Monday, September 28, 2009


"Oy, what a bellyache!" I exclaimed to myself as I left the theater. Not because of the movie: Stephen Soderbergh's The Informant! was actually pretty enjoyable at its best points. Matt Damon turned in a very effective comedic performance, despite playing a character whose intentions and motivations were more obscure than Thomas Hardy's Jude. (This was due partly to his character, Mark Whitacre's, near-psychotic nature and partly to a narrative that left the audience in the dark at key points regarding his past decisions and actions.)

No, the bellyache was due to the entire package of Red Vines and small Coke I had during the movie. (And, case you're wondering, yes, I did use a Red Vine as a straw. Delicious!)

"Darnit, Pankin, you're better than that!" I admonished myself. "Your mother works for Weight Watchers, for goodness sake. Where's your portion control?"

The truth is, I was nervously eating because my attention was split between the movie and my inner thoughts. These thoughts, as they so often do, had turned to baseball, specifically a movie about baseball that was almost directed by the same director whose work I was watching on the screen.

In case you haven't heard, this movie was Moneyball, an adaptation of Michael Lewis's bestselling novel about Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane and his new stats-based approach to player evaluation. The book chronicled the A's 2002 season, which included the fabled "Moneyball Draft," where the A's drafted - against popular wisdom - such future solid major leaguers as Nick Swisher (now with the Yankees), Joe Blanton (Phillies), and Mark Teahen (Royals, also the starting third-baseman for Team Canada in this year's World Baseball Classic).

In addition to Soderbergh, Brad Pitt was attached to star as Beane, Demitri Martin had the second lead (Paul DePodesta, Beane's right-hand man), and numerous ex-baseballers would have played themselves, recreating parts of their careers on the silver screen. But as the project neared the start of production, the studio (Sony) had issues with Soderbergh's revisions of Steven Zaillian's script (a script which also needed the approval of Major League Baseball). Soderbergh tried to offer the film to other studios, but when he received only rejections, the director was let go. With Pitt still attached, Sony hired writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night) to punch up the script. This was back in July, and lists the movie as being "in production."

Despite my affiliation with the Oakland A's, I never read Moneyball. Or, rather, I never finished Moneyball. Part of the reason was that I read the book in 2003 - the year of its publication - while the A's were right in the midst of their fourth straight heartbreaking loss in the first round of the playoffs. This time it was against the Red Sox; the three previous years, they fell to the Twins, the Yankees, and the Yankees again. The book is basically a love letter to Billy Beane: how he's head and shoulders above other GMs in terms of intellect, light-years ahead of them in terms of insight, and that his new methods of player evaluation and development would revolutionize baseball. Meanwhile, on my television set, I watched Billy Beane's team drop three straight games to the Red Sox after taking a two-game lead and needing only one more win to clinch the series. Reading about the brilliance of the A's management while simultaneously watching the A's inability to advance in the playoffs provided too intense an emotional disconnect, causing me to hurl my copy of Moneyball across the room. I haven't opened it since.

I have, however, read the first draft of Steven Zaillian's script for the film. I enjoyed it, but then again I also recognized the name of every front office man, every relief pitcher, and every low draft pick that got even a passing reference. So despite this enjoyment, I found myself unable to put myself in the shoes of someone less obsessed with baseball than I in order to judge whether the movie would hold the average audience member's attention. It seemed likely that many of the subtleties would be lost on someone who didn't follow every game of the 2002 season (much like how many of the subtleties of The Wire are lost on people who did not grow up in Baltimore).

That's not to say that there isn't material for a compelling movie in the Moneyball story. The season in question is perfectly suited for a sports movie: handsome, charismatic, and savvy GM leads a team with an embarrassingly low payroll to an unexpectedly successful season. A season, by the way, that included a first place finish after sitting 10 games back in the standings at one point, and a magical, record-setting 20-game winning streak. I mean, the movie almost writes itself! Furthermore, Beane's off-the-field exploits - his wheeling and dealing with other GMs, his intellectual conversion to stats-based rather than gut feeling-based player evaluation, and his Jimmy McNulty-esque personal life - make for a compelling character study (and a meaty role for a two-time Oscar nominee to boot!).

The skinny on the plug-pulling was that Soderbergh's rewrite of the script included lengthy interviews with real players and other narrative jaunts unfamiliar to the genre. The studio got nervous, not wanting to disappoint their time-tested sports movie demographic and sent the Oscar-winning director packing.

Which brings us back to said director's current project, The Informant!, and my binge-marked viewing of it. Watching Soderbergh's adaptation of Mark Whitacre's story, I couldn't help but speculate as to how his particular directorial style would have enhanced Billy Beane's story. I was especially interested in Matt Damon's performance, which prompted fantasies about how an actor just as familiar with Soderbergh as Damon (Pitt and Damon both appeared in all three of Soderbergh's Ocean's # series) would have worked with the director to cultivate a portrayal of one of the most captivating figures in Major League Baseball. Finally, after all these flights of fancy, I was jolted back into reality with the recollection that the project is all but completely off the table (unless Sorkin can work magic with his pen and Pitt can find another director, one who's willing to work with a trimmed budget).

With all this going on in my head, no wonder I ate so much during the movie!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Until the Playoffs Begin...

With just under two weeks left in the regular season, there's very little talk about who's winning games against whom around the baseball world. Every playoff spot is basically locked up (if you don't count the Twins' surge, and with a starting rotation that's in shambles and with their second best hitter out for the season, I'd say the Tigers are a good bet to hold on to first place). Pretty much the only matchup that's yet to be determined is who the Rockies will play in the NL Division Series.*

*Back to basics for a sec: Normally it works out that the wild card team plays the team with the league's best record in the first round of the playoffs. However, there is one caveat: if the wild card winner is in the same division as the team with the league's best record, the wild card team plays the team with the second-best record in the league. This caveat will almost certainly come into play in the American League this year - the Red Sox (90-61; wild card leader by 7 games) will miss out on facing the Yankees (97-56; 7 wins better than both the Red Sox and the Angels). Meanwhile, in the NL, the race to the league's best record is still in full swing, with just 3 wins separating the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Phillies.

We know how the bigwigs on each of the eight playoff-bound teams are spending the rest of September: poring over statistics, studying film, and analyzing trends having to do with their future October opponents. Meanwhile, the other 22 teams are busy looking forward to next season: projecting performances for those players likely to remain for 2010, prospecting possible free-agent signings, and gawking over their highest-profile draft picks and September call-ups.*

*Some more technical info: each MLB team consists of 25 players (the 25-man roster) who are eligible to play in games during the season. 15 extra players, in addition to the above-mentioned 25, make up the 40-man roster. These extra 15 can be on the Disabled List or in the minor leagues, and they're not eligible for major league play unless placed on the 25-man roster. However, on September 1, all this changes, as from this date on, any player on the 40-man roster can play in major league games. The players included on the expanded roster are known as "September call-ups," as they were called up to the majors specifically for the month of September.

With very little meaningful baseball left to play, the writers and columnists have turned their gaze ahead as well: some inquiring how the contenders will shore up various holes in their lineup or rotation, some looking even further into the future, surmising who might win various awards such as the MVP or Cy Young. The consensus in these cases: Joe Mauer deserves the MVP in the AL, although Mark Teixeira very well may end up winning. Albert Pujols has the NL MVP pretty much locked up. Zack Greinke deserves the AL Cy Young, but could lose out to Felix Hernandez or even C.C. Sabathia. The NL Cy Young is a three horse race between Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and defending champ Tim Lincecum.

All this conjecture and forward-thinking has its place, but is that really all there is to talk about in the baseball world if the playoff teams are all locked up come September? We've been somewhat spoiled by a couple of really close races the last couple of years, so that people who write about baseball have always had something fun and dramatic about which to write. The lull in interesting news this time of year certainly works out for two-sport fans, who can get all their baseball ducks in a row before the start of football season. And of course it's nice to sit back and take a good hard look at the members of the playoffs before the tournament even starts.

So in light of the recent slowdown in captivating baseball activity, thoughts about life have taken the place of thoughts about baseball. Needless to say, baseball thoughts will return once the playoffs begin and then continue well into the hot stove season. But in the interim, all we can do is look forward to an exciting October.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How Others See You

Maybe this is a peculiar quirk about the time/place in which I grew up, but in my youth I heard over and over again to "not care about how others see you." I understand that in broad sense, this piece of advice is meant to solidify a young kid's self esteem in the face of bullies, restrictive social dynamics, and generally judgmental eyes. I understand that as a metaphorical piece of life-coaching a statement such as this one could have great value in steering someone away from blind conformism or a life as a "follower" rather than a "leader." But just as an action-guiding statement, I always took issue with it.

In some cases it's a totally acceptable piece of advice and in other cases it's a totally acceptable metaphor. But there's a spectrum there, and you can't expect the same advice to apply in every situation. Let's take three examples:

1) "Why are you going into showbiz? Everyone else in your entire family is a doctor and they have the same ambition for you." "Yeah, well, I'm pursuing the career I enjoy, I don't care what they think of me." A little callous, maybe, but headstrong and independent.

2) "Why are you running around with no clothes on? There are elderly people and kids around!" "Screw social conventions, I don't care what that old couple and their grandkids think of me!" A bit strange, but (at least in places such as Portland) allowed by the letter of the law. And it shows a great deal of self-confidence to boot.

3) "Why are you waving that knife around and shouting about the government? There's a cop right across the street!" "Shove off, pig! I'm an American! I've got the right to free speech!" A noble if somewhat misguided interpretation of the Constitution. But if you ignore how a certain group of people sees you (i.e. the authorities), you could get your rear-end thrown into jail.

In addition to counterexamples such as these - which show how sometimes your personal well-being is tied up in how people see you - I always felt that I should live my life with a general sense of how my actions are construed by my peers. Not necessarily seeking their approval for every decision I make. But if something I do offends them or makes them uneasy, I'd like to know, so I can take steps to change. I respect my peers and want them to respect me. And while we don't come to this mutual respect by me bowing to their every wish, neither does mutual respect arise out of me not caring how I appear in their eyes. I just think that following the logical implications of not caring about how others see you leads down the lonely road of solipsism.

Now flash forward to an Angels TV broadcast sometime during 2007 or '08, after Gary Matthews, Jr. had come to the Angels. He was in the middle of a pretty big slump and the Angels' broadcasters, Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler, were talking about how Matthews could try to break out of it. Phys was pretty useless on the subject, if I remember correctly, but Hud, being a former player, had some real insights into the situation. He said that most of what goes on in a slump is bad luck: hard line drives hit directly to the defenders, opposing players making circus catches against you. It starts with a lot of stuff like that happening all in a row and you not being able to catch a break.

Then once you get into a slump, it starts to get into your head. Maybe the stress is causing you to try a little bit too hard or to forget your mechanics. At this point there's a lot of talk about "getting your weight out on your front foot" or "not letting your hands stay on top of the baseball" and any number of technical phrases that basically amount to meaningless jargon to non-players/coaches.

Then Hud started talking about how the mental aspect translates into the physical aspect. This was the part that started to interest me, because he was really talking about "physicality" rather than mechanics. As Matthews stepped up to the plate, rather than analyze his batting stance or his swing, Hud looked at his body language. He said the most important part of getting out of a slump is carrying yourself as if you're not in a slump.

This tactic certainly has a personal motivation - if you can convince yourself that there's nothing wrong, the idea is that pretty soon you'll start performing on the field as if nothing's wrong - but it has a social motivation as well. Hud explained that the main importance of controlling your body language lies in how your opponents view you from the other side of the diamond. Because, for the most part, major league pitchers are a focused, ruthless, and insightful bunch when it comes to facing major league batters. If a hitter shows any weakness when he steps into the batter's box, even if it's just a slight display of frustration in the way he carries himself, a pitcher will aggressively exploit that weakness to the best of his ability.

Finally, here's someone acknowledging the fact and giving an explanation of why it does in fact matter how others see you! Granted, Hud's specific example only applies within the context of the dynamics of a baseball game. But the same reasoning that makes this principle applicable in baseball makes it just as applicable in real life. Because, after all, baseball is a microcosm of life. And that's the real reason for watching, right?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fantasy Sports

As you may have heard, Football Season started yesterday. Being from the Los Angeles area, and not having a football team to grow up rooting for (for which to grow up rooting?), it's been rather hard for me to hop onto the whole NFL train. I've had some marginal affiliation with the Steelers (friends/family and hanging out where they have their summer training camp) and an awesome new reason to root for the Ravens (talk about irony, ha cha cha), but so far neither team has provided enough of a draw for me to tune in every Sunday.

Last night, during the game, a friend of a friend who happened to have it on the tube gave his lament for his hometown not having a team, and then said something interesting: that he wouldn't particularly care about the outcomes of NFL games were it not for Fantasy Football.

I find this a really interesting dynamic, that fantasy sports can give rise to a closer following of actual sports. A fantasy player obviously needs to follow the real sport fairly closely, since the fortunes of your fantasy team are inextricably linked to the fortunes of the real life athletes. But in the beginning of fantasy sports (most say around the 1950s or early 60s), the urge to make lists of players and keep track of their year-to-date stats grew out of paying very close attention to the real sports. Indeed, before Yahoo and ESPN and The Sporting News started taking care of all the tedious data gathering, fantasy players had to keep track of all the stats and organize them manually.

Nowadays, it seems like the direction of information has been reversed (or rather, has the potential to be reversed). For instance, it's possible to care about a sport just for the sake of your fantasy team, whereas before, it was impossible to even operate a fantasy league without already having intense interest in the sport itself.

What's more, with all the advanced data tracking tools and in-depth fantasy coverage, following the sport isn't even necessary to performing well in a fantasy league. I don't think I watched a single NBA game the whole time I played fantasy basketball (just a couple of years, in high school). I just browsed through all the players with the best points per game value and made the most cost-effective decisions (it was one of those salary cap leagues). In this way, my fantasy basketball experience was a lot like a less advanced version of playing the stocks. Sure, stock brokers and traders are aware of the market and the individual companies, but they get into the business because they want their stocks to do well, not because they see any kind of entertainment value in the dynamics of businesses competing with one another. What happens in the business world only matters for them insofar as they can make some money from it.

The sports world, on the other hand, differs from the business world because a great many people find great value in the sports world for its own sake - in this example, let's call those people "fans." Fantasy sports can provide fans with a great deal of enjoyment, because it allows them to apply their extensive knowledge of the sport to a contest among friends and/or strangers. (Or, contrarily, it could cause no small amount of frustration to certain fans who, based on their nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of the sport in question, should be sitting much higher in the standings than they currently are. But I digress.)

My point is that it's interesting how fantasy sports and real sports have had such a developing, reciprocal relationship over the years. Love of sports gave rise to people dedicated enough to organize fantasy leagues. And now the very presence of fantasy leagues is encouraging a new group of otherwise uninterested fans to follow sports. It's not quite a chicken-or-the-egg story, since it's obvious which one came first. But it's an interesting story of co-existence nonetheless.

Friday, September 4, 2009

As A Fan...

I watched the Giants vs. Phillies game last night, and kept score all the while, a pastime in which I have not indulged since this spring’s World Baseball Classic. I know most of this stuff can be done quicker and easier (and more accurately) with computers nowadays, but there’s something about that grid of square after square depicting baseball diamonds, some of them containing esoteric pencil marks that, when read correctly, can tell the story of a baseball game, that gets this Philosophy major going. For me, keeping score provides just the right amount of interaction with the game, while also encouraging unflagging focus on the proceedings.

I was interested in this game because it featured two of the best teams (and arguably the best pitcher) in the National League and because it provided a glimpse into the future with a possible playoff matchup. The incredible pitching performances by both starters (seven innings apiece from Tim Lincecum and Pedro Martinez) made for a really interesting pitcher’s duel and a really quick game (2 hrs, 8 mins).

My professional interest in the game notwithstanding, I don’t have any personal affiliation to either of these teams. This passive distance allowed me to observe certain events in the game without getting as worked up as I would if similar events were to happen in a game involving, say, the Oakland A’s. For instance, in the top of the ninth inning, with Brad Lidge trying to preserve the Phillies’ 2-1 lead, I was able to calmly trace the trajectory of Randy Winn’s ground ball single that just hit off the glove of Chase Utley and scratch through the letters “BB” signifying a walk given up to Juan Uribe without, say, hurling my scorebook across the room or jabbing my pencil into my own thigh. Lidge eventually got pinch-hitter Fred Lewis to ground out to end the game, lowering his ERA to 6.89 and managing to avoid blowing his tenth save of the year.

The plight of Brad Lidge this year is an interesting phenomenon for analysts, a perpetual headache for Phillies fans, and a faint glimmer of hope for any team playing the Phillies that finds itself faced with a three-run-or-less deficit going into the ninth inning. But for those of us who have no special place in their hearts for the Phillies, and yet wish them no specific ill will, we can only respond to each Lidge blown save with a half-sympathetic, “Well, that sucks.” We could lament about the unwillingness of management to give up on their “proven star closer” and tiptoe around mentioning that Ryan Madson needed only nine pitches to throw a perfect eighth inning, and yet was pulled before the ninth. But there’s really no gut reaction that inevitably rears its ugly head whenever “your team” is having a problem.

Why is that, do you think? What is it about the makeup of professional sports teams that can get people so riled up about one specific group of overpaid athletes and react with such cold, calculated attitudes towards another such group?

Oh, great, I can hear you all thinking. He’s asking the big questions about baseball. I know that, and I know the stigma attached to the big questions, and I apologize for bringing it up. Maybe it’s just through sheer boredom that follows my team (the A’s) having fallen so abysmally far back in the standings. And I’m not, by any means, implying that because I can recognize the issue, I am somehow able to avoid falling victim to it, because that is not the case at all. (You should have seen me last Friday when first base umpire Greg Gibson missed a blatant call against Craig Breslow and the A’s in the 7th inning that eventually cost us the game against the Angels.)

Just keep in mind that I’m not asking these questions in order to break down “the reasons” explaining them in hopes of receiving any definite answers. I’m merely acknowledging the questions, musing about them, and pointing out how cool are the complexities of life and sports that can cause otherwise rational people to behave in unexplainable and irrational ways. It's one of the mysteries of life that remain more compelling and interesting if they remain mysteries. But the occasional thought about them doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

AL Central: The Race that Time Forgot

At this point, I have talked about every playoff race save two: the AL Central and the NL Wild Card. In the former race, things have been going pretty much as expected. Everybody knew the division would be up for grabs, and we're now just watching it play out until the end of the season. The Tigers have pulled away as the clear favorites, holding onto first place since May 10. They've made a couple of "win-now" moves to strengthen their ballclub (acquiring pitcher Jarrod Washburn from the Mariners and first baseman Aubrey Huff from the Orioles) and just hope to ride it out, letting the Twins and White Sox take care of each other.

Less than a week ago, the White Sox gave up second place to the Twins, a place in the standings they had previously held since the trade deadline. This was right about when they learned that their big acquisition from said deadline - Jake Peavy (2007's Cy Young Award winner), who was already injured at the time of the trade - had no real timetable for his return. Since then, they've apparently opted for influencing the races in the NL West rather than their own, trading aging slugger Jim Thome to the Dodgers and starter Jose Contreras to the Rockies. At the moment, they're banking on Peavy to come back healthy next year and to remain healthy all the way through 2012, when his current contract expires. And if he ends up being worth the guaranteed $52 million they'll have to spend on him, that's just the icing on the cake.

The Twins have been surging of late, despite a rotation ravaged by injuries and ineffectiveness. Of the projected starting five, only Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn remain; Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano are injured, and Glen Perkins has been out of the rotation since the beginning of August. The remaining three spots currently belong to newly acquired veteran Carl Pavano, and some combination of rookies. We'll see if Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer can carry the offense and give the Tigers a run for their money down the stretch.

The Tigers' 4.5 game lead over the Twins isn't a lock, but given the statuses of the two teams, it looks pretty safe. It would be great if they battled it out towards the end, echoing last year's race between the Twins and the White Sox, which required a one game playoff to decide the division leader. Now, that was an exciting race and all (and a 1-0 White Sox victory in the one game playoff made it even more exciting), but let's not forget what happened to those same White Sox in the playoffs: they won a single game on their way to a beating by the AL East winning Tampa Bay Rays, the team that would eventually represent the AL in the World Series.

Given the other teams out there, I can't help but think that a similar fate is in store for whoever ends up winning the Central division. I know it's not fair to discount a team that's played well for the whole season, and I know that pretty much anything can happen in the first round of the playoffs, which is, after all, just a best-of-five series. But whatever powers of foresight I possess are telling me that the Tigers and the Twins (and now especially the White Sox) are unlikely contenders at best.

And it's not just gut feeling, either; their records bear this theory out as well. The Tigers are in first place in their division with 71 wins. The other first place teams have 85 wins (Yankees) and 78 wins (Angels). The two other second place teams have 77 wins (Red Sox) and 75 wins (Rangers). Both of these teams - the two teams competing for the AL Wild Card (see the previous post) - have outperformed the Tigers pretty significantly. Now look at the two other third place teams: the Rays (72 wins) and the Mariners (70 wins). So if the Tigers were in any other division, they wouldn't be anywhere close to the playoff hunt.*

*I know this is a ridiculous "if" here, because if the Tigers were in any other division, they would be playing the majority of their games against teams from that division, and the schedule would be different and all that counter-factual stuff that you have to take into account. Just for kicks, the Tigers have played .591 ball against their division rivals (29-20), .611 vs. the AL West (22-14), and .344 vs. the AL East (10-19). So they've actually played better in their division than out of it (.429 against the East and the West combined). But all this is nothing but fleeting conjecture.

A lot of fans like to see the less likely team blow by the favorites and take the playoffs by storm. I on the other hand stand content to watch the powerhouses steamroll the lesser teams and battle it out amongst themselves. Because, for me, a good Clash of the Titans story always beats out a good Underdog story. And vice versa.