Sunday, May 20, 2007

Any reposting, reproduction, or other use of this blog entry without the express written consent of Galactic League Batball is strictly prohibited

So I've mentioned on here several times that I'm a baseball fan. Given that, it's only sensible that I'd take the opportunity to comment on Legion of Super-Heroes (fourth series) #37. In this issue, Thom Kallor, the former Star Boy, now the manager of the Naltor Dreamers, leads his team to victory in the seventh game of the Galaxy Series. I'm not reviewing the issue, you understand; I just want to talk about the baseball aspects of it.

A summary of the baseball-related action: the Dreamers are coming off a tough loss in Game 6 of the Series, a game in which their ace reliever, Ani Acker, gave up a crucial home run to one of the Toonar Pilots' hitters. Acker suspects that the hitter's 'handicap belt' was malfunctioning, and there are rumours that the Dreamers threw the game as part of a conspiracy with Starfinger, who had money on the game. Starfinger makes it clear to Kallor that he's betting on the Dreamers to win Game 7 and that they'd better win. Meanwhile, the Dreamers' starting pitcher for Game 7, Wechsler, has arm trouble and will be jeopardizing her career if she throws more than 100 pitches in the game.

The Dreamers are playing at home, and the game goes well enough for the first six innings. In the top of the seventh, with Naltor leading 4-2, Wechsler begins to tire after her 100 pitches, and the first two Pilots reach base. Kallor visits the mound, but doesn't go to the bullpen; he leaves Wechsler in and she surrenders a three-run homer to the next batter, Udolph. 5-4 Pilots. One batter too late, Acker enters the game and keeps things under control through the top of the ninth. In the bottom of the ninth, the Dreamers load the bases with two out for their big slugger, Wilton Wyke. Wyke hits an 0-2 pitch over everything for a game-winning grand slam, 8-5 Dreamers. But the Pilots manager, Offutt, smells a rat and protests to the umpire that Wyke's handicap belt must not be working. Kallor (suspecting that Starfinger has been somehow manipulating the handicap belts) supports Offutt and the ump calls for a do-over. This time, Wyke pops it up, but the Toonar fielders lose the ball in the lights. It drops safely and the Dreamers win 6-5.

My original intent on writing this thing was to check the baseball details and make sure that the writers didn't make any mistakes. And, well, they didn't, really. But there are quite a few details that deserve some comment.

First, the sport in this comic book, although it's clearly recognizable as baseball, is called 'batball'. Not sure why.

The Dreamers' stadium is called Greenberg Park. This is probably an allusion to Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Greenberg, one of the all-time greats.

Offutt and Kallor both address the umpire as 'Blue'. This is also how umpires are addressed in contemporary baseball, because of the color of their uniforms. But there's a Legionish twist here: the umpire in this game has blue skin (maybe he's a Talokian).

30th-century batball features female players in the major leagues. 21st-century baseball doesn't. But, you know, I don't know of any reason why it couldn't or shouldn't. I recognize that I may be in the minority here.

Thom Kallor's position as manager of the Dreamers is unusual, because he was (as far as we know, which is pretty far) not a professional ballplayer himself. But he's married to Yvyya Val, the team owner. This would never happen in contemporary baseball: Ted Turner, former owner of the Atlanta Braves, attempted to act as manager of his team once, and the Commissioner's office forbade it. Plus, the one thing a manager must be able to do is command the respect of his players, and that's almost impossible to do if you've never played the game. The Toronto Blue Jays recently had a manager, Carlos Tosca, who had an excellent record as a coach and minor-league manager. But he never played the game as a professional (only in college) and so he had problems keeping his players' respect. Now, Kallor has a bit of an advantage here because of his history as a Legionnaire. Saving the universe a few times probably partially makes up for never having played the game... but only partially. And I'm not joking.

The issue of Wechsler's pitch count is one that resonates very strongly with the contemporary game, even more so than it did in 1992, when the comic was published. Starting pitchers today are routinely kept to a pitch count of about 100. Pitching is, after all, an unnatural and unhealthy activity, and good pitchers are valuable commodities. The field of sports medicine is nowhere near a complete understanding of how to keep pitchers healthy, but it's clear that it's very dangerous to allow pitchers to throw too many pitches when they're tired. Wechsler's pitch count is entirely realistic.

Also realistic is Kallor's decision to leave her in to face Udolph. No good manager is shortsighted enough to risk a pitcher's arm just to win one game... under normal circumstances. The seventh game of the Galaxy Series is not a normal circumstance, and there's a saying in baseball: "Flags fly forever". In other words, if you win a championship, you've got it forever, and nothing you sacrifice to achieve it has been wasted. For Kallor and Wechsler to jeopardize the rest of Wechsler's career in the pursuit of this one game is perfectly justifiable; the Boston Red Sox made a similar decision about Curt Schilling's ankle in the 2004 playoffs and World Series, and it worked out well for them.

But leaving Wechsler in was not necessarily a smart decision. The most common mistake made by an inexperienced manager is to leave his starting pitcher in too long, to let the pitcher persuade him not to remove him (or her) from the game. Because no pitcher ever wants to come out of the game. The manager's job is to see the big picture and make an impartial decision about who the right pitcher is for the situation. Kallor does not have a long history in professional batball, and allowed Wechsler to overrule him into... well, we can't necessarily call it the wrong decision, because we have the benefit of hindsight; it's perfectly plausible that Wechsler could have retired Udolph, in which case we wouldn't even be discussing it. But it's certainly a decision that leaves him open to criticism. Grady Little of the Red Sox was fired in 2003 after a similar incident, in which he left his ace pitcher Pedro Martinez pitch too long and give up some key runs, in a playoff game his team eventually lost.

I like the detail of the handicap belts. It's a sensible solution to the problem of different species, playing against each other in different levels of gravity. And yet... I'm sort of glad that contemporary baseball doesn't have this technology. It would open up a whole can of worms that I'd rather leave alone. Consider: the belts are intended to ensure that all the players are playing on an equal footing. This is admirable. But let's list all the ways in which contemporary baseball is a bit uneasy about just who is on an equal footing with who. Even now, some people still believe that black players tend to be innately physically superior to white players, except at positions like pitcher or catcher (or quarterback) where more thinking or leadership is required. Some people believe that Asian players don't have the size and physical strength to measure up to North American players. There are players who are suspected, or known, to have taken performance-enhancing drugs. There are places like Colorado where the physical properties of the locale create different playing conditions. I don't think I want to know how baseball might now, or might have five decades ago, put the handicap-belt technology to use, if they had it.

But the big issue in this story is obviously the gambling. Anytime you want to do a dramatic story set in the world of sports, gambling's always a good plot element to include. I can think of quite a few baseball-related novels I've read in which one of the characters is coerced into throwing a game because he's tied up with the gamblers. One reason for this is that baseball did famously have such a problem at one time, and it ruined a great team and a World Series. I'm referring, of course, to the Black Sox scandal surrounding the 1919 World Series, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to lose the Series to the Cincinnati Reds, and were eventually kicked out of organized baseball for their trouble. Baseball took action to clean up its practices and image, and as a result, if there's been any serious suggestion of a major-league game being thrown in the last eighty years, I haven't heard about it. Gambling scandals have (permanently?) been shifted to a different level: Pete Rose has been banned from baseball for life, not for throwing a game, but for betting on games, a related but obviously lesser crime. All of that history is ten centuries in Kallor's rearview mirror, of course; the Galactic Batball League (or whatever they call it) presumably has different scandals and histories to refer to when dealing with gambling and throwing games, and we don't know any of that. So at the start of the comic, when one fan accuses Kallor of throwing Game 6, we can't gauge how plausible the accusation is. Do teams throw games a lot in the 30th century? What structures are in place to prevent it? We don't know.

One thought that just struck me. The handicap belts no doubt have to compensate for a number of factors in putting players on an equal footing, and one of them must be the different gravity levels of the fields of play and the homeworlds of the different players. So when Starfinger tries to make a dishonest buck by manipulating these things, who better to crack the case than Star Boy?

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Blogger Michael said...

Also, with it being game 7, you don't have to worry about keeping your pitchers rested for another game. How many times have we seen a starting pitcher come out of the bullpen late in the game because it's game 7? I can recall it happening within the last few years in the playoffs or World Series, one of which is Roger Clemens coming out in relief in the 16th inning (or thereabouts) to help the Astros a couple years ago.

Thanks for the writeup, I had forgotten most of the details of that issue. The character of Weschler, by the way, was named after Elayne Weschler-Chaput, who is now known as Elayne Riggs (you may recognize the name from around the comicsblogosphere).

9:49 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Also, with it being game 7, you don't have to worry about keeping your pitchers rested for another game.

True. Which I suppose explains why Acker was allowed to go three innings; unusual for a closer. I guess Thom doesn't trust the rest of his bullpen, which is also characteristic of an inexperienced manager. Cripes, Thom, if you're in Game 7 of the Series, you must have a few relievers who can pitch in a close game.

10:55 AM  

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