Showing posts with label sports. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sports. Show all posts

Monday, December 14, 2009

Matt Damon & Clint Eastwood with crew & extras filming a scene
in which the Springboks conduct a rugby camp in a shanty town

As a director, Clint Eastwood likes to make well-architected narratives with few loose ends. Films such as Million Dollar Baby & Mystic River have the virtues one might normally associate with short fiction – nothing occurs that does not lead directly toward a conclusion that ultimately should feel “inevitable.” And Eastwood is by now as veteran a director as one can find – his 34 credits (including the forthcoming Hereafter) are not so terribly short of the four dozen acting credits he’s had since he quit his television role as Rowdy Yates on Rawhide & struck it rich with the first of the spaghetti westerns, Serge Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. As one of just three living directors with two Oscars, Eastwood can do whatever he wants. He’s only appeared in one film that he hasn’t directed in twenty years. And if he wants to tell the story of Iwo Jima from two perspectives, one American, one Japanese, he can. I haven’t seen Flags of Our Fathers, but Letters from Iwo Jima, the Japanese half of that pair, benefits enormously from Eastwood’s desire to pare the chaos of war into an intelligible structure.

The story of South Africa’s 1995 World Cup rugby victory isn’t half so messy as the Pacific Theater of the Second World War & yet it presents some complex narrative challenges for Eastwood’s film that it almost gets right. Because it’s such a positive film, with its heart so self-evidently in the right place, you want it to work fully. And yet it’s such a fragile construction at the same time that almost any challenge to the expository house of cards that is being built could cause the entire project to come crashing down. I think it’s a film that some people will love enormously while others will dismiss it as a do-gooder veil tossed over what otherwise is a very predictable sports movie.

In some ways, the film to compare it to might be Kyentse Norbu’s The Cup, a tale of budding soccer fans in a monastery of Tibetan monks exiled in India. Both are heart-warming films that hinge on the social meaning of a sport for cultures in transition. The Cup, which was an indie hit ten years ago, is by far the better movie. And yet Eastwood and star Morgan Freeman have already won one award each for their roles in Invictus (National Film Review) and been nominated for another (Washington Area Film Critics Association), and the awards season hasn’t really gotten under way yet.

Unlike the Iwo Jima films, this isn’t a project Eastwood developed himself. Morgan Freeman bought John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, and brought people in to bring his dream of a Nelson Mandela film to reality. Two-thirds of this movie are about how Mandela, only a couple of years past his 27-year imprisonment, much of it on the infamous Robben Island, took office and dealt with the fundamental issue that threatened South African democracy – the resentment and desire for revenge of a black population reduced to poverty through Afrikaner colonialization and 46 years of explicit apartheid, and the fears of revenge & marginalization of a white population. Since rugby was the white sport, blacks in the RSA generally preferred soccer. Since the Springboks national rugby squad had been to white Afrikaners what, say, the New York Yankees are to the citizens of New York (sorry, Mets fans), the black population tended to root for whoever was playing  against the Springboks. And the Springboks had just one “colored” player on its squad at the time, Chester Williams.

Much of this part of the story is told not by focusing on Mandela directly, but instead on his security detail. One of the first actions on the part of Madiba – as Mandela is widely called throughout Africa – was to blend his own African National Congress (ANC) security detail with the white team that had previously served the last Afrikaner president, F.W. de Klerk. This gives Mandela his chorus narratively, particularly as the ANC members have to explain Madiba to the Afrikaners & they in turn explain rugby to the ANC team. It also sets up a subtext of potential assassination that haunts most of the picture, upping the stakes for many of the actions Mandela takes, from his daily predawn walks to his public appearance at the World Cup finals.  

But Mandela wants people – especially investors from the US, Japan, Saudi Arabia & Taiwan – to see him surrounded not just by ANC veterans, but by whites as well. And what better, faster way to make that impression than to ensure that his security team is blended. Then he prevents the national sports authority from stripping the rugby team of its hated Springboks name and green & gold colors. He wants Afrikaners to know that what is important to them will continue to be important to South Africa. In fact, he goes further, inviting the captain of the team, Francois Pienaar, to his office for tea. Pienaar (who is not the Springbok’s coach, but more the equivalent to, say, the role Derek Jeter plays with the Yankees) is very much a jock & his family, particularly his dad, is perfectly willing to use the worst racial epithets & stereotypes in front of their black housekeeper. What, Mandela asks Pienaar, can he do to help the Springboks win the World Cup next year? The finals will be held in South Africa.

Pienaar is played by a bulked-up Matt Damon in a role that feels like an extension of Private Ryan, the basically patriotic, open minded but not exactly intellectual character of Stephen Spielberg’s film of D-Day & the days thereafter. And the actual change that we see & feel in the film is figured more than anything by the changes we see in Damon. It’s a difficult task, but one for which the mostly muted Damon is well suited. In the story as told here – Chester Williams’ autobiography has a version at odds with this one, tho he served as the film’s rugby advisor  – Pienaar gradually gets his teammates to grasp how their role transcends just rugby. The team gives rugby clinics in the slums – to much grumbling by the players, many of whom appear startled at the corrugated tin huts where so many of their neighbors live – and the morning after a major victory, they go for an early run that leads to a boat that takes them out to see Robben Island. Damon’s best moment in the whole film comes in Mandela’s own cell, as he reaches out in either direction with his arms and realizes that he can just about touch all the walls. And that Mandela lived there for many years (18 in fact, tho the film makes it sound like 30).

Gradually as the film proceeds, the focus shifts from Mandela to the team and its unlikely series of successes to reach the championship match. Eastwood is remarkably faithful to the actual events of the title game itself, which goes into overtime before somebody other than Pienaar kicks the winning shot. And – perhaps the very best thing about Invictus – it doesn’t over-explain rugby. I don’t understand the sport, but I learned a fair amount just by watching – tho not enough to pretend I really get it. The absolute eroticism of these muscular guys locked arm-in-arm, head-to-head is completely apparent from the final rugby match, with amped up sound effects and film speed slowing down & speeding up so that we can tell who is doing what.

Perhaps nothing signals more thoroughly how these parts of this film are stitched together than the one extraneous detail Eastwood feels he must include, the explanation of the absence of Winnie Mandela. We have maybe three, maybe four scenes in which Madiba’s unhappiness at her absence and the absence of his children is underscored, but they have nothing to do with either half of the plot, save perhaps when Mandela declares that his family is all South Africa now. But if these scenes don’t have a narrative function, they do play an important role in the film itself. They are the only moments here in which Nelson Mandela doesn’t appear thoroughly Christ-like in his beneficence and forgiveness to the monsters who ruled South Africa before him.

And this is the real challenge of Invictus, how to make Nelson Mandela seem like a human being. It stuns almost everyone – from the Afrikaners in his security detail to the ANC members in the sports union to Pienaar – how somebody who was caged for so many years in such a small cell and permitted out only to break rocks in the lime quarry (the film passes over the worst aspects his imprisonment) can so consistently reach out and preach forgiveness. Nelson Mandela, one suspects, got much further in his presidency than anyone anticipated simply because nobody knew quite what to expect.

And this is where you will either buy the film or not, as the case may be. I’m inclined to buy this, but then Mandela is one of only three living presidents I’ve ever seen, and the sole one where I actually made an effort to do so.¹ That he even survived his captivity was something of a miracle.² That he lived to lead his country is even more of one.

It is impossible to watch this movie and not think, of course, of all the compromises the Obama administration has made in its first year in office – with Wall Street, with the hawks in the Pentagon, with the insurance companies on health care. I’ve felt much of this year as tho the American people thought they’d elected Václav Havel and what they’ve gotten was Alexander Dubček. It’s a significant and unhappy difference: the former was a transformative figure, the latter merely a reformer of the Bad Old System. But every single action Mandela is seen as taking in this picture can be read (and is, in several instances) as giving in to the Afrikaners, who control the military, the police & the economy.

A word, finally, about the title and the poem by William Ernest Henley, a minor 19th century British writer whose major contribution to world culture was that his daughter, who died at age six, had difficulty pronouncing words and called family friend J.M. Barrie “fwendy-wendy,” from which he coined the name Wendy he gave to the female character in Peter Pan. Invictus” is a cringer of a poem, tho its sentiments are noble (and it is all about sentiment), and it apparently gave Mandela some comfort on Robben Island. But it has very little to do with the story itself and is mostly a mechanism for letting us know that this film is (a) important and (b) uplifting. It’s one of those things that tells you that all is not perfect in this film you very much would like to like.


¹ The others being Corazon Aquino of the Philippines and LBJ.

² Something Mandela credits Ron Dellums for making possible, by making Mandela’s imprisonment an issue in American politics & foreign policy. No matter how badly Dellums muddles in his role as mayor of Oakland, he will always have accomplished that.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fifty years ago, the Giants moved to San Francisco when I was a 12-year-old boy, the perfect age for a kid to fixate on the hot new exciting team in town, particularly coming from a family of baseball fans going back at least to the days when Casey Stengel managed the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League. Since 1958, I have been rooting for the local National League team to win a World Series. The Giants during that period have made it to The Show exactly three times, losing to the Yankees in 1961 (if only Willie McCovey’s line drive had been a foot higher, Bobby Richardson wouldn’t have speared it out of the air & Mateo Alou would have not have been stranded at third base), to the A’s in 1989 in the Earthquake series (made especially joyless since the team that won was the only American League club I’ve ever felt any affinity with), and most recently in 2002 (the team was eight outs from a 5-0 victory when the Angels came back to win game 6 & then game 7 the following night). But the last real emotional connection I had to the Giants was with Barry Bonds, of whom I am still extraordinarily fond (as I was also of his dad, Bobby, likewise a Giant thirty-plus years ago), tho team president Peter Magowan’s brother Robin is a poet I’ve known & liked, both the man & his work, for decades.

The Phillies had been to the Series a couple of years before we moved here in 1995, but they were already in a downward spiral by the time we arrived, finishing third in 1995 & dead last the following year. From ’95 thru ’97, they never once even won 70 games. Finishing last in ‘95 allowed them to pick second in the next major league draft & they selected J.D. Drew, who then refused to sign with a team that dreadful, choosing instead to play with an Independent League ballclub, sort of the ultimate ignominy for a sports franchise. As a consolation, the Phils got the first draft pick again the following year & selected Pat “The Bat” Burrell, who had been the MVP of the College World Series with the University of Miami. Burrell, now an aging outfielder, doubled last night – the last of the Phillies starters to make a contribution – & it was Eric Bruntlett, pinch-running for Burrell, who scored the winning run, driven in by Pedro Feliz, whom the Phils had signed as a free agent over the winter, coming from the San Francisco Giants.

Considering that the Phils are one of the most power-oriented teams in baseball, it is worth noting that they won three of the four games in this year’s series by just one run. J.C. Romero, one of the keys to baseball’s best bullpen, became the first Puerto Rican pitcher in history to win two World Series games. The MVP was Cole Hamels who made five superb starts in the post-season and became the third youngest pitcher ever to win a World Series game (the two ahead of him are Ray Sadeki of the 1964 Cardinals – Sadeki would later be traded to the Giants for Orlando Cepeda in the most infamous deal of that team’s history – and an old-time Boston hurler by the name of Babe Ruth). The closer, Brad Lidge, on his knees in the photo above, had a season in which he was perfect, never once blowing a save. The team’s record with a lead after eight innings was 80-0 for the year. Basically, that’s impossible. But it also means that 23 times in 2008, they won when they did not have a lead after eight innings – that’s also close to impossible. And yet, as anyone watching this series could see, this was a team that often was its own worst enemy, leaving runner after runner on base. The Phillies stranded 16 men on base last night, the Rays just five, the last one being pinch runner (and Creeley-Ashbery-Hejinian reader) Fernando Perez.

All of which is to say that last night’s victory reached about as far back into my psyche as a baseball game can. The last half inning (which Bill Mohr reminds me was the top, not the bottom, of the ninth) was the first time ever I can remember my whole family watching a baseball game on the telly together. That was as satisfying as it gets.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

As bad as that blown call at first base was last night, it made that last inning – with a five-man infield and that wild final play, an inadvertent suicide squeeze topped with Evan Longoria’s vain scoop of the ball way over the catcher’s head – all the more delicious. People outside of the Philly area might not have noticed, but Tim McGraw actually poured some of his father’s ashes on the mound last night right before the game. Tug McGraw was on the mound the last (and only) time the Phillies won a world series.

Random thoughts: Has there ever been a worse baseball announcer than Tim “PanamaMcCarver? He’s an embarrassment …. Many in the Philadelphia area never saw the homers by Chase Utley & Ryan Howard as Comcast suffered an “equipment failure” that last for over a half hour …. Also, the Philly baseball franchise is older than the city of Tampa Bay by about eight years …. One final thought – if this series goes to seven games, and it easily could, Old Man Moyer (two years younger than “youthful” Barack Obama & only a year older than Sarah “The Moose” Palin) would be the starting pitcher. Could the season come down to watching 25-year-old hitters trying to hit a 74-mph “fastball?”


I corrected the link to Pam Brown’s photos in Friday’s link list, and dropped the one to Julio Cort├ízar’s Final Exam, which I had likewise mis-linked, but could not find again. If you blogged a review of that book within the last week or so, drop me a note.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Brewers win, Mets lose. Welcome to the playoffs, Milwaukee. We’ll see you in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

One sign I saw on the telecast of last night’s Phillies game –

Universal Sign
for Choking:

Hint: you can’t blame Willie Randolph this time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Phillies could win the pennant today. When they won it last year, I was on the road & Krishna gave me the play-by-play of the last inning of the winning game over the phone while I was in San Francisco. Thanks to travel & the mediocre way radio covers sports today, all I got to hear of their play-offs was a two-inning stint while waiting for a ferry in Seattle.

Presuming the Phillies do win, do they stand any chance of doing better than their three-and-out first round loss of last year? It’s hard to see how. The starting pitching has been so bad of late that Jamie Moyer is clearly the ace of the staff. He is also the oldest player in professional baseball. So here’s hoping that Ryan Howard can continue to carry the team on his broad shoulders the way he has this past month.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Matthias Steiner of Germany won gold in the heaviest weight class in Beijing

As a kid, I used to watch a lot of sports on television. It didn’t matter if the event was a sport  I deeply loved and played a lot, such as baseball, or was one I couldn’t imagine playing ever – such as boxing, which took up all of prime time on Fridays. Of course, what was on television in the 1950s, when there were just three networks, was a tiny percentage of what there is now, with ESPN, ESPN-2, the Sports Channel, the Golf Channel, a channel just for road racing & such pay packages as MLB-TV for baseball. One could watch sports 7 by 24 if one wanted. Indeed, one could watch a single sport 7 by 24 if you were willing to pony up to do so. I suppose that we’re just a few years away from universal access to all of the sports all of the time. At that point, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to watch any of them – the inundation level simply reduces the competition to a level of irrelevance. I’ve always thought that baseball lost something special when its customers no longer had to skip out of work for a day to attend a game.

So I can’t say that I’ve been riveted to the Olympic coverage the past couple of weeks. I enjoyed the whiz-bang of the opening ceremonies (I’d seen some of the choreography, it turns out, right here in Philly several months ago) & saw most of Michael Phelps’ races, thoroughly dominating a sport about which I care not a whit. But the two sports I really enjoyed watching were beach volleyball & weightlifting, the latter of which turned up at odd hours on the extended cable coverage of the games.

I’ve rarely played volleyball & have been dreadful whenever I tried, but as a kid I used to play a game called tetherball, where a ball is literally roped to the end of a pole. One player serves and the two combatants try to wrap it around the pole in their direction, not that of the opponent. My usual opposite in these games was my best bud from the middle school years, Bruce Downing, who later on would grow up to become an All-American volleyball player. The last time I saw Bruce, who now is a science & computer teacher in the East Bay, I noted just how much tetherball – the court was in his backyard – resembles the blocking game at the net in volleyball. Which is exactly how I watch volleyball today. Beach volleyball feels like the real deal to me, unlike the hyped-up variant on hard courts indoors with larger teams that make it almost impossible to see the strategies being used.

Weightlifting is a sport I got to know by accident in the early 1980s. I was working as the director of development & outreach at the California Institute of Integral Studies, then located on the border between the Mission & Noe Valley in San Francisco, and I was looking around for a way to stay in shape. The Sports Palace was a gym down the hill on Valencia & proved quite a bit less expensive than any of the other gyms in the area. What I didn’t know when I signed up there was that half of the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team worked out at the gym, including Mario Martinez, who won a silver medal in the 1984 games (which I believe is still the best an American has done in the past quarter century). In those days, there were three gyms in the U.S. where a “serious” weightlifter could aim for competitive mastery – the Sports Palace, a gym in Colorado Springs & another in York, PA (home, not so coincidentally, to York Barbells). I was fortunate to get trained on free weights by Jim Schmidt, who in those days coached the Olympic team some years & served as the trainer in others. As I soon learned, the Sports Palace was so widely known, that it was used as the location for a Streets of San Francisco episode that focused on a homicidal weightlifter who killed off his opponents. This had been the acting debut of one Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in those days was just starting to gain credibility as a thespian of a certain type.

While I was generally pathetic myself, I could always see exactly how far away from the very best in the world I was, a great motivator. Weight training is still my favorite form of exercise all these years later, and I’ve benefited greatly from Schmidt’s tutelage. The Sports Palace itself closed down, a victim of San Francisco retail rental costs, tho I hear that Schmidt has a gym now somewhere down the peninsula.

Martinez got the silver in 1984 in part because that was the Olympics where the Soviets boycotted. There is, of course, no Soviet Union today, but what that nation’s disintegration left in its wake is a series of countries that all tend to be quite good at this sport, and take it seriously. Thus, for example, in the men’s 94 kilo category, the winner was Ilya Ilin of Kazakhstan. He was followed, in this order, by lifters from Poland, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Germany, Spain, Ukraine, Moldova & Moldova.

No Americans competed in this weight category, and indeed just seven Americans competed in weightlifting in the Olympics at all, four of them women. Women only began to be allowed to compete in the 2000 Olympics, and I believe the last US medal of any sort in this sport was the bronze won that year by Cheryl Haworth. Haworth finished sixth in her weight class this year, as did Melanie Roach, the best the U.S. could do.

So even a sport as elemental as weightlifting – it’s just you and gravity and mass – is changing. Watching the Olympics in 2008 was all about change – new vaulting platforms for gymnasts, new suits for the swimmers that have made all existing records obsolete, new sports (my favorite is a version of handball that looks like a combination of soccer & dodgeball), new rules for extra innings in baseball. It seems inevitable that in a few years, skateboarding & other extreme sports will all end up being included in the Olympics while some of the more traditional ones will disappear or else become marginalized, a fate that could happen to weightlifting.

One change that I have not been fond of this year has been the largely dishonest way the medal competition has been handled in the media. In past Olympics, the media has routinely reported this by counting first-place finishes as worth three points, second-place finishes as worth two and bronze as worth one. This year, instead, they’re simply totaling the medals without regard to finish. The result is that most coverage shows the U.S. as having won the most medals by virtue of finishing second and third so often. As of early Friday morning, when I calculated this, the actual medal count under the old system would have looked like this:

                                    Gold           Silver           Bronze       Total        Points
China                               46                 15                  22             83            190
United States                  29                 34                   32              95            187
Russia                             16                16                    19              51             99
Great Britain                   17                12                    11              40             86
Australia                         11                13                      7              31             66

Since the first four columns are how this is being reported on the official Olympics website, no doubt official decisions were made to ensure this kind of reporting, but it should be instantly clear just who benefits from not taking into consideration whether your athletes won gold, silver or bronze.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A muscled-up Ken Caminiti celebrates
winning the 1998 National League championship
with champagne. Caminiti, the 1996 NL MVP,
would be dead in six years.

Lyle Alzado was the first professional athlete I was aware of to cop to using steroids. Alzado was a football player who played for the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns & L.A. Raiders from 1971 into 1985. Alzado, who later became a professional wrestler & occasional actor, blamed steroids for the brain tumor that killed him at the age of 43 in 1992. What I remember about him – what made him stand out at the time at a position, defensive end, where frankly few football players ever garner fame – was the intensity with which he performed. Alzado on the field seemed driven by an insane rage. This made him very effective closing in on hapless quarterbacks, tho it also led to more than a few penalty flags over the course of his career. That’s a perennial problem with loose cannons: they go off in all directions.

Thursday’s report (PDF) to Major League Baseball (MLB) by George Mitchell reminded of this, in part because the years of Alzado’s career really predate baseball’s admission of its own “drug problem.” When Alzado died, the controversy of the role of steroids in his death caused these medications to get written up in all the sports sections. One of the side-effects, it seemed, was “’roid rage,” emotional volatility that was a direct reaction to many steroids. And quite effective at intimidating opponents on the field, at least if it was directed in the right direction.

Reading those articles at the time made me realize that I’d already seen one transparently obvious instance of ‘roid rage on the baseball diamond. It occurred in the 1990 American League championship series, which pitted the Oakland A’s against the Boston Red Sox. The series was tied going into its final game, one of those wonderful moments when an entire baseball season came down to who won a single game. Oakland started its ace, Dave Stewart, against his counterpart from Boston who very early in the game “blew up” at a pitch the home plate umpire deemed to be a ball, blew up so badly in fact that he was thrown out of the game, the most important game of the season. How could Boston let somebody get so out of control like that, I wondered at the time. The fact that their starter didn’t get out of the second inning cost them the game, the series, the season. Later, in the wake of the articles that surrounded Alzado’s demise, I thought to myself – that guy had to be on steroids. Because that sure looked like an instance of its tell-tale uncontrollable rage to me. The Boston starter that day was named Roger Clemens, and in 1990 he’d already won two Cy Young awards and one MVP title. Was I surprised to see his name in the headlines surrounding the Mitchell report? Not very.

This doesn’t mean that the Mitchell report is much of a document, however. With the exception of a couple of interviews that MLB effectively coerced, most of the documentation in the report amounts to old news clippings and hearsay. None of it would stand up in a court of law and most of the players named are not of the Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds type elites. Even without chemical enhancements, Clemens and Bonds were the best pitcher and best hitter of the era. If you don’t believe me, look at Bond’s strikeouts, which border on non-existent. That kind of coordination is not enhanced by muscle mass – if anything, just the opposite. Yet nobody has come close to Bonds in the last several decades in the old basic “see the ball, hit the ball” side of the game.

Which is why steroids don’t help every player – one of the 91 current or former players named in the report was David Bell, a hardnosed hustler of a third baseman who was a so-so fielder and an even worse hitter. Bell, the son and grandson of major league ball players, is one of those guys who clearly benefited most from baseball’s expansion of teams from the traditional 16 that dominated the game from the early 1900s until the sixties to today’s 30. He wasn’t trying to buy an edge – he was the classic hanger-on.

Ball players will do anything to survive and excel. Not long ago, an episode of Mythbusters demonstrated conclusively that corking a bat actually robs it of somewhere between ten and twenty percent of its power. Yet how many players have bought into the urban legend about the power of the corked bat and gotten caught – and suspended – for actually compromising their hitting power? They might as well have been hitting with microwaved poodles. The funny thing is that more than a few of these players have hit home runs with these compromised bats – the placebo effect is strong. As Yogi Berra says, “90 percent of baseball is half mental.” Whether Gaylord Perry threw the illegal spitball or not was a lot less important than the belief players had that he did. Perhaps he only threw it often enough to get caught and keep the myth alive.

What all of this means, I think, is this. Baseball has been abusing drugs much more widely, and for far longer, than the Mitchell report suggests. Olympic doping scandals date to the 1950s. The days when ballplayers could simply scoop up some “uppers,” “greenies” as Willie Mays used to call them, from a bowl in the locker room may be behind us, but it’s telling that the Mitchell report doesn’t address the ongoing problem of methamphetamines in the game. Just what would those day games after a night game look like if some folks weren’t buzzing around on speed?

I’m prepared to wager that there has not been a game since at least 1975 – if not 1945 – in which a minimum of two players on either side were not somehow “enhanced.” After all, Mitchell got 91 names basically from a Lexis-Nexis search plus a pair of interviews. What if he’d had subpoena power and access to the trainers for all thirty teams? We’re not talking dozens of violators, we’re talking hundreds, perhaps thousands. Just look at Wikipedia’s list of athletes penalized in doping scandals, only a tiny fraction of who played baseball. Which means that it has been the norm, not the exception. Athletes will do anything to improve the odds in their favor. If there is a culture of acceptance, they will push the envelope that much further. Is this any worse than software programmers living off of Jolt and working until three in the morning, or fighter pilots in Iraq using “go pills?”

It can be for the players. Steroids are nasty meds. Most any asthmatic in the U.S. has had occasion to depend on prednisone, a steroid. I have to use prednisone a couple of times each year when I get hit with sudden deafness syndrome. And I know that when I’m on the 12-day program of meds I need that I seriously have to watch my temper. No point getting tossed from an important game.

Performance enhancing medications simply underwrite the much broader drug culture in sports, which includes hard drugs and bad habits like needle sharing. I’m not concerned that a ball player may get high. But I am concerned about a Ken Caminiti dying of an overdose or an Alan Wiggins dying of AIDS. That’s the real price of drugs in sports. Just like rock ‘n’ roll.

What is most depressing here is the charade of mock righteousness on the part of owners and baseball executives – including the Giants’ Brian Sabean who was warned about Bonds’ activities and never spoke up, and Bud Selig, one-time owner of the Milwaukee Brewers during this very same period (ever check out the muscles of Rob Deer, Bud?) … and even that former owner of Texas Rangers & one-time employer of Sammy Sosa, George W. Bush. It’s the owners far more than the individual players who are culpable in this sad affair. If there is a culture of permission, it begins there. Relatively little of this could occur without the tacit acceptance of baseball execs, anxious to see their product performed at the “highest” level. If there are a few casualties along the way – Hey, I’m not the one shooting myself up in the butt every day. And pass me that cosmo. If Selig wants to hand out suspensions or expulsions, these are the folks who should go first. Don’t hold your breath.

The other group that I find completely appalling in all this are the sportswriters, a profession itself that has always lived large off of chemical enhancements, in its case mostly alcohol. The thought of one more self-righteous diatribe from a red-eyed sports hack about the “purity” of this pastime – the very same game that Cap Anson organized in the 1870s to expel players of color & which threw its world championship in 1919, and which brags to this day about the feats of Babe Ruth, who hardly ever inhaled a sober breath (and died of cancer young because of it) – well, it troubles my sleep.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

You read it here first:
The Boston Red Sox
will win
the World Series

(The last thing
you want to give a team
that has been playing
way over its head
for a month
is a week off
to think….)


Writing vs. editing vs. tenure


An account of the conference
Christopher Okigbo


Sargon Boulus,
Iraqi poet
& translator
of Pound, Williams, Shakespeare,
Duncan & Ginsberg,
has died


Doris Lessing:
9/11 was
not that bad

& offers
a reading list


The House of Anansi
40 years
of independent publishing


The business of poetry


The horror of cheap books


”Why Indie Bookstores Matter”


This week’s
is of the last major indie
in the
Toledo metro


The School of Quietude:
a literal perspective


The latest in library services:
Dance Dance Revolution


Libraries, content & copyright


A new Pound bio


The Fog Index


A profile of
Sam Hunt


The Governor General’s


Why you should read poetry


Words To Be Looked At


Stephen King:
why short stories suck


Reviewer stops writing
about himself
long enough
to notice
two new books
of Canadian poetry


of a drop-in
writers’ workshop


This poetry contest
sounds mawkish
until you realize
how it’s promoting
Scottish nationalism


Poet of the Year


The Christian right’s
”worst nightmare”:
Dumbledore & sex


A Salmon Press


Inside manga


A reading group
Jackson Heights, NY
devoted to
the poetry of
India, Pakistan & Bangladesh


Kwesi Brew


The slam scene
Palo Alto High


A mixed review
Jean Sprackland


War over
War and Peace


Howard’s Baudelaire


Maya Angelou
The Early Show


Teacher faces charges
over reading list


The son also rises


Boston’s ICA
is a hit


MassMOCA demonstrates
how not
to show contemporary art


facing foreclosure



(no money from the government)


(too much information)


Anita Allen
philosophy, law & race


A profile
of the great song writer
Lee Hays


number of visits
to this blog,
the previous record
by 74.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

There I was making a snide remark in the blog yesterday about riding gloves when one of my sons and I found ourselves behind a car with a bumper sticker that read Dressage in Devon, dressage being the competitive horse training sport in which the riders do indeed wear white gloves, top hats & tails. It’s an Olympic Sport, albeit one that visibly displays its roots in the aristocracy of the British Empire. Another sporting event that does so around here is the annual Radnor Hunt, which only this year decided not to continue, caught between suburban encroachment – the old farms & estates immediately south of us are being swallowed by McMansions & custom executive homes – and a decline in an interest in pretending that we’re still living in the Victorian era.¹ One can still go fox hunting here in Chester County a couple of days each week. Foxes are not unheard of in our back yards, tho deer, rabbits & the occasional woodchuck are more common.

It’s odd. I grew up in a town, Albany, California, that economically depends to this day on the tax revenues generated from its horse track, Golden Gate Fields, but the only time I ever spent out at the track was a very drunken high school graduation party in 1964. Never once did I see the horses run there, tho back when Krishna & I were living on Albany Hill in the late 1980s, sometimes, if the wind was right, you could hear the noise from the track. My only real experience of watching horse racing in person is the shorter races of the Alameda County Fair – it was a lot of waiting around followed by one minute of intense adrenalin. The horses themselves are tremendous creatures & the idea of controlling one during a race is not unlike trying to straddle a rocket ship & control that. Jockeys are among the most courageous athletes imaginable.

Chester County has had a couple of winners in the Kentucky Derby over the past few years, both Smarty Jones & the tragic Barbaro. Unless golfer Jim Furyk, skater Johnny Weir or Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dave Bush kick it up a notch – Furyk has the best chance – the best athletes in the county are horses.² There are a couple of Chester County horses in the Derby today³, but the one that is going to win is the one pictured above, Hard Spun, born in Malvern, a town I can walk to if I want, tho raised & trained in Delaware. You read it here first.


¹ Note to West Chester Poetry Conference: without the Hunt, you and the Devon Horse Show become the last remaining proponents of the neo-Victorian view in Chester County, save for the occasional re-enactment of the Battle of the Brandywine (which, frankly, is pre-Victorian in its perspective). The preservation of the 19th century is in your hands.

² Oakland A’s catcher-DH Mike Piazza & former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda are really Montgomery County folk, tho both have some business interests here in the county, most notably Lasorda’s, an Italian restaurant & sports bar in Exton run by Tommy’s brothers.

³ The other Chester County native is Sam P.

Monday, March 26, 2007

1961 US Figure Skating Team
boarding flight to

I took just enough time out over the weekend from some projects, ferrying the kids to & from their jobs, fencing & theater, plus attempting to write up some end-notes for The Alphabet to watch the women’s competition of the World Figure Skating Championships, held this year in Tokyo. I may have mentioned before that, outside of a couple of World Series games (thank you Oakland A’s), the only other sport championship I’ve ever actually attended in person was the Women’s Worlds Figure Skating competition, which was in Oakland in 1992, won that year by Kristi Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi had a clean sweep that year, winning the U.S. championship, the World’s and the Olympics. The other female skaters on the American team at the World’s were two up-&-comers, Nancy Kerrigan & Tonya Harding, each of whom was hoping to become the next Kristi Yamaguchi.

Neither would, tho they were about to introduce the years of gloom for figure skating, first with the brouhaha caused by Harding’s husband’s inept attempt to cripple Kerrigan at the 1994 U.S. championships, then a series of international judging scandals that forced the international federations to adopt a far more complex – nearly impenetrable – point system that appears to have taken the favoritism and vote-trading out of the judging process.

The actual inheritor of Yamaguchi’s throne turned out to be another Asian-American, Michelle Kwan, who, between 1994 and 2005, won the U.S. championships nine times, finishing second the three other times, won the World’s five times, finishing second three times, and third once. While Kwan hasn’t skated competitively since withdrawing from the 2006 Olympics, she has not said that she has retired. By the time of the 2010 Olympics, Kwan will be 29, the same age at which Maria Butarskaya won the European championships in 2002. But the real story here is that skating has simply passed Kwan by. She has never won under the new scoring system, which assigns points and difficulty levels for everything, making jumping a far more important part of the sport than the graceful aesthetic spirals that are Kwan’s trademark move.

Kwan, for all of her dominance of the sport, never has won the Olympics, finishing second in 1998, third in 2002. During this same period, no other female skater matched Kwan’s overall dominance, tho Irina Slutskaya of Russia and Chen Lu of China clearly dominated the sport in their own countries. None of the three ever won Olympic gold, tho Slutskaya, a six-time European champion, won silver in 2002, bronze in 2006, while Chen Lu earned bronze in 1998 & 2002.

During these years, the sport as seen far too many one-hit wonders, skaters who won gold at the Olympics or other major events, then quickly turned pro & cashed in on one of the touring ice shows where skaters can make millions without ever having to do a jump more difficult than a double. The last four Olympic champions – Oksana Biaul, Tara Lipinsky, Sarah Hughes & Shizuka Arakawa – are not skating competitively any more. Biaul, whose 1994 Olympic long program is still the single best performance I’ve ever seen, never competed again, unless you count an appearance on Celebrity Poker.

All of this points up the relationship between competitive skating and global capital. Skating is a sport that requires an enormous investment early on, which privileges hegemonic nations. Either the state pays by taking toddlers into national training academies, as I believe may be still done in the People’s Republic of China, or else parents put down 50 grand a year, year after year, often moving from state to state in search of the right coach in the hopes that little Tiffany will grow up to become more than just another ice rat. Not every parent can do that, so it helps to live in a society where enough of them can.

Thus it’s not an accident that seven of the last 14 Olympic champions in women’s skating have been Americans. Americans have won the silver six times during that span, bronze five times. Combined, that’s 43 percent of all possible medals since 1956 in a sport in which several dozen nations compete. But since women’s skating was brought back into Olympic competition in 1920, only two women have won gold more than once, Sonje Henie of Norway three times in the 1920s & ‘30s, & Katarina Witt of the German Democratic Republic twice in the 1980s.

So anyone who chooses to compete on a continuing basis – as did Yamaguchi & Kwan did & as, apparently, reigning U.S. champ Kimmie Meissner is choosing to do – has an enormous long-term value for the sport in this country, even if only in attracting small children & their parents into one of America’s dwindling number of ice rinks to get some exercise.

Because the global geography of women’s skating clearly is changing. Skating commentators for years now have been talking about the “coming wave” of Chinese & Japanese skaters and finally it’s arrived. Chinese skaters in particular have been strong in the pairs competition now for several years, having won 12 medals at the Worlds since 1999, seven by the couple who won this weekend, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo. During that same period, Russia, once the flat-out dominant pairs nation, has won ten medals, tho none the last two years. The U.S. has won just one bronze during this same period.

But it is women’s singles that is the focal point of competitive figure skating and this weekend saw Japanese skaters finish first, second and fifth, with Korea’s Yu Na Kim, having set the world record for highest score on her short program, finishing third after two falls in her long program. Only defending world champ Meissner managed to get into the top five from anywhere other than Asia. And clearly they deserved it. One might have had an argument that Meissner deserved third as her program had fewer errors than Kim’s, but it also attempted considerably less. And, under the new scoring system, jumping once again bested aesthetics. Ando, the best female jumper in the world, finished second in both competitions that make up the championship, but with Kim dropping to fourth in the point-rich free skate and Asada having finished fifth in the short program, Ando’s total score beat Asada’s by less than a point. Had Asada won, the Sunday sports sections would have been speculating what might have been had Ando, the only woman with a quad in her repertoire, attempted one in the free program.

So the long view of women’s figure skating would see its center moving from the countries where it was long an indigenous local sport, such as Sonje Henie’s Norway, to the nations at the center of the Cold War – The Soviet Union, the U.S. and Germany – and now toward the economic center of the next century, Asia. One wonders if Americans register this indicator of the shift in global relations for what it signals.

Empires are notoriously fragile constructs and there is no question that the U.S. alone is sole military superpower remaining in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc sixteen years ago. But as we have been learning the hard way in both Iraq & Afghanistan of late, being a global superpower doesn’t count for as much as it used to if one’s worst military enemies have abandoned the state as a construct altogether.

There are a lot of conflicting indices of hegemony in the contemporary world, international sport being pretty close to the bottom when it comes to explanatory importance. But at the same time, it is an index and the message is reasonably clear. “Our” time, if by our we mean the big rubber finger that reads “U.S.A., No. 1,” has passed. I wonder just how many other indicators out there right now are giving out this same information. More than a few, I suspect.

Five hundred years from now, it would be very interesting to see at what moment historians would identify the peak of the American empire, the moment beyond which the various roads downhill began to overtake those still on the rise. My guess is that it would be sometime around 1961, when the long post-World War 2 expansion had just a few more years to run, and when John F. Kennedy took over from Eisenhower. The Eisenhower-Kennedy transition represents the moment when the ability of the United States to “quietly” change regimes elsewhere in the world without a lot of mess back home started to implode, first with the Bay of Pigs, then Vietnam & more recently Afghanistan & Iraq. Not that Ike was good & JFK bad – they were a lot more similar than anyone made them out to be, actually – but that, starting with the Kennedy administration, it became necessary to go public with many of our foreign interventions, and that fewer & fewer of them actually worked. Ike’s one big success of installing the Shah as the leader of Iran doesn’t look so good from this perspective either, but at least that one took 25 years to implode.

Depending on which index you use, the U.S. expansion after WW2 came to an end in the mid-1960s or early 1970s, and by the 1980s per capita inflation-indexed earnings had peaked. Since then the concentration of wealth into fewer & fewer hands is not a scenario that shows the U.S.A. getting stronger. If it were not for the rise of the computer industry starting in the 1970s, the situation in this country might be quite a bit dicier than it is.

One could argue, in fact, that our current experiment in government by malevolent incompetence is a serious symptom of what happens to any hegemon as it tends downward. The former Soviet empire ditto. The problem is that countries that are visibly sliding in the wrong direction are often prey to the worst impulses of an increasingly desperate population. It’s not a formula for optimism.

Coincidentally, 1961 was also the only year since the end of the Second World War when there was no world figure skating championship. The competition that year was to have been held in Prague, but was cancelled after the flight carrying the U.S. skating team crashed & burned as it was attempting to land in Brussels. The entire U.S. team that year died, including 18 skaters, plus 16 coaches, officials & family members. In the 1960s, the U.S. had the resources to build a world-class skating program literally from nothing. In 1966, Peggy Fleming won the first of three consecutive world championships and the disaster of just five years earlier began to fade.

In 2007, it’s increasingly self-evident that the U.S.’s ability to compete on a global scale in figure skating, especially in the hyper-competitive women’s division, is under serious strain.