Monday, November 22, 2010

Auggie Wren's Christmas Story

So I'm hanging out at another library last week and I see a Christmas book by Paul Auster on the shelf. "Well, that's different", I say. It is very different and is intended to be so.

In typical Auster fashion, the story is told as if it were told to Auster. We don't know how much is real, how much is fictitious. The story says that The New York Times had contacted Auster to write a Christmas story and he didn't want to write a typical sappy Christmas tale. He struggled until he started talking with his cigar vendor, Auggie Wren (whose name has been changed), who tells him his Christmas story which Auster then uses. Some of that is true. The story originally appeared on Christmas Day in The New York Times

The tale involves shoplifting, a lost wallet, a blind woman, and another theft. The story makes you think. Can lying and stealing be part of a good deed? Is giving giving if there is taking?

A very unorthodox and not really heartwarming Christmas tale. It's so short and so typical Paul Auster that I can't help but like it, though.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Catching Fire

As much as my tastes are congruent with Keith Law, they are not aligned with Michael Ruhlman. I went against my initial feeling and read Medium Raw after Ruhlman said he liked it. I did not. Then, I saw this video of Ruhlman and thought I would check out the book of which he spoke, Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham:

Had Something to Say - Cooking from michael ruhlman on Vimeo.

Ruhlman sums up the book really well in this video. But his passion and excitement and the background music make it more exciting than the book actually was. Ruhlman makes his own leap about cooking and society around 2:22 but otherwise, what he says is what Wrangham writes.

The book isn't badly written. Despite being a Harvard anthropologist, the writing is very accessible. It's not like reading a scholarly journal. That being said, I had a hard time getting into it. Anthropology isn't a topic that interests me very much and I maintain a healthy degree of skepticism when we're making conclusions about how people lived thousands and millions of years ago. The remnants of life forms before us only give us some clues and from there, it's all speculation, usually based on some preformed concepts. Wrangham thinks cooking shaped how we evolved as humans. He may be right. He can fit the evidence to make it seem like it is so. And he certainly has the research to back his views. Over a third of the book is endnotes and bibliography. I'm sure there are anthropologists out there, though, that completely disagree with him.

The book certainly is different. My bias against the subject matter prevents the book from getting a star because it is well researched and well written. I just didn't care for it very much.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

1909 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates - Babe Adams

We begin our look at the Pittsburgh Pirates championship teams with the 1909 squad. After their loss in the 1903 World Series, for several years the Pirates were bridesmaids but never the bride despite dominating the National League. In 1904, they won 87 games but finished fourth in the league. In 1905, a 96-57 record left them nine games behind John McGraw's New York Giants. The Chicago Cubs took the NL pennant from 1906 to 1908 and the Pirates finished third with 93 wins then second with 91 and 98 wins. But in 1909, Pittsburgh finally broke through to claim the National League crown.

The Pirates started off modestly enough, going 5-6 in April. They began May with a seven game winning streak which put them on top of the league for a while. The Cubs, though, were still a dominant team as well and after defeating Pittsburgh 8-3 in Pittsburgh on May 29th, the two teams left for Chicago with the Cubs holding a half game lead over the Pirates.

In Chicago, the Pirates swept the Cubs in a doubleheader to take the lead in the standings, a position they would not relinquish the rest of the season. The Pirates returned home after the doubleheader sweep and reeled off a twelve game winning streak, opening up a gap of five games over Chicago. It was smooth sailing from there and a sixteen game winning streak in September helped lift the Pirates to a 110-42 record, the third best winning percentage of the modern (post-1901) era. They especially dominated the doormats of the league, going 18-4 against Brooklyn, 18-3 versus St. Louis, and an astounding 20-1 when playing Boston.

The Pirates excelled at all aspects of the game. They had the highest batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage in the league as they led the league with 701 runs scored. The top four players in the National League in runs scored were all Pirates. Future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner (the batting champion and arguably best player in the league in '09) and Fred Clarke joined league leader Tommy Leach and mid-season acquisition Bobby Byrne as the only players to score 90+ runs.

On the pitching and defensive side, the Pirates were equally as stellar. The Pirates committed the fewest errors and had the highest fielding percentage in the league. The Pirates committed 227 errors. The rest of the league averaged 292. Howie Camnitz paced the pitching with a 25-6 record and an ERA of 1.62. Hall of Famer Vic Willis added 22 wins. Youngsters Nick Maddox and Lefty Leifeld rounded out a top-notch rotation.

Even though his pitching had been solid throughout the season, when it came time to face the mighty Detroit Tigers in the World Series, manager Fred Clarke opted to ride the hot hand. He tabbed handsome rookie Babe Adams to open up the World Series against Ty Cobb and his teammates.

Adams, despite being a rookie, was no stranger to professional baseball. He had won 20 games in the minor leagues in 1905, 1907 and 1908 and had seen action in the majors twice. He got a start for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1906 and pitched in four games for the Pirates in 1907. He was hit hard in all the games and did not seem to have the seasoning needed to be a regular, especially for a juggernaut like the Pirates.

In Louisville in 1908, though, he proved his readiness. Exhibiting excellent control by only walking 40 batters in 312 innings, he showed he was prepared to take on the National League.

Adams found it difficult to crack Pittsburgh's vaunted rotation as exhibited by his performance on May 4th, 1909. Adams had been used in relief a couple of times in the early part of the season but was given a start against the Chicago Cubs and their ace, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. Adams dueled Brown for eleven innings with both hurlers not allowing a run. The Pirates finally plated a run in the bottom of the eleventh to earn the victory and give Adams his first career shutout. Adams' reward was further usage in relief.

Although he appeared sporadically (complete games by a pitcher were still the norm), Adams fared well. By the end of August he had six victories and had saved a couple of other games (although the save was not an official statistic). At the end of August, Clarke started using Adams as a starter. He went 7-2 down the stretch with a pair of shutouts and finished the season with a 1.11 ERA.

The World Series opened in Pittsburgh and Clarke's decision to start Adams looked terrible. He walked two batters, got two groundouts and then gave up a single to Jim Delahanty which scored a run in the first. George Moriarty also singled but the ball hit Delehanty on the basepaths to end the inning. Adams settled down from there, though, allowing just four singles the rest of the way and not allowing any more runs in a 4-1 complete game victory.

The Tigers took two of the next three and Adams took the hill for game five. His control was much better as he only allowed one walk. He did serve up two home runs. Adams got a lot of support from his teammates as they belted out ten hits, including a home run by Clarke, and stole four bases. The Pirates gave Adams the 8-4 win.

Since you know already from me that this series went seven games, you can guess who won game six. For the final game of the series, Adams was selected to start with just one day of rest. He showed little sign of fatigue. The Tigers got six hits and drew just one walk. Adams blanked the Tigers 8-0 to give the Pirates their first World Championship.

Sixteen years later, the Pirates claimed their second championship and Adams again pitched for them, albeit in a lesser role. He pitched one inning of shutout relief (making him part of the answer to the trivia question from the previous post). As for the rest of that 1925 Series, you'll have to come back to read about Max, Harold and Hazen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pittsburgh Pirates, clutch baseball team extraordinaire

I keep coming across the Pittsburgh Pirates as of late and I thought I would write about them. Not the current version of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They're pretty awful. And not any of the miserable seasons over the last two decades. I had a post last year that looked back on what life was like when the Pirates last had a winning record. Nothing to add there.

No, the reason I want to write about the Pirates right now is to look at their five World Championships. Why? Because interestingly, all five times the Pirates have won the World Series, they won it in the seventh game of the World Series. In fact, they have never lost a seven game World Series. In World Series greater or less than seven games, they are 0-2 (the Pirates were swept by the Yankees in four games in 1927 and lost the best of nine series to the Boston Americans in 1903).

In 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971 and 1979 the Pirates were World Champions. I'll be looking back at each series and writing about a possibly unsung person (or just forgotten from those championship teams of 85+ years ago) who played an important role for that team.

For now, I'll leave with a trivia question (no cheating and looking up the answer). Name the five members of the Pittsburgh Pirates who won two World Series with the Pirates as a player.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Straight Man

I really enjoy's baseball analyst Keith Law. So much so, I asked Beardy to make a baseball card of him. We seem to share similar tastes in a bunch of things, especially books. Plus, he's a good writer/analyst. Shoot, I even have his Twitter feed in my RSS Reader (the only person about whom I can make such a claim (or would want to)).

In a chat of his recently, another reader, inspired by Law's love of books, stated that he wanted to become a reader and asked Law for a good first book to read. Law went with Richard Russo's Straight Man. Law is a big fan of Russo's but I had never heard him mention this book. Some of Russo's other books have been on my to-read list but I haven't gotten around to him until now.

Straight Man was fantastic. The story takes place at a college in a small Pennsylvania town. The main character, William Henry Devereaux, Jr. ("Hank"), is an English professor at the college and interim chair of the department. He is fifty years old but often behaves like a man much younger (say twelve). His father, a noted professor, left him and his mother for one of his graduate students when Hank was younger but has now reappeared in his life for the first time in decades. The department has no budget yet and Hank is suffering the brunt of the blame. The stress in his life has resulted in urinary problems. He fantasizes about his wife cheating on him. Hank has a lot of problems.

I think what makes this book great is that Russo is able to take a guy with a lot of problems (and the other characters do, too) and show the humorous side. Like in real life, there are good moments and bad. Russo balances the dark with the light extremely well. The characters are flawed. There are alcoholics, jerks, professors who sleep with students, guys who cheat on their wife, a couple who overspend their means. People who are greedy, envious, lazy. In short, they are normal.

Maybe a little funnier than usual. And the professors in the book might sleep with their students more than is typical (at least I'd like to think it's atypical). But really the human factor makes the characters interesting and many of them likable.

That being said, the more I think about it, the more I think the book might be a little light on plot. There's tons of conflict, the conflicts are resolved in a very nice fashion. The book moves fast with a lot happening just over the course of a week. I think the frenetic pacing coupled with the complex characters carries the book.

This was definitely one of the best books I have read this year and I look forward to reading more of Russo down the road.

I also re-read Simon Rich's Free-range Chickens. Not so much because it's a great book, but more because it is such a quick read. Seriously, twenty minutes tops. Something to read when you need a quick laugh.

Also finished my friend Jason's novel (at least my first time through it. I intend to go through it again in the near future). Since it has not been published, I'm not going to review it but I will say that it would fall in the one-star range for me. I'm hoping he does get it published.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hall of Famer George Steinbrenner

Color me cynical. When I was at the Hall this summer, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died (July 13th).

Stunningly, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced two weeks later that they were overhauling the way the Veterans Committee worked. Under the revised procedures, candidates will now be lumped into an era: Pre-integration (pre-1946), Golden (?!?!) 1947-1972, and Expansion (1973-present). This in itself is baffling. What makes the first quarter century after integration Golden? Why does the Expansion Era begin in a year where no expansion took place (expansion took place in 1961, 1962, 1969, 1977, 1993 and 1998). Every year, the Veterans Committee will vote on candidates from a single era.

Any idea which era is up for vote first? I'll give you a hint. George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees on January 3, 1973.

Two weeks after Steinbrenner dies, the rules for election change, a fabricated era is created that just happens to coincide with Steinbrenner's reign, and that era just happens to be the one the voters will vote on first. Surely it is just a coincidence.

Well, the ballot was released today. Sure enough, Steinbrenner is on the ballot. Five-time Yankee manager Billy Martin is also on the list. I can't help but shake the feeling that there will be two members elected this year and that the plaques are already being made.

I just hope that the Hall doesn't follow the Yankees lead and give Steinbrenner a super-sized plaque.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How to be an MVP

Kids, do you want to be a Most Valuable Player? If so, there are two important rules to follow. The first is, swing at the ball. Walks won't win you awards. The second rule is don't play unless it's really, really important. The rest will help you be strong so when you do swing, you will hit home runs.

Look at San Francisco Giants shortstop Edgar Renteria. He just won the World Series MVP. And from August 4th until the end of the World Series last night, Renteria drew exactly one walk. That's right. From the time you were at the beach enjoying summer vacation and 100 degree weather until early November, when the first marking period is about to end, he took four balls just once. Very important lesson.

Nopw let's look at rest. During that time span in which Renteria drew one walk, he played in just 15 regular season games followed by 11 postseason games. That's 26 games. His team played 70 games. Renteria started the season playing a bunch of games. He played in 72 games during the regular season and hit three home runs. That's a home run every 24 games. In 2009 he hit five home runs in 124 games for one home run every 25 games.

But in five World Series games, coming off a bunch of rest, Renteria hit two home runs.

So remember, kids, if your coach wants you to play, tell him you'll be ready when the games are important and when you do play, make sure the only walking you do is during your home run trots.