According to Fangraphs, You Don’t Understand Love

The ritual of baseball’s spring training marks the true beginning of the year; a time for reflection, for pause, to consider the errors of years passed, and to be hopeful for a season not yet written. You miss that girl, but maybe it’s time to move on. You regret August, but there’s another coming just after July. You were so close to the postseason, but the postseason never came. For many of us, it’s a way out of the February blahs, from winter’s depression, the sight of crisp untouched diamonds and impossibly high uniform numbers lending promise to possibility. We’re all tied for first. We’re all batting a 1.000. We’re all in love. We have a 21.2 UZR/150.

Wait, what?

In so many ways, technology has improved the manner in which we both enjoy and disseminate sport. HD television brings you as close to being there as imaginable. Scores and injury updates fly across the Twittersphere in moments. Fantasy leagues are assembled with friends around the world, not just around the block. I can watch the Habs on my iPhone, in both official languages, and Punjabi. But the advent of the smartphone and a readily accessible supply of infinite information has ruined the art of the discussion, the joy of the bar argument. We have become overly informed, and nowhere is this more evident than in baseball.

While not a Moneyball guy, I appreciate sabermetrics and I understand its role in the game, both in terms of evaluating talent and discussion amongst fans. We’ve evolved, even as casual fans, beyond batting averages and RBIs. I get that. But the beauty of baseball, its essence and charm, has always been in its never-ending narrative. The stories, the romance, the mystery and exposition of baseball cards. Shoeless Joe Jackson. Wally Pipp. Roberto Clemente. Sidd Finch. Morganna the Kissing Bandit. The game where the defense has the ball, where 1921 and 1981 can be measured in conversation, where there is no halftime, no quarters, no clock, no definitive end. Any given game on any given summer day, could possible go on forever.

My god, the doubleheader.

“It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”

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The Return of Dodger Blue (from The Barnstormer)

LATE LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox made what is perhaps the largest trade in baseball history, in terms of the contractual obligations involved and the status of the players leaving the chaos of Red Sox Nation for the perhaps once again temple of Chavez Ravine. Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto went west for James Loney, Iván DeJesús, Jr., Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Jerry Sands. It was the kind of massive blockbuster that sport doesn’t see anymore. It was the kind of trade I would have loved reading about as a kid. And it brought the Dodgers back—to me anyway.

I haven’t thought about the Dodgers much in the past 20 years. At some point they slipped away as a my mistress team from way out west. But at times this year, whether by affection for nostalgia or disappointment in the Blue Jays, I’ve found myself checking on them. I like that Don Mattingly is their manager, the ex-Yankee. Donny Baseball. As close as you can get to a Hall of Famer without being one. He missed the Yankee glory years, on both ends of his career. As I write this, the Dodgers are one-and-a-half games out of the wild card, and 3-and-a-half back of the NL West leading rival San Francisco Giants, another west coast franchise that broke New York hearts. Their star pitcher is the impossibly named Clayton Kershaw, titled like a Hemingway character. The team has escaped the failed ownership of Frank and Jamie McCourt, and is now owned by a group that includes longtime MLB exec Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson. They want to win. They’re willing to spend, to take chances. They want to return the Dodgers to past glory.

They want to return to 1988.

WHEN I WAS A KID, my maternal grandmother spent her winters in Vero Beach, Florida. On a few occasions my mum took my sister and I down to visit. There wasn’t much to Vero Beach. A beach stop on the highway. A rail line passing through. A JC Penney, who carried the unavailable-in-Canada “Underwear is Fun to Wear”. Piper Aircraft is based there. Grandmother’s hide from the Canadian winter there. But as a kid, you don’t ask much of your vacation spot. I wasn’t hungry for art galleries, museums, Gap outlets, Tilted Kilts. I just needed a pool. A beach. A store that sold baseball cards and/or comic books. Kraft Dinner reserves. An abundance of colas. Batman briefs. Despite its pedestrian nature, its Everytown, Florida charm or lack thereof, it had something that did set it apart from the Myrtle Beaches, and Pensacolas, and Dunedins. Vero Beach had Dodgertown.

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Just a Kid: Gary Carter (1954 – 2012)

I’ve been spending a lot of time of late thinking about my childhood. Not quite sure why. Maybe because I’ve finally realized I’m not 25 anymore after trying to celebrate that birthday for a straight decade with mixed results. Maybe because after leaving Montreal, a city I love, but a city hard to grow out of, I’m considering growing up.  Maybe because I’ve been spending a lot of time with my sister’s kids, ages 3 and 5, and I’ve been blessed with quiet fragments of flashbacks, brought on by eating hot dogs with regularity, watching Mary Poppins without the cynical tones of hipster irony, and marveling in their fascination and affection for wonder. But as you get older, you find that nothing takes you back to childhood with such humility and pause as when a hero of that time is suddenly gone. Gary Carter, major league catcher, World Series champion, Hall of Famer, hero to many, the Kid, died yesterday of brain cancer at the age of 57. He will be missed.

I despise the word hero. Like love or soul, its overuse has robbed it of its meaning, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in sport. Our cultural landscape is bereft of true heroes, instead dotted in false idols born of contrivance and vanity. But when I was a kid, I had Gary Carter to look up to. By the time I fell in love with baseball, and in turn the Montreal Expos, Gary Carter had already been traded to the rival New York Mets. But through the genius of baseball cards and back issues of Sports Illustrated I was able to discover the magic that was The Kid. He was well known for his effervescent smile, which he wore in every photo I found. Through the gift of imagination and statistics, I knew that Carter was special, and that as a former Montreal Expo he was one of ours, he belonged to me.

Gary Carter was a throwback. He wore a flapless batting helmet. His uniform was dirty before the national anthems had sung their last note. He chewed bubble gum. He ran hard on every ground ball, legged out every extra base hit, tracked every foul pop until it found his glove or the stands, a style that early in his career earned him the nickname Kid sarcastically, but which as a 10-year-old fan you mercifully don’t understand. He played every inning just like we did on the weekends on gravel diamonds, in backyards as the summer light gave way to the first pitch, and in our hopeful imaginations as Dave Van Horne’s radio call gave way to sleep. Gary Carter played every inning just like we dreamt we would, if only given the chance, if only blessed with his talent.

Before twenty-four hour coverage of sport, before online forums for rumour and conjecture, before PEDs and ball players before congress, there were baseball cards. They told us the story of a player, and what wasn’t there in statistics and random factoids we filled in with our imaginations. And you could tell that Gary Carter loved baseball, the way the adult me would discover he loved his wife, and his three kids, and God. I remember the 1986 World Series not for the now infamous Bill Buckner error, but rather for a scrappy catcher with a huge smile who refused to let his team lose. It was Carter’s single that started the rally that would eventually score Ray Knight on Buckner’s legendary gaffe. And my lasting image of the ’86 series has always been, and will always be, Carter, like the perennial 10-year-old he was, charging out to the mound and jumping into Jesse Orosco’s arms, just like we did when we dreamt a championship moment playing in neighbourhood parks, on backyard diamonds, and in our imaginations.

It’s strange to look back at that ’86 team as an adult, with the curse of knowledge and cynicism of age. That team was filled with rough characters, miscreants and addicts, bastards. Lenny Dykstra used steroids and stole from friends and family. Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden struggled with cocaine and ego. I know now that Carter was the antithesis to rest of the clubhouse, a clean living religious man who famously told reporters he would bring his wife on road trips if he could, while the rest of the roster treated those trips like bachelor parties in Vegas, reveling in both their fame and wealth. And in that manner, Carter kept the nickname Kid, and as an adult armed with this knowledge, it’s interesting to look back and consider that despite their differences, despite the opposite manners in which they approached the game, approached life, they all loved Kid. Because above everything, he played hard, he played to win, and he was a better, more complete, more competitive player than all of them. And he led them to a world championship, and in sport victory is the great equalizer.

The 1986 Mets may have been one of the best teams ever, but what Carter’s teammates lacked, and what defined Carter, would eventually lead to their downfall. On a team that won 108 games, that won the World Series, that boasted Gooden, and Dykstra, and Strawberry, and Howard Johnson, Carter would be the only one who would eventually make it to the Hall of Fame. And when he did, he entered the Hall in a Montreal Expos cap, the first player to do so. As a lifelong Expos fan, as someone who took a long time to return to baseball after Nos Amours were moved to Washington, this was a moment, a redemption. Many Canadian baseball fans’ defining moment is when Joe Carter hit a homerun to win the 1993 World Series. For some, it’s Blue Monday, the 1981 NLCS when the Dodgers’ Rick Monday hit a two-out ninth inning homerun off the Expos’ Steve Rogers in what would prove to be the difference in the game. But for many of us, for me, that defining moment came in a nothing game in a year the Blue Jays would bring Canada it’s first World Series title.

In 1992 Gary Carter returned to Montreal for what would be his final MLB season. It was a mostly unspectacular year, a quiet swansong for the Kid, but in what ended up being his final at-bat, Carter laced a double over former Expo Andre Dawson to score Canadian Larry Walker in what proved to be the winning run. The crowd of over 40 000, knowing that this was it, that Carter would never play baseball again, rose to their feet and said goodbye to a player who they could only wish had stayed in their town a little longer, could only dream of what might have been. Kid was replaced for pinch runner Tim Laker, and the Olympic Stadium crowd, his teammates, the city of Montreal, would not let the moment end, and Carter stepped from the dugout for a curtain call, a storybook ending to a beautiful career, a moment that could not be dreamt, nor written, nor contrived. A moment of pure, unadulterated love for a kid who just wanted to play a game, and ended up dominating it on its biggest stage.

As a kid, I loved baseball. I loved oiling my glove and wrapping a ball in it, securing it with elastic bands with the help of my dad before I went to bed. I loved diving for balls and coming up bruised and grass stained. I loved that odd occasion that I made contact and could leg out a single. But, I realized very early on that I would never be a great ball player. Or even a good one. The great myth of professional sport is that character can get you far. It can’t. I wasn’t fast enough. I couldn’t hit a curveball. A decent fastball found the catcher’s glove before I realized it had been thrown. But I loved the game. I loved putting on the uniform. Loved having a number on my back. I loved it’s traditions and history, its narrative. My parents bought me a copy of Bill James’ Abstract before I knew what it was, before sabremetrics became part of baseball’s lexicon. I just loved looking through the numbers, studying them, memorizing them, and wondering how I could fit into this magical world. Turns out my entry was Gary Carter, because though I would never play an inning above little league, everything I had ever wanted, everything I had ever dreamt of in baseball, Gary Carter would go out and achieve, and as a child I would live vicariously through the innocent wonder of a kid in a grownup’s body.  Somewhere, in a place Gary Carter very much believed in, Kid is lacing up his cleats, getting ready to step onto the fresh cut grass of a field of dreams, smiling, about to play the game he loved.

Sometimes an All-Star Notion

I did something horrible this weekend. Something for which I feel great shame. I degraded myself in a way I hadn’t since I was a petulant and ignorant young man.  It was a victimless crime, of sorts, and the only one who was hurt was me. What I did, what I need to admit openly so as to feel some sort of absolution, is watch the NHL All-Star game. In fact, not only did I watch the game, but I preceded that horror of half-hockey and hype by watching the NHL All-Star Draft followed by the NHL All-Star Skills Competition. And as Sunday night frittered away in a sad haze of whiskey and regret, I clutched my Larry Robinson vintage Wales Conference, its polyester blend repelling my tears like an unforgiving ex-girlfriend, and I promised the absent hockey gods that I would never again demean myself like that. I would never again disrespect the game by actively condoning its corporate bonanza played at half-speed. I would refrain from the hype. And as the whiskey and tears combined to blind me in my confession of sin, I cried out to no one in particular: At least I have not sinned as my brother, at least I have not watched the NFL Pro Bowl! And in that moment, I found my redemption: combine the NHL and NFL All-Star events.

It should come as a sign that the two major league all-star events that are both unsuccessful and unlike their respective sports fall on the same weekend, for hockey and football require more physical effort and contact, and as such more chance of injury, than their basketball and baseball brethren. As a result, the all-star games themselves are played with the cautious fervor of Sidney Crosby getting out of a shower. The NBA All-Star Weekend is perhaps the most successful of the four, as their slam dunk and three-point shooting competitions provide an exhibition of the sport’s athleticism, as does the playground feel of the game itself. Additionally, it’s the one weekend a year where illegitimate NBA offspring can go to find their absent dads in one place. It’s what Shawn Kemp called the “family reunion” until he ate and fathered his way out of the game.

Baseball has it’s Midsummer Classic, an all-star game with a title nearly Shakespearian with a history and tradition to match. Plus, if Prince Fielder can weigh the same as my ’93 Honda Civic and have the body fat of an apathetic humpback whale and still sign a contract for $214 million that takes him well into his recliner and Pringles years, one at-bat against 80 mile-an-hour soft tosses every July isn’t going to hurt him. The NFL and NHL all-star “games” are played at half-speed because no one, not even the fans, want to see a player hurt in a nothing contest. So, by my reasoning, two events at half-speed added together equals one at full-speed, no? No.

I’m certainly not suggesting NFL players lace up their Bauers to take on the NHL stars, though the opportunity for Ray Lewis to try and kill some kid from Saskatchewan with his skate for snowing him could be interesting. Nor am I suggesting that NHL players throw on the pads, and try and convert a 3rd down against the NFL stars, mostly because NHLers are notorious for throwing like girls, and the Canadian players would be attempting rouges all afternoon. What I’m humbly suggesting is that the two leagues combine their all-star weekends into one massive, two-sport mega-event. And Drake could still perform, because if pro athletes have one thing in common it’s an affection for mediocre pop hip hop.

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Sabermetric Relationships Pt. I

So, I’m hanging out with my 3-year-old niece yesterday afternoon, you know, just drinking Stellas (Lights, don’t be judgmental), thinking about my last two divorces, why my former employer keeps telling people I’m illiterate and that my left foot is articificial, and wondering if anyone would buy the film rights to my book of poetry so that I could pay off my substantial student loan debt or perhaps buy a Crispy Crunch, and she says to me “Uncle Michael, you have no children because you are alone.” At first, I thought it was the Belgian ale talking, and that her comments were ill informed and mean-spirited. But, you know, she’s three and her tolerance is embarrassingly low, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that her declaration was born of both caring and ingenuity. She was reducing my existence to a very basic equation: (Uncle Michael) x (0 partner) = 0 children. At three, she was quantifying her uncle for the purposes of evaluating his position in life. She was, perhaps unknowingly, developing the philosophy of sabermetric relationships.

Sabermetrics is the “specialized analysis of baseball through objective, empirical evidence, specifically baseball statistics that measure in-game activity.” It is a term coined by baseball historian Bill James, popularized by Billy Beane as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, documented in the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis, and brought to the masses by the film adaptation starring Brad Pitt. Its philosophy is quite simple, though its execution is less than scientific, certainly something that can be said of dating. Statistics such as stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, historically typical quantifiers of baseball players, are antiquated notions of a 19th century perception of the sport and the statistics that were available at the time. More specifically, sabermetrics relies more on empirical evidence, and less on chain-smoking, heavy drinking, overweight scouts in fedoras sweating through their short sleeve dress shirts making summer long road trips to places like Bluefield, Virginia; Missoula, Montana; and San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic.  Basically, it removes the romanticism from summer’s pastime.

So with all that romanticism out of work, why not borrow it? Why not plug sabermetrics into the less quantifiable pastime of love? My niece, two sippy cups of Stella in, started the process, but since she naps often, is asleep by 7:11, and easily distracted, I thought I’d attempt to finish it.  First, let’s replace Bill James with Henry James. Makes sense, right? James was a realist, favoured celebrating the banal over stylized romanticism, and appreciated a good narrative, and what is baseball but an unending narrative? And what’s more banal than statistical analysis?

But the substitution of James for James is intriguing on many levels. Of knowledge, the exploitation of which fuels sabermetrics, Bill James wrote:

“There will always be people who are ahead of the curve, and people who are behind the curve. But knowledge moves the curve.”

Henry James had similar thoughts on knowledge:

“It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that–as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.”

And what leads best to loneliness, but ignorance? Henry James enjoyed juxtaposing elements of the old world with those of the new, and what is sabermetrics but that exactly? My niece was on to something. Perhaps she could be the next Orioles GM.

Once we’ve exchanged the James’, we’re forced to confront the acronyms–the seemingly endless list of statistics that excite the sabermetrics faithful. Where once baseball was about the digits of RBIs, HRs, and AVGs, love was about acquiring seven digits, a six-pack, and occasionally doubling up. But no more. Love, like baseball has become more complicated. The sheer number of forums in which you can meet another person is seemingly infinite. From Facebook to Twitter to Lavalife to J-Date to Second Life to speed dating. Whatever happened to just going to the bar, getting drunk, and letting the rest sort itself out? Well, the same thing that happened to batting average, the Triple Crown, and chewing tobacco I suppose.

So, off-and-on for the next while, I’m going to consider a few of sabermetrics most prominent statistics, and how they relate to relationships, and continue to develop the philosophy of sabermetric relationships. Today, WAR.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a non-standardized statistic that is used to show how many more wins a player would give a team as opposed to a “replacement level”, or minor league/bench player at that position. While WAR values are scaled equally for pitchers and hitters, the result is calculated differently for pitchers versus position players: position players are evaluated using statistics for fielding and hitting, while pitchers are evaluated using statistics related to the opposing batters’ hits, walks and strikeouts.

Basically, this is the baseball equivalent of measuring a prospective partner against his contemporaries. Let’s say you’re a single young woman, and you’re at a respectable bar with some friends for an evening of cocktails and frivolity. Sitting across from you is a table of like-minded young men, out for similar cocktails and hopes of frivolity. As a young woman, you’re immediately judging that table, calculating each individual at the table’s value in comparison to all the others. The table is the bench. The stats are simple at the evening’s beginning, generally based on aesthetic. As the evening progresses, as the night gets into the later evenings, the stats change. Because WAR is non-standardized, on any given evening we can consider stats such as Drink Consumption, Conversational Acumen, Ability to Stand Up, and Tab Payment Quotient.  Depending on what point in the season we’re playing, and how deep our bench is, different considerations come into play within the umbrella of WAR. Most people strike out, some walk home, and some are fortunate enough to work the counts deep, score a few runs, and make it into extra innings. Okay, the metaphor is corny there and a bit weak, but remember this was the idea of a half-cut 3 years old. Work with me.

Next Week: STDs & BABIPs: DIPS, LIPS, and Prophylactics

Baseball, Love, & Shakespeare

If Shakespeare were alive and well and writing today, he’d be writing about baseball. He’d scrap tired manuscripts about Oedipal princes and spoiled princesses, and pen epic plays about pine tarred bats, about no-hitters, about Bill Buckner, Rick Monday, Steve Bartman, Kirk Gibson, Jack Buck, Vin Scully, and game 6 of this year’s World Series. Sometime late last night, or early this morning depending on where you were, St. Louis Cardinals’ third baseman David Freese hit a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the 11th inning to beat the Texas Rangers and cap what was arguably the greatest Fall Classic game ever played. It was the kind of ending Billy would have stolen for himself, and provided that rare live drama that a ball fan hopes for every time they tune in. Drama, heartbreak, villains, heroes, comedy, tragedy, raging ups, and mournful downs.  Busch Stadium was Elizabethan last night.

A high hope for a low heaven.

Shakespeare would have loved baseball. It’s grand mythology. It’s theatre-like stadia. Its obsession with tradition. Its pageantry. The way its history interacts so beautifully with that of the United States. Baseball is truly America’s pastime. It belongs to Americans like no other sport. Both its modern failings and victories have been mirrored by the sport’s. It is their oldest child, perhaps their favourite. Maybe they invented it, maybe not, but though Shakespeare didn’t invent theatre, he may have perfected it. The same could be said for St. Louis, where baseball is lived and breathed, where summers are judged by not by weather or economy, but rather the success of the Cardinals.

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

No other sport lends itself to narrative like baseball, and game 6 had everything. Scoring nearly every inning. Two go-ahead extra inning homeruns. Pitchers pinch-hit for pitchers. Double switches. Ophelia’s suicide. Dropped balls and opportunistic moments that suggested divine interference. Nelson Cruz, the Rangers right fielder committed a Buckneresque mistake in playing too shallow and allowing Freese’s 9th inning triple to sail just beyond his reach. And then Freese, who had given up on baseball after high school, whose major league career had an auspicious start, who was revived only when he was traded to his hometown team, who was counseled by Cards’ hitting coach and tainted star Mark McGwire, who had committed one error earlier in the game, and missed another catchable ball, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 11th, and cranked a Mark Lowe pitch over the centrefield fence to force a game 7. Redemption and victory, what makes for better tales?

Good night, sweet friend: thy love ne’er alter, till thy sweet life end.

And then, there’s the heartbreak. The Texas Rangers were within one strike of their first championship twice. If not for Cruz’s poor positioning, the team would be waking up this morning reeking of champagne and victory, not beer and defeat. If manager Ron Washington had brought in C.J. Wilson in relief instead of Lowe. If the collective held breath of the St. Louis faithful had exhaled at once and blown Freese’s ball back. If, if, if. The Rangers were as close as you can get without actually getting there. So close that the team’s families had been brought down to a room in the depths of Busch Stadium so that they could celebrate with the team. So close that plastic sheeting had been hung in the Rangers’ clubhouse in anticipation of champagne showers. Those awful World Champions 2011 hats had been unpacked. Nolan Ryan was smiling. Parade routes were being planned. And then, in a stunning moment, gone. You have to feel for the Rangers, for Cruz, for Washington. If they don’t win tonight, the heartbreak will be multiplied ten fold.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

It’s difficult to quantify the heartbreak of sport, and most certainly more difficult to explain heartbreak in baseball. It is unlike any other sport, in that it unfolds at a slower than slow pace, and yet can end in the blink of an eye. And in that manner, baseball is more like love than any other sport, something Bill Shakespeare would have dug. When love ends its dénouement is inexplicable, sudden, often violent, and rarely faithful.  It is not unlike David Freese’s shot to centre. One moment anything is possible, the next it’s gone. There are two sides at play, but multiple parties with vested interest. There’s a fair amount of drinking involved. Victory is a ring, losing can break the best of men. Afterwards, there’s nothing to do but watch the game tape, learn from your mistakes, drink yourself stupid, and hope you get a second chance. Tonight, the Rangers are getting that second chance most never do. Most of us don’t have to face hard breaking curveballs, though. Enter Chris Carpenter, stage right.

There are few things better than love. Game 7s come close.