Monday, June 29, 2009

Lyricism is just another four letter word

Last Thursday night John Smoltz stepped onto the field wearing his new team's colors, toed the rubber of Nationals Park and threw a pitch in anger. It was his first start without a tomahawk on his chest in twenty-plus years. He was amped up, wild and very hittable in his first inning of work, but then settled down and turned in a useful performance. In all honesty it looked quite a bit like his first start upon returning to the rotation in Atlanta, after his closer years. No matter how hard I grimaced and whispered vile curses under my breath, his shoulder did not fall off. Sometimes Little Baby Jesus is just plain worthless.

Prior to the start the Washington Times ran a piece by Thom Leverro headlined "Smoltz is the last of a dying breed." Ignoring for the moment that Smoltz is not in any way shape or form the last of a dying breed; hurlers across baseball, from Smoltz' new teammate Josh Beckett to his old team's newest phenom Tommy Hanson are proof positive that smoke-throwing righties with wicked breaking balls are far from joining the dodo and long relief specialist on the extinction rolls; I must protest.

Generally I avoid the "a sportswriter wrote something wrong" meme. There just doesn't seem to be much sport in shooting those poor barrelled up fish. Rather than venting about something less than insightful someone else said, I'd rather spend my time saying something insightful. Or in the absence of that, blindly yelling rage into the void until some god of some heathen realm brings me a second bloody World Series banner. But in this case, I must protest.

Loverro's lede reads easily enough.

Washington fans, watch John Smoltz closely Thursday night when he makes his first start in a Boston Red Sox uniform. He is the last dinosaur, the one surviving member of a species that dominated the pitching mounds of major league fields for more than 20 years.

Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux - as lyrical and historic a trio as Tinkers, Evers and Chance - should go down in baseball lore as well because when Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were the identity of the Atlanta Braves from 1993 to 2003, they were the class of the game.

You want to give him points for trying. It's never a bad thing for a writer to make a note greatness. It's just that, well, it's wrong. Doubly wrong.

First, it is wrong on the baseball facts. Atlanta never fielded a rotation of Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux. Yes, of course they fielded rotations that included those three pitchers - many of them in fact. The entire concept "the Braves of the 90s" hinges on those three taking the hill, one after another, year after year. Any baseball fan worth her pink hat should know as much. But the Braves never fielded a rotation of Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux. No. Rather, year after year after year, the Atlanta Braves ran out a rotation of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

Am I picking nits? Probably. But it's a nit worth the time.

From his arrival in 1993 through is departure in 2003 Greg Maddux was less than the best pitcher on the Atlanta Braves exactly once; during Kevin Millwood's monstrous 1999 campaign. (We can haggle over 2003 if you really want to go to the wall for Mike Hampton. I won't stop you, but I won't join you there either.) He wasn't always the Opening Day starter. He wasn't always the fan favorite. But every year, like clockwork, he was the best pitcher on the team. More often than not he was the best pitcher in the game.

After Maddux came Glavine. Granted, in any other rotation Glav would have been the ace, but the Braves of the 90s were far from any other rotation. That's kind of the point. Glavine wasn't merely a "second ace", though he was. He was a second ace who was clearly second tier to Maddux' mastery. That's not to demean Tom Glavine's skill and talent. It's no shame to finish second to the third greatest pitcher of all time.

Smoltz was the third starter. Always. Again, this isn't meant to hack at Smoltzie's shins - explode shoulder, explode! This is merely an attempt to set the record straight. Much like Glavine, Smoltz would have been a #1 starter on virtually any other team. Just not in Atlanta. Not with Maddux and Glavine ahead of him. A current day comp for Smoltz in the team's heyday might be Carlos Zambrano. Wicked, overpowering stuff; a bit of a head case (Smoltz had his own personal "sports psychologist" on staff); capable of dominant performances on any given day but prone early on to bouts of erratic wildness.

All of which is, once again, picking nits. Outside of pedantic disgruntled fans I'm sure Loverro's poetic license won't stick in craws. But for the record, as a pedantic disgruntled fan, he's wrong on the facts. Top to bottom, it was always Maddux, then Glavine, then Smoltz. And that brings us in turn to Loverro's second mistake.

Again, this is not a gaffe I'd normally jump on, as I don't personally hold the sports beat to high standards of composition and style. But the writer himself brings it up, and then proceeds to butcher it completely, and that bears mentioning. In addition to being wrong on the baseball facts, Loverro is wrong on the poetics.

The "lyrical and historic" trio is "Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz." Say it aloud. Let the syllables roll off of your tongue. Feel the words alive in your mouth. Taste their sound. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz. Notice how the hard consonants hit precisely as the next man strides to the hill.

MAD-duhks. GLAV-en. sMOltz.

Can you hear the metered feet, the accented syllables matching each name's introduction; the way that trailing "tz" elongates into the chasm between the three and poor John Burkett trying to keep up? That's lyricism, Thom. Switch that up and what do you have? The single-syllabic "Smoltz" crashing wildly into Glavine's entrance? The interrupting "and" dropped in for no reason, doubling the beat between Glavine and Maddux? No, Thom. Just, no.

We appreciate the effort. But, you know, get it right next time. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz. From our mouths to God's ear. Any god, really. Just so long as they can deliver another banner before we lose Chipper too.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

You know what would be weird?

Let's say, simple theoretical thought experiment type dealy here, just for the sake of argument and such, let's say you're a fan of the Atlanta Braves. Rare breed, difficult to find in crowds, doesn't make a lot of noise even at Atlanta Braves baseball games. I know. I get it. Just work with me here. Imagine if you can that you are such a thing.

Imagine further, perhaps, that you are a fan with some history. No, you're not one of these goofy little whippersnappers born after Greg Maddux started wearing a tomahawk, not one of these spoiled punk brats that honestly think three years of mediocrity and a reasonably sane rebuilding plan is hell on earth. Oh God no, you’re not one of those guys. No, you're deeper than that. You started following this sad sack of a franchise in 1986 or something. Your first favorite player was Claudelle Washington. Or something. Something like Claudelle Washington. If you can't bring yourself to grasp the stupefied awesomeness that was Claudelle, Bob Horner will do as a stand-in. Yeah, you're that kind of Braves fan. You remember when they *really* sucked.

Let's say you're that guy, or some guy close to that, right? You survived the '80s. You danced through the '90s like a drunken puppet. In the earlier parts of that decade, you were, in fact, very much like a drunken puppet, but she was worth it. You remember with the clarity of God hisownself Sid's slide. You remember even more how the foldout couch in the common room of Dunn's dorm broken literally in half and dumped everyone onto the floor in a sweaty, catatonic heap. You remember with unpleasant specificity requesting that Bo Pamplin kindly remove his foot from your groin, if he would be so kind. Yeah, these are the days that broke the boy and made the man, along and along, as they were.

Lonnie Smith getting deked. (Run you stupid son of a bitch, run!) Kent Hrbek and that damned wrestling move on Ron Gant. Halle's boy toy backing up Tommy's grandest hour in '95. All of it. You'd remember all of that. Even, like, silly little Walt Weiss, two years past his prime, just flailing out there, like some sort of deep sea fish monster teleported from the inky depths right into the hole at short in the Astrodome. Hell, you'd remember when J*hn R*ck*r was just an eccentric LH reliever and not the biggest ass on the planet. Yeah, you remember all of this. It's the land of make believe!

Now, if you're that guy, you've probably got some pent up frustrations from the 90's as well. There's that Puckett thing, of course. There's the Dave Winfield thing. The Eric Gregg thing. And of course the J*m F*cking L*yr*tz thing. You could even track across the years until you get to the C*rl*s F*cking B*ltr*n thing, but that would be going too far.

That L*yr*tz thing would quite obviously open doors onto the whole of "Yankees of the mid-to-late '90s" thing, and that would be a sea of seething potential most anyone would be well advised not to swim. Visions blurred red, stabbings of necks, etc. Yeah, you don't want to go into the deep end of the Yankee thing at all. So you still with me? You thinking about maybe being that guy? Yeah. Okay. Now throw in for good measure that you're a total comic book dork from the old days and you literally grew up on The Transformers.

Now, if you're that guy, and you take a long lunch one afternoon to go see the new Transformers sequel, and you're a little late so you sit in the back row to avoid the walking through other folks in the dark, and you sit there all two and a half hours chuckling along with some vaguely familiar guy sitting two seats over, and it's clear he too is a total Transformers dork, and then the lights come up and you're grabbing your headgear for the ride back and you suddenly realize, dude, that's Mariano Rivera, and FUCK, now I TOTALLY CAN'T HATE THAT GUY ANYMORE!

Yeah. That would be totally weird. It would be like losing a part of your soul.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The worst days are here

Today kicks off the nadir of the baseball season in Atlanta. Coming off of a give-away rubber-game of the three game set in Fenway (someone tear down that rat trap and build those kids a proper stadium, will ya?) the Braves come home for ten games. The team continues to tread water at mediocrity having not addressed the gaping wounds on either corner outfield slot, to the point where the Francoeur disease has infected Kelly Johnson. Someone needs to cut out the rot, soon. All of which is more or less par for the course these days, none of which really makes the next two weeks any more unbearable than the previous twelve. No, what makes the next two weeks hell on earth is the incoming teams.

Today we get a one-game make up for a rain out with the Cubs. While it might be endurable given the odd-ball nature of the schedule here, best advice is to avoid the park regardless. If there's any slug of baseball fandom that will appear for a Monday rain-out replay and make the park a miserable hell of drunken buffoonery, rest assured, it is Cubs fans.

We follow that septic sludge with Bud Selig's most joyous fuck you to Atlanta fans, our yearly parade of soul-grindingly annoying fans from the NEC. Three games of transplanted Yankee fans soiling the seats of our fair grounds, followed immediately by an equal dose of their paternal twins from Boston. Oh, joyous day. How can we, the unworthy denizens of Atlanta ever thank you Mr. Selig? If not for your ever-brilliant notion of making the World Series essentially meaningless by playing the leagues against one another in the middle of the summer we'd never have the chance to see all of the loud, obnoxious sprawl-eating invaders gathered together in one place like this! You're the best.

I hate interleague play. I hate people who think a baseball stadium full of families is the proper place to get drunk and moan "Yoooouuuuuuk" like a water buffalo in heat. I hate anyone who thinks Derek Jeter deserves anything more than a good garroting. All of which pales as shadow compared to the burning summer sun that is my hatred for the man who unleashed this unholy calvacade upon us.


At least we get a "break" with Philly in town before the Mets faithful storm in from the upper 'burbs and add a layer of self-loathing and little brother syndrone on top of the class and gentility we'd otherwise expect this week.