Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It's mid-February. Pitchers and catchers have already begun their spring workouts in leagues both Grapefruit & Cactus. Truly, this is the most wonderful time of the year. Optimism is in the air. Every team has an equal shot at winning the World Series, even the Royals. Wags and fans alike wonder if all the injuries have healed, if the players added over the winter will add to their team's performance, if this will finally be the year.

While it is still a marvelous game to behold in person, my last visit to a major league ballpark was a huge letdown. I visited Turner Field with my daughter and son-in-law last September, where we watched the (hated) Mets drub the Braves. I was astounded at the amount of distractions - music blaring, entertainment between innings, obvious delays for TV time outs and something that surely was a sign of the impending apocalypse, the kiss cam. Whatever happened to my game? Where was the organ? Can't players win a free suit by hitting some sign in the outfield?

I have found much to be objectionable in the Grand Old Game for decades. Now that I have this forum, it's time for me to offer some remedies.

First, ban the Designated Hitter. After 40 years, it's safe to say that it has added nothing to the game, save the extension of the careers of one-dimensional players. Whenever a pitcher in the AL brushes back a hitter, it causes a brawl. In the NL, the logical result is a little chin music for the offending pitcher when he next comes to the plate. Sal the Barber and the Big D must be spinning in their graves (The latter, by the way, hit a record 154 batters during his 13 years in the Bigs).

Other than the aforementioned travesty, the greatest single change to the game over the past several decades is the alteration of the strike zone. It used to range from the armpits (or letters) to the kneecaps. Over time, it has gradually sunk to the area from ankles to belt. This led to domination of pitchers, which begat hitters looking for an edge to counteract that (can you say steroids?), which, in turn, skewed statistics of the game forevermore.

Play a shorter season, certainly no longer than 154 games. It should run from April through late September, with the World Series ending no later than the middle of the following month. Bring back the October classic, which one played in November cannot ever aspire to become.

There are too many teams in the postseason. No more than 3 per league is sufficient.

Bring back afternoon games for the Series. Living in the Eastern time zone, no game ever ends before midnight, which is far too late for most kids to see; me either, for that matter.

Ban interleague play, except for the All Star game and the Series. I know it has the potential to draw fans and surely makes buckets of money. Yet, one of the charms of the game used to be how differently each league played. The NL had dominance for many years, due to its reliance on speed and defense (Ozzie Smith, for example), while the AL depended upon what Earl Weaver fondly referred to as Dr. Longball. Apparently, interleague play will become more prevalent. That can only lead to more parity, so they'll be just like the NFL, or mind-numbingly boring.

Which reminds me: awarding home field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star game? Seriously, Bud, you are way off base on that one.

Things that should result in automatic ejection: spitting, arguing balls and strikes, players wearing armor at the plate, curtain calls after a home run (for which I still blame the late, great Gary Carter for starting; sorry, Kid, but I still feel that way) and batters approaching the mound. I would also ban any nickname ending in "rod", sky boxes, trumpeted charges and mascots.

I took my family to Fenway Park in 1994; the cost for tickets, programs, hot dogs and sodas was over $100. I decided then that this was no longer family entertainment, as it was out of my price range. After the cancellation of the World Series that same year,I boycotted the game for 11 years (a plague on both owners' and players' houses); returning to Fenway in 2005, where the cost for each seat was $65. And those seats had an obstructed view.

All of which I offer as proof that MLB has killed their golden goose. Only the well-heeled can afford to go to games. I don't know why kids don't play baseball anymore. I wonder if little leaguers fight over who will have the honor of wearing number 7. Do they still pretend to be a Bob Gibson staring down Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente while throwing a tennis ball against the garage door?

I should have known the sport was doomed about 10 years ago, while working in a hotel where the Braves were staying. All the managers gathered in the lobby when their team bus pulled up to take them to the stadium, to keep the autograph seekers at bay. There were many who clamored for Larry (aka Chipper) Jones, or who swarmed after Gary Sheffield. Finally, Hank Aaron strolled across the lobby. No one even knew who he was. That was one of the saddest sights I had ever seen.

The next time I see a youngster throwing a ball against a house, I'll ask him who he is imagining himself to be. That will provide a clue if the game has a chance, or, if it's just another TV reality show.

Friday, February 17, 2012


The father of one of my great friends from college was affiliated with the American League. She would call him occasionally to secure seats for her soon-to-be husband and assorted hangers-on (that was me!) at the nearest ballpark, which, in those days, was Baltimore Memorial Stadium. We always had fantastic seats; far better than those any of us could have afforded in those youthful days.

Once, we had seats directly behind the Orioles' dugout. I don't recall who they were playing, but it didn't matter. We could see every move on the field, hear the chatter, feel the swell of the crowd when the home team hit one into the gap or executed a defensive gem. Then, all of a sudden, this enormous shadow passed in front of me, all orange-white-and-black. It was the Orioles mascot.

This was an era shortly after the Famous Chicken for some unexplained reason earned that epithet, bouncing around games in San Diego. Immediately thereafter, this phenomenon took root in ballparks across the land, much like that other scourge of the era, the Wave. I was horrified at this development, nearly as much as at the advent of the designated hitter (quick: name two, just two DH's, who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame; I rest my case).

I savored the Great American Pastime for its nuances, like watching the shortstop take a step or two right or left, depending upon the catcher's signal for the upcoming pitch. I found nothing more ballet-like than the pitcher sprinting to cover first base on a ball hit to the right side of the infield. No sight was more thrilling than that of an outfielder one-hopping a drive, planting his rear foot and throwing a perfect strike to the plate to nail an opposing base runner. A game of geometric precision, played in a park in an urban setting, on a summer afternoon. A game of language and oddities, quirky characters (imagine a football player called Spaceman!). In short, a purist's heaven.

Ah, back to the mascot, the interloper, this interruption to my idyll. During the 7th Inning Stretch (when they played Thank God I'm a Country Boy), this creature was dancing on top of the dugout, then had the gall to touch the top of my head and take off my ball cap. Every fiber of my being told me to avenge this assault upon my person and take down this abomination. However, despite the number of National Bohemians I had already swilled, I thought better of it and just seethed. Decades later, this episode still bothers me.

A few days ago, my charming younger daughter sent me a note, saying that she was thinking of buying this birthday present for me. This is what she sent:

She could not possibly have been serious. I told her that I had a bone to pick about mascots for years, a story she had not yet heard. Well, now she has.

I'm sure I'll have more comments about the Grand Old Game as the season progresses. For now, I am content at this moment in time, when every single team has a shot at the World Series, with not a single mascot in sight.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Teacher, teacher!

I spent about a decade doing training for the company I work for. One of the classes I co-facilitated taught the participants basic presentation skills.

The first thing that pops to mind about this class was that we opened it by discussing people's great fears about taking this training. It turns out there are two things that cause cold sweats and dread among folks: death and public speaking. Which, in turn, begs the question: if you are attending a funeral, would you prefer to give the eulogy or to be the guest of honor?

Sorry, we call that a bunny trail in the training world. I was fortunate to do this class many times with some truly remarkable people. One of my favorites was an exceedingly kind colleague from Texas named Patti. She would do this exercise to highlight some adult learning principles, in which participants were asked to list characteristics of the best and worst teachers they ever had. In every class, people came up with similar characteristics for each; I would guess that your own listing would bear resemblance as well. After observing Patti lead this section a few times, it finally dawned on me: our favorite teachers were the ones who treated us like adults, who had passion for their topic, who treated each student as a unique individual. Our worst teachers were the ones who simply went through the motions, appearing disinterested. When I mentioned this to Patti, I got this all-knowing look, as she was far too kind to remark at how truly obtuse I can be.

One of my daughters is currently earning her masters degree in how to teach American Sign Language. We have had many discussions since she began this field of study about learning styles, techniques, concepts and, sadly, the general disregard in which teachers are held. We are now in this back-and-forth discussion about the TV show, Friday Night Lights.

While my daughter and I do disagree about the comparative objectionable behaviors of some of the characters on the show, we are in complete accord about the portrayal of the two main characters, Tami and Eric Taylor, by Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler, respectively. My attraction to the two stems from those lessons I saw imparted by my friend Patti in that training class.

In the corporate world, I have seen countless examples of poor training, which have included yelling, two-way arguments, the trainee stalking off the job and the supervisor actually firing them on the spot. My first reaction is horror that so many people have forgotten how to teach someone else how to perform a task; my second is to resolve never to return to that place of business.

Then I took a golf lesson. Here I am, paying about $100 for an hour of someone's time. I am long past my athletic prime and possess modest skills in this area. During this hour, I have one-on-one time with someone who is encouraging of the skills I do have. I will walk away from the session with confidence that I have been able to improve at least one facet of my game, which results in an actual improvement.

This is much of what I hear from my daughter as well, as she relates tales of student teaching in a grim, urban school. She has had some setbacks, but even more successes. Her triumphs occur when she takes a particular interest in a student, investing the power of her personality in treating this person as a unique individual with a particular learning style. All this, so that she can make a salary about one-fifth of what most politicians earn annually from making speeches to audiences who agree with most of what they say. That is perhaps the topic for another post...

Every day, I read that some state or local government is cutting teacher salaries or eliminating tenure or doing something else to make teaching even more difficult. I have a colleague who is asked to contribute $150 a year to her child's public school, to pay for such things as hand soap and toilet paper. All this in a country that is experiencing another decline in the performance of its students in math and science, falling further behind other countries in the world. For this, we blame teachers?

My job is to be a part of a management team at a hotel. Last summer, we had a youth baseball group staying with us. Their parents and coaches were hanging out at the pool one afternoon, drinking bottles of beer. I politely asked them to use plastic cups, as glass containers and swimming pools are a poor mixture. I even gave them the cups to do so. These guests told me, in rather harsh language, that I had no business telling them what to do, as they were such good, loyal customers. My instinct was to respond in kind. My experience, however, has taught me that arguing with a customer does, at best, only escalate the cost of solution. Instead, I asked if any of them watched Friday Night Lights. Many nodding heads ensued. I told them that they reminded me of a character on that show. No, not Eric Taylor, but Joe McCoy (for you non-fans, he was the father of the young stud quarterback who was reluctant to pay his dues). Head scratching and silence ensued. The next morning, they all came to me and apologized for their actions.

It's not radical to believe that everything good about life, I learned from my parents and from teachers. I learned values, tolerance, wisdom and a wealth of knowledge about topics ranging from geography to mathematics to faith that prepared me how to think and, concurrently, how to live my life. I could not begin to write all that I learned from the great teachers I have been blessed to experience, let alone put it on a bumper sticker.

As it is Valentine's Day, in addition to doing something sweet for a loved one, remember a teacher. Someone who taught you how to use your rational processes, gave you a life lesson you still use today, who showed you a path that you did not know existed before, who took you to a place you would not have gone by yourself. Your Eric or Tami Taylor, if you will, because each of us has had the benefit of at least one encounter with a teacher so memorable. If you can't find that teacher, tell a loved one about this person and how they changed your life.

So, to Sister Mary Robert, Brother Michael, Brother Damian, Dr. Brown and Professor Duncan, thank you for the lessons, for inspiring passions in me that I did not know existed. Thank you for showing me the joys of learning. Thank you also for helping me to realize who I was to become in my life. Thank you also to Patti and to the many others who led me on a path as an adult learner. I am privileged to have shared time with each of you.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What's in a word?

Each New Year's Eve, Lake Superior State University publishes a list of those words that deserve to be banished from the lexicon. It has become one of the events I anticipate every holiday season. In fact, they have been compiling this list for over 30 years now.

Some of the nuggets that have received this dubious achievement of late: amazing, baby bump, viral, man cave, epic and refudiate.

This enshrinement in no way causes these words to disappear from the status of the overused. I have been scratching my head for some time, wondering why this one particular word continues to appear on topics near and far. For, in 2009, Lake Superior State University deemed the word "iconic" to be worthy of this banishment. I could not agree more. defines iconic as: "of, pertaining to, or characteristic of an icon." Well, that doesn't help much. So, I next looked up icon: "a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it." Okay, that's a little better.

At the place I worked most recently, our Director of Marketing referred to our building as iconic. Then, it started appearing all over the place, as if to haunt every turn in my un-iconic life. Since that time, I have heard the word applied to Chevrolet, Newt Gingrich, all New York sports teams (even those that ply their trade in New Jersey), the former Sears Tower, an early Atari game (pong?) and, most recently, Steven Spielberg and several full-length animated Disney films.

I am confused. Would not the multitude of people, places and things that are so designated diminish its very status as an icon? I am reminded of a headline I saw on some internet news site last year, referring to a tune as "the most downloaded song of all time." I guess that makes sense, if one is only defining "all time" as that period during which music could actually be downloaded, say, since 2001 or so. But, I digress...

Repeat after me: I solemnly promise not to use the word "iconic" in any sentence. Any violation of this vow will condemn the offender to a life, subject to bombardment of all the words banished by those wise folks at LSSU. Just sayin... Oh, sorry, that was on 2011's list.

I encourage you to peruse the lists yourself. I promise, you will not be disappointed.