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2/6/09

Meet and Greet: Luis Ignacio Ayala

Today the Twins ended their off-season futility by signing Luis Ayala, formerly of the Mets and Nationals to an one year, $1.3 million contract with up to $575 thousand in additional incentives. Last year Ayala made 1.7 million dollars and, depending on his performance, he would have a chance to exceed it in 2009. Luis was born on January 12, 1978

The road that brought Louis to the states from his native Mexico and to the majors has been an interesting one. His professional baseball career started as a successful starting pitcher at the Saraperos de Saltillo (Saltillo Sarape Makers). In his first 2 years in the States, American Baseball was like a summer job for him, singing contracts in 2001 and 2002 with the Rockies and the Expos. In 2001 he pitched 13 games in relief with Salem Avalanche of the Carolina (A+) league collecting 7 saves and in 2002 he was a set up man for the Ottawa Lynx of the International (AAA) League where he appeared in 6 games. His next "summer job" contract for the 2003 season was deemed to be with the Arizona Diamondbacks; however the Expos either saw something they liked in his 6-game stint with Ottawa or, most likely, were impressed with his real job performance as a starter, that selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Diamondbacks. Other than rehab assignments, Ayala played only 19 games in the minors and pitched 21 innings. He did not disappoint the Expos in his first year, assuming the set-up role, playing in 65 games and pitching 71 innings collecting 3 saves while producing a 2.92 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 5.83 K/9 and 3.54 K/BB. He has a very deceptive delivery (see picture below) that has been very hard for right handers, but extremely easy for lefties. In his inaugural season RHB hit .188/.221/.267 and LHB .337/.398/.564 off Ayala.

2004 was his best season in the majors so far (hopefully this will change next year). Pitching 90.3 innings in 81 games as a set up man, Ayala accumulated a 2.69 ERA, 6.28 K/9, 4.20 K/BB and 1.18 WHIP. The move of the Nationals was not kind to him. He regressed slightly in 2005, but was still a very good pitcher (68 games, 71 IP, 2.66 ERA, 5.07 K/9, 2.86 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP). However, in 2006 Ayala became the poster boy of the detractors of the WBC: He blew his elbow in a WBC game and sat the 2006 out with Tommy John surgery. Ayala himself in an interview by the Washing Post said that he regretted playing to the WBC. In 2007 he started slowly, partly because he suffered a neck injury while trying to rehabilitate his surgically repaired elbow in extended spring training. By April his fastball velocity was only 85 mph and needed improvement. After a couple of rehab assignments he was activated and joined the Nationals in late June. He appeared in 44 games for the Nationals, pitching 42.1 innings producing respectable numbers: 3.19 ERA, 5.95 K/9, 2.33 K/BB, 1.30 WHIP. His rehab and return from Tommy John surgery is very similar to that of Fransisco Liriano (other than the part where the Nationals kept Ayala in extended spring training while the Twins rushed Liriano).

2008 was even less kind for Ayala. In a hunting trip in the off-season in Mexico (January 4th), he was shot by mistake by one of his buddies on his left (non-throwing) bicep (There still is one pellet in there; no word about airport metal detector issues). The Nationals doctors diagnosed "a bruised nerve" (btw, nerves don't "bruise") and gave him a clean bill of health. In addition to the "bruised nerve", in 2008, Ayala suffered a bruised ego when he his wife filed for and was awarded a divorce. In all respects, 2008 was a regrettable season for Ayala (who was traded to the Mets in a waiver trade August 17th for Anderson Hernandez, a AAA utility infielder, after he requested to be traded): 81 games, 71.7 IP, 5.71 ERA, 5.95 K/9, 2.08 K/BB, 1.45 WHIP. On an "exit interview" in Fredericksburg Free Lance Star, Ayala suggested that he lost his focus because of his off-field problems; however, an unnamed source told MLB.com back then that Ayala's problems came about by the fact that he was bypassed as the closer replacement for Chad Cordero.





Ayala has 3 pitches that he mixes regularly with good command (esp. before his surgery): a 91 mph sinker, an 85 mph hard slider and a 84 mph change up, which he throws anywhere in the count and spots locations. His out pitch had been his 2-seamer, but the last couple of years he has been relying on the slider as an out pitch more and more (with not much success). This singing makes the crowded Twins bullpen even more crowded, but Ayala (with his deceptive delivery) has the ability to replace Neshek (and his deceptive delivery). Whether or not his apparently fragile ego will clash with the brash personality of Gardy, remains to be seen.

Here is a video of Luis Ayala in his native Saltillo:


2/4/09

Book review: The King's Game, by John Nemo

I am trying something different here, which will hopefully be the first in a series of posts in this space: A book review. I am planning on reviewing baseball-related books and when feasible do a question and answer session with the author.

I am happy to present you the first book in the series, The King's Game by John Nemo as well as a Q&A session with the author.

Review

John Nemo’s book, The King's Game (available from Amazon.com just click on the link to order), really surprised me. From bylines and reviews I read prior to reading the book, I thought that it would be based on a story line similar to that of The Natural (A grizzled veteran player comes in out of nowhere and becomes the major star in a clinching game). Little that I knew…

The King’s Game is like a baseball: a solid core of pitch by pitch action in a futuristic game seven of a World Series inside (think rubber core), enveloped by an allegory (think leather), stitched together by a thread of Christian Spirituality (think red stitches in a ball). A great line in the book (in the “postgame” chapter; the book is cleverly structured in chapters based on baseball innings) perfectly describes the use of baseball in the book: “Baseball is a wonderfully submerged metaphor. A study of its subtleties reveals endless truths about our world.” Frankly, I have never read a single statement that can summarize the single more powerful force that makes someone a baseball fan… The baseball action in the book is spellbinding. The mind of the main protagonist, one of the most highly regarded pitchers of his era, is dissected as he delivers each pitch in the game seven of the World Series. I cannot think of a single baseball fan that would not like to have a insider’s view of such a situation. How much would you pay to sit on single synapse of Jack Morris’ brain in the game seven of the 1991 World Series? Well, this book is pretty close to that. Nemo is faithful to his baseball (he even has a box score of the game at the end of the book). I utterly enjoyed the exaltation of a game of baseball (albeit game 7 of the World Series; and we all know what those mean) into something more than baseball. And this is really what the book is all about. If I ran a bookstore and had to place the book under one single section, I couldn’t do it. I would place some copies under “Sports” and some under “Christian Spirituality” to be fair to Nemo’s work, because he excels in both. And for the people who automatically think “Christian Spirituality” is a preconceived red flag of sorts, this book is more than that. There is no “preaching” in this book. This book speaks to intelligent spiritual audiences of any (and no) religions. The two parallels that crossed my mind (more than crossed, actually, kind of smacked it like a fat curve that doesn’t break enough) when I was reading it were: Kafka’s Metamorphosis, while experiencing Cody King’s character’s development; and that huge Dylanesque rain allegorical overtones through out the story line (albeit, I suspect that“rain” –or water- has more of a “baptismal” notation for John Nemo than it has for Bob Dylan.) Yes, this is an existentialist book…

Go buy it (it is offered at Amazon, click the picture of the book below) and read it; if not for any other reason, get it because this is one of the extremely few places that perfectly describes a palmball. This book will make you think a bit more than balls and strikes and E-7s and has an amazing baseball action (it even make me grab a score card and keep score); it is a very fast read (I started and finished it last Saturday, a lazy morning, over a cup of coffee or two) that you don’t want to put down before the end. A total winner; but don’t listen to me, listen to Joe Nathan and Mike Cuddyer who both provided testimonials on the book.



Q&A with the author



The Tenth Inning Stretch: You describe baseball action like someone who actually pitched. Do you have any experience playing baseball?

John Nemo: Not beyond eighth grade baseball for the venerable St. Rose of Lima squad. However, I did grow up with a father who was a baseball fanatic and an English professor, and he used to hold court in the upper reaches of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome during the 1980s and early 1990s, teaching me everything he knew about the game - its beauty, poetry, symmetry, etc. Along with that, I spent 10 years covering the Twins and other MLB teams for media outlets including Minnesota Twins Magazine, the Associated Press, MLB.com and others. I spent many, many hours in the press box, on the field and in the clubhouse talking with players and getting inside their heads. Because of that I was able to get some of the Twins players - Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan in particular - to look over portions of The King's Game for me and give me feedback on the baseball action and authenticity.

TTIS:My understanding is that the game describes takes place in the future. One of the teams is the visiting St Louis Cardinals and the other is the Warriors from an undetermined city. There are some hints that you are describing the Cleveland Indians. Fictional team or do the Indians change their nickname sometime in the future?

JN:Actually in my mind's eye the game takes place in the present day or perhaps in the past. The Warriors are a fictional team - definitely inspired in part by the New York Knights in "The Natural." I intentionally left their city unnamed - it didn't feel right to put them in any one place.

TTIS:A friend of mine who is a writer told me that he always models his characters after people he knows. When you build your characters do you model them after particular ball players or are they imaginary, composed by different things you see in different players? Also, how do you decide on names for your characters?

JN:Some players are shadows of real guys - including David Eckstein, Rick Ankiel (the young stud pitcher version, not the current slugging outfielder edition) and others. Other players in the book embody certain characteristics - great bat/frying pan for a glove, great glove/toothpick for a bat, etc. - you see all the time in MLB. Names are usually done quite random - whatever pops into mind, really. The big thing is I try to avoid using names of real people I know - I'm not a fan of that at all, and it makes the book lose its magic for me. I also try to come up with names that I like the sound of, or names that seem to fit the personality of a character. Things like that.


TTIS:The World Series in the King's Game, took me back to the two Twins' World Series appearances. Was there any particular game 7 you watched that inspired the baseball action in the book?

JN:Definitely Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Can anybody forget Jack Morris going 10 innings and looking ready for 10 more? Lonnie Smith getting faked out by Knoblauch? That was a game where you literally felt the pressure on every single pitch - a true Game 7, its outcome in doubt until the very final moments. Another one, though not a Game 7, is probably Game 6 of the 1986 World Series - the insanity and craziness of a New York crowd, everyone going nuts when Ray Knight scored the winning run, the chaos of it all - I love that atmosphere, and it shows up at times in The King's Game.

TTIS:You perfectly described the action of a palmball. This is very intriguing to me because the pitch, which I believe is one of the most effective pitches out there, has become obsolete, like the screwball. The only current pitchers who uses it (very rarely, are Roy Halladay and Trevor Hoffman) and the last pitcher of note to use it with any frequency was Mike Cuellar. Today, most people (even pitching coatches) think of a palmball as another changeup grip (which is of course wrong) Why a palmball?

JN:I've always been a fan of sneaky, tricky pitchers - Luis Tiant gets mentioned early on as someone the book's main character, Cody King, models his pitching style after. I always fooled with it playing in the backyard and especially playing wiffle ball with my buddies. I've always been a fan of it, and having artistic license with The King's Game, I decided to let it fly, so to speak.

TTIS:Let's change gears for a second. I could not help notice the rain/water allegory in the book. My first thought was that it was a baptismal symbolism. The more and more I got into the book, I had more and more doubts about that. What is the water symbolism in your book?

JN:The way I write, I am really not conscious or intentionally putting any type of metaphors or symbolism into my stories. It just happens. I literally just begin with a scene and then let the film in my mind begin to roll, and I just try to keep up with it, describing what I am seeing as the story beings to unfurl. The characters in the scene just start saying and doing things. It really is magic - a gift from God. Looking back at The King's Game, what comes to mind is the idea of a flood, of being overwhelmed, drowning, desperate, fighting against an unforgiving, rising tide. There are several instances in the book where that happens, and other scenes where water brings about great fear for Cody King.

TTIS:A couple of personal questions: Twins Fan? Since when? Who are your favorite all time and current players?

JN:Twins fan since moving to the Twin Cities at the age of 6 in 1981. Grew up on Gaetti, Hrbek, Bruno, Viola, Blyleven and the rest. Loved Kirby Puckett - what Minnesotan fan didn't? He was my favorite player of all time, hands down. When I was in college (early 1990s) I interned for Minnesota Twins Magazine and walked onto the field for the first time as a bona fide journalist. I had to interview Puckett for a feature on the magazine's kid's page, and I was so nervous. My job was to find out how Kirby broke in new gloves. He looked at me, straight-faced, and said, "I run my truck over it." I stuttered and stammered, thinking he was going to bust out laughing, but Kirby was dead serious - he said he put new gloves down in his driveway, then ran over them a few times with his truck. My favorite current Twins are Denard Span, Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer.

TTIS:Are you currently working on any other books? When should we expect to see them in print?

JN:I do have a couple other novels that were recently published. "Miller's Miracle" is the story of a young man who discovers quite by accident that he's been given an incredible gift when it comes to the game of golf. "Jumper" is the story of how a teenager's curiosity about a dark family secret ends up propelling him back in time to the Roaring Twenties in gangster-friendly St. Paul, Minnesota.

For a complete biographical information on John Nemo and for information about his books, make sure to visit his web site johnnemobooks.com

The timeline of a rumor - Delmon for Washburn + Clement

This time of the year, especially this year where there is not much coal in the coffers and the usually hot off-season stove is colder than usual, rumors about impeding transactions fly left and right. I make a practice of neither propagating nor analyzing rumors (like there are not about 100 more places to go for that). I am not making an exception here with this post. I am just presenting it as an example of how rumors are propagated.

Case study: Delmon Young to the Mariners for Jake Washburn and Jeff Clement.

This rumor started here at 8:14 PM ET on February the second by John Hickey, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter, who wrote on his blog: "One deal discussed in the last week or so involved sending Washburn and catcher Jeff Clement to Minnesota in exchange for 23-year-old outfielder Delmon Young."

At 8:46 PM ET, half an hour after the rumor was started. There was a compete analysis, including a major thumbs down here by Dave Cameron of USS Mariner, the most read independent Mariner's blog.

At 9:49 PM ET, Drew Silva of Tim Dierkes' MLBtraderumors.com picked up the rumor and posted it here at the MLB rumor mill clearing house.

One it got there, the most visited place by fans in the off-season, it started propagating like crazy with fans reaction abound: By 10:07 PM ET the first comment regarding it appeared at LEN3's blog, in an unrelated post about the MLB Network.

Next day, February the 3rd at 10:20 AM ET, Joe Christiansen, Twins Beat writer in Start Tribune, picks up the rumor and offers his thoughts

By 7:52 PM of the same day, Joe who is a real journalist, tried to confirm the rumor through his connections with the Twins who categorically said "no way" and he posts an entry on his blog to this effect. Kelly Thesier at MLB.com, piggybacks on Joe's post at 8:07 PM and ups the ante, contradicting Hickey, saying that the particular trade was never proposed.

At 8:37, Dierkes' team over the MLBtraderumors clearing house, picks Joe's article up and rehashes that the "deal" is dead.

You'd think that the rumor would be dead and buried by then, right? Nope. At 8:19 AM ET Today (February 4th), Yahoo's MLB rumor site, picks up and rehashes Christiansen's 10:20 AM post of the previous day, suggesting that the rumor is alive (but totally ignores to look at the second post that kills the rumor).

This is the main reason I do not try to propagate rumors here... In the days of internet and RSS, things that come out of a blogger's head move fast (and esp. if that blogger is affiliated with the traditional press) spread as truths everywhere (anyone remember the Cuddyer for Atkins rumors out of Denver?). It is better to wait and see something actually reported about a trade that happened that get nuts about a trade that might make sense if it happens.

The best think that came out of this particular rumor (the seed of course was planted by Sid Hartman and Charlie Walters in the early off-season) is the newest Twins-related internet site, Keep Delmon!. Go have a look and vocalize your support, it is a worthy cause :)