Today I played wiffle ball with Harold Reynolds in the studio/baseball stadium pictured below. He pitched and when I came up to the plate, he said “uh oh here comes the big guy” which was very baseball coach-ish. I hit a couple line drives off the left field fence but didn’t get any over. Typical. Anyway, that’s all I had to say.
Monthly Archive for June, 2009
The conversation I had with sports writer, poet, and Best American Sports Writing Editor Glenn Stout Monday twisted and turned informally. In fact, it was so bouncy that I was only able to transcribe chunks at a time. The conversation ran from Spaceman Lee to Theodore Roethke to David Halberstam. Mostly we talked about writing. Here are some of the most compelling excerpts from the First Ever Pitchers and Poets Interview.
On how he found Pitchers and Poets:
I don’t remember to tell you the truth. I was cruising on the internet for something and I saw a reference to it pop up. I like pitchers and poets so I thought “I’ve got to check that out.” Then I saw the “Death of a Pitcher” post, read it, and really liked that. I thought “I’m going to write that guy.”
On becoming a writer:
Well, there’s only 26 letters. And nobody’s that much better at putting them together than you are. I’m not in awe of the process that gets it done. When I grew up the notion that I would be a writer and would know people who were writers was like walking on the fucking moon. I thought that was just not accessible. Now that it is, I’m not intimidated by it, at least not many more. I deal with people now that I can’t believe I get to talk to, sometimes. I find out that they’ve read me and I just can’t believe it. But it doesn’t intimidate me. We’re all plowing the same field in some way.
I think a lot of writers put up needless road blocks. Artists in general will find reasons not to do things. A lot of doing it just entails sitting down and putting in the time. And in that way I feel like I share some things with people who are much better than I. IF nothing else, I put in the time.
On becoming a sports writer:
I got out of school in 1981. There were no jobs then. Nobody I knew had a job doing anything remotely close to what they wanted to do for 3 or 4 years. Of course back then there wasn’t the opportunity to do blogs. You couldn’t really do anything. You got a shit job doing something and you bitched and moaned and complained with all your friends.
This time is like that time, as time, where if you’re serious about writing you keep doing it regardless. A lot of times when I talk to younger writers I say that the one difference between being a writer and not being a writer is that the people who are writers are the ones who never quit. In a silly way, it’s almost that simple. Just don’t stop.
I just wanted to write. Sports writing was sort of an accident for me. When I was at the Boston Public Library I stumbled across a story about the Red Sox manager in 1907 who killed himself in Spring Training. The general attitude was that he couldn’t handle the pressure of managing the team, but something didn’t sit right with me about that. I looked it up in old newspapers, found out what happened, and wrote query letters tot the Globe and to Boston Magazine. Boston Magazine ended up buying it for $300 and the editor really liked me. So I became their Sports Columnist without having any previously published clips.
On the current state of sports writing:
I think the big problem with sports writing today, if you want to say that there’s a big problem with it (and you can argue that there is), is that too many people try to write like they talk on the radio. It just leads to columns that have no shape or form but just spew opinions. A really good column should have shape and form. If you’re just arguing about who should start at quarterback, they don’t
The thing about blogs – and I recently started my own and I appreciate them – is that very few people put the time in for either the writing or reporting on a blog that you would for a print publication. Not too many people have the discipline to do that for two, or three, or four days a week. Bu there’s a lot of great info in them, a lot of great data, occasionally some really good writing.
On David Halberstam:
I feel pretty fortunate that I was allowed to work with him. I met him before BASW when he came to the library to research “Summer Of 49.” I was kind of the unofficial curator of sports stuff at the time. He was business-like, but he didn’t try to big-league me or anything like that. He solicited my opinion about things. For a young writer to have somebody of stature pay attention to you at all was sort of significant. That’s the kind of thing that can really give you a confidence boost.
On his favorite baseball poems:
I really like the Tom Clark Poem “To Bill Lee. He’s a west coast San Francisco poet, kind of a neo-beat. I really, really think that Casey at the Bat is terrific, too. In a lot of ways I think baseball writing really begins with it. It’s got an amazing lead and there are moments in it with just great description, like “benches black with people.”
On his favorite ballplayers:
As a kid I was a huge Clemente fan, because I was a Pittsburgh fan growing up outside Columbus where the AAA team was a Pittsburgh farm team. I also like guys like Sparky Lyle. My first bat was a Yaz model. I always liked pitchers because that’s what I did. One of my first baseball memories is having a t shirt with a cartoon drawing of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on the front.
I got my tonsils out when I was like 5, and I had my mom iron a number 9 on the back for Maris. I grew up in Ohio and the only big league baseball we ever saw at the time was the Yankees on the Game of the Week.
On his favorite poets:
Theodore Roethke. In particular, “Straw for the Fire,” a book of fragments from his notebooks was really influential on me. Also, James Wright. He is much more regional and I was from Ohio, so that has resonance. I also like Rilke in translation, especially the Michael Hamburger translation.
On reading poetry outside of Fenway Park on Opening Day for 9 years:
I was just a couple years out of college and I was into combining the things that I liked. That’s the goal, right? I liked baseball, I liked poetry. I was kind of involved in the local coffeehouse poetry scene in Boston. I got a little pig nose amplifier, started collecting poetry, and we just went out there. I’d send out press releases, TV stations would cover us, and newspaper columnists would cover us. It was kind of a kick in the head.
Believe it or not, one of those days I was up in the bleachers and Bill Lee was sitting right next to me. I showed him the Tom Clarke poem in my notebook, which ends something like “and then you went to China,” and he read it and said [does Bill Lee impression] “that’s a great poem!”
Just recently, I ran into him having breakfast here in Vermont. He didn’t remember the story – I think he’d had a lot to drink that day, I know I’d had a few – but when I mentioned the Tom Clark poem again, he said the exact same thing: “that’s a great poem!”
On his own baseball poetry:
I never tried to write baseball poetry per se. Those baseball poems that are on the website are the only ones that I ever wrote. I wrote thousands of poems and those are the only ones that I wrote about baseball.
I never, when I’m doing poetry, sit around and try to write about baseball. Sometimes it ends up about rocks and trees, or somebody walking down the street, or sometimes about baseball. Sometimes the ones that seem like they’re about baseball are really about something else, and some of the ones that seem like they’re about something else are really about baseball.
On writing poetry:
It’s all magic, it’s not like the other stuff. It’s not like the other writing. I don’t do as much of it now as I used to. It’s hard to do it when I’m doing this other kind of writing all the time, non-fiction. To write poetry you have to be in a different kind of head space. It’s being mindful of that interior voice. Just sitting around is a great thing to do to write poetry. Being a security guard or working at the library was a great place to write poetry. Lots of break time
I went to Bard College and the big guy there was Robert Kelly. He wasn’t really heavy handed. He was kind of those neo-Ezra Pound poets. I wasn’t but he could care less. Some of the best advice he ever gave us in a workshop one day was that “None of you guys should ever worry about being published. If you’re meant to be published, you’ll be published. So don’t sit there and worry about it.” I think that’s true. If the work is good enough, if you share it enough, someone will want to publish it.
Thanks again to Mr. Stout. Be sure to check out his latest, “The Young Woman and the Sea,” which was recently chosen as one of five nonfiction books to read this summer by the Wall Street Journal, and read his blog Verb Plow.
This week’s poem is by Glenn Stout. Stout has been the editor of the Best American Sports Writing series since its inception, but he describes himself as “an old poet who found himself writing sports by accident.” Stout is also a true believer in both baseball and poetry — as true as anyone I’ve ever spoken to. He spent nine consecutive Opening Days parked outside of Fenway Park, reciting poetry through a megaphone and last night we chatted by phone about those poems and other topics. The interview will be up later this week. But for now, read Knuckleball below, and if you like it, click this link for some more of Mr. Stout’s baseball poetry.
I tumble on, barely spinning
each stitch and seam pronounced
afloat and affected by the turbulent air
pushed first this way, then that way
asymmetrical by degrees
going forward from some release
out of hand and out of control
hard to meet squarely
difficult to grasp, easy to drop or let pass
cut loose from one sure grip
to drift and list on homeward
revealing utter confidence
that one still waits, arms out, on knees
a last sharp break to catch and squeeze
between two hands, and then to hold
the pitch at last received.
There is a video making its way around the internet of some American Jewish kids on vacation in Jerusalem spewing a bunch of racist garbage, mostly about Barack Obama. . The kids are drunk, probably from some wealthy yeshiva in the Northeast, and shamefully ignorant of just about everything:
It’s an appalling representation of Jews, Americans, and Young People – three subgroups to which I proudly belong. By posting and talking about it here, I’m probably not doing myself any favors as such, but the clip merits discussion.
The fact that there are racist Jewish kids shouldn’t be a surprise. There are racists and idiots of every race, religion, and nationality. We’re all human and the human condition is fragile, flawed, and fickle. Despite understanding all that intellectually, I can’t help but find the video really revolting on a gut level. I barely made it through the whole thing.
To be honest, if this were a clip of some white kid in Georgia making the same bigoted comments, I wouldn’t be writing about it. I would have watched it, shook my head, and moved on. However, with identity come pride and shame all the emotions in between. Maybe this is a personality flaw, but while I can understand that underneath labels and colors and languages we are all the same, I still expect more of the groups I’m a part of. Not to be better – nobody is better – but to at least try harder at it.
This feeling manifests itself in all sorts of places. When I see some drunken, American tourist making a mess of things in a foreign city, I can’t help but roll my eyes and think he’s not doing much to help our image in the world. When Eliot Spitzer got caught banging a high-priced hooker, the first thing I thought – and I’m not especially proud of this – was “bad for the Jews.” When Manny Ramirez was suspended last month, I had to wonder why, why must it be a Dodger?
After all, fandom is just another level on which we identify. A friend of mine here in New York is a big Kansas City Royals fan. On the once-in-a-blue-hat occasion that he sees somebody sporting some Royals gear, he approaches them about it. It’s exciting for him to find someone who shares his relatively obscure identity.
And with identity comes identity politics. We work to advance our own particular fandoms – Yankee fans want to be better, more dedicated, more educated, stand on higher moral ground, than Red Sox fans, and vice versa. Same goes for any rivalry in any sport, or in politics, or in global affairs. In a very dramatic essay called The Sporting Spirit, George Orwell assesses the rise of gung-ho fandom in grim terms:
There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.
Without getting into too much detail about the relataive sanity of fandom – or whether the habit of identifying oneself with large power units is truly lunatic – I think Orwell’s point is generally correct. There is an innate urge to identify ones self with a larger unit, whether familiar, religious, national, or athletic. Often society does the work for us. We can’t help where we are born or who our family is. Even the things we are supposedly free to choose like political affiliation, religion, taste in music, or favorite sports teams, are often inherited from our parents or subconsciously absorbed from the people we grew up around.
Sports fandom isn’t just bound up with the rise of nationalism, it is nationalism. There is no intellectual or moral reasoning involved in the way we pick our favorite teams — it’s geography and family and a number of other subliminal factors. I grew up in Los Angeles, thus I am a Dodger fan. My mother’s family is from Miami and brainwashed me from a young age, thus I am a Dolphins fan. Is it random and illogical? Yes, but no more random and illogical than patriotism – and like patriotism not necessarily (sorry Mr. Orwell) such a bad thing. Teams are homelands. We all need those. That’s why a group of bat-shit crazy costumed criminals can get together, start a support group, and call it the Raider Nation.
Then again, these are artificial nations. Membership in the Raider Nation is just a luxury afforded by the institutions and protections of the American Nation. And words exchanged between fans during heated competition bear much less historical weight than words like the ones uttered by the kids in that video. Fan violence is real and tragic, but it pales in comparison to religious or nationalist violence. The personal and historic significance of our identities varies over time. In the end some have to mean more than others. If one of the kids in those videos was wearing a Dodger cap, I would have certainly noticed. But “bad for the Dodger fans” is the last thing I would have thought about.
I wanted to get some hip hop onto the baseball mixtape but felt like not using Nelly. Google led me to Natural Resource, a shortlived indie group from the 1990s. Good info on Natural Resource is scarce, but they were the launching point for eminently talented female artist named Jean Grae — then known as What? What? The best writeup I’ve seen on this song is from a blog called Twelve Inchers, who cite these lyrics and wonder if the track is really about baseball at all:
Baseball was never for blacks. (What?)
It used to be a pasttime for whites. (That’s true.)
Now it has mad Puerto Ricans. (Uh oh)
But that’s not the point of the song. (A-ight)
The point of this song, and I make it mad simple, when I be flippin’ this script:
Is that the industry is all over the mound, pitchin’, but nobody’s makin’ any hits.
Baseball is not just a sport
It’s the verbal/mental/physical/spiritual/emotional level that we are on
It’s about time that all you devils was gone…
What makes this song great, aside from being catchy and clever and all that stuff, is the way it kind of teases and flips the baseball metaphor. Sure, “I hit a lot of homeruns” can be a more interesting way to say “I record a lot of hit songs,” but that’s easy and a cliche (see, once again, Nelly). So Natural Resource acknowledges that. They even lay out some rhymes along those lines: “First batter up well here’s the pitch that’s a curve/Second batter up because the first got served” before subverting the whole notion. Baseball after all, is a deeply flawed institution, just like the music industry, where exploitation on class and racial lines can overshadow talent. Talent that a group like Natural Resource (or an old Negro Leaguer like, say, Cool Papa Bell) has but can’t capitalize on for reasons beyond their control. You see a lot of baseball metaphors related to play on the field, but not too many based on the socio-economic dynamics and history of the game.
After two seasons floating in the haze of baseball’s marginal steroid hangover, Sammy Sosa has now officially announced his retirement. I don’t know how bad Sammy really wanted to play these past couple of seasons, but apparently he’s over it now. Give him this much, even two years after his quiet banishment from the game, he’s managed to take more control of his retirement than Ricky Henderson or Brett Favre.
A few thoughts about Sammy and this ESPNDeportes story on his retirement:
1. I always liked Sammy Sosa, even after he hit a thousand homeruns in a season. So it makes me happy he didn’t try and kick around the Independent League or go to Japan to string his career along. I’m also glad he’s choosing not to talk about his own (seemingly obvious) PED use. I think silence, even ignoble silence more akin to pleading the 5th, is a better way to salvage one’s legacy than obnoxious and self-righteous denial.
That said, what he does say is some very odd stuff. In the story he’s quoted as stating the following:
The scandal on steroids and all those suspensions will not overshadow the game. Currently, there are many Latino players performing well [offensively]. There’s [Albert] Pujols, Carlos Pena; Nelson Cruz has 15. Then what? There’s someone else that already has 22 home runs [Adrian Gonzalez] … we have hit and will continue to hit homers in the major leagues.
It looks to me like he’s either trying to make himself a spokesman for the current crop of Latino superstars and therein achieve a kind of elevated veteran dignity, or tie himself into the clean cut innocence of guys like Pujols and Gonzalez and in doing so shift his primary associations away from the McGwires and Palmeiros of the world. Of course Latino players can hit home runs, so can white ones and black ones and Japanese ones. What does that have to do with steroid use?
2. The ESPN story on his retirement says that Sosa was known has the “Caribbean Bambino.” Has anybody ever heard this before? Google tells me no, nobody ever called him anything like that. Baseball Reference has his nicknames as the obvious “Slammin’ Sammy” and the moderately depressing “Say It Ain’t Sosa.”
3. Sammy currently serves the Dominican government as “special ambassador for investment opportunities.” I’m sure he is eminently qualified for this one. Somebody with more time ought to examine the endless parade of ex-big leaguers who go into Dominican politics. Do they really have an impact or is it just a status thing? Couldn’t be worse than Jim Bunning I guess.
4. I think Sosa is a Hall of Famer. Your thoughts?
When old Rocky Nelson shuffles up to the plate
The outfield shifts round and the fans all wait.
He takes up his stance which ignores every law,
Has a last slow suck of the quid of his jaw,
And waits while the pitcher makes up his mind
What new deception his arm can unwind.
Then the ball comes in and the sound of wood
That’s heard by the ear does the loyal heart good,
And the ball rises up like a hunted thing
Pursued by an angry bumble-bee’s sting,
And the outfielders run but it’s no use at all-
Another one over the right field wall.
And as Rocky trots slowly around the bases
Happiness lights up twelve thousand faces.