Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

Where Have You Gone, Ernest Hemingway? Of Baseball, Tanking, Winning, Trying, And Life…

This essay is only incidentally about baseball, but like so many things that sieve through my brain, it was sparked by a conversation about baseball. On the satellite radio MLB channel, one of the interchangeable hosts—I really have trouble telling them apart: some are ex-general managers who nobody will hire, some are ex-players, and a few are sportswriters, but they all seem to say the same things, though one says them with a bilateral lisp—was interviewing a New York sportswriter. That alone would normally prompt me to switch to the Beatles Channel (or the weather), but as I reached for the dial I caught one of the writer’s comments. He was talking about the fact that the New York Yankees’ opponent at the time, the Tampa Bay Rays, were almost a .500 team, and were competing despite a tiny payroll, unlike many other teams this year, which have adopted the controversial strategy of fielding cheap and crummy teams (called “tanking’) in the hopes of getting high draft choices as a reward for  miserable won-lost records.

“I guess you have to admire the Rays,” he said, “though in this day and age, it makes no sense to try to be a .500 team.”

What a nauseating, unethical position, and how characteristic of the downward trend in American values and spirituality!  It makes no sense to try be a .500 team? This sentiment warps so much in American life today. It translates into the envy, resentment and anger that typical, normal, healthy Americans lug around on their souls all day because they aren’t rich like the people they see on TV, or the neighbor down the street who had wealthy parents and left him a bundle.

It makes sense for the Rays to try to be a .500 team because it means the team is doing the best it can, despite limitations beyond its control, to give its fans something to cheer and care about. It makes sense to try to be a .500 team for the same reason it makes sense to aspire to be the kind of steady, honest, hard-working middle class American who raises happy and well-adjusted children in a stable home but will never win any major awards or be the subject of features in their local newspapers. It makes sense to try to be a .500 team for the same reason it is right to work hard and well no matter what your salary, or whether you are being paid at all.

Ambition is a great motivator, as long as one understands that achieving one’s goals is often as dependent on chance and chaos as it is on industry and talent, and if you prepare yourself to be bitter about that, bitter is how you are likely to wind up.

I learned to love baseball passionately following a .500 baseball team–indeed a sub-.500 baseball team— that seemed like it would never be anything but. This was in an era where the New York Yankees literally won the pennant every year, with a rare exception now and then. The system was rigged to favor them, and had been for decades. The Boston Red Sox began every season knowing that getting to the World Series was a pipe dream, and their fans knew it too. Nevertheless, they tried. As an almost good team, they had a chance to win every game—not a great chance, when they were playing the Yankees, but a chance. Often the Sox made a good fight of it while going down: our hopes were raised, and there was that wonderful-horrible moment that is the beating heart of baseball where anything can happen from a miracle to a tragedy as the ball is hurtling toward the plate and fate’s resolution. Life is like that, and the sooner you realize and accept it, the better off you are.

The best hitters make outs 60% of the time, and the best teams still lose at least 35% of their games. The typical players and teams do worse than that, just like the typical American, indeed human being, loses a lot more often than he or she wins. The important thing, the thing that undergirds ethics, and integrity, and responsibility, and honor, is that you do the best you can, and pick yourself up when you fail, and try again. It’s not a bromide. It’s the only way to live without going crazy, becoming a serial killer, or surrendering to despair. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Daily Life, Ethics Heroes, Literature, Religion and Philosophy, U.S. Society

Thanking Dick Williams…Finally

The late Dick Williams, doing what great leaders do

If you are not a baseball fan, or under the age of thirty, you probably never heard of Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams, who died yesterday at the age of 84. I never met Williams myself, but I have been indebted to him for four decades. I never told him the immense difference he made in my life, just by doing his job.

In the winter of 1967, I was a devoted fan of my home town team, the Boston Red Sox, and had been since 1962.  Over that period I had listened to every single baseball game on my transistor radio when a game wasn’t on TV, which was most of the time, or when I wasn’t at the game, which was almost always the case. I was the only person I knew who followed the team, and for good reason: it was torture. The Red Sox were hopelessly mediocre on the way to awful, and hadn’t had a winning season in more than ten years.

It is a great character builder to follow the fortunes of a terrible baseball team. Almost every day, for six months, you are let down, and yet return to the scene of your despair the next, attempting to muster hope while steeling yourself against likely disappointment. You find yourself finding things to appreciate other than winning: the gallant veteran player who “plays the right way” (Eddie Bressoud, shortstop, 1962-1965); the exciting rookie who gives promise of a better future (Tony Conigliaro, right fielder—rest in peace, Tony); the unique talent who is worth watching for his own sake (Dick Radatz, relief pitcher, 1962-1966). These things help, but following a perennial losing team and caring about them is like being punched in the gut four or five days a week without knowing which day you’re getting it.

Since 1965, I had always reserved seats for the first day of the season and one of the last two home games, just in case those last games would be crucial to a (hahahaha!) Red Sox pennant drive. This was especially pathetic, since the team was getting worse. They had finished in a tie for 9th place in 1966, and as the 1967 season loomed, Vegas had them installed as 100-1 underdogs to win the American League pennant. In truth, the odds should have been longer. Nonetheless, I wrote the Red Sox and got my tickets, this time for the next to last day of the season.

The team was full of rookies and near rookies, and appropriately had hired a minor league manager, Dick Williams, to be the new skipper. Williams was something else, however: he was a gifted leader. One day, in the middle of Spring Training, a Boston scribe asked the new manager what the prospects were for the upcoming season. Would the team escape the cellar? Would there be forward progress? Williams’ answer was instant front page news:

“We’ll win more than we lose.” Continue reading

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Frank Buckles, Speaker Boehner, and the Duty To Remember

Frank Buckles is our last chance to remember...

They fought overseas in battles with strange names like the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. They sang charmingly upbeat songs like “Over There!” and “Inky-Dinky Parley-Voo.” A lot of them were gassed, about 200,000 were wounded, 120,000 died, and many of them who  came home were never the same, dubbed “the lost generation” by Ernest Hemingway. They were America’s “doughboys,” the young homegrown heroes of World War I, who arrived late to a pointless war they didn’t start, and became the first American soldiers to die in large numbers in foreign lands.

The last of them died last week. His name was Frank Buckles, and he had lied about his age to become a soldier at the tender age of 16. In his 110 years, Buckles took part in a lot of history, sailing for the Continent on the Carpathia, the very same ship that rescued the Titanic’s survivors; traveling the world by sea as ship’s purser, which afforded him an accidental encounter with Adolf Hitler, and having the bad luck to be in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded, ending up as a prisoner for most of World War II.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, (R-W.Va.) have introduced resolutions to allow fellow West Virginian Buckles to lie in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where the public could pay their respects to him by filing past his casket. Though usually reserved for former presidents and distinguished members of Congress, unelected American citizens of distinction have laid in state in the Rotunda, such as civil rights icon Rosa Parks and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Apparently Speaker of the House John Boehner doesn’t think Buckles makes the grade, for he has rejected the idea and decreed that the last World War I soldier in a special ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, but not at the Capitol. Continue reading

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Filed under Around the World, Citizenship, Government & Politics, History, U.S. Society, War and the Military

Tucson Aftermath: Don’t Let The Barn Door Close On Freedom, Please

In the wake of Jared Loughner’s attack, the “barn door fllacy” is in full operation as intensely, and foolishly as I’ve ever seen it. Everyone from social reformers to yellow-bellied Congress members are proposing changes and suggesting “dialogues” aimed at stopping Jared Loughner’s completely unpredictable conduct, which, they seem to forget, has already occurred. Almost always, when everyone rushes to lock the metaphorical barn door after the horse is gone, they make the barn and everything around it uglier, less useful, more expensive, and less respectful of basic human dignity and freedom: witness the TSA’s outrageous new pat-down procedures, designed to stop 2009’s exploding underpants terrorist, who was unsuccessful. Continue reading

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