TRUE GRIT

TRUE GRIT

It is so often said that it has become cliché: athletes need to have short memories.

  • A quarterback throws an interception, he needs to forget it and get right back on the field.
  • A guard gets beat on a wicked cross-over, he better be ready to bring the ball back up court.
  • A pitcher gets taken deep, he needs to get a new ball from the umpire, climb back up on the hill, and attack the next hitter.

We hammer this into our kids, and deride them when they “take that at bat into the field”.

However, have you ever heard a former player interviewed?  More often than not, they can recall – with precision – every moment of their career.  Basketball players can tell you the score, the time on the clock, who set the pin screen, and who was the help defender, before they hit the big shot.  Pitchers can tell you the inning, score, batter, and sequence of pitches prior to giving up the big homerun.  Before Tony Gwynn made watching video an integral part of baseball preparation, players relied on their memory – of moments, pitches, tendencies – in order to be successful.

It turns out, having a short memory is only good in the moment.  But having a long memory makes you a better player, a better storyteller, and, in many cases, a better human being.

For many years now, I have sat either on a bucket or in the stands and spouted that bromide about “short memory” to my son and to others.  My hope was that they would “hit it and move on” (as a former professor used to say).  But, I am not sure that was always the best advice.

Pete Carroll is the cover story for this week’s Sports Illustrated.  Here is a guy who has coached on the biggest stages, made some of the biggest decisions, and failed – twice – in the biggest of moments.  But he doesn’t forget.  His memory isn’t short.  Rather, he remembers; he learns.  He takes those memories, chooses not to ignore them.  He says that when those memories “bubble up, I’m going to think about it . . . and use it.  Use it!

When faced with adversity, how do you respond?  Do you melt under the weight of failure, or do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and persevere?  In short, do you “use it” – use the memory of prior failures to have future success?

Not to go all psychological mumbo-jumbo again, but Angela Duckworth (a psychology professor at Penn and a frequent TED Talker) will tell you that if you are passionate and have perseverance, you have that inexplicable, enigmatic, mysterious trait known grit.  Think about it, can you define, in ten words or less, the meaning of “grit”?  Try it . . . without using human examples.  It’s easier said than said.  More likely than not, it sounds like this: “You know, he is a Dustin Pedroia-type . . . He plays like Wes Welker . . . He makes the most of his ability, like David Eckstein.”  To put it succinctly, so you can wow future dinner party guests, if you are passionate and persevere, you have grit.

As I have often expounded about (too often, I am sure, for some of you), I have had the great pleasure of watching an incredible baseball team over the past three summers.  Some of the players have changed, but the core has remained the same; the coaching staff has remained the same; and by-in-large, the outcomes have remained the same.  What has been different, however, is the manner in which these outcomes have been achieved.

Two summers ago, this team ran roughshod over the competition, losing only once en route to a state championship.  Last summer, this team faced adversity on the first day, and in one game, pulled it out.  They faced unbeatable odds later that week, and in one inning, they pulled it out.  For whatever reason, this summer the task became that much more difficult.  This summer, the boys didn’t need to pull through for just a single inning or a single game.  No, these boys had to remain passionate and had to persevere for days on end; back-to-back-to-back-to-back.  Try keeping a 12-year old’s attention for four hours, let alone four days.  And yet, these boys did it . . . twice.  Seven times in less than two weeks these boys faced elimination, and on six of those occasions, they persevered.  (We will get to the seventh in a minute.)

I don’t recount this story to brag or to shine any particular light on any particular kids (however worthy they may be).  Rather, I do so to highlight lessons that can be learned at an early age that can be used for the rest of their lives.

Winning is easy . . . psychologically so.  Losing, too, can be easy – it can happen quickly, and then it is over.  And if you are 10, 11, 12 years old, the pain disappears as quickly as the grass stains on the pants.  But staring failure in the face and overcoming it, time and again, that is hard.  That is when you take measure of a man (or woman).  That is when you determine whether or not someone possesses grit.

Our boys couldn’t prevail in that seventh attempt.  But man did they fight.  Chasing runs four different times in seven innings; tying the game three different times; down four in extra innings and still bringing the tying run to the plate before it ended.  They fought, they battled, often with tears in their eyes.  They had grit.  And now they have to deal with that feeling of working so hard; coming so close; of falling just short.  A decade’s worth of life lessons learned in two weeks, typified in two hours.  They failed greatly.

Life is hard.  More times than can ever be considered fair you are faced with adversity.  The question is, how do you deal with that?  If you are blessed with fortuna, you won’t be faced with too much until you are theoretically old enough to handle it.  Some us aren’t so lucky.  Some of us get hit at an early age and are forced to persevere.

Parenting is hard.  We, as parents, want nothing more than to take away our children’s pain.  We would love to cushion the fall or avoid the fall altogether.  But that is a disservice.  When our kids feel the pain, when they overcome the pain, when they have memory of the pain, they can use the pain to (hopefully) avoid that pain again.  But don’t fear the pain.  Find something your kid is passionate about, allow them to fail, encourage them to persevere, instill in them grit.  That may be the greatest gift you ever give.

I – and many others – have been lucky enough to have had my son play baseball for a group of coaches (no names required, they know who they are) who inspired passion and encouraged perseverance.  A group of men so dedicated to the effort, so singularly focused on the bigger picture (a potential oxymoron, I know), that they may not have even known what they were teaching, day-in-day-out, was grit.  And, for two weeks now, we have been fortunate enough to see that grit on display nearly every day/night.  On behalf of a large collective, I say “thank you”.  On behalf of my son, who, while wise beyond his years, is simply too young to truly understand the gift that has been bestowed upon him, I say “thank you”.

Little League Baseball is over.  For some, for a few months; for others, forever.  But the losses endured, the lessons learned, the love of game cemented, and the true grit instilled, those are the ultimate take-aways.  I will look back on these years; these past three summers; these past two weeks, and forever tell my son: “Use it!”

Now, the MLB trade deadline is a few hours away; let’s get ready for the Dog Days; and know that October is just two months away . . .

PLAY BALL!!

TALKIN’ TRASH

TALKIN’ TRASH

Football has showman.  From Joe Namath to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson; from Deion “Prime Time” Sanders to Terrell Owens and Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson.

Basketball has larger than life figures who operate in a different stratosphere.  From Clyde Frazier to Wilt Chamberlain; from Dr. J. to M.J.; from Magic and Larry to LeBron, and many more in-between.

But baseball, baseball has characters.  From Babe Ruth to Eddie Gaedel; from to Al Hraboski to Syd Finch; from Turk Wendell to Pedro Martinez; from Nick Swisher to Andrew McCutchen (look it up).  The number and variety of characters that populate baseball are ingrained into the fabric of the game.

And while quarterbacks can wear fur coats and defensive backs can high-step into the end zone; and while basketball players can literally leap over other humans and do things that make us shake our heads in disbelief; baseball players can make a whole lot of hay with their mouths.

Trash-talking is such a part of baseball that if you are not well-versed in it, you might find yourself out of it – the game, that is. Baseball clubhouses are notorious for being a place where only the thick-skinned survive.  And when the verbal warfare moves to the dugout and onto the field, look the hell out – or, more specifically, listen the hell up.

Ragging, smacking, trashing, talking shit, they all fall under the umbrella of acceptable baseball behavior.  But when?  At what level is that type of gamesmanship permissible?  When does it go from bad sportsmanship to “just the way the game is played”?  At what age do we think it is appropriate to get in a player’s head?  I think we can work backwards for some easy answers:

Big Leagues:  Of course.  Although, with so much room between the dugout and the field, one wonders how much actually gets heard.

Minor Leagues Without question.  You don’t think that hit path and arm angles are the only things they teach in the Minors, do you?  This is where the craft of talking smack gets perfected.  A lot of mediocre players with a lot of failed dreams take out their aggression on (1) those in even worse straights than them and (2) those with whom they are green with envy.  (If you want to see/hear this writ large, watch the HBO movie “Long Gone”, in which a batter tells a pitcher to ask his sister to stop changing the color of her lipstick as she is leaving rainbows . . . Suffice it to say, he gets hit in the head by the next pitch.)

College This is where the skill gets learned and honed.  Go watch a college baseball game and tell me if you ever see a player (save a pitcher currently in the game) sitting on the bench.  The term “bench jockey” is a misnomer – these guys are “railing jockeys” and they hang there the entire game getting hoarse talking bull to the donkeys on the other side of the field.  And don’t ever let them know you hear them.  If they sense you have rabbit ears, you are a sitting duck, and they will dog you until you break.

High School:  This is the training wheels for trash talk.  Guys are trying it out, seeing if they like it, and/or if they are any good at it.  Coaches tend to be somewhat lenient as the language is pretty innocuous, with just an occasional zinger.  And high school coaches, by in large, are trying to relive their glory days, so they actually enjoy the barbs.  Add to this that some high school players are on the verge of professional baseball – and in some cases, Major League baseball.  So, they better get ready to get ridden, and hard.  Right, rook?!  Come on now, bonus baby!  You throw pus, meat . . .

Below High School:  This is where the ground gets shaky.  First off, the trash talk is relatively pedestrian; it simply isn’t that much fun.  Next, it’s too easy.  What’s the point of trying to get into a kid’s head if the door is wide open and you can walk right in?  Where is the challenge in that?

But, joking aside, should we be allowing 11, 12, 13 year old kids to rag other 11, 12, 13 year old kids?  Should we allow fans to do the same?  Have we lost all sense of righteousness and/or morality?  Or, have we simply sped up this process by having our boys play such competitive baseball, and so often, at such an early age?  Have we, in our zeal to win, fomented this type of behavior?  If our kids have Mike Trout’s Nike Lunar Vapor cleats, and Brandon Phillips’ Wilson A2K glove, and Big Papi’s fluorescent Franklin batting gloves, and Adam Jones’ Kaenon sunglasses, and Miguel Cabrera’s Evoshield shinguard, shouldn’t they be treated like Big Leaguers – warts and all?

While I am not certain, I think the short answer is: “No.”  Try as they might, they are not Big Leaguers; they are not even high schoolers.  Our kids need time to develop – physically, mentally, and emotionally before the added stress of negative outside influences are brought into their athletic sphere.  To put a different spin on it, could you imagine some stranger reading, commenting, and ultimately panning your seventh grader’s science project or book report?  “Nice word choice; mix in some grammar; come on now, he’s got no sentence structure.”  Would that ever be acceptable?

There are further, better reasons, other than the simple shock to the conscience, not to allow this behavior.

According to Deborah Yurgelun-Todd (Professor of Psychiatry; Director, Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, at The Brain Institute; Associate Director, Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Centers, Salt Lake City VA Health Care System) (Ed. Note: I just love that title), the brains of teenagers and adults respond differently to the outside world.  With respect to emotional information (cheering or jeering, for instance), “teenager’s brain may be responding with more of a gut reaction than an executive or more thinking kind of response.”  When that happens, you are more likely to get “an impulsive behavioral response, instead of a necessarily thoughtful or measured kind of response.”

But these are great players, you say.  We put them into amazingly stressful situations – at younger and younger ages – and they still respond, you think.  So what can a little jawing do to them, our super-kids?

Well, according to Frances E. Jensen, MD (Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, Univ of PA), the teenage brain is in “a paradoxical time of development.  These are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.”  The teenage brain is only about 80% developed, so if we think our kids have some special mental acuity at a younger age, we may just be fooling ourselves.  All of the experts maintain that development of a mature thought process takes time.

Sara Johnson (an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) tells us that “adolescents start to have the computational and skills of an adult –if given time and access to information.”  And Sheryl Feinstein (author of Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress) tells us that “in the heat of the moment, their decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions, because their brains rely more on the limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) than the more rational prefrontal cortex”.

So, putting aside my sister’s psychological mumbo-jumbo, we now know that early teens are simply too young to handle being ragged.  And if you think it is just middle schoolers, think back to the last time someone made fun of you in front of a bunch of people.  Did you use your prefrontal cortex (i.e., were you rational) or your limbic system (i.e., were you emotional) in your response.  My guess is the vast majority of us are limbic all the way.  So you can only imagine (truly, it is impossible to think like a teenager) what it must be like for that 12-year old pitcher to hear: “This guy can’t throw strikes; he’s got nothing; he’s in trouble”.

There has been a ton of research on cheering and the effect it has on athletes in the heat of battle.  However, there is very little research on this topic as it relates to youth sports.

With respect to adults, Robert Nideffer (a psychologist for the U.S. Olympic track and field team in 1984 and 1988, who has worked with Navy SEALS) states that “crowds can provide a lift when athletes are nearing exhaustion.”  He says an “emotional boost is more likely to help in the Olympics in situations where an extra boost of energy is required because reserves are depleted and you need the extra adrenaline”.  But that, too, comes with a caveat.

Researchers says that, in general, crowds can improve performance in sports that involve strength, endurance, or teams.  But, for athletes competing in technique and finesse sports like gymnastics, archery, golf, riflery, or tennis, that rush of adrenaline from a roaring crowd can throw off timing, waste valuable energy, and even impair cognitive function.  And that is the effect on adults.

Think about that next time someone catcalls a Little League batter right before the pitch is thrown.

So, sit in the stands, cheer on your team, stay positive, refrain from getting into Little Leaguers’ heads, and . . .

PLAY BALL!

FOUR DAYS IN JULY

FOUR DAYS IN JULY

The following was written at approximately 3pm, on Monday, July 20, 2015:

Around 7pm tonight, regardless of what the scoreboard reads, regardless if our boys are racing around the outfield holding yet another banner (that would be eight, by my count) or wiping their eyes in the outfield grass, tears will be shed.  If the latter, by the boys; if the former, by the parents and family members in attendance.

It is fitting, in so many ways, that this game is being played on our field, in our park, in our town.

If we are on the wrong end of the game, our boys will finish their Little League careers right where they started, and bring to a close a chapter – more like a book – of their lives that has provided us and them with too many memories – and smiles – to count.  They will leave their field one last time, knowing that they left it all out there.  Rare is the group of kids who could do what they have done just to get to this moment.  Three wins in three days; battling against bigger and stronger opponents (did anyone see Rose’s thighs?), freaky weather (who has ever had a summer game delayed in Southern California for lightning and thunder?), and a blind and capricious umpire.  And yet, they did it.  They played together – the Fearless Fourteen – each making a contribution to help us travel the “Road to Monday”.

If we are able to pull this off, it will be one of the greatest stretches of baseball I have ever witnessed.  On Thursday night I texted Mike to say that the documentary, “Four Days in October” was required viewing by the team.  I am not sure who watched, but I know Jake and I did.  Over four nights in October, 2004, the Red Sox “shocked the world” (in the words of Kevin Millar) and came back from a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees, winning four straight, winning the pennant, allowing them to eventually win the World Series.  Those were the same odds we were facing Thursday night.  And, if we win, we will have done what the Red Sox did – battling the elements (Game Six was delayed due to rain – sound familiar?), dealing with fatigue (Derek Lowe pitched Game 7 on 2-days’ rest, and then pitched 6 innings giving up 1 run – sound familiar?), and overcoming questionable umpiring (however, in Game 7 in New York, the umpires overruled themselves twice to get the call right – as of now, we have not been so lucky).  Thus, in so many ways, we have taken the road of the 2004 Red Sox, and if we win, will have followed in their championship footsteps.

Win or lose, it has been a pleasure to watch these boys play for the past seven years; it has been amazing/exhausting/exhilarating/years-off-life-taking to watch these boys play these past three summers; and it has been an honor to have made such good friends and watch all of us grow – as players, parents, and a community.

Either way, Mazel Tov!

__________________________________________________________________________

And now we know what happened.  Duke threw the game of his life (and yet, we hope he has a few more of those in him); Jagger led off with a game-tying homerun; our opponent stopped fielding the ball; and we kept piling on runs.  When Jack’s liner softly fell past a drawn-in infield, the fight was officially over, and the celebration began.

These “Four Days in July” are something that we won’t soon forget.  4 days, 3 mercies, 2 walk-off homeruns, and 1 opponent essentially having their hearts ripped out to the point that they simply had no heart left to even make a routine play.

Over the past three years we have been treated to so much, there is really no telling when and where this journey will end.  Dan Chasek asked this back in June, 2013: “Why not us?”  After what I witnessed last weekend, I have no earthly reason why not.

PLAY BALL!!

BROADCAST BLUES

BROADCAST BLUES

Ryan Seacrest makes $15M per year for “American Idol”.

Alex Trebek earns $10M a year for “Jeopardy”.

David Letterman was making about $20M per year when he retired from “Late Night”.

Katie Couric got paid $15M a year – for 5 years – to host the CBS Evening News.

Suffice it to say, people a heck of a lot smarter than me think that there is value in having a qualified host.  The above people, and countless others, wouldn’t be paid so much if they didn’t make the viewing experience even better for the consumer.

Which begs the question, why don’t Major League teams live by the same credo?  Why do they believe they can hand any ex-ballplayer a microphone and call it a broadcast?

There is a lot of talk in the ether about baseball being boring and hard to watch and that the games are too long.  I cannot necessarily disagree with any of that, but I do think that viewing the game could be immeasurably improved by making changes in the broadcast booth.

On way too many occasions I have had to turn off a Wednesday evening or a Sunday afternoon game because of the long pauses or disjointed rants or annoying conversations or pointless patter of the broadcast team.  It often feels like they are up there having a great ol’ time, the audience be damned.  And a great many of these so-called “broadcasters” get a pass for past performance on the field.

We tolerate Hawk Harrelson because he was a decent ballplayer and tells great stories about golfing with the legends.  Truth be told, he should “Be Gone!”

We were forced to listen to Joe Morgan tell us how he did it – which was always better than any current player.

Steve Stone often just served as the straight man for Harry Caray, who was too sauced to know the difference (I know, I know, Harry was a legend and a billy goat will shit on my pillow for even implying that Harry was a Cubs fan and Bud man).

Don’t even get me started on Don Sutton in the TBS booth.  He is only marginally better than Pete Van Wieren, but the whole lot of Braves announcers could have their own wing in the Broadcasters Hall of Shame.

Turn on the TV in any hotel room in any city in America and you are almost guaranteed to be turned off to baseball.  Why do we, why do to the teams, why does MLB, allow this?  Do you think GM runs out a bunch of former mechanics to the showroom floor and expects people to buy cars?

A few weeks back I was watching Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN.  In the broadcast booth were John Kruk, Curt Schilling, and Dan Shulman.  Now, I could give you chapter and verse about Curt Schilling the bombast, the holier than now personality, and the right-wing kook.  But, say what you will, the guy knows baseball – and he knows how to communicate it.  That night – watching in my family room – I was treated to a master class in the game of baseball.

Krukkie and Schill talked pitch-by-pitch strategy – from both a hitter’s and a pitcher’s perspective.  They discussed defensive alignments and how and why shifts were or were not used.  They explained why the call on the 1-1 pitch was so important.  They talked about different preparation techniques that play a significant role in the actual game.  They called the viewers’ attention to the catcher making adjustments based on the batter’s positioning in the box.  And they called pitches – Schilling was able to decode the catcher’s signals with runners on base and proceeded to call each pitch for half an inning; and he then explained to the viewers how he did it.   The guys looked ahead to later innings and potential reliever-pinch hitter match-ups, and why it made sense to at least get pitchers throwing in the bullpen – if for no other reason than mental strategy.  When there was a slight lull in the game, they discussed issues related to team travel and how those affected the players and the manager’s in-game decisions.  All the while, Dan Shulman kept us abreast of the play-by-play.

It was like watching Da Vinci paint; it was like Robert De Niro discuss acting or Martin Scorcese explain directing; class was in session, and we were all students of the game.  Had your less-obsessed significant other been tuned in, he/she would have learned more about baseball over two innings than they would with season tickets.  Had your son or daughter been watching, they would have left the room a considerably better baseball player.  It was that great.  And, if the people in power actually cared about the consumers, it could almost always be that great.

Why can’t a broadcast booth be lively and alive?  It should be as if we have stumbled into a bar where two or three guys are watching a game and we are allowed to eavesdrop on their conversation.

If MLB wants to grow the sport; if they want people to become students of the game such that young kids prefer it to (or like it just as much as) football or basketball; if MLB wants to appeal to a new generation, they need to make the game fun and interesting.  And if they want the whole family to enjoy the game, then they need for people to at least have a cursory understanding of everything that is going on in the twenty seconds between pitches, and the often minutes that elapse between any meaningful action.  How can this be accomplished?

This is so easy: Get better announcers.  Demand that each team employ quality play-by-play guys and gals and color commentators who not only understand the game but understand how to explain it to the masses.  Would it shock you to know that the average NFL game is twenty minutes longer than the average Major League game?   MLB games just feel longer.

Our viewing habits on Sunday afternoons during the fall tell us that we have no issue sitting on the couch for long stretches of time watching a sporting event.  It’s just that the producers of Major League Baseball seem to go out of their way to ensure that the viewing experience is akin to watching grass grow – and that just gets you to the 7th inning stretch.

Who couldn’t listen to Vin Scully wax poetic for hours on end?  Sure, there is only one Vinny, but there are many Dan Shulmans, and Jon Millers, and Duane Kuipers and Mike Krukows, and Boog Sciambis, and Gary Thornes, and Joe Bucks, and Tim McCarvers (I know this may roil some of you), and Dave O’Briens, and Bob Costases, and Steve Physiocs, and Sean McDonoughs, and Victor Rojases, and Al Leiters, and Steve Berthiaumes, and Thom Brennamans, and many many more out there.  How many do we need?  30, 60?  That is all.  Cast the net wide; t hey can be found.

If I have to hear John Sterling announce another “A-Rod with an A-Bomb” or “Gardner plants one in the seats”, or listen to Suzyn Waldman drone on like a bitter housewife at her Tuesday night Mahjong game, I will go crazy.  Do we really need Ted Leitner butchering the English language or Jerry Remy homering all throughout tha yahd?

There are at least 194 colleges in the United States offering Radio and Television Broadcasting programs.  There are at least 240 Minor League baseball teams.  There are countless guys like me who sit in the stands or on their couch and give a running commentary on the game.  Are you – and by you, I mean MLB and the individual teams – saying that you cannot find 60 people better than our current crop?  And we don’t even need a full 60 – I listed eighteen above and you all could probably list a handful more.

We need to be rebel against this onslaught of mediocre announcing.

We need to make listening to the game fun again.  We need the days of Red Barber and Mel Allen.  How about that?!?

We need to have people with microphones in their hands that will educate, excite, and entertain.  We need a little showmanship combined with a lot of knowledge.  We need “great communicators” (Ronald Reagan actually did play-by-play of Cubs games that he had never seen – he “recreated” them via telegraph feed).

So write to your cable company; write to your favorite team; write to Rob Manfred; hell, write to your congressman.  Or, better yet, write to the sponsors of the games – tell them you will stop watching and listening and stop buying their products unless and until they change the quality of our product.

Or, if all else fails, turn down the volume on the TV, turn up the volume on the radio, and let Vinny carry you home from “wherever you may be”.

PLAY BALL!!

TWO STRIKES . . . YOU’RE IN

TWO STRIKES . . . YOU’RE IN

Blog_Scoreboard_2

People ask me all the time why I love baseball so much.  And to that question, I have a very simple answer.

It’s not the beauty of 60 feet + 6 inches, and the fact that those additional 6 inches make all the difference in the world.  It’s not that each ballpark is different, and the various dimensions play a role in the game – often serving as a tenth player.  It’s not that the defense starts each play and is the only side allowed to touch the ball.  It’s not that each campaign stretches over three calendar seasons, which allows the season to unfold in a languorous manner, wherein no one game is dispositive, and yet every game counts.

No, the number one reason why I love baseball so much is the two-strike pitch.

I love the build-up, the excitement, the payoff, the let-down, and the repetition of the moment.  I find nothing more exciting, and nothing that takes more time off my life, than the two-strike pitch.  And, for maximum agita, there is nothing better than the 3-2 pitch.  No other sport has a similar moment.

Sure, in basketball you have last second shots (see Sampson, Ralph or Fisher, Derek).  But once that ball has been in-bounded and the shot released, the moment either happens or it doesn’t.  Either way, the moment is gone.  There are no do-overs.

Football has the two-minute drill and the Hail Mary Pass (see Flutie, Doug).  And again, save for a penalty calling the play back, once the play is done, it’s done.  I will grant you that football may be the closest facsimile, as a team can repeatedly stare down its fate and continue its march to eventual pay-off or heartbreak.  But again, each moment is slightly different (different down, different field position, different personnel, different amount of time on the clock, etc.).

Hockey, golf, tennis, soccer?  None of them have “it”.

But in baseball, you can – and often do – relive the same moment over and over again.  A virtual Groundhog Day (Moment?) that can happen on what seems to be a perpetual loop, and you never quite know when it will end.

The two-strike pitch provides that anticipation.  The 3-2 pitch is great because there is no room for error; the pitcher has to come in or the batter will stroll to first base.  On a 3-2 count, the batter is especially attuned to the pitcher, knowing the small margin, and is fighting for his (or her, hello Mo’ne Davis) proverbial life.

If you are an active viewer of the game, you see this coming.  The batter either takes a first pitch strike our “just misses” one.  The cat and mouse game has begun.  Maybe the pitcher gets ahead and now the batter is in a defensive posture; or maybe the pitcher starts behind and the batter has the upper hand.  But, some how, some way, we end up at a two-strike count.  And we, as fans, try to guess who will outsmart whom; or, as they say on MLB Network, “who kept their cool?”

This is where the lack of a clock (game, pitch, shot, or otherwise) makes baseball beautiful.  The batter keeps one foot in the box (per the new rules) and readjusts his helmet and batting gloves; he smacks some dirt off his spikes; digs in and waggles his bat.  Meanwhile, the pitcher goes behind the mound and picks up the rosin bag; steps to the rubber and takes a deep breath; he checks the sign from the catcher, and either shakes him off, in which event the excruciating delay is further prolonged, or he nods in assent.  With his glove poised in front of his face, the pitcher begins what seems to be an interminable windup, and then lets the horsehide fly.  We watch this with agonized anticipation; and time seems to slow to a stop.  Our hearts find their way into our throats, while our stomachs somehow move southward.  The tension could not be any greater.

And then, in the blink of an eye, the batter breaks the air with his massive swing.  And we, with breath bated, watch as . . .

He fouls the pitch back to the screen; or down the line; or just off the catcher’s glove.

And we still have a two-strike count.  Rinse and repeat.  And then deduct another 10-15 minutes from the back end of your life.

In no other sport can you get this type of anticipation, build-up, release, and, ultimately, failure to produce an outcome.  And, in baseball, you cannot run out of time.  Time is both your best friend and your worst enemy.

In football, you know that one way or another, this pain will end in 30 seconds; 24 seconds (or less) in basketball (of course, a team could always call a timeout, but that is a red herring).  In baseball, this moment of stress can last for what seems like forever.

And as desperately as you want it to end, some part of you wants it to last evermore.  Can you imagine any other moment in your life where you are on the brink of exultation, but it is staved off over and over again, being postponed indefinitely?  People would (and do) pay good money for that kind of thrill.  And yet, you can get is for free on television every night for nearly seven months.  You can get it for free at your local Little League ballpark nearly every afternoon every spring.

The letdown we all experience when the season ends is partly attributable to this feeling.  Rock stars rely on drugs to approximate what they feel on stage.  Athletes refer to the camaraderie of the clubhouse, hanging on for a season or two too long, not wanting to lose that feeling.

For us, the fans, it is the two-strike pitch that forces us to dedicate way too much of our free (and not so free) time watching a languid game played in a park where players in their home whites go to battle using pearls and maple wood and fine leather.  It is the anticipation of the moment, the prolonged absence of action followed by a glimmer of hope, culminating in the lack of culmination.  Let’s face facts, we are flat out junkies.

Baseball will never be football, nor basketball, nor soccer, nor tennis; and for that, we are grateful.

In case you have forgotten, in case you haven’t had a hit for some time, below are – for my money – the two best two-strike moments in baseball history (added bonus for occurring in the World Series).

(This is simply the best when you add up foul balls + power + youth vs. experience + the situation):

(A razor-close second best when you add up foul balls + injury + experience vs. experience + the situation):

PLAY BALL!!

FANATICS

FANATICS

What is your first reaction when you hear the word “fanatic”? Is it positive or negative?

With the possible exception of the Phillie Phanatic, who brings joy to patrons, players, and the occasional coach, I would imagine the properly-spelled “fanatic” doesn’t conjure too many kind thoughts.  Outside of that oversized, fluffy green doll, I think it is safe to say that we tend to have a jaded – if not fearful – view of fanatics.  Whether it is religion, politics, war, or sports, we don’t want to live next door to – let alone share a meal with – a fanatic.

With that in mind, would it surprise you to know that the word “fan” is derived from the word “fanatic”?  Makes perfect sense, no?  Some sources actually believe that the word “fan” was, in the late 19th century, a shortening of the word “fanatic”, relating specifically to baseball enthusiasts.  I guess that’s fitting.

Over the last 125 years, society has mellowed (one would hope).  And excepting 10¢ beer night (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeTpnOzoPdw) and some unruly people in the bleachers, it seems that, in time, baseball “fans” on the whole have become something different/better than “fanatics”.  (As an aside, I am not sure the same can be said of soccer “fans” who seem to be every bit the “fanatics” of years past.)  But before we start to feel too good about ourselves, remember that – even though we have lost the fanatic tag – we still follow our teams and the game with the devotion of a fanatic.

According to Webster, a fanatic is a person “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion”.  And a fan is “an enthusiastic devotee, follower, or admirer of a sport, pastime, celebrity, etc.”

This all begs the $64,000 question: Where is the line; at what point do you stop being a fan and become a fanatic?

For instance, is it “excessive enthusiasm” or just plain “enthusiastic devotion” when you paint your face with your favorite team’s colors/logo?  How about naming your child after your sports hero?  Or decorating an entire room of your house?  Having season tickets or watching every game on television (70% of Los Angeles cannot do that with the Dodgers, natch)?  In a vacuum, it is very difficult to draw the line.

We know, of course, when someone leaves that line in the dust: When you throw batteries at opposing outfielders; when you beat the other team’s fans in the parking lot; when you threaten to kill a guy for interfering (arguably) with a play on the field.  In those instances, we are dealing with fanatics, and society needs to step in before someone gets (even more) hurt.

So, while we can sometimes see the line between “excessive enthusiasm” and “enthusiastic devotion”, how about “intense uncritical devotion”?  Is dialing in to sports radio and calling for the manager to be fired considered “intense uncritical devotion”?  Is burning a player’s jersey when he leaves the team “intense uncritical devotion”?  Is wearing the same t-shirt for every game of the World Series to ensure that the Baseball Gods smile favor down on your team “intense uncritical devotion”?  I guess “intense uncritical devotion” is in the eye of the beholder.  And if you have ever tried to talk reason to a crazed sports fan (oftentimes referred to as a “fanatic”), try not to look into the eye of that beholder, as you might now like what you see.  Napolean once said: “There is no place in a fanatic’s head where reason can enter.”

“Uncritical devotion”, as its own concept, is difficult to deal with.  When intensity is added to the mix, look the hell out.

Intense uncritical devotion leads people to say and do things that – if they were in their right, logical, Namaste-inclined mind – they would never say or do.  Sometimes we appreciate this intense uncritical devotion – these are the fans that still come to the ballpark in the dog days of August because, “you never know . . . string a few wins together and we might be right back in the race . . .”  Sometimes we hate it, like when they call Clayton Kershaw “a bum” because he has walked two batters.

But what about when people start coming up with crazy conspiracy theories in support of their (or against someone else’s) team?  Does that reek of “intense uncritical devotion”?  These conspiracy theories are prevalent in all sports, and they – like the truth – are “out there”.

  •  Celtics fans (as well as many others) believe the referees fixed Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals to ensure the Kings lost.
  • The people of Arkansas think Sonny Liston was KO’d by Muhammad Ali’s “phantom punch” in 1965.
  • Red Sox haters still claim that Curt Schilling put ketchup on his sock in Game 6 of 2004 ALCS.
  • Any basketball fan outside of New York City thinks that the only way the Knicks got Patrick Ewing in the 1985 draft was because the NBA froze their lottery envelope.
  • Chicagoans can never believe that Michael Jordan took an early retirement to fulfill his lifetime dream of playing baseball, but that David Stern made him step away due to illicit gambling activities.
  • And, of course, Dodger fans on both coasts believe that the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” would never have happened if the Giants hadn’t been stealing signs from the centerfield scoreboard.

It’s not just kids who say the darndest things.

So the next time you are sitting in the stands, or walking through the parking lot, or waiting on hold for some talk show, or typing a pithy reply to a Tweet or Facebook post, ask yourself the following questions: In the sober light of day, when all emotion has been stripped away, is what I am about to do or say reasonable?  Am I being an enthusiastic devotee or am I showing intense uncritical devotion.  If the former, fire away.  If the latter, think twice, then a third time, and then go with discretion – it is always the better part of valor.

Be a fan, not a fanatic.

PLAY BALL!!

p.s.  The inspiration for this post was some recent events I have witnessed and heard about.  But, I guess this topic is in the zeitgeist, as in this week’s Sports Illustrated (you will get it in the mail in a few days) there is a review of a book entitled: “Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan”.  I wrote this before seeing that.