Quantum Hoops (2)

January 19, 2009

beaversmiling405What about the Quantum Hoops video?  The documentary is very ably put together.  It combines a bit of the history of Caltech and its athletic programs with the story of the amazing conference record of the basketball Beavers over the last few years.  Not only do they lose a lot, they most often lose badly.  Yet the documentary succeeds in finding the right tone and integrating the viewer into the problematic of a not very good team representing a high power academic institution in a fairly weak basketball environment.  We are far from epic hoop battles in the Big East or the PAC-10, but we want this group to fulfill its specific hoop dream.  Caltech will  not play in front of a large crowd or on national television.

Although the institution once fielded competitive teams in some of the major sports, Caltech does not give  priority to recruiting accomplished athletes.  In fact, the documentary is careful to underline the role that basketball plays in the lives of the students who make up the team.  Caltech is a Division 3 team and basketball is essentially a diversion:  for the players, it’s a complement to an arduous program of study, not a potential ticket to a professional sports contract.  Here we see  basketball at the collegiate level as pure sport.  The players are certainly serious about learning the game and improving their performance.  They want to win, to be competitive, but  most of them have neither the talent nor the experience to excel at even the D3  level.  As the promo for Quantum Hoops proclaims:  the team has more high school valedictorians than players with extensive high school basketball experience.

To adequately treat its subject, it is important that the documentary  not moralize.  We cannot help  seeing the humor in the ineptness of the team and the severity of its conference losing streak, but at the same time we must admire the academic accomplishments of the players, their real dedication to gradual athletic  improvement and their enjoyment of participation in sport.  So the errant passes and occasional airballs make us laugh, but that laugh never turns into derision.  We learn to admire their tenacity and appreciate the pedagogy of their excellent coach.  The commentary by director Rick  Greenwald  not only adds to our appreciation of certain details of the film, but also shows how careful he was to give the video the right tone.

But I have no intentions of being a film critic.  Quantum Hoops can attain cult status simply on the basis of its title.  Having gone through a few years of a joint math/physics major before deciding to definitively opt for mathematics, I have a modicum of appreciation of the difficulty of doing theoretical physics.  Attending a conference given by Paul Dirac at Syracuse University early in my undergraduate years was one great moment in my early academic life.  (Again my friend Dante Giarrusso was responsible for motivating this trip to our neighboring campus.)  The presenter at that conference was the head of the Physics Department at Syracuse during that epoch, the great Peter Bergmann, a one time associate of Albert Einstein.  I still remember the pleasure that he took in introducing Dirac that day.   So anyone who teaches and does research in theoretical physics has my admiration.  In fact, even for the profane, the history of the development of theoretical physics in the last century is fascinating.  (If there were footnotes in this blog, I would  here make reference to the very enjoyable, recently published book by Sheilla Jones,  The Quantum Ten,  Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, 2008.)

Of course, I have been a basketball fan for a long time.  My personal basketball career was less than illustrious, but I always understood attendance at our high school games as an implicit obligation.  The Syracuse Parochial League of that epoch consisted of teams from virtually all the parish high schools in the city.  Its caliber was not as good as the county league which featured larger schools and better players, but competition was fierce between certain rival schools.  In the same way, when I was a student at LeMoyne College I attended many home games, but the caliber at LeMoyne was far below that of  the neighboring  D1 powerhouse Orange.  So I would hardly look down on Caltech basketball because it is D3.  Success is, of course, relative.  We must remember that not every college or university possesses the institutional culture which demands quasi-professional athletic achievement.

So Quantum Hoops can also be used as a point of reference for a reflection on NCAA sports.  It is hard to combine stellar basketball talent and stellar academic achievement.  We recall  Bill Bradley and David Robinson, both of whom were exceptional NBA players.  They were outstanding athletes  by professional basketball standards and equally exemplary individuals  in both academics and social commitment.  Yet neither passed through a program of study as demanding as theoretical physics before landing in the NBA.

Bradley and Robinson both contradict the popular view that athletic stardom and a modicum of intellectual achievement are inversely proportional.  Using the Quantum Hoops video as background, we can appeal to them to bring the perennial topic of the relation between academics and sport to the forefront.  Weekend television in the Fall and the Winter is inundated with collegiate  football and basketball;  in many areas of the country, collegiate sports are more popular than the corresponding professional leagues.  American male athletes in the major sports (basketball, football, baseball) often grow up with the dream of one day playing professional ball.  That dream can quickly turn to illusion relatively early in their lives.  Playing NCAA sports is already an accomplishment, especially at the D1 level.  But even then, only a relatively few NCAA players will subsequently play professional sports in the major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB).

The dynamic that characterizes participation in sport at that level is sometimes not appreciated by the public.  The sports structure is like a pyramid.  To make it to the top normally demands talent, work and a certain measure of luck.  Playing at a high level on that pyramid is already exceptional.  For example, we can easily name many great collegiate basketball players who either never got a chance to play in the NBA or were not quite able to make a career in that league.  A similar thing can be said for other sports.  I was extremely pleased that my son was able to pitch in D1 baseball, but more pleased that he combined a reasonable athletic career with graduation in 4 years,  a degree magna cum laude and  induction into Phi Beta Kappa.  At the same time, I saw others who misinterpreted their situation, ending up with neither a professional career nor a diploma.  I have no sympathy with the purist’s version of academia which would seek to ban organized sports from campus.  But there is a point of view from which  the Caltech Beavers can be considered successful and, if there is a lesson to be reiterated from Quantum Hoops, it may be the banal reminder that enjoyment of sport and personal success do not always have to be evaluated from the perspective of a culture mesmerized by professional sport.


Quantum Hoops (1)

January 3, 2009


I probably first heard about Caltech in late high school or early college.  My friend Dante Giarrusso, currently a mathematics professor at Saint Lawrence University, was excited by his discovery of  the popular Caltech physicist Richard Feynman.  Dante’s usual practice was to invite me to his house for a pot of coffee and then give me a mini-course on his latest discovery.  There were a few times when the experience was a little arduous, but I will always be grateful to him as much for the enthusiasm as  for the knowledge.  Intellectual curiosity was not all that common in our neighborhood.

Much later, in the early 2000’s when my son was preparing for the SAT,  I looked at typical entrance  scores for various universities and was surprised (probably due to the Easterner’s typical regional bias) to see Caltech at the top of  the list I was perusing.  Since my son was a baseball player, out of curiosity I took a look at the Caltech baseball program:  to describe it as dismal would be an exercise in understatement.  Basketball results were as bad, if not worse.

In subsequent years, I checked on Caltech basketball from time to time.  The only connection I had with that university was my use of  articles on scientific education, written by its former president ( Nobel Prize winner) David Baltimore, as texts in an obligatory science integration component for my math students who were envisaging careers in the Health Sciences. Then I discovered the video Quantum Hoops:  great title, great logo.  By chance, a friend and former colleague, lawyer and political scientist C.F. Levine, had a contact at Caltech.  Through her he obtained a t-shirt with the Quantum Hoops logo from the university bookstore.  So I had a Quantum Hoops shirt to wear even if I hadn’t yet seen the video.

Chance events are a common occurrence in fiction, but as the consecrated saying implies, reality is more random than fiction.  At the end of  September, my wife Barbara and I were spending a week in the Bay Area, visiting California for the first time.  We had purchased tickets to a Giants game at AT&T Park and the afternoon of the game we were wandering in the city, leisurely making our way to McCovey Cove.   The Martin Luther King Memorial  was on our way to the ballpark.  There had been a large event of some kind in Yerba Buena Gardens the previous day:  clean up in the area was winding down.  I was wearing my Quantum Hoops shirt, a decision based on not wearing a Giants logo to the game against LA: not that I like the Dodgers, but their catcher Russell Martin had once played ball with my son and we are still friends with some of his family.  Out of feelings of solidarity with the Martin family, it was probably best to avoid exaggerated partisan commitment to the Giants that day.

I was surprised to be approached by a young lady who was helping with the clean up, even more surprised when I realized that the  shirt drew her attention.  She had in fact worked on the video and was impressed by seeing someone in SF wearing the shirt.  Of course, meeting  someone who was actually connected to Quantum Hoops was totally unexpected.  I probably don’t know more than three people who even suspect that Caltech has a basketball team.  It turns out that Laurie was credited as Executive Producer of the video. I  promised her to actually purchase the video, so I now have to both acknowledge our meeting and confirm that I have kept my promise.

With Laurie Langford in San Francisco

With Laurie Langford in San Francisco

What’s wrong with bowling?

November 19, 2008

The question posed in this title is deliberately ambiguous.  We can ask it in the sense of  ” what’s wrong with participating in the game of  bowling ? “, which implies questioning  the cultural and social status of the game.  Or we can ask it in the sense of  ” what is not working properly within the game of bowling ? ”  which implies questioning the interior workings of the game itself from the point of view of those who participate in it.  Trying to examine the first sense of the question will forcibly lead to some discussion of the second.

It is a fact that bowling is looked down upon by many in the middle and upper income echelons of  North America.  (I would be tempted to use the word class rather than the term “income echelon” despite the widespread denial of its pertinence on this continent.)  It is often associated with “common” people, bad taste , lack of sophistication,  a little like country music.  Professionals, entrepreneurs, the cultural elite, the idle rich, do not bowl.  They sail, ski, play tennis, golf, handball.  If the office hits the lanes, it’s looking for quaintness: a chance to wear funny shoes, drink pitchers of beer and pitch strangely colored balls at a distant triangular formation of objects.  It’s a once a year affair, a part of what was called “slumming” in 50’s films.

Yet, I have a Ph. D. and I bowl.  During my graduate career, I once took a reading course from a great American research mathematician (algebraic topologist Mark Mahowald) who was as enthusiastic about his Thursday night bowling league as he was about his research.  I really do know people with accredited degrees who bowl.  In fact, bowling is growing as a competitive sport in U.S. colleges.  There is no a priori reason why bowling and intelligence should be mutually exclusive.  And there are bowlers whose incomes would qualify them as “well-off” or better.  So the common attitude about bowling can’t be completely correct.

On the other hand, that attitude is still prevalent in society at large.  One of the reasons may be the past association of bowling with ethnicity: Italians, Poles, Jews, bowl.  In other words, bowling is still identified with working class immigrants of the early to mid 20th century.  In many parts of America, there were not just neighborhood “bowling alleys”, but also lanes at ethnic social clubs with names like the Polish-American Veterans Association.  The great bowling towns were cities like Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, old industrial centers with large “ethnic” populations.  When I was young, I lived within 25 minutes walking distance of three “bowling centers” (the politically correct industry term for what used to be called “bowling alleys”).  One of them was owned by Danny Biasone, also owner of the NBA Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers), a friend of my father’s and the legendary inventor of the 24 second clock.  The Catholic high school I attended actually had 4 lanes in the building which housed the gym (actually an old basketball court) and the cafeteria.  The parish leagues played on those lanes.  My friends and I would sometimes bowl there on Sunday evenings.  That parish, Assumption Church in Syracuse, was founded by German Immigrants and would now be considered “inner city”.  There was no social stigma in bowling on those lanes.  In fact, in the days that I attended high school at Assumption, we had a female bowling team (but no male one, for some strange reason).  Ironically (given the fact that bowling apologists are always comparing the game to golf), I was once a member of the golf team: not that I was any good, but I was as good as most of my classmates, and during competitions I got to play private courses that were otherwise inaccessible to me.

When you ask academics about bowling, the best response you get is a condescending reference to The Big Lebowski. But there is academic recognition of a certain social function of bowling: Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a contemporary sociological classic (with a great cover in its paperback edition).  In that book, league bowling in America is cited as an activity demonstrating exemplary social cohesion and “bowling alone” signifies the decay of that cohesion accompanied by the concurrent isolation of the individual in current society.  Putnam shows that, since the 1950’s, general participation in social activities ( league bowling, implication in local politics, volunteer work in neighborhood churches, active membership in service clubs, etc.)  has drastically declined.  This decrease of “social capital” will presumably not only have a negative effect on the social fabric (if I may add, this despite the new virtual solidarity of internet communication), but may also have dangerous consequences for the American ideal of participatory democracy.

The United States is no longer a nation which is attempting to assimilate the same immigrant nationalities which I previously mentioned.  With the gradual dispersion of those ethnic groups outside the cores of the old industrial cities (of the Northeast and the Midwest), bowling has somewhat changed its appearance.  Big tournaments are now often held in “non-traditional” bowling places such as Nevada.  The USBC ( United States Bowling Congress, bowling’s regulatory body) is in the process of moving its headquarters from the Milwaukee area to the Dallas region.  I don’t know if the demographic profile of the bowling public has been studied in depth, but according to the American Demographics web site (July ,1998 article by Lisa Krakowka), bowling was the most popular participation sport in the U.S. in 1997 (53 million Americans bowled at least once that year- basketball was second at 45 million).  The USBC put the number of participants at 66 million in 2006 (21 million of whom were between ages 6 and 17).  So there is a contradiction between the number of participants in bowling and the image of the sport.

Part of this image problem is due to the lack of differentiation of the various levels of participation in bowling . There are those who go out once a year at office events, families who go for an outing together. There are recreational leagues and, of course, more serious competitive leagues. The same is more or less true for golf (as I noted, bowling loves to compare itself to golf ), but somehow golf retains its prestige whereas bowling is often identified with its lowest participatory skill level.  It’s as if the mere mention of golf were to conjure up an instant mental image of mini-putt.

On the other hand,  it is only fair to say that the inflated bowling averages of today tend to accentuate the perception that it is not difficult to bowl at a high level. These inflated averages are the result of maintenance practices in bowling centers and advances in equipment design.  The bowling ball has become more powerful: easier to roll and harder hitting.  Combined with the practice of oiling lanes in such a way as make it easier to obtain abundant pinfall, the use of this equipment has brought scoring to unprecedented levels.  A player with relatively mediocre skills can perform well statistically on these lanes, but would not have the level of accomplishment necessary to compete on the more difficult lane conditions used by the PBA (Professional Bowlers’ Association) or in international tournaments.

Of course, the television image of bowling doesn’t help build its prestige. Locally televised competitions do not always feature the highest level players.  Participation is often emphasized more than skill.  Then there is the problem of the Professional Bowlers’ Tour. The PBA is regarded as representing the highest level of competition in bowling.  The final round of its weekly  tournaments was a traditional occupant of a time slot on Saturday afternoon network sports television for over thirty years.  The “Tour” had announcers and color commentators who were readily identifiable. by the general viewing public.  However, in the late nineties, through a series of circumstances, the PBA encountered sponsor problems, financial difficulties, and shaky television presence.  It was eventually  purchased by three former Microsoft executives who attempted to adapt it to a new audience.  Various experiments in television formats were tried to attract new sponsors and higher ratings.  PBA telecasts presently have a more stable format and a schedule on the ESPN cable network.  Some innovations (such as better explanation of lane oil patterns that determine the type of  ball speed,  rotation and trajectory to the pins that lead to optimal results) have been successful, others (such as sponsor names on plastic balls used for spares, attempts to make the bowlers ridiculously demonstrative so as to cultivate dubious “personalities”, etc.) tend to reinforce the old bowling stereotypes. This is also reflected in advertising.  The companies that sponsor the PBA telecast are most often far from Fortune 500 enterprises.  To make matters worse, the commentators sometimes lack professionalism.  The current analyst, Randy Pedersen, himself a former (excellent) player, tends to orient the broadcast to the lowest common denominator of viewer and himself often fails to rise above that level.

The professional ladies’ tour completely disappeared because of lack of sponsorship.  Attempts are being made to revive women’s professional bowling.  The lack of a stable media presence for female professionals is also disappointing, given the current skill level of women bowlers.  But even for male professionals, prize money remains low.  For example, the greatest player in the history of the sport, Walter Ray Williams, who has been a PBA competitor since 1980 and recently won his 45th tournament, has yet to crack total earnings of 4 million dollars.  The winner of last week’s tournament obtained $25,000.  This is derisory money in the today’s sports’ world.  The limited number of tournaments and low prize funds, combined with the expenses incurred by players who participate in these tournaments does not encourage the pursuit of bowling as a professional sport in the U.S.  International tournaments can sometimes lead to better paydays.  Despite a strong high school presence, an increasing popularity at the collegiate level and a strong level of international competition, bowling is still far from being recognized as a legitimate sports endeavor in North America.

** I must note that I am a USBC Silver Level certified (1999) instructor.  In 1998, I  was among the first 35 instructors in the world to complete technical certification by IPBSIA (International Pro Shop & Instructors Association).  I have assisted in instruction and translation at Buffa Bowling (Saint-Léonard, Québec ) and have worked at clinics for G. R. Bowling Inc. in both Québec and Ontario.

Baseball Reminiscences (2)

November 7, 2008

williehat4In 1979, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series, defeating the Earl Weaver Orioles in a classical good vs. evil battle.  To me there was nothing benevolent to say about those Orioles, Earl Weaver and his type of managing.  On the other hand, the Willie Stargell era Pirates are my favorite team of all time.  That group really had the aura of a genuine championship team and, maybe even more importantly, had players with both character and personality.  It is satisfying to me that, when I wear the 1979 black Pirate retro hat that my son bought for me in Cooperstown, people still occasionally stop to tell me how great or how cool that team was.  There is something about that Pittsburgh team that generates good feeling among fans, even sometimes among those too young to remember that Series (as I found when my son was playing college ball).  Every Pirate follower from that epoch remembers the reward for outstanding contribution to the team: the distribution of stars to add to the player’s cap. The picture of  Stargell that I have here must certainly be from the beginning of a season because a starless Willie is inconceivable.  An acquaintance of mine, Steve Oleschuk, scouted for the Pirates back then and was rewarded with a World Series ring, his claim to fame in the baseball business. The possession of that ring is a badge of pride, a recognition of somehow being a part of that Pirate family.

So I guess that (as a Pirate fan) I was an exception in Montréal because the Expo teams of that period were good and competitive. There were fans at the Stadium. Interest in baseball was high.  In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I attended a fair number of games, either with my wife or with friends.  What Montréal baseball fan could  forget the base stealing of Ron LeFlore and Rodney Scott, the hitting of the great outfield of Valentine/Dawson/Cromartie, the stellar defense of Gary Carter, the pitching of Steve Rogers?  We often sat in the upper deck at the Stadium, the same upper deck that was almost always closed in the last days of the franchise in this city.

I usually chose my games based on the opposition.  I wasn’t a Cub fan, but didn’t want to miss great starts (with 7 innings of ground balls) from “Big Daddy” Rick Reuschel and the always interesting at-bats of Dave Kingman.  In those days, the Cardinals had a couple of good base stealers and their games against the Expos often had moments at which the opportune steal made a serious difference.  I remember going with my father to a Cards game in which Expo legend Tim Raines stole his first base in the majors. George Hendrick, Garry Templeton, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Bruce Sutter, Ted Simmons were players to remember.  And no one in Montréal can forget that there was a time when Joaquin Andujar seemed unbeatable.

Manny Sanguillen

Manny Sanguillen

Of course, I was most interested in the visits of the Pirates and the Giants. It was obligatory that my father and I sit behind first base when Willie McCovey made his last tour of the league in 1980.  Jeffrey Leonard always impressed me with his attitude toward  home runs. I saw current Giants’ broadcaster Dave Krukow pitch in Montréal, although I can’t really recall if he was with Chicago or the Giants at the time.  I was at the stadium when Willie Stargell hit what was supposed to be the longest home run ever hit in Olympic Stadium.  After they put a yellow seat in the deck at the place that the ball finally landed, it was a personal obligation to take all my baseball fan friends visiting from out of town to sit in that seat and marvel at the distance the ball had traveled. The pitcher who gave up that moonshot, Wayne Twitchell, whose career with the Expos was rather dismal, exposed himself to ridicule when he blamed his bad performance that day on the drinking water in this area.  The water here may not be the best, but Twitchell was no Nolan Ryan either.  To tell the truth, I rarely had pangs of guilt when Stargell, Madlock, Parker, Sanguillen and other Pirates beat up Expo pitching.  And, if any one asks me who was the best Expo hitter I ever saw, I have to make sure that I mention the transplanted Pirate Al Oliver.

Another great team from that era was the Philadelphia Phillies, whose roster was populated with legends like Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Tug McGraw, Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, Garry Maddox and Steve Carlton. Rogers/Carlton pitching match ups were among the best in baseball.  I was at Olympic Stadium with some colleagues from work on a Friday night in late September, 1979 when an uncharacteristic performance by Phillie pitcher Dickie Noles essentially knocked the Expos out of the pennant race.  140,000 fans attended that weekend series.  One of my favorite Expo moments was in a game when Steve Rogers was cruising along in full control and had retired Mike Schmidt three times that evening.  Rogers wanted to make it four in a row, elected to face Schmidt, and he hit a monster shot that led to the Expos’ downfall. I always admired Rogers for challenging the Phillie great.  It was a baseball moment that transcended winning or losing.

In the late 70’s I also developed a kind of benevolent fan attitude toward the Atlanta Braves.  They were going through some bad years (both in performance on the field and in attracting fans at home), but Phil Niekro’s starts in Montréal were not to be missed.  He could put the first five hitters of a game on base and not be anywhere near the plate with that knuckleball, then be in total control for the next 5 or 6 innings.  Games with Niekro and the Expos’ Ross Grimsley could have been played without the enforcement of the batting helmet rule.  At the the other end of the velocity spectrum, J. Rodney Richard of the Astros was king.  I was fortunate to see him pitch here once.

In those years, I was happy  to live in a city with a major league franchise.  Having grown up with baseball on the radio, I enjoyed the broadcasts by Jacques Doucet and Claude Raymond.  Attending games with friends and family was agreeable, but it took on a little different dimension when my son (born in 1983) started playing baseball.

The picture of my father in a classic Expos’ jacket dates from the late 70’s. This windbreaker was actually bought at the Expos’ office in Olympic Stadium. It was a time before massive sports’ merchandising was rampant.093

Baseball Reminiscences (1)

October 29, 2008

In recent years, I have associated the end of the baseball season with a type of sadness: maybe it’s the slow termination of a certain rhythm that the routine of 160 plus games imposes on the fan, maybe it’s the melancholy of autumn. I really don’t know the precise year that I first began following the sport.  When I was very young and living in Syracuse, my uncle Eddie would  visit and glorify the exploits of Mantle, Skowron and Ford.  When he died a couple of years ago, his family placed a Yankee flag near the altar at his funeral mass. That mass was the occasion for an amazing juxtaposition. The celebrant, a black immigrant priest, invoked Heidegger in the best reflection on life I have ever heard at a Catholic funeral.  At the end of the service a half hour later, the church organist played Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  It was almost enough to induce remorse for my classic anti-Yankee feelings.  After all, if the Catholic Church, Heidegger and my uncle were on the side of the NYY, what was wrong with me?

In elementary school, I had the usual collection of baseball cards and tried to invent baseball games of various sorts with my friend Gary Hamelin.  Our games could never match Paul Auster’s elaborate construction in Hand to Mouth. My cousin Leo Miller was the happy owner of a Coleco-Ellis All Star Baseball game and the occasional visits to his apartment in (what seemed at the time far away) Marcellus were opportunities for choosing teams and savoring the resulting competition.  This cousin was a much better athlete than I was (he even made all-county basketball in high school), so victories in All Star baseball were a sort of revenge.

As for actual playing, after I left my grandparents’ apartment to live with my parents in the Lyncourt area, I played after school games in the street behind Saint Daniel’s.  We weren’t elite players and I had a short and singularly unimpressive little league career.  It was in the days when there was often little help with learning fundamentals of the game and, although I could sometimes hit the ball decently, my lack of defensive skills and foot speed made it hard to find a position to play.  I ended up a very mediocre corner outfielder, in fact, a sort of DH before the time that role was officially introduced in the game.  I did get my name in the paper once or twice for hitting prowess, but it wasn’t against solid competition.

When I got to high school, my participation in sports was more or less restricted to pickup games with friends.  Baseball and basketball were the dominant sports in our group, but golf and bowling were also on the agenda.  There were periods when we took pleasure in playing a series of derivative games, for example, 2 against 2 baseball-like contests with a stick and a ball made of tape wound around aluminum foil (called a Butchie Borden ball for a reason I never knew) in a restricted space between garden and driveway.  The game demanded slick fielding to protect various flowers and tomato plants which belonged to Italian immigrants whose sympathy for any vegetation outweighed interest in strange games played by their sons. The Borden period didn’t last very long and was replaced by countless sessions of wiffle ball.  For me those evolved into one-on-one confrontations with my friend, (the poet) Bobby Lietz, whose father had actually pitched in the minor leagues.  Description of those games would be a subject for another day, better served by Bob’s poetic language even though no one could not trust the non- partisan character of his narrative (especially since he too is an incorrigible Yankee fan). The games were often played in his family’s driveway,  where the rules were strange and involved walls, trash cans and other obstacles.  It was virtually necessary to lift a fly over the house to get a real home run.  These wiffle ball games sometimes resembled (Samuel) Beckett-like plays laced with trash talking dialogue.  Some even included the occasional appearance by an elderly widow who did not appreciate foul balls hit in her yard and whose anger Bobby tried to deflect on me by claiming that it was in fact I who had killed her husband.  I’m happy that she never totally believed him. Thankfully Bob was always better suited for poetic hyperbole than for the rhetoric of persuasion.  We did not call balls and strikes and there was no pitch count but, despite occasional disagreements, good will prevailed.  Wiffle ball games later became pretexts for sporadic get-togethers when both Bob and I moved away from central New York.

Some of my friends eventually went out for our high school team.  I did not, but since I was considered an academic star (it was a small high school) who could play most sports at an adequate level, I was not ostracized for it.  When I was in 9th grade and unhappily adjusting to a new school, my team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, defeated the hated NY Yankees in the World Series and gave me a moment to savor.  I still meet the occasional Pirate fan who wants to reminisce by asking where I was at the time that Bill Mazeroski hit that famous home run.  I truly believe that my attitude toward the NYY was born from a sense of contrariness, but it was also fueled by having to endure Mel Allen broadcasts that were picked up by a local Syracuse station.  As we know, memories are not always trustworthy, but I am sure that I at one time had the impression that baseball was a seemingly infinite number of World Series involving the Yankees and the equally hated Dodgers.  I adopted the Giants as my second favorite NL team by simple elimination of the two other originally NY based teams.  I was not really an American League fan.  Of course, my friend the poet Lietz, the Yankee fan, was with me when we learned of the Yankees’ defeat at the hands of Mazeroski.  Partisan attitudes in baseball are often strange.  I first became a Pirate fan because the team was so awful at the time when I first became aware of baseball and I had the impression that Pittsburgh must be an interesting city.  My father was a Red Sox fan out of dislike for the NYY, a dislike born out of his reaction against their popularity in our native central New York (and his admiration for Ted Williams and later Carl Yazstremski).  My son,  who grew up in Montréal an Expos fan, also later became a Red Sox fan.  One of the reasons: a certain dislike for the NYY because of their popularity in the Albany area where he went to college and played baseball.

I only followed baseball peripherally in my college and grad school days.  In college, my interest shifted much more to basketball.  In grad school, I played a little softball.  It wasn’t a complete disconnect, but there were other preoccupations.  I only came back to the game in a more serious way after I moved to Montréal and after the Expos moved into the Stade Olympique.  I can still remember my first game in Montréal.  It was, in fact, the first Major League game I ever saw in person.  It was probably in July, 1977 when my friend the poet Lietz came to visit and suggested that we see the Expos.  The Pirates were in town and all I remember was the thunder of Rich Gossage’s fastballs closing out the game.  I believe that the Pirates won the game, but more importantly, I was hooked on baseball again.

Luckily, my wife also learned to like baseball.  We started listening to the French language broadcasts of games. (I could say that we didn’t listen in English because we were learning to live en français, but must also add that Duke Snider of the hated Dodgers did color commentary in English here.)  Then we started to go fairly frequently to see the Expos, either alone or with friends.  When our daughter (born in 1978) was old enough to accompany us to the Stade, we would take her along for afternoon games.  There was a lot of apple juice consumed and a certain number of diaper changes performed in the upper deck. Those were the days when the Expos had a sizable following.  The picture at the top of this blog entry is our daughter Andrée crossing the turf of the Stade Olympique on Photo day in 1979.  It was not my plan to influence her subconscious by having her attend these games at an early age.  On the other hand, I did have a plan to make her a jazz fan by listening to Thelonious Monk and dancing to Weather Report when she was very young.  She is neither a baseball nor a jazz fan now, but I’m still hoping that one morning she will wake up with a strange urge to listen to Stanley Turrentine and then catch a plane to San Francisco to see the Giants.

Happier Times for Baseball in Montréal

Happier Times for Baseball in Montréal

The Barry Bonds phenomenon reminds me of what we        Americans were taught in the days of the old Soviet Union.  In that type of Communist society, an individual could vanish, suddenly disappear.  With a change of regime or possibly on some bureaucratic whim, the same person could then reappear as a rehabilitated comrade.  ( In fact, there seems to be a certain number of contemporary phenomena which remind me of what we were taught about the Soviet Union in those days, but that is a topic for another blog entry.)  Barry Bonds has indeed basically disappeared from public memory (outside of San Francisco) except when an unhappy journalist or some fan in the thralls of unbridled moral indignation takes up the old mantra of  “cheating” in sports.  Very few observers of the baseball scene seem to want to discuss the topic of Bonds’ banishment.  There is certainly little talk about suspicions of collusion (a well known baseball term) with respect to his absence, even when it is sometimes mentioned that Team X may have benefited from a power bat in the middle of its mediocre lineup and that the absence of said bat caused the team to tank in early July.

I admit to being a Bonds fan.  In fact, Barry played for the two teams that I have liked since my youth: the San Francisco Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates.  I also admit that there is not much joy in being a Pirates’ fan in recent years.  About the best one can say about the current Pirates is that they have a great park. The Giants have come close to winning it all in recent years, but no Giant fan can forget that day in the fall of 2002 when Dusty Baker decided to take Russ Ortiz out of a crucial game to celebrate a little too early.  The current Giants provide little excitement outside of Tim Lincecum’s starts.  Decent pitching can not carry a team with as little offense as the 2008 Giants provide.  Again the ballpark is better than the team which it houses.

Despite Bonds’ virtual disappearance (we did see him at a Giants’ ceremony this year), books about him and the current situation in baseball are still found on the shelves of major bookstores.  This summer I read three of these books: Game of Shadows (Mark Fainaru-Wada & Lance Williams, 2006),  Juicing the Game (Howard Bryant, 2006) and Asterisk (David Ezra, 2008).

Game of Shadows is probably the best known of the three.  It contains the allegations about Bonds that were part of the “Balco Scandal”.  The more credible parts of the book actually deal with drug use in track and field competitions.  We get an unforgettable portrait of Balco chief Victor Conte as a sleazy con artist trying to work his way into the inner sanctums of various sports.  The description of the world of Olympic level track and field leaves the reader with the feeling that the baseball world is, comparatively speaking, a  moral paradise.  However, it is too evident that the authors also really dislike Bonds.  The spin on his character and personal life is extremely negative.  The book does not make an absolutely convincing case against Bonds and is relatively devoid of serious baseball insight.  It basically has a vendetta feeling about it: we don’t like this guy and we are going to bring him down.

Asterisk is the counter point to the baseball part of Game of Shadows. The author essentially takes all the  Balco type allegations concerning Bonds and either discredits or refutes them.  Here we are basically in the presence of an aggressive lawyer vigorously using the reasonable doubt defense.  Although the author’s style leaves a little to be desired, his argumentation is fairly solid and he adds some anecdotal evidence that is favorable to a more balanced appreciation of Bonds’ situation.

The most serious baseball oriented book among the three is Juicing the Game, which is not strictly concerned with Bonds, but rather with the state of baseball since the 1994 labor conflict.  It situates Bonds’ achievements in that broader context.  I believe that this is the correct way to approach the question of those achievements and Bonds’ supposed steroid use, especially when we consider his role in the revival of the Giant franchise in San Francisco.

First, there is the question of steroid use: did Bonds systematically use illicit substances to enhance his performance?  That question has not definitively been answered at this point.  Until Bonds admits to deliberate sustained drug use or until there is actual proof that he used these products over a prolonged period of time, any accusation of this type of substance abuse is relatively (permit me to use the word) unsubstantiated.  Anecdotal evidence or fabricated myths are not proof of actual programmatic drug use. The fact that Bonds’ body does not look like what it was when he was 18 years old (neither does Vladimir Guerrero’s or mine, for that matter) is not real evidence.  The fact that he hit home runs en masse at 40 years old is not evidence either (See Baseball Prospectus’ discussion of  “power spikes” in players’ careers in Baseball Between the Numbers, 2006).  In fact, Ezra’s book is excellent in its discussion of many of these aspects of Bonds’ alleged steroid use.

Secondly, suppose that Bonds used steroid type substances for some period of time.  The question to be asked is: what does steroid use exactly do to make a player better?  Does the player have better recuperation time, better reflexes, more endurance, more power, better hand-eye coordination?  In the case of baseball, it is said that there are certain advantages to be gained from steroid use, but there has been no real attempt (that I know of) to publicly identify a specific performance enhanced  by steroid use by a particular player in a given situation in his career.  For example, is it apparent that a particular fly ball hit by Bonds on a given day, in a given stadium, off a 90 mph fastball, actually travel X feet farther because of a strength boost from a steroid type product?  Did the Rocket throw 90+ mph further into his starts late in August because of some type of drug use?  If the allegations of steroid use were taken seriously by those involved in the game and the baseball public, these type of questions would be discussed in greater depth.  In other words, let’s have concrete examples.

We also know that steroid use does not guarantee great performances.  Most of the minor league players who were suspended for steroid use never even made it to the major leagues and most marginal or average players suspected of this illicit substance use have remained marginal or average.  And it is necessary to point out that we are in an era when the use of nutritional supplements of all kinds is common in sports. Howard Bryant points out that the Congress was actually complicit in the spread of supplement use when it deregulated the nutritional supplement field in 1994.  I was made aware of the use of protein supplements when my son started playing Division 1 baseball.  It was if the baseball coaches were more interested in weight training and the physical stature of their players than in their baseball fundamentals. Obviously, the step to steroid type drug use is a step beyond this, but the culture of the cultivation of physical stature exists in baseball: your team may not win its conference, but those players sure look good.

In my view, there must be something else at stake here.  Obsession with baseball records is one thing.  But serious baseball fans know that baseball has passed through various “eras” and that the relation between offense and pitching has not remained constant over the years.  The “dead ball” era is not only chronologically, but also statistically, far removed from the baseball of  2000.  If we refer to a time closer to our contemporary scene, the years in the 1960’s  when a player could win a batting crown with a .300 average are now also seen as anomalies.  As comforting as it is to have a sort of benchmark like 60 home runs in a season, why would that benchmark necessarily make sense in an era with small stadiums, very lively baseballs, little aggressive pitching, minuscule strike zones and bigger, stronger players?  ( Not to mention  the encouragement of strong offensive production by management to attract fans back to baseball after the 1994 debacle.  This is the place to thank Howard Bryant for a great job in putting all that in perspective.)  With the long careers currently enjoyed by some players, is it surprising that some hallowed lifetime performance records are in jeopardy?  Not only are careers prolonged by medical advances and better conditioning, but a superior player often begins a major league career at a relatively young age.

We have seen other examples of drug use in baseball.  Even my favorite team of all time, the Stargell era Pirates, were implicated in cocaine use.  It is not the drug use that surprises me the most, but it is rather the reaction of not only many fans, but also many casual observers of the sports scene, to the “steroid scandal”.  We are sometimes confronted with verbal and/or visual caricatures of Bonds that make him look as if he were one of those fabled Bulgarian weight lifters from Olympic competition and the opposing pitcher look as if he had just finished a career with some very non-competitive Little League team.  The idea here seems to be that Bonds was on steroids and the rest of the league, especially the pitchers, were cherubim or seraphim.  But, in this scenario, do we really know what percentage of those pitchers were (also) on steroids?  Should there be an asterisk only placed next to steroid Bonds/non-steroid pitcher home runs and not the others?  Maybe it comes down to a question of probability: determine the probably that Bonds vs, pitcher X was really a confrontation between two illicit pharmaceutical suppliers (sort of like legendary games of playground basketball teams sponsored by local drug lords).

There are certainly many opportunities to display idiotic behavior in the current baseball context, but my favorite is the one that simply says “all that I know is that Bonds is a cheater “, as if we were all on a playground in some primary school and he ran off with all of our marbles and we have to run to tell that to the first nun we see.  Maybe it says something about American society: cutting corners on taxes is okay, cutting (big) corners on Wall Street is okay (well maybe we are learning that it isn’t ), but the hint that a baseball record could be “tainted” or achieved by a player that we may not like (anyone remember Roger Maris?) is a moral outrage. Curiously, the same outrage doesn’t always apply to football.  Everyone seems to accept the presence of 300 pound linemen in college football as if these 20 year old mastodons were members of an organically cultivated indigenous species.  It seems that the only prohibited acts in that sport are limited intellectual property theft and creative celebrations in the end zone.

As a baseball aside, let’s look at Bonds’ 73 home run season and see which pitchers he homered against. There are only 10 of them with career ERA’s under 4.00 and three of those (Chuck McElroy, Mike Remlinger and Scott Sullivan) were essentially career relievers.  Two of them, Lou Pote and Chuck Smith had careers with less than 225 innings pitched in the major leagues.  The top of the line pitchers he homered against were: Kevin Appier (1), A. J. Burnett (1), Curt Schilling (3), Mike Hampton (2) and Darryl Kile (1). He also homered against Wade Miller(1), Woody Williams(1), Mark Mulder (2),  Chan Ho Park (3) and Steve Trachsel (1), each of whom could be considered as a respectable starting pitcher at some point in his career.  That is hardly 73 blasts against All-Star level pitching (and only two of these homers traveled more than 450 feet according to Baseball-almanac. com). But this is not an effort to disparage Bonds’ accomplishment. Years ago I did the same exercise with my son (romedawg31.wordpress.com) concerning Mark McGwire’s record home run season and, although we don’t usually agree on many things in baseball, we did agree that at least 50% of those homers were hit against second order pitching.  Now I admit that I haven’t done the same exercise for Babe Ruth, but it is not difficult to believe that exceptional hitters may be likely to take disproportionate advantage of mediocre pitching.

It is possible that we (outside San Francisco) can conclude that we can’t accept Bonds’ achievements because we simply don’t like him.  He is an arrogant black man who doesn’t fit the nice guy image of sports’ heroes that the media cultivates and many of us love.  He is not Cal Ripken.  Suppose that we leave the race issue aside (because it would lead us to another discussion about our sports heroes which would be even longer than this blog entry).  Why does a baseball player have to fit this image and be a “nice guy”? As a society, are we that emotionally deprived that we cannot distinguish between athletic performance and personality?  I may be a Bonds fan or a Randy Johnson fan (also true), but that does not mean that I absolutely want to hang out with either of them at my local café discussing Heidegger.   I certainly can’t blame players for being unhappy with journalists of the canonical “how does it feel ?” school.  And dissatisfied journalists can severely damage a player’s public image.  But, at any rate, what the player does in his personal life and  the state of his relations with the media are only peripherally interesting to me.  In Bonds’ favor (and this is that something purists should admire), we should also note that he has only played for two teams in his career.  And the respect that he shows for the Giant tradition is exemplary.

So, to return to our starting point, should American society rehabilitate Barry Bonds?  Will his image once again appear on our television screens without hints of the presence of federal marshals and dire tones of scandalized reporters?  When the proverbial dust settles on this baseball era and we look back on it with a little historical perspective, Barry Bonds will probably be rehabilitated.  At worst, he was the best and most talented player of a tainted era whose complexity we have not yet unraveled.  At best, he was simply the best hitter of his time and we owe him the respect that his accomplishments merit.  Yet in a country which still reveres Ronald Reagan (despite all the ravages that deregulation of the economy has inflected on American society) and which is in rapture of the down home qualities of Sarah Palin, I don’t sense that we will immediately see the type of critical thinking that will allow a measured evaluation of Bonds’ place in baseball.  Bonds will not be rehabilitated in the immediate future.  But he certainly deserves that rehabilitation and the fact that he was essentially forced out of baseball is indeed a travesty.