Crash Bag, Vol. 34: One Night in Pankot Makes a Hard Man Humble

The intro to this Crash Bag was originally a 1,000-word screed on how, when I’m dictator of the world, I’m going to put aggressively extroverted people in internment camps until they learn to leave us alone. I deleted it because it wasn’t very funny. But in it’s place I’ll just succinctly propose that we ought to have some sort of social education class in this country that teaches people to develop an indoor voice, for example, or to recognize the difference between someone who’s genuinely interested in what you’re saying and someone who’s just being polite. There’s nothing wrong with being outgoing and liking to talk to people, so long as you don’t abuse the introverts.

It’s time to get geopolitical.

@kalinkadink: “If the countries of Europe were a baseball team, what positions would they play?”

Okay, so there are 25 players on a Major League roster, and 27 countries in the European Union. Eliminate Malta and Cyprus, which are (I hear) fantastic vacation spots but pretty much worthless otherwise, and you can map one onto the other perfectly. This means I have to leave out, say, Russia. But nowadays, Russia is a right-wing kleptocracy of tax cheats, homophobes, luddites, racists, misogynists and drunks. Essentially, if you were threatening to move elsewhere if President Obama were re-elected, Canada isn’t where you want to go–Russia is. There you can have all the anti-intellectual disease-ridden failed economic state libertarian gay-bashing you like. In short, Russia has serious makeup issues, and I don’t want it anywhere near my European clubhouse. It’s like the Carl Everett of nation-states.

This response, I’m realizing, is probably going to border on offensively jingoistic. I’m sorry in advance if I offend a continent of innovators who would be the world’s political and economic powerhouse if they’d take some time off from going on strike and committing fraud and actually, you know, produce something.

  • Catcher: Sweden. The catcher is the brains of the team, the position player with perhaps the most responsibility of any, when you consider that he must hit like anyone else, but also play a thankless and demanding defensive position and manage a pitching staff. That requires a quiet, reassuring personality. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing several Swedes in my life, and to a man they’ve been extremely smart and extremely friendly and polite. The perfect country to handle a pitching staff.
  • First Base: United Kingdom. This is the position for the past-his-prime once-great slugger who is as of yet unaware of how hilariously his time has passed. The British like to mock Americans. “Americans are fat,” they say. Well, the British would be fat too if they had food in the U.K. that could be described as something other than “tasteless lump of prion-riddled beef.” Or if they had such teeth as are necessary to ingest food if they had. “Americans are arrogant,” they say. Well, arrogance is a byproduct of throwing off your colonial yoke, then building a country that could buy and sell yours five times over, then nuke it back into the Bronze Age, build it up using the worldwide American cultural hegemony that you seem to be so conveniently unaware, then buy it, sell it and blow it up again. Congratulations–we’ll see who’s laughing the next time you want your closet checked for Germans before you go to sleep, you insufferable, delusional pricks. Go get a constitution and then we’ll talk.
  • Second Base: Belgium. An underrated country, but any civilization built on beer and french fries is fine by me. The center of European politics, the Berlaymont building in Brussels can be the nifty double play turn. Not a country you can build a lineup around, but a thoroughly competent defender with good contact skills. Like Placido Polanco with the Tigers.
  • Shortstop: Spain. The westernmost country in continental Europe. People who think Derek Jeter is a good defender will tell you that good range to the left is the only thing that matters in a shortstop.
  • Third Base: Italy. Italy is like Roger Dorn. Occasionally it’ll hit a big home run, but defensively it only has fall-down range and hardly ever pays attention. And it will sexually harass female TV reporters. And the fans will love it because no one’s caught on to the fact that being a Reddit goon with a good tan and an androgynous name isn’t exactly the pinnacle of human achievement.
  • Left Field: France. The tempramental complementary piece that thinks he’s the franchise player, always gripes about not getting respect or hitting in the right spot in the lineup or his contract or some goddamned thing. We’re in NATO, we’re out of NATO and socialist, but we’re not going to align with the Soviet Union! We’re going to submarine the progress of the EU even though it’s been the best thing to happen to us economically since the invention of the beret, just to be difficult, and we’re going to complain when our own stupidity leads us to economic ruin. We’re back in NATO, but not for long, because we’re going to go home and take a three-hour nap in the middle of the workday. We’re going to claim (falsely) that we invented existentialism and pretend that it’s some major advance in philosophy, in the process enabling millions of high school boys with no friends and not nearly as much intelligence as they think to go around pretending that they’re cultured because they’ve read some Camus. If France were an outfielder, it would strike out 200 times a year.
  • Center Field: Denmark. Covers a lot more ground than you might think.
  • Right Field: Czech Republic. The third-biggest coal producer in the EU. You always need power in the outfield corners.
  • Backup catcher: Finland. All the nice things I said about the Swedes also go for the Finns. Nice, smart people who generally have their act together. Sitting on the bench might lead to focus problems, however, because this backup catcher might not be able to stop thinking about driving rally cars.
  • Utility infielder: Poland. Utility infielders are all about grit. Ain’t no country grittier than Poland. Poland produced perhaps the most insanely courageous and patriotic person in history, wrested the papacy away from the Italians and staged one of the grittiest, scrappiest political revolutions ever. Then they held up the Treaty of Lisbon because they felt like it. Serious defensive issues, however. But all joking aside, Poland is a good clubhouse presence, always coming up with handshakes and keeping everyone else loose.
  • Fourth outfielder: Slovakia. The capital of Slovakia is Bratislava. Which sounds like “bat is lava.” Lava is hot, which means that Slovakia sometimes swings a hot bat. A bench guy who can occasionally go on a hot streak and give the lineup some added punch.
  • Fifth outfielder: Greece. First they ruined soccer, then they ruined everyone’s economy. Ass nailed to the bench. Forever. I hear the beaches are beautiful, though. Who’s a really good-looking guy who’s really bad at baseball? Brennan Boesch? But I don’t think he’s even bad enough to be Greece.
  • Backup corner infielder: Portugal. I really have nothing interesting to say about Portugal. That Cristiano Ronaldo sure is a hell of a soccer player. I betcha he could have learned to play baseball if he wanted to. I know almost literally nothing else about Portugal.
  • Starting pitcher No. 1: Germany. You want an ace who can carry the team on his back. This is it. The economic powerhouse of the EU. The country that doesn’t talk much, but mows down batters with a variety of out pitches and eats up a ton of innings. Germany is like Justin Verlander, or Steve Carlton. Or Walter Johnson. Pencil Germany in for 35 starts, 250 innings and a couple jaw-dropping performances every season. This is a staff ace you can rely on.
  • Starting pitcher No. 2: Ireland. A real economic up-and-comer. Got off to a rocky start to his career, but is finally starting to put it all together. May never be able to be a one-man playoff series winner like Germany, but you can do worse later in the rotation. Like Poland, a good clubhouse guy.
  • Starting pitcher No. 3: Slovenia. Really showing promise after escaping, via trade, a historically bad clubhouse situation in the former Yugoslavia.
  • Starting pitcher No. 4: Luxembourg. No one thought Luxembourg had the size to be a starting pitcher. Boy, were the scouts wrong.
  • Starting pitcher No. 5: Austria. Kind of like Germany cosmetically, but not as good. If Germany is Roy Halladay, Austria is Charlie Morton.
  • Middle relievers: Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Middle relievers are interchangeable and unremarkable, just like former Soviet satellite states.
  • Lefty specialist: The Netherlands. Relief pitchers are said to be quirky and fun, left-handers particularly so. The Dutch have that reputation. Being one of the tallest countries on Earth helps, as pitchers are supposed to be tall. Plus it’s one of the most liberal countries on the planet, so the whole lefty thing…wow, this really is dragging on.
  • Relief ace: Hungary. Some facts about Hungary: Hungarians put their family name first, like the Chinese do. They were also once the world’s premier soccer power and a world leader in mathematics. That last part I can’t verify, but one of my college roommates was a math major who spent a semester in Budapest. He says the McDonald’s over there serves something called the “Sertéshús McFarm” that is, as far as he could tell, some generic pork dish. Which leads me to my next point: the official language of Hungary is a non-Indo-European language called Magyar, which is a bunch of fun to say. In short, I have no idea if Hungary would be a good closer, but I betcha it’d have bitchin’ entrance music.

@mattjedruch: “apart from Howard, which player will return to Spring Training in the worst physical shape?”

I’m thinking Josh Lindblom. Not only will he show up outrageously overweight, he’ll be unaware that he’d been traded and arrive in Clearwater instead of wherever it is Texas holds its spring training. If not him, then possibly Phillippe Aumont, who will have returned to his home with no hockey to watch, which will send him into a depressive spiral of Labatt Blue and poutine. Plus he’s so big he could probably wear another 20 or 30 pounds and no one would notice.

Speaking of Spring Training, the new batch of batting practice caps was unveiled the other day, and they’re almost all fantastic, particularly considering the previous affinity for bizarrely-placed piping. Except the Braves, (and you can scroll down in that article to find visual evidence) who turned out a preposterously racist throwback logo that had to make people tug their collars even when it first appeared on Braves jerseys back in the 1970s, when you’d stick out like a sore thumb in certain parts of Georgia if you weren’t vociferously racist.

Wherever you fall on the scale of Native American iconography in sports, that hat can’t be okay in this day and age. I like to think there’s a way that teams can honor that legacy respectfully, as a nod to local history and as a potentially intimidating team nickname. Maybe not, but I’d like to think it can be done without making a mockery of a people who have been, on balance, rather poorly treated over the past several hundred years. But this isn’t the Utah Utes or anything–this is a cartoon head that I’d half expect to be on a body that’s scalping a white pioneer woman. If you think we’ve gone overboard in being sensitive about such issues in sports, that’s one thing, but I can’t really see an argument for that logo being okay in 2013.

@patchak21: “What are your top 5 movie trilogies of all time?”

Whoa. This is a big question. There’s a lot to consider here, because I don’t know that there’s a single movie trilogy that I can bless unconditionally. Even the best ones have big questions. And there are so many variables to this question that it’s hard to give a definitive answer–can I list The Godfather trilogy even though I’ve purposely avoided the third movie because it was universally panned? The same goes for The Matrix, by the way. And how big a head start do I need to outrun those of you who are going to throw stones at me for not including Lord of the Rings? So I lay myself bare before you. My personal top 5 movie trilogies, in no particular order….

  • The original Star Wars trilogy. I feel like you kind of have to, with this one. There really is no great tradition of action movie trilogies without the original great granddaddy. And frankly, it changed the cultural landscape in a way that perhaps no other movie franchise has. To say nothing of the fact that all three (particularly Empire) were actually decent movies, in spite of their starring Mark Hamill and an adolescent Carrie Fisher, who hadn’t yet developed the world-weary and biting sarcasm that made her a rather hilarious actress and author later in life.
    The Star Wars movies were imaginative, action-packed, fun, funny, dramatic and overwhelmingly earnest. That’s one thing I don’t think we do enough in movies for grown-ups anymore, just go ahead and tell a story without any concern for whether some person on the internet, who in an earlier generation would wear black turtlenecks and smoke clove cigarettes, will make fun of you for telling it. Plus you get real growth in the characters, movie-to-movie, and one of the films ends on a really dark note, which I’m a sucker for. I might as well end this list right now.
  • Toy Story. I don’t know if Pixar’s original feature film and its descendants are so emotionally evocative for everyone, or just for people born between 1986 and 1991 or so–essentially, people who more or less aged with Andy. I still quote the original like the culture-changing cinematic landmark I’ve always believed it to be. This was really Tom Hanks’ nod to little kids during that time, in the mid-1990s, when he was ruling the world. While our parents were seeing Philadelphia and Cast Away, and our older brothers were seeing Forrest Gump and Apollo 13, we little kids went around screaming “There’s a snake in my boots!” and “Somebody’s poisoned the waterhole!” as if they were great literary moments.
    Oh, and two years ago for Christmas, I got Toy Story 3 on DVD and it’s still in the cellophane. I saw it in the theater with my then-14-year-old brother, and when it became clear that Andy would give his toys away, I lost my composure. Started bawling like a moron–rivers of tears the likes of which I’ve never cried. I’m talking about unabashed, snotty, eye-reddening sobbing. For that reason, I may never watch that movie again. So I can’t take a series that’s given me so many emotional highs and lows and leave it off this list.
  • The Christopher Nolan Batman Movies. I put this one the list with reservations. I thought Batman Begins was a pretty ordinary superhero movie, and The Dark Knight Rises was kind of long, sprawling and disorganized, to say nothing of losing the thing that made The Dark Knight so great: being a movie about masked heroes and villains that was at the same time remotely plausible enough to be truly terrifying. Maybe there were some technological leaps in The Dark Knight, but nothing so outlandish that it totally removes the viewer from the current cultural and political state. If enough things went wrong, you could almost imagine something like that happening in real life. And that’s before you get to Heath Ledger as The Joker.
    Though really, as great as Ledger’s performance was (one of only a few I’ve seen recently where I consciously took time out of viewing the movie to look for the actor who’d entirely disappeared within the character), it’s worth noting how brilliantly the character was written. The best villians, for me at least, aren’t entirely mad or entirely dark–they don’t menace you with physical violence for reasons you can’t understand. They threaten you emotionally, psychologically, and they’re always at least as smart as the goodguys, if not smarter. And you can always see where they’re coming from just enough to creep you out a little. So for one great movie and two above-average movies, I give this series my stamp of approval.
  • The Godfather. I haven’t seen Part III. But I loved the first two movies. A lot. I don’t think I need to sell y’all on the quality of those two movies, but this is mostly a statement of my disbelief that The Godfather: Part III can be worse than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Because I’d put the Indiana Jones trilogy on this list if the second installment wasn’t among the worst movies I’ve ever seen. And you can trust my word on this because I’ve seen Pootie Tang. I know what it looks like when a movie is so beyond-the-pale terrible as to cause internal bleeding. Kate Capshaw was as bad in that movie as Heath Ledger was good in The Dark Knight. Unspeakably bad. Her acting performance was almost as tone-deaf as the concept of the character of Short Round was racist. Even by the standards of the 1980s, it’s uncouth for the hero to have an Asian stereotype as a sidekick. Almost as uncouth as the Braves’ new batting practice cap.
    I watched Temple of Doom in a state of slackjawed bewilderment, completely unable to understand why any of the action on-screen was happening, and how a character as smart as Indy had morphed into the drooling moron he became in the second film. I guess it’s like they say: one night in Pankot makes a hard man humble. And yes, I’m ignoring the existence of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
  • Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen. Eleven and Thirteen were funny, exciting, well-acted films with the kind of taut on-screen banter that makes me shiver with glee. And I’m a little more forgiving of Twelve than most people seem to be because I thought the Julia Roberts-breaking-the-fourth-wall gambit was funny, rather than stupid. Though I might be biased. I know I exaggerate a lot here, but I literally don’t think I’ve ever seen a heist movie I didn’t like. I could watch heist movies all day, and these are three of my favorites.

One last note: for reasons that I’m not sure even I totally understand, I’ve never seen even one minute of any of the Bourne movies, so I can’t speak to their quality. Though I’m told they’re actually quite good. Good enough to jump the Mighty Ducks trilogy and one of those listed above? I’m not so sure.

@gberry523: “How much are we going to give up to bring in Vernon Wells and Soriano”

I hope nothing, because those guys have next to no value. Not absolutely no value, but both are being paid like superstars ($18 million next year for Soriano, $21 million for Wells) and neither has much to offer anymore. Wells, for his part, has hit .222/.258/.409 in two seasons in Los Angeles of Orange County of Anaheim of California of Earth. For a corner outfielder who doesn’t add anything defensively, “unacceptable” hardly begins to describe those numbers. Apparently he can still hit lefties some, but he can’t hit righties (who make up the majority of major league pitchers), or run, or defend. So Wells has extremely limited utility.

Soriano’s picture is not quite so bleak. He was actually decent last year, worth almost two wins above replacement by Baseball Reference’s reckoning. A 121 OPS+ isn’t that bad, even for someone who is, like Wells, a bad defensive corner outfielder. In fact, Soriano got MVP votes last year! He finished ahead of Carlos Ruiz, Jason Heyward and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton in last year’s MVP voting. Which isn’t really an argument that Soriano is a good player so much as it’s an argument that you need to find the nearest nuclear power station and remove the control rods from the reactor immediately, because humanity has simply become too stupid to be allowed to survive.

Anyway, I’d take either of those guys in a trade, as long as nothing of value is given in return (i.e. if the Phillies traded Domonic Brown straight up for Soriano, as had been rumored, I’d have been so angry I can’t think of an outrageous action I could describe to you now to signify that anger) and the Cubs or Angels pay almost all of the salary of whatever piece of petrified aged outfield detritus we’d have the privilege of watching for the next year.

With that said, if Brown, Jesse Biddle and Justin De Fratus all went away in trades for both of those players in which no salary relief occurred, it would not surprise me one bit.

@MichaelJBlock: “Any chance RAJ takes a flier on Ugueth Urbina now that he’s been released from prison?”

No, but you’re not the only person to make that suggestion. I can’t imagine any athlete, particularly one in his late 30s like Urbina, would be major-league ready after seven years in prison. I am kind of disturbed that someone can try to kill his gardener and get out of prison after only seven years, though. Even in Venezuela. But at any rate, the notion of Urbina’s making a comeback to major league baseball is farfetched, to say the least.

I will say this–I’m kind of intrigued by what might happen if someone who spent seven years in jail for attempted murder sudden showed up in a major league clubhouse. How would the media handle it? Would the local beat writers talk to Urbina after he blew a save? Would Kyle Kendrick talk to him at all, all season?

@JFerrie23: “if you could watch one player play again who’d it be?”

One player that I’ve actually seen? Either Greg Maddux or Pedro Martinez. I’m a sucker for really transcendent starting pitchers, the types of players who toy with hitters over the course of several at-bats or the course of a season. Particularly when there’s really nasty off-speed stuff involved. Both Maddux and Pedro changed speeds and got movement on their pitches, with a kind of kitchen sink approach to splitters, sliders and change-ups that I’m not sure I’ll ever see again. I remember in 1999, Pedro made a relief appearance in Game 5 of the ALDS and threw six no-hit innings to send Boston to the ALCS. I watched that game, and I knew at the time that I didn’t appreciate his performance for what it was. The same with Maddux, who I spent most of the 1990s being too young and too pissed that the Braves were winning to realize how great he was. There’s a host of players from that era that I could say the same about: Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens, the young Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez–I wish I could go back to when I started watching baseball in 1993 with what I know now and have that experience over again.

Though I’ve recently developed a fascination with Dave Hollins, so for all you know I might waste that one player to watch over on him.

All time? You could list 100 choices I’d have trouble arguing with. I’d want to see Mickey Mantle, because his is the name I use as shorthand for “once-in-a-generation great player.” One of my favorite parts of Ken Burns’ Baseball is the recap of the 1970 World Series, which is essentially a highlight reel of Brooks Robinson making absurd defensive play after absurd defensive play as if chasing down a scalded, slicing line drive and throwing the runner out at first were routine. I feel like I got a taste of that with Scott Rolen, but I’d love to see the genuine article. I’d love to see Jackie Robinson run the bases, or Rickey Henderson in his prime. Steve Carlton, George Brett, Bob Gibson, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Sliding Billy Hamilton, Christy Mathewson, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Eddie Collins, Robin Roberts, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Walter Johnson, Carl Hubbell, Lefty Grove, Babe Ruth…I guess I’d pick Mantle, given all of those choices, but I can’t fault anyone for disagreeing.

An interesting thing about baseball, compared to other sports: the game has evolved over time not only in such a way that the quality of play is higher, but that strategy changes. There are high-run environments and low-run environments, and such trends are cyclical. Like, I watch old Edmonton Oilers highlights and, if anything, I’m baffled by how little Wayne Gretzky scored, given the stand-up goalies and lack of shot-blocking. The same with Bill Russell–how didn’t he block every shot? Sure, if you drop Ty Cobb into a came with modern standards of equipment, conditioning and professionalism, I doubt he’d keep his head above water, but watching him play is as much about watching old tactics as it is seeing a great player at work. I love baseball.

@ChasingUtley: “what are you looking forward to in 2013?”

In baseball? Seeing put-up-or-shut-up time for Domonic Brown. Seeing the continued maturation of Phillippe Aumont. Watching what has suddenly become a very good and very likeable Toronto Blue Jays team make a run at the most wide-open AL East in 20 years. Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. More of Mike Trout. More of Yu Darvish. More of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. More of all of the Nationals, to be totally honest–that team is going to be sick nasty next year. More Justin Upton trade rumors. More insane managerial decisions, and more Keith Law rants caused by those decisions. More of Joey Pankake, and seeing if South Carolina can make it back to the College World Series without Price, Walker, Roth and Marzilli. More of trying to get all of you to care about college baseball. More of saying “Karsten Whitson” and “Vickash Ramjit.” Staying up late to watch several dozen A’s-Angels, A’s-Rangers and Rangers-Angels games on MLB.tv. Rooting against a potential St. Louis Cardinals dynasty. God willing, Jackie Bradley‘s major league debut. More fantastic writing on all of those stories.

Outside of baseball? I’m pretty geeked about Zero Dark Thirty, and I can’t wait for the next season of Mad Men. Maybe hockey will come back, or Andrew Bynum, or both. Jadeveon Clowney. The Ender’s Game movie adaptation. Personally? Finishing my book and trying to get it published. Moving halfway across the country and starting a new job. And getting married.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important parcel of Crash Bag news. For 34 straight Fridays, without fail, I’ve submitted, for your consideration, some rambling nonsense that’s at least ostensibly about baseball. Next Friday, that streak ends, because next week I’ll be moving myself and all of my worldly possessions to lands far away from here, and I’ll have no time to write my customary 4,000-plus words here.

So it is with mostly anticipation and some trepidation that I announce that Volume 35 of the Crash Bag will come to you courtesy of Ryan Sommers. So y’all can harangue him on Twitter with questions, and the Crash Bag should come out of this in better shape than Cameron Frye’s dad’s Ferrari.