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).

Andrew_McCutchen_on_June_18,_2010 (1)

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.

                                                      *****

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.

A_Friend_in_Need_1903_C.M.Coolidge

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.

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.)

IMG_20170601_210959524

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.

                                                           *****

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  

                                                           *****

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.

IMG_20170601_213324738

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.

Baseball._Press_Box_at_Stadium_BAnQ_P48S1P12823 (1)

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.”

Ruth_knocked_out (2)

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.

Streaking toward immortality…or a $25 gift card

Over the past few weeks I’ve been competing in Major League Baseball’s “Beat the Streak” contest. It’s based on Joe Dimaggio’s record of 56 consecutive games with a hit back in 1941. The goal is to pick one MLB player per day to get at least one base hit. If you “double up”, you can pick two players and extend your streak by two games as long as they both get a knock. But if either fails, you start over at zero. If you get to 57 straight hits, it means 5.7 million dollars.

Wrigley_Field_Apr_2005

That doesn’t sound so hard, right? Fact is, MLB has been running this contest for 13 years and nobody’s made it to 57. Last week one guy was at 51 before losing. (He doubled up, taking Pillar and Carrera from the Jays versus Atlanta’s Bartolo Colon, who is approximately 60 years old. It didn’t make sense to me that he took batters hitting back to back in the lineup, but, hey….my longest streak so far is ten, so what do I know.)  

A couple of friends (John and Gan) participating in the contest makes it more fun. And there are interim prizes along the way, like gift cards to MLB.com, subscriptions to MLB TV, etc. If you establish the longest streak of the season without getting to 57, you win a hundred large.

John is a pretty sharp fantasy player, but Gan seems to favor his favorite team’s players. To be completely candid, I avoid guys playing against Pittsburgh or Arizona, but I intentionally discount the offensive prowess of D-backs or Pirates to manage my biases. This is bidness, yo.

Winning obviously requires a lot of luck, but I think the exercise has helped my regular baseball handicapping. I was up thirteen units after the first two weeks. But, as usual, my results fell off after that, and started the slow inexorable slide to mediocrity. This seems to happen every year. I think it’s easier to win before the books and sharps have much data. But I’ve tightened up my picks since starting BTS, and I’m starting to win again.

At first, I doubled up on BTS picks every time, thinking I’d get to double digits and then be more conservative and make just one pick each day. But after I got my streak to ten (and my hubris to eleven), I went several days without a win, usually getting a hit from one guy but not two, setting me back to zero. Eventually it dawned on me that there aren’t necessarily two good picks each day. It’s better to make the best pick, then just wait until tomorrow.

I’ve also started to look deeper into my potential picks for anomalies. For instance, I usually start my search with hitters batting opposite-handed against struggling pitchers. On average, left-handers hit right-handers better and vice versa. But this isn’t always the case. For example, the Dodgers right-handed Justin Turner is hitting sixty points higher against righties this season.

I also started to pick Bryce Harper today. Harper is 4th in MLB in batting average with an OPS of 1.202. In layman’s terms, he’s killing it. And today he was going against Tyler Glasnow with an ERA over seven. But I noticed that Harper is hitting only .226 in day games. For his career he’s hit almost a hundred points lower in the sunshine. So. Great player, can really mash….but no reason to take him today.     

For tonight’s games, I settled on either Seattle’s Jean Segura or Justin Turner. Gan took Cesar Hernandez and Ichiro, while John’s betting on Segura and Daniel Murphy. Turner is going against a right-handed starter (Edinson Volquez) with an ERA over four only one game removed from a finger blister issue.  Miami also has a mediocre bullpen, has lost three straight and is traveling across the country.

Segura is a good choice, but it makes me nervous that he has a fifteen game hitting streak. Like the Indians fan says in “Major League”……“It’s too high”. So I’m going with Turner. So much for incisive, objective analysis…..  
Baseball_field_overview

MLB is over-thinking again

So Major League Baseball and the Players Association have agreed to a few rules changes for the 2017 season. The impetus for many of the changes is (allegedly) a desire to speed up the game. Some of the other changes that MLB wants were blocked by the players’ union, but after this season the owners can implement them unilaterally, so I’m sure we’ll see the more dramatic aberrations…..uh, changes ….next year.

In 2017, the most noticeable difference will be on intentional walks. For the last hundred years or so, if a pitcher wanted to walk a hitter he had to throw four pitches out of the strike zone. Now the pitcher’s manager just has to “signal” the umpire, and the batter will be waved to first base. WP_20160804_010

Two other changes have to do with pitchers re-setting their pivot foot (which is really directed at one particular player with a quirky delivery) and positioning by base coaches. The last change prescribes time limits on managers and replay officials.  

I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball. (Some people who call themselves my friends would use other terms. “Anal retentive”, “Dinosaur”, and “Mirthless Hater of Fun” being some of the more charitable ones.) But none of these wrinkles give me much heartburn. Yeah, there’s the occasional ESPN highlight where somebody wildly swings at a pitch meant to be a walk and gets a base hit, but it really doesn’t happen very often.    

I do think it’d be more fun if they made the manager’s “signal” unique for each team. Like the Diamondbacks manager should have to come out and walk toward home, clap twice, then make a snake head with his thumb and fingers while saying “ssssssss”. The Giants could signal by having a ball boy walk around the on-deck circle on stilts. The Twins could have two interns with shirts attached at the back. You get the idea.   

And speeding up the replays is OK if you accept that replays are a good thing to start with. I think officials should make a call and move on. Mistakes will be made; but there will also be missed signals, errors, imperfect groundskeeping, and drunken ushers. (Ooops. May have given away a trade secret with that last one.) The point is, if you’re looking for perfect competition with no randomness or human error involved, don’t count on a nap. You’re gonna be busy.

t205_cy_young

But the really egregious stuff will have to wait until 2018. For instance, in order to speed up extra inning games, MLB wants to start each half inning with a baserunner on second. Because nobody ever enjoys or talks about 18- or 19- inning games? Ask any fan to describe his or her most memorable game experience, and 75% of the time it will be a long, extra-inning contest. Baseball’s most distinguishing feature is the lack of a time limit. It takes as long as it takes. You can’t get a lead and run out the clock. Now I know how long-time soccer fans feel about penalty kick shootouts.   

If MLB really wants to speed up games, here are are a couple of suggestions, humbly and faithfully submitted by your obedient servant:

  1. Stay in the Batter’s Box

It’s gotten to the point that a batter spends more time out of the box than in it during the at-bat. Pitcher delivers and batter takes. Batter immediately calls for time, steps out of the box, takes off helmet, smooths his hair back, replaces helmet. Loosens left batting glove strap and re-fastens it. Repeats with right hand. Taps left shoe with bat. Taps right shoe. Takes a deep breath and puts one foot into box. Stretches arms above head, then blinks rapidly. Steps back out to remove speck of dust from eye……STAY IN THE @#$%^& BOX, SON

Batters should have to stay in the box anytime they take a pitch unless there is a potential play at a base (attempted steal, wild pitch, etc.). Take a swing? OK, sure, step out and gather yourself. But on a pitch that’s just watched, there’s absolutely no justification for stepping out and wasting time.  

      2.   Shorten commercial breaks

  Haha. Kidding.

       3.  Disallow a mound visit when replacing pitchers

How often are games intentionally delayed by managers going to the mound when they’ve already decided to replace the pitcher? Everybody knows they’re just out there killing time to get a few more warm-up pitches for the reliever. If a manager visits the mound, the pitcher should have to face one more hitter or finish the at-bat in progress. Then if the manager wants to replace him, he can just wave a guy in from the bullpen. Maybe by doing that snake thing.

I understand why MLB is worried about demographics. According to ESPN, the average age of baseball fans is 53. NFL and NBA are 47 and 37, respectively. Kids used to handheld video games, instant communication on social media, and the BOOM-POW-BANG culture of ESPN Sportscenter have a hard time focusing on the gradual tension that slowly builds to the final denouement of a great baseball game. But instead of robbing the game of its charms, maybe they should try enforcing the rules they already have. Keep hitters in the box, don’t allow time-wasting on the mound, and call a rulebook strike zone. Maybe we can keep the old guys AND the kids happy.   

 

 

 

Festering through midwinter

Pitchers and catchers report to major league camps next week. I love baseball and I’m looking forward to its return, though it feels like the Cubs just won the World Serious a week ago.       baseball_in_the_snow-2

I’m always conflicted this time of year. We’re deep in the college basketball conference season, with March Madness (and my annual Vegas trip) in just a few weeks. This is the time of year when I’ve mostly lost interest in the NBA and I’m tired of Midwestern winter. So I start catching up with MLB news, assessing the value of trades and free agent signings, checking the calendar for potential road trips to baseball parks, and working on my strategy for betting season win totals. But it’s also still college and high school basketball season, so I have to watch those games. (Well. Not have to, exactly. But what’s the alternative? Cleaning the garage? Ho ho. I think not.)

The big news in Pirateland is that the club is moving its outfielders around. After trying all winter to trade face-of-the-franchise Andrew McCutchen, the Bucs have resigned themselves to keeping him (at least until the trade deadline at the end of July). McCutchen had the worst DRS (defensive runs saved) in MLB last year, and also produced the worst batting average and OPS (on-base plus slugging) of his career. The Pirates announced they were moving Cutch to right field and putting Starling Marte in center.

I expect a bounceback year offensively, and McCutchen accepted the change like the class act that he is. Shortly after Pittsburgh announced the move, Cutch tweeted a photo of Roberto Clemente playing right field. As I’ve said before, it’s always more fun to root for good guys. And Andrew McCutchen is one of the best.

                                                                                  *****

Last fall the Indianapolis Indians announced their plan to extend the protective netting behind the plate all the way past first and third bases. Gan, Jack, and I share Indians season tickets, and the new net will be between our seats and the field.

Now, we’re not as nimble as we used to be. So the net is probably a good thing. We’re often distracted during games, drinking beer and making stupid wagers (“I bet the catcher’s throw to second after the warmup pitches will be in the dirt”), and none of us baseball_diamond_in_snow_-_panoramiowant to take a foul ball in the noggin. (We’ll still be able to make a play on pop-up foul balls over the net. Jack actually caught one like that with his belly last year.)

But before renewing our tickets, we went down to the ballpark to check out the view from our seats and see how distracting the net would be. As usual, nobody wanted to make a decision, so we decided to discuss it over a beer. Or beers.

“We can just fester through this season,” Gan said. “Then if it’s too distracting we can change next year.”

“Fester?” I said. “Whadda ya mean, fester?”

“You know, fester. Just get through the year.”

I’ve always said that I don’t read enough books, but most of my friends read even fewer. After an argument about the etymology of the word fester (and another beer), we decided to keep the same seats. I don’t like looking through the net, but I’ll probably get used to it. And when I take one of the grandkids to the game, I won’t have to worry about making an error and having them get hit by a foul ball.

                                                                                  *****

Over the last two weeks of January, the Savannah State Tigers rolled to a six game winning streak, beating MEAC foes both at home and away. They’ve since lost two straight, but they lead the nation in tempo with 81 possessions for every 40 minutes. They also boast the shortest average possession length in NCAA Division 1 (12.1 seconds). The Tigers’ record currently stands at 10-14, but, with five games to play they still have chance to break .500 on the season. And I’m pretty sure most coaches don’t want to face them (though their players probably do).  

  greetings_from_savannah_georgia_8367061455-2

 

Gambling for writers and writing for gamblers

I was talking to a couple of Muslim friends the other day about Islamic restrictions on food and behavior. First, I asked one to explain what makes meat halal (permitted) for Muslims. He made sure I understood that pork was never allowed, and that there were no restrictions on seafood. Since his English is still rudimentary, he struggled to explain what made beef and lamb halal, then finally resorted to making a slashing motion across his throat and making a “ckkkkkk” sound. Which was clear enough, though it occurred to me that this explanation would result in a 15-yard penalty in the NFL.

Then we talked about Islamic prohibitions against gambling. (For some reason many of my conversations end up as gambling discussions. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. (Nothing to see here….move off the corner, Johnny.) They told me that gambling is haram (forbidden) because the winner “doesn’t deserve” the money, having acquired it without working.

Some of my non-Catholic friends belong to Christian traditions that also frown on gambling. They’ve explained to me that they consider it a waste of God-given resources, or that they consider a gambler to have the same motivation as a thief; that is. to get money by way of deceit.

I’m not arguing against anybody’s religious beliefs here, just trying to understand the rationale. For me, gambling has always been more about the competition than the money. Which is why slot machines don’t interest me. In poker and sportsbetting, you’re usually rewarded for making good decisions. I love the feeling of having figured out a team’s value or what cards an opponent’s holding. It’s not unlike solving a crossword puzzle. Sometimes luck enters into it, but that’s true with all games and sports.

256px-craps

I can’t say winning money isn’t a part of the thrill; otherwise, I wouldn’t like craps so much. And I confess that playing online poker with free chips generally bores me. (Though the lack of value to focus my mind is only part of the problem there. It also causes people to play recklessly, like they don’t care about the outcome. Which reduces any enjoyment of the competitiveness aspect.)

I’m well aware of the social cost of compulsive gambling. I know it’s destroyed families and ruined lives. But one could point to a lot of innocuous activities that have done the same thing when there is a lack of moderation and balance.

                                                      *****

It’s been a long time since I wrote any fiction (insert cynical journalism joke here), but my publisher is having a 24-hour short story contest this weekend. They announce the theme at noon on Saturday and the story is due by the same time on Sunday. I’m used to cobbling together short narratives under pressure. When I was covering minor league baseball, I had to have the story mostly written by the end of the game since my deadline was usually 30 minutes after the last pitch.

If I was lucky, there was no late-inning rally that would force a re-write. After the final out, I’d hustle down to the clubhouse and stand outside the door, waiting for expiration of the league-mandated ten minute “cooling off” period. (Sometimes I cheated when the game ran long. It wasn’t usually a big deal if I was interviewing players on the winning team; if not, I had to step a bit more lightly.) Then I’d enter the clubhouse and try to quickly find a player who’d affected the outcome.

wallace_reid_and_his_cat

Unless he’d had a good game, the player would invariably hide in the training room, off-limits to the press. Nervously checking the time, I’d then try to develop alternate questions for another player, and then go try to get the manager to say something interesting. Something other than a) “we just got/didn’t get timely hits”, b) “our pitchers were locating/not locating the fastball”, or c) “I was pleased with the effort”.

I’d then run up to the press box, taking stairs two at a time (the elevator was too slow), type in the quotes, scan the story quickly for obvious errors, and send it. One time on my drive home from the ballpark, I suddenly realized that the whole point of my lead – that a left-handed pitcher had dominated a right-handed lineup – was wrong. Because the pitcher was right-handed. Luckily, that was a day game, so I had time to call the editor, kill the story and re-write it.

So I’m used to writing with strict time limits, but, being fiction, this will be different. I’m looking forward to the challenge, and if I think my story is any good (or if I run out of blog ideas) I’ll post it here. If you’re a writer (or, I guess, even if you’re not) and want to submit an entry, you can enter at http://24hourshortstorycontest.com/ for $5. There are cash prizes for the winners, so it’ll be easier to focus. Just like if you were gambling.  

 

With regrets from a former Cubs fan

Don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Chicago Cubs have made it the all the way to the World Serious. That news would have been cause for great celebration around my house fifteen or twenty years ago. I didn’t really even follow baseball until I started watching Cubs games in the afternoons around 1980. I’d get home from work at 3 o’clock, and Theresa wouldn’t be there until after five. So with no kids to tend  and nothing but soap operas and the Cubs on TV, I started watching Milo Hamilton, Vince Lloyd, and Lou Boudreau on WGN.

After a few years I became a big enough fan that I half-seriously tried to talk Theresa into naming one of our sons after Andre Dawson. He’s still one of my favorite players of all time, signing a blank contract for one year with the Cubs, then going out and clubbing 49 home runs. Now THAT’S believing in yourself.

On several occasions I made the trip north with my Dad (and sometimes my brother) to catch a weekend series. Tickets were easy to get, and it was fun to sit in the sunshine and watch a game. Over the years, I took my sons up a few times. Once I missed three Dawson homers because I 1) took Sean to the nurse’s station for a bee sting, 2) took Andrew to the restroom, and 3) fetched beers for myself, Dad, and Dad’s friend Rudy.

v__88ee

One of these scoreboards is not like the others.

Eventually, I drifted away from the Cubs. I started covering AAA Indianapolis Indians games on a semi-regular basis, and when players were promoted to the big leagues, I’d keep following their fortunes. It helped that most of the future Pirates seemed to be good guys. When my sons Conor and Eamon were Indians’ batboys, Eamon once accidentally dumped Gatorade all over Andrew McCutchen. Cutch just laughed and told him it was no big deal. One player offered to pay for the boys’ tuition at his baseball camp. Another time we were in Pittsburgh for a game, and Virgil Vasquez and Garrett Jones had just been called up to the major leagues. We happened to see them in the hotel, and they remembered Conor and Eamon from Indianapolis and chatted with them for awhile.   

I’m also a Diamondbacks fan, but have no heartwarming stories about them. I just went to a lot of games one summer when I was working in Phoenix.

See? Not heartwarming at all. Told ya.

Despite leaving the Cubs for other teams, I thought I’d always love Wrigley Field, no matter what team I was rooting for. Besides the hole-in-the-wall taverns and restaurants that surrounded the place, it’s in a real neighborhood. As much as I love PNC Park in Pittsburgh, you’d have to walk thirty minutes to find an occupied residence. Around Wrigley, there are actual urban houses four times as tall as they are wide, with front porches where a guy can sit after work with a cold one and the newspaper. Right outside the left field wall is a fire station, and I remember radio broadcasts being interrupted by sirens. I always felt like Wrigley, more than any other ballpark, was woven into the fabric of the city, and had been for a hundred years.

This September, on a sunny, cool day, I met up with my sons Sean and Andrew to take in a Sox-Cubs doubleheader. First, we took the red line train down to U.S. Cellular Field to watch the White Sox against Cleveland. With the Sox out of contention, great seats were cheap. The beer selection was outstanding, and we lucked into a compelling 2-1 game with Chicago plating the winner on a walk-off hit.

Then we took the train back to the North side, where the Cubs were playing a night game with a chance to clinch the Division. We got there about an hour before first pitch and waded into blocked-off streets choked with pedestrians. I’m pretty sure the average blood alcohol level approached double digits.

A lot of the small businesses – bars, souvenir shops, restaurants – have been cleared away by new construction. My Chicago-based son told me that Cubs, Inc. had been aggressively buying up property around the ballpark and plan new offices and a “plaza”. I was disappointed, but not especially surprised. There’s no law requiring team owners to be less avaricious than your average ticket scalper.

We entered the ballpark to jam-packed concourses and long lines for concessions and restrooms. Again, nothing new. It’s an old ballpark. Fans didn’t expect swimming pools and playgrounds at a baseball game (or rather, in the vernacular of the time, “base ball”).

So I wasn’t annoyed at narrow-gauge seats (some with a partially obstructed view), crowded concourses, and cramped restrooms. But when I get all the old-timey inconvenience, I expect the object of attention –  the field – to continue the theme.

Instead, what I got was two gaudy, low-definition video boards with muddy sound. I don’t even think the primary purpose of Cubs, Inc. was to enhance fan experience. They just wanted to block the view of people who own the high rises across the street.

The beer selection was unworthy of a college wood-bat team. Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Blue Moon were about it. Unless you consider Old Style a craft beer.

So Cubs, Inc. apparently finds itself bound and gagged when it comes to giving fans a better experience. But when it comes to wringing more cash out of this nostalgia business and running everybody else out of the neighborhood to increase ROI, they’re freewheelin’, hard-chargin’ entrepreneurs. The Cubs lost to Milwaukee that night, but backed into the Division crown when St. Louis lost a few hours later. Which seems about right.   

So congratulations to all the Cubs fans, and good luck against Cleveland. I hope the Cubs win, but only because of my long-held resentment against the abomination that is the designated hitter rule. The team lost me through no fault of its own. Wrigley lost me by trying to be two things at once, and doing neither particularly well.  

v__802e

Cubs fans rising in anticipation of another beer.

Speaking of shameless commercialism…I have a couple of book events coming up:

Book release party….I’ll be signing (and, hopefully, selling) copies of Thirty-Two Minutes in March at Fountain Square Brewery, 1301 Barth Ave, Indianapolis on November 9 from 7 PM-9 PM. Buy a copy of the book and I’ll buy your first pint of tasty craft beer. Or, just come have a beer, listen to some jazz and make it look like I have friends.

Indy Author Fair….on October 29 at the Indianapolis Central Library I’ll be joining dozens of other Indiana writers from 12 noon – 2 PM, signing and selling books. There are also a lot of talks by successful writers and writing workshops, all for free. See http://www.indianaauthorsaward.org/indy-author-fair for details.

Judging Pete Rose

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 60s and 70s, almost everybody I knew gambled. Whether it was trips to Churchill Downs, penny-ante poker with the family, or betting football parlay cards, wagering was part of everyday life. I think our civic attachment to gambling is somehow tied up with being a river town. My friends tell me that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are the same way.

The only person I knew growing up who seemed to have no interest in games of chance was my brother. When my Dad died, John and I were standing around at the funeral home when an elderly man walked up, smiled, shook our hands and expressed his condolences. As he shuffled away, my brother asked “Who was that?”

“Charlie. Charlie Donnelly*.”

“Who’s he?”

I looked at my brother. “Charlie. You know, from the factory. ‘Hots’.”

My brother stared at me in disbelief. “Dad knew a guy named ‘Hots’?”

“Yeah. Hots. You know. Dad’s bookie.”

“Dad had a bookie?”

When my wife and I moved to Indiana, what I found most surprising was the general attitude toward gambling. (Well, that and the complete absence of anyplace serving a decent breaded fish sandwich. But, I digress.) Most of our new friends had never bet on a horse race or a ball game. I started an irregular poker night, and, to this day, sometimes have to verbally repeat the rank of poker hands in the middle of a game.

So I think I understand why some baseball fans think Pete Rose shouldn’t be banned from baseball. When you consider what some Hall of Famers have gotten away with (looking at you, Ty Cobb), merely betting on his team to win as a manager doesn’t seem so bad. Here’s why I disagree.

In a game with tons of unwritten rules, this one is written down everywhere…. I’ve never graced a major league clubhouse, but I’ve been in several triple-A versions. And my understanding is that in every single clubhouse in organized baseball, there is a sign that warns players, managers, and coaches of the severe penalty for betting on baseball. Until just a few years ago, there weren’t any such signs warning about performance-enhancing drugs. So the people who justify Rose by saying “at least he didn’t do steroids” have it exactly backwards. He didn’t get daily warnings about PEDs; but he did about gambling.

I was a part-time usher in a minor league ballpark for one summer, and they told us that we’d be fired for betting on baseball. That’s right….ushers.

Untitled design(2)

Concrete evidence of my lack of wagering acumen. A bet that the Dbacks would win more than 84 games this year. Yikes.

Rose’s claims about only betting his team to win, and only when he was a manager are unconvincing……Rose contends he only bet the Reds to win, and that he never bet baseball while he was playing. I’ve never seen hard evidence that either of these claims is untrue, but I don’t believe them. As much as I love gambling, I know the difference between a recreational gambler and a degenerate. And somebody who is already comfortable risking a lifetime ban is unlikely to set moral standards like only betting his team to win.

And are we really expected to believe that he only started exploiting the edge he had by betting on baseball – a sport in which he was the ultimate insider – after he was done playing? Why would he think it was wrong to bet as a player but not as a manager, especially when it’s thoroughly documented that he was betting on other sports?

Even if he only bet his team to win as a manager, it’s still intolerable…..a manager makes decisions every day that affect the next day’s game. Leave the starter in or bring in a reliever? Is the bullpen shot? Are any left-handers available to face a predominantly left-handed hitting team tomorrow? Do I need to bring up a reliever from the minors and sacrifice a position player spot? What if I’ve bet today’s game at plus-240 and I know we’re probably minus-120 tomorrow?

It diminishes the Hall of Fame when the all-time hits leader and one of the greatest players of the 20th century isn’t included…. OK, this one has some merit, but here’s a solution: lift the ban posthumously. That allows Rose’s singular achievements to be recognized while a) preventing Rose from benefiting financially and b) ensuring that current players don’t assume that they can take a chance (so to speak) and bet on baseball with the hope of getting a subsequent ban lifted.

If Major League Baseball lifts the ban on Pete Rose, the Hall might as well get started on that long-anticipated “Great Players of the Steroids Era” exhibit in Cooperstown.

  • name changed