Rooting for Nick and Tsuyoshi

(Apologies for the gap between posts, school is coming quickly and I'll be splitting time between writing lesson plans and writing baseball blogs...probably a little more time on lesson plans)

Poor Tsuyoshi...
Clearly things have changed in the Twins dugout of late, much to the glee of many fans (not to mention the blogging community). Nick Blackburn is gone and it will take some finagling to get him back up again, experience be damned. Gone too is every last drop of hopeful expectation around Tsuyoshi Nishioka, former Nippon League batting champ and hoped for shortstop salvation.

The clear take away here is that these two elements of the Twins system weren't working and now (later than some might like) they are being removed. Many other, wiser bloggers can delve into the statistical benefits of chucking Blackburn's starts or offering Nishioka's opportunities to another, worthier prospect.

The less apparent take away is that, even with this move, Twins fans are still frustrated. Even with two disliked players off the roster, the belief is that the move didn't happen fast enough. Forum posts on Nick Blackburn seem to assume he's personally responsible for all of the Twins pitching's miseries, as well as NBC's poor Olympic coverage and those irritating Health Care Debate advertisements. Tsuyoshi Nishioka seems to be viewed as part underachiever, part natural disaster (though its unlikely a telethon can help Twins fans at this point). Since there are no stats to explore here, that makes it just my cup of tea.

For me, Blackburn and Nishioka are more than just sacrificial lambs to the roster/blogosphere slaughter. They are men who have gone from mighty success to something resembling total disaster. Something that, people who aren't ballplayers can still relate to.

Imagine going through a rough spell at your job, and having your bosses demote you down to being the office gofer. Worse than that, you find out you only became the gofer, is because your bosses couldn't get any other company in town to hire you away from them. Nobody wants you. Everybody knows that nobody wants you. And now you have to start proving yourself all over again. It's the kind of professional debacle you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. So why are we so insistent that Blackburn and Nishioka deserve it?

Dr. Cakeburn, in better days
I won't deny that both played poorly enough to make dyed in the wool optimists like me cringe. And yet, I can't savor any part of their being culled from the big league roster. To me they are just as much the promising young talents that had me practicing Japanese phrases for "tater tot hotdish" and photoshopping diabolical baked goods into game photos to elevate their stature. For me, they are professionals confronting a question of career viability.

And as news breaks that two marginal big leaguers (Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon) used steroids to keep their similarly struggling careers afloat, I'm proud that neither Blackburn nor Nishioka pursued a chemical solution to their problems. I can't gloat in potential replacements or boast of "I told you so's" to Terry Ryan. I just hope that Blackburn and Nishioka find a way to either solve their problems on the field or else move on to a better life off it.Unpopular as it might be: I'm rooting for Nick and Tsuyoshi.


Back to Where It All Began

First and foremost, you may notice a dearth of postings in this area for the next week or so. We peanuts are on our way to Montana for a much needed vacation, and we'll try our best to be in the moment rather than on the computer, so the blogging slow down is inevitable.

This will be the first time that I (the male member of our salty/roasted snack bag) have been back to Montana in 7 years. My wife makes semi-annual trips to see her grandmother, uncle and relatives in Billings, while I, born and raised in the Big Sky State, have had little chance to go back with grad school and work eating up my life. I'm excited to see the prairies and the mountains, to hike the trails of Glacier and taste locally raised grass-fed beef again. But I'm also excited to go back to where my baseball fandom started. Great Falls, Montana.

I grew up about a mile from our local minor-league park: Legion Field and saw players come up at the very start of their careers in the Pioneer League. The League tours throughout Montana (Great Falls, Billings, Helena, and--at various points--Butte and Missoula) as well as other tourist hotspots (Ogden, Provo, Lethbridge, Idaho Falls, Casper, etc.).

Growing up in a small town it feels like simple is normal. You have a main street with grocery stores and fastfood, a bunch of side streets with houses on them, and if you want to go somewhere else you get on to the highway (usually only one) and go. I thought that was how it always was, but I didn't think about what it looked like to the young men who came to town to play for our local 9. (Something Omar Vizquel addresses here.)

To them, this was just the first stop on the road to something bigger. They came, they played they moved up in the world. As a kid, I didn't really get that, why should you move up? Why shouldn't the majors include a Montana team? (Hopeless naivete was part of my life even then.)

Still, I would track the doings of the players who had come through town: Pedro Martinez, Raul Mondesi, Erik Karros, and my (unlikely) favorite: Jose Offerman. Our local stations showed no "games of the week," and cable was a luxury item in Montana, so I made do by reading box scores in the local paper, charting the standings, dreaming up the plays I could only imagine (without the help of SportsCenter).

But while reading and dreaming was fun, the most fun I had was just going to games. The spur of the moment idea from my parents; stopping off at a rundown IGA grocery store between our house and the park for big bags of Twizzlers and peanuts that my mother hid in her purse. Walking through the damp, mildewy cement of the concourse to pick up 4 dogs and a Beer Baron Brat for my dad (bratwurst injected with cheese, boiled in beer). Sitting on the bleachers (or on special nights Home Plate box seats), and watching young guys try so hard to be grown men.

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ID:	1742That's where I learned to love not the numbers in the box scores, or the wins and losses, but the individual play on the field. The middle infielders, lunging for 8 hoppers up the middle; bubblegum chewing "sluggers" taking vicious cuts through the air; anxious pitchers who could not help but hear every jeer or cheer of every fan in the intimate park. I saw them not as pieces to be swapped or bartered, as rising talents or wastes of a draft pick, but as people living their dreams, trying to be great.

I left Montana and saw why the Majors won't be coming to Great Falls any time soon. Metropoli have no "main street" and housing is wherever you can grab it, after at least five years of confusion over free-way etiquette I can navigate 35, 94 and 62 with ease. And I came to respect the gung-ho fandom of a team that's consistently in playoff contention.

But I'm about to go home, to a simpler place. A place where I learned that baseball's not just about contending for a division title or a championship it's about the people you're around. The family, the friends, and the people who play a children's game for your amusement and their own desire to be the best. I'm going back to the place where it all started, and I'm awfully excited about that.