Tuesday, November 15, 2016


                Every baseball fan fancies himself a scout and I am no exception. While my credentials to the title may be lacking in some respects, I’ve seen a lot of ballgames and have this blog with which to broadcast my observations.  I also have close at hand the Arizona Fall League, maybe the best place ever to practice the scout’s art.

                Regular readers of this space know about the Fall League, but for others a brief recap. It’s the minor-league finishing school for top prospects that runs annually for six weeks, from the second week in October through the third week in November, this year ending on Saturday. Each of the 30 Major League teams assigns seven players to the circuit, usually Class A or AAers between the ages of 20 and 23. They are formed into six teams of 35 players that each play a 32-game schedule. Scores are kept, standings are maintained and a champion is crowned, but the real point is individual performance. The kids play for the scouts— the real ones more than the pretenders—with a big-league berth in a year or so as the prize. About 60% of them eventually make it, so it’s a worthwhile exercise.

                It doesn’t hurt that the league functions when the Phoenix area is at its best. Prime tourism time here is from Thanksgiving through Easter, but during AFL season the weather is closest to perfect, with temperatures in the 80s or low 90s, low humidity and dreamy blue skies that invite poetic descriptions.  If you’re a ballplayer in your early 20s, getting paid and playing mostly day games, and with the Scottsdale bars to graze in, it’s about as close to paradise as it gets.

                Spectators have it good, too. Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors), parking is close and free and with attendance of less than 1,000 for most games in our excellent spring-training parks you can sit anywhere you want.  If your voice carries, you can share your opinions with the umps, players and your fellow fans, for better or worse.

                Every Fall League has its star, but this year’s is unusual. It’s TIM TEBOW, the famously pious ex-quarterback who, at age 29 and not having played organized baseball since high school, decided to give the professional game a whirl. The New York Mets indulged him with a minor-league contract and assigned him to the Scottsdale Scorpions, their Fall League club.

                Tebow made an immediate splash by performing a miracle. Before a first-week game a fan in line for his autograph fell to the ground with some sort of seizure. Tebow (and others, I’d guess) prayed for him and the man quickly recovered. That was a miracle, right? Local TV and some social media outlets said it was. You could look it up.

                But Tebow’s chances for sainthood appear better than his baseball outlook. He’s a big, impressive-looking guy, an athlete for sure, but while he looked like Tarzan he’s played like Jane. As of Sunday he was 8 for 51 at the plate with just two extra-base hits and 15 strikeouts, and his .157 batting average was the league’s second-worst for players with an appreciable number of at-bats.

                I saw him play twice, once as a designated hitter and once in left field. He had two fielding chances while I watched, one a fly ball that clanked off his glove after a short run and another on which he turned the wrong way twice and allowed to drop. Neither was scored as an error but both could have been.  One only can hope he has a Plan C.

                Among the actual prospects, GLEYBER TORRES, a Venezuelan shortstop in the New York Yankees’ chain, was the clear standout.  This was no surprise because he was the Yanks’ key acquisition in the mid-season trade that bought the monster relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs. Not yet 20 years old, Torres is quick of both foot and bat and led the AFL in hitting (at .382) as of Sunday. The Cubs could give up Torres because their brilliant Addison Russell has a 10-year lease on the position, but I’m sure the separation was painful nonetheless.

                Shortstops are the best athletes on most teams, and two more excelled here. NICK GORDON, a look-alike of older brother Dee Gordon, is a skinny, live-bodied 21-year-old who was the Minnesota Twins’ first choice in the 2014 amateur draft. He’s played well in 2 ½ minor league seasons, and should be a Twin by 2018. Another Venezuelan, 20-year-old FRANKLIN BARRETO, also appears to have the goods for the Oakland A’s, even though his arm marks him as a probable second baseman.

                 A trio of outfielders showed well when I was watching. ANTHONY ALFORD was primarily a college football player (at quarterback) for his first two years out of high school in Mississippi before opting for full-time baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays’ chain.  He has a way to go fundamentally, but he’s athletic and, at age 21, has time to develop.  GREG ALLEN, 23, a Cleveland Indians’ chattel, is swift and hits the ball hard. TYLER O’NEILL, 21, of the Seattle Mariners, is a kind of pocket rocket at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, but takes his at-bats seriously and swings big. His 56 home runs in his last two minor-league seasons (at Class A and AA) showed what he can do when he connects.
                There’s always room in the Bigs for good catchers and the Minnesota Twins’ MITCH GARVER looks like one. Solidly built, and possessing some batting power, he threw out three consecutive would-be base stealers in a game I attended, a rarity even at the Major League level. He’s 25, old for a Fall Leaguer, but catchers usually take longer than other players to develop.
               As a Cubs’ fan I take particular interest in their Fall Leaguers, but this year’s group didn’t sparkle. IAN HAPP, their first-round draft choice (the ninth pick overall) in 2015, looked competent but not exceptional at second base, and VICTOR CARATINI, from Puerto Rico, performed similarly at catcher and first base. The Cubs are well-stocked at all those positions so probably will use the two youngsters in trade.

               Pitchers are hard to scout in the AFL because they perform only every third or fourth game, and then for but a few innings, but I saw a couple I liked. FRANKIE MONTAS, 23, from the Oakland A’s chain by way of the Dominican Republic, is a big, heavy guy in the C.C. Sabathia mold, and while the right-hander didn’t blow batters away he got all but one out in the five innings I saw him.
               MICHAEL KOPECH, 20, does blow them away but sometimes lets a few slip. I watched him pitch 3 1/3 remarkable innings in which he walked six hitters and hit one but allowed no runs. The Boston Red Sox farmhand has struck out 20 in 17 innings here, and will be dangerous once he gets his act together.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


                Can you spell “vichyssoise,” the potato soup? I couldn’t, so I looked it up. Then I put it in the answer boxes of a recent New York Times crossword puzzle.
                Did I cheat when I did that? Some might say yes but I say no. I think it’s okay to check the spelling of a crossword answer that I’m pretty sure is right. I do that for some foreign words and for English words of which I’m not sure, such as whether a feudal lord is a “leige” or, correctly, a “liege.”  That’s why they print dictionaries.
                I bring this up because I love to do crosswords and spend a good deal of time at it; an inordinate amount, really. John Updike famously said that life is too short for crosswords, and I’m sure he was right, but I’m also sure he did them, because he was a wordsmith. I’m one, too (albeit a lesser one than he), and am similarly driven.

                Indeed, as I wrote in a previous (2009) blog that a few faithful readers might recall, I’m a kind of crossword snob, deigning to do only the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday puzzles in the New York Times. (I used to do the Wall Street Journal’s Friday puzzle but stopped when they canceled my legacy subscription.)  I pay up (close to $1,000 a year) to subscribe to the Times, and while I’m a great fan of the paper I’m not sure I’d continue it if the crossword were dropped or changed in any substantial way.  I’m certain there are many people like me, so I don’t think they’ll be doing that. I’m further heartened by the knowledge that Will Shortz, the Times’ wonderful puzzles editor, is a good bet to outlive me.
             I don’t claim to be the sort of whiz who can zip through the Saturday offering (usually the toughest) in something like six minutes and 40 seconds. Rather, I’m a grinder who wears ‘em down through tenacity. I usually can finish a puzzle in one sitting of, maybe, an hour, but when I can’t I’m content to put it aside, rest my mind, and have more goes at it until I succeed. I’ve been stumped for longer than a day before the light goes on and I can fill in the remaining boxes. More than once that’s happened at 3 a.m. or somesuch, but it’s worth waking up for.

                Nonpuzzlers should know that what makes a puzzle difficult isn’t so much its answers as its questions. The tougher ones make one stretch for the third or fourth definitions of a word or look at the clues obliquely to discern their meaning.  When done cleverly, as often is the case with the Times’ offerings, a right answer can elicit a smile. For example, the answer to the clue “one may be built around a police station” was “tvdrama.“  The answer to the clue “it’s well positioned” was “oil rig.”  Cute, huh?

                Just about every puzzle worth doing contains clues one can’t quickly decipher. Ideally, one reasons them out with the help of letters from answers that have been completed.  Nobody knows everything, though, so sometimes that doesn’t work and outside help is needed. That’s where ethical questions arise.

                I’ve given this matter some thought (hey, I’m retired and have little else to do) and have come up with a list of do’s and don’ts to govern my puzzling. I think it’s okay to:

                --Use my regular dictionary to confirm the spelling of words with which I’m not familiar (see above).

--Use my crossword dictionary to find tedious matters of fact one can’t figure out on one’s own, such as the names of Nobel Prize winners long past or the capitals or currencies of obscure countries. (For example, Rabindranath Tagore was the 1913 Nobelist in literature, the capital of Zambia is Lusaka and the country’s monetary units are the ngwee and the kwacha.)

--Use my library to fill out or confirm things like quotations from Shakespeare or the Bible.

--Ask for help from anyone within the sound of my unamplified voice. (Wife Susie is an expert on food and stepson Marc, when he’s handy, knows about all there is to know about rock, blues and pop music.)

It’s not okay to:

--Phone or email outside experts for help.

--Use the crossword dictionary for help with synonyms, the stuff of most puzzle answers.

--Type the clue into my computer’s Google box and go to one of the numerous puzzle help sites for the answer.

Are my rules more lax than those of more-accomplished puzzlers? Probably, but I don’t aspire beyond my limits. Do I ever break them? Of course I do, as a last resort, to scratch the itch of curiosity, but I take no pleasure from any solutions obtained thereby. Crosswords, after all, are games one plays against oneself, so the cheater and victim are one and the same.