Monday, September 30, 2013

Moneyball: Sabermetrics, the Playoffs, and making your own luck

Photo by statixc on Flickr
Today I want to talk a little more about baseball. (It's the playoffs and I'm into it right now. Sorry if you're here to read about Jazzmaster pickups!)

Specifically, in this week when the Oakland A's return to the playoffs for the second time in two years and the seventh time in the last 13, I want to talk about the A's, sabermetrics, and why "Billy Beane's shit doesn't work in the playoffs".

I could have written this ten years ago, but the extra years have actually made it more apt. And I want to ask a question I haven't seen answered elsewhere - or at least not directly. I'm not a statistician, but a lot of sabermetrics started with guys like me raising questions or providing hypotheses, which smarter guys then tried to quantify with numbers.

First, if you haven't actually read Michael Lewis' "Moneyball", you should. (Though you don't have to in order to understand this post.) The movie version's good but it's more about the man than the concept; the book is the opposite. The concept is using objective, advanced statistics to exploit inefficiencies in the player market, which allows a team like the A's to afford players that help them score runs. The "inefficiencies" arise because most teams value the wrong attributes in a player; attributes like speed or body type that do nothing to predict success in scoring runs. Those advanced statistics come from "sabermetrics", the catch-all term for a movement that's turned baseball on its head - using math and "big data" to challenge conventional wisdom and prove that "everything you know about the game is wrong." The A's have been the biggest proponent of this approach in the major leagues for probably the last 20 years now, from their previous General Manager Sandy Alderson (now with the Mets) to their current longtime GM Billy Beane.

Sabermetrics can be (and is) also used on the field to manage in-game strategy. It's the ultimate expression of "playing the percentages" - it's just that the percentages often suggest you do things completely against conventional wisdom. For example, there is almost no situation in which you would intentionally walk a batter (not even Miguel Cabrera with an open base). Almost no situation in which you'd sacrifice bunt, except with very light-hitting pitchers or with no outs and a runner on second when playing to tie in the late innings (yeah, sabermetrics gets incredibly specific). The numbers say you have a better chance to prevent and score runs if you don't do these things.

While the effect is not totally consistent, overall most casual watchers and baseball old-timers would probably call a sabermetric gameplay style conservative. (The lack of intentional walks is one of the few exceptions, along with taking the extra base on hits, which is more important than steals to scoring runs.) Traditionalists criticize it as "sitting back and waiting for the big hit" or "not making the defense work". But this is what the math says works over a full season.

"Moneyball" is a massively interesting book, even if you only have a passing interest in the game. And you can't argue with Billy Beane's approach during the regular season - his A's have gone to the playoffs seven times since 2000 (including this year), with a payroll that's always among the lowest in baseball. He has shown poor teams how to compete, and he has shown all owners how to maximize profits. (Not all of them have quite caught on yet.)

For example, this year the Yankees spent $2,345,238 per regular season win, and missed the playoffs. The Oakland A's spent $576,797 per win and made the playoffs. The results have been similar for every year they've made the postseason - the A's never have anything approaching a $200 million payroll. (I'm using this site as a source for payroll info.)

It's taken a long time for sabermetrics to really catch on, and in fact I still hear TV commentators complaining when teams don't sacrifice outs for bases, or when they don't sign the latest overpriced "superstar" free agent in the offseason. Most casual fans know nothing of sabermetrics, even if they wonder what the "OBP" or "OPS" stats are that they see popping up more often these days. But a lot of other teams do use it now, or at least parts of it, when selecting players and setting strategy, because it gets results as the math always proved it would.

But 11 years after "Moneyball" was written, the A's have now lost six straight playoff bids - five of them before reaching the ALCS. The first question is why? (The real question I want to ask is a bit further down - keep reading!) Why does Billy Beane have so much success with such a small payroll in the regular season, and almost none at all (to this point) in the post-season? Is there something wrong with the sabermetric approach that's specific to the playoffs?

To the oldschool baseball guys, it's because the playoffs are a different beast, and are even more slanted towards "manufactured" runs - playing small ball - something sabermetrics proves (with math) is counterproductive over the long run.

Baseball Prospectus' "Baseball Between the Numbers" has a chapter actually entitled "Why doesn't Billy Beane's shit work during the playoffs?" (co-written by Nate Silver - the guy whose mathematical model correctly predicted all 50 states in the last presidential election - and Dayn Perry.)

Long story short, they make a convincing mathematical case that, all else being roughly equal between good teams in the playoffs, the only real correlations between team attributes and playoff success are closer quality (expressed in WXRL, or Win Expectancy over Replacement Level), pitcher strikeout rate/opponent batting average (in sabermetrics, these are two sides of the same coin) and team defense (expressed in FRAA, or Fielding Runs Above Average). They're all weak correlations (about 0.2), but they're there. They found no statistically significant correlations for playoff success and any other offensive or defensive attribute, including offensive home runs, sacrifice bunts, walks, stolen bases or anything else.

When they then went back and compared the relative strengths during the regular season of the last 180 playoff teams in these three specific attributes, they found that 9 of the top 10 teams in the combined rank went to the World Series, and 8 of those 9 won it (up to 2005, the year the book was written). Of the bottom 10 playoff teams in these three combined attributes, none even came close to the World Series, and some were swept out of the division series in 3 games.

So, to have the best chance of winning the World Series, you ideally want a top closer, great defense, and pitchers who can strike guys out. What you don't need is a bunch of bunts - the sabermetric approach to offense doesn't suddenly stop working in the playoffs.

They also give several reasons why this might be the case (in typical Nate Silver fashion, he asks the question if the playoffs really are different, and answers "yes, probably"), although the reasons themselves aren't fully understood - only the results are. But the extra days off do give relief pitchers and closers more rest. When every team has great hitters, defense will be the differentiator. Managers use closers, typically a bullpen's best pitcher, more innings in the playoffs. Etc.

If you're curious, Beane's early playoff teams didn't come close to the top 10 in this combined rank. (I'm actually not sure of his recent ones.) So while their lack of playoff success is still somewhat down to bad luck, you can sum up at least some of their playoff woes as mediocre closers (at least relative to other top teams) mixed with bad defense.

So why do they win so much in the regular season? Because defense is far less important. In fact, the math proves it's so unimportant that Billy Beane all but ignores it. When he signed Scott Hatteberg, he had never played first base before in his life, and had no feeling in his throwing hand due to nerve surgery. When he signed Jeremy Giambi, he did so knowing he was one of the worst outfielders in the league. When he signed David Justice, he knew that he could no longer run. The thing is, everything can be measured and compared, so if the math says a player will contribute more runs offensively than he will cost the team defensively, that's still a net positive, and that overall result in net runs created is what's used to compare players. Really good offensive players can more than make up for terrible defense over a 162 game season, and a guy who's great offensively and terrible defensively will create more net runs than a guy who's mediocre offensively but great defensively. Defense is less important than offense in the regular season, and more important in the post-season.

This has nothing to do with defensive errors - that's a stat that sabermetricians hate. There's no other stat based on an assumption of what a player should have done, so don't bother looking up fielding percentage to see how the playoff teams this year stack up defensively. It's a completely subjective stat. Sabermetricians instead look at objective statistics in actually getting guys out (put-outs, assists, etc.) and combine them in ways that can tell them whether a player at a particular position is performing above or below average compared to other players at that position around the league. It's by these measures that the early 00's A's, at least, were bad defensive teams. (The 2013 team is a little better, so we'll see if that helps them.)

So there are quantifiable, objective statistics by which the A's teams that did/do so well in the regular season can be said to not be competitive in the post-season. But I think there's more to it than that, and so do Silver and Perry. Heck, so does Beane. There's luck. Silver and Perry admit that with a small sample size (not many games), this is a large part of winning in the post-season. Beane says in "Moneyball" (and the interview linked above) that it's pretty much the only part - he believes there's nothing different about the playoffs, and the small sample size means it's all down to luck. But after six failed tries (and a sample size of 30 games now), this raises the question I'd love to see quantified:

Do winning teams in the postseason play to get lucky?

If you walk into a casino and head to the blackjack table, at some point the house is going to pick your pockets - that's just the way the odds are set up. It's going to happen. But if you play just 2 or 3 hands, it's entirely possible you could stop there and walk out a winner. The odds are still against it, but it's possible.

However, if you don't even sit down at the table - if you don't try to get lucky - there is no chance you will walk out a winner. You also won't lose, but you won't win.

This is equivalent to the playoffs vs. the regular season in baseball. Over just a few games, a team can get lucky enough to win through seemingly random events. However, you have fewer chances to get lucky in the playoffs if you don't play to give luck a chance. The big difference between the blackjack analogy and baseball is that in baseball, not playing at all to get lucky doesn't keep you from losing, it is losing. Only one team needs to get lucky to win the World Series, and you're playing against nine other teams in the playoffs.

Again, using sabermetrics to manage a baseball game results in a conservative offensive strategy, more or less. Very little base stealing, basically no sacrifice bunts. Take as many pitches as possible, wear the pitcher down, walk a lot. Wait for big hits. This is what the math says to do, and the math is not wrong over the course of 162 games.

However, with a small sample size, luck plays a much bigger role. How did the 1986 Mets win the World Series? They were down 3 games to 2, losing 5-3 in the 10th inning of game 6, with a 2 strike count on Kevin Mitchell. They ended up with 3 straight singles, a wild pitch, then the infamous ball through Buckner's legs. Nothing about that was anything but lucky. Game 7 was then rain delayed by a day, which gave the Mets' Ron Darling an extra day of rest. Again, luck. But game 7 wouldn't have been necessary, and that booted ball and wild pitch would never have happened had the Mets themselves not put themselves in the position to take advantage of it. They did that by swinging the bat aggressively and being aggressive on the basepaths. (Let's not forget that the free-swinging Mookie Wilson fouled off six pitches in his at-bat, not many of them strikes, giving Bob Stanley the chance to throw his wild pitch before Wilson's grounder up the line.)

I don't know of a sabermetric statistic that would account for the 10th inning of game 6 - this is the kind of thing where even sabermetricians shrug their shoulders and say "I dunno, they got lucky". But is there a way to at least account for the number of lucky chances in a game (say, "optional" plays that have a chance of either succeeding or failing), and assign a score for a good or bad outcome to the results of those chances (based on number of expected runs created or lost), thereby determining mathematically not just how much luck accounted for a team's World Series victory, but whether that was a result of an aggressive style of play?

To look at it another way, with roughly equal skill, a team with no luck is going to have an awfully hard time beating a team having a run of good luck that they're riding through aggressive play. (Even if 9 other teams are trying to do the same and suffering through a run of bad luck. Again, there's only one World Series winner.)

Winning teams seem to embrace randomness in the playoffs. Luck cannot be controlled, but if you play for it and it smiles on you, it can separate the winner from all the losers. If you play against randomness, then you can never benefit from it the way winning teams do. Or at least, that seems intuitive to me - but so much about baseball that's intuitive has been proven wrong by sabermetrics. So I'm really just posing the question.

I don't follow the A's closely enough to know if Billy Beane has learned from the past and is now consciously preparing for the playoffs by stocking better defensive players, or pitchers with a high strikeout rate. But I'll be watching them this year to see if they've made any adjustments to their post-season strategy to try to get lucky.

Monday, September 23, 2013

SCANDAL tickets arrived!

Yup, two pairs. Original pair was on the 3rd floor - actually further away than we were at Budokan - so I decided it was probably worth upgrading. How many times am I going to get to see them? The entire point this time was to get closer at a "live house" show. Bought the second pair via Yahoo! Auctions in Japan. They appear legit, although I'm still debating with myself whether to sell or keep the original pair just in case. The show is still not sold out (uh oh) so I'm not sure 3rd floor seats are going to be worth anything to anyone.

This may be the last time I even try to see them live. I'm doing my best to reserve judgment, but despite my initial high hopes, the songs I've heard from the new album STANDARD sound terrible. Like really, actually terrible. Like, KISS - Dynasty terrible, and in pretty much the same way. A great hard rock band that may now be... something else.

KISS came back eventually, so hope isn't lost even if it's as bad as I fear. But maybe it isn't that bad anyway. Maybe the latest single, the previews and snippets I've heard aren't representative of the whole album. I've still got it on preorder, so I'll find out in a couple of weeks.

UPDATE 2: A few more listens to the new album and now I think it's actually pretty fantastic. It's like they're trying to trick everybody into listening to garage rock with these singles they're releasing. The stuff I mentioned above is not representative. (There is still one straight up bad song, which happens to lead off the album.)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Yankee Stadium (vs. Citi Field) - 09/20/2013

Six teams, three ballparks, one month. It's that time of year.

It's a myth that New Yorkers are in some kind of Hatfields vs. McCoys death feud when it comes to baseball teams - plenty of us like both the Mets and Yankees. I'm more of a fair weather type when it comes to the Yankees, and I do prefer pitchers to hit, but I still want the Yankees to win. They're still a home team, and they've got history.

Yankee Stadium has always been tougher for me to get to than Shea or Citi Field, though; the last time I managed it was 1996. I don't remember much about that game except that Mariano Rivera pitched the 8th, setting up John Wetteland. It was the start of Mo's career and he was only just becoming known. Back then, nobody was even talking about a new Yankee Stadium; the history at the old one made it sacrilege to even think about it.

Well, last night I got to see Rivera close out a game in his final season, at the new Yankee Stadium. It was both a nice bookend and a neat transition to the new stadium for me.

This wasn't actually my first visit to the new building - I previously took some visitors my wife and I had from Japan on an off-day stadium tour. The tour takes you through the museum, monument park, the press box and clubhouse.

Monument Park.
Babe Ruth signed baseball in the museum. They have signed baseballs from about 90% of all the players who ever played for the team. I didn't get an overview shot of the museum because it's actually really small.
Panorama from the press box. It was a rainy day.
You get to see a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and you have the whole stadium to yourself. That said, it's a little strange walking through back alleys with no other fans around - I thought the stadium then felt kind of sterile and dead. Without all the people, any little flaws also stick out a lot more, and everything looks somehow uglier. The amount of plain concrete everywhere is a lot more apparent. I wasn't all that impressed. (The clubhouse was like the Rolls Royce of clubhouses, but most people never see that.)

Last night was the first time I got to see the stadium in its natural state - hosting a game. 41,000 fans showed up on a beautiful late summer Friday night to watch the Yanks fight for their playoff lives against the Giants. It gave me a good chance to compare the experience to Citi Field, the Mets' new stadium that opened at the same time, which I've also experienced both stuffed to the gills and more recently as a barren wasteland.

Yankee Stadium has to be a little unique in that the vast majority of people who go there get to it by public transportation. It's always been that way, and in fact it's ironically turned into a bit of a problem for the city, who helped finance the half dozen or so parking lots and garages around the stadium and are now finding the company that runs them unable to pay their rent. Nobody parks there!

If you can take the subway or Metro North, then Yankee Stadium's ridiculously easy to get to and is right next to the station. (Citi Field is just as close to the 7 line.) But if you do have to drive, it's a whole different story. Driving through the Bronx is like trying to navigate through a clogged shower pipe on a good day, not to mention the bridge tolls, not to mention the outrageous parking prices. I paid $25 to park in the furthest official lot from the stadium, almost a mile away, with a thoroughly confusing entrance and on the other side of the Metro North tracks. Citi Field parking is $20, but if you're early enough, that puts you basically at the door to the rotunda. You can pay more and get closer to Yankee Stadium, but $35 or more to park at a 3 hour baseball game is getting into the realm of highway robbery.

This is the scenic walk from the parking lot.
Apparently, roving golf gangs are a big problem near the stadium. Be careful!
Yankee Stadium and Citi Field both have an obvious front and back (not all baseball parks do). You don't have to enter at the front, but it seems assumed that most fans will. At Yankee Stadium, the front is along 161st St., where you'll find the team store, the Hard Rock Cafe, and the oddly empty "Babe Ruth Plaza" that's just a sunken hole in the ground surrounded by concrete:

The exterior is granite and limestone all the way around and has the feel of a federal government building - it's very staid and serious and looks completely unlike really any other ballpark I can think of. It is meant to invoke the pre-renovation original Yankee Stadium and it probably does a reasonable job of it. The word "stately" is appropriate. I hesitate to even call it a "ballpark" - it's too big.

It also looks more cohesive than the working class, somewhat unfinished look of Citi Field (which is beautiful in a different way and also appropriate to its team), but you wonder if you're supposed to bow your head and say a prayer before entering it. Or maybe get permission from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Yankee Stadium's answer to Citi Field's rotunda is the "Great Hall" along 161st St. It's huge - probably the largest interior space I've seen inside a baseball park. And you're just bombarded with Yankees imagery from the moment you enter. You will never, ever forget that you're in the home of the Yankees at this stadium, and that's the way it should be. This is one thing the Mets need to learn from their crosstown rivals.

They just need to stick some stained glass in those arches for the full effect.
Looking the opposite way in the Great Hall. The Hard Rock Cafe and team store are beyond the far wall.
The Great Hall at night, from the balcony on the suites level. (just above the Hard Rock Cafe sign).
We sat in the front row of section 309, which is the third deck in right field (my wife wanted to see Ichiro!), just above the electronic advertising board that goes around the stadium. There's a 400 level deck above the 300 level (it looks connected but isn't). I was kind of surprised by how high this was. It felt about like the last row of the top deck at Citi Field does - and we had two entire decks behind us! The top of the upper deck must be about like the top of Shea Stadium.

Open this up for a little better view.
The stands at Yankee Stadium are definitely a lot bigger than Citi Field - you lose perspective in photos, but it's immediately obvious in real life. Citi Field has the feel of a small market ballpark (in a good way - it's got "intimacy") whereas Yankee Stadium feels like it could host an Olympics. This isn't just apparent visually but audibly too - you can hear every crack of the bat and every umpire call from the last row of the upper deck at Citi Field, but I could not hear anything from the field whatsoever at Yankee Stadium.

I was worried about seeing the scoreboard from where we were, but it seems like the stadium's designed in such a way that you can probably see it from anywhere in the stands (except the bleachers), including the last section in the outfield. It's pretty clever how they managed that. One thing they didn't quite manage is unobstructed views of the outfield itself - in row 1, you do have the glass and railing in the way, although it's not as bad as the first row of the equivalent section at Citi Field (which can also be blocked by the stairway).

The view when sitting back normally in row 1. You can lean forward a bit and mostly get around this.
The weird thing is despite being bigger, Yankee Stadium can feel a little claustrophobic at times, almost like the game's indoors. I think it's because the design of the outfield area makes it feel like a fully enclosed stadium, even though it's not. At Citi Field, there's a little more outside world coming through in between the scoreboards, and it feels more open. Neither stadium takes any advantage at all of the city views they have, though, which is a lost opportunity. I like to be able to see out over the walls of the park.

Ah, I love that moment when the sun shines just right on the scoreboard.
On the plus side, the Yankees do not blast music out at you every 15 seconds like the Mets do. Even when they do play something (like Rivera's "Enter Sandman"), the volume is something less than ear-splitting. The Yankees are a much more traditional team - for them, baseball is meant to be played in hushed tones.

We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe before the game, as we did on our earlier tour. Their prices aren't any different than at any other Hard Rock Cafe (except for beer) and come on, you're not really going to do any better for stadium food. Big difference eating there on a game day, though! We got there before 5PM and already had to wait about 30 minutes. They'll text you when your table's ready so you can wander around or go buy stuff at the team store in the meantime, which we did. I bought a hat ($15) and program ($10), and looked at some other merchandise to compare it to Citi Field - I was surprised to find that in most cases, the Yankees charge less than the Mets. For example, a numbered/named replica jersey is $135 at the Yankees store, vs. $140 at the Mets store. Yankees T-shirts cost $30, vs. $40 at the Mets store. This is all wrong!

(Mets programs are $5 cheaper, though.)

You can also stand outside and have a beer while you wait, which we also did:

Oh yeah! Local beer - by way of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. (So... not local beer.)

Honestly, I don't really have a problem with the prices the Yankees charge for anything inside the stadium. Even the concession stands seemed somewhat cheaper than at Citi Field. A regular beer was $6 (though $11 if you add the souvenir cup, which I stupidly did). At Citi Field, beer is $8.25. Ice cream was $5 for a waffle cone (which holds a lot of ice cream); at Citi Field, it's $6 for a smaller cone. It's New York, and I understand everything is going to be expensive - I just think Citi Field goes a little too far.

I remember reading that same thing about Yankee Stadium when it first opened, so maybe they've reduced their prices. Now it's Citi's turn.

I will say that on the terrace level concourse, which serves both the 300 and 400 decks, there aren't enough concession stands and the lines snake all through the pathway, which makes walking the concourse itself feel like wading through molasses. The terrace level has the feel of an old-school stadium - you're not going to find anything special to eat, and you're going to miss an entire inning looking for the one concession that sells what you want and then waiting for your ice cream and diet soda. The only beer up there seemed to be Bud and Bud Light (I gotta believe they have better beer somewhere in the stadium), and it tasted watered down. Mmmmm, watered-down Bud Light - yum. Citi Field has a big craft beer stand on the equivalent level, and just better concession food in general. You just pay more for it.

This is the concourse near our seats. Not much going on up here, just a few concessions here and there. This was well before the game, so it wasn't very crowded yet.
I gotta say, New York has the best sports fans of anywhere I've been. We're not rude, we pay attention to the games, we by and large do not leave early, and we're not constantly and annoyingly trying to move around like the fans at some stadiums I could name. The fans at both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are pretty similar in all those ways, as you'd expect from teams that play in the same city.

The two differences are a) the Yankees bleacher bums, which is something the Mets don't have, and b) the national and international crowd that the Mets don't attract like the Yankees do.

There were many, many Asian fans at the game last night, as there probably always are - no doubt mostly because of Ichiro, but the people behind us were actually Chinese and we heard some Koreans too. The Yankees did have a little ceremony before the game for Ichiro to celebrate his 4,000 major league-level hits, which the team is recognizing as a real statistic, so that may have drawn a few more Japanese fans than usual.

They gave him a crystal pitcher or some such, and he gave the MLB Hall of Fame the jersey he was wearing at the time of the 4,000th hit.
The Yankees just have that international cachet that the Mets don't, which always makes me kind of sad for the Mets. The Mets need an Ichiro of their own. Daisuke Matsuzaka just doesn't put butts in seats like Ichiro does.

And probably about 30% of the stadium last night was occupied by Giants fans, which was kind of offensive to be honest. New York fans are actually way more tolerant than they're reputed to be and nobody's ever treated as unwelcome in my experience (and yes, the Giants were once a New York team... before 1957), but it's just wrong to go into another team's stadium en masse and start booing the home players, singing "GIANTS" when it's "root root root for the HOME TEAM" and chanting "Let's Go Giants" chants throughout the game. That's kind of like a houseguest that doesn't flush the toilet, clogs up your drain with hair and spills toothpaste all over your sink because he's "making himself at home".

Well, at least we kicked their asses on the field. That shut 'em up.

Overall I'd still give the nod to Citi Field, mostly because it makes the game feel more like something you're participating in rather than something you're meant to stand back and admire. It's also just a lot easier to drive to and park at, which, for better or worse, is the way a lot of people in the outer boroughs (and beyond) get around. Yankee Stadium's like your high school's statuesque prom queen who you're too intimidated to even talk to. Citi Field is like the cute girl with glasses in science class who texts you out of the blue that she has a crush on you. There may be certain ways I wish Citi'd be more like The Stadium (pricing, team branding, lower volume, putting good players on the field), but they're superficial and can be fixed if the Mets just make an effort. But Yankee Stadium will always be Yankee Stadium, like it or not.

It's a nice problem to have two world class stadiums to visit now, in any case.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos

By ESO/S. Guisard ( [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Gravity = 9.8.

This is the only thing I remember from high school physics. I don't even know what 9.8 stands for, but I do remember the number, because my teacher had repeatedly told our class "if you retain one thing from this semester, it's that gravity = 9.8." And I listened to and followed that instruction, to the letter.

I've always liked science but I'm no good at math, and I think I had some bad teachers who somehow were able to make science boring. This is hard to do! Science is amazing - at least certain kinds of it. The study of Cosmology - reality and the universe - is one of those amazing kinds of science. Heck, it's probably responsible for at least 25% of's "Mindblowing" listicles. Reality is a lot weirder than most people think it is. For example, there is a very small but non-zero chance that if you were to walk into a wall, you will pass right through it. It is not impossible, scientifically speaking. The particles in your body all just have to line up in exactly the right way.

One of the things I like about owning a tablet is that it's made it easier to read a lot more books than I used to. Lately I've been reading a couple from theoretical physicist Brian Greene. I like him because he panders to people like me that love science but suck at math. I wouldn't call his books "dumbed down" (we're still talking 557 pages per book about the big bang, entropy, the arrow of time, inflationary theory and string theory) but they are not written for other physicists, as so many physics books are. According to him, much of what makes up reality on the deepest levels is hard for even other physicists to understand. But he makes it accessible even for laypeople.

Here's another fun factoid: according to the inflationary model of the big bang (the only theory that really makes sense and is supported by evidence still around us), our universe at one time was not only smaller than a grain of sand, it was also very light. The standard big bang theory would hold that it was both incredibly dense and incredibly heavy, but the inflationary theory holds that it could have weighed less than a speck of dust. Greene believes it probably weighed more like 20 pounds. That's the kind of thing that makes me put the book down and just think for a little while, because it opens up all sorts of questions as to what the universe actually is. The entirety of everything that's out there, all that vast space and billions of galaxies and their suns and planets, was something somebody no larger than we are could have literally held in their hand.

My wife often asks "but how do they know?" This is a legitimate question about many of the larger theories of existence and matter. But Greene lays out logical arguments for everything, and presents competing viewpoints when appropriate. Everything that we actually know about the universe - especially the weirdest parts (because we'd never have come up with some of this stuff ourselves) - is supported by physical and experimental evidence that's laid out in these books, not to mention math. Much of it has been tested so thoroughly as to be indisputable precisely because it's so unbelievable. And in at least one case - the Higgs boson - a major theory described in these books was actually experimentally confirmed just after the book was published!

(String theory as it currently exists is just that - a theory - but many other subjects in these books are confirmed as real, including the Higgs ocean that gives all matter its mass.)

I'm at that age where I start to wonder what we're doing here. Is the accumulation of all this stuff our purpose in life? Think about humanity's lasting legacy. After your death, what will you have done that will be remembered in 100 or 1,000 years? Some marketing campaign you worked on? I highly doubt it. Some gadget you helped put together? I doubt that too. Even music or art - they can, in very rare cases, last a few hundred years, but that's about it.

Humanity's only real legacy is science. The discoveries we've made in science are the only truly lasting marks we make - the only building blocks of our civilization that don't disappear. And science inexorably marches forward - we never go backwards in science, or forget things we've learned. To me, this must mean something. This has to be somehow related to our purpose in life. On this planet, at least, we are uniquely able to comprehend the larger universe. And we're all made of the same atoms that make up the stars - as Carl Sagan said, "we are a way for the universe to know itself."

Humans have a tendency to get tunnel vision, and to lose perspective on all but their own little personal world. In some ways that may be necessary for short-term survival. But even as the internet has made global news and information easier to come by, you see people becoming indignant about things happening half a world away because those things don't fit in with their personal world view. How, then, can you expect the average person to gain a universal perspective, and to really intuitively realize their place in the universe?

There was an article on The Verge a while back about how most young kids today will never see a starry sky due to light pollution. The really distressing thing was the number of people in the comments who didn't understand why this was a problem. Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series doesn't get enough credit for its social commentary (I guess it was too funny for people to notice), but in the third book of the series "Life, the Universe and Everything", there is a planet called Krikkit (its similarity to the English word "cricket" not being coincidence) that's stuck in a dust cloud where no one can see the stars. The people are friendly and good-natured, but as soon as they discover that other stars and planets exist, they determine to wipe them out. The resulting war costs half the population of the galaxy.

(It's no small point that it turns out that these people, who had no universal frame of reference for their existence, were being intentionally and easily manipulated into their xenophobic and warmongering ways.)

It was obviously written as absurdist comedy but the point is perhaps unintentionally made that failing to understand or "feel" that we're part of a larger universe can have real consequences. At best, it severely limits a person's thinking and perspective - it starts to really matter if you get that new iPhone on day one, or if you can someday make more money in a year than any of your friends. And we've seen what kinds of real problems that can cause.

Despite living in New York for most of my life, I've been lucky enough to see a view of the Milky Way similar to that at the top of this post (many times, in fact), and I think it's important for everyone to do so. There are still many places in this country with a clear enough sky to see it. Once you do, it's hard to ever think about the world the same way again.

I recommend reading both The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Citi Field 2013 - still a home run?

Citi Field is the Mets' beautiful stadium that opened in 2009, and my hometown ballpark for my favorite team. But is it still the home run that most people initially thought it was? I first visited in 2011 and finally made it back today - read on for my thoughts on the stadium in general, and how it's aged since my last visit.

First, let's jump back a tiny bit.

Shea Stadium 2006-06-19
Photo by Mr. Kjetil Ree. (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

(Sorry - I've been to Shea many times but apparently never took a picture of it myself!)

Shea Stadium, which Citi Field replaced, was a lot like the Mets themselves - the butt of jokes, originally unloved, but it developed a certain charm over the years, and a lot of unique history. Most Mets fans grew a little attached to it, and we were kind of sorry to see it go. (Yeah, kind of - I'm choosing my words carefully here.) Sure, it had an upper deck that was angled about 80 degrees and topped out seemingly about the height of the Chrysler Building, but it also had a giant outfield scoreboard that made a perfect target for Darryl Strawberry and Mike Piazza. The stadium was completely one with the team that played there - it was even fully painted in the Mets colors inside and out at the end. Whenever anyone thinks of the 1969, 1973, 1986 or 2000 Mets, they think of Shea.

All four Shea infield bases are still represented in the Citi Field parking lot, and I finally found them today. We actually parked today in what was center field at Shea.

We Mets fans were still excited to get one of those beautiful new retro ballparks we'd been jealous of ever since Oriole Park at Camden Yards was first built in 1989. Citi Field was designed as a retro-classic baseball-only park that evokes Ebbets Field (former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers), but with modern amenities and great sight lines from every seat - in short, everything Shea Stadium was not.

This is the famous Jackie Robinson Rotunda, modeled off the rotunda at the Dodgers' Ebbets Field. The Mets have defended this Dodger-fest as celebrating a "great American". Technically true but kind of disingenuous. Obviously, Robinson's being celebrated because he was a baseball player - and he's a baseball player that happened to play for a different team. The problem isn't that he's being celebrated - he should be - just that he dominates what is literally the main entrance to the Mets' stadium, and he was a Dodger. Don't the Mets have any "great Americans" to celebrate?

Visually, I have always wished the arches on the exterior extended all the way down the facade (see the exterior pic above), not just the rotunda.

Off to the right in the rotunda is the Mets team store and museum, which are connected. The team store is vastly overpriced but does have an insane amount of merchandise. The museum celebrates the great teams and players of the Mets past (and this solved one of the early complaints about Citi - in fact, the Mets museum is better than the Yankees museum in their new stadium!).

It was always a beautiful park, but in 2011 it didn't feel much like the home of the Mets, with the rotunda, the black walls and trim, etc. Most of the complaints have been well documented, so I won't go too deeply into the rest of them here. I was curious to see what improvements have been made over the past couple years, though, and if any more changes might improve the beauty and atmosphere of the stadium further.

First, there's that black wall - the 16 foot "Great Wall of Flushing" that was the Mets' contrived answer to Fenway's "Green Monster" - though a lot further from home plate. In 2011:

Pretty close to the same view (solely by chance!) in 2013:

Another angle that shows the lower, closer fence:

Personally, I don't like the way they did this. They did need to do something. Classic "jewel box" parks sometimes had fences like this to compensate for irregular dimensions dictated by exterior surroundings, but Citi Field already had a spacious outfield, so the 16 foot wall was really a contrivance that was unfair to hitters. In fact, two of the four home runs we saw today would have been doubles two years ago, but the method used to install the new fence feels like a Band-Aid. It's a brand new stadium that now has two fences because they messed up the first one. It reminds me a lot of the previous Yankee Stadium, which actually had three different outfield fences - but that stadium was fifty years old when that took place, so it was a little more excusable than on a stadium that was just built.

On the plus side, it does help the atmosphere that the new fence is blue.

Interestingly, this 2013 shot is also pretty much the same view as my pano above from 2011! I guess we like this spot - at Citi, none of the seats feel too far away, and on this side you have a perfect view of the scoreboards; from this height you also get a view outside of the stadium over the Pepsi Porch. (A little tip - avoid the first few rows of any section above field level at Citi. The railing gets in the way, and there's a chance the even more intrusive stairway railings could also obstruct your view.)

We had a little adventure today too - a 56 minute rain delay:

That song the organist's playing sounds really familiar, doesn't it? Hint: it's Purple Rain.

Other than this, the weather was very nice. And I don't think it kept many people away - it was sunny before the game and after this passed. I was joking with my wife during the storm that they should have built a dome.

But you will notice how few people are in my 2013 shots, and that brings up another point, which is that I'm a little concerned the Mets aren't making enough money to do proper upkeep. A lot of the stadium was dirtier today than 100 year old Fenway Park was when my wife and I visited a couple of weeks ago, and there were certainly no ushers at Citi to wipe off our seats before we sat down like there were in Boston. Many of the seats were covered in bird poop or just general dust and dirt (from lack of use). A lot of the walkways this time were strewn with garbage and gum or were starting to visibly chip and decay. Weathering and fading of paint is already happening.

I didn't see anyone cleaning, there generally wasn't a lot of staff around and the staff there was seemed apathetic. At the concessions, one clerk was actually eating lunch as she rang me up.

Some of this may be general depression over having such a crappy team and small crowds late in the season. I hope that's all it is, and that next year the stadium will be gleaming (and crowded) again. Shea Stadium went through its ups and downs too; by the early 80's it was already kind of a dump, but in the 90's after a very slight renovation it was actually pretty nice again. The quality of the team does seem to make a big difference to how well the stadium is maintained.

There might be another related correlation too - I'm really curious to know if there's a link between building a new stadium and a decline in team quality. Both the Mets and Yankees have visibly declined in quality since building their new stadiums. The Yankees still have one of the highest payrolls in baseball, but the Mets have gone from one of the highest in the 00's to one of the lowest now, and I have to believe it's because they're having to divert a lot of their (already-lower) revenue to paying off the new stadium.

I left empty-handed from the team store because despite the great selection, prices were literally 60% higher than I could find elsewhere. One example of something I was specifically looking to buy: a Gary Carter Cooperstown Replica Jersey can be had for $89 online, but was $140 at the team store.

No line at the Shake Shack today.

Food is also a big ripoff, and in fact, one fan randomly shouted his own complaint about that to us as we were buying ice cream! $6 for an ice cream cone, $8.25 for a beer. At Blue Smoke, for two sandwiches, one order of fries and two diet Pepsis, we spent $35. Both times I've gone to Citi Field, I've expected to gorge myself on the great food they have, only to end up barely satisfying myself because of the crazy prices. (ProTip: Blue Smoke is better than Shake Shack, though it's possible there's even better food hidden away - there's a lot of "hidden" stuff to find at Citi Field.)

So here are some suggestions I have for making Citi Field better, in case any Mets brass see this:

* Reduce concession and store prices. The Mets seem to be doing all they can to make back the $800 million cost of this stadium - and I haven't even mentioned the extreme amount of advertising! The problem is they are pricing people completely out of the things they need to sell in order to make that money. I might have bought that jersey for $100 or $110, and they'd still have made a profit (I know how much clothes cost to make) - but as it is, they got nothing from me. That's a net loss because the price was too high - you only get the profit when you get a sale.

Prices for baseball in New York have gone completely out of whack lately because of the two new stadiums, and everybody knows it.

* I actually think the entire outfield could use a bit of renovation both to really correct the fences and to make the ballpark an even nicer place. First, increase the slope of the field level seats in left, center and above the "Mo's Zone" in right so they can meet flush with the new fence. Ideally, remove the Promenade seats (the upper deck) in left - no one ever sits there past opening day, and removing that entire deck would make the stadium feel a lot more open. The reduced capacity can be partially made up by the added seats fixing field level would provide (and these seats generate more revenue). That second part may be more of a wish list item, but I think the first part is actually realistic.

* Probably not gonna happen as it's strictly a vanity thing, but add arches all the way around the exterior - I feel like it looks unfinished as it is now (and always has). This doesn't seem like it'd be a huge project - the frame of the stadium appears the same all the way around, and the arches just look like inserts. See here:

Past the rotunda, the facade has kind of a 1960's bus station look without the arches. It's not going to age well.

* Maintain both the stadium itself and standards for professionalism among stadium employees, even if the team stinks. During the lean years, the stadium is the only thing the team has to entice paying customers.

* Paint some more stuff blue or orange. There's still far too much dour black - Citi Field is oddly dark in its color scheme, and it goes towards the place still not feeling "Metsy" enough. It still feels like the people running this team are ashamed of it. At the very least, they don't understand branding - every nook and cranny in this stadium should scream "Mets" - like Shea did. A lot of the black is starting to fade to grey anyway - it needs to be repainted.

Partly I think these are regular sorts of issues that either crop up or make themselves apparent with any new stadium after a few years, and I also think that Citi Field will have a different feel after it's got some history behind it (and a team worthy of it). It still feels almost like the Mets are playing away games here. Even with no further updates to the stadium, that will probably change once the team makes some memories at Citi.

It's still a fun place to be, and I like it better than the new Yankee Stadium (watch for a post on it soon!). It's also incredibly easy to get to by any mode of transportation - people really don't give it enough credit for this! Try driving to Yankee Stadium (I have!) - it's a nightmare by comparison. It takes me 20 minutes to get to Citi from my house, and getting in and out of the parking lot takes literally 30 seconds from parking spot to the highway.

Oh, and I can't complain too much about prices - our tickets today cost six bucks each. It's ironic that the one bargain at this stadium is the price of the tickets to see the game - though that's largely reflective of the quality of the team.

Of course, the Mets lost.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

See the fish, eat the fish, drink the coffee: Boston 2013 Day 2

The big reason my wife and I go to Boston every so often is actually the food. Sorry, NYC people, but there are some things we just don't have the best of - you gotta get out more! One of the things Boston does better is, obviously, New England clam chowder. Hey, you wouldn't say someone could get a decent slice of New York pizza outside of New York, right?

This is Legal Sea Foods, which is a Boston-based sort of casual seafood restaurant chain, but about eight notches above something like Red Lobster. We actually didn't go here for the chowder, because I've had it before and it's not my favorite. They've won some surveys I guess, but I find it a little light and milky for my tastes. I'll get back to talking chowder in a little bit - I'm going chronological here.

We did go to Legal (or as Bostonians call it, "Legal's") for the fish, which is always fresh and good every time I've gone there and at every location I've gone to, and this time was no exception. I had a "Boston Scrod" (I forgot to ask what it actually was that day) that was just simply breaded and baked... it was so good.

This is their version of Boston cream pie. I have never had a real Boston cream pie before (it's apparently actually a cake), I've only had it in donut form. This was amazing, like a highly evolved... er, Boston cream... donut.

Across the street is the New England Aquarium. This was the line to get in. Yikes! You can't even *see* where the actual rope line starts, that goes around and around about 20 times. I and a few people ahead of us had the bright idea to buy tickets with our phones, pick them up at the will-call window and bypass this entire line, so we did.

Penguins at the aquarium! Truth be told, we got a little spoiled on aquariums by the amazing one in Okinawa (seriously, click that link and watch the video) - the New England Aquarium is tiny and cramped by comparison. But they do have many penguins of different types, which the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium didn't.

This is the best cappuccino I have ever had. We stumbled onto this place by chance on our first visit to Boston - it's the Caffe Vittoria in the North End. We ordered cappuccinos on that first trip and were both amazed - the top, we think, is actually brûléed chocolate, underneath is always the perfect amount of froth, and below is just the smoothest possible espresso. I almost always have to add a little sugar to cappuccino, but not here - and not because it's sweet, just because it's so smooth. We come here every time we go to Boston now. We looked the place up after that first trip and discovered that a lot of other people feel the same way we do about their cappuccino.

The last time we went to Boston, we literally drove 4 hours just for this cappuccino and a bowl of clam chowder, then we drove 4 hours home.

Hard to miss Caffe Vittoria - it literally surrounds a cigar store with a giant cigar as a sign. It's on Hanover Street.

Now, back to the chowda!

Since we started coming to Boston, I've had the chowder at a bunch of different places all described as the "best" by someone - Legal Sea Foods (several different ones), Atlantic Fish Company, Union Oyster House, etc. They're all different and they're all good, but... maybe Bostonians would think this is sacrilege, but my favorite clam chowder is right here:

Quincy Market. We actually made a special trip back here just before leaving so I could get the clam chowder I really wanted. My Fenway Park/Legal Sea Foods chowder the night before just didn't take.

I dunno how appetizing this picture looks to anyone out there, but to me this looks like a bread bowl full of heaven:

Yes, a bread bowl. I love the bread bowl - so sue me. I'm always secretly worried that to a Bostonian this is kind of equivalent to going to New York just to eat a stuffed pizza at Sbarros. I hope that's not the case, because this really is great clam chowder - it's really clammy, really fresh, and just has a really balanced broth. I don't know if it's really the "best", but it's better than all the other places I've been to that people have said were the best.

The place I usually go to is this:

Boston Chowda Co. But there are a couple other chowder stands in there too... I've been to at least one other and I remember it being pretty much the same. You probably can't go wrong in there.

That was our weekend - took the scenic route back on the Merritt (which can be an adventure at night) and we were back home in New York, where I have to eat clam chowder out of a can and root for the Mets.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Fenway Park - Boston 2013 day 1

I haven't written as much here lately but that's not for lack of activity. Over Labor Day weekend, my wife and I went to Boston for the hell of it. It's not the first time; sometimes we go for only a few hours and then drive right back. It's just a little 300 mile road trip.

This time we stayed overnight. The first day we visited Fenway Park (never been there before) and saw the hated Red Sox beat the hapless White Sox. I actually rooted for the Red Sox because I don't really care; I was just there to see the park.

I've been more into baseball lately - I used to love it, and then lost a bit of interest when players started wearing these ill-fitting uniforms in the 90's (I'm kind of kidding, although I do think most baseball players look ridiculous these days). I'm really into baseball parks right now. I think stadiums in general are some of our most impressive and potentially lasting monuments (except that we have a bad habit of tearing them down usually after just a few decades). And they're definitely among the last big public works we in the United States specifically put any real effort into making beautiful and uplifting public spaces.

Fenway's the oldest park in baseball at 101 years, and it really is amazing for that reason. There's nothing "retro" or contrived about it - it's authentically old and quirky.

Despite its age, Fenway's got plenty of good food. The Fish Shack is run by Legal Sea Foods, and the clam chowder tasted just like the stuff you get at their restaurants (I've had it - more on that in another post). The fish & chips was a little disappointing, though.

Something great about these old concourses too, even though you can't see the field from them like in a new stadium.

The view from our seats. A little far away, but at least they were unobstructed! And not too expensive despite coming from a reseller (aka a legal scalper). I liked that the usher actually wiped down the seats before we sat down - they do it for everyone.

The Red Sox web site is interesting in that it obviously knows where the obstructed seats are and sells them last, regardless of section - I tried every single option I could think of to get different seats on their site and every one of them had a beam directly in front. If you're a n00b like us, you really need to be careful about this at Fenway! It's very easy to get stuck with a view like this one (those seats look like they're right behind where we were). Such are the joys of an actually-old ballpark. I ended up buying our seats from Ace Ticket after looking at seat views on Precise Seating, which really helped a lot.

Panorama shot. That's the foul pole near the center of the shot.

Green monster! I still remember watching Gary Carter's two home runs in the 86 World Series over that thing on TV, back before they had the seats up there. (It looks weird without seats now, when I watch old games.)

Sadly, no home runs on this night. I'm usually okay with that - I like small ball - but I just wanted to see a home run hit over the monster.

The game's scorecard. I don't usually keep score but wanted to see if I still could. I think the last time I tried to do it was at a California Angels game my dad took me to in like 1987. I still have that scorecard somewhere and now that he's no longer here, it's a meaningful souvenir to me - something about having a personal, handwritten record documenting something you shared with somebody else. Anyway I was happy to see after the fact that my scorecard on this night was pretty much right, if a little messy. (Though I'm glad nobody batted around in any inning.) You really shouldn't keep score in pen.

I was originally going to write about the whole little mini-trip here, but this is long enough so I'll do day 2 in a separate post!

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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