Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sight Unseen -- Blind Woman Throws First Pitch at Dodger Stadium

Lorri Bernson delivers the first pitch as her guide dog, Carter looks
on prior to the Dodgers-Padres game at Dodgers Stadium on Monday,
Aug. 29, 2011. Many local guide dogs in training were on hand to
watch the event. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

by Dennis McCarthy
L.A. Daily News
August 30, 2011

Lorri Bernson was having a bad case of game day jitters on Monday.

In a few hours, the 48-year-old Encino woman would be walking out to the mound at Dodger Stadium - accompanied by her guide dog, Carter - to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

She's been practicing with friends at Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park - listening for the catcher's voice and the sound of the ball hitting leather to judge the distance and arc of her throw.

It's tough enough for sighted people to make the throw from the front of the mound to home plate. Imagine not being able to see home plate at all.

But Bernson knew she'd have some help out there. Carter would be at her side to nudge her in the right direction if she got turned around.

Guide dogs in training line up along the first base line as Lorri
Bernson delivers the first pitch with her guide dog, Carter prior
to the Dodgers-Padres game at Dodgers Stadium on Monday,
Aug. 29, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

Monday was a big night for Guide Dogs of America, the Sylmar-based nonprofit organization that teams up 50 dogs a year with people who have lost their sight.

Bernson lost her sight to diabetes in 1995, and came here in 2002 to train with her first guide dog, Nigel, a golden retriever she retired last year at age 10.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but it was time," Bernson says. "He was slowing down, losing his reflexes and quickness to respond.

"He did his job for eight years. He protected and loved me."

She often gets asked if Nigel - now back living with the couple who trained him as a puppy - ever saved her life?

"Every day I walked out of my apartment," Bernson answers. That's how important guide dogs are to the blind.

When Ned Colletti, the Dodger's general manager, visited the Sylmar facility late in 2009, Bernson asked him if the Dodgers might be interested in sponsoring her and her new guide dog as they went through training together.

It wasn't cheap - about $40,000 for a dog bred to be trained as a guide dog, along with room and board for a month together at the facility and miscellaneous training costs.

"I was looking to donate to a group that makes an impact on lives and that's what Guide Dogs of America does," Colletti says.

"I have it written in my contract that I get to donate to the charity of my choice every year and the Dodgers will match it.

"Carter was our first and we had our second dog graduate in April. My goal is a third one by the end of the year."

So, officially, Carter is the first, real-life Dodger dog, says Bernson, trying to find a laugh to cure her game day jitters.

"At first I thought I'd have Carter take the ball in his mouth and bring it to the catcher," she say. "But that's not what guide dogs do. It would have sent the wrong message."

So, she would throw out the first pitch. It was in the dirt, a little wide. But it was close.

Lorri Bernson pets her guide dog Carter prior to throwing out the
first pitch at the Dodgers-Padres game at Dodgers Stadium on Monday,
Aug. 29, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mike Flanagan Brought Unique Perspective to the Top of the Mound

Mike Flanagan, a former Cy Young winner and
part of the Baltimore Orioles’ 1983 World Series
championship team, has died. He was 59.
By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post,
August 25, 2011

Mike Flanagan was the best student of people, the toughest pitch-hurt competitor, the most unselfish teammate and the best world-leery wit of any Oriole of his time. Nobody was like him — at all.

A few years ago, the O's honored former manager Earl Weaver with a plaque that's on the wall, waist-high, in their dugout. "Oh, life size," Flanagan quipped.

When he was a kid pitcher who allowed too many steals, Flanny threw a sideline session as Weaver watched. Suddenly Earl began running, yelling, "I just stole second on you."

"How'd you ever get on base?" Flanagan replied.

That is the best-known version of Flanagan: the droll New Hampshire stoic, watching bemused, waiting with a needle that he never dug too deep. But there were several other Flannys, all worth valuing now in the wake of his death Wednesday at age 59.

Once, when no Oriole would say a good word for smart, angry, drug-plagued teammate Alan Wiggins, Flanagan analyzed, rather than judged.

"I always tend to give people two or three more chances than they deserve. That might help you in the long run because they give you more chances, too," he said. "Maybe Alan gave everybody two or three less chances than they deserved. So they gave him no chances at all."

That was Flanagan, too.

In 1983, Flanny pitched with a four-pound brace on his knee. The league knew he was, once again, sacrificing another notch off the power arm that won him the 1979 Cy Young Award. But as he had in several seasons, he wanted to help the O's while other, slower-healing pitchers waited until they could stand the pain. Flanagan's tough-it-out code, the product of being a third-generation pro pitcher, probably turned a potentially stellar career into a merely very good one: 167-143. But it brought vast dividends of respect.

That year on the O's beat, I waited for somebody to bunt for a hit against Flanagan while he was wearing that brace. Nobody did, not even with a pennant at stake. It was beneath the dignity of the game to exploit him — because he wouldn't throw at hitters, because he never took his spitball out of the bullpen and because, in his prime, he loved the challenge of attacking the strengths of the greatest hitters, such as Jim Rice.

That, also, was Flanagan.

During the bleakest years of Peter Angelos's tenure as Orioles owner, few respected baseball executives would come to Baltimore. But Flanagan was always an Oriole first, all else a distant second. He befriended Angelos, tried to understand him, influence him for the best and explain him to others. As executive vice president of baseball operations from 2005 to '08, he was the public face of the franchise.

It didn't work. Just as he abused his arm for Weaver and the team, Flanagan sacrificed some of his reputation as an exec by being identified with Angelos. After Andy MacPhail became general manager, there was no logical place for Flanagan. He called friends throughout baseball to pick brains about jobs in other front offices. None apparently materialized.

After serving in more Orioles roles than any Baltimore player, including two stints as pitching coach, Flanagan went back to the TV broadcast booth to explain the latest 95-loss year — insightfully, generously and sardonically.

Flanagan was respected, beloved and seen as an exemplar of the best in the word "pro," because he was so completely guided by his own internal compass of values. Ballplayers have just as much difficulty figuring out who they are as everybody else — maybe more, at times, because their stardom lets them delay maturation. Wise beyond years, Flanagan knew himself.

For example, when he was the reigning Cy Young winner, he showed me how to cheat. He scuffed one side of a ball, just two marks with a coat hanger in his locker. He played catch with Dennis Martinez to show how, effortlessly, he suddenly had four new pitches.

"It's the same principle as a flat-sided Wiffle ball," he said. "You hold the ball with the scuffed side opposite to the direction you want it to break. It takes no talent whatsoever."

Why don't you do it?

"My real stuff's still too good," said Flanagan, who won 23 games with the best left-handed curveball in the American League and a fastball in the 90s.

Then, seriously, he said: "I can understand why they do it and I can't swear that I won't ever do it, but I still hate it. [Once] when I was hurt, I got to the point where I actually took the mound thinking I'd cheat that day. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I thought, 'If you'll do this now, just to have a little better chance to win, what won't you do eventually?'

"I guess I just felt too conspicuous out there."

Conspicuous to whom?

"Myself, I guess."

Flanagan always called his job description "fool on the hill" and wore a T-shirt under his uniform that said "Dead Goat Saloon." Even as a player, you'd see him reading serious novels. Once, asked what he would have done if he were not a baseball player, he referred back to the old John Belushi skit on "Saturday Night Live" and said, "I think I'd have made an excellent Killer Bee."

Flanagan was a first port of call for Orioles with problems because he had had his share. "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars — on stars where no human race is," New Hampshire's Robert Frost wrote. "I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places."

Sometimes, Flanagan wore a black suit in summer, and his humor bore the etymology of the root word that described it: "mordant." But what those who knew him best will recall — first and erasing all else — were his eyes crinkling to a slit with laughter and, behind those eyes, a bone-deep desire to give, even for things not asked, while taking little.

After years of frustration, when the O's won the '83 World Series, Flanagan said, "Now we got what we all wanted: a highlight film with a happy ending."

This week, we don't get the happy ending, but we can keep our highlights, our memories, of the life and the man, which still shine brighter than any trophy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A’s Await Film, But Without the Ending They Wanted

[Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press]
The Oakland teams Billy Beane built a
decade ago went toe to toe with the Yankees
and the Red Sox in the postseason.

By Tyler Kepner, New York Times
August 23, 2011

The Oakland Athletics close their home schedule Sept. 22, and the next day they open their run in theaters everywhere. The movie version of “Moneyball,” about the rise of the A’s under Billy Beane, will depict a moment in time that is much different from today. Its inspiration will watch in that context.

“I’ve seen a couple of cuts, and there is a bit of nostalgia about it,” Beane said on the phone this week. “I forgot some of the guys on that team. It’s been a while.”

[Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia Pictures]
Brad Pitt, left, with the actor Jonah Hill, plays
Athletics General Manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball,”
the new film based on Michael Lewis's book.
Beane is still the Athletics’ general manager, and he speaks somewhat reluctantly about the movie, other than to acknowledge there are worse things in life than having Brad Pitt play you on film. He says he does not want to distract from his job, which has become far more challenging than it was from 2000 through 2003, when the A’s made the playoffs each season.

The version that held on for a 6-5 win arrived at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night is still 15 games out of first place in the American League West. Competitive for two months, the A’s collapsed under the weight of injuries to their rotation. This will almost surely be their fifth season in a row without reaching the postseason.

“Billy was on to something, and it worked pretty well, so much so that other teams caught onto it,” said Craig Breslow, the Yale-educated Oakland reliever who has read the Michael Lewis book that inspired the movie.

“For a while, it was a market inefficiency. Certain players were undervalued, and Billy could identify them, the guys who projected well. Now, we’re obviously not going to be able to outbid some of the other teams that are using those same metrics. Now guys that hit home runs and get on base a lot cost $20 million a year. Where’s the next place to look?”

That is the question Beane struggles to solve. The subtitle of Lewis’s masterpiece was “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” and in Oakland’s case, the game is even less fair than it was before.

Since the 2002 season depicted in the book, every team that has wanted a new stadium has gotten or is getting one, except the Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays. The A’s are blocked from moving to San Jose because of the San Francisco Giants’ territorial rights; the planned Cisco Field in Fremont, Calif., fell through; and there seems to be no viable option for staying in Oakland.

It makes one wonder if Beane, signed through 2014, would be intrigued by another general manager’s job, like the one now open with the Chicago Cubs.

“You’re never going to have equilibrium in terms of revenues everywhere,” Beane said. “But, listen, we’re all competitive, so it certainly gets frustrating. Just being able to carve out a future for the franchise has been most frustrating. Because of the venue situation, it’s hard to put together a business plan beyond the next fiscal year.”

Of course, the A’s have faced a cash-flow problem for years. In the first scene depicted in a “Moneyball” trailer, Pitt-as-Beane revels in it. “There are rich teams, there are poor teams,” he says, before admonishing his staff. “We’ve got to think different.”

By challenging traditional scouting methods and recognizing the value of digging deeper into statistics, the 2002 A’s found useful players to surround a nucleus of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito. They won 103 games and the A.L. West.

Beane was sharp enough to apply some of the premises percolating for years in the minds of analysts like Bill James — and Lewis was perceptive enough to notice. Beane has been criticized for cooperating with Lewis, for spilling his secrets. But there was probably no stopping the information revolution in baseball. Executives were bound to get wiser.

“There are a lot of smart guys running teams now, and a lot of the guys who are smart also have a lot of money,” Beane said. “That’s a pretty tough combination to go against. We’ve all started valuing the same things.

“Clubs like us and Minnesota used to place really high value on young, inexperienced players. Now teams at the top of the food chain are doing the same thing, and it’s really hard to find trade partners. So it usually comes down to money. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is actually greater today. The window for small-market clubs is shorter and shorter.”

The A’s finished .500 last season, anchored by their rotation. But free-agent hitters like Adrian Beltre and Lance Berkman declined Beane’s offers, and through Monday, Oakland’s offense had outscored only one other A.L. team, Seattle. Injuries claimed starters Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden months ago.

So the A’s forge on, desperate for direction. With more money to spend on collecting and analyzing data, Beane said, perhaps the A’s could spot and exploit the next undervalued commodity. Instead, they are reduced to taking fliers. They spent $10 million last season for Ben Sheets, hoping he could find his inner ace. He blew out his elbow. In 2008, they spent $4.25 million on Michael Ynoa, a 16-year-old pitcher from the Dominican Republic. He pitched nine innings in rookie ball before having reconstructive elbow surgery.

“Sometimes, you’re relegated to buying that lottery ticket,” Beane said. “Anybody will tell you that the lottery is not a great way to invest your money. But sometimes, you don’t have a lot of options.”

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Frustrating View of Game Day

                                                       (Tadej Znidarcic for The New York Times)
Members of the Uganda team were among those
who went to a video hall in the Nsambya section of
Kampala to watch the Saudi Arabia-Canada game.
By Bandele Adeyemi
New York Times
August 19, 2011

KAMPALA, Uganda — Forty people — coaches, well-wishers and players past, present and future — gathered Friday in a dark video hall in Nsambya, a poor working-class neighborhood here to watch the Little League World Series game between Canada and Saudi Arabia.
It was a game that, three weeks earlier, appeared to be the likely destination of the city's Rev. John Foundation Little League team. But there were problems with visa applications, and the State Department denied the players travel documents to the United States. Saudi Arabia, the team they had beaten to advance to the World Series, took their place in the tournament at South Williamsport, Pa. 

(Tom E. Puskar/Associated Press)
Uganda had visa problems and
was replaced in the Little League
World Series by Saudi Arabia,
which lost to Canada.
I want the Saudi Arabia team to win," said Felix Barugahare, 11, a member of the Ugandan team. "They are in our league, and they represent us."
Felix and his teammates Augustus Owinyi, 12, and David Arago, 13, were among those who jammed into the hall — a small structure reinforced by wooden poles, sheet metal and cardboard boxes on an unpaved street lined by open gutters.
It is one of the few places in Nsambya with electricity, and its 17-inch television provides the only sports entertainment. The players sat without a trace of tension, occasionally smiling and cheering as the Saudis rallied to take the lead in a game they went on to lose, 6-5.
(Tadej Znidarcic for The New York Times)
Uganda Coach George Mukhobe,
stands in front of the video hall
where players watched the
Little League World Series.
"It hurts knowing that should have been us," Kirya Arone Jacob, a coach with the team, said as he watched. "But I know we'll have another chance."
Coach George Mukhobe took it harder.
"I keep wondering why things are happening to us this way," he said. "Is it because we are black? Is it because we are poor?"
He added: "You know, some people told me: 'Let's take the gloves, the bats, and burn them. The Americans brought the game to us and now they're stopping us.' "
But Mukhobe let cooler heads prevail. He said he went on a mission to motivate his players.
In the days after they were denied visas, some of the children were too distraught to practice. Augustus, a first baseman, was among them.
"I felt very bad," he said. "Some of us cried. I cried. I wanted to go and represent Uganda."
Augustus returned after a week, motivated by soothing words from his coaches.
David said he returned to practice immediately, at the urging of his family.
"They said to keep playing, that there would be another chance," he said.
Richard Stanley of Staten Island, a part-owner of the Yankee's Class AAA Trenton Thunder, introduced Little League to Uganda eight years ago and has continued to lend financial support to the growth of baseball. He said success by Saudi Arabia would reflect well on Uganda.
"I would wish that they do put on a good performance, because it will also give Uganda credibility regarding its talent level," Stanley said in an e-mail.
Jacob, meanwhile, predicted before the game that the Ugandan team would yet reach the World Series.
"Right now we are practicing and preparing kids for next year," he said. "We won't give up."
Paul Post contributed reporting from Glens Falls, N.Y.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bill Bergen’s Awesome Record of Baseball Futility

                                                              National Baseball Hall of Fame
The Brooklyn Superbas playing the Chicago Cubs at
Washington Park in Brooklyn in 1912. Bill Bergen, a poor hitter,
was an excellent defensive catcher for Brooklyn from 1904 to 1911.
By Lynn Zinser, New York Times
August 3, 2011

Today’s lesson, gleaned from baseball history, is that if you are going to be bad at something, be spectacularly bad. And if you are spectacularly bad enough, people might be talking about you 100 years after you retire.

                  Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Craig Counsell has gone hitless
in his last 45 at-bats, threatening
Bill Bergen's major league
record for futility.
This lesson comes courtesy of Bill Bergen, a catcher for the Brooklyn Superbas in the early 1900s. The record books will tell you that Bergen is the worst hitter in Major League Baseball history, holding records for the lowest season batting average for a regular position player (.139, a mark making news as Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox threatens it) and lowest career batting average (.170), as well as the longest streak of at-bats without a hit (46, a mark making news because Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell is threatening it at 0 for 45).

Bergen’s career lasted 11 seasons, from 1901-11, although he couldn’t hit the side of a barn. He did not have one slump year surrounded by many productive ones (like Dunn) or one epic bad streak (like Counsell). He was consistently and dependably, well, subpar.

In 3,028 career at-bats, he hit two home runs. In only one season did his average top .200. His career .194 on-base percentage means he didn’t walk much. His career .201 slugging percentage means he rarely hit for extra bases. Perhaps his quirkiest statistic: he was never hit by a pitch.

“He is about as bad a hitter as you can possibly imagine,” said David Jones, a baseball historian who edited two books on baseball’s dead-ball era. “But if he’d been a little bit better hitter, no one would ever talk about him.”

Instead, his name crops up whenever a baseline of offensive futility is needed. He does not have a line named after him like Mario Mendoza, whose paltry batting average made him synonymous with hitting .200. But Bergen is firmly installed in the history of futility.

                              Library of Congress
Bill Bergen, a poor hitter, was an
excellent defensive catcher for
Brooklyn from 1904 to 1911.
Bergen’s secret was playing at a time — that dreaded dead-ball era — when good defensive catchers were worth their weight in Teddy Roosevelt autographs. Bergen was a great defensive catcher. By some statistical measures, he is considered among the top five defensive catchers in National League history.

“It was an era when catchers were even more important than they are today because bunting and stealing bases were the main way teams would score runs,” said Tom Simon, who along with Jones edited the books on the stars of the dead-ball era. “So teams would carry a guy hitting .139 if he could keep the other team from scoring.”

Bergen caught a relatively modest 941 games but ranks in the top 20 in career assists by a catcher with 1,444. He threw out 47.3 percent of runners attempting to steal. He once threw out six in one game, against St. Louis in 1909.

An article in The Sporting News in 1908 described Bergen: “He is one of the few backstops who can throw on a line to second while standing flat-footed and he gets a ball away from him so quickly and with so little apparent exertion that the runner on first, second or third does not dare to take liberties when Billie is on the job.”

An article in The Bridgeport Evening Post in 1904 read: “His long suit is his wonderful throwing. While playing in the interstate league with Fort Wayne, Ind., Bergen saved the game for his team one day when the bases were full and no one out by catching three men napping, one after the other, allowing his team to win.”

Bergen began his career on a rather ignominious note with the Cincinnati Reds in 1901. A year earlier, his older brother Marty, a talented catcher for the Boston Beaneaters from 1896-99, had murdered his wife and two children with an ax and killed himself with a razor blade. Marty Bergen was considered far more talented than Bill, but his mental instability had been apparent his entire career. He often walked out on his team, berated his teammates and described paranoid visions of plots to kill him.

“We don’t know enough about Bill Bergen’s life to know how he dealt with that,” Jones said. “But it must have been something.”

Bill Bergen, by all accounts, had none of his brother’s demons and was a pleasant teammate. His ignominy was strictly of the baseball variety.

Boston Public Library Print Department
Marty Bergen, who killed his
wife, children and himself.
He entered the league just as the American League became a major league, so teams were scrambling for players to fill rosters. Offensive numbers were down across the board. All of that worked to Bergen’s advantage.

After he played three seasons with the Reds, Bergen’s contract was sold to Brooklyn, one of the National League’s truly dreadful teams. Team nicknames back then were coined by sportswriters, who dubbed the team the Superbas because Manager Ned Hanlon shared a moniker with a popular circus troupe at the time, the Hanlon Superba. (They didn’t officially become the Dodgers until 1932.) Despite the high-flying name, the team never finished above fifth in the league during Bergen’s career. Perhaps that led to even decreased expectations for Bergen, who, as Bill James wrote in his “New Historical Baseball Abstract,” was the only catcher in history whose value came 100 percent on defense.

In that era, catcher was not considered an offensive position at all. The job was grueling, with little in the way of today’s protective equipment. According to Jones, catchers did not wear shin guards, and their mitts were small, requiring two hands to catch most pitches. They were injured often and installed deep in a team’s batting order. But they were called on to field a lot of bunts and to prevent stolen bases.

“With Bill Bergen, you had someone who could shut down the other team’s running game,” Jones said. “He had a cannon for an arm. The way to think of him was as a second pitcher.”

Simon wonders whether Bergen was ever put ninth in the batting order, “because pitchers were probably better hitters than him.”

Joe Dittmar, who was vice chairman of the records committee for the Society for American Baseball Research for 18 years, researched Bergen’s career in the 1990s and wrote an article for the society’s Web site. During that research, he stumbled on Bergen’s 46-at-bat hitless streak. Until then, Luis Aparicio and Tony Bernazard were considered to have the record at 44. Dittmar thoroughly scoured the dead-ball era records and determined that Bergen’s was the longest.

That streak came to an end in 1909 during the second game of a doubleheader against the Cubs, when Bergen beat out an infield hit ahead of a throw by Johnny Evers of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame.

Bergen’s career ended in 1911 when Brooklyn found its young catcher of the future in Otto Miller. Bergen was released. He died in 1943 of heart disease at age 65, according to his death certificate.

But Bergen’s career was just bad enough that, in a way, he lives forever.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Baseball's Masked Men Show Their Inner Hams on Strike Three

Gyrating Umpires Get Chance to Show Off When Batter Looks His Worst

By Jared Diamond, Wall Street Journal,
August 11, 2011

The manual for professional baseball umpires explains how to handle just about every on-field situation. From the backwoods of rookie ball to the grandeur of the big leagues, there is little room for creativity from these men in blue, who are largely invisible.
But a few times during each game, when the third strike whizzes past the hitter and pops the catcher's glove, the spotlight shines on the umpire standing behind home plate. For that brief moment, an ump can take center stage and, in some cases, exhibit true artistry.
An analysis of all 68 full-time Major League umpires' strike-three calls reveals 68 unique styles, running the gamut from Gary Darling's subtle fist pump to Tom Hallion's violent, Mike Tyson-esque punchout. Though nothing in the guidebook requires umpires to devise elaborate gestures, the called strike three injects a splash of color into the sport.
"It's kind of like a pitcher's signature pitch," said New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey. "The strike-three call has always been the one thing the umpire can make his own."
As time goes by, umpires refine their strike-three calls, adapting and tweaking their signals even after they reach the majors. Wally Bell, a big-league ump since 1993, seems to change his strike-three call from game to game, and sometimes from inning to inning. Larry Barnett, who umped in the American League for three decades, said he went through "10 or 15 different ones" before settling on "a mechanic," as they call the move, that he felt comfortable with toward the end of his career.
Among the 68 current umpires, 59 (86.8%) typically employ one of two straightforward approaches for calling strike three, punching either straight ahead toward the pitcher or out toward the side. But within that framework, each ump adds his own touches. As a result, perceptive fans can identify the umpire working the plate by his strike-three call. (Umpires usually let swinging strikeouts speak for themselves.)

Striiiiiiike 3!

How major-league umpires signal a called strike three.
For instance, Dan Iassogna (a middle-puncher) shifts his weight far into the left-hand batter's box when making his call—a move that would probably go over well on "Dancing with the Stars." Fellow middle-puncher Tim Tschida kicks his left leg into the air on strike three like Jackie Chan in the movies, while side-puncher Brian Runge swings his right arm high over his head before punching across his body.
Even those calls look mundane compared with the remaining nine umpires' mechanics. They defy any attempt at categorization. Bob Davidson's signal resembles a disco move, as he starts his call by pointing his finger toward the sky like John Travolta did in "Saturday Night Fever." Mr. Hallion became a YouTube sensation last October, when his emphatic called strike three for the final out of the 2010 National League championship series went viral. (Mr. Hallion makes an explosive 135-degree twist, turning his back to the right-handed batter's box on his punchout.)
"Every time I see Tom I tell him, 'I will not have you go 'Hiii-Yahhhhhh' on me tonight, that's my goal," said San Diego Padres infielder Orlando Hudson, imitating the motion as he spoke. "He's got the best strike-three call in the game."
Before any of that, prospective umps must learn the fundamentals, prompting umpiring schools to ban students from performing complex strike-three calls. Jim Evans, a former big-league ump who now runs one of the two MLB-sanctioned umpiring academies, said he teaches a "simple, robotic mechanic," resembling knocking on the door.
By the time umps reach the midlevel minor leagues, though, their supervisors and trainers take the reins off and encourage them to start developing more intricate calls. Justin Klemm, the executive director of the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp., the entity responsible for training and evaluating umps for pro baseball, said he rehearsed his motion before a mirror to see what looked right. Triple-A umpire Shaun Francis said young umps, after the games, ask their colleagues on the bases to critique their mechanics, hoping to earn a coveted promotion to the big leagues. Umpires can earn between about $90,000 and $300,000 a year.
"If at Triple-A you still have a rudimentary strike-three mechanic, you're not going to stand out," Mr. Francis said.
On the other hand, umpires with dramatic strike-three calls constantly tread the murky water between showmanship and ridicule. Or, as big-league umpire Jeff Nelson put it, "There's a fine line between good taste and Leslie Nielsen," a reference to the late movie actor's turn as an overly exuberant umpire in "The Naked Gun."
Players don't take too kindly to umpires showing them up and don't always need an excuse to berate the man responsible for lowering their batting averages.
"The thing about it is as a player you're emotionally invested in the game, but as an umpire you shouldn't be," Mr. Dickey said. "I can certainly see how outlandish strike-three calls could be misconstrued."
Nevertheless, Mr. Evans, the teacher, said players usually enjoy the strike-three calls, recognizing their place in the fabric of the game. Though players may not appreciate the histrionics as they trudge back to the dugout after striking out, they know it serves a purpose.
"You can't feel bad because when we make diving plays we do a little flash, when we hit a home run we do a little flash," Mr. Hudson said. "The umpires, they're in the game, too. They have to do a little something, too. That's their one moment."
Of course, that moment quickly turns sour if the players don't trust the umpire's judgment to call balls and strikes. That's why Mr. Evans has one crucial piece of advice for all young umps before acting too crazy: If you plan to use a wild strike-three mechanic, you better make sure you get the call right—at least most of the time.
"If a player thinks you missed a strike three, and you're putting on a big strike-three mechanic," he said, "then you're just a clown."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

When Baseball Imitates Congress, and Not in a Good Way

Jeff Kowalsky/European Pressphoto Agency
In the third inning, Jered Weaver shouted at Magglio
Ordonez as he circled the bases slowly after a home run.

By Jonathan Mahler, New York Times
Aug. 5, 2011

What a spectacle of undignified behavior, of hypocrisy, of extremism, of civility abandoned, of epic brattiness. Could a disgraced city possibly have proved itself more worthy of its reputation?

I'm talking, of course, about last Sunday's Tigers-Angels game at Comerica Park in Detroit.

Maybe you were tuned in to a different channel, watching a different group of people in a different place violate a different code of conduct that has long held together another one of our nation's most cherished institutions. I'll recap.

First, the setup. The stakes were high. This was the final game of a four-game series between two American League playoff contenders, teams that might collide again in the postseason. It also happened to bring together the league's two Cy Young front-runners, a pair of lanky former first-round draft picks with starkly different pitching styles: Jered Weaver, with his magician's deception and surgeon's control, and Justin Verlander, with his three-digit fastball and paralyzing changeup.

The game certainly lived up to its billing. Verlander took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and the Tigers managed to hold off a late Angels rally to win, 3-2. As a baseball game, it had everything you could possibly want: Some dominant pitching, flashes of power, a lot of hard-fought at-bats and a couple of dramatically manufactured runs complete with a botched rundown.

But what was most memorable about the game — and the reason why I'm still thinking about it almost a week later — was what you couldn't necessarily see, or at least conclusively decipher. Like maybe no other single game in history, this one was packed with violations, both real and imagined, of baseball's unwritten rules.

Jeff Kowalsky/European Pressphoto Agency
The Angels’ Erick Aybar tried to bunt his way on
in the eighth inning, a move Justin Verlander, who was pitching
a no-hitter at the time, later described as “bush league.”
Along the way, it produced roughly the same gob-smacking effect among baseball fans that most of the nation was experiencing as it watched the parallel debt-ceiling theatrics in Washington. Baseball imitates Congress.

The purpose of the baseball codebook, passed down in the clubhouse from generation to generation like an ever-evolving collection of tribal rites, was probably most succinctly described by Bob Brenly, who led the Arizona Diamondbacks to their 2001 World Series championship.

"I can break it down into three simple things," Brenly told the authors of "The Baseball Codes." (Yes, there are enough of these rules to warrant their own book.) "Respect your teammates, respect your opponents, respect the game."

If only it were as simple as Brenly makes it sound. As with the unwritten rules that govern any institution, baseball's are subject to endless interpretation: You can't steal on an opponent when you have a big lead late in the game, but what constitutes a big lead? And when, exactly, is it late in the game?

No bunting to break up a no-hitter, but what if it's a tight game in the heat of a pennant race and the batter has been known to successfully bunt for base hits? (This last scenario isn't hypothetical: The Angels' Erick Aybar tried to bunt his way on in the eighth inning of the game in question, a move Verlander later described as "bush league.")

The elaborate, if ill-defined, system of self-policing that is supposed to encourage players to play the game the right way can ultimately have the opposite effect.

With their midgame adrenaline flowing, their sense of baseball righteousness rising up in them like, well, an ideological crusade taking root inside the mind of a zealous young politician, players can wind up following their principles right off a cliff.

The process quickly becomes circular: Retaliation begets retaliation. Individual reputations are compromised. Teams' prospects are damaged. Not to get too Bart Giamatti on you, but the strength of the game's social fabric is tested. Did I say that baseball imitates Congress?

It was pretty easy for even the most partisan among us, which is to say Tigers and Angels fans, to see who went over the edge in Detroit.

If opinion research firms conducted approval-ratings polls for baseball players, the Tigers' Carlos Guillen would have suffered the steepest decline after Sunday's game. In the seventh inning, when Guillen smashed a ball into the right-field seats, he lingered in the batter's box to admire his handiwork and pointedly flipped his bat, a strictly prohibited form of grandstanding known as home-run pimping. He compounded the infraction by trotting slowly down to first, angled toward the mound, taunting Weaver all the way.

Bear with me, because this is where the narrative gets a little convoluted. In Guillen's mind, he was actually taking the moral high ground by paying Weaver back for disrespecting one of his teammates, Magglio Ordonez, earlier in the game. (In the third inning, Weaver had shouted at Ordonez as he circled the bases slowly after a home run, another variation of home-run pimping.)

Weaver responded to Guillen's taunts by throwing at the Tigers' next hitter, Alex Avila. The beanball has been an accepted part of baseball's code pretty much since the game's inception. But it's one thing for a pitcher to make a rhetorical point with a knockdown or brush-back pitch. It's another to throw near a hitter's head, which is what Weaver did.

He was instantly kicked out of the game, and on his way to the locker room was so worked up that he had to be physically restrained from the umpire by his teammates. He was later suspended for six games. Considering the tightness of the pennant race — the Angels and the Rangers are running neck and neck — it's entirely possible that the start he'll miss will make the difference for his team's season. Not that Weaver had any regrets. "I wouldn't do anything different," he said when he learned of his suspension.

So there you go. That's what happens when dogma and misguided principle win the day.

In no time at all, our combatants could very well be at it again when the playoffs start — I am already envisioning the Fox pregame lead-in of a showboating Guillen and a fury-filled Weaver — and Congress returns to the debt drawing board.

It will certainly make for some more compelling theater. Whether it will make for good legislation is a different question. It's hard to believe we're in a good place when our elected representatives and our professional baseball players start to look so much alike.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Baseball's Pastime: Pranking

How Ballplayers Use Practical Jokes to Police the Clubhouse; Mr. Laird, You're Under Arrest

By Scott Cacciola
Wall Street Journal, 8/9/2011

(Getty Images)  Philadelphia Phillies outfielder John Mayberry Jr.
after getting hit with a pie following a game-winning hit in April.

Late in Thursday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Elliot Johnson sought to put his spin on one of baseball's time-honored traditions. It had nothing to do with throwing around the horn or stretching in the seventh inning.

Instead, he rimmed the bottom of a paper cup with a big wad of bubble gum and set about affixing it to the top of third-base coach Tom Foley's helmet—which happened to be sitting on Foley's head.

Unfortunately, the cup came tumbling off, ruining the gag. But Foley understood the value of a good clubhouse prank, dating to his own playing days, and thus felt obligated to do his part. So he reattached the cup to his helmet, voluntarily becoming the butt of the joke. The scene was broadcast on television, and Foley said he got a text from his daughter: "You look like an idiot."

Baseball pranks are a tradition nearly as old as the game itself. They run the gamut from innocent to extreme, a usually unseen facet of baseball that remains an essential thread in the sport's fabric. "Listen, the game's predicated on failure," Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee said. "If you can't laugh at yourself and enjoy yourself with teammates, it can be a long season."

Pranks come packaged with their own set of guidelines—prank etiquette, so to speak. For example, McGehee emphasized an important rule of thumb: Never mess with someone who has considerably more resources than you do. By resources, McGehee meant time and money. Starting pitchers are notorious pranksters because they often have both. "If you're making the league minimum and go after someone with a huge contract, it's really not a tree that you want to go barking up," McGehee said.

(Associated Press) Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Wade Davis's
shoe burns after then-teammate Matt Garza lit it in 2009.
Will Ohman, a reliever for the Chicago White Sox, paid a steep price for violating that rule when he was playing for the Chicago Cubs in 2005. After Ryan Dempster, a veteran starter, left Ohman's shoes in a freezer, Ohman made the ill-advised decision to retaliate. He got into Dempster's locker and went to town, supergluing the fly of Dempster's pants, removing the laces from all his shoes and putting eyeblack on the inside of his baseball cap. "Standard stuff," Ohman said. "And I thought it was over."

Three days later, Ohman was walking to the bullpen before a spring-training game when he noticed a camera crew was trailing him. He found this curious, but teammate Mike Remlinger assured him that it was for a piece on journeyman pitchers. Ohman bought it—for about 20 seconds. When he reached the bullpen, an opposing pitcher shouted at him through the fence: "Hey, is this your wheel?" Sure enough, Ohman spotted one of the wheels to his pickup truck. "My heart sank," he said.

Everyone was in on the joke—teammates, coaches, players from the other team—and it was all orchestrated by Dempster, who had removed the truck's wheels and scattered them around the ballpark. There was one in the clubhouse shower, one of the coaches' bathroom, one in the dugout.

"The sad thing is, I was scheduled to pitch that day and I'm going around the stadium collecting my wheels," said Ohman, who found that his truck kept veering to the right when he finally got the wheels back on. "I had to get the alignment fixed. I left the bill in Dempster's locker. He still hasn't paid me."

(Associated Press)  Chicago White Sox third-base coach
Jeff Cox with a cup stuck to his helmet before a game in 2010.
Relief pitchers also have a reputation for irreverence, though they tend to pick on their own kind. These kerfuffles takes various forms. Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Evan Meek said one prank with staying power is loading up an orange with shots of Anbesol—an oral numbing ointment—and waiting for an unsuspecting teammate to consume it. Hilarity ensues. How much Anbesol, exactly? "Not a lot," Meek said. "Just a few squirts here and there. Enough to numb your whole mouth."

Steve McCatty, the pitching coach for the Washington Nationals, said pranks are an important part of clubhouse camaraderie—always have been. (He once pulled an all-timer on Billy Martin, lighting his shoes on fire during a game against the White Sox in Chicago.) Now, he said, he worries that "political correctness" has diluted the fun.

"These days, a lot of this stuff would be considered 'hazing,' " he said. As a result, he said, pranks have gotten watered down. It's almost cliché now that a shaving-cream pie in the face will follow a game-winning hit.

Then again, some of what the old-timers did was downright dangerous.

Former New York Yankees pitcher Goose Gossage said he once made the mistake of falling asleep on a team charter. He awoke to a burning sensation. His shoes were on fire—mid-flight. "That's the last time I ever fell asleep on a plane," said Gossage. Another time, Ryne Sandberg reached under a bathroom stall with a match and set Gossage's newspaper ablaze. "Gosh, that was a good one," Gossage said.

Certain teammates got it worse, Gossage said. How about the day someone nailed another reliever's $500 cowboy boots to the clubhouse floor? "Ruined 'em," Gossage said. Is there an etiquette to stuff like that? Gossage, clearing his throat: "He probably deserved it."

Which leads us to another point of etiquette: If you disfigure or destroy someone's personal property, compensate them. But it can still get tricky. "I saw someone shred a suit that turned out to be a gift from a late relative," Pirates outfielder Matt Diaz said. "Yeah, not good."

(Associated Press) A tape outline of then-Rays
outfielder Joey Gathright (right in photo) in 2005
after he crashed into the wall making a catch.
Above all, veterans have long used pranks as a way to police the clubhouse. Jerry Hairston Jr., a Brewers utility player and a third-generation major leaguer, said that was the case in 2007, when a younger teammate with the Texas Rangers was "popping off" at spring training. (Hairston declined to identify the player, but Gerald Laird, now a backup catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, confirmed through a team spokesman that he was Hairston's target.)

Hairston arranged for two friends with the Surprise, Ariz., police department to show up in the clubhouse—with manager Ron Washington's blessing—and issue a warrant for Laird's arrest on charges of unpaid child support. It was a total fabrication, of course. No matter. Laird practically went into a catatonic state when the cops handcuffed him at his locker and led him outside. It was essentially a perp walk in front of his teammates.

"He was newly married at the time, and he's saying, 'What am I going to tell my wife?'" Hairston said. "Oh, man—he was in tears in the back of the squad car. I'm telling him, 'Listen, I've got buddies in L.A. who are lawyers. Give them a call; they'll help you out.' And he's thanking me, thinking I'm a good guy for giving him these numbers."

Hairston finally caved and delivered the truth, along with a lesson: Don't tick off the wrong people. "He was a good soldier after that," Hairston said.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Brought Ballgames to Life on Radio

Nat Allbright, announcer who relied on imagination
 to re-create ballgames, dies at 87

by Matt Schudel
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Washington Post

The Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s were one of the greatest teams in baseball history, with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and other stars. They had two storied broadcasters, Red Barber and Vin Scully, covering their games, but most people who listened to the Dodgers on the radio heard another voice.

For hundreds of thousands of fans throughout the eastern half of the country, listening on more than 100 radio stations, the voice of the Dodgers was Nat Allbright. He announced more than 1,500 games for the Dodgers, and all that time, he never saw a game he was broadcasting.

Mr. Allbright, who died July 18 of pneumonia at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington County, was one of baseball's finest practitioners — and perhaps its last — of the forgotten art of game re-creation. He was 87.

During the 12 years that he broadcast Dodger games, he visited Brooklyn only once. Listeners to the far-flung Dodger radio network thought Mr. Allbright was sitting in the press box at Ebbets Field and other big league stadiums, but he was actually at a studio in Washington.

He received sketchy summaries of the game — whether a pitch was a ball or strike, where a batted ball landed — from telegrams or wire service reports. But everything else that brought baseball to life — from crowd noises to vendors hawking their wares to the crack of the bat — was improvised by Mr. Allbright.

He had recordings of crowds in various states of excitement and used a click of his tongue to mimic the sound of the bat striking a ball. Each time a player tugged at his cap or a manager shouted at an umpire, the drama was supplied by Mr. Allbright.

He was, in the words of former Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie, "king of the baseball re-creators."

The practice of re-creating baseball games dated to the earliest days of radio. Before he went into acting and politics, Ronald Reagan re-created Chicago Cubs games for a station in Des Moines.

Mr. Allbright had broadcast minor league games in Columbus, Ga. — often through re-creation — in the late 1940s. When the Dodgers hired him in 1950, he was working for WEAM in Arlington County.

It was too expensive in those years for the live play-by-play broadcast to be carried on many stations. Mr. Allbright, simulating the action in a studio, became the ideal solution.

By 1953, Mr. Allbright's broadcasts were carried on 117 radio outlets from Cleveland to Miami Beach, according to "Voices of the Game," Curt Smith's authoritative history of baseball announcers. In the Washington area, Mr. Allbright was heard on WEAM, WINX and WOOK, often drawing larger audiences than the games of the hometown Senators.

Mr. Allbright spent a month each year at the Dodgers' spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., where he interviewed players and learned their mannerisms on the field, from Robinson's daring base running to Gil Hodges's bulging biceps and Clem Labine's sweeping curveball.

Mr. Allbright had a photograph of each National League stadium on his studio wall and recordings of the national anthem to correspond with the practices in each city. For color, he'd lean away from the microphone and shout, "Getcher cold beer here, cold beer!"

The games were so realistic that few people realized they were inventions.

"I'll say this – it was more fun than being there," Mr. Allbright said in "Voices of the Game." "You could make baseball more entertaining, you could build up, not just report, the excitement."

In 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series for the first and only time, Mr. Allbright received a team ring. He continued his re-created broadcasts after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, but things weren't quite the same.

Many of Brooklyn's favorite players – later immortalized by author Roger Kahn as "The Boys of Summer" – had retired or were no longer with the team. Games on the West Coast didn't start until 11 p.m., and by 1962 Mr. Allbright's radio audience had withered away.

Nathan Matthew Allbright was born Nov. 26, 1923, in Dallas, and he moved with his family to the southwest Virginia town of Ridgeway when he was 5. As a boy, he recalled in 1985, "I'd rip the lineups out of the Roanoke Times every morning and walk down the street doing the games to myself. By the time I was 12, I was doing nine innings a day."

He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, attended a broadcasting school in Washington and did all kinds of radio work in addition to his re-creation of ballgames. He was a disc jockey ("Nat the Cat") and the host of a teen dance show. He covered live sports — football, baseball, basketball and horse racing – and had sports highlight shows on various local stations.

He and his wife operated an advertising company for many years, and Mr. Allbright also worked as a car salesman.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Angela Lombardi, of Arlington; and two children, Amy Allbright of Arlington and Dr. Robert Allbright of Jackson, Miss.

In the 1980s, Mr. Allbright started a business, Fantasy Personalized Sports Tapes, in which he recorded realistic-sounding sporting events, with the names of ordinary folks – and not a few celebrities – interpolated into the action.

"People can say they played in the same outfield as Mickey Mantle, or won a game on a hit off of Bob Gibson, or Jim Palmer," he told The Post in 1983. "Or they can get in the ring with Muhammad Ali. I had one guy wanted to get knocked out by Sugar Ray Leonard."

In 1982, when the NFL players went on strike, Mr. Allbright re-created eight imaginary Redskins games on WEAM and had the team on the way to the Super Bowl before the strike ended and the real season began.
A year earlier, when major league baseball players went on strike, Mr. Allbright put his old skills back to use when he re-created an imaginary All Star Game.

"Nat Allbright's voice had listeners sensing a breezy, summer Ohio night perfect for baseball, hearing the low roar of a crowd of 75,000 and even the crack of the bat in old Cleveland Stadium," a Post editorial noted.

For one glorious night, "in the fantasy created by Mr. Allbright, [the] texture of the great game was alive again."