Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Race and Baseball

Posted in baseball,Current Events by bourdaghs on the April 16th, 2010

Yesterday was Jackie Robinson day in the Major Leagues, which always gives rise to commentaries — some more thoughtful than others, some more original than others — on the current state of race and racism in baseball. Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is quoted in this morning’s Tribune giving a characteristically idiosyncratic interpretation of Robinson’s significance:

“A lot of people have to thank him. We made a lot of money because this guy had the guts to cross the barrier and do what he did.”

Minnesota Twins’ second baseman Orlando Hudson has stirred up a hornets’ nest (well, more accurately, he made a fairly mild statement which the media did its best to use as a stick to prod a swarm of angry hornets) by pointing to the continuing relevance of race in Major League hiring decisions. It’s not the superstars that are the issue here: they get contracts no matter what their skin color. It’s the marginal players, the bench-warming pinch hitters and bottom-of-the-bullpen pitchers, where you can most clearly see this.

The most intelligent response I’ve seen to Hudson’s remarks so far comes from the terrific blogger “Twins Geek” (John Bonnes), who writes:

It’s legitimate to debate the degree which race bias might play when predominantly white front offices evaluate free agents like [Jeremy] Dye and [Gary] Sheffield. It may be significant, or maybe it isn’t. But before that conversation takes place, we need to welcome people, ballplayers included, that raise the issue. We need to recognize that biases exist, and not construct straw dogs that can be easily torn down. We may not get to the truth, but we’ll at least raise some awareness, and on this day, sports fans should be all about awareness.

Check out Bonnes’ whole post here — it’s well worth your while.

This all brings back to mind the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject: former major leaguer John Poff’s remarkable essay, “Donnie Moore: A Racial Memoir.” Originally published in 1995 in Elysian Fields Quarterly (Vol. 14, No. 1; ordering information here), Poff’s memoir provides a remarkably frank, self-reflective account of how for a ballplayer in the 1970s “the consciousness of race pervaded everything in a baseball locker room.”

If you played with or against black ballplayers, you became friends possibly and you might share concerns, values, dope, and yet in all your conversations there was the ongoing subliminal buzz–you’re black, you’re black, you’re black.

Written in the wake of Donnie Moore’s tragic death in 1989 (Moore shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself), Poff gives us a powerful, honest reflection, including of the ways that players of all ethnicities use racism as a tool for acquiring a competitive edge. The impact of racial stereotypes in sports is in fact incredibly complicated and, as both Bonnes and Poff note, we won’t get anywhere in understanding it if people aren’t allowed to raise the issue.

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This and That: Science and Technology Edition

Posted in baseball,Current Events,Jazz,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the April 5th, 2010

We enjoyed a quiet Easter. I managed to get to church — but cheated, in that my “worship service” consisted of the Art Hoyle Quintet performance at Hyde Park Union Church, sponsored by the always wonderful Jazz Sundays series organized by the Hyde Park Jazz Society.

Some interesting science and technology news that’s caught my eye lately:

The lunatic notion that genetic codes found in nature can be patented is finally facing skeptical court scrutiny, the New York Times reported last week. For the sake of culture and scholarship, we really need to curb the voracious appetite for infinitely expanding intellectual property claims, and this seems a modest step in the right direction.

Are the problems faced by scientists trying to gear up the Large Haldron Collider actually the work of a Terminator sent from the future in a desperate attempt to head off an unwelcome scientific development? The possibility has been suggested in a series of recent scientific papers, Time magazine reports.

Finally, a whole slew of new technological devices and digital scientific analytical techniques are being applied to baseball. The conclusion from statistical crunching of multi-angle digitized tracking of pitches over the course of an entire season? That good pitchers paint the corners, while bad ones hang it over the plate. Now they’re turning their attention to batters and defenders and will not doubt reach many revolutionary hypotheses, such as declaring that batters should try to hit the ball with the sweet spot of the bat and that fielders should try to catch the ball with both hands. Ah, the marvels of science.

In the meanwhile, play ball! The Twins kick off their season tonight in Anaheim.

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I’m Ready to Go

Posted in baseball by bourdaghs on the March 27th, 2010

Spring is here (just watch this) and I’m ready to go. The Twins are going all the way this year, folks. All the way. Liriano and Neshek are back, Mauer and Morneau and Cuddyer and Kubel are ready to start popping the ball out of the park, and the starting rotation is the strongest Minnesota’s ever had.

It’s just as exciting as the spring of 1988. After our first World Series championship the preceding fall, Garrison Keillor reported in a classic New Yorker piece about how the team had spent the off-season doing volunteer work on a farm for troubled youth they established with their championship bonuses (see also here). Garrison also noted our front office had been busy that off-season:

Sent a couple in their mid-forties to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Duane (Madman) Mueller (29, 280 lbs., 6’2”, right/right, a.k.a. Mule, Hired Hand, The Barber). Duane is a big secret because after he was suspended by the Texas League for throwing too hard he played Nicaraguan winter ball for three years and then spent two more doing humanitarian stuff, so scouts forgot how, back when he was with the Amarillo Compadres, nobody wanted to be behind the plate, Duane threw so hard. His own team kept yelling, “Not so hard, Man!” If that sounded dumb, then you never saw him throw: he threw hard. A devoted Lutheran, he never ever hit a batter, but in one game a pitch of his nicked the bill of a batting helmet and spun it so hard it burned off the man’s eyebrows. No serious injury, but big Duane took himself out of organized ball until he could learn an offspeed pitch. He’s from Brainerd, Minnesota, where he lives across the street from his folks. His mom played kittenball in the fifties and had a good arm but not like her son’s. She thinks he got it from delivering papers and whipping cake mix. “I’d sure hate to have to bat against him,” she says.

I’m ready, man. Bring it on, folks, bring it on.

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This and That

Posted in baseball,Current Events,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Sumo,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the March 20th, 2010

The sumo tournament in Osaka has reached the midway point, and as expected sole yokozuna Hakuho (7-0) has dominated. But two promising rikishi have also stepped up to take advantage of the opening created by yokozuna Asashoryu’s sudden retirement last month: ozeki Harumafuji, the former Ama and a disappointment since his promotion to ozeki a couple of years back, is now 7-0, as is sekiwake Baruto, who could win promotion to ozeki with a championship in this tournament. Baruto in particular has been impressive: he just looks much more serious about things this time around, his goofy grin a thing of the past. Down in the maegashira ranks, Tokitenku is also 7-0, but that’s just a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

In the meanwhile, spring has arrived in Chicago (never mind those snowflakes falling outside the window as I write these words). I celebrate by listening to Minnesota Twins spring training games in the afternoon at my office. I’m pretty optimistic about the coming season, despite noises being made by local White Sox fans….

In the category, “It’s bloody well about time”: Universal betting on lower prices to boost CD sales.

Ray Davies continues to wow them on his current tour. reports that “Ray Davies rules on second night of SXSW.”

The coming week should be a hectic one for me. I’m in Philadelphia on Monday and Tuesday for the NCC 3D conference, then up to Princeton for the “Rethinking ‘Hihyo’: Postwar Literary Criticism and Beyond” workshop, then back down to Philadelphia on Thursday for the 2010 AAS Annual Meeting.

I leave you with the late Alex Chilton. I saw him play with the reunited Big Star seven or eight years ago at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. It was a joyous occasion, especially when they covered The Kinks’ “‘Till the End of the Day.” Ray Davies dedicated that song to Chilton in his performance at SXSW this week (where Chilton had been scheduled to play) and spoke from the stage about how Chilton had visited him in the hospital after he was shot in New Orleans. A great songwriter and a wonderful voice: so long, Mr. Chilton.

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This and That

Posted in baseball,Music,Sumo,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the March 13th, 2010

On the dark side, tomorrow we take our first step into that gray new world known as post-Asashoryu sumo. Yokozuna Hakuho is the prohibitive favorite to take home the title in Osaka (has it really been a year since I was there in person for Day 8 last March, watching Asashoryu knock off Baruto in a fierce match?). Ozeki Kotooshu seems the only possible threat to Hakuho’s championship, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Kotooshu over the years, it’s that he shrinks like a banana souffle anytime he gets close to something good. Perhaps his recent marriage will change things, but my money’s on Hakuho (ho-hum: the subtle sound of a middle-aged man yawning).

Even darker, this is the week we learned the Minnesota Twins may have to live without relief ace, Joe Nathan. There are some viable replacement candidates already on the roster, including the marvelous Pat Neshek, back after an injury-related break of nearly two years, and Francisco Liriano has been tantalizingly good so far. But the loss of Nathan has Twins’ fans literally offering up parts of their own bodies in hopes of resuscitating Nathan’s pitching arm.

On the bright side, I’m taking Satoko to see Ray Davies in concert tonight at the Riviera. The last show we saw by him here in Chicago, a little more than a year ago, was transcendent, and reports from previous gigs on the current tour are quite positive. Here’s a little taste of what’s in store for me:

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Hatsu Basho

Posted in baseball,Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 9th, 2010

The New Year sumo tournament gets underway in Tokyo tomorrow. Yokozuna Hakuho is the hands down favorite to take home the big trophy. His closest rival, fellow yokozuna Asashoryu, has provided the usual quota of pre-tournament bizarre behavior, although he apparently looked pretty good at the public Yokozuna Deliberation Council exhibition a week or so ago (he also is said to have tired quickly, though). But on that day Hakuho won 27 of 29 matches, including both of his direct face-offs against Asashoryu.

Probably the biggest story going in to the basho is that, barring a miracle, this is almost certainly the last hurrah for the great Chiyotaikai. After two losing records in a row, he has lost his rank of ozeki. He can regain it with at least ten wins this time around, but that seems highly unlikely, and he’s promised to retire if he falls short. He’s always been a tsuppari-style fighter, battering his opponents with powerful arm thrusts, but in the last year or so his blows have lost their sting. According to reports from Japan, his training was going pretty well until about a week ago, when he injured his arm. It will also be interesting to see if ozeki Kotooshu or sekiwake Baruto are able to make their move up to the next level, but in both cases we’ve been waiting for that moment for some time now. I’m not holding my breath.

In the “think spring” category, the recent retirement of pitching great Randy Johnson has led to an interesting tribute over at The Hardball Times: a word cloud of the names of all the batters Johnson struck out over the years, with font size reflecting the number of times each batter has whiffed at Johnson’s pitches. And I leave with you some nice old video of Chiyotaikai in better days, knocking off Asashoryu in an exciting match to clinch the March 2003 tournament championship.

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