Saturday, March 31, 2007

Dear Adrian,

To increase readership of this blog, I will, from time to time, reply to my emails in this space. In this case, Adrian asked me if I was available to go for a run with him today. We have been running together once a week for the past five months or so. I replied to Adrian’s email on the blog and then sent him an email that contained only the link to this post.

I’m in. Let’s meet down by the bridge at 3:30pm, as per usual. I also wondered if you were available to play a game of pool with me tonight. Flattop Johnnies has free pool from 11am until close (1am) on Saturday nights.

I realize this is the first time I have asked you to socialize outside our normal running routine. We have been enjoying our weekly runs together, and I figured now would be as good a time as any to take this next step in our friendship. Just so we are perfectly clear about the trajectory of our friendship, here is a list of the remaining steps we’d need to take over the next few months to truly become friends:

1. We play a few games of pool at Flattop Johnnies
2. I introduce you to my girlfriend
3. A group dinner: me, with my girlfriend, and you, with your latest hopeful
4. One of us saves the other from a tight spot (one picks up the other from the airport, or helps the other move, or edits the other’s graduate school admissions essay, or takes the other to the hospital after sustaining a broken bone, or watches the other’s pet while he is on vacation, etc.).

After negotiating through these steps, you will probably be on the outer fringe of being wedding-invite material. If, however, you pass the above four steps with flying colors and I still decide not to invite you to my wedding, please don’t be upset with me. I want to have a small wedding and my girlfriend is set on inviting her entire extended family, which is very large.

See you at 3:30pm,

Friday, March 30, 2007

The machismo and the frustrated: The Dugout Wall vs. The Water Cooler vs. The Electric Fan

MLB Players who have attacked the dugout or clubhouse wall:

* During Game four of the 2004 NLCS, Julian Tavarez punched a dugout telephone and broke bones in two fingers of his left (non-throwing) hand.

* On Sept. 3, 2004, Kevin Brown punched a concrete wall inside the Yankees' clubhouse, breaking two bones in his left (non-throwing) hand, requiring surgery.

* Andy Sisco, a tall (6'9") left-handed pitcher power pitcher who was drafted by the Cubs out of high school, was so confident that he would lead the Cubs to a World Series title, he had a phoenix tattooed on his arm. In 2004, after a frustrating outing, he punched a clubhouse wall and broke his hand. As he struggled to recover, the Cubs left him off their 40-man roster and the Royals picked him up in the Rule 5 draft for $50,000.

* Jose Bautista, a third baseman, was rated as one of the Pirates' Top 10 prospects entering the 2003 season, but he endured a disappointing season at Lynchburg, hitting just .242 in 51 games and missing nearly three months with a broken hand, suffered when he punched a dugout wall in frustration.

* On Sept. 1, 1998, Mike DeJean. a Rockies reliever, went to work on a partition separating two lockers, fracturing his left (non-throwing) pinkie.

* On June 15, 1993, John Franco, closer for the Mets, punched the door to the sauna in the visiting clubhouse in Atlanta and the knuckle of right index finger had to be stitched.

* In early June of 1988, Randy Johnson was gearing up for his major league debut with Montreal. However, on June 15, right before he was going to be recalled by the Expos, he was forced to leave a game against Richmond after knocking down a line drive with his pitching hand. A frustrated Johnson punched the bat rack with his right hand and broke it (his hand). His left hand, which had been hit by the batted ball, was perfectly fine. Johnson finally made his major league debut on Sept 15, in a game against Pittsburgh. Johnson pitched five innings and allowed 2 runs, picking up his first major league victory. He finished the season in Montreal strong, winning 3 of his 4 starts and putting up a 2.42 ERA.

* On May 6, 1982, Doyle Alexander gave up five runs in the third inning for the Yankees, then slammed his pitching hand into the dugout wall and broke a knuckle on his pinkie.

* On July 24, 1978, Mets pitcher Pat Zachary kicked a dugout step and broke his toe after being removed from the game. Joe Torre was his manager.

* On June 27, 1967, Al Kaline, then the Tigers rightfielder, punched the dugout bat rack after a strikeout and broke his hand.

MLB players who have attacked a water cooler:

* In May of 2006, Greg Maddux attacked a water cooler with a bat after going 0-4 at the plate that day.

* On June 17, 2005, Kenny Rogers, after being removed in the seventh inning against Washington, punched a dugout water cooler, breaking a bone below his right pinkie.

* In August of 2003, Tyler Yates let his emotions get away from him and punched a water cooler in the dugout after being taken out of the game. He broke the little finger on his right hand, which ended his season.

* In 1999, Carlos Perez took fourteen vicious swings at a water cooler after being yanked from a game in which he’d just walked the bases loaded (including a walk to Pirates pitcher Francisco Cordova). He broke no bones.

* Paul O’Neil has attacked water coolers too many times to list here in this space.

* On Aug. 21, 1993, Terry Mulholland, angered after serving up a home run, beat up a water cooler and broke his right (non-throwing) hand.

* 1938, the year before he went to play for Boston, Ted Williams nearly ended his career before it started. At the time, he was leading the American Association in everything—runs, hits, RBIs, homers, everything. Lloyd Brown was pitching for St. Paul. Brown was a short, tough pitcher with a good curve. Ted got him to 3 and 1 in the first inning, bases loaded, two outs. Brown threw the fastball, right there. If Ted had gotten a little more of the ball, it would have gone 440 feet, but he made a bad swing and popped out to the first baseman to end the inning. He went back to the bench and punched a half-full water cooler. Blood and glass flew everywhere (they didn’t use paper cups back then). One piece of glass went pretty deep into his hand and just missed a nerve. He continued to play in the game, collecting four hits before it concluded.

MLB players who have attacked an electric fan:

* On Aug. 27, 2004, Kyle Farnsworth, then a reliever for the Cubs, gave up six runs in the ninth to Houston. After the game, he kicked an electric fan and sprained his right knee. He was placed on 15-day disabled list the next day.

* On Oct. 27, 1985, John Tudor punched an electric fan in the clubhouse and severely cut his hand after getting knocked out of Game 7 of the World Series in the third inning.

Others incidents of note:

* On April 11, 1997, Jason Isringhausen fractured small bones in his right (throwing) wrist by punching a clubhouse trash can during a game with the Mets' Triple-A affiliate, Norfolk.

* On March 6, 1993 John Wetteland, then the Expos closer, fractured his right big toe after kicking a batting-practice screen in spring training.

Final Score:
The Dugout Wall: 10
The Water Cooler: 7
The Electric Fan: 2

Thursday, March 22, 2007

This Post is Like a Turkey Sandwich

Chuck Klosterman wants us to consider: We don’t discount Revolver because of the influence of drugs. Should we discount the 1998 home-run race because of the influence of drugs?

He’s not saying that we shouldn’t. I just like that he’s bringing sports and music together in a new way. FreeDarko insists that basketball isn’t jazz. I’d like to agree, but I’m not really sure what jazz is. I’m pretty sure football isn’t war, either. (Despite this, which isn’t the same thing.) Baseball conjures the pastoral, even in the Bronx, but it’s become a metaphor for other things, rather than the converse. On the other hand, a knuckleball can be a marriage.

Walter Pater says, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Maybe Klosterman's on to something, and sport does too. I’d say Bad Boys: The ’87-’88 Detroit Pistons, which for one year I watched daily, aspires to the condition of tragic opera, one with “The Final Countdown” by Europe as its theme, Isiah Thomas as soprano, Joe Dumars as alto, Dennis Rodman as contralto, Mark Aguirre as tenor, Bill Laimbeer as baritone, Chuck Daly as bass-baritone, and James Edwards as bass. In any case, Pater’s got the libretto (by George Blaha) and the acting (Isiah drops 25 in a quarter… on a sprained ankle!) aspiring back to the condition of music, so we’re headed around that circle again. Maybe the only sports that don't demand and ruin metaphor are boxing and footraces.

Or maybe in all these cases the only metaphor that really works is sex. My favorite new sports blog these days is Ladies…, which shines through (and occasionally takes on, with humor and gumption) the machismo and frustrated homoeroticism of sports and reminds us that these guys running around in their pajamas are enjoyed by some smart, sexy, funny women. They talk about getting to third base and they mean it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Trying to knuckle down

When I was thirteen years old, I belonged, with maximum exuberance, to a country club of the golf variety. It was a nine-hole course with poorly planned overlapping fairways. My favorite hole, the par-three eighth, was the one that was farthest from the clubhouse. It was across a two-lane road, high up on a hill, and adjacent to the town park swimming pool. From the tee box, you could hear kids shouting “marco” and “polo” in the pool below. Weeds were in the sandtrap and ankle-high grass in the fairway because the groundskeeper deemed it unsafe to drive his mower across the two-lane road.

The cost of my “teen” membership, I still remember, was $265 dollars a year, with a one-time $150 dollar initiation fee. During that one year that I was a club member, I played nearly every day after school. When it snowed, I’d throw on my yellow jacket and play the round with a hot pink ball. I liked the feeling of striking a ball and watching it fly in a perfect trajectory.

I played my rounds, with few exceptions, alone. I was hyper-vigilant and obsessive about keeping an accurate score, and after each round I rushed to the clubhouse computer to enter it. I had three other friends who were club members, but I didn’t like playing with them. They didn’t take the game seriously. They each played with a pocket full of acorns, and whenever one of the four of us hit, acorns would be pelted at our heads during our backswing. One time, all three of them lined up on the eighth tee box and, at the same time, they hit in the direction of the crowded pool below and then waited for an extra loud scream. None came.

I recently found an English essay of mine from that year in which I discuss in great detail how I was going to start “making a living playing golf” before I turned twenty years old. This was before Tiger Woods and Big Bertha drivers. This was before Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati, before Lebron and Dwight Howard. I was a thirteen year-old who was convinced that he’d be on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he could legally drink.

In the first month, my handicap went from a 36 to a 23, but during the next eleven months I was only able to shave off an additional 4 strokes. Still, my confidence remained high. As I wrote in my English essay, “Becoming a star is a process. My diligence will be constant but I expect my game to improve infrequently and unexpectedly.”

At the end of that year of golf tunnel-vision, an unexpected event prevented my game from improving at all, infrequently or otherwise: the clubhouse was burned down by a serial arsonist and was never rebuilt. Within months, my parents signed me up for a floor hockey league and a swim team, and I soon forgot about golf altogether.

Now, decades later, I look back and recognize that I have never been able to recapture the ability to have a singular purpose. I have been handicapped by loving other people and by wanting financial independence, which require flexibility and compromise when it comes to my personal goals. Or so I thought.

I was recently reading an old New Yorker issue when I came across an article about knuckleball pitchers, and I suddenly realized that throwing knuckleballs for a living was something I could do. It didn’t require any real baseball skill. All I needed was to be able to throw a baseball 50 mph with no spin. And throw it for strikes.

My wife, who played Division I softball in college, agreed to play catch with me for thirty minutes each morning, regardless of the weather. She thinks of the time as a way to catch up on one another’s lives. This morning, for example, she told me a story about an annoying co-worker and asked me how I’d deal with him. I mostly just listen to her stories, but anytime I think I have thrown a good knuckler, I interrupted her and ask, “did that one have movement?” So far, the answer to my question has slowly progressed from “no” to “I didn’t see any” to “maybe” to “sort of.”

My wife claims that playing catch every morning has saved our marriage, that she’s noticed that the more my pitches wobble, the less our relationship does. Maybe she’s right, but for me that’s too broad of a concept to wrap my head around. What I do know is that for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling good. And while I realize that I’ve chosen the one pitch whose trajectory nobody can predict—not even the person who throws a lively knuckleball knows where it will end up—I am confident that if I keep practicing, one of these days I’ll be throwing it for strikes in the majors.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Sinkhole Superstars: Eileen Shea

When I was growing up in Michigan State faculty housing, my father used to take me to see basketball games at Jenison Fieldhouse. We could get in to watch the men for free after the start of the fourth quarter. I saw Scott Skiles and Steve Smith like this. But we could get into the women’s games for free anytime. My favorite player was Eileen Shea. When I was nine, she had big bangs and crimped hair, and she was the best player MSU women’s basketball player ever.

She was a gunner. She averaged 12.4 ppg for her career (over 15 her last two), mostly on 38% three-point shooting. She shot 80% from the line. Despite an unimpressive vertical leap, she was named All-Big Ten three times. The MSU women had never been good, but she made them respectable. My dad liked her game, and her name and headshot ran regularly in the Lansing State Journal, which made an impression on me. The attraction, I think, was maternal. My mother was in Africa doing missionary work.

As a senior, Shea got MSU into the NCAAs for the first time. In her last game as a Spartan she scored a school-record 35 against Oklahoma State, but MSU lost 96-94 in triple overtime. By that time I was twelve and I’d stopped paying much attention. My mother had come back from Africa, and we’d moved out of faculty housing. The Spartans had left Jenison for the Breslin Center. Plus, my tastes had already been irreversibly influenced by music videos and pornography. I’d decided that if I was going to watch a women’s sport it would be volleyball.

I was home recently for a funeral and looked Eileen Shea up online. I found she was now Eileen Shea-Hilliard, that she’d worked her way up to head coach at Oakland University but had been recently let go, and that she was back in Lansing. Her husband, who had also hyphenated, was in the phone book. I decided that, in the spirit of spontaneity, I’d drive over.

It was a cold day, and she came to the door of the simple ranch house in a turtleneck with a yellow jacket over it. I expected her to look my mother’s age, but of course Eileen was only in her late thirties. The differences between us had diminished. She was medium height, and even in college she hadn’t been strikingly athletic-looking. She said she’d never had a fan come to her house before, not since she’d moved out of the dorms.

“I’m not a fan,” I said. “My father and I watched you while my mother was away. It was psychotherapeutic or something. I don’t think ‘fan’ really does it justice.”

“Give it a name,” Eileen said, which is a phrase I’ve always liked. It has Shakespearean sentiment with movie-gangster rhythm.

I told her about receiving third-grade mash notes from Kristen Rasmussen and playing pickup ball against Alison Feaster. She seemed to enjoy the stories, but I started feeling like the guy who immediately mentions to the Inuit acquaintance the other Inuit guys he knows. We stayed on the porch. Her husband seemed to be home. I told her my last name was also hyphenated, and that although I’d found it inconvenient, that probably resulted from the length and difficulty of the names. Hers, I thought, wouldn’t pose a problem. In fact, I liked it. I asked if she wanted to come to my uncle’s wake.

“That’s a first too,” Eileen said, “but I’ve got errands to run.”

I came away impressed, though, and sure that she’ll find another head-coaching job in Division I.