Category Archives: Baseball

Albania 6: Gjirokastra

IMG_1837Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from just after World War II until his death in 1985, was born in Gjirokastra. So was Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer—but to call him that is to undershoot by miles. To the rest of the world, Kadare is Albania’s only famous writer, although that doesn’t make him beyond compare. Think of someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s only well-known literary export.

Think of Vargas Llosa too because he and Kadare have some similarities. They were both born in 1936, are both still alive, by and large expatriates (Vargas Llosa in Madrid, Kadare in Paris), and both have made their careers by speaking truth to political power. (It was Vargas Llosa who, on a prominent stage, made the indelible comment about Mexico that it was “the perfect dictatorship” because it was camouflaged not to look like one.) Kadare’s early books, written in the 1950s and 1960s under Albania’s nominally communist boot (in fact a fascist regime), were banned in his home country. But as Kadare’s international reputation grew, Hoxha was shrewd enough to recognize the cultural and thus exchangeable capital Kadare embodied, and didn’t entirely censor him. Kadare even became an occasional writer for the state, traveling to China on diplomatic missions and going to Vietnam during the American war, where he reported from the side of the Vietcong, via Albania’s alliance with Mao’s China.

Kadare’s writing continued to run him afoul of the government, and at least one of his manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country for publication, but he didn’t claim asylum in Paris until 1990, just before the dismantling of the political regime in Albania. Hoxha himself had been dead five years by then, and there’s something almost poignant about Kadare staying in Albania all through the dictator’s life, as though he couldn’t bring himself to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere until its ruler had left it, too. Later, Kadare was offered the Albanian presidency (he declined, twice). They’ll be forever intertwined, these two famous Gjirokastrans: a symbol of oppression and a symbol of freedom.

Continue reading Albania 6: Gjirokastra

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On Vin Scully

I said I’d write something about his last broadcast if I had a baseball-writing gig. But what’s a gig anyway? Money? As a character in one of my own short stories says: “Oh, brother. If money is all you ever think about, you’ll always make just enough to need more of it.”

Anyway, a handful of people said they’d read it if I wrote it, so this is for that handful of people. I said it would be “the best.” It’s not. It’s just the best I can do today. I didn’t make any notes during the broadcast. Consider these my notes, summoned and misquoted from memory — which is so much of what Vin did for sixty-seven years: activate (but not misquote) memory while attending to the demands of the moment on the field. I wrote them quickly and didn’t really edit them. Well, you can’t edit a broadcast, either.

Continue reading On Vin Scully

Prospects Are Bullshit

It can be so fun to read baseball writing with hindsight. I went back to the Baseball Prospectus 2015 Annual (for which I wrote a team essay and some player comments) and had a look at Andy McCullough‘s essay on the Kansas City Royals, which it turned out I had not read even once. That I had not read it says something about what even professional baseball writers tended to think about Kansas City’s chances going into 2015: better to read about other teams first. The Royals weren’t likely to be good again.

McCullough’s essay argues that the Royals will be good again 2015. So he has gotten it exactly right. It doesn’t matter if he has his causes wrong, because who can know about causes, really? Essentially, he’s arguing that the James Shields trade—which was front and center in my world back in 2012-13, when I was still covering the Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate)—was a great trade for the Royals no matter how Shields ended up pitching (which was not better than pretty decently) or if he left after his contract was up (which he did). McCullough suggests that Shields’s mere presence on the team, for as long as it lasted, and in multiple ways, had a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats effect, and the the waters were likely to stay high after Shields was gone.

So now the Royals are two wins away from a World Series title.

When a writer gets it right, especially in the face of a lot of people thinking he’ll turn out to be wrong—Baseball Prospectus’s staff had Kansas City finishing fourth in the five-team American League Central—you take the other things he thinks very seriously, and McCullough thinks “prospects are bullshit.” This is the axis of his essay about the Royals: that prospects are bullshit. I am a (former) minor-league beat writer who has been writing about prospects since 2009: watching them, interviewing them, assessing them, building narratives around them. The opinion that prospects are bullshit gets my attention. Yet the attention it gets from me is that he’s absolutely right. McCullough is absolutely right. They’re bullshit. Not the players themselves. The players, including (especially) minor-league players, whether they’re on PEDs or not, are the most authentic part of baseball. Most of them are doing the best they can to make themselves major leaguers. (Note: Wil Myers was not doing the best he could when he was in Durham). What’s bullshit is the more abstract notion of prospects, which is essentially an invention of writers: entities writers can evaluate in terms of future production. Doing this is a fool’s errand, a mug’s game, and it becomes more foolish and more mugging—as in, mugging for the camera, the internet, the book—as the gap between the majors and minors widens.

McCullough is careful (and kind) to add that “prospect writers aren’t the problem. They can only work with the materials they have,” and “those materials are bullshit.” I appreciate this defense of writers, of me. You’d expect a writer to mount this defense—we protect our own—but I don’t think it’s true. Prospect writers are the problem, or a large part of it. Almost every case we make has to be overstated. We have to try to see things no one else sees, so we see things that aren’t there, or things that are there now but almost surely won’t be later. Even the best experts in the world are usually wrong most of the time: scouts, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus; usually wrong. This is what we should say about ourselves: we’re usually wrong. I run across professional evaluators all the time, and it amazes me how much more they appear to think they know than they actually do, or ever can. What we ought to do, as a matter of professional discipline, is throw up our hands and say, well, best guess. Even a blind squirrel.

Baseball players will often say that the game has a way of humbling them. If only it would humble the rest of us, too.

Bring Me the Head of Jake Arrieta

I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about the Durham Bulls team of 2009, the first team I ever covered. Not the best, but certainly the most interesting player on that team, was Justin Ruggiano. Ruggiano was a decent player — by which I mean one of the thousand best in the world — who needed to get out of the Tampa Bay Rays organization in order to make a few million dollars in the major leagues. I think I learned more about the difference between the majors and minors from watching him play, and from talking to him, than from any other player I covered in six years in Durham.

It wasn’t just that “half this game is ninety percent mental,” as the famous Danny Ozark or Yogi Berra baseball axiom has it. It had something to do with attitude, and personality, and with taking it personally. I’ll probably write more about that, and Ruggiano, later, but the reason I do so now, as nothing more than a preface, has to do with the first time I saw attitude and personality and taking it personally in true action on a baseball diamond. It was something that happened between Justin Ruggiano and Jake Arrieta in 2009. Continue reading Bring Me the Head of Jake Arrieta