As the baseball season gets underway, it looks like this summer’s big off-the-field story will be steroid use. (More serious allegations are beginning to surface as the San Francisco Chronicle reports that federal investigators were told Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield all received performance enhancing drugs from a lab that is currently under investigation.) But last year’s story, the fallout from Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, still has legs. The March 1st issue of Sports Illustrated (on newsstands last week) contains a vociferous epilogue to Moneyball in which Lewis catalogs some of the more outrageous responses that his book received from baseball insiders. He takes to task particularly egregious offenders, like Joe Morgan, for continuing to dismiss the book out of hand. It’s a must read for anyone who was swept up in last summer’s Moneyball furor.
It’s a nightly ritual. After we’ve dog-eared the page on the book we’re reading, and my son has put on his PJs and brushed his teeth, he stands in front of his bedroom mirror with a toy bat and takes a few swings. Some nights he’s Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants’ all-star catcher. Other nights he’s Seattle Mariners’ second baseman Robinson Cano, who smashed a line-drive two-run homer at a game we saw in Seattle last year. Most often, though, he’s just him, Luke Bourne, coming to bat in game seven of the World Series, bases loaded, game on the line.
As he takes his swings, I remind him to bend his knees. I explain again where to set his feet, how to step into the pitch and turn his hips. “The power’s in your legs, not your arms,” I tell him, hearing the voice of my Little League coach explaining this to me more than 30 years ago. When Luke doesn’t understand what I mean, I do what my coach used to do: I take the bat from his hand and show him, digging my imaginary cleats into the imaginary brick dust, knees bent, bat back, my muscles easing into place as if I’d last picked up a bat a week ago and not sometime in the early 1980s.
In his eight years, Luke has galloped through his share of childhood passions: Thomas the Tank Engine, various Pixar movie franchises, Pokémon, Power Rangers, Angry Birds, on and on. For me, the common thread in these obsessions has been that before they entered our lives I knew nothing about them. I had never heard of Thomas the Tank Engine, and then one day our living room was overrun with little wooden tracks and talking toy train engines. Baseball is different. It stands alone among my son’s boyhood obsessions in that the game I played and obsessed over when I was his age is in every essential respect the same game he plays and is obsessed about now.
This week, as the Major League Baseball season kicks off, I am reminded again why the game of baseball speaks to parents like me who stand across the digital divide from their kids. When I was a kid, there was no Internet and a phone was a thing you dialed. There were just three major TV channels and if you wanted to play a video game you went to an arcade and fed quarters into a machine. The shows we watched, the music we listened to, even the costumes we wore on Halloween — so much of it is foreign to my son now. The baseball diamond is that rare place where my knowledge overlaps with my son’s passions. When I take Luke to a game or we play catch in the backyard, the conversations we have and the lessons I impart to him about how to swing the bat or field a ground ball are the same ones my father shared with me when I was a kid. What else in modern life is like that?
My son’s cultural universe is a rich overlay of the deeply familiar and the seriously odd. When I was his age, every Saturday morning my brother and sister piled into my room, where the TV was, to watch Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo while my parents slept upstairs. Luke does much the same thing, except that when I venture into his room after I’ve had my coffee and read the paper, he is sitting in bed, an iPad in his lap, watching not Bugs Bunny or Scooby Doo, but uploaded video clips of Chinese kids playing Angry Birds on their tablets, doing the play-by-play on their games — in Chinese.
There is, I admit, a charmingly DIY element to this. I grew up on Gilligan’s Island and the Super Friends, televised pap produced by large corporations to sell cheap toys and food produced by other, still-larger corporations. I love that thanks to technology children’s TV now enables kids to communicate with other kids from around the world, even if all they’re talking about is video games. But where exactly do I fit into this conversation? I’ve played Angry Birds and found it dull beyond description, an endless, digitized version of throwing a ball at cans on a fence. I can’t imagine watching other kids brag in Chinese about their prowess at slinging cartoon birds at cartoon pigs, and even if I could stand it, what would Luke and I have to talk about afterward?
My yearning for a point of connection with my son is, of course, prelude to a more profound cultural disconnect I know is coming. Eight years old is a golden age when playing Monopoly with your dad still seems a fine way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon, when “Oh, fudge!” is still a perfectly functional, non-ironic thing to say when your dad lands on Boardwalk before you do. This will change. Before long, Luke will be listening to music that makes my teeth ache, hanging out with kids I don’t approve of, and making choices I know he will regret. I will do my best. I will parent. But even if he lands on the far shores of adulthood safe and sound, at some essential level I will lose him. I know this. Every parent with any sense does.
This is why baseball matters so much to me. In an era of relentless change, when to be a parent is to spend one’s life looking at a device in a child’s hand and ask “So, what does that do?” – here is one thing that has remained constant without losing its capacity to dazzle. Here is one thing a dad and an eight-year-old can talk about without either one having to pretend to be interested.
I was a serious, if not particularly gifted ballplayer, but I quit playing in high school, and by the time Luke came along, I’d more or less forgotten about baseball. But a couple years ago when, on a whim, I bought us tickets to see a minor-league team here in Vancouver, I was stunned to find the game still there, just as I had left it. Thirty years later, baseball players still run the way I ran when I played baseball, head high, butt out, gum popping in the jaw. Everyone on the field is chewing something: gum, sunflower seeds, tobacco. And then there is that peculiarly male obsession with costume. Caps that sit just so. Eye-black. Flip-up shades. One kind of glove for batting, another for running the bases, another still for playing the field. Watching the game was like walking into a house where I’d lived as a child and finding it not sadly shrunken or dusty with age, but exactly as I remembered it, except with better food.
At the start of the game, as the home team pitcher, a lanky 20-year-old flamethrower from the Dominican Republic, trotted onto the field, he paused a split-second at the foul line and hopped neatly onto the infield grass. I understood instantly. For generations, pitchers have observed a superstition against touching the chalk line while running on and off the field. Here I was at a minor-league ballpark in Canada watching a player from the Caribbean who wasn’t even alive when I stopped playing obey an arbitrary tradition that I’d picked up in my suburban California childhood.
“Hey, did you see what the pitcher just did,” I said to Luke, and in doing so, passed the tradition on to him.
Baseball is criticized for being stodgy and slow, a vestige of a bygone age. There is some truth to this. The game can be painfully languid. Three minutes of talking and scratching and chewing passes for every five seconds of action. And for all the talk of Sabermetrics and the scandals over performance-enhancing drugs, baseball remains spectacularly hidebound. The players change from year to year, but the game they’re playing hasn’t changed since the designated hitter rule came in more than 40 years ago. The bases are still 90 feet apart. It’s still 60 feet six inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. A ball caught high in the webbing of the glove is still a “snow cone.” A home run is still a “dinger” or “going yard.” No batter in the history of the game has ever stepped into the batter’s box and not spit at least once before the pitcher threw the ball.
But for me, this continuity is the game’s charm, a source of its enduring attraction. We live in a forward-looking culture that prizes newness above all else. Every technology must be disruptive. Every pop star must shock us. Every novel must seek to somehow reinvent literature. We’re so busy chasing the new, we can forget the purpose of tradition, which is to provide a safe, circumscribed space for people of different ages and cultures to find connection.
This is how it has worked for Luke and me. I now help coach his Little League team, and every time we drive by a game, whether it’s Little League, high school, or a grown-man’s beer league, we stop to watch an inning or two. He loves it, watching batters work the count, predicting whether a baserunner will try to steal, rhythmically stomping his feet on the metal grandstands to cheer on the home team — even if we have no idea who the home team is.
I like all this, too, but what I like most is the unguardedness of the conversations we have at ballparks. Maybe you have to be a man to know how hard it is for two men to talk openly, even if one of you is only eight years old. But all that falls away at a ballpark or in the backyard playing catch. There, Luke wants to know everything. Does the catcher flash one finger or two to signal for the fastball? What’s a pick-off man? Daddy, show me again how to throw a curveball. No kid should throw a curveball till he’s in high school, but I’m happy to explain it again, moving his tiny fingers over the seams of the ball, showing him the flick of the wrist that makes the ball spin, because in that moment he’s present, he’s listening to me, in ways he will at almost no other time.
Tonight, after Luke has brushed his teeth and put on his PJs, and we’ve checked whether his beloved San Francisco Giants won their season opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Luke will get out his toy bat and take his swings. I’ll remind him to bend his knees and keep his bat back, and he’ll watch himself in the mirror, smiling as he swings. He’ll never be a Buster Posey or a Robinson Cano, but that isn’t the point. The point is that night after night he’s letting me teach him how to be him. Someday, I know, he will face his own version of game seven of the World Series. Maybe it will be a major deadline at work. Maybe it will a personal choice, a split-second decision that will shape a lifetime. Whatever it is, I want him to be ready. I want my boy to know how to be Luke Bourne.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
As I write this my old friend Cem is nearing home after almost nine months of traveling the world. Here’s a little note he sent me about Maqroll.i dont think ive told you. i never finished the book. i have been slowly savoringthe entirety Maqroll throughout the whole of this trip. i have managed to spreadthe 700 pages out, making the book my only constant through the time zones. thiswas partly an attempt to reflect the character himself, his love for that deadfrench scribbler whose name i cannot pronounce or remember, his careful rereadingof the text. another element of my devoted fanaticism is the habit i have developed of scratchingor writing certain quotes from the book certain places ive been. most of thesequotes have been the memorable bathroom wall etchings from ‘the snow of theadmiral’, and indeed some of these quotes have been etched onto the walls of filthybathrooms. under mattresses in the most tranquil places in southern thailand. i have been trying to put them in places where travelers and english/spanishspeakers might find them, but this has been somewhat difficult at times (easternmyanmar). im sure some people have seen them already. i did not limit thequotations with actual quote marks. after all of my bags have been unpacked, i will read the last 5 pages. then thetrip is over. Welcome back Cem!
Unlike in recent years, I didn’t get a ton of books this year for Christmas nor did I give any – and, no, this had nothing to do with Joe Queenan’s recent screed in the New York Times against giving books as gifts – though I can see where he’s coming from. Nonetheless, I did get a couple of pretty cool items. The one that I’m most thrilled about is the shiny, new Complete New Yorker that my parents – who know me well – gave me. When I first heard about this back in June, I said this: “My fear is that once I got my hands on this set, I would be compelled to consume every word of it at the expense of school and work and everything else, possibly even eating and sleeping. I may have to put myself into forced hibernation starting in October in order to keep those DVDs from falling into my hands.” But now that I actually own it, I’m willing to take the risk. In fact, I can’t wait to get back to Chicago so I can start digging into this thing. I’ll let you know how it goes.My brother gave me another cool “complete” set, the National Geographic Maps collection which contains every single map supplement published in the magazine from 1889 through 1999 on CD-ROM.From my parents, I also received a collection of interviews with writers like Thomas McGuane and William Styron called Story Story Story. Mrs. Millions, meanwhile, received a weighty tome called The World’s Greatest Architecture: Past and Present from her folks.My favorite non-book gift, though, would have to be the XM Radio that Mrs. Millions gave me. I actually can’t wait for our 14 hour drive back to Chicago so I can soak in all that satellite radio goodness.
It’s a bad time to be an author. A Kirkus reviewer discovered that “renowned children’s-book author and publisher” Harriet Ziefert borrowed from a 1983 book by Judi Barrett. One tip-off, both books have the same name: A Snake is Totally Tail. Barrett’s version appears to be out of print, meanwhile Ziefert’s publisher, Blue Apple, is pulling Ziefert’s version from publication. According to the article, Ziefert’s claim is that it’s just a coincidence, but the evidence seems damning: “Comparing the advance readers’ copy of Ziefert’s book to Barrett’s, it’s obvious right away that 12 of the 23 lines in Barrett’s version are repeated in Ziefert’s, including identical concluding lines: ‘A dinosaur is entirely extinct. This book is finally finished.'”
Tam Tam Books, my friend Tosh’s labor of love, released it’s fourth book this past week: Boris Vian’s Foam of the Daze. Vian is mostly unknown in the States but he is one of France’s modern masters. His novels are at once absurd and doleful. Foam of the Daze is his masterpiece.An AdmissionI’ve done something that I do every once in a while and that I feel a bit of guilt about. I’ve put a book down without finishing it. In this case, though, the book was actually very good, and what I read I enjoyed very much. Chris Hedges pulls no punches in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He ruthlessly whittles away the myth of war and violence until all that remains is the set of lies on which they are based. His arguments are almost too convincing, and after he lays it out, it is hard to make a case for a situation in which the use of force is warranted. I especially enjoyed the way he went about laying all of this out. Instead of proclaiming the virtues of peace, he very clearly described how war becomes a tool that those in power use, willingly or not, to maintain their power. And that’s it, that’s the whole book. And that’s pretty much why I quit about halfway through. He made is argument very convincingly and I found myself quite moved, but then he made his argument again and again. I’ve described here in the past the lingering anxiety that has accompanied opening the throttle, so to speak, when it comes to reading. And now sometimes when I feel that I have extracted the essential nugget of wisdom from a book, I am ready to cast the book aside so that I can get to that next nugget. And, sometimes, this nugget is given away freely before the end of the book. I have become a very thirsty reader.
Davy Rothbart has taken the Powell’s blog by storm. He’s putting together the next FOUND magazine book (a sequel to the first one), and he’s taken to posting late at night, occasionally whilst drunk. He’s discussed “found” stuff, Scrabble and writing to inmates as well as a number of other topics.
Wow, the Venezuelan government has printed one million free copies of Don Quixote to celebrate the book’s 400th anniversary. That sure beats the “one book one city” thing we have in the states. Read about it at the BBC. (via bookglutton). Also, anyone who has endured the long wait for the Edith Grossman edition of Quixote to come out in paperback, take heart, it arrives on May 1. See also 400 Windmills.