June 5, 2014 [LINK / comment]
Nats in 2014: two months, two thumbs down
The first two months of the Washington Nationals' 2014 season were a big disappointment, much like the 2013 season as a whole. There is no doubt that injuries have played a big part, and it was disturbing that two of the Nats' best hitters suffered similar injuries: Ryan Zimmerman broke his thumb in early April, and Bryce Harper badly strained a ligament in his thumb just a couple weeks later. Other key members missing in action included Wilson Ramos (injured on Opening Day, and returned in mid-May), Adam LaRoche, and Doug Fister. One should remember, however, that in the storybook year of 2012, the Nats were similarly hobbled and reserve players The first part of the month seemed very promising, as they won seven of their first nine games. Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond hit grand slams on consecutive days against the Miami Marlins, a sign that the "Natitude" of 2012 was back. Well, not quite.
The game in Atlanta on April 11 might have cast an ominous shadow on the Nats' season, as they blew a chance to win it, and ended up losing in extra innings. They were swept by the Braves in that road series, and from then until late in May the Nationals only managed wins in consecutive games in two stretches: April 25-26 vs. the Padres (at home), and April 29-May 1 vs. the Astros and Phillies (on the road). One of the low points of the season was May 9-11, when they were swept by the A's in Oakland, with a total score of 21-4. Ouch! The Nats' new starting pitcher Doug Fister had a terrible debut with his new team when he faced his old team. (Since then, he has proved to be the Nats' most successful starting pitcher.)
Last weekend's series against the Texas Rangers marked what could end up being the start of a big rebound in the team's fortunes, as the Nats won by scores of 9-2 and 10-2. Could this be a real turning point? The Nats held the Rangers to exactly two runs in all three games, but they were shutout by the Texas ace pitcher Yu Darvish. He has some amazing stuff, with pinpoint control. In this week's series, the Nats pounded the visiting Phillies 7-0 and 8-4. Sparkied by the return of slugger Ryan Zimmerman (now playing in left field!), the Nats' bats have come alive at last.
In summary, the Nats ended their first full month four games over .500, and offset that by falling back to an even 27-27 by the end of May -- in third place, behind the Braves and the Marlins. Good grief. Well, things can only get better from now on, right? I updated the Washington Nationals page with data for the first two months of the 2014 season. (Actually, I updated it at the end of April as well, but didn't announce it.)
One of the biggest positive signs from 2014 thus far is how well Danny Espinosa has done, especially on defense, but also at the plate. After his career seemed to be in jeopardy last year, this is a very welcome turn of events. The fifth man in the pitching rotation, Taylor Jordan, had some rough outings, and was sent back to the minors after Doug Fister returned from the DL. Fister will be on the mound this afternoon when the Nationals try to complete a series sweep against the Phillies -- and I'll be there to watch!
After further review ... YES!
Like most baseball fans, I viewed the advent of expanded instant-replay this year with trepidation. Would it cause even more delays in a sport that already seems too slow for many fans? Apparently not. Since each manager can only challenge one call by the umpires per game (and a second one if their first challenge is upheld), it has had little or no effect on the length of most games. It may even save time in some games, since there is now virtually no reason for managers to argue with the umpires anymore. What's more, it introduces a new element of strategy into the game, forcing managers to consider whether taking the chance of having a call on a play early in the game overturned might prevent them from making a more useful challenge late in the game. So, I give a big two thumbs UP to the new instant replay system.
Wrigley Field turns 100
Another major baseball story I neglected to cover was the centennial of Wrigley Field, originally known as "Weeghman Park," and later (1916-1925) as "Cubs Park." The celebration of this milestone in Chicago is a little awkward, because the Cubs were not the original occupants of this beautiful ballpark, which was built for the Federal League Chicago Whales. Another reason for awkwardness is that the Cubs have not won a World Series since they moved into the former home of the Whales. (They had previously won the 1907 and 1908 World Series.) Two years hence, in 1916, the Cubs will mark the centennial of their occupancy of said ballpark.
There must be a dozen or more new books on the "Friendly Confines," just like there were about Fenway Park when the centennial in Boston was observed two years ago. One that caught my eye was written by political columnist George Will: A Nice Little Place on the North Side.
Dodgers & D-backs, down under
In the first official MLB games ever to be played in Australia last March, the L.A. Dodgers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks in three straight games. The huge foul ground didn't really come into play as much as I had thought. They fenced off a large portion of the field between the foul poles and the dugouts, making it not much different than Oakland ("O.co") Coliseum -- based on my eyeball estimates.
I made careful observations of the Sydney Cricket Grounds, watching the recording I had made and pausing at key points when the camera was panning the stadium. It is fascinating, and I will probably make a diagram of it in the next few months, or sooner. Offhand, it bears a lot of resemblance to the Texas Rangers' old hom, Arlington Stadium, being a big circle with different sections added on over the years in a rather hodge-podge fashion.
Well, I thought I had the Metropolitan Stadium diagrams diagrams all finished, and posted new versions on that page, but then realized to my horror that I needed to make further adjustments. False start! Stay tuned for much more baseball news and commentary from your humble blogger/diagrammer in the near future... And please accept my apologies for falling so far behind on my baseball endeavors.
June 9, 2014 [LINK / comment]
Nationals almost sweep the Padres
It's looking more and more like the Washington Nationals have turned the corner and put the first two disappointing months behind them. In San Diego, they trounced the Padres by a total score of 15-4, and they would have swept the series, were it not for [game-tying solo] home run by Yonder Alonso with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning [on Saturday]. It was only the second blown save of the year for Nats' closer Rafael Soriano, so I guess I shouldn't be too hard on him for letting that happen. In the eleventh inning, the Padres put together three hits to score the winning run, and reliever Craig Stammen was charged with the loss. It was a shame, because the Nats had come back with a three-run rally in the seventh inning thanks largely to a monster (430+ foot) home run by Ian Desmond to center field, but that feat ended up not mattering. Rookie pitcher Blake Treinen (who went to South Dakota State!) was in line for his first career win until the Alonso homer, but instead his record remains 0-2.
But in the other two games, the Nats totally dominated. On Friday night, Tanner Roark allowed only three hits over eight innings, while striking out 11 batters. Roark's record is an OK 4-4, but he shows great future promise, possessing great command of the ball. At the plate, almost all the Nats got hits, and six of them scored one run each. [Anthony Rendon got things started off right in the first inning with a two-run blast to the upper level of seats in deep left center field. In the fifth inning of that game, however, Rendon hurt his thumb while field a hard ground ball, and had to leave the game. X-rays were negative, and he is listed as day-to-day.] On Sunday afternoon, Jordan Zimmerman had a perfect game going into the sixth inning, and finished eight innings allowing just two hits while getting 12 strikeouts. Just like on Friday, nearly all Nats batters got hits, and six of them scored one run each. [Another final score of 6-0:] Deja vu all over again!
As a result of winning seven of their last ten games, the Nationals are now tied for first place with the Atlanta Braves (who have been slumping for two weeks or more) and the Miami Marlins (who briefly surged ahead of the Nationals). The middle of the 2014 season will be very interesting to watch...
Here's an interesting factoid I got from MASN-TV tonight: The last five Nationals starting pitchers have struck out 45 batters and have not walked any!
The Nats then headed north to San Francisco for a four-game series against the Giants, who not only lead the NL West (by nine games ahead of the Dodgers) but have the best record in all of baseball right now: 42-21. They have most of their star players from their championship 2012 season, with the notable exception of black-bearded closing pitcher Brian Wilson, who is now a Dodger. One key addition for this year: former National slugger Michael Morse, who spent most of last year with the Seattle Mariners. He has hit 13 home runs this year, and is thriving on a team that seems headed for the postseason.
The second best team in the majors right now happens to reside on the other side of San Francisco Bay: The Oakland Athletics are 39-24 (.619), 4 1/2 games ahead of the Angels. We could be facing a repeat of the 1989 Bay Area World Series, when that big earthquake shook Candlestick Park and forced a delay of over a week.
Nationals sweep the Phillies
For the first time in nearly two months (since April 8-10, to be exact), the Washington Nationals swept a three-game series last week, beating the Philadelphia Phillies 4-2 under clear blue skies and cool breezy conditions. And I was there! My wife and I had pretty good seats, in the very first row of the upper deck ("Infield Gallery"), right behind home plate.
Nationals Park grand view 2014. Roll your mouse over the image to compare it to a similar photo I took in September 2009, from the upper deck concourse, a bit to the right.
I recently noticed the construction crane while watching a game on MASN, and discovered there is a lot of such activity in the Navy Yard neighborhood. (There is also some destruction going on, not far behind the center field scoreboard!)
The game got off to a shaky start as the first Phillies batter (Ben Revere) hit a double, and soon scored a run, but then Ryan Zimmerman [playing in left field while his thumb continues to heal] batted in a run in the bottom of the inning to tie the game. Not much happened until the fifth inning, when Denard Span led off with a double and Jayson Werth batted him in to put the Nats on top 2-1. Then Adam LaRoche hit a home run into the Nats' (right field) bullpen, adding two valuable insurance runs.
In the fifth inning, Jayson Werth hit an RBI single.
In the seventh inning, John Mayberry closed the gap to 4-2 with a solo homer. There was a close play at first base in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Jose Lobaton hit a ball that bounced over the pitcher and was grabbed by the second baseman who threw it to first. The ummpire called him out, but it looked like a tie, so Manager Matt Williams challenged it. The replay clearly showed that Lobaton's foot touched the base first, and he was awarded a hit. It didn't really matter, though, as the Nats had a two-run lead and pinch-hitter Scott Hairston lined out to second to end the inning. The Phillies couldn't do anything more after that, and the Nats won the game. Surprisingly, closing pitcher Alfonso Soriano got a 1-2-3 inning for once!
A montage of photos from during and after the game.
Once again, I was impressed by the quality of the "Nats Live" postgame concert. I was unfamiliar with the name of the band ("Plain White T's"), but I was very familiar with two of their hit songs, "Delilah" and "Rhythm of Love." In the past, I have seen three postgame concerts at Nationals Park: Third Eye Blind (Aug. 2012), Dierks Bentley (Sept. 2012), and Blues Traveler (June 2013).
(Almost) No parking
I was a bit perturbed to find that the budget-priced parking lot "W" has become a construction zone, and only half of the parking places in it are left, and those must be paid for in advance. WTF??? So, we had to drive a couple blocks even further away from Nationals Park, paying $15 and walking over a mile to get to the game. What a ripoff! One side benefit was walking past an interesting old brick building, with fortress-like turrets and painted blue. From the photo I took I discovered it is the Richard Wright Public Charter School, right across the street from the Navy Yards.
[NOTE: A few edits were made and additional details were added after the initial blog post.]
June 17, 2014 [LINK / comment]
Matt Adams sweeps the Nats
If the Cardinals' first baseman Matt Adams had spent another week on the disabled list, the Washington Nationals might have done much better in St. Louis this past weekend. But Adams' three home runs in three days proved to be the decisive factor, and the Nats got swept by the host Cardinals. So much for the Nats' rising hopes! In Friday's game, Jordan Zimmermann pitched a complete game (eight innings), giving up only three hits, but one of those hits was the (first) home run by Adams, and that's all the Cardinals needed to win. Their pitcher Lance Lynn only allowed two hits by the Nationals.
On Saturday night (broadcast by FOX), the Nats jumped to an encouraging 1-0 lead in the first inning, thanks to hits by Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth, but then virtually no offense at all after that. ??? Stephen Strasburg pitched well for six innings, but lost steam in the seventh and was tagged with his fifth loss of the year. Once again, Matt Adams ruined everything with a leadoff solo home run, sparking a St. Louis rally.
On Sunday, Nats pitcher Doug Fister had troubles early as Matt Adams homered again in the second inning. (Why did they even pitch to him???) Meanwhile, the Nats' batters got nearly as many hits as the Cardinals (8 vs. 9), but just couldn't come through in the clutch, and the team fell 5-2. That completed the deeply disappointing sweep at the hands of their nemesis the Cardinals. Since 2008, the Nationals's record in St. Louis is a pathetic 2-18. Does NLDS Game 5 in 2012 still haunt them?
[And so, the Nationals now have a 35-33 record, tied with the Miami Marlins and one half game behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, as in the least competitition division in the majors. (Get it?) Pretty lame, given the talent the team possesses on an individual basis. Get well soon, Bryce Harper!!!]
Nats almost sweep the Giants
The Nationals' recent hot streak continued last week in San Francisco, as they beat the Giants -- the team with the best win-loss record in all of baseball -- in the first three games. If that series was a test of character and gumption, the Nats passed with flying colors. Monday was a slugfest, as Stephen Strasburg cruised to his sixth win of the season with a 9-2 final score. Doug Fister pitched seven scoreless innings on Tuesday night, outdueling the formidable Madison Bumgarner in a razor-close game; Nats 2, Giants 1. And then on Wednesday, Jayson Werth provided the winning edge with a home run and three RBIs, giving Tanner Roark the win in a 6-2 game.
That put the Nats six games over .500, the highest of the season. Could they keep it up? In the fifth inning on Thursday, it looked like they were indeed about to pull off a rare four-game sweep, one run behind with runners at the corners and nobody out. But the rookie pitcher Blake Treinen couldn't lay down a bunt, and then Denard Span grounded into a double play to end the inning. The Giants added to their lead in the late innings and won 7-1, as the Nats bullpen crumbled. So, the Giants averted an embarrassing sweep at home.
Other divisional races
Among the biggest surprises in the 2014 divisional races has been the Kansas City Royals, who are nipping at the heels of the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central Division. They have won eight in a row, the hottest team in baseball right now. K.C. had an 11-2 lead over the Tigers last night, whereupon rookie pitcher Donnie Joseph gave up six runs, making it 11-8. Michael Mariot then got the final out on four pitches. And that's how the Royals closed to within a half game of the division leaders. The Tigers have had an up-and-down year thus far, and the next two games of that series in Detroit will be extremely tense.
And how many people expected the Toronto Blue Jays would lead the AL East? Not me. I thought the Orioles would be contending again, and I had no idea how the newly configured Yankees would perform. In both cases, just so-so, it would appear. The poor Red Sox lost ten in a row a while back, a stunning reversal from their consistent excellence of the last decade or so. David "Big Papi" Ortiz still wows the crowds with big clutch hits from time to time, but the loss of Jonathan Papelbon and others has hurt the Red Sox chances.
In the National League Central Division, the Milwaukee Brewers are doing just fine without Ryan Braun, who was suspended for the whole year due to a positive drug test. The Brew Crew is currently 42-29 (.592), but the St. Louis Cardinals are closing in fast, thanks to the weak-batted Nationals.
On the far-away (!) west coast, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics have cooled off a bit lately, but both still hold commanding leads in their respective divisions.
I learned from my brother John about Lonnie Chisenhall of the Cleveland Indians, who went 5 for 5 last week, with 3 runs scored and 9 RBIs. "How about that?"
R.I.P. Tony Gwynn
We had a big shock yesterday, when we learned that long-time San Diego Padre slugger Tony Gwynn died following a bout with cancer of the saliva gland. He used chewing tobacco for many years, and just couldn't kick the habit. "Gwynn's .338 career batting average over 20 seasons -- all of them with the Padres -- is the highest since Ted Williams retired from the Red Sox in 1960 with a .344 average." Pretty amazing. See MLB.com.
Like Cal Ripken, who entered the Hall of Fame in the same year, Gwynn was not only a superb athlete but was also a hard-working player who earned the deep admiration and affection of millions of fans. Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg is from the San Diego area, and he got to know the Padres' superstar while he was a teenager.
Why do people start with chewing tobacco in the first place? I suppose the nicotine calms the nerves or something, but the price is just too high. As one who has lost a dear family member to the evils of tobacco, please folks, "just say no."
R.I.P. Don Zimmer
Baseball icon Don Zimmer passed away last week at the age of 83. He was a member of the first-ever championship Brooklyn Dodgers team, in 1955. He later joined the Washington Senators in 1960s, and managed four major leagues teams. He was perhaps best known as a coach of the Yankees from 1996 to 2003, gaining gained fame when he got into a scuffle with Bosox pitcher Pedro Martinez in the 2003 Yankees-Red Sox AL League Championship Series. He was a jovial character who had lots and lots of baseball wisdom. For more, see the Washington Post obituary.
In April, former Angel (!) shortstop Jim Fregosi joined the Heavenly Host. [After playing with the Halos (1961-1971), he moved around and later became a manager, leading] the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993 when they went to the World Series.
In February, former Pirate Ralph Kiner passed away. The slugger was with Pittsburgh from 1946 to 1953, and later played with the Cubs and Indians. He had 389 career home runs and a .279 batting average.
And finally, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who shot Chicago Cub player Eddie Watkins in 1949, passed away recently. She was the inspiration for the romantic subplot in the movie The Natural, and served time in prison for the crime.
College World Series 2014
The University of Virginia Cavaliers baseball team won their first game in the 2014 College World Series game, at TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha. They had a 1-0 lead with a no-hitter going late into the game, but the Ole Miss tied it in the eighth inning. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Mike Papi (not related to David Ortiz) belted a double into the right-center gap, driving home the winning run from second base. A rare and thrilling walk-off victory in the CWS! The round-robin series may extend through Saturday, then they have Sunday off, followed by the final championship series on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Catching up on ballpark news
It's been a long time since I have properly documented the news related to baseball stadiums, so here goes a heroic attempt to catch up. Several of these items are courtesy of Mike Zurawski, but others are from Facebook friends or other fan sources. Even though I have fallen even further behind in my e-mail correspondence in recent months, I do appreciate all tips and inquiries from fans.
New stadium for Braves!?
One of the biggest pieces of ballpark news in recent months was the announcement by the Atlanta Braves that they have reached an agreement with officials in Cobb County, Georgia to build a new stadium next to an interchange north of Atlanta. It would begin operations in 2017 (after the Braves' 20-year lease on Turner Field expires), part of a big suburban entertainment complex. Since Turner Field is not even two decades old yet, that idea strikes me as just plain dumb. For the time being, I'll assume that's just a bargaining tactic to squeeze money out of Atlanta to renovate Turner Field. See the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for an artist's depiction and discussion of design issues.
Roof on Nationals Park?
Speaking of dumb ideas, the owners of the Washington Nationals proposed to D.C. officials building a roof over Nationals Park to minimize rain delays and cancellations. With afternoon thunderstorms in the D.C. area a commonplace phenomenon, there is at least some grounds for such an idea. But it would ruin the ambience, and besides it would cost $300 million, which is way too much. And rightly so, the D.C. officials rejected the proposal outright. See bizjournals.com.
Angel Stadium changes
In Anaheim, outfield dimensions at Angel Stadium changed, but not really. The left-field line which had been marked 330 feet now says 347, left-center has gone from 387 to 390, center field changed from 400 to 396, and the right-field sign has changed from 330 to 350. Neither home plate nor the fences moved, however, they were simply complying with an MLB directive that outfield markers correspond to the actual distance at which they appear. Advertising signs added in recent years had forced a shift in the locations of the signs away from the foul poles.
While checking that out with my diagrams, I noticed that the bullpens are about 15 feet too short, and the angles of outfield fences and seating sections are slightly off as well. Stay tuned for a correction!
League Park returns!
In Cleveland, work is proceeding quickly on a $6.3 million restoration of the grounds where League Park once stood. (When I was there in 1998 part of the grandstand was still intact, but all that's left now is the office building and one exterior brick wall. A diamond has been laid out in the same place as the old one, and a chain-link high fence in right field has been built to resemble the original. Unfortunately, they are using artificial turf to keep maintenance costs down. The project is expected to be completed this summer. See cleveland.com
Dodger Stadium "shrinks"
The new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers are continuing their efforts to improve the venerable, half-century old Dodger Stadium. They have expanded the Field Level entrances and relocated the visiting team clubhouse. See MLB.com. Big tips of the hat to Mike Zurawski. Mike also informed me that Dodgers President Stan Kasten admitted that Dodger Stadium has been reduced, without being specific. Mike notes that the largest crowd announced last year was 53,275, which is 2,725 fewer seats than the permanent "official" capacity of 56,000. See latimes.com.
My apologies to Bob Carson, who shared his memories of Dodger Stadium with me last year. He was at the very first game there, and told me (among other things) that the dirt for the infield came from England, and that Frank Howard (who later became a Washington Senator) was the first to hit the backdrop in center field with a home run ball.
Tennis at Petco Park
The U.S. hosted the Davis Cup back in January, and the U.S. Tennis Association chose to have the match in Petco Park. A red clay court was built in left-center field just for that event. See Sports Illustrated.
Reprieve for Astrodome?
The Houston Astrodome was recently ddded to National Register of Historic Places, freeing the way for special funds to be used to preserve it. It's a little ironic for the once-futuristic venue, but I think it's fitting and proper. See news92fm.com.
An Oakland "What if?"
"O.co Coliseum" (known to humans as "Oakland Coliseum") is often criticized as being old, ugly, and ill-suited for baseball. But what would things be like if the city had built a similar facility closer to downtown Oakland? Look at this article at sfgate.com and imagine what could have been... (Link via Facebook.)
Soccer fever: U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
The 2-1 victory of the U.S. soccer team over Ghana in the first round of the World Cup last night has many fans excited, but the Americans are in a very tough grouping and will need more luck to advance further. (The other teams in Group G are Portugal and Germany.)
In Brazil, there are mixed feeling about hosting the World Cup. Most people are crazy about soccer, but economic conditions have worsened over the past couple years, and many question whether the cost of the event is excessive in relation to the needs of poor people. Brazil has won more World Cups (5) than any other team. Brazil previously hosted the World Cup in 1950, when the home team was defeated by neighboring Uruguay in the championship match.
Many newspapers affiliated with Gannett Corporation (USA Today, etc.) carried a nice full-page graphic depiction of all the stadiums being used for the World Cup in Brazil. They range in capacity from the Arena de Baixada (38,533) in Curitiba to the famous Estadio do Maracana (74,689) in Rio de Janeiro. It was renovated with a new roof that needed repairs to make sure that it wouldn't collapse during a match.
Soccer stadium in D.C.?
The mayor of the District of Columbia, Vincent Gray, has declare that his top priority for the last seven months of his term will be finalizing an agreement to build a new soccer stadium to house D.C. United. (They happen to be doing very well this year, for a change, and briefly held first place in their division.) The site has been chosen, just a few blocks southwest of Nationals Park, and eminent domain will be used if the city can't negotiate and agreeable purchase price for the land. Gray was defeated in a primary election after being implicated in a wide-ranging corruption scandal in Our Nation's Capital. Par for the course, I guess.
Soccer in baseball stadiums
Last August there was a series of soccer matches in Dodger Stadium for the first time ever; the MLS L.A. Galaxy team was among the participants. See the dailybreeze.com. They had to remove the pitcher's mound, and after the soccer was over they rebuild it all over again. It took a two-man crew four days to complete the task, which was evidently successful because the Dodgers' pitchers didn't seem to notice any change. See MLB.com.
That reminded me to check which stadiums I have drawn (or will soon draw) a soccer version diagram, so here they are:
Did I mention that the Virginia Cavaliers won the ACC basketball tournament this year, and made it all the way to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen? If not, I should have.
As for the pros, the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA Championship, beating the Miami Heat four games to one. What do people in Cleveland think about LeBron James these days? Just for the record, I might consider paying attention to the NBA playoffs if fewer teams qualified and if they wrapped everything up by the end of April.
And as for the other absurdly-extended "winter" sport, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup, beating the New York Rangers 3-2, thus taking the series four games to one. But of course, I'm probably the least reliable source in the world for hockey news, so take that with a grain of salt.
But I am reasonably certain that a hockey match was played in Dodger Stadium on January 25, and in response to a query from Michael Monaco, yes, I do intend to make a hockey version diagram of it. But first I need to finish corrections to the shape and angles of the grandstand...
Some worthwhile plugs
I'm usually pretty relaxed and open about exchanging links with other Web sites, as long as I am confident that they are legitimate. So, take a look at SportsMemorabilia.com if you've got some spare time and/or money.
And if you are of a charitable frame of mind, please consider supporting the very worthy Washington Nationals Dream Foundation. They are devoted to encouraging young D.C.-area kids to learn baseball, especially those who live in poorer areas.
On the road again
I'm heading west, hoping to see Rangers Ballpark in Arlington or whatever they call it now (Globe something?), and maybe even Chase Field in Phoenix. I wish I could veer south and see the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park, but that's unlikely. With any luck I'll see the Mariners and Royals play in Kansas City this Sunday, and the Nationals and Reds play in Cincinnati near the end of July. I might even see a College World Series game in Omaha. But don't worry -- as Arnold "Terminator" Schwarzenegger said, "I'll be back!"
June 17, 2014 [LINK / comment]
Two political earthquakes in Virginia
Last week featured two of the most stunning twists of fortune in Virginia political history, and it would be remiss of me not to make a few observations. The latter event took place near the epicenter of the (seismic) earthquake of August 2011, an intriguing coincidence. In both cases, the right wing of the Republican Party claimed a big victory, and the main question that arises is what will be the ultimate result of what they have wrought.
GOP gains State Senate majority
First, Democratic State Senator Phil Puckett abruptly announced on Sunday June 3 that he was resigning effective immediately, thus giving the Republicans a 20-19 majority in the State Senate. He said he did this to pave the way for his daughter to be appointed as a state appeals court judge, but he was also promised a job on the state tobacco commission. (The fact that such a seemingly obscure post might be more desirable than state senator is itself a sign that something is out of whack in Virginia.) See Washington Post.
This came in the midst of a huge showdown over the question of whether or not to expand Medicaid, as is envisioned under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Republicans were jubilant that they could block that policy move, while Democrats were outraged and accused Republicans of making a corrupt vote-buying deal. (The FBI began an investigation, but it's hard to say how far it will go.) Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. I oppose Medicaid expansion, but I don't like the way the impasse was finally resolved. In high-stakes contests like this, politics often gets down and dirty.
For context, State Sen. Emmett Hanger (Republican) proposed a few weeks ago a compromise that would take the Medicaid question out of the budget to prevent the possibility that the state government might shut down. (See newsleader.com.) However, that effort was rejected by State Sen. Dick Saslaw and of course later became moot when State Sen. Phil Puckett resigned. It showed that the Democratic leaders were willing to risk disaster to get their way on a key policy issue, and I think that was an unwise strategic choice. Indeed, the way the Democrats were in effect holding the budget hostage just to get Medicaid expanded was just plain wrong.
Late in the week, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a budget bill which included an amendment by State Senator Dick Black specifically forbidding the Governor from bypassing the legislature and trying to enact Medicaid expansion based solely on executive authority. Whether that amendment is really binding, or whether the Governor can simply do a line-item veto of that provision, remains to be seen.
This whole episode is another illustration of how the system of government in the Old Dominion is becoming more and more dysfunctional, held hostage by opposing hardline factions. So for me, one lesson is that anybody who really knows what's going on in Richmond right now is probably part of the problem!
Dave Brat defeats Eric Cantor
Then two days after the Puckett "earthquake," there was another shock, perhaps even bigger. In the primary elections on Tuesday, incumbent U.S. Representative Eric Cantor (who as House Majority Leader has the second-highest rank in that chamber) lost in his bid to be renominated. Virginia law prohibits primary election candidates from running as independents in the general elections, so that option is out.
All of a sudden, there were a million different explanations for what had happened. I freely admit that I wasn't paying much attention, partly because I am rather indifferent as to which faction prevails in the Republican Party. I have no particular affectionor inclination toward either side. All I knew was that several of my Tea Party friends on Facebook had been trumpeting this guy's name for weeks, and I figured they were chasing a foolish dream. Wrong!
Tuesday evening I listened to Dave Brat speak for the first time, and I was fairly impressed. With an educational background and general outlook (libertarian) similar to mine, I became sympathetic. (He has a Ph.D. in Economics from American University, and I have an M.A. degree in the same field from the same school.) Soon, however, I learned that he has rather strong religious views and that those views influence his positions on economic policy. (See, for example, the Wall Street Journal.) I'm going to have to think about that for a while. In general, I favor keeping religion as separate from public policy as possible. To learn more about the likely (but not certain) U.S. Representative from Virginia's Seventh District, see: davebratforcongress.com.
So was Brat's victory a sign that the Tea Party has regained its mojo and is becoming ascendant once again? In recent months there were signs that the GOP Establishment had belatedly realized what was going on and struck back against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. (See nationalreview.com.) Not so fast! Or was it just general disgust with the Washington establishment, with which Eric Cantor is very much involved. (He was indirectly implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal which gravely hurt the Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections; see my blog post from January 2006.)
Many people emphasized how the issue of illegal immigration shifted the balance toward Brat, and many on the left used the occasion to dump on the Republicans and especially the Tea Partiers as a bunch of lazy, hateful, xenophobic hicks. As someone who has long advocated serious immigration reform, even before it became popular in the Republican Party (see for example November 2004 and May 2005), and who has likewise condemned the nasty, divisive approach that casts all immigrants as law-breaking welfare cheats (see for example May 2007, scroll down), I deeply resent such insinuations! I will just say that Rep. Cantor lacked firmness and conviction on an important issue, and frankly he strikes me as one of those big business pals who really doesn't care about illegal immigration, as long as more cheap workers keep coming.
Former Delegate Chris Saxman had an op-ed column in which he drew two basic lessons for Cantor's defeat. #1) Challengers don't win, incumbents lose. #2) Relationships require work. See newsleader.com. In other words, Cantor simply failed to do the necessary politicking with the folks back home, who came to see him as an elite Washington insider.
And then there are less polite explanations for the big upset loss by Rep. Cantor. Ring of truth? 'Nuff said.
No honeymoon for McAuliffe
Virginia's new governor, Terry McAuliffe, has oscillated between making pleas for pragmatism and bipartisanship on one hand (as his inaugural speech in Richmond would indicate), versus a hard-edged partisan power play on the other hand. You really can't blame him, as he finds himself in a difficult position vis-a-via the legislative branch, especially now that his party no longer controls the State Senate. I was disappointed that many Republicans refused to even give the new governor a chance, refusing the customary courtesy of a "honeymoon" period. I thought that was a missed opportunity to take the moral high ground.
On the first of March, I was there when Governor McAuliffe paid a visit to Augusta Health in nearby Fishersville. He met with doctors, hospital administrators, and other executives to promote his push for Medicaid expansion, a key part of Obamacare. While the Governor was speaking with reporters inside Augusta Health after the meeting, there was a rally by those who oppose expansion of Medicaid outside the hospital complex. The Shenandoah Tea Party played a key role in this demonstration, and I only found out about it since I'm on their e-mailing list.
Gov. McAuliffe, with an aide at Augusta Health.
Outside Augusta Health, there was an anti-Medicaid expansion rally.
About a half mile away at Eavers Tires, meanwhile, Republican leaders held a rally to express opposition to the Democrats' plans. I was there as well, and spoke with some of the local legislators. The event was sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, one of the most active groups opposing the employer mandates under Obamacare. One participant at that rally noted that State Senator Emmett Hanger was nowhere to be seen, and I agreed that Hanger's absence was unfortunate.
Delegates Steve Landes, Ben Cline, and Dickie Bell at Eavers Tires.
Government shutdown: idiotic
The government shutdown last October was not only unnecessary, it was downright idiotic. Was there ever a real chance that the Democratic majority in the Senate was going to cave in and agree not to fund Obamacare? No. The only reason why millions of American lives were disrupted as the government shut its doors as Fiscal Year 2014 began was that the Tea Party faction of the GOP wanted to prove to their "Base" that they would push their particular agenda no matter the consequences. It was a disgraceful charade that didn't fool any serious political observers, but all across the Fruited Plains, legions of gubmint-hatin' "grassroots" roared with approval. Once House Speaker John Boehner set aside his deep reservations and went along with the doomed gambit, it was clear that the Republican Party was no longer equipped to govern the nation in a responsible fashion but was merely a tool of certain well-organized and well-funded extremists.
So, to return where we started, the defeat of Eric Cantor in last week's primary election merely drives home the point just made: Whatever you may think of the Tea Party's agenda (and I admit to having certain sympathies), the practical effect of their actions is to cripple the Republican Party as an institution. This comes as no surprise to me. After Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 election, I knew that the hardline conservatives would pin the blame on the moderates, further distancing the political dynamics within the party from the practical necessities of governing. Simplistic solutions and delusions about reality have come to rule the day. Those in the "Republican Establishment" (whatever that is) who thought they could placate or tame or even coopt the Tea Partiers by tossing a few bones here or there were gravely mistaken. They probably never realized what was really behind that movement, and they richly deserve the turbulence that has been unleashed by their failure to counteract in prompt fashion.
The south gate to Shenandoah National Park was closed last October 2.
June 17, 2014 [LINK / comment]
D-Day + 70 years
I would be remiss in letting the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France at Normandy in 1944 pass without at least mentioning it. I was pleased that anniversary of "D-Day" did get a fair amount of recognition. It's hard for many people to imagine what was really at stake, and how great were the unknowns at the time. Would our forces succeed in grabbing a foothold on the continent, or would Hitler's legions push them back into the English Channel. The difficult and bloody battles at Omaha Beach showed just how bad things could have gone if the Germans had had better intelligence on Allied plans.
Indeed, those plans were quite flawed, and not much went the way it was supposed to on June 6. Paratroopers were scattered for miles around as the transport plane pilots got confused by clouds and flak, while the many of the amphibious Sherman tanks sank in the heavy waves, along with their crews. Weather was poor, and indeed General Eisenhower had already postponed the invasion one day, and was close to postponing it a second day. For reasons of optimum tides and moonlight, the invasion had to take place on June 5, 6, or 7, or else wait for two more weeks. Another delay could have given the Germans a chance to get better prepared.
I was hoping to observe the D-Day anniversary by visiting the museum of the 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, located at the National Guard Armory in Staunton, but it was closed the day I went there.
U.S. Army 105 mm howitzer, at the National Guard Armory in Staunton, Virginia.
Below you will see a (reduced-size) preliminary version of the map of a wargame which I have been working on for many years: "Western Front: Germany vs. the Allies, 1914-1945." It is similar to the Avalon Hill game "D-Day," but is much more realistic, with more attention to terrain detail, force levels, and logistics. I was going to finish it in time to take home with my on my vacation, but couldn't quite "get 'r done." Wait till next year!
June 17, 2014 [LINK / comment]
Spring bird migration 2014
Well, here it is the middle of June, and I haven't had a blog post about birds for over six weeks? What gives? Ironically, May was quite a spectacular month for bird watching, and June has been pretty good as well. I was so busy birding and posting photos of birds to this Web site and to Facebook that I didn't have time to write about it via the blog. Weird. I'm afraid I didn't manage to visit either Piney Grove (where the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers live in a protected habitat) or to Dismal Swamp (where Prothonotary Warblers and Swainson's Warblers abound), as I had planned. And once again, I failed to make a visit during migration to Warbler Road, near Buchanan, Virginia. But let's concentrate on the positives:
On Saturday April 26, I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Chimney Hollow, in western Augusta County. The skies were clear, but because of all the rain on Friday, the trail was sopping wet and we couldn't even make the first stream crossing, so we had to turn back. But even so, we had some great encounters with some interesting birds. Early on, we heard Louisiana Waterthrushes singing loudly, but we never did see one for sure. We also heard a first-of-year Northern Parula (or two) singing not far away, and after a while, we finally got some great closeup views, and photos. (See link below.) Very rewarding! We also saw Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Blue-headed Vireos, a Broad-winged Hawk, a Pileated Woodpecker, and White-breasted Nuthatches. Finally, we heard but didn't see a Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Then we headed over to nearby Braley's Pond, where we saw two Spotted Sandpipers (first of year) zipping across the water. I spotted a first-of-year Blackburnian Warbler in the tree tops, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch that came very close to us, quite a thrill. We also saw some more Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, another Broad-winged Hawk, two Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Phoebe. Finally, we heard but didn't see some Pine Warblers.
Northern Parula (male), at Chimney Hollow, April 26.
Frontier Culture Museum
In late April and early May I paid several visits to the Frontier Culture Museum, where I saw quite a few Palm Warblers, Yellow Warblers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I was surprised by the great numbers in that particular location. Also I saw a first-of-year Kingbird there.
Palm Warbler (yellow subspecies), at the Frontier Culture Museum, April 30.
Betsy Bell Hill
I went to Betsy Bell Hill on Monday morning [May 5], and encountered a dazzling array of migrating birds passing through. Warbler fallout! Light conditions were mediocre, so it was hard to get good photos, but this montage at least gives you an idea. I saw multiple first-of-year birds -- Wood Thrush (M), Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Canada Warbler -- as well as a Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Scarlet Tanager (F), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (singing loud), Towhees, and Red-eyed Vireos.
Then I headed over to Bell's Lane, where I soon saw a first-of-year Baltimore Oriole and Orchard Oriole (both male). I also saw a Solitary Sandpiper, and a Yellow Warbler made an appearance, but the light wasn't very good.
Clockwise from top left: Black-throated Green Warbler (M), Wood Thrush, Chestnut-sided Warbler (F), Yellow-rumped Warbler (M), Baltimore Oriole* (M), Black and White Warbler (F), Canada Warbler (M), American Redstart (M), and (in center) Yellow Warbler* (M), at Betsy Bell Hill and (*marked by asterisk*) Bell's Lane.
Piney River, Rockfish Valley
On May 6 I stopped at Piney River [on the southern edge of Nelson County] in hopes of getting better photos of two special birds. Right away I heard the rising "zee, zee, zee, zee" song of the Prairie Warbler, and had no trouble coaxing it into view with my iPod. Getting it to stay put long enough for the camera to focus was another thing, but I managed a couple pretty good shots in the end. As for the White-eyed Vireos, I heard at least three, but could only manage mediocre pictures in spite of stalking them through the brambles.
But once I got to the Rockfish Valley Trail [about 20 miles further north], my luck improved. For a while, I was having a hard time getting a good look at the White-eyed Vireo that kept doing its odd clicking "song." Finally, I coaxed it into view with my iPod, and snapped a great closeup photo:
White-eyed Vireo, Rockfish Valley Trail, May 6.
Sweet Briar College
There were lots of warblers, etc. etc. at Sweet Briar College on the morning of May 8 (after I had finished giving the final exam to my students), but the only real decent photo I got was of this (first-of-year) male Blackpoll Warbler. Good enough! There were also some Black-throated Blue Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Northern Parula, Common Yellowthroat, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Scarlet Tanager, and Towhees. On the way home, I stopped at the Long Mountain Wayside (Rt. 60 & Appalachian Trail), and came upon another bunch: Hooded Warblers, Redstarts, Red-eyed Vireos, Worm-eating Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and a Cerulean Warbler that came very close. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a photo of it with good lighting conditions. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, finally, I found more Redstarts, B&W Warblers, Ovenbirds. What a day!
Blackpoll Warbler (male), at Sweet Briar College, May 8.
I was heading out to Augusta Springs around noon [on May 10], and stopped at one of the trail heads to Elliott's Knob, and immediately heard a loud warbler song. My hunch was right, and before long I spotted and then photographed the Kentucky Warbler, the first one I've seen in years. Then it started to rain, or else I would have tried to get a better photo. In the morning, and later in the afternoon, I went to Bell's Lane, where I saw the two remaining Blue-winged Teals in the mud puddle, plus a Grasshopper Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Goldfinches, and a lone male Bobolink in the distance.
Shenandoah Nat. Park
I made several trips to the Shenandoah National Park in May and June. Most days, it was nothing spectacular, just the "usual suspects" -- Ovenbirds, Red-eyed Vireos, Hooded Warblers, B&W Warblers, etc. One day in early May there were two slightly "late" first-of-year birds: Scarlet Tanager and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and a Pileated Woodpecker that swooped past just ten or so feet above my head.
More recently, I came across two Scarlet Tanagers that were embraced in, shall we say, carnal delight. I was surprised to see Red-headed Woodpeckers up there, in an area with lots of dead (burned) trees. That's the favored habitat of that species. I'm still waiting to see my first bear of the year.
Indigo Bunting, Shenandoah National Park, May 13.
Scarlet Tanager, Shenandoah National Park, May 13.
On May 16, the day after a torrential rain that flooded many low-lying areas, I drove up Briery Branch Road in Rockingham County to the vicinity of Reddish Knob, a known warbler hotspot. Indeed, I saw and photographed many Chestnut-sided Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, and Black-throated Green Warblers, among others. It was a spectacular day, and I really got lucky with the camera for once.
Chestnut-sided Warbler (male), on Briery Branch Road near Reddish Knob, May 16.
On Wednesday May 21, Jo King led a field trip to McCormick's Mill. Right away we saw both kinds of orioles as well as a Warbling Vireo, just like past such trips to that location. But the best part was when we went to nearby Willow Lake, and saw a Greater Yellowlegs, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, and two Bald Eagles. We also got a great closeup look at a Yellow Warbler.
Yellow Warbler, Willow Lake, May 21.
[Of course, I paid many visits to Bell's Lane throughout the spring.] In late April I saw some lingering White-crowned Sparrows and eight or so Blue-winged Teals in the (flooded) mud puddle close to one of the farm entrances. In early May, the Yellow Warblers came back, as did both species of orioles, Willow Flycatchers, Indigo Buntings, Grasshopper Sparrows, Tree Swallows, etc., etc. Red-winged Blackbirds seem to be all over the place this time of year.
In April, someone reported that a Purple Gallinule had been injured by a cat in Waynesboro, so they took the poor bird to the Wildlife Center of Virginia. [It was the first one of its species ever seen in Augusta County; their normal range is in Florida and adjacent states in the southeast.] The bird was treated and released in Back Bay NWR near Virginia Beach, but it turns out that it may have left behind a mate. Another Purple Gallinule was reported near the South River across from the old DuPont/Invista plant, and I was fortunate to see and photograph it. I had seen that species once before, when I was in the Everglades in December 1985, but I didn't know what it was at the time. Years later, after I had become a birder, I happened to look at the photo just by chance and thus added one more to my Life Bird List.
Purple Gallinule, in Waynesboro, May 29.
I'll have to wait until I get back from my trip out west (including Arizona!!??) to describe my birding activities in June. For now, you can at least see the photos on the Wild Birds, yearly photo gallery page.
June 30, 2014 [LINK / comment]
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Since I won't be having any normal blog updates for the next few weeks, I put this page here as a place to post random thoughts about baseball. Please feel free to do likewise, if you have something important to share. Just click where it says [LINK / comment] above, then follow the directions to register (risk-free, of course), and you will then see a space for entering comments on each blog post, such as this one.
Pre-posted on June 17, 2014.