Tag Archives: baseball

Throwing Strikes

Photo by MLB.com

I was watching the Atlanta Braves’ playoff game Sunday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers with a lady friend, and, as usual, Braves’ pitcher A.J. Minter was wild.

His pitches were landing everywhere but in the strike zone, an affliction that has bedeviled him and other Braves pitchers all season. I was trying to explain why it was so frustrating, how it’s been going on all year, how these guys are professionals and ought to be doing their job better.

My friend’s response was that it’s easy for someone on the sidelines to be critical, and that Minter was doing the best he could.

She was right, of course, but for sports fans there is a certain tolerance for booing and criticism as well as for cheering and praise.

To be a fan, generally speaking, is to commit oneself to hope and expectation — after all, “fan” is short for fanatic — and over the past several years the Braves have been disappointing.

This year, however, they have been far better than expected. That they are even in the playoffs is a miracle. But being a fan, I’m greedy for more. I want it to continue, I want the players to be at their best, right through to the storybook ending and winning the World Series.

I also know that’s unrealistic. It would be a glorious ending to a terrific season — walk-off home runs, amazing defensive plays, a brilliant supporting cast and team celebrations so riotous and exuberant you couldn’t help but feel part of it.

So it was gratifying to see quick shots on TV of fellow fans in varying degrees of anguish as the Braves eked out a victory. This was my tribe — or one of them, anyway — and I was surprised at how much better I felt at seeing others experiencing the same emotions I was feeling.

That’s the fun of being a fan.

A Legacy of Pessimism

But my friend’s response reminded me that my critique of Minter was self-referential, and the better response would be, “How are you doing?”

As a fan — “you,” in this case — I’m twisting and tortured by doubt. I’m thinking, “It’s not going to work. I know the Braves are going to let me down.”

That doubt, that pessimism, that expectation of disappointment, didn’t just show up overnight. It’s a lifetime habit. I’ve felt it everywhere I’ve lived — Michigan, Rhode Island (twice), Connecticut (twice), Kentucky, Tennessee, Hawaii, Georgia.

It’s a legacy, an heirloom passed down through the family like grandmother’s dishes, black-and-white photographs and scarcity thinking. Pessimism was embedded in the consciousness of my parents and grandparents from their own experiences and by the Great Depression.

If my family had a coat of arms, the legend would read: “Waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Discomfort and Hope

So, if the Braves falter and fall, that’s the narrative I grew up with. And it would be true regardless of what I was observing, whether an athletic event, a public speaker, a surgeon in the operating room, a lawyer in court … all judgment is a reflection of the one who judges.

This is where it gets uncomfortable … and hopeful. The emphasis in “How are you doing?” shifts to the verb, and wisdom arises from a pair of aphorisms.

“When I point my finger at someone else, three other fingers are pointing back at me.” And, “If I’m not the solution, there is no problem.”

As a fan, I have no control over my team. There’s nothing I can do to help Minter or Newcomb or Toussaint or Gausman throw strikes. I can’t help Camargo hit even a foul ball, for crying out loud.

I am a victim of my expectations. A willing victim, to be sure, but a victim nonetheless.

The Action Figure

But in terms of “doing” I am also the action figure. And in that sense, pointing at Minter is an invitation to look at my own job performance.

And — hello! — I’m not doing that well.

I’ve got a manuscript to send to a writer who has generously offered to read it. I’ve yet to start the final chapter of that book. I’ve got two other projects awaiting my attention, and a request from an editor looking for stories.

I’m not throwing strikes, either. Move over, Minter, you’ve got company.

I’m not trying to take the fun out of spectating; too much navel-gazing will make anyone dull and uninteresting. But taking care of my own business can do a lot about the way I feel about myself and the Braves. Then I can watch without complaining, and appreciate what a great year it’s been.


Mickey Mantle — The Better Version

Austin Kleon blogged recently about trying to explain to his 5-year-old that artists — in this case, Kraftwerk — are no different from the rest of us, and that meeting them might not be as pleasing as one would think.

Kleon quotes Wendell Berry, who wrote “I am a man as crude as any,” and admits that he, too, suffers from the human condition. Although he loves meeting his readers, Kleon says that in his books they are getting the best version of him.

“In my day-to-day life,” he adds, “I am as confused and stupid and pessimistic as anybody.”

This is timely as I struggle to organize the material for a memoir that includes my experiences as a journalist who interviewed roughly 100 famous people. That doesn’t include chance encounters with Muhammad Ali, Jane Fonda, Janet Jackson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the hundreds of other people I wrote about who were special in their own way — and often more interesting than celebrities. (See Bio.)

But in thinking about Kleon’s point, former New York Yankee Mickey Mantle came to mind.

In early December of 1979, more than 10 years after he retired, Mantle and former teammate and best friend, Billy Martin, came to Honolulu to appear at a baseball camp put on by Pete Ward, a former teammate.

They flew in from Dallas and did a late afternoon media interview at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. It was quickly apparent that “Open Jackson,” as Mantle called himself, and “Waco Texan” (Martin) hadn’t spent the 3,800-mile flight discussing Proust.

They were slurring their words and kept up a line of banter that, as I wrote later, was “off-color, macho and chauvinistic” in an old-school, male-bonding kind of way.

Mantle and Martin played on a New York Yankees team that dominated baseball from the early 1950s into the mid-‘60s, and they did it at a time when New York was transforming itself into the Big Apple. It was the financial, media, entertainment, advertising and retail capital of the world,  the home of the The Tonight Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Today Show and just about any other show of significance.

It was the home turf of Frank Sinatra, martini in one hand, cigarette in the other. Bob Dylan was playing clubs in Greenwich Village; Thelonius Monk and Charlie Mingus played the Five Spot in the East Village; Leonard Bernstein had the New York Philharmonic; and uptown in Harlem, James Brown electrified the Apollo Theater.

New York was full of itself, the city of winners, and it doted on the Yankees. Mantle was the best of them, a marvel of speed, power, and skill, a legend in the making, and in his off-hours, the carousing, hard-drinking, adulterous prince of the city. He could show up at Toots Shor’s any night of the week knowing he would never have to pay for a drink. 

When he arrived in Honolulu at 48, though, his skin was blotched and puffy, there were creases around his eyes and he was sadly overweight. But he was well-oiled that evening, a happy, high-functioning drunk, and he was obliging and responsive during the interview. Martin was, as well.

I was the last media member to leave, and when we finished, the four of us — Mantle, Martin, Ward and I — left the suite together.

The Sheraton Waikiki was — and, I assume, still is — shaped like an S, and we were walking down a hallway that curved to the left, unable to see more than about 30 feet ahead.

I was to Mantle’s left. Martin and Ward were behind us, and I couldn’t help thinking how cool it was to be walking next to Mickey Mantle himself, even in his inebriated and shopworn condition.

And that’s when he passed gas. As in farted. As in broke wind, a prodigious thunderclap so startling and violent that it volleyed off the walls like a sonic boom.

Before anyone could react — in what would surely have been a “boys will be boys” fashion — our momentum carried us around the curve and face to face with two couples coming the other way. They were handsome senior citizens, white-haired Mainlanders decked out in polyester Hawaiian shirts and muumuus, enjoying their expensive and no doubt long-awaited Hawaiian vacation.

But their eyebrows were up in their hairlines, and on their faces were expressions of shock, embarrassment and scalding, Old Testament disgust. It took me back to being 11 years old, and every fiber of my being wanted to point at Mantle and say, “He did it!” because in their eyes we were all guilty.

I didn’t. I took one for The Mick that day, and when I wrote the story, I covered for him again. I informed the gentle readers of Honolulu that Mantle had belched, which wasn’t exactly putting a happy face on the event, but it was less objectionable.

Any way you slice it, though, Mantle had shown that he could be “as crude as any man.” But the story continues.

In January of 1994, after decades of playing the fool, he finally admitted that he was an alcoholic. He sought treatment, found religion and made amends to the people he hurt. He even spoke publicly about the dangers of alcoholism, concluding with the warning,  “Don’t be like me.”

Cancer of the liver led to a transplant, but the cancer returned and Mantle died in August 1995 at the age of 63. Which makes me sad even all these years later.

I wasn’t a Mantle fan growing up; my baseball allegiance was elsewhere. But I did admire him as a ballplayer, and I admire him even more as a human being for the way he rewrote the ending to his story. It took courage and humility to own the ugliness and dysfunction of his past, and the reward for his transformation wasn’t a standing ovation at Yankee Stadium, it was peace and self-respect, at last.

At his funeral, they played a song that was — another surprise — Mantle’s favorite, and a wonderful way to send him off: “Over the Rainbow.”