Monday, June 25, 2012

Amen to R.A. and the Redeeming Beauty of Baseball

We're almost midway through the 2012 baseball season and ever so slowly some things are starting to become clear. We know the Yankees are once again a dominant force. The Padres are a complete abject disaster. The AL Central is up for grabs. Rookies Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are really good.

And R.A. Dickey is among the best pitchers in baseball.

That last one is the hardest to believe. For one thing, Dickey got knocked around by the Yankees last night. He's also a 37-year-old knuckeballer, which is something of a sideshow in the game of baseball. And yet earlier this year he became the first National League pitcher since 1944 to throw two consecutive one-hitters. His dominance reached the point of 44 and 2/3 straight innings without giving up an earned run until the Yankees finally got to him last night.

But even after surrendering five runs last night, he's still 7th-best in the league at keeping runs off the board. He leads the NL in shutouts, wins, and his tied for the lead in pitcher's WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Most incredibly, he's got the third most strikeouts of any pitcher in the NL and he's by far the oldest guy in the top 10 of that category.

In just his third season with the organization, he's become one of the most beloved Mets players ever because of his gutsy approach, colorful intellect, and that fluttering feature pitch. Pitchers that rely on the knuckleball have always been lots of fun to watch but Dickey takes things to a new level. By throwing the spinless pitch with an added touch of speed, he's managed to completely revolutionize the way it has been thrown for a hundred years. One of my favorite baseball writers, Rob Neyer, recently wrote an insightful piece on Dickey's unprecedented power knuckleball which he described as "among the most effective pitches ever thrown, period."

Though the Mets are a streaky team this year with an unreliable bullpen, it's a great time to be a Mets fan. Ever since I left New York in 2008, and especially since I arrived here in Austin, a city without any professional baseball, I've followed the team as closely as ever. I rarely even miss a game.

But I missed one a few Fridays ago. As I've already touched upon numerous times here recently, my girlfriend and I recently broke up after three years together. We'd been living together for two-and-a-half of those and so it was a bit of an upsetting shock once she moved out. The last day I saw her, when she'd gotten her last piece of furniture out of the house, it was Friday and I needed to go out and stay busy that night to keep her off my mind. I met up with a friend at a bar where he was receiving a goodbye party from his co-workers for his last day at work.

The TVs were showing playoff basketball and I remember at one point seeing the bottom ticker display the line score of the Mets game that was going on---Johan Santana had been pitching well, having not surrendered a hit through four innings. I remember thinking "How great would it be if he threw a no-hitter?" before quickly becoming absorbed back into convo with my fellow drinkers. They (particularly one boisterous and hilarious woman, perfectly named Joy) were trying to cheer me up because I was clearly struck by the thought of going home to an empty apartment after years of having a companion there waiting for me.

Afterwards, as I drove home my dad called me. "Did you see the Mets game?" he asked excitedly. "No, don't tell me Johan threw a no-hitter..."


One might expect me to be upset at having missed watching the game as it happened. I consider that a minor detail and in a way I'm glad I didn't watch it. The result was the most important part. I needed the result, not the tense three hours of watching it unfold. This is what makes the game of baseball so damn special in my life. On one of the saddest days I've had in recent memory, my favorite baseball team, my daily passion, somehow managed to achieve a feat they had never achieved in their entire 50-year history. A no-hitter for the New York Mets is even greater than a World Series victory in its sublime sweetness. And by some incredible cosmic coincidence, it happened when I needed it most.

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The other team I enjoy following and rooting for is, of course, the Oakland A's. While they're on the outermost fringes of contention this year, they've actually had a pretty good season. The starting rotation is a funny mix with lanky Brandon McCarthy and hefty Bartolo Colon leading the charge backed by a mix of highly effective youngsters. The overall offensive attack has been pitiful (last or near last in runs, on-base percentage, and slugging) and yet they've got more productive hitters in the lineup right now than they've had in a long time (Seth Smith, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, and Jonny Gomes are all above-average hitters this year and recent scrap heap pickup Brandon Moss is crushing the ball).

The website Grantland, an enviously abundant nest of quality writing, recently featured an excellent piece on these Oakland A's and their season thus far now that the glow of Moneyball's cinematic success is mostly faded. As Evan Hughes writes, the A's frequently feature a squad of no-names and yet:
[Billy] Beane has a plan, whether it makes sense to fans or not, and he is putting a charming and unpredictable crew on the field. Neither their approach nor their performance bears much resemblance to the A's of the Moneyball years, but Beane's thinking remains much the same. While hoping for a new stadium and angling to build a contender, he is trying to make the best of what he's got, just like the players. After a spate of injuries and an awful stretch in late May, the A's are a long shot to make the playoffs this season, to put it generously, but it's fun to watch them try.
I've watched the A's closely for almost ten years now (the initial publication of Michael Lewis' book Moneyball is what drew me to follow the green-and-gold) and while they had a couple good years in that span, this has been one of their most fun seasons in a while. Mainly because nobody expected much from them and yet here they are staying somewhat competitive with a surprising stack of contributors.

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During the weeks leading up the season opener, I wrote pieces on the Mets and A's trying to see their 2012 chances through the lens of optimism. A piece was planned for my other favorite team, the Padres, in which I was going to argue that they had the best chance of all three to compete.

Well, the Padres have done nothing but suck this year. They're 17 games out of first place and have the second-worst run differential in the sport. Thankfully, I didn't take the time to write how good I expected them to be.

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Lastly, as a lifelong fan of Bill Murray (as early as I could talk, I wanted to be Peter Venkman) I must share this video of his acceptance speech upon being inducted into the Hall of Fame for the South Atlantic League.

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