Archive for April, 2008

28
Apr
08

Doug Mirabelli: An Appreciation

“Like some cult religion that barely survives, there has always been at least one but rarely more than five or six devotees throwing the knuckleball in the big leagues… Not only can’t pitchers control it, hitters can’t hit it, catchers can’t catch it, coaches can’t coach it, and most pitchers can’t learn it. The perfect pitch.” ― Ron Luciano, former AL umpire

Last March, the Boston Red Sox released backup catcher Doug Mirabelli. Ok, I know this is old news. And even if it weren’t, you’re probably saying, “Backup catcher? Who cares?” And some will say I must be completely bonkers to do another baseball post, since my post on Bill Buckner crashed and burned so miserably (it has the distinction of being the only post I’ve ever written not to generate a single comment, so I guess the Red Sox aren’t the only ones who suffered from the curse of the ex-cub). But my conscience will not let me live with myself if I don’t pen a little something about one of my favorite players. Of course, recalcitrant blogslacker that I am, I have allowed over a month to go by since this happened, so I thought I had better get on the stick before the season is over.

It might seem strange that a backup catcher should be one of my favorite players. The backup catcher is one of the most unglamorous positions in professional sports, ranking just ahead of backup quarterback. Backup catchers don’t get lucrative endorsement deals. They don’t see their picture on the cover of Sport Illustrated. Hell, they’re lucky if the manager remembers their name.

But one of the things I admired about Mirabelli is that is that he was a true professional. He not only accepted this role without complaining, he embraced it and made it his own in a way rarely seen in professional baseball.

Luckily for him, Mirabelli did possess one rather unique talent: he could catch a Tim Wakefield knuckle ball. Or rather, about 100 Tim Wakefield knuckleballs in one game. For those of you who don’t know, the knuckleball is the most difficult pitch in baseball; difficult to pitch (accurately), and maddeningly difficult to hit. The antithesis of the 95 mile per hour fastball, the knuckleball has almost no rotation, which means it literally wanders in an unpredictable trajectory toward the plate. While the typical knuckleball only travels about 60 mph or so, batters often look silly trying to hit it.

Remember that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs was a baseball pitcher? Remember how the batter would swing the bat about a dozen times in the time it took for the ball to float up to the plate? That’s pretty much what a knuckleball does (while originally held with the knuckles, nowadays it is actually held with the fingertips rather than the knuckles, so the name has become something of a misnomer).

And as difficult as it is to hit, it is equally difficult to catch. Legendary manager Joe Torre once said, “You don’t catch a knuckleball, you defend against it.” Broadcaster and former catcher Bob Uecker quipped, “I always thought the knuckleball was the easiest pitch to catch. Wait’ll it stops rolling, then go to the backstop and pick it up.”

Yet Mirabelli had the soft hands necessary to catch this most elusive of all pitches. He became Wakefield’s personal catcher, guaranteeing him playing time every five days, and Wakefield had some of his best years with Mirabelli as his personal batterymate. I once referred to Gerald Ford as the “Doug Mirabelli of American Presidents”, and I meant it as a compliment. Both were given difficult and thankless jobs to do. Both excelled beyond anyone’s expectations.

Offensively, Mirabelli provided some occasional pop; he was the only player in Major League Baseball history to hit six or more home runs in six consecutive seasons of fewer than 200 at-bats (from 2001 to 2006). But it was his defensive abilities that made him an indispensable part of the Boston Red Sox from 2001 until this year.

It is comparatively rare for a backup player to be one of the clubhouse leaders, but that’s exactly what he was. No less a personality than Curt Schilling wrote on his blog that Mirabelli was one of only two players he’d known “who’s presence in the clubhouse carried onto the field.”[sic]

Mirabelli had an endearingly puckish sense of humor. During the 2003 ALDS against the Oakland A’s, he was one of the players standing on the dugout with letters on their backs spelling out “LILLY”, as a way of getting the Fenway crowd to chant “Lilly! Lilly” at unfortunate A’s pitcher Ted Lilly. During a Terry Francona press conference, Mirabelli playfully talked a reporter into asking Francona why Mirabelli didn’t play more often. Immediately copping to the prank, Francona responded “because he’s such a shitty player!”.

My favorite Mirabelli story involved former Sox pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim. Frustrated by his lack of success and the fans’ subsequent hostility, Kim flipped the Boston fans the bird during the 2003 playoffs. Next spring, during opening day ceremonies, Mirabelli jokingly held Kim’s arms behind his back when the announcer introduced Kim to the fans.

And of course, no one can forget May 1st, 2006. The Sox had traded Mirabelli to the San Diego Padres for second baseman Mark Loretta. In fairness to the Sox, the trade made perfect sense. The Sox were getting a first rate starting second baseman for a back up catcher. The only problem was that Mirabelli’s replacement, Josh Bard–ordinarily a fine catcher in his own right–simply couldn’t handle the knuckler. The Sox were so desperate they traded Bard as well as promising pitcher Cla Meredith back to San Diego just to get Mirabelli back. He was greeted at the airport by the Massachusetts State Police at 6:48 pm, actually changed into his uniform while in the cruiser en route to the park, and arrived at the park at 7:13 pm to a standing ovation from the crowd.

How many backup catchers have that on their resume?

I hope he catches on with another team, either as a player, or perhaps as a coach. At 37, he’s no youngster, and with his combination of personality, leadership, and baseball smarts, I think he’d make an excellent coach. I hope we haven’t heard the last of Doug Mirabelli.

-Smith

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24
Apr
08

be afraid. be very afraid

I don’t normally write a post strictly about something that someone else has written, but once in a while someone says what I’ve been thinking better than I could say it myself.

In today’s Boston Globe Perry Glasser, who coordinates the professional writing program at Salem State College, writes an op/ed piece entitled “The Dance of the Bees”, which really hit home with me.

Those who have read this blog for awhile are familiar with my dismay with the teen and twenty-something generation. One emailer accused me of “hating” teenagers.

Not true. My job brings me in constant contact with older teens and younger twenty-somethings, and I sometimes find their brash way of looking at the world refreshing. But I do feel that this generation, as a group, has been duped into thinking that they will be regarded by their peers as a lower form of life if they don’t have:

  1. A cell phone
  2. An iPod
  3. A Facebook or MySpace page.

Glasser’s piece reflects my own anxieties about this generation. Simply put, these are the people who will be running the joint when I’m ready for the nursing home. Read Glasser’s piece, and be afraid.

Be very, very afraid.

-Smith

11
Apr
08

sometimes, you just want a cigar

One of the advantages of working at a smokeshop is that I get to smoke on the job.

I don’t often show my ugly mug on this blog, but a friend recently snapped this pic of your humble scribe doing one of the things he loves most, so here you go.

I love smoking, I love tobacco, and I personally don’t give a rat’s ass who knows it. Personally I’m getting a little fed up with being vilified by society for indulging in one of life’s great pleasures, a pleasure, I would add, that is, at least for the moment, still completely legal.

The cigar, for the curious, is a “Rocky Patel”, a Honduran cigar with a Sumatra seed, Ecuadorian sun grown wrapper. To put it simply, it is an exquisite cigar

A few random thoughts on smoking here:

Many people (non-smokers, naturally) paint the pipe, cigars, and cigarettes with the same black brush. This is utter rubbish. Comparing cigars to cigarettes is like comparing McEwan’s Scotch Ale or Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter or Old Peculiar Yorkshire Ale to Bud Light.

One drinks a good stout or ale for the flavor. The idea is to taste and enjoy the subtleties and complexities of the brew. The alcohol content, while significant, is of secondary import. But let’s be honest here: no one drinks Bud Light because it tastes good. The only reason to drink this misbegotten beverage is because you want to get drunk and it does the job, quickly and efficiently.

By the same token, no one smokes cigarettes because they taste good. The only reason to smoke a cigarette is to get that six-second-lung-to-brain nicotine hit that a cigarette provides. And just as one might drink Old Peculiar or Sam Smith’s because one appreciates the exquisite flavor of these brews, so one smokes a fine cigar (or pipe tobacco, for that matter) for the flavor. The idea is to taste the tobacco, as the leaves from various subtropical countries combine to form a complex panoply of flavors which intrigue and delight the palate.

I find it astounding that the anti-smoking zealots claim to be doing this “for the children”. Ah, yes, it’s always for the children, isn’t it? Has anyone bothered to take a gander at what the “children” are getting up to these days? Teenagers are binge drinking (usually Bud Light, not Old Peculiar), driving cars after binge drinking, using hard core drugs like cocaine and heroin, indulging in unprotected sex, and posting naked pictures of themselves on the internet. I guess this is okay, because-thank God-THEY’RE SMOKE FREE KIDS!!!! Where the hell are all the public service announcements aimed at discouraging this sort of behavior that can irretrievably alter-or end-their lives in an instant?

Actually, this isn’t even true. The smokeshop where I work is within walking distance of several colleges. Out of curiosity, I recently asked one of them why he had started smoking. I pointed out to him that he was too young to have ever seen a cigarette add on TV. In fact, the only information concerning cigarettes available to him from the electronic media (which is where teens get 99% of their information) was all NEGATIVE. Since this kid was old enough to understand the English language, he has been bombarded with nothing but adds telling him not smoke. So why does he? His answer was simple and to the point: “Everyone was telling me not to do it, so that just made me more determined to try it.” Ah, from the mouths of babes….

Here in Massachusetts, our feckless governor, Deval Patrick, recently held a press conference to announce that there would be no broad-based taxes. The people of Massachusetts, he said, were already paying enough, between soaring gas prices and an already hefty tax burden (they don’t call it “Taxachusetts” for nothing, kids.) Okay, I thought to myself, I can get behind this. For once I thought I found myself agreeing with a Liberal, until I got to the last paragraph of the newspaper story. There it was revealed that Patrick intends to raise the cigarette tax by a dollar a pack. Evidently the cigarette tax does not fall into the category of “broad based tax”.

The truth, of course, is that tobacco taxes are the favorite method of politicians who are too cowardly to implement an increase in the gas tax, or alcohol tax, or any sort of tax that might actually get them booted out of office by an incensed and already overburdened electorate. Tobacco taxes are safe because they only affect a now politically impotent minority, and besides, it’s “for the children.” I find it supremely ironic that Liberal Democrats, who are supposed to be the party of compassion and the common man have no problem resorting to this most regressive of taxes when it suits their purposes.

Unlike cigarettes, cigars are not physically addictive. You don’t “Jones” for a cigar the way you do for a cigarette. This is because you don’t inhale cigars. As mentioned before, the idea is to taste the tobacco, and to this end one simply “sips” the tobacco into the mouth, lets it linger there for a moment or two, and then exhales it. While a small amount of nicotine does enter the bloodstream through the lining of the mouth, it is not in sufficient quantities to create a physical addiction. Rather, it is a gradual and relaxing process, which is why smoking a pipe or cigar is such an effective way to relax.

Which, now that I think about it, is what I need to do right now.

-Smith

10
Apr
08

Way to go, Billy Buck!

The late, great Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko once wrote, “sports fans are the biggest assholes in America”, and unfortunately, he has all too often been proved correct. Sports figures themselves are also more than capable of sophomoric behavior. So it was nice to see an example of real class on the part of both fans and player yesterday at Fenway Park, as long vilified first baseman returned to Fenway Park for Opening Day.

If you’re a Red Sox fan, the memory of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series is seared in your soul like a brand, a brand that’s shaped like an “L” for “Loser”. The Red Sox on were on the brink of winning their first World Series title in 68 years. And then, like the cursed team they were, the Sox just let it slip away.

Calvin Schiraldi had entered the bottom of the 10th inning with a two-run lead. After retiring the first two batters, it was announced by the sportscaster (prematurely, as it turned out) that Bruce Hurst had been named as the series MVP. But Schiraldi allowed three straight singles to Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight and was replaced by Bob Stanley. Stanley, who himself has had a love-hate relationship with Sox fans over the years, proceeded to throw a wild pitch, which allowed Mitchell to score the tying run. Then Mookie Wilson, whose name is almost as hated in Boston as Bucky Dent’s, followed by hitting a ground ball that rolled between Buckner’s legs, scoring Ray Knight and giving the Mets a victory that left Sox fans believing in the Curse of the Bambino like never before.

When the Red Sox lost game seven the following night, it just all seemed so inevitable, so very, very fated.

And Buckner got all the blame, of course. The film of the ball rolling through his legs has been played thousands upon thousands of times. The poor decisions of feckless manager John McNamara and the erratic pitching of Schiraldi are noted by knowledgeable baseball fans. But it was Buckner’s error that became the stuff of nightmarish legend for the eternally tortured Red Sox fans. The memory of that game has been become so distorted over the years that there are some Sox fans who actually believe that Buckner’s error came in game 7 and thereby cost the Sox the World Series.

And so it was gratifying and heartwarming to see Buckner return to Fenway Park to a standing ovation. Not since May of 1999, when the Fenway Faithful gave a standing ovation to Joe Torre upon his return to the game after missing time due to prostate cancer, have I been so proud to be a Sox fan. Buckner was a fine player whose career has been unfairly tarnished by one play. It was high time that Red Sox fans showed some respect to one of the players who got them to the World Series in the first place.

And speaking of Mike Royko, this ill-fated game also had the effect of perpetuating the myth of the “Ex-Cubs Factor”. Created by freelance journalist Ron Berler but popularized by Royko, the theory stated that any team headed into the World Series with three or more former Cubs (a team every bit as accursed as the Red Sox) on its roster had “a critical mass of Cubness”, and was doomed to failure. From 1946 until 2001, this theory held true with the sole exception being the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Care to take a guess which team Bill Buckner played on before he came to the Red Sox? You got it: the Cubbies. And if that’s not weird enough, it has been discovered that Buckner was actually wearing a Chicago Cubs batting glove under his first baseman’s mitt when he made that error that forever etched his name in Red Sox infamy.

The final irony? Calvin Schiraldi, an extremely talented young pitcher who had been a teammate of Roger Clemens at the University of Texas and had helped pitch them to a College World Series victory, had been traded to the Red Sox that very year from the New York Mets. He was never the same after the 1986 World Series. After spending one more year with the Sox he was traded to–guess who–the Chicago Cubs.

Congratulations to Bill Buckner. It’s good to see him back.

-Smith

02
Apr
08

New nest for the raven

I tied up some loose ends in the previous post, but I wanted to give this little tidbit its own space.

In case you haven’t noticed by now, “Murder of Ravens” has its own domain, “murderofravens.org”. Those good people at WordPress sell domain names for a measly $15 per year, complete with the redirect from the “wordpress.com” domain where all the WordPress blogs are housed. You don’t have to buy the domain from WordPress, but given my lack of technical expertise on these matters, it was just easier to buy it from them since they take care of all the technical junk for you.

Why did I do this, you ask? No really good reason, apart from the ego gratification of having my own domain, plus the fact that “murderofravens.org” seems a little snazzier and is certainly more streamlined than “murderofravens.wordpress.com”.

The only really salient point here is that while it is NOT necessary to change your blogroll or bookmarks, (the old URL simply redirects you to the new one), you SHOULD use the “murderofravens.org” URL if, for some strange reason, you actually feel compelled to link to this blog. Otherwise I may never be made aware of it, since the link won’t show up in my blog stats. Since I really do like to thank people who are kind enough to give me a link (even if I am a bit tardy in doing so), using the new URL will ensure that I see the link and can thank the linker.

I should also mention that there is another blog with a similar name, murderofravens.COM. That is NOT me. I only found out about this when I found I wasn’t able to register murderofravens.com, since it was already taken.

As you might imagine, this was a trifle annoying. After all, one puts a great deal of thought into coming up with a catchy, original name for one’s blog. When I started it, I don’t think I knew three people who even knew what a “murder of ravens” was, so I figured I was being pretty darn original, if I do say so myself. Now I find out that some clever soul has thought up the same name. Oh, well. I suppose cyberspace is big enough for two “murderofravens”.  And besides, .org has a little more cache, I guess. 😉

As always, thanks to all who are so generous with their time and continue visit my little corner of cyberspace.

-smith

01
Apr
08

Tying us some loose ends…

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

“The Waste Land”
T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot was so right. He could have added “and makes Smith ponder what an egregious blockslacker he is”. It has been suggested to me that I should trademark “blogslackery”. Others have suggested I have already done this. And so, without further ado, I intend to clean up some odds and ends…..

First and foremost, I wish to thank everyone who was so kind as to leave comments on my recent posts, especially the last three poems. While poetry makes up a regrettably small percentage of my overall output, the poems are easily my favorites, and the comments left on them mean the most to me. I couldn’t help notice that the word “Wow” was used more than once. Anytime I can make some of the many fine writers who make up our blogging circle say “Wow”, I feel that I have truly accomplished something. I only wish I had it in me to write more of them, but alas, the muse only whispers in my ear once in a while. I remain in awe of writers like Ali and Angelica who write more quality poetry in a month than I do in a year.

Speaking of comments, I once again must apologize for being so slow to respond. However, I am happy to report that I have finally gotten caught up in this department. For those of you who actually care what I think, any comment left in the last month or so has been replied to.

In the “pat myself on the back” department, I noticed recently that “Murder of Ravens” was actually mentioned in The Providence Journal Bulletin! Columnist and (I think) sports Editor Art Martone had written a piece on Joe Torre, and referenced my post on Joe Torre to make his point that even Red Sox fans respected the deposed Yankees manager. For those who are interested, Martone’s piece can be read here.

Also in the “pat myself on the back” department, I passed the 50,000 his mark some time ago. Of course, blogslacker that I am, the event came and went, and I had already passed 60,000 before I even noticed. And, naturally, by the time I actually got around to writing this I was 69K. Well, it IS my favorite number, after all.

-smith




taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" ~ Dr. John H. Watson ************************
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