Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Feared Tropicana Temple Style

Back in the day, in the prehistoric pre-Devil Raysian era of 1991, aspiring hip-hop producer Robert Diggs (aka the RZA) brought together nine rappers under the banner of the Wu-Tang Clan and revolutionized the hip-hop genre. In his book “The Wu-Tang Manual”, Diggs discussed his method of utilizing each individual voice for a particular part of a song. He used certain rappers for their tenor flows, others for their bass tone, and the remainder for their soprano key.

(Note: I don’t know music terminology very well. Those are his words, not mine. So if I got the distinct sound of the voices wrong, I apologize.)

The same techniques used by the RZA are also used by Joe Maddon as he moseys along his well-beaten path to the pitcher’s mound to replace one bullpen moundsman with another.

Whereas Diggs perfected situation usage in hip-hop, Maddon’s methodology emerged on the baseball mound in the late 1980s when living legend (and Tampa native son) Tony LaRussa shattered the traditional conception of the bullpen and re-organized it in an almost Henry Ford-esque assembly line fashion, with each man filling a particular role on the line to victory.

For LaRussa and his Oakland A’s, no longer were non-starters the roamers, wanderers, nomads, and vagabonds of the baseball community. They were late-inning assassins, arms ready and willing to provide reinforcement when necessary. Under LaRussa, former starter Rick Honeycutt, who started over 200 games from 1978 to 1988, became one of the best one-inning relievers in baseball and Dennis Eckersley was transformed from 20-game winner to Hall of Fame closer.

What was once revolutionary is now the norm. To the chagrin of baseball fogies and a small segment of irrelevant traditionalists, bullpen arms are absolutely essential to victory, and hence are no longer selected haphazardly – like arrows in a quill – but are brought into the game with an almost scientific precision, like a golfer selecting a club or a military general picking a force to exploit a hole in the enemy’s line.

Whereas other sports are increasingly celebrating the multi-positional flexibility of their athletes, with small forwards playing center in basketball and quarterbacks doubling as running backs and vice versa in football, relief pitching in baseball is now one of the least free form of any sports positions and is not probably most akin to field goal kicking. And like field goal kicking and other positions of strict utility, bullpen pitching now comes with a high personnel liquidity. Whereas the greats of the position are stable in their roles and uniform, the average bullpen pitcher, like the average field goal kicker, borders so close to replaceable that with one too many errant appearances, he becomes just that – replaceable.

For all his modernity and non-conformist ways, as I mentioned earlier, Joe Maddon executes his bullpen operations similar to the other 29 managers in baseball. If anything, with the support of the Rays’ top secret hovel of sabermetric Keebler elves, Maddon is even more exaggerated in his actions than his peers – more Kasparov than Queen of Hearts.

When used properly, a modern bullpen forms together like the classic kid’s cartoon hero Voltron, with each piece combining to create an unstoppable giant sum. And the Rays’ pen is no different. With Maddon at the helm, each member of the Rays relief corps brings a unique style similar to the old kung-fu flicks of yesteryear. As the Rays are one of the best bullpens around, it is only fair to compare them to one of the most famous kung-fu classics of all-time.

The Rays’ 5 Deadly Venoms”:

Choate, Wheeler – toad style. Immensely powerful, and when properly used, almost invincible.

Sonnanstine, Cormier, Qualls – snake style. Masters of control and best when staying down.

Balfour – lizard style. The lizard relies on speed and is a fitting animal for the Australian.

Side note: One of the things I find interesting about Balfour is that usually guys who light up the radar gun on the field have eccentric personalities off the mound. Pitchers such as Rob Dibble, Joel Zuyama, and Brad “The Animal” Lesley all made throwing hard an offshoot of their overall lives. Balfour, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fit that mold. He is the quiet Dr. Jekyll off the field (wrestling experiment with Jim Hickey aside) but becomes Mr. Hyde when on the bump – as Orlando Cabrera can attest.

Benoit – centipede style. Quick and strikes fast.

Soriano – scorpion style.  When bit by the scorpion, your life (or the game) is over.  The scorpion is also the only style represented in the constellations, as Soriano was the only member of the bullpen represented in the Anaheim during the midsummer classic.

When working together, these styles provide an almost impenetrable security net over any lead, a force stronger and more celebrated than the assembled sum of any amalgamation of martial masters. As Madden sits back like the old kung-fu abbot, his “students” stroll in from the bullpen and eliminate their opponents one-by-one, making a night at the Trop like an afternoon at the kung-fu cinema.

If only we can get the RZA to create a dub track for Kevin Kennedy’s voice.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Farewell to Claw Digest

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

Having been in the sports blogging game for almost five years, I can honestly say it's a tough gig. Writing for the love of a player, team, sport, or league can take a lot out of you. You have to read about or watch them every day, you have to find something to write about, and then you have to publish. And a majority of the time, it's all for a pittance.

Some bloggers get lucky. Some develop systems and schedules that make publishing about a team easy. Some have nothing better to do but throw their all into a blog with the hopes that someone will discover them and pay them for their interest (admittedly, the chances of this were greater five years ago).

But constant blogging takes a toll, especially if it's for a niche interest such as model airplanes, Bigfoot hunting, or even minor league baseball. To spend even an hour a night blogging when you know only a few dozen people are reading and sharing your love can make whatever you are blogging about seem to be more of a chore than an expression of passion.

At worst, blogging about a niche can pull you away from things you would rather be doing, such as enjoying your hobby or worse, missing out on moments with the real life people in your life.

And it is that inability to spend time with loved ones that is causing blogger Jim Donten to close down Claw Digest, his blog on the Charlotte Stone Crabs and the Gulf Coast League Rays.

I've been following Claw Digest since Jim started blogging this spring. I even interviewed him for this site earlier this season. His blog was very informative, with a heavy dose of stats, player performances, and match-up data. It was apparent he had a love for the Stone Crabs and GCL Rays. As a fan of Minor League Baseball, the Florida State League, and anything related to the Tampa Bay Rays, it will be sad to see him go.

But I know Jim will not be gone for long as he has camoed at and I'm sure we will probably see him in there again in the near future. Or we may see him on twitter, where many niche bloggers have gone to ply their wares, trading extensive posts for 140-character comments.

Spoken from experience, sometimes it's best for bloggers to travel in packs. Sometimes the wilderness of the blogosphere is too much for one person to take on alone. Although some bloggers do their best Bear Gylls and survive on bugs and berries for a while, in the long run they often find it's best for their sanity to re-join civilization and ally with a group of like-minded folks. It takes the pressure off having to provide constant content and in many cases it also makes for a more well-rounded site for the readership.

So Jim, best of luck in your future endeavors and thanks for all you did at Claw Digest.