Archive for August, 2012

Eastwooding: Gigantic Oops

August 31, 2012 2 comments

One of hundreds of “Eastwooding” images in which various dogs, cats, and humans interact with empty chairs

I’m trying to think who I would most like not to be in the Romney campaign today.  The guy who told Clint Eastwood: “Nah, go ahead, wing it.”   Or the campaign aid who cornered Eastwood in the green room.  “I know this sounds nuts, Clint, but what if we put you on stage with an empty chair?”

Most human beings with a computer and an internet connection are aware by now that beloved actor, Clint Eastwood, laid a bit of an egg on the closing night of the Republican convention with a sometimes incoherent, rambling, unscripted monologue-type-thing with an empty chair as a prop that contained an invisible Barack Obama.

Certainly a unique event in the annals of political convention history, it may well go down as one of the greatest blunders in modern political stagecraft.  In his introduction to Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio delivered a strong speech that added greatly to his rising-star status.  Romney gave what many say was the best speech he’d ever delivered.

But all anybody is talking about is the back-fire of Eastwood’s bizarre appearance.  The explosion in social media has been massive and mocking.  It is truly the stuff of cultural legend, likely to become as lasting an image as Ted Kennedy turning his back on Jimmy Carter in 1980.  An unfortunate iconic image.

The convention planners must have been completely horrified.  The event lasted just over 14 minutes, but they had to have started getting worried about 4 minutes in.  The crowd seemed to like it but the staging of conventions is not meant for the few thousand in attendance.  It’s the television, radio, and digital audience that matters, as well as the consensus media coverage that follows.  On those screens and speakers, it came off awkward and weird and it created a firestorm of instant, universal opinion- from CBS News to the New York Daily News to Entertainment Tonight- the Mother of All Distractions- obscuring the nominee’s moment in the spotlight.

Even worse, Eastwood’s appearance supplanted a moving, well-produced film biography of the nominee that ended up not being shown by the television networks to the prime-time audience.   Those films are important.  Many credit the one produced for Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic convention, “A Place Called Hope,” as an important factor in the eventual turn-around that elected him to the White House.

Mitt Romney deserved better than the events that transpired on closing night.  Somebody screwed up big time.

Aw-His First Ejection: Bryce Harper and the Art of Emotional Containment

The Kid’s an adventure, alright.  Two homers and an ejection on the same night indicate there’s a still a bit to go on the emotional IQ front.   But let’s not forget, he also almost single-handedly lifted the Nationals out of a scary 5-game losing streak that had pretty much all of Washington wondering if this magical season had just been a cruel mirage.

His first homer last night put the Nats on the board for the first time in 13 innings.  And if that weren’t enough, he hit his 2nd homerun ridiculously further- way into the top deck in right field at the cavernous ball park in Miami, the longest shot this season in the Marlin’s new stadium.  He also made at least two beautiful defensive plays and, at a key moment, with the Marlins rallying with men on 2nd and 3rd and less than two-out, threw a laser to home plate to keep Florida from scoring.

He also dropped a ball that hit his mitt early in the game and later got himself ejected in the 9th  when he hit into a double play and, frustrated with himself, tossed his helmet rather violently on the ground, just a little too close to the 1st base umpire.

On the emotional front, in addition to last night’s ejection, Bryce so far this season has:

–         Smashed a bat in the hallway off the dugout early in the season, causing a laceration dangerously close to his left eye and taking the field with blood dripping down his cheek.

–         Smashed a bat at home plate after a strike-out, so hard that it broke up into a hundred little splinters for which he later apologized to both the opposing team’s catcher and the ump.

–         Repeated the scene a few weeks later, sending bat shards flying into the infield.

–         Was replaced in an innocent double-switch situation this week and according to manager, Davey Johnson, busted up several batting helmets.

Davey points out Bryce is a “100 percenter,” but that he just can’t keep acting like this.  Following the ejection, Harper’s response was an instant classic:

I just need to stop getting [angry] and just live with it and there’s nothing you can change. I just need to grow up in that mentality a little bit. Try not to bash stuff in and things like that I’ve always done my whole life and those need to change.

Yes, a moratorium on “bashing stuff in” would probably be appropriate.

He is, you know, a teenager.  But a damn good one.  Only Ken Griffey Jr., Mel Ott and Tony Conigliaro have ever hit more homers in the majors under the age of 20.  And we haven’t hit September yet.

To my eye, Bryce is like a big ‘ol Great Dane puppy, romping around, smashing baseballs, bats, helmets, careening into walls.  At least he doesn’t chew on electrical cords.

In a sport where failure happens about 70% of the time, he might want to chill just a tiny little bit.  It’s a pretty tough sport for a perfectionist.

The Magic Season that Took Off Like a Rocket

(Photo courtesy of

It seems like ages ago in another universe.  Remember the “Take Back the Park” promotion way back in early May?

Back then, the Washington Nationals were worried about supporters of other teams outnumbering the home fans.  The mighty Philadelphia Phillies were coming into town for their first series of the year with Washington’s promising young team.  Heh.

Today, the Phillies are 20 games behind the Nationals, in 4th place in the NL East. Twenty.   Average attendance is over 30,000 and good tickets are getting increasingly difficult to get.  Television viewing is through the roof.

Remember how thrilled we all were when the Nats opened the year 14-4 and we went to TEN games over .500?  We were all whipping out our calculators.  “Let’s see, if the Nats go .500 from here on out, we probably get a wild card slot!”  Heh.

As of today we are 31 games over .500.  Thirty-one.

Then there was Throw-back Day at Nationals Park.  The players were dressed nattily in the cool white uniforms of the 1924 Washington Senators, the last team from the nation’s capital to win a World Series.  Inspirational videos played on the big screen of that magical season from long ago when a pebble altered the direction of a baseball and gave the Senators a World Series victory over the New York Giants, the predecessors of the San Francisco club that was in town for that nostalgic promotion last July.

The Nationals won that day in a heroic come from behind effort in the 8th and 9th innings built largely against a pitcher who previously in the season, had thrown a perfect game.  We ended up sweeping the Giants in that series last month and went on to take two out of three from them on their turf later in August.

Been to the stadium lately?  It is a raucous, noisy, nightly spectacle.  At last night’s game against the Atlanta Braves, every one of Stephen Strasburg’s ten strike-outs was cheered like it was the final out.

These days, the handful of visiting team jerseys in the stands are as sparse as a land mass in the Pacific Ocean.  Not only do they no longer inspire wrath of any kind, they, instead, elicit a certain amount of sympathy.  Oh, you poor dears.  We welcome you to the Lion’s Den.  Please, enjoy another beverage.

Nats mania knows no bounds. Why just last weekend while attending a friend’s annual summer party in distant Rappahannock County at an otherwise lovely home that didn’t happen to get MASN on Direct TV, I distinctly recall three of us climbing into a parked car, desperately seeking out the latest score, huddled like lonely baseball refugees, hungry for any tidbit of the game that could make it through the static of the radio signal.

Yes, the team and its fans have gone through quite a metamorphosis this season.  Akin to the launch of a Saturn rocket; slow at first and then gaining speed, altitude and momentum.  We are now sky-high.

But it’s not September yet.  There are about 40 games left in the regular season.  There is much work and more cheering yet to go.  Strap in, fellow travelers.  There is a still-to-be-determined ride ahead of us yet.

The Strasburg Shutdown: Ultimately a Moral Decision

We live in a disposable culture, and for once, there is a sports franchise, smart enough and moral enough to say that no matter the stakes- a young man’s health trumps even a potential World Series trophy.

The Washington Nationals will not risk sacrificing their once-a-generation talent on the altar of immediate gratification.  And those calling the team “pathetic” and “disgraceful” reveal a win-now-at-any-cost mentality that for years has left a trail of broken arms and broken dreams.

Nationals fans, by the way, have been accepting of the team’s position from the get-go.  They saw how the team shut down Jordan Zimmermann last year, his first after returning from the same surgery as Strasburg, and they see how the young man is now a legitimate contender for a Cy Young award.   Local surveys find National’s fans have few qualms about this approach. All the critics so outraged on our behalf, please spare us.

Stats and Real Life Cases

It is true that there has never been a study of the careers of 24 year-old, 1st round draft picks and how they perform in the first year following Tommy John elbow surgery.  Forget the surgery.  There’s plenty of data about pitchers between the ages of 21 and 24 who have not undergone such surgery that shows the more they pitch, the more likely they are to blow out their arms or never return to their original form.  See what the Chicago Cubs did to the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

Leo Mazzone, the former Atlanta Braves pitching coach who calls the National’s organization “pathetic” for wanting to shut down Strasburg, has nothing to be proud of in regard to how he overused a 21-year old pitching sensation named Steve Avery. To the point that by the time he got into his mid 20’s, Avery was a shadow of his former self and would never return to his early form.

It’s About the Long Haul

The way sports teams are built now, especially in baseball, there is precious little thought given to the construction of a franchise that can win consistently over a decade or more.  For most General Managers, it’s a piece-meal approach accentuated by headline-grabbing trades in the Winter and desperation gambles at the end of July.

This is not how the Washington Nationals have been constructed.  They have a nucleus of largely home-grown young players who are under contract and will play together everyday for most of the next ten years.  Their unexpected rise to the top of their sport this year is testimony to the sheer talent that has been assembled the old fashioned way; through wise scouting and careful draft selections.

The critics who whine that this could be the Nationals last shot at a World Series don’t have a clue what they are talking about.  Everyone knows the baseball playoffs are an utter crap shoot, anyway.  But this is a team that is built to last and young Stephen Strasburg is the lynch pin of a starting rotation that could well dominate hitters year after year.  I would wager a considerable sum this is not Washington’s only playoff appearance of the decade (and, of course, they’ve clinched nothing yet so it’s premature to assume just about anything).

It’s also good business to shut down Strasburg.  How many future Strasburg’s out there will ever forget how this team treated, respected and treasured the health of their young star?  Next time Nat’s General Manager, Mike Rizzo, sits down at a kitchen table with the father of a young man he wants to draft for the club, those won’t be empty promises he’ll be giving about protecting the health and career of his son.  It will be a fact guided by history.

Strasburg’s “Devastated” Teammates

But what about the poor players who expect management to field the strongest possible team for any drive to a world title?  Well, first of all, the Washington Nationals are much, much more than Stephen Strasburg.  Eliminating all of his stats, Washington’s pitching staff would still have the best ERA in the game.

Secondly, the Nationals have overcome the absences of other players important to the franchise, including Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Jason Werth, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos.  This has always been a team bigger than any of its individual parts.

I also believe the players will take the Strasburg shutdown as a challenge and will be highly motivated to rise to the occasion.   He will certainly be in their hearts and minds and I would not be at all surprised to see them dedicate their playoff drive to the young and absent pitching sensation.

We’ll Never Know Who Was Right

As there will be no real way to tell if the team was right or wrong about the Strasburg shutdown, there are a few ways the Nationals can have the last laugh here.  They need to win the World Series this year without him.  And then they will have to win one with him.

How’s that for a lofty set of goals?

It would well be worth it- not only for the sake of Washington’s historically beleaguered franchise, but also for the rich comfort of being able to tell all those ESPN blowhards and pitching coaches who have disposed and ruined so many young arms in the past, that they were wrong.  Wrong on the facts.  Wrong on the morality and the ethics.  And wrong about the humanity and the business of baseball.

A Football Town Becomes a Baseball Town

August 14, 2012 1 comment

Something’s seriously changing

The Washington Post had something like ten reporters covering the Redskins training camp this year.  And on the eve of the pre-season debut of RGIII, you had to work pretty hard to find any Nationals story above the fold on the Post’s sports page.

These things happen because the Redskins won a few Super Bowls a generation ago.

Meantime, on the banks of the Anacostia River, there is a baseball stadium now hosting a minimum of 30,000 fans a night and a team that is no longer a flash-in-the-pan or a charming curiosity.  It is, in fact, the most dominant team in the sport.

You see, there are three basic elements in the game of baseball; hitting, pitching and fielding.   The Washington Nationals, as homegrown a team as I can remember, have led both the American and National leagues in pitching all season.   It’s now well over a month after the All-Star break, and since the mid-season classic, no team has scored more runs than the Nationals.   So, we have offense and defense covered.   As for fielding, they rank 3rd in the NL right now.

It is expected that in a couple of weeks, the Nats will get their All-Star shortstop, Ian Desmond, back (poor things have gone 17-5 in his absence) and for the first time all year, the Nats will have their intended line-up in place.   It does not seem to matter that a dozen players have hit the disabled list this year.  They are 28 games above .500.  They are on pace to win 100 games.   They have an embarrassment of riches.

Take the San Francisco Giants, for example.  They lead the NL Western division and are not exactly chumps.  Sure, the Nats swept them in Washington earlier in the season, but it was so long ago.  According to Bay area media, there has been great anticipation about this week’s visit by the Nationals- a test of what the playoffs may hold in store.

The Nationals led 14 to 0 after five innings of the series opener.  They ended up winning 14-2.   Next up, the Giants face Jordan Zimmermann, who has been so dominant on the mound that his last performance triggered considerable Cy Young award talk around the league.  He now has the lowest ERA in all of baseball.  He can thank his teammates for that.  The San Francisco pitcher his teammates roughed up last night was the only hurler ahead of Zimmermann in ERA.  And then Wednesday, the Giants get to face Stephen Strasburg.

All of which offers some perspective on Washington’s heretofore favorite sports franchise- the Washington Redskins.   The contrast of how these two teams have been built is startling.   Over in football world, Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, has spent well over a decade bringing in a revolving door of coaches, buying splashy free agents past their prime and, until recently, ignoring the more traditional and boring aspects of team development, like stockpiling draft choices and sprinkling in a few non-splashy free agents.

Over in Nats land, they got really bad over the years in order to get really good.  They played a patient game that emphasized the basics; scouting, drafting and developing young talent.  They did sign one huge contract when they went for Phillies outfielder, Jason Werth, two years ago, but it was meant as a statement to the rest of the league.  Every now and again, in addition to developing what is now widely considered the best farm team in baseball, they showed they were willing to open their wallets and spend.

And they made a trade last year, giving up some of their hard-earned prospects for a young, proven pitcher named Gio Gonzalez who’s turning out to be having a career year and gives Washington the absolute rarity of three frontline-, #1 aces on the mound.

There is no doubt there is a sense of excitement about Robert Griffin III.  His limited play in the Washington pre-season opener showed he has great presence and patience and real talent that was only made more obvious after back-up quarterback, Rex Grossman, got into the game and stunk up the joint.  And the Skins seem to have a pretty powerful defense.  But numerous injuries along the offensive line spark questions as to how much RGIII will have to be running for his life in his rookie season.

Anyway, in this town, it’s the Redskins that have something to prove.  They come off a 5-11 season and two decades of futility since their last NFL title.  They do have a real talent at quarterback for the first time in a long, long while- but it’s early and they have accomplished nothing.

Meantime, the now universally recognized best team in baseball, keeps chugging along piling up the most wins of any team in the sport, the highest run differential, the best pitching the game has seen in decades, and led by Davey Johnson, one of the best managers in the business.

Longtime WRC-TV anchorman, Jim Vance, did a wonderful on-air commentary on this Nationals vs. Redskins business a few weeks ago.  And one of his closing lines simply cannot be improved upon.  “The ‘Skins promise.  The Nationals deliver.”

The Houston Astros: And We All Fall Down

Astros 3rd baseman, Matt Downs, inexplicably dives over his pitcher and nearly runs into teammate, Steve Pearce, as he makes an errant throw to 1st that leads to an errant throw home that leads to Nationals Victory over Houston (photo by Pat Sullivan/AP)

Baseball is not just about grace and excellence- it’s also about abject, epic, hilarious failure.  The 1961 Mets.  Bill Buckner.  All the Washington teams between 1935 and 2011.

But the poor Houston Astros, truly one of the worst teams the sport has ever seen; on pace to lose 109 games this season, defeated in 31 of their last 35 games- put on a circus show for the ages last night in one single play that will long be remembered in the annals of the sport.

Here’s the short version:  The Astros all ran into each other and fell down.

But breaking it down in all its disparate parts reveals the breath-taking wonder of the on-field collapse by half the players in the field.

Here’s the setting.  Nobody out, top of the 11th inning of a 4-4 game.  There’s hardly anyone in the stands because this is the Houston Astros- the worst team in baseball.  There is not a camera angle possible that doesn’t show a sea of empty seats.  It’s so quiet and dead in the stands that everyone in the stadium can hear the wailing cry of a single infant seated with its parents somewhere close to home plate.

Washington National’s centerfielder, Roger Bernadina singles to right.  And now the fun begins.   The Nationals’ new catcher, Kurt Suzuki, attempts a sacrifice bunt to try and get Bernadina to second.  Suzuki screws it up and instead of bunting on the ground, he pops the ball up. A tiny, little, baby pop-up.

Houston 1st baseman, Steve Pearce, moves toward the ball at the same time as the pitcher, Wilton Lopez.  The ball eludes them both and drops softly to the ground.  Lopez can’t seem to locate it between his legs.  Pearce literally pushes his own pitcher out of the way like a linebacker and picks up the ball.

Inexplicably, Astros 3rd baseman, Matt Downs, seemingly thinking maybe he has a play on the ball dives over the fallen pitcher and succeeds in partially interfering with the 1st baseman’s desperate throw to 1st base.  The ball flies over the head of Houston 2nd baseman, Jose Altuve and well into right field.

Bernadina sees all the madness and takes off, easily passing 2nd base and headed to 3rd.  Houston right fielder, Brian Bogusevic sees Bernadina completely ignoring his own 3rd base coach’s pleas to stop and sprints for home.  Bogusevic’s throw is airmailed over the catcher’s head, Bernadina scores and Suzuki, who had moments ago tried to make an out by bunting the ball in the infield, is now securely at 3rd.

I am not exaggerating when I say the last time I saw anything like this, 5 year-olds were hitting off a tee and the opposing team collapsed in a pile trying to field the ball.

For the poor, beleaguered fans of the Houston Astros- it was just all too much to take.  Here, some of their choice comments from the Houston Crawfish Boxes, a fan web site:

–        Wow

–         What the freakin…

–         Oh My God

–         Holy Lord

–         My Goodness

–         Okay, well

–         Wow- just wow

–         I don’t even know who to yell at

–         Dear God- you poor Astros fans

–         Don’t worry about us- It’s beyond anguish at this point.  I feel nothing.  I think most of us now are just trying to figure out if this is all part of some elaborate social experiment.

–         What the hell just happened?

–         You just gotta laugh at this point

–         I was mad at first but I’m laughing now

–         Cirque du Soleil Houston Astros

–         Come for the baseball- stay for the hilarity

–         Well what happened was….we got a baseball team, then 50 years later we got this shit

My Houston friends, we have all been there at one point another.  In fact, one of the reasons the Washington Nationals are finally contenders is that we were that bad two years in a row- so bad we got the #1 draft picks the next year and the year after and that’s how we ended up with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

And I must say, there is now, officially, a soft spot in my heart for the Astros and as soon as the Nats leave town, I will be seriously rooting for them to reclaim their dignity and kick a little butt.

But for now- thanks for the memories, boys.  One for the ages.

The Badminton Eight


Who knew?   The words “badminton” and “scandal” are not ordinarily associated with one another.

But they are now.  Eight female players are expected to be thrown out of the Olympic games for throwing matches in a crude attempt to rig the match-ups so they could get a favorable draw later in the tournament.  At least the 1919 Chicago White Sox were not quite so overt when corruption infiltrated baseball.  Shoeless Joe Jackson, after all, batted near .400 in that tainted World Series.  That was about money and mobsters.  This is all about better placement in a tourney. 

And maybe it wouldn’t even have been all that scandalous if the players had at least attempted a little subtlety. These ladies were so obvious about it that the spectators were booing and demanding refunds.  They obviously and purposely hit into the net.  At times they gave no effort whatsoever and stood idly by as shuttlecock after shuttlecock landed gently on the court, unanswered and ignored.  The umpires were motioning to the players to hit the damn thing. 

Deception has long been a part of the sport of badminton.  Professionals who play this, as opposed to you or I, are always trying to deceive the opponent in regard to how hard and in what direction they will hit the shuttle.  But this current form of deception, aimed at the larger audience of the sport, has hardly been sneaky at all- just clumsy.

I do not fear far-ranging consequences for the sport, however.  It’s not like their television revenues are suddenly going to plummet.  Or that Walmart’s sales of badminton equipment will suddenly suffer.

The only disconcerting part of all this is next time I play a game of Badminton, my own incompetence may be misconstrued for fixing the match.   No- that was my clumsiness that explains why the shuttlecock just hit me in the head or why I accidently smashed my partner with the racket.  

So in advance of our next match, let me loudly proclaim: I may suck at this sport but please don’t question my badminton integrity.