Thinking Baseball Thoughts

The other day I got a welcome ping from my cellphone.  My ESPN app — after providing countless NBA-related “alerts” and “news” that I didn’t really care about — reported on the score of a Cleveland Indians spring training game.  The Tribe lost, but I didn’t care about that, not really.  I was just happy to see that spring training had begun and progressed to the point that games were being played.

1883887If spring training has begun, spring itself can’t be far behind.

Baseball is changing.  I ran across a story about how Major League Baseball has entered into an agreement with the independent Atlantic League that will allow MLB to use the league to try out modified rules and equipment changes.  Under the deal, the Atlantic League will implement new rules at the request of MLB and then provide data and feedback on how the rules changes work out so MLB can decide whether to adopt the changes at the big-league level.  And get this:  the rules changes that supposedly are being considered include moving back the mound and having Trackman — in effect, a robot umpire — call balls and strikes.

As the article points out, the Atlantic League has been an innovator in baseball, including initiatives to speed up the game and to force umpires to call the high strike — i.e., strikes that are within the strike zone but above the belt.  Now they can use Trackman to ensure that the true strike zone gets called.  And because the Atlantic League is full of veteran pitchers, many of whom have MLB experience, it is thought that they will be better able to adjust to proposed changes in the location of the pitcher’s mound.

To be sure, baseball has changed over the years — it’s hard to imagine bigger changes than the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League and adding layers of wild card and divisional playoffs leading up to the World Series, for example — but it’s still all about nine players on a field and a guy with a ball throwing to a guy with a bat.  For spectators, though, the use of a robot ump would really change the experience.  How in the world do you effectively heckle a robot ump?

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Setting The Hook, Firm And Deep

Skilled fishermen — and I’m thinking of the likes of the Brown Bear, here — will tell you that getting a fish to bite at the hook and lure is only the first step in the battle between the angler and his watery quarry.  Fish that just nibble at the bait don’t end up caught.  If you don’t make sure the hook is firmly lodged in its mouth, the fish will wriggle away and live to taunt the fisherman another day.

So the key is to set the hook. The accomplished angler will inevitably have a subtle move, a flick of the wrist that ensures that the hook is set firm and deep in the fish’s mouth, and that elusive fish won’t be a challenge any more.

The same holds true for modern television producers hoping to attract viewers to their shows.  There are so many options out there — on Netflix, HBO, Showtime, Amazon, the networks, and countless other outlets — that some people argue that right now, rather than the ’50s or ’70s, is the true Golden Age of Television.  And because there’s a lot of content to watch, if you’re a couch fish looking for a new series to binge-watch on a cold winter weekend, you’ll nibble at an episode or maybe two, but you’re not going to spend too much time on shows that don’t immediately set that hook and leave you happily wriggling on the line, looking forward to the next episode.

Kish and I experienced this phenomenon this week.  We watched the first episode of Russian Doll, which has been getting some buzz recently, and it just didn’t do much for us — it was just too flagrantly New Yorkish and a bit too consciously contrived for our tastes.  We decided to try something else, and we’d heard good things about Ozark, so we gave that a try . . . and after one episode we were absolutely hooked.

The flick of the wrist that set the hook, firm and deep, probably came at about the time the quick-thinking Marty Byrde seized upon a Lake of the Ozarks pamphlet to talk his way out of disaster, or maybe when Wendy Byrde’s paramour met his maker.  But whenever it happened, as soon as the first episode was over, we knew we’d be riding the Ozark train to the end of the line and our weekend and immediate TV viewing future was set.  And the series has only gotten better as unforgettable characters like Ruth Langmore and the Snells have entered the fray.

I wonder how many TV producers fish in their spare time?

 

The Eternal Question

Well, it’s Super Sunday again.  That means it’s time for the New England Patriots to play for the pro football championship . . . again.  It’s the third straight year the Patriots have kicked the ass of the rest of the AFC and made it to the Super Bowl.  Overall, it’s the eleventh Super Bowl for the Patriots, the most for any team.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns are still sitting on that inglorious goose egg.  Which raises, as it does every time a Super Bowl is played, the seemingly eternal question for we Browns fans:  will the Browns ever play in a Super Bowl — much less win one — in my lifetime?

I was a rosy-cheeked lad of 9 when the first Super Bowl was played, 52 years ago, after the end of the 1966 season.  At that time, the Browns were a very good team.  They’d won the league championship only two years before, at the tail end of the pre-Super Bowl days, and had lost in the championship game the next year.  If you’d asked people then whether the Browns would ever play in a Super Bowl, they might have viewed it as a trick question, because there was a legitimate question of whether the Super Bowl was just a kind of exhibition game or a permanent fixture on the pro football scene.  But if you’d said the Super Bowl would be played 53 times and asked how many times, the Browns would play, no one — absolutely no one — would have guessed that zero would be the right answer.

Yet, here were are.  I’m in my 60s, and the Browns haven’t made it.  They’ve come close — the last time, incidentally, was 30 years ago — but they’ve nevertheless been shut out.  And while this past season was a ray of sunshine after three of the worst seasons in Browns’ history, the goal of a Super Bowl still seems very far away.

So, will the Browns ever make it to a Super Bowl in my lifetime?  I honestly don’t know, but I do know that I’m steadily getting older.

 

Going Pro

Yesterday Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins announced that he will leave college to participate in the 2019 NFL draft.  Haskins is a redshirt sophomore, which means he will be giving up two years of college football eligibility in order to turn pro.

web1_Haskins_MVP-1The decision surprised exactly no one.  Haskins was the Ohio State starter for only one season, but in that season he shredded the record books, setting new single-season Ohio State marks for attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdowns and single-season Big Ten records for passing yards and touchdowns.  He’s easily the best pure passer and pro-style quarterback the Buckeyes have ever had.

He had a remarkable year, and the experts have graded him accordingly.  The NFL Draft Advisory Board, which exists to give college players who are considering leaving school early a sense of where they might go if they stand for the NFL draft, gave Haskins a first-round grade, and he is widely considered to be the best quarterback prospect in the draft and a likely top ten pick.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who follows football.  So why am I writing about Dwayne Haskins going to the NFL?  Because while his decision was predictable, what’s changed has been the reaction to it.  In the past, college football fans used to hold a grudge against players who left early, viewing them as betraying their alma maters to chase the almighty dollar.  Now, there may be some people out there who still hold to that view, but the majority have shifted to a different position.

We see how much money professional athletes can make, we know how that kind of money can be life-changing for the athletes and their families, and we also know that, in a sport as violent as football, you never know whether the next play might inflict a gruesome, career-ending injury.  As a result, for the most part, fans have come to view decisions to turn pro by high-caliber players like Haskins as a rational, reasonable judgments — even though we’d love to see them continue to perform for our favorite college teams.  We get why they don’t want to take a huge risk that they might end up regretting forever.  In short, we’ve reached the last stage of the seven stages of grief and have accepted the way the world now works.

So Godspeed, Dwayne Haskins!  It was fun watching you play football for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray . . . while it lasted.

QB U

Many people think that all football players are knuckle-dragging dimwits.  That may have been the case back in the leather helmet days, but it hasn’t been true for a long while — and it’s particularly not true these days, with the complicated offensive and defensive schemes found in college and professional football alike.

If you don’t believe me, watch the Big Ten Network segment above, in which former coach and BTN commentator Gerry DiNardo sits down with Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins to break down a few plays from this year’s Ohio State-Michigan game.  You can’t help but be impressed by how Haskins analyzes defensive coverage, sets offensive blocking schemes, and evaluates his various “reads” — and then explains it all in a coherent, step-by-step fashion using the special vocabulary of football.

Ohio State used to be called Football U.  That’s never been true, not really, but even if it were it’s clear that Football U. does in fact involve a lot of teaching, and a lot of learning.

Redefining “Strenuous”

The hiking trails on St. John are rated by degree of difficulty. There are three ratings: easy, “moderate,” and “strenuous.” Most of the trails are rated strenuous, and we haven’t encountered an “easy” trail yet. I think all “easy” trails may involve boardwalks and be wheelchair accessible.

What distinguishes “moderate” and “strenuous ” is more elusive. The trail shown above is rated strenuous, and the trail pictured below is moderate. So far as I can tell, they both have more than their fair share of rocks, tree roots, and constant inclines. Perhaps moderate trail don’t exceed 45-degree inclines and only have so many rocks and roots per square foot.

“Strenuous”? Well, sometimes you won’t even see a recognizable trail, be prepared to huff and puff on the unending upward switchbacks, and on the way down bring a little mountain goat with you.

Kudos To A Coach

I can’t say that I was shocked by Urban Meyer’s announcement today that he is retiring as the head football coach at The Ohio State University.  There have been too many news stories — and way too much speculation — about his health issues to make the decision a true surprise.  And I can’t say that I regret his decision, either.  He obviously needs to put his family, and his health, first.

urban-meyer-1024x576I’d like to thank Coach Meyer for his hard work at a very demanding, and at times thankless, job.  He’s provided some great moments for the millions of members of Buckeye Nation.  We won’t forget his perfect, 7-0 record against That Team Up North, and I’ll never forget the Buckeyes’ dominant performance in Dallas when they brought home a national championship.  Coach Meyer brought the football program at The Ohio State University to a higher level than it has ever occupied before.

But Coach Meyer wasn’t just about wins and losses.  He has been, first and foremost, a coach.  Anyone who’s ever been coached, or has ever tried to coach others, knows how difficult it can be.  Coaches are motivators, teachers, mentors, supporters, challengers, and a mixture of a bunch of other important characteristics and roles.  Good coaches can mold young people and make them better, and great coaches know when a player could use a hug — and when a player needs a kick in the butt instead.

Urban Meyer is a great coach by anyone’s measure.  His record establishes that beyond any rational argument.  But if you really want to know what kind of coach he was, pay attention to what his former players say about him.  Their tributes make it clear that he has been a influential figure for many young men who appreciated his guidance and learned from his teaching and his example.

Some people hate Coach Meyer and have long been eager to malign him.  I suspect that much of that ugliness is due to resentment about his astounding success.  But if you really want to know what kind of figure he has been at The Ohio State University, you should listen to the players.  They’ll tell you in no uncertain terms what kind of coach, and person, Urban Meyer really is.

Good luck to you, Coach Meyer, and Godspeed!