Monday, September 30, 2013

TV Quote of the Day (‘Yes Minister,” on Politicians and Panic)

Sir Humphrey Appleby (played by Nigel Hawthorne, far left): “Politicians like to panic. They need activity--it’s their substitute for achievement.”—Yes Minister, Season 1, Episode 3, “The Economy Drive,” teleplay by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, directed by Sydney Lotterby (uncredited), air date March 10, 1980.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Photo of the Day: Pirates’ Shrine

Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates are experiencing emotions they haven’t felt at least in a generation, maybe ever. Oh, they’ve felt revulsion over post-All Star Game slides these last few years. Older fans are even old enough to recall when Barry Bonds, pre-PED, helped keep them competitive into October.

Before this season, fans would have celebrated the team’s first winning record and playoff appearance since 1992. But at this point, why be excited about a wild-card berth when so much more was potentially within their grasp—first place in the Central Division?

As the Pirate faithful look to the playoffs, many have undoubtedly taken to imploring otherworldly powers. And who better for this than their homegrown version of a saint?

I have already written about the Pirates’ statues of Honus Wagner and Willie Stargell. But as superb as their diamond accomplishments were, and as substantial as their clubhouse contributions, they pale next to Roberto Clemente.

The Hall of Fame right fielder did more than just get many timely home runs and throw runners out with his howitzer arm. As the major leagues’ first Latino superstar, he set an example of fierce pride and intensity that subsequent generations would follow. And he transcended the game when he died on a humanitarian plane flight to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua in 1972.

Clemente has come to resonate as something like a saint for so many people because he embodied the values of loyalty and self-sacrifice. The contrast with contemporary athletes is marked, starting with Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, as much as any contemporary player, is a brand—a fact that reaches its nadir in the recent New York Times story that notes that the team of ambulance chasers, flacks and shameless shamuses trying to overturn his unprecedentedly long suspension is named ARod Corp.

In one sense, even though I’m a Yankee fan, I’m fine with the thought that they didn’t make the playoffs (even with two wild cards) this year. That appearance would have been tainted by the idea that the Bombers benefited from, as John Sterling poetically puts it, “an A-bomb from A-Rod.”

At this point, the idea of a plaque to A-Rod (or to Roger Clemens, who notched his 300th victory with the Yankees) is obscene. (If it ever came to pass, a syringe sticking out of their hides would be appropriate.)

Such is not the case with Clemente. In an era when idols are torn down, his name not only remains unsullied, but has grown in stature, as more and more people realize the toll on his body by nagging injuries and the toll on his spirit by an uncomprehending, at times prejudiced, press corps. The Pirates’ statue in his honor was transported from Three Rivers Stadium to its new home, outside PNC Park, like a holy relic.

The bronze sculpture, by local artist Susan Wagner, now stands behind center field in the Pirates’ latest home. Fans will see this piece of art as they drive to the stadium over a bridge named after the great hitter.

Quote of the Day (The Prophet Amos, on the Complacent of His Time--And Ours)

“Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,
    and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
you notable men of the foremost nation,
    to whom the people of Israel come!...
You put off the day of disaster
    and bring near a reign of terror.
You lie on beds adorned with ivory
    and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
    and fattened calves.
You strum away on your harps like David
    and improvise on musical instruments.
You drink wine by the bowlful
    and use the finest lotions,
    but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile;
    your feasting and lounging will end.”—Amos 6: 1, 3-7 (New International Version)

The image accompanying this post is from the watercolor The Prophet Amos (ca. 1888), by James Tissot (1836 – 1902).

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Photo of the Day: Baylor’s Massacre Burial Site, River Vale NJ

The military engagements that make the history books tend to be big set-tos with many participants offering their two cents. But for people of the time, small events that brought them face to face with the enemy in their own backyards might have been more consequential. And political differences with local people you might have previously trusted for years could degenerate into a civil war that could leave scars for years.

Why should the American Revolution be anything different? Ideals of equality might have been proclaimed by Enlightenment-influenced geniuses such as Franklin and Jefferson, but the fight remained to be fought by common people up and down the East Coast. More so than we can ever imagine, the Revolution was a fratricidal mess.

On this date in 1778, just such an incident occurred in Bergen County in northeast New Jersey, not far from where I live. Col. George Baylor, a Virginian in the Continental Light Dragoons, had bivouacked his Third Regiment along the upper reaches of the Hackensack River. These exhausted troops were sleeping in a barnyard that evening when they found experienced redcoats coming at them soundlessly (the commander was nicknamed “No Flint”) with bayonets drawn.

Subsequent estimates put the number of killed at 22 and wounded at 40, but mere statistics don’t adequately convey the shock and horror felt that night. The first question faced by Continentals was, “How did British intelligence find where we were?” One possible answer: from the number of Loyalists in the area, any one of whom might have been a neighbor who betrayed them?

Thirty-nine Continental soldiers managed to escape. They wanted very much to attend to their fallen comrades. However, they were also frightened that the redcoats were still in the area, looking to finish them off.

Their work to bury the dead, then, was performed in haste. The six men they found dead at a nearby bridge were buried in abandoned leather-tanning vats, located near the Hackensack River.

American propaganda made much of the massacre, but after the war, everything settled down for years until the late 1960s, when an archaological study rediscovered the remains of the six Americans by the bridge.

Last Sunday, I visited the spot where these men are commemorated, in present-day River Vale, NJ, near its border with Old Tappan. It was an appropriately lonely spot for soldiers who met their end—nobody except myself around at that point, with the shortening hours of the pale, late-afternoon light rendering the hallowed ground even more melancholy.

Flashback, September 1968: Gibson Gem Caps Career Year on Mound

St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson capped a career year for himself—and major-league pitchers in general—by blanking the Houston Astros 1-0, at Busch Stadium on September 27, 1968—his 13th shutout of the season, the first time a National Leaguer had recorded that many since 1916.

This same season, Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers set a consecutive-innings scoreless streak record (surpassed by Orel Hersheiser 20 years later); Denny McLain became the last 30-game winner to date; and Juan Marichal, in a relatively forgotten performance, won 26 games while pitching 328 innings. But it was Gibson’s statistical and psychological dominance that made 1968 “the Year of the Pitcher.” He not only was a unanimous winner of the NL Cy Young Award, but also won the Most Valuable Player award.

For an idea of the great right-hander at this personal peak, you can start with this excerpt from a 1980 Roger Angell profile, “Distance,” in The New Yorker:

“Everything about him looked mean and loose—arms, elbows, shoulders, even his legs—as, with a quick little shrug, he launched into his delivery. When there was no one on base, he had an old-fashioned full crank-up, with the right foot turning in mid-motion to slip into its slot in front of the mound and his long arms coming together over his head before his backward lean, which was deep enough to require him to peer over his left shoulder at his catcher while his upraised left leg crooked and kicked. The ensuing sustained forward drive was made up of a medium-sized stride of that leg and a blurrily fast, sling-like motion of the right arm, which came over at about three-quarters height and then snapped down and (with the fastball and slider) across his left knee.”

The picture accompanying this post completes the motion. The force of the follow-through has not only taken Gibson off his feet, but well toward third base—seemingly way out of position to field a bunt. But that proved increasingly unlikely, not only because the ball, like so many others he hurled around this time, is at the high end of the strike zone and blindingly fast, but because the pitcher was a nine-time Gold Glove Award winner, not to mention a superb athlete who had been a Harlem Globetrotter before he settled on baseball as his profession.

This is what the 32-year-old pitcher looked like on the mound. What it leaves out is the view from the plate, where one batter after another meekly waved his bat at pitches. In fact, it might be said that while everyone else in the park was playing baseball, Gibson excelled at Fear Factor.

There was, for instance, his competitive streak—highly pronounced in any major leaguer, utterly ineradicable in him. "I've played a couple of hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter and she hasn't beaten me yet,” Gibson told Angell. “I've always had to win. I've got to win." Seventeen years after hanging up his spikes, Gibson sent a brushback pitch against Reggie Jackson in an Old-Timers Game. It didn't escape anyone's notice that at the same event the year before, Mr. October had hit a home run off him. Even now, the proud old Cardinal couldn't bear to be shown up.

That desire also fed on fierce pride (even teammates didn’t offer encouragement on the mound, lest he scare them away), resentment over racism still experienced by most black athletes in the civil-rights era, and a Darwinian instinct for survival of the fittest. If you were seeking a competitive edge against Gibson by crowding the plate, you could expect a fastball boring in you. Who did you think you were? He owned the corners of the plate.

If you celebrated after a homer, the outcome would be even more dangerous. Today, if they had the unenviable task of facing Gibson, instead of watching their handiwork sail over the fence, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez would be on their rear ends—and thankful that was the only thing to happen to them. "When I knocked a guy down, there was no second part to the story," Gibson remembered.

Remember the score of this particular victory: 1-0. Many pitchers today would want to sue for such lack of run support. But a single run was often all Gibson needed to get the job done, because in 24 of his 34 starts, he allowed zero runs or only one run. His earned run average for 1968—1.12, the second-lowest ever in the National League--became one of the best-remembered baseball stats of the 20th century. Over 99 innings in June and July, he allowed only two runs. The Cardinals weren’t a hard-hitting team, but each time he took the mound he gave them another shot of repeating as NL champs.

In addition, Gibson was about to extend his mastery into October. In his first start in the World Series, he made the Detroit Tigers look very foolish as he recorded 17 strikeouts.     

Gibson was truly King of the Mound in 1968, and in the off-season the lords of baseball monkeyed with the rules to ensure that neither he nor any other pitcher would reign with such dominance again, lowering the pitching mound from 15 to 10 inches.   

There is yet another sense in which we’ll never see his like again: Gibson set the mood and the pace for games that year. He never dawdled or agonized on the mound, demanding balls back immediately from catchers—and, partly because, after several years, he had learned to throw the curve almost as well as his fastball and slider, he wasn’t about to beat himself with walks, either. The result: fans and players could enjoy a great afternoon game and be done by 3:30, in plenty of time for other activities.

In recent years, Gibson seethed when he would be held up as an exemplar of winning through intimidation for modern pitchers. (And well he might: in the case of Roger Clemens and who knows how many others, their headhunting tendencies derived at least partly from the aggression fueled by performance-enhancing drugs, not from following any markers laid down by a classic pitcher.)

They missed the larger point: Gibson entered Cooperstown in 1981 because he refused to be conquered by adversity. As a ghetto child whose father died before he was born, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur. His career was repeatedly threatened: by a fractured leg (1962), severely damaged elbow (1966), broken other leg (1967). In the deciding game of the 1964 World Series, he was running on fumes in the last couple of innings against the New York Yankees, but he gutted out the complete-game victory. In explaining why he did not resort to a reliever—a move today’s managers would have made without a second’s thought—manager Johnny Keane gave one of the best tributes ever made to a champion: “I had a commitment to his heart.”