Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Charlie Rocks -- My Kind of Outfielder

A few years back, I wrote a piece about UNC right fielder, Garrett Gore, and his amazing catch against Clemson. I entitled the piece "G" and included in it a description of the Clemson home run he brought back into the park.

Today, I read a news report from 100 years ago, May 26, 1913. I like it just as much as Garrett's catch.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Complicated Week of Scheduling (CWS)

Can there be a sporting event that requires more intricate planning to attend than the College World Series (CWS)?

The event takes place in the middle of nowhere, a.k.a., Omaha, over twelve days in June. Now, I’m not knocking Omaha. I personally think having the CWS there every year is the best decision the NCAA has ever made, though that, my friends, is the lowest of hurdles.

The NCAA makes the U.S. Congress look sane and competent in comparison.

Downtown Omaha is quite lovely, but I’m not sure the city can fill twelve days of between-game calendars with exciting activities. There’s a great zoo and then there’s. . .well. . .

The tournament format is part of the problem. The first part of the tournament, spanning a week, is a pair of double-elimination mini-tournaments that produce two ultimate winners. The final three days of the tournament, which will take place beginning June 24 in 2013, is a best-of-three series.

What’s the problem? Well, let’s start with the assumption that most people are not going to be willing to spend twelve days in Omaha watching a baseball tournament. More importantly, their wives are not going to tolerate it.

I have a couple of retired friends who went to the CWS three years ago. One called home after eight days and his wife asked, “Do you know how long you’ve been out there?”

“I don’t know, four days?” he responded.

As I said, he attended three years ago. He doesn’t seem enthusiastic about his chances of returning soon.

Given that twelve days are out of the question, one must then decide whether to attend the tourney early or late.

Now, the first week of the tournament has been described as a large party with eight teams and their accompanying fans. Restaurants and hotels are overwhelmed, as are flights into Omaha. If you attend early and participate in the bedlam, you will at least be assured of seeing your team play two games. Some teams will immediately lose two games and, for them, the party is over. Your stay in the heartland can be a brief one.

The number of teams dwindles as the week-and-a-half progresses so that by the final three days of the tournament there are only two teams. Of 16 hopeful teams that entered the tournament, 14 have been sent home, along with all their rowdy fans. That frees up a lot of restaurants, flights and hotels, but Omaha takes on a kind of “after Labor Day” feeling.

Still, if you’re set on seeing the finals, that’s a good thing. The next challenge is the best-of-three final series. Sometimes it goes two games, sometimes three. Omaha can be a long haul to see two baseball games and it’s much longer if your team loses both of them.

Return flights are also a quandary. You can book a flight back after two games and take a chance on missing the actual National Championship game, or you can book flights assuming there will be three games. In the latter case, you will twiddle your thumbs in Omaha (the zoo, again) for an extra day if the tourney finishes in two games, unless you can scrounge up a seat on an early flight out, for which a lot of your fellow fans will be competing.

Booking travel for the finals, of course, is a bet that your team will make the finals.

Or you can do what I did last year. Decide that you want to see a National Baseball Championship before you die and plan to go whether your team is there or not.

Last year, I thought I had an ace in the hole. Both my alma mater, the University of Kentucky, and my adopted baseball team, the University of North Carolina, looked like they’d play in the CWS. The odds were, I reasoned, quite good that at least one of them would make it.

Both lost the last game of their respective Super Regional.

I got to watch South Carolina and Arizona play in the finals.

As Robert Burns said, “The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men gang aft agley.”

Sunday, May 26, 2013

39 Years of Marriage and a Baseball Game

The ACC baseball tournament this year was a wild affair, at least for Carolina fans.

The Heels beat Miami 10-0 in the first game on Thursday afternoon that ended in a Mercy Rule invocation in the eighth inning. What an easy start. The toughest part of the game was finding parking near the stadium on a workday when most of the parking was already taken by, I don’t know, people who aren’t retired and still work, I suppose.

I ended up on the top level of a high rise parking structure a few blocks from Durham Bulls Park. When I returned, it took 28 minutes to exit the structure and I swore I would plan better in the future.

On Friday evening, we played Clemson in a game that everyone knew from the get-go was meaningless. Everyone knew it was meaningless, but no one knew why. That’s the great thing about college baseball tournaments. They use weird formats that fans don’t understand, frequently involving some permutation of a round-robin or double-elimination format.

Completely confused, most fans just follow the crowd to whatever game their team might be playing. I heard countless conversations on the concourse involving fans trying to explain the tournament to one another. None looked satisfied.

I didn’t bother to figure out the logic of the Clemson game (I just followed the crowd), but I suspect that the number of wins and losses for the contestants combined with head-to-head records led one to the undeniable truth that, regardless of who won the UNC-Clemson game, the winner of the UNC-NC State game on Saturday night would play Virginia Tech in the finals.

I was nearly as confused by the Diamond Heels coaching staff’s decision to pitch our second best pitcher in a game that didn’t matter, but pitch he did.

The Clemson game went on for 14 innings and ended about 1 a.m. The evening was unseasonably cool and while many fans left early, many of those who remained were under blankets. The rest of us just cheered and shivered.

Carolina entered the top of the ninth inning down 7-2. I remarked to a fellow UNC fan that you know you’re having a good year when you enter the top of the ninth five runs down and feel like you still have a shot at winning. About five minutes later, Brian Holberton crushed a 3-run homer that tied the game. We won 12-7 in the 14th inning.

Things went from bad to worse on Saturday night when the Tar Heels needed 18 innings to beat NC State 2-1. NC State pitcher Carlos Rodon pitched a masterful 1-hit game for ten innings . . . and lost.

Saturday was my wedding anniversary, so I stayed home and watched the game on Fox Sports. I got to sleep after 2:00.

Tar Heel fans were Zombies for the Virginia Tech game on Sunday, and who could blame them? Still, they managed to cheer their team on (uncharacteristically quietly, I should add) to win the ACC Tournament 4-1.

The Tar Heels had played three of their last two games (you read that right) but they were completely out of pitchers for the championship game with the Hokies.

Walking into the stadium, I started a conversation with a Hokie fan.

“I have no earthly idea who we’re pitching today. I can’t think of anyone we haven’t used over the past three days”, I told him.

“Oh, I know,” he replied, “they announced it. Can’t think of the kid’s name, but it sounds like a porn star.”

A porn star? I though a few seconds.

“Surely not Taylore Cherry!” I said.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“It can’t be,” I argued. “He’s a freshman who hasn’t thrown three innings all year.”

That turned out to be a slight exaggeration. He had thrown exactly three innings all year, had a record of 0-0 and an ERA over 13. Still, the youngster threw 5 innings without giving up a single run. He got a huge ovation when he picked up his trophy.

Cherry is about 6’ 7” and 270 pounds, as I recall. Standing in the dugout, he looks bigger than the two players on either side of him combined.

Cherry has no pitching motion, yet, though I’m sure Scott Forbes will fix that. He just rears back and throws the ball past hitters using nothing but biceps.

If Taylore ever integrates a leg kick and a hip snap into his motion, he will throw a 300 mile per hour fast ball. Cherry left the game with a 1-0 lead and got the win.

Go Heels. Now, could I have a cup of coffee? Make that a red eye.

The Virginia Tech game lasted 8 ½ innings. I couldn’t help but think how 9 innings is really a great length for a baseball game.

My wife, bless her heart, has been planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and Four Corners area for nearly a year. It’s a Bucket List thing. She somehow managed to book reservations for precisely the 11 days that would preclude me from seeing the Regionals or Super-Regionals, so today was my last baseball game for 2013. Unless, of course, I go to the CWS in Omaha, which is still a possibility.

Tomorrow I will unpack my baseball backpack, the one I leave by the door for fast getaways on game days. The inflatable seat cushion from Eddie Bauer, the scorebook and mechanical pencil, the bifocal sunglasses (so I can see the game and the scorebook) and the small flashlight I use to walk home from night games will all go to their storage spot until next February.

Heck, I’ll probably even clean out the last few kernels of popcorn that my buddy, Elliot, spilled into my backpack on opening day.

I’m not upset about missing these two tournaments and if I were I wouldn’t tell a soul. That was my 39th anniversary I mentioned on Saturday evening and I haven’t stayed married for 39 years by being a damned fool.

My wife told me that it would be OK to go to Saturday night’s game after I took her out for a celebratory anniversary dinner. Ha! I’ve been married way too long to fall for that one.

I did, however, end up following the 18th inning of the State game on Twitter at 2 a.m. with my iPhone held under the blankets to block the light.

Besides, would you seriously rather go to your fortieth baseball game of the season than visit the Grand Canyon???

Yeah, me, too, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Suck it up and head west, young man.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Carolina Diamond Heels' Ridiculous Season

UNC's Diamond Heels have played 47 games.

And lost four.

It takes a minute or two to let that sink in. It's ridiculous for a baseball record. Heck, most teams are capable of losing three games in a single weekend.

They've outscored their opponents 416 to 130. Also ridiculous. And much of this without freshman phenom Skye Bolt, who broke a metatarsal several weeks back. Rumor at the Bosh last night was that he'll play again soon.

The Diamond Heels beat James Madison 9-5 last night in the first of a two-game series. They'll be back at the Bosh tonight, as will I.

It was chilly last night by May standards in Chapel Hill. The temperature wasn't bad, but there was a fairly strong, cool breeze hitting the stands. Strangely, the outfield flags didn't move much.

The Heels took a 7-0 lead into the 7th inning and it looked like we'd cruise. Hobbs Johnson pitched well for five innings, allowing just one hit but giving up five walks.

I think deep baseball thoughts when we get a big lead, like, "Who has the coolest baseball name, Hobbs Johnson or Skye Bolt?"

But then our bullpen happened and we got tagged for 5 runs in the top of the 7th inning on 2 hits, a wild pitch and 4 walks. When the relievers come on, we frequently have an adventure.

Just a few years back, I watched Matt Harvey pitch for the Heels. Last night, word quickly spread through the stands that Harvey was perfect through 6 innings against the White Sox. A few minutes later, we heard he had given up a hit, but it was the only one. He allowed one Chicago baserunner all night.

Part of the fun of watching college baseball is seeing players like Harvey (Mets), Dustin Ackley (Mariners), Kyle Seager (Mariners), Tim "FedEx" Federowicz (Dodgers), and Alex White (Astros) make it in the Bigs. It's even fun to watch opposing players like Buster Posey (Giants), who played for Florida State when they visited the Boshamer Stadium.

Carolina fills the Majors like UK fills the NBA.

Best of all, I got rock star parking by the Bosh front gate last night. (Campus is emptying out after finals.)  I think I've driven to three of our 34 home games so far, but there were t-storms in the forecast last night, so I drove. Fortunately, all we got was this amazing rainbow.

College baseball beats the hell out of sitting home on a Tuesday night, in my humble opinion, even if you're watching a game on the tube.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Baseball, Dylan and the Queen of Hearts

Baseball is the "yes, but. . ." sport.

I had the pleasure of meeting the nicest young couple from Raleigh at a UNC baseball game last week. They had both attended the University of St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland. She came back to Raleigh after graduation and soon decided she couldn’t live without him so she just went to Ireland and got him.

He didn't put up a fight.

I love Southern women.

They were an adorable couple, I’ll call them Dylan and Allison.

Dylan grew up in Northern Ireland. Allison is a North Carolinian. He told me his favorite sports growing up were rugby and Formula One racing.

(Formula One is very big all over Europe and now Texas, two places with absolutely nothing else in common.)

Dylan knew almost nothing about baseball and he wanted me to explain the game in detail as it progressed.

“Three strikes and the batter is out?” Dylan asked.


“How do they decide when the other team gets to bat?”

“Each team bats until they get three outs,” I explained.

“And they play for 9 innings?” 

“Yes, but. . . if the home team is ahead after the top of the ninth inning, they only play 8 ½ innings. And if the game is tied, they keep playing complete innings until the winner is decided. In the Super Regionals last year, Kentucky and Kent State played 21 innings.”

A UNC player fouled off a pitch.

“So,” Dylan asked, “a foul ball counts as a strike?”

“Yes, but not if it’s the third strike. With two strikes you can foul off pitches for hours and not strike out.”

He nodded and smiled and you could see the information being filed away.

A Maryland player swung at strike three but the ball got past the catcher and rolled all the way to the wall. The hitter ran to first and made it before the catcher could throw him out.

“What just happened?” Dylan asked. “That was strike three. Why is the batter not out?”

“If the catcher doesn’t cleanly field the pitch after strike three with two outs, the batter can run to first unless the catcher throws him out.”

“So three strikes aren’t always a strikeout?”

“Yes, it’s a strikeout in the record book, but the batter can also reach base after striking out.”


“Yes, but not if there is already a runner on first base, because previous base runners can’t advance on the play.”

“It’s complicated,” I tell him.

The answer is actually the same reasoning as the infield fly rule. Without the rule, the defense could intentionally drop a ball and force a double play. I imagined explaining the infield fly rule and quickly came to the conclusion that doing so might lose Dylan as a potential baseball fan forever.

Besides, he seemed happy with “it’s complicated”.

“You know, I feel like I can’t really be at a baseball game unless I get a hot dog and a beer.”

“Yes, but you can't buy beer here at the stadium.”

“You’re kidding, right? Europeans always think of Americans as sitting in the sun, watching a baseball game, eating a hot dog and drinking a beer. You can’t buy a beer?”

“Not here,” I tell him. “It’s an ACC rule. You can buy beer at Durham Bulls games, though. And my school is in the Southeastern Conference. In the SEC, if you show up at a football game and you aren’t already drunk, they won’t let you in.”

"Can the coaches substitute players?"

"Yes, but unlike other sports, once a player is substituted for, he can't come back into the game." 

Dylan returned about 10 minutes later with a hot dog, looking very proud of himself even without a brew.

In the middle of the seventh inning, we stood up to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Dylan was quite impressed.

“It doesn’t strike you as strange that the entire stadium would stand up and sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame at every game in the middle of the seventh inning?” I asked.

He looked into the distance with an expression of deep thought.
“I suppose,” he replied, “it’s because they really like baseball?”

“Yes, but. . . they’re already at a ballgame.”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Singing at the Ball Game

After the first half of the seventh inning of every baseball game (the “stretch”) from the college level up, fans stand up and sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Some find it peculiar that we only sing this song when we’re already at a ballgame, still nearly everyone in the park sings it.

Baseball is nothing if not traditional.

People who wouldn’t be caught dead singing anywhere else in public sing it. People who can’t sing sing it. People who sing well sing it loudly to show off, but we all sing it.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game was written by Jack Norworth in 1908. He also wrote Shine On, Harvest Moon. He wrote an updated version in 1927, but the plot is the same. A guy asks Katie out on a date but she'll only go if he takes her to a ball game. (My kinda gal.)

The part we actually sing at the stretch is the chorus:

Nelly Kelly love baseball games,
Knew the players, knew all their names,
You could see her there ev'ry day,
Shout "Hurray," when they'd play.
Her boy friend by the name of Joe
Said, "To Coney Isle, dear, let's go,"
Then Nelly started to fret and pout,
And to him I heard her shout.

"Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don't care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game."

Nelly Kelly was sure some fan,
She would root just like any man,
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along, good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Nelly Kelly knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song.

"Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don't care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strike
s, you're out,
At the old ball game."
There are two common modifications of the lyrics at the ballpark. First, a small part of the crowd always wants to change “Let me root, root, root for the home team” to “root for the Tar Heels” or “root for the Wildcats”. And second, no one ever sings “cracker jack”. They always make it plural.

About half the crowd sings “ever get back” instead of “never get back”, but that’s a nit.

UNC’s Boshamer Stadium has a cool additional tradition. After every game, as the fans are leaving the stadium, they play James Taylor’s Carolina In My Mind on the PA system.

If you want to sing at a ball game at any time other than these two, that's cool. 

But please don't sit near me.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Last Night's Loss Sucked

I was pretty disappointed with the outcome of our game last night. My college classmates will assume I’m talking about UK’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC basketball tournament, but I was at a baseball game.

I did follow the UK game on Twitter from the stands, but it wasn’t televised here and I doubt if I would’ve stayed home to watch it if it had been. I kinda lost my appetite for college basketball this season when I saw the photos of Nerlens Noel’s knee dangling 90° in an unnatural direction. (And, no, I want give you a link to it.)

It’s a little like finding a dead bug in your chili, I suppose. Not that I ever have, mind you. But I imagine it would take some time to face a bowl of chili again and I think I’m gonna spend this spring watching baseball until I get my appetite for hardwood back.

It’s just not possible to have a perfect season in college baseball — to my knowledge it’s never been done in NCAA Division I baseball — but after starting the season with 16 straight wins as UNC has done, that first loss is still a shock to a fella’s system.

Carolina fell to Miami last night 4-1 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill and is now 16-1 on the season. Second game of the series is tomorrow evening.

I made it to the game early enough to see batting practice, but that was a mixed blessing. It was cold and getting there early also meant nearly four hours in the stands instead of three, with a half-hour walk home in the dark afterwards.

OK, cold-ish. It was 60° at game time and it fell to 50° by the time I left the stadium, but a mean breeze blew in from center field and made it feel colder. And we are, after all, Southerners with low tolerance for winter to begin with.

I found a concession stand selling coffee, a rare occurrence at the Bosh, and decided to buy a cup to stay warm. The young lady told me to be careful because the coffee was extremely hot.

It wasn’t.

I paid four bucks for a cup of joe. I’m not talking about a mocha frappacino double pump latte espresso dopio. I’m talking four bucks for a plain, tepid cup of coffee.

Capitalism loves nothing more than a captive audience.

It wasn’t a terribly exciting game. Carolina had 7 hits to Miami’s 9, but only a few were hit hard. A lot of bloopers, seeing-eye singles and two Carolina errors. Miami scored once on a blooper that fell a foot behind the first baseman’s glove and about an eighth inch inside the foul line.

One of those errors was charged to the second baseman. The pitcher got a glove on a line drive and knocked it down. It slowly dribbled out toward second. The second baseman made a huge effort to get to the ball but his throw dragged the first baseman off the bag. That’s a routine play and for his efforts he gets an E? That’s just wrong.

Still, Miami was able to play enough small ball to get ahead and then to stay ahead with some excellent pitching. It was a workman-like victory.

By 9:00, a crowd of 1,000 had dwindled down to a couple of hundred. Much of the crowd was following the Duke-Maryland basketball game and you could feel the excitement from the baseball crowd when the Terps won.  Sometimes around here it feels like a Duke loss is better than a Carolina win.

By 9:30 you knew who the real baseball fans were. Carolina played Florida State in the SEC basketball tournament at 9:30 and, this being Carolina, most of the remaining fans had drifted off home to their TV sets. It didn’t help that UNC squandered a couple of big hits and then a bottom of the ninth comeback from that 4-1 lead looked doubtful.

Still, there were a hundred or so fans that refused to leave until Brian Holbertson grounded out to Miami’s first baseman to end the game.

It’s amazing how much hope you can put into that final out.