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.