Baseball statistician, Bill James, spoke at the University of Kansas last night as part of the James Naismith Lecture Series. I had the privilege of attending the lecture, which centered around “Transitioning from Naïve to Professional Research.” The talk was delightfully engaging, thought-provoking, and amusing.
If you’ve never seen him in person, Bill James is a big man. He stands over six feet tall with noticeably broad shoulders, and he a full head of hair and a large beard that only seems to add to his enormity. He is, of course, even bigger in the baseball world.
But James actually didn’t talk a lot about baseball. He couldn’t entirely avoid it, being such a prolific baseball writer and the founder of sabermetrics. He did talk about the determination of strong versus weak MVP pools, mentioning this article, which, among other things, argues that Eric Hosmer deserves to rank second in the AL MVP race over Aaron Judge. His statement noticeably surprised a lot of folks (and delighted a lot of folks; Lawrence is only about an hour from Kauffman Stadium, after all). “Eric Hosmer’s contribution to the Royals,” James said, “was greater than Aaron Judge’s contribution to the Yankees.” When he puts it that way, it makes sense.
James’s primary discussion, however, revolved around ideas. He compared ideas to seeds on a tree. The seeds of a tree scatter, and though are thousands upon thousands of seeds that can come off any given tree, if just one of them takes root and becomes another fully-grown tree, that is an astonishing percentage. 99.9% of tree seeds scatter and all they do is become food for animals or clog our sewers and gutters. In the same way, we as human beings come up with hundreds of ideas every single day, and the vast majority of those ideas are throwaways. But if one of those ideas takes root, it can potentially change the world.
Everything around us, he said, once started as an idea. “The Kansas Union was once an idea that somebody had. The University of Kansas was once just an idea that somebody had.” It’s a perspective-altering thought.
This thought has direct relevance to James’s own life. When he graduated from KU in the 1970s, James says he knew his job prospects weren’t great. More than anything, he just wanted to find a job “that didn’t involve taxi cabs, heavy lifting, or armed robbery.” Spending his spare time working with baseball statistics, he said, was something that folks around him would comment was interesting, but that not enough people in the world were interested in it enough for him to ever make a living off it. We know now that those folks’ assessment was proved wrong, and James’s work with statistics became the idea that not only changed his own life, but revolutionized the world of baseball.
This isn’t everything that Bill James spoke about last night, but these are the ideas that particularly struck me. It was one of the more engaging lectures I’ve had the opportunity to attend, and I like to attend these kinds of things whenever I can. The fact that I’m a baseball fan certainly influenced my perspective, but as you can probably tell, it was the kind of talk that even non-fans could appreciate.
We now break from our usual array of posts to share/brag about my new throw pillow covers! They arrived in the mail a couple days ago, and every time I look at my couch now, I can’t help but smile. You can find these on Amazon here and here, if you’re interested. And yes, that is a Kansas City Royals throw blanket hanging on the back of the couch.
Though it took me until late-August to finally make it to a game, I suddenly seem to have made quite a shift in my luck, as the other night I made it to my second game in two weeks. This past Wednesday night was Bark at the Park night at Kauffman Stadium, and the ballpark was full of our furry friends.
We arrived early enough to take a detour through the Royals Hall of Fame. We’ve seen much of it all before, so we didn’t linger too much, though I had yet to see the short film the Royals had created chronicling their journey to the 2015 World Series championship. Watching it turned out to be a moving experience, almost like reliving the whole trip in a Reader’s Digest format. It was enough to make me wish the Royals would hurry up and have a repeat season.
The gal who invited me to come along to the game with her had some impressive seats, so I was able to enjoy being in closer proximity to the field than I was last week.
Unfortunately, the Royals were unable to pull off another win with my presence. I suppose I can’t be lucky all the time, eh? Jason Vargas gave up three home runs, and even Whit Merrifield’s 3-run homer in the bottom of the third wasn’t enough of a spark to keep the Royals in it. The Royals are now 11 games out of first in the AL Central, and our chances at a Wild Card slot are starting to look a bit slim. Then again, these are the Kansas City Royals, and as we all know, you can’t count them out even in the bleakest of circumstances.
Yours truly finally made it to Kauffman Stadium for a Royals game this year! My first of the season — yes, I’ve been slacking. Need to get back on that. A lady at work had tickets, but then realized she had another obligation, and was kind enough to pass them on.
Yesterday had been a challenging day at work, which gave me the perfect excuse to splurge on a dog and an overpriced beer.
The crowd was small, just over 25K, as it usually is at Kansas City baseball games — unless, of course, they make it into the playoffs. I had forgotten what a stress release being at the K always seems to be for me. Even though I am very much an introvert, sometimes being in a crowd can be nice. I think I like the opportunity to blend in and become relatively anonymous.
I enjoy some of the distractions that being at the stadium can present. The hot dog derby, for example, never fails to bring out my inner little kid. Relish won this round, but ketchup is still leading the standings — at least at Kauffman. Go ketchup!
I love being able to see I-70 from the stands:
And the fountain display at the K is always worth taking a look.
However, none of this beats the excitement of sticking around to watch Eric Hosmer blast a walk-off home run off Greg Holland. No, I didn’t get any pictures of the celebration that followed that event. I found that I was much too happy and excited to do anything other than grin like an idiot and cheer. I will say, though, that oftentimes when I go to Royals games, I feel like I rarely get to see a win. It sure was nice to feel like I brought them a little bit of luck for once.
When I heard about the passing of Yordano Ventura, at first I wasn’t sure the headline I saw was accurate or true. A quick Google search proved that it was, and my emotions ran from disbelief to shock, then quickly to sadness. Obviously, I didn’t know Ventura personally, never met him in person, and had he opted to do something with his life other than play baseball, would likely never have heard of him. Even knowing all this, upon reading the news of his death, I couldn’t help but feel a genuine sense of loss. After all, I had watched this young man pitch through some of the best seasons I’ve had the privilege to watch as a Royals fan. In spite of his temper (or maybe because of it), he was a fan favorite in Kansas City, and many of his fans continue to grieve as the week goes on.
It’s one of those events that gets me thinking about baseball, about sports in general, and its role in our world. When the Chicago Cubs visited the White House last week, Barack Obama commented, “Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together even when the country is divided.” The fact that baseball’s popularity grew exponentially following the American Civil War is a testament to this. During both World War I and World War II, baseball became a form of entertainment that provided Americans a much-needed escape from the realities of being a nation at war. Jackie Robinson’s journey into the history books shows that baseball can even impact the social climate of our country.
For me, personally, the world of sports continues to provide a sense of balance and purpose to my day-to-day life. I am a notoriously active person, which helps to offset the forty-plus hours a week I spend sitting at a desk at work. I love the competition of running road races, the challenge of tackling obstacle course races, and the feeling of accomplishment when I have become strong enough to need to go out and buy a new set of dumbbells. In the past, I’ve slid into bases, played tackle football in the backyard with my brothers, and had my ass kicked in martial arts studios. The benefits to my physical and mental health are too numerous to list here (though that might be a worthwhile topic for a future post? We’ll see…). Then, when the workday is done and the chores are finished and the day’s workout is completed, there’s the escape of turning on a Royals game or a Packers game and getting lost in watching others compete while I unwind.
For kids and adults alike, there are organized recreational teams to encourage a sense of community as well as to promote our overall well-being. And, again, we also find community in the teams we root for (or against), and in the time we can spend in watching those teams and players compete. We become so engrossed with these games that we become emotionally involved in them. We sometimes become obsessed. We track our favorite players, we feel anxiety or elation over the performances of our teams, we buy their jerseys and wear caps bearing their logos and we do so with pride. Hell, the Super Bowl has become such a big deal that we throw house parties, complete with booze and a junk food feast, sometimes just so we can watch the commercials.
The death of Yordano Ventura revealed the incredible sense of community among Royals fans. The way my Facebook feed exploded with shock and grief revealed just how profound an impact this one man playing for this one team really had. The tributes in memory of Ventura made at Kauffman Stadium are overflowing onto the parking lot. Baseball, and sports in general, they mean something to us, and they impact us on a deeper level than we oftentimes fail to acknowledge. In a time of tremendous political and social turmoil in our country, maybe it is time for sports, whether it is baseball or football or hockey or whatever, to exercise its power of healing yet again.
It feels like only yesterday that I wrote my 500th post on this blog. It seems quite surreal that I now find myself sitting down to work on this one, post number 1,000. To commemorate the occasion, I thought I’d focus on a play from my softball-playing days that I look back on with pride and fondness.
During the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I played for a competitive softball team called the Drifters. We were a pretty solid team, and with the exception of a few stints in the outfield or at third base, I spent most of the summer playing shortstop.
I honestly cannot recall where we were playing or who we were playing against, nor can I recall what inning we were in, but I do remember that this particular memory happened around mid-summer and that it was after dark. The artificial lighting illuminated the field so completely that it might as well have been noon, and bugs buzzed around the infield as though they wanted to be a part of the game, too.
We were on defense, with me at shortstop, and we had one out in the inning with a runner on first. The girl at the plate slapped a groundball to second base, and everything that happened from there was essentially the product of hundreds of repetitions during practices.
With a ball hit to the right side of the field, I automatically moved to my left to cover second base. Our second baseman fielded the ball cleanly behind the baseline and tossed it to me as the runner who had been on first came barreling towards me. I caught the ball and pivoted.
All I can remember seeing was the front of the baserunner’s jersey. I couldn’t see our first baseman, but I also knew that I didn’t have time to look for her. With the runner coming straight at me and not bothering to slide, I dropped my throwing motion to a sidearm and fired as hard as I could around the runner, making my best guess at first base without being able to locate it visually. The baserunner came into second base, still standing.
Next thing I knew, I heard cheering and my teammates were running past me towards the dugout. I blinked, confused. Holy crap, did we get her? I thought wildly. I jogged towards the dugout, where our coach greeted me with a huge smile and a high five. I sat down on the bench, still too stunned to believe it.
We had turned a 4-6-3 double play, and I hadn’t even realized it. It was the first (and only) double play of that sort that I’d ever turned.
Watching Major League Baseball on television, an infield double play like that appears to be one of the most routine plays out there. You don’t realize just how difficult it is to pull off until you’re out on the field trying to do it yourself. Every piece of it has to go right: the ball has to be fielded cleanly, thrown cleanly, and caught cleanly, and it all has to be done with rapid fire precision. The tiniest misplay or hesitation can blow the entire play. At the amateur level, the only double plays you ever really see are the result of unlucky line drives or miscues by baserunners. That play we turned with the Drifters was the only one of that sort that I’ve ever seen at that level, and I didn’t even get to see the end of it. But I sure was glad to be a part of it.
The Royals-Cardinals series, also known as the I-70 Series thanks to the interstate that connects Kansas City and St. Louis, is generally touted as a big rivalry. It is a showdown between the two MLB teams who call the Show-Me State home. Ticket prices are generally pretty outrageous for this series (this year, the cheapest tickets available were $42). As a result, I had never attended one of these games in person. So when I was offered a free ticket to attend last night’s game between the two teams, I naturally jumped on the opportunity, expecting a high-energy and intense experience.
Boy, was I disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the game. I have a hard time not enjoying any Royals game that I attend, and I’m always willing to cheer them on. I felt sad that the Royals lost, but really, it was the crowd that proved so disappointing. Admittedly, it’s hard for the average fan to stay involved in a game in which the home team isn’t doing so well. The Royals’ struggles of late haven’t been very easy to swallow. But when you have a crowd of almost 33,000, and it feels like none of them are paying attention to the field… well, that’s just upsetting. The sound guys kept playing all kinds of pump up music and prompts, trying anything to get the crowd fired up, and most of it fell flat. The Hot Dog Derby brought on more cheers than most innings.
There were a few bright spots. The Royals rally in the sixth inning to score a couple runs did raise the energy level a bit. And when they managed to load the bases in the bottom of the ninth, the whole stadium — those who stayed, at least — was on its feet. The rest of the game, though, felt pretty blah. I’m not a very loud person, but for much of the game, I was easily one of the loudest folks in our general area.
I realize that much of this post is pretty whiny, especially considering that I don’t have any solutions to offer, other than asking folks not to attend a ballgame they intend to ignore. We live in a world where everyone is plastered to their phones, even at the ballpark, which is the whole reason stadiums are expanding their protective netting — to protect those who won’t see that foul ball coming as they focus on their next selfie. In the last couple years, attending a Royals game for most folks has been more about showing off to others their presence there than it has been about watching the actual game. It seems that you can either have a winning team with a crowd of bandwagon fans, or you can watch a losing team surrounded by fans who actually care about what’s going on. You just can’t have both.
In any case, here are pictures!