Monday, May 24, 2010

The Real American Heroes

HBO's "The Pacific" brings home a number of contrasts

Posted By on Mon, May 24, 2010 at 1:53 PM

Every year as Memorial Day nears, my attention turns to the Indy 500, NBA playoffs, and daytime baseball, where the beer is colder and the crack of the bat seems to sound more natural, like summer really has arrived. But these days, such thoughts are interrupted by images from The Pacific, HBo's 10-part series that wrapped its initial run on May 16th.

Produced by Tom Hanks, the series displayed the drama, horror, heartache, and ultimate victory for the United States and its allies in a theater of World War II that has long played second fiddle for American historians to the conflict in Europe. It opened my eyes, let me tell you, and reminded me how very much the world has changed in merely 65 years.

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The Marines we follow in The Pacific — men like John Basilone, Robert Leckie, and Eugene Sledge — were almost entirely between the ages of 18 and 25. Which places them in the same demographic as so many of our current sports stars. Instead of cutting to daylight on a college gridiron, though, these men dodged mortar and bullets in seizing one airfield after another. And some dodged better than others.

Instead of signing eight-figure contracts before they wear a major-league uniform, the Marines of World War II signed commitments to a battle they knew was worth fighting, but one in which the enemy was entrenched, armed to the teeth, and committed to die in defending patches of earth no American had heard of before Pearl Harbor was attacked. The invasion of Normandy was a bloody atrocity . . . and a success. With every episode of The Pacific, we were reminded how many more atrocities followed, without the flag-waving that ensued on the coast of France. Listen to the survivors of Guadalcanal, Pelelieu, Iwo Jima, or Okinawa — some of whom were featured in HBO's series — and you'll understand these men served in hell. The fact that any of them managed to live normal lives for decades after the bloodshed is purely heroic.

Which brings me back to the world of sports we cheer so passionately today. What if LeBron James (still just 25 years old), instead of being drafted out of high school in 2003 to be the next Michael Jordan, had been drafted into the Army and assigned to duty in Iraq or Afghanistan? What if Stephen Strasburg (21) was learning the ropes near Kandahar, identifying a shapeless enemy, instead of fine-tuning his curveball for when the Washington Nationals finally promote him to the majors? How quickly — three generations — we forget that athletic stars once served in the military when they were stars. Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams all served in World War II on their way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. (According to the Williams legend, there was a time when the finest hitter in the world, the finest fighter pilot in the world, and the finest fisherman in the world were all the same man.)

Tom Brokaw, among others, has called those who helped America win World War II our "greatest generation." If such is the case, I'm certainly among our country's luckiest generation. Too young for Vietnam and too old to begin a military career on September 11, 2001, my generation is an American rarity in that we never had to seriously decide between civilian life and defending a cause against an armed enemy. Which makes me admire the young men and women who choose that battle today far beyond a casual salute or a doffed hat when "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played. Unlike many American troops in World War II, U.S. forces today are voluntary, which somehow adds a layer of heroism if you ask me.

Nine years ago, I wrote a retrospective on Memphis sports that I titled "Heroes in Time." A Memphis magazine reader took it the wrong way and wrote me a stern letter, one in which he clarified that "heroes" are soldiers, not athletes. And that I shouldn't confuse the two. He wasn't entirely correct, as heroes can be found almost anywhere we choose to find them: comic books, novels, the silver screen, even a ballpark. But the kind of heroes who shape the world we live in and establish freedoms still unknown in too many corners of the globe . . . these are indeed the John Basilones and Eugene Sledges of mankind.

I plan on being at AutoZone Park for the Redbirds' Memorial Day game, with family visiting from New England. The cold beer will taste good, and the conversations I have with my daughters will be relished. But my thoughts will stray this year, as I'll be remembering American heroes, past and present. I'd like to think a holiday — in their honor — spent with my loved ones is a small salute.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Habs and Celtics: Role Reversal

Posted By on Mon, May 17, 2010 at 10:37 AM

With 17 NBA championships in their proud history, the Boston Celtics haven't played the role of underdog very often. Having won the Stanley Cup 23 times, the Montreal Canadiens are even less familiar with the role. But on back-to-back nights last week, the Celtics and Canadiens shook the NBA and NHL, respectively, and dismissed teams all but predestined for this year's championship series.

I happen to be one of the 14 people south of Chicago who care about the Stanley Cup playoffs. Having spent my high school days in Vermont, I'm as comfortable with the legend of the Canadiens as anyone who doesn't speak French as a first or second language. For Montreal to be a series away from its first Stanley Cup final in 17 years somehow seems like a return to normalcy. But for the Habs to get there by eliminating Canada's beloved Sidney Crosby (and his Pittsburgh Penguins) is indeed a shock to the system.

Sid Crosby: booking tee times.
  • Sid Crosby: booking tee times.

For the first time in three years, Sid the Kid — Olympic gold medal secure around his neck — will be reserving tee times in advance of June. Can't be a happy development for NBC, which will cling to the possibility of an Original Six finals as a hook for viewership beyond my club of 14. (If the Chicago Blackhawks can beat San Jose in the Western Conference finals and Montreal upset Philadelphia in the East, two of the NHL's original franchises will battle for the Cup for the first time since 1979.)

The night after North America's most famous hockey player was sent packing, the world's most famous basketball player was hurled headlong into the most talked-about free agency in a generation. The Celtics left little doubt in their six-game elimination of LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers (a team that won more games than any other NBA franchise in 2009-10). This, of course, was to be THE year for the Cavs. With Shaquille O'Neal essentially rented for a title run, the city of Cleveland would end one of the longest championship droughts known to man, and secure a contract extension for James that would have him owning Lake Erie by the year 2020.

Or not. Again, the TV folks — this time at ABC — are drying tears, as the Kobe vs. LeBron Finals every advertiser has paid for will not come to pass. Instead, it looks like the veteran Celtics making one last push for Title 18 against the peaking-at-the-right-time Orlando Magic, the defending Eastern Conference champs. With Phoenix's Steve Nash a series away from his first Finals — but with Kobe Bryant's Lakers in the way — the NBA playoffs are closing in on must-see territory. You gotta wonder if LeBron will be watching. (One opinion: James will stay in Cleveland. Unless his quite-public devotion to all things Ohio is merely a negotiating ploy, James will make the Cavalier franchise his for good. And you think I exaggerate about Lake Erie.)

• The easiest word to lip-read in the English language is an f-bomb. Which makes watching the Celtics like staying up to midnight staring at HBO. Over a five-minute stretch in the Game 6 win over Cleveland, I counted six such bombs from the trio of Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, and Glen Davis. Maturity is one thing; we can hardly expect pro athletes to grind their teeth when angry or disappointed, and stoically move on to the next play or game. But what about originality? Is there not another expletive — polysyllabic, perhaps — that can be the "new" f-bomb? I ask this for all the children watching.

• Over the last 13 years — a period we can only call golf's Tiger Woods Era — only three players not named after a jungle animal have won as many as three major titles: Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, and Padraig Harrington. Wonderful to see that Harrington will be among the headliners at next month's St. Jude Classic.

• If you're looking for a snakebit sport, try lacrosse. Despite the sport growing — albeit glacially — beyond the east cost and privileged set, the only national headlines lacrosse gets involve violence. First came the 2006 party/sex/rape scandal at Duke, in which Blue Devil players were accused of assaulting a stripper at a house party, only to be exonerated (much more quietly) months later. Then earlier this month, a female player at Virginia (Yeardley Love) is brutally murdered, apparently at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, a male player at UVA (George Huguely).

The sports world, in general, deserves better. And especially the ancient game of lacrosse. Fact is, the Love murder is not a sports story beyond a peripheral connection. It is, though, a tale of caution for every college campus in America. Excessive drinking, combined with the heartache of young love lost can turn a squabble into something entirely more lethal. Shouldn't take the death of a top athlete to remind us to pay attention.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cardinals' New Arrivals Shine

Posted By on Mon, May 10, 2010 at 10:00 AM

There’s a certain pride of ownership Memphis baseball fans can take in seeing former Redbirds contribute to successful teams in St. Louis. As the Cardinals shot out of the gate this year, winning seven of their first eight series and seizing first place in the National League Central, three members of last year’s Pacific Coast League champions played important roles. With more than four months of baseball to play before the postseason, these three could well make headlines this summer beyond Cardinal Country.
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• David Freese — Acquired in a trade that sent Jim Edmonds to San Diego after the 2007 season, Freese starred for the 2008 Redbirds, hitting .306 with 26 homers and 91 RBIs. A sprained ankle early in the 2009 campaign hampered his progress, though he hit .323 in 17 games as a Cardinal. In just 56 games for Memphis, Freese drilled 10 homers and drove in 37 runs, then was instrumental in the Redbirds’ march to the PCL title. His home run accounted for the only run scored in the series-clinching victory of the opening round against Albuquerque. Then in Game 1 of the championship series against Sacramento, Freese’s sixth-inning blast was again all the Redbirds needed for the win.

Now five weeks into his first full season in the majors, Freese has all but locked up the Cardinals’ third-base job. On April 29th at Busch Stadium, Freese drove in six runs — the most by a Cardinal rookie in more than 50 years — in a 10-4 win over Atlanta. Through Sunday, Freese was hitting .320 with three home runs and 20 RBIs. Adding another power bat to a lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Ryan Ludwick, and Colby Rasmus must have National League pitchers pondering options.

• Jaime Garcia — Simply put, the 23-year-old lefty has been the third-best starter on the Cardinals’ staff. Considering the top two — Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright — finished with a silver and bronze in last year’s Cy Young voting, Garcia’s early standard is beyond the most optimistic expectations. On April 17th, he matched two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana pitch for pitch in a game that wouldn’t see a run scored for 18 innings. In each of his first six starts, Garcia pitched at least six innings and gave up more than one earned run only once (two, against the Giants). Through Sunday, he sported a 3-2 record with a 1.18 ERA. Shouldn’t surprise anyone who saw him in last year’s PCL playoffs, when he hurled 12 innings over two games without giving up an earned run.

• Nick Stavinoha — If you’re picking a player to support this season, Stavinoha is the guy. Having played 323 games for the Redbirds (fifth in franchise history), Stavinoha made the big club out of spring training ... but without a position to play. He hit .282 in 72 games for the Redbirds last year, but missed the playoffs when a pitch broke his hand late in the regular season.

Lacking the speed to play every day in the outfield, and with first base in St. Louis rather taken, Stavinoha has embraced one of the hardest jobs in sports: regular pinch-hitter. With the Cardinals down a run, one out away from a loss in Milwaukee on April 9th, Stavinoha drilled a homer off future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman to beat the Brewers, 5-4. Then on May 3rd in Philadelphia, his seventh-inning shot made a winner out of the pitcher for whom he pinch-hit: Jaime Garcia. Like a good plumber, a pinch-hitter’s job is thankless .. until he comes through, when there’s no one more valuable.

After a red-hot start in Memphis, outfielder Jon Jay was called up to St. Louis (to replace the struggling Allen Craig, who finds himself back in Triple-A). Joe Mather is a reserve outfielder for the Cards a year after being limited to 39 games for Memphis with a wrist injury. (Mather’s stolen base last Friday night in Pittsburgh led to the winning run.) If they can follow the lead of some of their 2009 teammates, the St. Louis roster won’t have many holes come October.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The View from Centerfield

Posted By on Mon, May 3, 2010 at 8:54 AM

Baseball literature changed for good with the publication of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four in 1970. With stories of locker-room rivalry, skirt-chasing, and routine drug use, Bouton took baseball fans to places never explored by the likes of Grantland Rice or Red Smith. Those heroes pictured on our baseball cards became human beings with many — perhaps more — of the frailties we battle in our lives outside the sports arena.

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Former big-leaguer Doug Glanville — now a columnist for The New York Times and an analyst for ESPN — has added to the Ball Four genre with The Game From Where I Stand, published by Times Books and scheduled to hit shelves on May 11th. Baseball has evolved in some ways over the last 40 years, devolved in others. Glanville’s book is an illuminating read for those of us who still dream of our first at-bat in the majors, as much for the darker elements of the dream it exposes as for the glamorous details of a big-league life.

Glanville’s bona fides begin with his nine-year career in the majors (1996-2004), when he was a fine center fielder — though never an All-Star – with the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, and Texas Rangers. (Glanville twice scored 100 runs in a season for the Phillies and had 204 hits in 1999.) He also, significantly, is an Ivy League scholar, a graduate of Penn. Glanville was not your average, high-school-phenom-made-good, gawking from behind the batting cage at the long-legged blonde sitting behind the visitors’ dugout (though he has a few stories of juggling romance and a 162-game schedule). To begin with, he was unafraid to ask his coaches questions once he arrived at a big-league training camp. Sometimes questions that didn’t have easy answers. The kind of questions future writers might ask.

“We spend so much time cruising along, looking to hit the straight and dependable fastball, that the audacity of something different can cause us to forget the tactics that once gave us comfort and success.” Glanville manages to eloquently elucidate some baseball-to-life metaphors — like being thrown a curveball — in a style that avoids cliche, but makes a point as worthy of consideration as the old standbys. The book is framed roughly as an allegory for a player’s career: introduction to the game, trials of the minor leagues, success (and failure) in The Show, and the inevitable call of life after baseball.

Glanville never played in a World Series, and he won’t get a vote for the Hall of Fame. Which actually makes his voice close to that of an “everyman,” if a big-league ballplayer could ever be described as such. Instead of the conquering champion we so often read about in memoirs and biographies, Glanville’s tale includes his limitations as a player, in addition to the strengths that got him to the big leagues. “The players with the most internal peace are those who know who they are and, as a result, have found personal success more accessible than the players who chase the illusions of the quantifiable.” Not the consideration of a typical baseball lifer.

Glanville dances along a conflicting line when it comes to this era’s great baseball debate: steroids. Having shunned the use of artificial enhancers, he would have a reasonable case for slinging some mud at those who extended their careers beyond nine years with the help of a syringe. Instead, he takes aim at those who leaked names from the now-infamous Mitchell Report, calling into question the morality of the hunters as much as the hunted. It makes for some provocative reading.

In his novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth wrote, “Oh, to be a center fielder ... and nothing more!” A nice sentiment, one Doug Glanville came to realize only in part. Turns out he’s far more than a center fielder.

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