Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The M's: what to do now?

In the blogosphere, on sports talk radio today there is endless discussion of what the M's should do now.  Their pitching continues to be impressive, the starters especially, but really all around. The hitting continues to be bad.  Not just bad, ridiculously sucky.  How sucky?  Geoff Baker noted the M's have scored 11 runs in their last six games, exactly the number of goals the Sounders have scored in their last six games. When everyone talks about the Mariners' record when they score four or more runs versus their record when they score fewer than four runs, I often feel like we just well may be talking about the likelihood of exploring for fossil fuels in Alpha Centauri.  It isn't happening this year.

It really settles out to two positions.  One is that the M's are trying out the kids.  Even with the trading deadline coming up, and availability of a bat or two being likely being available for a price either in increased salary or for a prospect or two.  The thinking being that the M's could make that four run per game threshold for a price in salary and/or players.  Who is available?  That's not so clear.  Would the M's make a move?  That's become a lot more muddled the past twenty four hours.  Shannon Drayer reported in her blog M's confirmed they are unlikely to spend more money.  With Erik Bedard having a fabulous year, his one year $1 million dollar salary is laden with incentives that will likely cost ownership in the range of $7 million.  Baker takes ownership to task, failing to support a historically superior pitching staff with even the effort to acquire adequate hitting talent.  The division is weak, the pitching is good, and with even a modest increase in run scoring ability, this team could win the division, and in a down year for offense, could ride its pitching a long way in the playoffs.
Erik Bedard's success on the mound has dampened owners' enthusiasm for as they watch his contracted incentive clauses pile up.  The M's owe Bedard another $6 million this year.  Pay the man; he's earned it.
The flip side of this argument was voiced by KJR's Dave Groszby on Bob and Groz today.  The kids are doing better than anyone thought they could.  Let them play and find out what we have.  Unlike past Mariners "rebuilding" efforts, the M's really have tried to build around kids up from the minor leagues. Justin Smoak has performed adequately in his first full year in the majors and given us a look at his potential, but he still is not the consistent hitter we hope he'll become.  Dustin Ackley, in his nine games has looked like the diamond we hoped he'd be-a solid hitter with speed, and not the defensive liability many feared. Michael Pineda performs like the big man he is, challenging Bedard and  Felix Hernandez for the best pitching performance of the year. Mike Carp, Greg Halman, and Carlos Peguero look like, well, rookies.  Eric Wedge says they're learning and making adjustments.  Each has made sporadic contributions to the team.  Do they have enough talent to stick? Those in this camp say we won't know unless they play regularly.  Don't deal them or other gems in the minors.  They offer the real road to success, but likely not this year.
It's early, but M's fans should cheer.  Dustin Ackley has been everything they'd hoped he would be.
I'm of a somewhat different mind, one that Dave Cameron wrote of on USS Mariner a few days ago.  There are still a few holes on this that won't be filled this year or next year from the minors.  Chief among these is left field.  I've watched enough of the Carlos Peguero show.  I'm sorry, he's not ready and he doesn't belong in the bigs.  His at bats are painful to watch and I'm afraid he's going to kill Franklin Gutierrez out there. Carp is not really a left fielder, and Safeco's left field is just too big for a 1st baseman/DH type to cover.  Move Carp to DH where he belongs, let Jack Cust quietly go, and let Carp do what he is best suited for, swing the bat from the left side. Halman could be part of a left field platoon and is fine as a fill in guy.  The other glaring hole is at 3rd base.  There was a great article by Jon Shields of ProBall NW on the likelihood that Alex Liddi is the M's answer at 3b.  The opinion of experts, while mixed, is-certainly not now if ever. While I think everyone is rooting for the young Italian born player, he still has learning to do at the plate and in the field, but he's still pretty young and probably another full season away from the majors. Adam Kennedy has had a super year, but can't play every day, which means two or three days a week of Chone Figgins.  He's struggling and it's clear the booing is getting to him.  Figgins is a utility player right now and nothing more.  A third base replacement is ideal, particularly someone who is right handed on this very left-handed team.
Ryan Ludwick is likely to be dealt from the Padres by the trade deadline?  Could he be a fit for the Mariners in left field?
Left field and third base are positions in which the M's could probably look for some help--not necessarily a big bat, just a league average bat that will help them get better and closer to those four runs per game. Cameron suggested the Padres' Ryan Ludwick, David DeJesus and other who might keep the position warm while others develop, but also have a useful bat that will improve the Mariners' offense.  Will these changes make the Mariners division winners?  Doubtful, but it might keep them from falling off the edge of the world

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Favorite Music: Born to Run

I read Tim Egan's column on the passing of Clarence Clemons in the New York Times this morning.  It was very well done.  I confess to being an Egan fan; he lives here in the Northwest and shares many of my same sensibilities.  We're also in agreement that The Big Man was the straw that stirred the drink of the E Street Band's sound, giving it a gritty, soulful feeling that really set it apart from other bands.  Other bands of any other era.  It was a Jersey sound, but it translated across all borders and regions.
Springsteen and Clemons
I cop to being a Springsteen fan.  I know, it's something those my age volunteer.  I'm not typical, however, because I came to admire him late.  I find him to be something of an acquired taste.  I've never quite found a way to love his folk/singer/songwriter/acoustic work, and his music I enjoy most has that big, loud E Street sound.  Maybe it's got something to do with growing up in the Northwest, where that sound also employed a blaring sax as an important weapon of choice. I confess to not even having heard the Boss's entire catalog.  How cheesy is that?  Favorites, definitely got to be Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Born in the USA.  But I'll state in front of Mark Lindsay, Paul Kantner, Jack White, Patrick Smyth, God and everybody else that Born to Run is my favorite American rock album of all time.
Born to Run remained relentlessly optimistic in contrast to Springsteen's following album Darkness on the Edge of TownBorn in the USA took it one step further with it's portrait of an America in decay.
Lord, why would I say such things?  Springsteen is nothing if not a great storyteller. Born to Run is eight little stories from Springsteen's Jersey life.  Some, like Jungleland paint a seamy picture of life on the streets.  Others such as Born to Run and Thunder Road point to a better life ahead, if only we can look forward.  Not an inconsequential message when one considers the time the album was released.  In 1975 the country was emerging from it's Vietnam experience to find the economy rife with stagflation, it's president disgraced and saved from prison only by the words of his appointed successor, and set on a course of four years of Jimmy Carter's malaise. Yet Springsteen still found words to paint a bright future for his himself, his friends, and his fans.

Not only are the stories uplifting, but listen to the music.  It's big, it's bold and bombastic.  It announces, it broadcasts the bright future with uptempo tunes featuring Springsteens big vocals, Clemons' wailing sax, Roy Bittan's buoyant keyboards on She's the One, or Born to Run. Together with the lyrics, this music is hopeful, it is optimistic, it's fun.  It's what rock and roll should always be about. Set Born to Run into its historical context and compare it to Led Zepplin's 1975 release, Physical Graffiti.  Great album, but would you rather listen to Jungleland and Meeting Across the River, or Kashmir and In My Time of Dying with your buddies?  What about disco?  Would you rather listen to Thunder Road or Van McCoy's The Hustle, or KC and the Sunshine Band's Get Down Tonight, both big 1975 hits? Give me Springsteen's streetsmart yarns, with his relentlessly positive view of a better life.  Born to Run remains my favorite American album of all time, a statement I don't take lightly or without careful consideration.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Immigration Debate: Jose Antonio Vargas

This is one of those rare times when I'll talk politics.  I am opposed to illegal immigration.  I believe that excessive immigration, whether legal or illegal, puts downward pressure on American wages.  So those low-paying jobs "Americans won't do," remain low-paying.  Farm labor, fast food, hotel and motel work, construction all feel the effect of too many laborers willing to work for little money.  I'd also add that employers love this.  Nothing like a xenophobic employer spewing hate out one side of his mouth while he hires his undocumented Guatemalan gardner, or Mexican construction crew under the table. For me it's a class argument.  Hypocrisy abounds

I have little patience for  the cultural arguments against immigrants.  America is and always has been a home for immigrants.  The argument that illegal immigrants will somehow change our culture, as if we ever had a single American culture is ludicrous.  The suggestions that previous immigrant groups quickly adopted English and the Great White Way is silly.  Just look at the historical record.  Every big city a hundred years ago had dozens of newspapers, many of them in a foreign language.  Yiddish, Russian, German, Chinese, you name it.  Everyone did not enter the country through Ellis Island with the magic fairy whacking them on the head and granting them the knowledge of a complicated foreign language.  They typically learned English through their children who attended school and learned the language--just like the current crop of immigrants.  We are a more diverse country today than we were a hundred years ago, chiefly because we acknowledge and embrace diversity.  The anti-immigrant haters need to get over themselves.

Which leads me to Jose Antonio Vargas, whose story appears in the New York Times today.  Vargas was sent to the United States from the Philippines when he was twelve to escape the oppressive economic conditions there.  His grandparents, living in Mountainview, CA, arranged his traverse through the immigration maze with a coyote, a fixer arranging illegal immigration to the United States.  Vargas lived a model life, excelling in school, but learning about his illegal life when he unknowingly took his phoney green card to get his driver's license and was sent home with an admonition not to return with his fake residence verification.  With the knowledge and assistance of mentors Vargas was able to work on his high school newspaper, and obtain and internship with the local weekly.  He was able to obtain a drivers license in Oregon which gave him the necessary ID to open doors to colleges and financial aid. Eventually he landed a job at the Washington Post and was part of Pulitzer Prize winning team of reporters that covered the Virginia Tech shootings in 2008. 

 Vargas made the move to Huffington Post as the demands to travel internationally became to great.  One can work from home in their jammies when writing for a net mag.  He'd never be able to produce the ID for a passport.  Finally, unwilling to continue living a double life, Vargas told his story in today's NYT.  It is a moving, courageous, compelling story.  Hopefully it will flesh out some folks' few of   who and what an illegal immigrant is or is not.  They are among us, they are hard working, contributing members of society, they are our friends and colleagues.  Though Vargas should not be here illegally, I commend him for the courage to tell his story.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dustin Ackley arrives and what it all means

The man we all hope will shake up the Mariners offense made his big-league debut last night.  Despite his initial deer-in-the-headlights look, Dustin Ackley had a single in his first at bat, and looked good in the field.  He cleanly handled a hard Ryan Howard ground ball, and turned a tricky Figgins to Ackley to Smoak double play in the sixth inning that shortstop Brendan Ryan termed "the play of the game."  Phillies center-fielder Shane Victorino homered in the next at-bat, but with the bases empty. Ackley continued to hit well throughout the series, including a home run on Saturday that was smoked (not Smoaked,) and tripled and scored the winning run on Sunday. He also played a great second base, showing considerably more range going to his left than was expected.

Dustin Ackley tripled and scored the first run in Sunday's 2-0 win over the Phillies.

 The M's continue to be a very interesting team this year. Some aspects of their game continue to function very well.  They aren't needing to replace a struggling starting pitcher, and their bullpen is throwing very well.  Ichiro's day off seems to have paid gigantic dividends as the 37 year old right fielder had his fifth consecutive multi-hit game, and is scoring the runs the team needs. His slash line for the last seven days is .520/.538/.720 with four doubles and eight runs scored.  Ichiro only has 13 doubles and 38 runs scored for the entire season, so you can see what a difference his week has made.  Ichiro needs to remain Ichiro for the M's to stay in the chase.

Brendan Ryan congratulates Ichiro for a great play in the field.  They're also becoming quite a team at the top of the M's batting order.

Other players on the team continue to have a few days at a time that inspire confidence in a bright future.  Ryan's defense, hustle, and his periodic streaks of  clutch hitting just make me smile.  He's a dirt in the mouth player that makes big plays on defense and has driven in some big ones without once hitting a ball that's left the park.  Adam Kennedy is another player whose bat has been surprisingly potent.  I predicted that his acquisition would be  important and he has been a great role player. Justin Smoak and Miguel Olivo have both had their moments, supplying power to a team that remains sorely in need of a few big bats. Though they've both been kind of streaky, when they've been on they've really lifted the team. 

The starting pitching from one to five continues to exceed expectations.  They're not perfect.  Each of them, Felix, Pineda, Bedard, Vargas, and Fister have struggled at times.  Each of them have also had moments of brilliance.  Pineda mesmerized the Phillies on Friday with a blazing fastball, and Sunday Vargas dazzled them with great control and his usual arsenal of sliders, fastballs and off-speed pitches.  At this moment, Erik Bedard may be the most consistent of the lot.  The great thing, however, is that all of them consistently pitch deep into ball games and give their teammates an opportunity to win it, even if  scoring a run or two seems hopelessly beyond their ability.  The bullpen has been awesome, though Jamie Wright has looked a bit creaky recently.

Erik Bedard may be the M's most consistent starter at this moment in time.  They're all pretty damn good.
 The Mariners remain within a half game of the Rangers, who really appear to be struggling.  The A's seem to have righted their fortunes with Bob Melvin's replacement of Bob Geren.  The Angels are also performing better and the entire division is tightening up.  This may not be the M's year.  They've played the cards they have in their hand, and now it is time to see what they're worth.  In my view the kids have to play.  Carp should play in left or DH every day, at least against right handers.  Halman needs to play as much as possible-hitting against lefties and at least some against righties.  Adam Kennedy is hitting reasonably well with occasional power and should play 3b against right handers. My hope that Figgins will turn things around is eternal, but lord he looks bad at bat and in the field. Figgins should be a fill in guy with Jack Wilson.  Cust may be next to go if there is a bat that emerges as ready for prime-time in Tacoma.  I don't know if the M's can win their incredibly weak division this year, but it sure looks like the guys want to try.  I don't think Jack Z should sacrifice any prospect for a bat, unless it really makes sense. We live and die with who we have.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Summer Reading Lists

Three and half more days of kidlets at school.  There are moments I wonder if I'll  make it and not end up in prison for homicide.  In any case, I'd be lying if I wasn't thinking about my break and one of the things I really like to do during my summer break is get in some extra reading.  So here are some books I'm thinking about in no particular order.

 1921--Dave Demick gave me this book for my birthday last year about the 1921 baseball season.  It's Babe Ruth's coming out party and looks really good.

 A Well Paid Slave is the story of Curt Flood's fight against the reserve clause in baseball.  I confess to being a Flood fan, though I realize he wasn't a perfect human being.  Looking forward to this.

Love in the Year of Cholera is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.  I read A Hundred Years of Solitude last summer and loved it.  Believe it or not, even though it was on Oprah's List, this book is now out of print in English.  Bizarre.

The Quest for Glory is a biography of Union admiral John. A. Dahlgren.  Dahlgren was a terrific designer of the most reliable ordnance of the Civil War.  What he really wanted is what all sailors want-a command at sea.

 Paradise Lost by John Milton-Yes that Paradise Lost.  I've tried to read it a couple of times and never quite finished it, so I'm going to give it another go this summer. I've got it on my Kindle.

Meriwether Lewis by Thomas C. Danisi and John C. Jackson is the most recent  biography of the explorer.  It was a Christmas gift and I never tire of learning a bit more about the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The Bloody Crown of Conan is anthology two of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories published by Ballantine.  Trash, crap, a pit of burned brain cells.  God I love it so.

These are on the confirmed list, though like my beloved dog Jack, my nose may lead me far afield.  I could see Jonathan Sumptions Hundred Years War histories leading me astray, perhaps a Philip 'Dick story or two, and I have an itching to read some the Admiral, Samuel Eliot Morrison's exploration books-his Columbus biography, which I don't own, but could get easily and cheaply enough, Matthew C. Perry, which I do own, or his European Discovery of America.  There's never enough time.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Book Review: Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston and the 1975 World Series by Mark Frost

I remember Game Six well.  I'd left school at San Francisco State in October of 1975, and driven to Vashon Island where my parents were living with my grandparents.  It had been a tumultuous year.  My parents left our transplanted home in the Bay Area for the more familiar territory of Puget Sound.  My sister got married.  I stayed with a family near our Belmont, CA home waiting to move into my college dorm.  My long time relationship with my high school sweetheart broke up.  I was not ready to be on my own, but the show, as they say, must go on.  And it went badly.  By the middle of October I was miserable and sought some comfort in my family 900 miles from school. October 21, 1975 found me watching the World Series with my Dad on the couch in my grandparents' living room.  When Carlton Fisk hit his home run to win it in the 12th inning it was a magical moment in one of the more magical places of all time.

Mark Frost's examination of the sixth game is like a roller coaster ride that goes on a bit too long in a pouring rainstorm.  There are moments of sheer pleasure, enough so you don't mind the wet. But when the ride gets stuck in the rain it's just too much.

Frost approaches the sixth game for what it was-one of the best World Series games of all time, and he does it pitch by pitch, inning by inning.  He does a great job of providing context for the game within the '75 World Series itself, as well as within the season.  He gives dimension to the players too.  I learned so much about Sparky Anderson, Carlton Fisk, and Bernie Carbo I didn't know.  Nowhere does he do a better job of filling out our portrait of that game than his pictures of Luis Tiant and Tony Perez and their struggles to come to America from Cuba.  His view of Tiant, his recovery from serious injury and efforts to spring his parents from Castro's Cuba is excellent.  Frost's effort to provide highlights and shadows are best, however, as they tie more directly to his narrative of the game itself.  The excitement of the Red Sox's early lead is palpable.  The disillusionment that followed the Reds outburst that tied the game and eventually took the lead shows Sparky pulling all the right levers, while Darrel Johnson seems incapable or unwilling to save the sinking Sox. Carbo's home run and Fisk's game winner are all there in living color.
Is there any more iconic image in our baseball memories than Fisk willing his 12th inning blast over the Green Monster fair?  I think not.  I liked the Red Sox in those days before they became victimized, entitled whiners.
The book goes terribly awry in some spots, however.  Let me first say, that as a history person, I truly appreciate context to fill in the story, but this is ridiculous.  Frost begins by trying to share the origins of the American League and the thus the Red Sox, but that really doesn't take us very far in understanding the '75 Series.  He's a little more successful in explaining owner Tom Yawkey's origins, but mostly these loose ends are just that, loose ends.  When the story of the sixth game is over, Frost justly explains the outcome of the deciding game in Boston, but then he takes off on a discussion of free agency and the decline of both franchises.  I think this remains outside the focus of this book.  Frost really goes off the deep end when he begins to argue for the enshrinement of members of both teams in the Baseball Hall of Fame, rather than simply telling their stories after their lives in baseball, which he does quite well.

Game Six has lots of great moments, and I truly wish Frost had allowed the book to stand on the story of that season, that game, those players, rather than leading us by the nose to places that, frankly, we didn't need to go.  Reading on my Kindle, I found myself thinking, "Really, you're going here?" and then advancing ahead, looking at my watch and reaching for the light. When Game Six is good, it's very good, but when it's bad it's irrelevant.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Miguel Olivo and family farewells

Well, Miguel Olivo did it again last night.  A solo homer to give Jason Vargas an insurance run in the eighth, and when that didn't quite work out, a two run double in the 10th to give the M's the win, 7-4.  I was an unenthusiastic supporter of Olivo's signing this winter.  I saw a catcher who was an upgrade, but only a modest one, over our corps from hell last year, and who potentially was blocking the development of Adam Moore. Hoo boy, I was wrong, and I admit it.
Miguel Olivo's thousand watt smile is just one reason to like what he's done for the Mariners.
Right this moment Olivo is carrying this team.  Geoff Baker had a great blog post about Olivo's contributions this morning.  While his numbers won't jump off the charts at you at .246/.298/412 they continue to rise.  And the guy has just been clutch.  The homers and RBI doubles have come when we needed them, not in the middle of some rout or off some late-inning mop up guys.  His extra base hits last night both put the Mariners ahead, and he's been like that ever since his bat awakened from a long frozen slumber in Detroit on April 26th.

All is not perfect.  While Olivo is in the top five for most defensive ratings, he leads catchers in errors with four, and is second in passed balls with five.  Miggy was a passed ball producing machine last year, and he's on track for more than his ten of 2010. Even so, it's clear Mariners pitchers like throwing to him, and that's huge.  It must account for some of their success. 

Last, but not least, I have no way to back this up, but I believe Olivo is a team chemistry guy.  Again, I point to the pitching staff.  Yes, Felix is great, but how much confidence does Miguel give to young guys like Pineda?  Does Olivo give the amazing Eric Bedard the confidence to use his changeup more and have success, despite the slight loss of speed off his fastball?  How much is he responsible for the continued improvement by Vargas and Fister?  The man is always smiling.  And it's an amazing, electric smile.  He loves to play the game, he loves to win, and he loves to be a Mariner.  He's my kind of guy.

*      *       *       *     *     *
This week our baseball family lost two wonderful ballplayers.  Jose Pagan died on June 7th from complications from Alzheimer's disease.  He was 76.  Born in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, Pagan broke in with the San Francisco Giants in 1959.  Primarily an infielder, and chiefly playing 3rd base and shortstop, Pagan was one of those nifty glove guys.   He was a useful bat, and could do the little things, bunt and hit and run.  Pagan had one of his better years with the Giants in their pennant year of 1962.  He was traded in '65 to the Pirates, where he may be better remembered as a contributor to the Clemente-led world championship.  Pagan finished his career with the Phillies in 1973.  Pagan died in Seabring, Florida.

Jim Northrop's two run triple off Bob Gibson (!!!) beats the beloved Cardinals in the 1968 World Series.  I've never forgiven him.

Jose Pagan was a handy utility infielder by the time he was willing silly Pirates hats on the 1972 World Championship team.
Jim Northrup died June 8th at the age of 71.  He'd been ill for a number of years and his passing was not unexpected.  Northrup came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1964 and played in the outfield with Al Kaline.  Known as a no-nonsense guy, Northrup became a leader on the 1968 world -champions.  I've never forgiven him for his game winning triple off Bob Gibson to win the 7th game.  When manager Mayo Smith was gone after the '72 season, Northrup could not abide the managerial style of Billy Martin and got himself traded, first to the Expos and then Baltimore where he finished his career in 1975.  From 1966-1973 Northrup was very good.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Now we know it's for real

I caught most of last night's and tonight's spanking of the Devil Rays.  It's fun to watch great pitching and good defense, but night after night it's hard to watch the Mariners struggle to scratch out a run or two.  It's frustrating to watch any of the M's starters turn in a great performance, but lose because the offense couldn't score three runs to win 3-2.
Miguel Olivo homered into a stiff wind to contribute to the M's 7-0 win over the Rays
Beyond that though is the frustration I feel when I look at the team stats.  According to ESPN, the Mariners are in the top five in MLB for all the four major team pitching stats.  They're in the bottom five for the four major offensive stats.  It's difficult to be optimistic about the team's chances in a pennant race when the team can pitch but can't score.  Even tonight's seven run outburst, aided by three homers, tallied only four hits.

 However, one statistic I was thrilled to see was in run differential.  For the first time in years, the Mariners runs scored actually exceed the runs allowed.  Even in 2009, when the M's were 85-77, largely because of good pitching and defense, they were a -52 in run differential.  Admittedly we're only 57 games into the season but tomorrow the M's are a +3 in run differential.  That's largely because they play pretty close games, and recently have been winning lots of them.  The last two nights detonation of Tampa Bay pitching has given them a +13 run differential in this series and allowed the M's to move into positive territory for the first time in, well, years. The last time a Mariner team finished the season in positive territory was in 2003, when the Mariners finished out of the money with 93 wins.

 Do I think this will continue?  My fingers are crossed, but I doubt it.  The pitching will remain solid, but I can't imagine them keeping up this home run eruption, and there aren't enough guys who can hit in this lineup.  I'm still looking forward to Ackley and maybe Carp coming up to the big club.  Count me among those who is opposed to a major trade this year--unless they're able to stay close and make a good deal on a one year player.  This team needs to hang on to as many chips as possible, and keep getting younger.