Reading My Future Through MLB’s Past

If there is any tradition I enjoy as much as spending a summer evening at a major league ballpark watching a baseball game, it must be that of spending a summer day at the beach reading.  I have already enjoyed three evenings in MLB parks this summer (COL, SEA and ATL), and recently I spent some time at the beach visiting with family, playing tennis and, of course, reading. While there I managed to finish three books, each about baseball, and rediscovered that combining my favorite pastimes makes for an even better summer experience.  I also learned that the keen insight, realized dreams and fantastic imagination of these writers could not only enhance my love and respect for baseball and our country, but also rekindle my own dream (fantasy?) of making a mark on both.  If that thought piques your interest, please read on.

Beach morning.jpg

(Seaside, FL – 2019)

In addition to having a daily baseball experience, my annual goal in reading is to finish a book a week.  I try to alternate between fiction (usually classics or certain favorite contemporary authors) and non-fiction (history, theology, biographies or memoirs – a recent focus).  It is a bonus if I can find a work in one of these categories that focuses on baseball.  Well, it just so happened that two books centered around baseball that fit my non-fiction sub-categories – history and memoir – were published this summer. The history book traces the century-and-a-half evolution of “urban community” in our nation through the development of MLB ballparks (Ballpark – Baseball in the American City, by Paul Goldberger).  The memoir recounts a single professional life lived almost entirely in a MLB ballpark (For the Good of the Game, by MLB Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig).

The Goldberger work was a gift to me from Mrs. Commissioner, who regular B.A.B.E.S. readers already know to be quite tolerant of my baseball addiction and who in our advancing years, I am discovering, is showing signs of actually joining the party. (The fact that she brought the book home to me from a visit to NYC could mean that she was merely offering thanks.)  I discovered Selig’s memoir on my own, on Audible, which you should try if you have not already. It is an interesting way to experience an author’s work and it fits neatly into our 21st Century lifestyle. (Apple Car Play and AirPods!)

I usually visit and support the local independent bookstore at the beach, Sundog Books, even while reading other works, and thus I stumbled upon a copy of a 1968 work of baseball fiction that I was familiar with but had never read, The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop.  It is Robert Coover’s classic psychological tale and sociological study of the impact of games – particularly baseball – on our daily lives.  Coover brilliantly depicted how easily we can blur the lines of reality between the two.  He also presciently forecast some innovative developments in baseball strategy almost 50 years before they actually occurred. Truly a worthy companion to the two new non-fiction works, and a slick completion to my beach reading triple play.

With all of this baseball filling my head at the same time that the MLB All-Star festivities were occurring, I had my own difficulty keeping the game separate from reality.  Of course, that is often the case and somewhat understandable since MLB and the media appear to have the same problem:  Is the HR Derby really baseball? Is the All-Star Game a real game, especially since it no longer “counts” to determine home field advantage in the World Series? From the three days of almost continuous coverage on both ESPN and Fox it is clear that we have all lost some perspective here, but of course the country seems to have lost it in so many areas these days. That fact was underscored for me when ESPN.com went so far as to post an article extolling A-Rod for his successful remaking of his image, when in fact ESPN itself has simply forced him on us.  I am extremely annoyed by that, just as I was disdainful of Rodriguez’s attempt to defend himself during the Bio-Genesis scandal in 2012-2013. https://wordpress.com/view/babesbaseball.wordpress.com.  Now that a network is doing his defense work for him, I am sorely tempted to start my own “firealexrodriguez.com” website as was once done to Joe Morgan. http://www.firejoemorgan.com/.  If I did, could history repeat itself?

https://www.businessinsider.com/joe-morgan-jon-miller-let-go-from-espns-sunday-night-baseball-team-2010-11.

Ok, this last thought might prove that I have lost my own perspective and am lost in fantasy land.  But actually, I have noticed some interesting “coincidences” in my life lately, leading me to wonder whether I am receiving some direction from above as I move into new phases, geographically and chronologically.   I disclosed in my last post that we got a jump on the “empty nest” phase and moved into an urban high rise hotel/condominium project last year, even though we have one child still at home.  Since then Mrs. Commissioner and I have become actively involved in urban planning for our new – and we expect our last – neighborhood. Also, as I have written before, I have worked for several years on the development of a downtown ballpark – MLB or MilB – something that would fulfill about every dream I have ever had as a kid, a professional, an urbanite and a baseball fan.  This project is always in the back of my mind and now informs all that I do as a downtown resident and much that I am contemplating as a local professional who is beginning to think of his legacy in his adopted hometown.

Was it a coincidence, then, that two major publishing houses released works in the same month detailing how 1) a ballpark can create, restore or even destroy a community, and 2) how the game of baseball can fulfill the American dream of a young, unwitting entrepreneur and in the process allow him to change the game and perhaps the nation forever – all from a backwater (or at least beside-the-water) town in the upper Mid-West?  Or 3) that I would come across these two works as well as a classic work of baseball fantasy all when I have an opportunity and desire to read, study and perhaps apply them to my own life?

What would Robert Coover say about these events? Is Robert Coover really Thomas Pynchon, or one incarnation of him?  https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nnqkxz/who-is-thomas-pynchon-and-why-did-he-take-off-with-my-life-198.  Some have suggested that Pynchon is really J. D. Salinger, who is an unlikely central character in Shoeless Joe, the essential plot element of which, of course, is the expectant building of a ball field. Seeing the connections? Are they mere coincidences? Or perhaps self-generated images (“SGI’s?) of my personal dreams and fantasy?  Or maybe this is just the effects of three really good books that got me to thinking?  So much to ponder.  So much to discuss.

Goldberger.jpg

So, let’s start with Paul Goldberger, a truly gifted architecture critic whose work I have enjoyed reading since I first discovered him while living in Dallas in the mid-1980’s.  https://www.paulgoldberger.com/biography/.  Over thirty years later I can still recall his advice to those who were rushing to develop downtown Dallas:  when you are striving to make a beautiful urban tapestry, you can’t just focus on the icons and completely ignore the fabric.  If you have visited Dallas anytime in the past thirty years, you know that he was totally right and mostly ignored.  He brings this same sense of context and eye toward history – past and future – to his work on America’s major league baseball parks and their place in America’s cities.   Here is just one example, from the Prologue:

The baseball park is a metaphor for the joining together of rural and urban. It can be thought of as a place where the field represents the Jeffersonian ideal of the rural landscape stretching out indefinitely while the structure of the grandstands and the clubhouses that surrounds and encloses it represents the Hamiltonian vision of American industry and urban vitality….The infield is the urban world of straight lines, rigid dimensions and frequent action; the outfield is the rural world of open, easy, sprawling land, quiet but for the occasional moment of activity.  For the game to succeed, the two worlds have to work in harmony.  In the ballpark, the urban and the rural worlds become one.

He had me at “metaphor.”  Here is a guy who not only understands that “baseball is life,” but that “the ballpark is civilization,” or at least American civilization.  He proves this by identifying four eras in ballpark construction that mirror the evolution of “community” in our nation.  The first era lasted nearly a century and is the hallmark of the ballpark as a “park” – a place in an urban environment that provides city dwellers a pastoral respite from the confines of the city, but without having to leave the city (a crucial element).  Most commentators believe that this era ended with the abandonment of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field in 1958, when the Giants and Dodgers decamped to essentially sub-urban stadiums in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.  Fortunately, the original concept of the urban ballpark was not totally lost forever since we have still today the living examples of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field (the “Friendly” Confines).

Goldberger is thankful for these preserved treasures, but yet laments the loss of the New York ballparks as well as other urban gems in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  These last two cities were part of the second era in stadium construction which Goldberger calls the Age of the Concrete Doughnuts.  Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, along with Cincinnati, St. Louis and Atlanta, each constructed circular concrete stadiums that reflected the vision that modern uniformity and suburban automotive convenience was desirable over neighborhood-dictated, industrial revolution inspired, iron and steel diversity, served primarily by public transportation.  Not surprisingly, this change of view mirrored the population flight from urban communities and the increased transience of our citizens in the post-war era.  Teams not only changed styles of ballparks, they changed cities and regions of the country, abandoning any sense of permanence or devotion to the past or a community. But fortunately, again, that wasn’t the end of the story.  As Goldberger observes:

We can see through baseball parks how Americans went from viewing their cities as central to the idea of community in the first decades of the twentieth century to wanting to run away from them in the decades after World War II, and then how we have tried in our own time to use baseball parks to get our cities back.

That effort began in 1992 with the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, an event that George Will called “one of the three most important things that have happened in baseball since the Second World War” – on a par with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and the players’ association breaking the reserve clause.  The architecture critic for the Baltimore Sun, Edward Gunts, wrote that Oriole Park “holds more lessons for combining sports and cities than the past five decades’ worth of cookie-cutter stadiums….”  He predicted that it would “influence the way major-league sports facilities are designed from now on.”

Will’s observations may sound like hyperbole, but Gunts’ have undoubtedly been proven correct.  Oriole Park not only reinvigorated Baltimore’s inner harbor area but ignited an urban baseball renewal and ushered in what Goldberger describes as the Retro Era and Commissioner Selig calls in his memoir the Golden Age of Ballparks.

Since 1992, twenty other cities (and teams) have built twenty-two new ballparks generally in the image of Camden Yards. (ATL and TEX have each built two!)  Sixteen of these parks have been located essentially in downtown proper and have contributed (with varying degrees of success) to the return of urban vitality.  The impact has been such that no longer is the discussion of financing new stadiums solely about the use of public funds to benefit private businesses, but whether the ballpark is truly a contributor to the city’s overall economic development as well as its sense of community and civic pride.  The answers are still unclear and the issue remains controversial, but the debate is now on a more level playing field (so to speak).

The relationship between ballparks and financing has always been a fundamental one, but perhaps never more so than today when the cost of a new stadium often exceeds $1 billion.  But as history has shown in Milwaukee, Atlanta and even Tampa, whoever can provide the financing (or capital) to build a stadium will undoubtedly get a team, even one from its own city.  That is what happened in Atlanta where the commissioners of Cobb County north of downtown facilitated a P3 development (Public/Private Partnership) to build essentially a new city centered around a new park.  This drew the Braves away from Turner Field in downtown Atlanta even though that park was barely twenty years old.  The fear of an opposite move by the Rangers, from suburban Arlington into downtown Dallas, caused the Arlington government to agree to a similar joint mega-development – complete with a new retractable roof stadium – only 25 years after the nearly beautiful Ballpark in Arlington opened in 1994.  Goldberger describes these two new projects as the beginning of the fourth era of ballpark construction, the “Ballpark as Theme Park,” where the park is used to create a community rather than enhance one.  Disneyland immediately comes to mind, and it remains to be seen whether this Hollywood approach can be as meaningful for community development as could one focused truly on urban renewal.

The Battery.jpg

(WAS@ATL, SunTrust Park, 7/18/19)  (This catwalk connects the park to The Battery  shopping mall and office complex.)

I can say with pride (and do) that I have never been to Disneyland (or Disney World), but I have to admit that my initial impression of SunTrust Park at the Battery (it sounds like a real estate development, doesn’t it?) was actually positive, and that the experience was certainly as enjoyable and probably more so than previous games attended at Turner Field or Fulton County Stadium.  However, this may have as much to do with the fact that downtown Atlanta has so many other design issues that a ballpark was never going to be able to overcome them all. Starting from scratch in north Atlanta was at least a rational alternative approach.  We will see how the idea works there, as well as in Arlington, Texas, which, if you have ever been there, you know has essentially been one giant amusement park since the Rangers moved to Turnpike Stadium almost 50 years ago.  When the new Globe Life Field opens in 2020, three MLB parks will have been located in about a five city block area for over fifty years, yet no urban identity, real or imagined, has developed. It seems unlikely that this new effort will bring about a different result, and Goldberger is clearly not sold on the concept, as this is how he concludes his book:

…the greatest joy a ballpark can bring us is when it is embedded in the real city, with all the energy, diversity, and dynamism a city can display at its best, and the exhilaration the baseball park offers becomes not only a celebration of sport, but of the whole of urban life.

 

Regardless of whether the ballpark was downtown or in the suburbs, the arrival of a major league team was a dream-come-true for Bud Selig.  He was nineteen when the Boston Braves relocated to Milwaukee in 1953, due in large part to the presence of a new ballpark there.  County Stadium had been completed the year before as the nation’s very first publicly financed ballpark.  It was built outside of downtown and without a commitment for a team relocation or the grant of an expansion franchise, proving even before Ray Kinsella was born that “if you build it, they will come.”  (The same was true for Atlanta and Tampa/St. Petersburg, the two other times a stadium was built on speculation.)  In Milwaukee’s case,  the “they” that came included a franchise, its players and a lot of fans.   In the first year of play the Braves set a National League record for attendance, 1.8 million, and County Stadium obtained a measure of sports immortality when it appeared on the cover of the inaugural issue of Sports Illustrated on August 16, 1954, apparently because of the large crowds that were attending games there.

Sportsillustrated_firstissue.jpg

(Photo by Mark Kauffman, https://www.si.com/si-vault/2017/08/16/first-issue-1954-10-things-didnt-know).  I am struck by the similarity of this design to current Retro Era parks, including what appear to be luxury boxes tucked under the second deck.  Even the posts supporting the roof and upper deck appear in a one of the newer generation parks, the Ballpark in Arlington.  Goldberger agrees with me:  “(County Stadium’s) modesty and understatement made it seem in some ways more like the old urban ballparks that it followed than the new suburban ballparks that it prefigured.”  Obviously, the Milwaukee fans liked it, at least to start, and apparently so did the players.

In just the fifth season in Milwaukee, the Braves won the 1957 World Series against the Yankees and then repeated as American League champions but lost the rematch against the Yankees in the 1958 Series.  The team was at the top of the league in attendance from 1953-1957, until the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and started play in the huge Coliseum (capacity over 90,000 for baseball).

By any measure, the Milwaukee Braves were a remarkable success and the young Bud Selig was enraptured by them even as he was away at college in Madison and then as he returned home to work for his father’s car dealerships (a job he did not covet but which was made more bearable by the Braves’ presence in Milwaukee).  The job did have certain perquisites, most notably opening the door for Bud to meet many of the Braves players as his father supplied the stars with cars. One important acquaintance he made that grew into an unlikely enduring friendship was with a young African-American slugger from Alabama named Hank Aaron, who at only 23 led the Braves in the 1957 World Series with a .393 average, eleven hits, three home runs and seven runs batted in.  Of course, his next twenty years in the league were pretty good, too.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/a/aaronha01.shtml.

Yet, despite all of this success on the field and in the stands, the Braves would be gone from Milwaukee by 1965.  Selig, who by then was an established presence in the Milwaukee business community as well as at the ballpark, tried desperately (over his father’s criticism) to keep the team in his city. But attendance had declined quickly after the pennant winning years and the club owner Bill Bartholomay could not resist the opportunity to move to Atlanta, Fulton County – a city and county that had worked together to build a new stadium (a concrete doughnut) to entice a team just as Milwaukee had done barely over a decade earlier.  He was also enamored of opening the southern market for MLB and of exploring new television opportunities with a  start-up cable television station owned by a young entrepreneur named Ted Turner.  Selig organized a community effort to buy the team, gathering civic support from politicians and financial commitments from several business leaders, but Bartholmay refused their offer and moved the Braves south.   What goes around, comes around.  Or more accurately, what comes, goes.

The experience was personally devastating to Selig, but rather than admit defeat he set about immediately to obtain a new team for his hometown as the head of a new civic partnership.  He moved his office into County Stadium and began the recovery effort by convincing the Chicago White Sox to play parts of several seasons at County Stadium. He almost persuaded owner Arthur Allyn to move the team there permanently, but failed. He then tried to convince Major League baseball to award Milwaukee an expansion franchise in 1968 but it was by-passed in favor of Kansas City (another town that had lost its team when the A’s moved to Oakland in 1967 after only twelve years in Missouri), and Seattle which was viewed as an important addition to the new grouping of teams on the West Coast.

Fortunately for Bud and for Milwaukee, the citizens of Seattle did not consider major league baseball to be as important to them as MLB thought Seattle was to it.  The team averaged barely 8,000 fans per game (although that was 20th out of 24 teams), and the team’s expansion ownership group quickly suffered buyer’s remorse and refused to invest additional capital.  Selig and his financial supporters bought the team out of a bankruptcy proceeding after the first season.  The purchase price was $10.8 million, the highest price ever paid for a team (and nearly $1 million more than George Steinbrenner would pay for the Yankees four years later!), but Milwaukee had a major league baseball team again. It was named the “Brewers” in honor of the city’s long-time minor league team and, of course, the city’s brewing heritage.  Miraculously, at least in his eyes, the 35-year old Bug Selig was in charge of the whole operation.  Dreams do come true.

In fact, sometimes you can’t even dream the glorious things that are going to happen to you.  Forty-seven years after heading the group that bought an MLB team, on the night he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for serving as Commissioner of Baseball for twenty-two of those years, Selig would stand on a street corner in Cooperstown with fellow Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and hear Aaron wonder aloud about who could have ever guessed that either of them would become baseball immortals, let alone both of them.  Of course the story is more fantastical as to Selig than Aaron, and Selig tells the anecdote with a measure of humility that is present in most of his writing.

It is difficult to be objective in analyzing, or to sound humble when recounting, one’s accomplishments in a memoir, but I believe Selig not only comes across as accurate and sincere but that he actually is astounded and humbled by all that has occurred to him and through him in the world of baseball.  I don’t just say this now in honor of his memoir or in hindsight review of his now established legacy.  I formulated these thoughts and expressed them here over five years ago in two separate posts:

https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/love-your-enemies-part-2-marvin-miller-and-bud-selig/.

https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/hey-bud-this-series-is-for-you/.

Although at first grudgingly, I ultimately willingly credited Selig with major innovations in the game as well as the business of baseball, all of which fostered the development of a more competitive product.  Selig asserts that he was the first person in his generation of owners to grasp fully that baseball is a business and that the health of the business is directly connected to the competitive product on the field.  He may slightly overstate his “unique” perspective, but during the course of his tenure as an owner and the commissioner there were undeniably innovative decisions made that benefited all MLB owners and players financially, and therefore, the game itself.

Selig also understood the connection between a city and its team and worked to ensure that other fans did not experience the temporary loss that he and his fellow Milwaukee citizens suffered when the Braves moved to Atlanta (or the enduring loss suffered by the fans in Brooklyn).  From the time he became owner of the Brewers in 1970 and gained a vote on relocation, through the end of his tenure as Commissioner in January, 2015, only two MLB teams changed cities – the Senators moved to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers and the Expos moved to Washington in 2004 to become the Nationals.  Of course, significant pressure was put on many cities to build new ballparks in order to retain their teams – including Selig’s hometown of Milwaukee – but in every instance but these two a deal was made and continuity (and community) was preserved.  In contrast, during this same period ten NFL and eleven NBA franchises relocated, and some more than once.  In the popularity competition between major sports leagues, this expression of loyalty (and stability) should get more attention, and Selig should get more credit. Of course, the fact that total annual attendance at MLB games is almost double that of the NFL and NBA combined indicates something about the fans’ appreciation and sporting preferences.  I had some thoughts about this back in 2012.  https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/11/.

I believe Selig’s success was (and MLB’s is) rooted in his understanding of the need for balance between forces.  There needed to be balance in the collective bargaining between the owners and the players, and that required ownership to become as unified as the players association had been for over twenty years. This, of course, took a historic strike to work out – canceling the 1994 World Series in the process – but it finally began the leveling process in negotiations with the players’ representatives (began, not accomplished, as Selig points out).  That leveling of forces has resulted in over 25 years of peace and prosperity for both labor and management.

There needed to be competitive balance on the field and that required a measure of financial balance in the teams’ respective bank accounts.  This caused a fight among the owners that was in some ways even harder for Selig than his struggle with Don Fehr, the architect of the 1994 players’ strike.  Ultimately Selig’s view prevailed with the owners and revenue sharing became an essential MLB operating tenet, one that has clearly been good for the game. And there needed to be balance in the financial discussions with cities about new ballparks, and this required new sources of revenue that could enable the teams to contribute to the projects.  Selig was instrumental in exploiting these sources with new media ventures (like MLB At Bat, an awesome innovation), increased geographic exposure and expanded post-seasons, and thus most of the markets have successfully found a way to finance new ballparks, with or without direct capital contributions from the teams.

The resolution of these issues required Selig to overcome enormous resistance from the players union, owners, government officials, sports writers and, of course, the fans.  But his belief that he was right as a businessman, a civic leader and a sportsman kept him going.  And, as he says, it was seldom fun.  That statement, like many others he makes, rings true.  Even his unapologetic defense of the league’s slow response to PED use by players is credible – he says that the players union was the delaying influence in this scandal.  This issue remains the basis of the most enduring criticism of his tenure and it is hard to say for certain whether Selig and the owners did enough to combat the union’s intransigence on drug testing.  Either way, I do not believe it is a sufficient reason to neglect all of the other work he did for the game. Also, in that and all other struggles, I am inclined to believe that he really tried to make every decision “for the good of the game,” as the title of his memoir suggests.

The current state of the game strongly suggests that Selig  himself was good for the game in almost every area.  As with his tireless effort to recover MLB baseball for the city of Milwaukee, he should also get credit for two decades of work that have benefited all of the owners and the players.  I expressed this back in 2013 and 2014, and I am pleased to see that in structuring his memoir he appears to have evaluated the accomplishments of his tenure in the same fashion as I did.  He even acknowledges, as I argued in 2013, that his long-time adversary Marvin Miller deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for the impact he had on the game during his sixteen years as Director of the Players Association, a magnanimous concession that most of the owners have been unwilling to make.  As unlikely as it appeared in 1970 when he backed into MLB ownership through the greed of one ownership group and penuriousness of another, Bud Selig earned his way to Cooperstown through a career that lasted nearly three times as long as Miller’s and had at least as much impact on the game, and probably more.  Such a life may have once been just the fantasy of an immigrant’s son who grew up in the Mid-West and started his career in the car sales business, but like many American dreams it became a reality.

Selig HOF.jpg

(National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY)

 

What is fantasy and what is reality is never completely clear in Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, prop., for the reader or for J. Henry Waugh.  Is Waugh a lonely, trashy third-rate accountant with a sociopath’s obsession for games? Or is he a statistical genius with a flare for the application of random probabilities to the structure of established societal forms, either sporting or even military?  What are we to make of his talent for numerical analysis that is so keen that he can apply it to war games with such a coldly lethal precision that even his fellow gamers are unnerved? (Coover didn’t invent Game Theory, but he certainly understands it.)

In case you have no idea what I am talking about, here is the plot of the book:

Waugh is a loner working for a small accounting firm in an unnamed city.  He has never married and his only pleasure in life (aside from his local bar and its resident hooker) is derived from the games he creates based on the random outcomes of the roll of dice (one die, two dice, even three dice – each level increases the statistical odds and the gaming possibilities).  The book focuses on only one of Waugh’s several incarnations of this obsession – a baseball game he has invented from the application of baseball’s rules and traditional strategies to the statistical probabilities of the roll of the dice.  It is, in the abstract, ingenious;  but Waugh has taken it beyond the abstract and envisioned an entire league of his own creation – with a forward-thinking commissioner and eight teams with old-school managers and colorful players and rabid fans.  Waugh has given the league, the Universal Baseball Association or “UBA,” complete historical statistics and detailed player biographies, all maintained and created (imagined) by J. Henry Waugh, proprietor.  (And dare I mention as examples of Waugh’s imagination that the UBA’s history includes two deaths on the field and at least one rape in the dugout?)

UBA.jpg

Every night at his kitchen table, and even some days at his office desk, Waugh plays games with his dice and his statistical tables and records the results just as if he were sitting in the stands of a MLB game with his scorebook.  Well, actually, he would be sitting in both dugouts as the manager of both teams, making all the decisions about who starts and who substitutes in, decisions based on prior historical performance, or the absence of such in the case of a rookie, all determined by the roll of the dice.  Seemingly no variable is left unaccounted for in the strategic playing of the game or the potential outcome.  Indeed, Waugh’s accounting for the variables of baseball appears more like today’s analytics than 1968’s traditions:

In adjoining rooms, machinery, looking like big eyeless monsters conjured up from the depths, hummed and clicked, sucking up the information being fed to them from scorekeepers, scouts, official monitors, and even a set of special camera devices that McCaffree (the UBA commissioner, although Waugh calls him a “Chancellor”) had invented to time runners, spy out jittery fielders, register variations between what the catchers called for and what the pitchers really threw, a million different things.”

It is as if J. Henry Waugh invented baseball analytics in 1968!  How did he do that?  Or more accurately, how did Robert Coover cause him to do that?  And how did Robert Coover know that it would not necessarily be a good thing? He continues:

Made Woodrow Winthrop’s old head spin (he’s the former commissioner).  “You, see, given this shift and the fact that it seems to be out of our hands, some built-in flaw or gap which doesn’t allow us to cope with it directly,” Fenn (McCaffree, the current commissioner) continued, apparently speaking to Woody again, though still studying the TV sets, “it would almost be better for the whole league if the players were all incompetent and irrational.”

“Is that so?” said Woody.

“Mmm. The way things are going, we’re apt to get a pay-off nobody wants.”

That dialogue was imagined by Coover over fifty years ago.  Were there baseball purists then who were complaining about innovation in the game?  Perhaps the talk that caused the lowering of the mound height after The Year of the Pitcher in 1968?  Regardless, the same sentiment could have been expressed this evening on Baseball Tonight, and the opinion could have been spoken by the current (and real) MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred.  These “million different things” that baseball front offices now track are causing many people to complain that “quants” are ruining the Game.  Personally, I disagree, and I think others would too if they would just think about the strategies that have always been at the heart of baseball.

I am not devoted to analytics; nor am I devoted to “old school” tactics.  I have always viewed both approaches as analytical and traditional, but that the modern version is  significantly more detailed and tends to focus on different causes of probable outcomes.  In fact, no one should deny that all strategy is based on some probability of outcome regardless of whether that probability is forecast by reams of computer data collected on a real-time basis or merely the “gut instinct” of a man with fifty years’ of experience in the sport.  And I believe that all of these probabilities being studied in MLB today, from either source, are just like the throw of the dice in the UBA. Have you ever thought about that?

No one likes to think of the outcome of an MLB game as being that random, or statistically predictable if you prefer the positive spin, but it is exactly that.  Everything about “real” baseball, even before Moneyball, (“He gets on base!”), was and still is based on statistics and probabilities.  Managers have always put the best hitters/runners at the top of the line-up and the weakest ones at the bottom because the top of the order bats more often and thus increases the probability of a batter getting on base and scoring runs.  The old-school righty/lefty match-up is based on statistics, the fact that most hitters fare better against a pitcher who throws from the opposite side from which he bats.  Why is that any different from putting your third baseman in right field against a hitter that statistics show hits 90% of his balls to the right side?  Or how is taking a starting pitcher out in the 5th inning, or not putting him in until the 2nd or 3rd, because statistics show that batters hit much better against him the third time through the order any different from making a pitching change for a lefty/righty match-up?  There is no difference.  Both are based on the same assumption – the desired outcome of getting outs and not allowing runs is more likely to be achieved by going with the statistical probabilities.  So it is not a question of whether analytics should be allowed in the game, it is merely a question of whether there can be so much allowed that it fundamentally alters the game, or more accurately, alters the fun of the game for the fans and perhaps even the players.  As Selig would say – we need to balance the interests.

It is possible that the use of analytics becomes so dominant as to essentially remove any sense of baseball being a “human” game.  I believe players play and fans watch the game to experience the humanity involved in seeing one player do his best against another player without undue outside influence (bad umpiring, for example) or crippling restraint (excessive rules). These competitions, under the right circumstances, enrich our lives as fans (why and how is for another post).  If we eliminate that human element, or limit is to an excessive extent, we eliminate the power and tension of the contest and the chance of enrichment.   However, how do we know which limitations on these million different things are appropriate?

We are all likely to agree that prohibiting a pitcher from throwing a curve ball to a hitter who simply can’t hit a curve ball would be an absurd rule, but yet Commissioner Manfred has talked openly of limiting the scope of defensive shifts, or eliminating them completely, thus prohibiting the defense from positioning itself in the spots where a batter is most likely to hit the ball.  Is there a difference?  I think not,  and neither does one of the greatest hitters of all-time, George Brett.  When asked recently on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast whether shifts should be disallowed, he essentially answered ‘Hell, no! Give me an open side of the infield and I”ll hit .400 every year!’

There is an old adage in football:  “take what the defense gives you.”  The corresponding baseball adage is “hit it where they ain’t.”  Current baseball hitters who are struggling with shifts should take note of both and make the necessary adjustments.  In short order the shifts will stop because the statistics will no longer support them.  It will take a little time and some effort on the part of the hitters, but professionals (like George Brett) should be able to adapt and we should let them try.  Indeed, I think MLB’s own current marketing slogan provides the appropriate response, or non-response, to this new development in the evolution of the game:  “just let the kid’s play.”

Still, there is a fine line in determining the appropriate level of freedom, and no one seems to know where that line is.  In fact, no one seems to know whether it is rational to limit the application of analytics or irrational not to.  Such uncertainty could easily result in an unfortunate overreaction.  (Are you following the new rules “test marketing” that MLB is subsidizing?  https://www.si.com/mlb/2019/07/25/baseball-rule-changes-atlantic-league.

Fenn McCaffree, Waugh’s forward-thinking current UBA commissioner, may have anticipated just this mistaken response back in 1968:

“What if, Woody (the former commissioner), we have passed, without knowing it, from a situation of sequential compounding into one of basic and finite yes-or-no survival, causing a shift of what you might call the equilibrium point, such that the old strategies, like winning ball games, sensible and proper within the old stochastic or recursive sets, are, under the new circumstances, insane!”

What a paragraph!  I wish I had written it, or even thought it.  I have now studied it for days and am still not certain that I know what McCaffree/Coover means.  However, I think I understand, and I think Coover would smile if you asked him if he is surprised to see that most MLB teams today are run by  young Ivy League geniuses.   Clearly they have moved baseball strategy beyond the “old stochastic and recursive sets” and caused a shift in the equilibrium to the point that some in baseball think we are looking at a question of basic survival of the game.  Have you been reading about the damage done to the game by the prevalence of the three true outcomes – strike out, walk and home run?  Here are a couple of resources:

https://sabr.org/research/growth-three-true-outcomes-usenet-joke-baseball-flashpoint.

https://unafraidshow.com/mlb-analytics-three-true-outcomes-killing-baseball/.

None of this would surprise Coover, in my opinion, but his astounding paragraph written fifty years ago says even more to me than just predicting the current “crisis” of baseball analytics.  It reminds me of something Faulkner would write, and even of something that he said:  that the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself.”  Clearly Coover’s characters are in conflict with themselves – Waugh as well as his imagined league executives, mangers and ballplayers – just as the leaders of  MLB are in conflict over the state of the game.

But I believe the conflict Coover ultimately describes is the psychological realization that it makes sense to try to win baseball games, in either the old way or the new way, only to the extent that we have to try to do something, anything, with our lives. This becomes clear at the climax of the book (if you can call it that) which appears to occur a long time in the future (we aren’t told exactly how long, perhaps 100 years, or perhaps just 100 seasons of the UBA which Waugh could complete in a matter of months depending upon the intensity of his obsession).  A new player, Paul Trench, playing the part of an old player, Royce Ingram, is introduced into the story and Waugh is completely absent.  Trench is depicting the UBA Hall of Famer Royce Ingram as part of a festival celebration for UBA rookies that seems like MLB’s All-Star Futures Game.  Trench is the starting catcher, but he isn’t thrilled to be there.  In fact, he questions why he is playing the game at all, and not just this game, but any game. The reader is given this insight into his thoughts:

Why does he swing? Why does he run? Why does he suffer when out and rejoice when safe? Why is it better to win than to lose? … He wants to quit – but what does he mean, ‘quit’? The game? Life? Could you separate them?

Earlier in the story Waugh himself had recounted a similar inner conflict born out of his inability to understand his feelings about attending real MLB games (real in the book, at least), where he found himself often being a captive but bored spectator:

“…I would leave a game, elbowing out with all the others, and feel a kind of fear that I could so misuse my life, what was the matter with me, that I could spend unhappy hours at a ball park, leave, and yet come back again?”

In seeking to find his own answer from inside the foul lines, Trench/Ingram recalls a conversation with another player who observed:

“I don’t know if there is a record-keeper up there or not…but even if there weren’t, I think we’d have to play the game as though there were.”

At first Trench is skeptical and wonders responsively to himself:

‘Would we? Is that reason enough? Continuance for its own inscrutable sake?’  (“Inscrutable” is a perfect word choice by Coover. It means “impossible to understand or interpret.”)

But the game itself prevails on Trench as the catcher – the manager on the field – as soon as the umpire yells “Play ball!”

He flings the ball to second; then, impulsively, he walks out there, to the mound, not because it’s a rule of the game, but because he feels drawn… Paul tries to speak, but he can find no words. It’s terrible, he says; or might have said. It’s all there is. (FN 1)

And then suddenly Damon (the pitcher) sees, must see, because astonishingly he says: “Hey, wait, buddy! You love this game, don’t you?”

“Sure, but…”

Damon grins. Lights up the whole goddamn world.  “Then don’t be afraid…”

And the black clouds break up, and dew springs again to the green grass, and the stands hang on, and his own oppressed heart leaps alive to give it one last try.

There may be conflict and failure in Trench’s life, but there will also be persistence.  As Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I decline to accept the end of man…I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail…”

But prevail over what? And for what purpose?  Not just imaginary baseball players and real Nobel Laureates have asked this question or made an observation in response to it.  An actual member of the MLB Hall of Fame has weighed in as well:

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Most people know Jackie Robinson’s most famous quote.  I accept his premise and strive to adhere to it, as have others, even those whose reputation suggested otherwise.  The public Faulkner, for example, was famous for not caring what anyone thought of him (he was called “Count No-Count” in his younger days in Oxford, MS), but later the private Faulkner was exceedingly generous with his extended family, providing totally for several members who were not able to provide for themselves.  Several of Faulkner’s created characters, for that matter, strive to help others even when it appears that it will, and ultimately does, harm them. (Quentin Compson, Bayard Sartoris – the one from Unvanquished, not Sartoris, and Gail Hightower, come to mind).  Personally, I believe that I have had some positive impact on the lives of those around me, both at home and the office, but I am not certain it has always done them (or me) good.  Either way, I always question whether I have done enough, and whether baseball or reading have contributed anything to my efforts, given that I have expended so much of my time and energy on both.

Jackie Robinson also said:  “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.”  That sounds a bit harsh, especially for devoted baseball fans – although he probably did not mean them literally – or even avid readers.  But there is an element of truth in his observation no matter how you apply it.  And I think it is a thread that runs through Goldberger’s perception of the impact of baseball parks on communities across the nation, as well as Selig’s review of his own impact on the game itself and, finally, of Coover’s exploration of how we spend our days and our nights, and what we truly value at either time.

Are we really involved in what we are doing, and are we involving others, either known to us or strangers, in the process?  And if we are, is our involvement making a positive impact on those others and, by extension, our community? Or are we simply benefiting (or just amusing) ourselves, possibly even to the detriment of others?

As a lawyer for over thirty-five years, this inquiry (accusation?) is almost a parody of my professional existence:

Q: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a leech?
A: After you die, a leech stops sucking your blood.

And there is even some science  (analytics!) to support the joke:

https://www.csmonitor.com/1994/0215/15081.html..

Worse, the number of lawyers has increased dramatically since this study was published in 1994! http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyer_population_15_higher_than_10_years_ago_new_aba_data_shows.

And, there is always Shakespeare: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  (Henry VI, part 2; Act IV, Scene 2.)   That line, I believe, is actually a compliment to lawyers, but that is for another post.

Seriously, I have been asking these questions of myself more urgently lately as I consider what to do with the rest of my life.   They are applicable to any activity I engage in –  vocation or avocation – but my focus here is baseball and if you are reading my blog in the first place and are still reading this far into this post then you must be almost as focused on the sport as I am.  So perhaps you, like me, are interested in your own personal scorecard using these most profound analytics, each of which is explored in the three books I have reviewed.

It is not hard to conclude that I have wasted thousands of hours of my life watching baseball, thinking about baseball and, now, writing about baseball.  Worse, baseball has been, undoubtedly, the source of the greatest tension in my marriage.  It is hard for someone who loves you and believes that you love them to understand why you would prefer to spend 3 hours (or more) 162 nights/year (plus the post-season!) focused on your relationship with a game rather than your relationship with her.  It is a triumph of my wife’s understanding, not due to any concession from me, that she could with good humor give me this gift:

Note to Spouses.jpg

Honestly, I think there is only one way in which my baseball obsession has had a positive impact, and that is in my relationship with my son.  One of my daughters likes the sport more than he does and she and I text about the game regularly, but we have not shared it directly together like my son and I have.  Jack, frankly, doesn’t even like the sport. (FN2).  He prefers basketball.  But he must love me because he is still willing to drive thousands of miles around the country in support of my Quixotic venture to see a game with him in every MLB ballpark.  Along the way, he has grown to appreciate my obsession with the game, even if he has not acquired it.  He understands the game better, but mostly he understands its history of statistics and fan loyalty and shared experiences.  We are a part of that history now, which obviously includes one generation teaching the next generation the significance of the game.    We have also met other fans along the way and shared our venture, thus expanding geographically the sense of community that Goldberger writes of.

Miller Park.jpg

(MIA@MIL, Miller Park, 8/19/2015.)

This photo was taken by a retired Milwaukee truck driver who sold us two of his four season tickets, explaining that he convinced his wife to let him spend a significant part of his pension on Brewers’ tickets by promising to attend every game, thus being out of the house at least 81 days a year, and to sell two of them to each game, recouping some of the money and making him many new friends each season. (Once you get to the seats you are stuck with him for the next three hours!)  He is one of our favorite memories from our twenty ballpark trips so far.  Alas, we didn’t get his name or a picture because he left the seats early while we were at the concession stand.  Another of his traditions was to watch the end of the game from his favorite bar since MLB prohibits the sale of alcohol after the 7th inning!

It was great to learn that an MLB club could serve a local retiree in such a direct way, and there may have been many stories like his in the ballpark that day considering the giant scoreboard advertisement visible over Jack’s left shoulder.  That the AARP can be a major sponsor adds to Goldberger’s argument that a MLB ballpark is a civic amenity as well as a business generator.  Either way, our attendance reinforces the undeniable fact that baseball brings the generations together, both related and unrelated.  Time spent together in such a setting recalls the very first line in Goldberger’s ballpark book (he actually starts with “metaphor”!):

The Game of Baseball may not truly be the ultimate American metaphor – the attempts to make it so tend to be exaggerated, sentimental, and mawkish – but the baseball park, the expanse of green that begins beside city streets and appears to extend forever, is.

If there is anything in his book that I can affirm personally it is Goldberger’s assertion that the ballpark is as important as the game itself.  Even Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, a ballpark roundly condemned as a dinosaur from the Concrete Doughnut Era and made even worse by the renovation that is known as Mount Davis constructed in the outfield to lure the NFL’s Raiders back to Oakland from Los Angeles and which obscured the view of California’s Berkeley Hills, can still be considered beautiful from a baseball fan’s perspective:

OAK-Alameda.JPG

(SFO@OAK, Coliseum, 8/1/2017).

Jack and I enjoyed the game at the Coliseum as much as we did the one the next night at PacBell/SBC/AT&T/Oracle Park.  SFO’s universally praised home field has the advantage of its setting in the City’s China Basin, but both Jack and I were struck by how much better cared for the playing field was in Oakland.

SFO park.JPG

(OAK@SFO, AT&T Park, 8/2/2017).

Unexpectedly, Goldberger’s concept of rus en urbe (the “country in the city”) seemed better exemplified on the playing field in Oakland, as these two photos of the grass reveals.  However, the Oakland stadium sits in the middle of a giant parking lot beside a freeway and next to the now abandoned Oracle Arena (the NBA’s Warriors having continued that league’s legacy of disloyalty by moving across the bay from the Town to the City).  The Giants’ park is tucked into the City, literally by the Bay, and although we spent over an hour in afternoon traffic Ubering to the park from our hotel (also downtown) before the game, we were able to get back after the game in well under an hour by walking several blocks and catching the last cable car run for the evening.  We shared it with many other baseball fans and tourists, all of us happy in the community experience.  It reminded Jack of our midnight ride on the “L” back to our hotel off Michigan Avenue in Chicago after a two hour rain delay at Wrigley Field stretched the proclamation “Cubs win!” into the early morning hours.  These are enjoyable aspects of the urbe that do not exist in the rus, and that is Goldberger’s point.  Jack and I agree; we clearly prefer the urban parks.

Wrigleyville.jpg

(Addison Station, Wrigleyville, 8/18/2015, following DET@CHI).

Our experience in urban parks around the country, including some that are not even MLB parks (like the redeveloping Spokane Riverfront Park in Eastern Washington, https://my.spokanecity.org/riverfrontspokane/redevelopment/, or the one in our own backyard, https://hemisfair.org/). combined with my lifelong love of baseball reflected in these three fine books and intensified now by my realization that life is not that long, has me thinking that there must be a project here for me some way, somehow.  Although I am at the opposite end of my career today from where Bud Selig was in 1965, shouldn’t his triumphant quest for a MLB team in Milwaukee serve as inspiration for my dream of one in San Antonio?  And couldn’t a downtown baseball park serve as a new and needed icon on the tapestry that is San Antonio, which unlike Dallas has a wonderful fabric but precious few icons (the Alamo counts for a lot, but it can’t be the only one).  Am I still allowed to dream such things at my age?  Would it be an appropriate use of my time, however much of it I have left? It’s now or never for me, shouldn’t I get serious, or actually, more serious?

Selig was able to bring MLB back to Milwaukee in only five years after the Braves left for Atlanta.  I wrote my first memorandum and held the first organizational meetings for MLB-SA in May, 2015, over four years ago.  Alas, we are no closer today to obtaining a team than we were then. In fact, we may be farther away from accomplishing the goal since in the latest media coverage on MLB relocation or expansion San Antonio was not even among the first six cities listed as possible candidates.  https://www.baseballamerica.com/stories/mlb-expansion-examining-6-possible-locations-to-add-teams/.  That was not the case in 2015, or even in 2018. https://www.ksat.com/sports/espn-san-antonio-should-be-next-to-get-mlb-team.

I could spend much time here debating the relative merits of my adopted hometown with each of these other cities mentioned by commentators as the “best” candidates for MLB expansion or relocation, but I won’t.  It is fruitless and meaningless.  As I wrote in my very first MLB-SA memo, all that matters is that someone in San Antonio build a ballpark, and they, an MLB team, will come.  It has always happened that way in the real world – MIL, ATL, and even TBR – just like in Ray Kinsella’s imaginary cornfield.  (Well, actually, the cornfield is not imaginary, and maybe the players aren’t either.)

iowa.jpg

(Field of Dreams, Dyersville, IA, 8/20/2015)

In each of those cities and others, I am sure, there were citizens like Bud Selig who dreamed of bringing a MLB team to town and who worked tirelessly to make it happen.  I know this was true in Arlington, where Mayor Tom Vandergriff was instrumental in making Turnpike Stadium MLB-ready and facilitating Bob Short’s relocation and rechristening of the Washington Senators (the second version of the Senators, by the way; the first version had moved to Minnesota to become the Twins, thus fulfilling the dreams of those fans).  San Antonio just re-elected a mayor who has expressed support for major league sports.  He has also actively opposed city support for a new minor league ballpark, even though our local MiLB team was just elevated to AAA with the owner’s expectation of a new park.  The mayor’s opposition to being a “minor league” city is the kind of thinking we need in City Hall in order to get another major league franchise.  Even the Spurs have expressed an interest in making this happen, recognizing that they are bound to have competition some day.

The city has more than ample public/private resources to build a ballpark and get a MLB team, but it needs someone to be the catalyst, or at least one of the catalysts.  We have several companies and business families who could accomplish the feat, either individually or collectively.  So far, however, no one has taken the initiative to make it happen.  Neither did they take the bait when I offered to be the initiator back in 2015.  But, somewhat surprisingly, they didn’t laugh at the idea, either.  In the four years since then an amazing amount of development has happened in our city, including the first “skyscraper” built here in over thirty years.  Other ambitious projects are announced each month.  And most importantly, no other city appears to be any closer to building a new park including Oakland and Tampa/St. Petersburg.  So the opportunities have not diminished.

The “coincidences” I referred to at the very beginning of this post have all of the city’s development as a backdrop, and you can add to this one additional fact – that I have always loved architecture, and specifically urban architecture.  So am I delusional to think that these thoughts have come together in my mind for one purpose: to inspire me to try again to get a ballpark built in San Antonio and bring a MLB team to my adopted hometown?.   Hey, baseball is still a sport where dreams come true in the unlikeliest of manners:  https://www.mlb.com/cut4/a-s-sign-pitcher-who-dazzled-at-in-stadium-radar-booth.

As Ray Kinsella reminds Terance Mann in the movie Field of Dreams:

You once wrote that ‘there comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what’s possible.’

Personally, I believe in a more specific force than cosmic tumblers, one through whom “all things are possible.” I have had, over the course of my career, some success in bringing together unfriendly parties and unlikely partners.  This is my field, or rather my rus, as Goldberger would call it.   A MLB park in downtown San Antonio (my urbe) is my dream.  Is it any more fantastical than was Bud Selig’s?  Recall that he actually bought his team out of a bankruptcy proceeding, a place where I have done my own share of business shopping and where over the past fifteen years the Cubs, Rangers and Dodgers have each been purchased.  Of course, none of those franchises was going to be moved, no matter how much was paid for them.  But let me make this clear, I don’t want to own the team; I just want one for my city.  I don’t even need to be in the room where it happens.  I just want it to happen.

And I want San Antonio to have a classic ballpark.  It doesn’t have to be in the Retro Era style, but rather one that suits San Antonio, a city that over the past 300 years has developed its own style and ambiance.  Will Rogers is credited as having said that San Antonio is one of only four unique cities in the U.S., along with Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco, and I think a ballpark could be designed to fit our special heritage.  A ballpark project and second major league franchise could also be the culmination of our city’s recent impressive civic development, adding substance to our somewhat procedural status as one of the ten largest cities in the country.

Ballpark site.jpg

(Just to the left of the waving Old Glory is my preferred location for an MLB park.)

But would bringing that about result in an impact on the lives of others in our community that Jackie Robinson would credit?  Paul Goldberger would certainly say “yes,” as would Bud Selig.    And Robert Coover must think so, too.  He had Paul Trench come to this conclusion about the game as he brings the story to a close:

…it doesn’t even matter that he’s going to die, all that counts is that he is here and here’s The Man and here’s the boys and there’s the crowd, the sun, the noise…

Damon holds the ball up between them.  It is hard and white and alive in the sun.  Paul laughs. It’s beautiful, that ball.

I would add, and so would Paul Goldberger and Bud Selig, I think, that the ballpark and the game itself are beautiful, too.  Every major city should have them.

Still so much to ponder. Still so much to discuss.

________________________________________________________________

©JSR 2019

FN 1 – Since this post is practically as long as a reference work I might was well add a footnote to enhance the association, and what better way to enhance a work than to quote Shakespeare?

This thought by Trench immediately reminded me of the realization by King Lear at the end of his own mental crisis:  “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.  Ripeness is all.”  King Lear, Act V, Scene 2. (emphasis added).  Given the similar mindset of each character, I believe “It’s all there is,”  and “Ripeness is  all” express the same fatalism (or pragmatism, depending on your personal perspective).

 

FN 2 – Not only does Jack not particularly like baseball, until very recently he did not care for sports in general, and particularly not personal athletic competition.  Copied below is his opinion (condemnation?) of youth soccer and other sports, in his own words (well, with a little help from me as the ghost-writer of a family memoir we are working on together):

I remember this scene like it was yesterday, even though it was more than half my life ago. It was my introduction to athletic competition and, as you can see, it did not go well.  I did not go well.  I didn’t go at all.  I just froze up.  I know why. I just don’t know why it is so.

I didn’t have the conversation with my father that day, but we have had it many times since then.  There have been many opportunities.  After soccer, I tried swimming, basketball, flag football, fencing, water polo and, finally, baseball (Dad’s favorite).  The result was always the same – I didn’t really like the sport, and I really didn’t like the competition.

I had no desire to go up against anyone in anything.  It wasn’t just because I was afraid to lose.  I was equally afraid of winning – because if I won, that meant that someone else lost.  How would that make them feel?  If it was the same as I felt, then why would I want to do that to them?

Dad insisted that it was just a game and that no harm was being done by winning, or at least by trying to win.  My response was that if it is just a game, what is being gained by winning, and why should I try?  I was about ten by then, and I think that was the first time I taught my dad something.  Or maybe it was the first time I contributed to my parents’ marriage, other than just having been born.  Because Dad had heard this point before from Mom, but he had not listened.

Sports is serious business with my dad, and I am not making a joke.  He actually owned a hockey team for a while.  That was before I was old enough to understand or even watch.  All we have now is a bunch of newspaper clippings and a few t-shirts in a box in the garage.  But I’m not really talking about business.  I’m talking about life.  Sports is life to my dad, and the rest of his family, as far as I can tell.  Hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t watch some kind of sporting event and pull for one side, or one player, to win.  He even talks to his family members about it and they complain about the results.  Usually it is about his college, which always seems to lose, at least since I have been alive.  He tells me that they used to win a lot more.  But it has been almost forty years since he went to that school and other members of his family didn’t even go there.  So why are they so emotionally wrapped up in the outcome of those games?  And it’s not just one sport, it’s whatever sport that might be on TV, which in my lifetime could be anything from football to women’s softball to Frisbee golf.  Whatever the sport, and whoever might be wearing their school’s uniform, my dad and his dad and his brothers are pulling for them.

That is really weird to me, even weirder than playing the game yourself and trying to win.  At least then you are getting some exercise and maybe gaining some self-confidence for other activities in life that really matter (see, I did listen to Dad’s argument for why I should play at all, and to try to win).  But like I said before, even that idea – of succeeding by causing others to fail – causes me trouble.  I remember being shocked when I first heard a coach say “you’ve got to have that killer instinct!”   Does he know what he is saying?

I probably seem weird to you asking that question, particularly as a teenager.  Most people don’t question the importance of sports, as a player or a fan. And if you didn’t question it before you became an adult, well it’s not likely that you ever will, although my dad has tried.  As you can tell, I have been thinking about it from an early age and I think that has had an impact on him.

These are the questions we have discussed several times since that day I froze on the pee wee soccer field: Why don’t I want to compete?  What am I afraid of?  Is it even a question of fear?  What would motivate me to try?  Why can’t I at least sit down and watch a game with him? Why not at least a baseball game? (which I know is his favorite)

Reading this list and understanding that a son had to answer such questions for his dad even before he became a teenager probably makes you think that my father was really mad at me.  But he wasn’t, or at least he didn’t ask me the questions in anger.  Sure, I sensed some disappointment and I felt some pressure to give in when he encouraged me to try one sport after another. But when, over and over, I decided to quit each one he didn’t get angry.  He just asked these questions trying to understand why.  I was okay with that, because I sort of wanted to understand it myself, at least I did once I realized that my attitude was different from most of the other kids.  Very few of them, at least very few of the ones like me who were healthy and coordinated and from athletic families, seemed to dislike sports as much as I did.  Well, I didn’t really dislike sports so much as I just questioned the concept.  What exactly is the point?

Dad had to think about that one for a while.  He admitted that it had never entered his mind.  He accepted sports, both as a player and as a fan, as a natural part of life, like breathing or eating.   He had always felt that way.  So why didn’t I, his own son, feel the same way?

How could I be so different from my biological father, who played most sports pretty well and wanted to win every time he played, no matter what sport he was playing?  And why wasn’t I wrapped up in the success or failure of a team (or teams), whether from my city or state or birthplace, or one that just wears my favorite color? 

The answer was so simple.  I’m not competitive like my father because I take after my mother, and she is about as different from him when it comes to sports as anyone can get. I’m sure he really knew that but just didn’t want to admit it.  He was probably trying to convince himself that it wasn’t so by continuing to discuss sports with me and holding out hope that I would take after him.  Well, more about that later, but for now you should know that it is hard to play or even watch competitive sports when you take after one of the least competitive – but most hard-headed – persons God ever created.

 

In re-reading this now, I am struck by how similar my son’s thoughts were (and my wife’s still are) to those of Paul Trench.  But fortunately, I can report that Jack eventually developed some interest in sports beyond just making pilgrimages to ball parks with me.  He really enjoys watching the NBA and playing pick-up basketball.  He even tried out for the high school team but, of course, as such a late-starter, did not make it.  He finally managed to beat me one-on-one, but only once. Hey, he is two inches taller and 40 years younger than me, but I can’t let him beat me! Right?

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