Understanding Too Late

It’s early yet, but the teams I follow in the major leagues of North American baseball seem headed in opposite directions: The Cubs south, having dropped six of their first nine, demonstrating a penchant for losing from in front: the A’s north, winning eight in a row after playing their first two games of the season without bats; the A’s play far from perfect baseball but when things are going their way, they look like a bunch of kids, no cares in the world.

While watching the A’s take apart the American League franchise from Anaheim on Wednesday night–I find few things in televised sports are more fun to watch than a glutted, money-besotted team fall flat on its face the way the Angels did to the underpaid Athletics–Kate pulled out a book of baseball poetry, “Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves.” She turned to a poem we’ve read many times in the past, “Pitcher,” by Robert Francis (1901-1987).

Here it is, reproduced without permission (but believe me, not for profit):


His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

That is a gem, a perfect description of something you can watch inning after inning, game after game, season after season and still not see how different appearance is from intent. And that’s where I think I tend to read poetry, too–on the surface. In poking around to see if I could find a copy of “The Pitcher” online, I came across a nice analysis that looks beneath the appearance of the couplets to examine the poem as a metaphor for writing poetry (I found a more technical analysis here).

Why didn’t I see that? Now that you say it, it’s obvious, like the way an inside fastball can set up a slider low and away. Or another inside fastball.

Here’s another Francis poem, “Catch.” Maybe what’s going on here–I’m talking about intent, not technique, about which I know nothing–is a little clearer.


Two boys uncoached are tossing a poem together,
Overhand, underhand, backhand, sleight-of-hand, every hand,
Teasing with attitudes, latitudes, interludes, altitudes,
High, make him fly off the ground for it, low, make him stoop,
Make him scoop it up, make him as-almost-as-possible-miss it,
Fast, let him sting from it, now, now fool him slowly,
Anything, everything tricky, risky, nonchalant,
Anything under the sun to outwit the prosy,
Over the tree and the long sweet cadence down,
Over his head, make him scramble to pick up the meaning,
And now, like a posey, a pretty plump one in his hands.

Journal of Arcane Baseball Research

Update: The Giants won, and that means they're the first team to come back from a two-nothing deficit at home to win a five-game series with three straight wins on the road. This was the second five-game series (the history goes back to 1969) in which a home team didn't win a single game (the first was Texas-Tampa Bay in 2010, when the Rangers clinched at the Rays' dome). 


"Arcane baseball research." Is there any other kind?

That fine point aside, the San Francisco Giants have a chance for a rare playoff achievement today: They could become the first team in baseball history to lose the first two games of a five-game playoff series at home, then go on to win the final three games on the road. In fact, the Giants are only the fourth team to force a fifth game after losing the first two games of a five-game series on their home field. Here's how that history breaks down:

Teams that forced a fifth game in five-game series after losing first two at home*:

2-3 configuration (two at home followed by three on the road; 1969-1998, 2012):

  • 2012 Giants (vs. Reds; series tied 2-2).
  • 1981 Brewers (vs. Yankees; Yankees won 3-2. at Milwaukee).

2-2-1 configuration (two at home-two on road-one at home; 1999-2011):

  • 2001 Yankees (vs. A's; Yankees won 3-2; fifth game at home).
  • 2010 Rays (vs. Rangers; Rangers won 3-2; fifth game on the road).

Other teams that lost first two at home in five-game series (and result), any configuration:

  • 2010 Twins (vs. Yankees; Yankees won 3-0).
  • 2008 Angels (vs. Red Sox; Red Sox won 3-1).
  • 2008 Cubs (vs. Dodgers; Dodgers won 3-0).
  • 2007 Phillies (vs. Rockiers; Rockies won 3-0).
  • 2006 Twins (vs. A's; A;s won 3-0).
  • 2006 Padres (vs. Cardinals; Cardinals won 3-1).
  • 2004 Angels (vs. Red Sox; Red Sox won 3-0).
  • 2002 Diamondbacks (vs. Cardinals; Cardinals won 3-0).
  • 2001 Astros (vs. Braves; Braves won 3-0).
  • 2000 White Sox (vs. Mariners; Mariners won 3-0).
  • 1997 Mariners (vs. Orioles; Orioles won 3-1).
  • 1996 Dodgers (vs. Braves; Braves won 3-0).
  • 1995 Rockies (vs. Braves; Braves won 3-1).
  • 1984 Royals (vs. Tigers; Tigers won 3-0).
  • 1981 Royals (vs. A's; A's won 3-0).
  • 1979 Reds (vs. Pirates; Pirates won 3-0).
  • 1979 Phillies (vs. Dodgers; Dodgers won 3-1).
  • 1976 Phillies (vs. Reds; Reds won 3-0).
  • 1974 Pirates (vs. Dodgers; Dodgers won 3-0).
  • 1970 Twins (vs. Orioles; Orioles won 3-0).
  • 1970 Pirates (vs. Reds; Reds won 3-0).
  • 1969 Braves (vs. Mets; Mets won 3-0).

*100 5-game series since 1969; approximately 52 with 2-3 configuration. Twenty-five teams have started a five-game series with two games at home and lost both those games. Prior to this year, one won the series 3-2; two lost the series 3-2; five have lost 3-1; 17 have lost 3-0.

Fall Classic: ‘Pitcher’

By Robert Francis, and pointed out to me by Kate (more than once) in the anthology “Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves,” edited by Don Johnson.

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

Of Francis, I find not a lot online. Poets.org doesn’t even include a listing for him, though he was once remarked to be a protege of Robert Frost (he got an obit in The New York Times headlined “Robert Francis, a Poet Hailed by Frost, Dies”). Three years ago, NPR ran a posthumous piece that featured Francis reading some of his work.

As to the poem, well, it gets to the part of pitching that’s hardest to see, even when it’s there in plain sight. You’d think it was the work of what W.P. Kinsella describes as “a true fan of the game.” Here’s what Francis has to say about his boyhood interest in sports in his autobiography:

No need to say that I was not good at any sport. A boy who shrank from the rough-and-tumble of recess would not be one to take to football. Baseball was a little better, but only if the pitcher was not too speedy. I lacked courage, toughness, surplus energy, but I also lacked interest, interest that could have made me a fan if not a player. I never learned a single big-league player’s batting average. Once Father took me to a big-league game in Boston, but my chief impression was the grossness of the free-for-all urinating under the stands between innings.

So, *That* Happened

Item 1: We returned from Japan today. In fact, I’m on my second Sunday evening (we took off from Narita airport, outside Tokyo, at about 7:15 Sunday night; and here it is getting close to 7:15 Sunday night after landing in San Francisco before noon. I understand the why and how of it, but it’s still strange.

Item 2: Before we left, I mentioned to someone that gee, the Cubs might be out of the playoffs by the time I get back home. Just indulging a moment of pre-emptively rueful Cubsy-ness. When we got home early this afternoon I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle, whose Sunday sports section featured not one but two misspelled names in other headlines, and saw the news that the Chicago nine had been swept. You can say wait till next year, or you can just admit you’re not waiting anymore. Go Pale Hose–spoil that beautiful Tampa Bay Rays story for us.

Item 3: Sometime I’ll relate my greatest adventure of September 2008, which was not flying to Japan but running out of gas on the very busy San Francisco Bay Bridge. I believe I’m an unindicted co-conspirator in the event, which involved a faulty fuel gauge.

Item 4: Not to leave the subject of The Trip too quickly: We flew Japan Air Lines both ways to Tokyo. Oddly (or probably not), about two-thirds of the seating space is devoted to first and business class. We were jammed in the back with the other groundlings. One of the entertainments offered on the screens-at-every-seat was a map of our flight’s progress. This morning, I saw that we were nearing the Northern California coast and started looking for Mount Shasta. The mountain is our Fuji, 14,000-some feet, a good hundred miles in from the coast. At the point I started looking, probably near Point Arena, we were about 200 miles from the mountain. But there, way off, rising above the clouds, was that beautiful snowy (not Sno-) cone.

It’s interesting to be back, even after just a week away.

(And where did the post title come from? Watch the clip below. You gotta stay with it to the end.)

Last Days at the Ballpark

First of October, last day of the baseball season. Not really the last last day — two rounds of playoffs and a non-global World Series are still to come. But in reality and emotionally for most teams and most fans, Sunday was it. It’s a great occasion for musing on the changes of season and of life. Let’s skip that; Roger Angell and by now about fifty-one other diamond prose slingers have been there and done that. Besides, I went to just one game all year (the A’s cuffed the upstart Tigers). But I’ll indulge in a couple of pictures that come to mind:

–Fan Appreciation Day, Oakland Coliseum, 1983 or ’84 or ’85: The last Saturday of the season. I went with Kate. We sat in the second of the three decks on the third-base side. I don’t remember who the A’s played or what the outcome was. But the park had that look it only gets at the tail end of the year, the afternoon light coming in at an odd low angle. It being Oakland, the game was sparsely attended, as it should have been, the A’s having descended into a stretch of mediocre years. What I remember, though: Seagulls, crowds of them, all over the field and the stands long before the game was over.

–Last day of the season, Oakland Coliseum, 1986: Kate and I were going to go to the last game of the year with out friends Robin and Jim, who were and are the most faithful A’s fans we’ve ever known. Something came up that I thought I had to do, so Kate went with them to the game; I was going to drive down whenever my work, whatever it was, was done. I had the game on from time to time, and realized as it progressed that the A’s pitcher, Curt Young, had not given up a hit. Around the sixth inning, I left for the game, now aware that Young was pitching a perfect game. Now I started to worry: I had waited so long to go to the game that now I was going to miss a piece of baseball history. While I was on the freeway, the game went into the 7th. Young got one out, then two; he had retired the first 20 batters in a row. I’d be in time to see the end of it; the 21st batter came up (by looking it up, I know it was Kevin Seitzer and the game was against the Kansas City Royals). He hit an infield grounder and beat the throw to first for a hit. I was simultaneously crushed and relieved; too bad about the perfect game, bu at least now I hadn’t missed one (Seitzer turned out to be the only base runner Young allowed that day). I got to my seat in the top of the 8th.

Enough of the glory of my times. One team I follow, the A’s, is going to the playoffs; they’re playing the Minnesota Twins, a team they’ve had real problems with the last four or five years, so I don’t have big hopes.

My other team is the Cubs. That’s a legacy of having grown up in the Chicago area, having gone to my first game at their park and maturing as a fan, if that’s what fans do, just at the time their good late ’60s team came along. That’s ancient history, though, and by now I don’t have a single atom of sentimentality left for them. They’re just a bad team, no more cute or colorful or loveable or worthy of some special loyalty than, say, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They’re so bad, they even fail to excel in failure. They did manage to lose 96 games this year, more than any other team in their league. But the mark of a colossally bad team is to lose 100 games; the Royals and Devil Rays managed to achieve that, but the Cubs fell short.

The horror show the Cubs put on has no apparent effect on fans’ willingness to pay to watch. The team drew a full house Sunday, as they did nearly every game. More than 3 million people attended their games this year. The explanation has got to be that the score doesn’t matter any more; the old park, the red brick, the ivy on the walls, the big centerfield scoreboard, the Old Style and franks and Frosty Malts, have become a draw in themselves.

Maybe It’s a little like visiting the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The scoundrels and miscreants in residence today matter less than having an idea what the places were built for and knowing that once, they were home to a Jefferson or a Lincoln or an FDR. Still, I think I liked baseball better when people just stopped coming out to the park when the team stunk. Tickets were easier. And that autumn light, a sparse crowd and a big flock of seagulls seem like the perfect sendoff for a failed season.

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Spite ‘n’ Schadenfreude

A couple years ago I told my colleague (and San Francisco Giants fan) Endo that a perfect day for me as a baseball fan would go like this: A’s win, Cubs win, Giants lose. Yeah, that’s the bitterly unhappy level to which my rooting interest in baseball has fallen: I take what passes for glee when a team loses (for now at least I won’t go into the twisted psychohistory behind my dark feelings for the San Francisco nine).

Given my leanings, this week has been special: The A’s started it on an epic roll. The aspiring-to-mediocrity Cubs entertained the mediocrity-would-be-an-improvement Giants for three games at the cute little loser’s paradise at Clark and Addison. The results for the first part of the week: Ecstasy. Agony. Ecstasy again. (Translation: On Monday, the A’s won and the Cubs beat the Giants — which is actually a little spite bonus on my definition of perfection; on Tuesday, the results were reversed; on Wednesday, they swung back the other way).

Now the Giants have left Chicago, and their losses will bring only a normal helping of sour satisfaction (though the way the Giants’ division is going, they could win it if they can get back to .500). The Cubs — well, they’ll dance around the .500 mark for the rest of the season and pack the house all the way to the end; neither wins nor losses will surprise or disappoint much; only three years till the centennial of their last World Series championship — it would be a shame to wipe out that streak before it hits 100. And the A’s: Hey, they’re actually fun to follow, especially after their horrible start this year, and anything they can do from here on in will be both pleasing and surprising.