Try as you might, it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid politics. The polarization of American politics is steadily seeping its way into nearly everything, including baseball. The contentious Senate hearing for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination has even brought umpiring into politics.
Texas Senator John Cornyn along with the Family Research Council are supporting Judge Kavanaugh, saying he is someone who “calls balls and strikes.” This analogy seems to irritate retired Major League umpire Jim Evans, who wrote a prospective piece for the Washington Post titled “Sorry, judges, we umpires do more than call balls and strikes.” Evans argues umpires are not machines, they must interpret the rule book constantly. Was a collision interference or obstruction, or simply players running into each other? Umpires also constantly make judgement calls on catches, tag plays, force outs, and yes even balls and strikes. No two players have the same strike zone. Yes, the strike zone is spelled out in the rule book, but the size of the strike zone is larger for Aaron Judge than for Jose Altuve.
Speaking of the rule book. How many amateur umpires, disgruntled fans, have ever sat down and studied the rule book? My guess is not many. It is not their job to know the rule book, but it is also not an umpire’s job to make people happy. Do I get every call correct? No. Do I spend hours studying the rule book? Yes. The rule book for high school baseball per the National Federation of State High School Associations is 88 pages. The rule book for Major League Baseball is more than 150 pages. Have you ever seen a Major League umpire consult the rule book during a game? Nope. High school umpires do not consult the rule book during a game either. The rules of baseball, all of them, should be ingrained in the mind of an umpire. The analogy of Kavanaugh calling balls and strikes is that he knows the rule book, the United States Constitution, and makes decisions based on what the Constitution says. I doubt when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution they foresaw every imaginable case the Supreme Court would hear. The Constitution and the various baseball rule books do not cover every possible scenario, judges and umpires must interpret how those rules apply to the case or play before them.
Calling balls and strikes is not black and white. There is plenty of gray. (www.larrybrownsports.com)
Obviously a judge sitting on any bench, especially the United States Supreme Court, has a more profound impact than an umpire. However, simplify umpires into machines is off base. Umpires must make decisions quickly, they cannot spend weeks or months reviewing similar plays and the text of the rule book before making a decision. If an umpire waits five seconds to decide if a borderline pitch is a ball or strike people would complain. Judgement calls are part of being an umpire and they must happen quickly, not slowly and after careful consideration.
There is dignity in all work, dishwashers, mechanics, lawyers, CEO’s. Honest work is dignified work. Do not simplify another person’s job to make a point. Good umpires make a sometimes difficult job look easy, the same way a good teacher makes teaching a class full of energetic First Graders look easy. You only understand how difficult someone’s job is when you walk in their shoes.
Little in life is black and white. On the diamond and in court, interpreting the rules is necessary and creates gray areas. Gray areas necessitate institutions like the Supreme Court to settle disagreements. In baseball the umpire is the judge. Working solo, or discussing a play with your partner on appeal, the umpire is the Supreme Court. Their decision is final. There is no reviewing previous plays, umpires must know the rules, interpret them for the situation, and the render a verdict. They do it all in the snap of a finger. Can you imagine the Supreme Court issuing a ruling in less than five seconds? Neither can I, so stop comparing Supreme Court Justices to umpires. One clearly has a greater impact than the other, yet both deserve respect.
Baseball never stops. It would be easy to fill your day with everything baseball; the games, injuries, trade rumors, player transactions. The amount of information coming out of baseball every day is difficult to fully ingest. Returning from a three week vacation with no internet or cell reception requires you to play catch up. I am not complaining about venturing into the woods and mountains of the western United States and Canada, only it makes keeping track of baseball impossible.
Living off the informational grid for a few weeks is refreshing. As much as I wanted to know the daily scores, it was nice not hearing my phone pinging with emails and notifications about things that ultimately do not matter. Baseball also fades into the background, after all it is just a game.
Upon returning to the world of internet access and cell service I bombarded myself with the news I missed. The All Star Game and the Home Run Derby. I wanted to know who won the Derby. I missed the “controversy” surrounding Bryce Harper hitting too quickly; I was not sorry to miss that part of the Derby.
Hiking a trail up a mountain to get away from the tourists gives you these types of views of Peyto Lake in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Injuries were another thing I missed while in the woods. The first text I received after asking my friends what I missed was the Mets were in first…for the draft. The obvious next question regarding the Amazin’s was had they called up Tim Tebow, because the Mets do weird things. Nope, broke his hand. I also found out about Aaron Judge’s broken wrist. The most surprising news was Noah Syndergaard contracting Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. Easily the most Mets reason ever for a trip to the disabled list. There were other injuries I missed but these were the primary ones I heard about upon my return to the world of information; sorrow from my friends who are Yankee fans and collective laughter about the Mets.
The major news I missed was the run up to the trade deadline. Plenty of trade rumors but coming home, turning on a game and seeing Mike Moustakas in a Brewers uniform was strange, especially as this was how I learned he was traded. The big news of Manny Machado going to the Dodgers was everywhere, but Jeurys Familia to the Athletics? Interesting. The Mets trading Asdrubal Cabrera to Phillies or the Rangers trading Cole Hamels to Cubs. Sure. Even Brad Hand going from the Padres to the Indians and Zach Britton from the Orioles to the Yankees were strange. Adjusting to players in new uniforms takes time. It is even more jarring when you learn they change teams by seeing them in a new uniform.
Baseball never stops, it keeps moving regardless of what is happening in your world. It is difficult to keep up with the daily transactions, games, and news. It is impossible when you miss three weeks. Playing catch up with baseball is a Sisyphean task. The more you know about the game, the less you know. A midseason break makes it difficult to stay up to date on the major stories in the game. My vacation was a reminder that getting away from the chaos of daily life does not mean the rest of the world stops. You can only hope you have people willing to fill you in on what you missed when you return to the real world.
Baseball is America’s pastime. It is also a reflection of America. Anyone can rise to the top of the game. It doesn’t matter where you come from, only your ability on the field. You can be born the son of a saloon keeper in the Pigtown section of Baltimore, Maryland and grow up to become Babe Ruth. You can be born to poor African-American parents in Mobile, Alabama and grow up to break Babe Ruth’s home run record and establish yourself as Hank Aaron, the Home Run King. You can grow up in Commerce, Oklahoma and become Mickey Mantle, arguably the greatest switch hitter of all time. You can be the son of Italian immigrants and grow up in The Hill, St. Louis, Missouri and become Yogi Berra, one of the greatest catchers of all time. You can grow up in beautiful San Diego and become the greatest hitter of all time, as Ted Williams did. You can be a kid living in The Bronx, listening to the radio, wishing you were at the game and grow up to be Vin Scully, the greatest broadcaster ever.
Baseball can give people so much, yet it also has a shameful past. The exclusion of African-American players is indefensible. It will forever be a stain on the game. The resulting Negro Leagues are the truest American response to injustice. When faced with hatred and ignorance, players created their own leagues. Baseball in the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues was never perfect. However, African-Americans fought for their rightful place as equals in America with every pitch, hit, catch, and throw. The Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri continues to ensure this history, good and bad, is not forgotten.
Baseball is a reflection of what is good in America, but it can also reflect what is not good in America. (www.si.com)
Baseball, like America, is a melting pot. People from all over the world come here to play the game. Ichiro crossed the Pacific and become a legend in Japan and America. One of the greatest right handed hitter of all time, Miguel Cabrera, left his native Venezuela to leave opposing players and fans in awe at his skills with a bat. Peter Moylan had a second chance at baseball after working as a pharmaceutical salesman in his native Australia. Gift Ngoepe continues to create a path for other African born players, as the South African became the first African born player to appear in a Major League game. Baseball and America takes players from everywhere in the world as Ed Porray proved, he was born at sea.
America is a true melting pot. We are not a perfect nation. We have done horrible things to our own people, from the Native Americans to African-Americans to religious minorities to the LGBTQ community. We fight and argue for what we think is right, just like in baseball. The rules that govern how we play the game and live together need updating from time to time. Change is never easy, but it is necessary. We are stronger together when we are willing to judge people by their abilities on the field and in life, and not on preconceived ideas based upon where they are from, what language they speak, or what god they worship. The wonderful thing about being an American is there is no mold to follow. Only a select few of us, when you trace your family back, are from here. Instead of telling our teammates and fellow Americans to conform, why not listen to them and learn from them to make yourself better, and by extension our team and country better.
Happy Independence Day!
Soccer, or football as most people call it, is the global game. People of all ages play the beautiful game from the busy streets of New York City to rural villages all over the world, like this one in Rwanda. Soccer, as Americans call it, is globally popular for a variety of reasons, but I believe the two most important are the requirements to play in terms of people and equipment. Only have one friend to play with? Simple! It’s one on one. I hope you can dribble. Live on less than a dollar a day and not positive where your next meal will come from? Here’s some rolled up cloth that will work as a ball. The simplicity of the game opens it up to almost every person on the planet.
Baseball has long sought to expand its global reach, and the advent of the World Baseball Classic was part of that vision. The more countries watching and playing baseball would mean a larger talent pool for professional baseball, but also the more money organizations like Major League Baseball can make. FIFA and leagues like the Premier League are about growing the sport, but ultimately they are businesses interested in making more money. The best way to increase income is to reach into every available market, even creating new markets, to sell your product.
Gift Ngoepe is not only the firt South African to make it to the Majors, he is the first person from the entire African continent. (Ronald C. Modra/ Sports Imagery/ Getty Images)
If baseball ever rivals soccer in global appeal it will not happen any time soon. At the most grassroots level baseball requires more than soccer. Finding a stick and a makeshift ball may not sound like much but it can be too much for a game for those living in areas without trees or on the edge of survival. A makeshift baseball has to be harder than a makeshift soccer ball for the ball to travel any distance when struck with the makeshift bat. Baseball can work with just two people. Playing catch or one person hitting and the other pitching means baseball at the most basic level, like soccer can involve a minimum number of people. Baseball is heading in the right direction, but growth will take time and Major League Baseball must remain patient to see the fruits of its labor.
Baseball is the American Pastime All 50 states plus the District of Columbia have sent at least 12 players to the Major Leagues. Alaska ranks last with only 12 Major League players and California is first with 2,191 players. Every state could field a team and have a tournament to determine which state reigns supreme. While this tournament rages on, ignoring time to allow all 16,553 American born players to be eligible for the tournament, the rest of the world could watch and learn. There have been 45 countries other than the United States to have at least one player reach the Major Leagues. The Dominican Republic has the most players with 674 while Afghanistan Belgium, Belize, China, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Honduras, Indonesia, Latvia, Lithuania, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, and Vietnam have all sent one player to the Majors. In addition to countries, there are seven territories which have sent at least one player to the Majors, with Puerto Rico having sent 258 players and American Samoa and Hong Kong sending one player each. The globalizing of baseball would not be complete without Ed Porray, who was born on a ship sailing the Atlantic Ocean.
The globalizing of baseball was noticeable last week with the Major League debuts of Gift Ngoepe (South Africa) and Dovydas Neverauskas (Lithuania). Both players are the first Major League players from their home countries. Ngoepe is the first African born player to reach the Majors. The African continent is home to over one billion people, the talent pool is there, waiting to be found. The careers of Ngoepe and Neverauskas will hopefully be long, but it is doubtful they will be the best player from their home nation. They are the frontrunners who have shown that it is possible. One player makes it to the Majors, teams and scouts may file it away as a place to remember when they have nowhere else to go scout. Two, three, four players, start rising through the minors, suddenly they will begin paying attention and even investing time and resources to developing the talent. What starts as a drip could potentially turn into a river or it could be an aberration.
Dovydas Neverauskas is the first Lithuanian to make it to the Majors, could he be the beginning of an eastern European baseball pipeline? Only time will tell. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAT Sports)
Only 19 of the 52 countries and territories that have sent a player to the Majors could field a team and join the fictional tournament involving each American state. Another 19 countries and territories have only had one player reach the Major Leagues. There are roughly 233 countries and territories in the world, and only 53 of them have had a player reach the Major Leagues. Major League Baseball is only batting .227. Not every country will become a hotbed for baseball, but expanding the reach of the game is critical for the continued growth and development of the sport. The 2017 World Baseball Classic saw Israel make a surprising run by getting out of pool play. Yes the Israeli team was heavily Jewish-Americans, however the exposure of the team to the Israeli people should help facilitate growth of the game within Israel itself.
Time will tell if the World Baseball Classic is an avenue for growing the game of baseball or if is simply a tournament held every four years. The arrival of Gift Ngoepe and Dovydas Neverauskas in Pittsburgh happen to occur during the same week. Only one person can be the first player from their home country, but the hope is there will be more to follow them to the Majors. Baseball has a long ways to go before it can become a truly global sport like soccer, but Major League Baseball and other professional leagues are on the right track with the World Baseball Classic. Players from the far corners of the globe will not arrive overnight, but the hope is in the coming years the game will have a more global flare. The more people involved in baseball around the world, the better.
Jose Fernandez’s tragic death has left much of the baseball and Cuban community feeling numb. How else do you describe the feeling when a young man loses his life? It does not matter if you loved the flair and passion he played with, you could not question Fernandez’s heart. His love for life and the game of baseball was on full display any time you saw Fernandez. He wanted to win and have a good time doing it. This led to some confrontations after watching his homeruns or being thrown at. You might not like his style of play, personally I loved it, but I doubt many people would not want him on their team.
Just because you play in the Majors doesn’t mean you can’t watch the fireworks like you still play little league. (Fish@Bat)
The measure of a baseball player’s greatness often resides in the numbers. Four numbers are all you need to know about Jose Fernandez.
24 Jose Fernandez’s age at the time of his tragic death. No parent or grandparent should ever have to bury a child. It is an unspeakable pain that has no equal.
4 The number of times Jose Fernandez attempted to defect from Cuba to the United States. America is far from perfect; we as a nation have many flaws that need addressing. Despite our collective shortcomings, people from all over the world risks their lives to come here for the chance at a better life. Not every one of them has the athletic talent of Jose Fernandez, but they are willing to risk their lives to find freedom and opportunity. The boats that many Cubans have used in their attempts to escape Castro Cuba have not always been seaworthy. Thousands of Cubans have drowned attempting to make it to south Florida and Mexico. Jose Fernandez was one of the lucky ones to have survived the dangers four times. The bravery required in a single attempt to defect via boat is greater than many people require in a lifetime. Fernandez’s fourth, and successful, attempt to defect occurred when he was just 15 years old. What was your greatest challenge at 15? Not many people can say escaping from oppression by boat.
3 The number of times Jose Fernandez was unsuccessful in making it to America. Each failure and return to Cuba meant a prison sentence and greater government scrutiny upon release for himself and his family and close friends. How many of us are willing to continue trying to achieve a goal if we have failed three times, even if the risks of injury or a long prison sentence are not high? Now amplify that to include the very real possibility of dying. I doubt there would be many willing to try.
1 Jose Fernandez was going to be a Dad. His child and girlfriend will miss him every day.
Jose Fernandez loved baseball and life, and it was easy to see. (Steve Mitchell)
While what Jose Fernandez did on the baseball field was not unimportant, it does not compare to what he did and was off. Much the way the death of Oscar Taveras was shocking and sad, the sudden death of Jose Fernandez is a somber reminder that baseball is just a game. We have lost a great pitcher, but the Fernandez family has lost a son, grandson, and a soon to be Dad. This is the real tragedy.
Rest in Peace Jose. Thank you for sharing your love for life and baseball with us. You will be missed.
Since I’m not Muslim, I don’t know the Quran, and I’m not all that big on massive crowds, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever visit Mecca, the Holiest city of the Muslim world. Don’t get me wrong, I think it would be really cool to visit and see the sights, watch the swirling masses of people all joining in a gigantic celebration and demonstration of their collective faith. Take a look at the Google Street View of the place, its surreal. At the same time, this is not a perfect utopian vision where all peoples in the city are all singing their own version of Kumbaya, of which this is my personal favorite rendering is below. There are indeed factions amongst the Islamic faithful, this much is evident in a brief viewing of world news over the last umpteen years. Sadly, for all concerned, it doesn’t seem to stop at mere divisions of believers, it gets much more extreme and ugly.
While I may not have the right to visit Mecca in my lifetime (Saudi Arabia only allows Muslims to enter the city), I understand that there are pilgrimages all over the world, each offering their own healing, enlightenment, or rebirth. Christianity has the Holy Land. Judaism has the Western Wall, a pilgrimage back to the site of the second temple. Hindus have the Kumbh Mela, which is touted to be the largest religious pilgrimage on the planet, more than 30 million in a single day in 2013. Insane people have presidential campaigns where they tour the great country of the United States of America and yell at people like stark raving lunatics that are fit for little more than a strait jacket and a padded, door less cell. Sadly instead we put these nutsos in charge of everything…this is what we get for giving up on Manifest Destiny and putting fluorine in our tap water I guess (P.O.E.).
The classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (Sony Motion Pictures)
Out of all of these, I could currently care less. Right now, it’s March and I’m in Tampa. It’s the best pilgrimage of all: SPRING TRAINING.
I have ended up in Tampa, a mere 2.7 mile jaunt down the street to the George M. Steinbrenner Field, spring home of the Damn Yankees. Putting things into perspective, I am closer to baseball right now than any of my fellow fantasy league devotees will be for weeks, measurable in mileage ticked off in triple digits. Eat it.
I am not an expert on pilgrimages, but for the following observations, I am willing to self-appoint myself to this lofty title, Grand Poobah of All Things Pilgrimage, The Winning Run edition (GPoATPTWRE for short). I know some things about a few pilgrimages, so I think that makes me expert enough to do this job, so let’s get started.
The Grand Poobah (Hanna-Barbera Productions)
The people. There are tons of people traveling here in Tampa wearing their favorite team’s logo/merchandise/moniker on their bodies somewhere. I am usually the sole person traveling that is sporting any form of a baseball T-shirt. My favorites are always Minor League teams, but I will also sport the big boy’s threads too, if the feeling strikes me. Last night was the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, go and see their bat dog, it’s worth it. Tonight I have shared my elevator trips with Pirates, Orioles, and Yankees fans. I’m calling that a first for me to make three consecutive trips in the same elevator and see three different offerings of fan wear en mass.
Minor League Baseball is always fun. (The Winning Run)
The traffic. Tampa traffic sucks. I’m not sure if this is just a Spring Training thing, or a Tampa thing, but someone needs to learn to get their red lights in some sort of order. Right now, I think rabid squirrels, high on peyote, that are drowning in Jell-O pudding, must program them. I’m serious, traffic here is dumb in the face.
The businesses. There are marquees up around town welcoming fans from the closest team in Spring Training. People love feeling like they are being acknowledged, this prompts businesses to get desperate and put up things like this. A fool and his money…
Don’t waste your money. (The Winning Run)
Breakfast. I went down for breakfast this morning, and in any other place that I’ve stayed before, when breakfast is offered, there is usually a decent mix of men and women staring blankly into space drinking a hot cup of coffee that likely tastes like a sweaty sock (I’m not a coffee fan, so I assume all coffee tastes this way). Tuesday morning I went down, presented my breakfast voucher, and observed something quite to the contrary. Out of roughly 40 people eating, a visual guestimate would place the male to female ratio somewhere in the vicinity of 39:1, with the one being roughly 5 years old and hyper.
The pool. The lady at the front desk made a big deal about giving me a room with a view to the pool. Fine by me, I enjoy people watching. I took a glance out my room last night and noticed the following: a hot tub directly outside my window with seven guys and zero girls. Again, the proportions are all kinds of off. If these guys were like the standard spring break bro bunch, they are picking a bad location to stay, roughly 45 minutes from the beach, and are striking out desperately with the ladies.
It’s Tampa. Why else would you come here? We queried a taxi driver we had a few years back that was taking us to Tropicana Field on what else there was to do in and around Tampa. His reply, “There’s nothing to do here in Tampa. This is God’s waiting room.”
The above evidence is admittedly circumstantial; there is no cause and effect directly shown. I may have shown up in a demographic anomaly where men outnumber women in ways that typically lead to war. It could be that the International Sausage Festival is at the Tampa Convention Center this week and I’m just out of the loop on deliciously spiced and flavorful tube meat meet-ups. Another idea all together is that Mango is dancing this week at a club in Tampa. People must have Mango, but Mango says “No!” If none of these things are true, then we should probably follow the logic of Occam’s Razor and pick the outcome that has the fewest assumptions as being true. There is a pilgrimage going on right now, and its destination is baseball.