Friday, May 28, 2004

Smart Enough 

I have subscribed to the New Yorker magazine for perhaps 15 years now. In the beginning, my interest was as much for aspirational purposes as it was for enjoyment -- subscribing (and reading) made me feel some sense of sophistication and superiority compared to my peers. Although I've dropped the ridiculous need to feel sophisticated or superior, I still read the magazine each week. The magazine introduced me to the writing of Roger Angell, required reading for literary-minded baseball enthusiasts (his short "Talk of the Town" pieces are model blog entries). With time, I've come to understand most of the cartoons (either that, or Bob Mankoff's a much better cartoon editor than his predecessor). The fiction still doesn't move me, though. Whatever. It's a fine magazine, and I plan to subscribe for many years more.

My wife now gets first crack at the new copy when it arrives each Friday. It usually takes her about a week to read the magazine, and depending on what else I have on my nightstand, it can take me even longer to get to it. For example, I'm just now reading the May 10th issue, which includes an article on Kirk Varnedoe, who spent 13 years as the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Reading the piece at the start of Memorial Day weekend, however, was fortuitous.

The article ("Last of the Metrozoids") is a remembrance of Varnedoe, by Adam Gopnik, who writes regularly for the magazine on a variety of cultural topics. Varnedoe, who died of cancer in the summer of 2003, was Gopnik's mentor, friend, and godfather to Gopnik's 8-year-old son. In alternating sections, Gopnik talks about Varnedoe's series of lectures on abstract art at the National Gallery of Art in DC and about Varnedoe's coaching of an impromptu football team (the "Metrozoids" of the title) of young boys, including Gopnik's son.

Varnedoe played football at Williams College in Massachusetts and spent a year as a defensive-backfield coach before starting his art career. He apparently had thought of going into the coaching profession full-time, but decided against it because, as he put it:

"If you're going to spend your life coaching football, you have to be smart enough to do it well and dumb enough to think it matters."

Now, it seems odd for an art historian to have uttered that sentence because of the unstated implication that art is more important in the cosmic scheme of life than sports. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy both, and I enjoy one art -- music -- more than sports, but I would never say that art is important and sports is not.

But I think Gopnik's piece, with its alternating sections, is intended to put the lie to that comment, in two ways. First, he gives equal weight to Varnedoe's lectures and coaching, both of which are met with enthusiasm. Second, and more importantly, it's clear, especially with the football team, his coaching does matter. Summing up Varnedoe's first practice with the team, in which all they basically do is learn how to take a three-point stance, Gopnik writes:

"He had, I realized on the way home, accomplished a lot of things. He had taught them how to stand and how to kneel -- not just how to do these things but that there was a right way to do these things. He had taught them that playing was a form of learning -- that a scrimmage was a step somewhere on the way toward a goal. And he had taught them that they were the Giant Metrozoids. It was actually a lot for one hour."

It is clear that Gopnik, if he didn't revere Varnedoe before his final illness, reveres him now and considers him a hero. Not for his art criticism but for his ability to teach and encourage his son and his friends to learn and participate.

And I now consider him a hero, too.

This is Memorial Day weekend where Americans are supposed to commemorate men who have died serving our country. Heroes, they are called. And by all means Americans should remember them, even if you opposed or oppose America's foreign policy. But I would also ask that you remember other heroes in your life -- parents, significant others, teachers, others who helped you learn something and got you to stretch yourself beyond what you thought possible, to be "smart enough to do it well." If you do that, it's not dumb at all.

Dispiriting (Giants 5, D-Backs 4, 10 innings) 

It is hard to write much about last night's game. It's hard to get excited about a game in which the Diamondbacks give up ten -- TEN! -- walks. Last time I checked, only one guy on the Giants is named "Bonds" (who drew 3 of those walks intentionally). I mean, you could tell the D-Backs were trying -- Tracy's barehanded pickup of a dribbler down the 3rd-base line to nail the runner early on was a thing of beauty. Brent Mayne, who's been having trouble hitting the broad side of a barn, reached out and dribbled a sinking pitch just past the 2nd baseman in, what, the 5th inning? But the bullpen, after pitching 4 scoreless innings, couldn't get the job done in the 10th.

Judging by the roster moves, Brenly is feeling the heat. Brian Bruney down, Scott Service up. Valverde is a threat to lose his closer's role. (Which begs the question -- who replaces him? Mantei's still injured... Koplove, maybe?) Hillenbrand and Bautista swapped spots in the order -- I think 6th is about right for Shea; Bautista probably can't be a cleanup hitter for long, but he's better than Shea.

And Scott Hairston evidently really liked his cup of coffee the last time he was here, because he had a great series against the Giants. It will be interesting to see whether Brenly decides to stick with him since the pop of Hairston's bat in this very small sample size has much better than Cintron's or Kata's.

So now we head down to Chavez Ravine for a 3-game set between two teams desperate to turn things around -- the D-Backs are 3-7 in their last 10 games while the Dodgers are 2-8.

For Dodger blogging news, I recommend both Dodger Thoughts and 6-4-2. Check 'em out...

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Introducing 3rd Starter, Ms. Jennie Finch! 

"Maybe we should throw the (expletive) ball underhanded."

-- Bob Brenly, after the Diamondbacks issued 6 walks last night to the Giants in a 4-3 loss.

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, when Bob was considering pulling Casey Daigle from the starting rotation, he was actually thinking of putting his fiancee in his place.

And, you know, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad idea. She's got the velocity. Goodness knows it would generate publicity.

Last night's game was emblematic of the season. The offense generated 10 hits, 4 more than the Giants, but only 2 walks, and could only muster 3 runs off that. Casey didn't pitch badly (I think he pitched well enough to keep Brenly from moving him out of the rotation), but the relief staff failed us again, and again -- 6 freakin' walks! The D-Backs have had a hard enough time beating other teams lately without giving games away.

In other news, Ryan posted this incredibly complex analysisof trade possibilities. He sort of lost me by the time he got to AA prospects in the American League, but I thought he was spot on in his analysis of who we might be able to deal. That is, Finley, Hillenbrand and possibly Bautista are possible trade bait, while Johnson and Gonzo probably wouldn't be traded because their value to the organization's PR is waaaay too high. Johnson could be traded if he got disenchanted with the organization, sure, but I find it odd that we would trade Johnson when the team's major problems, both here in the big leagues as well as in the minors, are a lack of pitching.

Finally, yesterday I mentioned the Devil Rays in my discussion of D-Back attendance and how the D-Rays had a significant increase in attendance in 2004. That's because I realized last night that Tampa Bay's first two games against the Yankees were in Tokyo. Never underestimate my ability to miss the simplest things while talking about complicated things.

Or, as Bill Simmons would say, "Never forget, I'm an idiot."

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Declining Fan Support: Fact or Fiction? 

There's been some hand-wringing about D-Back fans giving up on the team. If I may summarize (and spin) the argument: "The fans aren't coming, so let's blow up the team."

Now it's not unreasonable to assume that fan interest is beginning to dwindle given the D-Backs' lousy record thus far. Hey, I've written about the low attendance at the Randy Johnson-Tom Glavine matchup. But it's time to do some actual analysis.

Arizona currently ranks 12th out of the 30 MLB teams in average home attendance, drawing on average 32,324 through its turnstiles in its 22 home games. This is down somewhat (6.7%) from 2003, in which Arizona ranked 8th in MLB, drawing 34,636 per game. Overall average attendance is up 2.9% from 2003; there are 21 teams whose average attendance has improved more (or fallen off less) then Arizona. Unsurprisingly, Florida (World Series Champion), San Diego (new stadium), and Philadelphia (ditto), are at the top of the list. Surprisingly, Tampa Bay is #4. Or maybe not, because the 2004 averages reflect 20 or so games while 2003 averages reflect 81 (minus rainouts) games. If Tampa has had a couple homestands against the Yankees already, that could seriously affect their average.

So obviously we need to go into a little more detail. This page contains attendance data for all MLB teams. Here is a comparison of Arizona's attendance by game date. Through the first 22 home games of 2003, Arizona's average attendance was 32,913, or just 2% more than the first 22 home games of 2004. And here you can see home attendance by team. For all of you thinking the early Cubs homestand skews Arizona's attendance higher than it otherwise would be, the average was 34,035, slightly higher, but not significantly affecting the average. For what it's worth, Tampa Bay's average attendance without its four Yankee games would be 11,466 -- 17% of their games account for 46% of their total attendance.

How did the opening schedule last year compare?... 3 games against LA and Milwaukee, 4 against Colorado and Florida, 3 against Atlanta and Philadelphia, and 2 against Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, you can't really compare as Colorado and Philly are the only common teams in both years. (This year's squads also include the Cubs, Montreal, Mets, San Diego, and St. Louis)

And their record after that Pittsburgh game? 19-24, 3 games better than this year.

So taking all that into common, I'd say that the team is doing slightly worse attendance-wise, but not nearly as bad as you might think. It will be interesting to see how LA and SF's arrival next week affect the figures.

Lucky Bounces? (Giants 4, D-Backs 1) 

You know, it's hard to feel too bad about last night's game. Starting pitching and relief pitching did OK; only the offense looked anemic. This was one of those games where a few lucky bounces changed matters -- the first inning home run bounced off the foul poul; Bonds' fifth inning home run bounced off the glove of a fan -- a fan that could have (should have?) been ruled for interference. Gonzo hit a ball caught at the wall in the top of the first. Change those things around, and we could easily be looking at a D-Backs win this morning.

I'm not saying the Giants were lucky to win the game. Schmidt had his "A" game going, and every team gets breaks over the course of a season. I'm just saying that was one of those games that could have gone the other way. (Unlike, say, the Marlins series.)

Speaking of luck, there's been a lot of post-mortems conducted on the Sexson-Brewers trade on the Republic, its forum, and in this column from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (mentioned in both today's Republic and the D-Backs forum. I need more time to discuss the trade, but the column headline, "Brewers Pull Wool Over Diamondbacks' Eyes," is one of the bigger buckets of hooey I've read in some time. (Luckily the column is a little more well-considered.)

Look, clearly at this point in the season, the Brewers got the better of the deal. But that's because Sexson, a man who played all 162 games last year, got injured and is likely out for the season. If Sexson doesn't get injured and has an average season for him, the trade is win-win for both sides -- the Brewers got a lot of cheap replacements and the Diamondbacks have a very good cleanup hitter in the prime of his career.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Other Diversions (The Boss and a Cat) 

First, the cat.

Are You Bucksperienced?, by Darby Conley. I mentioned the other Get Fuzzy book here recently. Conley's humor is usually hit, sometimes miss, and not wow! like those late-80s/early-90s classics "Calvin & Hobbes" and "Bloom County." What I love most about "Get Fuzzy" is Conley's drawings, which are so much sharper than anything else seen on the Republic's comics page. He's not so good drawing humans, but the animals are classic. You can read earlier strips and see how much cleaner the strip is now. Probably the comic strip I enjoy the most right now.

Live in New York City, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: One of the things baseball generally lacks in comparison to other sports is fan excitement of pitched intensity for an extended period of time. Richie Sexson's home run off the Jumbotron was an awesome moment, but nobody anticipated it, and the entire experience lasted, what, 20 seconds? Sure, there are tense rallies or Alex Cora at-bats or, well, Randy Johnson perfect games, but those are exceptions that just highlight how baseball differs from a football team running the two-minute drill or a basketball team scrapping its way back in front of the home crowd. I love baseball intellectually and with some of my heart, but there are moments on this live disc from Springsteen that I only get very rarely from baseball. "Land of Hope and Dreams" is an incredible song, one that would have -- should have -- been put on The Rising. That joyous crowd interaction on the songs makes it a great live album.

Baseball has its quieter joys, and occasionally its louder ones, but they are of a different nature from musical joys. Which is why I can't limit this blog to just baseball talk.

If A Marlin Walks In Pro Player Stadium... 

... does anybody see it?

Well, not many in Miami, anyway. They only had 10,214 in reported attendance for the Marlins' 13-5 shellacking of the Diamondbacks yesterday. Judging by the pictures on TV, 10,000 was probably generous.

(According to the D-Backs' radio broadcast Sunday, the Marlins don't need 60,000+ in attendance -- capacity -- to actually "sell out" Pro Player Stadium. They had 40,819 Sunday and that counted as a "sellout." I don't know what the "sellout" level is -- perhaps the 36K or so listed in parentheses after the 10,214 in the boxscore -- but there's something just not right about declaring a "sellout" for filling less than 2/3rds of your stadium.)

The less said about yesterday's actual game, the better. Once again, only 1 of the 3 components -- offense -- acquitted themselves. The staff gave up 7 walks and, in what might be one of those signs of the impending apocalypse, Elmer Dessens pitched better than Webb, Bruney, and Koplove. All those who expected that, please raise your hands.

Finally, I heard Pedro Gomez on Dan Bickley's radio show this morning. He mentioned Steve Finley as possible trade bait, which was the first name that made sense as an actual possibility -- he's a free agent after the season, he's hitting lights-out at a pace he won't continue, we have Luis Terrero awaiting his role, and he's not so much a fan favorite that trading him would cause public castigation.

More cultural diversions to come...

Monday, May 24, 2004

Monday: Three Weeks, Three Questions 

In hopes of putting a little more structure into the blog, I want to begin a new Monday look at the team called, well, "Three Weeks, Three Questions."

Three Weeks

That is, the week that was, and the two weeks that will be...

The Week That Was (cue TWIB music): The D-Backs went 3-3 in the first 6 games of their road trip (2-1 against Atlanta, which is OK. They've been outscored 20-29, though that's skewed by Saturday's 11-2 debacle. Leaving out the high- and low-scoring games for the offense and defense, that's 13-18 over 4 games -- which is somewhat anemic offensively but not horrible pitching-wise/defensively.

Oh, and Randy Johnson pitched a perfect game on Tuesday against Atlanta. ;-)

The Two Weeks That Will Be

1 more in Florida, 3 each in San Francisco and LA, then 4 more at home against SF and 3 at home against LA. That's another 14 straight games, or 20 in a row all total, the longest uninterrupted stretch of the year. I dislike calling one set of games more important than any other set, but frankly, if we end up with a losing record in these next 14 games, the season is nearly lost. (I know, some of you have been saying it's been lost since before the opening pitch.)

Three Questions

1. What's a Labrum?: Will Carroll's article on torn labrums (or "labra," if I recall my high school Latin correctly) does not make me happy for Richie Sexson's immediate future. The first question is simply, surgery or not? Next week's Three Questions will be dependent on Richie's choice.
2. Do we have a third starter?: Erm, no. The last decent start by a pitcher whose first name is not Randy or Brandon is either Daigle's 5 1/3-inning 0-run start against the Cubs May 5 or Sparks' 7 1/3-inning 3-run start against the Cubs May 4. That's a good 10 or 11 games without a decent start. How long before the D-Backs bring in someone else (Andrew Good? anyone?) to see if they'll stick longer...
3. What's the future of Doug DeVore?: None, at least with the Diamondbacks. Given that DeVore is now on his third (fourth?) stint with the D-Backs, it's clear to me that the D-Backs don't want to waste Luis Terrero's call-ups. They're willing to lose DeVore to waivers after having used him as the 24th or 25th man on the bench for a season or so.