Great Stadiums (9): Daphne du Maurier Stadium (SF)

One can sense (Wilhelm) Richard Wagner’s Valkyrie (Die Walkuere) in the background!

Daphne du Maurier wrote “The Birds,” a short story expanded upon by Alfred Hitchcock to a film of psychology and ecology that features his greatest special effects, glamorous skulduggery on Mount Rushmore notwithstanding.

Oracle ParkPacific Bell, then SBC; after those corporate-naming auspices were exhausted, AT&T, the latter noted in the accompanying photo and video—is the real-2019 name, not Daphne du Maurier Stadium, of the San Francisco Giants home field.

Oracle’s a stunner on the Bay and a vast improvement over elevated Candlestick Park, which saw gale-force winds and freezing night-game temperatures during its run, especially before it was enclosed as a multipurpose stadium. Oracle is indeed one of the most beautiful stadiums in Major League Baseball. But it has one big-time flaw. (Read on.)

(Willie Mays, almost as magnificent a centerfielder as the great [as Hemingway calls him] Joe DiMaggio [a San Francisco native and as stylish as any element of that most-stylish city], probably lost a number of homers off his career total of 660 by playing a lot of his games at Candlestick. Mays’s exciting trademark basket-catches were put to the test every night. Needless to say, playing conditions were no Rice-A-Roni treat.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way, a home-field disadvantage to perhaps the best player of the 1960s. [Ironically, Candlestick opened in April 1960, to kick off that controversial decade: with then-presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon tossing the first ball no less.] Famously retold is how, a decade before, Horace Stoneham was shown the site of his new ball field, with all that parking, on the way from the airport and the Daly City Cow Palace, in the smug sunniness of the Northern California daytime. Who knew? Chub Feeney got the gone-with-the-wind details from someone among the stadium-construction team.)

Such a marvelous place, Oracle, night or day—except for the sea gulls that swoop and swarm during late innings. No one quite understands how the birds understand when the game is wrapping up.

It is said the proliferation of seagulls, all unplanned and unanticipated by the stadium architects (Stoneham returns), has to do with newer-ecological city-disposal ordinances and the quick burial of food-waste. Thus, the birds arrive elsewhere (i.e., the Oracle bleachers) for late-game nourishment.

(There has been a reciprocating issue in neighboring Oakland for similar reasons; its Athletics, a club that, for many additional reasons, the existence of Oracle among them, has threatened to move for years.)

Ironically, the old Polo Grounds in upper Harlem, where the Giants played till 1957, was a pigeons’ paradise. Fans in the grandstands wore newspaper-hats to avoid the liquid siftings.

A skein. A gaggle. Even human-fans have been flocking to this great stadium….Really no bird lover, I (Evander): If I were on hand at Oracle, after the seventh-inning stretch, I’d be Alfred Hitchcock-terrified.

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Honoring Jackie Robinson on His 100th Birthday

Wrong sport? a natural athlete; the one and only

“Back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which come with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides.” These, the words of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Good-bye, Mel

A class act

One of my (Evander) heroes, Mel Stottlemyre, is gone. With a 2.97 ERA and possessor of one of the great sinker balls, Mel was headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame if not for shoulder problems. I remember his first game vividly, a classically hot August day-game in 1964. Mickey Mantle hit what might be his longest home run in Yankee Stadium, over the distant center-field wall. Mel would win nine games his first season and be called on to start two games in the World Series: to repeat, as a rookie. He would see two sons in the major leagues and become one of the outstanding pitching coaches for both the Mets and Yankees. R.I.P.

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Baseball and Pythagoras; or, Finger Painting the Word Picture by Numbers

Journeyman as Most Valuable Player. The unexpected: What did you expect? (And you can bet on it!)

The Right off the Bat (ROTB) project was angled for the hallowed halls of Cooperstown this week. Since we have rescheduled for 2019, permit me (Evander), in this our 601st blog and with little else to do but count them, to consider baseball-by-the-numbers and its impact on a sport, on the major-league level, which is in revenue-and-national-interest decline if regular-season attendance and World Series-viewership figures are to be believed. (Attendance fell by more than three million: below seventy million for the first time since 2003. Already-dismal Series ratings plummeted 23 percent from 2017.)

Before considering this jaw-dropping numeric Decline of the West (or Western Divisions), here on numbers….

The earliest king of figures in space (geometry) and time (music), Pythagoras of ancient Greece and Egypt, defined numbers in three ways: quantitative (counting things), mathematical (abstract calculations), and qualitative (number as symbol: the refined-differentiating aspect of each number).

But aren’t numbers informing an orderly cosmos exclusive markers of the predetermined? The predictable? The boring? Is reality solely expressible in rational (“ratio”) units? Whence lieth the elements of Mystery and Drama?

None exists in a platonic, Newtonian, or pantheistic (cf. Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus) cosmos; nor does God play dice with the universe. Hello!

So what does any of this have to do with baseball? It is still a most-day-in-day-out-lifelike sport of the unpredictable and “intangibles,” right? The miraculous? We don’t know who will win or lose, correct? Or do we? Was the 2018 postseason the most predictable in memory? Yes, yes, and yes; and the trend is clearly turning off the fans.

Since the dawning of Bill James, baseball, especially professional baseball, has been dominated by so-called analytics. Organizations hire younger, faster, “scientificker” general managers and managers who spend hours, in stress and strain, crunching the numbers.

These can get pretty sophisticated. ROTB surveyed some of this trendy modulation five years ago in (Im)probabilities, a genially impudent and mostly subjective look at objective probability. A portion from that blog on the array of stats will cause all but the most spectral-eyed fans to number their days with their favorite pastime:

Twenty-first-century major-league talent is now regularly monitored via Statcast (essentially, a refinement of traditional Sabermetrics) with such generally accepted as well as esoteric stats as WAR (wins above replacement, sometimes rendered WARP); secondary average; FIELDf/x and Reaction Analysis (respectively measuring a player’s defensive value and how much ground is covered, as well as how quickly); UZR and ISO (Isolated Power, derived by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage); SR (spin rate); wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus: a stadium- and league-adjusted power measurement); JAWS developed by someone named Jaffe to determine Cooperstown worthiness; UBR (Ultimate Base Running: self-explanatory); Launch Angle and Exit Velocity; line-drive rate and contact rate (these also self-explanatory); Scoring Efficiency (SE); Scoring Load (SC%); and undoubtedly others, even a little older, like one of the first of the new-breed stats WHIP (walks-hits-innings-pitched: the lower, and even below “1,” the better) or DIPS (defense-independent-pitching-statistics); or, for offense, OPS, which combines on-base-and-slugging percentages.

Beyond attendance, think I’m exaggerating? Amid all the numbers, the records’ keeping, once more permettez-moi to disclose that 2018 featured more MLB strikeouts than hits. Did you know that for the first time ever eight teams lost 95 games? In contrast three won 100, and the Boston Red Sox set a franchise-hallowing record of 108. We have not seen this degree of quality-polarization since the 1950s, when perhaps three or four clubs dominated a decade and attendance fell off the (multiplication) table. It all became too… probable and predictable.

Oh yes: two of the three clubs that spent the largest sum in payroll, needless to say, were the Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

There is another number, which is music to no one’s ears, and it involves the measurement of time: The Baby Boom Generation, which supported baseball for decades, is passing into hypereducated oblivion. Youngsters largely find baseball an irrelevance.

Some at the top obviously hold sports gaming or the fantasy service DraftKing would be the way out of predictability, the ho-hum. This reality and thrill of gambling would be injected: no one fathoms what would happen next. Yet we do know that professional baseball and gambling have a long (and rich) history of being, well, at odds. Fans trust they are seeing results at the same time the players do. We soon “celebrate,” if any word could be right, the centennial-conspiracy of the Black Sox Scandal. This anniversary would coincide with our pilgrimage to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Other wet blankets maintain, perhaps correctly, that analytics may be the end of Hot Stove League leverage among even elite-level free agentsThe numbers don’t lie. Baseball is an ever-more data-driven endeavor. There may be a logic to collusion among owners. But more likely, analytics show certain indubitable patterns with respect to players’ fall-off in production. That age is 32. We will not be seeing the Joe Nuxhalls or Bob Fellers anymore. Only the NBA signs teens. The baseball players’ union ought to examine its CBA with respect to when a player becomes eligible for full free agency.

MLB, as always (from ongoing discussions between Martin and myself), could take lessons in the entertainment department from the cricket world: successes and cautionary tales. To counter the stodgy universe of test cricket, T20 was hatched in the early 2000s. The more-fluid defensive positioning in cricket came way ahead of analytics-bred defensive shifts. (Tho there are negative whispers, to put the shift into the same category as the zone defense of basketball.) International cricket has had its recent share of gambling-related woes.

I’ll say it: Baseball is clearly in danger of becoming an old exercise in paint-by-number.

Whence goeth the fun?

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Ripeness Is All

Jimmy Anderson offers a few words of advice.

Relentlessly, the English medium-fast bowler James Anderson is climbing the list of all-time wicket takers (in Test cricket). At the time of this writing, he’s placed fifth (with 544), a mere 19 wickets below the great Australian quick Glenn McGrath, and in sight of becoming the fast bowler who’s taken the most Test wickets. What’s more, Anderson’s body shows no signs of breaking down or his heart of losing interest, in spite of the fact that he just turned thirty-six  and has been playing international cricket since 2003.

In fact, although the pace at which Anderson delivers the ball has slowed to the low- to mid-eighties (m.p.h.), he not only keeps on taking wickets, but keeps on improving. One lingering asterisk over his greatest-of-all-time status has been the number of runs he’s conceded per wickets taken. Anderson’s career got off to a very rocky start. Between his debut against Zimbabwe fifteen years ago and the last day of 2009, his average was an unremarkable wicket every 34.65 runs conceded—a consequence of tinkering with his action that caused him to slump in form and confidence. Between 2010 and today, however, his average has been a world-class 24.33 runs per wicket—an improvement of a full ten runs per wicket. The result is that Anderson is not only the most durable, reliable, and successful of England’s Test bowlers, but (with an aggregate average of 27.19) at the heavily policed border of unquestionable GOAT territory.

Anderson’s continued improvement is not only a testimony to his extraordinary fitness, intense enjoyment of the game, and fine cricketing brain, but also to the elegant and efficient mechanics of his bowling action and his remarkable control over the ball as it leaves his hand. Able to swing the ball both ways, he is now no longer reliant on England’s cloud-cover and cool temperatures to make the ball do enough through the air or off the pitch to fool the batsman—although he still remains more successful in English conditions. His best-ever figures (7 wickets for 42 runs) came last year (beating out his 7–43 of 2008). Not only did he average a miserly 17.58 runs per wicket in 2017, but he allayed the skeptics during the dismal England tour of Australia in 2017–18, when he was his team’s most successful bowler in harsh conditions. He is now a man for all pitches and climates, maintaining tight discipline over the line and length of his deliveries, and making scoring runs off him difficult.

The three bowlers above McGrath in the list—Anil Kumble (619 wickets), Shane Warne (708), and Muttiah Muralitharan (800)—were all spinners of the ball, an art and science with less wear-and-tear on the body than for those who run up to the wicket, ball after ball after ball. The spinners’ records, each a testament to their greatness, are unlikely to be beaten, although Kumble and Muralitharan were thirty-eight when they played their last Tests. It’s, therefore, conceivable that Anderson could play for another two years, and, if he maintains his current trajectory, would end up with an astonishing 626 wickets. Given England’s ongoing trouble with finding a frontline seam bowler to replace him, and Anderson’s ever-ripening skills, it’s not out of the question that he could take more wickets, even more rapidly, and go on even longer. Either way, it’s hard to imagine another fast bowler will ever catch him.

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The Thousandth Test

IPL Fireworks

It’s all cricket!

On March 15 1877, Charles Bannerman and Nat Thomson strode out to open the batting for Australia at Melbourne against an England team, in what is generally acknowledged to be the first “Test” match—a cricket game of two innings each between nations. Over the course of four days, slightly more than 20,000 spectators saw Bannerman score the first century (over a hundred runs in an innings) and witnessed a couple of records that have still not been broken: Englishman James Southerton remains, at 49 years old, the oldest person to make his Test debut; Bannerman scored almost 70 percent of his side’s runs as they beat England by 45 runs.

On August 1, 2018, Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings walked out to open the batting for England at Edgbaston, in Birmingham, England, against a team from India in the thousandth Test match that England has played. This match, which also lasted four days and saw England eke out a victory by 31 runs against the best team in the world, was watched by 75,716 people at the ground and millions (mainly in India) on television.

Needless to say the world has changed a great deal for England between the first and thousandth Test match. A game that began as an aristocratic, private pursuit morphed into a public spectacle; the amateur pastime changed into a professional pursuit; and a sport defined by white privilege became a means by which members of the territories of the British Empire could beat their colonial overlords (literally) at their own game and assert their independence. The center of gravity has also shifted: from the hundreds of thousands of fans in England and Australia to the more than a billion fans worldwide; from a game controlled by white men to one played by rainbow nations of men and women from Barbados to Colombo, Hong Kong to Cape Town; and from a leisurely occupation over several days to the fast-paced, televised spectacle of T20 competitions, in which a match is done and dusted in about four hours.

Amid the financial flood of endorsement packages, TV rights, and multimillionaire superstars playing for franchises around the world, Test cricket finds itself increasingly marooned. The thousandth Test match was played before an appreciative and substantial crowd, but many Test matches not featuring India, England, or Australia (the three most well-financed cricketing nations) are played in virtually empty stadia. People have jobs to do, the tickets are too expensive, and the fact that one might show up to watch a day’s cricket and not see a result is unsatisfactory to most contemporary fans. Cricket authorities are tinkering with the format (introducing day/night games, considering four-day-only matches, proposing a world championship) but it’s hard to argue with the all-round family oriented entertainment value of limited-overs cricket.

The irony is that Test matches remain the yardstick by which international crickets measure their greatness. It’s called Test cricket because it remains the ultimate challenge for a cricketer: the discipline, concentration, stamina, skill level, and tactical nous are—so cricketers say—an order of magnitude above that of the other forms. When England captain, Joe Root, and Indian captain, Virat Kohli, walked off the pitch following the match at Edgbaston, they both acknowledged that the excitement and tension, the seesawing of advantage throughout the three days and one session of play, and the ebb and flow of performances from different members of the two elevens, had been a great advertisement for the format.

It goes without saying that no one knows what the future for Test cricket will be, although prognostications are grim. However, it’s doubtful any player in the first Test match (played on the first day in front of a “crowd” of 4,500) could have imagined their sport would ultimately engage more than one-seventh of the world’s population. Right now, it’s hard to believe that England will play another hundred Test matches, let alone another thousand. And if they do, perhaps those games will be as rare and select as that initial match in 1877.

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Tab, Joe, Joe, and Joe

The original Mike Trout: Joe Hardy played by the late Tab Hunter

The synchronicity of nostalgia. Events that rhyme in timeA circling of the sun. The revolution of the cold-blooded moon. Fantasy and fact orbit one another!

It is 60 years ago today, July 21, 2018, that “Joe Boyd, a middle-aged real estate salesman, met the man who was to change the course of his life and, indirectly, the standings of the American League.” It is also 13 days since the death of Tab Hunter, who plays Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees, a musical based on the novel from which the quote is taken. It is one of Hunter’s signature roles.

The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant was published by W. W. Norton & Co. in 1954. That was one year the New York Yankees did not win the pennant.

Author Douglas Wallop, whose surname, according to family legend, was earned by ancestors for what they did to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, was peering even further ahead for Yankees’s failure…to 1958, when the truly cataclysmic would occur: the lowly Washington Senators (several times removed from the present-day Nationals, definitely not patsies) would take a league championship from the Yankees.

(The word pennant is rarely evoked these days. In real life, the 1958 Yankees stormed back to retake the World Series from the Milwaukee Braves.)

The movie-musical and the novel from which it derives are fresh and entertaining. Wallop’s influences were several, real-life and fictional: the burgeoning Adonis-myth of Mickey Mantle (in My Favorite Summer 1956: “I was never much for plays. People said the author patterned this Joe Hardy after me. I don’t know if that’s true.  Another thing I don’t know is why the club would want us to see a play where the Yankees lose the Pennant.”); the sizzling and (ultimately) doomed relationship of Joe DiMaggio (who, 77 years and 3 days ago at this writing, embarked on a less-famous 16-game batting streak, thus to hit in 72 out of 73 games) and Marilyn Monroe; plus a nocturnal-cynical narrative of bad karma and redemption called The Natural (1952), which itself would be adapted as a 1984 film.

I have no idea if Tab Hunter is routinely compared to Robert Redford, who stars in The Natural: respectively, leading men in much-different times. Hunter’s death, along with others of a generation, represents a closing of the Hollywood studio-system mind.

Below, Ray Walston, the Yankees #1 fan, muses on the bad-old days.

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