Saturday, August 28, 2010

Deep in Chile: A Human Odyssey

A few weeks ago, when I first learned of the cave-in of a small mine in Chile, I didn’t really bother to pay that much attention. I figured any survivors were doomed and, in any case, it wasn’t that big of a disaster. Mines collapse somewhere in the world all the time. The recent floods in Pakistan were far worse in terms of the sheer size of the human scale.

But, meaningful "size" is not always just in terms of quantitative numbers and distances measured in many miles. Certain human qualities sometimes take on an enormous size in strict terms of human awareness and are measured in but a few hundred square feet.

In recent days, I have taken greater notice of events. It has become a heroic story in my mind, still unfolding. But, for me, it seems miraculous not only that anyone survived almost a half-mile down like that but that they managed to get to this particular location were they could be found. And then to have the animal instinct in the very higher human form to wait for two weeks in darkness.

I try to put myself in that perspective.

Studying events, it seems the area where 33 survivors (initially believed to be 34) could possibly have survived was detected rather quickly, within 24 hours or so of the mine’s collapse. The search efforts were aided by the fact that all the men made it into a specially constructed shelter designed to withstand such calamities (great computer-generated video of the shelter is included in this report).

No one was able to reach the miners to begin with or even confirm that they were alive. The initial reports said they “could” have made it to the shelter. There was no contact. Early efforts to reach where everyone thought the trapped miners might be were frustrated by further collapses within the mine. Wasting little time, Chilean relief workers began drilling at least nine holes from the surface within 3 days of the collapse aimed at reaching the supposed location of the trapped miners. The first of the drilled holes missed the shelter, however; by this time the miners (still uncontacted and conditions unknown) had been underground for 13 days.

This was a huge deal in Chile. The nation relies upon mining for much of its economy. So, even though it was a comparatively small mine involving some three dozen miners, it was politically impossible for Chilean President
Sebastian Pinera to remain out of his country. He canceled a foreign relations trip to Columbia.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rescue workers, the trapped miners kept their wits about them, organized themselves, and waited for help they were not sure was coming. They made one attempt to escape but it was unsuccessful. After that, it was just a matter of faith and hope, which is why I find the story so inspiring. Not only were the relief workers frantically attempting every possibility as quickly as they could, but the trapped miners
mustered extraordinary resiliency in a cramped and almost hopeless situation.

Relief workers did not know for sure there were any survivors until two weeks after the disaster when the trapped miners managed to send a note to the surface. Unitl then they kept working anyway...only on the desire to reach the safety chamber below.

Meanwhile, I try to imagine what was going on the minds of all these survivors down there with limited provisions and resources for those two weeks. Not knowing for sure if you’d be found. The miners worked as a team and kept their spirits up in the face of all that darkness and distance and silence. To be so focused in the face of that is the essence of inspired living, a story filled with humanity and hope.

As incredible as it is, the story of their very survival and discovery after two weeks trapped 2300 feet below the surface now shifts to
the superhuman effort to get them out of there. Keeping the spirits of the miners up is critical. As of today they do not know it will take up to four months to get them out of their confined but apparently secure space.

The miners have been encouraged through contact above to
sing songs and engage in other group activities to stabilize their collective mental state. A primary approach that is being attempted is to consider the miners as astronauts and NASA has been called in to assist with their well-being. Meanwhile, Chilean authorities are dealing with them as if they were inside a submarine on an extended voyage. Since there is no real precedent for miners surviving for months underground after a mine collapse, these metaphors help to frame the relief efforts from a psychological point of view. It seems the best way for the miners to frame their lives now is in terms of an odyssey.

The 33 miners are trapped in a 500 square foot space. It is 85 degrees down there. There is adequate but limited ventilation. There is no toilet. Obviously, a critical piece of that survival effort is communication between the miners and the world far above. On Friday, the miners were able to send video messages up for the first time.

These heroing images have a haunting quality in their silver, gray tones. But, after two weeks of existing pretty much on faith alone that they would be found by those above, they serve for me as a the symbol of unsentimental hope. They are down there. They are fighting the darkness, the isolation, the heat, the stench, the desire for freedom, the need for their friends and families, the challenge of just getting along in their cramped conditions. The images have a very distant quality to me. From a half-mile below us, humanity struggles and somewhat thrives.

Of all the images I've seen so far, nothing struck me more poignantly as that of the one at the top of this post. Viewers silhouetted against a miner's face on a giant screen. The many so distant from the isolated person depicted by that camera lowered a half-mile down.

This image is completely relevant for our times. In a sense we are all trapped in a collapsed world of comparative darkness. Our economic circumstances are uncertain. Our political situation is tense to say the least. The pressures of daily life in the form of money and power and, at times, the disorienting pace of change often saps our spirit. But, then I think of these 33 survivors; their physical plight mirroring the spiritual plight of the entire western world. Somehow, they have managed to keep it together. They have managed to be found. Now, they must manage the long wait to freedom. In a metaphysical sense, how is that different from any of us?

I think of them today, drawing inspiration from their incredible story. In my empathy for their condition and the agony of their families, I find an affirmation of Being that I want to claim for myself and convey to others. Is there anything more human than that?

Very Late Note: All miners were rescued on October 14. Safe and sound and ahead of schedule.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

We Lose, They Lose...Going Nowhere

These notes give you some idea of what kind of roller coaster ride baseball can be on a daily basis for a serious fan of the game. There are many highs and lows in the time frame presented. First, let’s go back to July 30. A great come from behind win for the Braves that is indicative of how this team can play when it gets its act together. Unfortunately, Martin Prado hurt himself on this play which resulted in 15 days on the disabled list.

Atlanta kind of struggled a bit going 7-5 after they won that game, then I started these little notes…looking back there is a sense of foreboding throughout them. Can we actually win the division in Bobby Cox’s final season? Lots of video highlights presented throughout.

Thursday, August 12 – Phillies rally for 8 runs against the Dodgers in the last two innings to beat them 10-9. A chance to gain a game in the loss column goes by. Phillies are second to the Braves in last at-bat wins.

Friday, August 13 – Braves win 1-0. Tim Hudson is making a great case of a Cy Young Award. 8 more shutout innings. Billy Wagner gets the save. No errors tonight. Brooks Conrad starts at third and basically secures the win for Hudson with the game’s only run – a massive home run to dead center. Conrad covered for the injured Chipper Jones very well tonight. Chipper brought out the line-up card to start the game. His last “official” act of 2010. He has surgery tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Mets beat the Phillies by the identical score of 1-0. The Braves are now three games up in the all-important loss column. Only bad news is the Braves were 0-9 with runners in scoring position. That needs to change. We continue to squander too many chances. The Braves recalled minor league third baseman Brandon Hicks from AAA Gwinnett to replace Chipper Jones. I doubt that he sees much action.

Saturday, August 14 – Lost to the Dodgers 2-1. Tough loss for Derek Lowe. We were 1 – 10 with runners in scoring position. Too many squandered opportunities and no clutch hits. This seems to be to common thread for the past few weeks. Before the all-star break the Braves were batting .249 as a team with runners in scoring position. Since the break we have batted only .160 in those situations. We are pitching good enough to win but won’t win the division like this. The Phillies beat the Mets so our lead is back down to just two games. We committed one error tonight.

Sunday, August 15 – Braves bats come up huge for a change in a 13-1 clubbing of the Dodgers. Jair Jurrjens pitched a great game. Infante had three hits, Troy Glaus homered which was good to see. We need Glaus to get hot again like he was in May - June. Rookie Jason Heyward sat out this game, he’s not 100%. No errors today. Prado is supposed to try playing a game or two at AAA before rejoining the team after injury. It will be nice to have him back if he comes back as a .300 plus hitter with some pop in his bat like he’s been all season.

Monday, August 16 – Braves win their 20th last at-bat game against the Dodgers 4-3. The Braves scored 3 runs in the bottom of ninth to win it. Melky Cabrera had the huge bases loaded single to drive in the tying and winning runs. Great celebration on the field. It is nice to see that the team enthusiasm is still high. The only bad thing was Tommy Hanson pitched another great game but got no decision. The Phillies were off tonight so we maintain our two game lead in the loss column.

Tuesday, August 17 – Mike Minor pitched very well in his second start and got the first win of his young major league career. Prado returned from the DL, playing third base as Bobby Cox decides to leave Omar Infante at second tonight. Prado didn’t miss a beat with three hits including a double that drove in two runs. Matt Diaz also had a double with two RBIs. Back to back big innings (four runs each) helped the Braves beat the lowly Washington Nationals 10-2. We need to sweep these guys. The Braves seem to be heating up at the right time. They have won 11 of their last 15 games. Unfortunately, the Phillies are hot as well. They beat the Giants tonight to keep pace. This is shaping up to be a very hot pennant race. ESPN featured the Braves as they kicked off their “Dog Days” analysis of play-off contenders.

Wednesday, August 18 – Kris Medlen had Tommy John surgery today. With any luck he might be back about this time next season. Meanwhile, the Braves General Manager Frank Wren announced that the Braves had secured a right-handed veteran power hitter first baseman from the Chicago Cubs, Derrek Lee. Glaus just sucks hitting-wise (just 2 home runs in his last 46 games) and we can’t wait around. Hopefully, Lee will bring the pop we need when he joins the team, in Chicago as fate would have it, on Friday. Meanwhile, Hudson struggled, for him, but managed to hold the Nationals to 2 runs over 7 innings. Jonny Venters and Wagner were brilliant in relief, striking out 2 and 3 respectively. Heyward got the big hit in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 win. The Braves 21st last at–bat victory. Don’t underestimate the importance of that kind of reliance.

Thursday, August 19 – Another uninspiring performance from Lowe. He’s now 11-11 with a 4.32 ERA after losing to the Nationals 6-2. But the Phillies dropped one to the Giants 5-2 so we’re still two games up in the loss column. Instead of Glaus we tried Eric Hinske at first. He went 0-4 with three strikeouts. Thank God we’ve got Derrek Lee from the Cubbies starting Friday. We need him to be hot, or at least consistent. Infante had two hits and is batting .342. Impressive. Diaz had a big double that drove in the two Atlanta runs. He seems to be finding his stride which is great to see.

Friday, August 20 – Jurrgens struggled but kept it close. Rick Ankiel (a name I haven’t mentioned before) gave Atlanta its 22nd last at-bat victory, a 5-3 over the Chicago Cubs. Ankiel hit a based-loaded, two-out, two-strike triple. I questioned why Cox let Ankiel – who, though great defensively in centerfield, hasn’t shown me much at the plate - face the Cub closer Carlos Marmol. But, as is so often the case, Cox was right. Ankiel becomes the 12th member of the Braves to contribute to those 22 last at-bat wins. Sign of a very balanced team. Only 5 hits for Atlanta today though. Lee didn’t do much of note in his debut as a Brave. Meanwhile, the Nationals got 10 hits against 4 for the Phillies but Philadelphia won 1-0. So they keep pace. We activated Eric O’Flaherty today. Our bullpen is perhaps the strongest part of our team.

Saturday, August 21 – Hanson has pitched great lately and has entered the baseball record book as the first pitcher to do something that hasn’t happened in 58 seasons. Only it is a bad kind of record. From ESPN’s pregame report today: “Hanson has posted a 1.93 ERA in eight starts since July 9, but is 0-3. Against the Dodgers on Monday, the right-hander allowed one run and five hits in seven innings, but didn't get a decision in the Braves' comeback 4-3 win. Hanson's tough luck has reached an historic level. By throwing at least six innings while yielding one earned run in each of his last five starts, Hanson became the first pitcher to have five such outings in a row without a victory since 1952.” Hanson didn’t pitch well today and the Braves lost 5-4. We played sloppy, making 3 errors. The Nationals beat the Phillies 8-1. Suddenly, the Phillies might be slumping at the plate again. Interesting to watch. That happened to them in May and we pulled away. Hoping.

Sunday, August 22 – Cubs manager Lou Piniella retired today in what is probably the end of a great career in baseball. But, the Braves showed him no mercy, whipping the Cubbies 16-5 behind 6 strong innings from Mike Minor. The young leftie struck out 12 batters, tying an Atlanta Braves record for a rookie. You have to think Minor has picked the team up from the Medlen injury. Infante and Heyward had two home runs each. Infante is tearing up opposing pitching. 20 hits in the last 10 games. Impressive enough to earn him National League Player of the Week honors.

Monday, August 23 – Out to Colorado for three games. Hudson pitched well in Coors Field tonight but the Braves lost 5-4. We battled back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game at 4-4 but Venters couldn’t hold them. It was Venters’ first loss of the season. Nobody’s perfect. But, the Astros beat the Phillies 3-2. So, nothing changes. Atlanta is 29-35 on the road. Not a good statistic for the team with the fourth best record in baseball. Glaus was sent to AAA Gwinnett for a rehab assignment.

Tuesday, August 24 – Another loss to the Rockies 5-2. Lowe didn’t look good at all. But, then he hasn’t looked good since the all-star break. We made two costly errors. But, surprisingly, the Astros beat the Phillies again 4-2 in 16 innings. So, no harm done other than another wasted opportunity to open up some breathing room on Philadelphia. We are still two up in the loss column.

Wednesday, August 25 – A devastating loss to end a horrible series. The Braves blew a 10–1 lead and lost to the Rockies 12–10. It is only the third game we have lost all season where we have scored 5 runs or more. I feel really down. Getting swept by the Rockies better be a wake up call to this team. If not we are sunk. Jurrjens looked horrible out there. But then, Coors Field makes a lot of pitchers look bad. This is definitely, the low point since our 9-game losing streak back in April. Thank goodness we are headed back home where we tend to win. Miraculously, the Astros beat Roy Halladay and the Phillies 3-2. So, we are still where we were two weeks ago. Two games up in the loss column. Man, we should be 4-5 games up by now. It’s frustrating, but I’m sure the Phillies feel just as frustrated burning up all this time and gaining nothing.

This is shaping up to be a very close race. Too close. A two-game lead means nothing right now. We play the Phillies head-to-head six times in the final two weeks of the season. If there is a bright note it is in the fact that the Braves have the best home record in baseball (44-17)...and most of our remaining games are at
Turner Field.

Thursday, August 26 - Wow. Lowly Houston swept mighty Philadelphia, winning today 5-1. The Phillies lost four straight to the Astros in Philadelphia. Amazing. To repeat something I noted earlier, the Phillies are not scoring runs. That could be huge. The Braves are now three games up in the loss column. Exactly where we were on August 13. It makes yesterday's disappointment all the worse. We could be four games up right now. A much more comfortable lead. Still, I'll take a Philly loss any time. The Braves don't play tonight, so we can't screw it up this time. To win a close pennant race you have to be both lucky and good.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fork in the Road, Revisited

You know how sometimes a song will get stuck in your head for no apparent reason. That happened to me last week. I got to humming a tune from Neil Young’s 2009 release Fork in the Road on the way to work and then back home again afterwards. So, I decided to check out the song on the CD/DVD release when I got home that night.

Neil has put out 33 studio albums (so far) among many other releases throughout his incredible 45 year career. Most recently, in 2007 he created a superb album, Chrome Dreams II. In 2009, he followed with Fork in the Road. When you put out that much material, featuring as many diverse styles as Neil experiments with (remember he was once sued by his record company for failing to produce "Neil Young music"), occasionally something comes out and you scratch your head. What was he thinking?

I was nonplussed by Fork in the Road when I got it in April of last year. I listened through it once. Listened to a couple tunes again. Played what I thought was the best stuff for Jennifer. She was blah with it as well. It seems it was a flavor of Neil neither of us cared to sample at the time.

Then, over a year later, here’s Just Singing a Song running through my head clear out of the blue. As I posted before, this is the way karma works. I listened to the song. It sounded really great. Then I gave the entire CD/DVD another try. I really got into it. I listened to it several times over the weekend. Suddenly, it becomes very clear what Neil was thinking all along. Man, this stuff sounds good. A crude, rocking Neil.

I had this same response to previous Neil offerings. Trans and Landing on Water come immediately to mind. Anyway, I’m grooving on the CD when I remember that long-time Neil Young back-up band member, Ben Keith, died recently. I perused the album credits to see if Ben played on Fork in the Road. Indeed he did. I also noticed that this album was produced by long-time Neil producer L.A. Johnson, who has also passed away in the last few months.

Neil is getting to the age (he's 64) now where his “supporting cast” is starting to check out. An inevitability. Still, he charges passionately ahead with new material. More to come soon. But, as I was going over the album credits I noticed a listing for “music video” credits. WTF? I didn’t notice any videos on the DVD portion of the release when I popped it into my PS3 last year. I was so disenchanted with my initial listening that I didn’t bother to explore the DVD fully. (I should point out that Neil releases all his albums these days in CD/DVD sets. He believes DVDs offer superior sound and he's right about that as far as I'm concerned. If you play Fork in the Road on DVD you get a simple screensaver as the album plays.)

Well, it turns out there are four music videos in the “extras” section of the DVD. Three of them are videos of tunes on the album, one of which I had seen online before the album was released last year. I checked them all out. The Just Singing a Song video features Neil in a kayak rowing away as he lip syncs to the music. Kinda cool. There’s a different version of the video here that features Neil driving his Lincvolt. Check it out, it is a nice rocker.

For you non-Rusties out there, the Lincvolt is Neil’s specially engineered 1959 Lincoln Continental that now gets 100 miles per gallon while sporting a 600 horsepower engine. The message is obvious here. You can take a classic American car and make it into an electric hybrid without sacrificing anything in terms of performance or style. Going “green” with automobiles is in no way as difficult as the major automobile manufacturers or oil companies would like the public to believe. We could reduce virtually all the CO2 emissions from standard American cars right now. Certainly, in the next few years. If we only had the willpower to do it.

So, what’s the hold up? Well, that’s kinda the point of Fork in the Road. Most of the songs on the album are about hybrid cars or the mechanics that make them or various cultural and environmental aspects of the whole hybrid car revolution. Neil has always been a huge classic automobile fan. The simple fact is that this classic aesthetic is fully compatible with hybrid vehicle culture. So, don’t give either me or Neil any BS that says otherwise.

But back to my discovery of these videos that I’ve had in my possession unbeknownst to me for over a year. There’s a fourth video that features Neil with Ben Keith and the other backup band members of Truck Show Tour in Calgary, Canada from October 2008. Neil performs what is apparently a second (or third) encore for the show to an enthusiastic crowd. His choice is the old Lennon-McCartney song A Day in the Life. Terrific version of the song (unfortunately the version on the DVD is not available online, but check out this one). As it ends, however, being the last song of the night, Neil pulls out all the stops and plays Old Black like I have never seen a guitar played before.

He is pushing the limits of the guitar so far that the strings start breaking on it. Neil just goes with it. As the strings flail wildly around like wirey spider legs, the weaving and jiving guitar driven by Neil’s body contortions, the sound becomes more and more distorted. Finally, Neil places the guitar on the stage and rips out all the remaining strings, groups them like a braid in his fist and starts pounding the guitar's pick-up with the bunched-up strings, as if it were a percussion instrument. The crowd goes way beyond crazy as does the backup band itself. Just an incredible amount of energy.

In the end, Neil sits Old Black on its stand (just like he did when Jennifer and I saw him back in May, well minus the ripped out strings) and just lets the guitar roar out into the crowd until it quiets down on its own accord several minutes later. Neil and the band leave the stage. Old Black reverbs on.

I was enraptured by finding this wonderful video on Fork in the Road. I showed it to Jennifer and she just laughed, calling it “pure art”. And so it is. Pure art discovered when I was searching for something else, in a place I didn’t even know existed like finding a hidden compartment in an old quilt chest. Just a great experience which started off with a completely unrelated song popping into my head out of nowhere.

You never know what you're going to find when you look for something else.

I didn’t used to pay a lot of attention to things like that. But, as I get older I do. There’s something to all this, I think. But, I won’t hazard a guess as to what it is. Better to just enjoy the art and not think too much about the "ping-pong mind" that got me there. Keep on driving us Neil. On a lot of levels.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Suddenly, the Long Ball...and more injuries

The good news is Braves have won 5 of their last 7 games, including two last at-bat wins. They beat the Houston Astros today 8-2. Another big inning late in the game, made possible by Billy Wagner's seventh blown save after Tommy Hanson pitched a gem of a game. (OK, that last part isn't such good news.) McCann contributed the fourth Braves pinch hit grand-slam of the season.

The Braves have now won 19 games this season in their last at-bat. The most in the majors.

Even better, they beat the Astros in last night while the Phillies lost at home to the Los Angeles Dodgers. That gave Atlanta a skinny two-game lead over Philadelphia in the loss column. Suddenly, the Braves are hitting the long ball. After not showing that much power for most of the season (as a team they rank 19th in all of baseball in home runs), they recently took 3 out of 4 games (we should have swept them) from a very good San Francisco Giants ball club and have beaten the Astros largely because of good pitching and home runs.

Chipper Jones has been
showing a hot bat of late, just at the right time of the season. I started to feel like Chipper would take some of the pressure off Brian McCann in carrying the team offensively. Then, last night Chipper made a great throw to first on a sharp grounder down the third base line. He got the out. But, he also landed wrong and his knee ‘popped’. He was on the field writhing in pain. He had to leave the game. An MRI is scheduled for later today. Hopefully, Chipper won't miss the rest of the season. Fortunately, Brooks Conrad, as he has done all year, came in a helped the team win...with a home run.

But, losing a talented veteran player like Chipper just as he was starting to get hot is a major blow to the Braves no matter how you slice it. Conrad is a fine player coming off the bench, but he’s no Chipper Jones. Last week the Braves
lost Kris Medlen to injury. Mike Minor pitched OK in his major league debut, replacing Medlen in the rotation. Unfortunately, the Braves played what was probably their worst game defensively since April behind Minor in losing the series opener to the mediocre Houston Astros.

Moreover, Jason Heyward was scratched from both today's and last night’s line-up with a sore knee. This injury business has haunted Atlanta all season but it is starting to spiral out of control. Bobby Cox is a great manager at keeping all his 25 players ready to play. He always has a great bench to call upon because of his emphasis on team play. But, you can’t keep losing starting players (Martin Prado is also currently on the DL as is Eric O’Flaherty, a very effective bullpen leftie) to injury after injury and expect it not to take a toll to some degree.

Of course, back in 2005 Cox ended up managing a team that was effectively made-up of AAA players (McCann and
Jeff Francoeur were rookies that year) late in the season and took them to the play-offs. So, if anyone can do it Cox can. It is just not the kind of thing you’d bet money on.

Errors still concern me. The Braves made
two more errors today, three of them in their win last night. They made three more errors in the game on Monday against the Astros. Just as suddenly as we started hitting home runs lately, we have suddenly started making 2 or 3 errors a game. If we keep making this many errors we are going to lose most of our remaining games and the season is effectively over. It is a glaring sign that, even though we are winning at the moment, the team is not at the level of ‘championship caliber play’. With only a two game lead, we can’t afford to be playing anything less than our very best.

As a fan (or rather as a ‘consumer’ since baseball is just ‘entertainment’ these days), you have to look for a silver lining here somewhere. We are still in first place, after all. We do have the best record in the National League, after San Diego who is only one game ahead of us in the loss column. The sky is not falling...yet.

The fact is that the Braves are in first place because all 25 guys have contributed at some point. We have all-stars on this team, but no single player this season is what you might call a super star. Prado was leading the league in hitting at one point. But, other than that the Braves don’t have a player that has been leading the league in any category. This is a solid team of good (not necessarily great) players. Except for utility player
Omar Infante (the best utility player in all of baseball) we don’t have anyone in our line-up that can hit .275 let alone .300. We can’t rely on anyone consistently getting on base right now. It takes someone different stepping up every game. So far, that has happened more times than not. And that is a rather hopeful quality of the 2010 Atlanta Braves.

Braves radio announcer and Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton said last night after Chipper was escorted from the field that what separates the great teams from the wannabes is how they respond to adversity. It is a question of who is going to step up and pick the team up when there is no Martin Prado or Jason Heyward or Chipper Jones in the line-up. If the Braves have a player or two that can do that, then they have a shot of fending off the hard charging Phillies. If they don’t then they don’t have what it takes for the postseason given the cards they've been dealt. It is that simple.

You can’t control injuries. You can control how many errors you make and how aggressively you play the game. Like I said, Cox has managed through all this sort of thing before. But, most of the guys on the team this season were not on
the 2005 Braves. If we are to repeat past success, we have to have previously “good” players and previous bench players take their game to the next level. There’s no room for error...not just on the field but in our attitude toward the each game. Game by game.

But I come back to the one statistic that is most representative of the 2010 Atlanta Braves, exemplified by the last two games. The Braves continue to score runs late in the game, often in their last at-bat. 19 times that has happened. There is no single player responsible for those 19 crucial wins. They are reflective of a team effort. More importantly, they are reflective of a basic confidence and will to win. That is an intangible characteristic that a team either has or it doesn’t. So far this season, the Braves have had that in spades. It’s a great quality to have in your back pocket, no matter what injuries might come our way.

Late note: Chipper Jones is out for the season with a possible career ending torn ACL. That sucks. Worst possible outcome. The question now is which Braves player(s) is going to pick this team up?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Retiring Number 47

Portrait of Tommy Glavine by Steve Penley. Presented to Glavine as part of his number retirement ceremony.

I am a Tom Glavine fan. I well remember his first full season in the major leagues. It was 1988. He went 7 - 17 with 4.56 ERA. Those 17 losses were tops in the major leagues and were part of a pitifully bad Braves team that went 54 - 106 that year. Hardly impressive. But, I liked his tenacity. I liked the fact that he was not a "fastball" type pitcher. He had a pretty good change-up. He was a "location" pitcher. He was good at painting the corners of the plate for strikes and kept hitters off stride by keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate. Well, now and then he was that way those first couple of seasons. Unrefined, but I saw potential. And I always like to root for promising rookies. That's one of the things about baseball I enjoy the most. Watching rookies develop.

Tom Glavine certainly developed. In 1989, again for a last-place Braves team, he went 14 - 8 with a respectable 3.68 ERA. It was fun to watch and listen (during my life I have experienced more Braves games on the radio than on TV, and still do today) to him every time he started. By July that was about all I was paying attention to in that sorry season. One of many losing seasons in those desert-like years for Braves fans.

All the patience and coaching and work paid off in 1991. Glavine won 20 games (the most of any pitcher in the National League that season) for the "worst-to-first" Braves team against 8 losses and a great 2.76 ERA. His career had really taken off and the Braves went to the World Series for the first time since 1958.

I like players who are gutsy, who don't necessarily have incredible pitching stuff or batting power. They are forced to play the game with determination and intelligence. Gritty players who don't rack up a ton of K's or HR's have always struck me as being what baseball is all about at its core. A game where potential and ability comes in all shapes and sizes. A game where you don't have to always look spectacular to be a hero.

For much of my adult life Tom Glavine was my ultimate baseball hero. In the 1970's I briefly rooted for Buzz Capra but he didn't work out except for one splendid season in 1974. My first baseball hero was Woody Woodward, the mediocre second baseman for the Braves in the 1960's (they put me in at second base in my T-ball era so I think playing - if you can call it that - that position as kid and as I became conscious of being a Braves fan had a lot to do with that youthful choice). I have always hoped for a showing of greatness where it was not really expected. That, for me, is the highest baseball high as a fan.

It was all realized with Tom Glavine, more than any other player I've ever followed. He won the Cy Young Award twice, was a repeat 20-game winner, and eventually reached that pinnacle of starting pitching, over 300 career wins (even it was in a New York Mets uniform, Glavine will always be a Brave to me). He was a solid part of perhaps the last great pitching trio in baseball history while playing over a decade with Hall-of-Fame caliber teammates Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. Plus, Glavine could help himself with the bat. He won four silver slugger awards. He laid down more sacrifice bunts than any player in baseball history. A little known fact.

Keeping three pitchers on the same team like that (complemented by several other very good pitchers through the years as well, my daughter is named after one of those) probably won't ever happen again. It is just not the way the business climate of baseball is evolving. Players just don't stay with teams for 10 years much anymore and certainly not three great pitchers. They're just too expensive to keep and money usually talks in the business of baseball entertainment. I've posted before how the game has become "entertainment" to the degree that the "sport" of it is greatly diminished.

Anyway, last night they retired Tom Glavine's number, 47, at Turner Field. He's up there with other Braves greats like Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron (who was announced during last night's ceremonies as "the greatest home run king of all time" a wonderful direct slap at one of my least favorite players, Barry Wussie-assed Bonds), and Phil Niekro. (Read long-time Atlanta sports journalist Furman Bisher's column about Glavine's retirement here.)

The thing that struck me the most about watching the ceremony on TV was how old Glavine looks. The wrinkles in his face. The graying hair. He's supposed to be this kid. He's supposed to look youthful and, even though he was always poker-faced and controlled, unphased by anything positive or negative, out there on the mound, he's supposed to have an air of exuberance about him. Last night he just looked humbled and speechless, but certainly grateful. Still, he's younger than I am and I certainly don't feel as old as he looked.

But, time passes. 22 seasons go by and a player grows from a struggling rookie to a superstar of the game. Then he is suddenly honored for what has been, never again for what is in the Now; not like that anyway. You have to be careful here. There is a danger of living in the past instead of simply appreciating it and moving on with the present. Because, no matter how great you were or no matter how unheard of you were, there's plenty of things happening in the Now that require each person's attention.

If there is a sentimental foundation for the retiring of number 47 it lies, for me, right there. I appreciate so much of what has happened in my life. I am so fortunate to have been a Braves fan and to have lived in a time when the Braves featured one of the greatest lefthanded pitchers in baseball history. But, that can't be enough. It's over and time to move on.

I have no problem living in the present (other than the fact that the Braves gave away a game to the Giants last night). The retirement ceremony last night was like a mini-vacation. I could step out of whatever is happening now and even step out of the intense pennant race shaping up for the Braves this season. Instead, I stepped back to October 28, 1995. Tom Glavine fired a one-hitter through 8 innings against the best offensive team in baseball at the time, the Cleveland Indians, who batted an astounding .291 as a team that season. With that pitching performance the Braves won Game Six of the 1995 World Series 1-0. Glavine gave the Atlanta Braves their only World Championship to date (thanks to a solo home run by David Justice) and only the third such championship in the history of the Braves franchise. We were all younger then. And the baseball fan in me was on top of the world.

Atta boy Tommy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Time for "Championship Caliber Play"

Just after the All-Star break the Atlanta Braves held the best record in the National League and were third with the most wins in all of baseball behind only the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. In the NL East, the Braves enjoyed a comfortable lead over the then slumping Philadelphia Phillies.

Now, just a couple weeks later, that has all changed. The Braves are in a fight for their lives to hold on to first place as the Phillies are surging and Atlanta is staggering. We (being a lifelong Braves fan I use the term ‘we’ often when referring to them) dropped three consecutive series on the road against the Florida Marlins, the Washington Nationals, and the Cincinnati Reds. Going 3-6 on a road trip this late in the season with the standings this close is not exactly championship caliber play.

What happened? Several things. First of all, in a general sense, all season long the Braves have scored a lot of runs in ‘the big inning’, that is, they very often score 3 or more runs in a single inning. Bunches of runs all at once. All season long the Braves have enjoyed decent starting pitching and an excellent bullpen. In fact, they probably have had the best bullpen in the National League except for possibly the San Diego Padres. Finally, the Braves are second only to the Reds in scoring runs from the seventh inning on. Moreover, they lead the major leagues in winning games in their last at-bat. 17 such wins so far this season. So, they have a tendency to score runs late in the game when they need to.

Not so lately. Here we can get down to specific players. First baseman Troy Glaus was a red hot hitter in May and June, Atlanta’s two best months so far this season. Since the All-Star break Glaus has just plain sucked at the plate. While other hitters like catcher Brian McCann, second-baseman Martin Prado, and Jason Heyward, our superb rookie right-fielder, have maintained their consistent play both offensively and defensively, Glaus has been a big missing piece of the puzzle lately. His slump at the plate was so bad that manager Bobby Cox let him sit out the entire series this week against the New York Mets.

But, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Glaus’ replacement at first, Eric Hinske, while still showing occasional power, has seen his batting average gradually drop almost 100 points since its high-mark earlier in the season. Long-time Braves superstar Chipper Jones is past his prime and has missed a lot of games due to minor injuries. He is having a subpar season at the plate, though he has shown signs of getting hot lately. Chipper also has the lowest fielding percentage of all third basemen in the majors - .930, not good. Prado, who led the National League in hitting for most of the season, has been in a minor slump and is now on the disabled list due to injury. Injuries certainly don’t help but every team has to deal with those.

The big inning requires the big hit, or several of them. Lately, the Braves are leaving a huge number of runners on base. They left 11 on base in Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the New York Mets. Hinske struck out with the bases loaded to end the Braves’ biggest threat of the evening. In the May-June surge, the Braves routinely gave their pitchers 4 or more runs to play with. That’s important because when the Braves score 5 or more runs in a game their record is an amazing 39-2. Conversely, when they score 3 runs or less their record is only 8-33. Since the All-Star break, however, they usually score 3 or less. Again, hardly championship caliber play. The silver lining here, if there is one, is that the Braves team batting average is still 6th out of the 16 NL teams. Also, in a little appreciated statistic, the Braves lead the NL with walks. They are still patient at the plate. So there’s hope.

Errors will kill any ball club. The Braves currently rank 12 out of 16 teams in the NL in this category, most of those coming since June 1. There is no single big culprit here. The errors are spread more or less evenly across the team. But, lately it seems the Braves make about 2 errors a game, so the trend is accelerating. Not a good sign.

Pitching remains the key. Good pitching will keep you competitive no matter what else happens. Great pitching will win you championships, if your defense is decent. This is the time of year when most pitchers have thrown a lot of pitches and those with the most stamina and consistency start to rise to the top. For the Braves, Tim Hudson is having an outstanding season. But after that it is a mixed bag. Tommy Hanson was awesome earlier and now is struggling. Usually one bad inning knocks him out of the game. Derek Lowe has never been overpowering as a Brave but is winning half his games. Kris Medlen has been surprising. The Braves are 12-1 in games where he starts. Unfortunately he was injured in last night’s win over the Mets. The extent is unknown at this time. There’s that injury demon again.

Other than Hanson of late, the biggest disappointment is Jair Jurrjens who missed about two months of the season with an injury. Since coming back he has been inconsistent. Sometimes he his practically unhittable. But, he has a bad habit lately of getting to the fifth or sixth inning and giving up the ‘big inning’ just like Hanson.

Our bullpen has been shining all season with the seemingly successful comeback of Billy Wagner, one of the game's greatest relievers. The Braves took a chance in signing Wagner for what he claims is his final season. The risk has paid off for the most part. Unfortunately, since the All-Star break Wagner has not only blown three of five save opportunities and he has personally lost two games that we had in the bag. Those really hurt. Two more wins would make things a bit more comfortable right now. Plus, just the fact that Wagner is even struggling makes you wonder how he’s going to fare as we get into the home stretch of the long season.

The rest of the bullpen has been fairly solid, however. Rookie Jonny Venters has been nothing short of sensational. Sidearmer Peter Moylan is also the hallmark of consistency. Takashi Saito usually looks great out there, though he has had momentary difficulties throughout the season.

As a team, the Braves rank 4th out of 16 NL teams in earned runs allowed, 3rd in total hits allowed, and 2nd in home runs allowed. The Braves pitching could be stronger but, clearly, it is not the reason for the recent swoon. The simple fact is that lately we are not giving our pitchers enough runs to work with.

If we are going to best the Phillies and win the NL East, we have got to keep pitching consistently and start hitting the ball when we have runners in scoring position. Of course, any team in baseball could say this. But, not every team is in first place of their division and not every team went through 8-9 weeks of the season so far doing all those things well. So, the Braves are capable of better. Much better.

Despite sloppy play by the Mets last night, the Braves demonstrated that they could perform at a higher level with timely hitting and another great bullpen performance after Medlen was injured. We ended up winning the series. Hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come. We’ll need to pick it up a notch against a very hot San Francisco Giants team that comes to Atlanta for a four-game series starting tonight.

Bobby Cox has done a terrific job managing the Braves so far in 2010. He effectively dealt with a horrible start in April which saw the team in last place. For example, he won two games earlier in the season on suicide squeezes – always fun to watch, if a bit old-fashioned. There were a lot of key moves that helped reposition us to start winning. He moved Henski, normally a first baseman, to left field early on because at the time he was one of the few Braves hitting the ball. He managed his pitchers well when Jurrjens and Saito were injured. He went with Venters, an unproven commodity at the time, as a key setup man out of the bullpen. He managed around injuries to Matt Diaz, Jones, and Heyward and is now shuffling his lineup to try to get the Braves hitting again with Prado out on the DL for 15-days and Glaus slumping.

In the last season of his career, Cox is proving once again he knows how to manage a team. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Whether his skill is enough to keep the Braves on top of the NL East remains to be seen. It has happened before, however, most recently in 2005.

Even when the Braves were in the middle of their horrible April, I kept telling my baseball savvy friends that I thought they had a good team. Heyward looked like a possible Rookie of the Year candidate. McCann looked solid again. Prado was off to a great start. The pitchers looked pretty good except for a few mistakes. More importantly, the team seemed to have the right “chemistry.” They seemed to be having fun despite the early loses. They worked well together. There was genuine, noticeable enthusiasm. You need that to win. It all seemed manageable and correctable. I had hopes for the last season of Bobby Cox and followed the Braves with heightened interest largely because this was going to be the end of their manager’s successful career.

As good as he is, though, it still takes hitting the ball, catching the ball, and pitching the ball. Game by game. Bobby can only give his players their best opportunity to win. It is up to them to perform. Championship caliber management isn’t easy. But, we have that. Now, let’s see if we can give Bobby one more trip into the postseason. Playing well these next four games against the Giants might be a great indicator for us. We face one of the game's premiere pitchers in Tim Lincecum tonight. Lincecum has historically owned Braves hitters.

Meanwhile, the Phillies play the Marlins tonight then go home for a weekend series against the slumping Mets. They have it much easier over the next four days. We only have a two-game lead on the Phillies. So, it is definitely time for my team to show some championship caliber play.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wikileaks Karma

On July 25, perhaps the greatest breakdown in the history of US intelligence was revealed on the internet with the release of about 75,000 classified military documents under the so-called Wikileaks Afghan War Diary. The massive leak to the public caused a furor. Some say it proves the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. Some say the leaks have jeopardized our military operations.

I’ve watched this story unfold with considerable interest. Many influential or karmic elements are at work here. Many compare this colossal leak with the historic Pentagon Papers disclosure during the Vietnam War. Those opposing the war in Afghanistan will do everything in their power to compare it with Vietnam, so that is a highly convenient analogy.

While the Wikileaks revelations tell the public a few things we didn’t already know, by and large it actually just supports most of what we already knew. The Obama administration, while critical of the national security breach itself, has taken the opportunity to point out that much of the information within the leak in fact supports the decisions the president has made about the war. Let me try to summarize the major contents of this historic disclosure of documents.

The Taliban has a robust intelligence gathering network of its own that keeps it informed of US and Coalition military efforts. The Taliban is being supplied (likely by Iran through cooperative Taliban regions of Pakistan) with heat-seeking missiles to bring down US aircraft. The US is using covert operations to target Taliban leaders. The Afghan government (to which we want to eventually hand over control of the chaotic country so we can leave) is incredibly inefficient, corrupt, and incompetent. US efforts to improve the “system” within Afghanistan have largely failed. The US has killed thousands of innocent Afghan civilians through air strikes. This resulted in new rules of engagement that has negatively impacted the morale of US troops.

For the most part that is what the leaked documents tell us. Of course there are hundreds of specific incidents reported substantiating each of the above statements in great detail. There is no denying that the above statements are factual. The vast majority of the documents are from the 2004-2009 timeframe.

I won’t go into the right or wrong aspects of whether these documents should have been revealed by Wikileaks other than to say that there has always been animosity between the inherently secretive military and the inherently scoop-seeking press. This is just another chapter in that long historical struggle between informing the public and protecting the nature of military knowledge and operations from the enemy.

I will also say that, unfortunately, Wikileaks was neither capable nor qualified to examine and evaluate such a large collection of materials with any high degree of journalistic standards. As a result, leaking these documents to the public has specifically led to the unmasking of several Afghan citizens that have secretly been cooperating with the US military against the Taliban.

It goes without saying that such name dropping in this particular situation places the lives of these useful civilian informants at risk and makes future cooperation by other potentially useful civilians far less likely. At best, it is irresponsible journalism to specifically name names in this instance. But, my guess is that the Swedish-based Wikileaks website opposes the war effort and perhaps intends to damage the war effort at least as much as it intends to “inform.”

As to what else was revealed in the disclosed documents, as I said, it doesn’t reveal much that wasn’t already known. That the Afghan government is corrupt and incompetent is hardly a revelation. It is comparable to the South Vietnamese government in this regard. That comparison would be valid.

That the US efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population have failed was already well known. Again, there are echoes of Vietnam in such information. We never won over the civilian population we were trying to defend in Vietnam either. However, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the Wikileaks documents are from prior to President Obama taking office. Recent efforts by the now dismissed General Stanley McChrystal were correcting this particular aspect of the war, something neither Wikileaks nor the mainstream press have any interest in pointing out, of course.

McChrystal’s efforts to reduce civilian deaths in combat operations came in the form of strict rules of engagement that effectively placed US troops more at risk thus negatively affecting morale. General David Petreaus has promised to review these rules of engagement. But, McChrystal was right and was having a positive impact as I have previously posted. That it negatively affected US troop morale is a military issue that should be addressed in other ways.

Our troops would much prefer the Iraq approach to the rules of engagement. That is, let’s go in blasting and kill tens of thousands of civilians. Which is precisely what we did in Iraq. The problem is that from experience we have learned that it is counterproductive to do this in Afghanistan. We must win over the civilian population, which is what McChrystal was doing. The negative impact on troop morale was a price he was willing to pay to win the war.

Certainly, our rules of engagement must have a positive effect on the overall war effort or they should be revised. Overall troop morale is an important strategic consideration. But, unless morale is severely tested, generals should not allow morale to affect operations. I see no evidence that troop morale is affecting the quality of our fighting. Furthermore, US troop morale was a problem long before McChrystal. Again, nothing new really in this part of the leak.

The number of civilian deaths as “collateral damage” in US operations has dropped dramatically in 2010 whereas virtually all of the incidents reported by Wikileaks occurred before this year. Given time this sort of thing will have a positive effect on the Afghan population. But, of course, that is not something Wikileaks is interested in noting. Once again, the purpose for revealing these documents is not to inform so much as to encourage defeatism about the war.

That the Taliban has a robust intelligence network of its own and that the Taliban tribal aggregate is far better armed than we were led to believe is new but not exactly shocking. More than anything else this is a condemnation of President Bush’s Iraqi misadventure. Bush took his eye off the ball and allowed the Taliban to become revitalized. A better equipped Taliban is a manifestation of that. I have posted on this before.

Wikileaks apparently wants the global community to take this revelation about the Taliban as a revitalized and competent adversary as definitive proof that, after almost nine years of war, we are losing this war and we should evacuate Afghanistan. That, of course, is a sure sign of weak resolve on our part as a culture. Does anyone seriously think that because the Taliban adjusts to our inadequate focus on Afghanistan due to Bush’s Iraq War that we can’t make our own adjustments and respond effectively? Oh God. Quiver, quiver. The Taliban is stronger. Let’s run. An idiotic perspective.

Proper response: We need to find out who in the hell (mostly likely Iran with some Pakistani cooperation) is supplying this tribal group with advanced weapons and stop the flow of weapons by any means necessary; to militarily address the situation (yeah enter the Taliban regions of Pakistan if need be) if the flow of weapons is not stopped. American aid to Pakistan might also be placed upon the table if we can't rely on the government there to control these Taliban areas of their country. But, regrettably Obama probably doesn’t have the political will be so aggressive. Though, hopefully, at least we have some covert operations going into the Taliban regions of Pakistan. Control of the Taliban support infrastructure in Pakistan is a huge strategic issue in play here.

Still, so what if the Taliban have advanced anti-air weaponry and the like? It is deployed in a tribal way at best. These weapons cannot be strategically important (though they certainly are important tactically) because we’re not talking about very many of them relative to the Coalition forces committed to operations. That is, unless we allow them to become strategically important from the perspective of our own culture. We have the finest army in the world. You want to tell me we can’t handle something like this? Get a grip people.

If the Afghan War is lost it is because it is lost in our hearts and minds. Second-rate journalism like the Rolling Stone-McChrystal debacle and now the Wikileaks classified document dump are daggers right to the heart of America’s will to fight. We want out of Afghanistan. We have forgotten the force of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the flaunting by the Taliban as a safe-haven for al-Qaeda. That no longer motivates our response. America is culturally weak, our resolve does not match that of the Taliban. Is this where this is all going?

I hope not because that really does sound like Vietnam.

Two journalistic moments define how shallow we are as a people. We spend all this money on the military and pride ourselves as a powerful nation but the fact is if the war we enter doesn’t have conventional lines of battle and we fail to kick ass hard and fast and get out of there then we quickly become wimps. To that extent, the Wikileaks incident reveals more about who we are as a people than it does about the war in Afghanistan. The karma (or effect) this leak will have on our war effort will be interesting to observe in the weeks ahead.

At a higher level, the Wikileaks disclosure once again demonstrates the power and hazards of the internet. The disclosure of the names of Afghan civilians assisting the US military for all the world to see is a dangerous, ill-considered symptom of our sacred belief in freedom of information. To a wider extent, the impact of the 75,000 documents as a whole is to bring the Afghan War into vivid detail without any context whatsoever.

Individuals will read into these documents whatever they wish. Some will find evidence of our on-going and imminent defeat. A few will find that the changes brought about by McChrystal are timely, relevant, and – perhaps – hopeful. So, on the most positive note possible, Wikileaks has made a large contribution to the public discourse about the war effort. That the public is weary of war tinges the nature of the Wikileaks disclosures with a defeatist attitude. People know the military will hide how badly a war is going. That's what gives the press its legitimacy.

Reports of Americans dying in combat in the bloodiest month of the war so far this year come against the backdrop of a dismissed general and a reminder that the military is never forthcoming. If there are secrets then there must be cover-ups for bad news. The uncertainty all this creates in the minds of American culture only lessens our resolve in Afghanistan.

We need to get more aggressive. We need to do so over a period of years. That these were McChrystal’s motivations is evident to anyone seeking information. But you have to seek it, beyond the sensational news like the Wikileaks disclosure. You have to remember that for every dozen or so American causalities, many more dozens of Taliban leaders and insurgents are being systematically taken out. Right now. As you read these words. That doesn’t get into news, however. This is not a “body count” war like Vietnam. Still, as always, the press is more interested in being antagonistic toward the military (and vice versa) than it is in being objective.

At bottom, the Wikileaks event reveals that Obama inherited a situation in Afghanistan that essentially suffered from Bush’s attention-deficit, trigger-happy foreign policy. It reveals that the Taliban used the opportunity afforded them by the Iraq War to rebuild into a more formidable foe. It reveals that past rules of engagement were alienating the Afghan population. Present rules of engagement hurt troop morale. And there is where things stand. The karma of Wikileaks is still in motion. How will it affect our culture?

The war is not militarily lost. But, it might be already lost from a cultural perspective. In a way, perhaps, the fallout from the Wikileaks incident doesn’t reveal anything at all. It merely reflects who we are. Like a mirror.