Thursday, July 29, 2010


Elections often bring out the worst in us. We pride ourselves on our ability to consistently hold clean contests that exemplify the democratic process. However, despite our self-congratulatory proclamations, it is clear that the process is far from perfect.

The senatorial race in Florida exemplifies what troubles our system. When Governor Charlie Crist first announced his intent to seek the office more than a year ago, he was a darling of the Republican party, once rumored as a potential running mate for John McCain. All of that changed, however, when he strayed from the right, supported President Obama’s economic policies, and physically embraced the President during a brief Florida stop.

Crist quickly went from party favorite to pariah. His political views (never fully in line with the right) and allegiance to the Republican party were questioned, and rumors about his lifestyle circulated. When the Republicans effectively abandoned Crist and embraced conservative Marco Rubio, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, Crist retaliated by leaving the party and announcing that he intended to run as an independent. This led to shouts of “treason” and mutual finger pointing and name calling. It has gotten very ugly and very personal and, as the election approaches, the political atmosphere is expected to worsen.

Many who witness the political goings-on in Florida and elsewhere wax nostalgic about the “good old days” when American politics were different. The truth, however, is that the old days were as bad as the new.

Throughout history, American elections have been plagued by personal attacks, gerrymandering, and attempts to steal votes. The phrase “vote early and vote often” may have been popularized in Chicago, where death has often presented a mere inconvenience to voting, but the problem is widespread.

South Florida, whose political atmosphere has at times been characterized as that of a “banana republic,” has endured many questionable local elections, though perhaps none worse than the 1997 Miami mayoral campaign. The result of that election was overturned when the losing candidate’s challenge uncovered severe irregularities, including voting corpses. As a result of those irregularities, all absentee ballots were discounted, and the outcome of the tight election reversed.

Our founding fathers effectively set the tone for future elections. The presidential contest in 1796 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was replete with personal attacks on Adams by the latter’s supporters, a curious and disturbing circumstance given the friendship that had apparently existed between Adams and Jefferson. The events of that election, and the political atmosphere of the time, are vividly related by William Safire in his historical novel Scandalmonger (2000), the story of James T. Callender, a political pamphleteer and newspaper writer who became Jefferson’s principal weapon in his war against the Federalists.

Further, one hundred twenty four years before Bush v. Gore, an American presidential election raised the specter of a “stolen” presidency. In 1876, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden held 184 electoral votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ 165, with 20 votes in three states (Louisiana, South Carolina and, not surprisingly, Florida) uncounted. A struggle then commenced for the remaining votes, replete with allegations of fraud, coercion, and vote manipulation. All three states initially reported returns favoring Tilden but, after many votes were disallowed due to technical irregularities, all three states, and therefore the presidency, went to Hayes. The final vote tally was 185 to 184, and the result was affirmed 8 to 7 (many say as part of a broader compromise) by a specially appointed commission consisting of five members of each branch of Congress, and five members of the U.S. Supreme Court. Gore Vidal’s novel 1876 (1976), part of his generally excellent Narratives of Empire series, recounts the events surrounding the 1876 election in an entertaining and informative manner.

Perhaps no novelist has captured the unfortunate spirit of American elections better than Tom Perrotta. In his novel Election (1998), Perrotta uses the election of a high school student body president to highlight everything that is wrong with our electoral process. What starts out as a contest between an unpopular, ambitious young woman and a very popular, underachieving athlete, quickly deteriorates and culminates in a teacher’s destruction of two key voting slips to ensure the election of his favored candidate. At one point, Perrotta, through one of his characters, makes the following observation:

The logistics of a high school election are no laughing matter. At the same time you’re educating your students about democracy, you’re working to safeguard the process against fraud. It’s sad but true: given half a chance, most kids will cheat to win. They’re a lot like adults in this respect.

Sadly, Perrotta’s observation is all too true. It is unfortunate that we feel the need to denigrate candidates, misrepresent issues, and manipulate voters’ rolls. By so doing, we compromise the process and snatch the decision away from the voter.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hardball Lit

Baseball has been described as a microcosm of life, which makes it the perfect subject for fiction. Since 1952, several novels have been published in which the sport plays a significant role. Below, in chronological order, is a list of ten notable novels involving baseball:

1. The Natural, Bernard Malamud (1952). This groundbreaking tale of good and evil was the basis for the 1984 Robert Redford film. It is believed by many to be the finest baseball novel ever.

2. Bang the Drum Slowly, Mark Harris (1956). One of several baseball novels by Harris, it is notable for the 1973 film of the same title that launched the career of Robert De Niro. The story centers around young catcher Bruce Pearson (played by De Niro in the film), dying of Hodgkins disease.

3. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover (1968). The novel chronicles the descent into madness of a loner whose life centers around a baseball board game. It is entertaining and at times chilling.

4. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, William Brashler (1973). This comic novel deals with the life of black ballplayers before integration. It was also adapted into a 1976 film of the same title.

5. The Great American Novel, Philip Roth (1973). Baseball plays a central role in this ambitious comic novel by Roth. It is entertaining and, as might be expected of any early Roth work, often outrageous.

6. Shoeless Joe, W. P. Kinsella (1982). This classic tale of life, death, regret and the relationship between father and son was the basis for the 1989 film Field of Dreams. If not for this work, the phrase “if you build it, he will come” would never have become part of our lexicon.

7. The Seventh Game, Roger Kahn (1982). Ten years after the release of Kahn’s The Boys of Summer (1972), a chronicle of the Brooklyn Dodgers believed by many to be the best baseball book ever written, Kahn released this novel centering on pitcher Johnny Longboat, on the mound for the seventh and deciding game of the World Series. It is not Kahn’s best work, but it is certainly worth a look.

8. For Love of the Game, Michael Shaara (1991). Penned by the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Killer Angels (1974), this novel was released shortly after Shaara’s death. Some have complained that the work required additional editing, but the story of Billy Chapel, pitching the final game of the regular season, knowing that he is about to be traded and reliving events of his life, is worth reading. The book was adapted into a 1999 film of the same title, starring Kevin Kostner.

9. Sometimes You See It Coming, Kevin Baker (1993). This work by the author of the outstanding City of Fire Trilogy – Dreamland (1999), Paradise Alley (2002) and Strivers Row (2006) - chronicles the exploits of fictional baseball legend John Barr and his eccentric New York Mets teammates. Although uneven at times, the book is entertaining and often amusing.

10. Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997). This complex book by one of the finest modern American writers is not really a baseball novel, but its fifty page prologue, The Triumph of Death, contains some of the best sports writing ever penned. The prologue, first published in 1992 in Harper’s magazine under the title and subtitle Pafko at the Fence, The Shot Heard Round the World, is a retelling of Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run that won the pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers. In addition to ballplayers who participated in that game, such as Thompson, Ralph Branca and Jackie Robinson, the story features such historical characters as J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Sinatra, both present in the stands. DeLillo uses the stage of one of the most memorable baseball games ever played to create a slice of Americana that the reader will not easily forget.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Louisiana Knight

Dave Robicheaux is the last noble night. He is a man of innate goodness in a world of greed, corruption and evil. Yet, like Thomas Malory’s Lancelot, he is inherently flawed. He struggles daily to battle demons both without and within. For Robicheaux is also a man of violence, a recovering alcoholic and Viet Nam veteran, fighting to overcome his past while fending off the jousts of modern-day Louisiana.

Robicheaux, the protagonist of James Lee Burke’s long-running bayou crime series, first appeared in The Neon Rain (1987) as a troubled New Orleans police officer on his last legs with the force. Since then, he and his best friend, Cletus Purcel, a well-meaning (if dangerous) giant whose propensity for mischief (and, ultimately, violence) is surpassed only by his loyalty to Robicheaux, have tackled corrupt politicians, vicious and unethical businessmen and the New Orleans mob, all-the-while maintaining a degree of integrity which elevates them above their surroundings.

Over the course of twenty-three years and seventeen novels (including the 1989 Edgar Award winning Black Cherry Blues), Robicheaux has overcome family tragedy, relapses of alcoholism, malaria (stemming from his Viet Nam experience), Hurricane Katrina, physical torture and repeated attempts on his life. His journey through his own personal “Camelot” is often mystical – though never more than in 1993’s In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, where his unbeknownst consumption of Dr. Pepper laced with LSD leads Robicheaux to encounters and conversations with ghosts of confederate soldiers buried in a nearby camp.

It is this mixture of intrigue, violence and mysticism that makes the Robicheaux novels unique. And it is the superior writing of Burke that elevates them above the genre to the level of literature. Burke’s writing is lyrical, compassionate, human, and wonderfully descriptive. His characters are complex, conflicted personages, not stereotypes or cartoons. Even violent encounters are beautifully rendered, in the style of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.

Burke’s eighteenth Robicheaux novel, The Glass Rainbow, was released earlier this week. The initial reviews are good, but that is to be expected for Burke, whose reputation and following grows with each addition to the series. Robicheaux has aged over the years, his once physical prowess replaced by the aches and limitations of a man in his sixties. Yet, like many knights before him, he continues to fight. And, while his armor is dented and battered, it remains effectively unblemished, a beacon of light for all who join his quest for justice in the Louisiana bayou.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Searching for Answers

I could not understand why. Two days earlier, the Mets had held a three games to two lead and were one win away from the 1973 world championship. They had Tom Seaver and Jon Matlack, two of the best pitchers in baseball, set to start games six and seven. Victory appeared imminent. Yet the Oakland A’s took the next two games and, as Wayne Garrett’s pop fly settled in to the glove of A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris for the final out of the World Series, the question I kept asking myself was: why? Why had the Mets lost, after staging a miraculous regular season comeback that had seen them win the National League East division title on the day after the season had been scheduled to end? Why had the Mets failed to score more than one run for Seaver in game six? Why had Matlack faltered in game seven after dominating the second half of the regular season? Why?

I suppose the question I asked at age thirteen is what long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans ask every year. It is difficult to understand why, despite regularly playing before boisterous sellout crowds, the Cubs have not won in over a hundred years, while the Florida Marlins, playing in front of nearly empty stadiums, have won two championships since they came into existence in 1993. It is also the question asked by Cleveland fans who have not experienced a championship in any sport since 1964 and recently saw their franchise player, LeBron James, a native of Ohio, defect to the Miami Heat.

The question of why resurfaced when I recently read the obituary of former basketball player Manute Bol, who died on June 19 at the age of forty-seven of acute kidney failure. Bol was one of the most unusual and memorable players ever to wear an NBA uniform. A native of impoverished Sudan, Bol stood at seven feet, six inches, and weighed a mere two hundred pounds. He was long and thin, with legs that seemed to come up to his chest, and arms that appeared to reach below his knees.

When he entered the NBA in 1985, after spending a year at the University of Bridgeport, he was the tallest player in league history. He had never played basketball before his late teens and was never a dominant force, yet managed to spend ten years in the NBA, including part of the 1993-94 season with the Miami Heat. It was there that I saw him up-close for the first time, and what I witnessed defied description. While he towered above other players, he visibly struggled to move up and down the court on legs that were clearly not meant for running. He was so thin that he always appeared to be one sharp blow away from incapacitation.

Yet the most memorable aspect of Bol’s physique was his smile. It was always visible, and seemed to charm friend and foe alike. He was one of the best liked players in the history of the sport.

Bol never signed a multi-million dollar contract and never held an ESPN special to announce his future plans. He had few endorsement opportunities and his number was not retired by any of the teams for whom he played. While other athletes associated with performance enhancing drugs held long, profitable careers, his was modest by comparison.

Bol’s main legacy was established outside the basketball court. He was a philanthropist who spent much of the money he made during his career on causes related to his native Sudan. After he retired in 1995, he continued devoting his life to helping the Sudanese people, occasionally running afoul of the forces that fought to control his war-ravaged nation. He was, by all accounts, one of the good guys.

That is why, for someone seeking to make sense of the world, Bol’s death raises the age-old question of why. Men have long sought answers for things they cannot explain, sometimes resorting to myth, such as the “Curse of the Goat” for Cubs fans, and other times to religion, which can often be described as that to which men turn when logic fails.

I stopped asking why long ago. As I think back over my life, the turning point appears to have occurred eighteen years ago, when I huddled in a closet for several hours with my wife and eighteen-month old twins, listening to the ravages of Hurricane Andrew and wondering if we were all going to die. While we survived the storm, the experience left its mark on us, as it did on all of South Florida.

When I think of Manute Bol, I prefer not to focus on the question of why someone with so much to give should be taken from us prematurely, while others, less worthy, live to ripe old ages. I prefer to focus instead on his life, what he fought for, and how the world is a better place because he was a part of it for a few short decades.

There is no point to asking why. Sometimes things just happen, and life goes on.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Boss

There was no doubt where the ball was heading. Chris Chambliss, first baseman for the New York Yankees, watched, bat-in-hand, as it sailed high into the sky before dropping into the right field bleachers. Yankee Stadium erupted. As Chambliss rounded the bases, fans poured onto the field celebrating the team’s first American League title in twelve years, an unacceptably long period for the most successful franchise in the history of sports.

I was never a Yankees fan, rooting instead for the sometimes beloved, often infuriating, and always less successful Mets. Still, one of the most vivid sports-related memories of my teen years came in 1976, when I attended the deciding game of the American League Championship series between the Yankees and the Kansas City Royals. I was a last-minute invitee to the game, when unforeseen circumstances left my cousin Wilfred with an extra ticket.

We sat in my cousin’s seats, five rows from the field, on the first base side of home plate. It was from there that I watched the Yankees take and maintain an early lead before Royals third baseman and future hall-of-famer George Brett hit a three-run homer in the top of the eighth to tie the score at six. The score remained tied until Chambliss sent pitcher Mark Littell’s first offering into the right field stands to lead off the ninth, setting off pandemonium.

The celebration carried over onto the streets outside the stadium. Fans were yelling, screaming, yelping and crying. It was a surreal scene, as strangers embraced and sometimes kissed. At some point I bumped into my high school friend Jack, whom I did not know was also at the game. He hugged me and said something that I could not hear over the roar before disappearing into the crowd.

My memories of that game were awakened by the news that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died Tuesday, at the age of eighty. During the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, Steinbrenner was the face of the Yankees, a bombastic, larger-than-life personality, who was also very much a visionary.

In 1973, Steinbrenner and a group of investors purchased the struggling franchise from CBS for just under nine million dollars. Steinbrenner then set about rebuilding the team into a first class organization that would attract some of the best players in the game, multiply in value, and win numerous championships.

Steinbrenner’s management skills were at times questioned. He had a history of hiring and firing managers at will, and often overspent on free agents simply because, as the head of the richest team in the game, he could afford to do so. He was criticized by many for what was sometimes perceived as bullying and meddling. Yet no one could ever question Steinbrenner’s commitment to winning, unbridled enthusiasm for the game, or impact on baseball.

Since 1973, the Yankees have become the model for success in sports, winning seven world championships, increasing in value to more than a billion dollars (number one in the world, according to Forbes magazine), and forming their own television network (YES) which reaches millions of homes per year. None of this would have occurred without Steinbrenner, the man commonly referred to as “The Boss” by the New York media. His passing should be mourned by all who follow baseball, for he was truly a giant of the game. Without Steinbrenner, my memories of Chambliss and the biggest block party in the Bronx would likely not exist.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Royal Flush

After nearly a week of speculation, former Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron (King) James disclosed last night that he will be dining this coming Saturday at Joe’s Stone Crabs, in celebration of his recent move to the Miami Heat. The announcement of the restaurant selection was made during a one-hour nationally televised ESPN special titled “The Decision II.”

“It was a very difficult, very emotional decision, which I did not make until I woke up this morning,” James told interviewer Jim Gray, “All of the restaurants I visited offered unique dining opportunities, but I felt I had to do what was best for LeBron James.”

James’ decision was greeted with cheers at the South Beach dining establishment, which until yesterday had been considered a long shot by many experts.

“It’s the safe choice,” offered Miami Herald restaurant critic Victoria Pesce Elliott, “Some of the other restaurants he considered, such as Asia de Cuba and Sushi Samba Dromo, were simply too ethnic for his taste. He was looking for something traditional, but which truly represented the South Beach lifestyle he is prepared to embrace. Table Eight was a finalist, but faded from favor when James discovered that it specializes in kobe beef.”

With the restaurant selection completed, and the assumption that James’ main course will consist of Stone Crabs (Market Price), attention now turns to James’ planned appetizer. Speculation presently centers on Shrimp Cocktail ($10.95) and Conch Fritters ($9.95). Discussions are under way between James’ representatives and ESPN for a one-hour special titled “The Decision III,” expected to air during prime time Friday.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Echoes in the Hall

Several televisions were set up inside McDonald’s. As customers stood in line, they followed the action on the screen, sometimes cursing, sometimes cheering results. Commuters riding trains conversed with total strangers, reliving the previous day’s events and speculating about later matches. Businesses closed early, providing employees the opportunity to get home in time for the start of the evening’s games.

The year was 1982 and Spain was afflicted with football fever. The nation, hosting its first World Cup, welcomed teams and fans from around the world. Games were played daily in cities throughout the country. Football was the topic of every conversation.

We arrived in Madrid in mid-June, as the opening round drew to a close. We were at the midpoint of a six-week post-college backpacking tour of Europe. By the time we reached Spain, my three traveling companions and I had walked dozens of miles through Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece. We had been to places only previously imagined, and absorbed what the world had to offer with the relentless enthusiasm of the young. Still, after three weeks of trains, buses and hikes, our energy was dissipating. We were exhausted.

We booked rooms in a pension, a private home which catered to students, providing shelter, hygiene and some nourishment, all for a fraction of the cost of a hotel. We had stayed at many such establishments during our trip, struggling to communicate with families who extended their hospitality and worked hard to make us feel welcome.

The Madrid pension was located on the third floor of an apartment building near the center of town. Our hosts were a family of four: husband and wife in their mid-forties, teen son, and a much younger boy, perhaps four years of age. They welcomed us enthusiastically and led us to our rooms, each of which slept two and shared an adjoining bathroom.

On our trip from the train station, we had witnessed the excitement that reverberated through the city. Our arrival in Madrid in the midst of the World Cup was incidental; we had never consciously decided to partake in the event. Still, we were happy to be there at a time that would enhance our travel experience. We intended to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity – as soon as we got some sleep.

After settling into my room, I lowered the window shade to block the mid-morning sun, placed my head on the pillow and fell asleep. A few minutes later, I was awakened by a noise from the hall: a loud thud, followed immediately by a muffled, indecipherable shout. I sat up and listened closely, trying to determine the source of the noise, which was repeated almost immediately. I inched towards the room’s door and cracked it open slightly, just enough to allow me to look down the hall.

The four-year-old boy kicked a ball against the far wall, jumped into the air, and yelled “Goal!” That explained the thud and the shout. Like the rest of the country, my young host had caught football fever and was celebrating the moment in his own, unique manner. I closed the door quietly, returned to my bed, and placed the pillow over my head, barely obscuring the sounds of the child’s excitement.

Spain advanced to the second round of the tournament that year, before a loss to West Germany and a draw with England relegated it to also-ran status. Spain, the defending European champion, and the pre-tournament favorite to win in 2010, has never won the World Cup. I suspect that the team’s less than stellar showing in this year’s opening round had its fans fearing that its winless streak would continue. However, after victories over Portugal, Paraguay and powerhouse Germany, the team heads into the final game a prohibitive favorite to finally bring home the title.

Through it all, I think back to the child kicking the ball against the wall in 1982 and wonder whether the boy, now an adult, is following this year’s action with the same unbridled passion he then possessed. And I wonder whether he, perhaps now himself a father, listens to the sounds of his own son as he jubilantly kicks a ball and erupts into spontaneous shouts of celebration that will forever echo in the halls of distant memory.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Dark Flight

I have always found the following poem haunting; its atmospheric mood dark as its enigmatic subject.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Wallace Stevens


Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?


I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.


The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Black Tide

The picture, taken in 1992, shows my then eighteen-month-old son sitting on the beach at Sanibel Island, the string in his hand extending upwards towards the edge of the photograph. As he looks to the sky and the kite that flutters above, the smile on his face is as bright as the sands around him.

The recent news that Sanibel Island will apparently be spared the ravages of the BP oil gush, while welcome, offers no consolation to the residents of the Florida panhandle who are already seeing the effects of the ecological disaster. Newspapers carry daily pictures of dark blotches across north Florida beaches, and television news stories depict images of residents staring wistfully at the sea, awaiting the next wave of black.

In 1959 Stanley Kramer, who would later direct such classics as Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), released the apocalyptic film On the Beach. Based on a 1957 novel by British-Australian author Nevil Shute, the story centers around citizens of Australia awaiting the arrival of deadly radiation after World War III and nuclear fallout have destroyed all life throughout the planet. Several scenes in the film have its protagonists looking out from the Australian shore to skies that will inevitably deliver death. Such scenes are eerily similar to what we are today seeing in the Gulf coast.

The effects of the BP debacle are nowhere as dramatic as those depicted in the film, yet analogies can be made. The spreading oil has already destroyed marine life, decades-old businesses and tourism throughout the Gulf. While the citizens of the Florida panhandle are not awaiting the end of all human life, they are witnessing the final chapter of life as they know it. They will be dealing with the effects of the oil for decades, and the pristine white of their beaches will exist only in their memories and old photographs of what once was.