Saturday, February 24, 2007

Fighting Gravity

"In baseball heaven, not one cloud dares impede the glorious sunshine. A slight, sweet breeze whispers through the azaleas, palmettos, royal palms and scrub pines. Perfectly groomed diamonds emit a Zen-like tranquility. And the voices and laughter of the Boys of Summer still rise from the hallowed grounds." Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated, February 26, 2007
Verducci's words seem a fitting antidote to the 4 inches of slushy snow that are piled up outside my windows this evening, even as I could have done without the "zen-like" stuff - it is only a game, after all. Nonetheless, as Baseball Poetry goes, this is pretty good stuff. Ostensibly about Dodgertown, the author's words ring true in locales all over Florida and Arizona, and anywhere else where baseball fans' thoughts are finally turning to next month's Opening Day.

Every sport has a pre-season, and every annually observed human endeavor offers some modicum of renewal. Baseball, though, seems to honor its limbering-up ritual more deeply than the others in the major sporting firmament.

Boston's own Spring Training ritual usually begins with a media-manufactured controversy, and 2007 brings no exception and in fact offers us the bonus of 3 primary media storylines to compete with the actual business of building a ballclub. Manny Ramirez hasn't reported to camp yet, Curt Schilling won't be getting a new contract before the squad breaks camp for the season, and Daisuke Matsuzaka looks for all the world like a comet, trailing a stellar tail of Japanese and American media types. 2 tempests in twin teapots, and a full-blown international sensation. Welcome to Red Sox baseball.

I don't know much, but I do know that Manny Ramirez will eventually show up in Fort Myers, and that he will hit 40 homers, drive in 120 runs, and post an OPS around 1.000. As for Schilling, I'll let his SoSH post speak for him (and me):
"Am I disappointed? Yep. Am I surprised? Nope. Is everyone but the parties involved making way too much out of this? Yep.

I've forever needed baseball a whole hell of a lot more than it needs me, I've always known that. I have also always known that it is a business, even when you don't want it to be.

Please trust me when I say, and have said, this will have zero bearing on my preperation or performance this season. I don't pitch for contracts, never have. My three best years were in the first year of new contracts. I pitch to win, just like most of the other guys in this game do.

One of the lines CHB failed to put into the article he wrote a few weeks back was me, on the phone, calling him an asshole. He knows as sure as he's reading this right now that I think he's a giant sphincter.

At some point soon he'll realize that the dislike for him here is not because he's the guy always taking the 'other side' while trying to illicit opinions and responses from readers, but rather he's disliked because he treats people like shit."
Schilling also took some time to praise Matsuzaka and describe how happy Sox fans will be to have a new #18 to worship, wrapping this little MLC diversion up in a neat bow. Things are proceeding at such an even keel in the Nation right now that SoSH is spending its time celebrating Carl Yastrzemski. Nothing to see here folks, with the possible exception of the fact that the Sox still really don't have a closer.

Changing directions in time to the scratching coming from Mixmaster Mike's turntable, I stumbled across VH1's Hip Hop Honors this evening while scouring the vast satellite TV wasteland for something better than an Arizona/Arizona State hoops game. As the Beastie Boys turned out a live version of "So What'cha Want", the cameras caught Ice Cube and Method Man doing the same slow nod I was performing, and moved on to frame MC Lyte rapping along with Ad Rock. Me, Cube, Method and Lyte - that's a foursome I'm quite certain nobody's ever considered in the same sentence before.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Talking Heads

Much of the February baseball chatter that oozes from the media sources is like sweat through a body’s countless pores; it’s a necessary function of all those perspiratory outlets, but the droplets are wiped aside with haste and minor annoyance. As such, it’s hard to take but so much umbrage at the confidence-near-cockiness voiced by the Philadelphia Phillies in recent days. It’s even more difficult given the relatively conciliatory after-quips that followed from Camp Phightin’. Somehow, of course, David Wright managed to sound like he was tacking it up on the proverbial bulletin board; here’s hoping it manifests itself in an extra spark during the dog days at Citizens Bank Park and not in anything that drowns out the little voice in his head that chirps, “Opposite field, ding-dong.”

The reason it’s worth mentioning in Mets territory is that, to the untrained eye, Jimmy Rollins and his cocksure peers might be right. According to the wintertime hypotheticals that deliver play-by-play for an entire season’s worth of games played out on the synthetic, indoor surface known as paper, the Phillies are not nearly the 12 games worse than the Mets that the 2006 standings still sport. They didn’t lose anyone integral, the young stars might be only getting better, and they added a handful of solid to star quality pitchers. It’s speculation, as usual, but the folks paid the most to offer it have plenty to say about this club.

Will it pan out that way? Who knows, but all signs point to more of a divisional showdown than last year. That said, many, many times a few cold months away from the game deaden our by-May sharp senses of player’s worths. Pat Burrell in February signifies a dangerous 5-hitter that could bat clean-up elsewhere; by the time the same guy rolls up a 1-for-25 drought in June, all we hear is “cripes, we’ve seen this before” and a should’ve-known-better smirk from Phaithfuls and Phantasy owners (replete with erstwhile four-letter-words that now begin with “ph”).

There’s no reason to think either Utley or Howard will suffer a downturn, but the aforementioned Rollins has an erratic bat that has labeled him the “futility infielder” for stretches. The Phillies seemed to miss Bobby Abreu’s supposed leadership about as much as they missed The Terry Francona Era, but will they actually miss Mike Lieberthal behind the dish? (Speaking of Francona, though, what ever happened to that guy, anyway? Tito went 285-363 over four years, including the worst season by the Phils over the last 30 years – which is, uh . . . really saying something. Is he selling hot dogs somewhere in Scranton?)

Anyway, Peter Gammons had a good blog post a few weeks ago insinuating that the only thing we know with any certainty is that we don’t know much, citing a number of 2006’s sheer surprises. So, as “obviously” as Philly – and the Braves, for that matter – have bettered themselves, and as frustratingly dormant (complacent?) as Omar and the gang have decided to be, I’m still in a better place than I was 365 days ago. The Mets were poised to be the goods last year, but it was mere conjecture until they went out and smoked the division rivals from spring till fall. Now the Phillies are drawing the same amount of impressed rumblings, but it’s still a lot of talk. Meanwhile, the Mets are a lot of talk and a badge, as it was once shouted, with last year under their belts and a roster relatively unchanged.

Last year the Mets added one large piece in Carlos Delgado. (Puzzle piece, that is; four years prior, the Mets added a “large piece” of another kind in Mo Vaughn.) Somehow the Mets improved 14 games between ’05 and ’06 (after jumping up 12 the year before), and it was clearly more than Delgado’s presence. Players stepping it up, 25 individuals becoming a team, Willie Randolph doing what Art Howe could not (which includes finding his locker on a daily basis), and most significantly, management filling the gaps with the right personnel. Even the bankrolled New York Mets can’t put an All-Star at every position, and to crank out 97 wins with names like Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez, Xavier Nady, Chris Woodward, Orlando Hernandez, John Maine, Darren Oliver, Roberto Hernandez, and Oliver freakin’ Perez adding solid contributions all over the box scores and beyond . . . it takes a lot of intuition and quite a bit of guts on Omar’s part.

What Omar Minaya has accomplished in two seasons has already generated enough ink, but don’t let the excess of accolades cloud the issue. Minaya, along with a re-dedication by the Wilpons and more than his fair share of good luck, is an unmitigated success thus far. So why would we doubt that what he sees as the right road for right now – seemingly an “ain’t broke” course of action – will pan out just fine? Sure, Damion “The Omen” Easley and Chan Ho “There Ain’t a Big Enough” Park are in camp. And the Mets’ biggest off-season acquisition was born during the Johnson Administration. (Someday I’ll be too old not to chuckle at that title, but not today.) And calling the rotation “iffy” is generous. None of that bothers me yet; nor do these additions in Philadelphia and Atlanta. Let’s have a little faith – there’s magic in Minaya. Scott Schoeneweis ain’t a beauty, but hey, he’s all right.

Rob and I have been taking an approach of tempered to stunted enthusiasm in the spring for years, but this year he’s clearly excited and I’m optimistic despite a winter of tepid movement for my team. Looks like the Zoloft finally kicked in, or maybe the expansion of our key-tapping to realms not founded on misery (this weekend’s old friends revisited included Brooklyn Brown Ale and Fine Young Cannibals’ rendition of “Suspicious Minds”) has induced a more buoyant vibe in this space.

That’ll change, and you can be damn sure of it, but for now there’s nary a word of mass media opinion that can darken our days.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Take This Job and Shove It

Obviously, this post title has nothing to do with me or my colleague. Obviously.

No, this is an homage to one of the gutsiest postseason performances in recent professional sports history. Keith Foulke retired today after essentially giving his right arm in exchange for a 2004 World Series ring.

Foulke's 2004 postseason is the stuff of legends - he took the ball game after game, inning after inning, pitching on a knee that was so badly injured that it cost him 2005, and gave up 1 run in 14 frames. He pitched 6 innings over 3 consecutive days in ALCS Games 4-6 with nothing but guts and an 83 mph fastball - and put up a series of bagels against the Yankees. (We'll leave out the part about Tony Clark's ground-rule double in Game 5 - game of inches, and all that.)

Then, finally, he caught Edgar Renteria's comebacker in St. Louis and underhanded the ball to Doug Mientkiewicz, and all hell broke loose.

Foulke wasn't lovable, or quotable (Johnny from Burger King notwithstanding), or all that friendly. All he did was his job, even when it probably wasn't in his best personal interest. Godspeed, Foulkie, may the road rise to meet you, and may you never have to reach for your wallet in the presence of a Red Sox fan.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


That was it? One lousy song? The Police reunite after 20 years, and all we get is one lousy song? I've seen t-shirts with better slogans - if only I could remember where. Although, despite the fact that Sting looked like Village People cast-off, they did perform said single song crisply.

Which leads me to the very much better other hand, as my colleague informs me that the band will be coming to Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts on Saturday, July 28 as part of the worst-kept secret tour in history. I'm going to have to raid the loose change jar.

Finally, to close this abbreviated Pitchers and Catchers Eve post, I do note with anticipation that the Sox begin reporting officially to Fort Myers tomorrow. As I just told Whitney, I'm having a difficult time tempering my enthusiasm for this year's squad. Guess I've just got a feeling.

Friday, February 09, 2007

New Order

Six days to pitchers and catchers, as my little buddy reports. Almost time to start stretching out here at Misery Loves Company. Almost.

I’m not there yet. Soon enough it will be time to begin thinking about the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox; for now, though, we can focus on our other passions at MLC. Until I can find the inspiration to ponder how ol’ Willie Larry will fill out the Opening Day lineup card, I have a semi-related tangent.

The thought that goes into the assembling of a baseball lineup is not unlike the compilation of music tracks into an album, and I refer to the entire gamut of “albums” – from calculated, professional releases on major labels to the personal touches of a mixed CD for a fellow music appreciator. If you subscribe to a few time-worn tenets, you’ll be constructing playoff-contending recordings every time.

1. Lead-Off: In baseball, getting the lead-off man on base is an obviously enormous factor in offensive success. It’s no less a given that any LP, 8-track, cassette, CD, or playlist absolutely needs some fire from Track 1. The tone-setters, the top spot holders may not be the very best in the lineup, but they must present a positive portent of things to come. “Runnin’ with the Devil” comes to mind right off the bat. Speed and power? Even better. Think “Safe European Home” off The Clash’s second album or Pearl Jam’s “Go.” “Thunder Road,” “Begin the Begin,” “Peter Piper,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Lust for Life,” “Rain on the Scarecrow,” and especially “Blitzkrieg Bop” are vintage intros. Less mainstream first hitters include Spoon’s “Everything Hits at Once,” the DBT’s “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” and my all-time fave: “Jagged,” by the Old 97’s.

The lead-off spot should certainly make something of a statement. Just ask Lenny Dykstra about leading off Game 3 of the Series. “Wild Flower” was stronger noise about The Cult’s new sound than calling the album Electric even was, and “Hells Bells” was a brilliant, eye-opening salve to fans lamenting Bon Scott’s loss. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? The Rickey Henderson of album openers. If you’re constructing your own record, you know what to do here.

2. The Two-Spot: Not quite the pressure-packed position that lead-off is, it’s nearly as integral a slot, one that can quickly undo a bit of good after a decent start if you’re not careful. (See GIDP-worthy tunes like the Chilis’ “Aeroplane,” Bruce’s “Soul Driver,” the Stones’ “Fight,” or Jimmy’s “Baby’s Gone Shoppin’” for Robby Alomar-ish examples of highly disappointed epiphanies that occur moments into Track 2, marking a decidedly downward turn for the whole lineup.) Conversely, a strong second hitter can duplicate or even outdo the spark of its predecessor. It can segue between the initial hit and the real meat of the order like a Mark Bellhorn or Peter Gabriel’s “No Self Control,” or it can be a focal point like Derek Jeter, “Paranoid Android,” “Ma & Pa,” “Alex Chilton,” or “Remedy.” The sublime “Shake Your Rump” is a de facto lead-off, kicking off Paul’s Boutique after the messin’-about opener; one of the great second tracks of all time. Whether you’re scripting a starting nine or a songlist, remember: this spot can be the calm before the storm, but you can’t hide a sub-par entity here. Continuity is the key. No letdowns.

And for some bizarre reason, Ween’s second song from their masterpiece Chocolate & Cheese, “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” – a creepy, disturbingly mesmerizing tune from an otherwise enjoyable collection – reminds me a whole lot of Mickey Morandini.

3. The Third Hitter: In baseball and especially men’s league softball, the 3-spot in the lineup is considered the place for the best hitter on the team. From Ruth to Musial to Mays to Clemente to Yaz to Papi to Beltr — uh, Pujols. (See, Carlos, this is why you should want to bat third.) A combination of pure skill and big-time pop, it’s a great place to look to get a bead on how the whole collection performs. The 2003 Mets’ third hitters posted a combined OPS of .733, while the same year’s Braves’ 3-men put up a 1.010 mark. There you go.

When Edgardo Alfonzo was thrown into the third spot in 2000, the formerly prototypical 2-hitter put up serious 3-spot numbers (.324/.425/.542) and was no small factor in helping propel the Mets to the World Series. When injuries and slumps plagued him the following season (.243/.322/.403), he slid back to the second spot – leaving this critical space to be occupied by an assortment of otherwise suited hitters (Piazza, Ventura, even a Shinjo or Agbayani). The dynamic was lost, and the team lost a dozen more games in ’01.

Track 3 stand-outs represent some of the best songs on some of the best releases in rock & roll history: “So. Cent. Rain,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “With or Without You,” “Hey Joe,” “Breaking the Girl,” “Roxanne,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Alive,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Wave of Mutilation,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Sugar Magnolia” . . . and it goes on seemingly indefinitely. Records from the past decade or two don’t disappoint in their 3-slot either, with “A Shot in the Arm,” “Brick,” “Crash into Me,” “Fell On Black Days,” “Float On,” “Take Me Out,” “Wonderwall,” and “Last Goodbye” among the many examples. If you’re compiling your own music for a release, put the tune you’re most proud of in the 3-hole. If you’re making a mix, find the super-solid single that defines the collection best, your .300/30/120 guy, and chuck it in this spot.

4. Clean-Up: Cue the Wood-a-been: “Let me tell you what Melba Toast is packing right here.” Anybody who knows anything about baseball knows all about the clean-up hitter and what his job is. Pummel the horsehide, drive in runs. Dial 9. And so the fourth spots of box scores throughout baseball history are rife with big, burly beasts with names like Greenberg, Killebrew, Robinson, McCovey, Jackson, Murray, and, say, Carlos Delgado and Manny Ramirez. You may not know too much about Home Run Baker, but you don’t have to ask where his manager put him in the lineup.

It may not be as obvious that rock & roll records do much the same thing with their own clean-up spots. The 4-hole is very frequently the post for the big punch; if your album intends to kick any sort of ass, you’ll want a three-song build-up and a knockout punch on Track 4. It doesn’t always have to be a thunderous musical blitz of a song (though it often is), but it definitely needs an eyebrow-raising, palpable wallop of lyrical, musical or any kind of force. Observe: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Walk This Way,” “Iron Man,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Simple Man,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Southern Man,” “Pump It Up,” “Jump in the Fire,” “Peace Frog,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Zero,” “Little T&A,” “You Can’t Put Your Finger On It,” “Rock the Casbah.” We’re talkin’ some fuckin’ muscle.

Clean-up isn’t always going to compete with the 3-hole for absolute best, but it should deliver the goods. Louder, stronger, and bigger are recurrent descriptors. “Breed” isn’t the best song on Nevermind, quite obviously, but it may rock the hardest. “You Got Lucky” is a cooler tune, but Petty cranks up his gee-tar on “Change of Heart” in perfect Song 4 style. “Blister In the Sun” has more angst, but “Add It Up” is the frenzied, f-word rocker that will knock you for a loop more readily. Even albums featuring less of a hard edge kick it up for the clean-up track; “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Buddy Holly” are about as rowdy as geek rock gets, and Dave Matthews’ “Rhyme & Reason” is significantly tougher than much of his other work (part of which makes it one of my DMB favorites). The Pogues have done harder and louder songs than “Fairytale of New York,” but few anthems have as much grit and venom. If you have a rocker, and not everyone does (James Taylor has historically had no hits with the fourth track, and that’s no slag, but no coincidence), this is clearly where it goes.

5. The 5-Hole: After turning the corner at #4, there’s less structure from here on out, but there are still more guidelines to the five-hole than there are later in the order. A big RBI guy, some pop, the player you can’t quite justify putting at 3 or 4. That’s not to say the talent wanes considerably: Darryl Strawberry and Don Baylor both excelled in this spot in 1986; Carlton Fisk batted fifth more than any other place in the lineup; the Township’s greatest American hero manned the 5-post throughout this past season. Similarly, don’t let your recording suffer after knocking their socks off with 1-4. “Been Caught Stealing,” “The Weight,” “Higher Ground,” “Welcome to Paradise,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Clocks,” and “Born to Run” are greatest-hits quality tunes that someone decided to hold off on until the fifth place in the order.

6. Sixth and Beyond: Here’s where it starts to become far more of a grey area for baseball managers and record producers. Spots six through nine in the batting order are places for the less prolific batsmen, and there’s less strategy to go along with less skill. On the musical side of things, it gets even fuzzier; over the course of the last few decades, the evolution of musical media (LP’s to tapes to CD’s to mp3’s) meant a lifting of the size restrictions that have shaped album structures, so what was important in 1978 (putting “Can’t Stand Losing You” as the #6 track so it’d be the first song on Side B) is lost in the modern configuration. Now, in fact, you can have a 25-song CD that could mirror an entire roster (a rainy day post of the future?) and an even longer mp3 playlist. If you’re creating something on your own, this is where it starts to be less formulaic and more personal; it’s not to say that your own touches shouldn’t grace the early portion of the collection, but sticking to the general rules of thumb above may well take your creation it to another level of enjoyment. There’s one last rule, though . . .

7. Last in the Order: Every batting order could use a steady sort in the last spot (the last spot before the pitcher in the National League) to keep things rolling along: a Butch Hobson, a Scott Brosius, a Mark Lemke, and other people who’ve been cursed in this space. While it can be a place to hide defensive whizzes with weak bats (God knows guys like Pokey Reese and Rafael Santana weren’t in there for their plate work), a little something down there can mean a lot. The ’05 White Sox got significantly more production out of their #9 spot than they did out of their 7 and 8 hitters – you say bad managing, I say World Series title.

In music, however, it’s a little different – it’s more like a closer role. The last track on a record should be memorable, even if it’s in a weird way. Sgt. Pepper’s is considered by many a classic among classics, but if it ended with “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” instead of “A Day in the Life,” it wouldn’t do itself much justice, now would it? It can be a gentle fade-out after a riveting set (“Good Feeling” or “Here Comes a Regular”); a seven-minute intrigue (“Biko” or “Riders on the Storm”); a scratchy feast of guitar-driven psychedilia (“Are You Experienced?”); a rare cover (“Superman”); a hidden pop single after an hour of punk genius (“Train in Vain”); it an even be a ridiculously lyricked, volume-tinkered end to it all (“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”). As long as there’s some kind of hook, something to stand out as a final stamp on the album, you’re good to go.

Make it count, as folks did with cuts like “Purple Rain,” “The Ocean,” “American Girl,” “Who Are You,” “Fools Gold,” “Four Leaf Clover,” “40,” “Rock and Roll All Nite,” “Jungleland,” “Wendell Gee,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Road to Nowhere,” “Tin Cup Chalice,” and plenty more. Elvis Costello used to really know how to end an album – consider that “Watching the Detectives,” “Radio, Radio,” and “Peace, Love & Understanding” closed his first three records. It’s just a little bit of marketing to let the last notes lingering in the listener’s head be among the most lasting.

So there you go. The last thing I’ll add is an example of what I feel is a perfectly cast album of the quasi-modern era in this vein. In my mind, Social Distortion’s self-titled major label debut incorporates all of the elements that I mentioned. Let’s take a gander.

Social Distortion: Social Distortion
1. So Far Away
2. Let It Be Me
3. Story of My Life
4. Sick Boys
5. Ring Of Fire
6. Ball and Chain
7. It Coulda Been Me
8. She's a Knockout
9. Place in My Heart
10. Drug Train

A killer opener – one of the sharpest in all of punk rock. Not a bit of letdown with Track 2. #3 brilliance; I think Rolling Stone called it the anti-“My Way” song. Something powerful in the clean-up hole – not quite the most furious of their tunes, but one of their all-timers . . . followed up by one of the hardest and greatest Johnny Cash covers ever done.

“Ball & Chain” at the six-spot might seem out of place, considering that it was the single/video, but I think it’s about right. It’s always solid, but maybe it’s lost some pop over the years for me (especially because I think it’s a slight re-working of their earlier tune “Prison Bound”). It’s certainly closer to Cliff Floyd than Ray Knight, to be sure. 7-9 aren’t filler, not at all, but they’re well-placed. The closer, “Drug Train,” is a driving, bluesy number with a different feel than the rest of the album, and a fine send-off after one of the most spectacular albums of . . . Rob’s and my Strat-o-matic, 40-ouncers, and rock & roll filled summer in Williamsburg, Virginia – if not all time.