Travel makes epiphanies

HoF

This summer, our family took its first pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. As anyone who’s made the trek can tell you, it takes determined intent. You don’t drive by Cooperstown on the way to somewhere else. It’s about 200 miles northwest of New York City, 250 miles west of Boston and, not to mention, about 2500 miles east of our hometown, San Francisco.

We went because (a) we’re all baseball fans, (b) since the focus of the trip was touring colleges for our daughter, we felt our son deserved a destination he’d more fully appreciate [He’s 14 and he sat through an intimate hour-long conversation with the admissions director of Bryn Mawr without complaint. Nothing less than heroic.], and (c) a visit to the shrine of baseball seemed an appropriately American thing to do.

The Hall itself didn’t disappoint us – we walked through beautiful and well-curated exhibits and saw artifacts from our favorite players and teams. Nor did Cooperstown, which was quaint and naturally beautiful. But it was a serendipitous and overheard conversation at dinner that made the greatest impression and will always stick with me.

We went to Cooperstown’s Alex & Ika, a wonderfully unique place to eat, and had to sit at the bar because it was so crowded. Happened to sit next to two women, one younger and Japanese, the other older and white, sharing some awesome-looking appetizers. They were having an intense conversation and, for once, my habitual eavesdropping paid off. The younger woman had a very good command of English, although it was heavily accented. She was a student at Williams College, itself a two-hour drive, or several-hour bus ride to the east [As I said, you don’t drive by Cooperstown on the way to anywhere.].

She’d come to Cooperstown right before the start of her fall semester specifically to see the Hall of Fame. Turns out she knew a lot about our ‘national passtime’ and very much wanted to better appreciate the quintessentially American game.  And she knew and wanted to see all the Japanese players who had exhibits or artifacts in the hall – Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideo Nomo and, of course, Ichiro Suzuki – and mentioned them reverently by name. For her, a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed a trip of devotion and respect, not just for baseball or the players who represented the Japanese game but also for America.

What a great testament, was that pilgrimage, not just to this woman’s spirit, and her dedication to her home country and its long baseball heritage, but to the beauty of this country as well, and its generation-after-generation attraction of people to its shores, for the fulfillment of whatever driving purpose.

IKA

I’m Not YOUR Brave

The other night, our family went to San Francisco’s AT&T Park to see the hometown baseball Giants play Atlanta’s team, the Braves. At the statue of Willie Mays that greets visitors at the park’s main gate, a group representing the American Indian Movement (AIM) held a banner, chanted slogans and talked with people waiting to enter.

Here was their message: the use of Indian imagery by sports teams continues to offend Native Americans. Major League Baseball trades – that is to say earns money from names, merchandise, caricatures – on things that aren’t their property to use. Furthermore, they are false and demeaning to the people whose lives are the actual basis for them.

The most vocal of the AIM members made the point directly and clearly: “I don’t want to be your mascot. I’m not a MASCOT. I’m a man.”

They were upset by the team’s continuing use of the Braves name, icons reflecting a sort of generic understanding of Native American culture, mascot, “war chant,” tomahawk gift items, and so on.

As ESPN’s Paul Lukas said in a recent post, it may be well past time for our professional sports teams to lose the Native American names, mascots and imagery.

Redskins (see below), the name of the football team playing in our nation’s capital, is an offensive term for Native American. The Chief Wahoo mascot (above) of the Cleveland Indians baseball club is an offensive caricature. Ersatz “war chants” used by the Braves, as well as the Florida State University Seminoles are a bastardization of what is actually a sacred tribal moment.

If team names continue to offend ethnicities, nationalities, or religious traditions, they simply must go. Few, if any, other ethnicities would stand for such ubiquitous and lasting abuse. A graphic (below) by the National Congress of American Indians makes the point fairly, I’d say.

No Heroes of Mine

We go through it routinely, this cycle. Whether through typically purposeful media hype or other more organic mechanisms, we inflate celebrities to the status of heroes. Then comes the inevitable, but somehow surprising fall of these faux heroes due to their completely predictable human failings.

Maybe the problem lies, not with those we’ve chosen to elevate, but with ourselves and our choices of heroes.

After all, what is it we think a hero is?

A hero is not someone who just does extraordinary feats. If that were true, every circus freak would be a hero. No, a hero is someone who does extraordinary feats: (1) while exposing themselves to risk (physical, emotional, to their reputations) or danger; and (2) doing so in order to benefit others. Examples might include, exploring previously undiscovered places, saving others in time of war, or teaching girls to read in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

By that definition, and I say this as a dedicated fan of sport, there is nothing inherently heroic about athletics; athletics being simply being a category of popular entertainment.

The latest revelations about Lance Armstrong have led to a by-now typical round of hand-wringing about the loss of our “heroes.” At this late date, anyone – and I mean anyone – who holds sports personalities as heroes must be: (1) a child, (2) hopelessly ignorant, or (3) both blind and deaf.

Since 1998, more than a third of the top finishers of the Tour de France have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their careers or have been officially linked to doping.

Major-league baseball’s latest, but by no means only high-profile cheaters, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon. Colon was having a solid year and Cabrera was selected MVP of the All-Star game before being caught taking banned performance enhancing substances.

In previous years, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Manny Ramirez were all-star baseball players who used banned drugs.

Olympian and universally-beloved “golden girl” Marion Jones admitted to using steroids.

Want real heroes? Find people worthy of the title.

At the age of 32, Physicist Sally Ride became an astronaut and was the first American woman to orbit the earth. Marine sergeant and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer risked his own life to save 13 US troops and 23 Afghan soldiers by providing the cover in a firefight necessary for their escape. Mohandas Gandhi exposed himself to prison, beatings and ridicule in his fight for Indian rights and independence.

Barry Bonds and his ilk, pardon the expression, aren’t even in the same league.

As long as we continue to elevate entertainment personalities, both athletes and others, to the status of heroes, we’ll continue to go through this wrenching but, in the end, essentially empty and meaningless cycle of apotheosis and public destruction.

This Post Is Not (Just) About Sports

If you know or care anything about baseball, professional sports, or the San Francisco Giants, if you’ve watched the news or read a newspaper in the last day, if you pay attention to issues like the use of performance enhancing drugs, you already know about Melky Cabrera.

For those who don’t, here’s the 30-second version:

Melky Cabrera is a professional baseball player for the San Francisco Giants. He was having a stellar year, leading the National League in hits and being selected the Most Valuable Player in professional baseball’s all-star game earlier this summer. Yesterday, the league suspended him for taking performance enhancing drugs, a clear violation of league policy. As a result, during a particularly critical moment in the season, his team will be without his services.

Simple, right? Cabrera cheated, got caught, pays the consequences.

Not so simple, as it turns out.

His teammates pay a pretty steep price for trusting him. They go into their final drive for the pennant (trying to win their league’s championship) without a big piece of their team. In interviews with other Giants, you could see the betrayal on their faces, in their words and halting speech.

Fans, too, have every right to their anger and disappointment. The team itself? Sure. Vendors, stores selling Giants merchandise, restaurants and bars around the park? Yes, them too.

Turns out, Cabrera’s decision to use banned drugs was anything but personal. His deliberate cheating affected a great many people.

And here’s why this is not (just) a sports story. We have, in recent times, seen many examples of public figures choosing to engage in self-damaging behavior that causes widespread ‘collateral damage’ as well. Sandusky/Paterno/Penn State is simply the latest and best known example in a very long and very sad history.

My professional life involves helping people and institutions in moments like these. I have seen firsthand the damage people can leave in their wakes, sometimes quite blithely. Melky Cabrera is a successful professional athlete, so we can watch the pain he’s inflicted on others in the newspapers, on television and playing fields.

Other cheaters do their damage in darker, quieter places.

The Best I’ve Ever Seen

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. I have selected the one person I believe to be the best ever at their position. Why create this list? Because I’m a huge baseball fan and I’m getting excited about the start of the season. My basic rule going in: I have only picked players I have seen with my own eyes, meaning in person.

If you think other players are better, say so. There’s a comment section at the bottom of this post. So, use it.

Here we go…

Pitcher (Starting): Tom Seaver, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox (1967-1986)

Strength, stamina, brains. Tom Seaver was an absolute warhorse on the mound. The singularly dominant force of his era, as he would have been in any era. Still remembered and loved. And a great ambassador for the game.

Pitcher (Reliever): Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees (1995-present)

At his peak, Rivera was as close to an automatic shut-down as is possible in baseball. Total command of his pitches and any situation in which he found himself. Definition of a ‘closer.’ Call him in from the bullpen and it’s over, baby. Fierce. Close seconds? Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers (points for the ‘stache), Brian Wilson (at his best, he’s fearsome).

Catcher: Johnny Bench, Cincinnati Reds (1967-1983)

As great at the plate as he was behind it. A huge part of the storied ‘Big Red Machine.’ Better, to my mind, than Piazza, Fisk, Carter. Had I seen Berra play in person, we might have had a contest.

1st Base: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2001-present)

Pujols, still an active player, is a force to be reckoned with. He closely beats out the universally-beloved Willie McCovey.

2nd Base: Joe Morgan, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland A’s (1963-1984)

Morgan earns this spot over Jeff Kent, although Kent was better at the plate, because of his brains, his fielding and his leadership.

3rd Base: George Brett, Kansas City Royals (1973-1993)

Tough competition here. Brett takes this position over Mike Schmidt mostly because I had the chance to drink with Brett once (in Chicago) and never did with Schmidt.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Jr. Baltimore Orioles (1981-2001)

Ripken’s longevity amazes still. His leadership, steadiness and abilities were something special. What’s that, Ozzie Smith was a defensive wizard? Sure. A-Rod? Jeter? Why don’t you just make your own list?

Left Field: Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox (1961-1983)

Only one generation removed from the legendary Ted Williams; had I seen Williams play in person, he’d be on this list. Playing his entire career in the shadow of the Green Monster, Yaz earned this spot. And, before anyone asks, Barry Bonds was a far distant second.

Center Field: Willie Mays, New York and San Francisco Giants, New York Mets (1951-1973)

What superlatives can you use? Which do you need? Mays was not only the greatest person I’ve ever seen play center field, not only the greatest person I’ve ever seen play baseball. Willie Mays was the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen play anything. No contest.

Right Field: Hank Aaron, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers (1954-1976)

Aaron was the first person to break Babe Ruth’s home run record (without even the hint of performance-enhancing drugs) and was an All-Star every single year between 1955 and 1975. Speedy (in his earlier years) and powerful. Class act.

Looking for Real

What may seem like a short detour…

There’s one historic bar in the Union Square district of San Francisco (actually, there are hundreds, but I’m talking about one historic bar in particular), called The Gold Dust Lounge, that’s served drinks to a quintessential only-in-San Francisco crowd of sailors, businesspeople, visitors and neighbors for generations.  Its landlords have recently announced a plan to kick it out in favor of a national chain clothing store.

Now, The Gold Dust Lounge hasn’t been the city’s most popular bar for ages, but the plan pissed a lot of people off, resulting in petitions, protests, online and social media tempests, etc. The question is, why did all these people suddenly get interested in a bar few had ever been to, fewer still had been to in years?

I believe it’s because we’re in a state of national authenticity deficit. Everything we buy, eat, watch, or otherwise consume comes from some centralized corporate authority. Our cities are all filled with the same national chain stores and restaurants. We watch non-locally produced entertainment on movie and TV screens. Even amateur-generated online clips are seen by so many people and follow so few memes, they seem mass-produced.

We’re in a search for the authentic, for the real, wherever we can find it – and it seems downright offensive to shutter a real, honest-to-goodness bar so yet another national chain store that sells the same old jeans can move in.

Think about baseball – America’s self-declared pastime – for a second.

Attendance for Major League Baseball has declined for three straight years, while attendance at Spring Training has grown over the same period.

Those big, corporate-namesake stadiums, filled with untouchable millionaires, are drawing fewer of our fellow Americans.

At the same time, more people are going to Spring Training games, where a bit of baseball’s old vibe still exists. At Spring Training, it’s still possible to get close to players, talk with them before and after games, shake their hands, see them up close – the way fans used to in the majors but aren’t able to anymore.

It used to be that ballplayers would live in the town they played in. They’d be seen and known around the neighborhood. They’d stay with a team a long time. They’d be part of team (and town) identity. Whether playing at the Polo Grounds (or later, at Candlestick Park), or stickball with neighborhood kids in the street, Willie Mays was a real Giant.

If I were to advise baseball, or landlords for that matter, about growing a market in these times, I’d say, keep it real. Not that they’ve asked.