Great Expectations

Aerosmith is a great band, but I’ve always felt that they peaked with their first hit, “Dream On.” Now, that’s a fine zenith, one that most bands would kill to reach, and a lot of my Aerosmith-loving friends would disagree with my assertion to begin with. But I know I’m not the only person to rank “Dream On” as Steven Tyler & Co.’s best song and one of the greatest in rock & roll history. You could argue they recorded a song or songs that were as good as “Dream On,” but I can’t be convinced that they’ve done anything that was better. (It was also the featured song of the above highlight reel ESPN played to close out 1999, which was, for me, the best of the uber-emotional musical sports montage genre . . . still gets me verklempt.)

Notice the price in the upper right of the ticket: $6.00

I bring this up now because of May 6 and May 7. You may recall a game that took place on May 6, 1998. Cubs. Astros. Ring a bell? You probably remember where you were when it happened. I do. I remember the telephone of my Chicago apartment ringing shortly after the game ended. It was my mom.

“Did you see the game?” she asked in a near shriek.

“Yeah,” I said calmly, followed by a pause for dramatic effect. “From the BLEACHERS!!!


I was supposed to have been at work. But for the third day in a row, I had been swinging a sledge hammer all day long, knocking down brick-plaster walls, picking up the scraps, and hauling away the wreckage. I was exhausted. So at about 11:30 I asked for the afternoon off. It just sounded like a good idea to catch a game. I thought Kerry Wood was pitching, and I really wanted to get to see him in person. One short El ride later, and I was at the Wrigley Field Box Office hoping, but skeptically, that there were still bleacher seats left. The attendant laughed off my skepticism.


“Oh yeah, we got plenty. We definitely have one.”


Score.


I took a seat in the left-center bleachers where there was plenty of room to stretch out. I was a bit worried by the clouds sweeping across the sky, some of them spilling a few drops here and there. It was one of those weird days when some of the ballpark was in sunshine while other seats were getting rained on. All in all, though, it was a beautiful day for me and 15,757 of my friends to enjoy.

Soon, a married couple of Astros fans (in town from Houston, they had seen the Astros win the night before) in Biggio jerseys sat in front of me. I felt a sting of anxiety when they smirked at Kerry’s first fastball, which sailed directly into Jerry Meals. But from that point on, the smirks were all mine.

Kerry’s fastball zipped so blindingly fast, there were times when I confused the smack of Sandy Martinez’s glove with the crack of a bat. Some of his pitches I genuinely could not see. But his breaking stuff? Normally I can’t tell a slider from a 2-seamer when I watch a game in person, but I could see Kerry’s slider swooping out of the strike zone like a Frisbee. I could see the fear in the Astros’ eyes, the wobble in their knees, and the swirly black thought bubble of frustration emanating from the tops of their heads.

As the game wore on, that crowd of less than 1/2 capacity exploded with ovations of glee. We were high-fiving. We were shouting. We were openly mocking the trespassers from the West who were outed by their Cardinals umbrellas when the rain got a bit too heavy for them. One guy to my left, wearing a newspaper for a rain hat, was announcing the strikeout totals with every batter. We were all grumbling slightly about Kevin Orie. We united as one in sheer joy over the crowning of baseball’s newest King of K’s.

After 2 hours and 19 minutes, we went home. Unbelievable. Unstoppable. Unequivocal.

Unrepeatable.

In the career of Kerry Lee Wood, the apex of his achievements occurred in his fifth start as a major leaguer. It was quite possibly the greatest display of pitching in the history of baseball. He could never improve upon that. Nobody could. I find it suddenly and incredibly sad to think that Kerry Wood’s finest moment, the most dramatic tear-jerking, goosebump-inducing highlight, came just a few steps into his journey as a pro.

It’s not exactly the same situation, but I’d hate for something similar to befall Starlin Castro. On May 7, 2010, he took the baseball world by storm, yet another 20-year-old Cub to set the standard for big-splash achievements. Starlin drove in 6 runs, 3 on a homer in his very first appearance at a big-league plate, and another 3 on a triple showcasing his yes-we-should-be-excited-about-this-kid speed. No player had ever begun his career with a 6-RBI game. Ever. How can Castro improve on that?

Tonight, Starlin has a chance to impress the Wrigley faithful as he debuts in a building that, according to Ozzie Guillen, he’s not even old enough to attend. The kid needs McLovin to help him buy beer, but 40,000 screaming fans are relying on him to deliver them a champion—you know, just another thing that hasn’t happened in over a century.

UPDATE: Starlin Castro went 0-2 with 2 walks and 3 errors. He got booed after the last one. Lou knew Starlin would be learning on the fly, but fans lack the patience for that. They want the prodigy but not the child. Starlin’s first lesson: Wrigley Field is infested with jerks, and the real cockroaches like to come out at night.

Castro Adds a Topic to Wrigley Talk Friday

Desperate move? Try crossing ex-Marine John Shale. That’s desperate.

I substitute taught today (along with yesterday) for the first time in my life. I don’t really know how it came about. I’m not a substitute teacher. I’m not a teacher. I do tutor at this school, but I don’t really remember even being asked to sub. I just kind of got the details and showed up according to what I was told through my wife who also works at the school. None of this has anything to do with anything.

Except for the fact that it forced me to miss the breaking news about Starlin Castro substituting for Chad Tracy on the Cubs’ roster.

Maybe the most surprising part of it for me was that Castro starting at short for the Cubs was one of my predictions guaranteed to go wrong, as I mentioned on Wrigley Talk Friday with Julie and Tim. For the immediate present, at the time, I loved the move because it gave us something to talk about on today’s episode (which you can also listen to in the handy player to the right).

There are a lot of opinions being tossed about the halls of Cubdom. I haven’t heard any reactions along the lines of “meh,” though. This is an exciting move, much more exciting than the Z-to-the-pen fiasco or being swept by the Pirates for that matter.

Wish I had more thoughts to dole out, but this post is more about promoting the podcast than anything. Which reminds me, become a fan of Wrigley Talk Friday, because it’s awesome.

In Our Own Image

Chicago Cubs' Alfonso Soriano homers against the Houston Astros
Even I can run hard out of the box (which would be odd after a strikeout).
They make millions of dollars a year. They get paid those millions to play the game we love. They should consider themselves lucky to be professional baseball players and collect the hard earned money we shell out to watch them play the game we love. The least these players can do is to try their best.
Except, actually, that’s not the least they can do—that’s the most we could do. If we (and by we, I mean society . . . specifically the non-professional baseball playing segment of it) were to play baseball in the majors, we would absolutely suck. We wouldn’t be able to hit. We wouldn’t be able to pitch. We wouldn’t be able to hit the cutoff man. But we could try really hard. We could run out our ground-outs and pop-ups. We could make smart decisions. We could hustle. We could not admire our non-homers. We could dirty our uniforms. We could be scrappy.

For fans who wish we could play, it’s hard to forgive a multimillionaire for failing to do the things we know we could do or for making the mistakes we know we could avoid. So when Alfonso Soriano or Aramis Ramirez don’t sprint out of the batter’s box or when Ryan Theriot gets TOOTBLAN’d or when Lou decides John Grabow should pitch in a game we think the Cubs have a chance to win, we self-respecting Cub fans get a bit angry. I’ve been trying to figure out the reason behind the outrage, and the conclusion I’ve come to doesn’t reflect on us all too well.


The thought came to me as I was remembering the accounts and myriad replays of Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run in Game 6. Pudge watched that homer. He jumped around and waved like a maniac. It’s the stuff of legend because he acted exactly the way any person capable of emotion would have . . . and because it won Game 6 of the 1975 World Series in the 12th freaking inning. Here’s my personal favorite recollection of that shot, courtesy of Good Will Hunting. It’s extremely NSFW, with a big stinking emphasis on the F. But I love the scene. Just don’t play it if you’re in an un-effing-friendly environment.

Anyway, I got to wondering: Pudge was waving because he wanted it to stay fair, but what if fair/foul wasn’t the problem? (It hit the foul pole, for crying out loud. How beautiful is that drama?) But what if it stayed fair and ricocheted off the Green Monster? Fisk could have been held to a single or even thrown out at second. What he did in that glorious moment—watched the ball and gestured emotionally—resembles pretty closely the antics of some of the most derided players in the game. What’s the big difference? The moment? The stakes? The results? Ultimately, I think the difference is the answer to the question, What would I have done if it were me?

We are proud people. As much as we want to live vicariously through the athletes who do what for us would be impossible, we just as badly want them to reflect the qualities we claim to possess in ourselves.

Sometimes it’s as simple as geography. I went to Valparaiso High School. Jeff Samardzija did, too. So I and all of my fellow Valpo Vikings wanted to see the kid succeed. It would promote the notion that somebody from our town could be great. Someone like me could be a big-league baseball player. As it is, I have to live vicariously through the graduates of Fort Osage High School.

Obviously our personal stock in our favorite players isn’t limited to such specific minutiae. If you’re a hard-working, blue-collar type, you’ll tend to admire the multimillionaires who aren’t afraid to sacrifice their bodies to break up a double play. The intense competitors in the stands greatly appreciate those players who, when they hit routine grounders to short, consider the dash to first a race against death. Perfectionists love a guy with ridiculously impeccable fundamentals. Dancing bears bow to Kevin Millar. You get the idea.

We feel strongly about players who do the little things because the little things are all we have. When a professional with all-world talent still manages to play with the heart and grit of one of us common slow-pitch softball junkies, it makes us forget about the salaries they make and reminds us of what we could have been if only Disney hadn’t lied to us about all that dreams-come-true mumbo jumbo. Living out our dreams through someone else is more believable when that someone does things the way we do. Watching them do something that goes against our character feels like a betrayal of our dreams, like they’re dancing on the graves of our aspirations. Lazy selfish ballplayers make lousy vicars.

Our desire as fans to cheer for athletes who conform to our own image causes us to place too much importance on rather insignificant details and arrive at inaccurate conclusions. That could have been a triple. He shouldn’t have dived headfirst into first base. Or he should have. He doesn’t care. He’s lazy. He only cares about his own stats. He’s a clubhouse cancer. If he was more like me, he’d be a much better ball player.

Let’s get one thing straight: if players were more like us, baseball wouldn’t be very fun to watch. I don’t fault anyone who likes a player for espousing their same values or work ethic or haircut. But we need to understand the difference between what makes us like a player and what makes him a good player. Sometimes they’re the same thing, but not as often as we think.

On the other hand, talented people often think they’re above doing the things common people have to do to get by. And that sucks. But at some point, we need to realize that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we appreciate talent much more than character, hustle, grit, or work ethic. If Mr. Rogers were the starting second baseman for the Chicago Cubs and he made 6 errors in a game and went 0-5 with 5 strikeouts (but tried real hard doing it) we’d boo his face off. That’s a fact. But rousing applause will greet any Cub that hits two homers in a game, regardless of the little things he neglects and big blunders to which he’s prone.

Why? Because deep down we know the qualities we possess are much less valuable in a baseball player than the talent we lack. 


Idol (Old Blue) Eyes

Might be the end of the line for Casey’s choo-choo of soft-focus glory.

Harry Connick Jr. might be the coolest guy alive. But Harry, like Sinatra was to a greater degree, is inimitable. So doing the songs of Sinatra is the artistic equivalent of what a vocal challenge it would be to have Whitney Houston night. Having him arrange the songs and performing behind them is awesome, but I’m not optimistic (partially because Jim warned me in advance) that they’ll be able to pull it off.

Still, this show is supposed to reveal who’s got it and who doesn’t. This should be informative if not entertaining.

Aaron Kelly
Aaron looks good dressed like a grown up. (When a critique starts with comments on your looks, AI performers, you shouldn’t take that as a good sign, but this time it’s not all bad.) I gotta say, the look helped sell the sound. The song exposed Aaron’s weaknesses, most notably his lack of confidence, but I think it also revealed a lot of potential. The big problem though is that the top 5 isn’t about potential; you’re supposed to have realized it by now.
Odds of Going Home: 5 to 1


Casey James
Casey started shaky, finished strong. He was nowhere near as bad as the judges made it sound. To me, it sounded like Casey was just a few rehearsals away from perfecting that song, but according to Harry he was a rehearsal too early with his best work.
Odds of Going Home: 4 to 1


Crystal Bowersox
Crystal looked good too. Kara liked Crystal’s phrasing, which was the very worst part of this performance. She was lost under the beat, she swallowed the key words in every phrase, and she lacked any lyrical continuity whatsoever. Crystal’s still great, but that wasn’t.
Odds of Going Home: 6 to 1


Michael Lynche
“The Way You Look Tonight,” really is the perfect song. Michael didn’t sing it perfectly, but he did it very well. He’s also the very coolest of the performers, as Ellen alluded to it. And he wore the heck out of that hat. This week really played into Mike’s giant hands, because this is not completely his sound, but it’s closer for him than anybody. Except . . .
Odds of Going Home: 5 to 1


Lee DeWyze
Lee killed it. He really did. That drew applause from my wife. It sounded like if Michael Buble had testosterone. His “That’s Life” just sounded real and natural and cool. The scary thing is, he’s probably gotten better every week, which is a very bad sign for everybody else.
Odds of Going Home: Daughtry to 1


Now I’m nervous.

Nothing to See Here. So Let’s Do the Wave!

On Saturday, the wave broke out at Wrigley Field. This punky, spray-tanned castoff from the set of Swingers (not Vince Vaughn) served as cheerleader  drum major  douchemaster  moron-in-chief, eliciting a chorus of boos from dozens of onlookers . . . and, you know, the wave from tens of thousands of witless drones.

It’s bad enough this happened at Wrigley. Fans do a lot of unforgivable things in Wrigley. They throw peanuts at fans of opposing teams, even if it’s the team opposing the Blackhawks later that weekend. They stand on the ramps leading to the upper deck and toss food and water down onto the fans below. They hurl racial epithets at their favorite players. I guess they project quite a few things into the air, but usually they have the good sense not to include a successive parade of their butt-scratching hands in the mix. But here’s what made it worse:

All this went down with one out in the eighth inning of a tie ball game with the potential (and eventually the actual) game-tying run at second base. The wave is supposed to be the designated pastime of fans who have become bored with the actual national pastime. But to interrupt the most critical turning point in the game by conjuring the demonic ritual of wavus stupidus maximus takes some serious juevos (and just an extraordinary surplus of dumb). You’re telling me there was nothing else to grab the attention of these buffoons?

Allow me to offer up a photodump of evidence to the contrary:

Vince Vaughn set the tone by aiming for the upper deck with his ceremonial first pitch.

Look! There’s Soriano with a healthy knee and a newfound propensity for crushing the ball.

He even threatened to shoot anyone who even thought about starting a wave.

Don’t even think about it. I swear. Bang bang!

Theriot adjusted his pants. How can any of you think about anything else?

Marlon Byrd does a little dance move when they say, “Play ball!” It’s kinda cute.

Someone forgot to tell Kosuke April was over. He’s still a doubles machine.

Soriano’s underpaid bubble butt.

Now would be the time to look away.

Stephen Drew, not a fan of the floating strike zone.

My niece: a big fan of Dora.

Not too many pictures of the pitcher’s mound here. Mostly because they would all look like this.

This is the game getting exciting. If you believe in statistics, that is.

See? This game ain’t boring.

Take in the joy of a world where the wave does not exist.

If you wanted to start your waving as a performance art protest against Arizona’s immigration laws, this would have been a good time.

If the wave could stop this man from entering the game, it would become a staple at Wrigley.

But there are happy things to cheer about and watch. Soriano made the scoreboard do this . . .

Game tied.

The guy in front of me was very excited to see Marmah warming up. Everyone in the stadium not wearing a Diamondback jersey was glad to see it wasn’t Grabow. Seriously, he must have called him “Marmah” at least 267 times.

I mean, come on! His name is right there on the jersey, plain as day.

This is Tylermania! He’s glad to be in scoring position. He’s ecstatic that the bases are loaded for Derrek Lee. He’s a bit confused as to why the wave is going on.

Hey, wavers! The Cubs are winning now. Your efforts to ruin my day completely have been undone by the Cub offense. That should give you some idea as to how inept you are at life.

Where have I been the last seven games? 

What’s down there? What was left of the dignity of Cub fans? I don’t know. There was a pole there.

Marmah strikes out the side. Cue the song.

So there you have it. A bunch of pictures of things that aren’t the wave. Shame on the reprobates who dared create their own sideshow during the main event.

Lucky Strikes: Baseball and Bowling

Baseball. Bowling. Homer. See what I did there?

I’m in a bowling league. I am not good. My form is awful. My entire game is inconsistent, from my approach to my release to my follow through. Sometimes the ball hooks like a drifting frisbee. Other times it sails straight as a hanging Grabow slider.

But the crazy thing about bowling is, you don’t have to be good. I mean, if you’re good, you will, with very few exceptions, always bowl  a better series than I do. I will rarely bowl a better game than a really good bowler does, but it happens. And there are plenty of frames in which I’ll bowl a strike while a far superior bowler leaves a pin or two standing. I’ve seen five year olds bowl strikes (sans bumpers). I’ve seen guys with near-200 averages bowl gutter balls or even sub-80 games.

It’s a simple fact of bowling that superior skill and even superior execution doesn’t always yield superior results—it usually does over the course of time, but most definitely not every time, especially in smaller samples.

The more I bowl, the more it reminds me of baseball.

I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that superior skill and execution don’t always yield superior results in baseball, because you know that luck rears its pretty or ugly or pretty ugly head all the time. But more often than not, we judge someone’s talent level (or at least the quality of their execution in a specific instance) on results we know to be affected or even completely determined by luck. We know better, we just forget.

Here’s an example from the lanes: aiming for the traditional pocket between the 1 and 3 pins, I miss my target to the left by almost a foot. The execution: bad. The result: awesome. I get a “Brooklyn” strike, landing the ball between the 1 and 2 pins. Oddly enough, if I had missed by just an inch, I could easily have wound up with the dreaded 7-10 split, one I have no hope of sparing. The uneducated observer would say I did well. The learned bowler would say I got lucky. But somehow everyone would look at the resultant score and go on thinking I was having a better game than the great bowler with the split.

Similar things happen all the time in baseball on both sides of the ball. Derrek Lee had the game-winning single  in Saturday’s game against the Diamondbacks, and it was probably the second-worst hit he put in play, a ground-ball single through the hole at short. It could have easily resulted in a double play. His worst was his other single, a blooper to right center. Both his fly outs to right were hit harder than either of those two hits, but the results were worse. His strike out was a gutter ball (those pretty much never work out).

And that’s just balls in play. You know how when a hitter fouls a ball straight back, we’re supposed to take that as a sign he was “right on it” from a timing standpoint and “just missed it” with his swing location. Great. But I have to assume that if he had split the difference between absolutely nailing it (homer, maybe?) and just missing it (foul straight back), the result would have been a nice high pop fly. Hit it perfectly, it’s a homer. Miss by a lot, it’s a strike (but not the bowling kind that makes you happy). Miss by a little less, it’s an out. Your degree of success does not reflect the precision of a player’s execution.

Obviously the same breaks work for or against pitchers, too. Every now and then you’ll see a batter take a fastball for a called third strike right down the middle, a pitch that was much more hittable than he expected. Everyone knows the pitcher got lucky, but no one curses him for his poor execution; we’re happy with the results. Cue the announcer, “He found a way to work out of it.”

The other factor is timing. Here’s the bowling scenario: A good bowler begins the game with 3 consecutive strikes, a feat worth 60 pins plus twice the pinfall on the next ball and the pins knocked down by the ball after that. If the next two balls are also strikes, the total in the third frame would be 90 pins. Me? I bowl three strikes in the 10th frame, and I’m totally stoked. That feat nets me 30 pins. Same execution as the good bowler (for those three throws). One half, or possibly one third of the score. That’s bad timing.

It’s painful to revisit how this plays out for the Cubs. Wednesday against the Nats, the Cubs had 9 hits, drew 4 walks, and benefited from 1 Washington error. Cub pitchers yielded 4 hits, one walk, and no errors. Cubs lose 3-2, but who had the better game? Who exhibited superior talent? You could argue that the Nationals did, since two of the Washington hits were homers. But still, the Cubs did enough things right to score a lot more runs; they just did them at the wrong time.

I know this isn’t all a matter of luck. Just like better bowlers will come through more consistently, better baseball players will post superior results because of their consistently superior execution, although they’ll be rewarded for plenty of their screw-ups along the way. It’s part of what makes baseball so fun to watch: it’s unpredictable. Not only will inferior players succeed and bad teams win rather often, but sometimes it will be their mediocrity that causes the wins.

So why am I saying all this? Because it’s hard to evaluate how well the Cubs are playing. They play well and lose. They play badly and win. There are stats that help tell the story a bit better, but I don’t even want to talk about them right now. I just want to acknowledge that . . . well, that I’m not a good bowler. I’m not a good judge of baseball talent (or choosing baseball teams to follow, for that matter). Sometimes the best I can do is just enjoy it and try to learn from people who are better than I am.