Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Can Anyone Here Call This Game?

After almost of week of TBS broadcasts it is very easy to come to one conclusion:

Turner Sports does a good job with the NBA.

Holy crap, some of the Division Series games looked like minor league broadcasts. And as much as I put down the yahoos at YES, at least they make the game look good visually.

And don't get me started on the amount of errors Chip Carey said during the Indians-Yankees series. The guy obviously never called an AL game in his life--and he thinks runs in the 7th inning will finish a game.

Fortunately I don't need to go off on the guy, as the great New York Times TV columnist Richard Sandomir did an amazing job in his column Tuesday picking Carey apart bit by bit. It's a must read. As a bonus, his column for Wednesday is already up as write this, and he describes WCBS-AM's Suzyn Waldman and her crying during the postgame Monday night. He gives her a pass, but after hearing her call of the Roger Clemens return announcement in May, it is very much fair game to say she's a moron and a shill.

TBS is doing one thing right by bringing Ron Darling into their studio for the NLCS. His work with Dick Stockton in the Cubs-Diamondbacks series shows that he has truly come a long way since he sounded illiterate working on Washington Nationals games. At least Darling knows the league and will make up for the average "well, this is how I would do it" analysis of Cal Ripken and the "I don't want to offend anyone on these teams" ramblings of Frank Thomas.

Lastly, this annual Elimination Day thing seems to be gaining steam.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Ow, This Makes My Stomach Hurt

Please, please, please, oh TV gods, do not let THIS happen.

Please?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Zisk # 15



The Zisk Book Corner by Steve Reynolds

Give That Man a Guitar: Mario Mendoza and a Humble Indie Rock Band

Baseball Truly Is a Religion by John Shiffert

Ten Cultural Observations While Sitting in the Right Field Cornerof the Tokyo Dome during a Yomiyuri Giants Game This Past July, Or Why Billy Beane Will Never Hire a Manager from the Japanese League by Jeff Boda

The Joy of Baseball Is In Its Youth: A Series of Notes to Self by Andrew Mendillo

Baseball and Barbed Wire by Thomas Michael McDade

Editor's note: Yes, there is a huge article about Crazy Keith Hernandez in this issue. But since it's all in the 2007 season blog I encourage you to venture through those entires to find the highlights.

And I didn't want to have to format all that crap too. --SR

The Zisk Book Corner by Steve Reynolds

Is This a Great Game or What: An Interview with ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian

If you’ve ever watched ESPN’s Baseball Tonight over the past decade or so, you’ve probably noticed the one cheerful voice of reason on the right of your screen, Tim Kurkjian. Kurkjian is one of the few print veterans to make the leap to TV without coming off like a pompous know it all—even though he probably does know it all. Before he ever got to the Worldwide Leader in Bristol, Kurkjian was at Sports Illustrated for eight years and prior to that a beat writer covering the Orioles and the Rangers. After 25 years of covering our favorite game, Kurkjian finally compiled his best stories and thoughts on the game into a book titled Is This a Great Game or What? It’s a fun-filled read that is chock full of great anecdotes about players, coaches and broadcasting and print colleagues. Zisk had the chance to talk to Tim about how baseball is actually fun, the grind of being a beat writer, and the power of being on television every night.

SR: One thing about this book I find very surprising is that in world where we’ve had a lot of sort of negative baseball books is that this is the first one I’ve read in a while that’s actually like, ‘Hey, baseball is actually a good thing.’ Was that sort of your mindset going into this book that you wanted to sort of show the fun side of baseball?

TK: Well yeah, and that’s really who I am. I couldn’t write any other way than what I’m really about and—I don’t want to be corny about this—but I love the game. I’ve always loved the game. And I think if you look at some of the good things that have happened over the last 25 years instead of the labor negotiations and the steroid issue and all the other things, there’s plenty of room to find some really fun, interesting, entertaining stuff. I’ve found that most baseball fans out there really enjoy some of the inside stuff that happens out there. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the bad inside stuff. There’s some good inside stuff, some good behind the scenes funny things that have happened. And that was just my goal to get it out there that this is still a really fun sport and, as always to me, the best sport.

SR: It’s funny, I think that maybe the media’s tendencies—not just baseball, but overall—is to focus on the negative. And in baseball attendance records are being shattered every year. So maybe it’s just part of today’s culture that was to focus on the negative.

TK: Yeah, that’s the way the country is going. The news every day is pretty depressing. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on. And I’ve heard about the golden age of baseball being the 50s and the 60s, and I loved baseball back then, but I just think this is the golden age. If you really look around at what’s going on here, the great players that we’re seeing. Alex Rodriguez is maybe going to hit 800 home runs, Barry Bonds broke the home run record; Mike Piazza’s the greatest hitting catcher of all time; Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer ever. Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson—you could make the case that they are three of the 10 to 15 greatest pitchers ever, and they’re pitching right now! And Pedro Martinez is not far behind. The point is, if you really open your eyes to what’s going on, this is history in the making every day that we watch the game. And history is a very important part of the fabric of baseball.

SR: When you talk about the inside part of baseball in this book, one of the things you discuss is starting out as a beat writer. Can you take me through a little bit of the experience of starting out? What was it like? Was the travel overwhelming at first?

TK: Well, the travel was great at the beginning because I was young and I was single and I was going to places I had never been before. And it was just tremendous. I loved being on the road because there was really no reason to go home because there was no one to go home to. It was really, really cool. I took one trip with a bunch of baseball writers. The flight was completely packed. And I looked in the back of the plane, and three of my sportswriter friends—all of whom weighed close or over 300 pounds, it must have been a 1000 pounds of sportswriters in one row. And they looked up front and saw me sitting in the middle seat and they made a trade. They traded one of the fat sportswriters for me, and I weigh 140 pounds, and I went back and sat between the two fat guys and I think everyone was a little happier that day. The travel was difficult but I loved it. I don’t like it as much today because I have a wife and children at home, but it was the most exciting life I could possibly imagine at that time. Going to a major league baseball game every night, seeing ballpark I’d never seen before, meeting players I’d never met before and I ended up meeting people I never thought I’d meet, including three different Presidents of the United States, all sorts of actors, singers, and stuff like that. It’s been a marvelous life and I just felt like I needed to celebrate it on some degree in this book.

SR: When you made the transition from a beat writer to working for a weekly, how did that change the way you approached writing about baseball? Because now you didn’t have to crank out ‘this is what happened in this day’s game.’ How did you approach that?

TK: Well, as a beat guy for a daily newspaper I was like a baseball player. There was a game every single day and I had to write every single day for three editions, three stories a day. It was an unbelievable grind. And yet there was always something to show for it the next day in the newspaper. And if I did have a bad day —and we all did—I could always make up for it tomorrow because tomorrow was another edition of the paper. When I went to Sports Illustrated, I kind of became a football player where I’m only playing one day a week. And if I have a bad game, I gotta wait a whole week to get it back. And I had some bad games with Sports Illustrated. So that was a big difference. And the other difference was I going to meet a bunch of a guys— some of whom I’d never met before. In other words, I was coming into town for one day to see Tony Gwynn and the next day I was leaving to go see Manny Ramirez or whoever it was, as opposed to being with my team, the same 25 guys every day. And they completely changed the landscape for me because I constantly had to go in and re-introduce myself to people who I hadn’t seen in months, as opposed to being a beat guy where I saw the same guys every single day.

SR: When you made the jump to ESPN, when did you start getting recognized by people? What was that experience like?

TK: (Laughs) Well it was about two Baseball Tonight’s before people started to figure out, “Hey this guy’s on TV now,” which always struck me as odd that I wrote for three major newspapers and then Sports Illustrated for eight years and after two Baseball Tonight’s I was more recognizable that I had been in 18 years as a writer. There’s really something wrong with that. But at the same time, it’s been a really good experience and it has allowed me to do a whole bunch of things. It’s completely change they way I’ve had to live. Now I wear more makeup than my wife does, I spend a fortune on clothes because you kind of got to look good on TV when you’re sitting next to an ex-player who’s wearing $3,000 suit. And I stand around talking to myself a lot as I get ready to go on a show or something. Those have been the biggest changes from print to TV. It has brought a measure of fame in some degree I guess. I get recognized in certain places. Although a guy at the airport the other day—and this happens a lot—he stopped me and he just stopped in his tracks and he said, ‘I’ve seen you before. Don’t tell me where I’ve seen you. I know, you work at Applebees, don’t you?” And I said, ‘No, I don’t work at Applebees.’

SR: What I really like in the book is the chapter where you talk about working with the different people at Baseball Tonight. The way you describe it, you say you have to wing it a lot. And it never looks like that on screen. How does it flow so well if you are winging it? For me, it’s the best show that ESPN has to offer day in and day out, so how does it work so well?

TK: I think it flows so well because our host for the most part is Karl Ravech. All of our hosts are really good at steering the ship and making sure it doesn’t get off course. When the host of the show is as polished as Karl Ravech, and the other guys like John Buccigross and Rece Davis and Scott Reiss and Steve Berthiaume: and all the guys who host, it’s easy. The analysts have a pretty good idea what’s going on because the host and the producer and director in your ear are letting you know everything that’s going on. Even though it’s a high wire act and it’s stressful and it’s tense—because we’re seeing those highlights for the first time just like everyone else on that 10 o’clock show. Things are happening live and we have to be able to react to them. And really that’s all about preparation. That’s why the show runs fairly well, because guys like me get in there at one o’clock in the afternoon for a 10 o’clock show. So we’re taking nine hours to prepare just in case something comes up, we’re ready for it.

SR: There are a lot of funny anecdotes about the game in this book. Is there one player over the years who was—I don’t want to say your go to guy for something humorous, but was there one player who rises above the rest that would always have something that would make you laugh.

TK: Yeah, I think Mike Flanagan was the funniest guy I was ever around on a consistent basis. I was walking to Exhibition Stadium in Toronto many years ago. And I was lugging my equipment and my bookbag and my computer, which of course back then weighed more than I do. He saw me staggering along so he stopped to give me a ride. And he was driving one of these Blue Jay rental cars which they give to all of their new players until their cars arrive. And it had Blue Jays written on it and it was hideous looking. We’re driving to the ballpark and Flanagan looks at me and says, ‘This used to be Phil Niekro’s car.’ Niekro had just been released by the Blue Jays. And I said, ‘How do you know it was his car?’ he said, ‘I found his teeth in the glove compartment.’ (Laughs) So we love guys like Mike Flanagan who do not talk in clich├ęs and have something really insightful and really funny to say almost every day. So whenever I needed anything, I usually went to Mike Flanagan first.

SR: And one thing I think about baseball that makes it so great is that you find people like that in that game, who have that sort of have that funny view of life, in baseball more than any other sport.

TK: Right, and I think that’s partly because there’s so much downtime in baseball. Let’s think about it—these guys get to the ballpark at one, two o’clock in the afternoon and they’re still there at midnight. They’re sitting around in the bullpen with nothing to do until it’s their time to pitch. If you’re a starting pitcher you’ve got four days in between starts just to sit there and watch and think and talk and that’s where it comes from. As opposed to NBA players, for instance, who aren’t playing every single night and they’re not on the bench thinking about all sorts of funny things because the game is flying in front of them at a high rate of speed. Baseball just lends itself to funny stories because there is so much time to basically to sit around and ponder.

SR: It is like the thinking man’s sport

TK: Absolutely!

Tim Wakefield’s Got Nothing on This: The Knuckball From Hell by Michael Wayne

When I look over to the left from my computer in my home office, I get a close-up look on my small library of books. It’s shrunk over the years due to spatial limitations and my changing tastes. More specifically, I’ve ditched almost every work of fiction I’ve ever owned over the past decade—and kept the music and baseball books. (The exceptions to this rule are anything written by Michael Chabon, Tom Perrota and David Sedaris.) So when the baseball-oriented novel The Knuckleball from Hell by Michael Wayne crossed my desk I had a few reservations. My only other experience with baseball fiction was a sub par Christmas gift called Searching for Ted Williams and reading over an article Zisk contributor Michael Baker wrote in issue # 8 about five different baseball novels. (Which, on the face of it, really is no fiction reading experience at all.)

In the face of all that baggage, I found Knuckleball to be a very entertaining read. Wayne has concocted one doozy of a story that at times had me thinking of the late Kurt Vonnegut. Trying to sum up the plot could take a couple of pages itself—a teen pitching phenom wants to pitch for the Mets, but gets hurt at the end of his high school career. A mysterious professor gives the phenom a chemical that makes his pitches unhittable and helps propel the sad sack Mets towards the playoffs. The Mets owner gets killed in a mob hit and then the team is purchased by a crazy surfer dude who hires the two remaining Mets fans to run the team. Throw in a donut worshipping batboy, a cast of teammates that all speak different languages, a horndog of a commissioner who wants to run for President someday and a movie producer who follows a guru and you’ve got…hmmm.

Well, reading the above paragraph it looks like you’d have a mess on your hands trying to make that work. Yet Wayne succeeds by moving the story along at a brisk pace, not getting bogged down by focusing too much on one character and generally showing off a wicked sense of humor about the game, finance, and people who like to wield their power around like they’re, well, you can probably come up with your own genitalia metaphor. The Knuckball from Hell does take a lot of twists and turns like its namesake pitch—and that’s the fun of reading it.

Where Can I Buy the Movie Rights: The Fat Lady Never Sings by Steve Reilly

The Rookie, Hoosiers, Miracle—these are just three of the many fact-based sports films that have had fans and critics cheering the aisles over the past two decades. So if you’re a Hollywood screenwriter, take note—The Fat Lady Never Sings is your next ticket to box office gold. Author Steve Reilly has spun an engrossing tale mixing his own trials and tribulations as a high school baseball coach with those of three football players who used America’s pastime as their shot at redemption that would light up the big screen if done correctly

The Fat Lady Never Sings describes how in Derby, Connecticut high school football is the be all and end all of sports. And most important of all is the team’s 28-year streak with a winning record. When that mark falls in 1991, seniors Gino, Donny and Ben are given a reputation as losers in the town since they failed to keep the streak going. The three players join Derby’s varsity baseball team in 1992 and play key roles in driving the club on the run towards their first state championship game. Reilly’s first person narrative is simple yet effective in describing what’s at stake emotionally for these three kids, as well as himself. He takes us back through the history of the team, showing how the second class status they had through the 70s and 80s (young kids would tear up the baseball diamond playing football during the varsity team’s games) would later drive him in giving his all as an assistant coach.

At times it’s easy to forget this isn’t a work of fiction. Reilly has a rich tapestry of characters to draw from—the legendary town football coach who ushered “The Streak” through two decades, the gregarious first base coach who’s heartbroken when his real job interferes with games, the hardcore fan in a wheelchair who ends up playing a crucial role in a playoff game and the opposing coaches who give the “fish” handshake when they lose. But the star of it all is Reilly’s friend and the Red Raiders head coach, John DeFrancisco. His chain-smoking, angst-ridden pacing during the games leaps off the page and leaves an impression that’s hard to shake. D (as Reilly calls him) is so intriguing that I’m pretty sure I’d read an entire book covering this guy’s entire 30 years career of teaching high school kids the game of baseball. (And not to fall back on film terms again, but it would most definitely be a scenery chewing part for a good actor.)

The Fat Lady Never Sings tells a familiar feel good sports story that’s been told through the ages. But in the end, it’s the reader who comes out the winner.

Baseball by the Numbers and More: An Interview with The Baseball Economist author JC Bradbury

Baseball blogging has exploded in the past three years, so I guess it’s not surprising that some of these bloggers have turned their web passion into book deals. Economist J.C. Bradbury’s day job is as an associate professor at Kennesaw State University, but his fun time is applying the principals of economics to baseball. Bradbury even coined a term, Sabernomics, to describe his take of applying the theories of economics to baseball’s state revolution, dubbed Sabermetrics by the great Bill James. Bradbury expanded his blog work into a full blown book called The Baseball Economist. It’s a fascinating and (and as Bradbury would admit) stat-heavy look at the game with a lot of number-crunching to back it all up. Zisk talked to the Atlanta resident about the hype of Leo Mazzone, the problems of steroids and how much of an asshole Tony LaRussa can be.

SR: When did you start the blog (Sabrenomics.com) that predates this book?

JC: Three years ago.

SR: And what popped into your mind that made you think, this is something I can write about on an almost daily basis?

JC: The idea behind Sabrenomics.com was simply that I had all these ideas as a baseball fan. And as an economics professor, I think economics is about so much more than money and business. And I said to myself, ‘Hey, there’s some crossover here and I want to write about it.’ And I was already thinking about writing a book on it, so I started the blog and it turned out to be a great forum for doing that.

SR: I must admit that sometimes I find it hard to write something different every day when I blog during the season. Have you ever had that problem? Did you try different method to generate new ideas each day?

JC: Well, you have your slow days sometimes, but I find it amazing that sometimes my best posts are the ones where I come in and go, ‘I have nothing to write about today.” And then boom, a news story hits and I’ll say, ‘This is a great idea’ and I’ll go with it and blog traffic goes up and it’s great. Sometimes I’ll be planning an idea and I’ll write it and crickets chirp after I post it. (Laughs)

SR: I know exactly how you feel. So in the book you admit you’re a Braves fan.

JC: Oh yeah, most definitely am.

SR: So I found the chapter on Leo Mazzone—who I considered evil for many years because I am a Mets fan— really interesting in the way you determine that, ‘You know, this guy really is pretty good.’ Can you take me through the process of proving that Mazonne knows what he’s doing?

JC: The reason I did this initially is that I thought that Leo Mazzone had to be overrated. I even got into an argument with a fellow Braves fan about it. So what I said was, ‘I’m gonna take a look at every single pitcher who’s pitched for the Braves and another pitching coach. And I’m gonna see how they did when Leo was their pitching coach and when he was not.’ And I was simply stunned that pitchers are about half a run better when Leo’s their coach than when he’s not. You can’t just say, well, he had Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz, because Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz actually pitched better for him. And I take into account the age and the parks they pitch in. And it’s not just something we observed—like they got out and find an undervalued pitcher and he pitches well for him. I find that after they leave Mazzone, they also pitch worse.

SR: Well the Yankees learned that the hard way with Jared Wright and Chris Hammond.

JC: Exactly. You talk to any of the pitchers who’ve had Leo as a pitching coach, and they all talk about this method and how it helps them. And it’s not just something like, ‘Here’s the secret—low and outside.’ Yes, he does say that, but it’s a regiment, it’s a program and Leo Mazzone is very good at spotting flaws in deliveries and fixing them.

SR: Now speaking of pitching, I found it pretty interesting how you discuss the Questec system and its impact on the game and umpiring. When Tom Glavine first came to the Mets it was all people ever talked about when he was mediocre. Can you talk a little bit about your look at Questec?

JC: Well, Questec system is designed to computerize the strikes zone and measure how well the umpires are calling balls and strikes. Now everyone knows that part of baseball was arguing with the umpire—‘That ball was high, that ball was a strike.’ There’s no doubt that umpires were feeling pressure to change what they would call. And what I realized is that Questec is going to prevent umpires from changing their calls as much because it’s being recorded. It’s not just something subjective anymore, it’s objective. So what I wanted to look at is what managers were affecting the game. So I looked at what their players were doing in Questec parks versus non-Questec parks. The interesting thing I found is that they really don’t have much influence. Partially because you’ve got two managers barking at the umpire and the umpire’s trying to please both. But I did find a few instances, for example Tony LaRussa seems to do a good job of helping his pitchers get more strikeouts and have fewer walks.

SR: I gotta say that makes sense because Tony LaRussa just ticks me off with his grandstanding.

JC: Well, that actually motivated me to do the study because he came to town to play the Braves and he complained about what an awful manager Bobby Cox was for complaining all the time. So I did the study to see if Cox was really as bad, and lo and behold LaRussa pops to the top. I just about fell out of my chair when I saw that.

SR: If Questec was installed in every ballpark, would it bring a more uniform approach to calling of games? And would it speed the games up?

JC: I think there’s no doubt about it. I don’t really find any excitement in watching old men in baseball uniforms yell at each other. I think we might lose some of that from the game. I think the overall advantage of having Questec is that we have an objective strike zone. There’s no more arguing about it. And if it were up to me, I’d treat arguing with umpires like they do in basketball and football—you just don’t see it as much. You wanna talk like that? You’re gone. And it’s very quick. So I think if you want to speed up the game, stop arguing with the umpire.

SR: It certainly would. And if we could get rid of the multiple trips to the mound—

JC: Ughh, I hate it!

SR: Somebody ought to do a study on how much that sucks the life out of the game.

JC: Well I would love to do that. They keep records on a lot of things in baseball, but they don’t have a record of that. But I would love to get my hands on that data.

SR: Now one thing you brought up in the book that I never really thought about was the lack of left-handed catchers in baseball. It’s something that people never mention in broadcasts or in writing about the game.

JC: You’ll occasionally hear it. That’s actually sort of where the question caught my eye. One day I was watching a game and the announcer said, ‘Well he’s lefthanded so he can’t play catcher.’ And I thought, ‘Well why is that the case?’ When you go back though baseball history the last lefthander to regularly play catcher was Jiggs Donahue over 100 years ago. There aren’t too many people named Jiggs anymore, right?

SR: Exactly.

JC: Benny Distefano is the last person to ever do it, and that was back in the Pirates in the 80s but just for a game or two. But the reason behind this is that there seems to be a very tiny advantage to having a right hander who can throw out runners stealing third. But that rarely happens in the game today. And there are certainly some lefthanded players with strong arms who could play catcher. What I found is that if you go out and look at the number of people who are lefthanded, they can play all the outfield positions and first base. Plus, if you’ve got a lefthander with a good enough arm to play catcher, you don’t want him to be catcher, you want him to throw to a catcher. Good lefthanded pitchers are scarce.

SR: And if you’re a lefthanded pitcher—as many relievers have proven over the years—you can have a career that stretches over two decades.

JC: Absolutely. It’s definitely a big advantage to be lefthanded in baseball.

SR: One of the more controversial ideas you propose in the book is that the union take over penalizing players for steroid use. Do you think something like that could realistically happen with Donald Fehr in charge?

JC: Well, you never know what people are gonna do. About 50 years ago Milton Friedman wrote a book called Capitalism and Freedom and proposed school vouchers. And everyone laughed at him. (Laughs) And now look at what is a hot topic today—school vouchers. What the public is going to find tolerable I don’t know. But what we know is that no matter what type of testing you put into place, someone’s gonna figure out a way around it. The proposal I put forth in my book says let the players’ union do all the testing and the way they punish you is through fines. So that if you’re better than another player and you’re getting more free agent dollars because you’ve been using steroids, you fail a test, you then have to pay a fine that’s redistributed to those players harmed by you taking steroids. In that sense it says, ‘Okay, we’ll let some steroids exist, but we’re not going to let you benefit financially,’ which reduces the incentive for people to take steroids. And I think that the players have the biggest incentive because they don’t want to face the health consequences of these things. So I think they’re to be more trusted than the owners.

SR: Lastly, I’ve always found that a lot of people who are hardcore baseball fans also—bluntly put—like number-crunching. Is there some correlation between the two?

JC: Well, a good friend of mine named Doug Drennen, who contributes to the book some, runs ProFootball-Reference.com and he’s a huge football stats guy. And we talk about the difference between the communities. And one of the things we found is that it’s very difficult to have a conversation during a football game. There’s a lot of action, it’s packed and it’s hard to identify individual contributions. Well baseball is slow. You can talk about batting averages; you gotta have something to motivate you during those lulls. And you are looking at individual numbers; you have stats for every player. So I think that’s why it lends itself to number-crunching more so than football. How do you talk about an offensive tackle?

SR: Um, he’s big?

JC: Right, he’s big. (Laughs) So in baseball you can say, ‘He’s got a high on base percentage’ or ‘Oh, but he strikes out all the time.’ So these are the arguments you can have, so I think the sport lends itself to that.

Steve Reynolds is the co-editor of Zisk, and can barely balance his checkbook. He also decrees, “No more wraps from Liberty Deli.”

Give That Man A Guitar: Mario Mendoza and a Humble Indie Rock Band by Tim Hinely

I’m not sure if I heard of the band name first or the phrase, “The Mendoza Line.” If it was, however, the band name, then I immediately knew where they got it from. As I’ve stated in many other articles for Zisk that I’ve written, I’m a Pittsburgh Pirates fan through and through and though Mario Mendoza only spent five seasons with the Pirates, for those of us who lived and breathed Buccos, it felt like an eternity.

Mendoza came into this world as a late Christmas gift for his parents. He was born December 26, 1950 in Chihuahua, Mexico. While playing for the Mexico City Reds in 1970, Mendoza was known as Manos des Seda or Silk Hands. His ability for grabbing grounders prompted the Pirates to pick him up.

As baseball writer Bruce Nash once said, Mario Mendoza wasn’t just a bad hitter, he was terrible. (However, he still he wasn’t the worst hitter to ever wear a Pirates uniform as that distinction would go to none other than Pirates pitcher Bob Buhl who in 1962 came to the plate 70 times and failed to get a hit the entire year. Mendoza, eat your heart out!) I hear Tony Suck was pretty bad too (and that’s not even a fake name folks). But ol’ Mario, with a .215 lifetime average wasn’t much better and his .198 average in nearly 400 at bats during the 1979 season for the then-new Mariners was certainly laughable. Rupe’s Troops were out for blood. Thank god Mendoza had a decent glove.

If the story is correct, it was Kansas City Royals star George Brett who coined the phrase, “The Mendoza Line” (though there is some controversy surrounding that as there are questions over whether the term originated with Mario or with another player, Minnie Mendoza of the Minnesota Twins). Due to Mendoza’s hitting skills, or lack thereof, it prompted Brett to state, “The first thing I look for (in the listing of batting averages) in the Sunday paper is to see who’s below the Mendoza Line.” Apparently when the Texas Rangers released Mendoza in 1982 his average was a paltry .118. Then again, according to some, Tom Paciorek was the one who coined it the phrase. Then again, Paciorek has always said it wasn’t him but Bruce Bochte who was the ball buster. Whomever it was, the phrase has stuck around to become a Sportscenter standard. Not only that, but apparently they used the phrase on Beverly Hills 90210. When that show was on in the mid 90’s I watched it regularly (and Melrose Place too, I’m proud to say) but I don’t remember hearing a character on the show mention the saying. (Apparently it was “Brandon” in reference to his lousy grades.) Hey, at least Mendoza is famous for something, right?

After failing to jump on with a major league team in 1983 Mendoza began playing Triple A ball in Hawaii and bounced around there for a while until 1992 when he hooked on as a manager for the Angels farm system.

In the twilight of his career as Angels manager (and right around the time Brandon was hipping Beverly Hills 90210 watchers to the famous phrase for mediocrity) a few college friends in Athens, Georgia were forming a band. They loved baseball (or at least one of them did, Peter Hoffman) and they loved the idea of naming their band after such a phrase. So in the mid-90’s The Mendoza Line, the band, was born. Though with a revolving door of members throughout the years (several of them contributing songs) the duo of Timothy Bracy and Peter Hoffman were the band leaders and kept the name alive and not just mediocre-ly either. The Mendoza Line released a string of terrific records that any band would be proud to call their own. While their earlier material was more in the indie pop direction (on the Kindercore label) by their third record they were flirting with some classic songwriting styles and writing epic songs. (Bracy has a classic croak that on a good day sounds more like Bob Dylan than Bob Dylan does these days.) Seriously folks, your hard-earned dough would be well-worth plunking down on T.M.L. records like Full of Light and Full of Fire, Fortune, Lost in Revelry or the brand new (break up?) record, 30 Year Low. (Hoffman left the band after 2004’s Fortune and Bracy and his wife, band member Shannon McArdle, have recently gotten divorced.)

These days Mario Mendoza is a manager in the Mexican League and as far as the band, well, as stated above, I’m not sure what the status of the band is. I don’t think Mario Mendoza has ever been to a Mendoza Line gig and I don’t think the band members in T.M.L. had ever gotten a chance to see Mendoza play live. And although each could have done what they did without the other (the band could have named themselves something else, like Hoobastank or something—oh wait that name is already taken), the world would have been a lot less interesting had that happened. If you’re reading this article please put down the your copy of Zisk and go find some old footage of Mario Mendoza on You Tube or go buy a Mendoza Line CD and bask in the genius, the pure genius of both of them.

(Author’s note: Some of this information was found in the July 2nd, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated.)

Tim Hinely lives in Portland, Oregon where he publishes his own zine, Dagger. For a copy please write to daggerboy@prodigy.net.

The Joy of Baseball is in its Youth: A Series of Notes to Self by Andrew Mendillo

Hanley Ramirez is an exciting player to watch, maybe the most in all of baseball. At 23, he will be this much fun for years. Jose Reyes, Ryan Braun, Hunter Pence, Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Troy Tulowitzki, the Uptons, Chris B. Young, Dustin Pedroia (my personal favorite), Chad Billingsley, Phil Hughes, Justin Verlander, Clay Buchholz. Baseball does not get much better than its young stars. On top of their super abilities, they play with integrity. They bring a vintage feel back to the game, a feel I do not remember in baseball.

Not very long ago, baseball was a game of giants. We rooted for the home run heroes to murder the records of our fathers’ teams. The home run derby was the highlight of the summer, even pitchers joked about how “chicks dig the long-ball.” I remember having Frank Thomas’s poster on my wall, despite loving the Red Sox. I pretended to be Mark McGwire in backyard wiffle-ball—my cousin was my bash brother. We played home run derby every day; we imitated their batting stances. Every spring, when little league started, I remember teams of kids hoping we could pick our numbers giving us the privilege of having number 25, 35 or 33 on our backs. (But of course they went from 1-16, and only the fat kids got the high numbers.)

Oh fat kids! A lot of fat kids played. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I’m sure more fat kids played baseball than beach volleyball. The reason for this is that they had major league fat guys to look up to. I’m excited to see the fat baseball player re-inventing himself. For years David Wells was scorned for being the fat guy in the MLB, and it was unfair because baseball is not exclusive to athletes. It’s a fat man’s sport much like bowling and sumo. Wells wasn’t alone, other fat guys were around but they sucked. David Wells was the fat guy on the field with super athletes, but now he can wait in buffet lines with C.C. Sabathia and David Ortiz— super sized super-stars! I miss Tony Gwynn, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, John Kruk, and Fernando Valenzuela. But, I am giggling at the sight of Miguel Cabrera, Joel Zumaya, Andy Marte, Joba Chamberlain and Prince Fielder!

The big hitters of my childhood were big guys. Frank Thomas, though not fat, was the biggest man I had ever seen. I saw him in person at Fenway Park and gave up pitching the same day. Thomas was much bigger than the rest of the players on the field; his arms were the size of everyone else’s legs. He used his muscles to hit the ball further than anyone else in the game. Everyone in the game wished they could hit with the power of Thomas, but if you wanted to hit as far as him, you needed a perfect swing like Ken Griffey Jr. Things were promising watching those stars as a child. If I wasn’t born as big as Thomas, I could perfect my swing like Griffey—ah, innocence.

Then juice squeezed its way into the media, and the feelings toward the home run hitter, and baseball changed. At one point, I remember jokingly saying Rafael Palmeiro was Major League Baseball’s Ned Flanders only to see he was MLB’s number one suspect. I was so hurt to see what these players were actually doing behind closed doors. Steroids turned the game ugly, we know this much. But back in 1988, would anyone actually believe Jose Canseco could be on TV with a gorgeous model and Peter Brady, and not be the one banging the model? It’s surreal! For people like me, the image of Canseco is forever linked with a clip art picture of a prescription bottle that reads “steroids.” I secretly wait for Canseco to announce that this is all an attention scheme, but it is in fact the harsh reality. My favorite player became Greg Maddux.

If morals didn’t deter the young players out of trying steroids, the public humiliation in getting caught has. These young guys are big, bigger than me, but in no way could I imagine Dustin Pedrioa taking anything illegal to better his game. These last couple of seasons have been a joy to watch because of these young stars, and my fantasy teams are proof. I have been so excited about the young crop that I have sacrificed proven players to load up on fun guys I prefer to root for. Granted, some moves were not so bright. I drafted Troy Tulowitzki over Adrian Gonzalez for my utility role, dropped Griffey for Billy Butler, and when having the option of picking up either Chris Young (SD) or Tim Lincecum, I chose Lincecum—in both leagues. Making my fantasy league’s playoffs is now a fantasy of its own.

Baseball is great to watch when the players on the field play to the best of their abilities. They work for every out, and every run. I’m pleased with the changes that are apparent in the last few years. Baseball is back to where it should be in my mind. That may be because I, like many, chose to disregard the passing of Aaron, and see the no-hitters by Verlander and Buchholz as the greater, more enjoyable games. Granted, I may be just a little over excited at watching my Red Sox win with youth. It’s been a joy watching Pedroia dig to China to preserve Clay’s no-no, seeing Brandon Moss disassemble the scoreboard on the Green Monster, and Jacoby Ellsbury make such a good catch he had to confirm with an umpire that it actually happened!

This also could be more of a subconscious reaction to the fact that all of these players are younger than me. And that from now on, everyone in this new generation of baseball players would have been born after me. I first made this discovery my senior year in college. That year I watched Chris Rix of Florida State flip over a lineman for a touchdown. The star quarterback was the first athlete I remember watching who was younger then me. It made me jealous. No less jealous am I to watch New York women use the image of David Wright as an aphrodisiac. This guy is my age and literally can choose any girl he wants, while playing the game I love, and getting paid to do so!

Many people reading this may have had these thoughts years ago, but think back to how that felt. You played in high school; you were good, but not good enough. You remained a fan and watched players younger than you emerge as stars. But the group before this one did so with controversy, they cheated. I am seeing my generation of stars bring the hustle back to the game. At first it is depressing, but with more thought, it is something to be proud of. I may not wait in line anymore for an autograph, and feel silly wearing a jersey of someone my younger brother’s age, but I have no problems rooting for these… (here I go)… “kids.”

Andrew Mendillo is a comedy writer and die hard Red Sox fan living in Brooklyn. While writing this opinionated piece, San Diego keeps it's playoff dreams alive throwing Greg Maddux up against LA's David Wells, and Frank Thomas hits a walk-off single to beat the Yankees...thus making Andrew feel stupid for writing about his feelings.

Baseball and Barbed Wire by Thomas Michael McDade

When Joe Morris hit baseballs
out of hand to us in the back field,
I never thought much about the gap
between the sight and sound
of a ball flying off a bat.

That lesson came another day
at the top of the backstop
where I wondered why I was better
at things that didn’t matter
like climbing fences
and telephone poles than hitting
fastballs and judging line drives.

The field was empty except for
two guys in deep left center.

Joey Arnold offered a friendly hand
to Russ Miller and a sucker punch
in the face was what he got in return.

He dropped like an equipment bag
but it was eternity before the loud crack
like when Joe Morris gave a ball wings.

That’s all the fight there was.

They walked past my perch like that
haymaker had been the only thing
between friendship and me
tracking the speed of light and sound

When I told Johnny Nicastro,
he said he’d seen Joe Morris beat on
a truck driver up close for an hour
and he heard what he saw
when he saw it.

Like a catcher, I said.

Johnny pitched to me for a while
and I foul-tipped four or five.

Then we went to a fence at the race track
that had barbed wire like prison.

(Author’s note: This poem originally appeared on Fight These Bastards)

Thomas Michael McDade is a lifetime Red Sox fan who grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, home of the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox.

Monday, October 01, 2007

As I Said Before...

"This team is just not likable." --Me, 8/16

And that's why I feel nothing this morning. Not anger, not disappointment, not sadness. Nothing. Relief...perhaps. I can still watch my second favorite sports team in the world, the Boston Red Sox, in the playoffs. That team never seemed to take their talent for granted this year. Or be "bored" by the regular season. And I can start watching How I Met Your Mother ("---dary!") again on Monday nights.

I'm sure every Yankee fan and Mike and the Maddog are going on a full on attack, but there's nothing they can say that I haven't already written about this collection of underachieving, too much public-celebrating while winning nothing, not willing to run out ground balls because they bought into the own hype players.

My friend Jason (who I ran into yesterday at the Atlantic Antic, which I went to because it seemed stupid to stay at home and watch what I knew would happen) at Faith and Fear in Flushing writes a devastating indictment of this team that I couldn't agree with more. I encourage all Mets fans to read it today.

So what's next for the Mets? Who knows, but I imagine a big shake-up of some sort. Is firing Willie Randolph the solution?

What's next for the Zisk blog? I will likely post some thoughts about the playoffs, and look for issue #15 to be online at the end of October (printed copies will be going into the mail a week from today).

One last thought: Thank you to Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling for making this up and down season always worthwhile watching. I'm not sure if I'd go through an entire year of blogging about their broadcasts again (unless I get a DVR), but it was fun to attempt to do.

I'm rooting for a Red Sox-Cubs series. How about you?