Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ambiance of Summer

Although I haven’t written much about them since my January 8 post, I’m a huge, lifelong Atlanta Braves fan. I was a fan in 1977 when they lost 101 games. I was a fan in 1988 when they lost 106 games. I damn sure was a fan when they won 14 consecutive division championships. A record.

The beauty of baseball is that it is in a sense timeless. A game could theoretically never end. There is no sudden death in a traditional game of ball. While timeless it is also seamless. The present connects very comfortably with the past. Despite various changes that are mostly meaningless to non-baseball fans, the
1919 Chicago White Sox can be compared with the Big Red Machine. The Braves of 1914 are comparable to the Braves of 1995 on many levels even though the way the game is played is very different, even the ball is very different.

The instinctive, divisive love or hate of the
New York Yankees was earned by that team with its success through time. Like them or not, they are by far the most successful team in winning championships ever in baseball history, through time. The love and hate is in the Now but the reason for it extends backwards beyond you.

When you talk baseball with another fan you naturally drift around in time. Skipping freely from one humorous story or statistical fact or great play to another, often hop-scotching through decades of time. A magnificent catch 50 years ago can be put side-by-side with a magnificent catch this Saturday afternoon. The double-play combination of
Tinkers to Evers to Chance still measures up today. Timely homeruns are comparable no matter what baseball era you choose. Babe Ruth allegedly pointing his bat to the fence before hitting a home run can be placed side-by-side (if it happened that is) with Hank Aaron’s 715th homer. Pitchers with great curveballs are universally connected in conversation because a curveball is still a curveball.

Then there’s another sense of time in baseball. The passage of time during a single season of ball. I differ from many fans in that the season no longer interests me so much at spring training or in April and May. I’m more of an August man. I follow the Braves every day during the season but let me see what’s cooking in August and then I’ll start checking out the various teams and players more carefully.

During the course of a given season you tend to naturally drift around in time when approaching baseball as an aesthetic experience. Your conversation drifts off to routine daily matters, family occurrences, mundane wonders of your private life shared with family and friends. Meanwhile baseball continues on and on through the summer, always in the background. The game fits comfortably into the pace of life, as you choose.

In fact, a game of ball (while exciting to watch) slows down the hectic life we all live so that the threads of conversation get intermingled with the game itself. For me in August life becomes inseparable with the daily happenings of your team of choice. It’s an extension of who you are…your work, your family, your friendships, your chores, your need to watch or listen to a game play out in the background as you attend to other matters.

But, of course, you always stop whatever you’re doing when something significant is happening in the game in the background. You need a strike out or a ground ball. You need that clutch 2 out hit to tie the game or possibly take the lead. Background becomes foreground.

In those moments, if you’re really tuned in to it, the game is all there is.

All this longevity and basic connectivity to our mundane lives over the course of a season gives baseball a unique feel. It is not as fleeting or fragmented as a great moment in football or basketball. The moment still exists. It is in the ambiance of time rather than space that true baseball resides.

I am 19 or 20 and reading a paperback of
Stephen King’s most recent novel, The Stand. In the background I am listening to the Atlanta Braves games on the radio. I am fascinated with the many well developed characters of King’s novel. Ernie Johnson is doing the play-by-play. The Braves are probably losing. Someone like Rick Matula is probably pitching, if he hasn’t already been knocked out of the game.

I am a child, yelling bright and loud at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as the Braves turn a very complex triple play in the first inning of a game they
will lose to the Chicago Cubs 2-1. (Read the game log of the first inning triple play at the link.) It is 1969. The Braves will win the Western Division title later that season. My mother is sitting next to me and gives me a great big hug. She is a fan and, like me, has never seen a triple play. I am wearing a Braves little league uniform and carrying my glove at the stadium. I am so happy.

I am at
the fifth game of the 1991 NLCS with my boss. I am the marketing manager for an Atlanta-based national financial software developer. My boss is a huge baseball fan. Someone who has met Roger Maris, someone who really enjoys seeing the Braves play so well. They lose that game. We end up driving over a steep curb in my boss’ luxury Lexus after the game to avoid traffic congestion. I am dejected while he is upbeat. “Come on Keith, we can win two in a row in Pittsburgh.” I doubt it. But we did it to win the National League Championship.

Mark Wohlers gets Carlos Baerga to fly out to Marquis Grissom and Tom Glavine wins the sixth game of the 1995 World Series. The Atlanta Braves are World Champions. Big thanks to David Justice. My daughter is only a few months old. I never thought I’d see it happen. Yet, it is somehow not as much fun as losing the Series was to Minnesota in 1991.

That
Miracle Season was a phenomenon. It had a fun, karmic aura encompassing the entire metropolitan area of Atlanta. I was living and working in Atlanta. It was sensational to be a part of it. Jennifer and I got to see Glavine pitch and win the fifth game of the 1991 Series. He really didn't pitch that well that night but the Braves bats were awesome. The atmosphere was so exciting, youthful and pure.

It reminds me of my childhood, of Stephen King, of Atlanta with my boss and myself still newly married. All that is connected not in space but in time to baseball.

When the
katydids first start, just as the lightning bugs begin to rise plentifully from my front yard at twilight, baseball is just getting interesting. This year the Braves haven’t shown much offense but their pitching is really excellent for the most part. You can win big games with nothing but pitching. The Braves are still a long way behind the Phillies right now. But, I love to watch a well-pitched game by Jair Jurrjens or Dereck Lowe or this new kid Hanson. (For the first time in high definition this year.) I like the Braves as a team, their defense is excellent, I just wish they would hit more for Bobby Cox.

Part of being a baseball fan is rooting for your favorite players. I love rooting for young pitchers before they are great. I pulled for
Buzz Capra but he got injured. I pulled for Pascual Perez but he didn’t really have much of a work ethic. I pulled for Tom Glavine (who had a terrific work ethic) but he was traded to the Damn Mets. Jesus that was tough.

Today I root for
Brian McCann and Jurrjens. I could root for Hanson because he's new and inexperienced but so talented. Hell, I already am rooting for him.

And I root for the one-season wonders with the Rome Braves. I follow the Rome team as closely if not closer than the Atlanta team these days. Rome, like Atlanta, has no hitting this year but they have two interesting pitchers.
Zeke Spruill started the South Atlantic League All-Star game this year. In 106 innings pitched he’s only walked 21 batters. He usually doesn’t hurt himself. J.J. Hoover is the other pitcher to watch in Rome this year. He started the season as a middle reliever but has come on strong as a starter with an awesome 101 strikeouts to a mere 14 walks in 92 innings. 6 to 1 strike-out to walk ratio. Worth watching.

Minor League Baseball is great fun. I love to see the future stars in play within the context of human, steriod-less athleticism. I saw
Martin Prado play in Rome in 2004. He’s having a great season in 2009 with Atlanta.

The
2003 Rome team was loaded with talent and won the League Championship during its very first year in Rome. That was a lot of fun to participate in. I’d rank it up there with several other great seasons of fun baseball I've known. Certainly, the highlight of my minor league fandom.

I took my mother in 2003 to watch
Kyle Davies pitch on that Rome team. Davies was latter good enough to offer in trade. I also saw Blaine Boyer, Anthony Lerew, and Dan Meyer (later traded for Tim Hudson) in the 2003 season.

Brain McCann and Jeff Francoeur were the big bats on that team. Jennifer and I saw Francoeur hit his first home run for Rome on a bright chilly and clear early April night in 2003. A solid drive deep over the left field fence. It was as special in a way several homer runs I’ve seen in my lifetime are special.

Thusly is baseball forever comparable. Which is why strikes and steroid abuse are so wrong. They disrupt the fundamental, comparable nature of the game.

So, here we are approaching another August. Rome doesn’t have much of team this year other than the couple of pitchers I mentioned.
Atlanta is a long-shot, but might have a solid shot at the Damn wild card. Those pitchers need early leads to work with. If the Braves get their starting pitchers a one or two run lead by the fourth inning, the pitching’s solid enough to carry them a long way.

Too early to tell. And, like I said, Philly is way out in front as of today. But, the 1914 Boston Braves won 60 of their last 73 games. They went 60-13. Think about that. On June 8, 1914, they were 13.5 games out of first place. But
they ended up sweeping the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series - the first Series sweep in history. They were an unstoppable race horse.

As of today, Atlanta is 8 back in the loss column. We play the Phillies 9 more times this season.

So there’s hope.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lift-off...for now

A major, glaringly obvious Dow Theory confirmation today by both the Dow and the Transports. The Dow took out its most recent highest high (8,799 on June 12) to close at 9,069. The Transports surpassed their previous high (3,399 on June 11) to close at 3,506. This represents a strong 38.5% rise from the March lows. Richard Russell took the bear off his site today and replaced it with a bull. The growing chorus is that this market is going higher, time to leverage in.

There is no more forceful kind of Dow Theory confirmation than when both averages exceed their previous highs on the same day. That's what happened today. The next target level is probably 9,600 for the Dow. Above that we're looking at over 11,000.

But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Russell still points out on his site tonight that this is probably not a new bull market. He doubts that a 27-year (1982-2007) bull market can be "corrected" by a two-year bear market.
There's a good chance the Great Recession isn't over yet.

From a purely technical perspective, the
RSI on the Dow is at a very high 71. Rarely does the market continue to rise without at least a temporary pause when such
an important technical indicator is starting to say "overvalued". My personal feeling is that a breather is coming soon. Most likely, the rise will continue after some sort of brief interruption.

Be that as it may, I can breathe a sigh of relief (after sweating bullets) that my
DIA position (which is now larger than 15% of my portfolio) is making money after such a disastrous bear market drop. I may find the Great Recession historically stimulating but I'd really rather make money.

Nevertheless, I don't plan to get too greedy. A fellow manager at work sent me a "freebie" tip from
Jeff Cooper, who seems to often agree with what I read from Richard Russell, but who uses the S&P as his basis for analysis. Cooper also offers a great deal more technical analysis - in that regard he's more like Jack Schannep. Anyway, Cooper's piece today is entitled "Seven Reasons Not to Trust the Bull Market." Fascinating stuff.

Cooper has been amazing in his accuracy this year. He predicted the March lows back in January. He predicted another low later this year. Presently, his position seems to be that we could have a "blow-off" bear-market rally where the averages really get out of hand (the S&P may top 1,100, for example). If that happens there could well be
another drastic downturn.

That would be consistent with what Russell says happened during the 1966-1974 bear market. Several tempting bull rallies occurred but each was always a disappointment. I think that's what is shaping up this time.
Buy-and-hold has worked out just fine through the recent swoon - by the skin of my teeth. I plan to sell before October.

Amazing how quickly that beach vacation wore off.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Twelve-mile Stare

Last week my family took its annual beach trip down to Destin, FL. Actually, it’s just a semi-annual trip for me. My wife and daughter go every year, but the beach isn't really my thing (I'm much more of a mountain kinda guy) so I usually work in a trip with them every other summer.

When I go to the beach I settle into a general routine. I rise early, make coffee, have my first cup down near the beach at the gazebo of the condo complex, watch the tan, shiny muscular dudes get out all the umbrellas and beach chairs. I watch the waves and eye the colors of the vast ocean.

By the second cup Jennifer is up and we share coffee on the beach. After that I usually change clothes at the condo, take a dip in the ocean, and walk about a mile on the beach before things get too crowded. Then I refresh myself with a in condo complex's pool. I swim 2 or 3 laps, nothing major.

By now everyone else is up, the beach is becoming more crowded. I retreat to the condo to read and have lunch. I usually read several hours in the afternoon, this time whilst drinking Grolsch beers.

Reading is a big part of my beach vacation. It seems many others feel likewise. Most of them seem to like to read on the beach. At first glance anyway. During my routine late afternoon stroll on the beach, before the big crowd really starts to disperse, I observe how many of my temporary, fellow beach-dwellers are reading. Or appearing to read.

Some actually are reading. Others sit with their chin in their chest asleep, the book or magazine unconsciously held in place. But, many times, the readers, and particularly the vast number of non-readers, are simply staring out into the surf, toward the distant horizon.

Next time you're at the beach, notice how many people, including possibly yourself, have the twelve-mile stare.

The curvature of the earth is such that at sea level your vision is limited to about twelve miles. Beyond that the surface of the ocean angles downward all the way around, following the circle of the globe. Throughout life, people stare at lots of things in lots of places but at the beach the approximate twelve-mile stare rules.

I guess it is a way of emptying yourself of thought and worry. Time passes without you realizing it. Like mowing, or working or a project you are particularly captivated by, or meditation, the twelve-mile stare gradually becomes less conscious, less thoughtful, reflecting more of nothing the more time you have on the beach.

Jennifer often measures the enjoyment of her beach vacation by how much staring time she actually gets in. Just sitting there, watching the waves, feeling the heat and the breeze, listening to the lap of the ocean and the random mixture of sounds from her hundreds of temporary fellow beach-dwellers. The more the stare takes hold of her the more she forgets who she is, the more relaxed she becomes, the more contented she is with time spent on the beach.

My reading choice two years ago was Swann's Way and the beach trip turned out to be the start point for my present fascination with Proust. I've posted on that before. This year my reading choice was a bit more modest and, perhaps, inappropriate for most summertime beach-type reading.

Gunter Grass wrote Crabwalk in 2002. As such, it is the first novel I have read that was written in the 21st century. (The english translation of Milan Kundera's Ignorance dates from 2002 but that novel was originally written in French in 2000 which means Kundera technically wrote it in the last century.) I don't read a lot of fiction and what I do read tends toward a "classic" nature. But, the subject of Crabwalk has fascinated me for several years. So, I took advantage of Grass's noble prize caliber writing style, to experience his personal investigation of this actual historical moment in the trappings of a novel.

Crabwalk deals with the worst maritime disaster in world history, yet almost no one knows of this disaster. It occurred in January 1945 to a bunch of Germans and Nazi's. So, by the fickle ways of whatever might be deemed historically relevant, that makes it unworthy of remembrance I suppose.

The disaster was the sinking of the one-time luxury cruise ship Whilhelm Gustloff by a Soviet submarine off the coast of Poland. No one knows how many passengers actually died in the tragic event because no one knows exactly how many people were on board. The Germans were fleeing the Soviet armies as they poured into the Third Reich, literally raping and pillaging as they came, intent upon exacting revenge on the Nazi's for the horrors inflicted upon Soviet Russia during almost four years of Nazi occupation.

Various former "Strength through Joy" cruising ships and other assorted vessels transferred about 2 million panicking Germans from the Baltic ports to safer ports inside Germany as the front collapsed and revenge raged. The Whilhelm Gustloff carried between 8,000 and 11,000 passengers. It was designed to accommodate about 2,000 passengers but these were desperate times. There were some wounded soldiers on board, maybe 1,500, plus another 1,000 trainees for the Nazi U-Boat program. The rest were mostly refugees.

Only a few hundred survived.

Grass weaves the history of his story with fictional characters, mostly involved with a chat room of a web site on the internet run by a neo-Nazi desiring to commemorate the tragic loss of civilian life to the hands of a Soviet submarine. The primary character is the narrator, whose pregnant mother was on the ship at the time of its sinking, and who survived the tragedy, was rescued, giving birth to the narrator exactly as the ship sank to the death cries of so many thousands in the frigid waters. The narrator's son is prominent, along with his grandmother, the narrator’s mother. It’s typical stuff in some ways.

But the historical threads are very strong throughout the novel. Grass spends a great deal of time "crabwalking" through history; that is, moving sideways in order to move forward, expressing how history so often requires a non-linear approach to be fully told. The historical aspects of the novel deal with the Jew who assassinated the man, a rather mundane Nazi Party member, for whom the ship was named, the Soviet submarine captain and his constant bouts with heavy drinking when not at sea, and, finally, the ship itself from construction through pleasure cruises and into war uses, mostly as a four-month facility for the basic training of the German U-boat cadre.

To no small extent, the novel by Grass is an attempt by someone who fought in the Wehrmacht, specifically as an SS soldier, to deal with the collective guilt of the German nation that Albert Speer so vividly embraced in order to save himself. To this day Germans grapple with their guilt for the Holocaust and Nazism, much like the prideful Japanese grapple with their defeat in the Pacific War, or the descendents of the Southern Confederacy grapple with their sense of guilt still. I do at least, but my sense of honor overweighs (but in no way weakens) guilt where this is concerned. I am an unabashed, contradictory Southern Man.

The tragic night is expressed in exacting detail. I will cover how Grass presents history in a later post. Suffice it to say estimates are that somewhere between 7,000 - 9,000 human beings, perhaps a majority of them children, perished in this one disaster.

So, like I said, perhaps this ain't the stuff that most people would care to read at the beach. For me it was good enough, engaging, well-written, and certainly wasn't the light-weight drivel most people seem to prefer if they can manage to escape the clutches of the twelve-mile stare.

I read this stuff because truth is always stranger, and even more metaphysical, than any fiction. You cannot create the circumstances for the suspension of disbelief sufficient enough to give the meaning to your life that the open belief in historical fact can bring.

And those Grolsch’s weren’t too bad either.

As a back-up I usually take a second book, a second source of reading entertainment, and this beach trip was no exception. My back-up after I tore through the Grass novel, which in fact I had halfway finished before we ever left for the beach to begin with, was Shunryu Suzuki's Not Always So, transcriptions of talks by a Zen master.

I have followed Suzuki's excellent insights since Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In that book he tells us that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the master’s mind there are few. Still, it is a celebration of what beginner’s mind offers the spiritual experience.

At the beach I read the following: “So it is not a matter of what you study, but a matter of seeing things as it is, and accepting things as it is.” (page 73, editor's emphasis) The book’s American editor, one of Suzuki’s closest disciples, was at first not certain whether Suzuki was speaking profoundly or just using bad English. But Suzuki meant what he said.

Things as it is. That’s the secret, the backdoor into the twelve-mile stare. In that moment, you are completely yourself, and the beach and the wind and the sun and the curve the oceanic horizon are just the space that you empty into. This year, into the most brilliant colors and clarity. Marvelous to behold.



Monday, July 13, 2009

OOTPing

For about four years I have been a fan of a computerized baseball simulator known as Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP). Recently, version 10 of the software was released and I have spent a good deal of time tinkering with it.

OOTP allows you create a fictional baseball universe that behaves just as sophisticatedly as real major league baseball. This is largely a traditional “text based” baseball simulator, not as graphically intense as, say, Baseball Mogul . OOTP generates literally hundreds of surprisingly sophisticated and varied newspaper stories on the games played, injuries that happens, contracts that are signed. All in a fictionalized baseball reality of your design. A truly “world” baseball league could be created. For example, teams in Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, etc. could play with the United States and Canada in a format similar to the “World Cup” in international soccer.

Or you can use a third-party database to import historic players from any year and play out major league baseball in any of its various incarnations from 1871 to the present.

To the newbie, the system can be terribly intimidating to use in all its complex glory. You can play as a manager and/or as a general manager. You can receive scouting reports, negotiate contracts with players, place players on the trading block, etc. It is fun to take a terrible team and see how many seasons it takes you to build it into a winner – or to take a winning team and see how long you can profitably keep it on top.

As a manager, the game allows you to select line-ups based on statistical left-right splits, manage your pitching rotation, work around the inevitable injuries that take place during the course of the season, calling up minor league players. You can even manage a minor league team if you want.

Player development, player aging, the effects of better hitting and pitching coaches and much more are all taken into account. There are ratings for individual pitches that pitchers would throw (fastball, curveball, knuckleball, slider, etc.). Batters have ratings for contact, gap power, home run power, speed, bunting ability, fielding range, arm strength, proneness to injury, greed, and much more.

You can simulate a series of seasons, allowing the computer to pretty much manage things based on general manager and coaching definitions that you set up. I have created several versions of the History of Baseball 2.0 through the years using historic and fictional (game-generated) players. It is a fun way to learn about baseball history and to experience the game in its epic context.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can dive down into the individual game level. OOTP allows you to manage a game on a pitch-by-pitch basis. You can call for individual pitches, tell batters to swing or take pitches, decide whether or not to send runners, steal, bunt, play your infield in or back, substitute hitters in the line up against certain pitchers, just about anything a real manager would do.

So, in a nutshell, OOTP allows you to experience the game of baseball at just about any level from several decades of play down to the minutia of managing and playing out a specific game. It has more than satisfied my lifelong appetite for baseball, especially since the 1994 strike and the “steroid era” has put such a sour taste in my mouth for the present, largely pathetic entertainment industry (it is no longer a sport in the true sense of the word) known as Major League Baseball.

Of course I love to play with “what-ifs” and most of them have to do with my favorite team, the Atlanta Braves. What if Buzz Capra had not been injured in 1975 and his fabulous 1974 performance was just the beginning of a brilliant career? What if the Braves had not choked against the Damn Yankees in the 1996 World Series? What if Bob Horner had not been so injury-prone during the 1980’s?

Also, I enjoy looking at and comparing different teams throughout baseball history. You can look at the 1898 Boston Beaneaters (the team that later became the Boston Braves and moved to Milwaukee and Atlanta), 1906 Chicago Cubs, 1919 Chicago White Sox, 1927 Damn Yankees, 1939 Damn Yankees, 1948 Boston Braves, 1954 Cleveland Indians, 1969 New York Mets, 1975 Cincinnati Reds, 1989 Oakland Athletics, 1998 Damn Yankees, 2001 Seattle Mariners, etc.

You can compare the pitching abilities of Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Or the hitting prowess of Ty Cobb with Joe Jackson, Ted Williams with Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth with Hank Aaron, or Pete Rose with Tony Gwynn.

This sweeping look through all the eras and players that the OOTP game engine affords greatly augments the books and statistical guides I read that cause me to hold the game of baseball (rather than the business and merchandising of baseball) in such high appreciation.

Baseball is something else. It is the timeless pleasure through which our lives run like threads, connecting great moments in the Now with so much past glory. It happens as we converse about details of the day, swap stories, enjoying hot dogs and beer.

For all its numbers and ratings and statistics, OOTP is a tool for the aesthetics of that appreciation. If you get into managing games against the computer, you’ll find the computer is pretty good, though not brilliant and somewhat predictable, it still makes decent managerial decisions on an in-game basis.

What that means is that a walk-off home run is just as exciting or devastating as if it “really” happened because it happened in a game you were not only watching but managing. If that critical leftie-leftie matchup out of the bullpen ends up with the strikeout you will either feel elated or deflated depending on whether you were choosing the pitcher or the batter for that situation. There’s personal engagement, suspension of disbelief. It is fun.

I’m a Hank Aaron fan. As a point of interest in my play with OOTP, Barry Bonds never existed. (Read George Will’s outstanding piece about this asshole here. Bonds' shoe size increased from 10.5 to 13 after age 30. Come on.) Whenever he shows up in historical simulations I simply take advantage of my ability of be a baseball god in this game and edit Bonds’ player card. I give him some horrible career-ending injury before he can amount to a hill of beans.

What a wonderful world it would be. I love this game.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Swan '09


Up in the North Carolina mountains, not far from Tennessee, there’s a cabin near the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest that is isolated from the rest of the world. About 7-8 miles off the Cherohala Skyway as the crow flies, it offers about 20 acres of wild flower meadows surrounded by thick oaken forests. A nearby waterfall carries a stream past a cabin that was built 150 years ago. My dillo friends and I go there every summer.

Several summers ago this 400+ year old oak tree fell. We camped up there one year when the gigantic fallen tree took up most of our camping spaces on the ground. By the next summer it was all cleaned up. Considering the span of time, it was special that we got to see the great tree fall.

This year someone planted a fig tree at the base of the oak. Pretty but Jennifer says it doesn’t have a chance at this climate/altitude. Maybe global warming will help.

Two dillos perform Ashokan Farewell rather capably on the cabin’s porch.