The Best Words of Winter

Spring Training

Credit: SpringTrainingCountdown.com

 

Pitchers and catchers report today. With those words, the end of winter is in sight.  SpringTrainingCountdown.com no longer has a daily tracker at the top of its site.  The baseball writers climb out of their caves.  Play ball, indeed!

More to come…

DJB

Hope and Redemption

This Wednesday features a coming together of events that cannot be a coincidence.  For those who believe in romance, the 14th of February is, of course, Valentine’s Day.  On the same day, Christian believers — especially of the liturgical persuasion — will observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent leading up to Easter.  And for those like Annie Savoy* and me who worship at the Church of Baseball, February 14th is when, as spring training begins, we hear those magical words “pitchers and catchers report” that take ever-optimistic fans into flights of fancy about the prospects for their favorite team.

I’m going with the thought that this particular February 14th is a harmonic convergence of Hope and Redemption.

I was thinking of those two themes and how much impact they can have on our lives as I’ve been reading  Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Chernow is one of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact.  David McCullough’s works on Truman and John Adams come immediately to mind as examples of this type of national reassessment, but Chernow has also worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this biography of Grant.

Grant

Grant by Ron Chernow

The historical stereotype of U.S. Grant — especially if you grew up in the South — is of a failed businessman and drunkard who stumbled into military success in the Civil War by butchering his men in frontal assaults against the much greater military strategist, Robert E. Lee.  The South finally had to succumb due to the North’s overwhelming forces and resources.  Then, the story continues, Grant’s two terms as president were deeply mired in scandal, where ruffians stole anything that wasn’t nailed down (figuratively) from the federal government.  In 1,074 pages, Chernow not only destroys these stereotypes, but he paints a picture of a complex individual, both very wise and at the same time incredibly naïve, who played an outsized role in saving the Union during the war and in protecting African Americans and their rights during the years of Reconstruction.  He was an unassuming underdog who, according to one of his generals, “talked less and thought more than any one in the service.” When President Lincoln made Grant commander over all the Union armies in 1864, this quiet strategic sense came to the forefront in ways not always appreciated.  He was, in fact, the war’s most brilliant tactician and strategist who — in the words of General William Sherman — coordinated armies across an entire continent while Lee was focused on one small state.  The pleasant surprise of the book for me is Chernow’s description of  Grant’s role as president during a difficult expansionist and unregulated period in the nation’s history.  The South was in utter chaos when he assumed the presidency, yet Grant’s focus and convictions broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan through “legislation, military force, and prosecution” and his support for African American equality through the policies of Reconstruction has not been widely recognized.  Most Americans don’t understand this entire period of our history and its lasting impact today, which is one reason we have battles in the 21st century over Confederate memorials.

There is hope in this story, hopefulness that demands things of us, just as it demanded things of Grant as he dared to hope for the future of his country. The personal redemption of Grant from his period of failed businesses and binge drinking is also key to the story.  However, the ongoing redemption of Grant’s reputation remains important to all of us today, as we seek to understand our true history — the full American story — and how we have yet to face the unfinished business of race, emancipation and equality.

Hope is not easy. Redemption is not always around the corner.  As in Grant’s case, it may take over a century.  Yet hope that demands things that despair does not can help bring us — as individuals and as a nation — to a redemption we may not clearly understand but desperately need.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*You’ll have to watch Bull Durham if you don’t understand the reference.  And if you do, this will be your reminder that it is time to watch it again!

 

My Own Personal Spring Training

Racing Presidents

The “Racing Presidents” with a “Spring Training Countdown” mug by their side

As I post this, the clock on Spring Training Countdown (motto:  Winter Bad. Baseball Good.) reads:  4 days, 7 hours, 37 minutes, 7 seconds.  It is clear I don’t have much time to get in shape for the season!

My own personal spring training generally consists of reading a new baseball book and re-watching Bull Durham (best baseball movie ever).  However, our tape/CD player is broken (I know, we’re old school), and so I had to improvise and instead read two baseball books.  It is tough duty, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get into shape.

I began with 2015’s Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-year Losing Streak by Pittsburgh writer Travis Sawchik.

Big Data Baseball

Big Data Baseball

This is a terrific book about how the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates, stumbling along in a 20-year losing streak (remember Sid Bream and Barry Bonds and Skip Carey’s classic 1992 “They may have to hospitalize Sid Bream” call) turned around their fortune as a baseball club.  The Pirates did it using big-data strategies, undervalued players, a leadership team willing to try new things, and an organization-wide commitment to integration of old-style and new-style insights to make the playoffs.

This book will most often be compared to Moneyball – which is a terrific book and a good baseball movie.  But it is different in a number of ways and well worth the read.

Sawchik happened to take on the Pirates beat for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2013, and so he doesn’t have the tone of a long-time homer.  He says that he didn’t get the idea for the book until late in the season, so while he was on the beat every day, he went back and had to research the real reasons for the ballclub’s turnaround.  He includes a nice epilogue about the 2014 season, when the Pirates returned to the playoffs.  And while Moneyball focuses on Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, the real story of Big Data Baseball and the turnaround in Pittsburgh is the way that the GM and data analysts were welcomed by old-style manager Clint Hurdle and completely integrated into the overall organization.

PNC Park

Pirates fans celebrate the turn in their team’s fortunes in 2013

We happened to attend a Pirates game in 2013 in the middle of the pennant race, and it was a magical day of baseball.  Big Data Baseball brought back those memories.

PNC in 2013

Packed PNC Park in 2013

There are so many parts of this book to recognize.  The pressure on Hurdle as the season began.  The ability of the data gurus to turn their analysis into understandable and visual graphics that helped sell their findings to the old-school guys.  Wonderful sections on pitch-framing and the undervalued skill of catcher Russell Martin.  The use of big data to develop secretive preventive medical practices that resulted in the fewest days lost to injuries in 2014.  (Are you paying attention, Washington Nationals?)  But I’ll focus on two.

The “Magic Act” chapter has a great section on the 2013 Wild Card play-in game.  Here’s where Sawchik’s baseball writing skills are clearly evident.

In the bottom of the 2nd inning, Cueto made the first mistake of the game.  He left a pitch out over the plate that late-season acquisition Marlon Byrd belted for a home run.  The crowd noise picked up in ferocity as the ball was swallowed by the crowd and Byrd began his trot around the bases.  A new chant originated at some ground zero somewhere in PNC Park and grew in volume to a tidal wave.  In a taunting, haunting crescendo, forty thousand chanted, “Kwaaaaayyyy-toe…Kwaaaayyyy-toe,” toward the center of the diamond.  Under this avalanche of noise, with the misfortune of having a two-syllable perfect-for-chanting surname, Cueto was thrown a new game ball by the home-plate umpire.  Cueto literally dropped the ball.  Seeing this, the crowd went into a frenzy, believing the dropped ball signaled that they had got inside the head of the Reds starting pitcher.  On the very next pitch, Cueto allowed a fastball to leak out over the plate.  Waiting for it was Martin, who smashed the ball into the left-field bleachers for another homer.  The crowd was euphoric.  Twenty years of pent-up misery was released that night, manifesting itself in a sound that felt like being at the bottom of a waterfall.

In “A Perfect Circle” Sawchik recaps the 2014 season, which again saw the Pirates make the playoffs.  And here, he focuses on a key insight:  the “continued focus on marrying their new-school and old-school personnel….The Pirates always wanted to have an (data) analyst in the clubhouse to counsel, making them the first known major league team to have a quantitative analyst among its traveling party.”

On that celebratory night in Atlanta, as the party wound down and the champagne was exhausted, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker found Mike Fitzgerald standing quietly in the corner of the clubhouse away from the epicenter of the celebration, where the players and coaches were massed.  Walker took a Budweiser from an ice-filled bin and walked toward Fitzgerald, dousing the analyst with beer.  Fitzgerald, the math genius who had never played professionally, and Walker, drafted out of high school and having spent years in the minors before emerging as an everyday major league player, laughed and celebrated together.  The dichotomy between them and yet their acceptance of each other was a snapshot of how far the Pirates had come in creating a culture of respect, a culture that would allow important data to be embraced.

This book will delight baseball fans (of all teams) as well as those looking to understand how important corporate culture, communication, and values are to success.  Highly recommended!

Life in the Minor Leagues

Where Nobody Knows Your Name

The second book – by a better known writer – is interesting,  but to my mind not as appealing to a broad audience.  Where Nobody Knows Your Name:  Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein is an account of the 2012 International League season – one of baseball’s two AAA minor leagues.

Feinstein is a good storyteller, and this book is full of good stories.  By focusing on seven players, an umpire, and a manager, Feinstein shows that being at a level just below the majors can have a variety of effects on different people. Some seem to know they are just going to be called up for a cup of coffee in the show, while others have tasted big league glory (Nate McLouth) only to lose it and then find it again.  Feinstein talks about the Durham Bulls of Bull Durham movie fame, and the current team – which was managed in 2012 by Charlie Montoyo playing in a state-of-the-art minor league stadium that didn’t bear any resemblance to the ramshackle yet lovable field of the 1980s.  He also sprinkles in cameos by players on the way up (Bryce Harper) and players on the way down (Mark Prior).

“Skip wants to see you,” can be the best words a AAA minor-leaguer hears, or the worst…depending on whether a player is being called up or released.  This book is full of “Skip wants to see you” moments.

Here’s how the book ends.

“I know I’m going to walk into the clubhouse and there will be a locker with my name on it and a uniform,” Elarton said just before heading south and east once again.  “I’m still a baseball player.  Honestly, I can’t think of anything much better than that.”…Before they take off their uniforms for the final time, they find out a truth that was eloquently captured in the words of longtime pitcher Jim Bouton in the closing words of his seminal book, Ball Four.

“You see,” Bouton wrote, “you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

Truer words were never written.

Let’s play ball!

More to come…

DJB

 

Pitchers and Catchers Report in 14 Days

On the weekend of the Super Hype Bowl, the Washington Nationals web site notes that we’re 14 Days and 13 Hours (as of this posting) until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

To celebrate, let’s check out question #1413 from Obsessed With Baseball.

Which one of these Hall of Fame pitchers did NOT reach 300 career wins?

A.  Mickey Welch  B.  Early Wynn  C. Robin Roberts  D. Kid Nichols

And the answer is….C.  Robin Roberts

Spring is around the corner.

More to come…

DJB