Thursday, March 29, 2007

There Goes the Future...

I saw this one first at Pete Abraham's LoHud Blog, which is my first priority to add to this site's links the next time I decide to wade into this site's HTML:

Steinbrenner’s son-in-law and designated successor, Steve Swindal, has been sued for divorce. Jennifer Steinbrenner filed papers in the Hillsborough County Circuit Court’s family law department on Tuesday. She cited “irreconcilable differences.”

The divorce proceedings came 40 days after Swindal was arrested for driving under the influence and speeding in an unsavory section of St. Petersburg. Swindal is expected to lose his position as general partner.

In some ways, we've been expecting this since Swindal was busted for DUI earlier in Spring Training, but it's still a shocking fall from grace. Swindal's divorce effectively leaves the Yankees organization decapitated. George Steinbrenner's been in seclusion, and despite his claims to the contrary, it's widely-reported that he's in bad health and not really up to the day-to-day job of running the ballclub, anymore. The jockeying to fill this vacuum could be a King Lear-type melodrama--or not, if, as some believe, none of Steinbrenner's children has much interest in being a baseball team owner. With Swindal, we had someone who was fairly a lock to be interested in running the club in the future; now, when the Boss is no longer with us, it's no longer unthinkable that the Steinbrenner family will want to unload the franchise. And as we know from past experience, that means that our beloved baseball franchise could soon be in the hands of mental incompetents and/or cronies of Bud Selig's (and there's a lot of overlap in these groups).

As someone who was until recently in the marital strife industry, I'm sensitive toward what Steve Swindal and Jennifer Steinbrenner must be going through. The end of a marriage is a real human tragedy, also something truly private and really not the business of anyone outside of the couple and perhaps their immediate family, friends, and business partners.

But as a Yankee fan, I just gotta look at Swindal and say "You jerk! We were counting on you! You had it all in the palm of your hand and you blew it, just completely and totally blew it!"


In other ways you can destroy your future, you could simply emulate Ugueth U. Urbina, and get sentenced to 14 years in a Venezuelan prison for attempted murder. The other day, hanging out with the Prospectus gang at the Yogi, we were talking about relief pitching and I wondered aloud whatever happened to Uggie's criminal case, thinking that perhaps he'd be like a number of beisbolistas who've skated on charges ranging from rape, to drug dealing (who can forget the Pedro Guerrerro "I'm too stupid to be a drug dealer" defense?) and murder/manslaughter. Well, now we have an answer. Nothing can quite kill a career like being in lock-up from your age 33 to 47 seasons. Vaya con dios, Triple-U.

Monday, March 26, 2007

This is Why You Stockpile Pitchers

Remember Jeff Karsten's big shot at the Opening Day roster, his chance to get a start or two in during Wang's absence, and maybe be this year's surprising success story? Uh, not so fast. Karstens had to leave his start early on Sunday, suffering from a "stiff elbow." Reader Matty Matty got this one on to the blog before I did--although, in my defense, I did say that Sunday's start was huge for Karstens. It's a shame.

In Karsten's absence, Darrell Rasner--who, might as well be Karsten's professional twin with the Yanks--could pick up that slot. Unless something else goes wrong, that is. That's why the somewhat absurd level of righthanded depth the Yankees acquired this winter makes sense. Mike Mussina's old, and likely to need a breather this season; Andy Pettitte's no spring chicken, and he, too, has been known to break down; Kei Igawa is an unknown quantity, but he throws a ton of pitches, which suggests he might not give the team a titanic number of innings; Can't Play Carl Pavano...well, the name says it all. In the bullpen, Mariano Rivera's up there in years, and coming off an injury that kept him out the last month or so of the regular season; Kyle Farnsworth's a hothouse flower, the days he's not in the trainers room are more remarkable than those when he is dealing with a nagging something-or-other; Scott Proctor pitched a ton of innings last season--his entrance music should be a ticking-clock sound, maybe the effect used in 24. Wang was really the rock of this pitching staff, and he's the guy who got injured first. So while it may be disappointing for a Chris Britton (who had a good season for Baltimore last year) or a Phil Hughes (who many feel has nothing left to prove in the minors) not to break camp with the big club, the advice is "Patience. Your time will come, likely sooner than you think."


Other members of the AL East have rosters in flux, too. The Red Sox have reversed their decision to put Jonathan ("Don't Call Me Jon") Papelbon in the starting rotation. The story wasn't that unpredictable, given that the Red Sox closer candidates were Mike Timlin and Joel Piniero. The excuse for keeping Papelbon out of the rotation was that he was "medically not cleared" to close. Suddenly, when no new reliever stepped up to the role, Papelbon apparently got cured. Miraculous!

I also smell a rat in Bill Madden's Daily News column today. As most of you must have heard, Tony LaRussa was busted on a DUI, found unconscious in a car where the engine was running and the car was in gear. Of this incident, Madden says:
As for La Russa, his arrest after being discovered asleep at the wheel of his car while stopped at an intersection around midnight on Thursday was not only unfortunate but totally out of character. Anyone who knows the Cardinals' manager knows he's anything but a big drinker - more like a two-glasses-of-wine-a-night guy, if that. Nor is he one to be out and about in the late night. According to sources close to La Russa, the world championship has resulted in his having to spend a lot more time at dinners and functions this spring and he's tried to accommodate everyone. While it was fortunate he had his foot on the brake pedal and not the gas pedal when he conked out, the fact that his .093 blood alcohol was only a shade above the legal .08 limit suggests he was more exhausted than intoxicated.
What Madden fails to mention is that LaRussa's .093 blood alcohol level was measured about two hours after his arrest, so that was likely not his alcohol level at the time he passed out behind the wheel of his car, endangering himself and the public at large. Madden, who's a hardass about players behaving badly--regardless of whether anyone but the player himself was endangered--is now an apologist for a guy who could have injured a number of people if his foot had slipped off the brake pedal. Nice. I'm not the type to demonize LaRussa for his behavior, but I certainly don't think it's right to bend over backwards to excuse what he did, either, particularly when I've never heard a member of the press concoct a "shades over the legal limit" excuse or a "he must be exhausted from all the dinners and functions he's attended" excuse for any player accused of this crime. At best, LaRussa was irresponsible in getting behind the wheel when he was in no condition to drive; at worst, the police gave LaRussa a break by giving him two hours to sober up before breathalyzing him. But if you're going to simply absolve LaRussa for this, I don't ever want to hear you talk about personal responsibility, ever again.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Whirlwind Tours and Actual News

Just got back from Baseball Prospectus's second annual appearance at the Yogi Berra Museum, on the campus of Montclair State University. The Yogi as we call it, is a great place with a great staff--we're really lucky to have these folks open up their museum to us and let us basically have run of the grounds for a whole day. This time, I was on the panel with twelve other BP authors--Will Carroll, Jay Jaffe, Christina Kahrl, Steve Goldman, Jim Baker, Kevin Goldstein, Clay Davenport, Will Weiss, Neil deMause, Marc Normandin, Ben Murphy, and John Erhardt, who decided to watch the proceedings from the crowd, as did editor Alex Carnevale and's Allen Barra, who was on the panel last year. We did about two and a half hours' worth of talking to (and with) the substantial crowd that made it out Upper Montclair, and afterward we had a rare get-together of a quorum of Prospectus's active workforce at a great restaurant called Gaucho's in Montclair. I hadn't met a number of the guys before, most notably Baker (who has a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor), Davenport (who looks quiet, but when he answers a question speaks with that special self-confidence that only scientists display), and Goldstein (who's the very spirit of understatement--it was like being on stage with Dean Martin). Normandin and Murphy look so young, that when I first saw them on the stage I thought they might just be fans who mistakenly followed us to our seats (I hadn't yet been introduced to them).

For me, this was a whirlwind weekend which featured an appearance at the Columbia University bookstore with Goldman, Kahrl, Jaffe, Weiss and deMause on Thursday, and hosting a small party for Alex Belth, Will Carroll, Kahrl, Jaffe and Jay's wife Andra, and his friend Nick Stone and Nick's date. I haven't had this kind holiday, for lack of a better word, since I was a teenager playing in the Inwood Table Baseball League, dropping in at Yankee Stadium at gametime and getting good tickets, and going to Strat-o-Matic Tournaments. Definitely good times.

The times are not so good in Tampa, where the big story was Chien Ming Wang's strained hamstring, which will keep the pitcher out for a month. To show you how quickly things move in baseball, Wang came into 2006 hardly assured of a spot in the starting rotation, thirteen months later, he's the Yankees' ace, and news that he's injured is an agita-inducing event. He'll now start the season on the DL, missing at least the first three weeks of the season.

In Wang's absence, it looks like Can't Play Carl Pavano is the Opening Day starter. This is also...unexpected. Not necessarily the optimum circumstances for Can't Play Carl to re-introduce himself to the Yankee Stadium crowd. Apparently, it was judged that given the issues each is dealing with, it wouldn't be a good idea to take Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, or Kei Igawa off their established schedules to pitch the opener against Tampa Bay, a week from Monday.

Of course, the idea of Carl Pavano, Opening Day starter, makes one huge assumption--that Can't Play Carl will somehow survive the last week of Spring Training without turning an ankle, bruising his buttocks, getting knocked unconscious by a line drive, burning the roof of his mouth by eating a microwave pizza too fast, or contracting the deadly Mutaba virus from an illegally-imported capuchin monkey. As always, the attitude with Can't Play Carl should be "I'll believe it when I see it." Heaven willing, I'll be at Yankee Stadium for the opener to make sure that's actually Carl Pavano and not some CGI superimposed by the YES Network.

Wang's (and Pavano's) misfortune is Jeff Karstens' gain, since Karstens looks on track to break camp with the big club. Tomorrow's start against the Tigers could be enough to seal the deal.

In better news, Bobby Murcer is reportedly "clear" of the brain tumor that he was diagnosed with over the holidays. I hope Bobby is well enough to make it out to the Stadium for the opener. If not, he will be in our thoughts, there. It's just good to hear he's feeling better.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

At BP: Hope & Faith, The Tampa Bay Devil Rays

New article up at Baseball Prospectus, for the Hope & Faith series. Hope & Faith is BP's season preview series, that has run every publishing day at BP for the last month or so. The point of each article is to make an argument how each of the 30 major league teams could win the World Series this year--in Bud Selig lingo, why fans of each team should have "hope and faith" that their team can win. The series has featured guest writers like Rich Lederer, Tracy Ringolsby, and BP founder Gary Huckabay.

I drew the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as my Hope & Faith assignment. I started out by working on humorous ways the Devil Rays could win (the Yanks and Red Sox get thrown into quarantine after it's revealed--during a bench-clearing brawl--that Carl Pavano is infected with a flesh-eating bacteria, which he was hiding from the Yankees brass; Toronto forfeits half its schedule when the U.S. declares war on Canada, and the Blue Jays are sent to Guantanamo as enemy combatants; Billy Beane's [expletive deleted] doesn't work in the playoffs, that kind of thing), but in the end I decided to play things straight and look at ways that the Devil Rays could emulate recent world champions. Here's the obligatory taste:

That’s a lot of ifs, mights, coulds and maybes up there. To some, this entire exercise may seem ridiculous. The Devil Rays have never come within ten games of a winning record, in their entire history. They’re in a tough division, with two of the best-heeled gatekeepers in the game’s history. Nothing in this team’s track record indicates that they have what it takes to contend.

That’s why we leave you with a lesson from the 1997 World Champions. History doesn’t matter in baseball. Every Opening Day, you start with a clean slate, no matter how bad or good your team was the year before. The Florida Marlins won the World Series in the first winning season of their franchise’s history. So did the New York Mets. It would take hard work, good timing, and an almost ridiculous amount of luck, but for the moment we can still wonder: why not the Devil Rays?

It's a pay article, but there's also an interview with me and BP Radio's Brad Wochomurka, which is available for free--either by using the radio interface on BP's new-look front page, or by clicking this link here. Monday's BP Radio spot with Brad on the Mariners is available here. Of course, if you use iTunes you should already be subscribed to BP Radio's podcast (c''s free!).

Hope to see all you locals at the Columbia University event tonight at six.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Baseball Prospectus (But Were Afraid to Ask)

This one's a little bit personal and more than a little self-involved, so if you're just here for the baseball you might want to come back tomorrow.

I got news Saturday that Baseball Prospectus 2007 hit (or will hit, I've never quite figured out how this works) #9 on the New York Times Bestseller list, in the "Paperback Advice" section, as of March 25. Apparently, this reflects how well the book sold through March 10. Saturday was March 17, by the way. Confused? Me, too!

More certain (but certainly not less confusing) is that this means that all the authors of BP2K7 (as we like to call it) are best-selling authors. Including me. This was unexpected (apparently, this is Baseball Prospectus's best-ever showing), and it came on the tail of some big changes in my life.

So the last few weeks, I've been dealing with the ups and downs of being a BP author. On the up side, at the end of February, I was interviewed for Japanese television, a story about the Yanks/Red Sox rivalry and Daisuke Matsuzaka. The opportunity was sent my way by BP colleague Neil deMause. It was pretty cool: the crew came to my home, and did a detailed interview in which I talked about the Yanks' and Sox's finances and payroll advantage, explained the luxury tax, and gave the Yanks an extremely slight edge going into the season. Then they asked me for action shots of me at my computer, which you can see above. Sadly, the interview will only air in Japan; if I'm able to get my hands on the footage, I'll be sure to share. But it was weird being interviewed on TV, particularly since they were interviewing me...and Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe.

That's a weird feeling. Ryan's been one of the top sports writers in the country since I was in high school, if not earlier. How'd I become the next name they pick out of the hat?

On the down side of all this, came the news just after BP was released that four players were missing from the book--and two of them were from my chapter, including the one that people would be most likely to miss, Seattle third baseman Adrian Beltre. Now, as one of my editors, Christina Kahrl, made clear on BP's Unfiltered Blog, if wasn't that we forgot about Beltre or anything. The team working on BP2K7 had a really cool web-based interface that we used to submit and edit our work, rather than emailing dozens of Word files to each other. From what I understand, something went wrong in that interface, causing the entries on Beltre, Wladimir Balentien, Bob Wickman, and Hernan Iribarren (how's that for a bizarre random sampling of players?) to get lost on their way to the publisher, and so none of those guys made it into the book.

These things happen. The first Baseball Prospectus annual, back in 1996, was missing an entire team, the Cardinals. As was the case back then, we're trying to make the inconvenience up to people--this time, by making all the information from the entry, plus quite a bit more, available to the public by making all four players' PECOTA cards available to the public for free (you can click on any of the player names above to see what those PECOTA cards look like, and the comments that should have been in this year's annual). Still, it sucks because a) a bit of work, by myself and others, went into those comments, and it sucks that they didn't get into print, and b) there are plenty of people who will buy the annual but never see Christina's Unfiltered post, or know that they could get the missing entries online. To all those people, I am very deeply sorry.

Even without Beltre (and Balentien), it's still a great book, and I'm still proud of the Seattle chapter, which is where I made my contribution.

Still, I'd only just gotten over the waves of nausea that the missing players caused me, when another hubub erupted, having to do with my chapter. This one was simultaneously more annoying and far less substantial. Someone took one of the players comments as a personal insult against one of his friends, and decided to make a giant public stink about it. The post about this no longer exists, but the Baseball Think Factory thread on that post can be found here, and another post from the same website giving the denouement of the whole affair can be found here. All in all, I guess the firestorm took maybe six or seven hours one afternoon and evening. It didn't help that I got to the party late, by which time there were many, many comments at both the site in question and at BTF, accusing me and my colleagues of all manner of ugly and scurrilous conduct.

The worst part is, people took great umbrage over the fact that the person who wrote the comment in question (me) was anonymous, as a result of BP's policy that team chapters and player comments are written by the Baseball Prospectus Team as opposed to any particular author. To understand why that policy makes sense, you have to understand how the book writing process works. There are chapter authors, each responsible for writing the team essay and a number of player comments. Each author decides--with the able assistance of BP's resident prospect expert, Kevin Goldstein--which players he'll write about, and who will get a full comment or just a single-sentence Lineout comment. Kevin will also give input on the minor leaguers, ranging from the incredibly detailed to a simple "big fastball, no command."

Then it's off to deal with the blank page, but even that isn't a solitary process. Writers have the backup of BP's technical staff and internal mailing list, where they make requests for statistical queries, often drawing commentary and suggestions from other members of mailing list. By the time all's said and done, the research is collaborative enough that if you had to attribute all the individual contributions, something like "based on research by Ben Murphy with suggestions from Keith Woolner, and a verbal smackdown about historical context from Jim Baker..." by the time you got through with all the shoutouts, you wouldn't have much wordcount left to actually say anything.

Once all the research is done there's the writing, and after the writing, our editors get their thing on. Sometimes their influence is relatively small, just covering up the fact that the writer doesn't know when one should use "that" as opposed to "which", or that he doesn't have any idea about the proper use of the semicolon. In other situations, they're streamlining the text, making it more readable, adding jokes, and trying to make the whole thing read less like a dozen different authors writing in their own voices, and more like a chorus singing in a single key. Sometimes the verbal surgery they perform is radical--in one 120-word player comment I submitted, the editors kept only two of my words, re-writing everything else. Those words? "Hamster wheel."

So the point is, it takes a village to write a player comment.

This comes into play in the weird internet argument I was talking about before. The problem was, I wrote a comment about longtime Mariner Raul Ibanez, in which I looked back at BP's 2004 comment about Ibanez, in which the Mariners' signing Ibanez away from the Kansas City Royals was labeled a waste of money, and pointed out that the previous comment had turned out completely wrong: Ibanez stopped his decline, started playing like a completely different person, and was a bargain over the course of his contract. At the end of this, my editors appended, for humorous purposes "...the guy who made that comment isn't with us anymore."

Someone assumed that this last part was a dig at former BP author Derek Zumsteg, who did the Mariners chapter for several years, including 2004. The only problem with this theory was, well, that the Ibanez comment in 2004 wasn't in the Mariners chapter--it was in the Kansas City Royals chapter, which was written by someone else. I knew that when I wrote the comment (although I'll admit that I forgot for a while in the post-accusation shock period; I thought the guy who'd accused me of being a miserable person was right, and that my memory was wrong). I have absolutely no grudges against either Zumsteg or the person who actually wrote the comment (to the contrary, they're two of my favorite writers). The idea wasn't to get a dig in on anyone, it was to take accountability for a prediction that turned out wrong--one that lots and lots of people, and not just at Baseball Prospectus, shared.

Anyway, all of this comes up because as of today, I'm outed from my Seattle chapter anonymity. I did a Baseball Prospectus Radio spot for today previewing the Mariners' season--ironically, in connection with a piece Zumsteg wrote for Baseball Prospectus's Hope and Faith series. With any luck, my own Hope and Faith entry--on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays--will be up on the site later this week. On Thursday night, I'll be at Columbia University and on Saturday afternoon I'll be at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, New Jersey, signing copies of Baseball Prospectus 2007 and talking baseball (details can be found on BP's events page). Feel free to come by and have your book signed. If you've happened on a copy of Bombers Broadside 2007, I'll gladly sign that, also.

Heck, if you bring a printout of the Adrian Beltre or Wladimir Balentien PECOTA cards, I'll sign those, too.

[UPDATE: fixed typo]

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Working Overtime for Carl Pavano

The Yanks lost their game with the Phillies in Clearwater today, 3-2. Andy Pettitte pitched the first five innings, allowing only two hits and netting four Ks, and leaving with a 1-0 lead. Then Can't Pitch Carl Pavano took over. The Phils tied it in the sixth, the Yanks took the lead back in the top of the seventh, and then the Phils broke it open in the bottom of the frame, scoring twice to get the lead.

Can't Play Carl actually didn't look that bad. His fastball topped out at 89 MPH, but had good movement. His breaking ball had good action, but wasn't terribly sharp. Pavano was victimized by some bad defense, including some gawdawful work by Andy Phillips at the hot corner.

Although the box score linked above doesn't show it, Pavano actually pitched 3 1/3 innings yesterday. The plan was to get Pettitte five innings of work, and Pavano four innings, so as to keep both men on pace to start the season in the rotation. To make sure Pavano got his work in, Joe Torre made an unusual request of the Phillies--that if they were ahead in the game after the top of the ninth, they should send their batters up against Pavano in the bottom of the inning, even though the game was over.

So when Ryan Madson pitched a scoreless ninth to end the exhibition game, the Phils came out on to the field to congratulate each other, the crowd let out a big cheer over having bested the infamous Yankees...and then the Phils players remembered the arrangement and hustled off the field so that Pavano could take the mound again. Pavano then registered an out before hitting a batter and allowing a fly ball which Kevin Thompson dropped in the outfield. By then Torre and Ron Guidry had seen enough of Can't Play Carl, and indicated to Phils manager Charlie Manuel that the game was over...again.


I don't mean to get all Paul Lukas on you, but he Spring Training caps the teams have been given this year are outright stupid. In their continuing quest to diddle with the unis just enough that people who already have plenty of their favorite team's gear will buy some more, the manufacturer (New Era?) added a stripe over where the ears would go on the cap for Spring Training. That's it--not a new color, new logo, new design, just a dumbol' stripe. This is like the weird pixelated dots that Nike added to the sleeves of baseball undershirts. These stupid embellishments have no functional purpose, no aesthetic purpose, only a marketing purpose. "Sure, you have a cap, but you don't have a cap with a white swoosh over your ear, do ya?"

Here's hoping that what's worn in Spring Training stays in Spring Training.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Notes from a Backlog of Newspapers

* I missed his appearance tonight, but Kei Igawa's walkitudinous ways are a bit scary. More interesting was watching Tyler Clippard throw a few innings after ol' Dr. Kei exhausted his pitch count with four walks and five strikeouts in three scoreless innings. Clippard allowed one run in two and a third pitched, the run coming on a solo shot Chipper Jones absolutely nuked over the rightfield fence. The homer aside, Clippard looked impressive, throwing his 91 MPH heat up and over the plate as if he were Roger Clemens, and featuring a nice changeup (well, nice changeups aside from the one Chipper hit halfway to Miami).

* Clippard was demoted after the game, which is less a reflection of his performance than a reflection that there are only two weeks of Grapefruit action left, and the Yanks have a ton of righthanded pitchers vying for only a couple of slots. With Jeff Karstens tossing zeroes, there was simply no room for Clippard in the inn.

* A-Rod talks to the New York media so much, I actually worry about his health and safety. Alex should heed the Errol Morris axiom, "Let someone talk for long enough, and eventually they'll hang themselves." He's said he sucked. He's talked about his relationship with Jeter, or lack thereof. Now he's saying that it's "Do or die." Whatever. It's all so much noise.

I mean, we all get the points that Rodriguez is trying to make: 1) he's not forswearing his right to opt out of his contract after this season (he'd be an absolute and total sucker to do so) and 2) just because he's keeping his option(s) open, doesn't mean he doesn't want to stay in New York, with the Yankees. Everything else he says is a reiteration, repetition, or rephrasing of those two points, with a few variations. Enough, already!

* Sadly, Richard Jeni made his own health and safety a moot issue, committing suicide last week. Jeni was one of my favorite standups of the late 80s and 90s, I'll miss him for that. Another one of my favorites from that era, Elayne Boosler, remembers him as a friend in the Huffington Post; Scott Long, whose act I've never seen, but whose blog I read regularly, has a much less sentimental take (at some point in the comments section, it kinda becomes Please Explain: Suicide).

* So far, the biggest non-A-Rod stirs at Yankee Camp happened because Roger Clemens decided to attend a game--as a spectator, mind you--and because Carl Pavano's girlfriend had an unspecified health situation. I think that can speak for itself.

* Best at bat of the spring: Jose Tabata's opposite field dinger on Sunday. Just a really nice flash of strength, to give us something to think about while we wait for him to be ready for the Show.

* Pete Rose used to say he never bet on baseball. Then he admitted he bet on baseball. Now he claims he bet on the Reds, every day. I suppose it's a form of justice that by now Rose has told so many lies (and the truth is so underwhelming) that no one really gives a damn anymore. Used to be that every year, around HoF election time, a dedicated and noisy group would gnash their teeth about the big injustice being done to the Hit King. Haven't really heard a peep from that crowd since Rose's book came out a couple of years ago (and as an added bonus, they seem to have taken the "Free Shoeless Joe!" lobby down with them).

Over the next few years, I think what we'll get from Rose is a series of increasingly desperate confessions in the hope that one of them will finally trigger the American public's forgiveness, until eventually he's confessing to stuff like the Kennedy assassination, the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown, and fixing Ali-Liston II. Not that anyone will care about that, either.

* The wonderful, synergistic relationship between MLB and Viagra appears to be over, which I think is just the kind of victory over artificial performance enhancers that the league needs. This relationship was doomed from the beginning, given that MLB's first Viagra pitchman was Raffy Palmeiro.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Movie Reviews: Breach, The Host

Been a while since I posted any movie thoughts here, so here's a couple of highly recommended movies I've seen recently:

Breach -- This is the fictionalized account of the Robert Hanssen case. Hansen was an FBI counterintelligence expert who spent almost 20 years spying on the US for the Russians. Breach covers only the very end of that period, focusing on the events leading up to Hanssen's capture, particularly the role played by Eric O'Neill, an FBI trainee who went undercover as Hansen's assistant.

Like Training Day or The Last King of Scotland, this movie features a younger actor protagonist (Ryan Phillippe as O'Neill) who gets the most screen time, but the focus is really on the veteran actor/antagonist (Chris Cooper, in the role of Hanssen) with whom the younger character finds himself partnered. Cooper, biting deep into the meaty role of the ultra-patriotic, extremely religious, traitor, gives a performance that's as Oscar-worthy as Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker's performances in those other films. What's special about Cooper's performance here is the unrelenting intensity he brings to each scene. His Hanssen is a man who never lets down his guard, and never stops thinking. He doesn't look at things and people, he scrutinizes them. To Cooper's (and writer/director Billy Ray's) credit, no effort is made to explain Hanssen's behavior or put him in a sympathetic light. Cooper just lays the man, with all his contradictions and oddities, out on the screen.

Based on the trailer, it was expected that Phillippe (best known, until recently, as Mr. Reese Witherspoon) would get blown off the screen by Cooper's performance. Amazingly, Phillippe does a better job of hanging in there than his counterparts did in Training Day or Last King of Scotland (and that's no insult to James McAvoy and Ethan Hawke, both of whom are actors I really like). As O'Neill, Phillippe uses his pretty boy looks and lightweight demeanor to inhabit a role that requires everyone, including Hanssen, to underestimate him. Phillippe's line readings, which have always sounded slightly artificial in his other roles, are effective in the role of a relatively ordinary man called on to pull off a huge deception. Overall, the confrontations between Cooper and Phillippe make for a very satisfying movie.

The Host -- Probably the best horror movie I've seen since 28 Days Later, the Host is a Korean import which draws some of its inspiration from a real-life incident in which a U.S. army coroner ordered several gallons of toxic formaldehyde to be disposed of using a normal sink in the U.S. military base near Seoul. In director Joon-ho Bong's imagination (he co-wrote the script, also), this leads directly to a huge mutant creature, looking like a cross between Geiko gecko and the giant worms from Tremors, coming out of the waters of the Han River with a surly attitude and a taste for human flesh.

The action centers on the dysfunctional Park family, who own a riverside food stand. Hyun-Seo, a 12 year old schoolgirl, is the only member of the family who really seems to have her act together. Her father, Gang-du, is a dyed-blond layabout whose main gift seems to be an ability to fall asleep at will. Her uncle, the first college graduate in the family, is unemployed and has an alcohol problem. Her aunt, a competitive archer, seems like an achiever, but her perfectionism keeps her from being a success. The patriarch of the clan raised Gang-du and his siblings, so he's immediately suspect.

When the monster from the river drags Hyun Seo back to its lair, the Park clan doesn't quite pile into a yellow VW bus, but they do embark on a rescue mission while dodging cops, shady health officials who want to keep them in quarantine, and, of course, their surly feelings toward each other. Horror/Comedy is a hard genre to pull off, because most films that try for it wind up simply as limp comedies, which don't function as horror films at all. The Host keeps up the suspense while mining some unexpected situations (such as a scene at wall of remembrance for the victims of the monster's attack) for laughs. The secret ingredient here is a lack of sentimentality reminiscent of the best of Peanuts. No matter how bad the Park family's situation is, or how badly its members screw up, we're never invited to pity them. Not even when they're being chased by a giant amphibian lizard.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A Week of Grapefruit League

Sorry for the delays. I've been flagged for neglect of blog, but there's been a lot of peripheral stuff going on that merits its own post.

In the meanwhile, we've had baseball. What passes for it, anyway, in Spring Training. I'm happy that baseball's back, but Spring Training has a limited appeal. Wins and losses don't matter; the pace is, to put it bluntly, lazy; the play is often sloppy. I have never been to Spring Training in person, and I've often wondered if being in the ballpark would make a difference here. Still, what Spring Training action really allows you to do is get an introduction to all the new guys on your ballclub--be they prospects, people acquired in trade, whatever. I've gotten to watch parts of a number of the Yanks' Grapefruit games, and here are a few first impressions of pitchers:

Phil Hughes -- Not to rip off Larry Mahnken, but from time to time I've caught myself calling Hughes "the Precious." Hughes' debut last Thursday was hardly the stuff that dreams are made of--his control was off, and the curve wasn't as sharp as we've been told--but it was enough to make you daydream him into pinstripes, rather than the blue pullovers they use in Spring Training. On Tuesday--a game I didn't get to see--he pitched two clean innings. Hughes was just named Baseball America's #4 prospect in baseball (behind Daisuke Matsuzaka, Alex Gordon, and Delmon Young); John Sickels did one his "crystal ball" projections on Hughes, which put Hughes at roughly the same career numbers as David Cone.

I think we'd take that :)

Kei Igawa -- Erratic first start, striking out three and walking three in an inning-plus on Monday. Stuff was pretty much the same as in his exhibition start against the major league All-Stars; lots of working up in the zone with the fastball, nice breaking pitch. In the broadcast, they repeated the meme that he's a thinner David Wells, and I don't see it. Wells works very differently--off-hand, I'd say he establishes the big overhand curve more than Igawa does his own three-quarters breaking pitch--and Boomer has a lot more precision with his pitches than we've seen from Igawa, yet.

Jeff Kennard -- Not too excited about him, on Monday he came in in relief of Igawa and showed a fairly straight fastball and poor command. It'd be nice to see him under better circumstances, rather than coming in with a man on--but those are the kind of circumstances he'd likely face if he makes it to the Show this season.

Steven Jackson -- Also not impressive. Kept the ball on the ground, but looked fairly generic overall. He'll have to do a lot to stand out in the large corps of young righthanded pitchers the Yanks have on the verge of the majors.

Chris Britton -- Looks like a young Bob Wickman--y'know, before the Wick started hitting those all-you-can eat buffets. Nice movement on his fastball, good slider, thought I saw a changeup in there.

Luis Vizcaino -- I know I've seen this guy pitch elsewhere, but honest, I can't remember him. Interesting arm angle, definitely knows how to pitch, but the stuff didn't look too amazing. People keep talking about the backup catcher battle (a yawner in which I favor Todd Pratt over Wil Nieves and Raul Chaves) and the backup/platoon 1st base...I don't know if you can even call this a fight, given that Andy Phillips now lags Josh Phelps by a week. The real interesting fight of this camp is that the Yanks have about ten relievers in camp who could break camp, and can take eight, max (man, are 13-man bullpens depressing...) A biggish trade is going to have to happen (or a convenient DL stay) because not all these guys can go north with the big team. Again, this topic probably deserves a post of its own down the line.