The Nats Win the Pennant! The Nats Win the Pennant! I Don’t Believe It!

What the Washington Nationals did tonight with their 4-1 victory over the Marlins was to claim the best record in the National League for 2014. No big deal, right? After all, it was last night when they assured themselves of home field advantage through the NCLS, because they split a doubleheader, accumulating just enough victories for the season to clinch at worst tie with the Dodgers for the NL’s best record. But the Nats held the tiebreaker, having beaten the Dodgers 4 out of 6 head-to-head. Success was theirs. Tonight they merely kept their surging momentum going, and gained “bragging rights” over the Dodgers.

What a sad situation the whole idea of a string of short series to determine the two Major League World Series representatives has wrought. No longer is a team given any substantive credit for having the best won-lost record in the league. To achieve that goal that team has to be superior over 162 games, as the Nats were this year. They needed a full five-man rotation, not just the attenuated four-man version designed for the playoffs. They needed a deep, reliable bullpen, with a variety of middle-inning relievers, a designated setup man, and a closer who was dependable, efficient, and free of ninth-inning drama. And when he got tired they needed to find, and did so, a successor in their own bullpen. They needed a strong, resilient lineup top to bottom, one with enough depth to overcome the (all too frequent) injuries and the slumps. They needed some reliable subs to rest their regulars. They needed good performance, successful decisions and unflappable confidence, day in and day out, from their coaches and manager, through streaks and through slumps.

In ye olden tymes this was called “winning the pennant.” People as old as I remember hearing the frenzied, ecstatic call of Russ Hodges in 1951 when the Dodgers and Giants had a one-game playoff, won by the Giants on Bobby Thomson’s 9th-inning 3-run homer. Or the last game of the 1967 AL season, when Jim Lonborg pitched the Red Sox to a last-game-of-the-season victory. And if we want to go way back in time, this year is the 100th anniversary of the “Miracle Braves,” a Boston club that was in last place on the fourth of July, but won the pennant by going a staggering 70-19 over their last 89 games and winning, nay, sweeping, the World Series from Connie Mack’s heavily favored Philadelphia As.  Winning the pennant was what every team yearned for, fought for, and celebrated.

For pennant winners it was the long haul, regular season performance that assured the memorability of the season, the championship. Now, thanks to the money-grubbing, TV-oriented policies of MLB, this unique achievement has been reduced to bragging rights, to home field advantage. All that really counts is the quirky unpredictability of a sequence of short series, best 3 of 5 or 4 of 7. Now it’s all about one post-season hot pitcher, or a couple of hitters on fire.

So now in baseball, a major league sport unique in having a long, long, 162-game season, and in measuring success by statistics accumulated over the months, years, and decades, the substantive success of a whole season’s dominance by one team is thrust aside to create a sequence of trivial, almost contrived, dramatic moments, the most intense of which are usually experienced in late October at night with high wind chills, not the environment in which the Boys of Summer were destined to achieve their most characteristic, best, work.

So three cheers for the Washington Nationals, who have already achieved the highest level of success which baseball offers, no matter what October may bring.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

On the Chain, Gang

About three years ago I converted my old Specialized Hard Rock Sport to a sort of “town bike.” I was not using it for its intended off-road purposes, and the shock absorbers in the forks drove me crazy going uphill because they absorbed so much energy that should have gone to the cranks. The knobby fat tires were noisy and high-friction on road surfaces, and the bike itself easily weighed 35 pounds.

So I bought Specialized road-friendly tires for it (smoother, tread for control on slick surfaces, not traction in mud), added a rack over the rear tire with a detachable commuter bag attached, a fold-up basket for groceries on the left side, a bell for warning pedestrians, and two locks: a U-lock mounted on the frame, and a cable lock in the commuter bag. Now it probably weighed 45 pounds, but was more useful.

The idea was that I could work fitness into my daily routines by doing local errands on this vehicle, while leaving the Audis safely in the garage. Whether it was going to Thoreau Middle School to vote, to CVS to pick up a prescription, to the bank for a deposit, to the library for a book, to Giant for food, to the P. O. to mail a package, or to Emmaus UCC to work on the finances, I’d use the bike. It worked pretty well, until nasty winter weather and summertime lassitude got the better of me.

And so the bike, my only bike not wall-mounted, stood in the garage, until yesterday.

That’s when the sublimely perfect fall weather forecast for all week inspired me to think of the Specialized again. I had two large envelopes to mail, and a copy of the New Oxford Annotated Bible to pick up from the church to prepare to lead a Bible study group. So I donned a comfortable shirt, collected my mailings, and went out to the garage. I told my wife I’d probably need to apply some lubricant, but once I did that I’d be gone.

There were two immediately noticeable effects of the long inactive period of about a year and a half: the tires were flat, though I had pumped them each once during that time, and the bike computer mount snapped from brittle old age (about 14 years) when I tried to mount the computer. But it could be temporarily attached with a rubber band, and the tires happily inflated and stayed hard at 80 psi.

Then I wheeled the bike out, got the oil and a rag, and started applying oil to the chain. It soon became evident that I was going to have to do more than a light lube job; the links were fairly well frozen. Despite the garaging, the chain had become inflexible, due probably to a combination of oxidation and of dried oil residue and grit in the joints. A thorough oiling and hand cranking didn’t loosen it up too much. I thought it might get flexible if I just rode it a bit in its newly-oiled state, but a trip down to the bottom of the street rid me of that delusion; I had to walk the bike back uphill to the garage.

I didn’t really have time to soak the chain in solvent, but I did want to ride that bike in the glorious cool air and bright sun. So I went to a “brute force” solution, using two pairs of pliers (can you imagine anything more useless than a single plier, or scissor, or pant?—they always come in pairs), plus some heavy-duty oil, necessary because I had used up the last of my chain lubricant: Seeds’ Merit Fine High Performance Sprocket & Gear Oil, a leftover from the Andrew era.

The process involved hand-checking every single link. For the frozen joints, which averaged about every other one, I put a drop of oil on it, grasped the link body on either side of the joint with my two pairs of pliers, and flexed until the joint loosened. Almost always that was rather quickly. After I was sure I had checked them all, I wiped the extra oil off the chain and gave it a whirl. Success!

An hour after I planned to go, I rode off on my errands in the bright and sunny afternoon, nagged only by the realization that I probably had two other bikes that were going to need the same treatment. Maintenance is the name of the game. But I intend to use this one enough to prevent a relapse.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

Vittoria Zaffiro Pros

Zaffiro is Italian for “sapphire.” It is a blue gem, or the color of the sky or ocean, or the name of the feisty and aggressive spousal antagonist of George “Kingfish” Stevens, the fast-talking schemer on the old Amos ‘n’ Andy radio and TV series.

But in its Italian mode the word is also the name of a series of bike tires manufactured by the Italian Vittoria firm (in Taiwan, of course). I got a pair of these beauties, Zaffiro Pros to be exact, to replace the Forte Pro+ tires I had been using on my Trek.

The Fortes were very nice in some ways, true racing tires with just a hint of tread along the interface between the wall of the tire and the part that comes in contact with the road. The contact side, the “top” of the tire (these are road tires, with a total width of 23 mm or about 9/10 of an inch), was ”slick,” or treadless. This design minimizes friction because the part of the tire usually in contact with the road, about the size of a dime but oval shaped, is smooth. At the same time, the shallow tread along the upper edge provides a bit of traction on turns, on wet road surfaces, and in sudden stops, times when the tires tend to slide sideways.  These tires also had dense casings, with fabric that had 120 threads per inch (tpi). Fabric that dense can, but in my experience does not always, protect better against punctures, and it definitely is fairly stiff, meaning that the tire doesn’t flex too much as it rolls. That can be a good or bad thing; it provides a less smoothed-out ride so that the rider feels all the bumps, pebbles, and edges the bike rolls over. But there is less drift because the tire is more stable in turns.

Zaffiro logo

Flashy logo on my new Zaffiro Pro tires

Furthermore, the Pro+ tires had blue sidewalls, which went really well with the paint job on my 2009 Trek 2.1, created back when they were making bikes in beautiful arrays of colors, not mostly matte black.

But as the Fortes got wear, and the rounded top of the tire flattened somewhat, they seemed to get very susceptible to picking up small, sharp stones. None ever penetrated the casing, but the flattened tops were getting quite pitted by tiny pebbles and also larger road debris, mostly as harmless as big pebbles and sticks, that took little chunks out of the surface of the tire as they skittered away. The “grippiness” of these slicks was earned at the expense of durability.

Vittoria decal

Vittoria decal on the Trek seat post

Enter the new Zaffiros, with their Aramid compound, designed for durability. They have more pronounced tread on the edges, and just a narrow band of treadless tire right down the middle of the top.  Not only are they made for “trainer” riders like me, but they also look cool on the bike because of their big, Italianate, red, white and green logo. As Italian as their national flag, or as a plate of caprese salad. And since they came with decals, I couldn’t help putting one on my seat tube. Now my bike sports the Vittoria logo. I know, I know. It’s a great marketing tool for them, because when I need another set of tires I am going to think “if my bike says I use Vittoria tires, I guess I better be consistent and get another pair.” But it’s still fun to have it on there.

On my first ride with them yesterday, they seemed to provide a discernibly smoother ride than the out-and-out racing tires, and coincidentally or not, my speed was even up a bit, though they are not built principally for speed. Smooth rolling, anyhow.   I almost felt like greeting my wife with “ciao, bella mia” when I got back from my ride, and putting on some Verdi. I did in fact make eggplant parmesan for supper. But I am going to rein in the Breaking Away syndrome just a bit, despite the excellent new tires on my bike. For now I’ll just say arrivederci.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.