Saturday, July 22, 2017

I've Got a Ton of Great Ideas

I grew up thirty miles to the west of Wrigley Field and the stadium that goes by whatever corporate name the new Comiskey has outside it this year.  Now I live seven hundred miles to the east of those stadiums, fifteen miles north of Nationals Stadium, and thirty miles south of Camden Yards.

As a kid, the boredom of summer was interrupted by trips into the city to bake in the sun at the corner of Sheffield and Addison.  I got to watch Fergie Jenkins go to work.  One of my little league baseball cards lists Ron Cey as my favorite baseball and that I preferred to play third base.

The addition of 670 miles of distance means that I can replicate that exact experience with my kids.  But there are other options.  Although we are closer to the Nationals, the roots of the Orioles in our neighborhood are deeper.  It’s an inversion I enjoy.  In the western suburbs of Chicago, rooting for the Cubs implied a rejection of the coarse ethnic poverty of a de-industrializing city.  The Cubs were finance; the White Sox were the stockyards and freight trains.  In the Prince George’s County suburbs of DC within the Beltway, maintaining an affiliation with the Orioles implies a rejection of K Street and government contractors.  The Orioles are blue collar; the Nationals are the law firms and lobbyists. 

We are fifteen miles to the west of the home stadium of the Baltimore Orioles’ AA affiliate, the Bowie Baysox.  If I longed for the national pastime in the summer, we head to Prince George’s Stadium.  Our kids’ school runs fundraisers at Baysox games.  The club’s spring egg hunt is an annual tradition and for the past three years, both kids had a birthday celebration at the park.  Many of the players they see on the field for Bowie move up to Camden.  And established Orioles players often spend time with the Baysox – last year our eldest got a baseball autographed by J.J. Hardy for a classmate that is also a rabid Orioles fan.  He was thrilled.  I revered Scott Sanderson.  There is no accounting for who we attach to.

I like the Orioles.  I went on the middle school trip to the East Coast and came back with an Orioles cap.  In the nineties, when the Cubs were horrible, Baltimore became something close to my second team.

I haven’t become an Orioles fan, nor have I encouraged my kids to develop any ties to the franchise.  We cheer for D.C. United, for the Washington Mystics, and for the University of Maryland’s teams as a family, but otherwise have left the other sports alone.  They know that I root for the Cubs, Bears, and Bulls.  They’ve been members of Clark’s Crew for several years.  They have Cubs/Bears/Bulls gear.  Our eldest loves Charles Tillman and the concept of the Peanut Punch.  But that’s about all there is to it.  It had been something in the background for them.  Something they knew was a part of their parents’ lives, but not something that they cared much about.  Like, they have to listen to me playing The National all the time and they know some of the songs, but it’s not their music and they will, if they have to, tolerate it for a while before asking for Sabrina Carpenter.

Their friends have NFL teams, NBA teams, and MLB teams.  They know that LeBron plays for the Cavs, that Brady plays for the Patriots, and that lots of people like the Cowboys, Lakers, and Yankees.  Pressed on the point by teammates, our eldest decided two years ago that she was a Pirates fan and bought some Bucs gear when we stopped in Pittsburgh on our way to Michigan for the Thanksgiving holiday.

For the twenty-plus years that my wife and I have been together, the Cubs have been a significant part of our shared experiences.  We burned a vacation in Mesa for a week of spring training.  It was my Disney World.  We try to go to Wrigley for a game once a year.  I went to the Cubs Convention the year that Theo took over.  We’ve travelled to watch the team play in San Diego, Pittsburgh, and New York (both at Shea and Yankee Stadium).  When John Smoltz closed out a Russ Ortiz win in Wrigley to even the National League Divisional Series at two games a piece, we watched Sammy Sosa fly out to center for the last out, jumped in the car, drove to Atlanta, arrived at Turner a couple of hours before gametime, and were in the stands celebrating with other fans as the team won its first playoff series since 1908.

At every location where Cubs fans congregate, there are origin stories.  People from towns you’d never heard of, who killed time watching WGN, and loved Harry as if he was a jovial uncle that was welcome in the house anytime.  When that era ended, they listened to Ron Santo on a radio stream however they could get it.  That our start came as native Chicagoans made us exceptions and opened up a battery of “what was it like?” questions regarding our time inside the friendly confines.

This is all a long way of saying that I wanted to raise Cub fans.  But 670 more miles and no WGN increased the degree of difficulty, so much so that I made peace with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen.  Maybe I’d like learning about the Pirates if our eldest kept with that interest.  Or about the Orioles if they succumbed to peer pressure.  Or major league baseball would be like “City Middle” off of Alligator – I’d thoroughly enjoy it, but it would just be background noise for my progeny.

We bought season tickets to Broadway Chicago last year because a season ticket was cheaper than a single ticket to Hamilton in Manhattan.  We’d see Hamilton and Aladdin and be able to gift the tickets to the other shows to family and friends.  The date for our Hamilton tickets – set many, many months in advance – happened to be October 8th.  The week before we headed home, we realized that if we got to the city early, our kids could stay with family and we could go to Game 1 of the Divisional Series.  A playoff game in Wrigley.  We bought two tickets.  When told the plan, our eldest objected – why can’t I go?  I want to go.  That’s a lot of money to piss away on a kid that is likely to spend the final third of the game complaining that she wants to leave or get ice cream or walk around.  BUT.  But… she wanted to go to a Cubs game.  She wanted to go to Wrigley.  For a playoff game. 

I bought an extra ticket, several rows back in the same section, on an aisle.  The two of them would sit together and I would drop by from time to time to see if we needed to switch seats.  When we got to the game, our kid wanted us to stay together.  Three people, two seats.  We checked with the people around us, including the Giants fans a row behind us, and everyone was awesome.  Jon Lester versus Johnny Cueto.  Two and a half hours of edge of the seat tension, hemmed in by an electric crowd.  As Javy Baez walked to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, I bent down and told my daughter “Baez is one of the only guys on this team that’s been able to read Cueto.  I think he’s going to hit a home run.”  Full count.  Tension still rising.  Everyone on their feet.  Quick pitch.  Upper cut.  Contact.  From our seats on the third base line, we could see the ball cut through the air, and could see Angel Pagan tracking it back and getting his back up against the wall.  I had sudden visions of the ball dying short of the basket.  Of being close, but falling short.  Of passing on the one thing that has defined my lifelong love of the team:  disappointment and resignation. 

But the ball didn’t die.

As soon as it landed, I looked down and saw my daughter beaming back up at me, and we were hopping.  Everyone (except the row behind us) was hopping. 

We all sweat through Chapman’s ninth inning and then just stood around inside the stadium until we were ushered out.  At the gate before exiting, Theo came down, grinning, allowing the adulation to wash over him and provide evidence that he was just as emotionally involved in the spectacle as everyone that had paid to get in.  We walked around the outside of the stadium for another half hour before catching the L home, sharing stories about how we grew up here, how this was our childhood.

The next night, I wore a Cubs jersey to Hamilton.  Before the curtain raised, all of the people around us had their phones out following what was happening a few miles to the north, including a refined Russian couple behind us that came in evening wear:  “We’re up 4-0!”  The show started.  At intermission, the ushers immediately gave us an update, “5-2, they pulled Hendricks ‘cause he got hit with a ball.”  The show was fantastic.  Yet, walking out, the conversations were mixed.  The mind-blowing experience of Hamilton versus being up 2-0, with a team that everyone loved.

The next day, we went to see In The Heights at the Porchlight.  We were enthralled.  Afterwards, hanging out with the cast so that our kids could ask them questions, we talked about the Cubs.  About how this was nothing like 2003.  And I think that they began to understand, without us having to tell them, how the Cubs are part of the marrow of Chicago.  For better or worse, they got to see why their parents are a little crazy but just like everyone else in their hometown.

Back home, we watched the rest of the playoffs together.  They were sent to bed when the rains game to delay Game 7 with me telling them that this is what it meant to be a Cubs fan – to have hope, to see that hope crushed, and to, nevertheless, renew your faith.  They told me I was wrong, that it was obvious that the Cubs would win, and they went to bed.

Being a Cubs fan is not about the excitement of the playoffs.  It is not about the flickering.  Maybe for Yankees fans or Braves fans or Cardinals fans or Red Sox fans or Dodgers fans or Giants fans.  Being a Cubs fan is about the grind of the regular season.  It’s 162 games of box scores and sleepy games sitting amongst distracted fans.  We left things alone for the most part.  We signed them up for Clark’s Crew again, went to several Baysox games, and watched a few Cubs games on television.

A month ago, we told them that we were going to a Cubs game at Nationals Park.  They didn’t object, we watched the Cubs lose (badly) with Arrieta on the mound, and while they didn’t seem to really enjoy themselves, we stayed until the game ended and there were no complaints.   We didn’t press our luck, knowing that we had tentative plans to go to Camden to see the Cubs in July.

Last week, we went with our friends and their two kids to watch Jake Arrieta pitch again.  Our friends left in the eighth, we stayed until the final out.  We talked about the trade for Jose Quintana and how his first start was the next day.  Could we pull it off?  Could we go to two games back-to-back? 

We could.  We did.  Again, we stayed to the last out.  Afterwards, they tried to watch as much of the Braves series as they could.  The kids now tell people they are Cubs fans.    

My eldest’s first softball card lists her favorite player as Javy Baez.  

Yesterday, I bought four tickets to see The National at the Anthem in December.  Because I have hope.  And sometimes hope is rewarded.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

History Is Happening II

When Greg Maddux left Chicago after the 1992 season, he proceeded to put up eleven straight years of winning at least 15 games or more for the Atlanta Braves.

Eleven years.  Kerry Wood never reached that mark in any season.  In fact, all told, Wood, Mark Prior (1), Matt Clement (0), and Carlos Zambrano (3) only managed the feat four times between them over the course of their careers.

In that eleven year stretch from 1993 to 2003, the Braves had pitchers reach at least 15 wins in a season 29 times.

That's as many times as Cubs pitchers won at least 15 games in the forty-one year period between 1975 and 2015 and Greg Maddux, himself, had by far the most of any Cubs pitcher, accounting for six of those twenty-nine seasons.  (The others:  Rick Sutcliffe (3); Carlos Zambrano (3); Ted Lilly (2); Ryan Dempster (2); Rick Reuschel (2); Ray Burris (2); Jon Lieber (1); Mike Bielecki (1); Mike Morgan (1); Greg Hibbard (1); Jaime Navarro (1); Steve Trachsel (1); Kevin Tapani (1); Mark Prior (1); and Jake Arrieta (1)).

On Monday, Kyle Hendricks won his fifteenth game of the season.  On Tuesday, Jason Hammel fell short of winning his fifteenth and remains stuck on fourteen, having lost his last two starts.  Jake Arrieta will go for his eighteenth win of the year on Saturday and Jon Lester won his seventeenth tonight.

The Cubs haven't had three starters with at least 15 wins in a season since 1989 (Greg Maddux 19; Mike Bielecki 18; and Rick Sutcliffe 16).

If Jason Hammel can notch one more win this season, it will be the first time the Cubs have had four pitchers with each more than fifteen wins since 1935 (Lon Warneke 20; Bill Lee 20; Larry French 17; and Charlie Root 15).

What is exemplary for Cubs fans is mundane for Braves fans.  In 1998, Atlanta had five pitchers with at least fifteen wins (Tom Glavine 20; Greg Maddux 18; Kevin Millwood 17; John Smoltz 17; and Denny Neagle 16).  With John Lackey at nine wins and at most three more starts before the end of the regular season, the Cubs won't challenge those numbers.

Regardless, what they are doing, even if not to the standards of other clubs is virtually unprecedented in the modern history of the franchise.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

History Is Happening

No matter what else happens this year, most outside the fanbase will measure the Chicago Cubs' season purely by whether the team wins the World Series.

The postseason is a crap shoot.  As an incredibly talented and deep team, the Cubs may dominate.  Or they may get cold and bow out in the NLDS.

If Cubs fans were singularly focused on championships, well, then they would not be Cubs fans for long.

The history matters.  The statistics matter.  Even more so in the context of this franchise with deep wells of comparison for supporters to run through.

As Addison Russell drove in the game-winning run on Thursday night against the Giants, it suddenly made September slightly more interesting.  At 88 runs batted in for the season, Russell is in unique company among Cubs' shortstops.  But comparisons to Ernie Banks are tough.

If Russell reaches the 100 rbi plateau over the last games of this year -- a mark that seems entirely reasonable -- it should mean more than another reminder of how exceptional Ernie Banks was in the history of the franchise.  Anthony Rizzo has 93 rbis and Kris Bryant has 91.  If Russell reaches the 100 rbi mark, he will likely be doing so with both Rizzo and Bryant.

That hasn't happened in my lifetime.  Maybe this will end up like 2004, when Moises Alou led the team with 106 rbis, Aramis Ramirez had 103 rbis, and Derrek Lee had 98.  Before that the closest I had ever seen a trio of Cubs reach the same heights was in 1984 -- Ron Cey (97); Leon Durham (96); and Jody Davis (94).

The Cubs haven't had three players with 100 rbis in a season since 1970.  Billy Williams drove in 129 runs that year, Jim Hickman added 115, and Ron Santo had 114.

As a kid, the promise of a team with that kind of offensive firepower was conceivable only by virtue of the baseball cards I studied while watching my Cubbies getting crushed on WGN.  Now, it is particularly enjoyable watching it happen on the field in front of you.  

Friday, June 10, 2016

Racial Diversity in American Women's Soccer

Beyond the sport, I have come to love soccer for what the culture of the game conveys about the disparate lands that have adopted it.  For me, soccer is the ultimate conversation starter in any corner of the globe and I find myself genuinely interested in the different perspectives that become apparent during such dialogues.

Over time, that love has been augmented by the recognition that soccer tells us useful things about what it means to be American.  One of our current candidates for President likes to underscore his huge nativist crowds who are peculiarly enthusiastic about the masonry of barricades.  That is one image of America.  An alternative image is presented by the current Copa America Centenario – as in the 83,000 (really huge) that took in a terrifically fun match between El Tri and the Reggae Boys last night in Pasadena.

The United States’ steadily increasing presence in the world soccer landscape has been accompanied by hand wringing as to the domestic state of the sport.  Why aren’t the men better?  Why is the domestic league still the subject of ridicule?  Is college soccer a bad thing?  Why can’t we build viable second and third tier professional leagues for men’s soccer?  Why can’t we maintain a viable first division professional league for women’s soccer?

Les Carpenter’s recent article for The Guardian reminded folks of another continuing concern – the impact of the “pay-to-play” youth system on the composition of our nation’s soccer players.  Carpenter’s piece discussed welcome advances in outreach to broader communities, but largely carried forward many of the same anecdotal complaints and criticisms that have been repeatedly raised over the last two decades.  To the extent that there is any discussion of empirical support for these criticisms, Carpenter references Greg Kaplan and Roger Bennett’s analysis of elite professional athletes by socio-economic data tied to their hometown zip codes.

Because the conventional wisdom trope (that pay-to-play inhibits the development of soccer in the country by making it the arena of the wealthy) rings false for me in terms of what I have seen as a fan over the last decade, I wonder how much objective evidence there is for the argument that the existing youth structure has limited the diversity of the sport.

One easy metric to evaluate is the composition of student-athletes participating in college soccer.  The “whiteness” of the U.S. women’s national team is one of the focal points for concerns regarding diversity in American soccer.  Is women’s college soccer similarly narrowly confined to well-off white kids?

The NCAA makes available Sports Sponsorship, Participations,and Demographics data that now include information over a sixteen year period. 

A review of the data shows significant improvements in the diversity of women’s soccer; diversity improvements that have coincided with significant growth in the sport.  In 1999-2000, there were 6,464 women participating in Division I women’s college soccer.  In 2014-2015, that number had grown to 8,963 – almost a 40% uptick in population.  During that timeframe, the white women’s share of total players fell from 83.8% to 72.6%.  African-American (black) players increased their participation from 2.9% of the total in 1999-2000 to 6.4% in 2014-2015, while Hispanic (Latino) players jumped from 2.9% to 6.5%.  Those demographics do not yet fairly reflect the composition of the United States, but the long term trend is certainly heading in the right direction.

A separate published report by the NCAA on participation rates observes that during the 1981-1982 season, there were a total of 520 women playing Division I college soccer nationwide.  In 2014-2015, there were 575 African-American women and 584 Hispanic women playing Division I college soccer. 

These demographic trends are also apparent in Division II and III women’s soccer, providing even further indication that American soccer’s diversity “problem” is being addressed.  In the 1999-2000 season, there were 3,879 women participating in Division II college soccer; by the 2014-2015 season that figure had almost doubled to 7,229.  Where 87.5% of the women playing Division II soccer in 1999-2000 were white, in 2014-2015, 74.7% were.  African-American participation increased from 2.3% to 3.4% over that timeframe, while Hispanic participation more than doubled from 4.0% to 8.6%.  In the 1981-1982 season, a total of only 227 women were playing Division II soccer.  There were 244 African-American and 625 Hispanic women playing Division II soccer in 2014-2015.

Similarly, during the 1999-2000 season, there were 7,766 women participating in Division III college soccer; by the 2014-2015 season there were 10,803 women involved in the sport.  Where 88.2% of the women playing Division III soccer in 1999-2000 were white, in 2014-2015, that figure fell to 83.1%.  African-American participation increased from 1.9% to 3.1% over that timeframe, while Hispanic participation more than doubled from 1.7% to 5.5%.
Diversity in American soccer – particularly women’s soccer – remains a valid concern.  At the same time, however, there have been significant shifts in the demographics of participation.  These shifts, in turn, require that the narrative surrounding our stories about diversity in the sport be adjusted.  Rather than ask whether to pay-to-play development system only works for white kids, it would be more useful to understand why significantly more racial minorities have been able to participate in, at a minimum, college soccer.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

It Was Good

In the long, long time ago, when Borders bookstores were part of the urban landscape, I ran across Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.  Bought it immediately.  Read it immediately.  If you were anywhere close to me in the fall of 2010, you heard about it.  A lot.

It is a brilliant book.  A fantastic read.  Truly, as the author intended, a love letter to the Philippines. 
More than anything else, what struck me about the book was how unlikely it seemed that I would accidentally run across something so exquisitely written in a chain bookstore.  Although the recipient of plenty of favorable reviews, I had not seen them.  My pinoy family did not know about it.  It was just sitting there, at the Borders, and I was fortunate to have run across it and to have my love of sports validated from a totally unexpected place.

I like Bill Simmons.  When Rafe Batholomew showed up on a byline at Grantland, Grantland became my jam. 

In 2012, at a Barnes and Noble – still a thing – This Love Is Not for Cowards:  Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez was on one of the shelves.  Bought it immediately.  Read it immediately.  If you anywhere close to me in the fall of 2012, you heard about it.  A lot.

It is a brilliant book.  A fantastic read. Truly, as the author intended, a love letter to Ciudad Juarez.

This time, however, it was not a total surprise.  Grantland had published an excerpt of Robert Andrew Powell’s book in March 2012 and I had been keeping an eye out for the book after reading the excerpt.

Independent of Grantland, I, like a whole lot of other people, devoured Chuck Klosterman’s books.  Charles Pierce’s Idiot America is one of the better pisstakes on the contradictions of America’s political and religious culture.  That they contributed to Grantland seemed unfair.

Over time, I became enamored with virtually all of the contributors to the online publication.  I hadn’t read something so closely and regularly since The New Republic in the late 1990s.  Over the last couple of years, the quality – and quantity – of Grantland’s content led to a daily ritual of printing out whatever articles the site had published that day that seemed interesting so that I could read them on the Metro ride home.  For the last year, there was so much good and interesting stuff there that I couldn’t get through all the articles by the time the green line pulled into Greenbelt station.
Lots of people are sad that Grantland was shuttered by ESPN on Friday.  I count myself among them.  But I prefer to focus on how amazing it is that Grantland existed in the first place.