Your Pal Al: Dear Mr. Huntington

Prior to the start of this blog, a man named Albert Schlegg made considerable efforts to start and maintain penpal relationships with a variety of sports entities.  While most of his letters were met with deaf ears, he did get a few responses.  With fond memories of these cherished connections, he has decided to re-up his resolve to add a little humanity to the ultra-competitive and hyper-critical world of professional baseball.   We are hoping to include these letters as a semi-regular addition to the Soxdetox blog.  Here is his latest correspondence:

Dear Mr. Huntington,

I know what you’re thinking: Albert Schlegg, Albert Schlegg… I know that name from somewhere, but… BINGO!  That’s right, I applied for the Boston Red Sox General Manager position back when Theo Epstein left.  You’ll remember that I was left off the short list and never had an opportunity to interview.  As you know, those decisions are so very difficult.  Alas, I’ve moved on.  (That said, if you would like a copy of my CV, it’s updated and I’d be happy to send one along if you think the Pirates are ready for my particular brand of expertise.)

First off, I see your Alma Mater is making another run at the NESCAC crown.  What do you think Mike Odenwaelder needs to do to take his game to the next level?  The recent sweep of Williams must have been quite satisfying.

Do you ever long for the simple days on your old New Hampshire farm, Neal?  Having spent long, wholesome hours with cows myself, I know the unique pleasures and insights the dairyman gains while plodding the pasture and scrubbing teat cups.  Yes, it’s relentless work, leaving the farmer saturated with sweat and manure.  But it is that very same stench and ache that fills milk trucks and enriches breakfast tables across the country.  As you know, there are short cuts in this labor of love: temptations stained with pride and vainglory.  One of which I must speak of now: gluing teats.

As a lad with his prized dairy girls, I’m sure you’ve had dreams of winning at the big shows (and the young ladies’ furtive glances and meaningful smiles that the blue ribbons garner).  And I’m also sure that you’ve gone home with the honorable, but ultimately unsatisfying red ribbon, knowing that if your cow was just a little more dairy or the udder a little more balanced, you may have left a champion.  In those moments, an older fellow may have dropped a little hint about the power of super glue: with a little dab here and a little plug there, ol’ Bess could’ve had a fuller bag or a better inward turn to the rear tits.  With the seed of temptation planted, you, like countless other competitors, lost sleep debating the psychic and spiritual consequences of virtuous means, versus the worldly gains of manipulated ends.  In other words, you have already had to weigh the benefits of potentially losing – with honor, or a more certain chance of winning – with shame.

You may be wondering why a man of such baseball acumen is waxing philosophic about dairy shows.  But it is just this moral dilemma that Pirates fans must be certain about: will our General Manager succumb to the temptations of personal wealth (both monetary and societal) at the cost of righteous helmsmanship, a cost that ultimately erodes the reason and clear thinking needed to walk a sustainable and durable path of victory.

In short Neal, are you gluing teats?  Are you selling this team’s soul to simply create the illusion of a world class udder?  Or are you walking the humble path of righteousness?

Your Pal,

Al

PS – Would you be so kind as to sign the enclosed 3 x 5 card and return in the pre-stamped envelope?  The kids will love it!  Also – please let Jung-Ho Kang know that he should be expecting a letter from me soon.

The pessimist’s take

In many ways, the sweep of the Brewers just feels right.  After a dubious start to 2015 at the Great American Ballpark the team appears to be back on the path to October.

October?!  Already?  Well, with all the predictions and projections this off-season, that’s the point, right?  This year’s Pirates are today’s manifestation of yesterday’s dreams.  All the draft picks, reclamation pitchers, and spare-part trades are supposed to come to roost this summer (…and next summer, and next…).

The predictions may feel, at least in part, like a bit of headline grabbing or Cinderellaism by the mainstream media.  But even the tried and true Pirates followers seem to believe that this team has a little ‘next step’ in them.  So Milwaukee sweep feels like they way it’s supposed to go.  These Pirates should be running teams like the Brewers out of PNC with ease.  But a look at these first few series may indicate that a playoff birth is as much hopeful thinking as anything else.  (And maybe just an early sign of institutional entitlement from the past two seasons of success.)

Cause to worry #1: Pedro Alvarez.  He’s hit four home runs: that’s good.  But all the questions still remain.  His 12-game OPS is a heady .900, a full 150 points above his career mark.  He’s earned those extra points primarily from a quick succession of dingers.  He’s streaky, so when he hits the inevitable dry spell let the hand-wringing begin.

Cause to worry #2: Gregory Polanco. The most recent addition to Pittsburgh’s holy outfield trinity is off to a start remarkably similar to his 2014 mediocrity (307/343/650 vs. 292/348/640).  He tore up AAA last year and is considered one of the best young players in the game.  But surely you’ll remember that Valentino Pascucci was also a AAA phenom.

Cause to worry #3: Josh Harrison. In 2014, the All Star third baseman hit .314 with 38 doubles and 18 stolen bases.  He’s really fun to watch, but the rest of his career has been marked by a 282/365/648 slash line.  The early part of 2015 may be a slow start.  Or it could just be more in line with what we should expect from the little utility guy from Cincinnati.  His April numbers (298/349/647) look surprisingly similar to his pre-2014 production.

Cause to worry #4: Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett.  These two guys will both spend time on the DL.  While the pitching staff has amazingly kept opposing hitters flailing worse than the Pirates’ early-season offense, as a group they will never be this healthy at any other point during the season.

In summary, there’s plenty to fear in 2015.  In addition to the potential disasters listed above, there’s Mark Melancon‘s velocity, Starling Marte‘s strike outs, Neil Walker‘s general mediocrity, Francisco Cervelli‘s breakability, and Andrew McCutchen‘s lack of hair.  That doesn’t leave many guarantees on the Pirates’ roster.  Expect the worst.

Media darlings LOSE! But ESPN helps make sense of it all…

First, some disclosure.  I’m not a TV guy.  I catch the games when I can, but the standard MLB schedule is an inconvenience for me.  If the games started at 5:00 AM, I’d be an overbearing, obsessive super fan.  But as it is, I’m more of a reflective follower: I pore over box scores and recaps; skim the beat writers and read the blogs.  Twitter is often my best gauge of team temperature, not my first-hand observation.  So yes, I’m limited.  And yet I still write publicly about the Pirates.

This morning I checked ESPN.com to see what their take was on the first series of games of the 2015 season, and lo and behold, the Pirates were the subject of the lead story on the MLB page!  Welcome to the overdone world of being a contender in the age of ESPN.  This is manufactured ‘news’ at its finest: have someone type up a few fancy stories about how great a team is and then spend the next six months helping people make sense of your columnist’s opinion.

The lead story (which also included the White Sox) was an ‘in depth’ analysis of how teams fare when they start off 0-3 (or 3-0).  Turns out, on average teams generally do better after winning the first three games rather than losing the first three games.  Let me repeat: it is better to win games; it is worse to lose games.  That was the lead MLB story.

ESPN also asks the most important question: should fans worry about this start?  David Schoenfield ends with “…it’s early and there’s need [sic?] to overreact; but I’d much rather my team be 3-0 than 0-3.”  So it’s a definite ‘maybe’.  I’m glad I added those 1,000 words to my morning reading.  Turns out I may have worried (or not worried) for no good reason otherwise.

Small market fans tend to gripe about the lack of coverage their team gets from the major media outlets.  Somehow I think it might be better if we’re spared the increased attention.  Being mindlessly ignored seems better than being mindlessly obsessed about.

The evolving Pirates: World Champs or media whores?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here.  There hasn’t been much activity on this blog for a couple years now.  It sort of makes sense.  I started this site as a public declaration of my disgust: large market baseball, manifest in the Boston Red Sox, had eroded my fandom to the point of desperation.  At the time, it felt like I was taking drastic measures.  I jumped ship and boarded a foundering Pittsburgh Pirates vessel that had been, to quote a bigger fan, lost at sea for quite some time.

That was the tone of this blog.  But that tone doesn’t work anymore.  We now live in a world where free agents sign in Pittsburgh; the front office is winning bidding wars for international free agents (albeit from Korea – not Cuba); and guys like Buster Olney are picking the Pirates to win the World Series.

To be sure, this is all good news.  This is the transformation every small market fanbase dreams of.  Kansas City experienced long awaited success last year.  The fan [sic] in Tampa has felt that for some time now.  But there is indeed another side to this once buried coin of victory.  Success breeds expectations which, in turn, breed entitlement.  The media love affair with the Pirates has already started.  There is now a legitimate bandwagon, as evidenced by the countless questions and conversations initiated by my Pirates toque this past (and continuing) winter in Vermont, of all places.  It feels pretty happy to be a pre-2013 Pirates fan (even if I only pre-date the playoffs by a couple years…).

If all of this hype lives and dies at the fan level, I think we’ll be okay.  PNC Park filled with fair-weather packs of newbies isn’t the worst thing in the world.  They’ll learn the game and a new era of Pirates legends will deepen across a larger swath of the country.  But I’ve seen a situation like this go wrong before.  If the ownership itself (and management by directive) starts to buy into the hype, we could see personnel moves determined by sports page impact.  In other words: baseball decisions can easily, but subtly, turn into marketing decisions.

If this happens, things will start to suck for Pittsburgh baseball fans.  The revenue streams themselves could begin to trump their purpose.  The lure of winning now (and now! and now!) could result in selling off the opportunities of tomorrow.  All market brands (and people) crave attention and influence.  Our hope is that the Pirates continue to strive for the means to achieve attention (high quality product) rather than settle for short-cuts to a financially desirable end.  Because the fans’ desired end has begun to emerge: the Pirates have arrived.  How this ownership handles the success or failure of 2015 will go a long way to define this era of Pittsburgh baseball.

Dry Land: Winning After 20 Years at Sea with the Pittsburgh Pirates

Chronicling a baseball season has been done many, many times.  Believe me, I’ve read quite a few.  As far as I can tell, they seem to come in two varieties: The Tale of the Winner (exciting and happy); or, The Tale of the Loser (tragic or mundane, depending on the scale of failure).  Often, it seems that the author decides that the book will be written before the season starts.  The author then goes about the process of writing much like a beat reporter, and ultimately compiles the notes into a book-length piece of work to be available prior to the next season.  If the year was remarkable, it sells; if not, it doesn’t.  But the book rarely stands on its merits alone.  Most often, the book lives or dies relative to the very team it followed.  Essentially it’s a diary.  The subject will determine its relevance, not the work itself.
Dry Land is different.
Charlie Wilmoth has made a real and meaningful contribution to the world of baseball.  He has done for the understanding of being a fan what Bill James (and others) did for the evaluation of baseball talent.  Wilmoth breaks through the judgment and stereotype within the strange world of fandom with a compassionate, objective psychological understanding of human nature.  And in this case, he sketches an understanding of human identity in the face of unimaginable team failure.  He explains exactly why we care so much when grown men succeed or fail at the endeavor of playing a child’s game.  Being a fanatic in relation to others’ achievements is absurd on the surface.  But Wilmoth shines insight on the subject through pointed interviews and generalizations of the psychology of human behavior in community with others.  He does all this while at the same time painting the depths of Pirates failure on the field and in the front office over the span of two decades.
As a new fan, the history part of the book was captivating.  I now have a better understanding of the jokes and references of the failed Pirates teams of yore.  And I would imagine, the recounting of memorable mishaps of years gone by taps into the real causes and conditions of how and why old-time fans make sense of their oft-pitied favorite team.  Unlike many factual histories of baseball, Wilmoth manages to pare down the information to the truly critical benchmarks of failure and misery.  It makes for engaging, lively reading rather than the textbook-like filler you can often find in longer-winded play-by-play.
Back to the psychology, though.  (After all, this angle is what really sets this book apart.)  Wilmoth clearly knows how to interview well.  His questions and summaries burrow into the inner landscape of Pirates fans with a forthright transparency.  He offers fans’ responses in a way that leaves room for interpretation but also offers a generalized categorization of the types of fans he found in his research.  When he detaches from the details and broadens into fan types, he is able to frame the collective reactions to perennial losing (and then finally winning) as, essentially, coping mechanisms.  And specifically, he frames most of them as coping mechanisms by people in a chronic state of abuse – yes, abuse inflicted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the very team we allegedly love.
And here’s what makes Dry Land such a powerful piece of writing: By pulling back layers of outward behavior, Wilmoth leaves room to ponder the fundamental questions of humanity.  What does it mean to succeed?  If I fail repeatedly, how does that shape my place in community?  Is there free will, or do the circumstances we’re born into determine our fate?  There can be unsettling answers to those questions.  And when we, as expressed by ‘our’ team, are on the losing side of things, how do we compensate for failure?
Wilmoth makes some connections to other fanbases of other franchises.  And this stuff is what makes a book like this potentially transformative.  Because there’s nothing unique about being a Pirates fan.  Let me take that back.  I understand (better now that I’ve read Dry Land) that there’s nothing else in North American professional sports like being a Pirates fan.  But Wilmoth makes clear that any fanbase that experienced the combination of ineptitude, bad luck, and poor performance of the Pittsburgh Pirates would react largely in the same way (as a group).  There would be different reactions individually, but fundamentally, it would be a community of people making sense of abuse.

All of this leaves me wondering a few things.  What if, after 20 years of neglect, the once loving partner comes home from work with flowers and tickets to Hawaii.  How exactly are we to make sense of that?  How exactly do people make sense of a gift from their abuser?  Is this a case of the random gift (read: one winning season) that momentarily quells disappointment and suspicion only to keep everyone off the abuser’s back for a while?  Or is this a genuine expression of ‘care’ in the midst of a larger change for the better (read: organizational competence)?  I suppose it depends on how you generally make sense of the world.  In Wilmoth’s terms, it may depend on whether you’re a Builder, an Anti, a Fatalist, or a Contrarian.  Or is there a new type of fan growing in Pittsburgh?  I guess we’ll have to keep watching to find out.

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and click here.  Buy this book.  Heck, buy two.  I guarantee you’ll think of someone that needs a copy after you’re finished reading it.  And you won’t want to part with yours.

162 – 0

As long as I can remember this happening, I’ve never liked the day off after Opening Day.  I can only imagine it’s a way to maximize TV revenues by making sure the Opening Day moments in Boston, New York, and the LAs are exclusive, non-competing events.  All this day-off does is amplify the hope or fear generated throughout the winter.  Almost every team loses to end a season: either they lose the playoff chase or they lose a heart-breaking series in October.  Of course there’s that one team that does win.  For those fans winter is a time of realization and joy.  But for everyone else winter follows loss.  And loss does this amazing thing that winning doesn’t do: it stokes the imagination.

Imagination is good.  But imagination is also the playground of projection.  As humans, it can be argued that we tend to project our inner condition on all that we encounter in life.  In other words, we see ourselves in everything.  All that is around us – people, institutions, baseball teams – start to take on the characteristics we hold for ourselves.  Confident people tend to trust their neighbors.  Depressed people see places like schools as hopeless pitstops on a meaningless road to death.  Deceitful people see churches and charities as scams looking to take your money.  The list of examples can go on and on.  Yes, losing sparks our imagination, but our imagination simply overlays our sense of self onto the possibilities that ‘next year’ holds for our favorite baseball team.

Opening Day brings reality.  Opening Day announces the start of the marathon.  With former stars and grand entrances, our teams get back onto the field to give it another go.  The games start and our imagination is put to the test.  If you believe the psychology of it, our very sense of self is put to the test. And for Pirates fans, our egos are validated or refuted by the men in black and gold.

But here’s the magic of it…  If we’re generally well-adjusted, happy people and our sense of the world is that it is generally a good place, we set ourselves up for some grating dissonance when the Pirates lose.  We may hold out for a while with a hearty get’m-tomorrow attitude.  But over the long haul, the losses may teach us that the outer reality is inconsistent with our inner confidence.  But that’s just the dark side.

If we’re on the other end, we’re the one who generally sees the shit in life.  If we’re the person that interjects a yeahbut into every hopeful projection or a ‘reality check’ for every dreamer, we have the opportunity to completely change our lives every spring.

Undoubtedly, the naysayers predict horrible ways of losing every year.  Or even worse, they predict mundane, lifeless ways of falling short on the baseball field (as they must for themselves in their daily lives, as well).  But then the team wins.  What do the rally-killers of life do then?  How do you explain it when the team that really sucks (and probably hates its fans) wins?  Really, how do you account for the good things that happen to the projections of our inner hatred?  (Watch out – because if it keeps happening, it might just change your whole outlook on life.)

But that’s not today’s Pirates fan, right?  I mean, we all get that the team is different now.  This team’s a winner and the front office ‘gets it’.  So we’re all predicting a modest 86-win season that may or may not earn a Wild Card spot depending on the competition.  It’s a safe bet for most.  Sure, some of the deep self-haters are hanging onto the validation that losing brings and declaring last year a fluke – we’ll be back to 70 wins in no time.  Other, more Pollyanna types fully expect a trip to the World Series.   But for most of us, we may see a small step back in 2014 on an overall forward trend that should include a couple postseason runs in the next five years – maybe even a deep one.  It’s a safe bet.

But what if you’re like me and you’re too stupid to doubt?  What if you’re generally happy about things – or happy about baseball, at least – and you think: hell, they could just keep winning.  Maybe all winter, you largely ignored all the analysis about AJ Burnett and the time tables for Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco.  Maybe you walked blissfully by iced over snowbanks content with the knowledge that the Pirates will do it again this year.  Yep, the Pirates are a playoff team and sure, there will be ups and downs, but it’ll all work out in the end.

If you’re that person, then the day off after an Opening Day win is the playground of even more absurd imagination.  It’s the day we can kick around images of champagne soaked unis and World Series trophies.  Heck, we can even imagine perfection.

‘Jeff’ is the problem

Things have been pretty quiet on the sports front this winter for me.  I’ve been focused on selling my house (and buying a new one) and simply getting through this ridiculously cold stretch that seems to be going on forever.  I was almost lulled to sleep, until… I got this gem posted by ‘Jeff’ to my season ticket refusal letter.  It started off like this:

I bet your kicking yourself in the ass for not renewing. But I’ll thank you for not renewing because I happened to become a season ticket holder just this past year and man was it a fun team to watch. Not to mention the fact they won the World Series.

Good… Good…  I like the energy.  I like the looks of the horse he’s riding in on, too.  And I especially like the breaking news about the Red Sox winning the World Series.  It’s always fun to hear the new Red Sox fans take on an edge.  What’s really nice is that he then goes on to teach me a lesson about how life works.

You need to understand something, baseball is a business. There is a reason they charge the prices they do, because they can and people will pay it. Unfortunately yes that does price out many fans, but by lowering the price doesn’t mean those less fortunate will necessarily get to go to games, because the rich can still buy up all of those cheaper tickets, sell them to stub hub and then the poor still have to pay high prices. If you can’t afford the tickets thats one thing, but don’t bitch simply because the Sox ownership is raising the prices too high. Its called supply and demand.

Sassy and informative.  But there’s more!

I can’t afford my whole package of tickets so I share them with friends, I make it work because I love the team and I always want to be a part of them, win or lose. I may not have been born in 1986, but I’ve still watched every pitch of that series.

He tells me how to make season tickets work economically.  He also gives me a sense of how old he is – which is great because now I can kind of picture this guy.  In fact, I know this guy.  And I know his Facebook page is flooded with selfies at Fenway (and probably comments on his own pictures with congratulatory comments about ‘his’ seats).  But I digress…

If you expect a good team on the field year in and year out, they will expect to keep making money.

This here is the saddest line of the whole comment.  He tips his hand. He admits his resignation.  With this one line he hands over his wallet to the ownership of the Boston Red Sox.   ‘If you expect a good team’, and he does, ‘they will expect to keep making money’.  Exactly.

Baseball is indeed a business.  No one is in it for charity.  But different teams operate differently.  Some offer competitive but fair prices (and a competitive team) because they know their fans not only love baseball, but they also have limited money available to spend on entertainment.

Other teams simply go for the jugular.  Other teams cater to wealthy individuals, image drunk 20-somethings, corporations, and the so-called secondary market because (like my thoughtful reader Jeff accurately points out) someone’s gonna pay the bill.

Whoring to the almighty dollar is one way of living.  I can’t object to that other than to say that I choose not to live that way.  But happily complying to someone else’s money-grabbing obsession is a disgrace.  Jeff is just another mindless pawn in the game. I feel sorry for him.  But in another more accurate way I blame him.  The more Jeffs there are in the world, the more baseball will slide down to the lowest common denominator.  The more people (like Jeff) that are successfully seduced by the PR nonsense that teams like the Red Sox desperately shove in fan’s faces all year long, the more teams will try to brand you with pink hats, Neil Diamond, and ‘priceless’ souvenirs of your witness to the true marketing ascendancy of billionaires (taking your money).

The real problem with Jeff’s position is that it will ultimately ruin the Major Leagues.  The more people that resign to the oppressive economics of professional baseball, the more the big market teams will be able to get away with it.  The rules already bend their way.  With the support of the people, it will only continue in that direction.  New York always wins free agency.  Boston rakes in regional TV revenues.  Los Angeles now even fares better in the draft.   Jeff will help secure the next level of codified imbalance.

Good job, Jeff.  And thanks for securing the destruction of our National Pastime.