Vinegar

So Will invited me, Ken, to join this blog, and I asked Will what he expected from me, and Will said “Write whatever you want Ken” and I thought “OK, simple enough, I can do that.” But then Will introduced me. It started off nice:

“He’s full of heart (sure) and humbug (definitely), intelligence (perhaps) and vinegar.”

Vinegar? I’m full of vinegar? Now I’m confused. What does that mean? If Will is expecting vinegar out of me, I’d better go do some research and find a definition:

Vinegar can be made from any fruit, or from any material containing sugar. [It is produced by] fermentation of natural sugars to alcohol and then secondary fermentation to vinegar.

Apparently, Will expects me to take something sweet, like baseball, and make it rot–twice.

My role here isn’t discourse; it’s decomposition.

So now I’m feeling a little déjà vu.

Ten years ago, I was working for a struggling database company called Ingres when Computer Associates bought us out. CA planned to lay off most of the company. The other database companies started recruiting Ingres employees like mad. Sybase hired an airplane to circle our building with a recruiting banner. Oracle held a special day just for us, and Larry Ellison himself showed up to encourage us to join his team.

Ellison was so charismatic that if he had produced a contract right then and there for me to sign I would have signed it, no questions asked. (Charisma wears off; I later declined an Oracle offer.)

Although I was dazzled by Ellison’s charm, I can only remember one thing he said. When asked what he thought about CA, Ellison paused, then said, “Well, every ecosystem needs its scavengers.”

An odd thing to say, really, considering that Oracle itself was scavenging for new employees out of the remains of CA’s kill. But heck, Oracle is a fabulously successful company. CA eats pond scum, and you are what you eat, but they’re also a fabulously successful company. Decomposition is good business.

Businesses are born, they merge, and they die. Blogs are born, they merge, and they die. If the baseball blog ecosystem needs a scavenger to feed off the rot, to pick upon the bones of last week’s news, I am happy to serve it. Being recruited, being wanted, being needed, whether for software or for blogging, is a wonderful feeling, even if I may not deserve it.

So thank you, Mr. Carroll, for the seat
inside your friendly bar across the street.

And Mike Crudale.

AL East Preview

Yankees, Red Sox
I sing of arms and clubs, who forced by Fate
To fight each year in unrelenting Hate,
A song of Anger, Envy, Fear, and Pride,
Of damage done when zealous gods collide,
Where innocents are killed off in defeat
Or left as scavengers of stinking meat;
Great gods at war we mortals can’t avoid,
When evil empires need to be destroyed.

Oh, Muse! What causes lying at the root
Could launch this fierce preoccupied pursuit?
What gave offense and vexed an angry Boss
To vow for Boston loss on bitter loss?
We mortals cannot know; we only pray
That Fate will keep us far out of their way.

Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays
Water wages war
silently. It finds fissures,
cracks, cuts, crevices,

and seeps in, slowly,
unnoticed, working within
to corrode its foe,

whose quiet weakness
is not exposed to itself
until it’s too late.

AL Central Preview

Tigers
I know I might hear some derision
For making the crazy decision
To pick Detroit first
When they should be the worst,
But I hate this entire division.

Twins
This winter, their talent decreased.
Their bullpen’s no longer a beast.
But they still just might snag
One more Central flag
Simply by sucking the least.

Royals
For years, they have seemed non-existent.
That’s probably why I’m resistant
To believe there’s a chance
They could win and advance.
I think they’ll be too inconsistent.

Indians
I like the way Cleveland plays D.
But still, there’s no way I foresee
Them winning this year.
They must perservere,
And hope one more season’s the key.

White Sox
They fill me with fear and foreboding.
Their talent’s been slowly eroding.
There could be success,
But my guts make me guess
That this whole team will end up imploding.

Joseph Campbell’s 100th Birthday

Joseph Campbell was born 100 years ago today, so it’s an appropriate day to express my gratitude to him.

Campbell is for me what Bill James is to baseball statisticians: the guy who opened my eyes to a completely new way of thinking. Back in college, I was struggling to understand why I was so obsessed with baseball. Campbell’s insights into relationship between myth, culture and human psychology provided me the answers I was looking for. Baseball is my personal mythology.

Now, I don’t buy Campbell’s story about myth hook, line, and sinker. As a guy whose personality type is that of an architect of systems, I can see that Campbell’s explanations don’t quite work as an architecture. DNA is the building block of life, and from that, springs forth a subconscious mind that spews a common form of myth? It doesn’t quite fit. There’s a missing step between DNA and myth. That’s partly what my Keeping Score in the Arts series was about: how a simple brain architecture can produce the complex set of behaviors we see in human culture.

Nonetheless, Campbell’s insights are invaluable to me. Campbell’s mantra of “Follow your bliss” also helped me feel less guilty about my obsession. All my baseball activities: watching on TV, going to the ballpark, reading, blogging, writing silly poetry, playing fantasy games: that’s my bliss. No apologies.

So where do I go from here? Will Carroll recently asked a similar question, wondering about blogging as a career. He said we need to ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me?”

Short answer: youneverknow. If you follow your bliss, one thing will lead to another. But what that other thing will be is a mystery. As Campbell put it:

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

So I’ll follow my bliss, and go dancing through doorways, just to see what I will find. Happy Birthday, Joseph Campbell, and thanks for the advice.

Immediate Prophecy

Am I a jinx or something? Just hours after I had written that the A’s bench is not a bottomless pit, my statement gets tested. Mark Ellis is out 6-8 weeks after dislocating his shoulder in a collision with Bobby Crosby.

We’ll soon find out how valuable Ellis’ defense really is. If Hudson and Mulder start giving up a lot more hits than usual this April, we’ll know why.

Although Frank Menechino is also hurt, the A’s shouldn’t miss much offensively. And this illustrates what I enjoy most about watching Billy Beane work. You can talk all you want about Hudson, Mulder, Zito and Chavez, but Beane’s real genius shows up in the 35th-40th men on the roster. He creates depth at every position. When Ellis gets hurt, he not only has one competent backup, he has three (with Baseball Prospectus projections):

Name OBP SLG
Mark Ellis .325 .378
Frank Menechino .342 .334
Marco Scutaro .337 .412
Esteban German .326 .347
Now compare those numbers to the projected numbers of the other middle infield backups in the AL West:
Willie Bloomquist, Sea .303 .341
Ramon Santiago, Sea .317 .339
Chone Figgins, Ana .311 .363
Adam Riggs, Ana .299 .380
Alfredo Amezaga, Ana .295 .343
Jason Bourgeois, Tex .297 .363
Eric Young, Tex .336 .371

The entire division has only one middle infield backup, Eric Young, who is a better hitter than the A’s fourth-string second baseman. That’s why Billy Beane is so good. And that’s why I said the A’s can win a war of attrition.

I just wish I wasn’t so right so soon.

AL West Preview

Angels
When Moreno decided to add
Kelvim, Bartolo, and Vlad,
He took on some debt.
But I’m liking his bet:
This could be the best team they’ve had.

Athletics
Their fielders aren’t out of position.
Their aces don’t sit by omission.
Their bullpen and bench
Aren’t a bottomless trench:
The A’s just might win by attrition.

Mariners
They never make trades that are bold.
They let all their players get old.
If somehow this team
Wins despite a bad scheme,
Bavasi’s a wizard: Behold!

Rangers
Soriano-for-ARod: a rarity.
It gave them a future with clarity:
Nix those not among
The Mench who are Young
Arming Blalock with hope and Teixerity.

Trigonomystery

Dan Werr has posted some very cool maps over on Baseball Primer. Check them out. My favorite map is the one which divides the US into areas based on which MLB ballpark is closest.

For those of you who enjoy puzzles, here’s one for you, based on that map:

My house is very close to the dividing line between two teams. That made me curious which ballpark I was actually closer to. So I pulled up some maps and a ruler and measured. As the crow flies, it looks like it’s about 5.2 miles to the nearest ballpark (7.7 miles by car). The second nearest ballpark is 5.6 miles away (but 13.5 miles by car).

So I live about 350 yards from the dividing line. Which ballpark do I live closest to?

Also, I can walk about 350 yards from my house and see one of the ballparks. Which one?

Rosebudstein

John Dowd, the Pete Rose investigator, recently theorized that George Steinbrenner pressed Bud Selig for Rose’s reinstatement because it would help Steinbrenner’s own Hall of Fame chances. Denials everywhere.

Dowd’s theory I shouldn’t discuss,
But I must say I like all this fuss:
When we take George and Bud,
Drag their names through the mud,
We annoy them like they annoy us.

Server Problems

I’m cursing my dumb ISP.
For email that I didn’t see.
I suddenly found
My web site was down
From a change in my static IP.

Yesterday, my ISP suddenly changed the IP address of my web server. This means that if you tried to go to www.humbug.com, you were likely being sent to the wrong machine.

Silly me for assuming that buying a “static IP” meant my IP address would be static.

My ISP had given me a week’s warning, but I rarely check the email address they sent the warning to, so I didn’t see it until it was too late. It took me over six hours to notice the problem and then fix everything that needed fixing.

I apologize for any inconvenience. You may now return to your regularly scheduled humbug.

NL East Preview

Phillies
In advance of the Phillies’ new dwelling
Wade went out Wagner/Worrelling.
With the wicked new hurlers,
And better Pat Burrellers,
A title is what I’m foretelling.

Marlins
The Marlins, refusing to budge,
Would not give a contract to Pudge.
Winning without him?
I’d certainly doubt ’em,
But champions, we shouldn’t judge.

Expos
Despite that the Expos lost Vlad,
With Nick, Jose, Carl, and Brad,
Their lineup’s a winner.
Though pitching is thinner,
I don’t think this team will be bad.

Braves
Two Bushes, two war-in-Iraqs.
Meanwhile, just one Bobby Cox.
A thirteen-year reign
Is hard to sustain.
He’s due to start taking some knocks.

Mets
Matsui and Reyes–I’m skeptical.
Though Cammy’s a gold glove receptacle,
And the Mets seem improved,
I am not very moved;
I sense they will still be ineptical.

Thoughts from a Bored Bullpen

Ever think about the space-time continuum?

What if Moneyball was a biblical story? A young scout plays Adam. Billy Beane is Eve. Everyone is living in the Garden of Eden, happy in their ignorance. Bill James is the serpent. He tempts Beane to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Beane gives the apple to the young scout. Joe Morgan is God. He gets quite wrathful about this turn of events. Hilarity ensues.

Beane may not be perfectly cast as Eve, but we’ll give him the part because he is so hairy.

I haven’t followed college basketball at all this year, but my Final Four is still intact in the Baseball Primer pool: Duke, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, Connecticut. I owe it all to the psychic powers of my Grandma Agnes.

When she died I had a dream. She came to me and said, “The space-time continuum moves in mysterious ways. When the great leader of your land is caught lying and unwillingly removed from power, you shall receive my gift.”

So I’ve watched with keen interest while Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Dubya have all been accused of lying. Alas, impeachment never succeeds. But If I win this pool, everything becomes clear. Grandma Agnes was actually referring to Martha Stewart.

Mark McClusky wonders how to make his girlfriend love baseball. I think the only proven method is osmosis.

My oldest daughter is osmosing baseball. Much to my delight, she chose a baseball theme for her 7th birthday party this weekend. It’s fascinating to watch her interest in baseball grow. She’s not really into the competition or the players much; her interest seems to be mostly cultural: the styles, the music, the history. I wonder if it’s just her, or if this is the Women-Are-From-Venus path into the sport.

My wife did her best Martha Stewart imitation for the birthday party. She transformed the backyard into a baseball stadium. Every kid had their number retired on the wall:

One of the party games we played was pickle. The kids got to run the bases and the adults tried to tag them. It brought back forgotten memories of hours upon hours spent playing pickle as a kid. With the modern aversion to stolen bases, and the hyperorganized nature of youth activities these days, I wonder: do kids play pickle anymore?

Party poopers: I have just been informed that our undocumented acquisition of bunting will come under investigation by the SEC.

Why? It makes no sense! Does somebody up there hate us? They didn’t say that. Read the book. Joe Morgan moves in mysterious ways. Hilarity ensues.

Critics Considered Harmless

Brian Micklethwait on his Culture Blog said, “Critics who explain why TV shows are so good are the most dangerous kind, because they stop you ever enjoying it again.”

My baseball audience can imagine the question this way:

Critics who explain why baseball teams are so good are the most dangerous kind, because they stop you ever enjoying baseball again.

In either case, I think this is wrong.

Judging from the hostile reaction to Moneyball, it’s a common fear: that if you explain the mechanics of an art form, the enjoyment you get from it will cease. But this fear is based on a faulty understanding about how the brain stores knowledge.

The brain has two different systems of data storage:

  • declarative memory, a conscious form of memory where facts are stored, and
  • nondeclarative memory, a subconscious form of memory for pattern recognition, motor skills and habits.

I have proposed that our judgments of any kind of art, whether it’s a TV show or a baseball game, come only from the subconscious system.

Decisions arising from the subconscious system are instant and automatic. Our conscious decisions are slow, rational and deliberate. But we don’t need to deliberate very hard to decide whether we like a TV show or not. It just happens. Our judgments about art match the characteristics of the subconscious system better.

As you observe a TV show, or a baseball game, your subconscious system notices all kinds of patterns. The patterns you’ve seen many times, you learn to ignore. Those are clichés. If you see something unusual, though, you need to create a new memory for this new pattern. We like it when that happens.

On the other hand, when a critic explains a pattern to you, a different kind of memory is created. The critic is not giving you an actual pattern, but a fact about a pattern. An actual pattern would be a nondeclarative memory, stored in your subconscious. But the fact is a declarative memory. It’s conscious.

My hypothesis claims that you don’t use your conscious memories when you make your judgments, only your subconscious ones. If I’m right, knowing a fact about the artwork should not have any bearing on whether you like an artwork or not.

I know an awful lot of people who understand the facts about baseball inside and out. They know all the statistical probabilities for any given situation. But knowing these facts does not reduce their enjoyment of the game. That’s because the facts reside in a brain subsystem separate from the source of their enjoyment.

Facts are facts and patterns are patterns and never the twain shall meet.

The Nomads of Kamchatka

Suppose you’re an indigenous reindeer herder on the frozen tundras of Kamchatka. You live in yurtas, like this one:

Every few days, as the reindeer graze the land barren, you pack up your home and move to another place, and rebuild your camp. You’re never settled, always changing. This has been your life for as long as you can remember.

Now suppose that suddenly, someone swooped you up and flew you off to a luxurious mansion on a warm tropical island, and said OK, now you live here, and you’ll never have to move again.

What would you do? Perhaps you’d be happy about the easier lifestyle. More likely, though, you’d be in total shock.

Well, as an A’s fan, that’s pretty much how I feel today after the A’s signed Eric Chavez.

A’s fans are nomadic. We settle down for a while with some players, let them graze awhile, and then move on to something else. Reggie, Catfish, Rickey, Canseco, McGwire, Giambi, Tejada…our players always leave. The team itself has moved twice, and is always threatening to move again. We’re used to it. We know we’re just a whistle stop on a journey to some other place, and everyone else is just passing through.

So now I’m sitting here, trying to think about Eric Chavez sticking around for six or seven more years, and well, I can’t do it. It’s beyond my ken, completely incomprehensible. But give me some time. I think that maybe, eventually, I could get used to this.

Defending Aaron Gleeman

Some people take baseball far too seriously, and criticize anything and everything. It reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt’s quote:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

So when a Baseball Primer thread turned critical of young blogger Aaron Gleeman, I felt the need to respond:

To those who say a baseball blogger’s heft
is insufficient: Go jump in a lake.
May the ice cold water shock you awake
to learn that baseball is best left bereft
of gravitas. Though passion immerses
us all, this is not the crucifixion.
The aim is not Shakespearean diction.
It’s just a blog. A guy who converses
about a topic he enjoys. Enjoys!
A word that’s been forgotten here by some,
who feel the need to beat a bitter drum
and show superiority with noise.
Remember when you feel an angry urge,
that baseball is light verse, it’s not a dirge.

You go, Aaron.

NL Central Preview

Astros
With Clemens’ and Pettitte’s new faces
The Astros are tossing all aces,
While their hitters’ abilities,
Despite some senilities,
Puts plenty of runners on bases.

Cubs
If you trust that my dreams can foresee,
A wild card contender they’ll be.
Why not in first?
Perhaps they are cursed,
Despite adding Hawkins and Lee.

Cardinals
Pujols is worth an ovation.
I also profess admiration
For Woody and Morris,
The thing I abhor is
The rest of the Cardinal rotation.

Reds
I like what the Reds have been doing,
The youngsters that they’ve been pursuing.
Though Wagner, Kearns, Dunn
Will end up outwon,
They’ll still be a team that’s worth viewing.

Brewers
The Sexson trade leaves me unsure:
Is their whole brand new infield a cure?
It matters little;
Their pitching’s too brittle.
Just wait ’til those farmhands mature!

Pirates
Pittsburgh’s a passionate city.
Being stuck with this team is a pity.
There’s no way to waffle:
This team will be awful,
But at least their home ballpark is pretty.

NL West Preview

Padres
It came to me once in a dream:
The Padres will have a good team.
I will trust this strange vision;
They will win the division
Or I’ll pinch myself, sit up and scream.

Giants
Maybe Alfonzo will hit,
While possibly Durham and Schmidt
Along with Robb Nen
Will be healthy and then
They won’t just be Bonds and that’s it.

Dodgers
This team is on loan, not invested,
But at least it has been dePodested.
From L.A. to the farms
They’ve been crawling with arms
But with bats they have been uninfested.

Diamondbacks
They used to just Schill ’em and Rand ’em.
But now they have broken the tandem
Of Johnson and Curt.
I know both were hurt,
But these moves, I do not understand ’em.

Rockies
While Walker, Wilson, Burnitz
And Helton will each get his hits,
Chacon will get saves,
And Jennings earn raves
But the rest of this team is the pits.

Elsewhere on the web…

Will Carroll’s question about why we blog (“What’s in it for me?”), sent me into deep thought over the weekend. Then, I happened to come across a whole list of old SNL Deep Thoughts on Eve Tushnet’s site. I think the answer to Will’s question is this one:

Perhaps, if I am very lucky, the feeble efforts of my lifetime will someday be noticed, and maybe, in some small way, they will be acknowledged as the greatest works of genius ever created by Man.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. And I encourage you to come back to my site, because Tushnet also posts:

Before a mad scientist goes mad, there’s probably a time when he’s only partially mad. And this is the time when he’s going to throw his best parties.

Speaking of parties, there’s a new one starting up today called Hardball Times. Sounds like fun.

The five of you who read my mad scientist essay about our two brain systems will recognize that 99.9% of the baseball blogs out there are trying to talk to our logical System 2 Android Brains. Half of our brains are being neglected by the baseball blogosphere! So when a blog makes the attempt to talk to our System 1 Animal Brain, it should be encouraged.

That’s why I encourage you to go check out Mariner Musings, where Peter White has a whole series of haiku about Mariner players.

Lake Placid Memories

OGIC points out a good story in the New Yorker about Igor Larionov going to see Miracle, the film about the 1980 US hockey team. Larionov was just a youngster then, and he just missed out on making that Soviet team. His memories were not quite as happy as the film’s.

My memories of the 1980 Olympics were a bit different, as well. In 1979, my parents divorced and I moved with my mother to Sweden, after spending my first thirteen years in California. It was my first real winter, and I guess my young body wasn’t prepared for it. Just days before the 1980 Winter Olympics started, I caught pneumonia.

If you’re going to be bedridden for two weeks in the middle of winter in Sweden, you couldn’t pick a better time than during the Olympics. Sweden only had two TV channels back then, both government-run. They usually only broadcast from about 6pm-11pm, and most of their programming was horrendously boring stuff like pottery making and polka music. But during the Olympics, they broadcast nearly every event live and in its entirety. I watched it all.

The TV commentators were rooting for all the Swedes, and I got caught up rooting for them, too, especially after Thomas Wassberg won the 15km cross-country gold medal. He passed the finish line just 0.01 second ahead of a Finn, Juha Mieto. I had never imagined cross-country skiing could be exciting, but that was an amazing race to watch. The commentators went absolutely nuts. They showed the finish over and over again for days. In the smallest fraction of a second, Wassberg became a hero for life in his homeland.

Swedes have a small-town attitude towards their country, a refreshing humility about their little place in the big world. They don’t really expect to win. They don’t expect anyone else to pay any attention to them. Victories of any sort are always a surprise. Losses are not scandals, just the expected outcome for such a small group of people. But there is one big exception to this: ice hockey.

When the Swedes and Americans tied in the first hockey game of the tournament, the commentators were extremely disappointed, even upset. The Swedes were expected to win, and the tie with this lesser team would hurt their chances at a medal. Although the outcome suited my background, I empathized with the Swedes’ disappointment. Little did anyone suspect that this would be the only game USA wouldn’t win.

In 1980, there was also another exception to Sweden’s typically low expectations: Ingemar Stenmark.

Now, I’ve seen Michael Jordan. I’ve seen Barry Bonds. I’ve seen Wayne Gretzky. But to this day, Ingemar Stenmark is the most dominant athlete I’ve ever seen.

Most Americans would probably guess that Björn Borg is Sweden’s biggest sports hero. After all, he won Wimbledon five times in a row. Stenmark and Borg were both born in 1956, so I was lucky enough to live in Sweden during both their peaks. Borg was big, of course, but Stenmark was bigger.

Stenmark completely dominated slalom and giant slalom skiing. In his career, he ended up winning 86 World Cup races. Alberto Tomba is second, and he trails Stenmark by a whopping 36 wins. But the number of victories only tells part of the story.

Stenmark was so good, he didn’t really even try during his first run. Basically, all he did was make sure he didn’t fall down. In the second run, he would go all out. If he finished in the top 10 after the first run, you could be pretty sure he would either win the race or fall down trying. I remember one time he decided to go all out for both runs of a giant slalom race. He won by almost four seconds.

Whenever Stenmark skied, the entire country of Sweden would stop. I remember being out the town market one day during a World Cup race, and one of the vendors had a TV. When Stenmark’s turn came, everybody in on the square stopped what they were doing, and huddled around this one TV set to watch his run.

Because Stenmark was so dominant, I think Swedes felt more worried about a fall than excited about him winning Olympic gold. So when Stenmark ended up winning gold in both slalom and giant slalom (coming from behind each time, of course), they didn’t really explode with joy and surprise like they did about Wassberg. The prevailing emotions were pride and relief.

When the final round of the hockey tournament arrived, my illness was over. I watched the Finland-Sweden matchup, which was another tie. But I missed the USA-USSR game, because it didn’t start until 2AM Sweden time, and I had to get up early for a morning basketball practice. Besides, I didn’t want to see the Americans get clobbered, anyway.

When I got to the practice, my teammates were talking about the Sweden-Finland match. I was tying my shoes. Then someone asked about the USA-USSR game. One teammate said, “USA won.”

I looked up, surprised.

“No way,” said another teammate.

“They did.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“No, USA won, 4-3.”

Nobody could believe it. Then they all turned and looked at me, the American. I looked back with a “hey, I’m cool” smile, and resumed tying my shoes.

Even at that point, the medals were not assured. Sweden still could win gold, if Finland beat the Americans, and Sweden beat the Soviets.

But that wasn’t going to happen. USA was a team of destiny. Sweden had the unfortunate fate of being the next team the Soviets played after the Miracle on Ice game. The Soviets absolutely clobbered Sweden, 9-2, to take the silver. Sweden settled for the bronze. From the Swedish point of view, the results were acceptable, but not great.

When I hear stories about Al Michaels call, part of me wishes I had been in America to be immersed in the pure joy and surprise of gold, instead of the mild satisfaction of bronze. But then I would have missed a similar joy and surprise when Wassberg won, and would not have experienced the total dominance of Ingemar Stenmark. I guess I’ll just have to follow Larionov’s lead, and go see the movie.