January 2013

“Blame it on the truth that ran us down”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

Terry Francona held a town hall session at Playhouse Square this afternoon for a special that will air on SportsTime Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 24. A number of topics were addressed with regard to the future of the Indians. Nothing particularly newsworthy, but certainly an entertaining discussion that involved not only Francona but his father, Tito.

There was, however, one old wound that a fan brought up, and it’s worth bringing up here, too.

skinnerFrancona was asked about Game 7 of the ALCS between the Indians and Red Sox, and, specifically, about third-base coach Joel Skinner’s decision to hold Kenny Lofton up at third with one out in the seventh, with the Indians trailing, 3-2.

I’ve asked our multimedia crew if it’s possible to chase down the video clip of this play. If they’re able to get it, I’ll post it here. (UPDATE: Here’s the video.)

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

In the seventh, Kenny Lofton was on second after a two-base error by shortstop Julio Lugo, and Lofton could have tried to score when Franklin Gutierrez ripped a single off Hideki Okajima down the third-base line. The ball ricocheted off the photographer’s pit and into shallow left field, and Skinner, fearing Manny Ramirez would gun Lofton down at the plate, held the runner up at third.

When Casey Blake hit into a double play to end the inning, that hold-up loomed large.

“It’s tough to read if it’s ricocheting back to the shortstop or to left-center,” manager Eric Wedge said of that play. “I think it was just a tough read for [Skinner].”

In the immediate aftermath and the time since, Skinner has often been vilified for that play. How do you hold up a speedster like Lofton and not test the mercurial Manny? (That such a pivotal play so prominently involved two members of the Tribe’s so-called glory years is the sort of cosmic kick-in-the-gut that Clevelanders know too well.)

Well, here’s what I’ve said any time the topic has come up in the last five years: Skinner was flying blind. He was at an awful angle to make that read, to know if the ball would bounce away from or directly at Ramirez, and so I find it awfully difficult to give him the goat label.

Here’s what Francona said:

“To be really honest about this, being a third-base coach in Boston is probably the most unfair job in the world, because you’re making a split-second decision, and you’re the only one in the ballpark who can’t see the whole field. Because you get that blind spot down the left-field line, and the ball caroms off the wall like it did in that instance. I think what you have to hope for is you have to make that split-second decision and what we used to tell our runners was keep your head up, like on a swivel, so you can be your own coach. Because that happens more often than people realize… If the runner keeps his head up, then he can score on his own and you don’t run into that problem, because the third-base coach is in a real bind there.”

Maybe, when you think of it in that light, this was one of those moments in which the notion of home-field advantage is rather real. Maybe the Indians, as a whole, should have been better prepared for such a scenario. Maybe we ought to consider the possibility that Lofton could have/should have acted on his own and ran right through the stop sign (it’s not the boldest suggestion in the world, given that Lofton played 63 regular-season games at Fenway in his career and was, therefore, well-versed in its quirks… to say nothing of Manny’s quirks). And maybe we shouldn’t forget that Blake grounded into the ensuing double play on the first freaking pitch (not that Indians fans ever had much trouble picking on Blake over the years).

loftonThis, then, was a sequence with no shortage of blame to go around. And it undeniably altered the complexion of that game. Teams that advance in the MLB postseason have to have a little bit of luck on their side, and they have to have the talent to capitalize on that luck. The Red Sox did just that, as they went on to stomp the Tribe, 11-2, that night, before sweeping the Rockies in the World Series.

Indians fans, meanwhile, were left to bemoan that seventh-inning sequence, and pointing the finger at Skinner has always been the easiest coping mechanism available to them.

You know, this is as good a time as any to bring up another element in this that I’ve thought about often. Prevailing wisdom in these parts — and I’ve heard it uttered from many a neighboring barstool — is that the Indians would have make short work of the Rockies in the World Series, if only they would have gotten past Boston.

Admit it: You’ve thought or uttered that belief at some point, have you not?

My counter to that contention is simple: Who could be certain of such a thing? Did you watch the way CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona pitched in that LCS? Were you supremely confident in Joe Borowski in the ninth inning? More to the point, are you at all familiar with Cleveland sports? Don’t you think it’s even the slightest bit possible that there might have been some other disaster waiting around the corner?

No, all we know is what we know. We know the Indians lost Game 7, and they haven’t been back to the playoffs since. Maybe Francona will get them there again. But in the meantime, let’s back off the belief that Joel Skinner and his magical stop sign were the only things standing between the Indians and World Series championship glory. It’s never that simple, really.

~AC

PS: Just showed this post to my dad. He read it, he liked it. But he still blames Skinner.

A defense of the attack on “Field of Dreams.” Or an attack of the defense of “Field of Dreams.” Or something.

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

There was this movie on one of the Showtime channels — not sure if it was Showtime Beyond or Showtime Extreme or Showtime Moderate or Showtime Time-Waster — the other day called “Vibrations.” It is the story of an up-and-coming young rocker named T.J., who loses his hands when his car is attacked by drunken, violent hooligans.

You’re already intrigued, aren’t you?

fodWell, spoiler alert: T.J. flees his hometown and his comely girlfriend and becomes a drunken bum on the streets of Manhattan… until Christina Applegate and her friends in the electronic music scene come along and help restore his confidence by creating mechanical hands that can be programmed to play the keyboards. Under the stage name Cyberstorm, dressed like a futuristic robot, he becomes a huge hit on the club circuit, and his national tour takes him back to his hometown, where he gets revenge on those hooligans (coincidentally enough, assigned as security guards at the theater he’s playing) by locking them into a basement and subjecting them to obnoxious noises at full volume.

No, I didn’t make any of this up. This movie really exists.

“Vibrations” is a story about love and friendship, about overcoming difficulty and handicap, about redemption and revenge. So it has some admirable, overarching themes.

But these themes do nothing to prevent “Vibrations” from joining “The Room” as one of the most addictively awful movies I’ve ever seen. It is poorly acted and poorly conceived. And if we didn’t live in a world in which a guy like me could have access to 19 different Showtime channels, it inevitably would have been lost in the sands of time.

Now, I’ll allow, easily, that “Field of Dreams,” the film my friend and MLB.com cohort Jordan Bastian is so passionately defending, isn’t anywhere near as bad as “Vibrations.” It had a bigger budget, bigger stars and, of course, has a much, much bigger following. “Field of Dreams” is routinely listed among the best baseball-themed flicks of all-time.

One issue with “Field of Dreams,” however, is that its supporters are so fiercely devoted to its father-son sentimentality and tear-jerking homage to the glory of the game that they lose all sense of rationality and reason. To rail against the movie, as I did in a recent column, is, in their eyes, to demystify a legend, to desecrate a sacred social institution, when, in fact, all those of us in the anti-“Field of Dreams” camp are doing is pointing out that the plot is preposterous, the sentimentality is silly and Kevin Costner is annoying (the movie poster alone is annoying).

Another, otherwise reasonable MLB.com colleague, Zack Meisel, tweeted at me the other day that if I don’t like “Field of Dreams,” I don’t like baseball. What a ridiculous suggestion, Zack. I love baseball. And the best thing about baseball is that I don’t need sci-fi theatrics, ghost stories or unresolved daddy issues to love it.

There seems to be an assumption that those of us who don’t like “Field of Dreams” (and while I am clearly in the minority, I know I’m not alone in this opinion) don’t understand its message. As if the depths of this screwy script can only be deciphered by only the most emotionally advanced among us.

Please. This could not be further from the truth. Just as anybody with at least a third-grade education can understand the message in “Vibrations,” the message in “Field of Dreams” is not so difficult to decode.

It’s the presentation that leaves plenty to be desired.

Sure, it’s frustrating that Ray Liotta wasn’t dedicated enough to the Shoeless Joe Jackson role to learn how to take a few swings from the left-hand side of the plate. But every movie has its share of “goofs” that make their way to the IMDB page. No, my central issue with “Field of Dreams” is that it dumbs down the profound issues of generational conflict, spirituality and the afterlife and, in the process, abuses and cheapens the connective qualities and simplistic beauty of a great sport, all for its own box-office gain. It is a fairy tale that feels more like an acid trip — an overly layered plot that is too corny and contrived for its own good.

The House Where The Movie Field Of Dreams Was FilmedShoeless Joe, you’ll remember, is the central figure in an argument between Ray Kinsella and his dad — an argument that leads Ray to flee home and never see his father again. Ray doesn’t respect his father because his father’s hero was Shoeless Joe, one of eight men banned from baseball as part of the Black Sox scandal.

Listen, Shoeless Joe took the money. $5,000, to be exact. But he played a great World Series. So his is a complicated case involving potential moral corruptness but probably not outright criminality. Count me among those who believe his “lifetime ban” from baseball should have ended when he died. But let’s not rope Shoeless Joe into our parental problems, all right? Let’s not use him as an axis in some conceptual conflict meant to illustrate the generational divide between 1960s-era fathers and sons. Hasn’t Joe been through enough? Let the man rest in peace, for God’s sake.

And Terence Mann? Make up your mind, Mann. Are you an anti-establishment black activist, or do you worship at the altar of baseball nostalgia and all the racial segregation it once embraced? (Bastian mentioned wanting to go to the “Field of Dreams” to see Cool Papa Bell stealing off Josh Gibson. I didn’t see either one in the movie. Let’s just leave it at that.)

One of the many agonized (and agonizing) themes of “Field of Dreams” is pursuing your dreams without regard for the cynics or the skeptics. As Bastian wrote: “It was a story of a man doing something he believed in, no matter what people thought of him along the way. He risked everything in order to do something he felt was right. He had a dream, and wanted to have a catch with his dad, and the baseball gods made it possible.”

Wait a minute… let me get a tissue.

I’ll counter with a public-service announcement: Just because you hear voices in your head doesn’t mean they’re correct, OK? Costner’s character winds up redeemed here because enough lunatics happen to share his “vision” to plop down $20 and see his field of ghosts. Let’s not take that as gospel that we should risk our family finances and livelihood to pursue every half-cocked hallucination we have (in fact, as I type this, my wife is upset that I’m paying more attention to my dream of artfully ripping “Field of Dreams” than I am to watching the NFL playoff games with her… she’s probably onto something). And we certainly shouldn’t put our families at risk if the end-goal is to summon some dead relative. Nine times out of 10, their spirits do not emerge in our cornfields.

Hey Ray, you have regrets about the way you disrespected your father? Leave me and my $7 out of it, all right?

I think one reason “Field of Dreams” sneaks its way onto so many “best baseball movies” list is because of the simple fact that there aren’t many great baseball movies. Many of them wind up too intellectually dishonest to appeal to real baseball fans and too boring to appeal to the masses. If Hollywood wants to co-opt baseball nostalgia for its own greedy gains, I’d rather it just leave the game alone altogether.

vibrationsBastian’s response to my three paragraphs of anti-“Field of Dreams” propaganda was well-written and heartfelt. Ultimately, though, his post was about his fond feelings for the field where the movie was filmed — a field he and his family visited each summer of his childhood. And as my initial column made clear, I love that field, because it represents the game’s more simple and satisfying strengths. The field is everything the movie is not — uncomplicated, well-constructed and a beauty to behold.

Those are some great childhood memories and photos you have there, Bastian. I have a childhood memory, too (but, sadly, no photo to accompany it). My memory revolves around the day in 1989 when my dad, my brother and I (just 8 years old) went to a matinee at the Lakeshore 7 in Euclid to see a newly released baseball movie called “Field of Dreams.” The Lakeshore 7 sits just down the street from Sims Park, where my dad would take me just about every day one summer when he was unemployed to play catch (not “have a catch”… because nobody who has any appreciation for proper linguistics would ever teach their kids to say “have a catch”).

The lights went down, the movie came on, and, a couple hours later, we walked out of the theater, and our opinion of what we saw was (and is) a shared familial feeling:

“Field of Dreams” stinks. It stunk then, it stinks now. And given the choice, if only for a dose of unintentional comedy, I’d rather watch “Vibrations.”

~AC

“All the females want to drool”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

I’ve got a story up on the main site today about Trevor Bauer, who met with the Cleveland media this week and made a fantastic first impression (you should also read Jordan Bastian’s story here).

Bauer is a fascinating figure, be it because of his importance to this Indians’ organization, his quick descent from highly prized prospect to discarded trade piece in Arizona, his oft-discussed training program, his intellectual approach to the game and the variety and intensity of opinions about him and his skillset. Frankly, it’s all too much to fit into a single story, and I’m certain Bastian will have plenty of Bauer-related content in Spring Training and beyond.

But I wanted to delve just a little bit deeper into one aspect of my interview with Bauer that didn’t get full coverage in the column: The rapping.

Below is the YouTube video for “Diamond in the Rough,” the rap song mentioned in the piece. It was released by Bauer and his friend Connor Garelick, under the name Consummate 4sight, last summer.

It’s not great, right? It actually contains the line, “I’ve got slobber on my feet, ‘cause all the females want to drool.” Not great.

I do, however, find the feelings of detachment Bauer expresses in that song to be interesting, and that’s a theme I explored in the story.

But what about this act of rapping, in and of itself? It is, after all, the nature of our often-dismissive, hyper-critical world to scoff when a guy like Bauer gets involved in an extracurricular pursuit of this nature.

Frankly, though, I love Bauer’s perspective on the matter.

“It’s something I really enjoy doing,” he said. “People can say whatever they want about it. I know I’m not good at it. But maybe one day I’ll make a song where one person gets something out of it that helps them.”

In other words, Bauer knows it’s just a hobby. If you don’t like it, don’t listen. And as he put it, if his hobby was fishing and all he could reel in was a two-inch fish, would anybody rip him for that? Probably not.

As a guy who writes for a living, I can certainly appreciate Bauer’s creativity and the honesty he conveys when he puts pen to paper.

“Writing has always been my way to vent,” he said. “When I’m down, when I’m happy, I write. I like to write. I like the puzzle that words are. My dad wrote two poems a year for my mom — one for Mother’s Day and one for her birthday. I started helping him write the poems, so they came from me and him. And then my sister, who also likes to write books, got into it. It became a family thing.”

The rapping is not a family thing. In fact, Bauer said he only turned to rap by default.

“I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument, so I was pretty much left with nothing but rap,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a rapper. I’m not that into it. I have no illusions about that. I’m not trying to make a career out of it… There’s a lot that goes into the process. Coming up with lyrics, finding the rhythm, making the beat. I taught myself how to do that from scratch, as well as the actual mixing techniques. How much reverb, how much EQ [equalization], how much compression, how do you make the whole thing fit together?”

Bauer, who studied mechanical engineering at UCLA, is always trying to learn how things fit together and why they work the way they do. It’s something he obviously applies to pitching, and he’s made attempts to pass what he’s learned along to the next generation.

“I’m trying to give young baseball players a resource,” he said. “Someone they can bounce questions off. That’s the reason I have a YouTube channel and a Facebook page. People ask questions, I can make a video for them.”

You can find Bauer’s instructional YouTube channel here. You can find his Facebook page here.

And if “Diamond in the Rough” whet your appetite, Consummate 4sight has several songs on SoundCloud.

~AC

“I can hear the wild wind blowing”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

Well, this is what happens when you hesitate or procrastinate or otherwise elongate what ought to be a prompt procedure. You end up writing an introductory paragraph on top of an introductory paragraph, and you get another life lesson about the value of striking while the proverbial iron is hot (and we’ll just have to save the lessons about using clichés and misusing the word “proverbial” later).

What I’m trying to say is I’ve had this file called “DQ DAVE” sitting on my desktop for the last couple weeks, and it was an intended blog post about the vast value of mere effort, of approaching life with even the slightest hint of panache and pizzazz. But — perhaps ironically — I’ve let that file sit there, half-written, because all the little moments, both magical and mundane, that make up the holiday season kept getting in the way of me finishing it off. And then on New Year’s Day, I woke up and the first tweet I read was from the ever-brilliant Joe Posnanski, linking to his latest blog post about this very topic. And his includes a review of a Springsteen concert, naturally, making the fact that I essentially got scooped on a philosophical thought all the more frustrating.

So anyway, let’s just acknowledge that Posnanski nailed it, and no matter what I write from this point on it likely won’t involve mention of Little Steven’s guitar solo on “Cover Me” so, really, there’s not much to see here. But I do still want to tell you a little bit about DQ Dave.

cookiejarYou see, one of my many guilty pleasures is Dairy Queen. I love Dairy Queen. Back in high school, my friends, the Paoloni brothers, worked at a Dairy Queen on Mayfield Road. It was one of those old-school, shack-sized Dairy Queens, since torn down and rebuilt to better incorporate both the “hot eats” and the “cool treats.” Needless to say, I liked the old one better. When I go to Dairy Queen, invariably for a Blizzard, I prefer the person taking my order be focused firmly on the “cool treats.” I don’t want their mind wandering or gravitating toward the “hot eats.” I feel this can somehow detract from the Blizzard experience. And the best thing about having friends working at Dairy Queen in high school was that my Blizzard experience was always top-notch. They would not let you walk out of there with a Blizzard that wasn’t thick enough to break the red plastic spoon. (They also let you get creative with your order. I would hope my friends would attest that, in 1999, I invented what is now known as the “Cookie Jar” Blizzard, and my inability to properly cash in on this invention is yet another in a long list of regrets caused by hesitation.)

Well, time marches on, and the Paoloni brothers did not, in fact, make a lifelong career out of their Dairy Queen employ. This has worked out wonderfully for them, but not as much for me, because, as is too often true in life, good help and good service are hard to find. Even at Dairy Queen.

But in the last couple years, a wonderful thing has happened. The Dairy Queen in our neighborhood, I’ve come to discover, has an employee named Dave. And Dave is like a Paoloni brother reincarnated. Or something. Point is, he’s wonderful at what he does. If we go to get Blizzards, we cross our fingers and hope DQ Dave is working that night, because nobody this side of the Mississippi can mix a Blizzard quite like DQ Dave can.

I know next to nothing about Dave, aside from the fact that his name is Dave. I don’t know what his hopes and dreams were or are. I don’t know if he runs the DQ or seeks to one day own a DQ. I don’t know if DQ is, for him, a step on the so-called career ladder or a final destination. I just know that, when it comes to mixing Blizzards, Dave has a job that many people would wearily plod through, a job that any pimply faced teen trying to make some gas money can probably do with very minimal effort or intensity. But Dave is different. Dave does his job with flair. He takes pride in his Blizzards. He ensures that you get your money’s worth when it comes to the portion size of your toppings.

And this is the brilliant part… after the mixing is complete, Dave returns to the counter, Blizzard cups in hand. He turns them upside down to reveal to you that these wondrous creations of his are so thick and so perfectly congealed that there is no danger of them spilling out, even at this 180-degree angle. It is this awesome little detail that makes you momentarily forget you just plopped down $4 to get a little bit fatter.

This, ultimately, is the essence of a life fully lived — taking pride, and not in some boisterous or obnoxious way, in what you do and how you do it. Unfortunately, not all of us are blessed with the skill or the luck to ascend to some prominent and well-compensated position in our work lives. Not all of us have the intellect to cure diseases or the financial flexibility to change lives. But we all have the ability to make this world a little more special, a little more satisfying, a little more interesting for ourselves and those around us. Let’s all remember that as we begin a new year.

***

Well, this is an Indians blog. I think. So I’m going to somehow relate the above to the Cleveland Indians.

I like this Indians offseason. Not because I think the Indians have set themselves up to be dramatically better in 2013. Frankly, it remains difficult to view them as a legit contender in the coming year. But this offseason, much like a visit to DQ Dave, has been just a little more interesting than recent offseasons past, and the Indians’ competitive chances both in the immediate and the long-term have improved. Tribe fans deserved at least that much.

When last I wrote in this space, all too many moons ago, I advocated a trade for Asdrubal Cabrera. Asdrubal Cabrera, you might have noticed, is still around. Perhaps that’s a matter still subject to change. I would still argue that you can get by on a steady dose of Mike Aviles, waiting for the kids to ripen in the upper levels of the farm system, and get back a nice haul for Cabrera. But in the meantime, the Indians did something I didn’t think was all that possible — they eked out a satisfying trade return for one year of Shin-Soo Choo’s services. And while Trevor Bauer, the key acquisition in that swap, comes with a reputation that was soiled especially quickly in Arizona, he represents the kind of risk this organization has no choice but to entertain. He has a high ceiling, so his arrival to an organization loaded with pitchers whose ceilings are an injury risk to your head is a welcomed one.

The Tribe essentially gave up one year of Choo for nine years of Bauer and Drew Stubbs, with a couple relievers tossed in. It is impossible not to like that trade from the Indians’ perspective. I particularly liked the way Chris Antonetti seized upon Kevin Towers’ particular (and some D-backs fans would call it peculiar, considering what he gave up) fascination with Didi Gregorius to orchestrate the swap after direct discussions with Arizona (discussions that involved Cabrera) bore no fruit. It’s difficult to pull off a trade in this game, and it is exponentially more difficult to pull off a three-team swap. A real understanding of the worth of your assets and the desires of your fellow GMs is a prerequisite. Antonetti met it.

We’ve discussed here, once or twice, that Antonetti’s tenure as GM has been about as smooth as Ubaldo Jimenez’s delivery, which is to say it hasn’t been smooth at all. But in a winter in which the Indians had plenty of reasons to strip things back down to the bone, they’ve surprised a lot of people in the industry with their aggressiveness. That all began, of course, with the move to bring in Terry Francona, and the aggressiveness in free agency has been made possible by a sudden influx of TV money, both national and local.

swisherLook, the Nick Swisher signing, the Mark Reynolds signing and now the Brett Myers signing… are these moves enough to put the Indians in the same class as the Tigers? On paper, probably not, and we have plenty of time in the coming days and weeks for further analysis and soon-to-be-obliterated predictions. But suffice to say there is risk in giving a 32-year-old Swisher the largest free-agent contract in club history and adding Reynolds’ 32.6 percent strikeout rate (then parlaying that with Stubbs’ similarly frightening strikeout tendencies) and converting Myers back to starting work (in the AL, no less).

But if you’re an Indians fan, you certainly have to be encouraged to see them doling out some dollars to take those risks, rather than orchestrating another major rebuild just three years after the last rebuild didn’t really build much. Fact is, this is not an ownership/front office group that has ever punted on, say, a five-year window in order to save money and reap draft picks, as some other small markets have been prone to do. And while STO was not exactly a YES-like revenue-generator, we can certainly see, in retrospect, how it worked out for the Dolans, squeezing a major monetary commitment out of FOX Sports about six or seven years after negotiations over a renewal with FOX didn’t go where the Indians wanted them to go.

No, the Indians’ payroll isn’t really going to jump into a new stratosphere, and the difficulties that come with being a small-market club situated in the general midst of three other MLB clubs and in a town that has seen major population declines aren’t going away. But Indians fans have to at least appreciate the way the last few months have played out, for they’ve seen the Tribe do things in a new way with some new voices on the front lines and new money in-hand. “New” does not always equate to “improved” (see my above feelings on the DQ on Mayfield Road), but we can all agree the Indians had every reason to shake up their way of doing business, to do things with a little more flair, to make this winter a little more interesting for a frustrated (and, if attendance is any indication, shrinking) fan base. They’ve done that, without hesitation or procrastination.

~AC

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