Friday, May 28, 2010

A Fan's Picaresque

I'm inspired by Josh Wilker's fascinating and affecting book, Cardboard Gods, to write a bit more about my own fandom. Wilker's book is a must for anyone who collected baseball cards to the point of distraction as a child, especially in the 1970s, but it's very well done as a memoir in its own right. In revisiting and recollecting his relationship with his cards, Wilker finds both refuge from and evidence of the plain cultural weirdness of the '70s.

I grew up one small state over from Wilker, in the same period. and like his, my interest in baseball has varied over the years. I was into the Red Sox as a seven-year-old, certainly, as every seven-year-old in New Hampshire was. And it was pretty exciting when my family lived in Bill "Spaceman" Lee's neighborhood in Belmont, Massachusetts, for a year when I was ten. (Wilker recounts a recent meeting with Lee here.) I collected huge numbers of cards over five years or so, each year organizing them by a different principle—the most confusing of which was "first pro team played for." This did give me insight into the roster turmoil the Cubs went through in the early 1970s, but it made it impossible to find any player without using a concordance—which, true to my largely benign quasi-Asperger's, I created.

But I lost interest over my teenage and college years—in part because I went to college halfway across the country from Boston, in a pre-Internet era when out-of-town coverage was relatively hard to come by. By the time I moved to New York in 1994, I'd followed the Twins a little and the Phillies a little, and I barely knew who any of the players on the Red Sox were. But I did know that that robotic sex-maniac scourge of chicken Wade Boggs had moved on to the Yankees, so I bought what seemed to be an extravagant top-price ($17!) ticket to a sunny Yankees game that spring.

The team was just then emerging from the desert of the 1980s, and they seemed like a young, exciting, not-evil group. Yes, I sold my birthright for a mess o' pottage and became a Yankees fan.

This lasted till the Jason Giambi signing after the 2001 season, which is also about when I left New York the first time. So it might be an illusion that that's when the Yankees turned evil again—with their skyrocketing prices, preposterous payroll, and overwrought patriotism—but it was enough for me to turn my affections back to the contraction-bound, Pohlad-crippled, Metrodome-stank Twins. Despite the horror that was the Metrodome, the Twins were a fun team to follow then: always the low-market Cinderella, never the AL champions.

My essential fecklessness* and geographical opportunism were about to get worse. First, I took up fantasy baseball, success at which requires casting aside local allegiances and scoping the entire league every night for the next breakout player to shore up your roster. (In a backhanded tip to the Yankees, I chose the name Dion James Abstract for my ever-evolving group of sabermetrically underpowered scrubs.)

Second, the project that became Baseball Byways came to life. Our first minor-league trip was 2002, and, despite many changes in my life since then, it has become a summer staple. But it, too, deracinates the typical fan: although this has changed a bit in recent years, teams typically have had their affiliates scattered far and wide. When you get sent down by the Blue Jays, the next stop is three time zones away.

I returned to New York in 2007 but didn't return to the Yankees, who had become the antithesis of everything I love about baseball, especially the minor-league variety. I went to the (old) stadium twice, and found it crammed with bombastic drunkards who hollered at every Yankees bloop single like it was a game-winning home run. Also, eleven bucks for a Beck's? Seriously.

This is a long way to set up the fact that Watson and I (who have lived in Chicago for two years now) walked to the Cubs/Dodgers game yesterday and saw a corker. Ted Lilly and Dodgers rookie Joe Ely each pitched gems into the eighth, when the Cubs finally broke it open with a triple from Mike Fontenot (one of Wednesday's goats) that soon led to the one and only run of the game. Our man Starlin Castro didn't do much one way or the other, but we did learn that his first name is apparently pronounced "Star-LEAN" (though that's not how the WGN-TV guys say it). Also, the new bison dogs are pretty tasty.

Watson doesn't have the same history with baseball that I do, but something must have rubbed off, since on an outside third strike from Lilly that was unaccountably called a ball, she stood and barked, "That's a bullshit call!" Spoken like a true fan.***

*"Feckless" is a great word, but it seems to be sort of like "overweening"—no one is ever called "underweening" or "feckful," are they?**

**The structure of this sentence is an example of chiasmus. Chiasmus is not a Greek cousin of Brad Ausmus.

***As I type this, Watson is on the couch next to me wearing her rally cap. (The Cardinals are spanking the Cubs 7-1 in the ninth.) "Why do I even know what a rally cap is??" she asks. My bad.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rickwood, Would You?

This Huffington Post article on the current attempts to preserve and defend Rickwood Field (America's oldest professional baseball stadium) in Birmingham, Alabama, seemed reason enough to mention our stop there in 2007. We weren't there at the right time for the Rickwood Classic, but we went over anyway. As is often the case on these trips, I didn't quite see the point of this outing at first, but Rob persisted and was proved correct. Although there was some token evidence of maintenance staff, there was no one around in the rain, so we walked right in.

The field seems to be more loved as an idea than as a fact—it's hard to picture a full season of games in this rickety contraption. But the subterranean feel to the areas underneath the stands isn't that different from Fenway or Wrigley, really, if much smaller.

The surrounding half-abandoned half-industrial neighborhood is descrepit and unlovely, but we didn't find much to love about the home that the Barons opted for instead of this after the 1987 season—a concrete bowl a dozen miles south of town.

In fairness, we seem to have been there just prior to a minor renaissance. The field's blog lists an increasing number of events beginning in 2007, and the classic is no longer the only event of the year. Still, it's going to take a lot more resources—in a county all but bankrupted by the crimson undertow of derivatives-related shenanigans—to make this a genuine going concern. Michael Jordan (a Baron in 1994), are you listening?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Take Me Out to the What Now?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a soon-to-be seven-year-old, upon being taken to his first professional baseball game by his Uncle Melvin, will find the best part to be a blue bubblegum-flavored Italian ice. (That he and said uncle actually share a birthday is almost as cool as Kennedy and Lincoln both having a vice president named Johnson.)

As genuinely fun as this was, it's a bit of shame the Nephew wasn't attuned to the finer points of the experience, because we had great seats—first row, down the right-field line, with the home bullpen directly in front of us—in a ridiculously nice stadium for a single-A team. The Fort Wayne Tincaps had a prior incarnation as the Wizards, and at that time they played in an apparently unlamented cavern on the sprawltastic ring road that circles the downtown. Now, they play at Parkview Field, right downtown:

I have it on good authority that the game was a bit of a seesawer, though in the end the Bad Guys (a.k.a. the Lake County Captains) prevailed. Unfortunately for a baseball blog, that's about all I can tell you, as I spent the afternoon "chaperoning" (or, rather, "not chaperoning") the Nephew and his Bespectacled Pal, who got to come along for the ride. So the boys did wiffle-bats, shot hoops, tossed toy footballs, bounced in the Bounce House, climbed a disturbingly turd-shaped climbing wall, and sucked down popcorn, potato chips, and those fantastic ices, all with minimal bruising. Not for nothing do the Nephew and his brother call me Uncle Fun.

Watson was along for the ride, which made the seven-hour saccade from Chicago and back far more bearable. We lamented the flatness and pointlessness of northern Indiana, for all the good it did. Next time, we might stop in Valparaiso at Industrial Revolution, however, to watch the locals get Taylorized, deunionized, and lung-cancerized. Who says history has to be dull?

Governor Says Mets .500 Team

I know comportment by public figures is not what it was, but I was still surprised when New York State Governor David A. Paterson was a special guest on a program hosted last night by Tony Paige (below) on WFAN, the New York sports talk radio station and broadcast home of the New York Mets. Paterson took office when Elliot "Client Number 9" Spitzer resigned and after a brief honeymoon, has struggled in the polls [until finally announcing he would not run for re-election]. It is generally assumed state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will challenge Paterson this November and the governor has been out in public, trying to shore up his popularity. Being a guest on sports radio late after a Mets game was ... something; I'm not exactly sure what. [The privledge of being a lame duck, perhaps, and] not something you hear every day in any case.

I worked for a couple minor elected officials and prepared numerous briefings for them. It sounded to me like Governor Paterson was speaking from personal knowledge, not notes. The segment, which spanned a commercial break, began with the Mets. Paterson declared the Mets a .500 team and yesterday's 5-7 loss to the Marlins dropped them below that number. His comments on the Mets, and other topics, were in-depth and went beyond the current season. The governor also spoke about the possibility of LeBron James playing in New York next year, changing state law to permit "ultimate fighting" and finally the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, which is weeks overdue. (Insert joke about Albany and cage fights.) Listen to the interview. (The interview has been removed from the station website.)

If you live in New York, you might want to listen to the end, where Paterson talks about the budget. It's no wonder he's unpopular; he's not willing to bullshit the public, even as the legislature cannot speak any other language. This time next year, Paterson may have his own timeslot on WFAN.

Update (June 11, 2010)
Four weeks after this report on Baseball Byways, the New York Times has a front page article on Governor Paterson's appearance on WFAN and other radio programs. (Paterson on "Imus in the Morning" in February above.) As to my speculation the governor might host a radio program in the future, "I would probably consider doing that," he told Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters.

Meanwhile, in Albany, two Democratic state senators from the Bronx, Rubén Díaz Sr. and (left) Pedro Espada Jr., declared they would not vote for any more emergency spending bills. The Democratic party majority in the New York State Senate is too narrow to pass a bill without their votes, potentially forcing a government shutdown. The state has been operating for over ten weeks without a budget.

The Mets, on the other hand, are four games over .500 and tied for second with the Phillies, 2.5 games behind the Braves. The Mets begin a three game series tonight against the hapless Orioles, while the Phillies and Braves face the more competitive Red Sox and Twins, respectively. The next series has New York at Cleveland, which is also struggling, while Atlanta and Philadelphia play the American League teams with the best records, Tampa Bay and New York. I hate interleague play but it presents an opportunity for the Mets.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Winning Streak, Games 1 and 7

Remember when the Mets couldn't beat the Braves and fans chanted derisively, "Larr-ry, Larr-ry," whenever Chipper Jones came to the plate? You know, the guy who had so much fun in Flushing, Queens that he named his second-born Shea, in honor of the (former) stadium? Well, this is the 21st century and I'd like to introduce you to the Phillies who've got a half-dozen ways to beat you, as they did the Mets by scores of 10-0 and 11-5 over the weekend. Sunday's loss was particularly painful, as Mets ace Johan Santana had his worst career start and 47-year-old Jamie Moyer got the win. Moyer's not retired? I thought he was dead.

The Mets did beat the Phils decisively on Friday, 9-0. That was the end of an eight-game winning streak that took the Mets from last to first (for a day). Before that, they were playing .333 ball and there were betting pools to guess manager Jerry Manuel's last day. I attended the first (Cubs, 5-2) and seventh (Dodgers, 7-3) games of the streak. I went to the first game with a professional colleague and a couple of former neighbors from pre-gentrified Williamsburg. A former co-worker joined me for the Dodgers game. These were pretty social affairs with guys I don't get to see often enough and my attention wasn't always on the game. "WW," as former Yankee player and announcer Phil Rizzuto used to mark his scorecard; "wasn't watching."

I do know this: David Wright tied Ed Kranepool's team record for doubles in the game against the Cubbies and broke the record six days later at the Dodger's game. Kranepool set the record over 18 seasons that encompassed 5,436 games. By comparison, Wright hit his 226 doubles in 3,266 at bats over six years and a month. (Photograph of Kranepool banner at Citi Field by Wally Gobetz.)

What else do I remember from my first two games of Season Two at Citi Field? They've re-oriented the bullpens so you can actually see both teams' relievers warming up. Putting one behind the other last season was in my mind the biggest design blunder of the new ballpark and caps off to the organization for fixing that. The old Mets home run apple used to be exiled to a picnic area beyond the bullpens like they were ashamed of it, but now its in front of the stadium. The super-sized team shop off of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda was converted to a museum; I'll have to check that out. I wonder if that was always the plan, after the inaugural season euphoria wore off. Finally, the Mets have added a Blue Smoke franchise to the plaza above the rotunda, so fans don't have to go all the way out past the outfield for a pulled-pork fix. All good stuff.

So, I'm on the subway coming back from game seven of the streak and I miss a call while underground. It's Chris in ticket sales. He wants to know if I'd be interested in a "Premium Pick-a-Pack;" the subway series and four more games of my choosing at prices starting at around $100 a seat, not that Chris mentions that last part. Chris, I know you're just doing your job. That winning streak was exciting, and it came in just the nick of time. But I'd be a fool if I thought the Mets were going to play like that all season. You see, there's this little problem called the Phillies....

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Scottsdale Home Depot

Why am I having so much difficulty writing about our sighting of Willie Mays and the rest of the pantheon in Mobile a few weeks ago? I'd been excited to go to Mobile in the first place—in no small part because crossing it off the list would mean we wouldn't ever have to go back to Alabama to watch baseball games.* And once the full scope of the Aaronfest became clear, I couldn't stop telling people about it, always building up the list of expected attendees to culminate in a triumphant "And. Willie. Mays!" This worked really well on guys in their fifties or early sixties, who invariably started to mist up as they remembered their lost childhood hero-worship.

Mays is one of those men who, as far as I know anyway, hasn't been overly tarnished by time and revelation. He's still the Say Hey Kid. He's still the guy who made that catch. He's still an icon. Well, OK, a guy who used to handle book signings for touring authors told me that Mays was mean, but he also said that Mickey Mantle was far worse. And yeah, one reporter at Aaronfest didn't see too much joy in Mays's eyes. He apparently once said that "growing old is just a helpless hurt," and in Mobile as we watched him throw baseballs toward the stands that didn't make it into the crowd, it wasn't hard to believe.

But so what? None of us has a claim on Willie Mays—but this icon business doesn't go away.

Rob and I both like the music of Joe Henry and in particular his "Our Song," from the album Civilians, which starts off seeming to be about Willie Mays the man but is really about Willie Mays the icon—and, ultimately, it's not about Willie at all but about the evaporation of America's better self in recent years. It begins:
I saw Willie Mays
In a Scottsdale Home Depot
Looking at garage-door springs
At the far end of the fourteenth row
There's something both humanizing and pathos-ridden about this image. On one level, why wouldn't Willie Mays go to a Home Depot in Arizona? On the other, does a legend really have to replace his own garage-door springs? Maybe he's just into home repair. In any event, the narrative that arises from imagining this encounter seems like it would go one of two ways: either Willie Mays turns out to be a normal guy who needs a garage spring, or he turns out to be a jerk, crushing our narrator's vision of him. Either way, he's just a man. But that's not what happens. Instead, Mays gets pushed even beyond icon status into spokesperson for an entire mentality, one that bemoans the loss of the pride, dignity, and humility that many of us like to think should typify what America stands for around the world. Now, I happen to agree that to the extent that something like national image or consciousness exists, America fell a long way in the Bush years (Civilians was released in 2007), but why does articulating this fall to Willie Mays—or rather the idea of Willie Mays? Can he, should he, bear the burden of speaking for our better selves?

And must I ask such sententious, faux-outraged questions? Willie Mays doesn't need me to defend him from idolization, even if I could. But there's famous and then there's famous—the song wouldn't work if it was Pete Rose or Phil Rizzuto or Reggie Jackson. Here's Reggie at the event, by the way:

People remember those icons well but not with that mist that clouds aging men's eyes and memories. Besides, Rizzuto seemed to be about half the weight of a garage-door spring.

That spring, in Henry's song, is characterized as
Something to slow a heavy door
Something to help us raise one up
And it's clear that that's what "seeing" Mays might do as well: slow the passage of time by reminding those who knew of what he was to them, once—those days may be long past, but there are still plenty who remember—but also open the door to the general prospect of youth and sunshine and excellence afield and at the plate.

There are strong narratives in every direction here, seemingly constraining the way we talk about famous people and what they mean. Joe Henry's using the icon and the man to tell the story of how America seems to have changed since Mays's heyday, and I'm using Henry to get around to talking about my own discomfort in seeing the man—which I guess is taking the long way.

What I'm getting at is that actually seeing Mays as we did was as heartbreaking as the portrait of a diminished country that Henry uses him to summon. Because if anything that heavy door of time seems to have crushed him with the weight, no less than Henry imagines him
Stooped by the burden of endless dreams
His and yours and mine.
Willie Mays is an old man who can't throw a baseball and can't give a decent speech on behalf of Hank Aaron. (He told an anecdote that was more about himself.) Seeing that a man who for many people was the very emblem of youth has turned into a weak, inarticulate, possibly selfish crab is not really anything to make a public spectacle out of. But there it was, and it wasn't a lot of fun.

I don't have any memories of Willie Mays, so I was drawn to the idea of him more than anything. My childhood heroes were guys like Carl Yastrzemski and, uh, Denny Doyle. But I don't think I would ever expect them to have much to say about America—or about anything other than baseball. Heck, Yaz couldn't even sell bread that well.

Maybe what made seeing Willie Mays so empty and strange was realizing that on some level, even though I should know better, I really did expect him to have some explanation for everything—including what all those belles were doing out there behind him, other than witnessing an unprecedented collection of iconic decrepitude.

* This is grossly unfair. We had some good times in Alabama in 2007, though they weren't baseball related: the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro is possibly a sham but it's a trove of delicacies all the same; the grotto of the architecture-crazed monk in Cullman is unquestionably one of a kind; and actually Mobile itself seemed rather lovely in a way. I'll leave it to Rob to tell the tale of the kid in Huntsville who single-handedly spoiled the "give it to a kid" mantra for a generation of Stars fans.