Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Heaven, Hell and Baseball

(Ancient essay, and perhaps my only attempt at sportswriting, originally published in 2001.)

I miss baseball.

It's not because we had a long winter and I've been waiting for warmer weather to return. After all, spring is here, and teams are at long last taking to the fields for another season.

And it's not because it's unavailable. I have four pro teams -- the Twins, the Brewers, the Royals and my beloved Chicago Cubs -- within a reasonable driving distance.

I miss baseball because in the last few years, the sport I remember has been replaced by something completely unrecognizable. I fear the game I used to love is gone forever. So I've simply chosen to stay away.

In its pure form, baseball has a romance, a history, a sense of democracy and an appeal unlike that of any other professional sport. Picture Kirby Puckett pumping a fist as he rounded third, having just hit the winning homer in Game Six of the '91 Series. George Brett charging the ump, "begging to disagree" about the pine-tar call. Willie Mays sprinting in from the outfield and pulling off one of his trademark basket catches. Jackie Robinson enduring the taunts of so-called fans as he shattered the color barrier. Lou Gehrig calling himself "the luckiest man alive," his words echoing around Yankee Stadium and the world. Babe Ruth calling his shot over the center field fence. What other sport can claim a history so rich?

On the diamond, anyone can be the hero. When the fresh-faced kid just up from the minors climbs the left-field wall to steal is opponent's home run, or when the third-string pinch hitter smacks one over the fence with two men on, or when the young pitcher strikes out the aging batter who was his childhood hero. No other professional sport is even capable of generating moments like these. No other sport so highlights the power of the individual.

And even without those moments, when you're outside in the bleachers with blue sky above, friendly fans all around, a future Hall-of-Famer in right field, a Hebrew National in one hand and an Old Style in the other, you're experiencing the very essence of the game.

Everyone's equal in the cheap seats. Sit out there sometime with the sun shining, the brats boiling and the beer flowing. You'll understand.

So what happened? Well, if you listen to Bud Selig and the rest of the owner's toadies, you'll hear that they've been tinkering with the game in an effort to, as they say, "broaden its appeal."

It used to be that for about the last three months of summer, all eyes were on the pennant race. All summer, teams would be playing their hearts out, methodically trying to inch their way up the division standings and earn a shot at the Series.

That's gone now, killed by one of the owners' bright ideas called "realignment," which chopped a few teams out of each league's East and West Divisions to create something called the "Central." Now, because there are three divisions instead of two, the only late-summer race worthy of note is for the Wild Card playoff spot.

Or put another way: the race is for fourth place.

Now there's something to root for. Hoo-friggin-ray.

And more than ever -- just like any other pro sport -- it's all about money. Forget about Murderer's Row batting lineups -- today's heavy hitters are free agency, multimillion-dollar contracts, revenue streams and merchandising. Hell, a few years back they even killed the World Series over a money squabble. And a lot of fans never forgave them.

So what do the owners do next? Figuring they need something to lure the fans back, they embark on a city-by-city campaign to get new, "state-of-the-art," publicly funded stadiums for each franchise.

Have you ever visited one of these new, "state-of-the-art" facilities? My favorite example is Bank One Ballpark, the downtown-Phoenix home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It's new, it's huge, it's expensive. The game of baseball is merely incidental to the experience of visiting the stadium.

You're protected from the elements by a retractable roof and air conditioning. You have your choice of several sports bars and franchise restaurants right on-site, including a TGIFridays (just like the one in your neighborhood, except that a cut of your tab goes to the team owners) that occupies the right-field upper deck. You have a clear view of the hot tub in right center, where a lucky group of fans can win the chance to spend the game soaking in some company's marketing plan. You're treated to an unobstructed view of several three-story-high corporate logos surrounding the scoreboard and good stereo sound in each seat. And you can't mention the stadium's name without taking on advertising duties for one of the country's largest financial institutions.

Outside, beneath corporate logos numbering in the double-digits, there's a quaint statue of a Diamondbacks player standing before a mother and two children. Between the player and the mom, a brass replica of home plate bears the inscription, "Arizona Diamondbacks Mission Statement." The words speak lovingly about providing a superior baseball tradition for the people of Arizona, even though the franchise isn't old enough to be out of day care.

And there are no cheap seats.

To a purist like me, Bank One Ballpark is a vision of hell. It takes everything baseball was supposed to be and turns it into a marketing vehicle, with plenty of revenue streams flowing right into the owners' pockets.

I find it ironic that despite building such an ornate cathedral to the Church of Corporation and despite having stratospheric attendance figures, the Diamondbacks franchise is still bleeding cash. They may have remembered to set up as many revenue streams as possible, but on the way there they forgot what baseball is all about.

Baseball is not about mission statements. It's not about good sound. It's not about chain restaurants in the upper deck. It's not about retractable domes. And sure as hell, it's not about supplying sets of eyes to view corporate logos.

It's about being in a rusty old ballpark and hearing the announcer's voice -- muffled by a really horrible sound system -- echoing off neighborhood homes. It's about being a fan of the team, instead of a contributor to the franchise. It's about hearing the rattle of a mechanical scoreboard every time someone gets a base hit. It's about enjoying the romance, the history and the sense of democracy that is true baseball. It's about sitting outside in the bleachers with blue sky above, friendly fans all around, a future Hall-of-Famer in right field, a Hebrew National brat in one hand and an Old Style in the other.

Is this Heaven? No, it's Wrigley. 

Period Piece

(Another ancient and perhaps humorous essay, originally published in April 2001.)

Okay guys, be honest: How many times has this happened to you?

It's an otherwise typical evening. You walk in the door, carrying a bag of your lady's favorite tasty take-out food for two, only to find that she's gotten home just a few minutes ahead of you.

"Hi honey," you sing in melodic tones straight from a 60s family sitcom. "How's your day?"

"How come you didn't call me at noon?" she asks, unseen, lurking around the hallway corner like a predator ready to pounce.

You think back to lunch hour, and remember how that one client called you with a last-second crisis. You decided to delay lunch briefly to handle the problem, but when you called your lady's office number -- at about three minutes after noon -- you got only her voice mail and left her a message.

"Didn't you get my voice mail?" you ask sheepishly, still not seeing her around the corner.

"I thought you were going to call me at noon," she says in a voice equal parts whine and growl, rounding the corner like an ocelot on the hunt. "I got so impatient waiting for your call that I just went off to lunch. That's so inconsiderate, and unthinking, and uncaring, and it just pisses me off because everyone else's guy manages to call them every day and some even get flowers once in a while and a few even get taken to lunch now and then, but me? No. I have to put up with a lazy, slobby, inconsiderate guy whose stubble hurts me every time I kiss him and who can't cut his toenails and when he does cut 'em he leaves clippings all over the house and never picks anything up and NEVER takes care of dinner…"

Noticing the take-out bag, she suddenly stops, closes her eyes, rubs her brow and issues a heavy sigh. "I hope you brought home something salty."

Sound familiar, gents? Grab your helmets and Kevlar, boys, you've entered another dimension. A dimension not only of irritability and impatience, but also of salt-and-chocolate cravings. It's time once again for that monthly test of your chivalry. The signpost ahead says, "Next stop: The PMS Zone."

Boys, you don't need me to tell you this -- indeed, what's a 6-foot-4, 240-pound barely evolved gorilla like me doing writing about PMS, anyway? -- but just in case you think you're imagining all of this, think again. 

It's not all in your head. The chances are good that no matter how much you love her, cherish her and adore her, your beloved Julie Jekyll is going to turn into a temporarily insane, salt-and-chocolate-seeking cranky Miss Hyde a couple of days every month.

Want proof? Look to the arts. Remember that line from As Good As It Gets, where Jack Nicholson's character described women by saying, "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability?" What do you think inspired that line, anyway? Normal, 25-days-every-month behavior?

For another example, how about Shawn Colvin's hit song from a couple of years back, "Sunny Came Home?" In it, Sunny decides to effect "a few small repairs" by burning her house to the ground for no apparent reason. To those who blamed PMS for Sunny's behavior, I can only say, "Gee, ya think?"

Ladies, please don't think that I'm making light of your predicament. I can assure you most solemnly that men suffer from exactly the same symptoms. Curiously, we get them at exactly the same time -- but for different reasons. Irritability? It's contagious. Tension? Ditto. Bloating and water-weight gain? Yes, we found the salty-snack stash, and my, it looked tasty. Cramps and tenderness? Honey, when you're feeling cranky, could you do something other than elbow me in the gut?

Of course, you do what you can to relieve the symptoms. For typical guys, symptom relief involves finding a safe place to hide, preferably with a lock on the door. That's why God invented dens.

Or, if you’re a really good guy, you may try to alleviate the problem by helping the love of your life to find a little relief. You'll fill hot water bottles. You'll keep a box of Midol handy. You'll rub her back, her shoulders, her feet. You'll listen to her ravings without laughing or getting offended. You'll lay out her "fat clothes" for her without ever letting on that you know what "fat clothes" are.

And guys, if you're at all handy in the kitchen, it takes only a few minutes to make a little melted-chocolate and pretzel-stick snack to satisfy her PMS-induced cravings. Feeling creative? Try arranging the pretzel sticks into little stick figures before slathering on the melted chocolate. She'll giggle, and she'll get to satisfy that deep-seated urge to bite the head off something.

But of course, when the moment comes, only the most special of guys will brave their fears and do what no man should ever be expected to do. It involves making that run to the local drugstore and facing "The Wall."

What's "The Wall," you ask? At last count, in the feminine-care aisle of your average Walgreen's, there were approximately 4,000 varieties and 360,000 possible permutations of products available. Scented. Unscented. Plastic. Cardboard. Flushable. Disposable. Maxis. Minis. Liners. Wings. No wings. One, two or three adhesive strips. Belted -- yipes. Light days. Medium days. Heavy days. Apocalypse.

Do the math. With so many varieties available, and even if the store has only three boxes of each variety available, successful pad shopping can be as impossible as finding a specific brick in The Great Wall of China. Face "The Wall" for the first time and you'll stand there, stroking your stubbly chin and looking completely dumbfounded until you ask for directions. And guys, you know how we are about that.

I've been there. Gentlemen, should you decide to brave The Wall, I have only two survival tips to offer.

Second, after you've found the One True Box of that desired feminine-care product and you're going through the checkout, when you get the funny look from the cashier, just wink and say, "C'mon, they're for me."

But first, before ever facing The Wall, make sure you know exactly what it is you're looking for. Have your lady provide written instructions, if possible -- brand, scented or unscented, with wings or without, plastic or cardboard, color of the box, shelf location, everything. Remember, if your love wants you to make "the run," she's probably feeling really rotten, irritable, cranky. The risk you take is in bringing home the wrong item.

"Hi honey," you'll sing in melodic tones straight from a 60s family sitcom. "I think I got what you wanted -- the 20-pack of Playtex flushable scented three-adhesive-strip minis with comfort-wrap, dry-weave and wings, in the pink box."

"I wanted the unscented," she'll say in a voice equal parts whine and growl. "That's so inconsiderate, and unthinking, and uncaring, and it just pisses me off because everyone else's guy manages to get it right and some even get flowers once in a while and a few even get taken to lunch now and then, but me? No..."