Friday, April 18, 2014

2014: COMPLETE GAME #7

It occurred tonight (4/18), in the game between the Rangers and the White Sox, a 12-0 rout for Texas, behind the three-hit pitching of lefty Martin Perez.

Perez is off to a terrific start: he's now 3-0, with a 1.86 ERA. He's not going to be nearly that good over the course of a full season, but he is likely to be a useful pitcher for the Rangers.

"PURPOSE PITCH" 38/39/40: THE "LARGER THAN LIFE" OF BEN (PO' BOY BRAND, HOMESTEAD BRAND, JACKIE ROBINSON BRAND)

Keep in mind that the Baseball Reliquary "brain trust" (Terry Cannon and Albert "Buddy" Kilchesty) are as savvy about aesthetics as they are about history.

That's one reason why the works on display for "Purpose Pitch," their special exhibition of selected works from Ben Sakoguchi's Unauthorized History of Baseball series (now winding down its run at the Arcadia Public Library) blend these two attributes.

Which explains why these three larger-than-life compositions have been included in the series.

The deep roots of pre-integration African-American baseball are exemplified here--and the variations in personality amongst the individuals who represent the spirit of those times.

There is freewheeling, self-propagating legend in Satchel Paige. Ben captures the languid lankiness of Paige, that self-possessed meta-meditativeness which "littery men" (Mark Twain again, always looking askance at those who won't rise up from the cavilries of journalism like to call "preternatural cool."

Ben blurs it, just enough to leach out the photo-realism, but he doesn't soften the image by doing so. Satch looks tired, resigned, but also determined and proud.

There is the communitarian element in the African-American subculture of those times, as shown in the circle of youth paying rapt attention to Josh Gibson--the centerpiece of the Homestead Grays, the New York Yankees of the Negro Leagues.

Josh looks weathered (it's the shadowing effect that Ben employs...) but he is bringing hope and pride to young boys who will soon be given a chance that never came his way--an opportunity (however cloaked in difficulty) to play major league baseball.

And that brings us, once again, to Jackie Robinson. (Just a few days ago, MLB continued its tradition of honoring Jackie's entry into the majors with a day where all players wear his #42--it's one of the few unalloyed successes in the Bud Selig era.)

You could call this one "the three stages of Jackie." There's the junior college basketball star; the electrifying running back for UCLA; and the established superstar on the most successful franchise in the National League during the 1950s.

We wouldn't be surprised to discover that this painting of Jackie is Terry Cannon's favorite. It's bold, direct, and simple. It covers a great deal of ground in a minimum amount of time. The expression on Jackie's face is one of deep but vigilant pride, a self-realization captured in the glint of an eye, revealing to us that  the man knows he embodies adversity, extremity and otherness all at once, each force coursing through both his mind and his bloodstream in an equal but oscillating measure.

It shows how a man can reflect on the forces in his life that propel him toward his destiny.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

2014: COMPLETE GAMES #5, 6

Ah, they are coming fast and furious now, and it serves us right, now, doesn't it, for mouthing off about getting the MLB CG total under a hundred.

Today we had a complete game shutout from Adam Wainwright (who led the NL with five complete games in 2013) and one of those complete game losses from the Braves' young lefty, Alex Wood (his first career CG). The Braves lost to the Phillies, 1-0, but Philadelphia starter A. J. Burnett was relieved after throwing seven scoreless innings.

What we can tell you here is that the current record for the least number of complete games in a season was set in 2007, when starters had just 112 CGs. Last year, starters made a run at it, but wound up with a total of 124.

At this point in the season, the current pace for CGs, with this little two day flurry, is now up to just a little over 64.

"PURPOSE PITCH" 36/37: THE HOMEOPATHIC SOCIAL HEALING OF BEN (RED RIGHT & WRONG BRAND, LABOR PAINS BRAND)

Let's just submit that this odd phrase "homeopathic social healing" is what history is supposed to be, but  often isn't. When it is that, however, it creates changes that are momentous and irreversible. And in their linked vision of baseball and American history, the Baseball Reliquary and Ben Sakoguchi demonstrate a deep understanding of that concept, even if they might not articulate it as such.

There is a strong linkage between the forces of progressive social policy and the changes in baseball that are now mostly taken for granted--integration and free agency. These are mostly treated as separate issues, but in the flow of history as a set of self-correcting actions, we can see that the achievement of one leads inexorably to the achievement of the other.

The voting membership of the Baseball Reliquary had a strong sense of this in 1999 when it inducted Curt Flood as one of the first three members of its Shrine of the Eternals. They recognized Flood's pivotal contribution to what would change the "landscape of labor" in the game forever.

A few years later, they were guided by the Reliquary brain trust (Terry Cannon and Albert "Buddy" Kilchesty) to examine the antecedents of that effort, and to honor the efforts of individuals whose ceaseless efforts to publicize the lingering social problems that baseball continued to support (segregation and racism) were instrumental in bringing pressure on those inside the game to create a "home remedy" for a problem that was much wider and more socially pervasive.

Ironically, one of the key individuals championing human rights, integration, and the breakdown of centuries of prejudice was a "card-carrying" Communist--journalist Lester Rodney. (There are many ironies about Communism and the American imagination; let's just leave it at this for now.)

Rodney's fiery prose reached beyond its own obscure setting in the Daily Worker and was soon joined by a chorus of voices--a "homeopathic social cure" for an issue that had proved intractable since the days of Reconstruction. As a result, Jackie Robinson could state that "baseball has done it"--it had done something that politicians and philosophers, judges and juries, social workers and businessmen had been unable to do. The iron-clad barriers of race began to be torn down.

But even as that process began to take hold, there was still the "plantation" aspect of the business of baseball, with its reserve clause and regressive pay scale. It would take another twenty years after baseball's integration to cement in place a truly effective players' union, led by Marvin Miller.

Over the course of ten years, Miller employed a series of carefully structured battering-ram techniques to remove the final elements of the "stacked deck" approach to baseball labor relations. Curt Flood was the pioneer of that effort, essentially sacrificing the last 4-6 years of an accomplished major league career in order to create a test case for enhanced workers' rights.

While Flood was a more flawed choice for such a role than had been the case with Jackie Robinson a quarter-century earlier, the pathos that emerged from his troubled effort to carry the weight of such a crusade on his shoulders was not lost upon his fellow union members. They responded by calling the first actual work stoppage in 1972, and increased the pressure on "the Lords." Miller and his team of legal strategists redoubled their efforts, and the momentum of "homeopathic social healing" found an outlet in the courts a few years later, resulting in the labor structure we have today (even though it continues to be under siege, either subtly or not-so-subtly, from the institutional managers of what Leonard Koppett called Baseball As Big Business).

As is often the case, the Reliquary voters were able to separate wheat from chaff, and all three of these individuals--Flood, Rodney, and Miller--are now inducted in the Shrine of the Eternals. The direction that path took--from Flood to Rodney to Robinson to Miller--is a revealing example of how the patterns of history reverberate in ways that expose linkages between events that might otherwise not become apparent. That's the value in "homeopathic social healing," the type of history (and social change) that comes from people, not institutions.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014: COMPLETE GAMES #2, 3, 4

We had three complete games today (April 16). That's the first time since last September 6th, when Scott Feldman (Orioles), Patrick Corbin (D-backs) and Yusmeiro Petit (Giants) went the distance in their games. (Of these three, only Feldman is in a starting rotation this year: Petit has been shifted to the bullpen; Corbin had Tommy John surgery and won't be back until 2015).

Two of the three complete games today came in the same game (between the Braves and Phillies: Atlanta won the game, 1-0, behind Julio Teheran). Cliff Lee went all the way in a losing cause. Last July 13 the Rockies and the Dodgers played a 1-0 game;  Tyler Chatwood and Zack Greinke hooked up in a CG duel, with Greinke getting the win.

The other complete game today belongs to the Reds' Johnny Cueto, who pitched a gem against the Pirates, allowing just three hits and striking out 12.

All in all, pitchers who threw complete games in 2013 had a combined 96-28 record. That's a .774 WPCT.

We had three complete games on the same day during 2013 on: September 6, July 13, July 9.

We had three complete games on the same day during 2012 on: August 27, August 4, July 31, June 25, June 20, June 3, April 21.

We last had four complete games on a single day on June 15, 2011 (Livan Hernandez, Carl Pavano, Josh Beckett, Gavin Floyd).

Won-loss records for complete games in 2011: 130-43 (.751). In 2012: 107-21 (.835). In 2010: 119-47 (.716).

We still think we'll be lucky to get to 100 complete games in 2014. The watch is on...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"PURPOSE PITCH" 34/35: THE OUTSIDE-LOOKING-IN OF BEN (SHOELESS JOE BRAND, GAMBLIN' ROSE BRAND)

Sometimes there are simply no words necessary to describe artistic output or achievement.

That would certainly be the case with this pair of Ben Sakoguchi "orange crate art" paintings, two of his very greatest in the Unauthorized History of Baseball series.

The level of inspiration reaches Olympian heights here. And there's really no mystery why that's the case.

Ben simply is at his best when he is dealing with controversy. The hotter it is in the kitchen, the better he likes it.

And it's no coincidence that the two subjects here, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, have managed to occupy the most controversial, most infamous, and most timelessly unresolvable niches in baseball history.

They will likely forever be on the outside looking in with respect to baseball's mainstream meritocracy, as represented by the Hall of Fame. It's a virtual certainty that their twinned status as the game's accursed will make it impossible for either to be "rehabilitated" without the other one being granted the same reprieve from eternal judgement.

And, given that, they will remain in that special limbo reserved for players whose on-field greatness is more than necessary for enshrinement, but whose lapses in judgment were so egregious that they cannot be countenanced even in an honorarium with racists, sociopaths, and whitewashed cheaters.

The Baseball Reliquary's voters, however, are free to make a meta-commentary on this painted-into-a-corner circumstance. They don't have to condone what Jackson and Rose did, they only have to put it into a different historical context.

They can say that these two deeply controversial characters, who possess differing amounts and types of pathos with respect to the situation in which they find themselves, are deserving of recognition in spite of (and possibly even because) their infamy.

That argument may not convince the moral purists. But an anti-institution is free to prick the bubble of overstuffed morality, and when the voters for the Shrine of the Eternals were given their opportunity to weigh in on the cases of Shoeless Joe and Charlie Hustle, they wasted no time in enshrining these two outlaws.

For Ben Sakoguchi, it was an opportunity to take narrative and composition to levels beyond the merely indelible. Shoeless Joe is captured in the burnished, wistful colors of the past, as a figure of legend. The arc of Pete Rose's story and his innate aggression is on display in what might be Ben's wittiest and most caustic juxtaposition of images.

It will soon be twenty-five years and counting for Rose, and shortly thereafter, an entire century for Jackson: their exile and disgrace is one of the game's most public and problematic signposts. The Reliquary voters (and Ben Sakoguchi) have doubled down on the proposition that it will remain just this way for--if not forever, then for a long, long time.

Which means that the power and pugnacious poignancy of these works is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"PURPOSE PITCH" 32/33: THE ASTERISM OF BEN (ASTERISK BRAND, ASTEROID BRAND)

[We have not mentioned it for awhile, so let's do so quickly here. This series of entries celebrates the landmark exhibition of a very special symbiosis that exists between Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi and "anti-institution for all seasons" The Baseball Reliquary. It's entitled (as our headline says...) "Purpose Pitch" and it's showing at the Arcadia Public Library through April 29.]

With the next two "orange crate art" paintings taken from Ben's Unauthorized History of Baseball series, we enter into one of the game's oddest paradoxes. While baseball has become increasingly fascinated with home runs (actually, besotted would be the more accurate word...), there has been a problem with any one individual hitting too many of them in a single season.

This first manifested itself in 1961, when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle made the first serious run at Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.

It was a two-part problem. First, there was the fact that Babe's record was a round number (60). People go ga-ga over round numbers, and the idea that a round number would no longer represent the pinnacle of power in baseball was more than distressing--it was downright un-American.

Second, 1961 was an expansion year in the American League, and eight additional games were placed on the schedule to accommodate the new ten-team league. Commissioner Ford Frick, fully in thrall of Problem #1, created Problem #2 by issuing an edict that Ruth's record could be official broken only if HR #61 came within the old 154-game schedule.

Otherwise, there would need to be an asterisk (*) placed by anyone who exceeded 60 homers.

And, of course, Roger Maris managed to hit 61 homers that year, but it took him until game 162; and, as Ben so forcefully notes, he was given a bushel's worth of asterisks from the Lords of Baseball (and many of the serfs as well).

After that, the Lords really decided that they just didn't want anyone to get too close to that particular record again. They adjusted the strike zone in 1963; they pressed for uniform ballpark dimensions that eliminated most of the short porches; they quite probably fiddled with the baseball.

The result was that only three batters managed to hit 50+ homers in a season for the next thirty-three years (Willie Mays, 1965; George Foster, 1977; Cecil Fielder, 1990).

That changed in 1995, when Albert Belle hit 50 in a season shortened by the belated strike settlement. Offense had taken an sudden swing upward in 1993-94, and Belle's season started a cacophony of dingers.

In the next twelve years, there were twenty-two (22) player-seasons in which 50+ homers were hit, including six instances where both Ruth and Maris' totals were exceeded.

While this was exhilarating at the time (the 1998 race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was a deliriously souped-up "do-over" of the 1961 Maris-Mantle assault on Ruth), the bloom seemed to wither on the vine when Barry Bonds came along in 2001 and shattered McGwire's new "round number" record (70) with a figure that was not only not round, it wasn't even divisible (!).

There are times when we figure that it was the irretrievable loss of a "round number" home run record that launched the steroids backlash. Round numbers are just not something to mess with, and the last ten years have seen a campaign of moralizing that makes the Ladies' Temperance Society look like just what it was--a goddam tea party. (And let's not tread further down that analogy, OK??)

Hence the three reviled "amigos" in Ben's cleverly named Asteroid Brand. (And the cleverness extends to the carefully symmetrical logo design between this painting and its companion, where Maris, the other maudit masher, is given his dollop of sympathy.) All of these guys have had some form of cosmic slop visited upon them because they did something just a bit too well--and the glow of the stars has become tainted and unnatural as a result.

But what Ben is telling us is that when we look to the sky in search of our demons, we're not going to find these guys depicted up there, in those pointy, asterisk-like stars. Once we figure that out, we will forgive these guys our trespasses--and new shapes will grace the sky as a result. Roger Maris is in the Shrine of the Eternals, and rightfully so; if the guardians at baseball's barbarous gate dawdle too long in the case of his other "amigos," it might just come to pass that Barry, Sammy and Mac will be twinkling in the Reliquary's night sky.

And there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that.