Monday, November 30, 2015

1991 First Update: April 22, 1991

Yes, the 1991 APBA baseball season is underway. I've not forgotten it. However, it's been a much slower process this time around, what with changes in my personal life. I began rolling this season on Aug. 16. A week later, I made a phone call to a girl that changed things in my world. Since then, I've been to visit her twice; the games have been placed on hold for at least 12 days during those trips. And, I'm dealing with strep throat now, so I haven't felt much like rolling the games lately, either.

That said, I still find a bit of time to roll a few games and now, four months later, I've reached April 22, 1991.

I mainly embarked on 1991 to replay the Minnesota Twins' World Series year. Also, after more than three years of replays (1942 and 1950) with no East or West divisions, it's a nice change to return to divisional play.

So, with only a few weeks of the actual season replayed, it's hard to get a feel for much. Montreal is really bad so far. They've found ways to lose each of their 13 games. Only 4 were by one run and none was in extra innings. In each replay I've done, I've found one team that defies statistics and either achieves well above expectations or simply plays below them. It looks like the Expos are the doomed team in this replay. Their next six games are against Pittsburgh and St. Louis, which are first and second now in the National League East. They still are a ways from beating the worst start in a baseball season. The 1988 Baltimore Orioles opened their season losing their first 21 games.

Here are the standings as of April 21, 1991

EAST      W   L    GB
Toronto     8    5    -
Boston       6    5     1
Detroit       5   6      2
Milwaukee 5   7    2.5
Baltimore   4   6    2.5
New York   4   7    3
Cleveland   3   7    3.5

WEST       W   L   GB
Minnesota    9   3      -
Kansas City 8   3     .5
Seattle         8   4     1
Texas          6    3    1.5
Chicago      5    5     3
California   5    8    4.5
Oakland      3   10   6.5

EAST          W    L    GB
Pittsburgh    10    3      -
St. Louis       9    4     1
New York     8    5     2
Phil'phia       7    6     3
Chicago        5    8     5
Montreal       0   13  10

WEST        W    L   GB
Atlanta        7     3     -
Los Angeles  7   5    1
Cincinnati     6   5    1.5
Houston        6    6    2
San Diego     5    8   3.5
S.Francisco   4    8    4

It's still early to get a feel for the leaders as well. Danny Tartabull of the Kansas City Royals and Kelly Gruber of Toronto lead the American League with five home runs apiece. Howard Johnson, who led the New York Mets in the actual 1991 season, has clubbed eight home runs so far and leads in this replay as well.

So, the progress may be slow this time, but the games will be played eventually.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Homeless Philosopher

DALEY PLAZA, CHICAGO — I pulled out my wallet to give money to the homeless guy who accosted us the other day while we were in the southeast corner of the plaza. He approached us quickly and began babbling about needing train fare to visit some family for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

I was intrigued. I wanted to hear his story; as a newspaper guy, I spend most of my days asking questions of people, gleaning tidbits of information and observations from them to compile stories. This was an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the man's plight and how he got into his situation; a front row seat to one of society's issues.

So I took out the wallet.

And that was a really stupid move akin to opening a can of tuna fish in a cat shelter, or throwing one chunk of steak into the lion's den, or telling a horde of Black Friday shoppers that whoever can get to the huge flat screen television first can buy it at 80 percent off cost.

I had returned to the area last week to visit the Illinois girl who has changed my world. We decided to take the Metra commuter train into the city and spend the day walking around the Loop. She, since having lived there for years, acted the normal urban person. Me, on the other hand, gawked and pointed at buildings and came across like some southern hayseed. A rube ripe for the takings.

We had difficulty finding the Plaza. A street map app on my phone kept misleading us in different directions and by the time we ended up there, we were a bit worn out. Also, we couldn't actually get into the plaza because vendors were setting up for a large event there and instead, we had to sit on the perimeter. And that's where the man found us.

I handed the guy $10. But that wasn't enough. The train ticket, he said, cost something like $14.95. My Illinois girl gave him $1, thinking it was a $10 bill, in an effort to get rid of him. He became adamant, wanting more money. She gave him a $10 of her own.

“I don't have any family,” he said, welling up fake tears and beginning to whine. He needed the money. Needed it desperately. I didn't think at the time to question his contradiction. No family? Just moments ago he said he needed a ticket to visit family.

Instead, I reasoned with him. “I don't have any family, either,” I said.

“You got a wife,” he pointed.

“Not yet,” I countered.

“Well, you got love,” he replied.

And, by gosh, blurting out of the mouth of an obvious guy with some mental issues came forth an observation I couldn't contest. I paused, almost stunned by the beauty of it.

But then he snapped me back into reality. He offered to trade places with me and made an exaggerated high-stepping motion, like he was becoming me, taking over my role. In my mind I wanted to tell him to be careful what he wished for. He wanted to be me? With a career in newspaper — one of the worst financial forms of employment — and a home mortgage with Wells Fargo? I was tempted to make the switch with him merely for economic reasons.

But then it got weird.

He made kissing faces and said he would marry my Illinois girl. He stepped toward her, but never got too close and I got between them, acting as buffer for her safety and to deflect any marriage proposals. I mean, I've known her for only a few months and never got that aggressive. If this homeless guy who probably lives in an Amana refrigerator box somewhere by the Chicago River could sweep her off her feet and away from me, I may have to change my strategies.

We left quickly; he remained in the Plaza, talking about having love and all.

The Chicago Coalition of the Homeless estimates there are close to 90,000 people living in the streets of Chicago. It's hard to get an accurate count because of the transient nature of the homeless. But of those 90,000 or so, we came across the philosopher who espouses love, all the while pleading for cash.

So, was it worth it? Maybe. We saw something different, got an insight into homelessness and received a memory. Although I kicked myself for putting my Illinois girl into any harm's way by being stupid and country.

Later, as we sat in the Ogilvie Transportation Center and waited for our train out, a young guy approached us and asked for $10 to “stay in a hostel.” I started to say something, but my Illinois girl, who opted to stay with me rather than fall for the Plaza guy's advances, quickly took over and told him we had already been hit up on by another guy and we didn't have the cash.

This time, I knew to keep my mouth shut and forego getting any story.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

At the Grayslake, Ill., APBA Tournament

When Doug Schuyler throws his APBA dice, his right elbow points out and he looks like he's soon a candidate for Tommy John surgery, what with the torque.

Don Smith blows a duck call during highlights in his own games.

Joel Pike was mired in a 15-inning game and Kevin Burghardt milled about, watching the contests of the Chicago Retro World Series APBA Tournament held Nov. 14 in Grayslake, Ill.

I know all this because I was there. For the first time ever, I actually saw, in person, others who are obsessed with the baseball game with which we all recreate seasons. I made the nine-hour trip from my home to north of Chicago — not specifically for the tournament, mind you, but to make a second visit of a girl who lives nearby and who has changed my world.

I took her with me to the Grayslake Historical Society and Museum to give her a crash course into the game and the mania that ensues. What better way to introduce her to the game than exposing her to a room full of intense guys rolling dice, marking score sheets and watching others play.

When we walked into the museum, two workers greeted us at the door. I told them we were there for the baseball tournament and a man pointed us around a bend toward a room. “I'm surprised you haven't heard them,” a woman said.

At one point, Doug, with that elbow-breaking roll, tossed a walk-off home run for Darryl Strawberry. Loud cheers ensued. My own obsession for the game game seemed pale by comparison.

We were late, and it was difficult to meet and talk with the guys. I've never played an APBA game with anyone else before; the logistics of who rolls the dice, the rules for two, etc., were not familiar with me. It was not a place to learn. Instead, I walked around and recognized a few of the players from pictures I had seen on the APBA Facebook page.

I was glad to meet Rich Zawadzki. I called him at his Jackson, Mich., church a few months ago out of the blue just to talk to him. The other guys were great as well. There's a bonding with this game and although we come from different areas, cultures, lives, we do share the commonality of the game.

It was good seeing Joel as well. By far, he is the most creative person, I think, in our group. Check out his Facebook posts to see what I'm talking about.

The games rolled on. We didn't stay too long. Like I said, it's hard to interfere with guys heavily mired into the strategy of their games. You don't interrupt people praying, eating or rolling APBA dice. It's common courtesy. We left early; we had other stops to make before nightfall and we planned to venture into Chicago the following day.

There are upcoming tournaments in the area. Thomas Nelshoppen has one in the Champaign, Ill., area in April and Doug has another in Grayslake in July. I won't play in them — I can never commit to anything like that far ahead because of the fickle nature of my news job and its schedules. But I do know that I have added motivation to make it back up there to visit my Illinois girl. And I don't think the mania she saw that Saturday scared her away … yet.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Three Books for the Off-Season

Baseball is over and the wait for the next season begins, but that doesn't mean we have to stop thinking about the game. Along with the APBA replays that we can carry on through the off-season (and in some cases a few off-seasons for a long replay), there are plenty of books to read to maintain our fixes.

I delved into three this year that provided looks at the business behind baseball. It's fun reading about players during the actual season, especially those who may starred in the past and during an old replay we are engaged in. But there are other parts of the game that bear study as well.

So, I offer three books that may help carry us through the downtime between that last World Series out and the first pitch of the 2016 season. These were published earlier this year; obviously, there will be plenty more published in the near future including the expected myriad of books on the Kansas City Royals' success, retiring players and new looks at historical events — such as the latest look at the 1919 Chicago White Sox's World Series scandal.

Here are three books I read this summer:

Big Data Baseball, Travis Sawchik

Who would have thought a book about math and statistics would be so entertaining? Granted, there is the baseball element that's always good, but reading about math and probabilities and ratios is not a high selling point for some books.

 But Travis Sawchik does an amazing job of incorporating the mathematical principals used by the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates to turn their team around and end a 20-year losing season streak into a dramatic story. He writes of how manager Clint Hurdle got his players to accept the changes.
A lot of the book focuses on defensive shifts made popular when the Cleveland Indians are (wrongly) first credited for moving fielders to one side of second base to deal with Ted Williams. He also writes of pitch-framing by catchers and the changing pitcher's motions for different release points of the ball. Hurdle even debated about going with a four-man rotation rather than a five-man one.

Baseball fans all remember 2013 and how the Pirates began hot and held on. In the past, Pittsburgh teams, if they were decent in the spring, usually faltered by August and resumed their position well behind St. Louis in the Central.

There will be comparisons with Sawchik's book to Moneyball. I felt the writing in Big Data was far more engaging. While Lewis' book was good on stats and written, well, Sawchik is a fan from Pittsburgh, and his heart comes through in this. His writing about Pittsburgh clinching its first winning season and then its playoff birth are very good and entertaining.

The Game, Jon Pessah

How can you write a gripping narrative about the business of baseball? Jon Pessah knows how. This book, which covers Bud Selig's career as interim commissioner and commissioner from 1992 to 2010, is a must-read for any baseball fan. It chronicles in full detail the negotiations of the 1994 strike — Selig's first real crisis — labor issues, television contracts, exorbitant salaries, George Steinbrenner's life, talks of contractions, Milwaukee's stadium heist and steroids.

At first glance, this book seems only suited for the real baseball fan. But Mr. Pessah writes in such a compelling, drawing-in way, that the 580-plus pages of copy is not deterring at all and in fact is written with drama, pacing and flow that a good novel has.

He doesn't exalt Selig in The Game, nor does he slam him too much. In the end, he argues that Selig should have a place in the Hall of Fame which, despite my personal feelings of his tenure, totally agree.

Mr. Pessah offers a lot of behind-the-scenes looks at the negotiations during the 1994 strike. Donald Fehr, in my opinion, comes across as a turd. Also, Rob Manfred is foreshadowed as the new commissioner. There is also the blind eye toward steroid use and how the belief of the 1998 home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire brought fans back to the game. However, their records were tarnished by later admissions of PEDs. Mr. Pessah also delves into Selig's dilemma of if he should attend Barry Bond's games as he neared breaking Henry Aaron's career home run record. Selig eventually attended a few games in San Diego, but fortunately for him, Bonds did not hit the coveted homer there. And fortunately for Selig, Pessah notes, the commissioner returned east for Hall of Fame inductions and was not able to attend Bonds' games in San Francisco where he hit the record.

All that to say, The Game has a lot of information that enhances what we remember during his tenure as commissioner. A companion book that may be interesting to read before this is Marvin Miller's A Whole Different Ballgame to set sort of a precedent to the salaries and times that Selig oversaw.

Mr. Pessah hits this one out of the park with his fine reporting on a subject that many would not be able to so deftly write about.

The Best Team Money Can Buy, Molly Knight

Put aside Molly Knight's huge crush on Los Angeles Dodgers' pitcher Clayton Kershaw for a bit while you read this, and you'll see the bigger picture on how the team became an annual playoff contender. Knight spent the 2013 season with the team and provides the behind-the-scenes looks that baseball fans crave.

She writes of the personalities of that team. Zach Greinke and his anxieties and medications, Yasiel Puig and his ups and downs during the season, Kershaw's contract workings, Shawn Kemp and Andre Ethier both tangling for outfield positions and the Dodgers' 42-8 run that took them from last in the National League West to first place.

I got to go to Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS when the Dodgers played in St. Louis. Puig struck out four times and the Cardinals' fans razzed him. I saw him angrily slam his bat down and head to the dugout, but I didn't realize until reading Knight's recount of it that Puig broke down into tears of frustration and shame. It's little nuggets like that that carry this book along.

Knight also uncovers the insanity that was the Frank McCourt ownership of the Dodgers at the beginning of the book and the divorce settlement that wracked the team. It reads as a soap opera that's really hard to believe.

Sullen players, egos, big bankrolls, playoff baseball. It's all in this book. Whether you like the Dodgers or not, Knight's book is an interesting read to see how a team is formed.

These are just three books. There are plenty of others out there as well.. Hopefully, they'll help carry you through the winter months and into spring before the next season starts.