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Father’s Day

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My childhood was spent discovering the many talents of my father. These talents would emerge unexpectedly, little moments of wonder. We were at an amusement park once, and there was a shooting gallery there, and I wanted to make the skunk’s tail go in the air, make the piano player start to play, make the duck quack, but those targets were so small.

Dad took the toy rifle with its warped sights, aimed it carefully and hit every target every time, shooting with such precision that after a while children from nearby began to gather around and shout out, “Shoot the deer! Hit the mirror! Knock down the beer can!”

It was, as I’ve written before, like finding out your father is Batman.

“Where did you learn to shoot like that?” I asked Dad, who disliked guns and was as peaceful a man as I’ve ever known.

“The army,” he said, and he left it there.

When I was very young, so young the memories come back blurry, as if underwater, my father showed me a magic trick. He took a coin, and he put it inside a handkerchief. He handed me the handkerchief and asked me to feel it and make sure the coin was still in there, and it was. Then he asked me to put the handkerchief inside both hands and squeeze tight and close my eyes and say “abracadabra.”

When I opened the handkerchief the coin had been magically replaced by a tiny toy skull about half the size of a superball.

“How did you do that?” I asked Dad, who worked long hours in a factory keeping knitting machines running.

“When I was little, we had a magician stay with us, and he taught me,” he said, and he left it there.

When I was 11, he took me and my brother David to a Cleveland-Boston baseball game. That was 1978, when the Red Sox finished a Bucky away from glory, when their lineup was just ridiculous — Rice and Yaz and Fisk and Lynn and Boomer and Dewey — and when Cleveland was pretty bad. It was a Sunday afternoon mismatch, just after the fourth of July, that patriotic time in Cleveland when everyone briefly acknowledged being Indians fans. More than 45,000 showed up at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. It was bat day.

Everything went right. Everything. Duane Kuiper, my hero, had three hits including two doubles. And Buddy Bell, my vice-hero, hit the longest home run I’d ever seen; in the bleary vision of memory it might STILL be the longest home run I’ve ever seen. Buddy crashed it off the left-field upper deck, and it was a grand slam. “That was the first homer in my life,” he would say after the game, “that I ever KNEW was gone.”

Cleveland won 7–1. It was perfect, absolutely perfect. “They never lose when we come,” Dad said, and I believed him.

He would take me with him to the bowling alley sometimes when he bowled in his Sunday league. His team was made up of hard factory men who drank their coffee as black as the machine would spit it out, and Dad would bowl the anchor leg, routinely rolling 200s and turning his back on the pins whenever he picked up an easy spare.

And he would take me with him to the Arabica Coffee shop sometimes, there in the Coventry District in Cleveland, an edgy place then when hippies and punk rockers and motorcycle gang members mixed with ancient Eastern Europeans, and Dad would play speed chess against the best players in Cleveland. Swear words in a dozen languages blurted out as men angrily slammed around knights and bishops and queens and kings. My father was a man of distinction here. He had won the Cleveland Open Chess Tournament.

Well, he could do anything. Dads can do anything, right? He could fix anything. He could lift anything. He could handle anything. He also could juggle. One day, for no apparent reason, he just did. There happened to be three tennis balls around. “I want to learn how to juggle,” I said. And he promptly juggled the three balls with flair, as if on stage. I was probably 15 by then. He had been hiding this wonderful skill for 15 years, as if he wanted to unveil it only at the perfect moment.

Then, when I was older, he took me to the factory with him every day for a summer, and I moved boxes and wilted in the suffocating heat while he cheerfully kept the machines going on time. At the end of the day I would be so exhausted and angry that I did not want to see anyone, be around anyone, all I wanted to do was disappear into myself, like the Springsteen lyrics which I had not yet heard:

But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold

Sometime I feel so weak I just want to explode

And somewhere along the way there it occurred to me that Dad had been doing this same thing for the full 18 years of my life, and that he had come home from the factory every afternoon covered in oil and sweat and no doubt felt those same things I felt. Yet, he would smile, and first thing would go to the garage and get his cheap little plastic baseball glove, and we would go to the backyard, and he would play catch with me, throwing impossibly high pop flies against the sky until the sun set.

“How did you learn play baseball?” I would ask him. My father had grown up in Poland, a young soccer star, he had not seen his first live baseball game until after his oldest son was born. That was the day when the commercials said that America was baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Dad wanted all of his sons to be Americans.

“I just picked it up,” he said, and he left it there.

Then we’d go inside and eat something, and he would sink into the couch and watch television until Johnny Carson said good night.

Then he would do it all again the next day. I still don’t know how.

When I was young, I figured that when I became a Dad I too would just know how to to do all these things, would just naturally start bowling 200 games and become a marksman and attain master status as a chess player and perform magic breezily and without effort and just know how to fix cars or broken appliances. I would be able to throw impossibly high pop flies like my father did. It doesn’t happen that way. My own kids are stuck with a Dad of limited talents.

The other day, though, there were three tennis balls lying around. I picked them up and, with my daughters watching, I juggled them easily. They were both dutifully impressed.

“How did you learn to do that?” our youngest, Katie, asked.

“My Dad taught me,” I said, and I left it there.

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By In Stuff

RIP Jane

I never met Jane Bachman Wulf, but — like Jeff — she altered my life. When I was 18 years old and felt like every road was a dead end, I sent out a bunch of letters to a bunch of people who seemed to have answers. I wrote to people in radio, television and newspapers. I wrote to baseball announcers and talk show hosts and I wrote “To whom it may concern” letters to the magazines I loved.

The letters weren’t much. They were basically: “Help. I have no idea what to do with my life. How could I work there?” Some people didn’t write back but more people did than I ever could have imagined.

Jane Bachman Wulf was chief of reporters at Sports Illustrated, the biggest dream place of all, and she wrote back the most comprehensive letter of all.

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I’m sure Jane wrote similar letters — maybe even precisely the same letter — to many young people with crazy dreams of working at Sports Illustrated … but that letter meant something special to me. It was a connection. It was a sign that, yes, this crazy life you dream about might actually be possible. I did write for the campus newspaper. I did hook up with the local Charlotte Observer. I did get a summer internship.

And many many years later, I wrote for Sports Illustrated.

Maybe these things would have happened anyway … but maybe not.

I’ve said it many times … you never know what small gesture might change someone’s life. I obviously have kept Jane’s letter for more than 30 years. When I read it now, the feelings of excitement I got when receiving it come back. I’m sad that I never got the chance to thank her. And even though I never spoke with her, I’ll miss her terribly.

 

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By In Stuff

The Warriors as modern art

This entire NBA season has been modern art. That, I think, is why people have such different and ferocious views about it. Modern art is meant to evoke strong feelings, even if those feelings are sometimes best articulated with: “Come on, that’s not ART. How can you call that art?”

The Golden State Warriors are that most modern work of art.

Let’s stop with the suspended disbelief; we all knew the Warriors were going to the win NBA title this year. We knew it the way we know that James Bond will win, that Batman will not be killed, that Meryl Streep will get the Oscar nomination, that Republicans will vote one way and Democrats another. We like to play around with such certainties because we enjoy drama and like surprises, especially in our sports. But we knew. The Golden State Warriors were the best team on planet earth last year. They breezed to an NBA record 73 wins, they made a record 150 more three-pointers than any team ever, they scored more points than any team since the league got serious about defense.

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By In Stuff

Baseball’s balance in math

Earlier today, I wrote a little piece about what I called the balance that baseball is finding with all the strikeouts and all the home runs. I will have an interesting follow (I think) tomorrow as Bill James weighs in.

But before doing that, I wanted to share a little cool math from Tom Tango.

In the piece, I point out that teams in 2017 are essentially scoring the same number of runs as teams did in 1993 … but in VERY different ways. In 1993, hitters did EVERYTHING better except hit home runs. They hit for a significantly higher average, walked more, stole more bases, struck out a ton less often and averaged 4.6 runs per game.

In 2017, with a bunch more home runs, teams are also averaging 4.6 runs per game.

Well, Tango can show us how it works in math. If you like math, I think you’ll get a kick out of this. If you don’t — yeah, you can pretty much stop here.

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By In Stuff

The Balance of Baseball

One of the many wonderful things about baseball is that it tends to finds balance. People talk about the beauty of 90 feet between bases — the faster runners get, the stronger arms get and so a ground ball to the shortstop was an out in 1923 and it’s an out today — but really the whole game that balances like that. There are times in the game’s history, like in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when pitchers dominate the game. And there are times in the game’s history, like in the 1990s and early 2000s, when hitters dominate the game.

But, enough years ago by, the counterbalance kicks in and the game evens out.

Yes, it’s true, sometimes, the game needs a little help, or anyway that’s what we think. Designated hitters are added. Drug testing is instituted. The mound is lowered. Maybe baseballs are altered. There is always talk about tinkering, changing this or that. But the game tries to balance itself out because hitters and pitchers are the yin and yang of baseball, the good and dark sides of the force, constantly pulling and pushing, pressing an advantage and then retreating. The genius of baseball is that, so far anyway, a pitcher with eight fielders behind him and a hitter with a bat makes for a fair fight. One cannot obliterate the other, at least not yet.

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By In Stuff

Astronomical

A few years ago, I used to play this game called “Civilization.” It was actually called Sid Meier’s Civilization, and I’m aware that it still exists and is undoubtedly better than ever. But I don’t know much about it now. I used to play it a decade or so ago, maybe more. The point was then — as I’m sure it is now — to build the greatest civilization in the world. You would do this by building the greatest army, by building the wonders of the world, by filling your civilization with great things like libraries and colleges and aqueducts and, many years later, airports and baseball stadiums.

In any case, back then Sid Meier’s Civilization used to have a cheat mode. In cheat mode, you could advance much, much faster than any other civilization. It was quite comical, really. You would be sending in fighter jets against tribes with clubs. You would be working with nuclear energy when other civilizations were still discovering iron.

It feels like the Houston Astros at the moment are playing baseball on cheat mode.

I realize that can be read a few different ways; I mean it in the best possible one.

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By In Stuff

HMMY: Dale Murphy

Last week, we started a new feature here at the Joe Peppy Tone Baseball Roundup, a little something we call “How Many More Years.” We began with Nomar Garciaparra … the idea is to look at players who are near Hall of Famers and ask the question: How many more years would he have needed to cross the line and be inducted in Cooperstown?

Today’s player: Dale Murphy.

Murph was one of the iconic players of his time — my time as a young baseball fan. There were several reasons for this. One, he played in Atlanta when that was really the only team in the South. There was no baseball in Florida then, no baseball in Washington either, and so the Braves were the team for the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and probably Tennessee too. That was something like 25 million people in the 1980s, and if they were baseball fans they were probably Braves fans.

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By In Stuff

A toast to the best

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Apologies in advance for how personal this tribute will be but I don’t know how else to do this. When I was 20 years old, I was scared, confused, entirely unsure about what I could possibly do with my life. All of my childhood dreams — to play second base for the Cleveland Indians, to play wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, to play point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, to be Elvis Presley — had been popped long before.

And the adult routes all seemed pretty well closed off to someone of my meager gifts. Doctor? No. Lawyer? No. Engineering? Please. Accounting classes had been a bust. Business principles eluded me. Couldn’t draw. Couldn’t sing. Had no ideas. My one summer in the knitting factory had been eye-opening in so many ways. I lacked stamina.

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By In Stuff

Hamilton: One Year Later

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A year has drifted by since we went to see Hamilton on Broadway and people still approach with their stories. A mother tells of taking her daughter to Hamilton. A father and son go to New York together for the first time, see a Yankees game one night and Hamilton the next, it is a dream. A young woman, just out of college, wins the ticket lottery and says seeing Hamilton saved her life in a way. A man talks about happily walking around New York with his wife, both of them in a daze after seeing Hamilton.

In the year since we’ve seen Hamilton, it has become a cultural touchstone, a point of controversy, a national touring show and a political crossroads. And, yes, it must be said, Hamilton is sometimes a mystery to people. “What’s that?” many people have asked as they pointed to my “Hamilton” sweatshirt.

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By In Stuff

There’s only one MVP

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Baseball awards are fun to argue about. There’s a specific reason for this: Baseball, more than any other major American team sport, separates the individual. Yes, of course, the overall goal is always winning. But in baseball the goal of the single player — get a hit, get a strikeout, make the catch — matches up almost 100% of the time with the goal of the team. Individual and team mesh well.

This isn’t true in other sports. In basketball, a player’s goal is not to score as many points as he can. In football it isn’t to make every tackle, or block every man or catch every pass. In hockey, if a teammate has a better shot, you pass the puck to your teammate.

If Bryce Harper gets nine at-bats and hits four home runs in a game, nobody thinks he’s being selfish and all about himself. If Kobe Bryant takes 50 shots to score 50 points, everybody thinks it.

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