Monthly Archive for June, 2010

The Game Called Catch (Part II)

Chrissy Wilson is a writer who lives in Reno, Nevada. She recently bought her first baseball mitt. We’re joining Chrissy as she breaks in, and ultimately becomes one with that glove. Read part one here.

“Well beat the drum and hold the phone, the sun came out today.” It seems this winter has brought insane weather all over the country. Blizzards, flash floods, endless cold fronts. Nevada, my current home, has had no salvation from these terrors. Mostly, we were completely robbed of a spring. It was cold and snowy throughout May with only a couple of days sprinkled here and there of tolerable weather where a light sweater was still required.

My new glove sat in the corner, and I yearned for sunlight and the opportunity to follow through on my purchase and break the glove in. Any time the weather was decent enough I would attempt it.

The first opportunity I got was in the beginning of April. My boyfriend and I headed to his childhood elementary school and played catch as the sun set. We wore sweaters; however, I eventually shed mine as I found myself running all over the place trying to retrieve the ball I was continually unable to catch. My boyfriend stood still fielding each ball I threw. I quickly learned that I luckily don’t throw like a girl, but I catch like one. With each ball he threw at me, I flinched and almost ducked out of the way, working up a sweat running back and forth for the ball. I was also disappointed to realize exactly how stiff my mitt was and how much breaking in this was really going to take. When the ball happened to land in my mitt, it would plop directly out and onto the ground in front of me in a depressing manner. Eventually we had to abandon ship as I was completely out of breath.

The author has more in common with Manny than she thinks.

I looked at my glove with disappointment and anger. Had I picked the wrong one? Why on Earth was it so stubbornly bowl shaped? Was it cheap leather? Do I have unnaturally weak hands? Will I ever be able to play catch without embarrassing myself? Maybe I really just wasn’t built for playing any sort of sport. I worried that maybe I should just stick to knitting and reading.

That night we went to sushi with my boyfriend’s good friend who is a die-hard Yankees fan but still a good person. His wife and my boyfriend are both novice baseball fans who just don’t understand spending a ton of money for online-streaming of games with poor video quality from mlb.com or watching the Ken Burns documentary over and over again in the winter. So when the four of us go out, we tend to cross-separate with each other’s significant others to talk about our respective interests.

He informed me that he was a little-league all-star as a child. His pitching was featured in the local newspaper, and he broke records for number of strike-outs. How much of this is true, I am unsure, but I was open to any advice he was willing to give me. He advised me to fold the mitt in on itself, wrap it with rubber bands, and sleep on it. So that night when I got home, I made sure my parents weren’t home as I snuck into the kitchen and found my mother’s prized possession, her rubber band ball. She has been working on it since she moved to Reno 13 years ago. It sit satop a crystal podium and measures about a foot in diameter. As you can imagine, regular old rubber bands no longer cut it. Her rubber band of choice is the thick blue one that come on broccoli or asparagus at the grocery store. This was what I was after. I stole a couple and hoped my mother would not notice. I slipped them around my mitt and went to bed, hoping this would work. An hour into tossing and turning because of the lump under my pillow, I got frustrated and chucked it across my room. My glove and I were really off to a rough start.

Another cold front swept through the desert, and it took a week or so before I had another opportunity to play catch. This time we went to a nearby park where a multitude of families were trying to soak up the intermittent sun and thaw out from the recent freeze. I had confidence that it would all go smoothly this time around. Yet the baseball just would not stick in the glove. I was frustrated to watch the ball we used grow scuffed from grass, asphalt, dirt, etc while the glove stubbornly remained the same as the day I bought it.

The boyfriend offered to trade gloves and quickly agreed with me that the glove was still stiff. We played for a while as he struggled to bend the glove around the ball. I watched the glove molding.

“Okay, we can trade gloves back now,” I told him.
“I’ll just keep using it. It will break in faster.”
“No, that’s okay. Give it back.”
“My hands are probably a lot stronger than yours; it’ll go faster this way.”

But I wanted to break it in. Even if it takes weeks to break in, I want the glove to mold to my hand, and I want the satisfaction of knowing that I broke it in. So I took the stubborn hunk of leather from him and put it back on my hand. That’s the only way it will ever feel like my glove.

How to Choose Between Slovakia and Cameroon

A rare interlude in which I try to write about  soccer’s version of the World Baseball Classic:

A great deal has been written about what the international game of football – soccer — can tell us about global politics, human nature, and the deepest darkest corners of our very souls. However, I am concerned that not enough of the opposite has been written. How can global politics, human nature, and most importantly, our own irrational prejudices, affect the way we watch the World Cup? To this end, I have attempted to devise a tiered system that explains how a person’s – namely me—rooting interests in this great tournament come about. What follows are the results of my noble experiment:

  1. The Home Country Goes First
    1. In the grand, jingoistic, tradition of international sporting tournaments, this goes without saying.
  2. Space for the Random Affections
    1. Each of us has personal connections to countries besides our own. There are only 32 countries in the World Cup, so there most people shouldn’t have more than 2 or 3 of these.
    2. For me, these are Mexico (I was born and raised in Los Angeles, which is practically Mexico), and Spain (I studied abroad there and made great friends.
  3. Initial Regional Bias
    1. Different people are drawn to different parts of the world – perhaps because of family history, travel experience, musical or other cultural interest, or just sheer randomness.
    2. I personally apply a Monroe Doctrine approach to my Initial Regional Bias: Central and South American teams are preferable to other parts of the world, especially Europe.
    3. Besides the aforementioned US and Mexico, there are 6 teams left from the Americas. How do I rank them? By a micro version of the categories I will lay out below.
  4. Underdogs and Storylines
    1. As sports fans, we are all caught up in the images of unexpected heroism, of nostalgia, of “transcendent” moments. Basically, we seek magic. This category appeals to that very soft underbelly of the heart.
      1. i.     As such, we are inclined to support the host nation (barring any massive or recent socio-political sins they’ve committed), especially if they are not a traditional powerhouse.
        1. As an extension of that, this year, we support all African countries due to the warm-and-fuzziness of the fact that this is the first World Cup to be hosted on African soil, and that an African country has never won a World Cup before.
  5. Political Sympathy Effect

    My rankings

    1. International competition does not occur in a vacuum, or removed from politics and other global happenings. As much as some columnist and commentators wish that sporting events were “above” regular human events, they are not. Hence this category.
    2. We are naturally inclined to sympathize for countries where political turmoil or natural disaster has caused a great deal of pain to the general populace. Teams from these countries take on an identity similar to this past year’s New Orleans Saints – we find ourselves cheering purely out of sympathy, out of the strange notion that they deserve some kind of reward for their troubles.
    3. This category very frequently overlaps with the Underdogs and Storylines category – in fact, the two are inextricably linked. Many of the best international soccer storylines stem directly from the events of global politics.
    4. For me, Greece falls into this category because I believe its good citizens have been excessively derided by larger European cohorts (namely you, France and Germany).
  6. The Bleh Countries
    1. Some countries you just don’t care about. Like Switzerland.
  7. Application of Disdain
    1. One has every right to hate certain nations or teams – hatred being an undeniable force in the human experience.  These hatreds can be based on history, athletic events, or really anything else. There need be no logic.
    2. For example, an Irishman watching this year’s World Cup would have two immediately logical places to apply disdain: England and France. England for its centuries of oppression and abuse, and France for the appalling hand of Satan goal that destroyed Ireland’s chances at qualification and went un-mended by FIFA.
    3. I, however, don’t hate France or England. This totally coincidentally Jewish writer applies his disdain toward Germany (because I don’t like Angela Merkl’s economic policy, obviously), and North Korea because I feel like their success would vindicate an awful regime.

So there are the 7 tiers. It is an imperfect system no doubt, but in the end I think it does a fair job of explains my gut instincts, subtle biases, and irrational preferences. It does indeed turn out that my rooting interests in the World Cup are a pretty spot-on reflection of my broader world view. No surprise for somebody who is more into foreign policy than he is global football.

So I challenge you: think about why you are cheering and booing the way you are this World Cup. What is the logic to it? How do your mind, your guts, your very soul, sort these 32 nations?

Book Review: Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game

It’s difficult to pin down the “Rules of the Game.” One might expect an anthology of “The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine” to be easily defined: small in type-face, varied in subject matter, and somehow grand. Because one would think – or at least I would think – that any sports writing published in a magazine like Harper’s must surely have some further-reaching implications, some necessary comment to make on society at large.

Thankfully, this is only partly the case. The best of the 28 stories collected in “Rules of the Game” are quirky, literary, and decidedly specific. (Rigorously selected from the 29 or so pieces of sports writing published in the entire history of Harper’s?). If these stories say anything expansive or ambitious, it is only because they are poignantly written – and the best writing, whether poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, everything-else writing or sports writing can’t help but speak to universal truths.

The gems in “Rules of the Game” are spaced nicely through the book. And like any anthology, the reward comes not from taking these in stories consecutively, but from reading them here and there. It took three months of carrying a copy around in my backpack before I felt comfortable enough to write this review. And even now, I haven’t quite read everything.

When I first pick up an anthology, I’m drawn to the authors I know and love. There is no shortage of them here: the cover boasts contributions from George Plimpton and Mark Twain, among others. And their stories, as expected, live up to the hype. Plimpton writes a wry, but adoring profile of an arranged meeting between poet Marianne Moore and heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali (they write a poem together.)

Twain’s contribution is a nostalgic little essay called Hunting the Deceitful Turkey. Toward the end of his life, Twain tells the story of a younger version of himself, engaged in a fierce battle of wits and endurance with a mamma-bird. “Lie low, keep still, don’t expose yourselves; I shall be back as soon as I have beguiled this shabby swindler out of the country,” Twain imagines the bird telling her young ones.

Fellow cover-boy Pat Jordan’s profile of former can’t miss baseball project Toe Nash is an eerie and disconcerting meditation on the way myths are often built on self-prescribed ignorance, and can thus be quickly shattered. But for the most part, my favorite stories in “Rules of the Game” are not those written by its most famous contributors. They are, like Twain’s turkey and Jordan’s power-hitting outfielder, defined by time, place, and very specific characterization.

Boris Spassky

The title of Nicholas Bethell’s 1973 profile of Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky at first seems overwrought: A Poisoned Russian King. And the story itself, 90 pct of which seems to take place, inside Spassky’s brilliant, self-critical mind, appears doubly ambitious. But it all works perfectly. Spassky is fresh off a loss to American champion Bobby Fischer and he can’t stop thinking about it – he can’t stop thinking period. In this way, he is a lot like a fiction writer, or a slightly Zen Philip Roth character. And perhaps this is why he makes such a great subject. We see the poison in Spassky’s mind, and we can feel it creeping into our own subconscious and we can truly feel the Russian King’s agony at trying to excise it.

In Hockey Nights, the subjects – characters really – are a step or two less self-critical. Guy Lawson returns to the town of Flin Flon, Manitoba where he once played, to write about the prestigious Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. But instead of nostalgia, or parody, or heavy-handed yarns about the pastoral history of Canada’s favorite sport, we get precise characterization. Lawson skates with the teenage hockey players, and takes us into their lives – as well as those of their girlfriends, their parents, and their coaches. What results is a sincere but plenty critical portrait of big-time hockey’s central role in small-town life.

In all writing, especially literary sports writing, nostalgia is a dangerous conceit. And for more than a few stories in this anthology, it proves to be an undoing. For every brilliant, unique article like those by Bethell and Lawson; for every wide-eyed socioeconomic snapshot like The City Game, Peter Axthelm’s 1970 essay on New York’s playground basketball culture, there is an exasperatingly sentimental reflection on sports writing itself (there is nothing sports writers love more than writing about their craft), or fathers and sons, or what’s right and wrong with baseball.

Only in the hands of a novelist, David James Duncan, does nostalgia become something truly potent. His essay A Mickey Mantle Koan is far and away the most heart-wrenching bit of writing in the book. “On April 6, 1965, my brother, Nicholas John Duncan, died of what his surgeons called ‘complications’ after three unsuccessful open-heart operations. He was seventeen at the time – four years my elder to the very day.” So begins a graceful story of brotherhood, of coping, and of an autographed baseball also dated April 6, 1965.

From those first lines, Duncan’s writing is the kind that makes you forget – or not care – what you’re reading from. Be it a magazine, a website, or an anthology like “Rules of the Game.” Indeed, the best selections in this book aren’t the ones that feel most familiar. They aren’t the profiles of champions at their finest moments, or the quaint cries of sports writers bemoaning the rise of television. They are the stories that can’t help but transcend form and transcend subject; the stories that destroy preconceptions and help us by seeing into the minds and hearts of unexpected figures, be they mamma-turkeys or world class poets, chess champs or teenage goaltenders.

Podcast 15: A Snapshot of America

In episode 15, we give ample time to this month’s most important international athletic event: Major League All-Star voting. We break it down position by position, from Evan Longoria to Placido Polanco and we discover that the current NL outfield of Ryan Braun, Jason Heyward and Andre Ethier is indeed a perfect snapshot of America. Speaking of America, the iconic Astrodome’s future is in limbo, and who better than Hakeem Olajuwon to decide its fate? More questions: When is it okay to give up on a season? When will Denzel get his E.G.O.T.? And who still cares about interleague play?

 
Right-click here to download.

The Best First Third

It occurred to me the other day that this might be the most story-filled first third to a season ever. Consider how much excitement has already been packed into the year:

  • A no-hitter by Ubaldo Jimenez, who happens to be 12-1 with an ERA so small you can barely see it.
  • Arguably he worst call in the history of sports, and certainly the most memorably botched  call in regular season baseball history by Jim Joyce costs Armando Galarraga a perfect game on the 27th out.
  • Perfect games by baseball’s best and angriest pitchers respectively in Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden
  • The hilarious drama between the aforementioned Braden and Alex Rodriguez
  • The accusation that all-time great  Ken Griffey Jr slept through a pinch-hit opportunity followed weeks later by his quiet retirement
  • Griffey teammate Milton Bradley exits the  Mariner clubhouse mid-game.
  • Strasburgmania enters
  • Jose Lima exits
  • And all the other stuff I missed

See how much has happened? So tell me. Are these the most exciting two and a half months to ever open a baseball season, or is my giddiness unfounded?

The End

Along with three friends, I am coaching a Little League team of seven, eight, and nine year olds. All four of us are in our early twenties. Needless to say, we are the only coaches in the league without kids of our own. Our goal? Utter domination. Throughout the season I will keep Pitchers & Poets readers updated on the goings on surrounding the team.

You may have noticed by the relative slow-down in posts on the Killer Bees. I am running out of things to say about the team. In any case, this will be the last post. The season is over. The Killer Bees are no more. We end the year with a record of 4 wins, 5 losses, 2 ties, and one unknown.

As it is for the players, the end of the Little League season is a bittersweet time for the coaches. We will miss the kids, we will miss (as they do) the time spent out of doors. But we won’t miss the baby-sitting aspect of the job. We won’t miss the weekday and weekend obligation that often felt like a chore due to the dreariness of the Seattle spring.

The kids, meanwhile, are on the cusp of summer, of camp, of family trips. Young Zach Greinke for example, missed our last game for a month-long trip to Italy with his family. This coach would have gladly traded the season finale (but not the ensuing picnic featuring great quantities of watermelon — by far the best post-game snack ) for a month in Italy.

The final game was a thriller. Down 10-6 going into the 5th and final inning, we managed to score three runs and load the bases. With two outs, young John Kruk emerged from the dugout wearing a sheepish grin. On his way to the plate, he said to me – I was coaching first base – “I guess it’s all up to me.” Aware of the gravity of his at-bat, yet completely apathetic about winning and losing, young John Kruk proceeded to strike out swinging.

Despite the result, highlights were plentiful: Young Frank Thomas made his first appearance on the mound. Young Eric Bruntlett nailed his first clean single of the year, between third and short, to an eruption from the spattering of team parents. (His dad jogged over to first base, camera in tow, to pat his boy on the back).

This group won’t be coaching together next year. So there is a tinge of sadness: we won’t get to see whether Young Shawn Green, who batted over .700, continues progress into actual Shawn Green or chooses to pursue another hobby at which he excels, like chess. We won’t get to see young Bruntlett take even bigger strides next year, or whether the team’s only girl, Dottie Hinson, sticks with baseball (she totally should; she rocks!).

But that’s okay. We are, or were, after all, just Little League coaches. These kids have awesome, engaging, (and generous – thanks for the gift cards!) parents, who will see to that stuff. We just hope they had as good a time this year as we did.

Podcast 14: Flips, Flops, Fly Balls with Craig Robinson

In Podcast 14 we are joined by illustrator Craig Robinson of the brilliant Flip Flop Fly Ball.  We use the word Brilliant, in part, because Mr. Robinson is English. How and why an Englishman became baseball’s foremost progenitor of cerebral infographics is our main topic of discussion. Also: Vladmir Putin’s chest, Stephen Strasburg’s socks, the best and worst in major league uniforms.

 

Right-click here to download.

A sample of Mr. Robinson's work.

Stephen Strasburg Live

Chief Washington D.C. Correspondent  Helen Thomas Brad Matheson was lucky enough to see the next Savior of Baseball, Stephen Strasburg pitch last night. Here are some of his observations:

Whether you paid $500 on StubHub or $5 as a game-day walk-up (like I did); whether you were practically on the field or your vantage point was on par with the tourists on top of the Washington Monument (like mine was), Stephen Strasburg gave you your money’s worth in DC on Tuesday. Few games I have attended defied the conventions of baseball fandom — sitting while your team is at bat and getting your beer/hot dog while they are in the field — like Tuesday’s K-Fest.

Once you look past the loud boos that greeted thethe two balls Strasburg threw to start the game, Nats fans were better than I have ever seen them. They were on their feet before every strike three, turning to the pitch speed monitor expectantly until it finally flashed triple digits. Strasburg won the game with run support by Washington’s fan favorites Zimmerman, Dunn, and Willingham (nicknamed “The Hammer,” who knew?).

Even when Strasburg wavered in the 4th, the Nats organization was ready to step up with entertaining stadium hijinks. The Presidential Mascot Race featured appearances from a Pittsburgh Pierogi AND some Sausages — an assembly of characters that would normally top the Nationals’ monthly if not annual highlight reel. And Adam Dunn got in on it merely by coming to the plate to his ridiculous at-bat music: Phil Collins  –“In the Air Tonight.” Enough said.

Here’s a disclaimer for anyone who thinks they wants to see Strasburg pitch: if you cherish your excitement for watching a pitcher who throw a 92-93 mph fastball with a respectable 15+ mph drop-off to their off-speed, stay as far away from Strasburg as possible. The 99-81 differential made the opposing pitcher look just as silly as the batters who were bailing out on Strasburg’s curve.

For a team who’s top three single-game attendance records are probably held by back-to-back-to-back games hosting the Red Sox, Tuesday’s Strasburg-mania should go down as the greatest night in the Washington Nationals’ short history. I guess I’ll save my ticket.

A Walk Across Itself

The Baumer's America

This isn’t necessarily baseball related, but it may well be related to everything that anyone ever does, and baseball falls under that lofty umbrella:

I’ve been following an online journal called, accurately enough, the official #1 “i am walking across america” blog. Mark Baumer is walking across America, and chronicling the journey in his own unique manner, with spits of language and peninsulas of smartphone pictures. Rarely has the heartbeat of America shown itself to simultaneously be so mundane and so transcendent, and a recent passage from the blog captured The Baumer’s struggle with that dichotomy:

Usually the time between 6pm and whenever I figure out where I’m sleeping for the night is the toughest part of the day. My body is tired and broken down. Various parts of my body are irritated and chafed. There usually isn’t a hotel or shower waiting for me. The only thing I have to look forward to is some cotton balls, rubbing alcohol, and baby wipes. I’ve cried more than a handful of times over the last twenty-eight days. I’ve cursed the whole idea. I’ve blamed the world and its deadness and poverty that I walk through each day. In many ways I’ve let a negativity into the trip. A bitterness was growing. Boredom was overwhelming my day. I’ve decided a change needs to occur. I think it will be slight. Not to sound conceited but I think a lot of it has to do with believing in my own greatness. I am ready to eat america. I’m tired of nibbling. I’m through with conversations that suggest in even the smallest way that I won’t succeed. This trip is no longer a grind. Every footstep laid to the earth is a work of art. Each breath is a lifetime of meditation. America has climbed on my back to topple me but I will carry her as I walk across itself.

Damned if we aren’t all struggling to walk across something with the feeling that it wants to eat us up. Trying to watch baseball every day, and to write about it here and elsewhere, I feel like it’s baseball that’s trying to eat me up. But, to advance The Baumer’s thinking, I am the one that wants to eat it.

For me, it’s a matter of portions. You bite off not what you want to chew but what you are able to chew, optimistically. For me, that often means that the local team takes precedence over an hour of highlights in the evening. It means, maybe, that I check out the amateur draft in the day or two ahead of time, but leave the rest of it to the pros for the remainder of the year. It means that like a good, conscientious omnivore I sacrifice the global for the local. But within that local population, I deign to eat big, to savor the routine and the depth of knowledge; to specialize with gusto.

A walk across the country is as much a conceptual journey as a physical one, but the concept is at the mercy of the reality, which is decidedly microbial. The larger experience–the capitalized Journey Across America–is still only an accumulation, a culmination, of each smaller experience: the odd burger shacks and the ten minutes of anxiety before the trip begins, the empty stretch of highway and the strip mall and the footsteps. It all adds up and nothing that’s big wasn’t at one point little.

Podcast 13: A Portrait of the Umpire

In this episode, we overstate our podcast experience, speak fondly of Ken Griffey Jr. and the 1990s, and commiserate with all parties of the tragic Armando Galarraga/Jim Joyce fiasco. We appreciate the fine work of Bobby Abreu, his consistent bat, and his colorful glove. We choose sides on the best way to lose, welcome the incoming Strasburgmania, and contemplate the Nationals Identity — or lack thereof.

 

Right-click here to download.