Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Die or Grow Beyond Fear

September 2nd, 2014

swimLake, ocean, pool or river can be inviting, calming or terrifying. For the latter camp, a solid NYT piece with vid of an man who just had to get over his wet anxiety brought back pubescent times.

First know I’m a water guy, as in:

  • My water-safety instructor (WSI) mother taught me to swim in the South Branch of the Potomac at Romney WV
  • My sister and I became instructors and lifeguards
  • I coached a summer swim team two years
  • I was on my high school, then freshman college swim team
  • I got all the Boy Scout aquatics merit badges
  • I swam at beaches from Florida (yucky hot) to Maine (my God! cold) and lakes all over

Water is my buddy. I meditate while swimming several times each week and I never feel as graceful as in the water.

Yet I was surprised at 12 or just 13 to have the head swimming teacher at a man-made lake in Virginia ask for help. My sister and I were taking life-saving classes and killing time afterward swimming and diving. We would wait until our mother, who ran the local Red Cross chapter, to come by and drive us home.

Turns out the teacher had a lot more in mind that just getting me to help her. What she really wanted and cannily figured out was that I could teach some gray hairs to swim.

Had she put it like that I’m pretty sure I would have said I wasn’t able. In no small part both the times and central Virginia locale made that unlikely. I was a Ma’am and Sir, respect-elders boy. It would seem to betray the natural order for a kid to teach maybe 8 folk in the 60s and 70s anything.

Yet, the teacher knew my mother, sister and me. She knew that many of the Red Cross volunteers aged up to 80 or so had me call them by their first names from when I was 6 or 7. Yes, I was polite and attentive, had a large vocabulary and never ever would have called them by another other than Mr.., Miss or Mrs. (last name) unless they insisted. They did.

I was also a water prize, getting my advanced-swimmer card young. I was my mother’s son. So maybe it wasn’t so crazy to ask me to help.

I didn’t know any of the 8 or so men and women in my instant class. In retrospect I guess the median age was 72. The teacher introduced us and said I’d show them how to get used to the water. Then she left.

Well, I was a sincere little boy and that’s just what I did. I’d bet they were both charmed a lad their grandchildren’s age was in charge and comfortable that if I could do this water stuff they had a shot.

I was in for my own shock when they told me, almost to a one, that they were afraid to put their faces in the water. They never had in the 70-some years. They were born at the very end of the 19th or very beginning of the 20th Century. Shower baths were rare. they would bath in a tub but never do as I was used to — shampooing and plunging my whole head underwater repeatedly while rinsing, repeating. They said they wet washcloths and used them on their faces.

That was not a chapter in the WSI manuals at home and in the chapter buildings. I read those on the sofa or on the toilet. When I went into a new level of swimming class I already knew what we were supposed to do and generally had already mastered it on my own. Yet, afraid of water? Never put your face in water in your entire life?

Well, it turns out the clever teacher had it right. My job was to teach this group to be okay in the water. By then it never seemed possible to do less and maybe a lot more. The students were certainly willing.  I got them bobbing, splashing water on their heads and faces as they stood in thigh-high water, and eventually putting their faces down in water while keeping control by blowing air through their noses. We went on as I had learned in my first few levels of classes to back floating, front floating, using a kickboard and basic rhythmic breathing. We did dog-paddling and backstroke.

I didn’t have time to teach them how to swim, as in how I swam. They let me know how far we had come though. At the end of one class, they told me together that they felt they had learned to fly. They had been afraid of water their whole lives and now were able to float, to do basic strokes, and to breathe out with their faces in the water was mastering a whole new element, just water instead of air.

Since then, I’ve taught photography, writing, various aspects of computer use, and management. Apparently I’m good at doing that, but never since that lake have my students compared what they learned to mastering a whole new element. When students and teachers are in it together, there is elegance, beauty and fulfillment. That class is still my touchstone for a splendid job.

I hadn’t thought of those happy moments in a long time, until the NYT piece. I was with Attis Clopton all along. That’s the thrill of learning at its best.


Quadruple Arf

February 23rd, 2013

My wife and I went to Stony Brook today to watch the Boston Snow Dog Run. Two or three small teams of four, plus one solitary skijoring guy with his pooch, made the most of the remaining snow near the skating rink.

Two of the mushers apologized to us about the quartets’ seeming lack of focus. Those of us with images of driven Ititarod racers fairly devouring 1,000 miles of ice and snow were obviously amused at the huskies playing with each other and sometimes pulling in different directions. It seems they are largely pets who have a great time. Getting them competitive is not always easy.

They were beautiful in behavior as well as appearance though.

The huskies seemed to live for this stuff. Pets or not, when they got perking, they were enthusiastic.
A single skijoring fellow accompanied the dogs, first in the woods, then in the field. The huskies ignored him and his pulling dog. fieldmush
HPmush Not the typical Hyde Park dog walker.
Make your own dog tail/tale jokes. When the team got working in the open field, they became one. huskytails
dogskindofteam The huskies were frisky sorts and as the mushers said, there was some question about who was really in charge.
Mush, Mom! mushmom

Pix Notes: You’re welcome to anything useful. They are Creative Commons, so just cite Mike Ball once. Click images to enlarge.

Interminable Sports Dinners

May 15th, 2012

I was a jock. I ‘fess up.

Now, I was also a scholar, but I was also a wrestler, then a swimmer into college. Compounding that, I was my high school paper’s sports editor. I didn’t want that spot, but it was the one that was open. Once I got to college and in J-school, I became the the loudmouthed pinko for the world to recognize.

Regardless, in my time and then our sons’, I went to a lot of sports dinners. The boys were (#1 son) baseball, (#2 and #3) soccer. #1 did crew in high school, following my edict that he had to do three years of some team sport, any team sport. Then he blissfully announced that he’d done his time. A deal is a deal in our house. I didn’t bother with his siblings. If they didn’t get the love of team sports in years of youth soccer, they didn’t. They didn’t.

My sports-dinner evenings seems Sisyphian even then. They were seasonal, so all the fall sports together, then the winter, then the spring. My high school had 2000 students…a lot of jocks. How many damned plaques can you call out in an evening? Something a little short of infinite!

Bromances flowed. Those of us with sainted coaches (Victor Liske for me) could go on and on and on. We did. I even wrote a farewell column to my coach, as our swim team was his last after over two decades. He was so fabulous as a person and mentor, his boys still quote it.

After my first such dinner though, I knew the routine and was resigned to it. What I came to resent was the blazer.

After a couple of years of lettering, I was due a PHS letterman sweater. Then the athletic director unilaterally decided that the sophisticated, manly option should be a blue blazer instead. Pissed I was. I had the letters and the team pins to attach to them. One did not sew a big maroon P on a blazer, nor dangle it before a current or potential girlfriend.

The solution wasn’t bad — go to the sporting goods store and buy the navy-blue sweater with the proper number of maroon stripes on the right arm. Yet, we in my situation thought of getting the sweater at the dinner as a reward for the agony, bruises and many hours of practices. Somehow the heavy-handed decision rankled.

Moreover, when we got the blazers, they sucked. Turns out that the school went as cheap as possible, which meant they were constructed in New Jersey prisons…badly. I have a huge chest and shoulders. The big sizes in particular had absurd shoulder pads, giving them the effect of bad formal football uniforms.

Fortunately, my grandfather, the man of many jobs and an unbelievable skill set, was among other things a tailor. I showed up with the stupid, insulting, ill-fitting, ugly blazer and started to complain. He was on it and shut me up. He took it next door to his dry cleaning and tailoring shop immediately. He returned in less than half an hour, with an altered, customized jacket. He’d taken in the waist to suit my build as well. The shoulders were flat and beautifully contoured. Granddad was an artist. I could only say thanks and wonder why I’d been upset.

Running on Purpose

April 17th, 2012

Yeah, yeah. New Englanders enjoy weather talk at least as much as anyone else. For heat though, we’re not so remarkable.

Take yesterday, Patriots Day celebrated and to much of the world Boston Marathon running. For all the pre-race noise about record-breaking temps and certainly for post-race recaps looking for agony, Southern-style heat/humidity combos are extremely rare up here. Yesterday wasn’t, if you pardon, in the running.

I wanted to take a long bike ride. To me, 80’s with a humidity in the low 20’s is comfortable. Of course, I wouldn’t have put myself out for the self-brutality of the 26-plus mile set. However, my legs were a bit sore from previous cycling, so it was a six-mile hike instead. I did take a water bottle though.

Along the way, I passed a Latino heading in the opposite direction at about equal, rapid pace. He was happy and from his accent and appearance, he seemed to be reflecting on his Central American upbringing. He called out cheerfully, “Hola!” and added in English “Summer!” He was a happy guy.

My youngest though, at 18, considers sweating grotesque and an affront to all humanity. He called yesterday “Damned hot.”

For the Marathon though, the Globe reported that thousands of registered runners punked out. The Boston Athletic Association said 3,863 did not pick up their numbers (c. 14%). Then 22,426 did but 427 took the option of deferring entry until 2013. Yet, after all that, the BAA also said that 96% finished the race…eventually, compared to 98% in a typical running of this race. There was a wide range of estimates of how many needed any sort of medical assistance and none differentiation for heat-related troubles.

So, in the main, the slightly higher temps was much harder on the runners’ fragile self-confidence than their bodies.

I don’t do marathons. However, it seems that set has a fair number who are Goldilocks. They want things just right…not too cold, certainly not too hot. I may question their wisdom in trying to run 26.2 miles, but never their perseverance.

Then again, for weather, having lived throughout the continental U.S., I find the reactions to air are themselves remarkable. We didn’t hear the African runners complaining of the heat, nor runners from the Southern half of the nation. Yet, visiting here or there, we see those differences. Southerners are apt to put on a sweater at 70 degrees, while Yankees may be in shorts and t-shirts in the 40s. Bostonians are wont to complain of the heat at 78 degrees, while down South that point of comment is in the 90s.

Of course, a cliché of Southerners with some truth is that they don’t run if they can walk and don’t walk if they can sit.

Antique Bike, Antique Muscles

March 18th, 2012

Is there an equivalent cliché along the line of  a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine, one for a week without cycling?

I grieved the past seven days with an inoperable road bike. I’ve been waiting for crucial parts to arrive. Today, I lugged out the old, very heavy mountain bike from over 20 years ago, just to get back in the saddle. Wow, it was a lot of work.

I think of my mother complaining when she drove the family car that I had taken off her hands and had out of state for several years in college. When I returned for a visit, she drove it instead of her company-issued new sedan. She returned puzzled and a little angry, asking, “What did you do to the steering?” She said it was so hard that she could barely turn, much less park.

We quickly figured out that it wasn’t the steering, rather it was the contrast with the new one, with power steering. The old one was light and to me easy to handle, but it had manual. Likewise, when I see a manual typewriter set up, I use it if I can, just to recall the feeling of having to use some muscle (particularly with the little fingers) to press keys that move levers.

Today, I was on a bike that weighs over twice my usual, well over 40 pounds. It has a steel frame, no suspension, and very inefficient gears. The Sierra was Schwinn’s first try at a mountain bike. It did what it did well, mostly being tough enough to rumble down hills strewn with boulders, to crash without bending, and to have a crank with low enough gears to hump up steep roads and paths.

After taking a hilly road route that I hum along with my road bike, I find my quads burning. That’s definitely good and should serve to remind me that tech and related advances can be enemies of fitness.

Intellectually, I knew that the road bike has by far the most efficient gears and is lighter than any other bike I’ve owned. However, experiencing that knowledge for over 20 miles is far, far more meaningful. My body as well as mind knows that a much heavier bike with clunky gears is one devil of a lot more work.

The good aspect of that is that many of us cyclists claim to want to bike in part for the exercise. A set of wheels that is too easy deludes us into thinking the same 20 or 30 or 50 miles traveled is real work, with real benefits.

I promise to make trips around the Boston area, including the huge humping hills around this part on the old Schwinn at least once a week. It can only be good for me physically and remind me, as manual typewriters do, of how easy we often make things for ourselves.

Chariots of brrr

March 10th, 2012

I may have cycled beside a future Olympian or wide receiver today.  A little kid did his damnedest to outrun my road bike.

Cold it was, known as seasonal in Boston. At a nominal 31F, the flurries, high humidity, steady wind and cycling speed made it feel like the low teens or eenies.

Coming to Dorchester’s Tenean Beach on the shared bike/ped path, I slowed passing the mom and taking care of the maybe four-year-old running a meandering route ahead. A kid a couple of years older, maybe a brother, was further ahead yet with his soccer ball.

The younger boy looked at me at took off. He kept throwing his head first forward, then toward me, all the while racing, racing. As I passed her, she said, “He races everything.”

I slowed partially to make sure I didn’t hit him, but more for him as I realized he was in fact racing, to let him feel he was winning. The older boy fell on his ball in fun, blocking most of the pavement, so I slowed more. When I could I passed between the boys, but I was careful not to accelerate too fast and ruin the illusion.

The younger one said, “Boy, he’s fast.” He apparently had no sense he’d really have to be booking to outrun a road bike, even one with an old man up.

I loved his spirit, his competitiveness, and his determination.

Parity, Parody, Identity

February 15th, 2012

Wasn’t it the Brits who muttered their wait to sports fairness standards? How did we Americans become so team-parity obsessed?

As a boomer, I grew up with a few great teams in various sports drubbing the feebs. It really did work. It really did fit American history and ideals. Yankees, Celtics, Cowboys, Lakers, Canadians, Packers and a small set of sports bullies were the top. It was as Willy S’s Cassius had it:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable grav

Instead, along the path of sports entertainment, the oligopolies and monopolies permitted by law as well as custom could not have that in the mundo world of advertising and broadcasting contracts. With millions to hundreds of millions of dollars looking for pockets, parity became the watchword. With artificial and intrusive aid, the very worst teams in a league were supposed to be pretty damned close to the very best.  That resulted from business decisions, what would maximize the advertising and broadcasting cash flow. To hell with excitement and ideals!

Unlike the American cultural norms boomers heard from their WWII parents, survival of the fittest became everybody has a chance to be the winner. We saw that creeping pseudo-equality, feel-good artifices starting for us in the 1980s. Our first son went to the hippy-dippy Beacon Hill Nursery School and then played Little League on the Hill against other downtown teams. He was a member of the league championship team. What that really meant is that they always had at least one superior pitcher. That was by far the single victory margin…game, after game, after game. By the time second and third sons were playing soccer, the parity factor was in total control.

It was not at all like real life of business or even a decent college. There, brutal unfairness was the norm. Boss’ child? Fellow alumnus? Sorority sister? Trivial controlled the real.

In the 90s and beyond, on school and kid-sports levels, it mirrored the professional athletic world. With no intent to disparage the developmentally disabled, we can note that the aptest comparison is special Olympics. Everyone’s a winner. Everyone’s a medalist. We, as my eldest parroted his nursery school mates, have the same.

It was more elaborate and rigid in professional sports. Artificial mechanisms like salary caps, luxury taxes, and most heavy handed, player drafts that gave the teams with the worst records first pick of the college and high-school grads are now the norm. There was no attempt to disguise the aim. Even the poorest teams in the smallest markets were supposed to have what is euphemistically called a level playing field.

Back to the thrilling days of post-WWII America (for me) and earlier for my parents and grandparents’ generations, the best teams really did seem like dynasties. Lesser teams and their fans rejoiced if they beat one of the big kids. On those rare years when the traditional champions were not in the playoffs, there was Cinderella magic on the radio, TV, in the newspapers and surely in public conversation. There was that American set of ideasl of aspiration, of bettering oneself, of coming from low to climb high.You know,  success through work and talent.

Now the best are severely punished. How dare they show up the petty men?

Maybe it was in part because I moved ever few years as a child. I would glom onto winning teams. Then I was a fan. My mother’s family came from the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia, with no professional sports, but close enough to D.C., Baltimore and with a stretch, Pittsburgh. Instead of those cities’ teams, I had the freedom of the nomad in picking my heroes, my champions. As a young’un, I’d stand up to my uncles, great-uncles and such with their fandom of the Orioles, Pirates, Senators, and Steelers and such. I’d recite the glories and stats of the Yankees, of Y.A. Tittle’s Giants and such. I was a sports slut, one who loved winners.

Those picnic debates no longer work. Not only are my great-uncles dead, but plastic parity humbles the mighty. It also robs the athletes and fans of both dreams and pride. Like the Japanese cliché that the nail that stands up will be pounded down, the parity police either did not know or lost the ideals of American culture, literature, theater, movies and television. We were a nation whose people won in the end despite shortcomings, being outnumbered, and without expectations of victory. Any American could succeed with determination, some luck, and relentless optimism.

We lost that and are poorer for it. We have the same.

Better Than Your Vacation

January 11th, 2012

From Marylebone Cricket Club, Lord’s Cricket Ground, keeper of the laws of the game, you may buy USB memory sticks for £10, plus shipping. They are in the shape of a cricket bat and come pre-loaded with the laws.

batcampFor quite a bit more, you can take your offspring from 5 through 12 years of age off the St. Vincent or Sardinia to learn cricket from two gods of the game. Neither the ad on the front of the Financial Times (shown and click for closeup) nor the Super Skills Travel website deals in such crass details as the cost. If you have to ask, as FT readers might say. After all, this newspaper’s regular glossy magazine a few times a month is How To Spend It.

Instead, you are to call or email to book.

While you loll, one former and one current cricket star, one OBE and the other MBE, Michael Vaughan and Matthew Hogard, will turn your pubescent child(ren) into passable batsmen and bowlers. The kiddies get two hours on pitch each weekday. That presumably will exhaust them to the point they will lie passively and quietly and complacently by you poolside.

Billed in the ad as The family holiday of a lifetime,  this surely is more defensible, if considerably more expensive, than fantasy American baseball or football camps for delusional men. At the island resort, if you want your Richie Rich to, well yes, be able to play the national game, but more important, sew up contacts as well as garner (understated) bragging rights to take back to boarding school, grab this. Age 13 comes too quickly.

Turning On and Off the Fans

September 19th, 2011

Arr, know ye all on Talk Like a Pirate Day, me be no football fanatic.

With that out of the way, I am not oblivious to sports. In particular, having started college at the University of South Carolina, I see and hear about it from friends up here in Yankeeland as well as former classmates. Moreover, I was sports editor of my high-school paper (I confess because it was the open slot and I would much rather have run features).

USC logoLately, the Gamecocks have been sports newsy, popping up to 10 or so in the polls. While I honestly think they have been lucky to win both times so far and should be no higher than 18 or maybe 15 in the country, I admit this has been a steady climb. With nearly everyone in power in that state having an undergrad or law degree from the red Carolina, that’s a big deal there and big donations from alumni.

Now their former (ACC) and current (SEC) conferences are big in the sports news. It seems the former snagged two Big 12 teams and adopted a poison-pill-style strategy that any team leaving would have to pay a $20 million penalty. Ho hum, then again ha!

Waaaay back, I arrived in Columbia with little interest in football. Heck, in high school, I covered it as part of the job, but I had been on the wrestling team first then finished as a swimmer. I started college on the swimming team and living in an athletic dorm on a partial scholarship. My only real affection for football was secondary. The badly underfunded swimming team had the right to sell programs outside and inside the stadium and we made a lot of needed money doing do.

Otherwise, Carolina had a hugely successful basketball program under coach Frank McGuire and labored under fantasies of similar success for football. The ACC was the best basketball in the nation and its football was so-so, giving the Gamecock some hope for success. They tried their damnedest, including renting Paul Dietzel, who was doing great at Army after success at LSU. He had one great year, but a losing record overall. That coupled with a sense of victimhood in Carolina basketball and football teams somehow “cheated” out of conference championships when they lost in tournaments. In 1971, a pouting athletic program went independent

As this was brewing, I broke my resolve to avoid sports writing. In the campus paper, also The Gamecock of course, I ridiculed the whole program in a column. In very heavy-handed terms, I wrote that they should drop the pretense and go pro. If they can’t win on an even basis, they should become professional and buy the best and biggest as they tried with coaches.

Well then, despite many strong political columns in that extremely conservative state and region, this one hit it. Wealthy alumni as well as sports-oriented students flipped. They took it literally and wrote long, dull-witted letters about why that was not legal. They called the university president, the dean of the J-school, the top editor of the paper, and they wrote to the local daily papers. They even did what I see so often in MA (as with Elizabeth Warren), pulled the parochial he’s-not-from-here routine.

Eventually though, after 20 years of hit-and-miss records, Carolina joined the SEC in 1991. That was fine for basketball, but suddenly they were in with the big boys of football. It took them a long time of being the team that got snapped with the towel in the locker room — rather got run over by bigger, faster, just better players — to get their football act together. They recruited and trained and coached up to where they are.

Now when the team is on the front of the sports section or web pages, I am likely to notice. I’m not all that interested in the far more local Patriots (or any football). I’m not quite as snippy as the Church Lady about it, but honestly, there’s a larger world of greater concerns. Then again, I have my own diversions and distractions when those bigger issues weigh heavily. Let’s not begrudge those with a sports Jones who remain suspended in their college years.

Bitter Unfairness of Baseball

August 23rd, 2011


Perhaps Uncle Scar speaks for the Red Sox Nation in The Lion King, with his “Life’s not fair.”

Consider last night. The Boston team was in Arlington, but not the one near the Alewife stop. The Texas Rangers beat ’em again, 4 to zip this time, for the fourth consecutive time this season, as in all of the games the teams have played.

While I am no longer a huge baseball fan (I was as a kid, but I got better), I recall that no team ends a season with a 1.000 record. Verily, they all have losing streaks of 1, 2, up to a dozen games and occasionally more. Even teams with far more wins seem to flail against allegedly inferior ones from time to time.

So far this season the Sox are very good, clear contenders for the division and league and quite possibly for the World Series. In the long view too, they have done well. Specifically, only three teams have won more World Series than the Sox (that would be 7 for them). Those would be the Athletics, Cardinals, and one other…wait, wait, it’ll come to me…

georgeSo since the Sox brought it all home in 2004 and 2007, the local media, sports bloggers, bar pundits and T riders all have buffed up the facade. What with the Patriots, Bruins and so forth doing well, the loser/also-ran persona supposedly went away like that piano George Herman Ruth supposedly tossed into Willis Pond. (HT to for the image.)

Well, I don’t think so.

The Sox team and fans had long whined before their recent WS victories that any team that won had simply bought the pennant as they had rented the best pitchers and sluggers. Surely the Yankees would not win without a bloated payroll. Yet, when the new Sox owners more than matched other teams in headhunting players, and ended up with the most expensive tickets in MLB in the process, suddenly that gripe stopped. The other guys may have been checkbook cheating, but we were doing what we had to for fairness’ sake.

What got me started on this whole thing was this morning’s Globe sports-page whine fest. Under a temperature alibi heading — Degree of difficulty, let the excuses tumble down. The subhead was With temperature at 102, Red Sox are stifled by Wilson and Rangers. Above the huge pic of pitcher Erik Bedard daubing face sweat, it was Star-struck The Red Sox opened their series with the Rangers last night with three of the four All-Stars in teheir starging lineup out with injuries. Their replacements went a  combined 1 for 10.

How pathetic was Peter Abraham’s report?

I suppose it was only hot in the highly localized spots where the Sox stood. Of course, our players never experience heat and humidity on the Boston tundra.

Plus, it was woulda, coulda, shoulda. If only our last year’s All-Star team players were batting, boy, we woulda showed ’em.

To his credit, the Sox manager was not so blinded by boosterism. Though buried in the jump, Tony Francona’s quote about Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson was that even when the team was healthy, he mowed them down. “When we’ve had our full lineup, he’s gone through it.”

So it comes down to what’s the working attitude here? Has the Red Sox nation really crawled out of the loser’s mausoleum into the sun of contention and competence? Have the many decades of no WS rings been forgotten or at least relegated to history? To the real point, are they ready to join the teams that say, “We weren’t good enough,” when the other team wins.

These excuses really stink.