Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Five Years After The Day That Never Happened

Today is the fifth anniversary of one of the most memorable days of my life. It happened in the middle of the night, in the cold, remote expanses of the North Pacific, over 650 miles from the nearest piece of dry land - and even that was nothing more than a rocky outcropping on the Aleutian Archipelago.

I was a part of the Semester at Sea Spring 2005 voyage. We had departed from Vancouver, bound for Pusan, Korea about a week before and were met by rough seas almost immediately after passing around Vancouver Island and into the Pacific Ocean. Our ship was a converted cruise liner - a 590 footer ranking among the fastest passenger vessels in the world. But you can only go so fast when attempting to navigate 20 foot swells.

Despite the size of the ship, she pitched and rolled enough to make about two-thirds of the 700 passengers on-board sea sick in one capacity or another. I was one of the lucky ones who wasn't really bothered by all the side-to-side motion, but no one was immune to the effects of the ocean entirely. Eating meant having to hold onto your plate and glass almost constantly, lest it slide off the table. Showering necessitated two hands on the wall for the majority of the time. Even walking down the hall was precarious dance, as you were spilled from one side to the other despite your best efforts to lean against the swell.

There were some rough nights. Up in the bow of the ship, in a large room where most of the students congregated for a Global Studies class each morning, there was a grand piano bolted to the floor. One morning we awoke to find that it had smashed under its own weight when the ship met a particularly large wave head-on.

But through it all, the morale on the ship remained high. There were about 600 college students from all over the country (and from various parts of the world) on-board, all with an incredible trip ahead of us. We were scheduled to sail to Japan after Korea and from there to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Venezuela before returning back to the U.S. via Fort Lauderdale. Suffices to say that it didn't all go as planned.

Winter in the North Pacific is not a friendly season. Storm systems have the freedom to build and roam without the inconvenience of bumping into a land mass and sacrificing most of their energy. On that fateful night, we were caught between three of these systems in one of the most remote places on the planet.

We had just crossed the International Date Line, placing us roughly equidistantly from Hawaii, Japan and the Aleutian Islands. It would be difficult to find a location among the major shipping lanes of the world that was further from a major landmass.

I woke at about 12:30 AM in whatever time zone we were in when my bed came unhooked from the wall and began sliding back and forth across our cabin. Pretty much everything in our room was in motion, including the heavy, squat nightstand between the two beds. This piece of furniture, designed not to tip over had done just that, smashing alternatively into the door to our room and the wall that contained our porthole. After a week of vicious seas we were conditioned to take this type of inconvenience in stride, but both my roommate Jeff and I knew that this was beyond the pale. We had experienced 25 foot swells in short stints but these had to be at least 30 feet or more and didn't appear to be subsiding.

After an hour or so of sloshing back and forth, we heard the voice of our Captain come over the loud speaker and inform us that the ship was going to be making a turn in order to face the storm system we were encountering head on. What we didn't know at the time was that it didn't much matter which way he turned the ship.

A more couple hours - and countless shifts port and starboard - later there was another, very similar message. We were on the third deck, but every time the ship banked towards our side, our porthole would plunge beneath the waterline, creating an eerie swallowing sound. If anything, conditions were getting worse.

Finally, at about 4 in the morning, we heard the Dean of Students, Kenn Gaither come over the loudspeaker. In what can only be described as a desperately panicked voice, he said "EVERYONE. PLEASE REMAIN. CALM."


At this point, it still seemed like a trivial aggravation. What we couldn't have known was that he had been up in the bridge of the ship - where the Captain navigates from - when a rogue wave at least 50 feet high smashed two of the windows, shorting out all of their controls and disabling two of the vessel's three engines.

Blissfully unaware of what was going on and bleary-eyed from a lack of sleep, we piled into the corridors of the ship, orange life vests securely fastened. I hadn't processed the idea that we were in grave danger just yet. I think we all possess a natural human instinct that tells us everything is going to turn out fine when we are thrust into an emergency. But I looked down the hallway and saw girls crying and guys with bleak expressions on their faces.

We stayed in the hallway waiting for the Dean to tell us we could go back into our cabins, restlessly shifting and slipping from wall to wall, listening to the sounds of various items crashing about our berths. Only, that's not what happened next.

Around six in the morning, we were told to proceed to the fifth deck - the one that contained the life boat stations. As Gaither gave the instructions, he assigned separate locations for the males and females. Kind of like they did on the Titanic.

The gravity of the situation didn't really hit me until I reached the fifth deck and saw a Filipino crew member crying hysterically. This guy, even if he hadn't been on this particular ship for long, had experience on the open seas and was surrounded by others who had even more. If he thought this was bad, then apparently, it was.

The entirety of a seven-level ship's passengers aren't meant to fit into one of those levels. As such, we were packed in throughout, all sitting on the floor since anything that could pass for a seat would quickly tip over should you be foolish enough to try to sit on it. I ended up on a swath of tile adjacent to one of the boat's cafeterias. There were probably 50-75 other people in the same general area, all helplessly sliding from one wall to another each time the ship pitched. There was a steel door to a kitchen right behind me and with every roll from side-to-side, what sounded like the majority of the cookware inside came skidding across the tile floor and slammed into that door in a deafening cacophony of crashes and clangs.

What I can't sufficiently convey in this post was the relentless, terrifying and inescapable pitch of the ship. The picture on top of this post was taken on that day and isn't doctored. We all have experienced the G-force sensation of getting pushed to one side far enough where you feel like you are going to fall over, but this happened every 15 or 20 seconds for 10 or 12 hours straight. After a while I lost the nagging fear that this next wave was the one that was going to turn the M.V. Explorer upside down in 45 degree waters well beyond the reach of even the most perfectly executed rescue plan. But I never fully dismissed it as a possibility.

Out there, 12 hours away from the nearest cargo vessel, 10,000 feet from the bottom of the ocean and 650 miles from land, most of the people on that boat found a way to ignore that fact that we were staring down an inevitable demise should we capsize. For whatever reason, I thought that if the worst case scenario of the ship sinking unfolded, I'd survive somehow. I'd just swim out, break a window if I had to, kick to the surface, cling to some debris and wait to be rescued. Of course, there was no way anyone could have made it out of the ship and even if they did, they would have been stranded in frigid water in massive swells hours away from anyone who could have possibly been of assistance.

I know this sounds pretty far-fetched. But it actually happened. Look:

You don't have to watch that whole episode of Storm Stories to know how this tale ends. Instead of one of the most catastrophic losses of life in modern maritime history, we made it out relatively unscathed. An elderly woman broke her hip and a crew member fractured his arm, but no one was seriously hurt. The ship was forced to limp back to Hawaii, but for a while it looked like we might have to stop at Midway Island to refuel first.

It was "the day that never happened" partially because it still seems surreal but mostly due to the fact that we reversed course and again crossed the International Date Line, isolating that chaotic 12 hour stretch into a sort of bubble of time unto its own.

We missed out on visiting Korea and Japan but in exchange, we stayed in Hawaii for 10 days and Semester at Sea arranged for us to fly chartered jets from Honolulu to Shanghai to Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City before rendezvousing with the M.V. Explorer on the Me Kong River and resuming the rest of the trip as planned.

Before they leave this earth, most people will encounter a true life or death situation in which they come to terms with the fact that this might actually be it. But most of those predicaments end as quickly as then begin instead of being protracted out over half of a day. It was as if we were all involved in an extended hostage situation with Poseidon as our captor and no one with a means of advocating for our release.

It wasn't until we were docked in Hawaii (or maybe it was on a subway in Hong Kong) that I allowed myself to process how close we all came to dying that day. Although I understand it now, I still think back to my friend Dave sarcastically reading out of a Tony Robbins book to make people laugh when we were sliding across the floor. I still vividly remember the crew emerging from the kitchen amidst the sliding plates and utensils with metal bins of french toast to feed the passengers when the swells were at their largest (how they prepared a meal under those conditions I will never know). And the fact that we reconvened our shipboard poker game as soon as the worst had passed, but had to keep our chips in paper cups since they wouldn't have stayed on the table.

I don't think about the events of that day nearly as much as I used to, but every time the anniversary rolls around and I talk to other people that were on the ship, the memories are as real and as vivid as anything else I have experienced in my time on Earth. Unfortunately, the most traumatic events of our lives leave the most indelible marks.

Truthfully, it was during those 100 days of Semester at Sea that I realized that I was halfway decent at writing. I sent periodic letters to my close friends and family but soon started getting email replies from people other than the original recipients telling me how much they've been enjoying my dispatches from halfway around the world. I quickly realized that, if the topic was right, I might be able to write something people enjoyed reading.

That one specific harrowing experience and the balance of the 100 days of that trip altered my life in ways that are still taking shape. I know that I've cheated death and enjoy a disbelieving sort of laugh every time I think about it. I feel like I have a deeper understanding of the world than most people who haven't visited 9 countries in 100 days.

Our Global Studies professor, Robert Fessler gave a speech at the end of the trip that won't go down as one of the great ones of all time. However it's one of the best I've ever heard because it struck the perfect notes while explaining why traveling is enriching on a personal level. He talked about how shared experiences bond people and how being removed from your element forces you to think differently. And thinking differently is what makes life interesting. He made the same "fishbowl" analogy that David Foster Wallace did when he made the his only graduation address at Kenyon College later that year.

From a transcript of Fessler's speech:
"Shangai isn't just a word anymore, it's a place. Cape Town. It all comes back. How could you have possibly imagined back in December that you would spend the rest of your life getting chills whenever you thought of the words "put on your life jackets and get into the hall right now!", with the steady haunting moan of a fog horn in the background. Who else will ever understand that? To you, the world is never going to be the same again."

22 Days Until Spring Training: Allie Reynolds

Like the player we chose for #23 of this countdown, Allie Reynolds occupies a place in Yankee lore just outside the inner circle of legendary greats. His career wasn't long enough to get him elected to him in the Hall of Fame although he only missed being appointed by the Veterans Committee by one vote in 2009. Coincidentally, the only player who did make it in on that ballot that year was Joe Gordon, the player who Reynolds was brought to the Yankees in exchange for in 1947.

Reynolds was one of the rare ballplayers who went to college back in his time and it was mostly because he had never played much baseball before that and had no aspirations to do so professionally. A quarter-part Creek Indian from Bethany, Oklahoma, Reynolds was recruited by Oklahoma A&M (today Oklahoma State) for football and track but according to legend, he was asked to throw batting practice to the team and struck out the first four hitters he faced and never looked back.

Somewhat fittingly, the Superchief came up through the Indians organization. After three odd years in the minors, Reynolds made his major league debut in September of 1942. He spend four years pitching for the Indians - both starting and relieving - before being dealt to the Yankees. He was widely considered one of the hardest throwers in the league, close behind his teammate Bob Feller but Allie lacked the control to go along with his velocity. He averaged five walks and five strikeouts per nine innings in Cleveland but the Yankees decided to take a shot on the flamethrower and his 3.31 ERA.

Reynolds' first season in New York was 1947 and he had the best year of any Yankee pitcher, going 19-8 with a 3.20 ERA in 241 innings (including to two saves in four relief appearances). He was primarily a starting pitcher but over his 12 full seasons in the Majors, he appeared in relief 123 times. Casey Stengel was purported to have the habit of holding Reynolds back to pitch against tougher opponents, making him a tremendously valuable asset to the team.

That year, the Yankees won the World Series that year against the Dodgers with Reynolds contributing a complete game victory in Game 2.

The Yanks finished third in the American league in 1948 but the next year, Reynolds, Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat won 53 games between them and the Yankees again won the World Series against the Dodgers, their first of five consecutive Championships. Reynolds didn't allow a run in 12.1 innings in the Fall Classic collecting another complete game World Series victory in a 1-0 contest in Game 1 against Brooklyn. He also protected a two run lead for 3.1 innings in Game 4, earning him a save to go along with his victory.

In 1951, he pitched two no-hitters, one against the Red Sox to clinch the American League pennant. Retrosheet doesn't go back this far, but again according to legend, Reynolds needed to retire Ted Williams for the final out of that game and got him to pop out behind the plate - but Yogi Berra dropped the ball. Reynolds then got Williams to pop to the same spot, thereby completing the no-hitter.

By far the best regular season of his career came in 1952 when he compiled a 2.06 ERA in 244 innings and won 20 games. The 1952 World Series was the crowning jewel to his fine season. Reynolds appeared in four of the seven games in the series, starting Game 1 and 4, the latter a complete game shutout on two days rest. He got a four out save in Game 6 and the win by virtue of three one run relief innings in Game 7.

In the final two years of his career the Supercheif had more and more of his innings transitioned into the bullpen. He served as the Yanks' primary closer in '53, picking up 13 saves. He reliquished that role to Johnny Sain in 1954 and retired after the Yanks won 103 games but finished 3rd in the American League that year.

It took until 1989 for it to happen but Reynolds has a plaque dedicated to him in Monument Park, although his number isn't retired by the Yankees.

Unlike Mattingly, he was probably under appreciated in his time. He wasn't a product of the farm system and the fact that he went to college deprived him of a longer career, but I'm sure most players would swap spots with ol' Allie given that he won 6 Championships and played alongside Whitey Ford, Vic Raschi, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Moose Skowron, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, Enos Slaughter, Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau.

Jeter, Rose, Rodriguez & Record Projections

The question of whether or not Derek Jeter will pass Pete Rose's all-time hit mark is not a new one. From what I can find on these here internets, Rob Neyer addressed the possibility in a mailbag back in 2006 as Jeter was approaching 2,000 hits and was, like he is now, slightly outpacing Rose based on seasonal age and number of hits accumulated. It came up again in 2008 as he neared 2,500 hits and probably a few times in between.

Since then, essentially nothing has changed except the people who bring up the question - usually not bloggers but relative outsiders who haven't heard it discussed ad nasuem already. Back in that 2006 Neyer mailbag it was a reader named Yehuda Hyman and yesterday it was the pinch hitter at LoHud named Lucas Vanderwarker. Lucas's post got picked up over at Baseball Think Factory and Neyer got in on the action again, adding some new relevant assumptions to the equation:
Now, let's think about how Derek Jeter's career is likely to play out. One, everyone seems to think that Jeter will retire as a Yankee; that they'll do anything keep him around and that he won't be interested in playing elsewhere. Two, he's a shortstop. There's essentially no such thing as a 42-year-old shortstop. Three, the Yankees have Mark Teixeira under contract through 2016, when Jeter will be 42. They've also got Alex Rodriguez under contract through 2017, when Jeter will be 43.
David Pinto also chimed in, offering up Robin Yount as a comparable who, as a 35 year old was over 100 hits ahead of Rose but played only two more seasons and finished with 3,142 in total.

As Rose said Joe Posnanski, "You tell Derek the first 3,000 are easy". Of course, the implication is not that they're actually easy, but they're a lot easier than the next 1,256, which, as every other person ever to have played the game has figured out, is a true statement.

Jeter is 35 and a half years old and although we've seen very few indications to the contrary, the Cap'n is not invincible. No one is.

I learned this the hard way last year when I took issue with Nate Silver's projected home run totals for Alex Rodriguez, which predicted he'd end up with 730. I eventually ventured a guess as to what his career home run tally would be. I used an exhaustive 8 step methodology and arrived at the number 792. That involved a prediction of 42 for the 2009 season.

Much to my chagrin, not even two weeks later A-Rod was out in Colorado having surgery to repair a torn hip labrum, missed over a month of the season and had to hit two home runs in the same inning in Game 162 just to reach 30. Not only that, but his hip injury also cast serious doubt on his long term health.

While it's still a distinct possibility that A-Rod breaks Barry Bonds' Hank Aaron's record, it doesn't seem nearly as likely as it did just a year ago. But the picture is a lot rosier than it was the day after he had surgery. And that likelihood will probably fluctuate countless more times before he either breaks the record or retires.

I understand why fans like to talk about these far-flung possibilities and we are outrageously lucky to have two players on the Yankees pursing perhaps the two most hallowed career offensive records in Baseball. But at the same time, I'm not interested in reassessing what a projection system - using a bunch of players as comparables who, by definition didn't break the record - predicts the odds are that A-Rod or Jeter will reach that milestone every time one of them passes a round number, gets injured or the offseason news cycle grinds to a halt.

Projections can be a very useful tool in the right context but these kinds of records get broken on a very infrequent basis and only then by extreme statistical outliers. And besides, the left side of the infield still has a long, long road ahead.

Is There Anything To The Cruz Rumor?

Good morning Fackers. The Great Left Field Debate rages on. The weekend brought another round of Johnny Damon rumors, they made an offer, no they didn't, they set a deadline, no they didn't, Cashman's pissed, Damon will have a team within the week, the A's are interested, and on and on and on.

Yesterday brought the news, courtesy of AOL Fanhouse's Frankie Piliere, that the Yankees "inquired on" Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers. Normally I'd consider this to be nothing, and it probably is. Just about anything passes for news this time of year. Teams inquire about players all the time; as we learned with the Nick Swisher rumors early this off-season, there's a big difference between actively shopping someone and listening to offers without hanging up the phone. It doesn't mean there's anything to it.

Perhaps the Cruz inquiry is Brian Cashman's response to Scott Boras' incessant claims of a "mystery team" being interested in Damon. And even if the Yankees did check on him, the chances of him being moved are slim. The Rangers are in the process of being sold. Nelson Cruz is a relatively young, relatively productive, highly cost controlled asset. Businesses in the process of being sold do not divest themselves of such assets.

That said, I have every confidence that Piliere's tweet is true. Before joining Fanhouse last year, Piliere was a scout in the employ of the Rangers. He likely has contacts and friends that remain in the Rangers organization, and I'm sure that's where he received his information on this one.

In the end this is likely much ado about nothing. I highly doubt the Yankees will acquire Cruz and don't think they should. But given the source, I'm sure they did inquire about him. The question remains, are they just doing due diligence, are they legitimately interested in him, are they actively shopping for a left fielder, or is this a Damon-related smokescreen? Time will tell.


Speaking of Piliere, his list of the Top 100 Prospects went up yesterday. Jesus Montero checked in at number five, Manny Banuelos at 41, Austin Romine at 45, and Zach McAllister at 76. Recent Yankee farm hands Austin Jackson and Jose Tabata checked in at numbers 25 and 69. Head over and give it a read.