Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Autumn's Circle of Drama

At this time a year ago, I found myself astonished at the cool demeanor that Barack Obama displayed under intense pressure. From John McCain to Sarah Palin to debate moderators to news reporters, nearly everyone tried to break through Obama’s cool and bait him into snapping under the spotlight. He didn’t do it.

I remember writing last year that his demeanor reminded me of New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, the king of closers. Both men work with a humble, confident elegance, and neither man acknowledges the pressure that leaves nervous onlookers biting off the last of their fingernails.

In October 2009, Mr. Obama is now more than nine months into his first term as president – a job he won thanks in large part to that cool confidence. In October of 2009, Mr. Rivera is also still at work this year, thanks to the success that his New York Yankees have had in this season’s playoffs. New York begins its quest for a 27th World Series title tomorrow night against the defending-champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Rivera personifies grace under pressure among baseball’s active pitchers. And while his job is nowhere near as taxing as Mr. Obama’s, there are very few people on this earth who can stand on a pitching mound in front of 50,000 people and execute flawlessly. Even former President George W. Bush, before throwing out the first pitch for Game 3 of the 2001 World Series – arguably the most visually triumphant moment of his presidency – got some advice from Derek Jeter of the Yankees before walking out to the mound. (Jeter advised the president to throw his first pitch from the rubber; Bush did so, flawlessly.)

That mound can be a lonely place. And when a couple of men get on base, time begins to speed up, and the rhythm that every pitcher craves is disrupted by runners taking leads off the bases, crowd noises intensifying, and the inner demons of second-guessing your pitch selections. Before you know it, there’s a liner headed into the gap, and someone’s warming up in the bullpen.

And yet, there are men who just don’t seem to care about the pressure. In fact, they seem to invite it. You need a big win? Just bring it on, they say. In years past, these big-game pitchers came with names like Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford and Jack Morris. In recent years, postseason dominance has belonged to men such as Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, Josh Beckett and Cole Hamels.

Which brings us to this year. Among the numerous reasons to watch this year’s series – two historic teams who’ve only met in the Series once before, two powerful home run-hitting teams, two rabid fan bases – perhaps the most interesting aspect is the sheer number of pitchers on either team with ice in their veins.

The Phillies sport an ace pitcher by the name of Cliff Lee – a left-hander who has pitched as well as anyone in the sport over the past two years. Lee has been nearly unhittable in the postseason, and he’ll start three games if needed. The Yankees counter with their own ace, C.C. Sabathia, who has been just as dominant as Lee this year. Sabathia, unlike many pitchers, seems even more relaxed on the days in which he pitches. No sweat, he seems to say.

When it comes to veterans, the Phillies have one of baseball’s best players over the past 15 years – a wily veteran named Pedro Martinez. He spent most of the season gardening, waiting for a contending team to offer him the money he felt his reputation deserved. When the Phillies ponied up, Pedro answered the call with the kind of pitching that has already made him a Hall of Famer. The Yankees have their own legend, Andy Pettitte, who broke Smoltz’s record for most career postseason wins when he led the Yankees to their 40th pennant on Sunday night. Pettitte’s aw-shucks personality is completely at odds with his intensity and brilliant execution under the spotlight.

Philadelphia has a brilliant young talent in Hamels, last year’s most successful postseason pitcher and World Series MVP. The lefty has been inconsistent this year, playoffs included, but his resume promises he won’t be a pushover. In the bullpen, the Phillies offer closer Brad Lidge, who has had his share of well-documented playoff meltdowns, yet has been perfect in save opportunities since joining the Phillies before the ’08 season. And the Yankees, well, yes, they still have Rivera. He will be 40 later this year, but he’s shown no signs of pitching any differently than he did at age 26, when he won his first World Series with New York.

The pitching mound is an 18-foot diameter circle. The slim, white pitching rubber stands 10 inches higher than the rest of the field. The pitcher faces a batter who is standing 60 feet, 6 inches away and holding a large chunk of wood in his hands. It can be a lonely and intimidating place.

But at its best, that mound is a place of empowerment. It is a place where an individual finds more confidence than he ever knew he had. It is a place where a man like Los Angeles Angels pitcher John Lackey can shout at his manager, “This is mine!” when that manager comes out to the mound to remove him, as Mike Scioscia did on Thursday night against the Yankees. It is perhaps the most beautiful sight in baseball – an individual not only willing to carry his team on his back, but demanding it.

Give me the pressure. I can handle it. I want to handle it. I believe in myself. Yes I can. Yes we can.

Twenty years ago, I last pitched in an organized baseball game. It was my high school’s last regular-season game, and if we won we’d be in a one-game playoff for the last remaining spot in the postseason tournament. I was up against a manager whose teams I’d been facing since I was 11 years old, and I’d never beaten him.

We were leading, I recall, and I got in some trouble in the fourth inning. I got out of the jam, and as I jogged off the mound, our manager – now the superintendent of schools in a town near mine – walked over to me. I turned to him and barked: “Don’t you dare take me out! You’re not taking me out of this game!” He looked at me, turned away, and smiled. “I’m not taking him out,” he muttered. We won the game.

There were plenty of moments on the mound when I didn’t hold up so well under pressure. But on that day, for that one afternoon, I was everything I’d ever wanted to be as a pitcher. As Pedro and Andy and Cole and Mariano and all the others get ready for the ’09 World Series, I’ll be looking for the nerves of steel. The man who can make that ball dance under the hot lights. The man who handles drama like Obama.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Need to Read All About It

Whenever I watch a sporting event closely, as I always do during the baseball playoffs, I think about the story I would be writing if I were still working as a sportswriter. Tonight, for example, as I’m watching John Lackey blank the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, I think about the options: There’s the “momentum” story, on how quickly the pendulum can shift from one team to another; there’s the Lackey story, on the way in which he’s dominated in a must-win game (and will he be available in relief should there be a Game 7?); and there’s the “offense” story, on whether the Yankees really have enough hitting to (a) close out this series and (b) have a prayer against the mighty Phillies.

Of course, I don’t have a deadline to meet tonight; instead, I have classes to teach in the morning. I’m ready for those, and looking forward to them. But when I finish working tomorrow, I’ll look forward to reading what others did write about the game. In particular, I’ll be looking for the latest from my friend Steve Politi, with whom I went to college and who now serves as the lead sports columnist for the Star-Ledger of Newark.

Steve is one of the best sportswriters in America, and he’ll be writing brilliant stories for a long, long time. That is, unless newspapers cease to exist.

There has been so much written in recent months about the decline in readership among daily newspapers, thanks to the combination of Internet, television and radio news outlets. Newspapers have folded, slashed salaries, eliminated positions, and required their staff members to take furloughed vacations. It has been dismal before in the newspaper world, but never this bad.

And that, my friends, is more than a shame; it’s a national crisis. There are many reasons why America’s democracy has thrived for 233 years, not the least of which is the ability of daily newspapers to document the actions of government officials, business people, political leaders, law enforcement officers, entertainers and, yes, even sports teams. Newspapers provide an indispensible depth of coverage and professionalism, and they tell the day-to-day story of America better than any other form of communication we’ve ever created.

When we pick up a newspaper, we’re presented with a wide variety of stories and opinions, and many of the things we learn on those broadsheet pages are new to us. Many of the opinions expressed on those pages are different from our own, yet are there for us to read and consider. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in a March New York Times column, reading the news on-line allows us to self-select the news we read. That is not necessarily a good thing. “When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper,” Kristof wrote. “We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about … there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices.” How can we truly learn when we’re looking for things we already know?

Some might argue that with so many people reading on-line, we’ll always be able to hold people accountable and keep democracy in place. But the news on-line, like the news on TV, is always dominated by images. And that means “balloon boy” stories will find more readers and viewers than stories about, say, elections or war atrocities. Sensationalism typically numbs us to the things that truly impact our lives.

And it’s not just the news section that delivers the goods when it comes to daily papers. When tomorrow’s Times and Star-Ledger appear on my driveway, they’ll provide information about area activities that I would never have known about otherwise. They’ll also tell me about new businesses that have opened in the area. And, yes, they’ll give me plenty of information about tonight’s Yankees game.

Things have changed in the ballgame since I started writing this post. The Yankees stormed back to take the lead against the Angels’ bullpen, then lost that lead – and the game – when their own pitching stumbled. Out of my original column ideas, the “momentum” story is the only one with legs. Steve is likely switching gears as we speak, finding a newer angle that will fit with the events of the past hour.

It’s not easy work. Never has been. But I know Steve will pull it off. Great newspapermen and women like him have been making newsprint sing for centuries. And I, for one, am still ready to read all about it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sweet Dreams, Daddy

In my last blog entry, I wrote about losing my children to Neil Diamond. I wrote of the hope we all hold out, that our kids will embrace our own passions and hobbies, giving us the chance to spend quality time with our kids while also still enjoying the things we love.

For me, things got worse before they got better in that department. But, at least for a fleeting moment, they did get better.

First, the worse. I have asked, cajoled, pleaded and demanded that she please hold off on this music until at least Veterans Day. In the past two years, I have amended that to after Halloween. I cannot, will not, go any further than that. When it hits November 1, I only drive with her when I must. There’s no room for me anyway, as the entire passenger seat is filled with holiday CDs. I tell the girls that this is not normal, and that they should feel free to ask the woman to take these CDs out at any time. They’re sitting in the back, after all, so they’re held hostage to their mother’s two-month-long Christmas-music binge.

So it’s the first Sunday in October, the sky is blue, it’s 70 degrees, and the four of us are driving home from church. I am about to put on some pop music, or NPR, and maybe even find a song that I can tell the girls about. But before I can do so, this woman (I could refer to her as “Amy” or “my wife,” but I’m embarrassed to) says to the girls, “Should we put it on, guys?” They respond immediately: “Yes!”

She slips in a CD, and I hear the jingling bells. No, please. Then I hear Tom Petty. Oh, this can’t be. It is. He launches into a song called “Christmas All Over Again,” which is fun to hear on December 15. Once. Mind you, it is October 4th at this moment, and I am hearing this song. Katie, our older girl, immediately responds: “Yes, turn that up!”

I’m not going to bother with her. She’s lost already. I turn back to Chelsea, who at age 4 is still plenty malleable. “Chelsea,” I say, “it’s not too late. There’s still time – I can save you from this madness.”

Chelsea looks at me as if I’ve just offered to take away her favorite blanket. “I want this,” she says. “I love Christmas music.”

That woman next to me is now howling, pounding the steering wheel. “You haven’t worked hard enough, honey,” she says. “You’ve got to pound it into them. Pound it in.”

Insanity. First of all, I’m not pounding anything into my children. They should come to love whatever they want – as long as it’s not this. Which brings me to my second point – it is just wrong to be playing these songs on October 4th. I can’t sit in this car. As much as I hate to say it, I’ll take Elmo, Barney and Raffi yet again over hearing a Tom Petty holiday song two weeks removed from summertime. I’ll even take the Wiggles over this.

So, with parenting angst at its height, we come to this evening. This night is special to me because my mom and her Neil Diamond records are back in her own home, and my wife and her ho-ho-ho’s are out for the night. So it’s just me and the girls. We’re reading books and drawing, while Daddy catches the Cardinals-Dodgers playoff game in between pages of our Franklin book.

At one point, Chelsea looks at the TV and notices the gorgeous cardinal logo on the visiting team’s jerseys. Katie looks up as well and starts asking how the Dodgers got their team name. As I explain that they were named for “trolley dodgers” in old Brooklyn, the girls are talking about the trolleys they’ve seen, and we’re doing some vocab work, figuring out what the verb “to dodge” means. A few minutes in, they get it.

Katie wants me to tell her some other team names, and how they got started. I tell her about the 1960s Houston Colt .45s, and how they figured out that naming themselves after a gun was a bit over-the-top, and hence the Astros. She’s interested. She wants more. I talk about the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, and how they became the Reds.

Out pops a baseball history book, and Katie wants to see photos of Babe Ruth. Then she’s asking about Lou Gehrig. I show her Joe DiMaggio, and tell her that her own great-grandfather pitched against him once (true story). She’s amazed at this, and responds, “So that means we’re famous!” I tell her about Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, and Reggie Jackson.

We head up to bed, and she carries this five-pound baseball book up with her. As I’m putting Chelsea to sleep, she asks who Pete Rose is. Then she brings me a photo of Joe Carter, after his World Series-winning home run of 1993, and asks why he’s lying on the field surrounded by teammates. “Is he hurt?” she asks. “No,” I say, “he’s just overcome with joy.”

Katie asks me to tell them one more baseball story before bed. I go into the 1978 one-game playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox, and we’re talking about Bucky Dent’s big home run, and Lou Piniella’s game-saving play in the sun, and she just wants more. The girl can’t get enough. “Give me details,” she says.

This is too good. Beyond good. This is heaven on earth. I want to keep going, telling them more. But it’s after nine and they have to go to sleep. I sing Chelsea a song, and she’s out cold. I kiss Katie on the forehead, and wish her sweet dreams.

She doesn’t have to wish me the same; I got my dream already tonight. Tomorrow, I’m sure they’ll be back to Neil and Tom and Bing Crosby in that car. But tonight, they were in Daddy’s zone, and they liked it. Nobody’s taking that away.