Monday, May 31, 2021

From Here to Sewickley

One of the glories of baseball is that no matter how much you've experienced it, there is always the chance that something will happen that you and no one else have ever seen before. Such a thing happened the other day at PNC Park in Pittsburgh in a game between the Pirates and the Cubs. 

In the third inning with two out and Wilson Contreras the runner on second, Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez hit a sharp ground ball directly to the Pirate third baseman Erik Gonzalez. It should have been a routine inning ending out but Gonzalez's throw pulled first baseman Will Craig slightly off the bag to the home plate side of first. Dead in the water, Baez rather than trying to dive into first to avoid the tag, what you're taught to do in that situation, put on the breaks and started heading back to home plate.

Then, rather than simply turning around and stepping on first base to end the inning, Craig chose to chase Baez back to home. Actually chase is not the correct term here, nonchalantly follow him is more like it. 

In the meantime, Contreras was circling third headed for home as fast as his catcher's legs would carry him. As Contreras began to slide into the plate, Craig tossed the ball to his own catcher Michael Perez, but it was too late as Contreras slid under the tag. 

After sticking around watching the action AND making the motion calling his teammate safe at home, Baez turned around and sprinted back to first. Again he should have been an easy out (which would have nullified the run), but none of Craig's teammates thought to cover the bag. 

Despite that, Perez threw to first anyway in the direction of second baseman Adam Frazier who was en route, and the ball ended up in right field, allowing Baez to end up at second.

Ian Happ, the next batter for the Cubs, drove in Baez from second meaning two runs scored off that Pittsburgh miscue. And wouldn't you know it, the Cubs ended up winning the game by two runs. 
It was a crazy, crazy play, (a circus play as some would call it) which inspired one of the Pittsburgh radio guys to blurt out one of the best lines I've heard from a baseball announcer in a long time: "Oh you can hear the calliopes from here to Sewickley!"

As you can imagine the entire baseball world it seems has ganged up on Will Craig, calling his the stupidest play ever in the history of baseball. 

The Baseball Reference box score of the play hardly does it justice: 
Reached on E3 (catch) (Ground Ball to Weak 3B to 3B); Contreras Scores/No RBI/unER; Baez out at 2B/Adv on E2 (throw)

Here's how it looked:

It was indeed a comedy of errors (as you can tell from the reaction by the Cub bench) although the only actual error meted out was against the Pirate catcher for his wild throw to first which allowed Baez to take second.

Not to make excuses for him, but I wouldn't be so fast to gang up on the Pirate rookie first baseman. Here's why:

First of all it's true that had he simply turned around and stepped on first base, that would have been the third out and the play would have been forgotten as soon as the Pirates came to bat that inning. But here's the thing, Craig had eight teammates on the field, a bench with a bunch more, plus a slew of coaches and a manager. How is it possible that not a single one of them thought to yell at him to just step on the bag? From what I could tell, the ballpark was practically empty so not being able to hear because of screaming fans simply doesn't hold up.  

Here's my theory: the rest of the Pirates were as dumbfounded by Baez's actions as much as Craig was, (and the Cub broadcasters who as you can hear, were rendered speechless by the play). After all, who in God's name heads backwards to home plate after hitting the ball in play? 

What IS very common in baseball, is for a runner heading to any base OTHER than first, to turn around and head backwards if the ball proceeds him to the base with enough time to do so. It's called getting into a run down (or a pickle in popular terminology). 

To be sure, before every play, ball players in the field have to go over in their heads what to do in case of any situation. More importantly, at practice, players drill every conceivable fielding situation over and over again so they don't have to think when the ball comes to them, they just react by instinct.

Was what Baez did a conceivable situation? Well as far as I know, while it's not illegal in the majors (it is in high school ball), no one in major league history running in the direction of first base, has ever stopped, made a 180, and turned back and run for home.

I'd be willing to bet my firstborn (who's also a ballplayer) that no team anywhere, ever practices what to do in that situation. 

They do on the other hand, practice rundowns between the bases, over and over and over again, ad nauseam. So clearly in this situation, Craig, perhaps unaware that there were already two outs against the Cubs, was acting out of pure instinct rather than using his head. And so were his teammates.

After the game, the Pirate's pitcher Tyler Anderson took some of the heat off of Craig, saying that it was a team failure, not the failure of just one player.

He should know, photos reveal Anderson standing about ten feet in front of home plate, in perfect position to see the action unfold right in front of him, but not in position to do anything about it. Oh yes let's not forget the second baseman Adam Frazier who had plenty of time to cover first base to take the throw from the catcher to easily end the inning, but didn't because he was to busy being dumbfounded as well. 

As the basement dweller Pirates aren't likely to be headed to the post-season this year, poor Will Craig probably won't go down in history with the likes of Fred Merkel, Fred Snodgrass and Bill Buckner, all great players who went to their graves remembered for the critical errors they committed that contributed to their teams' losing a championship. But those videos of the Baez play will be played for eternity and Mr. Craig will have his imprimatur stamped all over them. Unless he does something truly spectacular in his career, he will be forever defined by that one unfortunate mental error. 

The real culprit of all this is Javy El Mago (The Magician) Baez. It was his creative style of play that caused all the ruckus in the first place. How much of this was planned we'll never know, perhaps he doesn't know himself. All we'll know is that from absolutely nothing, he singlehandedly created the two runs that won the game. 

This kind of clever play trying to catch the opposition off guard is not all that uncommon in youth baseball and in the game played many decades ago. It reminds me of an account of one of my all time favorite ball players as told by one of his teammates*: 
...Ty was dynamite on the base paths. He really was. Talk about strategy and playing with your head, that was Cobb all the way. It wasn't that he was so fast on his feet, although he was fast enough. There were others who were faster, though, like Clyde Milan, for instance. It was that Cobb was so fast in his thinking. He didn't outhit the opposition and he didn't outrun them. He outthought them!   
A lot of times Cobb would be on third base and I'd draw a base on balls, and as I started to go down to first I'd sort of half glance at Cobb, at third. He'd make a slight move that told me he wanted me to keep going -- not to stop at first, but to keep on going to second. Well, I'd trot two-thirds of the way to first and then suddenly, without warning, I'd speed up and go across first as fast as I could and tear out for second. He's on third, see. They're watching him, and suddenly there I go, and they don't know what the devil to do. 
If they try to stop me, Cobb'll take off for home. Sometimes they'd catch him, and sometimes they'd catch me, and sometimes they wouldn't get either of us. But most of the time they were too paralyzed to do anything, and I'd wind up at second on a base on balls ....

Thank you Javy Baez for bringing some of the fun back into professional baseball. Thanks to you, Ty Cobb lives.

Now if you could only be a little more patient at the plate. 

*Sam Crawford, longtime teammate of Ty Cobb. 


Friday, May 28, 2021

Old School-New School

Like many, over the last year of the pandemic I took advantage of the extra time at home to become rather obsessed with cooking. I've done a good deal of the cooking for my family over the last twenty years, but became rather bored with my limited repertoire of dishes So I started picking up recipes here and there, mostly online, and set the goal of preparing at least one new recipe per week. This might become a little more complicated as I'm about to return to being at work full time, but so far so good.

One nice thing about new passions is buying new stuff. Being a photographer means there's never a lack of new stuff to buy, especially in the digital age when cameras and other gear, lenses being an exception, are practically obsolete by the time you open the box. 

That certainly wasn't true when I was coming up in the days of silver based media, otherwise known as film. Back then, if you chose carefully and were willing to make the financial commitment, you could buy a camera and lens that would last your whole life.  

Of course there are still the old school folks God bless them, who haven't yet given up on film and keep the old practices alive.

Although I'm not as well versed in it, it seems that just like in field of photography, there are two schools of thought among cooks about what tools to buy, the old, reliable ones that require work, love and care, but will repay you with years of faithful service, or the new fangled gizmos that require little attention and work just fine until they don't, at which point you throw them away. 

Pictured here is my new pan, a traditional French omelette pan made of carbon steel. According to the advocates of such a pan, carbon steel is one of the most efficient materials as far as transferring heat to your food. And the act of cooking with it creates a natural polymer that creates an almost "no stick" surface. 

Now when we think of no stick pans, the word Teflon comes immediately to mind,  the material applied to cookware that was introduced commercially in the 1940's, as so many products were after the war. Teflon became wildly popular in the sixties and seventies, the era when so many time and effort saving devices were introduced into the kitchen. And the word Teflon has taken on a meaning of its own describing a person to who gets away with all sorts of mischief because "nothing sticks to him." I can think of two former presidents who fit that description. 

I distinctly remember those days when there were two running schools of thought regarding cooking, one was that it was a chore that should be made as painless as possible, and the other, that it was an art where every bit of effort was valued The former was personified by a woman by the name of Peg Bracken (whose name has never escaped me after all these years), who among other titles revolving around American contemporary life at the time, wrote the "The I Hate to Cook Book" 

The paradigm for the other school of thought was Julia Child. 

Need I say more? 

Both authors were tremendously popular and both served an important purpose. 

Bracken's work was created in the time when the traditional roles of the "breadwinner" man and the "housewife" woman were breaking down. As more and more women entered the workforce and households with two working adults became the norm, there was less time to cook, and every time-saving device was gobbled up.  

At the same time, a new found interest in cuisine from other cultures took a foothold in America, largely thanks to Child and her classic two volume set "Mastering the  Art of French Cooking", written along with French master chef, Simone Beck, and especially her classic PBS series, "The French Chef."  

Also in the photo, placed inside my lovely new pan, is my new fangled digital meat thermometer, which gives readings almost instantly in either Fahrenheit or Celsius. It works with both roasts, or tiny slivers of meat on the grill. Try that with your old fashioned analog thermometer. Plus it has a bottle opener to boot!

I bought it along with a digital kitchen scale which is vastly more accurate, convenient and easy to use than my old spring scale. 

And yes, when these things break, as they most certainly will, into the garbage they will go with no second thoughts. 

Barring catastrophic damage, the pan on the other hand will last me for the rest of my life and if they choose to hold on to it, my children's as well. That's quite unlike a Teflon or other "no stick" pan, whose useful life is only rated for a couple years at best before the surface ceases to be stick free. Then of course, it ends up as landfill. 

Beyond that, my new pan is beautiful, at least I think so. Over time it develops a patina that will be an image how how it was used, what was cooked in it, and the love that went into those meals. 

After all cooking, especially for one's family or friends is a labor of love isn't it?

What more can you ask of your tools?