Category Archives: baseball fans

[game 100] The Vermont Mountaineers

The Twins have won, let’s get that out of the way. They beat the White Sox by a single run, an auspicious start to the series. But that’s not where my baseball attentions were tonight.

It’s summer, and while big league baseball grinds on, spewing revenue and glory, there’s another kind of baseball game being played most every night in most every town.

The major leagues are the top of a very visible pyramid, but the base of that pyramid is vast. Baseball seeps out and becomes intensely local. You can touch it.

In Montpelier, Vermont, for example, you can attend a game in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. This is a 12-team league, split into east and west divisions. The teams travel from Maine to Connecticut, playing a two-month schedule that ends this week, followed by some playoffs.

The Vermont Mountaineers were formed in 2003, and have already claimed two championships. The fans in Montpelier are proud of the team, and fill the stands most every game. The team is out of contention this year, but tonight we still got all those bleachers filled.

And what uncomfortable seats they are. Ringed around home plate are deep stands of benches where you sprawl or budge up with your family and friends. You stare through the netting, and as rock-like as those benches become, they bring you very close to the field. The vantage point is ideal for watching the pitch come over the plate.

You will recognize people you know shuffling by to the concession stand; you will recognize people you’d never guess would go to a baseball game, and others who have started to make it a regular commitment. You’ll see babies and teens and young parents and retired folks, many of them smart enough to being cushions for the benches.

I can’t help but paint an idyllic portrait, because a baseball field, any baseball field, will force your attention on the late sun of summer and the lazy vigor of running out to the positions in the field. The games start at 6:30, the better to get kids and their parents out of the house. That means the sun is still high for the first pitch, but will start painting the clouds pink and blue by the fifth. And in the seventh, when the game gets all serious and the plays mean the most, the home team uniforms snap white under the lights, glowing while the dark blue sky dissolves to ink.

A lovely atmosphere, but what about the quality of play? Down on the field, there are some good college players who have tumbled out of sight of the major league scouts. Some are too short (scrappy, fun Henry Dunn, our centerfielder). Some have poor batting judgment (strapping Esteban Rosado, our right fielder, with 18 Ks to his 5 walks—but a perky .317 average). Some are not destined to hit much better than they are right now, and maybe just about all of them are on that list.

In Moneyball, Billy Beane observed that he’d prefer to recruit players after they’d reached college. There’s a longer book on them, they’ve begun to learn something, and you can judge more clearly. The mania for gobbling up 15-year-olds leads to a lot of mistakes by comparison.

I think Beane is correct. And I also think the doughty, charming players of the NECBL have put enough credentials on the table to be accurately judged as short of major league material. But when they play against each other, when they play at the level they’ve all achieved, the baseball is just as compelling.

And for all that, there is still, always, the chance. AJ Pollock, of the 2007 Mountaineer championship team, was selected in the first round of this year’s draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Five other former Mountaineers are toiling in the minors for major league teams, and all it takes is one example to inspire every other hopeful.

Tonight’s game is all pitching for the first half of the game. Starting for the Mountaineers is Andrew Benak with a middling 3.00 ERA and a sad 1-3 record. But he’s a tall, commanding presence on the mound, and he munches up the North Adams Steeplecats for five full innings. I can’t tell how fast the fastball is humming, but I can see that there’s some movement on it. The Steeplecats hit harmless flies and gummy grounders.

The pitcher for North Adams, Tim Boyce, likewise bottles up the Mountaineers, but he relies more on location than power. Someone seems to have told him it’s better to miss low and outside than to throw a meaty pitch in the zone, and Boyce obeys. He keeps trying to lure the batters to chase balls in and out, but that isn’t what’s defeating the Vermonters. When they make contact, they tend to get under the ball and send up sky high outs over the infield.

In the bottom of the third, Dunn leads off and is quickly sent down swinging. Our shortstop, Jantzen Witte, grounds out and it looks like another routine, scoreless inning. It’s at this point, after we’ve all had out first round of ballpark food, that one of my companions muses, “What happens if they haven’t scored by the 13th inning?” I assure him that baseball always accommodates a run or two.

Boyce issues a walk to our not-so-towering DH Clay Jones. Then Steven Felix, our catcher with such a happy name, hits an RBI double, and the clunky scoreboard lights record the first run of the game.

I should say they record the first lasting run. In the bottom of the first, we thought we had an inside the park home run. The scoreboard operator and every single fan in the stands could only make out Witte circling the bases while an umpire quietly watched his progress and the North Adams centerfielder remained on his knees. The throw never came in, and the runner kept running. Unbeknownst to us, without cameras and replays and announcers, a Steeplecat caught the ball and simply fancied sprawling there in tribute to his diving catch.

But now we have a real run, one we can keep. This slender lead may have to last us awhile, but Benak has some pretty efficient innings. In the sixth, he’s tagged for a run when a single plus a bunt plus a sacrifice fly plus a single equal one run. Notably, the bunt in question was a dangerous one—Grant Gajdosz, the Steeplecat DH no less, made two bunt attempts that were fouls and went right ahead and tried a third time. Fortune smiled on his chutzpah or ignorance, or both.

Tie game, top of the seventh. The evening air is cooler now, and the mugginess of the night is easing up. You can still smell the fries drenched in ketchup, but most fans have finished their ballpark dinners, their guilty, greasy pleasures. Benak probably hasn’t thrown more than 80-some pitches, but he has a rough, tough seventh. The first two batters reach base, and a sacrifice advances them. An RBI single nudges North Adams ahead, and Benak is feeling the strain. He walks the bases loaded.

We’re sitting right behind home plate, a little to the left of the batter. I can watch Benak putting a little extra on his pitches now, trying to get out of his jam with pure power. Unfortunately, he’s losing the finish to his pitches, and as his release point varies, the balls are flying low and outside. Felix blocks one that would have scored a run if he hadn’t muscled it to the ground.

It looks to me like Benak is pitching angry. It could be a good thing, it could be a terrible thing. I know nothing about him, but I do know enough to realize that with one out and the bases loaded, the best possible outcome here is a strikeout. There are too many ways to score a run with any ball put in play.

And Benak has the very same thought in mind. He strikes out Gajdosz—no more stinking bunts!—and the crowd makes a loud display of relief. Benak may have turned his inning around with the loss of only one run.

It was a turnaround, all right, until the Steeplecats turned it back. A single from centerfield Patrick Johnson scores two. Now North Adams leads 4-1.

I’m like all the fans here tonight. I don’t spend the whole time riveted on the game, so I’ll lightly summarize the rest of the scoring. Vermont scratches out an answering run in the seventh, North Adams piles on two more in the eighth, and then we get the special miracle of a home run in the eighth from our third baseman Kevin Vance—the team’s top home run hitter with six on the season. A home run, you see, is very rare in a regulation size ballfield populated with so-so college players.

Then we keep it just interesting enough to the very end. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, we mange one run—but only the one. North Adams 6, Vermont 4.

Over those last three innings, I amble into the ice cream line for a while, and chat with my friends. The lines in the batter’s box are erased by a night of cleats scuffing in and out, and the uniforms have grown dusty. The umpire takes a little longer to straighten back up from his crouch, and all of us in the stands are feeling the unforgiving planks of the bleacher seats.

It’s baseball, simple as summer, win or lose. Tonight’s game pretty much seals the season for the Mountaineers, but they dive and run and hustle and fling themselves flat to catch grounders. Few of these players will be climbing higher in the baseball hierarchy, but they seem to have realized that they can enjoy these days, these days in bright white uniforms with tiny, happy crowds cheering for them. We are rooting for you, Henry Dunn.

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[games 96, 97] Odi et Amo

The story so far: the Twins have never won more than three games in a row all season; they have never been more than three games above .500 and have spent considerable time below that equator; they just lost two of three games against Oakland and two against the Angels.

These are bad things. They’re not apocalyptic things, like what’s happening to the Washington Nationals. They’re not even lovably lousy things, like the 10-game losing streak the Royals may or may not extend tonight, or the experience of living in last place like the perpetually dormant Pirates.

But they are troubling things, things that make it hard to be a fan.

But fans have deep resources for coping with trouble. In fact, fans don’t really experience trouble as trouble, because they can decide how they want to feel about it.

There are two basic tactics, and the Twins support both of them right now. You can detest them, or you can delude yourself about them.

Loathing the Twins is, ultimately, just too cruel. But in short spurts, all of us can master it. Right now, it involves making brutal remarks about the uselessness of Alexi Casilla, the pathetic failings of the bullpen, the tragic limitations of Delmon Young, etc.

In addition to bad mouthing individual players, the furious fan can denigrate the Twins system, the low payroll, the difficulty of building a team around two superstars and a raft of grade C players, or the inability to retain top talent after free agency.

Despising the team essentially is knowing it too well—reciting the flaws proves your savvy. It’s hard to resist spouting such intimate knowledge, so a certain degree of dislike is always the badge of the serious fan.

But this form of hate is also a perfect defense. By distancing yourself from your team, you are spared certain sorrows. Or at least you hope to avoid them. I recall the documentary about the Red Sox made during their 2003 season. Still, We Believe followed several fans who revealed their “wicket hahd” devotion to the team. I thought I knew something about the hate and love of being a fan until I saw Bill in this movie.

Bill is angry. Infuriated, in fact. Bill is nearly out of control—his team keeps hurting him, and he doesn’t know how to relieve the pain. In one sequence, he fumes at the game on his television and then just walks out, stalking out of his apartment.

When he returns with his dry cleaning, the Sox have already mounted their comeback. He’s missed it. He’s missed the one little gift his team can give him. Now he’s furious with himself, but it’s just one more station on this karmic wheel of suffering—love the team, have that love betrayed, seek revenge on the team, miss the chance to love the team.

Bill’s effort to harden his heart against the Red Sox is poignant. We all want this armor, yet the defense is really so unsatisfying. Do I really want to be embittered about Carlos Gomez’s myriad hitting problems? Will this, ultimately, save me from wishing he could overcome these hitting problems and be the thrilling, energizing player I hoped he’d be?

And so we turn to the other strategy: apologize for the team. I can make excuses for Carlos Gomez, and the rest of them, for pretty much an entire season. I can look up, find it’s late September and we’re 10 games out and be, in essence, surprised. Honestly—we’re not going to make it?

We’re not going to make it. We’ve played almost 100 games and though there have been some happy wins and wonderful moments, thinking that Scott Baker is just about to rip off five consecutive wins, or that Delmon Young is going to find his power stroke, or that Joe Crede is going to stay off the DL for the rest of the season—thinking such things is delusional.

But it’s possible. It’s easy to imagine Mauer have a September like his May, and Kevin Slowey coming off the DL to finish with 18 wins, or the bullpen becoming impregnable. We aren’t so very far from these things that they can’t be visualized in stunning detail.

So we apologize, or find the silver lining, or just plain wait for the good, nice thing that’s due to occur. And here there’s a fine line between rational hope and delusion. If you have no hope whatsoever, you honestly cannot participate in baseball as fan or player. It’s the baseline requirement for this sport.

But excessive hope leaves you out there, swinging in the breeze, while your team forsakes you. And they will let you down sometimes and make you fall harder than they do. The players dust themselves off and continue to lead the charmed lives of major league baseball players. You go back to work without the one particular ray of light you count on.

Hope can be dangerous. But bitterness is not the perfect antidote, because it’s hope that carries you to the rare but delicious moments of elation that makes sports so satisfying. If you do not hope, you’re disqualified from fully savoring the comeback, the clutch hit, the miracle catch, and the no-hitter. You don’t have a ticket to these events, because only hope admits you.

The Twins have just lost two games to the Angels. One in which they had a narrow lead, allowed the Angels to tie, and then lost in the tenth. Another in which the Angels just chewed ‘em up and spat ‘em out.

Hard as it is to muster, I am going to go on hoping. We’re nearly through 100 games, and there are probably only about ten games in which the Twins have actually played as if they’re collectively ready and able to stride onward into the World Series. But I see little pieces, little fragments in any game, and I can still imagine them coming together into one glorious possibility.

Odi et amo, Catullus wrote: I love and I hate. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior—You ask how this can be? I don’t know, but I feel the agony of it.

[game 64] New York Basbeall

The Twins are doing a fine job of winning without me. They beat the Cubs 2-0. Rookie Anthony Swarzak got his second win by holding the Cubs to 4 hits over 7 innings. Outstanding work, but the current wave of injuries will require the Twins to send Swarzak back to the minors for a while as they call up catcher Jose Morales. Michael Cuddyer is now out a while with his slow-to-heal right finger, and Denard Span remains on the DL with dizziness the injury report doesn’t clarify further. Swarzak will be back. Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel got the RBIs, and the Twin are finally doing well on the road.

I sampled another game today, with the Twins under their usual Fox Saturday blockade and me trying to reexamine this blog’s mission by visiting new teams. And I really haven’t been getting out much—I didn’t know JJ Putz was on the DL until it came up in passing during game two of the Mets-Yankees Subway Series.

I decided to let Fox clobber me with New York baseball, the only games they ever want to broadcast. It infuriates me that to Fox there is baseball, and then there is Yankee baseball. The idea that the Yankees somehow play a different game because they have more local fans and a bigger payroll is ultimately insulting to any baseball fan. But ratings are all Fox cares about, and you get them when you control the broadcast in the NY metro area.

The new Yankee Stadium looked the most filled I’ve seen it so far. The Yankees have re-priced some tickets in an admission that a single baseball game is not, really, a luxury item that should cost a week’s salary to witness in person. But I suspect the prime seat-filling force was the Mets fans, eager to see how many home runs their team could hit in this homer-happy ballpark. The answer today: two.

In New York, you play baseball, and then hope you can thread your way through the newspaper and sportstalk coverage. I have some built-in bias toward the value of the press, but I have to admit that they load up on

impossible, baited questions in what really aren’t interviews but pure efforts to waylay players into making sensational quotes.

In New York, this is intensified because there are more outlets dissecting every play and every statement, and because the criticism is harsher. The theory seems to be, the more millions a player earns, the more unforgivable his errors. I have my own set of irrational player loathings, but I don’t delight in seeing Manny Ramirez belittled, or in hearing Kevin Youkilis sound like a dolt. (Well, maybe I find a little joy in the latter, but I try to take the long, compassionate view.) But sportschat is all about righteous indignation, the negative emotion that gives such a big energy boost.

In this context, we have the sorrows of Luis Castillo. Castillo is quite familiar to Twins fans. GM Terry Ryan scooped him up when he was overlooked after a bad year or two for the Marlins, and he proved to be one of the big finds of the 2006 season, for any team. He played so well that the Twins could keep him only until the middle of the 2007 season. The Mets swooped in with their millions and he was gone.

Castillo is an excellent second baseman. Just today I saw him cover a great distance to snare a line drive from Derek Jeter. He got the ball falling forward, nearly about to take a header, and facing to right field. He switched direction and got the throw off to first and missed getting Jeter by inches. It was a heroic effort, though a run did score. I mention it because it reminds me of the energy Castillo always shows in the field.

Last night, the Subway Series opened with the Mets on their way to humiliating their crosstown rivals. Always a satisfying prospect, if you happen to be the humiliator, not the humiliatee. It’s the ninth inning, and ace closer Francisco Rodriguez has two outs. Derek Jeter is on second and Mark Teixeira is on first, and the Yanks are down 7-8.

Alex Rodriguez hits a simple pop-up and Castillo, who knows how or why, lets the ball bounce out of his glove.

Two runs score and the Mets lose and the full, painful extent of baseball possibilities is once again visited. Yes, players will miss easy pop-ups. It will happen so rarely that it will seem they owe us a bigger than usual apology, but it will happen.

Today, Castillo fields just fine, gets two hits, and the Mets cruise to a beefy 6-2 victory behind Fernando Nieve. One of the truly useful qualities in any sport is that playing well demands that you shake off mistakes. When they talk about handy life lessons from gym class, this is actually what they mean. The ability to bounce back from an error is probably more important than the skill that got you into the sport in the first place. Luis Castillo bounced back.

As we expected he would. But consider the case of Chuck Knoblauch (another former Twin, of all things), who inexplicably began to make wild throws from second base for the Yankees. It became a destructive mindset, and Knoblauch left baseball unable to cure it.

I don’t envy the players for the Mets and Yankees. The pressure would so quickly obliterate the pleasures of baseball that you would lose everything except the chance for glory. How much fun can baseball actually be for A-Rod? For Johan Santana?

But perhaps it will be enough for Luis Castillo that he can shake off Friday night’s mistake and go back to playing the way he’s always capable of playing. Stay loose, Luis.

[game 57] Ways to Watch

On Saturdays, I can watch the Twins only if Fox has determined there will not be a large national audience for their opponent. If Fox selects the game, they won’t broadcast it to me on either their New York or Los Angeles affiliates which I get by satellite.  I never know exactly who gets to see those embargoed games that have the Twins in them, and there have been several this year, including today’s game against the Mariners.

Saturdays are tough. It’s a peak baseball day, and I only get my team if they slink into the night schedule away from the grasping, totalitarian Fox.

Today I experiment with another method of following the game. CBS Sports has committed itself to a serious web presence, and their Scoreboard feature allows one to follow along in halting, internet-packet jumps. I wouldn’t want to follow an entire game this way, but I monitored the last three innings of what was a 1-1 tie between the Twins and Mariners when I checked in.

Eventually, broadband will reach me here in the hinterlands, but right now I still live a dial-up life while very few big-time web sites believe such constraints still exist. For example, I can’t even load the ESPN or Sports Illustrated home pages, let alone navigate around. These sites are so soaked with video that I can’t even knock on their door. Likewise, most of the MLB.com pages are closed to me.

It’s a pleasant surprise to find the CBS site so hospitable, though I suppose people with broadband consider it a quaint little hut compared to the skyscrapers that require big bandwidth. I’ve been collecting box scores off it all season. But I assumed that the game update feature would be cranky, erratic, or impossible to use.

Not so. I can stare at a tidy tableau, giving batting order, pitching lines, and all updated stats for the game while watching crisp little notes accumulate one by one for each batter: foul, pitchout, ground out to second. There is even a little generic lefty/righty hitter cartoon beneath the batter’s head shot. Beside this illustration is a strike zone box, and each pitch is given a thoughtful little numbered dot that indicates, at least roughly, where it was pitched.

Then there’s a little diamond schematic, showing the defensive players and anyone on base. It’s all the baseball facts that you want, many of which you wish you had while listening to the radio, watching television, or sitting in the stands. I can see that Denard Span has struck out in his three previous at-bats today; I can see the ball/strike pitch count of starter Nick Blackburn. If you are looking for the facts to support your observations, here they are.

But what, exactly, would your observations be? I monitored (I think “watched” is the wrong term) long enough to dread that moment when there was a long gap between pitch updates. It either meant a hit or an out; all the other pitch outcomes posted much faster. So I look at the screen for a while, turn away to work on my spreadsheet, and peek back. Oh—inning over before I know it, or Yikes! How did Ichiro get on base?

The question can be answered, including whether he hit safely or reached on a walk or an error, but you don’t experience the moment. You get an accurate, prompt report, but no sense of whether it was a seeing-eye single, bad defense, or a scorching hit. It’s like getting a text message from the sinking Titanic, or a postcard from the moon. Yes, an eyewitness is keeping you up to date, but you are not there.

Well, I’m never there, am I? I considered driving to Boston for one of the two Twins games played there, the closest they’ll be to me all season. Wisely, I didn’t go—the game I could have seen was rained out, and turned into a day/night doubleheader to next day. I wasn’t there, and it’s unlikely I will get to any Twins game this year.

I’m not there, but I am watching most every game on television. And those TV sports producers have convinced me I’m having a real experience, as good or better than being in the stadium. I get replays, close-ups, and commentary. My attention is focused perfectly: following the sequence of the double play or the fly ball or the hustling runner. I have missed plays from the stands through minor distractions and just plain picking the wrong place to look. And for developing an umpire-quality opinion on balls/strike and safe/out calls, there’s nothing like the television view.

I’m not there, but television has made me feel I’m somewhere even better. I have easy access to a scrupulously clean restroom and a center field shot of pitch location. Why go to the ballpark?

My husband has the opposite view. Clarke will gladly watch baseball from a stadium seat, but only in the living room if I am corral him into following the postseason. We’ve been to games with good seats and games with terrible ones, but this doesn’t make a difference to him. He wants to be in a ballpark and feel the general flow and mood.

I admit to preferring television, but I, too, am swept up by the atmosphere in a stadium. I can summon up vivid recollections of moments in many of the games I saw in person, and it isn’t because these are such rare events. I’ve sat right next to a few fly balls; I’ve projected every vibration in my soul toward Carlton Fisk to drive in that needed run (nope) and to Pedro Martinez to get that strikeout (yes!). There is, ultimately, a sense that the pure aggregation of fans on any given day contributes something tangible to how the game is played that day, and I’ve whooped and booed to make it so.

Television helps me analyze; a trip to the ballpark helps me feel the joy of a team doing some winning on behalf of its fans. And radio does something else: it helps me integrate my memory and knowledge of baseball with the events of a particular game. Radio requires great imagination and can operate either with total concentration (driving or working in the darkroom) or peripheral attention (building spreadsheets).

I remember listening to a game pitched by Tommy John and having an announcer help me visualize just what it meant to be a sinkerball pitcher—how those groundouts just rippled across the field, each one to a perfectly positioned defender. And last week, I listened to the Twins announcers grope for something to say as the Twins were bring crushed 11-1 by the Indians, when even the play by play melts away into air.

Finally, I can follow the game from box scores, the condensed skeleton of a game. I’ve probed a few, trying to stitch together the why and how a win or a loss occurred. The box score can answer many questions, but never all. It truly is like the bones left over: hits and stats and facts, but no sense of time or space.

There are little pleasures in all these methods of following a team. Television remains my default position, but I got a little thrill of out-foxing Fox today. They built their fence around the game, but I found a knothole. And there it was: in the bottom of the eighth, Suzuki hit a single, and Ken Griffey Jr. drove him in to put the Mariners ahead 2-1.

Then I watched the Twins make their spectral crawl across my screen in the top of the ninth. If I can remember correctly, we had an out and then a walk, then Jason Kubel struck out. Two outs glow on the little screen display. Gardenhire pulls out all the stops, and sends in Brian Buscher to pinch hit and Carlos Gomez to run. Gomez gets to second on a passed ball that I never see—it’s just another truth reported with eerie precision on my screen.

Two outs, man in scoring position, one run down. Whether you’re in the ballpark, listening on the radio, or watching on TV, these are rich baseball conditions. It won’t take too much to win, it will take even less to lose. Some how, some way, Brian Buscher wrings a single out of the Mariners closer, David Aardsma.

Two outs, two on and Denark Span is up. He’s had an uncharacteristically bad day, the little tally reports: three strikeouts and safe on an error. C’mon Denard, I root to the compact display of unwavering facts. C’mon! Get a hit, I plead to the little team logos decorating the scoreboard display.

Get a hit, I think with my fists balled in hope at this acute, impossible distance from the game. The screen holds steady as the little images of pitches accumulate in the strike zone box. And then a large flicker and the report finishes itself completely, instantly—pffft. Span grounds out, game over, Mariners win 2-1, Twins are now 28-29, and the game immediately belongs to the past, turned over like a leaf. It was as if the players disappeared, scattered like sparks.