Thursday, March 13, 2014

TAKING THE GAME DOWN UNDER


The annual spring trek to Arizona to see which teams have a chance to win more games than they lose this year begins next week.
These are curious times in the desert. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks will have decamped by the time we arrive, a full 10 days earlier than the other teams to travel to Sidney Australia where they will play an exhibition game each against a local nine and then play two games against each other that will count as the opening of their season. The Sidney Cricket Field is being transformed for the event.
As simple and as groundbreaking as that that sounds, it is decidedly not.
Baseball on a professional level was introduced in 1888 to the “Aussies” by no less than Albert Spalding, maker in later life of all manner of sports equipment but at that moment the owner of the Chicago White Stockings. He took them and a team of all-stars there and it was hailed by sportswriters there as here in the U.S., never shy about their making any sports event sound as important as any World War, as “the great event in the modern history of sports.” While baseball has flourished in a minor way in the school yards and a few professional leagues in Australia, it has never reached the heights that Spalding had hoped despite his extensive tour and his financial backing of several teams there before and after his team’s tour. The major “summer” sport (just ending there) is still Cricket and will always be Cricket. Spalding was beginning to sell sports equipment then, cricket bats included, so while his motives were somewhat proprietary, those of Major League Baseball today, on its blitzkrieg-like adventure to the land Down Under are merely avaricious.
The Spalding tour went to Adelaide, Sidney, Melbourne, and Ballarat. The final game was played in the Melbourne in front of a crowd of 12,000 and included an opening contest against the Melbourne Baseball Club. The White Stocking Game was inexplicably halted in the sixth inning for a bit of a show by baton twirlers and dancers. After they left the field a throwing contest was held. A young, now long forgotten all star pitcher named Eddie Crane from the Giants “won” and set a record for what was believed to be the longest throw of a baseball in Australian history (398 feet). The crowd was apparently as enthralled by that feat (and the twirlers and the dancers) as it was by the game. While baseball is considered by many here as slow and boring, they have clearly never tried to sit through a cricket match with its tea breaks and overnight time outs.
There will, of course be no such frivolity this time. Baseball now is a serious ten billion dollar a year business. They have committed, not to a series of meaningless exhibition games, but to actually start the baseball season there, a serious thing indeed.  As described this week by the principal owner of the Dodgers, it will allow them to start the season in “one of the most exciting cities and rapidly developing baseball markets on earth…” (Emphasis mine).
Baseball for the owners is about the marketplace and Mr. Kasten believes—along with the lame duck Commissioner, one Alan H. “Bud” Selig—that this is an opportunity to market the “product.”  So they will travel across the date line to tomorrow before it becomes yesterday and countless time zones and back to “promote” the product. There are perhaps ten players from Australia now good enough to play baseball for money here in America all but one to my knowledge played their collegiate careers here. This is a detail that means nothing to the Lords of the game. This is a market to be conquered, a place to be enhanced by the “influence” of the professional game.
Suffice to say the week to go to the faraway land Down Under and acclimate and then come back and do the same has sent the managers, coaches, and a few of the players of the two teams screaming from the room when they learned that Selig, who is paid 20 million dollars to run this circus, made the decision that the games played would count rather than be mere exhibitions of the considerable talents on each club.

No problem, right? Well, yes.

If you are the manager of the Dodgers or the Diamondbacks, when you get back in two weeks, you will still have 160 games left in the regular season and perhaps close to 20 more if you are fortunate enough to reach the World Series. Most pitchers these days, the stars, the starters, the ones like the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw who won the Cy Young Award as the best in the league last year, usually start 30 games and you hope for 200 or 250 innings out of his exhausted throwing arm by the end. The press reported early on that he wasn't keen to go, and as manager you know he will need extra rest if he pitches on “Opening Day” on the Cricket Field so he will be “lost” for at least an extra five days when you get back. You have games those days, all played against teams that you will compete with for the Western Division Championship. What to do? He could and should go if this is an honest attempt to spread good will, exhibit the best talent and win the games as one would here since they count and are not mere athletic exhibitions as first supposed. A conundrum, what? And what of those fellows who must pitch the game the following day? They should be the regular number two starter who will likewise be lost. Would it be better to take others for that start so that some semblance of a pitching rotation can be maintained when you get back? Others could join the roster and go to the minor leagues when the team returns.  Yet the Commissioner is treating this seriously. Zach Greinke for one, the Dodgers number two starter, showed no interest in making the trip and strained his right calf in an odd incident on February 27. He will stay home to wait his usual start in April.  Kershaw agreed to go perhaps because he just signed a new contract that guarantees his income from the Dodgers whether he pitches or is too badly injured to do so for the next 5 years in the 18 to 24 million dollar range, perhaps not. Those numbers can make you loyal and compliant.
When this whimsical expedition to the other hemisphere was first dreamt of by the Commissioner and it was assumed the games would all be exhibitions and there would be a certain mix of veteran “stars” from both teams and a number of “maybe will be someday” types who would go. Yet since both teams chosen were in the same division, why not, he thought in his habitually fuzzy way, have them count and make it all the more, well, important  for the denizens of Sidney? One can only suppose that it never crossed his small dollar driven mind that it might be more than inconvenient  to the teams involved.
The manager of the Arizona Nine is a man who, to put it mildly, does not suffer fools or foolishness gladly. He is Kirk Gibson, a colorful fellow who, besides hitting the most famous home run in Los Angeles history while only able to stand on one leg which allowed the Dodgers to advance to the last World Series they played in back in 1987, was a football player of considerable skill at the University of Michigan. He had the good sense to chose baseball over football and had a long a reasonably distinguished career. He issued, as is his wont when gravely irritated by people with titles like Commissioner, several unprintable sentences when he learned that the games would count. He is of course faced with the same sort of Hobson’s choices as the manager of the Dodgers.

We who will be in Arizona next week are left then with those teams which remain in “camp,” and players dreaming dreams of making The Show or re-earning their positions in it. The symmetry of the spring seems askew this year with two teams already gone and the rest still trying to make decisions about who will play when they open the regular season. Before then, one of the two teams in the Western Division could be in first place, two games ahead before the other three even get to their home cities while the other could  be in last place.
There will be many curiosities for us nonetheless. There are rule changes to be observed. Runners approaching home plate may now be called out if they collide with the catcher, unless the catcher is blocking the base path and has the ball. This has not gone well in its early implementation because it is hard to decide intent and the umpire must decide quickly. Instant replay has been widely expanded and so far has proven annoying and prolonging. All are assured that it will “get better” as they work it out before the season starts. I am personally in favor of neither of the changes because they are as subject to interpretation as the rules they are superseding and in the first case make the umpire far more responsible for whether a run will count while in the latter, making them nearly redundant to video replays on a number of safe and out calls that can profoundly affect the game.

 This was an active winter for players who went to new teams because their contracts had expired and found another team willing to pay them more or for a longer period of time. So there are new faces in camps in Arizona that used to be in Florida. It was also notable for the number of trades. Trades, since the advent of expiring contracts or so-called “free agency” were largely overlooked as ways in which to improve your team and often only done as acts of desperation. Yet there is a new philosophy, born as always by some bright baseball man in charge of acquiring talent and thus copied immediately by as many others as possible and hailed as the best idea ever. It is a phenomenon known around the front offices as “clearing salary.” It is not a hard concept to understand, and one wonders why it took so long to embrace it.
For example, a team may have paid too much for a player last year who may not be meeting its needs and expectations, and yet he is still viewed around the game as one of the better hitters or pitchers. One can, in the argot of the game, “unload” his salary by trading him for a number of lesser talented players and “prospects” and fill two positions on your team now where you need help this year. There is a visionary aspect to it as well. If you have a player who you really want to keep whose contract will expire next year, the team has now “cleared salary,” i.e. taken it off the books in future years for the star they traded and can make a competitive offer for that player’s return when equally avaricious teams around the league do likewise. Thus, you have made your team no worse by letting a star go now while he still has value and acquiring a lesser talent with some unique skills that you need (who will be paid a pittance by comparison) while the rest of the cash you owed the alleged “superstar” for four or five more years goes into the bank. It is the best new thing since boiling water right now for some teams that believe they have benefited greatly from its use. We will know if it did if, like the Red Sox last year, they are still playing in October.

All this  to a lifelong fan who is passionate enough about the game to travel several hundred miles to watch exhibition games for a week when the talent being showcased might well spend the summer playing in  Iowa means nothing. We go because of the game. Because no matter how many dollars the men who play this little boy’s game make it is still played with extraordinary skill. It is still 90 feet between the bases and there are still three outs in an inning and the timelessness of it all has not yet been lost. It is done with grace and speed and far better than we could imagine on the playgrounds of our youth. They see the ball, hit the ball and catch the ball or they don’t and that is why we come, not the clauses in their contracts or the loading and unloading of salary. There is still an idyllic charm to the chatter from an infielder on a warm spring day and the subtle positioning of a fielder before a pitch and the reasons why one player hits far better batting  second rather than sixth.

That is why we come, why we watch, and why it is still "the game."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A GAME TO BE LOVED

It is about the time of year that Reamus delivers his yearly disquisition on the joys and vicissitudes of Spring Training. I am going, it is late this year, and having come across this article I could not help but put it here since it says more about the love of a game than any philosophical waxing that I could do about the new and wrongful uses of instant replay in a game that started as described here and one perhaps wishes resembled this a bit more.
For these young and old on Long Island, I hope the cry of “Game On!” will be carried forward for many more generations by them and their ilk that understand the baseball, as life, is a human endeavor, beset and made more fractious by its need for order and rules, but somehow all the more fanatically fun because of them .

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

      

Yearning for the Fields of Summer


By DAVID VECSEY

Something strange appeared in front of my house recently: a little patch of grass and dirt, peeking out from the icy crust that has enveloped Long Island for most of the past two months. A sign of life. On the news, I caught glimpses of David Wright making those loose, easy first throws of training camp. George Harrison’s voice filled my head.

The emails should start coming any week now. As soon as the blades of grass outnumber the snowflakes, somebody is going to try to get our Sunday softball game up and running. It took about 60 inches of snow to finally put the game down for the winter, after some of the boys tried to keep playing even after temperatures started dipping into the 30s.
“Game on!” the subject lines would say, sometimes in all caps, sometimes with multiple exclamation points. “It’s going to be clear and in the 40s! Who’s in for softball on Sunday?”
At 40 degrees, I was most certainly not in for softball. I can just imagine the sound of my rotator cuff tearing on a frosty December morning, like a frozen branch snapping off a tree.

So I didn’t respond, even as enthusiastic replies flooded my inbox. Almost enough for a full game.
“C’mon guys, its big-boy time,” the next email said. It was from George. “Drag yourselves down to the field like the beer-swilling, [expletive], football-watching, [expletive], meat-eating, hammer-swinging men that we are.”
More emails followed. They urged and implored, cajoled and castigated. To not want to play softball, they reminded us, was to call into question our masculinity, our patriotism, our belief system and moral code. I was fine with that.
I have been struck by the direct genetic relationship between our weekly softball doubleheader and the antebellum game of town ball. It was named, at least in part, because a game was most likely to spring up when all the outliers had occasion to venture into town — for the Fourth of July, say, or Election Day. Tied into such events, the game was inherently nationalistic, even without the bump from the born-in-America myths. It was an organic happening, a reaffirming of community, when friends and neighbors bonded through the shared experience of physical game play. Toward the middle of the century, clubs were formed for men to play town ball or the modified “base-ball” — mostly as intramural affairs but eventually expanding to include interclub challenges.
From March to December (generally), our group performs the same kind of ritualistic gathering every Sunday morning at an elementary school ball field in Port Washington. Players drive in from all over Long Island — from Syosset and Massapequa and, in George’s case, from Mastic, a little more than an hour away. Some have been playing the game for decades; some watched their fathers play. At 44, I’m somewhere in the middle of our age curve. We have contractors and mechanics, cardiologists and dentists, graphic designers, bankers and lawyers. Try arguing the infield-fly rule with a lawyer.
It is a self-governed game, with teams divided into comparable sides and playing by an amalgam of baseball, softball and schoolyard rules. Disputes arise. The strike zone is something of a free-form abstraction. And we have a fouling-out rule that is a bottomless wellspring of constitutional-style debate.
The peace is kept in large part by our de facto commissioner, Mark, who puts his skills as a legal marketing executive to good use. He’s just one of our characters. Jarrod — J-Rod — is the dispenser of nicknames as well as some of the vilest infield banter ever heard; Hugh dives headfirst for every fly ball and into every base; Spence sprinkles outfield chatter with Yiddish; and Rich — Tino — is a pull-hitting left-handed first baseman with the demeanor of an oversize puppy (shake a ball and throw it, and he’ll run after it).

Then there is George.
George drove tanks in the Army; now George is a tank, a regular Old Hoss Radbourn, pitching for both teams in both games when we are short players. He swings a wood bat, and he has the Yankees logo and Thurman Munson’s No. 15 tattooed on his arm. Every week he takes line drives to the arms, thighs and belly. He proudly displays his hideous bruises, gimps around the mound and keeps pitching.
Gruff as he appears, George is the consummate town ball gentleman, tirelessly serving up hittable pitches. He pitches me low and away, where I like it, but he’ll happily go high and inside to Chris, a savage tomahawker who petitions to play more innings every week. Chris would have loved town ball, with games sometimes played to 100 runs.
In those formative years, winning was not the presiding objective. More so, the men were there to compete, to bond in a healthful, upstanding manner. For professional men in the urban centers, it became a valued source of clean, wholesome recreation. For us, their descendants, it may not always be that. But it’s as close as it gets.
Certainly we play to win, but that’s not why we play. We play to make that one backhanded stab deep in the hole or to rip that one double into the gap — or even just to land that one good zinger and draw a laugh. It doesn't matter if it’s schoolyard softball . It is a universal and archetypal experience.
This has been a long, cold, lonely winter. The ice is slowly melting. I know the boys are eager to play ball. I am, too. And every day that patch of grass sprouting out of the ice becomes a little bit larger.

I hope you enjoyed what you could of this brutal winter and that the green is beginning to poke through the snow where you are as well. Stay well and in touch. I will no doubt have opinions of the quality of play  and the abilities of those who do it when I return .

I am certain only that it will be no more fun than softball on Long Island this year.

Editors  note: Reprinted with slight editorial changes from the New York Times Opinion Section, March 1, 2014, with thanks to the author.