Eric Davis and The Hall of Nearly Great

[Gelf Magazine / The Gallery at LPR]

I never got around to linking to last month’s new ebook The Hall of Nearly Great, which collects a bunch of chapters on baseball players who don’t quite rate as Hall of Famers. I wrote one of the chapters, on Eric Davis, and now I’m doing a group reading relating to the ebook tomorrow night in New York.

You can find details for the reading (and my short interview about the Davis chapter and my Deadspin series on the Bluefish) at Gelf Magazine. And here’s a link to The Hall of Nearly Great, which is well worth your $12 and your time.

 

A profile of the Venezuelan catcher Luis Rodriguez

[Deadspin]

At Deadspin, you can read my second dispatch about the Atlantic League and independent baseball — this time a profile of a catcher who’s in his twentieth season as a minor leaguer. (Here’s a link to the first Atlantic League dispatch, from earlier this year.)

The catcher’s name is Luis Rodriguez, and he ended up having quite a story to tell. One part I couldn’t really fit in — and a part that further proves how talented Rodriguez is, how easy it is to imagine a scenario where he played a few years in the big leagues — is his time in winter ball.

Early in my first interview with Rodriguez, I asked some silly question about whether or not baseball was still fun for him. “You go play winter ball in Venezuela,” he replied, “and you won’t talk about fun. You know how much money your team loses when you lose. You play winter ball and you face Johan Santana, you face Felix Hernandez. It’s a job.” Rodriguez returned to this idea of baseball as a job again and again in our conversations. I think it came partly from his hard-working father and partly from winter ball. Either way, when baseball is your job — your profession — you do it for as long as you can. Fun doesn’t factor in.

That isn’t to say Rodriguez didn’t enjoy winter ball. He began playing in 1991 and worked his way up to the top league and a starting job with the Caracas Leones. One year the Leones boasted big league regulars — Alex Gonzalez, Bobby Abreu, Marco Scutaro, and more — at almost every position. “It’s like a big league stadium in Caracas,” Rodriguez remembered. “When we went to the finals, it was Yankees-Boston.”

Rodriguez ended up winning several rings with the Leones. “I know what champagne tastes like,” he told me. He stopped playing winter ball three years ago because his body wasn’t recovering as fast as it used to. “But I’ve been talking about going back this winter,” he added. In fact, whenever he does retire — and good luck getting him to commit to an answer on that — he thinks it might be nice to do it in Venezuela, in the winter leagues: “I could retire in front of my players, in front of my family, and in front of my fans.”

The first in a series on the Bridgeport Bluefish

[Deadspin]

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately at the Ball Park at Harbor Yard — better known as the home of the Bridgeport Bluefish, an independent baseball team. The stadium sits two Metro North stops away from where I live, in Milford, and the plan this summer is to write a series of dispatches on the team and on minor league baseball. The first dispatch is now up at Deadspin.

There’s some fun stuff in there, including a long interview with Tommy John, who became the manager of the Bluefish after Bobby Valentine recommended him. I talked to John right when Valentine was getting the worst of it from Boston fans, and John stood by his friend. “I guess what Pedroia’s saying,” John said, referring to the controversy over Valentine’s comments on Kevin Youkilis, “is that you gotta hold hands and sing Kumbaya. That’s not Bobby. He’s going to stir the pot. If those guys had to play for Dick Williams back in the 1960s, half the team would quit.”

Anyway, it should make for a fun series. I suspect John will reappear at some point, as well.

The closing of the Wigwam (and the state of Indiana basketball)

[New York Times]

In Sunday’s New York Times sports section, I’ve got a long feature on the closing of the Wigwam, the 8,996-seat arena in Anderson, Indiana, that ranks as the second largest high school gym in the world. Or ranked, rather: Anderson’s school board closed the Wigwam last summer, in a decision that frustrated many fans and seemed to strike another blow to the city’s struggling self-image. Those elements certainly belong in this story, but I also tried to focus on the positive — the way the Anderson Indians got a chance to create, in the words of their coach, Joe Nadaline, “a new tradition.” I also took Nadaline’s idea one step further. What could the Wigwam’s closing reveal about the current relationship between Indiana and high-school hoops? Short answer: while it’s taken a few steps back, it remains powerful and pretty much without compare.

That doesn’t mean we should lapse into lazy “Indiana basketball” rhapsodies. (For example.) But it does mean the state continues to offer a surprising level of passion, quality, and, given its smallish size, talent. One way to see this is in the person of John Harrell. I quote Harrell briefly in my story, and his delightfully lo-fi website offers an indispensable resource for any local fan.

Harrell started writing for the Huntington Herald-Press while he was a senior in high school. He migrated to the Bloomington Herald-Times‘ sports desk in the early 1970s. Around the same time, Jeff Sagarin, a sports stats guru who now helps with the BCS rankings, also moved to Bloomington. Harrell started delivering him hand-written lists of Indiana’s high school basketball scores; Sagarin started churning out professional-grade rankings for the state’s programs. (Another reason to be optimistic about Anderson going forward? They played one of the 20 toughest schedules in the state, according to Sagarin.)

“It all developed into this website eventually,” Harrell told me. “I had all these records laying around.” In 2000, Harrell started uploading those records (and the latest scores and schedules) to his personal website. It became crucial for coaches, ADs, journalists, and super-fans, with data that goes back to 1993. Harrell says he still has the earlier stuff — it’s just stuck on a computer that can no longer transfer files to more modern machines. He may get around to transferring it by hand now that he’s retired. “I haven’t been as busy,” he said. “I’ve had more time to devote to the site.”

Like any longtime observer of the Indiana hoops scene, Harrell brought up class basketball and attendance numbers before I could even ask the question. He admits the switch has hurt attendance, but also points out that fan interest has been slowly, steadily declining for decades. (I agree: when you crunch the numbers, you see that class basketball, more than anything else, provides an easy scapegoat for angry nostalgics. See this terrific Indianapolis Monthly story for more.) One thing’s for sure, according to Harrell: class basketball is here to stay. “The small schools have gotten a taste for Indianapolis now,” he said with a laugh.