Friday, March 30, 2018

How Opening Day Feels Different Now

In most ways, being in your forties sucks. Injuries take longer to heal. You find yourself searching for words. You complain about popular music. But there's an upside: at forty, you can start to see how the world has changed during your lifetime.

For me, opening day of the baseball season is one of the best opportunities to make comparisons, because so many of my early-childhood memories involve opening days. In my family, school attendance was a sacred duty, except on baseball opening day, when my father called me in sick and took me to Dodger Stadium. I was there when the Dodgers began their last World Championship season. The game began auspiciously, with Steve Sax hitting a leadoff homer. What I didn't remember, until I looked it up, is that the Dodgers lost, but whatever -- that's not the Game 1 anyone remembers from 1988.

What I remember more than the scores and highlights of those opening-day games is the feeling of being somewhere -- my favorite place in the world at that time -- when I should have been in school. I felt decadent, naughty, and usually very hot. We always sat in the top deck, the red seats, just a few inches below the sun. We were so far from the video board in left field that it presented a teachable moment for my engineer dad. Most kids learn about the difference in velocity between light and sound during a thunderstorm. I learned during the national anthem.

I have three kids of my own now, and I have never pulled any of them out of school for a baseball game. My oldest, a fourteen year old girl, is the only one with any interest in baseball. We've been to lots of games together, including a no-hitter, but her real love is school. If I asked her to play hooky for a baseball game, she'd probably bring homework. We can't have that.

Which is not to say she'd never skip school -- and this is where I get into how the world has changed. In fact my daughter did skip school recently, on March 14, for the nationwide school walkout for gun regulations. My daughter and nearly all her friends, most just as nerdy and diligent as she is, left their suburban high school campus and walked across town to a park where they'd arranged to meet students from several other schools. Together they made speeches, talked to reporters, and then, a few hours later, marched back to school in time for final period. They did more or less the same thing last Saturday, too. 

It kills me to write this. I wish it had been baseball and not the threat of being murdered that motivated my daughter and her friends to skip class. As I sat sweltering on the top deck of Dodger Stadium on April 4, 1988, I wasn't thinking about gun violence. None of the 48,483 fans in attendance that day had ever heard of children being slaughtered at school. Columbine was eleven years in the future.

Yesterday was another opening day at Dodger Stadium. Again the Dodgers squared off against their archrival Giants, and again they lost. That part hasn't changed. Someone, maybe an eleven-year-old boy, occupied the seat where I saw Steve Sax hit that homer in 1988. He might have looked like me and talked like me, but he definitely thought differently about skipping school. Maybe he walked out of class last month. Without question he knows things I never did -- terms like "lockdown" and "active shooter." 

His father, sitting next to him slathering sunscreen on his neck and arms, thinks differently too. After Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and now Parkland, parents can't help but think differently about the safe space school is supposed to be but increasingly isn't. When my dad excused me from class, it never occurred to him that he might be saving me from slaughter. 

There were 53, 595 fans at Dodger Stadium yesterday, including many old enough to remember when being in a large outdoor gathering didn't make you think of Las Vegas. When tragedy led to government action. When your kids skipped school for a baseball game, not a protest.

To me, a man in his forties, skipping school seems like a harmless transgression. To my daughter, it is not. For my daughter and millions of her peers, school attendance is the most powerful statement they can make. It's how they demonstrate agency in their lives.

This opening day, the world has changed. I would be thrilled if my daughter cut class and let me take her to a game, but I understand why she won't. If she's going to skip school, it has to be for something bigger than a baseball game, something that really matters. Like her life.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Upcoming Appearances for Launch of DOUBLE SWITCH

Bay Area readers: I will be doing two readings in early March to support the launch of Double Switch. Both are free and open to the public. I hope to see you there!

Tues, March 1, 7:30pm, Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
Weds, March 9, 7:00pm, Books Inc in Mountain View, 301 Castro St, Mountain View

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Launch Party for DOUBLE SWITCH on March 1 at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park

I'm proud to announce that Double Switch, the second Johnny Adcock novel, will make its debut at my hometown indie bookstore, Kepler's, on Tuesday, March 1. I look forward to a conversation with the esteemed Kris Calvin, author of the political thriller One Murder More. The event is free, but Kepler's asks that you RSVP so they know how many chairs to put out -- and, because this is a party, how much wine to pour!

Here's what people have been saying about Double Switch:

"Monday’s Double Switch is a rocket ride of a sports mystery with a wicked curve ball on every smoothly written page. May Johnny Adcock’s careers as a relief pitcher and sleuth motor on for a very long time." - David Baldacci

"Monday handles the baseball action flawlessly with this timely look at the influx of Cuban ballplayers and those eager to take advantage of them." - Publishers Weekly

"Even though it is fiction, the fact that one of the book's main characters is a Cuban defector being blackmailed, and another is a high-paid image consultant who makes her living micromanaging player facial hair nails the tenor of America's pastime today." - Molly Knight, author of The Best Team Money Can Buy

See you on March 1 in Menlo Park!

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Trough of Offseason Despair

Me too, Rob. But I feel even worse between the ides of December and the day pitchers and catchers report in February. And it's not because of the weather: I live in a part of California where it's never too hot or too cold. Nor is it because there are no good sports to follow. My hometown GS Warriors went 23-0 to start their championship defense this year. I haven't followed the NBA on daily basis since I was a child, but for a few days last week I was checking my phone compulsively to see if the Dubs were still undefeated (they finally lost on Dec 12, in Milwaukee). That compulsive phone checking? I do that during the baseball season all the time, for embarrassingly unimportant reasons. Early in the season, I'll check every day to see if anyone is still batting over .400. I'll click on links about no-name pitchers getting Tommy John surgery. I'll wake up and check my phone to see if Jean Machi got out of that bases-loaded jam in the seventh meaningless inning of game #62 against the last-place Rockies. Baseball has always had an inordinately strong grasp on me. This is well-documented.

Here's what I think is going on with me: during the offseason, I miss baseball like a psychotic misses his meds. I feel unbalanced. Regular-season baseball is a mild stimulant, but it is delivered slowly and consistently over a long period of time. The sport is unique in the density of its schedule -- 162 games over something like 180 days. Which means that for many of us, it's a daily routine. I listen to games while I'm making dinner, while I'm bathing my kids, while I'm sweeping up after them, while I'm folding laundry. I'll admit that chores still suck when you're listening to Jon Miller and Dave Flemming, but they suck less. I realize that most of the games are boring. My mother watched soap operas when I was growing up, General Hospital and One Life to Live. Talk about boring...but I watched those, too. There's something soothing about a constant, low-level drama. It puts my mind at ease. In the winter, I cook and sweep and bathe in silence.

Maybe that's it. Not the weather, but the silence.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Is a Wild Card victory the secret to a long postseason run?

The Cubs' Jake Arrieta

Baseball observers like to point out that the postseason is not so much a scientific evaluation of one team against another as it is a measure of who's hot in October. The San Francisco Giants have certainly benefitted from timely hot streaks in each of their three recent championship seasons. In none of those three years (2010, 2012, 2014) were they ranked among the top two or three teams in baseball, and with good reason. Man by man, they just didn't measure up against the Phillies, the Nationals, the Cardinals, the Tigers. What the Giants were instead was hot at the right time. But how can you explain such timely momentum when it happens three times in five years? Were the Giants just lucky or was there something else going on?

As I watched the Astros and Cubs roll to Wild Card victories the last two nights, it was hard not to be reminded that last year's World Series opponents, the Giants and the Kansas City Royals, were both Wild Card teams. All the pundits considered this an aberration--a subversion of the natural order and even grounds to consider scrapping the single-game Wild Card system. But what if last year's runs by the Royals and Giants weren't luck at all? What if being a Wild Card team is actually an advantage to a posteseason team? If momentum is the key ingredient in postseason success, then teams would do well to seek out circumstances that create momentum--for example emotional wins in elimination games like the Wild Cards.

Watching the Cubs bounce around on the field after last night's victory in Pittsburgh, I couldn't help but think that the feeling of validation they were experiencing, the rush of success, gave them an advantage over a cold Cardinals team heading into this weekend's NLDS. I know that betting against the Cardinals is never a wise move, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Cubs' momentum continues through this weekend and beyond. To my eye, they look like the 2014 Royals. Or maybe they're the Giants, with Jake Arrieta playing the role of MadBum.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

You Know You Have a Baseball Problem When...

Because I have a nose for bullshit, even when I'm analyzing my own words, I always wince when I catch myself saying, as a way of explaining my recent switch in allegiance from the Dodgers to the Giants, "I just love baseball."

Take last Sunday. I did a reading at Bazaar Cafe, a little gem of a coffeeshop in the Richmond/Seacliff area of San Francisco. The owner bought a book, explaining that he was a big baseball fan. Later I caught him wincing as he checked the score of the Dodger game on his cellphone. I told him I grew up in LA, and he said, "So you're a Dodgers fan." He grinned, because being a Dodgers fan in the Bay Area is like being a Communist in 1950s Washington DC.

"Well," I said. "I used to be."

"Don't tell me you root for the Giants now. How could you!"

I backtracked a bit, explaining that the McCourt years turned me off the Dodgers, and that the Fox years weren't much better. He agreed on those points, but said he couldn't imagine switching teams. After all, he'd been a Dodgers fan when they were still in Brooklyn...

And that's when I said it: "Tell you the truth, I just love baseball."

BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT! BEEP BEEP BEEP! Sirens blaring, lights flashing and strobing.

Except, hold on -- maybe it's not bullshit. Here's another anecdote:

Yesterday evening, while my elder daughter was at dance rehearsal, I walked the two younger kids over to the town little league diamond, where we found a playoff game underway. The teams were named for two local businesses, a gas station and a restaurant, and I knew the families of players on both teams. It was a good game: an elimination match for both clubs. The players were amped, and the pitching was surprisingly crisp. The kids and I watched the first couple of innings before heading back to pick up their sister.

And then this morning it hit me, almost first thing after I woke up: I wonder who won the game...

Not the Giants game. Not the Dodgers game. The little league game. I wanted to know who won a little league game that none of my children had played in.

In another era I might have dismissed the thought out of hand, because how the hell would I find out who won? Little league scores don't make the papers--at least not around here.

But now we have the Internet. And parents in the stands with iPads. In less than a minute I found the results: the gas station team had beaten the restaurant team, 5-4, with the winning run coming in the bottom of the sixth (the final inning in little league), driven in by one of the players I knew.

To me, this story proves two things. One is that people in my community probably have too much time on their hands (the score was accompanied on the little-league website by a "wrapup" article...) I'm ambivalent about giving kids' sports too much serious attention. The "Friday Night Lights" phenomenon has always seemed too parochial, too navel-gazing, for anyone's good. Who wants to peak at seventeen? Or twelve, like these little league kids? But who cares. I'm probably the only non-parent who has ever visited the town's little-league website.

Which brings me to the second lesson: I really do just love baseball.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Zone with Two Strikes

Today a friend at Stanford sent me an article, Do We Shy Away from Pivotal Calls?, about research a couple of business-school students have done to quantify how an umpire's strike zone changes when there are two strikes against the batter. According to the study, which won second place at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, umpires prefer not to call a batter out on strikes if the pitch is borderline. In fact, according to the charts below, umpires will only call strike three on a pitch down the middle of the plate 70% of the time.

The image on the left shows a typical strike zone when there are 0 or 1 strikes against the batter. The image on the right shows the typical zone with two strikes.

The revolution in baseball analytics has resulted in several different kinds of discoveries. First is the eye-opener, where new evidence dispels a long-held notion about the way the game should be played. The guys Michael Lewis profiled in Moneyball demonstrated, for example, that a high on-base percentage (OBP) is as valuable or more valuable than batting average (AVG). Sabermetricians have also shown that the sacrifice bunt is unwise in most situations. Both of these arguments challenged the status quo and were highly controversial, at least for a while. (Sacrifice bunting, actually, is still a topic of debate.)

The other kind of sabermetric revelation has the opposite effect, providing statistical evidence to support a pillar of received wisdom. Even a casual observer notices that umpires' strike zones change according to the situation. How could they not? Put yourself in the ump's shoes. Imagine calling a borderline pitch strike three to end the World Series. What if you got it wrong? Thankfully, the new MLB instant-replay regime does not allow for review of ball/strike calls, but still, isn't it just more prudent, from the ump's perspective, to err on the side of caution?

Not really. Umpires are paid to be objective. Ideally -- and I'm sure umps would tell you they strive for this ideal -- a ball is a ball and a strike is a strike regardless of the count. The Stanford study suggests not only that this isn't happening, but that this kind of objectivity is not possible. Think about it. If a major-league umpire can't be objective, who can?