09 May

The Kentucky Derby’s Conscientious Objector?

Having grown through my formative years in Louisville, Kentucky, I have an affinity to the Kentucky Derby. I admit that I don’t follow it particularly closely these days, but it was certainly a thing for me and I have lots of great memories closely tied to it (and the week that leads up to it). We still have family there. I still love my Cards. Louisville will always be the Holy Land for me.

I caught the race this year, mostly because we were at my parents’ place and it was on.

Always Dreaming won on a sloppy track, but for me the star was Thunder Snow, who ran one of the more memorable races in the history of the event. That’s how things go. I will probably forget Always Dreaming won, but I will not forget Thunder Snow, who essentially got 50 or 100 yards down the track and just said “ah, well, never mind, eh?” Originally, like most, I was worried that he was injured. But, no, he’s fine.

And so, given that, I give you: An Ode to Thunder Snow, the Real Hero of the Kentucky Derby & Equestrians Everywhere

30 Mar

“The Mysterious Case of Shojiro Sano’s Bats” released

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Baseball is upon us. Okay, technically baseball was upon the Aussies a few days ago, but Monday sees the opening of the game here in the US.

I’m pleased to be celebrating baseball’s opening day by announcing that my short story “The Mysterious Case of Shojiro Sano’s Bats” is available now available through Skyfox Publishing, in various electronic formats suitable for the reader, phone, or tablet of your choice! This is a story set in Japan, and features a baseball fan who just may have gone a little too far. Of course, this fan is also an inspector in Japanese law enforcement. If you’re a sports fan, you’ll sympathize with his plight, and if you’re not a sports fan … well … I suspect there’s something in here for you, too.

Baseball is like that, after all.

You can pick up a copy in the format of your desire at:

Amazon
Kobo (to be added shortly!)
Smashwords
Google Play

 

This story comes along with a free excerpt from my baseball novel See the PEBA on $25 a Day–which is also available on those sites, but through these links:


Amazon
Kobo
Smashwords
Google Play

06 Jul

My Thoughts on 42

Thursday Lisa and I went to see “42,” which is (as I told Lisa afterwards) probably the worst movie I’ve ever really enjoyed. What this means, I guess, is that the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier is so powerful on its own that you almost can’t make it uninteresting. But the story’s presentation is clunky at times, and several of the facts and historical details included are just flat-out wrong–which is pretty annoying, especially since getting them right wouldn’t have hurt the story a bit (or, as I will argue, would have helped it considerably).

Things like the beaning of Jackie Robinson–which did not happen (Robinson was hit, but not beaned in 1947)–and historical oddities like the Dodgers wearing home whites when Robinson later homers off the same pitcher later in the season, even though the game was played in Pittsburgh and they should have been wearing gray. Yeah, the last is petty, I know, but it’s hard to believe the movie makers can get these things wrong. Or things like how, in doing ten minutes of research, you can find out other such simple things–like the fact that the pitcher in question (Fritz Ostermueller) was left-handed, but was portrayed in the film as throwing right-handed.

Yes, it’s just a detail as far as the story is concerned–the handedness of the pitcher doesn’t really matter, right? But still, how hard would it have been to get that right, and where are the lobbyists for left-handed people? I mean, this really can’t stand, can it? That’s lefty discrimination. [healthy grin]

For me the lack of historical factualism in this kind of a film detracts from the power of the story because it tells me the filmmakers didn’t feel the story alone was enough. The bean ball inclusion was particularly aggravating. For me it shows a lack of respect for what Robinson really did. I do not need a trumped-up beaning to understand the vitriol that Robinson faced in 1947. I see no need to sensationalize the process he went through with a fake timeline that included a beaning that did not happen (Robinson was apparently beaned in 1949, two years later– by a Pittsburgh pitcher who was not Ostermueller, BTW. But this story was about 1947). The truth is that Ostermueller hit Robinson on the arm in 1947, and that it rallied the team to Robinson’s side. At best, all you could say is that the pitch was thrown at Jackie’s head, and that Robinson shielded himself with his arm. There was no reason to portray the pitch as a bean ball–except for the fact that a bean ball feels more spiteful.

But it gets worse. Let’s look at the opportunity loss, at what the film leaves out in deference to the bean ball.

By focusing on one bean ball, the film essentially misses the true nature of major league pitchers aggressiveness toward Jackie Robinson. Instead of one bean ball, the filmmakers could have shown a montage of the four times Jackie Robinson was hit by a pitch in the first month of his career (the one by Ostermueller being the last of the four). If they wanted to portray how hard major league pitchers were gunning for Robinson, they could have pointed out the no other player on the Dodgers got hit more than five times in the entire year. Instead, they opted for a passing reference by Branch Rickey that Jackie Robinson was “leading the league in being hit by pitches” while he schooled Pee Wee Reese on what it means to get threatened.

I suppose it could be noted that Robinson was hit nine times that year, and came in second in HBP to the St. Louis Cardinals’ Whitey Kurowski’s 10. This means Robinson was hit only five times the rest of the season–still a lot, but on the edge of normal for a guy who crowded the plate.

This truth for me is much stronger than the trumped up beaning. The truth is that for a month or more, National League pitchers had declared open season on throwing at black hitters, and that there was only one target that fit the bill. A trumped up beaning says there was this one man with isolated hatred. The truth says that there was a simmering resentment across all of baseball that was as deep as the game itself. The truth is that after that first month, that trial by fire, the league settled down. The truth is that Jackie Robinson got hit by a barrage of baseballs for a month and did nothing but get up and trot to first base, and that by those actions he beat the world. The truth appears to be that after the fourth time, his teammates saw a glimpse of the truth and rallied around him.

Anyway.

I admit that I came into the theater expecting to see a framework laid out that defined exactly what the social structure of the country was at the time. I expected to see segregation at its worst, I expected to see the death threats, the FBI, and the social upheaval that this was playing out against. Much of that is in the movie, but some is barely realized, and the rest is done in such an overt, one-note fashion that is seems to reduce the force of the blow (if that makes sense).

Despite all that, I left the theater happy that I had seen it, and happy that it exists. I liked 42. Jackie Robinson’s story is too important to forget, perhaps especially now that the problems the world faces are not so overt. Perhaps that’s why I left the theater thinking “42” is the worst movie I’ve ever enjoyed.

07 Apr

The Cards, Officiating, and Story Telling

I am often surprised at how people think. Or, not surprised so much, as I am amused. The latest round for me is focused on my beloved Louisville Cardinal basketball team and the buzz that seems to be surrounding what others are calling a controversial jump ball called at the end of last night’s final four game against Wichita State. Let’s forget for a moment that Louisville is my team, and that the call went “my” way. I’ve had the exact same point of view a couple years back when Louisville lost a game on a last-second call that went against then-Cardinal Preston Knowles. In both cases, the referee made the right call.

But in both cases some people say “it’s a shame the refs decided the game.”

To which, I say bull-hockey.

In both cases the players decided the game. The refs just made the calls they were supposed to make. In fact, if the refs don’t make those calls then they are actually guilty of doing what they are being bitched at for–specifically deciding the game themselves. If they don’t make those calls, they are giving one team an advantage they didn’t earn.

In the Knowles case from a few years back, he fouled a player with a half-second left on the clock. Stupid foul. But the other team then deserved foul shots, and to not call that foul would have been a cowardly act. But the ref stood up and made the gutsy, right call. In this case, Preston Knowles decided that game. The ref just pointed it out.

Last night, Luke Hancock made a great play, tying up a loose ball that gave Louisville possession. He and Ron Baker, the Wichita State player, decided the game. Not the ref. The only way the official could have decided the game would have been to not award the jump ball that Luke Hancock deserved, to remove the advantage he had gained by ignoring it. Yet people who seem perfectly sane at other times come out of the woodwork after these events and suggest that some great wrong has occurred because referees are trying to “make this about them.”

Boggle.

In the end, I think this has a lot to do with story (you knew I was going to get back to writing, eh?)

People want stories to end in certain ways. They want the underdog to win or lose on a shot at the hoop. They want a victory to come with a big validation, a resounding dunk with two second to go, or a celebratory toss of the ball into the stands. The idea that a foul or other infraction seals a game is somehow not exciting enough, it’s not satisfying enough to these people.

And that feeling is so strong that it overrides their sense of justice. Perhaps they don’t see this. But it’s completely true. Rather than cheer the remarkably gutty performance of Luke Hancock creating the tie-up (as if it were dunk-worthy, which it was), these people deflate. They feel cheated.

The reason this boggles my mind is that I am not like that. It’s taken me some real thinking over the years to actually acknowledge this other perspective, to give it its proper due, to realize its proper place. But I think now that I’ve got it, that it’s an important lesson for us writers.

Fans want stories to end in ways that are satisfying to them, and at the end of the day they are willing to give you a lot of leeway to make that happen.

10 Feb

It’s the Three and the Shot Clock, Stupid

If you follow college basketball, you know one of the current flames being fanned these days is how scoring is down, and what the cause might just be. For me, this is just one more of those things that make we wonder about how people–and especially people who should know better– think.

First, let’s get something straight, this thing about scoring being down is not a new phenomenon. Scoring has been falling for over fifteen years. Here’s a chart from Statsheet.com.

So the entire argument is a take-off on the story of a frog swimming in a pan of water that gets slowly raised to boiling, and it’s been getting hotter for quite awhile. If you follow the link to statsheet, you’ll see a really interesting story playing out over the broad range of stats that are tracked. It’s not just that scoring is down. Free throws are down. Turnovers are down. Offensive rebounds are down, but defensive are up. Fouls are down, as are technical fouls and disqualifications (fouling out). Bottom line, the game is grounding to a stagnant halt.

Fans and commentators, though, being who and what they are, they wonder what’s wrong, they ask: why is scoring down? Interestingly (to me), they ask it in the following fashion. “Why, when we’ve got the shot clock and the three-point line, is scoring falling off so dramatically?” This is, of course, brilliant. The problem with phrasing the question like this is that it pre-assumes the shot clock and the three-point shot will serve to make the game much faster. It’s as if no one has ever heard of the law of unintended consequences. The clock and shot did serve to increase scoring for several years after they were installed, but it turns out that was the case because it took coaches a few years to figure out the right way to play the game under this very different structure.

You see, the reason that scoring is down is clearly because of the three-point line and the shot clock, not despite them. I admit that my comment might sounds nonsensical on first blush. I hear the complaints every time I talk about it to folks: They tell me that if we take away the clock and the three point line and you go back to the days of four corners and stall-ball. That’s what they say. But this is not really true–at least not fully. If I get aggravated enough perhaps I’ll blog on that in another post. This post, though, is about how the three and the clock are the source of the problem, so I’ll stick to that here.

The current thought on the subject seems to point to the fact that defenses are so much better, and that refereeing is so lenient as the source of this sudden loss of scoring. Jay Bilas had a nice bit of a rant on the approach officials are taking. I like Bilas. He’s one of the few who seems to actually think about the game itself rather than just parrot what other coaches and other folks say. It’s clearly true that the officiating has changed, and that this has a strong affect on scoring. But Bilas hasn’t gone far enough. He needs to ask: Why are defenses so much better today that before and what is the relationship between defense and refereeing. Everyone I’ve heard discussing the subject seems to be just peachy happy about these two sources (officiating and defense), but no one is digging any deeper (isn’t the rule of thumb that you should ask why something like five times?).

Let me cut to the chase.

Here’s why defenses are so much better:

  1. Since the advent of the thee-point shot, the defense has had two places they need to guard with their lives–the paint, and the land behind the arc. Hence defenses are designed to focus on both. In order to guard both areas, coaches teach defenders to be much more aggressive.

  2. With the 35-second shot clock, teams have a sixth defender. The goal of defense, after all, is to force a turnover or a bad shot. Knowing you need to play defense for only 35 seconds means that defenses can exert themselves at max effort and the offense will soon be mandated to throw the rock up from somewhere.

Perhaps you don’t agree with me. But I ask anyone here who has followed college basketball since the 70s, to think about the following strategic things:

In the old days, a team sped the game up by playing hard defense. Today a team plays hard defense specifically to slow the game down. In the old days, an offense with good ball handlers could run a team who extended the defense out too far into the ground. Bobby Knight’s IU teams would do this…run constant motion, make you play that extended defense for 50 seconds or a minute or whatever, and find a great shot. IU scored a lot of points most of the time–they had great ball handlers, and they took great shots. In the old days coaches and players had many tools–both offensive and defensive– at their disposal with which to attempt to control pace. Today, pace is completely controlled by the defense, and the goal is to force offenses to use 30+ seconds. It’s possible to play a sub-40 possession game, and the time is coming when we may actually see them.

This brings me to refereeing. Yes, it’s gotten far too lax. This is 100% true. But it’s related to two other human dynamics–first, coaches (and some behavioral scientists) discovered that refs seem to have a limit to the number of fouls they will call. They let the teams determine some rough baseline of physicality, set that as the level of expectation, then they start calling fouls. This means that on average, refs have a tendency to call the same number of fouls every game–and they have a human tendency toward “fairness” (meaning they will even up the calls over time with the exception to having a slight bias toward the home team, hence the very real Home Court Advantage). Given that defenses are stretched to cover more ground and that coaches are teaching more rugged approaches, this means that what has constituted a foul in real life action has slowly evolved to the point where the game is a scrum of pushing and shoving and bumping and holding.

This slows the game.

And then it’s made even worse because well-meaning fans, in their naiveté, scream bloody murder when refs “insert themselves into the game” and call a bunch of fouls. The fan feels the game slowing down and wants the refs to step aside and let the kids play. The problem here is that the average fan is not exactly a Rhodes Scholar during the time that their favorite team is playing. They don’t understand that by asking the refs to not call fouls they are actually throwing gasoline on a fire. All they know is that they want things moving, and a ref has stopped the game. But this call for letting guys play on causes refs to evolve to the point where they call even fewer fouls, thereby feeding the coaches ability to teach more physical play, thereby feeding back into an even slower game.

The fouls chart on the stat sheet shows this dynamic happening. It’s not really scoring that’s dropping–it’s fouls and pace, and those are driven by the three and the clock. Yes, field goal percentage is down a little, also. But the major influence in the lack of scoring is that (if my quick math is close to correct) the average possession is now about 18 seconds. It used to be about 16.7. That may not seem like much, but it’s a nearly 8% slow-down…and realize that the average fast break possession is still no more than 3-6 seconds long. All the gain is in half-court possessions–so the true increase in the average half-court possession is probably more like 2-3 seconds rather than 1.3. That would be a 16-20% slow-down.

The problem with scoring in the college game is not something that’s happening despite the three point shot and the clock, it’s happening because of them, because they slow the game down–a process aggravated by the way the game is called.

31 Jan

Get With it, February

Nice news comes today in the form of an email from Matt Bennardo, who is accepting my work for the One Sentence Story anthology he’s working on with Katie Sekelsky. I’m terribly excited to be a part of this project, as it sounds like great fun. Can’t wait to get hold of it. My story is titled “After.”

This is my second piece of good news this week, the first being that Mike Resnick has agreed to publish “The Teammates” in his new publications “Galaxy’s Edge.”

Still waiting on contracts for both, but assuming no hiccups this represents a two-sale month. Hear that, February? You got your work cut out for you.

06 Jan

The Latest Big Lie

So word comes now that All-American boy, Tour de France icon, and cancer survivor is now considering whether to admit to doping. This is, of course, pretty much akin to a husband thinking about possibly admitting to an affair–sometime after the judge signs off on the divorce papers.

So, after years and years of such adamant denial, after hundreds (if not thousands) of statements made in great passion that he did not have intravenous relations with that syringe, it appears that Lance is thinking of changing his position to one of, “well, yes, I did inject, but I did not inhale, and I did not like it.”

It all might make one wonder what happened to change his thinking–did Lance get hit with a pang of regret? Did he decide he wanted to show kids what the right thing to do was?

No. Of course not.

Instead Lance is apparently thinking that if he admits doping he will be able to participate in other events.

#

At the end of the day, Armstrong’s case is a tough one. It’s a microcosm of the modern sports world and all of its participants. I don’t know where to fall on the spectrum, really. I don’t like the idea of performance enhancing drugs, but I’m competitive enough to understand the idea of what it means to be great, to be driven to be exceptional. And I understand the fact that there are people who would be perfectly willing to give away years of their life at the end in order to be exceptional in the middle.

I get that all.

The problem here, though, is not the act itself–not that he wanted to be exceptional. It’s that he cheated, he broke rules under the table, and it’s the fact of Lance Armstrong’s long, long record of vehement denials that he was not a crook. But the fact is, just as in the case of pretty much every high-profile denial these days, is that yes, it appears he really was a crook.

#

Sigh.

29 Nov

A Wave of Words

Yeah, I know. It’s been awhile.

But don’t worry…I’ve not fallen by the wayside. Not too far, anyway.

I should start this by saying out loud that I had no intention of doing anything like a NANOWRIMO. I was in the middle of this science fiction thing, you see? That science fiction thing I’ve been wrangling for a couple months now and was just maybe-kinda getting to the point with where I was ready to have that break-through that was going to get me to the end. I had no _need_ for another project. No interest. No. None. no NANOWRIMO for me, thank you.

And then came November 10, and I started looking at a baseball sim league.

[ Aside ]: for the uninitiated, a baseball sim league is a computer simulation of baseball wherein totally real human beings run totally fake teams of totally fake players. This is not to be confused with Fantasy baseball, wherein a bunch of totally fake humans create totally fake teams out of totally real players. [ /Aside ]

I love baseball sims, and this one was really interesting–a group of guys and a fake construct that included a “replacement” US major league system with a Japanese wing, and baseball in Mexico, San Juan, and the Dominican Republic. That was interesting as all get-out.

And then …

There’s this writing component to being part of that league. And, well, I got an idea about a tour of the ball parks in it…I got to thinking about how a kid getting out of school with nothing to do might find his way from park-to-park, he might have a buddy and together they might get into a little trouble
here and a little trouble there, and they might … I wrote it down. Words began to flow in ways I couldn’t stop. Wouldn’t want to if I tried.

And so …

It’s 18 days later and I’ve got about 30K words down and there are maybe another 15 or 20K to go. Yeah, I know that’s small for a novel. Screw it. It is what it is. Maybe it’ll be a little bigger in second draft, maybe not. It’s a baseball story, natch. And it’s got a bit of travelogue, with a bit of Thelma and Louise, a shake of On the Road, a flavor of Field of Dreams, and maybe even a hint of the Sopranos. Who can tell right now? It’s baseball, right?

All I can say for sure is that I’m having a blast and that words are rolling from the moment I sit down until the moment I pry my fingers off the keyboard. It’s a wave, you see. A wave of words. And, baby, I’mma so gonna ride it.

17 Aug

Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt ran a 9.69 100-meter dash yesterday to break his own world record and win an Olympic gold medal. His run was so dominant that he essentially stopped running in the last 20 meters, and instead began his celebration.

I admit I’ve become inured to the in-game celebration. It happens now, regardless. A guy tackles his opponent and raises his hands to the crowd. A dunk draws a chest pounding as the dunker jogs back down the court. A homer is now incomplete without the stand-and-stare-and-point-to-the-sky move. I admit I don’t like it, but hey, you know it’s just the gig today. So, great.

Bolt’s action bothered me for some reason, though. And it’s just today that I was able to put it into words simple enough to represent what I’ll call truth. In each of the cases above, the player has at least accomplished something. They have won, but more important, they have tried to do their best and they have accomplished something by doing so. Their crime against my sensibility is one of ego.

If Usain Bolte had run the last 20 meters at his race pace, it is reasonable to assume he would have beat his world record by an astounding number. Perhaps another tenth. Perhaps further. Who will know? But instead he stopped performing before the event was over in order to celebrate.

The message this sends to me is: I don’t care about doing my best. I just want to beat you.

At the end of the day, I guess that’s fine. I like competition, and being competitive is a valuable trait. But it bothers me because it doesn’t seem particularly Olympian, and because it just seems to be out of order. Athletics are so powerful because they are a metaphor for other areas of life. And in the end, I think the order should be: I will do my best, and then I will hope that’s good enough to beat you.

In this light, Bolt’s “crime against my sensibility” is not purely one of ego but also one of a form of sloth. Or, maybe better said, one of lazy craftsmanship.

Think about it.