“Mr. Baseball” plays out for real in the Japanese Central League



Over the last few weeks in Japanese Professional Baseball (NPB), a fringe MLB player from Curaçao named Wladimir Balentien of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows became the single season home run king in Japan, breaking the three-way tie between Sadaharu Oh (who is also the overall home run king in Japan with 868 homeruns), Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera, who all had 55.

As Balentien, who saw limited action with the Mariners and Reds, got closer to Oh’s magic number (and we’ll call it Oh’s number because that’s how the Japanese thought of it until last Sunday), there was fear that managers of other teams would not let their pitchers throw strikes to him, as happened both to Rhodes and Cabrera as they got closer to breaking Oh’s number.

As Rhodes and Cabrera got close to number 56 though, they both faced teams managed by Ohhimself, who, of course, did not pitch to either man. Randy Bass, another player chasing the record, could only get to 54 home runs before he was frozen out by opposing pitching (again meeting up with Oh’s Tokyo Giants). Continue reading…

In Your Queue: Baseball Docs



In baseball, it’s often said that “you just can’t write this stuff.” Sometimes the real-life drama of the game is so unbelievable that you’d roll your eyes if it were a movie. That makes it all the more difficult to make a good baseball film. Give it a think: You probably don’t need both of your hands to count them all, so susceptible are they to insufferable schmaltz, rank sentimentality and invalid team loyalties.

It’s documentary where baseball films really take off. Bull Durham and Bang the Drum Slowly aside, it’s hard to take most baseball films seriously. Even the classic ones, like Mr. Baseball or Major League, need a qualifier when talking about them. You don’t often need that when talking about documentaries, and no documentary captures the spirit of the game so thoroughly as Ken Burns’ recently updated Baseball (streaming on Netflix and Hulu+), an 11-part, 22-hour history of the sport, from its invention in the 1850s through the current steroid era and every up and down that the game – and the country – face in between. Even if Burns himself suffers from an invalid team loyalty (to the Red Sox), it doesn’t show in this immense, lovingly crafted PBS production.

Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball (Hulu+) is the surprisingly emotional story of two high-school teams from Japan – the reigning champions and a public school that has never gotten beyond regionals – trying to reach Koshien, the hotly contested summer baseball tournament where players like Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka made their names before the MLB. It means everything to these kids – the players and their classmates alike – and they show it in this short, relatable doc through their hard work and through their tears and their observance of the traditions of those who went before them.

In Ballplayer: Pelotero (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu+) the dark side of baseball comes out as young Dominican players (Minnesota top prospect Miguel Sano and Houston prospect Jean Carlos Batista) go through the struggles of poverty and humiliation of an MLB investigation into their ages (a huge problem with Dominican prospects) as they try for a better life through baseball.

There is a rough American parallel in Harvard Park (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu+), the story of Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis, premier players of the 1980s, who went through similar struggles in South Central but ended up back every summer to train at the park. For them, like a lot of the early ball players, baseball is a way out more than a pastime. They do it for love of their family as much as for the love of the game, though the love of the game is never in question.

Knuckleball! – Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg (2012)



Everything about the fundamental mechanics of baseball seems simple. Kids stuff. That’s when we come to it, as little kids hitting off a tee, or having a ball tossed softly to us in the park. There’s nothing to it. You rear back to throw. You kick as hard as you can to run. Extend your arms to swing. But as most of us know by now, as we sit at desk jobs or customer service counters, it ain’t simple at all.

In baseball, the thing that seems the most simple to perfect is the knucklball. You don’t even throw it, you dig your fingernails into ball and push it to the plate. It doesn’t matter if you can’t throw fast (in fact it helps not to), or if you’re not as athletic. The ball does all the work, not the pitcher. The knuckleball is, of course, the hardest pitch the perfect. In fact, there have been fewer than 100 full time major league hurlers who have thrown it down the years.

In 2011, when this documentary was filmed, there were two knuckleballers:Boston’s veteran righty, Tim Wakefield (44), and the Mets’ reclamation project, R.A. Dickey (36). Dickey’s age would seem worrying if he was any other type of pitcher, but unlike hard throwers, it gets better as your arm loses its velocity. Most can pitch into their 40s, like both Neikro brothers, Joe and Phil, who could still pitch when they retired, they just couldn’t field their positions anymore.

In factWakefieldand Dickey, both former-first round picks, were reclamation projects as knuckleballers.Wakefieldcame up withPittsburghin ’92 as a power hitting corner infielder after a big college career, but seemed lost at the plate with the switch from the aluminum bats in college to the wood bats of the bigs. It was chance that a minor league instructor saw him fooling around with the knuckler and he got to save his career, eventually playing 18 seasons. Dickey, after a great college career capped off with a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics, could never put it together in the majors with his normal arsenal of pitches. He bummed around the minors until he gave the knuckleball a try to make one last grab at saving his career in the Mets minor league system.

They might be underdogs, but watching the film you don’t ever get that sense from them. They are calm and professional, taking delight in how silly they can make the likes of Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter look with their simple 60 mile an hour pitch that dances its way to the plate. They say, in fact, they prefer to face the big swingers (who are used to quality breaking pitches and pure heat). It’s the scrappy guys who are used to hitting junk in the minors who put the most hurt on them.

Most pitches in the majors are about the tightest, quickest spin you can get on them. The tighter, the faster you throw it, the bigger the break, the wider the cut, the later the movement. It all adds up to a ball that is harder to hit. With the knuckleball all of that goes out the window. The key to the pitch is that it doesn’t spin, or it little spins as little possible – less than two revolution between leaving the pitcher’s hand and reaching the catcher’s glove (or at least the catcher’s general vicinity). With this lack of spin, the resting stitches catch the air different every time, making the pitch completely unpredictable not only to the hitter, but the catcher, umpire and even the pitcher himself.

But even for those who have mastered the pitch, it’s hard to control. A microcosm of baseball itself, the knuckleball is a cruel, unpredictable thing and, like Bill Bucknor or Mitch Williams before him, Tim Wakefield’s career highlight will probably end up being one bad pitch. He’s 200 game winner, yes, but he’s also the guy who gave up the walkoff homerun to Aaron Boone — Mr. Scrappy — in the 2003 AL Championship Series, sending the Yankees to the World Series instead of the Red Sox. Before that one pitch, a knuckler that tumbled its way to the plate more than danced, he was probably going to be the MVP of the series. He was dynamite against the Yankees that series. Hundreds of great pitches all forgotten because of one bad one.

Wakefield retired at the end of the 2011 season. This season, there was only Dickey to carry the banner. Carry it he did though, to the point that he’ll probably win the National League Cy Young Award after a 20-6 All-Star season where he threw back-to-back 1 hit shutouts. All of that means one thing: we’ll see a lot more of these oddballs in the future as kids now begin to take it as a serious pitch.

Quick Hits on: Moneyball – Bennett Miller (2011)

-Admittedly, this film has some of the most awkward pacing I’ve ever seen, but I don’t feel that it detracts from the story in any way. It manages to stay lively and vital even when the pace drags its ass along the floor a little. The slow feel is felt most during the passages told through news and radio reports and call-in shows, which detract from the “insider” status the film grants. But it’s important stuff, sadly. A lot of times it’s fan ire that gets coaches and managers the boot, and also it’s a deep part of the story that all of the fan frustration fell to Billy Beane for his odd strategy and all of the praise to Art Howe for somehow managing his way around Beane’s weird statistic-driven nonsense.

-I don’t have a lot of patience for the baseball people who thought this was shoddily made just because some of it didn’t happen. It’s a movie. Look “movie” up in the dictionary. It should say, “noun, not real life”. But I love that two of the baseball guys who were portrayed in the film, then A’s coach Ron Washington and Indian’s GM Mark Shapiro, thought the film was good.

-And that’s the bottom line: the film is good. Damn good. Pitt plays the role of Beane nicely, and I really think Jonah Hill is going to get a Best Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of the fictional Peter Brand. He’ll deserve it if he gets it. Director Bennett Miller could have gone a little deeper I felt, especially with the Billy Beane back story. It did lack a little bit of a connection to the main story, especially since its blows its load so early when Beane calls Brand up in the middle of the night to find out where Brand would have drafted him. The flashbacks read a lot sharper in Aaron Sorkin’s draft of the screenplay. Sorkin’s screenplays are a must read for me. Whether it is beg, borrow or steal, they are always worth the trouble it takes to track them down.