Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

The Summer Game, as it is called, is over. In a couple of hours we will turn our attention to October baseball, which to my mind is a very different thing than summer baseball, with its focus on the here and now rather than the long, slow season -- a collection of short stories rather than an intricate novel. Before we enjoy that compact brand of baseball (most likely at the local electronic watering hole, Yuda's Gameday Chats), a brief look back at this season, our first with the Nats. I learned how to follow baseball closely in the summer of 1979, when I was 11, but neither that season nor any of the 25 that followed compares to this one, by far my most enjoyable with baseball.

Why was it so enjoyable? For lots of reasons, but mostly because I learned so much about the game -- a game I had thought I was pretty well-versed in before this season. I had read many times that baseball rewards careful study, but had not really enjoyed those rewards until this season. Inspired by D of DCenters DC United Blog, who in a Yuda Chat a few weeks ago laid out what he learned this season, with great insight, here is a list of things I learned on my summer vacation with the Nationals in 2005:

(1) Baseball is, and may always be, a local game -- Having lived in DC for 15 years, I have been forced to follow teams from a far, most recently the Phillies. Even with DirecTV and the Internet, it was not nearly the same as having a team in town, whose games are on the radio, whose caps you see on the street every day, whose games are only a 15 minute ride away. Even the Orioles, whom I followed closely from 1991 to 1998, cannot compare, in large part because they play 55 miles from my home. I often found that the national sports media offered next to nothing in the way of useful information for me about the Nats -- I TiVo'd baseball tonight every night and watched it maybe 3 times all season. My desire for news could only be satisfied by three sources (1) watching the games themselves, (2) Barry Svrugla's excellent reporting in the Post; and (3) most importantly, the fine collection of Nats bloggers, who covered the Nats with a level of detail unavailable from any other outlet. Even local "sports talk" radio was useless -- I often found myself wishing I could access Yuda Chat on my way home from work.

(2) There is no good substitute for watching a game in its entirety -- Baseball simply cannot be boiled down in highlights, nor your attention to it isolated to the last 2 minutes of the game, like basketball or football. Key moments can come in the second inning, or in the fourth, or in the sixth, especially when a game is close, and a good pitcher on the mound, or the heart of the order is coming up. At times this year I watched a full game, then caught the highlights on SportsCenter, and was startled at how the few events shown conveyed little of the tension and drama of a game. A good example was the second game against the Angels this year, fondly remembered for the cheater Brendan Donnelly, Frank's glare, Scioscia's whining, and Guillen's meltdown, all of which captured the attention of ESPN. But before all that, the oddly named Ervin Santana was suffocating the Nats offense (not hard to do, it turned out, later in the season), and the game was a much tighter affair, which made the mid-game explosion all the more powerful. Without watching those first 5 innings, the full effect is lost.

(3) When followed closely, the season is not long at all, and the second half goes very quickly when your team is losing its lead -- My last game this year was Sept. 20 against the Giants, and as we walked out of RFK, I remarked to Brian of Nationals Farm Authority that this season went by at light speed -- it seemed like only two weeks before that we were at the home opener. Two guys in front of us turned around and said they had just discussed the same thing. Once you get into the rhythym of the season, its daily routine cause the games to move by at a steady pace. Particularly in the second half, where the games take on more importance -- I still can't quite believe how quickly the games against Milwaukee and Colorado and Houston in July went by, as we lost and lost and slipped back into the pack, soon getting swept in Atlanta and watching the playoffs train pulling ahead without us. It didn't occur to me at the time that our season was ending there, I foolishly thought we still had time in August and September.

(4) It is very hard for individual players to exert much influence on the outcome of a game, particularly in the short term. This lesson was learned from ERV scoring, which impressed upon me that success in baseball is made up of many small successes rather than a few big ones. The relative value of any at bat, even any particular inning by a pitcher, is small. The batting order spreads the opportunity out among 9 batters, pitching opportunties are spread out over a ten man (or in our case) a twelve man staff. Victory comes when a bunch of these small events are gathered up, from different players. Baseball forces the superstar to step aside often, and woe is any team that tries to wait for 2 or 3 players to make the difference. Many times this year we had a lineup that had really only 6 major league hitters in it, and it was painful to watch us go through that black hole in our lineup.

(5) The field manager's role during the game is much more limited that I thought, and if they choose to act, they will more likely cause harm than good -- The game makes it hard for the field manager, primarily because if he replaces a player, he's out for good. Plus his options for the play of the game are limited to things like bunts, steals, hit and runs, intentional walks, all of which are at the margin. As we've discussed here many times, things like the bunt are defensive strategies, not proactive, best used to avoid a worse result. I have been convinced by this season that the manager's primary focus should be on managing the personalities of his club, knowing how to get the best out of each player, and making sure they all understand their role. This is not a strength of our current manager.

(6) The general manager's role in a team's success is much more prominent than I thought -- This flows from number 5, in that the most important thing is to have players who can produce steadily and consistently over the long haul -- isolated success, however dramatic, is misleading, as is steady but below average performance, which slowly but surely wastes opportunities to win games (see Guzman, Cristian). And there is not much a manager can do in game to help offset weak performance by his players -- he can't hide a poor shooter like in basketball, can't call short pass plays for a weak-armed quarterback. And because real talent is scarce and comes at a premium, squandering it can have drastic consequences (see Pitching Depth, Lack of).

(7) Statistics, when used properly, are very illuminating about the game, but that can also be very depressing -- I first learned this in an early April game against the Phils, where we were coming back from a deficit, moving runners around the bases with 2 outs in the ninth. Although the tying run was on base, the ERV table said the average team in that situation does not score enough to win. So, my enthusiasm was dampened, and, sure enough, we lost. Also, we all had a painful lesson in the fickle nature of 1-run victories and the validity of the Pythagorean theroem. Against our better judgment and the cold hard facts, we succumbed to the temptation in thinking that we could be different from all the other teams who don't score runs, and keep winning in spite of that. Going 31-50 after 50-31 made very clear how wrong we were on that. Someone once complained that his adversary "uses statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost -- for support, not illumination." We were guilty of ignoring what was illuminated.

(8) Technology, when used right, can really enhance your enjoyment of the game -- I am one who believes that 95% of claims on how technology can improve your life are overstated and inaccurate, but this season with the Nats probably falls in the other 5%. Several tech things were key to my enjoyment this year: (1) MLB.tv, which let me watch many games, including Nats games on the road; (2) Microsoft Excel, which let me test out ERV scoring, at least until my spreadsheet got too big and I got too busy; (3) MLB on XM, which let me listen to a bunch of games and enjoy many fine radio announcers throughout the league; and, most importantly, (4) blogs, which allowed me to "meet" several remarkably intelligent and witty people who love baseball, and love to share their knowledge and wisdom about the game with each other, and form a community of fans that help form a true connection between myself and the Nats. None of these things were possible (or, highly improbable) even a few years ago, and my baseball education is better for it.

(9) There is something about baseball, at its core, that is powerfully enjoyable -- This I learned from my younger son, who is only 4 but is enraptured by the game. During our first game this year, he looked up at the scoreboard behind us and asked why the Braves were listed on top of the Nationals. I explained to him which team was home and which was visiting. Also in that game I showed him what "bases loaded" meant, and what a "double play" was. From those few things, he has asked dozens and dozens of questions, and now knows all 30 teams, some minor league teams ("little teams" he calls them), how to read standings and scores, what an error is, and what the playoffs are. He always wants to play, and we must always identify the teams playing when we do, and which one is visitors and which one home. He also wants to know who the best player on each team is. I have not pushed this on him, in fact, his obession can be wearying at times. But it is remarkable to watch his face light up as he scans the sports page, and to think how much more fun awaits him.


At 2:12 PM, Blogger Washington Cube said...

Nationals fans have heart. Thank God baseball has returned to Washington.

Washington Cube Was Here. #102

At 4:28 PM, Blogger SuperNoVa said...


I didn't read this until now, but this is probably the best post on Nats Blog all year.

And #9 is reason #1, isn't it? I think #9 is the reason I'd like to have kids.

Of course, once Social Services realizes I'm a White Sox fan, they'll probably take my kids away.



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