Tag Archives: sports

Monday Musings: What Matters? Part V — Frivolity and the Importance of Things That Don’t Matter

For all of January, I have been writing about “what matters” and what doesn’t. I’ve written about this in terms of our personal lives and our professional ones. And I fear I have left readers with the impression that, in my opinion, all they do should be geared toward those things we decide do matter, that when it comes to allocating our personal time, our emotional energy, our intellectual focus, “what matters?” should guide all of our choices.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“What matters?” is, I believe, a useful question to ask ourselves. I remember back when I was in college, sitting on the green of Brown’s campus, talking to a friend, and thinking to myself, “I really have a shit-ton of work to do. Should I be here, or should I be in the library?” And yes, there were times when I realized the conversation I was having didn’t rate in terms of importance. In those moments, I confessed to having a lot to do, and went off to my lonely carrel in the library. At other times, though, I recall answering that silent question differently, certain that the conversation I was having mattered more than work did at the given moment. The work would get done, I knew. My friend needed me. Or I needed them.

And in the same vein, I know beyond doubt that sometimes the things that matter are, in fact, the things of little or no importance. An oxymoron? Maybe. But you know I’m right.

Yes, family and friends matter. Work matters. We should make time for those pursuits that enrich our lives and feed our souls or our bodies: photography, music, gardening, knitting, exercising, hiking, birdwatching, reading, dancing, attending theater or movies or concerts. We all have our interests and passions.

But we can also find value and entertainment and even peace is less lofty activities. Sometimes what we need is an hour or two of mindless television, or a good game (baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, whatever) to watch and cheer. Sometimes spending a half hour absorbed in a ridiculous video game is just the thing to clear our thoughts.

If we spend every minute of every day worrying about what matters and doing the things that are most important, we will burn ourselves out. At no time in the past several weeks, as I have written about the things that matter, have I meant to imply otherwise. As in all endeavors, we must find balance. I work daily. I devote time to my family, marriage, my parenting. I try to do the things I love, to make good use of as much of my time as I can. But I also know that some of that “good use” can be put to silly, meaningless stuff that I enjoy.

I have games on my phone that I play daily. (No, I won’t tell you which ones. That would be embarrassing . . . .) I listen to music, not because it enriches me (though it often does) but because it’s fun. Nancy and I have shows we love to watch, and yes, part of the joy lies in watching together. But part of the joy is also just losing ourselves in storylines that are amusing, or suspenseful, or exciting, or even trashy. (Looking at you, creators of The Crown . . . .) I love watching sports on television. Baseball, soccer, basketball — I can lose myself in a good game even if I don’t care too much about either team. I like watching golf, too, mostly because it takes me back to my youth, when I watched with my dad and he taught me all he knew about the game.

Early on in this series of posts, I wrote about managing our days, and looking for ways to maximize the time we spend on those things we deem important. I don’t mean to contradict that earlier post. I mean merely to counter it with a simple reality: We can’t allocate every moment to weighty endeavors. Life demands that we slow down now and then and give ourselves a break, whatever that might mean.

And so, as I wind down my series of “What matters?” posts, I urge you to ask the question when it seems appropriate, but also to give yourself a break now and again. Being directed is great. And on occasion, so is being frivolous. Because ultimately, what matters is that we’re well and whole.

Wishing you all the best, and a very fine week to come.

Monday Musings: Why I Love Soccer, and You Should Too

Unless you’ve been in a food coma for the last two weeks, or have been so mesmerized by the constant influx of sales emails coming from every vendor under the sun that you can think of nothing else, you probably know that professional soccer’s World Cup is currently being played in Qatar. And unless you’re one of the relatively few soccer fans in the U.S., you probably don’t care.

I am here to tell you that you should.

Soccer — football, as it is known most everywhere else on the globe — is far and away the most popular sport in the world. It’s not close. Those who study these things estimate that association football has 3.5 BILLION fans worldwide. For the sake of comparison, American football and rugby, as played in Europe, Oceania, and South Africa, have a combined fandom of about 410 MILLION. (The closest sports to soccer are cricket, at 2.5 billion fans, and basketball, at 2.2 billion.)

As popular as association football is around the world, that’s how unpopular it is in the United States, at least as measured in television and in-person viewership. Yes, people, particularly young people, love to play it. But that growing passion has yet to translate into viewership fandom on the levels of American football, basketball, baseball, or even hockey. And there are reasons for this.

Soccer is a game of athleticism, of speed, of power and grace and mind-boggling skill. It is also a game of nuance and subtlety, of creativity and strategy, of patience and scarcity. In most matches, goals come at a premium. Look at the final results from a typical week in England’s Premier League, of which Nancy and I are devoted fans, and you’ll see lots of 1-0, 2-1, 1-1, 0-0 scores. 3-0 is a blowout. 4-2 constitutes an offensive explosion.

Americans tend to like sports with lots of offense and/or lots of violence. It makes sense that American football, which has plenty of both, is our most popular sport. Baseball, once our National Pastime, had too little of either to remain the nation’s favorite. It’s no coincidence that in the last quarter century, baseball was at its most popular during the Steroid Era, when home runs were flying out of stadiums in record numbers.

As it happens, I still love baseball, and I love soccer for many of the same reasons. And here’s why. Every soccer match is like a pitchers’ duel in baseball. A single goal — like a single run — can change everything. Two can put a match beyond reach. The tension is intense and magical, the demand for near perfection is utterly compelling.

Why are goals so rare? It’s not as though the goal itself is small — quite the opposite. A standard goal is 24 feet wide and eight feet high. The pitch (soccer-speak for the field) is longer and wider than an American football field. The playing surface is large enough and the teams small enough (eleven per side) to allow for wide-ranging play. There is plenty of room for offense. So why isn’t there more?

The key to understanding soccer is the offside rule. At it’s simplest, the rule is this: At the time a pass is kicked, the intended receiver of the pass has to have at least one defender (in addition to the goalie) between themselves and the goal. In other words, an offensive player can’t just hang out by the goal waiting for a pass from a teammate. They have to make certain at least one defender is positioned nearer the goal. Until the pass is kicked. As soon as the ball is airborne, they can sprint to the goal. The timing of the player’s run has to be perfect — late enough to remain onside, early enough to beat the defender to the ball.

My description of the offside rule doesn’t do justice to its intricacy and its impact on every element of the game. There are so many permutations of what can be allowed and what can’t — its complexity feeds the drama of each match. The rule needs to be seen in action, again and again, under match conditions, to be understood and appreciated fully.

The other element of the game that I like is the lack of violence. Don’t get me wrong: Soccer matches can be rough. Challenges are physical and occur at speed. But there are penalties — free kicks — for unnecessary or gratuitous contact, and there are sanctions for repeated offenses. A player deemed to have made a dangerous challenge or too many rough plays is given a yellow card. A second yellow card means ejection from the game without replacement. The team will finish the game with only ten players instead of eleven. And a red card, given for excessively rough or reckless play, means automatic ejection, again, without replacement.

Sadly, the best American male athletes tend to go into American football, basketball, or baseball. That’s where the money is professionally, and so that’s where high school and college athletes try to make their reputations. Female athletes don’t have football or baseball as an option, but they do have soccer and basketball (both my daughters played varsity soccer in high school). In those sports, on the women’s side, the U.S. consistently fields the finest national teams in the world.

Maybe soccer isn’t for you. That’s fine, of course. But maybe you haven’t yet given it a chance. As it happens, the finest male players in the world are on display right now in the World Cup. Watch a match or two. Yes, the games might end without much scoring, but I guarantee you’ll be impressed with the level of play, the incredible athleticism (position players run an average of 7-10 miles per game!!), and the passion of those fans lucky enough to attend the games. And perhaps you’ll find yourself drawn to what many refer to as “the beautiful game.”

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Some Hard Truths About Me

I don’t do well with change. You know how little kids have trouble with transitions, how you need to warn them about impending shifts in circumstance? “Sweetie, I know it’s been fun visiting Grandma and Grandpa, but in a few minutes we’re going to have to say goodbye, okay?” Sometimes even fair warning can’t stave off a complete meltdown, but it’s the only tool we have, right?

Well, I’m not much different from a toddler in this respect. I don’t like transitions. The way I see it, I’m close to sixty years old and at this point I have set up my life pretty much the way I want it to be. So, change equals bad.

In the last two months, my dentist and my general practitioner have both announced that they are leaving their practices, and my therapist has told me that due to the fact she’s about to have her first child (truthfully, I am very, very happy for her and her partner), she will be stepping back from her practice for the next half year or so.

It’s me, isn’t it? This is not mere coincidence. I don’t know what I did, but clearly I did something. I shower. I brush my teeth. And even if I didn’t do these things, my therapist and I do tele-therapy sessions, so she wouldn’t know.

All kidding aside, I have been with my GP for close to twenty years, my dentist for more than ten. Relationships like those are not easily replaced. And I really don’t do well with change . . . .

This is one of those Monday posts that’s going to bounce around a lot. It’s not that I have nothing on my mind, nothing to write about. It’s that I have too many things, and some of them are best left unsaid, at least in a public forum. I’m not very good at keeping my mouth shut, figuratively or literally. When I’m pissed off, I tend to say so, and I don’t hesitate to call people out for bad behavior. This sounds admirable in some ways. Really it’s not. It gets me in trouble far more often than not. It rarely makes any situation better.

And so this week, I am looking for things to write and I have lots of ideas. But each one bumps up against my (admittedly underdeveloped) sense of discretion.

In order to avoid creating problems closer to home, I have considered writing about the Yankees and the Mets, my two beloved baseball teams, who are both in the process of blowing massive leads they enjoyed in their respective divisions not so very long ago. But I complain about such things just about every year. If I’m not complaining about them blowing a lead, I’m complaining about them not having a lead. If I’m not complaining about the Yankees, I’m complaining about the Mets. It’s actually a rare season in which I can complain legitimately about both, so I suppose I should be grateful. But let’s be honest: no one wants to read my complaints about two privileged but poorly run New York teams who can’t get their shit together. So, moving on . . . .

I have also considered writing about the upcoming midterm elections, which are looking far better for the progressive-minded today than they were a few months ago. But let’s be honest, midterms usually hurt the party in power, and with inflation high, gas prices still above normal, and the country polarized, things don’t look great. I won’t get into who is to blame for what, except to say that inflation and gas prices are high everywhere, all over the world. The U.S. is hardly an outlier in this regard. In fact, things are better here than in most places.

The problem is, though, politics these days is one of the things that sets off my anxiety in a big way. And since my therapist will soon be unavailable (please refer back to paragraph 3), well, focusing on the midterms is probably not the best idea from a mental health perspective. I used to be able to manage my political anxiety. But the perils faced by our system of government have grown so frightening, so violent, so persistent, that whenever I dive into the topic and confront the existential threat to what I once believed was a stable republic, I kind of freak out. So, I think I’ll move on again.

I am not alone in any of this, I know. Anticipating the many kind comments this post is likely to prompt, I will say that I really am okay. The doctors thing? I’ll find new practitioners, and they will be fine. Better than fine, most likely. The Yankees and Mets? Many of us grow a bit irrational about our sports loyalties. For some it’s soccer, for some it’s basketball, for some it’s American football at either the pro or college level. For me it’s baseball. I’ll get over it. I do every season. And the politics? We are all under threat. We are all invested in the stability of our republic, regardless of ideology or party affiliation. And at some point, I believe, both sides will recognize the threat and turn down the temperature a bit. We will get through this.

But now you know a bit more about me. Not the prettiest of pictures. At least I’m honest, though, right?

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Roger Angell, 1920-2022

If you are not a baseball fan, and not a reader of The New Yorker, chances are the news of Roger Angell’s passing, at the age of 101, had little significance for you. But if you are familiar with his work, then you know we have lost a brilliant essayist, a keen observer of the human condition, and the greatest chronicler of baseball in the game’s history.

Angell’s achievements are legion, and others writing tributes to him can do a better job than I in summarizing his magnificent career. It is worth noting that he was the stepson of E.B. White, that he published articles and stories in the The New Yorker for a span of 76 years (that’s not a typo), and was for more than two decades the fiction editor at that august magazine. He was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame AND the American Academy of Arts of Letters. No other writer — no other person — can claim membership in both.

He was, in short, far, far more than a baseball writer.

And yet, for me, his legacy will always be tied firmly to the game.

The Summer Game, by Roger AngellBeginning in 1962, and continuing through most of the next sixty years, Angell wrote about baseball, contributing articles to The New Yorker a couple of times each season, usually once during spring training, and once at the end of the World Series. Some seasons he added a mid-season essay. His articles were later collected in volumes — The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988), and Once More Around the Park (1991). I own all of them, and have read them multiple times.

My mother was a dedicated subscriber to The New Yorker, and always had piles of them on her night table, because she could never quite keep up with all the reading. But whenever she received an issue containing a Roger Angell article, she would read it immediately so she could send it on to me, to my oldest brother, and to our sister. My father usually stole the magazine long enough to read the article as well. The appearance of an Angell piece was a family affair.

It wasn’t just that he wrote about a game we all loved. It was that he did so with poetry, with humor, and with the giddy appreciation of baseball’s unique grace only a fan can harbor and no writer, no matter how talented, can fake.

Writing in 1962, as the brand-new New York Mets franchise stumbled to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, he ruminated about their die-hard, stadium-filling fans:

It seemed statistically unlikely that there could be, even in New York, a forty- or fifty-thousand-man [sic] audience made up exclusively of born losers — leftover Landon voters, collectors of mongrel puppies, owners of stock in played-out gold mines — who had been waiting years for a suitably hopeless cause…
…This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try — antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.

He described the daring base-running of the wonderful Willie Mays (“the best ballplayer anywhere”) this way:

He runs low to the ground, his shoulders swinging to his huge strides, his spikes digging up great chunks of infield dirt; the cap flies off at second, he cuts the base like a racing car, looking back over his shoulder at the ball, and lopes grandly into third, and everyone who has watched him finds himself laughing with excitement and shared delight.

Wit, lyricism, and a fundamental understanding not just of how the game is played, but what it means to those of us who lack the talent to play at that level, but still identify with beloved teams and admired stars. Angell’s writing did more than reflect back at me my own passion for baseball. It deepened my understanding of the nuances of the sport.

More important in the long run, his work taught me about the craft to which I would devote the bulk of my life. His observations and descriptions challenged my preconceptions. I thought I knew baseball — I was a fanatic about the sport from an early age. But the game Angell described was more beautiful than the one I had seen up until that point. He made me look at it again, not as a fan, but as a storyteller. He inspired me to think like a writer, about baseball at first, but later about so much more. I read his first book when I was in junior high. His second when I was in high school. His third after I finished college. I grew up on his writing. The lessons I gleaned from his essays shaped my voice, even though I wasn’t writing about baseball at all.

Angell was born in 1920. He saw Ruth play, and Gehrig. He saw Mays and Aaron, Koufax and Gibson, Seaver and Jeter. He lived a long life filled with achievement and also with tragedy. And he wrote about it all. He continued to write pretty much to the end of his life, and I will miss his essays the way I miss watching Willie run. But his words remain, and if you are unfamiliar with his work, now is the perfect time to dive in.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Baseball, Opening Day, and Childhood Dreams

Baseball season opens this week. That might not seem like a big deal to you. And in truth, it’s far less of a big deal for me now than it used to be.

But once upon a time, Opening Day was Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. It was the best day of the year that didn’t involve me getting presents. It was a day of possibility, of dreams deferred finally having their day in the sun. And, yes, quite often, it was also the day those dreams and possibilities were doused with icy water.

When I was a kid, baseball was everything to me. Sure, I had other interests, but I lived and died with the Yankees (mostly died, for the first twelve years of my life) and I dreamed of being a major league baseball player. I remember a first grade class assignment in which we were supposed to draw a picture of ourselves in whatever job we expected to do when we grew up, and then write a few sentences about that job. I drew myself playing center field for the Yankees.

I should pause here to say that I must have been truly delusional. I was a TERRIBLE baseball player as a kid. I was terrified of getting hit by the baseball. My little league at-bats were panic-inducing affairs that saw me swinging at any pitch within four or five feet of the plate so that I could strike out more quickly. The strikeout itself was a foregone conclusion, right? So why prolong the encounter and risk devastating physical injury? Every once in a while, I would screw up the courage NOT to swing and would manage a walk.

And as I trotted down to first base, marveling at the mere fact that I was still alive, my father would clap from the stands, calling “Nice going, Charlie [his nickname for me — he did, in fact, know my real name]! Walk’s as good as a hit!”

Kind, but untrue. Walks are great — on average, players who walk a lot help their teams far more than players who walk infrequently. Still, hits are better. There are stats to back this up. But I digress . . .

What about my fielding, you might ask. Well, I was already a birdwatcher by the time I was playing little league, and I spent a lot of time out in right field, watching for interesting fly-overs, and running after hit balls that were safely on the ground and decelerating, and therefore far less of a threat . . .

[I did get a little better as I grew older. I spent three summers at sleepaway camp when I was eleven, twelve, and thirteen, and during my last year there had a pretty good season. I batted over .300 — yes, I kept track; yes, I still remember — fielded well, and generally acquitted myself quite well. But I should also say that this was a camp for well-to-do Jewish kids. Not exactly the training ground for future Major Leaguers. The pitchers I faced were more likely to wind up as orthodontists than as professional athletes.]

And still, I insisted year after year that I would someday play for the Yankees. And not just at any position. I would play center field. The realm of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. As I said: delusional. My parents tried, gently, to steer me away from this dream, pointing out that baseball players — and most professional athletes — had certain skills and attributes that I lacked. Like hand-eye coordination. And height.

Joe Morgan, 1974 Topps“Aha!!” I was able to reply. “What about Joe Morgan? Two time Most Valuable Player, perennial All-Star, World Series champion. He’s five foot seven!” Besides, I assured them. I didn’t expect or need to be six feet tall. I would be perfectly happy with five foot ten, like my hero, Roy White.

Amazingly, it was this statement that my father couldn’t abide. God bless him, he was willing to put up with my elephantine blind spot when it came to my playing ability. But me growing to be five foot ten? No. This was the bridge too far. “Charlie, I’m sorry. But you are never, ever going to be five foot ten . . .”

Spoiler alert: He was right.

I did eventually get over my baseball-playing dreams. Mostly. But baseball’s Opening Day still elicits from me a different sort of dream. “This is the year!” I tell myself, literally every year. “This is the year the Yankees will dominate the American League. The Mets will dominate the National League. The two will meet in an epic seven game World Series! I won’t even care which team wins!”

So maybe I’m still delusional.

But did you know that in 1991, when the Minnesota Twins faced the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, both teams were just one year removed from last-place finishes in their respective divisions? True story. In 1969, the Miracle Mets won 100 games and the World Series, after spending their first seven years of existence at or near the basement of the National League.

And while we’re at it, did you know that Freddie Patek, shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals, three time All-Star, was only five foot five??

Anything can happen!

And that really is the point.

Look, baseball is no longer the game I worshiped as a child. Games have gotten too long and boring. Batters swing for the fences in every at-bat. Pitchers try to strike out every batter they face. The nuance and strategy that I loved — it all seems to be gone. And yet, with Opening Day approaching, I find myself dreaming of a season in which smart baseball returns, in which the obsession with power-hitting and power-pitching fades, and this amazing game returns to the subtle brilliance I remember so fondly.

Call me delusional.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: My Favorite Things!

We are in the midst of a rainy-soon-to-be-snowy weekend here, and I am thinking about my Monday Musings post, looking for something fun and cheery to write about. There are always world issues to address, and I have been up front about emotional matters in recent months. But the truth is, I am tired of being Mr. Serious-Guy. So for today, something completely different.

I’ve thought of writing posts about a few of my favorite things (cue Sound of Music soundtrack), but none of them would actually fill a full post. Well, most wouldn’t. But how about a list of my favorite things from random categories? Kind of a Favorite Things Lightning Round. Sound fun? Here we go:

Favorite Single Malt Scotch: Starting with the hootch! Yeah, I love single malt, and we have several different kinds. I sometimes enjoy a peaty Scotch, and will also drink some specialty Scotches aged in port or rum casks (Balvenie has a great one, as does Glenmorangie). But mostly I like Speysides, which tend to be less smoky and somewhat sweeter. For my money, the best of these is the Dalwhinnie 15 year-old “Highland” Scotch. They call it a Highland, but it is technically a Speyside, and it is just lovely. I drink it neat, with just a splash of cool water. In fact, I’m feeling a little parched right now…

Favorite Jazz Album: This one is easy, and I’m really not going out on a limb at all. Miles Davis’s 1959 classic Kind of Blue, is an entry point for many who are just getting into jazz, and it was exactly that for me some 40+ years ago. Thing is, this is an album of which I never tire. Each time I listen to it I love it more. By turns haunting, toe-tapping, introspective, and dynamic, it features a who’s who of jazz superstars: Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on saxophone, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. It is brilliant. If you’ve always wanted to listen to jazz, but didn’t know where to start, this is your answer.

Favorite Jazz Album You’ve Never Heard Of: This one is a little harder, but I have to go with Sphere’s Flight Plan. Sphere is a jazz quartet that originally included Kenny Barron on piano, Charlie Rouse on saxophone, Buster Williams on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. They released Flight Plan, their second album, in 1983. It has since gone out of print, and is very hard to find. But my God, it is SO good. Like Kind of Blue, it covers a range of moods, but it is consistently excellent and utterly addictive.

Favorite Sport to Watch: I’m a lifetime baseball fan, and I still count baseball as my favorite sport, though mostly for sentimental reasons. A great baseball game remains a joy-inducing treat, and I love watching games live, at spring training venues or at the nearby Double A stadium in Chattanooga. But the truth is, today’s iteration of baseball bugs the hell out of me. Too many strikeouts and home runs, not enough nuance and strategy. Few games, even during the postseason, rise to the level of “great.” Which is why my favorite sport to watch is now soccer, specifically Premier League soccer on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Nancy and I watch a lot of soccer. It is a beautiful sport to watch. It has nearly nonstop action, and demands tremendous athleticism of its players, but it is also precise, thoughtful, steeped in strategy, and mindful of both defense and offense. Nancy roots for Tottenham. I root for Chelsea.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Favorite of My Books: The most recent one I’ve written, almost always. Which is a copout, I know. Invasives, the second Radiants book, comes out in February, so it is the most recent I’ve written, and it is my current favorite. But in another way, my favorite is probably The Outlanders, the second book in my LonTobyn Chronicle, and my second novel overall. Why? Simple. When I began my career, I knew I had one book in me, but I didn’t know if I could write for a living. Upon finishing The Outlanders, I realized it was better than my first book, Children of Amarid, a book of which I was quite proud. It was much better, in fact. And I understood then that I was not just a guy who wrote a book. I was an author. I could make a career of this.

Favorite Bird: I’ve seen close to a thousand species of bird worldwide, and I love so many of them. But one bird is what my brother Jim, who got me into birding in the first place, calls my trigger bird, the one that made me fall in love with bird watching. As it happens, he and I have the same trigger bird. Canada Warbler. Google it. I’ll wait… Beautiful, right? Sure, there are others that are even more striking, more majestic, fiercer, cooler. Whatever. This is the one that opened up the world of birds to me. I see it nearly every spring during migration. And each time the sighting leaves me smiling for the rest of the day.

Favorite TV Show We’re Binging Right Now: You have to understand, Nancy and I only got decent internet — decent enough to stream — about six months ago. So we are new to the binging thing and we love it. We are currently in the middle of The Great British Baking Show, The Crown, Madame Secretary, and our favorite, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It’s funny and smart, the performances are excellent, and the writing is great. What’s not to love?

Bloodroot and Dew Drop, by David B. CoeFavorite of My Photos: This is a hard one — even harder than choosing my favorite of my books, if for no other reason than sheer numbers: I’ve written about 26 books. I’ve taken thousands of photos. And as with my books, my favorite photo changes as I capture new images and add them to my collection. But one in particular has stood out for some time now, because with it I accomplished in a technical sense precisely what I wanted to. The photo is a macro shot of a single drop of water hanging from a Bloodroot leaf. And it works because I managed to position the drop in the optimal spot in the image, and I got the depth of field (the balance between what is in focus and what is blurred) just right. Here it is (click on the image for a larger version). Enjoy!

I might return to this “Favorites” theme again this year. I have lots of possible categories left.

For now, though, have a great week!

Monday Musings: Sports and COVID

Last year, on the weekend of the Super Bowl, I wrote a post for that following Monday about the power of sports in our culture. In it, I noted that the Big Game was one of the few truly shared experiences in our national culture, an event of vast reach that crossed many of the demographic boundaries that usually divide us as a nation. I also might have voiced some disdain for the hype, the glitz, the obscene expenditures on everything from the halftime show to the half-minute advertising spots.

What a difference a year makes.

When I wrote that post, of course, COVID-19 was not yet on our radar. Sports, among so many other things, had not yet been taken away from us.

I have missed sports far more than I thought I would. And I have found COVID-restricted sports less satisfying than I might have hoped. Usually while watching sports on television I begrudge the crowd reaction shots, the panning of packed stands, the background chants and shouts and, in the case of the Premier League, singing. I realize now, though, that those things meant something to me. I suppose, unwittingly, I got a vicarious thrill out of knowing there were thousands of people attending the game, reveling in the excitement of being there.

I don’t like the cardboard cutouts that have been placed in stadiums and arenas. I understand why they’re there, but I find it creepy and unsettling — a reminder, as if we need it, of all that is absent from our lives right now. I’m not crazy about the prerecorded crowd noise either, although, again, I understand why some venues use it. I’ll even admit that some Premier League venues (Nancy and I probably watch more Premier League soccer than we do any other sport) have done a really great job of simulating crowd reactions to play on the pitch.

Nevertheless, what I love about sports — about the entire spectacle: the game, the interaction of the players, the crowd response, even the cheesy organ playing and sound effects that still infect baseball games — is the organic nature of each event. Over the course of my life, I have watched — in person or on television — literally hundreds upon hundreds of baseball games, football games, basketball games. We’re getting there with soccer games. I have watched a ton of golf tournaments (yes, that’s right — deal with it), swim competitions, track and field meets… I could go on, but you get my point. I love sports and have watched a lot. And I have never seen any two games or meets or tournaments that were exactly alike. That may seem self-evident, but to my mind it speaks to the power of sports.

Every inning, every play, every trip down the court or assault on the opposing team’s goal is a moment of possibility. Anything can happen. Yes, the environment is controlled — action is guided by rules and confined by the field of play, but that actually enhances the experience. There is a certain level of safety in the unpredictability of sports (unlike the unpredictability of life itself, which is anything but safe).

Sports blends the thrill of the possible with the suspense of the unknown and the exploration of human potential and frailty. We watch athletes who are among the best in the world at what they do, pit themselves against one another in full view of thousands, sometimes millions. Will they fold under the pressure? Will they thrive? Will someone unexpected emerge as a hero? Will the most revered among them fail in a key moment, forever changing the way history views them?

Yes, some people will say “Who cares? It’s just sports. None of this matters.”

And they’re right. I won’t go so far as to say that the nerve-wracking suspense of a tight game, the excruciating progression of a key at-bat, has no long-term consequence. I’m merely a fan, and yet there are still sports moments that haunt me, the pain of a devastating loss as raw now as the day it happened. But the fate of the world isn’t at stake. And isn’t that exactly what we need right now?

Sadly, though, the version of sports we’re getting currently is lacking. The players and coaches are doing their best — I have no doubt of that. And I also don’t wish to be misunderstood: I welcome any sports we can have, and I have no desire to see anyone — athlete or fan — put at risk. I’ll take what I can get. Let’s be honest, though. These games are not the same. They can’t be. Playing before hordes of screaming fans has to have an effect on player performance. Yes, the greats claim that they can block out all awareness of the crowd. I don’t believe it. Do you? I haven’t seen stats, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in these COVID leagues, home field advantage has declined markedly. How could it not?

Okay, I just did a quick search online, and home-field advantage has, in fact, diminished in a number of sports. So, yeah.

Look, having any sports at all is great — far better than having none. But I long for the day when stadiums can be filled to capacity. I look forward to going to games myself, to attending spring training again with my daughter, to seeing minor league baseball in the cities near us.

Sports matter, not just to those of us who love them, but to society at large. And having people in the stands makes a huge difference as well. Don’t believe me? Consider whether Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the Major Leagues would have had the impact on America that it did if the seats in Ebbets Field been empty.

Monday Musings: The Legacy of Hank Aaron

Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron died last week. He was, of course, a baseball legend, the former home run king. He was also a civic leader, a philanthropist, and a Civil Rights activist. And he’s been an idol of mine since I was a kid.

As a baseball player, Aaron was so good as to make superlatives redundant, and so ridiculously consistent that he managed to fly under the radar, at least in a relative sense, while rewriting baseball’s record books. He entered the Major Leagues in the game’s golden age, as part of the first generation of Black superstars. It is almost impossible to understate the revolutionary impact he and the other ballplayers of his cohort had on the game.

For those of us who love baseball, there are two statistical milestones that define supreme career achievement for batters: 500 career home runs, and 3,000 career hits. At the time I graduated from high school, only twelve players in the history of baseball had hit 500 home runs. Of those twelve, eight of them hit their first home run during the 1950s, and of those eight, five were black. At the same historical moment, only fifteen players had more than 3,000 hits. And only two players, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both part of that class of Black superstars, were on both the 500 home run and 3,000 hit lists.

Even after the steroid era, which saw so many players — many of them undeserving — join that exclusive home run club, Hank Aaron still holds the record for most seasons with at least 20 home runs (20 such years). He holds the record for the most seasons with at least 30 home runs (tied, at 15), and is second only to Babe Ruth in the number of seasons with 40 home runs (tied with others at 8). When Aaron completed his career in 1976, he was second on the all-time hit list, and first on the all-time home run list. If all of his home runs had magically disappeared, he still would have had over 3,000 hits. To this day, he remains the Major League’s career leader in runs batted in and total bases.

He wasn’t as flashy as Mays, and, in fairness, he also wasn’t as good in the outfield or as fast on the base paths. He won “only” one Most Valuable Player award (in 1957) and only one World Series championship. (He played in two World Series and batted a combined .364 in fourteen games.) He never won the Triple Crown, as his contemporaries Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle did. But he led the league in batting average twice, in home runs four times, in runs batted four times, in runs scored three times, in hits twice, in doubles four times, in total bases eight times, and in slugging average four times. He won three gold gloves for outstanding fielding. He stole 30 bases in a season once, and at least 20 six times. He was voted into the All-Star game twenty-one consecutive years — another record. He wasn’t particularly big or brawny, but he had as quick a bat as anyone in the game. Said one of his teammates, “Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, deep, deep, deep in the heart of the segregated South. He loved baseball as a child, but for years wondered if he would ever have the chance to play in the Major Leagues. He was thirteen when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s race barrier. Aaron played briefly in the Negro Leagues and then played in Jacksonville, Florida for a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves. He put up with racial taunts from fans, abuse from opposing players, and indifference, even hostility, from too many of his own teammates. Much of this continued when he reached the majors.

Still, in 1960, as a popular star on the Braves, he campaigned for Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, and was said to have played a role in JFK’s crucial victory in the Wisconsin Democratic primary.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, Aaron’s pursuit of the Major League home run record in the early 1970s, after the Braves had moved to Atlanta, forced him into the national spotlight as never before, to his detriment. He and his family received death threats and cruel, horrible letters filled with racist invective. He himself said years later that his chase of the record should have been a time of joy and excitement, but was instead the darkest period of his life.

And yet, his performance on the field never suffered. In the three seasons leading up to his record-setting home run, when he was in his late thirties and should have been fading as a ballplayer, he hit 47, 34, and 40 home runs. He entered the 1974 season with 713 career homers, one behind Babe Ruth’s hallowed record. He hit the tying home run on Opening Day. He hit the record-breaking shot in his first home game of the season three nights later.

Sports Illustrated, Hank Aaron, 715I was watching that night, along with pretty much every other eleven year-old, baseball-loving boy in America. I remember everything about it — the call from announcer Vin Scully, the twist and high stare of Dodgers pitcher Al Downing as he watched the ball sail out over left field, Aaron’s joyful trot around the bases, the two white guys in civilian clothes who appeared out of nowhere as he rounded second base and patted his back and shoulder, the way his jubilant teammates mobbed him at home plate and put him on their shoulders. I still have the issue of Sports Illustrated from the next week, with Aaron on the cover holding up the baseball next to a golden, bolded “715.” And I also still have the special edition baseball card Topps issued that same year proclaiming Aaron baseball’s home run king.

The movie 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s inaugural season in the Major Leagues. It stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the President, General Manager, and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought Robinson into Major League baseball. There is a moment in the movie, which may or may not be apocryphal, when Rickey tells Robinson of seeing white kids in the streets of Brooklyn, playing baseball and copying Robinson’s batting stance, pretending to be him.

That was my friends and me when I was growing up and playing baseball on my little dead end street outside of New York City. Except by then, thanks to the black superstars of the 1950s and 60s — Mays and Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and Billy Williams and Willie McCovey and so many others — we took for granted that all of us, white and privileged though we were, wanted to emulate the Black players we idolized. We copied their batting stances and pitching wind-ups. We tried batting cross-handed, the way Aaron did when he was a young minor leaguer. We made our baseball caps fly off when we ran, like Willie Mays, and tried to make basket catches the way he did.

For many of us, baseball and other sports opened our eyes to the importance of racial equality and opportunity. That may sound ludicrous, like I’m trivializing race by couching it in the context of sports. But it’s the truth. I grew up in a politicized household. I was only five when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but my parents talked about him all the time, in glowing terms. In 1972, when I was all of nine years old, I knew about and followed Shirley Chisholm’s ground-breaking run for the Presidency.

Mine was also a baseball household. We watched other sports, but baseball was king. I heard about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella from my Dad, who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. I learned to love Willie Mays, because he was my brother Bill’s favorite player in the world. I understood that Black players had been excluded from baseball for too long and that this was a terrible injustice. How could the world be considered a fair place if Black players couldn’t even get in the game? And because I used to pore over statistics and records, I knew as well that whatever the game was like before Black players were allowed in the Major leagues, it could not have been complete. How could baseball, even in the age of Ruth and Gehrig, be the game that I knew and loved if players like Aaron and Mays were excluded?

Hank Aaron’s baseball legacy is clear. His social and historical legacy should be equally apparent. He was a man of grace, intellect, eloquence, and class who carried himself with dignity through an ordeal that should have been a celebration. By his example, his words and actions, his generosity and courage, he made this a better country. He will be missed.

Monday Musings: Lightning Round!

Sometimes my Monday Musings posts are pretty easy to write – a topic comes to me and I riff on it or rant about it. Other times, nothing comes to me at all, and just getting started is next to impossible.

And there are days like today, when I have about 20 things to say and not a lot to say about any of them.

So, welcome to the Monday Musings Lightning Round!!

This coming week, Joe Biden is expected to announce his running mate, and in the lead-up to the announcement, things in the upper echelon of the Democratic Party have been getting surreal. Seriously. First of all, why Biden would have angry old white men on his VP selection committee is beyond me. Don’t get me wrong. I like Joe. I will vote for him with conviction if not enthusiasm. But doesn’t he pretty much have the angry old white man demographic covered on his own? Does he really need Ed Rendell and Chris Dodd to be part of this conversation?

And what the hell is the matter with those two? Rendell complains that Kamala Harris, a leading candidate for the VP slot, and my personal favorite, is “too ambitious,” a charge only ever leveled at women. Ambition in men is seen as a good thing. Why not Kamala? And excuse me, but every person who has ever run for President or announced their willingness to be VP is, by definition, ambitious. What the hell am I missing here? This would be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but sadly Dodd has him beaten. Old Chris has been complaining that Harris hasn’t been “contrite” enough in conversations about her primary campaign attacks on Biden. When in the history of politics has any male candidate for ANYTHING ever had to express contrition as a prerequisite for a political post? I’ve been a Democrat all my life, and so I feel funny saying this, but Chris Dodd and Ed Rendell need to shut their fucking mouths.

The other night, Donald Trump announced that he was going to issue an executive order requiring that health insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. He called this “a big deal” and said it had never been done before. Which, of course, is not at all true. This was, and still is, a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a law that even now the Trump Administration is trying to convince the Supreme Court to overturn. Is he just that ill-informed? Is he just that cynical? Is he both? Is he just a moron? Inquiring minds want to know.

The continued viability of Major League Baseball’s abridged 2020 season is balanced on a knife’s edge. Outbreaks among several teams, most recently the St. Louis Cardinals, have caused game cancellations across the league. This abbreviated season, scheduled for 60 games rather than the usual 162, is only about two weeks old, but already I find it hard to imagine how it lasts more than a month. Other professional sports leagues, notably the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, have created “bubbles” in single venues – places where players, team staff, and press are isolated from anyone else. MLB, on the other hand, has allowed its teams to travel to their home cities. The results have been predictably poor. Seems like it’s just a matter of time before the season is called off.

As you might have guessed, I’m a baseball fan, and I am getting my baseball fix not from watching games on TV, but from playing in an online Stratomatic league with a group of friends and acquaintances. Basically, we all get to draft our teams from a large pool of all-time greats, our choices limited by a strict salary cap, and then the computer plays out the season while we tinker with our lineups, pitching rotations, and strategies. SO MUCH FUN! I know: It’s entertainment for nerds. But I love it. This is our second league since the pandemic began. In the first, my team was middle of the pack. Not great, but not terrible. I was in the hunt for a wild card playoff spot until the last two weeks, when the proverbial wheels came off. This new season, with all new teams, is going pretty well for my crew (which includes Ted Williams, Tom Seaver, and Joe Morgan), but it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

Like all of you, I’m sure, the pandemic is getting to me a bit. I would love to go out for dinner, or have a get-together with a bunch of friends. I miss my daughters terribly, having not seen either of them for way, way too long. But I count myself so fortunate for the simple reason that I love my spouse and she, for reasons surpassing understanding, seems to love me back. She goes to work every weekday, and I am working on stuff at home, but in the evenings and on weekends we basically have each other. And that’s enough. We cook together, watch TV or movies together, sip wine or Scotch or beers together. We talk a lot. We also sit next to each other on the couch reading our books or playing on our phones, saying not a word. And that’s nice, too. Here’s a phrase I never thought I’d type: There is no one with whom I would rather endure a pandemic…

I’m writing this outside on our porch (she’s working on the porch as well). It’s hot, but the breeze is picking up. We have one hummingbird feeder in the garden fronting the porch and another hanging off the porch to the side. And there must be at least ten hummingbirds harassing and chasing each other around the feeders, facing off in midair like hovercraft, buzzing past us at breakneck speeds, their wings whistling. I’m no more than ten feet from the nearest feeder, and they’re so intent on one another that they couldn’t care less about me. It’s quite entertaining, although now and then they buzz by so close to my head, that I duck belatedly.

And with that, I will wish you a wonderful week. Thanks for playing Monday Musings Lightning Round with me!

Monday Musings: The Day I Fell In Love With Baseball

I was seven years old, the youngest child by far in a household that revered baseball. I didn’t remember the exact date, but today we live in an age of marvels, and all I had to do was Google a few key phrases from the storyline of the game. August 30, 1970. That was the day I fell in love with baseball.

We were a family divided. My sister, Liz, and my brother Jim, the siblings closest to me in years, both rooted for the Yankees. Liz was — and remains — a fanatic. Jim cared less than the rest of us, but in our household, at that time, one chose a team. My oldest brother, Bill, had been a New York Giants fan until their relocation to San Francisco. He idolized Willie Mays all his life. He attended college in Boston, remained there after graduating, and — to this day, I struggle to speak the words — became a Red Sox fan. In the battle of New York teams, though, he and my father rooted for the Mets. Bill hated the Yankees the way my father hated Richard Nixon. Only my mother remained above the fray. I believe she refused to root for one particular team because she didn’t want to appear to favor one child over another.

Liz and Jim convinced me that I liked the Yankees. Jim lived at home; Liz was in college, but came home with some frequency. I attribute their victory on the battleground of team loyalties to proximity and, in Liz’s case, her single-minded determination that I. Would. Be. A. Yankees. Fan.

In that summer of 1970 I was still learning the game. I have no memory of having watched baseball before then, though no doubt I did. My baseball consciousness dates from that summer, from that day. August 30th.

Why?

Because on that day Mickey Mantle, our household’s Most Beloved Yankee, made his debut as a Yankee coach. He’d retired the year before, after a Hall of Fame career foreshortened by knee injuries and, the world later learned, excessive drinking. Mantle’s return to Yankee Stadium, and in particular his appearance in the first base coach’s box in the fourth inning, was a big deal in New York. So much so, that I resolved to watch the game. We had a color TV at that point, but it was downstairs in the family den, and clearly my father and mother were watching something else on the good set.

I was exiled to my parents’ room, home of our old black and white television. The game was on WPIX, channel 11, the Yankees’ local affiliate. It was sponsored, like all Yankee games at that time, by Schaefer Beer — “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Yes, that was really the slogan. Quite a distance from “Please drink responsibly.”

Roy White, Yankees # 6, LF. 1972 Topps cardThe Yankees were playing the Minnesota Twins, a powerful team lead by perennial all-star Tony Oliva and future Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew. The Twins jumped out to an early lead, gave a run back, but still led 2-1 in the fifth inning, the second inning of Mantle’s stint as coach. The Yankees managed to load the bases and, with two outs, their left fielder, a guy named Roy White, stepped to the plate.

At this point, I was riveted to the game. I was in the process of realizing that I really, really liked baseball. I enjoyed following the broadcast on my own, without anyone else trying to explain stuff to me. But, of course, I was desperate for the Yankees to tie things up or take the lead. It didn’t seem right that Mickey Mantle should lose his first game as coach.

The Twins pitcher was a nineteen-year-old rookie named Bert Blyleven. I later learned that he was from the Netherlands, like both my grandparents on my father’s side. For much of his stellar career, he was the only Dutch player in the Major Leagues. He won a lot of games and struck out a lot of players with a strong fastball and a wicked curve. He, too, was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1970, I knew none of this, and wouldn’t have cared. We needed runs!

Roy White hit Blyleven’s first pitch to what was known in New York as Death Valley, the vast expanse of Yankee Stadium’s left field. Oliva, a fine defensive player, drifted back to the wall, but could only watch as White’s fly cleared the fence for a grand slam home run. Yankees 5-2. I am certain that I cheered and jumped up and down, no doubt earning a rebuke from my father downstairs.

That proved to be the final score. Mickey had his first coaching win. And I had a new favorite player. From that time until his retirement in 1979, Roy White was my hero. He wasn’t as well-known as some other Yankees, but he was quietly consistent. He got his share of hits, drew a lot of walks, hit the occasional long ball, played a solid if unspectacular left field, and always comported himself with class and dignity.

My memories of that day fifty years ago are remarkably clear, but the game as I was getting to know it then feels a long way removed from where we are now.

With baseball’s return this past weekend, to empty stadiums with pre-recorded cheers and, in some cases, cardboard cut-out fans, I feel especially nostalgic for the baseball of my youth. I still love the game, though I find my affection for it tested by too many strikeouts and an over-reliance on the home run, by unbearable delays in play and rule changes that rankle, by steroids and cheating scandals, by labor disputes between millionaire players who are barely older than my children and billionaire owners who seem to care only about their bottom lines.

I haven’t stopped rooting for the Yankees, although I will admit to a brief flirtation with the Mets in the mid-80s, when their young, dynamic stars were New York’s darlings. I tend to attach to players as much as to teams. Roy White. Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry. Derek Jeter. Now Aaron Judge. But it is the game itself that I love. Yes, I complain about the pace of play, but part of what draws me to baseball is the absence of a clock. Time is meted out in pitches and outs and innings — the perfect units with which to mark the passage of a languid summer afternoon or evening. And there is nothing in sports that I enjoy more than the baseball playoffs and World Series. I watch every game and lament the end of the postseason the way I once lamented the end of summer vacation.

That said, I can’t get as excited about the game as I used to, for all the reasons I mentioned before, and for a host of reasons that have everything to do with me and nothing to do with the game. Perhaps it’s inevitable that middle age should lessen our passion for such things. Family, friends, work, a world in need of salvation and healing — these are the concerns that consume me today. And yet, on some level, I remain that seven-year-old kid waiting for the clutch hit or the crucial strikeout. I miss the days when my greatest worries were about the Yankees’ upcoming series against the Sox and the possibility that this year’s Roy White wouldn’t be in the pack of baseball cards I’d just bought.

A simpler time.

I wish you all a wonderful week.