Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Brothers in Arms

            I haven’t followed football nearly as much in my adulthood as I did in my adolescence. This year, however, I am fascinated by the Super Bowl matchup that the National Football League has provided. If I told you I grew up rooting for the San Francisco 49ers, you’d figure I’m into this game because the Niners are in the title game for the first time in 17 years.
            It is cool to see San Francisco winning games again, but that’s not why this game is so interesting to me. I’m going to be watching it for a more basic reason: because I have a brother. I have a brother against whom I competed during every day of my adolescence. So as the football world prepares for a Super Bowl in which opposing head coaches Jim and John Harbaugh are brothers, I feel as though a part of my life will be played out in that game.
            My brother, Eric, is three years younger than me. So by the time he was about 7 years old, we were ready to compete in just about any game we could find. As we grew older, that competition became fierce. We’re not just talking about games that helped us wile away a few hours. We’re talking about games in which our thirst to beat the other left us spending every ounce of energy we had in pursuit of victory.
            Some days it was Wiffle Ball games on our driveway, with one of us hitting a soaring ninth-inning home run off the telephone pole to crush the other. Other days it was one-on-one basketball in the backyard, with our breaths visible in the crisp winter air and Eric’s squared-up jumpers piling up the points against Warren’s wild hook shots. Still other days it was tennis matches at swim clubs and assorted local courts, with Warren’s Stefan Edberg-like finesse doing battle with Eric’s John McEnroe athleticism. On rainy days, it was Matchbox car duels, with my wheels up against his. On snowy days it was video games, tackle football and snowball fights.
            There’s no real end to the events that my brother and I headlined in the Hynes home. I can keep the list going for some time – we haven’t even gotten to Pinewood Derby cars, for crying out loud. Whatever it was, we were locking horns in a duel that was absolutely essential to us both. In order to learn who we were as individuals, we needed to size ourselves up against one another in the heat of battle. Everything we’ve become since is partly the result of those matchups. Of course, the fact that we loved each other dearly – both during and after every game – can’t be left unsaid. But in those games, words of love were the farthest things from our lips. It was a battle to the end.
            So on February 3rd, it will be Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers against John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens. What makes this so amazing is that for each man, winning Super Bowl XLVII would be the ultimate career achievement. And yet, in order to claim this prize, one man will have to defeat his own brother. This, my friends, is grand drama.
            When I think about those games with Eric, I remember a similar rhythm to our matchups: I’d get out to the early lead, playing soft and loose, and Eric would quickly get frustrated. As my lead grew, he’d then throw something of a tantrum. When I saw him get upset, I’d keep playing hard, and there was no drop-off in my effort. But psychologically, his tantrums reminded me of something deep inside – the reality that I’d rather see my brother succeed than watch myself win. This didn’t always lead to me losing, and there were countless times when Eric – a superior athlete – would have come back and won anyway. But I can think of a few times when we were locked in a fierce duel, and I looked him in the eyes and realized my truest competitive desire – to see Eric triumph, even if that came at the expense of me.
            Today, my brother and I are both writers, and some of our aspirations are the same. We don’t compete with one another for stories, but if you created a scenario in which there was space for only one of us to get a book published, I’d step aside in a heartbeat.
            So when I watch the Super Bowl, that’s what I’ll be looking for – who yields first? Which brother has that inner desire to sacrifice himself for the other? I’ll be scanning my TV set in search of that split-second of mercy. That complex brotherly love, mixed in with the fierce competition. That’s what makes this game, in some sense, the ultimate in sporting matchups. The Super Bowl is always the biggest game in sports, but this time it’s also two brothers playing tackle football in the snow. I may not watch football much anymore, but I wouldn’t miss this game for the world.
            Unless, of course, my brother calls, and asks if I want to shoot some hoops.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Incredibles

            It was fitting this week that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America released its Hall of Fame voting results just one day before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their Oscar nominations. If baseball looks closely enough, it may find a solution to its most weighty problem on that Oscar ballot.

            In 1994, a vicious labor dispute led to the cancellation of the entire baseball postseason, embarrassing the sport to such an extent that many wondered if fan interest would ever resurface. However, once the games resumed in 1995, America’s pastime stormed back with a vengeance, just as it did after the Chicago White Sox scandal of 1919, when several players “threw” the World Series by taking money from gamblers.

            In the 1920s, baseball was saved in large part by a portly man whose mammoth home runs brought fans to the ballpark in droves. In 1998, baseball was saved in large part by two muscular men whose mammoth home runs electrified the nation. But there was a difference between the way in which Babe Ruth saved baseball in the 1920s, and the way in which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball in the late ‘90s. Babe Ruth, according to writers and historians, was known to enjoy many a good drink; he succeeded despite taking a performance-inhibiting drug. McGwire and Sosa, on the other hand, seem to have succeeded due to performance-enhancing drugs. And with their success, baseball fully entered its Steroid Era.

            Home run records fell by the dozens in those late ‘90s and early 2000s. Barry Bonds hit so many home runs so often that he was walked a record 232 times in the 2004 season. There has never been anything like this, as home runs soared over fences with a frequency you had to see to believe. But then again, you had to see these ballplayers’ muscles to believe them, too. During that 2004 season, Bonds turned 40 years old. Yet, he looked more like the lead character from Pixar’s ’04 film hit The Incredibles than a typical 40-year-old athlete. The bulked-up ballplayers, who were free from any kind of steroid testing, flexed super-sized biceps, pecs and quads that brought to mind Mr. Incredible and his giant, muscular body.

            A lot has gone down since 2004 in Major League Baseball, as we’ve learned that so much of that excitement from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s was created by performance-enhancing drugs. Who took what, and when, and how much is impossible to know for sure, as there was no steroid testing until 2006. There was no agreement on in-season testing for human growth hormone until yesterday. Athletes in search of an edge turned to syringes to enhance their own skills, and they got rich doing so.

            And so, when several of the most celebrated players of the past 15 years became eligible for Hall of Fame candidacy this year, the baseball writers sent a powerful message by electing no one to receive baseball’s highest honor in 2013. Not the guy with seven MVP awards. Not the guy with seven Cy Young awards. Not the guys with 3,000 hits, 500 or more home runs, or 3,000 or more strikeouts. Nobody.

            Some of these eligible players did not take steroids or human growth hormone, but through its massive cover-up baseball did not allow us to know who was cheating and who was playing fair. So, this year, every player suffered the consequences.

            It was an era of irresponsible, unhealthy, and deceitful behavior. But it is also true that during this time, baseball fans devoured the record-breaking offense with much enthusiasm and not much questioning. It is, therefore, rather difficult for us to point fingers at these players without pointing fingers at ourselves as well. They were, after all, giving us what we wanted. We cheered and clapped for the guys who looked like Pixar characters, so the sport created more and more of them.

            So that brings us to the Oscars. Back in 1995, Pixar introduced a revolutionary form of digital animation with the now-classic film Toy Story. Half a decade later, after the success of A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, it was clear that this company had changed the way movies were made. Thus, in 2001 the Academy began awarding an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. In the first 11 years of that award, a Pixar film was nominated eight times. This week, the company picked up nomination number nine.

            Baseball can look at this Oscar category and follow suit with its Hall of Fame dilemma: Simply take the players from the Steroid Era and vote them in under “Best Animated Players.” Some of them were on the juice and some weren’t, but baseball gave us no way of knowing. So we’ll treat them all like we do Buzz Lightyear, Wall-E and Mr. Incredible – we’ll give them their own category. And if the dust ever clears and we get full disclosure, we’ll consider nominating them for the regular Hall as well, just as Pixar movies like Up and Toy Story 3 have also been nominated for Best Picture.

            It’s fitting that this year’s Pixar nominee is a film titled Brave. If only Major League Baseball had shown some degree of courage during the Steroid Era, we might be looking at our recent sports history through a different lens. But brave they weren’t. So the baseball writers called them out on that this week. Even Mr. Incredible can’t save the day with this one.