Wednesday, January 25, 2012

PLAYER MOLD: The Project

Voted college baseball's Player of the Year, Nebraska's Alex Gordon was a sure thing...

These guys can be found at all levels of competitive baseball. Their talent is undeniable - they have tools that every other guy in that dugout could only dream of. Some guys may have blazing speed, a couple have light tower power, and a few can throw a baseball harder than you thought humanly possible. So, why aren't these guys any good?

Sure these guys have talent, but they're not quality baseball players - not yet, at least. They have all the ingredients to be a perennial All-Star, but something's off. Whether it's a better understanding of the game, an adjustment to a higher level, or simply learning how to deal with failure, there is a change that needs to be made - and until they overcome this obstacle, they will always remain a project.  

In college, a project is that top recruit that has a tough time making the jump from high school to college ball. He comes to campus highly touted, and before he's even laced up his fall-ball spikes, the head coach has him penciled into February's opening day lineup. But as the Fall progresses, he doesn't deliver. He has trouble making the adjustment to better competition - he looks overmatched. What's going on? This was our top recruit, he's a great player - what's wrong with him?

It is at this moment when the special attention kicks in. Suddenly, there's personal BP with the hitting coach before and after practice; personal bullpen sessions with the pitching coach dissecting every release; one-on-one filming sessions, private meetings, practice plans based around this individual player's needs - the coaching staff goes into full panic mode and the project has become the program's main focus.

The coaches recruited this kid to be an immediate impact player. When they saw him play in high school, their expert analysis indicated he would be ready - there's no way they could be wrong, right? I mean, scouting is part of their job, they're professionals - they couldn't have messed this one up. And just like that, it's all about them. This kid will represent their ability to analyze talent for years to come. Their reputations and egos are on the line, and they will do everything in their power to make sure this recruit becomes the great player they projected him to be.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

IT'S ON! -- More Hilarious Spill: Lasorda vs. Zimmer

This is a debate that's been going on in my head for almost a decade. There are two classic spills in recent baseball history that will forever serve as the benchmark for on-field hilarity - but which is better?

The Lasorda back somersault and the Zimmer bull rush are just about as good as it gets when it comes to unexpected ball-game entertainment - both instant classics, every TV network's dream. Now I realize that they are both old news - heck, I think Vlad was wearing an Expos uniform as he hunted down poor Tommy - but even today, if you're able to watch a replay of either without laughing, well then my hat is off to you. 

Both of these men have dedicated their lives to the game of baseball. They have given everything they have as players, coaches, and managers, yet in my mind, these two legendary names will forever be linked by these timeless bloopers - I just can't figure out which one I enjoy more.

First, there's our pal Tommy Lasorda. An honorary manager at the 2001 All-Star Game, Tommy was hanging out in the 3rd base coach's box just minding his own business, taking it all in - great players, fun crowd, beautiful summer night - what could be better? Then, WHACK, Vlad Guerrero hits a foul ball down the right field line. Unfortunately for Lasorda, Vlad's broken bat came flying end over end down the left field line. He was a deer in the head lights with nowhere to go. The scene played out in slow motion. The bat hit him square across the chest and Lasorda transformed into a giant Weeble Wobble, only in this case, the Weeble wobbled and fell down. And then plunged helplessly into a backward somersault. 

After witnessing the most unathletic tumble of all time, everyone in attendance collectively held their breath. Was the 73-year old injured? Lasorda then got up, dusted himself off, and acknowledged to the crowd that he was indeed alright. This, of course, translated into: It's ok to begin laughing hysterically now. I'm not hurt. And so the crowd burst into uproarious laughter, growing more rowdy with each in-stadium replay - and just like that, my personal favorite All-Star Game moment was born.

I am still in awe at how Lasorda managed to fall completely backward. He never tried to shield the impact of the bat, never turned away - just took it square on. I'm entirely confident you could table-top every other person in that stadium and not produce a more hilarious, clumsy fall than the one Tommy put forth. Just a Hall of Famer churning out another Hall of Fame moment.

Monday, January 9, 2012

SMALLS TALK: When did "Can I have your autograph" turn into "Give me a ball"?

Kids these days - they always need more. It's no longer enough for youngsters to head to the ball game and root, root, root for the home team. What fun is that? They need a souvenir - something exclusive, something that separates them from others in attendance, a keepsake that makes them special. After all, it's all about them - isn't it?

At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old-timer reminiscing about the "good ol' days when men were men and the game was pure," I'd like to publicly call out this new generation of baseball fans. Boys and girls: the game you are watching is beautiful. It is timeless, and unites fans around the world who watch with the same passion and energy with which the game is played. The game has stood the test of time - it is bigger than you, than me, than anyone. People will come, Ray. People will most def... shoot, wrong speech - but I think you get my point.

Baseball is a game capable of evoking boyhood joy in fans of all ages. We all fell in love with the game at some point - whether it was while having a catch with Dad, playing wiffle ball until the street lights came on, or riding your bike to the park just to see who was playing - somewhere along the line, we were hooked. In our minds, the game will always be innocent and pure, and while the landscape of the game continues to change, the passion will always remain.

I can't help but wonder if this video game generation has fully grasped the beauty of America's pastime. I'd argue that my passion for the game was cultivated every day on my neighborhood streets. Alongside my three best pals, I'd play from the minute school ended until one of us was called in for dinner, and even then we left begrudgingly. Today, I look around at the bare roads by my house and wonder: "Where did all the kids go?"

Sure, they may be doing other baseball-related activities - maybe playing Nintendo Wii Baseball, or checking the lineups of their Fantasy team - but that's not the same. My friends and I grew up in awe of the game, wondering what would happen next even as we ourselves played. With today's technology, this generation grew up manipulating the game, tailor-fitting it to their own needs and desires. Their interaction with the game itself is distant and detached, and as a result, the whole dynamic of player-fan interaction has changed immensely.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

MiLB LIFE: Pitchers' Batting Practice

Holy smokes! That one landed in the outfield, atta boy Rocker!
Young ballplayers, I urge you to avert your eyes - it's time for Pitcher's BP. Over the next ten minutes, the entire pitching staff will makes its way into the cage one by one to try their luck at blasting one over the wall, and I gotta tell you - it's embarrassing.

After watching these guys compete on the mound night after night - after admiring their fluid motion and the ease with which they're able to fling a ball 90-plus MPH - you can't help but expect more. But no. Nothing. In most cases, you could honestly walk down the street and compile a more capable lineup with the first nine guys you run into. Their ineptitude is actually quite amazing when you think about it - how could a professional athlete look so helpless, so unnatural, while playing his own sport?

The whole experience is what I assume it would be like watching Shaq shoot free throws for ten minutes straight.

You begin by laughing, enjoying the struggle, refusing to believe someone so close to the game could actually achieve such levels of futility. He's just warming up, shakin' off the cobwebs. But after a few minutes pass and no progress has been made, the laughs die down as the entire stadium is engulfed by second-hand embarrassment. Poor guy, has he always been so uncoordinated? You begin to reflect on how miserable a lifetime of baseball must be while possessing such laughable command of a bat, and suddenly, you're sympathy turns to wonderment. This guy has played baseball his whole life - how could he be this bad? He had to have hit at some point right? What, was he getting DH'ed for in tee-ball?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

MOVIE RANT (by Chet Steadman): Bull Durham

I don’t care for Bull Durham.

Maybe I should have waited for my death bed confession but I couldn’t live in secrecy anymore. I rewatched this baseball classic the other night hoping that being a few years wiser, I might have a different opinion. Often we watch ‘classic’ movies when we are too young to fully appreciate them. And on the contrary, we might watch a movie now that we once loved when we were younger and realize it sucks. I didn’t fully appreciate The Big Lebowski when I was twelve and in high school I thought The Boondock Saints was a good movie.

After this recent viewing, my new found appreciation for Bull Durham proved to be wishful thinking. For those of you who might think this is merely a personal vendetta against Kevin Costner for making For Love of the Game, I can assure you it’s not. Field of Dreams is still my favorite baseball movie. Unfortunately, Bull Durham is low on the depth chart for me. It has a few great lines and Costner drops some gold nuggets of baseball wisdom. I’m not trying to say the whole movie is useless. The problem is that all the baseball aspects of this movie are totally unrealistic for what is supposed to be one of, if not the greatest baseball/sports movies ever. Yes, Major League is terribly unrealistic but it is for the means of comedy. Bull Durham was written by a former minor league player and I’m disappointed that it didn’t draw more from the real lives of ballplayers.

Here are some issues for me:

Tim Robbins is a 30 year old ‘young’ sensation who gets promoted from A-ball to the Big Leagues.

Nuke is the only pitcher on the team apparently.

Crash is the only hitter.

Players don't automatically hit homeruns because they know what pitch is coming.

Crash hits his record breaking homerun with a Wilson bat. Really?

Crash talking about his 21 days in the Bigs is one of the cheesiest scenes ever.

Susan Sarandon isn’t good looking.

Crash states that he believes Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (for those of you who have seen JFK.)

Like For Love of the Game and Summer Catch, Bull Durham is a love story with baseball as a plot tool. Nothing about this movie actually speaks to the true culture of the game. The minor league life has great stories to tell (see Sugar). So to end this rant, I’ll say it’s not a bad movie. I actually think it’s a very good movie. But it isn’t a good baseball movie.

(long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last 3 days...?)

*Who is Chet Steadman?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! The year 2012 is finally here, and instead of cowering under my bed for the next twelve months wondering if the world will ever see 2013, I have vowed to make this upcoming year my best ever. New Year's is the real world equivalent to baseball's Opening Day - we're offered a clean slate, a fresh start - today, we're all in first place, and the upcoming season will only be what we make of it.

Now historically around this time, I would sit down with a notepad and pen and bang out my list of resolutions. They usually looked something like this:

- Hit .400
- Smash 30 homers
- Drive in 80 runs
- Play error-free baseball
- Make my Big League debut; Hit for the cycle; Pitch a perfect game; Break Joe Dimaggio's hit streak record; Be the first active player inducted into the Hall of Fame

Yeah, sometimes I got carried away. But I had taken the idea of a New Year's Resolution and turned it into a list of idealized, unrealistic goals. Sure, I would have loved to accomplish these feats, but for the most part, they were all out of my control.

Resolutions ought to be a list of attainable achievements, ones that ultimately serve as stepping stones to your overall objective. Sure, "Get in Shape" is a New Year's staple - but without a plan, you're just one of the 7 billion people on this planet claiming this is the year they shed some pounds. Turn that vague goal into "Exercise three times a week." Attainable, measurable, and geared toward your ultimate goal of getting fit - that's the recipe.

Success on the baseball field should be approached in the same manner. Everybody wants to hit .400 with 30 homers - who wouldn't? - but how you approach that goal is the difference between success stories and dreamers. What are you going to do to put yourself in a position where that goal becomes more attainable? That's where the resolution comes in. 

So this New Year's, set your goals - plot out what you want to accomplish over the course of the upcoming year - dream big. But don't forget about the hard work that goes into those potential accomplishments. In 2012, do more than just daydream about "how great it'd be if..." - go out and do it. But remember, "A goal without a plan is just a wish."

For instance, this year Chet Steadman and I are going to finish writing our screenplay, for which I will win an Oscar and be carried off the stage on the shoulders of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron like Rudy.

See, resolutions are simple - keeping it realistic is key. So, what's your resolution?