Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Music of 2011: Part 6

Previously: Best Music of 2011, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

"So now I am older,

than my mother and father,
when they had their daughter.
Now what does that say about me?"

When I heard those opening lines to "Montezuma," the first track on Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, I instantly knew it would be #1 album of 2011.

OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but let me explain.

Growing up, I always thought my parents were old, at least in comparison to other kids' folks. And, of course, they were, relatively speaking. But, my dad was 36 and my mom 32 when my older sister was born. Obviously, they were a little older when they brought me into the world, and now I'm even a few years older than my father was when I was born.

But, times have changed, right? Well, yes and no. I certainly know I'm not the oldest new dad there is, but among my close high school friends who have children, I don't think any of them had one in their 40s.

My point, if there really is one, is when I can relate to the music I'm hearing—even if it is just my own interpretation of something that was intended to mean something completely different—it makes for a greater listening experience. And, while the quality of the music itself is more important, finding meaning in the lyrics is really what makes it transcendental. And that's what this album is for me.

But, it's the album's title track—the one that inspired my Yes comparison when I wrote about it earlier this year—that really seals the deal.

From the existential crisis of its opening verse...

"I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes,
unique in each way you can see.

And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be,
a functioning cog in some great machinery
serving something beyond me." the resolution in the refrain...

"If I had an orchard I'd work til I'm raw.
If I had an orchard I'd work til I'm sore.
And you would wait tables and soon run the store."

...and, finally it's idyllic closing line:

"Someday I'll be like the man on the screen."

The theme of the song reminds me that I worked hard this year: taking care of a new home (particularly when you're far from the handiest guy on the planet), preparing for the arrival of a new baby, looking after a pregnant wife who was instructed by her doctor to take it easy, and finally welcoming our son into this world, all the while working 40 hours a week at my day job and managing to find just enough free time to indulge my writing hobby.

That's quite a lot that I had on my plate. All of these things were (are) totally worth it, of course, but they also made me feel a little overwhelmed at times, and the concept of making ends meet by being the caretaker of an orchard just seemed so much simpler to me.

But, in reality, when you reduce that meaning to its simplest element—the purpose of providing for one's family—it places priorities in their proper perspective.

So, on the occasion of this final day of the year, I want to thank everyone who reads this blog regularly—as well as those who do so occasionally—for paying attention to what I've had to say this year. Happy New Year to all and the best of luck in 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Best Music of 2011: Part 5

Previously: Best Music of 2011, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Please join me today in celebrating the Baseball Solstice, the mid-point between the last game of the World Series and the first game of Spring Training, a fantastic idea envisioned by Daniel Day of The Ball Caps Blog. Since I don't have much daylight to mark the occasion by taking a photo of an empty baseball park as he suggests—my only opportunity would be in the morning before heading to work, and my sleep is quite the commodity these days—I have my own idea which you can partake in if you wish.

I created a Spotify playlist of five songs that appear as bonus tracks on the re-issue of Whiskeytown's 1996 album, Faithless Street. These mostly somber songs are referred to as the "Baseball Park Sessions," which I've renamed the "Baseball Solstice Sessions" for the sake of this exercise. Enjoy, content in the knowledge that the baseball off-season is already half over.

Oh, and speaking of Whiskeytown...

5. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
This is the 16th year I've produced at least a top ten list, and this is Ryan Adams's third top ten album. If you add in two Whiskeytown records, it would actually be his fifth, although in hindsight I'm not sure 2001's Gold was really deserving. But still, that's pretty impressive. However, what is really interesting—at least to me—is it's been ten years since he last showed up here. So, obviously in the late-'90s to early-'00s, I was quite the Adams fan.

4. Drive-By Truckers - Go-Go Boots
If there was a Hall of Fame honoring artists who've appeared on my year-end lists, these guys would be first-ballot inductees. Not only is this their record-breaking fifth top ten appearance, it's their fifth consecutive album to be honored as such. I keep expecting myself to grow a little tired of their sound, but it just never happens.

3. My Morning Jacket - Circuital
In recent years, I've heard the term "Dad Rock" used in reference to a few modern bands that have been around for a decade or so, and whose music now appeals mostly to the hipsters-turned-fathers set. Or, something like that. Wilco is the prime example, but there are moments this record reminds me of that sentiment, particularly on "Outta My System." Although not a former hipster, if you want to lump me in the modern dad-rock-listening category, that's perfectly OK with me.

2. The Decemberists - The King is Dead
The Decemberists came really close to being just the second band to earn my album of the year honor twice. And, just as the Pernice Brothers did in 2001 and 2003, it would have been on consecutive releases, and within a three year span. The King is Dead would certainly have been worthy, as it's probably a better album than 2009's The Hazards of Love. However, it fell short because my #1 album was one that was not only great musically, but also it kind of defined my year.

Next: Best Music of 2011: Part 6

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best Music of 2011: Part 4

Previously: Best Music of 2011, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Sometimes, it feels like these lists are fairly predictable, that there are certain artists who are guaranteed to rank highly simply by releasing an album in a given year. While that may be true to some extent, this year's top ten features two bands who've never made my list at all, as well as three others making their first ever top ten appearance.

10. Bright Eyes - The People's Key
I don't think Conor Oberst is much of a baseball enthusiast, but several spoken-word interludes on this album feature the voice of Denny Brewer, of a band called Refried Ice Cream. If Denny Brewer is not a ballplayer's name, I don't know what is.

9. Mates of State - Mountaintops
Mates of State, of course, are the husband/wife duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. The versatile Hammel was 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA in 170 1/3 IP for the Colorado Rockies this past year...yeah, you guessed it, not the same guy. Gardner and Hammel have two children, and if my memory serves me correctly, they used to—or, perhaps they still do—bring the kids on the road with them. If I were them, I don't think I could do it. Yesterday, our baby survived his first minor car accident, at 5 1/2 weeks old, so now I have nothing but rave reviews for our Chicco car seat.

8. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
Death Cab—making their first appearance in my top ten—are led by Ben Gibbard, who is a big Mariners fan and apparently can throw a baseball in the neighborhood of 70 MPH. Not bad for a musician, although his strong arm did once backfire on him when he threw out the first pitch at Safeco Field in September 2008.

7. Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Bon Iver is the first of two artists in this year's top ten who have never before appeared anywhere on my year-end list. Since Justin Vernon, who pretty much is Bon Iver, was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin—making him an honorary Canadian, or something like that—I'll mention here (since I forgot to in Part 3) that Neil Young's #15 ranking is the highest of anyone north of the border this year.

6. The Black Keys - El Camino
This album was released on December 6, after my final Frequent Spins post of the year. This is not The Black Keys' first appearance here, but it is the first top ten finish for the band that shares a hometown with the late, great Thurman Munson.

Next: Best Music of 2011: Part 5

Monday, December 26, 2011

Best Music of 2011: Part 3

Previously: Best Music of 2011, Part 1 and Part 2.

Now I'm getting to the point where I can no longer guarantee to continue with the baseball angle, but that's not to say I'm going to completely forsake it, either.

17. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic
The former Pavement front-man and all-around indie rock icon is also a fantasy baseball guru, as well as a Dodgers fan and a hater of the Red Sox and Yankees.

16. Tom Waits - Bad As Me
Waits must be a baseball fan. As evidence, I offer the lyrics of songs such as "A Sight for Sore Eyes" and "Shore Leave." I think he's probably a bigger fan of drinking, though.

15. Neil Young & The International Harvesters - A Treasure
When Neil Young wrote, in 1979, that "'s better to burn out than to fade away," was that somehow foreshadowing the 2011 Red Sox?

14. Crooked Fingers - Breaks in the Armor
Eric Bachmann is the lead singer of Crooked Fingers, a much mellower outfit than his former band, the raucous and edgy indie darlings of the early to mid-'90s, Archers of Loaf. That's why he's sometimes referred to as the Frank Tanana of indie rock. OK, I made that up, but considering he's 6'7" and from the south, I like to think of him as the Lee Guetterman of the indie scene.

13. Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
When I wrote about this album in the first Frequent Spins of the year, I thought I'd end up considering it Sam Beam's best effort since his debut. But, in hindsight, I'm not so sure, as it fell short of the top ten, while The Shepherd's Dog wound up as my #9 of 2007.

12. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
My effort to view this best music of 2011 countdown from a baseball perspective has turned into a quest to determine what, if any, team to which each artist owes their loyalties. Quite often this means just googling the band name, or one or more of their individual members, followed by the word "baseball." When I did so for the lead singer of this band, one of the results was an online forum asking the question "Will Sheff retire or go the Rickey Henderson route?" I honestly never thought I could connect Okkervil River and Gary Sheffield so easily.

11. Wilco - The Whole Love
I like lists and I like statistics. So, of course, I maintain statistics on my year-end music lists. These stats tell me four artists are tied for the most top ten finishes ever: The Hold Steady didn't release an album this year; Steve Earle has already appeared, but not even close to the top ten; Wilco just missed establishing a record, but had they done so, they would not be alone.

Next: Best Music of 2011: Part 4

Friday, December 23, 2011

Best Music of 2011: Part 2

In case you missed it: Best Music of 2011: Part 1

You may or may not have noticed, but in Part 1, each of the album titles was a link to the Frequent Spins post where they appeared earlier in the year. Part 2 introduces three of the four albums that show up on this list but, for various reasons, were never covered in Frequent Spins.

25. Feist - Metals
Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist's latest was released in early October, but it wasn't until I started working on this list that it started to really make an impact on me. There's no iPod commercial material here—a la "1234"—but overall this is a better album than The Reminder. What about our national pastime, you ask? All I have to say is this adds new meaning to the concept of fantasy baseball.

24. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Here We Rest
This one should have been included in the latest Frequent Spins, but since I characterized that as a catchup post, it shouldn't be terribly hard to understand I overlooked it. Isbell, the former Drive-By Trucker, is a pretty big Atlanta Braves fan, but apparently liked the Dodgers as a kid, and even recalls (sort of) being carried to his parents by Fernando Valenzuela's mom after passing out waiting for an autograph.

23. Those Darlins - Screws Get Loose
These female rockers from Tennessee faced the difficult task of being the opening act for the Drive-By Truckers at a show in St. Louis on Friday, October 28. What could possibly be so hard about that? It was the night of Game 7 of the World Series. You may or may not have heard, but the Cardinals won that game. The DBTs were able to move their set time to coincide with the post-game celebration, but Those Darlins were not afforded such a luxury.

22. Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
There are 4 1/2 female-fronted acts that grace this year's list, not counting a handful of others with prominent—but not band-leading—female members. Other than the 1/2, Ms. Welch is the highest ranking of the group. David Rawlings is Welch's musical and life partner. As far as I know, he has nothing to do with the sham that is Major League Baseball's Gold Glove Awards.

21. The Baseball Project - Volume 2: High and Inside
I probably don't need to explain that this side project, led by Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey, has an affinity for baseball. Since I wrote quite a bit about this album earlier in the year, I'll let you read about it here and here.

20. The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time
These roots rock pioneers are from Minneapolis, and while Mark Olson may not be a big sports fan, Gary Louris is. And, of course, his loyalties are to the hometown Minnesota Twins.

19. Beirut - The Rip Tide
Beirut's Zach Condon is from New Mexico. My good friend and the most ardent follower of my year-end best music list, El-Squared—who, incidentally officiated my wedding to KJ—travels to Albuquerque for work somewhat frequently and has attended quite a few Albuquerque Isotopes games. Sorry, that's the best I can do.

18. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Departing
This band's moniker, for some reason, reminds me of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, the lesser-known novel by Shoeless Joe author W.P. Kinsella. Kinsella, it just so happens, hails from Edmonton, Alberta.

Next: Best Music of 2011: Part 3

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best Music of 2011: Part 1

Despite being a member of the Baseball Blogger's Alliance (BBA), this blog is far from entirely about baseball. Yet, when he does his weekly links post for the BBA's General Chapter, my pal The Flagrant Fan continues to highlight my non-baseball work. Since the blog's output has been dwindling of late, his posts are probably my main generator of traffic these days, so I'm quite appreciative.

So, in an attempt to be clever, and because I don't really have time to write extensively about my top albums of the year—but I still wish to count them down—I thought I'd try something a little different. That is, I'm going to emphasize baseball in my brief write-ups of the music that made my year. Or, at least I'm going to try to highlight each artist's connection with baseball as much as possible.

Anyway, we'll see how that goes.

If you're new here and care to read a little more about the history of my obsession with this particular exercise, please read what I wrote about it last year. In fact, I might add that the genesis of this blog was to count down my top ten albums of 2003. The writing wasn't as good then—well, at least I hope I've improved in the past eight years—but I still give myself an "E" for effort.

And now on the list of my favorite 33 albums that were released in 2011:

33. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo
I'm not sure to whom Kurt pledges his baseball loyalties (if anyone), but it seems this Angels blog is trying to claim them. However, I do know that this record's producer—John Agnello—is a die-hard Mets fan, the poor guy.

32. Lucinda Williams - Blessed
I don't know for certain if Lucinda is a baseball fan, but "Soldier's Song" provides some evidence. Written from the perspective of a man fighting for his country overseas while his wife is home with their child, she sings "I don't know my enemy's name. Baby takes the little one to a baseball game." That settles it, as far as I'm concerned, although I suspect she's not a fan of WAR.

31. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
I know at least two of the Athens, Georgia college rock pioneers are into baseball. Peter Buck plays bass in The Baseball Project (we'll hear from them later) and claims to be a Washington Senators fan, for what it's worth. Mike Mills is also known to be a pretty big Atlanta Braves supporter.

30. Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
There's a photo kicking around the interwebs somewhere of my pal Anders Parker and Steve Earle, in which the Texas native (Earle) is wearing a Yankees jersey. An interview he did a few years ago for ESPN's Page2 provides some insight into why that is.

29. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
M83 is Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez's creative outlet, and just one of two European acts in this year's rankings. I'm not saying Europeans don't like baseball, but it's certainly easier to find American artists who do.

28. J Mascis - Several Shades of Why
The Dinosaur Jr. leader played the same stage as new Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein recently, as both men joined Buffalo Tom in celebrating the band's 25th anniversary at Boston's Brighton Music Hall.

27. Centro-Matic - Candidate Waltz
Although the band hails from Denton, Texas, Centro-Matic front-man Will Johnson is from Missouri, and is a big-time Cardinals fan. On his web site's about page, after rambling on primarily about the type of work he's done, he ends by saying, "I love baseball. I have always loved baseball." Taking this love, and his art, to another level, however, one of his hobbies is painting portraits of mostly legendary baseball players.

26. Elbow - Build a Rocket Boys!
This English band is the highest ranking European artist on this year's list. Last year, I honored five European and six Canadian artists, in addition to 22 Americans. This year's distribution: two Europeans, three Canadians (still to come), 28 Americans. As far as baseball is concerned, the only connection I can draw is that Elbow's lead singer is named Guy Garvey.

Next: Best Music of 2011: Part 2

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Imperially Tasting

Over the course of the summer, I had stocked my beer closet with a half-dozen Imperial IPAs. My original intention was to include a couple fellow craft beer loving friends in a little taste test, but life got in the way, so I never made that happen. Finally, I figured it was about time to just drink them myself.

Beginning in early November, I had KJ serve them to me one at a time, over the course of a few weekends, so I could have my own blind taste test.

It's interesting to note that it took me about a month to drink all six of them. That's pretty much how it works these days. One beer a night, on Friday and Saturday nights only, is basically my limit. Although, in my defense, I will say that they're always strong beers, so they're generally the equivalent of two. And, with parental responsibilities entering the equation, I can't really afford to overdo it these days.

I'm not really sure how to write a post about a blind taste test, to be completely honest. You'll have to trust me that I truly didn't know what I was drinking at the time I was drinking it. In fact, even as I write this, KJ still hasn't revealed the brands.

So, what I'm going to do is refer to them as Imperial IP-A, IP-B, IP-C, etc., then reveal them at the end of the post. Since IPA stands for India Pale Ale, and pretty much everything I drink is an ale, the A is kind of a moot point anyway.

Imperial IP-A (11/5)
My stuffy nose didn't allow me to detect much aroma, but it's nicely balanced—tastes strong but is still pretty easy going down—and not overwhelmingly hoppy for the style.
Rating: B+

Imperial IP-B (11/12)
Nice subtle grapefruity aroma (there's a hint of some spice I can't make out too). Malty upfront—tastes pretty strong—with just the right amount of hops aftertaste.
Rating: B+

Imperial IP-C (11/24)
Pours a little cloudy, but in a good way. Nice grapefruity aroma with a hint of sweetness. Really well-balanced, almost perfectly: malty up front with excellent hops aftertaste. Rating: A

Imperial IP-D (12/2)
A very sweet, even malty, aroma (KJ says there's a coriander undertone). Not quite as malty going down, though, although just enough to balance its considerable hoppiness.
Rating: B/B+

Imperial IP-E (12/3)
This one has a ton of hop flavor, although not an overwhelming hop aroma (unless it's just my nose that's not quite working right again). It's slightly on the bitter side of the balance equation, which is what keeps it from moving up to A- or A status. Rating: B+

Imperial IP-F (12/4)
Most beers of this style are an assault on your senses, but in a good way. Other than a pretty typical IPA undertone of bitterness, this one does no such thing. Rating: B-

As you can see, I went through all this trouble just to essentially rate them even, with the exception of C (the best of the bunch) and F (the worst of the lot). Obviously, D was also a notch below the rest, and at this point, I'd have to say that E was probably the second-best, since I considered bumping it up to an A- rating.

So, without further ado, here are the results:

1. Imperial IP-C: GUBNA Imperial IPA (Oskar Blues)
2. Imperial IP-E: Hercules Double IPA (Great Divide)
3. (tie) Imperial IP-A: 471 Small Batch IPA (Breckenridge)
3. (tie) Imperial IP-B: Hop Crisis (21st Amendment)
5. Imperial IP-D: Captain's Reserve Imperial IPA (Captain Lawrence)
6. Imperial IP-F: C-Note Imperial Pale Ale (New Old Lompoc)

The top three—Oskar Blues, Great Divide, Breckenridge—are all Colorado breweries. 21st Amendment is from San Francisco, Captain Lawrence from New York, and New Old Lompoc is the Portland, Oregon brewpub that I ranked my favorite in the city just prior to my last visit. So, needless to say, I was quite surprised with that aspect of the results.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

It's Hall of Fame Season

This past week, the National Baseball Hall of Fame mailed out the ballots for their 2012 class to approximately 600 voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). The results of that process will be announced on January 9.

Tomorrow, the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee will announce its selections from among eight former players and two former executives on the Golden Era Ballot, covering individuals whose contributions were realized primarily during the period from 1947-72.

On Thursday night, I submitted my votes for the second year in a row as part of Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present's project to identify the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. Results will hopefully be announced on Monday as well.

There's also the upcoming vote of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, from which our 300+ member blogs will give our opinions as to who the BBWAA should elect in January.

Thus begins what I like to call Hall of Fame Season. For the next month, there will be much debating surrounding who, among this year's nominees, is worthy of baseball's highest honor. Comparisons will be made to current Hall of Famers deemed among the weaker current inductees, and names who have been previously shunned will be thrown into the discussion as well.

I may have said this before, but for me, this and the counting down of my favorite albums—among other factors—make this the most wonderful time of the year.

Since the BBWAA announcement is still a month away, and the Golden Era ballot results will be revealed within the next 24 hours, I'll focus on the latter for now.

All I really care about, with regard to tomorrow's announcement, is that Ron Santo finally gets his due. Don't get me wrong. I also think there's a pretty good case to be made for Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant, and I wouldn't have a problem with Ken Boyer getting the Hall of Fame nod, but it's a real travesty that Santo has yet to be elected.

I can say, without reservation, that there are only five third basemen—Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Brooks Robinson—who were clearly better than Santo. There are a few others who are in the argument for who comes next, but I'd probably rank him seventh all-time, with Frank "Home Run" Baker being #6. Actually, if we consider Paul Molitor as a third baseman, then Santo drops to 8th, but Molitor is generally considered to be the Hall's first designated hitter.

How is the 7th or 8th best third baseman of all-time not in the Hall of Fame? I really can't tell you, other than to say, obviously, the BBWAA does not agree with me. But, I know I'm far from alone in the Ron Santo camp.

It will, however, be a bit of a shame if Santo is elected this year. The reason, of course, is he passed away a year ago yesterday. Still, I look forward to celebrating his career, even if it is a couple years too late to allow him to bask in the honor.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

120 Minutes

No, this post isn't about the former MTV show dedicated to alternative music, a show whose major highlights included the world premiere of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991. Nor is it about the approximately two hours that passed between the time KJ's and my son was born—less than two weeks ago—and when I finally got around to calling our parents.

That seems like a long time, right? Or, is that normal? Anyway, it's kind of a long story that I won't be getting into right now.

What this post is about is my first ever tasting of Dogfish Head's signature extreme beer, 120 Minute IPA. It was, in fact, in celebration of the birth of Little Chuck, as my pal and brewing partner AB (not August Busch) and his wife stopped by our house to meet the little guy.

AB works at the hospital where LC was born, so he was the first to visit us after the delivery. We got to talking about the cigar tradition, and although said tradition is that the father passes out cigars to his friends, somehow it was decided he would try and find me a bottle of 120 Minute instead.

I didn't really think he'd come through, as it's brewed only a few times a year and sells out fast, despite it's hefty price tag of $10 for a 12-ounce bottle. But, wouldn't you know it, he showed up at my door with not one, but two bottles of the "holy grail for hopheads."

I was surprised that it tasted more like our own 21st Century Schizoid Ale than any beer I've ever tasted. It's stronger (15-20% ABV) and better, of course, but its similarity to one of our own creations was a point of pride for us.

Its huge maltiness up front masks the hop bitterness, at first. There's no denying the presence of extreme hops, however, as considering the high alcohol content, it would be unbearably sweet otherwise. I tasted the hoppiness a little later than expected, but even still, it's not overwhelming. In fact, it's probably just right, the perfect balance of a beer's two most important ingredients, hops and malt.

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA wasn't the first beer I consumed after the birth of my son, but it certainly was worthy as an extended celebration of a moment I'll never forget.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Frequent Spins (2011.6)

This will be the long overdue final installment of Frequent Spins for 2011. In fact, it will be a bit of a catchup post, after which I'll move on to attempting to rank the best albums of the year, as usual.

Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
The man formerly known as the hardest working singer-songwriter in alt-country (whatever that is) produces an album that hearkens back to his ultimate solo effort, Heartbreaker, and this one might be almost as good as that masterpiece.

Richard Buckner - Our Blood
Buckner churns out another solid, if unspectacular, collection of hauntingly poetic Americana.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Hysterical
They'll probably never again capture the magic of their debut release, but this album is a bit of a return to prominence after their disappointing sophomore effort.

Crooked Fingers - Breaks in the Armor
Returns to form have been a common theme in my Frequent Spins posts this year, and the latest from Crooked Fingers lands firmly in that category. After the significant drop-off that was Forfeit/Fortune, Breaks in the Armor makes me, once again, optimistic that former Archers of Loaf leader Eric Bachmann hasn't lost it.

The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time
If you're a reader of this blog, then you probably kind of saw this one coming.

M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
I haven't been blogging much lately, and that trend probably won't change in the near future. But, I have been thinking more and more about good music that would appeal to young children. Among this album's highlights is "Raconte-Moi Une Histoire" (English translation: "Tell Me a Story"), a brightly optimistic song that fully captures the essence of the innocence of youth.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic
Quite possibly the former Pavement front-man's best solo release to date.

Mates of State
- Mountaintops
I don't know about everyone, but I have a tendency to forever associate certain songs with events—in my life and otherwise—that were occurring at the time I was listening to them. In my mind, "Mistakes" will forever remind me of Joe Paterno.

Tom Waits - Bad As Me
I've never been a huge Waits fan. Of course, that's not to say I'm anti-Waits either. But, it's just that I've never really loved anything he's done before, or maybe I just haven't tried hard enough. This effort doesn't necessarily make me a convert, but it has me wondering if I've been missing out.

Wilco - The Whole Love
Ranking Wilco's albums from best to worst has always been difficult for me, but here goes:
  1. Being There
  2. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  3. Summerteeth
  4. The Whole Love
  5. A.M.
  6. Wilco (The Album)
  7. Sky Blue Sky
  8. A Ghost is Born
So, that would make The Whole Love Wilco's best album since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I know I've got more to be thankful for this year than ever.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sad Days and the Road to Recovery in Happy Valley

In my four years at Penn State, I attended every home game but one, which I missed to attend a cousin's wedding. I also traveled to away games at Pitt, Maryland, West Virginia and Syracuse (twice). In fact, the first game I ever witnessed was their first of the 1985 season, a road game at College Park, Maryland. In total, this adds up to somewhere around 30 games in just four seasons.

I haven't been to many games since I graduated, and now I kind of regret that.

This weekend marked the end of an era, and certainly wasn't the joyous, special occasion I always imagined it would be. Although, in reality, I didn't really think Joe Paterno would announce his retirement in advance. I honestly figured he would go out without fanfare, making the decision public only after his final game. Well, as it turns out, there was no official farewell game anyway.

I don't have a lot to say about the scandal at Penn State that hasn't already been said. I will admit to being upset that the majority of people stampeded to judgment of Paterno and the other secondary figures in this mess. I've since come to better accept the gravity of the situation brought out a lot of emotional responses, on both sides of the equation. And it's not wrong for either group to feel the way they do.

I did, however, appreciate this blog post written by Sports Illustrated writer and Paterno biographer Joe Posnanski, although he has since taken a lot of heat for it. Check out the 1500 or so comments. Or don't.

But, I'm not writing this as a defense or a condemnation of Joe Paterno or anyone else, although obviously there is at least one person who most likely deserves the latter.

The angle I want to discuss is that of the Penn State alumnus, which is not meant to discount the real victims in this tragedy, of course. I certainly realize I'm one of hundreds of thousands of people who are way down on the list of those who deserve sympathy here, but this is my blog and it's a place I choose to share my personal feelings from time to time.

This scandal is the most devastating heartbreak I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan, as it goes far beyond sports, and far beyond being a fan. It has to do with being a Penn Stater and being proud of what that means.

As I said to an old friend—who's also a fellow New York Giants fan—last week, "If we learned that Bill Belichick did this, it's not necessarily a black mark on the '86 Giants, but this incident is a black mark on an institution I'm otherwise proud to consider myself a part of."

Honestly, if you had asked me to rank my favorite teams across all sports, it would probably go like this:
  1. New York Yankees
  2. New York Giants
  3. Penn State Nittany Lions (Football)
  4. Penn State Nittany Lions (Basketball)
  5. New York Knicks
So, Penn State football is not the team I live and die for. Maybe I did while I was in school, but that was over 20 years ago.

Still, despite the fact sports fans love to use the word "we" when discussing their teams, I've always been against that practice, except when it comes to Penn State. I'm not a member of the Yankees. I'm not a member of the Giants. Although I'm not, and have never been, a member of the Penn State football or basketball teams—except that I used to joke I was going to try to walk on as the placekick holder—I am a Penn Stater.

So, I take some personal ownership in this one, even though I know in reality, it has nothing to do with me.

Let's go back to those four years I spent in Happy Valley for a few minutes, though. They included the 1985 to 1988 football seasons, which means I was there for the 1986 National Championship. That season, and the 1987 Fiesta Bowl that capped it, is one of the most important sports memories of my life. In fact, if you asked me to rate my favorite championship teams, that list would look something like this:
  1. 1986 Penn State Nittany Lions (Football)
  2. 2007 New York Giants
  3. 1996 New York Yankees
  4. 1978 New York Yankees
  5. 1986 New York Giants
The only championship parade I've ever attended was the January 1987 celebration of Penn State's 14-10 Fiesta Bowl victory over the University of Miami. I still pretty vividly remember taking a photo of Jerry Sandusky waving to the crowd, and considering him the real hero of that championship game. It was his defensive game plan that stifled the vaunted Miami Hurricanes offense, led by Vinny Testaverde, although it was also the players on that defensive squad who executed it.

I no longer know what to make of that memory. While my Penn State pride may eventually fully recover, I don't know that I'll ever look back on that tremendous year with the same level of reverence. I certainly won't ever look back on Sandusky as such.

I was going to end this post by sharing a Posnanski observation from Wednesday night, one that he tweeted shortly after the announcement that Joe Paterno was fired:

"I saw a girl crying tonight. When I asked why she said: 'Because everybody lost.'"

But, Saturday's game made me feel like ending this on a positive note instead. In their highly emotional return to the playing field, the team fell behind a good Nebraska squad 17-0 in the second half. It would have been easy to pack it in and write it off as a game they really had no chance of winning due to all the distractions. However, they persevered and launched an impressive comeback—for an offensively challenged team—that fell just a little short in a 17-14 loss.

Of course, there are many who felt the game never should have been played, and I can't fault them for that. But, they did play the game, and it was one that obviously meant a lot to 100 or so Penn State players who had absolutely nothing to do with this recent tragedy.

It was the fans who most impressed me, though. Following the embarrassing chaos of Wednesday night, Penn State fans—including tens of thousands of students—were well behaved throughout the game. And their post-game gesture, in which they gave the team a rousing ovation, followed by the patented "We Are...Penn State!" chant, made me feel once again that there are plenty of reasons to be proud to be a Penn Stater.

That fact won't be changed by the actions of one man and the inaction of several others, and I can say for damn sure it will not be affected by the folks out there who have decided to use this occasion to denigrate Penn State and all Penn Staters rather than take aim at those culpable in this ugly situation.

Those folks do not define Penn State. They are not Penn State. We are Penn State!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The All-MLB All-Star Team

I had plans to post a BBA Awards: Part Two, highlighting the ballots I submitted for the Walter Johnson (Pitcher of the Year) and Stan Musial (Most Valuable Player) awards, but that bird has flown, so to speak.

In case you're interested, the winners of those awards were Clayton Kershaw (NL Walter Johnson), Justin Verlander (AL Walter Johnson), Matt Kemp (NL Stan Musial) and Jose Bautista (AL Stan Musial).

I'm kind of tired of year-end awards anyway. Tired of the "how do you define most valuable?" debates, of the claims that one pitcher was luckier than another (as reflected by their FIP or xFIP vs. ERA comparisons), and really sick—to my stomach, that is—of the incompetence of the folks who choose the Gold Glove awards.

Instead, I've decided to select my own 2011 All-MLB All-Star Team. And I can guarantee you if someone's not on this team, he didn't deserve an ounce of consideration for the MVP, Cy Young, Stan Musial or Walter Johnson honors. Well, that's probably a bit overstated, but I have a tendency to do that on occasion.

This team consists of 31 players. I chose two for each everyday position (not including DH), five starting pitchers, five relief pitchers, and then rounded out the roster with five additional—and highly deserving—players. I even reconsidered my Goose Gossage (Reliever of the Year) award selections in the process.

So, here they are, presented without analysis. My 2011 MLB All-Stars:

Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers
Mike Napoli, Texas Rangers

First Base
Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox

Second Base
Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox
Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
Robinson Cano, New York Yankees

Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies
Jose Reyes, New York Mets

Third Base
Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants

Left Field
Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

Center Field
Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox
Curtis Granderson, New York Yankees

Right Field
Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks

Starting Pitcher
Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels

Relief Pitcher

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
Sean Marshall, Chicago Cubs

Monday, October 31, 2011

Obstruction and Adrian Beltre's Foot

OBSTRUCTION is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.

Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment: If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered “in the act of fielding a ball.” It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the “act of fielding” the ball. For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.

A few postseasons ago I wrote about the controversial call that wasn't, a play I thought should have been more of a controversy than it turned out to be. In contrast, this year's World Series included a somewhat controversial call that shouldn't have been. At least in my opinion, but not if you ask a couple bloggers who have since written about a play in game six they think was, or at least should be, against the rules.

If you're interested in completely digesting this subject, you can read those viewpoints at The Captain's Blog and The Platoon Advantage.

First of all, let me say both bloggers made some solid points in their posts and in subsequent discussions I engaged them in, either via comments or on Twitter. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't feel my own explanation of the play to be worth the effort.

As I said, the play in question occurred in game six of the World Series. In the bottom of the 6th inning, with the bases full of Cardinals and one out, Rangers catcher Mike Napoli picked St. Louis' Matt Holliday off third. But, replays showed Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre had used his foot to at least partially block Holliday's return path to the bag.

Both of the aforementioned bloggers claimed this was obstruction, that Beltre moved his foot there with the intention of blocking the base, not because he had to in order to receive the throw.

First of all, let me just say that when a fielder possesses the ball, he's allowed to be anywhere he pleases. It's really as simple as that. He has no obligation to yield any kind of "right of way" to the runner. By the same token, the runner, in this instance, has equal right of way as the fielder. As you're probably well aware, this is why there are occasional collisions between runners and fielders, although most of the time these occur at home plate.

To further illustrate "right of way," I'll discuss a hypothetical example not related to the play in question.

Imagine there's a runner on second base and a ground ball is hit to the shortstop, who is attempting to field it directly in the path of the runner. Up to the point the ball reaches the fielder, assuming he's in the act of fielding it, he has the right of way. That is, if the runner collides with him, it's interference on the runner.

But, if the ball passes through the shortstop's legs, for instance, and then the runner makes contact with him, it's obstruction on the fielder. In other words, if he's no longer in the act of fielding the ball, the fielder has no right to be in the runner's path at all.

However, if the shortstop is no longer in the act of fielding the ball because he has it securely in his glove or hand, the runner and fielder now have equal right of way.

This is a little confusing, I realize, but it's important to the Beltre-Holliday example because one point that's been made is Beltre planted his foot in the base path before he caught the throw. So, the question is, does this mean he's guilty of blocking the base without the ball and, therefore, obstruction?

The answer is no, and the explanation for this is that essentially Beltre does so at his own risk. If the throw gets away from him and Holliday makes contact with his body, he's then guilty of obstruction. Whether or not Holliday would be awarded home as a result is left to the umpire's judgment, but I'm not getting into that scenario.

The important point is it's not obstruction until the fielder impedes the runner (in this case, when contact is made), so since the throw was securely in Beltre's glove before Holliday slides into his foot, what Beltre did was perfectly legal.

As well it should be. Another point that was made is the fielder shouldn't be able to do this regardless. But, what we're potentially getting into here is trying to dictate where a fielder is allowed to be when receiving a throw and/or preparing to apply a tag. I don't think the rule book can possibly govern that.

I also don't think intent can be part of the equation. That is, did Beltre put his foot there with the intention of blocking the base? Is it obvious that the answer is yes to that question? I don't think so, but even if you do, is it not entirely possible to envision a scenario where the fielder moves his foot into the same position in the act of fielding the throw? Most importantly, though, do we really want to add a rule that requires the umpire to determine intent? There are a few such rules in the book right now, but it's my opinion these situations should be minimized, and I suspect most people would agree with me on that point.

So, where does this leave us? I think we can draw only one conclusion, and that's to say what Beltre did was completely within the rules, and it should remain that way.

Of course, I'm not trying to claim I'm in any way the final word on this subject. In fact, as I learned back in 2008 when I interviewed former Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School instructor, and operator of, Rick Roder, there are still sections of the rules that are gray enough that they're subject to different interpretations by different umpires. That fact remains a problem Major League Baseball has failed to address, but the obstruction rule does not fall into that category.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Where Have All My Friends Gone?

I first saw The Jayhawks live on the Tomorrow the Green Grass tour back in 1995. It was at a place called Saratoga Winners, in the Albany, New York suburb of Latham. The venue took its name from the fact it's on the drive back down-state from the race track in Saratoga Springs.

That Jayhawks show was one of only two I saw at the now-defunct club, which burned down in 2009 in an incident that resulted in its owner being convicted of insurance fraud, but acquitted of arson. Go figure. Both of my visits to Saratoga Winners were for shows I consider to hold a special place in my personal history. The other was a Wilco/Scud Mountain Boys performance that still stands as the best double-bill I've ever seen, not the least important reason for that distinction being it was my introduction to the brilliant—in my opinion—Joe Pernice.

The Jayhawks show was so important to me because it was the only time I'd seen their classic lineup, including both Gary Louris and Mark Olson. Olson left the band only a year or so following that show, and all the subsequent times I'd seen them live—and there have been many—Louris was the lone front-man. Of course, you can probably guess where this is all leading.

Sorry, I'm not a great photographer.
Last Tuesday night marked the occasion of The Jayhawks reunion tour's return to Boston, and my first time seeing them live, with Olson, in over 15 years. The Jayhawks' visit to the Paradise Rock Club was also KJ's first time seeing them, not to mention it was our future son's first concert ever. Well, sort of. But, it almost didn't happen for us.

You see, KJ is 8+ months pregnant, and as the date of the performance drew closer, we came to the realization there was no way she was going to be able to stand for the duration of a club show. So, I called the Paradise and inquired about their limited reserved seating for persons with mobility issues.

Long story short, they took care of  us, and I can't express how truly grateful we are for how accommodating they were. Every member of their staff that we dealt with was extremely helpful and polite, and I want to thank them for allowing us to see this show from a pair of chairs set to the right of the stage.

Unfortunately, this also meant we had to split up from the four friends who attended the show with us—including el-squared, who it seems has gone to about a dozen Jayhawks shows with me, although that's probably a slight exaggeration—but that was an understandable price to have to pay.

Although Louris has proven to be a more than capable band leader, nothing beats the version of the Jayhawks that features the lead vocal harmonies of Olson and Louris together. So, while this performance probably fell short of the magic of seeing them for the first time in the mid-'90s, it sure brought back some pleasantly nostalgic memories.

The show also gave me a greater appreciation for their brand new material. Prior to the show, the consensus among my friends was that the new album rates as solid, but falls far short of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. Last week's performance didn't necessarily change that assessment, but that's more an acknowledgment of the brilliance of those two albums than a negative reflection of Mockingbird Time.

Seeing Olson, Louris and company perform this new material live highlighted how truly strong songs such as "Closer to Your Side," "She Walks in So Many Ways," and "Black-eyed Susan" are.

But, of course, the set's real highlights were the old standards, particularly back-to-back renditions of "I'd Run Away" and "Miss Williams' Guitar." The former is one of the many songs that KJ and I consider "ours," and realizing how apt the third verse of that song now is reinforced our feeling of ownership.

One day, I suppose, we'll tell the little boy about the first concert he attended, and how much he seemed to enjoy it, judging by—according to KJ, of course—how much he was moving and shaking during the show. Depending on how old he is at the time, he may roll his eyes at the notion, but we'll know we couldn't have made a better decision.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What if There Was Instant Replay (Part 2)?

I'm really reaching for controversies here, but I guess that's kind of a good thing, right? In Part 1, I discussed the Victor Martinez HBP controversy from game two of the ALCS. In this post, I'm going to discuss a couple of potential controversies that occurred late in the NLCS and early in the World Series.

In the top of the 9th of Wednesday night's game one of the World Series, Adrian Beltre topped a grounder off his left toe. Or, so it seemed. The ball really didn't significantly change direction, and home plate umpire Jerry Layne ruled it a fair ball as Cardinals third baseman Daniel Descalso threw Beltre out at first for the second out of the inning.

Replays weren't exactly conclusive either, but Fox's new infrared view apparently showed the ball had nicked Beltre's toe. So, if the infrared evidence is considered reliable enough, this one could have been overturned.

But, what I also think instant replay proved was that Beltre's reaction was instantaneous. That is, he immediately reacted as if the ball had hit him. Since I don't think there are any major league players—except maybe Derek Jeter—who are that good at acting, and because I know umpires are trained to go on the reactions of players in such situations, I think the replay would have been enough to overturn the call and give Beltre's at bat new life. 

Since there were no runners on base, but more importantly, since the potential reversal would result in a dead ball situation, this would have been an easy change to apply.

That one was easy, but I also want to go back a few days to game six of the NLCS. In the bottom of the 5th, with Carlos Gomez on third and no outs, Ryan Braun hit a slow bouncer to Albert Pujols at first. Pujols fielded the ball cleanly, but had to dive to tag Braun, who attempted a head-first slide into first. The ruling on the field was out, but one particular angle of the replay clearly showed Braun had beat the tag.

Since the runner from third had gone on contact, he had reached the plate by the time the play was made, so a reversal of the call would not have any effect on that outcome. The run would have scored whether Braun was safe or out. However, I'm going to play a little what-if game here.

The runner was Carlos Gomez, one of the fastest men in baseball. So, for the sake of example, let's suppose he was on first base instead of third, and that there were two outs instead of none. With the ball hit so slowly, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that the speedy Gomez would have rounded second and taken 2-3 steps toward third by the time the tag was applied on Braun. With Braun being called out—for the third out—in live action, there would be no reason for Pujols to concern himself with Gomez's attempted advance to third.

But, with the call being reversed after reviewing instant replay, the question would be, what to do with Gomez? There probably was no chance that Pujols, who had to dive to make the tag on Braun, would have been able to get back up and prevent Gomez from going to third, but the fact remains he was only a few steps past second at that moment. Is this another judgment the use of replay would force the umpires to make? This may not seem like a big issue, but once again, we're entering into dangerous territory here...settling one controversy, while potentially creating another.

I'm certainly not trying to throw a wet blanket over the concept of expanded use of instant replay in Major League Baseball. In fact, I'm 100% in favor of the idea. But, I suspect being able to work out all the potential complications that could be created, and to write these contingencies into the rule book, is a factor in how slow the commissioner's office has been to react.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Leatherheads College Football Poll

I've always had a fascination with college football polls. I'm not really sure why. Obviously, a poll, rather than a playoff, is a less than ideal—to say the least—way of determining a national champion, or which two teams get to play for said championship. But, ever since I was in high school, I've played around with developing my own rankings.

I would usually wait until at least mid-season to get started. It was always my feeling that early season polls were really just predictions of who were going to be the best teams, rather than evaluations of who had earned those distinctions. Sometimes I toyed around with the philosophy that last year's final should be this year's opening rankings. But, I never really followed through with that idea.

Over the years, I've even worked on my own rankings system, complete with points awarded for each victory on a scale which assigns a higher value for beating better teams, then adds bonuses for road wins and "decisive" victories, without going overboard to reward running up the score. Let's just say this system continues to be a work in progress.

So, it was only fitting, when my pal Joe started a football blog called Leatherheads of the Gridiron, and encouraged me to contribute, that my first project would be to spearhead a weekly college football poll.

We put together a group of 13 contributors to the site—including me and Joe—who've been voting regularly for the past four weeks now. If you're interested, you can check out all of the posts related to the poll here.

Our poll is a top 16, rather than a top 20 or 25. Why, you ask? For starters, it's for the sake of time. I don't necessarily think it's really worth the effort to spend a lot of time laboring over picks 17-25, when a top 16 truly comprises college football's elite. But, most importantly, 16 is kind of a magic number for a potential mock playoff system, and we have an intriguing plan for that.

Interestingly enough, our latest rankings are pretty darn close to the AP poll's. In fact, our top ten is exactly identical, while numbers 11 through 16 are the same teams, but in a different order. I'm not necessarily saying that's a good thing, just that I find it interesting.

Of course, I know far less about football than I do about baseball, but somehow I got talked into co-hosting a podcast, which airs this Saturday night at 9pm (EST) on BlogTalkRadio. Tune in if you're so inclined, or feel free to download it after the fact.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What If There Was Instant Replay (Part 1)?

OK, I'm going to come right out and admit it. This is a part one that may not have a part two. What I mean is I've decided to take a look at controversial calls in baseball's postseason and discuss what would have happened in various related scenarios had there been a system of expanded instant replay in place in Major League Baseball.

Or, perhaps there won't be a part two until next year. I guess we'll have to wait and see. 

My first example wasn't really all that controversial in retrospect (it was made a moot point by Ryan Raburn's three-run homer that immediately followed), but it brought a manager out of the dugout, and was the subject of a question at the manager's post-game press conference, so that's enough for me.

In the top of the third inning of game two of the ALCS on Monday, a pitch appeared to hit Detroit's Victor Martinez in the foot. Well, at least by his reaction it did. But, it was initially unclear what the call was by home plate umpire Larry Vanover.

Vanover immediately appealed to first base umpire Jim Wolf to see if Martinez had swung at the pitch in question. My initial reaction was he had ruled Martinez was hit by the pitch, but had to determine if he'd swung or not (he hadn't) in order to decide if he should be awarded first base.

In hindsight, though, Vanover apparently did not rule it a hit by pitch. Amidst some confusion, Detroit's Miguel Cabrera came around to score from second as the ball got away from Texas catcher Mike Napoli.

The umpiring crew conferred and the play was ruled a hit by pitch, so Martinez was awarded first base and Cabrera had to return to second. Detroit manager Jim Leyland subsequently argued, and my initial reaction was he had no argument. His player—Martinez—by his body language had indicated the pitch hit him, and that was the ruling on the field. To me, at the time, Leyland was arguing because he decided a different outcome was more favorable to his team.

It wasn't until his post-game press conference that we learned what Leyland was complaining about. His beef, albeit a weak one, was he had never seen umpires confer to determine a hit by pitch. In the past, home plate umpires had always told him they couldn't get help on such a play, that other members of the crew would make the ruling immediately if they saw it.

But, back to the instant replay what-if scenarios. Assuming the initial ruling on the field was the ball had not hit Martinez and, most importantly, the play had not been ruled dead, the outcomes are pretty simple. If replay determines the ruling on the field was correct (i.e. no HBP), then all subsequent action is allowed. Martinez remains at the plate and Cabrera scores from second. If the replay ruling is it was an HBP, then the ruling is exactly what happened in the actual game: Martinez to first, Cabrera remains on second.

Things get complicated if the initial ruling on the field is that the pitch hit the batter. In that case, the play is ruled dead, and this makes it more difficult to correct if it is, in fact, an incorrect ruling. Obviously, if replay subsequently confirms the HBP call, Martinez gets first and Cabrera stays at second. But, if the replay determines the batter wasn't hit by the pitch, the question is what to do with Cabrera.

Assuming the play was ruled dead on the field, Cabrera's advance from second can't be allowed, no matter what the replay determination is. After all, the defense's efforts would have stopped when the ruling on the field was to call the play dead, so there is really no way to decide what would have happened otherwise.

This would be analogous to the fumble/no fumble ruling in football. In the NFL, if the whistle blows the play dead, there is no changing the call.

In our baseball example, however, the call would be changed from a hit by pitch to simply a ball, but the runner would have to stay on second. There's no way around that, in my opinion. I suppose the runner could be awarded a one-base advance in the umpire's judgment, assuming the ball legitimately got away from the catcher, but I think this would open up another can of worms. That is, using instant replay to get one call right, while creating another potentially debatable judgment call for the umpire to make.

While this is not the best example of such a play, it does point to the potential complications created by calls on the field resulting in the play being ruled dead. A foul ball that should have been ruled fair and a home run that shouldn't have been are a couple other examples.

Scenarios created by such situations will have to be worked out in order to make expanded use of instant replay in Major League Baseball an effective solution. I think it can be done, but it's just a little more difficult than most people think.

On a related note, one thing I would like to see is more explanation from the umpiring crew regarding calls requiring interpretations of rules that aren't common knowledge to fans. It's something they do in the NFL and, although I follow football much less than I do baseball, it seems to me NFL officials receive much less criticism than MLB umpires do.

Maybe a better understanding of some of the more controversial calls would help. I'm not suggesting this be done during the games, as in football, but perhaps requiring crew chiefs to explain such calls in post-game press conferences would be beneficial.

Friday, October 07, 2011

World Series or Bust?

This is a (slight) re-write of something I posted last year at about this time. Unfortunately, it's just as apt now as it was then.

Last year at around this time, I got to thinking about what constitutes a successful season for a sports franchise. Not from the perspective of players, coaches and front office personnel of the team, but from the point of view of the fans.

As spectators, what is our primary motivation for watching our favorite sports? I'm sure the answer varies a little from person to person, but I think the common denominator is entertainment. That is, we watch the games because they are enjoyable to us. Does it get any simpler than that?

Taking this a step further, why do we choose to follow a particular team, rather than just let ourselves be entertained by individual games in which we're less personally invested in the outcomes? I would assume the answers to that question vary a little more than the first, but, I think ultimately it boils down to increased entertainment level.

So, my point here is really to ask the question, is the only entertainment value associated with rooting for a specific team to witness them win a championship? If the answer is yes, then it's a pretty said state of affairs, because that means we spend 5-6 months a year worrying about an outcome that most likely will never happen.

I contend the answer, in fact, is no. We root for a specific team because it provides us with added entertainment value, and that value is measured on a spectrum, rather than being an absolute either/or proposition. That is, the more successful our team's season, the more entertainment value they've provided us with. If they kept us believing they had a chance to win a championship for over six months—and survived only a few weeks less than the most successful teams in the league—then they did a very good job of entertaining us.

Don't get me wrong, here. I'm not saying I'll ever take consolation in a season that simply exceeds expectations, especially when it comes to the Yankees. In fact, it could be argued that, since the Yankees can never truly exceed expectations—although this year might be the exception—that a little entertainment value is foregone just being a fan of theirs. But, that's a discussion for another day.

What I am saying is I'm not going to let myself get sucked into that 29-losers-and-only-one-winner mentality. I enjoyed my team's success for much of the season, despite being disappointed in its final outcome. In the end, though, it provided me with a great deal of entertainment, and—with all due respect—that's probably more than the fans of about 18 of Major League Baseball's 30 teams can say.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

BBA Awards: Part 1

The Baseball Bloggers Alliance has their own set of year-end awards that its members vote on, and are asked to do so in a blog post. Each of these awards is appropriately named after one of baseball's all-time greats. This being my first year in the organization, it will be my first time casting votes for the following awards:
  • Connie Mack Award (Manager of the Year)
  • Willie Mays Award (Rookie of the Year)
  • Goose Gossage Award (Reliever of the Year)

Connie Mack Award - AL
  1. Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays
  2. Joe Girardi, New York Yankees
  3. Jim Leyland, Detroit Tigers
I'll start with the Connie Mack Award because, to me, this one is fairly easy, at least to the extent that I view such an award. When thinking about this honor, I tend to favor the managers whose teams outperformed expectations. That's really all we have to go on, in my opinion, and the two teams that most exceeded expectations were the Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks.

It's not that no one predicted the Rays to make the playoffs, but not many people gave them a chance this year, especially after losing Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano and Carlos Peña to free agency. But, what was even more impressive was how they did it, by erasing a huge wild card deficit and overtaking the Boston Red Sox on the last day of the season. To me, there's no question that Joe Maddon is the American League's top manager this year.

Connie Mack Award - NL
  1. Kirk Gibson, Arizona Diamondbacks
  2. Ron Roenicke, Milwaukee Brewers
  3. Tony LaRussa, St. Louis Cardinals
It may actually be true that no one picked the Diamondbacks to reach the playoffs, and for that reason, Kirk Gibson is the clear choice for best National League skipper.

Other worthy candidates include the New York Yankees' Joe Girardi, for guiding a team considered to have highly suspect starting pitching to the best record in the American League; the Detroit Tigers' Jim Leyland, for managing a team that few expected would win 95 games; the Milwaukee Brewers' Ron Roenicke, for leading the brew crew to their first playoff appearance in almost 30 years; and Tony LaRussa, because his team pulled off almost as impressive a comeback as the Rays, and they did it without the ace of their pitching staff, Adam Wainwright.

Willie Mays Award - AL
  1. Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers
  2. Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners
  3. Ivan Nova, New York Yankees
There were a lot of solid rookie performers in the American League this year, but no one who really stood out. I'm surprised that very little has been said about Ogando's chances, but he gets my vote over a couple other young starting pitchers.

Willie Mays Award - NL
  1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
  2. Vance Worley, Philadelphia Phillies
  3. Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals
Everyone loves to downplay the importance of relief pitchers, but a rookie taking over a pretty high pressure situation, and handling it as well as Kimbrel did, is fairly impressive to me. He was one of the best in the National League at his role, so he gets my vote as the top first-year player in the league.

Goose Gossage Award - AL
  1. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
  2. Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
  3. David Robertson, New York Yankees
If saves are an over-rated statistic, then blown saves are even more so. Valverde was 49-for-49 in save opportunities, but he also lost four games. His four losses were all tie games in which he failed to pitch the one scoreless inning he was asked to. This is basically the equivalent of blowing a one-run lead, so Valverde's lack of blown saves is at least a little misleading. So, let's face it, Mariano Rivera may have blown five saves, and lost two, but he was clearly better this year. I'm favoring closers for this award, but rounding out the top three is Yankees setup man David Robertson, who deserves some recognition for the fantastic year he had.

Goose Gossage Award - NL
  1. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
  2. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Although I downplayed the blown save statistic in explaining my pick for the AL's best reliever—but, seriously, that was to argue Mariano Rivera over Jose Valverde—I'm going to use it to help me decide between three excellent National League closers. All else being fairly equal, Axford converted 46-of-48, Hanrahan 40-of-44, and Kimbrel 46-of-54.

      What Have You Done For Me Lately (Part 2)?

      I don't have much more to say today than this.

      Well, I want to, at least.

      Wednesday, September 28, 2011

      Who Am I? (Father & Son Edition)

      As father and son tandems go, we were hardly the Griffeys, but we both played over 10 years in the majors, so that's something to be proud of.

      Father accumulated over 2000 hits and 50 wins above replacement (WAR) in his career. Son was a first-round draft pick (#3 overall), but never lived up to expectations, although he did show a few sustained flashes of his five-tool ability.

      Continue reading, and maybe take a crack at guessing the answer, over on Pickin' Splinters.

      Saturday, September 24, 2011

      Frequent Spins (2011.5)

      Last year, I celebrated my discovery of Lala and then, a few months later, I lamented the end of the service. Well, it took over a year, but finally there's a legitimate substitute.

      Spotify, launched in Sweden in 2008, became available to U.S. customers—without requiring an invitation—in the past few months.

      Spotify requires a software installation, whereas Lala was web-based, and it doesn't make finding quality new releases as easy as Lala did, but it has one major advantage. Where Lala only allowed users one free listen to each song, Spotify allows unlimited previews.

      So, if you're already a Spotify user, or you're interested in checking it out, the links to each of these albums would be a good place to start, as far as I'm concerned.

      Beirut - The Rip Tide
      An eclectic indie band that uses horns as an integral part of their sound? Seems like a Neutral Milk Hotel comparison is in order. But, those characteristics are where the comparisons end. This album is melodic orchestral indie pop at its best.

      Bon Iver - Bon Iver
      Add these versatile indie-folksters to the long list of artists whose first albums didn't hook me, but whose second completely reeled me in.

      Centro-Matic - Candidate Waltz
      As prolific a songwriter as Centro-Matic front-man Will Johnson has been over the years, it's kind of surprising this is the first album by his main band in five years. It's a short set—only 33 minutes total—but its brevity ensures it does not wear out its welcome, and despite the gap between releases, this one was well worth the wait.

      Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
      At $8.24 on eMusic, this is one of the more expensive albums I've purchased in a while. Because the price represents almost half my monthly subscription, and considering I wasn't blown away by my first few listens, I almost passed on this one. I'm glad I changed my mind.

      Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
      Welch's appearance on The Decemberists' The King is Dead earlier this year was a bit of an appetizer for the release of her first album since 2003. Her return is a welcome one, although this record falls far short of my favorite material of hers.

      Wednesday, September 14, 2011

      What Have You Done For Me Lately, (or Can A.J. Burnett still make the Yankees' postseason rotation)?

      Since, in hindsight, I was a little off in my recent assessment of the Yankees' postseason rotation situation, I thought I'd take another crack at it. Except, this time I'm going to look at each pitcher's average game score* over the course of their last four—or, in the case of Freddy Garcia, three—starts.

      For an explanation of game score, see Baseball-Reference's Play Index Glossary.

      Why am I looking only at their most recent outings? Because when a battle is as wide open as the Yankees' situation is, what's happened most recently tends to be weighted more heavily.

      Why am I only considering Freddy Garcia's most recent three starts, while looking at the latest four for the other candidates? Because he's only pitched three times since returning from the disabled list on August 29.

      What is the meaning of the sub-title of this post? Most blogs I've read recently on the subject—including this one—have already written off A.J. Burnett's chances of making the Yankees' postseason rotation. But, let's face it, the team's management has to be pulling for him, and if he's still being given the opportunity to start games in mid-September, they're not ruling him out yet.

      So, let's cut to the chase and size them up based on average game score since August 21:
      1. Ivan Nova - 59.3
      2. C.C. Sabathia - 57.5
      3. Bartolo Colon - 54.8
      4. A.J. Burnett - 44.5
      5. Phil Hughes - 43.0
      6. Freddy Garcia - 37.7 (actually, even if we throw Garcia's August 7 start into the mix, he still ranks last at 41.0)
      So, what does this tell us? Well, first of all, we all know Sabathia is the #1 starter regardless of what happens the rest of the way, so this exercise is really to try and size up the 2-4 slots.

      Nova is looking as close to a lock for one of the remaining three spots as anyone. Will he be the #2 starter come playoff time? Not necessarily, but at this point, it's looking unlikely that he'll fall to #5.

      That leaves two spots up for grabs. Colon seems to have the inside track on one of them, but take a look at #4 on this list. While I'm not trying to say that Burnett has pitched his way back into the team's postseason plans, is there any real reason to give Hughes the benefit of the doubt over him? I don't think so, although I'm not ruling him out yet either.

      So, unless Garcia can turn things back around after scuffling of late, we could very well be looking at a postseason rotation of Sabathia-Nova-Colon-Burnett.

      Of course, this is all speculation, but at this point I still think the competition is wide open and the much-maligned Burnett has at least as good a chance as Hughes and Garcia to earn a couple October starts.

      Tuesday, September 13, 2011

      King of Carrot Flowers Parts 1 & 2

      Jeff Mangum is an indie rock legend. He's also a recluse. As the singer, guitarist and primary songwriter of Neutral Milk Hotel, he released two critically-acclaimed albums—including the seminal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—in the 1990s, then disappeared into obscurity.

      It was around this time I was living in Albany, with my pal Skip, who turned me onto The Velvet Underground. He also introduced me to the legend that VU's debut album sold only about 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it went on to form a band. More recently, I've heard a similar claim made about NMH's sophomore effort.

      Of course, The Velvet Underground & Nico was released over a quarter century prior to that. I was a latecomer to the NMH bandwagon as well, but only by a few years. Which reminds me of a little list I've been thinking up five bands I discovered too late and, therefore, never got to see live.

      First, let me qualify. This does not include artists who were before my time (e.g. The Velvet Underground). These are bands I missed the boat on because I either didn't fully appreciate them, or simply hadn't heard of them, during their heyday:
      1. Uncle Tupelo
      2. Neutral Milk Hotel
      3. The Replacements
      4. Pavement
      5. The Police
      I thought I'd never get the chance to see Jeff Mangum, and that didn't change when I heard, several months too late, that he was playing his first tour in over a decade and a Cambridge show had sold out in a matter of minutes.

      Then, a second Boston area show was added, but that too sold out in minutes. So, I decided it might be worth my while to make the trip to western Massachusetts on a weeknight, and I plunked down just under $66 (including fees) for two tickets to that show.

      I recruited my good friend June, who had alerted me to the two added New England shows, to drive me to Northampton's Academy of Music Theatre this past Wednesday in exchange for the other ticket. I left work at 4:30 to take the T to Newton to meet up with her for the journey to the 8 pm show.

      I got home around midnight, so that means I invested 7 1/2 hours of my time (in addition to shelling out the $66 for essentially one ticket).

      But, it was well worth it. My brewing partner, AB (once again, not August Busch), had previously declined interest in the show, on the grounds that he'd be willing to pay $30+ to see NMH, but not Mangum solo.

      Well, Mangum did take the stage alone, and would have been forgiven for being a little rusty, but he played his most celebrated material with more energy and enthusiasm than anyone could have expected.

      He definitely exhibited the shyness that would be consistent with someone characterized as a recluse, but still had tremendous stage presence, joking with the crowd and encouraging them to sing along, particularly to the horn parts otherwise missing in this solo set.

      June and I passed the time on the drive home, piecing together the set list from the notes she scratched on an envelope during the show, using my iPhone to help us with the song titles we didn't really know. Here's the final output of that process:

      In case you can't make that out, here's the translation:

      Oh Comely
      Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
      I Love the Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
      In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
      Song Against Sex
      A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You
      Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
      The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
      The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
      Holland, 1945

      Two-Headed Boy

      Wouldn't you know it, but two nights later, I got a call, from the aforementioned AB, informing me that his band-mate's brother is the sound guy for the Mangum tour and could get us on the guest list for the Saturday night show at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. So, two shows in four nights it was.

      The Boston show didn't differ all that much from the Northampton performance. Instead of Roky Erickson's "I Love the Living You," he covered Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End," and he was also joined onstage by members of opening act ACME, a string quartet who backed him for a stirring rendition of "April 8th."

      The real highlight of the Boston show was that he played a legitimate encore. I'm not talking about the kind of encore that's come to be expected at concerts these days. What I'm referring to is a true encore, "a reappearance or additional performance demanded by an audience," according to Merriam-Webster.

      That is, after playing the same two encores he did on Wednesday night, he said good night and went backstage. The hall's lights came on, prompting the audience that it was time to leave, but no one did. For ten minutes, the audience cheered, applauded and essentially begged for Mangum to reappear, which he eventually did.

      Those who chose to stick around—which was pretty much everyone, as far as I could tell—were rewarded with hearing the last song Mangum is likely to play in New England for quite some time: "Ferris Wheel on Fire."

      Sunday, September 11, 2011

      Ten Years After

      In late July of 2001, my father traveled on a bus trip sponsored by the Hudson Valley Renegades to see the team play at the Staten Island Yankees. During that trip, Dad shot this photo of downtown Manhattan from across the bay:

      I never was a big fan of the concept of the date stamp on a photo, but in this case, it says it all.

      Friday, September 02, 2011

      Teach Your Children

      KJ and I attended our first Yankees-Red Sox game together on Wednesday night, and the occasion marked Little Chuck's introduction to the long-standing rivalry as well. Well, sort of.

      It was also the first time I've paid to park in the Fenway neighborhood since my first visit there back in the summer of '88. Since KJ is under doctor's orders to take it easy, we decided to suck it up and shell out for parking at Fenway's most convenient location, the Lansdowne Street Garage. $44 later—and that's actually a competitive price, I kid you not—we arrived just across the street from the park.

      This, of course, did nothing to change my perception of Fenway as the worst value in baseball, but in this case, it was well worth the price.

      We also sat in the right field box seats for the first time ever, and they were actually pretty good seats by Fenway Park standards.

      The game took place the night after the ridiculous Cervelli-Lackey fiasco, in which Francisco Cervelli broke the long-standing and well-known unwritten rule that dictates only pitchers—even when they're showing up their own teammates—are allowed to show emotion on the field. But, that's all I'm going to say about that incident. I may revisit it in another post, but don't count on it.

      During the game, David Ortiz was intentionally walked in front of Jed Lowrie. The crowd, predictably, booed the move, prompting me to tweet:

      Of course, this quick list was missing a couple other important examples that I thought of a little later.

      So, since I'm soon to be a brand new parent, I thought I'd share my list of the five things you (and I) need to teach your (our) children about being a fan with a clue. Because, honestly, most fans at the ballpark are really lacking in that respect, and the Fenway faithful are no different from anywhere else.

      Without further ado, I present these in my favorite list a top five countdown, even if I've already given a few of them away. I suppose you could call these my unwritten rules of fandom (otherwise known as the top five stupidest things baseball fans do that you should avoid).

      5. Don't boo the opposition's attempted pickoffs.
      When you boo the opposing pitcher for attempting to pick off your runner, you're basically complaining that the other team is trying to win. I know you're rooting for your team to win, but this is supposed to be a competition. I can, however, understand booing an excessive number of pickoff attempts against the same runner. I guess that's why this one is #5.

      4. Don't boo when the opposing team makes a pitching change.
      Again, what you're doing here is protesting the fact the other team is trying to win. I get that pitching changes drag out the length of the game, but if you're going to be a baseball fan, it's something you'll have to learn to deal with. Besides, if you're frustrated that the game is being delayed, why don't you boo your own team when they change pitchers?

      3. Don't boo when one of your players is intentionally walked.
      First of all, the intentional walk is generally a foolish strategy. This is not intended to be post about SABRmetrics, so I'm not going to over-analyze this one, but more often than not, the intentional walk improves the offensive team's chance of winning. So, don't look a gift horse in the mouth, alright. Also, since your opposition at least thinks they're doing it for their own benefit, see #4 and #5 above.

      2. Don't yell "balk" at things that aren't balks.
      First of all, you'll need a lesson about what is and isn't a balk. I once wrote a post—exactly three years ago today, in fact—that my pal Lee called the ultimate blog entry on balks. But, that's a little more detail than is necessary here. What I'm really talking about is when fans call for a balk when the pitcher fakes a move to second or third. News flash, folks...THIS IS NOT A BALK. It's legal for a pitcher to fake a pickoff throw to second or third, but not to first. OK, got that? I'm not even going to confuse you by explaining when it's legal to fake a throw to first. Concentrate on understanding this difference first.

      1. Don't do the wave.
      If I even need to explain this one, then I'm sorry, but you're a hopeless cause and probably shouldn't have little baseball fans in the first place.

      Oh yeah, the Red Sox beat the Yankees 9-5, so our family tally now stands at Red Sox 1, Yankees 0...obviously.