Thursday, May 25, 2006

After the Rain Has Fallen

Early last week, while I was still snuggled in my bed, a light rain came down. Later that morning, when I went out to check on my garden--planted about ten days earlier--I discovered that everything had popped up. I had three rows of corn sprouts (on the left), and three rows of beans (on the right). Half a row of lettuce had emerged. (I'll plant more in a week or so.) The plants in the middle are tomatoes which I put in as small plants. The only thing that hadn't appeared were the carrots, but they're out now. It's not a very big garden (88 sq. ft.), but it is the first I've planted since we moved in about 9 months ago.

What a great surprise.

More important garden updates later.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Barry and the Babe: Baseball's Odd Couple

Over the weekend, Barry Bonds drew even with Babe Ruth on the lifetime home run list. Bonds hit number 714 in Oakland off Athletics pitcher Brad Halsey, ending a two-week long vigil.

Though Bonds and Ruth are the only Major League players--along with leader Henry Aaron at 755--to have hit 700 or more dingers, the two occupy very different places in the hearts of fans. (All three, however, rank far behind Sadaharu Oh, the Japanese Professional League career leader with 868 home runs.) Ruth is a beloved icon, seen as an affable man who would rush to the bedside of a sick child at a moment's notice. Bonds is reviled by many, seen as a selfish man who would eat his own young.

Certainly, neither image represents the real human being. Why, though, have these men attracted such different mythologies when both gained near godlike status for doing the exact same thing, namely, hitting baseballs out of the park?

One reason is that Ruth is dead, and Bonds is not. It is easier to love a dead man than one who beats your favorite team on a regular basis. The Babe's legend could only reach its zenith after his death. When Bonds has been gone for a generation or two, he will also likely be remembered much more fondly. Also, during Ruth's time, the media had a much different type of relationship with professional athletes. Today's media-player relations are much more adversarial.

A second reason is racism. There are Americans who chafe at the idea of a strong, confident black man equaling the feat of a white hero from a Golden Age of Major League baseball (an age during which black players were excluded). Even if Bonds were a saint, some would begrudge his success. Aaron, who seems to have been much more likeable--though, like Bonds, reserved--endured an intense amount of violent racism, especially as he approached Ruth's home run mark.

Bonds and Ruth also seem to lie at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Our contemporary image of Ruth is that he was a people person. He was the life of the party. His digestive feats and womanizing are as legendary as his hitting records. He could hit home runs at will for sick children and call his shots.

Bonds, though, gives off a different vibe. He is quiet, does not warm to the media circus that surrounds him, and does not seem to care whether you are his friend or his enemy. He is intense and focused on his job. While Ruth tanked up on hot dogs and beer, Bonds has a personal trainer to keep him in line.

Since our personal psychologies are often rooted in our childhood, I began to think about what made these two ballplayers such different people. A possible answer developed pretty quickly. It is easy to imagine that Ruth was always on the search for love and acceptance. He grew up in a Baltimore orphanage, and may have craved the kind of belonging that many families provide.

When Ruth excelled at baseball, first as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, and then later as the primary bomber for the New York Yankees, he received the kind of affection and attention that would have been missing in an orphanage. His partying and multiple affairs with women can also be seen as symptoms of a near desperate search for affirmation. He may have come off as a clown, but he was loved.

Bonds, on the other hand, grew up the son of a Major League star. His father, Bobby Bonds, played for eight teams from 1968 to 1981. The elder Bonds also combined power and speed. He was an all-star three times, and won three Gold Gloves.

Though one possible reaction to growing up as the son of a star is fear of failure, fear of measuring up, another possible reaction is supreme confidence. Barry saw that his father was loved (and sometimes treated poorly) by fans, and may have seen that celebrity as a natural part of life. He grew up with Willie Mays--perhaps the best ballplayer in history--as his godfather. Bonds may have received the affirmation that Ruth never found as a youngster. Would Bonds see his role in life as privileged, or would he simply learn a type of supreme confidence most of us never know?

Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth are indeed the Odd Couple of baseball. Bonds is the fastidious Felix, and Ruth is the slovenly Oscar. If they had played together, they would probably have ended up as roommates and become lifelong friends, Bonds in left field, Ruth in right. The Babe would have become godfather to Bond's children. Bonds would have cleaned up Ruth's hot dog wrappers from the dugout in an obsessive frenzy, and Ruth would have put eyeblack around the headband of Barry's hat. Yet for the moment, they only share one thing: the number 714.

And what about my personal opinion of Bonds, you may ask? As a ballplayer, I don't like him. The Giants aren't my team, and so he's the enemy. I do not know him personally, but do not like what I have seen. He does appear to be somewhat selfish and surly. Yet, it isn't my place to judge him (though that's what I just did!). Regardless of what type of person he is, it is a terrible thing to wish him harm or to behave abusively toward him.

Even if it is proven that Bonds used steroids, I admit that he has exceptional talent. The man is a professional and works hard to improve and perform at a high level. I admire him for that.

But come on, Barry, give us a smile now and again. It would make life a lot easier for you.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Midsummer Life's Dream

Every day, I expect the gremlin known as the Midlife Crisis to be sneaking up on me. Perhaps my secretary will slip it into the inbox on my desk. Or maybe I'll be rummaging through my kid's room looking for the television remote, and I'll spy it underneath the bed. (And hey! That's my hammer under there. I've been looking for that for months.) One of these days, my attention will be diverted to something else--such as wondering about that smoke coming from beneath the hood of my car--and whammo! I'll get hit by the Midlife Crisis gremlin.

It is clear what sparks the emotional freefall that leads to a midlife crisis: it's the first time in your life that you realize you're gonna die. It is no longer an intellectual understanding--we're all part of the circle of life and all that other Disney crap. I'm gonna die. I can feel it in my bones. I no longer feel as if my body can do anything and everything, even though I abuse it.

It all started when I began to feel aches and pains in my knees after playing basketball. That was easy to explain away. Then, a few stray hairs started to grow on my ears and shoulders. It wasn't enough to cause panic. My back occasionally got stiff and sore. Sometimes the words that came out of my mouth sounded exactly like something my father would say. I told myself that none of those things were signs of aging--just little quirks.

Probably the first time I began to doubt my own immortality was when I heard a young woman call U2 an "old" band. And then, one day I yanked too hard on my lower back and felt a sharp pain. I limped around for nearly a week. The first few days were agony. "Uh oh," I thought.

About a three weeks ago, I came as close to seeing the gremlin as I ever have. I had just gotten my hair cut and was looking in the mirror. And there it was! On each side of my head, just at the temple, was a single gray hair. No longer could I deny the real truth: the gremlin is breathing down my neck. My body is changing in ways that only happen to old people.

For the last several years, it has been easy enough for me to convince myself that I am still in the Spring of my life, even if Spring is nearly gone. But now, it has become all too clear: Summer has arrived. And I think it's gonna be hot.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Pass the Sugarland, Please

My current favorite new song is Sugarland's "Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good)" from their album Twice the Speed of Life. I think "sultry" is a fair word to describe Atlanta girl Jennifer Nettles, don't you?

So, now if anyone asks, not that they would
I'll be down in Mississippi and up to no good.

Fifteen for Obscurity

In the spirit of the true Long Reliever, I present a list of the Fifteen Most Obscure Baseball Players of All Time. The list comes courtesy of Jonathan Comey of the Massachusetts paper SouthCoastToday. The entire article can be found here.

15. Ned Yost, catcher. Ned's given name is Edgar.

14. Johnny Dickshot, outfield. Yes, "Dickshot." You can look it up.

13. General Crowder, pitcher. "General" is much better than "Dickshot." Plus, Dickshot's nickname was "Ugly."

12. Andres Mora, utility. Utility? Was he a kitchen knife or a baseball player? The ability to play a number of positions, though, can keep a guy with marginal talent around a lot longer than a specialist.

11. Stubby Magner, outfield. I'll bet Stubby was glad his last name wasn't "Dickshot."

10. Dutch Zwilling, outfield. Among all hitters, Zwilling ranks last alphabetcially.

9. Bob Smith, pitcher. This 1920s and '30s era pitcher's best friend was a catcher named John Doe. (You don't really believe that, do you?)

8 and 7. Bob Smith, pitcher and Bob Smith, pitcher. These two were both pitchers in the Major Leagues during the 1959 season. They had a combined 0-4 record that year. Neither pitcher made it to the 1960 season.

6. Ed Hug, catcher. Huggie was the position player's equivalent of the Long Reliever. He had only one plate appearance in his career. The result? A walk. He didn't even have a nickname. How sad is that?

5. Mike Tyson, infield. Only his name separates him from total obscurity.

4. Howard Ehmke, pitcher. Won 166 and lost 166.

3. Dave Rozema, pitcher. Dave and Kirk Gibson married twin sisters.

2. Dave Brain, shortstop. Aside from the great name, he led the National League in home runs with 10 in 1907. The next season he had 9 hits total.

1. Terry Felton, pitcher. This Texarkana boy had a career record of 0-16. His nickname must have been "Dickshot."

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

First Things First

The first thing you need to know about me is simple: I'm an asshole.


I am frequently selfish, proud and arrogant. I tend to think I am better than other people. (I know, though, that I'm not. I just like to pretend.) I can get damn impatient, too.

In my stupidity and asshole-ness I messed up my first marriage, inflicting terrible pain on my ex-wife, my young son and everyone else I trampled along the way. That "everyone else" includes a very good friend and colleague. You see, I had an affair with his wife. Oh yes, I'm an asshole.

And what did I get as a result? How was I punished by those I loved and by the Fates? I received only minor consequences. I escaped with a small amount of emotional turmoil. And, of course, the knowledge--and I remember it each and every day--that I am an asshole.

Despite everything, my ex-wife has treated me with kindness and forgiveness. Likewise, my friend never displayed an ounce of anger towards me, even though I know he felt it. Even today, we remain on good terms and can laugh and joke together. I wasn't financially hurt by the divorce. My ex felt from the beginning that joint custody of our son was the best for him, and she never used terms of the divorce to get revenge.

On top of all that, I soon--much sooner than I thought I wanted--found love again. I am now married to a wonderful woman who brought two great daughters into my life. My ex-wife lives with a relative in a two-bedroom apartment. I have a home and a loving family to surround me. It's not fair. I'm an asshole.

I guess guilt is a consequence, right?

Monday, May 15, 2006

What Happens When the Starter Gets Bombed?

When the starting pitcher can't get it done, on one of those days when his curveball is flat and his fastball doesn't move, his team is down several runs before they even come to bat. That's when the forgotten players in the bullpen--the ones nobody cares about--get loose. It is their time to shine...or at least to get in the game and work a few innings in a game that has lost all interest.

Long relief is different from middle relief. A middle reliever's job is to bridge the gap between starter and closer. It is assumed he'll pitch effectively and turn a lead over to the guy who finishes. A long reliever is often a journeyman with marginal skills. He simply hangs on as long as his tired arm will throw one more pitch. I imagine these guys really love the game or they wouldn't have the discipline to work hard during the year just to be ready to pitch in meaningless games.

So why a blog about long relief? It's not actually a blog about baseball, but about this time in my life that feels like long relief--there is a hell of a lot of blood and sweat, but the crowd is silent. Most of 'em went home already. I wonder often whether there is any meaning in what I am doing on this earth or in the career I have been pursuing for nearly 15 years. Sounds exactly like a midlife crisis, doesn't it?

Yet I keep plugging away, working hard and struggling just to stay with the big club because I love the game. There is so much in this life that still thrills me, keeps me coming to the park day in and day out. My big fear is that I'll never make a real contribution to the team beyond eating up innings--slogging through the paperwork on my desk, getting the kids to their next appointment, sweeping leaves from the driveway that will just reappear by the next morning.

My hope is that you'll hang out with me in the bullpen for a while. All I really want is to talk about what I see out there--both the beauty and the drudgery. I don't expect anything more from a reader, but if you've got advice, that's good, too. I'm always ready to learn that next trick that will push me to the next level, that perfect change up that will get the batter way out in front.

Long relief may not be glamorous, but damn, you gotta love the game.