Thursday, October 28, 2010

Matty and Mugsy

He was Ruth before Ruth, Namath before Namath, Jordan before Jordan. At the opening of the twentieth century, Christy Mathewson was king of the sporting world. “Matty” was the ace pitcher for the New York Giants, the most popular team in sports before Babe Ruth and the Yankees of the 1920’s claimed that title.

In a sport dominated by street-wise toughs and country boys, Mathewson was an anomaly. He was tall, handsome and college educated, having attended Bucknell before giving in to the seduction of baseball and turning pro. He joined the Giants in 1900 and almost immediately ascended to the top of the sport. In 1905, after winning 31 regular season games (the third consecutive year he exceeded 30 wins), he pitched three shutouts during the World Series to lead the Giants to the championship. In the more than 100 years that have followed, no one has come close to duplicating that feat.

The 1905 World Series gained universal fame for Mathewson and the Giants. They were the first celebrity sports team, toasted wherever they went, their exploits followed in newspapers by fans throughout the country.

While Mathewson’s on-field excellence attracted many of the headlines, some were reserved for the team’s fiery leader, manager John McGraw. Nicknamed “Little Napoleon” and “Mugsy,” McGraw was known for his shotgun temper and willingness to do anything to win. He gained his reputation during his playing days in the l890’s, when tripping and impeding opposing baserunners became his norm. It is said that McGraw’s tactics were instrumental in baseball’s decision to employ multiple umpires during games to police on-field activity.

The relationship between college-educated Mathewson and man-of-the-streets McGraw is at the center of Frank Deford’s excellent book, The Old Ball Game. Deford, long-time writer for Sports Illustrated, weekly commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and regular correspondent for the HBO series Real Sports, chronicles the relationship between these vastly different men, who together reached the top of the sporting world. Despite their differences, the two men crafted a bond that would endure for the rest of their lives (in Mathewson’s case, a life cut short by tuberculosis, likely resulting from his accidental exposure to toxic gas after he enlisted in the Army during World War I). McGraw was, in many ways, a father figure to Mathewson, helping him hone his game during a 17-year career that saw him win 373 games and attain a winning percentage of .665, and hiring him as a coach when Mathewson returned from Europe a seriously ill man.

Yet the relationship between these two giants of the sport is just one aspect of Deford’s book. Deford also chronicles the rise in the sport’s popularity during the early 1900’s, which largely resulted from the Giants’ success, and explores the similarities between baseball then and now, drawing analogies between the gambling issues that plagued the sport at the time and the steroids controversy that has dominated headlines during the early years of the twenty-first century.

More significantly, Deford uses the rise in the sport’s popularity during the early 1900’s to craft a portrait of American society at the time, not dissimilar to that painted by E.L. Doctorow in his classic novel Ragtime.

Perhaps Wes Lukowsky put it best in his Starred Review for Booklist: “Deford effectively weaves the threads of these two touchstone lives into the broader tapestry of an ascendant sport and a rapidly modernizing America. A fine baseball book but just as fine a study of American popular culture.”

The Old Ball Game is one of the finest baseball books of the past twenty years. It rivals Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer in its ability to evoke ghosts of an earlier time and reminds us that the playing fields occupied by men in cotton uniforms chasing balls hit by sticks also link us to our past.

It is a wonderful read and highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Voice of God

When they heard the sound of drums, they dropped their toys and hurried to the TV. My twins were then only 18-months old, yet the opening theme to the 1992 Summer Olympics lured them, as if hypnotized, to the source of the music.

For years, John Facenda, the voice of NFL Films during the Sixties and Seventies, had a similar luring, hypnotic quality. His deep baritone would stop listeners in their tracks and turn their attention to NFL highlights accompanied by his voice-over.

Facenda, who died of cancer in 1984, was affectionately known as “The Voice of God.” One of my most vivid memories of his work involved Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, which he recited to highlights of the NFL season. Recordings of Facenda’s recital are available on-line, and provide a vivid reminder of what made him special.


Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Measures of Success

How should success in sports be measured? Is a single championship worth more than years of steady play that fall just short of the ultimate goal? Or does the act of competing outweigh results that are often impacted by factors outside the participants’ control?

Since 1997, the Florida Marlins have attained a winning percentage of .485, losing more games than they won and never winning a division title. The team has been dismantled on several occasions, its best players going to the highest bidders. Yet the Marlins won World Series titles in 1997 and 2003, the only two years in which they reached the post-season, both times as the Wild Card – the best second place team in the National League.

Conversely, the Minnesota Twins, like the Marlins a small market team hindered by financial limitations, have attained a winning percentage of .511 and won six division titles in those fourteen seasons. Unlike the Marlins, however, they won no championships during those years, and only once made it past the first round of the playoffs.

Does this mean that the Marlins have been the more successful franchise since 1997? Are the Twins’ wins and division titles overshadowed by the Marlins’ World Series rings?

These questions arise because, in the past two weeks, two long time managers, Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves and Cito Gaston of the Toronto Blue Jays, retired from the game with vastly different records and public perception of their respective accomplishments.

Cox retired after twenty-nine years of managing, twenty-five of them with Atlanta. From 1991 to 2005, Cox’s Braves won an unfathomable fourteen consecutive division titles, interrupted only by the 1994 season, which was never completed because of a players’ strike. Cox won a total of 2504 games during his managerial career, and attained a lifetime winning percentage of .556. Yet, despite reaching the World Series five times, Cox’s Braves won only one world championship. Some critics contend that, despite their regular season success, the Braves, who featured three assured Hall of Fame pitchers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz) underachieved during Cox’s managerial reign.

Gaston’s managerial career was brief by comparison. He managed for twelve years, all of them with the Toronto Blue Jays. His teams won a total of 894 games (slightly more than a third of those won by Cox’s teams) and his lifetime winning percentage was .516, well below that of Cox. Yet Gaston’s Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, the only world championships ever attained by a team outside of the United States. The Blue Jays’ accomplishment those two years elevated baseball on an international level and made relevant in Canada a sport which, until then, had received only lukewarm support above our northern borders.

Do Gaston’s two championships trump Cox’s twenty-nine years of success? In today’s post-MTV world, where attention spans are short and immediate results are demanded, one would think so. Yet that is not what one takes away from media coverage and reaction to the two managers’ retirement.

While Cox has been universally acclaimed as one of the all-time great managers, a certain Hall of Famer, praise for Gaston’s accomplishments has not been nearly as effusive. One might almost forget that the Blue Jays won four division titles as well as two championships during Gaston’s years, and attendance rose above the four million mark during three of those seasons, the only time that has ever occurred in the history of the franchise.

What is the reason for the disparity in media and fan reaction to the retirement of these two men? Race may have something to do with it. Cox is white, Gaston black – and while one would hope that this would not be a factor in the twenty-first century, during a period that has seen this nation elect an African-American President for the first time, we must remember that baseball excluded black players for nearly half a century, until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

More likely factors are personalities and visibility. Cox was a character, evoking a southern, good-old-boy persona (despite the fact that he was born in Selma, California). He regularly argued with umpires and was tossed from games several times each year – the most recent instance coming last week, during the Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. Further, the Atlanta Braves’ games were televised nationally by TBS, which brought Cox daily into living rooms across the U.S.

Gaston was quiet and cerebral. He lacked Cox’s charisma and approached the game in a professional, understated manner. Perhaps more importantly, his team’s games were principally played outside of the United States, giving American viewers limited exposure to his accomplishments. It was not until the post-season that Americans got a true sense of Gaston’s managerial prowess, and the Blue Jays took full advantage of this limited exposure by winning two championships.

It is difficult to compare the managerial careers of Cox and Gaston precisely because their circumstances and accomplishments were so different. Each merits accolades and, if there is any justice, each will find a permanent resting spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yet the differences in their careers raise valid questions about how we, as a society, measure success in sports. We can ask those questions, but the answers are as elusive as a home run ball bouncing in the bleachers at Wrigley Field.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bay Area Blues

There was a time when the San Francisco Bay area was synonymous with football excellence. For twenty years, from 1976 through 1995, the Raiders and 49ers excelled on the gridiron, winning a combined eight Super Bowls and challenging for several others.

Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders started on their road to success in 1968 when, as the AFL representatives, they lost Super Bowl II 33-14 in Miami to Vince Lombardi’s powerhouse Green Bay Packers. After the AFL merged into the NFL in 1970, the Raiders remained a perennial contender, reaching the playoffs eight consecutive years before coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler led the team to a 32-14 Super Bowl XI victory in Pasadena over Bud Grant’s favored Minnesota Vikings.

The Raiders’ years of success continued after Madden’s retirement in 1978. In 1981, coach Tom Flores and quarterback Jim Plunkett, who had been deemed a failure and discarded a few years earlier by the New England Patriots, led the Raiders to a 27-10 Super Bowl XV victory in New Orleans over the Philadelphia Eagles. Flores and Plunkett repeated their success three years later when, as the Los Angeles Raiders (the team spent 13 years in Los Angeles before returning to Oakland in 1995), they won Super Bowl XVIII 38-9 over the Washington Redskins in Tampa.

During their years of success, the Raiders were feared more than respected. The team developed a reputation for aggressive (many would say dirty) play intended to intimidate opponents. One of the most lasting images of the Raiders’ years of success was safety Jack Tatum’s vicious August 12, 1978 blow to the head of New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley during a pre-season game, a hit that rendered Stingley a quadriplegic and came to symbolize the unfettered violence associated with the sport during the Seventies and Eighties.

The San Francisco 49ers took a very different path to success. For more than three decades, commencing in 1946, the team played, but rarely competed, in the NFL. It was not until the 1979 hiring of coach Bill Walsh, who had earned a reputation as an offensive guru during his college coaching days at Berkeley and Stanford, that the franchise’s turnaround began.

In 1982, Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana became surprising champions, winning Super Bowl XVI (the year after the Raiders won Super Bowl XV) 38-16 over the Cincinnati Bengals in Detroit. Walsh and Montana would team up for two additional championships, winning Super Bowl XIX in 1985 38-16 over the Miami Dolphins in the Dolphins’ home city, and again besting the Bengals in 1989 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII, again in Miami.

After the team’s third Super Bowl win, Walsh retired and turned the coaching reigns over to his offensive coordinator and disciple, George Seifert. While Seifert never achieved the same level of success as his hall-of-fame predecessor, he and Montana won Super Bowl XXIV 55-10 over the Denver Broncos and John Elway in 1990, Seifert’s first year as coach, in New Orleans. After Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs late in his career, Seifert teamed up with quarterback Steve Young to win a fifth championship, taking Super Bowl XXIX in 1995 over the San Diego Chargers, again in Miami, the 49ers’ seemingly favorite city. I attended that game and remember the awe with which the crowd witnessed San Francisco’s dismantling of the Chargers. They were at the very top of their game and it appeared likely that they would go on contending for many more years.

But something happened after 1995. While both teams would reach the playoffs several more years, and the Raiders would make one additional trip to the Super Bowl in 2003, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Raiders’ former head coach, John Gruden, 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, neither team ever approached the level of success achieved during what is now labeled their glory years.

The past several seasons have been particularly difficult for the Bay Area teams, with both squads going through several coaches and quarterbacks. From 2003 through 2009 the two teams had a combined record of 69-155, a “winning” percentage of .308. Neither team made the playoffs during those years.

This season began with much hope. The Raiders felt that they had finally found their new quarterback in Jason Campbell, formerly of the Washington Redskins, who brought a reputation for a big, if often inaccurate, arm. The 49ers were confident that coach Mike Singletary, a venerable leader of the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl XX champions in 1986, would quickly turn things around.

Despite the teams’ lofty expectations, however, little has changed. The Raiders won only two of their first five games and quickly faded from playoff contention. As a result of the team’s poor start, this past weekend a rumor circulated that all of the team’s players would be put on the trading block before the NFL trading deadline.

The 49ers have been even worse. They lost all five of their initial games and featured an anemic offense that led to the summary dismissal of the team’s offensive coordinator.

This past weekend the two teams squared off in San Francisco. Presumably, someone had to win, and the 49ers did, 17-9, behind the strong running of Frank Gore, a former University of Miami product, and one of the few bright spots on the San Francisco roster. Not surprisingly, there was little interest in the game outside of the Bay Area.

Poor management and personnel decisions have created disarray in what were once proud and respected franchises. There appear to be no easy solutions, and the teams’ problems are expected to continue into the coming years.

Fans in the Bay Area can take solace in the fact that even the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers went through a down period before resurging as champions in 2006. Because success in sports is often cyclical, there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if no one can see it. Unless drastic changes are made in both franchises, however, it appears unlikely that Bay Area fans will ever see a period of dominance and success such as they witnessed from 1976 through 1995. Those were truly memorable years for the Raiders and 49ers, yet the memory of past successes fades with each new Bay Area loss.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Images (August, 1992 - Part IV)

I drifted in and out of sleep, hearing echoes of the previous day’s winds. It was the night after Hurricane Andrew made landfall, carving a path of destruction through South Florida.

I awoke to the sound of birds lightly chirping outside my window, something that had been missing the previous morning, when we were in the throes of the storm. I arose to a surprise: the two inches of water that had covered the entire floor of our home the day before were gone, having evaporated into the night.

Everything else was the same. Our home was a morass of broken glass, leaves and dirt. We had no power and no working phones. There were still no leaves on trees. Every house in our neighborhood was damaged. Neighbors continued to wander through the damage, taking in new evidence of the devastation with near masochistic fervor.

Later that day we turned on a small black and white battery-operated TV. A helicopter flew over US-1, just south of our home, broadcasting the scene. Nothing was recognizable. The damage intensified as the helicopter got further south.

We remained in the house for nearly a week, naively hoping that things would somehow improve. We then abandoned that hope and left, spending a couple of days with my friend Jim, whose home north of us had not been damaged, and later moving to a townhouse in a waterfront community in Aventura, near the Broward County line.

My memories of the days and weeks after the storm are hazy. I recall not events, but images, as if snapshots had been imbedded in my brain:

My wife Patricia walking hand-in-hand with our 20-month old twins through the destruction, my son pointing out all that was not normal, my daughter silently taking in the scene - It was during one of those walks on the days immediately following the storm that a pickup truck pulled up to them and asked if we needed water. Patricia said yes and directed the driver to our home. That is how we first met Bob, who had come down from Del Ray Beach, after seeing the impact of the storm in our area. Bob worked construction and carried a portable generator in the cab of his truck. He hooked it up to our home long enough to enable us to shower (back then, we had a well and an electric pump that brought water into the house). He boarded up some of our windows and returned the next day with chili that his wife had prepared for us. We would eventually hire Bob to help us repair the house, and to this day I remain grateful for his kindness and generosity.

Several neighbors using boards from what had been our wooden fence to patch their roofs – Wooden planks and blue tarps covered every roof. This limited the amount of water that seeped into our homes each time it rained. Roofers became a valuable commodity, which sometimes led to price gouging and outright fraud. Because of the scope of the destruction, local authorities had difficulty containing this widespread malaise.

Driving north on local roads and seeing less and less damage as we progressed - Our home had been in the northern eye wall of the storm. Those just north of us had been spared. It is difficult to imagine the extent of the destruction had Andrew come aground near the downtown area.

Cars lining up at a checkpoint set up by the Army at the northern end of our neighborhood – For weeks the area was under an early evening curfew and access was limited to local residents and those working on the battered homes. This helped contain the looting, although residents remained fearful. I recall a hand-painted sign on the boarded window of a home: “Looters will be shot.”

The electric buzzing of generators – Our area would remain without power for months, and nearly every house in our neighborhood added a generator. A few days after the storm hit, my brother-in-law Emmet drove down from New York with a generator and supplies. Emmet would remain with us for months, working with Bob and staying in our home to ensure its safety after we moved north.

My brother-in-law Liam, sitting atop our roof, watching military planes and choppers fly overhead - Liam had driven down with Emmet and enjoyed watching the activity in our skies from his elevated perch. For months our neighborhood would retain the feel of an occupied military zone, as the Army assumed control and brought elements of stability to the pervading chaos.

We were out of our home for six months, much longer than we had ever imagined. The Aventura townhouse into which we moved was owned by an Atlanta family who only used it on holiday. It was in a gated community of mostly retirees. While our temporary neighbors tried to be hospitable, we sensed that they viewed us as refugees from another land. They had suffered no damage and, despite the graphic images on TV, had no real concept of the scope of devastation just south of them.

Every evening after work I drove north from downtown Miami, away from the destruction. Patricia, who spent many of her days traveling with our twins back and forth from our home, would fill me in on the events of the day and the progress with repairs. On Friday nights we walked along the marina adjacent to our temporary home with the twins, who enjoyed seeing the docked boats and feeling the cool breeze blow in from the intracoastal waterway.

It is difficult for me to imagine what the experience must have been like for our kids. They were old enough to understand that something significant had occurred, but too young to fully grasp what they had lived through. When we temporarily abandoned our home and relocated north to Aventura, we left behind virtually all of their toys, fearful that glass from our broken windows would materialize and harm them. When the time came to return to our home in February of the following year, they were happily surprised that they would be able to take with them the new toys that we had purchased – they had assumed that those too would be left behind when we again relocated.

While our son, who was always talkative, would happily discuss his memories of Andrew, our daughter would consistently avoid the subject. It was not until a year later that she felt comfortable enough to discuss it. The person she chose for that discussion was my friend Joe, who had evacuated from Miami Beach and rode out the storm with us in our home, in the darkness of an interior closet.

Hurricane Andrew altered the landscape of South Florida. The sounds we heard from inside our closet, as the winds and heavy rains tore through our neighborhood, were the sounds of change. Unlike us, many of our neighbors chose not to return to their ravaged homes. They fled instead to other states and cities, hoping to avoid reminders that on that day, August 24, 1992, they survived one of the largest natural disasters of the twentieth century.

Eighteen years have elapsed, and our memories of Andrew become hazier with each passing day. Patricia and I no longer wake up in fear when we hear the sound of winds outside our window. It is almost as if the images that remain belong to someone else’s life in a distant world.

Yet even today, when walking through our lawn, we occasionally come across a shard of broken glass embedded in the dirt and are reminded of that harrowing day. Our memories of Andrew are not ghosts of a distant past, nor snapshots of another’s life. They are vivid reminders that we experienced an event that would forever shape and define our lives.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Swings and Misses

The start of each baseball season brings hope and optimism. Managers point out that everyone begins with the same record and the same opportunities to win.

Despite the disparity in team payrolls, there is truth in what the managers say. Small market franchises like the Minnesota Twins and the Florida Marlins consistently put entertaining teams on the field which may not always win, but usually compete.

As the season progresses, reality sets in. Many teams considered contenders are proven otherwise. Such was the case this season with the Seattle Mariners. Expected to win their division at the beginning of the year, they emerged slowly from the gate and never fully recovered. By the end of the regular season, they had traded their best pitcher, Cliff Lee, to a divisional rival, the Texas Rangers (a surprise winner of the American League West) and finished with the worst record in the league, twenty-nine games out of first place.

The post-season likewise begins with hope and optimism for those who survive the grueling 162-game regular season schedule. I am sure that the Cincinnati Reds, the best hitting team in the National League during the regular season and winners of the National League Central, did not expect to be to be swept by the Philadelphia Phillies, their bats all but silenced. I am also confident that, despite past playoff failures, the Minnesota Twins expected that this season would be different and they would get revenge against their post-season rivals, the defending champions New York Yankees. Yet the results this season were the same: the Twins were swept by the Yankees and knocked out of the playoffs yet again.

The reality is that only one team can emerge victorious at the end of the year. All others suffer disappointment of varying degrees.

Perhaps nothing captures the disappointment inherent in the game like Ernest L. Thayer’s classic poem, Casey at the Bat. First published anonymously on June 3, 1888 by William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, the poem has become symptomatic of the optimism and ultimate heartbreak that baseball can bring.

Casey at the Bat

Ernest L. Thayer

The Outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that -
We'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they'd a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two."

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Doc Halladay

The past several years have not been kind to baseball. On-field accomplishments have taken a back seat to investigative reports, congressional hearings and lawsuits over the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. The historic 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, an event that re-invigorated the sport after the player strike of 1994 led to the cancellation of the World Series, leaving the game without a champion for the first time in history, was revealed to be a fraud, and both players have since become poster boys for steroid abuse. The two best players of the past twenty years, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, have been charged with perjury (in Clemens’ case as the result of his testimony before Congress), and both face criminal trials and possible jail time.

Yet occasionally something happens on the field that reminds me of why I fell in love with the sport as a child and why, despite its obvious failings, baseball remains the source of much pleasure. That something occurred last night, when Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay pitched only the second post-season no-hitter in the 140-year history of the sport.

For the past decade, Halladay has been one of the top hurlers in the game, winning twenty games on three separate occasions, and receiving the Cy Young Award, given annually to the best pitcher in each league, in 2003. Halladay’s numbers have been dominant, particularly the past three seasons, which have seen him achieve a strikeout to walk ratio of 6 to 1 in a sport where 3 to 1 is considered outstanding. His poise and pinpoint control have long earned him universal acclaim.

Yet something was always lacking in “Doc” Halladay’s resume. Until this season, his achievements had been attained in Toronto, which for the past ten years fielded competitive, yet unspectacular teams. Until this year, Halladay had never pitched in the post-season, and many viewed his accomplishments on the field with reservation, arguing that true sporting greatness is achieved when championships are on the line.

Before the start of this season, Halladay was traded by the Blue Jays to the Phillies, a team which appeared in the past two World Series, defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 and losing to the New York Yankees in 2009. The Phillies, considered by many the best team in the National League, marched to yet another division title in 2010, a season which featured a Halliday perfect game against the Florida Marlins, and which will likely culminate in Doc’s second Cy Young Award.

Yet when Halladay took the mound yesterday afternoon against the Cincinnati Reds in game one of the Divisional Series, the question remained: How would Halladay perform in the post-season spotlight?

The question has been answered. Halladay’s performance yesterday ranks with the best in the history of the game, and only one pitch (a full count slider to Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce which fell just below the knees) kept him from completing his second perfect game of the season and the second post-season perfect game in baseball history.

There are no longer any questions about Halladay. He is the best pitcher in the game, and will have a plaque in Cooperstown when his playing days are done. Years from now, fans will speak of Halladay with the same reverence that long-time fans use in referring to such past stars as Whitey Ford, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson.

Despite everything that baseball has endured over the past decade, I remain a strong believer in the game. The purity of the one-on-one matchup between pitcher and batter remains, in my opinion, unsurpassed in any sport. Baseball is the only professional American sport that is not limited by time; the game will continue until the final out is achieved, irrespective of how long it takes.

That is why I remain an optimist. Baseball will eventually overcome its present state of malaise. And when it does, it will be led by such soon-to-be legends as Roy “Doc” Halladay, who yesterday attained greatness on a field of grass, in a boys’ game played by men.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Classic Crime

Rarely do film versions of classic books surpass the quality of the originals. It happened in 1946.

Raymond Chandler’s 1939 detective novel The Big Sleep introduced the world to Philip Marlowe, tough guy with a heart of gold who, together with Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, crafted the mold for many of today’s literary gumshoes. Chandler’s crime novel is filled with intrigue, betrayal and the ever-popular femme fatale. At the center of the complex plot is Marlowe, whose love/hate relationship with the City of Angels is evoked through crisp dialogue and often introspective ruminations. This is hardboiled fiction at it finest, and is universally considered one of the classics of the genre.

Seven years later, Howard Hawks, one of the finest directors in the history of film, responsible for such classics as Scarface (1932), Sergeant York (1941) and Rio Bravo (1959), brought Chandler’s creation to the big screen. Armed with a screenwriting team that included William Faulkner, in one of his few Hollywood ventures, Hawks created a film that is every bit the equal of its literary counterpart.

Hawks’ film is blessed with the cinematic chemistry of Humphrey Bogart (as Marlow) and Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Rutledge), who were never better together onscreen. The script seems specially designed to highlight their charisma and sexual attraction, something quite evident in the following exchange:

VIVIAN: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first; see if they’re front runners or come from behind; find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.

MARLOWE: Find out mine?

VIVIAN: I think so.

MARLOWE: Go ahead.

VIVIAN: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

MARLOWE: You don’t like to be rated yourself.

VIVIAN: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

MARLOWE: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.

VIVIAN: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

This exchange is highly surprising and unexpected for a time when censors controlled much of what appeared onscreen. Perhaps it reflects a temporary easing of the reins during a year when the nation celebrated the end of a costly war. Or perhaps the censors were so hypnotized by the quality of the script that they were afraid to challenge Faulkner and his co-writers.

Whatever the reason, this exchange, and many others like it, elevate Hawks’ film to classic status. Its script is one of finest ever penned for a Hollywood film.

The Big Sleep is far from perfect. Its complex plot and hectic pace can lead to viewer confusion that can only be overcome by a second viewing. Still, one could do much worse than a second go-round with Hawks’ film. It withstands the test of time and remains a true cinematic classic.