Monday, April 13, 2009

On Wins, Losses and The Game

There was probably a time that the pitchers "W" stat made a lot more sense.

It was back when things were a lot less standardized and antiseptic than they are today. Let's not forget that the first box scores were used in the 1800s, when field conditions, shapes and weather were infinitely bigger factors than they are today. In that environment, stats like ERA or hits don't necessarily mean anything. Getting a Win was, ironically enough, an additional objective measure of how a pitcher performed given the chaos.

And on nights like tonight, I wonder if it still isn't.

This wasn't supposed to be a game with 29 hits. Kevin Slowey's stellar spring was supposed to be a precursor of his ascension to top-of-the-rotation status. Jesse Litsch is a 24-year-old with a 3.75 ERA over two years in the majors. This was supposed to be a pitcher's duel.

As the Twins coaching staff is so fond of saying "That's baseball." Which is a more polite way of saying "Nobody knows anything." And that's usually as far as we get.

I'm not buying it. Something was going on tonight at the dome, similar to what happened on those fields of yore. It wasn't wind, but something was causing batters to drive those outside pitches, and mash the inside pitches. I don't know if it was the lights, or the full moon, or the migratory habits of the eyelid-breathing lava lizards, but something was amiss.

And that's as much analysis as I wish to provide of it. Whatever it was, Toronto was able to utilize it better than the Twins, to the tune of nine extra hits and two extra runs.

And a "W".

Baseball lost two icons yesterday, and both had a special place in my heart.

I suspect there are a lot of middle-aged guys that remember Mark Fidrych a little more fondly than the rest of the world. It seems he's mostly remembered as an oddity, or a comet that blazed very bright but very fast, posting that remarkable 1976 season and not much more.

But to a nine-year-old who loved baseball, he was just about perfect. An athlete that the 70s could embrace. A guy who believed all the superstitions that you knew were true. A grownup who seemed to love the game as much as a kid. He even was nicknamed after a Sesame Street character.

Mostly he just seemed like a natural weave in the 70s childhood fabric, along with Dynomite magazine, Battle of the Network Stars, and Pop Rocks. It's sad to hear that such a remarkable guy has left us, but it's not weird. What's weird is that he was ever allowed to join us.

And then we get to Harry Kalas, the voice of the Phillies. I only lived in Philly for three years while I was courting my wife, but I regarded Kalas and partner Richie Ashburn as the single-best announcing team I had ever heard, and I felt privileged to listen to them on a regular basis.

Ashburn passed away on September 9th, 1997, and I don't need to look that day up. It was the same day our first child was born, and practically the same hour. That night we lost complete stranger who we felt we knew. And we gained a family member that was a complete mystery. I won't lie. Goofy it may be, but we felt a connection there.

That's what happens with people who consistently share their joy with us. We get connected. That's a good thing, by the way. We could all use more connected. And that's why there will be a significant outpouring of emotion tomorrow morning on 610 WIP in Philly. I plan to listen, and mourn a little myself.

It'll be the second time I've said goodbye to a baseball voice in the last two years. The first time I wrote a one-minute eulogy to Herb Carneal for WCCO radio. I'm going to reprint it below, because I suspect there are those who share these same feelings today.

The Game
“You wanna listen to The Game?”, she asked.

It was another long, boring summer afternoon. With no kids of comparable age in the neighborhood, I was driving my mom insane with requests to play Candyland for the 42nd consecutive day.

This day, however, she came into the playroom with something new – an AM radio. She turned it to the Twins game and for each of us, a miracle occurred. Her miracle was that I sat in front of the radio, listening intently, for three glorious non-Candyland-playing hours. My miracle was that a whole new world opened.

Without a doubt, my guide in that world was Herb Carneal, and I wasn’t alone. Looking back it’s a wonder we weren’t all bored stiff in the 70’s. There were no blogs. No email lists. No bulletin boards. There was no Bill James. Nobody had heard of SABR. There were no national newspapers or baseball weeklies. If there were baseball magazines, they sure weren’t widely distributed. No ESPN, or sports channel of any kind, or even cable TV. Having any Twins game televised was a rare treat.

But there was always The Game. Three blessed hours of Herb Carneal, nearly each and every day, talking about baseball as he portrayed the game on the field with a mix of excitement and dignity. He shared his joy for the game by bringing us up to date on what was happening on other teams, who was making noise in the playoff race, what was going on in the farm system, and what had happened yesteryear. Those were the best. I bet I’ve heard the story about Halsey Hall accidentally igniting his quote-unquote blazer a half dozen times.

Each generation has a player that they identify as their own, and each generation will. But I think it’s safe to say that the Twins will never have an announcer to whom Twins fans connect the way we did with Herb. The world is too different. There are too many other sources of information. Herb oversaw an era in which we needed him. He was the world of baseball, shaping our understanding, appreciation and love of the game for several generations.

So from me - and my mom - thank you Herb. For 50 years, you’ve been more than a voice, and even more than my babysitter. You’ve been "The Game".


Kyle Eliason said...

I miss Herb alot, I'm sure Phillies fans now feel the same way about Harry.

At the end when he'd do a couple innings by himself, those were the best innings on the radio.

"Now the back third of the Cleveland line-up is due to bat with X leading off, followed by Y and Z."

Instead of hearing some lame annectdote, you got the brief heads up that the 7-8-9 hitters were coming to the plate. Then he'd pause and let you listen to the crowd instead of talking, until the first pitch came.

Today's radio men don't ever stop running their mouths for a second and at the same time don't tell you half as much about what's going on as Herb did. I don't feel like I'm at the ballpark the same way I did when listening to the old school guys.

J. Lichty said...

I am of your vintage TG and I remember the 1976 season with the Bird.

I dont recall many of the books I read in 1976, but one stands out - a Mark Fidrych biography in my grade school library.

While not a great literary feat - a second grade level book about a ballplayer - and probably more owing to the fact that I cared far more about sports than school, he must have had an impact to me on the diamond for me to even be interested in reading his biography.

Chip Phillips said...

As central NJ native, I've been lucky enough to grow up with Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy & Lindsey Nelson(Mets), Scooter Rizzuto & Bill White(Yankees) and Richie "Whitey" Ashburn & Harry Kalas. I agree with you that the style of the classic announcers of that era (obviously, Herb included) led the listener to a much fuller and clearer understanding of "the game".
At the time, I didn't realise the connection being forged, but as those voices disappear, the loss feels greater.
Too many ads between pitches and too many self-appointed icons have really lessened the quality of radio baseball. Thank your lucky stars that you guys don't have to listen to John Sterling and Suzie Waldman (Yankees). Their anecdotes lean more toward Broadway show tunes than the national pasttime. Very sad.
And quickly... R.I.P. "Bird". The vivid memory of our "performances" will always bring me a smile.