Sorry, We're Closed

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

LaTroy Story

I've been asked to provide a bit of analysis on the Cubs' recent trade of righthanded reliever LaTroy Hawkins. Chicago sent the 32-year-old Hawkins to the San Francisco Giants on Saturday in exchange for two 23-year-old righthanded pitchers, Jerome Williams and David Aardsma.

The Cubs had to pick up nearly all of Hawkins' 2005 salary of $4.35 million; the Giants will pay Hawkins that same amount if Hawkins exercises his player option for 2006. Since coming to Chicago in 2004, Hawkins has been a setup man, closer, and, recently, a mopup reliever.

Jerome Williams, a 39th-round draft pick in 1999, fashioned a 10-7 mark last year for the Giants; in his 43 major league games, all starts, he is an impressive 17-12 with a 3.77 ERA. This spring, he didn't have much time to pitch; he spent much of March with his ailing father, then started the season at Triple-A. The Cubs have sent Williams to their Triple-A club in Iowa, but would like him to be in the majors soon.

Aardsma, a first-round pick in 2003, was a star relief pitcher at Rice University and pitched in 11 games last year for San Francisco. The Giants sent him to Double-A this spring and converted him to starting, where he was 6-2 before the deal. It's not clear, even to the Cubs, whether Aardsma is going to be a starter, middleman, setup man, or closer.

Those are the facts. But what do they all mean?

My opinion is that Hawkins got a raw deal. Most every closer in baseball goes through rough stretches. While every team would love to have the 2004 version of Eric Gagne, the facts are that most pitchers, even the good closers, just aren't that dominating. Much was made of Hawkins' lousy record in one-run games; in fact, his career record in those situations is 18-for-24. That's 75 percent, and that's well within the realm of "acceptable to good." (And if the Cubs had a better offense, they wouldn't be worried about protecting so many damn one-run leads.)

Hawkins' failures came in short stretches and at memorable times. Had he not gotten off this season on the wrong foot, Chicago would have almost certainly lived with him; it's much easier to justify a mid-season slump than one in April. Watch what happens when Ryan Dempster sags this summer, or Dustin Hermanson on the South Side soon reverts to being, well, Dustin Hermanson.

Remember that Hawkins never campaigned for the closer's role. He never WANTED the job, and only took it because his manager asked him to. It's not Hawkins' fault that Jim Hendry whole-heartedly embraces the strategy of bottom-feeding for bench players and relief pitchers. Cub "fans" who took LaTroy Hawkins' struggles personally, booing him, cursing him, for God's sake, because he blew a few one-run leads, ought to look in the mirror. He tried as hard as he could, and it didn't work out.

Jerome Williams has four pitches: sinker, slider, curve, and change. His sinker has just slightly above average velocity, but moves well and induces ground balls. Williams' best pitch is his change-up; he has a good late break on his slider. He is prized for his intelligence, reluctance to give up walks, and ability to use patterns to keep hitters off balance. Scouts project him, conservatively, as a solid #4 starter. I think he could be better than that, assuming that he gets into game condition and that his cranky elbow stays healthy (this is a fairly big if, but Williams has not been overused so far in his career). He pitched well Tuesday night in his first Triple-A Cubs appearance.

David Aardsma is a very hard thrower, utilizing mostly sinkers and sliders. He is developing a change-up in order to expand his usability (unless they're knuckleballers, starters just don't survive without at least three pitches). While he was effective in college, Aardsma, as a late-inning reliever, just didn't pitch that much. As a result, he rarely experienced failure, and needs time in the minors to adjust to the inevitable struggles that will follow as hitters learn him and force him to make adjustments.

On an analytical basis, I love the trade. Bringing in young arms is a great strategy for a club that can't seem to keep its major-league pitchers off the disabled list. Trading a 32-year-old that you have no intention of using in a critical role for two 23-year-olds with reasonably high ceilings is also excellent strategy.

But emotionally, I'm not crazy about getting rid of Hawkins. Believe it or not, I'll miss him; he wasn't very good at mouthing the usual platitudes that sportswriters love, and that trait endeared him to me. Hawkins was respected by his teammates and pitched effectively when used correctly.

And in the end, he's just a scapegoat, really, of 1)a starting rotation that hasn't done the job, forcing overuse of the bullpen, 2)an offense that hasn't provided nearly enough runs, and 3)a manager and GM who haven't clearly formulated or communicated their plan to make this franchise as good on the field as it is on the bottom line.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bachelor Party Politics

I was in Wisconsin this past weekend for my friend David's bachelor party. Quite a sight--seven somewhat nerdy but very interesting guys and I invaded Lake Geneva, staying at a fairly posh resort and spending some time in town.

The bachelor party portion of the evening was, in itself, not particularly revolutionary. We all met up at the resort, unpacked, talked a bit, then went over to the resort's water park and spent a couple of hours going down the water slides and sitting in the hot tub. After returning to the hotel, we then went through a bottle or two of champagne toasting the groom (and, in absentia, his bride-to-be). Then it was dinner at a loud local restaurant, and this is where the goofiness really began.

I'd purchased the groom a fetching baby-blue t-shirt as his "gag gift." The shirt had a large heart on the back, and on the front we had letters ironed on to read, "Hi, I'm David." (Figured it was a good way to make sure everyone knew who the guest of honor was.) David, a good sport for sure, wore the shirt the whole night long. Near the end of our meal, we noticed a table of five classy women around our age, maybe a few years younger. All of them were wearing tiaras, and the more observant of us deduced that we were seeing a bachelorette party.

Some members of our table thought it would be a great idea to get a picture of David with the bride-to-be, and this was hastily arranged. Then, we took a picture of all of us with the bride (held up sideways by a couple of our stronger members). Was silly, and fun.

After dinner we walked around town, and damn if we didn't run into bachelorette parties everywhere we went. Turning a corner, we saw another bachelorette party in a rundown bar. We were called inside to give the bride-to-be a "lap dance," which, to a man, we refused, but David did have a picture taken with her, and with some difficulty a few of us lifted this somewhat larger bride-to-be from the ground for another picture.

Walking Lake Geneva's main drag, we saw another bar and, looking inside, saw a blond, freckled, tired, and quite intoxicated woman wearing a veil. Yes, another bachelorette party, this one featuring about 20 women sitting around several tables. All of the women appeared to be in advanced drunken stupors, and after a quick picture, we ran from there as fast as was possible. (Not all of us were sober, either.)

Some of us were wondering what the hell was going on. Was Lake Geneva full of bachelorette parties all the time? Was this visitation done just for David's benefit? Little did we know that we'd hardly started.

Downtown's one crazy-looking local bar was called "Hogs & Kisses," and only a few of us had the stomach for it. So five of us went in to this very loud and rocking establishment (eventually the other three joined us, but didn't enjoy it much). Once inside "Hogs & Kisses," it became clear that we'd barely scratched the surface of wild women out of control.

I've been to bachelor parties before, although none were what I'd consider wild. One was at a strip club, which embarrassed all of us (including the groom) except for the best man, who'd arranged the whole thing--mostly, I think, for his own enjoyment.

But "Hogs and Kisses" was crazy. Groups of young women, most of them quite drunk and many of them screaming uncontrollably, filling the dance floor, dancing in a large circle, with no men in sight. Bachelorette parties all. Every group had one girl wearing either a lei, or a veil, or carrying around a large plastic penis, or some other ridiculous toy...these girls were the brides-to-be.

Faced with this insanity, we did the only thing that came to mind--ordered shots of tequila. There were plenty of guys at the bar, all watching this wild spectacle, but none were dancing. Soon enough, we started dragging David around to meet every bachelorette party's bride-to-be that we could find. David was quite a good sport about this, refusing only to meet one young lady carrying around an inflatable male doll which her friends would occasionally tell her to "get down" with.

Pictures of the depravity, devastation, and drunkenness were captured on a digital camera by one of our crew, and I'm sure that they'll be funny.

But this whole thing got me thinking about the bachelorette/bachelor party stuff. Neither my darling wife Cecilia nor I had a party like this; neither of us thought that by abandoning singlehood that we were giving up very much, so we felt no need to do things we didn't normally do (drink 33 beers, fill out checklists of embarrassing things to do, dance in large circles made up entirely of members of our own sex, get down with inflatable dolls) to commemorate it.

Of course, moving from singlehood to married life is a big change, and should be celebrated with some form of ritual--and everything about the typical bachelor and bachelorette party is a ritual. There's a meal, much alcohol, lots of sexual innuendo from gag gifts, encounters with strangers of the opposite sex, hangovers, and quite possibly some next-day regrets.

But in the bachelorette parties I observed on Saturday (and I was observing, having stayed sober), I also saw unbridled, raw emotion and passion from these women, the kind that men are often uncomfortable with. Every time a favorite song came on, everything from the ubiquitous "Dancing Queen" to Def Leppard to 50 Cent (in Lake Geneva?) to Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman," these girls went freaking out of their minds with some sort of collective ecstasy. Not a sexual energy, from what I could see, but something even more basic.

For some reason, the whole thing--the loud music and dancing, the lack of interest in talking to anyone but members of their own group, the ritual drinking, the props--almost made me feel as if I were watching each group of bridesmaids/friends work out some sort of trauma about their friend going through this change. I'm probably wrong, but it gave me the impression that a very serious set of feelings were being worked out that evening.

Not having ever been to a bachelorette party (duh), it was all new to me. I had a great time with David and the rest of the crew, but I must say in all honesty that this whole bachelorette phenomenon, and the weird energy that it created, was the most memorable thing about the weekend.

And I'd forgotten how much I actually enjoyed Def Leppard singing "Pour Some Sugar On Me."

Monday, May 23, 2005

Upcoming Gig

Some of you probably know by now that I'm in a rock band, the Captain Blood Orchestra. We play songs from the mid to late 1960s. Our first gig since I joined is next Thursday, June 2, at the Lincoln Square Mayfest in Chicago. The stage is at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Leland. Admission is FREE.

The rockin' portion of the evening starts at around 7:00 with the Old Town School of Folk Music Beatles ensemble, featuring, on bass guitar, my good friend Suz! Then after the Beatles ensemble, the CBO comes on. We've been working hard to make it a fun show--it should be delightful, especially if you like the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, and the Nuggets CDs...

Hope to see any and all of you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bill Moyers' Speech

I don't usually post links, but I figured this one was very important. It's a transcript of a speech that Bill Moyers, a respected journalist for decades and a former deputy chief of the Peace Corps, gave on Sunday to the National Conference for Media Reform.

Government figures, on any side, who want to control what you and I can hear are Un-American, and need to be called out as such--especially when they are wasting our tax dollars on their private little power plays. Thanks, Bill.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Who's to Blame for This?

The Cubs are 14-18, in third place in the National League central, six games out.

Who's to blame?

Is it Latroy Hawkins, asked to close when others proved physically unable, and who has blown several key saves and is routinely booed at Wrigley Field when he comes into games?

Is it Kerry Wood, the perennial talisman of Cubs fans who has never enjoyed success equal to the quality of his raw stuff?

Is it the immensely physically gifted Corey Patterson, the center fielder who has barely progressed as an offensive player since taking over as a regular in 2001?

Is it the decaying old corpse of some billy goat, as one much-advertised brewery that produces tasteless, "beer"-like swill, would have you believe?

Is it Dusty Baker, the formerly successful manager of the Giants whose cool, collected Buddhist/John Lee Hooker/everpresent toothpick/motorcyclist aura hasn't held off the fans who now boo him when he leaves the dugout?

Is it God, who has sent the Cubs a series of injury plagues affecting Nomar Garciaparra, Wood, Joe Borowski, and Todd Walker?

How about General Manager Jim Hendry?

During the Cubs' mediocre first five weeks, Hendry has escaped criticism, largely because there are so many other easy targets. Hawkins has been brutal; Wood didn't pitch well even before he was hurt; Greg Maddux and Carlos Zambrano have been inconsistent. Chad Fox' elbow gave out again, and Mike Remlinger hasn't picked up the slack. Walker's been out since the first week. Jerry Hairston has been worse than average at second base, a complete non-factor. Patterson has eight homers, but just one double and eight walks. Michael Barrett's on-base percentage is a robust .272.

Sure, a lot has gone wrong at Wrigley Field. But nearly every team gets hit hard by injuries; the difference is whether a team has the depth and ability to make up for it. The Cubs entered this year with a bench even thinner than it had been in 2004, when it was already mediocre. Many players Chicago was counting on were either historically or in the very recent past injury-prone (Wood, Mark Prior, Fox, Borowski, Ryan Dempster, Garciaparra, Hollandsworth), unproven when asked to do critical jobs (Patterson, Hawkins), or of questionable value even when healthy (Jose Macias, Henry Blanco).

Let's start with the starters. The decision to let free-agent hurler Matt Clement leave for Boston was fiscally motivated, but carried with it the assumption that 1)Dempster was fully recovered from his elbow surgery and ready to start, 2)Wood and Prior were healthy, and 3) the bullpen wouldn't require endless reinforcements. Strike one, strike two, and strike three. Dempster isn't back in his rhythm, and has been even wilder than Clement was ripped for being; Prior, while back and dominating now, is a ticking time bomb; Wood isn't even on the radar; and the bullpen has required help from both putative swingman Glendon Rusch and, lately, Dempster. Matt Clement, meanwhile, is alive and healthy in Boston. Rule one would seem to be to hold on to healthy pitchers with good stuff. Can that be overstated??

The bullpen has been horrific, but a sober examination of the pre-season evidence would have suggested a cocked eye. Joe Borowski missed most of last year with shoulder troubles; Latroy Hawkins was only adequate as his fill-in. Mike Remlinger was troubled by a sore shoulder much of 2004, and is 93 years old. Well, not quite. Chad Fox, a non-roster invitee, had been disabled with elbow troubles in 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2004. The rookies of 2004, Mike Wuertz and Jon Leicester, were often impressive but struggled with control.

Hendry's moves to improve the bullpen included...signing Fox as well as other free-agent jetsam like Stephen Randolph and Eddie Oropesa--in other words, nothing at all. Hendry crossed his fingers and hoped that everyone would be healthy. Unfortunately, crossing one's fingers and hoping everyone stays healthy is not really a strategy.

It's almost a truism to point out that Cub hitters don't work the strike zone, don't draw walks, and as a result have low on-base percentages. They don't score very many runs, largely because when they hit homers, they tend not to have as many men on base as you'd like. In general, Wrigley Field is still a good hitter's park, and the Cubs suffer from a park illusion--they seem like good hitters in home games, but aren't really scoring enough, and on the road, they're just not effective.

The poster boy for this is Corey Patterson, who despite endless tutoring on bunting, pitch recognition, and the like, has not developed into a leadoff hitter. Of course, this is hardly his fault; when Patterson was rocketing through the minors--he played fewer than three full seasons before graduating to the majors--he didn't walk much either, and apparently nobody thought this was a problem. The major leagues are not a tryout camp; you can't "learn" to walk when you're facing the best pitchers in the world. Chicago Cubs management, historically blind to the value of patience at bat, might want to stop banging its head against the door waiting for Patterson to become a top-flight leadoff man. It ain't gonna happen.

Other Cubs, even the quality ones, struggle with this. Garciaparra and Ramirez don't walk much; left field platooners Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Dubois don't draw passes either. Michael Barrett's career high in walks is 40. Neifi Perez, who's been surprisingly effective, walks about as often as a newborn. Only Derrek Lee and Jeromy Burnitz, the Cubs' big-name free-agent acquisition for 2005 (a 36-year-old outfielder who hit .244 with 13 homers in road games in 2004), are patient hitters who work the count.

The result? The Cubs don't score many runs despite high enough batting averages and impressive home run counts.

And the bench? The less said, the better. Outfielders Ben Grieve and Hollandsworth are hardly game-breakers, and infielders Ronny Cedeno and Jose Macias are rarely used. Macias, a favorite because he is willing to play several positions, provides nothing but speed.

It's not as if the Cubs haven't had lousy benches in past years. Remember the 2003 pinch-hitting struggles of Lenny Harris, or the 2004 nightmare that was Tom Goodwin? Quality reserves are available every off-season. The Cubs even signed a professional pinch-hitter, Dave Hansen, and invited him to spring training. He didn't make the team, apparently because all he could do was hit. At least that quality could differentiate him from the rest of Chicago's bench. injury-prone starting staff prone to wildness even when healthy...a bullpen full of reclamation projects with questionable arms...a lineup with utterly predictable career patterns and an out-of-date offensive philosophy...and a mediocre bench. While Dusty Baker doesn't always make good decisions, what more, exactly, is he supposed to do with this team? As Hendry congratulated himself for inking Nomar Garciaparra to a one-year deal, the holes created by the departures of Moises Alou and Sammy Sosa have gotten bigger and bigger as Ramirez has slumped and Garciaparra went down.

It isn't all hopeless. Derrek Lee has been great, though he will soon come back to this solar system. Perez has hit better than expected, but that's probably a short-term effect. Jason Dubois, the only quality position player the minor league system has produced recently, may get a full shot now that Hollandsworth has regressed to his non-Coors Field level. Ramirez ought to be better as his groin recovers. Pitchers Zambrano, Maddux, and Prior are still a solid top three, and Hendry may be forced to make a move to bring in a genuine major league relief pitcher.

With the Cubs struggling just to reach .500, you can rip the players all you want. Rip Dusty Baker. There's enough bad performance to go around. But one man is the architect of this team: Jim Hendry. Remember him, and his curious actions and inactions, when passing around the blame.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Upcoming Appearance

Hey, everyone. I'm giving a talk on the history of Wrigley Field this Thursday, May 12, at 5:30 PM at the Harold Washington Chicago Public Library, 400 S. Michigan. We'll be gathering in the Chicago Authors Room on the seventh floor. It'd be great to see any of you...


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Record-Spinning Session!

On Thursday, April 28, the Garibay/Shea compound hosted an impromptu DJ session, with guest Carlos O. bringing by some serious records…and some not so serious ones! Here’s what spun on our old B&O turntable.

Pigmeat Markham—Here Comes the Judge
Iron Knowledge—Showstopper
Cyril Neville—Gossip
Blackrock—Yeah Yeah
David Lucas—More and More, It’s Baltimore
Earth, Wind & Fire—Fan the Fire
Sesame Street—Roosevelt Franklin Counts
Needham, Louis, & Brorby, Inc.—Kraft Margarine radio spot
Electro Harmonix Work Band—I Am Not a Synthesizer
National Association of Progressive Radio Announcers presents “Get Off II: Hard Drugs Awareness Movement,” with Mel Blanc as Porky Pig and Yosemite Sam
Joe Bataan—Woman Don’t Want to Love Me
Los Amigos de Maria—Vuelve a Comenzar
The Beautiful Zion Missionary Baptist Church Choir—Make Room for Jesus
Bart Bascone—Makapuu
Slim Jacobs—That’s Truckdrivin’
Perez Prado—Tema de “Los Monkees”
Kaleidoscope (US)—Cuckoo
George Semper—Universe/Extraterrestrial Search Contact Tones/ET, Where RU?

The New Society Group—Soulful Strut
Bubble Puppy—Hot Smoke and Sassafrass
Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr.—Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Delegates—Convention ‘72
Googie Rene Combo—Soul Zone ‘65
New Colony Six—At the River's Edge
Dave & Ansil Collins—Double Barrel
Mashmakhan—As Years Go By
Buckinghams—Virginia Wolf
Herbie Hancock—The Naked Camera
Ronald P. Gasen Productions—Getting it on Sexually
Barbara Markay—It’s All Right to F*** All Night (uncensored version)


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Did He...Er...Say That?

Len Kasper, Cubs telecaster, introducing tonight's Chicago/Milwaukee game at Miller Park, home of the human "sausage races": "Gentlemen, start your weiners!"