Is baseball exciting?

Well no, not particularly.

The Boston Globe recently ran an article about the increasing length of baseball games and what could be done about it.  I made some suggestions about ways to improve baseball a while ago.  Surprisingly, none of these suggestions have been adopted.  The article mentions a good rule they had in the minors for a while that I hadn’t heard of–a strike was called if a batter stepped out of the batter’s box if he hadn’t swung at the previous pitch.  Great idea!  Nothing came of it.  And nothing has come of the existing major league rule that a pitcher has to deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds if there’s no one on base.  Why don’t umpires enforce this rule?

Even at its best, baseball is a deliberate game, with far more pauses than action.  At two-and-half-hours the game is delightful; at three-and-a-half hours you can only have the game on in the background while you’re doing something else–blogging, for example (Aceves has just walked the bases loaded vs. Tampa).

And then there’s hockey.  Bob Ryan of the Globe said the last minute of Game 4 of the Bruins-Penguins series probably took two years off his life, and I have to agree.  Hockey has its own problems, but lack of action is generally not one of them.

Let’s see if I can survive the Stanley Cup finals.

“It changes the whole complexity.”

Recently the polling group Public Policy Polling (PPP) polled Massachusetts residents about the upcoming senate race, and threw in other random questions while they were at it.  PPP found that the disapproval rate for Red Sox manager was 1%, an inconceivably low number.  This may change if he keeps saying stuff like this (from today’s Boston Globe) about Jacoby Ellsbury’s base-stealing ability:

It changes the whole complexity. When you’ve got that kind of base-stealing threat at first, the attention is split by the guy on the mound, potential mistakes on location at the plate. We can potentially capitalize on those situations.

The baseball wisdom is unexceptionable; however, the use of “complexity” instead of “complexion” will not win him any fans among language snoots. The Red Sox had better do well against the Yankees this weekend.  Red Sox fans, as well as language snoots, are a fickle bunch.

The Red Sox: one week in

Okay, so I’ll leave Fenway Park as my header image for a couple more days.  The Red Sox have been been providing us with everything we could ask for: good pitching, good hitting, good fielding, no tantrums.  A bunch of players have been playing beyond what we expected from them–Iglesias, Nava, Middlebrooks; and others have returned to form–Lester, Buchholz, Ellsbury.  And we haven’t even seen Ortiz and Drew yet.  I’m not expecting this to last.  Because I’m a Red Sox fan, that’s why.

The Red Sox season starts tomorrow — should I care?

The 2012 was a debacle and an atrocity, topped in recent times only by the debacle and atrocity that was the 2011 season.  The 2013 season has got to be better, if only because we won’t have to put up with Carl Crawford swinging and missing at pitches down around his ankles, with Dice-K nibbling at the corners and reaching 100 pitches by the fourth inning, with Adrian Gonzalez failing to deliver in clutch situations…  And there’s every hope that Jon Lester will quit being such a grouch, and Ellsbury will quit being injured, and Stephen Drew will turn out to have a little more life in him than his older brother…

Still, there’s precious little reason to think the Red Sox are going to create much excitement this season.  Mike Napoli and Ryan Dempster and Jonny Gomes may be good players and good guys in the locker room, but they aren’t going to sell tickets and make you turn on NESN.

Here’s the guy who is going to sell tickets:

That would be Jackie Bradley Jr.  Is it too much to hope that he will give us reason to hope?  Probably.  Still, I’ve changed my header image, at least till the home opener.  It happens every spring.

Quidditch on the Quad

We had beautiful weather for Parents’ Weekend at Tufts.  As is often the case with these things, the best times were those you didn’t expect — in this case, we got to watch an intramural quidditch game on the quad behind the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  It was my first quidditch game ever.

Here’s the autumnal scene:

Here’s some great quidditch action:

And here’s my kid.  First time I’ve seen him with a broom between his legs, I think.  Also, the first time he played quidditch.

And here is the winning squad:

This was supposed to be the team from my kid’s fraternity.  As you can tell, there were a few ringers.  And they were great!

The game was pretty serious — there was a referee plus two goal judges — but not that serious — James learned the rules during the practice before the game.

It was interesting watching a game where you have no idea what the rules are.  Quidditch felt like a combination of rugby and dodgeball.  I could tell that one of the four balls was special — that was the one you threw through the rings, but I couldn’t tell what was going on with the other three balls.  This is what my lovely wife must feel like when she actually pays attention to a game–like, say, the Superbowl–and she keeps asking me: “Wait a second — what just happened?  Why are you yelling at the TV?”

Today I went back to Tufts and listened to a lecture by the philosopher Ray Jackendoff on the cognitive structure of baseball that I found pretty interesting after watching the game.  (You can watch an earlier version of the lecture from his home page.)  A game, he says, has a physical sphere — in this case, people running around with brooms between their legs, throwing balls at people and occasionally tackling them.  That was mostly what I perceived as I watched the quidditch match.

Beyond that is the abstract sphere that encompasses the rules of the game.  The rules tell the players (and the referee and the spectators) what you can and cannot do with the balls and the brooms, and what you can and cannot do to your opponents.  Beyond the rules in the abstract sphere is strategy.  In baseball, for example, what constitutes a walk is a rule; an intentional walk represents strategy.  I could make out a few of the rules of quidditch from one viewing, but I couldn’t come close to detecting any strategy.  (James told me that I wasn’t going to discover any strategy from looking at him; he was mainly just running around.)

Long ago Mike Nichols and Elaine May did some hilarious animated commercials for Narragansett Beer.  One of the best of them–which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be on YouTube–has Elaine May’s character trying to be a baseball announcer.  If we use Jackendoff’s structure, the joke is that she only knows enough to announce the physical sphere: “The man with the ball throws the ball.  And now the man with the bat hits the ball.  And now he starts to run!  And the man with the glove catches the ball and throws it to another man with a glove!”  (Somewhere in the ad the Narragansett jingle showed up.)

The fun of being a sports fan is to know enough about the sport to think about it at the strategic level–like three of us at the gym later talking about whether a football team should go for a two-point conversion late in the game.  We’re all experts!

I doubt that I’ll ever become an expert at quidditch.  Guess I’m just a Muggle.

The greatest trade in the history of the multiverse

Is there a bigger place than the multiverse?

The woman at work with the Red Sox lunchbox came over to me late Friday afternoon and said: “Beckett.  Waivers.  The Dodgers.”  The news was too important for verbs.

But wait, there’s more — Gonzalez!  Crawford!  Punto!  (But wait, we like Punto.)

It couldn’t possibly happen — something was bound to go wrong.  But as I type, is reporting that the deal has been finalized.  The Red Sox save $275 million in contract obligations and clear out three players who had either worn out their welcome with the fans or just couldn’t play in Boston.  They’re now in another league, on another coast.  Good luck to them!

Who’d we get in return?  Mostly prospects.  But that doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that Ben Cherington has somehow begun a new story, in a season where all the stories had turned ugly.  Nothing is likely to happen for the rest of this season, but at least there’s something to talk about, something to look forward to.

Here is a funny, if somewhat forced, analogy from The New Yorker.

Leaving moral and political issues aside—this isn’t about right or wrong, but about models of disintegration—and admitting that the stakes of the great Pedro versus Clemens battles were lower than those between Khrushchev and Kennedy, the Red Sox of 2012 are, in fact, quite a bit like the U.S.S.R. in 1989. They tried to keep up financially, and intellectually, with their rival for many years. Glasnost has passed; the end is here.

Makes sense, sort of.  But what makes the writer think that the stakes of the Pedro versus Clemens battles were lower than those between Khrushchev and Kennedy?   Is he from the West Coast?

Gorbachev won a Nobel prize, right? Is there a Nobel prize for baseball general managers?  If so, Cherington gets my vote.

Ben Cherington, possible Nobel laureate

Is this the most boring Red Sox team of the 21st century?

I’m beginning to think so.  Here I looked at the mid-season stories and concluded there were more bad stories than good ones.  Three weeks later I think the situation has actually gotten worse: there are no interesting stories at all.

I went to the Red Sox-Twins game on Thursday night.  Around the ball park, scalpers were offering tickets at half price.  The House of Blues across the street appeared to be livelier than Fenway:

Slash was playing.  Wikipedia tells me his latest album is Apocalyptic Love.  I am not familiar with Mr. Slash’s oeuvre, but the line for his show snaked around the corner.

Inside Fenway, the Red Sox managed two hits (both by Gonzalez) against three pitchers no one had ever heard of.  Lester pitched well (better than he’s pitched lately), but not quite well enough.  The biggest cheer of the night was when the Jumbotron showed the the US ahead of China in the Olympic medal count.  Mercifully, the game didn’t take long to play (Lester didn’t walk anyone, and there were no within-inning pitching changes.)  Here is the view from my seat.  There’s a runner on third, so the infield is playing in:

Lester got out of that jam, but it wasn’t good enough; the Sox lost 5-0.  The next night they got 14 hits but managed to blow a four-run lead and lost in 10, 6-5.  To the Twins.

A team can be fun to watch even when it’s not very good.  Sometimes all you need is an interesting player or two — you’d stick around an extra inning to see Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz hit.  But right now Ortiz is still injured.  Gonzalez is playing well, but he has zero charisma.  Nobody on the team has any charisma.  Jon Lester trudges glumly off the mound like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders–which he probably does.  Carl Crawford swings at bad pitch after bad pitch and grounds out meekly to second.  Ellsbury isn’t doing anything, and neither is Pedroia.  Pedro Ciriaco seems to be quickly falling back to reality after a great start.

The couple next to us was from Cincinnati.  They stuck around for “Sweet Caroline” at the top of the eighth, and then headed out.  They weren’t alone.

It’s midseason, do you know where your Red Sox are?

Sports, especially baseball, is about stories.  Everything has a story: the season, the team, each player, each game.  A good season has lots of good stories; a great season has stories you wish your parents were alive to experience. Like this one:

So where we are with the Red Sox at midseason?

The Good Stories

David Ortiz is having an all-star year, when we were afraid he was on the downhill side.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia has turned into a pretty good player.

Daniel Nava has come back from the bottom of the depth chart to become a pretty good player.  (He was a one-play good story in 2010, when he hit the first pitch he saw in the big leagues for a grand slam.)

Will Middlebrooks and Felix Doubront look like pretty good young players.

And, um, that’s about it.

The Bad Stories

In no particular order:

The team with the third-highest payroll in the majors has a 43-43 record.

The Yankees came back from a nine-run deficit and beat the Red Sox by six.

Josh Beckett sucks for a front-line pitcher.

John Lester sucks for a front-line pitcher.

Clay Buchholz sucks for a front-line pitcher.

Daniel Bard sucked so bad they had to send him to the minors, where he continues to suck.

Dice-K finally came back from his injury, turned out to be the same old Dice-K, then got injured again.

Adrian Gonzalez sucks for a guy getting paid $20 million a year.

Kevin Youkilis sucked, got hurt, came back and sucked some more, then got traded.

Jacoby Ellsbury has missed half the season with an injury.

Carl Crawford has missed half the season with an injury.

I don’t like the way Bobby Valentine chews gum.

I may have missed a few, but I’m thinking the ratio of bad stories to good is about three to one. Things could turn around starting tomorrow, but this doesn’t bode well for my summer.

So, in case things don’t get any better, here’s another memory:

What makes me happy (baseball edition)

Let’s face it: baseball is boring.  Nothing much happens in the course of a game.  For every minute of action, there are five minutes of crotch-scratching and sunflower-seed-spitting.  The Red Sox this season have been particularly boring: win a game, lose a game…

And then something like this happens….

Tie game, bottom of the eighth, Ryan Kalish on first.  Bobby Valentine puts on a hit-and-run.  Kalish takes off with the pitch.  Mike Aviles bounces a ball to first.  Kalish reaches second — and keeps running!  He beats the tag at third.  Daniel Nava hits a single to center, and Kalish scores the go-ahead run.  The Red Sox win.  How did that happen?

The Red Sox don’t look like they’re going anywhere this year: too many injuries, too many stars underperforming.  Tonight Jon Lester is underperforming yet again.  But just for that one moment, they were exciting.

Now back to the crotch-scratching.