The Baseball Scene

The bat looks like a toothpick (or pen) in Henry James’s hand.

Henry James, for whom no abstraction, no characteristic or gesture, was too subtle to be examined (and examined), qualified and qualified again, is generally credited with a fictional form that was actually pioneered by women, mostly Continental-women writers on to Edith Wharton.

Mary Murdoch Mason’s Mae Madden: A Story was published three years before James’s similarly titled “Daisy Miller: A Study.” (This precedent is uncovered by S. A. Wadsworth, out of Minnesota, in an award-winning 2001 essay.)

It “mae” be noted James is also the author of The American. Its drama-version opened outside Liverpool but then fell flat in the West End of London, the city James loved, and lost a lot of money.

What does any of this have to do with cricket and baseball? Scrutinizing it from our most-reliable point of view, as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox square off in the East End…everything!

Since literature is an element of Right off the Bat, we see James’s endlessly modulated-international theme of naive U.S. citizen encountering more worldly European, whether female and male, male and female, or same-gender, as in some form paralleling, if not quite defining, the short London series and how it will play. MLB injects itself into the heart of a more worldly cricket world.

Writing itself is a lens thro which sport, as part of the general “scene” and culture, is viewed, dissected, evaluated: Izaak Walton, Lardner, Malamud, Updike. (Along with cricket, Jane Austen mentions “base ball” in Northanger Abbey, via a ditsy character.)

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that U.S. democracy would devolve into bric-a-brac, the merely trivial. Charles Dickens could not abide the U.S. and slandered it. Jaundiced Mark Twain wrote The Innocents Abroad and later A Tramp Abroad. James comes down on the side of de Tocqueville in The American Scene.

OK, the writers, the observers and framers, have had their say. Since London skipped out of baseball as a Summer Olympics sport, it is only fitting some of the best pros (not prose) will treat Brits to the best baseball has to offer. It’s the players’ turn to create a narrative.

In the closing chapter of our book, The Bambino comes under the Yankee Stadium tutelage of the Don. We call this first-1932 summit, and a second two-years-and-change later, “the merger.” Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life all, in the words of those Local Lads, the Beatles of James’s Waterloo, Liverpool, come together.

MLB will do it all over the UK scene again in 2020 (as baseball returns to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo), this time without the DH, as NL rivals the Chicago Cubs face the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Great Stadiums (10): Big Beautiful Shea Stadium

A rendition of Shea Stadium (named for William Alfred Shea) with the dome that never was: looking suspiciously like the Houston Astrodome.

I (Evander) went wild first visiting the then-new home of the New York Mets (short for Metropolitans), something like 55 years ago.

Shea was McLuhan-cool.

It had escalators.

It had parking.

It had exterior-aluminum ’60s-colored Go-Go panels suspended by cables that you could shake from the ramps: an incentive to avoid the Everest-peak escalators, especially on the post-game way down and out.

The game—or anything happening on field-level—was a rumor from the nosebleed seats of the upper deck.

A few years into its run, Tom Seaver would qualify as everybody’s nutty older cousin.

It hosted the Beatles two times and was rumored to star a-rockin’ Bob Dylan (to prove that the times they were a-changin’) a year later.

Here Nolan Ryan struck out his first batter, fellow-rookie pitcher Pat Jarvis (no relation, as far as ROTB knows, to organist Jane Jarvis).

It was set up for the New York Jets, a team that switched its name from “Titans” so that only a consonant need be changed above the concession stands. Joe Namath passed for a stunning championship comeback in the wind and permafrost of December 1968.

Shea in early fall: reaching out to Namath.

A couple spins round the sun and peekaboo-safety panels were retrofitted to permit fans on lower levels a view into the bullpens.

There was almost no day-game shade on ticket lines or in the parking lot; these to-be-pitied urban trees reminded me of the sparsely treed and, frankly, cheesy Freedomland of the northeast Bronx.

It was supposed to be domed, as they did in Houston, with a concrete or steel velarium inspired by ancient Rome.

The Eighth Wonder of the World: no one could see balls hit high in the air during day games for the translucent-dome panels and girders. Even the grass died later, tho almost everyone could buy a behind-the-massive-dugouts seat.

The planes taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport were obnoxiously loud.

It was next door to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

There were no fuddy-duddy bleachers at the beginning. Much later, there were friendly outfield stands, a picnic area, and those Piazza-tent shots.

Three indelibly memorable World Series were played there as well as the first-ever National League Championship Series.

Not one of the several concrete ashtrays of the era, Shea Stadium, by any objective measure, may yet have been the worst park in which to see a major-league game. To top (or bottom) things: The years had not been kind to Shea, which always was big but not beautiful…except in the eye of this once-young beholder, even in his ear….

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

One can sense (Wilhelm) Richard Wagner’s Valkyrie (Die Walkuere) in the background: and too much fowl territory!

Daphne du Maurier wrote “The Birds,” a short story expanded upon by Alfred Hitchcock to a film of eco-psychology 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 and the Beatles performing their last paid-show there, on August 29, 1966.] 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 franchise that, for many additional reasons, raw-sewage leaks and 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.

A strange bird the pelican,
His beak can hold more than his belly can:
I don’t know how the hell he can.

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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 as is the ultra-complex BP: analyses of teams) with such generally accepted as well as esoteric stats as WAR (wins above replacement, sometimes rendered WARP); secondary average; ERA+; 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); contact rate; SR (spin rate); wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus: a stadium- and league-adjusted power measurement); PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) projections; 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); BABIP and FB% (fastball percentage); 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 a droning 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 Chicago 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 (Shakespeare used an unusual number of hyphens) 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.

Of course, MLB could always juice the ball. The so-called dead-ball era ended a hundred seasons ago next year with that Chicago Black Sox Scandal.

The stats, along with the times, were a lot simpler then. “Hit ’em where they ain’t!”

I’ll say it: Baseball is clearly in danger of becoming an old exercise in paint-by-number. Henry Chadwick, the stickler of Beadle’s Dime Base-ball Player, turns over in his grave.

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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