July 2008

All-Star Grand Tour Stops 4 & 5

Well, most of the “All-Star season” is finished now – in the last few days we’ve had the Futures Game, the Southern League, Major League, Eastern League and Triple-A All-Star games. It’d be impossible for someone to visit all of ’em since they overlap and cover a span of four days, so you’re forced to pick & choose (or in my case, be told which ones to cover).

The pair I attended – the Futures Game and Triple-A All-Star game are both top-level events. Obviously the Futures Game (the 2008 edition was the eighth I’ve attended having missed the first two due to basically working for the NBA at the time) is the biggest and most prestigious of the group. After all, it’s played at the site of the MLB All-Star game, it includes players from virtually all of the full-season minor leagues and is reserved for players that are considered to be the big leaguers of the future (hence the name).

This year’s Futures Game had the added cachet of being in Yankee Stadium. Many of the players had never set foot in the hallowed edifice, let alone been on the field. My Futures Game experience was essentially operating a camera for MLB.com’s Pregame Show and in-game between-innings dugout interviews (conducted by Lisa Winston). One thing about Yankee Stadium – the dugouts are not large. Compared to the locales of the other seven Futures Games I’ve attended, the dugouts at Yankee Stadium are tiny. Part of being an 85 year old ballpark (even one that was renovated) I suppose. With us in the USA dugout were Erin Andrews and her ESPN producer and cameraman, a trio from XM Satellite Radio, MLB.com’s dugout blogger, and an assortment of non-field personnel from Team USA. It was cramped, which led to us being told to leave about halfway through the game. It turned out that I ended up staying there for the rest of the game anyway, because the ESPN folks (and Lisa and producer Kyle Casey) all headed over to the World Dugout, easing the congestion (which was roughly equivalent to riding the D train at rush hour).

It was a novel experience to say the least, capped by my getting a nice sunburn during pregame media availability where we did a handful of interviews.

From New York, Lisa, Jonathan Mayo and I all headed to Louisville for the Triple-A All-Star Game festivities. It was my first visit to Kentucky’s largest city, which sits on the southern bank of the Ohio River across from Indiana. To me, Louisville called to mind several things: Muhammad Ali, bourbon and the Kentucky Derby. I also found out that 90% of all the disco balls in the country come from Louisville. So the next time you’re getting jiggy with it on the dance floor, think about where that mirrored ball over your head originated. That’s right: Louisville, Disco Ball Capital of the USA.

The Triple-A version of the Home Run Derby was on Monday. I have a confession to make: I think the HR derby’s a waste of time. Whew… there: got that off my chest and confession is good for the soul. I’ve seen a ton of ’em from the big leagues down to the NY-Penn League, so maybe I’m just jaded. Regardless of my personal feelings, it seems like every All-Star game in the minors is required to have two things: a HR Derby and postgame fireworks (which generally wreak havoc with the MVP interview we’re trying to finish on the field after the game).

The Derby here in Louisville wasn’t as impressive as the one going on concurrently in the Bronx. We didn’t have Josh Hamilton channeling Mickey Mantle and bouncing baseballs off the back wall behind the bleachers (for one thing there isn’t a back wall behind the bleachers at Louisville Slugger Field). The derby here was one by Jamie D’Antona of Tucson, who hit, I think about 14 homers in three rounds (including several tie-breaking “swing-offs”) of the contest. Jamie’s a terrific interview – you should definitely check out his HR Derby interview with Lisa.

Tuesday was All-Star Gala night at the Louisville Slugger Museum. That was pretty cool. We walked around and saw bats being made (apparently they can really churn those suckers out), I got to make a fool of myself in the batting cage (proving that unlike riding a bicycle, hitting a baseball is something you can forget pretty easily) and sample the “official All-Star cocktail” a concoction based on Kentucky bourbon (natch) and featuring orange juice, lemonade and a cherry (which promptly sinks to the bottom of the glass). It was good, but I had only one lest I make a fool out of myself in more embarrassing ways than I did swinging good Louisville lumber poorly in the batting cage. The museum is nice and has a lot of interesting exhibits (mostly related, as you’d expect, to bats) and I recommend it if you’re ever in the Disco Ball Capital of the USA.

Last night was the game itself. Jonathan got to do sideline work for ESPN which included riding the carousel behind right field and interviewing Jake the Diamond Dog. People have done far worse to get on TV, so you can’t hold it against the guy. Lisa & I worked on our feature on Indianapolis Indians outfielder (and top Pirates prospect) Andrew McCutchen – which is coming soon to a computer near you – and eventually, after the teams combined for nine runs in the ninth, we did an interview with PCL player of the game Matt Brown which is on MiLB.com right now.

Today it’s back to Ohio. Having been gone for a week, I’m really looking forward to seeing my wife & kids. I also hope that 1986 edition of Pursue the Pennant I won on Ebay has appeared on my doorstep. I heard from Mike Cieslinski, the game’s creator and we traded a few emails about Dynasty League Baseball, which is the updated version of PtP and Mike is coming out with an online version, which looks promising.

Weekend in New York

I’m here in the Big Apple for what I guess you’d call the “front-half” of the All-Star festivities. Once the Futures Game wraps up later today, I’ll be packing up and heading to Louisville for the Triple-A All-Star activities.

Coming back to NYC is really like going home. On Friday we did something I’d never done, despite living in the NY metropolitan area for most of my life: ride an open-top tour bus around the city. The tour was set up as part of a feature we were doing with Scott Campbell and Luke Hughes, two Futures Gamers who had never before been to New York. The tour was interesting and we even took a ride on the Staten Island Ferry (something I had done before, but not within the last twenty years or so). The feature turned out well, and can be seen on either MLB.com or MiLB.com.

It had been about 18 months since I was last here, and even longer since I’d been to Yankee Stadium. I spent about eight hours at the House That Ruth Built yesterday, setting up for today’s Futures Game where I will be manning a camera for between-inning interviews. Realizing that this trip probably represents the last time I’ll be in the grand old ballpark brings back some memories.

The first major league game I ever attended was at Yankee Stadium. It was August of 1979, I was ten years old and my brother eight when my parents took us to a game between the Yanks and Twins – I’m pretty sure it was this game. This was shortly after the tragic death of Thurman Munson. I don’t remember all that much about the game specifically. We sat in the upper deck, my brother and I got yearbooks and ate hot dogs and pretzels. The things that stuck with me most were that the Yankee catcher was Brad Gulden (“just like the mustard!” I told my parents) and just the sheer size of the ballpark itself.

The ballpark is still impressive in size and even though I’ve been there scores of times as working media now – doing interviews in the Yankee clubhouse and in then-manager Joe Torre’s office when I was producing “The State of the Yankees” for MLB.com several years ago – I still get a sense of awe when I’m there. As a big baseball history buff, the Stadium represents the place where Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford, etc, etc all created their legends.

Later in the day we heard about Bobby Murcer’s death. Bobby played in that game in August of 1979, having just rejoined the Yanks in June after being traded for Bobby Bonds back in 1975. I thought about that when I heard the news, that Murcer played center for the Yanks in my first Yankee game. He was a great guy and he’ll be sorely missed.

The Man Behind the Curtain

No, that title isn’t a reference to Joseph Stalin. The curtain isn’t Iron and this isn’t a Cold War reference. Nor is it in any way a reference to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, with all due respect to those who proudly wave the Terrible Towel. Nope, neither of those is appropriate. The reference is actually to The Wizard of Oz.

What – you might ask – does a film almost 70 years old have to do with baseball?

Well, nothing really. But the role portrayed by Frank Morgan in that film, the Wizard himself (aka the ‘Man Behind the Curtain’) represents to me the feeling I get when I am enjoying my main hobby: simulation baseball.

Yep, I’ve decided to step back from my normal ruminations on my job (cool as it may be) to my main passion away from the camera & editing suite, the aforementioned hobby of simulation baseball (and football, hockey, occasionally basketball – you get the drift).

There is a sizeable portion of the baseball-loving population, being of a certain age (say born before the late 70s), that remember playing baseball simulation board games like Strat-o-Matic, APBA, and the like. That was my introduction to the hobby: the old “toss the dice and look at the cards – or charts” world of Strat, APBA or my personal favorite: Pursue the Pennant (or PtP to partisans such as myself). Yeah, it was – and is – geeky, but it was fun. PtP had a field (one with grass, one with turf – it was the 80s after all), and outfield wall strips for each ballpark. You’d put the field and wall strip into the box top and it created a sort of ballpark for you to roll your dice in. Simple, but brilliant design and it added to the feel of the game.

The arrival of computerized versions of these games changed things. No longer was it necessary to meticulously play out each game, pen in hand, keeping score just like I would at Yankee Stadium and then calculating the batting averages, ERAs and so forth. I fondly remember doing just that with a 1988 edition of PtP, seeing if the Orioles would lose 20 straight (they didn’t, but they weren’t good either), how the Mets and Yankees would do (the Mets were very good; the Yanks? not so much) and so on. I remember Orel Hershiser and David Cone being ridiculously good, Canseco being a 40-40 guy and so on. It made the tedium of life in the military (I was in the Air Force at the time) somewhat more bearable.

Computer versions changed things, made it much easier to do replays, draft leagues and eventually, with the internet, have online leagues that let you compete against folks from all over the world. I was with the NBA when I ran my first league as commissioner. It was a basketball league, of course, using a fairly simple DOS-based program, and the participants were all co-workers. I branched out into a net-based hockey league where my competition included a couple of published hockey historians (one Canadian, the other Swedish) and even a guy from Hong Kong (who knew a whole lot about the game despite being a native of HK and only seeing the NHL on tape-delayed satellite broadcasts).

Naturally, the big thing for me was baseball. And eventually I participated in – and then “commished” – online baseball sim leagues. My sims of choice were Diamond Mind Baseball, which started life as the computer version of my beloved PtP and bore that moniker for several years before PtP folded up (in 1994, I think it was), and the other was Out of the Park Baseball. DMB is now on version 9 and is a rock-solid and accurate “replay” style game. That means you can realistically expect players to produce “lifelike” results for the given season. Each season is seperate, and the players are meticulously rated to keep their performance as close to life as possible. OOTP – also now in version 9 – is a little different. It has gradually evolved into a monster sim which is capable (though not with DMB’s meticulously researched, hand-crafted seasons) of doing very solid replays, but also has a career mode, where a player’s career shape can change over time based on usage, injuries and so on.

Currently, over on my personal, sim-sport-devoted website, I have two baseball “projects” going on: an OOTP league which is going to play out baseball history with fictional players and a replay I’ve just begun of the 1908 season. The latter is inspired by Cait Murphy’s book “Crazy ’08” which describes the 1908 season in detail (the book is tremendous, I highly recommend it to anyone who loves baseball).

It’s been 100 years since that wild season, probably best remembered as the most-recent (if that term can even be applied) Championship season for the Chicago Cubs, but also famous among baseball historians for the wild pennant races in both leagues – especially the NL’s between the Cubs, Giants and Pirates which turned decisively one day in September when Giants’ first baseman Fred Merkle earned an ignominous (and pretty much undeserved) place in baseball history.

The reason I decided to write this particular post is due to my five-year-old son. He’s a fan of numbers – the first kid I’ve met who can be entertained by simply handing him a calculator. He loves NASCAR – the cars all have numbers on them, and most products or companies he’s heard of – and he will sit there and watch on TV if I put a race on. Now, I was never much of a fan of motor sports, but it does grow on you. Someday I’ll take him to a race. Sorry for the big digression there – the point is that one of the things I always loved about baseball was the numbers – stats. I love stats.

It occurred to me that my son, with his love for numbers, might grow to love baseball through numbers. So I found that though PtP is gone, there are two successors available. One: Dynasty League Baseball is produced by the guy (his name’s Mike Cieslinski) who created Pursue the Pennant. There’s also a free evolution of the original PtP called Internet League Baseball. So I fired up the old printer, found some dice and introduced my son to my old love – the baseball tabletop game. And, though he can’t read the charts or anything (good thing I can), he enjoyed it – we played Yanks vs Red Sox, so he knew some of the players. After our first game, he took the scoresheet and ran to put it in his drawer with his drawings and art supplies.

Then we went outside and, with my 7-year-old daughter (who’s becoming quite a good hitter – she’s a lefty, like yours truly), played a little tee-ball.

And on Saturday, I won an Ebay auction on a 1986 edition of Pursue the Pennant. Time to introduce the kids to Mookie, Billy Buck and the rest of the gang.

All-Star Grand Tour, Stop 3

Well, I must confess that I’ve been falling down on the job lately. I mean, the California-Carolina All-Star Game was almost two weeks ago and I didn’t blog on it. I meant to… really, I did. Stuff came up, you know how it is.

Part of why I never got around to it was that Tim Beckham (that #1 overall pick guy I blogged on a few weeks back on Draft Day), made his debut at Princeton of the Rookie-level Appalachian League on Thursday 6/26. Jonathan blogged extensively (every at-bat I believe) on that game, so there’s probably not too much I can add. I spent the game under the stands capturing video on my laptop between Beckham’s at-bats. The feature is on the Rays’ website if you want to check it out. My impressions of that night – Beckham was amped up (who could blame him?), his team won the game, and the bugs were out in force.

Skipping back a bit, the California-Carolina League All-Star Game (how’s that for a mouthful?) was played on a hot & humid night (Tuesday 6/24 to be exact) in Myrtle Beach. The ballpark there is nice, and being in Myrtle Beach is certainly a plus. Lisa & I stayed at a Courtyard by Marriott literally two doors down from the park, which was very convenient. Myrtle Beach native Vanna White was on hand to toss out the first pitch. It wasn’t a perfect pitch, but I’ve seen worse. The place was packed, which says something when you’re competing with everything else that the Myrtle Beach area has to offer.

We did a video feature on Pablo Sandoval, the San Jose Giants’ catcher who was promoted to Double-A Connecticut after the game (though he – and we – found out beforehand). He was also recently added to the World Team for the upcoming Futures Game, so things are looking rosy for the Giants’ presumptive backstop of the future. We also interviewed both starting pitchers: Sandoval’s team mate Ben Snyder (little brother of Brad Snyder, the Indians’ OF prospect) – who also moved up to Connecticut after the game; and Frederick hurler Jake Arrieta, who has a solid shot at being on the U.S. Olympic Team next month after having himself a very nice first half. The video stuff for Pablo & Ben can be seen over on the SF Giants’ site, while Arrieta’s can be found on the Orioles site.

I’ll try to post some images from the video I shot, including one of the lovely Vanna tossing out the first pitch in Myrtle Beach as soon as I get my drive back next week in New York, which is – of course – the next stop on my whirlwind All-Star tour.