Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The St. Louis Nemesis

The most unpleasant thing for me about the playoffs every year is having to reconcile myself to how good the Cardinals are.

Being in the same division as the Cardinals, currently residing at the top of the WSJ Baseball Playoffs Hateability Index, is like having an older brother who is president of the senior class, all-state quarterback on the football team, letterman in four other sports, boyfriend of the hottest girl in school, volunteer at the homeless shelter, and accomplished violinist. You spend your whole life trying to measure up and you resent him, your parents, yourself, and the vagaries of fate for the certainty that you never can.

In my impotent rage, I now find myself rooting for any team that can be this year's Red Sox and drive a stake through their cornfed hearts, disfigure their gracious, bright-eyed, smug countenances, and knock them temporarily from their throne of self-satisfied superiority. I like the Giants a lot more than the Nationals, but I think the Nats are a better team; so I find myself pulling now for the Nats as the team most likely to keep the Cardinals out of the World Series. I have a lot of friends in Baltimore and always liked the O's, but the prospect of a KC-St. Louis series in which the Cardinals, like everyone else in baseball, can be flummoxed, baffled, and humiliated by NedBall is just too delicious to contemplate.

I hope I'm wrong, but I think the Dodgers are a lost cause at this point, Kershaw notwithstanding. That bullpen. Yeesh.

Update: Probably now is as good a time as any to resurrect this masterpiece of bilious anti-Cardinal rage.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Ned, The Royals, and Organizational Alignment

Much to the annoyance of overworked, underpaid hirelings worldwide, Jim Collins popularized the concept of organizational alignment in the books Built to Last and Good to Great, among others. These books annoyed the working stiffs because of their outsized popularity among inhabitants of the C-suite, leading them to exhort people in the ranks to pursue BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals) and affirm the core values that the management team came up with at an offsite somewhere in the forest (in most cases, platitudes such as excellence, quality, service and the like) with unbridled enthusiasm throughout the work day.

The idea was based on research indicating that the most successful companies were those that aligned around a belief in some principle larger and weightier than just making money or being successful. So, for example, Johnson & Johnson outperformed other similar companies because of its credo of putting the needs and well-being of the customers it serves first. So went the theory, anyhow.

One of the few things I recall clearly from the time when I was made to read these books is the insight that it didn't much matter what value the outperforming companies aligned around, as long as it was something. The most striking example I recall was Philip Morris. Unlike other competing tobacco companies during the time that government regulators were escalating their sanctions against cigarette smoking, Philip Morris framed this struggle as a freedom-of-expression issue. The consequence of aligning its employees around such ethical gymnastics was that Philip Morris outperformed its competitors. It was able to get its people to believe that they weren't just selling cigarettes; no, they were participating in a quest to defend freedom against government intervention and encroachment.

Which brings us to Ned Yost and the Royals. As we watch this strange baseball team win games in the playoffs, let's be clear about one thing before we get too carried away: as an in-game tactician, making the small decisions that must be made in a baseball game from day to day, Ned Yost is a disaster. Clint Hurdle isn't so great either, but man, this guy: lineup construction that defies everything we know about optimizing offensive efficiency; rigid, algorithmic bullpen management; giving away outs like Halloween candy. He drives analytically minded baseball fans insane, and he has richly earned their derision.

But it's also impossible to deny that something is working here. I don't want to make too much of it. Grant Brisbee is right when he says that "the postseason is nothing more than an isolated sample of games to which we pay too much attention." It's entirely possible that the Angels will wake up tomorrow like a sleepy cat that has been playing with a half-dead mouse all night, finish the job, and move on to the food bowl in the kitchen. But in the context of the Royals' peculiar alignment around pitching, stellar outfield defense, speed, well-executed bunting, and a shutdown bullpen, Ned Yost's tactics kind of work, don't they? As someone said in Twitter during one of the games this week, Ned doesn't care what we think.

What we may be seeing here is the baseball equivalent of alignment around a set of clearly defined core values. Alignment around something, whatever that something is, is always better than no alignment at all. There may be greater aesthetic appeal to alignment around the Earl Weaver values of walks, great pitching, and three-run homers, but on the other hand, those plays in the outfield and stolen bases by Dyson and Gore sure have been nifty, haven't they?

Go Royals.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

This Wild Card Game Was Different

And not just because we lost.

First, an apology to Zeke: I'm about to write about the ways in which last night's game was not the equal of the game in 2013, and you of course were unable to attend last year. I hope that you will read this and find some compensatory solace in your unique experience of following the game on a computer from Beijing in the middle of the night.

2013 had a quality of emergence. It was something that has never happened before--a one-game, winner-take-all playoff in a city that hadn't hosted a playoff game for an entire generation. No one knew how the crowd would behave, how they would act and react. The emergent results were magical, now forever burnished into our memories by the defining moment of the Cueto chant, the dropped ball, the Martin home run. As we saw last night, the circumstances of the game were a determining factor. None of what happened last year could have happened if the events in the game hadn't conspired perfectly to allow the legend of the Pittsburgh Wild Card fans at PNC to emerge. But they did. Things interacted, and magic emerged. I'm glad that I was there.

This year, ESPN and MLB talking heads in the pre-game chatter explicitly identified the Pittsburgh home crowd as a potential factor in the Pirates' favor, based on last year. That identification of the Wild Card crowd as a something caused me as a member of that crowd to be aware that something was expected of me. I now had a defined role. Right before ESPN went live, the scoreboard admonished us to go crazy for the TV audience, and we did. The same thing happened last year. But this year, it felt more like we were part of a staged TV event. Last year, we were just going nuts, and we didn't need any of the stage direction--we would have anyway because, holy shit, here we were.

I was also acutely aware last night that I don't and can't hate the Giants. Last year it was Chapman hitting Cutch with what seemed like a clear intention to intimidate, Dusty Baker and his subsequent dissembling, echoes of Phillips vs. Hughes, the culmination of a couple of years of apparently bad blood between division rivals. Contrast that with the Giants. The Panda. A bunch of white guys named Brandon. Can you really summon any bloodlust over the Panda and the Brandons as adversaries? One of the Brandons will soon be Gerritt Cole's brother-in-law.

I can't. Hell, I like the Giants. I was at their stadium and am not entirely sure I don't like it better than PNC. I ate the Gilroy garlic fries and am pretty sure I do like them better than those served up by the IMO overrated Primanti's. They would be damn good on a sandwich.

We tried to summon up this year's version of the Cueto chant, but all we could come up with was a half-hearted "Madd--eee," subliminally suggested by the name of the National Anthem singer, which happened to be Maddie George. Maaad-i-son, emphasis on the first syllable, would have worked better.

So yes, this was different. The game was too.

The Enrique Romo Story

is all here, thanks to the magic of the Internet.

An RPH tip of the cap to my old CMU classmate Marjorie Radella.

That Didn't Go Well

It turns out that good pitching does stop good hitting.

I don't recall being at such a one-sided game before, ever. Usually, even in the worst drubbings, there is one moment of ultimately false hope when you can rev yourself up with the possibility that if this happened and then that happened, the Bucs could get back into it. But after Crawford's response to the Volquez hanging curve in the third made its sickening trajectory in the direction of the right-field seats and plopped in with the finality and irrevocability of a cell phone plopping into a toilet...nothing. All hope, for this game and for the season, was lost, and things only got worse.

But that moment of the Crawford home run was remarkable. Before it happened and despite the troubling contrast between the methodical ease with which Bumgarner was slicing up the Pirates hitters and the well-directed line drives and long pitch counts that the increasingly comfortable and opportunistic Giants' hitters were taking vs. Eddie, it was still possible for us to delude ourselves into thinking that we were part of that magical PNC Park Wild Card crowd, last seen a year ago, that could will the game the Pirates' way with the sheer force of its collective psychic energy. The bases were loaded with no outs and things already looked grim, but when Volquez got two strikes on Crawford, everybody rose to their feet, black hand towels were waving all over the park, and the noise rose again to a deafening pitch. And then...plop...silence. The contrast was stunning. Suddenly, there we were in the quietest ballpark I have ever stood in. I just looked at Cal and said something like, "Oh my."

Clint, whom I have come to love after having been a frequent critic of his in-game management during his tenure, can now get that hip replacement he has courageously been deferring. He didn't manage this game particularly well. He wasn't Ned Yost bad, but there were troubling similarities. I like Joe Posnanski's comparison of Yost's formulaic management style to assembling Ikea furniture. Leave Eddie in, despite the obvious warning signs, and wait until his place in the lineup comes up and you can pinch hit for him. Man on base and a lefty reliever needed? First guy in line is Justin Wilson*. C'mon in, Justin, and just do what you always do with inherited runners--help him find his way home. Inherited runners? Jared Hughes is good with inherited runners. And after he does what he does and wiggles his way out of trouble, leave him in for another inning, because Jared is one of those relievers whom we have mysteriously determined to be able to go more than one inning. Locke? Worley? Sure, they are on the roster for the game, but did you see what happened to Yost last night when he put his starter Ventura into a Wild Card game in an unfamiliar role?

It was all kind of sickeningly inevitable, watching the Clint managing machine follow its pre-programmed formulas and move the game to its ultimate, inexorable conclusion. Bumgarner was good enough, of course, that none of this mattered a whit, but still, as we transition to the cold, depressing Season of the Up and Down Sports (Red Smith), you'd have liked to see a little creativity from the manager in the final game of the year.

Oh well. It was a hell of a season. More about that in a subsequent post.

* I would prefer never to see Justin Wilson pitch in a game ever again.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014


...is the day.

There's no way I can fully articulate how much today means to me, but I'm going to try my best anyways. Last year, I was in China, so I watched the Pirates' first playoff game in 21 years on a computer screen. Today, I get to watch a playoff game take place mere feet away from my face.

I have been a Pirates fan since I was a speck. The story goes that while my mother was giving birth to me, my father (whom you know as "Billy") was in the hospital eating a peanut butter sandwich and watching the Pirates play the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Bucs won that game, 7-4.

As a toddler, I had many strange habits. One of them was that, after taking a bath, I'd run from the bathroom to my room, wearing a towel like a cape, screaming: "
I'm Andy Van Slyke!!!"

In the years that followed, I attended, watched, and listened to thousands of Buccos games in my life. Despite the losing, rooting for the Bucs was an essential part of every Spring, Summer and Fall. And I spent every Winter huddled around the hot stove.

And now, today, one of my dreams will come true. No matter how it ends, I'm going to watch a Pirates playoff game in person.
It's happening.

Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of some moments I'm excited to witness tonight:

1. Edinson "Eddie" Volquez records his first strike.

2. J-Hay strolls to the plate for his first at-bat.

3. A Pirates hitter flashes the first Zoltan of the night.

4. The first absurdly insulting anti-Giants chant starts up amongst the PNC Park faithful.

5. Cutch hears the words "MVP!" ringing all around the stadium.

6. The Pirates dugout goes insane, for whatever reason.

7. Clint Hurdle hobbles out onto the field, for whatever reason. Our gimpy skipper is going to receive quite the welcome.

I don't know how to end except to underscore what today means to me. Today is a day I feel blessed to be alive, in this city, with these privileges. And I won't be alone. This blog is evidence that love for the Bucs is probably the most important thing I share with my dad. So most of all, I'm happy we're going to watch this game together.

Let's go Bucs.