Friday, May 31, 2013

After the things are destroyed and scattered...

When Homer Bailey made his Major League debut, the power went out in my house in the third or fourth inning. In a move that bordered on desperation, I grabbed a transistor radio that I had for emergencies and turned the dial to 700 as we once did back in Ohio. Sure, it was a longshot, but WLW had one of the strongest radio signals in the country. It turned out to be a good night for the signal, as Marty’s voice broke through the static and I listened to the Reds on radio all the way in Washington, DC.

Chris has a transistor radio that he listens to constantly. While the rest of us living in the 21st century rely on devices we still call phones, he carries around this ode to nostalgia, the incessant drone of sports talk radio crackling from its antiquated speakers. Yet there’s something whimsically romantic about it, about that crackle, a sort of symphony of radiowaves that reminds us of the past while transmitting realtime events. It’s not like Instagram, with its faux retro scheme, but a genuine artifact of simpler times in the realm of media.

The temperature was wonderfully warm a couple of nights ago; as soon as I arrived home from work I ventured out to our garden to redo part of the rock border, as rain had covered some of the rocks with dirt and birds had displaced others (as well as knocking off marigold blossoms!) While our internet signal reaches to the garden and I have watched a couple of Reds games out there, I was rather enjoying the peace of the evening devoid of screens and technology and chose to leave the laptop inside and savor the tranquility in being among the plants and nature. Soon, Chris came home with his transistor radio, and we listened to the Nationals-Orioles game while drinking summer beers and playing with rocks. We passed a simple, happy moment fringed with nostalgia, the good kind of nostalgia, full of the pleasure of happy memories and warmth, firmly rooted in realtime.

Unfortunately, much of the psychological research on nostalgia is located behind the paywalls of scholarly journals I cannot afford, and much of that has been limited to the field of consumer psychology, that field that researches ways to fool you into buying something you don’t need while appealing to your sense of nostalgia. However, my personal Google machine tells me that until recently, nostalgia was associated with an unhealthy emotional state. Indeed, the term itself is derived from the Greek words for “return” and “suffering.” Recent research suggests nostalgia can be a healthy emotion that eases loneliness, helps people get through difficult periods in their lives, and gives them a sense of stability through changing times. Feeling nostalgic is a way to maintain one’s sense of identity.

Of course, these are only psychological studies. The human brain is a vastly mysterious entity about which we know little, and empirical neurological research on nostalgia is scarce. I found this rather interesting article “Nostalgia: the similarities between immunological and neurologicalmemory” by Lawrence Steinman of Beckman Center for Molecular Medicine at Stanford in which he discusses the importance of memory in both the immune system and the nervous system. I particularly like Steinman’s reference to Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” from which he quotes “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” He talks briefly about how neurological memory shapes our personalities and goes on to discuss what our neurological and immune memories have in common. The article raises curiosity in my mind about nostalgia’s links to identity and the failure to recognize self as does one who is afflicted with prosopagnosia, a neurological phenomenon that shares features with autoimmune diseases when there is a failure of recognition of self. I’m not a neurologist or a psychologist, so I can only naively speculate and puzzle over the marvels and possibilities of the brain. I wonder if diseases such as Alzheimer’s actually make nostalgia come to life, and if that is the case, can’t too much nostalgia among seemingly healthy people be unhealthy? Isn’t dwelling on the past detrimental to a sound mental state?

Proust also wrote, “When from the distant past nothing remains, after the beings have died, after the things are destroyed and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, yet more vital, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of everything else; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the immense architecture of memory.

The smell and taste of things. Smells bring back emotional memories better than the other senses because the olfactory bulb is part of the emotional center of the brain and has strong input into the amygdala, where emotions are processed. The sensory cues around us are also integral to how our brains map our movement through space. We have neurons called “place cells” that help us find our way in the world. While reading this article on The Atlantic Cities about how understanding our brain’s mapping capabilities can help us to better design city spaces, I began to wonder how our brains, whose place cell neurons have each learned how to care for one particular place, deal with the loss of those places, like when a ballpark is imploded out of existence.

These place cells are located within the brain’s hippocampus, which has its own memory system with unique characteristic functions. However, when it comes to emotional situations, the hippocampus interacts with the amygdala and acts in concert when memory and emotion meet. Knowing this, I couldn’t help but wonder if those neurons play any part in developing emotional attachments and if the destruction of places that have become a part of our identities (after the things are destroyed and scattered), like Riverfront Stadium was a part of mine (is, perhaps), has a disconcerting or detrimental effect on our brains. If a place like Riverfront Stadium, a place that was so important in my childhood, no longer exists, what happens to that neuron whose sole job was to know Riverfront Stadium? And why do I feel a longing to go to a baseball game there but I have no deep emotional connection to Riverfront’s replacement ballpark?

Marty Brennaman’s voice was not coming out of that transistor radio the other night, but the crackle of baseball was. It certainly fired up the part of my brain that produces nostalgia. Remembrance of things past and which can never be again. I suppose that’s simply a part of baseball. A part of life.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Outside the “Base” Lines

What is the meaning of “sacred?”

When most people consider the question, they think of holy places or deities. That is but one definition. Sacred is not limited to the artifice of religion, but applies to all things held with reverence. The sacred memory of a dead soldier, for instance. The birth of a child. Vows spoken on a wedding day. Cherished time spent with family and friends. These are events that have a transformative effect on our lives.

Anything can be sacred, including a baseball game. The moment Jackie Robinson stepped onto a Major League Baseball field was sacred, as was the World Series in New York City in October 2001, yet the occasions don’t have to be globally monumental. Your first baseball game may be sacred to you, or a memory of a game with your grandfather, or your son’s first glimpse of a verdant MLB yard. Baseball’s leisurely pace, time of year, and length of season leave ample opportunity to experience sacred moments.

The opposite of sacred is profane. Most people think of four letter words when profanity comes to mind, but profanity encompasses the desecration of sacred things. Westboro Baptist Church is profane. Pedophile priests are profane. Religious wars are profane. These are the easy ones. Profanity exists everywhere in our daily lives, from big picture events to seemingly innocuous details. Putting an innocent man in prison is profane because it assaults the sacredness of freedom. Buying a shirt manufactured by a company that operates under terrible working conditions is profane because it violates the sacredness of human life. Even watching a reality television show is profane because it discards sacred human creativity for voyeurism. And MLB’s Memorial Day pomp and circumstance was profane.

Much has been written about MLB’s misguided (at best) decision to wear camo uniforms on Memorial Day and how the American public doesn’t understand what Memorial Day is about. Dead soldiers, people. Memorial Day is to remember our war dead, not glorify the military. The lack of understanding by MLB and America in general is a symptom of a far greater problem, one that threatens to undermine the so-called freedom US troops are purported to defend: a complete disconnect from the military and the wars it fights. Check out these numbers from a recent Pew survey:


77% of adults over 50 said yes.
57% of adults ages 30 to 49 said yes.
33% of adults under 29 said yes.

The draft ended in 1973, lifting the responsibility to bear the costs of American wars from the general public. The lack of contact with members of the military has blinded the public to military life. According to that same survey, 84% of post 9/11 and 76% of pre 9/11 vets say the public does not understand well or at all the problems that those in the military face.

Yet we’ve developed a culture of military worship. It’s like 9/11 broke all sense of reason within us. Now we can’t go to a ballgame without experiencing tacky displays of what is improperly described as patriotism. It’s as if waving tiny flags to a song about America or letting an injured soldier throw out the first pitch assuages guilt for making them do all the work in protecting our country while we continue to buy stuff and play video games and obliterate our capacity for thought with pint after pint of “craft” beer. “See, we support the troops! Let us give ourselves a pat on the back for showing our support!” No, it’s not patriotism at all; it’s an offensive display of arrogance.

Those of us who have no family in the military have no obvious stake in the fight. Our sons and daughters aren’t the ones dying or being scarred for life; our soldiers are someone else’s kids. We’re so distant from the reality of our wars that when consequences of our ambivalence confront us in places like Boston or Benghazi, we are shocked and outraged and wonder why it is happening to us, but we soon go about our daily lives as if those things were something sad we saw on TV. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who fight those wars don’t have that luxury.

If you truly supported the troops, you wouldn’t vote for politicians who send them to war in the first place, because our wars are unnecessary wars that just beget more violence. You wouldn’t send them to be maimed, or psychologically scarred, or killed in places you can’t even point to on a map. And you would quietly donate directly to veterans organizations or volunteer at the USO instead of buying a jersey or cap that was specially made for a day that is supposed to be solemn, a day on which we are supposed to reflect upon the tragedies of war and remember those who were killed fighting in them. We’ve become so enmeshed in the web of consumerism that people can’t see they’re nothing but tools for marketing, even when the proceeds go to a cause. You donated because you got something out of it. Isn’t your freedom enough?

War is real, and it isn’t a sporting event. That anyone would feel proud to sing along to “Proud to Be an American” by draft dodger Lee Greenwood or arrogant enough to sing “God Bless America” as if somehow the coincidence of your birth makes you better than other people on the planet is the very definition of profane. I look around and wonder if there is anything sacred left in this country, if there is any reverence, any awe. Our eyes are glued to screens, our ears are stuffed with headphones, our minds are mired in oblivion, and our hearts are sitting on some shelf in the marketplace of apathy.

War is profane, for it is the annihilation of the most sacred aspect of human existence: life.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cuban Pastries and Applebeesification

People who’ve never been anywhere in their lives might not understand the significance of a pastry. We live in a country where stripmalls and concrete have rendered character obsolete, where you can’t tell if you’re in California or Ohio or Florida because chain corporations have ripped the individuality out of most places. It’s gotten to the point where Applebeesification has even conquered ballparks – you can’t go to a game these days without some type of mascot race, a which-hat/ice-cream-container/crab-has-the-ball scramble, and the same music and cheers as everyone else. Even fan traditions have been Xeroxed from other cities. For example, Reds fans copied throw-back-the-homer from Chicago and woo-at-the-moon from Pittsburgh. Sure, there are still some traits unique to certain parks – Sweet Caroline in Boston, Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Phillies phans booing their own children – but go to Citizens Bank Park or Citi Field or Nationals Park and you could possibly forget which city you’re in.

So it’s not surprising that some people don’t understand why a man from an impoverished dictatorship who left his country and family behind to pursue a dream would stuff himself with pastries that taste like home. Wait, let me say that again…who left his country and family behind to pursue a dream…and some people are accusing him of not wanting to play the game, of not caring?

For the past week, I’ve been addicted to this game, GeoGuessr, which plops you down in some part of the world at Google Street View and you’re supposed to figure out where you are. You use road signs, flora, bodies of water, terrain, direction, the way the lines are painted on the road, the cars driven, anything to help you figure out where you are. Most of those places I will never see – remote towns in Arctic Norway, dry desert roads in northern South Africa, industrial towns in the middle of Russia – and I like the game even more because of this. However, when I am put into the American or Canadian suburbs, I throw my hands in the air. Olive Garden. Red Lobster. Applebees. Anytown, USA.

But – we are also a nation of immigrants who brought various styles and cultures to this land, and when we get to our great cities, we still find the character and soul that makes them places worthy of visiting and remembering. Clam chowder in Boston. Crabcakes in Baltimore. Cheesesteak in Philly. Tex-Mex in Austin. And then there are those unique places that pop up all over our urban landscapes, places like that Cuban bakery from where Aroldis Chapman bought the pastries, pastries that tasted like home to him. Yes, he went overboard. But to use his bad judgment as evidence he doesn’t care about the game? Get off your couch and visit the real world.

If you don’t ever leave your town, you don’t understand what it’s like to find a place where you can get something authentic you can’t find outside of another place. I can’t imagine that those who would question Chapman’s commitment to the game have much travel experience since they can’t seem to understand why he’d stuff himself full of those pastries. When your idea of going out to dinner is driving to the local Applebees, I wonder if you can conceive the notion that something is rare enough that one would stuff himself upon finding it. And when you think that a guy who can never return to his country doesn’t care about the thing he gave up his country to pursue, well, you just lack empathy and compassion. Also, intelligence.

So he blew a save. It’s one game, and the Reds have a .600 record. We have probably the best closer in baseball. Quit whining.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Reds are "Brewing" up a batch of Whoop Ass!!!!!

If you're in DC, a Reds fan, and not on the listserv, do it. Here's what's up for Sunday:


This past week was an up and down wooden roller coaster for the Cincinnati Reds. They began the week with a good ol’ fashioned beat down of the chicago scrubs, sweeping them back even further into the NL Central dungeon. However, upon returning home to the banks of the Ohio, the Reds got “Dusty-Bakered” into losing two out of three at the hands of the tomahawk wielding braves.

This weekend, the Reds will host the milwaukee brewers. Although gone are the days of Princess Fielder, the brewers are still a formidable opponent. Ryan Braun continues to “enhance” there performance, and they too have an Asian lead off hitter, although not nearly as good and without the abundant politically incorrect pun opportunities… What Choo gonna do? What Choo gonna do? When the Reds come for you?....Where was I, oh right, the Brewers lineup, the rest is unnoteworthy. Rickie Butt-Cheeks is mired in a slump.

The Reds will be sending Tony “The Tiger” Cingrani to the mound tonight, followed by “It’s Never too Latos to Party” on Saturday, and culminating with Bronson’s “Very own Reds Hooded Sweatshirt” Arroyo on Sunday. Also, getting the nod tonight is Ryan Hanigan coming off the 15-day disabled list.

The Bottom Line will be showing the game this Sunday, so come on out to enjoy some brews  adult sodas and Reds baseball.

Go Reds!

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Bathing in Baseball

Rain dripped from the sky, actual precipitation rather than the anticipation of it, not like the previous night when they called the game at the thought of rain, though none came. Three brothers and I were to meet up at Justin’s CafĂ©, a locally-owned and operated bar with more soul in a pint than the entirety of the Gordon Biersch corporation, whose azoic hands have gripped one corner of an intersection near the ballpark. The rain delayed the game by an hour, so we had time to watch the first period of the Caps game and enjoy an extra sixty minutes of beverages at normal prices instead of the greed-imbued bounty placed upon our wallets at the stadium.

Twitter informed me that the game was starting so we left the establishment for the baseball environs, where we would see a matchup between two very good teams. I can’t say I have ever seen the Tigers in person and the novelty of seeing them reminded me of the days when the American League was the American League and the National League the National, with no meetings between the leagues save for the Mid-Summer Classic and the thrill of October. A happy moment passed when I realized how genuinely excited I was to see Miguel Cabrera play, as if his presence on a team I had never seen live was an enigma akin to the baseball cards of American Leaguers I got as a child. Funny, though, because I had seen him play with the Marlins. Somehow it seems like that doesn’t count. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t a Triple Crown MVP back then. Or maybe it’s because he wore the historic uniform of a storied team rather than the circus costumes of a team no one cares about.

The game itself was, as Marty Brennaman would say, a good ole good one. The scoreboard brandished a 3-1 outcome; the sky flaunted fireworks for the home team. I could tell you all about how Jordan Zimmermann showed why he’s been the Nats’ best pitcher this year or how he pitched seven innings, allowing one run on seven hits and striking out seven batters against two walks. I could mention how he became the first six-game winner in the NL or how Cabrera singled off of him to drive in the Tigers’ lone run, snapping a scoreless streak of 20 consecutive innings. I could also tell you how the Nationals scored their first two runs or how Bryce Harper hit a mammoth homer in the fifth to finish the scoring for the night. But you can get all of that from the box score.

In the late innings the rain made another appearance, but it was the kind of rain that you don’t really notice until you look up at the stadium lights and see the fuzziness that light droplets can make of the illuminated darkness. The night was pleasant, a spring night, not chilly but not exactly warm, either, with a hint of the season that is to come and all the thrills and freedoms that summer can bring to us. The baseball season, too, will warm up. I’m looking forward to it.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Quantum of Celebration

Disappointment crept into my mind again. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, down by one. A comeback seemed improbable, nearly impossible, against one of the best closers in the game. A full count plagued the scoreboard; the team was down to its last strike and hope had all but dissipated.

I’ve seen a lot of clocks in my lifetime: the Glockenspiel in Munich; the astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall Tower in Prague; the tower that stands in the middle of Place d’Etoile in Beirut in an area once flattened by war; the Shepherd Gate Clock that keeps all the time of the world in Greenwich, London…none of them matters an iota to our great game. And that makes baseball the most natural game.

Clocks in sports, well, they just aren’t natural. Sports with clocks are often at odds with the time they keep. Why does it take ten minutes to play the last two minutes of a basketball game? Why do soccer matches continue even when the clock says zero? See what I’m saying?

Time, you see, is a human construct. Sure, the Earth’s rotation and its orbit give us day and night and years and seasons, but that’s of the material world, what’s visible to us. Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity erased the idea of time as a universal constant. A quantum physicist by the name of Max Planck set a temporal boundary where distances and intervals are so short that the concepts of space and time break down. The past, present, and future simply cannot exist as absolutes.

In baseball, like in quantum physics, what’s in the past (two outs in the ninth, the balls and strikes that made up the full count) is irrelevant to the batter living in the present. Sure, he might try to guess what the next pitch will be, but that’s in the future, no matter how immediate it is. That Devin Mesoraco did not start the game didn’t matter as he strode up to the plate. That I, like many fans, had all but put this one in the books didn’t matter. There are no clocks in baseball. There is no time. As a pretty good pitch came out of the hand of the Barves’ elite reliever and the batter began his swing, he left the past behind and the future ahead and only existed in the now. Suddenly, a ballgame that had been all but over was beginning again. There was no longer a past and the entire future was ahead. Then the leadoff hitter came to the plate and left us all stunned.

Of course, the laws of physics don’t explain why time always points to the future. When Choo’s ball landed beyond the fence in centerfield, it moved the Reds one step closer to that future trophy we all aspire to see in that beautiful room in the Reds Hall of Fame. No one can pull that ball back over the fence; no one can change what actually happened. But that’s just the physical way of looking at it. Go bigger to metaphysics, outside of the human ego, and break down the time divide.

Think about the events of what we call the past that led up to Choo batting at that moment. That Choo is even on the team is a result of, among other things, Drew Stubbs not living up to his expectations as a number one draft pick. That Stubbs was available to draft had to do with the performance of the Reds in the prior season, and that performance had to do with the Griffey contract (one can argue, but I believe it.) Griffey came to Cincinnati because it was where he was from, and he was from there because his father had played there. His father played there because he was drafted by the Reds and their draft slot was based on their performance in 1968. That performance was affected by all the things in history that happened before then. Professional baseball exists because the industrial revolution lifted enough people out of poverty that games could now be something they spent money on. The industrial revolution happened because of scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment built on the advances made during the Islamic Golden Age, Islam happened because a politician called Mo wanted to purge religion of the corruptions of the church*, etc. etc. etc. Everything that ever happened in history had an effect on why Choo came to bat in that exact situation. And whatever Choo does in what we call the future is also part of this one single existence where everything that ever happened affects everything that ever will happen.

So the game of baseball is as close as we can get to perfection. No clocks, no time, just an event where anything can happen. As Einstein said, “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Might I add that human beings are also stubbornly persistent in their beliefs in illusions.

*Yes, it's oversimplifying things, I know. Do you really want to read the whole history of the world here? No, I didn't think so.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Fastballs and fast pucks

As kids, my mother would sometimes take us to Dayton Bombers hockey games. The Columbus Blue Jackets did not exist; I was hardly aware there was a professional hockey league akin to Major League Baseball. I never watched hockey on television except during the Olympics, when USA hockey was my favorite event to watch. Later on at Miami University, we had a good hockey team, and I attended as many games as I could. However, except for a brief moment of off-season boredom when I began to collect hockey cards, the NHL was not a part of my life.

That changed in 2003 when I moved to a city with an easily accessible NHL team. Hockey became something to do in the off-season; I went to Caps games when you could get a cheap ticket and move close to the ice. Then Alex Ovechkin arrived and hockey became something to look forward to.

But hockey could never be a love affair; it would never come close to baseball. I never learned all of the rules, and I hardly know the opposing teams players. I’ve come to wonder why I don’t know more about the sport, as I’ve certainly watched enough of it by now. How is it I can know the entire roster of a team the Reds play once or twice a season but I can’t name a single player on the Rangers, a bitter rival of the Caps?

I may have found the answer as I watched the Caps’ playoff game last night. At one point I found myself turning to Chris and saying, “I feel grateful for the TV timeouts.” When you’re watching hockey, you can’t turn away and do something else. Not only was I also trying to watch the Reds game on another screen, but I was attempting to complete Wapo’s crossword puzzle – something I can do while watching baseball – and found it difficult to turn my eyes from the game, lest I miss a goal.

In baseball, even when your best hitter is up, you know there will be no action between pitches, and you even know the timing so you can look away and back again before he swings. Because of all this time, baseball broadcasts are full of graphics of league leaders and obscure stats, information on the batter and the pitcher, and all kinds of other minutia. There is enough time to absorb it all and more. Not so with hockey, where it’s difficult enough to follow the puck, let alone the name on the back of a guy’s jersey.

It’s just a theory, but hey, it’s plausible.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Does watching baseball count as watching television, and why does it matter?

How many baseball games do you watch? If you’re reading this post, it’s probably a lot. Thanks to the blessing of the baseball gods, a miracle called MLB.TV allows me to watch most of the Reds games from afar. I also turn on most Nats games on the television, although I admit that when the Reds are playing at the same time, I am not as aware of what is going on in the Nats games.

But do the three and a half hours of baseball a night count as watching television? To me, “watching television” is something people do that is disengaged, an activity (irony intended) that consists of sitting down and vegging. Watching baseball, on the other hand, requires active engagement in the action on the screen, thinking about each situation, possible strategies and outcomes, and what-should-have-been-done when the desired result is not achieved.

The live element to baseball makes it different – it’s real, and it’s happening in realtime. People might argue that American Idol – which is definitely “television” – is live and the people are real and it’s happening in realtime, but it’s also scripted, and let’s face it, the show’s fans are not knowledgeable about music. No one is sitting on his couch asking, “Is the guy gonna hit the B flat?” Baseball is “Are they gonna hit and run? Is he gonna throw a change up here? Is he gonna pinch hit for the lefty?” Granted, not all fans are asking these questions during the game, and most don't do it at every pitch. But it happens enough.

Another aspect of watching a baseball game that makes it different from television is that its meandering pace allows one to partake in other activities while simultaneously paying attention to the game. I often read, write, or suffer through social media engagement while the game is on. Sometimes I clean, sometimes I take the laptop to the kitchen and cook. Nobody listens to a game on the radio without doing something else – why should a screen make it different?

So why does it matter?

This country spends an average of 3.5 hours per day in front of the tube. That’s A LOT of time spent being unproductive members of society. Now, everyone needs some time to rest and relax in between the hours of the serfdom we call employment in modern America. But 3.5 hours per day of nothingness? After 8 hours of work, an hour of commuting, an hour of getting ready (shower, shave, dressing), 7 hours of sleep, and an hour of fooding, plus time in the bathroom and all the other things we have to do every day? That’s most of your limited free time doing nothing! What’s the point of even working for a living if you’re going to cease to exist when you aren’t working?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm different. Maybe others who watch baseball do it from a couch with a remote in hand. Maybe they are disengaged. But having baseball on the television sure feels a heck of a lot more distinct, more active, and more involved than a bunch of B-grade celebrities dancing in front of a panel of judges. Maybe I'm just biased.

I’d like to see a study of brain activity of someone who watches a three and a half hour baseball game versus someone who watches three hours of Honey Boo Boo, Pawn Stars, and that other mindless nonsense that passes for entertainment these days. (It would also be interesting to compare brain activity of those watching other sports.) Neuroscientists, get it done.