Organizing by themes VI: Baseball

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

Many times in the past two-plus years I would drive to my weekly psychotherapy appointment fully expecting to talk about one set of things only to find myself talking about an entirely different set of things.

Something similar happened with this blog.

When I launched it in December 2016, I already had a pool of quirky completed data analyses from which to draw…including a plethora of baseball-related ones. Some of these had their genesis in the mid-1990s, when on a lark I entered a mass of baseball-related data into a primitive statistical software package and began to investigate. Ultimately, I wrote four papers based on those analyses (not sure what happened to them), which I submitted as part of my “writing sample” when I applied for a job at the now-defunct Health and Addictions Research, Inc. in Boston in the late summer of 1996.

I started there in early October—in large part (as a coworker later freely admitted) because of those papers; if anything, he is a bigger baseball fan than I will ever be. That was the start of my two decades in health-related data analysis…which I address elsewhere.

But it comes as something of a surprise that I have only written three posts on baseball (excluding tangential references such as here):

A Hall of Fame case for Jamie Moyer

Revisiting my old baseball player metrics

Phollowing the Philadelphia Phillies is phun again

Yes, I was profoundly disappointed Moyer only received 10 votes (2.4% of 422 votes cast), well below the 21 he needed to remain on the ballot more than one year. That was an especial sting given that he is one of the finest human beings to make a living playing professional baseball.

And, yes, it matters.

5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” (emphasis added)

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One reason I have not written as much about baseball (lately, at any rate) is how badly my Philadelphia Phillies tanked over the last two months of the 2018 season (2018 phillies win percentage), despite the Cy-Young-Award-caliber season of #1 starter Aaron Nola.

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I took this photograph during a May 31, 2014 game at beautiful Citizens Bank Park, which the Phillies lost to the New York Mets in 14 innings, 5-4 (after tying it 4-4 in the bottom of the 9th). We left after the 12th inning, I believe…or maybe it was the 11th.

With the arrival of Spring Training in a few weeks, I will undoubtedly write about baseball again; if nothing else, I want to begin to lay the groundwork for why longtime Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins absolutely belongs in the baseball Hall of Fame. In the meantime, in honor of the recent election of the late Roy Halladay to that same Hall of Fame, here is a link to a superb recap of his 2010 playoff no-hitter (as in, Halladay threw a no-hitter—marred only by a 5th inning walk to Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce—in his first-ever playoff start!)

While that historic game was being played, I was sitting inside an auditorium-style classroom at the Boston University School of Public Health helping to proctor an exam. I was one of two teaching assistants (TA) for an introductory epidemiology class that semester. In a truly bizarre coincidence, my younger co-TA had attended the same suburban Philadelphia high school as me, albeit some 20 years after I graduated in 1984.

I followed the game on my phone—most likely through the Gameday app. It took all of my willpower not to jump up and down and hoot and holler when catcher Carlos Ruiz through Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips out at first base for the final out of the game.

Until next time…

And for my 100th post…100 random facts (about me)

This is post #100; thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.”

December 19 is also the two-year anniversary of this site’s launch (so I should gift myself either cotton or china, and it should be red).

To honor this symmetry, and to lighten the mood from my previous three posts (dealing—however obliquely—with the deaths of President George H.W. Bush, Pete Shelley and my maternal grandfather), I present 100 random facts about me. These tidbits of personal trivia are in no particular order.

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#1-19. I have seen every episode of…

Barney Miller*

Columbo*

Coupling

Documentary Now!

The Green Hornet (co-starring this guy)

The Honeymooners (classic 39 episodes, 1955-56)

Night Court

Police Squad (all six episodes)

Portlandia

Remember WENN

Sherlock

Soap*

Square Pegs*

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Sweet Genius

Taxi*

Twin Peaks (including this movie)

The Untouchables*

WKRP in Cincinnati*

 Shows with an asterisk I own on DVD.

#20. Barney Miller remains my favorite sitcom, followed by Taxi and Remember WENN (in some order), then CouplingWKRP and Soap (in some order) along with Cheers and Get Smart.

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#21. I have likely also seen every episode of a truly obscure 1980 late-night soap opera called The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts. 

#22. I have seen (and own on videocassette) all 20 adventures of The Mighty Heroes that aired as part of the 1966-67 series Mighty Mouse and The Mighty Heroes.

mighty heroes

Picture from here

#23. I have seen every episode of Doctor Who since the 2005 revival.

#24. I have seen every episode of Dragnet released as part of the 1967-70 color revival. 

#25. I have spent the night in 24 states (25, if you count the District of Columbia [DC]). Roughly in order from most to least: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, DC, New Jersey, California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, New York, Vermont, Maryland, Illinois, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina and Tennessee (one night each on an April 1990 road trip).

#26. By contrast, I have never woken up in a foreign country.

#27-30. The only foreign country I have visited is Canada, three times in total.

The first time was to attend a Montreal Expos game in Montreal[1] on the afternoon of May 5, 1990 (which is what I told the gentleman at the crossing from Vermont).

The second time was on September 2, 1990. I began an eight-day road trip (1990 was my year for road trips) the previous day, driving west on I-90 through Massachusetts then deep into New York. Once it got dark, my rental car radio was able to pick up 1210 AM, the Philadelphia Phillies radio station, so I heard my Phillies sweep a double-header from the New York Mets (and the debut of a young second baseman named Mickey Morandini).

Believing I could simply find a room at an exit-ramp hotel, I had not booked one in advance. What I had not considered, however, was that it was Labor Day weekend. I remember one hotel clerk telling me there was not a room for “a hundred miles in any direction.” Exhausted, and unwilling to shell out an exorbitant amount of money for a hotel room 20 or miles away, I drove my rental car into the back of a Holiday Inn in Batavia, NY. I had had the foresight to pack a pillow, so I curled up in the backseat, using my robe as a blanket.

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After sleeping for four hours, I roused myself at dawn and headed for Niagara Falls (which genuinely impressed me). I also found a pay phone and booked a room at a Motel 6 near Detroit, MI for that night. After touring the Falls, I drove into Canada, heading north to Toronto. It was a Sunday afternoon, so I listened on the radio as the Toronto Blue Jays playing the Cleveland Indians. The Blue Jays had their best starting pitcher, Dave Stieb, on the mound.

As I got closer and closer to Toronto, Stieb had still not allowed a hit. And I was literally in downtown Toronto when Jerry Browne lined out to right for the final out of the only no-hitter in Toronto Blue Jays history (by contrast, the Phillies have had six no-hitters since then).

I did not stop in Toronto, but rather drove directly to Windsor, Ontario, where I took the Ambassador Bridge north into Detroit—the only place you go north from Canada into the United States[2].

The third time was far less dramatic. On June 21, 1997, my then-girlfriend and I spent the night in Island Pond, VT (which I had first visited the day of the Expos game; different girlfriend, however). We listened to this painful loss in the motel room as it poured outside.

Since Island Pond is only 16 miles south on Route 114 from the border with Quebec, we drove to the border that night, crossed into Canada, drove a short distance then turned around and drove back into the United States.

#31. On that same September 1990 road trip, I was in the original Comiskey Park the night (September 3, 1990) Bobby Thigpen broke the single-seasons saves record.

#32. Speaking of old Comiskey Park (and Olympic Stadium in Montreal), I have been to more major league baseball stadiums that no longer exist (six[3]) than ones that are still in operation (three[4]).

#33. Over four consecutive summers (1978-81), I was a day camp camper, an overnight camp camper, an overnight camp worker (co-running the canteen) and a day camp worker (junior counselor at the same camp as 1978, Indian Springs).

#34. I was a camper at long-since-closed Camp Arthur-Reeta in the summer of 1979. For reasons which eluded me, my bunkmates gave me the nickname “Disneyland.”

#35. That same summer, I was sent home from camp for a week or two with the worst poison ivy I have ever had.

#36-48. I have also worked as a/an…

…part-time assistant (gluing samples into a display binder) for a specialty stationery store in Narberth, PA (summer 1982)

…file clerk in the G.H. Arrow periodical warehouse near 4th and Poplar (Philadelphia, summer 1983)

…delivery driver for Boardwalk Steak and Sub Shoppe (aka Boardwalk Pizza) in Ardmore, PA (spring/summer 1984)—still my favorite-ever job; I combined the Sea Isle and the Margate into my signature sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

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…cashier in a WAWA food store in Belmont Hills, PA (summer 1985)

…cashier in a Washington, DC pizza joint (two weekends, summer 1986), while I was an unpaid intern at the Brookings Institute.

…shelving assistant in the Social Science Library at Yale (junior year, 1986-87)

…cashier at two different B. Dalton booksellers in Philadelphia (summers 1988, 1989)

…teaching assistant (three courses) and three-time senior thesis advisor at Harvard (1991-95)

…research assistant for multiple professors at Yale and Harvard

…data entry assistant at Pegasus Communications in Cambridge, MA (summer 1995)

…Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University (January-May 1996; the less said, the better)

…conductor of telephone survey research in Media, PA (spring 2001; see previous gig)

#49. My mother and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City (between Boston and Providence, the beach and Pacific). Back then, before the opening of Resorts in 1978 destroyed Atlantic City, a long string of motels stood along Pacific Avenue between Albany Avenue to the southwest and New Hampshire to the northeast. My favorite pastime was to collect pamphlets from their lobbies; in the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and reminisce.

#50. Another pastime was to charge fellow patrons of the Strand pool 25 cents (or was it 50 cents?) to “bowl.” If memory serves, I had six cheap plastic trophies I stacked in a pyramid, and the goal was to knock them over with a ball of some sort

#51. My mother and I (and my father on weekends) occupied “penthouse” A at the Strand. Penthouse B was occupied by Leland Beloff, whose golden retriever Whiskey I used to walk with our Keeshond Luvey. One day I asked “Lee” (then 31 or 32 years old, what he wanted to be when he grew up (had he only known…).

#52. Along the same lines, my orthodonist (on whom my mother had a crush), nicknamed “Dr. Touchy,” was convicted of sexually molesting his female patients.

#53. My mother once told me that I was not allowed to do drugs until I was 32 years old, because that was when she started smoking marijuana (1970).

#54. I think I was in ninth grade when my mother ruined my adolescence by telling me, “Do what you want, just be careful.” Nice, appealing to my “good doobie” nature.

#55. As this signed napkin (my mother and me) clearly shows, Nancy Spungen was the niece of Joe Spungen, my first cousin, once removed, by marriage. Actually, that should be grand-niece…not sure if the error was in the speaking or the recording.

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#56. Another first cousin, once removed is Lois Lane[5], but she is not THAT Lois Lane. This is one of her paintings.

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#57. On a field trip to Washington, DC on May 6, 1980, I threw up in a men’s room in the United States Supreme Court building. I had a stomach bug.

#58. I still do not know how to ride a bicycle.

#59. However, according to family lore, I was able to read at the age of two-and-a-half. Supposedly, one day in the spring of 1969 I was driving in our Havertown, PA neighborhood with my maternal grandmother, when I read a street sign: “Watch Children.” (In the retelling, it has become “watch childwenz.”). Upon returning home, she insisted my mother had had me memorize the sign. In response, my mother handed me a copy of Life magazine, opened to a random page. I read it perfectly.

Again…that is the story. My wife Nell, a former elementary school teacher with an MA in early education, does not think that is physiologically possible.

#60. What is true, though, is that I was a voracious reader as a child, and I built an impressive library of books—which I eventually Dewey-Decimalized. I once set up a “lending library” on our front lawn. One kind gentleman actually rented a book.

#61. I used to borrow substantial American history textbooks from my elementary school library to read over the weekend.

#62. In sixth grade, two other male friends and I formed the Bibliophiles and Explorers Club. No records of “BEC” meetings survive.

#63. While I still love reading history, my tastes have changed, as reflected by my ownership of 21 books dealing with Jack the Ripper; I think that qualifies me as a Ripperologist. (Ed. note: see here for more).

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#64. Overall, I have 70 books I would broadly describe as “true crime.”

#65. That total is dwarfed by my detective fiction collection (and associated biographies, critical studies and histories): 522 (+/-10). Note that some volumes contain multiple novels.

#66. As a boy in the mid-1970s, I loved watching reruns of Batman–especially when the opening credits featured Batgirl. In retrospect, it is clear my first celebrity crush was Yvonne Craig.

#67. Excluding a girl I helped get around our elementary school after she broke her leg, my first crush on a person I knew started on a December weekend in 1978. My seventh-grade class had just read A Christmas Carol. A local second-run theater was showing the 1951 film version. As my buddy and I were settling into our seats towards the darkened rear of the theater, I happened to look over to the right. Settling into her seat maybe 20 seats away was a lovely blond female classmate, who I already liked in a platonic way.

My brain did not literally go “zoing!” but that is as good a description as any.

#68. Five months later (May 1979), after my mother, Luvey the dog and I moved in with her sister (and her two kids and Spanky the dog), I flew on an airplane for the first time (I was 12). My maternal grandmother took my cousins and me to Walt Disney World. I have not been back since then.

#69. That was not my last trip to Florida. In March 1993, on a lark, I flew to Clearwater, FL to watch four Phillies Spring Training games (in another baseball stadium that no longer exists, Jack Russell). The first game I saw was an afternoon game in St. Petersburg against—I believe—the St. Louis Cardinals. I arrived about noon for a 1 pm start and took a seat in the bleachers. It was a hot, sunny day, so I took off my t-shirt—and kept it off the entire three-hour game (we lost 9-7). Coming from wintry Somerville, MA, it did not occur to me to apply any sunscreen.

I have never been so sunburned in my life…though that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying the rest of the trip.

#70. In fact, I returned the next March, this time with my then-girlfriend (and an ample supply of sunscreen). We skipped 1995 because of the strike, but returned in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Phillies did win any of the 12 games we watched in 1994, 1996 or 1997—an impressive 12-game losing streak with us in the stands.

#71. During that last trip, we stayed at a Hampton Inn (now a La Quinta Inn) on Route 19 north. One night, I was relaxing in the outdoor hot tub. I was 33 years old at the time. A number of young men were also in the hot tub, and they were discussing to which lower-level Phillies minor league affiliate they had been assigned. One of them then turned to me and asked something to the effect of, “So, where have you been assigned?”

Yeah, I was pretty flattered.

#72-74. I was even more proud of the following accomplishments (the first two of which are sort of repeat facts):

-Unanimous election as president of the Harriton High School Math Team

-Winning Harriton’s first ever Latin and Mathematics subject area awards.

-Unanimous election as chair of the Ezra Stiles College Council

#75. The latter election took place on September 21, 1986. Later that night, I visited the room of a young woman I liked. Very early the next morning, I wandered up Broadway—happy and bedraggled—to my own room. Along the way, I passed the Master of Ezra Stiles College, Traugott Lawler. Taking in the situation instantly, he simply nodded cordially to me, and I to him. To this day, I appreciate his discretion.

#76. I had officially become “a man” seven years earlier, at my Bar Mitzvah. As part of my months-long preparation, I was required to write out the answers to a series of Judaism-related questions in a notebook. I never got that notebook back because Rabbi Maltzman (who I adored) decided to use it as an example for future Bar and Bat Mitzvot. 

#77. I saw Talking Heads live twice, in the summers of 1983 and 1984. While I was at the first concert, someone asked my mother where I was. “Oh, he’s gone to see the Walking Dead.”

#78. The only acts I have seen live as many as four times (excluding my cousin) are Genesis (1982, 1983, 1987, 1992) and Stan Ridgway (2007, 2009, 2010, 2015).

#79. The first concert I ever saw was Cheap Trick, on October 5, 1979 at the now-gone Spectrum in Philadelphia. My father—to his great credit—drove and accompanied my buddy (the same buddy with whom I had watched A Christmas Carol) to the concert. While seated near us, someone offered him some grass to smoke. He politely declined.

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#80.  The first album I ever bought (Spring 1977?) was Wings Over America—which I still have:

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#81. The second summer I worked at a B. Dalton Bookseller (1989), an African-American man in a long raincoat came into the store while I was cashiering. He perused the magazines before selecting a Playgirl.

He paid for it with a wrinkled $20 bill. Something about the bill felt…off…but it was almost the end of my shift, so I paid little attention. Shortly after the man left the store, my supervisor (who did not like me at all) saw the bill in the cash drawer—and realized it was a counterfeit.

We had to make a statement in a nearby police station.

A day or so later, I was fired.

C’est la vie.

#82. I left my last full-time position—data guru at Joslin Diabetes Center—on June 30, 2015. Three days later, with Nell and our daughters in our house on Martha’s Vineyard, I drove to the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, ME for a little R&R.

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For supper, I drove north on U.S. 1 to King Eiders Pub in Damariscotta, which I cannot recommend enough. With my substantial meal, I had a glass of red wine and a single malt Scotch.

After the meal, I drove north on U.S. 1 to Rockport, where the Denny’s I had visited a few times in the late 1990s with an ex-girlfriend sat. I had something desert-like there, along with decaffeinated coffee.

When I left, it was past midnight…meaning it was the morning of July 4. I began to drive south on U.S. 1, winding my way through the “urban” streets of neighboring Rockland.

Almost immediately, the blue flashing lights of a police car appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and waited (license and registration in hand) as not one, but two, male police officers approached my car.

One officer came to my driver’s-side window to inform me I had been driving 40 miles per hour (MPH) in a 25-MPH zone; this was likely true, I confess. However, he then asked me what I had been drinking earlier that evening. I was honest, though I emphasized how much food I had eaten as well. He clarified that I had not imbibed any alcohol at Denny’s.

I was then asked to step out of the car.

Oh boy.

I was told to lean against the front of the police car, where I went through a battery of tests. The one that stands out is being asked to follow his fingers with my eyes WITHOUT moving my head.

Which I did well enough, apparently, that I was told I was free to go.

Here is the kicker, though.

I had ostensibly been pulled over for speeding.

However, I was not even given a warning, let alone a speeding ticket. And while I was being put through my DUI paces, the other officer was carefully inspecting my black Honda Accord (Massachusetts plates).

My suspicion is they were looking for a car matching my description, and they needed a plausible reason to pull me over.

Still…oy.

For the record, that Denny’s closed for good recently.

#83. My favorite question as a child—the one that used to send the adults in my life completely ‘round the bend—was “Howcum?”

#84. One day after school (an early elementary school grade), a family friend named Hank asked me how school had been. I responded that “it was a cinch.” From then on, Hank (later a second father to me before his own untimely death in October 1983), called me “Cinch.”

#85. My father, however, preferred to call me “Pal.”

#86. When I was 13 years old (November or December 1979), I took the est training. While I now view its “teachings” with great skepticism, I enjoyed the experience. My mother spent much of the 1970s exploring all manner of consciousness-raising (or altering—I remember lots of marijuana and green glass jugs of white wine), though when she tried transcendental meditation, she immediately forgot her mantra.

#87. I actually did much the same for a few years in the late 1970s (coinciding, not coincidentally, with the start of adolescence and post-parental-separation moves), becoming fascinated with astrology, card reading and, especially, numerology (Chaldean, not Pythagorean, thank you very much). To this day, despite my capital-s skepticism, I still unconsciously ascertain whether a number (a day of the month, say) is “compatible” with me or not (before dismissing the notion).

But when I met one of my closest friends (his mother later introduced me at his wedding as “my third son”)—literally the first student I met in my SECOND seventh grade—I immediately asked him when his birthday is; all I had with me were a blue three-ring binder and my numerology book.

He told me, and I excitedly responded, “Oh, you’re a 3!” (I am a 3, and 3’s get along with other 3’s, you see.).

#88. Astrology actually led to another lifelong friendship. Just after the end of my freshman year of high school, a friend threw a picnic at nearby Ashbridge Park. I had just had my braces removed, boosting my self-confidence. Spying two girls I recognized from their visit to Harriton High School[6] during the preceding school year sitting in a tree, I climbed up to join them. I do not recall if they were already discussing astrology, or if it emerged organically in the conversation, but it was an immediate ice-breaker.

#89. The first occupation I remember seriously wanting to be “when I grew up” was archaeologist, around 7th grade or so.

#90. I have only been bitten by a dog once. When I was maybe five years old, I climbed over our backyard fence and down a boundary stone wall into the backyard of a house on a parallel street. There, the only truly vicious dog I have even known (all I remember is that it—he?—was black) came out of nowhere and bit my right hand in the fleshy part between the bases of the thumb and forefinger.

That traumatic experience, however, did not dissuade me from wanting a dog. So, one night in early January 1973, my parents and I drove to a pet store near Wilmington, DE (my father knew a guy…), where we acquired a Keeshond. It was my mother’s idea to name him Luvey “because he loves everybody.” This photograph was taken just outside the door of our “penthouse” at the Strand.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2

He would have been 46 years old (that’s 322 to you and me!) on December 17.

#91. You can have your air guitar. I far prefer air keyboards, with air drummer a distant second.

#92. I have never been arrested.

#93. In the unlikely event I am ever arrested, however, under “distinguishing marks” would appear “White scar under left eyebrow.”

One Saturday or Sunday in the summer of 1974, my father (who knew another guy…) took me for a speedboat ride on the Absecon Inlet (separating Atlantic City from the mainland). We were two of maybe six or seven people on this guy’s boat. At one point, another speedboat zipped by us traveling way too fast and way too close. The resulting wake tipped our boat enough that I went flying into the side of the boat. My head landed on something sharp (or with enough force to break the skin) just above my left eye. A few millimeters lower…

Now, does my father take his profusely-bleeding son directly to the hospital on Ohio Avenue? Nooo…he brings him to his mother at the Strand. After reading him the riot act, she took me to the hospital, where I believe I needed 16 stitches to close the wound.

#94. That arrest report might also include “Small white scar on chin.” That would be from the time I whacked by chin into the kitchen counter, after I slipped trying to climb up to reach something (a cookie? a box of cereal?) in a cabinet.

#95. However, I did not require stitches—or emergency medical treatment of any kind—the first time I was ever in Island Pond, VT.

After the Expos game, my then-girlfriend and I wandered south through Quebec, somehow finding this blink-and-you-miss-it village. We decided to get some exercise by pitching and hitting; we had baseball bats, balls and gloves with us. Doesn’t everybody?

Things were going well until I threw a pitch that caught a bit too much of the plate—and she sent it screaming right into my face.

Luckily, it did not do any actual damage.

Except to my ability to throw a strike, for longer than I want to admit.

#96. My clear favorite “guilty pleasure” movie is Times Square. You can see why this movie would have appealed to 14-year-old me.

#97. I rediscovered it the year I lived in DC. I was so blown away by the soundtrack, I walked miles from my apartment to a downtown store that sold it (on vinyl, of course).

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I recently bought a copy of the film on DVD as well; it is a key part of how I came to love film noir.

#98. The first time I ever bought condoms was that September night in 1986. In those days, they were stored behind the counter, meaning you had to ask for them—with everyone listening. As I did so (“ummm, I’ll take the, uhh, the blue box there.”), a friend was standing in line with me.

The next day, he wrote on a piece of paper attached to the door of my room, “A brave man dwells within.”

#99. Next to dogs, my favorite animal is the horse. This is somewhat ironic in that it was horse racing (and cards) that fueled my father’s gambling addiction.

#100. That is why I never gamble.

Until next time…

[1] The Expos lost to the San Francisco Giants 4-1, with John Burkett outdueling Dennis Martinez. While my then-girlfriend and I sat in the leftfield stands, Kevin Mitchell hit a home run which just bounced off my glove—but into the hands of a youngster sitting just in front of me.  That remains the closest I have ever come to catching a ball. http://www.thebaseballcube.com/teams/def_lineups.asp?Y=1990&T=25

[2] I spent the next five nights just south of Chicago; just outside Iowa City, IA; in Fremont, OH; in Pittsburgh, PA; and in my mother’s apartment in Penn Valley, PA (in the Philadelphia suburbs).

[3] Besides the two listed—and, of course, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia—they are Busch (St.Louis), Shea (New York) and Three Rivers (Pittsburgh).

[4] Citizens Bank (Philadelphia), Fenway (Boston), Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore)

[5] Well, at least until she married Jed Bark.

[6] Harriton allowed students to bring a guest to classes with them for one day. The picnic hostess and another girl had brought these two friends from a nearby high school. The four girls all knew each other from a local church.

Visiting Philadelphia: …very few answers

The first indication of the nature of my recent trip to Philadelphia was the absence of SD’s and my favorite server at the Westgate Pub my first night there (the night before a Thor-like thunderbolt short-circuited the air conditioning in my hotel room for four nights). As I detailed here, I shoehorned seeking answers to a series of questions arising from my “interrogating memory” project into this trip—and I hit investigative walls as early as Connecticut.

The day before I left Brookline, I sought help from a friend (let’s call him “ST”) who serves as an Assistant District Attorney (DA) in Philadelphia regarding sources of information on my maternal grandfather’s service with the Philadelphia Police Department and the fire that destroyed the original John Rhoads Company site in West Philadelphia; in the case of the fire, I could find nothing online. That same month, David Baugh, an archivist at the Philadelphia City Archives, told me he could not locate my grandfather’s “roster card,” meaning he could access no information about him.

As I settled at the counter of the Sherwood Diner to eat lunch on Thursday, August 9, 2018, I read an e-mail from ST which confirmed the Department’s inability to locate any information on Patrolman (later Detective) Samuel Joseph Kohn. Prior to 1960, such information was kept on cards, many of which have been misplaced (or outright lost) since then. This is consistent, unfortunately, with the experience of an investigative journalist friend who has decried Philadelphia’s lack of quality record-keeping more than once.

ST directed me to visit the Archives in person, but…they are in the process of moving locations and will not reopen until September 4, 2018. At least ST and I had a terrific time catching up over lunch here Tuesday afternoon.

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I began my investigation at Roosevelt Memorial Park, where my father is buried adjacent to his parents, sister, paternal aunt and uncle, and paternal aunt-by-marriage. Roosevelt is less than a five-minute drive from my sister’s residence, so I went there before I picked up Mindy Friday afternoon.

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Beyond paying respects to these family members, I sought information about a relative named “Nathan Berger,” who died on August 14, 1944; what I particularly wanted was the Hebrew name of his father, which traditionally appears on the headstones of Jews (my father’s father’s Hebrew name, like mine, was Moshe—or Moses). “Nathan Berger” appears on a list of “Bergers / death dates” I compiled as a boy. Invaluable information on Ancestry.com allowed me to determine my relation to each of them (two great-grandparents, a great-great-uncle and aunt, three of the latter’s sons)—except Nathan. I had found a Nathan Berger who served in the Navy (Yeoman, 3rd class) during World War I with the same death date; his death was reported by a woman named Miriam, but it was not clear what her relationship to him was. While these precise relationships are not necessary for my book, they do reveal the Berger presence in West Philadelphia over the last century-plus was far larger than I realized. Plus, I dislike investigative loose ends.

In the main office at Roosevelt, a very helpful woman named Dawn told me the location of Nathan Berger’s (“He was 46 when he died”) gravestone. In that section, I immediately found this (NOV. 17 1900 – AUG. 3, 1999):

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Next to it was a light-brown indentation in the ground. I dug around for a few moments but could find nothing else. Nor could I find a gravestone for “Nathan Berger” anywhere else in that section. Back at the office, Dawn confirmed that “Miriam Berger” was “Nathan Berger’s” wife and their graves should be adjacent.

“Perhaps it sunk into the ground,” she offered, before promising to investigate for me (I need to follow up with her).

This new information enabled me to pin down the elusive Nathan Berger a bit more; I now suspect he and my grandfather were second cousins.

Progress is more often measured in inches than miles.

I then located this gravestone:

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It is a curious fact that this seminal noir writer, a Philadelphia native, is buried (along with his brother and parents) a few hundred feet from my father—and both had the Hebrew names David Laib.

**********

The thunderstorms began that night and continued into early Saturday afternoon, threatening “cemetery day.” However, the skies cleared enough that I chanced a drive to Mt. Sharon Cemetery where Herman Modell, the attorney who arranged my adoption, is buried.

In no rush, I first drove by the office building where I saw my first psychologist (at 11, I ineffectually attempted suicide). I also visited nearby Paxon Hollow Country Club; once the White Marsh Country Club, Modell had served as club president multiple times between 1949 and 1962. Other than an impending wedding (the bride looked radiant), there was little of interest to see there (perhaps because, as I now read in my Chapter 5 draft, the White Marsh CC moved to Malvern in the mid-1960s).

Twenty or so minutes later, I turned onto Bishop Avenue from Baltimore Pike (after making a U-turn in a still-active Denny’s), passing a WAWA I frequented when I lived in the area in 2002-03.

Just bear with me while I share a memory of that WAWA.

At around 11:30 pm on the night of February 13, 2002, I was turning right onto Bishop Road from the WAWA parking lot when my 1995 Buick Century was struck from behind (right rear quarter panel) by a Pontiac. The Pontiac contained three young women, though the car’s owner was a passenger, not the driver. As we exchanged information, there appeared some urgency on the part of the car’s driver and owner that our insurance companies not be informed. During this exchange, the third young woman interjected this question to me:

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No,” I replied.

I should have asked “Why do you want to know?” but I was more focused on the matter at hand.

Five days later, the four of us met at a nearby McDonald’s to sign an agreement that they would reimburse the cost of my repairs, which they ultimately did. In fact, the entire affair was remarkably civil.

I still have a copy of the signed agreement. As for the Buick—my then-stepfather acquired it for me (79,000 miles already on it) when I returned to Philadelphia in February 2001, and it gave up the ghost two days after I moved back to the Boston area in September 2005. Talk about perfect timing.

I remembered these incidents as I turned left off Bishop to East Springfield Road then drove the short distance to Mt. Sharon. This being Shabbat, the office was closed, so I faced the daunting prospect of finding a single grave among 20,000+. It was a muggy day with a steady drizzle falling.

And so I began systematically to walk up and down the rows of gravestones scanning the names as rapidly as I could. Up and down, up and down, up and down…at one point a curious deer stared briefly at me before wandering off. The ground was often uneven, meaning I had to watch my feet and the gravestones at the same time.

Some two-and-a-half-hours later, after having searched maybe one-third of the vast space, I was ready to call it a day when I turned around…and saw this:

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I was transfixed…and, despite never having met him, a little weepy. Exploring the nearby gravestones, I found those of his parents and sister, as well as 10 other persons with the surname Modell.

As I noted in my previous post, I spent nearly three hours searching for the gravestone of the man who arranged my adoption out of my genetic family while “forgetting” to seek out actual genetic relatives living in the area. While my therapist had a field day with this (after I brought it up myself), I ascribe no deeper meaning other than I have been investigating Modell for more than a year but I am still processing finally identifying my genetic mother. Plus, standing in a cemetery for a few moments (OK, 150 or so minutes) requires far less mental and emotional preparation than meeting a genetic relative for the first time.

Pulling out of Mt. Sharon, I attempted to drive the “back route” to my old Drexel Hill apartment, but I made a wrong turn (or three) somewhere. As I drove by the “car repair agreement” McDonalds, though, I realized that I was close to a direct route to here:

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Driving east on State Street, I crossed West Chester Pike in Upper Darby, intending to turn north to City Avenue (dividing line between Philadelphia and suburban Lower Merion Township). However, curiosity overtook my gnawing hunger as I realized that I was not that far from 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue—longtime home of the John Rhoads Company.

Parking on Lancaster Avenue, just northwest of 41st Street, I pulled out my iPhone and started taking photographs:

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Finding a gap in the chain-link fencing, I explored the lot (empty since sometime between December 1976 and 1988—I will check city property records next):

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As I walked back onto Lancaster Avenue, a reasonably-well-dressed African-American man (West Philadelphia is predominantly African-American) walked over to the western edge of the fencing and began to urinate.

That was my cue to drive to Dallesandro’s. There, as I awaited an excellent cheesesteak with provolone, mushrooms and pizza sauce (a combination I first invented at the long-defunct Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA in the spring of 1984), I chatted amiably with a young man from Philly and a young man from Somerville, MA (where I lived for 11+ years) about the need to “respect the line” that continually snakes out of Dallesandro’s.

**********

Sunday afternoon, after brunching in Collingswood, NJ here with my former work colleague JJ, I drove back over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia. And, despite the blazing sun and heat, I decided to try my luck finding gravestones at historic Har Nebo Cemetery (opened 1890).

Other than my great-grandfather David Louis Berger and his wife Ida (Rugowitz), I did not know who else was buried there…making the search that much more daunting. It did not help that the first thing I noticed when I turned into Har Nebo shortly after 2 pm was a sign informing me the gates close at 4:30 pm.

And, of course, after about an hour of walking up and down the even-more-treacherous rows between gravestones (many of which had toppled over), I could no longer ignore the fact that I REALLY HAD TO PEE.

Answering nature’s call required driving back to the Roosevelt Boulevard, the main artery of Northeast Philadelphia. The first gas station I tried did not have a public restroom, and I was directed around the Oxford Road traffic circle to a combination gas station/Dunkin Donuts—which also had no public restroom. However, the two bored young ladies behind the Dunkin counter (one with admirably-blue hair) took pity and provided me the “secret” rest room key.

That was as successful as the afternoon was, as two fruitless sweaty hours exploring Har Nebo revealed a number of “Berger” and “Rugowitz” and “Caesar” (paternal grandmother’s maiden name) gravestones, but no great-grandparents. Looking through the photos I took just now, however, I discovered two of the names on the “Bergers  / death dates” list, so that is something.

After a delicious supper of spinach salad (my body was craving greens) and salmon here, I made arrangements to meet a high school friend for drinks (let’s call him “OW”). As we caught up over Chianti (me) and bourbon (him) here, I mentioned my discovery my father had allegedly hired Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set fire to the John Rhoads Company.

OW wryly repeated “Eddie Klayman” before telling me that he used to babysit his children on Long Beach Island, NJ, less than an hour’s drive north of Atlantic City. I thought he was pulling my leg until he added he knew that Klayman was a front man for the Philadelphia mob, buying properties in his name for them. He added that his late wife Bernice (Kligman) was the “fattest woman I ever saw” and unhappy to boot.

Once again, the world really is that small.

**********

Monday was when I began to investigate in earnest—which is how I found myself sitting in the main Philadelphia branch of Santander Bank (1500 Market Street, directly southwest of City Hall), just past noon.

The young man I queried about my mother’s old safety deposit box keys tried to be helpful, but he was at a total loss. He called someone else about them, but she was equally flummoxed. About all they could tell me was that after 10 years of non-payment, boxes are drilled open and the contents sent…somewhere. I thanked him, gave him my card and asked him to contact me if he learned anything. I have not heard back from him.

After that, I walked around City Hall to the Masonic Temple.

Which, I learned, is closed on Mondays.

Had there been an appropriate wall, I may well have banged my head against it.

Realizing, however, that I was only two blocks west of the must-visit Reading Terminal Market, I walked there to have lunch at the Down Home Diner.

Thus fortified, I decided to walk here (I took this photograph as part of a text message to our avid-reader eldest daughter):

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My friend ST, the Assistant DA, had suggested that I explore their newspaper archives for information about the John Rhoads fire: while Newspapers.com appears to have every issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News for the relevant time period (March 29, 1972 to October 31, 1974) they do not have, say, the Philadelphia Bulletin (defunct since January 1982, its slogan used to be “Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin”).

In the newspaper archives room on the second floor, I was greeted by a row of modern-looking (if anachronistic) microfilm readers. It quickly became apparent I would have to skim each individual issue of the Bulletin over a 30-month span; two hours after I began, I had not even reviewed every issue from September 1974, so I called it a day.

Well, not entirely, because as I walked the 11 blocks to the parking garage at 15th and Sansom, I decided to drive to the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) Administration Building at 240 Spring Garden Street. Happily, I made the drive to arrive there well before 5 pm.

Just inside the grim gray building, I was greeted by three imposing, albeit friendly, men in navy firefighter’s uniforms. One of them was seated behind a small desk, and he asked me what I wanted. I explained that I sought information on a fire that had taken place in West Philadelphia in the early 1970s. After a brief conversation between the three men (implying I may as well have been asking about the 1770s), I was told that as of such-and-such a date, PFD records were stored in Room 168 of City Hall.

Yes, the same City Hall I had circled some three hours earlier.

I thanked them, walked up Spring Garden Street to my parked car, and drove out of the city towards my hotel. Hungry, I stopped here for a veggie stromboli; it was delicious, but not nearly as delicious as I remembered it being in the early 2000s.

Had it been open, I would also have walked a few blocks east on Lancaster Avenue to Gold Million Records—especially had I known its husband-and-wife owners, Harold Gold and Max I. Million, would announce the closing of this Main Line institution a few days later. When I was in high school, the store was called Plastic Fantastic, and its Bryn Mawr location was a haven for music buffs like me (I still have records I purchased there). It was also the playground of two of the most beautiful and gentle Afghan hounds you will ever see. One afternoon, I stood at the counter seeking to make my purchase with a personal check, which the cashier was hesitant to accept; standing just behind the cashier, with his back to us, was Mr. Gold. Overhearing the cashier’s and my conversation, Mr. Gold turned slowly around, pointed to me, and said, “He’s OK.”

Thank you, Mr. Gold (and Ms. Million) for slaking the musical thirst of generations of Philadelphia-area music fans.

**********

At around 2:20 pm the next day (Tuesday, April 14, 2018), after lunch with ST, I entered the interior court of Philadelphia’s imposing City Hall.

Philadelphia City Hall

After traversing one incorrect hallway, I located Room 168: Police/Fire Records Unit…

…which closes at 2 pm daily.

Unwilling to concede defeat, I entered the room across the hall (most likely Room 156: Records). There, a helpful young man behind a clear partition told me he did not believe the PFD kept records that far back then wrote down a phone number to call BEFORE returning to City Hall. This was terrific advice, actually, given how much I was paying to park in Center City.

Leaving City Hall, I walked across East Penn Street then turned north to N. Broad Street where—huzzah!—the Masonic Temple was open to the public.

Masonic Ticket

Walking into the Library, I saw an older woman sitting at a desk just outside what looked like the Librarian’s office; the sign on her desk read “Cathy Giaimo, Assistant Librarian.” The inner office was empty. I asked Ms. Giaimo where I could find Glenys Waldman (the Librarian with whom I had been corresponding by e-mail through November 2017—with an unanswered follow-up e-mail in March 2018).

“Oh, she retired a few months ago.”

At this point, I was ready to scream at the universe, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!” but I instead thanked her and decided to investigate the inner office.

And here I caught a break.

While I wanted to thank Ms. Waldman in person for her amiable and carefully-researched responses to my questions, I also wanted to know just how many Masonic Lodges Philadelphia housed—and what their relative memberships were—in 1925, 1938 and 1957 (when my great-uncle Jules, Modell and my father, respectively, were initiated). Scanning the bookshelves, I noticed a series of annual “Abstract of the Proceedings” volumes. Pulling out the one for 1938, I was thrilled to discover a table listing every Masonic Lodge in Pennsylvania, along with its city and membership for that year and the preceding one.

By 5 pm, I had taken relevant iPhone photographs of all relevant pages in the 1925, 1938 and 1957 annuals. I also photographed a few dozen pages in this historic publication:

1946 Lafayette Lodge

Here is a photograph I found of the 1943 Worshipful Master of LaFayette Lodge No. 71:

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Soon after, my friend SD met me outside, where I took these photographs for our history-loving daughters.

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The Bond

After dining at Reading Terminal Market (of COURSE I had another mushroom-provolone-pizza steak), we drove here.

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The listless Philadelphia Phillies may have lost 2-1 to the otherworldly Boston Red Sox, but it was still a blast being in my “home” ballpark for the first time since 2014 (also with SD, plus one other friend).

**********

SD had a good suggestion for where I might obtain information about the fire that destroyed the downstairs playroom of my childhood house in Havertown, PA in, I surmise, March or April 1973: the Haverford Township Administration Building. That is where I drove after checking out of my hotel the following morning.

At the window of what I took to be the police and fire records department, I told a man about my age what I was seeking. Just behind me, two uniformed male officers were questioning a middle-aged woman seated on a vinyl-topped bench about what sounded like ongoing physical abuse by a man she knew (“Do you have somewhere you can go, ma’am?”).

“A fire in Havertown in 1973?”

“Yes.”

He turned to confer quietly with some women in the office behind him, then turned back to ask:

“Did anybody die?”

“No.”

“Yeah, sorry, we would not have a record of that here.”

“Oh, OK. Thank you.”

I walked by the woman and the officers, up the stairs and out to my car. Driving over to City Avenue I made the decision NOT to go back to City Hall, Room 168. Instead, I pulled into the parking lot of what used to be a terrific bowling alley (Center Lanes, if memory serves), a short walk from where I saw Manhattan with my father in 1979.

There, I called the number I had been given the day before. In response to my query, I was directed to call the Fire Marshal’s office (which, I just learned, is located in the PFD Administration Building I had visited two days earlier. Oy.). A harassed-sounding woman named Michelle listened to my request, clarified my return phone number and promised to get back to me. Much to my (delighted) surprise, she left me a voice mail the next day—she could find no record of a fire at 4157 Lancaster Avenue during that time period.

Thus do the emotions of a researcher rise and fall.

I then made one last stop—back to Har Nebo Cemetery (making sure to find a restroom first). I was somehow not surprised the office sign said “Closed.” On a whim, however, I rang the doorbell—and was immediately buzzed in.

Behind a low wooden counter, a balding man sat at a computer amidst a blizzard of paper. When I explained that I was searching for my great-grandparents, he said:

“Must be something in the air, because you are the second person today looking for relatives” then described that previous conversation in detail.

At first he could not find a “David Berger” who died in 1919, but he did find him under “Louis Berger.”

He scanned his screen a moment then exclaimed, “He was shot!”

While this was not news to me, I was fascinated it was part of the official burial record. I then told him the story—which I refrain from sharing here (I have to leave at least one untold tale for my book).

A few moments later (and with gratitude to Richard Levy), I was standing here:

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I had forgotten my widowed great-grandmother had married Benjamin Leopold in 1933, at the age of 63, making it all the more touching she was buried next to her first husband.

After photographing a few nearby gravestones containing familiar surnames, I returned to the office to ask Mr. Levy if he could locate other “Berger” gravestones of a similar generation. I withdrew the question after learning there were, I believe, 67 of them. At least I learned my great-grandfather’s father’s Hebrew name was Shmuel Mayer.

Baby steps—and I will be better prepared next time.

I also learned that the Vernon Diner makes an excellent spanakopita, though their cherry pie is meh.

Oh, and if you merge onto the Massachusetts Turnpike heading eastbound at night, you should take advantage of the Charlton rest area, because you never know when two lanes will be closed between Worcester and I-495 when OHMYGODIHAVETOPEERIGHTNOW.

At 11:35 pm that night (having answered nature’s call just in the nick of time), after driving 1,246.4 miles in just over six-and-a-half days, I pulled into our new driveway.

Until next time…

Moving serendipity

The moving van arrives Tuesday morning.

Friday afternoon (yesterday as I write this) we finally drove two packed cars to the storage unit we rented when we relocated my mother-in-law to the Boston area five years ago (the stuff one can accumulate over more than four decades in a three-story Georgetown brownstone is mind-boggling). Our eldest daughter—let’s call her “Jenny”—rode with me, while our youngest daughter—let’s call her “Laura”—rode with my wife Nell.

The trip served multiple purposes. One was to clear space for the rapidly increasing piles of taped-shut cardboard boxes continually rearranging themselves in our apartment in a persistent game of Whack-a-mole. We also wanted to assess the dimensions of multiple sets of well-constructed wooden bookcases.

A third purpose became apparent once we started rummaging through the haphazardly stacked piles of boxes.

When we moved into our soon-to-be-vacated apartment nearly 11 years ago, Nell and I were disinclined to share a bedroom (primarily out of long-ingrained habit). Thus, she occupied the upstairs bedroom, and I the downstairs bedroom. Jenny’s arrival, however, followed less than two years later by Laura, necessitated increased creativity with our space. For a few years, the baby girls slept comfortably in the large walk-in closet downstairs. Once that became untenable, the girls moved into the downstairs bedroom, where they sleep as I type this, and my wife and I began to share a bedroom.

The purchase of a luxurious king-size bed—and my surgery for a deviated septum and other sinus-related irregularities—greatly eased the transition. The walk-in closet became my office. But the accompanying reorganization mandated a significant purge of my ever-increasing library.

In the ensuing seven years, I had forgotten what happened to all of those books. There had been a vague plan to sell them, though the memory sort of ends there. Well, no, it had also gotten mixed up with the massive cleaning I performed some months ago of the shared hallway leading to the door into the backyard, a storage limbo for long-departed tenants. I had placed a number of boxes of abandoned books by the blue recycling bins in the alleyway which runs behind our building; they disappeared within days.

So, imagine my delight when I discovered four boxes of books toward the rear of the storage unit (sadly, there was no time machine). Watching Jenny effortlessly clamber over them reminded me of playing on the pyramid-stacked rolls of used carpeting in my father’s store when I was a boy.

Laura was not there because she wanted to visit her grandmother–and because she was not feeling well. Curiously, as Jenny and I loaded Nell’s car earlier that day, I threw out some stuff and moved a green plastic newspaper sleeve (aka “dookie bag”) onto the seat. While Nell and Laura were driving, Laura became queasy…and there was no way Nell could pull over in time (nor did she have anything to capture the impending outburst). Luckily, the green “dookie bag” was there next to her, and it efficiently served the same purpose as one of these.

Happily, a quiet air-conditioned afternoon sipping a Coke with “grandee” made all the difference. Later, when we were all home again, Jenny asked Nell if Laura had used the green dookie bag that “Daddy had left on the seat.”

**********

Back in the storage unit, meanwhile, I decided to remove the four boxes of books to donate them.

When I had performed a more recent purge of my own accumulated odds and ends (all that paper!), I had filled the equivalent of seven canvas bags with books for disposal. Last Monday, Jenny and I took them to the excellent Brookline Booksmith for sale; their book buyer selected the equivalent of one canvas bag for purchase. Hey, $35 in store credit is better than nothing.

But there still remained the equivalent of six canvas bags of books for disposal.  While the internet offered few palatable options, I finally settled upon a small Waltham non-profit called More Than Words, hitherto unknown to me.

I drove there the following day—and they could not have made the donation process any easier. A staff member offered to help unload my car (I politely declined as I have been enjoying the “workout”) then carefully unpacked my bags so I could reuse them. A small iPad was set up for creating a tax-donation receipt (perhaps unwisely, I did not use it). As I was walking out, I spied a pristine copy of the first full-length work of detective fiction I ever read (excluding the episodic adventures of Encyclopedia Brown)—and key part of the “detective fiction” chapter in the book I am (in fits and starts) writing.

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At only $4.95 (what More Than Words charges for every hardback book), it was a steal.

Wait, did I say “seven” canvas bags of books?

Sorry, I neglected the five bags of books that have been living in our garage for years. THEY got taken to More Than Words Wednesday; this time Jenny and Laura came with me. They love Mexican food (especially Jenny, who would happily eat burritos every meal), and I promised them we could have supper at a nearby Margarita’s.

After donating our books, the girls and I spent a few minutes browsing their selections. Jenny did not find anything, though Laura found a beautiful book of sea stories. I found a book for myself and a $3 copy of the best high school film (with no disrespect to John Hughes) ever: Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

We then piled back into my car and pulled left onto one-way Felton Street. I quickly turned right, then right again onto Charles Street, intending to loop around to Moody Street and Margarita’s. But we immediately drove by a charming hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Taqueria Mexico. Changing plans on the fly, we parked and went inside the Zagat’s-rated restaurant.

Need I say the food was excellent (particularly given the relatively low cost)?

**********

Back in the storage unit…when I loaded the four boxes of books from the storage unit into my car, I naturally assumed I would visit More Than Words for the third time in four days. On a lark, Jenny and I turned left out of the storage unit parking lot instead of right. This briefly looped us through some lovely residential areas back onto Route 3A, albeit a bit further north.

Literally as I turned onto Route 3A, however, I spotted this large used book store. Pulling into the parking lot, I saw they accepted donations. Most of the contents of four boxes placed carefully into their donation bin later (I opted to keep maybe 10 of them), I had a 15% in-store discount chit. Jenny, meanwhile, had found a couple of gifts for the ailing Laura (including this) plus the Pseudonymous Bosch book (Write This Book) she had been seeking.

All because we turned left instead of right.

**********

We were hungry when we left the used bookstore, so I kept my eyes open for somewhere good to eat. Rejecting a Mexican restaurant (I was not in the mood), I talked Jenny into stopping at a venerable (if vanishing) New England chain: Bickford’s.

The low number of patrons (she has seen Restaurant: Impossible) made her dubious, but she was quickly won over by the presence of clam chowder (New England, of course–though I confess to loving Manhattan as well) on the menu, which proved quite delicious (as was the rest of our meals). After bemoaning the decline of Denny’s in my last post, this was a welcome surprise.

While we sat there, I played the voicemail—from an unfamiliar Cambridge number—on my iPhone. It was a very nice lady from Gentle Giant calling to confirm our movers were scheduled to arrive between 8:00 and 8:30 am, Monday, July 30.

Wait…WHAT?!?

Had I really forgotten the movers were arriving Monday morning instead of Tuesday morning?

Yes…yes I had.

Words fail.

To be honest, Monday morning would be perfectly fine…except I had already obtained the required moving truck parking permits for both ends of the move—with date and day of the week indelibly written on them.

And wouldn’t you know it, the Town of Brookline Transportation Department closes at 12:30 pm on Friday (it was now nearly 3 pm).

But this being that sort of day, when the nice lady from Gentle Giant returned my voicemail she told me that there was no problem switching the date of our move from Monday to Tuesday.

Calling her a “lifesaver,” as I did, does not even come close.

**********

As a reward for what was proving a magical day, I decided to meander over to a terrific bakery in Belmont I had discovered quite by chance five years earlier, snapping this photograph in lieu of a mental note.

Ohlins Bakery

Turning left from Trapelo Road, however, we saw nought but an empty storefront; I now know why.

Disappointed, we kept driving. A little further east, I turned right onto Grove Street toward Mt. Auburn Street. Just after crossing Mt. Auburn, a police officer was standing in the road directing traffic out of the Tufts Health Plan parking lot. Rather than go straight, I randomly turned right onto Calvin Road, little more than a back alley.

After almost immediately turning right, and realizing we were literally around the corner from where Laura practices gymnastics, the Danish Pastry House was right in front of us. I do not expect our box of assorted scrumptious baked goods to last 24 hours.

Jenny and I arrived home with our treasures (including more empty boxes, our new currency) a little before 5 pm. I took a quick shower and settled down in my office to catch up on mail and my regular websites. Ironically, the first post I read also dealt with selling books to a used book store.

I also checked to see if my Philadelphia Phillies (who hold a shocking 2.5 game lead in the National League East as I type this—fivethirtyeight.com now gives them a 54% chance to win their division) had made any trades with the July 31 non-waiver deadline looming. No sooner had I read that they were not likely to make a major move, I saw that they had just acquired former All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera for a AA pitcher named Franklyn Kilome.

Is it any wonder that when the Phillies fell behind 5-2 to the Cincinnati Reds, I figured they would rally to win?

Alas, every magic show must come to an end; they lost 6-4.

Until next time…

The Smithereens: Film Noir where you least expect it

I have previously described how I manipulate mix tape/CD/iTunes playlist data to generate lists of favorite tracks (a term I prefer to “songs”), albums and artists, organized by year, musical “genre,” etc.

Being a meticulous (obsessive, even) organizer of data, no sooner had I started using my current version of iTunes in January 2013 (when my track play counts start) then I embarked on a massive data cleaning project: guaranteeing every track (n=9,552 as of March 6, 2018) had the correct title and artist name; release mode[1], track number, year and cover art; and musical classification (first-listed “Genre” on its Wikipedia page or “Style” on its AllMusic page).

I completed this project (New Order’s 24 tracks were last to be scrubbed) within a year. Since then, every newly-acquired track has undergone the same treatment.

Periodically, however, iTunes reverts all of an artist’s tracks (e.g., Blondie, n=31) to their original information, requiring me to re-clean them.

**********

A short drive from our Brookline home is the terrific independent bookstore Newtonville Books.

A small windowless room in the rear of the store houses books (“chapter books” our daughters call them) for tweens and young adults. Hanging on the wall of this room are two wall charts depicting a statistical overview of the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox seasons (they won their first World Series in 86 years in 2004, repeating the feat just three years later). Each chart’s X-axis is day of the season, while its Y-axis features a range of values (player batting averages, pitcher earned run averages, win total, inter alia). The visual effect is stunning.

Inspired by these innovative visuals, I decided to attempt something similar with my iTunes data.

Specifically, I wanted to create a chart using Excel that has year on the X-axis, with artist (≥20 tracks AND ≥100 total plays [76 of 1,311 artists[2]], ≥10 tracks if first release before 1950) and genre (all other tracks) on the Y-axis. Cells would contain the number of tracks released by that artist/in that genre in a given year, with a black border around each value ≥10; the font-size would increase from Palatino Linotype 12 in increments of 10. Artists/genres would be sorted, in ascending order, by year of first release. Color-coded cells on the far left-hand side would contain artist/genre name (e.g., “Progressive Rock” shaded “Aqua, Accent 5, Darker 25%,” writing “White, Background 1, Darker 25%); font size would also increase with track total.

I began this project in May 2014, abandoning it the next month. Recently, though, I worked out a faster way to generate the necessary cell entries using the statistical software program SPSS.

Once I finish the chart (watch this space!) I originally envisioned, I will construct a second chart using total plays, a strongly-related (correlation = +0.81), more valid representation of artist/genre fondness.

Building this SPSS dataset six days ago, I observed two questionable data points.

First, the incorrect year was assigned to Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu.”[3]

Two, I questioned the genre assignment “Rock/Metal” for The Smithereens’ song “Miles From Nowhere.”

**********

While I first heard The Smithereens listening incessantly to the now-defunct Boston alternative rock station WFNX (101.7 FM) between 1991 and 1996, they did not truly register in my musical consciousness until I bought Sedated in the 80s, No. 3 in the late spring of 1997.

Track 3, the hypnotic “Blood and Roses,” so caught my ear that in July 1997 it became the first Smithereens track to appear on one of my artfully-constructed mixes. By September, I had succumbed[4] by purchasing the 16-trackbest-of CD Blown to Smithereens: Best of the Smithereens—which deserves its status as an AllMusic “Album Pick.” Three more Smithereens tracks debuted on a mix that same month.

But that was that…until 2004, when I began to watch The Alternative.

One Sunday night, members of the Smithereens—likely lead singer Pat DiNizio, drummer Dennis Diken and guitarist Jim Babjak—were the in-studio guests of host Eddie Trunk to promote their just-released box set From Jersey It Came! The Smithereens Anthology.

Trunk and his guests kibitzed between videos, including five or six for Smithereens songs. After watching this episode, I dusted off my Blown to Smithereens CD, and I have not really put it back since.

In the spring of 2009, I acquired a free vinyl copy[5] of their excellent 1988 Green Thoughts. The soul-searing “Especially For You,” the last track on side one, is one of only 27 tracks to have 50 or more plays.

All told, 16 Smithereens songs would earn a spot on a mix between 1997 and 2013.

Color me a fan, even if I did miss an opportunity to see them live in 2013 or 2014, a choice I now regret.

**********

The Wikipedia page for 1994’s A Date With the Smithereens—the album on which “Miles From Nowhere” first appeared—does, in fact, list “Rock/Metal” as its genre. However, on the page for the song itself, the listed genres are “Power Pop” and “Alternative Rock.”

I opted for “Power Pop” and immediately updated my iTunes data.

The story would have ended there, except—as will happen with Wikipedia—I started clicking around other pages.

One page was for the band itself. Toward the end of the too-brief history of the band was this sentence:

“Lead singer Pat DiNizio died on December 12, 2017.”

The footnote for this sentence linked to this poignant New York Times obituary.

What the bleepity-frick?!? How had I missed this?

**********

In five trips to NOIR CITY, only in 2016 did I need to leave early.

The very next film I would have seen that late-January Monday was the 1950 Nicholas-Ray-directed masterpiece In a Lonely Place (followed by The Two Mrs. Carrolls—it was “Humphrey Bogart: Artist” night).

In_a_lonely_place_1950_poster[1]

In a key moment, Bogart’s Dixon Steele recites to Gloria Grahame’s apprehensive Laurel Gray some doggerel he wants to include in the screenplay he is writing:

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

One of the first Smithereens tracks I played after learning that the charismatic DiNizio had died was a haunting number (featuring back-up vocals from an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Suzanne Vega) from their masterful 1986 full-length debut Especially For You.

The song’s name?

In a Lonely Place.”

I had known the song since 1997, so it was a definite “ohhh—that’s where that came from” moment when I first saw the film—and that scene, specifically—about five years later.

Did I mention the song’s refrain is:

I was born the day I met you/

Lived awhile when you loved me/

Died a little when we broke apart.

Twice in the song, the next lyrics are:

Yesterday, it would have mattered/

Now today it doesn’t mean a thing/

All my hopes and dreams are shattered now.

These lines strongly echo dialogue from the film’s climactic scene.

As if to hammer home the point, the video for “Lonely Place”—featuring a beatnik DiNizio and a pixie-like Vega—is photographed in moody black and white, making it, visually at least, a kind of contemporary Greenwich village noir (photograph from here).

smithereenslonely

**********

Other, more oblique film noir allusions may be found in the Smithereens’ catalog.

The high-intensity rocker “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” also from Especially For You, includes this pithy encapsulation of the lures of a femme fatale:

She was tall and cool and pretty/

And she dressed as black as coal/

If she asked me to, I’d murder/

I would gladly lose my soul.

Two years later, Green Thoughts would feature the melancholy “Deep Black” (could there be a more noir title?) and the shimmering “Spellbound,” which could easily be a reference to the 1945 film noir directed by Alfred-Hitchcock.

Finally, there is “Top of the Pops” from 1991’s Blow Up which includes the lyrics:

Two-time, two ton hangover king/

The bride wore black/

We were ready to swing.

I cannot hear that lyric without thinking of The Bride Wore Black, the 1946 noir novel written by psychological suspense maven Cornell Woolrich and filmed by Francois Truffaut as La Marieé Etait en Noir in 1968.

The video for “Top of the Pops,” in which the band appears in various Atlantic City locales, has some distinctly noir flourishes, particularly the black-and-white 1940s sequence in which a bathing beauty poses for members of the press nattily attired in trench coats and fedoras.

I freely admit that, beyond the pointed homage to In a Lonely Place, I may simply be imposing my own noir sensibilities onto The Smithereens.

Or there may be even more noir allusions I have missed—yet one more reason to keep playing their music.

Rest in peace, Mr. DiNizio.

Until next time…

[1] Almost always a full-length album or extended play (33 rpm), though it could also be a single (45 rpm) or even simply when the song was written or recorded (as with older classical pieces, or jazz and blues sides).

[2] This is using the exact artist credited to a track. Eventually, I will collapse these artists into meta-artists. For example, “Bob Seger” (8 tracks. 14 plays), “Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band” (23, 106) and “Bob Seger System” (1,5) will all be considered “Bob Seger+”

[3] The movie may be a hot mess, but the soundtrack is worth a listen.

[4] I have a memory of seeing videos for tracks like “A Girl Like You” and “House We Used To Live In”, but I cannot imagine where that would have been.

[5] A DJ friend of a friend gave her a load of 1980’s vintage vinyl, and she passed it on to me.

Interrogating memories of the LAST Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl

Sometimes, when my psychotherapist and I are interrogating (my) memories, she brings up the Freudian concept of “screen memories,” in which we essentially replace a traumatic childhood memory with a more innocuous memory.  In her telling, a screen memory could be any set of memories which have become jumbled together, with the affect from an unpleasant event displaced onto a more pleasant event.

I will be making my way to San Francisco wicked early Thursday morning to attend my fifth consecutive NOIR CITY. As a result, I will not be updating this blog for up to three weeks, though I plan to write a comprehensive account of my time there when I return.

In the meantime, I thought I would present a possible “screen” memory for interrogation.

Let me preface by stating that while I vaguely root for all four major Philadelphia sports teams—the 76ers (basketball), Eagles (football), Flyers (hockey) and my beloved Philadelphia Phillies (baseball)—the only time I really follow any team other than the Phillies is when that team is in the playoffs, or on the verge of making the playoffs.

So it was with the 2017-18 Philadelphia Eagles, who on February 4, 2018 (the last day of NOIR CITY 16) at 6:30 PM EST (3:30 PM in San Francisco) will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

super-bowl-lii-4k-new-england-patriots-vs-philadelphia-eagles-madden-nfl-18-2018

Source

I knew that the Eagles were playing well last fall, and I learned that they were being led by a phenomenal young quarterback named Carson Wentz. And, like the rest of Philadelphia, I thought their Super Bowl hopes were dashed when Wentz suffered a season-ending leg injury against the Los Angeles Rams on December 10, 2017; the Eagles had already won the National Football Conference (NFC) East.

But then Nick Foles stepped in as quarterback and played well enough to garner the Eagles a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That did not stop the Eagles from being slight underdogs to the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. Foles and the Eagles looked shaky early before pulling out a nail-biting 15-10 win.

This past Sunday, January 20, 2018, the Eagles were again slight underdogs to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, although FiveThirtyEight.com gave the Eagles a 57% chance to win the game.

On their very first possession, Minnesota scored a touchdown (and extra point) to give them a quick 7-0 lead.

But then Foles and the Eagles’ defense took complete command of the game, leading them to a 38-7 victory and putting them in their first Super Bowl since 2005 (also against the Patriots) and third overall (1981 vs. the Oakland Raiders).

The Eagles lost to the Patriots 24-21 in 2005[1], having lost 27-10 to the Raiders in 1981.

So, the Eagles are still looking for their first Super Bowl victory, against possibly the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady (as dangerous at 40 as he was at 27).

**********

Readers of this blog will know that, while I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs (NOT the city proper, as a cousin rarely fails to point out to me) I have lived in the Boston area for the last 12+ years (and for all but four years since September 1989). You would think that would lead to some deeply divided loyalties.

Umm…no, even considering the fact that my wife, a former elementary school teacher, has a personal connection to the team (I am respecting privacy here).

You can take the boy out of the Philly suburbs, but you can’t take the Philly suburbs out of the boy.

FLY, EAGLES, FLY!

**********

Shortly after the Eagles beat the Falcons, one of my closest friends wrote a touching blog post linking the success of the Eagles to his late father, who had passed in March 2016.

For the record, David’s extended family has been an alma familia to me for decades—at his wedding, his mother introduced me “as her third son” (which meant the world to me), perhaps channeling the middle school teacher who one day saw David and me sitting together in the cafeteria and asked if we were brothers.

But when David wrote that the Eagles had last been in the Super Bowl in 2005, I thought that was a typo or a simple mistake of memory.

I have a very clear memory of watching the Eagles lose to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX with my mother and stepfather in the living room of the house in which they lived until January 2004, collectively ruing the Eagles’ missed chances to win that game.

The thing is, though, my mother died in March 2004, and by January 2005, my stepfather and I were locked in a fierce legal battle over my mother’s estate; not anticipating how recalcitrant my stepfather would become, she had made us co-executors of her modest estate in her will.

So that Super Bowl had to have been in 2002 or 2003, right?

Wrong, as I have already noted.

**********

Confirming that the Super Bowl I had been picturing enjoying with my mother and stepfather (for three-plus quarters, at any rate) was in 2005, not in 2002 or 2003, was surprisingly rattling, akin to straining to determine whether a newly-hazy memory was of an actual event or of an exceptionally vivid dream[2]. It was as though a bank of thick fog had poured into my head, unnerving me and causing me literally to shake my head in frustration.

Just bear with me while I try to clear up this confusion to myself (I am literally researching this question as I write).

The simplest explanation is that I am remembering watching some other Eagles playoff loss with my mother and stepfather in that living room in Haverford. A little digging on line reminds me that the Eagles had also won the NFC East in 2002, 2003 and 2004, only to lose the NFC championship game all three years (29-24 to St. Louis, 27-10 to Tampa Bay and 14-3 to Carolina, respectively).

It could not have been the 2004 game, because by that point, my mother’s ovarian cancer had come back with a fatal vengeance, even as she and my stepfather were moving into a new house in Penn Valley.

So that leaves the 2002 and 2003 NFC championship games.

Looking at the scores of those games, something about the loss to Tampa Bay in 2003 rings a bell.

And a whole set of tumblers fall into place.

My mother’s ovarian cancer was first diagnosed in late 2002/early 2003. The Phillies were two years into a rebuilding phase that had begun in earnest when Jimmy Rollins became the Phillies regular shortstop in 2001 (becoming an All-Star as a rookie), leading them to a 16 win improvement (86-76) from 2000, though they missed winning the National League East or Wild Card by 2 games each.

Following the 2002 season, the Phillies opened their wallets and signed free agent third baseman David Bell (December 2, 2002) to a four-year, $17.0 million deal and first baseman Jim Thome (December 6, 2002) to a six-year, $81.2 million deal.

Those moves were exciting enough—especially acquiring Thome, a near-lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot on January 24—but then on December 20, the Phillies traded an unproven minor-league catcher named Johnny Estrada to the Atlanta Braves for right-handed starting pitcher Kevin Millwood (a former All-Star who had won 18 games in both 1999 and 2002[3]).

This felt like the final piece to the playoff puzzle for my long-suffering Phillies (one winning season between 1987 and 2000: 1993, when they lost the World Series in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays).

I was ecstatic.

So much so that the very next day, I was prattling on about it to my mother, somewhere in the Poconos, a resort mountain area about a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia, where she and my stepfather would rent a place for a weeks every winter.

I had also just been promoted in September, with a substantial increase in salary (on top of some data analytic consulting). This increase in income enabled me (in late January 2003) to move into a much nicer apartment, complete with schmancy new furniture I bought with my consulting earnings, than the one in which I had been living the past year.

Making that day-trip to the Poconos even more joyous was that it was one full year since my mother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis, and it seemed to be fully in remission. Her illness had prevented her from helping me find a new apartment the previous year[4], and she was throwing herself into this round with gusto.

In the middle of all of this excitement, on Sunday, January 19, 2003, the Eagles lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-10.

**********

There is no doubt in my mind (for now, anyway) that THAT was the galling playoff loss I watched with my mother and stepfather in that Haverford living room. For some reason, over time I superimposed the positive affect, derived from the upbeat circumstances of my life, attached to the memory of a “tough Eagles playoff loss” in January 2003 onto the memory of a different “tough Eagles playoff loss” in a far-less-happy February 2005.

On February 6, 2005, my mother had been dead for almost one year (and I was still wrapping my head around the loss), my stepfather and I were bitterly speaking only through lawyers, my interest in my current position was waning, and mentally I already had one foot out the door to Boston (where I would move in September to pursue graduate degrees in biostatistics and epidemiology). Another very close friend, who lived in the area, was a few weeks away from becoming a father for the first time, which I knew would radically curtail his “let’s go do something” availability.

I do not think this is a “screen memory,” as Herr Freud envisioned it—no traumatic childhood memory I sought to repress—but it does show once again the need to interrogate memories carefully. Memories are remarkably fluid, with details often sacrificed to emotion to create the most positive possible affect.

And, yes, that was a very pretentious sentence, to which the only valid response is…

GO EAGLES!

Until next time…

[1] Coincidentally, the Eagles also beat the Vikings and Falcons to advance to the Super Bowl in 2005, though in reverse order.

[2] Or perhaps it is like waking up with snatches of memory together with long gaps and asking, “Just how much DID I drink last night?!?”

[3] And, ironically, is also on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. In the first 234 (out of a projected 424) ballots publicly-released, Millwood has received 0 votes.

[4] Basically, the third time was the charm in terms of finding the right apartment after I moved back to Philadelphia.

 

Phollowing the Philadelphia Phillies is phun again

I trace my love of the Philadelphia Phillies to my father. As a 15-year-old fan, he convinced members of the 1950 National League Champion “Whiz Kid” Phillies to sign his autograph book. Phillies games always seemed to be playing on the car radio when I was young, the mellifluous baritone of Harry Kalas and the flat Nebraska drawl of Richie “Whitey” Ashburn floating in the air.

As a child, I was one of those “scared of the ball” kids, but because my father loved baseball I sort of liked it too. I have warm memories of him taking me to Veterans Stadium to watch the Phillies play (it always felt like we were playing the Montreal Expos, and we always lost 3-2). I would smell, then sip, his weak ballpark beer, not really liking it. And I do not recall how many times he tried to explain to me what an “RBI” was; despite my mathematical bent, I just could not wrap my head around a “run batted in.”

Until…some six years after his death, watching parts of the 1988 National League (NL) Championship Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets, it all just sort of clicked.

**********

Since their founding in 1883 as the Philadelphia Quakers, the Phillies have mostly been very bad. In that first season, they went 17-81, winning just 17.3% of their games. During one particularly brutal stretch (1918-1948), they won just 37.3% of their games (1,752-2,939).

It is a wonderful bit of irony that, in 2007, on their way to an 89-73 record, their first playoff berth since 1993, and the start of a five-year run as NL East champions, the Phillies would become the first professional sports franchise to lose 10,000 games.

Overall, in their 135 seasons, the Phillies have won 47.1% of their games (9,664-10,836) games. However, as Figure 1 shows, they have been a little better—if just as streaky—during my lifetime (4,024-4,108, 49.5%).

Figure 1: Philadelphia Phillies Winning Percentage, 1967-2017Phillies win%, 1967-2017

Following the collapse of 1964, when the Phillies had a 6½ game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL[1] with 12 games to play…and the Cardinals roared back to become League Champions, the team went into freefall, bottoming out at 57-99 in the strike-shortened 1972 season. However, by 1975, future Hall-of-Famers like left-handed pitcher (LHP) Steve Carlton and third baseman Mike Schmidt had them winning 86 games. Between 1976 and 1983, the Phillies made the playoffs six times, getting to the World Series twice (1980, 1983), winning it for the first time ever in 1980.

Between 1984 and 1987, the Phillies nearly broke even (322-325; 49.8%). And then the bottom fell out again: excluding the fluke 1993 NL Championship[2], between 1988 and 2000[3], the Phillies won only 44.3% of their games[4].

I started avidly following the Phillies in 1989, coincidentally the year I moved to Boston to start a doctoral program. And while I started following the Boston Red Sox as well, the Phillies remained my favorites. They were my link to my childhood in the Philadelphia suburbs and to my late father. In those days, Phillies games were broadcast on 1210AM, which transmitted at a powerful 50,000 watts. I could thus listen to night games (after sunset) on my radio; one night in September 1992, I listened to the Phillies game while driving a rental car in northwestern Iowa![5] The broadcast was often plagued by static, but the later it got, the more clear the signal became. I would often take long walks listening to the game on my Walkman radio, startling passers-by with a sudden whoop of joy or anguished cursing.

It wasn’t just the games. It was the broadcasters. Harry and Whitey were still broadcasting (though Whitey would die in September 1997), supplemented by Andy Musser and Chris “Wheels” Wheeler. Night after night, they were the reassuring and comforting voices of old friends. I learned more about the game of baseball from Wheels, whose strong Philadelphia accent reminded me of my own family, than from any other announcer. Ever.

That visceral connection to the radio announcers persists. One negative consequence of the Phillies’ poor play since 2013 has been spending far less time listening to the superb team of Scott Franzke and Larry Andersen (a Vaudeville act for the 21st century)

In 2001, as I returned to my hometown for a four-year hiatus, the Phillies started a 12-year run of excellence, highlighted by those five consecutive NL East Championships (2007-11), two NL Championships (2008, 2009) and their second World’s Championship (2008). In 2001, 2003 and 2005 they missed the playoffs by a median two wins. Overall, the Phillies they won 54.8% of their games from 2001 through 2012 (1,065-878).

Aging players not traded or released soon enough doomed the Phillies to identical 73-89 records in 2013 and 2014; following the latter season, superstar shortstop Jimmy Rollins was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, marking the unofficial start of a long rebuilding process. The bottom completely dropped out in 2015, as the Phillies went 63-99. They improved somewhat in 2016 (71-91) before sinking again to 66-96 in 2017. Overall, from 2013 to 2017, the Phillies record was 346-464 (42.7%).

**********

Just bear with me while I examine the 2017 season in more detail.

Figure 2 charts the Phillies’ daily record in 2017, starting with game 30 (a 10-innning 6-5 win over the Washington Nationals), both overall (“cumulative”) and in 30-day increments.

Figure 2: 2017 Phillies Win Percentage, Cumulative and in 30-Game IncrementsPhillies 2017 Win%

The 2017 season started well: after beating the Miami Marlins 3-2 on April 27, the Phillies were 11-9 (55.0%).

From that day until the end of the first “half” (a 7-1 win over the San Diego Padres), though, the Phillies went 18-49 (26.9%), to finish the first half an abysmal 29-58 (33.3%), putting them on pace to finish the season a historically-bad 54-108.

The four-day All-Star respite was a turning point, however. After losing three of the first four games once play resumed on July 14, the Phillies won nine of their next 12. Overall, the team went 37-38 over their last 75 games, playing the equivalent of an 80-82 season over the 2nd half of 2017.

It may not sound like much, but I will gladly take the full-season equivalent of 26-win improvement between the first and second “halves” of the 2017 season.

And why were the Phillies so much better in the 2nd half of 2017?

One word: offense.

Offense. The Phillies were outscored 424 to 332 in the 1st half of 2017, while breaking even (358-358)[6] in the 2nd half. Put another way, while the Phillies allowed as many runs per game (4.8) in the 2nd half as in the 1st half (4.9), they scored a full run more per game in the 2nd half (4.8 vs. 3.8).

   Table 1: Offensive Statistics by Position, Before and After 2017 All-Star Break

POS Player OPS* aIOA Player OPS aIOA ΔOPS ΔaIOA
C Cameron Rupp 0.680 36.7 Cameron Rupp 0.767 43.1 +0.087 +6.4
1B Tommy Joseph 0.779 90.7 Tommy Joseph 0.635 49.4 -0.144 -41.3
2B Cesar Hernandez 0.735 69.8 Cesar Hernandez 0.842 117.6 +0.107 +47.8
SS Freddy Galvis 0.724 81.7 Freddy

Galvis

0.653 91.2 -0.071 +9.6
3B Mikael Franco 0.657 78.3 Mikael

Franco

0.730 85.1 +0.073 +6.9
LF Daniel

Nava

0.800 43.9 Rhys

Hoskins

1.014 148.9 +0.214 +105.0
CF Odubel Herrera 0.685 71.7 Odubel Herrera 0.928 111.2 +0.243 +39.5
RF Aaron Altherr 0.886 116.1 Nick Williams 0.886 116.1 -0.071 +32.2
START 8 Players 0.740 582.0 8 Players 0.793 775.8 +0.054 +193.8
BENCH 5 Players†† 0.664 141.6 5 Players††† 0.738 147.4 +0.074 +5.8
TOTAL 16 Players 0.716 740.7 20 Players 0.778 1019.2 +0.063 +278.5

     * On-base percentage plus slugging percentage

     † Index of Offensive Ability standardized to a 162-game season

   †† OF Michael Saunders[7], C Andrew Knapp, LF/2B Howie Kendrick[8], INF Andres Blanco, 1B Brock Stassi

     ††† OF Aaron Altherr, C Jorge Alfaro, OF Hyun Soo Kim, 3B/SS J. P. Crawford, C Andrew Knapp

Table 1 pinpoints precisely where the offense improved. It summarizes the offensive performances ([OPS], my Index of Offensive Ability standardized to a 162-game season [aIOA][9]) for the players with the most plate appearances (PA) at each position (excluding pitcher), before (left-hand side) and after (right-hand side) the 2017 All-Star Break.

Before the All-Star Break, the Phillies’ primary eight starting position players, led by right fielder Aaron Altherr (0.886 OPS, 116.1 aIOA[10]) and first baseman Tommy Joseph (0.779, 90.7), combined for a good-but-not-great 0.740 OPS and 582.0 aIOA. The problem was that the three 1st-half PA leaders had average-to-mediocre offensive performances: shortstop Freddy Galvis (0.724, 81.7 in 348 PA), third baseman Mikael Franco (0.657, 78.3 in 347 PA) and center fielder Odubel Herrera (0.685, 71.7 in 346 PA).  The primary five-man bench (i.e., the five non-starting hitters with the most PA) was also subpar, combining for a dismal 0.664 OPS and 141.6 aIOA. Overall, Phillies hitters combined for a below-average 0.716 OPS and 740.7 aIOA in the 1st half of 2017.

After the All-Star Break, however, the offense improved dramatically. A slightly altered lineup of eight regular hitters combined for a 0.793 OPS and 775.8 aIOA, up 0.054 and +193.8 from the 1st half. The primary five-man bench was also better offensively in the 2nd half, producing a respectable 0.738 OPS (+0.074) and 147.4 aIOA (+5.8). Overall, Phillies hitters combined for a solid 0.778 OPS (+0.063) and 1019.2 aIOA (+278.5) in the 2nd half of 2017.

The 2nd-half charge was led by two talented holdovers (Herrera and second baseman Cesar Hernandez) and two dynamic rookies (left fielder/first baseman Rhys Hoskins and right fielder Nick Williams). Herrera, the Phillies’ lone 2016 All-Star, saw his OPS jump 0.243 and his aIOA jump 39.5 in the 2nd half; overall he finished the year with a 0.778 OPS in 563 PA and a respectable 86.7 IOA, 3rd on the team. Hernandez saw his OPS jump 0.107 and his aIOA jump 47.8 in the 2nd half; overall he finished the year with a 0.793 OPS in 577 PA and a team-leading 91.7 IOA. Altherr was 2nd overall in aIOA in 2017, despite losing time in the 2nd half to injuries, producing an All-Star-level 0.856 OPS, albeit in only 412 PA.

But the truly exciting players to watch in 2018 may be Williams and Hoskins, each just 24 years old. Williams, acquired in the July 2015 trade that sent LHPs Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers, made his major league debut on June 30. In his 343 PA, he had an 0.811 OPS and 71.6 IOA (equivalent to a very strong 139.7 over 162 games). Hoskins, selected by the Phillies in the 5th round of the 2014 MLB Draft, made his debut on August 10. In only 212 PA, he hit 18 home runs (HR) and drove in 48 runs, finishing with an astonishing 1.014 OPS and 69.0 IOA (equivalent to an MVP-level 223.4 over 162 games).

Those five players (with Hoskins at his more natural first base[11]), along with some combination of Franco, Galvis and rookie J.P. Crawford at shortstop and third base, and some combination of Rupp and rookies Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro, also acquired in the Hamels deal, at catcher could provide the Phillies a vastly improved offense in 2018. That offense could also benefit from resigning a healthy Daniel Nava, who had a 0.814 OPS with a 31.3 IOA in 214 PA for the 2017 Phillies.

Pitching. Here there is less reason for optimism in 2018, as Tables 2a and 2b reveal.

    Table 2a: 2017 Phillies Pitching Before 2017 All-Star Break

Category W-L ERA OOPS* IP/G K/9 aIP/OOPS aSPI/aRPI††
Top 5 Starters 16-27 4.51 0.768 5.6 7.8 905.5 960.9
All 9 Starters 18-36 4.68 0.790 5.6 7.1 1146.7 1195.9
Top 7 Relievers 10-20 4.14 0.719 2.6 8.7 579.7 625.4
All 16 Relievers 11-22 4.59 0.753 3.3 8.5 713.4 687.5
Total††† 29-58 4.65 0.776 8.9 7.6 1859.0 n/a

     * OPS by batters faced, standardized to 162-game season

     † IP divided by OOPS standardized to a 162-game season

     †† Starting Pitcher Index (SPI) or Relief Pitcher Index (RPI) standardized to a 162-game season

     ††† Mark Leiter, Jr. made 3 starts and 12 relief appearances before the All-Star Break. His performances are separated into each pitching category.

      Table 2b: 2017 Phillies Pitching After 2017 All-Star Break

Category W-L ERA OOPS IP/G K/9 aIP/OOPS aSPI/aRPI
Top 5 Starters 20-19 5.13 0.802 5.5 9.1 803.2 876.0
All 10 Starters 25-26 4.95 0.795 5.4 8.4 1096.3 1164.4
Top 7 Relievers 8-10 3.75 0.702 2.7 9.0 612.4 682.5
All 16 Relievers 12-12 3.74 0.681 3.5 9.5 831.8 909.2
Total* 37-38 4.47 0.763 8.9 8.8 1886.0 n/a

     * Mark Leiter, Jr. made 8 starts and 4 relief appearances after the All-Star Break. His performances are separated into each pitching category.

In the 1st half of 2017, five right-handed pitchers (RHP)—Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez—combined to start 67 games. The best starter, by far, was Nola, the Phillies’ 1st-round pick in 2014. He pitched to a 6-6 record with a solid 3.59 ERA, 0.644 OOPS and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) in 13 starts, averaging 6.2 IP/S.

In the mid-1990s, I developed two metrics for assessing starting pitchers. One is simply IP/OOPS (applicable to any pitcher); the second is a Starting Pitcher Index (SPI)[12]. In the 1st half of 2017, Nola had an aIP/OOPS of 232.2, 2nd behind Hellickson (235.8), and an adjusted aSPI of 310.5, ahead of Hellickson (270.9) [13] and Eickhoff (260.5).

The bullpen was better, though still not good. Seven relievers—RHP Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Luis Garcia, Joaquin Benoit, Edubray Ramos and Jeanmar Gomez, plus LHP Joely Rodriguez—combined to pitch 224.0 of the 288.1 innings logged by Phillies’ relievers in the 1st half of 2017. The best 1st-half reliever by far was Neshek, the Phillies’ lone 2017 All-Star,[14], who was 2-2 with a microscopic 1.27 ERA, 0.540 OOPS and 9.2 K/9 in 35.1 IP (38 games), converting 10 of 12 (83.3%) holds/saves.

I also developed a RPI (Relief Pitcher Index)[15]. Neshek led 1st-half relievers with a 121.8 aIP/OOPS, well ahead of Garcia (110.8), Neris (106.9) and Benoit (97.7), as well as a 241.6 aRPI, lapping Neris (202.9) and Benoit[16] (186.8).

In the 2nd half of 2017, the starting pitching actually got slightly worse while the bullpen was greatly improved. By most measures—ERA (+0.27), OOPS (+0.05), IP/S (-0.2), aIP/OOPS (-53.4) and aSPI (-31.5)—Phillies starting pitching was worse in the 2nd half than in the 1st half. Only on wins (+7), losses (-10) and K/9 (7.1 to 8.4) did they improve.

Five starters—Pivetta, Nola, Eickhoff, Mark Leiter Jr. and Ben Lively—combined for 54 starts. Nola was again the best starter, going 6-5 with a solid 3.49 ERA, 0.712 OOPS and 10.3 K/9, averaging 6.3 IP/S; his 2nd-half aIP/OOPS of 266.0 and aSPI of 361.0 were both well ahead of Pivetta’s 187.4 and 258.7, respectively.

The bullpen, however, was demonstrably better. By every measure: wins (+1), losses (-10), saves (11 to 22), holds (32 to 41), hold/save percentage (75.4 to 86.3%), ERA (-0.85), K/9 (8.5 to 9.5), aIP/OOPS (+118.4) and aSPI (+221.7), Phillies relievers improved in the second half.

Seven relievers—Neris, Garcia, LHP Adam Morgan, LHP Hoby Milner, Ramos, RHP Ricardo Pinto and RHP Jesen Therrien—combined to pitch 199.0 of the 262.1 innings logged by Phillies’ relievers in the 2nd half of 2017. Neris, Garcia, Morgan, Milner and Ramos led the 2nd-half bullpen improvement, pitching 160.0 innings (some combination of these five relievers averaged 2.1 innings per game), going 8-8 with a 2.53 ERA, 0.641 OOPS and 9.6 K/9, converting 53 of 60 hold/save opportunities (88.3%). They combined for a 539.0 aIP/OOPS and 621.4 aRPI.

Overall, Phillies pitching was slightly better in the 2nd half than in the 1st half. The staff ERA dropped from 4.65 to 4.47 (still not great), while staff OOPS dropped from 0.776 to 0.763. The staff strikeout rate did substantially improve from 7.6 to 8.8; aIP/OOPS increased incrementally from 1859.0 to 1886.0.

None of this means the Phillies will even have a winning record in 2018, let alone make the playoffs. What it does mean is that young, exciting players like Altherr, Hernandez, Herrera, Hoskins and Williams (plus Alfaro, Crawford and Knapp), young pitchers like Nola and, if he can return to form, Eickhoff (2015-16: 14-17, 3.44 ERA, 6.1 IP/S in 44 starts)[17], and a power bullpen led by Neris, Garcia, Morgan, Milner and Ramos should make the Phillies entertaining to follow again in 2018.

Until next time…

[1] Prior to 1969, there were only the two Leagues—National and American—and the teams that finished first in each League met in the World Series. The Cardinals beat the New York Yankees in seven games in 1964. Divisional play debuted in 1969, followed by the Wild Card in 1995.

[2] They lost the World Series to the defending World Champion Toronto Blue Jays in six games.

[3] In total, 65 games were lost in 1994 (47) and 1995 (18) to the 1994-95 players’ strike.

[4] Even if you include 1993 (97-65, 59.9%), the Phillies still averaged only 71.5-85.5 (45.5%).

[5] Mitch Williams blew a save, and the Phillies lost to the Atlanta Braves, 6-5.

[6] It took a heroic 11-0 win over the New York Mets on the last day of the season, October 1, to break even in 2nd-half run differential.

[7] Saunders was released on June 23.

[8] Kendrick was traded to the Washington Nationals on July 28.

[9] IOA is the sum of two values, runs produced (runs + RBI – home runs) and 0.5 * stolen bases * stolen base percentage, multiplied by OPS. I standardized it to a 162-game season by multiplying it by 162 and dividing it by the number of games in the 1st half (87) or 2nd half (75).

[10] I believe he and second baseman Cesar Hernandez had a very good shot to make the All Star team until each was derailed by injuries.

[11] Joseph’s 2nd half offensive decline may well have resulted from losing playing time to Hoskins.

[12] It is the sum of the sum of three values (IP, [wins/wins-plus-losses]*10[12], K/9 * 5) divided by OOPS

[13] He was traded to the Baltimore Orioles on July 29.

[14] And who was then traded to the Colorado Rockies on Jul 26.

[15] It is the sum of four values (IP * % inherited runners stranded, [wins/wins-plus-losses]*10, K/9 * 5, [saves+holds]*save-hold percentage) divided by OOPS. I was unable to find inherited runners scored values broken down by season halves, so I used the full-season values for both halves.

[16] Benoit was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 31.

[17] And maybe Jake Thompson (3-2, 3.27 ERA in 8 starts, though only 5.1 IP/S) and Lively (4-7, 4.26 ERA, 5.9 IP/S in 15 starts)? Thompson and Eickhoff were ALSO acquired in the Hamels deal, while Lively arrived in the December 2014 trade that sent right fielder Marlon Byrd to the Cincinnati Reds.