The Lessons of Working Up an Honest Sweat

Lately, I have been struggling to put up any new posts or to spend much time polishing what does get up. The reason is that the revision of a book I finished a year ago has sucked me in. Once I begin a project like this one, I can’t juggle very much else at the same time. I acquire a kind of vision of where the work should be going, and I need for my mind to cling closely to that vision as I wade through all the chapters that stray hither and yon from it. I can’t simply give the thing an hour’s attention one day and half an hour’s two days later: I have to maintain focus.

Before I start making myself sound like Michel de Montaigne, I should confess that the work in question is about baseball swings as taken a century ago with very different bats. Most people would find that admission a big let-down… “Oh! I thought maybe you were writing about the possibility of preserving our humanity as Artificial Intelligence absorbs more and more of our mental function.” I would scarcely redeem myself before such a commentator if I added that no book whatever exists on the subject, that casual references to yesteryear’s hitting techniques are ludicrously imprecise and inept, and that my crazy dream is eventually to teach some of what I’ve learned through research and experimentation to young people who’ve been told that they’re too small to play the game.

For, yes, there’s a kind of mission involved in this project. I watched my son get nudged aside and passed over for the better part of two decades as he tried to advance and improve in the game he so loved, all because of his size. It ticked me off. It still does, in retrospect. And so I started learning about hitting, and learning more… all of it too late to do him any good, of course; but one of the morals of my study is indeed that much of this sport depends on technique rather than size, and that it seems otherwise only because the professional gurus no longer know the old techniques.

I will add in this forum, though, that yet further and broader lessons might be gleaned from my work. One is that life generally is a terrain occupied by mutually supporting groups of “specialists” who understand nothing beyond their microscopic sphere of expertise—and who often don’t understand that, either, but unite to conceal their ignorance before a dazed public of “uninitiated outsiders”. I can say this confidently, because I have made myself an expert on the subject of yesteryear’s hitting in the game of baseball—and yet much of what I wrote about year ago in the book’s first version is utter crap. My satisfaction in how much I’ve learned lately is more or less neutralized by my chagrin at how wrong I got it all just a few months ago. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we should always remember that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Another lesson is that we forget our culture’s past at our own considerable risk. The assumption has been made in hitting instruction that the oldtimers were comical amateurs who practiced their art about the same way that the Wright brothers practiced flying. You don’t really think that Wilbur and Orville could teach you anything about your Cessna, do you? Probably not, in terms of handling the controls… but maybe they could tell you something about the fear of the unknown or about how to keep a cool head in a crisis.

Finally (just because I need to get on with it today), I have learned that a boy needs to try his hand at something physical, and that a man needs to retain that interest in the active. As politically incorrect as it is to say, boys are in more trouble than girls today because the insulated, safety-net society is more damaging to them. They need to undertake, to initiate… and that means that they must come to know failure well and learn to attack a resistant problem from a different angle. Baseball offers all sorts of opportunity to earn an advanced degree in failure: it breaks you heart. But it can also, for that very reason, teach you how to put a heart back together again.

As for grown men, they—we—need to get out from behind our keyboards once in a while and swing a bat, throw a ball, bail some hay, drive some nails (not with a pneumatic nail-gun, please)… they need to do something other than vegetate with their “ideas”. I’m convinced that quality of thought actually deteriorates as physical contact with the world of hard labor is lost. Indeed, almost all of our political and existential dilemmas in the West are owed somewhat to our losing touch with basic reality. When I was still trying to be a “scholar”, many moons ago, I wrote a little piece about a 2,500-year-old fragment of Sappho’s where she compares a woman getting married rather late in life to an apple that has grown high on the tree, out of reach of the pickers. I pointed out that these are the best fruit because they get so much sun: they grow the largest and taste the sweetest. Any ancient Greek hearing Sappho’s poem would have known that… but the great “scholar” who reviewed my piece could only sniff and turn up his nose because I hadn’t indicated another poet from whom Sappho might have borrowed the image. She borrowed it from life, stupid!

Thank God—and baseball—that my son hasn’t grown up to be a “scholar”!

Advertisements

Greed Downs Honesty 10-0 at Coors Field

My son, knowing of my fascination with the physics of baseball (and perhaps mistaking it for a love of the game as it’s now played), wanted to surprise me with tickets to the Cubs-Rockies game when I was in Denver last week.  That was the day when an afternoon hailstorm broke out windshields all over the city.  Rain continued non-stop: it was perfectly clear to anyone with half an eye and a two-digit IQ that no baseball would be played that night.

Yet the official word was that the show would go on.  So we duly drove downtown during rush hour in a cold, steady drizzle to crawl our way into a parking deck and trek miserably to the ballpark.  Since nobody could take a seat in the unprotected areas (and since Cub fans represent a massive cult in any American city), the bottled-up throng could scarcely be navigated.  Moving from A to B was like trying to get a red square on one corner of Rubic’s Cube without shifting the blue one on the far side.  (I could never master the Cube.)

With my martyred wife in tow, we tried to find something edible.  Really amazing, how a big league ballpark can’t even give a concession to Chipotle or Subway.  Disgusted by the options, we exited the stadium to explore nearby sports bars and bistros.  Of course, all were overflowing… and the rain continued to pour.

At last we returned to the park and managed to find a dry spot.  (My son had paid pretty good money for seats that turned out to be sheltered.)  No longer hungry, we just watched the great green field soak up more water under blazing light towers.  Half an hour later, the game was officially postponed.

No one can convince me that the string-pullers of this operation ever had any serious intention of giving the green light.  No–they saw a chance to draw thousands of people downtown to spend a pointless wait milling about beer, burger, and nacho concessions.  I’m sure the local bars also loved the decision.

This is one thing I hate about Big Baseball.  It’s big business, in the worst corporate sense.  It taps into a clientele so vast that alienating a few hundreds or thousands here and there, now and then, poses no threat to the overall Product.  We’re cattle, straining to get through the chutes and to the troughs wherein the Operators have poured an insipid swill for us to slop down.  No consideration for the struggles of the little guy fighting weather and traffic, not a thought given to the several dozen fender-benders that likely occurred around game time, a big shrug to the hundreds of cases of sniffles that children and oltimers would suffer the next day… hell, it’s a business.  If you don’t like the risks of patronizing it, go fishing.

Message to MLB: I’m not holding anything in my hand (or my wallet) that I’m willing to pass to your side of the table.  Go fish.

Open Letter to the National Christian College Athletic Association

Dear NCCAA:

My wife and I lately attended a baseball tournament hosted in McPherson, Kansas, specifically witnessing three games on May 11 and 12 in which our son’s school participated. We were pretty shocked. Speaking for myself, as a Christian, an educator, and a human being raised in civilized circumstances, I came away feeling that the tenor of this competition was far too often disgraceful and disgusting.

Full disclosure requires me to admit that our team did not fare well, nor was my son’s single stint as a relief pitcher a success. On the other hand, CCU has under-achieved all season; and as for my son’s performance, he was actually victimized (as usual) not by poor execution on his part, but by the weak defenders behind him. In these regards, nothing made May 11-12 any different from what I’ve observed all season long.

I will further admit that the irritation caused to me and all the parents near me (not to mention, most likely, some sitting on the other side) during our first game with Ecclesia College was entirely owing to a single boisterous mother, whose bellowing surpassed anything I recall even from the earliest days of Little League. It’s a real jolt to observe such behavior in college grandstands… but only one such stentorian orifice is needed to spread a dark auditory cloud over the whole field of play.

Things became more concerning on Friday. We actually began the day by handing Dallas Christian College their second of two crushing defeats, and they handled their misfortunes with dignity and humor. The problem started when the Ecclesia squad collected in the grandstands to follow the game’s outcome and know of their own fate in the tournament. I myself didn’t witness the heavy tobacco chewing and spitting that went on among that group, because I was determined to keep a distance between myself and Foghorn Mama; but my wife and several other parents remarked that finding a clean place to pass on the sidewalk was growing difficult.

Tobacco-chewing is a squalid and unhealthy habit which is unbecoming of a well-groomed and self-controlled person, let alone a Christian gentleman. Bobby Richardson didn’t do it, and neither did Dale Murphy. By the way, it’s also against NCAA rules and the codes now enforced in most minor leagues.

Yet it happens, especially in our neck of the woods. Several levels worse, in my opinion, is the consumption of caffeinated substances before a game in such quantities that one’s “enthusiasm” cannot be reined in. This was the state into which I suspect Southwestern Christian University’s players had medicated themselves for our final game. I know enough about amphetamine use in the MLB (Hank Aaron once wrote that “greenies” were always overflowing a bowl in the clubhouse like candy) and various caffeine/alcohol/nicotine-laced cocktails (such as Ron Darling described in accounting for the 1986 Mets’ success) to understand that the game has long been riddled with such stuff. I do not know what the NCAA rules are in this regard; but again, though certain spiritual leaders tell us these days that Christians never judge another person, I’m pretty sure that deliberately impairing your self-control in order to reach Dionysiac energy and ecstasy isn’t something Christ would have approved.

For this team was out of control. Their manager, early on, protested a relatively routine and uncontroversial call by shouting and gesticulating angrily on the field. Everyone on the bench was howling, screeching, mocking, jeering, and chanting from the first pitch to the last. Naturally, the game has a long and not very respectable tradition of deriding opponents from the dugout; but such remarks are always sniper fire, not constant artillery barrages. I could scarcely sit back and take in any of the plays—which, I suppose, was probably the purpose of the display. If SCU’s members and boosters wanted the rest of us just to long for early and maximum physical distance from the ballpark, they were indeed a huge success. Never have I sat through such an annoying and repellent two hours at a baseball field.

It was in this atmosphere, of course, that I had to watch my son throw the last pitches he would ever make in a uniform. I would be less than honest if I denied feeling almost furious about that. But the less subjective, more important issue is that human beings can’t normally behave this way except under the influence of some kind of stimulant. If a drug test had been administered before the game, the SCU squad would have produced some very interesting results.

As we returned to our car afterward, my wife and I overheard one coach say to a player, “I’m so hoarse I can hardly talk. But we came out on top—that’s all that matters.”

NCCAA will forever remain tarnished in my memory. I suppose anyone who wants is free to participate in its events… but in my opinion, one of the “c’s” needs to be dropped. I can tell you as a teacher with almost forty years experience that the one factor most discrediting to Christianity in the eyes of young non-Christians is hypocrisy. The faithless perceive us as all-for-show, “do as I say, not as I do” phonies. It’s precisely because of occasions like the McPherson tournament that they come away with such an impression… and who can blame them? In its own small way, that tournament gave a black eye to our faith; and, as many such displays throughout our culture add their individual punches and kicks—all under an ostentatious Cross—we crucify our savior all over again.

Really, really sad.

The Lights Dim on Boyhood’s Last Hour

For Mother’s Day, I can’t do better than post the photo that I took with my iPad on Friday night. My son was excused from attending his college graduation on Saturday so that he could represent CCU in a tournament. That tourney was a story unto itself, and I’ll tell it later; but as the field cleared at 9:30 on Friday evening and the groundskeeper warned us that he would shortly kill the lights, I realized that I needed a shot with whatever device I could operate.

The result was worse than amateurish. The two light towers obscured the figures in the middle–and I was too dumb to see it happening. On the other hand… upon reflection, I really love this photo. God must have smiled on my incompetence, because I couldn’t have created anything half so wistful if I’d tried. Think of it. This young man has lived for baseball since he was a six-year-old boy–and when he takes off his uniform tonight, he’ll never put on another. His sainted mom has collected some of her gray hairs from being dragged all over the lower forty-eight to tournaments… and now, as the lights await the final switch, she has cheered her boy’s last pitches. Yes, the faces are cast in a shadow–as they should be. They and all the hundreds of other figures who played on and cheered around those many green fields (did I write hundreds? no, thousands!) are slipping away into the mystical Land of Youth. They will not revisit our world again, or only as ghosts or in dreams.

The game did not go well, either for our team or for my boy, in particular. Balls just barely fell in or rolled through that might have been snatched and turned to outs with a little more luck or skill. That, too, was entirely appropriate. Baseball is a cruel game. It always finds a way to break your heart. Like life, its ultimate lessons are those of failures and missed opportunities. So why grieve that we shall have no such heartache ever again? I don’t know. Maybe because to live free of failure at last, safely out of its reach, is to have no life at all.

So the final lights are out, for the final time. Goodbye, my little boy–my big boy! I wish I’d been smart enough to teach you more about the game, and sooner… for I, too, failed. Oh, the man I see in that uniform is a great success: I’m not ignoring or diminishing that. But… my boy is gone! Just let me grieve his passing now and then, when I see a ghost.

The Ruling Elite Take Another Tiny Step into the Sporting World

The trend is so new that I consumed fifteen minutes in finding a single photo to illustrate it. Just this spring, Major League Baseball has decided to start throwing accents liberally over Spanish names, both on the backs of uniforms and on televised graphics.

At first I thought that the move was “hypertrophic”–that MLB’s politically correct elite wanted so much to show sensitivity to diverse cultures that accents were ordered to appear where they had no grammatical business. Then I discovered that my Spanish isn’t quite as reliable on this score as I’d thought. The general rule is that the penultimate syllable of a word tends to be stressed, and that an accent appears whenever that tendency is violated. Beltrán goes against the tendency: Vargas does not. Ramos and Navarro are good to go as they stand: Céspedes and Rincón require an accentual alert. Yet a little research informed me that proper names seem to involve an unusual number of anomalous cases. Why does Márquez have an accent–or González, or Martínez? I don’t know… but, okay, I guess the MLB did its homework for a change.

Then again, upon still further thought, my old misgivings returned to me. Yeah, so all of those names ought to have accents in their original tongue… but who is going to maul the handle of someone named Gonzalez or Martinez? Where do we see a similar concern over the butchery of Italian names with the -ng or -gl consonantal clusters? The pronunciation is “Tony Co-nil-YER-o”, you dopes, not “Co-nig-lee-ER-o”! (And when the lovely Jen Carfagno of the Weather Channel pronounces her surname “Car-FAG-no”, I want to hide in a hole and cover my ears. So, Jen… do you order la-SAG-na at a restaurant?)

What about Gaelic names? Shouldn’t a guy named Toole demand Tuathal on the back of his jersey? Can a guy named Rowe insist upon Ruadh? There’s a lot more than a mere accent missing from these!

“Accent-mania” reveals the political elite (and, believe me, that elite is very much ensconced at ESPN and among owners of professional sports teams) wanting to put its support of cultural diversity on display for all the world to see; and, as usual–as always–that support reeks of condescension. Only select minorities are eligible for the big-brotherly arm around the shoulder, as if the Enlightened Ones were saying, “There, there, now, you lovable but ignorant Latinos. We know that you’re having a lot of trouble with English, and we don’t think you should even have to learn it. See? We’re going to require that the accents be kept over your names–your nombres. Or, wait… is that the word for ‘number’? Whatever. We just want you to know that we have your back. Ha-ha-ha! Your back–get it? Un hoko bueno, no? Musgrave, go look up the word for ‘joke’.”

The children of Hispanic immigrants that appear in my classes have often been given Christian names like “Ashley” and “Melanie”, even though there are a million really beautiful Spanish names. Their parents want them to assimilate. Our political-economic elite don’t care if the masses they invite to the U.S. ever assimilate or not; in fact, they would prefer the negative, since disoriented and needy masses always opt for a greater presence of Big Brother in their lives. Now, patrón is a good example of a word whose final syllable is stressed. You should get to know that one. It names a kind of person who’s starting to play a really prominent role in all our lives.

Baseball: A Tidy Morality Tale of Degradation Through Technology

Baseball season officially begins tomorrow. I love baseball… but not as I used to. Or, rather, I still love the game, but I don’t much care for the way professionals play it now. It used to be so much more tailored to the pastoral motions of a country lad swinging a scythe or an axe, with all the body’s members working in concert and clever hands getting every last bit of possible acceleration out of a handle. Now it belongs to big, muscular men who hurl their equipment around like barbells in the weight room and are carefully insulated from flying debris by special gloves, special pads, special flaps and guards. The finesse is gone. The higher skills are gone. Even the fielders’ mitts are virtual butterfly nets. The whole dance has grown comparatively predictable and boring.

The late Ralph Kiner was the only commentator I ever noticed awarding proper credit to the altered bat for the game’s degeneration. Bats were once a yard long, with little tapering. Hitters (or “strikers”, as the nineteenth century knew them) used their sticks to balance as a tightrope walker does before they actually carried a saber-like swipe straight into the pitch, smacking it with spread hands whose fingers were as cunningly positioned along the handle as a flautist’s on his melodious instrument. Even when I was a boy, Mantle and Mays still had very level strokes and could make split-second adjustments with their feet and hands.

Wooden bats were always cracking and shattering, though—and replacing them cost money. High schools and colleges were only too happy to shift to aluminum models in the Seventies that could be used all year long and were hence much kinder to the budget. As the metal alloys employed were refined, the new-age bat was reshaped to proportions that wood couldn’t possibly have imitated (though big league models would come ever so close by the Nineties). Barrels grew massive and handles toothpick-thin. Length also diminished to allow yet more mass to be packed into the barrel. In turn, this meant that loss in the acceleration of the longer bat’s sweet spot had to be supplemented by placing the hands all the way down on the knob—and also (as soon became apparent) by recruiting taller boys with longer arms. Tall boys seldom have quick, clever feet. Fortunately, fine footwork wasn’t required for the evolving swing: the lower body grew almost stationary, allowing the upper body to wale down on the pitch from high over the rear shoulder and put maximal backspin on the ball in the (ever less likely) event that contact was made. A backspun ball will climb very high; and if a really tall boy hits it really high on a slightly windy day, it will end up sailing over a fence. Otherwise, and especially for shorter boys, it becomes a simple pop-up—a “can of corn”.

So thanks to technology, baseball became a big boy’s game, and then a big man’s game. The steroids scandals of the Nineties might never have happened if bats had not shifted shape so as to reward blunt upper-body strength. Now we spectators have become so used to seeing the home run as the only alternative to the tedious pop-up (or the weak ground ball—the consequence of a steep downward swing that comes too early and meets the ball on its upward follow-through) that nothing else in the game interests us. We prefer the annual Home-Run Derby to the All Star Game that it precedes; and certain “innovators” are seriously suggesting, even, that we cut extra-inning affairs short by staging a home-run shootout the way soccer breaks ties with penalty kicks.

For those who care, this is quite a fascinating morality tale. A massive, across-the-board degradation of skills among players, strategy among coaches, and even patience and taste among spectators was all set in motion by a seemingly benign adjustment in the bat’s building material at lower levels of the game. We practically never see the entire range of consequences that will follow from technological change: the variables are too numerous and human behavior too complex. Yet once we have embarked upon the changes, we can almost never work our way back up the road after rethinking our selection. Indeed, we can almost never rethink it, because the new ways too quickly reprogram our entire outlook. We become trapped in the devastating folly of supposing our lifestyle better and better merely because it’s not that of our grandparents. We have no idea what we’ve lost; and, in our Lilliputian cocksureness, we scoff at the notion that we have lost anything at all.

Peter Pan Run Amuck in the Era of Passion, Sass, and Exhibitionism

I heard a ballplayer whose glory days were in the Eighties opine on TV yesterday that he wished he had been more expressive while in uniform–more “passionate”, like the studs of today.  Fist-pumps, bat flips, victory dances in the dugout after a home run… he apparently found all this more “honest” on the player’s part and more entertaining from the spectator’s chair.  There’s something (and I should say quite a lot) that this old warrior oddly doesn’t understand about yesteryear’s Boys of Summer.  Yes, they wouldn’t let you get away with such gallivanting-monkey routines.  The pitcher would deck you with his best fastball the next time you stepped into the box–or the opposing team might not even let you get back to your bench before pouring out onto the field.  Why was that?  Was it because the old boys weren’t involved in the game–because they lacked “passion”?

Just the reverse, actually.  They were so absorbed in their chores that, should an adversary dance a derisive jig upon their best effort brought to naught, the insult bit them to the marrow. No one back then was trying to launch balls in some exhibitionist home run derby or spread his bright feathers in a slam-dunk contest: they were, as George Will has called them, men at work. The day’s labor of a working man doesn’t deserve to be scoffed at. Try it at your peril.

The lads of today, in contrast, do not bring an adult’s pride and determination to their job site. They bring a kid’s vainglory and frivolity. Like children, they have not yet fully grasped the self/other distinction. They can sense in any given moment no more than their own exultation, narcissistically–they cannot imagine what chagrin they would feel at the receiving end of a defeat and extrapolate that sentiment to the proud foe they have just vanquished.

We see this pathological childishness in so many theaters of pop culture that I really can’t think of one where it fails to appear. Take but a single further example. Tomi Lehren exploded upon Twitter and YouTube and won herself a nice gig on The Blaze by sassing her political adversaries. My limited exposure to her never suggested to me that she lacked intelligence or sensitivity, given the chance to display them–but her shtick did not involve giving herself many such chances. Young, petite blonde chick who’s twenty-five while looking and sounding all of twelve, Tomi could nyah-nyah at Black Lives Matter or campus protesters in vagina hats with all the joy and spirit of a brat kid at the zoo chucking rocks into the tiger’s cage. This is what people wanted to see her do… and so she did it, right up until the moment when she got a little too sassy and struck the tiger in the eye. It remains to be seen if Glenn Beck will renew her employment after she–in one of those endzone boogies that draws an “unsportsman-like conduct” flag–styled the abortion-opponents of her party hypocrites while congratulating herself for her marvelous coherence. All the issue’s complexities flew away in a toss of golden hair and in tones of juvenile but winsome smugness… and away went the paycheck, too.

Of course, no one made Beck employ Tomi, to begin with–and he knew exactly what he was buying. My dismay is over why such juvenilia sells. Is there no hope for us to recover any gravitas, any internal ballast, and sense of substantial selfhood hidden away from the world’s prying eye, ever again in this age of constant posing? Have we culturally contracted a terminal case of chronic adolescence?