Joe Mauer, Michael Bradley, and The Problem With Artistic Athletes

So I've been more or less completely consumed with the World Cup this month. Watching every match I can, reading interviews, reports, reviewing highlights, and writing like a maniac. But I still think of baseball, perhaps never more clearly than when I was watching a World Cup match with some friends last Thursday.

We needed a point against Germany, or some good fortune in another match. Being Minnesota sports fans, we fully anticipated that everything would turn against us at any given moment. As a result, every flaw, every foul, every mistake increased our anxiety and our ire, and nobody got under our skin as much as Michael Bradley.

Bradley--mid-mistake. (From Slate.com)
For those who don't know, Bradley is widely believed to be the best American player. A creating midfielder he basically serves as the point guard, distributing, defending, inventing and supporting every aspect of the game. A favorite in European leagues, bigwigs and pundits think that Bradley could easily make every one of the other 31 teams at the World Cup (even intimidating German and Brazilian squads).

But that didn't excuse Bradley's lackluster play. He was nowhere in the first match. He gave away the ball that became the equalizing goal against Portugal. And in the final match versus Germany he was sloppy: losing the ball frequently, making clumsy/ineffectual challenges. Suddenly my friends were out for blood.

"Bradley, what is wrong with you?!?!"
"Bradley gives it away every time, I'm telling you!!!"
"God, Bradley, just stop! STOP!!"

I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard so many people, so upset, with such a talented athlete. Until I remembered my last trip to Target Field and the shouts at #7...Joe Mauer.
Joe Mauer Misses the Cheers (From CBS Sports)

"Mauer, what is wrong with you?!?!?"
"Mauer grounds out every time, I'm telling you!!!"
"God, Mauer, just stop! STOP!!"

I sort of assumed it just revolved around the old story: big name, big expectations, minimal delivery, maximum reaction. But there's a little something more to it than that I think. After all, we seem perpetually enamored of other players, even though they certainly have down moments too...why be enraged by Mauer and Bradley and not the others?

I think the reason might lie in our selection of heroes. We love the strong, the powerful, the mighty men who never cease to amaze with their offensive exploits: think Harmon Killebrew, Jim Thome and, in the soccer world, Clint Dempsey. We also love the daring, the bold, the unbelievable save-the-day types: Kirby Puckett at the wall, Johan Santana at the end of a losing streak, Tim Howard any time of day.

But those two styles of heroes do not match well with either Bradley or Mauer. They won't win things single handedly (either with goals or home runs). They won't save the day (either with sparkling defense/pitching or miraculous goal keeping). They are more like artists than heroes. Doing things that seem unusually beautiful and nearly impossible to quantify. They distribute the ball where it's least expected (either with passes or with spray singles hitting through defensive shifts). They provide a team with a reliable pillar requires opponents to develop specific plans. They are lauded by many--particularly those who see them at a distance and know their reputation. Sure some artists can also be powerful or save the day (Magic Johnson comes to mind), but if you can't you drop in stature rapidly (looking in your direction Ricky Rubio)

Of course there's one big gap between an artistic athlete and a straight forward artist: artists don't need to win anything, athletes always do. So, when an artistic athlete goes from great to average, it's easier to abandon them than hold on to the quietly valuable work of the past. And if they have a run of bad form while the team succeeds in spite of them, fans can get down right angry at the waste of talent who should be making a good team great rather than holding them back.
What the hell Strathairn?!!

Those who hate on Mauer and Bradley would be rather like if art fans got pissed when Monet refused to change style when Seurat and Van Gogh got more experimental, or if movie goers whined about David Strathairn never getting back to his Oscar nominated potential.

Of course, that hate doesn't have to last forever. Every World Cup match brings a new slate of heroes and raft of scapegoats. In the last week alone, Joe Mauer went from washed-up to offensive lynchpin. A weak bit of artistry inspires nothing but frustration, but even the weakest artist is still an artist, and capable of transcendent moments.

When those moment comes, I look forward to hearing all the jeers and frustration die away, and for one word to supplant them. One word when Bradley hits Clint Dempsey in perfect stride. One word when Mauer knocks in two with a single to the opposite field. One word, in city/state/nationwide chorus: "YES!"


Paying to Anticipate: An adventure in baseball cards

I finally did it. I told myself I ought to. I explained all the ways why. I made sure that I actually could do it, and then I did it.

I sold a large chunk of my baseball card collection.

It wasn't doing anything, it was sitting in a box in my attic. When my neighbor set up a yard sale and offered me a chance to sell some things, I went to get them. Sure enough, old DVD players, printers, and stereo systems...passed...a couple hundred 1988 baseball cards...gone in a flash.

I don't need more baseball cards (no one does...really), but I still make an annual pack a special ritual for myself. A reward for a year worth of teaching, a method of keeping my place in a mountain of books. As I've done before, I thought it might be fun to write about the process of opening up my packs (both a regular and a heritage set)

First the flashy new deck, as my dog sits at my feet, hopefully looking at me like I've unwrapped a treat for us both to eat. No luck pup.

Paul Goldschmit leads off...I know him, power hitter prospect, okay...then Hiroki Kuroda who excites me as a fan of good pitching, and churns my stomach as a symbol of Yankee wealth. Michael Brantely and Jonathan Pablebon follow, so far a solid crew.

There we go: Yordano Ventura...do you know who Yordano Ventura plays for? Did you know there was a person in the world named Yordano Ventura? Apparently he was a September call up who has an active twiter account (#LetsThrowFire)--I wonder what the old cigarette companies who started this tradition would have written on the back in lieu of twitter: "When walking down the street, King Kelly shouts out: 'I ATE A PASTRAMI SANDWHICH, POUND SYMBOL YUM!' Oh that Kelly, always a fan favorite."
Back in the swing of things, an old school Buster Posey card...the same psuedo style as a lot of the cards I just sold...perhaps the universe is giving me a sign to track down the buyer and steal them back. No, wait, Francisco Liriano follows him up, that's a sign that you should just appreciate your memories, lest the regret eat you alive.

Ahh...and here they are, at the back of the pack...the also rans: Wily Peralta, Nick Hundley, Eric Sogard, Scooter Gennett and Jack Hannahan. The only who remotely stands out is Scooter...and it's far more for he fact that his name is Scooter than anything else.

What about the classic pack, fewer cards, classier stock than the ultra shiny newbies, a little more price. Perhaps here will be the bonafide stars, the exciting pack of a full blown team of all-stars I wouldn't trade for a Byron Buxton rookie...oh who am I kidding, they're just cards...

Opening it up, I swear I could smell that old cardboard gum, the stuff that made my jaws hurt as a kid, but that I stubbornly ate, piece after piece, because I felt bad turning down the gift of gum each company had so thoughtfully inserted for me. (I admit it, I've always been naive).

Andres Torres tops the deck, glum and dead-eyed, then Jayson Werth with a more manageable beard than usual...Aha, a bulky Prince Fielder in his new Rangers uniform...just what I was hoping for, and just what Rangers fans were hoping for...a positive image, regardless of the injuries and disaster that lay ahead.

John Neise is alright, but Darin Ruf makes me wonder if these cards are all that special...apparently he had a strong power swing for the Phillies at the end of the season...but I'm not sure I buy it. Just like I didn't buy in to  most "Impact Rookie" cards Topps chucked into my packs as a kid.

Darin Ruf? Really?
A throwback Jim Plamer card reflecting on his 1965 debut (the year the heritage pack is emulating), is solid and nice to imagine as a rookie card slipped among your mom/dad's old belongings. Travis Wood and Brett Lawrie won't have the same effect on my kids I'm sure. Finally a card of AL ERA leaders Annabelle Anibal Sanchez and Bartolo (Semi)Colon. 

That's it. I confess myself disappointed*. 21 cards and not a single Twin. I pick out a few I'd like to hold on to--both for the fun of bookmarking my pages and on the off chance they develop into something special (Gennett, Kuroda). But there were no Twins. No favorites. And I wonder if it wouldn't have been better to save my money and wrap a random selection of my old cards in paper for the same illusion.

It's silly to repeat this ritual, silly to spend money (any money) on an easily abandoned, quickly forgotten distraction. But I'm not really paying for a long term investment. I'm not even paying for short-term distraction. I'm paying for a certain feeling, a memory of childhood, and a reminder that potential is so much more fun than reality, like dreaming on what Prince Fielder can accomplish in Texas before he plays a game. (I mean, if I had gotten a Brian Dozier, I wouldn't give a fart about the deluge of relievers and middling talent). I love the moment of anticipation, the wait, the hope, the discovery. Like seeing runners in scoring position with less than two outs, I have all manner of hopes and wishes for how they score, or how the pitcher dances out of danger. It doesn't matter if it lives up to my expectations or not, it's the thrill of the not knowing that gets me every time. 

Maybe I'll find someone to give me two bucks for the cards at another garage sale, or maybe they'll get chucked by my wife in a burst of spring cleaning. I'm not concerned about what happens to the opportunity lost, I'm already dreaming about the opportunities to come. If that doesn't make me a baseball fan, I don't know what does.

*Though I do pause to fulfill another fun distraction--imagining the best line up I can make with the cards I was dealt--Pitcher Palmer, than Posey-2; Fielder-3, Gennett-4, Lawrie-5, Sogard (out of position)-6, Torres-7, Brantley-8, Werth-9...Underwhelming as they are, I'm pretty sure they could beat the Astros.


Chairman Mauer Vanquishes All Enemies

Puckettsburgh, Twins Territory--

The great and honorable Chairman Joseph Mauer has reclaimed his honorable place as the most powerful and dominant hitter of all Twins Territory. Mauer, the bringer of light, basher of doubles, vanquisher of enemies and foe of all obviously-over-hyped-home-runs-because-come-on-it's-more-impressive-to-just-have-a-high-on-base-percentage-anyway, has reminded all loyal subjects of his greatness through repeated trouncings of the vile and terrible White Socked Warriors who despoil Twins Territory with their cowardice and violent history.

"[The chairman] has been going real good there," stated Twins Territory Strategist-in-Chief Ron Gardenhire. "He has [rescued all our hearts from the blackness of the Chicago-land pinstripes of despair and hopelessness and] hit [on the ideal system of leadership to elevate our citizenry to the heights of delirious heaven, while also destroying the capitalist, bourgeois]...ball well."

With his repeated doubles, the Chairman has rescued his loyal lieutenants from the risk of abandonment and estrangement far from home. 

While many diabolical foreign news outlets and undesirable subversives within Twins Territory have raised questions about our divinely be-sideburned Chairman's fitness and skill this year, these games have put such qualms to rest. As Minister for Excitement, Ricky Nolasco said: "Mauer is the best! All hail Mauer!! His hits are like thunderclaps, and his walks are like lightning, and his defense is like balls of hail made of adorable kittens and puppies!!! It's the best!!! Also...I AM good at pitching!!"

Even newly defected Kendrys Morales has accepted the truth of our Chairman's greatness into his heart. "What the hell are you talking about?" he said, before a week of re-education. Then he concluded his statement. "The chairman is the reason for my being here, and as long as I am in service to his greatness, all things shall be well. Woe unto those who doubt the chairman."

In other news, Chairman Mauer has devised a method for ensuring the safety of all people from the recent abundance of rain he has graced us with, by expanding the Target Fortress sustainable water system throughout the entirety of Twins Territory we shall have water for all dry seasons while our enemies die of thirst, drought and the oncoming plague of frog-locusts, scheduled for whenever the Chairman feels like beginning it.


A 5 Word Guide to Every Draft Pick

Sure we're a couple weeks late, and several hundreds of posts short...but we couldn't resist the temptation to continue our annual tradition of giving a run down of every single Twins draft pick for the busy fan. So keep your detailed scouting reports, don't bother worrying over their ETAs in the big leagues, just appreciate the simplicity of five words for every player. (As always, numbers and punctuation don't count)

Right Handed Pitchers
Get the pitchers, Terry. All the pitchers!
Nicholas Burdi (Round 2)--College reliever of the year
Michael Cederoth (Round 3)--Twins like right-handed relievers
Jake Reed (Round 5)--Really, they're great.
John Curtiss (Round 6)--You can always use them
Andro Cutura (Round 7)--Good thing our pen is big.
Keaton Steele (Round 8)--Holy cow...another one? Really?
Randy LeBlanc (Round 10)--Alright, we get it...Righties = Good
Zach Tillery (Round 13)--Stop. Just stop.
Trevor Hildenberger (Round 22)--Hilden Burgers served with Gorgonzola 
Miles Nordgren (Round 23)--Long way to north green.
Orynn Veillon (Round 32)--Fun names > Right-handed relievers
Mike Bauman (Round 34)--Hey, a Mahtomedi product!

Left Handed Pitchers
Samuel Clay (Round 4)--Never give up on Lefties.
One of the best stories from the draft
Mat Batts (Round 17)--Pitchers deserve less ominous names
Onas Farfan (Round 21)--First RBI alum Twins drafted
Taylor Heam (Round 25)--Lefties + Give Up? NO!
Cameron Avila-Leeper (Round 29)--Fortunately, not Avila-Leper.
Theo Theofanopoulos (Round 30)--Ποτέ μην εγκαταλείπεις στις Αριστεροί
Sam Hillard (Round 31)--Strong sinker...cross-fingers

Nick Gordon (SS, Round 1)--Flash's kid could be great
Patrick Kelly (2B, Round 12)--Red Wing native, Cornhusker alum
Tyler Mautner (3B, Round 14)--Not Lautner, sorry Twilight fans.
NOT coming to a ballpark near you
Tyler Kuresa (1B, Round 16)--Communications major! Baseball better work...
TJ White (3B, Round 18)--From Las Vegas to....Elizabethton?
Jarrard Poteete (C, Round 19)--You say PO-TEEEEE-TAY, I say...?
McCarthy Tatum (3B, Round 20)--Not Channing, sorry ladies.
Erwin Real (C, Round 24)--Could be MLB's 1st Erwin since 1913.
Blake Schmit (SS, Round 26)--Part of Maryland Shortstop pipeline
Gabriel Ojeda (C, Round 27)--Estudiante a Colegio Hector Udaneta!!
Trey Vavra (1B, Round 33)--Coach Joe's Kid, so sweet...
Brad Mathiowetz (C, Round 35)--Hope Meintkeiwitcz coaches pronunciation
Kirvin Moesquit (SS, Round 36)--Played with Mathiowetz = SCRABBLE WIN
Brett Doe (C, Round 38)--Likely to toil in anonymity
John Jones (C, Round 39)--Finally, a bland name
Dalton Guthrie (SS, Round 40)--Mark Guthrie's boy, again, sweet.
Please, please let him stay healthy

Max Murphy (CF, Round 9)--Local boy comes home, hopefully...
Tanner English (CF, Round 11)--Speedy center-fielder...god I hope so.
Roberto Gonzalez (RF, Round 15)--Lots of potential
Austin Diemer (CF, Round 28)--Proudly tweeting about us...awww....
Tyree Davis (CF, Round 37)--Straight outta Compton...had to be said.


A Twins Fan's Guide to World Cup Teams

Want to balance cheering for baseball with cheering for soccer? Not sure who to back other than the good ol' US of A? We've got you covered with a Twins Fan's Guide to World Cup Teams. Click along and see which players match with which nations, then cheer both baseball and soccer simultaneously.


Cliff Notes Guide to the 2014 Twins: "Rough Winds Will Shake"

We know how it is. Life is busy: with work and family and social engagements, there are a lot of demands on your time. So, if you tune out for a while during the long season, you're perfectly normal. Missing baseball games is not unlike missing reading assignments for school, so we're happy to provide this series of Cliff Notes to summarize, explain and analyze the story that is the 2014 Twins Season.

"Chapter II: May"
Summary: Boosted to a .500 record by the promising performances of a few "youthfully exuberant" protagonists, the Twins are forced to acknowledge the strains and challenges that accompany any growth spurt.

The initial tokens of optimism are cashed in or squandered like an arcade push game. The patience, increased on base percentage, boosted power numbers all dissipated in a flurry of National League fire-ballers from Los Angeles and San Francisco. The seemingly stable squad suddenly slipped and staggered, revealing that those who believed the team had undergone a total shift of character to be holding mere fools' gold.

But those who foresaw wreck and ruin have been similarly debunked, as the team made the most of the opportunities they did have, besting dangerous teams from Detroit, Boston and Baltimore. While offensive improvement and pitching performances might be temporary, gone for good are the days of apathetic and self-defeated baseball. 

At this stage in the story we know the truth about our setting and characters--they are not unstoppable forces for goodness and light, but neither are they morally bankrupt derelicts, squatting in dugouts and pocketing their paychecks regardless of their performance. That complexity encourages the audience to read on, curious to find how this newly complex cast of characters changes (if at all) over the season.

Notable Character Developments:
Kyle Gibson, Chris Colabello--Symbols of both the team's initial success April, and their slow decline in May.
Brian Dozier--After coming into his own in the first chapter of the season, Dozier very much savors the attention that surrounds him in the second. Heads turn when he goes by, channel surfers stop to watch him, and the internet bursts with mutterings of "extension"--an ugly slump near the end of the month shows he must beware overconfidence.
Phil...will you accept our rose?
Phil Hughes--The newest IT pitcher, for a group that falls in love with briefly-successful starters like contestants on "The Bachelorette" fall in love with being on TV. Yet he boasts signs of sincerity, including the fact that he walked no one for the entire month. (As walks are a symbol of ghostly, haunting presences, he seems poised to vanquish the ghosts of previous It pitchers--Scott Diamond, Francisco Liriano and Nick Blackburn)
Joe Mauer--Mauer continues to be a presence in name more than in production, posing the question of whether or not the offense is trapped in an absurdist play: "Waiting for Mauer". Perhaps it's poor luck, perhaps it's great defensive positioning, perhaps it's a sign of the apocalypse--fans and critics debate this matter fiercely.
Aaron Hicks--With Mike Pelfry nursing his groin (and all the Freudian meaning associated with that) the Twins' latest lost man in centerfield has taken on the mantle of ominous chasm where hope goes to die. The lowest Slugging and OPS on the team last month (save for the historically popular Jason Kubel), and questions about his work ethic, defense and engagement have soured his once bright future.

Key Quotes Explained:
Team Walks Percentage: April 12%; May 7%--A lot of the success of the team in the first month rested on their ability to coax walks from opponents, the drop in runs and the drop in walk rates have an impressive correlation...impressively bad that is.
Pitching Staff's Strike out to Walk Ratio: April 1.67; May 2.71--This is a major boost, especially given that we're talking about the Twins starting pitching, and sure a lot of it has to do with Phil Hughes, but Glen Perkins was similarly walk-less, and Kevin Correia, Ricky Nolasco and Jared Burton all improved their rates by 1 run or more. The tide turned because of everyone, not just one.

Twins fan mid-loss
A Literary Device to Impress Your Teacher/attractive English Major Friends:
Pathetic Fallacy--This term summarizes any time an author takes a lazy, cliched route to story telling and setting. Ever notice how when someone's in love there's sunshine and blue skies? Pathetic Fallacy. How it's always raining, when a character is in tears, depressed, isolated or alone? Pathetic Fallacy. Maybe they feel the way they do because of the weather, maybe the weather is blatantly reflecting their mood, but obviously, when the Dodgers crushed the Twins after a week of miserable weather...it was the pathetic fallacy. When we fought off one last frost warning and the team stank in San Francisco--pathetic fallacy. If this keeps up, here's rooting for 72 and sunny every day this summer. (Wait it's Minnesota...we're screwed).