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Albert Pujols Arrives in Jupiter

Under the low, blue-grey sky in Jupiter, the clouds rolling in low from the sea, the people crowd in the seats, white hats and dark sunglasses on, in the annual ritual of anticipation. The latest in inoffensive country-pop blaring over the speakers, the salty food spilling onto the ground — with handheld video cameras, grainy images criss-crossed by thick netting, they zoom in on the players they’re here to watch. The classic red of the jerseys is loud against the muted landscape; it makes someone like the aging slugger, whom the camera follows with interest, look even bigger and more imposing than he is. And he is, indeed, imposing, much as he has been for the last decade: the Rawlings Big Stick appearing, in his hands, to have all the heft of a piece of driftwood. He is 37 years old, with a right knee that’s gone under the knife; for now, he will not run the bases, nor take the field. He glowers, alone, waiting for his one turn at the plate.

In the rest of the dugout, the bustle: the big grins, pounding gloves. Last year, they lost the pennant. This year, they should make a run for it again. Squint and you’ll see the catcher, who, during last year’s chase, sliced his finger nearly off with a hunting knife — an injury he assures everyone will not affect his ability to throw this year. Watch carefully, and you might catch a glimpse of the prospect. He doesn’t look out of his depth: he is as solid as the slugger ever was, and his demeanor betrays no trepidation. He only has one professional season under his belt; when the slugger debuted almost 15 years ago, he was only a little kid. But he is here, and with a vacancy on the hot corner, he could make the team. It’s a long shot, of course; everyone says it’s a long shot. It was a long shot for a 20-year-old in his first professional season to climb all the way to Triple-A by year’s end, too, but he did it. The chance may be small — but there’s a chance.

The slugger swings — a long, belabored swing, well behind the pitch, and the umpire’s arm punches through the air. The inning is over. The music plays.

***

“He was like a rock,” the team doctor says. He is talking about the prospect. Before a game was even played this spring, when players were reporting and getting their physicals done, they were talking about the prospect. There is such an incongruity between the reality of this young man and what one expects out of a player only two years out of high school, and within that incongruity is space for endless imagining. How quickly he rose in only a year; how quickly might he rise given another? It is spring, and he is with the big-league club — a chance for fans to catch a glimpse, to stoke the fires of their imaginations, before he returns, presumably, to the minors. The games don’t count, but the visions they produce can endure through entire disappointing seasons. If the slugger continues to decline, if the catcher’s near-severed finger hampers him, if they can’t get anything out of third base — they can return, whenever they want, to the low clouds of a passing winter, to a promise of what could soon be. Read the rest of this entry »


A Farewell to the Northwest League

From the Vancouver Province, June 14, 1951.

It was a matter of great fanfare when, in June of 1951, Sick’s Capilano Stadium had its grand opening in Vancouver. Replacing the old Athletic Park, full-page spreads in local papers boasted of the stadium design (an exact replica of Sick’s Stadium in Seattle, which would briefly be the home of the Pilots); the electric scoreboard; the location, a green space underneath the hill known as Little Mountain, which was considered to be in the exact center of Vancouver; and the amenities for fans, which included hotplates for hot dogs and aspirin available for any headaches — “ideal for when the team is losing,” as the Vancouver Province noted.

The stadium was named for the team, the Vancouver Capilanos, who played in the Western International League. The league’s history, as was the case for most leagues in the Northwest, was chaotic, marked by false starts and stops. And, it turned out, the chaos would continue. The Western International League, in 1955, became the Northwest League; the Capilanos made way for a Pacific Coast League team, the Mounties, in 1956. When the Mounties folded after the 1967 season, having sustained losses of over $90,000 in their final year, Capilano Stadium spent a decade without a professional baseball team. When the PCL returned to Vancouver in 1978, in the form of the Canadians, the stadium was renamed in honor of local restaurateur Nat Bailey, who, as the story goes, got his start in the stands of the old Athletic Park, hocking peanuts and chocolates to fans, a megaphone projecting his voice up through the bleachers. And when the PCL left Vancouver again after 1999, the stadium — and the team that played in it — came full circle, beginning the new millennium as a part of the league that began, in 1922, as the Western International League. Read the rest of this entry »


On Being Able To Speak

There were so many concerning and reprehensible elements to Kevin Mather’s address to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club — given earlier this month, but unearthed, in YouTube form, by commenters on Lookout Landing yesterday — that it would be beyond the scope of a single post to adequately address them all. Mather, still the President and CEO of the Mariners at this writing and even after the Seattle Times reported his history of alleged workplace harassment in 2018, managed in the course of 45 minutes to offend on a multitude of different levels, none of which were mentioned specifically in his apology statement. Here, though, I will specifically address the element of his speech that I have the most knowledge and experience with — the one that, as a result, was the most infuriating to me. In the course of his question period, Mather, twice and entirely unprompted, denigrated his players’ ability to speak English.

The video has since been deleted from the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club’s channel, where it was originally updated, but it has been uploaded elsewhere; Lookout Landing also posted a full transcript here. The quotes below are pulled from the Lookout Landing transcript. First, Mather was asked by one of the members of the Club to “tell [them] about Julio Rodríguez.” Mather’s answer began like this:

Julio Rodríguez has got a personality bigger than all of you combined. He is loud, his English is not tremendous.

Later, another member asked about what support the Mariners offered to players who don’t speak English as their first language. Mather described the improvement in such supports over the last 20 years, before deciding to illustrate his point with this example:

As far as Korea, Japan, Taiwan, those players are typically older. They don’t come over as 16- or 18-year-olds, they come over as 28, 30, 32 year olds. We typically…it frustrates me…For instance, we just re-hired Iwakuma, he was a pitcher with us for a number of years. Wonderful human being, his English was terrible. He wanted to get back into the game, he came to us, we quite frankly want him as our Asian scout, interpreter, what’s going on with the Japanese league. He’s coming to spring training. And I’m going to say, I’m tired of paying his interpreter. When he was a player, we’d pay Iwakuma X, but we’d also have to pay $75,000 a year to have an interpreter with him. His English suddenly got better, his English got better when we told him that! For the older players from the Far East, we have an interpreter that travels with them. For the younger Dominicans, Venezuelans, Caribbean players, we really invest in them at a young age before they get here. Good question! It’s important.

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What It Means to Remember Tony Fernandez

For the Toronto Blue Jays of 40 years ago —  a young team, an expansion team, a Major League Baseball team in a non-American country — finding an identity, something for fans to cling to beyond regional affinity and a desire for entertainment, was an uphill battle. They played in Exhibition Stadium, a field not made for baseball, pummeled by wind and snow off the lake. They lost, and lost, and lost again, their roster an endlessly rotating door.

After the buzz of novelty wore off, their attendance dwindled, from fourth in the American League to 11th just four years later. The tainted atmosphere of MLB at the time, with collusion and the constant threat of labor stoppages looming large, didn’t help either. The strike-shortened 1981 season ended in a fifth consecutive last-place finish. The most press the Jays got in the stretch run that year was about struggling third baseman and NBA draftee Danny Ainge’s dreams of switching sports. He finished the season, his last as a major leaguer, batting .187; from the stands of the Ex, a fan threw a basketball at him.

The following year, for the first time in history, the Jays climbed out of last place in the division. (They were sixth out of seven.) And then, in 1983, a breakthrough: They put together a winning record. Dave Stieb was great again; Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield broke out. Though they didn’t, in the end, come close to a playoff spot, they were a very competitive 89-73. More fans attended than ever before; suddenly, there was life here. 

It was in September of that year that Tony Fernandez made his debut. He had been signed in 1979, a teenager out of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic; he was, still, just 21. He came in as a pinch-runner, and he scored on a wild pitch. That was the beginning.

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The Way Out

Editor’s note: This story includes a discussion about attempted suicide and mental health. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

I woke up and everything was dark. My eyes were open; it felt like they were open. But I couldn’t see anything. Where was I? What had happened? There was a horrible taste in my mouth, and it was bitterly cold. There were strange sounds, whirring, sharp, mechanical noises, and I could hear large things moving around me. People, maybe, but I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t see anything.

“Can you tell me what the date is today?” a voice said.

So I’m in the hospital, I thought. Okay. I had been in the hospital enough, woken up for enough early-morning blood tests, to know this drill. They have to confirm that you know who you are, that you know where you are, even though they already know who you are and where you are. Okay. Okay. It had been, the night before, January 30th. “It’s January 31st,” I said, with strange difficulty, my voice garbled and unfamiliar.

“It’s February 2nd,” the voice said.

I remembered, suddenly, what I had done. Oh, fuck, I thought, and the darkness in front of my eyes seemed to grow. I couldn’t move, but the void around me was moving, shifting, ready to consume me. There was nothing that could ever exist; there was nothing else to be imagined. There was no way out.

Oh, fuck, I thought, I’m still alive.

***

Six years later — six years to the day — I stare at my computer screen, scrolling through tweets. I am comfortable and warm. I live in a lane house with my partner. We have two cats. My eyes hurt, but only because of the blue light. When I look outside, I see the sun shining; later, I think, when I am done writing, I will go for a walk, and see if there are any new birds at the pond. I’ve gotten very into birds lately, ever since the pandemic started. They are everywhere, these intricate, wonderful little creatures. You just have to take the time to notice them. Most of the time, nowadays, I do. Most of the time, I am happy. Read the rest of this entry »


What Is Now Left to Be Imagined

On Friday, the Marlins announced that Kim Ng would be assuming the role of general manager. It was a historic move for a number of reasons: She’s the first woman and first Asian-American to be hired as a GM in the major leagues, and is indeed the first woman in any major American men’s pro sport to hold that role. It was also a move that was long foretold, as many pointed out, linking to various blog posts and lists of years and decades past that included Ng’s name as one to watch in the world of high-ranking baseball executives. She’s been at least an assistant GM for as long as I’ve been alive. “When I got into this business,” her statement posted to the Marlins’ social media read, “it seemed unlikely that a woman would lead a major-league team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals.”

It was a celebratory day for many women in baseball, a sign of how far they have come and how far they could still go, and a testament to Ng’s individual drive and ability, which, given her history, is undeniable. It was also a celebratory day for Asian-Americans in baseball. What once seemed unlikely, and before that unimaginable, is now real, tangible, and true — not only for Ng individually, not only for the other people who have blazed trails in this industry, and not only for all the historically underrepresented people she might inspire to pursue careers in the game, but also for literally everyone, apparently, in the entire sport. All those heavy-hitters and decision-makers who for the decades upon decades prior to this day were fine with maintaining the status quo — this moment was, somehow, their achievement to celebrate as well.

When you’re a kid, you can dream of being all kinds of ridiculous, incredible things. The first person to create a cat-to-human translation system. The first person to walk on Mars. A kajillionaire, a world-peace creator, an undersea explorer — all at the same time, all existing within the same realm of possibility. You get older, of course, and with your increasing ability to understand the world around you, to grasp what is expected of someone like you, the dreams get scaled and hedged accordingly. You absorb information and adjust your ideas of what is possible. Kajillionaire becomes maybe a full-time job and your debt paid off by the time you’re 50. World-peace creator becomes maybe you survive another year of being exploited by your racist boss. The moon becomes a tiny room in a shared house for $900 a month. It’s good, after all, to have goals that are actually possible to reach. That’s what you’re taught in career planning classes and therapy sessions: achievable, real, tangible. The bounds of the imagination shrink. Read the rest of this entry »


The Dodgers Are World Series Champions

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the results of Justin Turner’s initial COVID test were inconclusive, prompting the processing of his second test to be expedited. That test was positive, resulting in his removal from the game.

The players gathered on the field in various states of face-covering. The winning team was at home, but wasn’t; they gathered in the middle of a dark, huge, faraway stadium, with fans spread haphazardly in the stands, some gathered in jubilant, worrying clusters. And as the trophies were about to be presented, the broadcast was interrupted by an announcement: Justin Turner, one of the most important members of this team for the past eight years, had exited the game mysteriously in the eighth inning. The reason for that exit, the public was somberly told, was that he had received a positive COVID-19 test.

But then, all of a sudden, it cut back to the field, to the smiling, hugging, weeping players, the speeches and the trophies and the booing and the cheering, just as if it was a normal World Series. Even Turner got his on-field shot with the trophy, despite being removed from the game to be isolated and prevent the spread of infection; even Turner joined the team for their group photo.

The pandemic rages on, even within the confines of the diamond: a place that so often attempts to shelter itself from the realities of living in society, that had been fighting to keep their bubble — or, at the very least, its appearance — intact. Turner’s test results from yesterday were, apparently, revealed to be inconclusive in the second inning of tonight’s game. His test results from today were confirmed positive later. And yet, they kept playing baseball, right to the very end, through Game 6 of the World Series, with over 11,000 fans in attendance. The Dodgers, appearing in their third Fall Classic over the last four seasons, beat the Rays 3-1. In this truncated, bedeviled, dubious season, in a world rife with uncertainty, and heading into a dark and fearful winter, it was the best team in baseball that emerged victorious. And now, with Turner’s positive test and the questions it raises, the best team in baseball leaves their celebration not to celebrate further, but to rapid testing and quarantining — a shadow hanging over the sublime joy of a championship a long time in the making.

Just a few hours ago, though, none of this — Turner, COVID, the questions facing MLB and the Dodgers going forward — was in the game story. The game story was Randy Arozarena putting an exclamation point on his historic postseason, hitting his 10th October home run off Tony Gonsolin in the first to put the Rays up 1-0. When we look back on this October, Arozarena’s out-of-nowhere explosion into the most fearsome hitter on any postseason team’s lineup, a bonafide star carrying the Rays’ offense on his back, will certainly be near the top of the list of memorable moments.

And the game story was the Dodgers’ bullpen, so often postseason goats, who took over from the clearly struggling Gonsolin after just five outs in what was intended to be a full start from him. It was Dylan Floro, who came in with two on in the second and struck out Arozarena on three pitches to end the inning. It was the mostly-sidelined Alex Wood pitching two perfect, shockingly efficient innings of middle-relief; Pedro Báez, to whom much is always, somehow, given, redeeming the two-homer egg he laid in that wild Game 4; Victor González, who bailed out Báez after Arozarena got yet another hit; Brusdar Graterol, who overcame his wildness — and got a little help from Cody Bellinger’s superb fielding in center — to record two outs in the seventh; and Julio Urías, who closed out the NLCS, once again shutting down the opposing team over the final innings of the game. Read the rest of this entry »


Dodgers Strike First, Claim Game 6

The first game of this NLCS was a tense thriller, carrying a score of 1-1 into the top of the ninth thanks to the performances of starters Walker Buehler and Max Fried. With a burst of offense in the ninth, the Braves took that game, 5-1. Five days later — doesn’t it feel like it’s been longer? — Atlanta entered Game 6, a repeat of that starting pitching matchup, with a chance to walk away with the pennant. And while the two games had many features in common — low scores, great starting pitching, and missed opportunities on the offensive side — it was the Dodgers, this time, who came out on top. After a 3-1 Los Angeles victory, the series is now tied at 3-3, with a decisive seventh game coming tomorrow.

Buehler set the tone by retiring Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Marcell Ozuna on only seven pitches in the top of the first. Fried, who outpitched Buehler in Game 1, did not have the same success. He retired Mookie Betts without incident, but Corey Seager turned on a curveball on the inner half, sending it into the seats in right field. Two batters into the game, the Dodgers already had the lead — and one batter later, they added to it, as Justin Turner shot a sinker just over the outstretched arm of Cristian Pache in center. Read the rest of this entry »


Astros Fend Off Rays to Force Game 6

It all started, as it so often has in this ALCS, with a homer — the first pitch from Rays opener John Curtiss, a fastball over the plate, was launched into the seats by George Springer. And it ended with a homer from Carlos Correa, crushed to center in the bottom of the ninth — his third ALCS walkoff in the last four seasons. The Astros, for the second day in a row, won a do-or-die game by a single run, the final score again 4-3. And their deficit in the series, once a daunting three games to none, has narrowed all the way to 3-2.

How they got there on the pitching side was a little less familiar than it was on the hitting side. The Astros used seven pitchers over the course of Game 5, the first five of whom were rookies. First on the mound was Luis Garcia, 21 years old, with all of 12.1 major-league innings on his resume. Despite some hard contact — a hard fly ball from Brandon Lowe, a line drive from none other than Randy Arozarena — he got through the first inning without allowing a baserunner. Garcia’s second inning was a little more fraught: he loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batter for Mike Zunino. But Zunino flew out, stranding all three runners. The inning, and Garcia’s postseason debut, ended without incident. Read the rest of this entry »


Despite Late Thrills, Dodgers Drop NLCS Game 2

In the top of the ninth of this second game of the NLCS, Mark Melancon caught his second home run in two days. It was a rare feat for a closer, made all the rarer by the fact that both homers were hit by the same player, Ozzie Albies, and that both had come in the top of the ninth. But the unlikely catches were not entirely symmetrical. The home run in Game 1, a two-run shot, had put the Braves ahead 5-1, capping off a late rally that broke a tense 1-1 tie; the ball carried, as if placed by an unseen hand, directly into Melancon’s glove. He seemed more shocked than anything — with the game still fairly close, he was more concerned with preparing to close out the bottom of the ninth.

The home run in Game 2, though, was the cherry on top of a long day of scoring. It took a comfortable lead and made it that much more comfortable. When Albies made contact on a sinker from Adam Kolarek, Melancon saw his chance; he jogged over, made the catch, and broke into a celebratory trot around the bullpen.

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