March 2013

Notes from San Francisco: Language barriers, Affleldt’s new book and saying hi to an old friend.

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Hundreds of reporters from all corners of the globe are covering the World Baseball Classic, which presents an assortment of challenges for the tournament’s organizers. The main hurdle? Language barriers.

I’ve never covered an Olympics, but presumably, Major League Baseball has ripped a page or two from that handbook in terms of handling the media during the Classic.

Every reporter, regardless of what language he or she speaks, will have access to every quote uttered by the participants on the podium. How this is carried out is fascinating.

From a media standpoint, the World Baseball Classic is organized in the same manner as a Major League postseason. Formal press conferences are held in an interview room before and after games, attended by managers and select players.

Unlike the Major League playoffs, where clubhouses are open to accredited media after games, clubhouses are closed throughout the duration of the tournament. That makes the interview room sessions essential to reporters who would have very limited access to the players without them.

As a result, press conferences are very well attended, and, compared to the postseason, each session lasts quite a while — often 20 minutes or more. What makes these gatherings interesting is how many different languages are spoken, and because the reporters covering the World Baseball Classic aren’t necessarily from the same countries as the teams that are playing in it, this could be challenging during a general question-and-answer session.

That’s why a World Baseball Classic media gathering can look more like a United Nations convention than a baseball session. Interpreters work simultaneously to ensure every person in the room is able to ask questions in his or her native language, to listen to questions asked by people who speak other languages and to understand the answers given by the folks on the podium, regardless of what language they’re speaking.

How does this work? Headphones are available outside of the interview room, with channels to select from, depending on the language you want to hear.

Easy enough for even reporters to understand.

The postgame scene following Puerto Rico’s win over Japan on Sunday was interesting. Japanese media had questions for the Spanish-speaking players and Spanish-language reporters interviewed the Japanese manager, and thanks to the interpreters sitting in glass-enclosed booths in the back of the room, everyone got answers.

When a question is asked, interpreters from the other two languages repeat the question, and when an answer is given, the same process applies. Reporters tune into the channel of their choosing and simply listen in.

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The players and managers also wear headphones, which enables them to get the questions interpreted if they’re asked by someone who doesn’t speak their language. This process allows for a Japanese reporter to ask a question of a Puerto Rican player and receive a full answer in less than 45 seconds.

The other extremely helpful part of World Baseball Classic coverage is the utilization of court reporters, who document every press conference and provide transcripts to the media within minutes of the conclusion of the session.

Regardless of what language is used to ask the questions and given the answers, the transcripts are all handed out in English.

Pregame press conference: Dominican manager Tony Pena, infielder Robinson Cano

Pregame press conference: Dominican manager Tony Pena, second baseman Robinson Cano

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Netherlands press conference: Curt Smith (left), Hensley Meulens, Wladimir Balentien.

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Book Club

At 33 years old, Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt is fully aware that he’s probably too young to be writing an autobiography when there are still so many life experiences coming his way. But he does feel he has a few things he’d like to pass along to young people, and he also seeks a platform by which to speak out against injustices in the world he’d like to help wipe out.

He had those two elements in mind when he wrote a book titled “To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice, and Major League Baseball,” which is set to be released on April 1.

The focus of the book is not necessarily on Affeldt’s life, although he does offer several anecdotal bits based on his own experiences. Simply, Affeldt feels that professional athletes (contrary to what Charles Barkley has to say about it), are indeed role models. As a believer in good living, leadership and doing the right thing, Affeldt doesn’t shy away from the responsibilities that accompany being in the public eye. He embraces it.

“A lot of guys say, ‘I don’t want to be a role model,’” he said before one of Team USA’s World Baseball Classic games in Phoenix. “Well, too bad. You chose the wrong profession. You’re automatically a role model. Good or bad, you’re going to be one.”

How many of us, at age 30, would love to go back to our 18-year-old selves and offer a little foreshadowing as to what’s coming? That’s part of what Affeldt, who lived all over the world as part of a military family growing up, hopes to accomplish by publishing this book. He’d like to act as a middle man of sorts to kids just now coming of age.

“There’s a lot of 15 to 25-year-olds that I think are a little bit confused when it comes to leading in this country and in the world,” he said. “I wanted to give a little bit of my perspective on what I think a leader does, no matter if he plays sports or not.”

At the same time, Affeldt does feel strongly about being an influence on athletes specifically.

“If I can get to those high school kids right now and say, ‘Look, as an athlete, this is what an athlete is going to act like. This is what an athlete should act like,’” he said. “Sometimes when you watch TV you don’t always see what an athlete is supposed to act like, but I would like to share a different way of being an athlete.”

Part of this involves paying it forward. Affeldt has been actively involved in a number of charitable causes in recent years, including the Not For Sale/Free2Play Foundation, which is driven to rid the world of human trafficking, genocide and slavery, much of it in less-developed countries.

In 2005, he founded “Generation Alive,” a movement of young people responding to the needs of other young people. In 2010, he was the Giants’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award.

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Where are They Now?

For those of you watching the World Baseball Classic game between the Dominican Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Monday: What was the first thing you thought of as you watched Moises Sierra dive into the stands to make the catch in left field that ended the first inning?

If you said “Steve Bartman,” you’re probably not alone.

It’s quite possible that for the rest of human civilization as we know it, any time a ballplayer makes a catch while interfering with a foul ball-seeking fan, images of Bartman and that fateful 2003 NLCS game between the Cubs and Marlins will come to mind.

So you had to appreciate that following Sierra’s catch, the cameras immediately panned to Moises Alou, whose brush with fan interference during that Cubs playoff game nearly a decade ago didn’t turn out quite as well. Alou was easy to find for this camera shot — as the general manager of the Dominican Republic team, he was in the dugout during the game. (He’s also pictured above, on the left.)

Alou’s full-time job is serving as the GM of Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. He also moonlights as a batting practice shagger, as evidenced by this photo taken Monday afternoon at AT&T Park:

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Triggerettes, Earthmen, epic homers and soul-crushing losses: Brownie’s new book covers all the bases.

I always said if I could hop on a time machine and live through whatever era of Astros baseball I wanted, I’d definitely plant myself around the 1986 team. It had everything — personality, fun, a little intellect sprinkled in here and there, and, most importantly, those zany guys won 96 games. What could be better?

But after reading through Bill Brown’s new book chronicling five decades of Houston baseball, I’m thinking I’d like to try out 1964-ish, just before the Colt .45s moved out of their smoking hot, skeeter-infested outdoor stadium and into their new air-conditioned domed wonder.

It’s not that I’m anxious to witness outdoor baseball in Houston in August. Goodness no. I just think it would be fun to be a Triggerette.

Tiggerettes were, as best as I can tell, neatly dressed and presumably perfectly coifed young women who guided patrons to their seats. They fit in with a full-blown Wild West vibe that was working at Colt Stadium back in those days, when parking attendants wore orange Stetsons and workers in The Fast Draw Club dressed in old-style saloon attire.

Had I made it through a sweltering summer at the old ballpark, I probably would have had a good chance to make the cut and move with the team to the Astrodome. But I would have had to change my title from Triggerette to Space-ette, a small price to pay considering the Stetson-wearing parking attendants were renamed Space Finders, and if you wanted to be part of the grounds crew, you had to answer to “Earthman.”

You have to love how different things were back then. The notion that an entire baseball team would dress in matching blue suits and pose on the steps of their team plane HOLDING GUNS (guns!) sounds absurd in today’s age, of course. But that’s part of why history is so fascinating. It takes us back to a time that was, more or less, completely foreign to anything that has to do with everyday life as we currently know it.

Brown’s book, “Deep in the Heart: Blazing a Trail from Expansion to the World Series,” was a labor of love he started years ago, and with the assistance of co-author and Astros employee Mike Acosta, the longtime Astros broadcaster has produced a fabulous 192-page pictorial look back at Houston’s 50-plus years of baseball history.

The book will be ready for sale on March 31 — Opening Night — at Minute Maid Park. The cost will be $39.95.

How long and hard did Brownie work on this book? He pretty much summed it up with this comment to MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart:

“If there were such a thing as a woman being pregnant for three years and being relieved when she finally has a baby, it’s somewhat akin to that.”

What took this book so long to complete is probably what makes it so good: it seems that Brownie talked to every living figure who significantly contributed to Astros history. As you thumb through, you’ll find descriptions of every epic moment in history, told by the very people who were directly involved.

I loved Billy Hatcher describing his 14th-inning home run in Game of the NLCS as “probably the closest thing I’ll ever do to get to heaven.” Brad Ausmus gave some great insight into the 18-inning Division Series clincher in ’05, which ended with a Chris Burke home run into the Crawford Boxes. Larry Dierker, a gifted writer in his own right, is quoted multiple times throughout the book — fitting, given how much he has been a part of every decade of the franchise’s history.

Brownie was kind enough to send along a few pages so we can give you a sneak peek of “Deep in the Heart.” For die-hard fans (and newbies too), this will make a great keepsake.

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Most players can’t wait to retire, until they actually do it.

Lance Berkman always thought he'd embrace retirement. Then why is he still playing?

Lance Berkman always thought he’d embrace retirement. Then why is he still playing?

I’m usually skeptical when a player retires from baseball while he’s still producing at a high level, but in Chipper Jones‘ case, I really do believe he means it when he says he’s comfortable with his decision to step away from the game, with no desire to return. I just wonder if he’s going to feel that way in another year.

Jones appears to be a rarity. Most players heed the advice from those who came before them: play until they rip the uniform off of you. Loosely translated, it means play until 1) you can no longer can sustain the stamina or strength needed to be productive and 2) the phone stops ringing. (I once asked a coach who played in the big leagues for 18 years, “What year did you retire?” His answer: “Good players don’t retire. They play until they don’t get asked back.”)

It’s understandable that players start to feel the tug of retirement when they’re older and still active. Major League life seems glamorous, and some parts are. Money, charter flights and first-class hotel accommodations are all part of it. But in truth, after you’re in it for a while, it becomes a grind just like every other job. Time away from the kids starts to get old, and for those who don’t get out much on the road, the travel can be boring.

Still, it’s a good life, and most of the time, it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than anything these players will do in their post-playing careers. Part of the problem is that players don’t really know this until they’ve actually retired.

I was surprised when Andy Pettitte retired a couple of years ago when he seemingly had plenty left in his left arm, and I wasn’t at all shocked when he came back to the Yankees after a year out of the game. Pettitte appeared to have reached the same conclusion as others who are pondering getting out: nothing they will do after their careers end will ever be as fulfilling as playing Major League Baseball. Especially when you’re affiliated with a team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series every year.

During my years covering the Astros, there were two players who made it very clear at about age 30 that they were looking forward to retiring and had no intention to stretch their careers past the parameters of their current contacts: Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt.

Berkman was signed through 2010; Oswalt, 2011. Both swore when those commitments ran out, so would they. Berkman was traded to the Yankees in the final year of his contract in ’10, signed on with the Cardinals and won the World Series in ’11. He signed with the Rangers late this past offseason and is talking of playing in 2014, too.

Oswalt held out for an offer from a contender in 2012 and missed half the season but ended up with the Rangers during their stretch run. As of today, he’s unsigned for 2013.

So what happened?

Berkman said he wasn’t necessarily surprised that he felt the tug to keep playing, but acknowledged that talking about retiring is a lot easier than actually doing it. He has always identified himself as a husband, father and devotee to his faith first and a ballplayer last, but the reality is a lot of his identity is indeed wrapped up in what he does for a living. When playing baseball is the only thing you know, it’s a little scary to think of life without it.

Think about it: if a player retires at 40 and lives to a normal life expectancy, he has at least 40 more years to fill. When you’re first starting out, this all seems so far off. But when you’re 36, 37, 38…

“It’s a mental fight,” Berkman said the day before he left for Spring Training. “Is this the right thing to do? You don’t want to sell yourself short. There’s family considerations. There’s all kinds of stuff that goes into the vortex. Your mind is just spinning around and spinning around and you’re trying to make the best decision that you can.”

A big part of who he is, Berkman admitted, is as a Major League Baseball player. “When you don’t have that anymore, how are you going to react to everyday life?” he wondered.

While Berkman does have a list in his mind of things he’d like to do post-career, he also knows he doesn’t necessarily have to start now.

“Even for a guy such as myself who said for years, ‘It’s going to be easy to walk away,’ the reality is, it’s not going to be,” he said. “I don’t want to be too cavalier with that statement. It’s a pretty big thing and a pretty big time in your life. The flip side of that, I am kind of glad that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s other things other than playing baseball that are intersting to me, and you just don’t have time to pursue those things as a player.”

Jones’ named popped up in the news recently when Yankees GM Brian Cashman expressed interest in seeing if “Larry” — yes, oddly, Cashman referred to Chipper by his real name — would be interested in signing on as a fill-in for the injured Mark Teixeira.

Jones responded by tweeting that he prefers to continue his new life as a bad golfer.

Odds are, he’ll still feel this way next year, too.

Won’t he?

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There was something terribly appropriate about Houston Chronicle TV/Radio columnist David Barron describing a recent honor bestowed upon me as “big”, “huge” and “overwhelming,” considering the subject matter — my hair — has been described as all three (mostly at the same time) for the better part of my adult life.

My goal to not draw attention to myself or my towering inferno (another nickname given to me by a college buddy) ended when Barron inexplicably got on Super-Hair.net’s email distribution list. Now the secret’s out. I am indeed a two-time winner of the prestigious “best curls” category in the annual Crown Awards.

I rehearsed my best fake “Who, me????” while watching Anne Hathaway at the Oscars, just in case the secret was leaked. My acceptance speech involved two people: my great-grandmother Libby Goldman, for passing along the red hair gene, and Juan at Satori Heights Salon in Houston, for finding a way to tame this mess.

Other than that, I’d like to also acknowledge all of the support and encouragement that has come my way as I attempted to make a better life for myself and my hair over the last 30 years.

That means you, strange old man on the elevator when I was touring Ohio University as a high school kid. “I’d rather be dead than red in the head,” you said. You made my 17-year-old heart sing! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

And you, the legions of do-gooders who made sure I knew that I could never be a contestant on “Millionaire Matchmaker” because the host hates two things: 1) red hair; and 2) curly hair. Hopes, crushed. Those sugar daddies don’t know what they’re missing. But thank you for correctly assuming I didn’t know this, and realizing how important it was that I did.

And I couldn’t have made it without YOU, middle-aged, bourbon-guzzling balding sports bar guy with your sage observations: “Spiral perms are stupid.” Hear, hear, my brother. Hear, hear.

Lest we not forget you, weird stammering guy striking up a conversation with, “Yea, uh, my sister has red hair.” Riveting exchange, and something I’ll never forget, especially the awkward silence that followed. So, THANK YOU for that.

And to you, the kid who sat behind me in ninth-grade Algebra and asked if I was “keeping a bird’s nest in there.” Your guidance and concern has helped shape me into the person I am today. XOXOXO.

I’m truly humbled, not only to have finally beaten that pesky Jennifer Beals this time around, but also to be sandwiched between a world-class tennis player and the reigning “It Girl” on the Super-Hair.net web site. Pinch me!

Who knew life could be this grand?

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Braves legend Dale Murphy talks Twitter, the Harlem Shake and the Kardashians.

PHOENIX – Dale Murphy proudly considers himself a serial tweeter, a notion that was hammered home by one of his more than 40,000 followers with this tweet: “Follow Murph. He tweets more than a Kardashian.”

And with that, Murphy (@dalemurphy3) was off and running.

It wasn’t always a smooth ride. In the beginning, like most folks of his generation (Murphy turns 57 on Tuesday), his kids had to guide him through it. And once, he accidentally sent out a tweet that was intended to be a text message to his wife.

Fortunately, it was only about picking up eggs and milk at the grocery store. For the most part, Murphy, widely considered one of the nicest and most approachable players to ever don a big league uniform, is loving the engagement with the fans and relishes the opportunity to communicate directly with the masses.

“When I played, it was a little easier for people to have contact with players,” Murphy said. “Everything was toned down a lot more. There’s a lot more security now, understandably, for a lot of reasons. (Twitter) is an unbelievable way for people to have contact with current players.”

Back in his day, Social Media was unheard of. Murphy, currently a coach for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, played 18 years in the big leagues, mostly with the Braves, from 1976 until his final season in 1993. Back then, “tweeting” was a noise a bird made, “blog” wasn’t yet a word, cameras and phones were totally unrelated to each other and the #hashtag was known as a “pound” sign.

Nowadays, privacy is at a premium. Sure, people can still choose to remain out of the spotlight and under the radar, but the digital age gives those who don’t mind a more public image a stage to do so.

If it’s done right, Murphy said, Twitter can be a great thing for athletes and fans.

“Who would have thought you could interact this way with personalities and people and athletes?” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Rumor had it that Murphy wanted Team USA to be the first baseball team to do the Harlem Shake, and that he just may have mentioned this idea to skipper Joe Torre.

“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Torre said.

But  Murphy has cooled on the Shake. After all, it’s SO two weeks ago.

“It’s over,” Murphy said. “It lasted two weeks. It’s too old.”

More instant replay is coming in ’14. The question is, how much more?

Whether he's talking pitching, World Baseball Classic or instant replay, Joe Torre attracts a crowd wherever he goes.

Whether he’s talking pitching, World Baseball Classic or instant replay, Joe Torre attracts a crowd wherever he goes.

Major League Baseball implementing expanded replay in 2014 isn’t exactly new news, but every time Joe Torre addresses the situation, as he did on Tuesday, he seems to bring a new clarity to the situation.

Torre, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, is currently serving as Team USA’s manager in the World Baseball Classic. With his club playing at Camelback Ranch in Glendale to play the White Sox, Torre was again back in arm’s reach of curious reporters who are determined to get to the bottom of the instant replay conundrum.

It appears everyone is on board with the notion that more instant replay is needed. The question appears to be, how far should they take it? And, how much is too much? There are limits, Torre said, asking, “Do we want to get everything right?”

Torre obviously isn’t looking for bad calls to be made. He’s simply looking for a logical way to decipher what needs to be put under further review and what should simply be considered the human aspect of umpiring. Effusive in his praise of the umpires, Torre is not looking to stop play for every single disputed call.

After all, Torre said, even when play is halted, there’s no guarantee replay will provide a final decision with 100 percent accuracy.

“To me, even when you use replay there are going to be times when you’re not going to be able to tell,” he said. “Two guys can see the same replay and you’re going to get, ‘I see it this way, I see it that way.’ I think what we’re looking at is some of the obvious stuff that you can see right away. We certainly want to address that. But I don’t think we want to get into every single play. The game would never end.”

As it stands, the current replay rules involve judging whether home runs are fair or foul and whether a fan interfered with a ball. Possible expansion includes fair balls, foul balls and trapped balls.

The two elements that will never be up for replay scrutiny are balls and strikes. Torre has no desire to tinker with something that doesn’t need to be fixed, citing the umpires’ more than 95 accuracy rate in that department.

“You have to have something to yell about,” Torre quipped. “I don’t want to take the yelling out of this thing. That’s part of the color.”

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Instant replay has been a hot topic for quite some time, ever since MLB implemented it for the first time in 2008. I remember at the time hearing some fans use it as an opportunity to take shots at the umpires, which I felt was completely unfair and misguided.

The quality of the umpires, most of whom are universally respected by the managers and players, has not increased or declined over the years. It’s the same as it’s always been, and umpires make calls with a higher degree of accuracy than most may think.

The issues emerged when technology exploded. It started when TV rightsholders suddenly had the ability to install cameras at every corner of the ballpark and had 27 different angles when showing a play in slo-mo after the fact. This enabled the viewing public to see, immediately, if a call was good or bad. In my opinion, that was unfair to the umpires. They were watching plays unfold in real time and had a fraction of a second to make a call. If they made an error, it would take only about 30 seconds for the networks to let the entire viewing public know it, and even less time was needed for the fans’ wrath to reach the playing field.

Things became worse for the umps when the new ballparks emerged. In the old days, outfield walls simply went straight across and a home run was determined by one bit of criteria: the ball either cleared the seats, or it bounced off the wall and back onto the field. There wasn’t much gray area, making it much easier for the umpires to make a snap decision before starting the one-fingered twirl.

Today, uneven outfield walls and zig-zaggy lines define what’s in and out of play. It’s part of the “uniqueness” of stadiums. But what’s neat for the fans became headaches for the umps. I saw this firsthand at Minute Maid Park, where the crazy outfield dimensions made it, at times, impossible to decipher what was a home run and what just barely missed.

Implementing instant replay the first time helped rectify those issues, and there is nothing at all wrong with everyone acknowledging that the umpires indeed could use some help. It’s simply not fair to have them out on a tightrope by themselves while the fan base can see a blown call from nine different angles while standing in the beer line and watching the TVs on the concourse. Times have changed, and helping umpires evolve with the times should only be looked at as a good thing.

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