Friday, May 6, 2011

Games and Enigmas

Last week, I watched Game Seven of the first round series between Vancouver and Chicago with a closet hockey fan. The man is a born and bred BC boy, more at home in a forest clearing in July than a sports bar in December, but it turns out that in the five years I've known him he's shielded a passionate Canucks obsession inside that woolly leprechaun exterior. Personally, I generally find hockey the most tiresome sport in the world - it's about sixth or seventh on the list of sports I watch on TV, behind poker, maybe ahead of the Strongman competition - but the game was pretty much the zenith of tension and drama. Not just a Game Seven, a double-overtime Game Seven, a Game Seven with the underlying storyline of a blown 3-0 lead, a Game Seven with three years of playoff history in the balance. Had it been a third- or fourth-round matchup, it might have been in the conversation for most exciting game in hockey history, and I don't mean that hyperbolically.

Anyway, so I'm sitting there on the couch, watching the game mostly for entertainment value, kinda rooting for the local team but mostly ambivalent, and beside me my buddy is dying - wringing his hands, screaming out in frustration every time the Canucks blow another scoring opportunity, changing the channel out of frustration during the Blackhawks overtime power play, only to desperately flip back every thirty seconds to see if the game's over yet. Watching him go through the agony, I reflected on my own agonies - nothing so dramatic as a Game Seven, sadly, but memories of myself as a neurotic nine-year-old trying to figure out how from my bedroom I could influence John Olerud to hit a grand slam. Miserable every time he rolls into a 1-2-3 double play instead, but forgetting all that when he finally comes through. What I realized on that couch is what the sports obsessive looks like to the non-sports obsessive. It's a question of investment. Inside every red-blooded male (and quite a few, if not all, red-blooded females) lurks a thirst for competition. To the rest of us, my buddy is elvish nature-boy, but at his most passionate he's just as much of a gamer at heart as I am. And even thinking back to the haters, the slacker-hippies who ragged me for my sports fanhood throughout high school and university...they were peacemongers, sure - until you got them in front of a console. Hell, even the pimply cynics I hung out with in junior high were sneaking off to chess club behind my back. Humans play games - it's what we do.

Way back before I went to university to read Richard Dawkins and Nietzsche and embrace cynical objectivity, I was quite superstitious. Apathetic toward organized religion, sure, but I did believe that there were occurrences in the universe which were inexplicable and perhaps supernatural. In that vein, I would find myself avoiding or repeating tasks as I cheered on the Jays. If Dave Berg fouled off six straight pitches while I was eating a bagel, I was convinced that as soon as I finished that bagel, he would strike out, and I would take smaller and smaller bites in order to prolong that inevitability. On one level I always knew it was absurd and ridiculous, but then on some level it's those absurd delusions that define the fan's experience. We want to feel that we have some control over the outcome of the game - that's why the temptation exists to use the fourth-person "we" instead of the fifth-person "they" when referring to a given team, to some grammar nazis' eternal chagrin. You could just go ahead and diagnose me as OCD, and maybe that would be fair, but to have superstitions like that is simply a way of investing yourself in the outcome of the game you are watching/listening/dying to. 

Anyways, watching Kyle Drabek struggling yesterday afternoon reminded me of a stretch during the 2009 season, where, finally living in Toronto again, I tried to pick and choose my attendance at Jays' games around Halladay starts, and yet for about three weeks I couldn't buy a win out of it. He was 10-1 going in, but first I watched him hurt himself against the Marlins and leave in the 4th...then he came back (too soon?) and the team lost three straight starts to NY and TB. I was only living in Toronto for four months - and a whole month without a Halladay victory? I started thinking I should stay home and watch Halladay on TV because - clearly - my regular attendance after three years living away from Toronto was what was throwing him off. I wish I could corroborate it with an anecdote about how I watched on TV as he finally shut down the Red Sox for a complete game victory on July 19, but I have no idea where I was for that game - I just remember the drought, and the fact that I caused it.

Up until recently, Kyle Drabek the Toronto Blue Jay was more myth than man to me. His September callup starts perfectly coincided with my work schedule for that month. This year, a couple of his starts came while I was working, a couple came while I was playing ball, and the one or two I was around for happened to be games for which I had no television feed. Eight starts into his big league career, Drabek had six quality starts and I had (more or less) never seen him pitch. Then, last Saturday, the amazing happened - I had the day off to move into my new apartment, the cable was hooked up, and there was a Kyle Drabek-AJ Burnett matchup on Sportsnet. So what happens? Eleven baserunners in the span of seven outs, and the shortest outing of his big league career. Yesterday - again, I can watch Drabek on TV, and again he gets roughed up a bit.
I'm sure his struggles have nothing to do with the fact that I was watching the past two starts, though my inner child wonders. Being that cold, cynical, university graduate now, though, I can look at his numbers and say that the good Kyle Drabek I heard about never really existed. He's allowed 25 walks in 38 innings this year, for an absolutely atrocious BB/9 of 5.9. Last year, the only pitcher who got any kind of innings and had a BB/9 that high was Josh Roenicke. It went with a sparkling 5.68 which landed him solidly back in AAA in 2011.  The only starter who had walk ratios at all like that was Dana Eveland, and we all know how that worked out. Needless to say, Eveland and Roenicke are not fun comps for the superstar prospect headlining the Halladay trade, though those numbers at 23 are a little less scary than they would be at 30. If you want a warm and fuzzy comp, Halladay's BB/9 at Drabek's age was 5.6 - but, of course, Doc's 2000 was the worst pitching year in the modern era, and required a rebirth of sorts.

So it would appear that I'm stuck: if I watch Drabek starts and he continues to struggle, Vegas can't be far away, and I can't watch him if he's in AAA. But if I don't watch his starts, then I'll never get see him pitch anyway. Kyle Drabek, like my hockey-obsessed friend, you're an enigma.


  1. Hopefully they'll have more patience with the Drayb than they did with Lunchbox this year. Haven't heard any rumblings and i think they have bigger worries with Reyes right now anyways. LIke the writing though man, keep it up. Check out my blog if you got a sec

  2. good article once again

  3. Thanks. I think Reyes is closer to being removed from the rotation, definitely, but my point is that Drabek's numbers really do not bode well. Wherever he does it, Drabek needs to find the zone more. Thing is, as soon as the Jays cut Reyes, then once someone like Drabek self-destructs we may well see more Scott Richmond than we were ever meant to see. That's probably a big reason Reyes is still here.