Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pennant-Race Memories: Handle with Care

                It’s likely that the New York Yankees won’t make the playoffs this year, giving them two straight seasons without a playoff berth since 1992 and ‘93. If the Yankees are your favorite team, as they are for the residents of the Hynes household, this is disappointing. But if you’re paying attention to the full baseball season, you know that several groups of long-suffering fans are getting the chance to see their teams in a pennant race this summer. That is the story of baseball in 2014, and it’s a great one.
You’ve got the Kansas City Royals, absent from the playoffs for 29 years, standing in first place in their division. The Baltimore Orioles, out of the playoffs for 28 of the last 31 years, also in first place. The Milwaukee Brewers, who have made the playoffs just four times in their 45-year existence, holding onto first place. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who last year made the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, in the Wild Card chase. And the Toronto Blue Jays, absent from the playoffs for 21 years, also in the Wild Card hunt. Even the Washington Nationals, trying to bring playoff baseball to the nation’s capital for just the second time in 81 years, in first place.
When you look at this season from the vantage point of long-awaited hope, it gives you reason to worry little about whether usual playoff suspects such as the Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox will make the postseason this year. These teams and their fans certainly will survive. But the Royals! How can you not root for the kids in Kansas City? Even baseball’s two most consistent teams this year, the first-place Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers, have not won a World Series since Rick Astley, Richard Marx and Gloria Estefan were ruling Billboard’s Top 40.
A few weeks ago, I took a weekend trip with my brother and our friend Neil, to spend some time together and celebrate Eric and Neil both turning 40 this year. When we go away together, the three of us usually travel to baseball stadiums. This time, it was an Orioles game one night, followed by a Nationals game the next. We watched the home teams win their games, and the stadiums were loud and full. We were impressed by how many fans dressed in the colors of their teams – Orioles orange and Nationals red. It also was impressive to see the teams enjoying their own traditions – Orioles fans belting out John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” during the seventh-inning stretch, and Nationals fans cheering wildly for Teddy Roosevelt as he won the nightly race of mascot presidents, beating out Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and Taft.
There was a lot of late-summer hope in the voices and eyes of these Mid-Atlantic baseball fans. The same can be heard and seen in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and other mid-size cities around the country, where the local teams are giving their fans reason to avoid thinking about football quite yet. In the end, though, these pennant-race ballgames always mean more than wins and losses. If you’re traveling to a game with your friends or family, you’re going to have time to sit together in the stands and talk, perhaps even about stuff more important than balls and strikes.
I can tell you about a lot of the Yankee games I’ve seen with Eric and Neil, but I also can tell you about many good talks and laughs we’ve had at the ballpark in the Bronx. During our Maryland weekend, we talked a lot of baseball but also caught up on one another’s lives, sharing stories of recent trips, photos of kids, and songs we’ve been enjoying. We took in the games, but also searched for tasty ballpark food together, with Eric raving over the jerk chicken in Nationals Park and Neil savoring his chili dog. I’m sure I can dig up some details of the games from my memory, but none of them come to mind as clearly as the three of us munching on late-night nachos in a pub in Alexandria, Va., or discovering the historic Maine Avenue Fish Market on our walk to the Nationals game, or singing the Traveling Wilburys’ Handle with Care together as Neil drove north on I-295, heading home.
So in this late summer of 2014, those of us in New York will never be Royals. We’re Yankees fans, so we’ll take what we can get. But as the people in Kansas City and Pittsburgh and Baltimore and D.C. get together for an energizing pennant race, we know that their fans will love the baseball. But Eric, Neil and I can tell you that in the end, a great game is really just an invitation to deepen a friendship. Put on those orange or red T-shirts, grab some jerk chicken, and create some memories together.
Everybody’s got somebody to lean on.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Where Bounty Hunters Meet Center Fielders

             Like so many kids her age, my 9-year-old daughter has become a Star Wars fanatic. It’s amazing that Star Wars has never become retro; it remains current, be it through the films, the LEGO phenomenon, the action figures or the books. For Chelsea, her immersion happened out of the blue; we were talking about the Star Wars movies, she expressed a desire to watch them, and before you know it we had watched all six films together in the course of a week’s time.

Like my brother and me three decades earlier, Chelsea was not content with merely watching the films; she wanted to talk about them in-depth, to the point where we continuously pressed pause on our DVD remote so we could debrief what had just happened. She wanted to know whether the Emperor had really died when Darth Vader threw him down a seemingly endless shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi. She wanted to know why Darth Maul was killed so quickly in The Phantom Menace. She wanted to know what exactly was happening with all the Senate proceedings in Episodes I, II and III (if only I could help her there). Chelsea loved Yoda and R2-D2, sure, but she also was fascinated with Greedo, Lando and, of course, Boba Fett.

I was discussing Chelsea’s Star Wars fascination with my brother, who was my childhood companion in all things Star Wars (Eric even went so far as to leave one of his Han Solo figures outside our house one winter so that Han could be frozen, as he had been in The Empire Strikes Back). My brother was, of course, thrilled with Chelsea’s appreciation for the films, and we got to talking about some of Chelsea’s questions and interests. As gripping as the George Lucas’ Star Wars stories are, there are flaws in the films, and Chelsea’s questions raise some of them. Perhaps none is so obvious, though, as the decision to offhandedly kill Boba Fett at the beginning of Return of the Jedi.

Over the past three decades, Boba Fett has grown into one of the most popular Star Wars characters of all, which is amazing considering how few lines he has, and how marginal he is to the overall plot (his main job is to bring Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, to Jabba the Hutt during The Empire Strikes Back). But Boba looks cool, has a Dirty Harry-like, minimalist swagger to him, and never shows his face beneath his green, red and black mask. And yet, during a fight scene early in Return of the Jedi, Han Solo accidentally knocks into Boba Fett, igniting his jet pack and sending the bounty hunter directly into the mouth of an alien with giant teeth, located inside a desert pit. With that careless move, Boba Fett is gone from the Star Wars saga. As the Walt Disney Company, which now owns Star Wars, prepares for Episode VII, it must do so without Boba Fett and his cult-like following.

Of course, that needn’t stop Disney; there’s already talk of a stand-alone Boba Fett film that would cover more of his life before he wound up in the alien’s mouth. But even so, this character’s story does say something about how important it is to keep your eyes on the ball when crafting a narrative. Sometimes, you have a jewel in your hand and don’t realize it. With the Star Wars saga, George Lucas created a modern-day version of the Greek myths, which has delighted my generation and my daughter’s; but he missed the boat on Boba Fett.

This kind of thing happens all the time, in fact. We’re often so intent on adding one piece to the story that we forget another, perhaps more important piece. Other than Star Wars, the only narrative I’ve had time to watch this summer is the six-month-long epic known as a baseball season. But even here, in Major League Baseball, there are Boba Fetts among us. Several ambitious big-league teams made daring trades on the July 31 trading deadline in an attempt to stockpile enough dominant pitching to win the World Series. But in making these trades, clubs such as the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A’s traded away players who were important contributors to the clubs they had. By tossing those players into trades, they may have lost themselves a Boba Fett and gained nothing more than another Stormtrooper. When the Tigers traded their leadoff hitter and center fielder Austin Jackson for starting pitcher David Price, Jackson actually had to be removed from the game in the middle of an inning. When the Tigers fans realized what was happening, they gave Jackson a standing ovation.

Austin Jackson is not the best player in baseball; David Price, on the other hand, is among the game’s elite right now. But in order to win, baseball teams must rely heavily on the delicate chemistry of their club. To trade a young, developing player who has done nothing but contribute during his 4½ years in Detroit is risky. The Tigers are a different team now, as their plotline has been altered. They may still win, but it won’t feel the same without Austin Jackson in center.

My daughter, of course, doesn’t care about the Detroit Tigers. But she is still excited about Star Wars. She bought some LEGO “microfighter” ships the other day, and she borrowed an armful of Star Wars books from the library as well. As she scanned the book, Chelsea asked me who my favorite character was from all the films. I told her right away: Boba Fett. She nodded, understanding completely. We turned to his page in the Star Wars Character Encyclopedia, tucked in between Bib Fortuna and Boga. “Cool and calculating, Boba Fett is a legendary bounty hunter,” the page begins.

At that point, I should have shown Chelsea the Boba Fett death scene, and compared it with the clip of Austin Jackson jogging off the field in Detroit. But she would have just said I was being weird like English teachers can be sometimes, making all those deep connections. And she’d be right. But it’s also true that some of us have to stand guard over our stories, lest the next bounty hunter – or center fielder – end up in the desert pit.