Category Archives: Sports

Higher Ground

Come all you no-hopers, you jokers and rogues
We’re on the road to nowhere, let’s find out where it goes
It might be a ladder to the stars, who knows?
Come all you no-hopers, you jokers and rogues.
Port Isaac’s Fishermen’s Friends, “No Hopers, Jokers, and Rogues”

stan-photo2Hello again. As long-suffering and loyal readers of this blog (both of them) well know, it’s been eight long months since my last entry. There are many reasons for that silence, some of which I’ll write about in the New Year—my involvement in the national discussion about Confederate memorials and iconography in public spaces, three glorious Rolling Stones concerts this summer, not one but two GHS public programs about Leo Frank in the summer and fall, the Georgia History Festival Kickoff lecture in October on the real Mad Men and the world they created, and a host of other things that make my job so interesting. As the year draws to its close, it seemed like a good time to say a quick hello and goodbye to 2015, to take stock of the year, take a peek at what might lie ahead, and to set a few goals for the New Year. A few musings at the end of the year, in no particular order:

Sports: In a blog post from last January, I praised the high-flying Atlanta Hawks and wondered how far they’d go. The answer turned out to be the Eastern Conference finals, farther than they’d ever been, and in which they got swept by the far-better Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re looking good this year too, but the lack of a true big man may yet be their undoing. Stay tuned.

As you well know, the Falcons started out 5-0 and yet will not make the playoffs for the second straight year, having squandered that glorious start by losing six straight games. But let’s give Dan Quinn time to build his own team; better things ahead here.

As hard as it is to believe, I think the same is true of the Braves. They’ve traded everyone on the team who had talent except for Freddie Freeman, and they played stink-ola baseball for most of last season and undoubtedly will again in the one to come. But some analysts are now predicting that the recent trades—as painful as they’ve been—are setting the Braves up to be the next Kansas City Royals or Houston Astros, young teams on the rise and winning championships. Cheers to that. I lived through the not-too-shabby years in the 1970s and have no desire to do it again.

Finally, there’s the Mark Richt firing/mutual parting. I’ve been as vocal as anyone that it was high time for a change at UGA, but after the Dogs finished 9-3 this year I thought there was no way it would happen. But it did, among much angst and hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. As is required whenever discussing Richt, we must first say that he is a nice guy. A great guy. A man who’s done great things at the University of Georgia. But I’ve always maintained that there are lots of coaches who could take Georgia’s talent and win 9 or 10 games. Let’s see if we’ve finally got one who can win 12 or 13.

And with the college football playoffs beginning tonight, as an unabashed SEC fan I say: Roll Tide.

Books: I’ve read many great books this year that enlightened, informed, and entertained. Here are just a few of the ones I’d recommend:

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794-95): Thomas Paine was an 18th-century equivalent of Donald Trump, a bomb-thrower extraordinaire who in just a few words could set the settled order of nature on its ear. Unlike Trump, Paine was a disciple of the Enlightenment and a fervent believer in breaking the chains that had bound men in body and mind since time immemorial. Whether in Common Sense, The American Crisis, or The Rights of Man, Paine was a caustic critic of anything that smacked of orthodoxy. This book, published in several parts beginning in 1794, was one of his last great works, but instead of kings and governments, he chose the biggest target of all: religion.

It is not for the faint of heart, a literary broadside against the belief in revealed religion and what he calls a “superstitious” belief in a supernatural being who created the Earth in seven days and continues to dabble in our daily affairs. He throws down the gauntlet right at the beginning: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.” Institutionalized religion, Paine argues, are “human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Paine’s ideas weren’t new, but his engaging style of writing brought Deism down to the level of the common man and made it all the more dangerous and radical for that. His ideas are still terrifying to many people. After more than two hundred years, Paine’s ideas are still extremely unpopular and considered dangerous in much of the America of 2015 that fervently believes that this is a Christian nation and that our elected leaders should be Born Again. At a time when we’re having a broad discussion about the place and role of religion in our national lives, this is a great and timely read. Whatever your beliefs, it will, like all great books, challenge you to stand on new ground. I highly recommend it.

Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37). You can never go wrong with Dickens. One of the great glories lying ahead of me in my life is the pleasure of reading all of his works, fiction and non-fiction alike. I’ve read Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and of course many of his Christmas stories. Unencumbered by the thought process, as our NPR friends Click and Clack used to say, I think this one is the best of them all. Unlike many of Dickens’ books, it’s not depressing—except for the fact that he could write so well and with such penetrating insight into the human condition at the tender age of 24—and in fact is hilarious. Here are the exploits of Mr. Samuel Pickwick and his companions Tracy Tupman, Nathaniel Winkle, and Augustus Snodgrass—and the irrepressible and singular Samuel Weller—as they travel around England, meeting some of the most interesting characters ever conceived along the way—Alfred Jingle, the residents of Dingley Dell, Joe the Fat Boy, Mr. Wardle, and many others. This one is a feast that I’m still working on and not anxious to finish.

Clayton Rawson, Death from a Top Hat (1938): A classic locked-room mystery, the first of four featuring the Great Merlini, a magician and amateur sleuth. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a body is found in an apartment with all the doors and windows sealed. He was strangled but how did the murderer leave? One of the best locked-room mysteries ever and great nightly bedtime reading. The classic Dell paperback is hard to find but this and the others in the series are all available on Kindle. A great way to drift off to the land of Morpheus.

Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall, or The Humorists (1822). I first dipped into this book sitting in my favorite swing by the side of Lake Trahlyta at Vogel State Park on a warm August afternoon, but I saved it for the cooler days and darker nights of November, for which it’s better suited. It’s a collection of Irving’s short stories published under his pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon and supposedly collected when Crayon visited his friend Frank Bracebridge for his wedding in England. It follows up The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, which first introduced the Bracebridge family (and which featured Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle as bonuses), and preceded Tales of a Traveller.The collection contains some of the classic descriptions of the English countryside and the people who live there that made Irving famous and features some of his best stories—”The Stout Gentleman,” “The Haunted House,” “The Storm Ship,” and “Dolph Heyliger” among them. As lauded as Irving is for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” his other writings go mostly unread today, and they shouldn’t.  When the leaves turn golden in November, I always reach for him.

Yes, I read history and biography too, fear not. In preparing for the Georgia History Festival Kickoff Lecture on “The Birth of the American Dream” and the real Mad Men who created it, I reread David Halberstam’s The Fifties (1993). Halberstam is above all else a reporter and storyteller, and his descriptions of the people and events of that decade are exceptional. For a more detailed historical study, I turned to a volume in the Oxford History of the United States series, James Patterson’s Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (1996). Both of these books clock in at over 800 pages, so they aren’t light reading, but they’re both well worth your time. You can’t hurry through them and you don’t want to. Linger in the land of Lucy, Elvis, and The Bomb.

Reaching back to an earlier period, I also read Edward Larson’s The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789 (2014), coupled with the first volume of James Thomas Flexner’s classic multivolume biography of Washington, George Washington: The Forge of Experience, 1732-1775 (1965). Surprisingly, given the fame of Flexner’s set and his authoritative position in the Washington canon, I preferred Larson’s elegant and graceful prose, covering a period of Washington’s life that is often overlooked, the years between the American Revolution and his presidency. Larson convincingly argues that without Washington’s backing there never would have been a Constitution, demonstrating the enormous influence he had on the final document just by his presence in the room. Highly recommended.

This past year certainly hasn’t lacked for materials for the historian who plies his trade in the public realm. From the ISIS atrocities that bore eerie similarities to events in this country a century ago when African Americans were burned alive, mutilated, and lynched, to the mass shooting in Charleston that led to a national discussion of the role of Confederate iconography in American life, to the rise of Donald Trump, an egomaniacal “strongman” with echoes in Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace, there has been plenty to comment on and write about as we try to sort out and make sense of the events in our daily lives and their historical antecedents. This next year will bring more of the same no doubt, as we enter a presidential election year that promises to be one of the most interesting and pivotal in our nation’s history. More on all of this anon.

Turn off your engines and slow down your wheels
Suddenly your master plan loses its appeal
Everybody knows that this reality’s not real
So raise a glass
To all things past
And celebrate how good it feels.
Port Isaac’s Fishermen’s Friends, “No Hopers, Jokers, and Rogues”

Next Year: For the New Year, I certainly have goals, if not resolutions. Any time of the year is a good time to set a goal (just like any day is a good day to start a diet), but since the New Year is the traditional time for clean slates, we’ll play along.

In 2016, I want to be more patient, especially with my daughter but also with everyone in my life, including the jerk in the car in front of me who’s driving too slow, or the maroon (as Bugs Bunny said) in the car behind me who wants me to drive faster.

Next year I hope to be more empathetic and sympathetic towards other people and their daily struggles and concerns. In memory of my friend Will, I need to pay more attention to the silent sufferings of other people.

Next year I’d like to find the courage to spend at least one hour every week visiting people that I don’t know in nursing homes and assisted living centers. They are among the most depressing places on Earth and are usually shunned by everyone who doesn’t need to go there. It’s hard to go there. And that’s one reason I’d like to start trying, to visit and spend time with people who have no one to talk to. I hope I have the courage to do it, and having written it down here in this public blog, perhaps I will. It’s a goal for 2016.

I’m so glad that he let me try it again
Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin’
Till I reach my highest ground
Stevie Wonder, “Higher Ground”

runningI have the usual goals next year that I have every year: Exercise more. Run more. Read more. Write more. Listen more. Hike more. Bike more. Talk less. Eat less. Complain less. Argue less. Get angry less. Watch TV less (except for “Better Call Saul,” “Fargo,” and the upcoming “X Files”). To pick up the phone and talk to someone I haven’t talked to in a long time. To renew friendships and make new ones. To try on a daily basis, as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it, to take life by the smooth handle. To meet life and its challenges and opportunities with stoicism. To try, as Marcus Aurelius said, to arise each morning and remember what a precious privilege it is to be alive.

To one and all who have read a single word or every word of this blog since it began on October 15, 2013, and who have supported me along the way and given me a word of encouragement, thank you. I’ll see you here much more frequently in 2016. Cheers to you all.

The First

0664_001Six months ago in this space I lamented the end of the baseball season. Now, with the arrival of April and the return of Spring and the national pastime, it’s only fitting that we remember the Georgia native who made history in 1947 by being The First.

For most of us, being first is something we long for. Americans like being first in everything—first means gold medals, it means winning, it means recognition, it means an association with being the best, with something good. First in line; first-come, first-served. The first in our class. First edition. The first to climb Mount Everest. First in the polls. First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen. The first sign of spring. The first time ever I saw your face. The first kiss, the first dance, the first date, the first to walk on the moon. The first day of the year. The first. Number one.

But what if being first means having people hate your guts? What if going to work every day meant you were open to taunts, threats, and physical violence? And what about volunteering to be the first at something you know is going to be the hardest road you’ve ever walked down in your life? Why would you do it? Would you do it? Honestly, most of us would say, let this cup pass from me. We are reminded of William Shakespeare’s great lines: Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them.

After World War II, Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey was looking for a way to put more fannies in the seats at Dodger games and to make his team better. Every team president wanted to do that. But the other thing Rickey had in mind seemed downright radical and, some thought, un-American. He wanted to break baseball’s color barrier and put a black baseball player on the Brooklyn Dodgers. A dangerous piece of social engineering, to be sure. To give you some perspective, that same year, 1947, the Memphis Censorship Board banned the movie Curley because it showed black and white children playing together. If you thought opposition to health care reform was intense, what Rickey wanted to do seemed unimaginable. There had been an unofficial “gentlemen’s agreement” against such a thing since the nineteenth century. But Branch Rickey, a man born in the late nineteenth century in Ohio, thought it was a good idea.

Who would he sign? It would take a rare individual; it had to be someone with a relentless personality and a determined drive to succeed. Someone who could take the most vile abuse imaginable and turn the other cheek. Someone who could psychologically endure loneliness and extreme public persecution while simultaneously being a very good baseball player. History had summoned Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

historical markerRobinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. Abandoned by her husband, his mother Mallie moved the family to Pasadena, California, in 1920, and Robinson attended John Muir Technical High School and Pasadena Community College before transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles. At UCLA he was an outstanding athlete, lettering in four sports—baseball, football, basketball, and track—and he excelled in swimming and tennis as well. Jackie Robinson was used to competing at the highest level of competition, and he was no shrinking violet. Scott Simon called him “a hard-nosed, hard-assed, brass-balled, fire-breathing athlete.”

Robinson showed early that he was not afraid to stand up to bigotry. He was drafted in 1942 and served on military bases in Kansas and Texas. With help from boxer Joe Louis, he succeeded in opening an Officer Candidate School for black soldiers. Soon after, Robinson became a second lieutenant. Late one evening at Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson got on a bus and spotted a fellow officer’s light-skinned wife who could easily be mistaken for white; he sat down next to her. The bus driver stopped the bus and yelled out, “Hey boy! Get to the back of the bus!” Robinson refused and faced a court martial. When a private at MP headquarters later that evening asked Robinson if he was “the nigger lieutenant” who had gotten in trouble, Jackie told him, “If you ever call me a nigger again, I’ll break you in two.” In the end, the order was ruled a violation of Army regulations, and he was exonerated. Shortly after leaving the Army in 1944, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs, a leading team in the Negro Leagues.

Robinson-RickeyWhen Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson and finally brought him up to the big leagues in the spring of 1947, baseball’s “Great Experiment,” as it was called, electrified America. Probably the only rookie given a day in his honor, Robinson trailed only Bing Crosby in a year-end national popularity poll. Virtually the entire black population of America became Dodger fans. At the end of the season, Robinson had been named the league’s Rookie of the Year (an award that now bears his name), gaining respect throughout the baseball world and beyond. Three years later he won the batting title, hitting .346, was named Most Valuable Player, and led the Dodgers to the World Series. Over a ten-year career he hit .311, and played in six all-star games and six World Series. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

It sounds like he won American Idol, doesn’t it? But this is to sum up a year and a career, and we don’t live our lives like that. We live out each minute and each hour, sometimes in excruciating pain. For Jackie Robinson, 1947 was an entirely different experience, a hell on earth.

The kind of public torture that Jackie Robinson faced few of us, thank goodness, will ever know. We all remember the public humiliation we felt and the laughter we faced from our peers when our mothers made us wear raincoats to school or take an umbrella on days when it rained, or when she made you wear a tie to school on picture day. And while few things in life equal the scorn of tormenting 13-year-olds whose approval you would desperately like to have, for most of us that’s as bad as it will ever get. But the rites of passage we all knew in our adolescence are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the special level of hell reserved for those first black students who walked up the steps that morning at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. For the first former slave who walked to a polling place and told a white man that he was there to vote after the Civil War. For the first women who attended law schools. This is the kind of first that Jackie Robinson volunteered for.

In a now-legendary meeting, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey confronted Robinson with the wide range of abuse he knew Robinson would face. Robinson listened to Rickey talk, growing visibly angry, and finally blew up. “Do you want a player afraid to fight back?” he shouted. Rickey replied no, that he wanted someone even tougher than that, someone, he said, “with the guts not to fight back.” Restraint would be the measure of his courage. Rickey told him, “Jackie, we’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owner, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid that many fans may be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I am doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, and a fine gentleman. You cannot fight back.” He told Robinson, “I need someone who can carry this load.” Robinson agreed that for three years, he wouldn’t fight back. He wouldn’t speak up. He wouldn’t argue. He would simply take it, and all the while he would try to perform at the highest level. Failure wasn’t an option.

Many thought Rickey would pick the great Satchel Paige, and when he wasn’t chosen reporters sought him out. Was he bitter or disappointed? No, Paige said with enormous class, “They didn’t make a mistake by signing Robinson,” he told them. “They couldn’t have picked a better man.” In Scott Simon’s words, Rickey had anointed a knight to ride out first.

But being first means being a target, and it began with members of his own team. In spring training, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher had to squelch plans for a players’ petition against Robinson in a midnight meeting. But when some Dodgers actively protested against Robinson, Durocher stood up to them: “Listen, I don’t care if this guy is white, black, green or has stripes like a f’ing zebra. If I say he plays, he plays. He can put an awful lot of f’ing money in our pockets. Take your petition and shove it up your ass. This guy can take us to the World Series, and so far we haven’t won spit.”

When the team went on the road in spring training, Robinson had to stay in different hotels, separate from the rest of the team, and eat in different dining rooms. And always he was alone. The famous Dodgertown complex later erected was in part a response to the problems that Robinson and other blacks faced with spring-training racism. His teammates kept their distance in the dugout and on the field. One sportswriter said that Jackie Robinson looked to him, sitting in the dugout all by himself, away from his teammates, like the loneliest man in the world. He knew that nearly everyone wanted to see him fall flat on his face, to make a fool of himself, and of Branch Rickey, who was accused of being a communist and a socialist. After the start of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals were rumored to be planning a strike in protest of Robinson. Vile insults and black cats were thrown at him from the stands in St. Louis. Some of the worst abuse came from players on opposing teams.

The Phillies were managed by Ben Chapman from Alabama, and he told his players that when Robinson came to bat, to open up with both barrels, to taunt and bait Robinson with all they had, “to see if he can take it.” Hitting a major league curveball is considered one of the most difficult of all athletic achievements. Imagine trying to do it while hearing things like this coming from the opposing dugout:

“Hey nigger! That ball ain’t no watermelon boy!”

“You can’t play with white boys, you know that! Get back to the jungle, nigger boy!”

“Hey nigger, why don’t you go back to the cotton field where you belong?”

“Hey, snowflake, which one of those white boys’ wives are you dating tonight?”

“We don’t want you here, nigger!”

We can wonder now how anyone could have been so ignorant. Or how he could have endured it. There were references to thick lips, thick skulls, and syphilis sores. The stands rained down with tomatoes, rocks, watermelon slices, Sambo dolls, and the most vile things you could ever say to another human.

jackie robinson pee wee reeseIt did something even to his own teammates, who for the most part had left him alone, had kept their distance. Dodger Eddie Stanky—also from Alabama—had enough. He stood up on the dugout steps and called Chapman a coward and told him to pick on someone who could fight back. In Cincinnati, Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese,a native of Louisville, Kentucky, put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder to show his support for his teammate. A small thing, really, but a hugely symbolic moment that was lost on no one and meant the world to Robinson.

There were other moments, with other teams. In Pittsburgh, Robinson and the great Hank Greenberg, who was Jewish and had been called vile names himself, collided on a violent play at first and Robinson was called safe. It was a tense moment. They each got up, dusted themselves off, and as Robinson took his lead off first base, he heard Greenberg say behind him, “Stick in there. You’re doing fine. Keep your chin up.” After the game, Robinson told a reporter, “Class sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”

As Branch Rickey later remembered, racists like Chapman actually brought the Dodgers together as nothing else could. “He solidified and unified thirty men, not one of whom was willing to sit by and see someone kick a man who had his hands tied behind his back.” Incidentally, Jackie Robinson scored the only run that day. The Dodgers beat Chapman’s Phillies 1-0. God does have a sense of humor.

He said later that that day almost broke him. For one moment, he remembered, he thought, “to hell with this.” “I was, after all, a human being. What was I doing here turning the other cheek as though I weren’t a man?” Robinson said he wanted to “stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches, and smash his teeth with my despised black fist.”

That Jackie Robinson had to go through something like that just to play a game is shameful, but it gives us some insight into the character of the man that he endured it, bore it with grace and dignity, and thrived in spite of it. He stood there and took it, and he did it, he said later, for his mother who had kept his family together after being abandoned by his father, for his brothers who never got this kind of chance, for Branch Rickey who displayed enormous courage himself, and for all the ones who would come after him. It was for good reason that much later his daughter Sharon wrote a children’s book about him entitled Testing the Ice, which he did both literally and metaphorically. This was a man whose life provided a foundation upon which so many others would build. Willie Mays said later that every time he looked at his house he thanked God for Jackie Robinson.

After three years, Robinson pushed back. He argued with umpires, he protested second-class accommodations, and no one ever taunted him to his face. But having to internalize all of it killed him, quite literally. He was dead by 53. It is his name we remember today, and not those of the small men who taunted him.

jackie quoteThis is what makes history so fascinating to me: you can read all day about how depraved humans as a species have been, but then you come across someone who inspires you by simple acts of courage and dignity. Jackie Robinson was not a great military hero or politician; he never took a city by force, never won an election, never conquered an army, never explored unknown lands, never founded a colony. He never started a war or ended one. Nor was he a saint. No man is. He was just a baseball player, albeit a great one; but he was so much more than that. As someone once said, it didn’t take a great baseball player to break down that barrier. It took a great man.

Even if she never likes baseball—and she will—I want my daughter to know about Jackie Robinson. I want her to learn that many things she might take for granted were achieved only with great sacrifice and at a very high cost, and that she will have opportunities in her life—to vote, to go to college, perhaps attend law school, become a doctor, a CEO, a writer, a soldier, a teacher, a baseball player—because someone else opened a door that was closed and carried the weight of being first upon their shoulders. And should she herself ever be called upon one day to step forward and be the first in some field or endeavor, she could have no better example of how to walk a difficult and lonely yet dignified path than the life of Jackie Robinson.

rounding thirdRobinson was a brave and courageous man, one of those rare souls who, when the great question is asked, “who will go first?” didn’t avert his eyes, put his head down, or walk away. He stepped forward and said, “I will.” When he took the field on April 15, 1947, and kept taking it, day after day, he didn’t just make the Dodgers better. He made the human race better. “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me,” he said, “all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

Play ball.

The Bases are Loaded and I Wish I Was Too: The High Flying Birds, Bye Bye College Football, Hello Deflategate, and the Ghost of Skip Caray

Loyal readers of this space know that I’m passionate about books and history. I also love sports and we’ve reached that point in the calendar where another season of college football has gone to earth, with their professional brethren soon to follow. Baseball doesn’t start for two months—the regular season at least—but pitchers and catchers will be reporting to spring training in about 3 weeks. In the meantime, the hockey and basketball seasons are in mid-stride and if you’re in Atlanta, something magical is unfolding right in front of our eyes with the Hawks. Let’s take stock of it all. First up:

logoThe Atlanta Hawks: There are 30 professional basketball teams in the NBA, and on any given night their arenas are full. The league was founded in 1946 and has grown in popularity every year since, particularly after the rise of stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James. Over 21 million people attended an NBA game last season, with an average attendance of over 17,000 at each game. Professional basketball is an international sport, and NBA players are among the highest paid athletes in the world.

I say all of this because outside of those arenas, it’s hard to find anyone who actually identifies themselves as a pro basketball fan. I happen to be one and have been for about 40 years. I actually played league basketball in my middle school years, back when almost everyone was vertically challenged, not just me. I suppose that’s how I got interested in the Hawks.

The ’76-77 team was the first I really followed, coached by Hubie Brown and featuring John Drew, Truck Robinson, Steve Hawes, and Lou Hudson (“Sweet Lou,” his last with the Hawks after 11 seasons). The next couple of seasons they added Charlie Criss (my favorite player, at vintage-ad-dr-j-for-converse5’8″ the shortest player in the league before Spud Webb arrived in 1985), Tree Rollins, Eddie Johnson, Dan Roundfield, Jon Koncak, and of course the Human Highlight Reel, former Georgia Bulldog Dominique Wilkins. Good ‘ol Skip Caray called the games on Superstation TBS. As the clock ticked down to another victory, Skip always happily exclaimed “it’s cocktail hour!”

When my friend Scot Hawes and I were growing up we regularly watched Dr. J as he soared above the rim for one of his signature tomahawk dunks. We wore his Converse high tops (seen in a vintage ad here), and tried to shoot like former Hawk Pistol Pete Maravich in the numerous Horse games we played in my driveway.

Try finding an unabashed NBA fan now. They’re harder to find than the Golden Ticket in a Wonka Bar. But that’s changing rapidly this season in Atlanta, however, and with good reason.

As of this writing, the Hawks are 38-8. That’s 38 wins and 8 losses, through 46 games. Halfway through this season, they have already equaled last year’s win total. Yes, that sounds good, but wait—there’s more. They lead the Eastern Conference and have won a franchise record 17 games in a row and are 31-2 in their last 33 games (a .94 winning percentage). That’s good—really good. In case you’re wondering, they’re halfway to the NBA record for consecutive wins: 33 straight by the ’71-72 Lakers with Wilt the Stilt, considered the best team of all time.

How have they managed to do this? Unselfish team basketball and great defense. And how did that happen? Because suspended General Manager Danny Ferry hired Coach Mike Budenholzer two years ago. Coach Bud served as an assistant for 18 years under Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs play unselfish team basketball, great defense, and—oh yeah—they win championships. Five of them, to be exact, since Pop took over in 1996.

If you watch the current Hawks, you can see the same style: great, unselfish play, passing the152060902_Wizards_Hawks_Cunningham0208 ball, finding the open man, great defense. This team is just flat-out fun to watch, a dream for all of us long-suffering Hawks fans who lived through the torment of Iso-Joe Johnson and big baby Josh Smith. There aren’t any stars on the current team, just great basketball players like Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver (pictured here after draining a 3), and Al Horford. (Of course, if you’ve followed Atlanta sports for any time at all, you’re just holding your breath till one or two of our key guys go down with a season-ending injury.)

The Hawks might or might not win a championship this year, but something special is going on that makes the end of football season much easier. They are as dialed-in as any team can be, and the wins just keep piling up. Cocktail hour indeed. Stay tuned here. The Hawks haven’t won a championship since 1958, and that was when they were in St. Louis, but there might be pro basketball in Atlanta in June this year. Which would mean we wouldn’t have to watch the Braves, which will be a huge relief. More on that in a moment.

College football: The inaugural college football playoff is history, and all concerned havemeyer deemed it a rousing success. For the first time, a select committee chose the four top teams and seeded them 1 through 4. They squared off against each other, first in two traditional New Year’s Day bowls, with the two winners of those games advancing to a championship game ten days later. The lowest-seeded team, Ohio State, won it all this year (Buckeyes Coach Urban Meyer is pictured here), which of course raised all sorts of questions.

Chief among them: was there really that much difference between the #4 team that got in and the #5 team—in this case Texas Christian—that was excluded from the playoff? No, there wasn’t. So immediately there’s talk about expanding the playoff to six teams, with the top two seeds getting a first-round bye. That would mean extending the season by at least one week and some college presidents have objected to more missed classes for more practices, etc. But make no mistake: with the huge ratings garnered by this year’s three playoff games, there are millions to be made by expanding the number of teams and it will undoubtedly happen. What won’t happen: those student-athletes won’t be getting any of that additional compensation. But that’s another issue.

Also troubling, at least to me, is that as much as I’ve clamored for a college football playoff through the years, once it was all said and done, I felt that the regular season had been cheapened somehow. In former years, #1 Alabama would have played #2 Florida State for the BCS national championship. Ohio State, this year’s eventual champion, would not have even been in the mix. The Buckeyes reached the playoff on the strength of having lost only one regular season game and a convincing 59-0 beatdown of Wisconsin in the Big Ten conference championship game. In former years they would have gone to a good BCS bowl and that would have been the end of it. Not this year. The #4 seed won the whole enchilada. But stay with me, this is not a rant against the Buckeyes.

Which leads me to say that if the playoffs are expanded to six or even eight teams, be prepared for that sixth or eighth seed to win the national championship. It might be a team with two losses in the regular season pulling an upset of an undefeated team in the playoffs. But it’s no longer about who the best team is at the end of the season, but rather who gets hot for about a month—just like in the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, major league baseball, and college basketball. In other words, just like in all those sports, it’s now about winning a tournament.

M20515449_BG1aybe that’s okay. I’m not taking anything away from the Buckeyes—they beat the SEC champs in the Sugar Bowl in what amounted to a home game for Alabama (here’s Bama Coach Nick Saban answering questions at a press conference in his usual gleeful manner) and then beat the Pac-10 champion Oregon Ducks, who put up 59 points against Florida State in the Rose Bowl. They won their way to the championship, and lost only one game in the regular season, their second game on September 6 against a Virginia Tech team that finished 7-6. That loss was clearly an aberration.

But there’s no doubt that something has changed in college football that has made crowning its champion more like the other round-robin free-for-alls that mark other major sports, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Why does this bother me? For the same reason it bothered me the first time a wild-card team won the World Series in baseball—the 1997 Florida Marlins, who finished nine games behind the Braves that year in the regular season. How could they possibly be baseball champions when the finished in a distant second place during the regular season? But they were. It’s happened six times since that year, including this past season with the San Francisco Giants. The Red Sox broke their long championship drought in 2004 by winning the World Series as a second-place wild card team. How has this happened?

Baseball plays a 162-game regular season for 6 months, and then rewards two second-place teams in each league with playoff spots as wild-card teams. Those teams can get hot over the course of a month and win the whole thing. Are they in fact the best team, or just the winners of the playoffs? Is there a difference?

They clearly weren’t the best team over the course of a 6-month season. Given 162 games to prove it, a wild-card team couldn’t finish first in their division. But they can get into the playoffs and play their way to the championship over the course of one month. At the same time, a team that finished in first place during the regular season suddenly finds their bats have gone cold and their pitching not as precise when October comes.

This is also a function of playing a series, as happens in baseball, hockey, and pro basketball—best 3 out of 5 or best 4 out of 7 games—rather than a one-game winner-take-all approach that prevails in football and college basketball. Would Ohio State have beaten Alabama or Oregon 4 times in 7 games? It doesn’t matter, they didn’t have to. They only had to win once against each team, and they did. Same in the NFL. (The first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl, by the way, was the 1980 Oakland Raiders. Five other teams have done it since, most recently the 2010 Green Bay Packers.)

Where does this leave us? Still with a bit of chaos in college football, just as in the BCS era, and I suppose we should get used to it. It’s highly doubtful that any one conference will dominate the sport as champion as the SEC did for seven consecutive seasons between 2006 and 2012. Winning two playoff games—and perhaps three in the future—will be too high a hurdle for any one conference to do year after year after year. That’s probably not a bad thing either. But still, you can’t argue with the fact that as entertainment, this year’s college football campaign was pretty darn good. Stay tuned.

Pro Football: Ah, the NFL. Fresh off the Ray Rice controversy and with Superbelichick Bowl 49 looming, all the talk is about the Patriots (here’s Coach Bill Belichick joyfully facing the media) using under-inflated footballs in the AFC championship game against the Colts on
January 18. Unless we’re talking about the balls used in the kicking game, in a game decided by a field goal, who cares about underinflated pigskins, really? Yes, I know it speaks to the integrity of the game, and yes, I know we’re talking about the team that gave us Spygate here, but c’mon man.

belichick-sabanThe only thing we know for certain after all the drama and press conferences surrounding this subject over the last 10 days is that Bill Belichick makes Nick Saban look like Doink the Clown in the charisma department. Belichick has all the charm and personality of a bowling shoe. At any rate, however all of this plays out, the NFL has another problem on its hands in a season filled with off-the-field fiascos, and the Patriots have to deal with a huge distraction in the run-up to their sixth Super Bowl in the Belichick era.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s NFL franchise has fired its head coach—the winningest in team history—and appear to be poised to hire Dan Quinn, the defensive coordinator of the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks after his season ends next Sunday. His defenses are the best in the league, and the Falcons finished last in that department last season. At least they didn’t make the mistake of hiring the human train wreck that is Rex Ryan. The Falcons need a coach with integrity and class, not a buffoon.

Speaking of Doink the Clown and buffoons, this finally leads us to…

The Braves: Sigh. Having traded away much of the talent that was on last year’s edition, the Braves are poised to revive the dreadful years of the late ’70s and ’80s, when the aforementioned Skip Caray regularly told his listeners, “Well Braves fans, the bases are loaded and I wish I was too.”

photoBraves management appears to be in full-blown fire-sale and re-building mode while trying to convince us that they’re not exactly dismantling the ’27 Yankees. Maybe not, but they are tearing down for the most part the squad that won 96 games just two seasons ago. Those of you who lived through those dreadful years mentioned above may want to dust off those “Not Too Shabby” placards and get yourself fitted for that paper bag you’ll be Knicks-Fans-Wearing-Bags-Over-Their-Heads-In-New-Orleans1wearing over your head all summer (like the Knick fans at left). All of this is ironically happening at just the moment that Atlanta’s Big Three from our golden years—Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux, pictured above—are inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s going to be painful to watch.

In the meantime, grab the remote and watch Kyle Korver rain down those threes. It’s poetry in motion. And college football returns in 7 months.

Autumn Reading

photo 1“Aprils have never meant much to me,” says Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I agree with him. I was made for autumn. Give me, as Ray Bradbury wrote, “That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.”

If you’ve been paying any attention at all—and you have—then you know I love this season more than any other. November particularly, but December too, and yes, December is fall in Savannah—and technically everywhere else till winter officially arrives on December 21. But December truly is autumn here, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s the best month of the year to be in this lovely little burg.

Why? Just take a casual walk in any direction and you’ll see and feel it. The students are on winter break, and tourists are few. Parking is plentiful. There’s no waiting in restaurants and bars. Temperatures are in the 50s, there are no sand gnats or mosquitoes, the sun is low on the horizon, the leaves are changing, and the deafening roar of summer’s cicadas is gone for another season. The quiet you hear walking through the squares is almost startling. The city’s beauty is on full display in the lengthening shadows of the slanting afternoon sun. The sultriness of summer is gone, the St. Patrick’s Day mob and the gawking tourists of spring aresunset 2 still three months away, and for now nirvana reigns supreme. Draw near the fire on a cool and dark December twilight in your favorite downtown pub and have a glass of cheer. In December Savannah really is Charm City.

The return of December means several other more unpleasant things, however, besides the fact that you’re behind on your holiday shopping. For UGA fans it means settling for another 9-3 season that should have been much better, while wrapping yourself in what has become an annual December ritual: telling yourself it’s okay because “Mark Richt is such a classy and nice guy.” Unlike that Jackass in Columbia or that Stiff Guy in Tuscaloosa Who We Wish We Had or that Other Jackass That Wears a Visor at Auburn. Who cares if we’re playing in a Bowl Named for a Department Store rather than a playoff game. We’ve got the Last Nice Guy in Sports coaching our team, by golly, and we’re gonna keep him. Okay, Stan, move on, enough of that.

What else? For Falcons fans December means bracing for yet another disappointing season while being pleasantly surprised that a 5-8 record gets you tied for first place in the NFC South. Might there be January football in Atlanta after all? Perchance to dream.

December might bring the melancholy end of college football season but this year it also brings the anticipation of the first-ever four-team playoff. Then you realize that it’s yet another glorious way for the NCAA to avoid choosing a real and undeniable college football champion the way it does in basketball and every other sport—except for the most popular one in America.fezziwig

But thank goodness December also brings wood-burning fires, Christmas tree smells, Old Fezziwig Ale, Holiday Porter, bourbon eggnog and pumpkin spice coffee creamer. It is indeed a downright glorious time to be alive. It’s also time to take stock of our autumn reading while planning what lies ahead to read during the long nights of winter. Here’s what I’ve been reading this fall, broadly defined as Labor Day to Thanksgiving:

Philosophy and History: Did he really say “philosophy”? Indeed I did. Long-suffering followers may recall that in the summer I was reading Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart (Norton, 2014). If Jefferson and Hamilton are the pole stars of the continuing political differences in this country—how big should government be and what should it do?—then the other eternal conflict and tension has been between the Enlightenment and the Reformation—reason vs. religion.

The titanic struggle between rational thought (philosophically defined) and emotionally charged revealed religion is still alive and well in American culture, politics, and society. Recent polls continue to show that Americans would give fewer votes to an avowed atheist than to another fictitious politician of almost any religious stripe, including presumably Muslim. Some states still have religious tests on the law books expressly forbidding atheists from holding office. Was the United States in fact founded by infidels, free thinkers, skeptics and outright atheists, as Stewart asserts, and if so, doesn’t that give the lie to this being a “Christian nation”? He makes a convincing argument but as I’m fascinated by this subject, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I read two other books, one a classic and the other new, to provide a little more context.

enlightenment-in-americaThe Enlightenment can be defined as a belief system built upon the premise that we understand nature and man best through the use of our natural faculties—as opposed to a belief in the supernatural and revealed religion. It’s another way of exploring the age-old questions, What is the nature of the universe and man’s place in it?

Henry F. May’s The Enlightenment in America was first published in 1976 (Oxford University Press), and his conclusions, as you might expect, are much less bold than Stewart’s even as he is more careful with the evidence. He divides the Enlightenment in America into four overlapping periods:

  1. The Moderate Enlightenment, 1688-1787, characterized by the defense of balance and order in all things, a belief, May asserts, that is still deeply imbedded in American institutions (or at least it was in 1976).
  2. The Skeptical Enlightenment, 1750-1789, the Enlightenment of Voltaire and David Hume, characterized by skepticism about religious dogma, which May writes was the least influential in America.
  3. The Revolutionary Enlightenment, 1776-1800, the Enlightenment of Jefferson, Paine, and the French Revolution, the belief in the clean sweep and the new start, characterized by the optimism that men would be more free and morally better in the future. Jefferson firmly believed that all Americans would eventually be Unitarians. Instead Unitarianism became the religion of the upper class of eastern Massachusetts.
  4. The Didactic Enlightenment, 1800-1815, relying heavily on the Scottish Enlightenment, with a firm belief in moral values, the certainty of progress, and the importance of culture, particularly literature.

None survived far into the nineteenth century intact, and all ran headlong into the anti-intellectualism and religious enthusiasm of the Second Great Awakening and advent of Jacksonian Democracy. In the end, if our Founders were indeed freethinkers, as Matthew Stewart contends—and undoubtedly many if not most of them were—then there is a curious disconnect between our own intellectual heritage and the world we’ve somehow created. Understanding it and explaining it will continue to provide fertile ground for philosophers and scholars for years to come.

humeThe Pursuits of Philosophy: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of David Hume by Annette C. Baier (Harvard University Press, 2011) is a more recent analysis of one of the most controversial thinkers of the 18th century. The man lauded and damned as an infidel and outright atheist in his own time was at heart really just an agnostic who subscribed to the “live and let live” theory. Hume didn’t know if God existed; He might, and He might not. Hume understood the human need to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful supernatural being who controlled and supervised everything we do. But he argued that no one could prove that deity’s existence definitively one way or the other, and therefore no one should ever force that belief on other people, particularly using the power of government or laws. And unlike most people, Hume was content with not knowing. Even downright happy. He didn’t try to change his Christian friends’ minds, and he asked them not to try to change his. As Baier writes, “He valued his friendships more than he cared about his friends’ agreement with his views.” Good advice for all of us in this age of Facebook rants.

Hume also rejected the notion of original sin, repulsed by the idea that men should be ashamed of what were natural human impulses, such as sexual desires. From that day to this Hume’s ideas have been denounced as heretical, revolutionary and downright dangerous. Samuel Johnson detested Hume, and that fact alone makes him worthy of our respect and attention (for more on Johnson, keep reading). It’s worth noting that Hume the confirmed agnostic met his death with stoical calm and peace; Johnson the confirmed Christian was terrified of what lay beyond and clung tenaciously to his last breath.

At 144 pages of text, this book is a nice short introduction to one of the great minds of the 18th (indeed any) century. Read this before moving on to a more doorstop-sized biography like Ernest Mossner’s The Life of David Hume (Oxford, 1980).

jefferson and madisonJefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration by Adrienne Koch. This book was first published in 1950 and is a very lucid and readable introduction to one of the great friendships in American history. The Jefferson-John Adams friendship is more famous for the correspondence carried on by those twin titans in their last years, but the Jefferson-Madison partnership was more influential across Jefferson’s lifetime in shaping his ideological convictions and the political thought and policies that evolved from them. Madison grounded Jefferson in some of his more theoretical notions, like his idea that the Earth belongs to the living, and that therefore debts should be cancelled every 19 years or so. Maybe so, Madison said, but when do you start counting? And what do you do about debts that are sometimes contracted for and that benefit posterity, like wars? Besides applying the brakes to Jefferson’s philosophical whims, Madison was also simply a good and caring friend. It was for good reason that Jefferson told him, just months before his death, “to myself, you have been a pillar of support thro’ life. Take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.” Koch wrote extensively about the thought of the founders in a career cut short (she died in 1971 at age 59), and this one is well worth reading.

wuthering heightsThe Great Books: Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Brontë (1847), Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813), and The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895).

The first two books were written by two of the most prominent authors of the nineteenth century, and all three of these offerings (like most good novels) have been variously plundered by Hollywood. Having seen the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights starring Merle Oberon and Lawrence Olivier—and never having read or seen any dramatized version of Pride and Prejudice—I was anxious to read both.

I liked Brontë’s much better. My only memory of the movie is Heathcliff and Catherine sitting on the moors, the night wind blowing through Oberon’s hair. Their literary counterparts are much darker and disagreeable people than I remember them being on screen, but perhaps I need to watch it again. Heathcliff and Catherine are two of literature’s most famous lovers, yet they are dismally unappealing red-badge-jpgcharacters whose relationship is not a linear progression but is instead a twisting, page-turning tale of friendship, obsession, revenge, cruelty, sometimes implacable hatred, and deep and abiding love. The Brontës were a brooding and somber lot, and this book fully embodies that. Perfect autumn reading.

Austen, I must confess, disappointed me. This is obviously an important book in the history and development of the novel as a literary art form, but I am utterly confounded as to how it has provided so much fodder for both the big and small screen. I understand the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy, but almost nothing happens in these pages of any consequence. There’s a lot of letter-writing, talking, drinking tea, and heart-fluttering over whether Mr. Darcy or some other charming but equally dull fellow has feelings for someone, followed by someone thinking about writing letters, talking, drinking tea, or heart fluttering. (I found the Heathcliff-Catherine relationship much more compelling.)The most interesting character to my mind was Mr. Bennett, Elizabeth’s father, in part because he had a nice study in which to retreat from the rest of the members of his family, most of whom he can barely tolerate and from which he needed to escape, and often.

As to Crane’s much-lauded book about the essence of personal courage, somehow I avoided having to read this in K-12. Most poor souls did not. I can see now why so many people hate reading once they graduate from high school. The book’s most redeeming quality is that the covers are not very far apart.

london journalAutobiography: Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers by Frederick Pottle (McGraw-Hill, 1982) and Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, ed. by Frederick Pottle (McGraw-Hill, 1950).

“I am lost without my Boswell.” So says Sherlock Holmes about Dr. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” James Boswell is most famous as the author of the monumental biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, first published in 1791 and never out of print. I bought a nice Easton Press edition in three volumes a few years back and loved it. Boswell is best known as Johnson’s biographer, but he was a fascinating and complex man in his own right, well worthy of our attention, and his published journals are just the place to start.

Boswell would be well at home in today’s world of social media. He kept extensive journals throughout his life, covering the most intimate details of his private goings-on and detailed transcriptions of his conversations with the great men of eighteenth-century Britain, including Georgia’s founder James Edward Oglethorpe, Samuel Johnson of course, the artist Joshua Reynolds, actor David Garrick, writer Oliver Goldsmith, the aforementioned David Hume, Voltaire, and many, many others. And just like today’s most avaricious Tweeters and Facebook-posters, he held nothing back, even when he probably should have. He wrote about everything: politics, art, literature, court intrigues, his sexual and sensual escapades (including cavorting with London’s boswellprostitutes and contracting and living with an STD), the peccadilloes of his friends and associates, falling out with his father over his chosen career, his fear of ghosts, and everything else you can imagine. He was an inveterate sinner who feared damnation but would walk out of a church and have sex with a prostitute. Sometimes he would miss the sermon because he was lusting over a woman in another pew. It is about as good a revealing snapshot of everyday life in eighteenth-century Britain—and a man driven by and forever at war with his passions—as we are ever likely to have, and it is all fascinating, a ripping good read.

Boswell died in 1795 at age 54, leaving behind a wealth of personal papers and journals that he hoped would one day be published. His family, however, had other ideas. Generations of his descendants thought his writings inappropriate and scandalous, detailing as they did his every whim, fancy, and indiscretion. They were also ashamed of their association with a man whom they considered to have lowered himself by acting the sycophant to the overbearing and boorish Johnson simply to obtain material for his biography.

Boswell’s descendants didn’t exactly lose his writings, but it’s safe to say they put them away and mostly forgot about them as they passed from generation to generation. They were “rediscovered” in the 1920s and 30s in a croquet box at Malahide Castle in Ireland and in a stable loft at the home of a Scottish laird at Fettercairn House near Aberdeen. The story of the Boswell Papers’ disappearance and re-discovery is told in fascinating if sometimes excruciating details in Frederick Pottle’s Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers. Pottle was a lifelong Boswell scholar and edited, in the Boswell Factory at Yale, all but one of the thirteen volumes of the popularly published journals that begin with the London Journal.

When Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, was first published in 1950, it was a surprising best seller and one can see why. It’s racy and titillating, gossipy and erudite, introspective and philosophical, witty and just plain fun. There are two famous scenes in these pages: Bozzy’s first meeting with Johnson on May 19, 1763, of course, but also the memorable day when he confronts his girlfriend Louisa as to whether she knowingly gave him a venereal disease: “Madam, I have had no connection with any woman but you these two months. I was with my surgeon this morning, who declared I had got a strong infection, and that she from whom I had it could not be ignorant of it. Madam, such a thing in this case is worse than from a woman of the town, as from her you may expect it. You have used me very ill. I did not deserve it.” Louisa protested her innocence, but to no avail. Boswell stormed out and ended the relationship. Later in a quieter moment he confessed to his journal that he’d had this same disease twice before, but if he ever apologized to poor Louisa, the journal is silent.

Boswell kept on writing till his last days, and though his father scolded him for keeping “a register of his follies and communicat[ing] it to others as if proud of them,” we are the ultimate beneficiaries. There are twelve other volumes after this one and I look forward to reading them all.

Bedtime Reading: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, ed. by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser (Modern Library, 1944). October’s darker days and the coming of Halloween always put me in the mood for stories that explore that tenuous ground between light and shadow that Rod Serling made so famous, that creepy place where we’ll encounter, as the editors write in their splendid introduction, the “rips or gaps in the impalpable curtain that divides the natural world of our experience from all the tremendous mysterygreat-tales-of-terror that lies beyond.”

I’ve written at length about the genre, and this year I dipped into this fine compendium that comes in at over a thousand pages. The first part, the Great Tales of Terror, comprises almost a third of the book, and includes some real gems: Ambrose Bierce’s “The Boarded Window” with its chilling twist ending; Thomas Hardy’s “The Three Strangers,” a weird tale of 19 people gathered in a shepherd’s cottage and what happens when three unknown men wander in off the moor; “The Interruption” by W.W. Jacobs, about a man who poisons his wife and then lives in fear of his housekeeper, who knows he did it; Geoffrey Household’s “Taboo,” a tale of the ancient fear of werewolves; and the forgotten classic by Carl Stephenson, “Leiningen versus the Ants,” first published in Esquire in 1938, about what happens to a man who refuses to abandon his plantation in the face of an invading army of voracious insects. This section contained other tales by H.G. Wells, Conrad Aiken, and, surprisingly, Faulkner and Hemingway.

The editors caution the reader that “too generous a ration of horror may defeat its intended purpose, and succeed only in creating a surfeit instead of a feast.” They were right. Preferring to save the supernatural for next October, after feasting on the tales of terror, I stopped.

Which it’s time to do with this column. Next up: War and Peace. Turn the page and enjoy the upcoming winter.

The Way the Game is Played

1231690-derek_jeterFormer baseball commissioner and Yale president Bart Giamatti captured it best: Baseball, he wrote, breaks your heart: “It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

As a lifelong baseball fan, I’ve always hated to see the season end. Unless the Braves makes the playoffs, that is, which they didn’t this year, after another awful September. I love playoff season too, but this year is different. The end of the season marked the end of Derek Jeter’s career.

derek_jeter_1--300x300Before you Braves and Red Sox fans fill up my inbox with flaming burritos in protest, let me explain. I’ve never been much of a Yankee fan. Indeed, it’s still hard for me to accept the outcome of the 1996 World Series. The Braves, defending World Series champions that year, again won the National League pennant in ’96 and went to New York to open the series with the Yankees.

They promptly shocked the baseball world by winning the first two games in Yankee Stadium by a combined score of 16-1 behind the offensive firepower of Andruw Jones and Fred “Crimedog” McGriff and the dazzling pitching duo of John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. The next three games would be in Atlanta, followed by two more in New York if necessary. The Braves needed to win only two of those potential five games to clinch their second consecutive series. It was going to be Atlanta Braves baseball nirvana.

Except it never happened, of course. They lost the next four games and that was that, with the Yankees winning their first championship since 1978. Derek Jeter was on that ’96 team, playing in his first full season as a Yankee. The Braves lost to Jeter’s Yankees again in 1999.

So though I’ve never been a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee hater, I’ve not been partial to them either, as we say. But I can certainly respect the history of the great franchise and the great players who’ve worn the pinstripes—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jackson, Mattingly, Rivera.

None, however, were ever better than number 2, who retired Sunday after 20 years in the big leagues. It was all in the way he played the game.

jeter1Baseball is a game of numbers, but it wasn’t just Jeter’s statistics that made him great, though they’re impressive enough too. One of the reasons I love baseball is that it’s so tied to its own history, as no other sport really is—every player who puts on the uniform is compared to all of those who have gone before. When Jeter legged out a single on Sunday for his last hit, it was number 3,465 in his career. Only five players in major-league history, across more than 145 years, have ever hit more. Only five. He finished with a .310 batting average, won five World Series titles, five Gold Gloves, five Silver Slugger awards, and was an All-Star fourteen times. He will be voted unanimously into the Hall of Fame.

In this, his last season, he played in 145 games. Only one other Hall of Famer in the last century, Al Kaline, played in more games in his final season. His walk-off game-winning single in his last game at Yankee Stadium on September 25 was the stuff of legend. And he played all twenty seasons with the same team, again a rare thing.

derek jeterBut the most impressive statistic about Derek Jeter to me? Zero. Across twenty major-league seasons, he was never ejected from a game. Not once. With my temper I would have rivaled Bobby Cox’s record for getting tossed out of games (158) if I’d ever been so blessed to play that long, so I can appreciate Jeter’s self-control perhaps more than anything. To play at that high level and never lose your cool enough to get thrown out of a game is remarkable indeed. It speaks to his character, his temperament under pressure, and yes, his upbringing too.

True to the best about the sport, baseball history was in play on his final day in uniform, last Sunday, September 28, in Boston. With two hits on Sunday, Jeter could have tied Ty Cobb’s record for the most seasons with at least 150 hits, with 18.The Georgia Peach played his last season in 1928, 86 years ago, so this is a cumulative record that speaks to skill and longevity, one not likely to fall very easily. Yankee manager Joe Girardi told Jeter about the record on Sunday morning, and asked if he wanted to play longer than his planned two at bats. Jeter said no. He would stick with just two trips to the plate and take the results, whatever they were.

New York Yankees vs Baltimore Orioles“I never played the game for numbers,” he said. “So why start now?” He fell one hit short.

Others have more eloquently described Jeter’s career than I can, but as a lifelong fan of the national pastime, I know something rare when I see it. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to see some great baseball players in person. Long-suffering readers of this blog will recall that I saw Hank Aaron hit homerun number 713 in 1973. I saw the Big Red Machine in a championship year, and many other legendary players too numerous to mention across 40 years of attending big-league games.

Jeter played the game the way it’s supposed to be played, the way we all dreamed of back when we were playing ball with our friends out in the street or in the backyard, when we played just for the sheer love of the game. Jeter played that way every day.

He played with an intensity that Pete Rose had, but without Rose’s arrogance. He played with unbelievable skill—no one will ever forget his famous flip in the 2001 playoffs against the A’s—with finesse, style, and above all, with class, both on and off the field. He didn’t run his mouth or think he was entitled, or create more headlines for what he did off the field than on. He respected the game and played it with honor.

Wa5MWHw3How remarkable was he? As I mentioned above, he played his last game in Boston, home of the Red Sox, the Yankees’ most hated rival, and the fans stood and cheered for him as if he were their own, long and loudly and with tears in their eyes. Red Sox greats from years past lined up to shake his hand. Boston’s a great baseball town, and they know a legend when they see one, but even this was something to see. It would be like UGA fans giving a retiring Steve Spurrier a standing and rousing ovation, if Spurrier had ever had one ounce of class.

Will we see his like again? Yes. One thing we know about baseball is that it renews itself, and as one era ends, another begins, even if it takes a few years to realize it. When Jeter came on the scene in the 1995 season, another Yankee legend—Don Mattingly—was ending his storied career. Donnie Baseball, now the Dodgers’ manager, played all 14 of his big-league seasons with the Yankees and retired with a career .307 average, one year before the Yankees began their championship run. It was the end of an era, but without our even knowing it at the time, a new one began that same season. It’s the way the game is played.

To watch a great athlete across his entire career is one of the great joys in life. To then see him walk away in the fading twilight is a reminder of our own fleeting youth, when we played the game with passion and love, and of our own mortality. It is a painful reminder, if we needed one, that all good things must end someday.

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsSo there is no joy in Mudville at the end of this season and the end of Derek Jeter’s splendid career. To paraphrase John Fogerty, this particular brown-eyed handsome man has rounded third for the last time. Like all great players who have gone before, Jeter will now gracefully stand aside and make way for others whose names we may not know very well—yet—but who will, in time, achieve greatness. They’ll be here as sure as one season follows another, keeping the memory of high skies, sunshine, and childhood alive. In another September we’ll lament they’re passing from the stage as well. It’ll break our hearts because baseball always does. It’s the way the game is played.