Centerfield

Centerfield

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone – the sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.

Oh, put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be Centerfield.

~ John Fogerty, Centerfield

During a game, the coach called one of his 9-year-old baseball players aside and asked, “Do you understand what cooperation is?  What a team is?”  The little boy nodded.  “Do you understand that what matters is whether we win or lose together as a team?”  The little boy nodded.  “So,” the coach continued, “I’m sure you know, when an out is called, you shouldn’t argue, curse, attack the umpire or call him a butt-head.  Do you understand all that?”  Again the little boy nodded.  The coach continued, “And when I take you out of the game so another boy gets a chance to play, it’s not good sportsmanship to call your coach a dumb ass, is it?”  Again the little boy nodded.  “Good,” said the coach.  “Now go over there and explain all that to your dad in the stands.”

It’s baseball season.  Once again, I have decided to join the ranks of the volunteer coaches of New Canaan Cal Ripken Baseball.  I am already starting to behave oddly at home.  I yelled “slide” to my eight-year-old as he ran to greet me at the door the other day.  I asked my wife if it would be okay to buy a radar gun.  “We could clock all kinds of things – how fast the kids get out to the bus in the morning, how quickly they come to dinner when we call.  We could increase their allowance when they beat certain time thresholds…”  She gave me that “you are a very troubled person” look.  The sad truth is that I cannot resist the draw of those bats, balls and battle.  It just doesn’t feel like April unless once again wrestle 11 other committed Dads for bragging rights.

Coaching is a catharsis.  It’s the ultimate opportunity to be of service and help shape kids.  It is also a mirror for self-reflection and, if done properly, lays a foundation for kids to grow into young adults.  If done poorly, coaching can be a demoralizing experience for a child, a source of constant tension for parents and a Greek tragedy for the fatally flawed but well intentioned coach.  When Reverend Joe Ehrmann came to New Canaan last fall, many coaches were introduced to the book about Joe, Seasons of Life.  For some, it was given as a gift or a stocking stuffer.  For others, it was left surreptitiously on a front door step or, in a few cases, tied to a rock and hurled through a living room window.

Joe’s message is priceless: each kid is a treasure trove of possibility and sports is a stage where we can discover each child’s potential.  Coaches can cultivate each player to become a more confident and engaged citizen of our community and to build self-esteem, which is the oxygen that fuels adolescence.  I realize this is innate stuff to a lot of people who work with kids.  Yet for others, including myself, Ehrmann’s talk was a great reminder.

There are coaches (and yes, I am one of them) who occasionally forget it’s just a game and become a little obsessed with winning.  It’s sort of like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where two alpha males make eye contact across the watering hole (in this case the baseball diamond).  I can almost see his antlers growing.  I scratch the ground with my cleat.  He picks up a bat and takes a few half swings.  The rut is on.  It’s a curse, really, thinking when the other coach goes home at night they’re calculating batting averages and comparing first to second base sprint times, instead of catching up on bills or reading.  Each season there’s always one coach who “challenges my objectivity.”  Whether it’s having their runner steal second while enjoying an eight-run lead or invoking some double secret rule like the “Speed of Play” clause from the Cal Ripken Official rules book that I get handed every year but never read.  (I actually think the “Speed of Play” rule was first created by the French in the UN to prevent the US from taking over committee meetings.)

I know I should not be so competitive.  There’s just something about that mixture of red dirt, chalk, and eye black that makes a guy a little, how should we say, less spiritual?  I’ve had to learn the key to being a good coach is to realize that it’s not about me.  It’s not about the parents.  It’s about every kid I’ve been entrusted with – every single one.  It means taking pride in each kid’s progress and teaching something new.  It means telling them the story about when I was a kid and how I pretended to go to football practice but would instead hide in the bushes, in full pads, smear dirt on my pants and wait for two hours before going home, hoping a passing dog wouldn’t lift his leg on my hiding place.  It’s me remembering when my son makes an error or strikes out and looks at me that I do not cringe, shake my head or make a face but smile and clap and say “go get ’em.”  It’s finding humor in everything.  Whether it’s a food shack listed in Zagats and rumored to be selling foie gras or the way people park their cars at Mead Park as if they have spilled an extra hot latte in their lap.

We all want our children to respect one another, try their best, work hard, and come back to play another year.  We need to remember that great television commercial that appears during most NCAA games: “There are 30,000 athletes in American universities and most of them will go pro in something other than sports.”  It’s a great time of year…the smell of freshly cut grass, chalk lines faithfully edged around a red dust diamond, and the sharp ping of a well hit line drive mixing with the roar of a hometown crowd.  Somewhere a kid rounds third base and tries to beat the throw to home, while another player tugs on his/her coach’s arm and yells, “hey coach, put me in .  I want to play centerfield.”

Golf Rules

Caddyshack
Image via Wikipedia

We learn about life playing games. Sports reveal much about ourselves, our fellow man, our characters and which of us should be allowed to work with children and the elderly. I have learned many lessons coaxing a reluctant, dimpled ball into a 4 ¼”” cylinder.

The ancient game of golf is not simply a means to avoiding taking out the trash, but a cunning allegory for living. As with all “simple” games, following the rules of golf, living its etiquette and protocols and remembering to practice those principles in all our affairs, can prove daunting. Golf’s rules and lessons, when properly followed, can help a person accept life on life’s terms and at the same time, learn colorful swear words.

Golf is life and each public or private course presents us with a range of opportunities to excel or fail. We are confronted with hazards, rough lies and blind shots while all the while seeking the holy grail of par with chivalrous aplomb. To play the game of golf is to vacillate between anger and joy – – similar to spending four hours anywhere with a teenager. Golf offers us wisdom and perspective. We learn to interact with our fellow man, navigate the most treacherous of circumstances and win money from other people without having to cheat. Perhaps if Wall Street executives just had fulltime caddies, we would not need Sarbanes Oxley.

For those who do not play golf but are in search of a theology for living, consider the following gems mined from a life spent hitting from the woods and off hardpan.

Wait Your Turn- Some golfers play golf as if they are the only people on the course. They hit before it is their turn. They putt out that three footer ahead of you (a putt which they usually miss ) saying, ” I’ll just get this out of your way”. This behavior is not confined to the links. These are the same knuckleheads that try to cut in front of you and the mile long security line at La Guardia impatiently saying to the TSA attendant, “I have a plane to catch. “ Uh and I don’t ? These type A’s abuse the gentrified rule for improving speed of play known as “ready golf”. In many cases, there are good reasons for waiting to go until it is your turn, particularly when it comes to death and taxes. Remember that patience suggests emotional maturity and is very handy when there are five people and only four pieces of pie. We all respect someone who can wait their turn. Even the bible says, “The last shall be first”. In the end, the patient golfer wins respect and the first piece of pie in heaven.

Treat Everyone Like a Valued Caddie – Why is it that men will not ask for directions or accept the most basic input from their partners but treat as gold the advice of a bloodshot, toothless caddy named Newt? Because they believe the caddie knows more about the course than they do. In golf and life, there are those that know more about the course, the slope, the dress code and the back alleys of Norwalk than we do. Listen and learn. Asking for help is a sign of maturity. Occasionally, you may get poor advice. Don’t chastise your caddie for a bad read. Take responsibility and remember that it was you that asked that 14 year old kid who thinks Croatia is in South America for advice on the most important shot of the day. Grow up. After the round, big spender, don’t stiff your caddie. Give him/her a big tip and remember that they are not nearly as amused by your tired jokes or honored to carry your bag as you might think.

No Gimmies – Allowing yourself to be “given” a short putt distorts your handicap and puts you at future risk to miss knee knocker tap-ins when something big is on the line. Nothing in life is free and “helping” your friend or customer by giving them a short putt is setting them up to choke. Gimmies are like gateway drugs. It starts with giving each other a few putts here or there and ends up with the two of you knocking off a liquor store in Stamford. Bernard Langer and his buddy, Uwe gave one another gimmies for years and well, look what happened to Langer at the 1991 Ryder Cup?

Never Bet What You Cannot Afford to Lose And Pay Promptly– Do not wager more than .000001 of your net worth in any round of golf. If this results in the need to pay someone using currencies such as the Turkish Lira, than so be it. Money ruins things faster than a 22 year old European au pair. A person will remember the fin you never paid well into their next life. If a guy cannot honor a $5 wager, would you invest in his company?

If It’s Not Yours, Leave It – You hook a ball into the woods and are clinging to a one stroke lead. You find a ball but it is clearly not yours. The angel appears on your shoulder, “Take a lost ball penalty. Remember when you say nobody will see you cheat, you are saying you are a nobody. You will have to live with your dishonesty like a rock in your shoe. Your ball was a Titleist Pro V1, not a Calloway 3” The Devil appears on your other shoulder, “Dude, are you kidding? Your opponent would sell you and his mother to Al Qaeda for a dime and a free drop. Your buddy, Mr Foot Wedge won’t know. Hit the Calloway and beat his right wing, neo con butt”. A word of advice: Leave the Calloway where you found it and take the penalty, especially if the ball is pink.

Never Cross A Golfer’s Line – This, my friend, is the golden rule of man law. A player’s putting line is a sacrosanct, fragile thoroughfare– easily disturbed by poorly mended divots, pebbles and other forms of microscopic debris. To walk across a person’s line is the equivalent of smearing cow dung on their front door and then when caught say, “Ooops, oh, gee, sorry.” The concept of the sacred line applies to a range of other areas such as friend’s spouses, another car while driving in Rome and that Fixed Income job your buddy has at JP Morgan. Don’t cross the other guy’s line. It’s very bad form.

Say No To The Aloha Press- The “Aloha Press” is a desperate, last hole double or nothing bet and was invented by someone who now lives under the Taconic Bridge. The Aloha usually leads to double your misery. If you are getting your rear kicked, it’s usually because you are playing poorly. What is it about human beings that finds us denying 17 holes of empirical evidence for the low probability of one last hole of redemption? The concept of the desperate last gasp gamble is not new and has led CEOs to jail and to the 1995 collapse of Barings Bank when rogue trader Nick Leeson decided to gamble with the house’s money just one more time. Just say no to the Aloe.

Never Bet Against a Guy With a Nickname – Ubiquitous people with names like “Duke”, “Champ” and “Cap” never actually leave your club and sleep on chairs by the pool at night. They are paying alimony to at least three ex spouses. They got their nom de guerres on the practice green, around the course and in college. These back slapping, ambassadors of fun are not retired or independently wealthy, they are actually broke and living off of their inflated handicaps and your hard earned cabbage. Ask Michael Jordan. Unless they are your playing partner, stay away from these adolescent lost souls and don’t ever, ever fix them up with a single friend.

The games of life and golf are inexorably bound. Each day, each round and each hole offers an opportunity for redemption, reflection and reinforcement. A country club is really a microcosm of society, except everyone looks the same, wears ugly pants and cash is not accepted at the bar. In golf as in life, we can achieve happiness and avoid a ” good walk spoiled” by simply showing up on time, following the rules, asking for help, wagering only what we can afford to lose and resisting the temptation to relieve oneself behind a tree.

Simple stuff, really.

A Fair Weather Fan

A Fair Weather Fan

 

The Coliseum, Los Angeles, November, 1968 – There once was a professional football team called the Los Angles Rams.  Their owner was Carol Rosenbloom, and their head coach was George Allen.  Their defensive front line was known as the “Fearsome Foursome”, anchored by future hall of famers, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen. The D line of Jones, Greier, Lundy and Olsen literally ate quarterback alive.  My favorite player was “The Deacon” who owned the nickname, “Minister of Defense” well before it was attributed to other NFL stars.  The Deacon had perfected a technique known as the head slap, a tactic that would stun offensive lineman while he used his speed to race into the backfield. I regularly utilized this move on my younger brother and friends in pick up football.  The head slap was outlawed both in the NFL, our home and on the local sand lot around 1972.

 

Very few people were true Ram fanatics.  Most were fair weather fans – – fickle and aloof, choosing only to get off the beaches or tennis courts when an LA team was at least several games above .500 or had made the playoffs.  During the season, the LA Coliseum was filled with a harder core working class who faithfully followed their team.  They were the nucleus of the team’s support – – true Ram fanatics.  Once an LA team made the playoffs, the stands would transform from blue collar to thin wristed, tan metro-sexuals with sweaters tied around their shoulders driving BMWs and lugging picnic baskets full of wine spritzers and quiche.

 

It happened later to the Lakers.  For years it was only Jack Nicholson.  Suddenly, we make the playoffs and Dyan Cannon is showing up. This seasonal gentrification was not lost on me.  I resented these imposters.  I knew the players.  I collected the cards.  I calculated the stats.  I begged my father to stay until the end of any game we attended even though it meant being stuck in dreaded LA traffic.  But, in Los Angeles no one ever stayed until the end of a game.  Most Angelinos thought football games were 45 minutes, baseball eight innings and basketball three periods.  We were sunshine patriots and summer soldiers.  We were not really die-hards, we were just people who had tickets to a game.

 

Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin – January ,2008 – We exited the bus and crunched on to frozen ground along South Ridge Avenue.  We were looking for a podiatrist’s parking lot where a close friend and one hundred “cheese heads” would be tailgating prior to the NFC Championship game.  We were looking for Sean, a fellow NY fan who had grabbed a last minute ticket and called us to meet up at the game.  The driver shouted he would meet us in eight hours next to that “tall building over there”.  Being from NY, we saw no tall buildings.  We did see a two story wooden structure that looked like a 1950’s professional services building.  “That one?“,  I yelled. “Yeah, that’s the one, right there, yup, she’s the place, yup”.  I’d fallen into “Fargo”.

 

It was 30 below zero with the wind chill.  The wind slashed at any exposed skin. The guy exiting the bus ahead of me looked like a tortoise retracting his neck into his shell.  He started to curl into a walking pill bug.  We were adrift in an arctic sea of green and yellow.  We were deep in enemy territory – – and wearing the wrong gang colors. There was a tribal electricity in the air as knots of hooded figures huddled by blazing fires, barbeques and television sets.  It could have passed for a Finnish refugee camp. Attendance was projected at over 72,000 and about 1,000 of these fanatics, many dressed in cheese heads and Cabelos hunting gear, were suddenly eying us like a trophy elk. 

 

Green Bay, Wisconsin has a population of 100,000 souls, hardly the critical mass the NFL believes is necessary to support an NFL franchise.  The Packers are the only community run team in American professional sports.  They are non profit with about 100,000 shareholders, many of whom are long time residents of the town. The team was founded in 1919 and has contributed of 21 Hall of Fame busts to Canton, Ohio. It is sacred ground with frigid sidelines and ancient Kentucky blue grass turf.    

Having not been a fanatic for many years, I now realized I was with the faithful.  However, I was still not ready to emotionally commit to the Giants.  They might embarrass or disappoint me. Their quarterback, Eli Manning, looked all season like Beaver Cleaver. “Boy, Wally, you think I am gonna catch it from Coach Coughlin for that interception?” Yet, somehow this team had won nine straight games on the way to today’s showdown with the 13-3 Packers and their Hall of fame QB, Bret Favre,

 

We crunched along ice and snow, finally finding what we thought was our tail gate party.  We crossed into an entire parking lot of people who all turned to stare at us. “We are going to die,” I hissed.  Three men who appeared to have spent their entire lives hurling refrigerators walked up to us. “You boys lost?”  We waited.  I could outrun them although they might hit me at twenty yards with a television. Then another said, “Well, @#%#, Jim, we might as well feed these jokers if we’re going kick their bee-hinds today”.  I was suddenly confronted with a meat packer’s cornucopia – – bratwurst soaking in beer, onions and water, burgers, chili, pulled pork and prime rib.  Two color TVs blared the Pats games as a wind gusts ripped at our jackets.  Cheeseheads surrounded us and thumped our backs proud that we made the sojourn. The heartland had opened up its doors.  These were fanatics, not fans. 

 

We eventually found our friends and remained until we could no longer feel our feet or hands.  We could not find Sean although he was now communicating to us via  blackberry.  Apparently he had been caught up in a similar wave of hospitality and was on his way to his seats – – outside, in 24 below weather.  Throughout the game, we kept getting emails from Sean effusively complaining, “I’m freezing to death…but this is so amazing!”  Sitting in my skybox, I suddenly again felt like the Giant fan but like the guy with the ticket to the game. “The bleachers have ¼”ice on them.”  “The guy next to me is going to rip my head off”.  “Did you see Plaxico’s catch?” “Bradshaw ? Oh my god, did you see his run?“ He would not dream of coming up to the sky box – a place of soft hands, warm food and artificial loyalty.

 

The game was an epic, nail biter in unbelievably frigid conditions.  For those of us that risked the trip into enemy territory, we were rewarded with a Giants overtime win, 23-20.  For the first time, I felt the twinge of what it was like to be a real fanatic.  It wasn’t just the victorious Giants, it was the losing team – – an entire town devastated by the loss.  “You guys were the better team today they said” as people passed us in the stadium.  It would be a long, hard winter for the Packer faithful. 

 

As the Giants were interviewed in the South end zone by Fox Sports, the Giant fans gathered five deep and fifty wide to watch, cheer and high five the celebrating Giant players.  Sean was clearly out there somewhere stretching his arm to try to high five Michael Strahan or Plaxico Burress.  We weathered a freezing walk to the bus only to find that Sean was no where to be found.  We waited, getting no phone or text responses, and reluctantly returned to the hotel.  At midnight we got this email message: “In the Giants locker room! Most amazing experience of my life.  Won’t be on the plane tomorrow. Will call when I get back…”  When we arrived back in NY, we still hadn’t heard from Sean.  Whatever happened, it was clearly a fitting reward for a guy who would not sit in a skybox to see his team play.   

 

Now that, my friends, is a fanatic. 

Yards To Go Before I Sleep

[Otis Love Guernsey, football player and "...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Yards To Go Before I Sleep

“ Football is 90% temper and 10% mental “   Doug Plank, ex-Chicago Bear

Neurosurgeons note each year in September that there is a marked increase in male testosterone levels.  Brain scans reveal new levels of activity in cerebellums that have been dormant since early February.  For most, autumn is a time for back to school celebrations, pumpkins, apple picking and a landscape brushed from a palette of reds, oranges and golds.  It is also football season. Booyah !

Over the course of so many seasons, I have noticed how certain people, particularly men,  rely on sports analogies as a framework for relating to any situation.  During last year’s Pop Warner football season, I lampooned many of our most scared institutions – coaches, parents, politicians and our vicarious preoccupation with pre-pubescent gridiron, subjecting the parents of our then fifth grade players to a series of nonsensical newsletters simply titled, “Under The Bleachers”.  In one edition, I managed to memorialize the metaphors muttered most by manic men (how’s that for alliteration?).  These catch phrases are universal bridges guaranteed to penetrate to the thickest skull when trying to make a point.  They are the lowest common denominator of literary vehicles.

He tends to out punt his coverage – This individual has a habit of getting ahead of himself and his team and in doing so, exposes the squad to a negative consequence.

A good punt allows the kicking team to get down the field to prevent any return.  In business, people who out kick coverage are usually found in Sales and Marketing.  It’s often also referred to “writing checks one does not have the ability to cash”.

He’s played a little too long without a helmet – This person is generally a dullard, oaf, boor or a health insurance executive.  Rarely is this person aware of this fact.

I have seen better hands on a grandfather clock – The person in question has poor hand eye coordination that results in constantly dropped passes, missed catches or poor performance on a first date.  This individual would probably be best employed as a firewatcher or rickshaw driver.

He’s a few yards short of a first down – Metaphorically, this suggests a person does not completely possess the skills necessary to complete a complicated task and would best be suited in non skill positions such as politics or working for the CIA in foreign intelligence

This coach is depriving a village of an idiot somewhere – generally used when a coach has made a poor decision causing great harm to his/her team.  The practice of employing village idiots is now illegal in the world except in parts of the District of Columbia and England.  “So many walls, so little time” – The English Idiot Creed

He zigged when he should have zagged – This describes an individual player that made the worst possible choice and as a result, the play ended in disaster.  It can also apply to any circumstance where someone with 50% odds of success makes the wrong decision. This often results in tragic consequences.  Example:  John Wayne Bobbit zigged when he should have zagged and Lorena got the better of him.

Time for a Hail Mary – This refers to a wild, last ditch effort – – normally a trick play or long bomb pass to attempt to win.  As with all football, it has a clearly Catholic theme.  For Protestants, it is a suspicious play.  It was most likely first attempted at Notre Dame University when the team had one last play to go eighty yards to score against a protestant university.  “Hail Mary, Mother of Grace” was possibly uttered in the huddle and forever became synonymous with a call for a miracle.  The baseball equivalent of a Hail Mary is “swinging for the fences “.  The singles bar equivalent is asking the person you just met what they like to eat for breakfast.

The best defense is a good offense – This strategy is well understood by any married couple and is a commonly deployed strategy by wives to deflect attention from legitimate points of view during an argument.  In football, a sustained offensive push can keep one’s team from being put on the defensive.  This is also a device used by men who are on the cusp of losing arguments with the opposite sex. .  For example, let’s say you roll in at 4 a.m. with a ripped suit , black eye and lipstick written on your forehead that reads “ I am a pig “.  The best defense in this situation is:  a) blame it on your best friend, b) laugh and say it is all one big misunderstanding,  c)throw yourself on the mercy of the court, or d) go on offense and pick a fight with your spouse over the fact that Village Cleaners did not drop off your laundry that day. Answer: D

You can only option right so long before you get thrown for a big loss – as a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to keep calling the same play as your opposition will adjust and catch on, possibly resulting in a loss of yardage.  This also applies to moderate democrats who have the occasion to run right and in doing so, attempt to garner a broader base of votes without really intending to stay right.  Some one may produce a photo of you in the sixties burning a flag or dancing at Woodstock.

He was born in the end zone and thought he scored a touchdown – The actual comment was attributed to President W and drew on baseball: “ he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple “ This applies to anyone who as the result of luck, birthright or impeccable timing starts with a highly advantaged situation but seems to forget this fact and behaves as if they have accomplished great things.  This analogy is often used as a pejorative political devise or a non sequitor to deflect a question about one’s opponent.

Football is America’s sport.  It has served as an important refuge for the strong, the unimaginative and those with overactive pituitary glands.  But it’s greatest gift is it’s clever metaphors which serve as a masculine lingua franca in every mental locker room across America.