Archives for category: Coming of Age

MAJOR LEAGUE TRYOUT

Is there a little boy (or little girl) who has ever thrown a baseball who hasn’t dreamed of the day the scouts come to watch him, if only for a moment? During the countless childhood hours I spent throwing a ball against a wall, I imagined performing in front of clipboard-carrying men in numerous ways. The dream sometimes evolved into making diving catches in front of thousands, or signing autographs for long lines of adoring fans. Occasionally, the dream involved hitting the World Series-winning home run. But first, always, the sense of being discovered by scouts, the sensation of BEING the diamond in the rough.

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Even as a ten-year-old, I never seriously envisioned myself a professional baseball player. Still, my imagination had to chew on SOMETHING while I threw the ball against the wall, over and over and over. Eventually, thanks to my solitary practice, I developed an extraordinary level of control. As a high school senior, I pitched 45 innings and walked only one batter. But the ability to “control” my pitches constituted my only big league ”tool” — there are at least four others I didn’t have – a pitcher who excels beyond high school must throw with velocity, movement, deceptiveness, command of several different pitches, such as a fastball, curve, and slider, AND control. Against accomplished hitters, to have control without the other attributes is called a batting practice machine.

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*****

By age sixteen, my imagination was even less likely to take major league flights of fancy. I fully accepted my status as a solid shortstop and pitcher for a weak high school that rarely produced a college player, let alone a professional. Over summers, I played for a team in West Philadelphia sponsored by the American Legion a step or two more accomplished than my high school team, but still a bottom feeder in the ocean of baseball talent.

Despite my sense of reality, my heart fluttered when my summer coach, a man whose only memorable trait was to sport a perennially open fly, called me aside after a game to ask me to attend a special practice the next afternoon. He said, affecting nonchalance: “The Dodgers will be there.”

“What Dodgers?” I asked, as though there were numerous kinds.

“The Los Angeles Dodgers, their local scout,” he said, a broad smile melting his cool.

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My eyes widened with excitement and disbelief, until he added: “You’ll cover shortstop for Jeff Leonard’s tryout.”

“What about ME?” I said.

“Well, he won’t be there for you, of course” he said. “He’s looking at Jeff.”

I let out a deep breath. NOW, I understood.   My face red with embarrassment, I felt like an idiot for reacting like the scout was coming to evaluate me. Fortunately, in his own excitement, the coach hadn’t focused on my naïve reaction. He’d already moved on to boast to several nearby adults: “Hey, I got the Dodgers coming out tomorrow.”

*****

Jeff Leonard was notionally a teammate of mine. But I’m certain he’d never bothered to learn my name. He never came to practices and rarely attended games. His appearances were like events after which you said: “Did that really happen?” When he came, he stood or sat by himself, aloof, until it was his turn to bat. On defense, he covered center field with silent efficiency. I’m not certain Jeff was arrogant or unfriendly; maybe he was just shy. But he certainly appeared unapproachable. As a seventeen-year-old, he carried himself like a world-weary adult, a man among boys.

Jeff, we were repeatedly told by our coach, was a superstar, a special talent. He attempted to salve hurt feelings by players displaced by Jeff’s appearances with an insider’s tone of voice, generally along the lines of:   “Listen fellas, we’re lucky to have Jeff whenever we do. He splits his time between several teams and some are way above our level.   He also has individual workouts for the benefit of professional scouts.”

Our collective sense of jealousy was mostly, but not entirely, satisfied with a sense of awe.

*****

When I arrived at the field that humid summer afternoon in 1972, I was surprised to see only three other teammates besides Jeff. I was instructed to stand at shortstop, the others were placed deep in left and center fields, and our catcher took his spot behind home plate. An otherwise nondescript middle-aged man explained he would pitch to Jeff, but his striking blue Dodger cap captivated my 16-year-old eyes like the world’s largest sapphire.

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Our coach and a man I assumed was Jeff’s dad stood next to the batting cage along with two strangers who also wore Dodger caps. They held the clipboards I’d always imagined and one held a stopwatch on a string around his neck. Jeff stood next to the batting cage, solemn as always, apparently unfazed by proximity to gatekeepers to the Pantheon of baseball greatness.

I knew Jeff starred at football as well as baseball in high school. His chiseled physique was unlike the skinny frames of the rest of us. Yet, his statistics when he played for our team were mediocre.

“What makes Jeff so special?” asked a teammate whose position in the lineup disappeared whenever Jeff appeared.

“Jeff,” the coach explained, “can run like the wind, can throw twice as far as you can, and when his bat makes contact, the ball takes off like it was launched by a bazooka.”

“Is it fair that he doesn’t come to practice?” asked the kid.

“This is baseball,” said the coach. “It ain’t democracy.”

I happened to know that Jeff’s bat didn’t make contact all that often. I’m sure his batting average was lower than mine. But scouts, I knew, looked for those elusive “tools,” the ones I lacked. A smooth swing, like a pitcher’s control, could be developed, but power, running speed, height and strength – those qualities derived more from nature than nurture. Even when Jeff sauntered on and off the field like he was bored, and slouched on the bench like he hadn’t slept in days, there was nothing sluggish about his swing.

*****

Thwack, thwack, thwack went the baseballs as Jeff pounded the easy pitches over my head. He didn’t hit any ground balls to shortstop but I received the returned balls from the outfield and, in turn, tossed them to the scout. I tried to make eye contact with him. Nothing doing. I tried to scoop the throws from the outfield with such style that the other two Dodger scouts couldn’t help but notice. Nothing doing.

After about fifteen minutes, the scout told Jeff to rest for a moment and told my other teammates they could come in while he conferred with his assistants.   After a moment, he said to me: “You stay at shortstop. We’re gonna have Jeff run down some fly balls and then hit you as the cutoff man.” (For the uninitiated, this means Jeff would show off his power and accuracy by throwing to me after his catches at full speed.) Jeff jogged past me to the outfield with his glove and one of the other men brandished a bat with practiced expertise. “Be ready, little man,” I think Jeff whispered to me as he passed. But like everything else about Jeff, I wondered: “Did he really say that?” The scout proceeded to launch balls to Jeff while I relished the renewed chance to become noticed.

I had to admire Jeff’s smoothness in tracking down the fly balls. Up, back, to the side, he made everything look easy. His throws seemed life threatening to me; never had he or any of our other outfielders put as much power and accuracy into their cutoff throws. “Jeff DOES care about this tryout,” I said to myself, as another ball crashed into my glove and burrowed down to my palm, now numb from repeated blows.

“Wow, that’s incredible,” exclaimed the scout after one particular laser-like throw battered my hand.

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I wanted to take off my glove and count my fingers but I didn’t want the scout to think I couldn’t handle such throws routinely. Fortunately, just as I reached the breaking point of my pain threshold, the scout motioned Jeff to come in, and said to me: “Okay, kid, that’s enough. Thanks. We’re just gonna check Jeff’s speed.”

My efforts in front of the Dodgers were at an end. All three Dodger scouts gathered at first base and timed Jeff’s speed around the bases. My teammates and I watched from the bleachers as a new, deeply motivated Jeff appeared before us. We’d heard about his abilities, but in front of these men, he appeared to have been struck with a lightning bolt of professionalism. His hitting had impressed me; his throws had blasted me; but his running was beyond anything I’d ever seen close-up, in person.

*****

My tryout experience was over. Personally, it was anti-climactic. But I read in the local paper the next day that Jeff had signed a contract and even received a bonus. He left West Philadelphia for California to play in the Dodgers’ minor league system. I didn’t think I’d ever hear more of Jeff Leonard since most high school age signees never make the major leagues. Approximately five years later, however, Jeff debuted in the big leagues with the Dodgers and proceeded to have a long and successful career, chiefly with the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants. It was marked by a peculiar string of run-ins with teammates, management and opponents alike. According to my Google research, Jeff chose the nickname “Penitentiary Face” for himself! Still, Jeff Leonard had admirers. For a time, he became a team captain. And in what can only be called “major league irony,” he now works in public relations for the Giants. Who woulda thought?

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TO THE BEACH!
Although healthy and involved in various athletic activities, try as I might, it’s delusional to think of myself as still in my thirties. That ship sailed several decades ago. My thoughts are wistful as I stand like a statue in the surf at Carolina Beach watching my friend Mike, a decade older than I, frolicking amidst the crashing waves like a porpoise.  He whoops with joy. He leaps. He splashes.

“Why can’t I enjoy the beach like that?” I wonder, as I inch in up to my knees.

“Oh yeah,” I remind myself, “I didn’t even like going ‘down the shore’ (what Philadelphians call ‘to the beach’) when I was little.”

 

 

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*****

 

In large part I blame the ancient wooden building where we stayed. Mrs. Bernstein’s rooming house in Atlantic City could not have been scarier to me if it were haunted. My grandparents started going there well before my birth and, for reasons incomprehensible to me, my parents continued to visit there as late as the early 1960’s. One of my earliest recollections took place in front of Mrs. Bernstein’s, a struggle, from my perspective, as significant as Gandhi’s. I sat outside on the sidewalk and refused to go in.

“It’s going to fall down,” I said (or words to that effect). “I’m not staying in that dump.”

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My protests were in vain. Once inside the bastion of faded wallpaper and threadbare, musty carpets, an additional early childhood memory involved lying on my stomach on a lumpy bed, groaning because of a sunburned back. Finally, I recall the kitchen or common area on the ground floor populated exclusively by large-bodied, loud-mouthed, chain-smoking Quebecois, shouting, cursing and singing in their strange language. There may only have been four or five men but, in my recollection, I perceived there to be a hundred.

Travel between Mrs. Bernstein’s and the beach also spawned doleful memories. (Disclaimer: I wasn’t the easiest-going little kid). My parents and I lugged mismatched beach chairs, towels and an umbrella. Though only two or three blocks long, the trudge seemed endless to my five-year-old self. The air hung hot and humid. Little planes buzzed above advertising local restaurants or shows, none of which were relevant to me. Once we arrived at the boardwalk, constructed like a wall in front of the beach, I remember splinters sticking up from the planks, litter everywhere and hordes of clamoring people. Then, as now, there were stores selling junk, tee shirts and more junk.

My mother purchased my cooperation in the schlepping operation with the promise of a visit to the one redeeming aspect of Atlantic City: the fudge shop. No dummy, she held this inducement over my head as something we would obtain on the walk home, after the beach, “so long as everything went well.”

 

*****

 

Related to the development of my poor attitude about the beach was the subject of swimming. When I was about eight, I recall attending Sesame Day Camp. Many people recall their summer camps as special places of growth, discovery and the development of lifelong friends. I hated every minute.   I ONLY wanted to play baseball with other kids who also ONLY wanted to play baseball. I didn’t want to shoot arrows, row boats, sing songs, look at someone holding a frog, or make ashtrays.

 

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At the end of each day, after the typical regimen above, my fellow campers and I arrived at the pool, where I experienced abject failure for the first time. Though the sixteen-year-old counselors offered their finest tips, for reasons unclear to me, nothing stuck. Easily the best ballplayer in my group (a skill neither prized nor acknowledged by the others) my swimming aptitude predicted a career as an anchor.

I couldn’t master breathing, and I couldn’t master kicking. I disliked water in my mouth, nose, ears or any other orifice. It didn’t take long before they moved me from general instruction to remedial work in the shallow end with the other losers, the kids who could barely walk on land, let alone swim in water. By summer’s end, I could splash around and tread water with my head held as far above the water as possible. If my stroke had a name, it was the “reverse ostrich.”

 

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*****

 

Mike asks if I like to swim in the ocean.

“Do you mean, like with my head and eyes under salt water?” I ask.

“Well, yes,” he says, kind enough not to add: “Is there another way to do it?”

“No, I’m really happy about up to here,” I respond, indicating my mid-section. “I’m barely competent swimming in a pool, so the ocean….”

I’m relieved that Mike’s already leapt into the next wave before I can complete my explanation. After he emerges from another session of body surfing, Mike is exultant. But he’s a gracious host and understands I’m out of my element. He gestures with his arms: “Well, at least you can enjoy the beautiful beach.”

He’s right about that. Carolina Beach is broad and clean, the sand fine and white. A few other visitors walk along holding hands, relaxing or picking up pretty shells. Every few hundred feet, an individual or family has set up a colorful umbrella and chairs. Sand plovers skitter delicately back and forth with the tide. Even the seagulls are relaxed, in stark contrast to the ones in my New Jersey memories.

In my recollection the beach in Atlantic City resembled Normandy on D-Day.  Large shells with jagged edges threatened my feet.   Families placed chairs, blankets and umbrellas practically on top of each other. Massive seagulls dive-bombed for food, screeching maniacally, like pterodactyls.

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Once my family settled into our spot in the sand, I didn’t lack ambition. With my plastic shovel and bucket in hand, I aimed to dig to China. Discarded popsicle sticks shored up the hole as I dug. My parents offered to accompany me into the surf, but I had little interest in anything but digging. Alas, I never reached China. Though frustrated, I didn’t ask to leave the beach. Perhaps, that was the value of Mrs. Bernstein’s; once I got out I wanted to stay away as long as possible.

 

*****

 

A storm approaches to cut our visit several hours short. We’d enjoyed two nights at Mike and Sue’s. We’d had terrific food and conversation and a mediocre four-way game of Scrabble. (Mike won). I’m happy to have happy beach memories to overlay my old ones. Who knows? If I can find goggles large enough to cover my entire head and more secure than Fort Knox against leakage, maybe next time I’ll brave one wave. It’s never too late to start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


TABLE TENNIS TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS

 

 

I arrive early and the place is empty except for two middle-aged Chinese men sitting on a bench chatting in English.   I ask if either would like to hit, but both shake their heads “no.” In Chinese, they call over a younger man who has just entered the Triangle Table Tennis Center, a 30,000 square foot facility near the Raleigh Airport.   With forty tables, ball machines, a pro shop and coaching staff, it’s the largest such center in the nation. The men converse with him for a moment, then motion to me.

 

 

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“He will hit with you,” says one, a mischievous smile crinkling his eyes.

The pained expression on the face of my hitting partner indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Basically, he’s been dragooned by the older men and thinks he has to waste his time for their amusement. Without speaking, he takes his spot across the table and serves a ball. Initially, I confirm his worst fears. My first three practice shots fly long. Each time, he trudges six or eight steps back to retrieve the ball as though he is walking through quicksand carrying a boulder.   I over-compensate and hit the next several shots into the net.

“You don’t hold the racquet right,” are his first words.

“No?” I say.

He shakes his head.

“You must have just started to play,” he says, miserably.

“Not really,” I say. “I’ve been playing for over fifty years.”

“Over fifty years holding it like that?” he says. He looks disgusted.

He serves a ball and, thank goodness, I return it onto the table and begin to sustain a rally. After half a century of play, I’m categorized as an “advanced beginner;” although a star against the general population, I’m but chopped liver against “serious” players.

 

 

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*****

 

If my game lacks proper technique, the fault lies with my older brothers, Barry and David. They taught me to play in our cramped basement sometime during the Kennedy administration. Any missed shot found it’s way behind lawn furniture or plumbing like a hide-and-seek professional. Spiders lurked in the corners amidst award-winning webs.   I suppose you could say there was a strong incentive not to miss. Owing to the fact I was about a decade younger than both of them, I never won. It all sounds miserable. Yet, I was thrilled when one of them agreed to play even though they repeatedly sent me into those awful corners chasing errant shots.

 

 

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Barry had a particularly annoying style. He played with a sandpaper paddle that made an unpleasant thwack with each shot. All of his serves went down the side of the table to my backhand so near the table edge that the ball often glanced off it, untouchable. Even knowing exactly where his shots would go, I couldn’t return them. David played with a conventional, rubberized paddle and clobbered me more conventionally.

By the time I was eight they were both away at college, and I practiced alone against the wooden wall of the closet adjacent to the table. Unfortunately, the top of the closet was open for a foot at ceiling height and high shots often disappeared into it. Once inside, they nestled amidst ancient household items that NEVER ONCE emerged, such as canvas awnings for the exterior of the house. There were also paint cans that had been fresh when the house was constructed thirty years earlier, dust and, presumably, more spiders. I rarely had enough courage to open the closet and retrieve the balls. Instead, I expended some of my miniscule baseball card budget at Woolworth’s for new balls. If only I’d thought to block the opening with cardboard. My father, who NEVER played ping pong, had an expression for such a lack of initiative: “Smart, smart, smart and then stupid.”

 

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*****

 

My opponent, who still does not tell me his name, suggests we play a match consisting of best-of-five games up to eleven points. After beating me, he will then be free to play with worthier opponents. He wins the first game 11-3, and appears relieved to be so near the end of his involuntary good-deed-of-the-day.

 

*****

 

Shortly after I learned about the Center last winter, I began to attend regularly. I play one or two mornings a week against opponents of similar ability. I played in a “beginners” league one night a week and did quite well. My strange, outdated grip and one-side-of-the-paddle style flummoxes fellow bottom feeders. I enjoy playing so much I break from my usual tendency to spend no money on myself and resolve to take lessons from a pro.

 

*****

 

A J is twenty-eight-years-old. His body is lean and sinewy. He’s made for speed and precision more than brute strength. Among the highest ranked of American-born players he makes his living as a table tennis coach. How often does the IRS see THAT on a tax form? First, he examines the paddle I’d been playing with for several years. As he holds it, his facial expression suggests he’s swallowed sour milk.

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“What is this?” he asks.

“My paddle?” I say, unsure.

“What rubber is it?” he asks.

“Um, the kind they put on at the factory, I guess,” I say, trying to be respectful but wondering about how to answer such a question.

“You can’t play with this,” he says.

“It’s illegal?” I ask.

“It’s just, you know, dead,” he says.

My silence indicates to him that I don’t “know” what “dead” means.

“We’ll get you fixed up with a real racquet,” he says. “Let’s just hit a few balls so I can figure out what you need.”

As a sports participant and fan, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity of improvement via equipment. If a golfer, for instance, buys a newfangled, over-sized driver and, as a result, can hit thirty yards longer, is he a better golfer? If a tennis player buys space-age string that increases the spin or speed of his shots by twenty percent, is he a better player?

Due in part to my moral ambivalence and also to my frugality, I’ve never focused on equipment. Unlike my buddies who dissect the relative merits of one tennis string versus another ad nauseum, I’m proud to adjust to even a borrowed racquet after just a few swings. My racquets are usually bought on-line and arrive, already strung with basic material, via UPS.

But ping pong is different, according to A J: “You can keep your weird grip,” he says, as we gently rally. “It might even be an advantage against people who have never seen it before. But your skins will have to be better, as well as your blade.”

Skins? Blade? Yes, skins are what real players call the black and red rubber surfaces on opposite sides of their paddles. Before I arrived at the Center, I didn’t know that the two sides could be different. Naturally, real players don’t call a paddle a paddle but, rather, a “racquet.” And they don’t call a handle a handle but, rather, a “blade.” And when they refer to skins, they don’t mean the pimply rubber surfaces that come in a set from Walmart but, rather, highly specialized, customized surfaces that range from $50-$200 a skin. By the way, these “skins” must be replaced every several months for optimal performance.

 

 

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After hitting with A J for a few minutes, it occurs to me he never misses. Whatever random shot I hit, he calmly returns at the same pace and location. It’s uncanny. It’s impressive. I think to myself: “I’d like to be A J – still in his twenties and terrific at what he does.” At that moment, he says: “It must be great to be retired and have time to do whatever you want. I’m jealous.”

I suppose the grass is always greener….

 

*****

 

In the second game I realize my opponent’s backhand, whatever his name is, is much weaker than his forehand. Also, the new “anti-spin” skin that A J had recommended for my red side is ruining his timing, just as A J promised it would. When I remember to use it, the livelier skin on my black side creates enough spin to frustrate him. When he swings and misses for the second point in a row, I’ve won 11-9. I repeat the result in the third game. My opponent is now sweating profusely. He curses in Chinese. His friends say something to him and laugh. He is stone-faced.

 

*****

 

Ping pong actually figures in family history prior to my brothers and me. I’m told the school nurse circa 1935 thought my mother had a weak heart. As a result, she couldn’t partake in strenuous activities and spent gym classes playing ping pong. I rallied with her in my basement five years ago. She hit pretty well! And she’s still alive and well – you do the math – the nurse was wrong.

 

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*****

 

I lose the fourth game. My mind is cluttered with doubt that I can win the match against such a strong opponent. I certainly have his full attention now. “It’d still be a moral victory,” I think, as the fifth and deciding game begins. “Forget that,” I correct myself. “Don’t settle for a moral victory. Do what A J would do. Batter his backhand. Stay calm. Concentrate. Don’t concentrate too hard. Relax. Don’t relax too much. Move your feet. Follow through, etc.” The mind can harbor a lot of thoughts, some contradictory, at the same time.

 

*****

 

In an early lesson, except for my grip, A J criticized every aspect of my game. It turns out I’d been improvising every shot I’d ever hit. “You have to have a consistent swing,” he said. “Don’t worry about the result,” he continued. “Do it properly.” He’s retraining me against numerous long-developed bad habits and several habits that are good, if only I were playing tennis. It surprises me to realize that the two sports, though similar on the surface, require distinctly different swings.

At one point during my first lesson, I recall, I said to A J: “There are twenty things I have to remember on each shot. This is almost as bad as golf.” At the time, he didn’t respond. During this morning’s lesson, A J told me what I can expect after several more months of lessons and, in so doing, used the terms “hook” and “slice.” A cold shiver ran down my spine.

*****

 

The fifth game goes back and forth. I’m ahead 4-3, then behind 7-6. A late string of good luck treats me to a Hollywood ending, albeit low budget. I win 11-9. I expect my opponent to be angry. Instead, he puts down his racquet and comes to me with sweaty hand out-stretched. “Good game,” he says. “My name is James. Let’s play again now.”

I’m honored. I’ve passed a test. I can’t wait to tell A J.

 

 

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THE PLANE TRUTH

 

 

It’s not news to report that air travel today isn’t the pleasure it used to be. Throughout my adult life it’s been my impression the experience is becoming increasingly miserable. I suspect the positive excitement of air travel began to seep away when the spate of late-60’s hijackings to Cuba introduced the first metal detectors. It’s become more joyless at an exponential pace with the depredations wrought by terrorists in the intervening decades. It’s hard for me to believe that in one of my earliest memories, my grandfather took me to the Philadelphia Airport to WATCH planes take off and land. You could do that around 1961 – just walk into the terminal, go to the windows, and watch.

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Along with terrorists, the experience has been shaped, and not in a good way, by accountants. Airlines strive to squeeze revenue from each seat and I do mean squeeze. Being tall is advantageous when visiting a crowded museum or movie theatre, but whenever I fly I wish I were the size of a jockey. And it’s probably just my imagination, but it seems whoever sits around me in a plane is afflicted by one or several of the following: extra girth; bad breath; a tubercular-like cough; a pneumonia-like cold; restless leg syndrome; and, perhaps worst of all, logorrhea.

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Personally, air travel has never been fantastic. My first flight EVER, from Philadelphia to Chicago circa 1964, resulted in the use of the barf bag. Though illness does not produce that effect in me, motion sometimes does – I’ve even become queasy on the Circle Line Tour around Manhattan. The plane event inspired anxiety and the acquisition of Dramamine for every subsequent flight until the last decade or so, at which point I simply decided “enough, I’m over it.” Needless to say, I never aspired to become a pilot or an astronaut.

The only aspect of air travel that is better than “the good old days” is the smoking ban. I happen to have been traveling from California on the day it went into effect in 1991. I remember it clearly because a San Francisco television reporter asked for my opinion in the waiting area. I said something along the lines of: “What idiot ever allowed it in the first place?” I doubt my intemperate clip made it to the small screen. But, as they say nowadays, “Seriously?” Well within my lifetime, smoking was allowed inside confined, flying compartments as though the already-fetid, germ-filled air would not travel from the rear of the plane.

And what about the food? Arguably, the fact that most domestic flights now offer none is a positive development considering the doleful reputation of airline cuisine. But shouldn’t they be able to provide something edible? The situation became so bleak by the beginning of this millennium Jet Blue managed to gain positive press by providing blue potato chips. Now, with airlines making more money than they can spend I note that “snacks” are making a comeback. If only one could make a meal of tiny pretzels and peanuts.

 

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While the major health improvement of the smoking ban is undeniable, the industry has backslid in several other aspects of hygiene. Notably, there are no longer headrest covers to protect passengers from the previous occupier’s grease or dandruff or, for that matter, lice. (Sorry for the graphic image – I should have warned the reader). And the greater level of crowdedness doubtless creates less healthy air.

 

*****

 

Flying presents a philosophical dilemma with regard to how I approach life. When I was young I wished away a lot of time. For instance, during the winters when I was under twelve or so I counted down the weeks until the baseball season. During college, I wished away exam weeks. My law school years were basically a countdown until the drudgery ended. I specifically recall calculating during the first week that there were 1,051 days until graduation. Some classmates were not amused.

Now that I’m older, I strive to banish such negativity. Upon entering middle age, I largely limited my “count-downs” to the cold weather months, and in recent years living in the south, even winter is totally tolerable. In sum, as time seems to pass faster, I’m philosophically opposed to wishing it away.

Flying is an exception.   I wish away every second of time spent on airplanes. I try to be the last to enter (unless carry-on luggage requires me to join the scrum for limited storage space) and I’m the first to jump up when the destination is reached.   Once or twice during a flight, I silently count the seconds from zero to sixty and then backwards again to zero so I know the minutes pass. After I complete a count in English I do it in Spanish or German in order to credit myself with a pathetic sort of intellectual satisfaction. My wife thinks I’m nuts. Perhaps. Am I the only one who does this?

 

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*****

 

I’m afraid Mark Twain would reach the same conclusion about air travel as he reached about the weather: “Everyone complains, but no one does anything about it.” There’s simply no other practical way to reach many places one wants to visit. That’s the reality; that’s the plane truth.

 

 

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DOES SIZE MATTER?

Darryl Dawkins died last month at age 58. He’d debuted as a professional basketball player with the Philadelphia 76’ers in the late 1970’s. Darryl’s claim to fame concerned his ability to slam-dunk a basketball with sufficient force to explode the backboard. A cheery and smiling personality, his nickname was “Chocolate Thunder.”

My connection to Darryl Dawkins could not have been more tenuous. Yet, the basis for that connection proved hard to forget. During my senior year at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I worked part-time at the sports desk of the local newspaper, the Evening Sentinel, which everyone I knew called “The Senile.” (Cynicism was the norm in college, after all.)

I didn’t socialize much and didn’t mind spending Friday evenings alone in the newsroom, fielding telephone calls with results of local high school contests. On occasion, I attended games and wrote articles. Among the highlights were interviewing the stars of the Boiling Springs Bubblers softball team, Patsy Peach and April Showers. No, I didn’t make those names up.

Back to Darryl Dawkins: The sports photographer was named Tom. He was talented and, a recent Google search disclosed, destined to own his own studio and make a career of photojournalism. When I knew him, however, he was barely older than I and thrilled to have a press pass that allowed access to sporting events. “This is major!” he’d say, as he gathered his equipment and drove off in a rusted Toyota hatchback, as though he were a fireman who’d just heard an alarm.

In reality, the Senile didn’t confer access to “major” events, however enthusiastically Tom characterized them. Like me, he typically covered local high school sports or low-level college games such as the ones I played at Dickinson. But once, during the pre-season, the Philadelphia 76’ers played a “home game” at the Hershey Arena, just 20 minutes from Carlisle, and the local press credential conferred access.

Since our sports editor/reporter (one person filled both roles) didn’t want to cover “an exhibition game,” Tom volunteered not only to photograph the game from courtside, but also to try to conduct a post-game interview in the locker room. There, Tom witnessed Darryl Dawkins nude and reported (verbally, not in his article) that his “schlong” was the longest ever on a human being. Not prepared for such a sighting, and also not willing to risk being drowned in a whirlpool bath, Tom didn’t attempt to snap a picture.   But he obsessed for the rest of the year with obtaining a locker room pass to a regular-season game in Philadelphia in order to secretly capture this phenomenon.

To my knowledge (and I am NOT going to check with the Guinness people) the longest schlong is not an authenticated matter. That didn’t prevent Tom from bringing up the subject obsessively. His observation clouded every mention of Darryl Dawkins for me forevermore.

Though Tom did drive two hours to several 76’ers games with a credential that allowed courtside access, he never again gained access to the 76’ers’ locker room.  The NBA season ended in the spring of 1978 at the same time as I graduated and ended my career at the paper. The lesson I derived from this slice of life is, as follows: Some assertions can simply be trusted. Others warrant the phrase “Trust, but verify.” And some, like Tom’s contention about Darryl Dawkins, may best be forgotten, if possible.


WEATHER

Mark Twain observed: “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.” Well, I did something. I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina, thus sparing myself what I found to be the disheartening, life-sucking, soul-crushing tedium of a relatively northern climate.

Now, I don’t experience the gloominess that afflicted me in late October, each year, when I began to count down the days until spring. Rather, I embrace the short, two month “winter” that provides my new home with 1-2 inches of snow, three or four days below freezing, and the glorious opportunity to see daffodils begin to flower in early February.

Yet, things are not perfect here. Yesterday marked the twelfth consecutive day of measurable rainfall, a record not seen here since record keeping began, in 1867. My solar panels recorded their twelfth consecutive day of near-zero production. And my lawn is no longer sod; it is sodden.

*****

I don’t remember complaining much about cold weather when I was a child. There were several glorious “snow days,” when sleds transplanted school. And I recall rooting for enough cold weather to freeze the skating pond across the street.

In our house the clanking of the radiators comforted me, along with their hissing. It made the house seem a living, breathing thing, though it probably only indicated a deficiency or over-abundance of air or water in the system. I recall my father fiddling with the furnace. He added water or subtracted water; I could never figure out which. I recall him making sounds like “Ecch” and “Unnh” and “Sehrgehadit” while he tramped around in the fetid furnace room.

I looked forward to the spring primarily so that I could play baseball outside and scan the major league box scores in the newspaper. But the cold didn’t prevent me from throwing a ball against the wall all winter in an effort to perfect my accuracy. Now that I think about it, most of my friends refused to join me for baseball activities in freezing weather. But more than a few times, I shoveled snow and ice off the driveway so I could more easily play by myself. No problem.

*****

My father detested snow. He disliked it for the usual adult reasons, like the difficulty of driving or the necessity of shoveling. But I wonder now if he’d had some awful childhood experience pertaining to snow. He saw no joy in it, no beauty, no redeeming characteristics at all. He didn’t ski, sled or build snowmen. For his men’s clothing store, a snowstorm meant dead, unprofitable days.

Cold weather, without precipitation, was different; it served a purpose for my father. It meant people needed gloves and sweaters as gift items and for themselves. It meant outdoor workers needed long underwear and sweatshirts. It meant frugal people who had hoped to get through winter with a light, short jacket, needed overcoats.

I vividly recall standing in front of Lou Sanders Men’s Shop one December 24 when the temperature soared to sixty-five. People walked around in tee shirts and shorts; the radio reported people strolling on the beach in Atlantic City. Once they accepted the impossibility of a White Christmas, the public mood was exultant. My father was crestfallen. He shook his head like a man regarding a disaster site, as he gazed at piles of winter inventory and lamented the ruin of his year.

*****

Once I reached adulthood, I found myself increasingly sharing my father’s viewpoint, though not to the same fervent degree. Like my father, I saw the problem with snow as an economic one. It made me shovel the walkways and required me to pay to have my driveway plowed, by the inch, no less! Imagine, a three-inch storm cost about $75, a seven-inch storm about $150. Snow prevented people from shopping for houses and, therefore, cost me some clients in my real estate law practice.

Unlike my father, I expressed appreciation for the majesty of a beautiful snowfall. Though skeptical, when I denied the accuracy of forecasted accumulations, it was with the hope that they were exaggerated. When my father heard “five to seven inches are likely,” and he declared: “It’s going to miss us completely,” his tone suggested he believed he could actually affect the outcome.

Now that I live in a warm climate, inclement weather, whether warm or cold, is viewed primarily as a temporary limit on outdoor activities. No longer one who throws balls against a wall, I rely upon tennis or walking to stay active. I accept that bad weather cannot be wished away. By moving south, something I don’t believe my father would have considered, I’ve vastly improved my chances to avoid weather-related misery. My entire outlook is better. If the forecast threatens a few days in the forties this winter in Chapel Hill, I’ll say, with bravado: “Bring it on!”


SPORTSMANSHIP

Sportsmanship evolves with society. We’d be shocked, for instance, to hear verbal abuse, based upon race or ethnicity that was routine at professional sporting events one hundred years ago. Players tolerated and participated in behaviors we’d find abhorrent today. Yet, they also enforced a code of conduct that’s now violated on a constant basis. For instance, imagine a football player dancing in the end zone following a touchdown in 1964?   The only suspense might have been who would beat him up first, the opposing team or his own.

A professional tennis player named Genie Bouchard recently ignited a kerfuffle when she refused to shake hands and wish her opponent good luck before a match. Her refusal represented a departure from tennis etiquette as old as tennis itself. Said Bouchard, in paraphrase: “I’m trying to beat her. I don’t wish for her to have good luck. Why should I fake it?” I find Bouchard’s honesty jarring. Yet, in a sense, it also makes sense.

My early encounters with sportsmanship issues varied. When I was about eight, I witnessed my aunt fling the board across the room following a defeat in Scrabble. Without ambivalence, I knew that that behavior was unacceptable. I also knew of an opponent who’d hid an “S” in her hand throughout the game so that she’d have it available in a crucial moment. That also was clearly wrong. (Who knew Scrabble could be so treacherous?)

While I was an early and enthusiastic participant in word games, it was baseball that consumed most of my thoughts during my first decade. And it was through a baseball game that I first encountered the moral question that confronts people on a constant basis, on issues big and small: “Does the end justify the means?”   Then as now, the answer is often unclear.

*****

“We need a pitcher,” said my wife, Katie, as we prepared to host some friends for a casual dinner party, “for iced tea.”

This innocuous statement, at once true and mundane, dislodged a brain cell that hadn’t stirred for nearly half-a-century. I played second base on a summer Little League team named the Pirates. Since my neighborhood was devoid of athletic facilities, the team played in a league in the neighboring community of Overbrook Park.

Most of my teammates are lost to the haze of memory. But I do remember the excitement of Saturday mornings at the playground, the feel of the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the satisfying sounds: a baseball landing in a leather mitt or popping off a wooden bat.

Creating a less satisfying sound, throughout the games, each team serenaded the opposing pitcher in a manner I can’t imagine being allowed in 2015: “We need a pitcher, not a belly itcher.” This saying passed for wit among 8 and 9-year-olds in 1965. The fact that both teams used the same chant, in the same flat tones of voice, didn’t diminish its constancy.  The taunts continued even when the opposing pitcher performed superbly; in that case, the losing team simply sounded more mean-spirited, more desperate. (Picture Ted Cruz after the recent Supreme Court rulings).

*****

I lived for those games with the Pirates. Our coach was a middle-aged man named Mr. Greenfield. Almost unimaginably, in retrospect, he didn’t have a child on the team. I don’t know if he had children of his own. He simply volunteered his time to coach other people’s kids in Little League. Nowadays, sadly, I suspect we’d question his motives.

I wanted to play shortstop, the premier infield position. But during my time on the Pirates, we had a shortstop named Scott whose seemingly advanced puberty made him our unquestioned star. Still, I styled dark glasses on the field, even when it was cloudy. And when I batted, I held my bat at a jaunty angle, pointed down instead of up. Bashful and retiring in every other aspect of life, I craved attention on the baseball field.

Similarly, our team fashioned itself as front-runners. It was as though historical records were posted and the Pirates were always at the top of the Overbrook Park standings. Of course, that was not the case – to my knowledge, no one tracked historical records of local Little League teams; I’m not even certain anyone tracked ongoing standings in the league. Perhaps, drawing on his years of volunteer coaching, Mr. Greenfield imbued us with our sense of superiority. I can’t recall.

I know our bête noir, the rival we loved to hate, was the team sponsored by the local Italian church, St. Donato’s. In a world of Jewish kids, they represented the mysterious “other.” Since their players all attended parochial school and my teammates attended public school, they were, indeed, unknown to us. Objective facts may have fallen to stereotypes and the vagaries of memory, but my recollection is that they appeared bigger and tougher than my teammates. Their pitcher always inspired whispered speculation among my teammates: “How old do you think he really is?”

*****

Following my first two seasons under Mr. Greenfield’s direction, I aged out of the “minor league” and moved into the “major league” for ten and eleven-year-old players. Mr. Greenfield remained with the younger players, and I heard that if we couldn’t find another coach, the Pirates would disband. I agonized over this possibility.

Into the breach, like a savior, came my older brother, David, home from college for the summer. Not only did he save the team, my own status rose: Brother of the Coach! To his credit, David didn’t practice nepotism. I was still the second baseman, subordinate to the vaunted Scott. But it was immensely satisfying to have David there; though the youngest coach in the league, by far, he had a firm grip on strategies and techniques. Practices were fun and we won most, if not all, of our games. Crucially, David treated as many of us as could fit in his red Camaro to water ice after every win.

The season proceeded routinely as we whipped teams named after the Mets and the Cubs and a team sponsored by an undertaker. Boy, did that strike us funny! We had no trouble beating a poor team wearing tee shirts instead of real uniforms and trounced a team drawn from a local religious school – they made US look tough, by comparison. Looming for the last game, however, was St. Donato’s, with their big kids in their green-trimmed uniforms.

From the moment we arrived at the field, it was clear we were in trouble. Their pitcher, who we speculated was growing a mustache, was half a head taller than our biggest player, Scott. During warm-ups, we watched slack-jawed as he threw faster than anyone we’d ever seen. Though only ten, I could sense the smugness in the expression on St. Donato’s coaches (they had several) as they loomed over David in the pre-game meeting with the umpire.

Once the game began, our pitching and defense performed well. But we were totally cowed in the batter’s box. We sat silently on our bench between innings. We didn’t dare taunt the pitcher with our chant. From my first at-bat, I recall seeing him wind-up and then hearing a thump in the catcher’s mitt behind me. What had happened to the ball? How fast was this supposed eleven-year-old throwing? As the innings flew by we’d only surrendered two runs but our chance of scoring seemed nil. We couldn’t even get a base runner.

“Gather around,” said David, when we came in from the field before our last at-bat. “I have an idea.”

Following David’s instructions, our first batter sidled up to the plate barely concealing a smile. Though we were all right-handed, he took a spot on the LEFT side of the plate. He crowded into the space just inches from the plate. As a final touch, he crouched so tightly that his strike zone, the area between his knees and his chest, could not have been more than a few inches.

The pitcher looked confused. Left-handed batters were rarities. He threw his first pitch in the dirt. The next pitch flew over the catcher and bounced off the batting cage.

“Hey ump,” shouted St. Donato’s head coach. “That kid’s not left-handed!”

The umpire shrugged.

“How close to the plate can he get?” continued the coach.

“As close as he wants,” said the umpire, “so long as he’s in the batting box.”

Our first batter walked. Our second hitter took the same left-handed crouch and walked.

“Hey,” shouted the coach. “You gotta call some of these strikes! They’re bending over. This ain’t fair.”

The umpire turned to David, who shrugged innocently.   David said to us: “Hey, how ‘bout some life around here!”

We started our chant: “We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” The pitcher regarded us with a combination of anger, despair and humiliation. He walked the next batter to load the bases and hit the next batter with a pitch to score a run. By this time, in the effort to throw strikes, he threw so slowly the plunked batter barely flinched.

St. Donato’s coach glared at David with contempt. He walked to the mound to calm his pitcher, and we saw the kid wipe his eyes. After a moment’s discussion, the coach walked off the field with the big pitcher, now sobbing, and replaced him. Scott was our next batter. He hit the reliever’s first, ordinary pitch for a double and we’d won the game.

*****

Was it the right thing to do? Was it good sportsmanship? Did the end justify the means? I do know this: we celebrated that day without any ambivalence whatsoever, the day our coach David helped us beat Goliath.