Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Beautiful Game

One of the highlights so far of this year's World Cup was the match between the U.S.A. and Algeria. Very late into the game it was still a nil-nil standoff and the outlook for the Americans looked very bleak indeed as a draw would mean the end of the tournament for the Yanks.

I followed the match on an internet blog. In between the blogger's accounts of the action, readers were invited to supply their own comments. One comment read: "Five minutes until I stop caring about soccer for another four years."

Then, in the 92nd minute of the game, the American star Brandon Donovan scored a thrilling goal, leading his team to a brilliant victory. I added the comment: "Well I guess that guy will be caring for at least another 90 minutes."

Every four years, the whole world tunes in to what is certainly the most significant sporting event on the planet. During this time we in the U.S. have our own quadrennial ritual of going out of our way to comment on how we can't understand what the whole fuss is about.

Of course Americans have avid supporters of the game we call soccer. They say that the day is right around the corner when soccer will be as popular in the States as football, baseball, hockey, and basketball.

I've heard this sentiment my entire life.

I've lived through several professional Chicago professional soccer clubs, been to see all of them let's see, there were the Spurs and the Mustangs back in the sixties. They both folded after a year or two. Then there was the Chicago Sting with their star, the inimitable Karl-Heintz Graniza whose engaging personality made him the public voice of the team. On the TV news with his cartoon-like German accent, he'd begin his reports after being introduced by the sportscaster Johnnie Morris with a jovial "Senk yoo Chonnie."

"Zee Schtink" as Graniza called the team, actually lasted quite a while both as an indoor (a hybrid game closer to hockey than true soccer) and outdoor team. The Sting even won a few championships which drew about 100 people to each of their downtown rallies. Eventually they too went the way of their predecessors. Now we have the Chicago Fire that seems to have built up a small but loyal following. They made a good business decision a couple of years ago to build a their own stadium in the burbs where they come much closer to filling its 20,000 seats than they could the 50,000 plus as Soldier Field.

As a lover of the game I can give soccer supporters the exact date when their game will be at the same level of popularity here as the top four American sports. That day will be The Twelfth of Never.

There are loads of reasons for this, here are seven:
  • We already have enough sports. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, automobile racing, boxing, professional wrestling, horse racing, beach volleyball and a host of others all command more attention in the U.S. than soccer. On the bright side, it's still more popular than cricket and hurling.
  • There's too little scoring. This is the mantra of soccer detractors of all stripes. It is especially true at the highest levels of the game where there is relative parity between teams. Defensive schemes have become so sophisticated and the players are so good, that coaches have discovered that the way to win at this most rarefied of levels is to put most of a team's eggs in the defensive basket. Even Brazil long known for its offensive flair and style has become defense oriented.
  • Soccer is too foreign. Americans are notoriously xenophobic. Soccer is something you stumble upon while channel-surfing. It is broadcast mostly in Spanish with a guy shouting "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!!!" all too infrequently.
  • Soccer is TV unfriendly. Soccer actually translates well to the little screen unlike baseball or hockey. But baseball with its natural breaks between innings, pitching changes and so forth, is the perfect game for American TV. A soccer match consists of two uninterrupted halves 45 minutes apiece with only very brief stoppages of the clock for injuries or substitutions. At halftime, viewers get up for a drink and a pee, then return right before the second half kickoff. There's simply no good time to show commercials, and the networks are loathe to televise it.
  • There's too much flopping. With the exception of cricket where players are expected to correct umpires who mistakenly rule in their favor, a certain amount of gamesmanship exists in all professional sports. Most sports are filled with players who have mastered tricks that fool the officials. And no sport in the world is filled with such masters of deception, who perform their skulduggery with such aplomb and drama as soccer. It is not at all uncommon to see a player after an alleged foul fall to the ground, writhing in agony, to be carried off the field on a stretcher one minute, then perform tremendous displays of athleticism the next. This kind of shameless flopping, effective as may be, is simply unacceptable to American sports fans who value stoic machismo, players who can play through any adversity without as much as a grimace. There is no crying in baseball after all.
  • Soccer is not stats driven. American sports fans are obsessed with statistics. Baseball and football players are constantly evaluated statistically on attributes such as speed, power, and the ability to throw a pass, or to hit and catch a ball. Two of the most significant attributes that soccer players are judged by are style and creativity, clearly things not easily measured in numbers. A baseball game can be de-constructed pitch by pitch. Each pitch in itself can supply dozens of different statistics. There are baseball fans who are content without ever actually seeing a game, they simply pour over the stats in the morning paper. The same can be said for football. Soccer is different. A soccer match cannot be dissected play by play. The flow of a game is quite akin to a musical performance whose whole is not the equal to the sum of its parts. You can describe a game, but can never reconstruct it. A soccer match simply has to be seen to be fully understood and appreciated. Here lies the notion of "the beautiful game", an endearment for the sport found in all the parts of the world where the game is known simply as football.
  • Soccer in the United States is viewed as an elitist sport. By contrast, in England soccer is viewed this way: "Rugby is a brutish game played by gentlemen while football (soccer) is a gentleman's game played by brutes." In the rest of the world, soccer is the game of the masses. Here in the States, with the exception of immigrant communities, soccer is the domain of the middle and upper middle classes who sign their children up for organized leagues where it is seen as a starter sport. Kids who make it up to more advanced leagues are encouraged to do so as a means for an athletic scholarship. In the rest of the world, pickup soccer is played everywhere. Unlike other sports, the game requires no special equipment and can be improvised at a moment's notice, even a bundle of rags can be substituted for a ball if necessary.The game is played informally in parks, in the streets, alleys, and out in the fields, by children of all ages, most of them with the dream of one day becoming the next Zidane, Kaká, or Lionel Messi.
A sport is an acquired taste. Broken down to its components, any competitive game when you come to think of it is pretty ridiculous, whether it be hitting a little ball with a club trying to get it into a hole 300 yards away, two teams bouncing a ball up and down a floor, ultimately attempting to throw it through a hoop, or even this.

My all time favorite slam/description of soccer is: "What sets human beings apart from the other animals is that after millions of years of evolution we have developed hands that, with the help of the opposable thumb, have given us dexterity that has enabled us to build buildings, write books, create great works of art, in short, all the things necessary in order for civilization to exist. Soccer is a game where you can't use your hands."

In short, Americans simply have no passion for soccer. Most of us did not grow up with it, have a home team to root for, play it just for fun, or have a father, mother or mentor to teach the love of the game. Sports as much as anything are integral parts of a nation's culture. That's why no American should feel bad that we lost to Ghana in the World Cup. While Ghana's population is less than one tenth of the United States, and its GDP a is tiny fraction of ours, its passion for soccer is astronomically greater.

Every four years during the World Cup I think of my father who absolutely adored soccer. He taught me the game. He taught me that there were few things in life more beautiful than a perfect crossing pass arching through the air and landing precisely at the foot of a teammate who stops the ball without a bounce. Or a player artfully dribbling the ball past a defender. Or as we saw in person, the great Pelé not scoring a goal himself, but setting one up in miraculous fashion.

My dad played soccer with with me in our back yard, and took me to games for just about as long as he was able to get around on two feet. We bonded as a father and son over soccer probably more than anything else, with the possible exception of hockey.

Football, soccer, whatever you want to call it, is truly the one international language. If you need proof, you need to go no further than one of Chicago's parks on any given Sunday when people of all cultures gather together for pickup games. Here you will see folks that have little or nothing else in common, be it religion, politics, values, life-style, or language. They may even have an insatiable hatred for each other's culture and homeland. But once they're together on the same pitch, everybody is just another footballer.

That's why soccer to me will always be The Beautiful Game.

Go Ghana!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Porters of Racine

We were spending a lovely summer evening driving home after checking out Frank Lloyd Wright's Wingspread House just north of Racine, Wisconsin. I like Racine very much, it's a small industrial city that reminds me of some of the old mill towns of New England. It has a relatively thriving downtown, older establishments existing side by side with newer attractions that lure visitors driving the scenic route between Chicago and Milwaukee. We've taken this route many times over the years and one of the landmarks is an establishment that has been around for a very long time, a furniture store called Porters of Racine.

I can remember the company's advertisements on Chicago TV all the way back to my childhood. The commercials featured still photographs of their wares with the voice-over of a male announcer accompanied by background music that varied with the commercials. The particular music that sticks in my mind was a soft orchestral version of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood. There was a touch of genteel formality to these low key ads that stood in marked contrast to the typical brash, in-your-face ads that were the rule of local advertising in those days with their jingles and screaming pitch-men.

I always looked forward to seeing the store housed in its 1920s era Art Moderne building. It was a welcoming beacon, even 30 years ago it seemed a wonderful anachronism in a time of big chain stores on the outskirts of town that sold mass produced furniture at low prices. It was the kind of store that was a destination unto itself, not just a place to go and buy stuff. Seeing it gave me a sense of stability and a bit of a connection with my childhood even though I never set foot in the place. Every time we passed by I'd have the sinking feeling that Porters would be shuttered, and every time I'd breathe a sigh of relief to find it still open.

Until this past weekend.

My heart sank a bit when I saw curtains covering up the show windows. The thought went through my head, "maybe they're just re-modeling the interior". Then in the entrance I saw the sign. I couldn't read the entire text, only the "Thank You" at the top. I knew this was the end.

From their website this is text of the message, low key and elegant as ever: "Thank you. Porters of Racine is now closed. After 150 years, we're grateful to all our customers. It has been our pleasure to serve you."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chicago, c. 1955

Shortly after the brief Golden Age of post war Chicago, the city along with most comparable American cities, experienced a slow decline that arguably began in the middle 1950's.

The period saw a boom in suburban development spurred by the construction of the Interstate Highway System during the Eisenhower administration. The scorched earth policy of construction of urban expressways decimated neighborhoods and created no-man's lands in the form of crime infested underpasses throughout the city. Urban public transportation systems were dismantled. The car was king and cities that were not designed from the outset for four wheel traffic suffered. Racial tension increased as neighborhoods shifted population rapidly because of fear of the different and unknown. The American Dream at the time was a house in the suburbs. If you could afford to get out, the city was no longer the place to live.

This was also a time that a new architecture took hold. After twenty years of no major commissions, architects, designers, and the public alike were thinking to the future and who could blame them? The past saw depression and war of unimaginable magnitude. This new architecture cast aside "old fashioned" ornament of stone and terra cotta. Steel and glass were the media of the future. New buildings would have none of the stuff to remind us of the past.

From 1949 to 1951, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built his first project in Chicago, the twin apartment towers at 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive. In 1955 Skidmore Owings and Merrill built the estimable Inland Steel Building in the Loop. These buildings created a tidal wave in the design community and the city would would never look the same. Whatever you called it, International Style or Modernism, this new architecture would become the paradigm of the bulk of construction for the next thirty years.

With all these gleaming new buildings around, those that survived the turn of a century, the Roaring Twenties, The Great Depression and two World Wars, were looking tired, grimy, and just plain old. There was little attention paid to them and when they started disappearing, few seemed to care.

We just assembled a show at the Art Institute that centers on three photographers who bucked the trend and did care, specifically about the work of the architect Louis Sullivan. The show is called "Looking After Louis Sullivan" and it features along with Sullivan drawings and fragments, photographs of Aaron Siskind, John Szarkowski and Richard Nickel that document and celebrate the Master's work.

Blair Kamin's review of the exhibit can be found here.

Sullivan's legacy has done nothing but gain momentum in the last fifty years. Unfortunately, fate has not been so kind to his work which continues to disappear at an alarming rate. Only three major works remain in the Loop, the Gage Building, the Auditorium Building (a detail of which is pictured on the masthead of this blog) on Michigan Avenue, and the former Carson Pirie Scott store on State Street. The demolition of two masterpieces, the Garrick Theater in 1961 and the Stock Exchange Building in 1972 were tremendous blows to preservation efforts in the city but the enormity their loss was a call to action and ultimately strengthened, for a while anyway, landmarks laws in Chicago. What the wrecking ball could not accomplish, fire has, recently claiming two important Sullivan works, the Wirt Dexter Building in the South Loop, and the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville, a landmark not only for its architecture but for its pivotal role in the history of Gospel music.

Over the years historians have debated Sullivan's impact on Modern Architecture. Sullivan wrote that his interest was to create a new American architecture born out of nature and the ideals of Democracy. It was he who coined the term "form ever follows function", the axiom behind Modern architecture. Sullivan despised Daniel Burnham's penchant for Neo-classicism. He eschewed the use of columns, pediments and all the trappings of any style that harkened to the past. "I am going to insist that the banker wear a toga..." Sullivan facetiously commented on the trend of building banks that looked like Roman temples.

His buildings and the work of his fellow Chicago School architects soared to new heights, and their design expressed the structure of the steel skeletons that supported them.

What separated Sullivan from the Moderns was his use of ornament. Ornament to Sullivan was not something to be tacked on for decoration but was a fundamental element of the design. Quoting the show's co-curator, Allison Fisher; "Each project followed an organic design process in which ornament emerged from the building materials and structure, just as flowers appear on a plant."

Interestingly, Mies, the Grand Pubah of Modern Architecture was roundly criticized for his use of ornament in the form of non-functional "I" beam mullions which seem to contradict to his dictum of "Less is more". He said of them: "To me structure is something like logic. It is the best way to do things and express them"

Sullivan said essentially the same thing only more eloquently.

Not surprisingly, Siskind, Szarkowski and Nickel all focus on Sullivan's ornament. Of the works represented in the exhibition, I lean toward Szarkowski's as his pictures fully embrace the buildings in the midst of life in the city, often with his wry sense of humor. One photograph shows a nature inspired detail from the Auditorium with a bit of real nature thrown in in the form of a bird's skeleton resting on the ledge.

My favorite photograph of the lot is Szarkowski's picture of an elevator operator guiding his vehicle behind one of Sullivan's elaborate elevator screens. An actual screen from the destroyed building is on display adjacent to the photograph.

Richard Nickel was an early student of Aaron Siskind's at Chicago's Institute of Design where the two together with other students and faculty worked on a project documenting the work of Louis Sullivan. From that point on, Nickel devoted his life to the preservation and documentation of the work of the Chicago School of Architecture.

A wonderful compendium of his work can be found in the book "Richard Nickel's Chicago, Photographs of a Lost City" by Michael Williams and my friend Rich Cahan. The book contains dozens of gloriously reproduced images of Nickel's, many of which had never been printed. Posthumously created work can be problematic as the intentions of the artist are often misrepresented. But in this case we have a splendid document of the Chicago that was ignored for so long by so many, clearly something very close to Richard Nickel's heart.

The most touching and heartbreaking two sections of the book are in depth studies documenting the demolition of the Garrick and the Stock Exchange Buildings, the latter of which cost Nickel his life. In a painful series of pictures, we see the magnificent proscenium arch of the Garrick as the rest of the building slips away. Even in the final picture with the wrecker's bulldozer planted squarely on what once was the stage, the arch retains its power and dignity. Another heartbreaking series shows the glorious facade of the Old Stock Exchange as it is slowly covered up by scaffolding, a magnificent structure in its own right, a glistening silver blanket ironically swaddling the building as it spells its doom.

Richard Nickel's work as portrayed in the book is an elegy for Chicago. In contrast to the 1948 travelogue "Chicago the Beautiful", the city Nickel photographed is barely recognizable today. His is a city of brick and mortar, of stone and terracotta, of ancient billboards, water tanks and smokestacks. What little steel there is to be seen, is found on buildings that are either in the state of construction or destruction. Sometimes it's difficult to tell which is which.

There is great trepidation in Nickel's photographs of the construction of the new towers encroaching on his beloved city. Here is a quote of Nickel's from the book:

"From one of the most distinguished cities architecturally we are rapidly moving toward anonymity, or, what is worse, a city of contrasts: the superficial glitter of the new mixed with the slum of the old."

Nearly forty years after Richard Nickel's death, it's worth re-examining his quote. The superficial glitter has worn off and the buildings that were new in Nickel's time, are now middle aged. Some of them today are considered masterpieces. It would be hard to imagine Chicago without Mies van der Rohe, without the Inland Steel Building, without the John Hancock Building.

Like them or not, and I think only time will be the judge, the same can be said for Millennium Park, the Aqua Building, Trump Tower and the Modern Wing of the Art Institute.

A city that stands still, resistant of change becomes a museum piece or worse, it dies.

As for the "slum of the old", I'd say that we have Richard Nickel and countless others to thank for tirelessly striving to not only preserve the legacy but preserve the great buildings of the Chicago School. They are our treasures, and as each one is restored and brought back to its original glory, we see them in a new, magnificent light.

Unfortunately as these things usually go, it took death and destruction to make us see the light.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chicago c. 1948

Here are a couple of splendid travelogues featuring Chicago of the late forties, courtesy of my friend Francis Morrone:

It's interesting how much of post war Chicago remains recognizable sixty years later. The wall of buildings on Michigan Avenue from the Stevens (now the Hilton Towers) Hotel north to the Wrigley Building remains virtually unchanged. Most of the skyscrapers visible in the film stand to this day, less prominently to be sure as they have been dwarfed by newer buildings. The most startling change is the Palmolive Building which was unquestionably the most prominent building of Chicago's skyline from the north. Today you have to strain to see it through a forest of giants built after 1969 when the John Hancock Building forever changed the profile of North Michigan Avenue.

The 1940's views of State Street are also familiar today as many buildings from the early 20th Century still line that street. But that resemblance is purely superficial as State Street in the words the film's writer and narrator James A. Fitzpatrick was at the time, "the world's most concentrated shopping center." Today it is merely a shadow of its former self.

Less than a shadow of its past is Randolph Street which was the center of nightlife in the Chicago. One by one, live theaters became movie theaters which began closing their doors in the 1950's. The most unfortunate loss was that of the Schiller (later the Garrick) Theater, a Louis Sullivan masterpiece that was demolished despite resistance from preservationists, in 1960.

Urban renewal projects cleared entire blocks, dooming restaurants and nightclubs. The construction of the (now demolished) Greyhound bus station in the fifties, and two government buildings, the Civic (now Richard J. Daley) Center in the sixties and the State of Illinois Building (now the James R. Thomson Center) in the eighties, and the wholesale demolition of Block 37 in the nineties, put the kabosh on the "Rialto of Chicago."

Curiously one of the few extant Randolph Street features seen in the film is the kitschy facade of the Old Heidelberg restaurant just west of State Street.

In recent years Randolph Street has regained some steam as a theater district with the revival of the Oriental (now the Ford) Theater, the Bismark (now the Cadillac Palace) Theater, and the re-location of the Goodman Theater. But the essential character of the street of the past is gone forever as the entertainment districts of the city have moved north, out of the Loop.

And speaking of entertainment:

How much of this looks familiar? Chicago in the days before Mayor Daley the First was certainly a different place. The Sherman House which housed the College Inn stood at the site now occupied by the Thompson Center. The Bismark Hotel is now the Hotel Allegro and I hear the famous cape dancers no longer perform at the Walnut Room. Likewise, Don the Beachcomber, the Chez Paree, and the great Edgewater Beach Hotel with its boardwalk alas have all closed their doors for good.

Of all the establishments mentioned in this film, only the Empire Room at the Palmer House and the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel remain, albeit without the "dramatic formality" of their heyday.

Lest you think that entertainment in Chicago consisted only of cape dancers, show girls and dancing horses, at any given time around town you could also have seen the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and countless other legendary performers.

Of course so much has changed in sixty years. The Stock Yards are gone along with most of the steel mills and other large factories that formed the industrial backbone of the city. Most of the traffic along the Chicago River these days consists of pleasure and tour boats, although every once in a while you may still see a barge hauling material of one sort or other. Passenger trains still arrive and depart from Union Station, but under the banner of the national passenger railway Amtrak. The glory days of traveling by rail are long gone.

And as we look upon our concluding scene of the pale moon shining beside the dimly lit tower of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, we bid a fond adieu to what certainly must be considered a Golden Age in Chicago history.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jim Wood

The president and CEO of the Getty Museum of Art and former director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James N. Wood, died suddenly last week. He was only 69.

His passing comes as a shock to all of us who knew and admired him. It was his vision that inspired the construction of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute. He also presided over the construction of the Rice Wing directly south of the brand new wing.

He was indeed a man of tremendous talent and vision but even more important I think is the fact that he was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. His passing creates a tremendous void in the art community and he will be sorely missed. My thoughts and deepest condolences go out to his family.

Ed Lifson has a tribute on his blog "Hello Beautiful" which includes an interview with Jim conducted recently. It can be found here.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Annals of the game...

It's been quite a week. First, my Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years, practically my entire life. The smile on my face coming back from their triumphant parade in the Loop on Friday could not be wiped off even after a fairly stressful afternoon at work.

Friday was also the opening of the world's greatest sporting event, the World Cup. I've written here about my father's passion for hockey but soccer came in a pretty close second. Many of my favorite childhood memories are of my old man taking me to soccer games, mostly the local ethnic league matches around town. We were fans of Chicago Sparta, the Czech representatives in the Chicago premier amateur league. Then every four years we went to theaters that showed closed circuit TV feed of live World Cup games, the only way to see them in those days, short of actually being there.

This Saturday we watched our first match in the current games, U.S.A. vs. England. The Yanks were big underdogs and played down to expectations early when they gave up an undisciplined goal at the four minute mark. But the Americans were given the gift of a tremendously soft goal allowed by the unfortunate British goaltender late in the first half and played well enough through the rest of the game to earn a 1-1 tie which was a huge moral victory.

Then of course there was the Crosstown Classic, part one of the annual series between the Cubs and the White Sox. The competition is intense, it's the closest we Chicago baseball fans usually get to a World Series like atmosphere. Unfortunately both teams are struggling to say the least, a friend of mine called this series the "battle of the suckiest." This weekend the Cubs earned the title of suckiest as they lost the series two games to one.

But all these amazing sporting events paled in comparison to the great Little League action that took place in Warren Park on Sunday. As I wrote a month ago, my son plays for the Cardinals in the Rookie league. Our Cardinals are a group of nine and ten year old boys who for the most part haven't played much organized ball. It's been a season of ups and downs score-wise but entirely positive in every other respect. What began as a bunch of little kids with big dreams is slowly turning into a team. Our pitchers are finding the strike zone, our hitters are starting to make contact, and what were once adventures in the field are now becoming routine plays.

Sunday's game was a makeup game with the Reds who were the only team we had not faced. My son has a friend from school who plays with the Reds. It turns out they had beaten the team that was probably the best team in our league, the White Sox, and my boy was in fact less than anxious to face them. The weather was threatening and I promised to take him skating in the very likely event of a washout. Low and behold the rain that was predicted held off, game on.

Still it did not look promising as after several drenching cloudbursts the day before, the field was in rough shape. To make matters worse, we were a couple players short of the requisite eight and it was already 30 minutes past the scheduled start, meaning that a forfeit was a definite possibility . Then the rain finally came, not a cloudburst but a fairly steady stream, enough for the Red's coaches to nearly call the game, as the umpire had not shown up either.

But technology came to our rescue as one of our dads had his iPhone tuned to local weather radar and saw that the green blob directly over us would pass shortly and we'd have a window of opportunity of maybe one hour. Just as the rain subsided, a couple more Cardinals and an ump showed up and it was time to play ball.

As the visiting team, we had the first at bat. We watched their pitcher go through her warm ups. For some reason, our team is the only one in our division with no girl players. The Cardinals began chomping at the bit at the chance to hit against a girl until I reminded them of the fire-balling Sarah on the Blue Jays who mowed them down left and right.

Unfortunately for the Reds, this was no Sarah, and quickly the bases became loaded with red birds. My boy Theo bats fifth, after the best player on our team, Andrew. Theo doesn't have much patience to take a lot of pitches, he likes to get on base by swinging the bat. He swung and missed the first pitch which was way out of the strike zone. Then he swung at another outside pitch, popping the ball up in foul territory to the first baseman for an easy out. This gave me the sinking feeling that maybe we should have gone skating after all as Theo ended up being the only batter that inning to make an out as we ended up scoring the maximum five runs.

Unfazed, Theo put on his catcher's gear and caught for the mighty Tristan, our diminutive star pitcher. True to form, Tristan had flashes of brilliance in the first inning, then had control problems later in the game. But the combination of Tristan's throwing strikes when he needed to and some adequate, if not stellar play in the field by his teammates, held the Reds to six runs, in four innings, very respectable in this league.

The Red's starting pitcher only lasted one inning as she was replaced by a boy who could throw strikes, in fact he pretty much shut our batters down. But in the top of the third, Andrew was up with nobody on. He hit the ball deep to left, over the outfielder's head. The left fielder stayed with the ball and got it back into the infield by the time Andrew reached second. But as these things go at this level, the throw was over the second baseman's head, meaning Andrew could advance to third, then another wild throw and before we knew it, Andrew was safe at home. There was a conference between the Red's coaches and the teenage ump about how many bases a runner is allowed to advance in this league after the ball has been returned to the infield. All for naught as the ump ruled in Andrew's favor. Now in more advanced ball this would be scored as a double with two errors. In our league however this is a home run, pure and simple.

Theo was up next and all I could think of was "please let him make contact and get on base." Otherwise I knew it would be a very long evening. Theo did more than just make contact, he hit the ball as hard as Andrew. The ensuing plays by the fielders were virtually identical to their previous efforts and Theo just kept running, despite our coach, no doubt wishing to avoid invoking further consternation from the other bench, yelling at him to stop at third. It was a close play at home but Theo was safe, his very first home run. Running up to congratulate him I had to restrain a little of my parental pride and admonish him ever so slightly for failing to listen to his coach, but in words that only he could hear I said; "I'm proud of you."

That was only the beginning. In the bottom of the last inning, Tristan's control problems surfaced again and he walked one batter and hit his third batter of the game. League rules stipulate that if a pitcher hits three batters in a game, he has to come out. Quite surprising to me, our coach had Theo trade places with Tristan. Once again my heart began to sink as Theo's only previous pitching appearance led to his walking in five runs, with only a handful of strikes thrown. But we had been working on his pitching form, basically on getting his elbows up. As usual, Theo ignored me, but here on the field something I said must have clicked, and he was doing exactly as I suggested. As Tristan donned the "tools of ignorance" I put on a catcher's mitt and warmed up my boy. His first attempts were high and outside but then he calmed down and started putting the ball right over the plate with some zip to it as well. I could hear over my shoulder the Reds coaches tell their players to watch out, this boy could pitch.

So with two on, one out and the Cardinals up by only one run, my boy had the fate of his team in his hands. First at bat was a boy named Hamsa. In his two previous at bats, Hamsa was hit by the pitch. To be fair to Tristan, both times Hamsa did not move in the slightest to get out of the way and in fact in his second at bat he actually stuck out his hand to stop the ball. I told Theo, "whatever you do, don't hit this guy!" Theo dispatched Hamsa in three pitches. Then up came Lizzy their starting pitcher. In her previous at bats I didn't see Lizzy swing the bat once so I knew that Theo would have to throw her strikes. Which he did, and on a 2-2 count, Lizzy was called out and Theo saved the game for Tristan.

As it turned out, that home run of his, the seventh and last run for the Cardinals, turned out to be the game winning run which of course he both drove in and scored.

That combined with the save earned him the game ball from his coach and produced a smile on Theo's face that I will remember for as long as I am on this planet.

Thinking back I wonder how much of this was destiny as earlier in the week the question of what to give his teacher for an end of the school year gift was asked of Theo. He thought about it for a minute and said; "I'd like to give her my game ball." "But what if you don't get a game ball by next Friday?" asked his mother. "Oh I'll get one" he said.

Sure enough that game ball is ready to be given to her on Friday. It I were his teacher, I'd think that would be about as special a gift as could possibly be given.

But I'm going to keep the ball he threw for the last strike of that game.

I haven't stopped smiling since.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

On Democracy and Urban Planning...

According to one practitioner, the two don't live comfortably together. At the end of this article in the Atlantic, urban planner Andres Duany sites Singapore as an example of good urban planning in a needless to say less than democratic environment.

Robert Moses' plan for expressways in Manhattan and Le Corbusier's for the destruction of the Marais in Paris in order to build Robert Taylor style housing projects are two examples to the contrary that come immediately to mind. Thank God that public uproar led to the demise of these two horrific plans that came close to reality.