Pathetic parade of pitchers

After yielding just two hits and only one earned run, the Giants Matt Moore departed after eight innings, expecting the bullpen to close out a three-run lead in the top of the ninth. Simple. Right? Well, if you haven’t been following the second-half woes of San Francisco you can be excused for your misplaced trust. But this is no ordinary bullpen. It is, in the words of Pete Rose, a “stinko.”  One by one the pitchers threw to the desperate Cub batters. A hit. A walk. Another hit, and so on. Before an out was recorded, Chicago had tied the game against a string of hapless Giants twirlers, none of whom could stop the base-by-base juggernaut that eventually produced the go-ahead run.

Oh, they had help. The Giants gold-glove shortstop, Brandon Crawford, whom the New York Times had judged the best defensive player in baseball, inexcusably and inexplicably forgot how to throw the baseball straight. His two errant throws to first accounted for two unearned runs in the game, enough to toss victory to the Cubs.

So, instead of a deciding game five at Wrigley, featuring a rematch of Cueto and Lester, I get to mourn for an entire winter awaiting the arrival of pitchers and catchers four and a half months from now. No fun at all.

By the way, I put a lot of this on Bochy. He knew better than anyone that relying on his bullpen was the iffiest of propositions. Yes, Moore had thrown 120 pitches. But surely he had three more outs in his arm.

Baseball anecdotes

We’re down to the wire in the Major League baseball season, with wildcard winners still to be decided. My eyeballs feel the strain, watching as many games as I can fit in with MLB.tv. Exciting stuff, with three or four games to go. It’s nice to be semi-retired with time on my hands.

I played baseball for most of my youth and into young adulthood, though I failed to make Little League. First there was Babe Ruth, then American Legion, then high-school ball, followed by college. From the age of 16 to my mid-20s I was on several different semi-pro teams. That’s a lot of games, and from that history I have a few memories more distinct than others.

The one seared deepest in my head takes us to old Veterans’ Field in Los Angeles, then home to the UCLA Bruins. It’s the bottom of the 12th, and I’m in to hold a one-run advantage for Cal. I don’t recall how a Bruin reached base. But I do recall that Chris Chambliss, UCLA’s first baseman came to the plate representing the winning run. I made the cardinal error of throwing a slider into the left-hander’s sweet spot, low and inside. The ball screamed off his bat, taking just a few seconds to clear the right field fence. I shouted, for the first and only time, “F**k!” (I take some solace in shutting out the Bruins  in Berkeley a few weeks later. A one-hitter, if memory serves.)

Let’s visit Concord’s municipal ball field, which has since been replaced with city offices. I’m starting a playoff game against Richmond’s team. Two runners get on in the top of the first. The next batter for Richmond has a neck as thick as my thighs. He wreaks power. My manager bounds out of the dugout to have a little chat with me. He tells me that whatever pitch I throw to this guy, make sure that it’s not over the outside part of the plate so that the batter with the thick neck can extend his arms. Next pitch, precisely into the forbidden zone, from which the ball was launched over the armory outside the left-field fence. Three runs, just like that. (More solace that afternoon, as I settled down, pitching near hitless ball the rest of the way, with our team winning 15-3.)

Back at Cal’s Evans Diamond. I had pitched one inning the night before in an exhibition game with the Oakland A’s in the Coliseum. Three up, three down against Rick Monday, Joe Rudi, and Tom Reynolds, though Monday’s line drive nearly knocked over our second baseman. At Cal the next day, I was to start against Santa Clara, in what became my weirdest performance ever.

The visitors hit the hell out of the ball in the first couple of innings. Fortunately, all the batted balls found leather, and I escaped unharmed. It was the third inning, I think, when after a few more line-drive outs I completely changed my mechanics, adopting techniques of a fellow pitcher. Amazing. I wound up throwing a shutout with lots of swings and misses.

Now on to Stanford’s Sunken Diamond. I take the mound in the bottom of the first for visiting Cal. The Cardinals’s (as they were then called) leadoff hitter happened to be my battery mate in high school. He did not waste a moment, propelling my first pitch over the centerfield fence. The next time I faced him, he drilled a line drive off the outfield fence for a triple. There was no solace this time, as I lost that game, though I got Bob Boone to pop out.

Finally, I’ll return to high school. I had pitched a no-hitter the previous start. Fast forward to the top of the seventh (the last inning). I had yet to give up a hit and recorded two strikeouts. Just one more out to go. I induce the next batter to swing and miss at a curve ball in the dirt. Unfortunately, the ball got past our catcher. It bounced against the wooden backstop right back to him. He had more than enough time to throw to first base to nail the batter and record the final out. Ah, but his throw sailed over the first baseman’s head and into right field for an error. Now you’re guessing what happens next. I’m going for my second, consecutive no-hitter and need just one more out. However, the next batter shows no mercy, lining the next pitch over the shortstop for a solid single. I threw my glove down in disgust, which made the headlines of the local newspaper’s next edition. So, I settle for a one-hitter.

We have but a weekend left in the MLB regular season. The Mariners are hanging on, just two games shy of a wildcard berth. My beloved Giants, who mysteriously forgot how to win games in the second half, after sporting baseball’s best record in the first, cling to the second wildcard slot in the National League, with St. Louis just a game behind. The team that drafted me out of high school in 1965, the New York Mets, holds the first wildcard position. There is a very real possibility that the Giants will travel to Citifield for the one-game playoff between the two wildcard winners.

Divided loyalties, to be sure. Mercifully, no Trump in this post.

Resentment

I’m not alone in ascribing the seemingly recent eruption of far-right nativism to economic insecurity. After all, the Great Recession wreaked havoc on the global economy, which would seem to underpin hostility toward those perceived to be responsible for a decline in one’s fortunes.

The conventional wisdom is that the economic losses suffered by working-class people throughout the developed world explain the rise of this new right. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are estimated to have been lost due to free trade pacts in recent decades, with industries like manufacturing absorbing much of the pain.

That’s created an ocean of angry and frustrated people — primarily blue-collar and primarily white — who are susceptible to the appeal of a nationalist leader promising to bring back what they feel has been taken away.

But, the rise of Trump and populist parties in Europe cannot be explained by economics. The explanation, according to this very important Vox piece, from which the above quote is taken, lies with white, mostly Christian, men feeling displaced by “others,” especially those with darker skins.

Zack Beauchamp, the author of the linked essay, references dozens of research papers that demonstrate the politics of resentment. A very large segment of the American population, essentially most Republicans and nearly every Trump supporter, fears immigrants, blacks, and government “elites” who, they believe, enabled the demographic changes.

This research finds that, contrary to what you’d expect, the “losers of globalization” aren’t the ones voting for these parties. What unites far-right politicians and their supporters, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a set of regressive attitudes toward difference. Racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia — and not economic anxiety — are their calling cards.

These attitudes, while learned, are deep-seated. They go back generations, and dwell within each of us in varying degrees.

I consider myself a tolerant individual. I would never deliberately offend those who are different from me. Yet, I must admit, based on past experiences, that I have feared “others.”

I’ll retreat to my high-school days at Mt. Diablo, in Concord, Calif. Of 2,000 students over four grades, there was a single black student, one or two of mixed raced, and a small population of Hispanics, some of whose families preceded the arrival of Western caucasians, the dominant segment of both the school and city’s residents.

During the summer of my junior year, while pitching for the local American Legion baseball team, I was chosen by the manager to start a divisional playoff game against Richmond. We were the visitors.

Now, despite having spent my first five years in that city, I was not prepared for the experience. The home crowd for that game was comprised of mostly African Americans. And they were vocal. This 17-year-old pitcher succumbed to playoff pressure. I walked the first five or six batters I faced, before finally calming myself down. Upon reflection, I suspect that much of my anxiety stemmed from fear of those who were different, namely black people. As I said above, my own experience was overwhelming white. It was somewhat of a shock, then, to face a hostile crowd who happened to be mostly dark-skinned.

There was another incident. I travelled on a school bus with a contingent of Mt. Diablo students to attend a football game against rival Pittsburg. That city had, and probably still has, a significant percentage of African Americans. The high school’s student body reflected the wider demographics.

Now, I don’t recall whether or not there were any incidents, but I do remember feeling afraid, an attitude shared by most everyone on the bus, all very white. I regret that fear now, certainly.

I concede that the reaction of far-right groups and individuals may be instinctual, as it likely was in me 50 years ago. However, I cannot condone xenophobia or racism or Trumpism.

Such attitudes, however, must be overcome, not embraced and fueled by political leaders and their associates. Trump is not healthy. He poses a very real danger. As the New York Times‘s editors wrote in their endorsement of Hillary Clinton: “[We believe] Mr. Trump to be the worst nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history.”

Mr. Beauchamp, the Vox writer, offers some hope:

The forces of reaction, of ethno-racial supremacy, have been defeated in the past, and can be defeated again. The key to doing it is to refrain from surrendering on core values — to reaffirm Western societies’ basic commitment to tolerance and to craft policies that promote that commitment rather than back away from it.

The future shouldn’t belong to the Front National and its ilk [including Donald Trump]. It should belong to the people they’re afraid of.

A cartel and its impoverished workers

No, I will not be talking about some Latin American or Middle Eastern operation. Rather, I’ll be briefly discussing major league baseball, specifically its minor league affiliates.

But first a brief story about my almost-career in our “favorite pastime,” the sport of heroes and, more recently, multimillionaires.

Let’s go back to 1965, the first baseball draft ever. I was a headlines-grabbing pitcher for Mt. Diablo High School, located in Concord, Calif., about 30 miles or so east of San Francisco. The New York Mets took a chance on me, though not too big of one. My name was not called until days after Rick Monday became the first player ever drafted. My number was 660. The scout who recommended I be drafted, Mr. Partee, met with my parents and me in our cozy living room. While I had visions in my head of great fortune, the Mets thought otherwise, offering me a signing bonus of $5,000 and a salary of $500 a month to play baseball in some small West Virginia town I had never heard of. In the end, I opted to accept a scholarship to Cal, figuring that if I did any good in college, the scouts would take another look. A string of injuries and mostly less-than-stellar performances later, I found myself with a degree in history and no prospects for playing professional ball, though I continued to play semi-pro for several years thereafter.

One occasionally looks back at life’s forks in the road. Pace Yogi Berra, you have to choose one; you can’t take both. What if I had signed with the Mets? How would things be different?

Well, disturbing statistics suggest that I’d have lived in poverty for as many seasons as I might have survived in professional ball. Indeed, according to this article in the Washington Post:

More than 80 percent of draft picks will never reach the big leagues, and most live on salaries of less than $10,000 per season; the starting salary for a first-year player, paid only during the regular season, is $1,100 a month.

Some current and ex-minor leaguers are pushing back in a lawsuit against Major League Baseball. Here’s a summary from NBC News:

The class action suit, brought on behalf of minor leaguers for all 30 Major League teams, alleges violations of federal law requiring fair wages and overtime. Filed in February, and twice expanded ahead of a September hearing, Senne vs. MLB portrays minor league baseball players as the game’s exploited underclass. They toil year-round with no overtime, unpaid extra assignments, and no right to switch teams or renegotiate, the lawsuit alleges. In exchange, they get a maximum starting salary of $5,500—a sum far below minimum wage.

“No one is saying that minor leaguers should be getting rich,” says Garrett Broshuis, a minor league baseball player turned attorney who helped build the case. “But if McDonald’s and Wal-Mart can pay a minimum wage, then Major League Baseball can too.”

Remember: Liberty and justice for all.

Sports’ Achilles heal

I’m talking about the officials. Professional sports and their athletes are top-of-class. But the refs who blow their whistles are struggling against impossible standards: getting it right all the time. Their failures to perform threaten the integrity of the games they officiate.

It has taken me a while to recover from the Warriors’ stupendous collapse, losing three straight after securing a 3-1 margin in the first four games. Officiating had something to do with their demise: ticky-tack fouls on the league’s MVP amidst glaring omissions for slaps across the heads of Golden State players bound for the hoop or simply trying to move from one spot to another on the floor. And don’t get me going on the lack of foul calls on offensive screens. It is evidently legal to physically redirect a defender from one zip code to another.

Of course, the biggest reasons for Warriors’ retreat to ignominy were the “Drunken Turkey” and the “Drunken Pogo-stick,” Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, respectively. Barnes clearly forgot that making points involves putting the ball into the basket. Ezeli, despite his size and strength, shrinks like a wet noodle when near the goal.

Enough of that.

I turn now to baseball, a sport I played through my youth and into college and beyond. The game has changed dramatically since the 60s and 70s, my decades toiling on the mound. Pitching, for one, with the emphasis now on roles: starter, middle relief, set up, and closer. Gone are complete games, commonplace with Spahn, Marichal, and Ryan. Hitters, no matter how tall or small, swing for the fences, increasing strikeouts and frustrating fans yearning for success with runners in scoring position.

Baseball, to anyone who watches, is the most amenable of the major sports to the use of technology. High-definition cameras record every pitch and batted ball, yielding metrics that statisticians could only dream about in my day.

Take balls and strikes. The contest between the pitcher and the batter is the essence of baseball. Nothing happens until the ball is pitched and the hitter swings. This most crucial element depends on the ability of the home plate umpire to judge the location of a spheroid traveling nearly 140 feet per second. Regrettably, the umps miss far too many, calling balls strikes and vice-versa. Yet, before our television eyes we see a pitch tracker superimposed on the field of view. The technology records the precise location of the pitch to within a small fraction of an inch, far more accurately than the umpire—instantaneously.

The diehards will not hear of substituting already existing and working technology for the flawed judgment of umpires. They talk of an umpire’s personal strike zone. How preposterous. We could have all the accuracy we desire and eliminate the variabilities and defects of ordinary humans. After all, we are treated to replays that rely on ultra-high-def cameras and video equipment that reveal within fractions of an inch whether a fielder tagged some part of the runner sliding into a base and when.

I am not proposing to banish umpires from the field. The home plate umpire, for example, could don the inflated shield worn years ago. No need to get into a squat to gain a better view of the incoming pitch. Also, no need to be assaulted by a foul tip traveling 100 mph.

It will happen. Though, like economic fairness and security, not in my lifetime.

Wild, wild West…

…an expression used by New Orleans Saints head football coach, Sean Payton, to describe the current state of his city. He was reacting to the senseless killing of Will Smith, a defensive end for the team, who was involved in a minor car accident that quickly resulted in his being shot to death by the other party.

“I’ve heard people argue that everybody needs a gun,” Payton said in an interview with USA Today. “That’s madness. I know there are many kids who grow up in a hunting environment. I get that. But there are places, like England, where even the cops don’t have guns.”

But madness is what America is all about, it seems. We should add that Louisiana under Republican “leadership” has become a veritable cesspool in terms of nearly every socioeconomic metric.

Transactions galore

The Mariners’ new general manager Jerry Dipoto certainly hit the ground running, all the way to Nashville with frequent stops in between—Nashville, of course, being the venue for this off-season’s winter meetings among baseball’s management. So far I like what he’s arranged for us fans, though I must say that some of the departed surprised me, in particular the trading of Carson Smith, a promising young reliever with knee-buckling slider (just ask Mike Trout).

One thing stands out with Dipoto: he has no respect for the past or fate, the latter being the driving force of former general manager Jack Zduriencik and ex-skipper Lloyd McClendon, who were both fond of such utterances as “let’s see what happens,” or “we’ll watch how this plays out.” Dipoto  acts boldly and often. He jettisoned fan favorites Logan Morrison and the aforementioned Smith in his quest to build around the Core Four (Cano, Cruz, Hernandez, and Seager) a team more athletic and, frankly, Royals-like. Safeco, after all, is a big ballpark that repels home runs. Why not get people on base then move them station-to-station rather than hope for the rare fence-clearing long ball?

So far, I’m pleased with the field:

  • Adam Lind, 1B
  • Robinson Cano, 2B
  • Kyle Seager, 3B
  • Ketel Marte, ss
  • Aoki, Leonys Martin, and Cruz in the outfield
  • Chris Ianetta, c

The starting rotation is shaping up with the additions of Bass, Miley, and Karns. The bullpen still needs help, though snaring long-time nemesis Joaquin Benoit was a deft move.

I’m guessing that Dipoto is not finished. And I can’t wait for April.