Tag Archives: X-factor

The Crossover: Greetings from Earth, Basketball is the Best I Ever Had

A product of thoughtful consideration (and content quotas!), I’ve begun email exchanges with a variety of luminaries across a range of professions and interests (this is hardly true). There is something to be said, however, about the implications of form qua blog and the enacting of discourse, but I won’t say it because it’s mostly doodoo. Academic and grounded in…something, but doodoo nonetheless. With that resounding endorsement, I present to you: The Crossover.

Shea Hurley:

Dujie,

Please respond to this email having something interesting to say about basketball. I’m a little bored. You’re probably not: congrats once again.

Michelle and me went to Leavenworth last weekend and climbed a proper mountain so it’s safe to say my ankle is mostly healed. I talked to your mom at the wedding, she said you felt at fault. I said you weren’t but that it was fine you going on thinking you were. So it goes.

Dujie Tahat:

I do feel at fault. You’d never played basketball really before and I should have warned you sooner that an ankle injury was inevitable if you didn’t get any basketball shoes. Unfortunately, yours was much, much worse than most (almost grotesquely so), and your subsequent employment was dependent on your physical prowess (not all of us can be 6’4”, a sinewy 215 and have a perfectly symmetrical face—so fuck you love you!) . Also, that was just one of the worst-sounding, -looking, gut-bending injuries I’ve ever been on a basketball court to witness. That definitely added to the guilt (for your stupid affinity for Tom Brady):

I’m over it now.

On this topic though, I have been meaning to ask you a question: what it was like to fall in love with basketball?

Yes. Love.

I’ve spent nearly as far back as I can remember playing basketball and can’t remember what it was like in the early years/months. Of course, over that time, I’ve fallen out of favor with the game, and subsequently, recommitted myself. Even then, there’s a rush when I lace up for the first time in a long time. The distinct tightness and traction of basketball shoes, a mishandled dribble, the first swish, when muscle memory takes over, even the pennies and compression shorts— it’s thrilling.

In those moments, during games, I find myself in complete ambivalence–one of those truly unsettling moments where you’re equally culpable to opposing forces. One the one hand, I am reorienting myself to the logistics of the game: positioning, spacing, assessing my side’s needs and focusing on those (i.e. rebounding, shooting, etc. (not et cetera: those are actually the only two things on a basketball court I can actually do)). On the other hand, I fight to get in “the zone”—which is already a losing battle I think because the sensation has always felt more like finding “the zone.” As if I had drunkenly, haphazardly and accidently stumbled into that state of mind that I’d characterize by a sharp dullness, or a sluggish honing.

It is a strange position to be in—rediscovering something you know so well—holding both these necessarily contradicting thoughts in a singular mind, in a singular body, in a singular game.  One requires thought and analysis; while the other demands near-blankness.

xoxo

 SR:

My affinity for Tom Brady—the great protagonist of the American Dream—is childish, sure, but it is not stupid. Lupe Fiasco is stupid, so were running shoes and I should have known that much without needing to be told.

As for love and basketball, I’m a little hesitant to throw love around while talking about a sport so new to me. But there was definitely something pseudo-romantic going on. Playing basketball had the same kinds of insecurities as a new love. I knew I was going to have to stop for a long time very soon and I was reminded always that it was a risky way to get in shape. If basketball was a love interest it was a fem fatal minx. I was infatuated, I had everything to lose, and I knew that at any moment it could expose me as a klutz and a fraud. I just didn’t think it would be so dramatic, or have such severe consequences when it happened.

Generally speaking, it is a bad situation to be in when your employment is dependent on your physical condition. Sometimes the job is worth it—it seemed like it was to me—most of the time it’s probably not.

As it turns out the premier rappel and jump bases in the country are both on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest here in Washington. I asked one of the older hotshot guys why he never jumped and he told me to put a 100lbs pack on and jump off my house. That was why, he said. Needless to say aerially delivered fire-fighters get hurt constantly. A jumper a few years ago, seeing the rocks ahead of him, threw up in his flight helmet before breaking both his legs on impact. The point here is that an injury was likely all along, so no worries; I’d rather beef it in the gym in front of ten people than in the wilderness in front of, like, no one at all.

Anyway, back to basketball. They say if you’re new to something it is best not to be nervous when doing it and visa-versa, when you are skilled at something the nerves can heighten your senses and are generally good for performance. This was the pendulum swing I found myself moving through and I felt much more natural, even in the zone, while I was able to think less. Thinking less, of course, I can’t do consciously. When I was thinking more it was about what a big rube I must look like, with my tall socks, ticking-bomb shoes and general lack of basketball paraphernalia. Or maybe a ruse instead of a rube, like a big, cruel trick in the form of a rangy, althletic-looking body who you could be pretty sure played at least JV in high school but who was really completely inexperienced and (initially) completely unskilled. Brick, sorry. That’s the punch-line and the joke’s on you, teammates.

I only wish I found the game sooner.

stay dreamy

DT:

Lupe Fiasco is not stupid. He’s a God. Toe shoes are stupid. I mean for Christ’s sake, wear regular fucking shoes! Or go barefoot! Mostly just pick one—stop trying to do both!

Also Tom Brady is not, I repeat not, the Nick Carraway of the American Dream—way more like Gatsby, or our 21st century version:

I mean, sure, seventh round pick, career back up, turned his one opportunity into multiple MVPs and Lombardi trophies, but whatever: the dude benefitted from the most effective pro football system since Vince Lombardi’s 1960s patented “Our endzone is that way, idiot!” offense.

Tommy Boi went to private school, went to football camps led by former Atlanta Falcon (and ArenaBowl Champion!) Anthony Graziani and grew up in San Mateo, California, among the top 25 wealthiest counties in the U.S. (just under $83,000 per capita), and the third wealthiest in California. There’s only one paradigm in the American Dream that his ascendency captures: MORE!

(Also, thanks Wikipedia for not failing to prove my point. This time.)

As far as basketball goes, I hadn’t meant love in a romantic sense. An initial pass makes that seem way too limiting, but I think you might be onto something.

Upon further review, I realized that I recently married a woman I’ve been on and off with for six years. Our relationship bears many of the characteristics of the relationship I have with basketball: there’s a definitive muscle memory to our motions, reading and reacting, learned instinct, a general machinery and lines that dictates the parameters but that wouldn’t mean a thing without the sheer joy of improvisation and cooperative freeplay.

There is one undeniable difference though: primarily that all sport ends.

I don’t believe that any human relationship ends—especially one that bears love. It just changes form.

To that end, when does basketball end? Surely, Basketball does not.

I get great joy from watching—marveling, really—at professional basketball players whose whole livelihood, whose whole identity and techne are contingent on what their bodies can do, a physical limit. To them, basketball never ends. They are the closest thing there is to the embodiment of Basketball. And yet, their’s is a precarious agreement with fate. Their very existence is all a gamble, a tightrope walk. Thousands of jumpshots, rebounds and crossovers a season, not to mention practice, conditioning, playing with the kids, each an opportunity to cripple these giants of the game.

I mean, can you imagine, these guys as fragile?

I’ve said it before, you need to watch Hoop Dreams. Not only will it keep warm your fire for the hardwood, but it’s just a great fucking movie. It changed the way documentaries were made thereafter. I bring it up though because what could be harder than your employment relying on your physical ability? Probably that the only opportunity you’ll ever have at any social mobility relying on your body.

To preempt some of your certain criticism: Yes. It’s not fair. Big picture, it’s a social condition that needs to be addressed.

The fire fighter that jumps out of a helicopter with a 100lbs strapped to their back into a blazing wildfire is perhaps the perfect metaphor for those kids. They’re the elite of the elite, playing men, acting like men when they’re probably only still boys, carrying their families and communities on the shoulders into a situation that will almost certainly eat them alive.

One of the kids Hoop Dreams follows, William Gates, suffered from a debilitating knee injury just as he was turning on in high school and college scouts were starting to pay attention. In fact, he had gotten into private school on a basketball scholarship. He never made it. He got swallowed by the fire.

I was never that elite of an athlete at anything to merit that kind of attention or even fancy. We were poor but, my parents insisted on education as my way up the ladder. I guess in many ways I’ve been tremendously lucky. It almost seems like a crime to insist that I, too, had and hold onto my own Hoop Dreams.

xoxo

SH:

Fine Dujie,

Tom Brady went to private school in San Mateo. But any descent parents would send their kid to a school that good if they could, if only to buddy-up with the crowd. And I should hope that when hardworking parents succeed in supplying their children with this quality of upbringing they do not resent the child as you seemingly resent the adult for what he got. So what if he went to private school in San Mateo? Tommy Jr. didn’t have say in the matter. This is to judge the son by the sins of the father (which—tsk-tsk—is anti-enlightenment and un-American) and frankly a sin I think you would readily commit.

But say (as you do) that Brady’s rich and lazy, embezzling, glitterati parents managed to jostle him into the lowest tier of a public university’s football program. Let’s give him the debts and credits starting there. Remember when he got to Michigan he was a timorous figure in the long shadow of Brian Griese, was 7th on the depth chart and seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety. He had to claw for the starting job at Michigan and for his spot in the pros. As a football player, it doesn’t seem like he was given much of anything besides talent, a pure apprehension of failure and a work ethic to channel it. These characteristics, thank you for noticing also, do evoke shades of Jay Gatsby.

“The Child is the father of the Man” as Wordsworth put it, probably holds true for both figures. I imagine the newly invented penniless Jay Gatsby looked out at the copper-kahuna, Dan Cody from the shores of Lake Superior much the same way the young Tom Brady Jr. regarded Joe Montana from the aisles of Candlestick Park.

The difference of course is that Brady does not come from piss-pot North Dakota. He did get his Daisy: the far-flung, sylphlike wonder of femininity Gisele Bündchen, and hasn’t yet suffered tragic decline and demise by the careless lies of careless people. Not to get too far ahead of myself though, he does play for the NFL, and with Junior Sau in mind, he might shoot himself in the chest before it is all over.

As for Lupe, I wouldn’t want it thought that I set myself up (and what a set-up it would be) so I will be short: He has paranoid delusions about the government of the United States, which is pitiable in its way, but also annoying because of his swollen following of credulous discontents who will take a junk-theory over the facts in plain view, if only to distinguish themselves from the presumed naiveté of cow-eyed parents and classmates and I guess whoever else.

~ ~ ~

Long break here. Work sleep work sleep work.

~ ~ ~

At age ten, I was deposed of my spot—middle back row—on class-picture day because I wasn’t any longer the tallest kid in class. It hurt then like no bad grade ever had or could. I feel a pathetic now remembering it, but I was young, and regarding at least my height, I grew up. Priorities, anxieties and pressures all changed. Problems might have arose if they didn’t, and games are a good example because maintaining skill at them becomes increasingly less practical as time goes by.

I’m not like William Gates (is the irony of that name addressed in Hoop Dreams?), who might have turned fragile athleticism into a career (i.e. a person for whom the game is practical). That was made clear to me early on. Time to go? Okay then, won’t have to tell me twice. The problem is with people hanging around after they should have left like drink-spilling old men at college bars: It’s just not going to happen these people and they’re the only ones who can’t see it.

Gates is exactly the kind of cautionary, all-eggs-in-one-imploded-basket-tale that 17 year-olds are hard wired to ignore in lieu of stories of guys who made it. If you can dream and not make dreams your master… If only. Outliers is bunk by the way.

Speaking of practicality and dreams and the boy being the father of the man, the image of the adult offered by the NBA—by pro sports in general—is not in the least bit practical. It provides a select few, a pre-selected few even—because DNA transcription is really more important here than anything that might follow—a chance to be rich and eccentric and idolized while it strings everybody else along.  Right now there is a guy just down the way on a barstool lamenting his wretched heap of a life to some poor stranger all because, he says, coach wouldn’t put him in, or his knee went out, or Ms. Bitch English teacher failed him out of eligibility. You’ll notice that when you chance upon this tedious foe (you have, and you will again and again and again) he is reliably incapable of prompting your sympathy.

The owners of the NBA—here I invite you to pause and muse with me on the oatmeal colored folds and gathers of Donald Sterling’s collapsing face—are nothing if not shrewd capitalists. Having an underclass of snowflake-or-bust kids who are made to think their endeavors on the court, or the field are more likely to repay their efforts than what they do in the classroom is agreeable; friendly; face-sucking, hand-under-shirt, over-bra simpatico to the status quo. The status quo being, of course, that the kids are without skills or footing and people like Sterling (who has excess money in almost exact proportion to excess skin) go on selling them hoop dreams. Dreams which are, to borrow a phrase nothing but net.

As I realize there is a Macklemore song about this I fill with self-loathing.

Talk to me

Shea

DT:

You did a whole thing there where you grew up and became a cynical old curmudgeon in the span of your last five ‘graphs. Good for you!

I’m going to try and keep this under 3000 words because I turn into a pumpkin after that.

Very quickly on Tom Brady: I would send my kids to private school. I hope to. But let’s not amplify the narrative. His ascendancy is limited to football—which, frankly, isn’t a mountain he could climb without coming from an upper-class, white, privileged family. I take no offense to his unlikely (sports) myth. As a fan of sport, I cannot help but to admire it. I do take offense to calling it the American Dream, and him the main character of it. America is no longer just a sea of pretty white boys (bad news for you). The American Dream connotes there is no alternative. His life wasn’t on the line and neither was the socio-economic outcome of his children. With or without football, Tommy Jr. probably would have still been rich, and his kids would still have their trust funds.

191 words to go.

The Brady discussion seems the perfect digression for the irony of William Gates’ name.

You are unassailably right about how the NBA is structured and capitalism in general. It sucks to be a Plebian. It’d be way cooler to wear a toga and admire little boys. But it sucks much less to be a Pleb that has mastered—or at least gets the daily opportunity to master—a craft as endlessly surprising and infinite as basketball.

Gates is a cautionary tale. There are a dozen of him for every Jimmy Butler. But you can’t blame people for doing what they’re good at, and hoping to achieve the highest form of success doing it. Anyone who can commit to that, seems to me, is the true “protagonist of the American Dream.” Failure is part of the equation. Much less talked about (makes a less inspiring poster), but completely necessary.

I know you’ve probably got some cheeky rebuttal, but this email exchange is my thing, so you’re going to have to hold onto it until next time.

xoxo

The Seattle Mariners, reclaimers of optimism

The Mariners recently decided to take 3 of 4 games from the Oakland A’s. They wrapped the series with a completely unnecessary doubleheader yesterday brought on by a situation earlier in the year where Oakland’s poverty literally leaked on to the field of play, turning it into a Swamp of Sadness-equivalent and resulting in several of the Mariners’ ponies losing the will to live, languishing in the muck adrift in their own sense of desperate apathy, the faint call to carry on muted through the mufflers of their own helplessness until they were utterly submerged.

 

Yesterday’s doubleheader played itself out in about the oddest way imaginable. The Mariners picked up a win in the first game, going to extras following a weird start by Felix Hernandez in which we didn’t appear to have any of his pitches working. Felix surrendered eleven hits and 3 runs, yet the Mariners, behind a couple well-timed dingers by team strongmen Hart and Zunino managed to make it out alive from a game where Yoervis fucking Medina was credited for the win. Oddness.

 

The second game saw a resurgent Erasmo Ramirez return briefly from AAA in order to turn in possibly his most serviceable effort of the season, going 6 innings and allowing only 2 earned runs in the process. The problem in this second game was offense, which seems to hardly be surprising when the lineup includes the corpse of Brad Miller, Willie Bloomquist, John Buck, Cole Gillespie and Stefen Romero. I understand we want righties in the lineup but you need to have quality right handed hitters for this to make sense. If I want beer but don’t have any beer I don’t start fermenting my own urine. The Mariners are fermenting their own urine. It smells like Bloomquist’s grit.

 

A big positive to come out of the 1st of these two games is James Jones’ play in center field. The guy looks infinitely superior to anybody else the Mariners have wheeled out there since Franklin Gutierrez was patrolling center. He made a fantastic diving catch in the seventh inning and made a few excellent plays in the early innings besides. His routes look rather…sober…compared to those we have become accustomed to with Abe Almonte scurrying about. To cap it all off he flashed a plus throwing arm and was able to reach base a few times as well.

 

I still have no fucking clue why McClendon went ahead and slotted him in the 2 hole for his first start in the Major Leagues, but I am willing to suspend my disbelief if the guy continues to play well because frankly, the Mariners need good defensive outfielders to man center and if he can make the tiniest bit of noise at the plate and on the base paths I think he could be a valuable addition moving forward. The tools are there, if the polish can come with it on the job, then welcome to the squad Mr. Jones.

 

The Mariners are heading home following a road trip that took them to a game above .500 where they will be taking on the Kansas City Royals who presently mirror the M’s location around the mythical .500 line. Royals fans probably expected more from their squad moving into 2014—they experienced one of their better seasons in recent memory last year and have been posturing as though gripped by a win-now mindset as evidenced by their (probably idiotic) trade of former No.1 prospect in all of baseball, Will Myers, for serviceable former Rays’ starter James Shields.

 

The trade reeked of the same desperation-spunk surrounding the Mariners’ trade for disgruntled Canadian injury-enthusiast Erik Bedard in which we gave up Adam Jones, now a perennial All-Star for the Orioles and emerged no closer to “winning now” than we had been before, with the added caveat of lacking even the “winning then” that perhaps Jones could have helped with.

 

In that sense—I feel for the Royals’ fan base as a similarly afflicted bunch. The Royals also have several home grown positional prospects-turned-regulars who have taken forever to develop and often developed into something that rested well below their perceived ceilings as prospects. Eric Hosmer never became really as cool as he seemed, Alex Gordon didn’t figure it out until he was like 26, etc.

 

I suppose both of those players are better than their Mariners’ counterparts in Smoak and Ackley, but regardless, the results have not been there with a similar organizational approach.

 

So hey Royals, throw us a bone here. We can’t both make it to the playoffs can we? And you had George Brett once! Your franchise has even won/been to the World Series before!

 

At this point, as a Mariners fan, it is cool to even be able to care still. I have seen optimism dwindle so much faster than it has this season and for the team to remain afloat at this point in time is a revelation. I look forward to going home and seeing the Mariners play baseball and I have been able to do this for more than a month. I think this is what it must feel like to be a fan of a team that is good. I like the feeling. It makes it easier to sleep at night and it saves me money on liquor.

 

Go Mariners.

7-7-7-7-7: How Did We Get So Lucky?

After a weekend of five game-7s and a first round of eight overtimes, the past 48 hours of NBA basketball has been pretty boring.

Washington beat Indiana by six—though it was never really that close. The Clippers trounced Oklahoma City by 17—though it wasn’t really that close either. Miami soundly beat Brooklyn by 21. And San Antonio thoroughly outclassed Portland by 24.

Fear not, basketball fans. As the Prince of the Peanut Gallery, the High Priest of the Punditry, the Baron of Bloviators and Admiral of NBA Analysts Charles “That’s Turrible” Barkley would wisely warn us, “Let’s not overreact to Game 1.”

Well Sir Barkley, give me a subpar screen play, stick me in a middling production and call me Nic Cage:

BLOWOUTS! BLOWOUTS!! MORE BLOWOUTS!!! THE WINNERS OF GAME ONES WILL ALL BE IN THEIR RESPECTIVE CONFERENCE FINALS!!!!!!!!! ASDFKLASMDLBMAOWASDA;’SADFA/]ASVASCAXLKJUHNV!!!! REALLY THOUGH I’M NOT EVEN THAT CRAZY—CAPS LOCKS JUST MAKES ME SEEM LIKE I AM—LIKE BAD MOVIES MAKE CAGE LOOK GENIUS!!!

San Antonio v. Portland

This has barn burner written all-over it. They split the season series, and there is a possibility these teams offenses will literally set one or both of their arenas on fire. Portland had the most efficient offense in the first round, scoring 111.8 points per 100 possessions. While San Antonio had the highest effective field goal percentage (54.3) of any team in the first round. Together, they combined to take 282 3-pointers, sinking  over 37% of them.

While Portlandia was riding high on Damian Lillard’s sacrificing of Chandler Parsons on the altar of the scorer’s table:

the Spurs kept them kitsch by putting a 24-point bird on it.

Rip City seemed to try the switch-on-everything defense that the Dallas Mavericks used pretty effectively. Unfortunately, their bigs can’t contain Tony Parker (neither could the Mavs really), who torched the Blazers for 33 points and 9 assists.

LaMarcus Aldridge will continue to have a killer playoffs. He (along with the rest of the team) started off slow, but last night’s 32 and 14 was no aberration. He’s owned San Antonio’s power forwards all season, shooting 23 of 38 (61%) against Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw.

(Then again, if Pop can continue to get double digit contributions from the likes of Aron Baynes, then LMA’s contribution is effectively neutralized.)

Every facet of the San Antonio Spurs franchise has, at one time or another, had a place in every basketball wonk’s spank bank. From their ageless giant wonder to their too-good-for-your-shenanigans head coach, the Spurs are the Raquel Welch of the NBA. They have almost even managed to hold up (perhaps get better?) over time.

They’re still the one seed. They still won 60+ games this season. Their offensive schemes are still beautiful to watch. And their team defense is still unflappable.

That said, Rip City has been forged in the crucible of the Western Conference, Damian Lillard and LMA are the real deal and the Spurs were pushed to 7 by the significantly less talented Mavericks. The Blazers’ fit the underdog ethos, and will keep San Antonio honest.

The Spurs in 7.

Miami v. Brooklyn

Miami’s vice no more.

Prior to last night’s beat down, some held out hope that Brooklyn could really beat Miami. They did after all sweep the regular season series!

Except three of those games were last second, one-point victories, and the fourth, a double overtime slugfest. Which is not to say they were flukes. Entirely.

Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King put together this team for this playoff moment against the Heat. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have a history with Lebron James, and the Heat have a history of wavering in the face of wisdom (see 2011 Mavs, 2013 Spurs). Prokhorov’s purchase of the Nets must have come shortly after he emerged from his Serbian underground cryogenics chamber because he seems to have forgotten the symptoms of age—mainly that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko were getting slower and could no longer jump as high as in their hayday.

Whereas, Miami has the best combination of talent and athleticism on this Earth in James.  They also have that unseemly extra gear that they turn on in the playoffs when they’re in trouble. It’ll prove problematic in the Finals, but while they are in the East, they should be just fine.

The Heat in 5.

Los Angeles v. Oklahoma City

First of all, if you have not watched Kevin Durant’s MVP acceptance speech yet, stop reading this and invest the seven minutes. It’s worth it. It’s a bit heartbreaking to write the following after such a thoughtful and unselfish outpouring from one of the Supersonic greats, but….

The LA Clippers has been Doc Rivers’ opportunity to resurrect the ‘08 Celtics. Boston won 9 more games than LA this season, but just take this ride with me for a moment. Here are the anonymous player splits (per 36 minutes via basketball-reference.com):

clippers celtics

The numbers don’t matchup perfectly. You could probably guess whom most of the players are, but it takes a thoughtful minute.

Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick (only played 35 games and averaged 28.2 min/game) and Chris Paul are the better had better stat lines than their counterparts—Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Deandre Jordan’s defensive acumen is not quite on par with Garnett’s, but despite scoring half the points KG did, he still produced over a third more blocks and rebounds.

Doc Rivers has always been a great motivator. In Boston, he united an entirely new roster around the philosophy of Ubuntu—as critical a component of their championship run as any of those individual players.

In this first year with the Clips, Rivers never seemed fully content with the unity and heart of his team. They clearly have got the talent to win it all. But in a glitzy Los Angeles market, with his best players fronting for corporate America in series of national commercials and a squad too young to really be hungry (with the exception of Paul), Rivers never seemed to have his players performing at the selfless and courageous level that he knows is at the core of a true champion.

Enter Donald Sterling.

In their three victories since the Donald-Sterling-Is-Fascist-Bigot-Gate, LA has averaged over 120 points in each of their contests. And more importantly, they look like had champion’s heart and fight. They played with a fire that makes even the casual observer step back, and say, “Damn. Those guys mean it!”

Their beating of the Oklahoma City Supersonics put the world on notice. And yes, they mean it.

The Clippers in 6.

Indiana v. Washington

Washington is only technically an underdog here. The Pacers are still debacling, despite their first round victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

At this point, the Pacers are only a slightly better version of the Chicago Bulls (though I’m not entirely convinced of that—giving a slight edge here in deference to seeding), whom the Wiz pretty easily dismantled. And if Jeff Teague gave Indiana fits last round, I’d like to introduce you to John Wall:

and Bradley Beal:

These young men are 23 and 20 (that’s right BB can’t even drink alcohol—legally), respectively, dynamic ballers that enjoy long walks on the beach and candle lit dinners. They’ll be accompanying your nightmares, or dreams, for the next couple weeks.

The X-factors (or Z-factors, if you prefer) are Trevor Ariza and Nene. Both bring deep playoff experience and have played balls to the wall this post-season. Ariza is shooting a ridonkulous 55.9% from behind the arc on just under six attempts per game. While Nene has increased nearly every statistical category from the regular season and generally looked spry and dominating against a hapless Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.

On the other end of the court, Ariza and Nene will be charged with guarding Paul George and David West, respectively—the most consistent and necessary cogs in the Pacers offensive contraption. In the regular season, Ariza held George to 8 of 26 shooting. Conversely, West is much better than the Boozer/Gibson duo that Nene had had his way with previously, and the big Brazilian isn’t exactly renowned for his defense. Hopefully, West will find his rhythm and his stroke—he certainly deserves it.

Randy Wittman (who I’m pretty sure is another D.C. leader and baller Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s night gig) has got his guys playing really good ball. And in the end, this fast, shooting, magical fellowship of “pretty good” guys will stop the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm Pacers in their tracks:

The Wizards in 6.

Letters. Factors. Mike Zunino and why he is a player to watch moving forward

Last night the Mariners decided to do some really un-Mariners things and shake up all our increasingly pessimistic worldviews with a nice little game. Admittedly we benefited from the Rangers booting the ball around a bit in the field, but regardless anytime the Mariners are even in a position to take advantage of a team’s mistakes it is still something that qualifies as being fairly un-Mariners-like and this is no exception.

There are multiple, un-terrible storylines that can be derived from last night’s game. Some of those storylines even lend themselves to narrative leads about boats and Cuba and the steely-eyed will of a young man struggling to achieve his dream, struggling even…to survive!

Fuck that though.

I want to talk about a top 3 overall draft pick from Florida! I want to talk about Mike Zunino!

Yum!

Let’s start first with a hilarious tweet from Jeff Sullivan, formerly of Lookout Landing web-fame and un-formerly contributor to both USS Mariner and Fangraphs.

Mike Zunino tweet

As much as I am not typically disposed towards using slash lines for player evaluation, this one is so odd and hilarious and telling that it is worthy of inclusion. More or less, what this slash line tells us is that Zunino is playing exactly as he looks to be playing: unbelievably shitty most of the time until he stumbles drunkenly into a baseball at which point in time one is inclined to lean their head back and think, “This guy was drafted No. 3 overall, once.”

Zunino is a player who we have seen experience wild fluctuations in effectiveness over a reasonably small sample size.

He was rushed aggressively to the Majors, after which it was exposed that there are holes in his swing (several, in fact) that need to be addressed if he is to get on base with any degree of consistency in this league.

Counter to that negative evaluation is his extremely respectable work behind the plate, where he has proven to be a far better defensive catcher than any Mariner in recent memory whose name doesn’t rhyme with Fran Frillson.

I will avoid, for now, using pitch-framing numbers for Z. at this point. The sample size from this season is so small that any such numbers could be wickedly skewed by circumstance, umpires, etc. even more so than these numbers already are. I will have to, in the meantime, rely on scouting reports and the eye test, which Zunino consistently passes with flying colors.

Mike clearly is a mature guy who handles his business and provides great defense at a premium defensive position. Oftentimes the best judge of a catcher are the opinions of the pitchers he works with. Felix loves Zunino. Felix is the King. Zunino is his queen. Queens are the most flexible pieces on a chessboard. Catchers have to squat for a couple hours during a game. Illuminati.

The defensive qualities being what they are– what really separates Zunino from his peers is his raw talent, particularly when it comes to the bat.

Mike Zunino’s swing isn’t particularly sexy. It reminds me a lot of Brett Boone’s steroid-hack, intended to convert as much corned beef into bat-speed as humanly possible and do so based on educated guesses at where the baseball probably is. This is obviously not an exact science and has been exposed as such. But, that isn’t to say there is no value in this approach, if at least Z. shows some willingness to improve his strike zone recognition as he matures. The dude is only 23 years old.

Let’s talk for a second about x-factors.

I only trust people after seeing a quarter of the surface area of their throats. Dude on the left babysits my kids. Dude on the right is my secret keeper.

Referring to professional athletes as X-factors is often the faculty of concussion-stricken NFL analysts talking about Darren Sproles. It can function as an excuse to elevate a player with a unique and limited skillset to a position of great supposed importance in order to sidestep boring people by talking only about those players who would almost certainly make a larger and more predictable impact.

X-factors are often discussed in the way they are because of their volatility. These are players that do one or two things extremely well. Boom or bust. Sometimes they suck, sometimes they suck much less.

The boom or bust label actually extends to the perception of the analyst as well. When an analyst proclaims some B-list player to be an x-factor he is taking a calculated gamble whose reward is an “I told you so” to his colleagues and a hopefully meteoric rise in his audience’s perception of him as a clever, insightful guy. There is no such gain in applying that term to a Robinson Cano type. There’s little risk and less reward. An X-factor is a surprise, is volatile, much excite, wow.

I am legion

All that being said, this hearkens back to an earlier post in which I equated production from Cano with an improvement to the team’s baseline (read: expected) production. Robinson Cano comes into a game and consistently does what he does. If you had a team filled with players exactly like Cano, then that team would be consistently spectacular. Nobody has a team filled with players exactly like Cano. That would be fucking stupid.

What we have instead are teams whose secondary parts bridge the gap from the baseline provided by consistently outstanding performers to the peak that only comes as result of a larger, concerted effort.

I think Zunino represents this bridge-from-baseline-to-peak x-factor perfectly. Mike Zunino has had several forgettable games in a Mariners’ uniform. He has had a few forgettable games already this year. But Mike Zunino is a guy who will win a team games over the course of the year because of the surprising value he can add on a good night, as well as the fact that he has his own baseline of efficacy that is represented by his consistently solid defense.

Most catchers are not huge offensive contributors. When a catcher is an offensive threat, you end up with teams like the Giants. The Giants’ lineup has been pretty lame the past couple of years. They have, however, been pretty lame with the benefit of also having the best offensive catcher in baseball. A league average contributor in a corner outfield position is still an offensive contributor (the swing is upwards of .60 OPS, on average). A league average catcher can often be an offensive black hole. By virtue of this, a team whose catcher periodically explodes for effective, productive nights adds a good deal of value over what another team is throwing out there. A team with a consistently outstanding offensive catcher can win World Series Titles with some real bullshit filling out the rest of the lineup (read: hunterfuckingpence)

Did somebody say, kids?!

Last night, Mike Zunino crushed a HR to deep center to snap a scoreless streak for the Mariners which had become longer than I care to recall or count. His counterpart, J.P. Arencibia, was 0 for 2 and was pulled from the game for a pinch-hitter. If Zunino sucks tomorrow, and Arencibia remains predictably meh, then it is a wash. If Zunino has another outstanding AB or 2 tomorrow then the Mariners are at a distinct advantage.

For those games where Zunino is a valuable contributor, you just added a bat at a position that your opponent is often lacking. While this won’t always be the case, with the odd Mauers and Poseys floating around, there is a good chance that there will be nights where Zunino’s offense is the bonus dragging the Mariners from victory to defeat.

The X-factor.

Or Z-factor.

I’ll go fuck myself now.