Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

March 12, 2004

What is a sweet swing?

One of baseball's oddities in the notion of a sweet swing. Kent Hrbek had a sweet swing. Joe Mauer has a sweet swing. Ichiro has a sweet swing. Reggie Jackson had a sweet swing. Ted Williams had the sweetest swing of all.

A sweet swing, as far as I can tell, is a swing which is aesthetically pleasing apart from any results it achieves, even though those results are usually good. It looks effortless. When a sweet-swinging hitter gets ahold of one, it looks like anybody could have done it. How could he not have hit that ball?

Calvin Griffith took one look at Hrbek's swing on a Bloomington high school baseball field and told the scout next to him, "Give him whatever he wants."

The oddity: All sweet swingers are left-handed. There never has been a right-handed hitter in baseball described as sweet-swinging. It is a baseball axiom as tried and true as the notion that all left-handed pitchers are goofy. Left-handed swingers seem to have the corner on hitting the ball with style.

Why the Twins will be fun to watch this year

Here are a few reasons why I think the Twins could have a better season than the last two:

1) Joe Mauer. The twenty-year-old catcher is something special. Very few teams win without a good catcher, and Mauer could be great. His strong arm not only can cut down baserunners attempting to steal, but it will prevent most of them from even trying. He is a smart hitter with a sweet swing. He will dominate the news this season.

2) Depth at every position. Every starting player on the field has a couple of capable backups who could step in and do the job about as well. That means that if the pitching falters, the Twins could trade Mientkewitz or Jones for a couple of good pitchers without losing much offense.

3) Better morale. Guardado, Hawkins and Pierzynski are wonderful players, but they were constantly complaining over one thing or another--usually about how little money they were making, or about some preceived slight from Twins management. The players in their place are hungry and less prone to whining.

4) An improved pitching staff. The newcomers are no-namers, but they are plenty good. Last year, the Twins leaned on two big name veterans, Reed and Rogers, who were mediocre most of the time. Reed usually stunk. Rick Helling is a much better bet than either of those two. The loss of Milton and Mays won't hurt much since neither contributed much in the past two years anyway. The Twins won without them and will continue to do so.

5) Shannon Stewart. The Twins have him all season. He is a winner. His work habits have spread throughout the entire team. He is a perfect lead-off hitter, something the Twins haven't had for as long as I can remember.

6) Gardenhire is learning. Even though the Twins have won the division for the past two years, Gardenhire had some real tough stretches where the team just went to sleep and he couldn't seem to do anything about it. This team, led by non-complaining veterans such as Stewart and by a phenom with a good head on his shoulders in Mauer, will motivate itself, allowing Gardenhire to manager rather than have to play psychoanalyst. Gardenhire isn't as good as Kelly, but he is pretty darn smart.

7) Minor leaguers biting at the heels of the big guys. Jason Bartlett is ready to play shortstop in the big leagues, which should give Guzman motivation to act like he cares. Mientkewitz will be traded in a hurry if he doesn't produce and if Morneau is pounding the ball down at AAA. Whichever of the talented pitchers does the best at AAA will immediately be brought up to replace the weakest link in the bullpen, when that becomes apparent.

My prognostications are usually dead wrong, you should know. A baseball team can always fall apart for unforseeable reasons. My bet for rookie pitcher of the year, Jesse Crain, who hadn't given up a home run yet in his professional career, got pounded the other day.

But it's fun to ruminate.

March 11, 2004

January Blast

Last night, big snowflakes. Then the wind came up and ground the flakes to a powder. Temperature fell to zero. This morning, January. Hard drifts. Sundogs as bright as the sun itself. Streams of snow powder flowing over the road and weaving their way across the fields.

When the visibility was low last night, a pickup pulled into my yard. In through the snow came a traveling reverend on his way to Sundal Church to preside over Lenten services. He couldn't see more than a few feet in front of him. He assumed that services were cancelled, but I called a few people from Sundal Church. No answer. They were already in the pew.

March 10, 2004

Felton trip postponed one week

Aunt Olla called tonight to say that we'd better not head to Felton tomorrow because it is cold and windy and all she needs is to catch another cold. I agreed, since the roads seem a little dicey right now anyway.

Olla sees the best in every situation. Her favorite phrases are, "so it turned out just perfect," or "it couldn't have been better."

Two summers ago, Olla's only surviving brother Burnett and his wife Adeline were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in Reno, NV. On a whim, Olla and I decided to fly down and surprise them.

I bought airplane tickets, rented a car and reserved hotel rooms in Reno. I was going to pick Olla up at 5 am on that Saturday morning in July.

The night before was my 20th class reunion at the American Legion in Fertile. I was busy swizzling beer with my classmates when a phone call came. It was my Uncle Orville with news that Olla had fallen on the sidewalk on her way to the hairdresser and broken her arm.

I called Olla in the hospital, and she was adamant that I go to Reno alone, which I did. I had a good time.

Olla didn't tell me that her blood pressure had fallen so low while she laid on the sidewalk (at the exact same spot where she had broken her hip several years earlier) that she nearly died. On the ambulance ride to Fargo, they nearly lost her.

Of course, nowadays, once you get better, they put you out on the street in five minutes. Olla showed no ill effects on Saturday, so they discharged her from the Fargo hospital with her arm in a sling. Trouble was, I was in Reno and couldn't pick her up and take her home to Twin Valley.

So, Olla called a taxi. They quoted her $60, but said they didn't have any cabs available, would she mind a limo?

Of course not!

As fate would have it, Aunt Norma was checking on Olla's apartment and saw this big limo pulling up. Good grief, who in the world would be coming here to the Johnson apartments in this fancy limo? she thought. But as soon as Olla's old shoe came out of the door and hit the pavement, Norma knew who it was. Boy, was she in shock. Olla was supposed to be near death, and now she shows up in a limo.

"That alone was worth the $60!" was Olla's quote.

Later, when I talked to her on the phone, she said the usual: "So, it all turned out just perfect." It was a good thing she broke her arm, she said, because she could never have made that trip to Reno anyway. But it was good that she bought the ticket and made plans, because now she and everybody else knew that she had tried her best.

So, it all worked out for the best. And seeing things that way is probably why Olla is hale and hearty at age 92.

We're planning to head to Felton the middle of next week for our long-postponed breakfast, weather permitting.

Sniper sentences

John Muhammed, the elder DC sniper, got the death penalty. He maintained his innocence to the end, but the evidence against him is overwhelming. He's clearly nuts, a true psychopath. I don't think the state should ever be in the business of killing people--the whole notion makes me nervous--but I won't shed any tears for this guy.

Lee Malvo, the teenager who accompanied Muhammed, was today given life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. I think that is awful. This was a kid who was clearly under the influence of a charismatic father figure. He wouldn't have done a thing if Muhammed hadn't indoctrinated him for years before the killings. If the kid was over eighteen, fine, he's responsible. But he was 17 and is unlikely, once he comes out from under Muhammed's influence, to kill again.

I say make sure he's sane, get him an education and let him go. This won't happen, of course. He still faces charges in other states. But I remain strongly in favor of forgiveness and second chances for minors. Prison doesn't rehabilitate people, it hardens them into career criminals. In Malvo's case, it is the virtual end of a life that could well still have been rescued.

Cat benefits

They say older people with pets have less depression and even live longer, and I can understand why.

My biggest enemy in the winter is getting thinking about some problem and having it whirl around in my head for hours and then not being able to sleep. Or, I get to sleep only to wake up in an even more agitated state. You just can't push back the tide of ominous thoughts.

Nothing of the sort this winter. Perhaps it is due to being chemically fortified with Lexapro, a pretty darn good anti-depressant. And perhaps the cat helps.

A cat points out the essential silliness of all things. It spends hours playing, and never gets sick of imagining that its ball is a great enemy. Then it plops on my lap and wants to have its chin scratched. Then it goes and takes a deep nap. Then it yawns and stretches.

I used to be offended by people who talked baby talk to their pets. What stupidity. Now I am the worst offender. I am developing an entire non-sense language for the cat. Nappins. Pettins. Luvins. Stalkins. Its nauseating.

But having a sentient being around that only cares about the basics of life--eating, sleeping, hunting--points out that no problem in daily life is worth ruminating about. As long as you have a place to nap, life is good.

March melt

The Eskimos have thirty-some words for snow, depending upon the quality of the snow. The snow we had this winter in northern Minnesota, since we don't have thirty-some words for snow, could be described as puffy-stuff-that-melts-quite-fast. There was lots of it, but it is going away fast.

It is encouraging to see black spots open up in the fields. Those black spots absorb the sunlight and make things warmer. At least that is my thought. Once those spots of open field appear, the snow is doomed. Small victories.

As one neighbor said to me last year, "I suppose spring'll come no matter what we try to do about it." Yet, we try to influence matters by carving ditches in the ice and by pulling for the temperatures to rise.

My garage doesn't have a drain, so some of the snow-melt is running in. Then it freezes on the smooth concrete floor. Two days ago I nearly slid through the back wall on the ice.

Yesterday's sunshine perked everybody up. Even my cat. It spent much of the evening hunting phantoms. Then, after the requisite game of catch-the-thing-moving-under-the-blanket at bedtime, it roared off downstairs, ears tucked down, for a little late-night prowling. But this morning when I woke up, there it was, head laying on my arm, sound asleep.

March 09, 2004

The National Debate

The national pastime is not baseball, but debate. If there are no big issues, we turn to small issues. The spotlight goes from one issue to another giving the same people the chance to vent, but from a different angle.

Remember the constitutional amendment Bush I proposed to ban flag-burning in 1988? It didn't get anywhere. Even so, flag-burning didn't become common. The republic stood. But oh how people vented on both sides after Bush brought it up. I would say the division is about the same over the constitutional amendment Bush II supports on marriage. I suspect it will disappear as quickly as Dad's amendment did.

The debate over Mel Gibson's movie is particularly interesting. It has exposed a divide in the country which few people ever think about.

Even though Gibson is from a break-away Catholic sect, his movie plays to a large chunk of the American populace who share a specific set of theological assumptions.

First, they believe that God requires a sacrifice of some sort for the remission of human sin. Second, they believe that Christ was that sacrifice. Third, some believe that in order for that sacrifice to be sufficient, Christ literally had to suffer the entire weight of the world's sins during his last hours. Fourth, they believe that it is up to each person to accept or reject that sacrifice either intellectually, emotionally, or sometimes both.

Given those assumptions, it is understandable that Gibson's movie plays up the violence of the crucifixion. The suffering is important, and it is important that people see it. It is also understandable that many evangelical Christians flock to the movie, and look to it as a tool for winning converts.

I recall going to Camp Joy Bible Camp as a child. One night, a pair of counselors grouped a bunch of us into one cabin during a thunderstorm and played an audio tape which went over the torments of the crucifixion in great detail. It was an audio version of Gibson's Passion.

The basic idea was, Christ did this for you, how can you not give your life to him? Although one could argue that the playing of this nightmare-inducing tape during a thunderstorm constituted psychological abuse, I suppose the makers of the tape would argue, why hold back when people's eternal fate is at stake?

On the other side are people who don't share all of the assumptions listed above. To them, the idea of an all-powerful God requiring a human sacrifice for the remission of sin seems primitive. Or, they believe that the crucifixion was a powerful symbol, not an actual metaphysical legal transaction. Or, they prefer to look at Christ's teachings rather than the method of his death. Or, they may not believe in God at all.

To these people, the violence of Gibson's movie has no purpose, and the use of it to inspire conversions seems like emotional blackmail.

I don't think the two sides understand each other. To those who believe roughly as Gibson does, those who do not share their beliefs are unbelievers, and unbelievers just don't understand.

To those who don't share Gibson's basic beliefs, those who flock to the movie and bring their kids, seem to have a moral lapse--a sudden willingness to wallow in violence when it suits their ends, when it fits into their beliefs.

Of course, this is just a movie. People can vote with their feet. The debate will settle nothing. But the movie does provide one of those instances where deep philosophical differences are highlighted. This is not an occasion for fighting, rather an opportunity to see what makes people of various beliefs tick.

March 08, 2004

Trip to Felton scheduled for Thursday

Aunt Olla called tonight. We are going to head to the Felton Cafe on Thursday morning for a late breakfast. Long-time readers of this weblog might recall that the Felton trip was originally scheduled for last November but was postponed either due to weather or illness, both of which there have been plenty of this winter.

The Felton Cafe is known for their good carmel rolls. Felton is a town of about 200 (correct me if I am wrong, I will check for sure on Thursday) on Highway 9 between Ada and Highway 10. It marks the half-way point on the trip to Fargo, a great excuse for a carmel roll.

My grandfather Melvin, Aunt Olla's brother, loved cafes, too. He was on the road a lot, and would drive quite a ways out of the way to head to Shelly, or Halstad, or Cooperstown, or whereever--if he knew they had good pie. Pie was the essential ingredient.

Grandpa had a habit of singing hymns out loud at the table, both at home and at crowded cafes. He didn't care. He was well known, so most people didn't bat an eye--but I do recall some funny looks the farther we got from home.

Aunt Olla doesn't sing at the cafe, but she does usually know half the people there. That's pretty good for being 92 years old. The typical conversation goes: "So your grandmother was Knute Nelson's niece, then. Well that's interesting. Now it all makes sense. Now are they any relation to the Nelsons out in Lockhart, or is that a different bunch?"

Norman County Snowplows

One just drove by. For the second time this morning, and it is only twenty-to-eight. And we are at the far end of the county. I have no complaints about the Norman County Road maintainance department.

The other day, I noticed that Norman County 36, which turns into Polk County 10 as it passes over the county line in Rindal, was perfectly clear on the Norman County side and covered with ice on the Polk County side.

Snow plowing is the most visible benefit of paying property taxes. We pay much less tax in Norman than they do in Polk, yet it seems we get our roads plowed more quickly.

I have to put in a plug for Norman County because we're always showing up on state-wide surveys which identify counties which are losing population, or which have low income, and so on. There are no snow-plowing surveys, or surveys calculating the ratio of time-it-takes-to-get-the-snowplows-out to amount of taxes paid. We would be at the top.

March 07, 2004

Twins spring training

Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune picked up on the phenom Jesse Crain this week. Apparently, people in camp are amazed at his stuff. You heard it here first, remember. (See below.)

My guess right now is that the Twins are going to struggle less than they did last year. I was amazed that they came out with 90 wins for how much time they spent wallowing around. Bad starting pitching. No offense.

On paper, letting Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins go was a bad move and makes the Twins a weaker team. However, those two were constantly complaining about being unjustly treated, despite earning about $3 million each per season, and I think it ate on morale. I loved to see LaTroy strike people out--he was simply superb last season--but there may be benefits to his absence. And Eddie? He always seemed to be in a high-wire act. I never felt comfortable with him out there and a one-run lead.

The Twins are stacked enough with talent that they could make some mid-season trades to add pitching if that falls through. For instance, they could dump Mientkiewitz and substitute young slugger Justin Morneau. They could trade Jones and replace him with any number of more than adequate substitutes. And the could trade Guzman, who just seems to be getting more lethargic by the year, and allow a solid young prospect whose name I forget at the moment to take his place.

I look for Rick Helling to be a workhorse. People say the starting pitching is thin, but when it was advertised as thick--the past two seasons--it failed miserably. The starters had to be rescued by the bullpen. It won't take much for this bunch of starters to improve on the last bunch.


I posted a new column to the left. I am using a new computer and generally using some new computer routines, which leaves me in sort of a disoriented daze--the result is that the column posting has some funny spacings in it that I can't seem to change. We'll work on it.