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March 12, 2001

Derek in the Desert

Craig House and the Big Tippers

by Derek Zumsteg

Part One

Last night I was in a bar in Tucson that my brother works at called the French Quarter, which is a nice place with a bunch of cool people. One guy stuck out to me. He was drinking a water at the bar, taking up two stools in turning sideways, and looking around the bar constantly, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone. He fidgeted a lot, and liked to take up the pose of the people around him, leaning into the bar, or arms crossed in front of him, taking cues to scratch his head after the guy next to him did so, as people who are ill at ease are prone to doing.

The Bad News Blues (who had to have been the best band playing anywhere in Arizona last night. Who else can do better-than-the-original covers of both "Back in Black" and "Let's Get It On" as part of a two-hour set of blues?) was playing and this guy watched them, not really getting into it with everyone else, and for all the time we were there he bought one soda, pulling the bills out of a wallet that had a measure of green in it, and tipped the bartender 50 cents.

I thought of Carl Pohlad.

Later, during a solo during in which the drummer attempted to juggle three sticks while playing--a trick he'd later pull off--this cooler-than-that alternative U of A kid next to me said "This isn't Kiss and this isn't 1977. Move on." And as my brother turned around to give the kid the tongue-lashing of the night, I thought of the guy in our row yesterday who, when Corey Patterson ran down a ball in deep right-center only to leap and miss it on the warning track, argued that it should have been scored an error, because not only do you have to get there, you have to make the catch.

This is how everything can relate to baseball.

There are two things you'll hear if you ask people down here about Hi Corbett Field, where the Rockies play: it's where they filmed "Major League" and it's a great place to see a game cheap. While Charlie Sheen may have been on Hi Corbett field, I'm here to tell you that it's no great deal. Our seats were only $2 cheaper than in Tucson Electric Park, were more uncomfortable, and the concessions were more expensive and of much lower quality.

The field conditions are bad; you can see that the batter's box is torn up, the grass has a dense, moss-green look to it, and seems raggedly trimmed. The announcer is just terrible: he announced the A's as the reigning Central Division Champions, missed (by my count) four pitching changes, and updated the defensive replacements irregularly, if he got around to them at all. As if scoring spring-training games wasn't hard enough already. If the scorecard hadn't been so good (complete Rockies' team, including NRIs, and about 45 players for all the other Cactus League teams), I'd have been forced to get up from my seat.

It's a measure of the A's talent that they can send Eric Chavez, Ramon Hernandez, and a B squad to play the Rockies and beat the stuffing out of them. The final score was 7-5, but the Rockies scored three times off of Frank Lankford, who was might as well have set it on a tee for them.

It was windy, cloudy, and 57 degrees at the field, which made it right chilly for me (who had figured, wrongly, that a T-shirt and jeans would be just fine). Remember folks, always pack the windbreaker. Always. You'd think my Candlestick days would have taught me something, but no, they didn't.

The quality of defensive play is what has really surprised me in both games I've seen so far. Balls have been dropping out of gloves regularly, throws are off, and it's only the generosity of scorers that have kept the error count low. Neifi Perez made a series of errors in the eighth inning that allowed two runs to score, Frank Menechino looked shaky at shortstop, dropping two catches and making bad throws until he was moved to second base. On one play, Adam Piatt came in on a fly ball to right field, stopped in mid-run and reconsidered his path, then continued in to make the catch with maybe a step to spare. It was strange, like the players hadn't quite gotten the hang of the game back.

Jon Ratliff and Pedro Astacio started the game. Ratliff's pitches just seemed tepid, not fast or bafflingly slow, and they didn't look to move much either, though he seemed to get more effective as the game went on. Astacio was no great shakes himself.

Now Craig House...if you recognize the name, you're probably already thinking "I heard he had a wacky delivery." Wacky doesn't do it justice. Neither will my description. Watching his delivery you'll see him kind of do a double-hitch as he fires, a strange hip-and-shoulder thing that seem to be unrelated to pitching. His fastball is just amazing, though. I've noticed that as I've watched more games more regularly that you can eyeball the speeds, and House was as fast as I've seen. No matter how hard I looked I could not see the ball come off his hands, could only pick it up a couple of feet in flight, and then it was in the catcher's mitt. It was a sight to see, this strange, twisting delivery that looks like he's broken something midway through, and then this bare streak of motion and a called strike.

That I got to see him between John Thomson and Mike Myers made the experience seem disjointed, like something special had come in, gotten three outs, then flown off. Myers was left in to face a set of right-handed hitters who rocked him.

The most impressive play of the day though came from unknown Mark Little, who didn't even make Baseball Prospectus 2001. Little drifted back a little to catch a Menechino fly ball in right-center field as Ryan Christenson, who has the speed to play center field himself, waited on third base to run home. Little threw a strike that was so fast it got there in time for catcher Darron Cox to take the ball, make sure he had it, then turn and wait for Christenson to take another step before Cox tagged him out. I was dumbfounded; it was one of the best defensive plays I've ever witnessed.

Eric Ireland, who the Cubs picked up on Billy Beane's request and traded for Matt Stairs, looked good, pitching two innings and striking out three. He looks like a smooth soft-tosser, and I'll have to admit that my memory of his outing is ruined by seeing Craig House in between Ireland's innings. But my notes say "Ireland - control" or possibly "Ireland - on tap," though I'd bet on the former.

I don't want to go too far into a primer on heckling, which is territory I covered some time ago in a different space, but one of the things that surprised me about Hi Corbett's crowd was that it was so dumb, heckling-wise. This may have something to do with the makeup of the crowd, which seemed to be much cheaper and grumpier than the one I hung out with at Tucson Electric.

For instance, in the sandwich line where I purchased a terrible, terrible chicken sandwich, I was behind an older fellow and his wife. The two changed their order repeatedly, wanting brats and then dogs, and so on, and all the while in his left hand, out on the counter as we move towards the cashier, he has a roll of twenties, splayed just so I can see they're all the same denomination, easily $300 or more. When it comes time to pay up after he and his wife have argued about the drinks, too, their total is $11.25, he gives the poor woman who's been subjected to this a twenty, and when he gets his change, this high-roller tips her a quarter, which she's then forced to take back across the counter and pocket.

This crowd heckled the umps irregularly but frequently over plays where the correct call had clearly been made. A runner was three steps past first base when the ball arrived and the crowd booed for minutes.

Here's the thing: if you're an umpire, and you make an obviously wrong call, and you're booed, or if you make a questionable call and get booed, if you're affected at all it'll be to give the other side a break the next time around. Negative feedback on decisions where you know you were exactly right can only make you disregard the source, so any further feedback from the fans only reinforces you, and makes you less likely to be sympathetic to their side.

And yet there it was at Hi Corbett, people telling the ump he was going to end up calling balls and strikes in a North Dakota league because Todd Walker watched a perfectly good strike sail into the catcher's mitt. Similarly, Eric Chavez was not paralyzed in fear when he was told he sucked, as clearly he doesn't and is aware of that. But I digress.

We retired after the game to Gentle Ben's, which is the kind of restaurant-with-beer college kids take their parents to. It's frequented by boorish frat boys with hats that match their shirts and the same level of weight-trained bulk on each, their meaty necks turning to take open glances at the women servers and people they might be able to pick fights with.

A beautiful college girl in conservative clothes came in with her head down, her expression a muted angry, and her parents in tow. They drank beer, she sipped water and said little. My brother and I, who have both had any number of meals exactly like this, decided after some discussion that if she got up to use a restroom, or if a similar chance arose where she was separated from her parents, he would mention that he'd noticed she wasn't having a good day, and if she wanted we could all meet up for drinks later and then at least something would have gone well that Saturday.

It wasn't so much that my brother needs a quality girlfriend but because we realized that even during our worst, most awkward meals as we sat across from our parents, talking around financial problems, our inability to learn German, or a host of other issues, it would have been a great thing if someone had pulled us aside and offered that to us.

She never got up, and left still angry but more resigned. Tomorrow I'm going to go see the Diamondbacks.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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