Bob Schwartz

Category: Baseball

Excellence and Humility: Why Baseball’s Mike Trout Should Be President (of Our Hearts)

“As always, his personal stats continue to give off a beam of light.”
Mike Lupica, MLB.com

Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels is universally considered the best player in Major League Baseball. The only questions remaining are how much better he might get and whether he may be the best to ever play the game. Seriously, and seriously amazing since Trout is only 26 and has been in the majors only since 2011.

I’ll let veteran sportswriter Mike Lupica take over the story. But there is one more point to make about Trout. Along with overwhelming acknowledgment of his once-in-a-generation talent, he is universally regarded for his humility and lack of showmanship. He only wants to do three things: play baseball as well as he can for his team, get better every day at playing baseball, and be known and seen for playing baseball and not for anything else he says or does.

For those of us who are not nearly the best, let alone the best ever, that should be inspiring and aspirational.


Mike Lupica
MLB.com

The question for the Angels’ Mike Scioscia, who has seen it all from Mike Trout from the moment Trout hit the big leagues in 2011, was simple enough. It was about Trout’s capacity, if he has one, to still surprise his own manager, as Trout continues to be the greatest star of his sport and one of the great stars of American sports, even if he is not discussed nearly often enough outside baseball the way he ought to be, which means as baseball’s LeBron….

It doesn’t work that way in baseball, or for Trout, who is the best player of his time, on his way, if he is blessed by good health, to someday being called one of the most complete of all time. To this point, Trout has only played three postseason games in his career. He has just one postseason home run in the books. LeBron always has the postseason stage, and the brightest lights there are. So does someone like Tom Brady, who has played eight Super Bowls in his own career.

Not Trout, at least not so far.

It does not change who Trout is and what he has done in baseball and keeps doing, before his 27th birthday. From the time he played his first full season for the Angels in 2012, the only time he has finished worse than second in the American League’s MVP Award voting was last season, when he got hurt and only played 114 games. Even with all the missed time, Trout finished fourth in the voting. So he has two MVPs already, three seconds, a fourth. As always, his personal stats continue to give off a beam of light.

When I suggested to Reggie Jackson, who lives in southern California and has had his own ringside seat to the way Trout plays the game, that Trout is the superstar who sometimes seems to be hiding in plain sight, Reggie said, “No. We all know that he’s the best player.”

Added Reggie: “You know how we always talk about five-tool players [hitting for average, hitting for power, base running, throwing, and fielding]? You watch Trout play and sometimes you swear he’s got even more than that. He checks boxes that you didn’t even know were boxes.”

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“In the biographies of men and nations, success often arrives in a mask of failure.”

This isn’t about baseball, though the quote is from a baseball writer. Bill James is not just a superb writer; he is a thinker whose analysis of the game has changed baseball more than any other thinker has ever changed any game. You can look it up.

This is about optimism and hope. I was reading The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (a 998-page volume whose title alone should tell you just how thoughtful Bill James is). He describes Robin Yount, who as of the time of publication James considered the Number 4 shortstop in baseball history:

Robin Yount (1974–1993, 2856 G, 251 1406 .285)

Robin Yount was a major league regular when he was 18 years old. We always wondered how good he would be, how much he would improve. In 1978, after Yount had been in the major leagues four years, he held out in the spring, mulling over whether he wanted to be a baseball player, or whether he really wanted to be a professional golfer.

When that happened, I wrote him off as a player who would never become a star. If he can’t even figure out whether he wants to be a baseball player or a golfer, I reasoned, he’s never going to be an outstanding player.

Yount was unhappy about suggestions that the Brewers would move him to the outfield. According to Dan Okrent in Nine Innings, “Yount didn’t merely reject the suggestion; he brooded about it, resented it, and lost himself in self-doubt. Members of the front office… saw Yount’s reaction as immature sulking.”

But as soon as he returned to baseball, Yount became a better player than he had been before; his career got traction from the moment he returned. What I didn’t see at the time was that Yount was in the process of making a commitment to baseball. Before he had his golf holiday, he was there every day, he was playing baseball every day, but on a certain level he wasn’t participating; he was wondering whether this was really the sport that he should be playing. What looked like indecision or sulking was really the process of making a decision.

This is often true. What Watergate was about was not the corruption of government, as most people thought, but rather, the establishment of new and higher standards of ethical conduct. Almost all scandals, I think, result not from the invention of new evils, but from the imposition of new ethical standards. Same thing with Yount; he wasn’t backing away from baseball; he was just putting the bit in his teeth, accepting new responsibilities. In the biographies of men and nations, success often arrives in a mask of failure. (emphasis added)

Baseball Crush

Note: I wake up today to find that it is between two Easters, the last day of Passover, and more than a week since Major League Baseball season began. Yet I still haven’t posted about baseball, as I do each year. Here it is.

In junior high school, age 12 or so, the great elation, the walking on a cloud, is having a crush on someone. There is school, there is family, there is the rest of life, but above all there is just that one. The only thing better, the only cloud higher, is actually getting together with that crush. Of course, worst of all is discovering that the crush is unrequited, the crush as crash, but that is not the hopeful stuff of spring.

Except for those romantic crushes, the most intoxicated I felt was the start of baseball season. During free periods, I would go to the library, where with my other baseball-loving friends, I would sit at a table and pore over the papers, inhaling the baseball pages. Scores, standings, player statistics. Another crush.

In the years since, my interest in baseball has shifted, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. But it has never, ever gone away. Each spring I still stock up on books that cover what happened last season and what, according to the expanding corps of scientific analysts, will happen this season.

I’ve written before about why baseball matters, but no matter what explanation you concoct or read, the truth is that it is ultimately inexplicable. You get it or you don’t. It just is. Like that crush on that girl in seventh grade. It’s big and forever, and it’s just gotta be.

Cleveland Indians Win and Win and Win

It appears that I haven’t published a baseball post this season. It also appears that while I wrote about the 2016 World Series before it began, what I didn’t write about was the Cleveland Indians missing winning the World Series last season in the last inning of the last game.

There’s always next year, which is this year. It is nearly the end of the regular season, before the playoffs and World Series, and yesterday the Indians won their 22nd game in a row.

If you’re interested (and some of you probably aren’t, not being sports fans, and if you are, not being baseball fans), you can read and watch lots about it elsewhere, because it is a very big deal (22 Fun Facts About the Cleveland Indians’ Historic 22-Game Winning Streak, Inside Indians’ 22-game win streak).

Consider any high-level competitive setting in any field. Consider that you are up against some worthy competition, many of the best. Consider the ups and downs of the typical journey, even if you are very, very good at what you do. Then consider having to bring 25 people together, each with their own individual ups and downs, to make sure that over the course of about three weeks, nobody beats you at that thing you do so well.

If it ends today, it ends today, and the awesome achievement stands. And if it doesn’t end today? A lot of people, me included, have been saying, “Well, you gotta lose sometime.” But what if you don’t?

Baseball Poetry: Joy and Tragedy in Mudville

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright…

Baseball has inspired more literature, novels, stories, essays, poems, than all other sports combined. It isn’t that those other sports haven’t inspired some great works. It’s just that the volume of baseball writing is so huge.

I’ve mentioned Bart Giamatti before: Yale University President, baseball commissioner, writer of exquisite baseball elegies. Also the recently deceased W.P. Kinsella, author of the ultimate novel about baseball magic, Shoeless Joe, and many other baseball stories. For other classic baseball novels among the hundreds published, see The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris, to name a few.

And then there are thousands of baseball poems, by professional and amateur writers/baseball fans. Poems about baseball in general, about particular teams, about particular seasons, about particular players. Multiple volumes of baseball haiku.

Here is a favorite baseball poem:

The Pitcher
by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

And then there’s the most famous baseball poem ever, Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer. Note well: This poem, published in 1888, has been popular for more than a century. And it is a tragedy. Casey battles a nameless pitcher in the ninth inning, with two out, men on second and third. Casey strikes out. Any game that inspires such a poem, and any fans who embrace such a poem, understand something about something that goes beyond the simple and conventional. They understand baseball.

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his
shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the
air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled
roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his
hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered
“Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles
strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children
shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

 

Baseball: You’ve Gotta Have Heart

Damn Yankees - Heart

With the World Series tied at 1-1, it’s a good time to look back to the baseball musical Damn Yankees. Its most famous song, sung in the clubhouse of a losing team, is Heart. (The same trope appears in one of the only really great football movies, The Replacements. Coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) is asked by a reporter the secret to his ragged team of replacement players. He just pounds his chest and simply says “Heart”.)

So whether you’re an Indians fan, a Cubs fan, or no fan of baseball whatsoever, here’s some encouragement. You’ve gotta have…. Well, you know.

You’ve gotta have heart
All you really need is heart
When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win
That’s when the grin should start

You’ve gotta have hope
Mustn’t sit around and mope
Nothin’s half as bad as it may appear
Wait’ll next year and hope

When your luck is battin’ zero
Get your chin up off the floor
Mister you can be a hero
You can open any door, there’s nothin’ to it but to do it

You’ve gotta have heart
Miles ‘n miles n’ miles of heart
Oh, it’s fine to be a genius of course
But keep that old horse
Before the cart
First you’ve gotta have heart

World Series I Ching

world-series-2016

The rope fails to raise
Water
From the Well.
The pitcher is broken.
Calamity.
From Hexagram 48 – Jing/The Well

The World Series begins tonight. I am consulting the I Ching about it, and I will explain my purpose carefully.

As I’ve written before, in my view the I Ching is not a predictive oracle, a divining tool, a crystal ball, though it began that way thousands of years ago and is still used that way around the world. It is an insight tool, and an unsurpassed one, offering vision into circumstances and situations so that we may act more knowingly.

Which itself would be useful, if I was Manager of the Indians or Cubs. I could use it to help determine the lineup, or to decide when to pull the starting pitcher. And if I was a pitcher, I could use it to help figure out which pitches to throw, or as a batter which pitches to expect. I’m none of those.

The point here is to look into the attitude a fan might have as the Series proceeds on its roller coaster.

My lifelong love of baseball necessarily includes these ups and downs, measured in innings, in games, in seasons. Or in the case of the Cubs, who have been waiting 108 years to win a World Series, in centuries.

The I Ching is all about ups and downs. It is by title and essence The Classic of Changes. So why not ask it about the changes we are about to experience, as the Indians, this season’s little engine that could, defy the odds. Starting tonight on a very cold but still green fall field in Cleveland.

Some brief excerpts from I Ching commentaries on the received hexagram follow. As for interpretation, feel free to consider it all as the Series plays out.

hexagram-48

Hexagram 48
Jing/The Well

The structure of the gua is Water above, Wood below. This image gave the ancient sage the picture of a well. The water in a well was practically an inexhaustible resource. It was in constant use yet continually refilled. It was the source of life. The image also suggests that the roots of a plant draw water from the soil to nourish the stalk and leaves.

Decision

Neither loses nor gains.
Coming and going, drawing, drawing.
Nearly out of the well,
Break one’s bucket—misfortune.

Commentary on the Decision

Nearly out of the well,
The achievement has not yet been fulfilled.
Break one’s bucket;
There is misfortune.

Commentary on the Symbol

In correspondence with this,
The superior person encourages the people at their work
And urges them to help one another.

Judgment

At the Well.
The rope fails to raise
Water
From the Well.
The pitcher is broken.
Calamity.

On the Image of the Hexagram

Water above Wood,
The True Gentleman
Comforts the Folk;
He gives encouragement.

The Weird Randomness of Life

The Catcher in the Rye

I went to the gym this morning for my regular morning workout. The TV was on, but nobody was there. I saw that the remote control was gone. I climbed on a chair, pushed the power button and turned the TV off.

On further search for the remote, I discovered a handbag on the seat of stationery bike. I didn’t want to pry, but I peeked in to see if the remote had ended up there. Instead, I saw a copy of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Are people still reading The Catcher in the Rye? They should and apparently they are. It is a great and famous novel. Once upon a time controversial, when it was published in 1951, because Salinger included the word “fuck” multiple times.

After this novel, another novel, and a book of stories, Salinger disappeared, like the remote control. He is considered the most reclusive and mysterious of contemporary fiction writers. W.P. Kinsella included a character based on Salinger in his novel Shoeless Joe, which became a character in the movie version Field of Dreams. The character in the movie is played by James Earl Jones, a big black man with a booming voice. Salinger was a white Jewish man, as far as we can tell regular size and regular voice.

In high school, I wrote a book report on The Catcher in the Rye, one that was supposed to be read aloud. The English teacher was one of those young, hip women, so I thought it would be alright. I was a little concerned about some of the quotes, specifically the ones that included the word “fuck.” In that class was a girl who was a friend, not a girlfriend, who read it before class and urged me to read it just as it was. She was a popular and cool girl, but mostly I wanted to seem cool to her because she was pretty and had really big breasts.

So I read the report out loud. This is one of the passages I read. The confused and questioning adolescent Holden Caulfield says:

I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another “Fuck you” on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.

I wasn’t particularly confused, but I was punished. Someone in the class took offense and told the principal. I was called down to his office, and despite his liking me a lot and despite my record as a star student, he believed some sort of sanction for my indiscretion was necessary. The sentence was that my entry into the National Honor Society was to be delayed one year.

If I had it to do all over again, I would know that none of this mattered. I read the book, still love it, and maybe my book report led someone else to read it. If I was somebody else, then or now, I might have said something to the principal that was clever and super-meta, such as “Go fuck yourself.” I didn’t and wouldn’t.

On the other hand, if I go down to the gym tomorrow, and still can’t find it, I might say to myself—only to myself and not out loud—“Where’s the fucking remote?”

Books: W.P. Kinsella

The Essential W.P. Kinsella

The writer W.P. Kinsella has died at the age of 81. He is most famous as the author of the novel Shoeless Joe, which was turned into the beloved baseball movie Field of Dreams. (The book is infinitely better.)

That was only a small part of his work. He wrote many other books and stories, some about baseball, some about indigenous Canadians on the reserve (reservation), and others. All his work was by parts unique and charming and funny, filled with a lot of magic, because Kinsella was such a gifted literary magician.

I looked for an obituary to quote that didn’t spend most of its time talking about Field of Dreams. Not many of those. I also looked for an obituary that didn’t mention his personal life, which seems to have been untidy and ragged in some ways, as he apparently could be a difficult person, as talented artists are wont to be. He may have been difficult, but reading his work is easy, so what does it matter, at least to readers?

Many of his books appear to be out of print, as interest in his work has faded. His death has brought him more attention than he had for years, which is the way it goes. The good news is that last year a collection of his stories was published. Here is the publisher’s description of The Essential W.P. Kinsella:

This career retrospective celebrates the 80th birthday of baseball’s greatest scribe, W. P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe), as well as the 25th anniversary of Field of Dreams, the film that he inspired.

In addition to his classic baseball tales, W. P. Kinsella is also a critically-acclaimed short fiction writer. His satiric wit has been celebrated with numerous honors, including the Order of British Columbia.

Here are his notorious First Nation narratives of indigenous Canadians, and a literary homage to J. D. Salinger. Alongside the “real” story of the 1951 Giants and the afterlife of Roberto Clemente, are the legends of a pirated radio station and a hockey game rigged by tribal magic.

Eclectic, dark, and comedic by turns, The Essential W. P. Kinsella is a living tribute to an extraordinary raconteur.

And from a starred review in Publishers Weekly:

The career of the incomparable Kinsella is beautifully represented by these 31 short stories, including, of course, “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa,” the haunting tale of a baseball fan’s obsession with a long-dead star that was developed into a bestselling novel and then the film Field of Dreams. Other charming baseball fantasies include “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record,” in which a fan agrees to sacrifice himself to bring back the recently dead Yankees star Thurman Munson, and “Searching for January,” which concerns an encounter with the deceased Roberto Clemente. Alongside these stories are several more realistic and mostly gentle satires, such as “The Fog,” that present the escapades of several indefatigable members of Canada’s First Nations. “The Grecian Urn” concerns a couple who can inhabit the interior worlds of great works of art. “K Mart” is the touching tale of three boys who use baseball to escape from their unhappy lives. Kinsella is a masterly writer of short fiction.

If you love good writing, please give W.P. Kinsella a read.

Baseball: The Green Fields of the Mind

The Major League Baseball season begins this weekend.

I’ve read, written and talked about baseball almost as passionately as about anything else in my life. Baseball people understand. Others may not.

Looking for something else to say besides what I’ve said before, including in this blog, I’ve decided instead to repeat myself. Or, to be precise, to repeat my repeating what somebody else said.

The fifth post on this blog was four years ago, just as that baseball season was beginning. The post, replicated here, speaks for itself. Even if you’re just a fan of life and not of baseball, there is something for you here.


A. Bartlett Giamatti was the president of Yale University and, for a brief time until his untimely death in 1989, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Besides his commitment to baseball, Giamatti was a man of letters who left behind some remarkable writing about the game. None is more moving and famous than his short essay The Green Fields of the Mind.

On the occasion of a new baseball season, here is an excerpt. Whoever you root for, whatever the season or the game – baseball, politics, art, religion, business, love, life – it offers hard to accept wisdom and the semi-sweet opposite of comfort:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops…

It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised…

And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.