“Million Dollar Arm”

Last June, ROTB blogged on Rinku Singh (b. 8/8/88!) and Dinesh Patel.

Now, the film—from Disney. The Hollywood take, not the Bollywood version.

If ever there were a movie in the spirit of ROTB, Million Dollar Arm promises to be it: a funfest.

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Notes toward a Supreme Fiction: My Sport Could Beat up Your Sport

As this is the 500th blog generated by the Right Off the Bat project, in the spirit of collegial, international, and inter-sport collaboration, we thought we’d put our heads together (ouch) in doing some outside-the-box thinking . . . and mix a metaphor or two in the process.

Ten games into this MLB season (there are more than 150 regular-season games yet to go), Evander has observed a dominant aspect of the major-league game that is touched upon in Right Off the Bat at its alpha and omega.

The overshift, which Johnny Damon out-hustled and out-thought in the 2009 World Series by executing an ingenious, ultra-rare double-steal of bases, is described at the baseball-start of our book, and alluded to later, as a brilliant bit of gamesmanship: virtually defining heads-up play. Late in our book, the term “Sabermetrics” worms its way in. This is a term coined around the work of uber-statistician Bill James. Anyone who has seen “Moneyball,” understands the impact James’s spectral musings has had on the way baseball is understood and, more importantly, “strategized” and played.

Evander’s central observation is thus: many more managers and clubs are employing radical, Sabermetric-style defensive shifts in the field, depending on who is pitching to some degree and, especially, who is batting. E. has seen one overshift wherein the third baseman moves way out to short right field. Should a left-handed batter ground out to this “new position,” the official scoring still goes 5-3. Very weird.

Extreme defense does not work under two conditions: (1) as Johnny Damon adroitly proved (in other words, a fielder needs to stand at every base lest the baserunner “run amok” with double-steals); (2) batters begin to do what Mickey Mantle, the great power hitter and pull hitter did (become masters of the drag bunt and/or condition themselves to stroke the ball to the opposite field).

Baseball and its managers, especially in the US and Canada—being those most conservative, provincial, and ossified of sports and individuals—actually find themselves becoming far more fluid in the field. The third baseman is no longer at third base and so forth.

It is perhaps an irony that cricket (typically seen as a bastion of the hidebound and traditional) should find itself having to deal with rapid change, especially in the wake of Twenty20 cricket. Bowlers and batsmen have to adapt to rapidly changing situations, and fielders and their positions are required to be equally adept in their placement. The key word for cricketers is flexibility in the face of new shots, new kinds of deliveries, and new fielding positions.

Perhaps baseball could and should learn a few things from cricket after all!

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2014 Major League Predictions

Putting away the snow shovel and dusting off the crystal ball....

Putting away the snow shovel and dusting off the crystal ball….

In time-honored fashion, and this being the ROTB Project blog number 499, here come my (Evander’s) guesses for the 2014 Major League Baseball season. (“Predictions” is such a silly word. Who could? Well, I! in this 2-year-old podcast.)

American League East: The Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles will fight it out for the lead and second place. The New York Yankees, even with the offseason moves, are a year older and minus their top slugger, who serves a season-long suspension. The 2013 Champion Boston Red Sox will have problems of their own.

American League Central: I look for the Detroit Tigers; with the young, fast, and scientific Kansas City Royals in the mix. I’m afraid, even in this time of year, as hope springs eternal, the Cleveland Indians will take a step backward.

American League West: The Oakland Athletics still represent a breath of fresh air, and the Texas Rangers have a lot of talent in reserve. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (I understand the “of Anaheim” is being dropped in yet another franchise-name change, even as hitting coach Don Baylor injured himself during the ceremonial first pitch of the season) still need to get it together.

National League East: The Washington Nationals ought to accomplish in 2014 what they did not in 2013. The Atlanta Braves are always tough in the regular season. The New York Mets are in a quasi-rebuilding mode, their best pitcher on the shelf (though possibly returning late in the season), and the Philadelphia Phillies are “a veteran bunch,” which means too old.

National League Central: The St. Louis Cardinals are possibly the strongest team of all on paper. The Pittsburgh Pirates can build on last season, and the Cincinnati Reds should continue making plenty of noise.

National League West: From here, the Los Angeles Dodgers stand out from the rest of the pack. The San Francisco Giants have great even-number seasons, so they ought to be watched. The Arizona Diamondbacks are in the race for sure, even as of this writing they are prematurely in last place (as the Dodgers reside in first).

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Brendon Goes Big

Brendon McCullum

Brendon McCullum: raising his game

New Zealand’s cricket side has always punched above its weight—putting in performances that belie its small population and lack of financial resources relative to Australia. It currently ranks a lowly eighth (out of ten) in the ICC World Test Rankings, and nobody gave it much hope against the Indians (ranked number two) when the latter visited Aotearoa for a two-match series.  They reckoned without Brendon McCullum.

McCullum is an exciting and attractive player—known for big shots and fast-scoring, and for being devil-may-care, even reckless, at the crease. However, quashing his natural instincts to hit the hide off every ball, he has so far amassed a ton of records in scoring 225 in the first Test match and 289 so far in the second. He is only a few runs away from being the first Kiwi to score more than 300 runs in an innings, he has become only the second New Zealand batsmen to hit three double-hundreds, and in this latest knock he’s batted longer than any previous New Zealand batsman in an innings.

All this took place with New Zealand behind a whole pool table of 8-balls. Having been bundled out for 192 in the first innings, the Kiwis were helpless as India amassed 438 in their first innings, and took five New Zealand second-inning wickets to leave New Zealand effectively six runs ahead with only five wickets remaining. India must have fancied their chances of squaring the series, but McCullum and B. J. Watling (124) added a record 354 runs for the sixth wicket (a world record), and McCullum and Jimmy Neesham (67 not out) piled on another 125, to leave New Zealand 325 runs ahead, and in a much healthier situation.

I (Martin), for one, would be thrilled for McCullum to uncork some of his magic-in-a-bottle fireworks on the final day of the Test, set India a competitive total, and allow his bowlers to do the rest. Somehow, India—extraordinarily talented, yet infuriatingly complacent and conservative as they have been in this series—need to be woken up. And lowly New Zealand might be just the side to do it!

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Let’s Talk about Kevin

Kevin Pietersen

We need to talk about Kevin

One of the many consequences of England’s collapse to the Australians this winter has been the enforced retirement for playing for England of Kevin Pietersen, one of the most successful England batsmen ever. He’s only 33, has three, perhaps four, more years left at the top of his game, and wanted to continue in the England team. Apparently, however, the England team—or at least the captain and the management—didn’t want him in it. The decision by the bosses to tell KP that he’s no longer going to be considered for the squad for any version of the game—T20, one-day, or Test—has had commentators, ex-players, and the general public up in arms: How can England omit their most charismatic and destructive, and arguably best player?

The answer is murky (each side in the fracas has signed a non-disclosure agreement) but it looks as though the banners of KP feel he wasn’t a team player: he was arrogant, destructive of a team ethic, disloyal even, a destabilizing influence in the dressing room. So what? say KP’s defenders. You have to deal with mavericks, game-changers. It’s a failure of management and not Pietersen’s fault.

I (Martin) look at Pietersen much in the same way as I do Andrew Flintoff and Ian Botham: both of whom were similarly charismatic and crowd-favorite entertainers. When they were good, were very, very good, but when they were not—which was, toward the end, more often than not—they seemed to suck the life out of the team. Flintoff, especially: when he played, England lost, in spite of his heroics; when he was injured, England won, without him. As we’ve seen with Mitchell Johnson, a cricket side’s fortunes can be transformed by one member working at the height or his or her powers. Yet isn’t it better if ten + one members of a side are performing at their best?

England are at a very low ebb, yet they still contain some very good players. We will see this summer whether Pietersen’s absence matters or not. My bet is that it won’t. I’m not crying for him: He stands to make millions of dollars from the Indian Premier League, which begins in a few weeks.

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Mitchell’s Big Mo

Mitchell Johnson and Dennis Lillee

Mitchell Johnson (left) and Dennis Lillee: Samsonite strength

When Australia’s cricket team thrashed England’s 5–0 in the 2013–14 Ashes series in Australia, most commentators agreed that the essential difference between the teams was one person: Mitchell Johnson. As regular readers of this blog will know, Mitchell Johnson bowls seriously quickly, but he has often in the past lacked the ability to control just where he pitches his Exocets and his confidence has been fragile. In the 2010-11 series in Australia, Johnson became a laughing-stock to England fans, as the visitors beat the Aussies 3–1. He was even left out of the party that toured England (and lost 3–0) in 2013.

That Australia side wasn’t as bad as the 3–0 scoreline suggests, and they’re not as good as the 5–0 victory suggests. The difference was that Mitchell Johnson got his mojo back: he was aggressive, his missiles were on target, and he was quick—terrifyingly so. Apparently, he had been learning from Australian legend Dennis Lillee how to cock his wrist in such a way as to control the ball coming out of his hand. He even grew a Lillee-esque mustache to scare the opposition rigid. (OK: a little artistic license on that last point!)

The big question as England, battered and broken, went home to lick their wounds and Australia took themselves to South Africa to play the best team in the world, was whether Johnson was genuinely scary or whether it was just English spinelessness. Well, now we know. In the first Test match, Johnson took 12 wickets for 127 as Australia slaughtered South Africa, who suddenly looked vulnerable following the retirement of their greatest asset, the brilliant all-rounder Jacques Kallis. The great West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding, who was known to scare the bejesus out of batsmen in his day, could barely contain his glee from the commentary box at seeing genuine, searing, 90+ mile pace coming back into the game.

Of course, cricket is a team game: Australia are a good side with one player who is performing at the very height of his powers at the moment and that is taking the team a long way. Whether it’s enough to keep them moving up to the No. 1 spot in the world rankings is unsure. But if Mitch can keep his mojo, then I see no reason why Australia won’t usurp South Africa’s crown soon. Here is Mitch destroying the South Africans in the first innings.


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Winter Ball

Major-league teams have reported to begin the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues

Major-league teams have reported to begin the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues’ preseason games.

The baseball most North America followers and fans in the Far East are familiar with is in every way a non-winter sport. Not as “evolved” (for lack of a better word) as cricket, which is avidly followed year-round and on the highest levels, whether it be on the Indian subcontinent, the UK, the Caribbean, or Australia, winter ball concentrates in such non-English-language “remote places” as Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Curacao, Mexico, Puerto Rico.

You get the big picture.

(Prior to the Missile Crisis, Cuba was very much in this “North American mix.” Everybody knows Yasiel Puig. How many would remember Omar Linares or Gérman Mesa?)

North American cable providers now offer baseball for wintery shut-ins. This audience is fit though few, and largely Hispanic. It’s a good start in the right direction. Baseball, like cricket, is in the mood of/for the sun.

To the little picture….

Thro this harsh 2013-14 winter, I (Evander) think back on another form of winter ball. This old-style winter, straight out of New York City from the cold-war, satiric* 1960s and 1970s, brings to mind the junior-high ritual of gymnasium softball.

There are memories of ducking snowballs once outside; of my mother packing lunch along with my well-oiled baseball glove (I think the bats were supplied by the Board of Education as such would have been considered weapons in my tough school) for the after-school softball “league” of classes—7-247 (seventh grade, room number 247) versus 7-252 for example, and half-a-dozen others.

Faced with a palimpsest of February snowfalls, I’d imagine things would look exactly this way and worse in icy-American snow-belt kingdoms that touched my imagination: Sault Ste. Marie, Oswego, Montreal (as part of America—North America; a city, as well, my parents and I visited over several summers during this Expo 67 era).

(Today, I study photographs of Roman Vishniac: images of wintry-shtetl life in imperial Russia. These photos, of different places, might have been of my grandfather and father’s sisters—studious shopkeepers, rabbis, the peasant downtrodden—pale ghosts forever frozen in Vilnius, Lithuania.)

To oversimplify, softball is something of a watered-down version of hardball. The sphere is grapefruit-sized larger and less tightly wound. The pitcher tosses underhand and, in this form, not with too much speed. The bases are closer together as is the pitcher’s rubber from home plate. The fun is to put bat on ball, to put the ball in play, and to see what develops instead of piling up the Ks.

The rules of this form of winter ball, amid the pale-fading light of the urban gym, were likewise unusual. A ball striking the ceiling was an automatic out. Any ball hit off a wall or interior-grated window, and caught on the fly, was an out. There was no sliding into bases, no stealing them. I believe a gym teacher functioned as catcher, for both sides, and “tripled” as umpire. When a ball was smacked, usually a hard grounder or line drive, the bat had to be placed on a tumblers’ mat on the first-base side. If the bat struck the polished gym floor, that too was recorded as an out.

The easiest position was pitcher, and in my seventh-grade class that was reserved for undersized me. But my most vivid memory is unexpectedly putting a charge into one, pulling the ball on a rising flight toward the wall—and thus an easy-rebound out if the third-baseman or shortstop were playing his position correctly. (The rebound would have gone over the left-fielder’s head; that’s how true the ball was hit, and thus how far it would ricochet.) Unexpectedly, however, the ball struck high off one of the rappelling-ropes and died, dropping straight down. I had myself a double!

In Right off the Bat, we call such sense-memory of almost spectral perfection, outside the boundaries of time, a kairos moment.

*Mythy-minded Northrop Frye subdivides and structures the four primary modes or genres of literature into the turning cycle of seasons: spring/comedy, summer/romance, fall/tragedy; winter being the season of satire-irony.

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