Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"PURPOSE PITCH" 34/35: THE OUTSIDE-LOOKING-IN OF BEN (SHOELESS JOE BRAND, GAMBLIN' ROSE BRAND)

Sometimes there are simply no words necessary to describe artistic output or achievement.

That would certainly be the case with this pair of Ben Sakoguchi "orange crate art" paintings, two of his very greatest in the Unauthorized History of Baseball series.

The level of inspiration reaches Olympian heights here. And there's really no mystery why that's the case.

Ben simply is at his best when he is dealing with controversy. The hotter it is in the kitchen, the better he likes it.

And it's no coincidence that the two subjects here, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, have managed to occupy the most controversial, most infamous, and most timelessly unresolvable niches in baseball history.

They will likely forever be on the outside looking in with respect to baseball's mainstream meritocracy, as represented by the Hall of Fame. It's a virtual certainty that their twinned status as the game's accursed will make it impossible for either to be "rehabilitated" without the other one being granted the same reprieve from eternal judgement.

And, given that, they will remain in that special limbo reserved for players whose on-field greatness is more than necessary for enshrinement, but whose lapses in judgment were so egregious that they cannot be countenanced even in an honorarium with racists, sociopaths, and whitewashed cheaters.

The Baseball Reliquary's voters, however, are free to make a meta-commentary on this painted-into-a-corner circumstance. They don't have to condone what Jackson and Rose did, they only have to put it into a different historical context.

They can say that these two deeply controversial characters, who possess differing amounts and types of pathos with respect to the situation in which they find themselves, are deserving of recognition in spite of (and possibly even because) their infamy.

That argument may not convince the moral purists. But an anti-institution is free to prick the bubble of overstuffed morality, and when the voters for the Shrine of the Eternals were given their opportunity to weigh in on the cases of Shoeless Joe and Charlie Hustle, they wasted no time in enshrining these two outlaws.

For Ben Sakoguchi, it was an opportunity to take narrative and composition to levels beyond the merely indelible. Shoeless Joe is captured in the burnished, wistful colors of the past, as a figure of legend. The arc of Pete Rose's story and his innate aggression is on display in what might be Ben's wittiest and most caustic juxtaposition of images.

It will soon be twenty-five years and counting for Rose, and shortly thereafter, an entire century for Jackson: their exile and disgrace is one of the game's most public and problematic signposts. The Reliquary voters (and Ben Sakoguchi) have doubled down on the proposition that it will remain just this way for--if not forever, then for a long, long time.

Which means that the power and pugnacious poignancy of these works is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"PURPOSE PITCH" 32/33: THE ASTERISM OF BEN (ASTERISK BRAND, ASTEROID BRAND)

[We have not mentioned it for awhile, so let's do so quickly here. This series of entries celebrates the landmark exhibition of a very special symbiosis that exists between Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi and "anti-institution for all seasons" The Baseball Reliquary. It's entitled (as our headline says...) "Purpose Pitch" and it's showing at the Arcadia Public Library through April 29.]

With the next two "orange crate art" paintings taken from Ben's Unauthorized History of Baseball series, we enter into one of the game's oddest paradoxes. While baseball has become increasingly fascinated with home runs (actually, besotted would be the more accurate word...), there has been a problem with any one individual hitting too many of them in a single season.

This first manifested itself in 1961, when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle made the first serious run at Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.

It was a two-part problem. First, there was the fact that Babe's record was a round number (60). People go ga-ga over round numbers, and the idea that a round number would no longer represent the pinnacle of power in baseball was more than distressing--it was downright un-American.

Second, 1961 was an expansion year in the American League, and eight additional games were placed on the schedule to accommodate the new ten-team league. Commissioner Ford Frick, fully in thrall of Problem #1, created Problem #2 by issuing an edict that Ruth's record could be official broken only if HR #61 came within the old 154-game schedule.

Otherwise, there would need to be an asterisk (*) placed by anyone who exceeded 60 homers.

And, of course, Roger Maris managed to hit 61 homers that year, but it took him until game 162; and, as Ben so forcefully notes, he was given a bushel's worth of asterisks from the Lords of Baseball (and many of the serfs as well).

After that, the Lords really decided that they just didn't want anyone to get too close to that particular record again. They adjusted the strike zone in 1963; they pressed for uniform ballpark dimensions that eliminated most of the short porches; they quite probably fiddled with the baseball.

The result was that only three batters managed to hit 50+ homers in a season for the next thirty-three years (Willie Mays, 1965; George Foster, 1977; Cecil Fielder, 1990).

That changed in 1995, when Albert Belle hit 50 in a season shortened by the belated strike settlement. Offense had taken an sudden swing upward in 1993-94, and Belle's season started a cacophony of dingers.

In the next twelve years, there were twenty-two (22) player-seasons in which 50+ homers were hit, including six instances where both Ruth and Maris' totals were exceeded.

While this was exhilarating at the time (the 1998 race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was a deliriously souped-up "do-over" of the 1961 Maris-Mantle assault on Ruth), the bloom seemed to wither on the vine when Barry Bonds came along in 2001 and shattered McGwire's new "round number" record (70) with a figure that was not only not round, it wasn't even divisible (!).

There are times when we figure that it was the irretrievable loss of a "round number" home run record that launched the steroids backlash. Round numbers are just not something to mess with, and the last ten years have seen a campaign of moralizing that makes the Ladies' Temperance Society look like just what it was--a goddam tea party. (And let's not tread further down that analogy, OK??)

Hence the three reviled "amigos" in Ben's cleverly named Asteroid Brand. (And the cleverness extends to the carefully symmetrical logo design between this painting and its companion, where Maris, the other maudit masher, is given his dollop of sympathy.) All of these guys have had some form of cosmic slop visited upon them because they did something just a bit too well--and the glow of the stars has become tainted and unnatural as a result.

But what Ben is telling us is that when we look to the sky in search of our demons, we're not going to find these guys depicted up there, in those pointy, asterisk-like stars. Once we figure that out, we will forgive these guys our trespasses--and new shapes will grace the sky as a result. Roger Maris is in the Shrine of the Eternals, and rightfully so; if the guardians at baseball's barbarous gate dawdle too long in the case of his other "amigos," it might just come to pass that Barry, Sammy and Mac will be twinkling in the Reliquary's night sky.

And there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"PURPOSE PITCH" 31: THE "SHOW MUST GO ON" OF BEN (AS IN WRECK BRAND)

It's important to remember that the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals has a literary component (or, as Mark Twain would say: a lot of "littery men" tend to abound there). Among the eclectic and eccentric folk that populate that "Hall of Fame for the rest of us" are folk who possess(ed) a good deal of flair with the pen.

The first of these "littery men" to make the cut into the Shrine is one whom we don't often associate with the written word, but whose resume as baseball's most maverick owner includes an absolute mastery of wordplay.

That would be Bill Veeck (or, more accurately, Bill Veeck, Jr.), who survived the partial loss of a leg with the same élan with which he piloted the lowly St. Louis Browns. As owner of the floundering franchise during its last (and darkest) hours (1951-53), Veeck (who reminded us how to pronounce his name by citing the unforgettable phrase "as in wreck"...) created a series of marketing innovations that did more than push the envelope--it set the whole stack of mail on fire.

Ben Sakgouchi knows an original when he sees one, and he wastes no time in giving us a panorama of Veeck's "greatest hits." (He is kind enough, however, to leave out "Disco Demolition Night," which brought out more venom on the south side of Chicago than anyone could have expected, spiraling into baseball's version of Altamont--bikers and disco records made for downright incendiary bedfellows.)

It's best to capture Veeck in his overall element--as huckster extraordinaire, and as one of baseball's genuine wits and most assiduous forward-thinkers. Those two traits did not often mesh in the little world of baseball biz-ness, as magisterial biographer Paul Dickson points out on more than one occasion.

While Dickson's bio is highly recommended, it's better to meet Veeck (like Twain) in his own voice. Thanks to the great and all-too-forgotten sportswriter Ed Linn, you can do that to your heart's content in the all-time classic Veeck (as in Wreck), still firmly in the top ten of books about baseball. Linn honed Veeck's natural eloquence into incandescent prose, and we suspect that it's largely on the basis of the book that the original Reliquary voting group decisively made Veeck a charter member in the Shrine of the Eternals.

The other thing that's eternal, of course, is hope; and there is hope on the south side of Chicago that, one of these days, the name of Veeck might return to the owner's slot on the team's masthead. That's because Veeck's grandson, William "Night Train" Veeck, now 27 years of age, is currently ensconced in the White Sox front office. This is one case where we hope that history will actually find a way to repeat itself.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

CASHING IN?

Well, that didn't take long. Andrew Cashner, riding what is a brief but spectacular run of ace-level pitching, tossed a complete game, one-hit shutout last night in San Diego. The Detroit Tigers were helpless virtually from the first pitch, managing only a bloop single (Rajai Davis in the sixth inning).

That's the first of what will likely be around a hundred or so for the 2014 season. Right now, however, we're more interested in Cashner, who suddenly seems poised to break out as a major force for the Padres.

A first round pick by the Cubs in 2008, Cashner was sent to San Diego in 2012 by Chicago's still lightly-dusted Gold Dust Twins (Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer) so that they could consummate their bromance with Anthony Rizzo (the big, hulking first baseman who'd become much more than a sixth-round draft choice to both men while they were exiled BFF's).

Rizzo looks to be a middling major-league first baseman, but Cashner, after having pitched through a series of injuries (including a freak hunting accident--Cashner, from Conroe, TX, ranks high in the "good ole boy" quotient), has emerged in his last eight starts (since last August 25) as a certifiably scary varmint (0.92 ERA).

As always, QMAX (short for Ye Olde "Quality Matrix") gives us a mess of useful detail. Since throwing his first "1S" start (August 25, 2013, against--appropriately enough--the Cubs), Cashner has thrown five more "top hit prevention" starts (games in the 1S or 2S region of the QMAX chart). His raw QMAX averages over his last eight starts: 2.25 S/2.13 C/4.38 T.

That's Koufax-Gibson-Maddux-Pedro territory, assuming (and yes, it's a big assumption...) that it can go on for an entire season.

It looks like Cashner got sent to the right place for potential hitter domination. He's showing a marked tendency to thrive in Petco Park, which favors pitchers anyway. In 2013-14, he's got a 1.96 ERA at home (QMAX: 2.71/2.57/5.38) as opposed to 3.80 on the road (QMAX: 4.13/2.67/6.80). In his last five starts at home, his ERA is 0.50.

Of course, it's too soon to take any of this to the bank, but there's a distinct possibility that we are seeing the emergence of a superstar, right here, right now. If so, the Padres can send flowers to Theo and Jed in thanks for their Anthony Rizzo man-crush.

Friday, April 11, 2014

PINE TAR, PORNOGRAPHY, AND PINEDA: A NEW PARADIGM FOR PIFFLE

Buzzy the fly (who knows how to carpet-bomb an email account better than any measly two-eyed hacker) sent us a strange but interesting note passed between several well-known (but who-shall-remain-semi-nameless) muckety-mucks in MLB after the galvanizing game between the Red Sox and Yankees last night:


Gotta hand it to Buzzy: his ability to transmit and receive while flying such elaborately evasive routes (both in real time and in cyberspace...) is nothing short of astonishing.

So what about it? Spelling errors aside (and believe us when we tell you that this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to such matters...grammar and syntax? Ha!), there's something bracing in the idea that the Yankees and Red Sox would face off more times during the regular season.

What else would serve the high-parochial East Coast shoulder-chipness now that El Mamon (the notorious porn ring that had locked up the Internet sex trade from south Philly to the Hamptons...) has been given its walking papers? After all, we are not competing for people's hearts and minds any more, now, are we? No, we grind out dollars these days by going for the groin...

So, thus. How to get a bunch more games between the dirty Yanks and the filthy Sox? Simple. Exempt 'em from interleague play, with the exception of one (1) home-on-home rivalry. For the Yanks, it would  be the Mets. For the Red Sox, you could (as some have been known to say, under a particular form of duress...) "rotate."

This gets you fourteen (14) more games between the gilded Gold Dust Twins of the Grand Old Game. A baker's dozen (plus a drummer) for the type of Grand Guignol that makes cable stations and their ratings simply explode. (We'll leave the "squealing with orgasmic delight" to those who measure their lives by the OMG-meter.)

And after last night's game, in which Michael Pineda created a stir of passion built around a series of semi-pornographic images of a sticky substance (purported to be pine tar) exuding from his pitching hand--OMG, thank the Lord that it wasn't visible on any other appendage!!--it's clear that when it comes to the Yanks and the Sox, there's no such thing as too much foreplay.

Yep, that's right...they have a
Bobble-Head™ for everything...
Pineda, the embattled young righty whose career has been on hold for two years after arriving in NYC in exchange for Jesus (Montero, that is...not the crazy bowler in The Big Lebowski), looked great last night--if you could keep your prurient eyes off his pitching hand, that is. Finally, someone apparently prevailed upon him to wash that hand, and that was good for a couple of innings worth of additional blather, during which time he became somewhat more hittable.

We'd like to ruminate a bit more on why pine tar is such a lurid topic...on how it has, rather improbably, taken hold of the prurient imagination in baseball over rival substances with so much seemingly greater potential for this role (such as K-Y jelly), but it will probably lead only to other random conundra such as: beta vs. VHS, J-Lo vs. Christina, E. Howard Hunt vs. G. Gordon Liddy, ex-Lax™ vs. high colonics (just to return to the original "region of inquiry"). The mind is alternately a swamp and a mine field, and neither a candy mint nor a breath mint will come close to restoring it to anything remotely resembling freshness.

But let's return to the ostensible subject of that email, shall we? Purists (assuming they haven't already been rounded up and stashed inside a Zip-Lock® compound somewhere...) will argue that such an expanded rivalry will fatally unbalance the schedule. Our reply to that is that they obviously haven't taken a good look at the schedule lately. But the good news is that by dispersing interleague play across the entire schedule, it becomes easier to simply toss in extra "Gold Dust Twin" games like so many additional croutons in a salad.

So--32 games? Hell, why not. Just imagine the scandal if, in one of those expansive years, one of these teams just goes bonkers on the other one and runs up a 26-6 in-season record. Since it is now officially a world where size matters, such an epic performance would become the stuff of instant legend, and would allow the high-parochials to amuse themselves to death at each other's expense.

Perhaps this--along with those metal detectors--can be the last, loopy legacy of Budzilla's reign of berserkitude over beisbol.

Though Buzzy insists that he'll soon turn up definitive evidence that the Pooh-bah of Piffle™ is the kingpin in a holding company that has locked up the entire supply of pine tar known to man. (All the better to grease a slippery slope, no doubt.) Let's all send Bud a copy of Monopoly® as his retirement gift, shall we??

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A 2014 FIRST: THE LATEST DAY IN SEASON FOR A COMPLETE GAME

The headline probably doesn't quite give you the exact image needed to get the full picture. We aren't saying that 2014 will produce the latest date for a complete game from a starting pitcher: that record would be held in a year when the regular season didn't begin until the middle of April (for example, 1950, when the first complete games occurred on April 18th).

No, we mean the "day in the season," or the number of days since "Day 1" of any given baseball season.

It will be at least until May before Clayton Kershaw has another
complete game for the Dodgers...
As of tonight (4/10/2014), we have yet to have a complete game in ten consecutive days of the MLB schedule. That's the highest number of days for such a dearth in the history of the game.

Last year, Clayton Kershaw had a complete game on April 1st, thanks to a terrifically economical pitch count (just 94 over the entire nine innings). There wasn't another one until April 10th.

There were only 14 complete games thrown in April 2013. That total was just 13 in April 2012.

The last time four complete games were thrown on the same day was on June 15, 2011.

Two related trivia questions. First: when was the last time two pitchers threw complete games in the same game? Second: when was the last time two pitchers threw complete games in the same post-season game? We'll leave the answer to the first in abeyance for awhile; for the second, here's a two-part answer. The last time two pitchers threw CGs in the same non-WS post-season game was on October 10, 1987, when Danny Cox and Mike Krukow did it (Cardinals vs. Giants, NLCS Game 4). The last time two pitchers threw CGs in the same World Series game? October 10, 1968, when Mickey Lolich beat Bob Gibson in Game 7 between the Tigers and Cardinals.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"PURPOSE PITCH" 30: THE FOURTH BALL OF BEN (4 BALLS BRAND)

Jim Bouton celebrated his 75th birthday on March 8th.

Not least among his accomplishments is his membership in the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals. He was selected in the third year of balloting, after having drawn only 4% of the vote on the initial ballot.

Jim was the only candidate who received such a low voting percentage in the Reliquary's initial ballot to be retained on the candidate list in the second year.

His appearance in Pasadena for the 2001 induction ceremony was a turning point with respect to the Reliquary's media scrutiny.

His landmark book, Ball Four (an inspired title choice), remains an entertaining read and a fascinating time capsule of a tumultuous year in American history. There are distant echoes of the culture clash in America at the time (keep in mind that the Vietnam War was still being fought in 1969, and there were still two very strong and diametrically opposed opinions about it) and Bouton finds ways to allude to those events even as he chronicles the bittersweet comedy of the Seattle Pilots' lone season of existence.

Ben Sakoguchi gives Bouton a starry-eyed background befitting his media celebrity that following quickly in the wake of Ball Four's publication. He shows Jim's comic roots by capturing his early hell-for-leather pitching style (when he still had a fastball) and referencing his Crazy Guggenheim impersonation (something that Jim wisely abandoned when his fortunes--and those of the Yankees--took a nosedive in 1965).

Jim is one of the Reliquary inductees who understands its unique stance. The Reliquary in turn has recognized the influence of Bouton's approach to the game on its own evolving mission. It's not a surprise that the Reliquary hosted a fortieth anniversary bash for Ball Four in 2010, and is likely to do so again when the book turns fifty in 2020.

Place name check: Balls Ferry, CA is yet another of Ben's impossibly obscure California locations. It is a small fishing resort on the Sacramento River just outside the town of Anderson, CA (population 9, 932 as of the 2010 census, located about one hundred fifty miles due north of Sacramento and ten miles south of Redding).