Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sinkhole Superstars: Sam Crawford

Curtis Granderson hit his league-leading eighth triple last night. I don’t know what triple statistics measure, exactly—line drive power to right, speed, and a willingness to try for the extra base, I guess. Triples are more exciting than (outside-the-park) home runs. The all-time leader in triples is Sam Crawford, with 309. He played right field for the Tigers from 1903 to 1917. Like Cy Young’s 749 complete games, that isn’t a record anyone is going to break without some radical changes to the game. (These records are unknown today because no one could ever break them, not because they’re less important than, say, a hitting streak.)

Sam Crawford was my favorite historical baseball figure growing up, and not only because of his aptitude for triples. His chapter in The Glory of Their Times is wonderful, in part because of his clear-eyed observations of Ty Cobb, who played next to him in center field. Crawford was the polite, honest, and slightly less-skilled second fiddle to the nutty, racist, tormented Cobb.

This line of thought got me started on my current writing project, a novel narrated by Sam Crawford but structured around the rise and fall of Cobb, a kind of dead-ball-era On the Road. I figure they’ve been dead long enough that I can add some sexual tension, maybe a near-kiss or something.

Other projects currently in the works:

- An operetta about the 1987-1991 Pistons, tentatively entitled Ragazzi Difettosi. Ambition, frustration, triumph, downfall. I’m still ironing the kinks out of a tricky section where Magic and Bird sing in counterpoint and (if I can get the funding) Rodman descends from the ceiling. For the finale, a soprano duet by Jordan and Isiah: “We have swept you! We have swept you!” “But I will not shake your hand! I will never shake your hand!”

- An installation piece about Cyclo-Cross Racing, tentatively entitled “Mud, Mud, Everywhere.” I’ve worked up several sketches, but i’m still searching for sponsorship and the right venue. MME will require a fifty-two-by-twenty-eight-foot indoor space, nineteen hundred pounds of mud, and the skeletons of two dozen rusty old bicycles.

- A one-man play about the 1984 Tigers, tentatively entitled Tigers, Tigers, Burning Bright. Sparky Anderson (played by Brian Dennehy or, if he’s available, Peter Fonda) looks back on the season, the Series, and the ensuing riots. It requires only a single spotlight, a stool, and a cuspidor. I’ve written a short musical piece for timpani and cymbals to be played during the riot scene, as Sparky weeps into his cap.

- An endurance piece about horseracing, tentatively entitled “My Derby Year.” For one calendar year, I’ll wear blinders and a bit, have a spider monkey in purple silks ride on my back, and keep a daily log of my weight and how long it takes me to run from my apartment to the bus stop and back.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Speeding like a space brain

I went to a high school that was less than 5% black, and my senior year only one player on the varsity football team was black. His name was Josh Cox, and he was an undersized but hard-running fullback. Josh got about half the team’s carries each game, all between the tackles, and at our home field when he’d gain at least five yards, or when his collision with a defender was audibly violent, the PA man would play a train-whistle sound effect and the crowd would chant, “Night Train!”

Josh “Night Train” Cox. First, the rhythm is all wrong and there's nothing even close to rhyme. Second, it was embarrassing to have so many white adults chanting “Night Train!” at Josh. So after two games of this, our principal forbade the PA man from using the train whistle. This decision made it into the local paper, and the story mentioned where the PA man had bought the train whistle, so fans brought their own train whistles to the next game.

Before the next home game, the principal convened us in the gym and informed us that Josh’s new nickname was “Choo Choo” Cox, and that this nickname was what we were to chant after the sound of the reinstated PA train whistle. Josh stood next to the principal and waved.

We tried. But no one over the age of eight likes to yell “Choo Choo!” Plus, the opposing fans had begun chanting “Cox Chewer” and the like whenever Josh was stopped for a loss. So by halftime we'd resigned ourselves to clapping, hooting wordlessly, and stamping our feet.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Yak Attack

Anson’s post reminded me of a mascot skirmish from my high school days.

For three of the four years I attended my high school, our mascot was, inarguably, offensive to Native Americans. Then, during my senior year, a Sociology teacher named Mrs. Barks convinced our principal to change our mascot to something less offensive. (She was new to my school and was full of “big ideas.” Because of her "ideas," she was reviled by many of the residents of my town.)

(Unlike Anson, I like to write in paragraphs: it’s easier on the eyes. Sometimes my paragraphs are only two sentences long.)

I had no particular attachment to our Native American-related mascot and saw the naming of a new mascot as a great opportunity to leave my mark on my high school. (A vocal minority, however, claimed that the mascot “honored” Native Americans and that it would be a “travesty” to change it.) I joined the Mascot Committee and dominated meetings with my suggestions. The Mascot Committee, which was essentially the same nerds who were on the Yearbook Committee, let me bully them into including “Yaks” on the ballot of twenty names that were to undergo a school-wide vote (I also worked the name "Blue Genie" onto the ballot). Most of the other names were ones that were already in use by other popular teams, such as the Spartans and the Titans.

I must put this story in context: I moved nine times before I was a senior in high school. A month before each move, my parents refused to buy anything. “We’ll just have to lug it to the new place,” they claimed. So, for thirty days, we lived on peanut butter and jelly and wiped our asses with tissues. When the tissues ran out, I took toilet paper from the high school bathroom and brought it home. When the PB&J ran out we ate the canned food that had been in the back of the pantry for years. We washed our dishes by hand. We brushed our teeth with baking soda.

So, when all this mascot stuff was going down, my family was about to move. I am not complaining about my parents' moving-related quirks. Living like cavemen was actually quite fun, and after graduating from high school I promptly attended a college where I lived like a caveman for four years. I’m merely pointing out that I was underfed and probably under-wiped and so I was, certainly, a little loopy at the time.

The night before the big vote, I stayed up until five in the morning making dozens of posters that had a large color picture of a formidable/brooding yak chewing some cud. His image was framed by the words YAK ATTACK. I got to school early and taped them on the walls of the stairwells.

That’s all it took. The Yaks won by a landslide, accruing more than 75% of to the school-wide vote. Victory was sweet, but short-lived (as it often is). Hours after the vote was announced, the principal, claiming that the Yak entry was not a “serious” entry, disqualified it.

My high school is now named the Nighthawks. Bleh.

The Dixie Association

I was thinking about Donald Hays' novel, The Dixie Association and the awesome names for baseball teams he created for the book. My favorite was the Nashville Fugitives, but there were other great ones: Milledgeville Peacocks, Memphis Kings, Oxford Fury, and the Asheville Wolves. It reminded me of when the Nashville Predators hockey team was coming to Tennessee and the newspaper asked fans to write in their ideas for a name. My friend Tony sent in his choice and then proceeded to talk about it for months afterwards, even after the name had been chosen. The Nashville Honky Tonks. A hockey team with the word honky in its title didn't seem like the best choice to expand the fan base, but he was insane about it. I had hoped for the Nashville Nights, with a cosmic black uniform with hundreds of tiny stars covering the jersey. My senior year of high school, I created a basketball league that I acted out with the hoop that hung on my bedroom door. Some other time I'll write about how I managed to play five seasons of games off and on through the years, including drafts and playoffs and retirements, and how I was still doing this while my wife went off to work in the morning and I did not yet have a job. But for now, I just want to talk about the team names. It was fun at first. The Los Angeles Quakes, the Las Vegas Gamblers, the Oakland Bombers, the Houston Mustangs. And that was just the West. After a while, however, it got a little less fun. I was just tossing out names to get it over with. The Denver...Lasers. Fine. The Ohio...Invaders. Whatever. But if I'd had one single team to name, I would have been much more invested. So, I wonder if you had a baseball team coming to the state where you now live and you had to choose the name, what would it be? I hoped perhaps opening up the comments section might lead to some polite conversation instead of the nasty, undignified comments we've been getting (I'm looking at you Hannah...actually I'm looking at a picture of you that Musa D sent me for my birthday, but you get the idea).