Archive for October, 2010
It’s true, as many in the national media have written, that this year’s National League champion San Francisco Giants have captured the imagination of the city in a way that the Barry Bonds-led teams straddling the turn of the century did not. It’s easy to love a champion, but San Francisco had already fallen hard for this Giants club before the regular season ended. It’s one of those love-affair years.
But it’s revisionist history to say that the teams of the late ’90s and early ’00s were not beloved by the fans because the fans didn’t like Barry Bonds. I can’t put it any more simply that this: San Francisco fans absolutely loved Barry Bonds. There was no ambivalence at all.
It was the writers who didn’t like him. For all the negative talk about him, he was a garden variety beloved superstar before the steroid revelations. And by that I mean the smoking gun of the BALCO case, which broke in the 2003-04 offseason, not the rumors and accusations that had flown around Bonds for a couple of years before that.
And even after BALCO, it was a very small percentage of San Francisco fans who gave a flying damn about Bonds and steroids. A vast majority of the outrage and worry came from the media — and of course fans in other cities. Everyone is always very, very concerned about steroid use by the visiting team.
Even when Bonds was chasing Henry Aaron’s career home run record, by which time there was no doubt that Bonds, in addition to all the other aspects of his toxic personality, was a user of illegal drugs intended to enhance performance, relatively few Giants fans were troubled in the least by him. I should know because I was one of those who were troubled, and the meetings were not crowded.
Here’s my pal Gary Kamiya writing in Salon the year before the record-breaking homer:
If Barry hits it at home and I’m lucky enough to be there, I’ll be screaming like God had just opened the seventh seal. And I’ll be doing that even though I’m 99 percent sure Barry cheated — and I don’t approve of cheating.
I won’t be alone. There will be 40,000 screaming Giants’ fans around me experiencing the same non-asterisked rapture, and several hundred thousand more fans throughout Northern California.
No, Barry Bonds did not keep San Francisco from loving the Giants team that went to the World Series in 2002 or the playoff teams in 1997, 2000 and 2003. Those teams were loved just fine. But not as much as this year’s team.
I think it’s the natural course of things that some versions of a team are more beloved than other versions. Some years, it clicks. This Giants team is led by enormously likable players — Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Buster Posey and, to a lesser extent because he didn’t play well, 2009 revelation Pablo Sandoval. On top of that, it has an Island of Misfit Toys makeup — led by Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and Pat Burrell — that fans in any city are going to love when it works. Plus, the team was involved in an exciting three-way playoff race.
The only other time I can remember this kind of feeling around the Giants — non-fans talking about them and excited about them while the season was going on — was in 1993, when Barry Bonds was a newly signed free agent, a local kid, the superstar son of a former Giants star. The pennant race with the Atlanta Braves that year was out of this world, and the Giants had probably the best team they’ve ever had in San Francisco.
If Barry Bonds had started doing steroids that year and word had got out about it, that team would not have been any less loved in San Francisco. I’m sure of it.
Every playoff year can’t be a love-affair year. Most of the time when the home team is good it’s just regular old fan excitement going on. But once in a while, everything clicks and a team stands a city on its ear. That happened with the Giants this year. It happened in 1993. It didn’t happen in the playoff years in between, but not because San Franciscans couldn’t root for Barry Bonds.
All that ambivalence San Francisco felt about Barry Bonds that you’ve been reading about: I don’t know whether it’s projection or faulty memories. But I do know this: It’s fiction.
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ESPN’s great “UniWatch” columnist Paul Lukas has the rundown of this year’s NBA uniform changes, which mostly consist of fiddling with the collars and adopting a new fabric that makes beviled numerals difficult, though my hometown Eighth Largest Economy in the World Warriors rightly take “makeover of the year honors” with all-new but retro duds.
Lukas mentions that six teams will participate in the league’s “Noche Latina” program, meaning they’ll have “Spanish modifications” on their jerseys for some games in March. And those modifications are … WEAK!
The six teams’ “Spanish” names are: Los Bulls, Los Lakers, El Heat, Los Suns, Nueva York and Los Spurs. Come on, NBA. Most of these are not tough to translate.
I don’t know what you do with Lakers, which isn’t a word I’ve ever heard in English unless it was referring to the basketball team. Evidently it means a boat or fish found in a lake. I’m OK with Los Lakers. I’m also OK with punting on Knicks, which is short for Knickerbockers, which in the sense used by the Knicks means New Yorker, not knee-length pants. Nueva York is fine.
But “Los Bulls”? Really? Does the NBA think fans would be baffled by “Los Toros”? Baseball gets this right. The Giants and Brewers, for example, become Los Gigantes and Los Cerveceros on their Latin heritage days. They don’t go for the cheezy Spanglish names. Los Soles, El Calor and — I had to look this up and I love it — Las Espuelas would make great jerseys.
Throwing the word “Los” in front of an English word is some weak Gringo shit, NBA. It’s like saying, “Yeah, I speako Español.” La NBA can do better.
For the third straight baseball postseason, umpires have been making critical, high-profile mistakes in game after game, and there’s a growing drumbeat among media and fans that Major League Baseball has to do something about it. And not just any something, but one specific something: instant replay.
The entire conversation about umpiring has been predicated on the assumption that the only solution to the problem is a technological one, which is fascinating — and maybe just a little troubling — because everyone in the conversation knows two things: There are acres of room for improvement that has nothing to do with technology, and the technology itself is far from perfect.
We know from other sports, especially NFL football, that video replay is hardly perfect. Putting aside the unnecessarily long delays that accompany video replay in the NFL, it’s a simple fact about video that it does not always provide conclusive evidence of what happened. Camera angles can be as deceptive as the naked eye.
And more important, the NFL’s replay system is a laboratory of unintended consequences. Introduced for the same reason many people want to introduce replay to baseball — to put an end to egregious officiating mistakes — it has become the lord of officials. It has changed the way officials call games. Refs now err on the side of the reviewable call, or make no call at all so replay can be possible. They have changed the way they call fumbles and completions. Watch an old NFL game from before replay and you’ll be struck at the difference in officiating and rules interpretation.
People will argue over the specifics of those last two paragraphs, but there’s no one familiar with replay who doesn’t know that replay is far from perfect, that despite — I would say because of — replay being entrenched in the NFL for years, officiating is still such a problem that a huge number of fans can convince themselves that a recent Super Bowl was fixed by the refs.
Yet the only anti-replay argument that ever sees the light of day is the Luddite one: Instant replay would rob baseball, that most human of games, of an essential human element.
That’s a valid argument, but it’s a religious one. No one is ever going to be argued off of it, and if you don’t buy it, you’re not going to be talked into it.
But it’s interesting that the argument against it goes like this: Instant replay might not be perfect, but it’s better than what we have now, so we should use it. That argument ignores a vital question. Is instant replay better than some other solution?
If you’ve been around as long as most of the people who are in the most public part of this argument — media figures and baseball officials — technology has been a series of miracles in your life. You can carry a supercomputer in your pocket that connects you to anywhere in the world all the time? Are you kidding? I’m not even 50 and I remember when it was a big deal that someone could leave you a taped message when they called your house — the only place you could have a phone — and you weren’t there.
Got a problem? Technology can probably fix it, and if not, just wait a little. It’s coming. Marvelous times.
But I think we sometimes forget that technology isn’t the only fix, and it isn’t always the best one, and not just for squishy reasons having to do with idealizing human error. Human error is a bad thing, and technology is often fantastic at doing away with it. But it can also do away with some good human things, like judgment and holistic problem solving.
Think about law enforcement for a moment — and sports officiating is essentially law enforcement. Which is more effective at fighting crime, an elaborate system of video surveillance or a program of job training, substance abuse education and treatment, community investment and so on? Or if that’s too liberal-sounding for you, focus in tighter. If you’re a parent, which is more effective at getting your kids to behave like solid citizens, spy cams around the house or engaged, loving parenting?
If you wanted to design a system that would result in poor umpiring, you would design Major League Baseball’s system. It’s positively medieval. Umpires essentially have lifetime tenure. They are sequestered from the media and answer only to a review system that is as secretive as it is pointless, since it hardly ever results in umpires losing their jobs. Instant replay won’t change that lack of accountability.
“We never know why or when they are fined, or reprimanded or held accountable,” Oakland A’s pitcher Brad Ziegler told ESPN’s Amy K. Nelson last week. “Any time a player is punished, suspended or sent down to the minors, the public knows about it. It would be a lot easier to communicate with umpires if everyone was held to similar standards. Our statistics as players are a lot more quantifiable than the umpires’.”
I am something of a Luddite when it comes to instant replay, not because I’m anti-technology — I have a long-distance line to New York in my pocket, and the call is free? Score! — but because I think baseball has been smart about being slow to change over the last century-plus. Replay would suddenly, irreversibly alter a game that has a pretty good history of solving its problems without radical, game-altering solutions.
I don’t believe baseball should absolutely avoid instant replay because instant replay is evil. I believe it should try to tackle the organizational problems that are leading to the poor umpiring rather than slap an electronic band-aid on them.
Nelson’s ESPN story is about a planned winter meeting between the grumbling players association, baseball officials and the umpires. Nelson describes such a meeting as “rare,” which is a problem right there. Shouldn’t the three parties involved in this major issue for Major League Baseball talk to each other more than rarely?
Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida
Or: How the complicated calculus of who I root for has blocked the bliss
This might sound strange if you know that baseball teams I have rooted for have won World Series championships while I was rooting for them, but: I have never had the simple joy of rooting a baseball team to a World Series championship.
Please understand: I’m not whining here. I know some people have it worse than I’ve had it. There are Cubs fans, of course. There are lifelong fans of teams that have been around for a lifetime without winning a championship: Astros, Rangers, Padres, Brewers. The late Expos. Even lifelong fans of my favorite team, the Giants, so decorated in the first half of the 20th century, have never cheered on a World Series winner unless their life has been longer than 60 years and their fandom survived the move west.
I am not a lifelong Giants fan. I’m a convert, so I don’t consider myself long-suffering. I grew up rooting for the Dodgers, and while I missed their mid-century dominance of the National League — I was 3 in 1966 when they won their 10th pennant in 20 years — they did win two titles after I started paying attention around 1969. I’ve also rooted for the Oakland A’s since I moved to the Bay Area in the early ’80s, and they’ve won a World Series in that time. And I picked up the Cardinals as a second-tier sort of team when I lived in St. Louis, and they ended a quarter-century drought during my time there.
But there have always been complicating factors. As great as I’ve had it — and my life as a fan has been a fine, fine thing — I’ve never had that unalloyed joy of rooting the hometown nine through a season to the mob scene on the mound. I’ve got a chance this year with the Giants. First chance in a while. Fourteen strikeouts by Tim Lincecum in a 1-0 Game 1 win. So far, so good. I’m loving it.
Growing up, I lived and died with the Dodgers. I rooted for the Angels too, but they were my B team. That was partly because the Dodgers were better and more glamorous. They were a habitual upper-division club when I came into consciousness as a fan, and you could walk up to TV and B-list movie stars in the stands and get autographs or look into that narrow middle deck to see if Cary Grant was there. The Angels were terrible and nobody famous went to their games. But mostly it was because we lived in Los Angeles, in Dodgers territory. The Angels were that other team out in the suburbs.
Here’s my favorite celebrity story from the stands at Dodger Stadium. Someone in my family, probably my mom, spotted Lew Parker, who, it seems to me now, looking back at it, was kind of standing around next to his seat waiting to be recognized by the people. Lew Parker probably isn’t ringing any bells for you right now, even if you’re old enough to have seen Lew Parker when Lew Parker was somebody, which he only sort of was.
In those days my brother and I would try to get an autograph when we saw someone famous. I don’t remember ever doing anything with these autographs. I never had a collection. I don’t remember ever looking at them or organizing them or having anything to do with them after I got them. It was just a thing we did, an artifact of living on the Westside of Los Angeles. Oh, there’s Peter Graves. Go ask him for his autograph. Half the time I wouldn’t even know who the person was. It was just my mom or dad saying, “Hey, Peter Graves. Get his autograph.” Whoever Peter Graves was, or Robert Stack or someone.
Lew Parker I knew, though, and I went over, chirpy little 7-year-old that I was, and I asked him excuse me could I have your autograph. He was very nice and obliging of course, and he asked me if I played baseball. I said I did. This was my first year of Little League. He asked what team I played for and I said I played for the Minor Dodgers, meaning I played for the Dodgers in the minor division at my league, the little kids.
So he said, “And where do the Dodgers play?” I didn’t answer. I looked out at the field. I looked back at him. Was this a trick question? “What?” I said, to buy a little time to think. “Where do the Dodgers play?” this wonderfully patient gentleman said. We were at the Dodgers game. I looked at the field again. They play right there, I thought. Are you some kind of fool?
I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation played out, and I don’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that he meant my Dodgers, not the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was asking me where my Little League was. I think I was about 30 when it hit me.
I was 11 when the Dodgers won the N.L. West for the first time, old enough to have lived through some disappointing seasons, battered just enough by fandom to appreciate that a playoff trip doesn’t happen every year. What a thrill it was. Here were the playoffs I’d been watching for my whole life — about four years — and they included, at long, long, suffering last, my favorite team.
It seems silly now that I thought about the Dodgers that way, as some kind of underdog or outsider. I was aware of the team’s history, the Boys of Summer, all those pennants in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the reputation as the classiest organization in baseball. I knew that a lot of people didn’t like the Dodgers because of all of that.
But the thing is, they hadn’t done that on my watch. The Dodgers I knew had been a whole lot of Andy Kosco and Bill Grabarkewitz and Willie Crawford. They’d win 85 games or so, enough to be a serious wild-card contender now, but in those days good enough for a polite second place, way out of the money. In 1970 the Giants won the division with 90 wins, and it was sort of embarrassing. This year the Padres won 90 games and didn’t make the playoffs, and that seems so tragic people are talking about expanding the field again so terrific teams like that don’t get shut out.
The Dodgers beat the Pirates in the playoffs in ‘74 but lost to the A’s in the World Series. They won the N.L. West again in ‘77 and ‘78, beating the Phillies in the playoffs and losing to the Yankees in the Series both times. They got off to a good start in 1981, the great ’70s team probably on its last legs, when the players went on strike in mid-June, just as I was graduating from high school.
The strike lasted two months. Play resumed in mid-August, a few weeks before I went to Santa Cruz for college. The season didn’t seem real. The teams that had been in first place were declared “first half” champions and the remainder of the season would serve as a second half, minor-league style. It was rinky-dink. Fans were bitter. We’d gotten out of the habit that summer. Football was starting. I was going away to college. The hell with it.
This is going to sound crazy today, because I think it was kind of unusual even 30 years ago, but at my rather bucolic college hardly anybody had a phone, and nobody had a TV. In the dorms you had to buy a phone yourself to have one in your room, and maybe one person per floor would do it. There was a house phone in the lobby of each floor, but you could only make campus calls on it. There were pay phones around. The nearest TV was in a student lounge in the next building over. Nobody had one in their room.
Immersed in the beginning of my college career, living in the wilds of the UC-Santa Cruz campus, removed from non-ivory tower/happy hour civilization, I gave the rest of the baseball season a pass. I remember hearing about Nolan Ryan’s record fifth no-hitter weeks after the fact.
Of course the Dodgers won the World Series that year. It remains the only World Series played since 1968 without me seeing a single pitch.
I transferred to Berkeley as a junior. By then I had already dropped the Angels as my second team and adopted the A’s. In ‘82 I was spending a lot of time in Berkeley and Rickey Henderson was stealing 130 bases for Billy Martin. Easy call.
The Dodgers made the World Series as big underdogs in 1988. By this time I was in grad school, living like a regular human being, with a phone and a TV and everything. I’d enjoyed the Dodgers’ upset of the Mets in the National League Championship Series immensely. There was just one problem. I’d also enjoyed the A’s win over the Red Sox in the ALCS. Now my two favorite teams were playing each other in the World Series. I couldn’t lose. Then again, it’s not so much fun to win when you’re also pulling for the other side. Ask the Williams Sisters about that.
I remember tuning into Game 1 not really knowing who I’d root for. The Dodgers had always been my Number 1 team, but the A’s had been my local nine for a half-dozen years now. I went to the Coliseum and followed them on TV. The Dodgers were long-distance. It was harder to root for a team, to follow them closely, from another city before cable TV and the Internet. You relied on box scores and game capsules in the newspaper, the very rare TV highlight that showed your team. You might see them play 10 games all year — if you lived in the city of a division rival.
Mickey Hatcher of the Dodgers hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning and ran around the bases clapping his hands. I sort of felt numb. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t really enjoy it. I’d been hoping my heart, or my brain, or somebody in there would decide for me, would just start rooting one way or the other and I could go with it. But I couldn’t undivide myself. I wanted the Dodgers to win and I wanted the A’s to win too. It wasn’t that I couldn’t lose, it was that I couldn’t win. It’s not a win if you’re not happy about the loser losing.
In the top of the second Jose Canseco hit a grand slam to put the A’s ahead. I knew it was hopeless. Today I think I would just wrench control from myself, tell myself to pick a team, dammit, root for them, root against the other team and shut up. I have more control over my emotions, maybe because I’ve lived through the unnatural act of transforming from a Dodgers fan to a Giants fan. But at 25 I wasn’t in control of much.
A few hours later Kirk Gibson hit the most famous home run I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t know whether to cheer or boo, laugh or cry or wind my watch. It went on that way for the rest of the Series, which, mercifully for me, ended quickly, the Dodgers winning in five in one of the greatest upsets ever, which on the one hand was a thrill to witness and on the other hand I couldn’t believe this 104-win juggernaut of an A’s team I’d rooted for all year, which had rewarded me so handsomely for sticking with them through the lean Jackie Moore Steve Boros Dave Kingman Bruce Bochte days, had gone down so meekly.
The next year, though, I finally had my chance. The A’s were monsters again. They waltzed away with the West, abused the Blue Jays in the playoffs, and who should they meet in the World Series? The Giants! I was not yet a convert. I hated the Giants. This was the pure stuff. An all-Bay Area Series, a remarkable thing, the first one-city Series in 33 years, with a clear hero and a clear villain for me. The A’s stomped ‘em in the first two games, 5-0 and 5-1. Yes. This was going great.
Then right before Game 3, the earthquake hit. Somehow they got the Series going again in less than two weeks, but it was an afterthought. The Bay Bridge was broken. The city was in chaos. Dozens of people had died in the freeway collapse a few miles from my apartment.
I didn’t lose any friends but it was still traumatic. For probably a year after the earthquake, this would happen about once a day: I’d be walking down the sidewalk, and as a car came toward me in the street, I would — involuntarily but vividly — picture it jumping the curb and plowing into me at full speed. That hadn’t ever happened before the earthquake. It slowly went away.
The A’s dispatched the Giants in the last two games, and I didn’t know anyone who cared.
I converted from the Dodgers to the Giants in 1994, and with the expanded playoffs starting the year after that I had several chances to root for them and the A’s, in that order, in the postseason, but they made only one World Series appearance between them, the Giants’ heartbreaking loss to the Angels in 2002.
The Angels. Hey, I used to root for them. But I wasn’t rooting for them in 2002.
By that time I’d moved to St. Louis and adopted the Cardinals as my third team. I’d had a third team before but it hadn’t mattered much. On a family vacation to Toronto in 1977 I’d been to a Blue Jays game. It was their inaugural year. They were terrible and they played in the corner of a football stadium. I decided on the spot that I would root for the Blue Jays until they won their first division title, which they did in 1985 and that was that. I still have fond memories of Otto Velez and Lloyd Moseby and Dave Stieb and even Danny Ainge, but by the time they won the World Series in 1992 and ‘93, the Jays were just another team to me.
The Cardinals won it all in 2006, their first championship in 24 years. I was pleased, but I wasn’t really a fan that night. I could hear the car horns blasting, but I was working, writing my sports column for Salon. I’ve never been one to pretend that I wasn’t rooting for one team or another just because I was writing about them, but when you’re working it’s not the same as sitting in the stands or in front of the TV with your pals.
I’d describe what I did more as pulling for the Cardinals than rooting for them. I wanted them to win because I’d followed them all year, I had met some of the players and the manager, it would be exciting for the town, my friends would be thrilled. But it didn’t really matter. I had other things to think about. If you gave me a choice of the Cardinals winning or the Cardinals losing in a much more compelling Series, I’d have taken the latter. Any sportswriter will tell you: There is too rooting in the press box. You root for the best story.
And now here we are in 2010 and my Giants are in the playoffs. I’m not writing a sports column. I have no duties. I am merely a fan, one who can’t really afford playoff tickets. But the TV’s fine. I’m watching with my 7-year-old son, who’s getting to watch his Giants in the playoffs in his first season of rooting for them. He’s probably thinking it’s no big deal, happens all the time. Last time it happened, he was in diapers. Little diapers.
Maybe we’ll get that thrill together, that uncomplicated charge you get when your home team gets that last out and celebrates on the infield as World Series champions.
At least I think you get it. I’ve never been there.
This New York Times blog post by Dan Rosenheck argues that Tim Lincecum’s two-hit shutout Thursday night “was actually both more impressive and more valuable” than Roy Halladay’s no-hitter Wednesday night.
More valuable because Lincecum had to throw a shutout for his team to win 1-0, while Doc had a three-run margin for error in a 4-0 victory. That’s true without being useful. A pitcher has no control, as a pitcher, over how many runs his team scores, though Halladay did have a key RBI single.
But more impressive? Then why is everyone, and I mean everyone, and I mean I bet even Lincecum if you asked him, more impressed by Halladay’s performance than by Lincecum’s? Is the whole world stupid?
No. Rosenheck argues that Lincecum pitched better because he struck out 14 while Halladay only struck out eight. “Extensive research into the subject shows that the vast majority of pitchers wind up giving up hits on about 30 percent of balls in play over the course of their careers,” Rosenheck writes. “As a result, the only ways for most pitchers to reduce the number of hits they allow are to avoid surrendering home runs and to get more strikeouts, so batters never put the ball in play to begin with.”
Defense-independent pitching statistics, which is what Rosenheck is writing about, tell us that variations on a .300 average on balls in play are mostly due to luck, and by Rosenheck’s figuring, “with normal luck, a pitcher with Halladay’s eight strikeouts, one walk, and zero home runs allowed in 28 batters faced would give up an average of 1.55 earned runs per nine innings, while one with Lincecum’s 14 strikeouts, 1 walk, and 0 home runs allowed in 30 batters faced would surrender just 0.37.”
That’s all fine, and looking at a career, or even a season, it’s a useful way to evaluate a pitcher. A whole season’s worth of innings reduces the role of variance — luck — quite a bit, and calculations like Rosenheck’s help us figure out by how much.
But we’re talking about one game here. In a single game, the bad news is that variance can play a huge role, but the good news is that we can see and remember the whole game. And if you saw Halladay’s no-hitter you know that there wasn’t a whole lot of luck involved in the 19 non-strikeout outs he got.
There was one reasonably hard-hit ball, a line drive, not a screamer but a well-hit ball, to shallow right field that Jayson Werth caught. There was one nice play, Jimmy Rollins ranging into the hole at shortstop. Either of those balls could have been hits, yes, but Rollins’ play wasn’t spectacular by any means, and if that ball had gone for a hit, it would have been a good example of luck — a batter getting a hit on a routine but well-placed bouncer.
Lincecum didn’t need a whole lot of flashy leather to get his 13 non-K outs either, but let’s not forget that he gave up two ringing doubles. Those shots, by Omar Infante and Brian McCann, didn’t just scoot humbly between infielders. They were well hit. Halladay didn’t give up anything like those two.
We’re comparing Michelangelo and Rembrandt here. It’s silly. Lincecum was fantastic, Halladay was fantastic. But to use a metric that shows Lincecum was better than Halladay is to find the limits of that metric. Comparing two single games in which almost nothing happened other than outs might be too much to ask of defense independent pitching stats. Sometimes we just have to trust our eyes, and with how impressed we are.