Sunday, January 31, 2010

Summer of '04

Since I've been a little too busy lately to post regularly, I thought I'd write a few entries that reminisce about a baseball road trip I made 5 1/2 years ago. Having recently come across the journal I kept for most of that trip, it won't require much creativity to chronicle these memories. I do plan to edit the writing style a little, so I won't just be copying my notes, but the basic content will remain the same.

On said trip, I visited five ballparks—all new to me—and traveled close to 3,000 miles in my '98 Subaru Impreza, in seven days time. I made almost the entire trip solo, with only my old friend Brian meeting up with me for one of the games in the city where he went to grad school.

In addition to the five games, highlights included spending the first day or so of the trip on crutches, driving approximately 450 miles on worn out front brakes, and spending a few nights in some interesting local hangouts. So, stay tuned as I'll attempt to relive these memories that I wasn't able to blog about as I was experiencing them. It could be interesting.

Leading Off: Look Out Cleveland

Monday, January 25, 2010

Steroids and the Hall of Fame

Continuing with the discussion I started the week before last, I feel compelled to elaborate on my new, but still evolving, philosophy regarding steroid users and their Hall of Fame candidacy. As I already stated, I'm not of the belief that anyone who is known to have used performance-enhancing drugs be denied entrance to the Hall. I just don't think it's that easy, nor do I believe it's fair to single out only those who've been identified or who are highly suspected, the latter category making the exercise virtually impossible.

On the other hand, neither am I of the mindset that we should treat the entire era as if everyone who played in it was a user and, therefore, we should simply judge all of them based on the statistics—legitimate or otherwise—that they produced. Rather, we need to take the information we have—that which we know with a high degree of certainty—and view each player's performance accordingly. Those for whom there is no evidence of steroids usage should be treated at face value, while those for whom there is should have their performance adjusted based on the evidence at hand.

As I said about Mark McGwire, this adjustment means that, in the very least, the offenders are not afforded the benefit of the doubt. In its simplest application, this means that borderline candidates are left out, and less-than-obvious candidates become borderliners. But, of course, it's not quite that simple. As in the case of McGwire, if the evidence suggests that the performance enhancement is what elevated the player from very good to potential Hall of Famer, the conclusion is simple. He's not worthy of Cooperstown. The same applies to Rafael Palmeiro, in my opinion.

On the other end of the spectrum of potential Hall of Famers who fall into the category of fairly obvious steroid offenders, is Barry Bonds. Of course, since we don't know for certain when he—or anyone else, for that matter—began using steroids, all we have to go on is the evidence that exists. That evidence suggests controlled substances transformed Bonds from the greatest combination of power and speed in the game to the most feared power hitter since Babe Ruth. This transformation occurred at a point in his career that most players' skills are declining, yet Bonds won four consecutive MVPs from age 36 to 39.

To the best of our knowledge, Bonds won three MVPs, seven Silver Sluggers, and even eight Gold Gloves before he began using performance enhancers. He had already all but cemented a Hall of Fame career. Why he found it necessary to break the rules to postpone the downside of his career, we'll never know. But, the fact remains that, even adjusting for his use of steroids, Bonds is a slam dunk Hall of Famer. The holier-than-thou attitude of the BBWAA doesn't change this.

While I'm suggesting that Bonds be enshrined in Cooperstown despite his transgressions, it appears that most of those who have the power to make that decision don't agree with me. So, there's no guarantee he'll ever make it. But, that doesn't change the fact that he deserves to take his rightful place among the greatest of all-time. Other candidates' cases may not be as easy to figure out as Bonds's, but the same methodology needs to be applied to all of them. That is, if we're going to make any sense of this era.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Best of the Web: Music

A few months ago, I wrote Blogging About Blogs #1, in which I discussed my three favorite beer-related blogs at the time. My intention was to eventually do equivalent posts about baseball and music. But, I don't really have any favorite music blogs, because they're pretty much about reviews, and too much of that tends to bore me.

Instead, I thought I would write about my favorite music web sites. More specifically, I'm going to share with you my current system for keeping current and discovering new music. Considering the constantly changing nature of the world wide web, this is an ever-evolving strategy, but I'd say it's as tried-and-true a formula as I've ever had.

I would have to say it starts with Metacritic, specifically their upcoming release calendar, but also the site's general coverage of new releases. Metacritic aggregates reviews of all forms of entertainment, but I use it strictly for music. Although I said previously that reading a lot of reviews kind of wears on me, I do like the fact that they pull together all of the major reviews onto one page for each album, with brief excerpts of each and links to online versions, if they exist.

I also stay up-to-date with weekly new release emails from allmusic, a site which is also about as close it gets to an internet music encyclopedia, and Newbury Comics, a regional chain of stores that has managed to remain vital despite the failure of so many others in the retail music industry. Of course, I use allmusic for much more than keeping current with new releases, but I don't use Newbury Comics' web site for much at all. I do, however, occasionally take advantage of their low prices on new releases, although these sales frequently only last for one week following an album's release date.

So, every Tuesday—the music industry's new release day—I’m quick to check out the albums I've been anticipating on Lala. As I've already written, Lala is my favorite site for previewing recent releases. But, once I've used up my one free listen for each album, I'll sometimes head over to AOL/Spinner, where typically about a dozen new releases are streaming. They turn these over weekly, so you have to be on top of things, but this week's rotation includes Spoon's Transference and Eels' End Times, both of which just hit the stores today. MySpace is also a really good site for listening to streaming audio, with bands frequently offering a few tracks for preview prior to an album's release.

Last, but certainly not least, is eMusic. My subscription allows me to download 37 DRM-free MP3s per month for $15, about $0.40 per song. Yes folks, that's less than half of what iTunes typically charges. Essentially, it gets me three albums a month for $5 each. My current plan is no longer available, but new subscribers can expect to pay anywhere from $0.40 to $0.54 per download. eMusic's artist roster includes mostly those from independent labels, but they've recently added considerable back catalog material from some of the majors.

That about covers it. This system allows me to listen to a couple hundred new releases per year without spending money on albums until I'm certain that they're worth it. Even then, I'll rarely pay even $10 per, and will only go that high when purchasing the physical CD.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Ballot Question and Mark McGwire

With the latest round of Hall of Fame voting behind us, and Andre Dawson on his way to Cooperstown, there's been quite a bit of recent discussion about why it is that certain players are forced to wait considerably longer than others to get elected. There seem to be two major questions raised regarding this subject. The first has to do with the issue of what constitutes a first-ballot Hall of Famer, while the second tries to make sense of how a player such as Bert Blyleven could go from 14.1% support in 1999 to 74.2% in 2010.

I'm not going to bother with the first ballot issue. The fact that certain voters are of the belief that no player, or only a certain caliber of player, deserves to get elected in his first year of eligibility makes no sense to me. Fortunately, though, it's kind of a moot point, because any candidate who receives 73.7% of the vote in his first year on the ballot, as Roberto Alomar did, is not going to have to wait nine years to get in, as was the case with Dawson.

I am going to discuss the second question, however. That is, what could Blyleven possibly have accomplished over the course of the last 11 years to convince 60% of the voting membership of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) that he is, in fact, worthy of the Hall of Fame? First, let me say that I have no argument against Blyleven's candidacy. I'm just using him as an example for topical reasons, but also because his increase in support is somewhat inexplicable.

In 2001, Blyleven received 23.5% of the vote, while Dale Murphy received 18.1% and Dave Parker 16.3%. Don Mattingly, in fact, received greater support than Blyleven, at 28.2%. All four of these candidates have remained on the ballot through 2010. This year, Blyleven received 74.2%, Mattingly 16.1%, Parker 15.2% and Murphy 11.7%. So, while Blyleven's vote total was tripling, Parker's remained virtually the same, and both Mattingly's and Murphy's dropped by over one-third.

Why is this? I'll admit that my opinions of certain candidates have changed over time as I've listened to certain arguments that have effectively persuaded me. In fact, Blyleven is one of those whom I've come around on. So, I can understand changing your mind about a candidate, but it is difficult to explain why that many voters can be so fickle, and why it is that every year more and more writers are swayed in favor of his candidacy.

I'm not sure what this proves except that perspectives change, particularly as they're influenced by newer and better information. I don't think this entirely explains the Blyleven phenomenon, but it does make for a good segue to the discussion of Mark McGwire's recent confession.

Ever since the first major steroids scandal reared its ugly head, my contention has been that I would need more information before I'd be able to determine how it would affect my opinion of the candidacy of certain potential Hall of Famers. This week, McGwire's admission that he used steroids shocked no one. But, it did help me to see the light—a lot sooner than I expected—regarding how such players' Hall of Fame candidacies should be treated.

Let me first emphasize that this is just my opinion. Essentially, it represents what my philosophy would be if I was a Hall of Fame voter. This is not intended to be a prediction, nor is it something I think everyone should believe.

I don't really have a probably with those who insist on taking the hard line stance that anyone who took performance-enhancing drugs not be allowed in the Hall. But, I will contend that, if you're going to stand behind an opinion that is so absolute, then you need an absolute way of determining how you plan to apply it. In other words, if you're going to say that anyone who took steroids does not belong in the Hall of Fame, how do you expect to know who did steroids and who didn't?

Among Hall of Fame candidates, Mark McGwire was as close to a one-dimensional player as there could be. He obviously accumulated some impressive numbers, but most of his statistics are buoyed by the 583 career home runs he hit. Simply put, if not for that home run total, we wouldn't be discussing his Hall of Fame worthiness. If not for his use of performance-enhancing drugs, we can say with a high degree of certainty that he wouldn't have hit nearly that many homers.

If we could adjust for the home runs he hit artificially, we would be weakening the only argument supporting McGwire's candidacy. I'm not going to attempt to quantify this, but it might reduce his performance to below Hall of Fame standards, or it might not. But, the one thing we certainly don't owe steroid users is the benefit of the doubt.

Essentially, what I'm saying is that the punishment for using steroids is the loss of our trust and, therefore, the forfeiture of the benefit of the doubt. Without the benefit of the doubt, Mark McGwire is not a Hall of Famer.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Disco E.L.O.

E.L.O. (aka Electric Light Orchestra) dabbled in disco with their 1979 album, Discovery, most notably on the hit songs "Shine a Little Love" and "Last Train to London." But, the title of this post refers to my recent trip through the E.L.O. discography, thanks in part to Lala, my favorite recent web discovery (pun intended).

Lala allows you to listen to just about any album or song, in its entirety, in your web browser. The catch is you get to listen to each song only once. After that, you have to purchase songs to continue listening to them. Web songs mostly cost ten cents apiece for unlimited plays in your browser, with DRM-free MP3s available for an additional 79-89 cents. That's not quite as great a deal as the 37 songs a month I get for $15 from eMusic, but the selection is considerably better and I love the concept of being able to fully preview before you buy.

If you decide to check it out based on my suggestion, do me a favor and sign up here. I believe I'll get rewarded with a few free songs, but my real reason for promoting the site is that I think it's pretty great so I feel the need to share that information. Also, because I really want to see someone make a serious assault on iTunes' market share.

Returning to the E.L.O. discography, I'm ranking all 12 of their studio albums in order here. That, of course, includes only those that involved Jeff Lynne, not the ridiculous Electric Light Orchestra Part II that pretended to be the real deal from 1988 to 1999.

1. A New World Record (1976) - This album and Eldorado are E.L.O.'s masterpieces. While Eldorado is kind of their Sgt. Pepper's, in that it's more ambitious, A New World Record could be considered their Revolver, just one great song after another, and wins out as my favorite. Rating: 5 stars (on a 5 scale)

2. Eldorado (1974) - When I was listening to E.L.O. as a kid, this one was never even on my radar, although I'm not sure why. So, I was pleasantly surprised when, just a few years ago, I realized how great it is. It has since risen the ladder to the status of my second favorite E.L.O. record. Rating: 4 1/2 stars

3. Discovery (1979) - This would have to be considered my E.L.O. guilty pleasure, in that it's far from their most critically acclaimed work, but still one of my absolute favorites. Rating: 4 1/2 stars

4. Out of the Blue (1977) - Maybe the double album idea was on the overly ambitious side, and it could have been better with a little editing. Regardless, it still ranks among their best, in my opinion. Rating: 4 stars

5. Face the Music (1975) - Most would rank this one a little higher than I do, and it is a very good album. But, to me, it doesn't feel quite as cohesive as Eldorado and A New World Record. Rating: 4 stars

6. Time (1981) - This album was a bit of a drop-off after Discovery. I still think it's a pretty good record, but is definitely my least favorite since the first three. Rating: 3 1/2 stars

7. On the Third Day (1973) - I consider this an improvement over their first two albums, but I don't think it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Eldorado and A New World Record, as some have foolishly suggested. Rating: 3 1/2 stars

8. Zoom (2001) - After a 15-year hiatus, Lynne resurrected the E.L.O. name and released an album that was better than their final two in the '80s, despite its lack of any real knockout tracks. Rating: 3 stars

9. No Answer (1972) - Their debut release was far from their best work, but definitely showed some promise. The album-opening "10538 Overture" is the standout here. Rating: 3 stars

10. Balance of Power (1986) - Things were starting to go downhill after Time, although this one is an improvement over its predecessor Secret Messages, if only because its hit songs are much better, especially "So Serious," one of my favorites among their 1980s material. Rating: 3 stars

11. Electric Light Orchestra II (1973) - This is my least favorite of their earlier albums. "Roll Over Beethoven" misses the mark, so there are no great pop moments here, and most of the more ambitious material doesn't quite do it for me either, with the possible exception of "Kuiama." Rating: 2 1/2 stars

12. Secret Messages (1983) - The '80s provided some serious evidence that E.L.O. was a band on the decline. There are a few solid moments here, but nothing that really compares to Balance of Power's high points, though. Rating: 2 1/2 stars

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Cooperstown Class of 2010

For the second year in a row, a very borderline candidate was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's not that I think that Jim Rice and Andre Dawson are completely undeserving, but I just feel that both of them fall a little short of Hall of Fame status. However, this post isn't going to be about making a case for or against any particular candidates. Instead, I'm just going to share how I feel about this year's inductees, as well as a few who came up short.

Andre Dawson
Like I said, I wouldn't have voted for him, but Hawk had some great years, and he seems to be a class act. So, as a huge fan of the Hall of Fame, I'll welcome him with open arms.

Whitey Herzog
Herzog is one of those managers who, when I recalled his career, it seemed hard to believe that he took almost twice as long as Earl Weaver to get elected. But, then I looked at his credentials, which included a .532 career winning percentage (1281-1125) and only one World Series title in 18 years, and I understood why.

Doug Harvey
I met Harvey in 1994, less than two years after he retired, when he paid a visit to my class at Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School. I was lucky enough to get him to sign an official National League baseball, which I still have. Since I have no idea what I did with the piece of paper I got Dave Winfield to sign when I ran into him in a Fort Myers restaurant in the spring of 1993, this makes Harvey's the only Hall of Famer's autograph I possess.

Roberto Alomar
Alomar fell just short in his first year on the ballot, so he'll almost definitely get in next year. Although his career flamed out early, he is undoubtedly a deserving Hall of Famer. I wonder how much the John Hirschbeck incident was held against him by the voters? Regardless, it's not going to prevent him from getting in, likely sooner rather than later.

Bert Blyleven
A huge jump in support—from 62.7% last year to 74.2% this year—has Blyleven on the verge of election. Next year appears to be a good bet. I'm pulling for him, although I'll admit that it's taken me a little while to be convinced of his candidacy. He started 685 games and finished 242, an astounding 35% of them, and is 9th all-time in shutouts. Among the top 20 in the latter category, he's the only non-Hall of Famer.

Barry Larkin
I'm really surprised and disappointed that Larkin barely received 50% of the vote in his first year on the ballot. I didn't necessarily expect him to be a first-ballot inductee, but I really don't understand why not.

Tim Raines
I've already made it pretty clear in this blog as to how I feel about the Hall of Fame credentials of Raines. His support increased from 22.6% to 30.4% this year, in his third year of eligibility, so he still has a long way to go. But, that's a big jump, so maybe there's hope for him after all. Andre Dawson and Jim Rice could certainly preach to him the importance of remaining patient.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Artist of the Decade

This is the only "best of the decade" award I'm going to hand out, mainly because, while taste in music is strictly a subjective thing, my yearly rankings of albums also adds a bit of an objective measure, as far as I'm concerned.

What I mean by this is I have no intention of wasting my time arguing why the Yankees are the team of the decade in baseball. That could easily be debated. Actually, the Red Sox are probably the only other team you could make an argument for, as they are the only team, besides the Yankees, who won two World Series in the '00s. But still, this discussion would involve an objective comparison of the two teams, in terms of their number of World Series, American League and AL East championships, in addition to their total wins for the decade.

On the other hand, if I were to attempt to name a beer or brewery of the decade, this would be so subjective to the point of being ridiculous. I would have nothing to compare, except my own perception of individual beers at specific moments in time, an exercise that would prove nearly impossible.

But, like I said, this particular music discussion combines subjective and objective elements. Of course, my individual perception of music is totally a subjective measure, but given my previously determined album rankings, the process of making this decision became a bit of an objective exercise.

So, before I reveal my pick for Artist of the Decade, I want to acknowledge a half-dozen honorable mentions first (in alphabetical order): Drive-By Truckers (three top ten albums), The Hold Steady (three top tens), Modest Mouse (three top tens), A.C. Newman (two top tens as solo artist, two with The New Pornographers), Anders Parker (one top ten with Varnaline, one as solo artist, plus two solo top 20s), and the Pernice Brothers (two #1 albums).

That's a pretty impressive list, and it was whittled down from an initial list about twice as long. In fact, I didn't realize how difficult a decision this would be. Well, I knew selecting one would be a chore, but I wasn't aware of how many artists I would feel are truly worthy of consideration. But, when it came down to selecting the one artist most deserving of the honor, the answer was pretty clear.

Spencer Krug image courtesy of

Spencer Krug burst onto my radar as my favorite of the two creative forces in Wolf Parade when they released their debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, which finished 2005 as my #10 album. The following year, I became aware of his main side project, Sunset Rubdown, as their sophomore effort, Shut Up I Am Dreaming, ranked as my #11 album of 2006. Krug followed that up with three consecutive years in the top ten: Sunset Rubdown's Random Spirit Lover (#8, 2007) and Dragonslayer (#2, 2009), and Wolf Parade's At Mount Zoomer (#2, 2008).

The interesting thing about these "best of the decade" type awards is that recent efforts tend to receive more emphasis than those that occurred early on. So, that helps to explain why I was able to look past the Pernice Brothers' two #1 albums in the first half of the '00s. However, had they even added one more top ten album in the second half of the decade, they may have made this decision much more difficult on me. But, in the end, it just seemed like a fairly obvious choice to declare Spencer Krug my Artist of the Decade.