Tag Archives: baseball

Jean Shepherd on New York Baseball Fans, 1963

On the way to work this morning, I listened to a Jean Shepherd radio show from April 1963 in which he discussed the attitude of New York baseball fans in general and Yankees fans in particular. The reason I listen to 50-year-old radio shows is because of how amazingly prescient Shep was, especially when discussing philosophy or commenting on media and show biz. He was no less insightful on the “lesser” topic of sports and fandom.

In this clip, you’ll hear Shep (a Chicago native and lifelong White Sox fan) talk about how nutty the WIN NOW! attitude of New York fans looks to outsiders. He relates the grumbles of a Yankee fan friend who couldn’t stand the thought of his team not winning a pennant in 1959. He also shares memories of a trip to Yankee Stadium with his old pal and fellow Chicagoan Shel Silverstein, when the two of them witnessed Mickey Mantle get booed for the audacity of not hitting a home run that afternoon. Shep provides a passable Shel Silverstein impression to boot.

Shep tops things off with some thoughts on the then-fledgling Mets, the real reason the Dodgers’ and Giants’ move to California was lamented by the press (their gravy train stopped running), and how the New York WIN NOW idea extends to all sports.

I find this fascinating because it is a contemporary account of what fan attitudes and fan experiences were like during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In our cemented memories, this era is rendered in Ken Burns-ian sepiatone nostalgia. But when Shep was speaking, the era was still The Present, and thus could be discussed in an unvarnished way.

When studying most aspects of history we accept that, in order to really understand a time, you have to get as close to contemporary accounts as humanly possible. When it comes to sports, however, we often let ourselves be swayed by myth-making. That makes this Shep clip even more rare, and valuable. I hope you enjoy it.

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Contested

I may have mentioned this before several thousand times, but I’ve written a novel. It’s called Hang A Crooked Number. Here is what I say about the novel to people who may wish to represent or publish it:

Backstop lives a double life, and both are crumbling. To the outside world, Backstop appears to be a minor league catcher of rapidly diminishing skills. In truth, he is an operative in training for The Moe Berg Society, a secret intelligence group that uses baseball as a front for its spy work. The mysterious disappearance of his fellow trainee, Mark, has plunged him into a career-threatening slump. Backstop gets one last chance at proving his worth when his handler asks him to investigate a connection between rumors of a mole and The Scouts, a faction of old-school spies hell-bent on seizing leadership of The Society. His mission is complicated by his new roommate, The Swing, an aging slugger working on a major league comeback, and by Brooke, a tenacious reporter who suspects Backstop holds the key to her investigation into Mark’s disappearance. With one eye on his plummeting batting average and the other on the mounting casualties of his mission, Backstop attempts to unravel a conspiracy that could change the game forever before he unravels himself.

This is the logline (industry terms!). Out of necessity, this omits a lot of what the book is. At the risk of explaining a thing that should serve to explain itself (like art is supposed to do), I can say that Hang a Crooked Number is about a lot of things that have almost nothing to do with spies, or baseball, or an imaginary world that has spies in baseball. A friend of mine who read it described it as “very New York,” which I took as a compliment. What I’m saying is, if you don’t dig baseball and/or spy novels in the slightest, I think you might still enjoy it.

The reason I’m going on about this is because I would like you to know Hang a Crooked Number is currently in the running for something called the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The novel has made it to the quarterfinals, in fact, and is one of about 100 titles under consideration in the General Fiction category. I entered the novel in the general fiction category because despite the novel’s genre shell, I think it’s closer to literary fiction than anything else. (See: defensive overexplaining above.) I’m normally suspicious of any contest that would allow me to advance this far, but they haven’t asked me for any money or to crash on my couch yet, so I think I’m safe.

If you want a tiny glimpse of the novel, Amazon is offering free ebook excerpts of all the quarterfinalists; mine can be found here. If this were in print form, what you get would only be the first 10-15 pages or so. But hey, it’s free, innit? I don’t think people downloading and/or reviewing this excerpt on Amazon will have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not Hang a Crooked Number progresses to the next rung on the contest ladder. But I don’t think it will hurt its chances either, if you catch my drift.

This novel will see the light of day, one way or another. If it’s via this contest, great. If it’s via the more old school method of agent pitching to editor over a three-martini lunch, great. If I have to make and distribute an ebook myself, great. If I have to tattoo it on my back and walk down the beach, great. My primary interest is to see it available to as many people as possible. That probably eliminates the tattooing option, but never say never.

Alright, as you were.

For-Real Interviews: Craig Robinson

In America, baseball is, sadly, often seen as the brussels sprouts of sports: something that must be consumed because it’s good for you. Many people view the sport as obligation rather than entertainment, something you are required to take your kids to during the summer because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Those who wax poetic about the game’s virtues can sound a bit like enthusiasts of quaint hobbies, like scrimshaw or silhouetting. The game is so fraught history and tradition and baggage that it seems impossible to say anything new about it.

Or maybe it just someone with a fresh perspective to say them. Enter Craig Robinson, an English illustrator whose love affair with the game was kindled by a trip to Yankee Stadium while in New York on business back in 2005. Not long after that, as his baseball fandom grew, he began to ponder questions that may not have occurred to someone who grew up with the game. Like, what is the actual monetary value of all the bases “stolen” during a major league season? Or how would A-Rod’s salary look if dispensed in pennies and stacked on top of one another? Or how long did it take to assemble, then disassemble, the 1986 Mets? Or what would the box score look like in a playoff game between the Wu Tang Clan and the E Street Band?

Robinson decided to answer these questions and many more at his site, Flip Flop Fly Ball, in gorgeously streamlined infographics. They are elegantly simple, packing enormous amounts of information into their space while not appearing remotely cluttered. They are works of art that beg to be seen write large, and that’s just what’s happened with the release of Flip Flop Fly Ball, a fantastic book that collects some of Robinson’s best work from the site, along with new items and essays on his evolution as an unlikely baseball fan. It is the kind of book that justifies the invention of the coffee table.

The author was kind enough to answer a few of my queries about his path to baseball fandom, the Mexican League, and what he would do with his favorite team. Answers to those questions and more after the jump.

Continue reading For-Real Interviews: Craig Robinson

Discoveries from MLB’s Origins Committee

  • The earliest form of baseball was played in ancient Mesopotamia. Called Dak-tar, the object of the game was for the players to project their own personal failings and fears of death onto their children.
  • At various times, the game has been known as bases-ball, based-ball, basted-ball, butter-ball, churn-ball, hide-the-goblin, flip cup, Sacajawea, and water polo.
  • Early incarnations of baseball required every square inch of the playing field to be covered by a person. By the late 1700s, rosters for each team were whittled down to a lean 85.
  • Alexander Cartwright was considered the father of baseball not because he codified the game’s modern rules, but because he sired enough illegitimate children to field an entire league’s rosters.
  • Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball in Cooperstown, NY, as legend has it. The West Point graduate was given the honorary title of the game’s inventor in recognition of his service when defeating The Great Child Labor Rebellion of 1871.
  • George Will is a total weiner.

Here’s the Score

Yes, I am one of those dorks who scores baseball games. Or at least I was until fairly recently, as I explained in this lengthy post. There were many reasons I stopped, but one of the biggest was because my enormous Modell’s scorebook was cumbersome, conspicuous, and just a bit too scholarly for the stadium experience. Yes, there are some times when I do feel self conscious about my appearance.

However, I’ve come across a scorebook that would completely make me rethink my abandonment of scoring. Eephus League has developed a scorebook that is both compact and elegantly designed. It is seriously a work of art, as you will see from the pics in this post. The font choice and layout is nothing but perfect. It’s small enough to fit in a messenger bag or even a coat pocket (if you have biggish pockets), yet still large enough to have enough space for all your scoring needs. Plus, it comes with stickers, and who doesn’t love stickers?

The scorebook’s designer, Bethany Heck, has started a Kickstarter page to get these books printed. I will definitely donate to this cause, as I must have one of these, and I’d suggest you do the same. Everyone who donates gets a scorebook, and there are some awesome prizes at different tiers, like some retro-iffic posters and t-shirts that celebrate the art of scoring. I’m particularly enamored of one that depicts the bottom of the 10th of game 6 of the 1986 World Series in scored form (seen to your right). Even though I’m sure I’d have to explain it each time I wore it. No, scratch that–because I’m sure I’d have to explain it each time I wore it.

For-Real Interview: Dan Epstein

bighair.jpgAs a kid, I was fascinated by 1970s baseball. The huge afros, the amazing facial hair, the retina-burning uniform designs–it seemed like such an insane, colorful era, particularly when compared to the heavily moussed 80s, where I spent most of my kid-dom. (Of course, there were some colorful characters then, too, but that’s a tale for another time.)

Whenever I had some disposable income (which was not often), I would spend it at a baseball card convention or store, usually on a large plastic box filled with completely worthless cards from 1977 or 1975, just so I could savor such sartorial majesties as Willie McCovey’s sideburns. My elementary school library had these slim books on each major league team, all published in the mid-’70s, which I borrowed repeatedly. And whenever my grampa took me to Cooperstown, I’d seek out the unbelievable mini-exhibit on the technicolor uniforms from those years (sadly, no longer there).

While there are some chronicles of players and teams from the 1970s (The Machine and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning are great, recent examples), there haven’t been many (if any) retrospectives about the decade in total. When people speak of a Golden Age of Baseball, they usually save such mythologizing for the 1950s and its stainless, sepia-tone heroes.

But now there is finally an evangelist for game as played in the Me Decade. Journalist Dan Epstein has penned a love letter to 1970s baseball entitled Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s. ESPN’s Rob Neyer has said of this tome, “What the 1960s were to America, the 1970s were to baseball, and Dan
Epstein has finally given us the swinging book the ’70s deserve.” The book drops May 25 from Thomas Dunne Books, and there will be a big ol’ release party at the Bell House in Brooklyn on May 26 (I for one am excited to try the Oscar Gamble hot dog that will be served there).

Dan was generous enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and answer some questions via email about Astroturf, day-glo erseys, the best Topps card designs, and the worst promotions of all time. Read all about it after the jump.
Continue reading For-Real Interview: Dan Epstein

Your Math Teacher Was Right: Graphs Can Be Fun!

I have no idea how this escaped my notice up until this point. But I’ve seen several people post and/or tweet about it in the past few days, so allow me to jump on the bandwagon way too late.

This thing is a site called Flip Flop Fly Ball, wherein artist Craig Robinson has created a whole slew of awesome baseball-related infographics. These graphs answer such questions as, how long did it take to assemble (and disassemble) the 1986 Mets? If bases were literally stolen, how much would it cost each team? How do the Indians reflect the Native American population of Cleveland? (As you might guess, not very much.)

And the best one of all: a complete box score for “an Eastern Division Tiebreaker Game that Exists in My Head” between the Wu-Tang Clan and the E-Street Band. As you might expect, the starting pitchers were RZA and The Boss.

This just scratches the surface. There’s a buffet of awesomeness here–including an 8-bit page header with many subtle nods to baseball touchstones both real and fictional (see if you can figure out what “game” is referenced on the scoreboard). So click and enjoy.

Oh Japan, You’ve Done it Again!

Paxarcana’s twitter page pointed me to this amazing video originally posted at Dvorak Uncensored: Japanese hitting coach bats baseball straight up a rope. For real.

So not only have the Japanese conquered the Real Baseball world, they’ve also cornered the market on Pete Maravich-esque baseball trickery. That’s it, we give up. You guys win.

How long before this is an event on Unbeatable Banzuke?

Michael More, Roger, and Me

piazza_si.jpgA recently leaked excerpt from Jeff Pearlman’s upcoming book on Roger Clemens (The Rocket Who Fell to Earth, which sounds less like a sports tome and more like a David Bowie album) alleges that Mike Piazza used performance enhancing drugs. And by alleges, I mean Pearlman says Piazza totally did them.

Although–unless there’s more in the book than the excerpt contains–the accusations come mostly from unnamed sources, all of whom say some variation of “Yeah, we’re pretty sure he did it,” without any specifics. Same goes for the one former player who went on the record: Reggie Jefferson, who’s most famous for having a hissy fit and quitting baseball for good when the Red Sox left him of their playoff roster in 1999.

And if you want an idea of how much of a douche Jefferson is, consider the first line of the article linked above: “This is not how Reggie Jefferson expected to begin the playoffs, taking care of his newborn infant daughter in Tampa.” ‘I coulda been playing against the Indians right now, but NOOOO! I just had to come home and take care of this stupid baby!’

However, according to Pearlman, Piazza confided that he used PEDs on occasion to reporters off the record. Pearlman’s theory is that Piazza did this to make it an open secret and thus cut off further questioning on the subject.

Bottom line: You can’t imply something like this in a book and not be damn sure you won’t get sued over it. And the best way to ensure you won’t get sued is to print the truth. So I felt it only fair to address this subject, since I’ve hammered Roger Clemens at every opportunity. And hammered. And hammered.

Part of me wants to split hairs and say that it’s unclear when Piazza used PEDs and for how long, whereas Clemens’ use is pretty well documented: the post-Boston tail-end of his career, when it looked like his career might be over.

I’m tempted to say that you could jam needles in your ass til the cows came home and it still wouldn’t enable you to differentiate a fastball from a changeup in a split second, while Clemens used PEDs to pitch effectively way beyond retirement age.

But who’s to say that PEDs didn’t help Piazza recover more quickly from the various dings and cuts associated with catching? And how do I know it didn’t help him bat better (as opposed to slug better, which I’m sure it did)?

So am I now forced to admit that Mike Piazza is really no better than Roger Clemens? No, I am not.

First off, the use of PEDs doesn’t upset me. As far as levels of cheating go, I put it below spitballers and bat corking. To me, it’s more like the widespread use of amphetamines in baseball, which goes all the way back to the 1950s. They’re both artificial chemical means to improve one’s performance.

Plus, MLB’s anti-drug policy was such a joke for so long that it practically dared players to do steroids. It was like putting a sack of money out on the street, with a sign that said PLEASE DON’T STEAL.

Granted, I like baseball better now that it welcomes Good Pitching again. Now that batters no longer look like overstuffed sausages stitched together. Now that we have fewer of the Mark McGwire style players–guys who can hit titanic homers and do absolutely nothing else. Now that players no longer shorten their lives to hit a few more dingers.

But I’ve never gotten fist-shakin’ angry over the whole steroids thing. Because first of all, baseball ain’t the only offender on the PED front. How many linebackers you think aren’t juicing? Football fans don’t give a shit, though, because no one cares about numbers in football. No one cares about the players in football. Fans just wanna see Football:The Sport presented to them every Sunday in the fall, by any means necessary. Sometimes I wish baseball fans could look at their sport the same way.

And if you know anything about the history of baseball, you know that steroid use is way low on its list of crimes. For 15-20 years, tons of guys did steroids. And yet the game endures.

What tons of guys didn’t do is try to end other players’ careers by throwing at their heads, because they couldn’t get them out any other way. Or start some weird drama by hurling a shattered bat during a World Series game–and somehow not get kicked out of that game because they’re too big to get kicked out of such a huge game. Or get all their reporter buddies to write glowing articles about how they owe all their success to an intense workout regimen. Or protest their innocence when all the evidence pointed elsewhere. Or cajole Congress into giving them hearings to prove their innocence because they’re tight with the sitting President’s family.

Nope, last I checked, there was only one very special breed of asshole who did that.

There are several levels of Sports Hate. Lowest are the guys you really don’t hate, you just hate the fact that they always beat Your Team, and your hatred is actually a sign of respect (for me, this would be John Smoltz).

Then there are guys who you hate because they always beat Your Team, and who you can’t prove are douchebags, but you just know they’re douchebags (Greg Maddux, Derek Jeter).

Then there are guys who you hate because they always beat Your Team and you know they’re douchebags because they’ve provided ample evidence (Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds).

And then there are enormous douches whose douchiness breaks the lowly bonds of douchery and passes into supervillainy. Roger Clemens resides in this pantheon, and I have no problem singling him out for an extra fiery, hellish hate that rages like a thousand suns.

If I have to readjust my thinking on anything, it’s my attitude toward fans of players on other teams who juiced. We all know the obvious offenders, and I’ve wondered to myself, “How could those morons root for [fill in the blank]?”

I now realize I was one of those morons. I mean, I always knew I was. I just never had to confront that reality head-on like other fans did.

As usual, Faith and Fear in Flushing said it much better than I could. Ultimately, what did any of these players really do, other than hit baseballs really far and make people happy? And how many of them jacked those homers off of players who were just as “dirty” as them?

So if you cheered for Bonds or Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire or Brady Anderson or Ken Caminiti, I won’t judge you for that.

In turn, don’t judge me for rooting for someone who almost single-handedly willed the Mets back from the dead in 1999. Someone who put the capper on a 10-run rally on our Most Hated Rival. Someone who hit the most titanic homers I ever saw, and the most important one I ever saw.

So, we got a deal?

SfM in PSL

seanfrommassapequa.jpgJust a friendly reminder that Sean from Massapequa is down in Port St. Lucie, tweeting away about his favorite team (who he can’t stop threatening with bodily harm, for some reason).

Meanwhile, Skitch Hanson sent me another telegram. He’s having some automotive issues that have prevented him from getting to Florida, but he promised he will start tweeting again as soon as he’s there.