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April 10, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

Between Death and Glory

by Ian Miller

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Ian Miller plays bass guitar in loud bands, including Kowloon Walled City, and is one of the two idiots behind @ProductiveOuts. He is also a recovering Mets fan.
 

I could’ve gone to see the Who and the Clash at Shea Stadium in October, 1982. I was 14 and liked both bands, but my tastes ran more toward the metallic: while the Clash were stalking the stage at Shea, I was probably in my bedroom trying to cop Steve Harris’ bass parts on “Number of the Beast.” Thirty years later, I’d gladly trade all my worldly possessions to have been there.

Growing up, I spent plenty of days and nights at Shea Stadium, as I was raised as a Mets fan by an otherwise-loving father. Never in October, though, in 1982, or in any other year. I had the misfortune of growing up in the greater New York area during the Bronx Zoo days, so while my friends were rooting for Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, and Bucky Fucking Dent, I was cheering for Lenny Randle, Ed Kranepool, and Jerry Koosman. My childhood babysitter was among those who stormed the field after Chris Chambliss’ ALCS-winning home run in 1976. She tore a piece of sod from the field, brought it home, and kept it in a shoebox on the porch, watering and tending to it daily. I got to watch as the Mets committed the Midnight Massacre, sending away my beloved Dave Kingman and Tom Seaver.

My love affair with baseball was decidedly one-sided: I gave it everything I had and got nothing in return. My Yankees-fan friends—even the fair-weather ones—were rewarded with championships, and I got meaningless games in Grant’s Tomb. I grew to distrust winning and resent dynasties. I understood on a cellular level that baseball, like life, was inherently unfair.

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that upon reaching puberty I abandoned baseball for more rewarding pursuits: sex, of course, and drugs—but mostly rock n’ roll. As in baseball, I continued to root for the underdog in music. I found myself drawn to the weird, the marginal, the extreme. I became obsessed first with heavy metal, then graduated to hardcore punk.

In the days before the Internet, being into underground music required real dedication. I made regular trips to local record stores to dig through crates of obscure vinyl and track down elusive magazines and fanzines to find out about new bands. It certainly didn’t feel like work at the time; I did it because I was driven to, and because I loved it.

It meant spending countless nights in punk clubs and VFW halls, suffering through interminable sets by shitty local bands. The reward, of course, was that you ended up seeing some incredible bands, just by showing up. I saw Husker Du and the Minutemen and got to open for Fugazi. I got to see Operation Ivy on their only “real” tour, and once I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I got to see some of Rancid and Green Day’s earliest shows. Being part of that scene meant I could claim these bands for my own and feel that strange ambivalence when others also discovered them: on the one hand, my tastes were vindicated; on the other, I now had to share “my” band with the wider world.

But in 1989, baseball was still off my radar. When I went to visit my brother in Charleston, South Carolina, I agreed to attend a Charleston Rainbows (South Atlantic League) game at College Park mostly because there wasn’t much else to do. (Did you know that Pedro Martinez went 14-8 with a 1.97 for the Rainbows in 1989? It’s true. But it was Pedro Martinez Aquino, not that other guy.)

I don’t remember the particulars of the game—maybe the pseudo-Pedro was pitching—but I recall bits and pieces. We sat in the most rickety, splinteriest bleachers I’ve ever seen. Vendors carried galvanized metal tubs full of ice and beer through the stands. The heckling was world-class: the home plate umpire was on the husky side, and the guys sitting behind us yelled “Eat another Snickers bar, Blue!” every time they disagreed with a call. Because it was the Sally League and the Rainbows’ star offensive player was Nikco Riesgo, the quality of play was probably not that great. And yet it was awesome.

Sparse attendance at broken-down venues. Equipment held together with spit and duct tape. More desire than ability. This was the punk rock version of baseball.

The scales fell from my eyes. I had deserted baseball because I thought it owed me something, that my undying devotion to my team somehow entitled me to a championship. But I saw now that winning and losing didn’t matter; there was only the game. And it was beautiful.

When I got back home, I made a point of attending more minor-league games. One could argue, and I will, that the minor-league game is better than its major-league counterpart. It’s cheaper and more intimate. You can hear the chatter from the field and from the dugout. Players and coaches are actually accessible, if you’re willing to lurk around outside the locker room after a game. At the lower levels, there’s so much room for improvement that the kids appear to get better literally from game to game, and the development over the course of an entire season is staggering. But the inconsistent, weird, and sometimes downright bad baseball can be entertaining as well.

While I was on tour with my band last summer, I snuck away from a barbecue to catch a few innings of the Ogden Raptors-Missoula Osprey (Pioneer League) game at Ogren Park Allegiance Field. I sat below an osprey perch and watched Jesse Darrah pitch 2/3 of an inning, give up a grand slam, plunk a guy in the ribs, and get ejected. This is rookie-league ball, and there’s no tunnel to the clubhouse: in order to leave the field, Darrah had to walk across the lawn, through the assembled spectators, to hit the showers. It was like watching the Dwarves at their incendiary peak: hilarious, violent, and over before you knew it.

And then there are the prospects. I’m lucky enough to live within an hour’s drive of Municipal Stadium, the home field of the San Jose Giants. Last year, the team boasted Gary Brown and Zack Wheeler; the year before that, Brandon Belt; in 2009, they had Buster Posey. The difference between the “real” prospects and the roster-fillers is staggering—an order of magnitude greater than the difference between an All-Star in the majors and a replacement-level player. The future big-leaguers look like men among boys.

Being a prospect hound is eerily similar to being a fan of underground music: we spend untold hours poring over scouting reports, driving to broken-down college and minor-league ballparks, watching video, and debating their tools and ceilings. We become invested in a kid as he climbs the ranks of the minor leagues, pulling for him to make the majors and, once he does, gleefully reminding our fellow fans that we saw him hit home runs in three consecutive at-bats in a high-A game. We watch them cut their teeth, and they become ours, somehow, in the same way we’re linked to the great bands of our youth.

That was certainly the case when I saw Pablo Sandoval in San Jose. He was the Little Giants’ starting catcher in 2008 and wasn’t considered a top-flight prospect. But anyone who saw him hit that spring would’ve been convinced: he squared up everything, OPSed more than 1.000 in 68 games, and played the game with infectious joy and intensity. You didn’t have to own a radar gun or a stopwatch to see that this kid was special. Three years later, he was an All-Star. Maybe it was on a technicality (his skipper selected him to replace the injured Placido Polanco), but that didn’t diminish the pride I felt when My Guy smacked an RBI double to help secure the National League’s second-straight Midsummer Classic victory.

I still regret not making that trip to Shea 30 years ago. John Entwistle and Joe Strummer are now gone, so I won’t have another opportunity to see the Clash, nor a reason to see the Who. I did get to see the Minutemen a couple of months before d. Boon died, and I saw the Smiths just weeks before they played their final show. I wasn’t smart; I was just lucky. I just showed up.

If you want a great story that will make your friends and relations jealous for decades to come, get out to some minor-league games or rock shows. Keep going to games (or shows) until you see something hilarious or awesome or terrible, and then go to some more. Go watch Jurickson Profar or Gerrit Cole or Francisco Lindor or the new buzzworthy band in your town. Find someone to dream on. I can’t guarantee that you’ll see the next great rock n’ roll band or the next MVP, but at least you’ll have seen some baseball games and rock bands. And that’s never a bad thing.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

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