Scenes from Spring Training: Arrrrgh! The Pirates! Part 3

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Pirates Pen.jpgThis was an ugly, ugly game. Highlights, such as they were:

  • As I sat down in the box I realized that the netting behind the backstop was lower than the already fairly low pressbox level.  During the course of the game three or four foul balls came in my general direction, each time banging loudly on the metal roof or facade of the box, scaring the tuna salad out of me.
  • As the National Anthem was being sung, the Pirates’ employee who seemed to be in charge of everything going on that day saw that one of the padded panels on the outfield wall had fallen down. He jumped on his walkie talkie and started stage managing. In the space of, like, 25 seconds, he had (a) dispatched a couple of members of the grounds crew to fix the wall; (b) got someone else to go tell John Russell and the umpires about the panel and to not start the game yet; (c) spotted a plastic bag floating across the field and got someone else to run out and retrieve it; and (d) watched the guy retrieve it and reminded everyone on the line to NOT walk over the pitcher’s mound if you have to go out on the field. The dude was just hyper-competent. If they could bottle whatever moxy he has and distribute it throughout the rest of the organization the Pirates wouldn’t be in nearly the dire straits they’re in these days.
  • In the top of the second, Jose Tabata badly misplayed a fly ball to center, allowing the batter to circle the bases for what was ruled a single and a three base error. The next batter hit one right back out to him, he was once again turned around, the ball dropped for what was called a double simply because Tabata didn’t get close enough to even really say that he made a play on it.  To be fair to Tabata, the winds were whipping terribly yesterday, but none of the other outfielders seemed to have the kind of trouble he was having.
  • Carl Crawford hit a long, long home run to left centerfield. Almost landed in Tampa. Maybe he sent the ball on ahead to Yankees’ camp to get the lay of the land before he starts training there next spring.  The next batter, Pat Burrell, hit a home run to the same part of the park, also a long shot. Maybe he sent the ball on ahead to Tampa too. There are a lot of senior citizen communities up that way so maybe he was scouting his 2011 spring home too.
  • Though the writers in the box said that the Pirates’ media lunch was
    good as far as those things go, I skipped it. Even if the food is
    decent, these catered, chafing dish affairs remind me too much of those
    rubber chicken lunches at political events I used to have to attend for
    my job and those working lunches in law firm conference rooms. I went
    down to the concourse and got a hot dog and a Pepsi instead. Bonus: I
    talked baseball with a couple of fans who were eating too.  Columbus,
    Ohio is not a baseball town, and though I “talk” baseball all day with
    you guys here, I don’t get a chance to chat casually and face to face
    about the game that much when I’m home. This was a treat.
  • Because the Rays were playing with a split squad — the rest of the team was playing the Blue Jays yesterday — the bullpen
    Bobby Ramos coached third base. Between innings one time they did the
    old t-shirt launch thing along the third base line. One of the shirts
    misfired and landed near Ramos. He picked it up and started walking it
    toward the stands. Then he put it behind his back. He did this, like,
    five times, taunting the fans who soon began to boo him. Ramos had a
    huge grin on his face. Any chance he had at becoming my favorite
    bullpen coach was dashed, however, when he gave in and threw the shirt
    into the stands.  We don’t have enough heels in baseball. I think we’d
    be better off with a few Mr. Fujis or Bobby Heenans.

  • As the game dragged on there were a lot of substitutions. They led to near-bedlam in the pressbox. Overheard: “Jonson’s in.”  “Wait, is that Dan Johnson?” “No, I think it’s Elliot Johnson.” “Too damn many Johnsons around here.”
  • Top of the fourth, Sean Rodriguez pops a foul behind the plate. He audibly registers his disgust at himself. The wind whips, however, and catcher Hector Giminez can’t get it.  Rodriguez then does some little nod-with-a-fist-pump thing that seemed a bit out of line. Rodriguez took the next pitch which seemed to be way inside from where I was sitting. John Hirschbeck rang him up anyway, and I can’t help but think he did so as a means of getting Giminez’s back. Not that he’d ever admit it or anything.
  • Around the sixth inning the game just flew off the rails. Lots of home runs — understandable with the wind — but it was dragging in every other possible way as well.  The best thing that happened during the game after the sixth: someone sent me this picture to remind me of what the Pirates were like back when they were totally cool.
  • As the game drew to a close, a man in the pressbox said “I’ve been doing this for seven years, and this is the absolute worst game I’ve ever seen.”  I think I have to agree with him: worst game I ever saw too.  The final score was 16-15 in favor of the Rays. There was bad defense.
    Nearly every count went 3-1 or 3-2, sometimes because the pitchers
    didn’t have control, sometimes because Hirschbeck’s strike zone
    seemed rather erratic. The game lasted three hours and forty-one
    minutes and actually felt longer than that.

But here’s that epiphany I mentioned earlier this morning: I am damn, damn lucky to be able to do what I’m doing. The worst baseball game of my life was 100 times better than the best day I ever had in an office.  It was awful baseball, sure, but it was baseball. In a nice, unassuming little park, with the smells of hot dogs and beer and fresh cut grass and the sounds of the bat cracking and, jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, I could go on with those cliches all day.

As I drove back to Tampa, I was tired and weary and stuck in traffic. And you couldn’t peel the grin off my face.

Will Kyle Schwarber play in the field in Chicago?

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting an RBI single to score Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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In his comments after last night’s game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon would not rule out the possibility of Kyle Schwarber playing left field as the World Series shifts to Wrigley Field.

The issue, though, is that it’s not yet his call to make. Schwarber will receive a medical exam today to determine whether his surgically-repaired left knee is sound enough for play in the field. Probably in left field, with Ben Zobrist likely moving to right. It’s a dicey proposition even if he’s healthy, given that he’s a defensive liability even at 100%. And given that his injury happened due to an outfield collision in the first place.

But even if Schwarber isn’t available for the lineup, he can still be a pinch-hitting threat. In Game 2 on Wednesday he hit two RBI singles and drew a walk. His presence could alter Terry Francona’s strategy, even if it’s limited.

What would be a good new name for the Cleveland Indians?

SYDNEY, NSW - JANUARY 23:  A Redback Spider is pictured at the Australian Reptile Park January 23, 2006 in Sydney, Australia. The Redback, probably Australia's best-known deadly spider is found all over Australia and is a close relative of the Black Widow Spider from the U.S. Only the female Redback is considered dangerous, with their venom containing neurotoxins, which works very slowly. Fatalities, even from untreated bites, are rare. Australia is home to some of the most deadly and poisonous animals on earth.  (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
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All of the Chief Wahoo talk of the past few days inevitably leads to talk about the Indians changing their nickname as well, not just their mascot.

I’ll grant that there is an argument to be made that they are somewhat different issues as Wahoo is so patently and facially offensive while “Indians” is not quite as viscerally repulsive. I’m not sure I buy that argument — I’d like to see all Native American names, Braves included, go away just to be neat and tidy about it all — but there have been discussions in other sports leagues that have led to accommodations in which Native American names and sports have continued to live on respectfully together, so it is theoretically possible.

But let’s leave that for another day. For now, let’s assume for the sake of off-day argument that Major League Baseball and Indians owner Paul Dolan decide that, in addition to Chief Wahoo going, the “Indians” name is going to go too. I don’t think they’ll actually do this — my guess is that the Cleveland baseball team will be called the Indians for a long time — but let’s just pretend that the two of them have a beer at the Winter Meetings and it’s decided that, going forward, “The Cleveland Indians” will cease to be.

If that happens, what do we call them? Let’s run down some possibilities:

The Cleveland Spiders

The overwhelming answer most people give when the subject of renaming the Indians comes up is “The Cleveland Spiders.” This is understandable, as there was once a Major League team in Cleveland called the Spiders and because no other North American professional sports team has a spider as a nickname or mascot somehow. I don’t like it, though, for a couple of reasons.

A primary reason is that it just seems really 1990s to me. I’m shocked an NBA expansion franchise didn’t use it, actually, complete with black and teal and a ridiculously over-aggressive cartoon mascot because, in the 1990s, everything had to be all grim and gritty and hardcore like that. I can see “Spiders” being treated better than that now than it may have been then, but I could still see all kinds of aesthetic missteps being taken, turning the Indians into a low-level laughingstock.

We’ll leave that aside for a moment, however. A bigger reason is that the name “Spiders” is a reminder of abject failure when it comes to Cleveland baseball.

Contrary to what many believe, the Cleveland Spiders were not a direct ancestor of the Indians. The Spiders started as an American Association team known alternatively as the “Forest Cities” — a mostly disused nickname for Cleveland — and the “Blues.” When they moved to the National League in 1889, they became known as the “Spiders.” Ohio’s own Cy Young starred for them and they had some pretty decent success in the NL in the early 1890s.

The Spiders were most memorable, however, for their ignominious end. They declined from 1895-1898, becoming a middle of the pack club. 1899, however, saw the Spiders experience the worst debacle a major league club has ever experienced. The Spiders owners purchased the St. Louis Browns the offseason before — which is clearly a conflict of interest — and transferred most of the good Spiders players, Cy Young included, to St. Louis. They then turned the Spiders into a sideshow, quite literally, actually, moving most of the team’s schedule to the road. The Spiders were the jobbers of the National League. The Washington Generals without the sympathy. They finished 20–134, which will forever stand as the worst record in baseball history. They finished 84 games out of first place and 35 games behind the next-to-last place team in the league.

The Spiders were so bad that year that they, along with three other NL teams, were contracted out of existence at the end of the season. Ironically, this cleared out some markets and paved the way for the Western League to ramp up to major league status and become the American League we all know today. Which means that the Spiders pathetic futility is the very reason the Cleveland Indians exist.

People usually aren’t thinking about that futile end when they talk about calling the Cleveland team the Spiders. I think most just like the brief nod to history and believe that spiders are badass animals. But it’s hard for me to not think of the Spiders as a relic of one baseball’s darkest chapters. And I’m sorta freaked out by spiders, so they’re not my first choice.

The Cleveland Blues

The Spiders were known as the Blues at times in the 1890s. Nicknames were a lot more fluid then. The name returned to Cleveland baseball when the American League expanded to Cleveland in 1901. For one season, the club that would become the Indians was referred to as the Blues.

There are pros and cons to “Blues” as a name. On the pro-side is an actual connection to the current franchise. Another is the fact that colors-as-nicknames work really well in sports. This goes back to chariot racing in Roman times, by the way, when fans at the Coliseum would root for their favorite chariot driver based on the color of the cloth hanging from his chariot. You were a partisan of the “red” or the “blue” or what have you. In baseball we have the “Reds” and the “Red Sox” and “White Sox.” It’s an extension of that. We see this in soccer and rugby and a lot of international sports too. Blue is a pretty popular color for baseball teams and the Indians already wear a whole lot of blue, but if they change their name to the Blues they could claim it in baseball more affirmatively than other teams do.

The con is one of concrete identity, in that the modern sports economy really pressures a club to have something that can be easily slapped on logos and merchandise. There are some super venerable nicknames like “Dodgers” and “Yankees” which do just fine not being reduced to an actual mascot — the name or initials and a distinctive font is enough — but I’m not sure if the Blues could pull that off so easily. If forced to choose between selling caps with a spider on it and caps with a some vaguely 19th century concept of blue on it, MLB and New Era and all of the stakeholders are gonna pick the Spiders every time, I suspect.

Some Actual Tribe Variant 

Many older Native Americans call themselves “Indians.” “Native Americans” has been taken up by non-indigenous people to refer to indigenous people, but my understanding is that indigenous people don’t often walk around calling themselves “Native Americans” among themselves. They call themselves “Blackfeet” or “Cherokee” or “Navajo” or “Chippewa” or what have you. The link way up at the top of this page goes to the Florida State Seminoles webpage. Florida State may have begun calling themselves that for the same reasons the Indians and Braves and other teams started using Native American nicknames and mascots, but there has since been a dialogue and endorsement from the Seminole Tribe and the university which has rendered the nickname acceptable to most and has seen to it that people and their iconography are not treated disrespectfully.

I don’t know how that has been received by the larger Native American community — I could imagine it still being seen as controversial — but I suppose it’s at least possible for the Indians to take that tack and see if some positive can be made out of so many years of negative portrayal. It’d be a pretty dicey proposition, though, as it would be a process driven by the Indians and Major League Baseball that would be, in essence, asking people for permission that they are in no way entitled to. It’d make Major League Baseball’s century of tone-deafness on the matter of nicknames someone else’s problem, which seems rather rude and presumptuous. And that’s before you realize that, because of the United States’ policy of removing Native Americans from their lands and screwing them over royally for a couple of centuries, there aren’t exactly a ton of Native Americans left in northern Ohio to bestow such permission. I could see it happening in theory, but there may be too many obstacles and too much water under the bridge to even consider it. And that’s before one asks why it’s so important to keep Native American names associated with professional baseball to begin with. Which I don’t think it is. Just throwing it out there.

Cleveland BC

Major League Soccer screwed up in the 1990s by immediately assigning nicknames to every club. They did it, I suspect, because clubs in all other North American professional sports have set nicknames and that’s just what is done, right? But that wasn’t always the case. Many of them developed organically, with the name being suggested by the press or the fans or as tributes to some local idiosyncrasy. MLS has backed off that now, with new teams being allowed to just be identified as the city and “SC” or “FC” or what have you, tracking the habit of international soccer. For teams that were given a nickname — my local Columbus Crew, for example — the nickname is being deemphasized and an organic identity, driven by fans, is being allowed to take hold.

There’s no reason baseball couldn’t do this. Heck, the Indians have their own history of this, as they were known as the “Naps” for the years between the Blues and Indians monikers. That was to honor the club’s biggest star at the time, Napoleon Lajoie, and it went away after he did. There is no way that specific method happens today due to free agency and clubs having no interest in tying their identity to one player (the “Cleveland Klubers? Eh. No), but some natural evolution of a name could come about.

Maybe you start with the “Blues” as an unofficial/official nickname. Call them “Cleveland BC” and refer to them as “the Blues” and see what happens over the course of a couple of years. Maybe that can’t work in the modern era. Maybe those cap sales would suffer too much. But it seems worth a try.

That’d be my choice, anyway. “Cleveland BC. — Go Blues!”

Any ideas of your own?