It's funny man but I've lived in your country for ten years now and I've noticed that your media never plays these kinds of games with its political leaders...you know, manipulative questions, pointed discussions, relentless badgering...only its sports figures. Shows you democracy ain't what it's cracked up to be. --Commenter on Bronx Banter
Right now, as I post this adorable picture of Big Papi (see also, Curse Of) at spring training, the FOX cameras are zooming in on his hands, and Joe Buck is remarking on how softly the big man cradles the bat.
This morning a coworker left a present on my desk, out of nowhere--a huge, fuzzy Red Sox hooded sweatshirt. After a draining weekend, this--adorable pictures, warm fluffy jammies, cuddling with the boyfriend, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, the Sox trashing the Cards on NESN--are exactly what I need.
Clever insights into the tough issues are hereby postponed until tomorrow.
I found something else I wrote a little while ago that I can post today. It elaborates on an earlier point I made in this post, where I talk about baseball as having an advantage over football in terms of its language. It also hints toward my feelings on the disillusionment caused by the steroid issue this year and the supposed disillusionment of Red Sox fans now that the Sox have reached the Promised Land. I'll explore both these issues further as Spring Training--the best time to contemplate the game as a whole and your team as a singular entity before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the season--continues.
Hope you enjoy it. Promise to be back in form soon...
The Poetry of Baseball
For me, the fundamental moment came at Fenway Park in Boston, somewhere in the late eighties or early nineties. Though I have never been athletic, watching and occasionally clumsily attempting to play baseball were a large part of my upbringing, and this private study was supplemented with frequent pilgrimages to the storied ground of Fenway, to see the Green Monster, to see Stanley Steamer come out of the dugout with his rake, to see Wade Boggs hit home runs, to see Roger Clemens strike out batters in succession.
But of all the mythical men I saw sink cleats into the grass there, by far the most special in my memory was Dwight Evans.
Dwight Evans had been playing in Boston since 1973--before my parents had even met. He was a great hitter and an outfielder with, as my dad put it, "an arm like a cannon." By the time I came to Fenway to see him, though, his glory days were over, and he was kept around like a beloved teddy bear, revered like a grizzled veteran of a long-ago war. He was no one to me but a man with a funny black mustache.
On the day I am remembering, Dwight Evans came to the plate to bat. "Now batting-atting-atting..." the PA boomed, sounding like the voice of the Wizard of Oz, "Number twenty-four-our-our-our...the right-right fielder-eilder...Dwight-whight-whight-whight-Evans-evans-evans."
I was too young to know about Evans' batting average, his fielding statistics, his on-base percentage, his performance against the particular pitcher he was now facing. All that stuff came later.
But I knew what a "boo" was. I heard it often at Fenway Park, from the men who slopped beer onto my shoulder from the seats behind us, or the old men scrawling with their tiny pencils in their programs and chewing on cigars.
I turned to my father, and in retrospect the question was as filled with a kid's innocence and trust as any I have ever heard or witnessed--"Why are they booing him, Dad?"
My dad laughed. He said sidelong out of the right corner of his mouth, not looking away from the matter at hand, of course, "They're not booing. They're saying 'Dew'."
I listened again. Gradually I was able to pick out the subtle difference. "Dooooooo..." was what they were saying--the abbreviated version of Evans' nickname, "Dewey." Not "boo."
"Dooooo!" I piped, glancing up at my father for his approval. He finally looked down into my face and smiled. Thus rewarded, I attacked cheering for Dewey with my whole heart.
"DOOO!!!" I kept yelling, long after Evans had returned to the dugout. "DOO!!"
Dewey Evans was no one to me. I didn't know about his heroics in the 1975 World Series. I didn't know about Carlton Fisk's home run. I didn't even know about Bill Buckner's disastrous error. I was actually still kind of working on the difference between a foul ball and a hit.
But what I knew was that, for a reason I couldn't articulate, I loved Dwight Evans. And that somewhere in the back of my mind it had something to do with how much I loved my father.
That's how it starts. That's how people grow attached to a certain player, a certain team. It's hard to grow up near Boston, hearing your father cheer for Dewey, and not hold a certain fondness in your heart for any guy who wears a "B" on his cap years later.
It's not just a game--in fact, it's not even about the game at all, if the game is only the cold and abstract sum of winning and losing, base hits and walks and earned run average.
It's about fatherhood, and the way men want to share with their children the things that their fathers shared with them when they were small. It's about childhood, and the heartbreakingly inarticulate way young children idolize their parents.
And so generations of Boston children, adoring their fathers, learn to love the Red Sox. And they learn to hate the Yankees the way a child on the playground hates the bully who insults his father. The two become one and the same. Wins and losses, flubbed World Series, and the Curse of the Bambino have nothing to do with it.
And gradually those children become the next generation of fans. The species reinvents itself, and evolves.
Of course, one cannot live as a child forever. A man with a funny mustache is a perfectly suitable hero when you are seven, but as you mature, you need more. You begin to fall from grace, and you begin to need stories.
That's where the language of sports comes into play.
Frankly, I'm shocked that someone more learned than I has never investigated the peculiar linguistics of the American sports fan. It speaks so much to our evolution--our story.
In high school I was an artsy kid. I hung out with the drama geeks. Playing, liking or in any way having anything to do with sports beyond the marching band was anathema to the artsy kids. Football players in particular--brash, loud, confident, and, to see the way they were coddled by many in town, the future leaders of society--were convenient straw men for our half-baked counter-cultural sentiments.
I could not, in good faith, even pretend to be interested in sports in my proscribed high school role, and so I never took overt interest in our high school squads' struggles on the field. I attended football games, but sat among the low-brass section of the Marching Band. The only time I really paid attention to what was happening in front of the crowd was when the band played its halftime show; I had a crush on a boy who played a baritone horn, not one who played linebacker.
I'd left behind baseball, too.
In the story of the sports-fan kind, such departures are common as well. Every so often something else--a foreign war, Presidential politics, high school, steroid or gambling scandals--breaks in and demands our attention as a Serious Matter. And sports are just games. We look away.
But we cannot escape our upbringing. We can learn other tongues, but we stick to our native language in times of need.
It still may seem incongruous for me, a bookworm with an English degree, to be caught up in the Sox-Yankees rivalry, and arguing over batting averages and trade rumors.
But look deeper, and it's not so strange at all. Both literature and sports fascinate me with their language. Baseball would be nothing without narrative.
Take, for example, the Red Sox and the Yankees. It's the story of Cain and Abel all over again, and like any legend of the past, it imbues the present with meaning it would otherwise not enjoy. Every generation has its heroes--Williams, Fisk, Yazstremski, Clemens, Martinez--and its scapegoats--Ruth, Morgan, Buckner, Grady.
The names should be engraved somewhere, perhaps on two stone tablets.
Baseball is all about words. Each position has a distinctive name—first, second or third basemen, the word "basemen" in and of itself so professional, like "draftsman" or "businessman."
And has there ever been a title more crunchy and delicious than "shortstop"? He stops up the gap between second and third, of course, but it's not just a job description the way the name "linebacker" tells you that the man in question "backs" the "line." It contains an adverb--he stops the ball short as it's hit toward left field. It's a comment, an exhortation, as much as a name.
But delve further--look at the sounds of the word itself. The whisper of "Shhh" means the crispness of "t" and "p." The name is dynamic. It's alliterative. In the middle is an "awe."
Were baseball like football, the pitcher would be simply a "thrower" the way the guy who kicks the ball is, simply, a "kicker". But pitchers don't throw. They pitch. "Pitch" is an entirely different word.
In noun form, it's the sticky substance given off by pine trees--perhaps not coincidentally the stuff pitchers themselves put on their hands.
In verb form, when you put up a tent, that's pitching, as in, erecting a structure. The pitcher is the centerpiece of the team much the way a pole holds up a tent. If he collapses, so does the rest.
You can pitch over, much like pitchers do when they fall forward to deliver the ball to the catcher.
But, most importantly, when you huck a ball at 100 miles an hour--one of the more miraculous achievements of the human body, ever--that's not throwing. That's pitching.
These subtleties, like the difference between "Boo!" and "Doo!" are of the utmost importance. The word selection is as delicate as poetry.
Baseball is never short on poetry. If the stories of teams like the Sox and Yankees are Homeric, the every day language of the game is like the intricate wordplay of e.e. cummings.
One of my favorite baseball expressions is "bloop" as in "bloop double." It's more than a description--it's onomatopoeia for you word-geeks keeping score.
Or how about what we say when a batter hits a long home run, especially off a dominant pitcher? "He took him deep," or "He took him over the wall." As in, it's not the ball the batter hits and tosses out of the park--it's the pitcher himself. It's such a deeply personal, deeply metaphoric expression--a pitcher's chagrin at giving up a home run is such that he might as well leave with the ball.
Of course, the notion of "home" is explicitly present in baseball, but its connotation is entirely different from that of football. The lone base runner crosses the plate--also known, delightfully, as "the dish"--like the adventuring explorer tops Everest: alone and after taking a roundabout route. A journey around the bases is a solitary quest with obstacles along the way, rather than an organized assault by a unified army.
As if the game needed more solitude, the batter stands in a "box." The pitcher looks down upon his counterparts from a "mound"--which has grown to a "hill" in the popular vernacular.
Baseball players are only loosely affiliated with one another as they take the field. Each has a huge stretch of ground to defend and control. Errors, runs, hits, walks, and any other currency of the game is rewarded to individual players rather than whole lines or "packages". Baseball is a slow, contemplative, lonely game.
Pitchers who come in late in the game are otherwise kept in the "bullpen."
A pitcher with lots of longevity is known as a "horse."
Yep. Lots of time to think up metaphors.
Baseball players are christened with new names. The Babe. Teddy Ballgame. The Kid. Joltin' Joe. Shoeless Joe. Big Papi. There are their given names--George Herman Ruth, Theodore Williams, Joseph Dimaggio, Joseph Jackson, David Ortiz--and these new monikers, adopted like the capes and aliases of superheroes.
After all, you can't be an epic hero with a name like George Herman. But a name like "Babe", and, even better, with the superlative "The" before it--well, now you're talking.
The game is full of paradoxes--though they are known as a team, the players might as well be strangers as they take the field and face the pitch alone.
Yet, even as there is an aloof relationship among those on the same team, there is a paradoxically cooperative relationship between those at the center of the action--the pitcher and the batter. Look at it this way: a quarterback throws passes to his own receivers. A basketball player or hockey player, similarly, passes the ball or puck to his teammates. A pitcher, meanwhile, is probably the only athlete in the world who throws a ball directly towards another man, and yet hopes he will not make contact with it.
At the same time, they talk constantly from their lonely outposts, "jawing" at each other, from infield chatter--"heybattabattabattabatta"--to arguments over calls, to conversations between runners and basemen as if they were meeting on a street corner.
Baseball fans, meanwhile are the only ones that feel the need to log and diagram the game while watching it. Little charts full of little squares can be found in every program, and the cigar-chewers mark them with little symbols, filling in corners with black marks and numbers and letters, documenting the series of complicated equations that formed the spectacle.
And baseball fans talk,too. They talk about "taters" and "tosses" and "arms like rockets" and "arms like cannons" and "horses" and "stiffs" and "ham-and-eggers" and "bums" and journeymen "having a cup of coffee". They tell each other the stories of this or that game, this or that World Series. They write books. They write the hieroglyphics of the scorecard. They explain to their children what a curveball is.
The talk surrounds us like a bedtime story, read by our fathers, like the Scriptures, read from a pulpit, the sacred litany. Steroid scandals or the collapse of a decades-long tradition of losing pale before this aspect of sacredness about the game itself, the true, fundamental game that is as eternal as language, and our need to communicate.
Baseball is forever. Baseball is eternity. Baseball has been played for more than a century in almost exactly the same way. And yet, as any baseball fan knows, the same patterns are rarely seen twice. It's like a perpetually turning kaleidoscope, and baseball fans can’t help themselves-- win or lose, they need to keep a record. They need to make linguistic the infinite and ever-fluctuating patterns before them.
I'm not feeling up to posting my own piece today, but I want to point out that Tao of Manny, perhaps the most underrated blog in the Sox world, has an excellent post up that pretty much sums up my feelings on Spring Training following the World Series win:
Winning is no longer an unexperienced possibility; we Sox fans all know what it feels like. The past is now mere prologue to the beginning. The Yankees are suddenly unhinged, nearly obsessed with the Red Sox. Every NY paper now has three beat reporters: Yanks, Mets, and Sox. Any mention of "1918" from a Yankees fan is just an excuse to say something like, "yeah, and in all those years, the Sox never choked like the Yanks last year." But, even more, the Yankees just don't matter. The whale was killed; its blubber is now melted down in casks as the Pequod sails merrily back to Nantucket.
In the end, though, things are wonderfully the same. Because, here's what the rest of the country never understood: all that was beside the point, really. Oh, I wanted them to win; I rooted for them to win. And I did root against the Yankees. But the "curse" talk, the mythology and legend around the Sox just made good copy. It was background noise to what's great about the game and what's great about rooting for the Sox. I've grown up rooting for the Red Sox. Generations have grown up rooting for the Red Sox. People on the outside thought it was an obsession with winning The First World Series Since Babe Ruth Was Sold To The Yankees. But, it's just rooting for our team, going into a General Store (or a Cumby's) and hearing the game on the radio, watching balls go off and over The Wall, getting asked "what happened in the game?" and knowing there's only one game they could be talking about, smelling the sausages on the way into the game, and a thousand other associations redolent of home. The Red Sox are home, they are The Olde Towne Team. "They carry the hopes of a region" was the common sports-writer cliche, but it was more than that, and less. The Sox carried the experiences of a region, a long history of a million small moments in all of our lives. The big memories of Bucky Dent and World Series lost (and now won), but even more the innumerable half-forgotten memories of growing up in the shadow of the Red Sox.
They are the seasons passing; they are summer and fall.
And they are most assuredly spring.
This is another of the miracles of Sox fandom: when one of us is down, another one steps in to bear them up, always. Thanks, Brian.
I've had a death in my family and I'm not sure when I'll be posting again after this. So in the meantime I leave you with this excerpt from a post I wrote back in July:
Top 10 Reasons why Baseball is Better than Football
10. Media. Many orders of magnitude more books, movies, websites, chat rooms, message boards, magazines and television shows are available with which to feed your obsession during baseball season. Football has a few pulpy magazines and a forgettable catalog of horribly written souvenir books.
9. Schedule. 162 games; compared to just 16, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet. Football games are special weekend events. Baseball games sink and blend into the routines of daily life in intriguing ways. By the end of the season, several rounds of five- and seven-game playoff series to decide the championship really separates the men from the boys.
8. Commentary. Baseball has whole legions of geeks hunched over computer keyboards year-round, coming up with truly astonishing mathematical formulas to both document and predict the probabilities, idiosyncrasies and mysteries of baseball. Football has John Madden with his light pen.
7. Language. Bloop double. Can of corn. Tater. Dinger. Grand slam. Switch-hit. Batsman. Hurler. Crossed him up. Took him deep. A little bleeder of a single down the left field line. K, BB, SB, OBS, OBP, RISP. Flashed some leather. Basket catch. Backstop. Baseman. Double steal. Hit and run. Pick-off throw. Deep drive to left, way back, way. back. Football's still stuck with John Madden and his inane ramblings.
6. History. Baseball as we know it goes back to the post-Civil War period. Football just barely squeaked into the national consciousness before the British Invasion...of the 1960's. Maybe it's just where I happen to live, but I've rarely met anyone whose childhood was irrevocably altered by a football game. Ask anyone who was at a verbal stage of life in October 1986 in Boston, though, and you'll hear something different when it comes to baseball.
5. Dignity. Baseball doesn't lend itself nearly so well to beer commercials featuring busty blond twins and inane, terrible rock tunes.
4. Philosophy. Baseball requires patience, control, grace and complex thought at every position, with every play series. With the exception of offensive linemen and the quarterback, football is not exactly on a par in this regard with the players in the trenches.
3. Pace. Baseball has no time clock, in many ways. Where UnderArmour, Gatorade, Nike, Reebok, and so on ad nauseam have turned football players from leather-capped doughboys to android-looking biomechanical mutants, most of the great players of baseball's past would have little trouble joining a game today.
2. Heart. No one's going to make a movie about the Cincinatti Bengals called Still, We Believe.
1. Rivalries. This is where every factor named above comes into play at once. I'll never forget when Kevin Millar related during an interview early this season that the ground at Yankee stadium literally shook during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Sorry, but the Pats-Panthers Super Bowl didn't quite get me to the same place, you know?
Top 10 Reasons why Football is Better than Baseball
10. Commentary. While I lament the rise of John Madden as the public face of football, there is nothing--absolutely nothing in the world--like hearing Gil Santos call a Patriots game. Nothing. I personally think Gil Santos should read, announce, and report everything, from the nightly news to Presidential addresses. Who do the Sox have? The Rem-Dawg? Sorry. Not in the same ballpark.
9. Win or go home.
8. Virility. Football is about conquering territory. Football is about enormous male ideals in tight uniforms flexing their buns on screen. Football is about bone-crunchin', hit-takin', back-breakin' testosterone-drenched violence that strikes our deepest reptilian nerves. Baseball, by comparison, seems to be about baggy-assed uniforms and futility.
7. Efficiency--not simplicity. Those SABR geeks may make your head spin, but listen to Bill Belichik or John Gruden talk football for fifteen minutes and they look like a bunch of navel-gazing, necromancing morons.
6. Consistency. The Patriots play every Sunday, maybe once or twice on Monday night. It's easy to clear your schedule for that. With baseball, though, you just know you're going to tune in the day your team takes a waste-of-time thrashing from a shitty team, but you'll be stuck, you know, having a life when they win that epic in extra innings on a walk-off home run.
Also, every time you go to see the Patriots, barring catastrophic injury, Tom Brady will line up under center and take a snap on every down. When you buy Red Sox tickets, you might be treated to a performance by Pedro Martinez or Curt Schilling--or you might get stuck with, say, John Burkett or Derek Lowe on the mound. Not good.
5. Humility. Football is unassuming: End zone dances. Sacking the quarterback. Blitz! Hundred-yard touchdown runs. Goofy mascots. Throwing snow at Gillette Stadium. Drenching the head coach with Gatorade. And while less articulate than baseball, football has its share of breathtaking sights: including and especially a wide receiver in full flight. And yet football, for all its macho posturing, takes itself much, MUCH less seriously than baseball.
Football lineups function as a cohesive, machine-like unit, where all parts must cooperate and compromise to move the team as a whole down the field. Baseball players have lots of time out in the middle of an expanse of manicured grass to count their money--alone. And so, where football has a Super Bowl Champion team being introduced as such and even the ingenious, self-parodying "Leon" commercials, baseball has reports that Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid athlete on the planet, refused to sign over the rights to the film of himself being "Punk'd" by Ashton Kutcher. And he threw a public hissy for good measure. God. Get over yourself already.
4. Equality. Football may have a difficult track record when it comes to race relations, but they never created an entirely separate, segregated league in which to house black players. Nowadays, most racial conflicts in football have been or are being addressed positively. The advents of Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb have put racial quarterback controversies mostly to rest (unless you're Rush Limbaugh). While racial problems remain in football--the demographic profiles of coaching staffs, in particular, have yet to catch up with modern social mores--blacks have continued to shun baseball in general as both fans and players more consistently than any other pastime, and that really says something.
Oh, and while baseball continues to fuck around with a five-strikes steroid policy, football players are routinely yet fairly scrutinized for substance abuse. Even as football players get more outsized every year, they shame baseball just by example with their drug policies. This means that no one in fifty years will be speculating about whether Ray Lewis should be in the Hall of Fame on suspicion of cheating--but some will still have lingering doubts about Barry Bonds.
3. Intensity. Football players go through roughly a car accident's worth of impact and / or injuries every game. If you don't play hurt in the NFL, you don't play at all. Tom Brady won a Super Bowl last year with a second-degree separation of the shoulder. Players have played and won Super Bowls with broken bones, including Rodney Harrison in this past year's contest--he used his compound-fractured right arm to shove an opposing player out of bounds on a crucial down, causing an injury so complex and horrifying that he needed surgery to repair the mangled limb and couldn't attend the victory parade in Boston. Drew Bledsoe suffered a sheared aorta on a crippling hit from Mo Lewis of the Jets back in 2001.
Football is also played in wind, snow, rain, sleet, hail, plagues of frogs, you name it, anything besides lightning, a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. No rain delays for a sprinkle, no grounds crews mincing about with rakes. These men are absolute fucking warriors. Meanwhile, baseball games are routinely called off due to impending, possible rain, and baseball players are routinely sidelined due to the development of blisters. Blisters. You have got to be kidding.
2. Popularity. Baseball may have history, but most of MLB has been forced to realize that they may be going the way of the Brontasaurus in many places. Boston and New York may still pack in to see baseball games, but there's nothing sadder than watching athletes with a combined income more than many small countries going through the motions in a mostly-empty stadium built back in their Dynasty Era (e.g. the Toronto Blue Jays).
Meanwhile, the NFL is also one of the only cultural activities mutually shared and enjoyed by both whites and blacks in this country.
1. Parity. Truly the greatest blessing ever visited on any sport. On any given Sunday, as they say, any team can win, whether it's a Sunday in September or Super Bowl Sunday. Most importantly, this means there will never be a George Steinbrenner in the NFL. There will also never be a team that goes without a championship for a hundred years. And that's the way it should be, by God.
I had an idea of the interest level [in Boston], I had no idea of the energy level. Taking the ball and walking to the mound at Fenway is just a real different thing. Fenway Park is, you know, a century old. It feels like everybody in the park has been around for a century. Their agony and the misery comes out. Their waiting to be upset, their waiting to get mad at you because that's been happening forever, but at the same time they love you like you're their own kid. They want you so badly to do well, but they're expecting you to screw it up. There is a dynamic there between the players and the fans that doesn't exist, I don't believe, in any other city with any other team and it fans.
ROSENTHAL: How weird is it for you now that [Randy Johnson]'s a Yankee?
SCHILLING: It's not weird. Um...what a rush? I mean, first of all, it's great for baseball. Unfortunately, the Yankees got another huge contract and can afford it. But I don't begrudge Mr. Steinbrenner one bit. He spends his money on his team. It's going to be weird, seeing Randy in pinstripes. I would much rather face somebody else than Randy Johnson. But it's...my god, I mean, I think about April 3, Opening Day, Yankee Stadium, Red Sox-Yankees. Randy freaking Johnson on the mound. Being able to oppose him. I mean, I don't know that it gets much better than that.
Jose Melendez is getting back into blogging shape for the new season with two incredible posts:
Well, those sorts of KEYS are all well and good, but they do not exactly get Jose in the shape required for the rigors of the season. Think about it this way. Manny Ramirez may go to the batting cages at Good Times Emporium in Somerville three times a week for 15 minutes, but it's not exactly the same as taking live batting practice. Since November, Jose's basically shown up three or four times a week, done some cursory work and then gone home. That needs to change now. For instance, in preparation for the season, Jose is going to need to build up his endurance. Not only will he need better endurance to write every game day, he'll need better endurance just to be able to get through the Boston Herald sports section. Do you think Jose reads that sort of thing in the off season? Absolutely not. Jose read the Herald today for the first time in months and it left him winded, depressed and discouraged. After all, who needs news on the assassination in Lebanon, when a hero saved a dog from icy waters? If Jose is going to have success this season, he needs to be able to plow through the Herald, the Metro and maybe even the Phoenix without breaking a sweat.
Jose’s third objection [to Pride and Prejudice] is [Jane] Austen's ridiculous use of alliteration in the title of what is ostensibly a piece of high literature. Alliteration is fine for blogs, newspapers and Harlequin Romances, but for serious literature? Did Dostoyevsky call Crime and Punishment "Perpetrators and Punishment?" Did Melvillie call Moby Dick "Of Water and Whales?" Did God call the Bible "Sinners and Saviors?" Nope. Because they know alliteration is just a little trashy. Yo, Austen, you want to use a literary device in your title? Why not sack up and lay down some enjambent.
The only bad news with this particular piece of good news is that Jose Melendez makes me want to just shut down this blog and quit, because I will never, ever be that good. Or that funny. Or have such a simple yet effective blogging theme.
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