Saturday five, 7/26/14.

My content at ESPN.com over the last seven days…

* My analysis of the Huston Street trade
* My analysis of the Chase Headley trade
* My (very brief) analysis of the Kendrys Morales trade
* This week’s Klawchat

I reviewed the outstanding new boardgame Splendor for Paste, giving the Spiel des Jahres nominee a grade of 9/10. It’s also back in stock at amazon for $35, after some insane pricing earlier in the week when the award was announced. My daughter loves this game and grasped the basic strategy very quickly.

And now, this week’s links – a few more than five, as I came across too many things worth passing along…

  • Nobody had a better take this week on the joke of a punishment wife-beater Ray Rice received from the NFL than Keith Olbermann did.
  • The little girl who may hold the secret to aging. She’s five years old with the body of an infant, but is her whole life just to be a test subject for scientists?
  • On the nascent baseball culture in Iran. I love the idea of sport as diplomacy, although I fear it makes for better headlines than understanding.
  • Nestlé is bottling huge quantities of water from the California desert. Not that anyone’s inclined to stop them.
  • John McPhee on writing, part of The New Yorker‘s now-free archives. Warning: There’s a fair amount of rambling here for a piece on writing.
  • How to spend the first ten minutes of your day, from Harvard Business Review. I use several of these tips, from a morning to-do list to tackling some more daunting tasks earlier in the day – but I also try to knock off a few quick items in the first hour, because there’s a quick psychological payoff from crossing off a few things on the list.
  • R.J. Anderson with a good piece on Big Data coming to baseball. His piece is ostensibly about defense, but the real message here is how critical data management, from building and maintaining a data warehouse to developing tools to access and query it quickly, has become to baseball operations – which supports David Murphy’s excellent column for philly.com on how the Phillies need to revamp their organization.
  • And finally, an audio clip from the BBC: This week’s World Have Your Say discusses balance and media bias in the coverage of the Israel/Gaza conflict, which is great until they invite three guests who claim the media are biased, all three of whom sound like tin-foil hat lunatics and/or teenagers who just read Howard Zinn for the first time and think they have the world figured out. The one guest who claimed there’s an anti-Israel bias was the worst, however, with frequent invocations of the guilt by association fallacy when discussing al-Jazeera.

Saturday five, 7/19/14.

Busy week here between travel and a few major events. Here’s my ESPN content from the last seven days:

* My ranking of the top 50 prospects in the minor leagues.
* On the Astros failing to come to terms with Brady Aiken or Jacob Nix.
* My recap/analysis of the players in the Futures Game, part one and part two.
* This week’s Klawchat.

This week’s links…

And a bonus link: one of the chefs I follow on Twitter (probably Tom Colicchio but I’m not sure) posted a link to exo, a company that makes nutrition bars using cricket flour – yes, cleaned, dried, ground-up bugs. While my immediate reaction was to be very weirded-out, that’s probably not rational, no more so than people who eat common cuts of meat (as I do) but refuse to eat offal (much of which I do eat and enjoy). So, would you eat a protein bar made of finely milled crickets?

Top Chef, S11E16.

Almost all of the the 2014 top 100 prospects package is now posted for Insiders – the post on the ten guys who just missed the 100 goes up on Monday – so here’s the full set of links in case you missed any of it:

Back to the Top Chef finale…

* Louis was the Last Chance Kitchen winner, taking eight straight challenges to re-enter the competition.

* Sam Choy, who made the infamous clam flan on Iron Chef America, is in the house. We have a quickfire … involving spam. That’s disgusting. I don’t care if it’s popular in Hawai’i; it’s anti-food. I can’t believe Colicchio would tolerate this. It contradicts everything he seems to stand for.

* Padma is wearing her 1970s royal blue jumpsuit. I assume Charley is on the speakerphone.

* Louis: “spam and eggs is awesome, nothing better than that.” Are you insane? That’s better than eggs and BACON?

* Seriously, look at that stuff. Cylindrical meat? What part of the animal does that come from? Do you think it was organic? Grass-fed? How much of the contents are fillers, chemicals, things you’d really rather not ask your liver to break down for you? I’m done now.

* The chefs all seem to be using santokus for their mise en place. I do own one and probably should use it even more – it is tremendous for vegetable prep, at least for “gross” cuts. Mincing with one feels trickier because of the straight blade.

* Shirley makes spam fried rice at home. What the fuck is wrong with these people. I guess I’m not done after all.

* Louis is quick-chilling his mousse in a bowl of ice. I thought you were supposed to just dump the ice into the mousse…

* Shirley makes a spam musubi (like nigiri but with grilled spam in lieu of raw fish), but deconstructed, with spam oil-infused rice, nori, cuke slaw, crispy spam, and basil.

* Louis wraps his spam mousse into a torchon, with garlic, chives, scallions, snap peas, beech mushrooms, and togarashi. Padma says, “It’s very silky in my mouth.” I swear she says these things on purpose.

* Nick makes a spam broth with pancetta, seaweed, dried shrimp, fish stock, clam juice, and quail egg. I’d love to be a judge on Top Chef someday, but I am glad it didn’t happen for this episode. I’d be running over to the ocean to purge after each dish.

* Nina makes a breadfruit and teriyaki Spam croquette with a sour orange and mango slaw on top.

* Nick wins, the quail egg smoothing out the somewhat oversalty dish. Sam says it was “Spam like I’ve never seen it before.” And like I’d never want to see it again? Anyway, Nick wins $10K, but not immunity, of course.

* Elimination challenge: Cooking with canoe crops, plants brought to Hawai’i by Polynesian explorers about 1700 years ago. The chefs are limited to those ingredients, pork shoulder, a few kinds of native fish, and some basics like onions and garlic. It’s a double elimination challenge, so only two chefs will go on to the finals. The winner also gets an advantage going into the finale, although we don’t find out what that is even after the winner is named.

* Tom is wearing seahorse shorts, which I guess is the new business casual. The guys rowing in the giant boat with the canoe crops are only wearing loincloths, which Nina calls “thongs” – not without reason.

* Shirley points out all may taste very similar because of same pantry. Sweet potato/turmeric puree. She and Nick doing pork shoulder

* We finally get to see Gail’s baby bump. I approve of this. Hiding her behind furniture would have been kind of insulting.

* To the food … Louis serves grilled opah with sweet potato and a coconut, turmeric, and onion sauce. The judges credit Sam with promoting opah as a food item. Tom’s is a little undercooked, but others’ dishes are perfect. Gail hadn’t had purple sweet potato before – neither had I before going to Hawai’i in 2012, and it’s a revelation, the best sweet potatoes I’ve ever eaten. I imagine they either don’t travel well or farms there don’t produce enough to ship them to the lower 48.

* Nina’s dish is also grilled opah, here with a taro root and coconut puree along with a turmeric, sugar cane, and habanero sauce, and a breadfruit chip somewhere on the plate as well. It’s perfectly cooked, of course, but the sauce was spicy and Tom feels like it threatened to overpower the fish.

* The rhizome in question here is pronounced TUR-meric. Not TOO-meric. A TOO-meric is what Arnold claimed he didn’t have in Kindergarten Cop.

* Nick serves opakapaka (also called Hawai’ian pink snapper) with jalapeño and crispy chicken skin, along with a pork jus sauce. He gets praise for incorporating texture contrast between the skin and the fish. The regular judges are joking that Hawai’i relaxed Nick. Maybe a month away from you guys relaxed him too…

* Shirley made a Maui honey-glazed pork with sweet potato-turmeric puree. Everyone loves the pork – braised, browned, and glazed perfectly. But the whole dish is sweet other than some pickled onions. I’m assuming that was meant to be her acidic component, but no one is talking about that. It reads as sweet (honey) with sweet (sweet potatoes).

* No one hit it out of the park, based on what we heard from the judges. At this point Nina feels like the only lock to advance.

* Sam sharing some Hawai’ian wisdom: breadfruit makes you “really gassy” with “blue flame action.” All righty then.

* We’re back to the chefs watching the judges’ discussion on the big screen. Tom says there were “little mistakes here and there” in all chefs’ food. Louis’ fish wasn’t cooked evenly from dish to dish. Nick’s fish was nicely cooked, but the jalapeño may have been too strong. (Give him a break, you’ve been killing him for underseasoning all season!) Nina did a great job layering flavors, but had a similar issue with too much capsaicin. Shirley’s pork was really flavorful; Emeril loved how it was cooked, but Tom says the plate was a little too sweet and needed a sour/acid note. The judges didn’t telegraph anything here that I could tell.

* When they bring the judges in, we mostly hear more of the same. One thing that stuck out was the praise for Louis in having the confidence to do a simple dish – I just finished The Supper of the Lamb, and the author, Robert Farrar Capon, has a passage about just that point: It’s harder to do simple well than it is to to complicated well.
* Padma looks like she’s going to be sick and they haven’t even sent anyone home yet.

* Winner: Nicholas. He gets the advantage in the finals, but we don’t know what it is. I will say he was like a different person in this episode – less touchy, not whiny, more upbeat. I’m sure he saw or heard feedback during the time off (based on previous seasons, at least) and realized he had to take it down a notch.

* Louis is eliminated first. He tears up, saying he wanted to win for his son. I get that, but your son will love you no less for coming in 4th.

* Shirley is eliminated too. Damn. I thought she had the best season to date, although I can see, based on the judges’ comments, why she went home. She says it’ll be “hard to face (her) family.” I sincerely hope that’s all in her head and that she won’t be berated by her husband or mom for finishing third.

* So we have Nick vs. Nina in the finals. Nina makes fewer mistakes. Nick cooks more ambitious dishes. I’m picking Nick, which is like going for upside rather than probability. He’s more likely to screw it up, but the history of the show favors chefs who are creative and bold.

* All I remember of the preview of next week’s episode is Padma in a tiny string bikini. Not that I’m complaining, but I really was just here for the food.

Thanks to everyone who’s subscribed and powered through the top 100 prospects stuff this week. It was a grind to write it – over 38,000 words, all written in the last 15 days – but I’m happy with the results, and I hope all of you are too.

Tuesday links.

  • This year’s ranking of the top 50 free agents is now online for Insiders. We’ve flagged players who received Qualifying Offers, and in most comments I try to give a rough idea of what I’d be willing to pay each player. There’s a full explanation in the intro.
  • I also held a Tuesday Klawchat today. There will not be a Thursday chat, but Behind the Dish will come out that day.
  • I’ll be doing some freelance game reviews for Paste magazine, and my first piece, a column on the market shift toward tablet boardgame apps, went up today.
  • I know several of you were looking for my review of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor today – it went up here on the dish yesterday.
  • Two singles that hit my playlist in October but didn’t make yesterday’s piece: “Let Go” by RAC featuring Kele (of Bloc Party) and MNDR, the best dance song I’ve heard in 2013; and “Stay Young” by Okkervil River, a fun jangle-pop track from the indie-rock stalwarts who just had their first top-ten album in the U.S.




  • Finally, this Sesame Street parody of “Homeland” is just brilliant. It first aired on the Thursday episode that subtly paid tribute to Jerry Nelson, the original Muppeteer behind (or under) Fat Blue, Herry Monster, Sherlock Hemlock, Mumford … and Count von Count. Nelson passed away in August of 2012, and the opening tribute was sweet, but it was “Homelamb” that ended up stealing the show.

Glossary of inside jokes.

When we start in with inside jokes on Twitter or in chats, I’m often asked by newer readers what some of the hashtags and terms mean, but it’s hard to stop everything else to explain myself – especially in 140 characters. So with that in mind, here’s a far-from-complete list of those various jokes

#andrelted: When Andrelton Simmons does something amazing in the field, which is pretty much every night. See also #belted.

#arbitraryendpoints: Also known as cherry-picking, this means choosing one or both endpoints on a series of games to try to analyze a player. I’ve argued that it’s not arbitrary if the endpoint is tied to something specific, like a change in mechanics, an injury, or a recall from the minors, but even so, it’s always dangerous to throw out any data when you want to draw a conclusion.

#belted: When Brandon Belt homers. Actually originated with #poseyed the year before, but Posey hit too many homers and it got old fast. Even the #belted thing is probably nearing the end of its useful life.

#bowlofjello: That would be Clint Hurdle, who is probably the worst thing going for the Pirates right now, and whom I referred to by this moniker in a July 2012 tweet.

#classy (with or without the #): Refers to Michael Young, and the seeming blindness of some local writers in Dallas to the erosion of his on-field value, after which they would defend him by referring to him as “classy.” Classy is great but it doesn’t turn all those outs into hits. I should point out that use of the term isn’t actually a shot at Young, but how members of the media treat him.

#GUY: From my April 2013 podcast with Chris Sprow, where he brought up the difference between calling a player a “guy” (as in, “he’s just a guy”) and calling him a “GUY” (e.g., Byron Buxton). It turns out that football and baseball people both use the word in the same way.

#heathbellexperience: Possibly invented by Steve Berthiaume, now used to describe Heath Bell doing Heath Bell things, mostly giving up massive home runs. Antecedent of the less-common #jimjohnsonexperience.

#holtzmansfolly: The save rule, which has done more damage to the game on the field and to roster construction than any other statistic in the history of the game. Of course, the BBWAA gave the nitwit who invented this stat the Spink Award, because if that organization is good at one thing, it’s self-congratulation.

#idito: From an angry and not very bright Cardinals fan in 2009 who was mad that I didn’t include Chris Carpenter on my NL Cy Young ballot that year. Related to the now obsolete term #obsurd, from another equally angry and equally not very bright Cardinals fan that same day.

#meow: Every time a reader accuses me of bias, God kills a kitten. From the defunct Baseball Today podcast. RIP Bias Cat.

Moran: If you’re going to insult someone, especially by calling them stupid, you probably should look in the mirror first. Not my joke.

More-singles defense: The no-doubles defense.

#preeminent: I appeared on ESPN’s Philadelphia affiliate right after Ryan Howard signed his five-year extension, only to be ambushed by the host of the show in question, who kept referring to Howard as the “preeminent” power hitter in the game. So, whenever it pays to point out that the contract is as awful today as it appeared to be when the Phillies gave it to him, we trot out this tag.

#robotumpsnow: Creation obscure – seemed like a bunch of us started using it around the same time so I won’t take any credit. Refers mostly to awful ball/strike calls by home plate umps, and the fact that replacing that with currently available technology would be an immediate improvement.

SHANF: I think Crashburn Alley started this one – at least, that’s how I first saw it – which originally referred to Shane Victorino doing something a little dim on the field. Given his 2013 season, and how much I ragged on that contract last offseason, if I drop a “SHANF” now, I’m making fun of myself and my very wrong analysis about him.

#smrtbaseball: A little bit of The Simpsons applied to baseball, this refers to tactical moves that are anything but smart, especially ill-advised bunts or intentional walks, as well as batting a low-OBP guy in the two hole. It appears to have started here:

#shrimp/#shrimpalert: Refers to a walk-off walk (walking in the winning run because the bases were loaded). Not mine – originated on the walkoffwalk blog here.

should of: That’s all Fan Since 09, a brilliant parody of a Phillies fan who hopped on the bandwagon right after they won the World Series.

#SSS: Small Sample Size. In other words, I’m saying the performance in question is more a function of the randomness inherent in small samples of plate appearances or innings pitched than a change in skill or outlook. Fangraphs has a few pieces on when samples aren’t small any more. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that if we look at 100 players who’ve reached that threshold, we’re still likely to see one or two players whose stats haven’t stabilized or regressed – it would be more surprising if we didn’t see any outliers at all.

#tehfear: As in, The Fear, the thing that Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy said Jim Rice provoked in opposing pitchers, and that thus made Rice worthy of Hall of Fame induction. It’s just the kind of unverifiable, unfalsifiable nonsense that people use when defeated by rational arguments.

TOOTBLAN: Thrown Out On the Bases Like a Nincompoop. Invented by Cubs blogger Tony Jewell for Ryan Theriot. I’m blocked from the original site due to Google saying it’s infected with malware, but you can see the relevant part of the initial post here.

#umpshow: Any time an umpire decides that he wants to make himself the center of attention, especially by attempting to provoke a conflict with a player or coach, it’s an umpshow. Fans don’t watch games to see the umpires ump. We watch to see the players. It would be great if the minority of umpires who think all eyes should be on them could understand that. Not to be confused with basic incompetence, where #robotumpsnow or #thehumanelement might be more accurate.

#veteranpresents: Started in this chat, regarding Garret Anderson, when the Dodgers signed him to provide veteran presence in their lineup. I decided it was more likely he was a veteran who handed out presents to other players and coaches in the locker room, since that seemed like the only way he’d provide any value. It is a mortal lock that any time I drop this hashtag, at least three people will claim I misspelled “presence,” because they were both without a sense of humor.

#weirdbaseball: Refers to any game that goes past midnight local time (that is, where the game is being played), at which point, everyone is supposed to eat ice cream. Invented by my former colleague Kevin Goldstein (RIP).

#YCPB: You Can’t Predict Baseball, so you should follow this Twitter account.

#your: I don’t play grammar police very often, but it is amazing how often people who send me insults on Twitter can’t get “your” and “you’re” straight. I believe it was @ceeangi who first pointed out this phenomenon.

Omissions? Corrections? Fire ‘em in the comments. This list really isn’t mine, but ours as a community, so I’ll update accordingly.

42.

This week’s episode of Behind the Dish includes my conversation with John C. McGinley, who plays broadcaster Red Barber in 42 and was a fantastic guest. I also have a new column up discussing recent outings from three young NL starters – Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, and Julio Teheran.

The Jackie Robinson biopic 42, opening nationwide on Friday, is a superficial, Hollywood-ized version of the part of Robinson’s life from the Dodgers’ decision to add a black player to their organization until the end of his first season in the majors. A complicated person going through an emotional trial largely unthinkable to viewers today, Robinson is reduced in this film to an intense, brooding, slightly reluctant hero, on screen to be worshiped rather than admired for his strengths and his flaws.

The movie limits itself mostly to two years, 1946 and 1947, and simplifies the story to one where the Dodgers quickly identify Robinson as the player to help them break the color bar, let him dominate the International League for a year (taking just moderate abuse from white players and fans), and bring him up to the majors for a perfunctory tour of the racists of the National League. At nearly every step, Robinson responds to the abuse, mostly verbal with a few attempts to injure him, on the field, always providing the well-timed homer or the easy stolen base to shut up, even for a moment, his antagonists.

Only once do we see Robinson truly respond to the torrent of hate from whites, combined with the weight of expectations from blacks, in the way we’d expect any human being to respond, giving the film its pivotal scene and the one point where Robinson felt like a real person, rather than a two-dimensional character descended from Mt. Olympus. The movie needed that scene, as a catharsis for any empathetic viewers who could only imagine the pressure building up inside Robinson, as he isn’t allowed to respond to taunts or humiliations except with his abilities on the field. What 42 also needed, but didn’t get, was smaller instances of Robinson facing the frustrations – days when he might have gone 0-for-4, failed to come up big in a critical situation, and merely empowered the bigots who said he didn’t belong on the field with white players. Instead, we get trivial scenes of domestic bliss, powered by the beautiful Nicole Behairie in a wasted role as Robinson’s wife Rachel.

Even the process of getting Robinson to the big leagues is far too easy. Branch Rickey’s decision is shown as impetuous, and the internal debate within the Dodgers’ front office (which never seems to include the actual owner of the team) is minimal. The trio of executives select Robinson from a stack of folders on players with scouting reports and biographical information, but we never see the Dodgers actually scout anyone – eventually one of the executives tracks down Robinson’s Negro League team, coincidentally right after he has emerged from a whites-only bathroom at a gas station, and summons him to Brooklyn. The year in Montreal is barely shown, and the decision to promote Robinson to the majors is a formality. While 42 doesn’t make it look easy for Robinson, it does make the journey look a lot smoother than it actually was, an emphasis on Robinson himself that detracts from the magnitude of what he accomplished in reality.

Two aspects of the movie stood out as reasons to see it despite its weaknesses. One was the array of strong performances in leading and secondary roles. Chadwick Boseman (Robinson) does his best with limited material, as he can’t display more than two or three emotions over the course of the entire film, but has a strong enough on-screen presence to command scenes where he sits at the center – except, of course, when Harrison Ford, playing Branch Rickey, is in the room. Ford shocked me with his portrayal of Rickey, one because the script itself did a strong job of depicting Rickey as less than perfect, but also because Ford, even when blustering as Rickey blustered, didn’t chew up entire scenes – he dialed back enough for everyone else, even Boseman, to maintain a presence on the sceen. (We also didn’t get quite enough of Rickey’s motivations for breaking baseball’s unofficial but fifty-year-old color bar; the anecdote he tells Robinson near the end of the film was likely true, appearing in every Rickey biography I’ve read, but the movie doesn’t give the detail that makes the story even more compelling.) Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) is frighteningly effective as the racial-epithet-spewing manager Ben Chapman, whose treatment of Robinson on the field may have led to the early end of his managing career, while McGinley hits his accented, staccato Red Barber impersonation to the point where I wouldn’t have recognized McGinley’s voice if I hadn’t seen him on screen. I wish Leo Durocher had stuck around in the story longer (in reality, that is) so we could have seen more of Christopher Meloni in that role, and thought Andre Holland was largely wasted in a one-note role as sportswriter Wendell Smith, where they made him look less like a writer of the ’40s than like he was about to break into the chorus of “Jerk Out.”

I also thought the baseball within the film was depicted reasonably well, particularly the visuals – creating fields and crowd scenes that looked somewhat appropriate for the time (although, like the entire film, everything is far too bright and clean). The movie relies heavily on apocryphal incidents, like the time Pee Wee Reese may or may not have put his arm around Robinson on the field in Cincinnati and practically read his teammate his eulogy while everyone else waits around for them to finish. The actual movements of players passed the eye test, however, perhaps in part because the extras included a number of former pro players, including one name in particular that jumped out at me during the closing credits. Even the stolen base sequences, which had to be the hardest to film, were good enough for the big screen – not perfect, but I doubt most viewers will be bothered by the catchers’ arm actions or the timing of Robinson’s jumps.

I could see 42 becoming a popular film because of the appeal of Robinson as an American hero – a veteran who destroyed one of the most visible examples of segregation in America, an achievement with tremendous symbolic value that presaged the civil rights movement of the two decades that followed it. But canonizing Robinson was unnecessary; a film that depicted Robinson as angry, frustrated, and flawed would not reduce his myth in the least. It is easier to believe in heroes who are human. The script of 42 tells us twice that Robinson may have been superhuman, and that lionization diminishes his legacy, and us in the process.

* I haven’t read Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training, but came across it when researching the epilogue’s claim about Ed Charles (which this book apparently confirms). If any of you have read it, I’d like to hear whether it’s worthwhile, as the description on amazon implies that it has more of the ugly details of Robinson’s trials in that first year.

The Machine.

I broke two of my reading guidelines when tackling Joe Posnanski’s The Machine, his 20010 book about the remarkable 1975 Cincinnati Reds, focusing on their larger-than-life personalities as much as he does on the way they steamrolled through the National League. The first rule is that I almost never read baseball books. Baseball is work; reading is pleasure. When work invades pleasure, it becomes work. So I keep them separate as much as possible. The second rule is that I try not to read books written by people I know, especially if I count them as friends (as I do Joe), because then if I don’t like the book, I am faced with the difficult task of keeping my mouth shut, which, as many of you surely realize, is not something at which I am particularly skilled.

The good news is that I liked The Machine quite a bit – not as much as I loved The Soul of Baseball, which isn’t really a baseball book anyway, just a book about some people who played the game, but that’s an absurdly high standard. I won’t pretend to give The Machine an objective review, so I’ll focus on why I would recommend it.

I turned two during the 1975 season and have no memories of the Big Red Machine other than my parents telling me about those teams (including their dismantling of the Yankees in the 1976 World Series) when I was first becoming a baseball fan about five or six years later. Posnanski does a good job of keeping readers in the flow of the season, which started slowly for the Reds but turned into a romp that didn’t end until they faced the Red Sox in October, while also weaving in short but telling anecdotes about the team’s central personalities – primarily Rose, Anderson, Morgan, and Bench, and if you need their first names, well, you’re probably not the target audience here anyway.

Posnanski does a good job of humanizing Rose and Morgan, both of whom needed it for obvious yet totally unrelated reasons, while somewhat demythologizing Johnny Bench, who was one of baseball’s last true Hollywood stars, although he’s now better remembered for Krylon commercials and his gigantic hands. (Truckasaurus.) Rose doesn’t come off as sympathetic, just as pathologically driven; you won’t forgive his transgressions, but you can at least somewhat understand how he reached that bottom. Morgan, meanwhile, comes off as the cerebral player we all thought he was, given his stat lines, but that he did his best as an announcer to convince us that he wasn’t. (Disclaimer: I’ve never met Joe Morgan, and have no idea what he’s like as a person or as a student of the game.) Anderson, Tony Perez, Davey Concepcion, and Ken Griffey (Sr.) don’t get quite the same treatment, although I found the quiet rage of Griffey, still evident in contemporary quotes within the book, more reminiscent of Barry Bonds than of Ken Griffey, Jr., who had more of a reputation in baseball circles as an idler and a bit of a diva.

The Machine kicks into high gear at the end of the book when the nobody-respects-us Red Sox reach the Series and finally give the Reds the test they didn’t have all season. Those games were dramatic and come off as such on the pages, especially the epic Game 6, which Posnanski evokes through quotes and stories, including Rose’s boundless enthusiasm for what he correctly identified at the time as one of the greatest games in baseball history.

Posnanski mentions the team’s ethnic makeup and players’ obliviousness to it a few times during the book, but I wonder if that was truly a coming of age for MLB players post-Civil Rights Movement or just a function of winning breeding good chemistry. Was it unusual at the time to have a lineup – and the book is mostly about the lineup – that was so racially balanced? Did contemporary news sources see it as a big deal? In 1960, it would have been, and in 1980 it would scarcely have been noticed. I don’t know where 1975 fell on that continuum.

Posnanski’s writing has always spoken to me and, as you’d expect, the book absolutely flies – I knocked it off on a weekend trip to LA earlier this month. The friend who gave me this as a gift made a damn good call.

Saturday links, 10/13/12.

Fall League coverage has tied me up all week, but I’m stuck around the house today waiting for a mechanic to finish $1500 in repairs to my car’s A/C, radiator, and catalytic converter assembly (the latter rather important with an emissions test looming), so here’s a mess of links I’ve collected over the last three weeks. Enjoy.

  • Monsanto and other major manufacturers of synthetic pesticides are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat California’s Prop 37, which would require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle are also listed on the Yes on Prop 37 site among companies that have spent at least $1 million to defeat this basic pro-consumer law, which doesn’t ban genetically modified foods, but merely enables consumers to make informed choices.
  • With the Orioles’ unlikely season ending yesterday, it’s a good time to revisit Wire creator David Simon’s podcast with Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch. Speaking of Simon, he also did an interview with Salon a few days before that podcast in which he revealed that HBO turned down a Wire spinoff that would have followed Tommy Carcetti’s career in a new series.
  • Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan wrote a great piece on former A’s prospect Grant Desme, who retired from baseball to join a seminary after a breakout Arizona Fall League performance in 2009. I didn’t see Desme as a potential star or even a solid regular, but that doesn’t make his story any less interesting.
  • What your beer says about your politics. More fun than meaningful, although I think in my specific case it’s pretty spot on.
  • Via mental_floss: Why does sex make men sleepy? Amazing how you can explain things with science.
  • Bill Shaikin of the LA Times did a wide-ranging Q&A with Bud Selig. I’m having a hard time seeing the distinction between the Dodgers’ and Padres’ situations that Selig tries to make.
  • I haven’t tried this recipe yet, but I did bookmark it because it sounds and looks so good: crackly banana bread, using whole wheat flour and whole-grain millet to add a crunchy texture.
  • Michael Ruhlman on the fallacy of “follow your passion” advice. He meanders a bit before getting to the crux of the post, but I enjoyed following his train of thought, and I certainly agree that passion and $2 will get you a cup of coffee.
  • I usually avoid straight politics here, but I’m linking to this David Leonhardt piece on ”Obamanomics” because I like the underlying story of how a poor evaluation at the start of a rebuild can negatively affect policies for several years afterwards and lead to further incorrect evaluations that support the first erroneous conclusion. It could just as easily apply to teams like Houston and Colorado at the beginning of long rebuilding processes, to teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore that had unexpected successes this year based partly on individual performances that aren’t likely to recur.
  • Maybe self-esteem is the wrong buzzword for improving happiness – experimental social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson argues that self-compassion is the real key. I first came across her writing in this July piece on success that argues (I admit without much evidence in the article) that believing in your own ability to learn and improve is a key to increasing job performance and finding happiness in your work.

Trouble with the Curve.

Trouble With the Curve opens with a scene of Clint Eastwood’s back as he struggles to urinate and has a conversation with his uncooperative apparatus before it finally complies with his demands. The film is all downhill from there. It’s manipulative, anachronistic, sentimental claptrap that would make Ken Burns blush and is an insult to anyone who works in the baseball industry, including the very scouts it purports to defend through a staunchly Luddite point of view that would have seemed quaint a decade ago.

Aside from a host of baseball-related mistakes, the film is just too superficial to take seriously, probably better interpreted as a wishful fable than a serious story – built around the idea that good things will come to good people if they’re patient and keep their minds and hearts open. That’s cute if the film is aimed at kids, but it’s a little insulting in an adult movie that’s trying to play it straight, hitting every cliché and predictable plot point it can along the way, like the kid in driver’s ed who thinks the goal is to knock over every cone. When you see the young peanut vendor is left-handed, you know what’s coming. When you see Eastwood’s character’s daughter, Micki (the always adorable Amy Adams), play pool in a bar and humiliate the stranger she’s opposing, you know what’s coming next. When Micki is up against a glib, ambitious colleague for a potential promotion to partner at her law firm, you know where we’re going. When Micki and the younger scout Johnny, with whom she’s tentatively been flirting, end up at a lakeside in the middle of the night, you know what comes next. When Micki’s boyfriend at the start of the film says their relationship is “perfect on paper,” your eyes should roll back far enough that you can see the inside of your skull. Absolutely nothing in this film should surprise if you’ve ever seen another movie in your life.

The shame about Trouble with the Curve is that it could have been an interesting film if it weren’t so busy trying to beat us over the head with Feelings: A long-widowed scout facing his mortality not just through age but through disability (declining eyesight) and technological changes that both threaten the loss of the career to which he’s been married for thirty years reconnects with his estranged daughter as they jointly go to evaluate a candidate for the second pick in what could be that scout’s last draft. Unfortunately, the script is so busy trying to convince us what these characters are that it gives us no time to learn it organically. The scout, Gus Lobel, refers to the “Interweb” and “fang shmei,” while referring to yoga as “voodoo.” Micki’s a vegan, because a gorgeous 30-year-old woman isn’t sufficiently distinguished from grizzled 60-year-old scouts as it is. The main antagonist in the film, the office stat geek (played by Matt Lillard like he’s got a sinus infection), never goes to see players and seems to think there’s value in high school stats, while thinking nothing of insulting Gus to his face. Gus crying at his wife’s graveside while mumble-singing “You Are My Sunshine” might have looked good on paper, but in practice it is so blatantly manipulative even a Lifetime executive would send it back for rewrite.

Adams’ performance as Micki was one of the few bright spots in the movie, bringing some semblance of reality to a thinly-drawn character and delivering the best lines of the film in the diner-booth soliloquy to her father, providing at least something of a backstory to explain both her character and her estrangement from Gus. She’s magnetic enough to pull a strong performance from Justin Timberlake, whose job otherwise is to stand around and be likable, something he’s pretty good at doing. There’s a smattering of good baseball in here, including some of the lingo used (dead-red hitter, quick hands, using hips and legs for power), and the fact that the other main candidate for the draft pick in question goes to Arizona State. Micki knowing the hotel housekeeper’s name showed the kind of subtlety too absent in the script, showing she’s the kind of person who’d take the time to find that out and then remember it. But don’t ask me to believe that her law firm, which has no female partners, is seriously considering promoting another white male over her just because she’s tending to her ailing father.

A number of you asked on Twitter if the film was even worth seeing just because of its baseball content, but I’d say no, it’s not. Even aside from the baseball errata, it’s just a maudlin father-daughter story melded with an awkward romantic comedy involving the daughter and the younger rival scout. The emotions in the film almost never rang true for me, aside from a few moments where Adams gives the shaky script her best efforts, and the story is so predictable that there’s no narrative greed to keep you engaged.

As for the baseball stuff, this film really could have used a basic fact-checker, a consultant somewhere along the way to just say, “hey, this stuff is dead wrong, and someone on that Interweb is going to call you out on it.” Here’s just a list of stuff I wrote down that was absurd, in rough chronological order.

* Maybe the biggest error of all is the idea that nine days before the draft, Atlanta’s area scout (Gus) hasn’t seen the player in his area who’s a candidate for the second overall pick – and no one else in the organization has seen him either. That player would have been seen more than a dozen times by the area guy, every regional and national cross-checker, and the scouting director (an underutilized John Goodman), and possibly by a front-office exec or two since the player is within driving distance of Atlanta. The idea that this huge pick is hinging on one look less than two weeks before the draft is necessary to feed into the film’s mythologizing of old scouts, but in fact, it’s insulting to scouts of all ages by making their process seem more whimsical and less methodical.

* Gus’s resume is an impossibility. He’s a lifelong area scout in the Carolinas who signed Dusty Baker (Sacramento), Chipper Jones (Jacksonville), and Tom Glavine (Massachusetts)? He’s “only signed three guys in four years” … and that’s a bad thing? Some scouts go a year or two without signing any players because that’s how the draft goes. But the geography thing bothers me more – just pick players from the same region. It’s not that hard.

* Scouts don’t stay at rundown motels like the one where Gus, Johnny (Timberlake), and the others stay. We all like our frequent guest points way too much for that.

* The actor playing the phenom, Bo Gentry … I hate to say it, but for a baseball player, the kid is fat. The only legitimate prospect I can think of in the last five years to look like that is Dan Vogelbach, and he’s probably a DH who was never a consideration for that spot in the draft. When they refer to Gentry as a “five tool” player, they conveniently decline to list those tools, one of which – speed – is clearly not in Gentry’s toolbox. We never even see him field. Just find a more athletic actor and this issue goes away. I did love seeing Cocoa Carl from Good Eats playing Gentry’s dad.

* Gentry is a right-handed hitter, so why are all the scouts sitting on the third base side to scout him? You can’t see his hands from there – scouts want to see a hitter’s open side more than his closed side.

* Are there only five scouts in the whole industry, and only one of them under the age of 60?

* The draft-room scene mentioning a “draft and trade deal” … come on. You can’t trade draft picks in baseball.

* Gus mentions seeing a “hitch” in a player’s swing, which is a real thing – but it’s something even non-scouts can notice, and I didn’t see one in the movie. Besides, it’s not an automatic kill on a player – Hunter Pence has a hitch so big it looks like he stole it off a tractor-trailer and he’s done fairly well for himself.

* I’m okay with a film embellishing the drama of the draft room by implying that the decision on the second overall pick is being made in the final seconds before it’s made, but just for the record, no team operates like that. Reality probably isn’t dramatic enough for fiction in this case, though.

* I don’t think there’s any team that would say no to giving a left-handed teenager with an average fastball and an average (or better) curveball a tryout. It costs them nothing. And when the kid is good, no GM in the universe is going to be concerned with finding an agent for the kid – he’d try to sign the player before any agent got wind of it.

* A struggling minor league hitter gets better because his family came to visit him? That might be the film’s most insulting moment – and the entire thread is superfluous anyway, other than to further aggrandize Gus’ character at the expense of those evil computers.

* I’ll end with a point I’m not sure about. Gus mentions at one point the possibility of “putting a bullet in my head” when he can’t scout any more. I don’t know if that was a deliberate reference to Tony Lucadello, a longtime Phillies scout who did just that at age 77 when the team let him go, but I hope that it was, as Lucadello’s story is one worth remembering, even if the reference is a little morbid.

Pelotero.

The stellar new documentary Pelotero shines a light on the way Major League Baseball has used the Dominican Republic as a pipeline for talent over the past forty years by following a pair of up-and-coming prospects leading up to Signing Day in 2009. The 75-minute film is screening in select cities, and is also available as a rental for $6.99 via both amazon and iTunesicon.

Pelotero started out as a simple documentary about the way MLB mines talent in the Dominican Republic, focusing on two young players, Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, as they approached their 16th birthdays and the July 2nd date after which they’d be allowed to sign pro contracts. The directors appear to have gained almost unfettered access to both players, their families, and their trainers, as well as a surprising number of on-camera quotes from scouts with major league teams operating in the Dominican. That alone would have made the film worth seeing, but it probably wouldn’t have had much narrative greed to keep the attention of a larger audience.

As some of you probably remember, Sano ended up at the center of a controversy over his actual age and identity, one the directors were able to follow in real time and to expose in a way that has to have MLB and the Pittsburgh Pirates deeply unhappy. The film makes it quite clear that the family blames Pittsburgh’s top scout in the Dominican Republic, Rene Gayo, for starting the rumors about Sano’s age and then colluding with the MLB investigator (who, off camera, tells Sano to sign with the Pirates for $2 million to make the investigation go away) so he can acquire the player at a discount. The most damning evidence, obtained via a hidden camera, has Gayo strongly implying to the family that he is the reason Sano was partially cleared – and that they should sign with Pittsburgh as a result. The unfolding of this drama, as well as a similar if smaller-scale issue affecting Batista, and the associated effects on the players’ families, turns an ordinary documentary focusing on the exploitation of young Dominican players into a scathing indictment of corruption in MLB’s operations on the island. (The film concludes with a note that MLB declined an opportunity to respond on camera, and that MLB now claims that the depictions in the film are “inaccurate” and no longer reflect the league’s operations and conduct on the island. Gayo is still employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates and says, in another statement displayed before the credits, that he simply did his job. You can read some of MLB’s comments here and here, and it is fair for them to argue that their regulation in the Dominican Republic is stronger today than it was in 2009.)

Setting aside the specific questions of culpability in the Sano case, which may have cost him $1-2 million off his ultimate signing bonus, the film’s greatest contribution is its exposure of how Dominican prospects are treated like chattel in a factory system where independent trainers will develop players on contingency, taking up to 35% of their eventual signing bonuses, while MLB teams pay lower bonuses there than they do to comparable American- or Canadian-born prospects. The new CBA, which caps each team’s total international expenditures on all players in this signing season at a figure less than what the seventh overall pick in this June’s draft received by himself, only makes the varying treatment of players by their places of birth even more stark. Pelotero shows how much Dominican players’ families come to count on a large signing bonus as their lottery ticket out of poverty, with some players (including Sano) living in heartbreaking conditions before they sign – and relative opulence afterwards. The promise of a life-changing bonus leads to a clear sense of entitlement on the sides of some players, to Batista’s mother apparently viewing her son as a cash cow, and to incentives for players to try to cheat the system by lying about their ages or identities. MLB and Gayo come off as the villians of Sano’s story, but that doesn’t mean the players or their camps are heroes.

The directors of Pelotero deserve much credit for staying out of the story, with minimal narration from John Leguizamo that offers some slightly pro-player commentary early in the film but that largely drops off as the Sano controversy takes over. The flip side of their hands-off style is that once that storyline becomes the film’s center, the balance begins to shift, unavoidably, to Sano’s side – we are watching it from his house, and hearing most of the commentary from him, his family, and his agent, but other than Gayo, who comes off horribly, we don’t get MLB’s side because they declined to comment on film. There was little the directors could have done to restore the balance without participation from the Commissioner’s Office, but the film does suffer slightly in the end from their absence. It is an outstanding film even with that caveat, a must-watch for any baseball fan. After you hear a trainer casually toss out “planting seeds” and “harvesting” as a metaphor for how he develops teenaged prospects before they turn 16, you will find it hard to look at any Dominican prospect the same way.