Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fretting Over Fantasy

To a certain extent, I’ve had it with fantasy baseball. I’m tired of checking to see who the hottest rookie call-up is, tired of comparing the WHIPs of relief pitchers, tired of figuring out which shortstop will tally the most extra-base hits. I’ve been playing fantasy baseball for four years, and by this time of year I’ve often had enough of the daily and weekly grind of trying to improve my team.

And yet, on the other hand, I love fantasy baseball. Baseball statistics are part of the neurological programming in my brain, as I’ve been memorizing and analyzing them since I was six years old. At age 9, I was playing hand-held computer baseball games with the small, plastic Entex game in one hand and a scorecard in the other. The little red dots that beeped and danced around the tiny screen would land on “single,” “double,” “triple,” “home run” or “out,” and I’d fill in the appropriate box for my make-believe matchup between the 1980 Astros and the 1980 Mets. When I was hit by a car and unable to walk without crutches for a few months, I sat down on my backyard patio and threw a racquetball against our chimney, and created an imaginary scheme of bounces and high flies that led to hits and outs. Again, the scorecard gave me stats. As my brother and I grew into our teen years, our parents bought us a Commodore 64 computer, and we quickly found a game called “MicroLeague Baseball.” When we put the floppy-disk software to this game into our computer, the Commodore let us play games featuring real baseball lineups, and the stats were kept for us, right there on the screen. Entire summer days were spent in this statistical heaven.

In high school, Eric and I joined a “rotisserie league,” as fantasy baseball was commonly called at the time, and had a blast as our friend compiled the league stats by hand. College brought me into the world of sports journalism, and I chose to devote nearly all of my free time to writing. It wasn’t until three years ago, at age 34, that I tried out fantasy baseball in its 21st-century incarnation. Fantasy sports are quite the pastime today, with many millions participating around the world in a variety of sports ranging from football to golf to auto racing. I find it fascinating that so many are turned on by the lure of statistical speculation – so much that even Michael Phelps said in a news conference that he had to refrain from opening an e-mail about fantasy football during the Olympics, to keep from getting distracted.

And yet it is that distraction that concerns me, especially when I have spent enough time at my computer already during the day and what I really need is to go for a run, hang out with my wife or play a game with my kids. I don’t want fantasy sports, of all things, to play a role in keeping me away from what I want to do most with my precious time and energy.

So as I finish this fourth year of fantasy baseball (currently in sixth place in both my leagues, by the way), I wonder about whether to go further. Isn’t it perfectly acceptable for me to spend a few minutes doing something that I truly enjoy? Yet, if my free time is limited, isn’t it silly to spend any of it playing a make-believe game?

I’ve talked this over with my wife, kids, brother and best friend, and I think I’ve found a solution. The solution lies with the aspect of fantasy sports I enjoy most of all – the opportunity it affords for keeping in touch with friends and family members – in some cases with people I haven’t seen in quite some time. The sense of community that fantasy baseball provides is something I simply don’t want to give up now. Keeping in touch with friends is hard enough as it is, and if fantasy sports give me a chance to do so, then it’s worth my time.

How much time, though? That’s the key question, and after much deliberation with my 6-year-old, we’ve come up with a solution. When Daddy wakes up on a day off from work and wants to check his fantasy baseball, we’ll set the oven timer to 15 minutes, and leave him alone for that time. When the timer rings, he’s done, and we move on to the rest of our lives.

Sounds like a good deal: A chance to have some fun and keep in touch, but with some clear boundaries that prevent it all from becoming an obsession.

Let’s see if I can pull it off.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Blazing a Trail

Katie is angry at Barack Obama. My oldest daughter wanted to see a woman serve as our next president. Hillary Clinton was her choice, and because Obama defeated Clinton, Katie strongly dislikes the presumptive Democratic nominee. At age 6, Katie’s take-charge approach to life at home leads me to believe that she relates to the idea of being a chief executive – although occasionally her behavior leans more toward dictatorship than democracy (“Chelsea, I want my toy back now!”)

The other day, as my wife and good friend Neil were talking about the presidential campaign, Katie heard their conversation and said, “I like John McCain.” Both Neil and Amy looked over to her and asked why she preferred McCain. She said, “He’s good on energy.” Uncle Neil’s eyebrows pursed as he asked her, “Where did you hear that?” Her response was simple: “That’s what it said on the commercial.”

Neil, who is a lawyer, was not going to let Katie off easy here. “How do you know that what the commercial says is true?” he asked. Katie’s response: “Because at the end he said, ‘I’m John McCain, and I approve this message.’ ” Neil explained that this commercial was paid for by the candidate’s campaign. He asked her if she would pay for a commercial that said she was the best bicycle rider in the world. She said she would.

“But are you?” Neil asked.
“No,” Katie replied quietly.
Chalk one up for Uncle Neil.

The girls like to watch baseball with me. They love the fact that I have a passion apart from work and family. Last week, while watching a game on TV with me, Katie said, “I wish I was a boy.”

“Why?” I asked.
“So I could play baseball,” she said.

I explained to her that she could definitely play baseball as a girl. Even though most girls chose to play softball, some have chosen to play baseball with the boys. It’s not impossible to do. Eventually, I said, there will be a woman who plays professional baseball.

“Who says you can’t be the one who does it first?” I asked.

Katie shrugged her shoulders and thought about it awhile. Somewhere in that blossoming brain of hers, there are thoughts of women running our country and girls running 90-foot bases.

I like that a lot. I approve that message.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ballparks and Brothers

I’ve been to Yankee Stadium dozens of times over the past 31 years. Ever since my first game – Bat Day in 1977, when I was handed a wooden Adirondack with the name “Thurman Munson” engraved on the barrel – I have felt so alive every time I’ve visited this ballpark. It is, without question, the greatest arena for sports that I have ever experienced. I have stood in the upper deck during playoff games and felt the electric pulse of 55,000 trying to will the Yankees to victory, the entire level shaking beneath our feet. I’ve sat in the lower deck during the lean years, watching Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly and Mike Pagliarulo lace frozen ropes into the gap before 20,000 intensely faithful fans. I’ve walked reverently through Monument Park, roared blissfully with the bleacher creatures, and stood on the field singing along with Billy Joel.

Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Camden Yards are more aesthetically beautiful than Yankee Stadium ever was. But the beauty of this ballpark in the Bronx goes beyond anything the eye can see. The magic of Yankee Stadium rests in the way this place feels, and the passion its fans provide. It’s the kind of atmosphere that gives you 50,000 people roaring deliriously for a former Yankee who’s just lost his job with another team, as took place a few days ago during Old-Timer’s Day. As Willie Randolph jogged onto the field to wave his cap, he watched an entire stadium stand to its feet to welcome him home and nearly bring him to tears. Yankee fans often realize what a player needs before the player knows it himself, and that is where the mystique and aura lie. When the playoffs begin, Yankee fans know that they need to take their job of cheering to another level, and they do; it is for this reason that they love players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte so much, for these three have also known how to find that extra level of intensity come October.

It’s difficult to imagine this place closing for business in a few weeks. But it will, and it is with this in mind that I checked out the prices on StubHub recently, to see if there was a chance I could say goodbye myself. I found ticket prices well into the hundreds, even thousands of dollars, for the remaining games played in the stadium this year. I guess the old place has earned this kind of price tag. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come next year in the new park.

For now, though, I’ve got plenty of memories of my own moments in the big park: Ken Griffey Sr. soaring over the seats in left field to take a home run away from the Red Sox; Jerry Mumphrey smashing an upper-deck, walk-off home run against the Angels before those things were ever called “walk-offs”; Mattingly roping a double into the right-field corner to wrest the league batting title away from Winfield on the season’s last day; Ron Guidry striking out a dozen or so on Old-Timers’ Day, shortly before he himself became a retiree; Paul O’Neill drilling home runs on his way to a batting title; David Wells baffling the Rangers, then Indians, in the playoffs en route to the 125-win season of 1998; and the home crowd standing for Cal Ripken on one of his last games in the Bronx.

Much more than the players, though, I will remember the people I sat with at these games. My mom, my dad, my grandparents, best friends, college friends, teaching colleagues, fellow journalists. I’ll remember the games with my wife, the two of us holding hands as she let me fill her ears with useless stats. I’ll remember the game with my oldest daughter, her eyes opening wide as she looked down on the vast field of green. And most of all, I’ll remember the games I attended with my brother. My passion for this game leads me always to him, to our days playing, watching, and talking about this game. We have laughed, debated, high-fived and, yes, even argued in this ballpark. We’ve talked about nearly every aspect of our lives in the hours spent watching ballgames here. Add it all up and we’ve lived several days in this park, eating pretzels and hot dogs side by side in the upper deck. As we’ve grown older, the stadium has helped provide a place and time for making each other a priority, even when work and family demands are intense.

We’ll meet up for games in the new park, I’m sure. But just as the beautiful home our parents retired to doesn’t feel like the little ranch we grew up in, the new Yankee Stadium won’t feel quite like home, either. But we’ll have to adjust. Life is like that. In the end, it’ll be fine – so long as we’re there together.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Handing Out Stars

I’ve been reading Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope lately. I’ve been watching some of his speeches as well. As a voter, I’m looking for a leader who strives for unity – between individuals, between cultures, and between groups of every kind. I like what I see from the senator, and I’ve found the audacity to hope he might actually win.

When I watch and read about pro sports, I don’t see nearly as much unity as I’d like to see from a profession that has so often prided itself on teamwork. I keep seeing fights between teams and even between players on the same team. I keep reading about athletes who are unhappy with eight-figure salaries. I read of relationships between Hall of Fame players and their teams disintegrating over nonsense.

It’s with this in mind that I’ve been thinking about the 1979 Pirates lately. Before they were a team that refused to keep their good players, the Pirates were a powerhouse. Nearly a decade after the death of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell led Pittsburgh to a ’79 World Series matchup with Earl Weaver’s mighty Baltimore Orioles. The Pirates had taken America by storm that year, as first baseman Stargell awarded stars to his teammates when they made a good play or had a good game, and the players placed these stars on their caps as if the stars were Cub Scout badges. The team also proclaimed Sister Sledge’s hit song “We Are Family” to be their anthem. This ballclub’s unity paid off well in the end, as the Pirates were able to keep their composure and rebound from a 3 games to 1 World Series deficit to win the World Series. Stargell and company were smiling the whole time, and they helped buoy a country galvanized by recession, terrorism and an energy crisis.

As the America of 2008 faces such similar challenges today, I look for signs of hope and unity. I hear Barack Obama, and I listen closely. I feel inspired. When I look over to the baseball field, I crave the sight of more selfless dedication to team on the diamond. I wait for someone to step forward, turn on some late-‘70s disco music and start handing out stars. Mr. Jeter, Mr. Varitek, Mr. Rollins, Mr. Pujols – what do you think? It’s worth a try. It’s a change I can believe in.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Manny Being Mannered

I don’t spend my time in baseball locker rooms, so I can’t speak to the character of any player in Major League baseball. I don’t know what they’re really like, only what I get through the filter of news media outlets. Many reporters are superb at what they do, but their medium does not have the space to tell us everything about the athletes they cover. Skepticism should be a natural instinct we carry with us when following coverage of such “heroes” whom we have never had the chance to speak with in person.

So I can’t say that Manny Ramirez is a jerk any more than I can say that he’s a prince of a guy. I have absolutely no concrete evidence on which to support either statement. For every off-hand comment he makes, he may be giving tons of money to charity for all I know. One thing I can say for sure is that he’s interesting. And I’d love to chat with him sometime and see what he’s like one-on-one.

But from a distance, there are still some lessons I think I can pass along to my kids from watching Manny Ramirez play ball and talk to the media. He is giving a clinic on workplace behavior right now, in the midst of the cameras and the doubles off the wall. The lessons are plentiful. Here are a few:

1. Burning bridges has a price: No matter what your employer may have done to slight you, there is a cost to leaving them on bad terms. Saying that you’d rather play ball in Iraq when that employer has paid you more than $150 million is going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of many, no matter what led you to that place of anger. You never know where you’ll meet that employer again, and there’s no reason to make life more uncomfortable than it already is.

2. Hustle, always: There is never an excuse for jogging to first base on a ground ball, just as there’s never an excuse for “mailing in” a day’s work in any field. There are always people watching you and learning from your body language. Most important, there are young people who can learn something from you about the importance of giving your best and feeling pride in yourself.

3. Dress well: Tuck in your shirt. Wear pants that fit your body. Model a sense of self-worth and maturity to those who are looking up to you and those looking out for you.

4. Show humility in public: No matter how good you are at what you do, it’s so important to speak with gratitude for what you’ve been given and with humility about the things you’ve accomplished. There are too many people suffering in this world, and for every star athlete who spends a ton of time talking about himself, there is inevitably less media coverage being given to those in need. Athletes would do well to spend more time ducking the spotlight, for that is often the best way to earn respect.

5. Love what you do: Find a career that lights you up, and enjoy it every day. Find a job that makes you smile, and relish the chance to do what you love. I list this final point not as a criticism of Manny Ramirez, but as a compliment. No matter what the situation, he always seems to be hugging a teammate and having fun.

I will not miss the unnecessary “Manny’s Moody” headlines that covered far too much of the media in recent days. But I will miss watching Manny Ramirez play ball on a regular basis. I last saw him live in April, at Yankee Stadium. He crushed two home runs with effortless grace, his instincts finding that perfect place where bat meets ball in the sweet spot. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better pure hitter than this man. He is a master of his art. I hope one day he can find a way to use the news media well and become a better ambassador of the game he loves so much.