Two believers at Shea Stadium, Summer of 1973.
Mets won their third straight against the Braves last night. Still not getting my hopes up for the rest of this season. You gotta believe, said Tug but that was easier to do when Tug himself was out there.
The Mets radio announcers were talking about the 1973 pennant-winning season. They recalled that the Mets were in worse shape at this same point that year. Arguably.
There were only the two divisions, no inter-league play, so the Mets had more chances against their division rivals, and it was an embarrassingly weak division. The Mets were the only team to finish above .500 and they did it barely, at .509, going 82 and 79, still the worst record in baseball history for a pennant-winning team. (They played only 161 games. There must have been a rainout they didn’t need to make up to decide the division winner.) Over in the West, the fourth place Astros won more games than every team in the East except the Mets whom they tied in wins. (They lost one more, having played all 162 games.) And besides having McGraw as their ace reliever, the pitchers he relieved included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack. Seaver won 19 and lost 10, a .665 winning percentage. He led the league in strikeouts with 251 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.08!
You had to believe but what was almost unbelievable wasn’t that the Mets were able to climb out of the hole and win that division but that they won the league championship series against the 99 and 63 Cincinnati Reds---the Big Red Machine in its glory years---and then took the Oakland A’s to a seventh game in the World Series!
Probably more accurate to say the A’s took the Mets to a seventh game. The Mets were up 3 to 2 after 5.
Anyway, I’m not ready to believe this season. But it's still fun when this team gets its act together, and imagine what things would be like if Harvey was healthy, which he will be next year, and that's where my hopes lie.
How’s your team doing?
Photo via Mets Merized Online.
This one’s going to make you cry even if you’re not a baseball fan, even if you’re only dimly aware of who Tony Gwynn was and what he did, even if you’d never heard of him, which, if that’s the case, after reading this you’re going to be glad you now have:
I wasn't alone in my worship among my friends, but I tried to do it best. Most of my friends had a Tony Gwynn poster on their walls—I had at least eight. Tony Gwynn growth charts. Tony Gwynn sliding into home. Tony Gwynn in a "Hitting Machine" poster, done up in the style of architectural renderings to capture the mechanics of his swing. Newspaper clippings covered my door. Shirts, mugs, hats, you name it—all bore Tony's face. I would mentally recite Tony's biography to myself each night instead of counting sheep. ("Anthony Keith Gwynn was born on May 9, 1960. His parents were Charles and Vandella Gwynn. He had two brothers, Charles and Chris …").
These were the late 1980s. Back then, a kid's illusions about his sports heroes were much harder to shatter. There was no social media to lift the veil and let you see the plain truth. Talk radio was fairly sanitary, especially in sleepy little San Diego. The local newspaper may have had harsh words, but those were reserved for upper management—the players, especially Tony, were granted a decorous exemption. So my idolatry continued unchecked. I collected Tony's cards and had a few chance encounters with him over the years, like the time I was introduced to him by my neighbor's ex-husband who happened to be his college roommate. (I told you San Diego was a sleepy little town in those days.) I continued to recite his bio, which I updated to include each passing season, the birth of his kids, his stats, to get myself to sleep. "Tony's son, Anthony Gwynn Jr., was born on …"
You know where this story ends for most kids. They idolize a figure they know from afar, they get an improbable chance to meet the guy, and he turns out to be a bum. He cheats on his wife. He kicks over trashcans. He shouts at clubhouse attendants. My first day at the stadium, I stood getting dressed in my sparkling new uniform in the bat-boy locker area, which was tucked around a corner from the main locker room, and located about 10 feet from the bathroom. Players filed by, most of them ignoring us. Suddenly, he appeared.
"Hey," he said to me, holding out his hand. "I'm Tony. How are you?" Flustered, I stammered, "Uh, nothing much." He laughed.
He laughed! Have you noticed that the tributes to Gwynn all seem to mention his laugh? The man's laughter illuminated the room. "Best sound I've ever heard in my life," ESPN's Chris Berman said in the locker room one day, after I'd sheepishly hauled out my Chris Berman baseball card and asked for his autograph. Somebody—my memory says it was Bruce Hurst—said, "I know that's your rookie card, Chris, 'cause you've got hair in that photo." Tony laughed for the next five minutes straight, literally holding his sides he was laughing so hard. The joke was lame, but who cares? If the payoff is hearing Tony Gwynn laugh for five minutes, I'll sit through anything.
Read all of David Johnson’s story, I Was Tony Gwynn’s Bat Boy, at Deadspin.
Photo via Deadspin.
Hat tip to Scott Lemieux.
If I’m rooting for the Clippers, it’s because I’m rooting for Doc Rivers. But if I’m rooting for Doc, aren’t I also rooting for Donald Sterling?
But if I’m rooting against the Clippers because I’m rooting against Donald Sterling, then I’m rooting against Doc.
With the Celtics, Knicks, and Lakers all out of it (For the first time in NBA history, not a single one of them has made the playoffs.), I’ve got nothing left but the Spurs and Doc Rivers.
Heck with it.
I’m not going to let Donald Sterling make me root against Doc.
(Note from a bemused Celtic fan: I still don’t understand how a team can trade a coach.)
I once asked Pop Mannion, a Dodger fan since he was a kid, his affections and loyalty having gone West wit' dem Bums to L.A., if he remembered if it took fans a while to warm up to Jackie Robinson.
Pop, who was fifteen in 1947, said he didn't know how it was in Brooklyn---judging by the cheers of the crowds on the radio, he'd guess not long---but what he remembers is that among Dodger fans he knew in his hometown, Troy, New York, where they were outnumbered and beleaguered by Yankee fans with more to brag about and root for, there was an excitement of a kind they weren't used to. Robinson was helping the Dodgers do something they hadn't done a lot of in their history.
As Pop recalls it, because of that, long-suffering fans felt about Robinson the way Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher says he does in the movie 42. They didn't care if he was black, white, or zebra-striped. As long as he helped take the Dodgers to the World Series, he was their guy.
And it wasn't as though Robinson's arrival was a surprise. Fans had followed his progress with the Dodgers' Montreal farm club. They saw him coming and couldn't wait for him to get there.
That anticipation and excitement aren't shown or felt in 42.
For all we see of Ebbets Field on game days, the Dodgers might have spent the whole of the Forty-seven season on the road, playing only before the most hostile crowds.
There are some other things missing I'd hoped to see.
A flashback to the young Branch Rickey as a college baseball coach comforting one of his players who'd been humiliated in public because he was black.
A scene in Montreal of Robinson chased down a street by a crowd of white people Robinson assumed were after him for the same reason a crowd of whites might have come after him in the U.S. but who turned out to be clamoring for his autograph.
42 - The Jackie Robinson Story is an excellent biopic, getting at essential truths of the true story it's based on without too much embellishment and while avoiding sentimentality and underplaying the moments that are too good to be true. It doesn't take too much for granted but resists overburdening itself with exposition. It's hokey in spots, contrived in others. You don't come away thinking, If that's not the way it happened, it's the way it should have happened. More like, if it didn't happen exactly like that, it's close enough.
Though I missed those things I said are missing, their absence don't make it a lesser movie. It makes it a weaker baseball movie. The rhythm of that pennant-winning season isn't part of the rhythm of the film. We get to see individual plays and at bats but get no sense of whole games being played. And we don't really get to see and appreciate Robinson as a baseball player. It's as if we're meant to take his greatness as a player for granted and not think about how the game was his passion and profession.
We don't see him playing to win.
We see him playing to show them.
Every time he steps up to the plate, whenever he's in the field or on base, it's a confrontation, a showdown between Jackie Robinson and racism.
And there's some truth in that. Every moment on the field was a moment when he might have failed.
But there'd have been as much truth and more fun in it, if we'd seen him taking an extra base now and then just because he saw the chance and not to prove a point.
I understand , though, why some of what I was rooting to see was left out. Director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland didn't want to give white audiences an excuse to think that if they'd been alive and in the stands back then they'd have automatically rooted for Robinson or to say, If he had that much support from white fans, and most of his teammates liked him, and lots of players on opposing teams accepted him, how bad could it have really have been for him?
(Think of Republicans, who did not vote for him, insisting racism must be a thing of the past because we have a black President, as if Barack Obama was elected and re-elected unanimously.)
But 42 doesn't dwell on showing crowds of black fans coming out to cheer for Robinson either.
This is thematic. 42 emphasizes a possibly unappreciated aspect of his story, how alone he was.
It didn't matter how many people, black, white, or zebra-striped were rooting for him. They couldn't go out on the field and play for him. They couldn't be him in confrontations with racist hotel managers, airline ticket agents, local cops, waiters, opposing teams' players and managers, members of his own team, umpires. They could not hold his temper for him. They could not swallow his pride. Everything, everything!, depended on Robinson's success on the field and his behavior in public. Which is to say everything depended on what he could only do by himself.
He had to be better than good for his own sake, for his family's sake, for his teammates', for the sake of all the black ballplayers hoping to make it to the majors behind him, for the Brooklyn fans, for everybody who showed faith in him, for all black Americans, for all Americans, black, white, and zebra-striped, for that matter. (Another theme of 42 is that while Robinson's struggles were inspiring they were also redemptive for many people.) That's a lot of people to be carrying on your back when you're reaching far to your right for a hard-hit ground ball or taking a long lead as you're getting ready to steal a base.
As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is heart-breaking in conveying that sense of aloneness and the what must have often felt unbearable loneliness that would have gone with it. I have some vague memories from my kidhood of the white-haired Civil Rights leader Jackie Robinson became, but I only know him as a player from film clips so I can't say with any certainty how close Boseman comes to capturing the real man. Rachel Robinson seems impressed enough. But Boseman isn't built like Robinson---Robinson looked and ran like what he was, a former star running back at UCLA---so he can't quite match that sense of dangerous abandon on the basepaths. Imagine what it was like to be a shortstop of the time, who tended to be puny and anemic, and looking up to take the throw from the second baseman on what is now not going to be a routine 4-6-3 double play seeing Robinson coming at you as though you are all that stands between him and a touchdown. Boseman doesn't fly, he sprints like an athletic actor who might have run track in high school.
Robinson's voice was high and piercing and he spoke fast with the volume turned up. Boseman speaks low and slow. No one would describe his Robinson as the real Robinson's teammate Don Newcombe once described him in an argument as not just wrong but " loud wrong." And the thoughtful look in his eyes is that of someone who sees obstacles ahead as problems he's quietly worrying his way toward solving, while the brilliant glint in Robinson's eyes was that of a man who sees obstacles as challenges to be met head on, at top speed, and at full force. And if, as the great sportswriter Roger Kahn said of him, Robinson burned with a dark fire, Boseman smolders.
But impersonation isn't required. Boseman plays Robinson as what he was in essence, a proud and talented man called upon to be two things he would rather not have had to be, a hero and a saint, and one thing he was but only more so, a great ballplayer. Boseman captures the pressure and the frustration and the strength, but he also conveys the natural human fragility. He's strong enough that we believe he'll stand up to it all, but we can see how he might break.
Boseman also shows us something else important about Robinson, that he was a man deeply in love with his wife. In showing that, though, he gets a lot of help from Nicole Beharie.
42 is as much a story of a happy marriage as it is a baseball tale and a history lesson.
As Rachel Robinson, Beharie gives what I hope will be a star-making performance. She’s smart, she’s independent, she’s got a strong will of her own, every bit a match for her husband. They’re equal partners and quietly passionate lovers. Together they make monogamy look very, very sexy.
As Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford might surprise a lot of people. His performance might even strike them as a revelation. But when you think about it, Ford has been playing character roles all career long. Han Solo and Indiana Jones are not typical action-adventure heroes. There's a fundamental insecurity Ford gives both, an almost neurotic self-doubt behind Han's bravado and Indy's guilt that mark them as thinking men---"I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."---and they are articulate. They know what they're saying. They're self-aware. Ford is always playing smart. This time out, he can really let the smartness show.
And it's not the case that it's time for him to play the grumpy old coot or wise elder. It happens that this character is in his sixties. But don't be fooled by the glasses and the dentures and the wig. They make him look like Branch Rickey. But he's still recognizably playing a Harrison Ford specialty. His Rickey is roguish and conniving, a conman and a liar in a good cause when the situation calls for it. Boseman gives 42 its heart. Ford gives it a sense of fun.
(Just for kicks, take a look at this picture of the real Branch Rickey as a young man. Still think having Harrison Ford play him was a stretch?)
That incident from Rickey’s past I’d hoped to see in the movie as a flashback gets in there in a confession Rickey makes to Robinson. Ford delivers the lines as an awkward and embarrassed apology. Back then, he tells Robinson, he knew what his player was going through was wrong but he didn’t have the courage to do something about it. Now he’s placing yet another burden on Robinson’s shoulders by looking to him to redeem his moral failure of thirty years before.
42 doesn't go out of its way to congratulate its white characters, like Dodger coach and scout Clyde Sukeforth and pitcher Ralph Branca, who treat Robinson decently. It's more interested in manager Leo Durocher's romantic misadventures with movie star Larraine Day, which got him suspended by Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler just before the Forty-seven season started, than in Durocher's championing of Robinson, although it does give Chris Meloni, who is excellent as Durocher, one powerful scene in which he puts the kibosh on a players mutiny being organized by some of the Southerners on the team led by Dixie Walker who think the Dodgers management would rather keep them than let Robinson play. 42 isn't one of those well-meaning but inadvertently insulting movies that portray episodes from the Civil Rights movement as cases of brave and kindly white people coming to the rescue of noble but powerless on their own black folk.
Instead, what we see more of is Robinson's morally uplifting effect upon some whites, starting with a few of his teammates. This includes Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese.
The famous moment at Cincinnati's Crosley Field when Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky playing before what was for him something of a hometown crowd---Kentucky lying just across the Ohio River---silenced the boobirds by putting his arm over Robinson's shoulders, a gesture that legend has it earned Reese his plaque in the Hall of Fame, is presented as Robinson doing the white guy the favor.
Despite how it might look from a distance, Reese (affably played by Lucas Black) assures Robinson, what's really happening is that he's thanking Robinson for giving him the courage to decide between what he knows to be right and attitudes he was taught growing up. You made a better man of me, is his essential point.
But, to make sure we don't get too sentimental and make too much of the moment's effect, at the same time Reese and Robinson are having their conversation on the field, up in the stands a white Cincinatti fan is instructing his young son on how to hate the black man Robinson. The boy takes the lesson immediately to heart and enthusiastically joins in on the boos and the jeers. But when he sees his hero Reese put his arm around Robinson, he looks stricken, baffled, and sick to his stomach. Suddenly he's struggling with a choice similiar to Reese's. He has to choose between his father and what he's just been shown is right. His dilemma isn't resolved when the scene ends and we're left to wonder which way he'll choose.
Given the time and place and what we know is coming over the next twenty years and a son's natural instinct to take after his father, it's unlikely he'll choose well. It's frighteningly easy to imagine this cute little boy as a young man dumping milk shakes over the heads of people sitting in at lunch counters and screaming at children on their way to school.
One brave man has only so much redemptive power.
42 is an inspiring film but not a triumphant one. It doesn't reward Robinson with the comforting knowledge he has saved anybody or anything but himself and his baseball career---and that's only for now. There's still a lot to be done and a lot of troubled water ahead. In the end, it leaves him and Rachel only a liitle less alone than when we met them.
Robinson may have been a man alone, but Boseman sure isn’t an actor alone. Along with Beharie and Ford, he gets strong support from Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith. Smith was the sports editor for the Pittsburgh Courier and later became the first African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America but at the time he was writing his stories in the stands with his typewriter on his knees because he wasn’t welcome in the press box. The Courier sent Smith on the road with Robinson. In the movie he acts as Robinson’s press agent and advance man but also as his conscience. Howard is by turns amusing and affecting as a basically nervous and introverted intellectual inspired by Robinson to find the courage to stand up to…Robinson and push his hero to be even more heroic.
Chris Meloni has a grand time as Leo the Lip Durocher. The script gives him some of the best lines, after Ford’s, and two scenes of him on the phone to Rickey are two of the funniest in the movie. Max Gail has a sly cameo as the easy to underestimate Burt Shotten who replaced Durocher as manager after Durocher’s suspension. T.R. Knight is a hoot as Harold Parrott, Rickey’s timid, bottom line-watching, bean-counting assistant who develops what Rickey calls “sympathy” for Robinson but which looks like an irresistible urge to start going around punching racists in the snoot. Alan Tudyk is delightfully despicable as the racist whose snoot Parrott wants to punch first and hardest, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a shameless insult artist who taunts Robinson in the vilest ways from the safety of his dugout in one of the film’s necessarily ugly but most powerful scenes.
42 – The Jackie Robinson Story, written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, Chris Meloni, Lucas Black, T.R. Knight, and Alan Tudyk. Rated PG-13. 128 minutes. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
I'm a little bit ambivalent on the subject. I understand the health risks and the downward pressure steroid use in the Big Leagues exert. I don’t shrug it off that some college or high school player might be thinking, "Hey, if that’s what it takes…" Braun and A-Rod (when his time comes, which will be any minute now, I expect) earned their suspensions for breaking rules that were clear, consistent, and enforced and that they'd agreed to abide by. But I don’t think of them as cheaters. I'm not clear on why PEDs should count as “cheating” when cortisone shots, the many and various painkilling pills that out there, amphetamines, and Tommy John surgery, contact lenses, Ace bandage wraps, and off-season weight-lifting regimes don't.
Clearly the argument can’t be that a player shouldn’t do anything to artificially enhance the abilities he was naturally gifted with or to compensate for the effects of injury or aging.
The argument, as far as I can tell, is that steroids are like spinach to Popeye or a yellow sun to Superman and magically give players powers and abilities they wouldn’t ordinarily have and aren’t obtainable by any other means.
I was listening to the Red Sox on the radio last night and the announcers had Roger Clemens in the booth with them for a couple of innings. Clemens had a lot of interesting things to say and he said them in an interesting and intelligent fashion so that I began wishing they’d just hand the mic over to him and let him call the whole rest of the game. Of course he did a great deal of reminiscing---particularly about the Red Sox’ 1988 season. It’s the 25th Anniversary of that year’s division championship (also of their 4 and out appearance in the playoffs against Oakland, but never mind) and last night was Joe Morgan Night at Fenway, Joe Morgan the former snowplow driver and Sox manager that season not Joe Morgan the Hall of Fame Second Baseman---and of course none of it touched directly on PEDs, even with Bruan’s suspension still in the news and A-Rod’s fate being decided wherever it’s being decided by the powers that be. But, again of course, the subject is there, hanging like a slow curve ball for anyone who wants to take a swing at it, whether or not it gets directly brought up
Talking admiringly about the kid the Sox had on the mound, rookie Brandon Workman, like Clemens a University of Texas alum, and, in his third major league start, on his way to his first major league win, Clemens got into what a young pitcher like Workman has to learn which naturally led to his talking about what he’d had to learn himself as a young pitcher and that led to his talking about he’d had to learn as he grew into an old pitcher and began to lose some of his velocity, which is the point at which cynics couldn’t help thinking, “Steroids.”
But Clemens went on to describe the coaching he got, which is a startling thought---The Rocket needed coaching? The seven-time Cy Young Award winner needed a coach to tell him how to pitch?---that makes perfect sense once you get over being startled. Of course a smart veteran pitcher is still looking for the coaches’ advice. At any rate, he described how with various coaches’ help he taught himself how to pitch differently and learned how to throw a new pitch, a cutter.
Was it the steroids?
If it was, how much of it was? Did they help him with the intensive strength and conditioning program he undertook? Did they give him the strength to keep pitching or to keep exercising? Either way, isn’t it just as likely that once he took the mound it was the cut fastball and his new approach that kept him in a game? Or even with the cutter would he have not been able to last out there without the strength that came from the steroid-fueled exercising?
I can’t sort that out.
I don’t think it can be sorted out.
I don’t believe it’s worth sorting out.
Ok, you say. If it wasn’t the steroids. If it was the cut-finger and the new approach and the training program, why doesn’t every aging pitcher do the same?
I say, they would if they could. Moreover, many probably do or at least try.
Their trouble may be that they just aren’t Roger Clemens.
They may not have had the will or the discipline or the genes or the baseball savvy or the incentive.
No journeyman pitcher reaching the end of his physical prime can expect teams to pay him a lot of money to continue to be a journeyman pitcher. But teams will pay---did pay---a lot of money for a Roger Clemens to go on being Roger Clemens.
And that’s what Clemens did that was so remarkable, and suspicious, he went on being Roger Clemens longer than most of even the best other pitchers go on being themselves.
But that’s just it. Looking over their stats, and arbitrarily identifying the season when they began using, all I can tell is that the steroids allowed Clemens and Bonds to keep playing past the point when their bodies might---might---have been telling them it was time to quit.
But they didn’t have Clemens pitching like Sandy Koufax in his prime or Bonds hitting like Babe Ruth or Willie Mays in theirs. Clemens continued to pitch like Roger Clemens. Bonds continued to hit like Bonds.
That is, the numbers they put up while using weren’t out of line with the numbers they’d put up before.
The year Bonds hit 73 home runs, all his other numbers, except, unsurprisingly, walks, were consistent with the past few previous seasons. And the next year his HRs dropped back down to “normal”. Which suggests that fans and sportswriters who say he did it deliberately are right. For some reason, he decided he wanted that record that season. Or…
Maybe all those home runs and all those walks are telling the same story. Maybe that season he faced a lot of nervous pitchers who lost it when he came to the plate and/or a bunch of proud ones who made the mistake of challenging him. Who knows? Only those who believe steroids are spinach.
Same with all those home runs splashing down in McCovey Cove in 2000. They might have been powered by steroids or it might have just been that for the first time there was a McCovey Cove for them to splash down into. That was the year the Giants moved out of Candlestick, a park that, I’ve heard it argued my whole life, cost Willie Mays all the home runs he’d have needed to break Ruth’s record well-before Aaron.
On the other hand, how many extra HRs did playing his first six seasons in the Polo Grounds gift him with?
The conditions are part of the game. Once you start trying to make judgments compensating for those conditions you might as well start trying to factor out the weather on any given game day and then what each player had for breakfast and how well he slept the night before.
There’s a reality effect at work. An attempt to devise an ideal set of parameters against which to judge players is to devise an unreality. It’s fantasy baseball, which is fun, but it’s still just what-iffing.
All we have to go on is what was.
That said, I’m going to do a little what-iffing myself here.
Not that I would know, but based on things I’ve read and heard said and from what I know from entering middle age myself, I’d guess that the first things that start to go on a player in his mid-thirties are his knees, and when your knees go an awful lot of your ability to play goes with them.
After the knees, it’s probably the eyes. Your vision changes and you can’t see the ball or read the field they way you used to. And this sneaks up on you. You don’t necessarily “see” it coming. It’s hard to adjust if you don’t know there’s a problem you need to adjust to. I wonder how many former players, after making a long put off trip to the eye doctor, look through their new glasses and exclaim, “So that’s what happened!”
Back and shoulder and neck pains probably drive a lot of aging players from the game.
Pain, period. You just don’t recover as fast. It’s just not as easy to shrug off. It just stops seeming worth it to shrug it off. It’s just easier and seems wiser to sit and wait for it to go away.
But you lose something else as you get older, along with resiliency, some mobility, and a step or two. I think I heard Gary Carter say this. You lose drive.
It simply doesn’t mean as much to keep playing. Losing doesn’t bother you as much. Winning doesn’t thrill you the way it did. What used to feel like freedom and adventure is a grind. Your teammates aren’t as important to you as the family you didn’t have when you started but now miss and worry about like crazy.
And when you lose the drive, you lose focus.
You start taking your eye off the ball, so to speak.
Something else happens, as well.
You grow up.
There comes a time when you just can’t keep kidding yourself you’re still a kid. And it may not be your body telling you this.
There’s an episode of Cheers in which Sam gets a chance to pitch again for the Red Sox. He’s invited to try out with one of their minor league clubs. And it turns out, he’s still got it, at least enough of it that the Sox are willing to put him on the roster and let him show if that enough is enough to get him back into the big leagues. But Sam quits.
He tells Carla it’s because he can’t keep up.
He doesn’t mean on the field.
He can still play.
He just doesn’t want to play anymore.
He doesn’t want to spend his time goofing around in the company of the twenty-year olds who are his teammates. They’re good kids. He likes them. They like him. They respect him. They want him on the team. But he knows he’s not one of them anymore. He feels out of place.
What if there’s a player whose knees don’t go? Whose eyesight doesn’t fade? Whose back doesn’t bother him? Who can keep his focus because his drive doesn’t leave him? Who is smart enough and patient enough to still be coachable? Who has the discipline to learn new things? Who keeps himself in superior shape? Who finds a way to fit in with the kids or who doesn’t mind not fitting in?
A rare player, no doubt.
In any generation how many are that lucky and that driven?
But what if there’s one?
What if there’re two?
This post is really a continuation of my two part Reflections of the All-Star Game and I probably should have titled it accordingly. But the All-Star Game is ancient history now. But if you'd like to read the other posts, click on the links for Part One: Mariano Rivera is boring and that's why he's great and Part Two: Baseball is not a religion, the Hall of Fame isn't a shrine, and Barry Bonds deserves his plaque.
Here's a post by Rob Nyer of ESPN making the case that playing Candlestick probably didn't rob Willie Mays of his chance to break Babe Ruth's record. And I take his point. It's easy to imagine how natural it would have been for people watching every time Mays lofted one that didn't leave the park to think, "That should have been a home run!" even if it was really just a long fly ball that would have been a long out in any park. But...the wind wouldn't have had to bat back many more for it to have had an effect. Mays played at Seal Stadium and Candlestick for ten years. If he'd only lost four HRs a year to the weather, he'd have left San Francisco with 700 home runs, which means he would have only needed to hit 15 while with the Mets. As it happened, he hit 14.
Another thing, which Nyer doesn't mention: Mays played a lot of games in the 60s in Dodger Stadium which at the time was far from a hitter-friendly park and not just because of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and Don Sutton and Claude Osteen.
He does say that playing in the Polo Grounds didn't give Mays as many extra home runs as I'd have thought. It was very friendly to a certain type of hitter, but Mays wasn't that type.
Photo by Steve Lipofsky via Wikipedia.
Cooperstown. August 27, 2011. Roberto Clemente played for the Cangrejeros. I don’t think that’s his jersey though. Photo courtesy of me.
“¡Viva Baseball! features nearly 150 artifacts and a state-of-the-art multi-media presentation celebrating the passion of the Latin love affair with baseball, spanning nearly 150 years of history. The exhibit focuses on the rich baseball traditions of the major baseball-playing countries of the region: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. In video interviews located throughout the exhibit, Latin American Hall of Famers and major league All-Stars provide first-hand accounts for playing in their homeland, their journey to the major leagues and insight into what makes Caribbean baseball special.
Some of the historic artifacts from ¡Viva Baseball! include: A ball from the first organized pro season in the United States from 1871, used in a game that featured Cuban Esteban Bellán, the first Latin American big leaguer; a jersey from Puerto Rico’s Roberto Clemente; a glove and cap from Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal of the Dominican Republic; a jersey worn by Hector Espino, the “Mexican Babe Ruth”; and jerseys and equipment from current Latin American superstars like Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Johan Santana.”---from the Baseball Hall of Fame’s website introduction to the exhibit ¡Viva Baseball!
Visit the online exhibit by clicking on the link.
If I was a member of the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce or on the board of the Baseball Hall of Fame or a relative or descendant of one of the three men the Veterans Committee voted into the Hall this year or just a fan who’d planned my summer vacation around Induction Day, I’d have been furious with those sanctimonious baseball writers who refused to put Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in the Hall this year for ruining the weekend.
But the Hall of Fame seems to have saved the day in some measure by itself. At least 30 baseball greats with plaques of their own showed up to help make the day special, including Dennis Eckersley, Cal Ripken, Barry Larkin, Carlton Fisk, Juan Marichal, Hank Aaron, and Sandy Koufax. And they appear to have drawn a good-sized and enthusiastic crowd to cheer the inductions of Deacon White, Hank O’Day, and Jacob Ruppert.
White was one of the best players of the 1870s and 80s and, according to his plaque, a “consummate gentleman”---a man of character in an era full of characters, many of them bad characters.
O’Day was a longtime umpire who began his career in the days when games were called by a single umpire out there all on his own who had only as much power to enforce his decisions as his courage gave him and the players and crowds allowed. “Kill the umpire” wasn’t just something fans yelled to vent their frustration.
Ruppert owned the New York Yankees during the Ruth and Gehrig eras. His plaque credits him with turning a perennial second division ball club into the now nearly 100 years old dynasty we know and loathe today.
Of course, a key to that transformation was the signing of Babe Ruth, and as Boston Red Sox fans will be all to glad to tell you, that wasn’t so much the result of Ruppert’s acumen as Sox owner Harry Frazee’s infatuation with show biz.
Things aren’t put quite that way on Ruppert’s plaque though. It doesn’t say, “Addlepated Boston owner Harry Frazee, desperate to finance his Broadway show No, No, Nanette, offered his team’s star player and pitcher to the richest fellow owner he knew and Ruppert, no dope, snapped him up.”
Wouldn’t have been seemly and besides it would have been the case of the legend having become the fact, imprinting the legend.
What it says is that Ruppert “procured” Babe Ruth.
Unfortunate word choice, I think, spiked with unintentional irony.
But I’m guessing whoever wrote the inscription rejected “bought” and “purchased” as sounding too much like what it was, a human being being sold as property.
The right word---as in the proper baseball as business cliche---is “acquired,” but that’s used in the very next clause.
Again, old-time Red Sox fans, for whom 2004 and 2007 make up for nothing, will be happy to suggest their own word for what Ruppert did with regards to Ruth.
A Non-fan's notes: Interesting biographical essay on Deacon White by his great-grandson, James B. Jackson, at Slate, The Hall of Famer.
Statues depicting ardent Cincinnati Reds fan Harry Thobe, Boston Red Sox fan “Megaphone Lolly” Hopkins", and Atlanta fan Pearl Shadow greet visitors at the entrance of an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame called humorously Sacred Ground. Photo courtesy of me. Taken August 27, 2011.
[Editor’s note: This is a continuation of Wednesday’s post, Reflections on the 2013 All-Star Game One: Mariano Rivera is boring and that’s why he’s great.]
Much as I love Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, baseball is not a religion.
It's not a religion, ballparks aren't cathedrals, and the Hall of Fame isn't a shrine. It's a museum. A good one. Much more interesting and lively and fun than it was when I was a kid. If you haven't visited it recently, you should make a point of going soon. Too bad that, thanks to a handful of sanctimonious sportswriters, you won't get to see the plaques of the best pitcher and the best hitter and all around player of the last quarter of the 20th Century this summer, you should still go. And Cooperstown itself is a pleasant and pretty little town. But the point is the museum and what it's there to do, which is what any good museum is there to do, illustrate a history.
Another way to say that is that museums tell stories through visual aids.
Sometimes when I’m daydreaming between innings while sitting in the stands or watching on television or listening while out on the porch late at night, I like to take a Tralfamadorian view and imagine baseball’s history as one continuous, never-ending game of thousands upon thousands of innings being played by uncountable numbers of players in one eternal moment, and that all that’s happened, all that is happening, all that will happen is happening now, all at once, and if we knew how we could look into the moment and pick out any single game, any inning, any at bat, at any ballpark on any given day and see Old Hoss Radbourn finding enough life left in his nearly dead arm to pitch one more game on his way to winning 59, Shoeless Joe and his teammates, their sox still metaphorically white, meeting in that hotel room to discuss throwing the Series, DiMaggio extending his hitting streak another day, Jackie Robinson digging in at the plate in his first at bat at Ebbets Field, Willie just turning his back on home plate to chase after Wertz’s fly ball, Reggie swatting his first of three, the ball on its lazy way down the first base line and Buckner beginning to bend for it, Sid Bream, fucking Sid Bream, rounding third, and Barry Bonds hitting the first home run to splash down in McCovey Cove, and the second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth!
Of course we do have a way of looking at it like this, by telling stories.
More than every other sport, baseball is best understood and appreciated through the telling of stories (Only golf and boxing come close) and baseball’s fans are naturally lovers and collectors and tellers of stories.
We don't love the game for the numbers. The numbers help us appreciate the game. But we love the game for how it is played, and so how individuals played the game is as important---in some cases more important---than the numbers they put up while they were playing. How did they help make games and the game interesting and exciting and fun? The numbers might argue that Jim Rice doesn't really belong in the Hall. But if you were in the stands in Fenway Park that day he tied the game against the Blue Jays with a two run homer that kicked up a tower of dust in the deepest reaches of the Red Sox bullpen and then won it with another blast to the exact same spot and you were thrilled but you weren't surprised because that's the kind of thing Jim Ed did, you might be inclined to say, What do the numbers know?
Actually, the numbers know that he did that kind of thing often, but suggest he didn't do it often enough to offset other things he did often, like ground into double plays.
“You could look it up!” is the game’s unofficial motto. And you could. You can. We all do. The numbers are there. But every discussion of numbers turns into an exchange of stories pretty quickly.
In this character matters. Not character as in having good character. In being a character.
That's why we talk about Ty Cobb, despicable as he was, as if he's still alive and spiking opponents and charging up into the stands to beat up hecklers and why Honus Wagner is a revered but increasingly distant figure growing harder and harder to see in the mists of the past.
Because he's a closer, and because he's a man of good character but not a character, and because he played for the New York Yankees during one of their least tumultuous eras, Mariano Rivera doesn't add a whole lot to the story on his own. He’s a secondary character in the story of the Yankees, which is a dominant chapter in the story, but within that story he is overshadowed by Ruth, by Gehrig, by DiMaggio, by Mantle, by Berra, by Munson, by Jackson, and by Jeter. By Casey Stengel, Billy Martin, and Joe Torre, as well. He's a fascinating aside, but he's not a complete story on his own.
And his story takes in Sammy Sosa's and Mark McGwire's and Roger Clemens' stories, and Raphael Palmiero's and Ryan Braun's. It crosses over into Willie Mays’ and Hank Aaron’s. It pulls in Roger Maris’. It takes in Ken Griffey's too, the way Griffey's takes in his. Theirs are parallel lives. Plutarch would have had a field day. Here's Griffey, suffering injury after injury, enduring one disappointing season after another, playing his heart out for his team and his fans and for the pure pleasure of being in the game. And there's Bonds, playing for himself.
If he never gets a plaque, there needs to be an exhibit devoted to him, explaining why he doesn't have one. If he does get one someday, that exhibit still needs to be there to explain why he got it even though many people felt he didn't deserve it.
You can’t not tell Bonds’ story and still claim you’re telling the story of baseball. It’s argued that giving him and Clemens and the others plaques in that part of the museum clearly labeled on the maps as the “gallery” not the chapel violates…I’m not sure what. It’s holiness, is what it comes down to. But in leaving him out the museum would be failing to fulfill its mission as a museum. It might be a holier place, but it’s definitely a lesser museum.
Barry Bonds was the best player of his time, one of the very best of the last 40 years, and then he made a decision that made it impossible to judge just how good he really was.
Except that was never going to be possible. It’s not possible to judge, objectively, precisely, and absolutely, just how good any player was because, as Scott Lemieux puts it, the idea that baseball records “are comparable throughout the eras...has never actually been true.”
Babe Ruth was a remarkable talent, but he was able to dominate his league the way he did in part because baseball in the 1920s was far, far less efficient at getting the best talent into the majors — not just the color line but the lack of systematic scouting and farm systems. The Hall of Fame is teeming with merely good players whose stats were compiled during the high-offense twenties and thirties. And while Roger Maris’s record was not established in a high-offense era, it was still the product of many contingencies — an expansion year, a ballpark that made the record possible (which it would not have been for a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium or any hitter in Griffith Stadium), having a better hitter behind him to increase the number of ABs in which he could homer. The idea that baseball stats before 1995 were easily comparable across eras is very wrong.
Baseball isn’t a religion, ballparks aren’t cathedrals, the Hall of Fame isn’t a shrine, and the numbers aren’t sacred artifacts.
The records are points of pride for the players who hold them. They are interesting as measures of the difficulty of the game. But what do individual records tell us about the players or the way the game is played or was played? Did Bonds become a better player than Harmon Killebrew only when he hit his 574th home run? Did he become as great a player as Ted Williams when he hit his 521st?
(Immediately, Williams fans have begun telling themselves the story of Williams the flying ace’s service in World War II and Korea.)
Want some numbers to obsess over? Forget 762 and 73. Try 514 and 8.
Bonds stole 514 bases over the course of his career. He won 8 Gold Gloves.
How did he “cheat” to put up those numbers?
The records---all the numbers---are important only in the ways they color the story and advance the plot.
Cal Ripken’s record of 2,632 consecutive games played is quite an achievement. Some fans think it’s a dubious one, that he wore himself down and hurt his team for a vanity. But that’s beside the point. The point is that as a story it pales next to Gehrig’s 2130 because of the way Gehrig’s streak ended.
Every game closer to DiMaggio’s record of Pete Rose came called more attention to the difference between himself and DiMaggio. If Rose had hit safely in 13 more games, those differences would have been the story.
And it wouldn’t be just a matter of character or character. DiMaggio never played on Astroturf. Rose played many more games at night.
McGwire’s 70 and Sosa’s 66 are curiosities because the story had already been told---Would anyone ever break Ruth’s record? All McGwire and Sosa did was break Roger Maris' record. And Maris’ story isn't just that he broke Ruth's record. His story is compelling for what he went through while on route to breaking it. McGwire and Sosa and then Bonds didn’t change that or take away the sting of that stupid asterisk. And they share the same fate as Maris, overshadowed by the player whose record they’d surpassed.
Breaking Ruth’s record left Maris as it found him, a good but not great hitter in an era about to be dominated by pitchers. It left Ruth…Ruth.
Breaking a record doesn’t erase the player who previously held it from the story. It doesn’t demean or diminish him. It just adds something else to tell when telling his story.
Putting Bonds and Clemens in the Hall won’t “cheapen” anything. It adds to the story and the stories of other players the Hall exists to collect and re-tell.
Not putting them in this year cheapened something. It cheapened today for the fans who made the trip to Cooperstown for the induction ceremonies and for the families of three men the Veterans Committee voted in this year, Hank O’Day, Jacob Ruppert, and Deacon White. Imagine how many more people would be hearing their stories if their plaques were going up alongside Bonds’ and Clemens’.
Part Two of my All-Star Game post is written. Just have to type it, which, as you know from all my whining about it, is a chore for me these days. But I will persevere! Just as a heads up, though. The post is about how Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame and how he’s for all intents and purposes already in there, whether or not he gets a plaque. In the course of making my case, I do a big song and dance about how baseball isn’t a religion and the Hall of Fame isn’t a shrine…
Except when it is. I forgot about the exhibit that greets you when you walk in the door.
I don’t know. Reminded this former altar boy of the altars to Mary and Joseph at the front of the church. Definitely some hagiography going on. Gehrig, Robinson, and Clemente were good men but they weren’t saints. On the other hand, the exhibit’s titled “Character and Courage” and you sure can’t argue that any one of them lacked either.
Ok. Back to typing.
Photo courtesy of me. I took the picture on our visit to the Hall back two years ago, August 27, 2011.
Veterans Field. Home of the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod League. Chatham, Massachusetts. July 17, 2008. I could have seen future Mets All-Star Matt Harvey that night, but...I don't know who that pitcher is on the mound, but it's not Harvey. Mets fans will know how I know.
Working like a demon on the second part of my All-Star game post. But thought you might enjoy this while you’re waiting as some between-innings fun.
One of the best things about our July trips to Cape Cod was there was baseball that mattered to watch live during the All-Star Break. We’re big fans of the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod League. Just learned that the National League's starting pticher, the Mets' young ace Matt Harvey played for Chatham during the Summers of 2008 and 2009, which means there’s a good chance we saw him pitch. Trouble is, if we did, I don’t remember him. He was a reliever, so he could have come in, done his job, and left while I was in line to buy a hot dog. But even if I had seen him, unless he did something spectacular, he probably wouldn’t have registered. The two future major leaguer stars I did note the times we and they were there and remembered were Evan Longoria and Buster Posey and that’s mostly because of their names. Matt Harvey is not a distinctive name. I checked my notebooks and looked at old posts from our Cape trips of 2008 and 2009 to see if I’d mentioned him and forgot. Nope. But here’s a post about an Anglers pitcher I watched not flirting with a girl in the stands one night in 2009. Might have been him. Might not have been him. It was the middle of the game and he’d probably have still been in the bullpen. On the other hand, it was a game Chatham went on to lose 7-2, so the manager might have brought him in early, which is why he could have been out of the game and out in the stand selling raffle tickets. Let’s pretend it was him…
"These seats taken?"
"Nope," I said without looking up to see who was asking. Harwich had men on second and third. I took my foot off the bleacher bench in front of me. A mountain slid in and blocked my view.
It was only a house.
Big guy. Tall guy. Wide guy. When he asked about seats, plural, he meant it. He took up three spaces on the bench. And I couldn't see around him or over him. His head covered third base and the pitcher, angled as he was, his shoulders took out home plate and first base.
Nothing for me to do but move. I walked around the clubhouse to the stands on the third base line where, because it's where the home town crowd mostly sits, I couldn't find a seat. So I found a place to stand where I could look through a gap in the bleachers and see most of the field. Except that I didn't. Look through the gap. I was distracted.
Behind the bleachers is a favorite gathering spot for the pretty young women who are planning to still be there when the game's over and the fans go home and there's pretty much nobody left but them and the ball players packing up their equipment.
Few years ago---Jeez, was it almost ten already? IMDB says so---movie came out set on the Cape, Summer Catch, about a player in the Cape Cod League (Freddie Prinze) who falls in love with a local girl (Jessica Biel). The premise was that Prinze's character was a hardscrabble working class kid and Biel's was a WASP Princess---get it? Prinze's character was playing out of his league both professionally and romantically. The reality is often the opposite. Cape Cod, for all it's summertime wealth and visits from celebrities and Presidents, still has a large working class population. Chatham is a fishing village. The Cape League is for college ballplayers. They play here against the best of the best in hopes of attracting big league scouts but because they don't get paid they don't lose their amateur status. Mike Lowell played for the Chatham A's. Evan Longoria and Jason Bay did too. Most of them take part-time jobs to pay their expenses but they're on scholarships at their schools.
What I'm saying is that if these kids aren't princes, they are princes-in-waiting, and if they're smart as well as talented and they make the most of their opportunities, even if they don't make it as professional ballplayers, their status as college heroes and the connections that come from that will carry them far in life. For the most part, then, in any romantic encounters between players and fans, it's not usually going to be the case of Simple in his seven league boots winning the hand of the Princess, but a case of a beggar maid pining for the king for whom she's done an anonymous kindness.
Which is what I always think about whenever I see something like what I saw going on behind the bleachers Monday night.
One of the Chatham pitchers circulating through the stands helping to sell 50-50 raffle tickets and give out programs (and autographs) had stopped back here to chat with some fans---three college-aged women, one of whom was clearly smitten. Her friends were just star struck and they were talkative and giggly. But she was quiet and still and her eyes were huge. She was the prettiest of the three too. Not Jessica Biel movie starlet gorgeous. Normal human being beautiful. Her legs were long and her cutoffs were not. She was tall, but the pitcher was over six-foot and she had to look up with those wide open eyes into his. She had his attention, but he was cool enough not to show too much. He also knew enough not to hang around too long. he left them each with a program and then excused himself to go continue his rounds. The tall girl stared after him and her friends tried not to laugh too hard.
Several minutes later the pitcher came back this way. There was another player with him. They walked right past the tall girl and her friends who I don't think saw them. The pitcher and his friends were talking quietly but the pitcher gave his chin a quick jerk in the tall girl's direction and the other player lifted his head, held it still a second, then nodded.
I don't know if the pitcher was looking for his friend's approval or encouragement or to be warned off in case another friend was interested in the tall girl or in case she had a reputation as a nut or a clinger or a heartbreaker or someone who's heart it would be too easy to break. I don't know that I was seeing the story I've just told. I don't know that all I was seeing was a ballplayer being gracious with some fans and then talking over the finer points of the game with another player.
I do know, that if I was seeing this story, I'm rooting for the tall girl to find out that, one way or another, whatever way she wants it, this prince turns out to be a prince of a guy.
Wednesday morning, July 17.
The blonde (who went to bed early): Who won the All Star Game?
Me: The American League.
The blonde: Those stinkers.
This year's All-Star Game might not have been as big a snoozefest as it seemed if Fox had actually covered it and not used it as filler for their maudlin Mariano Rivera Memorial Services.
I admire Rivera. He's one of the reasons it's been no fun for me to hate the Yankees over the last 18 years. Almost by himself, he's made it just about impossible to hate them at all. Doesn't stop me from rooting against them. Just takes some of the old pleasure out of it. But the way Tim McCarver and Joe Buck were going on...and on...and on...about him,I began hoping Mo would come into the game, put three men on in twelve pitches, then give up a grand slam to Marco (2 HRs at the break) Scutaro.
And it was nothing against Rivera, just me wanting to hear how Buck and McCarver would deal with having their bombastic narrative broken up.
Listening to them tell it---and they told it and told it again, at the top and bottom of every inning--- and you didn't know better, you might have gotten the impression that no greater or more beloved player had ever appeared in an All-Star Game before or, at least, no future Hall of Famer had appeared in one in his final season. (Tim? Joe? Last year? Name Chipper Jones ring any bells?) Buck and McCarver grew so worshipful that I gave up my fantasy of a Scutaro grand slam and started to worry they knew something they weren't telling us and Rivera was seriously unwell.
Here's the thing.
It may have been that Rivera was the only guaranteed first ballot future Hall of Famer in uniform in CitiField last Tuesday night.
Ortiz seems like a shoe-in to me, but there are those rumors, and he'd be the first player to get his plaque as a pure DH.
So I think it'll depend on who's on the ballot with him.
I’m not sure Joe Nathan's a safe bet. Again, though, it'll depend on who else is on the ballot.
Beltran probably needs one more stellar season after this one of the kind he may be too old to give, just to get in the Hall at all, never mind on the first ballot.
Cliff Lee's been up and down his whole career, but he's still managed to put up some impressive numbers. How do you not put in the Hall a pitcher who despite breaking down a lot still has a .622 winning percentage, a 3.51 ERA, over 1600 strike outs, and 12 shutouts over the course of close to 2000 innings?
I don't know. How do you keep out a guy with a .634 winning percentage, a 3.51 ERA, 2293 strike outs, and 24 shutouts?
There were a slew of players in their primes any one of whom, many of whom, possibly all of whom, if they stay healthy and things continue as they've been going for them, could end up in the Hall. Cabrera. Molina. Wright. Philips. Fielder. Votto. Mauer. Cano. Pedroia.
Who am I leaving out?
It's an if-ier proposition with pitchers, but Verlander and Wainwright are looking good.
And then there were a bunch of exciting kids who if they fulfill their promise are going to make the game a lot of fun to follow the next ten years. Trout. Posey. Harper. McCutchen. Harvey. Machado. Fernandez. Sale.
But none of them did much to make this game great fun to watch, and neither did any of the veterans.
Brandon Phillips made a couple of beautiful grabs. Prince Fielder hit a triple. Say that again. Prince Fielder hit a triple. He does that but it's always amazing to watch him leg one out. How can a guy built like that fly like that? Manny Machado backhanded Paul Goldschmidt's two-hopper down the line and gunned him out at first in the kind play the baseball gods dreamed of when they created the game. Jose Fernandez retiring Dustin Pedroia, Miguel Cabrera, and Chris Davis one after the other on 13 pitches may not rank with Carl Hubbell striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx in order (with two on and nobody out, by the way), but, oh doctor! It was still impressive! But the AL scored their three runs quietly. The NL collectively went to sleep at the plate. And the most exciting and tension filled moments occurred in the top of the first inning when Harvey let one get away and drilled Robinson Cano just above the knee and then when Harvey pitched out of the jam he'd pitched himself into.
So it may have been that Buck and McCarver couldn't shut up about Rivera because the game really was a snoozefest and they had nothing else worth talking about.
But they should have realized that their harping on when Rivera would get into the game---besides the underlying assumption that that's what we were all watching to see. Some of us aren't Yankee fans, guys.---amounted to their rooting for the American League. They clearly thought that we didn't just want to see Rivera take the mound, we wanted to see him take it in classic Mariano fashion, in a save situation with three dangerous hitters coming up he'd retire in order on a handful of pitches.
They should also have realized that with the game actually trending that way, their maunderings made things feel scripted.
Mariano Rivera is the best (closer) there ever was, possibly the best there ever will be. Seemed to me McCarver and Buck fixated on his number of saves, but that incredible number, 638, really indicates two things: his longevity, remarkable among closers whose tenures in that role tend to be short, and the fact that he's had the New York Yankees playing behind him his whole career. His truly astonishing stats are his 2.20 ERA, over 1150 strike outs, and his almost negligible number of blown saves. (I need help with that last one. I can’t find the exact number. But for an indication: This season he has only failed to save 2 games while saving 30 so far.)
[Update: As he so often does, the Linkmeister comes through with the answer. 72. See more by following the link in his comment below.]
And he's a good guy. Generous, modest, kind, friendly and polite to one and all. He deserved that ovation and he deserves to go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
What I'm doing here is television criticism. Buck and McCarver didn't trust us to understand the significance of what was happening because TV covers sports as if everybody tuning in is uninterested in the game being played. We're all here for the spectacle and the hype or the conflict and the drama or to see history being made or to join in the worship of celebrity for celebrity's sake.
Then TV is never content to leave a good thing alone. If something played well once, it'll play well a thousand times. And so out strolls Neil Diamond to "sing" Sweet Caroline again, totally out of context, as if we're going to be moved the way the Fenway Park crowd was when he led them in singing it at the first home game after the Boston Marathon Bombing three months ago.
And of course, the moment being forced and faked, looked faked and forced, Diamond himself, who wanted to do a generous thing, looked foolish, vain, and old, and the crowd looked like they were determined to be good sports even though they were baffled and bored.
In trying to infuse Rivera's final All-Star appearance with all the spectacle, hype, conflict, drama, history, and celebrity worship the game itself lacked or failed to merit, McCarver and Buck oversold Mariano himself and made him...boring.
But here's the sad fact.
He is boring.
Not as a person or as a player.
But in his role.
Closers are boring, compared to starting pitchers and hitters and fielders.
That's their job, to be boring.
They don't win games. Closers who win games are closers who failed to be boring in the worst way.
Their job is to make sure games already won stay won. It's almost inapt terminology to credit them with saves. They don't come in when a game needs saving, not if the manager has been managing his bullpen effectively. It's just that it would sound stupid to credit them with preservations.
The days of a Sparky Lyle type of fireman are long past.
Nobody comes to the ballpark to see a closer, no matter how good he is. Not even fans of the team he pitches for want to see him pitch because his appearance means their team isn't winning handily going into the eighth and ninth innings. They're glad to see him, but they'd rather their team was up 6-2 at this point than 2-1. If the closer comes in with his team up 6-2, that means the game is in the process of being lost! And while there are plenty of ways a 2-1 game can be exciting, the closer isn't really part of it. His job is to put an end to the excitement.
Consequently, a closer's appearance isn't as much a part of the story of a game as its final punctuation mark. If he becomes part of the story it's because something has gone wrong for his team. The summation of his time on the mound should be no more than a sentence or two that amount to “And they all lived happily ever after (until the next game).”
So when all is said and done closers can be stars but they are, generally speaking, supporting players.
You see where I'm going with this, right?
Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Ah, the old rhetorical hidden ball trick.
End of Part One: Click on the link for Part Two, Baseball isn't a religion, the Hall of Fame isn't a shrine, and Barry Bonds deserves his plaque.
Photo by slgckgc via Wikipedia.
April 22, 2013. Saw 42 yesterday and was planning to write a review today. But since I spent a good part of the day down in the basement sloshing about in water up to my ankles, I didn’t get to it. Tomorrow then, I hope. Meantime, for some Jackie Robinson lore to bridge the gap…here’s a post from March of 2005. The great sportswriter Roger Kahn was reading from his then new book Beyond the Boys of Summer: The Very Best of Roger Kahn up at a now gone bookstore up in New Paltz and he had some good stories to tell, including these three about his friend, Number 42:
March 12, 2005. Still letting Roger Kahn do most of the work on the page this week. If you're keeping count Kahn gave me, so far, this post, this post, this post, and this post. I'm about done riding on his coat tails though. After today, I think I'll get one more free ride out of him and that I'll have to go back to doing my own writing. Unless I can find some one else as good as Kahn to steal from.
When Kahn was covering the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, he became friends with Jackie Robinson. Robinson was a prickly character. He famously kept his temper on the field in the face of terrible taunts, insults, and out and out threatening behavior on the part of fans, opposing players, and even some sportswriters who openly rooted for him to fail and minimized his achievements when they wrote about him.
Kahn was one of the few writers Robison liked and trusted.
The other night Kahn told three stories about Robinson. Couple illustrate how Robinson could be prickly. One shows what he had to be prickly about.
One time Robinson was blowing off steam in the locker room, spouting about something that bothered him and arguing with Don Newcombe, Brooklyn's star pitcher and one of the first black players the Dodgers brought up after Robinson. Newcombe, who had a less volatile temperamnet than Robinson, lost his patience with him and shouted across the locker room, "Robinson you're not just wrong! You're loud wrong!"
Some writers, like I said, rooted against Robinson and disrespected him in their stories and columns. But others liked him and wanted him to succeed, either because they wanted the integration of baseball to succeed or because they wanted the Dodgers to win or just because they recognized that Robinson was a great player and they loved the game and when you love the game you love to see it played well. Still, Robinson's relationship with sportswriters even with ones who were on his side could be tense.
One day Kahn and Robinson were talking about this. Robinson wished things were different. Kahn suggested that it might help if Robinson showed some appreciation for the favorable stories written about him. "You could maybe thank some people once in a while," Kahn said.
Robinson fumed at that.
"Thank them? For what? I'm the one stole home! They wouldn't have anything to write about, I didn't do that!"
Now, here's the story those stories set up.
One time the Dodgers were playing the Cardinals in St Louis, which was, Kahn said, the heart of the old Confederacy as far as the integration of baseball was concerned.
The Cardinals are notorious because Enos "Country" Slaughter tried to lead the team in a boycott against the Dodgers in 1947, the year Robinson started with Brooklyn. It's one of the dark spots on Stan Musial's reputation that he didn't stand up to Slaughter and may even have been planning to go along with the boycott, although he later apologized to Robison for the episode and for the Cardinals' treatment of Robinson. St Louis was always one of the toughest places for Robinson, for his whole career.
So there they were in St Louis, in the mid 1950s, Robinson a long-established star at this point, clearly at the height of a Hall of Fame career, and in the middle of the game the Cardinals' manager, Eddie Stanky, stands on the lip of the dugout, dangling a pair of shoes by the laces, and calls out to Robinson who's out on the field, "Hey, boy, gimme a shine?"
Robinson, of course, kept his head and didn't respond. But after the game when he got back to his hotel, the colored hotel he and the other black Dodgers had to stay at when they traveled to St Louis, he called Kahn at his hotel, a white hotel, and asked him what he thought about what Stanky had done and said.
Kahn, who'd been up in the press box, hadn't seen or heard the incident. Robinson told him.
Robinson said, "I been in the majors seven years now. It's time for this shit to stop!"
Kahn said, "You want me to write it?"
Robinson, who could be loud right as well as loud wrong, yelled, "Course I want you to write it! Why the fuck you think I called you up?"
So Kahn wrote it.
And filed it.
And his editor killed it.
The editor told Kahn, "We cover sports here, not race relations."
Back to the future: As I said, I hope to post the review tomorrow. Without giving too much away about the movie, though, Eddie Stanky was with the Dodgers in ‘47 and it’s interesting to note the role he plays in the movie’s plot, in light of Kahn’s story.
Both Members of This Club painted by George Bellows. “Joe never threw a punch unless he was sure it would land on a vital spot,” Harry Lenny, a frequent sparring partner said. “He had the spots picked out, mentally marked in big red circles on his opponent’s body: the temple, the point of the chin, the bridge of the nose, the liver, the spleen, the solar plexus. He’d pick out on or tow of these points and maneuver his opponent until he left a clear opening. It was a thing of beauty to watch Joe in the ring.”---From The Longest Fight: In the Ring With Joe Gans, Boxing’s First African American Champion by William Gildea.
Joe Gans. Never heard of him. Fighter. African American. Champ, around the turn of the last century. First black champion. First African American sports superstar.
I thought that was Jack Johnson.
Fought a big fight in the Nevada desert. Spectators arrived by horseback. Umbrellas held over the fighters in their corners.
Thought that was Jack Johnson too. His championship fight against Jim Jeffries.
It was Johnson. But it was Gans too. A few years before.
Gans did it all a few years before Johnson.
Native of Baltimore. Born 1874. Between 1891 and 1910, twenty-one years, fought close to 200 fights, won 145 of them, 100 by knockouts. Of the ones he didn’t win only 12 were losses, the rest were draws or no contests. Lightweight champ on and off, mostly on, from 1900 to 1908. His most memorable fight a forty-two round defense of his title against a holy terror named Battling Nelson in the desert outside Goldfield, Nevada, Nevada being one of the few states where prize-fighting was legal at the time. You read right. Forty-two rounds. In the desert. In summer. The Old Master. In his day considered one of the best fighters of all time. To this day, considered the best lightweight of all time. Over a hundred years of champs, contenders, pugs, mugs, and palookas have come and gone and Gans is still said to be the best.
I must have heard of him!
What I figure is, of course I’ve heard of him. He’s up there in my head, maybe not making his presence known like some other great fighters of lesser renown like Max Baer, the two Rockys, both Joe Walcotts, Gene Tunney---all heavyweights, notice. Heavyweights seem to get all the attention.---but there. Only whenever I think back on his era and what he did and what he meant, Jack Johnson just steps up and takes over the stage.
Gans did it first. Johnson did it bigger, broader, bolder, with more style and greater appetite and a lot less concern for what other people thought and more of a sense of himself as a celebrity and more determination to write a legend with himself as the hero-king. Johnson got his story told (fictionalized) in a Pulitzer Prize winning play and Oscar nominated movie, The Great White Hope, both starring James Earl Jones. He got a Ken Burns documentary. (Which I watched again before setting out to write this post. No mention of Gans.) Gans has his place in the Boxing Hall of Fame. He has a statue in an out of the way corner of Madison Square Garden. He has the painting above. Both Members of This Club by George Bellows. Great painting. Not the best-known of Bellows’ paintings of boxers, though. That would be Dempsey and Firpo. What else has he got to keep his memory alive and move it out of the shadow of Johnson’s legend?
This book now.
The Longest Fight by William Gildea.
As you can guess from the title, the book centers on that fight with Nelson. And it was some fight.
Nelson charged from his corner, as he did every fight. Gans held his ground and ducked slightly as Nelson threw a big hook that swept above his head. Almost comically, as if pointing his opponent in the direction of his target, Gans tapped two lefts to Nelson’s head. He seemed to say, “I’m over here, friend,” in as civilized and introduction as a boxer could make. Then he got serious: He unleashed a hail of rights to Nelson’s face, landing punches repeatedly from a distance and close range. Nelson fell into a clinch.
Midway in the round, Gans doubled up with two rights to the jaw and a left to the face---a three-punch combination. All three punches hit hard. In the final moments of the round,the Associated Press reported that Gans “peppered Nelson’s face with triphammer rightsand lefts and kept this up until the gong rang…Gans went to his corner with a big lead. Blood flowed from Nelson’s ears.
Gans could take a pounding. Nelson could take a pounding and like it. The impression you get from Gildea’s account is you could’ve packed your glove with a horse shoe and hit Nelson in the mush and he’d have blinked, given his head a shake, and come right back at you, smiling.
And he fought dirty.
Nelson often seemed to get the worst of it. Gans was one of the hardest punchers ever. Knocked opponents down with short, compact jabs thrown straight from the shoulder. And he was fast. Not just with his fists. Fast on his feet. Fast to react. Throw a good one right at his head, think you’ve got him tagged on the chin, on the nose, in the eye, and at the last second he’d pull left, pull right, pull back, an inch or two, and your punch sailed right by. His counterpunch, though, had you reeling before you knew you’d missed. But it was no Sunday stroll for Gans either.
Nelson rallied in the ninth round, and he continued his comeback in the tenth and eleventh rounds. His rage was obvious as he flailed away. He landed four punches to Gans’ one. When one of his handlers shouted, “Stay with him don’t let him get away,” he practically overwhelmed Gans. In taking the momentum, Nelson, not surprisingly, held Gans and head-butted him. Siler, the referee, let it go. He chose not to disqualify Nelson because he wanted the crowd to get its money’s worth.
But in the twelfth round, as Nelson drove Gans to the ropes, he lost his footing and slipped to the floor. Gans towered over him. Siler stood aside. The rules did not require Gans to step aside or for Siler to rub clean Nelson’s gloves. There were no niceties in boxing, and there are still few. Gans looked down at his opponent. Nelson’s unprotected jaw invited what would have been a legal punch. Gans had plenty of room to swing, more room by far than he ever needed. Usually, he could find a space where one didn’t seem to be. Now, he could have swung any way he cared to, and driven his fist into Nelson’s mealy face.
But Gans restrained himself. Instead, in a sportsmanlike gesture, a humble act, really, he put out his right hand to help Nelson to his feet. Nelson accepted Gans,s graciousness. He took Gans’s hand.
That was typical of Gans, a good-hearted and kindly and fair-dealing man, in and out of the ring. But no dope. He didn’t expect Nelson to be grateful, and Nelson wasn’t.
Yet midway through the twelfth, Nelson extended his cranium, as A.J. Liebling would have put it. So much for graciousness. And later in the round, Nelson again lowered his head and rammed Gans’s face, bloodying his mouth. In the thirteenth round, Nelson did it again.
Detailed and gripping as it is, Gildea’s account of the fight isn’t the whole of his book. It’s the narrative thread on which, jumping backwards and forwards and laterally through time, he hangs other stories. Stories of Gans’ other important fights. Stories about other fighters he faced, fought, befriended, learned from, and taught. Stories about the business of boxing at the end of the 19th and early goings of the 20th Centuries. Stories about the characters who gathered around the rings and the training camps and in the backrooms of bars where fights were arranged and deals were cut. Stories of what it was like for a black man trying to make his way, make his reputation, make his fortune in a nation run by white men for white men, although the only privilege many white men enjoyed was the privilege to push around and despise and lord it over people of color. Even after he’d established himself as a champ, Gans had to deal with the humiliations doled out by white men determined to make him suffer for daring to be black and successful, some large and threatening---death threats were routine---some petty---Gans could have won many of his fights sooner and more decisively but his manager thought it prudent for Gans to carry opponents several rounds past their deserving so that the paying white customers didn’t feel they were paying to watch a black man humiliate a white man even a pug who, knowledgeable fans knew, shouldn’t have lasted past a round or two against a fighter as good as Gans.
But Gans was an extremely popular champ with large numbers of enthusiastic fans of all colors.
Many of his white admirers could only explain their liking for Gans by making an exception of him. He was the right kind of colored man, they told themselves, which amounted to a way of seeing him as not colored at all, as an honorary white man, and they extended their compliments in expectedly racist and condescending terms and tones, diminishing his achievements and their own boxing judgment in the process.
But many others were simply too impressed to worry about defending their prejudices. Gans was good, the best, in fact, better than any other fighter of the day, white or black, and if to see that and admit to it and enjoy it meant acknowledging that a black man could be not just the equal of any white man but the superior to many, well, that’s what it was.
It probably helped that Gans was quiet-spoken, modest---without being self-effacing, self-abasing, or apologetic for his talent and success---patient, even-tempered, decent-hearted, and forgiving or at least understanding. That manager he fired? The one who cheated him? Gans kept him as a friend. Didn’t let him touch his money again, but still, bygones were bygones with Gans. Even Battling Nelson, viciously and loudmouthedly racist, who boasted of his successes against black fighters as special achievements, came to like and admire Gans. Gans remained on such good terms with his first wife that when he was dying of tuberculosis he asked to be taken to her house so he could die there and she opened her doors to him and his second wife, the woman he had left her for.
About the only person Gildea reports as having harbored any sort of hard feelings towards Gans was Eubie Blake, the great jazz pianist who got his start at the hotel Gans opened with the money he made from the Nelson fight. Blake held a grudge against Gans for getting between him and a girl he was in love with. Even so, Blake continued to work for Gans and when Gans died, although Blake said he wasn’t going to go to the funeral, his wife didn’t have to work very hard to guilt him into going to the church.
Some of Gans’ popularity was due to his character. Some of it, though, may have been due to sports fans’ intrinsic sense of fairness.
Because he was a thinking fan's fighter and because he fought with precision and skill instead of coming on like a brawler, there was something of a David versus Goliath quality to his fights, even though he was usually the favorite, so decidedly the favorite that the smart money wasn’t on whether he would win a fight but on what round he would win it in. But it may have been the case that fans knew the real Goliath Gans was up against, the whole apparatus of a virulently racist society in which whites held all the power.
Gans went into that fight with Nelson guaranteed a cut of the $35,000 purse that was hardly chump change for 1906, but not a champ's fair share. Nelson, the challenger, got more, and Nelson and the promoter, Tex Rickard, at the beginning of his storied career as the essentially the founder of modern prizefighting, insisted on conditions for the fight that were far and away more favorable to Nelson. Gans needed the money. He didn't have a manager looking out for him, having recently fired his longtime manager who was worse with Gans’ money than Gans was himself, and Gans wasn’t exactly careful. Gans was not the first pro athlete who couldn't trust the people he needed to trust with his money and to protect his interests. But as a black man he lived and worked within a system that gave him very little leverage to protect himself against whites determined to cheat him.
But some of Gans’ ability to win over fans may have been due to the way most sports fans got to know not just him but all their heroes and favorites at the time, by reading about them.
There were pretty much only two sports with national followings in America at the time. Baseball and boxing. And both were extensively written about, because unless you lived close to a city with a major league baseball team---and there were only 7 before 1903---or in a state where prizefighting was legal---and there were only a few---you had to follow them through the newspapers and magazines. The Gans-Nelson fight was covered by reporters and writers from all over the country (Jack London was there.), witnessed and written about from every angle.
This meant that for many fans boxing, and boxers, came to life through words, and Gans was good with words. He was intelligent, witty, thoughtful, and could talk about his sport and his abilities knowledgeably and persuasively. Which meant that Gans himself had control over how people “saw” him. In a real way, he wrote himself into their heads as the man and professional he knew himself to be, over-writing their prejudices.
Of course there were cameras. There were movie cameras. The Gans-Nelson fight was filmed and shown in theaters across the country and around the world. But Jack Johnson, coming along just a few years later, entered the public’s consciousness by way of mass media that had become more visual. He had more cameras to play to and an audience that expected to see their heroes…and villains. And Johnson made sure the customers saw him.
What they saw was an undeniably black man, rich, famous, happy, having the time of his life and not caring what anybody thought about it, except to be more insistently himself to those who thought he should be someone lesser. And they hated him for it and rooted for his ruin.
The upshot is that this is another way Johnson upstaged Gans. Johnson’s story is the more dramatic and more representative story of the ongoing tragedy of the history of race in the United States.
After the epic fight in Goldfield, Gans didn’t retire from boxing but he fought less and less often, for less money and less prestige. He was aging, naturally. He was in his thirties. But there was more and worse to it. He had developed tuberculosis. He may have had the beginnings of it when he took on Nelson the first time. He definitely was feeling it when they fought for a second and then a third time. It took four years, but death caught up with him in 1910, right around the time Johnson fought his epic championship fight in the desert. Towards the end, he took a “vacation” out west where he’d hoped the clear, dry air would help restore his health. It didn’t. Realizing he was dying, Gans asked his doctor to send him back east so he could die among friends and family. At every stop along the way, the train carrying him first to Chicago, where his first wife lived, and then home to Baltimore was met by mobs of heartbroken fans there to say goodbye to their hero. Seven thousand people came to his funeral.
How could I have not heard of this guy?
I have now. And from a very good source and in the best way to get to know a boxer, still. By reading about him.
The Longest Fight: In the Ring With Joe Gans, Boxing’s First African American Champion by William Gildea, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Available from Amazon in hardcover and for kindle.
No matter what else is going on in the news, there’s almost always a good baseball story:
“Oh, you knew him!” the man, greatly impressed, responded. Thomas could only laugh.
For sports fans in this city, Thomas’s father, Walter Johnson, remains royalty 85 years after his sidearm fastball last whizzed past a helpless batter and 66 years since his death. The Washington Senators’ pitching ace, Johnson won 417 games, the second most in baseball history, and his 3,509 strikeouts stood as a major league record until 1983. The Big Train, as he was known, retains numerous baseball career marks, with perhaps the most impressive being his throwing 110 shutouts and 531 complete games in 21 seasons, all with Washington.
Late in Johnson’s career, the Senators brought home the capital’s lone World Series championship. Johnson pitched the final four innings of the decisive seventh game in 1924, a 12-inning 4-3 victory over the New York Giants on Oct. 10. His other two World Series wins came in 1925, when the Pittsburgh Pirates took the title in seven games.
Johnson’s Senators played in the American League and later moved to Minnesota, and a second Senators team moved to Texas a decade later. Now, Washington is in the National League and its Nationals will play here Wednesday afternoon in Game 3 of their division series against St. Louis. It will be the first postseason baseball in this city in 79 years, and Johnson’s daughter, now 89, is following along avidly.
The little girl turned great-grandmother represents one of the last direct connections to her father’s life. Her only remaining sibling, Edwin, died at 94 in August. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, no one is alive now who played in the major leagues when Johnson pitched and managed.
Thomas watches many Nationals games on television and reads newspaper articles about the team, which relocated here from Montreal in 2005. A color photograph of the rookie outfielder Bryce Harper graces her living room mantel, next to a stuffed-eagle doll in a Nationals uniform. On a nearby bookshelf rests a baseball signed by the team’s former first baseman Dmitri Young. “You are the sweetest lady,” Young wrote on it.
“Harper’s exciting. He makes things happen. He’s a little spark plug,” Thomas, with a twinkle in her eye, told a visitor one recent afternoon. “Davey Johnson,” she said of the Nationals’ manager, “he’s a baseball man. He knows the game.”
Ken Burns didn’t tell me this! Johnson was widowed young and he raised his five kids plus two of his deceased sister’s kids on his own. I’d like to know how he managed during the season when the team was on the road. Well, as we know, nobody does it all alone. His mother helped, and the story doesn’t go into it, but a photo caption suggests Johnson married again. Guess I need to read the biography his grandson wrote.
Something else I wish the reporter had asked Thomas. Did her father think of himself as playing for the Senators or the Nationals? That’s a real question.
Read all of Hillel Kuttler’s story at the New York Times, The Big Train Is Still Rolling.
The Times has a nice slide show that goes with the story, When Washington Cheered a Winner, but the photo above is courtesy of the Library of Congress. It’s undated and the little girl Johnson’s holding in that giant glove isn’t identified, but it could be his daughter Carolyn.
Don’t know what it is about me that I love reading about boxing.
I never boxed. I’ve never been to the fights. I can’t remember the last fight I watched on TV. I’m not a particular fan of watching people bleed. If you pressed me, I’d admit to having moral qualms about the sport. But for some reason I love reading about it.
I know the reason.
After baseball, boxing inspires the best sportswriting.
Newspapers, magazines, books, doesn’t matter, it’s almost all good and a lot of it’s great. There are probably some terrific boxing blogs out there, I just haven’t found them yet.
Baseball, like I said, inspires the best in sportswriters. (The worst too, but never mind.) Then boxing. Then golf, then horseracing, two other sports I’ve never had much interest in outside of reading about them. Next is basketball, although that seems to be more the province of newspapers and magazines. I can’t think of many great basketball books. And, finally, football. And high school football more than college or pro.
I’ve got a bunch of sports books read and waiting for me to write up reviews for. They’re all good. The best of them is the baseball book, One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard. The next best is one of the boxing books, The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion by William Gildea. The third and fourth best, Finding the Game and This Love Is Not For Cowards, are about soccer. I don’t know how they got in there. But then come the other two boxing books, new biographies of Floyd Patterson and Boom Boom Mancini. Last are the two football books, Mike Freeman's Undefeated: Inside the 1972 Miami Dolphins' Perfect Season and The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless '70s--The Era that Created Modern Sports by Kevin Cook. It’s a small sample but it but it would seem to support my ranking of the sports as fodder for good writing.
Of course, it’s probably just a reflection of my preferences. I’d rather read about baseball and boxing so, without thinking about it, I’ll reach for a book about one or the other without even considering books about other sports, so I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of excellent football books over the years, and tennis books, hockey books, jai alai, lacrosse, and synchronized swimming books, as well. God knows how many fine articles I’ve skipped.
But I’ve got reasons for thinking this judgment may be objective. Football is just very hard to write well about.
First the way the football’s played complicates narrative and description. Things happen too fast and at too great a distance and over too wide an area for spectators (including coaches, players on the bench, and reporters in the press box) to take in all at once what's happening on any given play. And they happen too fast but too close in for the players on the field to see much going on besides what's right in front of them. This means that the "story" of a touchdown or a sack or an interception or a key injury has to be pieced together afterwards from the reports of too many eyewitnesses or from or at least with help from watching the tape. This can be done and done well, but mostly the result reads like a police report.
But it's also the case that more than other sports football emphasizes strategy and violence, and both topics are inherently dull to read about. Strategy because it easily degenerates into sheer wonkery. Violence because it gets repetitive.
The two football books in my dogpile reflect that. Undefeated is really a biography of Don Shula, telling the story of his life in the context of a single season, and Shula was one of the thinkingest coaches of his time. The Last Headbangers chronicles the period when strategically thinking coaches like Shula completely took over the play on the field, but the 70s were also when football became extremely popular as television entertainment, a spectacle more than a sport, and, as Cook tells it, violence became the main attraction in that spectacle.
Freeman and Cook handle this pretty well, keeping the wonkery and the violence to a minimum and folding both into the construction of their narrative arcs, but it still hampers their writing.
Fortunately, both writers avoid another trap. Nevermind the talk about heart and character that creeps into all sportswriting and sentimenlizes the most cynical writers' prose. For a lot of fans and players and coaches, football is about will. The essential spirit of the game expresses itself in power and the will to dominate. This isn't what I like about the game. In fact, it's what keeps me from loving it anywhere near as much as I love baseball. I don't even think it's necessary to appreciating football as a sport as opposed to a spectacle. But it's there, whether I like it or not. It excuses the violence. Worse, it encourages celebration of the violence. Watching thugs inflict pain on each other becomes the point. Writers who accept this as intrinsic to the game, even resignedly, as well as writers who are seduced by it, become dull and stupid in a hurry. And they resort to cliches more often and easily to help them disguise what they're doing, which is either apologizing for bullies or out and out cheerleading for them.
At any rate, I think the emphasis on strategy, violence, and power leads to too much analysis, editorializing, and rah-rahing in place of storytelling.
But there's one more thing that gets in the way of strong storytelling. The nature of the work itself.
There simply isn't time for people in the game to stand around telling each other stories.
It's not just that the games themselves are so fast and furious. The season is compressed compared to other sports, some of which---golf, tennis, boxing, horseracing---don't have real seasons, they have cycles, and go on all year. Baseball practically does too, now that the World Series can finish in November.
And the football work week is intense. Game days are hard, but so are the workdays in between. It's non-stop study and drill.
Now think about how much time over the courses of their long seasons people working in other sports spend standing or sitting around with nothing to do or doing work that doesn't require their full attention or concentrated physical effort. For baseball players that includes long stretches during their games. And what are they doing while standing around? Waiting, mostly. For their turn in the batting cage. For the next race to start. For the champ to finish his road work.
That gives them a lot of time to talk.
(On the golf course you're expected to do your waiting in near silence, but then there's all that time walking to the next hole.)
Which is what they do, talk. They talk shop, of course. But, mainly, they shoot the breeze, one way or another, exchanging news, catching up, gossiping---telling stories. And all this chatter is very helpful to someone planning to write about any of these sports, because what are sportswriters, after all?
Tellers of other people's stories.
Reporters are dependent on their sources, and the better their sources are at telling them about themselves, what they do, what goes on around them how they go about their jobs, the better they are at telling stories, the more and the better the material the writer has to work with when re-telling those stories to readers.
No way I'm suggesting that football players and coaches aren't as intelligent about their sport. In fact, I'd bet just the opposite. But I think players and coaches and trainers and other workers in other sports are more practiced in explaining what they do in the form of stories, because a lot of the point even when they're talking shop is to entertain each other while passing the time. They learn to illustrate their points with anecdotes and gossip and jokes and comparisons and the occasional tall tale, and this shows up in the reporting.
In the writing.
Because people enjoy a good story, smart storytellers learn how to craft a rattling good yarn. Over time and many re-tellings, they refine and revise their own stories. They also collect other storytellers' stories and pass them along. And when you collect stories, you collect characters along with them. And characters bring with the m their own unique voices.
(Storytellers also learn how to turn themselves into characters in their own stories.)
It seems to me that this is the big difference between writing about football and writing about other sports, particularly baseball and boxing.
Writing about football is full of personalities, usually outsized ones. Writing about baseball and boxing is full of characters.
Joe Namath was a personality.
Ty Cobb was a character.
And this is the case with Undefeated and The Last Headbangers. Both books feature lively biographical sketches but there are more personalities---like Mercury Morris in Undefeated, John Madden and John Matuszak in The Last Headbangers---and few characters, like Cus D'Amato in the Floyd Patterson biography or Battling Nelson, Eubie Blake, and Joe Gans' mother in The Longest Fight.
The most character-like character in The Last Headbangers isn't a player or a coach. He's a professional storyteller. Howard Cosell.
Which may explain why the best part of that book deals with the rise of Monday Night Football.
Now it may be that baseball and boxing simply attract more characters, that the athletes themselves and their coaches and the people who surround them and gravitate to the sport tend to be eccentrics. I don't know. What I do know is that the parade of eccentrics is longer and more colorful in the books I've read about baseball and boxing. Which explains my preference. Which explains why I read more about them. And which probably explains how I've missed out on a lot of great football writing. I don't expect to find what I love to find in writing about baseball and other sports.
So, your turn: I'm working on reviews of all the books above, and not this week but starting the week after it's going to be rather sports heavy around here. This week's going to feature vice-presidential candidates and movie star dogs. Meantime, if you have any recommendations not just for good football writing but good sportswriting period, please leave a comment.
Former major league fireball pitcher turned scout for the Boston Red Sox, Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), and his mentor, Atlanta Braves scout Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood), wait for Gus’ lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to realize true happiness isn’t to be found in a relationship with her cell phone in the anti-mobile device, pro-baseball movie Trouble With the Curve.
Sorry. I've got to do this. We're talking baseball here, after all.
Trouble With the Curve serves itself up 80 mph fastballs thrown right down the center of the plate then sprays the field with bloop singles, slow rollers that somehow scoot past the shortstop, lazy flies the wind carries over the outfielders’ heads, and a few sharply hit singles to deep right that it manages to stretch into doubles. Runs score, but there's a reason they call this small ball.
That's it. I'm better now.
So...I liked it. I had a good time. It's not great or even close to great. It's sentimental. It's predictable. Its attitude towards baseball is so nostalgic that the characters might as well enter and exit through a cornfield, and even so it's not smart about the game or the business behind the game. It tries too hard to make us root for its main characters, as if anybody's ever going to root against Clint. It's a comedy about relatively ordinary people who have interesting jobs but the fate of the world doesn't depend on their doing those jobs, which shouldn't matter, but the script doesn't trust us to care so the stakes are raised to a soap opera level of emotional manipulation.
It's not enough that Gus Lobel, the aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves played by Clint Eastwood, has to prove he can still do his job despite failing eyesight. He has to prove it by making the most important decision he's been called on to make in the last twenty years of his long and storied career with the future of the ballclub depending on him getting it right. It's not enough that his lawyer daughter Mickey has to take a week off from work at an inconvenient time to take care of him. She has to be in the middle of the biggest case of her budding career and on the brink of making partner. It's not enough that father and daughter aren't getting along lately because old age is getting to Gus, making him cranky, selfish, and unpredictable or that Mickey's been so caught up in her work that she hasn't been making time to visit her lonely and frightened old man. It has to be that she's been fighting for his attention, affection, and approval since her mother died twenty-seven years ago, breaking Gus' heart for all time and causing him to withdraw into himself and pull away from Mickey out of fear of losing her too and this might be their last chance to reconcile and put things right between them but it will depend on whether he can make that big decision and how she handles that big case.
Then there's the superfluous love interest whose main purpose is to give Amy Adams someone to play off of who's under sixty years old in the person of Justin Timberlake but who the script wants us to believe is Mickey's one last chance to find true love.
Wisely, director Robert Lorenz downplays the melodrama and keeps the focus on what’s realistic or at least more realistic. He lets the story unfold at an easy-going pace and has his actors playing it low key as if it’s all just another day in the life. And he’s well-aware that the audience didn’t come to admire his flashy direction or even for the story.
We’re here to see Clint.
One of the most admirable things about Eastwood’s performance is the lack of vanity. It goes beyond his willingness to let his age show. He plays Gus as an old man. Not a man getting old. Old. Old and being taken apart by old by old age.
Generally, he avoids the pathos inherent in watching a once vigorous hero now grown tired and frail and goes for self-deprecating humor. I loved the scowl and the angry look around when he puts in his hearing aid as if the first thing he's expecting to hear is some wiseass punk making fun of him, although the only thing anyone's going to find odd is that look and nobody but Gus himself thinks there's anything shameful about an old man needing a hearing aid, and he follows that up with an embarrassed frown as he realizes that. He has a different and more vulnerable but just as amusing way of putting on his glasses---alert, nervous, tense, and ready to jump, as if the first thing he expects to see is a hard hit foul ball already inches away from his face.
But Eastwood shows us Gus’ fear too. And his rage. And his growing self-disgust.
Gus is afraid of dying, of course, but that’s still well down the line, or so he’s probably assuring himself. Right now what he’s afraid of is getting hurt, physically and psychically. It’s bad enough that he’s tripping over things and bumping into them and that he has trouble backing his car out of the garage. He’s more and more reluctant to leave the house because he’s afraid he’ll humiliate himself in large and small ways. He’s foggy about things he used to pride himself on seeing clearly. He’s easily disoriented. He hates the probability that he’ll be having more and more senior moments, but he’s genuinely terrified those moments are the beginnings of something worse to come. And he can’t stand the grumpy, mean, and withdrawn old coot he sees himself turning into. He’s very close to wishing for it all to just be over and done with.
It’s a lovely, sad, and frightening performance. It would be depressing, if Trouble With the Curve wasn’t a comedy and a sentimental one, at that.
We can count on relief being just one tender moment away.
Gus Lobel appears to be a man hopelessly stuck in the past. He drives a vintage Mustang. When he visits his wife’s grave, he brings her a picnic lunch with beer and talks to her as if she’s right there with him. He refuses to use a computer, even to read newspapers online. Dead tree editions from all over the country, presumably mailed to him, are stacking up on his kitchen table. This means his information about what prospects are doing in their games is always days and even weeks out of date, a problem for a baseball scout in this day and age, and a real unlikelihood. Forget the movie Moneyball, which suggests no one in baseball learned how to use a spreadsheet before Billy Beane showed them how in 2001. Computers have been a regular scouting and coaching tool for at least twenty-five years. Davey Johnson, now managing the Washington Nationals into the playoffs, was using them back in his playing days with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1960s. Gus would have gotten used to using one a long time ago, at least to read the sports pages and send email. It would have been good if we’d been given clues that Gus wasn’t stuck in the past but had retreated into it, better if there were signs that Gus had just quit trying to keep up with the times---an unused DVR, a desktop with a dialup internet connection, a very unsmart phone dating from 2003. Instead he seems to be a cliche, the man from a simpler time still doing it the good old fashioned way. Except that Gus' prime would have been the 60s,70s, and 80s, hardly simpler times but also times when the business of baseball changed radically. If Gus was the type to be left behind, he'd have been left behind back then.
What Gus is, though, is a symbol or rather his refusal to rely on a computer is symbolic.
Defending the way he’s been doing his job, Gus says the kinds of things about character, heart, the five tools, and the intangibles that are made to sound ridiculous when they’re spouted by the scouts in Moneyball. They don’t sound ridiculous here---or as ridiculous---because Gus isn’t really talking about baseball or computers.
Trouble With the Curve isn’t about baseball, really. It’s about what it takes to be human and happy, which is a personal and physical connection with other people.
In a movie not over-long on irony, the ironic thing for Gus is that the good he symbolizes, our need to be involved in each other’s lives, is what he’s in the process of rejecting. He doesn’t need a computer to put between himself and companionship. He has his front door.
His tragedy is that he has taught his daughter to keep other people at a safe, impersonal, and manageable distance too. (Her smart phone is the too pat symbol of this accelerating tendency.) So here we have a movie about two people withdrawing from life who have pretty much no one left to turn to but each other pushing each other away.
Mickey---she’s named after Mickey Mantle, one of Gus’ favorite ballplayers of all time. Considering the organization he works for, she’s lucky she’s not named Hank.---is played by Amy Adams and if anybody can make us root against Clint it’s her. What decent-hearted father would push away such a bright, spunky, cutie pie of a daughter determined to love him in spite of himself? Mickey is a practical-minded person, a born problem-solver, but in her father she’s been presented with a problem she can’t solve because it has no practical solution. She’s a hard-charging careerist, which in a Hollywood movie is usually something that needs to be fixed. You’re supposed to put family ahead of your job, if you’re truly a good person. But Adams makes us see that Mickey is a responsible adult who happens to have other responsibilities besides looking after Gus, responsibilities to her firm, to her clients, and to herself. Adams puts us on Mickey’s side without any self-righteousness or special pleading. It’s very clear that she wants to do right by Gus but she’s correct in thinking he should also do right by her and that he's being irresponsible by forcing her to choose between him and her other responsibilities and what makes it worse is that he’s pushing her to make the choice she least wants to make, her job over him and herself. No wonder she’s mad at him. She makes us mad at him too.
A great thing about Clint Eastwood is how generous he’s always been towards his co-stars and supporting players. He’s glad to to step back and let them have the screen. He regularly disappears from Trouble With the Curve to let Adams have the movie to herself and Adams and Timberlake take it over together for long stretches of time. And in his scenes with the old character actors who play Gus’ cronies and friendly rival scouts, he’s content to sit quietly reacting while they’re having fun with the best lines and jokes.
Those old character actors---Chelcie Ross, Raymond Anthony Thomas, and Ed Lauter---and the ones who play the partners at Mickey’s law firm---George Wyner, Bob Gunton, and Jack Gilpin---are, taken together, one of Trouble With the Curve’s saving graces. But Timberlake is an amiable and enlivening presence, although I didn’t buy him as a former major league pitcher---a singles-hitting utility infielder up once or twice up from the minors for a cup of coffee, maybe. John Goodman is warm and welcome company. Robert Patrick, as the Braves’ general manager, has very few lines but his glowering speaks eloquently---here’s an extremely smart guy taking in everything you say and even more than you know you’re saying and wondering not all that patiently when you’re going to get around to telling him something he hasn’t already figured out ahead of you. And as Gus’ nemesis in the Braves’ home office, a computer-dependent super-striver with a lizard grin who seems to resent and look down on everyone on the general principle that they are not him, Matthew Lillard continues to develop a type he introduced in The Descendents, the smug, self-satisfied, too smart for his own good over-achiever who thinks his abilities and successes entitle him to your affection and approval even when he’s deliberately acting like a jerk.
Like I said. Not great. And not even really a baseball movie. But it’s got heart. It’s got character. If it doesn’t have all five tools, it’s got enough of the intangibles.
And, if he’s not kidding us, it’s Clint’s last acting job, and he’s finishing up with grace.
Most of the baseball that gets played in Trouble With the Curve gets played on fields in North Carolina and I’m told by Twitter phenom Teresa Kopec, who hails from that neck of the woods, that the movie gets the look and the feel and character of the area just right.
Extra Innings: Clint Eastwood makes my day.
Trouble With the Curve, directed by Robert Lorenz, screenplay by Randy Brown, starring Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Robert Patrick, and Matthew Lillard. Now in theaters.
Good Irishmen and my favorite Celtics ever, minus Rondo: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Photo by Jim Davis of the Boston Globe.
It must be a trick of memory or an illusion brought on by an onrush of sentimentality. Deep down in my heart, the Celtics of the 1980s---Bird, Johnson, Parrish, McHale, Ainge, plus Cedric Maxwell, Tiny Archibald, M.L. Carr, and Quinn Buckner---must be my Celtics, the way the 1986 Mets are my Mets. But I feel like I love these Celtics, the team that, tired out and worn down and overmatched and outplayed, sadly, finally sputtered and failed last night against the Heat, more than I ever loved another team, and I’m not just talking about Celtics teams or basketball teams.
I’ve rooted for Boston since little kidhood:
I became a Celtics fan by accident…One night when I was very young my parents let me stay up late to watch a Knicks game on TV. The Knicks happened to be playing this team from Boston. Boston, because of Paul Revere---I was a Revolutionary War buff---was already in my heart my adopted future home. And the Boston team had shamrocks on their uniforms and a leprechaun for their mascot! They were like me. Irish!
I can’t believe that even as a little kid I was this naive but I thought every Celtic player was truly Irish. Bill O’Russell. Sam and K.C. Fitzjones. John McHavlicek. Their coach too. Who else but an Irishman would have the nickname Red?
So, purely by chance, I grew up watching banner after banner being lifted into the rafters at the Gahdin, watching Red Auerbach lighting cigar after cigar. Larry Bird didn’t arrive in town as a savior but as an heir apparent. When he and McHale and Parish and company raised their first banner Boston fans had had to endure a whole four years without one. Sure, after Bird the team faded. A decade went by spent in the wilderness, marked only by the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. But if in the past ten years the new Big Three plus Rondo haven’t been able to restore the Celtics to the heights of their former glory, they have restored the sense of fun of being a fan. And they did put up a banner, at the expense of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.
Larry Bird and I hit Boston at just about the same time. (He never calls. He never emails. He never tweets.) And it was a thrill to be there as he brought the team back from its four years in the wilderness. But as I wrote above, he didn’t save the team. He reinvigorated it. The Celts were in the doldrums. They weren’t in the dumper. Paul Pierce saved it. They’d been fun. Then they weren’t fun, for a long, long time, and then, thanks to him, they were fun again. And for that, he’ll likely be my favorite Celtic ever…after Rondo.
This was probably it for the Big Three, their Last Hurrah as members of the same team. I don’t know which or how many of them won’t be back. I’ve heard knowledgeable fans make the case that with a little tweaking, it won’t matter, the team will compete again. I don’t know. I hope so. But I expect it will be a while before they’re as much fun again.
For me, anyway.
Whatever happens, they’d better not trade Rondo.
The whole time I lived in Boston I never ran into Larry Bird on the street. But Dave Cowens used to come into the movie theater where I worked regularly during his last year with the Celts. He never calls either.
Photo by Jim Davis of the Boston Globe.
Oh for Pistol Pete’s sake! The man scored 30 points last night!
And he didn’t get beat on that last 3 pointer by some nobody sub. It was Paul Goddamn Man Pierce!
Yahoo Sports columnist Adrian Wojnarowski:
The Heat don't need pep talks out of Spoelstra, but a game plan for victory. Mostly, they need James to declare his greatness and deliver to the magnitude of the moment. For his own sake, his own peace, he has to rage against that Celtics monolith, those banners, his own gory Garden history, and get these Eastern Conference finals back to the shores of Biscayne Bay for a Game 7 on Saturday night.
Look. I’m a Cetlics fan from kidhood. I’m enjoying this. I’d have enjoyed it if LeBron scored only 30 points the whole series. But he hasn’t. He’s averaged nearly 30. He’s totaled 159. And he could score 60, 80, 90 or 100 more over the next two games, if the Celts don’t finish it off in one, which I hope they do, but the point is LeBron is a great player already. He’s not going to get greater by force of will. He can’t turn himself into Michael Jordan by wishing it. He can’t do it without also wishing somebody else on the team into Scottie Pippin and Erik Spoelstra into Phil Jackson.
I wrote this in my review of Scott Raab’s weirdly fun and funnily weird book-length rant against James, The Whore of Akron:
…as great as he was on his own Jordan needed Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippin to become the transcendent player he was. The Cavs tried to build a team around James that would help him bring a championship home to Cleveland, but they never found him a Pippin who could make that team do the right things in support of the hero and, judging by Raab’s reporting, they never tried to bring in the right sort of coach. And it appears that something else never figured in the thinking either of fans or the basketball insiders. It takes more than talent and will to be Michael Jordan. It takes a certain kind of ambition.
Jordan wanted to be the hero-king.
But he also wanted the responsibilities that went along with that.
That second part makes him an exceptional human being. As I said, James has never struck me as exceptional, except in his talent.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of us are not born to play the lead. James may be a natural second banana, a supporting player happier going without top billing. (Not to go all Freudian here, but I suspect he was taught to think of himself this way by his charismatic but narcissistic and domineering mother who seems to think her son was born to make her a star.) James may have known this about himself and it figured in his decision to leave Cleveland. Dwayne Wade, James’ Miami teammate, the Kirk in the triumvirate of Wade, James, and Chris Bosh---and don’t ask me which of the latter two is Spock and which is McCoy---and whom Raab regards as one of the chief devils who tempted James away, appears to have known it too. The Cavs were going about it backwards. Instead of looking for players who could support James, they should have been looking for stars James could mesh with rather than lead.
It’s Wade who’s been having the less than stellar post-season. And Bosh played hurt last night and was out there for all of 14 minutes. Putting it all on James is unfair. It’s unfair to him. It’s unfair to the Celtics who simply outplayed the Heat the last two games. And it’s unfair to Doc Rivers who’s a better coach than Spoelstra.
There are two Big Threes in this series, and the individuals in both trios play better as a part of their respective trios. They’re like the Three Musketeers. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett are getting old but they have Rondo to come to their rescue. He’s D’Artagnan to their Musketeers. Miami doesn’t have a D’Artagnan.
Anyway, this might be a good time to re-read (or read if you missed it or gave it the skip the first time around) my review of Raab’s book, LeBron James and the breaking of Cleveland’s collective heart.
Time-out for a swashbuckling update: Thinking it over, the Kirk-Spock-McCoy analogy really doesn’t work for Miami’s Big Three. But the Three Musketeers does. Wade is Athos, the dour leader of barely suppressed angers. Bosh is Aramis, the dashing, elegant, enigmatic one. And James is Porthos, big, strong, boisterous, and vain as all get out. But like I said, they have no D’Artagnan and they need one.
Steve Kuusisto, poet, essayist, memoirist, academic, disabilities advocate, and friend, happened to be in the City yesterday and we met up at the Paley and then went out to dinner. Steve is a Red Sox fan whose National League team is the Mets. I’m a Mets fan whose American League team is the Red Sox. Which means that both of us are kicking ourselves for not being at Citi Field last night to watch Johan pitch his no-hitter. Steve called me this morning to lament how we didn’t think to go to the ballpark instead of Cassidy’s Pub. But the fact is that if we’d been there it wouldn’t have happened. Our presence in the stands would have affected the wind currents and a pitch that broke just right wouldn’t have broken or our added mass would have increased the gravitational pull of the stadium so that an easy-out pop fly to the outfield dropped in for a Texas Leaguer or something one of us yelled at the the third base ump would’ve irritated him and made him feel less than charitable towards the Mets when that ball off Beltran’s bat skipped down the foul line or the rattle of ice in one of our cups of soda would’ve raised the noise level just enough to distract Baxter at the crucial moment. Something.
So I’m giving us credit for helping out Santana by not having been there.
I don’t know if the Times Herald-Record’s Kevin Gleason was at the game or just watching it on TV so I can’t say which way he helped out himself, but wherever he was he wrote a good column about Johann’s new place in Mets history and fans’ hearts:
Read the whole thing, Santana’s no-hitter is a gift to the fans, at recordonline.com.
And what did he do when it was over? What did Johan Santana do when he put his signature on Mets history with as gutty a performance as you will ever see? He saluted the fans, the announced crowd of 27,069 at Citi, a figure that will grow significantly through the years, when moms and dads tell their girls and boys where they were the night Santana changed the state of the organization.
Santana knew. He didn't need to grow up in Queens or arrive from the Mets' farm system to gauge the torture-meter that had risen to dangerously high levels for these fans. He didn't have to see their faces when Carlos Beltran took a called third strike from Adam Wainwright, both, in perfect symmetry, part of Friday's strange reunion. And Santana didn't need to see tears of joy streaming from the faces of Mets Nation a bit before 10 p.m.
He knew what they've been through. He was pained, in more ways than one, watching from the sideline last season. A serious shoulder injury threatening his career, to many fans the last hope for short-term glory. But Santana came back this season and helped a band of relatively anonymous ballplayers punch holes in the wall of misery. Here they were on Friday, a few games over .500, contending proudly, because of David Wright and a handful of kids whom you couldn't find in a case of baseball cards.
But mostly, the Mets were making us proud because of the work being done by their ace.
Nun Day at Fenway Park. Circa 1967.
Love the shades.
Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox---properly pronounced Fenway Paahk and Bahstin Red Saks or Bawstin Red Sawks, depending on whether you’re from Southie or Eastie---celebrates its 100th birthday today.
Photo above courtesy of the Boston Red Sox by way of the Boston Globe which has included it in a slideshow of pictures of iconic moments from the past century. Oddly, no pictures of Bucky F. Dent or Bill Buckner. Also, oddly, I’m not in any of them.
I was there often enough. Almost any given shot of Dewey Evans firing one in to second from deep right field or Bob Stanley warming up for another late-inning shellacking in the Sox bullpen could have caught me in the crowd in the right field bleachers.
For four happy summers (and the tail end of a fifth), Fenway was part of my neighborhood. Boston proper is so small and compact that you can make pretty much the whole town your neighborhood. But one year I had an apartment that was three blocks from the park and another year I actually worked inside it. I didn’t sell hot dogs or beer. You had to know someone to get one of those gigs. I had a job as a stockboy for an office supply company that operated out of one of the several storefronts built into the park’s red brick facade. It was a dusty, Dickensian little place owned and staffed and patronized by characters out of novels by George V. Higgins. I spent most of my day loading and unloading delivery trucks but that was fine because the loading dock was on the far side of the park from the store and I had to push my hand trucks along ramps that ran underneath the grandstand with branches that led up to the field. If there was no game that afternoon those side ramps would be left open and that routinely meant, if the Sox were in town and playing at night, I could stop along the way and stroll up to the entrance ways to watch the team take batting practice. Boston had just acquired Tony Armas from Oakland. Armas was supposed to give the Sox some needed power to protect Jim Rice and Dwight Evans but he had a reputation for hitting a lot of pop flies and one afternoon early that season I watched him drive pitch after pitch into the top of the batting cage.
Boston went 78 and 84 that year and finished sixth in the East. Armas hit .218 but he had 36 homers and drove in 107 runs. I wasn’t too happy because Boston had traded Carney Lansford, my favorite player after Evans, to get Armas. But the Sox had this new kid at third they were pretty high on. Had a funny name, Tom Selleck mustache, ate a lot of fried chicken.
Dade Frogs? Cade Logs?
At any rate, in those faraway days, you could walk up to the ticket window on Landsdowne Street a few hours before game time and buy bleacher seats without thinking about it, the game was not going to be sold out. I forget how much tickets cost but it couldn’t have been more than a few bucks. And I always had a hot dog and a soda. Sorry. A tonic. Pronounced tawnic or tahnic, again depending on whether you’re from Eastie or Southie. Back then I could make it through a weekend on ten or fifteen dollars, have had a good time, eaten and drank well, and still have some change in my pockets come Monday morning. Of course it helped that I had another job as a movie usher and one of the perks of that job was free tickets at every theater in town, which made a lot my dates cheap dates, though I didn’t tell the girls that. On Saturday mornings---the Sox still played most of the Saturday games at home in the afternoons---I’d go to the park early and pick up tickets for myself and any friends who were going to meet me later and then wander over to a nearby diner that had a baseball themed name, the Batter’s Box, I think, and have breakfast. Life wasn’t so hard for a poor student then.
Still, I probably didn’t get to more than ten games a season and the Sox were relentlessly mediocre. Yaz wasn’t even in the twilight of his career anymore. The moon was rising. Jim Rice was entering that phase of his career that explains why it took the sportswriters so long to give him his plaque in Cooperstown. He was still hitting, but the ball wasn’t coming off his bat as hard or as fast or traveling as far as it used to, and he didn’t seem to be playing with any intensity only with irritability. Dennis Eckersley, the pre-Hall of Fame reliever Eckersley, and Mike Torrez were Boston’s best pitchers. Oil Can Boyd was fun to watch but he’d have been a lot more fun if he’d, you know, won some games. Roger Clemens was still in college. And it was just beginning to sink in that the team had something special in that kid at third, what was his name? Frayed Toggs?
So I don’t have many good baseball stories from my Fenway days. I did see Yaz’s 2,994th, 2,995th, and 2,998th hits while hoping to be there to see his 3,000th. He hit that one on a night I had to work at the movie theater. I saw Rice hit a lot of home runs and I didn’t care that they weren’t as hard hit or carrying as far as they “should” have. In a game against the Blue Jays he tied it up with a homer to deep right and then won it with another homer that I swear landed in the exact same spot in the bull pen as the first one. And I was there when what’s his name---Trade Clogs?---played his first game at Fenway. He hit a home run, giving fans a very wrong impression of the kind of great hitter he was going to be.
I do have one great story about Fenway, though, but it isn’t mine. It’s my friend and fellow Red Sox fan Steve Kuusisto’s, who, as many of you know, is blind.
Ok. One summer, Steve’s in Boston on business but he has time to take in a game. He’s there early and his guide dog Corky’s getting a little restless, so the security guards give him the ok to take her on a little walk around the warning track. As you know they still have a hand-operated wooden scoreboard out in the left centerfield fence. Steve and Corky are walking along and they find the door to the scoreboard open. They poke their heads in.
“Hi,” Steve says to the two operators inside. “I’m the umpire for tonight’s game.”
I guess I should count myself lucky that I’m not in a position where I’m regularly in the company of vivacious and admiring twentysomething women, because apparently no matter how smart and competent and otherwise sound of judgment a guy my age is, all that needs to happen is for one of these vivacious and admiring twentysomethings to smile at him and he immediately becomes a complete idiot.
No, I’m not talking about Bill Clinton, although he’s still the pre-eminent example. I’m talking about Bobby Petrino, the no longer head coach of the University of Arkansas football team.
It’s right that Petrino was fired. Not because he cheated on his wife and not even because he was an idiot. He violated his contract six ways from Sunday.
The only reason he wasn’t summarily shown the door is that there are procedures that have to be followed in cases like this and, oh yeah, winning coaches who can turn a school’s program around in a hurry are hard to come by.
The athletic director’s decision was complicated by his knowing that in canning Petrino he was probably sending the team back to loserville for next season and fans, alumni, and donors wouldn’t like that and would scream bloody murder.
Lance, are you suggesting that something besides the moral and ethical considerations might have figured in this?
You mean, like money? You bet I am. Because of course it did.
Everybody knows that above a certain level college sports are all about the Benjamins, right?
So, tell me this wasn’t written seriously: (Yahoo Sports’ Dr Saturday posted it over the weekend before Petrino was fired):
If Petrino does stay Arkansas' coach, it's going to be difficult for him to earn the respect he once had. How can he go into a recruit's home and tell parents he can teach their son morals and make him a man. If his own wife can't trust him, how can parents? They can't and Arkansas football will suffer because of it if he stays.
This is what Division I coaches do when they visit a top recruit’s home? Preach about their programs’ moral uplift? And the parents believe them?
This is one of the reasons I prefer following pro sports to college. The hypocrisy factor is smaller.
In the pros everybody knows it’s all about money and winning (and winning equals money so it’s all about money). Oh, sure, people talk about “character” and how it matters, but it’s part of the show and nobody over the age of twelve takes it seriously. Well, almost nobody. The Tebow phenomenon annoyed me because suddenly you had lots of people, commentators and reporters who knew better, talking about football as if “character” and morality did matter or mattered more than talent and skill or were the equivalent of talent or skill. Reporting on the Broncos began to sound like…college football.
The big schools have to pretend that they are just as concerned about character and academics as any Division III school that doesn’t give sports scholarships. They have to pretend that their main lookout is the moral uplift and academic success of their “student”-athletes. What’s frustrating and confusing is that some schools and their coaches really do care and really do worry and really do go out of their way to take care of the students playing for them but because it’s very hard to know which schools and coaches those really are, you either have to swallow the nonsense whole or shrug and assume they’re all equally corrupt. Either way, it takes a lot of the fun out of the games, for me, at any rate.
But with the pros, because it is all about the money and winning, not only can you just enjoy the games for the game’s sake, the view is clearer. “Character” may not matter in the sense of its deciding who wins, but it’s easy to see characters and judge their character or not judge them, as suits your mood. You can tell the good guys from the assholes and enjoy that as something unto itself apart from the game. But mainly what you see is that games are decided not by “character” but by talent, intelligence, and skill, not to mention luck.
In my review of Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron, I mentioned some of the reasons I had trouble sympathizing with Raab’s anger at LeBron James. Mainly it was because I didn’t grow up rooting heart and soul for a losing sports franchise. But there was something else. Raab wrote about LeBron’s “character” as if it mattered and as if LeBron, and by extension every great professional athlete, has an obligation to be a better person than not just he himself actually is but than any fan manages to be.
Raab seems to believe that if only LeBron had made himself a better man he’d have made himself a better player and then brought Cleveland, the team and the city, a championship at last.
But LeBron’s “character” had little to do with it. It wasn’t James’ fault that the Cavaliers’ owners didn’t know how to build a winning team around him and probably couldn’t have afforded it even if they had been able to figure it out. It wasn’t his fault that they didn’t have the savvy or the money.
I keep putting “character” in quotes because a lot of times people use the word when they mean temperament or personality. And there is one aspect of character---no quotation marks---that does affect games. It’s a matter of virtue, though, not morality. A particular virtue. Diligence.
As a virtue diligence isn’t simply the willingness to work hard. It’s the ability to discipline oneself. Success in a sport often depends on the player’s ability to keep his or her personality in check, at least on the court or the field or the rink.
It’s a useful virtue in your personal life as well.
As Bobby Petrino has just learned or re-learned.
For all I know, Arkansas is one of those schools and Petrino is one of those coaches who do care about more than money and winning. That wouldn’t have changed just because Petrino had responded to a smile by becoming an idiot. But he had to be fired. Not because of the vapid nonsense that a guy who can’t be trusted to stay faithful to his wife can’t be trusted on other important matters. But because, like I said, he violated his contract.
Despite what the moralizers say, the basis for civilization isn’t religion or morality or family or church or other such pious nonsense.
What holds civilization together is people abiding by their contracts.
As far as it matters to the University of Arkansas, Petrino didn’t cheat on his wife as much as he cheated Arkansas.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go mind my own business, which sadly but probably fortunately will have me going about unsmiled at by vivacious and admiring twentysomethings.
In 2008, Bob Weiss, a once-upon a time NBA player, a long time coach, mostly as an assistant but with three stints as a head coach, involuntarily retired, recovering from cancer surgery, sixty-eight years old and looking without enthusiasm at turning seventy in a couple of years, took a job as head coach of the Shanxi Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Weiss had never been to China. He didn’t speak any Chinese. He still had hopes---fading hopes, but still hopes---that his phone would ring and it would be the general manager or head coach of an NBA team calling to say, “Bob, we need you.”
But the Dragons’ owner offered Weiss a pile of money to come to China to teach his team how to play NBA style hoops and in the process make champions out of hopeless losers.
Weiss’s first year with the team is the subject of Jim Yardley’s charming, entertaining, informative, and often amusing new book, Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing , which opens with Weiss arriving in China to find Dragons playing and training in facilities, with equipment, and under conditions not even a third-rate American junior college team would tolerate. He could talk to only a few of the players he was expected to teach how to play like American professionals without an interpreter. His Chinese players were demoralized, convinced of their inferiority, resigned to defeat whenever they took to the court, and whatever love they’d ever had for the game drained out of them by bad coaching and worse luck. They been trained to play a rote, textbook, cautious, flat-footed style of ball that American CYO teams had abandoned generations ago. And they were hampered by something else.
Despite the success of Yao Ming, old Chinese basketball insiders believe Chinese players are genetically inferior to Westerners, at least when it comes to handling the physical demands of the game. How do you coach players in a sport they’ve been taught they’re biologically incapable of excelling in?
Oh, and Weiss met with one more surprise. The team’s owner was nuts.
At least when it came to basketball, the game and the business.
Among many of the general managers, players, and reporters who followed the Chinese Basketball Association, Boss Wang was regarded as just short of a madman, a meddler who had fired fifteen (or sixteen?) coaches since buying the team in 2002. He had fired a Korean coach, an Australian coach, and a dozen-plus Chinese coaches. He had been fined repeatedly for his outbursts during games, and although league officials appreciated his dedication to the sport (and the money he was willing to pour into it), they were relieved his team was located far away from the media spotlight, in the city of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province, at the heart of the nation’s polluted coal belt. The team was an embarrassment on the court, and Boss Wang was an embarrassment off it.
Yardley is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times who spent eight years as a bureau chief in China and India. Brave Dragons is his opportunity to bring together a lot of what he observed of the economic, political, and social changes that have roiled China over the past decade around a single story. That story isn’t all about basketball, although of course the Brave Dragon’s season is the backbone of the narrative. It’s the story of a collection of characters of varying degrees of eccentricity and adaptability trying to feel their way into a culture that is in upheaval. It seems a matter of course that the Americans would have trouble navigating. For instance, former NBA star Bonzi Wells, brought onto the team mid-season, is overwhelmed by the culture shock and takes to locking himself in his apartment whenever he’s off the court. Weiss, however, is mostly just baffled by his new home, but he’s an easy-going and flexible guy and resigns himself to enjoying being baffled. His wife Tracy, meanwhile, falls in love with China. She has great fun losing herself in the streets of Taiyuan for the adventure of it, adopting stray animals and lost souls along the way, becoming a surrogate mother to several of the very young men on her husband’s team.
But it turns out that some of the people Yardley writes about who have the most trouble fitting themselves into the new China are Chinese.
The saddest and most lost character may be Liu Tie, Weiss’ “assistant” coach.
Weiss’ biggest surprise upon taking over as the Dragons’ head coach was that he wasn’t actually going to coach the team. Boss Wang may or may not have shared the Chinese prejudice that Chinese players were biologically incapable of an NBA level of play but he believed they were emotionally and psychologically undisciplined. Weak, actually. Weak of will and weak of heart. Unlike Americans, freedom for Chinese players didn’t give them room to make creative use of their talents and skills. It encouraged them to give into their natural inclination to sloth and indifference. Therefore the players must be subjected to constant discipline and regimentation. Boss Wang judged Weiss too kindly and relaxed to be hard enough on his players so he gave the job of running the team to Liu.
Weiss’ role was symbolic. He would be consulted, his advice would be welcomed, but he was really there to inspire with his presence.
Liu sets to work running the team ragged during practices, enforcing the old, uninspired, uninteresting (to players and fans), and self-defeating style of play during games, and beating down the pride and breaking down the egos of the Chinese players on and off the court. One of his training exercises is to have the players take turns piggy-backing each other other up a steep hill on the run. Naturally, the result is players who are exhausted and demoralized. Convinced of the inadequacy of their own play and terrified of making mistakes, they avoid the ball and give it away immediately when they can’t.
Weiss manages to gain some roundabout control of the team. The Americans and other non-Chinese players aren’t subject to Liu and they ignore him and listen to Weiss and through them Weiss is able to direct some of the Chinese players during games. The Brave Dragons win games, despite Liu’s coaching, but Liu, young and inexperienced, is egocentric enough to credit himself with the victories and naive enough to believe that Boss Wang approves of what he’s doing and whole-heartedly supports him. He’s stunned and heartbroken when Boss Wang decides the team isn’t improving fast enough and yanks control of the team away from him, giving it outright to Weiss and relegating Liu to running practices for the Brave Dragons’ junior squad. By doing what he thinks Boss Wang wanted him to do he winds up the most old-fashioned and traditionalist member of the organization, the most representative of a China that is passing.
The person happiest and most at home in the new China may be the team’s DJ, Ren Hongbing, who has turned his music mixing into his art form with his soundboard as his medium. What he does during games goes far beyond keeping the crowd entertained and pumped up during breaks in the action and providing occasional wah-wah-wah commentary on the opposing team’s mistakes. He scores the games like movies, composing soundtracks on the fly.
Think it’s tough for budding American artists to explain their dreams to parents who had more practical ambitions for the children’s futures? Imagine being a young Chinese trying to explain to his diehard Maoist parents why he’s traveling from dance club to dance club in order to study rap music as the apprentice to a Dutch disc jockey.
But Ren Hongbing---whose name means Red Soldier. He has a sister named Red Heroine and brothers named Red Fighter and Red Guardian---persevered and now his parents are among his biggest fans and enthusiastically attend every Brave Dragons home game.
The most mixed-up character is the Brave Dragons’ owner. As Yardley paints him, Boss Wang is a walking example of the Chinese dilemma. The Chinese have a genius for imitation that’s driving the growing economy but they don’t understand or make an effort to understand the thinking, the culture, or the history behind what they’re trying to imitate.
Boss Wang wants his players to play like Americans while remaining his idea of good Chinese, obedient, tractable, overcautious. He shows them videos of Michael Jordan and other NBA greats being great, but he means it to be inspirational not instructive, and then he throws fits when the players fail to play as if inspired.
Boss Wang---his real name is Wang Xingjiang, but nobody including his own son calls him by any other name than Boss Wang---is a self-made billionaire, a former factory hand who, through a mix of grit, ambition, intelligent business decisions and a fortuitous marriage to the daughter of a communist party official, worked his way up to owning his own steel mills. As a young man, he’d played basketball for the company team, which in those days pretty much meant being a professional. He loved the game. Unfortunately, he hated losing more. A lot more. And owning a losing team was driving him out of his mind.
The real problem, though, was that although Boss Wang regarded himself as a reformer and an innovator---his success as a businessman the best evidence that he was right---he was at heart and in spirit a traditionalist, even a reactionary. Reform and innovation were what the man in charge say they are and they are allowed only to the degree the man in charge allows and he was the man in charge and his definitions were narrow and his allowances few and far between.
Boss Wang wants change but it turns out that what most needs changing is the owner’s attitudes and behavior and Boss Wang isn’t about to change.
After hiring Weiss, he continues to meddle capriciously in the running of the team on the court. He issues orders and instructions in the afternoon that contradict orders and instructions he issued in the morning and that he’ll contradict again the next day. He sits on the bench and shouts out orders during games. He calls plays. He runs practices. He scolds and bullies and publicly humiliates players, individually and as a team, subjecting them to screaming tirades and tantrums that sometimes go on for an hour or more. At one point, he punches a player he thinks is slacking.
He brushes off Weiss’ advice and concerns and doesn’t bother to consult him before making major decisions affecting the team’s roster. Midway into the season, just as the Brave Dragons are finding a groove, Boss Wang dumps their American star, Donta Smith, who was not only one of their two best players, but a leader on the court who knew how to get his Chinese teammates to play aggressively and intelligently instead of timidly and by rote. Smith played in the NBA, but only for a couple of seasons, and Boss Wang decides to replace him with Bonzi Wells, because he’s heard Wells was a star. Wells was a star all right. He was also a notorious problem player with a bad temper a rep for being selfish on the court and divisive in the locker room. And he was coming off an injury. Weiss tries to warn him but Boss Wang signs Wells anyway.
When he arrives, Wells sets about proving that while his bad boy reputation might have been exaggerated, it was not entirely undeserved.
But because Wells is scoring machine and the Dragons win a few games they maybe wouldn’t have without him, all Boss Wang learns from this is that his Chinese players have only one job on the court, get the ball to Wells and get out of his way.
This frustrates even Wells himself, who despite his temperamental nature is a smart player who knows how the game should be played. Wells takes it upon himself to try to teach the Dragons’ most talented Chinese player and the one Weiss, Wells, and other basketball insiders think most has it in him to play at an NBA level how to make the most of his talents on the court. And all this does infuriate Boss Wang and turn him against that player.
Brave Dragons is an album of character sketches and magazine-length profiles of such characters. Among others included are a Taiwanese player who has to endure taunts and insults from his Chinese teammates for not being a “real” Chinese, an American coach of another team who unlike Weiss never had a professional job back home and alternates between a making the best of his situation fatalism with some wistful daydreaming about returning to the United States as an assistant in the NBA, and the person I found most likable after Tracy Weiss and the closest the book comes to having a hero, the Dragons’ best player, their giant Nigerian center, Olumide Oyedeji.
Chinese Basketball Association rules allow teams to have several “foreigners” on their rosters, only two of whom can be Americans and only two of the foreigners can be on the court at a time. Chinese teams draw from a world-wide network of available professionals, many of them Americans, but most of them from Europe, Africa, and Central Asia, who move around all the time, from city to city, country to country, continent to continent, often jumping teams in mid-season, playing for whoever pays them well or offers them the best launching pad to the next, more lucrative contract. (Sneaker deals figure heavily in the decisions.) You’d think Chinese fans might resent these mercenaries. But that turns out not to be the case, at least not between Brave Dragon fans and Olumide.
Much as he likes and respects Bob Weiss, Olumide isn’t all that happy playing for Boss Wang. He has no definite plans to stick with the team after this season. He doesn’t hide himself away as Wells does, but he does hold himself somewhat aloof from his Chinese teammates and rather than trying to make himself at home in China, he manages to recreate a little bit of Nigeria around himself. But the fans love him and he accepts it as part of his job to not only allow himself to be loved but to love the fans back.
Quite unexpectedly, the team was the surprise of the CBA. Eleven games into the 50-game season, the Brave Dragons had won seven, lost four and were an early contender for a playoff spot. True, the coaching arrangement was still a mess., and Boss Wang was meddling more and more. But Olumide was leading the league in rebounding at 19 per game, and Donta Smith was arguably the league's most versatile player, scoring, rebounding, and dishing out assists to his Chinese teammates, who were finishing the job. In Taiyuan, success had startled the fan base.. The local press was portraying Weiss as a Western guru (Liu Tie was also credited), while Olumide had easily become the team's most popular player. A knot of fans in Brave Dragon jerseys waved photos of the big Nigerian during home games and serenaded him with cheers. When Olumide dove for a loose ball or fell hard to the court---and falling theatrically to the floor was apparently stipulated in his contract, given how often it happened---Taiyuan gasped. Then, as Olumide slowly rose, grimacing or shaking out a potentially injured limb, the cheers filled the stadium. Olumide would smile and trot down the court, waving his arms at the crowd, and sometimes even shouting out in Yoruba. Of course, no one had clue what he was saying.
That mutual love fest, which is based on a shared love of basketball, becomes something of a controlling metaphor for the book.
Brave Dragons sometimes reads like a collection of articles for the New York Times Magazine, earnest and informative but only thematically related pieces on subjects like the history of the YMCA in China, the NBA’s attempts to develop China as a market, the lingering aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, how basketballs are made, and how to celebrate the lunar New Year without burning your house down. But they coalesce around the story of the Brave Dragons up and down season, which at heart is a story about a group of strangers brought together by a shared devotion to a beautiful game.
Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley, published by Knopf, is available from Amazon in hardback and for kindle.