Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Day After: Why 42 Still Matters

This photo is here bc research says you'll read more w pics.
April 15 is a bad day for a lot of reasons. It's Tax Day. Lincoln died. Boston was bombed. The Titanic sank. Harley Proctor introduced Ivory Soap. But it's also the day that Jackie Robinson first set foot on a Major League Baseball field.

I'm fortunate enough to have grown up in an age when the kind of attitudes held by Kennesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner responsible for imposing the ban on people with greater amounts of melanin in their skin, were generally not allowed by law and societal progress. Yet, as a suburban youth from Southwest Ohio, I was largely unexposed to other races. I had a black friend in elementary school; when we reached junior high, she made friends with other black kids and I with other white kids and we never talked after that. In high school, black and white kids didn't mix too much. Miami University had a 4% minority rate when I went there. I had an Asian friend. An. One. When I was a junior in Europe, the French and Germans were "exotic" until I got used to them. They became "Europeans," which were distinct from "Americans." "The West" only referred to the block of countries that had opposed the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

After college I enlisted in the Army to travel and learn a language and be a peacekeeper as expressed in the Army's stated mission during the Clinton years. The Army had far more African-Americans than I had ever been exposed to, appropriate given that the Army had really been the first institution to integrate. I was sent to the rather elite Defense Language Institute and put into Arabic classes with mostly white students. Yet I was exposed to another race for the first time - Arabs - a group of people who would become a big part of my life. In 2003 I moved to Washington, a city that at the time had a majority black population (it has since evened out), as well as a sizeable Latino population. That never stopped me from saying, "No one is from Washington," and "DC is a transient city," because in my white world, people had come to our nation's capital from all over. I was 26 at the time, probably too old to be so naive but young enough not to be molded into one way of thinking. Fortunately, I realized that my naive assessments of the "transient city" were incorrect.

I took a job in the Middle East department at an international development organization, a place where I was happy until I was denied a promotion by my third boss in four years. During the happy time, we had a core of happy hour goers consisting of the following: a Russian, a Czech, an Iraqi-American, an African-American, an Uzbek, and a couple of us white mutt type Americans. I lived in the historically black Shaw neighborhood, a block from where Josh Gibson had hit monster homers with the Grays at Griffith Stadium. I learned about "Black Broadway," Duke Ellington, and the riots that wrecked DC after Dr. King was killed. The ghosts were still in the neighborhood; as I watched the gentrification of the area I felt the history and soul fleeing with little attempt to stop it. After I had been denied the promotion, I decided to leave the job, my neighborhood, and DC, and spend some time traveling. I didn't have too much money saved, so I chose to spend time in a poor (read: cheap) country, Bulgaria, where, in addition to Bulgarians, I hung out with an English ecologist who was walking from the UK to Palestine and a Japanese guy who was hired by the local university to teach Japanese to Bulgarian students.

Eventually I was hired by a Lebanon-oriented organization and got to live in Beirut during a few years of relative stability. Beirut became my adopted home. There I witnessed firsthand the psychological and social scars of a people in perpetual conflict. Though a decade earlier I'd had an internship at a peace and reconciliation center in Ireland, the Irish conflict had largely abated, and people were actively going through the healing process. In Lebanon, people avoid talking about their conflict, unless politicians pay it lip service, politicians who are nothing more than tribal chieftains leading their flocks astray. The start of the Syrian war and the threat of eventual spillover into Lebanon ended my residence there, and I returned to DC changed by my experiences. I've been floating ever since. 

But that's the key, you see. Experience. Walking a mile in another person's shoes. Americans looked at me like I was crazy for wanting to be in Beirut, unable to fathom that with the exception of being on the Mediterranean Sea and having Roman ruins and a few bullet-riddled buildings, Beirut wasn't any different than your average American city of two million people. I mean, seriously, people, I don't know what you think other places in the world look like. I ate Subway, drank Caribou Coffee, and bought H&M clothes in my neighborhood of Hamra in Beirut.

You may wonder why I am writing about myself here when I should be writing about Jackie. Well, I can't write anything about Jackie that someone else hasn't written, and this is not about me, anyway. It's about the way we are programmed to think one way or another and we believe that's just the way things are and how, by virtue of experience, we can overcome our biases. The people who yelled nasty, racist things at Jackie probably weren't evil people, though their actions were evil. They didn't know any better. They'd grown up in a white-dominated world where black people were seen as inferior and had no business doing anything but serving their white masters, and they never thought to question it. Jackie Robinson invaded their world and showed them they were wrong, but instead of marveling at the athleticism of a great man and appreciating his baseball feats, they embraced their ingrained ideas of "the other." People cling to their trivial, artificial differences, be it religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, etc., purporting to be superior to groups that don't conform to their own tribal notions. Fear of difference used to be a survival tactic; now, it's a symptom of a diseased mind.

We left that vile world for awhile, drove the KKK into hiding, shamed racists and bigots and gave people equal voting rights and MLK his own holiday and patted ourselves on the backs for doing so, but it never went away. It festered beneath the surface and grew in small towns and suburbs and affluent city neighborhoods and in our justice system and our education system and it slinked and slid its way back into our political system, led by pundits and politicians whose ideologies are so putrid that they are now trying to deny voting rights to people and they've made laws that say you can shoot people if you are scared of them. You even have people who think celebrating Jackie Robinson Day is having "civil rights shoved down our throats" and complaints run rampant about the tradition of wearing Jackie's 42, some wondering why we don't also wear the numbers of Nomo or Clemente to commemorate their debuts.

We celebrate Jackie exactly because ignorance like this persists.

Do you think that because you clap for Brandon Phillips' hits and listen to rap music that racism is over? Do you think that because America elected as POTUS a dark-skinned man with a funny name - twice - that racism is over? Can you not look at our prison populations and our inner city schools and our political discourse and not understand how bad things are right now?

More than ever we need to celebrate Jackie, to teach kids and to remind ourselves of who he was, what he did, and why it was significant. We live in an age of uncivil discourse, fueled by the anonymity and ease of the internet, cable news and talk radio, rampant narcissism, and an appalling lack of empathy for other human beings. If we don't like what we hear, we can just block it or change the channel, ensuring that people stay in a bubble. Americans don't travel and have no exposure to other cultures. We reside in largely segregated neighborhoods, go to segregated schools, buy segregated music, live segregated lives. Ours is an unprecedented age of connectivity, yet we seem to be more disconnected than ever.

Atlanta celebrated the anniversary of Hank Aaron's 755 last week and USA Today published an interview after it. What happened next? A deluge of racist letters and death threats arrived, addressed to Aaron, just as they had when he was chasing Ruth's record. THIS WAS LAST WEEK. We don't have Hank Aaron Day, but what Hank did took as much courage as Jackie had. Why does he have to live it again? What's more, why did the leading talk radio host, who is greatly responsible for that hate mail, ignite a flame war in the first place? For ratings? Are ratings more important than human beings? Don't answer that.

The bottom line is we shouldn't have to celebrate Jackie Robinson. We shouldn't don 42 on our jerseys or hear players say, "If it weren't for Jackie, I wouldn't be here today." That we do is both a testament to both the greatness of our country and the tragedy of it. Jackie should have always been allowed to play ball. Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell...they all should have played Major League Baseball. But the evils of fear and bigotry held our country hostage, and courageous Americans like Jackie, Branch Rickey, and Dr. King helped guide us through that shameful part of our nation's history. We overcame it; it's worth celebrating.

It's our world; we can change it, but only if we get off our couches and do something, experience life, pop those bubbles of ignorance in which too many people stay. I sure am glad I left mine.

Monday, April 14, 2014

BASE BALL MATCH - White House Lawn

By the time Lincoln took office, a New York volunteer firefighter with the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12 had already drawn up the rules on which our modern game of baseball is based, and more than 50 baseball teams were in existence. That firefighter and bank clerk, Alexander Cartwright, had laid out the field in a diamond-shape, created foul territories, limited defense to nine players and games to nine innings, and prohibited the practice of throwing balls at runners for outs. Imagine Aroldis Chapman or Stephen Strasburg throwing baseballs at runners - they'd kill someone!

Lincoln's passion for baseball is shrouded in mythology. However, there is much credible evidence that he was, in fact, a fan of the game and that not only did he play in his hometown of Springfield, but he continued to play and watch when he arrived to Washington in 1861. Baseball was played on a part of the White House lawn known as the "White Lot," now called the "Ellipse," where baseball, among other games, is still played.
To view full article, click on the image

A grandson of Francis Preston Blair, he of Blair House (the official state guest house) fame, said:
"We boys hailed [Lincoln's] coming with delight because he would always join us on the lawn. I remember vividly how he ran, how long were his strides, how his coattails stuck out behind." 
I marvel at stories of presidents roaming Washington without the army of security that must follow them these days. The White House had no fence around it when Lincoln was in office, so access to the White Lot was easy. Of course, we all know what happened at Ford's Theater and how security measures became necessary, but sometimes when I happen to walk by the White House, I wonder how it would be to see POTUS wandering around the yard instead of being trapped inside.

During his campaign in 1860, a political cartoon showed Lincoln standing on home plate, ball in hand, saying, "You must have a good bat and strike a fair ball to make a clean score and homerun." His bat, which is actually a fence rail, says, "Equal rights and fair territory."

Washington had two baseball teams at the time, the Nationals and the Potomacs, made up of mostly government clerks until the war began. One of the Nationals' founders, Arthur Gorman, was a Senate staffer who later became a Senator from Maryland. The Nationals played at the Capitol grounds while the Potomacs played on the White Lot. The first match between the two teams was played on the White Lot on May 5, 1860, with the Nationals routing the Potomacs 35-15.

We have the Civil War to thank for baseball becoming the national pastime; soldiers arriving from New York, where Cartwright's rules had become standard, played Washington teams, and by most accounts, crushed them. Some say the Yankees-Dodgers rivalry was born on the fields in Washington. An announcement in the National Republican on June 28, 1861, informed:

"BASE BALL MATCH - There will be a match played at Camp Wool on tomorrow afternoon at 4 o'clock, between the first nine of the Baldwin B.B. Club (Co. D) and the first nine of the Steers B.B. Club (Co. E). Those interested in the noble game of base ball are invited to witness the contest. As the above clubs are composed of some of the best players of Brooklyn and New York, it is expected that the game will be very interesting."

Whole baseball teams sometimes enlisted together, ensuring games were competitive. The game was so popular that the owners of the Willard's and Ebbitt's taverns worried they would lose business to baseball. These establishments were the predecessors to today's famous Willard Hotel and Old Ebbitt Grill. Their worries were obviously unfounded.

I imagine Lincoln would have been a White Sox fan had Major League Baseball existed during his time. While it could have been possible to be a Cubs or Cardinals fan given his Springfield locale, I think The Railsplitter would have followed a team associated with the working class. But I'm sure he saw his fair share of Nationals and Potomacs games.

Though supplies were scarce during the war, and fence poles and rolled up rags were often used as bats and balls, baseball sustained the soldiers' morale, doing for them what the game still does for us today - give us momentary respite from the travails of our daily lives.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

That white little sphere

I was sixteen years old when I touched a real Major League baseball for the first time. Of course, I had seen other baseballs, and I'd been playing softball since I was eight or so, but to hold a genuine Major League baseball was to hold something precious, something far more valuable than its price tag indicated.  I had been given the beautiful sphere by a friend of my grandfather who owned a local sporting goods store; it was a gift to have signed because I had won a celebrity bat girl contest and was allowed on the field for Reds batting practice at Riverfront Stadium. The Reds also gave me a ball. Suddenly I had two of the beautiful things - one I had signed by Barry Larkin and the other I stored in a box to keep it in pristine condition.

A couple of years later I snagged a foul ball off the bat of Joe Girardi, then a catcher with the Rockies, and this one had the scars of battle smeared on its side. Scuffed and dirty, it was as perfect as the other two genuine Major League balls in my collection. My collection remained at three for seven or eight years, when I bought one of the balls they had specially made for Ripken's streak. I collected other baseballs, too, commemorative balls, balls from every stadium I visited, balls with the logos of teams I liked, but they weren't genuine Major League baseballs, crafted to perfection by the hands of skilled (though underpaid) workers. Then one day Ryan Zimmerman was supposed to be at one of those winter caravan events, so I took the precious, clean ball out of its box and brought another, cheaper ball for the other guys. (What? You do it, too!) Zimmerman didn't show up, so the pretty white sphere went back in the box.

I got it out when the Reds came to town in 2007 and I stalked the players at their hotel. Ha! I merely had lunch sitting next to manager Pete Mackanin and his wife and watched the team arrive to the hotel and hang out in the lobby. I saved that pristine ball until the right player came along and then Brandon Phillips enthusiastically signed for me before the Lobby Nazi told me I couldn't ask them for autographs anymore. No matter. My ball was inked by one of my favorite players.

I had saved that ball for fifteen years.

Recent studies have been conducted on young children about delayed gratification. This was never a thing when I was traipsing the concourses of Riverfront Stadium. You could go to a store and not see a child throwing a tantrum because his mother wouldn't buy him a new toy, or if you did encounter one, his mother would likely say no. This was about the time when the buds of the Age of The Spoiled Child first sprouted, when SoundScan divided music - and us - into genres, when cable news shouted at us twenty-four hours a day, and when luxury boxes ensured that our childhood playgrounds would be imploded and our beloved game would become less accessible to us common folk.

Then came the internet.

The Reds website in November 1998

I remember the first time I used the internet, or rather, one of the first times, as it all blends together now. Netscape, the browser was called. I had a university email address and then discovered I could have a Netscape address and I thought email the greatest invention in the world except few people I knew actually had an email address. I don't remember any particular website, though I know I'd laugh if I saw them now. As more people joined the wonders of the world wide web, we thought we had reached the peak of technological advancement. Then came MySpace.

That was the beginning of the end of the civil web. Now strangers in vast numbers could connect with like-minded strangers who shared their interests and dislikes. As technology progressed, discourse declined. Blogs appeared, beginning with writers and thought leaders before spreading to the - how should I put it - lesser informed populace. Internet commenting fell into ruin - anyone with a keyboard could say whatever they wanted regardless (or irregardless, as many would say) of his level of knowledge about a particular topic. Conversely, one could choose not to engage with those who held differing views at all, ensuring he remained in a bubble as like-minded individuals reinforced the ingrained notions he harbored. Finally, we moved into the age of Facebook and Twitter, real-time forums where success means discarding all notions of delayed gratification. We've moved into the age of Now.

Show me a youth who'd put a baseball away in a box for fifteen years to save it for the perfect time. Why, when he can get his mother to go out and buy another one in the age of Now? We have movies on demand, road rage, fast food and microwave meals, even line-jump passes at Disneyland. Everything is so fast that no one takes the team to do research, frame an argument, or check his emotions. We're all guilty. Social media destroyed this blog, distracting me from writing while pulling readers away from what's now called long-form. How many people who start to read this have even gotten this far? And what has all of this Now brought us? Misinformation, SHOUTING MATCHES, fired employees, and unabridged hysterics in all realms, especially in baseball, a sport that is played nearly every day for half of each year, mostly outside, in all geographies.

What I think is happening to fans of many teams is suffocation by Now. Now destroys our perspectives, eradicates pause, occupies our reason and dulls our senses. Now is the reason fans of some teams, including the Reds, are throwing in the proverbial towel on the season. The less eloquent among us say, "This team sucks" or let out uncivilized expletives for a lack of skill in expressing ourselves. Others use sarcasm or what they think is sarcasm, while some try to justify their cynicism with numbers they've thrown together as quickly as they can.

I go back to that delayed gratification study of preschoolers. The study found that the happiest children were those who were able to wait for a treat - marshmallows, I think. They learned that there was, indeed, a future that was much more rewarding than immediate gratification. One hundred and sixty-two games make up a Major League Baseball season, not seven games, not twenty games, not eighty-one games. By succumbing to Now, the hysterical are zapping all the joy out of baseball. Negative energy rubs off on all around you, and it will rub off on the teams you purport to love.

Do me a favor. Go find a baseball, a genuine Major League baseball, and hold it in your hand. Smell its leather. Rub its 108 raised red stitches. Mimic a throw, or better, throw it, let it hit someone's glove, hear that pop. Experience baseball. Take a breath. Relax. Some of us are still getting snow. We haven't even started yet, so stop your whining and enjoy the damn game!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Evolution of Night

I've been a Reds fan since birth. Dressed in Reds gear from head to toe, I was exposed to my first game at age one when the Reds came to San Diego's Jack Murphy stadium in 1978. Both parents were from the Dayton area, and Reds fandom in my family goes back generations. At the time of my birth, the Big Red Machine were World Series Champs, the last championship for the greatest team in baseball history. I count myself lucky in that the Reds won a World Series in my lifetime and I was just old enough to appreciate it.

Naturally, Opening Day is a holiday in my heart, and the Reds are second to none in the day's festivities. I've missed watching the Reds on Opening Day very few times in my life - once when I was abroad (no MLB.TV in 1998) and twice when I was in the Army and couldn't take the day off. I even flew to Cyprus in 2010 and stayed in a five-star hotel when I was living in Beirut just to make sure I had a good enough internet connection to watch the game. Unlike a lot of Reds fans, the E$PN Sunday-Night-Game-Before-Opening-Day and the overseas series don't bother me. Everyone knows the true Opening Day is on the Monday when the Red play their first baseball game, and I don't need to wax poetic to convey how special it is.

Still, the magic of Opening Day is present in other cities whose teams don't get to start at home every year. But, like I can never know what English sounds like to one who doesn't speak it, I'll never truly know what Opening Day feels like to a fan of another team when their Opening Day occurs a week into the season. Sure, I've gone to half of the Nationals home openers since that wonderful first one back in 2005, but it just doesn't fill my heart with the same level of joy as that of my beloved Reds. We are what we grow up with.

I didn't attend the Nats home opener this year, due to budgetary constraints and a recently-developed aversion to precipitation. (I think the winter scarred me.) But thanks to, I got to go to Game 2 and sit in these awesome seats:

The process was easy. I just went to, typed in "Nationals," and the games came up instantly. I put in a bid for less than face value and learned I won the tickets in less than five minutes - all I had to do was print them out and I was good to go. I probably could have just used my phone to scan the tickets at the gate, but I have an irrational fear that my tickets won't work every time I go to an event, and I'm old enough not to wholeheartedly trust technology. My fear extends to printed tickets, too. Once I got screwed on U2 tickets that I got from Craig's List and only the kindness of a stranger with an extra ticket got me into the show. But you don't have to worry about fake tickets if you use ScoreBig, as the tickets are guaranteed. And there are NO fees. They don't charge you to use your own ink and paper like the team does. What's more, there's no creepy ticket oak growing in your backyard.

I woke up Saturday morning with first-game-of-the-season jitters, wondering if the winter of our extreme discontent were truly over, if I really could see a baseball game in the evening, but I had a Reds game to watch before it was time to go to the ballpark. I headed to the Metro soon after Hoover gave up that game-ending grand slam to Ike Davis. Ugh. Ike Davis? Really? Anyway, I love living on the Green Line - it's so simple to get to the ballpark, and one of the best experiences in all of MLB (at least of the fifteen MLB parks I've been to) is coming out of the Metro and catching sight of the stadium and all the excitement of the crowds. The pre-game buzz is intoxicating. As in any ballpark, the first glimpse of that oh-so-verdant field after you enter a ballpark is spellbinding. I wanted to hug the whole world when I saw this:

I don't know how many times I've been to this ballpark, but I leisurely strolled the long way to my seats, making sure I took in everything as if it were my first, not fiftieth, visit. A new crab cake stand - awesome. The old Washington baseball history collages - fantastic. The tribute to the Negro Leagues - ok, so that's still as tacky as ever. It looks like it belongs on a county fair ride. Still, the Nats do a decent job of honoring the Grays, including Josh Gibson in the trio of statues that greet (scare?) fans at the main gate, Gibson and Buck Leonard banners in the stadium, and equal space for the Grays in the Washington baseball history collages. They should - the Grays outdrew the Senators in attendance at Griffith Stadium back when Washington was "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."

When I finally sat down, it was just about game time. Wow, was it cold. The wind was fierce, and I worried I hadn't brought enough layers. It wasn't the coldest game I've ever been to - that treacherous Game 5 of the NLDS versus the hated Taint Louis Deadbirds was pretty darn cold, and it snowed on Opening Day in Cincinnati a few years ago when I attended, though I had brought a thermal sleeping bag for the latter game and was the envy of all around me. 

Fortunately, the wind died down, and then it was somewhat pleasant, at least with the amount of clothing I had on. The game started off well enough. I have never witnessed in person a homer that traveled as far as the LaRoche bomb to the upper deck. I do not exaggerate when I say my mouth dropped when I saw it sail so high above me. I believe holy-something came out of my mouth. The crowd roared, the fireworks went off, and I was in love with baseball all over again.

I happened to be sitting in a spot where you could see the Washington Monument, and it seemed as if I were sitting in a painting. The evolution of night was rather breathtaking.

But, as the sun went down, so, too, did the Nats' good fortune. Strasburg's pitching devolved, and he was chased from the game in the fifth inning. I don't think it's a coincidence that the National Cherry Blossom festival fireworks were going off as he had his meltdown. They certainly were loud and distracting. The Barves took the lead and never looked back, winning the game 6-2. Yet the outcome didn't really matter to me that night. I was just ecstatic that I finally was able to see a baseball game, especially after our dreadful winter.

I recommend using to get great seats like these. I'll probably go again on the next homestand. Now, if only they could get us discounts on the beer!