The Final Season: A Necessary Arrogance

Padres 8 – Braves 2; Chip: 2-4

Yet another standing ovation for Chipper Jones today. Yet another opportunity for him to humbly step back from the plate and tip his hat to the cheering fans. He seems to be taking all the adoration in stride. He always speaks very modestly about it, emphasizing how grateful he is. It’s nice to see for me, as a fan, his behavior, because there was a time when, earlier in his career, I thought the arrogance of Chipper knew no bounds.

It was always obvious from the way he carried himself and the things he said to the media that he thought highly of himself. This was a kid, when he didn’t play, would say something like, ‘Of course I like our chances better if I’m in there.’ (My emphasis added.) And while he had a point, as he always brings a certain presence to their lineup, that just sounds cocky when you say it.

I remember at one point during his prolonged, multi-season slump, when fans were suggesting he should be bumped from the three-hole, he just brushed it off, actually saying that – while batting sub .250 –he gave the team the second best at bat in the lineup, behind Jason Heyward. I remember, at the time he said it, Brian McCann was on fire and Martin Prado was actually leading the National League in hitting. But, no, in Chipper’s mind, he was the second best AB in the lineup. When I read that, I was like, ‘Dude, come on. At least say something like, yeah, I know I’m struggling, but I still think I can contribute best in that spot. Don’t just declare you’re the second best when, statistically, you really aren’t.’

And while stuff like that bothers me a little, it also brings up an interesting question. We often shake our heads at athletes when they are so brash and think so highly of themselves, but isn’t that how they got where they are? Isn’t that a big part of it? I mean, athletic defeat can be crippling. And it is for most people. They make a mistake that costs their team the game, and they break down into tears like the Little League pitcher I saw this year that gave up the game winning homerun. True, he’s only 12, but still – he lost it. Hands on his head, tears streaming.

Do you think Chipper Jones ever, in his young life and in view of other people, broke down after messing up in a game? Maybe once, but more than that, I would put money on no. Do you think Michael Jordan cried when he got cut? I know it’s a cliché example, but that’s only because it’s so true. Did he start playing the tuba in the band instead (no offense to tuba players or band members). No, he tried harder.

And that’s what these guys do. They don’t accept defeat. If something doesn’t go their way, they think to themselves that everyone else is wrong about them, and they’re going to prove it. ‘You got a cheap hit off me, so I’m striking you out next time.’ And then inevitably they do, feeding they’re little ego. And we love them for that tenacity because that’s what makes them successful. (Just don’t verbalize it for me, because apparently it’s a turn off…. Sorry, kid, it doesn’t work that way.)

Chipper’s probably been told many times that he won’t be successful. Coming back from his first ACL tear for example, not to mention the other myriad of injuries later in his career, and he’s proven them wrong so many times that he’s stopped listening. He blows it off.

When it comes to baseball, he knows he’s awesome – because he is. And if he didn’t think he was awesome, he’d be the guy who had to get sent down to Triple A to get his confidence back. Chipper might have lost a step, but he’s never lost his confidence. And that’s a big part of why he’s been so successful. Brett Favre was crazy enough to think he can win at 41 in the NFL! If only he was. We blast Favre for coming back and his whole decision making promise, but then we cheer him. He’s still fun to watch play football.

I really am in this argument with just myself because it is I that has a problem here. I will still be turned off by verbal displays of arrogance, but then I’ll just remind myself that’s why they’re so good. And I’ll feel sorry for those players that don’t get it, so I’ll wish them well as they stays out of my team’s lineup.

The Final Season: Enough With The Stats

Braves 2 – Padres 0; CJ: 1-4, RBI (55)

So above you may have noticed I tend to post the score and Chipper Jones’ line score for that game. A nice, simple line score consisting of hits, runs, RBI, and the occasional homer. I also include walks, although I wasn’t sure whether or not they merited highlighting, but for a guy with Chip’s OBP, I thought they made sense.

I realize, however, I could include a lot more. So let’s talk baseball stats, if we may. Baseball stats are like no other stats in professional sports. First off, the sheer volume of them. There have got be if not over, then near, 100 different ways to measure a baseball player’s performance. WHIP’s and OPS and OBS and Slugging and Holds and Saves and ERA – and those are some of the more mainstream ones. I don’t even know the names of the other, more obscure ones.

The more obscure ones seem to be fairly recent, although I realize I could be wrong about this. I don’t really look too closely at stats because – well, I’ll get to that later. But it seems like every year people are coming up with a new metric to evaluate a player. Thanks a lot Billy Beane, aka the General Manager of the Oakland A’s who is often credited with introducing the baseball world to Sabremetrics, or the mathematical valuation of a player’s contribution to his team’s ability to win.

Sabremetrics is supposed to be a way to analyze a player objectively, to put together a set of numbers to compare him to other players so a GM can tell what is value is. This takes away the age-old ‘gut feeling’ evaluation method. You know the one: ‘I like that guy. He just looks like a ballplayer. Let’s sign him.’ Nope. Now it’s, ‘I like that guy, but according to his metrics he only ranks in the bottom third in his ability to drive in game winning runs on a Sunday afternoon when it’s raining – I think we can get better.’ Okay, that’s not an actual stat, or at least I hope it’s not, but I bet something like it exists. (Of course, if it doesn’t, you can go to any baseball stats website and find out.)

The term Sabremetrices, by the by, comes from the acronym SABR, which stands for Society for American Baseball Research, and Billy Beane, along with the nerds out there that love baseball, worked to develop SABR’s statistics into a way to track almost every aspect of a players performance, including ways to numerically evaluate a players performance defensively. Not just, can he catch, but how often does he catch easy balls, hard balls, harder balls? And is he covering the right amount of ground for someone his age? When the ball is hit, how long does it take him to react? I mean, everything. And organizations like SABR have annual conferences where they come up with even more statistics. It’s really crazy.

Now, I’ve worked for a company that loved to run metrics on every aspect of employee’s performance, so I tend to believe such stats can be misleading, and frustrating to have pushed upon you. And I was consistently graded as ‘solid,’ if you will, lest you think my motives impure.

Really, I just believe in something called ‘intangibles,’ or things you just can’t measure, like a guy’s ability to keep a team having fun and loose. Does he produce a lot of runs? Maybe not, but is he a good teammate and does he help the team win other ways? Now quantify that. Another example is a guy’s ability to help his teammates or get the most out of them. I do believe in these things. Teams need chemistry building elements and that’s part of the reason I don’t like statistics.

Now, I think I’ve mentioned how I do like baseball statistics for the purpose of tracking the game over time. How you can use something like batting average to tie a string through the history of the sport, connecting everyone that’s ever played. Every baseball player that ever picked up a bat had a batting average, so instantly, in theory, you can know where he stacks up.

But to do that, I think you only need the basic stats. ERA, BA, HR, RBI, W, L. Those will connect everyone just fine. That’s a core group of stats that I believe exist outside all these newer, fancier, more complex stats. The ones that have existed almost as long as the game has. And those are the only ones, in my opinion, that are really worth knowing.

I mean, I just don’t know why you need to know how many walks plus how many hits a guy gives up in the innings he’s pitched. (WHIP) At the end of the day, if he’s winning, he’s winning. If he happens to let a lot of guys walk or get hits while he’s doing it, so be it.

And that gets to the main reason of why I don’t much like stats. Because you can’t predict sports. I know I’ve said this before and elaborated on it, so I won’t go much into again, but I feel like stats are trying to do this. They’re trying to tell you who’s going to win or lose and who’s going to do well or badly. And just because a guy gives up a lot of walks normally and is pitching out of trouble a lot, doesn’t mean he can’t walk out to the mound one day and walk only one guy.

You might say, sure, but that performance is a fluke. His WHIP tells us in his next start he’ll likely give up a lot of walks. Ok, Nostradamus. You stick with your stats because I don’t try to predict sports. I prefer to just watch and let them happen and enjoy them when they do. Whether the outcome plays into the hands of the statistics, I don’t care.

The Final Season: Band o’ Brothers

Padres 3 – Braves 0; CJ: 0-3, BB

You know what I’ve always found appealing about being on a baseball team, or any team, for that matter? The camaraderie. The closeness the environment seems to create. Baseball players describe it as wanting to play well not for themselves but for their teammates. When they do something bad, they feel like they’ve let their team done. Do something well, it’s all about being able to make their teammates happy.

Makes sense for a group of people that claim to be as close as family. Well, one hopes they can get close and not want to kill each other, so maybe become best friends instead of family. I would imagine, with the ups and downs of baseball, the more laughing teammates can do helps them enjoy their job more. I suppose that’s true for all of us, though. Having fun-loving coworkers helps. I mean, do you have many coworkers you’d like to spend 6 out of 7 days a week with, if not more? Some maybe, but for most, I bet those two days break are necessary.

Anyway, I digress. Back to teammates. The idea of a group of people having your back. The idea of being a unit. That together you can do more than if you were individuals. That’s a pretty cool feeling and not one that I think there are many opportunities where you can experience it. I know I’ve never truly felt it. I’ve been a part of a team before but never one that was bonded together like that. (Maybe, though, that’s because I was a tennis player, and you don’t quite get it in team tennis.) I had moments, but not that full blown, band-of-brothers feeling where I wanted someone else to do better than me and truly meant it.

It’s also got to be freeing, to a certain extent. If you make a mistake, someone else will pick you up. That opens you up to push yourself to the limits a bit more. Meanwhile, other people want to push it for you. And want you to succeed. That’s cool. When a team is ‘firing on all cylinders’ as they say, I imagine a certain feeling of invincibility comes over you. No one can mess with us. And if someone tries, we’re going to get them and make them remember the day they tried so they never do it again. I understand all that, just never experienced it.

A unit. A group of people together as one entity. Sounds like something I or any other person would like to experience. A sense of belonging. Being needed. Being depended upon. I think it’s part of the human condition, a natural human tendency.

And I don’t think it comes automatically. Just because you put a bunch of guys in a small locker room together doesn’t make them a team, doesn’t guarantee they’re going to get that feeling that they want to lay it on the line for the guy next to them. That kind of team ‘chemistry’ can be elusive, yet it’s so necessary. And it seems like teams either have it from early on, or they never get it. Doesn’t seem like something that develops slowly over time. And you tend to tell which teams have it or don’t. It’s not just that they’re laughing and joking in the dugout, or their playing loose. It can be, simply, whether or not they’re winning, for all the reasons I’ve listed above. Teams that kind along and like each tend to win more. So, as they say, if you could only figure out how to bottle it.

The Final Season: What If?

Atlanta 7 – San Francisco 1; CJ: 0-1

Chipper Jones didn’t play today. His oblique muscle’s hurting him, I guess. Oh well. It happens, even when the number of games left is quickly dwindling. So, who played for him? Juan Francisco, who has been playing for him most of the year. And how’d he do? Alright. He had one hit and one walk. Oh, and that one hit was a massive solo homerun to centerfield.

I can’t help, whenever someone plays – or pinch hits – in Chipper’s place and does something huge or impressive, to play the ‘what if’ game. What if Chip had been playing and was up in that exact spot? Would he have hit a bomb, too? Of course, if Chip had played, he probably wouldn’t have been hitting in the seventh spot, and I imagine Tim Lincecum has different pitches he likes to throw Chip versus Juan, but maybe not. Still, what if?

The best Chipper ‘what if’ happened in a game I’ve already talked about (Amazing Comebacks), that huge comeback in the bottom of the ninth to beat Cincinatti. That was the game Brooks Conrad hit a game winning grand slam while hitting in the three hole. He wasn’t directly pinch hitting for Chipper, but he was in his spot. Chipper has been taken out as part of a double switch earlier in that game, back when a comeback of that magnitude seemed beyond unlikely.

At the time, I had to wonder, though, if Chipper was still in, does he hit that grand slam? They’re both switch hitters, Brooks and Chip, so Chipper would’ve been up on the same side of the plate. Conrad got a pitch up, which Chip (along with many other ballplayers) hits well. It was during one of his off years, though, so maybe not. Maybe he misses it. Or maybe he doesn’t get that pitch because of who he is. Maybe he walks, as he is prone to do in tight situations like that. But at the time, I liked thinking that Chipper would have done the same thing.

Oh well, doesn’t matter, because, at the end of the day, the second-guessing game just isn’t worth it, is it? If you let them, the ‘what ifs’ can drive you nuts, particulary when it comes to sports. What if Colt McCoy hadn’t gotten hurt early in the National Championship game a couple years ago? What if Mark Wohlers doesn’t throw a breaking pitch in 1996 to Jim Leyritz? ‘What ifs’ – they’re brutal. And pointless. In sports, there are just way too many variables to be considered. Not worth it. It just is what it is.

But it’s not like the knowledge of that will ever stop me from considering them.

The Final Season: One of My Many Trips to Houston

Atlanta 7 – San Francisco 3; CJ: DNP

One of my good, good friends celebrated a birthday this week. Nothing major. It wasn’t a milestone 21 or 30 or 50 or anything like that, but we had a lot of fun celebrating it. She’s the kind of friend that will support you through any endeavor, which, when talking about me, means she voluntary goes to a lot of baseball games with me. And I don’t think she really likes baseball. She just goes because I want to. Great friend.

We also have a similar quirky, silly – stupid, really – sense of humor, and we share a love of movies. Good movies. The kind that win awards. The ones that tell the stories that, in my opinion, are the only ones worth watching. And we also get along great because she lives in Houston, TX, so there’s actually a baseball team to see when I visit. And it seems like, every time I do visit, that’s what we do (barring the offseason, of course.) Keeps our friendship going.

One of my best trips to a baseball game with her happened a couple years ago. I remember I drove into Houston a couple days before the game to hang out with her. I made it a point to go to this game and series because, at the time, I was thinking it was possibly the last opportunity I’d have to see Chipper Jones play in person. And my friend, while making endless fun of me for my continued devotion to an aging ballplayer that’s really only a phantom of himself, has supported me.

True story, when I go to visit her, I actually sleep in her closet. No joke. The thing his huge. Seriously the biggest closet I’ve ever seen. Yet, she doesn’t have much to go into it. She’s not much of a clothes girl. So I take a sleeping bag and some blankets and set-up shop in her closet. That way, when she gets ready to leave for work, she doesn’t bother me. It works out well. Seriously.

Anyway, so back to this game. She and I, along with three other people, all went to the game together. As for our seats, they were pretty poor. That plan that night was to, for whatever reason, buy the cheapest tickets we could and then sneak down into the lower areas. Only, this isn’t the 70’s or 80’s anymore, when people were more laid back about that stuff. The people that guard the entrances to the different sections are on the lookout big time for that stuff. And they’re tough about it.

So the plan failed miserably. We weren’t able to move down closer to the field. Instead, we sat in the row, no joke, directly in front of the very back row of the upper deck. This is the section that kids go to play in. Literally, we’re sitting there and some kids are playing tag in the empty section next to us.

I was a little disappointed, but it didn’t bother me that much because I knew I was going to the next game, just my friend and me, and that I would buy the seats and make sure they were good.

So that night, I just sat back, watched a game, enjoyed the conversation around me, and took it all in. Now Minute Maid Park, or the ‘Juice Box’ as it’s known to the fans, is a decent park. It’s new, replacing the old, iconic Astrodome, and it’s in the center of downtown, so it’s built on a square piece of land they could carve out of the city’s grid pattern, making it really look like a box. Just like all the new, old-style parks, it’s got seats right on the field, with iron-work all around. And it does have a retractable roof, which is nice.

But I guess my problem with it is, it seems to lack personality. It doesn’t grab me like going into Arlington or even the Ted. I don’t like the color scheme – aquamarine ironwork with beige painted concrete. And I don’t feel I’m any place unique. Maybe it’s just because it’s replacing the Astrodome. Now that place had personality, whether you liked it or not. And Minute Maid seems to lack something.

But it’s really nice, so don’t get me wrong. And I had a great time at this game. It’s too bad the Braves lost, but I’ll take a loss in person over a win on TV any day of the week. Really I would. Because the smells, the sounds, the sights – the things you don’t get on TV – are all worth every penny. (Which for that particular game, I remember, wasn’t a lot of pennies, but you get the idea.) But at the time it was all good because tomorrow was another day.

The Final Season: Hurry Up and Wait

San Francisco 5 – Atlanta 3; CJ: 0-4

Eric Hinske got the start tonight in leftfield. He doesn’t play much as a reserve player, but manager Fredi Gonalez said he wanted to get some more at bats to try and help him get his offensive production going. Well, that’s fine and all, except, since he doesn’t play much, he also doesn’t play defense much and, well, it showed tonight. He made a couple bad plays out there that directly led to Giants’ runs.

And I want to be angry with him, but I can’t. I mean, the life of a ‘role’ player has to be a tough one. It’s not his fault he doesn’t get out there that often to take his reps in the field. So he’s rusty on defense, and at the plate. I can see how it happens. All those guys that have to be ready to play, yet never know when that will happen, it’s got to be challenging.

Take David Ross. He plays the role of “back-up catcher” in this season’s drama, backing up Brian McCann, so really he sees as little playing time as Fredi can manage for him. Yet, once a week, week and half, minus a McCann injury, he’s going to get in, and he has to be ready whether he knows he’s playing or not.

I know all the players say that’s what they do anyway – “come to the park, ready to play.” But do you know how hard that is to do? Put yourself in their shoes. Picture you show up for work everyday, but for the most part, you just sit there doing nothing. Might sound nice at first, but after a while, it’s got to get boring. And it’s not like you can leave to go do your own thing. You have to sit there and wait because you don’t know when you’ll be asked or be needed to actually do your job.

But don’t worry, every day you get to take a couple passes at your job – the reports you have to fill out, the calls you have to make, the meetings you have to attend – but imagine none of them are real. You’re just practicing, practicing on fake reports, sitting in on fake meetings, just to keep yourself ready in case you’re needed in an actual meeting.

Now imagine you do this nine out of ten days, just show up and do a “practice” job. (And if you’re reading this and relishing the thought, get a new job.) You try to show up and give it 100% at your “practice” meetings, but you know in the back of your mind there is only a 10% chance you get asked to participate in the real meeting or fill out the real report. Would your preparation maybe start to falter? Would you maybe not take the “practice” meeting that serious? Maybe half a#$ your fake report? I mean, it’s fake after all. But then on that 10th day, or 11th or 13th or 20th, your boss says, ‘I need you. And not only do I need you, but I need you in this meeting with our most important client and the majority of our 4th quarter revenue hangs in the balance.’ Would you be ready after days of half-assing it? Maybe you would. Maybe you have that level of discipline and commitment. I would venture most people, however, do not and that they would strikeout in the big meeting.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Ross or Hinske don’t give 100% during practice. They’re professionals and have reached the pinnacle of their sport for a reason. I’m just saying I can’t fault them when they get in the game and their performance isn’t up to the level of those that play every day. I guess I don’t believe practice makes perfect. Playing and doing the task at hand makes perfect.

So a big, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it’ to Hinske. Maybe next time you can make it count when it matters most. Otherwise, keep practicing your fake at bats and fly balls.

The Final Season: The Baseball Odyssey

Gianst 5 – Braves 2; CJ: 1-3, R, BB

So, I’ve noticed this baseball related trend, but it’s a little pretentious. Okay, it’s a lot pretentious, but I’ll share it with you anyway. If I was to segment the people in my life into categories, there seems to be one category where the percentage of people that love baseball would be significantly higher than any other category. The category: my writer friends.

I think, compared to the rest of the population, writers love baseball disproportionately more than other people. Seriously, it is uncanny how many writers I know that love baseball, but I have no hypothesis as to why that is. Maybe it’s because writers don’t mind wading through the minutiae, so to speak..

I know I do agree with the notion that it’s a thinking man’s (or wo-man’s) sport, so I also think a disproportionately large number of academics and heady folks love it as well. (And, yes, I am this pretentious normally.) I just had a good number of professors in college that were vocal about their baseball fandom.

Like I said, I don’t have a theory, but I have one possible explanation. I had a teacher, my 11th grade English teacher, that loved baseball. When she explained to me why, she said she loved it because she saw it is a metaphor for the great eternal battle to be “safe at home.” To her, it was a microcosm of the journey we’re all on to get to where we belong and that to get there we will have to overcome certain obstacles and challenges. And, in order to overcome those obstacles, we’ll usually have to take them on one at a time, as we take life one step at a time (or one base). Not to mention, she added, there would be those around us that would get in our way and even try to stop us. She compared it, and I think rightly so, to Homer’s The Odyssey.

And I would agree with that. It is an epic battle, a chess match. One says, ‘I want to get you out’ while the other says, ‘I want to get on base and pass this first obstacle.’ And only one will win that battle, with each trying to out think the other to know what to throw or what is being thrown. And sometimes it just comes down to brute force. Here’s my best pitch, see if you can hit it. Many, many opportunities there for the sport to mirror life.

Now, I don’t think that’s the reason most writers or academics or people in general like baseball. The example I was referring to was how I think people can project whatever meaning they want onto the game. (And it moves so slow, you can’t help but think about it.) It can be poetic. Brutal. Aggressive. Deceptive. It can be complex or it can be simple. I love the idea of baseball as visual representation of The Odyssey as much as I love this great quote from Bull Durham: “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch ball, you the ball.” And that’s so true.

So, in short, I suppose that’s my theory as to why writers love baseball. In many ways, it’s a slow moving, blank canvas that us internalizers can have fun projecting onto.