Thursday, March 09, 2006

Book Preview: Fantasyland by Sam Walker

The usual disclaimers apply: I'm not really much of a book guy. I'd almost always rather be out drinking. That's why you get a "preview" instead of a "review" - because there's about a 50% chance I'll never make it to the end of any given book. You've been warned.

One of the joys of March is getting jazzed up about the upcoming baseball season, and I've found this year's book for doing so. Fantasyland bills itself as "A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe", which sounds about as interesting as...well, as listening to someone talk about their fantasy baseball league. Which is what this book is. Which would be torture. Why do I think I'm going to like book again?

Well, for starters, Twins Geek is mentioned. Or rather "TwinsGeek chatroom" is mentioned. They're referring to the old comments section that existed on the web site and they're specifically referring to the debate that went on when Doug Mientkiewicz was traded in 2004. And that's why most Twins fan will love this book - it is packed with inside information about the 2004 Twins team.

That's the case for a lot of teams, because Sam Walker was a sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal who had never played fantasy baseball in his life, but was invited to play in Tout Wars, the premier fantasy baseball league in the world. And he is determined to win the damn thing, in part because he wants to see if his inside access to the world of baseball trumps the nerdy stat guys.

So he goes a little overboard. Like hiring a NASA scientist to crunch numbers. And an assistant to organize research. And renting an office as the "war room". And taking a hiatus from his job. And using his press access to interview GMs and scouts at the Winter Meetings. And players at spring training. And I'm only on page 49.

But the best part, as far as I can tell, is that he's determined to manage his team. And I don't mean deciding who is "starting" on his team. I mean sitting down with the players he drafted and trying to improve their approach at the plate. Or trying to talk their coach into getting them more playing time. Or trying to convince a GM to trade for one of his players because he'll be a starter on the new team. This guy had access and was determined to use it.

Since two of the players on his team are Jacque Jones and Doug Mientkiewicz, some Twins are featured prominently in the book. For instance, he tries to influence the Mientkiewicz trade. Remember when we kept wondering on this site why the Pirates would have any interest in Minky? This insight might help...

"Sad as I am to see one of my players shipped out, it also presents an opportunity. Reports say the two teams most interested in Mientkiewicz are the Red Sox, who would probably use him as an occasional defensive substitute, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who would play him every day. In Rotisserie terms, I'd much rather see Mientkiewicz go to Pittsburgh, where he'll be a mainstay in the lineup.

At noon Sig and I begin to pore over the numbers, looking for some compelling and hertofore undiscovred reason why the Pirates should acquire our $12 first baseman, and after wading through all the lukewarm arguments, we strike pay dirt. Sig notices that the Pirates home infield is a difficult surface to play on. In fact, the the last two
seasons there were 42 percent more infield errors committed at Pirates home games than Pirates road games, which is the biggest deviation in baseball. Nonetheless, I notice that the Pirates' starting pitchers have a strong tendency to give up more ground balls than fly balls, and the bullpen is even more extreme. So not only do the Pirates have a bad infield surface, they've built a pitching staff that actually exacerbates the problem. If there's any team that needs a Gold Glove first baseman, it's this one.

Hanging up with Sig, I deal a number with a 412 area code.

"Dave Littlefield", a voice says."

I mean, honestly, how great is that? And Mientkiewicz is a cameo compared to Jacque Jones. Jones looks over Walker's the roto handbooks during spring training when the roto books hated Jones. Walker drafted him anyway, presented him with a trophy for "player of the month" (for his roto team) and talked to Jones about his approach at the plate. He also watched Jones deal with the death of his father up close and found he was caring far more for these players on his team than he ever had as a disspassionate sportswriter.

So far, it's a fun ride, with a guy who is almost purposely going off the deep end, and mocking himself while doing it. I'll let you know if I find some more fun stuff, or you could just grab it yourself (and likely beat me to the punch).

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Was that so hard?

It doesn't take much to make me happy. Really, it doesn't.

Yesterday, Joe Christensen did. The STrib's Twins beat writer gave casual fans a little insight into why Brad Radke wasn't as dominant last year - he was hit very hard by left-handed batters. And I mean that literally. They slugged .517 off of him (including 22 of the 33 home runs he gave up), which means that Radke turned your average left-handed hitter into the Royals slugger Mike Sweeney. The same Mike Sweeney we openly lusted at the trade deadline last year.

It's nice to see that factoid in print, and even nicer to see that the Twins coaching staff and Radke are trying to change that. What would be really nice is to see it mentioned in a game recap, when Radke faces a very good left-handed hitter in a key situation, whether or not he succeeds.

The Beauty of Small Sports - Part I

I'm watching The Boy(TM) at his indoor soccer practice for kindergarteners and first graders. The practice includes playing Cops 'n Robbers, which is kind of like freeze tag. So after designating the kids who will be "it", one coach carefully explains that only half of the gym is in bounds. If they go to the other half of the gym, they'll be out and have to freeze. And then he lines up cones to show them the line they can't go across. And then he and three other coaches stand at that line with their arms outspread so kids can't cross it. And then he says "Go"!

And thirteen of the sixteen kids go charging over the line out of bounds.

Radke's Year

Don't look. What do you thinkRadke's ERA was at the end of last year? Off the top of my head, I would've sworn it was in the mid 3's because

1. The Twins whole pitching staff was very good and
2. Radke was robbed of a bunch of Ws.

Right? Those were the two stories of last season, right?

The answer is 4.04.

That's good, no question. 200 plus innings with an ERA of around 4 in the American League should be in the 12 to 15 games won range. That's a decent year for a #2 pitcher, which is what Radke is right now. But it's also not a #1 pitcher, and it's not even an outstanding #2 pitcher.

The Beauty of Small Sports - Part II

Finally, the kids get to play soccer, which means they form a mob around the ball for 30 seconds until it somehow squirts out to the other side of the gym. They lather, rinse, and repeat. It's not dissimilar to watching a swarm of gnats terrorize one small animal no matter where it darts to.

Midway through the "game", a janitor briefly left open the door to the equipment closet, and the ball squirted in like it was seeking refuge. None was found. A dozen frenzied children charged into the closet to kick the snot out of the poor cornered thing. It took at least a minute for a coach to wade through them and provide the hapless leather sphere a moment's respite.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

For those of you looking for the tribute to Kirby, it's below this one. You can also click here.
For the rest of you, time for a mailbag. These are actual letters from my readers. Except for those that I made up.

Ummm….didn’t you break up with me?

[Shiver.] Is it morning already? I remember deciding that we’d do a shot every time the bride and groom kissed, and I vaguely remember dancing to Careless Whisper, but I’m having trouble piecing things together after that. How did we end up at your place? And, ummm, how ya been? Good to see you again.

Should we be joking at a time like this? Should you be writing?

Absolutely not. If there is one thing that Kirby would not approve of, it’s jocularity in the face of tragedy. Or doing something you love when it is hardest.

So, the site is back?

Kinda. It’s not going to be, because for now it’ll just be me. And it’s really not going to be the old, with a column length entry every day. It’s going to be a little more “bloggy” than in the past, with shorter takes, immediate reactions, snippets of longer stories and probably more non-baseball/family stuff than I’ve written about in the past.

Why is it going to be different?

Most of the column length baseball stuff is going to be done someplace else, and I’m not ready to tell you about that yet. Gimme a week, or at least a couple of days. I’m very excited about it – excited enough to get the site back up, which was nearly unthinkable just three weeks ago. And I’m not just excited for me. I’m excited for Twins baseball writers (and especially bloggers) overall. I’m giddy. Stay tuned.

Weren’t you supposed to email me or something when the site was back up?

I still will, but it wasn’t supposed to be back up yet. I was trying to work on it quietly until I figured out exactly how it was going to work. Then Kirby had his stroke, and there’s just no way you don’t write about that. I figured I'd be safe, since nobody knew it was really here. Then I visited the’s Kirby page and saw a link to it.

For the record, I’m not very happy with that story. The five months of rust really show. I spent 36 hours struggling with what to write, hoping it would finish or at least capture the grieving process a bit. I kicked myself the whole next morning about what I should’ve said. That was the start of the grieving process, not the end. I think I’m going to take another stab at it soon, but it probably won’t be here.

Is The Addition™ done?

Depends on whom you ask. I say yes. The Voice of Reason™ says no. But it’s awfully close.

So I should stop back tomorrow for more Twins talk?

Probably. No promises – I really am trying to figure out what this site will be, and what I can handle. Or if there’s anything worth writing other than more about Kirby. We’ll see. But I sure hope you stop by and find out.

Monday, March 06, 2006

One of Us

Doing great things is not enough. Heroes are something more.

They need to be us.

Kirby was us, and more. A Midwest kid, from humble beginnings. A body type that few would envy. A youthful enthusiasm that should’ve faded but didn’t. Instead, the joy bubbled over, on and off the field. It transformed the pudgy kid into a superstar, the clown into a team leader, and the underdog into a World Series hero.

But it wasn’t the greatness that endeared him to us. It was the plainness. It was the humanity.

Unfortunately, humanity isn’t invincible, and Kirby wasn’t either. A Dennis Martinez fastball and an eye disease reminded us of that. Not that we accepted it. Despite his formal retirement, there would be annual rumors that Kirby was returning over the next four years. We were waiting for him to rise from the ashes.

All the ashes created were grime. Humanity also wrestles with some ugly demons. In 2002, we found out that Kirby did, too. Kirby’s dysfunctional love life became front-page news. His least proud moments became public record. Isolation followed, and there’s ample evidence that depression came soon after.

It isn’t clear he ever recovered. That’s also part of being human.

It’s two sides of the same coin. The humanity Kirby displayed after his career is exactly that which we embraced during his career. Doing great things is not enough. Heroes are something more. They need to be us. They need to struggle like we struggle, and still raise themselves, and the people around them, to greatness. They need to remind us that glory is still out there, and it’s waiting.

For us.

Like the old man and the sea, he was our DiMaggio. A man who became larger-than-life, that represented everything we wanted to be, damn near immortal.

Turns out that Immortals don’t last as long as they used to.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Kirby never allowed himself to become that untouchable star. Instead, he was our friend, our neighbor, our son, our brother. He was human. That's why he touched us all. That’s why he was our hero.

He was us.