Friday, May 27, 2011

Say Something Nice About The Mets

by Patrick J. Walsh

Like so many other fans of the game, and particularly, fans of the team, I was disappointed to hear the recent comments that Fred Wilpon, the patriarch of one of the families that own the New York Mets, made recently about several of his team’s star players.

In perhaps his most revealing and most discouraging remark, Mr. Wilpon said of his long-time star outfielder Carlos Beltran:

“We had some schmuck in New York who paid him based on that one series. He’s 65 to 70 percent of what he was.”

He is referring to himself, of course, as the “schmuck” who proffered a seven year contract worth $119 million to Beltran after Beltran hit eight home runs and scored 21 runs in 12 post-season games while playing for the Houston Astros in 2004.

It is not entirely difficult to understand or even to sympathize with Mr. Wilpon’s frustration as an employer whose company has underperformed, or as a baseball fan who has a particularly acute desire to see his team win a championship.

But his dilemma in the first instance, as the ultimate authority responsible for the direction of a business enterprise worth hundreds of millions of dollars (a recent published estimate put the Mets current value at $747 million), pretty severely mitigates against any sympathy he might be due in the second.

And yet it is difficult not to feel some measure of sympathy for Mr. Wilpon, even if it is far easier to sympathize with the players about whom he had such “interesting” things to say.

To begin with, his comment about the foolhardiness of signing a player based on one particularly productive period undercuts the positive aspects of the particular signing he’s talking about, while at the same time revealing how huge, long-term contracts can result in frustration and disappointment even for those who are most responsible for making them a de facto part of the modern game.

It is of course ridiculous in a team sport to bemoan the fact that one good player cannot ensure a team’s success. Even a star player making an extraordinary salary can do little beyond working hard, playing honorably and doing the best he can to perform as well as possible -- regardless of how well the team performs as a whole.

In the particular case of Carlos Beltran, it is important to note that Beltran has played well during his time with the Mets despite several serious injuries, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he has been injured because he has consistently tried to play at a level that honors the commitments implied by his contract.

He has also played with great courage, and his struggle to stay on the field has been one of the most inspiring -- and least recognized -- stories in the recent history of the team.

Beltran’s ability to perform well when injured has provided a fine example for anyone struggling to overcome infirmity or fear, and those in a position to view the larger context of his time in New York would do well to comment on that aspect of his performance as well as on his stats and his contributions to the team’s successes and failures.

Of course Mr. Wilpon’s fortunes are more intimately intertwined with his players’ well being and performance than those of anyone observing the results from a distance, so it is also not unreasonable to interpret his “buyer’s remorse” about Beltran’s contract as a comment on the state of the game as a whole.

I suppose it might even be charitable to interpret his opinion as implying some recognition that he, as an owner of one of the highest spending teams in the sport during the past few years, has been part of the problem inherent in the creation of contracts whose terms sometimes seem absurd, given the risks involved in any given player’s ability to avoid injury and to perform at a consistently high level over an extended period of time.

But it is finally in the second part of Mr. Wilpon’s remark -- the notion that Carlos Beltran is now “65 to 70 percent of what he was” -- that the real sadness of the owner’s odyssey intersects with that of his players and the team’s fan base.

Time does after all march on, and even the greatest player must face the eventual weathering of his skills by the passing seasons, hastened further by injuries large and small and by the successes and failures of his teammates and the management and support personnel whose work ultimately provides the context in which he asserts his own abilities.

Carlos Beltran -- like Jose Reyes, or David Wright -- or you or me, for that matter -- is after all seven years older than he was when he signed that very lucrative contract with Mr. Wilpon’s team seven years ago.

On the other hand -- and to the credit of all those who recognize the fact -- even if Beltran is indeed “65 to 70 percent” the player he was at that time, he is still far more skilled than a vast majority of other players who are now employed by major league clubs, or who have been so employed in the history of the game.

Both issues -- the big contract and the diminution of a player’s skills over time and as a result of injury -- really bespeak the absurdity of the business side of the sport.

If a team’s executive management is willing to concede the necessity of offering long-term contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in order to sign a given player, those individuals who make or approve those decisions must also take ownership of them.

If they are unhappy with the idea of paying players that much money in order to be competitive, they can invest instead in younger, less expensive prospects, or simply offer less money and accept the risk that they may as a result be less competitive. Or they can simply sell their interest and pursue some other business endeavor that has different requirements and different risks.

But it is shameful to blame players for the injuries they sustain while trying to play the game at a level that honors the terms of the contract they have been given, and it is unrealistic to assume that the skills of any player will not diminish to some degree with the passage of time. These are the obvious concerns of any scout and any front office personnel in any sport, and it is odd to think that anyone could misunderstand the risks that they represent, for the ownership as well as for the player.

It is also tiresome to hear fans blame players for signing astronomical contracts whose terms are ultimately decided by those owners who are willing to approve such arrangements in the first place, and it is troubling to hear that sort of thing from as prominent, well-respected and fundamentally decent an individual as Mr. Wilpon.

Consider this: for any employee to make “too much” salary, isn’t it a given that there must be an employer willing to pay that salary?

In the final analysis, it may well be that the best thing a fan might take away from this recent episode is simply the recognition that the frustration he or she feels about the club’s fortunes during the most recent arc in its history is shared in even the most unexpected quarters -- including the offices of the team’s owner.

Such realization leaves one saddened less by the harshness of Mr. Wilpon’s comments than by his unstated incredulousness that the team has not performed better, even with players as exceptional as Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes and David Wright -- about whom his disparaging remarks may well be interpreted as a comment on the abilities of the team’s executive management as well as on their own.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets   New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated History

Monday, May 9, 2011

Remembering Apollo 14

by Patrick J. Walsh

Four decades have passed since the crew of Apollo 14 achieved the third successful lunar landing mission. And although their names and deeds are indelibly etched in American history, it is easy to forget just how difficult a trip the astronauts endured, and how complex the mission was for the engineers responsible for the success of the journey.

Commanding Apollo 14 was Alan Shepard, the iconic astronaut who had been the first American to fly in space during the landmark first mission of the Mercury program in 1961.

An inner ear condition had prevented Shepard from pursuing his astronaut career for nearly a decade, but after corrective surgery he was able to convince NASA health officials that he was fit to fly again, and with his assignment to the Apollo 14 mission, he set his sights on a walk on the Moon.

Joining Shepard on the Apollo 14 flight were two members of NASA’s fifth group of astronauts, who had joined the agency in April, 1966.

Edgar Mitchell was commander of the lunar module Antares. He and Shepard would spend more than 33 hours on the Moon, and make two long Moonwalks -- including one of the most arduous explorations of the entire Apollo program.

Assigned as pilot of the command module Kitty Hawk, Stuart Roosa would ultimately make 34 trips around the Moon and spend a total of 67 hours in lunar orbit -- including more than 30 hours alone in the tiny command module while Shepard and Mitchell were on the lunar surface.

Apollo 14 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:03 pm local time on January 31, 1971.

The initial stages of the flight went as planned, until the time came for transposition and docking -- a procedure in which command pilot Stuart Roosa would maneuver the Apollo 14 command module docking probe into position to extract the Antares lunar module from its storage space in an expended stage of the launch rocket.

Roosa nudged his spacecraft forward as planned, carefully moving its docking probe into the docking receptacle on the lunar module. He then waited a long moment for the appropriate display on the command module instrument panel to light up, indicating that a hard dock had been achieved.

The light, however, remained dim. The two spacecraft had failed to dock.

While engineers in Mission Control in Houston began simulations intended to diagnose the problem, Roosa made three more attempts during the initial effort, and a fifth try about an hour after the first attempt. Time passed, and concern grew that the grand journey to the Moon might be cut short even before the astronauts got out of orbit around the Earth.

Finally, as frustration grew, an unorthodox solution was proposed: reasoning that some small debris might be preventing the docking probe from achieving a snug fit, it was decided that the command module pilot would be given a go-ahead to continue his vehicle’s forward motion after the two spacecraft made contact, in the hope that the maneuver would dislodge any debris that might be preventing the latches on the docking equipment from engaging.

Despite the risks involved in the proposed maneuver, faith in Roosa’s piloting skills and in the resiliency of the vehicles -- which had been designed, manufactured and tested with extreme care by some of America’s best engineering talent -- led mission managers to okay a sixth attempt at docking.

The risky procedure proved to be the right solution. The crew breathed a collective sigh of relief as their spacecraft finally latched onto the lunar module, which was then drawn out of its protective cocoon within the spent rocket stage. Mission Control confirmed that all was well, and Apollo 14 was cleared to continue its journey to the Moon, and its rendezvous with destiny.

[Transcript, episode 1 of the video series “Five Minutes in Space;” see the video at my YouTube channel,]

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Apollo 14: The NASA Mission Reports: Apogee Books Space Series 14

Monday, May 2, 2011

Saving Skylab

by Patrick J. Walsh

At lift off on May 25, 1973, the first crew of the Skylab space station faced uncertainties unique in the history of space travel. While they had originally been given the honor of being the first crew of America’s first space station to carry out scientific and medical research, they were suddenly faced instead with the task of implementing major repairs to the station, which had been damaged during its launch on May 14.

Veteran astronaut Pete Conrad served as commander of the first Skylab crew. The third person to walk on the Moon -- a feat he achieved as commander of Apollo 12, in November, 1969, Conrad had also flown in space during Gemini 5, in 1965, and Gemini 11, in 1966. His enthusiasm, experience and leadership ability proved particularly well suited to the difficulties encountered by the inaugural Skylab crew.

Joining Conrad on the flight were Paul Weitz, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who served as pilot, and Joseph Kerwin, a naval flight surgeon who served as the mission’s scientist astronaut.

Excessive vibration had caused Skylab’s meteoroid shield, which was designed to shade the station’s workshop area, to deploy prematurely during the vehicle’s launch. As the station was propelled into orbit, the shield broke away, which in turn also caused the loss of one of the station’s two main solar arrays.

As a result, Skylab had too little electrical power to sustain its intended operations, and the station’s primary work area was subject to heat from the Sun that was far too intense to allow for productive research.

Faced with the prospect of losing the station entirely, NASA officials spared no effort in devising plans to salvage Skylab and its ambitious program of scientific research. Teams of administrators, astronauts, engineers and scientists carefully constructed plans to counter every threat to the station’s survival -- and Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz spent the ten days following their originally scheduled launch immersed instead in the details of how they would fix the damage.

Taking the challenge of their revised mission to heart, the crew members established a habit of working long hours every day shortly after they arrived at the station. They carefully executed the procedures that had been worked out in the exhaustive simulations on Earth, installing a makeshift sunscreen over the work area, and, within several weeks, making a spacewalk to deploy Skylab’s one remaining main solar array.

To the untrained eye accustomed to the gleaming, high tech sheen of previous NASA triumphs, photos of the results of their efforts might have seemed inelegant, the single solar array jutting awkwardly from one side of the station, the sunscreen resembling a tarp tent over a backyard summer barbecue.

But the repairs that Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz were able to put in place at America’s first space station -- as well as their intense commitment to carrying out the research program that they had originally been assigned -- allowed them to conduct nearly 400 hours of experiments, and enabled Skylab to support the work of two subsequent crews. Together the three teams of Skylab astronauts would return a treasure trove of important scientific research, which would be studied on Earth even years after the end of the Skylab program.

[Transcript, episode 5 of the video series “Five Minutes in Space;” see the video at my YouTube channel,]

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Echoes Among the Stars: A Short History of the U.S. Space Program