Tuesday, March 31, 2009

'Interesting memories on the long drive'

"Do you collect things?"

"Yes," Fletch said. "People."

"What an interesting thought."

"I don't use people, just collect them. It gives me some interesting memories on the long drive."

"Is that why you're a journalist?"

"I suppose so."

That's an excerpt from Gregory McDonald's book "Fletch Won," which is what I'm reading between baseball books. I love that passage above, because I think it does a pretty great job of summing up what makes a good journalist. Definitely something to ponder.

By the way, if you're looking for a good, funny mystery novel, you could do worse than any of the "Fletch" novels by Gregory McDonald.

--Matt Kelsey

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Players you want to cheer for...

... despite yourself.

Tony Pena Jr., with a wonderful bunt against the Mariners just now, following an Alex Gordon homerun. Has TP learned to bunt? Is the earth still spinning?

Gordon looked more like Brett than Brett on the homerun.

Oh, my. I can't take any more of this. Greinke has just given up a seven-run lead, nine hits from 13 batters, including a single and double from Mike Sweeney. Greinke finally got mad and hit somebody -- a good sign. He must be working on something. Let's hope he's working on something.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


It’s strange to be thinking about baseball on a day when the weather is like it is in Kansas City today. But, here I am, wrapped in a blanket, wearing a thick sweatshirt, thinking about baseball.

That’s because I’ve been downright inspired by these great baseball novels I’ve been reading lately.

I don’t want to say too much yet - the idea is just a seedling, and too much exposure to the elements may kill it - but I’ve got a notion for a baseball novel of my own.

But because of that, I’ve changed my plans a bit for the baseball novel review series. I was planning to read “The Southpaw” next (which I finally found for a reasonable price on eBay), but I’m putting that aside and instead I’m going to read a non-fiction book called “Prophet of the Sandlots,” by Mark Winegardner.

The book is about real-life baseball scout Tony Lucadello. In a few days, I’ll write some initial notes about the book and its author.

I don’t intend to veer into non-fiction too often in this series, but one of the characters in my own novel is a baseball scout. This portrait of Lucadello is one of the most informative works on scouting I’ve ever read. But I haven’t read it for over a decade, so I wanted to brush up.

Besides, “Prophet of the Sandlots” reads like a novel (in fact, it falls into that expanding and wonderful genre called “non-fiction novels”).

I’ll get started on “Prophet” in a few days, and I’ll let you know more about my novel idea as it develops.

--Matt Kelsey

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Them evil women...

I wonder if anyone else out there is reading the "Natural" along with Matt. Nice to take a break from the demise of the newspaper industry and the greed of Wall Street and others (you'll love this story...) to read about baseball, eh? Or is it a break?

Malamud wrote this dark novel in the early 1950s (1952) and my guess is he wanted to debunk a lot of the phony hero worship inspired by the second world war in newspapers and popular culture. Norman Mailer, of course, did the same in "The Naked and the Dead." But Malamud chose baseball, perhaps because baseball is home to heroes and occupies a place of Platonic purity in the American psyche.

What disturbs me about "The Natural" is the role women play in it. Harriet Bird, betrayed to the point of insanity, shoots the young Roy Hobbs, guilty of no more than youthful lust, with certain intent to kill. Memo Paris is the second seductress of the novel, a woman of pure greed and unrestrained evil. Iris Lemon is a woman who has been raped twice in the novel -- once in her youth (from which she is socially tainted) and, again by the (anti)hero of the novel himself, Roy Hobbs. (Read that passage by the lake a second time and tell me I’m wrong.) Ultimately, Hobbs rejects her because ... well … she is a grandmother. Curiously, most reviewers ignore her as a minor figure and the act of rejecting her as somehow obvious. In my opinion, she is a major figure; she represents Roy Hobbs’ second chance, which he rejects on, frankly, the strangest grounds. (But, alas, did Malamud, the writer, see these grounds as strange in 1952?)

Hobbs also succumbs to the lure of money and an unflinching drive for fame, epitomized by a voracious appetite on the evening of his most important game. In the immortal words of John Mellencamp: "Ain't that America?"

I agree with Matt. In this case, it was Redford who struck out. Malamud intended us, I think, to know that the hero and the quest in America can sometimes lead to "bitter tears" instead of glory. Or bankruptcy, dishonor, steroid shame, the dismantling of a proud profession (The New York Times appears to be taking a humane route today) … what have you. It was a warning we’ve never heeded in our own quest for heroes until they are finally revealed to us without their fine robes and bulging muscles on CNN.

Anyone else want to weigh in? I'm sure Matt will be back on this...


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Book review: "The Natural"

I literally just finished reading “The Natural,” and I wanted to start writing this review right away. I thought it was important to share some immediate impressions right after I put the book down.

And in that spirit, I’ll start with what I’ve read most recently: the ending.

We’ve all seen the classic ending of the Robert Redford movie based on the book, where Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs, smacks a walk-off home run into the lights to win the pennant for the New York Knights. It’s an iconic scene in its own right.

But that sure as hell ain’t how the book ends.

And in reading the last few pages just now, I can’t help but imagine how fantastic the movie would have been with the ending author Bernard Malamud intended. The book concludes with four pages of unrestrained violence, vengeance and greed, some of the most visceral yet simple writing I’ve ever read.

I get it, though. The film “The Natural” was released in 1984. Five of the top 10 grossing films that year were comedies, and the other five were action movies with happy endings. This was the year of “Police Academy,” “Romancing the Stone” and “Footloose,” the year Daniel-San defeated the Cobra Kai and the Ghostbusters fought a giant marshmallow. Malamud’s dark ending would have been misplaced.

But oh, Malamud’s tale would make a perfect 2009 film, wouldn‘t it? One of the most popular films so far this year has been “Watchmen,” a movie in which tens of millions of people die. Dark endings are no problem anymore.

I’m telling you, a movie version of “The Natural” filmed today would be phenomenal. “The Natural” is ripe for a remake.

Enough about the ending. Let’s take a quick look at the book as a whole.

“The Natural,” the story of Roy Hobbs, is divided into two parts: the first (much shorter) section follows a young Hobbs as he’s on his way to his first Major League Baseball tryout. He’s a wiz-kid pitcher and hitter who totes around a homemade bat named “Wonderboy,” and during a train trip he’s challenged by a world-renowned slugger to a single at-bat. Roy strikes the slugger out in three pitches and looks to be on his way to greatness. But he’s sidetracked by a single act of violence and insanity.

The second section flashes forward 16 years. Roy Hobbs is 35 years old and has just signed a contract for peanuts to play for the New York Knights. After he wins over the confidence of his manager, Roy gets put into a game, but not before the manager advises him to “Knock the cover off” the ball:

He couldn’t tell the color of the pitch that came at him. All he could think of was that he was sick to death of waiting, and tongue-out thirsty to begin. The ball was now a dew drop staring him in the eye so he stepped back and swung from the toes.

Wonderboy flashed in the sun. It caught the sphere where it was biggest. A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky. There was a straining, ripping sound and a few drops of rain spattered to the ground. The ball screamed toward the pitcher and seemed suddenly to dive down at his feet. He grabbed it to throw to first and realized to his horror that he held only the cover. The rest of it, unraveling cotton thread as it rode, was headed into the outfield.

From then on, Roy takes the league by storm. Of course, he’s confronted by obstacles, including gamblers (common to many baseball novels), slumps and women.

It’s that last one, though, that really causes all his other problems. Roy faces a common dilemma in literature, where he’s forced to choose between “the right woman” and “the wrong woman.”

Of the three baseball novels I’ve reviewed so far (also including “Shoeless Joe” and “The Celebrant”), I will say that “The Natural” is my favorite. Bernard Malamud crafted an impressive piece of literature that just happens to be about baseball. This is one of those books you could read once a year and never tire of it.

Now, the only question is, who will star as Roy Hobbs in the remake?

--Matt Kelsey

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pure hustle

I just saw something I've never quite seen on a baseball field.

Sixth inning of tonight's World Baseball Classic match between Korea and Japan. Korean hitter Yong Kyu-Lee drew a walk. In an impressive strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out situation, Yong was caught stealing second base. In the process, he slid head-first into the bag so hard that the bill of his helmet snapped off on the Japan shortstop's leg.

He literally BROKE HIS HELMET sliding into second base.

That's hustle, now. That's Pete Rose hustle.

Not to beat a dead horse, but can you imagine a Team USA player sliding that hard into second base? And not just during the WBC - how about during an MLB game? Or even the World Series?

--Matt Kelsey

Good work, and a (bottomline) goodbye

Matt, you are right on in your analysis of the USA / Japan game. Well written, too.

Folks, you might want to read this goodbye from Bottom Line Communication about reporting on Kansas City media. More on this later.



John has written in the past about the problem with youth baseball in America. And more recently, he's written about Team USA and their "Moneyball" players.

Watching Team USA's Sunday night loss to Japan, which eliminated the Americans from the tournament, proved a direct link between those two topics.

Team USA was outclassed and outplayed by an impressive Japan team. One word describes why they lost: Fundamentals.

Team USA recorded three errors in the 9-4 loss, and all of them hurt badly. In fact, four of Japan's nine runs were UNEARNED. Erase those and it becomes a one-run game, not an embarrassing blowout.

(And it wasn't just errors, either, but sloppy play in general. In the sixth inning, left fielder Ryan Braun absolutely dogged it on what should have been a fairly routine fly ball. Instead of running in to make a catch, he stood there and let it drop ten feet in front of him. I'm sure Brewers manager Ken Macha was thrilled that one of his star players is taking it easy and avoiding an injury risk, but Team USA pitcher JP Howell must have been fuming. Although it's probably what he expected.)

The Japanese team is fun to watch. All their players can hit to the gaps; they can all run; they can all bunt; they can all field their position. Only a few of them can slug, but that's a tool they just don't need when their opponent (USA) can ONLY slug. (The steroids speculation is unavoidable here, especially when seeing Adam Dunn-sized sluggers on the same field with Team Japan. Many of the Japanese players look like they wouldn't weigh 150 pounds soaking wet.)

So to bring this full circle: American youth baseballers are not learning fundamentals. They're not getting the 50 at-bats a day Lofflin spoke of, and they're not seeing hundreds of ground balls on a rock-infested infield. And this year's World Baseball Classic proved it.

--Matt Kelsey

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Listen... Do you hear laughter?

Listen. Did you hear?

Did you hear the sound of three men laughing? Stan Rose, Tom Leathers, and Hal Townsend. Laughing their heads off, they were.

I got curious to see if an old compadre, Loren Stanton, was laid-off at the Star. Sure enough, his name appeared on some of the early lists . Later his name appeared on some typically well-written stories on the Johnson County Sun Website. He’s a professional and his writing has always reflected a touch of simple journalistic elegance.

Loren and I were at the Sun when the Star first hatched the bright idea to create “zoned” editions and tap into the lucrative advertising base in the suburbs. The idea was to fight the inroads we upstarts at the Sun and at Leathers’ and Townsend’s papers were making into their monopoly. The government busted their monopoly in 1957. The Star was forced to sell WDAF TV and radio, and quit punishing advertisers who also wanted to advertise in competing publications – those owned by Rose, Leathers and Townsend, I think, though the original case doesn’t appear to name them.

Listen to the laughter. Now the Star appears to be giving up the battle. If you look at the layoffs, including the layoff of Loren Stanton who was editor of the Blue Valley-Leawood Neighborhood News, you can see the Star is cutting deeply into its suburban bureaus. Can the elimination of zoned coverage be next?

All this just seems to me to go against logic. Early on the logic was demographic and in Kansas City that means geographic. The Star couldn’t hope to subsist on advertising generated only by the core city. Its own reporting showed just how ridiculously sprawled out the city had become in its rush to white flight. To thrive, the Star had to create and maintain a strong presence in Johnson County, Platte County, Clay County, Raytown, Parkville, Oak Grove, Olathe … you name it. So, Goliath tried to smother the likes of Rose, Leathers and Townsend with “local” coverage because the government wouldn't let him do it through rigged advertising policies.

But the Star was still easy for reporters to beat because just stationing people in Southern Johnson County didn’t mean better, more personal, more readable, more local stories. They confused quantity with quality. As I said before, the Star could always be first but Loren and I could always be better. And they still buried local stories inside and in special sections. They still wanted to be Goliath, with national and international news on page one and a national presence to brag on.

The Davids aren’t exactly flourishing today, but they are still swinging their sling shots. Some research shows the smaller newspapers are the only ones growing today. Free newspapers are growing the most. And the Star, well the Star has retreated inside the castle in what appears to be a counterintuitive strategy.

If it weren’t for the real lives of the real people Goliath has cut loose, it would be funny.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Royals on TV tonight

Tired of wall-to-wall college basketball on the tube? Tune in to FSN-Kansas City tonight at 8 p.m. to see the Royals in action, for only the second time this spring. FSN is also going to be showing 140 games during the regular season, including dozens in high definition (which doesn't matter much for those of us who don't have a grand to blow on a new TV).

--Matt Kelsey

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Flash: More Misery at the Star?

The Star just reported Chris Lester is leaving the business page for the Chamber. Still no word on the layoffs/firings. More evidence business coverage is in trouble there. Gene Meyer was laid off last year. His blog is wonderful. Full of excellent economic advice even if you are among the few who aren't out of work.

Gobble-Gobble-Gone: End of an era

The Royals made the inevitable decision to cut Jimmy Gobble today. It's just not worth the money to have him take up a spot in what's shaping up to be one of the best bullpens in Major League Baseball this year.

Although cutting Gobble may seem like just a minor transaction, it actually symbolizes something more significant.

Believe it or not, Jimmy Gobble was the longest-tenured Royal on the roster.

I'm sure this is something the Star will examine more tomorrow. But Gobble had been with the team since 2003. That means EVERY PLAYER on the Royals' major league roster is new since 2004.

That's pretty amazing. I wonder how that compares to other teams in the league.

The results may be questionable, but the Royals have been COMPLETELY rebuilt, just in the past half-decade.

The Royals are not the best team in the league (although I think they have a legitimate shot to win this division), but the fact that they've completely cleaned out the clubhouse since '03 is at least a sign that the team is willing make the changes necessary to win.

Now we're getting good players (Soria, Greinke, Meche) locked up in long-term contracts. That's a positive sign.

Farewell, Jimmy Gobble, and the ghosts of Royals past.

--Matt Kelsey

More Misery at the Star? - 2

Forgot to credit Alan McArthur, a bulldog local reporter, for the Star tip.

If you are interested in some serious reading on this subject, here is an article full of links that will take you days to read, suggested by Brian Steffen, professor of communication studies at Simpson College and one of the best thinkers in the small programs group of AEJMC.

Interestingly, the Star has not reported on the cuts to date. Correct me if this is wrong.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More misery at the Star?

Bottomline is reporting a new reckoning at the Star, another major round of cuts. Just followed all the links in the story and, frankly, I feel the need for a shower.

Looks like the Star is cutting back on the very areas logic would suggest it needs to survive – the local bureaus and the business section. Charging for its unusable television section seems yet another blunder.

Sad to see Rick Alm’s name among those Bottomline thinks got the axe. He is a tough minded gutsy reporter you grow to hate if you’re on the same story.

The Star remains a mystery to me. I’m not sure how a newspaper could be managed in a less reader-oriented manner. The writing remains predictable and turgid, the photography hidden, the design – oh the design! – well, you can’t really call it design. They are pounding the news into the same format every day -- twin gutters and three bumping heads, one large square photo and a circus at the bottom. Hard to imagine “design” as a verb in regard to this.

The Star was always easy to beat on a story – you couldn’t be first but you could always be better – (alas, unless you were up against Alm, among a few others...) This sounds silly to say, but since the 1960s they’ve had trouble finding their voice. None of what they’re doing now will help.


'Thrum of bull fiddle' - Novel notes: 'The Natural'

Since I still haven't tracked down "The Southpaw," the natural next choice in the baseball novel review series is "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud.

The common thread between all three baseball novels in the series so far is they've all been considered, in some capacity, the best baseball novel of all time. But that title is probably given to "The Natural" more than any of the others.

The difference between "The Natural" and some other baseball novels is that Malamud didn't write about baseball very often. In fact, "The Natural" was his first novel, but he never returned to baseball as a main topic after that.

Malamud may also be the only author in the series who's won a Pulitzer Prize. (Not for "The Natural" but for "The Fixer." I tried to read "The Fixer" once but I couldn't get into it.) He also won two National Book Awards.

One last note on "The Natural." This is another book that was made into a popular movie. In many small ways, and in one HUGE way, the movie is unfaithful to the novel. So when you're reading "The Natural," don't picture Robert Redford as main character Roy Hobbs; picture Babe Ruth.

--Matt Kelsey

Monday, March 16, 2009

The best American author nobody cares about (anymore)

So I don’t get burned out on baseball novels (if that’s even possible), I’m not reading them back-to-back. I’m wedging non-baseball novels in between. Having finished “The Celebrant,” now I’m reading a book written in 1966. It was the first novel from an author who went on to write some pretty amazing fiction.

The book is called “Norwood,” and the author is Charles Portis.

If the name rings a bell, I’d be surprised; he's gotten substantial acclaim, but he hasn't reached that penultimate level of literary fame. Most everybody knows about at least one of Portis’ books, though, because it was made into a popular John Wayne movie: “True Grit.”

“Norwood,” which was also made into a movie, is the third Portis book I’ve read (and according to his Wikipedia page, he’s only written five novels over the course of 25 years - the first in 1966 and the last in 1991).

The ones I’ve read are simply brilliant. And what strikes me the most is how different they are; most of the time, authors - even the great ones - fall into a pattern and write what they know. Stephen King writes horror. Mario Puzo wrote mafia novels. Don’t get me wrong, those authors are terrific, and I cherish their books. But it takes someone special to be able to write such diverse books as Charles Portis has.

For example: “True Grit,” the story of 14-year-old girl Mattie Ross teaming up with Old West lawman Rooster Cogburn to track down Ross’s father’s killer, is the best Western I’ve ever read - “Lonesome Dove” included.

“Norwood,” about a young Marine who takes a circuitous route from his home in Ralph, Texas, to New York City, is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” and other great road stories.

And “Gringos,” written in 1991, the story of an American expatriate living in Mexico, most strongly resembles the great mystery novels of John D. MacDonald. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

Charles Portis is still alive and kicking, but I’ve read he’s a bit of a recluse. It’s been 18 years since he’s released a novel and a decade since he’s published anything at all. So maybe we’ll be blessed with another Portis book soon. And this wonderful American author will be brought back to the forefront of American literature.

(And by the way - Portis was a journalist, too.)

--Matt Kelsey

Team USA: Moneyballers ugly again

Bush. Arrogant and bush.

Lindstrom gives up a solo to Bryan Englehardt and he has the supreme arrogance to take exception to the way the big boy paused to watch the ball go out. Leading 8-2, no less. So he throws at the next hitter. Way to make a statement USA.

This, after losing by mercy rule Saturday. The message: We have no humility, let alone class. I want to see Lion-strom throw at Manny or A-Rod then next time one of those guys stares at a ball leaving the park. Wonder if he's up to throwing at Big Papi when he flips his bat twenty feet in the air? Bonds never took too long rounding the bases, did he?

Maybe the Lion would like to throw at Jim Thome the next time a White Sox showboats a home run. Showboating? White Sox? Never happens...

Didn't look to me like the Lion wanted much of Englehardt once the hard feelings spilled out of the dugout. All the sudden his right shoulder didn't feel so good...

Almost as bad as Team USA's silliness was the call from the booth. Sutcliff, as usual, played the homer. And his broadcast partner was relentless in assessing how out-classed the Netherlanders were. (His definition of class and mine are quite different.) Funny thing: at the end of the inning, the Netherlanders were outhitting the Money Ballers 12 to 11, but the broadcast crew failed to notice. They were too wrapped up in the minutiae of Englehardt's admiration for the Netherlands' first and only homerun. It was the most animated either had been all night long.

To be frank, both sounded like they wanted to be anywhere but at the ball park. I'm not asking for Vin Scully, but could we please have some modicum of interest in the game from the booth?

I didn't really care if the Netherlanders won. It was just fun to pull for guys with day jobs. But I do care when the Americans manage to besmirch our image in the world one more once.

--Lofflin, glad to have that off my chest... BTW: If the Netherlanders could have scored just four runs a game, how many would they have lost?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Save us from the naivete of conservatives

I want to get back to Matt's fine piece on The Celebrant later. But David Brooks' latest column in the New York Times caught my eye and I want to quickly comment on it.

No, not comment. I want to quickly and sharply attack it.

Here's the heart of the column:

Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade. They can tell you which education schools produce good teachers and which do not...Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

Brooks is fatally naive here. And, naivete is exactly what bothers me about conservative thinking. What evidence does he have to show high stakes testing will identify the teachers who "develop emotional bonds with students?" It's like the incredibly naive theory of trickle-down economics. I think we all know what trickles down. Damned little. High stakes testing measures even less about teachers who actually connect with students.

Here's the irony: I'm a liberal on most things ("Love me, love me, love me; I'm a liberal -- Phil Ochs) and Obama is only the second mainstream candidate I've voted for in four decades of mostly futile voting. And, oddly enough, I like reading David Brooks and usually agree with some part of his message. But in this case I think both Obama and Brooks have their heads buried in phony data sets.

Truth is, merit pay will do nothing but encourage more lock-step teaching to the test. Teaching to the test is not what made either man the sort of courageous, original thinker he's become. Teaching to the test is a good way to train Walmart greeters once the cordial, competent boomer generation of greeters have passed.

--Lofflin, still steaming after the Netherlands' defeat this afternoon

Friday, March 13, 2009

Book review: "The Celebrant"

Matty told me you were once a pitcher. I suspect that your work is infused with the wish that you were he. You’re not alone. Inside every sportswriter there’s a frustrated athlete, according to the old saw. Why not? The same thing is inside every fan, or anyone who ever picked up a bat and ball.

This quote, spoken by a fictionalized version of sportswriter Hugh Fullerton in “The Celebrant,” digs to the heart of sports fandom: the tired old phrase “those who can’t do, teach,” is similar. Sports fans are essentially failed athletes. Is there a baseball fan in the world who hasn’t at least played catch or swung a baseball bat?

The narrator of “The Celebrant,” which is set in the early part of the 1900s, is Yakov Kaminski - a Jew whose name was Americanized to Jackie Kapp. He is one of these failed athletes. Adept at pitching a curveball, Kapp was on the verge of possible stardom when two factors derailed his dreams: a bad arm and parents who wouldn’t let him pursue the degrading profession. So he turned to a life as a designer for the family jewelry business, and dedicated the rest of his time to rooting for his hometown New York Giants.

During a business trip to St. Louis with his freewheeling brother, Eli, Jackie sees a young Giants pitcher named Christy Mathewson throw a no-hitter. Kapp is so inspired by the performance that he designs a ring to commemorate Mathewson’s achievement.

(In the novel, by the way, that ring becomes the precursor to what we know today as the World Series Ring and Super Bowl Ring.)

Jackie grows to idolize Mathewson, but he is so worried of shattering his own image of the man that he’s afraid to approach him. At this point in the novel, the brothers Kapp diverge down two paths: Jackie, a life of celebrating achievement at a distance (although he does have a few memorable face-to-face encounters with Mathewson), and Eli, a life of rubbing elbows with those his brother idolizes. This becomes critically important to the story of the novel.

So there’s the story of one man’s fascination and celebration of Christy Mathewson.

But then a funny thing happens. In the last fifth of the novel, “The Celebrant” transforms into the best piece of fiction ever written about the Black Sox scandal.

Rumors are swirling around the 1919 World’s Series that the fix is in. But Eli Kapp, who has fallen out of favor with the family business for his lavish lifestyle, has bet his entire portfolio on the White Sox to win. Eli hears about the fix during the series, and asks his brother Jackie to bet on the Cincinnati Reds to balance out his own bets on Chicago.

While Jackie is deciding whether to do what Eli says, he pays one final visit to a sick, dying Mathewson, who sat in the press box with sportswriter Fullerton during the Series and circled suspicious plays on his scorecard. Kapp is still unsure whether the series is being thrown:

[Mathewson] looked at me. “I tell you again that you need none of my wisdom to see the truth of the matter in this World’s Series. It takes no profound knowledge of the game to know where a pitcher belongs on an outfielder’s throw home. You must have learned that, even on the sandlots.”

I saw the play, Cicotte interrupting Jackson’s throw twenty yards in front of home. “Back of the plate,” I said. “He should be backing up the catcher. He had no business in the middle of the diamond.”

“Indeed not,” he said. “Indeed not. …So you have your answer. If’ that’s the sole reason you’ve come here, you may go now to exchange your notes and rescue your brother.” He stared at me, daring me to rise and depart. …

“It isn’t Eli who stands on the precipice,” he said. “It’s you, you, who sways there.”

The last 50 pages of the novel are the strongest, and reason enough to read “The Celebrant.” But the story of Mathewson and his biggest fan is quite a tale.

Maybe W.P. Kinsella was right. Maybe this is “the best baseball novel ever written.”

--Matt Kelsey

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Netherlands -- take two

After their victory over the Dominicans, I caught Dutch baseball fever. Quickly, here is a bit more on Netherlands baseball. MLB.com had this pretty good story today. From what I can tell, baseball started in the Netherlands around 1911, brought to the country by a teacher (yes!) of English. The professional league, Hoofdklasse, dates its beginning at 1922. How ethnocentric are we that as avid baseball fans we did not know Netherlanders have been playing the game professionally since the 1920s?

What colossal arrogance to call our final series a WORLD Series!

The current Dutch team includes players from Aruba -- Simon and Ponson are two -- and players from Curacao. But, Dutch kids play the game, too. I read a story about a father who named his two boys -- Darryl and Dwight -- after famous Yankee players. Their mother said they had no option ("...with THEIR father..") but to choose baseball.

Soccer, of course, is still the game of choice in Holland. Most of the early professional baseball teams were formed as adjuncts to established soccer teams. As one coach put it, if you give a kid in Holland a softball, he'll drop it on the ground and try to kick it.

Look for Kenley Jansen in the major leagues someday. If he can't out-hit Buck, I'd be surprised. We KNOW he can out-throw him.

Photo: Courtesy NY Times

-- Lofflin

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Netherlands? Yes!

This was, quite possibly, the biggest upset I have ever seen in baseball. Not once, but twice did the Netherlands whip the mighty Dominicans. Two wonderful ballgames. The best games a fan could ask. Thank god for the World Baseball Classic.

The Dominicans? I thought their chest pumping antics after they finally scored a run in the eleventh inning, for goodnesssakes, was premature. Way premature. No, immature. It is impossible to avoid the cliche here: Some of these Netherlander's probably work day jobs. They just whipped a team with at least 20 millionaires on the roster.

This just shows what you can do when you want it, when you're hungry. And it shows what can happen when you figure you've got the world by the tail.

And this just reminds me why I love this game. It has a way of getting even, baseball does. It's just too hard, too long, too unforgiving one minute, too forgiving the next. Across all its years, through war, depression, racism and cheating, from a Civil War fought with cannonballs to the automobile, the atom bomb and humans exploring outer space, hitting a baseball safely just once in every three chances is still good enough to vote you into the Hall of Fame. Nohitters are still rare and the cycle is even more rare. The spitter has been replaced by the splitter, but winning 300 games actually seems to have grown more difficult.

Despite steroids and entourages, wanting it still wins big games. Once in a while, anyway. Often enough.

John R. Tunis would have loved this one. The Kid from Tompkinsville came through. A whole bunch of kids from Tompkinsville. Tompkinsville must be somewhere in the Netherlands.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Democracy, or stupidity?

I’ve got a conundrum for you to work through with me.

The Web has the ability, journalistically, to unleash the “great beast” as one of my students eloquently puts it. Open a news article to comments and see what you get.

What you get, among a few cogent posts, is virulent racism in its most primitive form, enough misogyny to make Dr. Dre cringe (since he has a young daughter to go with his sons), an almost complete misunderstanding of the nature of democracy, fear, hatred, conspiracy theories crazy enough to make The Matrix seem like a fairy tale, complete misunderstanding of the difference between:
 Their and there and they’re
 Your and you’re
 Its and it’s
and some pretty funny shit once in a while.

Evidence: Go to the Kansas City Star on-line and follow the comments on any crime story or any story about either Missouri or Kansas sports.

Is this good for journalism?

Professional journalists are held to some pretty solid standards. You and I can debate the number of times they achieve those standards, but at least the standards push them toward a certain kind of content. It’s like the difference between truth and truthfulness. You can debate the nature of truth until the cows come home but you can’t debate whether you intended to be truthful. Good journalists intend to be fair, objective, careful. Posters, keyboard jockeys, often intend only to vent their sometimes twisted spleens.

Is this citizen journalism?

On the other hand, if you believe, as Socrates did, that all knowledge is good, then knowing what these folks think (if that’s the right word) must be good for us. This is true freedom of speech, isn’t it? Participatory democracy of the most complete kind? A genuine marketplace of ideas?

I don’t know the answer. Do you? Let me know…


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Royals have their best outfield in a decade

Everybody's optimistic during spring training, but here's one thing that's for certain: the team's outfield is the best it's been since the days of Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye.

This year's outfield combo of Coco Crisp in center, David DeJesus in left and Jose Guillen in right is going to be pretty good.

Coco was a fine offseason addition, and I'm hopeful he'll slip right in to the leadoff slot. He covers a lot of ground in center, so hopefully his weak arm won't be too much of a handicap. Coco won't put up huge offensive numbers, but he can get on base and he should steal 20-30 bases.

DeJesus really came into his own last season and established himself as a solid player at the plate. He's better defensively in left than in center. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't be surprised if DeJesus is an all-star before too long - maybe even this season.

Everybody comes down hard on Jose Guillen, but he really wasn't all that bad last year. He led the team in home runs and RBIs, which is exactly why he was brought here. Is he a distraction off the field? Yes. Is he worth $12 million a year? No. But who is? Guillen got off to a slow start last season and that skewed his stats for the rest of the season. But he seems to be in better shape this year, and his start should be stronger.

To back up those guys we'll have Mark Teahen (who won't win the second base job, I don't think). Teahen may be one of the best utility guys in the league, and that has some value. I wouldn't be surprised if Teahen gets 300-400 at-bats just in a backup role, since he can play at least four, if not six positions (he can for sure play third and first base and right and left field, and he's passable in a pinch at center field and second base).

And the future looks bright in the outfield. I have a lot of respect for Mitch Maier (although I think they should have kept him at catcher). Derrick Robinson looks like a good prospect. And the two latest first-round draft picks, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, could even end up in the outfield.

The rotation is one of the best around. The bullpen may be the best in the league. The infield has some bright spots. And now the outfield is showing improvement.

I don't know about you, but I think it's a fun time to be a Royals fan.

--Matt Kelsey

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha. Ha.

So I'm sitting here watching the World Baseball Classic, when I notice something laughable scrolling in the news ticker across the bottom of the screen (one of John Lofflin's favorite inventions).

As you surely know by now, Alex Rodriguez trying to avoid surgery. If he can,t he will be out for at least 10 weeks (he really should have been taking more steroids). The scroll notified me about the Yankees' possible replacements for Rodriguez at third base. Their options seem to be Cody Ransom, a 32-year-old journeyman, or a shortstop named Angel Berroa.

You heard that right. Angel Berroa, the former Royals star, and also the former Royals joke, who has played one Major League game at third base, is being considered to replace Alex Rodriguez. Angel Berroa could be the starting third baseman for the New York Friggin' Yankees.

(At the very least, it seems he's closer to securing a roster spot.)

I'm preparing myself for Berroa's unlikely success, though, because I always get furious whenever I see an ESPN anchor take a backhanded jab at the Royals when a player the Royals released goes on to have success with another team. The most prominent example I remember was when the Yankees signed Aaron Guiel after the Royals cut him. Guiel hit a couple home runs for the Yanks, and the anchors had a good chuckle over the fact that the Royals would let this amazing talent slip through their fingers.

For the record - Aaron Guiel is now a big, big baseball star. For the Tokyo Swallows.

Aaron, have your manager save a spot on the Swallows roster for a shortstop - I have a feeling Angel Berroa will be joining you soon.

--Matt Kelsey

Big News -- four bells!

Are you watching? Michael Jackson in on a bus heading for a press conference in London as we speak!

What's more, the president's hair is turning gray.

Oh my. Our profession in its finest moment.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A good laugh can't hurt...

Need a laugh today? This from the weird fruits and vegetables beat (which I was once on...)

-- Lofflin

Novel notes: “The Celebrant"

The history of baseball can be divided into dozens of different eras (which is why it’s tough to compare athletes who played decades apart), but really there are two major periods: BR (Before Ruth) and AR (After Ruth). Officially, these are known as the “Dead Ball Era” and the “Live Ball Era.”

Babe Ruth ushered in a new era of sluggers and power pitchers. But before his time, baseball was dominated by punch-and-judy hitters and finesse pitchers. Ty Cobb, considered the best player of the Dead Ball Era, racked up 4,189 hits, but only 117 of them were home runs (and most of those were probably by accident).

“The Celebrant” is a novel chronicling the Dead Ball Era, which most baseball fans don’t know much about. At the center of the novel, and at the center of the Era, was Christy Mathewson, the great New York Giants hurler.

Pretty interesting time, the Dead Ball Era. Back then, pitchers like Mathewson often threw every other day or every third day, and they almost always pitched complete games (sometimes a starting pitcher would throw both ends of a double-header). Today, of course, starting pitchers are part of a five-man rotation, and most are limited to around 100 pitches per outing. On rare occasions, in the playoffs ace pitchers are thrown on only three days’ rest instead of four; those pitchers are considered iron men.

The atmosphere surrounding the game was also quite a bit different. In the early 1900s, the American League was a fledgling enterprise. National League owners and managers, particularly John McGraw, didn’t recognize the other league as a valid entity. In fact, McGraw and the 1904 Giants boycotted the World Series, because they didn’t think the Boston Americans (now known as the Red Sox) presented much of a challenge.

I’ll talk more about Christy Mathewson and some other issues when I review this fascinating book (I’m about a third of the way through now).

--Matt Kelsey

Monday, March 2, 2009

Captain Obvious gets job with Associated Press

I had to chuckle a little when I read the lede to this Associated Press story in today's Kansas City Star:

"VIERA, Fla. -- Jim Bowden’s final move as Washington Nationals general manager was his own resignation."

Umm, wouldn't that be true of anybody who resigned? Usually, a person's resignation is their final task on the job. It would be weird for a general manager to resign and then keep giving orders or making trades.

As a journalist, I know how hard it is to write a good lede sentence. For me, the lede is always the hardest part of the whole article, and when I encounter writer's block, it almost always happens when I have a blank computer screen. Once I get the lede down, rest of the article flows pretty easily.

So I admit writing ledes is difficult. But the writer or some editor at the AP should have caught this, or someone at the Star should have rewritten it before they put it on the page.

Writing this post takes me back in time to another Lofflin class. I can't remember what class it was, but it involved a large project where we had to search for mistakes in newspapers and magazines. He gave us a list of, I don't know, 30 mistakes, and we had to find at least 25 of them or something like that. Some of them were difficult to find, but what always surprised the students was how common a lot of them were.

(By the way - has anybody else noticed that the Kansas City Star has pretty much thrown basic newspaper design rules out the window? There's a bad wrap on the front page almost every day.)

--Matt Kelsey

A good way to improve American baseball? Ban aluminum bats

Earlier this month, John Lofflin wrote in this post that the best way to “fix” Major League Baseball was to start at the Little League level. I couldn’t agree more. But one thing that should happen immediately could start at the upper levels and trickle down: ban the use of aluminum bats.

There’s been some controversy in Chicago over banning aluminum bats in little league for safety reasons. But I think the real issue here is quality of play. If young players use wooden bats, they’ll be more prepared to play with wooden bats in pro ball. Of course, most young ballplayers won’t make it to that level. But what’s the argument in favor of letting youngsters use aluminum bats? Baseball is more fun when the offense scores more runs, and aluminum bats allow for that? Maybe so. But if you’re not having fun playing baseball with a wooden bat, you probably shouldn’t play baseball at all. Go play soccer.

Now I'm all for allowing aluminum bats in softball. You need a little extra juice to knock a huge softball around. And besides, aluminum is used at the highest levels of softball.

But on the baseball side, let’s start at the top of the amateur ranks and ban aluminum bats in college ball. (Can you believe college ballplayers even USE aluminum bats? It’s unfathomable to me. How can major league teams draft players based on their stats using aluminum bats? That’s probably why the Royals have had so many bad drafts in the past few decades. Yeah. That’s it.)

So start with college. Then, in a couple years, ban aluminum bats from high school. A couple years later, junior high and middle school teams. Then all Little League and youth leagues.

(I’m guessing that there are a whole lot of players and parents out there who would PREFER to use wood bats but still use aluminums. I can understand that; if the whole league is using aluminum bats and you’re using wood, that would make for a pretty sizable competitive disadvantage.)

Here’s my bold statement of the day: If a talented young ballplayer uses a wooden bat instead of an aluminum bat, that experience will give him even more of a boost in his career than steroids ever will.

--Matt Kelsey