Posts tagged ‘Sports’

April 5, 2015

Opening Day 2015

Tomorrow is Opening Day 2015, the first day games of the season. It won’t be the first games of the season, however, as the Cardinals and Cubs play tonight. The Cubs. The team which defines, and is defined by, the mantra Always next year, more than any other team. That includes my favorite team, the Minnesota Twins.

Despite the positive language which I regularly use – awesome, cool, baller – I am a pessimist at heart, particularly regarding my sports teams. I inherited this pessimism from my father, a Mets and Jets fan. The Twins dominated the AL Central during the 2000s, but were regularly cowed by the Yankees during their annual postseason series. Then retirements, injuries, and free agency drove them into the basement where they reside today. And where they’ll reside for a while. Their pitching staff is pathetic and the highly touted prospects don’t work from the mound.

But hope springs eternal in the spring and this could be always be the prophesied next year. This is particularly true for my softball teams. My employer has a company team in the local park district league. Each season we drop down a level, attempting to find more comparable talent after finding ourselves to be repeated victims of the slaughter rule. We don’t have the power to hit home runs. We might have the one of the fastest players in the league, but we also have a few who might contend for the slowest. We’ve got a centerfielder with a rocket launcher attached to his shoulder and one of the top shortstops in the league, but we regularly have one defensive inning which kills us.

But we somehow maintain a good attitude. The umps comment on how much fun we seem to have, how hard we play despite the talent discrepancy, and how little we disparage each other and the other team. We’re probably the one team that doesn’t scream our curses, instead limiting them to under our breath. We’ve got one outfielder who never shuts up, shouting indiscernible encouragements to his teammates. I’m pretty sure he only repeats the same four nondescript lines:

Aight, aight!

You got dis!

Do it again!

Eat him!

That outfielder might be me.

I work for a Christian company, so after every game, after we’ve finished the tried and true handshake line with the other team, we invite the other team to join us on the mound for prayer. Occasionally we get the whole team to join us. More often than not, we don’t get more than one. Every week, every game, my prayer, silent or vocal, is one of thanks for the body which enables me to play, for my company which sponsors the team, for the people willing to play with me, for the colleagues who spend their Thursday evenings watching our haplessness.

My other softball team with my church, in a league of other churches, hosted by a single church blessed with a fantastic property. The league is less official without set rosters or umpires. One of the two fields doesn’t have an outfield fence; the other is made of temporary orange construction fencing. Our roster is patchwork on a weekly basis, a core of regulars shored up by last minute phone calls. Consistency is difficult on such a team and last year’s record was evidence of that. We’re losing at least one regular player to a cross country move and probably others to despondency or apathy. I’m only on the fringe of core players as my work league takes priority on Thursday nights. But we always, at least every time I’m there, manage to scrounge together a team; I don’t believe we’ve ever forfeited.

There is a famous clip of an irate Herman Edwards screaming at a press conference, You play to win the game! I whole-heartedly believe him, because part of the game is determining a winner and a loser. But my preferred focus is the play, not the game, because the game is made up of plays. My philosophy leans towards You play to win the play to win the game. And I try to play every play as though it is the last play in the game. I have joked about giving up a late inning lead so that the game could continue into extras, that there might be more plays.

And that is the beauty of baseball: there can always be one more play. People complain that the games are too long, that the season is too many games, or that baseball is boring. But my retort is that every play contains immeasurable potential. Every pitch, ball or strike, can send you into fits. Every pitch could be the most blazing fastball, the most knee-buckling curve, or the longest home run you have ever seen. Every routine groundball might be the most ulcer-inducing error or Ozzie Smith inspired wizardry you’ve ever witnessed. Every foul tip could be just another pawn in a cat-and-mouse chess match between pitcher and batter, inducing nervous nausea in the invested spectator. And as a player, every pitch has the potential to send you into action.

Tomorrow is Opening Day 2015. I can’t wait.

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July 25, 2013

Wallball

When I was growing up I spent more time at church than anywhere else. One of the things my friends and I loved to do was play Wallball against the main edifice of the church. One of the great things about that was a ridge that ran across the wall about a yard above the ground. Hitting that lip just right could send the ball sailing over everyone’s head. A friend’s mother recently asked me to write up the rules of the game for younger generations to continue the game.

Wallball Rules:

Equipment: tennis ball or other rubber bouncing ball approximately the size of a baseball; wall

Numbers: 2-infinity, but I’d recommend something less than 10

The object of the game is to be the last man standing. Generally, you mirror baseball’s rules, with three outs before you sit and tie goes to the runner.

General concept: free for all throwing the ball against the wall and fielding the ricochets. There are no turns – if you want the ball, field the ball.

The ball MUST be thrown toward the wall.

If a ball is thrown against the wall and caught on the fly (by the thrower or another player), the thrower is out.

If a fielding error occurs, the player who erred must touch the wall before another player can field it cleanly and throw the ball to the wall. If the ball beats the runner, that is an out.

In wall ball, error is used broadly to mean having the ball touch the ground after you have touched it. A ball that rolls as you try to pick it up is an error. You can’t dribble the ball, but you can toss it up in the air and catch it.

However, a ball that bounces off you and is fielded on the fly by another player would not constitute an error. But if that other player doesn’t field it cleanly but drops it, both players would need to touch the wall.

Throwing Errors:

There are two philosophies on throwing errors. The first and most straightforward is that to not hit the wall on the fly is an out. That means a bounced ball, blocked throw, or clean miss is an out.

The other philosophy is that to miss the wall constitutes a normal error. One could miss the wall and yet avoid the out by touching the wall before the ball can be fielded and thrown against the wall. Obviously in this case a bounced throw would beat the thrower to the wall.

Butterfly

Often a younger player’s favorite aspect of the game, “Butterfly” maybe yelled once another player has grabbed the ball to force them to throw from that spot. To be called in general play is obnoxious (hence a younger player’s favorite part) but a key facet when the ball is fielded in an unfavorable location, i.e. far from the wall, behind a tree, behind or nearly parallel with the plane of the wall.

In situations where the ball is in an unfavorable location, the person closest must go get it.

For the attentive and competitive, there is Butterfly Bending Over. If this is called as soon as the player grabs the ball and is still bent over, they must make the throw from that position. If they have stood up before this is called, they don’t have to be bent over, but they must still throw from there.

The very cynical player would probably just throw the ball in the other direction, but so the clause was instated that the ball must be thrown towards the wall. The slightly less cynical player often drops the ball in these situations, taking the error and tries to beat the throw to the wall.

Situational Rules:

You may block other people’s throws. Depending on the rules you follow in terms of throwing errors (above), merely catching someone’s throw before it hits the wall may or may not constitute an out.

If your throw ricochets off the wall and is in danger of being caught, you may try to block the catch. The cynical jackwad would swat it to an unfavorable location, which, while legal, is not really within the spirit of the game and will probably result in said jackwad not having friends. Contact is permissible, but nothing flagrant is within the spirit of the game; the risk of losing all your friends is your own. Also, no one likes a whiner.

If you commit an error but out of reflex still field the ball, it must be dropped before running to the wall. You may not carry it to the wall, you may not throw it away, just drop it. On your way to the wall you may try to block another player’s throw, but that is usually inadvisable as it will probably slow you down.

Play ball!

Playing wallball with my siblings at our old church.

Playing wallball with my siblings at our old church.

June 21, 2013

LeBron 2013: The Villain is King (Again)

The Miami Heat have now appeared in three straight NBA finals and won the last two. Tuesday night they were a Kawai Leonard made free throw away from losing two of three NBA finals. Thursday night they took what the Spurs were providing – high risk, low reward jump shots – and they capitalized with frightening precision. Their physicality was able to just barely, in game seven, exhaust, and finally rupture, the finely tuned Spurs offense.

In the 2012 playoffs, I saw flashes of a LeBron that I begrudgingly respected. I saw him get pushed around, get knocked down, and battle back. But while he gained that modicum of respect, he was not dethroned from his role of villain in my eyes, the Heat his loyal cohorts. The relationship has remained thus throughout this season and postseason as LeBron and Co have turned into the largest whiners in the game (though it could just be the camera’s fixation on melodramatic temper tantrums).

For years now, the knock on LeBron was that he couldn’t be clutch, that he evaporated in big games, and in the past this was true. But that was the past. If you still want to pull out the LeBron is a Choker placard, you also need to set your Tardis to pre-2012. The better option would be to just open your eyes. In game six, LBJ recovered from a demure start to dominate the fourth quarter and send the game into a winnable overtime. Before game seven he attached an IV of ice to his veins and shot the lights out of the building. The difficult long range and low efficiency mid range jumpers were handed to him on a silver platter and he gorged himself. San Antonio challenged the apparent weakness in his game and he proved resilient.

LeBron and the Heat now have two straight championships. What stands in the way of a third? In the East: A rejuvenated Bulls offense as Derrick Rose returns to balance their stifling defense; the schizophrenic Knickerbockers; the blue collarish, gold swaggerish Pacers crew? In the West: Bionic Vampire Kobe Bryant and minions; laser guided Warriors, the Zombie Sonics of OKC? The Spurs are not decaying the way the Celtics currently are, but the prime of their Big Three is long past; even if their mind-numbing precision can bring them back to the Finals again next year, their joints will be one year closer to chronic rheumatism. LeBron is the captain of a juggernaut with no opponent left standing.

People, both LeBron’s lovers and haters, love to drag out the Michael Jordan comparisons. I don’t care, it doesn’t matter. They will never play each other in their primes, just as neither will play Kobe Bryant in his prime. Or Bill Russell in his prime. The 1992 Bulls are not in the league to stop the 2013 Heat, so we don’t need to complain about it. But you also need to stop whining when I tell you that LeBron will remain my villain for the foreseeable future. Just like you on the other side need to stop saying that he’s a choker. He has proven his mettle – he is the best player in the league – but that does not in the least mean I need to like him.

June 14, 2013

Get Up and Go

When I was in third grade my dad worked for Truro Episcopal Church. His boss was Father Herb, a 5’7” Canadian with just enough stock to not be skinny. He grew up on hockey and was drafted out of high school by the Detroit Red Wings. But knowing a man of his size would not survive, his father forbade him to go. Decades and a broken marriage later, he became Father Herb: Episcopal Priest, Pastor of Outreach, father of three kids roughly my age, and informal hockey instructor. The string of Schlossberg children running around the church pronounced his title as though we were James Cagney: Fadda Hoib.

During the summer, the kids would schlep their rollerblades and hockey sticks from their mother’s home in Texas to Father Herb’s. Other staff members’ kids would come with their parents to the church bringing their rollerblades; Father Herb would bring out his extra sticks. We’d drag the hockey nets out to the back parking lot and begin. I had just started rollerblading; I learned quickly, but skated without panache. Father Herb and his kids had removed their rear brakes and could stop on a dime. Matt and Will took two dimes to stop; Peter and I took three.

All I had were skates, a helmet, and the desire to play. Father Herb lent me a stick. One day my dad dropped Will and me off at Father Herb’s house and we all played in his drive way. Afterwards, Father Herb took the stick I was using, the white one with Jamir Jagr’s machined signature in Pittsburgh Penguins gold, and sized it for me, cutting off a couple inches and taping the handle. It was mine now. I’d skate around our apartment complex with that stick and a tennis ball, lofting wrists shots at dumpsters.

In sixth grade, I outgrew my skates. Father Herb’s kids visited less frequently and when they did, they rarely played hockey. My dad moved from the church office to the homeless ministry across town. Ike tried on my old skates, but without anyone to skate with, he gave them up. Without anyone to play hockey with, there was no reason for me to purchase new skates. My stick with the golden signature languished in a corner.

We left Washington DC before its current athletic renaissance began, before Ovechkin brought relevance to the Verizon Center. Before Harper was profiled in Sport Illustrated as a high schooler; before RG3 was drafted; before the brief, shooting star that was Agent Zero’s Wizard career. When it was easy to forget DC had a professional hockey team, so there was no one inspiring me to lace up the skates and I certainly never went to a game. If pressed, I claimed the Capitals as my team out of my DC loyalty only, not out of affection for the team. Eight years in the Midwest did nothing to engender hockey allegience either. Occasionally attending games was entertaining, but merely being a spectator doesn’t suit me.

But this year I got rollerblades again. A friend moved, leaving his behind, and they fit well enough. I strapped them on and slowly skated the circumference of my car in my garage without falling; it felt great; it felt natural. I called my brother Abraham, asking him to check my parents’ New York garage for my stick; it was gone. The white stick with the golden signature had been left in DC or Wisconsin. Play-It-Again Sports sold me a new stick for $12 and a ball for $3. Nick and I visited the local park street hockey rink after work. After thirteen years I was skating without a stationary car to provide balance: I fell ten times in the twenty minutes before we were mercifully evicted by proficient skaters. I left with skinned knees, a bruised tuchus, wrenched back, and bleeding ego. The following Saturday I laced up again, falling just once in an hour.

The general assertion is that the Stanley Cup is the greatest trophy in sports, and I concur, but I’ve had trouble following the sport. It’s not the Russian names; I like Dostoevsky’s novels. The playoffs this year have been easier to follow; while the success of the local Blackhawks could be the reason, I prefer to think it’s that I’ve started playing again. I only understand sports I play. I’m not playing the way I did with Father Herb and I’m sure 12 year old me would smoke current me, but the fact is that I am playing. What are you doing?

hockey

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March 28, 2013

The New Seasonal Litany

It has been a hard winter in Chicago. But baseball is coming.

The team I bleed for is terrible. That doesn’t matter; Baseball is more than my team.

Most people don’t understand. They think I’m crazy. They think baseball is stupid or boring. Piteous people.

Baseball is huge. Baseball cannot be contained by time. There is no time limit, you play until you are done. The fundamentals remain unchanged over decades, over a century. Players are compared across eras because Baseball envelops itself and its mutations. Innovation never ceases, but it only leads back to Baseball.

Baseball is coming.

Baseball cannot be spatially contained. The whole world is merely where the home run lands. Play extends beyond the foul lines and outfield walls. The game is wide enough to be played in a pasture and narrow enough to fit into back alleys and city streets.

Baseball is coming

Baseball is constant potential. Every second has infinite results. Every routine grounder could be an error. Every benchwarmer could knock one out of the park. Every windup could buckle the knees. Any single can spark a rally; there is always hope.

Baseball is coming.

Baseball is paradoxical, both simple and complex. It can be boiled down to a rock and stick. Or, it can be described with complex mathematical formulas. It is game and it is business. It is historical and it is modern. It has meant absolutely nothing and it has meant absolutely everything.

Baseball is coming.

Baseball is versatile. A full game of nine innings can be played with eighteen players. Or with four friends I can go to the field and chew sunflower seeds and try to hit the ball over the fence. I can hone my switch hitting as though I’ll ever get called up. I can play in a parking lot with a broom handle and a tennis ball

Baseball is coming.

Baseball is language. A pervasive language. My family talks baseball. Talk of our loyalties, our hopes, our scars in baseball. We age against the backdrop of baseball; it is the pantry door against which we measure our growth.

Winter is waning. Baseball is coming.

baseball 1

 

If you enjoyed this post, please check out Eric’s!

February 10, 2013

Jake Versus the World – A Self-aggrandizing Sports Story

I hate soccer. If you thought you knew me and you didn’t know that, well, you didn’t know me. Now you do. Nice to finally meet you.

Anyways, back to hating soccer. I realize that the majority of the world now wants to burn me at the stake, draw and quarter me, stone me, or just otherwise deliver harsh, visceral judgment upon my body. But know that I will be a martyr for the anti-soccer cause; like Saint Stephen, I shall see the risen Christ in my last moments and he certainly won’t be holding a soccer ball. To quote Obi-Wan, “if you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Sorry. My self-righteousness sidetracked me again. Let’s start over.

I hate soccer. I’ve been called an “ignorant American,” which I find insultingly inaccurate. I am not ignorant of soccer; I’ve played enough FIFA ’06 to have a decent grasp of its rules, basic strategy, and 2006 stars. Elementary and high physical education classes forced me to play the sport. Friends have attempted to convert me; an ex-girlfriend seduced me into watching the World Cup willingly. Romantic interest drew me to girls’ soccer games. I attended a professional soccer game because my favorite band was playing the post-game party. I even have a favorite (albeit for infamous reasons) “futboler”: Zinedine Zidane. But outstanding in my twenty five years have been three of specific but not comprehensive experiences which have developed and defined my opinion.

I’m not certain how old I was (probably eight or nine) – I know this was not my first negative soccer experience – but canonically it sets the tone. I sought my mother in the kitchen, prepared to make a bold profession of absolute truth.

“Momma, do you know what?”

“What, Honey?”

“Baseball is the greatest sport in the world!”

“Hmm, well, Honey, most of the world would disagree with you.”

“What?!” My worldview was rapidly restructuring.

“Most of the world plays soccer and doesn’t really play baseball.”

In a matter of seconds, my worldview had finished its rearrangement. The nuisance which had previously just served as the target of my angst when it hijacked the football field at recess had suddenly become my nemesis. When my classmates decided they wanted a break from a hand utilizing sport like football, they’d turn to soccer. When I tired of uncovering soccer-related conspiracies (Ghostwriter style) beneath the jungle gym with girls largely indifferent to my cause – which is to say when I gave in to my athletic, competitive nature – I dragged myself onto the repurposed football field and played the one position which allowed handballs. How could the world not just condone, but prefer, such idiocy and injustice to the use of the hand?

My response was immediate, yet consciously measured: “I hate soccer.”

The second event in the holy doctrine of soccer abhorrence. I was homeschooled from fifth grade though seventh grade. In that final year my mother decided her bookworm eldest child was not getting enough exercise (she, of course, was the one who, after that fifth grade season, mandated no more football until high school – I’m not still bitter) and enrolled me in the homeschool soccer league. Having just turned thirteen, I was placed in the “13 and up” group, full of soccer loving, foot- fetished -skilled teenagers. It took me all of five minute to know that I was not going to take this. Quick on my mental feet, if not my actual feet, I told the coach I had my mom’s keys in my pocket and I had to run them over to her – on the other side of the park. I then proceeded to spend the next two hours running around the woods by myself, pretending to fight off orcs, giant weasels, and other such belligerent foes, all the while not play soccer. I got away with that ploy for about a week.

When my mom caught me, she wasn’t really mad so much as dismayed. She pulled some strings and got me into the 12 year old group. While this wasn’t the ideal situation of not playing soccer, it beat being humiliated by a sadistic mob of Pelés and pre-bust Freddy Adus (don’t tell me I’m an “ignorant American”). I went from being the youngest and least athletic player on the field to the eldest and most athletic. My strategy was to hang out as the left side defender (talking to the goalie about how much better any sport was than soccer) and let the other kids play soccer. If the other team dared bring me the ball, I would resist picking up the fumble and instead make the steal. I’d dribble drive straight to the net and anyone in my way risked getting run over. I scored a lot.

Lastly, I was sick the day my freshman PE class (filled with a number of sophomores from the JV football team) picked which sports they’d play that semester. I, and a surprising number of said football players, ended up in ping pong and soccer. The former? Awesome. The latter? Horrific. Fortunately, during the soccer sessions we had an all football team. While the lanky British, Middle Eastern, and South American players tried to bedevil us with their fancy footwork, we merely bowled them over. If you want to flaunt your technique, we’ll flaunt our power. We won a lot.

I hate soccer. The vitriol with which I express my animosity emerges in waves. For the better part of two years I had tamed my rhetoric after nearly driving a roommate to tears of frustration. Interest in soccer girls forced me to bite my tongue or divert the conversation. I’ve been unleashed for about seven months now, and I’m enjoying my ideological freedom before I visit my soccer playing baby sister (okay, she’s not a baby, she’s eight). She’ll never get me to like soccer, but for her I can go beyond biting my tongue and encourage her. I’m excited that she has found a sport that she loves and excels in; I just wish it was one that used hands. Hopefully she can forgive me if she ever reads this.

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March 24, 2012

Integrating Sports and Writing

I love sports.  I came out of the womb with a baseball, a bat and a backwards cap.  In high school I excelled as a carnivorous defensive lineman.  Over the years I’ve played in a multitude of pick-up games, from baseball, football, basketball, street hockey, ultimate, tennis, beer pong, etc.  That’s not to say that I was ever particularly skilled, but my competitive ferocity usually merited not being the last picked; if I was, I’d make you pay for not picking me.  I’m still the largest child you’ve ever seen pantomiming my Ruthian swing and smoothly channeling my inner Puckett, robbing myself of the deserved homer.

But sport has never been my sole lover; my constant mistress is the written word.  When my rapt attention is not paid to the athletic world, it is usually turned to black stains on a white plane.  The only rival to my baseball card collection is that which accumulates on my bookshelf.  Encased in my baby-book is the first semi-coherent story I ever “wrote,” as a three year old, transcribed by my mother.  The years have added poetry, letters, and papers, which, though showing growth, show no hint of prodigious talent.

These two worlds are often dichotomized.  One conveys images of solitude at a typewriter and a cigarette while the other conveys weight-rooms, camaraderie and the exertion of physical supremacy.  Sportswriters are an aged rope bridge between, falling into disrepair as a rising generation pursues ESPN’s anchor desk instead of the Washington Post beat desk.  The few planks of the rope bridge still able to bear weight are the occasional blogs of a past generation’s hold-overs and ghost written memoirs.  But, while a visible link between two worlds, much of this writing remains devoid of the sports mentality.  It remains “post-contest” or “post-career;” a separate response to sports, a leisurely transcription or analysis, but never an integration.

What I want to do is unite my love of sports with my love of writing, and I don’t mean in sports journalism or memoirs; I mean integrating the activity of writing with the competitive mentality of sports.  Winning is becoming a better writer; maybe even published. Maybe.  But this goal line is unlike the goals of all the team sports I have related to above.  Writing, it appears, is more similar to that “sport” I abhor: running.  As much as I love sports and the running associated with them (shagging flies, running routes, pushing the ball, etc), I hate running for the sake of running.  Running a sprint is tolerable at best, but talk to runners about running, particularly distance running, and the concurrent theme is “competing against your best self.”  This is the most boring of competitions, but the most necessary by measures of self-improvement.  But in all honesty, that is what practice is in other sports.  That is why Derrick Rose spends his summer and fall in the gym by himself shooting threes and free throws.  That is why Jose Bautista’s swing is no longer that of a benchwarmer journeyman.  That is why Aaron Rodgers can immediately follow a legend and yet become a legend himself.  And that, as a long-time fan of Allen Iverson, is the aspect which I hate of sports that I love: practice.  Because I hate conditioning drills.  Because I hate coaches’ criticisms.  Because I hate competing against myself.  Because I do not see the improvement; I do not see the small victories in myself.

What I need first is faith.  I need to put my faith in the process- in the practice- that I have been told is the key to this self-improvement which I cannot see.  I need to be able to lock myself in my room or stay late in my cubicle and write.  Stupid sentence after stupid sentence until they become less stupid.  And don’t forget coaching.  Coaching happens during practice, not during the game.  And coaching in writing begins, as I understand it, with reading quality writing.  Reading a bunch of crap writing is not going to improve my writing, but reading quality writing will. From quality reading coaching extends to criticism and I do have a network of critics to reach out to, I just need to swallow my pride and reach out to them, to build community with them.  And beyond practice it requires execution.   In college I would bang out papers the night before they’re due: going for the walk off grand slam, channeling my Doug Flutie, Bill Mazeroski, and Robert Horry.  Unfortunately, what makes for breathtaking, inspiring sports makes for poor, lackluster writing.  Instead I need the focus of boring, grind it out 2 minute drills.  I need small sections of writing over a prolonged period of time; a period of time that hopefully only ends with my death.  Not my complacency or despondency or my physical inability to pick up a ball, I mean, pen.  It is probably a knife’s edge to walk between pushing myself continuously to get better and still enjoying the act of writing.

But here is the resolve.  Here are the first down markers, the singles I need to hit, and the free throws I have to sink, to at least put myself in a position to win.

  1. Never stop reading.
  2. Keep writing.
  3. Submit to coaching.
  4. Always improve.