Cut The Grass Low…

  • Published on February 20, 2019

He cut the grass low, along a straight line, always as straight as you could with a push-mower. It made for a truer infield, easier on the eyes, better hops. There wouldn’t be a rider for a few years yet, so for now he pushed in the summer sun. Neither you nor I know how many times he cut that field, or raked the mound or weeded the base paths. Let’s just say a lot. He’s from a generation where you don’t count things like that. Stats don’t matter, but kids playing on a decent ball field do. He taught me to throw it over-hand, the shoulder fairly brushing the ear on its way through. He grimaced when I dropped to three-quarters or, horrors, side-arm! You just don’t throw that way. And you catch with two hands. Once in a Babe Ruth game at Falconer field I tried a basket catch in the outfield, missed badly, and prolonged an inning. I don’t know what I was thinking, maybe that I was good. That was the longest time I ever spent in the outfield in my life, hoping to get another chance to help the team and do it the right way, waiting to come back to the dugout and explain myself to him.

He hooked his arm in mine, maybe the only time I remember this happening. Senior year, final home football game, parent’s day. We walked down the cinder track, him on my left, mom on my right. My high school girlfriend (and current wife) snapped an iconic picture of he and I looking bigger than life, me because I was wearing pads, him because of who he is, who he was that day. He would have pulled on pads had someone let him, though he wasn’t a football player so much as an athlete. The cardio needs of the game would have killed him, but not the spirit and the competition. No, that part he would have been fine.

He has said more than once (more than ten times, more than twenty times) that he could stand under the basket and leap off two feet and curl his fingers around the rim (he’s maybe 5’9”). It’s impossible to doubt him; he’s prone to hyperbole only when talking about other people. They called him Leaping Lena. Don’t ask me why; try him, he might know, nicknames being what they were back in the day. After my basketball games we would dissect what happened, the good and the bad. I loved and hated those conversations, accountability comes hard to teenagers sometimes, and you are what you left on the court, and your dad sees and he knows everything. No getting around that. Today I do the same thing with my son, and I am more careful I think, but I hear him in there, almost always.

My dad is a great man, not a good man, but a great one. It took me a while to understand that, almost 50 years of trying to negotiate my own life and realize what a man endures in 70 plus years. I learned it because of sports, our common language when politics and home improvement and work and relatives didn’t match up in our stubborn heads. Sports did, and still do. Everyone deals with demons, sometimes they are big and scary, and sometimes they are small and manageable. But they are ours, we have to own them, and we have to look at them daily, weekly, year after year. Dads and sons share a few, they do so through lives mingled in ways they don’t get to predict or control; it’s made up as it goes.

How do you write a piece about your dad without it sounding like a eulogy (he’s still quite alive), and how do you encompass it in 800 words or less? Actually, you don’t, or at least you don’t if you have only my limited skills with words to work with. So instead I’ll leave off with this:

Every game, every play. Every class, every grade. Every cold, every bruise. Every age, all the news. Every house, every home. Every ball, every phone. All the fun, all the shame. The win, the loss, the rides, the pain. A frown, a laugh, a silent tear. Metal forged year on year. A pile of days without end. A hero, a tyrant, the bank, a friend. Everything the mirror sees. Who you are, who you’ll be.

Backward Shaping to Teach

We’re built to accept the world beginning to end; a start, middle, the finish. It’s how we live. It just makes sense. A kindergartener can’t start with calculus curriculum, you can’t read Shakespeare without knowing the alphabet.  Same with physical activity, especially complicated movement patterns. We learn in a predictable sequence:

-Prepare; stance, grip, etc.

-Initiate action; load the club, racket, ball, stick/bat, etc. with potential energy.

-Complete a bunch of other necessary gyrations to get the most out of that energy; bend the knees, open the hips, rotate the shoulders, etc.

-End the skill; follow through, thumb to nose, pick up grass, etc.

-Repeat; recreate movement patterns in that same order

The golf swing is a complicated kinetic chain of physical movements, almost always taught start-to-finish; set-up, backswing, downswing, follow-through. In the book, Total Golf: A behavioral approach to lowering your score and getting more out of your game, Thomas Simek and Richard O’Brien propose teaching the golf swing back to front, end to start. 

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In forward progression you repeat a series of movements in order to get to what is usually the most important part of the skill, the finish. To be able to hit a golf ball, for instance, you need to progress through set-up, backswing, downswing, and contact before you follow-through. Most teachers will tell you that the follow-through is at least as important as every other part, but some of us never get there.

Backward progression learning teaches the finish first. Foundations like grip and balance are taught to build a foundation, but posture, tempo, and body position are taught finish to start, follow-through-to-set-up. When errors occur in the process, you go back to the stage that you performed correctly, re-master it, and start all over again. 

Features of Backward Shaping include:

 -The rate of learning is much faster than forward progression. In one study of moderate skills, mentally challenged subjects using backward shaping techniques learned at approximately the same rate as normal subjects using forward progression.

-There are fewer errors inherent in backward shaping, increasing a learner’s self-confidence in perfecting complex physical activities.

– The number of repetitions needed to achieve physical activity goals is significantly fewer.

– In backward shaping the latter parts of the skill are better developed, because you practice them more, which leads to an overall higher level of skill performance than in forward progressions.

 So, why isn’t Backward Shaping more popular?  The answer is most likely tradition. Forward progression is easier to understand, rarely questioned as the correct model for learning. You tend to teach how you were taught. It just makes sense. But comparisons have shown that backward shaping can be superior in developing speed, accuracy, fluency, and skill maintenance. It may be the alternative to teaching the old fashioned way.

“The Game Ended and We Won. Then the Game Ended and We Won Again”: The 1972 Olympics Men’s Basketball Debacle

It’s safe now, everybody breath. Going to be okay. The sporting world is restored, back on level. On the basketball floor in the Basketballhalle in Greater Munich the youngest team ever to represent the United States in an Olympic basketball tournament celebrates, glorious in victory, relieved of their burden. We did it, they say, we represented!  Sixty-four straight wins in amateur play for USA basketball, less than twenty for this particular lineup. 6,500 spectators pack the arena, including FIBA Secretary General Renato William Jones. The game was decided by a single free throw, oh so close, but a win is a win. Gold medals for everyone, names in the record books, all that.

It was sweet for the USA team who persevered despite their head coach, and his slow-down, defense-first philosophy. Had they run up and down the court, fast paced, they wouldn’t have needed two pressure-packed free throws with three seconds left on the clock to take the final lead of the game. Had they done what they do best, out-sprinted, out-jumped, used talent and fitness and confidence (arrogance) that defined America’s game of basketball, and our country as the framers of the new world, the gold medal would never been in doubt. This game was designated a microcosm of the Cold War, a test of political systems and what they can do, as fair or unfair as that may be. As starting guard Tom Henderson said, We should have ran, and we’d have ran them back to Russia.

This was that heartrending 1972 Olympics, that epic tragedy in Munich when the games ground to a mind-numbing halt as eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by Arab terrorists. The games went on hold for nearly two days as the world digested the terror, sorted it against an Olympic ideal of purity and well-being, and came out the other end. When competition resumed, so did USA basketball, defeating Italy to advance to the gold medal game and extending their Olympic winning streak to 63 games.

They were the favorites, sure, under the strict, ornery stare of legendary Oklahoma State dictator Hank Iba, he of the suffocating defense and half-court sets. No American team had ever lost in men’s basketball in Olympic play, seven gold medals dating back to 1936. The bigger, more experienced Soviets weren’t typical underdogs, well-seasoned and well coached. They had a great team, said U.S. assistant coach John Bach. Their team, it was reported, played almost 400 games together. 400 games. We had played 12 exhibition games and the trials. That’s right, an amateur team that played 400 games. And there was that Cold War thing.

No matter, there was team USA on the floor celebrating, game over.

And then this happened.

At the Basketballhalle in greater Munich on September 9th, 1972, the final buzzer sounded four different times. The scoreboard read USA 50, USSR 49 after three of them. The problem was that it read USSR 51, USA 50 after the fourth. Here’s what happened (see if you can follow it):

With three seconds on the clock and the score ties 49-49, Doug Collins is in the middle of shooting his second, game-winning free throw, when the horn sounds for no particular reason (Horn #1). He makes the shot with the horn going off and the score changes to 50-49, USA. International rules say you can’t call a time out after a made second free throw, so team USA thinks maybe time has miraculously expired and the game is over. The officials realize this isn’t the case and continue play. The Soviets inbound and get the ball to half court, stopping the clock with one second left.  The Russian coaching staff charges the scorer’s table, insisting they had tried to get a time out BEFORE the second free throw by Collins. Officials rule that play will resume from the point when the Soviet coaches disrupted the game, with one second remaining on the clock. The Soviets inbound the ball and miss their desperation shot. Game over (Horn #2).  But FIBA Secretary General Renato William Jones comes down from the stands and insists play re-start from the point of Collins’ made free throw, against FIBA rules since you can’t call a time-out AFTER a made second free throw. Jones, by his own admission, after the fact, had no authority to make rulings on a game in progress. Okay, whatever, celebration postponed. Play resumes, three seconds left, Soviets down one, inbounding under their own basket. The Soviets miss another last-second attempt (Horn #3), and the game is FINALLY over, let the party begin.

But, as Lee Corso says, Not so fast.

As it turns out, the referees allowed play to resume before the scorer’s table had finished re-setting the clock; the game clock still showed 50 seconds when the play was completed. So what, right?  Manually count three second off the play and end the game. Instead, a decision was made to re-play the final three second again.

And, of course, with another crack at it, Aleksandr Belov catches Ivan Edeshko’s pass as two American defenders stumble. Belov hits the game-winning layup. Horn #4 sounds. Final score USSR 51, USA 50.

The American team voted unanimously not to attend the medal ceremony or accept the medals themselves, some have even written that protest into their wills. Forty-eight years later, the silver medals sit unclaimed in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland.

NYSPHAA Section VI Swimming 2012-2016

2012 Women’s Section VI Swimming

Swim fast…breathe later.

Author Unknown

Young Chautauqua County competitive swimmers are introduced to the water in programs with names like Jets (YMCA based), Sharks, and STAR (Southern Tier Aquatic Racers). They start as young as five years old (minnows?), and can race competitively as old as eighteen. STAR is the most advanced of these, affiliated with USA swimming, offering national-level competition to members. While the physical act of swimming fast and far is impressive, there is no athletic spectator experience quite like a swim meet. The venue is markedly different from a field or court; contested on a small body of water sitting in a fall-out shelter of solid construction and impossible acoustic integrity. By necessity, pools are steamy and filled with chemicals, and when the meet is contested in winter (most of the swim season) the transition from Western New York snow to the tropical pool environment fogs eyeglasses, straightens hair, and insists you dress in easily removable (and then replaceable) layers.

At the high school level, there has been a changing of the guard for women’s swimming in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. After thirty years the Panama High School women’s team broke through in the Frewsburg High School pool and won a meet against the Bears. After the epic win Coach Todd Conklin from Panama stated, “Bruce Johnson does a wonderful job and over the years they’ve been dominant and the team to beat in the world of swimming.  The girls have been working extremely hard and we’ve been building for this. Tonight was our night.”

Thirty years is a big number but a single indicator of the dominance over area swimming by Frewsburg. Their long-time coach Bruce Johnson has put up monster numbers in his storied career, including a 21 year home winning streak, and 25 years (yes, that’s years) without a league loss. Those are Hall of Fame numbers. Frewsburg’s gaudy run of excellence, came to an end like all runs eventually do, and it’s a credit to Coach Conklin that he has built a program to compete and win, and change the conversation in local swim circles.

If Frewsburg is the gold-standard in the pool, Olean High School is not far behind, being the team to beat in their league for a run of seven years. So, when the wall was touched in the last event of the night, and not by an Olean Husky, there was another guard changed. The Southwestern High School girls swim team had eclipsed the Huskies for the first time in seven years by a score of 99-86.  Coach Brown at Olean, like Coach Johnson from Frewsburg, has built a minor dynasty in high school swimming, and beating his team was no small feat. But the young Trojans was able to break through and change the dynamics of the local swim culture. The final relay team, as well as the swimmers who broke a school record in the 200 free relay earlier that evening, was made up of one eighth grader and three freshmen. After the win coach Glen Shoup from Southwestern recognized the team effort, “The girls have been working very hard not just last year but early this year and it is beginning to pay off. We look forward to the rest of our season and hope to bring home a Girls Swimming Class Sectional Championship to Southwestern this year,”

Yes, it’s a different world in the pool. You’ll want to check it out someday soon.

With the final touch on the wall -not a “touch-out” in the vernacular of the sport, but a significant, if surprising victory- the generous cacophony ratcheted involuntarily up, a reflex response framing the intensity of this final race of the swim meet. Cheers pounded walls and ceiling and deck. Riotous roars were thrown back as white noise, compromising equilibrium, all up in your grill. The ovation of surprise and joy, hooting, and hands clapping lapped itself going out and returning as source and echo passed each other, raising decibel levels like a cartoon thermometer in a fever patient, fit to burst.  This really happened. We really got to the wall first.  We really won!

Competitive swimming is a daunting proposal. Practices are two-plus hours, six days a week of effort in a chlorine bath, staring at the bottom of a pool through Plexiglas goggles, and breathing only on scheduled breaks. If you think you’re physically fit, follow a swimmer for a workout, you will be convinced otherwise. Swim meets are a uniquely individual proposition folded into a team sport (like track and field, golf, wrestling, and politics). The stark reality of swimming is in the measurement of achievement; touch the wall first, you win, a first place ribbon, your name in the paper. Otherwise your name is secondarily attached to a less significant number that you compare to all the other numbers and see where you stand. You own that result for the moment. It defines you, however briefly. There is almost never an official to indict, a teammate to blame, or a coach’s decision to second-guess. There is only you and the water and that elusive finish line you reel in with effort and skill and heart.

Then you climb out of the water in your skivvies and rubber cap and get ready to do it again.

2013 Women’s State Swim Meet

Swimming is a racing sport, like track; you line up by your competitor and GO, first one to the finish line wins. But it’s far less intimate, the competitors remarkable by their lane and their swimsuit, maybe a distinct swim cap bobbing in a wake. You can track progress in both disciplines, but in track you trace effort and anguish on the face of the runner. The clues in swimming are far more subtle, hiding in the splash and flailing arms, flutter kicks, and explosions off an unforgiving wall.

Every fast high school swimmer in New York gathered at Ithaca College last Friday and Saturday for the NYSPHAA Women’s state swim championships. Every single one. With due respect to most other high school sports, players only have to compete against schools with similar enrollment. Not so in the swimming. These athletes are sculpted from the resistance of their medium (water), their super-human training (months face-down in a pool), and the repeated use of every muscle in the body required to excel in the sport. There are no weaklings at the NYSPHAA swim championships.

SW Swimmers: Katie Lawton, Sydney Burk, Kelsey Powers, Xiane Smith

     The 2013 swim meet was particularly impressive. Some highlights:

-The local contingent, from Southwestern, Jamestown, Dunkirk, and Olean consisted of six sophomores and two freshmen. That’s quite a youth movement, and if you are a sports fan in general, and swim enthusiast in particular, you will get used to reading the names of tenth graders Xiane Smith, Sydney Thomas, Katie Lawton, and Kelsey Powers from Southwestern, Megan Marsh from Jamestown, and Makayla Sargent from Olean, along with ninth graders Sydney Burk from SW, and Diedra Osula from Dunkirk.

-Sargent is one of those athletes people will be talking about years from now, Yeah, I saw her swim in PERSON! She is a wildly competitive fish-in-the-water. This year she swam the 100 Fly at states, a discipline she hadn’t excelled at yet in the regular season; Why is she swimming the Fly at states?  All she did was swim the fastest time of the day in prelims. She can swim anything. She’s fast at every stroke, but you only get two individuals at states. In the finals of her other event, the 200IM, she set a pool and state record.

-The 50 Free is a fast-twitch, pulse-raising, water-pounding down-and-back, human jet-ski race. In the prelims Katie Smith from Pittsford, in suburban Rochester, set a state record 23:05. If you happened to blink at the wrong time you missed the fastest single sprint in the history of high school swimming in New York State. In the finals Xiane Smith and two-time defending champion Dina Rommel from Clarence High hit the wall simultaneously, and at that precise moment the scoreboard went dark. It got very quiet in the pool for a few anxious moments, and when the dust cleared and the lights came back on Rommel had a third straight state title, with Smith an eye-blink behind.

-The Clarence High School team was the talk of the meet. Their 200 medley relay team, featuring four seniors racing for the last time in high school, hit the wall in a state record time…and was disqualified when one swimmer left the block a tick of a fraction of a second early. They went from first place and all-hail-glory to an afterthought; state champions to being brushed from existence, as if they never entered the pool head-first. Not second, not third, not even last place. Disqualified! DQ, Dairy Queen. Just a brutal way to go out. They later went out with a vengeance, those same four seniors, and spanked the state record in the 400 free relay by more seconds than records deserve to be broken; a staggering 3:26, five full seconds faster than their qualifying time. A record for a pool that hosts college meets. Oh, and they won the overall team title, despite the DQ. Can you say redemption?

-Sydney Thomas, a lanky, speedy sophomore from Southwestern came to the meet seeded 33rd in the 100 back. She was able to drop her time a full second-and-a-half, finishing seventh. That’s called clutch racing. The Southwestern team’s qualification in the 400 Free relay (3:39.79) at sectionals was an unexpected surprise, and didn’t come until the final race of that meet. At states Xiane Smith, Thomas, Sydney Burk, and Katie Lawton shaved two more seconds for a 3:37.82 and a twelfth-place finish.

-Sophomore Megan Marsh of Jamestown, switching from an all-state cross-country runner to an all-state swimmer, finished seventeenth in the 200 IM, and eleventh in the 100 breaststroke.

-Freshman Deidra Osula of Dunkirk/Fredonia/Silver Creek swam the 50 Free, finishing thirteenth with a 24.48.

-Finally, the Southwestern 200 Free relay team (Smith, Powers, Burk, Lawton) desperately wanted then first three numbers on the final scoreboard to read 1:39. They’d cut time in the last four races, and that was their goal for the state meet. When the anchor touched the wall the clock read 140.22. Never mind that this was their fastest time ever, and never mind that they are three sophomores and a freshman. It simply wasn’t the number they wanted. Three-tenths of a second short of their goal, literally the length of a finger, the beat of a heart, standing between sadness and elation, between hugs and another year of work.

And that, my friends, is swimming too.

2014 Women’s State Swim Meet

There is a mass of muscle and sinew purposefully moving on the deck of the Ithaca College Aquatics Center, bunched super-fit human specimens in various stages of dress from swims to sweats with deck-coats, fondling swim caps and goggles. There are slippery porpoises sliding in fluid concert in the pool around which that deck is wrapped.

The 2014 New York State Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships played out over two days last weekend. Forty-three high schools participated. Southwestern High School sent six swimmers, five who competed and one alternate. The five that competed (for the record, Sydney Thomas, Xiane Smith, Jillian Lawton, Katie Lawton, and Sydney Burk) swam in three individual races and three relay races. As a team they finished tied for tenth, which is highly impressive. The feat elevates a little when you know the teams that finished ahead of them. Consider this list:

Place                School                         High School enrollment

1.                    Pittsford                      1,998

2.                     Bemore Merrick         1,371+ 1,289 (yeah, they have 2 high schools)

3.                     Orchard Park               1,577

4.                     Ithaca                          1,418

5.                     Fairport                       1,639

6.                     Clarence                      1,650

7.                     Pelham                           848

8.                     Horace Greely             1,319

9.                     Clarkstown                  1,547 South High + 1,482 at North High

T-10th.            Southwestern              444 (tied with Shenendehowa at 2,188)

Anything stick out there?  Break down those numbers any way you like and you can see that the five swimmers that competed did a pretty special job. They were one of only 12 schools to score over 100 points, and placed third from Section VI behind Orchard Park (1,577 students) and Clarence (1,650). Thomas, Smith and Katie Lawton are juniors. Burk and Jillian Lawton are sophomores.  Their names are currently on the Southwestern pool record board six times in various combinations.

2015 Women’s State Swim Meet

I believe talent is like electricity. We don`t understand electricity. We use it. You can plug into it and light up a lamp, keep a heart pump going, light a cathedral, or you can electrocute a person with it. Electricity will do all that.

Maya Angelou

Electricity arced through the Ithaca Athletics and Events Center for the 2015 NYSPHAA women’s state swim meet.  It was there, where maybe it shouldn’t have been what with a chlorine sea pooled at our feet. But it was there nonetheless, charging off the walls and ceiling, barely contained, from spectator to spectator and down into the pool to the competitors.

I swear I saw it. 

Electricity, like faith, something you can’t see except in the effect it has on that which it touches. You’d be hard pressed to name another athletics contest as impressive as a state swim meet. The specific qualities of building materials needed to house a chemical-filled, heated lake tend to echo sound, all tile and glass and hard surfaces. There’s little to dampen the background murmur of a thousand people (much less their shouts) save fellow spectators and a few hundred beach towels. And the passion that binds naturally to athletics that feature a single competitor and a clock make each effort a little more extraordinary. There is nothing quite like a swimmer on the final leg of their heat, one they’ve spent a season, a year, a lifetime preparing for, and the anxious, breathless, dizzying journey of the people who care deeply how they finish. You hope viscerally that they get to the wall faster, you pray for the damned clock to suspend, to please slow down this one time while your daughter, your sister your teammate, your friend gets through the water and to the wall. It’s excruciating, and vivid and shrill and acute. And then you look up at the clock and there is a number that’s attached to that person, for better or worse.

Aruba Part II

2003.  Heroes drop like flies in September.  In a three-week span we say goodbye to Bob Hope (I thought he died in the late ‘80’s), Johnny Cash, Buddy “Barnaby Jones” Ebsen, Warren Zevon, Robert Plant, and George Plimpton; THE Paper Lion).  Bad month to be famous.

     Also lost  in 2003: Maurice Gibb (he started a joke)… Richard Crenna (“better send in a good supply of body bags”)…Nell Carter (“these is knuckles you is lookin’ at”)…Johnny Paycheck (“Take This Job and Shove it”)…Mr. Rogers …Edwin Starr (WAR!  HUH!)…Little Eva (“everybody’s doin’ a brand new dance now”)…Bobby Stack, Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird is maybe the greatest hero in film history)…Katie Hepburn,  Barry White, Gregory Hines, Chuck Bronson, Bobby Hatfield, and Art Carney.

     The guy gets it now, and becomes violent.  He can’t get me off him –dead weight- so he starts to pound on me.  I lie across his lap, pinned down by my imbalance and the guy’s fists and elbows as they crash into my back.  I wonder where the guys are.  I guess Bocko got tossed like me somewhere.  Everyone else is probably stabilizing drinks before they move anywhere.  Mike and Doc must be cued in now, but they’ll definitely make sure they don’t spill booze just to help out a buddy who’s temporarily getting pummeled.  Besides, where’s anyone going on a 767 at 40k feet?

     Mr. Shoes pounds now like I’m one of his veiled woman-folk back in the sand, which I’m not, and I’m getting a little pissed.  Can’t push off to get up because psycho-shoe-man squirms like a wet fish trying to knock me out, so facedown I figure I might as well get the shoes.  The guys will help soon and I’m lousy as a punching bag for Arab terrorists.  Hopefully the guys have a beating of their own planned for him…I know I do. 

     But I bet they stand around and laugh first.

     Another PING from Captain Funny-pants in the cockpit.  The plane hiccups and I hear squeals from the cabin.  I’m tossed to the floor where I can get a real look at the Buster Browns.  I smell sulfur and something I bet a bomb expert could name.  I reach for the shoes.  Mr. Wet Fish kicks and lashes like someone’s trying to take his favorite explosive shoes…which I am.

     He gets a good shot at my nose with his left foot and my eyes water.  Now I’m really pissed.  I bite into the left leg, and hold on tight.

     So, I’m lying on the floor of a 767 going a solid 700mph at 40,000 feet, thinking about my mom and how much she paid to have my teeth straightened when I was ten.  I smell hard, Arabian explosives while biting a terrorist on the leg.  I’m a rum-soaked German Shepard…and, frankly, where the hell are the guys!?

     Finally, I pull the shoes off.  Wasn’t easy, and his socks smell like the floor of a taxicab.  Ahab goes bonkers.  I shove them under the seat.  As fate has it, I jam them into the feet of Patty Boskin.  She bends down to see what’s up.  We lock eyes. 

     “Hi Patty.”

     “Hi Bill.”

     “How’s things up there?”

     “Oh, not bad.”

     “Say Patty.  Can you see my wife?”

     “Yes I can Bill.”

     “Does she look mad?”

     “Just a second.”  And she disappears from view.  I struggle to get up, but I’m still tangled up in blue.

    She’s back.  “Okay Bill, Cheryl wants to know what you’re doing.  She says to quit jumping on the other passengers and get back in your seat.  Apparently you’re embarrassing her.” 

     “Yeah…well.”

     “So, Bill, what are you doing?”  Very cool lady, Mrs. Boskin.

     I smile…can’t help it.  “Well, that’s kind of complicated.  Can you take these shoes and give them to Doc.  Ask him not to light a match on them.” 

     She smiles back and takes the shoes. 

     “Oh and Patty?”

     “Yes, Bill.”

     “Can you see the guy giving me a beating?”

     “Yes, Bill.”

     “Can you ask your husband, or one of the other guys to knock him out?”

     “I’ll see what I can do.”

     Not sure what she does, but the guy stops.  He’s off me and out in the aisle.  I get up, and I’m pretty disappointed that nobody’s kicking the shit out of the guy.  He waves something that looks very much like a gun; sweat splashes with every move.  Gross

     Behind him stand the Rhodes scholar flight attendant and guy in a pilot hat.  Hey, who’s flying the plane?  They look like they want to run somewhere.  The curtain to first class is open and I can see the cockpit door’s closed, bolted I bet…I hope.  The guys stand around, sip drinks, and look at Mr. Shoes with a mixture of impatience and annoyance.  Nobody smiles, and we’re all on vacation…must be serious, no?

     Somebody turned off the chick flick we were ignoring earlier.  Wonder if they’ll refund headphone money.  Also wonder if they’ll get us free drinks the rest of the flight. 

     So I ask…. hey a guy’s gotta know.  “Hey, Captain funny-pants.” -can’t help it, when I get a name in my head it just sticks-  “When Mr. Shoes is, uh retired, can we get free drinks the rest of the flight?”

     He looks at me like I have two heads, which I don’t.  He can’t even produce a frown, he’s so shocked, just looks at me like I’m speaking Latin or something. 

     “Yeah.  How can you not give us free drinks?”  Doc.  He knows opportunity when it knocks.

     A chorus of yeahs.  Well, a chorus from our group…incredulous stares from the other passengers.  I bet I got a lecture on being irresponsible in my future.  I hate those lectures.

     I notice the wives join in.  It’s good to see them start to loosen up on the trip.  Always seems to take them a little longer than the guys.

     Mr. Shoes looks confused.  Good again.  He sweats more now, if that’s possible, favors his right leg (yes!), and waves his gun-ish thing around like you see them do on T.V. right before McGyver leaps to the rescue.  The gun looks plastic.  I have few doubts it works, and neither does anyone else, otherwise this guy would be stuffed in an overhead compartment by now.

     The cabin goes quiet again, except for some skirt in the back that screams like Jennifer Leigh in Psycho.  ”Stop him, stop him.  I don’t want to die.  We’re all going to die.”  Whatever.  Her husband sits beside her and his eyes bulge, and I swear to God he’s got on a nerf hat shaped like frog.  It’s green and wraps around his head like a toilet bowl.  A red tongue sticks out from underneath fake foam white eyes.  Funny accoutrement.  Party time in Aruba?

     Anyways, his wife yells like she’s stuck.  It’s annoying and no help.  He tries to hide without seeming like a coward.  A rock and a hard place.  Diane and Lisa leave their seats, carefully.  They go back and have a word with her…  Nobody’s going to die.  In good hands.  How about a Fresca?  Stuff like that.

2003.  Michael Jackson was arrested and is being tried for molesting young boys…again.  In response to his plight, The Nation of Islam is trying very, very hard to get Michael into the fold.  One source says, “It would be like the Scientologists having Tom Cruise. It’s full-court press time”.  WOW. 

     Nobody wants to test the gun with five nights in Aruba ahead.  Bullets ruin Mardi gras.  If we’re on the way home and this happens, Mr. Shoes doesn’t get to wave anything at anyone; except maybe his hands pitifully in the air asking Allah to deliver him from these imperialist American dogs who have opened up a can of whoop-ass on him.  The women visibly relax in their seats.  Mike goes back to his whisky and tries to stack poker chips one handed…he’s got a date with an Aruban casino.  Everyone sort of chills, and breathes with their mouths open.

     My half-spilled rum drink has been set back on my tray table.  A saint in my midst…wonder if it was Wifey.  It’s on the other side of the seats, and with Mr. Shoes acting a nervous wreck it might as well be in Cleveland.  But I reach for it anyways. 

     The gun sounds like a lightening strike in the cabin.  Turns out it’s pretty damned real.  A bullet rips into the seat beside me.  General mayhem ensues.  I see a few eyebrows raised by the guys.  The girls are less calm than before Mr. Shoes, Allah praise him, took his best, and last shot at me. 

     Whoa…. anger level ratchets up to ten.  Very close to overriding common sense and that’s when people get hurt.  I bite my tongue hard -enough to dial back some fury, but not so much as to affect future drinking.  “Don’t do that again.”  I say it quiet.  I don’t know if Shoes hears or understands, but he sees me, and I hope that’s enough.

     He must recognize that things aren’t likely to go his way any time soon.  You can see the little hamster running the wheel in his cage.  His eyes dart around, looking for options, and shoes.  “Give to me the shoes.”  He’s not sure exactly who to ask, so he waves the gun harder.  The plane smells like gun discharge, heavy chemicals.  Ears ring.

     “No”.  Doc.

     “Where are the shoes?  Give them to me.”  Spit and sweat and barely reserved panic. We’re at some sort of breaking point.  Everyone who’s kept their head so far can feel it.

     Doc and Mike could make a jump for him, but that gets risky, as he waves the gun to cover all us infidels.  Bocko has moved up the far aisle.  I see him sidle up to the Pilot.  I see them talk fast and low while Mr. Shoes is distracted.  Bocko grips him calmly, but firmly by the back of the neck, making some sort of plan.

     The plane engines are a consistent drone.  They’d be good to sleep to if we weren’t staring down a terrorist with a gun. 

     I look back at the middle row where I sat a few long minutes ago.  Mr. Shoes stands and sweats in the aisle, near the first class curtain.  The ladies sit patiently.  Wifey gives me a look, Will you quit screwing around.  You’re going to ruin my vacation.  My drink’s there.  I miss it.

     “Mrs. Boskin?”

     “Yes, Bill.”

     “Would you please give me those shoes I handed you a few minutes ago?”

     “Sure, Bill.”

     She passes them to me over the seat.  Mr. Shoes follows them with his eyes, a berserk stare.  I hold them away from me toward him, they stink.  I look at their owner, then at the guys.  I say to Nikki, “Did we get an answer on the drinks thing yet?” 

     Mike yells from the other side of the aisle, “No.  I was listening”

     The terrorist doesn’t take his eyes off the shoes.  They have him hypnotized. 

     “Mike’s right.  I haven’t heard anything.”  Doc talks and moves slowly toward the front of the plane.  We have Mr. Shoes cornered as it were, but he has the gun.  It’s a stalemate and I can’t be sure why he doesn’t take another shot at me and grab for the shoes.

     “What about it Nikki?”  I’m very serious about free drinks.

     Nikki looks nervous, scared naturally, blond hairs streak out of a tight bun pinned to the back of her head.  A sweaty strand falls un-flight-attendant-like over her left eye.  She sputters…probably not a totally unnatural reflex for her.  She looks for her Pilot, but he’s gone up front with Bocko.  “What?”

     “Free drinks for everyone on the plane when this is all done.” I shoot a thumb at Mr. Shoes who looks sketchier than ever.  He smells like barely contained panic in these close quarters.  He wants to reach out and take the shoes, but he’s just confused enough to pause.  His mistake.   

     Nikki, poor dear is just as lost.  She probably couldn’t tell you her name right now if you spotted her the N-i-k.

     “Just say yes, Nikki.”  Patty kneels in her seat, and leans on the one in front.  She has an empathetic look on her face, whatever that means.  “So they’ll quit bugging you.” 

     Bocko’s back from the cockpit.  Nods at me and stands by the main door.  The red Exit sign is head-high.  He grabs the big white “Do Not Touch While in Flight” handle on the door, and gets the heft of the thing.  He nods again.  Not a moment too soon.  Mr. Shoes has had about enough.  I watch his trigger finger.  It’s white…too white.

    I start to yell at Nikki.  The guys join in, a slight deception at her expense.  I can apologize later.

     Booze cart, ticket refunds, more peanuts, free movies…booze cart!  All the sudden it’s the New York Stock Exchange and Nikki’s selling IBM short.  She looks like she might explode.  Mr. Shoes squints at the blonde attendant.  The guns stops moving for a moment.  This is out of his realm of experience.  Why are these crazy infidels crying like banshees at this woman?  Why do they pay no attention to me?  You can see his confusion. 

     At the height of the frenzy the airplane cabin starts to buck and shake.  Masks fall from the ceiling.  The engines drop a few thousand RPM’s.  Rapid deceleration, and you can feel the nose drop.  The words In the unlikely event of a water-landing race through my mind.  Everything slows down. 

     I see Doc spill his Coors Light, and mouth goddamnit.  People pitch forward in their seats, flailing for handholds.  A few noses are smashed, luggage and cookies tossed, whiplash customers available for ambulance chasers.  Despite the ruckus nobody’s eyes leave Mr. Shoes.

     I feel my ears explode as pressure drops.  My mask might as well be outside the plane.  Mr. Shoes sways.  The gun doesn’t fire.  Is it a one shot weapon?   I get my balance and pitch the shoes to Bocko an impossibly athletic act, since my knees are made of rubber and standing is impossible.  Mr. Shoes follows the flight of the shoes through the cabin like a little boy about to lose his favorite explosive shoes.  Bocko catches one, drops the other then bends and picks it up off the floor.  Shoes tried to aim the gun at Bocko, but he’s tossed into a seat.  I’m pitched and slammed back against the bulkhead.  If I fell right now, I’d miss the floor.  I don’t know how Bocko keeps his feet. 

     A light on the door flashes green and Bocko pops the handle and slides the door open enough that we can see a sliver of the great blue yonder.  A grade four hurricane boards the plane and sits down in first class.  The tempest is loose in the big white Tylenol teapot.

     Screams are stripped from throats, hair flies around the cabin, and clothes react violently.  Nikki hits the deck; her arms fly up like she’s dropped into a hole. 

     Before I hit the floor I see Bocko slide the shoes out the crack in the door, and then I’m down.  From the floor I see Mr. Shoes.  Something like horror frames his face.  He sees Bocko toss the shoes too.  He’s thunderstruck. 

     For a few seconds I wait for the Boeing to shred itself and the end of the world to commence.  And then everything goes quiet.  Air movers and pressurizers whirr loudly.  Engines crank back up. Soon the cabin gets restored to it’s locked and upright position.

     My lecture on irresponsibility just got a lot longer.  At least I’ll have company.

     Things restore themselves…relatively (except for maybe Nikki’s sanity). I jump up and try to get a bead on the situation.  Bocko runs one hand through his lack of hair.  He looks pleased.  Patty scowls at him from her seat.  He shrugs.  What are ya gonna do?

     The looks of horror and confusion double in the cabin, then triple as our fellow passengers realize what just happened.  I smile. 

     Cool.

     I look over at my drink.  Sadly it has been dumped.  I wonder how long before they can get the drink cart back out.  In the back of the cabin, the screamer and Mr. Frog-hat are nowhere to be seen…probably KYAG (kissing your ass goodbye).

     And of course there’s still Mr. Shoes and his gun.

Part III Coming Soon…

Aruba…

The story you are about to read is not true. No names have been change to protect anyone because it’s a pain in the ass trying to come up with that many names. Also, in case of emergency leave the glass alone, those who are late will receive no fruit cup, and, as always, don’t trust whitey.

Part I

Before the trip to Aruba for our 40th birthdays I had a dream…a long dream…and I wrote it down (in detail).  It goes something like this…

     “Dodgeball.”

     Bocko jerks in his sleep, an apneatic convulsion.  The plane bounces roughly, a pancake tossed by a high altitude spatula.

     I look over the top of In Flight Magazine across the aisle at Doc. “Clear air turbulence.  C A T.”

     Doc looks back.  “Meow, meow, meow.” 

     Bocko snorts and smacks his chops annoyingly. Back in REM cycle.  Head sideways against a miniature pillow, he’s back in third grade and gym class is ruined by a hard rubber ball from point blank range…dodgeball; early child development Darwinism.

     Plane settles and drones comfortably.  I’m into an article in the airline rag. Weird, eclectic magazines these airlines put out; maps of O’Hare and Dulles, impossible half-finished crosswords, recipes for Cajun fried shrimp.  Where’s the dissertation on Hungarian cabinetmakers?

   This is an interesting piece about Rosenberg’s H-Bomb.  It’s about how close we came to wearing faux fur babushkas and calling each other “comrade” in the summer of 1952. The author implies that asking Mother Russia not to drop a plutonium pile on the Big Apple was like asking Babe Ruth to use a whiffle ball bat.  Seems things would have gotten messy in fall-out-land if the wrong people had their chance to sell out Oppenheimer and his gang of geeks.  I’m not in MENSA, but it should have dawned on people smarter than me that someone would to try to infiltrate the bomb business, right?  Paul Newman wouldn’t let it happen.

     I guess team-Rosenberg got theirs though.  They say the lights got dim that day in Sing Sing when Julius and Ethel walked their Green Mile.

     But that’s another story.

     Flight’s a big one; a brand spanking new 767 Boeing-style plane with the little TV’s that drop from the ceiling on command.  Only about half full.  Gives us a chance to spread out and visit…we’re big visitors.  Two aisles cut the fuselage into thirds.  Three seat rows on the outsides, four across the middle.  I got an aisle seat in the middle, a few rows back from the bulkhead.  Wifey’s next to me reading her 100th consecutive Redbook.  The curtain to first class is closed, but flight attendants flit in and out, like actors entering stage right.  Bocko and Patty are to my left across the aisle.  Lots of friends scattered about this flight.  Right now I’d like to see one of our stewards take the drink cart for a spin, so we can light this candle.

    Our plane, and consequently us, are headed for Aruba.  We all know that, all fifteen of us.  We know that this will be a great adventure.  We know a lot of things, us forty-something, Western New York snowbirds (originally).  What we don’t know is anything about the Albino, or the Man in Black, or Tristan the Great, or even Mr. Shoes for that matter. 

     We’ll learn soon enough.

     At 40,000 feet and 700 knots or whatever, USAir takes its sweet time getting the drink cart up and running…maybe they suspect something, like how you avoid making eye-contact with crazy people.  The engine-drone is a sleeping potion.  I battle head-bobs and try to stay alert.  We caught this jet at, like 10am out of Philly after originating at The Greater Buffalo International Airport.  It’s now high noon with no go-juice to prime the pump.  Almost everybody else is out, short naps to preserve energy.  Mike, Doc and Lory are seated to my right across the aisle.  Diane and Lisa behind a few rows, so I can’t see them.  They might be awake, but nobody’s yelling Yahtzee, so I don’t think so.

     Gotta stay awake for two reasons.  I nod off and I guarantee you I miss the drink cart.  My buddies say, He’s not thirsty to the flight attendant and I’m passed by while everyone snickers and giggles (is that something people do…”snicker and giggle”?). 

     Also, I once zonked out on a flight from somewhere to somewhere else and when the pilot dinged the “fasten-seatbelt-don’t think-about-smoking” sign I jerked awake so hard I pulled a neck muscle (I also tossed a complimentary apple juice on a big, hairy guy who spent the rest of the flight sticky and pissed).  So, I have a little phobia here to deal with…who doesn’t?

     Eventually –finally- our stewardess swings by.  We order cocktails.  I get rum because we’re going to the tropics, and I like it.  Doc gets beer.  Bocko and Mike get whiskey (I can’t drink the stuff, makes me sick…another phobia, go figure.  I see this whiskey-thing as a flaw in my character, like not knowing what kind of shoes go with Bermuda shorts, and wearing a brown belt with a black tie).  Wifey and Patty get wine.  Lory asks for a Rolling Rock and laughs.  Stewardess doesn’t get it, and doesn’t get that she isn’t supposed to get it.  I don’t know our flight attendant, she seems like a nice kid, but I bet there aren’t any diplomas in her house that don’t have a USAir logo on them.

     Passengers mill about the cabin.  Flight smoothed out, conducive for milling and drinking, so I sip leisurely.  Over the top of my plastic cup I say, “Bocko.  Swarthy guy, bulkhead seat in front of you. Looks at his shoes a lot.”

     Bocko looks…not covertly, just squints at the front row.  The guy looks nervous, sweaty…guilty?, all by himself in a three-person outside row.

     Bocko looks back, “Maybe he’s a lousy flier with corns.” 

     “Yeah, maybe.  I saw him board.  No carry-on, but his pockets were pretty full.”  I don’t miss much, when I’m sober

     “Get’s ya thinking.”  Bocko’s turns back to stare some more.  The guy doesn’t notice…fortunately.  I sneak a look at the lonely flier.  He’s either Mediterranean or Arab, and awful agitated for a guy on a trip to Aruba. 

     Wifey’s in on the conversation.  She frowns, hard.  “Don’t do anything stupid.”  

     “Us?”  Team smile.

     Doc cranes his neck from the periphery.  He senses something. “What’s up?”      

     “Nothing.”  I don’t want Doc bulling through the China Shop…yet.  He’s a force of nature, like a tsunami, or Robin Williams when he did drugs and you don’t unleash those unless you know you can get out of the way.  Good judgment comes from a lot of experience…and a lot of that comes from bad experiences, if you know what I mean.

     Our flight attendant flies by with a bag of trash.  I try to get her attention, ask her about a certain nervous passenger, but she’s a busy girl.  Her name’s Nikki Somethingorother.  She smiles a lot.  If this guy’s some kind of high altitude nut she won’t be much help.  I keep that in mind and decide not to tell her about the suspicious Arab in 6D with shoe issues.

     Want to make God laugh?  Tell him your plans.

     Another drink, and we keep half an eye on the shoes guy.

     “Well, what are you gonna do?”  Bocko frowns.

     “I got a few inchoate ideas.”

     “Inchoate?  What’s inchoate?”

     “Webster’s word of the day.  I got one of those calendars.”

      “What’s it mean?”

     “Look it up.”

     “You don’t know, do you?”

     “Can’t remember.”

     “Nice.”

     “It means imperfectly formed.  Formless.”  Patty helps.

     “Wow…then I definitely have an inchoate plan.” 

     I look back…our boy’s head goes below seat level again, and I count to ten slowly.  He’s still down there, which can’t be good.  He might just be making out with his airsickness bag, but then again, he might not.

     Okay, that’s long enough.  Paranoia trumps political correctness. 

     Tray table up and I give Bocko a look.  He nods, grim.  I hope he’s got my back and not just gas.  I’m in the aisle and by our boy in a second.  He’s still bent looking down at his shoes.  Pretty plain that he’s got something wacky going on. 

     How are we still letting these clowns on airplanes?  Being decidedly Caucasian I am not one to expound on the subject of profiling, but we gotta start letting the grandmas on these flights and strip-searching the mustaches with deep tans and funky shoes…know what I mean?

     Finally Mr. Shoes looks up.  He’s in the middle seat. 

     I lean in, “Nice kicks, can I have ‘em?”

     He’s confused and I like that. 

     Bocko’s up now and I see him reluctantly put down his drink.  Bocko doesn’t like to set his drink down much.

     I’m focused on Mr. Shoes, but in the background I hear a PING over the speakers.  Captain says something about turbulence and how we should all stay in our seats for the foreseeable future.  Mr. Shoes shows me his hands.  I don’t particularly want to see his hands, and I start to flush him in the mustache with whatever kind of punch I can muster on legs heavy with rum and jet lag.  I swing a left hook from the heels, all the time practicing apologies in my head in case this guy’s an Aruban diplomat with athletes’ foot or something.

     The plane jumps.  Nice timing.  It’s too late to stop now, so I throw the fist anyway, miss completely, and get tossed onto Mr. Shoes’ lap

     Meow, meow, meow.

PART II Coming Soon…

Celoron And The Babe

Sometimes I still can’t believe what I saw. This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over – a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equaled before or since.
                                                            Harry Hooper (Babe Ruth teammate)

The little league baseball field at Celoron Park in southwestern New York, sits hard by the Chadakoin River that drains Chautauqua Lake on its southern end. Hit a baseball far enough into right field there and it could theoretically spit out in the Gulf of Mexico; Chadakoin to Cassadaga Creek, to Conewango Creek, to the Allegheny, the Ohio, the mighty Mississippi, through New Orleans emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, some eleven-hundred miles downstream. The field is built for little league players, shortened base paths and pitcher’s mound. It’s also, as legend has it, where Babe Ruth once stood and hit a baseball into right field, into the Chadakoin River, some five hundred feet from home plate.

Except that isn’t exactly the place. The Babe belted the celebrated ball, but not quite where kids hit baseballs today.

Jump in your car, drive to the village of Celoron. Take the low roads, close to the water. From the west, you’ll trace the southern basin of Chautauqua Lake along Lakeside Drive, rounding onto Jackson Avenue. Keep your eyes and imagination open, lay all this land bare, take out the lakefront houses on Longview Road, take out Ellicott Shore Apartments. Take out the streets, take out the trees. Turn those acres into a vast island of green grass and potential. Now put up a grandstand and a backstop, place bases ninety feet apart in a square, a mound 60 feet 6 inches from the plate. Here you have Celoron baseball park circa 1921, when The Babe came to town.

When travel was more cumbersome than it is today, Jamestown, New York emerged as a convenient stop between Cleveland, Erie and Buffalo. Celoron, close by with recreational water access, was naturally attractive as a place to build an entertainment empire. Celoron Park opened in 1895 and featured, at various times four major hotels and fifteen smaller rooming houses, a bathhouse three stories tall with three toboggan slides, a barber shop, a hundred and fifty dressing rooms, a bowling alley, billiards rooms, shooting gallery, ice-cream parlor, an auditorium with Turkish spires five stories high that seated almost nine-thousand. In the winter the floors were flooded for ice skating. The Celoron Theater extended over the water and hosted dances, stage performances and vaudeville acts. The Phoenix Wheel, the world’s largest Ferris wheel, was ten stories tall with twelve cages, able to hold 168 thrilled passengers. The wooden Greyhound Roller Coaster had three loops and six-thousand lights.

George Maltby is the Celoron Park supervisor in 1921. He’s small, maybe 5’5”, wispy and fidgety, in charge of programming. He’s known locally for his bright attire, belted high-waisted jacket with wide lapels, narrow trousers, bright white suspenders, herringbone fedora, and deep red sideburns and mustache. He is the man most responsible for the headline in the Jamestown Morning Post October, 18th; Babe Ruth To Play Here, and below that, Home Run King, Bob Meusel And Piercy In Exhibition Game At Celoron Tuesday. It is a big undertaking to bring an attraction of this size and importance to Celoron, but Mr. Maltby, after posting a big guarantee decided to take a chance and ask in return that all red-blooded fans turn out and enable him to break even at the deal. It is a chance that many will never have again and if the fans show their spirit the Celoron Park will be filled to capacity.  Oh the joy of it all, seeing Babe Ruth clouting a few of those dear $2.50 balls into the blue waters of Chautauqua Lake.

When World War I ended in November 1918, a series of seemingly innocuous and unrelated events intersected in American culture. The economic windfall of the just-completed war created a prosperous middle class. With newfound disposable income Americans went looking for entertainment. Baseball became America’s pastime, a game of slap and run, mushy baseballs and small gloves. In 1919 Spalding sporting goods came out with a new, more tightly wound baseball made from springy Australian wool, the first “live” ball to hit the game. In 1920 the Boston Red Sox traded a moderately successful pitcher named George Herman (Babe) Ruth to the New York Yankees. There he started playing daily in the outfield, using a swing he built as a pitcher, when he didn’t have to make a living slapping a dead ball into outfield holes. How fickle is history when a sporting goods company can change the course of a national pastime by eschewing domestic sheep and importing “springy” wool. Ruth hit 29, 54, and 59 home runs in the years 1919-1921.

To understand him you had to understand this: he wasn’t human.
                                                                        Joe Dugan (Babe Ruth teammate)

He’s 6’2” and 220 pounds, but you’d swear he’s bigger. Look at his paws, those meaty oven mitts. You can see 714 home runs there, wielding a 54-ounce bat (you’d be hard pressed to find a major league player today with a bat over 36 ounces). You get real solid timber in the heavier bats, says The Babe. Larger than life is a term bandied around a lot. In Babe Ruth’s case it’s true. He looms over everything. Pictures don’t do him justice. He is, at least when he plays in Celoron, a physical specimen. His head is enormous. In 1921 he’s twenty-six years old, seven years into his career. He’ll play for another fourteen years, and live for another thirteen after that. He’s not unhandsome, but there is a roughness around his edges, a life hard-lived even at this age. He’ll be the genesis for the Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the first five inductees, and he’ll have at least two records that will last into the next century, career slugging percentage .690 and OPS 1.164.

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There should be no list of the best baseball players in history that does not start (and perhaps end) with the name George Herman Ruth. He invented today’s version of baseball, saved baseball, was baseball. The game, popular at the turn of that century, exploded after he started launching baseballs over fences. Want to know why Henry Aaron had a candy bar named after him? Babe Ruth. Want to know why Major League Baseball made over $10 billion in 2019? Babe Ruth. Want to know why they turned a blind eye when Barry Bonds guzzled steroids so he could hit 762 home runs? Babe Ruth. Want to know why Alex Rodriguez made more money that most third world nations ($450 million)? Babe Ruth. Without Babe Ruth and that dynamic transition from dead-ball era to home run derby, in a United States where attention span seems to diminish daily, baseball might have trended dangerously toward soccer, slow, methodical, mind numbing. 

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October 18th is three days after the 1921 World Series. The New York Giants beat the Yankees in the last best-of-nine World Series ever played. It’s the first broadcast via radio, and the only series with every game played at the same site, the Polo Grounds in New York. Nobody in Celoron that day knows it yet, but that series will be a generational shift between the dead-ball “inside game” Giants, and the power “outside game” of the Yankees featuring Babe Ruth and his season record 59 home runs and 171 RBI.

Celoron that day is packed with hotels, food stands, men in double-breasted vests and single-breasted jackets, boys in knickers and flat hats, women in flapper dresses, drape hats and bobbed hair. Horses, carriages and Model T’s clog the street. A ten-story Ferris wheel towers over the proceedings, patrons with vintage folding Kodak cameras riding to the top and recording the spectacle, 1920’s version of a drone fly-by. There is a boathouse on the lake and there is a midway concourse. The bustle is electric, dampened only by a light rain, muffling voices and footprints. Steamboats unload more Roaring 20’s characters at a huge public dock. The game is anti-climactic compared to the spectacle and the memories. The big man does indeed hit a ball into the lake, but it’s during batting practice. A young boy retrieves the ball, keeping it from the thousand-mile journey throughout a United States owned by the most famous baseball player ever.

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Celoron is returned to its current state, roads lightly traveled, simple commerce and functional government buildings replace the epic bounty of Celoron Park. But the lake and the Chadakoin are the same as that day in 1921, steadfast shores, the current flow and shape are fixed. The waters whisper of great days past, confident in its pedigree. If it could talk it might tell a story about the days when Celoron Park ruled the world of entertainment, and that day in October almost a century ago, when the Sultan of Swat stormed its shores.

He wasn’t a baseball player. He was a worldwide celebrity, an international star, the likes of which baseball has never seen since.
                                                                                    Ernie Harwell (broadcaster)

Time Has Come Today…The Chamber Brothers

And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun

Pink Floyd

But, it doesn’t stop completely, does it? It starts again. Hit reset, drop a new puck, throw a first pitch, toss the jump ball, fire the starter pistol.

And let me tell you this, time really is relative, despite what a clock, or the sun, or the calendar tries to tell us.  You tell me if your hour in the dentist chair is the same as your week at Disneyland. Just because we all agree sixty minutes makes and hour, doesn’t mean a minute can’t feel like a lifetime and an hour can flash by in an instant. Time is a function of your mind; we perceive time in terms of stimulus and experience. The more stimulus thrown at you, the more you have to attend, and time literally moves faster for you. The less stimulus, the slower it goes. According to neuroscientist Warren Meck, there isn’t a single “clock” that tells time in our brains: There are multiple brain clocks, all running at different speeds. They all coexist inside our heads and our brain decides which one to believe at any given time. Sit in a room and watch a stranger’s vacation pictures of the Grand Canyon, and you brain engages one clock, the slow one. Sit in the same room and watch Olympic downhill skiing and your brain engages another. 

There’s a theory that we never truly experience the present, that it takes eighty milliseconds to process the information in front of us so that we are, in fact, constantly experiencing the past.  This tape-delay is a product of gathering information with the senses, sending it through the nervous system, our brains doing something with it, then sending that product back out to whatever body parts need to react. What if you could cheat that gap in time? What if you could cut processing down to 70 milliseconds, or 60? Would it make a difference?

This is how superior athletes make the games look easy. They are able to look at the same stimulus as you and I and process it more quickly, to close that 80-millisecond gap, to move closer to the past…to slow time. You and I look at a hundred-mile-per-hour fastball and we’re overwhelmed by the stimulus, time speeds up and we don’t have time to swing the bat. The professional baseball player bunches the information from that same stimulus into a single process through experience and repetition, and handles it more efficiently. According to neuroscientist David Eagleman, that’s because your brain always tries to synchronize the sensory information that it gets from your body in a way that will make sense to you. It does this by nudging your consciousness ever-so-slightly into the past.

A bizarre real-world implication is that the taller you are, the further you live in the past, since it takes longer for the information to travel through your body. Shorter people actually experience a more accurate version of time, because there’s less of a delay in information getting to the brain.  Chew on that for a few milliseconds.

A time to build up, a time to break down.
A time to dance, a time to mourn.
A time to cast away stones.
A time to gather stones together.

The Byrds …adapted from God (Book of Ecclesiastes)

A Baseball Tale

It’s the pitch, and not the out or the hit that defines baseball. The pitch is the basic unit of measure. Throw the ball, consider the results. That’s baseball. Throw it hard, paint the black swing and miss. Throw cheese down the middle, it gets hit. Be accurate, ball four becomes strike three. Make the barrel of the bat misses by 1/16 of an inch and a line drive drops into the shortstop’s glove. Everything else depends on the singular pitch.  

It’s June, end of another baseball season and the improbable is happening. The nine to ten-year-old team (mostly nine) from the Southwestern Area Baseball Minors division that finished last in the regular season is playing for the league championship. The run through the playoffs has been an improbable, memorable weaving of plain old- fashioned good baseball, fortunate breaks, and blind luck. It’s a team that takes a whole season to realize that you can win games if you play hard and well and never give up, two playoff games won in the final at-bat. In this championship game the young, resilient team surprises everyone, including themselves, and leads the better team for most of the game. 

     But, because fortune and blind luck only get you so far, the better team ties the game in the last inning.  They have a runner on third with two outs, and their best player at the plate with a chance to win the game in dramatic fashion. Every pitch is a cliff-hanger as the underdogs try to find one more out in a long season.

     One pitch of a baseball, sometimes that’s the difference. One pitch, in this case thrown by a nine-year old arm to a good batter waiting forty-five feet away, preceded in a season by a hundred others, followed in a lifetime by thousands more. In this game it’s my son, Ben, who’s on the mound trafficking in the basic unit of the game, one pitch at a time. With a one-one count he forces a soft grounder to second base, but there is very good speed at the plate. The ball trickles agonizingly through the infield. Our second baseman looks impossibly small as he moves to field it, his glove big and awkward on his hand. He can’t quite find the clean handle, can’t quite make the exchange to the throwing side, and can’t quite catch up with the runner sprinting down the line. 

     Base hit, run scores, game over. The improbable yields to the predictable, the inevitable. One pitch, and no matter the odds coming into the game, a team of underdogs (especially their pitcher) has their hearts broken, for a few hours anyway, by life and the game of baseball.

Flash forward to June and Ben’s team is a year older. They are much better at baseball, more reliant on skill and less so on lucky breaks, and Sunday hops.  In fact, they win the league, make it through the playoffs, and back to the championship game. As fate must have it, it is a rematch from the year before, against what is still a very good baseball team. The game is heading in our favor as the team plays solid baseball.  They lead by a few runs in the middle of the game when Ben comes in to pitch.

There is a ten-batter rule in SWAS house league baseball. The rule states that a half inning shall consist of either three outs or ten batters, whichever comes first.  It is a good rule, meant to keep bad things from happening defensively to fickle, nine to ten-year-old arms, and gloves and umpires. With Ben pitching in the fourth inning of this second consecutive championship game there is a slow-motion, tormenting race between the third out and the tenth batter as the runs for the other team start to pile up…a death march of walks, timely hits, and untimely errors. Suddenly, stunningly, ten batters later, the dust settles and we are down a run.  The half inning feels like an underwater tooth extraction that ends in a train wreck.    

     In the fifth inning we put no runners on and the game drags towards hopelessness. We have the bottom four in our line-up due up in the sixth and final inning. The dugout is quiet, the opposing pitcher is throwing very well, and we are staring at another fall and winter of discontent.  Ben is completely inconsolable. He has, in his young eyes, single handedly lost back-to-back championships for his team. There is nothing to say, nothing to do but watch the game slip quietly away. In the last half of the last inning of the season for both teams, our first batter strikes out according to script. The next batter doubles, but he is impossibly far from home plate. The next-to last batter also strikes out. Two outs and our least experienced player walks to the batter’s box. All the air has been vacuumed from our side of the field and moved to theirs for the second year in a row.

And then, something happens.

A ritual for fathers of little league baseball players (probably for fathers of all baseball players) is to plot two numerical, non-parallel lines in the offensive frame of each innings. One line represents the number of outs. The other line is the batting order. When the two lines intersect at two outs and your son, that father says a quick prayer to the Baseball Gods and mentally rehearses how he will either console his son, or share in a triumph depending on the result of the at-bat. When those lines meet, your son sits at the apex of success and failure, heroism and misery. Only the most stoic dad could remain unfazed and unmoved. This is so especially in a close game, exponentially in a championship game, and astronomically in a game where your son just let the other team take the lead for the second year in a row. 

Our last batter draws an unlikely and inspired walk. Now runners are on first and second with the top of the order due up. Ben bats third. I watch the non-parallel lines move closer, hoping beyond hope that they converge and my son gets a chance to turn that one pitch in his favor. Ben has struggled on the mound, usually at the most inopportune times, but he can hit

     An infield single and another walk and the improbable is happening again before our eyes; bases loaded, game tied.

     If the pitch is the basic measure of a baseball life, the base hit is the next denomination, and the hit that drives in the winning run in the championship game the jackpot.  Ben’s 27th hit of the season (in 32 at bats) is a jackpot. His second swing of the bat catches that perfect, elusive 1/16th of the barrel and falls in a narrow space between third base and left field. 

     Base hit, run scores, game over. The improbable gives way to the miraculous .One hit becomes a redemptive turn-around for a young baseball player; a winter of content, and a lesson that anything can happen in life and baseball if you give it a chance.

Epilogue:

It’s June of another season and the improbable is happening. The eleven to twelve-year-old team (mostly eleven) from the Southwestern Area Baseball Majors league has made an inspired run through their playoffs and is playing for the league championship. It’s a young team that takes a whole season to realize that young kids can win games if they play hard and well.   

     In this league championship game Ben’s team will lose in the last at bat of extra innings to the number one seed. Ben doesn’t give up the winning run this year, but it doesn’t make the loss any easier to swallow, and a team of underdogs are heartbroken, at least for a few hours, by life and baseball.