The everyday game

green

Today I got to meet some fans of the game I love. In everyday life, I’m not always very talkative. In truth, I’ll take writing over speaking every time. But when the subject is baseball, that’s a different story. I could talk about baseball all day long.

In the process of talking about the game today, I articulated something that I’ve never thought about too much before. What makes baseball great, in part, is that for six months a year, there are games going on every single day. Football doesn’t have that. Hockey, basketball, and every other team sport makes their fans wait for another game. But not baseball. There’s a game today, there’s a game tomorrow, there’s going to be games on (nearly) every single day until the end of October. And I love that.

Football, in particular, seems to be particularly cruel to its fans. Six days out of every week are devoted to talking about a game, analyzing a game, and doing everything except actually  playing the game. Not so with baseball. Every day is a chance to start over, to do something memorable, or to atone for something from the previous day. And it gets no better than that.

Changing college sports as we know them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Today–March 26, 2014– is the 35th anniversary of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird title game in the NCAA tournament. I remember watching that game as a ten year-old kid in Springfield, Illinois. It was broadcast on NBC, instead of on CBS. There was no three point stripe, no shot clock, and no possession arrow. The NCAA logo was some silly interlocking letters arranged inside a circle. The game followed a third-place game, where the two teams that lost in the Final Four still had one last chance to salvage something. In short, there were still five men on a side and the team that scored the most points won the game, but otherwise the modern sports fan would hardly recognize it.

And on the anniversary of that game, which arguably changed basketball itself for the next decade, the NLRB handed down a ruling that Northwestern’s football players can vote to form a union. There are many writers and fans bemoaning the ruling, saying that it will “change college sports as we know them.” To which I reply, change happens all the time in life. The NCAA championship game from 1979 (which is within my living memory) is all the proof anyone needs that change is inevitable, in sports and in life itself.

To those who would bemoan the loss of something in college athletics, I would invite them to consider that the athletes on the floor in the basketball tournament, and on the field during the bowl games and in the regular season, are generating millions of dollars for their schools, yet they aren’t allowed to share in any of it. The schools do award scholarships and provide room and board, but they keep the money and in turn make their professional coaches into wealthy men. They give the chattering heads of CBS, ESPN, and a thousand other places something to talk about and write about and take pictures of. They allow the advertisers to reach a captive audience and sell more product. And what do these athletes get in return? Not what they should, if you ask me.

There will never come a time when the NCAA, in its benevolence, decides to share the wealth with the players who do the work and assume the risks. There will never come a time when a school pays for the long-term medical bills of a player who gets hurt playing a game, while wearing their school’s colors. And there will never come a time when a player who can’t keep up with his academics and his team responsibilities is told that academics are why they are in school. Football comes first, or basketball comes first, and everyone understands this. But it’s wrong and it needs to stop.

It’s ironic that the very first Final Four, or the first time that NCAA schools competed on the same floor for a basketball championship, happened on Northwestern’s campus, all the way back in 1939. I know that that was basketball and today’s ruling applies to football, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Northwestern–my alma mater–showed the NCAA the possibilities that a championship tournament offered. And 75 years later the Final Four, and the tournament leading up to it, is a money-making juggernaut. But what Northwestern giveth in basketball, it taketh away in football and–soon enough–in basketball, too.

If making money from the toil of players who don’t get to fully share in the pie they create seems fair, I will respectfully disagree with that premise. Million-dollar coaches don’t play the games; the players do. And the false hope of a professional payday–which the overwhelming majority of college athletes will never get to see–is shameful. It’s gone on for too long, and the sooner it comes to an end, the better.

Kudos to Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team, for sowing the seeds that will one day bring about some much-needed and long-overdue changes in college sports.

Oh yeah, life goes on

014

It was a typical Saturday of taking my daughters to their various meetings today, but it started, as it often does, at the ice skating rink. And the TV was tuned, as it so often is, to Sportscenter on ESPN. I’m sure that the skate moms aren’t much interested in the day’s sports headlines, but whoever makes the decisions about what to put on in the morning is probably in tune with me, on some level.

The ESPN highlights this morning included the sort of thing that made ESPN so exciting once: a backboard being shattered at what looked like a high school basketball game. When Darryl Dawkins broke two backboards back in 1979, ESPN (which had just gone on the air that September) showed the footage over and over again. These occurrences got more exposure than they would have received back in the dark days when the only way to get sports highlights was on the local news at night. I remember those days, and ESPN caught on, in part, because people want to see sports more than just a few minutes of an evening. People’s appetite for sports, in fact, is nearly limitless.

I say all of this because as thrilling as a backboard shattering dunk once was for me, seeing one as an adult hit me much differently than it did back in the late 1970s. For one thing, it occurred to me that the game in question probably came to an end when the backboard was shattered, or at least there would have been a terribly long delay in clearing the court and hanging a new backboard, assuming that it could be done in an hour or less.

And, on top of the existential threat to the game itself, the cost of a new backboard would have to be absorbed by somebody. Maybe there’s insurance to cover it, and maybe there isn’t. But either way, backboards aren’t free, and the money would have to come from somewhere.

It seemed that a shattered backboard was less of an exciting thing to me at this stage of my life than it would have been to me as a teenager. From the look of it, the fans in the stands were enjoying the sight of shattered glass in their gym. But it created headaches for some people as well, and I realize that now more than I ever would have in the days of Darryl Dawkins.

After my daughter took to the ice for her skating lesson, I went back to the car and turned on the radio. The first song that I heard was the guitar part of John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” and the lyrics “Oh yeah, life goes on…long after the thrill of living is gone.” It seemed funny that Mellencamp’s lyrics somehow applied to glass backboards being shattered. My thrill of seeing one–such as I had when Darryl Dawkins did it–has now been replaced by more grown-up concerns about what such an event means to the game and to somebody’s bottom line. Life sure has gone on, just as Mellencamp predicted it would

Consider this a little ditty about crackin’ backboards…..

Link to a post on ChicagoSideSports

charlessmith

This was the greatest moment of the Bulls 1990s championship run. There were many of them, of course, and others will probably have a moment they like better. So be it.

20 years have gone by since this happened back in June of 1993, and the young guy that I was back then is no more. But I remember this moment well, and I felt a responsibility to share those remembrances with those who there, and also with those who were not yet born or were too young to understand.

Here’s the piece, and enjoy the trip down Memory Lane. I know I sure did.

He was the villain

Starks

Saturday morning, Lincolnwood, Illinois

This morning I find myself at an estate sale. I’ve visited them before, and written about them before, and today is more of the same: picking through the worldly possessions of someone who’s no longer worldly. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, over and over again in Slaughterhouse-Five, “So it goes.”

I come across upon a large box of baseball cards from the early 1990s, but the sale’s proprietor wants much more than I think they’re worth. They aren’t worth the cardboard they’re printed on, in my view, but pawing through a box of them is sort of interesting, so we agree that I can pull out the ones I wanted for a dollar.  So I’m looking for something of interest, and I found it in the form of this John Starks basketball card.

In the early 1990s, during the first Bulls’ championship run, John Starks was the embodiment of  the New York Knicks. They were the only team that could threaten the Bulls, and they came within an eyelash of actually beating them, but for this remarkable defensive sequence. Starks had the ball, and thought about shooting it but passed the ball off to Patrick Ewing, who then passed it to Charles Smith under the basket. I’m sure Smith just wishes that Starks or Ewing had shot the ball instead.

As I’m walking out of the sale, recalling those glorious times from twenty years ago, my eye catches the Bulls logo on the shorts of whoever it is that’s defending Starks. I laugh at the irony of this. Of all the teams it could have been on that player’s shorts, it had to be the Bulls. It’s almost as if Starks has no purpose, other than serving as the Bulls erstwhile, yet ultimately unsuccessful foe. In a very weird twist of fate, Starks played four games in a Bulls’ uniform in 2000, after he had left New York. Seeing him in a Bulls’ jersey is proof that anything can happen.

I pay a dollar, and leave the sale with a reminder of the Bulls’ glory days and a story to tell on my blog. That seems like a fair trade to me.

A late summer’s afternoon in the park

Standing atop a small little dirt incline that’s enough to pass for a hill around here, I saw it all quite clearly. The scene that I had spent ten minutes surveying, pondering, and trying to get a few pictures of finally came into focus for me. And it inspired me to write, because there isn’t much else that I can do about it.

Off to the left, a youth football team ran through a tackling drill. The coach blew the whistle over and over, directing the action, and telling his players he wanted to see some harder hitting. In the foreground, a number of teenagers played a pickup basketball game, which was limited to half-court because one of the rims had been pulled down and never replaced. But no matter, they were running around and having a good time. And in the background sat an empty and neglected baseball field.

The diamond itself would have needed a significant amount of work to get it into a playable condition. Rather than tilling the soil, and evening out the gaps where puddles had formed and then dried away, the most attention that anyone had given this field was some artwork that had been sketched out with a stick, and some tire marks indicating that it had been used as a dirt track by somebody. Nobody was going to tend to this infield, because nobody would use it if they did. No kids were playing catch, or shagging fly balls, or anything else to suggest an interest in baseball, the game that I would have been playing in a park during my youth.

Major league baseball still survives and, for the fortunate few who make it onto a big league field, it’s an escape from a life of ordinariness. But American kids today don’t grow up wanting to be the next Tom Seaver, or George Brett, or Reggie Jackson. Some kids in the Dominican Republic, Asia, or other places where the big league teams are now actively mining for talent have their own role models, but they aren’t the ones that I had when I was young.

American kids want to be more like Derrick Rose than they want to be like Mike Trout. He and Bryce Harper have proven that baseball can still resonate with younger kids in the internet age that we now live in. But when baseball’s pennant races are heating up, it makes it all the more obvious that baseball has been left behind, in the imaginations of most American kids. Today’s kids are tomorrow’s athletes, and they aren’t going to be on the diamond in any significant numbers.

Change is inevitable, and I write about it all the time in this space. Sometimes change happens and I’m happy about it, and other times I wish things could just stay as they are. But change doesn’t need my approval in order to move ahead. In fact, it often happens despite my nostalgic pining for the days of yore. I couldn’t stop it, even if I wanted to, and there’s a certain helplessness in that.

But on the other hand, I can still acknowledge the change, while not fully embracing it. I can point out what came before, and try to capture just a little piece of it for anyone who might someday wonder about it. And I can also take comfort in the fact that a stream never stays put in its banks. It needs to flow from place to place, and this flow provides the sights and the sounds and the action that makes life more interesting than it otherwise might be.

Change is the only constant, after all, and if it takes an afternoon in the park to make this clear, then it was a walk worth taking, and a post worth writing, too.

What is “Government help” anyway?

I was recently visiting some family near Melbourne, Florida when I came upon the sign pictured above. It was apparently intended to overlap with the Republican convention in Tampa, and its sentiment seems to be a dig at President Obama and the “You didn’t build that” remark. I addressed the willful and misleading interpretation of Obama’s words here, but the people who put this sign up apparently didn’t read it. So I’ll address their baseless claims here, instead.

The only reason that I was able to access their facility was by driving on Florida State Route 518. That means it’s a public road, and any of their employees who use that road are, in fact, receiving government help. What’s more, the Eau Gallie Causeway is a rather large bridge that crosses over the Indian River in Florida. Without that bridge, which was built and maintained at public expense, this business would be cut off from the Florida mainland and the rest of the outside world. Good luck maintaining a business without regular, dependable access across that river.

The building itself appeared to be shut down for the day, so people who might want to knock on their door to discuss this sign weren’t able to do so. I could have tried to break into the building if I wanted to, since no police officers would come to arrest me. They’re government help, you know, and this business apparently doesn’t accept such help.

Maybe, in the absence of government police protection, they use a private security company. That’s better, after all, since it’s the free market, which of course is more efficient than the government could ever be. Let’s say the private security firm comes out, catches me in the act, and takes me into custody. But even if they could arrest me, this means I’d have to go to jail, which is another government service. Sending me to jail would mean accepting government help, and they quite clearly don’t do that.

But maybe they would change their minds, just to teach me a lesson. If they did send me to jail, the Constitution would then give me the right to a fair and speedy trial. And where would this trial be heard? In a government courthouse, of course. The prosecutor who would bring charges against me, and the judge who would oversee the trial, would both be government employees, too. Even the jury, if it came to that, would be composed of people being summoned, and paid for, by the government. What’s a non-government -help-accepting company to do, if they want to bring me to justice?

All right, all right, let’s imagine that they allow themselves to accept the government’s help in putting me on trial, but only because justice must be done. So then I would be found guilty by this government-supplied jury, and sentenced by the government judge to do time in a correctional center somewhere in Florida. What’s that? More government help? Nooooooo!

Or maybe, just maybe, the threat of being captured, tried, convicted, and detained, all at government expense, is enough to make me realize that whatever I might find on the inside isn’t worth all of that risk. Just the threat of all this government help is a form of help from the government, all by itself.

But let’s take it one step further. This business makes commemorative memorabilia for a variety of sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, and many major colleges and universities. When the University of Kentucky won the national championship in NCAA men’s basketball last spring, this outfit got to make the kind of “In your face, losers!” materials that a Kentucky alum might want to have. Their list of client schools includes the University of Alabama, the University of Oregon, the University of Michigan, and even the U.S. Military Academy. It’s an impressive list, to be sure.

But here’s the problem, and I hope that you’ve recognized it already. With just a couple of exceptions, the schools on this list are all publicly funded. To put it another way, the University of Kentucky was created, and now sustains itself, with funding from the government of Kentucky. When all of Kentucky’s investments pay off, and the school wins a championship for its fans and alumni to brag about, this company can then come in and sell their products. But this can never happen without the initial outlays made by the governments of Kentucky, Michigan, and even the U.S. government in the case of the Military Academy.

So yes, I’m afraid that this outfit does receive government help, whether they realize it or not. It’s indirect, in the example of the colleges, and it’s direct in other cases, but for this company to assert that they receive no government help at all is absurd on its face, and it deserves to be called out as such.

An act of American Appeasement

Three-quarters of a century ago, Jesse Owens thought his work at the Summer Olympics was done. He had gone to Berlin and beaten Hitler’s athletes, and everybody else’s, in three events: the 100 meter dash, the long jump, and the 200 meter dash. He had spoiled Hitler’s planned demonstration of Aryan superiority, and had one-upped the man who would soon plunge the world into a long and bloody war. I’m sure that Hitler never forgot about the Berlin Olympics.

Someone else who never forgot, and with good reason, was Marty Glickman. Glickman was a college freshman at the time, and a member of the 4 x 100 meters relay team. The competition was scheduled for August 9, 1936, but on the day before the race, Glickman and another Jewish athlete named Sam Stoller were removed from the team and replaced by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, two African American runners.

The reason for this was as clear as it was shameful. The Jewish runners were removed to avoid offending Hitler. These two runners missed out on the chance of a lifetime, in order to keep Hitler from being displeased. Marty Glickman was mad, and with good reason. When he returned to the stadium in Berlin in 1985, he had this to say:

“…I began to get so angry. I began to get so mad. It shocked the hell out of me that this thing of 49 years ago could still evoke this anger. I mean I was fucking mad. I was cussing – I was with people, colleagues of mine, and I was cussing. I was really amazed at myself, at this feeling of anger. Not about the German Nazis, that was a given. But anger at (U.S. Olympic officials) Avery Brundage and Dean Cromwell for not allowing an 18-year-old kid to compete in the Olympic Games just because he was Jewish.”

Marty Glickman later became the radio voice of the New York Knicks and the New York Giants for many years. Anyone who has heard “the key” and “the lane” to describe a basketball court has him to thank for those terms. His imprint on the sporting world has been very large, indeed. But what could have been his first brush with sports glory, nearly eight decades ago today, ended in a way that hardly anyone knows about. This is a small attempt at telling this man’s story, as the current version of the Summer Olympics is still unfolding.

Thanks to Josh Wilker at Cardboard Gods for providing me with a link to Glickman’s story

Mark Grace and number 17

This is a true story:

I was picking my daughter up at school one day last spring, probably sometime in May, when I spotted a kid on her school playground. This kid, who looked like a fourth or a fifth grader, had a blue shirt on, with a number 17 on the back. I said to myself “Huh. What do you know about that? An old Mark Grace shirt.”

It wasn’t until I got closer, on my way back to our car, that I saw the name on the back of his shirt wasn’t “Grace” but “Lim,” and the team on the front of the shirt wasn’t the Chicago Cubs, but the New York Knicks. It turns out that the shirt wasn’t as old as I thought it was.

Mark Grace wore number 17 for over a decade for the Cubs. I bring that up because I came in at number 17 on the mlb.com/blogs listing of fan blogs for the month of June. Anybody who came to my blog in June looking for baseball content probably went away disappointed, as my baseball writing has fallen off considerably. The little bit of it that I do now is typically sent to ThroughtheFenceBaseball, instead. I love baseball, and I always will, but writing tales from my life, past and present, has crowded it out, at least when it comes to this space.

Mark Grace was a very good player–among the best in the game–for several years in Chicago. He had more hits, and more doubles, than any other big leaguer in the 1990s. He hit an astonishing .647 in the National League playoffs in 1989, and he gave Kerry Wood a congratulatory hug on the day that Wood struck out 20 batters in 1998. He was, perhaps, the face of the Cubs franchise in the late 1990s, at least until Sammy Sosa started doing his home run thing.

But then, after the 2000 season, he went to Arizona. And he did what he never had been able to do in Chicago, and that’s win a World Series title. He started the ninth inning, championship-winning rally off the most automatic closer the game has ever seen, Mariano Rivera. Not a single Cubs fan could deny him the excitement and the glory he felt in that moment. The sad part was that it didn’t happen for him–and for all us Cubs fans–as he was wearing a blue uniform and a red C on his cap. But at least he got there, so good for him.

I see Mark Grace doing baseball commentary sometimes, but I can’t really think about him as a Cub. He won a World Series, he got his ring, and he wouldn’t give that up for all of his years in Chicago, I’m sure. I wouldn’t either. But it makes him, somehow, not a full Cub, at least in my mind. Perhaps that’s a bad way to look at it, but that’s how it seems to me.

Mark Grace had such an impact on me, when he played with the Cubs, that every player who wears #17 after him–baseball and basketball, apparently–reminds me of him.  The Cubs will never retire Grace’s number, because he didn’t reach the Hall of Fame, and that’s probably just as well. It means that his memory will be preserved, every time a different #17 takes the field, for as long as those of us who were around in the 1990s are following the team. And that could be more years than Jeremy Lin will ever get.