Alaska Railroaders: A MLB Team of Free Agents

How would a baseball team of all free agents look?

I have loved baseball for a long time. When I was a young kid though, I was a somewhat fair weather fan. My favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, had a good run in the early 90s, but otherwise I tended to favor football and basketball over baseball. That changed dramatically in December of 1998, when the Pirates signed Ed Sprague to play third base.

Sprague had long been my favorite player, having spent most of his career at that point with my second favorite team – the Toronto Blue Jays.  Sprague had a great season for the Pirates, earning a place on the National League All-Star team, and hitting .267/.352/.465 with 22 home runs. His OPS of .817 was the second highest of his career (for seasons in which he played full-time). While Sprague was with the Pirates, I couldn’t miss a game. I even had a chance to see him hit a home run in person. The Pirates had a fairly decent team in 1999 (finishing 78-83) and, if not for injuries, may have broken up that streak of consecutive losing seasons from 1993 to 2012. I had equally enjoyed the Pirates’ 2003 team.

Sprague signing with the Pirates had demonstrated to me that free agency could help a team (whereas in the early 90s the Pirates had been hurt frequently by free agency). Each season after Sprague’s tenure with the Buccos, I started closely watching the Pirates’ moves in free agency. Of course, as with many other fans, as a teenager I began to wonder how I might perform as a general manager – especially during free agency.

That curiosity started a tradition of mine. Each season, I tried to find a list of the players unsigned to a Major League Baseball team on opening day and construct a team from those players. My goal was to make the team as competitive as possible and use players with some MLB experience (with a few exceptions, as the KBO is going to lend me a hand this time). I also got into the habit of imagining this team as an expansion team without the benefit of an expansion draft. Obviously, there is a need to suspend reality to make this work and to just enjoy the entertainment value of imaging how this team would look. Before I go on, let me say Mark McGwire hates this idea.

Several years ago, I would post the rosters I created onto Facebook. I eventually got out of the habit of posting my “free agent team” online. However, yesterday I had nothing better to think about while landscaping for most of the day. I sat down last evening and starting doing some research. After a few hours, I pieced together a roster along with some statistical projections. I have always enjoyed the numbers associated with baseball. I decided that this blog would work well enough as an outlet for the finished product.

 

Anchoragepicpd
Anchorage, Alaska: the fictional ConocoPhillips Field would be located to the right in this picture. 

I’m calling the team the Alaska Railroaders. The team would play in Anchorage, which has a long railroading history. I am fully aware that Anchorage, with a metropolitan area of less than 500,000 people, could not support a MLB team. However, when I was a kid I was obsessed with Alaska, so that part of this entire scenario was nonnegotiable. The Railroaders would play at the fictional ConocoPhillips Field, which would be built in Bootleggers Cove. Visible through an opening in the grandstand behind center field would be the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet and downtown. A locomotive’s whistle would announce the hitting of a home run by the Railroaders. I imagine the team playing in the National League West division (for the purposes of constructing a roster, I am electing to have the team placed in the NL) and wearing white and gold uniforms with blue and black trim. This would allow the team to generally share the livery of the Alaska Railroad. I also assembled my roster as if the team would start play with the current 2016 season. Before I go on, I should share that I have three short stories involving baseball: The Shepherds and Game 7, Any Pitch is its Hit, and Devil on the Diamond. Each of these stories intertwine baseball and the supernatural. I have also used the “Alaska Railroaders” as a fictional independent league team in a few of my works. 

Three subsequent posts will break the Alaska Railroaders’ roster into pieces: infielders, outfielders, and pitchers. I’m not claiming this team would win the pennant. That said, I would hope to field a team that  could best the 2003 Detroit Tigers in a series. 

I will share the Alaska Railroaders first signing in this post, as he is a player that will see time in the infield and outfield. The Railroaders’ first official player would be Garrett Jones. Jones was most recently with the New York Yankees in 2015, but is probably best remembered for his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2009 to 2013. 

Jones is not technically a free agent, as he signed a contract with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball in December of 2015. However, for the sake of constructing this roster, we will deem Jones available since he would have most likely preferred to sign with a Major League Baseball club. Jones would serve as the Railroaders’ primary first baseman, although he would likely sit occasionally against left-handed pitching. Against right-handed pitching, Jones has a career slash of .265/.330/.473. Although Jones struggled in 2015 while seeing limited at bats with the New York Yankees, the 34-year-old (at the start of the season) could easily see over 600 plate appearances with the larger role of a first base platoon and the occasional start in right field. Jones also brings some home run power to the roster. He averaged over 19 home runs per season between 2009 and 2014. As far as a projection is concerned, I see Jones embracing this opportunity to the tune of .256/.324/.442 with 22 home runs and an OPS of .766 in 543 at bats. For the record, Jones is presently hitting .247/.331/.463 with 13 home runs across 231 at bats in Japan (as of July 21).

Up next: the other infielders

 

 

The Last: Kýrie, Eléison

If you read one historical fiction novella about the Byzantine Empire this year, read mine!

the-last
Theophilos Hatzimihail painted this depiction of the final battle for Constantinople. As in other Hatzimihail paintings concerning this subject, Constantine XI is featured on a white horse.

Writing The Last in June and July of 2014 was an exciting time for me. I started writing at the beginning of summer and the first draft was finished within 24 days. Two years and four drafts later, I have a historical fiction novella that I am genuinely proud to claim as my own work. The Last benefited greatly from several volunteer readers over the last two years. The feedback I received from those individuals spurred the various revisions that created the present novella. Insight from Father Bob Lubic was of considerable help. His suggestions and wisdom were of special worth to me and I greatly appreciate the time he invested with The Last.

The first draft of The Last was also the final piece of my writing that my grandmother read before she passed in July of 2014. She had always been the greatest advocate of my writing and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to share this one with her. 

I have seriously kicked the tires on making The Last the final novella in a trilogy of historical fiction pieces (each with a slight supernatural edge) concerning the Byzantine Empire. I had even seriously considered using the Battle of Yarmouk and the Byzantine Iconoclasm as potential foundations for the two other (“previous”) installments (the Battle of Manzikert and the Fourth Crusade are two other options). 

Researching for this project also opened the door for my love affair with Byzantine history. I am simply unable to read enough about the topic and I don’t intend to bring this romance to an end anytime soon. If you are looking for just a taste of Byzantine history, I suggest you start here.

The fall of Constantinople was one of those amazing turning points in history and I do believe I’ve captured the essence of that event’s significance in The Last. Below, I have shared quotes that really helped me capture the characterizations of George Sphrantzes, an imperial courtier, and Emperor Constantine XI Dragas Palaiologos. These quotes communicate a great deal about the foreboding that existed in Constantinople just before the Ottoman siege in 1453. 

“On the same night of May 28th [1451] I had a dream: it seemed to me that I was back in the City; as I made a motion to prostrate myself and kiss the Emperor’s feet, he stopped me, raised me, and kissed my eyes. Then I woke up and told those sleeping by me: ‘I just had this dream. Remember the date.’ ”

                                                                                 -George Sphrantzes

                                                                                   Roman (Byzantine) Imperial Ambassador

 

“But how can I do this and leave the clergy, the churches of God, the empire and all of the people?

What will the world think of me, I pray, tell me?

No, my lords, no: I will die here with you. ”

                                                             – Constantine XI Dragas Palaiologos,

                                                                in Christ true Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans

The quote from Constantine XI is really at the heart of The Last. The sense of responsibility and determination in that man must have been absolutely astounding. 

Including the prologue, a list of characters, and a handful of illustrations, The Last runs 13,473 words over 45 pages. 

The Emperor raised his sword into the air.

Kýrieeléison!” He called, “Lord, have mercy!”

Interview with the Grandfather

Yes, that’s a play on the title of the popular Anne Rice novel, but who said Brad Pitt isn’t playing the role of my grandfather in the film adaption?

A couple months ago I was working in the yard at my grandfather’s house (where he has lived the last few years), when I remembered that I had a few questions for him. I was in the middle of researching and developing a science fiction writing project called The Day the Sun Died and I knew he could provide the kind of details I wouldn’t so easily find in a book or online. The Day the Sun Died concerns three primary characters struggling to survive several weeks after the sun has mysteriously vanished, sending the planets of our solar system careening through the darkness of space.   

The Day the Sun Died was inspired by this video, which does an excellent job outlining the changes the Earth might experience if our sun disappeared (or if the Earth was ever ripped out of the solar system and cast into space). Of course, there would be a period of chaos and turmoil, but life would not immediately come to an end. Depending upon their actions, some humans would undoubtedly find ways to survive for weeks or months (possibly longer in a few cases) as the planet slowly became colder and colder.

The setting for the majority of the story was essentially my grandfather’s old farmhouse. When I was a child, he and my grandmother lived there and, in many ways, that’s where I grew up – I could say the same for my sister and a couple of my cousins as well. The farmhouse was truly old, constructed around 1878, and the surrounding property that my grandparents maintained functioned as a miniature farm. 

Perched on a hilltop, the farmhouse commanded an impressive view in all directions and could be seen for quite a distance standing among several tall maples. There was always a grace and grandeur about the house, especially when I was young. The rooms were large and the ceilings very high. There were narrow passages, old fixtures, fireplaces, and secret doors. The house was remarkably consistent. Years passed and the place never really changed. All the furniture and appliances remained in the same place. The rooms were always used for the same purposes. My grandparents’ routines seemed to be the exact same each day (I can still distinctly remember my grandmother listening to WCVI or WMBS in the kitchen each morning). Although some felt the house was slowly falling apart (especially as my grandparents aged), I think that part of me always suspected my grandparents’ house would last forever. 

My grandparents had lived in this house far longer than I had been alive, so I could only draw upon what I remembered as a child and young adult. I needed to know more than my memory alone could provide. That’s when I got the idea to interview my grandfather.

I needed my grandfather to describe to me some of his experiences living in that old farmhouse (especially in winter) because the three principal characters in The Day the Sun Died begin the story eking out an existence at a similar house in the countryside. These characters are faced with a question: do we continue to live here and slowly succumb to the conditions or do we take a chance and attempt to reach a destination where our lives could be prolonged?

Stephen Graduates
Clark Junk, my grandfather.

I started with very straightforward questions. My grandfather explained his daily routine to me, especially about how the house’s coal furnace had to be maintained. He explained how the chimneys and fireplaces in the house had originally been designed (as some of this had changed before I was born). He recalled the specifics of the system that moved hot water from the furnace to iron radiators throughout the house. Much of the information he shared with me encouraged me to ask questions I had not thought of before. He went on to outline the process by which he had butchered animals in his younger years and, basically, the finer details of operating a small farm. I took notes as he spoke and was very satisfied with all that he had to share.

After forty-five minutes, our conversation had ended. I decided to explain to my grandfather why I had asked so many questions about his old house and, specifically, the heating system used inside. I even shared some of my ideas for The Day the Sun Died with him. He seemed somewhat perplexed by this, as I suspect that he thought I needed this information for a research paper or newspaper article. I thanked him for all the information he had provided and that was that. I didn’t really think that he and I would ever discuss those details again and I assumed he may well have forgotten the entire conversation by the next day.

Earlier this week I was at his house again working in the yard. He was sitting on the porch and sharing this and that about some local happenings and recalling who had visited him recently and what news those visitors had told him. There are moments when my grandfather seems to have walked right out of a John Wayne film – and his porch becomes the front steps of the town saloon or lawman’s office – and this was one of those times. The way he banters is whimsical and, if you really listen, creates a certain nostalgia for some bygone era that you can’t quite place. He really isn’t the science fiction sort, but he could have played a mean Friar Tuck. I knew that, while he may have vaguely recalled our conversation about coal furnaces and the worst winters he could remember, he probably hadn’t thought again about why I had asked all those questions.

After about an hour or so, I had finished the intended task and was preparing to leave. That’s when my grandfather really surprised me. He asked plainly, “How is that book coming?”

That definitely brought a smile to my face.

Strange Stories, Amazing Facts

Described as “a Disneyland for readers” and available online for less than one dollar, this title is well worth a read or two.

Strange Stories
Strange Stories, Amazing Facts

About twenty years ago, I found a book at my grandparents’ house that I must have read cover to cover multiple times by now. The book I found two decades ago was Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, originally published in 1976 by Reader’s Digest (the copy I later received from my grandmother was printed in 1980). The very first page of the text states that the book contains “an astonishing variety of subject matter, treatment, and tone”. This is certainly accurate, as Strange Stories, Amazing Facts methodically covers an unbelievable range of topics. The book blends together science and the supernatural in a way that is “bizarre, unusual, odd, astonishing, and often incredible”. 

Among many other topics, this book (which is divided into five parts) manages to include commentary on:

  • The Solar System
  • The Moon
  • Meteorites
  • Black holes
  • Acupuncture
  • The immune system
  • Volcanoes 
  • The legend of Atlantis
  • Plate tectonics
  • The creation of life
  • The Great Wall of China
  • The Canadian Pacific Railway
  • Marco Polo
  • The discovery of the Americas
  • The exploration of Antarctica
  • El Dorado
  • Halloween
  • Tarot cards
  • Easter Island 
  • The Oak Island Money Pit
  • The mystery surrounding Anastasia Romanov
  • Jack the Ripper
  • The Lost Dutchman’s Mine
  • The Mary Celeste 
  • The Flying Dutchman 
  • The Faces of Bélmez
  • Vampires
  • Werewolves
  • The Borley Rectory
  • The Loch Ness Monster
  • Nostradamus
  • Extraterrestrials

Of course, considering that Strange Stories, Amazing Facts is forty years old, the articles concerning science often come across very dated. Otherwise, the book’s relevant examinations of a seemingly endless number of interesting topics have stood the test of time. 

My grandmother had encouraged me to keep this book a long time ago. She passed just over two years ago, and there is no picking up this book without thinking about the value she placed on reading and imagination. She was a wondrously imaginative woman. I had the opportunity to speak at her funeral service, and I included this book as part of the reflection I shared with those in attendance. Strange Stories, Amazing Facts might as well have been the title of my grandmother’s biography. She just lived that kind of life.

I do still reference this book and did so as recently as April. In a previous post, I mentioned this volume as one I wanted to include on this blog. I recently shared a passage from this book with a colleague, who was just as impressed with the subject matter as anyone else I know who has picked up this title.

Although Strange Stories, Amazing Facts seems somewhat rare (although inexpensive) in 2016, I found and bought another copy at a fundraiser held by the Dunbar Community Library in Dunbar, Pennsylvania. I simply could not pass up the opportunity to own a spare copy. 

Without a doubt, this book has given me years and years of imagination fuel. And I think that’s exactly what my grandmother intended. 

Has anyone else read Strange Stories, Amazing Facts? If so, what did you think? 

The Last: Prologue

“The Last” reveals the reflections of Emperor Constantine XI during the final surge of Ottoman soldiers against the walls of Constantinople on May 29th, 1453.

I started to take serious my desire to become a writer in December of 2011. I had certainly tried my hand at significant writing before that – as early as 2001. However, life offered me plenty of distractions in the decade between those years, preventing the accomplishment of any noteworthy work. Even once I knew that writing was my passion, time remained in very limited supply. Between my career as an educator, coaching girls’ and boys’ basketball, and the handful of other jobs that I worked during the holidays and summer, I found that I struggled to consistently allow time for writing.

Between 2011 and 2014, I did complete a handful of short stories and novellas. Despite the feeling of accomplishment, I struggled to find time to return to those works for the purposes of editing and improvement. Quite honestly, there just wasn’t enough time in the day to write regularly during those years. My dreams waited.

Constantinople Map.jpg
This is possibly the oldest surviving map of Constantinople. Created by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti in 1422, the map shows the city as a shadow of its former glory.

That changed on June 9th, 2014. On that day, I began work on what I consider my best piece of writing to date. Less than a month later, I had completed the first draft of The Last. Writing this particular novella, a historical fiction piece, was a true labor of love. I thoroughly enjoyed telling the story of the Emperor Constantine XI and his valiant defense of the vestiges of the Roman Empire in the 15th century. My research for The Last spurred a great appreciation for Byzantine History. A quick glance at my bookcase will suggest that my fondness for this topic has only increased in the time since I first started writing on a warm June day over two years ago.

The Last is set on May 29, 1453 – the final day of the Roman Empire. This alone may come as a surprise to those recalling that the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century. The Last concerns the eastern region of the empire around Constantinople, which survived the fall of Rome and the western provinces by nearly a millennia. Those living in this surviving portion of the Roman Empire considered themselves Roman and the inheritors of all that Rome had represented and accomplished. These Medieval Romans must defend their identify and culture from the invading Ottomans or be lost to history. 

A What If? or Two

Some books just do wonders for the imagination. What if you don’t read these two?

Few books have done more wonders for my imagination than What If? by Randall Munroe or The Collected What If?, which includes the texts of What If? (not Monroe’s aforementioned book) and What If? 2. The Collected What If? is a compilation of essays authored by several different historians from a variety of backgrounds.

Munroe’s What If? addresses hypothetical situations concerning various fields of science, whereas The Collected What If? focuses on content that is historical in nature. I would strongly suggest either to even a casual reader. Both of these books are easy to pick up, read for a few minutes, and sit back down, while still invigorating the mind and offering some refreshing perspectives. The content of each, generally speaking, is outside the realm of the standard nonfiction text and is often humorous.

To say that I have enjoyed reading each of these books is a serious understatement. I have selected my five favorite “chapters” (and I use that term loosely) from each book. These selections are those which stayed with me the longest after reading, often making me seriously ponder some aspects of both my life and writing.

Randall Munroe’s What If? is divided by question. Munroe has selected several hypothetical science questions, many of which are very unique (and certainly not easy to answer), and does his best to offer a calculated and rational solution for each.

What if
What If? by Randall Munroe is definitely worth a read (and is that one of those alien dinosaurs?).

5. “Facebook of the Dead”

4. “The Last Human Light”

3. “Hockey Puck”

2. “Rising Steadily”

1. “Interplanetary Cessna”

I laughed while reading “Interplanetary Cessna” and shared that particular passage first and foremost with anyone noticing Munroe’s What If? in my home (and the cover does tend to catch the eye of visitors). As a whole, Munroe’s What If? does a wonderful job at offering some very literal outcomes to several “science fiction” scenarios.

The Collected What If?, edited by Robert Cowley, is divided by essay. The essays cover a very wide variety of hypothetical historical situations. For example, the textbook used for the American History course I teach for Uniontown Area School District, asks the students to identify possible changes in the culture and geography of North America if the French had managed to fight the British to a draw in the French and Indian War. Such a topic would be appropriate for this particular book, as that type of scenario (perhaps the French emerge victorious at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759) is imagined and investigated within each individual essay.

The Collected What If
The Collected What If? offers some very detailed alternatives to major events in history.

5. “The Dark Ages Made Lighter: The Consequences of Two Defeats” by Barry S. Strauss

4. “Day Day Fails: Atomic Alternatives in Europe” by Stephen E. Ambrose

3. “Unlikely Victory: Thirteen Ways the Americans Could Have Lost the Revolution” by Thomas Fleming

2. “Furor Teutonicus: The Teutoburg Forest, A.D. 9” by Lewis H. Lapham

1. “Pontius Pilate Spares Jesus: Christianity without the Crucifixion” by Carlos M.N. Eire

For anyone mulling a serious historical fiction writing project, The Collected What If? is the ideal place to start. This book offers the type of reading that will genuinely get the wheels ustairs turning.

There are a handful of other books that have really served as an inspiration to me, and I hope to post about those (including one very important title) in the near future. What other books serve as good fodder for the science fiction writer? Are there other titles that might really help an author seeking to write some realistic historical fiction?

You and I – we go way back.

Extraterrestrial life, if found, is expected to be strange and astounding. But what if the feeling we experience following this amazing discovery isn’t excitement, wonder, or even fear – but one of déjà vu?

When I was a kid, one of the more thoroughly enjoyable films that my cousin, sister, and I frequently watched was Planet of Dinosaurs. This movie has something of a cult following today and the title really says all that you need to know. Of course, you don’t need to recreate dinosaurs in a laboratory if there’s a planet teeming with these beasts close enough for us to take a spaceship (packed with really snappy space outfits) and arrive in a relatively short period of time.  

Set well into the future, the crew of a disabled spaceship crash-lands on a distant planet remarkably similar to Earth. Much to the dismay of the survivors, this planet, determined to be younger than Earth, is inhabited by dinosaurs (or, at least, creatures that really, really resemble dinosaurs). Some of the dinosaurs are less than hospitable to the newcomers and, ultimately, the human characters are forced to get really creative to dispatch the local Tyrannosaurus (this Tyrannosaurus was made out of clay). I really shouldn’t make joke of that – this film won the 1980 Saturn Award for “Best Film Produced under $1,000,000”. Special recognition was given to the films stop motion effects, which heavily involved the use of clay models.

This seemed to be almost ideal for me. As a child, I loved dinosaurs (I still do) and would have loved to travel the galaxy to see the sights (I still would) – especially if there were dinosaurs out there (please let there be)!

Of course, I spent the next two decades of my life hearing that extraterrestrial life would almost definitely not consist of dinosaurs. Or giant bugs. Or little green men. Or even little grey men. A countless number of researchers and scientists have offered a similar reality: we can’t possibly begin to imagine the shapes and forms extraterrestrial life might assume. There have also been plenty of suggestions from the scientific community that extraterrestrial life may be unrecognizable as life to mankind.

Then Planet of Dinosaurs came roaring back. A recent study suggested that Earth may have been seeded with life by a meteorite billions of years ago. This meteorite would have brought the chemical building blocks for all life that has ever existed (sans perhaps just a few bacteria) on Earth. Where there was one meteorite, there may be been two, or a dozen, or a hundred. Planets across the Milky Way could have been seeded with the same amino acids and sugars. If the mixture occurred elsewhere in just the right way, however unlikely, there could be dinosaur-like creatures roaming around on a planet in a nearby star system.

Although the dinosaur part really appeals to me in a nostalgic way, that’s not what is worthwhile to me about this study. When I first read this (and later, similar, research), my initial thought was “if there is life nearby, maybe it’s a little more similar to us than expected.”

This goes a step farther. Earth, having life genuinely created here or seeded from the cosmos, could have, in turn, spread the proper organic necessities to some very close neighbors. There is a term for this possibility: lithopanspermia. Rocks harboring microscopic life from the Earth could have been ejected by meteor strikes into space eons ago. These rocks may have subsequently struck other bodies in our solar system. Lithopanspermia, of course, remains unproven as a means of spreading life from one planetary body to another. There is no firm evidence that microorganisms could survive a journey through space.

However, a study from Pennsylvania State University has demonstrated that, over the last three billion years or so, somewhere between one and ten rocks ejected from the Earth has struck Europa. Europa, one of Juptier’s moons, is the favorite darling of those believing extraterrestrial life may be found somewhere in our solar system.

Blacksmoker_in_Atlantic_Ocean
Deep-sea vents may have been a sanctuary for early life on Earth.

Imagine now a rock (or rocks) from Earth, carrying early indigenous (and very simple) life forms, smashing through the ice on Europa and plunging downward in the massive ocean dominating that moon. A popular theory holds that life originated on Earth near deep-sea vents that seeped valuable mineral content and heat into the ocean. Such vents are also believed to exist on Europa. Our Earth microbes survive their hypothetical space journey and settle to the bottom of Europa, introducing life to this new world and continuing their evolution – perhaps with a subtle twist or two.

This serves as a critical plot point in Dying Up There. Set several decades in the future, the protagonist, Mark Helling, is a crew member of the first human expedition to Europa. The search for extraterrestrial life has ended, but this meeting isn’t a discovery as much as it’s a reunion. What Helling and his companions encounter might seem strange, but there’s a discomforting familiarity present. After all, the human characters and this newfound entity are made of the same stuff – each have origins in the same primordial soup found on Earth eons ago. Both grew apart over the eons, but they go way back – for better or worse.

How will extraterrestrial life look if such is found? I am still caught up in the idea of “alien dinosaurs“. Are those out there somewhere or what?