in a major magazine or something. Or a crazy story about Native Americans fighting me while I was drunk. Or a hit album. Or a grandiose sports achievement. Or some fantastic breasts.

Maybe if I owned a sweet car. Or battled a man to the death on live TV. Or made a fantastic party parfait. Or maybe if I invented potato vodka. Or crafted a thesis on gelatin operated automobiles and their practicality in the new age.

Perhaps I could be "NOW" if I played cards really well or owned a vineyard or drove a stolen tank through Scott Erickson's yard or won the Prize Patrol sweepstakes or crafted a more user-friendly thesaurus for the interwebnets.

What if I cheated on Ned Beatty, fed corn to a mountain goat for money, disassembled a classic hot rod piece by piece with no manual, participated in a walk through the center of the Earth, raised money for "headband head" awareness, or glued computers to my legs? Would I be more "NOW?"

I think I might be "NOW" if I could turn invisible, make a blender out of my own record albums, broke glass with my mind, outran a fastball at it's apex of its speed, rid humans of their need of skin, wore four shirts at a time no matter the weather or came up with a new mathematical formula to measure sunburn efficiency.

How about this for "Now": I could cover myself in mince meat pies, eat dirt for a full year, win an NBA title without every playing a game, beat Jacquez Green in a race to the liquor store, bring a pinata to every party I ever attend for the rest of my life, turn into a Chinese black chicken or be the first man to ever mix milk and lotion with vodka.

Now that's "NOW..." right?

If I was "NOW," I'd probably have been a bear in my past life, or played golf with a cast member of "Roseanne," or made a washer and dryer out of my own ear wax or pierced my peanut butter bottle or made the greatest cup of coffee Otis Redding ever tasted or lambasted a muskrat for being late to a meeting with the board (HA!) or made a bookcase dance for money like a commonplace whore.

I mean, what is "NOW," anyway? Is it shifting gears on the thruway with your hands on a woman's thin white skirt? Pushing a few hundred kilos of cocaine though Interstate 85 on a Sunday? Blasting Jimmy Eat World at a wedding reception? Riding a bull through a house of Elvis Presley memorabilia? Memorizing the periodic table with the longest mnemonic device in history?Bracing yourself for a hurricane in the middle of Winter? Being a woman in the year 2345? Is any of that "NOW?"

I'll bet "NOW" is being Al Green before he was cool, slipping Albert Belle a mickey while he colors his arms with crayons, playing Clue with a former lover, marinating Chicken in Sprite, roasting cocoa beans over a closed fire, playing a rock show to a mainly Tibetan crowd, mongering whores in a fish factory. I'll bet "NOW" is exactly, not less than or more than but actually equal to, all of THAT.

And if not, I'm fairly certain it's not what ESPN thinks it is: a series of arguments and buzzwords that nullify everything good about sports coverage. I know at LEAST that much.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A Brief Brush with Mediocrity

Having somehow escaped the massive throng of people at the Continental check-in counter at Newark airport last Friday, I found myself impatiently checking my watch. Boarding time was 8:10 am, the flight at 8:45. It was about 7:45, and I was in the back of the security line. A hellaciously long security line.

Trying to ignore the little girl screaming like she had "a baby" (my 11-year-old nephew Jordan's simile suggestion, far better and funnier than anything I could've written - sadly), I looked up and saw a tall guy at the end of the row behind me. He was about 6'8" or so, a few inches taller than myself. I didn't think anything of it until he got a little closer and I realized - it was Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Surely an NBA player, who makes somewhere in the neighborhood of six or seven million dollars a year, isn't waiting in line for gen pop security? Did he not see the separate entrance for Elite Access members, bypassing the snarling, snaking monster us "normal" people had to endure?

When we got parallel to each other, I looked at him and said, "What, the Pacers can't charter you a jet or something?" He didn't really look at me - more around me - and lamented, "Chhh, I wish."


A minute later the kids in front of me had stopped and were whispering. I heard something resembling "Dunleavy" and just said, "Yeah, that's Mike Dunleavy." The younger one looked at me, bug-eyed, and said "Really?" "Yup, it is," I said. "I wanted to ask him how it felt to be on the wrong side of one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history, but I thought that might be a little harsh for this early in the morning." The dad just looked at me and laughed.

The line moved surprisingly quickly, and I had time to grab a Snapple and a banana. I went and sat by the gate, and a few minutes later who should sit down catty-corner from me but one Mr. Dunleavy. There were plenty of seats available, and I couldn't help but wonder if he picked that spot to be around the guy who recognized him earlier. He sat hunched over, eating a breakfast sandwich, his low-cut, ratty white Chuck Taylors (sans laces) pointed pigeonly towards each other. Then it occurred to me that we were probably on the same flight, and I didn't know if I wanted to sit next to him or not. It's a short way from New Jersey to Detroit, and what would I open with? The "So, where you going?" line? Or something like, "Did you ever play against Fred Hoiberg? I'm on my way to his brother's wedding." Then I realized what I was thinking about, and silently scolded myself.

I turned to a magazine while he bogarted the USA Today an older woman had left behind. Finally we boarded, and he was a few people in front of me. I noticed a small bald spot in the back, and it hit me that this dude was going to look exactly like his dad in about 10 years.

As I entered the plane, I became incredibly uncomfortable. This was the smallest aircraft I had ever been on - one of those planes with a single seat on one side of the aisle, two on the other, and maybe 15 rows in all. The ceiling was probably about six feet off the floor, so I cocked my head at the obligatory 45-degree angle. A guy looked up at me and, sensing the awkwardness, gave me the "I feel for ya, buddy" look. All I could muster was a "What the fuck is this shit?"

I passed Dunleavy. He was sitting next to a guy in a Mets hat. I had a seat to myself on the other side, a few rows behind them. That's my view in the picture up there - hardly a Leibovitz, but the cell phone camera is all I had (he's in the gray-and-yellow jacket).

They chatted and laughed for a large part of the flight. I wondered what they talked about. I decided that since the guy had a Mets hat on, he was probably somewhat familiar with the world of pro sports, and chances are he recognized him. But maybe not. They could've talked about the NBA or they could've talked about airport bathrooms. I didn't know and, eventually, I didn't care. I read my book and made funny faces at a young Indian girl.

I was tired, broke and hungry, and had just barely escaped a potentially huge transportation disaster.

But a multi-millionaire - who, despite his professionall shortcomings, seemed to be a pretty down-to-earth, cool enough guy - was on the same cramped, one-male-flight-attendant-only mini-jet as me. And for whatever goofy reason, that made me smile.