Saturday Jan 31, 2009

Traceroute For A Bobble

I am appealing to the 'net for help in solving what has become a family mystery. Cross-posted to my sports blog as well, because I'm looking for any reasonable clues. And yes, I got the idea from Clay Shirkey's Here Comes Everybody. Not as exciting as a misappropriated cell phone, but perhaps of more interest to baseball nerds of all ages.

During 1960 and 1961, a series of 15 bobble heads were made representing 12 Major League Teams and 3 Pacific Coast League teams. They are made of a (now) brittle plaster or soft clay/ceramic mixture, much denser and more poorly weighted than today's acrylic bobbles. Some time during the late 1960s, an aunt (I think) gave this Minnesota Twins bobble to me as a gift, probably to appease me as I sat bored in her living room on a day when it was too muddy or rainy to play outside. It sat on a shelf for the better part of 15 years, then in a drawer, has been moved twice, and has remarkably few dings or chips.

I have no idea how it ended up with my family. I have four theories: (1) someone visited the Twin Cities in 1961 and got this as a stadium give-away, which seems unlikely for a variety of reasons; (2) a visitor from Minnesota brought this as a gift for one of my cousins, and my aunt gave it to me after it sat on his (or her) shelf for half a decade, which is somewhat less unlikely; (3) they were sold in other Major League ballparks, and a cousin bought it on a summer outing, with it ending up in my hands much in the manner of my previous idea or (4) the distributor or manufacturer tried to leverage local Topps distribution and left a sample in my grandfather's general store (the source of my pasteboard empire in the day), and my uncle (who worked in, and later owned the store) brought it home, where my aunt passed it along to me.

Option (4) makes the most sense, as my sole recollection of the bobble is getting it at that particular aunt's house, and nobody (that I know of) had family west of the Delaware River, let alone the Big Muddy. If we were getting in the car to visit, it was a trip to the deli and perhaps the beach, but not a baseball game in Minneapolis.

If you know any of the backstory of the 1960-1961 colored base bobble heads, leave a comment. I'm looking for data on how they were distributed or sold, how a Twin ended up on the right coast, and how to trace back the route of a giveaway item that now has totemistic value in my family.

Sunday Feb 03, 2008

Perfect Ending

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm much more of a hockey and baseball fan than a follower of the prolate spheroid. Four months ago, I went so far as to suggest that the Giants were done and that the Yankees had life. Right city, wrong sports analogies. This is great news for the Big Apple and environs (hey, the Giants play in New Jersey, in our favorite sporting swamp), and will help millions forget about public transit delays, subprime mortgage problems and even the current fate of the more proper spheroid-handling teams on both sides of the Hudson. We're all going to be walking around with goofy grins on our faces for a few days, even though most of us did nothing more than jump around in front of our televisions tonight.

Why?

Because 80,000 fans who tailgate in a parking lot overlooking the New Jersey Turnpike and a never-ending construction site, enduring rain, sleet, and failing escalators, never gave up confidence that the season would improve when it started 0-2 and nearly became 0-3.

Because perfection eventually ends, and when it does, we tend to remember the how and when more than we should. Perfection is one of those "none more black" states; it can't be one-upped, only lessened. A perfect ending is one you don't guess 19 weeks early, and it includes drama, hard work, and competitiveness.

Because this is the first championship won by a New York sports team since 2000 (yes, the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2003, but I'm being geographically specific: that side of Lincoln Tunnel). When I was being snarky about donuts, I surmised a reversal of fortune for the Yankees, as they were the last to hoist a big pile of metal in victory. Right turn, wrong sport. But I'm not complaining.

No Red Sox-Patriots-Celtics sweep this set of seasons. 2007 is over and done; I'm thinking that the Devils and either Yankees or Mets should join the Giants in celebrating 2008. That would be a perfect ending.

Monday Oct 01, 2007

Rules Changes Noted by Asterisk

I've been following Mark Ecko's on-line poll about the disposition of Barry Bonds' 756th home run ball with significant interest. If baseball is the fan's sport, then the fans should have some say in how the much-discussed record-breaking home run ball is displayed in Cooperstown (if at all). It will be one of the only votes the fans get, as the plaques lining those hallowed halls are officially decided by baseball writers, not decidedly baseball official fans.

I voted for stamping the ball with an asterisk for a very simple reason: it's how changes in the rules or the game have always been noted in the record books. Why not affix one to the most-challenged accomplishment in the last decade? Roger Maris has a star next to his 61 home runs, signifying a change in the number of games played in a season. There are footnotes and indices aplenty noting the lack of a World Series in strike-shortened 1994. Turns out I'm not the only one; about 47% of the votes Ecko collected were for branding the ball, and that's how it will make the trip to New York State.

Defacing the ball also stimulates inspection of exactly what rules were defaced: the ignorance of steroids in the game, the refusal of record-holders to come clean about their intentional or (supposedly) accidental use of performance enhancing substances. Several writers have argued that with even chemical boosters, Bonds, McGuire and Sosa all had to launch their own rockets over the fences. If they got an edge outside of the enforced rules of the game, then it's fair to assume pitchers had the same edge, and an edge is an edge, whether it's a longer season or bigger muscles. For me the argument comes down to respect for the game; the discussion to have with young athletes is about sportsmanship. Records broken with out of band assistance are as ugly to me as hockey tournaments won by teams dropping a band to handily beat weaker opponents. There are physical reminders of the accomplishment, but mental questions about the path traveled to reach them.

When young fans walk by the ball in the Hall of Fame, and see the Mark of Ecko, I hope they'll question how it came to be there and look at their own views of the game. Only through the inspection of each generation can baseball recover its integrity and the respect of the fans.

Friday Sep 28, 2007

Official Donuts Explained

I'm watching the state of New York area sports with a mix of incredulity, passion, illness, bewilderment and bemusement. Around Mother's Day, Mets fans all over the tri-state area were beaming, shining a light on their much-detested Yankees loving friends and just gloating. Why not? The Yankees were so far behind the Red Sox that Boston looked like another country, and the Mets were sitting on top of a healthy lead that they maintained into the last week of the season. Emphasis on last week.

For those of you like my boss that believe baseball is the thing taking space from the cricket scores, let's recap briefly:

The Mets have lost 11 out of 15 games and no longer control their own destiny. Being able to say "Win it and we're in it" is nice with reference to sports playoffs or even big sales deals, but the Mets need help now. Help from the Phillies, who are so hot right now that South Jersey is considering asking Pennsylvania to annex it (with all of the shopping mall land rights contained). Along they way, they blew 5-run leads more times than a Little League team that has run out of eligible pitchers and lets "the snowsuit kid" take the mound.

The Yankees did not win the AL East for the first time since the dot-com boom. I see this as a trend reversal; the Yankees return to Earth and win the Wild Card. Not bad; a Wild Card team has won the World Series the past few seasons. At least there will be playoff baseball in the Bronx. And they play Cleveland in the first round, which means I can shout "Hello, Cleveland" at the TV, combining references to Spinal Tap with baseball cliches.

The Cubs won the NL Central. But a goat is going to fall out of the sky in the bottom of the 9th inning of the 5th game, turning a sure game-winning home run into a ground-rule double, and all will be for naught. You read it here first.

The football Giants and Jets each won last week, but don't get used to it. I've learned that football is played with a round ball, 90 minute running time halves that count up, not down, and without the use of the hands. I think the Giants and Jets are mixing their sports rules metaphors here. Or else they're both miserable. Or all of the above.

After much careful consideration, weighing of the evidence and consumption of post-game data on mlb.com, all became clear during a morning coffee run. Dunkin' Donuts, the staple of my morning routine, has introduced the "Official Donuts" of the Yankees, Mets, Giants and Jets. "Official" means that Dunkies has the coffee concession at those stadiums. The official donut is a vanilla frosted or Boston Kreme (how ironic) donut covered in the appropriate team color sprinkles: Green and white for the Jets, blue/red for the Giants, white and blue for the Yankees and blue/orange for the Mets (even though the Mets colors are now black, blue and orange). I don't think they're selling well. Who wants to eat the official donut of a team that couldn't beat your local high school on a good day? On top of that, Dunkies is using sprinkles to represent teams without any reasonable Jimmies.

If we're going to field junk food and junk on the field, we might as well provide explanations (sprinkled with obscure references) of what happens when consuming Official Donuts Of Your Mathematically Eliminated Home Town Teams:

Giants: First half tastes great. Unfortunately, the second half of the donut tastes like the three-week old grease in the deep fryer, and you run screaming for the nearest bathroom before the donut is over.

Jets: Lots of potential. They look so tasty that you buy two, one for you and one for the guy you've been tailgating with at Giants Stadium (don't ask) for the last 11 years. On the way into the parking lot, you each grab your "late breakfast", take one bite, and all of the sprinkles fall into your lap. In the rush to wipe them off, you spill Dunkin' Donuts coffee onto the mess, permanently staining your Zubaz pants.

Yankees: Hard to love. Maybe it's the thought that random coatings of sprinkles don't really do justice to Yankee pinstripes. Maybe it's the suggestion that the winningest sports team of the entire known universe could be represented by a donut. Or maybe it's the fact that even though you really want a Yankees donut, you can't get one in every outlet, particularly if the "other" cable system is on in the store. Since they cost five times more than other donuts, you arrange a seemingly clever trade of six promising, less decorated donuts for one Yankees item. Sadly, you knock your half-eaten confection onto the floor, and while reaching to save it from certain contamination you pull your shoulder, break a finger and develop tenderness in your striding hip. And the donuts that you traded away lead in every breakfast statistical category for their new owners.

Mets: Choking hazard. The first one is great, the combination of artificial flavors and colors delighting your coffee-sensitized palate. The second, third and tenth ones are just as good, as you are fearful of breaking your donut streak. And then you wake up and realize that while you were hysterical the Phillies had lost 10,000 games, they passed you in the standings. And you choke on your 18th donut, sickened that nothing fits your newly enhanced waistline, and almost relieved that there's no reason to go outside anyway until April.

As for me, I'm enjoying the last of a Benchwarmer Porter, and cheering for the Padres. If the Friars win the World Series, not only will Southern California have the Stanley Cup and the Commissioners Trophy, but there will be two champion Tigers (George Parros, Ducks; Chris Young, Padres) in the same season. And I can ask Dunkies to do a black and orange themed crueller for the occasion.

Sunday Jul 08, 2007

Pair of Tiger Tales

It's been a great month if you follow the exploits of former Princeton Tigers in professional sports. George Parros, former captain of Princeton's ice hockey team (and NJ high school standout) became the first Princetonian to win the Stanley Cup. He joins a reasonable list of Ivy Leaguers on Lord Stanley's Cup, including Canadian politician Ken Dryden (Cornell).

Earlier this week, another Tiger tale emanated from another post-graduate first: Padres pitcher Chris Young was voted to the MLB All-Star Game, riding a wave of fan interest, local support, and mlb.com's inclusion of on-line and SMS tallies. Young is the first Princetonian to make an All-Star team, and only the sixth Ivy League graduate to be given the recognition. He joins some heady company, as the first Ivy All-Star did his undergrad work at Columbia, then went across the East River to play for the Yankees: Lou Gehrig.

Friday Nov 10, 2006

With All Due Respect: Hail, Rutgers

This is a first and probably a last: I'm going to write about football. Not the kind of football that my boss (Don Grantham) plays, but the American kind, the subject of analogies (except for Jonathan's) and great coaching stories and quarter-century retrospectives.

Start with New Jersey jokes. Slather on a healthy dose of random naming (Rutgers, The State University: people actually pronounce the comma to make the point that it's the most strangely named state university). Dump on top a football program that was so bad, so horrendous, that opposing teams wished there was an NCAA mercy rule (at one point, an opponent was up by half a dozen scores at the half, put in the freshman, told them not to pass the ball, and yet they still scored touchdowns). Add the tasty dessert topping offered up by Greenie on ESPN Radio this morning: You went to nowhere, took a left, and then got to Rutgers.

For a short while, for a brief shining moment, New Jersey is in fact the center of the universe that deserves all due respect, Tony Soprano style. Rutgers 28, Louisville 25. The Empire State building was lit up in Rutgers scarlet red last night, the first time ever that New York has acknowledged that anything of interest, especially football, happens in New Jersey. I mean, the New York Giants and New York Jets play in New Jersey, but a university team lights up the Big Apple's landmark with a King Kong sized win. Today, the entire state is cheering for Rutgers.

There are so many facets to this it's hard to know where to begin. Maybe it was one of our assistant hockey coaches, who managed to get a last-minute ticket to the game, and sent the single most excited email I've ever seen from him. Or the 10,000-plus who lined up for tickets to the game as they were released. Perhaps it was the fact that I attended the last Princeton-Rutgers game, an intra-state rivalry that ended 111 years after their first - and the college game's first - meeting, because "Rutgers was going big-time". We came home with our Tiger tails between our legs on that day in 1980, but we were in a small minority for quite a few years.

The real reason I'm touched by the daylight celebration of the Scarlet Knights is because it reminds me of a similar day precisely 25 years ago, when Princeton faced an unbeated Yale team on a dreary day that was only slightly happier than the general mood around Palmer Stadium. Yale was on the verge of being nationally ranked, Princeton was already tanked, the highlight of the season being a tie against Harvard. After falling behind 21-0, Princeton came back, aided by a defensive pass interference call near the Yale goal line. I remember -- vividly -- hollering with the other fans who stayed in the stands, screaming for Princeton's Bob Holly to pass the ball once again. But Holly tucked the ball under, and perhaps on the wind of hot air coming from the home side of the stadium, ran it in for the winning touchdown. His 501 passing yards in that game stand as a Princeton record. Princeton ended a 14-year drought against Yale, Bob Holly went on to play for the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl, and a quarter of a century later we all have great memories of that weekend.

Rutgers is not likely to play for the BCS Championship, although a Buckeye State-Garden State matchup would be a great battle of the big reds. Years from now, though, everyone will remember a Thursday night under the lights in New Jersey when the ranks of the unbeaten were thinned, and "big time" meant "our time."

Thursday Nov 09, 2006

Changing My Mind With A Big Stick

I spoke on the "Innovation At Speed" panel today hosted by the Suffolk University Center for Innovation and Change Leadership. Great panelists around me:
  • Kory Kolligian, Chief Operating Officer, Design Continuum
  • Angela Kyle, Director, TIAA-CREF
  • Robert Wong, Executive VP and Creative Director, Arnold Worldwide Advertising
  • Robert Zeytoonian, Chief Executive Officer, Zorian Bat Company
  • Beate Chelette, Director, Corbis Images I got to spend some of the pre-panel time with Bob Zeytoonian, who was a minor league baseball player, coach and currently makes bats for ballplayers of all ages. By researching local hard woods, focusing on quality and consistent manufacturing, and sigificant person-to-person marketing, Zeytoonian has developed several hundred custom bats, including those used by Big Papi, David Ortiz of the home-town favorite Red Sox.

    My most recent experience with baseball bats has been with the aluminum variety, through five years of coaching Little League, and I've been strongly in favor of the lighter, bouncier sticks because they let the smaller ballplayers get the bat around. Despite some of the safety concerns focusing attention on aluminum bats, I've stood my ground on the basis of making the game more enjoyable for the youth player. It's more fun when you can hit the baseball, and wooden bats are simply too heavy for most 8-12 year olds to swing with sufficient speed and accuracy. Or so I thought.

    Today, a man with a big stick changed my mind.

    Bob's key points were that a bat should sound like a bat; it should be the crack of the bat and a thunk, not a plink, as the ball comes off the swing. He also added that aluminum bats send the ball into the infield more quickly, changing the game from a defensive perspective as well as an offensive one. Switch to wooden bats with a deadened ball rebound, the infielders get an extra step to make the play. Finally, he argued that you can't use technology to change the national pastime. Turns out that the man who turns bats for a living knows his wood, and Zorian Bats makes youth size and weight sticks. I stand corrected: you can make a youth bat that lets everyone play, on both sides of the ball.

    But hopefully the ideas we shared on the panel changed Bob's mind about technology and baseball. Technology won't change the national pastime by changing the tools of the trade, as Bob fears. Instead, it changes the way we interact with the sport. Baseball was the first sport played under lights, paving the way for generations of young players to enjoy spring and fall games that weren't broadcast during school hours. More recently, mlb.com provides live game casts, statistics, video, images and news to fans of all ages, geographies and loyalties. Again, it's not about changing the sport but innovating to bring the sport to as many fans as possible, in as many ways as possible. Everybody plays.

  • Sunday Oct 08, 2006

    The Young and the Restless

    During our Customer Engineering Conference (CEC) this past week, I described advertising as repeated messages that make you buy things you didn't know you needed. I don't know what you call buying things you don't need, and if I were to make a joke about it involving Yankees baseball management George Steinbrenner would fire me from my blog.

    It all comes down to something Mark Cuban wrote in his blog immediately after his Mavericks lost in the NBA Finals: you have to want to do the work. The Yankees didn't do the work. The Tigers and three other teams did and their post season continues. It's frequently not glamorous -- it's about practice, and mental positioning, and being prepared, and learning as much as you can. Many lessons in there for technical sales as well, because that's another team effort that requires everyone to do the work (a CEC attendee suggested to me that we print up t-shirts with Cuban's "Do The Work" ethic on them, so I'm not alone in this thought).

    My baseball highlight of the weekend was watching Chris Young throw a fantastic game for the Padres, giving him the same number of wins in the post season as the entire Yankees starting rotation for about a tenth of the cost. ESPN magazine called Young "The Bigger Unit" in a cover-titled story almost two years ago, when he had just been called up to the Rangers (and beat the Yankees in his first start). He's big, he's strong, he's Young, and he's even hockey-related (his wife is a member of the Patrick family, as in hockey's former Patrick Division).

    Oh yeah, he's also a Princeton graduate, which is where our family first intersected with his career, watching him play the pivot on the Tiger hoops team, until the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him and said "Hardball, not hardwood." How about that for a story line for the New York papers -- locally educated, multi-sport, bigger than (most of us) life player, and you can make Rangers jokes with his wife? He did the work for four years at Princeton -- finishing in Tiger town before going to a series of very small baseball towns, doing the work for his job before doing a job that worked on the Cardinals in Game 3.

    It's not the highest-paid athlete, or the household name, or the flashiest person picked up by the press. It's the players, inordinately big or small, who come prepared to work hard that make a difference.

    Monday Sep 11, 2006

    Honus Wagner, three links distant

    Had another one of those social network experiences this weekend, but this one was much closer to home. It requires a bit of back story, a teeing up of the players so that the eventual network mesh makes sense. My father is a retired dentist. When my parents first moved to Freehold, NJ, my father and another dentist named Tony Hyman became close friends. Dr. Hyman was 20 years older than my father, and was the kind of friend whom you could count on for life. We had a special relationship with their family; the Hyman's sons are half a generation older than me so I enjoyed their hand-me-down baseball mitts and occasional babysitting adventures.

    I always knew that Dr. Hyman loved baseball, and played well into his 80s. His son Mark, now covering the Baltimore Orioles for a living, captured the joy his father got attending the Cal Ripken Fantasy Camp where he packed the same punch with a bat that he did with a punch line. He remained active in Freehold's Little League program for as long as he lived in town. End of background.

    Had lunch with my parents yesterday, and my son was telling us about visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer on a camp side trip. He insists that we go back, three generations of us, and see the Hall starting with the "first class" which included Honus Wagner. At the mention of Wagner's name, my father picked up the story. "Remember my friend Dr. Hyman?" he asked both of us. Turns out that Dr. Hyman was a minor league ball player in Pittsburgh, drilling hanging curves before he got into the business of drilling heads. My dad completed the three-generation, three-link story: Dr. Hyman knew Honus Wagner. And now my son knows his grandfather, who knew his best friend, who knew Honus Wagner, and the first class is separated from this year's graduating Little League class by only three friend-of-a-friend hops.

    It's silly network effects like this that make baseball fans feel like they own the sport, and turn them into fans for life.

    Wednesday Jun 21, 2006

    Links, Communities and Cycles

    Tonight's post-Mets game quiz question: What baseball statistical community includes Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Yaz, Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell and Ted Williams, but excludes Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and every single Yankees player since 1996? Answer: Players who have hit for the cycle, collecting one hit of each type in a game. Hitting for the cycle requires a rare mix of hitting for power (home run), hitting for average (single and double), and base speed (triple). Stargell did it in his third professional season, when he still hit the occasional 3-bagger.

    Jose Reyes of the Mets became the first player in 2006 to hit for the cycle. The Mets ended up blowing their lead in the 9th inning and lost the game, but that's the unimportant piece of data. My son and I will remember this one because we watched it together, just as my father and I saw Richie Zisk hit for the cycle for the Pirates in 1974 (that was the first cycle completion by a Buc since Stargell did it in 1964). Zisk's accomplishment made Pirates fans believe that there was something special about the outfielder who stepped into Roberto Clemente's cleats. It's a rare enough event that you file away its context, so that you can place it next to other memories of value.

    This is how communities are formed and exist over long periods of time; you find some shared context that binds you to the next person who shares an interest. It works for sports fans as well as non-profit and community organizations; it's the glue that holds Little League boards of directors together even as the players grow up and move onto larger fields.

    The community glue is hardened a bit more when you have wikipedia on your side, of course. Within 10 minutes of Reyes' single that completed his cycle, his Jose Reyes entry was updated, as was the list of players who have hit for the cycle.

    Sunday Jun 11, 2006

    End of an Era

    We experienced the end of a short era on a ball field this Saturday afternoon. After seven years of organized youth baseball, from "rookies" run-around mornings to T-ball, coach-pitch league to "real" baseball and four years of playing on the 60-foot diamond with an (almost) full set of Williamsport rules, my son played his last Little League game.

    From a standings and playoffs point of view, it was a completely meaningless game; both our team and our opponents had been mathematically eliminated from the cross-town World Series playoffs earlier in the week. Our "graduating" 12-year old players were called upon to pitch, catch and play the entire game. It was Little League at its best, with the score going from 1-0 to 3-1 to 5-2 in our favor and then 6-5 against us as we went into the 5th inning. My son's 4-run 4th inning on the hill made him the pitcher of record in the game. In the top of the 5th, he gave himself a no-decision by knocking in two runs on a long double, giving us a temporary 7-6 lead.

    In the bottom of the 5th, the game was tied up again. With the bases loaded, our other 12-year old pitcher picked up the third out to keep the game knotted. It was a graceful performance under pressure; I told him his upcoming Bar Mitzvah will be nothing compared to that situation. We played a scoreless 6th inning, and that's how the game ended, tied 7-7 going into the 7th inning.

    The scoreboard looked like a slot machine jackpot winner, lit up 7-7-7, and that pretty much captured my mood. No winner, no loser, just 24 kids and 8 coaches who had 2 hours of fun on a clear Saturday afternoon. There's a wonderful symmetry in having your last game end the way your first one did, seven years earlier -- no real score, no real pressure, and kids who just wanted to get a snack after the game.

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