Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

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Perfect Thoughts

June 22, 2012

Last Wednesday I witnessed baseball history. I watched Matt Cain throw a perfect game, just the 22nd in major league history and the first in the 128-year history of the New York/San Francisco Giants. Along with Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, it was one of the two greatest sporting moments I’ve ever witnessed. Both of these games had drama (Can the Canes do it? Can Cain do it?) and tension (So close … almost …YES!!), until at the end I could hardly believe that I was witnessing such an incredible moment. Here are a few things I remember about watching Cain’s perfecto:

I started thinking about a perfect game from the start. I’ve been asked, when did I notice he was throwing a perfect game? Right away. When I go to a baseball game, I always speculate whether I’m going to see a perfect game, or no-hitter, or shutout. Or maybe someone will hit for the cycle, or hit 4 home runs. So when Cain sent down the Astros in order, striking out two, in the first, I noted it. With two outs in the fifth, the guy next to me said, “You know he’s throwing a perfect game, right?” I slapped his arm and shushed him; it is bad luck to speak of such things whilst they are occurring. When Cain got the next guy, I looked at my friend Danilo, who had joined me for the game, and said, “That’s 15 up and 15 down.” Danilo just nodded; he knew, and knew nothing further need be said. That was the inning when the fans near the Giants dugout started standing as Cain returned from the mound. By the 6th everybody in the lower bowl was standing. By the 7th Danilo decided to call his wife Catherine and have her put on the game, but he wouldn’t tell her why. “Bob sure is nervous here next to me,” he told her, but she missed his meaning. I chose not to alert my family in North Carolina; I was afraid I’d jinx it. By the 9th the cheering began as Cain warmed up and crescendoed with Belt’s catch of the 27th out. I could hardly stand still and clapped my hands to vent my nervous energy. I could hardly stop yelling when Cain finished off the last man. The small possibility of the first inning had reached fruition. I got to witness history fulfilled. Not “I was there when Cain lost his no-no in the ninth” but instead “I was there when Cain threw his perfecto.” Undeserved, but so very grateful, to have borne witness.

Luck figures prominently… As a fan you can’t choose to attend a perfect game; you just have to be in the right place at the right time. I got my ticket from my dear and unlucky friend Tommy, who has had Giant season tickets since they were still playing at the ‘Stick and who has not missed a home opener since elementary school. We’d made plans in April to attend this game together; I was in town to teach, and I’d not been to AT&T Park since 2005 (coincidentally, Cain’s MLB debut). But days before, Tommy learned he had to head to Chicago for a business meeting, and his ill fortune became Danilo’s good. The only regret I had about being at this game was that Tommy wasn’t, but he was most gracious. As our friend Brad texted me the next day, “You can’t plan it or buy your way in. It’s total luck.” And joyous, wondrous luck at that.

… For the pitcher too. My presence at the game was pure good fortune: right place, right time. The pitcher has luck of a different kind. He creates lots of it himself; striking out 14 significantly helped Cain retire all 27 batters he faced, because strike outs don’t require any assistance from teammates. But while the Giants had opposite-field hits fall in, and ground balls squeeze between infielders, the remaining 13 balls the Astros put into play were fairly easy to field. With one amazing exception. It feels like standard fare for a perfecto to require one heroic play, and Gregor Blanco provided Cain with one in the 7th. Otherwise the only other hard hit was Snyder’s drive to left in the 6th, which looked to me like a dinger but which Cabrera handled just in front of the fence. This is not to suggest that Cain didn’t deserve his perfection, or that his performance was akin to winning the lottery. In fact, it requires some good fortune, much more physical skill, and even more mental fortitude. Because the pitcher can only record three outs in an inning, his work is broken up by his teammates’ turns at the plate. With each inning, as he moves closer and closer to destiny and history, these intermissions become harder to wait out, and thus leave a heavier weight on the shoulders with each return to the mound. As Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus remarked the next day, what makes ballplayers special is not that they don’t experience nerves; it’s that they feel them but continue to execute at extremely high levels. Cain’s good luck was largely of his own, and partially of his teammates’, creation.

Sport can provide moments of pure emotion. The feeling of am-I-really-here comes in part from witnessing directly the amazing capacity to perform brilliantly in the densest moments of competition. While the surface emotions swirled–anxiety and excitement and joy–beneath them I felt deep appreciation, almost awe that I could watch this game in person and feel my own expectations, and those of the crowd around me, build with each out. We all wanted so desperately to be part of history. Our hopes turned to euphoria when the game was over. Danilo and I took some pictures; like many we just didn’t want to leave the ballpark while the experience was so fresh. Outside many hung around the plaza, taking pictures of the AT&T Park sign lit up, of the Willie Mays statue, of each other. There was lots of high-pitched conversation and occasional screams of delight. I texted friends and family in all caps: “DANILO AND I JUST SAW MATT CAIN THROW A PERFECT GAME FOR THE GIANTS!!” I yelled enough that on my ride back I stopped at a 7 Eleven for throat drops, and it was there that I had the strangest thought of the night. I stood in front of the beer section and remarked to myself: “Why would anybody want to drink alcohol. It just gets in the way of experiencing life directly.” That is the purity of feeling this game provided me. It took a while to fall asleep, which allowed time to photos to Facebook. I awoke after just four hours or so of sleep, my body jerking with adrenaline again. As I drove to that day’s workshop, and even as I began teaching, I kept flashing back to moments in the game and after. The euphoria took a good 12 hours to fade, but writing tonight has brought back glimpses of it. My high school tennis coach, Harvey Smith, once said, “The memories of an event are often greater than the event itself.” If he’s right, then I will be feeling those glimpses for years to come.

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Even the Ground Moves

June 12, 2012

Two Fridays ago Johan Santana threw a no-hitter, not just for my fantasy team but for the New York Mets. The Mets had played 8019 games in over 50 seasons without a pitcher ever throwing a no-hitter for them. It seemed like they never would. Padre fans know the feeling–they’ve yet to see their team throw one (though they’re only in their 44th season).

Two days later I was cutting our lawn, and afterward I could not close the door to our shed. There’s a huge stone with a flat top that looks kind of like a welcome mat at the shed’s entrance. The door has closed for the eight years we’ve lived here, and I imagine for as long as the shed has existed before that. But now it sticks up just enough that I can’t swing the door shut. This stone is massive: I can’t dig deep enough to lever it with a shovel, and even if I could it feels like it wouldn’t budge. There’s been no earthquake or mudslide at our house; everything looks the same, but somehow the stone has moved.

Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent, even things that appear so. The evidence is no further away than a box score, or the earth beneath your feet.

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The Impermanence of Baseball

November 13, 2011

It has been reported that Jonathan Papelbon will end his six-year stint with the Red Sox and head to the Phillies. I want to thank him for his excellent work, especially ensuring leads for the ’07 World Series champs, and wish him the best. I am glad the Red Sox understand that closing is not usually a position worthy of tons of cash–the skill set is easily replicable, and as it’s been said before, getting three outs just isn’t that hard (was it Cleveland’s Doug Jones who admitted that?). The Sox will move up Daniel Bard from the set-up role, and he’ll provide the same kind of psychological safety net for the next Boston manager.

Papelbon’s exit, and the current vacancy in the Sox’s manager’s office, highlight a deeper truth about baseball: its impermanence. I’ve been a fan of this team for over four decades, and it’s easy to think of the Sox as a single entity. Same ballpark for a century, almost no change in the uniform (the current bright-red jersey reminds me of the shift to the two-tone cap in the ’70s), and incremental changes to the roster–all give the illusion that the Sox are an unchanging institution. But it isn’t. The roster doesn’t stay the same for a month, let alone a year. The uniforms are made of different materials, the ballpark gets renovations and repairs every year, and the front office personnel changes too. I am especially aware of this impermanence this winter, as GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona have left the Sox. Theo, with his deep analytical understanding of the game, and Francona, with his firm-but-friendly style and his apparent awareness that the manager’s chief role is to put the best players out there and let them play, have given me a false sense of security. I felt like, in their hands (particularly Theo’s), the team would keep finding good players, develop them, and give them a chance to succeed in Boston. My certainty is now gone. As Jerry Seinfeld said, if you’re a baseball fan you’re actually just rooting for the laundry.

This idea of impermanence is vital to Buddhism. As we look deeper into our experiences, we see that permanence is illusory. My thoughts come and go; the cells of my body are replaced regularly; my personality can show different sides at a moment’s notice; and my desires and interests can be just as fleeting. So it is with the world around me: my family, my home, my neighborhood, can look the same on the surface while they are changing just as frequently as I am.

Good luck to Theo and Pap. Hope you find a job, Tito. Thanks for reminding me that nothing stays the same–even the team my grandfather helped me learn to love.

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Me and Baseball

July 14, 2011

Playoff hockey almost ruined baseball for me. In 2002 the Carolina Hurricanes made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals, and my buddy Jeff Reilly and I bought two tickets for the duration. The intensity and excitement of playoff games was unlike anything I’d experienced before. When I returned to watching the Durham Bulls that summer, the contrast in energy was so striking that it almost drove me away. Two things saved me: that I went to the Bulls with two good friends, Jim Coble and Ken Traynham, and that the Red Sox got really really good, culminating in winning the 2004 World Series. Yet my interest waned to the point where I decided not to play fantasy baseball this year. Vicki told me she’s never known me not to have at least one team going, and she’s known me for 25 years.

Yet baseball is making a comeback with me. Fantasy is part of the reason why. One morning I was looking at ESPN’s web site and there was a picture of Dee Gordon, who’d just been called up by the Dodgers. He’s a guy I’d moved up my draft list in a couple of leagues last summer, but I’d quit those leagues and lost him. I was mad at myself that my research had gone for naught. I’ve now joined a mid-season league at mlb.com to see if my interest is a passing fad or something I’ll continue to want to do. I have the MLB network on my TV, and they do a great job presenting the game.

I have also been reminded of how deep baseball’s roots run for me. My sister-in-law Kimberly recently gave me a ball autographed by Carl Yastrzemski, my boyhood hero. My Polish-American grandfather had given me a copy of Yaz’s autobiography, written after his Triple Crown year of 1967, and I must have read it six times. Dziadziu and my dad took me to Fenway Park for the first time in 1971, when I was eight. It was a night game against the Orioles, and the Sox won 5-4 in 10. I’d never seen such green grass in my life. In those days Yaz got booed a lot, mainly for not taking the Sox to the World Series every year, but he was a worthy All-Star that season. And this week ESPN did a retrospective of the 1971 All-Star game, played in Detroit earlier the same summer as my first Fenway trip. It’s the first game I remember watching from start to finish. I was at my friend Darryl Ashley’s house. I remember how tight Vida Blue’s white A’s uniform fit him on the mound. I remember Reggie Jackson’s monstrous home run, which may have gone completely out of the ballpark  had it not struck a transformer on the stadium’s roof. It would be hard not to fall in love with baseball on a night like that–20 players in that game (plus both managers and a coach!) have been elected to the Hall of Fame. There was excellence everywhere I looked.

These new warm feelings for baseball may pass. But it feels like taking the break from fantasy was a good idea. Following the game had become a chore, and now it feels fun again. I don’t have Hurricanes season tickets any more, so maybe I can give back some emotional energy to the game I’ve been following for–how can this be?–forty years.

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50 Years Since a Week That Still Shapes Our Lives

September 27, 2010

According to this morning’s USA Today, yesterday marked 50 years since the first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate. While it would be 26 years until Ford and Carter renewed the tradition, televised debates now occur in every presidential and vice-presidential election, and in many congressional and gubernatorial races too. Along with letting voters size up candidates in the same room at the same time, these debates have given us Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, Ford’s claim that Poland in 1976 was not under Soviet domination, Reagan’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  and “There you go again” in 1980, Lloyd Bentsen’s “I knew Jack Kennedy, and you sir, are no Jack Kennedy” in 1988 (to fellow VP candidate Dan Quayle), Ross Perot’s “I’m all ears” in 1992, and both “Joe the Plumber” and Sarah Palin’s winking “You betcha” in 2008. That’s a lot of history in a handful of televised hours.

One reason there wasn’t another debate until 1976 is that most pundits believe the first Kennedy-Nixon debate swung the election to JFK. He won the popular vote by 0.1%, and his electoral win was the closest in half a century, so small distinctions between the candidates could make a huge difference. Voters who listened to that first debate on the radio thought it was a draw, but those watching on TV gave JFK a significant win. The reasons are now famous: JFK relaxed in Florida for a few days before, and showed up tan and rested; Nixon was recovering from illness, had continued to campaign until just before the debate, wore no makeup (hence the visible five o’clock shadow), and wore a suit nearly the same color as the backdrop behind him–all of which made him look weaker than his rival. And thus was birthed Camelot, the frequent televised presidential press conference (Obama, please, a little more JFK here and a little less Ike), and the modern presidential debate.

According to Saturday’s NY Times, tomorrow will mark 50 years since the event that led to arguably the greatest sports essay ever written, John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” Updike was one of barely 10,000 fans at Ted Williams’ last game for the Boston Red Sox, the game where Williams used his last at bat famously hit a home run (his 521st; the only reason he didn’t hit 700 was because he gave six years of his prime to serve his country) and even more famously would not tip his cap to the crowd afterward. Updike, who never wrote again about sports, could not have known that he had launched a form of essay, transcending game recaps to place sports in deeper literary and cultural contexts.

That’s one helluva week.

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More Thoughts on Why We Like Football

September 21, 2010

For some reason football is still on my mind. I’m sitting in a hotel in downtown Seattle watching the end of the Monday night game between San Francisco and New Orleans. The end of the game had plenty of drama–SF looking like they’d self-destructed with a turnover, then their defense forcing a Saints field goal instead of a TD that would have iced the game, then marching down the field to score a tying TD (after barely converting a two-point play), then unable to stop the Saints on the game’s last drive, as the champs kicked the winning field goal as time expired. Wow, all that back-and-forth late in the game creates a lot of drama in about five minutes of game time.

The drama is heightened because of my other two reasons why we like football. The reasons are related. The first is that football offers the possibility of perfection. There’s an adage in baseball that everybody wins a third of their games, everybody loses a third, and it’s the other third–54 games–that determines where the teams finish in the standings. But football is not that way. If football followed baseball’s math, it would be rare for a team to win more than ten games out of sixteen.  But every season several teams win at least 11 or 12, and usually one team wins 10 in a row to start a season. And in college, with its wider range of talent and shorter season, it’s unusual for there not to be at least two undefeated teams at season’s end. So fans can expect perfection and it’s not unheard of. If the Yankees lose 2 in a row to the Royals in mid-July, no one notices. But the 49ers (and the Cowboys and the Vikings too) are now 0-2 and it’s huge–their chances of winning their division or making the playoffs are considerably steeper.

The related reason is that, because there are so few games, each is an event. With tailgates, bar promotions, satellite television, and all-day cable TV coverage, the limited number of games heightens the value of each. And that’s just the regular season–all of this just gets ramped up more when the playoffs start, capped off with the most-hyped day of America’s sporting year: the Super Bowl. Falling between MLK weekend and Valentine’s Day, it’s almost an extension of the winter holidays, celebrating our civic religion.

ESPN will digest yesterday’s games, and tonight’s, all week, until it’s time to start priming the pump of interest in next weekend’s events. The combination of adrenaline, alcohol, media focus, and the militaristic/patriotic tones the game has always evoked, and it adds up to football, our nation’s sporting passion.

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Why Football?

September 16, 2010

When I was a kid I loved watching football. Why not? Everyone did. I watched my high school and college teams play, and it never occurred to me that I would not watch. I’ve been in a fantasy league since 1985, when we had to fax each other our picks–there was no Web. But sometime around parenthood football stopped being fun to watch. I got bored. For the last several years the only game I’ve watched start-to-finish is the Super Bowl, and usually I do not watch any regular season football.

But over the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to more sports talk than usual, and you can’t do that without hearing a lot about football. I did my usual last-minute fantasy draft preparations. And by last weekend I found myself checking in on the UNC/LSU game and the Boise St/Va Tech game. Each had an exciting finish. So I started asking myself, what is football’s appeal? Why is it fun to watch?

I’ve been a soccer fanatic for about four years now, and I think it’s funny to hear fans of American sports say soccer is boring, because it’s low scoring. But soccer has continuous action, and a team can score a goal ten seconds after barely avoiding conceding one. By contrast, baseball has a lot of waiting for action. And the ball doesn’t move a lot in football either–lots of time runs down as teams regroup after a play, huddle up for the next one, then wait at the line to start again. It’s boring for me. So why did I watch?

Two reasons come to mind right away. First is the NASCAR reason–I watch to see if someone’s going to get hurt. Once you step out of the football cone and wonder why it’s so popular, it’s stunning to see that violence is at the game’s core. I love hockey, and I love the hits in hockey (if not the fights), but hockey’s core is speed. Football’s is violence. Hitting is required on every single play, and most of the time a hit is required to end a play. We are drawn to that.

The second reason, at least for me last weekend, was that there is the possibility of a long score.The possibility that a team can score from any point on the field gives each play some drama. We love the image of the running back breaking into the secondary, or the receiver racing down the sideline. We may not admit to our love of violence, but all Americans love to speak about freedom, and football gives us all the chance to imagine ourselves free of the obstacles of our daily lives, sprinting into open space.

Why do you like football?

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