Now Is…

With all due apologies to Bill S., now is the summer of our discontent.

We’re at that awkward moment when our brains, deprived of baseball for over a month, flail uselessly as they sink into black ocean of despair.

“The Winter Meetings are over, and our lineup still looks like garbage! How are we supposed to find anything hopeful in this mess?”

I’m going to let you all in on a little secret: there’s nothing hopeful about a major league roster–any major league roster–in mid-December.

It’s going to change. Players are going to be traded away, signed out of free agency, decide to retire, have a break-out season in winter ball, and meet about nine hundred thirty-seven other fates, positive or negative.

Spring Training is still two whole months away. You can write a novel in half that time! (Well, some people do. But I wasn’t planning to talk about NaNoWriMo today.) You’ve got at least sixteen chances to win the lottery between now and then. (You can use your winnings to follow your team around the country and watch every game live.)

My point is that even the teams widely regarded as the front-runners this season hate their rosters right now. If your GM wants to weep every time he sees that gaping hole in the roster at [insert position-of-concern here], why should you feel any better about it.

This is going to sound heretical, but so be it. My advice is that you take a couple of weeks off from baseball*. Eat just a little too much–and give the difference between “a little too much” and “Oh, God, I’m never going to eat again” to someone who needs a meal. Pat a cat–better yet, adopt one from a rescue organization. Instead of estimating WAR for hypothetical trades, take someone special to the movies–did you know there are highly entertaining films that have nothing to do with baseball?

* Unless you’re a GM. You’ve got a roster to fix, so no slacking off for you!

I’ll probably get sued for saying it, but honestly, winter is coming. Even the winter of our discontent. Time enough to look at the roster on Valentine’s Day.

Pull Up a Seat

The playoffs have started well, with the Astros and Cubs both shutting out their Wild Card opponents. Is it just me, or does everyone find a zero on the scoreboard magically makes the game more exciting? I know I’ll watch a 3-0 game with much more interest than a 4-1 game, even if there isn’t a no-hitter or perfect game on the line.

AL Division Series games start tonight, giving us our first post-season looks at Texas, Toronto, and Kansas City. We can’t, of course, expect all three teams to win with shutouts tonight, since the two non-US teams are playing each other*. But we can hope for a couple of close shutouts. Why not? 2014 was the Year of the Sweep, thanks to the Royals. Let’s make 2015 the Year of the Shutout.

* What, you mean you don’t consider Texas to be a foreign country?

But shutouts aren’t really what I set out to talk about. Consider for a moment the plight of the Yankees’* and Pirates’ fans. They’ve followed their teams all season, cheering, crying, no doubt swearing at times. They felt the joy of making the playoffs, and now it’s over, and they have to join the rest of us at the “Wait Until Next Year Table”.

* Yes, I really do have some sympathy for fans of the Yankees. Not particularly for the team, but the fans. Some of them, anyway. Mostly the ones young enough to have avoided infection by the sense of entitlement that plagued the House That Ruth Built and now runs rampant in its successor.

This isn’t a complaint about the Wild Card being a one game series. That horrible realization that the season is over is the same whether it comes after one game, seven games, or one hundred sixty-two–and, realistically, for most of us it came partway through the season.

No matter when it happens, it’s the same tire-iron to the kneecap. And it happens to all of us. Yes, even the fans of the eventual World Series winner. The season has ended; the sun has set on the British Empire; someday the sun will burn out. The glories of the past belong in the past. The World Series winners have one advantage over Ozymandias: as long as there is baseball, they’ll be remembered. But then, so will the losers. There’s never been a sport documented in as much detail as baseball. Arguably, if baseball ever forgets its past, it won’t be baseball any more.

But right now, those Pirates’ fans’ knees and those Yankees’ fans’ knees hurt just as much as the As’ fans’, the Phillies’ fans’, and all the fans of the other twenty-three teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Pull up a seat, folks. Have a drink. Grab a plate of turkey (brined in the tears of millions of disappointed fans).

We’ll get ’em next year.

Yer Outta Here!

One of the less-considered aspects of the baseball off-season is what one should do with all the extra time. During the season, you’ve got a minimum of eighteen hours a week committed to watching games–and that assumes you’re only following one team. Follow two or more, and you’re looking at a commitment that rivals your day job.

I read more. I write a little more, though not as much as you might guess*. But I can’t read while I’m exercising. During the season, I turn on a game, hop on my stationary bike, and pedal through a couple of innings.

* Most games are in the evening, so by the time they start, I’ve usually written my daily quota. Unless I’m on a roll, I generally knock off before seven, and if I am rolling well, I’ll keep writing, even if it means missing a game. So the presence or absence of baseball doesn’t affect the writing.

I’ve tried reading while I ride, and it sucks. The book and my head bob in slightly different speeds and directions, which makes it hard to focus on the page. Worse, I sweat on the pages (eew!). It’s even worse with e-books. I’ll let your imagination fill in the potential hazards…

So I generally fall back on TV. Every year, I wind up with a different off-season favorite; this year, I’ve got three. All on Food Network, and all similar. You’ve heard that there are no new ideas on TV? FN is very good at using that to their advantage, ringing changes on a single core idea. In this case, the core idea is head-to-head competition in multiple rounds. All three of these shows bring something different to the table. (Sorry.)

  • First up is the granddaddy of the multi-round culinary competition: Chopped, which has been around since 2009. Four chefs create an appetizer, entree, and dessert. After each course, the judges critique the dishes on presentation, taste, and creativity, and eliminate one chef. The specific twist is that in each round the chefs get a “mystery basket” of four ingredients that must be used in their dishes. The ingredients may or may not harmonize, so finding a way to make them work together makes the chef’s creative ability paramount. I strongly recommend you keep an eye out for a rerun of the “Bizzare Baskets” episode from January, both for its splendidly disturbing ingredients and unusually classy competitors.

    The format is timeless. There are endless combinations of taxing ingredients, and an eternal supply of chefs willing to take on the challenge for pride, professional development, and a shot at $10,000. Chopped seems likely to help me through many more off-seasons.

  • Next up, is Worst Cooks in America, now in its sixth season. WCiA’s gimmick is that the contestants aren’t chefs; they are, as the title implies, an assortment of common citizens who should be legally barred from preparing food. During the course of the show’s eight week season, the competitors are tutored by professional chefs, and each week, the two who show the least improvement are eliminated.

    The early episodes each season are the most entertaining for the viewer: the cooks’ mistakes come from ignorance and inexperience; the watcher can feel a comfortable sense of superiority (“I’d never do anything as dumb as that!”). Later, as they gain skill, the errors become less amusing–how much joy can you take in someone who fails to add enough salt or forgets to check the internal temperature of a roast? The draw that keeps viewers coming back is the contestants’ personalities and the development of rooting interests. I suspect WCiA is approaching the end of its run. Schadenfreude as a draw has a limited lifespan, and finding increasingly quirky competitors quickly degenerates into self-parody. I’ll enjoy the show while it’s here, but I won’t count on it for next winter’s lack of baseball.

  • Finally, we’ve got my favorite of the three shows: Cutthroat Kitchen. CT just concluded it’s sixth season since its start in 2013; Season Seven starts this week. The format is similar to Chopped: four chefs, three rounds, one chef eliminated each round. The differences are that, instead of being assigned ingredients, the chefs are required to make specific dishes, and in each round the chefs can bid on opportunities to sabotage the other chefs’ efforts. (The casual viewer might not think that cooking while wearing swim fins would be much of a handicap. The time limit on each round makes it much more intimidating.) Sabotages that force the chefs to use inferior ingredients or tools make it difficult to meet the judge’s primary criterion: does the final product resemble the canonical version of the assigned dish.

    Where Chopped puts a premium on creativity, Cutthroat Kitchen emphasizes mental flexibility and the ability to create contingency plans on the fly. Host Alton Brown* takes evil glee in introducing each new sabotage and mocking contestants who don’t handle the trials gracefully. The chefs bid money drawn from their potential winnings. In six seasons, one winner has taken home the full $25,000. I don’t believe any winner has spent all of their money during the course of the competition, but if not, it’s only a matter of time–money management doesn’t seem to be a skill many competitors retain under the pressure of the event.

    * Those of you who know me personally are aware that I’ve been a big fan of Alton for years. CK has done nothing to free me from my Alton addiction.

    As long as Alton and his crew can keep coming up with new variations on the sabotages, CK should stay fresh–the inclusion of a corporately-sponsored challenge in one episode of the latest season could signal bold new ground, or the first sign of shark jumping. Hopefully, Cutthroat Kitchen will brighten my off-seasons for many more years.

If you’re having trouble making through the last few weeks before the 2015 season, please try one of these shows to distract you from your pain–and let me know if it helps you as much as it does me.