Monday, May 18, 2020

Basketball player DESTROYS the New York Knicks for Ten Hours



There is no universe where a Michael Jordan documentary can provide a searching, searing take on the Legend of Michael Jordan that involves the participation of Jordan and his various representatives and phalanxes of brand protectors; without them and their own ability to shape the narrative Jordan does not agree to allow the use of archival footage and appear on camera with fuchsia eyeballs to say fuck and cackle derisively at his vanquished foes presented to him on iPads like platters bearing the heads of slain enemy generals. 



While I understand frustration with The Last Dance for anyone looking for anything beyond a glossy advertorial for the master Michael Jordan narrative, I enjoyed it because I am a Bulls fan who grew up watching Michael Jordan, imbibed all of the swirling Jordanian lore, and reveled in him destroying his-- and by extension my-- basketball enemies, and did not mind reliving this for ten hours during a sports-ending pandemic.  Perhaps those who don't have Proustian sense memories of the very Baker's Square where B.J. Armstrong tried to get Jordan to come back from his baseball hiatus or the traffic-stopping Rodman billboard on the Kennedy or the McDonald's Beef Wennington or the soothing existence of the phrase "The JCC Presents Jud Buechler's Basketball Camp" can look at the documentary and demand that corporate behemoth ESPN put together a thoughtful critique on the greatest meal ticket in sports history with intricate financial ties to the network, but for Jordan delighting in the various times he made Pat Riley angry with a few fucks and sometimes shits thrown in was entertaining enough.

The Jordan story that they tell is the one everyone already knows: Michael Jordan is an insane, competitive monomaniac who blazed a trail of destruction through the National Basketball Association off of a deranged obsession with real and imagined slights who wins and wins until stopped by an avaricious owner and his chief henchman who would get rid of him and finally get to shape their vision of the Bulls as cheap and shitty and run exclusively by people with oddly-shaped heads. 

If a filmmaker is going to involve Michael Jordan in a Michael Jordan documentary, then Jordan will get to tell the story he wants, and the way he likes to tell it is as a vanquishing of enemies and redressing of grievances.  And while it is exhausting for a person who won all of the time to constantly harp on the people whom he has already stomped upon-- his deranged Basketball Hall of Fame Speech remains the purest strain of Jordan ever released into the wild-- Jordan had the benefit of collecting hideous enemies.  Consider his nemeses: the revolting Bad Boy Pistons, Pat Riley's blackjack and knuckle-duster Knicks, Utah's vile penis-punching operation led by the odious Karl Malone.  One of the funniest things to come from this documentary was a week of sputtering Isiah Thomas television appearances to defend his honor after Jordan and a legion of former Bulls had an unprecedented national spotlight that they all used to shit on him.  To be fair to Isiah Thomas, the admittedly funny walkout after the '91 Eastern Conference Finals is probably the least disgusting Isiah Thomas scandal.

The vaunted behind-the-scenes footage amplifies what most viewers already knew about Jordan.  Anyone who wanted to see footage of a legendary Jordan roasting session has minutes of new insults inveighed against Jerry Krause for being unkempt and roly-poly and Scott Burrell for being worse at basketball than Michael Jordan.  There's Jordan the gambler matching up with the unexpected breakout star of The Last Dance, a mustachioed perm-mullet security guard who took a twenty off Jordan in a game where they threw coins at a wall in the bowels of the United Center.  The new footage largely shows Jordan swaggering into a locker room, exchanging some mildly amusing and vaguely hostile banter at teammates and staffers forced to sort of chuckle through it, and then going into the arena to humiliate Patrick Ewing.



The central question I have for anyone looking for something more from Jordan in The Last Dance is what if there's nothing else there?  What if the way that Jordan presents himself as a relentless, berzerk competitor righting an unending number of imagined wrongs by beating someone at basketball at a time where he had the muscle of bazillion-dollar corporations to make him transcendently famous and sell him to the entire world is in fact how he sees himself and there exists the sum total of what Michael Jordan is able to tell us about being Michael Jordan? 

I'm not sure what additional depths of Michael Jordan still exist to plumb.  Jordan was incredible at basketball through a combination of athleticism, skill, and ludicrous obsession.  He is also petty, vindictive, obsessed with gambling, and an asshole.  There are, I am sure, more horrid examples of his bullying that Jordan or the dozens of producers involved with this kept out of the documentary-- insults that would result in his immediate cancellation, sordid gambling anecdotes, an admission that he was actually part of the infamous "cocaine circus"-- that would not tell us anything more than the internet's various Codices of Michael Jordan Insults that have been floating around for 30 years.  How much more vicious do we need to see Jordan in rare footage to get the point that we get from a Jud Buechler talking head where he tells us that he was terrified of him?

 
I was not expecting Buechler to transform into Artie, the Strongest Man in the World

The only time Jordan shows emotion other than suppressed rage, delight at having vanquished someone, or derision while staring at an iPad interview is when he gets choked up at the thought that everyone thought he was an asshole.  But even here, Jordan doesn't seem to show remorse for ceaselessly calling his teammates "twenty-one feet of shit," but frustration that no one seems to understand that he only insulted people because he wanted to win.  Jordan cannot fathom anyone not getting that the Bulls could not win a title unless he mentally broke Will Perdue.

There still remain compelling Jordan mysteries.  There is the question of Jordan's sudden retirement and attempted baseball career that, even throwing aside conspiracy theories about a secret suspension, still keep me wondering why even the potent cocktail of grief at his father's sudden, senseless murder, a growing gambling scandal, and the ever-present pressure of being the most famous athlete in the world that could understandably get him to retire nevertheless manifested in him joining another sporting concern that would lead to unending scrutiny, failure, and ridicule.  There is the question of whatever was gnawing at him from the insides to get him to invent insults from LaBradford Smith.  The documentary does not even touch on latter-day Jordan from his Wizards career to a comically disastrous run as an executive and team owner who keeps drafting various versions of Frank Kaminsky.

The most compelling Jordan question, though, is the overarching riddle of what it is like to be Michael Jordan, to achieve a level of success and fame that most people will never approach, to attract massive crowds and people for whom a single glimpse of Jordan could provoke a religious reaction.  To Jordan, it appeared to be a crushing burden, the price of his desire to dominate his rivals on the basketball court and then sell more shoes than them, one where a step outside of a controlled zone meant crowds of people who all wanted something from him and recorded his every move.  It seems strange and awful.  Does this interest Jordan?  Is there a human being alive who can wring insight into this bizarre life out of him?  Because what seems to interest him more than anything in the world where he has reached a zenith of fame achieved by few people in the history of human civilization is discovering whether Antonio Davis said something to him that he could use to work himself into a frenzy.

Maybe The Last Dance is the most interesting portrait of Michael Jordan that he is ever willing or able to tell.  And in that case, maybe the only way to understand him is like Magic Johnson telling a Jordan anecdote. One time someone told Jordan he could beat him at basketball. And Jordan said uh uh I'm gonna beat you at basketball.  And then he did.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The NFL Draft Reaches Its Deranged Apotheosis in Roger Goodell's Rumpus Room

The NFL Draft is already the most absurd spectacle on television, a slurry of brands and military hardware and grim self-serious analysts solemnly intoning that a player has tremendous instincts and sideline-to-sideline speed but might not have the SIZE and LENGTH to contribute right away in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, but the fact that we are all sealed in our homes during a terrifying pandemic meant that NFL was going to reach operatic heights of absurdity.

For weeks leading up to the draft, we had heard about the technical challenges.  There have been stories about how GMs are converting their houses into Draft War Rooms, installing nuclear submarine defense infrastructure to their suburban mansions and complaining about the possibility of rogue cells waging Cyberwar against their zoom conference calls even though, as far as I can tell, the entire infrastructure of drafting involves being able to pick a name off a list and make a few phone calls.

The WNBA had done its draft with few hiccups a few weeks earlier, and everything had more or less worked out.  The show cut between commissioner Cathy Engelbert, a small ESPN crew of analysts, draft picks in their homes, and reporter Holly Rowe interviewing them.  There were a few glitches-- several draft picks had not been told to mute their televisions or use headphones so we got the classic sports radio situation of needing someone to scream "you gotta turn down your radio" at a person although these are professional athletes and not a mustache guy in the middle of proposing a baroque series of trades to reacquire Robby Gould, but watching the players at home celebrating with their families was very charming.  The NFL saw this and decided to brand its version a Virtual Draft; the GM of the Detroit Lions made his IT guy live in a Winnebago outside his house in case some villainous hackers decided to break into the Lions' mainframe and gain the incredible draft intelligence that the Lions were targeting shitty football players.

The NFL draft included a solemn introduction from Roger Goodell who wanted to talk about These Uncertain Times.  Goodell lives for this.  He seems to see the NFL as the nexus of brands and a nebulous form of American patriotism involving tanks, and the solution to every crisis is a sluice of ads showing concern over triumphant piano music.  Goodell's ideal response to a global catastrophe would be to fuse members of the military into exoskeletons made from the Official Pickup Truck of the NFL to shoot at the virus with laser guns while Domino's Pizza solemnly remembers the fallen.  They started the draft with a performance of the National Anthem and then cut to a TV monitor full of people who had painted their faces to look like footballs.

Goodell, standing in a rumpus room decorated with carefully curated knickknacks, was not up to the task of whatever he was trying to accomplish. His wooden bearing reminded me of the famously cadaverous Chicago-area lawyer Peter Francis Geraci who has been haunting UHF airwaves since the mid-1980s or a hapless Vice President of Ketchups thanking the Sun Belt Conference for participating in the Amalgamated Condiments Bowl.  His face was red as a sockeye salmon. He later changed into a sweater and then, on day two, managed to slip into a focus-grouped easy chair.  The whole setup reminded me of one of those Sally Struthers correspondence school infomercials. 

The business of the draft itself remained hilariously mundane.  This is because the essence of the draft remains a televised list reading.  In many ways, the virtual draft served as a more normal televised event than usual because most of the insane spectacle of the draft involved packing thousands of people into a Bud Light Draft Zone where they can stand in line to do the drill where you have to run through tires with your KNEES UP DAMMIT or to don jerseys and scream at picks that they have absolutely never heard of before Goodell would come out flanked by another group of military personnel.  

Some of the weirdest parts of the draft involved attempts to awkwardly recreate the live experience.  Goodell invited fans to boo him via zoom.  Before every pick, Goodell would bring up a small smorgasbord of teleconferenced fans in full team regalia to cheer the picks while he goaded them in a  manner that can best be described as executively.  The fans were barely visible and audible; even though ESPN has rebranded as the network that lets Michael Jordan say "fuck" or even Scottie Pippen, it is not going to let some guy in an elaborate, homemade Los Angeles Rams headpiece bellow one out on national television in front of you, the Commissioner of the National Football League, and God.

The other change from the draft is that it brought us inside the homes of NFL coaches and general managers and dozens of draft picks. This provided us with several shots of goatee guys in team-branded apparel doing some action packed texting in carefully-prepared draft areas where they could ostentatiously display as-told-to books by football players on Leadership or revel in Kliff Kingsbury's palatial opulence, or even cut to Mike Vrabel allowing his rowdy, mulleted sons to operate a carnival of the bizarre in the background.  ESPN's analysts also set up at home except for Mel Kiper, who appeared to have transported himself into a 1990s CD-ROM game.

The draft's attempt to straddle the line between bone-crunchin' football action and solemn discussions of the global pandemic and concurrent economic crash was handled in the same ridiculous and ham-handed way that the NFL's constant forays into doing anything but talking about football and the same ludicrous ways that corporations are maneuvering to continue selling things.  Every few minutes, the draft would give way to a series of identical commercials about These Uncertain Times; the eerie repetition of that refrain and the attempts by Taco Bell to show resilient heroes grasping their taco boxes has put us all into a George Saunders short story.

And yet, in its own moronic way, the NFL draft did provide a useful service this weekend.  Along with ESPN's Bulls documentary, the draft served as a vaguely sports adjacent thing to put onto television that millions of people would be watching and you could follow along and make dumb jokes with all of the other people who like to do the same thing on the internet, and if that meant having to endure a quavering Goodell invoking The Power of America and Specifically Football In These Uncertain Times and to watch as the Bears picked a Notre Dame Guy and no one took anyone from Northwestern then so be it.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Review of GarPax's Most Infernal Intrigues and Bone-Crunching Physical Assualts

Sports may be shut down, arenas may be empty, and the entire world might be on quarantine, but that will not stop the intrigue gears from spinning at Bulls Headquarters.  One of the only meaningful pieces of sports news-- that is to say sports news divorced from the pandemic and the eternal question of when sports will start up, whether billionaire owners will deign to pay stadium support staff, and what sorts of choreographed line dances professional athletes are tik toking in their estates-- is that the Bulls, in a seemingly impossible coup, have hired a new front office.  They brought in Denver GM Arturas Karnisovas as Vice President of Basketball Operations, sidelined John Paxson into a reportedly salaried position to sort of hang out, and finally hurled Gar Forman into a crevasse in the crust of the earth.

This being the Bulls, reporting has suggested that the change came from Paxson.  Only on the Bulls can change come from an executive finally deciding to scheme against the only opponent strong enough to beat Paxson in a bureaucratic battle-- himself.

There have been millions of words by aggrieved Bulls fans written on the internet about the Paxson and Forman years, but while it is important to lament the various Doug McDermott trades throughout the years, I'm more drawn to the atmosphere of paranoia and dread surrounding the organization as it retreated further into a sclerotic decline that led to people screaming FIRE GARPAX at Stephen A. Smith as he attempted to interview Zach LaVine.  So, here are some episodes and vignettes as a review of the Garpax era.

Randy Brown's Espionage Cell Activated to Pass Crucial Intelligence About Fred Hoiberg

"Gar has never come to me and said, 'Hey, Randy, I want you to be a spy in Fred Hoiberg's locker room.' That doesn't even sound right. Gar and Pax (executive vice president John Paxson) would never ask me to do that. And Fred Hoiberg knows that." Randy Brown to the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 4, 2017.

Rumors circulated among allegations from Jimmy Butler and somehow Rip Hamilton that assistant coach and former Jordan-era Bull Randy Brown was a spy in the locker room for Gar Forman, who recruited him to play for New Mexico in the 1980s.  These players accused Brown of discussing the inevitably complicated Bulls locker room politics to Forman and, we can assume, strategically hiding in lockers, using DNA from discarded towels to have facial reconstruction surgery when he needed to disguise himself as Jerian Grant, locking himself in the trunk of Robin Lopez's car in order to compile a dossier of rides he likes at Six Flags Great America, and doing "wet work" when it was necessary to destroy one of Paul Zipser's knees because he had badmouthed Forman in a German-language newspaper not understanding the reach of Forman's network on the Continent.

Many basketball teams have had fucked up, dysfunctional locker rooms.  Few have approached the truly operatic feuding between various camps of players, coaches, and the omnipresent front office than the Three Alphas Era Bulls that resembled the feuding component states of the Holy Roman Empire.  But there are also few teams that have had so many allegations of spying from the front office; this is not even my favorite or funniest incidence of alleged espionage from the Bulls.

Everyone involved has denied these allegations, but I just want anyone reading this to think about Gar Forman, dressed like a German walk signal, silently passing papers to undercover basketball operatives at the United Center-adjacent Billy Goat Tavern while saying cryptic passwords like "it feels like spring so often for one week in February" that tell the person to compile a detailed report on whether Fred Hoiberg is getting through to Denzel Valentine.

Bulls Players Open Roaring, Grunting, Shaking Shipping Crate, Unleash Jim Boylen

The Bulls fired Fred Hoiberg and then, arriving from a secure basketball coaching facility, was a flesh-skulled maniac wailing and gnashing its teeth and demanding wind sprints.  Boylen had been on Hoiberg's staff and had won a championship as one of Gregg Popovich's assistants, but I don't think anyone had seen this coming, this surreal mutant gym teacher taking over the Bulls and immediately wreaking so much havoc that the players needed to form a bureaucratic structure for Corporate Governance in an attempt to shield themselves from him.

Jim Boylen has to be one of the funniest coaches in NBA history.  I have often written about sports coaching as a position bereft of dignity-- it is difficult for someone to become a gris eminence when there are hundreds of hours of footage of that person screaming at officials, throwing clipboards, sniping at beat reporters, and sweating through the suits that they have to wear for some reason; the price that coaches pay for exorbitant salaries and fame is that they are some of the few people whose apoplexy gets captured repeatedly by cameras, and they also are constantly subjected to having Stan from Glen Elyn call into sports talk radio every day and talk about how incompetent they are while trying not to get into an accident on the Eisenhower Expressway.  But Boylen has done himself no favors-- he comes across as an oaf, a boob, a strange maniac who regardless of his knowledge about basketball has seemed to also be a person who has no idea how to connect with people, handle the press, or exist in a human society that is not solving problems with through a ritual combat by dodgeball.


That's when the attack comes SWISH from the sides from the two 
other Jim Boylens you didn't even know were there

The uncertainty around the NBA and sports leagues in general in the midst of this pandemic has made Boylen's job status unclear.  There might not be a point to firing a coach while there are no games being played and while his job duties are probably teleconferencing with players with his bulbous head filling up a zoom window while screaming at them about how he's "jacked up" to see them doing pushups on Instagram or whatever.  But we can assume that Boylen cannot be long for the Bulls and while hiring a more competent and palatable maniac will be better for the team, we will all be losing out on his press conferences, bizarre quotes, and his weird and infuriating time outs at the end of games the Bulls have no chance of winning that have nearly caused altercations.

The Bulls also in the past had also elevated an interim coach named "Jim Boylan" who was an entirely different person and this has nothing to do with the previous paragraphs but it blows my mind every time I think about it.

The Bulls Send Luol Deng for a Recreational Spinal Tap

Sports fans have a tendency to blame their team's medical staffs for rashes of injuries, and this is not always fair.  Most fans are not physicians or professional sports trainers and have no idea what teams are or are not doing to prevent and treat injuries. Many injuries are the result of the fact that sports asks athletes to make insane and unnatural demands on their bodies and, in basketball, players are constantly jumping, landing, and getting bashed in the sternum by either Dale or Antonio Davis. 

But in some cases team's medical staffs can make mistakes that are clear and disastrous, and that would be the time that the Chicago Bulls sent Luol Deng to get an unnecessary spinal tap that could have killed him in 2013.  Deng had been complaining about flu-like symptoms.  Bulls doctors diagnosed him with meningitis and sent him to the hospital for the procedure, which developed complications including leaking spinal fluid.  Deng lost fifteen pounds in a few days and was beset with intense headaches.  The Bulls listed him as out with "flu-like symptoms."

No one here is arguing that the Bulls deliberately sent Deng into a dangerous medical situation but the Bulls front office touch was to do so in the midst of an atmosphere of downplaying injuries and illnesses.  Here is how one anonymous Bulls staffer put it in a scouting report quoted in this ESPN article from 2013:


Luol called me and told me he was really sick and had to go to the hospital. This was when we were in Miami in the playoffs ... soon after I get off the phone with Luol (redacted) play, that he's on his way to Miami. I told Thibs there is no way, he's on his way to the hospital, it was a bad situation. He blamed the team and they put pressure on him to play when he was seriously sick.

The article also mentions the entire incident happened in the context of the Bulls pressuring Deng to put off surgery to an injured wrist in the previous season.  The entire thing also happened in the maelstrom of the front office's neverending war with Derrick Rose over whether or not he was ready to come back from his various catastrophic knee injuries that had reached a boiling point that spring, when the Bulls believed Rose was ready to return and Rose decided to miss the rest of the season.  The Bulls and Rose feuded in the newspapers for awhile, and the relationship between the team and Rose soured while Bulls players questioned the organization's commitment to their health or grinding away to heroic second-round playoff exits.

 Tom Thibodeau's Staff Enacts the Moscow Rules

The thing I most appreciate about the GarPax area is their dedication to general Cold War tradecraft.  NBA teams have traditional folkways of dysfunction: feuding with players, undermining coaches in the press, or even exploring the avant garde ends of dysfunction like the time Mark Jackson attempted a bizarre process of psychologically torturing Festus Ezeli.  The Bulls, though, made this into an art.  The Bulls were running agents and, in my favorite GarPax allegation originally made by Adrian Wojnarowski, bugging offices.  Woj claimed that Bulls personnel were employing the classic tactic of running electric fans as white noise because they feared that Forman was listening to their phone conversations. 

I should note that there is no evidence that anyone bugged the offices.  There is also no evidence that Gar Forman drove a van marked Bannockburn Utility Landscape and Lawn Sculpture around the practice facility for surveillance purposes or cut off trade talks saying "not now I'm in the van."  No allegations have at this time surfaced of Bulls players using yellow chalk in a telling location over Kirk Hinrich's garage to announce a secret meeting or attempts to spirit away Ron Adams over the Glienicke bridge.

John Paxson Tries to Murder Vinny Del Negro Over Joakim Noah's Minutes

The delicate interplay of player usage, injuries, and toughness has become a hot-button issue in the NBA in recent years as teams have increasingly rested players, come up with a semi-scientific term that Sloan Sports people can use so they can say "load management" and pretend that it's an Analytic, and given Jeff Van Gundy something else to complain about, but nowhere in basketball did that play out as dramatically as the time that John Paxson attempted to shove his hand through Vinny Del Negro's chest in an argument about whether Joakim Noah was playing too many minutes.

Paxson has enjoyed recreationally feuding with his coaches.  Though he generally seems to prefer sniping at them in the press, undermining them, and then hiring a new one based on his criteria that all coaches must follow the eternal cycle of a Hair Guy giving way to a Bald Asshole, in this case he decided to showcase his Aggressive Shove Style of martial art.  Paxson then had Bulls assistants wheel out a table full of weapons while he gave Del Negro the option to either do a knife fight with their wrists tied together like in the Michael Jackson Beat It video or to dip their fists in glue and then in shards of glass before fighting to the death on the roof the Berto Center.  

Instead, Paxson holstered his fists and bided his time for a few weeks to fire Del Negro.  Within a couple seasons, he would be in an open war with Thibodeau, would fire his replacement Fred Hoiberg within a few seasons, and then hire Jim Boylen, an inept doofus who is the laughingstock of the NBA and whom Paxson seems to love.  Perhaps Boylen has already defeated him in combat.
 
ESPN will be airing a 10-hour documentary about the 1997-8 Bulls, another organization that was riven with dysfunction, conflict, and revolt among the front office, the players, and the coaching staff.  But in this case the conflicts came from a team that spent the 1990s as one of the most dominant teams at anything in my life; the conflict served as a dramatic undercurrent to all of the winning, destroying Karl Malone, Jordan referring to his centers as "twenty-one feet of shit," etc.  During the GarPax era, the Bulls got a few really good teams and a lot of years where the most compelling thing about the Bulls was the deranged bureaucratic infighting.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

BYCTOM 100*: Micah Owings

The Major Leagues will not be generating any new baseball for some time, which makes this an appropriate time to dip into Important Baseball Lore.  The most indispensable baseball writing this offseason for me as been Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100, where he rates his top 100 baseball players of all time and writes essays about each one, and I thought I should shamefully rip that off.  So here's the BYCTOM 100*, a series of essays not on the top 100 baseball players of all time, but of lesser heralded players that have floated through the ether of baseball, the players that David Roth refers to as Guys, the foundation of baseball itself that the giants of the sport can homer off of, do handshakes with, and occasionally get humiliated by because baseball is a weird and cruel game.  The asterisk is of course because there is no way I will do 100 of these, let's face it I'll be shocked if I do five.  If you have a suggestion for someone to be covered in BYCTOM 100*, please send it to me, and I'll consider it.
 

MICAH OWINGS


There is nothing that Rob Manfred likes more than going out onto the parapet of his Baseball Tower and issuing arbitrary rules edicts meant to chip away at the his apparent belief that people despise baseball and he must save it by mandating how teams use relief pitchers.  Under Manfred, the designated hitter is almost certain to disappear from the National League; with his propensity for proclaiming rules changes with almost no warning, the DH may actually have already gone and he has simply not gotten around to telling us yet because he is trying to figure out how to restart baseball in a series of Arizona Virus-Dome compounds that will eventually go dark and reemerge with Manfred proclaiming himself a prophet or deity while wearing an interesting robe.

No baseball rules debate has become more pointless and tedious than the eternal war over the designated hitter, and I have no wish to relitigate that battle.  Most people prefer the style their team plays and that they are used to, and anything beyond that is an aesthetic choice.  It is true that as a whole, most pitcher plate appearances amount to complete wastes of time, as close to an automatic out as exists in baseball, and the ability to predict the end of a rally because of pitcher is due up is one of baseball's most infuriating impending doom scenarios.  At the same time, the rare times a pitcher does anything at the plate constitute the most memorable and joyful experiences in baseball, and there are still fewer more enjoyable baseball archetypes for me than the pitcher who can hit a little.

The patron saint of hitting pitchers is Wes Ferrell who spent the 1930s as a good pitcher for Cleveland who also knocked the hell out of the ball.  In 1935 alone, he led the American League with 25 wins and also batted .347/.427/.533 with seven home runs.  According to this exquisite Wikipedia Sentence "He was a fiery competitor and a brilliant player with natural talent, whose achievements may have been obscured by his irascibility."

My favorite pitcher who can hit a little is Carlos Zambrano, who was somehow a switch hitter good for a least a dinger or two a season and one egregiously reckless adventure on the basepaths. Zambrano also fought teammates, pitched a no-hitter as the road team in Milwaukee against an Astros team forced to flee from a hurricane, and once screamed at journalists "This is not a baby's game! This is a man's game!"when asked why he was repeatedly throwing at Jim Edmonds.

But the most emblematic pitcher who can hit a little from this era remains Micah Owings.  Owings, a prodigious high school slugger, flourished as a two-way phenomenon in college.  After two excellent years at Georgia Tech, he transferred to Tulane and achieved another level as a powerhouse pitcher and outfielder, hitting .355/.470/.719, and also going 12-4 with 3.26 ERA.  Arizona took him in the third round as a pitcher, but when he came up in 2007, he appeared as a shimmering vision of a pitcher who can obliterate the baseball.

Here's a brief aside on pitchers hitting.  In 2007, Owings's debut season, pitchers came to the plate 5,899 times and managed to eke out a cumulative .146/.177/.188 line.  This is a baseball obscenity; pitchers appear to have been coming up to hit wielding novelty souvenir bats that say "save big money at menard's" or giant foam number one fingers. Very few position players have ever approached this anemic standard.  I searched Baseball Reference to find players with an OPS lower than .365 who played a decent chunk of the season (at least 200 plate appearances), and found that the champion of all of them was a catcher for the Brooklyn Superbas (at that point only colloquially known as the "Trolley Dodgers" along with a host of other nicknames including the Bridegrooms, the Atlantics, and Ward's Wonders that all seem have been used interchangeably) who managed it five times in the deadball era.  The last contemporary person to do it was the former all-star Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills as a 39 year-old running on fumes and managing an OPS+ of 3 in 1972.

(Wills resurfaced in the early 80s as the hilariously disastrous manager of the Seattle Managers who infamously tried to extend the batter's boxes an extra foot hoping no one would notice.  His Wikipedia entry notes that Oakland manager Billy Martin saw it and alerted umpire Bill Kunkel.  The Wikipedia entry contains the extraordinary phrase "under questioning from Kunkel, the groundskeeper admitted." Wills features prominently in this wonderful Mariners documentary.)

Micah Ownings came up 64 times in his rookie season in 2007, hit .333/.349/.683, clubbed four dingers, smacked seven doubles and a triple, and led all pitchers with an OPS of 1.033.  That is the third-best by a pitcher (with at least 50 PAs) ever; only Wes Ferrell and fellow two-way threat Don Newcombe topped him, although they both did that with nearly twice as many plate appearances, which is even more impressive.  He hit two home runs in one game as part of a four-hit night, claiming a record eleven total bases.  Owings also was a decent pitcher that year, compiling a 111 ERA+, and he attracted a mild fanfare, the type that causes baseball announcers to say "you have to be careful with Owings here, we know this guy can swing the bat."

Owings's stats took a dip in both hitting and pitching his next year (he still hit .304, but the power was not there), and the Diamondbacks traded him to Cincinnati as a throw-in as part of a transaction involving Adam Dunn.  He rebounded for the Reds at the plate in 2009.  That year, he hit an OPS of .818 with three dingers, but inexplicably lost the Silver Slugger to Carlos Zambrano who hit worse than him in almost every category but was a much better pitcher and higher-profile star. That was pretty much it for Owings as a starter.  He began coming out of the pen in 2010, and his plate appearances cratered-- the Red used him as a pinch hitter a few times, but he was not nearly as effective, his pitching never regained the promising form, and he bounced around the minors and independent leagues for awhile, attempting to pitch but increasingly appearing as an outfielder. 

 The statistics with any pitcher hitting in the current era remain strange because they appear so infrequently.  Owings has since been eclipsed by two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, who, at least until an injury derailed his pitching career, looked like he could become baseball's greatest two-way star since Babe Ruth.  And baseball usually has at least one or two guys floating around who pitch a little and hit a little and do neither particularly well but are noteworthy for that.  The emblematic star of this role for me remains the immortal Brooks Kieschnick, and the Reds currently have a pitcher and anthropomorphic bicep named Michael Lorenzen on their roster who sometimes moonlights as an outfielder.

But Owings is emblematic of the ineffable romance of pitchers hitting, of pitchers doing anything other than walking up to the plate and immediately back to the dugout, of pitchers occasionally causing a tingle of fear in their opposites from other teams, and of the perfect aesthetics of them somehow managing a hit and then standing awkwardly on the basepaths in their dorky satin jackets, these masters of baseball who have played the game their entire lives only to arrive at the sport's pinnacle that few can even dream of and still look profoundly uncomfortable with one of baseball's most basic tasks.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

BYCTOM 100*: Lenny Harris

The Major Leagues will not be generating any new baseball for some time, which makes this an appropriate time to dip into Important Baseball Lore.  The most indispensable baseball writing this offseason for me as been Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100, where he rates his top 100 baseball players of all time and writes essays about each one, and I thought I should shamefully rip that off.  So here's the BYCTOM 100*, a series of essays not on the top 100 baseball players of all time, but of lesser heralded players that have floated through the ether of baseball, the players that David Roth refers to as Guys, the foundation of baseball itself that the giants of the sport can homer off of, do handshakes with, and occasionally get humiliated by because baseball is a weird and cruel game.  The asterisk is of course because there is no way I will do 100 of these, let's face it I'll be shocked if I do five.  If you have a suggestion for someone to be covered in BYCTOM 100*, please send it to me, and I'll consider it.
 


LENNY HARRIS


Lenny Harris's Baseball Reference page lists his position as Pinch Hitter.  He is also a third baseman and outfielder, but those served as minor distractions on his path to becoming baseball's Pinch Hit King.  Over eighteen seasons in the major leagues, Harris amassed 212 pinch hits, blasting by former record holder Manny Mota's 149.  The only person in the same galaxy as Harris pinch-hitting wise is Mark Sweeney, who got 175.  No current player comes close; the only active players to even breach 50 are Matt Joyce, Matt Adams, and Daniel Descalso, whose last season in Chicago was so riven with hitting ineptitude that appeared to be trying to get the ball out of the infield by way of strongly-worded letters.  Harris stands along as a giant of the bench, the Sultan of Sit, and after a few hours of poking around the internet I'm convinced that he has achieved one of the strangest and least-replicable baseball careers possible.

The most remarkable thing about Lenny Harris's time as the Dean of Left-Handed Bench Bats is that his hitting statistics are just south of mediocre.  He's a career .269/.318/.349 hitter.  Most of his best hitting years came as a young, everyday infielder for the Dodgers; in his ideal form as a pinch hitter he hit an anemic .264/.317/.337.  He did not walk a ton and, for a stocky lefty off the bench, he offered almost no power, never managing more than five home runs in a season.  Baseball Reference credits him with just 1.7 WAR for his entire eighteen-year career. Sweeney was a much better hitter, and rowdy Baseball Uncle Matt Stairs leads the majors with 23 pinch hit dingers.  Harris only leads in the category of hits and plate appearances as managers kept summoning Harris to pinch hit ineffectively over and over again.

The mystery for me is how Lenny Harris managed to stick around for eighteen years as a bench bat barely able to breach the .700 OPS threshold.  Because Harris played most of his career in the 1990s and early 2000s, my natural inclination was to ignore even the basic slash metrics and take a look at the triple crown stats that ruled the game then.  He did not sock many homers or pile up RBIs even for the relatively few plate appearances he got over a season nor did he swipe many bases.  Harris did hit the magical .300 batting average threshold several times; it is possible that his .300 seasons were spaced perfectly for him to scuffle around 2.70 or even plummet to .235, but then pull off a .300 season at the opportune time for a grizzled Moneyball villain front office person made entirely of used mouth tobacco to get on the phone and start screaming profanities at someone to sign him before mailing Bill James a manila envelope filled with violently torn up spreadsheets.

But I believe there is some sort of ineffable, spiritual purity to Harris's reputation as the preeminent pinch hitter in baseball history that transcends his underwhelming numbers.  First of all, anyone who makes a living as a pinch hitter will not be exploding with OPSes because if they did, they wouldn't be pinch hitting.  But more importantly, Harris embraced pinch hitting and made it into an arcane art-- not every player can deal mentally with sitting in a disgusting dugout day after day eventually summoned for one at bat, but Harris mastered it, learned the Way of the Bench, and honed an approach to allow him to pinch hit dozens of times a season.  This approach helped sustain Harris's career because, once you become the Pinch Hit Guy, baseball's organizational inertia means that any time a team needed a left-handed bench bat, there is no way their imagination would extend past The Guy Who Pinch Hits.

Harris had a great part of a season off the bench for the National League Champion Mets in 2000, but I first became aware of him when he signed with the Cubs in 2003.  He had come off one of his best seasons the year before with the Brewers, but was miserable with the Cubs and let go when they acquired Randall Simon as part of the lopsided trade that also brought Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez to the North Side.  Simon is best known for an incident earlier that season when he was up in Milwaukee and decided to playfully bop one of the racing sausages in the head with a bat; this knocked the sausage down, scuffed up the person inside the costume, and caused an outcry in Milwaukee because it turns out that hitting a racing sausage in the head with a bat looks a lot like hitting someone in the head with a bat.  The police got involved.  Simon was still on the Pirates then, but then he got to the Cubs and had to go up to Milwaukee again and face a seething, hostile crowd desperate to avenge his unthinkable attack on an anthropomorphic bratwurst, but Simon cannily defused the situation by buying brats for an entire section and sending the person inside the costume on a free trip to Curacao.

Harris ended up joining the Marlins and facing the Cubs in the ill-fated NLCS.  It would have been poetic if it was Harris who managed to hit that foul ball into the low left field stands over the bullpen or even managed a hit or walk to prolong the Cubs' agonizing death inning, but Lenny Harris's Revenge Series unfolded with l'esprit de l'escalie.  He managed three plate appearances early in the series, two outs and a walk; he made the last out in a 12-3 loss.  But I don't think Harris cares about any of that at all because a week later he became a World Champion.

In 1998, Lenny Harris made a pitching appearance with his Reds down 16-3 to the San Francisco giants in the ninth inning and struck out Brent Mayne looking.

The thing that I've found most compelling about Harris's career is that he sustained it for such a long time on a razor's edge.  After a few years in the majors, he never again worked his way into a full-time starter but never collapsed enough to be sent to the minors.  No matter what he did at the plate, when the balls were finding gaps in the infield or he was rolling over to the second baseman, some team always wanted Lenny Harris. And Harris did all of this in the strangest way possible, as a low-power contact hitter playing almost his entire career at a time when the game was teeming with available neck vein guys who were capable of anonymously blasting baseballs into low Earth orbit. 

I would be surprised to see another player like Harris again.  The idea of a player with Harris's skill set hanging around the major leagues for the better part of two decades seems remote at a time when teams have become obsessed with jettisoning veterans for cheaper young players; though Harris never signed a big contract, it seems that veterans like Harris are less welcome in the game than ever, especially in a baseball environment tending towards the three true outcomes instead of doing whatever he can to put the ball in play (Harris almost never struck out).

Lenny Harris was not the most productive or effective pinch hitter in baseball history.  He was instead the most pinch hitter, the man called upon more than anyone in the history of the game in the pinch, a person who sustained himself in baseball for long enough to turn pinch hitting into his own arcane art, and that is more impressive.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

BYCTOM 100*: Jared Hughes

The Major Leagues will not be generating any new baseball for some time, which makes this an appropriate time to dip into Important Baseball Lore.  The most indispensable baseball writing this offseason for me as been Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100, where he rates his top 100 baseball players of all time and writes essays about each one, and I thought I should shamefully rip that off.  So here's the BYCTOM 100*, a series of essays not on the top 100 baseball players of all time, but of lesser heralded players that have floated through the ether of baseball, the players that David Roth refers to as Guys, the foundation of baseball itself that the giants of the sport can homer off of, do handshakes with, and occasionally get humiliated by because baseball is a weird and cruel game.  The asterisk is of course because there is no way I will do 100 of these, let's face it I'll be shocked if I do five.  If you have a suggestion for someone to be covered in BYCTOM 100*, please send it to me, and I'll consider it.

 
JARED HUGHES



Jared Hughes toils as a largely anonymous middle relief pitcher for undistinguished teams so if you know him it is probably as the guy who, when brought into a game, absolutely books it like a maniac out of the bullpen.  This is a high-risk maneuver. On the one hand, it offers the type of fame and notoriety that gets him featured on a blogspot website; on the other hand the opportunities for a player who has chosen the Braveheart Charge as his personal relief pitcher schtick to be humiliated are endless.  Any reliever who sprints out of the bullpen with a full-on Tom Cruise run towards the mound runs the risk of eating shit and wiping out in front of tens of thousands of people when he could have just as easily strolled over or, in some cases, taken a golf cart shaped like a catcher's mitt.  The other scenario, the one that unfolds for me in my mind every time I see Jared Hughes summoned from the 'pen, would involve him sprinting in, throwing one pitch that the batter demolishes into subatomic baseball particles, and then sprinting into the dugout before the ball even lands in the stands.  It's a fraught existence for the Sprinting Reliever, and one that makes Hughes one of my favorite relief pitchers that I otherwise would have no reason to remember exists.

Another thing Jared Hughes does is to stare at the camera maniacally during Team Photo Day.

I had assumed, based on the fact that Hughes has moved teams and toiled in middle relief, that he was a middling reliever, but when looking him up for this profile I was mildly surprised that he has been far more effective than I thought.  He has a lifetime 2.88 ERA and ERA+  of 140.  In 2018, with the Reds, he got his ERA down to .194 in a career-high 78.2 innings.  He's a sinkerballer who relies on ground balls and does not get a ton of strikeouts, and so he is far more at the mercy of his defense than the assembly line 96 MPH strikeout relievers.  Still, I was expecting to see the volatile stats of a journeyman reliever who had absolutely horrible years. Instead, he has been consistently good at making a beeline to the mound, throwing that sinker he tosses almost exclusively, and getting outs.  

Perhaps he would be better known if he had spent time on the national stage, but quality setup man for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds is not a position that leads to baseball notoriety; his only playoff appearance was the 2014 NL Wild Card game when the Pirates ran into Madison Bumgarner, who spent that postseason levitating in the air and glowing.  The next year, the Pirates' season finished in the Wild Card Game at the beard of Jake Arrieta and after two consecutive seasons ending that way, I am surprised by any Pirates fan who has not become a baseball nihilist.

The other notable thing about Jared Hughes is that he is a classic NL Central Guy.  Until he was traded to the Phillies in the middle of the 2019 season, Hughes played for Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati.  The 2016, 2017, and 2018 seasons were particularly disorienting when he switched teams every year.  As someone who watched a lot of Cubs games in those seasons, it became a spring ritual to turn on a game and see Hughes doing his mad dash in a new uniform like he had a one-man barnstorming operation and traveled the midwest by secreting himself in the luggage compartment in the Cubs team plane. 

I am not sure how common the phenomenon of division guys has become or if there is a reason for it other than random chance and teams getting a good look at their divisional opponents.  A small club of players have managed to play for every single team in the division except in the AL Central and NL East (the member of the NL Central club is Cesar Izturis who knocked out the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals in 2007-8, and then managed to spend the last legs of his career with the Brewers and Reds.  Izturis won a gold glove in 2004 with the Dodgers, but he must have been a literal anthropomorphic baseball glove; he batted an astounding .254/.293/.332 for his career and only twice managed an OPS+ over 70).  But the Majors, I'm sure, are riddled with journeymen who have played for two or three teams in the same division in a short amount of time, ready to appear at a moment's notice to do some pinch hitting or middle relief work with the shortest possible commute.   

Divisional guys serve an important role in baseball's endless, repetitive ecosystem.  The sheer, overwhelming amount of baseball forms a crucial part of its appeal.  Over the course of a season it is possible to figure out what each player is likely to do in any situation and the surprise and frustration comes from the unexpected.  Baseball games are played in series where opponents become recurring characters, and those that play in the same division become as familiar as unpleasant relatives while the teams play over and over again.  A player who bounces from team to team in the same division appears out of the mist with two important qualities: raising the question wait, how did he get on the Milwaukee Brewers and providing the comforting thought that oh it's him I know that guy and his whole deal.  The fact that Jared Hughes literally bursts onto the field every time amplifies this feeling.

As of publication, Jared Hughes has not yet signed to a major league team.  Any team this season, if it even happens, can engage a good sinkerballer to chug his way onto the mound in the seventh inning and pose for alarming profile photographs.  He got released from spring training by a team on March 19 after a rough spring.  The team he was in camp with?  The Houston Astros, still in the NL Central when he made his major league debut.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

BYCTOM 100*: Jose Valentin

The Major Leagues will not be generating any new baseball for some time, which makes this an appropriate time to dip into Important Baseball Lore.  The most indispensable baseball writing this offseason for me as been Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100, where he rates his top 100 baseball players of all time and writes essays about each one, and I thought I should shamefully rip that off.  So here's the BYCTOM 100*, a series of essays not on the top 100 baseball players of all time, but of lesser heralded players that have floated through the ether of baseball, the players that David Roth refers to as Guys, the foundation of baseball itself that the giants of the sport can homer off of, do handshakes with, and occasionally get humiliated by because baseball is a weird and cruel game.  The asterisk is of course because there is no way I will do 100 of these, let's face it I'll be shocked if I do five.  If you have a suggestion for someone to be covered in BYCTOM 100*, please send it to me, and I'll consider it.

JOSE VALENTIN



The first and most notable thing about Jose Valentin is the mustache.  Valentin had one of the great mustaches in baseball history, especially when you considered that his heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one of the great mustache droughts in American history.  Valentin did not sport a huge soup-strainer or a Rollie Fingers-style crazy mustache, but the power of his mustache came from its resiliency-- at a time when American ballplayers abandoned the mustache in droves for goatees and, especially in his era, the long, dripping soul patch, Valentin's mustache remained steadfast.  It is a mustache from another generation, a silent movie mustache with walkup music replaced by an organ blast of diminished chords or the mustache belonging to a 1970s detective who sleeps in a blanket of cigarettes.  In baseball terms, it is the mustache clung to by grizzled first base coach who is slowly turning into an anthropomorphic catcher's mitt.

The thing that I will always remember about Jose Valentin was that for several years in the early 2000s when he was on the White Sox, he absolutely murdered the Chicago Cubs.  I have a lot of thoughts like this; because baseball happens in moments, and the moments that stick in your memory tend to be the ones that are joyous or crushing, I tend to see a player who had a few big at-bats and remember them as a titan only to look up their numbers and realize they had thousands of plate appearances where the statistics suggest that they are flailing at the baseball with a large, novelty sandwich, so it is an absolute delight when the numbers bear out my memories and here they are: in 57 games against the Cubs in his 15 years in baseball, he hit .289/.386/.561.  Valentin was a career .243/.321/.448 hitter, but for 57 games against the team I would have watched him play against, he was 2019 Juan Soto.

There's a basketball video that I really enjoy shot from the stands of a Toronto Raptors game where the Raptors are clinging to a late lead.  Then the Grizzlies get the ball into the hands of Rudy Gay, and the guy filming it screams DEFENSE DEFENSE NO IT'S RUDY GAY! NO!!! NO!!!! NOT THIS GUY! NOT THISSSSS GUUUUYYYYYY AHHHH!!!! and then unleashes a barrage of profanity as Rudy Gay wins the game.


For several years, whenever I saw Jose Valentin in the batter's box, that was my internal monologue.  In 2003, Jose Valentin produced one of the more gut-wrenching sounds a baseball player could produce, the sharp blast of a walk off home run followed by Hawk Harrelson bellowing you can put it on the board.

I do not know if it is strange or deeply understandable that the rivalry in the Greater Chicagoland Metropolitan area between the Cubs and White Sox is one of the most bitter, hateful rivalries in baseball for two teams that went 91 years in between games that counted and have played almost no meaningful games-- except in the way that four to six annual regular season baseball games count as meaningful-- since their World Series clash in 1906.   In New York, the rivalry makes sports sense; there's the Yankees, the biggest, richest and most decorated team in baseball that owns a chokehold on the history of the sport, and there's the Mets, a catastrophe.  In Chicago, this dynamic does not really fit because for almost the entirety of the twentieth century both teams were both so completely inept that the last time either team made the World Series before 2005 was in 1959, shortly after Bonanza was regularly broadcast in color.

The seething rivalry between the Cubs and White Sox has been shaped by the geography and the obvious faultlines that entails, but in sheer baseball terms the fans fought over the question of which crappy team was slightly less crappy for decades.  The Cubs were far more famously shitty and leaned into the history with a large cohort of fans driven by WGN's ubiquitous reach into American homes.  White Sox fans instead faced the ignominy of being absolute dreck and not even getting romanticized for it-- the louder Boston Red Sox seized the mantle of the second most snake-bitten team, driven by famous playoff collapses and an army of writers and sports personalities who could, within minutes, appear in a book-lined study to wax rhapsodic about them for Ken Burns.  For years, White Sox fans and Cubs fans were forced to snipe at each other over wins and losses against teams neither would face, only playing occasional exhibition games to slake supporters' bloodlust.  And then in 1997, that all changed.

The early years of interleague play in the city of Chicago arrived in a cloud of festive recrimination with a city ready to boil over into a baseball war between the very people who would spend Sundays united in honking, righteous anger at Dave Wannstedt.  The atmosphere in those early games reached a fever pitch for two fanbases largely unaccustomed to the playoffs.  I remember seeing players come out of both dugouts to watch a brawl happening in the upper deck of Comiskey Park.  The games the year that Sammy Sosa came back from his bat-corking suspension featured fans physically vibrating in anger.  This raucous maelstrom was where Jose Valentin did his most damage.

Valentin left the White Sox in 2005 for the Dodgers, missing the White Sox' World Series victory by a year.  He later ended up, poetically, on the Mets before injuries and age finally caught up to him in his late 30s.  Valentin eventually bought a team in Puerto Rico, and joined them after his career in the majors ended before returning to coach in the minors and majors.  But when I think of Jose Valentin, I see him switch-hitting, chin jutting out, his mustache imperious and stately as he prepares to wreak havoc in an intracity rivalry that means nothing and everything.