Category Archives: baseball

shea

My colleague and friend Brent Williams left a copy of the New York Review of Books at my cube just before Thanksgiving. He specifically wanted me to read a review of the book, The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of A Mets Fan.

Written by Michael Kimmelman, the review is titled At the Bad New Ballparks. Essentially, Kimmelman argues that new stadiums, like CitiField, the park built to replace Shea Stadium, are simulcra. Though they look like stadiums long-since relegated to photographs – CitiField, in fact, is meant to evoke the old Ebbets Field – they come complete with shopping malls and dining centers and scoreboards that tell us when to stand, when to cheer, where to look.

There is no space for silence, no time for the contemplative moments. And let’s face it, there has always been the potential for a lot of contemplation at baseball games. Or at least there used to be.

As Kimmelman points out, the spaces in baseball allow room for disconnected, though completely relevant, thoughts. He points to the now-famous story involving the novelist, Haruki Murakami, who while watching a baseball game realized he could write a novel. This from wikipedia:

Murakami wrote his first fiction when he was 29.[14] He said he was inspired to write his first novel, 1979’s Hear the Wind Sing, while watching a baseball game.[15] In 1978, Murakami was in Jingu Stadium watching a game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp when Dave Hilton, an American, came to bat. According to an oft-repeated story, in the instant that Hilton hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized he could write a novel.

More importantly, these ersatz stadiums, as Kimmelman calls them, though architecturally evocative of the past, don’t honor the complete history of our teams – the blemishes, the failures, the faults, the things that make many of us want to root for a team.

I read the review with fascination. I have to say, I love AT&T park, one of these new stadium simulcra. I’m sure I would on some level enjoy CitiField, too. I know I’ve often described the now-demolished Shea Stadium as a huge concrete parking garage with the center carved out and a grassy area plopped down in the middle, so in my thinking, any replacement would be better.

But after reading the review, I realized that my memories of Shea are not about designated play areas or luxury suites or television lounges. They are of rain delays and huddling under the overhang if we were lucky enough not to be in the upper deck; embarrassment at having to pee in troughs next to old men; the garish mets colors, blue and orange, that hung in huge patches on the exterior walls of the stadium; singing Meet the Mets, Meet the Mets, Come on out and greet the Mets, before every game, along with the freakish-looking, baseball-headed Mr. Met mascot.

I realized that as much as I malign Shea, it was flawed. Just as the team I loved was. Just as I am. Just as the game is.

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strat-o-matic

Joe Olecki introduced me to Strat-O-Matic, a table-top baseball simulation game. We went to Wesleyan together and lived in the same freshman house. Joe drove a big brown Plymouth Satellite – so hideous as to be almost interesting – and worked summers at the now-defunct Hough Bakery in Cleveland with a bunch of hard-nosed union guys (including his dad).

stratomatic

Strat-O-Matic

I would describe Strat-O-Matic as the intellectual, abstract, even dorkier (if you can believe it) cousin to fantasy baseball.

It is, simply put, old-school.

Basically the way the game works is you have cards for players that govern what happens when you roll dice. The cards are based on careful statistical analysis (the game was invented by a Bucknell University math student back in 1961) of a player’s actual performances over the course of his career. The better a player’s stats, the greater the chance that player has of doing something positive in Strat-O-Matic.

That’s it. You roll dice and see what happens and keep score. A far cry from, say, using the Wii to hit a virtual baseball by swinging your arm in the air.

Joe and I would play my Mets against his Indians, four-out-of-seven, like a playoff series. Which took up a big chunk of our time while we probably should have been doing things like going to class. I loved that game, though, loved the slowness of it, the need to make managerial decisions, the element of chance, the numbers. Baseball is a game defined by numbers. Ask any fan how many home runs Ruth hit, or the last player to finish a season over .400, and they’ll be able to tell you. Instantly. Stats are intertwined with the history of the game and help constitute its most prized possession – shared vocabulary.

I was reminded of Strat-O-Matic while reading today’s New York Times. The founder – that math kid from Bucknell, Hal Richman – decided to add a set of Negro Leagues cards to the game. It apparently took a lot of effort to uncover the statistics needed since, according to the article, coverage of Negro League games was spotty. But through sheer determination and, ironically, the publishing of more records online, Richman was able to realize his long-held desire to include this important part of baseball’s past.

I may just have to find out if Joe still has Strat-O-Matic and challenge him to a game. This time, we’ll be able to include players like Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige, greats who were unjustly marginalized for so many years.

Pass me the dice.

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the amazin’s

I’ve been to only one World Series game. It was in 1986, the year that Bill Bucker let the grounderuowg09cy0feav91xfkud roll between his legs in a game in which the Red Sox were just one strike from ending their World Series drought, from ending the misery of long-suffering Red Sox fans everywhere.

Who inflicted that unbearable pain? Why, my New York Mets.

I was working for the Daily Hampshire Gazette at the time, a small daily newspaper in Northampton, MA. As a Bay State paper, we were given passes to the games at Fenway Park. The sports reporters each took a turn attending a game and I was asked if I wanted to go. The caveat was that if the series ended while I was at Fenway, I’d have to work: get quotes and write a color piece to go in the next day’s paper.

Of course I said yes.

I brought along my friend Doug Cho, who grew up in Maine and was a Sox fan. Luckily for us, the series sat at 2-1 in favor of the Red Sox. Meaning I wouldn’t have to work, since there was no chance for either team to take the Series that night. I could simply enjoy the atmosphere.

Doug and I sat pretty far down the first base line. Fenway looked the way it always does. Intimate and quirky, visually dominated by the Green Monster in left.

Ron Darling, who actually pitched in an exhibition against my small division III college while I was there and he was at Yale, was on the mound for the Mets. Al Nipper, a journeyman, was given the ball for the Red Sox.

The Mets shelled Nipper – Lenny Dykstra, the Mets diminutive centerfielder, hit a home run to right that bounced out of Dwight Evans glove and over the fence, and Mets catcher Gary Carter clubbed two homers. While Darling pitched shutout ball for 6 innings.

The final score was 6-2. It was not a great game by most standards – the Mets seemed to have the game under control by the fourth inning. Still, to see my beloved Mets in the World Series was a thrill.

Later, of course, Buckner made his error that is seared into the memories of the Red Sox faithful. I watched that game with friends on the lower East Side of Manhattan, saw the ball dribble through Buckner’s legs, watched as Ray Knight raced home with the winning run. Afterward, after that miraculous game 6 when the Mets came back from the dead, my friends and I wandered out onto the street.

We were all – and in New York City, “all” is a lot of people – deliriously happy. Random screams. Honking horns. Singing-In-The-Rain-style dances around lampposts. We walked into a bar and free drinks were being served. Free drinks? In New York City?

It was like it was New Year’s Eve. Or Armistice Day.

In that one moment, our belief that anything is possible was confirmed.

Those Amazin’ Mets.

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all-star game, 1977

As long as the World Series lingers (thank you, Phillies), I’ll continue to give myself permission to post about baseball.amd_77asgprogram

In 1977, the All-Star game was played at Yankee Stadium. My brother Sam and I, along with my friend Kurt Nunez, decided to get bleacher tickets. So we hiked up to the Bronx in the middle of the night to be one of the first people on line. To make sure we got seats for what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience.

The plan worked.

I don’t remember much of the game (though I do remember those long droopy mustaches, like the pitcher is sporting in the poster to the right). But I do recall batting practice. We got to the stadium early enough to watch the players hit moon shots into the stands.

I remember in particular Fred Lynn, the often-injured but perennial all-star center fielder for the hated Boston Red Sox. During his batting practice hacks, Lynn lofted a ball that seemed to be coming right at me. It landed a few rows in front of where I was sitting, close enough for me to rush to the spot, close enough to spot the ball on the cement floor, close enough to see someone’s hands wrap around the ball, then hold it aloft like a trophy.

Lynn was a defensive standout and had an amazing rookie year in 1975 for the Red Sox, winning both the Most Valuable Player award and Rookie of the Year. What I remember most about Lynn, though, is not his grace or his power, but the formidable outfield he was part of, an outfield that included Jim Rice, one of the great and consistent power hitters of our generation.

They were an interesting combination, Lynn and Rice – who both came up in 1975 as rookies. One white (Lynn), the other black (Rice). In Boston, players have said, being black was not always conducive to kind treatment. Boston, after all, was the last team to integrate, and that came about in 1959, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

That was the narrative I knew as a kid – that Lynn somehow received favorable treatment compared to Rice because he was white.

Rice later claimed none of this was true. So maybe the New York media got it wrong, played a racism angle to stoke our hatred of Boston, which Mayor Ed Koch once derided as “that town.”

All that was forgotten, though, in the moment that Fred Lynn’s ball arced into the sky and then grew larger as it – much to my amazement – headed right towards me.

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yankees v. phillies, korean war edition

I called my dad today. He started our conversation, as he always does, by telling me we had a bad connection. When in reality, my dad needs hearing aids but refuses to get them. My dad’s auditory denial drives my brother Sam crazy. Me? I feel like when you’ve lived 80+ years, you’ve earned the right to do pretty much anything you want to do, include force your children to talk very loudly into the phone on occasion.

I call just as Game 4 of the World Series is beginning.

“Yankees Phillies,” my dad says.

He read in the paper, he tells me, that the last time the Yankees and Phillies met in the World Series, the year was 1950. My dad remembers that World Series. Not because he was a Yankees fan, or a Phillies fan, or even a baseball fan.

He remembers that series because he was working as a translator for American G.I.s during the Korean War. There was baseball news in Stars and Stripes and broadcasts of the games on shortwave radio. My dad had heard of the Yankees – and New York City, of course – but had no idea what baseball was or that there was a place called Philadelphia. He could translate words, but he didn’t know the culture.

My dad remembers that one American soldier referenced Nelson Rockefeller, the oil-family scion and soon-to-be governor of New York State. Rockefeller, the G.I. said, had enough money to buy Korea. My dad tells me he didn’t doubt that was true, given that Korea, months into a war that raged up and down the peninsula, was a bombed-out shell of its former self.

North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25th, 1950. The day before, the Phillies, affectionately known as the Whiz Kids, pulled a game behind the Brooklyn Dodgers in the race for the National League Pennant. They would eventually overtake the Dodgers and clinch on the last day of the season.

Throughout the summer, the North Korean army pushed south, all the way to Pusan, which sits at the tip of the peninsula. The U.S. then pushed back. By October 1st, 1950 – three days before the start of the World Series – the North Korean Army was forced back over the 38th parallel (which is today still the dividing line between the two countries).

On Oct. 7, the Yankees completed their four-game sweep of the Whiz Kids.

The next day China entered the war.

For the next three years, the Korean War continued – a stalemate, essentially – with massive casualties on both sides. Afterward, my family immigrated to the U.S., largely because my dad received a sponsorship to study here – the result of his work as a translator and befriending an American soldier.

He never expected to stay, always assumed he’d return to Korea once he finished school.

But here he is, following the Yankees and Phillies in another World Series. This unlikely arc makes my Dad laugh. Eventually, we say good bye. And he goes back to watching the game.

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yankees in 7

I grew up a Mets fan, but as any of my friends will tell you, I bleed New York. So I’ll root for the Yankees over basically anyone but the Mets.

This is surprising to many, as loyalties come out during the World Series. The current accepted narrative is that the Yankees are The Man and represent the team money can buy, with the highest payroll in baseball while everyone else is the Underdog.

Let me tell you, baseball has almost always been about money, for just about everyone involved. Just watch Eight Men Out if you don’t believe me. The Phillies as little guy? Please.

The only people not in it for the money are the fans, it seems to me. Their loyalty can run deep. I have tremendous respect, in fact, for geographic loyalty.

Your team is your team – win or lose – because that’s who you grew up with. It’s a concept that seems to be eroding in the era of globalization. Evidenced by all the Red Sox logos I see in the Bay Area (there can’t be THAT many transplanted Bostonians, can there?).

Here’s a mathematical illustration to recap how, as a New Yorker, I see the World (and by extension, the World Series):

Mets>Yankees>Everyone Else>Red Sox

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