The Michael Lewis/Oakland A’s love affair: it’s time to move on…

April 19th, 2007 → 9:44 am @

In the inaugural issue of the mildly confusing Portfolio, Conde Nast’s new business magazine, Michael Lewis has a story about a “Jock Exchange” that would function like much like the stock exchange. As is almost always the case when Lewis references baseball, the piece is heavy with references to the Oakland A’s. And as is increasingly the case, many of these references are out of date and are used to illustrate points that might have been true four or five years ago, but aren’t any longer.

To wit: the A’s are not “by far the most cost efficient team in baseball,” as Lewis says: since 2001, the Florida Marlins have paid approximately $488,000 per win, while the A’s have paid about $525,000 (and the Twins approximately $542,661). Lewis credits this incredible cost efficiency largely to the work of Paul DePodesta, who left the A’s “first to become the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and then the San Diego Padres’ special assistant for baseball operations.” Left unmentioned is the fact that DePodesta was fired after two years as the GM of the Dodgers…having spent more than twice as much as the Marlins, A’s, or Twins on each L.A. win.

Lewis is a great writer, and Moneyball is inarguably one of the best books ever written about baseball. He’d be doing himself a favor if he let it stand for itself and stopped writing pieces that use increasingly outdated research to do current articles.*

* Note: hopefully I will follow this advice.

Post Categories: Baseball & Boston & Literature & Media & Music & the Red Sox

Daisuke Matsuzaka: the drain on the pitching staff

April 15th, 2007 → 10:26 am @

Over the last four games, the Sox’s non-Japanese starters have posted a 3-0 record to go along with a .082 ERA. Dice-K? He’s 0-1 with a 3.86. How”d we end up this guy? Geesh.

Post Categories: Baseball & Boston & Literature & Media & Music & the Red Sox

Reflections from Fenway’s Home Opener, 2007 edition

April 11th, 2007 → 9:38 am @

As far as pomp and circumstance go…well, it was no 2005, when somehow I found myself on the field during the Red Sox ring ceremony. (At one point, Larry Lucchino glanced over at me and gave me a “what the hell are you doing out here?” look. I had no good answer.) In fact, I’m sympathetic to those fans who seemed to feel that the ’67 squad got short shrift during the pre-game, on-field ceremony. (And yeah, I thought Yaz, the Hawk, et al., could have gotten individual shout-outs as they ambled onto the field.) But really, how can anyone complain when Robert Goulet — I’m sorry, Lawrence’s own Robert Goulet — is on the field, warbling “The Impossible Dream”? (A quick aside: as inspiring as 1967 was, and I’m fully in the camp that believes that that squad is more responsible for the region’s enduring Red Sox mania than anything else, has any team had a lamer anthem then the a hit song from the Broadway smash “Man of La Mancha”? “Welcome to the Jungle” it’s not.) Goulet’s a professionally trained voice man, and I’d much rather see him out there than a dubious ruffian without the chops…because when a professional gets his mitts on a song, that’s when it really takes off.

The one thing I regretted was that we didn’t get to hear Goulet croon, “I like it when you call me Big Papi — throw your hands in the air when you think you’re a player…Papi.” For that, you’ll need to pick up your copy of “The Coconut Banger’s Ball.” It’s well worth it.

Post Categories: Baseball & Boston & Literature & Media & Music & the Red Sox

How to win friends, etc: A review of George Vecsey’s “Baseball”

April 9th, 2007 → 9:24 am @

Last fall, I was asked to review New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey‘s “Baseball,” a ponderous overview of America’s pastime. For various reasons — reasons, I was assured, that had to do with nothing so much as timing and space and certainly not with the diamond-like quality of the piece — said review never ran. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t see the light of day, and the beginning of the season seems as good a time to trot it out as any. I know this isn’t going to win me any more fans in the Times‘s sports department (or in the sportswriting fraternity more generally), but I’ve rarely been able to resist torpedoing my career when given the option. So without further ado…

By George Vecsey
252 Pages. The Modern Library. $21.95.

In 1888, Walt Whitman, the archetypal American poet, christened baseball the archetypal American game. “[It’s] America’s game, has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere,” Whitman said. “[It] belongs as much to our institutions…as our constitutions, laws, is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

Whitman was the progenitor of what became a grand literary tradition, one that celebrated the ineffable majesty of a sport that’s frequently labeled, along with jazz and Ken Burns documentaries, one of country’s rare indigenous art forms. For more than a century, writers—from Ernest Hemingway to Don DeLillo—have waxed rhapsodic about the old ballgame, using the sport’s romanticized history as a vehicle for evoking everything from lost innocence to our society’s democratic ideals.

This young century has not yet produced one of those bittersweet masterpieces destined to take up space on the bookshelf next to Roger Kahn’s “Boys of Summer” or Roger Angell’s “The Summer Game.” George Vecsey’s “Baseball”—the latest addition to the Modern Library’s Chronicles series, in which “the world’s great historians” hold forth, usually in 150 pages or less, on “the world’s great subjects”—is packaged to suggest it belongs on said bookshelf. The front flap describes Vecsey, a sports columnist for The New York Times, as “one of the great bards of America’s Grand Old Game”; the cover is a sepia-tinged, heavily-shadowed shot of Yankee Stadium taken during the 1961 World Series.

“Baseball” is more of a frustrating jumble than a masterful history. For such a slight book, Vecsey makes a remarkable number of mistakes. The American League and National League did not “coalesce into a stable enterprise of eight teams apiece” in 1903; that occurred in 1901. When the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000, it didn’t seem “like a pittance even at the time”; it was the most money ever paid for a baseball player. Vecsey even flubs episodes from his own past. Describing his role in the birth of the specious Curse of the Bambino, Vecsey writes, “When the Red Sox took a lead in the 1986 World Series, I…wrote a column in the New York Times (‘The Curse of Babe Ruth’) anticipating the horrors that might befall the Sox in the sixth game.” In fact, the first column Vecsey wrote invoking Ruth occurred after the Red Sox lost Game Six, and that piece was titled “Why the Mets Are Still Alive.”

Even absent these errors (and there are many more), “Baseball” is an odd hodgepodge of a book, filled with awkward non-sequiturs (Jessica Lynch makes a cameo in a discussion of Abner Doubleday) and bizarre claims. Shortly after writing that “[n]o American has ever carried the weight of racial progress, plus his own career, as publicly as Jackie Robinson did,” Vecsey posits that “[t]he only possible way to explain” a three-and-a-half decade stretch of N.L. dominance in the All-Star Game is that “the National League was Jackie Robinson’s league.” Say what? Even Robinson’s most fervent partisans wouldn’t claim the relative talent level of the All-Stars in baseball’s two leagues was still affected by Robinson more than a decade after his death.

Just as disappointing for readers looking for an actual overview of the sport is the fact that Vecsey seems to have stopped enjoying baseball sometime between the end of World War II and the beginning of Vietnam. Stan Musial, who retired in 1963, and Enos Slaughter, who played his last game in 1959, are invoked repeatedly. More recent superstars, from Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt to Greg Maddux and Manny Ramirez, don’t even garner a single mention. Of the ten most recent Hall of Fame inductees, only two get any recognition: Paul Molitor is used as an illustration of how the designated hitter rule kept “older, slower stars” in the game and Dave Winfield serves as an example of George Steinbrenner’s free-spending ways. When Vecsey does make reference to more recent events, he sounds a bit like Montgomery Burns, the aged misanthrope from “The Simpsons.” Today’s broadcasters are labeled “Silly Boys” (twice, in fact), and “commercial-laden ‘message boards'” rarely “bother to give [out-of-town] scores.” Baseball even had “better nicknames back” in the days of “Babe” Ruth (whose actual nickname was the Sultan of Swat). Call me a philistine, but I think Donnie Baseball, the Rocket, and the Big Hurt all sound pretty cool.

The best baseball books use the game’s romanticized, storied past as a lens through which to understand its present and look ahead to its future. “Baseball” uses that past as a vehicle for alternately ignoring and griping about the present. That’s both annoying and perplexing: last year*, a record 75 million tickets were sold for major league games, and the per-game average attendance of just over 31,000 set a new record as well. Presumably it’s just these folks—fans willing to spend upwards of $200 for the privilege of watching athletes with bad nicknames play in front of commercial-laden message boards—who make up the book’s natural audience. They’d have more fun spending that $20 on a couple of overpriced ballpark hotdogs.

* The “last year” being referred to here is the 2005 season. So don’t go sending me letters about how those attendance figures are wrong.

Post Categories: Baseball & Book reviews & George Vecsey

The Mike Timlin Files: Told you so

March 21st, 2007 → 11:17 am @

I hate to be the guy who I-told-you-so’s people to death, but with the official announcement that Mike Timlin is going to start the season on the DL, well…I told you so. I didn’t like the Timlin re-signing when it happened; I thought Timlin amply demonstrated his fall-off-the-cliffness during the waning months of last season. True, his salary is relatively insignificant (although I’d love to pull in that kind of insignificant salary), especially when it’s compared to what other relievers are getting. But during those times when he’s not on the DL, he’ll be taking up a much-needed roster spot.

Yes, I know, Timlin is one of the 25, and he’ll forever be sainted for that (it’s possible Timlin takes this notion of sainthood literally, as this Boston Globe piece from 2005 illustrates). And yes, his years of service have been enormously valuable. But my memories of Timlin’s ’06 season are dominated by the massive sucking he did during the Yankees-inflicted Boston Massacre and the moronic manner in which he somehow justified blaming the offense for the team’s collapse. And I do not want to live through that again.

(Note: as I said back in October, if Timlin comes back and has a season more in line with ‘03 and ‘04 and less in line with the second half of ‘06, I reserve the right to make like one of those paid sportswriters and act like he’s been my favorite player all along and that re-signing him was one of the front office’s most brilliant moves.)

Post Categories: Baseball & Boston & Literature & Media & Music & the Red Sox

In other news…

September 29th, 2006 → 11:41 am @

As the Sox head into the season’s final series, there’s plenty of news to consider. Will Wily Mo ever learn to play the outfield (as Terry Francona and the rest of the Sox brass desperately hope)? Related to that, will Sunday be Trot Nixon’s last game in a Red Sox uniform? Will Matt Clement ever pitch again? (And do we even want him to?) Will Gonzo win the Gold Glove he deserves? And will he be patrolling the Sox infield in 2007, or will Boston, as seems increasingly likely, go hard after Julio Lugo? Finally, will Jerry Trupiano still be calling Sox games for WEEI alongside Joe Castiglione next year or will he be replaced by Sox PR man Glenn Geffner, who may or may not have been promised the job last year when he turned down a broadcasting job with another MLB team?

These waning days of the regular season bring plenty of non-Sox excitement as well. To wit: are the Mets, a team that is suddenly forced to rely on El Duque as its #1 postseason starter, still a force to be reckoned with? Will Pedro ever pitch again, and if he does, will he ever be the dominant performer we’ve grown accustomed to? Will the Tony LaRussa’s Cardinals suffer one of the most ignominious collapses in history? (As someone who can’t stand Tony LaRussa but counts many Cardinal partisans among his friends, I’m a bit conflicted on this one.) (Also, remember when there was all that talk about how the non-Clemens trade at the deadline meant Roger had lost his last, best chance at playing in one final postseason?)

That’s a lot of questions…and we’ll get at least some answers in the next 60 or so hours.

Post Categories: Baseball & Red Sox

“Take me out to the ballgame” warbled like you’ve never heard it warbled before

August 31st, 2006 → 12:06 pm @

Bob Dylan’s been doing a show on XM satellite radio for the last while. I already have Sirius and have been wary of paying for another satellite service, even if it featured an hour of one of the primary poets and chroniclers of our time. (That hour, I feared, could be made up of incoherent rambling. I’ve seen more than a dozen Dylan concerts over the last 16 years. Some have been transcendent. And some have been inscrutible. Inscrutible can be interesting, but not $12.95 a month interesting.)

Yesterday I bought Dylan’s new album, Modern Times, and the Virgin megastore threw in a CD of Dylan’s braodcast on baseball (which is already in the Hall of Fame). It’s insane. Truly unbelievable. I’ll likely listen to it all the way through four or five times today alone. Dylan starts out with an a-cappela version of “Take Me Out…” and it’s crystal clear and predictably sui generis. Then he tosses off transitions like “Stepping up to the batter’s box first” (to introduce The Skeletons herky-jerky version of said same song) and “Abbott and Costello said a lot of ballplayers have funny names” in between classic radio calls (including Ted Williams’ home run in his final at bat) and a wonderfully eclectic mix of songs.

Some of the best bits are where Dylan quotes lyrics of some of the songs he’s played interspersed with his own quips. To wit:

* After Chance Halladay’s “Home Run”: “He’s gonna knock the cover right off the ball…that was Chance Halladay stepping up to the plate, hitting a grand slam, sweeping you off your feet, scoring a home run with you, and with me too. Home run, on Theme Time Radio Hour.”

* Before Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto”: “He was a brave man, and a brave poet, ‘watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn, reading Ezra Pound and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the Anglo-Saxon tradiiton in the first canto and demonish the barbarian invaders.’ Well…why don’t i let Larry say the rest of it.”

* After Sister Wynona Carr’s “The Ball Game”: Sister Wynona Carr talking about life being a ballgame, where everyday life is a ballgame and everybody can play, ‘Life is a ballgame and everyone can play: Jesus is at the home plate and at the first base is Temptation, second base is Sin and at third is Tribulation. King Solomon is the umpire, Satan’s doing all he can to psych you out and Daniel’s up at bat, Satan pitches a fastball and Job hits a home run,’ you’ve got to just swing at the ball, give it your all, Moses is on the sidelines, he’s waiting to be called…Sister Wynona Carr, ‘The Ball Game.'”

* In the middle of Sonny Rollins’s “Newk’s Fadeaway,” Dylan cuts in right before a Rollins solo and says, “Let’s go.”

* And finally, Dylan actually answers email: “Let’s enter our email basket and hope they don’t throw us a curve.” A woman writes in from Las Vegas saying her boyfriend complains that when she listens to games on the radio at night he can’t sleep. Dylan answers: “Well Jamie, you should do what I used to do. When I was supposed to be asleep, I’d take the beside radio and slip it under my pillow, press your ear close to the pillow, which is what you’re supposed to do with pillows anyway, listen to the second game of the doubleheader without bothering anyone else in the house. Millions upon millons used to do the same thing back when radio was king, and I hope you still do that with Theme Time Radio Hour, your private radio pal.”


I don’t know if your local Virgin Megastore still has these promos in stock, but you should sprint out there and check.

(Modern Times is pretty great too.)

(I think I knew this, but this week’s Louis Menand New Yorker article on a new book of published Dylan interviews reminded me that in one 14-month period in ’65 and ’66, Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. During those same 14 months, the Beatles released Help, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. As Menand says, “It was a good time to be alive.” True; that’s also a good way to make mortal accomplishments feel pretty insignificant.)

Post Categories: Baseball & Bob Dylan