Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Top ___ Pitchers Who Used September to Get Hot Going Into the Playoffs--Something That Apparently Isn't Done Anymore

I wanted to do some kind of top ten list for this post, but I couldn't think of anything inspiring, such as my ten favorite opera houses, or ten favorite hotel bars in East Asia, that I had enough variety of experience of to make a decent list from, and at the moment doing another "10 favorite gas stations" or "10 favorite McDonald's" type of post strikes me as depressing. Then I pondered why oh why have I no imagination nor anything to say and this led me back to the eternal explanation that not having a proper profession, to say nothing of multiple awesome careers, has caused me to be this way, and I thought to do a list of "Top 10 professions besides writer/generic 1960s style academic that did not require an extraordinary amount of Talent" that I might have pursued, but after coming up with "demographer" and "director of a small obscure museum that receives 500 visitors a year" I was stumped by that topic too. So then I tried to think of anything that had caused me to be angry or had stirred any resemblance of passion in recent days, and I could only think of a handful of these (ed--I started this post before the national brouhaha of the Kavanaugh hearings, which I may or may not make some comment on, if it is still a burning issue when I get around to it), one of them being my rage at the increasing coercion used by companies to make you sign up to pay bills by automatic bank draft, which besides causing a certain amount of strain on people like myself who cannot always be certain of having adequate funds on hand on the exact date of these transmissions, also represents another maddening loss of any sense of control one has over one's life; and the other was concerned with the various infuriating (to me) trends with regard to the way pitchers are used in baseball, from 'bullpenning' (the use of a tag team of nondescript pitchers for 1-2 innings from the start of the game) to the ever shrinking number of pitches and innings and games that such regular starting pitchers as remain are allowed to throw. The arrogance and self-satisfaction exuded by the new generation of managers, GMs and baseball intellectuals that has promoted and adopted these methods I find harder to take than I should as well. I am writing about baseball a lot lately. It's probably one of my phases. Now that my children are interested in it I'm paying more attention to it/watching a lot more games, etc, than I have in some years, and these extreme changes in the role of pitchers is perhaps the most jarring development to me, though not the only one...

To begin with a little backstory. On September 20, 2017, Chris Sale, the ace pitcher of the Boston Red Sox, 1 strikeout shy of 300 for the season, after having pitched 7 shutout innings with a pitch count of around 100, was sent out for the 8th inning, ostensibly to reach that strikeout milestone, which he did, completing another scoreless inning in the process with a seemingly reasonable pitch total of 111, which was his final number for the game, as obviously he did not come out for the 9th inning. The Boston sports media and fan base were apoplectic about this unnecessary and highly incautious extra inning of work, concerned that with the team starting the playoffs in approximately two weeks, it was wearing out its best pitcher. After resting for five days, Sale appeared in one more regular season game, the sixth to last, throwing 5 innings and 92 pitches (and giving up 5 runs) in a loss to the Blue Jays, after which he took 8 days off before starting Game 1 of the Division series against the eventual World Series Champion Astros, in which game he got shelled, giving up 7 runs in 5 innings (and throwing 100 pitches). 3 days later he came out of the bullpen in an elimination game and pitched well for 4 innings but could not get through a 5th, giving up what turned out to be the two decisive runs that ended the Red Sox's season. The club's manager John Farrell was fired within days of the loss, and one of the dominant themes was his mishandling of Sale, burning out the pitcher due to overuse during the season, though until recently his total of 214 innings with a high single game pitch count of 118 (as well 29 innings over 5 starts in September) would have been considered a fairly light workload. This season, with a new manager and the team being on a 110-win pace for most of the year, the strategy for keeping the ace pitchers fresh for the playoffs has gone from not burning them out early in the season to basically having them take most of the 2nd half off. There are injuries involved, I suppose, but even so the extent of the precautions taken before putting Sale and David Price, the $45 million a year duo the Red Sox are counting on to lead them to the World Series, back on the field is at the point of being ludicrous. Sale has pitched a total of 17 innings since the end of July--12 in September. While the plan was for him to hopefully work his way back into something resembling mid-season form before the playoffs started, he gave up 5 runs in 8 innings in his last two starts and has not been able to complete 5 innings in a game since August. Price has been a little more active, though a season total of 176 innings is not overwhelming, especially for a guy on a seven year contract at $31 million per annum. He made 4 appearances in September for a total of 23 innings, and is not exactly entering the playoffs on the kind of roll baseball fans of a certain age were once accustomed to in anticipating the championship series(es?). With the roster expansion in September, most of the recent games have featured endless situational experimentations with an army of relievers and onetime starters to see who can come in and get an out with 2 on in the 4th inning or whose makeup is particularly suited to the 7th as opposed to the 6th. For me all of this inevitably calls to mind the days when September was the month when the pitchers of the year were not leveling off or winding down but were rolling along like locomotives at high speed barreling towards the playoffs, or at least the Cy Young Award. Just recalling a few that especially stand out:

Orel Hershiser--1988

This is perhaps the ne plus ultra example of a pitcher who went on an unstoppable tear at the end of the season and all the way through the playoffs and the World Series. At the time Hershiser was regarded as having pretty much carried his otherwise underwhelming team to an improbable championship, though I am not sure that the new analysis would acknowledge that it was possible for a single pitcher to have that outsized of an impact. Certainly no one appears to regard this as a formula for postseason success in 2018, though the Giants pulled something of the sort off (riding a hot pitcher to the title) with Madison Bumgardner as recently as 2014.

At any rate, going into his start on August 19, 1988, according to Baseball-Reference, Orel Hershiser, already established for several seasons as one of the better pitchers in the National League, was, using the archaic statistics, 16-7 with a 3.06 ERA and had thrown to that point 185 innings. He threw complete games in each of his 3 remaining starts in August, including one shutout, though one of the other games was a 2-1 loss to the Mets. Moving into September, with his team driving towards the division championship, Hershiser made six starts, throwing 9-inning shutouts in the first five, and in his final tune-up for the playoffs, throwing 10 scoreless innings in a no-decision. That 10th inning in the last game famously allowed him to break Don Drysdale's record of consecutive scoreless innings with 59, a situation analogous to that of Chris Sale's "extra inning" to get his 300th strikeout in 2017. Naturally there was no controversy, that I can remember anyway, at the time with Hershiser pitching 10 innings in a meaningless game a week before the playoffs in a month and a season in which he had pitched 54 and 266 innings respectively already. By this point much was expected of him. There is pitch count data available for these games and the totals are actually quite reasonable, regardless of whether anyone was paying attention to them or not. In the 6 September starts the numbers were 109, 109, 103, 96, 112 and 116 (the 10 inning game), though even these modest totals are more than what almost anyone would be allowed to reach today, at least over a six game span in the course of a single month. For what it's worth his high pitch game for the year was 153 in a complete game loss on June 4, but his 2nd highest was 127, and he only had over 120 pitches in 3 of his 34 starts, in spite of which he managed to throw 15 complete games, 13 of them accomplished in 118 pitches or fewer.

As many will recall, he was so exhausted by this historic run that he went on to be the MVP of both the League Championship and World Series. Until Game 7, in which he pitched another shutout, his LCS performance was more heroic than impeccable. He started off by throwing 8 more shutout innings to open Game 1, but then the unthinkable happened in the ninth and he gave up 2 runs and ultimately the game (though his final pitch count was a still impressive 100). After a rainout pushed Game 3 in New York back a day, he came back to start that one and pitched 7 gritty innings in what I remember as a gray, windy, chilly afternoon though the Dodgers went on to lose that game as well. He then came out of the bullpen to get the final out in a very dramatic Game 4, which the team was believed to have found inspiring, before winning the aforementioned 7th game, for which no pitch count seems to be available. In the World Series he threw another shutout in game 2 (no pitch count), and threw a 4-hitter, 2 runs allowed, in the clincher in Game 5 (117 pitches).

He came back to have another fine year in 1989, posting a 2.31 ERA in 256 innings, his sixth straight outstanding year. However in the final game of that season, which was completely meaningless as the Dodgers finished well out of the playoff race, he was allowed to throw 11 innings and 169 pitches. He consequently missed most of the 1990 and 1991 seasons with an injured shoulder and when he came back he was never as good as he had been in his prime, though he did have eight more seasons as a more or less full time pitcher, until he was 40.

Mike Scott--1986

What I remember about this year offhand is that Mike Scott, after being something a bust after coming up with the Mets, went to Houston and salvaged his career, having a nice 18-8 season in 1985 before exploding as a dominant pitcher in 1986, racking up 300 strikeouts and eventually the Cy Young Award. He culminated the regular season by throwing a no-hitter in the Astros' division-clinching game, after which he pulverized the 108-win (and eventual World Champion) Mets with a 14 strikeout 5-hit 1-0 shutout in Game 1 of the NLCS (125 pitches), followed up by a 3-hitter in a 3-1 victory in game 4 (111 pitches). The Mets, desperate, so the storyline went, to avoid facing Scott again in Game 7, outlasted Houston in 16 innings in an epic Game 6 to win the Series 4 games to 2. How was his September leading up to this memorable postseason, I wonder? 6 starts, 4-1 record, 46.1 innings, 11 runs, 65 strikeouts, only 2 complete games though, including the no-hitter. Scott would go on to have three more very good seasons before his arm gave out (and by the way, it isn't like people's arms are still not giving out, and after a lot less work and accomplishment, despite being protected more than ever).

John Tudor--1985

John Tudor's incredible 1985 season has always been somewhat underappreciated, due to being overshadowed by Dwight Gooden's even more incredible season in the same division, and also because he unfortunately melted down badly in Game 7 of the World Series, a game which, if he had won, might have elevated his season to at least quasi-legendary status. I have very vivid memories of this season. I grew up as a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, and this was the last full year when I lived in Philadelphia and really followed the season. The Cardinals and Mets were of course in the same division and had an outstanding pennant race that year, and while the Phillies finished far behind them they played both teams 18 times, and while I did not like either of their superior rivals at the time, they were both compelling teams with lots of stars, and I would often watch them when they weren't playing the Phillies on the national Game of the Week or on WOR-TV in New York, the Mets' flagship station, which we got on cable (this was my big lonely teenager year when I also began reading a lot). John Tudor started out that year at 1-7, but he ended it on a 20-1 run, and threw 10 shutouts, remaining to this day the last pitcher to attain that feat. I am aware of how much we are supposed to disdain "wins" for pitchers nowadays, and while this does make sense in terms of assessing players and handing out contracts, there is still the circumstance that the ultimate object of all this assessing is to actually win games and championships, so I am still galvanized by these kinds of streaks.

From September 1 until the end of the 1985 regular season, which ended on October 6th that year, John Tudor made 8 starts, in which he pitched 67 innings, surrendering 10 runs. His record in those games was 6-0. He threw 5 complete games and 4 shutouts, one of them a 10-inning shutout. In one of the no-decisions, he threw another 10 scoreless innings, which would have given him an 11th shutout for the season. He made his final start of the season on 3 days rest following the 10 inning no-decision and threw a 4-hitter against the Cubs. In the NLCS he did lose Game 1, again on 3 days rest, giving up 4 runs in 5 2/3 innings, but rebounded to pitch 7 innings in a 12-2 win in game 4. In the World Series he was the winning pitcher in Game 1 (6 2/3 innings, 101 pitches--I am surprised he was lifted so early) and Game 4 (shutout-108 pitches), before losing in Game 7. He went on to pitch 5 more seasons with pretty good numbers, though he would only reach 200 innings in one more season (1986). He went 12-4 with a 2.40 ERA in 146 innings in 1990 and called it a career.

Where pitch count data is available, it does seem to indicate that it was much easier and common to complete nine innings in fewer than 125 pitches in the past than it is now, at least in the National League.

Steve Carlton--1980, 1982, 1983

I choose these three seasons because, besides all of them involving pennant races, the Phillies being my team I have distinct memories of how they unfolded. One note of interest about Carlton's 1980 campaign is that is the last time anybody pitched over 300 innings in the regular season. This was not recognized at the time as any particularly notable feat, since many pitchers had thrown over 300 innings throughout the 1970s (Carlton himself had a high of 346 in 1972). If the Phillies had not clinched the division in the 2nd to last game of the season Carlton was due to start in the finale as well and would have thrown even more innings that year. As it was he made 8 starts from September 1st on, 5 of them on three days rest, going 4-2, pitching 66 innings, allowing 19 earned runs, with 3 complete games and 1 shutout, and a 4th game in which he pitched 9 innings in a game that went into the 10th. Pitch count data is not available though I suspect his numbers were often high. Carlton had what was considered at the time an extreme training regimen which included moving his arm around in a vat of rice and was widely thought by coaches and the media, at least publicly, to be indefatigable. The idea that he might ever have gotten tired on the mound was evidently inconceivable, since it was never brought up and never seems to have influenced the way managers handled him. He was good, but not dominant in the playoffs, going 3-0 and pitching 7, 5.1, 8 and 7 innings in 4 starts, with relatively reasonable pitch counts of 106, 97, 159 (OK) and 110 respectively.

In 1982 the Phillies ended up 3 games behind the Cardinals and missed the playoffs but Carlton, who as late as August was not one of the frontrunners for the Cy Young Award, went on a late season tear that year and ended up winning it pretty convincingly. He made 8 starts in September, the last 5 on 3 days rest to maximize his appearances, something that a manager might get shot for attempting to do now, going 6-2 with 5 complete games, 2 shutouts, 64 innings pitched and 13 runs allowed, and 75 strikeouts. In 1983 he finished with a record of 15-16 and that season is often remembered as the beginning of the end for him, and in a sense it was, however he did have 275 strikeouts and finished with an identical ERA to that of the Cy Young season the year before. In my memory a lot of those losses that year came late in games where he had been very strong through 7 innings and faded in the 8th or 9th. He only made 6 starts in September that year and did not complete any of them, going 3-2 with 43.1 innings and 46 strikeouts, but 20 runs allowed. He pitched very well in the LCS that year, allowing 1 run over 13.2 innings in 2 victories (pitch counts 100 and 110), and was decent in his only World Series start, a losing effort in which he lasted 6.2 innings and allowed 3 runs, throwing 107 pitches.

Curt Schilling--2001

Trying to think of a somewhat more recent example. Curt Schilling made 6 outstanding starts in the expanded 21st century playoffs, totaling 48.1 innings, which combined with his regular season work actually put him over 300 for the season. He did take 12 days off between starts in early and mid September that year but still managed to appear 5 times in the final month of the season, going 8 innings in 4 of those games as he tuned up for the post-season. He then threw complete games in his first 3 playoff starts, with pitch counts of 101, 121 and 127, followed by three starts in the World Series of 7, 7 and 7.1 with pitch totals of 102, 88 and 103, though you see by this that managers were already being more careful even with ace starters, at least on short rest.

Bob Gibson--1968

Of course it's a completely different era, and I was not even born yet, but this is one of this most legendary seasons of this type of all time. After having dominated the World Series in 1967 and racking up a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts in the 1968 season as his Cardinals rolled to another easy pennant, Gibson loomed like a colossus over the impending Fall Classic that year, famously the last one before the introduction of divisions and preliminary playoff series. The Cardinals effectively knew by August that they would be playing for the championship, but Gibson did not exactly shut it down to rest up for the big event. For the season he would make 34 starts and throw a complete game in 28 of them. After going 7 innings in his 1st 2 starts he would pitch at least 8 in every single start afterwards. Between May 28 and September 2 he completed 19 out of 20 starts, pitching 11 innings in the one game he was not able to finish. After his 10 inning shutout on September 2nd, his ERA actually dropped to 0.99 for the season. But he would be comparatively roughed up in September, giving up 9 runs in 52 innings over 6 starts (1.56 ERA), 5 of them complete games. In the World Series he was famously matched up in games 1 and 4 against 31-game winner Denny McLain of the Tigers and while the sabermeticians probably have a more nuanced take on the dynamic, the impression made at the time was that the intimidating Gibson personally humiliated McLain in those contests, striking out 17 hitters in a 4-0 shutout in Game 1 in which McLain bowed out after 5 innings, and whiffing 10 more in a 10-1 massacre in Game 4 in which Gibson also hit a home run, though that was not off McLain, who only lasted 2.2 innings. Of course Gibson would just as famously meet his Waterloo in a duel in Game 7 against the supposedly more game and pugnacious Mickey Lolich, when the Tigers broke through for three runs in the 8th inning to break a scoreless tie and stun the seemingly invincible Gibson, who would never return to the World Series though he did have several more fantastic seasons as a pitcher.

What is the point of all this, you ask? Well, I like the stories that the old set-up of baseball could produce, and I like seeing superstar pitchers pitch and pitch to the point that they actually decide games and pennants and championships, and the modern game is not giving me what I like (I also like the old simplified playoff system and pennant races. I can easily remember who made the playoffs and the World Series in every season from 1903 until the expansion in the mid-90s, but since then I generally I have no idea who played whom and who had the best record in the season or anything); so I have to look back to the past to feel even a little fulfilled.

Friday, August 31, 2018

New Hampshire Girl of the Week

I don't usually do this sort of thing, and in the end I am not going to link to the page now, but the germ of this post came when I was doing one of my games where I do a search using random words looking for a place to go to lunch and a picture of a somewhat tough-looking but attractive woman, who is of a type that one frequently encounters in these parts, came up. So I clicked on the story and, sure enough, she lived about twenty miles from me in one of the lake towns that I end up in once a month or so. As it happened, she was being featured on a site that was mocking people for having frivolous GoFundMe campaigns. While this aspect was more sad than anything else, I was drawn in by the extensive documentation of how her life, and the lives of seemingly everyone she associated with, were such absolute train wrecks. Children by multiple fathers, drug arrests, domestic violence arrests, rehab, no one having a job, social workers taking the children away, etc, etc. This is not atypical of a large swathe of the population in many of the towns around here, though they are not, or at least don't seem to me to be, as hopelessly dreary and depressing as the hollowed out towns of the rust belt. They are minor tourist centers and have a lot of vacation homes, though I suppose the year round local population is a little underprivileged; still I do not feel uncomfortable or even particularly out of place going to most places in these towns. Perhaps it is further evidence of how my own expectations for myself, and my conception of the world that I personally inhabit, continue to shrink and shrink. I checked out a travel book on Chicago from the library last week, one of those Insight Guides with glossy bright pictures on every page, not merely of the sights, but of the paneled lobbies of impossibly expensive hotels, the sleek dining rooms of trendy restaurants, and gorgeous retro bars in renovated packing houses. But when am I ever going to have a week, or even four or five days, to go to Chicago and do any of these things? And that is just Chicago, not Spain or Berlin, or heaven forfend, Singapore or Tokyo or Nairobi or Dubai. Within a few years I'll probably be grateful if I can still go to the coastline that's a hour away a couple of times a year.

New Hampshire was featured recently (at the time I started writing this, which was about a month ago) in a New York Times article that got some attention about how the state, or some of its business leaders anyway, are seeking to attract more diverse people--evidently a lot more--to move here, mainly for the sake of the economy, of course, which, while not currently that bad by many measures--highest household income in the country, lowest poverty rate, 2% unemployment, etc--is facing some demographic problems in the coming years, and, perhaps more pressingly does not as currently constituted appear to allow as many opportunities for the ongoing accumulation of the kinds of massive fortunes that are available in other places. Naturally several people here have already commented on this article on various internet platforms, and a few have already gotten in trouble for it, so perhaps it is not really worthwhile for me, with my readership of eight people, or maybe 8 robots for that matter, to risk writing anything that is not in the correct spirit and be exiled to what a commenter on another site referred to as "the gulag of low-wage employment". But seeing as I do not actually have an agenda to push either of my own or on behalf of someone else, what would be the point of just reiterating all of the points on either the good or evil side of the issue that everyone is expected to reiterate once they have established which side they have chosen to be on? I have never persuaded anyone to do anything that I am aware of in the whole of my life, so what is going to happen is largely going to happen in spite of anything I say or do.

In the first place it is inevitable short of dramatic and unpalatable measures that I don't foresee happening that the state is going to grow somewhat more diverse in the coming years. It can scarcely grow less diverse, and there aren't enough younger white people either among the current population or in the pool of potential migrants to replace the older people, almost all of whom are white, who are going to pass on in the next twenty years. To what extent this happens, or how noticeable it is going to be, remains to be seen, obviously. I was surprised to read in one of the local newspapers commenting on the New York Times piece that in the school systems in Manchester and Nashua already something like 45% of the students are minorities. I don't have much occasion to go to Nashua, but I am in Manchester a couple of times a month and as an adult at least I don't get much sense of the presence, yet, of a minority or immigrant population anywhere close to this size, and the character of the city still seems much like it has always been, though admittedly trending older.

As is usual in these kinds of articles, the talent conundrum/shortage that hangs over every discussion involving professional politicians and business interests rears its head. In some ways New Hampshire perhaps would seem to be comparatively well-positioned in the global battle for talent and human capital, apart I suppose from having insufficient numbers, especially of younger people. The violent crime rate I believe is now the lowest of any state and its school test scores are usually in the top three in the country; if it were an independent nation it would rank in the top tier of countries I think, just behind the usual east Asian states and Finland. Of course I have learned over the years that when politicians and businessmen talk about attracting Talent they have something much more spectacular in mind than generally functional Americans of perhaps slightly above the middle rank (such as myself and my children). As with all classes of people who are highly coveted, whether by schools, cities, professions, businesses seeking customers, for the purposes either of increasing/maintaining their wealth/status, or more pitifully, as a desperate ploy for survival, there are not close to being enough of these desired souls to support more than a handful of these communities, since the best sorts tend to like to cluster together in superplaces. I don't pretend to know how competitive New Hampshire can be in this game. I suspect ultimately not very. As a place to live year round, the weather is very rough. I don't mind it, except for March and sometimes April, which psychologically wear on one, and autumn, while beautiful, is effectively over by October 20, which is a bit early--I grew up in the Mid-Atlantic, where Halloween occurs at the height of the beautiful crisp fall weather, but here it is often decidedly cold, not to mention black dark by 5 in the afternoon. The weather in Boston is admittedly dreary as well (which most of the Talent that has had to relocate there complains about endlessly), but it is even worse, or at least colder, here, and the well-known cultural and historic reasons that make Boston an important city do not seem to apply either.

One of the people interviewed for the New York Times article was a social worker who seemed to be advocating for an increase in immigrants who were likely to require a lot of services, improved public transportation options, affordable housing, and the like. Aside from racial issues this in itself would be a major cultural departure for New Hampshire, which even today is less than keen on levying taxes or funding schools or parks or providing services beyond the minimal amount required to maintain a functioning state. It is only within the last few years that we have gotten garbage pick up in my town--before that we had to haul all of our trash and recycling to the city dump ourselves--and even for that we have to put all of the garbage in special bags that cost $2.50 apiece or they won't take them. All of this stinginess heretofore has had the effect of not making the state particularly attractive to needy people. While of course there are a decent number of needy people who are homegrown they really do not overwhelm the schools, hospitals, prisons, etc compared to other places in this country. Whenever I return to my home state of Pennsylvania nowadays, especially when you get out of the nicer parts of the Philadelphia metro area, the roads and towns are increasingly reminiscent of Russia rather than the heartland of industrial age America. It is very sad, for me. It is frequently emphasized in the media that in many of these hollowed out and depopulating towns immigrants are propping up whatever is left in them that bears a resemblance to life, which is fine, though somewhat misleading, as Reading, Hazelton, Wilkes-Barre and their ilk are obviously not the kinds of places that people who are at all educated, or even imagine themselves to be educated, would consider acceptable to live in, being full of residents who are by middle class standards shockingly poor, have shockingly low test scores and employment prospects, and have astoundingly high rates of incarceration among their citizenry. And seemingly more and more of America is becoming like this, with seemingly little prospect of imminent improvement. But perhaps this impression is wrong, and they are not really very different from where I live, which I regard as still somewhat pleasant, generally functional, not yet impossibly expensive and that still has some degree of civic spirit, if not comparative to the 1940s and 50s then at least to similar sized cities in the present day. Perhaps these other formerly, or presently, All-American type cities have not fallen into this dismal state, or perhaps ours has but I have not even realized it because I am not fixated on the right things. Perhaps these changes are inevitable like they say, and they will be more wonderful than anything I could ever have imagined, though I still feel the urge to try to impress on my children that if you have been gifted with any degree of brains, you have got more than ever to make sure you develop them enough to give yourself a life that is tolerable to you, and not live perpetually in an atmosphere of squalor, hopelessness and intellectual torpor, because regardless of all the optimism and cheerleading, there is clearly a lot of that all over the place, and the means of escaping from the totality of it seem to have become more difficult than it used to be. I don't think the children grasp what I am saying at all though, and maybe that is for the good.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

State of Baseball

I watched the baseball all-star game last week (ed--now two weeks ago) for the first time since probably the mid-1980s with two of my four sons. One of them, the nine year old, can I think be called at present an obsessive of the sport. The other one, who is 16, had not to my knowledge shown much interest in it until the last year or so, when he began to watch Red Sox games, and during the All-Star game he surprised me with his familiarity with players, statistics, trade rumors and the like, my surprise being both because he rarely gives any hints as to any interests he has in anything, and also because fifteen/sixteen seems to me an unusual age to become interested in baseball; if anything it seems a likely age in most cases for interest to decline, as most boys who are not relatively good at it will stop playing around this time, and things like the collecting of baseball cards, if that is even still something children do, will have tailed off even a few years before that. I would love to know why this is happening and in what his attachment, such as it is, consists, but I cannot make it out at all at this point and no useful hints have been forthcoming, as yet. One of my other sons, who is fourteen, still plays on a team, or at least he did this year, which the older one does not. He does not show much interest in following the professional leagues or watching games on TV however, unless there is an accompanying spread of snacks involved.

I make note of all this because one of the great themes of the week leading up to the game in the media was about how baseball as a sport is in grave decline with regard to its popularity and social relevance, particularly among young people, with many commentators opining on what ought to be done about it, or not done about it, in the case of those who were indifferent to or openly took glee in the prospect of the sport's further descent. Of course relative to the stature it once had, baseball has been dying for my entire life, though as a corporate enterprise it continues to grow ever larger, more complicated and expensive and presumably richer than the version of it that existed in the 1970s, let alone the 1950s or 1920s. But as with so many other things in my lifetime, this comparatively massive growth in revenue, attendance, media coverage (which is exponentially more ubiquitous than anything that existed in 1979) is experienced as not adequate, and certainly not seen as appealing to the right people in the culture, on social media and so forth.

There is a common joke that baseball fans all think the game was most ideal in the state it was when they were 12 and that it can never improve from what it was at that time. There is probably some truth in this, as I cannot think of anything about the experience of a baseball game in 2018 that I like better than that of a game in 1982--even granting that the newer "retro" stadiums that have been built are generally more attractive than the concrete astroturf bowls that predominated in my youth, most of them (the new ones) have an odd sterility of their own and aren't able to move me much. But I was an old fogey even as a kid. My cherished season that I have a memory of was when I was nine, the rather dingy campaign of 1979 (this or 1977 is probably my favorite remembered year for football also), but I regretted having missed the pre-1969 era of the classic (and really old) stadiums, before the leagues broke into divisions and World Series games were played in the afternoon. But at least I got to grow up with a Wrigley Field that still didn't have lights and pitchers who still occasionally (and some who frequently) pitched nine inning games and 250-280 inning seasons. The more obvious changes--more divisions, more playoff teams, interleague play, the micromanaging of games and pitchers, the tyranny of advanced micro-statistics--you can imagine how much I care for all of that. And then because everyone nowadays is trained to be constantly identifying ways to improve/change/disrupt everything that exists everyone has endless ideas about what baseball should do to become more dynamic in a social media/tomorrow world. I assume eventually the game will adopt to this environment in a way more or less organic to what it already is, as it has been adapting to cultural and technological changes (for the most part) since the 1840s, slowly, awkwardly, and never forward-looking or revolutionary enough for the cool people, the one possible exception perhaps being the Babe Ruth-led home run explosion of the 20s when baseball was in step to some degree with the media and cultural developments of the Jazz Age.

As far as I can discern, the main complaint which has the commentariat, or at least the hipper part of it calling for change, is that baseball has no significant following among younger demographics, particularly among minorities, and especially among black Americans, who seem to be regarded by baseball people as the most necessary segment for restoring to the game any cultural dynamism it might hope to have. The sport's being full of Hispanic stars along all points of the racial spectrum and a considerably bigger Asian presence than any of the other major sports evidently doesn't translate into the kind of excitement, buzz, what have you that is sought. Any black American player who projects as a possible star and appears to be "cool" is inevitably described as 'what the sport desperately needs', and while I do agree that modern day baseball would be enhanced by some more good black players, the way that the desire for this is expressed is so unattractive and smacking of, well, desperation, that it is probably only further driving potential black players and fans away from baseball.

I think I have written before that in general I don't like the new generation of sports announcers. There is for me too much emphasis on analysis that is not interesting, or is not presented in an interesting way. I was a fan of Bill James's books back in the 80s and 90s because at the time they were a unique way of looking at statistics but also referred constantly to the traditional lore of baseball history and the common experiences of 1960s-70s fandom. Among today's announcers references to almost anything that happened in baseball before about the mid-60s, besides being rare, are usually treated as something of a joke, with no possible relevance or interest to the present. I don't know, if you watch snippets of games on Youtube from the 60s or 70s the announcers have a conversational style that is suited to the much bemoaned slow pace of the game (which is also not quite as slow as it is now) and that seems to have been lost. This may be a personal preference, but I like the idea of the radio or TV voice as a companion, and I don't desire a continuous barrage of marginally diverting information and minutiae. There are way too many ex-players now calling and commenting on games who are not particularly smart or funny and have not sufficiently weaned themselves from their identity as alpha male professional athletes to be able to cultivate an appealing conversational style the way that some of the announcers of my childhood like Richie Ashburn, Phil Rizzuto, Ralph Kiner, etc, were able to do (and they were Hall of Fame players!).

Perhaps this is true of all sports to some extent though especially in baseball the excitement of any single game, or instance within any single game, is largely dependent on its context related to many, many other games. Most of the celebrated moments in baseball history are related to records and milestones accumulated over the course of a long season, or even a two decade career, rare single game events such as  no-hitters or 4 home run games, playoff and World Series games of course that require some appreciation of the grind of the season and sometimes the course of many seasons to fully grasp the drama of. This is one reason among many that the end of the traditional pennant races with the realignment of the mid-90s and the introduction of 2nd place teams into the playoffs was so lamented by older fans, as great pennant races, which would usually occur only a handful of times in a decade, were one of the few sources of this kind of intense interest that is otherwise not a day in, day out feature of the sport. This is obviously all way too much to ask of the attention span of most modern young people.   

Normally I would worry about my children who do seem to like baseball being outliers in this regard within their own generation, though in New England the Red Sox remain pretty universally popular and my teenage son (I am told) may even have taken up following them as a means of connecting socially with the other boys in high school. The nine year old is actually quite a good player, and, somewhat uncharacteristic of our family, a very confident and unself-conscious one, so I doubt his interest in baseball will make him a social outcast.

The All Star Game itself, as a game, was predictably dull. The only one I can remember being any good was the 1979 game, which was pretty exciting. For one thing I think there were more stars back then. Even late in the game when the starters were out, guys like Pete Rose and Gary Carter were on the field, as well as a number of other players who were long established on good teams and far from anonymous. But I don't remember any other All-Star games that were particularly memorable.

My nine year old, for whom everything is still new, actually was excited about the home run derby and was disappointed when very few big name players took part in it. Perhaps it should not be a yearly event.

I will doubtless return to these themes at some point.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Some Very Brief Movie Reviews

I am still months behind on recording the movies I've seen, though for the time being at least I have largely stopped watching any new ones, maybe one or two a month. There are a myriad of reasons for this. 1) A genuine, if ridiculous, desire to come current with my reactions on the blog before it becomes impossible to catch up, if it hasn't already. 2) I tweaked my selection system so as to bring more recent movies on the list to balance the classics that I would probably be happy enough to watch exclusively. But as I generally don't like these newer movies as much even when objectively I suppose they are very good, I am not as dedicated to watching them in a timely matter. My interest in this particular project is also not what was a few years ago. And then 3) similar to the problem that has affected my reading, as I get older (and seemingly ever busier) I find I am too tired in the evening even to watch most movies to which one might desire to apply some thought. All of this has been steadily been pushing me away from regular movie watching over the past year. Nevertheless I still have an incredible thirty-five titles to comment on, seven of which I will take on here.

At First Sight (1999)

One thing I will say about this is that it was not as thoroughly terrible as I thought it was going to be. Of course it is pretty blah, but it does have Mira Sorvino in it, whom I guess I knew I liked, but I guess I liked her better than I knew. She's one of the actresses about my age who is supposed to be quite smart too, as in, has an actual high IQ, which is not an inconsiderate matter to me. The movie is set on the east coast, New York but also some of the towns in the Catskill/Hudson river area of a type that would be familiar to me, and there is some material for 90s nostalgia as well, my being the same age approximately as the characters in the movie and having somewhat experienced the already long lost world they inhabit, in what would have been some of the prime years of my life.

Mira Sorvino really was a cutie. Contrary to what it may appear from my writings, there aren't that many actresses whom I like enough to sit contentedly through an otherwise lame movie to see, but for the moment at least she seems to be one of them. She has been making something of a public comeback lately as a prominent voice denouncing Harvey Weinstein and Trump, and perhaps others as well, and it's great to see her again even when she is angry.

Laura (1944)

While the older movies I love have not been turning up on my lists much lately, if I go back this far there are still a few I have to write about. I don't have a lot to say about Laura, though I remember liking its style and language and its overall essence. As is often the case in old movies where murders or mysterious deaths are involved, I didn't think the central plot was very convincing, but I don't care that much. This is supposed to be the movie where Gene Tierney achieves her peak of beauty, which is saying something, for she was unusually renowned in that department. Dana Andrews, who appears frequently is movies around this time, was also in this. The director was Otto Preminger, and this seems more often than not to be considered the best movie of his very long, up-and-down, never quite great career. Probably one I should see again.
West Side Story (1961)

Classic of a sort though it undoubtedly is, I had never seen this before, and my expectations were muted, because it has not been written about very much in glowing terms by the know it all types for pretty much my entire life. So I was surprised at how much I was able to enjoy it. All of the songs I have known all my life without particularly liking any of them, but they all work and seem to sound much better within the context of the movie. There is a lot of good energy in this, and, as many commentators have acknowledged, the design, the costumes, titles, colors, etc are somewhat surprisingly spritzy. This is another one I would probably have to see again to get a sense of how good it really is; on this first viewing I was reacting against what I had anticipated, which was something much more dated and limp and middle American, which, despite its erstwhile popularity there, it really is not. The gang of switchblade wielding blond street thugs that is supposed to be terrorizing New York cannot come off now as anything other than absurd, of course. There's nothing to be done about that.

Footloose (1984)

Footloose was a big hit among mainstream younger people without a ton of exposure to anything more interesting when I was fourteen, and as I was naturally such a person, I do remember going to see it in the theater at the time. I didn't like it that much then compared to other things, not because my taste was so advanced as much as that I wasn't much interested in the main romantic strain in the plot--the female lead was rather gangly as well as crude, which I guess is not my type. Also being from east coast suburbia and not knowing anyone who could be considered remotely religious, the bible-thumping adults who were terrified by rock and roll and the idea of teenagers dancing in 1984 seemed a bit far-fetched. I also didn't particularly care for any of the songs at the time, though I didn't mind hearing them now, probably because despite quite a few of them having been pretty big hits, I hadn't heard most of them in decades, and I identify them, even more than other songs that came out at the same time that you still hear constantly, with that summer before my freshman year of high school, which is a time I remember fondly. You are all potential at that age, people have some hopes for you if you have anything going for you, even if you haven't had any notable success with girls yet it is not the existential crisis it becomes when you are eighteen, nineteen, twenty. But now I am getting away from the movie...

Around the time I saw this my wife and older sons were watching the TV show Stranger Things, which is set in 1984 and indulges heavily in 80s nostalgia even down to featuring Winona Ryder in a starring role. I watched a couple of episodes though I can't commit to watching entire 50-episode TV series at this time, and I did find some of the 80s vibe, I don't know the word I am looking for, not endearing, or comforting, exactly, but something in that vein. The town and the high school were reminiscent of the ones in Footloose and John Cougar Mellencamp type songs, though my own high school wasn't like that, or any other 1980s movie high school (it reminded me more of the high school in Grease than anything else, now that I think about it. It is supposedly 30% Muslim now, mainly Somali, so I suspect that vibe has changed). The nostalgia of Stranger Things I thought had a  strikingly and self-consciously white quality about it, even more than what is usually the case, which I thought internet critics would pick up on and rip to shreds, and a few did, but not that many. It struck me as unusually (for the present day) matter of fact and unconcerned with explaining or defending itself, which is kind of what stands out to the contemporary eye about the atmosphere of Footloose. Every single person in the movie is white, and no one is particularly conscious of this or thinks it is remarkable, which is how it really was in a lot of places even in the 80s. There was a remake of Footloose in 2011 with presumably some more up to date diversity which I don't remember hearing about at all though it seems to have made a modest profit.

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

I think this is what they call a small movie about Franklin Roosevelt's girlfriend and what is portrayed as the desperate visit of the King and Queen of England on the brink of World War II during which they have to submit to the humiliation of eating hot dogs. There were some things about it I liked. As anyone who reads this page knows I am a fan of this time in America, so I like all of the period touches, the cars, the clothes, the furnishings. Many of the well-known and happy songs of the time make an appearance in the soundtrack. Bill Murray's turn as F.D.R. I found to be a welcome departure from his usual post-Rushmore screen persona as the curmudgeonly old guy who turns out not in fact to be a complete jerk and can be counted to do the right thing in the end. I have long suspected that Bill Murray is conflicted in his feelings about social life and order at present similar to the way I am, and playing these kinds of roles where he can appear (for a time) to still retain some asshole-ish characteristics are the way he deals with this in his professional life. Not that he exactly hates people or loves the Trump movement--I actually have no idea whether he has expressed any position on the subject publically--but I get the feeling whenever I see him now that he must be thinking back on his more youthful days and finding contemporary life rather weak in comparison, while being aware that bringing back many, if not most of the circumstances that contributed to the raucousness of that earlier era are either impossible or unacceptable. So I find him, more than most other famous actors/personalities at least, to be a somewhat interesting man out of time type figure. I wonder if it was not a relief to him to play someone from the past.

The film's modern take on the late 1930s political situation has been negatively assessed in most of the online reviews I have looked at. I did not have any strong opinion of it at the time that I remember.


It's Alive (1974)

Horror films, which I have for the most part assiduously avoided up to this point in my life, have of late begun to creep onto my film lists, particularly with the new system. I did watch this, but I don't remember much of it, and it had no appeal for me. I have developed a taste as I've gotten older for the sexier Warren Beatty/Jack Nicholson type of classic 70s films and imagining that they reminded me of the world of my very early childhood. This movie, with presumably a bargain basement budget, depicts that time in its more hideous aspect, though more extremely grotesque fortunately than I have any memory of. But as I said, these kinds of pictures do not speak to me in my current stage of life.

No, this is not from the movie. It is from 1974 however.

The Other Sister (1999)

Has there ever been anyone who liked this? Everything about it projects horridness to anyone the least bit sentient. Artworks about mentally handicapped people as a rule I find to be tedious. This movie also throws in Diane Keaton (though she at least is not playing a mentally handicapped character), who was annoying to me in Woody Allen phase of her career, and whom I find unbearable in that part of it that came after. This is because she looks like my mother, is about the same age, and has almost identical annoying mannerisms, both facial and in her achingly non-vibrant movements. Then there is the extremely rich but eternally dissatisfied late-90s aging yuppie/baby boomer milieu...perhaps this was the imagined audience for this painful movie.
If there was any point of interest for me in this it was that much of it appears to have been filmed in San Francisco, a city about which I apparently know nothing--I haven't even seen many of the numerous classic movies set there--but the cityscapes they used in this make it look extremely attractive, or at least as it was in the 90s.

I can see myself at some point in the near future limiting myself to some kind of pre-1980 (maybe pre-1990 for foreign films) classic film program, in part because there are so many all-time great movies that I still haven't seen and I'm starting to get old, and in part because I don't like enough newer works, and haven't found a reliable system by which to pick those newer works that I might be more inclined to like.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Making a Belated Record of April Vacation

I had another vacation at the end of April. I did not actually do very much during it but due to my state of mind over the course of this past year it felt significant to me and I wanted to make a record of it. I will start by putting up a picture from just three summers ago (2015). While the location is not of particular relevance, this picture was taken in front of the at that time former country store in Grafton, Vermont, though it looked then as if someone were trying to get it up and running again. I don't think we have been back there since, though over the years we have probably gone there at least five times, as it is near our camp in Brattleboro. There is a small low tech, what I supposed could be called dusty nature museum there that we always visit, and that it is one of those places I think of fondly now...   

This is all sort of apropos of nothing, however, the point of the picture is to see how little everyone still is just three years ago. They all really were children. The two older boys are definitely not children anymore, at least not like they are here. So that is a significant change. And of course I feel that I have departed a certain phase of life since then and entered a new one that, to be blunt, seems even less personally exciting than the previous ones seemed to be. Three years ago I was 45, but how young 45 seems compared to 48! At 45, especially if you have not had any indications of real physical decline set in yet, you can sort of persuade yourself that you still have more than half of your life remaining to you, during which you are somehow going to feel more or less the same, energy and health-wise, as you always have. At least I did, which obviously was insane, though I guess I can console myself that I made it to nearly fifty feeling relatively youthful. Up until four or five years ago as well a few reasonably attractive women in their thirties would still, if not exactly be flirtatious with me, at least give me cause to wonder whether they had some inclination to be so. But even this kind of supremely mild speculation of possible sexual tension seems to be over now. Especially when I am out with my youngest daughter, women increasingly ask me if I am the grandfather now. So I am experiencing a lot of ambivalence and distaste as I go through this adjustment.

On the first activity day of this vacation I loaded my children in the car and drove an hour north to Lincoln, New Hampshire, the gateway to the Kancamagus Highway and the White Mountains. The main destination of this trip was a thrift shop in a shopping center along the main strip, which I had alighted on during one of my internet search games, but after going to that we were free to improvise. The thrift shop visit was a success. I did not find anything for myself but several of the children were able to leave with presents, for a total cost of under $15. Unfortunately I neglected to take any pictures there. We proceeded thence to the White Mountains Visitors Center, newly re-opened for the season. I have to confess that I love Visitors Centers, and always try to find an excuse to stop in them when I can. It's the idea of having arrived at the destination but not having yet plunged into the experience, but being in a limbo between anticipating the experience and having any part of it behind you. So I love that sense of having momentarily suspended time, even if all I am doing is the most mundane activity such as going to the bathroom or drinking water...

Needless to say the picture above is at the White Mountains Visitor Center, which I consider a superior representative of the species. There are numerous appealing visuals and displays, nostalgic touches, a large 3-d relief map set out on a table. The bathrooms are calm, quiet, and reminiscent of the past. I wish I could find a tavern that worked for me half so well.    

From the town of Lincoln we drove a mile or two into the White Mountains National Forest and pulled into a parking area. As one of the children refused to leave the car we were unable to walk anywhere where we would have lost sight of the parking lot. Despite the still profuse amount of snow cover it was 60 degrees on the day we were there. Most of April was still essentially winter this year where I live as well. I'm still not entirely caught up on my heating bills and it is nearly July.   

Though it does not look it, this is very close to the parking lot. Even for just a few minutes, it was good for me to be out in this beautiful country and air after the long winter with all of its obligations and other problems. 

The view from the bridge pictured below. It is a sad truth that I only live an hour away from this place yet I usually only make it up there maybe three times a year, and most of those for rather short and haphazard visits. I just have too many other things to do. It's madness, really. I think it is peak madness right now and for the next couple of years, perhaps, but who can say I will ever have the time for slower and more contemplative days of travel in a state of comparative health again?

Some of the children on the bridge. My son is wearing the hat he got at Fenway Park. We had already gone to a game there about a week before this outing (baseball season starts early in New England). It was my first time ever going there as well. I had previously been to baseball games at Veterans Stadium (Philadelphia), and the old Memorial Stadium and the then new Camden Yards in Baltimore. I also went to a football game at RFK Stadium in Washington once. This is my sum experience of famous baseball and football stadiums. 

The next day we headed to Vermont, stopping along the way to climb a small hill with a view of Lake Sunapee. As you can see the snow was melted here. This first "hike" of the year was about 1/2 a mile up a paved trail. As we grow more numerous (and temperamental) our walking is becoming less ambitious, I am sad to say.

View of the still slightly iced lake with the ski slopes of the mountain resort visible as well. I don't know what the children make of "views". I assume it makes some impression on them.

On the third day we are finally arrived in Brattleboro. It rained all day, so we went into town. I went to the used book store (not pictured) to pick up a book that I had been monitoring for 15 years because it was finally coming up on my reading list, and it was no longer there! After this disappointment we went to a restaurant on Main Street that was vaguely hipsterish I guess. The people in it looked like they had all spent a lot of time in modern liberal colleges and other strongly left-leaning environments. I really have not, so I find this atmosphere somewhat stimulating because I feel like something of the social life I never had could have been found among this class of people even if I have trouble understanding a lot of the driving passion and motivation behind this type of education and political position. The sandwiches were of the artisan bagel variety, with an underground selection of juices and other drinks. We had to mix and match quite a bit to satisfy everybody. Someone's sandwich was loaded with sweet potato which no one, including me, could get down. In the end I think we ended up sharing two or three egg oriented concoctions.

After the restaurant we went bowling, which took us quite away from the degreed lefty crowd (though we once went to a bowling alley in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that seemed to have quite a few people there who were something of a variation, and overall a more attractive one, of this type, appearing more affluent and less socially sour than the standard version. Don't ask me to explain how they came to be bowling). 

When I looked at this rather melancholy sight outside the bowling alley, the phrase "the era of big parking lots is over" popped into my head. The mountain visible in the background is in New Hampshire, on the other side of the Connecticut River, which would be barely 200 yards away.

On the fourth day we went to Deerfield in Massachusetts, which is about a 40 minute drive from Brattleboro. We had gone there before to visit the Yankee Candle world headquarters and superstore, but this was our first time going to the historic village, which consists of around ten or fifteen preserved houses dating from the 1700s, some of which are furnished in period style, others of which hold special collections such as furniture or silver pieces, or have craft demonstrations. This is the sort of thing we used to do a lot before there were so many of us and it became both expensive and difficult to appeal to so many varied interest levels. However I wanted to have one outing of this type during the vacation and this is one of the places out that I have long had an interest in going to, so we took the plunge. It cost $61 for all of us to get in, which is not too bad. The guides at the various houses, who looked to be retirees and who are almost certainly volunteers, were very good. Personable human guides are a commodity and attraction in themselves in today's world.

The picture above by the way is of the town's Civil War monument--every village and town and city in New England has one--with one of the old buildings of the Deerfield Academy prep school in the background. 

Still in the center of the village, turned 90 degrees from the view in the previous picture. I think this is the Unitarian church. The Unitarians of course were very prominent in these old well-educated Massachusetts towns. Beautiful New England sky as well. I believe this was around April 26th, and still no leaves visible. 

The two older boys, not exactly mesmerized by the history or other circumstances of the village, but the assumption is that exposure to the general atmosphere will leave some kind of impression that produces a jolt of recognition or insight in later life. 

There were too many of us to even contemplate taking lunch at the historic Deerfield Inn, which seems to have been the only restaurant in the village, but the museum shop had a little sort of tea room, pictured here with its pretty windows and curtains, where you could get a muffin and a drink.

A little footpath through some of the local farmland as well as the playing fields of the Deerfield Academy down to the river.

The whole group spent about 20 minutes hanging out and exploring the river. At this point my camera (actually my phone) ran out of picture space. This is an ongoing problem for me when I go out, since it seems like I have to delete 20 pictures to clear out enough space to take three. 

This is back in Vermont. The two girls who have so many good qualities we don't even have to talk about them make some homemade pizza.

Here they are standing outside the then still-covered pool, which is open now. We were even in it the other day (June 17-18th) when it was 93 degrees.

This picture is from Easter. The building blocked by my head is the New Hampshire State House. I'm still getting used to my sudden transition to looking old. I do think I look like someone who in a past age might have been a writer or local intellectual of some kind, at least in this photo.

I probably shouldn't put up so many pictures of the girls, but, on the other hand, the years go by fast and one forgets. I have a decent little archive of pictures on here for the last ten years or so, many of which commemorate times that are especially meaningful to me.

Daisy scout uniform. These two are my fifth and sixth children, and a lot of environmentalists and other sour people are pretty open in their belief that they shouldn't exist, but while acknowledging that every child is a gift from God and without praising my own children too effusively, because you never know how things are going to turn out, I suspect in the overall balance of human society and civilization they are going to be overwhelmingly positive additions.