Sunday, 24 November 2013

Baseball Books, The Elixir of Life

My favourite type of book. 
 A lot of people are bemused by my favourite genre of book. Whilst more pretentious folk discuss Dickens' novels and the poetry of Keats, attempting to decode messages which aren't really there, I prefer baseball books. Sure, I've read a few Shakespeare plays and endured the banal dross on our nations A-Level English Literature course. Yes, I've read all major football titles, by authors such as Nick Hornby and Gabriele Marcotti. However, the only type of book I really enjoy is one about baseball.

It's difficult to quantify such things, but baseball may have been bestowed with more quality prose than any other sport on our planet. In newspaper columns, non-fiction books and online, baseball always has a story to tell. Accordingly, some of history's finest wordsmiths have focused on the grand old game, falling in love with its poignant sense of tradition and artistry. The game of baseball entails much more than one guy hurling a ball at another guy, who attempts to whack it into orbit. On the contrary, there are intricate storylines, nuances backdrops and history dripping from its every pore. In order to appreciate it all, books are a vital resource.

The need for baseball books is further amplified when you live in Britain, thousands of miles away from the day-to-day grapevine. We don't tend to learn about Bill Veeck sending a dwarf to bat during our daily commute; nor are we exposed to documentaries teaching about Babe Ruth's Called Shot at Wrigley Field or the tragedy of Tony Conigliaro. Therefore, we are forced to go hunting in pursuit of baseball history, and there is no greater medium through which to learn than the book. I'm not talking technological, lifeless, eBook type stuff, either. We need to hold a book, smell the history and consume its contents wholly.
The sweet scent of baseball history.

My first baseball book. 
I still remember my first baseball book. After casually watching twice-weekly broadcasts of games on British terrestrial TV, becoming gradually more enthralled with each episode to the point whereby I craved baseball, it felt like a natural step to begin reading about its rules and history. It was hard. In 2005, I was an eleven year old attempting to find baseball books in Britain. An interview with author Craig W Thomas on the Channel Five baseball show finally gave me a title to chase: his Roads to Redemption baseball guide aimed towards a British audience. So it was that I traveled into town and began rooting through the sports section at Waterstones book store. After a prolonged search, I somehow found what I was looking for.

It took me four months to read Roads to Redemption for the first time, because I tried to commit every word to eternal memory. In one section, which provided a potted history of baseball, I remember being simultaneously perplexed and amused by some of the names, with actual people named Three Finger Brown and Nap Lajoie playing this great game. The book also contained a guide to each of the thirty Major League teams, with a brief synopsis of team histories, ballparks, players and achievements. It was my first in-depth and prolonged exposure to the glorious history of America's National Pastime. It was also a gateway to heavier substances.

My baseball book collection. 
Soon, I read Faithful, which chronicled the historic 2004 Red Sox season. To me, Stephen King was, and will always remain, just a baseball writer! I don't think I've ever enjoyed a book more than his diary collaboration with Stewart O'Nan. For the first time in my life, I literally could not put a book down. At this time, I was a Red Sox fan (it's complicated, but forgive me the folly of youth), and naturally progressed to read extensively about Boston baseball history, with works by Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons and Tony Massarotti warming up many a winter night.

When reading the incisive, achingly-beautiful prose of such writers, it's difficult to be unmoved. Soon, I began imitating these literary heroes in my writing, using words and phrases and tempo discovered in their books. From an early age, I wanted to be like Roger Kahn or Jerome Holtzman or Grantland Rice; I wanted to write about baseball with regularity and panache; I wanted to cover sunny weekend games at Fenway Park, smoking a Cuban and punching thunderously at a typewriter.

Such dreams are difficult for a Brit, but I'm trying my best.

Early in my literary baseball adventure, I discovered Moneyball which, in my eyes, was a true epic. Michael Lewis, it's accomplished author, took the reader inside the clubhouse, the draft war room, and even inside Billy Beane's magic computer. We had rarely seen anything like it. At the time, we all became fascinated by sabermetrics and fantasy baseball; we longed to be in control, overlooking a baseball organisation like a suave General Manager. It was magical. Now, when I hear the term being used incorrectly by arrogant football writers - the majority of whom think Arsenal and Liverpool, amongst the world's richest clubs, play Moneyball! - or by movie critics who see it only as a cinematic presentation, the pang of sadness is immense.

The years have progressed, and so too has my baseball library. I can't recall a time in the past nine years when I haven't had a bookmark in a baseball book of some kind. At the moment, I own 133 baseball books, and was recently forced to purchase a new bookcase to house them all. The subjects range from ballpark guides to biographies of great players; diaries of seasons to general histories. I have all the classics, such as Ball Four and The Curse of the Bambino; The Boys of Summer and Fantasyland; Game of Shadows and Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract; Eight Men Out and Living on the Black. I have the autobiographies of Jackie Robinson, David Ortiz, Bill Lee, David Wells, Mike Lowell, John Schuerholz and Johnny Damon. I even have Why I Hate the Yankees by Kevin O'Connell and Josh Pahigian. The picture to the right shows my full collection.

It's immensely difficult to pick a favourite book or author; that would be akin to selecting a favourite child. However, if you are a newcomer to the world of baseball books, I'll list a few of the very best books which I have re-read four or five times over and which will bring joy to rookies and veterans alike:

  • Faithful – Stephen King & Stewart O'Nan
  • The Curse of the Bambino – Dan Shaughnessy
  • Ball Four – Jim Bouton
  • Why I Hate the Yankees – Kevin O'Connell & Josh Pahigian
  • Baseball – George Vecsey
  • The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn
  • Baseball in Europe - Josh Chetwynd
  • Game Time – Roger Angell
  • Moneyball – Michael Lewis
  • Eight Men Out – Eliot Asinof
  • Reversing the Curse – Dan Shaughnessy
  • This Gracious Season – Josh Suchon
  • The Ultimate Baseball Road-trip – Kevin O'Connell & Josh Pahigian
  • British Baseball & the West Ham Club - Josh Chetwynd
  • At Fenway – Dan Shaughnessy
  • A Tale of Two Cities – Tony Massarotti & John Harper
  • Feeding the Monster – Seth Mnookin
  • Game of Shadows – Mark Fainaru-Wada & Lance Williams
  • Juiced – Jose Canseco
  • Fantasyland – Sam Walker
  • Idiot – Johnny Damon
  • Living on the Black – John Feinstein
  • Wrigleyworld – Kevin Kaduk
  • Roads to Redemption – Craig W Thomas
  • The book I'm currently reading. 
  • Ted Williams – Leigh Montville

The perception of many snooty elitists says that you can't learn anything from a book which isn't written by a classical novelist. I, quite frankly, think that is a load of bull. The existence of baseball books has gifted me a lot in life. If I didn't pick up that first baseball book, I likely would have fallen into the trap of never reading as a child. In time, reading these books has not only taught me all I know about baseball, but also everything I know about writing. My vocabulary and writing style is derived entirely from these books, and so is my dream of becoming a sports writer. The way I view things is that I've learnt from the very best. I've given myself a chance.

I encourage everybody to pick-up a book about something they're deeply interested in, and dig deeper and deeper into that subjects bibliography. Better still, pick-up a baseball book. I guarantee that you'll be squirming with delight after just one chapter.

A few more images of my baseball book collection have been included below:
A close-up.

I bought my first baseball book in 2005...

...I now have 133 books.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Most Wonderful Time of the Baseball Year

In many ways, this is a great time for baseball fans. The season finished nearly three weeks ago, the dust has settled on another campaign, and attention is slowly turning towards the long winter ahead. It's an anxious period in the baseball calendar, with free agents about to hit the open market and trade bait being dangled tentatively over the water. At this time of year, there is often more baseball permutations to think about than during the regular season or playoffs. It's quite compelling.

I've always loved baseball's off-season. It may seems strange, with no games taking place for nearly five months from November until Spring Training the following year, but there is a certain tranquility which I find appealing. In the wide-reaching vocabulary of baseball, I struggle to find a more appropriate term than Hot Stove, the collective phrase used to describe it's off-season wheeling and dealing. It rightfully conjures up images of baseball fans gathered around small camp fires during the bleak winter months to discuss the travails of their team, second-guess the General Manager, and evaluate the star free agent seeking a huge contract. As a Cubs fan, I'm already fretting about the need for veteran leadership on the club, analysing every word from Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer, and gauging the long-term effects of maybe signing Robinson Cano. Such is the way of baseball in winter; it opens your mind to a world of possibility. The Hot Stove thrives on speculation, is maintained by the frenzied interest of fans, and will likely consume vast portions of your time in the coming weeks. My stomach is all fuzzy with excitement already.

Whilst the current free agent class receives predominant attention during these Hot Stove discussions, there is also a special place for historical debates at this time. In the pantheon of sports, baseball preserves it's history with more care than any other. Accordingly, fans are able to compare players, managers, ballparks and even writers from different eras with precise accuracy. It won't take long this winter before you're bored of all other sports and begin to discuss whether or not Ted Williams would have challenged the home run record if World War II never happened. In time, you'll likely debate whether Mantle was greater than Mays, whether DiMaggio's streak will ever be broken, or who will be the next home run king. If all else fails, you will return to the old chestnut: should Pete Rose be elected to the Hall of Fame? You see, when baseball has calmed from its relentless in-season pace, fans have more time to appreciate it. The longing for a baseball season is often more intense than the pleasure derived when it's actually here, and these Hot Stove nuggets fuel the fire.

I also tend to read more about baseball in the off-season. The dark evenings provide a great backdrop to delve into a book by favourite authors, such as Roger Kahn, George Vecsey or even Dan Shaughnessy. In the winter, when baseball is played only in the minds of avid fans worldwide, there can be nothing better than being transported to a different era, via the book, and learning about this games glorious history. Also, there is much more besides game recaps and box scores to interest on all main MLB news websites at this time of year, with trade rumours and free agent whispers holding intrigue and again opening up a world of possibility. I often spend hours each day searching for baseball news during the winter, and have done for years. It's special. When the game pauses for a five-month hiatus, there is a chance for diehard fans to educate themselves with great literature and news writing, all of which ignites hope for the season ahead.  

That hope is the essence of fandom. Even against our better logical judgement, even against the words of experts and executives, even against historical proclivity, we're brought back every single year by the eternal hope of seeing something great. For me, this hope is farmed in winter, when the trade buzz, the free agent excitement, the historical discussions and the classic literature build to occupy time and create a deep yearning for baseball! It's the most wonderful time of the year. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Baseball's World Series: Why the Name is Correct & Why You're Wrong to Argue Against It.

The World Series, baseball's crowning championship showcase, begins this week in old Fenway Park, Boston. In the 109th Fall Classic, the Red Sox will again face the St Louis Cardinals, a traditional foe. All over the world, millions of baseball fans will tune in, via television, radio and internet, to watch The Series, and see a new champion doused in the champagne of success. It's sure to be dramatic. It always is.

Each October, when the last autumnal hours hold winter at bay, a new chapter in the enduring history of baseball's main event is written. At this time, we see an exponential rise in the volume of Brits asking “why do they call it a World Series, when only teams from America and Canada play?” A June tweet from Piers Morgan, that renowned font of British ignorance, is typical:

“Given we now have proof baseball's a British sport, maybe it's time for a real 'World Series' – one where a non-American team also competes?” -Piers Morgan, 12 June, 2013

Whilst Morgan may have intended only to start a debate, he opened a whole can of worms which British baseball fans are tired of hearing. The age-old chestnuts were thrown into the fire: teams from other countries should be allowed to play! How can American's be so arrogant? In what way is this a World Series? I can understand many of these concerns. However, it's also important to note that, on the whole, such protests come from casual sports fans who have little interest in baseball; from football fans who like to throw in their two cents whenever baseball is mentioned in mainstream dispatches. The hardcore community of baseball fans in Britain hardly views this as a major issue because, as seasoned followers of Major League Baseball, we're well aware that the American game is far superior, in skill, management, and marketability, than any other variation. When you think of baseball, it's impossible not to think of America.

I've always been a firm believer in MLB's right to market itself as a world league, with a World Series and even a World Champion. However, I determined to answer this timeless question once and for all. Accordingly, I put it to Josh Chetwynd, former Great Britain catcher and longtime baseball guru, during one of his broadcasts for BBC Radio. “I've been broadcasting baseball in the UK for eleven years,” stated Chetwynd, the author of numerous books on global baseball, “and I don't think a year has gone by were I haven't been asked this question.” I know the feeling.

“One real urban myth,” Chetwynd began, “is that it [the World Series] was named after a paper called The New York World that was the sponsor of an early World Series. That's not true; it's a complete myth.” Indeed, I've encountered this old yarn before. It's a complete fabrication, lacking in any historical fact, recycled by baseball fans all over the world at this time of year. The World, a tabloid in circulation from 1860-1931, never alluded to any such sponsorship deal, and official Baseball Hall of Fame spokesmen have frequently dispelled the myth.

So, you must be shouting, where does the World Series moniker come from? As Chetwynd explains, it's largely derived from the aspiration of one man: Albert Goodwill Spalding. A pitcher, manager, executive, and all-round baseball trailblazer, Spalding “wanted to bring baseball literally to the world,” says Chetwynd. Thus, in 1888, a blend of American capitalism and nationalism motivated Spalding to take baseball on a world tour unheralded in size and daring, wowing audiences in eight different countries, including Australia, Great Britain and France. The Boston Globe wrote that “for boldness and scope, [Spalding's project] tops anything ever before attempted in the world of sports.”

Spalding had a dual motivation. In the first instance, he felt that, by expanding baseball to foreign lands, new markets would be available for his wide-reaching sporting goods empire. Simultaneously, Spalding could provide a window into an expanding US culture and, in turn, help solidify baseball as a truly American export. So it was that an entourage of twenty ballplayers, a cricket coach, and a stable of women were sent off by President Grover Cleveland on a global baseball trek.

In time, exhibitions would be played in the shadows of Egypt's Sphinx, France's Eiffel Tower, and Rome's Coliseum. A cast of all-star ballplayers, including Hall of Famers Cap Anson and John Montgomery Ward, brought baseball to cities like Naples, Paris and London, Dublin, Birmingham and Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast. “He [Spalding] really believed that, with his support, these countries were going to bring baseball into a world purview,” says Chetwynd. In pursuit of this dream, Spalding put his money where his mouth was, too. Joe Gray, founding chairman of Project COBB, a wide-ranging initiative concerned with the preservation of British baseball history, states that “Spalding was a crucial presence in the establishment of the early British baseball leagues, as he funded three of the four teams.” However, Gray adds, “it's not clear, though, as to what extent that was for the love of the game or simply to set up markets for expansion of his sporting goods empire.”

Regardless of Spalding's end motive, it's pretty clear that he was highly-influential in making baseball a truly global entity. “Ultimately,” Chetwynd concludes, “Spalding hoped that the World Series would be exactly that, with the teams from Great Britain, France and elsewhere being good enough to play against those from the United States, with the result being a true World Series.” However, when the level of baseball talent in these foreign lands proved inadequate to America's new-age professionalism, Spalding began to concentrate on glorifying the US game. At this time, Spalding's revered Official Baseball Guide began referring to American baseball's championship series as “the World's Championship,” which was later shortened to “World's Series.” At the time, hyperbole was a key ingredient in any grand American venture. Spalding's marketing sense in branding the Series as a global event spoke to a new-wave American bravery to grab the world by the collar and make itself known. Americans wanted to be power-brokers on the biggest stage of all, and the World Series was a valuable weapon in the fight.

So, there is factual evidence to the term “World Series,” but it also works on a visceral level. I don't believe that any domestic team from another country is currently capable of competing commercially or on the field with MLB. The standard of baseball in the US, starting with the core collegiate system, is far superior. Even Japan and the Dominican Republic, amongst the most baseball-literate of foreign lands, are eons away from the level of professionalism displayed throughout organised American baseball.

The world is full of baseball fans. We focus by-and-large on the US Major Leagues, of which the World Series is an illustrious outgrowth. I spoke with Gabe Kapler, a member of the historic 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox, and asked him for his take on the Fall Classic. “The World Series is the pinnacle for baseball player and fan. It's the peak of excitement, the highest test of character and determination,” said Kapler, a career .268 hitter who spent parts of twelve Major League seasons with the Rangers, Tigers, Rockies, Brewers and Rays. But it's as a Red Sock that Kapler is most fondly remembered. He was one of just nine Red Sox players present on the field of play when Boston won it's first World Series in 86 years, thus completing an unprecedented postseason run and banishing the Bambino Curse. Kapler calls those championship Red Sox days “majestic...the best time of my life.” I asked Kapler to describe the emotions of playing in a World Series, because we mere mortals are unlikely to experience it any time soon. When I queried whether the Fall Classic felt like a truly global event with the eyes of a baseball world cast upon the players, Kapler responded “absolutely! 100%.”

So, it becomes clear that baseball's World Series, in name and feeling alike, is a worldwide phenomenon. A most passionate advocate of that phenomenon is the Dominican Republic, a small country which dances to the baseball beat. Keith Winters, a Dominican baseball expert, spent the 2009 season following the Gigantes de Cibao in the Dominican Winter League. As Winters explains, the dream of emulating World Series champions such as Kapler is a way of Dominican life: “pretty much every Dominican plays with the hopes of making the big leagues. Some have a goal to make it to a US college, or simply make the minor leagues, so they can stick around and get a regular job in the United States.” Thus, we see how baseball is a powerful tool for change the world over.

Dominicans follow the Major League progress of countrymen such as David Ortiz and Albert Pujols with feverish intensity. Winters informs that “one in every 10,000 Dominicans is in the big leagues. By comparison, the number in the US last year was one in every 500,000 people.” This level of Dominican success on the world baseball stage breeds excitement and hope for many young children in the country, who often see baseball as an escape from poverty and a catalyst for prosperity. “Most Dominicans know someone that is fairly close to them – a relative, an ex-teammate, or somebody from their town – that has made the big leagues,” illustrates Winters, “which makes the dream seem attainable.”

In many ways, Major League Baseball is the league of dreams. On the Opening Day rosters of all thirty organisations in 2013, 28.2% of players were foreign-born, the fourth-highest figure in history. A total of sixteen different countries were represented in MLB this season. The Milwaukee Brewers had 14 foreign players, whilst the Texas Rangers had 13. Furthermore, the sheer volume of games makes MLB the most-watch league on the planet, in gross terms. Nowadays, internet connections make it all-the-more easier for Major League Baseball to reach new enclaves, and those watching aspire to win a ring just like Gabe Kapler. Let Winters regale you with a tale of Dominican October: “During playoffs time in the big leagues, Dominicans are always interested in what other Dominicans are doing. One quote I love that I heard from a librarian one day in the Dominican during the Phillies vs Yankees World Series in 2009, when he said 'I don't care who wins, but whatever team has more Dominicans, that is who I want to win.' The whole country was rooting for Pedro Martinez and the Phillies that year, even though the Yankees had a few Dominicans too. Pedro is a legend down there.”

So, could a country such as the Dominican ever harness it's passion for baseball and channel it into direct competition with the US Major Leagues? Will we ever see Spalding's initial plan come to fruition and have domestic teams from all over the world competing with the might of MLB? One day, will we have a World Series between the New York Yankees and the Gigantes de Cibao? Winters doesn't think so, arguing that “the best we can hope for as far as a true World Series would be something like the Toyota Cup in soccer, in which the domestic league champions all play some sort of playoff.” I have to agree with Keith. No Dominican team could ever compete with the supreme marketing and financial juggernauts at play in MLB.

If you're reading this hoping against hope that, one day, the World Series of which Piers Morgan tweets will come to fruition, I simply don't share the same thought process. However, for arguments sake, let's play with the idea a little. The popular consensus holds that the nearest alternative to MLB, in terms of professionalism, fan interest and history, is Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league (NPB). If, in some quirky development, MLB was to expand, Japan would surely send the most adaptable franchises. In Japan, baseball is of huge interest, with the Major League success of demigods such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Yu Darvish providing a modern chapter in a historical narrative previously dominated by Sadaharu Oh. It is notoriously-difficult to find accurate attendance records for NPB games, but the league averages 25,000 per contest, which substantiates its claim as a professional baseball powerhouse. The levels of professionalism, talent and celebrity associated with NPB are perhaps the most comparable with MLB throughout the entire world. However, the Japanese league still lags far behind the US Major Leagues in various areas. For instance, in 2013, the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's glamour team, became the first NPB team to break the 3,000,000 threshold in attendance since 2010. On one level, this inspires deep admiration and speaks to the undeniable popularity of the Japanese game. When viewed through an MLB prism, however, the distance between its nearest competitors still resembles a canyon: in 2013, eight MLB teams reached the 3,000,000 mark. Furthermore, the migration of NPB's biggest stars is most indicative of MLB's impenetrable standing as baseball's definitive league. The goal for Japanese players, just as for Dominicans, Venezuelans, Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, and every other nationality, is to one day venture to the United States to play ball. Ichiro, Dice-K, Yu, Nomo, the list of great Japanese players making a success of MLB is seemingly-endless. How can any nation even think of competing with MLB, if it's best talents understandably join the enemy? By extension, how can we ever question MLB's right to call its's showcase event a World Series?

All of this is highly relative. Here in Britain, we recently cherished the opening of Farnham Park, the fruits of labour for years of dedication from the baseball community. At last, we have a respectable, showcase diamond. For us, it works, it's something to be immensely proud of, a monument to our extensive development as a baseball-playing nation. Obviously, there is just no comparison with Major League Baseball, however. Farnham Park probably ranks as a Spring Training practice diamond for MLB teams; a fantastic achievement for us Brits, yet barely a blip on the US-tinted baseball radar. It shows, more than ever, why we should just be content with MLB's standing as the true world league, and respect it's right for a World Series moniker. If you still yearn for a true global baseball tournament even after reading this mammoth essay, may I give you a gentle shove towards the World Baseball Classic, an equivalent of football's World Cup? It may never pit the Chicago Cubs against the Seibu Lions, the Leones del Escogido against the London Mets, or the Tigres de Quintana Roo against the Sydney Blue Sox, but it's the closest thing to Spalding's dream we have ever known.

However, until the next classic in 2017, the mainstream should embrace the World Series just like the tight-knit community of British baseball fans have done for years. Let your misplaced indignation rest, pick up a beer, and become ensconced in one of world's greatest sporting spectacles.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Baseball Phrases You Unknowingly Use Everyday

A lot of cynical Brits don't trust baseball. I've endured countless referenced to 'glorified rounders,' and grimaced through endless comparisons with cricket, all attempts at diminishing the impact of America's Game. A skeptic majority in Britain seems casually-dismissive of American sport, almost ignorant to its intoxicating history and perpetual excitement. The Wembley Series of NFL games has taken American Football to the mainstream, with many Brits embracing it, but baseball as a mass consumer sport has yet to take-off on this side of the ocean. Many feel uneasy that the manager wears the same attire as his players, or lament its slow-paced nature. However, I'm here to report that baseball has had a powerful impact on each and every one of you...even if you didn't know it.

The game of baseball has its own language; a colourful dictionary of slang and technical vocabulary which enthralls and beguiles. We have dingers and bombs, suicide squeeze bunts and double-steals, sacrifice flies and intentional walks. A baserunner gifted with great speed has wheels, an outfielder with a strong arms possesses a hose. The pitcher may throw a screwball, a splitter, or even a slurve, which may ride up-and-in and result in a hit-by-pitch and bench-clearing rhubarb. In extreme cases, a hitter may escape the chin music to hit a nubber, a blooper, a Texas Leaguer over the infield. He may even get lucky, find a hanger in his wheelhouse, and smack a long four-bagger. A slick infielder may flash the leather, go around the horn, and complete the spectacular twin-killing. The possibilities of baseball language are endless, and it plays an integral part in making the game truly unique.

In time, aspects of this extravagant lingo have trickled into the everyday British dialect. It's deeply ironic that we no longer have baseball broadcasts on terrestrial TV, yet the schtick of every afternoon quiz show host, daytime agony aunt, and evening sports pundit is laden with nuanced fragments of baseball speak! The television personalities, restaurant waitresses, and even bricklayers of this land rely on baseball phrases in their everyday communication. I expect you do, too. Here is a comprehensive list of baseball lexicon which may seem familiar.

  • Step up to the plate – We hear this time-and-time again, in all manner of situations. It's usually meant as an urging for somebody to stand and take responsibility, or to deliver in a time of need. In baseball, a hitter literally steps up to home plate, and is similarly expected to produce for his team, hence the simultaneous usage of this phrase in our everyday dealings.
  • Throw a curveball – When an unexpected event or circumstance presents itself, freezing our thinking, a curveball is said to have been thrown. While you may be familiar with this phrase from the office or school, it is a literal baseball term: an actual curveball is part of the pitchers arsenal which he ues in attempt at getting the hitter out. In a similar regard, the hitter can be caught off-guard and frozen, thus surrendering a strike.
  • Three strikes, your out – The most recognisable of baseball phrases used in everyday terminology, this one is usually associated with poor behaviour, or used to caution an offender. We've all used it. In baseball, a hitter is pronounced out should he receive three strikes, accumulated via foul balls, missed swings, and pitched balls which pass over home plate inside the strike zone. This is the most self-explanatory baseball phrase of all.
  • 'Ballpark' figure/estimate – Every builder providing an estimate deals in the currency of ballpark figures. It's intended to give a general price approximation in a given region. In traditional baseball, there are no stadiums, there are ballparks. Whilst many different theories are suggested for the exact etymology of this phrase, many agree that it is derived from baseball. One argument holds that the dimensions of a baseball field vary from ballpark to ballpark, yet all adhere to rough, unspoken guidelines: no team will set the outfield fences 600 feet from home plate, because they must comply with this round figure or estimation of the accepted norm. Hence, the ballpark estimates you receive in a similar manner from plumbers, gardeners and decorators today.
  • Hit it out of the park – We usually hear this when a performance of some kind, be it on X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, is a great success. The performers are said to have hit it out of the park! Well, this refers to the defining action of any baseball game: the home run. A batter literally hits the ball over the outfield wall and out of the park. It's the hallmark of excellence.
  • Hardball – When negotiations are tense and prolonged, one party is usually playing hardball. In essence, it describes an aggressive, uncompromising approach, typical of David Cameron at the EU. The baseball roots of this phrase are undeniable; hardball being a style of similarly aggressive play, usually featuring lineups of powerful sluggers and home run threats. It's David Cameron as in David Ortiz.
  • Heavy hitters – The executives or people of importance within a company or on a television show are often referred to as the heavy hitters. Again, this phrase is simply transferred from baseball! A manager typically placed his heavy hitters, those most capable of wreaking havoc and producing runs, in the 3-through-6 spots in the batting order. When watching a baseball game, the excitement is tremendous should an announcer inform that your teams heavy hitters are due up in the next half-inning!
  • Right off the bat – A distant cousin to our hit the ground running cliché, this term describes instant success in one pursuit or another. When manager at Sunderland, Paolo Di Canio experience success right off the bat with a memorable victory over Newcastle. In another literal translation from baseball speak, this is self-explanatory: a batted ball flies right off the bat at an impressive speed.
  • Play ball – We use this in a variety of contexts: when arguing, when walking the dog, and, strangely, when actually playing sport. A baseball game can only begin once the home plate umpire is satisfied enough to holler “play ball!”
  • Way off-base – During arguments or heated negotiations, people are often accused of being way off-base, positing a distance between themselves and the true reality. When a baserunner is picked-off during a baseball contest, his mistake is almost always a direct consequence of being way off-base.
  • A whole new ballgame – In sports punditry and politics, a change in circumstances, such as the appointment of a new coach or the use of chemical weapons, produces a whole new ballgame. Again, this is derived from baseball which, in the professional Major Leagues, adopts a mammoth 162-game season. When your team loses a regular game, it's great to look forward to tomorrow, when there will be a whole new ballgame to take part in.

So, now you know: even if you've never watched a baseball game, even if you like to condemn it from a position of football-crazed elitism, even if you dislike America, an essential part of your everyday communication has a flavour of its National Pastime. When you next use one of these phrases, perhaps instinctively and without consideration, just remember this post, and thank baseball for its brilliant, wide-reaching dialect.    

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Who Will Break the All-Time Home Run Record?

No sporting action captures the American imagination quite like a home run. Even as the game changes, becomes brighter and faster and more awash with money than ever before, all eras, all players, and all fans are still unified by the awe-inspiring sight of baseball soaring majestically over wall. There is an entire language dedicated to the acts succinct description, with bombs, taters, and dingers, jacks, gopher balls, and moonshots! The more frequently a man crushes a ball out of the park, the greater his legend becomes. In time, some become ensconced in a race towards immortality, yearning to hit more home runs than history has ever known. The all-time individual home run record encourages children to dream, writers to wax lyrical, and fans to debate. It's the most hallowed mark in all of sports. In a world obsessed with athletic achievement, no other record is given greater significance. It's the pinnacle, the zenith, the summit of physical accomplishment.

The following list shows the ten men who've hit more home runs than anybody else.  

All-Time Home Run Leaders
1. Barry Bonds, 762
2. Henry Aaron, 755
3. Babe Ruth, 714
4. Willie Mays, 660
5. Alex Rodriguez, 652
6. Ken Griffey Jr, 630
7. Jim Thome, 612
8. Sammy Sosa, 609
9. Frank Robinson, 586
10. Mark McGwire, 583

When reading such a list, it's almost impossible not to think about steroids. Of the ten players mentioned, four have been linked very-closely with steroid abuse. McGwire and Rodriguez have admitted using performance-enhancing substances. Sosa has been widely discussed in similar circles, though the former Cubs slugger maintains his innocence. Barry Bonds? Well, you know all about him. It's the greatest shame of all; the games most illustrious record forever warped by years of unforgivable cheating. I'm a passionate advocate of expunging all professional records amassed by proven steroids abusers. However, since Bonds' 762 is still officially recognised as the all-time home run mark, we'll use it as our barometer for this study.

So, how does one go about projecting the future home run king? It's a delicate process. A lot of what follows is subjective, based on opinion, and somewhat hypothetical. However, this is all about having fun with one of the most-debated baseball puzzles. Accordingly, I've created a very sketchy calculation which will generate a projected career home run total for some of the leading contenders. Here it is:

(42 - Player Age) X Average Seasonal Home Run Total + Current Career Home Runs

You probably need an explanation. Well, firstly, I've chosen to project all potential candidates through the end of their age 42 season, because Bonds retired at the same age. Now, by subtracting a players age away from 42, we see how many seasons he has left, using Bonds as the yardstick. Then, by multiplying this number by the players average home run totals per season, and adding his amount of home runs to date, we generate a projected home run total.

Let's put a name, face, and some statistics to this example. We'll use Hanley Ramirez.

(42 - 29) X 26 + 176 = 514 Projected Career Home Runs

Now, before you freak out, I'm aware that this is by no means foolproof. In fact, it's a highly-inefficient model. However, this is all about having some fun with home runs and history. It's obviously clear that, as players approach the age of 40, their production will drop considerably; in many cases, such as Albert Pujols, players are barely recognisable once they begin to decline from star-studded primes. An overwhelming majority of players will not even play into their forties. The great thing about using season averages, however, is that they do provide a somewhat accurate indication of a players overall career performance: as players hit their prime years, they will, in most cases, exceed these seasonal average totals considerably, which redressed the balance of decline later in careers. It's a concept which naturally works more effectively with younger players, who still have a journey through the curve of prime and decline ahead of them. On the other hand, it can be difficult to assess the outcome when you put Pujols or Alex Rodriguez through the calculation. I'm no sabermetrician, let's just have some fun with these numbers.

So, I've singled out ten of the most potent active home run hitters, in order to see how their numbers project through age 42 seasons. The results:

  • Alex Rodriguez - 857 HR
  • Albert Pujols - 861 HR
  • Adam Dunn - 779 HR
  • Paul Konerko - 587 HR
  • David Ortiz - 602 HR
  • Alfonso Soriano - 579 HR
  • Adrian Beltre - 590 HR
  • Miguel Cabrera - 796 HR
  • Carlos Beltran - 525 HR
  • Mark Teixeira - 674 HR
Again, you'll probably be mad at this point, screaming and pounding the computer! I know that the vast majority of these numbers are entirely unrealistic. In all likelihood, A-Rod will probably never play again after this season and, even if he does, will never reach such a stratospheric number of homers. In all reality, Pujols, hobbled by injuries and suffering a sharp decline, is not getting anywhere near eight-hundred round-trippers. Teixeira will also be robbed by poor health; Ortiz will likely retire at the end of his current contract; and not many teams are going to endure Adam Dunn's horrific strikeout rate long enough to give him a shot at Bonds. However, I'm fascinated by the numbers for Miguel Cabrera. The Triple Crown winning Tiger is one of the greatest hitters the game has ever witnessed and, at just thirty years of age, he has enough time left to seriously challenge for the record.

As mentioned earlier, and demonstrated by a set of comical numbers, this system doesn't work very well with veteran players. The real fun begins when we start assessing some of the games younger phenoms. I initially selected twenty candidates who I thought could potentially have a shot at the record, from a purely statistical standpoint. However, using a little common sense and scouting (for example: Ryan Howard's injury problems will not allow him to get anywhere near the 698 home runs spat out by my calculations, and I believe Ryan Braun will be out of baseball within three years, thus rendering his 679 obsolete), it became clear that, in all seriousness, only two players from the list have a legitimate opportunity to challenge the record: Prince Fielder and Giancarlo Stanton.

So, in effect, we're left with three candidates: Fielder, Stanton, and Miguel Cabrera. Here is how my raw statistical projections have the three challengers, followed by an assessment as to whether they can attain such numbers:

1. Stanton - 853 HR
2. Cabrera - 796 HR
3. Fielder - 738 HR

Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins 
Age: 23
Current Career Home Runs: 112

Stanton is an exceptional talent with impressive raw power. He was the eighth quickest player to reach 100 career home runs in Major League history. The short history of Marlins Park is highlighted by tape-measure blasts from the star right-fielder who, despite experiencing a down year in 2013, is one of the most exciting players in all of baseball. Stanton is no stranger to the Disabled List, however. In his four Major League seasons, he has already missed considerable playing time through injury, leading many to question his durability. Ultimately, I believe we've seen many players like Giancarlo Stanton before: electrifying talent, yet hampered by persistent injuries. He's a fine player to watch, but I doubt he'll play enough games to seriously challenge Bonds' record.

Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Age: 30
Current Career Home Runs: 364
In the past decade, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody comparable to Cabrera. A mesmeric 2012 season saw the potent third baseman win baseball's first offensive Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski forty-five years prior. There is nothing Cabrera cannot do to a baseball. The incredible aspect of his statistical portfolio is that 'Miggy' is getting better ever year. He is well on pace to better his performance across the board this year, which is one of the greatest achievements in baseball history. I have no doubt that Cabrera will play enough games to provide the most realistic attack on Bonds. He will, in my opinion, break the home run record.

Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers
Age: 29
Current Career Home Runs:
Fielder continues to defy the physical pre-conceptions of baseball people everywhere. When you look at the colossus 5' 11'', 275 lb Fielder, you cannot help but wonder about his durability. However, there has been very few player as consistent as the first baseman in the recent era. In the four seasons previous to 2013, Fielder missed just one game! He has become an almost guaranteed 30 homer, 110 RBI man, with the occasional ability to enter the 50 homer, 130 RBI echelon. When added to the undeniable consistency and durability, this penchant for truly historic home run seasons makes Fielder a compelling candidate to challenge the 700-home run plateau. Whilst I feel he will probable break that watermark, it's unlikely that he'll quite get to Aaron-Bonds-Cabrera territory.

So, there you have it! Miguel Cabrera will break Barry Bonds' all-time home run record. You heard it here first. Now, just for a little added fun, here is a wild assertion as to what the Top 10 will look like in twenty-five years time.

1. Miguel Cabrera - 796 HR
2. Barry Bonds - 762 HR*
3. Henry Aaron - 755 HR
4. Prince Fielder - 738 HR
5. Babe Ruth - 714
6. Jay Bruce - 675
7. Mike Trout - 667
8. Willie Mays - 660
9. Alex Rodriguez - 658*
10. Bryce Harper - 657

All of this was just for fun, remember. In truth, nobody can predict baseball tomorrow, never mind half a decade down the line. However, I'll be happy to see just one aspects of this prediction come to fruition: an asterisk beside the name of those who almost made this great debate redundant.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

An Appreciation of Baseball History...and How British Football Can Learn

We can learn a lot from baseball history.
One aspect of baseball is unequaled in any other sport: its preservation and celebration of history. There is an historical narrative to baseball, decorated with lovable names and encrusted with dramatic events, which is cherished and maintained by its devoted stewards. In no other sport can a single game situation, a lone statistic, or the style of a certain player inspire close comparison with something documented sixty, seventy, even eighty years before. However, this is the very essence of baseball; a fabled story developed through appreciation of its own most sacred chapters.

A sport rich in nostalgia, baseball has an extensive history to share. There is a well-worn debate as to the geographical origins of the game but, in less recognisable forms, it was initially played in the mid-nineteenth century. Since, it has captivated and enthralled small American hamlets and huge modern metropolises alike; indeed, it has become America's
National Pastime of choice.

The game of baseball has always inspired its followers to pick up a pen and write. Even in its earliest days, games and rules were documented; British born writer Henry Chadwick creating the first boxscore and early metrics such as Batting Average and ERA. In accordance with the sports natural progression, more writers began to see baseball as a subject lending itself well to narrative hyperbole.

In 1888, poet Ernest Thayer encapsulated the growing prominence of baseball in the American psyche with his classic
Casey at the Bat. This poem, using a fictional 'Mudville Nine,' provides a concise insight into the passion and meaning increasingly endowed upon baseball; the crowd living and dying with every pitch until an overconfident Casey strikes out to end the game. A cornerstone step in the evolution of America's baseball fascination is forever enshrined in that most celebrated poem.

A further poem, penned in 1910, is equally evocative. The piece, written by Franklin Pierce Adams, centres around a famed Chicago Cubs infield combination, and was further emblematic of the burgeoning connection between baseball and prose:
Baseball's Sad Lexicon – Franklin Pierce Adams, 1910
These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinkers to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear Cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double-
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinkers to Evers to Chance.”

The mere fact that this poem was even written demonstrates the unique yearning for expression which baseball elicits. However, the fact that, over a century later, this work still registers with even casual fans is remarkable. A majority of Chicago Cubs fans can recite the poem, and well know its intricate backdrop of perpetual pennant tussles with the old New York Giants. Such is the attention to fine historical detail which separates baseball from most other sports. As the game became more intricate and refined, so too did the coverage, which began to sell more newspapers than current affairs or politics. In a halcyon era, journalistic heavyweights such as Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon further embellished the game with sharp reporting. A whole new genre was added to the American literary sphere: baseball writing.

It is the finest of arts, I believe. The greatest books that I have read are all about baseball; works by Roger Kahn and Thomas Boswell, Roger Angell and David Halberstam, Lawrence Ritter and Eliot Asinof, Peter Gammons and Dan Shaughnessy filling my extensive baseball library and bringing the entire history of a nation to life. I don't profess to know excessive amounts about French-born American historian Jacques Barzun, but I know he was correct when he asserted that “...w
hoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

You may be thinking,
“why have you chosen to randomly write about baseball history?" Well, all is explainable. A recent visit to the British National Football Museum in Manchester revealed just how far our national sport languishes behind with regard to its preservation of history. Sure, we can browse the first official rulebook of Association Football, and look at replica mock-ups of the Jules Rimet Trophy won heroically at home in 1966, but it is all far too superficial. As a footballing culture, we acknowledge the surface details, and are aware of a vague outline of past events, but do not penetrate to discover the finer nuances.

If I want to know how many strikeouts a three-fingered starting pitcher recorded during 1909 National League play, I can readily find that information. 172. If I want to know why he only had three fingers, that detail is there too. He [Mordecai Brown], slipped whilst feeding material into farm machinery  thus losing two digits. Now, this may seem a little surreal, but the point demonstrates how poorly football has been preserved throughout history. Such is the nature of football history, I'm aware of only the most famous players from 1909, but any records for goals scored or assists are extremely elusive. Many will say that those records are out there, and can be found with a deep and intensive enough search. But this is the point exactly. In the baseball sphere, this data is available with a few clicks of a computer mouse, a quick flip through a
Bill James Baseball Abstract. In the football world, there is no such pride in detailed historical preservation.

There would be ample benefits to a clearer trove of football history. The pub debates about Messi and Pele could be much more easily reconciled, if we had more incisive and accurate reporting from both eras, and serious statistics extending far beyond 'World Cups won,' and 'International caps.' In baseball, the equivalent debates are backed-up with such invaluable sources. We can make a viable case for Mickey Mantle outshining Willie Mays; Don Mattingly being inducted in the Hall of Fame; and for Ted Williams breaking Babe Ruth's then-standing Home Run Record had it not been for years of Military service. In football, our debates are always subjective, or built upon the merest of facts, such as League Championships won or transfer fees. This has to change.

It's inescapable that, as football fans, we have been dealt an unfair hand by the inadequate style of reporting and historical preservation in the past. If chronicled better at the time, the games greatest characters, players, and achievements would be
further emblazoned in our knowledge. But this is why we must learn now. We cannot leave a similar legacy for the next generation; we must fundamentally change the ways in which we report, understand, and cherish the footballing narrative so enjoyed by billions. In an age of 140-character restriction and 6-second videos, we're already fighting an uphill battle to create a much deeper store of football history, but we shouldn't give up. It's never too late to focus on the finer details, pay homage to them, and share them in exquisite prose. Baseball has done so for nearly two-hundred years. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

How Baseball's Darkest Era Continues to Harm

Slugger...Davis has become a superstar.
As the season's first half draws to a close, Chris Davis continues to astound baseball. The imposing Orioles first baseman has morphed from reliable contributor to full-blown superstar during a tearaway three-month stretch of historical proportions. With a humble demeanor and a workmanlike approach, Davis is presently batting .333, getting on-base at a gaudy .403 rate, and slugging .724. You like the more traditional statistics? Well, Davis has those covered too! He has 79 RBI in just 81 games and, on Saturday, became just the third player in American League history to reach the thirty home run plateau before the end of June. The other two? Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey Jr.

So why isn't Davis receiving the media fanfare and international acclaim which such performances have in the past precipitated? Sure, glossy features have been written about him on the main national websites, and the hyperactive world of Twitter has shown an interest; but Davis is yet to receive the oft-notorious media scrutiny which usually accompany such great seasons. This is yet another cruel manifestation of a baseball record book, culture, and fandom, forever changed by it's darkest era.

Even now, the legacy of widespread steroid usage is distorting the sport of baseball. In the summer months of this exciting season, Chris Davis should be focused on breaking the most sacrosanct single-season records. However, they have been set so far off in the stratosphere, many feel with the use of illegal performance-enhancing supplements, that a 'clean' player like Davis can barely hope to attain them. Whilst acknowledging that Barry Bonds has never been successfully prosecuted for steroid usage, I hold with the hard-line of baseball traditionalists who feel that only a slugger supercharged on a cocktail of drugs can hit 73 home runs in a single season given a previous personal best of 49, or conceive of breaking Hank Aaron's career record of 755 after amassing just 445 through their age-34 season.

Nonetheless, those are the records which, quite inexplicably, still stand in the Major League Baseball record books. The home run records, for both season and career, are the most hallowed marks in the sporting lexicon; they are, however, entirely unattainable after decades of abuse from juiced-up sluggers playing a different game.

It's often argued that Barry Bonds became envious of the fame lavished upon Mark McGwire when, in 1998, he initially broke the single-season record for round-trippers. Nonetheless, McGwire later admitted that performance-enhancing substances aided his assault on the record, an admission which still causes grief to baseball purists. If McGwire could hit seventy only with the help of steroids, then the odds that Barry Bonds was suddenly able to crush seventy-three under his own steam are minimal to non-existent. This is the most saddening scourge of modern day baseball.

If we delve a little deeper, ever more serious problems emerge. Barry Bonds has seven Most Valuable Player Awards, more than any player all-time; more walks than any player all-time; the best single-season marks in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and intentional walks. If, as the overwhelming majority suspect, Bonds' procurement of such records was fueled by an extensive profile of steroid usage, what are baseball records worth any more?

There is a small minority, mostly residing in San Francisco, which claims that steroid usage is relative; that it was so embedded in the sporting culture of a specific era as to be inconspicuous. Many believe that McGwire, Canseco, and Giambi used steroids to gain an edge just like Roe, Shocker, and Leonard used a spitball. However, the use of performance-enhancing drugs transcends the arena of baseball like no other method of gaining a sporting advantage; it is an ethical issue, a moral issue, an issue which can impact the health, lives, and psyche of a whole generation.

I do not profess to have all the answers. Whilst I still see Roger Maris as the single-season home run king, and Henry Aaron as the rightful owner of sports greatest crown, the record books do not. I would like every at-bat of a proven steroid-abuser expunged from baseball history, not merely the at-bats from a certain 'juicing period.' Of course, this will never happen. I would like Major League Baseball to go far beyond an asterisk when attempting to rectify it's bloated record book. Even this merest wish will likely never occur. Therefore, I will be rooting for Chris Davis in the second half of the season, as we all would have been had the past twenty-five steroid-infected years of baseball never happened. I want him to break the true single season records, in a clean and admirable fashion.