My New Favorite A.J.*

Until Wednesday evening, I never really thought much about Adam Jones. My knowledge of him was pretty much limited to a) he was dealt to Baltimore during Seattle’s decades of horrific management, b) my youngest son picked up one a faux No. 9 jersey when we were taking my oldest son to college a few years back and c) he was a centerfielder with a nice stick whose defense should have moved him to a corner a long time ago.

That was last month. Today, Adam Jones is one of my favorite players in the sport. All because he followed the less-traveled path originally championed by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. He said “No.”

Tuesday was the major league trade deadline, when contenders try to shore up weaknesses on the field or on the mound for the stretch drive. They do this by dealing with the league’s dregs, who hope to land some low-priced prospects or a lottery ticket A-baller or some simple salary relief for the last two months of the campaign.

Jones’s club, the Orioles, had already entered fire sale mode before the deadline struck, having dealt All-Star infielder Manny Machado to the Dodgers, Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers and Don’t Break Glass In Case of Tie reliever Zach Britton to the Yankees. The dreadful O’s were also shopping Jones to teams looking for a fourth outfielder or bench bat.

But Jones has something that none of those other Orioles possessed – the right to refuse a trade. By virtue of his 10 years in the big leagues and five with his current club, Jones can nix any trade involving him. The Orioles can cut him, but they can’t simply deal him to the A’s for a bullpen arm, at least not without his say so.

And they didn’t get it. Not to anyone. Jones was going to play these last two months in the same city, same ballpark, where he’s plied his trade for the past 11 seasons. God Bless him.

“When players walked out years ago and walked the picket lines and did all that stuff, they did all that for reasons like right now. I earned this and it’s my decision. I don’t have to explain it to nobody. It’s my decision,” Jones told the media following Tuesday’s game.

Virtually every year, players such as Jones are not just asked to waive their no-trade provisions so they can be sent to a contender down the stretch, but pressured to do so by the teams, the local media and the fans. “Why wouldn’t you want to play in a pennant race?” is the usual refrain. And, most players go along, accepting a deal without comment. Fred McGriff did this years ago when he was reluctant to leave his hometown Rays to join the Cubs’ chase for a pennant. A decade later, Ryan Dempster was roasted by Cubs fans when he changed his mind about a deal to Atlanta (he eventually signed off on a deal to Texas).

This is wrong, on many levels.

Players understand that getting swapped is part of the package when you play in MLB. It’s one of the trade offs for being exceedingly well compensated. But the opportunity to refuse a trade, as Jones said, was a hard-won right. It was the impetus of the Curt Flood case that ultimately launched free agency. The Cardinal outfielder wasn’t looking to bolt St. Louis – he didn’t want to go to Philly, with its questionable racial history.

Moreover, the only life that’s truly affected by a swap is the players involved. They’re the ones being relocate to a new town, for a short period of time, on a moment’s notice. If they have a contractual right to reject such a forced move, why the hell should they be pressured by the team that employs them or the fans that root for them? The fans and media have virtually no real stake in the outcome, and the teams much less real share.

Finally, you’ve got this unanswered question: if my boss tells me he no longer wants my services, why should I make it easy on him if that’s not what I wish. Why should I do anything to help what will, upon agreement, become my former team?

And Jones is right about another thing. He owes no one an explanation for his decision. Rather, Jones and big leaguers like him owe their teams one thing – their best effort every night. Jones has delivered that to the Orioles franchise for more than 10 seasons. All he wants is two more months to keep doing that. Hats off to him for resisting the pressure to give that up.

 

*My previous favorite A.J. was, of course, White Sox Super Pest A.J. Pierzynski. Baseball is much better with villains, and no one in my baseball lifetime played that role with more zeal than Pierzynski.

75 Percent Less Fat: No. 39

We’re into the Top 40 with The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death, the second and final full-length from the UK’s The Housemartins.

The follow-up to London 0, Hull 4 saw the band expanding a little musically. It was something both P.d. Heaton and Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, would continue to do in their subsequent work. The debut was quite good, but for my money it couldn’t match the top-to-bottom excellence of the follow-up.

While the music on the disc bounces between bouncy jangle pop, Brit style, and slower soulful numbers, the lyrics are uniformly biting. And the targets range from the obvious (the Royal Family, circa mid-1980s), to unexpected (the latter half of the title track to Me and the Farmer), though consistent with Heaton’s previous exhortation to Take Marx and Take Christ.

Highlights: the Queen-skewering title track; the bizarre Five Get Over Excited, I Can’t Put My Finger on It and Me and the Farmer.

Important Information:

Name: The People who Grinned Themselves to Death

Released: 1987

Record Company: Go! Discs

Running Time: 38:06.

Track Listing:

  1. The People who Grinned Themselves to Death
  2. I Can’t Put My Finger on It
  3. The Light is Always Green
  4. The World’s On Fire
  5. Pirate Aggro
  6. We’re Not Going Back
  7. Me and the Farmer
  8. Five Get Over Excited
  9. Johannesburg
  10. Bow Down
  11. You Better Be Doubtful
  12. Build

 

 

Baseball, Eastern European Style

I will undoubtedly see a better-played baseball game this year. I will most likely see one that’s as compelling. But I won’t have more fun at one.

On Sunday afternoon, I traveled to Whiting, home of Oil City Stadium. I was there to take in the second semifinal of the inaugural International Baseball Challenge, a four-team tournament featuring teams from the United States, Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia.

The game in question was the semifinal tilt between those two historic rivals, in the truest sense of the phrase, the Serbs and the Croats. The Serbian club pushed across two runs in the top of the ninth to eke out a 6-4 win over their former mates back in the old Yugoslav League.
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Serbia’s starting pitcher Christian Bokich delivers a pitch to Croatia’s Matko Dabic Sunday at Oil City Stadium. Part of the BP Refinery that gives the place its name (and the BP cash that made it possible) serves as the ballpark’s backdrop.

Serbia took the lead in the second, fifth and seventh innings, only to see the Croats bounce back to tie the score each time. In the top of the ninth, Serbia’s Bobby Suder reached on a two-based error leading off the frame, then advanced to third on an errant pickoff attempt by Croatian catcher Phil Smith. Tireless pitcher Antonio Horvatic, who went the distance, kept him there by getting a pop-up to Smith and a strikeout. But the Serbs went ahead when Ronald Krsolovic made a diving stop on a one-hopper from Filip Banjac, then fired wide of first, the team’s third error of the frame. Connor Tomasic’s third hit plated the final run.

The tournament was an interesting mix of teams. The Serbian National Team was about half native sons, with the rest of the club comprised of Americans with one or more parents who immigrated to the States, back when that was still allowed. Four of the kids were Northwest Indiana products, including one young lad who was playing in the same park where he played his high school games (and where my youngest son got a start on the bump in the back end of a double dip this spring).

The Croats, on the other hand, were mostly local products, with just a few exceptions. The guys were mostly split between Split and rest of Croatia, though sadly none were from the No. 1 place on my global must-visit list, Dubrovnik.

Interestingly, the Slovak club eliminated from the competition a night earlier (with the Region’s all-time greatest player, Kenny Lofton, in attendance) was comprised entirely of ballplayers who grew up in the back half of the old Czechoslovakia. One player, Jakub Izold, was a resident of Phoenix, but only because he stayed here after his two-run year with Cincy as the first born-and-raised Slovak* to sign with a major league club.

The game attracted a healthy crowd, with a particularly strong showing of Serbian backers. They waved the Serb flag, sported their Serbija jerseys  and, upon victory, broke into an impromptu kolo, a line dance to a Polka (or Serbka, I suppose) tune. There were fewer Croatian-Americans in the park, though some could be seen sporting the country’s traditional Italian restaurant tablecloth attire. They did seem to have the support of the Slovak team members in attendance.

The Serbian singing and dancing was undoubtedly even heartier a few hours later, when the Serbs defeated the U.S. team (which was essentially the Northwest Indiana Oilmen, a local team in the Midwest Collegiate League) 12-5 to capture the inaugural championship. I didn’t catch the title game, though I’m a lock to be back in the stadium when the second installment is contested next year.

*While no native Croats or Serbs have ever played big league ball, Hall of Very Good Pitcher Jack Quinn was born in modern-day Stefurov (then Stefuro, Hungary), while fellow veteran Elmer Valo was a native of Rybnik. However, unlike Isold who did all of his formative baseballing in Slovakia, the earlier gents arrived in the U.S. as children.

TBtB: Minnesota Twins

As with just about everything else in the Twin City, the new stadium there sports the Target brand, a company headquartered there, not in France. Surely, the metropolis that gave us Husker Du, Prince and Craig Finn can do a little better on a name for its nifty new park*.

Unlike their wimpy football-playing brethren, the Twins gave a big middle finger to the notoriously challenging Upper Midwest weather by opting against a lid for Target Field. If they ever enjoy a return to the glory of the Kirby and Hrby years, we’ll see if they (and MLB) come to regret that decision.

I took my daughter, wife and a temporary family member to the Twin Cities for a college visit back in 2016. During the mandatory stop at the Mall of America, I found the old home plate plaque, seen below, from Metropolitan Stadium. Saving home plate’s spot on planet earth should be federally mandated when any old ballpark comes tumbling down. It’s just the right thing to do.

*Which, the bottom part tells me, has now been open for eight seasons. That doesn’t seem possible.

Ballpark History

Built: 2010

Capacity: 38,649

Name:  Target Field 2010-present.

Other ballparks used by club in its current city:  Metropolitan Stadium, 1961-1981; Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, 1982-2009.

Distinctive Features: Double-decker bullpens in left-center; the major’s only bonfire in the roof deck; illuminated Minnie and Paul logo; small ballpark footprint in the city’s Warehouse District.

Ballpark Highlights:
On Oct. 3, 2010, the Twins lost a 5-2 decision to New York to fall behind 0-2 in the ALDS, proving the club could be just as inept in outdoor home games with the Bronx Bombers as they were inside.

In 2014, Mike Trout went 2-3 to claim his first of back-to-back All-Star Game MVPs in a 5-3 American League victory.

In the final game of his best big league season, Phil Hughes fanned five and walked none in eight innings against the Angels. Hughes finished the 2014 campaign with 186 strikeouts and 16 walks, setting the major league record for the best K:BB ratio. He also came up 1/3 of an inning short of triggering a $500,000 bonus for throwing 210 innings, declining a later offer from Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire to pitch an inning in relief.

In 2017, the first college football game was played at the ballpark, a contest between the St. Thomas Tommies and the St. John’s Jonnies, setting us up for our next renaming project – Minnesota’s Division III college teams.

The Sacrificial All-Stars

When Scooter Gennett took Edwin Diaz deep in the bottom of the ninth inning of Tuesday’s All-Star game, NL Manager (and looter of the greatest base in major league history) Dave Roberts was ecstatic in the dugout. For a moment.

But the NL skipper, as well as AL counterpart A.J. Hinch, was suddenly also worried how he might manage the rest of a game that had no end point guaranteed. Fortunately for the gents, a couple of Hinch’s regulars and one of Roberts’ pitchers, made that a moot concern.

We, of course, have seen this before. In 2002, the All-Star game was declared a tie when the teams ran out of pitchers at the end of the 11th inning. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, formerly considered a boil on baseball’s anus but today revered as the guy who isn’t Manfred, responded to the fiasco by giving us This Time it Counts, tying hosting duties for the World Series on the outcome of the game. That condition held until 2017, when the league did away with TTiC in favor of best record, a solution with its own problems that we won’t get into here.

The problem with Bud’s solution is that it didn’t do anything to actually solve the problem. Sure, managers are more cognizant about holding back a hurler or two for the possibility of extra frames, but since neither manager wants to overwork a guy who might be key to a pennant race (and play for some other team), the possibility of Total Hurler Depletion remains.

That’s where I come in. There’s a better solution to this issue, one that would not just be workable, but fun.

Each league should designate one minor league pitcher to serve as its final arm in the pen. If a league skipper exhausts all of his supply of hurlers, the ball gets handed to the minor league tosser and he’s got to pitch until we’ve got a final score.

Now, teams aren’t going to want to use some top prospect in the role. Instead, the distinction should go to some ML lifer, the Crash Davis type if you switched his place in the battery with Nuke. Let the Triple A fans vote from a slate of willing candidates to enhance the experience.

The upshot: The leagues don’t have to worry about a tie. A career minor leaguer gets a chance to rub shoulders with the game’s all-stars and cashes a nice paycheck just for making the squad (plus a larger one if he’s called upon to pitch); and, quite possibly, we get to watch a no-name pitcher set down a bunch of the league’s second-best players (the best having already departed the premises) for several innings.

 

 

 

 

Go West, well East.

Over the past few days, Clan Markham made a long-desired return to West Virginia, which we’d made a brief stopover in two decades earlier. We followed up one night in Charleston with two days in Hawk’s Nest State Park in the southern portion of the Mountaineer State.

Day 1) Lunch in the Tri-State hub of Huntington took us to the Marshall Hall of Fame Café, as we allowed Cormac to make the choice of eatery. Following lunch, we wanted to get a look at West Virginia’s share of the Ohio River, so we plugged in directions in Kem’s iPhone to what was surely a beautiful Riverside Park. Once again, the map lady revealed her sadistic side, taking us on an unnecessary route that had us navigating a street that was barely wide enough for our Subaru Impreza, let alone the cars parked all along the curb. And the restroomless park was even more of a disappointment, given the only activity taking place there was a drug deal in the car next to ours, and the river that gave the park its name was chock full of garbage (c’mon river states, get yer act together).

Then it was on to Charleston, the state capital. The most notable thing about Charleston is just how many damn tall buildings they have for a city of 50,000, or not a whole lot larger than my city of Portage. They’ve got to have the most stories per capita in America, as you can see from this photo taken from one of the city’s many bridges that cross the Kanawa River.

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Before heading southward, we made a Sunday morning stop at the state capitol, where we stumbled across a peculiar site. There on the lawn was a statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. While I’m not as opposed to confederate statues as I am confederate flags* (people being a bit more complex than cloth, for one), Jackson’s presence here was perplexing  (he was born in a town that would become part of West Virginia, though it was obviously in Virginia at the time).

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But West Virginia wasn’t just a union state. It seceded from Virginia to remain a part of the union. Honoring a general from the other team on your statehouse lawn struck all of us as more than a little bizarre.

Day 2) We arrived around midday at Hawk’s Nest, which Kem had long ago discovered in a state parks calendar. We were going to spend two nights in the state park lodge in the rural outskirts of rural Ansted, W.Va.

The park, as it’s name suggest, sits high in the mountains, with the state’s famed New River 750 feet below. As you can see from the photo to the right, the view was spectacular.

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We hiked down to the bottom of the hill on a trail that neither Kem nor I would describe as “moderate.” From there, we took a jet boat down river to a few hundred feet below the New Gorge Bridge.  We also met a charming and seemingly out-of-place Englishwoman who sold tickets to the boat ride. She was the bride of the boat driver. She had relocated to the Mountaineer State after one of her many visits to the states over the years. We filled her up on the recently completed World Cup final, among other conversational tidbits.

Later, we enjoyed dinner in Fayetteville, where the signs describe it as both “one of America’s coolest small towns” and “America’s coolest small town.” I never did get to the bottom of the discrepancy, though it’s possible it had once simply been a finalist but was elevated to the top spot when the former title owner lost a Starbucks or added a Wal-Mart.

Day 3) We spent much of the day getting chased by rain, initially from our visit to Summersville Lake where we did a little kayaking on the “Little Bahamas of the East.” That name comes from its clear lake waters that allow for scuba diving opportunities, though it seems strange to call it “of the East” since the real Bahamas is east of there.

With more rain coming, we opted for an indoor activity, so we headed west to Beckley and the town’s Exposition Coal Mine. I didn’t have high hopes for the small museum, so I was pleasantly surprised at what an informative and entertaining little operation it was. The museum told me a little of mining’s history, the underground mine tour laid out just how West Virginians have been extracting the ore from the ground for more than a century, and a few restored buildings gave some flavor to life in the mountains over the past 150 years.

Coal mining may not have much of a future, despite DT’s promises to the state, but it has a hell of past.

One of our last acts before shutting it down for the evening was to finally stop at the lookout area adjacent to the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest single-span arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the third-tallest bridge in the U.S. It is, without question, an architectural marvel, and if the rest of West Virginia doesn’t interest you, stopping by just to see the bridge is absolutely worth the trip. And, by all means, descend to the lower level for the best views of the bridge and the river below.

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Day 4) Not much to report, since it was mostly just driving. We did stop in a restaurant in Peebles, Ohio, for lunch, where a group of regulars was opining how Trump really had no choice but to say what he did in Putin’s company, and how the media were the real culprits. Sadly, my proposal to engage in a conversation at equal decibel levels about what a complete and utter embarrassment DT is got voted down by the rest of the family (all of whom, it should be mentioned, share my opinion about the DemocracyFucker).

*If you fly one today, you’re a racist. Sorry, but that’s just a fact. Since you know it understandably offends African-Americans because of its unmistakable connection to slavery and you fly it anyway, you’re just a bigot.

75 Percent Less Fat: No. 40

Some albums grab you right away. Others take a little while to marinate.

This album was released back in 2008. The band then went on tour with Eulogies to support the album. As part of their tour promotion, the two bands offered a giveway of their new albums in a woxy.com effort. I was the lucky listener, so I soon received copies of both discs in the mail.

I kind of liked Eulogies right away. It was a nifty little indie pop record, with a lead single that Vampire Weekend clearly enjoyed.

The Dears more densely packed album didn’t immediately resonate. But as time wore on, the more I listened to the beefy disc (58 minutes of music in just 10 tracks) from Murray Lightburn and co., the more I realized they were the headliner on that bill for a reason.

I still don’t hear the Morrissey comparisons that have beset Lightburn from the outset, other than the fact that both men are decidedly difficult to get along with. But Black Moz or not, he’s a pretty gifted musician. These aren’t little ditties, but complex works where the brilliance is revealed on multiple listens.

Highlights: Like Who’s Next, this is a disc that is good from the start, but truly shines on the back half. Crisis 1 & 2 , Demons, and the 11-minute, album-closer Savior are among the strongest tracks.

Important Information:

Name: Missiles

Released: 2008

Record Company: Dangerbird Records

Running Time: 58:16

Track Listing:

  1. Disclaimer
  2. Dream Job
  3. Money Babies
  4. Berlin Heart
  5. Lights Of
  6. Crisis 1 & 2
  7. Demons
  8. Missiles
  9. Meltdown in A Major
  10. Saviour