Saturday, August 27, 2016

Memories of Summer

When I was young and still played the game myself, when I dreamed of someday playing in a big league ballpark; when the heroes of my youth were men named Gibson, Brock, Cepeda, and Shannon, the Cardinals came to life in the box scores of the morning paper, in the statistical nuances of each year’s Strat-O-Matic cards, and in locally televised games against the Phillies and Mets. Although my family ventured into Philadelphia or New York to see a major league game only once or twice a summer, I cherish those memories. I recall still the smell of fresh peanuts and hot dogs, popcorn and cigar smoke as we walked from our car towards the grand old cathedrals of baseball, those round conglomerations of brick and concrete that, once inside, opened into a vast expanse of green turf and perfectly placed white lines, unblemished outfield grass, and a diamond shaped infield; the dirt mound patiently awaiting the start of play as an unused rosin bag and lone white baseball lay idly by the pitching rubber. It was a beautiful sight.

This past weekend, the Cardinals arrived for a mid-August series against the Phillies. Perhaps in part to make up for the lost games of my youth, I bought tickets to all three games. I cannot explain my continued need to soak in new baseball experiences year-after-year. But with each game are memories formed that mark the passage of time and progress of life.

On Friday night, Andrea and I were seated near the third-base dugout amidst an impressive contingent of Cardinals enthusiasts, a pleasant deviation from my usual experience at Citizens Bank Park, where I feel like an intruder crossing enemy lines. Directly in front of us was a wholesome looking collection of girls and boys who danced and laughed and cheered every Cardinals hit and Phillies out while donning bright red-and-white jerseys bearing the names Wainwright, Molina, Carpenter, and Wong, and an out-of-date Beltran for good measure.

But despite a second inning home run from Randal Grichuk, the Cardinals looked lifeless at the plate for much of the game. I suffered silently as the Cardinals swung and missed at slow changeups and sliders offered by Phillies starter Adam Morgan. Despite the indignity of it all, my loyalty was rewarded in the top of the ninth when, down 3-1, Yadier Molina singled to right and, one out later, as if an answer to a prayer, Jedd Gyorko belted a long, towering, home run deep into the Philadelphia night. As Gyorko rounded the bases, the game now tied, I envied these young Cardinals fans dancing in their seats, exuding a joyful glee that bespoke their youthful innocence. Even more, they reminded me of the ever present cycle of life and repeated rhythms of baseball, the heartbreak and occasional sweet rewards of caring about the same team summer-after-summer.

Two extra innings later, with the score tied 3-3, Jhonny Peralta doubled and Grichuk rocketed a 405-foot drive off the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark to put the Cards ahead. Our new young friends became euphoric as Section 129 erupted into spirited celebrations, improvisational dances, jubilation and delight. I almost felt sorry for the few Phillies fans scattered among these happy interlopers who had taken over their ballpark.

In the bottom of the 11th inning, Cards rookie and future star Alex Reyes, a big-framed flamethrower who hit the 100 miles-per-hour mark on three pitches, took the mound with the hope of securing the final three outs and a Cardinals victory. Reyes looked unfazed by this inherited responsibility and mounting tension. When he retired the first two batters, I mistakenly allowed myself to relax and exhale, for it appeared a Cardinals win was at hand. But then a ground ball just beyond the reach of Peralta, followed by a walk, put the tying and winning runs on base. The few Phillies fans left in the stands suddenly regained life. My palms began to sweat and insides turned somersaults, a wonderful evening at risk of a tragic ending. Why do I put myself through this? Why does any fan enjoy this? Anyone who believes baseball is a boring game is not paying attention. The stress almost unbearable – a ball, a strike, a foul ball – until finally, mercifully, Freddie Galvis hit a sharp ground ball to first base that was scooped by Matt Carpenter, who touched the bag for the final out. And a collective sigh of relief from Section 129.

Andrea and I watched from ten rows back as the Cardinals finished their on-field handshakes and congratulatory hugs before disappearing into the dugout like Shoeless Joe into an Iowa cornfield. As we walked contentedly from our seats to the parking lot, we left with a momentary sense of peace and another baseball memory.

For game two on Saturday night, Andrea and I were joined by daughter Hannah and long-time friends Mike and Linda Dennehy. As Mike and I talked of old times, it soon became clear that the baseball Gods were less favorably disposed towards me on this night. The Cardinals’ hitters were thrown off stride by Phillies starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, who struck out eight Cardinals over seven innings en route to a 4-2 Phils win. Hellickson was opposed by Cardinals rookie Luke Weaver, who didn’t look to be a day over 15 as he played in only his second ever big league game. Weaver surrendered a lead-off home run to Caesar Hernandez in the bottom of the first, followed three batters later by a double and then a looping line drive that fell into and out of the outstretched glove of Cardinals left fielder Jeremy Hazelbaker. And just like that, it was 2-0 Phillies.

“What really makes baseball so hard,” Roger Angell has written, “is it’s retributive capacity for disaster if the smallest thing is done wrong, and the invisible presence of defeat that attends every game.” I believed Hazelbaker should have caught the ball, that he did not need to dive and make a heroic attempt; another step or two, an extended stretch of his glove hand, and he could have, probably should have, made the catch. Instinctively, I grumpily exclaimed that “Hazelbaker should have caught the damn ball” and “that damn rookie cost us another run.” When Andrea, in defense of Hazelbaker, said, “I guess it looks easy from the cheap seats,” my rebuttal was limited to mumbled R-rated expletives into my beer. But baseball is a game of redemption and second chances. And when Hazelbaker launched an opposite field two-run home run in the third inning to tie the game at 2-2, all was forgiven.

As the game continued, its gentle cadence allowed me and Mike to take it all in as we talked about life and families, the music we liked as kids, and whatever else came to mind. Baseball is a game that allows for long conversations, interrupted only by a foul ball, a double in the gap, or a pickoff attempt at first. “Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible,” writes Angell, and “players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our father’s youth, and even back then . . . there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped.”

But as I am frequently reminded with each passing day, time cannot be stopped. Life moves forward at an unforgiving pace. Mike and I have been friends since the fourth grade, when my parents moved to Hightstown, New Jersey, and Mike and his family lived on the same block. Now, 48 years later, both of his parents and my father have left us, our children are mostly grown, and the memories of childhood fade as our youthful spirits are betrayed by the bodies of middle-aged men. And yet, on those rare occasions when I see Mike now, it is as if time has indeed stood still. The Cardinals lost on Saturday night, but as we said our goodbyes outside the park, I knew that baseball, for all its nostalgic glory and magnificent history, really is only a game, a temporary respite from the joys, the sadness and disappointments, and the obligations of life.

On Sunday, despite predictions of scattered thunderstorms, Hannah and I returned to the ballpark for the final game of the weekend series. As we watched the pre-game warmups, with the starting pitchers playing long toss in the outfield before throwing warmup pitches in the bullpen and players running wind sprints and stretching, I thought back to my high school days and my own pre-game routines – stretching, a relaxed game of catch, infield drills and batting practice, staying loose. As I watched Cards starting pitcher Mike Leake throw long arcing balls with effortless ease in the outfield, I could envision a younger version of myself in days long past, when I was a teenager and a summer breeze caressed my face as a ball landed comfortably into the webbing of my glove. This imaginary time travel happens whenever I watch baseball in its pre-game form, or between innings, when the players appear loose and the music plays in the background and the sun and sky form a backdrop to my daydreams.

The game that day approached near perfection. The Cardinals slugged four home runs as Leake pitched seven scoreless innings en route to a 9-0 Cardinals win. As Hannah and I talked and absorbed the game, experiencing the luxury of a rare one-sided victory, I felt as if, for three hours on Sunday afternoon, life was a work of art, with baseball a small brushstroke on a large and colorful canvas. But life is not a work of art. The rains fall and nighttime beckons. Three days later, Hannah left to start her post-college life in another city, reminding an anxious dad once again that time cannot be stopped.

I realize now that my feelings for baseball, though childish, are shared by scores of fans just like me, and were best described years ago by Roger Angell:
Our national preoccupation with the images and performances of great athletes is not a simple matter. The obsessive intensity with which we watch their beautiful movements, their careless energy, their noisy, narcissistic joy in their own accomplishments is remarkably close to the emotions we feel when we see very young children at play. While their games last, we smile with pleasure – but not for long, not forever. Rising from the park bench at last, we look at our watch and begin to gather up the scattered toys. That’s enough boys and girls. Time to go in now.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Celebrating America: Reflections on the Democratic Convention

In no other nation is tomorrow so vivid, yesterday so pale. Where you came from yields to American rebirth. There is no real America to take back, as Trump insists, because America’s many-hued reality is a ceaseless becoming. It is a mosaic . . . the country where, as [President] Obama said in 2004, a “skinny kid with a funny name” finds his place. – Roger Cohen, The New York Times, August 2, 2016.
This past week brought the Democratic National Convention to Philadelphia. The city was invaded by the national press corps, political consultants, delegates from across the country, advocacy groups and activists of every stripe. It was a fascinating mix of Establishment elites in business attire and gruff, tee shirt wearing, placard waving protesters hoping to influence the future of the nation. As a long-time Democrat who takes more than a passing interest in the state of American political affairs, it was an exciting week. Philadelphia was vibrant and alive, intellectually engaging, and politically-spirited. Each day could be found panel discussions and issue-oriented talks addressing many engaging and important issues. Not since my senior year in college, when I participated in the Washington Semester Program at American University during the height of the 1980 presidential election, were so many politically oriented lectures and events so easily accessible.

The Democratic convention provided a stark contrast to the dark and brooding, deeply disturbing Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The Republican convention was a painful doom-and-gloom fest of negativity and lynch-mob cries of “lock her up,” with one Trump adviser publicly calling for Hillary’s execution by firing squad. For all of my past differences with the Republican Party and Republican policies, this election season is a sad spectacle. We are witnessing the decline and dismemberment of a proud political tradition. There once was a time when the Republicans were a party of ideas, expounding a philosophy of limited government, individual responsibility, and free trade, while also advancing an internationalist foreign policy. That has all changed. As President Obama noted in his speech at the Democratic convention, what happened in Cleveland "wasn't particularly Republican -- and it sure wasn't conservative.” Today the Republicans are led by an autocratic, narcissistic, demagogue who abides by the motto, “I alone can fix it.”

This is the most important presidential election since the dawn of the nuclear age, and certainly of my lifetime. At stake is the future of American democracy and the Constitution itself. Trump’s rhetoric and campaign is a horrifying display of intolerance, bigotry, fear and ignorance.  With increasing frequency I find myself speechless, paralyzed by disbelief, whenever Trump opens his mouth. He is temperamentally unfit to be president, a charlatan, lacking the most basic knowledge of world affairs, dismissive of our historic alliances. He possesses the emotional intelligence of a third-grade bully. He lacks any semblance of empathy or compassion. He is fundamentally dishonest, a man of poor character, morality, and judgment.

Although the Democrats produced a Broadway blockbuster compared to the Republican’s middle-school play, how the next 100 days will play out, what external events may impact the election, is anyone’s guess. The Democrats displayed a tremendous roster of star power, with inspiring and uplifting speeches from Michelle Obama, Corey Booker, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and President Obama, and solid performances by Hillary and her running mate, Tim Kaine. But the week’s most memorable moment was the emotionally powerful testimonial from Khizr Kahn, the grieving father of a Muslim American soldier killed in combat. Kahn told the story of how it felt to lose a son to war – an American hero who died fighting for the country he loved – and then be told by Donald Trump that, because of their religious faith, Khan’s family is not wanted here. When Mr. Kahn produced a copy of his pocket constitution and urged Mr. Trump to read it, the moment rivaled the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954, when Special Counsel for the Army Joseph Welch challenged Senator Joe McCarthy with the words, “Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?”

Joe Scarborough and others have suggested that the Democrats co-opted from the Republicans the themes of patriotism, love of country, and a belief in American exceptionalism. This is not entirely correct. Although the Democrats’ messaging in Philadelphia was far more positive and patriotic than anything that happened in Cleveland, the Democrats’ expressions of patriotism were neither new nor superficial. Yes, the Democrats talked a lot this past week about how great America is – with the Obamas in particular among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders – but this was done in part to counter Trump’s absurd claim that, if elected, he will “make America great again.” Trump and the Republicans presented America as a land of rampant crime and murder, helpless to acts of terrorism, a subject of international humiliation; a nation befuddled with a weak military, dysfunctional government, and incompetent leaders. The Democrats shined light on Trump’s darkness and countered the Republican convention with stories of uplift and hope, a celebration of American diversity, ideals, and values.

Contrary to what some on the right have implied, Democrats always have believed in American greatness. But we distinguish patriotism from nationalism. We believe in the promise of America, not its superiority; in equality, liberty, fairness, and inclusiveness, and that “all men [and women] are created equal.”

Democrats do not shy away from America’s structural and historic imperfections. We acknowledge that the United States has not always lived up to its ultimate promise and potential, and yet we aspire to achieve a “more perfect Union” and make our great country even better.

Unlike Trump and his dangerous bigotry, Democrats believe that an exceptional America is a welcoming, compassionate America. What makes us exceptional is our history of accepting immigrants to our shores and creating the conditions in which a black, half-Kenyan son of a single mother from Kansas can become President of the United States. America is exceptional when we fulfill the ideals of our founding principles, when we respect human rights at home and abroad, and allow all citizens, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or class, to achieve their full potential.

But this is nothing new. Ever since I began watching political conventions as a nine year-old boy in 1968, I have observed that much of what is said at Democratic conventions could easily be accepted and cheered at Republican conventions. Even this year, Republicans loved Melania Trump’s speech until they discovered that parts of the speech were plagiarized from Michelle Obama. Ivanka Trump’s talk of equal pay for equal work would have received an enthusiastic reception at the Democratic convention. Take away the specific policy proposals in most years and much of what is said about American democracy, the strength of our military, the importance of national security, the desire for good jobs and a growing economy, the beauty of our land and our people, is asserted at both conventions. The optics may be different, the speakers and their ideological dispositions different, but the dreams, aspirations, and love of country are the same. What is new this year is the extraordinary negativity, the anger and bitterness, the dark and dangerous rhetoric coming from the Republican nominee.

“So if it seems strange to you that these days Democrats are sounding patriotic while Republicans aren’t,” writes Paul Krugman in The New York Times, “you just weren’t paying attention. The people who now seem to love America always did; the people who suddenly no longer sound like patriots never were.” To love America does not require idol worship or blind trust in everything our leaders do or every war in which we are embroiled. It does require a genuine desire to search for the better angels of our nature; to strive for justice for all, for peace and widely shared prosperity; and to seek in the words of our beloved Constitution, a “more perfect Union.”