April in the Rear View Mirror

The good news is that the A’s finished April just a half game out of first place in the AL West. In fact, it’s more than just good news, it’s miraculous news. With the exception of Nick Swisher and Eric Chavez, it has seemed like a Murphy’s Law kind of month for the A’s.

So far, the A’s have suffered injuries to Rich Harden, Esteban Loaiza, Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer, Jay Witasick, Bobby Crosby and Milton Bradley. And beyond that, all but a handful of players have been performing below (and in many cases, far below) expectations.

If you look at the OPS numbers for both hitters and pitchers, only six players are performing better in 2006 than in 2005: Swisher, Chavez, Marco Scutaro, Joe Kennedy, Chad Gaudin, and Brad Halsey. When 21 of your 27 players see their performances decline, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Here’s a little April OPS chart, with hitters’ OPS on the left, and pitchers’ OPS allowed on the right.

Oakland Athletics OPS, April 2006

Swisher 1.142
Loaiza     1.097
Chavez  1.078
Witasick    .984
Street      .935
Gaudin      .846
Blanton     .835
Saarloos    .813
Haren       .781
Bradley  .779
Zito        .745
Kotsay   .736
Scutaro  .718
Duchscherer .671
Thomas   .669
Kennedy     .626
Calero      .624
Kendall  .618
Crosby   .584
Harden      .579
Ellis    .579
Melhuse  .579
Johnson  .559
Halsey      .533
Payton   .477
Perez    .188
Kielty   .000

You’ll notice that there are way too many pitchers near the top, and way too many hitters near the bottom. You want the batters near the top, and the pitchers near the bottom. Here’s what the same chart would look like if you used those players’ OPS values from 2005:

Player OPS values, 2005

Gaudin     1.347
Thomas   .905
Ellis    .861
Bradley  .834
Halsey      .816
Johnson  .806
Crosby   .802
Chavez   .794
Swisher  .768
Perez    .758
Kennedy     .757
Witasick    .751
Payton   .749
Kotsay   .746
Kielty   .746
Saarloos    .736
Haren       .710
Loaiza      .707
Scutaro  .701
Blanton     .694
Kendall  .666
Melhuse  .666
Zito        .665
Calero      .608
Duchscherer .581
Harden      .565
Street      .534

That’s more the kind of distribution we’re hoping for. The more that list is heavy on the top-left and bottom-right, the more games you’re going to win.

There have been signs in the last few days that some hitters, such as Ellis, Payton, and Johnson, have started to awaken from their profound slumbers, and that they’ll start bubbling up higher on this list.

However, with Harden likely to miss all of May on the DL, and with who-knows-what being wrong with Esteban Loaiza, I’m less confident that the pitching will come around soon. The starters are not going deep into games, the bullpen is getting overworked. Things could get worse before they get better.

This is exactly what happened last year, and it worries me. In 2005, the A’s slumped early, but managed to stay around .500 in April. Then Harden got hurt, and the A’s went on a long losing streak in May that buried them in the standings. They managed to turn that streak around in June, but it’s not something you want to keep relying on.

If the A’s at least avoid any long losing streaks until Harden comes back, I will be happy. Just hang around in the race, until the pieces are in place, and things start to click. The A’s don’t need miracles to win the division. They just need good health, and performances that at least somewhat resemble expectations.

Kendall Fast Over, Loaiza Fast Begins

Yesterday, Jason Kendall went his fourth straight game without grounding out to third. So my Kendall fast (see sidebar) is now over.

In its place, I am beginning an Esteban Loaiza fast. I can’t stand watching the dude throw another 84-mph batting practice fastball. During today’s game against the Royals, you could tell after about five pitches that Loaiza had absolutely nothing. You could send out any single-A pitcher from Kane County, and they’d have a better chance at getting people out than Loaiza did today.

I have no idea why Macha didn’t just yank him right away. The guy has an injured trapezius muscle, has no velocity or control whatsoever, and they leave him in there to put a grand slam on a tee for Reggie Sanders. He needs to go join Rich Harden on the DL until whatever is wrong with him is fixed.

I don’t want to see Loaiza again until he’s back throwing his 90+ mph fastballs. Because otherwise, he’s worse than useless. So my Loaiza fast begins right now. I’m not even waiting for this game to be over. Ideally, I’d like to keep fasting Loaiza until he throws a fastball above 90mph, but if I’m not watching the game, it’s kinda hard to know when he throws that speed, because that data isn’t readily available online.

So here’s my Loaiza fast parameters: I’m not watching another Loaiza appearance until he throws five consecutive shutout innings. Because my walls and furniture deserve to remain intact.

Harden to DL, will miss 3-6 weeks

Still no word Rich Harden’s MRI on his back, but the results must not have been good. The A’s placed Harden on the 15-day DL, and called up Ron Flores to take his spot.

I would guess that calling up a lefty would mean that Brad Halsey would take Harden’s spot in the rotation, but who knows? If Ken Macha enjoys having two lefties in the pen so much, maybe he’ll like having three even more.

Jay Witasick is eligible to come off the DL tomorrow, but if he were ready, the A’s could have just activated him tomorrow instead of making Flores fly around the country for just one game.

Injuries, man. They suck. But better these little two-week things than one big out-for-the-year injury to a star. Knock on wood.

Update: Dagnammit, I knocked on wood! It was supposed to be a two-week thingie. Instead, Harden will be out for three to six weeks. Looks like that A’s hot streak will have to wait until June again.

Bat Throwing

With the news that Delmon Young has been suspended indefinitely for throwing a bat at an umpire, I suppose it’s a good time to take a look back at the most famous bat-throwing incident in Oakland A’s history.

It happened in game two of the 1972 ALCS, when A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris threw his bat at Detroit Tiger pitcher Lerrin LaGrow. Bruce Markusen has a
great diary entry of the incident on his Baseball Guru website.

In the bottom of the seventh, A’s leadoff man Campy Campaneris faced Tiger reliever Lerrin LaGrow, who had entered the game in the sixth inning. Campaneris had done considerable damage in his first three at-bats: three hits, two runs scored, and a pair of stolen bases. Throughout the game, Tiger pitchers had thrown fastballs in the general direction of Campy’s legs, in an attempt to brush him back off the plate, or perhaps even injure the Oakland catalyst. Predictably, LaGrow threw his first pitch—a fastball—down and in on Campaneris, hitting the Oakland shortstop in the ankle.

Most of the Oakland players knew that one of the A’s’ batters, given the Tiger struggles in the early part of the series, would eventually become the victim of a deliberate brushback pitch. “I was in the on-deck circle,” Joe Rudi told a reporter, “and I feel the Detroit pitcher threw at him. Campy had run the Tigers ragged in the first two games, and when [Billy] Martin gets his ears pinned down, he’s going to do something about it.”

A recent history of ill feeling between the Tigers and A’s may have also contributed to today’s ugliness. During the regular season, Tiger relief pitcher Bill Slayback had thrown at Campaneris and Angel Mangual back-to-back, prompting Mangual to charge the mound. During the ensuing melee, Mangual punched Slayback, Billy Martin ran after Mangual, Willie Horton decked Mike Epstein, and Duke Sims and Oakland coach Jerry Adair brawled. Another Oakland coach, Irv Noren, found himself injured by Tiger relief pitcher Tom Timmerman. The 15-minute incident, which included fights and pileups, left simmering feelings of hatred between the two teams.

Today’s incident, however, makes the earlier-season tensions seem far more tame. When LaGrow’s fastball struck the bone of Campaneris’ ankle, the A’s’ shortstop staggered for a moment, glared at the Tiger pitcher, and then, in an unusually violent reaction, flung the bat toward LaGrow. Spiraling about six feet off the ground, the bat helicoptered toward the pitching mound. The six-foot, five-inch LaGrow ducked down, barely avoiding contact with the bat, which ended up a few feet behind the mound.

Campaneris was suspended for the rest of the ALCS (but not the World Series), the first week of the following regular season, and was fined $500.

Throwing a bat is never excusable, but you can at least understand that Campy was reacting with a sort of eye-for-an-eye self-defense mentality; LaGrow was deliberately trying to injure his legs, and his legs were what Campy’s whole game was about.

So even though LaGrow was much more likely to be severely injured than the umpire, who at least had some protective padding on, Young’s suspension will almost certainly be much longer. Throwing a bat at an umpire because you didn’t like his call is a whole ‘nuther level of inappropriateness. It doesn’t just put the umpire at risk for injury, it threatens the integrity of the game itself.

Umpires need be able to act in a fair and impartial manner; if they are subject to physical intimidation, they cannot be trusted and expected to act fairly. There are sins that harm the participants in a system, and there are sins that harm the system itself. The latter sort get the harshest punishments.

Steroid use, another system-harming sin, now results in a 50-day suspension for a first-time offense. I expect Young to receive at least that much time off, if not more.

Same Old Story

Another non-quality start, by Barry Zito this time (5 ER in 6 IP), and another one-run loss.

We’ve seen this plot at least five times already this season already. The starter puts the A’s in a deep hole, the offense gives a good effort to try to climb out, but falls just short. I’m glad I was busy and didn’t have to suffer through the same old thing.

And the New Heavyweight Champion of The World, Your Oakland Athletics

The A’s won the MLB Heavyweight crown Monday evening with a tight 3-2 victory over the Texas Rangers.

The offense looked the same, with nobody producing any runs except Nick Swisher and Eric Chavez, who hit back-to-back homers in the sixth. But the pitching was the A’s pitching of old: Joe Blanton gave a quality start, and the bullpen held on. The A’s won a game 3-2 that last week they would have lost 4-3.

Again, Ken Macha got a reliever up in the pen for a specific situation, and when the situation come up, he let the reliever just rot in the pen. This time, he had Brad Halsey ready for Brad Wilkerson in the eighth inning, but Macha left Kiko Calero in the game instead, and Calero got the job done. But again, why tire out Halsey’s arm for no reason? Either get him up for that situation and use him, or don’t get him up at all. If Halsey has to pitch tomorrow and runs out of gas, we’ll know why.

Meanwhile, my Kendall fast has gotten a day closer to ending. For the first time since I began my Kendall fast, Jason Kendall did not ground out to third. He also got a hit, which means he now has exactly as many hits in 2006 as groundouts to third: eleven.

A’s in MLB Heavyweight Championship Bout

Thanks to Texas’ three-game sweep of Tampa Bay, the A’s will get their first MLB Heavyweight Championship bout of 2006 on Monday. (See sidebar section for more detail.) I like the A’s chances of holding onto the title for awhile; they have Rich Harden going in the series finale on Wednesday, and then they head to Kansas City for the weekend to face the AL’s worst team.

Of course, the A’s haven’t exactly been one of the AL’s best teams this season themselves. They’re currently 8-11, and the reason is pretty clear: the A’s five starters, who last year had a combined ERA of 3.58, currenly have an ERA over two runs higher: 5.74. The games they won last year 4-3 and 3-2, they are now losing 5-4 and 4-3–the exact scores by which the Angels took the last two games of the most recent series.

There are other problems, too. The injury bug has affected Bobby Crosby again, as well as Huston Street, Esteban Loaiza, and Jay Witasick. Street and Justin Duchscherer each melted down and blew 2-run ninth-inning leads. The offense, which on paper should be the most balanced offense in baseball, is just the opposite. There are three players hitting at or above expectations: Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez, and Milton Bradley. There is one player hitting almost as expected: Mark Kotsay. Everyone else has been simply awful, with a batting averages around the Mendoza line, or worse.

All of which adds up to yet another disappointing April. But you gotta figure that the A’s starters won’t allow six runs a game all year, and that half the A’s lineup won’t hit below .200. It’s gonna turn around–those players are gonna start hitting and pitching as projected, and when they do, watch out. This team isn’t clicking yet, but at some point, they will. There’s a nice, long winning streak right around the corner, I can just feel it. Let’s hope they don’t wait until June this time to find where that corner is.

Kendall Fasting

I’ve been complaining about Ken Macha, but honestly, I’m not as annoyed at Macha as I am at Jason Kendall. When Jason Kendall came to the plate with the bases loaded in the ninth, with one out, and the A’s down by one, I grumbled to my computer, “G&*D(!@ f$*#&*#in Kendall’s gonna hit another weak-@$# grounder to third again, I just know it.” Which he proceeded to do.

I am really, really tired of watching Jason Kendall hit weak-$#!^ grounders to third. And what annoyed me more is that there is no hope it’s going to change anytime soon. Kendall recently said this to ESPN.com:

I’m looking to turn it around. I haven’t changed my approach at the plate. It’s the same approach for me.

OK, let’s see…my approach isn’t working…so let’s keep the same approach! Argh.

I like the way Kendall calls a game, and I can acknowledge the possibility that this is a real and important skill, even if there aren’t any statistics that back this claim up. But…

I am seriously contemplating never watching another Jason Kendall at-bat again. Maybe I’ll just go to the bathroom, or go get a snack or something, every time he comes up. Because I really don’t think I can stand to see another weak Kendall ground out to third.

OK, maybe never is too extreme. Never is a long time. But I need a break from all those 5-3 putouts, or I’ll go insane. Otherwise, I’m going to start using all kinds of foul language that the people around me just don’t want to hear. So I’m going to give myself a timeout.

Here’s what I’ll do: I’m not going to watch or listen to Jason Kendall bat again until he goes four straight starts without grounding out to third.

I’ll put up a counter on the sidebar to track my Kendall Fast, and we’ll see how long it lasts.

Update: Here are the up-to-date Kendall averages:

9 hits in 40 at-bats: .225 average.
8 groundouts-to-third in 40 at-bats: .200 average.

Macha Headscratchin’: Update

I’m not ready to jump on the Fire Macha bandwagon yet, because I think any manager would drive me nuts at times, but I do admit Ken Macha drives me nuts at times. Like in the A’s last two losses, where he made the exact same mistake–twice.

In both Sunday’s game and Wednesday’s game, Macha had the right guy up in the bullpen for a specific situation–and failed to bring the guy into the game. Which is just baffling to me–why get the guy ready for that moment, and then bring him in too late?

On Sunday, Huston Street was having a rough game, having pitched three games in a row. He had already given up the lead. Macha gets Joe Kennedy up in the pen. Hank Blalock comes up, but Kennedy probably isn’t ready yet, so he lets Street face Blalock. Ok, fine. But two batters later, Street still isn’t out of the inning, Kennedy is still throwing in the pen, and Brad Wilkerson comes up. So Kennedy has been warming up for several batters now, a lefty is up, Street is obviously struggling…and Macha leaves Street in there to face the lefty Wilkerson. Of course Wilkerson doubles, and the Rangers win.

Tuesday, the A’s were trailing 4-1, Joe Blanton was struggling, so Macha gets Kirk Saarloos ready. The Tigers have runners on second and third and one out. Macha orders an intentional walk to set up a double play. Saarloos is an extreme ground ball pitcher. What do you need most in this situation? A double play! So does Macha bring in the double-play pitcher he has up and ready for this situation? Of course not. Blanton gives up another hit, and the Tigers break the game open.

I don’t get it. In each case, Macha was thinking ahead to get the right guy ready for the situation, actually has him ready–and then doesn’t use him. How can you have the foresight to properly prepare for a situation, and then not use that prepared solution? Why get the pitcher ready if you’re not going to use him when the situation clearly calls for that pitcher? Baffling.

Update: And again, sorta. Huston Street was unavailable due to a pectoral muscle strain, so Justin Duchscherer was brought on to save the game, and failed miserably. Again there was a situation that called out for a ground ball pitcher, again Saarloos was ready, and again Macha didn’t use him.

But that’s it’s only “sorta” the same thing because, because this time, Saarloos wasn’t even really the right guy to have up in that situation. Joe Kennedy was. The only problem was, Kennedy was wasted in the top of the eighth.

Kennedy came in to get Granderson out for one batter, lefty-on-lefty in the top of the eighth. Which was a total waste, particularly considering Street was unavailable, because Barry Zito was still the pitcher of record, and had only thrown 100 pitches. You could throw Zito for one last lefty, not waste Kennedy, and then bring in Calero. Kennedy would then have been available in the ninth for Granderson, who ended up walking against Duchscherer, plating the winning run.

But for all of Macha’s mismanagement, I’m not nearly as annoyed at that as I am at Jason Kendall. I’ll have more about that in my next post.

Verlanderrific

It was the first decent ballgame weather of the year, so my wife talked me into heading out to the Coliseum and taking in tonight’s Tigers-A’s game. My reluctance came from the thought of watching Esteban Loaiza throw softballs at the opposition after a long day of work, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the opportunity to watch Justin Verlander’s first career appearance in Oakland to take her up on the offer.

If you don’t know anything about Justin Verlander, or why I would be excited to watch him, all you need to know is shown on this picture of the scoreboard I took at the game:

101 mph

 
Our seats were way down by the Tigers bullpen, so I didn’t really have a good view of the strike zone, but obviously, he had great stuff. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was throwing, but he had three speeds: 96-101mph, 81-83mph, and 75-78mph. The first was obviously his fastball, the second I’m guessing was a changeup, and the third was maybe a curveball. Correct me if I’m wrong.

When Verlander got ahead in the count, he could make the A’s look foolish at times chasing the slow pitches out of the zone. But he seemed to have trouble throwing strikes to the left-handed batters, and he didn’t seem to have much confidence that he could throw his slow stuff for strikes when he was behind in the count. As a result, the A’s managed to put some good wood on the ball a few times.

Nick Swisher provided two of those times. He launched a two-run homer in the second inning off a fastball. In his next at-bat, Verlander made Swisher look silly with changeups, and Swisher struck out. The third time, Swisher sat on the changeup, and launched it for a game-winning home run.

I wonder whether the difference in speeds between Verlander’s fastball and his changeup isn’t a little too much. If his changeup is 81-83, he might be better off throwing the fastball around 94-96 most of the time, and cranking it up to 101 when he needs to. That’s what Rich Harden, who is Verlander’s most obvious comp, does, and it’s a very effective strategy. Harden’s changeup is a little harder than Verlander’s, though–Harden throws it around 86mph.

Still, when a guy throws 101mph, you’ll take a few imperfections. If I were a Tiger fan, I’d be very excited for his future. If I were a Tiger fan, I’d also be frightened for his future, after watching Jim Leyland let Verlander throw 121 pitches this early in the season, this early in his career. The Tigers didn’t even have anyone warming up until Verlander had thrown 115. That’s crazy.

So Verlander pitched fairly well, but his defense betrayed him a bit with a couple of errors, and the A’s pitched well, too. Esteban Loaiza gave the first of what the A’s hope will be many quality starts. Loaiza’s velocity was better than his last time out–he hit 89 on the gun at times–but still not the low-90s that he’s used to throwing. But that little extra speed that has been missing up until how seemed to do the trick. Loaiza gave a solid outing, gave his team a chance to win, and they did. Justin Duchscherer and Huston Street (sans voodoo) closed it out with three scoreless innings.

Quality start, solid bullpen, late run–that’s the M.O. we want to see from the A’s. More of this, please.

And thus ended Justin Verlander’s first appearance against the A’s. As a footnote, the result may have been the most crowded scoreboard I’ve ever seen:

Someone stole an ER

Somebody call security! An entire ER is missing!

I can’t recall ever seeing all 18 spaces on that scoreboard filled up with pitchers’ names before, let alone having it flow over by a couple of letters. Is this–20 letters–the most combined letters ever in the last names of two pitchers involved in a decision at the Coliseum?

Nope. Jason Isringhausen once lost to Paul Quantrill for a whopping 21-letter decision.

Oh, well. So it wasn’t a historic evening. But it was a memorable one.

The Curse of the Bobblehead

Took in my first A’s game of the season on Sunday. Here’s my first pitch of 2006, Dan Haren to Gary Matthews, Jr.
First pitch

 

The stands were rather empty. It had rained all morning, and somewhat miraculously dried up just before game time. The rain probably kept the fans at home. We showed up five minutes before first pitch, and they still had Huston Street bobbleheads to give away. Usually, bobbleheads are gone at least an hour and a half before game time, so even if I have a ticket to a bobblehead game, I usually resign myself to the fact that I won’t get one. That’s OK since, with the possible exception of my Bill King bobblehead, I don’t really care much for bobbleheads much anyway. But nonetheless, I am now the (not-so) proud owner of a Huston Street bobblehead.

It was also my first chance to check out the ballpark with the new tarps covering the upper deck. It seems to have been done rather tastefully. I find the tarps neither distracting nor annoying, which is probably the best you could hope for aesthetically.
Tarps

 

I got to watch exactly the kind of game I like: a snappy pitchers’ duel with good defense and some timely hitting. Both Dan Haren and Kameron Loe were pounding the strike zone, and the game passed quickly.

In the bottom of the sixth, the A’s broke a scoreless drive on a screaming double by Eric Chavez, who went 4-for-4 today.

Chavez RBI

 

The Rangers mounted a few rallies against Haren, but Haren avoided the problem he had in his last two outings of giving up the big hit. Instead, he worked his way out of several jams by enticing the Rangers to hit into double plays.

Double play

 

Haren gave up an unfortunate home run when a deep fly ball popped out of Milton Bradley’s glove as he hit the fence, and fell over the wall. It was tied 1-1 into the bottom of the eighth, when Chavez again doubled, scoring Mark Kotsay and Nick Swisher to give the A’s a 3-1 lead.

Swisher scores

 

So up until this point, it was a great game, very enjoyable. And that’s when The Curse happened.

I don’t like bobbleheads. They’re ugly and useless. And more often than not, they’re bad luck. I can’t remember anyone having a good day on their bobblehead day.

So when Huston Street came into the game in the ninth, and people started pulling out their Huston Street bobbleheads and waving them around, I cringed.

Out come the bobbleheads

 

It’s like having hundreds of mini voodoo dolls all directing their negative energy at their target. A chill passes through the air, as each evil Mini-Huston focuses its malicious glare onto the real Huston Street, infusing him with all the cumulative bad karma their voodoo gloom and doom can muster.

Street is cursed

 

And so every close pitch gets called a ball. Street falls behind in the count to Michael Young. Young hits a liner that Jay Payton barely misses. Up steps Mark Teixeira. Same thing, Street can’t get the close calls, and he has to come in on a 3-2 pitch.

The worst intentions of thousands of little evil bobblehead Huston Streets then become reality. The one, lonely, real-life Huston Street leaves his 3-2 pitch floating right over the fat part of the plate, and Mark Teixeira crushes it out of the park. Tie ballgame.

Teixeira homers
 

The rest of the game is just too horrible to describe. I’ll leave it to your imagination. Let’s just say I never want to see another bobblehead again.

Things That Come In Threes (updated)

Blind mice.
Little pigs.
Musketeers.
Stooges.
Outs.
Strikes.
Runs against the A’s.
Home runs for the A’s.

Well, it was certainly fun to see back-to-back-to-back home runs by Eric Chavez, Frank Thomas, and Milton Bradley on consecutive pitches. It was also nice to see the bullpen handed a lead, and to have them finish off the victory.

Wins are always welcome, but this is not the M.O. the A’s want to see too often. This was exactly the same sort of game they played in the first two games in Minnesota: the starting pitcher coughs up a costly three-run homer, and the A’s have to scratch and claw their way back into the game.

It’s a good sign that each time, the A’s offense did rebound to make a game of it, and that this time, the A’s managed to overcome the deficit and win the game, but you can’t expect that too often. If the A’s plan to compete for a title, they need to stop letting these small rallies turn into big innings. They’ve allowed at least one 3-run inning in six consecutive games now. They’re lucky that they managed to go 2-4 in that span.

I have tickets for tomorrow’s game, my first of the year, so let’s hope that (a) it stays dry, and (b) Dan Haren can put an end to this big inning nonsense.

Update: Just thought I’d throw out this chart, to show how ridiculously one-sided the big homer problem has been so far this year.
 

Home run type Hit by A’s Allowed by A’s
Solo 14 4
2-run 3 2
3-run 0 5
Grand slam 0 1
Total HRs 17 12
Total Runs on HRs 20 27
Runs/HR 1.18 2.25

The A’s have hit five more homers than their opponents, but scored seven fewer runs on those homers. The Runs/HR has to start to even out, right? You’d think…

Nonquality Starts

Meet Bob. Bob links to Rob. Rob talks about quality starts. Meet Ken. Ken agrees with Rob: the “quality start” is a pretty good stat. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it does explain things sometimes.

It certainly explains why the A’s just got swept in Minnesota. The A’s didn’t get anything even resembling a quality start against the Twins.

Last year, the A’s quality start percentage nearly matched their winning percentage: they got 90 quality starts, and won 88 games.

This year, the A’s only have three quality starts out of ten. They’re 3-0 in their games with quality starts, and 2-5 without them.

I certainly expect the A’s to get a lot closer to the 55% quality start percentage they had last year than the 30% they’ve put up in 2006. So while falling back to .500 is disheartening, there’s no reason to panic about a 10-game stretch of .500 ball. These things happen. The pitching will come around, and things will get better.

Toaster Field?

All signs are pointing towards the A’s building their new stadium in Fremont, about halfway between Oakland and San Jose. The A’s are apparently close to a deal with Cisco Systems to purchase the land in question.

One of the last remaining issues is naming rights to the stadium. I guess Cisco Systems wants the field named after them, since they’re providing the land, but apparently, Lew Wolff already has another company lined up for naming rights.

Just to put to rest any potential speculation, that mystery company is not mine. The new stadium won’t be called Toaster Field, even though I do think that “Toaster Field” would be a great name for a ballpark.

Here are the top three contenders for naming the new ballpark:

1. Gap Park.

The founders of Gap, Inc., the Fisher family, also own the A’s. It’s the easy choice.

2. Cisco Field.

Cisco provides the land, they get the naming rights. OK, not a bad name. Everytime the A’s win in exciting comeback fashion, we’d be hearing about the “Cisco Kids”. But Wolff has other ideas, like maybe…

3. EBay Field.

Now this would be brilliant. You call the A’s the “East Bay Athletics”. They’d play in “EBay Field”. You get Bud Selig to agree that everywhere that “East Bay” needs to be abbreviated in Major League Baseball — on scoreboards, in domain names, whatever — it’s abbreviated EBay. You’d not only be selling naming rights to the stadium, you’d be selling naming rights to the team itself. How much money would that be worth? And if people complain that it’s a horrible commercial sellout, you just say, well, it’s only a pleasant coincidence.

And here’s another pleasant coincidence: Meg Whitman, President and CEO of EBay, is on the Board of Directors for Gap, Inc.. Think the A’s know how to get in touch with her?

I have no idea if this is actually in the works; it’s all just speculation on my part. But it’s just too good an idea not to happen. EBay Field. Get used to it.

Lost on the Road

Dan Haren has a blog now, and his most recent entry is titled ‘Lost’ on the Road. Suggestion for Mr. Haren: if you’re going to write titles that are prescient, try calling your next blog entry, “A’s Win Again”, or “Pitching with Perfect Control”, “I Threw a No-Hitter”. Haren and the A’s indeed “lost on the road” tonight, 7-6 in Minnesota.

In Haren’s first two starts this year, he has suffered from the same problem that plagued him at the beginning of 2005: the big inning. Early last year, he would get into jams, and then find himself unable to stop the bleeding. An inning where he should allow one or two runs suddenly became five, six, or seven-run innings. If he gave up five runs in a start, all or nearly all of those runs allowed would come in one inning. Otherwise, he’d shut the opposition down.

In his first start, he hung a breaking pitch to Gary Sheffield for a three-run homer. Tonight, the big inning struck Haren again. Five straight hits, an out, and then a fat, hit-me fastball to Tony Batista (why throw Batista anything anywhere close to the strike zone?) and a 4-0 lead turned into a 6-4 deficit that the A’s never overcame.

I guess the good news is that somewhere around the middle of June, Haren stopped letting these rallies get out of hand, and he was excellent the rest of the season. Whatever the problem is, we know Haren can get over it. Hopefully, this time it won’t take him two months to make the correction.

* * *

On the offensive side, Eric Chavez is on fire in April for the first time in his life. Chavez hit two home runs tonight, giving him five for the year. Maybe it’s practicing his leg kick in Arizona (which he never did before for some unfathomable reason, waiting until the regular season to start using it). Or maybe the comfort of having Frank Thomas hitting behind him has kept Chavez from trying to “do too much”, as the old saying goes. Whatever the reason, it’s a good sign.

If Ken Macha is true to his word that the “players write the lineup”, however, Chavez may not have Frank Thomas batting behind him much longer. Thomas isn’t hitting a lick. He’s getting hittable pitches, and either swinging through them, or popping them up. I don’t think Thomas is done as a player, but I do think he wasn’t quite as ready for the regular season as the A’s were hoping. His timing looks all off.

The alternative, though, is Dan Johnson, and he hasn’t hit anything, either. Johnson is 0-for-2006. So I guess it’s a race. First one to start hitting anything gets to keep his job.

Death and Parataxis

Fact: 42 is an adjective.

* * *

This blog entry is a long, complex answer to a simple question. It uses big words. It is not a linear story. We start by observing some thoughts about baseball journalism. We collect trading cards. We visit the University of Minnesota. We ride bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge. We travel back in time, 15,000 years, to the time when the first humans reached Australia. We listen to R&B while penguins explode. We hang out in a New York City saloon. We discover that God is on a sailboat headed for Buenos Aires, and the truth is hiding under my kitchen sink together with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And after all that, we will have the answer to the ultimate question of life, baseball, and everything.

* * *

At the top of my blogging to-do list has been to respond to Will Leitch’s Baseball Analysts essay regarding the changing nature of baseball journalism. Leitch writes:

We are no longer in the days of radio; if you have MLB.TV, or even freaking cable, you can watch every game. We do not need reporters to tell us the facts; we need people to tell us what it means. Or, more specific, to ask us what we think it means.

Leitch was talking about it on a game-to-game level, but if you look at the big picture, it’s a big question. What is the meaning of baseball?

I shall hereby demonstrate why journalists do not try to answer that question.

* * *

Calvin: Susie, do you want to trade Captain Napalm bubble gum cards? After chewing almost $20 worth of gum, I’ve collected all the cards except numbers 8 and 34. I’ll trade you any duplicate for either of those.

Susie: I don’t collect Captain Napalm bubble gum cards.

Calvin: It must be depressing to go through life with no purpose.

A recent University of Minnesota survey revealed that the most distrusted minority group in America are atheists.

This surprised me. A lot. For all the racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia we’re constantly hearing about, the group that Americans really dislike the most are atheists?

Folks, don’t let your kids marry an atheist! Or be raised by one!

Atheists have been a pretty quiet bunch, relatively speaking. They haven’t deliberately antagonized anyone by holding Atheist Pride Day Parades down Main Street or anything. I suspect, however, that they’re starting to get louder. The Charlie Rose show recently spent an hour discussing atheism (although it wasn’t Charlie Rose, who just had heart surgery, it was Bill Moyers–when is a rose not a rose not a rose?). But I doubt this stuff has reached mainstream America yet. So what is so threatening about atheists that generates such animosity?

Here’s my guess: anti-atheists can’t stand the idea that life could be meaningless. People want human life to have meaning, just like Will Leitch wants his baseball to have meaning. People for whom life has no meaning are dangerous, not only for meaningless itself, but because they are free to behave in any selfish way they choose. If nothing matters, and no punishment or reward awaits people after they’re dead, morality breaks down, and all hell breaks loose. Faith holds society together.

Atheists would probably counter that atheists shouldn’t be confused with nihilists–their lives can have both meaning and morality, even without God. But nonetheless, the confusion happens, and here we are.

I think a lot of the hostility towards statistical analysis, in baseball or elsewhere, is similar to this. The resistance isn’t towards math or logic, it’s towards meaninglessness. The idea that human behavior is governed by mathematical formulas is repulsive, because it seems to rob people of free will. We want to believe that good choices, good character and teaminess will guide us to victory. Without free will, how can baseball, or anything in life, have meaning?

* * *

I own a couple of David Byrne CDs. I guess that qualifies me as a David Byrne fan, even if I don’t really listen to them all that often. My fandom has grown in recent months, however, as I started becoming becoming a regular consumer of his blog. (Now with permalinks! Yay!) From day to day, paragraph to paragraph, he takes you on a series of short journeys of discovery, which are always interesting, even if you don’t always agree with what he says.

One day, he’s in Stockholm, turning a building into a musical instrument. Then he’s in the Bay Area, having lunch with Jonathan Ive, riding bikes with Dave Eggers, and having nightmares about a broken cellphone.

His life seems to be one interesting anecdote after another, which at times makes me feel somewhat jealous, yet at other times is inspiring, for it seems Byrne makes his life interesting by taking the time to appreciate the art form in everything he encounters, from lawns to grocery stores to muffins. Attitude is everything.

One of Byrne’s recent entries has him in Adelaide, Australia, taking pictures of nature dioramas and local election posters, and taking notes about the various forms of Australian cuisine he has encountered. He tells us about some strange Aussie animals that went extinct soon after humans first appeared on the continent.

In the middle of this stream of Australian trivia, Byrne inexplicably links to a marvelous essay about R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet.

It’s a total non-sequitur. Which means I loved it, because I’m a huge fan of non-sequiturs. Let’s step to the side for no reason whatsoever, and see what happens. I was watching Graham Chapman’s Personal Best recently, and they were discussing how Chapman would always find the perfect non-sequitur to insert into a scene to make the scene complete.

And now for something completely different…the penguin on my computer will explode.

Boom!

Dang, there goes my Linux box. Is that why humbug.com has been so quiet lately?

* * *

Back to R. Kelly. If you’ve never seen or heard it, Trapped in the Closet is a sort of R&B soap opera. Wikipedia has a good synopsis, plus links to the videos. In this essay (you gotta read it), Morgan Meis marvels at how throughout the whole series of songs, R. Kelly never once strays from his straightforward narration into any sort of analysis. Then Meis teaches us a couple of big words:

…you could also say that human thought can be divided into two basic categories, paratactic and hypotactic. They are the two most elemental ways of putting thought together. In paratactic arrangement, you just keep adding something more. The greatest ally to parataxis is the conjunction. Such and such happened and then such and such happened after that, and next was a little episode of this and that, and then it all came to a head with this particular series of events, and then after that a whole new thing started.

…[snip]…

Hypotactic arrangement, by contrast, nestles thoughts within thoughts, steps to the side, qualifies, alters, and modifies. It has the structure of reflection and argument rather than that of lived experience.

This is what Leitch was talking about: journalism provides parataxis (facts and events), blogging provides hypotaxis (meaning).

* * *

When I see the words “facts and events” appear somewhere, a neuroscience alarm bell rings in my head. “Facts and events” is a codeword for “declarative memories”.

The human brain stores two separate types of memories, called declarative and nondeclarative memories. These memory systems function quite differently. Declarative memories store facts and events, and are conscious. Jackie Robinson wore uniform number 42. That’s a declarative memory.

Nondeclarative memories are subconscious, and store motor skills and patterns. A motor skill like riding a bike, or a pattern such as a pitching motion, are nondeclarative memories. One of the characteristics of nondeclarative memories is that they are difficult to describe. I can’t easily describe Dontrelle Willis’s pitching motion, or teach you how to duplicate it, but I recognize it the instant I see it.

Now here’s the fascinating thing to me about Leitch’s conjecture, and why I wanted to write about it: journalism is dividing itself along the same boundaries as the human brain.

Journalism: facts, events, parataxis, declarative memories.
Blogging: patterns, meaning, hypotaxis, nondeclarative memories.

* * *

Perhaps that’s a natural divide. Which gets me wondering: are all successful human advancements simply steps towards a better mirror of human psychology? Did communism lose, and capitalism win, because the winner more closely mapped the human brain than the loser? Do Oracle (structured data) and Google (nonstructured data) have dominant companies because their technology represents the best computerized analogies to declarative and nondeclarative memory systems? Are the best artists simply the best accidental neuroscientists?

* * *

Let’s examine one of the best artists to find out. PBS recently showed a great documentary about Eugene O’Neill by Ric Burns. The documentary covers O’Neill’s life and career, but focuses on his two most revered plays, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

O’Neill was, at least in some sense, an atheist. From documentary transcript:

Eugene lost faith. He left the Church at fifteen years old. He never came back. It would do nobody any service whatsoever to try to reclaim him for the Church. He was an apostate.

O’Neill came to feel that religion was a kind of illusion that prevented us for acknowledging reality and truth. Many of the plays O’Neill wrote early in his career dealt with characters whose tragic flaw was a failure to face the truth about themselves. They cling to their illusions, and suffer the consequences.

In O’Neill, there’s this absolute sort of God-ordained mission, which is to keep searching, even if in the process he discovered that there is no God. It’s a terrifying sort of mandate, but it also, I think, should be the mandate of all artists, and in a way, of all people.

O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937. At the time, he was too ill to travel to Stockholm to receive his prize, so his prize was awarded to him in a hospital bed in Oakland, California. (Which also awards us a very flimsy connection to this Oakland A’s blog.) What was unusual about this, besides having Oakland join Stockholm and Oslo as cities where Nobel Prizes have been awarded, was that O’Neill had won the award, and still had not yet written his masterpieces.

O’Neill’s greatest breakthrough comes when he finally acknowledges the truth about himself: that his relentless search for “reality and truth” was, in fact, the biggest tragic flaw of all.

The Iceman Cometh is an allegory about truth and faith, set in a New York City saloon which O’Neill frequented as a young man. The characters each embody one form of “pipe dream” or another: religious, political, social, romantic. They each cling to their own personal illusion. In comes Theodore “The Iceman” Hickey, a Messianic character who proceeds to persuade each of them to abandon their pipe dreams, and live a life of truth, without guilt or illusion.

The result is disaster. Without their pipe dreams, the characters find that their lives fall apart. Life without illusion is like death–existence without meaning. To believe otherwise is insanity. In the end, the other characters dismiss Hickey as insane, and return to their illusions.

Tony Kushner: The thing that makes the tragedy so powerful and true is that you’re not allowed to escape what’s horrible, you’re not allowed any kind of denial. It’s annihilating, and on one level, I don’t think you leave the theater feeling in any way uplifted, and then on the other hand, you are brought to the absolute worst place that a human being can go, and you have survived, you’ve come out of this nightmare alive, and as I said, the stage is now sort of purged of this horror. It’s catharsis. It’s what Aristotle was talking about. And it leaves open the possibility that now something new will come at the end after the bombs fall and the landscape is clean. It’s the nothing that gives birth to something.

* * *

It’s as if Eugene O’Neill had spent his whole life looking for the perfect journalist, who would lay all the facts out on the table, one after another, and expose the truth. Notice that R. Kelly tries to accomplish the same thing. We all have something hiding in our closets and under our kitchen sinks. We try to pretend we don’t, but R. Kelly insists, like the early O’Neill did, that every one of those things must be exposed. And the only way to do that is pure reporting. Just the facts, ma’am.

The thing that puts O’Neill into the pantheon of great artists, that allowed him to create his masterpieces, is that he goes the extra step, and contemplates what it means to have pure journalism. He builds a truer map of the human brain, and concludes that our minds are simply not equipped to handle the truth. We need our pipe dreams.

* * *

In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill takes this insight and reflects on his own family, his own life. He comes full circle. His life begins with faith and illusion. He finds that faith stripped away, and goes on a lifelong journey to face the dark truth. When the journey ends, he is finally able to return to the faith that makes life worth living. From a monologue by Edmund, the character who represents Eugene O’Neill in the play:

Edmund: You’ve just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They’re all connected with the sea. Here’s one. When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and the singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself–actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged without, past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.

And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on the beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see–and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Meaning itself is fleeting. But the dream of meaning keeps us going.

* * *

O’Neill had the sea. I have baseball. Baseball fans like me dream of the moment when our team wins the World Series. The fact is, my team only has a 1-in-30 chance to win it all any given year. The fact is, I’m chasing a pipe dream. The fact is, that even if and when my team does win the World Series, the joy of victory that I have been pursuing will be far too brief. But the joy itself is not the point. It’s the dream of that joy keeps me going day after day, year after year. I need my illusion. I insist on it.

* * *

The dictionary says “42” is adjective, two more than forty. To Douglas Adams, 42 was a random number assigned to hold the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. It was a symbol of absurdity, the meaningless of life itself. To a baseball fan, it’s more than a number, more than an absurdity. 42 goes beyond facts. Baseball goes beyond facts. It’s Dave Henderson, his gap-toothed smile, and the fun he insisted on having while patrolling center field for the Oakland A’s. It’s Mariano Rivera, a skinny man who somehow mastered one thing, a nasty cut fastball, and led his team to numerous championships. And, of course, it’s Jackie Robinson, overcoming incredible obstacles to inspire and lead generations of people. 42 is about the dreams we hold that, the real world be damned, sometimes come true.

* * *

Which brings us to today’s wørd: truthiness.

Truthiness is Steven Colbert’s term for what we feel to be right, not what the facts tell us. Now, Colbert points his satrical machine gun on the political uses of truthiness, but the power of truthiness extends beyond politics. Truthiness is about the triumph of meaning over fact, and it applies to all areas of human endeavors, because that’s just how the brain works.

So you know why I don’t like R. Kelly? He’s truth, not truthiness. He’s all fact, and no heart. And when I say heart, I really mean “nondeclarative memory system”, which is actually part of the brain, not the heart. But that doesn’t matter, because it feels like my nondeclarative memory system is in my heart, not my head.

Eugene O’Neill, on the other hand, rocks. He recognized, by living through the whole process himself, that pairs of words like “science and faith”, “truth and truthiness”, “journalism and blogging”, “statistics and scouting”–these things are not the opposite ends of a straight line. They are both points in motion on a circle. Science deconstructs faith, moves away from it, but eventually, the process brings it back.

Remember when science told us that chocolate was bad for you? Remember when baseball statisticians said defense was pretty much irrelevant, and there was no such thing as clutch hitting? Nobody believed them, because it didn’t feel true. Eventually, science did a 360.

Faith isn’t static, either. Faith, when confronted with science, will also adjust its position along the circle of knowledge. And when the whole process finally runs its course, when the facts have all been laid out on the table, and the meaning of those facts have all been analyzed, we will find that all these pairs of so-called opposites have ended up in the exact same place on the circle. Because that’s where we, as human beings, need them to go.

* * *

Universe man, Universe man
Size of the entire universe man
Usually kind to smaller man
Universe man

He’s got a watch with a minute hand,
Millenium hand and an eon hand
When they meet it’s a happy land
Powerful man, universe man

Particle Man

* * *

So when R. Kelly tells me there’s someone hiding under my kitchen sink, and insists on exposing who he is, I will tell him it is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. R. Kelly will tell me that I am lying. He will point out the fact that Kareem is way too large to fit under my sink. He will measure the sink, and demonstrate quite logically that the person under my sink must be someone much, much smaller than Kareem. He will insist on opening the door. He will open the door. He will show me who is really under my sink. He will say “Ha! See?” I will say, “Yes, I see. Thank you for showing that to me. I needed to see that.” And then I will continue to insist that the man under my sink is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For the things that I have hiding under my sink do not belittle me, they embiggen me.

Kareem represents the grand scale of my dreams. Those dreams may be unlikely or impossible, but they make me who I am as a human being. My dreams are my reality. I have faith in both faith and science, and I believe, that in the end, the truth and the truthiness will join together at last.

Whew, right?

Rich Harden and the A’s were cruising along, leading 6-0 going into the bottom of the 8th with Harden throwing a one-hitter, when quite suddenly, a baseball game broke out.

Harden tends to run out of gas in an instant. One minute he’s dominant, the next he’s wild and/or hittable. So after the first two runners in the bottom of the eighth got on, Ken Macha yanked him. Justin Duchscherer, his replacement, was uncharacteristically wild. Next thing you know, the tying run was on-deck with two outs, and Macha had to summon Joe Kennedy to get out Raul Ibanez. Kennedy did his job, and the A’s escaped the inning leading 6-1. Whew, right?

Not really. In the bottom of the ninth, Kirk Saarloos was brought on to nail down the last three outs, but he was wilder than Duchscherer. Suddenly the tying-run is on deck again with two outs, and this time the tying run is Ichiro. So Macha summons Huston Street to put an end to this nonsense. Whew, right?

Wrong. Somehow Willie Bloomquist, of all people, managed to get a hit off of Street to bring Ichiro to the plate as the tying run. So then Ichiro hit a hard grounder up the middle, which Street managed to snag. Whew, right?

Wrong. Street decides, for some unfathomable reason, to throw the ball about 60 feet underhanded to first base. Of course, he throws it way too high, making Nick Swisher have to jump to catch it. Swisher came down and collided with Ichiro, tagging him in the process. Whew, right?

Wrong. The umpire, seeing that Swisher landed off the bag, and not seeing the tag, called Ichiro safe. Next pitch, Ichiro stole second, so now the tying run was in scoring position.

Then Street got Jose Lopez to hit a grounder to Bobby Crosby, who fired a bullet across the diamond to Swisher. Game over. Whew, right?

Yeah, I guess. But when you combine Street’s throw with Milton Bradley’s “forgot to step on third” blunder on Friday, you have to accept the fact that, even though the A’s won each game, the A’s have committed two colossal brain farts in three days. You can look at numbers all you want, but this sort of thing is real reason Billy Beane’s $#!^ hasn’t worked in the playoffs.

Even if the A’s go 160-2, clinch a playoff berth in July, sweep the ALDS, ALCS, the first three games of the World Series, and hold a 6-0 lead and an 0-2 count with two outs in the ninth inning of game four, I am now, thanks to this weekend, still going to be horribly nervous that Oakland is about to be destroyed with yet more unbelievable brain farts (or failing that, earthquakes, firestorms, large objects falling from the sky, and assorted other supernatural disasters) until that very last out of the World Series is finally secured.

Then, and only then, will I finally feel good about exclaiming, “Whew!”