On family, memory and 49-year-old peanuts

Hello again. It’s beginning to look like for the second year in a row I’m not going to get the chance to visit any new ballparks (although I will certainly keep you informed if anything changes), but I still feel compelled to post something every now and again. I was looking through the baseball stats and standings this morning and happened to notice that it was on this day in 1965 that Sandy Koufax pitched his perfect game, and the fourth overall no-hitter of his career. And that reminded me of a minor family mystery. Continue reading


Why I wouldn’t be a very good sports reporter

As I did with the games in my previous railtrip to the midwest, I brought a cow-spackled comp book to the stadium in Atlanta, intent on writing down notes during the game—just as any responsible journalist would do. And then, after getting back to the laptop, I proceed to type up my game summary… without even opening the notebook. Granted, some of the things I made note of (such as the little boy on the Jumbotron who really, really, really didn’t want to be on the Jumbotron and who consequently got the biggest laugh of the night) are things that are worth keeping in mind for my purposes as a writer, but not really that important in the outcome of the game.

However, there are some things I made note of that probably should have at least been mentioned in my post. Like that half an hour before the first pitch it was raining so hard I could hardly see the outfield wall. I was huddled in a tunnel connecting the concourse with the seating bowl and had a chat with the usher, who assured me that the drainage system was among the best in the majors, and that if the rain would stop in the next five minutes, there shouldn’t be any problem starting the game on time. I scoffed at this. Well… five minutes later, the rain stopped, and the game started exactly as scheduled, even with all the pregame festivities.

But if I could be let off the hook for omitting either of those notes, there’s no way I can get away without talking about the most important at-bat of the game. The Braves had the bases loaded with two outs in the eighth. At that point, the score was 6-1, Dodgers. Juan Francisco was called on to pinch-hit. I classified this game as a “yawner,” but with a good at-bat, Francisco could have made the game very interesting indeed. If he’d been able to draw a walk, for instance, he’d have forced in a run and brought the potential tying run to the plate. If he’d focused on situational batting and tried to dunk one the other way, maybe two runs would have scored, and the outcome would’ve seemed much less certain going into the ninth. However, Francisco simply took three great big futile hacks—hoping to “run into one,” as they say—before heading back to the dugout, driving most of the fans to the exits in disgust.

A perfect night to get hooked on scorekeeping

This is going to be a long post, because there’s a bit of background I have to fill in before I get to my point. Sorry about that…

Earlier this month, I wrote quite a bit about the effect keeping score at a baseball game has on how well I remember a game. To put it briefly, the two Major League games I went to in 2002 (before I started keeping score) have completely eluded my memory, and even intense efforts to reconstruct those two games have failed to bring back any tangible memories, at least as far as the games themselves. Meanwhile, with a few notable exceptions (and you can see the notes I’ve already made on this subject in the write-ups of my visits to Phoenix and Baltimore), the games where I did keep a card are considerably more memorable. Continue reading

Considering Cleveland

The train rolled into Cleveland (on time, for a change) at three in the morning, and the city immediately endeared itself to me much better that Pittsburgh had: there were seven taxicabs at the station. I feel like there’s a lot more of what I saw and did in Cleveland that I covered to my own satisfaction in my travelogue than either Pittsburgh or Washington, so I’ll keep this brief(er).

I said the city had an empty feel to it. Here’s an example—I went through downtown in search of a postcard. I found one of the downtown hotel lobbies which was also an “arcade” a block long. There were about 15 storefronts, so I figured for sure there’d be a postcard somewhere in there. Twelve of the stores were empty, two were closed (on a Friday, in the mid-afternoon,) and the one that was open was selling a number of sundries and knickknacks, but no postcards. There was another, similar arcade in the same block, and while the doors were open, I walked through it alone, and did not see a single operating business.

There was a movie being filmed there at the time, and if I could care less about modern movies, I’d be able to tell you which one it was. A luxury hotel was standing in for a luxury hotel somewhere in Germany—there was a German flag flying from the flag pole and the sign had one of these guys: ß in the name. And then, in the middle of the straße were several overturned vehicles. Elsewhere, in one of the broadest (but eerily quiet) streets, with several imposing buildings looming over it, was crammed nearly a hundred New York City taxicabs, a fair number of which had also been overturned. I know very little about this opus, except that I am in no hurry to see it when it comes out.

I didn’t know the game was going to have a fireworks show, and I never got to see it anyways. I had one of the worst loudmouth right behind me. He spent the first four innings complaining about a girl and averaging four F-bombs a sentence. Then he disappeared for four innings, and came back right around the beginning of the ninth with four beers. He’d moved past talking about the girl, but that didn’t stop the language. Because the stadium is so small and so close to other buildings, they shoot the fireworks over the left-field bleachers—which have to be evacuated first. So, I figured there’d be a wait of about ten minutes. That’s when motormouth uncorks this gem, “you F[]in’ kidding me? You’ve never been to F[]in’ Yorktown? That’s where we were F[]in’ born as a F[]in’ country.” I made my way for the taxi stand right then and there. There were at least a dozen lined up, ready to go.

Another look at the Steel City

There are stories you tell with great joy. Like the one that’s well-known in my family, from when my grandfather was a little boy and took a trip to Pittsburgh with some older relatives. (I’m afraid I don’t know the details, but they aren’t important to the story.) Even though nothing particularly bad happened, it was just such a long and tiring day that at the end of the day, someone asked how he was doing the reply was an frustrated, on-the-verge-of-tears, “I’ve been to Pittsburgh!”

That has become one of our familial idiosyncracies ever since. One way we have of saying we’ve had a very trying day is to whine “I’ve been to Pittsburgh!” and this continues even though everybody who was there at the time has since passed on. My favorite twist is the time his youngest daughter called her father from the Pittsburgh Airport and announced “I’m in Pittsburgh!”

Because of the earthquake, the train was two hours late leaving Washington, and then crawled out of Union Station and halfway to West Virginia at about 15 miles an hour, meaning that the train (which was supposed to get to Pittsburgh around midnight) rolled into town at 4 in the morning. And this after a day with a long walk, travel ennui, not really getting much sleep on the train, and an earthquake thrown in for good measure. So is it any surprise that when I got to my hotel at 5:30, the first thing I did was send my mom an e-mail, “Waaaaaah! I’m in Pittsburgh!”

But then there are travel stories that you don’t necessarily put on the back of a picture post card (or a blog being read primarily by family) and if you do tell them at all, it’s usually months later, when the temporal distance makes them funnier, and you are safely home. You may have noticed that the train arrived at 4am and I got to my hotel room at 5:30. I spent more than an hour at the train station waiting for a cab. And if all that happened was waiting for a cab, I wouldn’t be giving this kind of build-up to the story.

In addition to the two or three licensed cabs that serve Pittsburgh, there are a large number of unmarked cars—which I’d heard referred to as “Jitneys” several times—that allegedly offer transportation for much less than cab fare. And my first experience with a Jitney was unnerving enough that I hope it is also my last experience with a Jitney. This unkempt dude gets out of a shit-box pickup truck and approaches me, speaking in a hush-hush voice that made me think at first he was trying to sell me some drugs. “You need transportation?”
I attempted to decline politely, “No thanks, I called for a cab.”
At which he became threatening and aggressive. Why he thought this would instill confidence in me and make me more keen to get into his truck is beyond me, but apparently he did. “You’re not from around here, Jitney’s how we do things in Pittsburgh.”

A little later, a Crown Victoria that might be older than I am but appeared to be neat and well-maintained drove up.
“Do you need transportation, sir?” The driver asks, sounding very much like a cab driver.
“Is this a licensed cab?”
“No, sir, this is not a cab.” Very polite and friendly.
“I’m gonna wait for the cab I called.”
“That’s fine sir, I understand.”

As I got to thinking about it I realized (and please remember that I’d been awake 21 of the previous 24 hours) that had the Crown Vic approached me first, I probably would’ve ridden with him without even a thought about whether he was licensed or not.

Reflections on Washington

In a creative nonfiction class I took not too long ago, one of the primary rules for our workshop pieces was the “six month” rule; that we were to write about an event that had happened a minimum of six months prior to the class. It’s a rule designed to give writers some emotional distance from whatever they’re writing, as well as a chance to reflect.  Now, what I wrote last August was a same-day travelogue, which has the advantage of capturing what I was focused on at the time. It also has the disadvantage of being narrow-mindedly focused on what was on my mind at that time. So, I look at a calender and see that it has been more than 6 months since my most recent trip, and I’ve decided to take a look back and see if the added time has made any changes to what I feel is important about the trip.

I begin in Washington, where I realize I didn’t write much about the city at all. The earthquake played a big part in that, but also important was a general sense of ennui. I’d spent about a week in Washington with my parents in 1992, and we’d seen a good number of the sights then. And even though I was only ten at the time, I felt like I’d done Washington as a tourist. I still remember fondly several visits to Union Station, the old Post Office building and even took the little subway car to the Senate cafeteria for a cup of navy bean soup.

19 years later, I roll into town as a man on a job. I got to the hotel an hour before they began checking new guests in, so I did some shopping and then sat in the hotel lobby with my laptop and began typing. I rolled by the supermarket again to pick up my salad before going to the game, and then straight from the stadium back to the hotel, where I sat up quite late typing up the next post, the game summary. The next day, I dropped off a suitcase in a locker in Union Station, walked over to the Capitol and decided to stroll down the National Mall. I had a few hours to play with, so I thought I’d keep my eyes open, see if there was anything that interested me, and maybe check out a museum or two. 

I took a moment to take a picture of the Washington Monument, slowed to a crawl as I passed the Vietnam War Memorial and stopped right in the middle. I don’t know if I had this thought myself or if I overheard a docent mention it, but the wall starts off so short and grows at such a narrow angle that at first it might not even be noticeable, but when you get to the center and realize that the names tower over your head, that’s when the senselessness hits you.

From there, I walked to the Lincoln Memorial, noted with great interest where there was soon to be a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration and much less interest that the reflecting pool had been completely dug up, and walked back to the station, hardly slowing down. I passed up the entire Smithsonian, including a few museums that hadn’t even been built the last time I was there, simply because I didn’t feel like being a tourist that day. And that was before the quake.

Better late than never, right?

Several months ago, I promised to share some thoughts about the act of keeping score and the effect on memory. Specifically, when I was writing the game capsules for this blog last year, I was very much out in the cold as far as any specific details of the first two games on the tour in Anaheim and Los Angeles, because those two games were before I took up the practice. I had the boxscores, but those don’t show the flow of a game, they simply summarize the accounting of who did what.

When I found a site that gives play-by-play (and sometimes even pitch-by-pitch) rundowns of every Major League game played since 1919, I was overjoyed, realizing that gave me a chance to re-construct the scorecards, which I promptly did. I then decided that I had enough insight to write an article about how effective reconstructing the scorecards was at reconstructing the memory of the games. And I would write that post… well, not right now, but soon.

Well, obviously, that didn’t happen. Now, that was so long ago, I’m having difficulty remembering what I was planning on saying. Since the point is memory, I’m simply going to summarize what I remember now that I didn’t remember before I made my after-the-fact scorecards. As I write, I am not looking at any reference material, not even the boxscores.

I begin with what I don’t remember. I still don’t remember any specific plays. I mean, I could look at the card and tell you that player X commited an error or hit a homer, but I don’t have the visceral, “mental instant replay” I do for, say, Jason Schmidt’s two beautiful bunts in San Francisco or Ryan Zimmerman’s diving stops in Washington.

But here’s what I do remember (and how much of this comes from my work with the scorecards, I couldn’t possibly tell you):

Anaheim—I know I mentioned my grandmother insisting I call the Angels to see if “there really is a game today.” Now I’m remembering just how incredulous the woman I spoke with was that I would even ask. Grandma was really enjoying our company and not really following the game at all, and after a while we gave up trying to explain to her the peculiar way Angels fans were taunting the umpires. There were two fans behind us intently watching the score in Seattle and talking about how manager Mike Scosia wasn’t getting enough credit for “doing a good job.”

Los Angeles—You can see in the boxscore that the Dodgers committed four errors, but as I said, the boxscore doesn’t tell the story very well. As I was reconstructing my card, I was hit much more forcefully by the memory of just how frustrating the evening felt, like the team we’d come 800 miles to see was beating itself rather than losing to a better opponent. I brought an old and too small Dodgers cap that I’ve had since I was 8, and bought a brand new one outside the gate. I decided to leave the old one someplace conspicuous with the hope that some child would pick it up and get as much (if not more) joy from it than I did. And I have no idea why I remember this—after listening to as much of the postgame show as we could stand, we switched to a music station. The piece they were playing was Beethoven’s Chorale Fantasy. I don’t even remember what I was listening to on the radio two hours ago!