The Completionist

30 10 2014

My love for baseball began with Return of the Jedi.

As a boy, my mom and I would visit Manhattan Drug, the nearby shop. It was 1983, and I was five. Taped to one of the windows was a picture I had recently colored for a contest, and somehow won: ten dollars, which I used as seed money by buying more crayons and a carrying case for them. The case quickly found its way into a drawer. It was the last time I was paid to make fine art.

Manhattan Drug was one of those shops with low ceilings, dirt-flecked tile floors and long narrow aisles lined with tightly-packed metal shelves. The store sold everything: socks, Whitman samplers, makeup, cassettes, and maybe some actual medicine. Each time everything was in a different place, according to my flawed kindergarten memory. We’d go in and I’d wander into the jungle, looking for treasure: the old childhood economics of picking a toy cheap enough to qualify as an impulse purchase, but interesting enough to occupy the ride home. In one forgotten corner lay a box of trading cards for my beloved Return of the Jedi, and my mom would throw in a couple extra quarters for a few packs.

vintage_topps_jabba1The cards had bright red borders and grainy photographs of Luke and Han, mostly retelling key plot points, sometimes just promotional headshots of the actors in character. In an era before home video, those cards were my way of reliving the film. I kept them in order, and flipped through them, reciting the events that I didn’t have cards for yet. After a few months, and a dozen more visits to the drug store, we’d built enough of a collection to start thinking about compiling the complete set. We bought pack after pack, hunting for the last couple of cards I needed, cursing at yet another goddamned C-3PO.

But before we could, the cards weren’t there anymore. The movie was too old. I still have those cards, somehow still flecked with the scent of the bubblegum that stained the back, sitting in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups tin.

A couple of years later, 1985, I chose instead the brightly colored borders of Fleer baseball cards. I didn’t know the names yet; my parents hated sports and the games were rarely on television anyway. Instead I just searched for the bright yellow border of the Seattle Mariners. The team was full of fresh faces: Alvin Davis, Mark Langston, Jim Presley, Ken Phelps, Phil Bradley and Danny Tartabull were all rookies that year. Small heroes for a small kid. According to my checklists, marked with ballpoint pen, at one point I had a Kirby Puckett rookie card, but it was probably stepped on and discarded one groggy morning. I searched forever for it, combing through piles, never thinking (like any kid) to put them all neatly in one place.

Baseball cards were supposed to be a way to relive baseball the way that those Return of the Jedi cards were for the movie, but for me it was the other way around. Baseball cards made me love baseball. The tiny numbers on the back enthralled me; I loved statistics and used to track my own as I played one-player wiffleball in my gravel driveway. With card sets ranging from 660 to 792, the idea of completing a set was beyond both my imagination and means. Instead I sat with them in piles in front of the fireplace, sorting them by color, examining and ranking the poses, making fun of the pitch faces, reading the trivia on the back. I’ve always treated baseball the way I treated those cards, when I think about it: detached, amused.

101-499FrI’m writing this on the last day of everything, the last day of NotGraphs and the season, and it seems funny to me that I ever wanted to finish that Jedi set. I don’t like endings, especially the end of good things. I finish books because I make myself do it, but it’s rare for me to find a book that I felt ended really well. Regarding television, I’m less disciplined: in ten years I’ve watched seven episodes of Firefly, because that way it’ll never end. Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthrone still alive in my unwatched DVDs of Yes, Minister. But you can’t escape conclusions: my cat’s fourteen, my daughter wants to do everything without help. It’s all so much. It’s why I make so many jokes about death; because I can’t really grasp or deal with the concept.

It’s also a reason why I rarely watch the World Series. As a Mariners fan, I never have to worry about the culmination, the letdown, the sense of any narrative arc whatsoever. Being a Mariners fan is a sort of immortality. So is writing, I’m told, though it feels more like the cobbling of a raft. But baseball especially: baseball really isn’t about anything or for anything. It just is. Any metaphor of it is a mockery of itself, which is fine as long as you don’t mind mockery. It’s unfocused energy, a literal way to pass the time, over and over, the same windups and the same batting stances and the same different scores rolling across the scoreboard. Baseball is Waiting for Godot only, you know… pleasant. Something to pull us out of the terrible future and into the present.

Until we run out of present. Infinity is terrifying, but so is the alternative. We all have our own way of escaping the finite, of expanding it: sports have developed the offseason, and the transition to fandom-of-management that prevents us from ever having to detach from the game. The Star Wars fans turned to novelizations, comic books, and fan fiction to perpetuate their universe of choice. Baseball card collectors turn to errors and variations, the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas and the 2006 Alex Gordon, to redefine their concept of “set completion.” The true collection, in sport, life and even baseball cards, is never done. The alternative is unthinkable.

I still have my 1985 Fleer cards, in the corner of my garage, relics of the Manhattan Drug that is now, according to Google Maps, a Starbucks. Those cards are shameless links to my childhood, the blissful irresponsibility I’ve had to slowly, begrudgingly release. I think the set’s about two-thirds complete. Every once in a while a new one will find its way into my possession, and I’ll add it in. Now, in the modern age, I could finish the set (or just buy a full one) for less than an hour’s worth of work, a couple clicks and a Paypal transaction.

But why rush? I still have time. Just enough time.

The Only Poem about Lyle Overbay

5 01 2013












There once was a man from Centralia
Who looked like he hailed from Australia
His skills are no dream
But when building a team
He’s bargain-bin paraphernalia

Endings, Beginnings, and Basketball in Seattle

16 02 2012

On the afternoon of July 3, 2008, I walked across the street from my dead-end accounting job, climbed into my car, and flipped on the radio.  The voice that greeted me was a stew of emotion: weary, righteous, disgusted, and calculated.  It was the voice of then-mayor Greg Nickels, who was in the middle of declaring what we had long since known, if not admitted: The Seattle SuperSonics were no more.

I felt just as conflicted.  The ugly battle over the fate of my basketball team had raged for a year, the earth already razed and salted.  I remember the promises of funding, the siren’s song of potential investors, and the prideful leaked e-mails.  I read every story as I pushed paper, counting off my twenties with every David Stern-imposed deadline.  When the end came, I was almost too tired to be angry.  It felt like getting laid off from a job you hated but also needed.

Losing a team is complicated.  It puts an endpoint on a pastime, fandom, that should never have one.  All that time I spent rooting for Xavier McDaniel, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, and Danny Fortson was finished.  It severed me from a childhood when I used to listen to games while practicing my dribbling in the basement.  It ensured that I would never be rewarded with the championship that every fan ultimately deserves.  (I was one when the Sonics won their trophy.)  It also reminds you, constantly, of the millions of things that are more important than sports, and makes you feel bad about feeling bad about it.

I swore to give up the NBA that day, even though throughout my childhood, it was perhaps my favorite pure sport.  And of course, I didn’t.  I watched new general manager Sam Presti build foundations out of the ashes of a decade of incompetence.  It began before they left, while I knew they were leaving, and knew I was watching a future champion, my future champion, taking shape.  And after they left, I continued to watch the pieces slowly assemble, pretending that they were still my team, or at least my players.  Now my team has the best record in the NBA.  Every week or so, I check the standings.

On the afternoon of February 16, 2012, I looked up from my homework and flipped on the radio.  This time it was Mike McGinn, his speech a barely-cloaked triumph.  He provided the details of the proposal like a State of the Union Speech: no new taxpayer money, private responsibility for cost overruns, a thirty-year city-controlled lease.  He has, I admit, every right to his jubilance; the deal is quite advantageous for the public, and hopes have begun to stir on the radio stations.  And yet I still feel torn.

Is it because Nick Collison is still grinding out minutes for the Oklahoma City Thunder?  Is it because facsimiles of our banners hang from their rafters?  Perhaps.  But what stings to me is that this is no Cleveland Browns situation.  There will be no expansion.  Seattle has only known new teams, and has lived with the painful adolescent experiences that accompany them.  A decade of losing does not faze us.  It does not even surprise us.

What troubles me is the inevitable change that will undergo the fan base as its attention turns to the attendance figures at Arco and New Orleans Arena.  The same pragmatic, corporate excuses that infuriated me before will be trotted out: the NBA is a business, owners have a right to make money, they simply don’t have the economic model to hold a team. The guilt will be there, but it will be shoved down beneath the excitement, until inevitably forgotten.

The next step is bargaining.  I think about New Orleans, with its shorter history, second professional sports team, its history of relative mediocrity and, of course, its ownership situation.  There wouldn’t be many banners to steal, and the framed glossy photographs of Larry Johnson have already been relocated once.  But it’s still rationalization, and it’s one I don’t want to have to make.

With or without my support, Seattle will someday have a basketball team.  More than likely, it’ll be somebody else’s basketball team.  Will I be complicit in that crime?  How would I even begin to avenge it?  I don’t know.  But I hope I never forget sitting in that parking lot, the car battery slowly dying, as I remember dribbling that basketball between my legs, over and over.

The Greatest Story Ever Forgotten

27 10 2011

I wrote a guest piece for the folks at ProBallNW about a forgotten Mariners pitcher and a pitching duel that has never since been equaled. Read it here.

The Problem of the Pick-off Throw

6 07 2011

The problem with pick-off throws isn’t the fact that they’re repetitive, a waste of time, or that everyone hates them (though these things are all true). The problem with the pick-off throw is that there’s no reason not to do it. In an article for Pitchers & Poets, I dissect the aesthetic and numerical merit of the pick-off, and offer a possible solution.

Review: Out of the Park 12

3 07 2011

There’s always a tinge of fear deep within the loading screen of a new computer baseball simulation game. As I wait, I get a distinct sensation of the passage of time. It’s possible that I’ll devote hours to navigating menus, learning rules, all for nothing. On the other hand, the game could be good, in which case chronology goes right out the window. The loading screen finishes, and a moment later, a key turns in the lock. My wife is home. It is dark. The cat is hungry. I am hungry. The effect is eerily similar to general anesthesia.

This article is a review, and I am a firm believer in transparency regarding the work of others. So allow me to provide the background: I have not played a baseball simulator since Out of the Park 5 was released a lifetime ago. I remember little of the old game. My forays into the genre since have begun and ended with Madden, where every few years I buy the new edition, play halfway through a season, get sick of the interface, and quit.

The computer sports game, as a genre, faces a few issues. The first is that the essential content of the game, the sport itself, is unchanging. When a company creates a series, it can’t (or shouldn’t) rely on producing the same product as the year before, slapping on a roster upgrade and a couple of graphical amendments. Sports games have two ways of doing this: making the game more realistic or making it more challenging. The former is desirable; the latter is usually a necessity, especially for a niche market like baseball simulation. Many of your customers are repeat buyers, and they’ve had lots of practice. In Madden, this phenomenon results in a product so complicated that training courses could be delivered on the subject. For those who progress along the learning curve, this is fine; for those who are new to a series, it can be utterly alienating.

Entering the series with essentially zero experience, I can’t attest to the difference between this edition and the previous one. I was, however, surprised by how accessible the game was. The gears and pulleys are all there; you can agonize over the coaching ability of your team’s Single-A hitting coach, or the likelihood of insulting a free agent by trimming a year off his contract demand. It’s a credit to the game that these features exist. It’s also a credit, perhaps a greater one, that you can largely ignore them. Automation is a click away, allowing the player to focus on whatever aspect of the game he or she finds interesting.

The player must be prepared to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. The game provides e-mail alerts to provide news and subtly remind the player of tasks undone, using an algorithm for producing copy that is noticeable, if not glaring. This is hardly a complaint in a game which is already extremely complicated, but the game becomes predictable in how it supplies the player with information, and this system can ultimately be manipulated (as will be explained below). Out of the Park also provides an online multiplayer experience, which would eliminate the foibles of the computer AI and, in the process, curdle the very synapses of the human brain itself.

There is another way in which Out of the Park fails at complete realism, and in this case it is of no fault of the game itself. In this case, the paradox lies in the free will of the player. The visceral thrill of the baseball simulation is that it provides the player with a level of control that, in the sport itself, the fan lacks. It does so, however, via a bond that can be severed. To wit: I began my experience as the general manager of the 2011 Mariners. After tinkering with the features and the rosters, my version of the M’s were meeting expectations, hovering a few games below .500 based on believably strong pitching and horrendous offense. Then, in the span of three days, Milton Bradley, Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro all went on the disabled list at the same time. In real life, this happens sometimes; the ballclub stumbles onward with an outfield of Carlos Peguero, Michael Saunders and Mike Wilson, and the fan base discovers something else to do with its summer evenings, like gardening. In the game, however, I simply pulled the plug on the season.

For my second time through the lineup, I changed tactics. I began a custom league set in 1977 (OOTP 12 has historical data running back to the nineteenth century) and took the helm of the expansion Mariner club. It was at this point that I realized what game Out of the Park best compares to: Civilization.

The 1977 Mariners are your archetypal cavemen, the baseball equivalent of only knowing mines and road building. Collectively, they’re slow and helpless. And as you watch them grow, the red “End of Day” button looms in the corner, providing a little more feedback, urging you to spend a little more time shaping your team. The compulsive nature of that next turn, the possibilities and strategies that lie beyond it, brings out the best elements of the turn-based strategy game. What followed was the least realistic, most enjoyable baseball experience I’ve had in a long time.

The most direct link between Civilization and Out of the Park lies in the trade screen. The game allows you to shop players around the league, testing out what other teams might give you straight up for a player. Your in-house scout rates those players, based on his own preprogrammed biases. But you’re only allowed to shop three players a day, so there’s strategy in working the market, as well as another incentive to go one more turn. I slowly began upgrading my roster, finding to my surprise that other teams were far higher on my players than my own team appeared to be. The league couldn’t get enough of Julio Cruz; teams fell over each other making offers on him. Even complete scrubs seemed to draw attention, resulting in slight improvements, which led to even more lucrative trades. The process felt extremely similar to improving tiles in Civilization, except that I was improving the raw ratings of my players.

The AI in Out of the Park tends to severely underrate the value of young, team-controlled talent, which was decisive even while playing in an era before contacts really exploded. The limitation on shopping players is meant to be reflected in their morale, but I merrily did it anyway, destroying their self-esteem as I picked through the market. Who cares if they’re miserable if they’re about to join another team? In a couple of months I had transformed my roster from the one on the left to the one on the right:

Mariners, 4/1/77

SP           Glenn Abbott
SP           Diego Segui
SP           Rick Honeycutt
SP           Gary Wheelock
MR         Dick Pole
MR         John Montague
MR         Dave Pagan
CL           Enrique Romo

1B           Dan Meyer
2B           Julio Cruz
SS            Craig Reynolds
3B           Steve Braun
C             Bob Stinson
LF           Dave Collins
CF           Ruppert Jones
RF           Leroy Stanton
DH          Bill Stein

Mariners, 10/1/77

SP           Ron Guidry
SP           Vida Blue
SP           Dennis Eckersley
SP           Jack Morris
MR         Randy Jones
MR         Scott McGregor
MR         Larry Sorenson
CL           Rollie Fingers

1B           Eddie Murray
2B           Lou Whitaker
SS           Robin Yount
3B           George Brett
C            CarltonFisk
LF           Jim Rice
CF           Andre Dawson
RF           Dave Winfield
DH          Reggie Jackson

Stashed on my bench were Dale Murphy, Frank White, Alan Trammell, Darrell Evans, Gary Carter, and Fred Lynn. The only guys I couldn’t eventually pry away were 10/5 guys like Ryan and Carlton. The expansion Mariners rolled along, went 105-57, and took the World Series in six games over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The hypothetical owner of the team took home $5 million in revenue, the fan base was energized, and Seattle became the capital of the baseball world. Realistic? Not in the slightest. Fun? Certainly.

And that’s the other connection to Civilization, one that links us to the beginning of the review. The vast majority of people don’t play Civilization to lose. Many never bump up the difficulty to the point where the computer puts up a fight. That’s because these players don’t need a challenge to enjoy the game; it’s fun for the creative aspects alone, a simulated sandbox. This is how I enjoyed Out of the Park, and it’s how I enjoyed Civilization for a long time. For the latter, I eventually waded into the Monarch difficulty levels, and the possibility exists with Out of the Park as well.

There were a couple of facets to the game that I found disappointing. The lack of logos and profile pictures is unsurprising, and there is a strong community that develops these things for each game. However, the modification process is unintuitive , and my version of the game had trouble at times recognizing files. Perhaps most of all, however, I found the lack of an auto-save feature in the game mystifying. Twice I played into the wee hours of the morning, and stumbling to bed. When I woke, Windows had helpfully auto-updated, quitting the game and losing all my progress.

Overall, however, I heartily recommend Out of the Park 12, especially for new players who may find themselves initially intimidated by all those little numbers and bar charts.  It’s more accessible than it looks, and it has so many facets (managerial, historical and online play) that you’re likely to find something that appeals to you.  But be warned: you may want to keep an alarm clock next to the computer.

The Man Who Couldn’t Hit

21 06 2011

A piece I wrote for Pitchers & Poets about Frank Fernandez, a forgotten backup catcher and greatest sub-.200 hitter in baseball history.  Fernandez was a victim of baseball’s longstanding infatuation with batting average, and the human need for categorization.  Once, when reporters gathered to speak to him after a game, he asked them, “Are you sure you want to talk to a .130 hitter?”



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