Saturday, August 20, 2005

Notebooks and Penguins

Two more Notebook pieces this week, dealing with Toronto and Pittsburgh.

For the Blue Jays, I ran down the AL Rookie of the Year race, which features a broad and talented field, currently lead by Toronto lefty Gustavo Chacin. To take on one Yankees issue, Robinson Cano isn't in this conversation right now, and he really doesn't deserve to be. After batting .316 with a pretty decent slugging percentage in June and July, he's been sucktastic in August--.205 batting average with a .500 OPS. That's not just bad, that's Womack Bad(tm). Overall, he isn't the best middle infield rookie (those would be the White Sox's Tad Iguchi and Toronto's Russ Adams) or the most glamorous rookie (hello, Felix Hernandez) or the biggest pennant contender rookie (Oakland has both slugging firstbaseman Dan Johnson and closer Huston Street).

The weirdest thing about Cano's performance is that he's been completely horrible at Yankee Stadium. He's batting .236/.254/.345 at home against .318/.349/.490 on the road. I don't think anyone tracks fielding stats by those splits, but I'd bet an inordinate number of Cano's errors this year have come at home. Cano's done better than expected, and he shows good promise for the future if he can build up more power or learn how to draw more walks. However, he's not an elite rookie, not in this class.

The Pirates piece, which ran on Friday, was about the Pirates rookies. On Thursday, the Mets were dazzled by Pirate rookie Zach Duke, who is 6-0 through nine major league starts, with an ERA of 1.87. Since he came up from AAA in July, Duke's only had one bad outing. Against the Mets on Thursday, he only allowed two hits. He's a keeper, and one of a handful of names (the other big one is Braves outfielder Jeff Francouer) in the NL Rookie of the Year Race. Here's what I wrote about Zach:
Look, I know what you're thinking. That other kid, Burnett, he looked good through nine starts, too. Then he didn't look so good, and then he was looking at a scalpel to the elbow. But you just got to convince yourself that things are going to be better this time. You've gotta think that after Burnett and John Van Benschoten, and all those other guys, McLendon and Spin Williams are going to treat this kid like those penguins treated their egg in that movie.
That Burnett kid is Sean Burnett, who pitched nicely for the Pirates last year, before suddenly losing his mojo and winding up under the knife for Tommy John surgery. Similar story with Van Benschoten. That Penguin movie is March of the Penguins, which I had the good fortune to see last weekend.

March of the Penguins is simply one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. It's your basic National Geographic-style nature doc, about the life cycle of the Emperor Penguin, in Antarctica. The penguins abandon their homes in the sea to come to a relatively remote part of their local ice shelf, some 70 someodd miles away, to meet and greet with penguins of the opposite sex, get it on, and make some penguin babies. In between, they face the trials that nature throws at each new generation of penguins--storms, starvation, predators.

Now, if this is sounding like every other National Geographic nature show, that's because it is. What makes March of the Penguins stand out is that the moviemakers give the penguins' story many of the same qualities as a good sports film: it's about a plucky group of outcasts that come together, and through teamwork--and having a lot of heart and endurance--fight against all odds to achieve the big goal. They come to depend on each other and stick up for each other. Watching masses of penguins huddle against the wind, it's hard not to anthropomorphize them, and think of them as persons acting in cooperation rather than animals acting on instinct. The film is so effective on this level, that the filmmakers don't have to resort to the usual technique of focusing on one particular penguin (or penguin family) and giving them pet names, in order to make the audience bond with them.

You don't need such tricks, because the penguins themselves will win you over. It's a strong enough illusion that at some points, when the penguins don't act like people, it leaves you utterly befuddled. I can't recommend this film highly enough.

No comments: