But that’s not to say that all baseball players are difficult…

Last week I wrote about awkward encounters with sports figures. But I met one of my all-time favorite players once, and it didn’t end in an avoiding-eye-contact contest.

Sean Casey is retired from baseball now, but he was a very good first baseman for several seasons with the Reds, making three All-Star teams. His career ended with brief stints at Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Boston. During his playing days he was known as “The Mayor” because he was so friendly and talkative when opponents reached first base.  

He was also very accommodating to the media. And not just to TV reporters, like some. Some players and managers are terse and uncooperative with print reporters, but as soon as the TV lights come on they’re elbowing guys out of the way to try to win Mr. Congeniality. I’ve seen managers angry, defensive and cursing print reporters, only to walk out of their office with a jaw-spraining smile, embracing a TV reporter gearing up for insipid, softball questions.  

As Casey came up through the minor league system, he spent parts of a few seasons with the Indianapolis Indians. I never interviewed him because I covered the opposing teams, but the Indians beat reporters loved him. He was always available and willing to talk, even after losses.

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At one point, Casey had been optioned down to Indy from the Reds, and Indians beat writer Kim Rogers saw him walking through the parking lot to the club house. Kim told me that he approached him, acknowledging that it was a tough time, and asked if he could talk for a minute.

Casey said it was OK, and he wasn’t upset about the demotion. Then, before Kim could get a question in, Casey said he’d heard Kim’s Dad was sick and asked how he was doing.

It’s hard to overstate how surprising this is. First, how would a major league player even know about a reporter’s family in a minor league town? And, second, most players would be completely – and understandably – absorbed in their own problems.

In the spring of 2012, I was working in Pittsburgh during a Pirates home stand, so I naturally bought tickets to several games that week. My hotel was right across the street from the Consol Center (now the PPG Paints Arena), and one night Bruce Springsteen played a show there. The hotel was pretty full due to the location, and as I walked out the front door wearing my Clemente jersey and Pirates cap, I saw a familiar face sitting at the outdoor bar.

Casey was sitting there with another guy, guffawing at a joke and sipping a glass of wine. (Which threw me off. I figured him for a beer guy.)  I stopped and looked, debating whether to go over and introduce myself. I know famous people often don’t want to engage with strangers, but considering Casey’s reputation and the fact that he was out in the open, I decided to take a chance.

“Hey, it’s the Mayor!”, I said. Casey jumped up, stuck out his hand and practically shouted “Hey man, how ya doin’?”

As we shook hands, I said “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed watching you play.”

“Aw, thanks a lot, man. I really appreciate it. Hey – are you going to the Springsteen show?”

I said “Oh, no, I’m uh, headed to the Pirates game.”

His face fell. “Oh, that’s too bad, man. But hey, have a good time at the game, all right?” He was back to smiling and pumping my hand enthusiastically. As I walked away, I felt like he was disappointed we weren’t going to be hanging out backstage.

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Casey is now an analyst on MLB Central, a baseball highlights show. Recently the host was sitting next to Casey on a couch and said “There’s something that’s been bothering me all week” as he pointed at the floor.

Casey said “Oh, I got it” and reached down. He came up with something in his fingers and said “It’s a toenail.”

Now, I’m sure that was set up, but it rings true for Sean Casey. And it’s really refreshing for a professional athlete to be approachable, funny, and human.    

 

 

Awkward sports celebrity encounters

Last week I mentioned my visit to Cincinnati to see the Arizona Diamondbacks play the Reds. I collect autographed baseballs, and I’m too cheap to pay $100 or so at a card show to get a signature on a twenty-dollar ball. So when I go to a major league game (especially if I’m by myself), I enter the ballpark as soon as the gates open and stand close to the dugout to try to get signatures. (I’m starting to re-think this. I’m often the only adult, and I feel a little silly standing there with a bunch of twelve to fifteen year old kids asking for autographs.)

At the D-backs game I got a ball signed by Archie Bradley. He’s a relief pitcher, but has good stuff and will probably be back in a rotation soon. He was friendly and gregarious, signing for everybody that asked, taking pictures with kids, and chatting amiably. He seemed to enjoy all the interaction, and jogged back to the clubhouse after signing dozens of balls, hats, cards, and random scraps of paper.

Shortly before game time, Zack Greinke came out of the dugout and slowly walked over to the crowd, eyes down. Greinke is one of the best pitchers in the game, but he has a reputation as something of an iconoclast. He rarely signs for fans and allegedly suffers from a personality disorder that includes fear of crowds. Somebody in the crowd behind me said they’d read that his current contract includes a requirement to sign autographs.

Zack Greinke looks on during batting practice.

He came to the line and moved toward me, slowly signing whatever was held out to him. He didn’t make eye contact with anybody, and ignored questions from kids. I didn’t see him look up at me, but as I held out a baseball and sharpie he skipped around me. After signing a total of less than ten autographs, he slowly walked back to the dugout.

I have no problem with a player signing only for kids. It’s reasonable to assume that an adult is getting a ball signed as an investment, and I can understand resenting somebody making a profit off your signature. And I can’t say I think players “owe it to the fans” to sign autographs. They’re paid to play baseball, and some of the same fans they sign for today will be booing them tomorrow if they go hitless.

But I started thinking about how hard it is for some people to interact with strangers. Hell, it’s hard for me, and I don’t have a bunch of people crowding around me whenever I’m in public.

One night when I was an usher at Victory Field in Indianapolis, Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean was seated in my section. I always liked Tom Crean. There are a lot of stories (several from my own kids) of him accommodating fans, helping regular students and generally being a good person. But there was always an awkward side to him. After IU clinched the Big Ten championship in a game at Michigan, he started yelling at a UM assistant coach in the post-game handshake line. The object of Crean’s ire had been at IU under Kelvin Sampson and was involved in recruiting violations that led to sanctions against the Hoosiers. But, ultimately, the misbehavior had resulted in IU hiring Crean. So why bring it up then? Who does that?  

As an IU fan, I recognized Crean at the ballpark immediately. I greeted him and he nodded at the ground, handing me the tickets for him and his son. After I wiped down the seat I said, “Good luck, Coach!” He silently handed me a nice tip and sat down. During the game, kids constantly came up to him and asked for signatures. He always obliged them, smiling, chatting, and taking selfies. He was clearly more comfortable with kids than adults. Or, at least, more comfortable with kids than with me.

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Again, like I said, I get this. Sports fans – especially basketball fans in Indiana – are not an understanding bunch. The same hand patting your back tonight could well be typing a venomous diatribe about your 1-3-1 defense tomorrow. And I think Crean had it especially tough. He has some odd facial expressions, and he often wore pants pulled up to his sternum. Indiana fans probably set their expectations too high after Crean convinced Cody Zeller to come to Indiana in his second year. Last season after he was fired, it was hard to find many fans sorry to see him go. People would say “Sure, he’s a great guy, but…”.

A lot of people want to be famous. But I think some people are famous because they’ve focused on a particular talent with such intensity for such a long time that their social skills were neglected. Some of them started three lengths back in that respect anyway, which probably led to them focusing so intently on a particular task. It must be a special kind of hell to be really good at something you love that results in daily encounters with something you dread.

From now on, I’m just going to bite the bullet and pay for player signatures. If a guy is getting money to sit at a table and sign, I’m willing to encroach on his agoraphobia.    

 

Hating on the Cincinnati Reds

I have several perfectly good reasons for rooting against the Cincinnati Reds.

The continuing adulation of Pete Rose, for one. I’ve written before (quite artfully, I’d say, right here (https://wordsbymattroberts.com/2016/09/19/judging-pete-rose/) about all the reasons why he shouldn’t be allowed back in baseball. But you still see fans at Reds games sporting Rose jerseys and mounting passionate, ill-informed defenses of why it’s a travesty that he’s not in the Hall of Fame. It’s like some Indiana fans are about Bob Knight; let it go, for cryin’ out loud.

Then there’s the fact that I’m from Louisville. When I lived there, local TV broadcasters frequently referred to the Reds as “your Cincinnati Reds”. They weren’t my Reds. I didn’t live in Cincinnati. Most of the people in my family were Cardinals fans, and I liked the Cubs. (This is a circumstance best left unexplained. Suffice to say that my career choices have amply demonstrated that popularity is unimportant to me.)IMG_20170718_180336135

It felt like they were saying I had to be a Reds fan just because they were geographically closer.  And if some smarmy, slick-haired yokel is telling me to be a Reds fan, well, there’s only one approach that makes sense to me. Be anything but a Reds fan.

Then there’s Marge Schott. She owned the Reds from 1984-1999, having inherited her husband’s auto dealerships after he died of a heart attack. She was under constant pressure from MLB due to a unique talent for expressing racist, homophobic, and otherwise crazy thoughts. Facing a second suspension in 1999, she finally agreed to relinquish control of the team.

So all these things combined, I never understood how anybody could be a Reds fan unless they lived in Cincinnati. Within walking distance of the ballpark. I do, however, go to at least a couple of Reds games every year. Now, I’m usually there because a team I like is playing, or it’s a weekday afternoon game, or there are really cheap tickets available. Luckily, since the Reds have been mediocre to awful for a while, there are almost always cheap tickets available.

In my first few games at Great American Ballpark, I didn’t really care that much for the facility. Sure, it was an improvement over the multi-use, anti-septic, artificially-turfed Riverfront Stadium. But rich guys hadn’t yet ruined Wrigley Field, and it felt to me like GABP was trying to present itself as old school without really getting there. Plus, the beer selection was terrible.

But over the past few years, the ballpark has grown on me. I like that you can take soft-sided coolers and food in. Around the fifth inning, I like to walk around the concourse, stand by the south wall and sniff the Ohio River. The paddlewheelers moving slowly upstream remind me of my old home town, and the beer selection has improved quite a bit.

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I went to a Diamondbacks game there earlier this week. I kind of like going to baseball games by myself. I can sit there and keep score and listen to the conversations going on around me. I wore my D-Backs jersey (see “popularity unimportant” above), and Arizona ended up with an 11-2 win. I got a seat in the 10th row behind the visitors dugout for $30 off StubHub, and actually had empty seats on both sides. After I got back from stretching my legs, there were no fans within twenty feet of me. It was like being at an Indianapolis Indians game in April on a weeknight.

I usually wear opposing team jerseys at Reds’ games, and I’ve never heard a rude or drunken negative comment. Cincinnati’s a lot more like Louisville than Indianapolis; more Catholics, more gambling, a little more relaxed.

They’re still not my Reds. But I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, and I like Great American Ballpark now. They can’t match the pizza at Miller Park, the beer selection in San Francisco, or the gameday atmosphere in Pittsburgh. But at least I don’t feel like I’m being scammed (looking at you, Wrigley Field).

And, like I said. Tickets are cheap.       

Betting on baseball. And, sometimes, on me.

My current score in MLB’s “Beat the Streak” is zero. I did get as high as eleven (“you see, most blokes will be playing at ten”), but the last week or so has been brutal. Jose Ramirez hits over .400 for thirty days, then goes 0-3 against a starter with an ERA of 9.35. Marcell Ozuna hits .366 at home, but is hitless in four at-bats against the Mets’ Robert Gsellman (ERA of almost 8 on the road, backed by one of the worst bullpens in baseball).

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For July, I’m revising my strategy. I realize I’m working with a small sample size, but so far it looks like bullpen batting average isn’t as relevant as I thought. I also added “batting average over last seven days” as a metric and discarded home/away batting average.

For today (July 1) I’m going with Ramirez (hitting .367 over the last 30 days) and one of my favorite players in MLB (Andrew McCutchen), hitting .533 over the past week. Gan is going with two players from the same team (Cano and Gamel of Seattle), while John is sticking to NL players with Votto (Reds) and Turner (Dodgers). If my fortunes don’t turn around soon, I’m just going to make selections based on my Bob Uecker Magic 8-Ball.

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It’s been a long time since I cashed in our monthly poker tournaments. (In April I played a tournament at the Moose Club on a whim and got second place for a couple hundred bucks. But I laid a brutally bad beat on a guy to make the final table. I had something like ace-jack offsuit against his ace-king suited and made a straight on the river to bust him out.) Some time ago, we started a regularly scheduled tournament where part of the money goes into a fund that accumulates for a year before going to the “season champion”. Players get points inversely proportionate to their finish in each tournament. So if fifteen players show up for a game, the winner gets fifteen points, and the first player eliminated gets one. After the tournament, most people stick around to play a cash game.

In the second or third season, I decided to focus less on drinking beer and more on the actual poker. I ended up winning the league, and assumed I had pretty much figured the game out. Since then, I’ve won only one or two tournaments, and usually bust out well before the money bubble. (We usually pay the top two or three.) I can say that I’ve taken a few bad beats, but so can everybody else. There’s obviously something I’m not doing as well. Either that, or I ran sick good when I was winning.  

If you play with the same guys all the time, attentive (or at least sober) players will recognize your tendencies and adjust their strategy to take advantage of that knowledge. I think by now everybody realizes that when my stack gets below a certain point, I’m playing almost any two cards in position. They also know that early in the tournament, I play pretty tightly and will lay decent hands down to a big bet.

The problem for me is that I really believe that, in general, that’s the right way to play hold ‘em. That stack size and position dictate your play to a greater extent than your actual cards. One guy (who may or may not read this blog) plays very conservatively, and has been having results similar to mine. Another guy (who also plays tight) has been crushing the game over the past year. So I know I have to make some changes, but I’m not sure which way to go. It’s always tempting to start playing more hands, get involved with more pots and increase bluffing. But I think that’s a long term losing strategy. And, as the wise old players say….it’s not a bunch of poker sessions; it’s all one long session.    

A friend of mine passed away suddenly a few years ago, but before that he gave me a copy of 100 pages or so of his poker wisdom. He included his own observations and reminders, along with quotes from famous players and writers. The content isn’t all that innovative or ground-breaking, but looking it over usually helps me re-focus on the important stuff.

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I can’t make the July game, but I’ll be there in August. Poker night guys….if you’re reading this, ignore everything I said. Just know that I’ll play big pots with gutter ball straight draws every time.

Paul George Leaving? That’s a shame. Any baseball games on TV today?

I’m not sure what to make of all the outrage over Paul George leaving the Indiana Pacers. If you don’t follow the NBA in general or the Pacers in particular, George will be a free agent at the end of the 2017-2018 season. A few days before the NBA draft, his agent informed the Pacers that he will not sign with the team after his current contract expires and he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers in his home state.

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He didn’t say he was holding out. He didn’t say he wasn’t going to play hard. He didn’t say he hates living in Indiana. But the internets went nuts. One sporting goods store gave away all of their Paul George jerseys. People posted video of flaming PG jerseys online, and his basketball ability was suddenly considered “third-rate”, and there was a lot of “good riddance, we don’t need him” on Facebook.

I don’t claim to be a huge NBA fan. I go to two or three games a year when I get free or reduced-price tickets. I watch them on TV occasionally. At least up until college basketball starts. Then I watch them after the NCAA tournament until major league baseball begins. So maybe I shouldn’t expect to understand the anger from die-hard fans.

Spoiler alert: that doesn’t keep me from having an opinion. So here goes:

Paul George is a temporary employee of Indiana Pacers, Inc. As such, he’s looking out for himself, just like Pacers, Inc. protects its own interests every time they sign a contract. Did the Pacers give him a lifetime contract or pay him more than he asked for out of loyalty? Of course not. They’re a business trying to make a profit. They will pay a player as little as possible so they can pay other good players to improve their team and win. To make money. Not for the greater glory of the state of Indiana; to make money.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But neither is there anything wrong with Paul George trying to get what he wants, whether it’s more money or winning an NBA championship, or just getting paid to play for his hometown team.

People around here like to lionize Reggie Miller because he spent his whole career with the Pacers. They seem to forget that, at one point, Reggie was making noises about wanting to play in New York. He also didn’t take long to list his Indianapolis home for sale and move back to California after he retired.

It’s fun to pull for professional teams, and I understand how easy it is to identify with great players and start to imagine that they owe loyalty to a team, a city, to us. But the fact is, loyalty has to be a two-way street. Otherwise, one of the parties is being played for a chump. So good luck to PG, both this season and the rest of his career. And good luck to the Pacers.

But not to the Lakers. I hate those guys.

                                                                           *****

The NCAA has announced penalties imposed on the University of Louisville basketball program as a result of stripper-gate. The University will have to pay a bunch of money, and the NCAA will vacate their 2013 National championship along with their wins from 2010-2014 and their 2012 Final Four. The program will be on probation for four years and Head Coach Rick Pitino is suspended for the first five games of the 2017-18 season.

Kevin_Ware_cuts_the_net_after_2013_NCAA_championship

The University – currently led by an interim president since the idiot governor fired the prior president and the entire board of trustees – has vowed to appeal the penalties, believing they were excessive. Pitino has sent a letter to boosters asking them to keep their chins up (and, presumably, keep donating) and trust the appeals process.

I really don’t understand this strategy. Seems to me it’d be more effective to blow up the program and start over immediately with a new AD and new coach. But maybe the interim president has been told he’s not really in charge. Pitino is doing what Pitino does, which is aggressively promote himself. But as long as he’s there, the program will be a punchline and treated like Exhibit A in What’s Wrong With College Sports in Particular and America in General.

 

The story behind a story

Did you ever notice those free community magazines at the entrance to the grocery store? They’re usually in a rack along with auto sale listings, real estate brochures, and other free publications. In Indianapolis, there’s a different one (and sometimes two) for almost every neighborhood. Center Grove, Greenwood, Zionsville, Avon, Carmel, Broad Ripple, etc. The company that publishes all of these in Indianapolis is Townepost Communications. I noticed that they’re expanding into Kentucky, starting with Jeffersontown. (As a native of Louisville, this strikes me as an odd choice. I know I’ve been gone awhile, but J-Town? Isn’t it just a beer stop en route to Taylorsville Lake?)

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I never paid much attention to these until I started marketing Thirty-Two Minutes in March. Last fall, I saw the Center Grove version of the magazine and decided to offer a pre-season preview of Center Grove High School basketball. I was willing to do the piece for free in return for a book plug. Since Center Grove is one of the teams I featured, I thought it’d be a good marketing tool to get the book in front of people who were already reading an article about the Trojans.

Townepost ended up assigning the article to me and paid the going rate for the piece. I thought that’d be the end of it, at least until next fall when I can try it again. But since then, they’ve asked me to write one or two articles every month. I’m happy to do it. They’re always short human interest stories (500-700 words) and an easy way to pick up a little extra money. But I never thought I’d be doing this kind of writing.

One story was about a plumber who maintains a vast garden at his home and delivers bouquets to neighbors and customers. During the interview, I found out he started the project (which includes planting 50,000 annuals) after his wife and son were killed in a car crash. After the accident, he threw himself into both gardening and fishing, and we spent over an hour on a rainy spring morning talking. Most of that discussion never made it into the article, but it was time well spent. I got to listen to this older gentleman (he swore me to secrecy regarding his exact age) talk about his passions and how they helped him deal with a horrific loss.

Another article was about a high school girl who is the only person ever to win two Indiana state high school bowling championships. It was once again a long interview for a short story, but I gained insight into the effort and commitment it takes to win consistently, even when the sport doesn’t generate revenue or headlines. And the kid’s humility and good nature reminded me of what I learned while I was writing the book. That kids are kids; goofy, nervous, funny, wise, and annoying within any fifteen minute period, even if they’re accomplished athletes.

Yet another piece was about an adult swim program. During the interview, I found out the coach was from Louisville. We talked about University of Louisville basketball, and how hard it is to get a decent fish sandwich in Indianapolis. Then we compared our hip problems. He’s having a hip replacement at age forty, and we talked about trying to stay active as you age.

When I was covering sports or writing the book, my interviews generally had a very specific purpose, and I was anxious to get the quotes and get out of there. But in this iteration of my writing life, I’m finally starting to appreciate the stories behind stories. Maybe it’s because I have more time available now. Maybe I’ve grown/calmed down as a person. But as much as I appreciate the insights and anecdotes now, I really regret not taking the time to listen a little longer during all those interviews in the past.   

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Random thoughts while watching minor league baseball

When I was taking my kids to baseball games, they often brought friends along. We (well, okay, mostly I) insisted that they name their walk-up song before the third inning. (In most parks, batters on the home team get to specify what song is played over the PA when they come to bat.) My family had, of course, settled on their own songs long ago. Otherwise, I’d have exerted the most powerful leverage available. Withholding snacks.

Since then, I always ask people for their walk-up song when I watch a game with them for the first time. I’d like to pretend that it gives me some insight into their soul, or their values, or even their musical tastes; but mostly it’s just something to talk about during pitching changes. I am, however, always surprised when other people haven’t already given this decision that much thought. But I guess that’s to be expected. I’m also taken aback when people don’t like gambling, fried bologna, hoppy craft beers, or The Godfather movies. (At least I and II.)

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My walk-up song is “No More Mr. Nice Guy” by Alice Cooper. Jacquito’s is “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and Gan insists he’d pick “Feelings” by Barry Manilow. I choose to believe that Gan doesn’t really understand the question.

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Over the rest of the season, I’m conducting a non-scientific, non-random survey (those being all the rage these days) of the beer preferences of Indianapolis Indians fans. I’ll log the type of beer being consumed by each fan I see wearing major league apparel. (I have to figure out how to handle people wearing a cap from one team and a jersey from another. Although my nephew posits that I am the only person who does this.) At tonight’s game I found the following:

Pirates fan….craft beer

Reds fan……BuLiCo (either Bud, Miller Lite or Coors. I don’t think it matters which)

Phillies………Yuengling (should consider merging category with BuLiCo)

Red Sox……all appeared to be under legal drinking age  

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I think the crowds at minor league parks are very different from those at major league games. For one thing, they’re not as interested in the result, unless it’s a playoff game or a critical late-season contest. Minor league fans are a lot more interested in socializing, taking selfies (more on that later), and getting snacks.

I also think minor league fans are more critical of players and eager to appear knowledgeable to other fans.

Player drops a fly ball or kicks a grounder….”THAT”S WHY YOU’RE IN TRIPLE-A!”

Umpire calls a ball against opposing hitter when it appears (from a 45 degree angle and 300 feet away) to be a strike…………………”COME ON UMP! YOU BELONG IN A- BALL!”

Manager leaves a pitcher in despite walking two batters in the third inning….”YOU GOTTA GET HIM OUTTA THERE!”

All these despite a) the fielder is playing out of position to back up an injured teammate, b) the ump obviously…ah, never mind, and c) in the minors the pitcher’s staying in for his designated number of pitches, no matter how many guys he walks.

I almost never hear ill-informed stuff at major league games (other than the carping about balls and strikes). But I do hear a lot more complaining about managerial moves and player effort.

I also think fans are a lot more sensitive to blocking other people’s views at MLB games. When I was an usher in Indianapolis, I spent a lot of time walking down the aisle asking people to take their seat while the ball was in play. Fans would routinely decide that the very best time to gather the family for a photo with the field in the background was the middle of an at-bat. This is a problem for a couple of reasons. First, it blocks the view of other people trying to watch the game. But it’s also really dangerous. In my short time as an usher, I saw several inattentive fans get clocked by foul balls, including a kid who lost several teeth.

Fans at Victory Field also routinely get up in the middle of an at bat to go to the concession stand. In major league parks, I’ve seen a lot of people get upset about this, and I don’t blame them. You really should wait until the inning ends, but at least until after the at-bat.

Maybe this is all part of the general coarsening of society. Maybe it’s just the general coarsening of me. But, either way. Just stop it.

                                                     *****

In my last post I mentioned that interviewing players was one of my least favorite parts of covering baseball. One of the best parts was sitting at the open window of the press box after the story was in and the fans had gone home. I loved sitting there sipping a cold beer with a breeze blowing in my face, the ballpark empty except for the grounds crew and the cleaning people.

As the sanitation workers moved through the stands, occasionally talking among themselves in Spanish, the grounds crew would tamp down the dirt around home plate, rake the infield and scoop up the baseline chalk. Then they’d cover home plate and the pitcher’s mound, and roll out the big tarps if rain was expected overnight.

By then, the cleaning people would be gone and you could hear the groundskeepers’ conversations.

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There are few things that look more perfect, more in the right place, than an empty baseball field after a game. I sometimes toyed with the idea of turning out the press box lights, waiting for the grounds crew to leave and just staying in the ballpark all night. Even if there was overnight security (and I don’t think there was), I knew the stairways and corridors well enough that I could have stayed hidden. I always wondered what it’d be like to pass the night on an empty field and watch the sun come up over the skyline.

It’d be a dumb thing to do and, if caught, I’d have lost my press pass (and maybe gotten myself arrested). But sometimes I still think about that when we’re leaving after a game.    

  

     

A story from the press box

I used to cover minor league baseball as a stringer for several different newspapers. That market is almost gone now, mostly due to consolidation of media companies, the internet, and the declining interest of Gannett Corporation in publishing anything besides advertising.

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It was a fun gig while it lasted. At its peak, I covered 30-40 games each season. I’d show up at the press box in time for the pre-game buffet and settle into one of the best seats in the house. For a couple hours I’d watch baseball and joke with the other sportswriters, then file a 10-12 inch game story. After I hit “send”, I’d grab a beer from the refrigerator and watch the grounds crew work on the field in the empty ballpark. Then I’d drive home and bill the newspaper I was working for $75-$100.

One of my least favorite parts of the process was interviewing players. Game stories are pretty dry and boring without quotes, so even if the game ended at deadline, the editor usually gave me a 10-15 minute extension to get comments from the participants. Which was the worst of both worlds. Not only did I have to run down to the clubhouse and back, I’d have to desperately try to find somebody with something interesting to say in only a couple of minutes.   

With few exceptions, baseball players are notoriously bad interviews. Every sportswriter I ever asked rated them at the bottom of the four major U.S. sports. (The consensus is that football players are next worst, then basketball and hockey. I’ve never interviewed a hockey player, but I’m told they are universally humble and friendly to the press.)

Maybe it’s because baseball requires so many games and failure is so much a regular part of the sport. Or maybe it’s because in any given play, more than half of your teammates are uninvolved, making players self-absorbed. All I know is that it was a struggle to get guys to say anything other than the stock phrases from the “boring quotes” scene in Bull Durham.

But in one game I got such great comments that I’ve saved the tape. (What? Yeah, tape. It was a long time ago, okay?)   

I was covering the first game of a series between the Richmond Braves and the Indianapolis Indians for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I’d never met the new Braves manager, a man named Jeff Cox. Midway through the game, Indians beat writer Kim Rogers turned to me and said, “Hey, are you talking to Cox after the game?”. I said I probably would.

“Man, that guy’s crazy. You better hope they win.”

“What do you mean?”

Kim told me a story from when Cox managed the Omaha Royals and the Indians were in their old ballpark on 16th street. He said that one of the Royals hit a groundball to short that tipped off the fielder’s glove and went into the outfield grass. The official scorer ruled it a base hit, but, as sometimes happens, people in the press box argued that the fielder should have made the play. After some discussion, the scorer agreed and changed the call to an error. Immediately after the scoring change was announced, a heavy rain started to fall and the umpire called a halt to play.

Moments later, the writers and scorer heard somebody running up the ramp to the press box, yelling and cursing. Cox burst in and started screaming at Rogers in the belief that he was the official scorer. After yelling for a few minutes, he walked back down to the dugout.

Now, it’s not unheard of for a manager or coach to call up to the press box to argue about a scoring call after the game. Players’ livelihoods are often at stake, and a base hit for a batter or removal of an earned run for a pitcher can sometimes – at least temporarily – tilt a decision on release. But you don’t charge into the press box, and you don’t verbally attack a game official.

Rogers told me that at the park the next day, Cox found him and apologized. He said the kid had been hitting the ball hard, finally got one to fall in, and he felt like the scorer was endangering a career. Kim told him he harbored no hard feelings. But somebody from the Indians had complained to the Royals, and Cox was later suspended and then let go before the following season. Rogers said during the next summer, he heard Cox was in a traffic accident in California and got in a fight with a much younger and larger person, and ended up in a hospital for a few months.

Late in this game, Richmond was ahead by a couple of runs so I thought maybe Cox would be in a decent mood for post-game comments. But Indianapolis put a couple of runners on, and the next batter grounded a ball up the first base line that got past first baseman Randall Simon. The umpire started to call the ball foul, then suddenly pivoted and pointed to fair territory, scoring two runs to put Indianapolis ahead. That ended up closing the scoring, and the Braves lost by a single run.

After the last out, I waited the full league-mandated ten minutes before entering the clubhouse. If I was going to get screamed at, I wanted to make sure I’d scrupulously observed the “cooling off period” before press are allowed to enter. I tentatively opened the door and the first person I saw was Cox.  I asked him if he had any comments, and  he said “Sure, let’s go out to the dugout. It’ll be a little quieter.”

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I fed him a few softball questions, and he was friendly, calm and amiable. Not at all what I expected. I started thinking maybe Rogers was just messing with me. As usual, I’d saved the most sensitive question for the end.

“In the eighth inning on that grounder up the first base line, it looked like the umpire started to call it foul, then called it fair. Did you have a good look at the play?”

He sighed. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “I’m sure he got it right….you know, we’re all in this together, just trying to get better and trying to develop these kids for the major leagues…”

He went on like that for several minutes, and gradually veered into a lucid, insightful, fascinating monologue about the beauty and meanness of baseball, how it seems like a simple game but tiny adjustments – or failures to adjust –  can have such a huge impact on the results.

But then he got around to the specific play. He wasn’t mad at the umpire, but the more he talked the angrier he got at the first baseman. Simon had failed to guard the line like he’d been told, apparently not for the first time. Cox’s voice kept getting louder, and he started pacing the dugout, shaking his head, the words coming in staccato bursts. The bat boys started watching him warily as they gathered up the equipment.

Finally he said, “We’ve been over it and over it, and OVER IT with this guy AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT you have to say to him, so I DON’T KNOW, you just do the BEST YOU CAN and HOPE he gets better…..SONOFABITCH!!”

With that, Cox wheeled around and headed up the tunnel to the clubhouse. SOMEBODY was getting an ass-chewing. And I had some quotes for the story.

Every time I saw Cox after that, he was the same friendly, upbeat, mild mannered guy he was when he first started talking. (‘Course, by then Randall Simon was on to bigger things. Like being the object of racial taunts by Atlanta’s John Rocker and, eventually, tripping one of the Milwaukee Brewers’ racing sausages with a bat.) Cox quickly became my favorite manager in the International League. One time he even took me with him into the training room so I could watch as he told a player he was going up to the major leagues.

I guess that’s baseball, huh? If it can make a sweetheart like Jeff Cox go off the rails, it’s enough to make anybody crazy.

Adventures in Chiropractic

Alert readers may have noticed that I haven’t posted much lately. It’s not that I “had too much fun in Vegas”, or “had to go back to work to support a gambling habit”, or “spend all day watching baseball”. Well. At least not entirely.

Fact is, I’ve had a back/hip issue that’s progressively gotten worse over the past several months. During March Madness in Vegas, I slept fitfully, and usually woke my roommate Jacquito early in the morning as I stretched, trying to get loose enough to wander around Vegas and sit in poker rooms.

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Not me. Some other guy who apparently swallowed a broken ladder.

After getting home, the pain in my hip continued to worsen to the point that I couldn’t even do the stretches. Last fall (when the pain was relatively mild) an orthopedist told me that I’d have to have a hip replacement at some point, but if the pain wasn’t interfering with my daily life there was no immediate need for surgery. Not even being sixty yet, this was hard news to accept. So I decided to try chiropractic.

Now, I know some people swear by this approach to medicine, and it’s apparently helped a lot of people. But I can still hear my parents telling me as a child that Chiropractors were quacks who only went into the field because they weren’t accepted into medical school. I imagined the “doctor” would be some older, hairy-armed guy with halitosis who made bad jokes and sold lifetime memberships in a nudist colony on the side.

But I resolved to keep an open mind. My insurance would pay most of the cost, and I could always quit if it didn’t help. I found a young-ish woman Chiropractor on the south side who accepted my insurance plan and made an appointment.

During the initial exam, she assured me that my problem was a pinched nerve in my back that would benefit from spinal adjustment. I told her what the orthopedist said last fall. She smirked and said, “He didn’t do you any favors by telling you to wait”. She also said that my hip was “tilted” and that my right leg was one and a half inches longer than the left. She recommended a schedule of three adjustments per week for four weeks, then a re-evaluation.

I scheduled the first appointment for the next day. She had me lay on my back, then grabbed my feet – actually, my shoes – and moved my legs around. I then rolled over on my stomach and she asked me to lift each leg as high as possible. I managed only a few inches due to the pain in my hip. She then shifted my back around, popped my neck and spine a couple of times with some kind of clicker, and then shoved my back a few times.

When I got off the table, I actually did feel a little better. I felt like I was looser and walking a bit more freely. Maybe this wasn’t a scam after all.

I continued to come for the adjustments, but couldn’t help but ponder some red flags.

Subsequent appointments were in a larger examination room with four tables. Patients went in four at a time, and the doctor moved around to each one in turn. When you lie onto your stomach, there’s tissue paper on a roll to keep your face from resting directly on the table. In my second appointment after we were done, she asked me to rotate the face paper and throw it away to “Keep my hands clean”. I wondered where the hell she got this paper I was planting my face in that made it even less sanitary than other people’s shoes.

I got to the next appointment early and filled out my daily report about how much pain I’d had since the last adjustment. After I was done I watched a video board that showed commercials for chiropractic treatment, tips on the best positions for sleeping and what a big problem kids’ overloaded backpacks are. As the messages scrolled through, I started noticing spelling and grammar errors on about a third of the slides.

(“You can replace you’re hip, but not your back!”, “You’re never to young for Chiropractic!”)

I also noticed a consistent animus toward traditional medicine. Every time a patient mentioned their family doctor, the chiropractor made a snide comment (“Well, you already knew that”). It struck me as really unprofessional, and probably not in the patient’s best interest.

I felt like I was being scammed. And after the subsequent appointments, the relief was less noticeable. So I cancelled the rest of my adjustments and made an appointment with my family doctor.

I don’t know if my experience is typical. Maybe I just happened on a sub-optimal practitioner. I’d be interested to hear from anybody who’s had different experiences with chiropractors. And I may not be done with alternative medicine. Before any surgery, I might try acupuncture. I just hope I can find one with better hygiene practices. And spell check.

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Vegas Update

For the twelfth year in a row, the Fear and Loathing A.C. Fantasy Football League traveled to Vegas on the first weekend of March Madness for spring practice.

Most of the itinerary is repeated from year to year, but since Vegas is always changing –  casinos close and new ones open –  it’s never exactly the same. And we always wander off the beaten path a time or two, especially when Purdue, Notre Dame, or Indiana games require our attention.  

As usual, we made time for breakfast at Hash House A-Go-Go at the Linq casino. The Linq has been there for a long time but suffered two name changes since we’ve been going there. First it was Imperial Palace (Chinese theme), then for a year or two “The Quad” (frat house chic?), and finally “The Linq”. It’s Gan’s favorite casino, and he gets us a good rate there for at least a few weeknights.

Hash House is a chain based in California, but apparently the owners are Hoosiers. There are a lot of Indiana farm references in the menu, and they serve huge portions for breakfast. Waffles the size of platters, Bloody Marys in 24 oz, glasses. But it’s all high quality and very tasty.

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This year (well, maybe every year) we were making a lot of noise at our table, insulting each other, arguing about basketball bets and generally enjoying our first morning in Vegas. A middle-aged woman sitting at the next table over asked if she could take our picture because she’d never seen a bunch of grown men having so much fun. (She’s apparently never seen Dads escorting an eighth grade class to laser tag.) It was a little awkward, but we agreed and she texted us a copy.

She then pointed out her son who was cringing at their table. She explained that she brought him to Vegas for his 21st birthday. We all told him happy birthday while pondering what a mixed blessing this would be. BEING IN VEGAS FOR YOUR 21ST BIRTHDAY…..uh…….with your Mom. Gan wondered if she would at some point send him out with a hundred dollar bill to “become a man” while she played nickel slots.

There have been a couple of big changes since we last visited. Binion’s poker room has closed, though they still have two tables open at the end of the table games pit. Binions is where the World Series of Poker started, and until a few years ago the room was always busy.

In one of our earliest trips, the casino had a huge room devoted to a sports book on the first floor. After the casino was sold by the Binion family, the new owner converted the book to a bar/entertainment area with a mechanical bull. Shortly after that, they renovated and created a beautiful enclosed poker room in the space, with portraits of Poker Hall of Fame members on the wall.

But every time I walked past it, the room was either completely empty or had only a single table open. Tournaments were still held off the casino floor, but cash games have been dead at Binion’s since the renovation. Keeping just a couple of tables shoved into a corner of the pit does not bode well for poker at the old casino. After they close that, the only downtown poker room will be at the Golden Nugget.

Meanwhile, The Lucky Dragon casino opened a block off the strip in early March. On a Sunday afternoon we walked in to check the place out and use some introductory free play.

The casino is geared toward Chinese visitors, with all of the signage in Chinese over English subtitles. They have a lot of baccarat tables with no craps, sports book, or poker and only a couple of blackjack stations. It’s an elegant, quiet casino, and I saw one player being served a pot of tea while playing mini-baccarat. In other words, we won’t be spending a lot of time there.

Gan is part Chinese and pretended to be able to read all of the signs. He lost some credibility when he ordered Jameson and 7 in his “impeccable” Mandarin, and the waiter brought him a dozen egg rolls.    

A lot of the strip casinos have imposed a new system for complimentary drinks at the bar for video poker players. As I’ve written before, when the sports books are crowded we often sit at the bar, slowly playing video poker and soaking up free cocktails while we watch the games on TV. The bigger strip conglomerates now meter video poker play at the bar and only comp your drink if you’ve played enough money through. We didn’t play much at strip casino bars, but there was no noticeable delay in getting cocktails wherever we were. In a couple of instances at the Cromwell, the server was offering drinks before we were done with the prior one.

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Sometimes we get hungry between buffets

As usual, at the end of the trip I tallied up my gambling wins and losses. I surprisingly  found a small profit, mostly on the strength of video poker and three card poker at the Cromwell. We played a lot more limit poker than usual, and that helped as well. Having been home for a few weeks now, we’re starting to look for ways to justify an autumn trip. I’m still working on a plausible argument to convince Theresa that I can make it as a professional sports bettor. Unfortunately, she’s good at math.