Hello, Is This Thing On?
by Ken Arneson
2020-07-24 23:30

When I wrote the Catfish Stew blog on the Baseball Toaster network from 2005-2009, it was at the peak of both blogging and of Moneyball. It seemed like every serious baseball analyst out there, A’s fan or not, would dissect anything and everything the A’s did from a statistical point of view.

I wanted Catfish Stew, and Baseball Toaster, to be different. The Toaster was about analyzing baseball, yes, but it was also about placing baseball in a human context, about how what was happening on the field connected to our lives, and to the greater world around us. It was about the emotions we feel as baseball fans as we watch the seasons unfold.

So for Catfish Stew specifically, I wanted to be the un-Moneyball A’s blog. That’s not to say the aim was to oppose Moneyball. Instead, it was to understand it, and the effects it had not just on the results on the field, but in the emotional lives of its fans. My goal was to chronicle what it felt like to be an A’s fan.

I stopped blogging about the A’s for many reasons, but among them was that I felt like I had said everything I wanted to say. One season became another became another. One emotion became another became another. I started to repeat myself.

There’s little about the year 2020, however, that is repetitive. And anything that isn’t is remarkable because this year, normal has become unusual.

Therefore, this season, there might be something new to say. So let’s plug in this toaster, and see if there’s anything worth cooking.

For the Oakland A’s, the 2020 regular season began on Friday, July 24, at home against the Los Angeles Angels.

***breaks fourth wall*** When I typed that last sentence, I just stared at it for like five minutes. I got angry just looking at it. I got angry at myself for typing it.

It’s a sentence that is both factual, and completely devoid of any context whatsoever. It’s a sentence that says absolutely nothing about the feelings a normal human being ought to have in this year like no other. It’s a sentence that captures nothing of the anger and sadness and outrage and despair that I feel about what is happening in the world around us. It a sentence that doesn’t even capture the bizarreness of a baseball game being played in a stadium completely empty of fans.

This isn’t a regular season. This is an abomination of a season, in an abomination of a year.

There are so many things more important than baseball right now: the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the creeping and expanding American fascism, continuing climate change, and the upcoming election.

MLB tried to acknowledge that context in the pre-game ceremony before the game. They had a moment of silence for people that had died. They took a knee to acknowledge Black Lives Matter. Some players on the Angels stayed on a knee during the national anthem. No A’s players did, although two, Khris Davis and Tony Kemp, raised their fists.

I’m glad they acknowledged the context. It would have been wrong if they didn’t. But acknowledgement is not a resolution.

I don’t know if they should be playing baseball right now. But I do know it still feels uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable about enjoying the game. I feel guilty about wanting to write about it.

But the paradox of this pandemic is that while the scale of it is massive and affects everyone, most of use can contribute the most by staying home and doing nothing. It’s hard to do nothing.

Maybe baseball players feel like they can help, just a little, by doing what they do best, by giving people something to do at home to pass the time. And similarly, maybe I feel like I can help, just a little, by doing what I (used to be) good at, too.

Or maybe that’s just grasping at straws. None of us has any experience at this. We’re all just winging it as we go along.

The game started with Frankie Montas on the mound for the A’s. He seemed a bit amped up. His fastball was moving like crazy, and he was having trouble keeping the ball in the strike zone. He walked some guys. So Montas did what you’re supposed to do when that happens, he tried to throw some breaking pitches instead.

Three times that inning, Frankie Montas threw a slider that the strike zone superimposed on the screen indicated was a strike. All three times, the umpire called it a ball. The third time this happened, I yelled at my screen, “OH COME ON!”

I’m watching baseball in the middle of a global pandemic, and barely five minutes into it, I’m angry and yelling at the umpire.

Such a normal thing, in normal times. It’s not normal times. There are so many other things I should be upset about before being upset about an umpire who can’t recognize a slider properly.

But I’m a human being. And lately, there’s been a lot of evidence coming to light that human beings are idiots.

In the ninth inning, Liam Hendriks was on to try to save a 3-2 lead for the A’s. He threw a slider to Jason Castro that many other umpires would have called strike three. This umpire did not. Two pitches later, Castro hit a fastball for a home run that tied the game. The game went to extra innings.

Because of the shortened nature of the 2020 baseball season, and the limited number of players available to play during the pandemic, MLB decided to minimize the number of long, extra-inning games by starting each extra inning with a runner on second. This was the first MLB game ever played under these new rules.

So the top of the 10th began with Shohei Ohtani, who had made the last out of the ninth inning for the Angels, placed on second base. Jared Walsh led off the inning by hitting a sharp grounder to A’s first baseman Matt Olson, who scooped the ball and quickly whirled and threw the ball to Matt Chapman at third base. In most game situations, a first baseman would take a grounder like that and get the safe out at first base. Olson decided otherwise, and Ohtani was caught in a rundown, and tagged out. This effectively killed the gifted rally for the Angels, and they did not score.

In the bottom of the inning, Marcus Semien was placed on second to begin the inning. Ramon Laureano was hit by a pitch, and after Chapman struck out, Davis drew a walk to load the bases. This brought up Olson with the bases loaded and one out.

Olson bats left-handed, so Angels manager Joe Maddon brought in a lefty pitcher named Hoby Milner to face Olson. Olson is an extreme fly ball hitter, so much so that some teams have deployed four outfielders against him instead of the usual three. But that strategy would be useless in this case. A fly ball by Olson here would probably result in a sacrifice fly that would win the game. The Angels needed a ground ball double play, and so Madden actually did the opposite, moving an outfielder to the infield, resulting in five infielders and only two outfielders.

Madden’s strategy did not work. Olson did not hit a ground ball. He did what he does best, and hit Milner’s first pitch in the air, deep into right field. So deep, in fact, that it went over the fence for a walkoff grand slam home run. The A’s had won the game, 7-3.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. That felt sweet.

After the game, Olson was interviewed about both the defensive play he made to throw out Ohtani, and about the game winning grand slam.

Regarding the Ohtani play, Olson said that he and Matt Chapman had been discussing that specific play, a runner on second with no outs in a close game, for a couple years now. They discussed it again because of the new rules. When the ball was hit directly to him, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.

On the grand slam, Olson said that he didn’t know much about Milner, so he had watched a lot of video of him, and learned that he liked to get ahead in the count by throwing sliders. He decided to go into the at-bat sitting on a slider on the first pitch, and that was exactly what he got. The rest was history.

Imagine this: a completely new and novel situations arises. Then imagine that there’s a person in a position of responsibility who had studied and thought through in advance exactly what he should do in such a new and novel situation. And imagine that this person then simply executes on his plan, and that success ensues.

What a concept. In a world full of unstable idiots who just cockily wing it in the moment, a person who is thoughtful and prepared can end up looking like a genius.

For the Oakland A’s, the 2020 regular season began on Friday, July 24, at home against the Los Angeles Angels. The A’s won the game, 7-3, in 10 innings.

Perhaps that fact is distastefully decadent and frivolous. Perhaps we should feel ashamed to have enjoyed it.

Or perhaps, a man like Matt Olson is exactly what the world needs right now.

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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