Author Archive

The Summer Nate Pearson Came to Town

I’m biased, but I think summer in Vancouver can be one of the most beautiful seasons anywhere in the world. The rainforest, having spent the autumn, winter, and spring growing lush under the cover of clouds and rain, shines rich green under the sun, illuminated by the light coming off the ocean. It’s hot, but not overwhelmingly so. On some days, you can look out over the water and see the spout of a humpback whale or the dark, swift-moving fins of a transient orca pod. And at sunset, the bright place where the sky and the ocean meet seem to go on forever.

In the summer of 2017, fires engulfed the Pacific Northwest. There was record heat; record time passed between rainfalls. I spent that summer working in a basement shop, bitter and sad, and when I emerged from the top of the staircase at the end of every day, I would often see a sky choked thick with ash and smoke, the sun swollen and red. Everything that was normally so vibrant was cast over with a dull haze. It was sometimes difficult to breathe. I thought, at the time, that it seemed apocalyptic: the reality of climate change clearly visible above me, around me, hanging in the air itself.

That was the summer Nate Pearson came to town.

***

The Vancouver Canadians are the Blue Jays’ short-season affiliate, playing in the Northwest League. Baseball has a long, diverse history in Vancouver, though the city isn’t exactly baseball-crazy. Back when the Canadians were a Triple-A franchise, affiliated most recently with the A’s, there were some pretty lean years in terms of attendance and interest. But a renovation of their ballpark, the 68-year-old Nat Bailey Stadium, and affiliation with the recently-successful Blue Jays has made the franchise one of the healthiest and most well-attended in the minor leagues. The banners around the stadium show some of the Canadians alumni who are currently successful major leaguers — Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard, to name a few.

They show, too, the legends who visited and played in Vancouver in days long gone: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who came north on barnstorming trips. Though thoroughly renovated for the demands of a 21st-century baseball team, the Nat is deliberate in making you feel its history. A little museum is tucked into the concourse under the grandstand; the tall wooden scoreboard is a replica of the original, salvaged from the remains of Sick’s Stadium in Seattle. Read the rest of this entry »


An Update on Matt Shoemaker, Overcomer of Adversity

The last time I saw Matt Shoemaker was on the grass, grimacing in pain. It was last year in Oakland; Shoemaker ran over to cover first on a groundball, then crumpled to the ground. He had torn his ACL.

As I wrote then, it was a cruel, unfair freak accident for someone who had seen far too many of those in his career. Shoemaker, though, seemed determined to push through. I was rooting for him to return and succeed. On Saturday, finally, he made his first start in over a year — having, again, overcome adversity to come back to the field.

And though he was making his return in front of an empty stadium, in the middle of a global crisis, it was hard not to give in to the creeping feeling of joy, sneaking in from behind the anxiety. It is wonderful to see someone succeed in spite of everything.

***

“Overcoming adversity” is about as tired a baseball cliche as there is. Look deep enough into the background of pretty much any player and you’ll find adversity that was overcome — that’s just the nature of life, and especially the nature of pursuing a career as stressful, all-consuming, and specialized as professional baseball. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t worth hearing: It’s important to understand the lifetimes of effort and struggle that go into the games we watch for entertainment. But flattening every story into a pat tale of “overcoming adversity” doesn’t do justice to the gravity of players’ experiences. Read the rest of this entry »


Yoenis Céspedes Stops Time

Once upon a time, on a Friday in the middle of July, Yoenis Céspedes hits a home run.

***

It’s only been a few days since I’ve once again had the opportunity to spend my days sitting around watching MLB.TV. I’m already sick of the MLB Flashbacks that get shown during commercial breaks. The idea behind them is solid: There are so many feats in major league baseball’s memory bank, so many of the magical sports moments that people cite when they talk about why they love the game. Why not use otherwise unoccupied airtime to remind fans just how great the game can be?

But in my experience, at least, they end up having the opposite effect. Devoid of context, unhinged from past and future, the homers and robberies — and they are almost always homers and robberies — start to blur, then to lose meaning altogether. Like a favorite word repeated too often and too excitedly by a little kid, I start to get tired of hearing the same hype music leading in, the same fever pitch of the broadcast, the same reaction of the crowd. It’s what watching baseball feels like if you don’t like baseball. Swing. Bat hits ball. Ball leaves yard. Cheer! Repeat.

That sense of numbness one gets watching home run after home run, back-to-back, packed into the space of a minute or two — it isn’t what drew me to baseball, what continues to draw me to baseball sometimes in spite of myself. The rhythm is too much like time, or at least too much like the way we so often measure it as working adults. Seconds and minutes and hours clipping forward relentlessly, reminding you that in every idle moment you are wasting your life, wasting moments you could have spent being productive. Your time is limited. There is a distance between you and nothing, and that distance is even now getting shorter. Read the rest of this entry »


12 Hours in the Life of Major League Baseball

Juan Soto has tested positive for COVID-19. He will not play in tonight’s season opener.

***

The answers are hard to find amid the frenzy of questions. We learn, gradually, that Soto was tested two days ago; that the results just came in this morning. Well, didn’t he play an exhibition game two days ago? Wasn’t he with the rest of the Nats yesterday, doing batting practice? Have they done contact tracing? Is everyone safe?

Yes, everyone is safe, we are told; “Everyone is good.” Soto was, and remains, asymptomatic. Those “closest to him” were tested earlier today, and will be tested again tomorrow.

Unknowns: how contact tracing has determined that everyone is “good”; how safe the rest of the Nationals players are; how the Yankees, who along with every other team have no obligation to wear masks on the field, will have their safety ensured; when Soto will be back.

Just over four hours before the first pitch, the announcement: The playoffs will include 16 teams this year.

***

In the Dominican Republic, Diamondbacks scout Johan Maya dies of COVID-19. He played in the Astros minor-league system and spent 15 years as a scout for them. He had a family, a wife and children. He was 40 years old. Read the rest of this entry »


Welcome to Pandemicball

It was in many ways a very normal late-July afternoon: Fan blasting, a 1.5-liter water bottle at my side, idly watching the Yankees from my couch. Gio Urshela hit a weak single into right field, and the crowd, whose noise had been hovering at a comfortable murmur up to that point, cheered. In that moment, if I hadn’t looked at the screen, if I’d just taken in the familiar sonic cues of televised baseball, I could almost have convinced myself that it was a normal baseball game in a normal major league season.

Except the crowd kept cheering. It was just a little unimpressive single, and there were two out. The sound, flat and consistent, stretched far beyond where you would expect a collective breath, that fracturing of excitement that happens when one play has ended and everyone is anticipating the next one. And when it did fade, it didn’t dissolve the way it usually does, back into the thousands of individual conversations, all with their own volumes and paces. It faded back to that comfortable murmur, smooth and fast, like someone pushing down a volume slider. When Urshela was caught in a rundown soon after, there wasn’t the dismayed frenzy of people groaning, yelling “No! No!” in frustrated inevitability, standing up in their seats as though doing so could convince the deviant baserunner of the error of their ways. There was just a rise, and then a fall; gentle and unified, a mechanical sigh. Urshela left, and the inning was over. Cut to commercial. Go get a snack.

But wait, no — the inning wasn’t over, somehow. There were, undeniably, three out, and there was, undeniably, the large form of Aaron Judge standing at the plate. The eyes of Aaron Boone and Joe Girardi, peeking out from over their masks and looking across the diamond, connected. The inning would continue. Vince Velasquez, on the mound, would throw a few more pitches. Why? Because he needed to, maybe. Because he might as well.

And when Judge launched a fastball into the empty seats in right, he rounded the bases tentatively, confused. The ball had left the yard, and the lights were flashing, and the noise had swelled. On the replay, they showed the Statcast data, the exit velocity and the ball’s high arc in the air. All the signs we have come to associate with a home run. But was it? This is baseball we’re watching, right? Read the rest of this entry »


2020 Positional Power Rankings: Shortstop

This morning, we considered the catcher position. Now, we turn our attention to the shortstops.

Hello! This isn’t going to be a long intro, because you know what you’re getting into here. What has been called a golden age for the shortstop position continued apace in 2019, with shortstops batting a collective .326/.445/.772 — a 100 wRC+. This was despite several luminaries, such as Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa, having their playing time limited by injury. There were delightful surprises from longtime players (the ascension of Marcus Semien). There were promising rookie campaigns (the arrival of Bo Bichette). And there were, of course, just plain great seasons from players who are now the usual suspects: Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story, Javier Báez, et al. Even when plumbing the depths of this list, there are interesting progressions to follow: One can consider the strange season Willy Adames had for the Rays, or the was-it-a-breakout from the Pirates’ Kevin Newman. It’s a fascinating time for the position! Let’s get into it. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s Love Got to Do With It?

“But I didn’t love baseball. Because baseball would never love me back.”

– Bill White, in Uppity: My Hidden Story of the Games People Play

***

Of all the major sports in North American culture, baseball has to be the one most concerned with love. Fans often talk about why they love the game, to share stories of team loyalties passed down over generations, memories made and cherished. Players talk about why they love the game, too, are asked about it like clockwork every Fathers Day, Mothers Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Opening Day. Players are obligated, even, to love the game to a degree deemed adequate; they must be enthusiastic enough, passionate enough (in a respectful way, of course; to “disrespect the game” is not love, but something else entirely).

Love of the game is invoked every time a team pitches a massive taxpayer contribution to fund a new stadium, or every time some “Save America’s Pastime”-esque legislation is floated before governing bodies. To love the game is the cardinal virtue of cardinal virtues, the greatest of these, encompassing everything good and diminishing anything that may be bad. Because love of the game, of course, is never just love of the game: it is love of a values system, of a country, of a certain team, of a certain aesthetic, a certain style of play, a crystalline idea held in the hands — look how it glitters; look how we treasure it, how, when the light hits it just so, you can think of nothing else other than its beauty. What exactly those values, this country, this team really is — to what end, exactly, that love is directed — well, as long as you have love in your heart, then it doesn’t really matter, does it?

***

I have been thinking about this, the love of baseball, because of the sickly back-and-forth lurching of negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA over the past few months, because of the discussions that lurching has caused, and because I have been reading Bill White’s autobiography. Bill White was a longtime major leaguer, was the voice of the Yankees along with Phil Rizzuto for two decades after that, and was the president of the National League during the early-90s expansion and labor crisis. Bill White had about as diverse and lengthy a career in baseball as one could possibly have. In 1961, his willingness to speak out about the segregation Black players experienced during spring training in St. Petersburg spurred a boycott of Cardinals owners Anheuser-Busch, eventually leading Busch to purchase property on which white and Black players could stay together. He was the first Black play-by-play announcer for a major league team, and the duo of him and Rizzuto as the voices of the Yankees became legendary. And he was the first Black president of the National League.

White, before he became a professional baseball player, was in school to become a doctor. He initially took the contract from the Giants’ Leo Durocher because it would pay his tuition. It was never White’s dream to become a baseball player, or a baseball broadcaster, or the president of a league. His view of these always came from a place of ambivalence — the viewpoint of an outsider, someone who had not bought the myth and would not be sold one. He credits this ambivalence for his willingness to speak bluntly and honestly about the injustices he and his teammates faced as players; to negotiate contracts openly; to publicly name racism within the ranks of MLB’s executive class, despite being painted as “bitter” and “angry”; to tell owners, umpires, and Commissioners alike when he thought they were losing the plot. And when it became clear that the position of Commissioner was to become an arm of the owners’ interests, White simply walked away from baseball. “And I’ve never regretted it,” he writes.

It is rare, in the thousands of pages of baseball auto/biography that I’ve read, to encounter someone inside the game so willing to say that they did not love the game of baseball, that they had “no respect” for the business of it. In newspaper archives, back to the first decade of the 20th century and all the way up to profiles of high school teams in 2017, the narrative of love of the game as virtue, love of the game as essential to baseball’s character, is ubiquitous. To see an overt rebuttal of it is jarring.

For White, though, the idea that all — or even most — players loved the game, that they were living the dream, that they would even play for free — it was “pure nonsense.” White believed that for most players, “love of the game” had nothing to do with it. It was just something they had to say, something they had to try to make themselves believe — to make sure the myth continued to be true. The front office and owners certainly didn’t believe it:

“They would keep you on as long as you were useful, but the minute you weren’t, you’d be gone — and it wouldn’t matter what you had done in the past, or if you had a sick child at home, or if you were broke and had nowhere to go. Baseball was business, and while baseball owners may have loved owning baseball teams, most of them didn’t love baseball players.”

And yet, the myth spun on. When Bud Selig’s 20-year marriage fell apart in 1976, one newspaper report attributed it to “love of baseball.”

***

One might have thought that baseball’s shift toward a more analytically-inclined ethos would have done away with all of this. Sabermetricians seek answers that are founded in fact; they ask questions that challenge slippery narratives. Perhaps that is indeed the case more in communities like these, wherein an analytical mindset is encouraged and celebrated.

But that narrative of love-of-game as virtue still holds a particular power over the public. It is still part of the myth-building of Major League Baseball, of baseball as a North American institution. And it still permeates the discourse surrounding baseball, bending and morphing to fit the shape of whatever the issue of the era is. When people decry the problems they see with the game, whatever problems those might be — wanting a universal DH, or not wanting it; greedy owners, and/or greedy players; being overly regressive, or overly progressive — these problems are often contrasted with the ideal love of the game. The people who are causing problems, it is theorized, do not love the game enough, or not in the way that they should, not the true way. No wonder MLB Network chooses to promote their Griffey doc with this quote:

No wonder, because it feels good to love things. People love to love things almost as much as they love to hate things. No wonder, too, because many people do love the game. It is wonderful that people can find so much beauty in baseball, that they can feel so passionate about it. A love of baseball improved my life in bizarre and unpredictable ways. It has done the same for many others with all kinds of different relationships to the sport.

All the worse, then, that the concept of loving the game is used in the way that it so often is: a cudgel wielded by the powerful, to manipulate, exonerate, excuse, evade, hammering narratives into shape. You will accept this, because you love it. If you don’t love it, well, why are you even here?

***

Over the coming month leading up to the planned Re-Opening Day, there will doubtless be many more debates surrounding the state of the game — warranted debates, critical ones. We are entering uncharted territory, attempting to restart the sport in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over a hundred thousand people in this country alone. In the midst of an international reckoning with institutional violence against Black people that the sport has made largely ineffectual gestures toward acknowledging.

There will be — as there has been — an effort to use love of the game to distract, appealing to emotion, the soft glow of happy memory. And, for many people, there will be dissonance. Loving the game, but not loving it. Loving the game, but worrying. Not loving the game — wanting to, not being able to. Never having loved it at all, and being frustrated by the spinning of wheels, so much ado when so many more important things are happening.

I keep thinking about a scene in Bill White’s book. He writes about going to visit an ailing Phil Rizzuto in a nursing home:

Once I came in and found Phil, wearing a nice sweater, sitting by the window, looking outside. It was his favorite spot, a place to catch the morning sun. I sat down in a chair next to him, and Phil tried to turn and say something, but by this time it was hard for him to talk. Instead he held up his hand, and I took it in mine.

For the next forty-five minutes we sat there, holding hands and saying nothing. I wondered if maybe having me next to him reminded him of the broadcast booths in which we had sat together so many times.

Two old men, two baseball players, old friends, holding hands in a sunbeam. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry — but I’m pretty sure Phil would have wanted me to laugh.

Bill White never loved the game, a game that didn’t love him. That didn’t matter, in the end. He could see what was important — illuminated, sharp in a sunbeam.


An Insignificant Plate Appearance, August 11, 1994

The top of the seventh, and the Cardinals lead the Marlins7-6. Hard-earned, after getting out ahead early, 3-0, before ceding six runs, unable to muster a response; they were saving it all for the top of the sixth, when they got them all back — and another for insurance. Not enough insurance, though, not when you’re still trying to win — still, even though there is nothing tomorrow. Nothing the day after that, and nothing the day after that, either.

They’ve been holding up the signs: SAVE OUR SPORT. OWNER$ WIN, PLAYER$ WIN, FANS LOSE. The Cards send a pinch-hitter to the plate to lead it off: Gerald Young, in his 16th game with the big-league club. He is 29 years old. This will be the final game of his major league career.

***

Gerald Young — born in Honduras, raised in California — was signed by the Mets the same day as Doc Gooden. Gooden was the fifth pick overall in the 1982 draft; Young was drafted in the fifth round. Both were selected out of high school. Unlike Gooden, though, Young never ended up playing a single game for the Mets. His three-year career in their system was distinguished only by its anonymity. After the 1984 season, the Mets sent him and two Players to be Named Later to the Astros in exchange for Ray Knight, who had requested a trade.

In the Astros’ minor-league system, no longer a teenager, Young improved steadily. Every year, he advanced a level. His OPS climbed. He stole 54 bases in Double-A. His work in the outfield began to draw notice, too.

Young began the 1987 season in Tucson with the Triple-A Toros, the youngest player on the team’s roster, “scared and nervous” to make the jump to Triple-A. He quickly became the PCL’s stolen-base leader while hitting better than he ever had before. He thrived under the mentorship of Eric Bullock, then a veteran of the Houston farm, five years his senior. An “ooh-and-aah” player, the Arizona Daily Star called him: a thrill-seeker who loved the tension of the chase more than anything else, a dazzling young man with a bright smile and a twinkle in his eye. Read the rest of this entry »


Four Songs of the King of Swat

“If you let that mad galoot step into the ball he’ll knock its cover off.”

That’s what Pat Tableau, the old manager, said of him — that’s the legend of Ed Delahanty. Six foot one, 190 pounds, who grew up in a boardinghouse in Cleveland, who had four brothers playing with him in the bigs and was the best of them all. It didn’t matter that he swung at anything, that he couldn’t resist a wild pitch. He reached for everything, his huge frame stretching over the plate, over the other batter’s box, “like a kid trying to pick the ripest cherries at the extreme end of the branch.” He tore off the infielders’ shoes. He broke ankles with line drives, the ball hurtling through the air as if “shot from a cannon.” And if he didn’t like the pitcher, he would complain. If he had a bad day, he would complain. He smoked cigars, and he chewed tobacco, and he drank, and if the circumstances of his team weren’t going his way, he would threaten to quit.

Big Ed couldn’t hold back. That was what made him great; that was what stopped him, he said, from being greater.

***

In his breakout season — 1892, four years after his debut — Delahanty finally earned the title of “a decent utility man.” His first four years in baseball were passable. But he decided he was done with that, with “not doing much brilliant work.” He slugged .495 in 1892, the best mark in the league. He kept climbing. The league’s best slugging percentage in 1893 was his again, but nearly a hundred points higher. He hit 19 dead-ball homers. He had the most total bases. In 1894, he did his slugging percentage one better, adding a .405 average into the mix. He was 25. Read the rest of this entry »


Chi Sung Pil: A Trailblazer in Korean Baseball

Chi Sung Pil was born in Korea around 1900. His mother, Sun Sin So Kim, was a longstanding Presbyterian missionary. Sometime around 1909, Kim’s husband died. Thanks to the efforts of Christian missionaries in Honolulu, who assisted Korean Christian widows and divorcees in relocating to the United States, Kim moved to Hawai’i shortly thereafter, bringing young Chi Sung with her. Kim continued her missionary work with the other devout Korean immigrants she met, and soon remarried within the thriving community, having two more children.

In Roberta Chang and Wayne Patterson’s The Koreans in Hawai’i: A Pictorial History, 1903-2003, a photo from 1920 shows Kim and the family she built in Hawai’i. The photo is taken against an elegant forested backdrop, and both parents and children are dressed to the nines: mother and daughter in light dresses, father and son in suits — the son, Harry Kim, sporting a jaunty polka-dot button-up and bow-tie. Chi Sung, who would then have been around 20, is not pictured.

Only a few years later, Chi Sung’s photograph would be featured in newspapers across the country. There is one in particular that kept cropping up: an action shot, with Chi Sung’s left arm raised high behind his head, his right arm extended outward and down — the classic, instantly recognizable pose of the submariner. In the Los Angeles Times on April 5, 1923, this photo appeared alongside other images of other people making world news that day — Haran Elkuta, leading a revolution in Albania; a group of Hawai’ian legislators; the U.S.S Pennsylvania at sea.

The caption box beside Chi Sung’s picture reads: “Only Korean ball player is demon pitcher! Chi Sung Pil, now attending the University of Oregon, plans to organize a team of Koreans to tour the Orient.” Read the rest of this entry »