Category Archives: Sports

Baseball Tonight: A Reflection On Ken Burns

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I went to a Phillies game tonight with my good friend Joe Master. And even though the team isn’t exactly electric right now, it was—as always—a pleasure to spend some time at the ballpark with an old friend, munching on dollar dogs, catching up on all of life’s complexities, and enjoying a sport that holds more innumerable sublimities and subtleties than one could ever hope to know fully in a lifetime.

As I sit here on my porch at the close of the evening, I think back to Ken Burns’ impossibly spectacular documentary Baseball, which I count as one of the most culturally informative pieces of work I have ever seen. I had the pleasure of meeting Burns two years ago when he spoke at Rowan University. Here’s a brief article I wrote about the experience. If you only want a taste, here’s something he said that night. He, like the sport he so beautifully documented, is an American treasure.

Just before showing us an exclusive preview clip from The Roosevelts, a work-in-progress that follows the story of the American political family, Burns said, “Think about the person closest to you in your life. A husband or a wife. They remain inscrutable to the end. There’s always something unknowable about the person closest to us, which makes all biography, in a way, a failure. How can you possibly take someone who has been dead for decades and bring him to life when you don’t even know the person you sleep next to at night? That’s a fact of human beings. But we wouldn’t be human beings if we didn’t try, if we didn’t rage against the dying of the light and try to make stories.”

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Phinally: The Victory In Three Acts

 

Act I: Purgatory

It was a cold, wet Tuesday morning, and by the tone of his e-mail I could tell my friend Red Dog was not yet convinced. He needed some prodding.

I watched the slick, fast, frenzy of October’s rain prick the windows of my office, thinking about the purgatory of the situation. Of the night before when the entire city of Philadelphia seemed poised for a delirious rebirth. Of the men and women walking through Old City to their favorite watering holes clad in red and white and pale blue. Of their eyes looking to that place in the distance where victory whispered its seductions. Of the slate sky. Of the pints of beer we all consumed through five-and-a-half soaked innings of senseless hope. Of the clinical tarp eventually covering the field. Of the cruel Doppler Radar, flashing. And of each of us—the men with their clenched fists, the women with their sad eyes—walking back to our cars through the rain, heads hung low, not in defeat but in the dissatisfaction of having to wait even longer for our moment of triumph.

I sat in my office that Tuesday morning and thought about all of this—and also of the eventual conclusion to the game. I knew Red Dog had to be there when it happened. We had started this series together and dammit, we would finish it together as well. But I also knew it would be a hard sell. The two of us had already spent far too much time and money on this World Series, and in Red Dog’s case the sacrifice was particularly great. He’s a teacher, which means his alarm begins blaring around 5:30 in the morning, two full hours before mine even thinks about waking. He’s also a husband and a father, which means his energy output requires significantly more precise calculation than mine. Nonetheless, he needed to give it one more go. He needed to meet us at National Mechanics and finish what was started.

So I responded to his e-mail (which had the perfect subject line of “Raining On Our Parade”) explaining why I thought it essential that we take one last shot in the arm and head in to the city for the 3.5-inning conclusion of Game Five of the 2008 World Series:

Dude, that’s a great headline! I’m really surprised it hasn’t been used anywhere else…

So yeah, tonight is apparently suspended until tomorrow, to which I think, yes, I will be going out. Tonight will give me a much-needed rest and opportunity to get some things done. And my rationale for tomorrow is this: it’s only 3 1/2 innings, which means it won’t be too late/expensive a night. Granted, it could go into extra innings and last much longer, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take. I mean, the whole point of being out was so if they won it in the city we would be there! If there’s still a chance to experience that, I’m there. Had they lost and it was going into Game 6, well, that would be a different story and I wouldn’t be going out. But this is STILL GAME FIVE!!

Anyway, no worries if you can’t swing it man. I understand. Let me know. But come hell or high, raging waters, I’ll be there. And I will scream out into the night. And the city will ring with the echoes of our elation. And the curtain of our sorrows will be torn in two. And all will be right with the world.

 

Act II: So This Is What Pure Joy Looks Like

And so it was. After a few more persuasive e-mails, Red Dog decided to come out after all, and when Brad Lidge threw the final strike of the evening, the two of us did indeed scream into the night. And indeed the city rang with the echoes of our elation. And indeed the curtain of our sorrows was torn in two. And all is, indeed, right with the world.

What occurred after that game can scarcely be put into words, as Philadelphia erupted into a scene I have never before witnessed. Along with three of my closest friends (sans Red Dog, who had to go home), I walked up Market Street from Old City, getting closer and closer to the din rising from behind City Hall. It was the kind of juggernaut rumble only tens of thousands gathered in a city street can create…and it sounded glorious.

Finally reaching the pandaemonium, we saw the entirety of Broad Street pregnant with a sea of humanity. Shirtless men running up and down sidewalks, screaming until voiceless. Women whistling from windows. Trucks and SUVs loaded with dozens of rabid Phillies fans spilling out of the windows and doors. Beer and wine bottles littering every spare inch of gutter and curb. Stoplights bending beneath the weight of those who hung from them like mad gargoyles. Overturned planters. Sidewalk trees shaken by those who wanted to uproot a piece of the evening. Fireworks slicing through the perfect dark of sky to explode and rain their sublime fire upon the cheering masses below.

We stopped into a bar serving three dollar whiskeys and toasted to our team. We gave high-fives until our palms were raw. We called our loved ones and tried to paint the scene for them with hoarse voices and the distraction of car horns honking perpetually behind us. We bummed cigarettes and stopped into Nodding Head, where we enjoyed dark pints of sticky Grog and sang “We Are The Champions” and watched replays of that final pitch over and over and over again on a small television. We saw an overturned car on the sidewalk and some firemen at the end of the block trying to put out a small garbage can fire. We hugged the homeless. We made more calls. We took photos and stood on planters like warriors on hilltops of victory. We visited one last bar—the Locust Bar, to be precise—and swallowed down some lager, still watching that final pitch. Still delirious. And then we all went home and slept one of the most peaceful sleeps we had ever known.

 

Act III: Tears at Broad and Federal

I wrote in a previous post about how silly sport is, about how its triviality and inconsequential nature cause so many to feel apathetic about the thing but that these qualities are what make it so wonderful to experience. So while I realize the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory is not going to bring about world peace or an end to global poverty, I also know (and admit shamelessly) that it was one of the most beautiful moments of my young life, and that I am forever going to recall its sublimity as fondly as I would any fortune to befall me. It is good and righteous without condition and I am thrilled to have been a part of it.

The Friday afternoon parade down Broad Street was a far tamer experience than the Wednesday evening that proceeded it, but its sunny, measured execution was the perfect denouement to a release 25 years in the making. It was a moment of unhindered positive vibrations, of love overflowing, of new tides coming in for the city of Philadelphia and everyone who was there to see the moment unfold. Leading up to the afternoon, I wasn’t sure how it was going to feel once I finally saw this team I had been watching all my life finally showered with the unconditional attention all champions deserve. But then the parade made its way down to our post at Broad and Federal, and I had my answer.

Leading the caravan was the Philly Phanatic, and when his green, fuzzy paws became visible over the thousands of red heads bobbing up and down in frenzied elation all along Broad Street, I suddenly realized I was about to start crying. This was totally unexpected and I immediately tried to hold back, tried to tell myself how silly it would seem to have a grown man weeping in the streets over something as superficial as a baseball team; but then I realized how ridiculous the reasons for my resistance seemed and I let go of my insecurities and the tears started to flow. It wasn’t just the joy of the victory, or even the overwhelming sight of thousands gathered for this singular purpose, that brought me to tears. It was the Phillies game my father took me to see at the Vet when I was eight. It was watching the 1993 World Series in my childhood best friend’s basement at the age of 12, back when it seemed baseball was the only concern worth caring about. It was the baseball my entire family signed when I turned 13. It was Eagles football by fireside while my parents trimmed the Christmas tree. It was backyard home run derbies with my little brother, both of us wishing for the impossible. It was catches with my father in that same backyard. It was the watershed of 27 years coming to me in a flash of raw, unstoppable emotion at the hands of a silly, sarcastic mascot. And it was beautiful.

Thank you Phillies. Thank you for all of this. It is without a price and it will live forever in the hearts and minds of millions. Thank you.

Let Us Now Praise…

 

Editor’s Note: Upon receiving this month’s Esquire magazine, it occurred to me that I had been unconsciously lifting the “Endorsement” tag from this great publication I respect so much. So, while imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, it can also be a harbinger of unoriginality and plagiarism. Therefore, from hence forth, I will be titling all of my endorsements with the tag “Let Us Now Praise…” I know you were all losing sleep over that one. So, on to the praise…

 

Little Bits of World Series Joy:

John Oates’ Rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”: Maybe it was the pre-game buzz of being on the verge of a possible Phillies championship victory. Maybe it was the post-beer buzz of a few stellar IPAs at National Mechanics Bar in Old City. Or maybe it was just the welling up of a general soft spot I’ve had for Daryl Hall’s better half ever since I interviewed him for South Jersey Magazine last summer. (Did you know he breeds Alpacas in Colorado, or that he was a fairly close acquaintance of the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson?) Regardless, there was an understated quality to Mr. Oates’ “SSB” I found severely likeable. As both an unyielding patriot (hmm…) and amateur student of professional sports, I’ve become quite familiar with this little ditty we call our National Anthem, and in doing so I have realized the most significant sin most crooners commit in singing the song is that they simply overdo it. To be sure, the “Star Spangled Banner” is not an easy tune to render. In fact, I’ve heard many musician friends of mine muse that it is “one of the hardest songs to sing” due to its wide range and awkward phrasing. In short, it’s no “Happy Birthday.” But this doesn’t have to be so problematic if only more would take a cue from Philly’s own J.O. and play it down.

Look, the lyrics don’t require all that much bravado. You’ve already got rockets with red glare, bombs bursting in the flippin’ air, and one hell of a perilous fight. You don’t need a voice competing with that imagery. Moreover, let us not forget the more tender moments of the hymn. A dawn in its earliest light. A twilight in its last moments of gleaming. A flag that is still barely there. Like the overall narrative of our country’s Revolution, “The Star Spangled Banner” is not a call to arms but instead a quiet moment of triumph, a possible hint through the haze and horrors of war that maybe, just maybe, we will prevail after all. It is in this interpretation that we will realize the song’s poetry, and it is in this discovery of our anthem’s inherent humility that we will continue to understand why it is so befitting a nation that should always be mindful of its fragile grip on the righteousness of its foundation. Thank you John.

 

Joe Buck: At first it was a small, innocent comment made by an acquaintance of mine. “Aw man, I hate Joe Buck.” Um…what? Then it was the dude next to me a Brentons, a semi-dirt rocker bar off 206 South in Shamong. “That asshole doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” He was referring, of course, to Joe. The final straw was a chant that spontaneously erupted at National Mechanics in Old City on Monday night somewhere between the first pitch and the first monsoon. “Fuck Joe Buck! Fuck Joe Buck! Fuck Joe Buck!” I think you know to whom they were referring.

Look everyone, stop hating on Joe. What, exactly, is the problem? I know some of you think he wanted the Phils to lose against the Dodgers in the NLCS. I know some of you think he wants us to lose now. And I know some of you think he’s just too polished and expensive-suited to be endearing to the rough-edged, sweat-panted Philadelphia sports fan sensibility. Well, get over it. I don’t really give a toss about these (quite absurd) speculations because guess what? Buck is one hell of a good sportscaster. As the son of Hall of Fame sportscaster Jack Buck, Joe has been covering baseball since 1991 when he was a play-by-play man for the then-Louisville Redbirds, a minor league affiliate of the Cardinals. He’s the thinking man’s caster, a guy who knows that sometimes what isn’t said can be just as powerful as what is. He lets the best moments just happen; and by the way, he could probably run baseball knowledge circles around those daft Philadelphia critics shouting their displeasure down Passyunk Avenue.

At Least It Wasn’t An Earthquake: Sure, it’s a weird World Series. Sure, it sucked to get rained out on Monday night. But guess what, it could have been the ’89 series, wherein play was put on hold for 10 days due to the Loma Prieta earthquake. Now that would really suck.

Watching Sports In A Bar: Typically, I shun the sports-in-bar experience. The drink are overpriced, the fans potentially obnoxious, and the food cold and mediocre. Nine times out of ten, I’ll take the couch. But I’ve watched every game of this thrilling series in some sort of watering hole, from the opening game at the Manayunk Tavern with my best pal Red Dog to the (potentially final) game tonight at National Mechanics. And I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t have it any other way. When the series is complete, I intend on composing a retrospect here of my total experience (which came to me in a feverish, collage flash of imagery last night as I was falling asleep), so I will save many of the detail until then. The bottom line is this: You will meet more characters and feel more raw energy in watching an important sporting showdown in a bar than you will at Burning Man. I’m hoping to be in the eye of the storm tonight…

Watching Sports At Home: Because there are always a few drunk assholes ready to wreck the experience.

This Guy’s Face:

 

Oh god...please!

Oh god...please!

 

 

I found this on the New York Times’ Web, and I think it speak for itself. Isn’t there a little of him in us all?

GO PHILLIES!!!!

Holly Crap! We’re Going to THE SHOW!

 

 

Oh how sweet it is...

Oh how sweet it is...

I can’t believe it. I really can’t believe it.

Oh last night. Last night was quite a night, folks. Last night witnessed not only the third and final debate between United States Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, but it also saw the fifth (and eventually final) National League Championship Series game between the Los Angels Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. And which of these two events did I watch? Which one got the pleasure of my attention? Which one captured my heart?

THE PHILLIES OF COURSE!!!

Going into game four, I was slightly conflicted. Before the first pitch on Monday night, I didn’t yet know where my fidelity would eventually fall in game five. I had illusions of perhaps splitting the difference, of shifting between the two epic showdowns with mutual respect and regard. But then Shane Victorino hit his home run in the seventh inning to tie it up. And then Matt Stairs smacked a game-winning two-run slammer to seal the deal, and I thought, “Who am I kidding? Of course I’m going to watch the Phils!”

Going into last evening, I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt in potentially shirking my civic duty for the seemingly “more important” Presidential debate. Going into last evening, I didn’t give a toss for the frivolity of sport. Going into last evening, all I saw was red. And even if they had lost, even if this series had been forced back to Philly for a sixth game, even if the Phillies were not going to the WORLD FREAKIN’ SERIES, I would feel the same as I do right now. To some of you, this may seem silly, but let me explain.

To begin with, sports is silly. It’s a trivial and inconsequential passion—but that is what makes it so beautiful. The zeal for a sporting event or team is the only emotional investment in life that has no lasting consequence. To be sure, love, politics, finance—all of these are noble and worthwhile pursuits, but each of them carries the inevitable weight of cause and effect. In each, the lasting results of success or failure carry with them potentially heavy outcomes. When it comes to sports, however, the result has no genuine bearing on the future of one’s life. It is, after all, only a game.

But let me tell you, this feels good. Really good! The last time the Phils went to The Show, I was 12—and we all know how that ended. Last night, watching the game with my family, I was suddenly thrown back to those more carefree days of my youth, and suddenly I am faced with the chance to wash clean the stain my broken heart left behind in 1993, and suddenly this is the only thing that matters. At least right now. When all is said and done, I’ll go back to following this whole president thing. Hopefully I’ll be wearing red and white to the polls.

Way to go Phillies!!!!

GO PHILS!!!

Oh yeah. That’s right. Tonight’s the night. It’s all happening. We’re going to the show…