Monday, July 25, 2011

Waiting for Perfect



They don’t play baseball on the beach. And for good reason. It is incredibly tough to run on the beach. And ground balls don’t roll very well in the sand.

But beaches in Florida are quite popular. Outside of the prolific House of the Mouse, I’d guess beaches are the number one tourist destination in Florida. People come from all over the world to the beaches of Florida, and specifically to our local beaches such as Clearwater Beach, St. Pete Beach, and Siesta Key.

Beaches are interesting places. They have to be well-kept, lest you have litter on your landscape. They predominantly have to be kid-friendly, as you don’t want creepers and hoodlums ruining the experience. And beaches need good press, as local areas want to see their beaches listed at the top of any possible category, from most beautiful to best sand to most beautiful bodies. Being a top beach brings a sense of pride, good reputation, and most importantly, it brings visitors and money.

But beaches have an Achilles heel. No matterhow well-kept, no matter how popular, and no matter how great the sunset, hardly any one goes to the beach when it rains.

Baseball in Tampa Bay and Florida in general reminds me a lot of the beach.

For whatever reason, Floridians only swarm to baseball games when the conditions are perfect. As a matter of fact, that may be the case with all sporting events. We are not ones to go to a stadium where the home team might lose just as much as we avoid a rainy beach. It doesn’t matter if it is the Rays, the Marlins, the Magic, the Bucs, the Lightning, or the Heat, when teams start losing fans avoid them like the plague.

I think the reason is because Floridians don’t like losers. Florida is supposed to be a place for happiness, a place where people to go to retire, to forget about their worries, to be optimistic, and shed those things that don’t bring joy.

At least for the foreseeable future, Florida will never be a place where people flock to places that have been around for generations. They won’t pile into the rickety bleachers of an old stadium a la Chicagoans in Wrigley Field. They won’t gather en mass to a place that needs repairs to see losers just to say they were there.

And why should they?

As I said a few months ago, we live in a society of upgrades. Places in Florida should be new, exciting, and bright. Why commit to love an old stadium when they know there is a new one on the horizon? We like our culture to be exciting. As Kurt Cobain said, “Here we are now, entertain us”. If our sports teams don’t give us the exciting “newness”, perhaps we will find it elsewhere. Perhaps there is a new roller coaster or giraffe at Busch Gardens or maybe a new adorable baby penguin at the Florida Aquarium.

And that is the dilemma the Rays find themselves in right now.

They are just not interesting enough to spark the interest of the masses.

The Rays are a good team, no doubt about it. To argue differently is foolish. They have some of the best young talent in the American League, if not in all of baseball. They have Cy Young candidates, MVP candidates, exciting rookies, heartfelt stories, gutsy role players, and enough sabermetric Keebler elves to start a local chapter of Lambda Lambda Lambda (I kid!).

But the Rays aren’t exciting enough to win over the hearts, minds, and dollars of the people of Tampa Bay. I think the general assumption is that people know how the story of 2011 will end. The Rays will win 85-88 games, probably trade a veteran, play a handful of rookies, win some close ones, and lose some heartbreakers. Overall, the Rays will be, in the words of former Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Dennis Green, what we thought they were.

Unfortunately, the Rays have also had to battle public perception beyond the quality of their main product. And that hurts. As they maintain a stable, if not glorious product on the field, the things beyond the control of the players continue to outshout the buzz the organization is trying to build.

For all those who choose to talk about the Rays, let me spell this out as clearly as possible:

We are tired of hearing complaints about our stadium.

We know.

We are tired of hearing about how we are in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.

We know.

We are tired of hearing about how the Rays would be better off in another location.

We know.

But yet these topics bubble to the top when there is nothing else to talk about. These are the clich├ęs hack sportswriters and shallow national analysts lean on and what they discuss when the team is on track for a 3rd place finish, floors above the Blue Jays and Orioles, but not quite in the penthouse with the Yankees and Red Sox.

And this is all we see. Again and again and again.

It is bad enough our culture waits for perfect by instinct. But when all we get are reports of how much rain falls on our sand, how many cans and bottles litter our land, or how people are not packed in hand over hand, it’s tough to know when to take a chance and go back to the beach.

Then again, I’m weird. Sometimes, even though it might be cloudy, even though there might not be anyone nearby, and even though there might be a can of Budweiser or a Big Mac box on a nearby dune, there are fewer things I enjoy more than a day spent sitting by the water, sipping a Corona or a margarita, listening to waves crash into the shore.

Who’s with me?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Chad James is finally a winner

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues Baseball.com)

In early June I wrote about the bad luck of Marlins farmhand and current Jupiter Hammerhead Chad James. At the time the 20-year old lefty was 0-9 with a 3.10 ERA. He was pitching well, but as I have mentioned several times before, the problem with the Hammerheads is outside of slugger Kyle Jensen, they can't hit.

Well, after four more losses James finally picked up his first win over the weekend. He only had to hold the Brevard County Manatees to one hit over seven innings to do it. Even then, although James left the game up 5-0, the Hammerheads bullpen provided little solace as Jose Rosario and Chris Squires allowed five runs in the final two frames. Fortunately, the Hammerheads added to their advantage with four insurance runs in the 7th and 8th innings, and were able to pull out the win 9-5.

But back to Chad James.

I'm sure people will look at the back of his baseball cards in years to come and wonder how he worked his way up the Marlins system with a double-digit loss year in 2011. Those who measure effectiveness on wins and losses will be perplexed, but the reality is that James is a good pitcher.

Despite his 1-13 record, he has a 3.59 ERA, good for 14th in the Florida State League.

He has a 3.79 FIP and a 72.3 Left on base percentage. Those are both really solid.

Although he is allowing a little more than a hit per inning, his BABIP is high at .352. That means the defense isn't making the plays behind him that they need to make. He has also allowed 12 unearned runs which can't help his cause.

He has struck out 7.44 per nine innings while only walking 2.84 per nine. His strike out rates are better than average and he is learning control.

As I mentioned, James has the stuff. He has the chance to be a very good pitcher if he can stay consistent. Getting a 13-game losing streak out of the way is a big step in developing the confidence needed to make it.

Now if only the Hammerheads can continue giving him run support to work with.

(Image from milb.com)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interview: Brewers Prospect D'Vontrey Richardson

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues Baseball.com)

I should start by saying as a Florida State alumnus, this is an interview I've wanted to do all season. Brewers farmhand and current Brevard County Manatee D'Vontrey Richardson is not only the Brewers #24 ranked prospect according to Baseball America, but also a former Florida State University two-sport athlete. During his time at FSU (2007-2009), he played centerfield for the baseball team and was a backup quarterback on the Seminole football team.

During a recent visit to Tampa to play the Tampa Yankees, I caught up with D'Vontrey and we talked baseball, the transition from FSU to the minors, and whether or not he sees alumni pulling for him throughout the state of Florida.

BLB: Let’s start with some "getting to know you"-type questions. What is your favorite sports movie?

DR: Favorite sports movie … hmm. Probably The Longest Yard.

BLB: The first one or the second one?

DR: The second one.

BLB: Who are your favorite all-time athletes?

DR: I don’t have many, but probably Vick football-wise. In baseball, probably Gary Sheffield. Whenever I was growing up, I would see him play. In basketball, probably (Derrick) Rose now, with how explosive he is.

BLB: Now, wait, The Longest Yard, that’s the movie with Burt Reynolds in the original, right? How can you like the second one more? You stayed in Burt Reynolds Hall, right? Burt might not be too happy.

DR: Ha ha. Right. Well, I ain’t seen the first one. I’ve only seen the second one.

BLB: You were injured earlier this season. How is the hip?

DR: It’s better. It comes with the game. Just trying to play. I have to get stronger and try to stay in the lineup. It was a struggle initially as it was my first real injury. So I am trying to get out there and do something.

BLB: You are warming up at the plate after a slow start. What’s going right?

DR: Just bunting, actually. I’m still not seeing the ball the way I want to, but that’s baseball. You have a lot of ups and downs. I’m just trying to battle through the struggle. I feel like I am still not seeing the ball like I should, so it’s just relaxing and bunting and trying to get myself some confidence.

BLB: You say you are not seeing the ball the way you should. What are you doing to try to help that out?

DR: Just taking it day by day. Because all it takes is one swing. Just seeing the ball more, I guess. You’re going to be cold, you’re going to be hot, and more times cold, so I gotta learn how to battle through that cold streak.

BLB: I’d like to talk to you about your 6 for 6 day a couple of months ago.

DR: That was a little bit of luck. The night before that, I went 1 for 4 and hit every ball on the barrel. The day after that, I hit one ball on the barrel and that was a double, and then everything else I hit on the end of the bat, I got jammed and all, and the hits just came. That’s the game. It was a little bit of luck but I took it.

BLB: Did it help the confidence out a little?

DR: It helped me out. Especially with the series after that, I was starting to feel good.

BLB: So what adjustments did you make this year over your first year last season?

DR: Just mentally. Last year was my first full season of just baseball. I couldn’t deal with the struggles, but this year I’ve adjusted to it, understanding that it is just part of the game.

BLB: What are your goals for this year?

DR: My goals for this year are to finish strong, start fresh, and get stronger in the offseason. To try to stay health through to the offseason so I can get stronger.

BLB: So I have a few background questions for you. Why did you choose baseball over football?

DR: Well, it was an opportunity that opened. I was playing both football and baseball there and my whole life people were telling me that I was going to have to choose, so it just came and I felt like I had to take it.

BLB: Did you see (fellow former FSU two-sport athlete) Taiwan Easterling signed with Chicago?

DR: Oh, he did? Which Chicago team?

BLB: The Cubs. Have you talked to him? Did you have any advice for him?

DR: No, I haven’t talked to him at all. But he got drafted 5th round out of high school before so he could be good. I mean, he is a great competitor. He is gonna compete. He is gonna continue to get better every day. But I haven’t talked to him. The last time I talked to him was in February before Spring Training and he said he was going to leave. So congrats to him and I wish the best for him.

BLB: Did you talk to anyone in regards to your own decision to play baseball over football? Did you talk with Coach Bowden or Coach Martin?

DR: Not particularly. They kinda thought I was gonna take it anyway.

BLB: How is life in the minors versus life at Florida State?

DR: It’s different. I mean, it’s more laid back. All the road trips. Not really at a custom place to stay. It’s different, but I guess that’s why they say the minor leagues is more mental. It’s a grind. But at Florida State, you know, everything was basically taken care of. It was a D1 college, and they had good locker rooms and everything was nice there. It wasn’t bad at all.

BLB: You hear a lot that Coach Bowden is very influential in people’s lives. What have you brought with you from your time playing for him?

DR: The years I was there he always preached God to us. To put God first and make sure you always have God in your life. That’s one of the main things that I have with me now. To have that in mind, because he was always preaching that.

BLB: Ok, what about Coach Martin?

DR: Same really. When he coached, he had a drive to him. He always wanted us to get better. So it’s just something I learned there was to keep trying to get better.

BLB: Did you watch the baseball team or the football team this season?

DR: No, no I didn’t.

BLB: Ok, you mentioned you stayed in touch a bit with Taiwan. Is there anyone you still stay in touch with regularly?

DR: On the football team, no one anymore. But baseball, yeah. I still know Sherman (Johnson, FSU 3rd baseman), Hunter (Scantling, pitcher), (Brian) Busch (pitcher), Tyler Everett (pitcher), Devon Travis (infielder). I talk to a couple of people. That’s all I usually talk to when I go back, not many people.

BLB: Now that you are in the Florida State League, do you get many alumni who recognize you and pull for you?

DR: I haven’t really talked to too many, no.

BLB: I find that interesting, because when I looked at the Manatees roster, your name jumped out and I said to myself, “I should talk to him”.

BLB: So is it a struggle in any way to put your Florida State background behind you? Do you want to be known as just a Brewers outfielder?

DR: Yeah, I just want to be known as a Brewers outfielder and a baseball player. I mean, I didn’t really do too much at Florida State. It’s a great school and great coaches, but I had to take an opportunity here.

BLB: I totally understand that. Were you surprised when you were drafted?

DR: Yeah, because I didn’t get a chance to really prove myself. But obviously they saw something in me and they took me. And I am grateful for that.

We would like to thank D'Vontrey for his time and thank the Manatees and Tampa Yankees for making the interview possible.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sold by the Story: The Lesson of Toe Nash



As fans, we love stories. We love extolling the virtues of our favorite athletes.  We love cheering for heroes as they wage battle against their hated rivals. We love creating stories around players as they become more engrained in our collective consciousness.

With the emergence of twitter, these playful narratives have grown from the tables of our local sports bar to entire fan communities and even to the players themselves. They are no longer inside jokes of a select few, but ideas and identities embraced by everyone. They transcend cyberspace and are seen on signs, t-shirts, in mainstream media, and even accepted by front offices for ballpark promotions.

However playful, innocent, and creative narratives are, we should be careful. Sometimes they cause strife, struggle, and confusion at every level, from the fans, to the media, to the players themselves. Sometimes if we are not careful, we get entwined with a good baseball story as we would with any good book, and fail to see the world crumbling around us.

This year, Rays fans have created amazing narratives around two players who have outperformed expectations. Seemingly heaven sent, these two players saved our team when they were down and kept the Rays from falling in the standings and out of relevance. Early in the season, it was Sam Fuld with his exceptional defense and blazing speed and timely slap hitting. While a good real-life tale, Fuld’s performance on the field made him cyber-legendary.
Did you know Sam Fuld can leap small buildings with a single bound? He’s Super Sam.

Did you know Sam Fuld once scored on a bunt … off his own bat? Tis written in The Legend of Sam Fuld.

As the season has progressed, it has been journeyman first baseman Casey Kotchman who has captured the hearts, imaginations, and Twitter attention of the Rays community.
Did you know Casey Kotchman’s bat is made of the same wood as the wands in Harry Potter? It’s the Magic of Kotch.

Did you know pitching awards are now determined by who can get Casey Kotchman out the most? It’s the Magic of Kotch.
Where the narratives fail us, however, is when we mistake our own impressions of a player with his real life ability. We trick ourselves or trick others into believing Sam Fuld is not the second Joe Orsulak but the second coming of Carl Crawford or that Casey Kotchman is really Hal Morris and not another Pat Putnam, his number one comparison on Baseball-Reference.com and possibly the only baseball player known for eating dog biscuits.

Narratives also cause problems when they cause us to fight those who preach reality. Sometimes we are so convinced what a player is doing is magical that we fight, argue, and bemoan those who tell us to keep our feet on the ground. We tear up their spreadsheets, call dissenters a bunch of nerdy number-crunchers, and bellow that they have lost touch with being a “real fan”. Like being smitten by a perfect first date, we are walking on sunshine and don’t want to hear that it will ever rain on our parade.

But of course, it happens.

Fortunately, most of our mythification occurs on the field. For all the hope we have that Sam Fuld will fly across the outfield from foul line to foul line and gobble up fly balls like Pac-Man in a cape, we know his Superman abilities do not extend beyond the field of play. We do not expect him to save kittens from trees, stop burglars in their tracks, or take on baddies from the planet Krypton.

There are some cases however where the narratives and the glorification thereof seeps past the ball field and into reality. Sometimes the stories we create about our idols become so strong they cloud our reality of the person playing the game. Greg Prince of the spectacular Mets blog Fear and Faith in Flushing found himself square in the middle of this dilemma recently when he came face-to-face with Mets legend Dwight Gooden. In his blog post, Prince writes how he idolized Gooden in the mid-1980s, when a blazing fastball and an unhittable curveball made New York Dr. K’s town.  Gooden was the King of New York and could do no wrong, both in the eyes of the public and in Prince’s clouded baseball fan vision. Of course, we know that was not the case, as Gooden succumbed to his own personal demons more than almost any modern athlete.

As Gooden walked away from Prince, Prince writes about the temptation to applaud Gooden for all he did as a Met, but thinks twice as he doesn’t want Gooden to misinterpret Prince’s cheer for affirmation of his entire life, which Prince admits he doesn’t think too highly of. Prince doesn’t want to be guilty of the phenomenon of misinterpreted glorification. So he stayed quiet and watches a man who was once one of his baseball heroes walk by.

Although we all might understand the power of mythification fueled by narrative on players, the most egregious of all sins is not when the player is convinced he is someone else – again, that’s quite easy given our propensity for narratives – but it is when we fully convince ourselves that the athlete is someone he is not. Here we are the ones who cannot separate the real from our fantasy.

Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often, especially in today’s modern reality/information-based society. Back in the day, when verbose sportswriters would sedate us with tales of majestic feats, we honestly and naively believed Bob Feller walked off the cornfields with a 100-mile an hour fastball, Babe Ruth’s diet of hot dogs and beer fueled his prolific power hitting ability, and Mickey Mantle was more than a man but less than a god.

Thank goodness that type of fan worship is all but dead. We know Feller actually had to work to bring his heat, the Ruth was nothing more than Prince Fielder, and the Mick was a boozer who drank away his ability and his life.

Although most of the legend-building narratives died in the 1970s, it was fans of the Devil Rays who were victims of the biggest example in the last 20 years of a myth blinding us to a dark reality. Back in 2000, Devil Rays scout Benny Latino found a strapping young lad in a rural region of Louisiana. The boy had wicked power and a great arm. Latino gushed over him to the Devil Rays front office convincing them to sign this relative unknown. It was called a major coup for the Devil Rays and the sports media drooled over the story. No less of a legitimate medium than Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons celebrated his abilities and his story, comparing him to The Natural and Babe Ruth.

That boy was Gregory “Toe” Nash.

Toe Nash played one year in the Devil Rays minor league system, hitting .240 and striking out in 36% of his plate appearances. It was his only year as a professional.

Today, Gregory Nash sits in the Richmond Correctional Center in Tallulah, Louisiana. He is 29 years old and his chances at baseball long since past. He is a sixth grade drop-out, a convict with a rap sheet a mile long, and a convicted sex offender. He has been arrested for assault, marijuana possession, and rape of a minor. And worst of all, people have stopped writing about him.

We believed the hype. We believed in Toe Nash. We were sold a myth. But that myth wasn’t reality. That myth wasn’t Gregory Nash.

Narratives are great things. They make baseball and sports fun. But proceed with caution. Realize the narrative for what it is. It is reflection of our own need for a hero.

And in the words of Tina Turner:

“We Don’t Need Another Hero/ We Don’t Need to Know the Way Home/ All We Want/ Is Life Beyond Thunderdome”

A life beyond Thunderdome.

How fitting.