The Art of Fielding: Book Review

In 1973, Steve Blass, the ace pitcher for the World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates, found himself suddenly and inexplicably unable to throw a baseball accurately. He was in perfect health, and his arm was uninjured. His difficulties were not physical, but psychological. It wasn’t a matter of courage, or cowardice. He was simply completely unable to do something that he had previously been as good at as anyone in the world. The best article about Blass and his baffling condition appeared in the New Yorker in 1975, written by the great Roger Angell; it was subsequently anthologized in at least two of Angell’s published compilations.  Although previously unknown in baseball history, in the forty years since Blass retired, his odd affliction, ‘Steve Blass’ disease,’ subsequently afflicted another pitcher, Rich Ankiel, two second basemen, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, and catcher Mackey Sasser.  Sax and Knoblauch found themselves incapable of making routine throws to the first baseman; Sasser became unable to toss the ball back to the pitcher between pitches.

And now Henry Skrimshander.  Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, is about a preternaturally talented young shortstop, suddenly afflicted with Blass’ weird syndrome.  But it’s not just a novel about baseball, or even primarily a novel about baseball.  Henry suddenly can’t make routine throws to first, not because he’s been physically disabled, but because he overthinks it, over-analyses the problem, which leads to a crisis of confidence.  And where else would you set a novel about crises of confidence and paralysis-through-over-analysis but in a modern college?

Harbach introduces us to the world of Westish College, a small midwestern 4-year liberal arts school, with high-ish academic standards, somewhat decaying infrastructure, and a really bad baseball team.  And in this world lives Mike Schwartz, literate, well-read, tough, inspirational, a man’s man, who essentially wills the Westish Harpooners (the entire school worships Melville) to improve athletically.  Schwartz is, above all, Henry Skrimshander’s best friend, his mentor, his personal trainer, his coach and conscience and motivator and his captain-my-captain.  And Schwartz has given so much of himself to build up Henry he has begun to wonder who he is, and what he will do with the rest of his life.

The novel also focuses on three other extraordinary characters.   First is Owen, Henry’s roommate; brilliant, gay, kind, utterly sure about himself and who he is, a man who, when a coach yells at him, is neither offended nor motivated by it, but sort of delighted–’look, I get to study apoplectic rage!’  How very interesting!’  He’s also an athlete; a pretty doggone good hitter, though one who, between at bats, reads in the dugout. Harbach could write an entire novel about just Owen, and I’d read it.  Equally compelling is Guert Affenlight, the Westish college president, a once-fashionable young literary scholar, now slowly decaying as an administrator; no longer a teacher or published scholar, but a generous and charismatic soul.  And finally his daughter, Pella, a bright and beautiful and deeply unsure of herself young woman, who has moved home to escape a terrible marriage, and who has found personal fulfillment working as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.

Affenlight is infatuated with Owen, and they finally do have an odd but convincing romance.  Pella and Schwartz also hook up, and although they’re good for each other, they also fight, mostly over Henry.  And Henry himself is . . . a sage, a mystic, a ninja turned ronin, a priest without vocation.  A lost and despairing artist who has lost his muse.

I’m making the novel sound morose or gloomy.  It’s anything but.  Pella’s marriage is terrible, but we do meet her husband, and he’s a richly comedic creation.  The writing throughout is . . .  alive.  The characters are funny and smart and rich and foolish and capable and incapable and eloquent and tongue-tied.  They’re people.

But it’s also smart.  Even profound.  There’s this, for example:

’1973,’ thought Affenlight.  In the public imagination, it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam.  Gravity’s Rainbow.  Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream–the year it entered baseball?  It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation–the Modernists of the First World War–would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the real of utmost confidence in same–the world of professional sport.  In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era where even the athletes were anguished Modernists.  In which case, the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.

Do I dare, and do I dare?

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed.

Thesis, followed by a cheeky antithesis.  The rest of the novel is the synthesis; it is both about a radical loss of self-confidence, and the devastation wrought by it, as well as rebirth and redemption.

Or this: pardon the ellipses.

The thing to do, really was to wash the dishes. In fact, she was feeling a strong desire to wash the dishes. . . . the ones near the bottom were disgusting, the plates covered with water-softened crusts of food, the glasses scummed with white bacterial froth, but this only increased her desire to become the conqueror of so much filth. . . an objection crossed her mind.  What would Mike think?  It was a nice gesture, to do someone’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment . . . even if she and Mike had been dating for months, unprovoked dishwashing might be considered strange.  But the dishes weren’t hers and she and Mike weren’t dating.  They hadn’t even kissed.  Therefore, the doing of dishes could only be weird, neurotic, invasive.  And Mike would shrug and never call her again.  She looked down at the white bubbles.  Steam rose off the water. . .  she really really really wanted to do those dishes.

And so maybe I picked the most pretentious literary paragraph in the novel, and followed it by the weirdest internal monologue paragraph. Plus it’s about baseball.  Meh.  You’re thinking that, possibly.  Meh.

Darn it. I’ve blown it already.  And yet, it’s so so good.

One more, then:

By the time they finished,  Owen had said ‘There, finally’ to two pairs of jeans, two shirts and two sweaters.  A modest stack, but Henry added up the price tags in his mind, and it was more than he had in the bank.  “Do I really need two?” he said?  “One’s a good start.”

“Two,” said Jason.

“Um.”  Henry frowned at the clothes.  “Mmmm. .”

“Oh!” Owen slapped himself on the forehead.  “Did I forget to mention?  I have a gift card at this establishment.  And I have to use it right away.  Lest it expire.”  He reached for the clothes in Henry’s hand.  “Here.”

“But it’s yours,” Henry protested.  “You should spend it on yourself.”

“Certainly not,” Owen said.  “I would never shop here.”

 

So: this:  This is a novel in which every plot turn and incident is surprising, and yet inevitable.  That is to say, everything that happens flows convincingly from the things that happened earlier, but they also catch us unawares.  It’s also a novel in which the dialogue is literate but persuasive; where the characters talk like the really smart people they are, except for the stupider ones.

I want badly for you to pick up this novel, buy it on Kindle or walk into Barnes and Noble or check it out at your local library; read it! in other words.  So I won’t spoil the plot for you.  But as you read it, you will very much want things to work out well for characters you’ve grown to love, and they do, and the last two chapters are splendid and right and fulfilling.  But it’s a twisty road getting there.  So persevere.

And what if you don’t like baseball?  I wondered about this.  I’m fully aware that this novel did not exactly present me with acceptance-and-enjoyment challenges. I love the game of baseball, though I never played it well, (certainly not as well as Henry does), and I admire the way this author gets every baseball detail exactly and exquisitely right, and boy does that contribute to my engagement with this text.  And maybe, possibly, some of you don’t like baseball as much as I do.  Or (shudder) at all.

Then let me recommend it to you all the more.  Because it’s a terrific read, a marvelous first novel from a guy who I sort of desperately hope writes more of them.  It’s funny and smart and real and profound.

I just really liked it a lot.  I read it until late last night, and work early and finished it this morning, and couldn’t wait to tell someone, everyone, that it’s really good and that you should read it.  So.  It’s really good and you should read it.  That’s The Art of Fielding.  By Chad Harbach.  Click this link to buy your own copy.  It’s about baseball, and it’s about life, and it’s sad and joyful and funny and sad.  But enough.  No more overselling.  You’ll get it, or you won’t.  Just, if you don’t, you’re missing out big time.

The World Series

This World Series has been terrific, thoroughly enjoyable baseball from two teams I respect a lot, in which I end up rooting for both of them.  My poor Giants didn’t make the playoffs this year, for what turned out to be good reasons.  The pitching, which in previous years (2010! 2012!) has been the team’s biggest strength, really fell apart this season.  But the hitting also stank.  Plus they didn’t field well.  So they were bad at scoring runs, bad at preventing the other teams from scoring runs, and bad at turning hit balls into outs.  This is not a recipe for success.

The St. Louis Cardinals were very good this year, as they’ve been every year of the last ten. Their scouting department is unparalleled.  Every season, it seems, they have a new crop of young, superbly talented pitchers and hitters coming up from the minor leagues.  (This is also something the Giants are bad at, BTW). Their biggest find this year is a young pitcher named Michael Wacha.  The name is pronounced ‘wocka‘, like the thing Fozzie Bear always says to punctuate a joke. Wacha the pitcher is 22 years old.  18 months ago, he was a college kid.  But he throws the ball 98 miles an hour, knows what he’s doing on the mound, and has been basically unhittable, except by David Ortiz, the Red Sox best hitter, and a guy who the Cardinals seem completely incapable of getting out.

The Red Sox are a fun team to follow too, though.  They’re a storied franchise, a tribute to the enduring power of myth, building a team tragedy on hubris and karma.  Myth: In 1918, they had the best player in the history of baseball: Babe Ruth.  The Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, though, wanted to produce a Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette.  So he sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.  The Red Sox never could win after that, while the Yankees won championship after championship.  Curse Harry Frazee!  Curse No, No, Nanette! It doesn’t hurt that lots of great writers live in Boston, and love baseball.

But then, see, then, the Curse of the Bambino was atoned for, you see, by an offering of human blood.  In the 2004 playoffs, the Sox best pitcher, Curt Schilling, suffered a serious ankle injury.  The sheath supporting his Achilles (more myth!) tendon was torn.  A team doctor thought the loss of that sheath could be compensated for with sutures, and Schilling went out to pitch, badly injured, against the Yankees.  Of course, against the Yankees.  The sutures tore, and blood was visible pouring through his sock.  Schilling somehow persevered, pitched brilliantly, won.  The Sox went on to win the World Series.  Against the Cardinals.  Blood atoning for original sin–I’m telling you, this myth has everything.

And it’s all nonsense; well, except that Schilling really did pitch superbly though injured.  But he wasn’t atoning for sin; he was just a good pitcher playing hurt.  Harry Frazee didn’t invest in No No Nanette in 1918; he produced the musical five years later.  And the Red Sox were indeed cursed, and did bring it on themselves; Tom Yawkey, their long-term owner, was a racist who refused to allow the team to sign any black players until many many years after every other team in baseball had.  So while all the other teams had managed to sign the Jackie Robinsons and Willie Mays and Hank Aarons of the US, the Sox were always at a scouting/team development disadvantage.

Ballplayers are a superstitious lot, however, leading to this World Series most immediately obvious defining characteristic; the Red Sox players’ awful beards.  Left fielder Jonny Gomes, I swear, needs to be cast in the last Hobbit movie; he’s essentially a Middle Earth dwarf.  David Ross’ is even uglier.  Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli look Amish. There is a reason for it, though.

Last year’s Red Sox really sucked. They hated their manager, the players were unhappy, morale was horrendous, and they underachieved.  They traded away some dead wood, brought in guys like Napoli and Gomes (hard-nosed professionals both), and fired the manager.  Their new manager, John Farrell, is on of the most respected in all of baseball, and the team responded with a terrific turn-around season. But Napoli and Gomes thought team morale might improve if they had a beard growing contest.  So they’re an entertainingly scruffy lot, but they’re good; just a team of guys who throw out tough at bats and play good defense and scrap and hustle.

So there’s a bit of a contrast in styles in these two teams; they’re otherwise perfectly matched.  One game turned on a play where an umpire reversed a call, which never happens.  Another game ended on a controversial obstruction call, an obscure baseball rule which was, I was delighted to see, applied correctly to the kind of situation that doesn’t often come up. Another game concluded with a rookie Cardinals baserunner, in the game to pinch-run, having a brain freeze and getting picked off first.  Never seen a game end that way.

The Red Sox have a relief pitcher, Koji Uehara, a Japanese guy who has not, as it happens, grown a beard–possibly because he can’t–who hasn’t walked a hitter since July.  His statistics look like a misprint–no one can possibly pitch that well.  But you watch him pitch, and it’s astonishing; he makes Major league hitters look completely foolish.  The Sox lead the Series 3-2, and I think will win it in 7, mostly because they have Uehara, and the Cardinals relief staff, though very good, isn’t quite THAT good.

Plus the Sox have Papi.  David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, was their best hitter when they won the World Series in 2004, their best hitter when they won in 2008, and by far their best hitter so far in this Series.  I don’t know of any athlete more beloved in their city than Papi is. I think the Cardinals will hang tough behind Wacha on Wednesday, and the Sox will win it on Thursday.  But boy has it been a terrific World Series.  Find a chance to watch it some.

 

 

Yes!

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just announced their nominees for 2014 induction.  You can vote here. We’re allowed to vote for five candidates, and as usual, I’m really really torn.  Honestly, it wouldn’t break my heart if they all made it.  But two bands in particular seem controversial.  KISS is finally nominated.  And the other band is Yes.

There is, and always has been, a close connection between the  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone Magazine and Columbia records.  This makes sense, because the most important founders of the RRHOF were Ahmet Ertugen and Jann Wenner.  And HOF voters have always despised progressive rock. Jethro Tull is not in the HOF.  Nor is Emerson, Lake and Palmer, nor is Gentle Giant, nor King Crimson, nor the Moody Blues.  Pink Floyd made it, but they were only tangentially prog.

The reality is that the Rock and Roll of Fame voters are largely comprised of rock historians, many of them from Rolling Stone Magazine, who think prog rock sucks.  They think it’s pretentious, they think it’s not really rock and roll.  They think it’s the very definition of terrible music.  And as a lifelong prog rock fan, as a person for whom, in high school, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull and Yes were the sound track to my life, that’s a highly offensive attitude.  So last year, when Rush made it on the ballot (and was voted into the Hall by fans), it felt very much like the prog rock camel’s nose slipping under the tent flap.  This year, let’s bring in the rest of the camel.

Which is another way of saying, yes!  to the fact that Yes made it on the ballot.  And so did Peter Gabriel.

But this year, I’m going to do something else.  I’m going to compare the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees to Baseball Hall of Fame inductees.  I mean, the first is clearly modeled on the second, including the name ‘Hall of Fame.’  Plus I think this might be kind of fun.

Here are the candidates, with my comments on each:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band:  NO.

They were up last year, and I think will be on the ballot every year until they get in.  Someone at the Rolling Stone really really likes this band.  Let me say, first, that blues-based mid-sixties rock bands are not exactly in short supply in the Hall.  They had two great albums, basically.  They played at Woodstock.  I just don’t see their accomplishments as sufficiently substantial to warrant inclusion. Baseball equivalent: Pistol Pete Reiser.  (Reiser was a great young player, very short career due to frequent injuries).

Chic: NO.

Important disco band. I love the guitar lick on “Le Freak.”  But disco is already well represented in the Hall.  I vote no.  Baseball equivalent: Omar Moreno.  (Slick fielder, very fast and fun-to-watch baserunner, couldn’t hit, didn’t stick.)

Deep Purple: NO.

I love Deep Purple.  The opening guitar lick for “Smoke on the Water” is iconic.  Great keyboard work from Jon Lord, great guitarist in Ritchie Blackmore.  Very tough call, but the band didn’t last quite long enough for me to vote for them this time around.  Baseball equivalent: Dave Parker. (Old Pirates outfielder; genuinely great player, not quite HOF material).

Peter Gabriel: YES

One of the great innovators in rock history, a restless explorer trangressing musical boundaries.  Also a guy who reinvented the rock video, turned the four minute mini-movie into an avant-garde art form.  Enthusiastic yes: he’s gotta be in.  Baseball equivalent: Dennis Eckersley (Brilliant starting pitcher, even better relief pitcher; versatile and superb).

Hall and Oates: Blarg.  NO.

Just too top 40 for my taste.  To make the HOF, you have to do more than craft hit after hit.  I get why they’re nominated, but they’re the bottom of the pile this year. Baseball equivalent: Steve Garvey.  (Dodger first baseman, big star, massively overrated).

KISS: NO.

But a tough call.  I’m voting no, frankly, because I just don’t like their music very much. And everything about their approach seems cynical to me. “You wanna like some music your parents will HATE? Right?”  But they were influential and popular.  (Speak of cynical, though: I don’t think it’s an accident that KISS got nominated the same year Yes was.  The HOF loathes both bands, but recognizes they have very large and vocal fan bases. And while we can all vote five times, only the top vote-getter automatically makes it in).  Baseball equivalent: Jose Canseco. (No one liked his antics, but grudgingly had to admit his gifts).

LL Cool J: NO

One of the great rappers, I think he’ll make it in eventually.  But I like the idea of promoting diversity–having inductees representing a variety of sub-genres.  And N.W.A. is more important, historically.  Baseball equivalent: Bernie Williams. (Great player on those great 90′s Yankees teams, not quite enough resume to be in).

The Meters: NO.

Fantastic New Orleans funk band, though. Really like ‘em.  But they had kind of a short career, then became a sessions band, recording with a huge variety of other artists.  A lot of great bands up for induction this year–sadly, for me, they don’t quite make the cut. Baseball equivalent: Luis Tiant. (Red Sox pitcher, fun to watch, contorted his body oddly before each pitch).

Nirvana: YES.

The easy choice this year.  Obvious yes.  Incredibly important band, historically and artistically and culturally.  Baseball equivalent: Pedro Martinez: (incredibly good, but sadly short career, not in the HOF yet, but will be soon).

N. W. A.: YES.

We’re just moving into the rap era.  Because of the Hall’s eligibility requirements–they can’t be nominated until 25 years has passed since they released their first record–Tupac, Biggie Smalls, that generation is just starting to be nominated.  N.W.A. is one of the most influential bands in history, a band that showed the radical political power of rap.  Easy call.  Baseball equivalent: Rickie Henderson (greatest lead-off hitter in history, but not really recognized as great until the Bill James revolution changed how we look at the game).

The Replacements: NO

But I hate myself for not voting for them. I know they influenced everyone from Nirvana to Green Day to Fall Out Boy. And every few days or so, I get in the mood for some DIY post-punk indie and go to my Replacements Pandora station. But I’m not sure they were ever quite . . .  substantial enough for this company. Baseball equivalent: Fernando Valenzuela: (Remember Fernandomania?  So immensely charismatic and fun, and then it all went away).

Linda Ronstadt: NO

A very reluctant no. I love her music, owned several albums, plus had a huge crush on her based solely on her Hasten Down the Wind album cover. I don’t like Hall and Oates and I do like Linda Ronstadt, but I won’t vote for either this year for much the same reason: they had a lot of hits, but weren’t important historically.  Baseball equivalent: Don Mattingly.  (Yankee first baseman; not quite as good as we thought at the time).

Cat Stevens: YES

I love Cat Stevens’ music. I listen to it all the time, and I think there was a time, about 1974 or so, when his music kind of saved me.  I found hope in his music when I was feeling kind of hopeless; he’s honestly one of the reasons I went on a mission.  And I admire his courage; converting to Islam because of the peace he found in it.  I love this guy–he has to make it in.  Baseball equivalent: Barry Bonds. (Controversial choices, but my gosh was he great).

Link Wray: NO

I get his historical importance.  But does the Hall really need another late-50′s guitar player?  Not given the strength of the other contenders.  Baseball equivalent: Bruce Sutter.  (Cubs pitcher, invented the split-fingered fastball.  But was he that great on his own merits?)

Yes: YES

A thousand times yes.  Of course Yes belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To say otherwise is just pure snobbery and prejudice.  One of the greatest bands in history, a band as important to the seventies as the Rolling Stones or Who were to earlier generations.  Baseball Equivalent: Tom Seaver: (yes, Tommy Terrific. That good).

The Zombies: NO

But not a bad choice. Again, though, it’s not like the RRHOF has a shortage of British Invasion sixties bands.  I’m not kidding–Herman’s Hermits will make it some day.  Baseball equivalent: Dave Kingman: (at the end of the day, just another slugging first baseman).

Anyway, I put the link above. Vote! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs your input.  And remember: Yes is, in fact, on the ballot this year.  Just a reminder.. . .

Mike Kickham

Tonight, a young man named Mike Kickham will make his major league debut for the San Francisco Giants. One of our starting pitchers, Ryan Vogelsong, broke his hand, hit by a pitch, and will be out for two months.  Kickham is Vogelsong’s replacement.  He will be the first guy drafted by the Giants in the 2010 draft to make it to the major leagues.

Every year, Major League baseball conducts a draft. Amateur players (either straight out of high school or college guys) put their names in a pool, and teams draft them in reverse order. In other words, the team with the worst record in the previous system drafts first, and the team with the best record drafts last. When a player is drafted, that means that the team who selected him has exclusive rights to try to sign him to a minor league contract.  But the player doesn’t have to sign if he doesn’t want to.  The draft lasts fifty rounds, and of the players the Giants selected in 2010, thirteen did not sign.  If you’re a talented high school player, you have options.  You can sign a contract, and start playing for money right away. Or you can go to college, play college ball on scholarship.  Likewise, a college player drafted after his freshman year could decide that the money being offered isn’t good enough, and stick around in college another year.

The Giants are typical of most major league teams, in that they own and manage seven minor league teams, in addition to the major league club in San Francisco.  These minor league teams are all ranked AAA, AA, A and Rookie league.  The AAA team (in Fresno), consists of players who are basically ready to play in the majors.  AA (Richmond VA) is for the players who are close to that level.  The three A teams are not all equal.  The San Jose A team is considered a ‘high A team’, playing competition a cut above other A teams.  The other A teams are in Augusta GA and Salem-Keizer OR.  In addition, the Giants own two Rookie league teams, which play a much shorter season than A-level teams.  One is an Arizona League team (the entire league made up of teams from town in Arizona), and the other is in the Dominican Republic. All these minor leagues are professional leagues–the guys get paid, though not much.  Orem has a Rookie league team–the players live with families in the community.  The folks who live across the street from us in Provo fostered several Orem Owlz over the years.

So every year, 50 players are drafted, 35-40 are signed, and 35-40 minor league players already in the system are released.  They’re finished, their major league dreams permanently ended.  They played baseball professionally, but they never made it to The Show. They have a little money in their pockets, but it’s not much.  It’s brutally Darwinian.  You’re either good enough or you’re not.  If not, you’re gone.  So a young man drafted by a major league franchise faces tremendous odds against making his major league dreams come true.

At the majors, though, there’s a chance to make serious money, enough money to basically retire for life.  It’s certainly a dream worth pursuing.

To put it in perspective, Mike Kickham has been playing, up to now, on a minor league contract.  When he signed a contract, he was probably paid a signing bonus. He was drafted in the sixth round, which means his signing bonus was probably in the neighborhood of $20,000.  As a Rookie league player, his salary was $850 a month (though, again, his housing costs were minimal, as he probably stayed with a host family.)  After that, he could negotiate a salary every year, but even AAA players usually make something like $50,000 to $80,000.

But Mike Kickham will sign a major league contract today. He’ll show up at the ballpark around 3 or 4, and it’ll be waiting for him.  And the minimum major league salary is $490,000.  Half a mill.

As you can see, Kickham’s a nice looking kid.  Left handed pitcher, from Springfield, Missouri. 6′ 4″, 220. Born in St. Louis, life-long Cardinals fan. (Well, probably not anymore).  He played college ball at Missouri State, where his stats were unimpressive.  But the Giants pitching guru, Dick Tidrow, liked his delivery and his fastball, and persuaded the team to draft him.  He signed late his rookie year, pitched only 3 innings at the Rookie level, then was inconsistent in 2011, pitching at Augusta.  But he showed the Giants’ management enough that they jumped him to Richmond last year, where he really pitched well.  That got him advanced to Fresno this year, where, after a rocky start, he pitched exceptionally well his last 8 starts.

He seems like a nice kid.  His parents are both athletes–his father’s an amateur tennis player, and his Mom played college volleyball.  He has three siblings.  He’s bright–he was pre-med in college, and goes back to school to work on his degree in the off-season.

And after today, for the rest of his life, he’ll be a major league baseball player.  His name will appear in the Baseball Encyclopedia.  He will be able to tell his grandchildren about it, about pitching a ballgame in May, in Oakland (we’re playing the A’s) for the defending world champs.  He’s in The Show.  I hope his parents (Kevin and Dana) and his siblings (Danny, Caroline and Janie) will fly out for it.  Mike Kickham makes his major league debut today, and his life will never be the same.

 

The Zen of the Knuckleball

A major league fastball arrives at the plate at a velocity of around 90 to 95 MPH.  To throw a ball that hard requires that a pitcher turn his entire body into a sling, generating power, not just from his arm and shoulder, but also his thighs, knees, back.  Throwing a fastball is a violent and unnatural act, one which puts tremendous pressure on the shoulder, the elbow, the arm. A list of pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, in which the ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a tendon from another part of the body, would fill an All-star roster.

The point isn’t just to throw the ball hard.  Imagine trying to hit a baseball with a stick, thrown at top speed from a distance of 60 feet 6 inches.  Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?  But in fact, professional hitters have extraordinary reflexes and fast-twitch fibers and hand-eye coordination, and if you just throw the ball hard, you’ll get clobbered.  The point is to spin the ball, impart movement on it, change speeds, try to disrupt the hitter’s timing.  Put enough spin on the ball, and it slows down, and drops precipitously at the last second–a change-up.  Or you can spin it so it changes direction–a curve.  Or move laterally–a slider.  And there are dozens of deadly variations on each of those pitches.  Splitters and cut fastballs and circle changes and screwballs and slurves.  All attempts to fool a pitcher, to disrupt him.  To throw the ball past him.

And then there’s the knuckleball.The anti-pitch.  Fluky, freaky. This video shows how you throw one–you push the ball out of your hand using your fingertips.  It’s not really thrown with the knuckles at all.  Thrown much softer–a relaxed, easy motion.  The point is to impart as little spin as possible.  Let the ball float up there, acted on by air currents.  Maybe it drops.  Maybe it sails.  As the pitcher, you don’t know where it’s going, and of course, neither does the batter. It looks like the easiest pitch in the world to hit–a batting practice fastball.  And then it jumps around unexpectedly.  The batter takes his best home run swing, and ends up whiffing, looking completely foolish.

It’s kind of a beautiful thing.  The point of a fastball/curve/change/slider pitcher is to control the outcome–you want the ball to cross a tiny corner of the plate, spinning and curving, at a velocity that makes it nearly impossible to hit.  A knuckleball pitcher, on the other hand, trusts to forces beyond his control.  Invisible air currents control the pitch.  Whatever happens, happens, dude.  But, man, can it be effective.  Here’s the great Tim Wakefield against the Yankees, a playoff game in 2003.  Best hitters in baseball completely helpless against a pitch arriving at home at 63 miles per hour.

And now we have a terrific new documentary, Knuckleball! documenting the 2011 season, and featuring Wakefield, in his last season, and R. A. Dickey of the (then) Mets, who emerged from the shadows that year. It makes sense that it would focus on just two pitchers, because throughout the history of baseball, there are really never more than a couple of knuckleballers working at any given time.  Hoyt Wilhelm and Wilbur Wood, when I was a kid. Then it was Phil and Joe Niekro and Charlie Hough in the 70s and 80′s, Bert Hooten after that.  Wakefield came up in ’92, and just retired, and now it’s R. A. Dickey, the new kid on the block.

But when you consider how few of them there have been, it’s remarkable how good they’ve been.  Two knuckleballers, Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, are in the Hall of Fame.  Joe Niekro could be.  Wakefield’s credentials are perhaps just a titch below that standard, but with over 200 career wins, he’s been an extraordinarily effective and consistent pitcher.  For the most part, knuckleballers turn to the pitch out of desperation.  Guys who want a career, and can’t figure out any other way to get batters out, turn to the knuckler, hoping against hope they can master it.  Most can’t. It’s a tricky and difficult pitch to learn how to throw consistently.  But if you can manage it, you can throw it basically forever. You throw so softly, it doesn’t put much pressure on your arm. Phil Niekro pitched ’til he was 48; Wilhelm until he was 50.  Wakefield had a 20 year career.

But they’re also an interesting bunch of guys.  When I was a kid, my favorite baseball book was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.  The first great baseball tell-all, profane and funny and moving.  Bouton had been a great fastball pitcher for the Yankees, then blew his arm out.  Ball Four describes, in part, Bouton’s attempt to refashion a career by throwing the knuckleball.  He describes the frustration of it–one day, it dances like a ping pong ball in a hurricane, the next day it spins, and gets hit very hard by large hairy men with clubs in their hands. You get Bouton’s love for the game, his dogged determination and grit.  You also get a sense of a locker room, the rude humor, the casual insults, the camaraderie.  Bouton’s also in the doc; who knows how long his career as a knuckleballer might have lasted, were it not for being effectively black-listed by the baseball establishment for writing his book. But the point is that Bouton was a smart, observant, interesting guy, and a fine writer. (After his baseball career finished, he became wealthy by inventing Big League Chew–a bubblegum that looked like chewing tobacco, for kids who wanted to look especially cool.)

So is R. A. Dickey.  He’s also got a book out: Wherever I wind up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.  It’s a wonderful book, warm and insightful and funny.  I also love his blog.

It makes me think that there’s something fascinating about this pitch, this odd sort of anti-pitch.  Everything about it seems backward.  You control events by losing control of them–you admit you don’t know where the ball is going, and you’re okay with that fact.  It’s pretty Zen, really–I’ll got with the flow here, I’ll let the ball do whatever the ball wants to do. Only some guys can do that, and they tend to be interesting people, unusually thoughtful, outsiders and mavericks.

And then you get in trouble–walk a couple of guys (always a knuckleball possibility), maybe a wild pitch.  (If you don’t know where it’s going, and if the batter doesn’t know where it’s going, then obviously the catcher doesn’t know either!).  A conventional pitcher, in that situation, wants to throw harder.  The pitching coach comes out, says ‘okay, Ace, time to really bear down.’  If you ordinarily throw 93, now is time to throw 94.  You want to spin the ball more severely, catch even less of the corner, really hum it in there.

But not a knuckleballer.  If you try to throw a knuckleball harder, you’ll spin it, and it’ll get hit. A knuckleball pitcher wants to throw the ball softer. Try less to control events.  Trust even more to chance and fortune.  Like I said: Zen.

I love that.  I especially love it as a writer.  When you’re up against a deadline, and facing writer’s block, the temptation is to force it.  You work yourself into a state, you beat yourself up, you go ‘come on, damn it, think of somethingWriteNow!

It never works.  And I’ve come to realize there’s a real wisdom to knuckleballing.  Maybe the answer, in times of high stress, is to relax. Trust the air currents more.  Let happen what’s going happen.  Leave things, a bit, to chance.

Throw softer.

42: A review

In an early scene in 42, the new Jackie Robinson biopic, Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey looks through a whole pile of scouting reports, trying to find exactly the right guy to integrate baseball.  He lingers on Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s file; army officer, college graduate, four sport athlete.  Not as famous as Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson, but a good enough player so that no one could question his ability to play big league ball.  What about his temperment? Too hot-headed?  Then Rickey sees a note in the file, and his face brightens.  “A Methodist,” he crows.  “I’m a Methodist, and so is he.  This is the guy.”

If you’re going to make a movie about a seminal character like Jackie Robinson, it seems to me that the first decision to be made is this: is the movie about the person, or his impact?  In other words, should the movie focus on Jackie Robinson, on his personal life and his struggles and weaknesses and how he overcame them, or on the impact his life had on others, his teammates, opponents, the nation generally?  What this film does is combine the two.  It’s a film about absolute morality, a film that says something like this: you were either for Jackie Robinson’s right to play major league baseball, or you were against it, and that decision was a fundamentally moral one.

And that’s how his Dodger teammates line up.  Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) and Bobby Bragan (Derek Phillips) and Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer) never could overcome their prejudices, and opposed him. (Bragan later recanted, which the film depicts, but it’s not given much dramatic emphasis).  And Walker and Higbe are ‘punished’ for it by Rickey–traded to (shudder) Pittsburgh.  Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken) come around, take Jackie’s side, publicly support him.  Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) is pro-Jackie from the beginning.  And this was all a function of their superior moral sense.

Chadwick Boseman is terrific as Robinson, as is Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson.  Boseman looks like a ballplayer.  He runs bases, swings the bat, fields a grounder, throws, and never once does it seem actorly. In some baseball movies, the players just don’t look right.  (John Goodman as Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig come to mind.)  Boseman’s terrific in the role.  He captures Jackie’s fire, his competitive passion, his pride.  This is a fierce Jackie Robinson, not in the least meek and long-suffering, which gives his forbearance when pelted with racist epithets some real power.  Beharie’s great too.  Rachel Robinson was a California girl, from an upper middle-class family.  In one early scene she stares, uncomprehending, at a ‘white’s only’ sign on a restroom door.  Rachel Robinson has to be a thankless role–the virtuous, loyal spouse–but Beharie (and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay and direction) create a woman of humor and intelligence, who seems at times rather bemused by this odd racism thing.  (And who makes a point of hiring a white caregiver for Jackie Jr.).

And Harrison Ford is tremendous.  Gruff and uncompromising, Rickey seems perpetually outraged at the vicissitudes of a racist backlash he nonetheless completely anticipated.  It’s a crafty performance–his moral outrage perfectly calibrated for each exigency.  It’s valuable to remember that Jackie Robinson didn’t just decide one day to try out for the Dodgers, any more than Rosa Parks didn’t just decide one day she didn’t feel like riding in the back of the bus.  Both acts were more than just morally subversive–they were carefully calculated.

In the best scene in the movie, Jackie is subjected to absolutely unremitting racist abuse from Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk–say it ain’t so, Wash!), in a game in Philadelphia.  In a tight pitchers’ duel, Robinson struggles at the plate, and with every pop to short, Chapman lets him have it, n-word after n-word.  Finally, Eddie Stanky leaves the Dodger dugout and confronts Chapman, offers to fight him, even. (I assume this actually happened, and it made me happy: scrappy little Eddie Stanky, all 5’8 and 170 of him, was the one Dodger most likely to punch out the other team’s manager).  Chapman backs down, and in an interview afterwards, says to reporters that he didn’t think his language was out of line.  After all, he calls Hank Greenberg a kike, and Joe DiMaggio a wop and what’s the big deal?  But in Tudyk’s performance, there’s this glimmer of fanaticism; you can see this isn’t just about routine bench jockeying; he hates what Jackie Robinson stands for.

And look, I don’t question for a second the central premise of this movie. Obviously, racism is just flat out evil, and obviously Jackie Robinson had an absolute right to pursue his chosen profession.  Every year, Major league baseball honors the Robinson legacy by having every player, on April 15, on every team, wear 42.  This is right and proper and fitting.  And I do consider Pee Wee Reese, a guy from Kentucky, heroic, when he put his arm around Jackie, a gesture of solidarity, in a game in Cincinatti when the abuse was starting to really rain down.  And I think it’s awesome that Stanky nearly punched out Ben Chapman, and that Ralph Branca (however awkwardly), told Jackie that he should just go ahead and shower with the white players, that it was no big deal.

And it’s a good, inspiring movie.  I liked it.  My wife, who doesn’t like baseball, liked it too.

I just wish. . . .

Okay, Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Stanky were good guys and Dixie Walker and Kirby Higbe and Bobby Bragan were bad guys, and I get that, and don’t disagree.  But wasn’t this, in part generational?  Pee Wee was 28 in 1947, an established young star.  1947 was Ralph Branca’s rookie year, and he was also the best pitcher on the team; his job unthreatened.  In 1947, Dixie Walker was 36, near the end.  Kirby Higbe was 32, a hard-drinking Southerner, from South Carolina.  His autobiography, The High Hard One, is terrific, a rolicking memoir of Depression-era baseball, as well as an alcoholic’s confessional.  It seems a shame to see a complex and interesting man relegated to the role of ‘racist villain’.  Dixie Walker became a highly respected hitting coach, especially known for his work with Jimmy Wynn, a great black player for Houston. As for Bobby Bragan, he was one of those guys hanging on by his toenails to a big-league job, a 29-year old backup catcher, who batted .190 in 1947.  He had to know what Robinson meant to a guy like him–an influx of black talent, competing for one of the 400 major league jobs.  If Robinson succeeded, Bragan had to think his career would be over–and that’s also what happened.  Roy Campanella joined the team in 1948, and the job he took was Bragan’s.

I am glad that the film makes a big deal of Wendell Smith, the reporter for the Pittsburgh Harold-American, a black newspaper, who Rickey hired at 50 dollars a month to be Jackie’s friend, confidant, chauffeur and amanuensis.  Smith was every bit the pioneer Jackie Robinson was, excluded from press boxes, typing game stories with a typewriter on his lap in the stands.  But what the film does not say is that Smith had been agitating for baseball integration for years, nor that he was the man who recommended Robinson to Branch Rickey.

In fact, Branch Rickey broke the color barrier for many reasons, some of them moral and religious to be sure, but also because he wanted first access to the black talent pool that would follow baseball’s integration.  And while he certainly paid Jackie and Pee Wee the same salary, he didn’t pay either of them all that much.  Owners didn’t, back then.

In other words, the baseball fan and historian in me sees the potential for ten much more nuanced and interesting films about Jackie Robinson.  Which is not to say that the film we have isn’t a good one, or an important one, or an inspiring one.  I liked it immensely, loved the performances, love the importance of Jackie Robinson in our history, which the film does get pretty well right.  The fact that other, maybe better films kept peeking out around the corners doesn’t negate what this one accomplished.

 

 

RIP: Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller died yesterday, at the age of ninety-five.  Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe wrote a great obituary, arguing for Miller’s inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  SI on-line, in their Truth and Rumors column, also discussed free agent pitcher Zack Greinke, who is in demand from a number of teams despite asking for a contract paying something in the neighborhood of 150 million dollars, 25 million a year for 6 years. And on the news this morning, I saw protests outside Walmarts. These three stories are not unrelated.

The three most significant men in baseball history are, in my opinion, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller.  This is not a controversial opinion; in fact the old Dodgers’ announcer Red Barber was the first to suggest it. In 1919, baseball was nearly destroyed by the Black Sox scandal, when eight members of the World Series losing team, the Chicago White Sox, were discovered to have thrown the series–played badly on purpose, paid off by gamblers.  The game’s popularity dropped–attendance collapsed.  That same year, Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees.  Ruth transformed the game, changed it from a game where a good team might hit 35 home runs in a season, to a game where one player might hit 50.  Ruth’s charisma, his energy, his inspiring (if largely fictitious) personal narrative–poor kid from an orphanage makes it big, devotes his time to impoverished and ailing children–his oversized personality and appetites made him America’s greatest celebrity.  The biggest name in the biggest media center.  It saved the game–even a rotten team like the old St. Louis Browns would budget around the 8 home games a season where Ruth’s Yankees would sell out their stadium. As for Jackie Robinson, breaking the color barrier allowed baseball, however gingerly, to begin to move beyond racism, just as the country was poised to start to do the same. A color-blind America remains a work in progress, but Jackie’s courage remains at the heart of one of our greatest inspirational and aspirational narratives.

Marvin Miller’s role remains more equivocal.  He never played the game; he was a labor economist.  He was elected executive director of the Major League Baseball Player Association in 1966, and in his sixteen years at its helm, made it the most successful labor union in the country. Which brings me to Zack Greinke.

Greinke is a very good young pitcher.  He’s now a free agent–before Miller, baseball players were not accorded the right to free agency.  Any team that wants to sign him can do so, and several teams are rich enough to bid for his services.  The price will start at 25 million a year, and will likely go up from there.  If he wants to play, and live and raise his children, in New York, or Boston, or Philadelphia, or Chicago or Los Angeles or Arlington Texas (the most likely suitors), he will have the opportunity to do so.

Should a professional baseball player, a young man in his mid twenties, make that kind of money?  Shouldn’t our country value school teachers or firefighters or military personnel or librarians or playwrights more than we value athletes?  Doesn’t it suggest misplaced priorities, that Zack Greinke be compensated so well?  Shouldn’t we, as a nation, pay teachers more, and pay right handed starting pitchers less?

Well, what about small businessmen?  What if Greinke had devoted his energies and imagination to something other than baseball?  What if he’d invented a new cell phone app, or developed the code for a really nifty video game? Mark Zuckerberg was younger than Greinke when he developed Facebook–do we resent Zuckerberg’s remarkable youthful success?

And it’s helpful to remember what the world of professional baseball was like before Marvin Miller was named director of the MLBPA.  When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards.  You may not get the allure, but for a ten year old kid, there was incredible magic in a small cardboard card with a list of numbers on the back and a picture of Ted Kubiak on the front.  Or best of all, Oscar Gamble. And on the back of each card, in addition to player stats, they included some humanizing detail.  Usually it was their off-season job.  Generations of fans knew Richie Hebner not as a power-hitting third baseman, but as a guy who worked as a grave digger when he wasn’t playing ball. Couldn’t make ends meet otherwise.

One of my favorite baseball books ever is Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.  His salary negotiations, and his frustration and anger over asking for pay raises from employers who held all the cards and who had no interest in dealing fairly with him was one of the main themes of the book.  As fans, we thought our ballplaying heroes were as rich as they were talented, but it simply wasn’t true; a guy like Bouton, who blew his arm out as a youngster, kept pitching through terrible pain because he needed the money. I remember superstar players were part of the ‘$100,000 club,’ a salary stratosphere reached only by a Willie Mays or a Mickie Mantle.  Guys who now have to make a living signing baseballs at fan events.

Bouton also described how unified team owners were against Marvin Miller’s election.  Miller was called ‘a communist.’  Players were pressured to vote against him.  Told he, Miller, would destroy baseball–would destroy their livelihood.  And Marvin Miller’s election was pretty close to unanimous. The players knew.  They knew that baseball’s reserve clause left them in something darn close to indentured servitude.  Well-compensated servitude, for some, perhaps, but servitude nonetheless.  Baseball players could also be traded without having any say in it.  Just told, that new house you just bought in LA?  Guess what, you’ve been traded to Atlanta.  Good luck with the move.  It was tough on marriages, tough on families.  Bobo Newsome, a pretty good old pitcher, was traded sixteen times in his fabled career. Sixteen times, forced to move from a city where he’d begun to set down roots, to a place where he knew no-one.

So what did Marvin Miller do, as head of the union?  He listened, mostly.  He met with players, and heard their stories. He answered their questions, asked a few of his own.  He empowered the players.  The strikes of ’72, ’80, ’81 (and the subsequent bruising work stoppage of ’94-95, after Miller’s tenure had ended) were not his idea–they were player initiated and player driven.  Marvin Miller helped them realize just how strong they really were, just how much power they actually had.  Free agency followed, salary arbitration, and, of course, much improved pay.

Baseball players–and other professional athletes, who formed their own unions after seeing what Miller was doing for baseball– are small businessmen; for each player, his talent is the commodity he offers for sale. What is a baseball player worth?  Well, whatever the market says he’s worth.  The baseball union isn’t communism, as so many owners, baffled to see their powers diminish, were fond of calling it.  It’s capitalism in action, and it’s altogether a good thing.  Do some professional athletes squander their money?  Sure.  It’s a free society, and the ability to hit a baseball does not automatically equate to a talent for money management.  Capitalism can get messy.  Aren’t we constantly reassured by the Right that messiness and inequality are to be expected?

Now Walmart is facing employee discontent, because Walmart pays poorly. So what do we make of Costco, Walmart’s biggest competitor.  Costco pays $17 dollars an hour.  Costco’s CEO makes $350,000 a year.  And Costco has the lowest employee turnover rate, and the lowest losses to employee theft, in all of retailing.

The greatest period of economic growth in our nation’s history came just after WWII; the Truman/Eisenhower/Kennedy years.  Those years were characterized by a very high marginal tax rate (the highest tax rate was 91%) and very strong unions.  And yes, perhaps a post-war period of economic expansion was inevitable, but that was a  post-war time; Europe was shattered, Asia weakened, which meant the US had fewer competitors than now, but also very few customers internationally.

Marvin Miller was a unique figure among labor leaders, heading a group of uniquely talented athletes who were almost preposterously underpaid.  But today, baseball player salaries are huge.  A star often makes hundreds of millions of dollars over his career–heck, a utility infielder can retire a multi-millionaire.  And baseball isn’t the most popular US sport–it’s at best third most popular, after the NFL and the NBA.  So those high salaries, union driven, are destroying the game, right?  Not in the least.  Major league baseball has, as a corporate entity, never been more profitable.  The Dodgers were just sold to a group of investors: purchase price, from Magic Johnson’s ownership group?  Two billion dollars plus.

It goes further.  Right now, in the off-season, baseball fans are glued to their favorite fan websites: who are we going to sign?  What will that portend? Talented young athletes, capable of careers in either baseball or football or basketball are increasingly choosing baseball–longer careers, better pay prospects.  Prosperous ballplayers are bringing their money home, revitalizing impoverished neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic and Mexico and Venezuela.

Baseball’s current prosperity is because of, not in spite of, its strong union. I suggest the same will become true of our overall economy.  We need more Costcos, fewer Walmarts.  There are still lessons we can learn from Marvin Miller.

 

July 12, 1968, Cincinatti.

I played Little League baseball.  I was terrible at it, but I played.  I was skinny and clumsy; I couldn’t field or throw; I could hit a little.  Mostly I played right field, which is the position where they put guys who can’t field or throw. And clumsy; OMG clumsy, you don’t know clumsy unless you could see me at the age of 12. (And at 14, I was even clumsier).  Mom says that once, on my way from the bench to my position, I tripped and fell three times. A woman behind her in the bleachers said ‘who is that big awkward kid?’  My Mom was too embarrassed to admit she knew me.

I did have one triumphant game, though.  Our first baseman was Davey Williams, the coach’s son.  And one game, Davey mouthed off at his Dad, who promptly benched him.  We didn’t have anyone else on the team who could play first, except for Marc Lunsford, who was pitching.  Coach Williams looked down the bench, settled on me, sort of shuddered a little bit. Closed his eyes, as if in terrible pain. Probably threw up in his mouth a little.  And then, with a resolute look of desperation, sent me out to play first base.  First.  Base.  The infield.  Where a batted ball might actually come my way.

First player hit a ground ball to short; our shortstop fielded it cleanly, threw to first.  I caught the ball, tagged the base.  Routine play, handled routinely, but I felt like I’d won the Gold Glove.  Later, same game, I came up to bat.  It was a close game; we were up a run.  I swung hard, singled to right center, knocked in a run.  It was the best day of my life, up to that point.  Later, I even stole a base.  Still not sure how.

I was easily the worst player on the team, but it was a very good team; sponsored by Kinser Lumber, if memory serves.  Marc Lunsford was our best player.  He later became quarterback of our high school football team, then was recruited by Arizona State, where he started at QB for three years.  Marc was our best shortstop and pitcher, but we also had Jamie Foutz, another terrific pitcher, and Terry Phegley, our team leader and catcher, a tough competitor, also a bully and a thug.  But he was good at baseball; I’ll give him that, though he stole my lunch every day in 6th grade.  Plus, of course, Davey Williams, a good hitter when he wasn’t mouthing off.  Coach Williams told us that if we won City, he’d take us to a Cincinatti Reds game as a reward.  And we did, and he did.

On the bus trip to Ohio, some of us sat in the back and did jello powder.  That was our drug of choice.  You bought jello (you know, the powder you add water to to make jello), and put it in a baggie, then you’d wet your finger in your mouth, dip it in the jello, lick it off. It was sweet and sticky and, for some reason, against the rules.  Grandview Elementary School was death on jello dipping, and teachers were always checking your fingers for that tell-tale stain. But the boys’ bathroom had this industrial strength corrosive soap powder that was great for eradicating jello stains; also for removing the top layer of your skin. I never did get caught. Did I succumb to peer pressure, break a school rule?  You bet I did. You had to.  Guys would sort of saunter up to you and say, “do you . . . dip?  I’m carrying.”  And he’d pull out a baggie of jello.  A challenge. You either licked and dipped, or you were despised as a weenie and a dweeb.  Me, I certainly dipped. I even became a dealer. Charged fifty cents for a baggie of jello, which I stole from my Mom’s pantry.

Re-reading this post, it occurs to me that my Mom comes across badly, which I feel terrible about.  My Mom’s great.  But I know I baffled her terribly; always bugging her to buy more jello (which somehow mysteriously disappeared from the pantry), and asking for three sandwiches every day for lunch, not knowing that two of them went to Terry Phegley and Charles Robinson, the school bullies.

See, I was a good kid, a university professor’s son, an A student, on the rare occasions that I turned in my homework.  I was the quiet kid sitting in the back of the class, reading.  I wasn’t a trouble-maker, not really.  I didn’t spend recess like most of the other kids did, clipping off grasshoppers’ heads with a toenail clipper, to watch headless insects hop.  I was on the school’s safety patrol, an honor I loathed.  A few favored kids were chosen by the principal for safety patrol, which meant that you got this white belt-with-shoulder-strap thing you were supposed to wear, especially at recess. The purpose of the belt thing, I now realize, was for the convenience of the school’s bullies, to let them know who should be beaten up first. As a safety patroller, if I saw kids breaking school rules, I were supposed to narc on them.  Turn them in.  I never did, of course, but it didn’t matter; the belt was enough to get you thoroughly thrashed. I had to do something, so I became a hard-core jello dipper. And jello trafficker.

So, anyway, we jello dipped in the bus to Cincinatti, and then got to the ballpark way early, so we could shag flies during batting practice.  It was amazing, to run around on the field of a big league ballpark.  The Reds were playing the San Francisco Giants, and all my teammates were Reds’ fans.  Above all, we wanted autographs.  We’d brought our gloves (essential anyway for shagging flies), and our sharpies.  Of course we had sharpies.  They were a new thing back then (first marketed in 1964), but they were perfect for autographs.

My teammates and I saw Pete Rose, and ran over, to get his autograph.  Rose was the Reds’ best player, already an All-Star, already a household name.  He was just 27 that year, and as beloved a player as could exist.  Pete hustled.  Pete cared.  Pete played hard all the time.  And we saw him, just rubbing down his bats as I recall, and we asked for his autograph.  Me, Davey Williams and Jamie Foutz.  And Pete signed their gloves.  My turn, and I don’t know, but it was probably the jello stains on my fingers or something, but he turned away.  And I said something, like ‘But Mr. Rose. . .”, something plaintive and probably annoying–I could be a real whiner–and he turned back, said a bad word and then: “kid, get lost.”  As though he’d decided he didn’t like me. Personally.

I did not want to cry. I was a baseball player too, you know, and baseball players don’t cry.  Tom Hanks said.  But I wandered off, and, yeah, I was in fact crying, my teammates all off wherever.  And this shadow fell over me, and I looked up, and this big black guy put his hand on my shoulder.  And he said, “Kid, what’s the matter, man?”  And it was Willie McCovey, the Giants’ first baseman.

And he invited me to the Giants’ dugout. And he introduced me to his friends.  Willie Mays; I met Willie Mays, and he smiled at me, and said ‘say hey,’ and he signed my glove.  And Jim Ray Hart, the great third baseman.  And Hal Lanier, the shortstop, nicest guy of the bunch.  And I met Gaylord Perry, and he signed my glove, and I met Juan Marichal, and Ron Hunt and Dick Dietz and Jesus Alou, and their rookie right fielder, Bobby Bonds, a great player who had a son, turns out, even better. And they all signed my glove. Which my Mom threw out when I went on a mission seven years later.  But that’s okay.  I know what happened.

Anyway, I was there, in the Giants’ dugout.  And I obviously couldn’t stay there, so I finally left and found my teammates, and sat with ‘em, and they all rooted for the Reds, and I rooted for the San Francisco Giants, quietly, on my own.  I’m pretty sure this is the box score.  I know the game was in Cincinatti, and both Willie Mays and Willie McCovey hit home runs, and I remember Jim Ray Hart hitting two.  I also remember the game was shortly after the All-Star game that year, and I knew it was in mid-July.  I also knew better than to cheer aloud.  I remember maybe wanting to cheer for Pete Rose to strike out or make an error, but he didn’t play, I remember; he may have been injured. But I wanted, more than anything, for my guys to win, for Willie McCovey, who was kind to me, to get a hit.  I did jump up when he hit his homer.  And Terry Phegley looked at me and said, “what’s your problem?  He’s on the wrong team.  Hey, guys, Samuelsen doesn’t even know which team to root for!”  And I got made fun of.  The worst players on good teams always get made fun of.

But he was wrong.  I did know who to root for, and why I was rooting for them.

The San Francisco Giants have been my team ever since.  I was smart enough to marry a girl from San Jose, so whenever we go to visit her family, I’m able to sneak in a game.  And they play in a ballpark with a statue of Willie Mays in front, and the ocean just past right field, an inlet called McCovey Cove.  And this year, Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal threw out the first ball in the World Series.  Which, for the second time in three years, we won.  They won.  We won.  They are my team, and always will be, ’til the end of my days on this planet.  Willie McCovey was kind to a sobbing child, an unattractive skinny awkward child with weird stains on his fingers.  And got his friends to sign a glove with a Sharpie.  How can I repay him, except with my lifelong loyalty?

And last night, we won the World Series.  And once again, I discovered how good a simple baseball game can make you feel.

Doing the little things: World Series, Game 2

Here’s a shocker; I’m rooting for the Giants to win the World Series.  I mean, heck, they’ve been my favorite team for forty plus years now: figured I’d stick with ‘em for the Series.

As I’ve previously noted, I’m perfectly aware that rooting for a professional sports team is absurd.   And yeah, it’s arbitrary, especially when a kid from Indiana, currently living in Utah, just, like, decides that the San Francisco team is the one.  And over the years, my allegiance to the Giants has been sorely tested. Take the ’79 team, for example. (The shortstop that year: Johnnie Lemaster.  Affectionately known as Johnnie Disaster).  Or ’88.  Or ’05. Some real stinkers in there.

What made the 2010 World Series winning Giants so special was how unexpected it all was.  The previous WS champs were way back in 1954, when I was negative two years old. Good teams since, even three World Serieses; ’62, ’89, ’02.  Now we’re back in the World Series, one of the most unlikely Series’ teams in history.

First round of the playoffs: we played the Cincinatti Reds.  The Reds are really good, scary good, great hitting team with terrific pitching.  First round series are best 3 of 5, and after we lost the first 2 games in San Fransciso, we had to win 3 straight in Cincinatti.  And they hadn’t lost 3 straight at home all season long.  And, game 3, their starting pitcher, Homer Bailey, allowed 1 hit.  One. Uno.

But we won. Fought and scraped and Ryan Vogelsong pitched like a mensch, and we got a run on a hit batsman, a walk, a bunt, and a fly ball, and then finally got Bailey out of there, and won in 10 innings, on a Reds error. And then won two more to advance.

Second round of the playoffs: the Cardinals.  Lost 3 of the first 4 (in a best of 7 format), and had to sweep the last 3 games to pull it out.  And did.  Right now, this Giants team has faced 6 games they absolutely had to win to stay alive in the playoffs.  They’ve gone 6-0 in those games.  They’re tougher than a two dollar steak, harder to kill than Rasputin.  They’ve climbed out of more graves than Bela Lugosi.

Last night’s game, though, gives some idea why this team is so hard to beat when it counts.  If you value good old American competence, quiet confidence, back to the basics, savvy, skill, moxie, old school fundamentals, ‘git ‘er done proficiency, then you’ll like this Giants’ team. Here’s Tom Verducci, of Sports Illustrated:

If the Giants win the World Series by playing like this, this will be the first official World Series DVD that will be released as an instructional video. They turn every double play that needs to be turned, run the bases with speed and smarts, make every play on defense, don’t walk people and, even when they miss cutoff men, have people in the right spot and execute flawlessly.

Three plays, last night.  Second inning: Madison Bumgarner, our absurdly talented 23 year-old pitcher, starts the inning by plunking Prince Fielder, the Tigers’ first baseman. Fielder likes to lean over the plate; Madbum tried to back him off with a fastball in, and got it a little too far inside.  The Tigers’ next hitter was Delmon Young.  He ripped a double down the left field line.  Here’s the play. A few points:

First, our left fielder, Gregor Blanco, is a 29 year old career minor leaguer, who has been bouncing around looking for a job his whole life, basically.  He’s fast, a terrific fielder, a great bunter, but he’s not much of a hitter; he starts for us because Melky Cabrera crashed and burned.  You can see on the video; he overruns the play at first, but recovers incredibly quickly.  There’s been a lot of criticism of Gene Lamont, the Tigers’ third base coach, for sending Prince Fielder home on that play, but he saw Blanco overrun the ball; he can’t have anticipated Blanco’s fast recovery.  Blanco’s throw was off-line; he’s supposed to hit the shortstop with that relay, but Marco Scutaro, our second baseman, was exactly where he’s supposed to be, backing up Brandon Crawford.  Scutaro had a tough throw, too.  Prince Fielder’s a big guy; a lot of the time, that relay throw hits the runner in the back.  But Scutaro threw it to the front of the plate, instead of straight to home.  And Buster Posey, our catcher, made a perfect swipe tag.  The whole thing is just a perfect example of fundamental baseball.

Second play came in the 7th inning.  Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ best hitter, starts the inning off with a great at bat, fouling off several pitches before Madbum just missed with a slider outside for ball four.  So, leadoff guy on first, no out, in a tie game.  Prince Fielder then hit a hard ground ball up the middle.  Bumgarner fielded it cleanly, then waited just a second before making the throw to second.  Now, that double play, the 1-6-3 double play, is a tough one; I see it get screwed up a lot.  The pitcher’s throwing to a moving target, the shortstop, coming across second.  But Bumgarner, first, didn’t rush the throw.  He waited until Brandon Crawford, our shortstop, was in position.  Then he threw it to the third base side of second.  So Crawford could catch the throw, tag second for the out, and have the bag between him and the sliding Cabrera.  I know, it was just a routine double play. But this Giants’ team executes.  They make those plays.

Tom Verducci’s story focuses on Gregor Blanco’s perfect bunt, which set up the first run of the game.  It was, indeed, an exquisite bunt, if a little lucky.  But I want to focus on Hunter Pence’s at bat in the 8th.

So, 1-0 game, bottom of the 8th.  The Tigers are an excellent hitting team, and I think most Giants’ fans were worried about the 9th inning.  Our closer, Sergio Romo, is one of the goofiest guys in baseball, and one of the most awesome.  He’s famous for this thing he does, when one of his teammates is being interviewed, of sneaking behind the guy and making faces, ruining the interview.  Love the guy.  Anyway, he’s good, but a 1-0 lead is worrisome.  You just had this feeling; another run would put this away.

So, bases loaded, one out.  A fly ball with score a run.  Hunter Pence batting.  We traded for Hunter back in July, and he’s one of the most interesting guys in baseball.  He does everything wrong: he runs funny, throws funny, bats funny.  Only Hunter would do this.  I was worried last night, though, because he swings at a lot of bad pitches. A strikeout in that situation would not be good.  But he hung in there, fouled off pitch after pitch.  And finally, he did his job; just lifted a normal, routine fly ball to center, to score that much needed insurance run.

That’s the Giants.  They hit fewer home runs than any other team in baseball this year.  But they led all of baseball in . . . sacrifice flies.  They execute, they’re fundamentally sound, they’re a team built on guys who do their jobs.  I love that kind of competence.  They’re my team, and I’m rooting for them to win.  But they’re a team that’s easy to like.

 

 

 

Lance Armstrong

So the big sports news this week has been Lance Armstrong, seven time winner of the Tour de France, and therefore the greatest cyclist in history, and the evidence that, despite his protestations to the contrary, he cheated.  Doped.  Took performance enhancing drugs.  This week’s Sports Illustrated laid it all out there.  Based on an investigation by the USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency), the case made in SI is thorough and damning.  I think it’s safe to say that the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard has been met here, at least in the court of public opinion.  I don’t think think there’s much doubt that Armstrong built his success on a foundation of PEDs.  And thus comes the recommendation that the UCI, the Union Cycliste International, strip him of his titles.

SI‘s story points out something rather interesting; the difference between US and European attitudes about doping.  It’s quite a bit like the difference in attitudes towards the sexual philandering of politicians.  Francois Hollande, the current President of France, for example, is quite open about his mistress, Valerie Trierweiler, who was, also openly, mistress to Patrick Devedjian, minster of finance in the government of Nicholas Sarkozy.  This despite the fact that all three were married to other people.  But nobody in France thinks anything of it.  It’s all considered no big deal.  Uh, we Americans don’t see it the same way.

But in France, it’s just expected that the winner of the Tour de France was doing, well, whatever, steroids and human growth hormone and blood doping and whatever. You can’t win that race if you don’t.  Or couldn’t. Bradley Wiggins, this year’s winner, says he didn’t dope, and protocols have been beefed up to the point that he probably didn’t.  But was this true in the past? As SI quotes five time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil, “You’d have to be an imbecile or hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants.”

SI‘s story suggests the same.  Armstrong cycled as part of the United Postal Service team, a hand-picked cadre of top flight cyclists, all of whom doped, and all of whom have now come clean about doping.  The cyclists against whom he competed all doped as well.  The evil genius in all this, Dr. Michele Ferrari, was an expert on the newest methods of doping and masking agents, and a close advisor to Armstrong’s team, but he consulted with many other riders as well.

The language the American sports media uses to describe the use of PEDs tends towards the moralistic: cheating, a fraud, doping. (I just did it too, calling Dr. Ferrari an ‘evil genius.’)  But how can an action be ‘cheating’ if everyone in the sport is doing it?  How can administering prescription drugs be illegal if they’re prescribed by a doctor?

Lance Armstrong has always seemed like an immensely competitive guy, a guy who is so driven to win, that no other considerations seem to matter much to him. The guy he reminds me of most in all of sports is Michael Jordan.  They’re both guys whose need to win almost seems pathological. I had a friend like that in high school.  Real average guy, Tony, not all that big, not all that fast.  He was a running back on our football team, and when the game was on the line, you basically couldn’t tackle him.  He just wanted to win more than anyone else on the team.

The language of sports suggests that’s a good trait to have.  We talk about guys giving 110%, we quote Vince Lombardi (‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’), we give massive props to guys who lay it all on the line, who leave everything on the field, who want it more than the other guys.  Sports is the ultimate meritocracy, and merit means effort, especially if it leads to winning.  Is there a dark side to sports success?  Of course there is.  But we don’t emphasize it much. Sometimes, when we look at the battered body of a retired sports hero, we notice how a guy we once admired, even sort of worshipped, can’t climb stairs anymore, can’t remember the names of his children.  Or we see them give up.  End it.  Pace Junior Seau, requiscat Dave Duerson.

But our favorite sports narrative ever is the guy who just flat out won’t quit, the guy who absolutely must win, no matter what, regardless of cost.  Kirk Gibson hitting a game winning World Series home run on one leg.  Kerri Strug sticking the landing on a broken ankle.  Michael Jordan barfing on the bench, every time out, then willing his team to victory.

And Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, and seven time winner of the Tour de France.

Barry Bonds set himself the task of becoming the greatest hitter the game of baseball had ever seen.  He allowed no other consideration to intrude on his pursuit of that goal. Lance Armstrong committed himself to the goal of becoming the greatest cyclist in history.  He refused to let any other factor dictate his fate. He made it.  They both made it.  Now they’re both reviled as cheaters.

I get that it’s not as simple as saying that Armstrong cheated in a time when cheating was rampant.  I get that cyclists who would much rather not have jeopardized their health by using steroids were essentially forced to go along with the crowd, quite possibly to their own detriment.  SI‘s story describes a cyclist named Christian Vande Velde, who Armstrong put on the Postal team, who didn’t want to dope, and the pressure Armstrong put on the guy to go along with the other guys on the team.  Let’s say Vande Velde develops health problems relating to HGH or something.  Could his illness be blamed Armstrong? In a sense, yes, I suppose so.

But if the UCI takes away Armstrong’s medals, if it declares that Lance Armstrong did not win the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005, wouldn’t it be saying something absurd?  He did win those races.  He was the greatest.  Those are the historical facts.  I suppose some kind of sanctions might have some deterrent value, might prevent future riders from doping.  But don’t re-write history.  Contextualize it, explain it, but what happened, happened.

Grown-ups make choices, and live by the consequences of those choices.  Lance Armstrong chose to endanger his health in pursuit of a goal.  I’m uncomfortable with all the moralizing.  If a sport, or sports federation, chooses policies to protect the health and well-being of its participants, then yes, rules should be established, consequences defined. But both major league baseball and world-class cycling chose to bury their heads in the sand. Lance Armstrong was the most exciting, charismatic athlete ever to choose cycling as a career.  Cycling profited, both materially and in terms of publicity, from his success.  He also inspired millions of cancer patients with his story (incomplete and falsified though it was).  I’m uncomfortable with a current PED witch hunt that ignores those realities.