Keeping Score

I recently read Wait ‘Til Next Year, a memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin about her life growing up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. An interesting part of her childhood was that her father taught her how to keep score during baseball games, so that she could listen to the day games, keep score, and then relate to him in great detail how the game went when he got home from work in the evening. The act of reducing a game to marks on a score sheet, and then elaborating from those marks the details and stories of the game helped her develop the ability to create a narrative.

This was the first book of hers that I’ve read, and let me tell you, she can create a narrative. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Anyway, as an inveterate score-keeper myself, I enjoyed her account. When I go to a game, I almost always keep score. It keeps me in the game—despite all of the loud, between-inning distractions that are part of attending a professional baseball game these days—and helps me remember what’s gone on earlier with each particular batter.

Like Doris Kearns Goodwin, I learned from my father how to keep score. Unlike her, though, I don’t hang onto my scorecards after the game. She has notebooks full of old games that she kept track of. Me, I generally toss my scorecard in the first trash can I see once the game’s over. It’s great during the game, but I don’t have much use for it after that.

Another reason I don’t keep my scorecards is that I’ve always been somewhat deficient in the penmanship department, and my scorecards end up looking pretty sloppy:

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I can tell what happened, but perhaps nobody else can. This was from a game in May against the Cubs. It was a rare Cardinals game for me this year, because, as you can see, the Cardinals actually scored some runs—five of them, as you can see (if you can decipher my scorekeeping … and they shoulda had more in the 8th). In most of the games I’ve been to this year, the offense has been pretty sparse.

‘The Cardinal Way’

Which brings us to “the Cardinal Way.” If you buy a scorecard at Busch Stadium these days, a whole page of the double-fold scorecard is devoted to instructing us how to keep score, supposedly the way the Cardinals do it.

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In short, it’s radically different from the way I keep score, and from the way everybody I know keeps score. In the Cardinal Way, hits are signified by those little cross-like things—a single has one crosshatches, a double has two, etc. In the ‘standard’ way, you write 1B, 2B, etc., in the middle of the box, and then you can see how far the runner advanced in the inning by how much of the diamond is there; if he makes it around to score, there’s a full diamond inside the square for that at-bat. I think it’s a lot easier to see, at a glance, what’s happening using my way rather than the ‘Cardinal way.’

OK, so with my way, you can’t tell what direction the hit went to; in the Cardinal Way, that is signified by which way the top of the little cross points. You can also tell that Brock stole a base while Musial was batting, whereas with my method, you can’t tell when a stolen base occurred. Honestly, though, that’s information I can live without.

Neither method, though, helps in a busy game when there are lots of substitutions. In those games, the left side of the scorecard, where all the names are, gets completely jumbled, and it’s almost impossible to follow how the game went. The solution would be to have a scorecard that’s twice the size, so there’s room to note all of the changes and when they occurred, but I guess that’s just not practical.

Bottom line, it seems to me the Cardinal Way is a new trick this old dog isn’t going to learn.

A Fantasy Virgin

In this, my 58th year on the planet, I’m doing something for the very first time. Yesterday I drafted a team for a fantasy baseball league.

Yes, I’ve managed to avoid taking part in fantasy leagues until now, even though a lot of friends and family members participate. I figured I never had time for it, or I don’t follow sports that intricately to be able to do well. Actually, I love sports, but what I love is the drama of the games, and following the rises and falls of a given team’s chances throughout the season; individual players’ stats don’t really excite me that much.

But the last two years, my friend Kurt has asked me to help out at his fantasy league’s draft. This league is less hands-on than a lot of fantasy leagues. You draft a team at the beginning of the year, and then your players’ cumulative stats for the year are calculated for the league’s standings; you don’t have to decide before each game who’s in your lineup or whatever. Once your team is drafted, the only work you have to do is preparing for monthly free-agent nights in which you can drop players who are hurt or underperforming, and add players who aren’t already on someone else’s team.

Helping Kurt on his draft day was fun, and this year, when a slot opened up, I jumped at the chance to have a team of my own.

The league has 12 teams; I drew draft position No. 11, which is fine, because the draft “snakes”; in the even-numbered rounds, the teams draft in reverse order, so I had positions 11 and 14, then 35 and 38, etc. The draft consisted of 21 rounds, so there would be 252 players drafted. This fantasy league uses only players on National League, which of course makes researching players a lot easier. Also, though, it means the last few rounds of the draft feature a lot of players most people don’t know anything about.

That would present an opportunity to do a lot of research, to get to know the universe of National League players and try to figure out who the best 252 are, and in what order they should be placed. Me, I’m a newbie at this, and I chose to rely on the “experts” at CBSSports.com, where there is all kinds of research on players, with stats and rankings by position. I made a list of what I consider the top 75 players in the league—that would get me through the first six rounds—and printed ranking lists, by position, of all of the rest of the players.

My rankings were based on three-year stats, rather than last year’s, which, in retrospect, may have skewed my team a little bit. I wound up with a lot of vets on my team, and few youngsters. There could be guys there who are twilighting their careers and I just don’t know it yet. I guess I’ll find out over the next couple of months. I did land some very good starting pitchers, so I hope to do well in the ERA and strikeout categories, if nothing else.

But hey, it’s my rookie year. I’m only here to gain experience. As the season unfolds, I’ll understand a lot more about what it takes to do well in this league, and on next year’s draft day, I’ll be better prepared.

The way the league works, your team has 21 players (eight pitchers, five outfielders, two catchers, one each at the other four infield positions, plus one “corner infielder,” who can be a first or third baseman, and one “middle infielder,” who can be either a second baseman or shortstop.) Those players are ranked according to their cumulative stats for the season in eight categories: batting average, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases for batters, and ERA, wins, saves and strikeouts for pitchers.

Not that you care, but these are the players I ended up with:

Pitcher: Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Joaquin Benoit, Shawn Kelley, Fernando Rodney, Carter Capps and Hector Rondon.

Outfield: Kyle Schwarber, Jayson Werth, Jay Bruce, Andre Ethier and Franklin Gutierrez

First Base: Brandon Belt

Second Base: Neil Walker

Shortstop: Corey Seager

Third Base: Jose Reyes

Corner Infielder: Martin Prado

Middle Infielder: Howie Kendrick.

Play Ball!

 

The Game After The Storm

It was 10 years ago tonight—July 19, 2006—that I had the best seats I’ve ever had for a baseball game, and it was one of the wildest nights I’ve spent at the ballpark.

My brother, who at that time worked for Anheuser Busch, which at that time was one of the better employers in St. Louis, somehow secured the AB Diamond Box tickets for that night and he gave them to me. Right next to the Cardinals’ dugout, just behind the photographers’ well. Truly amazing seats.

IMG_3568IMG_3573Unfortunately, as the players were finishing their pre-game warmups, the skies darkened, and it was clear—from the gray clouds in the background and from the weather radar that was put up on the scoreboard—that it was going to be a while before any baseball was played. The players rushed off the field, and, as the rain started to fall, the fans left the stands for relative safety inside.

 

As you can see from this video, “relative” is the operative word. The wind was whipping at near-tornadic strength, it seemed, and somebody got clobbered by this trash can. I was somewhere in that crowd, safe from the winds and the flying dumpsters.

IMG_3581The storm finally ended, and it was time to assess the damage. Unfortunately, the tarp covering home plate had been ripped up by the winds, so a long time was spent making repairs to the batters’ boxes. Finally, things got under way. The Cardinals played well; “Jimmy Baseball” Edmonds hit a home run, and they ended up beating the Braves 8-3.

(The night didn’t end so well for us, however; we got home to find that our power had gone out in the storm, along with much of the surrounding area. Luckily for us, though, it came on again the next morning. We’ve definitely had worse outages.)

New Tricks For An Old … Grasshopper

This week the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials are taking place in Omaha, Neb. Since I recently began swimming again after decades away from the pool, I’ve been watching with extreme interest.

Every four years, it seems like the technology for broadcasting the Olympics—and even the Olympic Trials—gets better and better, and the programming folks do a better and better job of packaging it. There are some amazing slow-motion shots of water splashing around the swimmers as they cut through it, and excellent underwater videos that allow the viewer to dissect all manner of stroke mechanics. Throw in a DVR that allows me to replay short clips over and over again, and I’m in kinesiology heaven.

For me, it’s a chance to see how to swim “right,” and maybe how to figure out to fix my own flawed mechanics.

Some time very early in my swimming career, I developed an odd way of kicking while swimming freestyle: instead of the usual up-and-down flutter kick, my legs crossed over each other in kind of a twisting, propeller kick. (OK, “propeller” only works as a metaphor if you can conceive of a propeller that reverses direction every 180 degrees.) I suppose what I do is kind of a modified “two-beat” kick, rather than the more standard “six-beat” kick.

This page explains the differences between a two-beat kick and a six-beat kick.

And for a real-life example of the difference, check out this video of Australian record-holder Jessica Ashwood in a recent 800-meter freestyle event. She uses a two-beat kick for most of the lap, but when she gets to within 10-15 feet of the wall, you suddenly see the splash at her feet as she switches to a six-beat kick (I suggest fast-forwarding to about 8:15 in the video [not the race time] for a good view.)

The two-beat examples above don’t show my two-beat “crossover” style. In my case, I guess the crossover works to kind of stabilize the rest of my body as my arms pull through their motions. It’s certainly not something I ever consciously tried to do. The more I think about it, now, the more I think that it might just have developed out of laziness—by simply not focusing enough on kicking properly.

I’m sure some coaches along the way tried to wean me from the habit, but by the time I got to high school and college, it was pretty firmly ingrained in how I swam, probably too much so to try to change it.

I’m not sure it was even detrimental; after all, my legs were still kicking, but there was just more of a side-to-side, criss-cross motion than an up-and-down motion. And it’s possible that, late in my swimming career—when I’d switched from distance freestyle to sprint freestyle—I used a more standard flutter kick when I was going all-out in races. I can’t remember now if I even thought about it by then.

All I know is that now, when I allow myself to swim naturally, without thinking about it, the legs twist around each other in a criss-cross two-beat kick. With each stroke, the shin of one leg bangs against the calf of the other leg, then they switch positions with the next stroke.

I’ve been watching the Trials to see if anybody else in the distance events did something similar, and lo and behold, I thought I saw some of it in Leah Smith’s 400 freestyle. Maybe I’m not a freak after all. I love the underwater views.

But since I’m still getting back into swimming after basically three decades off, I feel like I have a chance to change some of my old, bad habits. Every time I go to the pool now, I spend at least some of the time focusing on doing a real flutter kick while I swim. It’s actually something I have to concentrate on, and my little brain doesn’t have enough voltage to do it for a whole workout, not yet anyway. But I can definitely feel the difference in the propulsion power when I use a “normal” flutter kick, so it’ll be a great skill to learn.

I’ll Fly Away

Another area I’m trying to work on is the butterfly stroke. I’ve never been a good butterflyer; not sure if it was a problem with timing or strength, both of which are critical to do the stroke right. I’ve always loved watching good swimmers do fly, though, and I’ve resolved to try and improve my own stroke.

Actually, way back when, I thought I was OK at butterfly. And then someone had a video camera at a practice once, and I got to see what I looked like. My elbows were bent, my hands were too close to my body, and I honestly looked like a grasshopper. It was the ugliest thing I’d ever witnessed, and I probably never tried to swim butterfly again in the last two years of my swimming career after that.

Now, though, in my new/old body, I feel like I can make some changes. And even though swimming butterfly is about the hardest thing for me to do these days, I set a concrete goal of doing a total of four 100s fly in one workout by the end of July. Every time I get a practice lane to myself, I work on that, too, focusing on spreading my arms as wide as possible to avoid the dreaded grasshopper effect.

I have a long way to go; I can barely make it through four 50s, and the difference between a 50 butterfly and a 100 butterfly, is well … let’s say that after 50 yards, this butterfly turns back into a caterpillar.

But, I’ll keep working at it. It’s nice to have some goals.

 

Back To The Pool

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On January 24 of this year, I jumped into a swimming pool and swam laps for the first time in many, many years.

It felt great—for about one and a half laps. Then the pain started, and once it started it didn’t go away. I managed to complete 1,000 yards that day, but I don’t think I swam more than 75 yards at a time. In between, there were lots of breaks to catch my breath and to remind my arms that they really do know how to do this.

Two days later, I was sore, but I was back. This time, I was able to make myself do “repeats” of 100 yards—four laps—separated by easy 50s, either swimming breaststroke or kicking with a kickboard. Stopping for a breather after each 100 or 50, of course. It wasn’t pretty, but it was progress.

Growing Up In Pools

Between the ages of about 10 and 23, much of my life was spent in swimming pools. I joined the local swim club the summer after fourth grade, and swam summers for a couple of years before starting to swim year-round. But it was years and years before I really got the hang of it. In high school, I wound up swimming distance freestyle, mostly without distinction.

After high school, I went to Missouri U., where I had no shot at making the swim team. But I did keep swimming—evenings, during open swim. I found it was a great way to both keep in shape and blow off college stress, just doing my own workouts without a coach barking at me.

After a couple of years at Mizzou, though, the weight of the big university was getting a little much for me, and I switched to North Central College—about a tenth the size of Mizzou—where suddenly I could be an editor on the school newspaper and be on the swimming team.

So for the last two years of my college career, I was a swimmer again, and in many ways it was the best two years of my life.

At North Central we didn’t do the crazy yardage that some swim teams were doing those days—we’d get in about 5,000–6,000 yards a day as I recall—but our workouts were intense, with lots of high-quality sprint work. During the height of the training season, the cumulative fatigue clouded everything we did. Too tired to study, too muscle-twitchy to sleep. The payoff, though, came at the end of the season, with the magical taper before the conference meet, when the workouts were cut back and suddenly we had all of the energy we’d been lacking for the previous three months. In my senior year, that taper led to the best swimming meet of my entire life, where I dropped my times like crazy, and had a lot of fun doing it.

But after the intensity of my two years swimming at North Central, and after more than a decade spent in swimming pools, I was ready to get out of the water. I took up running to stay in shape and to satisfy my competitive urges. I realized that hey, you could work out AND see the world at the same time. In a pool, you can only see what is within nine walls—the four walls and bottom of the pool, and the four walls of the natatorium. Within those walls, your vision is further limited by your goggles, which, besides restricting your field of view, more often than not get fogged up within a lap or two. Any entertainment during a long swim pretty much has to be supplied by your own imagination.

But with running, you can take in a lot more. Until I started running, I had no idea how boring swimming had been.

Hoofin’ It

So for the next 30 years or so, I pounded ground and took part in running races of every distance from the mile to the marathon—just once, for the marathon—but mostly stuck to 5Ks, 10Ks and half-marathons.

But while running gives you more in-flight entertainment, it does carry its risks. Namely, all that pounding. I had a couple of stints on the DL—i.e., physical therapy—once for a bad knee and once for a herniated disc. But I recovered, and in 2015 I was having a pretty good running year, including three half-marathons in the spring.

But on one run in September, it all came crashing down, with an acute pain in my calf near the end of the run. The pain mostly stopped when I stopped running, but when I tried again a day or so later, it returned immediately, and I knew my running was done for a few weeks.

And as it turned out, I was finished for the rest of the year. My calf recovered, more or less, but then I caught a nasty cold. And whenever I would try to run, I would get some kind pain in my lower legs: calf, knee, ankle, whatever. Something was always hurting. I heard the message loud and clear—these old legs have had about enough running.

Back To The Pool

So it was back to the pool. I made it a New Year’s resolution to start swimming again, but it took me more than three weeks after the new year to actually get up the guts to join the YMCA and get in the water.

It was painful at first, as I knew it would be. But with each workout, I was gradually able to do a little longer swims without resting, and a little longer total yardage for the day.

One gratifying thing: even if my arms and shoulders would turn to jelly in a short time, I still had my flip turns. It was almost like I’d never left the pool in the first place; with the very first time I approached a wall, I knew exactly how to adjust my last stroke, and then duck my head, flip over, twist and then bounce off the wall. After doing millions of them as a kid, I guess the movement has become imprinted in me. That was a pleasant surprise.

I kept up with it. After a few weeks, I was up to 2,000 yards per session. That’s barely a warmup for world-class swimmers, but enough for me to feel like I’ve had a good workout, and is a decent yardage for the amount of time I usually have available. I’ll go longer if I can.

One day in late March, I had some extra time and I pushed the total a little, and also, for the first time, swam a 500 freestyle without stopping. It felt remarkably good, and as I got down to about four laps to go, I felt just as strong as I had on the first lap. I decided to find out just how strong I actually was. After the turn to start the last 50, I hit the gas, accelerating steadily through the penultimate lap until I was going at just about Top Speed—faster than I had swum in decades—as I approached the last turn. I executed a perfect turn, got a strong push-off, grabbed a powerful pull to bring myself to the surface, easily resumed Top Speed for a few strokes and then pushed it to Beyond Top Speed, and it still felt perfect. I was gliding along, high in the water, my turnover furious but mechanics not degrading at all. It was like the second-best feeling in the world. I slammed into the wall at the end, heart pounding and lungs heaving, and it felt like I was back in college. It had taken me a couple of months, but I could swim again.

Of course, I know that the “now” me would appear to be treading water against the 35-years-ago me. I know that, even if I could survive a season of the training rigor we went through in college, I wouldn’t approach the kind of times I swam then. But just to be able to touch that feeling of sprinting full out again was something special. The goals are different now: I just hope to get, and stay, in some semblance of “shape,” and maybe to stave off the grave for a few extra minutes. And if I can enjoy it while I’m doing it, so much the better.

USA Cross Country Championships

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IMG_7776The United States Cross Country Championships were held in Forest Park in St. Louis today. In addition to juniors races and a couple of local races, the big events were the men’s and women’s championships. The top six finishers of those races will travel to the World Cross Country Championships later this year in Poland.

The races were run on a 2K course just east of the Muny in Forest Park; four circuits for the women and six for the men. The weather was a little cool and breezy, but otherwise perfect for running.

The changing light—as well as the sheer speed of the runners—made it something of a photographic challenge for me, but I had fun walking around the course, grabbing what shots I could. Here’s a sampling of the pictures I captured today.

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 3

3. Sunday, Bloody Sunday, by U2.

October 27, 1985: Denkinger screwed up, and the Cardinals were ticked. After the nightmare finish to Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, it was easy to see that Game 7 was going to be a powder keg. The only question was, who was going to set it off?

I previously wrote about the finish of Game 6 here.  Oh, and also here.

The next afternoon, Sunday, the day of Game 7, I was searching for a song that might capture my apocalyptic mood and get me emotionally prepared to watch the game that evening. I was thumbing through my record collection, and came to the album War, by U2.

AHA!   There’s a song called New Year’s Day on that record that was just right: from the very first distorted piano chord, the song draws you in with a taut, gritty tension that won’t let you go. It was perfect for what I was feeling that day.

I went to put it on … but New Year’s Day was the second song on that album; the first, which I’d forgotten about, was even MORE perfect: Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

“I can’t believe the news today,” the song begins. “I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” And truly, the news was unbelievable. The Cardinals, with one of their best lineups ever, were supposed to coast through that World Series against the Royals, who were—let’s face it—pretenders to the American League crown. But after that awful finish to Game 6, there they were, all even, going into the deciding game at Kansas City’s home field. Their backs up against the wall, as the song says.

And yes, there was an egregiously blown call by the umpire, but the blame for the Game 6 loss falls squarely upon the Cardinals, who completely fell apart at the end. And worse, their reactions after the game indicated that they were going to spend the whole day Sunday fuming about the umpire, rather than focusing on Game 7.

(OK, readers who are not sports fans—and I know there are a few of you out there—may think that this violent, militaristic song and desperate imagery might be a little over the top when discussing a game. But we’re talking about the World Series here. And the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1980s, baseball was all St. Louis had.)

So yes, the tone of this song was absolutely perfect. Even the title was exactly right: Sunday, Bloody Sunday. It was clearly going to be bloody. My prediction before the game—I’m not boasting; it was about the easiest prediction one could make—was that it was going to probably be an ugly, blowout game, with at least one person being ejected. I held out a slim hope that it would be the Cardinals on the upper side of the blowout, that “anger can be power” and they’d come out energized against the Royals. And yes, there’s even a tiny note of hopefulness in the song: “We can be a swarm tonight.” But deep down inside, I knew it would probably go the other way.

And, as we all know, it did: I think the score was 10-0 Royals when I gave up on the game, and both manager Whitey Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar had been tossed. It was probably the worst day in the history of Cardinal Nation.

Bloody Sunday, indeed.