Archive: September, 2022

How deep is your fandom

Mariner infielder Adam Frazier exuding the team's current level of energy and enthusiasm for life

I went to the ballgame tonight with my friends K & E, who are relatively new converts to the roller coaster ride that is the Seattle Mariners. Well, K is, anyway, E was half in the bag beforehand. But they're into it, and this year has been especially fun for them as well as lots of other longer-suffering fans as the team has been contending for the playoffs for most of the season. If the season ended today, they'd be in. (Sure, only because of Rob Manfred's BS expansion of the playoffs, but still, they'd be in.)

But as I've said a few times to various people over the past few weeks, there's still time for them to screw it up. The Mariners have psyched us out before, so it's easy to be jaded. And in the last two weeks, they've reminded us of why jaded is the default emotion for Seattle baseball fans.

From September 15th onward, the Mariners' schedule featured 20 more games, none against even remotely intimidating opponents, and on paper it looked like an easy cruise to a Wild Card berth—the top of those three positions, even. But what did they do? First the went to Anaheim to play the pathetic, perpetually snakebit and geographically confused Los Angeles Angels for four games. The M's lost three of them. Then they hopped up the coast to the East Bay and played the last-place Oakland Athletics. The M's lost two of three. Then a jaunt to Kansas City to play the 28-games-under-.500 Royals. The M's not only dropped two of three to KC, in the finale they blew a nine-run lead, allowing the Royals—who had topped ten runs in a game only five times all year—to score eleven runs in a single inning on the way to beating them 13-12.

Which brings us to tonight. I had by flukey happenstance gotten my pals and myself outstanding seats for tonight's game, right below the pressbox on the club level. The teams that the M's are competing with for playoff spots had already lost or were losing (though Tampa Bay came back and won in extras). The Mariners' big offseason free-agent star, defending Cy young winner Robbie Ray, was pitching against the visiting Texas Rangers, who were 22 games under break-even and ranked near the bottom of the SEAlogoleague in most pitching categories. Time to right the ship and stake a claim to that postseason berth.

Naturally, they got shut out.

It would be one thing if the Mariners lost 5-0 to a pitcher having a brilliant game, or a team that made astounding defensive plays to keep them off the scoreboard. But no. This was still the Texas Rangers. And to rub salt in the wound, they even used the stupid "opener" strategy of starting a relief pitcher for the first inning or two before going to the guy that they expect to pitch the bulk of the game, a tactic that has so much going against it that it tends to backfire spectacularly. Nothing-special Triple-A callups pitched the first 523 innings and nothing-special veteran relievers pitched the rest, a total of six guys, all of whom looked rather "meh" on the mound. This is the crack staff that held the ostensibly playoff-bound Mariners to just two hits over the first six innings.

The M's would get three more hits before it was done, but one was immediately erased on a double-play and the others came with two outs (in the 7th and 9th) down 5-0 and were inconsequential nuisances akin to a single gnat buzzing one's hairline as far as the Rangers were concerned.

I get it, it's a long season. The guys have been playing hard for six months and they're tired. They're a little banged up (Eugenio Suárez was even batting with a broken finger). But tonight it looked like they weren't even trying. Like they didn't care anymore. And that includes their manager.

Sure, Scott Servais often appears not to care about his team winning games when he "strategizes," so that's not new. But here's what he did today. First, he made out a lineup card featuring a middle three that are all all-or-nothing guys: .200 hitters, more or less, that will bop a home run if they make good contact but strike out a lot more. (You could add a fourth consecutive guy if you count No. 7-batting Jarred Kelenic as all-or-nothing, but really he's still just an underachieving mystery surprise.) This is in keeping with the Servais (and Mariners in general) history of living and dying by the home run while giving no more than lip service to other methods of baseball offense and it annoys me. I'm not saying you don't use those guys in your order, I'm just saying don't bunch them all up together. So, of course, the first time the M's had an offensive threat it fizzled—Ty France and Mitch Haniger led off the home 4th with hits, the first of Seattle's night. Two on, none out, middle of the order due up. Home-run threats all, but incapable of much else. Predictable result: strikeout, fly ball, strikeout.

It's a crap photo, but the dude can play the sax.

At that point it's still just 1-0, not that bad. We get to the 8th at just 2-0 and Servais goes to the bullpen for his only lefty reliever, Matt Boyd—who strangely got the sirens and the light-show "Los Bamberos" introduction despite not being (a) a particularly hard thrower or (b) in to put out a fire of some kind or (c) in a position to hold a lead or even a tie—to face the left-handed-batting Corey Seager and Nathaniel Lowe. Not the worst move, but still a bit of a head-scratcher given the circumstance. Boyd promptly hits Seager on the wrist and gets Lowe on a foul out. Then the inexplicable: Servais has Boyd intentionally walk Adolis García to get rookie Josh Jung to the plate with two aboard, but not trusting Boyd to continue he goes to the ’pen again for Diego Castillo. Jung had already homered in the game and driven in the second Texas run with a hard single, but that's the guy Servais wanted to face and what do you know, Jung crushed another one deep into the night for a three-run bomb. Jung had all five RBI for his team.

Not done yet, Servais also made us channel Professor Farnsworth in the 9th, when the M's were trying to keep hope alive with two runners aboard and one out he went to his bench to send up pinch-hitter…Abraham Toro. Eh, whaa? Toro popped up, which was surprising in that he managed to actually make contact with a pitch. Last man up Adam Frazier tried to make it mildly interesting with a deep liner, but it was caught on the warning track to end things with a whimper.

But really, no matter what the manager chose to do or not do wasn't going to matter tonight. These guys didn't have it in them. They're dragging. Listless. Playing as if they are all feeling as I do in the midst of a black-hole episode that has all my senses seemingly encased in a thick layer of gauze.

As we were making our way out of the stadium, we went by a guy playing the saxophone near the parking garage. He was belting out a pretty fine rendition of "How Deep is Your Love" by the Bee Gees and I wondered if he was making a comment on the Mariners and their late-season crash-and-maybe-burn. As in, hey, what a crap couple of weeks for these guys! They look like toast! But we'll love them no matter what. I think. Wait, will we? 'Cause we're living in a world of fools, breaking us down...

My friends and I still had a nice evening. It was a warm night out at the ballyard in good company with a terrific view from seats that are generally well beyond my price range, and I feel like I need to get at least one game per season in with these particular pals or things just go off-kilter, so totally worth it.

I just wish the team we came to see play had been up to the task.


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New Rules

Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred, laughing maniacally as he continues to mold the game of baseball like a toddler pounding a lump of play-doh into an unrecognizable blob

He's at it again.

The Commissioner of Baseball, one Robert D. Manfred, has made it his mission to turn the game he is the current custodian of into something all of its previous custodians would not recognize. So far, he has instituted a swarm of smallish rule changes as well as a few huge ones to Major League Baseball and he's got more coming next year.

If I may paraphrase J. Jonah Jameson, the man is a menace.

Manfred simply does not like baseball, at least not in the sense of the game as a whole, balanced concept that requires strategic thinking and intellectual trade-offs to navigating the game. Nor does he value competitive integrity or the richness of detail. He likes simple. He likes not to have to think. He likes short attention spans.

Thus far, the Manfred regime has given us:

  • The no-pitch intentional walk
  • The "universal" designated hitter (ugh)
  • Requiring teams to declare in advance who is a pitcher and who is not and imposing a limit on how many pitchers a team can carry
  • The "zombie runner" in extra innings (which some of a certain age have humorously taken to calling the "Manfred Man")
  • An entirely avoidable and self-inflicted labor stoppage that delayed the opening of this season
  • Expanded playoffs, the first taste of which we'll get next month, which now allows nearly half the teams in the Majors into the postseason and devalues both the season as a whole and the winning of a division title
  • Advertising on the fields, not just on stadium walls and scoreboard signage, but on the fields themselves (in foul territory and on the pitcher's mound)
  • Advertising on uniforms, which we'll start to see in this year's playoffs and will be an everyday thing starting next year
  • The three-batter minimum for pitchers (this one I actually don't have a problem with, though the reason it came into being is no better than the rest of this)
  • Ugly unis for the All-Star Games
  • Effective acceptance of the Houston Astros' cheating scandal with virtually no repercussions for the perpetrators

Starting in 2023 we will also now have:

  • A pitch clock. No longer will baseball be the game with no clock, there will be one to mandate that pitchers and batters move things along regardless of circumstance. Well, not quite regardless—the clock will have 15 seconds on it when the bases are empty, 20 when a runner is on base. If a pitcher takes too long before delivering a pitch, a ball will be added to the count; likewise, if a batter steps out or isn't ready to go within eight seconds (he will be permitted to request a time out once per plate appearance) a strike will be added. Further, only 30 seconds will be permitted between batters; if the next batter in the lineup isn't ready to go 30 seconds after the previous play, he starts with a count of strike one. Despite this having been experimented with in the minor leagues in recent seasons, it remains to be seen how this will play out; it might be OK. Used to be that the players that were slower to deliver a pitch or who took "excessive" time at the batter's box between pitches were relatively rare, but today they're more commonplace and it will at least be interesting to see if this cuts down on so-called dead time without disrupting anything else. But the law of unintended consequences pretty much guarantees there will be issues.
  • A limit on how often a pitcher can try to pick off a baserunner. This is a clear and blatant declaration that pitchers should not care about runners; Manfred has openly said he wants to "create more action," which apparently means preventing a defense from trying to get runners out. I love the stolen base, it's one of my favorite plays, but all this does is cheapen it.
  • A restriction on where defenders can play. For the history of the game, only the pitcher and catcher were required to be at any specific point on the field. No longer. Two infielders must begin each play on either side of second base and forward of the outfield grass. No more shifting three infielders to one side, no more moving your second baseman into the outfield, no more four-outfielder defenses. This also is based on Manfred's desire for "more action," and because batters as a whole have chosen not to combat defensive shifts over the years, it probably will result in more base hits as fielders will be prevented form playing where they should be allowed to play. The language of the rule is vague enough that someone will at some point cause it to be clarified; it's intention is to maintain the restriction until "the pitcher releases the ball," but it also says the infielders "may not switch sides during the game." So when J.P. Crawford makes a great play running from his shortstop position to flag down a hard grounder on the outfield grass at the right side of second base, is he in violation of the rule? I think not, but someone will exploit the language to challenge such a play.
  • Larger bases. The bases on the field will grow from 12" square to 15" square. This will be odd at first but quickly folded into expected norm, I think. Again, this is to give offenses a boost by making it that much harder to get baserunners out. The one positive to this is the extra area will give first basemen a little more of a safety margin on potential collisions on close plays at first, but this could have been accomplished simply by extending the base an inch or two into foul territory instead.
  • The completion of the destruction of the American and National Leagues as anything more than labels. Manfred's predecessor started this process in the ’90s, but with this year's adoption of the designated hitter rule (pause for dry heaves) by the National League and next year's change in the schedule that has every team play every other team in both leagues during the regular season, the merger from two distinct entities into one is concluded.

Not one of these changes was made with the good of the game in mind. Every one has been with an eye toward getting bigger short-term profits for a business that already rakes in $10 billion in annual revenue.

Manfred believes that the game needs to be dumbed down and sped up in order to attract younger viewers with short attention spans. He thinks that making the game into something else will get him bigger television ratings. He things more playoff games will mean more TV money overall. He thinks that the baseball audience likes hitting and doesn't care about fielding and by making these changes to unbalance things a bit that people who do not watch baseball will decide they now will watch baseball.

Which is just dumb.

You don't say, "hey, non-fans, I know my game is slow and boring because it requires thinking and thus doesn't appeal to you, so I've dumbed it down closer to your level and made it a little bit more frenetic! You like that, right?" and expect to convert everyone. People who come to baseball come to it because it's different. Because if you know what's going on, that so-called dead time isn't usually so, there's actually tension and stuff going on strategically.

A pitcher worried about a stolen base threat on first was actually valuable to both sides if you understood the situation. Having the pitcher in the lineup made for decisions during the game and a thought process about building your team and planning a game that are just wiped out now. Having the option to dare a batter to hit the other way by leaving a whole third of the field undefended was an opportunity for both teams to exploit. Gone. Sure, few if any people will miss the Nomar Garciaparra-like ritual of stepping out of the box, re-fastening the batting gloves, and taking three practice swings like a mini-hokey-pokey before every pitch, but not many guys did that. 

Frankly, the 2023 changes aren't going to be as big a deal as the ones we're already seeing now (or have known are coming, like the jersey ads), which are far more damaging. The pitch clock, the shift ban, sure, I object to them on principle, but in the old days shifts were rare and few players took a lot of time between pitches anyway, so it won't seem too bad. The step-off rule, that I hate and can't figure why any pitcher would approve of it.

Still, I'd accept it all gladly if Manfred would use his new, negotiated ultimate power to impose changes without union approval to abolish the DH and consign it to a fiery death.

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The Apple problem


I'm late to the Ted Lasso party. I had heard from many people in many contexts how it was a great show that I would really enjoy and the I was missing out by not watching it, but there were two issues in addition to the general reality of there's-so-much-enjoyable-TV-these-days-and-only-so-much-time-I-can-watch. They were: a) It's a show set in the world of English soccer, and I do not like soccer; and b) It is a show on Apple TV+.

Now, (a) is not a problem, as it turns out; as with many workplace shows, the soccer thing is merely a setting for the characters and not liking soccer is not a detriment to enjoying the show. But (b) was a real trouble spot.

Apple's streaming platform has garnered a reputation (deserved) for quality. The programming is high-end, no doubt, and the high-definition stream is as good or better than anyone else's, but on that technical side of things there is no accommodation for viewers who do not have one of the following: An Apple-made television; a Roku or other reception device dedicated to streaming video; an Apple device like a Macintosh computer or an up-to-date iPhone that can run the TV+ app (there is an Android app, but it won't work on most Android devices); or a PC equipped with a top-end internet connection and supercharged modern processing hardware. They clearly tailor the service for Apple machines as a way to try and increase the Apple marketshare.

As I don't own any Apple hardware or a Roku-like dedicated streaming device, the Apple TV+ service was incredibly problematic to use. My dedicated streaming device is an old laptop PC running Windows 10 and hooked up to my television. It has perfectly adequate processing power to run any other streaming service with no problems. But trying to watch Apple TV+ on it was nearly impossible—livestreams, like when the Mariners are on the exclusive Apple TV Friday night telecast, play with more buffering and stuttering than is even remotely tolerable; and their shows would load and play through the opening preroll ad and then freeze up on a black screen. So, even though the Apple TV+ subscription fee is quite reasonable, it was basically worthless to me.

Still, I had two or three times signed up for the service in an attempt to legitimately watch one of the greatest shows ever made for television, For All Mankind. When I could not make the service work, I resorted to piracy to watch that excellent program. Because it is awesome, and I had given Apple a month's worth of subscription fee for zero return so I felt OK about it. But after the last time the Mariners game was unwatchable on Apple TV+, I went on a quest to find a way to make the damn thing work, and the ultimate solution was to completely wipe the laptop and reload a bare-bones Windows installation, add no programs to the machine except for browsers, a video player, and antivirus software. Give it the lightest workload possible while still running a relatively modern operating system, then tweak the browser settings in every conceivable way to prioritize the handling of video streams.

It now works. I can watch Apple TV+. Livestreams still suck, presumably because I don't have a T1 line and a massive quad-core processor on that old laptop, but recorded programming does play properly so long as nothing else is running concurrently. (Apple TV+ livestreams, incidentally, also suck on my office machine, which is considerably more powerful.)

I have therefore, as of last night, become a Ted Lasso convert.

All the folks who sang its praises to me were right. It unabashedly showcases a hero that is the nicest, most generous guy that ever lived, who takes mounds of abuse and lets it roll off his back, and who slowly wins over the critics by simply doing his own thing and being dedicated to his values. Totally my kind of thing. I love it. Even though it's ostensibly about a soccer team.

I'm about halfway through the first season now, so please no spoilers, but since the Mariners are off tonight I will likely spend my late-night tonight watching a few more episodes after I get home from my umpiring shift and will no doubt binge through the rest over the next few weeks.

Unless, of course, my brilliant machinations to run Apple TV+ stop working.

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“Why do you even have these?” a friend of mine asked me.

I was applying some paint to the recently-constructed cabinets I'd made in my garage, cabinets that were custom-designed to hold comic books. I stopped, looked up, and found myself at a loss.

I mean, I had an answer, it was there, but articulating it was proving difficult.

See, I love comics. The medium, the wide variety of cartooning styles found in them, the characters that have permeated our culture, the more obscure works that most people have never heard of. (Well, not all of them, but a lot.) I started reading them longer ago than I can remember and was a fan from a young age of Batman and Captain Marvel (the original '40s one, during his '70s revival) and Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and other superheroes. I read the occasional Archie comic or Yogi Bear issue too, but mostly I was into the standard DC and Marvel superhero soap operas.

Then, when I was around 11 or 12, I discovered comic-book specialty stores. Back issues. The collector's market.

It was a revelation. At that point I became not merely a fan, but a collector. I learned that the condition of one's comics is vital. That one needed to invest in protective sleeves for them, that storing them lying flat is bad—they don't actually lie flat, you see, the spine side creates a bend in the stack and bent comics are worth less—they should be stored upright. That comics drawn by certain artists are in more demand than those by other artists, that there are "key issues" of long-running titles that command big bucks (or at least "big bucks" by the standards of a 12-year-old in the early 1980s).

Back in the day, my goal was to acquire every issue of Fantastic Four. Never did it, as the first dozen-plus were too pricey for me.

My friend had been holding a copy of Secret Avengers, which was in a small pile of comics destined for the "eBay box," which had by then become a series of boxes. I stalled a little bit in answering her question as I tried to find the right words for my response by going on a tangent. "Well, that pile I'm not keeping," I said. "Those are eventually going on eBay. Even with these new cabinets, I don't have enough room for everything so some stuff will have to go."

But the majority of them, yeah, I was keeping. And I was adding to the mix all the time, spending anywhere from $40 to $100 a month on new comics (which, accounting for both inflation and the changes in the comics biz since then, equates to what about $8-$20 would have bought in 1987, so I feel like I've cut down a lot since my teenage comic-buying heyday). Why do I have them?

One of the more fun new comics right now is Not All Robots, by Mark Russell and Mike Deodato Jr.

Sure, some of them have decent monetary value well above what I paid for them and keep increasing over time. But most just kind of hold steady or never had much to begin with. If it was about "investing," I'd only have kept about 30% of my collection over the years.

I have them because I like them. Because it's a hobby. Because I am, at my core, a huge nerd. Because my growing-up years were so influenced and tied to the morality plays of Marvel Comics and because I developed a deep appreciation for the talents of people like Marshall Rogers (RIP) and Steve Rude and Neal Adams (RIP) and Mike Deodato Jr. and Terry Moore and Alex Ross and Brian Bolland and Clay Mann and the recently-deceased George Pérez (RIP), among quite a few others.

But that doesn't really get at why I keep them and collect them. I mean, they take up a lot of space. Moving them is a royal pain. Keeping them organized is time-consuming. I've spent a lot of money on their storage (though a lot of that was fun too, building the cabinetry on my own and, on some of them, with my dad). There are reasons not to.

Yet, I do keep them and I do have them. My inventory software (yes, I have inventory software for this) has my current tally at about 8,700 comics, not including some of the 1,000-plus in the eBay boxes. Storage capacity is now once again full up. More keep coming in. Why do I have these?

Because I want to.

Any attempt at articulating the not-rational yet deeply held reasons for it basically comes down to that. I have these because I like them, or in some cases because I did at one time. I keep them because I want to.

As space continues to get tighter more chaff will be moved into the eBay piles, but eventually I will probably make yet another storage unit. It's my own version of the never-ending battle.

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