Friday, August 30, 2013

Wow. So, that happened.

One of the things I mentioned during my talk with WESA's Larkin Page-Jacobs in the segment which aired on Wednesday (give it a listen!) was that for the last 20 years, Pirates fans have lived for a series of fleeting moments.

They're not about hope. They're not about next year being our year. They're just quick moments over the course of lost, abysmal seasons that make you glad you went out to the ballpark that night, or that you were paying attention to the game on TV or listening on the radio.

I went on to list a bunch of these:
Rob Mackowiak's walk-off grand slam in game one of a twi-night doubleheader against the Cubs, just hours after the birth of his first child, is always one of the first to come to mind. In the second game, Mack hit the game-tying home run and Brian Giles came up with the winner. This is one of those moments.

Jason Michaels's home run capped an unbelievable comeback against the Cardinals in July of 2008. The Pirates were down 9-3 in the 7th and 10-4 in the 8th. The Bucs went on to win the game 12-11.

I wasn't at the ballpark for this one. But I was there, sitting right on the first-base line, when this happened:
Lloyd got his money's worth, then just pulled the base out of the ground and walked stoically off the field with it. That's one of the all-time great managerial tantrums, and it was incredible to watch.

This one stands out, too.

Man, that guy was a dickhead. Wonderful ballplayer. All-time dickhead.

On April 25th, 2003, Kip Wells hit an Odalis Perez offering off of the batter's eye and into the shrubbery in dead-center field. It was the least kipwellian moment of his career, but man.

And of course, everything Jack Wilson ever did with a glove goes on this list. I'd be shocked if the full highlight reel lasted anything less than a full two hours. This one's always been my favorite:

Just a few more examples of things falling into this category:

On the last day of the waiver trade deadline in 1997, the "Freak Show" Pirates acquired Shawon Dunston from the Cubs. In hist first game with the team, Dunston hit two home runs. That was the last time the Pirates were in a tight divisional race so late in the season.

So of course, when this happened on Wednesday, there wasn't a die-hard Pirates fan alive who didn't instantly think of Shawon Dunston.

It's fitting that the segment aired on Wednesday, and that of the hour I spent talking to Jacobs, she chose to use that clip about the essence of being a Pirates fan existing in those moments.

I really like the trade. Marlon Byrd is at least twice as good as anyone the Pirates have played in right field this year, and the depth he and John Buck add to the roster was exactly what the team needed -- added offensive stability.

The home run was great. It was one of those moments. Refreshingly, this is the first time in a while in which the context outweighs the moment. Here's to more of those.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A few odds and ends

Well, I guess it was only a matter of time before we saw one of these:

It comes to us from 28 North, an L.A.-based rock band of Pittsburgh kids. I grew up around the corner from lead singer Mike Lindner, who at some point in high school, sold my little brother a bag of tarragon for $25. No, it hasn't ever stopped being funny.

Needless to say, they're good guys. I ran into Mike a few months ago during a show at Mr. Small's, and despite the band's tremendous recent success -- they'd just signed their first recording contract with Sony -- all he wanted to talk about was the Pirates. So give these guys a look and a listen -- they're a straight-up, honest-to-god rock band, they're starting to make waves out on the west coast and they've got a heavy Pittsburgh flavor.

I'm not here to make a record, you dumb cracker. They're broadcasting me out on the radio!
Speaking of speaking about the Pirates, WESA-FM's Larkin Page-Jacobs, a friend of FTC, interviewed me for an hour last week for a piece she's doing about the impending demise of The Streak.

I'm told it's going to air on Wednesday morning, that I'm sharing air with Gene Collier, and that I come off as "passionate," which is mediaspeak for crazy. It'll be fun to see how this turns out.

As is the case with most conversations I have about the Pirates, I don't remember a lot of what I said, as talking about the Pirates from the fan perspective has become a lot like repeatedly banging my head against a wall, so I'm eager to tune in and find out how nuts I sound on a scale of 1-14. And because it'll be on Wednesday morning, it's timed to capitalize on the optimism you feel the morning after Jeff Locke walks the opposing pitcher twice in three innings.

That's what makes National League ball so great -- you're eligible for an entirely different level of suck.

On football
If you haven't yet, give Franco's Final Word on football a read. While I've been openly dealing with the moral questions he's answering for over a year, he's been steadfast in his convictions the entire time, and he deserves a great deal of credit for that.

I don't know if I'm ready to completely walk away from football, but it's something I think about constantly. I do know that I care substantially less about it than I did a year ago, and I'm completely furious with the NFL for the disingenuous approach it's taken toward all of these issues since they've come to light.

A longer reaction piece is forthcoming.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The FINAL word on football

As some of you may have noticed, yours truly hasn't said much about football since the Steelers' exit from the 2011 playoffs. No, it wasn't the sting of defeat that's kept me silent. It's the conscience thing.

Unless I'm severely misjudging our readership's intelligence, I think you all know what's up. The NFL, the NCAA, the football peoples... they got problems that common sense cannot ignore. I'm talking about the extreme violence being performed on human bodies for the enrichment of already rich, white dudes and the merriment of compassion-exempt fans.

You've probably heard all about the concussions; paralysis and death are also pretty serious things, so let's not limit ourselves to long-term brain trauma when considering the violence. Now if you think of yourself as even the least bit moral and well-informed, you need to skim this profile of former player George Visger before watching another game. For me, that was the final word so far as the violence is concerned.

As for the system of exploitation, the final word on that is penned by civil rights historian Taylor Branch, in his 2011 piece, 'The Shame of College Sports.' Again, if you care about this world and its people, you will read this article before blindly supporting a sport that needs you more than you actually need it. I'll give you a teaser/spoiler here: Branch breaks down the history of the NCAA and the "scholar athlete" concept; its design is not to celebrate a well rounded individual, but instead to create a legal status, whereby the universities are not liable for bodily harm done to the 18-, 19-, 20-, and 21-year-olds who make them their money.

"But FRANCO! What does this have to do with you not coming out to Stillers games anymore!?"

Patience, snowflakes. I'm getting there.

I began watching football in 2005. The Bus went to Detroit, the Steelers won the Super Bowl, double yoi!, etc. Hosting football-watching parties became ritualistic, with superstitions and ceremony deepening over the following years. I love my football-watching crew, and no doubt we're an even tighter lot because of the awesome times we had together, gathered around someone's TV. I do not regret the past, nor should any of you.

But let's observe what was going on.

Maybe it's just me, but I noticed an increase in aggression when watching these games. For example, I might yell "KILL HIM!" or something to that effect at a player. And what would happen next is someone on my team would actually beat the shit out of the guy I was talking about.

...And I'd be satisfied. 

That's aggressive, violent stuff, folks. It's not a little deal. Sure, you could say that I didn't actually mean for one person to murder another; and you can argue that they're all paid athletes, wearing protective gear, etc. But the fact of the matter is this: someone got clocked, and I parted with my empathy for that human being. Not because I'm a sociopath, but because the spectator/fan experience is designed for this. Fans are momentarily exempt from compassion for other humans, yet lauded for loyalty to brand.

I know this is some serious buzz kill stuff, but you can't deny that it's true.

Look here: boys as young as 8, 9, 10 years old are suiting up in pads to play Peewee ball right now. They will spend the next few years wailing on each other on the field. Some of them will make it to college doing this. There, they will inflict violence on themselves at a far more extreme pace. Some will get injured in immediate and permanent ways; others will suffer slow, long-term debilitation. None will be insured by the colleges which make billions of dollars broadcasting their games. Then comes the pros. A small fraction of these kids grow up to be the "lucky ones," who get to suffer through several more years of routine trauma. This is where I'm going to point out the nature of NFL contracts: unlike in baseball, NFL players sign for non-guaranteed money. And while a big star might get injured, cut and lose $20 million of his $30 million contract, some special teams guy might get injured, cut and lose it all. There are stars and scrubs, for sure; but the brutality of injuries doesn't discriminate among them. 

Before I propose a course of action, I'm going to offer this two-part prebuttal to the inevitable "but-they're-paid-athletes-who-are-fully-aware-of-what-they're-doing-and-this-is-their-choice" argument.

Here's part one of my prebuttal: go watch some MMA, you lizard-brained piece of trash.

And here's part two: yeah, a lot of those guys are paid athletes, but go re-read that Taylor Branch piece; these guys had to put in years of unpaid servitude in the NFL's feeder league. For every compensated athlete, how many dozens of washed up, broken bodies are there that never made it pro? It's a system of violent exploitation far more than it is one of just compensation.

Okay, so what do I recommend we do? Simple. We boycott this sport in thought, word and deed.

It isn't enough to complain. Complaining is traffic. Editorializing is about ego, it's about hits, it's about piggy backing the source. Enough of that. I'm proposing radio silence. I don't need to read about the NFL and ESPN being corrupt from Deadspin. I don't need to write about it here on Free Tank Carter, and I'm hoping my fellows agree. There is simply nothing to be gained from nitpicking or mocking or in anyway engaging. 

We run on silent, and we write about baseball or politics or Pittsburgh or movies or what's goddamn good about being alive. We know those topics well enough. We're not hurting for inspiration.

And we're not hurting for things to do on Sunday afternoons, either. I don't know about you, but I'm proud to be a progressive, intelligent person with hobbies and the ability to read books. Call me up for a board game or a movie night. That's what I propose as an alternative to this cult of savagery.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

We've expanded to print!

Chris Kluwe is an NFL punter who's about to lose his job to a younger, more talented player. In the off-season, he released a book. A few months ago, the Post-Gazette offered me the opportunity to review that book. Today, the PG ran that review.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the official Free Tank Carter review of Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.

I humbly ask that you give it a read. I grew up wanting to write for the Post-Gazette -- it was my childhood dream since the day I realized I wasn't going to play baseball professionally, which I think occurred around the age of 11. This is my first PG byline and I couldn't be more proud of the piece.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Elegant Rage of A.J. Burnett

July 30 was special night for Pirates baseball. 

It wasn’t just because the Pirates swept a doubleheader against division rival St. Louis.

It wasn’t just that they guaranteed themselves first place in their division at the beginning of August.

What made it incredible was how the Pirates did it. In a season of highs Pittsburgh baseball hasn’t seen in a generation, pitcher A.J. Burnett’s performance in the sixth and seventh innings might supersede them all.

Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay led off the sixth inning. Facing a two-strike count, Jay swung at a pitch that, from the vantage points of the 35,000-plus in attendance — Burnett and catcher Russell Martin included — either went foul or hit him.

Home plate umpire Eric Cooper called the play a dropped third strike. It skipped behind Martin, affording Jay the opportunity to run the bases, and forcing the Pirates to complete the out.

Martin was on a different page — he thought the ball had hit Jay on the foot. Instead of retrieving it, Martin argued with Cooper — a rare lapse of reason from one of the Pirates’ smartest players — and Jay was halfway to second before Martin thought to shut up and play the live ball.

His throw to second was hasty, late, and left Jay safely in scoring position. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle emerged and argued. The umpires conferred. Hurdle argued some more.

Burnett was so angry that Martin, also visibly peeved, had to restrain him.

Replay clearly showed Jay swinging through a pitch that hit his foot. According to Major League Baseball rule 6.05 (f), Jay should have been both out and incredibly embarrassed. Instead, he stood on second base because Martin’s action was dumber.

This made A.J. Burnett incredibly mad.

Baseball people love to talk about little things in the game which are as beautiful to them as something one might see while hiking in Yellowstone: DiMaggio rounding second base so elegantly and precisely that he never had to break his stride to touch it, and on so mathematically perfect an arc that it inspired the invention of protractors.

Watching Jack Wilson play defense was like this — sheer athletic poetry which took you on a five-second vacation through every possible emotion before dropping you off safe, sound and wondering how you could have witnessed something so breathtaking.

The most beautiful thing in baseball today is the sight of A.J. Burnett seething with focused, incandescent, glorious rage.

It’s been this way since Burnett got here. In a game against the Dodgers last year, Hanley Ramirez didn't go about his business while rounding the bases after hitting a home run off Burnett in the fourth, and Burnett was visibly ticked. Ramirez hit again in the sixth. This is where a lot of pitchers, were they going to retaliate, would drill the guy. Burnett didn't do that. He struck out Ramirez on a big, sweeping curveball, then told him in no uncertain terms to "sit the fuck down."

The level of Burnett's play and competitiveness are inspiring. He's the quiet, badass kid who kicks the shit out of the playground bully.
Not in a generation have the Pirates had a player with this backbone. Plenty have talked about it — mostly terrible managers. Now, at the dawn of a new era, here is a player who won’t allow this club to be a punchline or a punching bag.

Tuesday night, Burnett was angry again. With nobody out and Jay on second, in stepped Matt Holliday. Burnett's first pitch sailed in right past Holliday's knees — a low strike if Cooper felt like calling it.

The instant he didn't, Burnett raised his arms and shouted toward home. Whatever he said got under Cooper's skin. Cooper darted out from behind the plate, pulled off his mask and began pointing and yelling at Burnett.

Baseball’s umpires are notoriously drunk with power. The league allows them to immediately eject anyone for arguing balls and strikes, and Cooper could have tossed Burnett from the game without a second thought.

Why didn’t he?

Martin put himself between Burnett and the umpire, and Hurdle came back out of the dugout. When third-base umpire Jeff Kellogg approached the mound, Burnett waved him off.

"Don't come near me," was announcer Greg Brown's read of Burnett's lips. The pitcher turned his back and walked away.

It was at this moment that Cooper lost control of the game. By not ejecting Burnett when practically dared to, Cooper handed him power in a bloodless coup. He gave Burnett a blank canvas and said, “paint this with your rage.”

Burnett is better than anyone else at not giving a fuck, and in being that way, he gives more of a fuck than anyone has ever given a fuck.

Though the second pitch to Holliday was low and outside, the jeers rained on Cooper.

It didn’t matter. When A.J. Burnett is angry, nothing matters. When A.J. Burnett is angry, he morphs into an immortal werewolf from space and you are going to die.

He sent Holliday down swinging. He dispatched Carlos Beltran on a lazy fly to left. Matt Adams hit a groundball at the mound, which Burnett knocked down by throwing his glove behind his back. He picked it up and threw it to first for the inning-ending out.

Coming out for the seventh, Burnett looked no less bloodthirsty.
He got Tony Cruz to fly to center. He emasculated Daniel Descalso with a curveball that left the Cardinals’ third baseman indecisive, handcuffed and barking at Cooper.
On Hurdle’s order, Burnett obliquely walked Pete Kozma on five fastballs, forcing Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to pull starting pitcher Lance Lynn in favor of pinch hitter Allen Craig, one of the league’s finer hitters.
After two fastballs missed the zone, Craig took the third for a called strike on the outer half, right where Martin asked for it. He fouled off the fourth, a letters-high strike, to even the count. Burnett wasted no time in going back to the curveball. Craig swung weakly through as it fell 10 inches away from him.
Burnett spun around and pumped his fist. As he stepped off the mound, Brown didn’t dare read his lips aloud for fear of incurring FCC punishment.
“YEAH!” he shouted. “FUCK YEAH!”
He walked off the field to a standing ovation, his head lowered and an angry scowl on his face, lest anyone interpret the gesture as indicative of joy.

This piece was originally published in the August 7th edition of The Union Hall Times, official alt-weekly of Bar Marco

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Deadline

Well, the MLB non-waiver trade deadline was as exciting as a Mad About You marathon. Let's unpack a lot of the stuff that didn't happen:

1. The Pirates did nothing, and I think that's ok. Obviously, you'd like to improve your team where you can. For the Bucs, that meant right field and possibly pitching. However, this was an extreme sellers' market. The combination of mediocre players, fewer sellers, and teams putting higher value on prospects mostly explains the inaction. Also, GMs of contending teams are starting to realize the limited impact of adding someone with two months left in the season. It's just not worth giving up a lot of prospects to get a guy for two months. Let's take a quick look at last year's top additions:

Hunter Pence      0.5 WAR
Ryan Dempster   1.1 WAR
Shane Victorino  1.0 WAR
Zack Greinke      1.2 WAR
Ichiro Suzuki      0.7 WAR

Zack Greinke was the best, helping the Angels win 1.2 games over a replacement player. Fact is, it's rare for a position player to come in and make a huge impact down the stretch. And GMs are finally realizing that, and not parting with top minor league talent to win one more game during the regular season. The players on the market this year were not even as good as last year's crop. Alex Rios? Nate Schierholtz? Marlon Byrd? These guys do not deserve our attention! Sure, any one of these guys would have made the Pirates a little better. But at what cost? Rios is signed through 2014 for a ton of money. Schierholtz is signed for at least another year, and he's a 29 year old OF who hadn't really shown any signs of being decent until this year. The Pirates rightfully did not part with any legit prospect for those guys. It seems that the only way to really move the needle is to acquire a superstar or a legit starting pitcher. I'm not talking about Bud Norris. I'm talking about Greinke or Dan Haren (more on this later); a guy who is definitely in your top 4. So yes, it's a bit of a downer that the Pirates didn't make themselves better. But given the players available, the cost, and the impact those players would have made, it's not a big deal. It's really nothing to get worked up about.

2. Many are blaming the slow deadline on the addition of the second wildcard. The thought is that more teams are in the hunt now, and they can't commit to being sellers just yet.  There's a bit of truth to that, but there's a lot of bullshit too. Are you telling me that the Phillies were unsure of their position? Take one look at PECOTA or coolstandings and it's pretty clear who should be buying and who should be selling. Both projections give the Phillies less than a 1% chance of making the playoffs. Yet Ruben Amaro Jr. held onto pending free agents Carlos Ruiz, Michael Young, and Chase Utley. All of these guys are in their mid-30s. This was a perfect chance for them to dump some old guys, free up a little money, and restock with some young prospects. The Phillies might be worried about perception; they don't want to make it seem like they're giving up. Well, that's really stupid. I hope they have fun finishing a disappointing year with some old dudes who probably won't be around next year. The Seattle Mariners are in the same boat, and they held on to Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, and Raul Ibanez, all pending free agents. If the Mariners don't know they're sellers, their entire front office should be fired. Other teams that are holding on to ridiculous pipe dreams: Giants, Royals, and Blue Jays. We don't need to move the trade deadline back. We need  people to be smarter, and we need owners to let their GMs make baseball decisions.

3. I was really hoping the Pirates could have traded for Dan Haren. No one talked about him as being available in a trade. Maybe he never was available. But he would have been the perfect buy low opportunity. He's having a pretty terrible season in Washington, with a 5.49 ERA. But when we dig a little deeper, we realize that this guy could be pretty useful. First of all, he's got a track record of being a pretty good pitcher. What's made him a good pitcher? Well, it's mostly that he gets a decent number of strikeouts and very rarely walks anyone. He's still doing that. His peripherals still look great. The reason he's failing for the Nats is that he's been giving up a ton of homers. He's a fly ball pitcher, so he's going to give up some dingers. But he's getting unlucky with his HR/FB ratio. A pitcher's HR/FB usually settles in the 10-11% range. Haren's career HR/FB is 10.8%. This year it's 14.8%. I think his poor season can be explained mostly by bad luck and pitching in a ballpark that isn't suited for his pitching style. He has given up a bunch of homers that would not have been homers in other ballparks. With PNC Park's huge left/left center field, and with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte running down fly balls, there's a decent chance the home run numbers come back down. The Nats should have been very willing to trade him. He's only signed through this year, and he hasn't been very good. I'm not sure if this is a case of the Bucs not realizing Haren could help or if it's the Nats misreading their position in the standings. It would have been a nice opportunity, but hey, maybe the Bucs can buy low on him in the offseason.

4. It seems like the Bucs are doing just fine without Brandon Inge's veteran leadership.

5. Here's wishing FORT a speedy recovery from knee surgery! I hope he can at least use the down time to check some things off the bucket list.

Five quick thoughts

Through four full months of a six-month season, the Pirates have the best record in baseball. I just typed that and it's conveniently factual.

1. I said yesterday that I wanted a trade — any trade that brought in a player more talented than one currently on the team, be he a starter, reliever, outfielder or first baseman. The Pirates didn’t make a trade. I’d be disappointed with that except for the fact that nobody else made a trade, either. The entire National League stood its ground, and the rosters are exactly the same today as they were yesterday. After the deadline, Neal Huntington told reporters, “We were willing to do something stupid. We just didn’t want to do something insane,” and “there’s no question we forced the issue. I made offers that made me incredibly uncomfortable.” I’ve been as critical of Huntington as anyone, but I absolutely believe him. If this wasn’t true, other teams would have made moves. In the end, the sellers decided that they didn’t want to sell badly enough to drop asking prices.

2. It's good to see the old Neil Walker again. He should never hit lower than fifth, and Hurdle should consider hitting him leadoff against righties.

3. This photo is going into the franchise time capsule:

It's in good company, along with most photos of Dave Parker and nearly every picture ever taken of Jeff Karstens.

4. I'm happy to eat crow when I'm wrong about something. I said that Francisco Liriano was a bad signing, and while I didn't completely pan Russell Martin, I thought Neal Huntington gave him way too much money. I was completely and totally dead wrong on both fronts. Russell Martin has been a revelation, both behind the plate and at it. It's been so long since this team has had a competent catcher that I completely neglected the effect a very good catcher can have on a team. Liriano has defied everything I wrote about him when the Pirates signed him following that weird, non-throwing arm injury. I don't know if the Pirates saw it in him as a bounce back candidate or if they just got lucky, but they were way more right than I was. Although for the record, I did have Melancon and Justin Wilson as being awesome.

5. While I'm being wrong about stuff, here's this:
I started following him tonight. I mean, how could I not?