Among the hundreds of year-long baseball blogs that have proliferated in the post-daily newspaper world of communication, one of the most acute, and respectful, is called Shysterball, run by a 34-year-old Midwesterner named Craig Calcaterra. Married with two toddlers, Calcaterra earns his living as a civil litigation lawyer in Columbus, Ohio. He was born in Flint, MI, and moved to West Virginia when he was 11, and then went on to graduate from Ohio State and George Washington University Law. The prolific blogger also writes about non-baseball topics at craigcalcaterra.blogspot.com. This fan, who interviewed Calcaterra by email over the weekend, checks in on Shysterball three or four times a day.
SPLICE TODAY: Did you play little league baseball as a kid? And if so, what's your singular memory from that experience? What was the sports culture like in West Virginia when you were a teenager, and what professional sports teams did your contemporaries root for, since there are no major franchises in the state?
CRAIG CALCATERRA : I played little league and Babe Ruth (13-15 year-olds), but didn't go on to play high school ball. I just wasn't fast or coordinated enough to keep up with it, really, and no matter what they tell you, desire can only get you so far. I enjoyed it though, even when I was scuffling. Singular memory: My brother, who is two years older than me, played on my first little league team. He was the exact opposite of me: supremely talented, but not all that interested. I was playing in my first or second game when I got hit in the back by the opposing pitcher. It wasn't dirty or anything—no one has control when they're 11—and I took my base. In the next half inning, my brother is on the mound and the other team's pitcher comes to bat. Curt was jawing at him as he walked to the plate and beaned the kid in the helmet with his first pitch and all hell broke loose. It wasn't anyone's proudest moment—my Mom was appalled; Curt was ejected and suspended—but it certainly stuck with me.
We actually lived in two very different places in West Virginia: Parkersburg, which is up on the Ohio River, when I was in junior high and Beckley, which is down in the mountains, for high school. Parkersburg was like anywhere else. Football was the glamour sport and jock culture reigned stereotypically supreme. Beckley was way different. The place was basketball crazy because my high school was a traditional state power, but everything else took a back seat to hunting and NASCAR. As for fandom, there are scant few professional loyalties there, and everyone's rooting interest is idiosyncratic at best. We got about 50 Reds games a year on TV so there was a smattering of that, but kids were just as likely to be into the Cardinals because their dad went to high school with Steve Swisher or into the Braves because they were the closest thing to a southern team and were on TV all the time. That's how I adopted Atlanta in the mid-80s, anyway.
ST: Tell us about your memories of Tiger Stadium and your first game there, as a squirt who spent your early years in Michigan. How many baseball stadiums have you been to as a lifelong fan? Which current ballpark is your favorite venue, both in ambiance and design? Least favorite?
CC: Current Braves fandom notwithstanding, the Ralph Houk/Sparky Anderson Tigers form the basis of my baseball DNA. I had a great uncle named Harry Dorfman who had season tickets going back to the 1940s, so we were always right behind home plate. My parents tell me that I went to my first game in Tiger Stadium on the Fourth of July, 1978, but I don't remember a thing about it. The first one I do remember was June 17, 1979 against the Angels, when I was almost six years old. I had to click back to Baseball-Reference.com to find the box score, but I have a distinct memory of Alan Trammell hitting a home run, so he instantly became my favorite player. Between then and when we moved away in 1985 I probably saw 30-40 games there. While there is obvious nostalgia associated with that place for me, I remain convinced that it was the best ballpark in the history of the game. The fans were close to the field. It smelled of beer and cigars, and that's just how a ballpark should smell. While it's not fashionable now, the fact that the field was fully enclosed made the place truly special. It made it easy to shut out the outside world and focus only on baseball. It helped you to suspend disbelief.
I've not been to as many stadiums as a lot of baseball-crazy people I know. Thirteen: Tiger Stadium; Camden Yards; Veterans Stadium; PNC Park; Jacobs Field; Great American Ballpark; Miller Park; Wrigley Field; Kauffman; AT&T Park; Dodger Stadium; Angel Stadium; and Petco Park. Of the current ones, it's a close call between Camden Yards and AT&T in San Francisco. Camden is a better stadium in and of itself, but it's hard to top the setting on the Bay. Least favorite: Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. There wasn't a corner they didn't cut on that joint, the fences are too close, and it's facing the wrong damn way.
ST: As a (mostly) baseball blogger, do you think the national sports media concentrates too much on the East Coast teams like the Red Sox and Yankees? That's a common complaint in ESPN chats with Rob Neyer and Buster Olney, among others.
CC: I certainly used to think that, and still believe that it would be a good thing for the media to remember that there is baseball west of the Hudson River. That said, since I've been blogging I've noticed something: whenever I write something about the Red Sox or Yankees, the hits are substantially higher. I do not believe that this is merely a function of ESPN-created demand. There are 10 times as many Sox and Yankees blogs out there, and all of them do pretty well from what I can tell.
There are more fans of those teams and, as much as I hate to say it, those fans are more passionate than your average Brewer backer. For as much as I'd like to see equal time for Oakland and Kansas City, it's helpful to remember that ESPN and the other media companies are businesses. There's a reason we see the Sox and Yankees so much, and that's because they bring in much higher ratings and attract more eyes to online content. Do I like it? No, but that's just how it is, and it will continue to be that way until either (a) those teams crater competitively; or (b) someone in the Midwest figures out how to make the places where all the people happen to live in this country care about the Twins.
ST: You're a busy fellow, juggling a legal career, a young family and your passion for baseball. Does your wife ever say, "Hey, Craig, knock it off for today on the blogging. Let's take the kids to the zoo"?
CC: Not too often. I wake up between 5 and 5:30 each morning and go to sleep between 11:30 and midnight, and I get the vast majority of my writing done before 7 a.m. and after 10 p.m. If anything, it's my sleep that suffers more than my family or job does. I also have adhered pretty strictly to a no-weekend-blogging rule, so there is plenty of time for the zoo. I haven't asked her about it, but I think my wife likes me blogging because it keeps me from moping around the house and complaining that I don't know what I want to do with my life. To the extent I mope now, it's because I can't figure out how to get paid doing it.
ST: How did you come up with your nom de guerre of Shyster? It's a cool name, but seems rather sinister considering the fair and friendly tone of your blog.
CC: I started a legal/political blog about five years ago called Shyster (my Dad's family is Jewish, and they have always called every attorney a shyster, even their own, even when they're happy with them). That blog was a bit more sinister, or at least cynical, probably because I'm a lot more cynical about politics and the law than I am about baseball. I was still sort of updating that when I decided to write about baseball, and I figured that the baseball stuff would just be a sideline to it. Not wanting to alienate the 17 Shyster readers, I kept the same blogger ID and simply called the baseball blog ShysterBall. Realizing that I had nothing too terribly original to say about the law or politics, I quit updating Shyster and stuck to baseball. As these things usually go, you're stuck with what you started with, so Shyster it is. I recently started signing my articles with my real name because I wasn't really fooling anybody, but most of my comments and emails come addressed to Shyster, which doesn't really bother me at all.
ST: You recently speculated that any team that trades for Colorado's Matt Holliday this summer—if the Rockies are out of the race and shop him—might get burned, saying because of Holliday's home/road splits it could end "really, really badly" for the club that lands him. Can you expand on this? I tend to agree with you, and wonder, with the recent rash of long-term deals with young players like Ryan Braun and Evan Longoria, if we could be seeing a huge shift in the way general managers do business. Maybe this is the inevitable Scott Boras backlash, which would be fine by me. But I’m also curious about the motivation of, say Braun's agent, locking his client up for eight years (at about $47 million), when in several years he might be able to command a lot more money.
CC: The Holliday thing isn't about his youth and the money as such as much as it's about him being the latest in a long line of guys who aren't as good as many people think they are because they play their home games at altitude. It's quite possible that someone smarter than me will show that he's not some illusion of Coors Field and would continue to hit if he played at sea level, but right now I'm not seeing it.
I'm all in favor of the recent rash of long-term signings of young guys, simply because it more closely aligns salary with performance. By the time most players typically hit free agency they've already peaked—offensive players typically peak at around age 27—so whoever signs them are really paying for what they did, not what they will do, and that's simply inefficient. I also don't much care for the arbitration process as it's currently constructed, so if these deals limit the number of arbitration cases, wonderful.
The question of the agent's motivation is an interesting one. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, and said something to the effect of "while these agents may be leaving some money on the table, they are doing a good job of minimizing their client's risk of injury, etc., and making sure that if they got hit by a bus the very next day, hey, at least they are set for life." The afternoon I wrote that, I got an email from an agent who represents several big name guys. He said that I was right to a degree, but that we shouldn't discount a more sinister motive on the part of these early-signing agents, and that's locking in their commissions. Before the early signing craze, it was not uncommon for players to fire their first agent and replace them with the Scott Borases of the world as they approached free agency. Knowing this, players should probably ask themselves if the agent who advocates an early lockup is trying to minimize the player's risk or their own.
Photo by wescoasia
ST: What did you make of Billy Wagner's well-publicized comments about the Mets after they lost a tough 1-0 game last week? Wagner did some spin control the following day—saying he wasn't criticizing Carlos Delgado—but in the cauldron of New York's media it's a real storm, with stories about Mets manager Willie Randolph's job security on the line. Frankly, I thought Wagner (who's outspoken) was on-target with his frustration, although he seems like a throwback player. And, on the topic of aggressive on-field behavior, do you think MLB is too strict about pitchers plunking a batter in retaliation for the opposing hurler hitting one of his teammates? Roger Clemens—and we needn't dwell on his current descent into Pete Rose-like purgatory—never shied away from protecting his teammates, and obviously Hall of Famers like Bob Gibson were ferocious in that regard. Are players more pampered today?
CC: I think Wagner is right in an absolute sense—it is chickenshit for guys to duck the press and leave their teammates hanging, especially in a place like New York—but that his sentiments were the sort that should have remained family business within the Mets' clubhouse. That's on Willie Randolph in my mind. No matter how outspoken Wagner is, if his manager sets the right tone (a) the problem he was complaining about is never going to arise (i.e. Delgado et al will know that they have to take their lumps with the media too); or (b) even if it does, Wagner would have known that his manager would have his back and take care of the problem himself. People lash out when they feel like they have no other choice, and Willie Randolph has made Billy Wagner feel like he has no other choice.
The example of my brother having my back in little league notwithstanding, I'm not a fan of the he-plunked-my-guy-I'll-plunk-his convention, no matter how long and grand a tradition it has. Not to be too melodramatic about it, but the fact is that pitches have killed people before, so intentionally trying to hit someone strikes me as one of the more reckless things a ballplayer can do. This isn't foreign policy where a failure to meet aggression with force will lead to war, death, and destruction. It's a game, and the high road is always open for traffic, even if it is rarely traveled. Not that it's ever going to end, of course, but I'm generally for rules that try to minimize or penalize the practice.
ST: Switching gears, do you have a favorite presidential candidate this year? And do you think, hypothetically, that the country would be in better shape had George W. Bush taken the job of MLB Commissioner rather than entering politics?
CC: I'm an Obama guy. He's the proponent of some economic policies with which I'm not terribly comfortable, but I'm willing to deal with it because I believe that, more than anything, this country needs someone who can provide as clean and as credible a break from Bush as possible. The damage he has done to our standing at home and abroad is staggering. I actually believe that McCain would be a pretty decent president, but I think he's too invested in that which has occurred in the past eight years to expect that he'll be able to pursue the sort of cleansing course the country needs.
I'm guessing that the nation would have been better off if Bush had taken Bud Selig's job instead of the one he has now, but I love baseball almost as much as I love America, so I'd be despairing all the same if he had been allowed to fuck that up too.
ST: This has been, at least by my reckoning, a strange baseball season, with few teams, with the exception of the Diamondbacks, piling up a huge lead in their respective divisions. What team's success, or lack of success, has surprised you the most? And playing Nostradamus, with the season at the 25 percent mark, who do you think will make the playoffs and World Series?
CC: I'm probably not alone in saying that the Tigers have surprised me the most. No one thought they'd have a stellar rotation or anything, but I am shocked at how poorly Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and, to a lesser extent, Kenny Rogers—who I figured might fall off a cliff—have pitched. They should be a team with one ace (Verlander) and bunch of league average innings eaters, and that should be enough for them to challenge for the division title all year. Instead they've all sucked eggs, and when you have a whole rotation sucking eggs at once, there isn't much you can do about it.
Playoffs: In the A.L., the Red Sox, Indians, and Angels win their divisions, and the Yankees win the wild card. Why the Yankees? Because they always seem to pull it out, and I'm adopting the rule Rob Neyer adopted re: the Braves a few years ago: keep picking them until they quit winning because until then they'll always prove you wrong. In the N.L. I'll take the Braves, Cubs, and Diamondbacks as division winners and the Dodgers as the wild card for reasons I can't even begin to explain. The World Series will be Boston and Arizona, and the D’Backs will win it.
It's worth noting at this point that I am never, ever right about these things.
ST: Is Tigers' skipper Jim Leyland overrated? It seems to me, the success of 2006 notwithstanding, that he might be burning out his pitchers, especially Verlander. And do you think Dontrelle Willis will ever replicate his early success with the Marlins, or is his arm and confidence shot?
CC: I think Leyland's a good manager. I honestly haven't seen the Tigers enough this year to know how he's handling the pitching staff, but Verlander hasn't pitched an excessive number of innings over the past three years, nor has he really been overworked in individual games (only four games of 120+ pitches in his career, with two in 2006 and two in 2007). I think Willis' 2005 season was an outlier in that he had a good defense behind him and was hit-lucky, as the DIPS-ites are often heard to say. Between that and his injures and mileage, I don't think he can be expected to be much more than an average to slightly above average pitcher at best going forward. Not that the Tigers wouldn't absolutely kill for that right now.
ST: You've written that you have "mixed feelings" about Las Vegas, although you find it fascinating. I happen to believe that Vegas would be a great location for a struggling franchise—say the Marlins—but that isn't likely to ever happen because of the anti-gambling stance in the baseball establishment. What are your feelings about this and gambling in general? And, to stray a bit, what's your opinion about horse racing and boxing, two sports that are regularly criticized on editorial pages? I'm looking for trouble here, but I'd love see bullfighting in the United States. You?
CC: I don't think Las Vegas would be a terrible place to put a team, though it may not be as good as a lot of people think. Unlike football and boxing, baseball is not driven by big events. There are 10 times as many home games. Season ticket sales matter, and that's all about attracting the locals who will come on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, not the folks who drive up from L.A. on the weekend. I don't know that the stigma would be that big a problem. As gambling has become more mainstream in this country, baseball has, in its own way, become less sensitive about it as well. Players are allowed to go to casino-sponsored charity poker tournaments. Mohegan Sun has big billboards in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
Will it happen? I can't see it happening any time soon as both Miami and St. Petersburg appear to be ponying up for new stadiums. Oakland could still be a possibility as their deal with Fremont seems like it will never get any forward momentum, but other than that, there aren't really any candidates for moving. If Congress would repeal the silly antitrust exemption, a team would be better served financially speaking to move into Brooklyn or New Jersey. I think even Boston could handle a second team again.
I'm not a gambler by nature—I get cold sweats when I'm down $50 at a blackjack table. But I do enjoy Las Vegas for the spectacle, the people watching, and the occasional excess. That said —and despite a pretty strong libertarian streak when it comes to such things—I am disappointed to see gambling spread like it has over the past 20 years or so. I know it's more complicated than this, but I tend to assume that people make Las Vegas a vacation destination and budget an amount to gamble away. In contrast, it seems like citizens of Ely, Nevada, Great Falls, Montana, and East St. Louis, Illinois are blowing the rent money in corner casinos and video poker lounges on the way home from work. I've been to those places, and they're profoundly depressing. Not that I'm going to lead any prohibition campaigns or anything.
Boxing doesn't bother me because, despite the collateral damage, no one is forced to box, and horse racing doesn't bother me because, despite the collateral damage, thoroughbred horses are born to run. The Sun Also Rises is one of my three favorite books of all time, but I can't abide bullfighting. Once you strip away all of the romanticism—and you must, because from what I've seen, the bulk of the audience for bullfighting are people drunk on Tecate and blood lust as opposed to gin-fueled British socialites trying to recapture their pre-war innocence and optimism in the arms of a graceful, swarthy young man—I fail to see what's being sold other than rank cruelty.
A champagne-soaked Mickey Lolich talks with the media.
ST: Who was your favorite baseball player as a kid? Now? As a Red Sox fan, I can't think of another player who's as graceful, kind and generous as Tim Wakefield. There are other players who are true gentlemen: can you name a few that stick out in your mind?
CC: Favorite as a kid was Alan Trammell. Part of this was that home run in the first game I remember. Part of it was that he played what I considered to be the glamour position for my team when I was growing up. Greg Maddux has supplanted him in the past 20 years, but just barely. Two players really stick in my mind because I met them: Dan Quisenberry and Mickey Lolich. I met Quisenberry at a card show a friend of my Dad ran in the early ‘80s. Because of the connection, we got to hang out with him for a while in what passed for the green room. He was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. Asked me more questions about me than I did about him and seemed to really care about the answers. Lolich used to own a donut shop in Lake Orion, Michigan. My dad took us there to meet him one day when we were kids. He wasn't even supposed to be in—he was hands on, but not that hands on with the shop—but when we got there the manager on duty called him at home and he drove in to see us. He wasn't the least perturbed about it, and spent over an hour telling us war stories.
ST: Do many of your colleagues at the law firm share your baseball enthusiasm? Have you ever participated in a fantasy league? I tried it once, but it took a lot of time to do it right, and I wound up in last place.
CC: No one at my firm is anywhere near as into baseball as I am. We're in Columbus, and being over 100 miles from the nearest MLB team naturally leads to dilution in baseball fanaticism. Everyone here is college football crazy. I'm as big a Buckeye fan as the next guy, but you sort of have to be here a while to see just how insane people get about it.
I've never played fantasy baseball. Not even once. This year I am, for the first time, participating in a Diamond Mind simulation league. It's quite different than fantasy in that it's all run by a computer-based program on pre-season projections, so I don't have to care how Dan Uggla is hitting or whatever. My team—the Matawan Massacre—is two games over .500 despite having -40 run differential through 66 games. I'm not sure how that's possible, really, but I'm not going to complain.
ST: If you could change one rule in baseball, what would it be? And what are your feelings about inter-league play?
CC: It's not a change per se, but I'd start to strictly enforce Rule 8.04: "When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call 'Ball.'" The games are too long, especially in the playoffs. I've been watching a lot of 1970s and 1980s games on tape recently, and I was shocked at how bad the time in between pitches has become. While this rule is aimed at being punitive to the pitchers, its enforcement will also cut down on batter baloney (adjusting gloves, hats, nuts, etc.). Let's just play some ball already.
I really hate interleague play. It was a nice novelty for a while, but I'd prefer to go back to the leagues not knowing that much about each other until the World Series. Even worse, now that teams within a division are playing different interleague schedules, it's unfairly impacting pennant races. Why should the Braves have to play the Red Sox while the Phillies get the Royals?
ST: What's your favorite book about baseball? Favorite movie?
Geek answer: Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract. There's more in there than 20 other baseball books, and that's not even counting the sections explaining his then-new stat Win Shares (which I never really read). Non-geek answer: [Jim Bouton’s] Ball Four. Not because of the salacious tell-all stuff, either. By the time I read it, ballplayers had gone on trial for taking part in cocaine rings and the all time hit king was doing time in federal prison, so hearing about Mickey Mantle foolin' around wasn't all that shocking. No, what I liked about it was how open Bouton was about his own insecurities as a ballplayer and how honestly he described his desperation to hang on. Learning that professional athletes were, you know, human beings was very important to me and shaped the way I have consumed sports ever since. It has helped me with my day job too in that, like Bouton with Joe Schultz and the Pilots, I often feel out of place with my peers in the law and struggle to play the role I'm expected to play. Bouton figured out how to make it work, so there may be hope for me too.
Movie: Bull Durham, for some of the same sorts of reasons I like Ball Four. The game in Bull Durham is simply a game, and its participants are flawed human beings. Most baseball movies screw things up by following football story lines and dynamics. Bull Durham feels like the baseball season. It unfolds easily and comfortably. The highs aren't too high and the lows aren't too low. There's no "big game" moment and no heroics, which is fine, because those things rarely exist in real life anyway.