Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Camelot, North Carolina

Re: Huler, Scott, "NC Considers Making Sea Level Rise Illegal," Scientific American Blogs, May 30, 2012, accessed May 30, 2012, 9:00 p.m. CDT (


                  (Lyrics by Allen Jay Lerner)

          It's true! It's true! The crown has made it clear.
          The climate must be perfect all the year.

          A law was made a distant moon ago here:
          July and August cannot be too hot.
          And there's a legal limit to the snow here
          In Camelot.
          The winter is forbidden till December
          And exits March the second on the dot.
          By order, summer lingers through September
          In Camelot.

          Camelot! Camelot!
          I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
          But in Camelot, Camelot
          That's how conditions are.
          The rain may never fall till after sundown.
          By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
          In short, there's simply not
          A more congenial spot
          For happily-ever-aftering than here
          In Camelot.

          Camelot! Camelot!
          I know it gives a person pause,
          But in Camelot, Camelot
          Those are the legal laws.
          The snow may never slush upon the hillside.
          By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear.
          In short, there's simply not
          A more congenial spot
          For happily-ever-aftering than here
          In Camelot.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The 2012 Milwaukee Brewers: .404 (Not Found)

Did it have to happen so soon?

It's only Memorial Day, and already the defending National League Central Division Champion Milwaukee Brewers are being talked about as sellers at the trading deadline.  They've hobbled and wheezed their way to an unimpressive Memorial Day record of 19-28 (.404), nine games below .500 and eight games behind the division-leading [who knows; they're too many games below to see who's above].  Barring a hot streak in the first half of June -- which, frankly, would be amazing with the current roster full of injuries -- it's hard to see how this Crew can climb back into division contention.

Here's the 4-1-1 on the .404:

The Brewers' training room and associated rehab facilities have been jammed full in 2012.  The infield has been decimated; Mat Gamel (1b) and Alex Gonzalez (ss) are out for the season.  Backups-promoted-to-starters Travis Ishikawa (1b) and Cesar Izturis (ss) are on the DL.  Aramis Ramirez (3b) has been held out for a few games after a HBP turned his elbow into a grapefruit.  With Prince Fielder gone to free agency and Rickie Weeks scuffling at the plate, a starting four of Cody Ransom (3b), Edwin Maysonet (ss), Brooks Conrad (2b), and Taylor Green (1b) could be coming soon to a ballpark near you.

Fifth starter Chris Narveson is gone for the year, and effective spot-starter/long-reliever Marco Estrada is on the DL.  The Brewers haven't been using reliever Kameron Loe in recent games due to elbow soreness.

The catching crew, a rare beacon of light in a dismal offense, just took a potential hit as back-up George Kottaras was pulled from yesterday's game after he tweaked a hamstring.  He's only back in today because All-Star candidate Jonathan Lucroy is sitting out today's game with a bruised hand.  The outfield by comparison has escaped relatively unscathed, with Carlos Gomez recently reactivated from the DL despite running at half his usual breakneck speed.  That's not insignificant, as speed is 80% of his game, offensively and defensively.  However, he's back, which is good.

It goes without saying that the Brewers, not to mention metro Milwaukee's 1,751,316 denizens (2010 U.S. Census), held their collective breath when franchise player Ryan Braun suffered achilles tendon pain.  It's not clear that he's back to 100%.

Add to this roll-call of injuries a spate of inconsistent starting pitching, awful situational hitting by all but Braun and Lucroy, and creative blunders on the bases and you have the story of the Brewers' early season.  Corey Hart hasn't yet seen a grounder to shortstop that would keep him from running into an unforced out at third.  Yesterday, batter Nyjer Morgan slowed down to watch the play at the plate en route to being thrown out at first in a 6-2-3 double-play.

What made the 2011 Brew Crew strong from the outset was a staff anchored by three starting aces, a back-to-back Braun-Fielder tandem in the 3-4 slots, solid hitting from Weeks and Hart, an unanticipated, high energy shot in the arm from Morgan and Gomez, and two front line closers in Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford -- plus a clubhouse chemistry that worked.  This year, Fielder's gone, and not just the heart of the order but much of the Brewers' heart with it.

It's come to this: there are, perhaps, two to four weeks to persuade 2013 free agents Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum on the one hand and Brewers' owner Mark Attanasio and GM Doug Melvin on the other that the 2013 Brewers will be different and are worth a contract commitment.  Dollars will talk, but the prospect of a winning performance has to match the promise.  Otherwise, the Brew Crew will be truly blue, unanticipated sellers at the trading deadline.

In short, if the Brewers cannot improve from .404 to .504 by 7/4, the 4-1-1 in the 414 will become a full-fledged 9-1-1.

* * *

UPDATE: After a narrow win on Memorial Day against the Dodgers, the Brewers broke glass and pulled the alarm, placing Jonathan Lucroy (c) on the 15-day DL.  The story of his injury is too outrageous not to be true: his wife shifted a suitcase on their hotel bed; it fell on his right hand, fracturing it, while he was reaching under the bed for a sock.  (You mean to say that hasn't ever happened to you?)  Nashville Sounds catcher Martin Maldonado, batting .198 for the season in AAA, will join the Brew Crew to serve as understudy to the hobbled George Kottaras.

The good news is that Miller Park has a roof so they always play the game.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Uncle Rickie

The conundrum that is the Milwaukee Brewers' starting second baseman Rickie Weeks continues. Weeks, a National League All-Star in 2011 after a red-hot start at the plate, is ice cold in 2012. Through May 17th, Weeks has a .156 batting average, 7 RBI's (4 of which are accounted for by his 4 home runs), and a league-leading 49 strikeouts. Watching him struggle at the plate is as painful as watching Casey McGehee face his season-long slump last year.

By all accounts, Weeks is tough as nails. His work ethic, his recovery from numerous injuries, including a severe ankle sprain after last year's All-Star break, and his ability to shake off a nasty hit-by-pitch are all legendary. He seems to have a league-leading pain threshhold. It's possible that his body is finally breaking down after all that abuse, though he's still capable of hitting a tape measure home run. That's the first, most obvious explanation for his troubles.

Baseball's relentless grind is a second possible theory. Minor league call-ups notwithstanding, there's rarely a better alternative for Brewers' Manager Ron Roenicke than to keep Rickie in the line-up daily and hope he works it out. For some players -- Roenicke cites himself during his playing days -- a day on the bench is a chance to refresh, regroup, observe. He says Weeks is different, which seems entirely plausible; keep him out, and you might miss the spark of a three-hit game that would break the slump. Through his dedicated effort, Rickie's also earned the chance to keep playing and find his swing again, but one wonders how much more patience his manager will have.

Roenicke has suggested, directly and indirectly, that some of Weeks' struggles by now might be partly mental as well as physical, a not uncommon observation about slumping players. That's a good third explanation, as far as it goes, but it's insufficiently precise. Here I think we have the key, and it might be more involved than a simple performance issue.

Consider last year's Milwaukee Brewers, a division championship team that bowled over all comers until the St. Louis Cardinals asserted themselves in September and October. Last year represented a confluence of good fortune for the Brew Crew. Ryan Braun, bolstered by Prince Fielder's booming clean-up presence in the batting order, compiled an MVP season. Nyjer Morgan came on board and took Milwaukee by storm, his Tony Plush act winning over the crowd and his hustling play eventually winning over Roenicke and most if not all of his teammates. Following Zack Greinke's return from a basketball injury incurred during spring training, the five-man starting rotation stayed effective, at least until Sean Marcum's arm ran out of gas, and away from the DL for the season. Both in 2008 and 2011, GM Doug Melvin pulled off amazing mid-season trades for star pitchers, C.C. Sabathia and Francisco Rodriguez respectively.

The clubhouse chemistry also seemed tight last year -- in the good sense of the word. Upbeat energy-guys Morgan and Carlos Gomez and pranksters like Marcum and McGehee -- who once did a hilarious, bogus translation job of Spanish-speaking teammate Yuni Betancourt's interview comments for the camera -- kept the team loose. Odd ducks like Morgan and Greinke and struggling players like McGehee were actively supported by their manager and teammates. Most pertinently, family man Prince Fielder and his best buddy Rickie Weeks anchored the locker room, with Prince's kids a constant, welcome presence. When Weeks incurred his injury and was sitting in the trainer's room, discouraged, Prince told his kids to "go see Uncle Rickie." They goofed with him, laughed with him, and cheered him up, as only kids can do.

Prince isn't here this year. His kids aren't here. Nyjer is having his own offensive struggles. Ace starter Yovani Gallardo can't seem to perform well against the archrival Cardinals. Yuni B.'s successor Alex Gonzales and Prince's successor Mat Gamel have gone down with season-ending injuries, as has starting pitcher Chris Narveson. Greinke and Marcum are in the last years of their contracts. Corey Hart seems lost defensively as the Brewers try to decide his best position on the field. Ryan Braun, while hitting his way out of an early slump, still faces travails in the aftermath of his tumultuous off-season. Former coach Dale Sveum is now picking apart the Brewers' swings as the Cubs' manager instead of bolstering their approaches in the batting cage. At least in comparison to last year, this team seems to be a collection of individuals dealing with their individual woes. There's no one around to cheer up Uncle Rickie.

The Brewers desperately need Weeks to step up as both an offensive threat and a leader in order to salvage the 2012 season. Whether he can do that is an open question. What this season has proven, though, is that ballplayers are human, as susceptible to pain, doubts, and the insecurities that come from organizational change as anyone else. They expose their struggles very publicly before fickle, impatient crowds; their every move is observed, catalogued, and amplified.

The cause of Rickie Weeks' batting slump may be physical or it may be mental, but it's surely also an accumulation of these surrounding factors. Call it the Gestalt Theory of Baseball. Last year's Brewers were a unique bunch; this year, they've become unique individuals. If I were Ron Roenicke, I'd do everything in my power to chop off their individual heads and restore the unruly classroom of 2011.

I'd start by giving Uncle Rickie a new phone -- one with Prince Fielder's kids on speed-dial.


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