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February 2019
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February 4, 2019 [LINK / comment]

F-f-freezing field trip to Mill Place

On January 26 I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to the new Mill Place trail in Verona, and with temperatures in the mid-20s, I didn't expect much of a turnout. (I had previously led a field trip there on December 8.) But to my surprise, seven other birders showed up, once again defying the frigid conditions! Immediately we could see that the thick brushy area where a retention pond used to be had been excavated and was largely barren. That was a tragedy, because sparrows of all kinds had been using those bushes for both shelter and food. Highlights included Red-shouldered Hawk, a Northern Harrier in the distance, an American Kestrel, and Savannah Sparrow which at the time I thought was a Song Sparrow. A close look at the photo after I got home left no doubt about the species. Pausing at the big pond behind Hardee's (mostly unfrozen) on the way out, some of us saw several Hooded Mergansers, some Buffleheads, two Great Blue Herons, as well as the usual Canada Geese and Mallards.

Since then, one of our club members, Ann Cline, has contacted the Augusta County Parks and Recreation Department to find out what is going on with that excavation. Hopefully the brushy area will be restored by the summer. The Mill Place trail is a real natural treasure, in the midst of an industrial park. The county government deserves credit for making the area accessible to the public.

Montage 26 Jan 2019

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Kestrel (F), Buffleheads, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-shouldered Hawk, Savannah Sparrow, Great Blue Herons, and Hooded Mergansers (F & M).

Other birds in January

A few times in January there was a Brown Creeper in our back yard, but I haven't seen it for a week or two. There was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker earlier in the winter, but it hasn't come by lately either. Contrary to the forecasts of a big "irruption" of northerly species this season, we haven't had any Pine Siskins this winter, and just one (probable) female Purple Finch. Another winter bird that seems curiously absent is the Yellow-rumped Warbler; there are extremely scarce for the second winter in a row. On January 11 I saw a Cooper's Hawk out back, and managed to get this photo before it flew away:

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk, in Staunton, on January 11.

We had another big snow storm on January 13, but the roads were mostly cleared by the afternoon so Jacqueline and I took a drive. On the north side of downtown Staunton, we noticed Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures roosting in tall pine trees, and from the photos I took, there must have been at least 200 of them. On January 24 I saw the Loggerhead Shrike near the ponds on Bell's Lane once again, but it was farther away than the first time I saw it on December 27. I have seen Short-eared Owls in that area a couple times in recent weeks, but other than a blurry post-dusk photo on January 11 have not "captured" any of them in photos.

Long-tailed Duck!

After a meeting of the Augusta Bird Club board yesterday (February 3), I paid a visit to the pond behind Hardee's, where Allen Larner had reported seeing a Long-tailed Duck. After a few minutes, I spotted the little guy (male), intermittently diving into the icy water. It was only the third time I had ever seen one, the first being February 15, 2014. The sky was cloudy, however, so my photos were only so-so.

Today was warm and sunny, however, so I went back in the latter part of the morning. Thankfully, there it was not far from the shore, and I was able to get some very good photos. There were also three Killdeers in the grass, as well as the rest of the usual ducks and geese on the water.

But my main objective of the day was to see the Evening Grosbeaks at Kevin Shank's residence in the Union Springs area in Rockingham County. With such ideal weather, I just had to take advantage. My first visit there was on December 29; see January 9 blog post. Arriving shortly before noon, I talked with Mr. Shank about where the Grosbeaks had been seen, and I prepared for a long vigil, scouting the trees around his house. But two-plus hours of patience did not pay off, and I finally left -- but not before seeing and photographing two species I had not yet seen (for sure) this winter: Pine Siskins and Purple Finches! So that was a nice consolation prize.

On my way back to Staunton I stopped at Silver Lake just north of Dayton, and had some nice, well-lit views of some interesting duck species, as seen below. (The Kingfisher was perched above a stream closer to town; it's the best photo I have taken of a female of that species.)

Montage 04 Feb 2019

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Long-tailed Duck (M), Canvasback (M), Redhead (M), Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Greater Scaup (M), Belted Kingfisher (F), and in center, Purple Finch (M). (February 4) Roll mouse over the image to see the Long-tailed Duck enlarged.

Even more photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.


February 7, 2019 [LINK / comment]

R.I.P. Frank Robinson

Not long after reports circulated that Frank Robinson was suffering from a life-threatening condition, the 83-year old Hall of Famer passed away. He had bone cancer. Robinson was admired and liked by almost everyone he played with or against, and his character was shaped by the struggle against racism, which was still very strong in the early part of his career.

Over the course of his career as a player, Robinson hit 586 home runs, with 1,812 RBIs, and a .294 batting average. He played his first ten years with the Cincinnati Reds and then (after the 1965 season) was traded to the Baltimore Orioles, in what is widely regarded as one of the dumbest player transactions in MLB history. The next six years in Baltimore turned out to be some of the most productive of his career, including two World Series victories. [He was the only major league player to be named Most Valuable Player in both leagues: in 1961 with the Reds (the year they won the NL pennant) and in 1966 with the Orioles (their first AL pennant, as they swept the Dodgers in the World Series), as he won the Triple Crown award. In 1976] he ended his playing career with the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first African-American manager in MLB history in 1975. [He was a player-manager there for two years.] He later managed the San Francisco Giants, the Baltimore Orioles, and after a lapse during most of the 1990s, the Montreal Expos.

Robinson became manager of the Expos after Jeffrey Loria sold the struggling franchise to Major League Baseball in 2002. That transaction was a sign that the Expos were slated for relocation to Washington, D.C. and Robinson indeed became the "born-again" Washington Nationals' first manager three years later, in 2005. He remained as head of the team for two seasons, and was (rightly) a bit miffed that the Nationals' new owners, the Lerners, declined to offer him some kind of advisory position in the front office. I had the great fortune to see him up close before the next-to-last game of his career as a manager:

Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson, being interviewed before the Nats-Mets game at RFK Stadium, September 30, 2006.

Braves Field minor update

Braves Field

Prompted by some tips from Angel Amezquita about the precise timing of the reconfigurations of the home field of the Boston Braves after they moved to Milwaukee in 1953, I made a few minor corrections and enhancments to the Braves Field diagrams. (It's now called Nickerson Field, and I was there in September 2016.) There is one new diagram, for soccer, and the two football diagrams are now labeled according to the first years in which the given configuration was in effect: 1955 and 1972. The main change was that the huge roof is not quite as big as it was before, and that the peak of the roof where the structural beams were located is now about 10-12 feet farther from the field than before. Otherwise, the only changes are trivial in nature.

Games outside the U.S.A.

I already knew that the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners are slated to play the first two official games of the 2019 season at the Tokyo Dome in Japan (on March 20-21), but I just learned that there will be four other games outside our borders this season, all of them at the Estadio Monterrey in Mexico. On April 13-14, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds will play there, and on May 4-5, the Houston Astros and L.A. Angels will play there. I will update the text on those pages shortly. Finally, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will play in London Stadium (England, not Ontario!) on June 29-30. I'll have to make a diagram of that one, I guess. I don't mind occasional foreign series, but more than one per year is a bit problematic to me.

But wait, there'll be yet another MLB game at a "neutral" venue this year, in the United States: the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals will play at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska on June 13. That will come immediately after (or before) the College World Series, which is held there every year.

For the 28 teams other than Oakland and Seattle, Opening Day will be on March 28 -- exactly seven weeks from today!

Rangers choose fake turf

The Texas Rangers confirmed widespread rumors and announced that their new stadium ("Globe Life Park II") will have artificial turf, because of the difficulty of providing grass in retractable-roof stadiums with sufficient sunlight. It probably makes sense in economic terms, but it represents a big step backward for the sport, in terms of aesthetics and player safety. The last new MLB to open with artificial turf was Tropicana Field, 21 years ago. See dallasnews.com (hat tip to Mike Zurawski) and wfaa.com (hat tip to Bruce Orser). The renderings I have seen of the new stadium (scheduled to open in 2020) give me a mixed impression: There are at least four main decks with numerous, arbitrary quirks here and there, looking rather messy, and the dual-slanted roof (also featured in the new NFL stadiums in Minneapolis and Indianapolis) makes it look like a great big house.


February 25, 2019 [LINK / comment]

At last: Spring training has begun!

Ignore that snow on the ground outside, baseball fans, because spring training is here! Pitchers and catchers reported for Spring training two Wednesdays ago, and the full squads reported last Monday. For most teams, the first practice games were held on Saturday, another sign that baseball is right around the corner. Opening Day for 28 teams will be Thursday March 28, about as early as baseball can start. For the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A's, the first game will take place at the Tokyo Dome in Japan on March 20; see the newly-updated Anomalous stadiums page.

The preseason game scores mean absolutely nothing, of course, but it is nonetheless worth pointing out that the Washington Nationals won their first two games: they beat the Houston on Saturday 7-6, on a walk-off double by Adrian Sanchez, and they beat the Cardinals 12-2 on Sunday. Today they lost to the Braves 9-4, but as mentioned above, practice games don't count.

Machado signs with Padres

The main drama throughout this off-season has centered upon two free agent slugging superstars: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who spent six and a half years with the Baltimore Orioles and was then traded to the L.A. Dodgers last July. It has been a strange, slow-moving spectacle full of whispers, like a kabuki theater. Well, last week the San Diego Padres announced that Machado had signed a $300 million, 10-year contract with them, the biggest free agent deal in Major League history. This followed many weeks of speculation about the Phillies and other teams. See MLB.com. Whether he proves to be worth that much money is anyone's guess. Machado has been a very consistent hitter over the past four years, with between 33 and 37 home runs and a batting average between .249 and .294 each year. He seems to have personality issues, however, and one wonders if he will be content playing on a team that is not as likely to make it to the postseason.

Harper mulls his options

Meanwhile, Bryce Harper continues to keep us all in nerve-wracking suspense as he weighs his options. Much as I despise recirculating rumors, it seems appropriate to mention that he met with Philadelphia Phillies over the weekend, and it seemed all but certain that he would sign with them. (The Phillies were scrambling after Machado signed with the Padres.) But today it was reported that the Dodgers are pursuing Harper once again, with meetings in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Mark Lerner (son of the Nationals' principal owner Ted Lerner) said that his family had not even spoken with Harper in months. Eegads. The upshot is that the Nationals are no longer the team is he most likely to sign with.

On Saturday, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote a rather harsh piece saying that Harper is on the verge of signing the "least satisfying nine-figure deal ever." He thinks that Harper probably wishes he had accepted the $300 million for 10 years offered to him by the Nats' owners at the end of the 2018 regular season. The fact that the market for free agent players has fizzled means that he will be lucky to get terms even slightly better than that deal, and it probably won't be on friendly terms. His agent Scott Boras certainly deserves some of the blame for that, but suspicions linger that the MLB owners tacitly cooperated to keep salaries down. "There was no collusion!" (Why does that sound familiar?)

Personally, I think Bryce has every right to bargain for the best terms he can get, but there's more to it than just money. If Harper is man enough to set aside his pride and sign a new contract with the Nationals, he will in all likelihood go down in history as one of the greatest players to ever spend the bulk of his career with one team, and he will retire as a happy, beloved, satisfied man. We'll see. This whole free agency thing is no picnic.

Could the Nationals get by without Harper this year? Absolutely, yes. But it sure would be easier to win a division title and go deep into the postseason with him on board.

A week or two ago, I also updated the Washington Nationals page with head-to-head win-loss records to include 2018. It shows the provisional starting pitcher rotation, which ought to rank at or near the top of all 30 MLB teams:

* New players

Scherzer bemoans baseball trends

Nats' ace pitcher Max Scherzer has been vocal about various problems he has observed in the sport. Last week he complained about the decline in competition among baseball teams, brought on by sky-high salaries that leave some smaller-market teams completely out of the loop. Something indeed needs to be done about that. Then over the weekend he argued against the proposed use of a pitch clock to speed up the pace of play; they are emperimenting with that in spring training games. To Max, it just ruins the fabric of the game. He pointed out that too many foul balls are a bigger reason why games drag on longer than they used to. See the Washington Post.

Another Polo Grounds update?!

Polo Grounds

(Stop me if you've heard this one before.) So, a few weeks ago I realized I needed to make a few small tweaks to the Polo Grounds diagrams, and before you knew it, yadda yadda yadda... Once again, I found myself deeply enmeshed in a new set of puzzles and mysteries that were finally solved, yielding big (for me at least) revelations. I guess that is to be expected when so much time (12 years) elapsed between the previous diagram update in 2007. There were a lot of needed improvements to catch up on!

For the record, here are the significant changes since the January 9 update:

Note that even though the center field distance marker changed from 483 to 475 when the Polo Grounds were fixed up for the arrival of the Mets in 1962, home plate did not move forward by eight feet as stated by Lowry in Green Cathedrals (2006). I checked several photographs very carefully, and it's clear that the foul line intersected the dugout at the same point during the Mets' stay there as it had previously. The longer distance (483) was probably to the wall at ground level, and the shorter distance (475) was to the front of the building 15 or so feet above the ground.

* This seems to be a significant discovery on my part. I have begun calculations to pinpoint the origin of the mistaken distances. Discrepancies of 5-7 feet are tolerable, but once you get to ten feet or more, it's a real problem. I have likewise indicated misleading distance markers for Tiger Stadium, Dolphin (Hard Rock) Stadium, and perhaps a couple others.

R.I.P. Don Newcombe

Brooklyn Dodgers' pitcher Don Newcombe passed away at the age of 92 last week. He was one of the first African-Americans to join the major leagues, following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson. He debuted in 1949, and was named NL Rookie of the Year after winning 17 games. He remained with the Dodgers (aside from military service during the Korean War) until their move to Los Angeles (1958), soon after which he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He ended his career with the Cleveland Indians in 1960. Problems with alcohol and controlling his temper seemed to affect his performance. At the Polo Grounds (see above!) on October 3, 1951 he was the starting pitcher in the deciding game of the three-game playoff between the New York Giants and the Dodgers. He left the game in the bottom of the ninth inning with a 4-2 lead and one out. In from the bullpen came Ralph Branca, and then Bobby Thomson came up to bat for the Giants. The rest, as any baseball fan knows, is history...

In case you didn't know, the refrain in Terry Cashman's nostalgic song "Talkin' Baseball" referred to Newcombe:

The Scooter*, the Barber**, and the Newk***

* (the Yankees' Phil Rizzuto) ** (the Giants' Sal Maglie) *** (the Dodgers' Don Newcombe)


February 28, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Mourning in D.C.: Bryce Harper picks Philadelphia frown

The worst-case scenario for fans of the Washington Nationals finally materialized late this afternoon: their superstar hero (and probable future Hall-of-Famer) Bryce Harper accepted a fat and juicy contract offer from the Philadelphia Phillies. He will be getting a total of $330 million over a period of 13 years, or $25.4 million a year. Significantly, the terms include a full no-trade clause and no opt-outs, so unless there is a mutual change of heart, Bryce will be playing in the City of Brotherly Love through the year 2031. (That's just too far in the future to even contemplate.) It is the biggest contract in MLB history, just barely surpassing the (then-) Florida Marlins' $325 million, 13-year contract with Giancarlo Stanton in November 2014. See MLB.com for more details.

One wonders, "Why would Bryce accept an annual salary that was $4.6 million less than what the Lerners offered him five months ago?" The reported terms back then were $300 million over ten years, which I thought was quite fair and competitive. Part of the answer has to do with the weaker-than-expected market for free agents (no collusion!), which has left several big stars such as Dallas Keuchel still looking for a job this year. Until the news today, it appeared that Harper's agent Scott Boras had served him poorly, and it seemed possible that he might have to settle for a shorter-term contract with the Dodgers or the Giants. But the terms he got from the Phillies were more than satisfactory. But the big difference between this contract and what the Nationals offered is that the latter's terms including a big chunk of "deferred salary," meaning that the team would in effect issue IOUs that would be redeemed for several years beyond the end of the contract. That might have been a deal-breaker for Bryce.

Just as a side note, the deferred salary is a rather cheap gimmick that the Nationals' front office has used more than once, and it reflects in part the financial constraint imposed by the unfair terms of the TV revenue rights deal with the Baltimore Orioles. MLB officials have worked to resolve that issue in recent months, so hopefully the Nats will be in a better money position before long.

Another factor favoring the Phillies may be the stadium, or more specifically, the size of the outfield. Citizens Bank Park has about 105,000 square feet of fair territory, about four percent less than the 109,100 square feet in Nationals Park. Indeed, the Phillies enjoy the most home-run friendly ballpark in the major leagues right now. Bryce has hit 184 homers during his seven years with the Nats (peaking at 42 during his MVP year, 2015), and if you figure that his career is only one-third over, he could end up with another 368 homers, for a total of 552. But if you add the ballpark factor over a period of 13 years, he could conceivably raise that home run total by 100 or more, which would put him in sixth place in the all-time list, just behind Willie Mays (660).

Citizens Bank Park, Nationals Park outfields

The outfield portions of Citizens Bank Park, with Nationals Park superimposed. Balls hit into the areas colored pink would be home runs in the former but not the latter, and the converse would be true in the (much smaller) areas colored violet.

It wouldn't have been so bad if he had signed with the L.A. Dodgers or San Francisco Giants, but now we're going to have face him 19 times a year. Ugh. The Nats had an 11-8 record against the Phillies last year, but things will be a lot different this year. Indeed, with their other acquisitions and with the Atlanta Braves determined to repeat as division champions, the NL East will be fiercely contested this year. Bryce will make his first appearance with the Phillies in Washington on April 2. (If it were the day before, we could perhaps pretend that it was all just a gag.) How will D.C. fans greet him? I hope they show more class than fans in certain other cities. It's going to be hard as hell getting used to seeing Bryce in a Phillies uniform. I suppose the sooner we get this over with the better...

Bryce Harper fake Phillies hat

WARNING: FAKE PHOTO! A melancholy-looking Bryce Harper on September 21, during the one of the last home games he played as a National, with Ryan Howard's cap (from my visit to Philadelphia in 2016) artificially superimposed.

The first time I mentioned Bryce Harper was in June 2010, when the Nationals used their #1 pick to draft him. (I had almost forgotten that he was a catcher in his college days.) Two months later he signed a five-year contract totaling $9.9 million, a record for a rookie position player. After a year in the minors, he made a big splash in his debut with the Nationals in late April 2012, and in November he was chosen as National League Rookie of the Year. Three years later (November 2015) he was chosen as the National League Most Valuable Player. He has had his ups and downs in the years since then, but he was undoubtedly a crucial factor in the Nationals winning four divisional titles during his years in D.C. And so I say:

Thanks for seven GREAT years with the Nats, Bryce!
You'll be remembered well!


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