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Really Inside Baseball

The baseball playoffs are well underway, on a quest to find the last team standing in 2011.  Are you glued to your set?  Are you still wearing the same clothes you were wearing when your team entered the playoffs?  Can you name the team’s best hitter against left-handers after the seventh inning when facing a deficit of two or more runs?

There are many people who are obsessed with baseball.  Chances are you know one of them.  But there are comparatively few who can honestly claim to be obsessed with the baseball.  Zack Hample is one of those people. 

He’s the author of “The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches,” a truly fascinating look at the game’s most important element, the one constant since the very origins of a field game from the mid-19th Century.  Players have come and gone, but the baseball has seen it all. 

Though writing is his vocation, Zack could just as easily be called a “professional fan.”  For he is a ballhawk, someone who spends his time at the ballpark collecting as many baseballs as possible. 

The New York native took time out of his 12-city, 13-ballpark tour to talk to me about what makes this little round piece of cowhide so special.  “The baseball is the object that’s at the center of the national pastime,” he began.  “The game can’t be played without the ball.”  He calls it a “cultural artifact.” 

 I think about that for a moment.  Baseball consists of bases and balls.  The ball is called a “baseball.”  The game is called “baseball.”  Without the baseball, there would be no baseball.  The sport might then have to be called “basebat” or “cleatcup” or something else related to the props on hand, no doubt diminishing its allure. 

From reading the thoroughly-researched tome, you’ll find that the controversy of the juiced ball is not a modern construct, but has survived longer than any accomplishment housed in the record books.  

In fact, it’s been criticized for being juiced longer than the leagues have been in place.  In 1867, when the ball could flop around, the Nationals of Washington were accused of “juicing” the balls by the Cincinnati Red Stockings. 

The term “tear the cover off the ball” used to be taken literally (due to the flimsy construction of it) and not simply as a hyperbolic statement describing a steroid-enraged (allegedly) Roger Clemens arguing a balls and strikes call.

Another little known fact, prior to reading Zack’s book – the baseball used to be the prize.  Winning teams were allowed to keep the ball as they were expensive and hard to come by.  “Hey, you won!  Here’s the ball.”  (That’s nothing like today’s World Series trophy.) 

Over the years, Zack has amassed a collection of official major league baseballs well into the thousands.  “It makes me very happy just to own so many baseballs.”  At press time, he claims it to be 5792 – “That kid’s got balls,” one might say – but that could change as games continue within travel distance.   

This (Pittsburgh) pirate’s booty resides in several locations. “They are mostly at my mom’s place,” he tells me, “in my old childhood bedroom, and she wants them the hell out.”  There are eight 32-gallon recycling bins that hold about 400 balls each.  Then he’s packed balls snuggly into five filing drawers.  He knows that each holds precisely 144 balls; no more, no less.   “It’s almost as if they built them for baseballs.” 

Who’s to say they didn’t?  Finally, he estimates close to a thousand sitting in various duffel bags, and maybe a hundred more in some plastic shopping bags.   

What is he saving them for?  Someday, he hopes to have children.  “I’d like to pass these along to them.  It’d be fun to dump them all out and then jump in them, play around in thousands of baseballs.”  He pauses for a moment, then proudly adds, “I like doing that now and I’m supposedly a grown-up.” 

All this for a little piece of cowhide stitched together with some yarn.  (Which one might think it’s as rudimentary as that.) 

The stitching process itself is interesting, an exhaustive and precise undertaking.  It recruits Canadian thread, Rhode Island yarn, a metal detector, a numerical code, a stamping machine, invisible ink, and the Costa Rican climate (though produced indoors with air conditioning so as not to affect the materials). 

The stitching process is done by hand where warehouses filled with slouching people hunched over balls lining fourteen rows of 25 chairs each at the Rawlings Factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica (which is of no relation to catcher Yorvit Torrealba of the Rangers.)

Read the book and you’ll discover all you wanted to know and things you didn’t know you wanted to know.  It’ll open your eyes to one part of the game you love that has been taken for granted all this time. 

The book, Zack’s third, is broken into three parts – historical and factual stuff, baseballs in the news, and, of course, snagging the ball.  The final section highlights some of the most successful ball hawks in the stands.  “Even though major league baseball is huge and spread out all over the continent, it’s still kind of a tight-knit community of guys who do this, at least to this level,” Zack explains, as one who is unique, but not nearly alone.

Pick up “The Baseball” and become a ballhawk yourself.  It’s something I’ve been sorely in need of.  I’m perpetually haunted by memories of near-misses, my thumbs and forefingers still scarred from baseballs glancing off them time and again. 

As I tell of my most recent failed attempt at snagging a ball, I am hoping he absolves me of my feelings of shame.  “Most people are just passive about catching balls,” he says.  “I think most people would love to catch a ball.  Very few people make it happen.”   

I feel a little better at my success rate.  After all, Zack’s the expert.  He is a hawk and can spot other hawks at the ballpark easily.  “I can tell pretty quickly who has a clue of what they’re doing, just by the way they’re standing, how he looks, what they’re wearing. . .”

He’s just very good at it.  By the time he was in college, he’d snagged his first thousand.

Growing up as someone who wanted to play the game, this gives him the feeling he’s part of it, a way of connecting to the sport he loves.  “It makes me feel like I’m part of the game.” 

The hobby leaves him a bit misunderstood which he seeks to correct.  “I think a lot of people assume I don’t appreciate the sport, that I’m just interested in catching balls and if I can’t do that, I don’t really care about the game, but that’s far from the truth.”  He doesn’t participate in fantasy baseball, but still reads every box score.

A lot of the time, he’ll go to games alone because he’s not interested in the typical leisurely passive viewing habits of the average fan.  There are not many companions that fit his criteria.  “The few times that I tried to take people, they either bitched about moving around from seat to seat or they were competing with me for baseballs.” 

Now, when he attends with friends, Zack explains, “I don’t ask them, ‘Is this okay with you?’  I just say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’  But they’re my friends and they know how it goes, so they want to come and witness what I do, willing to switch their seats over the course of the game.” 

He’s experienced the glory of catching a home run ball held seconds earlier by the pitcher and inspected by the ump.  But he’s had his share of injuries as well.  “I was on crutches this season for three weeks because I sprained an ankle at a game.  I’ve cracked a rib in the past at a game, broke my nose slightly.”  Ah, the dreaded BDL (ballhawk disabled list). 

This last one is a sore subject.  “It’s not that I can’t catch.  If I’m camped underneath a homerun ball and some idiot comes flying out of nowhere and deflects a ball, sending it off course by an inch just over the tip of my glove into my face. . .  I’ve learned my lesson.”

The pursuit has spawned a philanthropic effort as well as he is dedicated to a charity called “Pitch in for Baseball” that provides baseball and softball equipment for underprivileged kids all over the world.  “I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball that I catch.”  Since he started in 2009, he’s raised over $20,000.  “It’s my way of giving back to the baseball world and not being a doofus in the process, running around and catching balls.” 

And as the season goes into hibernation, while those obsessed with baseball will go through withdrawal symptoms, you can be sure Zack will experience a much different sensation as he will no doubt marvel at the spoils of this year’s hard work.  (He collected 1110 balls during the regular season, continuing with nine at Philadelphia’s Citzens Bank Park, for Game One of the NLDS.)

Perhaps this is a good time to dump out a barrel and do some rolling.

[If you would like to donate to “Pitch in for Baseball,” please go to www.zackhample.com.]

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Motocross: A Battle of David and Goliath

The Pala Raceway in Southern California is buzzing one Saturday afternoon in mid-September, both literally and figuratively.  It is the whir of finely tuned 250 or 450 cubic centimeter engines on motorbikes and the anticipation of the year’s American Motocross Association (AMA) race series finale.   

The dirt track along the Indian reservation is host to hundreds of racers and thousands of fans.  To the naked eye, it’s bikers against bikers, but look closer and you’ll see the Rays versus the Yankees, Barnes and Noble versus Joe’s Book Hut, Miles Davis against a random Spaniard with a vuvuzela. . .

 Multi-million dollar factory teams sponsored by the likes of Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha are on the same track as much smaller operations, called privateers. These privateers put teams on the track with their own money in the hopes they can compete. 

Mike Milaccio and John Karas (along with Larry Sager) own one of those teams, Revolution2Mx.  “I started like a sponsor, but not a team,” Mike says.  “From there, John and Larry and I got our heads together and I said, since we know a kid with promise, let’s build a team; let’s make this a job; let’s build a sponsor base.”

By day, they work as corporate recruiters, but in the hidden crevices of every free moment, they are less concerned with file folders and binder clips as much as they are with shifters, sprockets, brake rotors, and rims.  “I have to do this in the morning or at night or on weekends.  I work my day job, and then get on the road and go pick up a part or go give John graphics,” Mike explains.  He then gives his boss a shout out for her generosity in giving him the freedom to do so.   

Eighteen months in and $50,000 worth of expenditures and they’re still fighting.  “We’ve grinding at it.  We’re just trying to get aligned with the right sponsor, someone to help take us to the next level.” 

Their main purchase, the bike, never earns money.  However, the return on investment is there, albeit hidden.  Mike continues, “There’s a profit at the end of the tunnel.  Once we have a sponsor, they’ll say, ‘Okay, how much do you need to budget?'”   

For that, the team of friends hustles to secure big name backers.  One that just jumped on board was Yahoo! Sports, who allowed them to run the Yahoo! flag on their bike which provides visibility for the Internet company and a name backer for the team. 

Davey Coombs who, along with his sister, Carrie Coombs-Russell, is co-vice president of MX Sports ProRacing, describes the carrot dangling in front of the privateer.  “If you’re a top, young privateer in Southern California and you go out and finish in the top 10 at Pala, you can expect a clothing deal, a shoe deal, an energy drink deal, all of those things,” he says.

The Coombs are second-generation promoters having watched their father became the de facto leader of outdoor promoters in 1998, after both parents were involved in the industry since 1974.  Now, the offspring handle the series marketing, operations, and are partnered with Alli Sports to handle the commercial aspects. 

A former privateer himself, Davey had a “cup of coffee” with a factory team – KTM – back in 1985.  (He laughs at how small they were compared to their size now.)  So he knows a thing or two about being a rider on the rise. 

Revolution2Mx thinks they have one such rider in Weston Peick.  Mike boasts, “Weston’s a great kid, upstanding, polite; not some typical racer.  He’s a normal everyday kid who happens to go that fast on a dirtbike.”

 The grizzled motocross veteran (at 20 years old), Weston left high school to conclude his studies with a home-schooling program which allowed him to graduate after tenth grade.  He says with a smile, “It’s not like I failed out or anything like that.” 

A mutual mechanic friend of theirs brought them together and so far, the match has been solid.  In Weston, they found a top notch rider already earning some sponsorships and Rev2Mx brought him a bike and a larger sponsor base.   

But the partnership is not permanent.  He’s not on any contract and the only money he’ll make is if he qualifies for an event and wins some purse money.  Should a factory deal come his way, Weston would gladly take it, along with the salary and all the perks that come with it, and if John and Mike are presented with a corporate bankroll, they would consider taking on a higher ranked rider. 

This is not to downplay the loyalty they have for each other.  Speaking of the admiration he has for his rider, Mike begins, “We might go our separate ways, but we may always circle back around.  The business is small and the talent few.”   

“It is what it is,” says Weston.  “Everyone wants that deal so you can’t be mad that they have it and you don’t.”  Until that day, he does battle for Rev2Mx as best he can against teams more loaded than his.   

As we walk the grounds, John indicates a giant trailer with Kawasaki written all over it.  “They have millions and millions of dollars invested in building those bikes and they’re not bikes that are available to the public. . . and most teams have multiple riders.” 

Larry speculates that, “For companies to sign a top rider under contract, they’re probably around $250-300k.”  Then John adds, “So our challenge right now is being the best we possibly can while spending the least amount of money.”   

At the beginning of the day, Peick is ranked 23rd for the 2011 series, but the numbers are misleading.  Mike says, “We didn’t run the whole series.  It goes back east, all over the country, so the travel gets really expensive.”  With a couple of top twelve finishes on the year, they are all optimistic at what he’s capable of.   

Overall, the odds are against him, what with 80 riders vying for 40 spots in the motos (races).  Plus these factory teams have trailers that are mobile garages.  If one of their bikes breaks, they can have a whole new bike ready in ten minutes.  Some of their components aren’t even on the market yet. 

On the other hand, a privateer has two or three of the same part ready just in case, but has far less a window of error in going against superior equipment.

Still, such odds do not deter the participants.  How does Weston hope to take out the big boys?  “I come in halfway through the moto and start charging and picking guys off.  I’m a hard charger.  Usually they start dropping off a little bit.  You start reading it and you see when it’s time to do your thing.”

Weston can do that because of his size.  At 5’11”, 200 lbs., he’s larger than your typical rider who falls in the range of 5’8″ and a buck fifty.  That makes him more durable, but he’s got to keep his own cardio up in order to keep from overheating.   

And for this team, it’s a family affair.  Weston rides, his father, Lou, works on the bike, and his family cheers him on.  All this, while sharing the tent and vehicle transportation with other up-and-coming riders.   

Next to Lou, Shane Allen is wrenching for Sean Lipanovich, a 21-year-old rider.  “I met Sean at a race,” the 20-year-old mechanic starts.  “He had issues, couldn’t get the bike running, so I got a hold of him.  I fixed the bike in about five minutes and he hired me.”  (To me, it seems like a golfer in high school using a caddy in middle school.)  

Meanwhile, fans have flocked to the sport.  In the last two years alone, Davey has seen the numbers rise exponentially of the sport his father saw to promote.  He reads me the impressive numbers he’s received from Alli — from the first six races of 2011, the total viewership was over 3.3 million.  Add to that, 232,000 live streams of the first motos on the Internet and 122,000 people in attendance.  Overall, these events were broadcast on five continents, 104 countries, and 18 languages.   

Davey credits the increase to a big shift recommended to him from Speed TV.  “After 38 years of races being on any Sunday, we moved them to Saturday making motocross more accessible for tv viewers.”  Until that shift in 2009, races were tape-delayed.   

And on this sun-dried Saturday, close to 20,000 people line the track. 

After the practice run, consisting of two timed 15-minute practices which determines who qualifies, it’s time for Weston’s moto.  The ride will last thirty minutes plus two laps.  Then he’ll have a break while the other classes run before he’ll do it a second time.   

The engines rev and the starting gate lowers.  Weston starts off well.  Standing far to the side of the starting line are his owners, the ones with as much at stake, if not more, than their rider.  They’re understandably nervous.   

Weston completes one lap while Mike and Larry focus on his position, by counting the bikes in front of him.  Larry notes, “He’s middle of the pack.”  “He’s eighteenth,” Mike specifies.  This is acceptable as they know their rider’s habit of finishing strong.

A minute later, Weston appears again, this time, pausing in front of the pit crew and waving his arm frantically, as John McEnroe might in protest to an umpire.  Something’s gone wrong. 

Mike, Larry, and John try to understand what could be happening, without panicking.  “He probably blew it up again,” John says.  

“I hope it’s not blown up,” replies Mike.  Then he bows his head.  “We’ve got the worst luck in the world, man.”

One more lap and Weston dismounts.  He’s realized the obvious — his bike has betrayed him.  After only three minutes and eight seconds, he’s out of this moto. 

He and Lou wheel the bike back to the tent.   “A brand new clutch cable!” Lou cries angrily, wheeling the bike past the helpless ownership group.  “Right where it goes in the lever, it just broke right off!” 

He goes back to work, replacing the cable, then prepping the bike as he had earlier.  Weston’s second moto is only two hours away and as overall finish is simply the average of both motos, he’s going to need an exceptional run.

This time around, things seem better.  Weston rides in the top fifteen for the first 20 minutes and is preparing to make his charge when the same bike malfunction occurs sending his team back to the tent feeling empty. 

Mike tells me they’ve had the problems before.  “I don’t want to sell out the bike, but clearly we’ve had bad luck with it.  We couldn’t have counted on all the difficulties with that bike.  We swapped out every part twice.  It’s a really bad, unlucky deal.  It’s one in a thousand.”  Though ultimately, it’s on him and Revolution2Mx to make it work.  “I’ve got to give my rider a chance to show his talents,” he admits, before announcing, “We just bought a 2012 Kx450f to ensure a fresh start.”

Another expense and the frustration creeps through further, though he shows equal concern for his rider.  “Weston’s a real pro.  The economy’s tough.  We’re just trying to get aligned with the right sponsor,” a statement which could be the motto of the privateer.  “Twenty to fifty thousand dollars would change our lives.”

Well, there will be more opportunities, assuming there’s money to spend.  The inaugural Monster Energy Cup (part of the supercross stadium series) is October 15th.  “The best part about this race,” says Davey, “is if the platform is there, if the tv viewership is there, if the stage is built, the opportunity is there for any athlete to shine between the drop of the starting gate and the checkered flag.”  He sums it up, “The best way to make money is through your personal endorsements and sponsorships.” 

 And that’s what Weston Peick, Team Revolution2Mx, and others are finding out.  Thanks to the surge in popularity and enhanced visibility of the sport, David has more chances to challenge Goliath.  And that buzz is only going to get louder.

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Know Your Realigned College Football Conferences

Like some sort of swinger party set against the plush velour of a mustachioed man’s suburban townhouse (not that I would know), universities are hopping from conference to conference with no sense of loyalty or decorum at a disconcerting pace. 

As an attention play over its professional counterpart, the NFL, who held our focus for months with labor negotiations, the NCAA has, in the meantime, put forth their own modifications, ones that are challenging the entire landscape as we know it. 

The main variations you might notice are that several conferences have featured realignment, introducing unfamiliarity to the schedule.  Traditional foes may have been transferred and rivalries may have been eliminated. 

So, as your swivel-perched head attempts to recognize the new alliances throughout Division I-A football, here is a handy reference guide for you to review while plopped down in front of the big screen watching your favorite school on the gridiron.  The remodeled foundation now looks like this:   

The Big 10 now has 12 teams.

The Big 12 now has 10 teams.

The Pac-10 is now the Pac-12 and it does, indeed, have 12 teams stretching as far east as Utah and Colorado, which is a long drive from the Pacific Ocean. 

The Big East is the smallest of the major power conferences with eight teams and stretches as far west asLouisville.  (However, come back to us in a year or so and it will have been sold off for parts.)

The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) spans up and down the Atlantic coast, which will soon run through Syracuse and Pittsburgh thanks to global warming.  (Damn you, Al Gore!)

The Southeast Conference (SEC) is pretty much in tact. . . for now, as Texas A&M wants to join.  Though they are in Texas, which is nowhere near the East, the school is located in the Southeast part of the state. . . sort of. 

 South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, but remains in the SEC. 

Texas Christian University will be joining the Big East next year. . . unless the conference no longer exists in which case, TCU will feel pretty stupid. 

Murray and Kent are not states! 

Louisiana State is in the SEC, Louisiana-Lafayette is in the Sun Belt, and Louisiana Tech is in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).

The Sun Belt stretches from Texas to Western Kentucky.

Western Kentucky U niversity is located in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Bowling Green State University is not.  It is located in Bowling Green, Ohio. 

Bowling Green still fields a football team, but has no intention of promoting bowling.  Their colors are orange and brown and not green.

Conference USA includes Southern Miss, Central Florida, and East Carolina

Western, Central, and Eastern Michigan are all in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference (MAC), though all are in the Eastern Time Zone. 

Fresno is not a state either!

Army and Navy are independent while the Air Force is in the Mountain West Conference.  The Marines and Coast Guard do not have teams.  Neither does Seal Team Six nor the CIA.  Or. . . do they?

New Mexico is in the Mountain West while New Mexico State is in the WAC.

After leaving the WAC for the Mountain West in 2010, Boise State is staying put and their field remains blue.

Brigham Young has also left the WAC.

Akron remains in the MAC despite rumors that it would take its talents to South Beach.

We areMarshall!

Temple no longer plays in Division I, but does continue to play on Yom Kippur.

Rice University has actually been around longer than Jerry, Sidney, and Ray and was not named for any of them. 

Ole Miss players are roughly the same age as those from Mississippi State. 

Ohio State and Miami are the only teams in college football whose players have taken illicit benefits, but that doesn’t take into consideration the other schools whose players have as well.

Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans are still on probation for rules violations and as a punishment, he has to coach the Seattle Seahawks with Tavaris Jackson at quarterback.

USC has lost some scholarships, but Reggie Bush still has his Heisman trophy. 

Cam Newton has his Heisman trophy since he claims to have been unaware of the shady dealings his father was involved with. 

Mark Ingram also has his trophy, but his father is still in jail. 

OJ Simpson is in jail and no longer has his Heisman.

OJ was locked up for kidnapping, but not murder, though according to a civil court ruling, he’s done both. 

Terrelle Pryor has to miss the first few games of this season, but can return when Ohio State visits  Nebraska on October 8th, though by that point, his team will be in Houston for the Raiders/Texans game.  Regardless, he won’t be allowed to return until the next week against the Cleveland Browns, Ohio’s other football team.

Miami has a team. . . for now.  Joe Paterno is still coaching.

Kickoffs still matter. 

It’ll take more than luck to win the Heisman Trophy, though the favorite to win the Heisman trophy is, indeed, Luck.    

Dick Butkus has never won the Butkus Award. 

And, come the end of the football season, the Bowl Championship Series BCS still exists and is in place to determine, beyond reproach, the best team in college football, which may not actually be the best college football team in the nation.  (The one thing that needed modification didn’t get it.)

So there you have it, your cheat sheet for college football 2011.  You can now focus solely on the enjoyment of the games, your tailgating, and the punishment that is sure to be handed down to your school very soon.

 

[featured image by: arkorn]