Monday, October 27, 2014

Don't it always seem to go?

It's funny how the mind works; the recent demolition of a building in Chicago just reminded me of the 1969 World Series.

If you don't recall the Fall Classic of 45 years ago, it was a contest between the Baltimore Orioles and that year's Cinderella story, the New York Mets. If you were alive at the time and a baseball fan in Chicago, I don't need to tell you in that year, the Cubs were leading their division for 155 days and looked poised to be playing baseball in October for the first time since 1945. But a late summer Chicago losing spell, combined with a concurrent surge by the Mets, led to one of the most memorable disappointments in the history of a franchise that has seen many of them. As a young Cubs fan at the time, I was crushed and developed a profound hatred of the Mets which continues to this day. That hatred has outlasted my love of the Cubs by about 42 years.

Needless to say, I rooted for the Orioles that series; I even got an Orioles cap, purchased by my grandfather from a sporting goods store on Belmont Avenue in the Lincoln-Belmont shopping district. Back then my beloved grandpa (surrogate grandfather to be exact), and I had a Saturday morning ritual of heading to that area where he had a weekly doctor's appointment. Afterwords we'd have lunch, then go shopping for toys. It was probably at that time when I learned the discipline of self-restraint as my grandpa would have indulged me with the world, had I asked for it. Usually a plastic model would suffice.

That commercial district along with several others in the city was teaming with life back then boasting a variety of businesses catering to a wide cross-section of the city, including children. Today these little downtowns are but shadows of their former selves, victims of the ever changing world of shifting populations and the vagaries of the retail business. All we have left are the buildings which speak of a time when retailers spared little expense to create homes for their businesses whose style and quality of construction reflected the pride they had in their work. Sadly, those wonderful buildings are disappearing too.

Anyway, I particularly remember one Saturday afternoon in 1969, eating at the lunch counter of a drug store that was on Ashland Avenue just north of Belmont. On TV at the drug store was the first game of the World Series. That was back when they still played the World Series in daylight. Come to think of it, it was a time when no matter where you were, you simply couldn't escape World Series, even if you wanted to. Wearing my new cap and rooting for my new team, the Orioles' victory that day slightly eased the pain of the Cubs' recent demise. Unfortunately, that relief was short lived as New York swept the next four games and won the Series, giving birth to the legend of the "Amazin' Mets."

Making sure I wasn't dreaming this, I just looked up the series on the website Baseball and sure enough, the first game of that series took place on a Saturday, October 11 to be exact, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The Orioles did indeed win that game as I remembered, by the score of 4-1. In case you're interested, veteran Mike Cuellar got the win. Some guy who went on to have a pretty decent career of his own by the name of Tom Seaver got the loss. A visit to another baseball goto website. Retrosheet, confirmed that it was indeed a day game.

So why on earth am I bringing this up? Well it so happened that my wife and I were driving by the site of that former drug store the other day and sadly discovered that the building was recently torn down, along with the old La Salle Bank building, a prominent landmark of the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland intersection. The 1920s era bank was renovated beyond recognition in the 70's, but the drug store building with the lovely Art Deco facade, was largely intact, until last month that is. That building was called the Medic Building and it made Preservation Chicago's 2013 "Chicago Seven" list of the most endangered buildings in Chicago. Here's a link to that list and accompanying article describing the building and photographs. From Curbed Chicago, here's a piece about the demolition.

The entire block is being leveled to make way for a mixed use, retail-housing development, designed in an eclectic style that defies description, other than it seems to be the most popular style for this type of development.

The Medic Building was a jewel in the landscape of that very interesting commercial district that sadly has seen better days. The new development will hopefully bring money and life into the area which was once such an important part of the city. For that reason alone we should applaud its creation.

Yet the architecture, at least from what I can tell from the renderings, leaves much to be desired. It perplexes me that the developers could not have somehow found a way to save or at least integrate the beautiful facade of the Medic Building which fronted both Ashland and Melrose Street into their otherwise ho hum design.

The Medic Building along with its contemporary neighbors, may not have been among the greatest works of architecture in Chicago. Still they created a sense of place which made their neighborhood distinct from similar commercial districts in Chicago.

The new buildings, inoffensive and bland, create a sense of every place and no place at the same time.

Forty five years from now, I wonder if the demolition of buildings built today will evoke memories for my kids of their own childhood.

Or will they even notice they're gone?

Postcard image of the Lincoln-Belmont district c. 1950. It still looked very much the same during my childhood twenty years later. The buildings currently being demolished are at the extreme right.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Green Fields, Revisited

The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

-- A. Bartlett Giamatti

It was a difficult spring. Faced with the prospect of applying to high schools (the good ones being few and far between in this city), my son knew that he had to earn straight A's all year. On top of that, he needed to do well on the aptitude exams that would count towards his composite score, meaning the difference between getting into a good school or not. The pressure was intense but none of us were surprised; as every parent and child involved in the Chicago Public School System knows, seventh grade is a bitch. We didn't worry too much about the math, but his reading scores on practice tests were a little suspect. Much to our delight, he aced the reading test. But the evening we got the score, in the midst of our celebration, my son discovered a lump growing in his neck.

It wasn't the first time we found an unwelcome growth in our son's body, but it doesn't get any easier with each experience. It doesn't help when the nurse tells you to get him to the doctor's office immediately or when the doctor tells you he has no idea what's going on with your child, only that whatever is growing inside him, doesn't belong there. Combined with other family health issues, stress at work, and the countless other trials and tribulations of life, the situation did not bode well for a restful, peaceful summer.

At least there was baseball.

This would be our fifth year in the Little League program in our neighborhood park on the north side of Chicago. My son's been on the same team that whole time, and for all but the first year, I've been an assistant coach. You may recall that our team was called the Cardinals. As any baseball fan knows, the St. Louis Cardinals for whom we were named, has been one of the most successful teams in major league history. In that respect, our team bore more of a resemblance to the old St. Louis Browns. In case you don't know anything about the Brownies, let's just say that two of the most famous players in the history of that woebegone team were Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder, and Eddie Gaedel, a midget who had one major league at bat. You can look them up if you don't believe me. In other words, we were the lovable losers who got no respect from the rest of the league.

That point became very clear to my son once he made the park's traveling team last year. The travel team as I've told you before, is an elite group of kids 13 and under, who have played against some very tough competition in the region, This year they won the State Championship in the Intermediate National Little League Tournament. Representing Illinois, they got to play in that tournament's Midwest Sectional held in Kalamazoo, MI. Unfortunately my son didn't get to play because his head coach decided to only play 11, and as an alternate on the team, he was an odd man out. It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially since the coach brought in new players from another park who leap-frogged over him to make the team. But my son handled the situation with grace and maturity well beyond his 13 years.

The silver lining of not being able to play in the tournament was that it would enable him to play with his Cardinals team, rechristened the A's, in the house league playoffs (which turned out to be scheduled at the same time). In Little League, everybody makes the playoffs in case you’re wondering.

It's not that the Cardinals didn't have their moments over the years. In our second season, as one of the older teams in our division, we had a respectable record with a kid who was a lights out pitcher. When he pitched we won, when he didn't, well...

This year we got a new head coach as our original coach decided to take over a younger team. The new coach, (from Oakland, hence the new moniker, the A's) is a passionate, intense man with good baseball chops. From the get go, the new blood, new players, and new spirit, still didn't spell success. In our Little League, players who aren't held over from the previous year are assigned a team in a player draft. To insure a semblance of parity, each team would receive no more than two members of the 13U travel team. Some teams it turned out ended up more equal than others as there were no such rules for 12 and 11U players. The team with the lion's share of those quality younger players turned out to be the team whose head coach also happened to be none other than the director of the travel program. Not surprisingly, his team won first place in our division winning all but two of their of their games.

For our part, in addition to six players held over from last year, we ended up with a bunch of great kids with a varying degree of baseball skills. One of the new players was my son's teammate on the 13U team, a very good ballplayer in all aspects, what they call a five tool player. At our first practice, our old head coach (who hung around as an assistant), asked the players what their goals were for this season. This boy's response was: "to win the championship." My immediate thought was: "sorry kid, you're on the wrong team."

As a member of the travel team, my son benefited from an off season training program, including one-on-one instruction with the head coach. He worked on a new swing and lost some of his bad habits. He now has a nice looking swing and good power, however a consequence is that he's having more trouble making contact with the ball and striking out more. He seems to have another problem that he didn't have last year: nerves.

Of course he had a lot to be nervous about. We visited a specialist about the growth. The doctor who proclaimed himself, "the world's authority on growths in children's necks", told us it was either a swollen lymph node or one of two different kinds of cysts, one of which carried a small risk of malignancy. We'd only know the answer from an ultrasound. If it were a cyst, it would have to be removed. With the very real possibility of surgery looming around the corner, our son quietly went on with his life, returning to school, taking the math test, and playing baseball.

On the two teams it was as if my son were two different ballplayers. He took on his role as one of the best players on the A's very seriously, and for the first time in his life, became a leader. With the help of his new swing and an expensive new bat, he hit a bunch of triples and even a few honest-to-goodness home runs. He excelled at all the positions given him, even the toughest in the game: pitcher and catcher.

As one of the weakest players on the travel team, he hit a few big drives too, including one that fell about five feet short of going over the outfield fence. But mostly he struck out. Playing almost exclusively in right field, he struggled with plays that were routine for him last year. Part of difference between the house league and the travel league to be sure is the level of competition; but I'm convinced much of his performance this year on the travel team had to do with the pressure to perform. The travel team is expected to win, and the coaches expect 100 percent out of each player. My boy was singled out often for mistakes, big and small. Small wonder he was nervous, had I been in his position at that age, I probably would have quit a long time ago. Much to my son's credit, he kept with it.

This year's A's picked up where last year's Cardinals left off, that is to say, we were bad. Either we put our best players in at pitcher and catcher and the kids in the field couldn't make the plays, or we put the best kids in the field and our pitchers couldn't throw strikes and our catchers couldn't hold on to the ball. Our hitting was no great shakes either.

 Sultan of Swat Jr.
After three losses we were able to scratch out a win against a team that was even worse than we were. Their one 13U player was a big, powerful, left handed 12 year old who looked like he had played since the time he was in diapers. The rest of the team was made up of inexperienced 11 year olds. It was like playing a team made up of Babe Ruth and eight Eddie Gaedels. In the first inning, with two men on base and Babe Ruth at the plate, I instructed our pitcher, our other 13U player, not to give him anything he could hit. My words went unheeded and the result was a monster home run that went about 350 feet. Later in the game my son faced the slugger and after I gave him the same instructions, he proceeded to walk the young Ruth on four straight pitches, none of them less than a foot outside. On his third at bat of the game with the bases loaded, the Bambino faced one of our pitchers who that day was having trouble finding the strike zone. I didn't bother to tell him how to pitch the slugger, as he wouldn't have been able to put the ball where I told him anyway. Wouldn't you know it, the kid probably threw his first strike of the day, and boy it was a good one, right down the middle. After Babe Ruth swung his bat, the ball left the field, the park, and possibly the neighborhood. Grand slam.

But that was all their scoring for the day, the young Bambino having accounted for all of their runs, seven RBI from the two home runs and one run scored after my son (un)intentionally walked him. We crept back, mostly on account of defensive miscues. Down by a couple of runs we tied it up in the last inning. Then with runners on first and third, our head coach yelled to the runner at first so the whole park could hear: "You're going on this pitch." He repeated it even louder. Yet again a third time he screamed as if anyone in the neighborhood missed it: "YOU'RE STEALING SECOND BASE ON THIS PITCH!!!"

Everybody in the park knew what our coach was up to, except apparently the other team's catcher and their coach. As if on cue, the ball was pitched, the runner broke for second, our batter took the pitch, the catcher threw to second base, and our third base coach, (yours truly) sent the runner at third, the winning run, home. Game over.

OK it was a cheap bit of subterfuge, perhaps a little bush league on the part of our coach, knowing full well the 11 year old covering second couldn't possibly make the throw back to the plate in time to nail our runner, But hey, a win's a win, and boy did we need it. For our head coach and me it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

We returned to our losing ways after that game and the season seemed a wash. There were some bright lights, we played the better teams well, moral victories to be sure. However we were blown out by some of the lesser teams, putting us in our place lest we thought we had any chance of respectability.

Another post game - post mortem
The tide began to turn the next time we faced Babe Ruth and the Munchkins. One of our most dedicated players, the kid who scored the winning run in our only win to date, told me before the game that he was going to catch one of the slugger’s monster drives to center field. What the kid lacks in natural talent he more than makes up in self-confidence, joie de vivre, and pure intestinal fortitude. I once saw him at shortstop take a line drive to the face. Holding back tears as best he could, he mustered up every bit of nerve and temerity in him and was back in the field the next inning. The nickname I gave him several years ago was The Eagle, not for his soaring speed, but for his heart. When he told me about his plan, I patted him on the back and said something inspirational like: "that's the spirit Eagle." But he was serious.

In the middle of the game, with two runners on and the monster 12 year old at the plate, our coach as he did every time he came up to bat, kept saying "back, back, back" until our three outfielders were essentially playing in the next field over. Predictably, Babe Ruth hit the ball a mile to right-center. Had there been an outfield fence, the ball would have cleared it easily. Our youngest player was playing right field and probably would have had a play on the ball had he moved a little to his right. The problem was, he had yet to make a catch in the outfield up to that point, usually he would let the ball fall in front of him or stand like a statue trying to make a play while the ball flew twenty feet over his head. Fortunately the ball was in the air so long the Eagle (who hadn't made all that many outfield catches himself), had time to get to it.

In all The Eagle ran about 60 fee from center field, cutting in front of our right fielder to get to the ball which he caught just as he was in mid-slide, ending up on his butt. It wasn't pretty but it was the most beautiful catch I ever saw. Even the Babe's dad couldn't stop talking about it. We ended up winning that game as well, our first game won as I mentioned to the team, because we played better than the other team, not because we didn't play as poorly as they did.

Shortly after that game, my son had the ultrasound that determined the growth to be an enlarged lymph node. On a follow-up exam, the lump specialist confirmed what we thought, the lump was getting smaller. The doc's disappointment was palpable when he told us we were no longer in need of his services. With that load off our shoulders, we headed over to a travel team game. Indicative of the ups and downs of this past summer, my boy sat on the bench most of the game, and went 0-4 at the plate. Soon after he learned he would likely not be invited to play in any of the tournament games.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.
With those words, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti began his beautiful testimony to the game he loved, called The Green Fields of the Mind. I asked my son if deep down he wished his team would lose for not including him in the big tournament, as his doting father did. Proving that his heart was in the right place, he assured me he did not. We were even planning to attend a few games as spectators but were prevented from doing so because we had better things to do...

The A's after all, were playoff bound, and showing real signs of improvement in the last few games of the regular season. Fielders were making plays, hitters were getting on base, and we were beginning to feel ourselves coming together as a team. Given that 11 of the best players from the league would be off at the State Championship, the complexion of each house league team would be different and all bets were off when it came to picking a favorite.

Just like all the teams, we would be missing a bunch of players, all of them with pitching experience. We were left with only four players who could pitch.

Given our team's record, 4-9, I would have been thrilled to have won just the first game of the playoffs, Had I been head coach, I probably would have gone the distance with our best pitcher to give us the chance to win that game and if, God willing, we were successful, count our blessings and hope for the best in the next one. However our coach was looking beyond the first game and even beyond the second. He carefully planned the pitching rotation using three pitchers per game with the fourth available if necessary. Each pitcher would be limited to 35 pitches per game so they would be available to pitch the next game, and a third if we got that far. Despite the loss of all those good players to the tournament, the mere mention of the unthinkable, possibly winning the championship, made me wince.

And yet I believed in this team. As the unofficial chronicler of the season, I've been looking back at some of the things I wrote to the players and parents at crucial moments during the year. I marveled on how the team improved after a difficult start. I wrote about how thrilling it was that the bottom of the order, almost non-existent at the beginning of the season, was now playing an important role in our games, often picking up the better players. Most satisfying, I was able to write an honest account of a game and single out each player for a significant contribution. I had a good feeling going into the playoffs, not because I thought we'd win any games, but because we'd be able to hold our heads up, win or lose.

You might say that attitude shows good judgement and maturity, after all, it's only a game. But in reality I was just being the son of my eternally pessimistic mother who long ago taught me that when you expect the worst in life, you're never disappointed. I've taken that to heart and after all these years, that philosophy has never failed me.

In truth I desperately wanted our team to win, especially that first game against a team that had been a thorn in our side for years. This was the team we always ended up facing in the playoffs; the team that prevented us every year from moving on.

This year, that team was in the same position we were in: four players missing, one 13U player on their roster, another, off playing in the tournament. With only eight players on our team, we had to call up a replacement player from a younger league. We put him in center field. On the first play of the game, their alternate 13U player led off with a drive to center, where our diminutive replacement player made a sensational diving catch. Our starting pitcher sailed through two innings allowing one run but having thrown less than his allotment of pitches, he would start the third inning. Already a feeling of dread kicked in. Things were going too well too early.

Our coach brought in a new pitcher in the middle of the third. This kid was the most stoic player on the team, deliberate in everything he did, and impossible to read. His idiosyncratic delivery belied his pitching skills; he could throw hard and accurately, most of the time, which is why the opposing batters were a little scared of him. He promptly got a ground out and a pop up. The next inning went by uneventfully for him, while we were slowly building up a lead.

In the top of the fifth, they got a run when the runner at third got aggressive and stole home on a lackadaisical throw from our catcher back to the pitcher, driving the coaching staff into a bit of a tizzy. Unfazed, Dr. Deliberate got the final out of the inning, and we were ahead by two. In five innings we had only used two pitchers. Getting more out of our first two pitchers than expected, we wouldn't need our closer, my son, until the last inning. He struck out the first batter, walked the second then promptly picked him off first, and got the last out on a grounder to second. Final score, 8-4.

I was ecstatic, although I hid my emotions as best I could.

That victory was for us a milestone, a rare playoff win against our arch rival. Much more than that, the team played some really good baseball, mistake free in the field except for that bad exchange between the catcher and the pitcher. Our bats came alive as well, most of the noise coming from the top of the order, with the exception of our young replacement player who walked three times and scored twice.

The best news of all was that our head coach's strategy worked better than even he imagined; all three of the pitchers we used pitched economically and would be available the next game. Never in my life was I so happy to be so wrong.

Same three pitchers, same batting order the next game, no reason to mess with a good thing. I strove to do everything the same as well: I wore the same shirt, (not washed of course), conducted the same pre-game drills with the kids in the same order, and convinced myself we were going to lose. This time we'd be playing the second best team in the league, a team we came close to beating in the last game of the regular season with their full compliment of players. Had I not been so aggressive coaching third base and having key runners thrown out advancing when they shouldn't have, I'm convinced we would have won that game.

Our starter was shaky at the start but settled down, retiring the bottom of the order 1,2,3 in the second. We brought our second pitcher Dr. Deliberate in to face the top of the order in the third inning, which turned out to be almost a carbon copy of the first, same batters, same result: two hits two runs. My son came in to pitch the fifth against the top of their order and this time, they went down 1,2,3.

In our half of the first inning, our starting pitcher batted second and got us going with a double. My boy was up next and promptly struck out. Coaching at third, I bowed my head in frustration both for him and the team. Consequently I missed the fact that the ball got by their catcher. By the time I looked up, my alert son was rounding first base and heading for second as the throw from the catcher on the dropped third strike got by the first baseman, allowing the runner to score and my son to reach third.

This game was more of a nail biter than the first. My boy tripled in the tying run in the top of the fifth. Then in the top of the sixth with the score tied, it was time for the bottom of the order to come through big time with hitters 7,8 and 9 reaching on base hits. Our lead-off hitter, the head coach's son, who had been silent in the game up to that point, walked, forcing in a run. My son, with the bases loaded and the opportunity to do some real damage, struck out again. But some terrific at bats from the next hitters picked him up, and three more runs scored.

Redeeming himself, my boy finished the game on the mound with a little drama, giving up a double and walking a hitter before he struck out the last two batters. The tee shirt I wore that evening wouldn't be seeing the wash anytime soon. Unbelievably we won again by the same score, 8-4.

We were in the finals.

I tried to conceal my emotions but needed an outlet so I threw my cap into the backstop. My wife caught me but I'm not sure if anybody else did.

Celebration after one of our playoff victories
When I met our head coach at the field on the evening of the championship game, he told me our opponent’s assistant coach (their head coach being at the tournament final), was full of excuses. He only had seven regular players plus three replacements, he used up his best pitcher in the previous game, (just like I had intended to do), and by the way, wasn't that kid, my boy, a member of the 13U team? How was he able to play in this game? "

Ask your head coach,..." was the answer, "it was his decision not to play him in the tournament."

Adorned in my zesty tee shirt, I took the team through the same pre-game ritual as in the previous two games. Same lineup, same pitching rotation, once again we were the visitors; all systems were go.

First inning we went down in order including yet another strike out of my son. Their pitcher, a 12U regular and part time 13U replacement player looked tough. In their half of the inning we dodged a bullet; two walks and two doubles yield only one run. We manufacture a run of our own in the top of the second to tie it up.

Then the bottom fell out. In their half of the second, our starter walked two. Our coach pulled him for Dr. Deliberate. Dr. D. struck out the first batter he faced but walked the next, then gave up three consecutive hits yielding five runs, an inexorable lead against this team and its stingy pitcher.

It was over.

We had a great run. We were facing the best team in our league, the team hand-picked to win it all. Without their big stars, they were still too much for us, even beating up on the redoubtable Dr. D. It was their destiny to win this thing.

All told it didn't matter to me in the slightest. We stood tall, took on all comers and held our own. Despite no one having any respect for us, we beat every team in the league, except of course, this one. There were so many bright spots this season. Even that devastating second inning of the championship game was ended by a brilliant unassisted double play by our new first baseman, the Eagle. I was so proud of our team, it brought tears to my eyes. It still does three months later.

All we could do was wait it out, play the best we could, hold our heads up, and allow the victor their spoils. After all, we knew how to lose gracefully; we did it so often.

Or so I thought.

To my eternal delight, it turned out our team wasn't ready to give up as quickly as I was. With one out in the third, my son with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, manufactured a run all on his own with a base hit, steals of second and third, and a run scored on a ground out.

Despite the rocky second, Dr. D. was still on the mound in the bottom of the third. With two on and two out, their number 10 hitter hit a solid shot to right. Our right fielder, the same kid who long ago (so it seemed), let fly balls sail over his head, charged and scooped up the ball. With the entire coaching staff yelling at him to fire the ball home to prevent a run from scoring, he saw an opportunity and threw a bullet to the Eagle to get the hitter out at first for the third out. His heads up play saved us God knows how many runs.

Still down by four, our fourth inning depended on the bottom half of the order. The Eagle led off with a single and advanced on a ground out. After a strikeout, any hope for a comeback was on the shoulders of our mighty ten year old replacement player. He wouldn't fail us, coming up with a big time, two out base hit. Up comes the top of our order. The coach’s son responded with a double, driving in the Eagle and the ten year old. It looked like they'd be out of the inning still up by one run when my son hit a very high infield popup. Unfortunately for them, they misplayed the ball keeping us alive for Dr. Deliberate, who drove in the tying and go-ahead runs with a single.

This time my son was brought in early to pitch the fourth inning, having to face the top of their order, all three batters having given him fits in the past. Not this time; he struck out the leadoff man, then got the next two batters on ground outs. All that in seven pitches.

So here was the situation: we're up by one run with two innings to play, our best pitcher who hasn't allowed a run in the previous two games is on the mound. For the first time in five years, the thought that we might win the championship crossed my mind.

That thought was premature. We didn't score in our half of the fifth, they did, on a sacrifice fly after a hit and a walk.

In the end, the championship game came down to the last inning with the two teams tied at seven: "just as it should be" said their coach to me as I took my place in the coach's box at third. The two adult umpires who have seen it all both commented: "This is one heck of a game." Before we came up in the last inning, our coach told his team: "if anyone would have told me that after a 1-7 start, we would be tied in the last inning of the championship game I would have …" at which point our starting pitcher interjected: "called the police."

Who should lead off but our amazing ten year old who gets us started with a walk. The coach’s son then hits a rocket to the first baseman who can't handle it. After a double steal and a popup to first, my son comes up to bat. Warranted or not, I guess out of respect for his being a travel team player, their coach decided to intentionally walk him to load the bases for, Dr. D.

That turned out to be a fateful move. Just as he had done in his last at bat, Dr. D. hit a shot to right field that drove in our ten year old for the go ahead run. Meanwhile, the runner at second blew through my very discreet stop sign. Memories of the last game of the regular season where I sent runners to their demise haunted me as he headed home. But the runner, the coach's son, scored the insurance run on a very close play at the plate. My boy took third on the throw home. I told him that I looked like a genius for sending the runner home and swore him to secrecy, not to let on that he did it on his own.

There were no more thoughts in my head about wining the game and the championship at that point as their best hitters were due up in the bottom of the inning. First up was their dangerous number 10 hitter, a replacement player who also played on the travel team. He struck out. Next up was their number one hitter who had stints on both the 12 and 13U teams. The first time he faced my son this year, he hit a home run. Not this time, he struck out as well.

Up by two runs with two out in the last inning, our coach yelled to all nine members of his team from behind the backstop: "you have to want the ball to be hit to you and want to make the play." Then he began to chant: "I WANT THE BALL, I WANT THIS BALL."

At this point there's a little discrepancy over what happened next. What we all agree upon is the next batter hit the ball in the direction of second base. Playing second at the time was the little brother of Dr. Deliberate, who had made some big plays of his own during the season. All I remember is that the ball was in the air for what seemed an eternity.  Our coach remembers it a little differently. Since his account is more thrilling than mine, I'll give you his version:
...before you know it the #2 batter who had a single and two groundouts to second, drills a buzzing line drive right at (our second baseman), who reaches up over his head to snag the ball. 
This time I made no attempt to conceal my joy. I tossed my cap up in the air, I jumped for joy, I hooted, hollered, screamed and hugged everyone within armshot. As was his penchant, our taciturn former head-coach suggested the kids be more dignified so as not to show up the opponents. I shot back: "oh let them celebrate." After all, we may have known very well how to be good losers, but few on our team, myself included, had much practice at being good winners.

There have been many underdog, "Cinderella" teams in baseball history: the 1914 Boston Braves, the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, and this year's Kansas City Royals immediately come to mind. Heck even the lowly Browns won the AL pennant in 1944. That was when able-bodied American men, including professional ballplayers, were expected to go off to war. The Brownies just happened to have had more short-sighted, flat-footed, asthmatics who also happened to be bona fide big leaguers on their roster than anybody else that year. Just like them, we didn't get much respect for our accomplishment. "Well of course...", some people said, "if all the 13U players had been there it would have been a different story." At the awards ceremony, trophies were handed out to all the players. My son noticed that our championship opponents' trophies were bigger than ours. The plaque on theirs read "Major Division First Place Winners." On our trophies the powers that be, instead of writing "Major Division Champions," found it necessary to add the qualifier "Playoff" in front of the word champion, as if the playoffs were merely a separate, second season. Funny, but in all the other sports I know, it's the team that wins the last game of the year who's crowned the unqualified champion. The two teams who had the best overall records in the American and National Leagues this year (quick, can you name them?) are at this writing, sitting at home watching the World Series played by two wild card teams, that is, teams who didn't even win their respective divisions.

They say you don't make up your own schedule, you play the teams and the rosters given to you. In the playoffs we had the toughest route of all, playing and beating the three best teams in our league. They were missing players, so were we: one was our best all around player, another our hottest hitter and winningest pitcher, and the other two were solid infielders, both with significant pitching experience.

One of my favorite quotes about the game comes from the late manager Earl Weaver who once said:
You can't sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You' ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That's why baseball is the greatest game of them all.
In other words, the other team may hand you runs you don't deserve, but in turn, you still have to get the outs all on your own, without the benefit of prevent or trap defenses or playing keep away.

In the end we won those games because we were the better team, pure and simple.

I think that point was not lost on the league, most of whom were rooting for us, as I found out after the fact. The point was not lost on our opponents either as only a handful of them bothered to show up for the awards presentation. We ended up with the last laugh when it came our turn to receive the trophies and our head coach wouldn't give up the mike (much to the chagrin of the organizers of the event), until he mentioned in detail the accomplishments of every single player on the team.

That wasn't the end of baseball for my son this season. As a member of the team that won the State Championship, he got to meet and have his picture taken with the mayor. The 14U team was constantly in need of players so he played with them on occasion. He was soon back with his 13U team as they played in a suburban fall ball league. That season wrapped up last weekend. He last played in the quarter and semi-final games last Saturday where his team won both games.

As luck would have it, he was forced to miss the championship game last Sunday as he was enrolled in a class to prepare him for yet another big test that will determine his future, at least the high school he will attend next year. The 13U team won that game too, meaning he played on teams that won three championships this year. In his last two ballgames played on Saturday, he made a couple of spectacular catches in the outfield. He also struck out six times in the two games, meaning he'll have the long off-season to think about it.

The baseball gods giveth, and they taketh away.

As of last Sunday, baseball is now officially over for us this year. As Bart Giamatti predicted, the chill rains of fall have come. Yet the game has not quite left us to face the winter alone. That spectacular run of ours last July will stay with us for a long time. Of all the wonderful memories of the event, the one that will forever be etched in my memory took place after the last out of the championship game, during the hug-fest. Through the crowd, my son and I found each other. He had no words to share, the look on his face said it all. We had been through a lot together these past five years. Baseball for us has been a never ending series of ups and downs, of failures and triumphs, heartache and joy. Through all that, it's the one thing that has brought us together more than anything else.

It dawned on me, as I'm sure it did on him as well, that we were coming to the end of a sweet chapter in our lives. Next year the 13 year old players will move on to other teams and our run with the Cardinals/A's was over. For five years my son and I worked hard together on this team; he learned to be a ballplayer, a teammate, and a leader; and I learned the patience necessary to be a coach. We had our frustrations to be sure, but I don't think either of us could ever say we didn't love every minute of it. It was beyond our wildest dreams and expectations that the Cardinals/A's would end up the way we did, winning our very last game as a team. Quite frankly, I don't think either of us knew exactly what to make of it all.

While I hug my children and tell them I love them every day, at that instant on our beloved Field 4 of Warren Park in Chicago, where my son and I spent some of the most unforgettable moments of our lives together, for the first time in a very long while, my stoic 13 year old hugged me back, long and hard. There was nothing needed to be said. The moment will stay with me as long as I live.

It so happens that shortly before the playoffs began, I wrote a blog post dedicated to another sport. I concluded it with a lovely piece written by a soccer player who wrote about those moments few and far between, that transcend the game and describe perfection itself. I ended the piece by saying we should all be so lucky to experience such a moment at least once in our lives.

Little did I know that in a few days, my son, his teammates, their parents, the other coaches, and I would experience that one perfect, fleeting moment, when the stars and planets align, when all the fielders are positioned perfectly, the batters "hit 'em where they ain't", each pitch finds the outside corner, and every member of the team is connected together as if they were one.

When we experience moments like these, the best we can do is hold on to them and cherish them, because we never know when or if they'll ever happen again.

The memory of those three beautiful summer evenings last July when all was right with the world, will provide us with enough warmth to overcome anything the harsh Chicago winter could possibly toss our way.

Those lovely green fields of the mind will remain, sustaining us at least until another opening day.

Warren Park 2014 Major League Champions, the finest group of gentlemen I've ever had the pleasure of knowing

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Labels and such

There are certain words, most notably names of people, businesses, or ideas, that raise the hair of people of a certain ilk. You know what and who they are: buzzwords that people of one political ideology or other use to define all that is wrong with the world. To someone of the right wing ilk, words or phrases such as welfare, communism, tax and spend liberal, or Barack Obama are used to stir up the troops because of their power to get like minded people riled up into a tizzy. To those on the left, the names George W. Bush, the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, and Monsanto all have the same effect. When those labels fail to do the job, both sides love to conjure up the sina qua non of labels used to describe objectionable opinions and ideas: Hitler and the Nazis.

I've never had much use for labels; for me they are means to over-simplify complicated issues that deserve nuance and thought.

One of those buzzwords that people on at least one side of the political spectrum use to describe all that is wrong about the world, or at least this part of it, is the big box store Walmart.

The Walmart corporation's success is due to the creation of a sophisticated distribution system and maintaining extremely low overhead (including paying its workers what many consider to be less than a reasonable living wage), which enables them to undercut the prices of all the competition. That in addition to the one-stop convenience of being able to get practically anything you want under one roof in a convenient location with ample parking, makes Walmart THE go to store for tens, maybe hundreds of millions of Americans.

This of course comes at the expense of the competition: establishments that have been around for decades if not centuries in traditional shopping areas. Some people see Walmart as the cause for the downfall of  urban downtowns and small town Main Streets all over the country that today are mostly moribund if not dead.

To some, it's purely an example of business as survival of the fittest, in this case a tremendously successful company who does things bigger and better than anybody else deserving to win. Besides they say, Walmart creates jobs for lots of Americans who have the choice not to work there if they find the wages unacceptable.

To others, Walmart represents nothing less than the destruction of the American landscape and our very way of life.

Whichever side you're on, this article from last November's issue of Salon is well worth the read.

I never much liked Walmart, I've always found their stores extremely depressing places to spend time in and found their business practices to be objectionable.

But I've always thought using their name as a label for all that is wrong about America to be a little excessive.

That is until now.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Drinking and Driving

Times have changed. In one of my favorite movies, Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, released one year after I was born, there is a memorable, at times hysterical scene involving driving while under the influence of alcohol.  It starts when our hero, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is kidnapped, having been mistaken for someone else. He is brought by two thugs to a huge mansion in suburban New York where the boss of the operation, a smuggler of state secrets (James Mason), is under the impression that Roger is a government agent on his trail. Having gotten no information out of Thornhill, the bad guys plan to dispose of him by filling him up with a fifth of bourbon, then placing him behind the wheel of an automobile headed in the direction of a cliff with a several foot drop into Long Island Sound. What they underestimate is Roger's keen sense of self-preservation, and a super-human tolerance for alcohol. In a later scene with a real G-man who intends to take advantage of Roger's accidental relationship with the bad guys, Roger reveals his modus operandi:
Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed.
Anyway, completely tanked but still with his wits about him, Roger with a bad case of the room zooms, somehow gains control of the car before it goes off the cliff, and takes us on hair-raising ride through the back roads of Long Island where he zigs and zags as best he can avoiding oncoming cars while at the same time trying to keep his eyes open and the car on the road. He's taken off to the hoosegow after he slams on the brakes to avoid a bicyclist in his path and is rear-ended by the cop on his tail. After spending the night in the pokey on the charge of drunk driving, he appears before a judge at a hearing accompanied by his lawyer and his mother, none of whom believe his far-fetched tale. Defending his innocence, he pledges to the judge, the police, and all within earshot to "get to the bottom of all this" with or without their help. Upon hearing this his wacky mother throws up her hands and admonishes Roger by saying: "Just pay the two dollars dear."

Twelve years after the movie was released, while the penalty for driving under the influence was more than two bucks, it was still little more than a slap on the wrist. I remember visiting my uncle's family about twenty miles from our home. Since my father came directly from work, my parents drove there separately. My dad could really put away the alcohol back then in his prime, but that evening he drank more than even he could handle and was visibly drunk. As there were only two drivers in our family at the time and absolutely no question that we would leave with as many cars as we arrived in, my drunk father drove home and I drew the short straw as the person who was to accompany him. I may have had more terrifying moments in my life, but I can't remember any. The trip may not have been as hair raising as Cary Grant's joy ride in the Hitchcock movie, but it was bad enough. The funny thing was, even though my dad was completely shit-faced, no one, not even my mother thought twice about sending us off into the night with no more than a giggle noting my dad's condition, and an ironic "drive carefully" to send us on our way. God certainly must have been looking out for us that evening because we somehow made it home without incident.

A dozen years later, DUI penalties were more than just a slap on the wrist. That was the era when thanks to groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), it became unfashionable to chuckle while putting a drunk friend or family member behind the wheel of a car. All that didn't prevent me on occasion from driving when I shouldn't have. One evening when I was on a softball team and the other team didn't show up for a game, our team put that extra two hours to good use by heading straight for the bar. With the head start, by the end of the evening we were all pretty wasted. It just so happened that I drove to work that day and wasn't about to keep my car in the garage overnight, so I drove home in a mild stupor.  Now my father was a very aggressive driver while sober, and even more so when he was drunk. Since I never shared my late father's sense of self-confidence, not by a long shot, I would by and large describe myself as a defensive driver, especially while shall we say, tipsy. That evening I planned my journey very carefully, hoping to minimize any chance of causing anyone harm or getting into trouble by choosing the road less traveled to get home. To this day I can remember practically every moment of that commute home, all two hours or so of what should have been a twenty minute trip, driving half the speed limit with my face about five inches from the steering wheel. My memory of that evening ends the minute I got home when I passed out on the floor.

Flash forward some thirty years to today where there is zero tolerance for drunk driving. A DUI conviction now can result in the indefinite suspension of one's driver's licence, serious time behind bars, and social ostracization. While all that should give pause to reasonable people before they drink and drive, there are still folks who throw all caution to the wind and get behind the wheel when they have no business to do so. According to MADD, that number is about 300,000 per day. Last Saturday night, a husband and wife were driving home to the Milwaukee area after attending a wedding in Chicago. As they were passing through Kenosha, little more than half way home, they were hit head on by a pickup truck going the wrong way on an interstate highway at an estimated speed of 100 miles per hour. The husband died instantly and his wife sustained very critical injuries, but not life threatening. Their two children fortunately were not with them at the time, they were informed that they would never see their father again by their uncles. My wife and I learned of the tragedy Sunday evening. The deceased was my wife's first cousin.

Moments before the accident, the driver of the pickup truck that killed a member of our family fled the police after being stopped, then continued driving south in the northbound lanes of the superhighway.

It's customary to use the word "allegedly" to modify the actions of someone involved in a criminal act who has yet to be convicted of a crime. That small courtesy is seldom given to drunk drivers. The news reports immediately told us that a witness to the accident who offered help to the injured, noticed that the cab of the pickup truck which struck my wife's cousin's car reeked of alcohol. It was also reported that the woman passenger in that vehicle told police that she and the driver had been drinking that night. You may draw your own conclusions but I'll just go out on a limb and say the guy behind the wheel who killed my wife's cousin was drunk.

If he lives, and at this point that's about a fifty-fifty proposition, he'll be in serious trouble. Beyond all the legal charges that will await him should he survive his injuries, if he has any conscience at all, he'll have to live with all the pain and suffering he caused so many people. Because of his stupidity, he'll have to live with the fact that a father will never get the chance to see his boys grow up; he'll never get to meet his grandchildren. Because of his recklessness, he'll have to live with the fact that the boy's mother in addition to fighting for her life through terrible pain, has lost her best friend and soul mate, and will have to raise her children without a father. Because of his criminal behavior, two boys have lost their dad at an age when they need him the most; the rest of his family has lost a loving brother, nephew, cousin and an uncle. Scores of folks have lost a dear friend and colleague, and a couple who got married last week in Chicago will forever be haunted by the fact that a tragedy befell two guests leaving their wedding. I could go on and on about the number of people who have been hit by this particular nightmare. The point of all this is to say that we forget how intricately all of us are connected, our actions not only define us, but other lives as well.

In Illinois the penalties for drunk driving are harsh; a first offense DUI conviction here results in a minimum of one year suspension of the driver's licence, a fine of up to $2,500, and up to one year in jail. Wisconsin's penalties are tough but not nearly as much as those in Illinois, which may explain why the Dairy State according to its own DOT web site, has the highest rate of drunken driving in the nation.

There are some who would argue that laws severely punishing drivers without exception caught driving above the legal limit of alcohol in their veins are unfair. They might argue that having an amount of alcohol above an arbitrary percentage, does not necessarily mean a person will be more likely to cause an accident than someone driving with other distractions, some of which are completely unavoidable. It's not even unreasonable to say that some people are better drivers while tipsy than others are stone sober. Taking away a person's ability to drive is often tantamount to taking away that person's livelihood. Incarceration causes irreparable harm to a reputation, and the fines add insult to injury. Besides, the tough laws already in place didn't prevent the Wisconsin driver from causing the deadly crash last Saturday. Some would argue draconian laws that take away people's rights, their liberty, and the ability to support themselves based on what is essentially a case of bad judgement, are simply bad, unreasonable, and ineffective laws.

I would counter with what should be obvious: driving a car is a privilege, not a right. Getting behind the wheel of a two thousand pound machine that is easily capable of speeds of well over one hundred MPH is a deadly serious proposition. Along with accepting that privilege comes a contract the driver makes with society, pledging to accept and uphold the rules and regulations placed upon all drivers, not just some. In other words those of us (like me) who foolishly believe we're good drunk drivers, don't live by a different set of rules than anybody else. Despite the terrible experience of our family this past week, tough drunk driving laws keep at least some drunks off the road and do in fact save lives. Of all the impairments and distractions that drivers face on a daily basis, drunk driving, (unless you're Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest), is entirely avoidable. Every driver knows the legal consequences of driving under the influence so there is simply no excuse beyond sheer stupidity to put oneself into the position of getting a DUI.

A more important detriment to driving under the influence than getting busted should be the thought of the terrible carnage of fatalities caused by drunk driving. According to MADD, around 10,000 people each year are killed by drunk drivers who account for one third of all traffic accidents in the United States. Just imagine, 10,000 deaths each year that could have easily been prevented if only the people who caused them had thought about the terrible consequences before drinking and driving. A sobering thought indeed.

As we have seen, we are all inexorably connected by our actions. Our cousin and his family were the victims last week. This week it may be a loved one of yours. The way I see it, supporting and abiding by the strict rules we have on the books regarding drinking and driving is a small price to pay, even if they save only one life.

Who knows, that life may be your own.

If you are so moved, the following is the address of a fund to help our cousin's wife and her two boys:

The Robert F. Miller Family Memorial Fund
Landmark Credit Union
2190 Wisconsin Ave. Grafton, WI 53024

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Ken Burns Effect

A recent posting on Facebook of A Trip Down Market Street, this mesmerizing film of a cable car ride down San Francisco's main drag, brought to mind a couple of things:

If this looks familiar, you've probably seen bits of it used as a device in documentary films that deal with a particular time and place: America at the turn of the last century. Coincidentally, this week PBS has been broadcasting the latest Ken Burns film based upon the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Sure enough, in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, one of the thousands of clips from hundreds of films Burns uses is a clip from this movie which was actually shot during Teddy Roosevelt's administration. In fact if you look carefully, you can see the clip over and over again as it is used in a promo for the show and one of its sponsors. I'm quite certain that I've seen portions of this film over the years, used in other works of Burns and his contemporaries.

I suspect most people don't immediately recognize the city depicted in the film. As such it could represent virtually any big American city at the turn of the twentieth century, which is why using clips from it is so attractive to contemporary filmmakers. But there is a story behind this particular film that makes it in its own right much more interesting than the documentary films who exploit it simply to establish a time and place.

The film  was produced by four brothers, Harry, Herbert, Earle and Joe, collectively known as the Miles Brothers. It was shot entirely in one take, not a small accomplishment given that the cameraman, Harry Miles, had to hand crank the film traveling through his camera at a consistent rate for the entire thirteen minute cable car ride. Another not so small feat is the fact that the cable car does not come to a complete stop in the entire film. The film is beautifully choreographed as obstacles including folks standing on the tracks playing "chicken", not moving away until the last possible second, and daredevil motorists darting in between oncoming cars can't stop our cable car as it moves inexorably toward its destination, the San Francisco Ferry Building at the intersection of Market and the Embarcadero, the heart of the city.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way it shows the traffic pattern of a major artery in an American city before the time when vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine reigned supreme. The cable car, itself powered by a mechanism gripping onto an underground cable moving at a constant rate of speed, had to compete with electric powered street cars, horse drawn vehicles of all types, pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobiles. When I first saw the movie in its entirety this week, I was surprised by the amount of cars, given that the number of automobiles in the entire United States in the first decade of the twentieth century was less than ten thousand. Turns out I was not off base, according to the 60 Minutes piece you'll find below, the Miles brothers employed local motorists to appear in the film, (in some cases more than once), so the depiction of Market Street traffic c.1906 is a little deceptive.

As you may notice, there are no traffic lights, they wouldn't come around until a decade later. I guess it's debatable whether they could have used them in 1906 as vehicles with different capabilities of speed and maneuverability are forced to compete for right of way while only tacitly adhering to accepted rules of the road. Yet here everybody seems to get along just fine as the top practical speed of the "horseless carriages" on the road at the time was probably not much more than that of a carriage-less horse.

The most remarkable thing about this film is not apparent from a casual viewing. It was originally assumed that A Trip Down Market Street was filmed in October of 1905. Film historian David Kiehn would become obsessed with the movie shot in his home town and by taking note of many visual clues and doing some historical research which is documented in the 60 Minutes piece, determined conclusively that the film was shot in late March or early April of 1906, only a week or two before the catastrophic earthquake that took place on April 18th of that year. In all around 3,000 lives were lost in that earthquake and the ensuing fire, roughly the same number who perished in New York City, Arlington, VA and Shankesville, PA as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,

It's very likely that in a week or two, some of the people who appeared in the film would be dead and half of them would lose their homes. Most of the buildings would be gone. One exception is the Terminal Building visible throughout the entire movie, the ultimate destination of the cable car. The building survived the earthquake and today is still the focal point of Market Street. To all who care about such things, that building not only lives as a memorial to the 1906 tragedy, but also to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which took the lives of dozens motorists who were crushed when the double deck highway they were driving upon collapsed. A similar freeway which once stood immediately in front of the Terminal Building was significantly damaged during that earthquake and shortly thereafter was demolished.

But the building also survived that earthquake intact; it and the film stand today as testaments to a great city and the indefatigable human spirit.

If there is such a thing as an American documentary filmmaker with a household name, it would be Ken Burns. So popular is his work, many people consider his movies to be the final word on the topics he covers. His films which air on PBS, are devoted to American subjects such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Jazz, Baseball, Prohibition, the Civil War, and now of course, the Roosevelts. No matter what subject, Burns's formulaic style does not vary from film to film. In each work, an authoritative voice-over narration moves along the story line supplemented by readings of quotes from correspondence, speeches or text supplied by notable actors, and comments from experts in the field. To set the mood, a soundtrack of period music plays incessantly in the background from beginning to end.

The bulk of Burns's imagery consists of archive film footage and still photographs. Setting a tone, they serve the same purpose as the soundtrack. What little original footage he supplies are images of un-populated historical sites usually shot romantically at dusk, and the "talking heads" of the experts, speaking reverently about the subject at hand. Never content to allow his visual material to speak for itself, Burns cuts up films (such as A Trip Down Market Street), to suit his needs. In a similar fashion, he seldom shows us a still photograph in its entirety, rather  he selectively crops images then animates them by panning or zooming in and out, usually for dramatic effect.  Burns in no way invented the idea of panning across still images, but he has used and abused the technique so often that Apple Corporation has included what they call the "Ken Burns Effect"  in their video editing software.  The Burns Effect is so successful that it has become the default setting when users choose to include still photographs into their videos. In other words, if you want to show a still image in your video without any pans or zooms in Apple software, you have to turn off the Ken Burns effect. Given his reputation as "the people's historian", I can't think of a more suitable metaphor.

Despite being widely admired, Ken Burns has his detractors. His work has a well deserved reputation for being less than rigorous with the facts. Never content to leave any loose ends, many feel his films package their subjects in neat and tidy bundles, avoiding the inevitable lingering doubts and messy questions that real historians deal with on a daily basis. And then there's that inescapable, plug-in style of his which treats every subject exactly the same.

But my biggest gripe with Ken Burns is the way he appropriates the work of others, without giving the authors due credit. You won't have a hard time finding the names of the "talent" who provide the voiceover narration and readings, nor will you have a problem learning who wrote and produced the films. You certainly won't have a problem spotting Ken Burns's name all over his product. But if you're interested in who provided Burns with the visual theme (or as the fancy people call it, the mise en scène) of his films, that is to say the photographers and filmmakers who are responsible for about 90 percent of what you actually see in a Ken Burns film, not to mention the musicians who provided the soundtrack, forget about it. Burns only pays lip service, and that's a generous term, to the archives where the work was found, but never to the creators of the work itself.

Which in my opinion is inexcusable.

To rectify that if only a bit, as promised, here from a 60 Minutes piece broadcast in 2010, is the story of a work of art that Ken Burns has used and abused time and again. A work that in my opinion, far from being merely a brief clip used to establish a particular time and place, is more ground breaking, powerful, and enlightening than any of the films that the so called "most respected historian in America" has given us to date:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Getting into the act

Just when you thought the Vivian Maier saga couldn't get any wackier, a Virginia lawyer jumped into the fray and has begun legal action that might put at least a temporary halt to the production and sale of prints made from the late Chicago photographer's vast archive of negatives left behind after her death in 2009. As you may recall, several lots of items in lockers containing the life's work of Vivian Maier went up for auction after Miss Maier no longer could afford to pay the storage fees. Her work ended up in the hands of complete strangers including a former real estate agent by the name of John Maloof. Maloof like most of the world, was unaware of Maier when he purchased a large portion of her possessions in 2007. After deep-sixing his haul for a couple of years, Maloof returned to it in 2009 when he Googled the name Vivian Maier and discovered that she had died only a few weeks earlier. Soon he began scanning the negatives in his possession and posted the images on a blog titled: "Vivian Maier - Her Undiscovered Work."

I stumbled across his blog not long after Maloof first put it up as my post from 2009 testifies. Like so many others, I was blown away by the pictures that Maloof uncovered. Spanning five decades, Miss Maier's work, a combination very well seen street photographs. and compelling self-portraits, quickly became the talk of the art world. In 2011 the Chicago Cultural Center mounted a show called "Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer."

My own Vivian Maier bubble was burst by that show. Maier's talent and commitment certainly came through but it had to compete with the show's obsessive fascination with her profession as nanny and her eccentric personality. Along with the photographs on the wall, were cases displaying Miss Maier's belongings: in addition to the expected photographic gear were items of clothing, hats, shoes, and other personal items, which to me anyway had very little to do with her work.  Almost as troubling were the photographs on the wall, the vast majority of them were posthumous prints made in a style that bore little resemblance to the handful of vintage prints on display made by the photographer in the fifties.

This last part is important as I mentioned in my earlier post on Miss Maier, because vintage prints are the key to how an artist sees her work, while posthumous prints, in this case made from negatives some of which which Maier never laid eyes upon, represent the sensibilities of others.

Clearly I thought, the Vivian Maier we were seeing in the exhibition was as much the creation of a legend as it was an honest exploration into the work of a talented artist. That legend has grown exponentially in the subsequent years and Miss Maier has achieved in the words of cultural historian Pamela Bannos, the status of a "cult figure."

Alternate versions of Vivian Maier's life have emerged depending on whose collection you look at.

One might think that the folks who bought all the photographer's earthly possessions, the keepers of the Maier legacy if you will, would pool their resources in order to form a clearer picture of Miss Maier's life. Unfortunately that has not been the case. Each collector seems to hold on to his own piece of turf and we are left with a fragmented picture of a complicated person's life.

As you may expect, there is an economic force driving the Viaian Maier industry. Modern prints are being made in limited editions from Miss Maier's negatives and selling in the two to four thousand dollar range per print. Vintage prints are going for ten thousand dollars and up. With several thousand vintage prints and over one hundred thousand negatives in the hands of collectors in a very favorable market, you can imagine there is some very good money to be made.

I made the point in my previous post that there is nothing illegal about this. Miss Maier had no will and made no provisions for her possessions including her art work. The collectors bought Vivian Maier's work fair and square, yet there is something unsettling about the fact that while Miss Maier was living her last years in destitution, having a roof over her head only through the generosity of some of the children she took care of as a nanny many years earlier, complete strangers were buying up her life's work and upon her death set into motion the process of making a fortune off of it.

Enter from stage left, a knight in shining armor, the true defender of  Vivian Meier's legacy, in his eyes at least, a commercial photographer turned lawyer practicing in Orange, Virginia named David C. Deal. Troubled by perfect strangers cashing in on Miss Maier, Mr. Deal took it upon himself to hire genealogists to track down possible Maier relatives in Europe. Now it so happens that in an attempt to remain entirely above board,  John Maloof found an heir, a first cousin once removed named Sylvain Jaussaud of France with whom Maloof worked out a monetary agreement in exchange for the rights to Miss Maier's work. Mr. Deal's genealogists found yet another cousin, a gentleman by the name of Francis Baille, a retired civil servant in the town of Gap, somewhere in northeastern France.  Deal has filed a petition in Cook County that M.Baille be declared Vivian Maier's heir. Letters have been sent to all the collectors who have profited from the reproduction of Maier's work informing them that those transactions may at some undisclosed time in the future, be subject to lawsuit.

According to this article in the New York Times, M. Baille refused to speak with the press, wisely preferring all comments to be made through his lawyer who said the following:
It’s an extraordinary situation. You can imagine what it’s like to get a telephone call about someone who died that he never knew, with this precious legacy. He is very, very surprised.
One can only imagine.

Mr. Deal claims that he is only interested in doing the right thing and would be perfectly happy to break even in the, pardon the pun, deal. I have no reason (wink wink nudge nudge) to doubt his sincerity.

What I don't understand is this: if David C. Deal is so appalled by the ethics of strangers profiting off Vivian Maier, how is it different if the rights to her work are turned over to another perfect stranger five thousand miles away who was never aware of her existence let alone her work, who just happens to be a distant relative?
Perhaps M. Baille actually has a keen appreciation of his distant first cousin once removed, and for her "precious legacy". Perhaps he sees something terribly unjust that people who had no idea she existed while she was alive, and most likely would not have given her the time of day if they had, are profiting from her work now that she's dead. Perhaps M. Baille will decide that to truly honor his late relative, her work, now that it has come to be known to the world, should be laid to rest beside its maker.

But I doubt it.

From his lawyer's statement, it appears that M. Baille knows he's sitting on top of a gold mine. It seems very likely that M. Baille would certainly like to tap into that gold mine, as it appears to be his legal right. If that's true, it would certainly be in his best interest to support the continued publishing of her work and the promotion of her legend. And who would be better partners in that endeavor than the people who created the market for her work and tapped into it in the first place?

So if you're one of those people who are concerned that Vivian Maier's works will become unavailable to the general public because of her new found heir and the legal actions surrounding him, I would say don't worry.

Thanks to Dave Deal, there will just be another hand or two reaching out for a piece of the action.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The game still matters

In a time when folks are declaring gloom and doom for the sport of baseball, this year's Little League World Series produced no fewer than two powerful, feel good stories that prove the game we still refer to as "The National Pastime" matters.

"Throw like a girl" has been the mantra of baseball fans across this country as one of the highlights of this year's Series was a flame throwing 5'4" 13 year old from Pennsylvania named Mo'ne Davis. Young Ms. Davis, only the 18th girl to participate in the Little League World Series became the first member of the female persuasion to pitch a shutout in the competition held annually in Williamsport, PA. That performance against South Nashville on Friday August 15 turned Mo'ne into a national celebrity.

It was hard not to root for Ms. Davis and her team the Taney Dragons from Center City, Philadelphia. The Dragons team, much like my son's travel baseball team, and decidedly unlike most of their competition in the LLWS is integrated; its players and coaches reflect the multi-cutural population of the city they represent. Also like my son's team, one of its best players happens to be a girl.

But I couldn't root for the Taney Dragons on August 21st because that day the team from Philadelphia faced the team from my home town, Chicago: Jackie Robinson West.

The team that is known affectionately around these parts simply by its initials JRW, is an all-star team, its members chosen from a league of the same name located on the south side of Chicago. Much has been made about this all African American team representing a part of town that lately has gotten more publicity for bad things rather than good. People have expressed amazement at their success given that in our time fewer and fewer African American players play in the Major Leagues and interest in the game in the black community is at an all time low.

But there's nothing at all amazing about the success of JRW. The league was established back in 1971 by Joseph H. Haley, an educator by profession. His league has become one of this city's most cherished institutions, thousands of Chicagoans from all walks of life including a few major leaguers have had the honor of calling themselves members of Jackie Robinson West. In the words of the Illinois General Assembly's official proclamation marking Mr. Haley's passing in 2005:
From a league with just five teams, Jackie Robinson West Little League has grown to more than 1,000 players on 36 teams; the league has instilled the values of good citizenship, perseverance, team effort, sportsmanship,and self-discipline in generations of young people; Mr. Haley wanted the children in his league to get a good education and taught them that school was more important than baseball.
On the evening of August 21st, the alderman of the ward where my son plays baseball, arranged for a viewing party to watch the game between JRW and the Taney Dragons, which would determine who would go on to the US finals. It was one of dozens of such parties around Chicago to support the team that represents not just the south side, but our entire city.

In that game Chicago would never look back after scoring four runs in the bottom of the first. Despite a late rush from Philly who down by one run, loaded the bases in the top of the last inning, the game ended 6-5, JRW.

The mostly white crowd at our event went wild when Philly harmlessly lined out to the Chicago second baseman to end the game.

It took a spectacular double play to win the next game against a strong, highly favored Nevada team who smoked both JRW and the Dragons in their first meetings. But in the end, JRW won that game too and became the US Little League Champions.

Unfortunately, JRW lost the World Championship to South Korea the following day but it hardly mattered. The city of Chicago threw them a huge party that culminated Downtown at the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park. It was the kind of celebration normally held all too infrequently when one of this city's professional sports teams wins a championship. Sadly I missed the event as I was out of town.

Public figures and executives from both of Chicago's major league baseball teams were there to speak words of encouragement to the young players and to all young people of the city, black, brown and white, at least those who cared to listen. The message was simple: their most important job was to get a good education first, and good things most likely will follow.

In both victory and defeat, JRW has represented Chicago honorably. As a result, the team and the league have rightfully been embraced by the entire city.

Coming as it did on the heels of a well publicized national tragedy, some writers could not resist the temptation to frame the story of a Little League baseball team winning the national championship within the subtext of race in America. In a blog for The Nation, directly under a picture of the young members of the JRW team aboard a float being cheered on by throngs of white people during a parade in Williamsport, Dave Zirin wrote this:
... the events of this summer show with bracing clarity that there are huge swaths of this country that love black culture and hate black people.
The whole point of Zirin's piece was to compare the public's reaction to this year's Little League World Series, to that of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Zirin expresses his astonishment over JRW "beating the odds" as an all black team from the inner city where: "the gutting of the social safety net, the explosion of economic inequality and the hollowing out of our cities" has decimated "Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands." These are the very conditions Zirin argues, that paved the way for incidents like the one in Ferguson.

In other words, blacks don't play baseball anymore, so the story goes, because society has taken away the apparatus for them to do so.

If anything, the events of this summer have proved (to anyone who didn't know it already) that theory to be nothing but hooey.

The point Zirin seems to miss is that successful Little League programs, like so many other successful institutions involving children, are not the result of any social safety net, but are the result of the one most important factor in determining the course of a young person's life: parents.

From an article written by Bob Cook in Forbes Magazine, published just before the start of this year's tournament:
What makes Jackie Robinson West succeed as a league is the same as what makes any league succeed, no matter the players’ race, ethnicity or income status. 
“It’s a combination of factors,” said (Joseph Haley's son who took over the league upon his father's death, Bill) Haley, a dispatcher for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Our league has a strong tradition. The coaches were once players. It’s taken hold in the community. You pull kids from a limited area, so there’s a sense of community to start out with. Being state champions (the league has won two Illinois championships in a row) is incidental to what we’re trying to do.”

The key, Haley said, is not the children. “It’s the adults. Baseball is a family game. It starts with just a dad playing catch with his kids. You’ve got a dad who hits pop flies on a Sunday. That’s where the connection comes in.
“That’s how it started for me.”
Those words ring true for anyone who has ever been involved with Little League baseball at any level.

In expressing his amazement over the success of the team from the Jackie Robinson West league, Dave Zirin (who happens to be white), seems to fall into the trap of mistakenly assuming that African American communities are places filled with nothing but hopelessness and despair, fueled by poverty and racism. Implicitly he's saying that it's hard for black folks to do anything on their own without help from above. As such, characterizing the success of JRW as "astonishing" and "against all odds" is parochial at best, patronizing at worst.

The success of the Dragons and JRW teams are tremendous accomplishments to be sure, but no different from those of any other Little League team who reaches those heights. What Zirin and other social commentators fail to take into account is that the stories of Mo'ne Davis, her Taney Dragons teammates, and the team from Jackie Robinson West are not simply triumphs of the human spirit, but like anything worthwhile in life, are the result of countless hours of dedication, hard work, and the pursuit of perfection from everybody involved: the players, the coaches, the community, and especially the parents.

That's a valuable lesson all of us need to learn.

Thank you Dragons and JRW for being such magnificent teachers.