Tag 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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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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athens v sparta

My friend Evan and I went to the Giants game Saturday night. We were given great seats by our friend and co-worker Brent, who has season tickets but couldn’t make it. We sat close to the field, so close in fact that we almost caught a foul ball. A young kid a few seats down from us in our row wound up with the ball, which is how it should be. (At one point later in the game I walked past the kid and he was running his fingers over his souvenir absent-mindedly. I’m sure he’s sleeping every night with the ball stuffed into his pajamas.) Even if we didn’t have great seats, it would’ve been fine – AT&T Park is a beautiful stadium, with its gorgeous brick wall in right field and a view of the bay from the cheap seats.

photo courtesy of antman

photo courtesy of antman

After the game (which the Giants lost – shocker), we took Muni to the Haight. And on the Muni were tons of Cardinals fans. Co-existing peacefully with Giants fans.

Clearly, I am too recent an East Coast transplant because it seemed incongruous to me that Cardinal fans could be allowed to ride Muni unheckled. The last baseball game I’d been to on the East Coast was Yankees-Red Sox at Fenway Park. I kid you not, actual blood was shed, both during the game – a fight broke out right next to me – and afterward, on Lansdowne Street. The SF Muni is not unlike the Green Line trolley in Boston and I can’t imagine Yankees fans after a game riding without deep fear of being dismembered and sold for parts while crammed alongside Sox fans.

Yankees-Red Sox, I realize, is to some extent a special case because it carries the weight of a long-standing historical rivalry between cities. It’s basically our modern day Athens v. Sparta. Baseball is just one of the stages upon which the psyches of these two cities – Boston was once dismissed as “that town” by former NYC Mayor Ed Koch – duke it out for supremacy.

If you’re interested in reading a lyrical, engaging essay about the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, a piece that elevates their annual battles to that of Greek tragedy by one of the best baseball writers of our generation, then pick up a copy of Why Time Begins on Opening Day. Author Thomas Boswell is a sports writer for the Washington Post. The essays in this book are somewhat dated, but if you love the game or if you love great prose, you’ll love this collection. I read this and Boswell’s other essay compendium, How Life Imitates the World Series, in the mid-80s and fell in love with baseball writing.

Someone once said baseball must be a really boring game because people spend so much time trying to convince us how beautiful it is. Maybe. But before you decide one way or the other, read Boswell. Or Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, the late John Updike’s piece about Ted Williams’ final game. And then let me know what you think.

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fancy pants baseball

I play fantasy baseball.

There, I said it. Out loud. In public.

For those of you who don’t know what fantasy baseball is, basically it means I watch a computer screen as flesh-and-blood major league baseball players play the game. I myself don’t play, either live or on the computer. I watch. Apparently, I’m one of about 15 million people who engage in fantasy baseball (including the guys in that famous scene from Knocked Up.)

fancypantsSounds passive, I know, and kind of dorky. The art is in managing your team, which is comprised of players from all the various baseball teams. This setup breaks down your one-team allegiance. It’s as though you assemble a United Nations of players and then root for your squad (i.e., peacekeeping force).

I have two favorite fantasy baseball stories. The first involves a colleague’s husband who used to play fantasy years ago – maybe in the mid-80’s – before it was computerized like it is today at Yahoo and ESPN.com, where players’ stats are compiled in real time, as games progress, and you can see your team sink or rise in the standings instantly. At that time, USA Today was the holy grail of stats. Each Wednesday, every player’s batting or pitching numbers were posted. So, he and his office buddies would take turns each week during their lunch hour entering the players’ numbers into a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. And only then would they be able to see who was in the lead.

Now that’s a group of guys who loved the game.

The other story: My former boss and dear friend, Marci Resnick, was a big Philly sports fan. I mentioned to her once that I played fantasy baseball and she had no idea what I was talking about.

“You play what?” Marci asked. “Fancy pants baseball?”

When I told her, no, FANTASY baseball, she exploded in laughter at her own misunderstanding. But decided fancy pants sounded better anyway.

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