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NINE Magazine Baseball Conference Scores A Ten In Phoenix

The 25th annual conference of NINE Baseball Magazine was a rousing success in Phoenix last week. I find it hard to believe that it has been ten years since I delivered the keynote address, “Whatever Happened To The Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant?”

I still like the title and the idea - that baseball should be entertaining and fun, not a matter of life and death, not a vehicle for obtaining and showing off great wealth and celebrity. I’m a realist, though. In an increasingly violent and insecure world, baseball and almost all sports remain a high-growth industry.

One of the charms of the NINE conference has been there are no simultaneous panels, everyone can hear each other’s presentations without missing any one paper. Too many highlights to mention them all but here are a few:

**The opening night talk by Felipe Alou, the first Dominican star in major league baseball history. He talked about his new book from U of Nebraska Press, “Alou: A Baseball Journey,” with an introduction by Pedro Martinez. Collaborator/sportswriter Peter Kerasotis has captured well the rags-to-riches story of a man who is known to speak in parables.

**California Whittier College professor Charles S. Adams’s wry look filled with gallows humor at Seattle Mariners’ history and their lack of “an adequate myth”.

**Larry Baldassaro’s probing and good-natured look at Italian-American baseball players since the 1930s.

**Ed Edmonds and Frank Houdek's take on the California state law that actress Olivia deHavilland utilized to get out of her long-term movie studio contract and how it might apply to baseball players, perhaps especially Mike Trout of the Angels.
(Still feisty at 101, DeHavilland - who made her screen debut at age 19 opposite Joe E Brown in "Alibi Ike" (1935) - recently sued to prevent unauthorized use of her personage in a current movie.)

There was no keynote at NINE this year because Jane Leavy begged out for a variety of reasons. It turned out that the closing panel “Baseball and the West” sufficed very nicely as an alternative.

It featured three winners of the SABR Seymour medal for the best book of the given year - latest winner Jerald Podair for “City of Light” about the building of Dodger Stadium, Andy McCue for his monumental bio of Walter O’Malley “Mover and Shaker” and yours truly for my “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman”.

The fourth member of the panel was Rob Garratt, emeritus professor of Irish-American literature at the University of Puget Sound outside Seattle, whose history of the SF Giants “Home Team” was runner-up to Podair. Rob made the good point that Horace Stoneham doesn’t get enough credit for actually making up his mind to leave NY long before O’Malley did.

If I had grown up in Brooklyn, I doubt I could have had the dispassion to be part of this panel. When Branch Rickey was forced out of Brooklyn by Walter O'Malley after the 1950 season, the road was clear for an ultimate relocation. Banished to Pittsburgh, Rickey said many times until his death in 1965 he never would have moved the team.

I was a New York Giants fan but their players didn’t live in Harlem where the Polo Grounds was located. So the loss of the Jints of Willie Mays and company wasn’t felt as acutely as the departure from Flatbush of the Dodgers, many of whom made their homes in Brooklyn.

I was pleased that the evening was filled with reason and passion on all sides including very informed questions from the audience of around 80 people.
Baseball certainly needed to open up to the west coast by the 1950s. I still feel it was tragic that the cost of progress was the loss to New York of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry.

So I’m glad I was able to recite the lyrics from folk singer/social activist Dan Bern’s 2002 classic, “If The Dodgers Had Stayed In Brooklyn.” It opens:
“If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe things would be different today/
Maybe John F. Kennedy would have been president til 1968 . . .”

Another verse begins:
"If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe Watergate would be some obscure hotel/Tienamen [sic] square would be a square & Vietnam a vacation spot that travel agencies would try to sell . . . " (Of course those agencies are selling trips to Vietnam these days but that as they say is another story.)

Before I leave, I must mention that one of the long-time benefits of NINE attendance is “field research” as conference founder Bill Kirwin used to call going to spring training games. The must-see spot in Arizona spring training is the Talking Stick Salt River Fields complex not far from Scottsdale.

We saw the Milwaukee Brewers visit the Colorado Rockies (Colorado shares the complex with the Arizona Diamondbacks). Former Oriole farmhand Zach Davies looked sharp for the Brew Crew in his two innings though he did give up a solo home run. (Don’t get me started on how my team has been foolhardy in trading promising arms with little in return.)

What separates Salt River from other Arizona facilities is the quality of the concessions and the wide open spaces. They even provide free sun screen behind the center field scoreboard. Didn’t need much because it was somewhat chilly during my stay.

At a sparsely attended game at Mesa's HoHoKam field, where the A's now play, Willie Calhoun caught my eye when he roped a home run over the right field fence. He reminds me of a left-handed Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn former Astros star. Where the key player in the Yu Darvish trade plays is still a question. That's what spring training is for.

The only bummer of my trip was being unable to see the Arizona State Sun Devils play the opening game of their three-game series against Oklahoma State. The Friday Night Game is the big event in college baseball and ten NINE attendees looked forward to the evening.

However, we ran afoul of the rules at Phoenix Municipal Stadium where ASU now plays off-campus. Some of the bags and purses of a few members of our group were ruled too large. It became a perfect storm of frustration.
**We came by hotel van so no cars were available to store the offending items.
**There were no lockers available.
**We were told that clear bags were possible but we weren't season ticket holders.
Adding insult to injury, we paid for tickets but they were not refunded.

Written complaints have been filed but so far no response has been received.
I hope I have some news in the next blog. The ASU Ten of NINE will not be denied!

That's all for now as the regular season nears. So, as always, remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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Currymania Comes To Brooklyn - Coping with the No-Baseball Blues, Installment 4

On Sunday afternoon December 6, Davidson College alumni came out 148 strong to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to support favorite son Stephen Curry and the unbeaten Golden State Warriors. I joined the group as the guest of a special friend who breathes Davidson Wildcat red and black.

Curry did not disappoint, scoring 28 points, a tick below his season average. His 16-point binge in the third quarter broke open a close game and the Brooklyn Nets became the Warriors’ 22nd straight victim, losing 114-98. Curry shirts were sprinkled among a capacity crowd that were pulling for him more than the Nets.

The Warriors are, of course, not a one-man show. Former Michigan State Spartan Draymond Green is the fuel that makes the show run. He rebounds, he leads the fast break, passes beautifully (as do all the Warriors), and has an improved three-point shot. Not bad for someone listed at “only” 6’ 7”.

It is an unprecedented streak that could be jeopardized against the improved Indiana Pacers as early as Tues night Dec 8. [I was too pessimistic about the Warriors juggernaut.
They scored 79 points in the first half at Indiana, and never were seriously threatened in their 23rd straight win.]

Ultimately the Warriors will lose. The law of averages, whatever that exactly is, dictates the likelihood. Curry even jokes that they will lose before the NFL’s unbeaten Carolina Panthers from his hometown of Charlotte.

Yet the defending NBA champions and the reigning MVP in Curry don’t really want the streak to end - when the playoffs near it will be good for the pressure of the streak to be over. N.B. The Warriors don’t play the perennially contending Spurs until March 19 in San Antonio.

My Sunday excursion to Brooklyn was my first visit to the Barclays Center. It is an impressive edifice, looming like a neon spaceship directly outside the Flatbush/Atlantic Ave subway and Long Island Rail Road stops.

It is the location where Walter O’Malley dreamed of building a new baseball stadium for the Dodgers in the 1950s but the NYC government was in no financial position to offer him the land. (A complicated tale to be explored at another time but please don't think that NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was the main culprit in the Dodgers' flight.)

The arena inside is pretty awe-inspiring with good sightlines to the court from almost all of the seats. But as someone very cautious about steps, I wouldn’t want to climb to the nosebleed sections. I also wish that there were some variety in seat colors – I found the black and/or gray colors too ominous.

My bigger complaint focuses on the incessant replays shown on the plethora of TV screens scattered all around the Center. They were shown so often – always Nets highlights and nothing else - that the actual game on the floor was missed at many junctures.

My ticket was in the Honda hospitality center at one of the end zones of the arena. At times I needed to watch TV because sight lines to the court were often blocked. I realize there are not many Nets highlights this year - after the Sunday loss they are a disappointing 5-15. But there are fans of the opposition who like to see the actual live action of the game.

Basketball is no substitute for baseball, of course, but a phenomenon like Stephen Curry and the Warriors doesn’t come around often. I was glad to partake in a little of it.

I am also happy to report that my Wisconsin Badgers, after being humiliated at Oklahoma, won impressively at Syracuse and at home against Temple. Am hoping that Bo Ryan’s patient coaching will lead to another compelling season. They stand at 6-3 right now.

And Kyle Smith’s Columbia Lions finally won a close game on Sunday December 6 over the pesky Delaware Blue Hens. The final score of 82-69 did not indicate how close a contest it was.

After losing twice in overtime and once by one point and once by two points, the Columbia faithful were getting very nervous, at least this alum was. But solid defense emerged in the second half aided by a breakout game by freshman forward Lukas Meisner. 5-5 is not what a preseason Ivy League favorite expected, but the team seems talented and deep enough to make a run towards contention once the Ivy League season begins in mid-January.

That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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