Jun 02

Saviors

Life is jagged lines.

In the majors, Yasiel Puig shouldn’t be expected to match the .383 on-base percentage and .599 slugging he has put up with Double-A Chattanooga in 2013, though to be clear, the Southern League isn’t nearly as deceptive a hitting environment as the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Scott Van Slyke, for example, has a major-league OPS with the Dodgers this year of .909 following an Albuquerque OPS of 1.236. The gap should be less for Puig, and if it is, he’ll be hitting better than Andre Ethier is now.

As a result, there are few scenarios in which Puig’s arrival in Los Angeles on Monday won’t improve the Dodgers. Puig will play in the outfield and likely be more productive than the guy he’s replacing, Skip Schumaker. While he will still serve as a late-inning defensive replacement, Schumaker can also spend more time in the infield and be more productive than the guy he takes at-bats away from, Luis Cruz.

By my appropriation of the transitive property, that is the low bar that Puig needs to clear to be an asset. That doesn’t speak to what kind of leap Puig will actually make. Puig could be a band-aid for this struggling team, or he could be bionic. At different times, he’ll be both.

Life is jagged lines. Puig, like everyone else, will go up and down and down and up, his graph of success as prickly as a porcupine. He will have good games and bad games and games where you can’t decide what they were.

He will be like the last savior in the outfield, Matt Kemp.

Some Dodger fans have little sense of irony, but you have to admire how the rapid and rabid revolt against Kemp for his shortcomings in 2013 has been accompanied by urgent calls for him to be replaced by the player who most resembles him.

Seven years ago, Kemp was Puig – the raw kid with talent to burn and lessons to learn. Puig, like Kemp did when he hit the majors at age 21 in 2006, has a hugely bright future. But anyone putting their faith in Puig will almost certainly at some point need a level of patience that many fans have denied Kemp whenever he has struggled, no matter how much he has done for his team. 

In 2007 and 2009, Kemp was hugely productive. In 2008 and 2010, people were calling for him to be traded.

Last May, he was the best player on the planet. This May? Read these letters to the Los Angeles Times.

It’s hard to believe that Matt Kemp has made the Dodgers’ $160-million investment disappear quicker than Bernie Madoff ever could have.

Herb Schoenberg
Tarzana

* * *

I have never heard of a team being worse off if a guy that’s hitting .251 with two home runs and 17 RBIs goes on the disabled list. I’m pretty sure that a minor leaguer could equal or exceed those numbers in half the time. How does Matt Kemp injure his hamstring when he hardly, if ever, goes full speed?

Geno Apicella
Placentia

* * * 

Lest we forget, Matt Kemp is a paid performer and he’s not earning his keep. Baseball is a business. At any other company he would have been dismissed long ago for his woeful performance. Kemp would do well to invoke the ghost of the late Lyman Bostock who memorably asked the late Buzzie Bavasi, then the GM of the Angels, to withhold his salary because of poor performance.

Skip Nevell
Los Angeles

They’re all good, but Nevell’s is my favorite. “At any other company he would have been dismissed long ago for his woeful performance.”

“Long ago.” Just let that roll around in your head for a minute.

It never ceases to amaze me how many baseball fans act as if they’ve never seen a player slump, much less struggle to recover from surgery. They expect straight lines. I don’t know why, because in baseball, they don’t exist. The only straight lines in baseball go from home plate toward the right-field and left-field corners.

Even Mike Trout got the derisive whispers this past April. Imagine.

There’s no mistaking how difficult it has been to watch Kemp play this year. I don’t know exactly what his future holds, but I don’t see any reason to believe that what we’ve seen this season is the best we’ll see from him for the rest of his days. I don’t understand how baseball fans can have such short memories, when it’s a game built on lasting ones.

Kemp made a name – and a nickname – for himself out of the gate in 2006, hitting seven home runs in his first 15 games. A month later, he was back in the minors. I’m excited about Yasiel Puig’s arrival – curiosity, hope and the potential of witnessing the birth of greatness are a good combination to have when tuning into a game, especially when your team is in last place. But I pray I’m not alone in anticipating how uneven the road might be, not only over the coming days, but also weeks, months and years. It doesn’t pay to be too hopeful or too cynical.

Life is jagged lines, and baseball is life.

May 25

Livestream of consciousness

Cardinals at Dodgers, 4:15 p.m.

Nick Punto, 3B
Mark Ellis, 2B
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
Matt Kemp, CF
Andre Ethier, RF
Scott Van Slyke, LF
A.J. Ellis, C
Dee Gordon, SS
Ted Lilly, P

With today’s funky starting time and the kids occupying themselves for an indefinite amount of time, I’m going to try to do some live-blogging while I can, catching up on some stuff from the past week and commenting on at least the start of the game. So keep refreshing until I tell you to stop …

3:26 p.m.:  The Don Mattingly saga this week stirred so many thoughts in me that I didn’t have time to get to and, at this point, I’m not sure where to begin.

If this makes sense, while I think Andre Ethier was clearly in mind as Mattingly spoke about what it takes to win and all that, I don’t think Mattingly was singling out Ethier.  I think he was making an example of Ethier, which is an entirely different thing.

Take note of this. The Dodgers put out their Wednesday lineup. Ethier isn’t in it. Reporters ask why. Mattingly doesn’t directly answer the question, instead delivering his rugged sermon about what he expects from every member of his squad. It’s clear that Ethier is falling short of this standard. But it’s also clear that Ethier is not the only one falling short of the standard (in Mattingly’s mind), and I don’t know why people didn’t see this.

3:31 p.m. Do you see what I’m getting at? Perhaps this is more of a nuanced position than I wish to acknowledge. Consider, for example, what happened with Matt Kemp in 2010. Ned Colletti makes some critical comments about Kemp that are clearly about him, right? At the time, Kemp appeared to have been playing particularly well, which made the criticism surprising. But even if you grant that behind the scenes there was a level of commitment Kemp wasn’t living up to, Kemp was being singled out.

What happened this week with Ethier is not that, especially if you consider that Mattingly had already been talking publicly in recent days about the shortcomings of other Dodgers, such as Dee Gordon and Luis Cruz – who also, you might notice, were not in Wednesday’s starting lineup.

It’s clear that Mattingly believes that multiple people on his roster aren’t pulling their weight.  Anyone who made this about Ethier missed the point.

I certainly agree with the idea that Mattingly needs to communicate with Ethier directly and not through the press. Mattingly and Ethier are publicly disagreeing about whether that has happened.

3:37 p.m. The two oldest kids are screaming upstairs. I’m trying to ignore them.

3:38 p.m. As long as I started down this nuanced path, let’s go farther.

Mattingly was wrong when he said that sabermetrics don’t account for the level of play he is seeking – or at a minimum, he is underestimating how much they count. Preparation, grit, intensity, fight – these are all attributes that ultimately will manifest much of their value through statistics.

Let’s say Smith works harder than Jones. What does that mean? Nothing, unless it leads to more production on the field. Now, that production could mean better stats for Smith. It could also mean better stats for Jones as well, if Smith inspires him to do better. It could even mean better stats for Jones and not Smith if, for example, Smith makes sacrifices that boost Jones.

Our ability to quantify effort might be imperfect. But there is a statistical outcome. When Kirk Gibson rebelled against Jesse Orosco’s eyeblack prank in the spring of 1988, there was a tangible result.

Am I playing semantics? Perhaps. But no more than those who are citing hard work and effort as a counterpoint to statistical value. They walk hand in hand.

3:46 p.m. With that said, let’s talk about grit and effort and determination.

For the most part, these are pregame activities. These things are about preparation. And I imagine there’s no limit to the preparation you can do before the first pitch is thrown, whether you’re talking about work during the offseason, an off day or the hours before gametime.

Once the game starts, things change a bit. In my view, there is a limit to how much mental energy is useful when you’re at the plate. Overthinking is a huge danger when a pitch is coming at you. By the time you are in the batter’s box, everything should be instinctive.

This brings us back to Ethier, and Mattingly’s famous quote that the outfielder gives away at-bats because of his emotional state. That might or might not be true – it reeks of exaggeration, but I don’t know. In any case, this isn’t a question of effort, unless you’re arguing that Ethier hasn’t put in sufficient effort (I have no doubt there’s been some effort) to channel his emotions positively.

You can understand how simultaneously Mattingly could be correct and Ethier could be offended. Again, this is nuanced. Ethier doesn’t dog it. Ethier gets angry at himself. Ethier gets frustrated. Ethier wants the best for himself. And yet Mattingly could be right that Ethier’s still not getting it.

I find myself sympathetic to both sides because I feel that I hear both Mattingly and Ethier in my own head on a regular basis.

3:55 p.m. The Angels won their seventh in a row today. Does this mean the Dodgers are unlucky that the Angels have gotten hot just in time for their series next week, or the Dodgers are lucky that the Angels’ hot streak may run out before they meet?

That Mike Trout is, once again, something else.

3:58 p.m. I might be the last outsider not to give up on Ted Lilly. I mean, he was more or less getting by on wiles before last year’s injury, right? Was that injury specifically a career-ender? I’m not aware it was that significant.

4:02 p.m. Apparently the screaming was part of an iMovie the kids are filming. I told them to do a script rewrite.

4:04 p.m. Youngest Master Weisman has come downstairs. The liveblog could be in trouble. One of the reasons I suspended Dodger Thoughts in September was that I was less and less comfortable with it taking me away from devoting time to the kids when it was available. But it is a tug in both directions. I want to be a good father, and I want to write, and it’s tough when the two come in direct conflict.

Obviously, I don’t have to write right this second. But it’s hard to walk away when you’re just in the mood.

4:09 p.m. Scott Van Slyke’s current value to the Dodgers, however intermittent, has been so pleasing to be not just because of how desperately it’s needed – how can he be the only power threat on the team – but what it says about the game. I love the idea that it’s not over for a player just because the establishment decides it’s over.

At any given moment, some players are better bets to contribute than others. But the line to decline is not a straight one. The game is forever one of adjustments, and you never know when someone has a last burst. That’s part of what makes baseball such a great American drama.

4:12 p.m. I remember when I used to look forward to the Dodgers being on a national telecast. But that was when they were good, and when I didn’t have to hear the simplistic summaries of national broadcasters.

How long has Joe Buck had that beard? I’m not sure it works, and yet it probably looks better than my wintertime scruff.

4:15 p.m. If you don’t have the confidence in Dee Gordon to be a starter, you might as well send him back to the minors unless you think his best long-term contribution to the team is as a bench player. But as thin as the Dodger bench is, they probably can’t afford to carry a guy whose only contribution is as a pinch-runner. Prove me wrong, Dee …

4:17 p.m. “Mostly sunny – it’s L.A. It could be a little hazy or a little … whatever, but it’s L.A.” – Joe Buck

4:18 p.m. First pitch from Lilly is a strike, 85 miles per hour. Second one is also 85 mph, and lined right back through the box by Matt Carpenter.

“Through the box” is pretty archaic, huh?

4:22 p.m. Matt Holliday slashes an 0-2 pitch from Lilly deep down the right-field line, and Ethier makes a running catch – degree of difficulty 6. The replay indicates that Mattingly applauded.

4:23 p.m. Allen Craig is badly fooled on a 72 mph curve to fall behind 0-2.

4:24 p.m. Gritty player makes error on routine grounder. Seriously, what does that tell you?

4:25 p.m. Yadier Molina is called “the most irreplaceable guy on any roster in major league baseball” by Buck.

4:27 p.m. A sinking, medium arc fly to left center field eludes a diving Scott Van Slyke for an RBI double and an unearned run. It was a good effort.

4:28 p.m. The next pitch from Lilly hits David Freese in the back to load the bases.

4:29 p.m. Jon Jay grounds out to end the inning. Are you disappointed anyone scored or grateful that it was only one?

4:30 p.m. Thoroughly feels like I’m ignoring my 5-year-old, who is out in the backyard by himself with the dog. I’m not sure how much longer I can tell myself this is character building.

4:32 p.m. Punto and Adrian Gonzalez, who I think both have good fielding reputations, are now tied for the team lead with five errors. How the heck has Gonzalez racked up five errors? Matt Kemp is next with four.

4:33 p.m. Leadoff walk from John Gast to Nick Punto. See, good teams make mistakes too!

4:34 p.m. WIll I get to see even this much of Clayton Kershaw vs. Shelby Miller on Sunday?

4:35 p.m. Mark Ellis hits a ball to left fielder Holliday that the back of my brain tells me would have been a home run if a Cardinal hit it.

4:36 p.m. On a 2-0 pitch, deep fly by Gonzalez that turns Jay around in center field and bounces at the wall, for an RBI double that ties the game, 1-1. And again, why not just a clean and pretty home run?

4:37 p.m. Kemp grounds to third on the third pitch, sparing us a longer discussion from Buck and McCarver of his woes.

4:38 p.m. Andre Ethier Chat!

4:39 p.m. Youngest Master Weisman can’t open the Pringles can by himself. Does he not want them enough?

4:40 p.m.  Ken Rosenthal, who if I understand correctly was wrong in a column this week about the Dodger managerial situation, is about to talk about the Dodger managerial situation.

Though I suppose you could argue that Rosenthal hedged his bets a bit.

4:45 p.m. San Francisco losing in the 10th inning at home against Colorado. Game’s not over, so I can’t quite say out loud what I’m thinking.

4:46 p.m. Laptop battery level: 18%. Plug location: distant.

4:47 p.m. With one out in the top of the second inning and the Cardinals’ pitcher batting, I check Mike Petriello’s handy bullpen chart to see who is likely to get action today. Confidence!

Lilly strikes out Gast on the next pitch, then retires Carpenter to complete a perfect inning. Still not used to a different Carpenter on the Cards.

4:48 p.m. The kids are now filling up water pistols.

4:51 p.m. A Van Slyke is batting in the late afternoon sun at Dodger Stadium.

4:52 p.m. As Rosenthal talks, the Cardinals go to the mound and pull Gast from the game for medical reasons, following a ball four to Van Slyke that was more like a lob. Joe Kelly enters the game, and it’s time for me to go get that charger.

4:54 p.m. Good lord, the Giants win on a two-run walkoff inside-the-park homer.

4:57 p.m. A.J. Ellis strikes out on three pitches from Kelly, none slower than 96 mph. Bodes well for Gordon.

4:58 p.m. The Dodgers do a hit-and-run on a one-out, 0-2 pitch to Gordon with Van Slyke taking from first base and Molina behind the plate. A foul ball preserves the comedy, and Gordon strikes out two pitches later.

5:00 p.m. Gast left with left shoulder tightness.

5:01 p.m. Kelly has an ERA over 7 but he throws fire. Nothing below 95 mph. Lilly becomes his third strikeout victim in a row to end the inning. (OK, that hasn’t actually happened yet – the count is 2-2.)

5:02 p.m. OK, now it’s happened. Three outs.  Buck teases a Kershaw interview for the third inning.

5:03 p.m. The kids are soaking wet. One of them threw one of the water guns. A piece broke off and the dog snagged it and chewed it up. Total time of ownership for that toy: 3 1/2 hours.

5:06 p.m. As Kershaw talks to Buck, Lilly gets an easy first two outs in the top of the third. But now the trainers are visiting Gordon at shortstop.

5:09 p.m. Kershaw on having the lowest ERA of any starting pitcher since 1920: “I’ve only been playing for five years. I’ve got a lot of time to screw that up.”

5:10 p.m. Whatever it was, Gordon is staying in the game. Kershaw is now talking about his batting strategy against Miller.

5:11 p.m. Buck says he’s worried about asking his last question to Kershaw, about the mood of the team, because he can’t see who’s standing around Kershaw. Kershaw does a mock look around to see who’s eavesdropping, then replies.

“There’s no doubt that there’s some stuff going on, but if we win some games, that’s really all that matters,” Kershaw says. “Donny’s doing everything he possibly can. We all have his back. Personally, I love him to death, and he’s such a great guy to have as a manager. It’s really not fair to him just because we haven’t been performing as a team. That’s on us. It’s a lot easier to look at one guy than 25 but at the end of the day, we’ve got to go out and win some games. The pressure’ll be taken off, and we’ll be good to go from there. ”

Lilly strikes out Craig to end the top of the third. So far: three innings, two hits, no walks, one hit batter, one unearned run, 45 pitches.

5:16 p.m. Punto, leading off the bottom of the third, hits a low liner to right-center, and Jay was shaded toward left-center. A double.

5:17 p.m. With first base open, the next pitch hits Ellis in the hip. Retaliation? Ah, who cares? Two on, none out for Gonzalez.

5:19 p.m. Gonzalez was in a 4-for-32 slump with three walks and no extra-base hits going into today’s game. But he’s got RBI hits in his first two trips to the plate today, driving home Punto here with a single to center.  And suddenly we know how Kelly has an ERA over 7. As of this moment, it’s soaring through the air at 7.47.

5:22 p.m. Sigh. Kemp strikes out on three pitches.

5:23 p.m. Siiiigh. Ethier pops out to third. Some boos. Will Van Slyke keep it going?

5:25 p.m. Full count, two out.

5:26 p.m. Van Slyke sends one high and deep to center, but it dies on the warning track.

OK, I’m more than two hours into this, and definitely on borrowed time right now. Posting might become a bit sporadic in the middle innings as I try to figure out dinner.

5:34 p.m. Lilly has a perfect fourth and has retired … hello, 10 in a row.

Mac and cheese for kids’ dinner with green beans. My wife doesn’t think I use enough water in the pot for the mac. But she ain’t here …

5:38 p.m. Gordon ends an 0-for-25 skein with a one-out single off Kelly, setting up a potential Gordon-Molina showdown.

5:43 p.m. Lilly strikes out trying to bunt – giving Kelly a career-high six strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings so far. Now, you might as well send Gordon with two out and Punto up.

5:45 p.m. Gordon doesn’t test Molina. Lilly’s failure to bunt is underscored when Punto singles to left and Gordon goes to third base. Punto has been on three times in the first four innings.

5:47 p.m. Craig makes a nice running catch of a Mark Ellis foul ball near the stands to end the fourth. Dodgers still lead, 2-1.

Young Master Weisman is eating a giant pickle as a pre-mac appetizer.

6:02 p.m. Lilly cruises through the top of the fifth – now 13 in a row against the National League elite – and then Gonzalez kicks off the bottom of the frame with a legitimate solo four-bagger. That’s three straight RBI hits for Gonzalez, by the way. After a walk to Kemp, Kelly is pulled from the game, having gone three innings and 62 pitches in his emergency appearance.

6:11 p.m. Mom’s home! (Postscript: Dinner was not my best work, but it did what it needed to do.)

6:17 p.m. Catching up here. Carlos Martinez  – not this one – relieved Kelly and retired the next three batters (two on strikeouts) to strand Kemp. St. Louis relievers have eight strikeouts in four innings, and the Dodgers have struck out 19 times in 14 innings against the Cardinals so far in this series.

6:18 p.m. After retiring 14 in a row, Lilly walks Holliday with one out in the sixth – his first walk of the game – and just like that, he’s pulled from his first start since his return from the disabled list by Mattingly. He threw 79 pitches in 5 1/3 innings, allowing a run (unearned), two hits (one unearned) and a hit batter (unearned) while striking out three.

Ronald Belisario enters. I can already hear Mattingly saying, “I was not going to let Ted Lilly lose that game.”

6:22 p.m. See 3:58 p.m. I feel inappropriately vindicated by Lilly’s excellent outing.

6:23 p.m. Craig forces Holliday at second for the second out. By the way, Carl Crawford came in with Belisario in a double switch, replacing Van Slyke. Crawford will bat second in the bottom of the sixth.

6:24 p.m. Trouble. Molina singles, bringing Freese to the plate with the tying runs on base.

6:25 p.m. Freese hits a ball not unlike the one Molina hit in the first inning, right to the same spot, and Crawford does the same dive as Van Slyke did and comes up the same empty. It also goes for a double, the Cardinals have cut the Dodgers lead to 3-2 and Jon Jay is walked intentionally to load the bases with two out for Pete Kozma, who popped out twice against Lilly.

6:26 p.m. Hard smash down the third-base line. Punto makes a diving backhanded stop, beautifully. No time to recover and step on third, and he can’t get to his feet to make a throw to first in time to get Kozma. The game is tied, as Belisario can’t preserve Lilly’s lead.

6:28 p.m. If the bullpen were in better shape, I’d have been more content to see the Dodgers quit on Lilly while they were ahead. But it’s just hard to watch Belisario enter games with any kind of stakes these days.

6:30 p.m. Pinch-hitting for the Cardinals is left-handed batter Matt Adams, who is 16 for 40 with three walks, a .442 on-base percentage and a .700 slugging percentage this season. All of that damage is against righty pitching, however. Paco Rodriguez relieves Belisario, and Adams pops out on the third pitch. We’re tied going into the bottom of the sixth, 3-3.

6:35 p.m. A.J. Ellis has struck out in his first three at-bats. Previously in his career, he had one other three-strikeout game and one four-strikeout game.

6:36 p.m. With Crawford on deck, Gordon flies to the sun field in right to lead off the bottom of the sixth. Crawford then reaches base on an error by Carpenter, bringing Punto and his .844 OPS to the plate.

6:40 p.m. Argh, Punto strikes out. Mark Ellis up.

6:41 p.m. There it is – Ellis lashes a double down the line, and Crawford, “flying around the bases,” as McCarver says, comes all the way around to score to give the Dodgers back the lead.

6:42 p.m. Gonzalez needs a triple for the cycle – he has 12 in his career. But he’s walked intentionally to put runners at first and second with two out for Kemp.

6:45 p.m. Kemp strikes out on a 2-2 pitch that’s ankle-high. That’s 10 strikeouts in five innings for the Cardinal bullpen.

6:48 p.m. I don’t know if this feels like one of the more interesting Dodger games of the year only because I’m paying this much attention.

6:50 p.m. Dodger defense has come to life the past two innings. Gonzalez dives to his right to intercept a potential single by Carlos Beltran, then throws from his knee to Rodriguez covering first base for the second out of the seventh.

6:51 p.m. Mattingly brings in Kenley Jansen to face Holliday with the bases empty.

6:52 p.m. And you don’t see this much: Kemp is removed from the game in a double switch, with Skip Schumaker entering. It’s fairly sound strategy – Jansen would have been the third batter in the bottom of the sixth – but you do have to ask yourself, is Schumaker better to have in the game than even a struggling Kemp?

You now have the pitcher’s spot behind Gonzalez, which isn’t a good position for a team whose remaining bench is Luis Cruz, Ramon Hernandez and Juan Uribe. Gonzalez might not see a strike until Sunday.

6:59 p.m. Everyone on Twitter talking about Kemp’s negative reaction in the dugout to being pulled. By the way, Jansen struck out Holliday to end the top of the seventh.

7:00 p.m. Matt Holliday almost Matt Hollidayed that fly ball by Andre Ethier, but he caught it.

7:01 p.m. McCarver and Rosenthal are saying that Kemp’s removal by Mattingly is a pure strategy move. But clearly, it’s a move that never happens if Kemp isn’t struggling.

7:02 p.m. Schumaker, for his part, reaches base on an infield single to third base.

7:04 p.m. A.J. Ellis walks to end his strikeout streak, but Gordon flies to center for the second out. Crawford now batting to try to give the Dodgers a bigger cushion.

7:07 p.m. Didn’t mention that old friend Randy Choate is in the game for St. Louis. He has allowed nine baserunners in 7 1/3 innings with two strikeouts entering the game, but has a 1.23 ERA.

7:08 p.m. After hitting a foul ball off someone’s Dodger cap in the front row of the seats near first base, Crawford hits a fly to right-center. Jay and Beltran come close to each other before Jay gloves it for the inning-ending out.

7:13 p.m. If Jansen can get all three batters in the eighth, the closer in the ninth would face the bottom third of the Cardinals order in the ninth. Jansen strikes out Craig, but Molina singles to left for his third hit of the game.

7:16 p.m. Jansen goes 2-0 to Freese, and I’m starting to worry. The next pitch is a high strike, followed by a swing and a miss on a 90 mph pitch down the middle.

7:17 p.m. High heat, upstairs. Freese strikes out, bringing on Jay.

7:19 p.m. Jay hits a 200-foot drop shot into right field for a single. Kozma, who tied the game in the sixth, is up at the plate with two on and two out.

Again, there are ramifications beyond this inning. Even if Kozma is retired, Carlos Beltran is now guaranteed to bat in the ninth inning, with Holliday after him if anyone else gets on.

7:21 p.m. On his 23rd pitch of this outing, Jansen goes 3-0 to Kozma.

7:22 p.m. I’m corrected! Beltran came out of the game in a double switch for Choate.

7:23 p.m. The count is 3-2. Runners going. Jansen throwing his 27th pitch. It catches the edge of the zone for a called strike three.

Dodgers head to the bottom of the eighth, trying to add to their 4-3 lead. Due up in the top of the ninth for St. Louis: light-hitting reserve outfielder Shane Robinson, Carpenter and then probably Daniel Descalso as a pinch-hitter.

7:28 p.m. I don’t think it’s possible for me to jinx an already-struggling Brandon League, but it occurs to me that if he gets the save, he will get cheered on a night that Kemp got booed. Bizarro world.

7:30 p.m. Punto reaches base for the fourth time today with a hard single to right.

7:32 p.m. After Mark Ellis fails on a bunt attempt, he hits a grounder to short slow enough to allow him to avoid a double play. Gonzalez now bats with two out and a pinch-hitter on deck against Mitchell Boggs.

7:30 p.m. Punto reaches base for the fourth time today with a hard single to right.

7:32 p.m. After failing on a bunt attempt, Mark Ellis hits a grounder to short that’s slow enough for him to avoid the double play. Gonzalez now comes to the plate, with Uribe on deck to hit for Jansen.

7:35 p.m. One of the more predictable walks of the season is issued to Gonzalez. Here comes Uribear!

7:36 p.m. Uribear!  A hard shot off the glove of Freese and down the line, an RBI double.

It’s come to this. Dodger fans are excited to see Uribe bat instead of Kemp, and are rewarded.

Uribe raises his 2013 on-base percentage to .371 and OPS to .727.

7:38 p.m. Ethier is walked intentionally, loading the bases for Schumaker.

7:39 p.m. Schumaker hits a weird chopper just over Mitchell Boggs that Carpenter is able to flag near second base and convert into a double play.

We’re heading for the ninth, League tasked with protecting a 5-3 lead.

7:42 p.m. League starts with a first-pitch strike to Robinson, clocked at 94 mph, then follows with an 87 mph called strike two. After a ball, it’s 95 mph for a swinging strike three.

7:44 p.m. Punto’s diving stop in the sixth inning is Fox’s play of the game.

7:45 p.m. Carpenter grounds to Gordon, and the Dodgers are one out away from victory. Ty Winnington is the batter.

7:46 p.m. It’s a grounder to Punto, and just like that, the Dodgers win. Man, how they had to scratch and claw, but they won.

It’s a story of redemption … for Punto, who made the first-inning error that got the Dodgers off to a stumbling start, then did everything right after that … and for Lilly, who showed he can still contribute as a major-league starter. Keep that in mind as we await other redemption songs.

Thanks for reading – good night!

May 05

Ground beef: Giants score 33% more runs than Dodgers, credited with 100% more grit

The Giants “play as a unit, as a team, grinding out victories,” ESPN announced Dan Shulman said at the top of tonight’s broadcast of the Giants and the Dodgers, confirming my suspicions that the narrative of the nationally televised game would be the story of the bloated, underachieving team from Los Angeles against those gritty, overachieving underdogs from San Francisco.

And so it went throughout the night, despite the fact that:

• With a $141 million payroll and the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, the Giants are anything but a low-paid team of nobodies.

• The Dodgers, despite a payroll over $200 million, started an infield this fine evening of Juan Uribe, Nick Punto, Dee Gordon and Luis Cruz.

I’m not looking to denigrate San Francisco. Quite the opposite. Whatever your emotions are, how can you not have respect for what the Giants have achieved in earning two World Series titles since 2010 and for their positive start to 2013?

But to say the Giants are willing their way to victory is not only the stuff of fantasy, it’s insulting to the quality of their players. They aren’t winning with smoke and mirrors. There’s actually talent there.

This is the trap everyone falls into: Only winners grind. It’s silly, and it’s obviously phony on the surface.

On Friday and Saturday, the Dodgers were tied with the Giants when the final batter of each game came up. Those last batters happened to play for San Francisco, and they each happened to hit home runs, and you have to tip your hat to them. The homers gave the Giants 100 percent of the nights’ victories. But did they give them 100 percent of the available grit? Did one swing of the bat not only vanquish the Dodgers’ chance of winning, but also eradicate everything positive one could say about their effort?

There’s no questioning the Giants’ perseverance right now, not after three straight one-run victories against their top rivals, two involving comebacks. But this was also a weekend in which the Dodgers put 18 runners on base Friday, not by accident or some drunken shenanigans, and made two significant comebacks the next two nights, even if they ultimately didn’t lead to triumph.

Saturday, the Dodgers rallied from five runs down to take the lead, then retook the lead again after they were tied. Tonight, down 4-0 in the eighth – and with the flight home practically taxiing on the runway – the Dodgers pushed three runs across, two of them driven in by the nearly immobile Adrian Gonzalez, before the tying and go-ahead runs were left on base when another gimpy player, Jerry Hairston Jr., grounded out.

San Francisco held on to win, 4-3, completing a three-game sweep and pushing the Dodgers farther behind in the NL West. No question, the Dodgers are in lousy shape right now (with their roster manipulation doing them few favors and managerial tactics drawing questions on a nightly basis). But turning that lousy shape into a team-wide personality flaw makes no sense.

Grit is not a zero-sum game.

Of course, why we’re talking about grit to this extent has me a bit confused – the stuff never got those of us without talent anywhere near the majors – but even if you believe wholeheartedly in the power of grit to win ballgames, there’s no reason to believe that grit is a winner-take-all characteristic. We all want to win, but failing is not the same as not trying.

I mean, we learn this in preschool, folks. It’s one of the building blocks of our society. Why do we forget it when the preschoolers turn pro?

Apr 05

So why not a designated free-throw shooter?

If you’re in favor of the designated hitter in baseball, are you also in favor of a designated free-throw shooter in basketball?

At ESPN.com, the estimable Christina Kahrl revived the arguments for placing the DH in the National League, arguments that have as little effect on me as I’m sure mine against the DH would have on her.

Concidentally, there was a front-page story in the Times sports section today on the free-throw woes of Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, indicating that – like Lakers center Dwight Howard and many other big men before them – Jordan is so poor at shooting free throws that it is limiting his playing time and generally causing headaches.

My first thought was wondering how, with so many years in which you’re paid to do nothing but play basketball, players can still be so poor at free-throw shooting. But I realized, look, some skills are just never going to materialize for some players.

And then it hit me: I’ve just described hitting for many major-league pitchers.

Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers (April 1)

Some pitchers can learn to hit, but most won’t. Because of that, many people think that no pitchers should hit at all. That has never made sense to me, because I don’t think the pitchers who can hit should lose that advantage. And I still think it’s a worthwhile goal to strive for. Look at our friends old and new, from Rick Rhoden and Terry Forster to Clayton Kershaw, who over the years has improved at the plate while still developing on the mound.

Having the pitcher’s spot in the lineup enhances baseball strategy, and stories of pitchers getting hurt while playing offense are overblown. Pitchers deliver far more memorable moments at the plate than injure themselves.

But let’s put all that aside and ask yourself this – if you’re pro-DH, shouldn’t you also be pro-DFTS?

Bad free-throw shooters are almost never going to get better. They are painful to watch. They are otherwise key players who aren’t able to play as often.

Most of all, unlike in baseball, where so many of us enjoy trying to think ahead like a manager, bad free-throw shooting brings out the worst in basketball strategy. No one fantasizes about instructing their imaginary team to foul other players; no one salivates over the last two minutes of an NBA game taking 20.

Other than the exceedingly rare injury for pitchers while on offense, there’s little argument for the DH that doesn’t make more sense for the DFTS. The DFTS would discourage fouling, keep the best players on the floor and make the end of a basketball game more entertaining.

I’m against the DH and the DFTS. But whether you’re pro or con, they go together — and yet the world is silent on the latter.

May 24

Winning breeds chemistry: revisited


Winning breeds chemistry, and not the other way around. Happy scores make happy players. That’s one of the longtime philosophies of Dodger Thoughts, a firm stance in a debate that came up often during the clashes of the Jim Tracy-Paul DePodesta era.

The 2012 Dodgers are the first team in 10 years to tempt me with second thoughts. How else, one might ask, can a team with serious talent deficiencies in April, compounded by the loss of several players — including a superstar in Matt Kemp — to the disabled list in May, have the best record in the major leagues? In fact, since July 6, the Dodgers are 75-42, a pace that translates to 104 wins over a 162-game season, with a roster admired by few outside of Los Angeles and few others within the city limits.

Don Mattingly and his coaching staff have nurtured what would seem to be the best clubhouse atmosphere at Dodger Stadium since at least Manny Ramirez’s arrival in 2008. This is a happy, determined, focused bunch. Confident without being cocky, as the warm cliche goes.

But is that why they’re winning?

That would require us believing that chemistry is the reason Scott Van Slyke and Ivan De Jesus got their game-winning hits this week, instead of just a friendly ruling from the law of averages, that it’s the reason that Ted Lilly (Wednesday notwithstanding) and Chris Capuano have pitched beyond the highest expectations, that it’s the reason Kemp and Andre Ethier and A.J. Ellis are All-Star candidates, that it’s the reason Elian Herrera looks like a revelation despite seemingly being found on Craigslist.

It would also require us ignoring how players like Dee Gordon are performing gamely but as if immune to the good vibes, that Chad Billingsley and James Loney can’t seem to derive any consistency from them, that they can make Van Slyke heroic off the bench but do nothing for him as a starter, when he is 0 for 13.

If Herrera, for example, comes back to earth after starting his career with an .854 OPS in 28 plate appearances, we wouldn’t infer that Chemistry has left the building. We would assume that it’s because Reality has entered.

There’s more than a bit of chicken-and-egg origin theory going on here. Winning and chemistry may well feed upon each other — you don’t need to rely exclusively on one to explain the joy of the 2012 Dodgers. It’s likely that a good environment works more for some players than with others.

Still, my view remains that baseball is a sport that motivates the individual to such a degree that clubhouse factors will be secondary to talent. It is not your typical workplace. Whether you’re a ballplayer fighting to keep a roster spot or pushing for extra millions on your next contract, you have every reason to try do well.

Right now, the Dodgers have a lot of guys who are succeeding in these efforts. They have, in a sense, mostly winners — more than anyone else in baseball on this day. And that’s what feels so good.

The true mystery isn’t how it happens, because it can happen at any time. The true mystery is how long these guys can make it happen.

Jun 27

My journey

… In about the mid-1990s, after it became clear how awful the DeShields-Pedro Martinez trade was, I started to conjecture that the Dodgers really could become the Cubs – that a journey to 100 years of mediocrity can begin with a single step. Subsequently, I started to think that I might be following the same path. I’m a published writer, and people (some of them, anyway) have enjoyed my work. But I don’t feel like I really made it to the champagne celebration in the locker room.

I’m very happy these days – I have a wonderful wife and a wonderful baby, and you won’t catch me regretting the choices I made that allowed those things to happen. But I do have frustrations, and those frustrations, I’ve come to realize, are played out each time the Dodgers do something. Anything. I’m not just talking about the 162 games; I’m talking about the offseason trades and the decisions to replace the dirt warning track with rubber and the removal of the sandwich station on the Club level of Dodger Stadium. I was raised in an easier time, where things were more often right than wrong, and I haven’t shed my addiction to that time. I want things with the Dodgers to be right. That, essentially, is the genesis of this website – to deal with that want.

I think what it is, is that when I was younger, the games were more fun. They were carefree. Now, they do seem to mean more to me. They carry this weight. And now, it’s been so long since the Dodgers have been a winner, I can’t imagine anymore what it will be like to celebrate that. I hope I enjoy the glory, if it ever comes, as much as I’ve suffered the pain. I think maybe I will.

– Dodger Thoughts, March 12, 2003

Lorenzo Charles died, and that was by far the worst news I heard all day.

I poked my thumb on a fork in the dishwasher, and that was by far the most pain I felt all day. I slammed my hand down on the counter and cursed.

But the angriest I got over the McCourt news today was when my web browser crashed while pages were loading.

This afternoon, I found myself wondering why I can get angry at so many things, so many little things – “Why won’t this page load?! It’s a computer! It’s all 0s and 1s!” – and yet I can remain unflappably calm over the way Frank McCourt treats the team I grew up loving.

It’s not because I don’t care. I couldn’t write for this website if I didn’t care.

Sometime over the eight years since I wrote the post excerpted above, Dodger games went back to the way they were. They went back to being carefree, to being an escape. I suffer every loss, yearn for every win, but even with a losing team, the games are a release for me again. They don’t carry weight. I channel my frustration elsewhere.

So much of the frustration and anger in my life is about unmet expectations. The computer should work. I should be able to do the dishes without maiming myself. March Madness God should not die at age 47. The biggest one of all: I’m not the person I want to be.

But Frank McCourt has no way left to disappoint me, because I have zero faith in the man to do the right thing. I have no expectations of him.

This is a particularly personal view that I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to share, so please don’t get the idea that I’m telling any of you not to be angry. You have every right. I’m just talking about me here.

I think part of my problem in life has been that I’ve not always been cynical enough, which is why I’m so easily disappointed. But McCourt is like a shot of cynicism straight into my veins. In some ways, it’s a relief. McCourt might own the Dodgers, but he doesn’t own me.

The Dodgers are my Odyssey, and to paraphrase Roberto Baly, Vin Scully is my Homer. Safe at home or mired on the seas, the Dodgers are a story, an endless fable that I see in the making, and so, so instructive.

The way I react to each chapter in this epic is the way I wish I reacted to the rest of my life. Suffer with dignity, accept limitations, believe that the next good moment is around the corner. I don’t want to have to become a cynic to survive my remaining time in this world, but if I can ever learn to take the bad with the good in my everyday life, like I do with the Dodgers, I’ll be the better man for it.

Don’t surrender. Be a dreamer, not a demander. It might not be what you need, but it’s what I need.

Jan 27

Baseball, moist and delicious

Baseball is like the giant, moist blueberry muffin I had Wednesday morning. It’s so grand that you can dive into it with no fear of running out too soon, so full of flavor that each bite from top to bottom is a taste sensation, so generous that you can lose yourself in it, and when it’s finally all gone, you’re somehow satiated … yet dreaming of more. That’s baseball, to me.

Really, it was one heck of a muffin.

Nov 16

It’s whom you pay, not when you pay them


Ric Tapia/Icon SMIThe problem isn’t that the Dodgers are still paying Jason Schmidt; the problem is that Jason Schmidt couldn’t pitch no matter what date his paychecks arrived.

With a third of Hiroki Kuroda’s new contract coming in the form of a signing bonus to be paid in 2012 and 2013, naturally the subject of the Dodgers deferring salaries has come up again. On that subject, let me make these points:

  1. Though they have certainly turned it into an art form, deferred payments are nothing unique to the Dodgers or the McCourt ownership. They can’t even lay claim to the grand-deferred-daddy of them all, the Mets’ 35-year Bobby Bonilla plan.
  2. Deferred payments aren’t an inherently bad way to operate a business. To oversimplify, if you are making good investments with the capital as you hang onto it, you will come out ahead.
  3. The primary issue with the money the Dodgers owe players who are no longer on the roster isn’t the money — it’s the players. The problem is not that they’re still paying Jason Schmidt, Juan Pierre or Andruw Jones — it’s that those contracts were so unfortunate, period.  We could have taken Schmidt to a $47 million lunch at the Palm a few years ago and called it a day — it wouldn’t have made that deal turn out any better.
  4. Remember that some deferred contracts did not start that way. For example, Jones’ deal was restructured to accommodate the 2009 Manny Ramirez signing, so that the Dodgers would have other options besides Jones and Juan Pierre in left field. The ongoing flow of cash to Jones are less about a philosophy of deferring payments than about trying to make lemonade from lemons.
  5. Backloaded contracts that are used on productive players have the potential to be good. Keeping Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda to single-digit millions now, enabling the team to spend more to address other pressing needs, is a viable strategy — especially if you believe that down the road, more TV dollars and a better economy might make the backloaded contracts easier to pay off.
  6. Certainly, there’s an argument that the Dodgers should reign their spending and stop buying players on credit. Heck, I’m one of those rare birds who would watch a homegrown, low-rent squad. But if you do that now, given the chaos in team ownership, you’d have to brace yourself for a 2011 team as leaky as a bad roof.
  7. Yes, the McCourt ownership could sell a house and take care of all this year’s deferred payments in an instant. But I’m not holding my breath for that.

In a nutshell, the timeframe for paying player salaries is fairly low on the issues bedeviling the Dodgers. Achieving a combination of good decisions and good luck regarding the roster is far more important. Even as the McCourt drama plays out, the Dodgers will thrive or dive depending on their personnel choices.

Eventually, the Dodgers will either operate one season on a limited budget, or they’ll find the revenue to bring their finances back to steadier ground.  I’m betting on the latter. In any case, what matters is that they spend their money wisely, whenever they spend it.

Oct 27

Did we lose, or did they win? Both

In the wake of the Yankees’ elimination from the playoffs, Emma Span wrote the following at Bronx Banter:

… I think the tendency of fans — and certainly not just Yankee fans, but perhaps especially Yankee fans — to instinctively blame their own team after a loss, rather than crediting the opponent, is pretty interesting. Obviously not everyone does this, but as an overall fanbase mood I think it rings true, unless maybe some undisputed whiz like Cliff Lee is directly involved.

Setting aside for the moment whether or not it’s accurate or fair in a specific instance, what’s the psychological gain here? The outcome of any game depends on the combination of one team’s strength and another’s weakness, of course, and it’s often hard to disentangle a hitter’s success from a pitcher’s failure, or vice versa. How much of Colby Lewis’s kickass performance on Friday night was due to variables he controlled directly, and how much was due to the Yankees’ inadequate approach or execution at the plate? It’s not possible to tell precisely, although a lot of the newer baseball stats our SABR-inclined friends come up with are designed to help sort this out. And my first instinct, like many people in the bar where I was watching, was to yell “C’mon you useless #$&*s, it’s Colby Lewis” at the little pinstriped men on the TV.

I think in the end, it’s mostly about control: the idea that your team mostly controls its fate (like the idea that you yourself mostly control your fate) is generally preferable to the alternative. No one likes feeling helpless to change their situation. Everyone wants to believe that we’re in charge of how our lives turn out, not larger forces we can’t affect. And hey, if the Yankees lost because they failed, well then, they’re still better. They just didn’t show it. There must be something they could have done differently. …

Though it becomes even more New York-centric as it goes on, Span’s entire post is worth reading. I agree that fans have a tendency to turn on their team when things go wrong, out of a belief that the team should be better. No one likes to admit to limitations. To me, the 2009 Dodgers were a vintage illustration of this – even when that team was winning, the slightest, most momentary setback would send many fans into a tizzy. In my mind, that was a mistake. Yes, we all want to win, but losing shouldn’t mean the elimination of all joy.

It’s not necessarily a sign of weakness to tip your hat to your opponent. On some occasions, it could mean that you’re failing to look at your own inadequacies. But I don’t think that’s something Dodger fans are generally at risk of – quite the opposite. Every foible gets a thorough examination.

One thing that the McCourt controversy and the struggles of certain players did to the Dodgers this year, however, was make those limitations that Span talks about feel more real. Against our will, expectations have been lowered. It portends a sour 2011, though at least there’s this: There’s a lot more room to be pleasantly surprised.

* * *

  • I could bring more nuance to this, but this talk of expanding baseball’s playoffs – I’m dead set against it.
  • Life Magazine has released some previously unpublished photos from the 1955 World Series – check ‘em out.
Oct 14

Hustle and flow: The mental game, John Wooden, Matt Kemp and me


One Friday in the summer of 1977, I won an award named after the legend who was born 100 years ago today. The John Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award was given to one member of each of the camp’s basketball teams who best exemplified the values of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.


Future non-star.

I was 9 1/2 years old, heading into fifth grade, and had been dribbling a basketball (originally with two hands but more recently with one) for five years or more. But I had not made a lot of progress as far as putting the ball in the basket. I was almost unconscionably short, I’m guessing about 4-foot 4 or so, and that 10-foot hoop was still miles high in the sky. As far as playing the game, I was still trying to figure so many things out. And so that week on the campus of Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, I was quite possibly the least talented basketball player in that entire camp, or at least among them.

I think we played about five games in our little camp league that week, and our team’s coach, whom I actually don’t have any bad memories of, decided at about Game 2 that I should play safety. Yes, safety, and by that I mean, he came to the conclusion that offense was such a pointless endeavor for me that I was better off just being on defense. So he designated that I shouldn’t cross the halfcourt line when our team had the ball. He played four-on-five, while I waited for the other team to bring the ball back my way. The game looked pretty interesting from the backcourt …

And then, one time, an opposing player stole the ball. How I remember it, that kid racing (as much as 9-year-olds raced) down the left side of the outdoor court, parallel to some Cal Lutheran dormitories, with only me between him and the basket. I sped up to match him stride for stride. He drove in for his layup, and I leaped up next to him – we’re talking four, five, six inches in the air at least – and tipped the ball away. Clean, pure, perfect. My first extraordinary moment on a basketball court.

Foul!

The referee, some guy whom I’d guess was about 16, whistled me for a shooting foul. I was in utter disbelief. I cried out in protest, and was immediately warned not to argue. You didn’t argue a call at John Wooden Basketball Camp.  I shut my mouth, bitterly, crestfallen that my moment – my moment – had been taken away from me. I looked around, and I’m not sure anyone really believed that I had been robbed, because I’m not sure anyone believed I was capable of having a moment to rob.

My milli-spark of rebellion was an aberration, and it did not prevent me from receiving the Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award, the award praising me for my industriousness, cooperation, ambition and so forth. True, I wasn’t showing much confidence or competitive greatness, but I meant well. I won it, and I accepted it, took a little pride in it, put it on a wall in my bedroom at home and kept it in a box through my adulthood.

There was no mistaking, then or now, that this award was a consolation prize. Practically a booby prize. It’s not that it didn’t mean something. It was a reward for not giving up. But why would I have given up? The implicit answer was that I as a basketball player, I was that bad.

There wasn’t a person who received the John Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award who wouldn’t have traded it on sight for just being a little better naturally at actually playing basketball.

* * *

Ed Andrieski/APMatt Kemp slaps his bat after one of his 170 strikeouts in 2010.

The Dodgers’ 2010 season was defined by two kinds of players: Jamey Carroll and Matt Kemp. Carroll, the overachiever who hustled. Kemp, the underachiever who … well, we really don’t know exactly what he was doing. And that’s the reason for this story.

I am someone who has always had, almost without exception, what adults would call a good attitude toward work. Rarely in my life has my effort been questioned. This is true despite the fact that even before I became aware of it, it has been my goal to do more with less. I’m not a show-my-work guy. I just want it to be easy.

I’m practically a lifelong skier, for example, having taken my first lesson 35 years ago, when I was 7. To this day, I challenge myself, seeking out the hardest possible runs I can, but I don’t do it for the sake of the work. I do it for the sake of the accomplishment. I want to glide, always glide. I want to be a natural.

But I was not a natural, never. Skiing is my best sport, but it has taken me all 35 years to get to the level of ability I’m at today. In my 20s, trying to impress myself and more importantly, trying to impress girls, I was OK, but I wasn’t impressing anyone. I had to grind and grind away at it.

There’s a widespread assumption that Kemp has had things too easy in his athletic life, and that this year he paid a price for it. I think that’s probably both truth and fallacy there. Kemp has made athletics a daily part of his life for probably 20 years or more now, ultimately at a level of intensity that most of us can’t relate to. The idea that Kemp hasn’t worked to get to where he is today couldn’t be more ignorant.

But Kemp undoubtedly, more than anyone sitting at a computer reading this piece, is a natural at sports – even at the game of baseball at which he can sometimes seem clunky. He was a basketball star in high school. He reached the professional level in his No. 2 sport at age 21. He got Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards as presents for his 25th birthday. Generally, Kemp has probably found throughout his life that if he worked a certain amount, he would get better, and that any setbacks were temporary. You grow accustomed to that pace.

Relatively speaking, Kemp is a natural, and it’s completely understandable that he would take pride in that. I know I would. Making it look easy? Come on. How could you not feel good about that? Of course you’d find self-worth in that.

Hustle is great, but not needing to hustle, not needing to make that extra, tear-yourself-up effort, not needing to be told what to do, that can be pretty spectacular. That is a rush and a half. Who wouldn’t become addicted to it? And addictions are not something you easily shed overnight.

* * *

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesHappy birthday, Mr. Wooden

OK, there have been times I have actually felt like a natural. Just a few. First-grade spelling: They didn’t call me Speedy Gonzales because I could run fast. Math was never a problem in elementary school. And I could rock a Mattel Electronic Football game pretty hard. It was effortless, and it felt good.

Starting in seventh grade, it started to get incrementally harder. I still had my strengths, but nothing was automatic. And as I went into high school, a philosophy evolved. It took as much effort for me to get from an F (i.e., doing nothing) to a B+ or A- in an average class, as it did for me to get from an A- to an A. In other words, the cherry on top was half the effort. The A, though it seemed so close, was like the last 1,000 “Into Thin Air” feet of the climb to the top of Everest. That was the part where you could die trying.

And so sometimes, going for the A often seemed not worth the trouble. Other times, it wasn’t by choice. I took to science like Kemp has taken to the tailing slider. After sailing along in math my whole life, calculus brought me to my knees.  I made mistakes that I couldn’t fathom, and I made mistakes that were just plain stupid.

I graduated from high school with a 3.5 or 3.6 grade-point average. I probably ranked about 40th out of 130 or so kids in the rather intense environment that was my senior class, better than some, worse than others. I had a lower GPA than my older brother or sister had (though who knows what my grade-point average on balls in play was).

I did have excellent SAT scores, but as the applications were going out, I was warned by our college counselor that I had the wrong combination of strengths. If your SAT scores were in a lower percentile than your GPA, that meant you made the extra effort to place above your station. You were a worker. You had character. High SATs and a lower GPA, however, meant you were lazy. Which, in my case, was not wholly true but partially so.

What did that make me? Did it make me a bad person, to be good but not great? That as hard as I tried, I consciously risked falling short of my goals because I couldn’t or wouldn’t make myself try harder?  Should I be booed? Should I have my ethic questioned?

Ah, but it’s different, right? There’s no comparison between high school classes and major-league baseball. I wasn’t getting paid, first thousands and then millions like Kemp (though I was getting paid, in a sense, by my parents’ investment in my future). I was just a boy. Kemp is a man. I was in school; Kemp is a professional.

I’m going to argue that it’s not so different. As much as your circumstances change, there is a core part of you that remains young and in the midst of development. I am 42 years old, but that’s a chronological age. Or to put it another way, it’s an average of all the ages I feel. Sure, there’s some 42-year-old in me, but part of me still feels 9, and part of me feels about 75.

I approach life a certain way. I want to be better, and I’ll grind at it, but there’s a limit to what I’ll do. I work very hard, I feel, but I can’t emphasize that limit enough. And that limit can change on a weekly, daily, hourly basis. There always has and always will be a part of me that wants to do nothing more than smell the roses, whether those roses are Saturday morning cartoons as a kid or a nice long walk in the twilight as a grown-up. I like the work I do, but I don’t like to work. I accept the process and can even enjoy the journey, but the result is a big part of my reward. I always want my life to be easier; I always want things to go right the first time.

And so that limit of how hard I’m willing to work is a moving target. I suspect that’s true for many of us.

Knowing what to do is not the same as being able or willing to do it. It’s a hard lesson to learn that the effort that you’re comfortable with is not always enough. It’s a lesson that might make you rebel. Matt Kemp and I can’t be the only ones who wrestle with that. Being paid a lot of money might alter the personal battlefield, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

* * *

While on his postseason vacation in Europe with Rihanna, a short break before his offseason workouts begin, Kemp’s baseball mind is probably is at one of two places. He’s thinking that he has overcome hurdles before, and so there’s no reason to think he won’t overcome them again. Or he’s thinking that okay, that philosophy has worked in the past, but this time he really has to find another gear. He is going to have grind even harder than before, and that’s what he’s gonna show us next year.

Or he’s thinking both of the above. He will have to grind, but he will succeed. Because he believes.

I don’t know if it’s one, the other or both. However, I don’t imagine Kemp not caring about improving. There’s too much for him to gain – more money, more glory, more victory – not to care.

But let’s consider the alternative.

There is conflicting scuttlebutt about Kemp. You hear that he does work, very hard. You also hear that he’s not a good listener, that when it comes to instruction or coaching, he’s a mixed bag. People wonder where his head is at a given moment.

Alex Gallardo/AP
Mr. Inspiration, Jamey Carroll, is listed at 170 pounds, the lightest weight on the 2010 Dodger roster.

These are not contradictory reports. Far from it. The beef with Kemp is with his mental game, but that grievance contains an implicit assumption that only a fool, or worse, a scumbag, would operate at less than full mental capacity. That oversimplifies things to a remarkable degree, practically the equivalent of hammering Jamey Carroll because he isn’t bigger and stronger.

The mental game can be hard. For some, it can be unconquerable. The mental game is not a free throw. Carroll is better at it than Kemp, but Carroll is more than 10 years older than Kemp. Carroll didn’t even break into the big leagues until he was two years older than Kemp (who has played in 626 games) is now. Carroll had to hustle more than most, had to think more than most, or he’d simply never have made it in the show, much less stuck around.

Kemp now has to step up his mental game to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 season. Anyone, including Kemp, can see this. But people think it’s a matter of flipping a switch, and that’s simply not true. You don’t power the mental game by flipping a switch. You power it by being the hamster that grinds on the wheel all day long, all so that you might get one extra drop of water.

Everyone is asking the same thing of Kemp – to work twice as hard in order to become, instead of better than 99.9998 percent of the people in the world at his sport, better than 99.9999 percent.

Maybe that’s disingenuous; maybe it’s only fair to look at Kemp in the context of his peers, among whom he ranked poorly in 2010, at least by Fangraphs’ estimation. The point is, everyone is expecting Kemp to be humble about a career that, until a few months ago, he has had every reason to take pride in. That might require more than an overnight adjustment. It might require trying harder, and then thinking you’ve got it, and then realizing you don’t, and then having to search – sincerely search – for new levels within yourself that aren’t immediately apparent.

Kemp, who has averaged more than 20 homers a year with a .285 batting average, who has had Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors, two playoff appearances, a past income of more than $5 million and a guaranteed 2011 income of nearly $7 million, who came back and improved after disappointing finishes to his 2006 and 2008 seasons, is being told that’s not enough, not nearly. He’s being told that if he doesn’t improve in 2011, he will be a great disappointment, and if there’s any question about his effort, it will be nothing less than shameful.

And here I sit, having worked hard to get where I am but with plenty farther I could go, having consciously and constantly holding myself back. Kemp is considered a mental misfit even though he’s a grown man under constant instruction, while no one questions my dedication to writing even though all I’m subjected to is the occasional edit, and I haven’t taken a writing class in 15 years. Kemp is sliced and diced for his Rihanna romance, even if the sincerity of it – no matter what the future holds – should no longer be in doubt, while I refuse any job that would require travel or night work that would take me away from my wife and kids, even if it would bring in more money, more glory, more victory.

If Kemp were to say to himself – and I personally don’t think for a moment he is saying this to himself – “I have money, I have love, I have a good job and I have my health, and I have this all just by being who I already am, and even though I’m no longer the best, that’s all I need,” no one would think for a moment that this was a legitimate perspective, even though outside the world of competitive sports, it most certainly is. In sports, there’s no greater sin than unrealized potential. And yet in life, in real life, letting some of your potential go at a certain point can actually be a gift to yourself and your loved ones.

* * *

But let’s say you accept your flaws. You’re humbled. You’re trying to get better. You aren’t getting there.

You don’t necessarily decide when it’s going to click.

In ninth-grade history, I had a teacher I was really struggling with. He had a very strong, upper-crust personality and was not afraid to mock you. I simply did not get him, and I felt that whatever I was learning — and I was learning something — I was learning despite him.

Tests in the class typically consisted of a short-answer portion (60 points) and then an essay (40 points). One time, mid-essay, I found myself in deep trouble. I had started with a thesis paragraph that I couldn’t really support. I can’t really recall what it was or why I went with it, although I guess it was basically the argument I thought the teacher would have made or what he wanted to see. But I just couldn’t see it through.

I crossed out the paragraph and started over, arguing the opposite. (Hello, George Costanza.)  I was running out of time but I whipped through it. It wasn’t effortless – I had to think about what I was writing – but the thoughts did follow, one after another. Nevertheless, I didn’t turn in the exam with any confidence.

When I got it back, my teacher had given me 45 points for the 40-point essay portion, and written the following words: “Weisman, I have challenged you, and you have come alive!”

Sounds hokey for sure, but you don’t forget something like that. And not to go all “Dead Poets Society” on you, but I came to realize that the teacher – all 23 years old of him – had come to this class at the start of the school year and found many of us in a stupor before it had even started, and he was trying to shake us out of it. He wasn’t trying to impose himself on us. He was trying to draw something out of us. That’s not something that you necessarily can understand right away. Arguably, it could be even harder to realize when you’re older. I know, despite my best intentions, I don’t love criticism, however constructive.

This moment in ninth grade was a turning point for my life as a writer, as a thinker and as a doer, but there was no straight path to it. I needed to get somewhere, and I got to it, but it couldn’t have been more roundabout. It involved a clash and reconciliation of determined instruction with determined independence. It involved a personal evolution on its own timetable that no one could control.  Though it was largely a mental issue, it wasn’t an issue of effort or desire or choice. Not by themselves, anyway.

And all this leads to is the next challenge, and the next. For a decade in my 20s and 30s, I would pursue the goal of writing for primetime shows and fall short. Today, I have several different paths I pursue, but I’m honestly not sure where I should channel all my energies. Sometimes, I think I’m doing my best; other times I’m not so sure. There is still doubt. Which one of me is right?

* * *

I imagine two types of reactions to this piece. (Maybe more, but these two will be among them.)

1) Yeah, you make some good (if long-winded) points.
2) What kind of pathetic apology for mediocrity is this?

Let me reiterate that I don’t believe that Kemp is actively choosing mediocrity. Nor am I trying to suggest that mediocrity is a worthy end, in and of itself.

Barry Gutierrez/AP
Kemp smiles after teammate Casey Blake’s solo homer in the ninth inning September 28.

I am asking people to understand that stepping up one’s effort is a process, and it’s not an easy process. There really is no such thing as an overnight success. Asking more of yourself than you’re used to giving is — in and of itself — a challenge. More than a challenge, it’s a mystery.

There’s always a limit. There’s always something that holds us back, some level of relaxation we preserve for ourselves, whether it’s money, pleasure, sleep, blissful ignorance or what have you. And the questions, for Kemp or anyone else, are twofold: Where do you want to be on that scale, and how much control you have over that desire?

In the coming year, we’ll see what Kemp is made of at age 26. We’ll see how much he steps up his mental game. It’s silly to assume that he won’t develop at all, but if he doesn’t develop as much as people like me hope, there are all kinds of reasons why. They’re not excuses. They’re reasons.

None of us know how Kemp will respond to the challenge. I’m not sure Kemp even knows. Plus, his performance in 2011 won’t necessarily be an accurate reflection of his work ethic. He could coast, and improve based on just natural development. He could bust his butt, and slide farther back. People will cheer if he does well, boo if he does poorly, draw conclusions based on whatever they see fit.

As I approach the 4,000-word mark on this essay, I guess all I’m really trying to say about turning on hustle and smarts is this: Living up to the standard that John Wooden set … it’s just not that simple.

Jun 09

Cardboard Gods comes to town: Interview with Josh Wilker

Readers of this site will know of my evangelism for Josh Wilker’s website, Cardboard Gods. That appreciation redoubled when I read his book, Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards, which I couldn’t recommend more highly to you all. It is at once entertaining and deeply affecting – kind of magical, really.

Wilker’s book tour reaches Southern California on Thursday with his 7 p.m. appearance at the South Pasadena Library, co-hosted by the Baseball Reliquary. (This takes place in conjunction with the Reliquary’s exhibit, “Son of Cardboard Fetish.”) This seemed like a perfect time to talk with Wilker about a few of the many things that make his writing so compelling:

A big part of Cardboard Gods that migrated from the site to the book is the importance of what you think a player’s pose or expression on the card is telling you. Obviously, these are guesses on your part, but do you think the photos on the cards are nevertheless windows to the gods’ souls – a veritable truth you wouldn’t necessarily get any other way? Or are they more just windows to our own souls?


Lookin’ sharp, Steve

I don’t know if they get me to any truths, but they definitely have always been able to get me to start wondering. The moments captured in my cards from the ’70s would seem to most people to be flat and trivial, the kind of thing that no one, not the player, not the photographer, not the great majority of people who would ever look at the card, could ever care much about. But because I cared about them as a kid, the stiff poses and enigmatic expressions continue to have a hold on me now, especially because many of them seem to include the same element of aimlessness and absurdity that has threaded through my post-childhood years. So they exist in two worlds for me, the adult world and the child world, and so it’s no wonder I’m drawn to them, since I’m an adult who has been kind of perpetually haunted and fascinated by his own childhood.

Aimlessness is an important theme in the book, especially after your brother put up boundaries between the two of you as he got older. But one thing about your family is that it seemed passionate about intellectual pursuits – your dad, your mom, Tom, even Ian with all the reading he seemingly did. And even in your aimless days, you were thoughtful and imaginative to say the least. How come that didn’t translate for you into more interest or dedication to schoolwork as a kid? Was life just too painful to allow you to focus on school, to allow that to be an outlet?
Continue reading

Jun 02

The 28-out perfect game

Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game with two out in the ninth inning tonight because of a blown call at first base. Alex Belth’s reaction at Bronx Banter suits me perfectly.

Cabrera raised his arms as soon as he threw the ball and the runner was out. But Jim Joyce called him safe. He blew the call. Right in front of him. Blew it. Trevor Crowe grounded out for the 28th and final out.

I felt sick to my stomach watching it on TV. It was like getting kicked in the gut or lower. The fans in Detroit booed. It seemed like half of the Tigers team had to be restrained from jumping Joyce whose professional life may never be the same after one blown call. From what little I know about umpires, they take their mistakes to heart, so I can only assume this is the worst night of Jim Joyce’s life (and I feel for him as I imagine nobody feels worse about this than he does).

After the game, Joyce told reporters, “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” Joyce said. “I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay.”

Joyce’s mistake surely spoiled the best night of Galarraga’s life, but instead of letting this sickening feeling overshadow Galarraga’s brilliance, let’s just flip it—this was a wonderful feat. Joyce’s mistake only allowed Galarraga to accomplish something even more unique than a perfect game. A 28-out perfecto.

No matter what the record books say, this was perfection by Galarraga, plus one. An untimely mistake by Jim Joyce can’t spoil what we all saw and know to be true.

At the Hardball Times, Josh Fisher is part of the Million Fan March calling for expansion of instant replay in baseball.

Update: Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk looks at the pros and cons of Bud Selig overturning Joyce’s call and retroactively making the perfect game official.

Apr 11

Don’t fall prey to the RISP bogeyman

Doug Benc/Getty Images
Matt Kemp is feeling bad tonight after making an error on this play and striking out with the tying run on third in the ninth inning, but he still had a good first week.

No Dodger fan likes the team flunking with runners in scoring position. But just because it’s frustrating doesn’t mean the Dodgers should succeed all the time. It’s not as if your odds for winning the lottery increase the more you want to win.

Okay, not the greatest analogy, but it gets us headed in the right direction. Whenever a team wastes scoring opportunities, you start to see people toss around tidbits like batting average with runners in scoring position. This is a stat that gives stats a bad name.  Batting average is a stat of very limited value, and tacking it on to runners in scoring position doesn’t make it any more useful.

Batting average with RISP doesn’t take into account sacrifice flies, run-producing groundouts or walks. It doesn’t take into account the fact that often, an RISP at-bat comes against a pitcher brought in for a particular matchup to defuse that situation. It doesn’t reward you for getting a runner home from first base (or from home plate). Most of all, it give you any indication of how often a team has those situations.  Exaggerating to make a point, if the Dodgers had 30 at-bats in nine innings with RISP, succeeding in only six of them wouldn’t mean the offense was unproductive.

The idea of a clutch hitter is a dubious measurement to begin with, because clutch hitting tends to fluctuate from season to season. Looking for clutch hitting in a team is an even less useful activity. Batting average with RISP doesn’t come with enough context to have hardly any meaning.

In their first six games of the season, the Dodgers are batting .260 with RISP. That’s not going to light anyone’s pants afire, though it’s respectable. But then you see that the Dodgers have had 95 RISP plate appearances, an average of 15.8 per game – that’s more than one per inning. In those 95 plate appearances, the team has reached base 29 times while also delivering five sacrifice flies and four sacrifices – achieving the goal of an RISP at-bat at a .400 rate, even before you starting talking about productive outs.

Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
Even after today’s strikeout, Kemp has a .308 batting average plus a sacrifice fly with RISP and has seven RBI in six games.

Through Saturday’s games, the Dodgers were second in the National League in RISP plate appearances and second in RISP runs and RBI (before adding three more RISP runs today). Matt Kemp struck out with the tying run on third and one out in the ninth inning today in what was a bad-looking at-bat, but how much should we get on his case when, for the season, he is batting .308 with a sacrifice fly in RISP situations? How much better is he supposed to be? The Dodgers are  tied for third in the NL in runs scored – averaging 6.0 runs per game with at least five runs in every game but Wednesday’s – how much better are they supposed to be?

When you lose three one-run games on a six-game road trip, it’s natural to look at the what-might-have beens – and the Dodgers’ outs with RISP provide many. But to be fair, there is only one loss this season for which the offense can reasonably be blamed. The Dodgers might have some issues to upset their catnaps on their flight home from Florida, but RISP is just not one of them.

There are some people who decry the excess of esoteric stats that populate the game today, but my guess is that a lot of them think batting average with RISP as a good one. However, this is honestly a case where simplicity is for the best. You want to know how your offense is doing, you really are better off trashing batting average with RISP, and just looking at runs scored.

* * *

  • More on the rarity of a knuckleballer striking out 12 batters in a game from ESPN’s TMI blog. This isn’t confirmed, but it appears Charlie Haeger came within one strikeout of tying Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough for the most by a knuckleballer in a game in at least the past 40 years.
  • The ever-awesome Vin Scully Is My Homeboy posted a great Sport Magazine cover shot of a young Maury Wills.
  • Hugh Bernreuter of the Saginaw News (via Baseball Think Factory) writes about Dodger prospect Brian Cavazos-Galvez’s lost relationship with his father, former Dodger minor leaguer Balvino Galvez. Cavazos-Galvez hasn’t let it derail him, and when he’s not playing baseball, he volunteers for Special Olympics and Challenger Little League. “My uncle (Timmy Cavazos) has Down’s Syndrome, so I have experience being around those kids,” Cavazos-Galvez said. “Other guys are kind of scared to be around those kids or don’t know how to act. I love it.”
  • Former Dodger pitcher Edwin Jackson hit his first career home run in Arizona’s team-record 13-run fourth inning. Jackson allowed four runs over seven innings and 98 pitches to get credit for a 15-6 victory.
  • Marvin Bernard admits to steroid use? Marvin Bernard? Something tells me this one won’t be analyzed to death by the pundits.
  • Top MLB prospects Steven Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman each impressed in their U.S. professional debuts, writes Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com.
  • John Lindsey went 3 for 4 today, with his first homer of the year, to raise his 2010 Albuquerque on-base percentage to .632 and slugging percentage to .941.
Apr 03

Don’t be jonesing for failure

Danny Moloshok/AP
At age 25, Chad Billingsley has a career ERA of 3.55. His adjusted ERA of 119 is fifth in Los Angeles Dodger history among starting pitchers with 500 or more innings.

When the Dodgers gave Juan Pierre millions of dollars over my proverbial dead body, I didn’t actively seek out immediate justification for my ill feelings. You never once caught me using any Pierre at-bat or game or even any month as proof that the signing was a mistake.

Good players have bad games; bad players have good games. Everyone knows this – no matter how often some people ignore it. Using a moment or series of moments as evidence that the Dodgers blew it with Pierre would have been wrong. Pierre’s signing was a mistake because over the life of his contract, he wasn’t going to be worth the cost. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t have hot streaks that made him look like the biggest bargain on earth. But the big picture is what matters.

Without a doubt, there have always been some Dodgers for whom fans seem to lie in wait for them to stumble, just so they can point out how awful they are. Pierre, for some, was certainly one. So was Hee Seop Choi and J.D. Drew. On the current Dodger team, the choice villains are Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton.

The people who have it in for Billingsley and Broxton have an unfailing ability to dismiss all the good they do and make mountains of the bad. Broxton was by many criteria the best closer in the National League last year, but each blown save he had wasn’t merely disappointing, it was unforgivable. No matter how good he was, he was worthless.

Billingsley is an even tougher sell these days because his struggles extended for about three months last year. Never mind that that period still constitutes a sliver of his career, never mind that the previous time Billingsley struggled, in the 2008 National League Championship Series, he came back to become an All-Star pitcher in the first half of 2009, building on the considerably excellent performance he has given since he broke into the big leagues. There are people out there who only see the negative. And there are people out there who, once they form that negative opinion about a player, only want to see the negative – just so they can be proven right.

Case in point: Entering the third inning of today’s game, Billingsley had a 1.84 ERA this exhibition season. It didn’t mean much to me, because no Spring Training stats mean much to me. You can bet that it also didn’t mean much to those who have complained about Billingsley since last fall. But when Billingsley ran into trouble and gave up six runs in the third inning, suddenly across the Internet and Twitter you could find people shouting out about the latest proof of how awful he is.

I’m not happy when Billingsley gives up runs. I was crushed each time in both the 2008 and 2009 NLCS when Broxton gave up the big hits to the Phillies. But perfection is not an achievable standard, and one’s state of mind in the heat of the moment is not a basis for evaluating a player.

If you’re skeptical about Billingsley or Broxton or anyone else, you obviously don’t need me to tell you you’re entitled to your opinion. But don’t get caught up in that game of  “Gotcha!” Don’t take one moment and try to tell me that’s all I need to know about a player – especially if that moment is in the minority of events. Just ask yourself how you’d feel if you were only judged at your extreme worst.

On a similar note, if you want to make an argument that the Dodger starting rotation lacks depth, please, please take a moment to compare the Dodgers’ rotation with other rotations. Don’t point out all the potential problems with the Dodgers while ignoring how threadbare things are in Arizona with Brandon Webb out, or the fact that just because Barry Zito was once an All-Star doesn’t mean he’s still one. The Dodgers might not have the best starting rotation in the NL West, but the distance from No. 1 is slim at best if you actually look at the entire rotations, rather than just making a judgment based on the most famous pitchers from each team.

Guaranteed, there will be some good players who get off to bad starts in 2010. There’s nothing like the beginning of a new season to skew one’s perception. But it’s a loooong season.  Try to keep a cool head.

* * *

Carlos Monatsterios’ place on the 25-man roster was made public today, while all signs pointed to Russ Ortiz getting the final spot on the team, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, who also reported that left-handed hitting second baseman Blake DeWitt would get the Opening Day start Monday at Pittsburgh even with the Pirates starting southpaw Zach Duke.

Also, A.J. Ellis was optioned to Albuquerque, confirming that Russell Martin and Brad Ausmus would be starting the season as the team’s active catchers.