Fight Song

IT’S SCARY OUT THERE. Three good guys in Portland calmly try to stop a raging bully from harassing teenage girls on a train, and two of them end up dead, stabbed in the neck by the bully. You never know. Once you walk out the front door, you never know who might cross your path on a given day and challenge your sense of self and decency, not to mention your physical well-being. It can happen in an instant, as I discovered on a recent Friday evening in the north Dallas suburb of Plano. I am having dinner at a small restaurant with live jazz and acoustic guitar. Violence awaits, one table away.

It’s getting toward closing time, and an improvising duo has just hushed the crowd with a pin-dropping version of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Except, not quite all the crowd. Toward the back, right behind me, a guy is jabbering over the music. He has been jabbering for a while with a companion, and some patrons have turned their heads toward him in silent rebuke, to no avail. When the song ends, a man in a blue shirt seated at a table nearby finally speaks up and says, “Could you please keep your voice down.” The talker, who’s got some heft to him and thick features, summons the waiter and asks for his check. I’m focused on the stage, where the band is reassembling for a last few numbers. Then, a sudden clap of angry words. I turn and see the talker looming over the guy in the blue shirt, his right arm cocked to throw a punch. “Come on, you #%$#&$%#!” he yells.

MMA

A fistfight? In here? After the James Taylor song? It’s totally incongruous, but it’s totally happening. I leap up from my chair and throw my arms around the talker from behind, in order to keep him from landing a blow on his critic. I get there a half second late, and his fist has already smacked into something, a part of the other guy’s shoulder or neck. Not too bad. So far. The talker is bigger and stronger than me, probably younger. I can’t be sure in the dim light. I’m almost as old as James Taylor and have no particular experience in this area. I hug him as tightly as I can while he and the man still seated exchange insults. He looks and sounds like a highway construction boss I had one summer long ago. “You don’t want to do this,” I say. He ignores me while the guy in the blue shirt, showing no signs of fear, informs his attacker matter-of-factly that he is already guilty of assault.

I AM WONDERING if that was wise, as I wonder what to say to the talker to calm him down. His face is aflame and close to mine now. His eyes turn toward me, full of fury and payback. I keep holding on to him. Words come out of my mouth. “I’m on your side,” I say, not sure why. I am not on his side, other than the side of no one getting blood on their clothes on this Friday evening. I don’t know either of these men. We are strangers, the three of us.

He and his critic continue to trade unpleasantries. I keep my arms clenched around his shoulders, waiting for someone else to come over to help. No one does. I figure he could surely get loose if he wanted, but I might have done the right thing by simply allowing him the appearance of being restrained. Now, he can back away without backing down. But I don’t really know what is going on in his head. Maybe he will break my grasp and then my nose. He could pull out a gun and shoot me, along with the guy who only wanted to hear the music. Two words come to mind: Concealed Carry.

By the standards of barroom melees, this was nothing, yet afterward I couldn’t let go of what happened – or almost happened. I was reminded that, not counting a supervised three-minute round with boxing gloves in middle school (when I was pummeled by a more adept classmate), I have never been in a real fight. How many men want to admit that? In the week after this incident, I asked a bunch of guys my age if any had ever been in a fistfight. Most of them had played contact sports in high school and college, and most of them said no. Most of them are privileged and white. One exception, a distinguished journalist, told me he grew up in a working class neighborhood in Southern California where fistfighting was common and accepted. His older brother taught him how to block punches. And it came in handy.

I GOT NO SUCH TRAINING. When I was 8 or 9, we had a bully in the neighborhood, and my mother told my father he needed to teach me to fight to protect myself. My father, a good man, standing on principle, declined. He told her he was not going to do anything to encourage fighting because that was the problem with the world. Peace had to start at home, he reasoned – on your street, in your yard, in your heart. Years later, I can’t argue with that but also see the challenge it poses to someone being called a pussy by a guy who wants to fight just because that someone politely pointed out his rude behavior.

Hamilton-Burr Duel 1807

At last, I feel the talker’s body unclench, and I pull my arms away. He retreats slowly, gathers his female companion and heads toward the door. He shoots a stare over his shoulder back in the direction of the man who asked him to be quiet, and I’m thinking, we are not done yet. But by now the owner of the place has emerged to escort him amicably out of the room. All this has happened in a blur, and as I sit down again, I begin to question what I have done. Might there still be further consequences? The talker could still come back with a firearm and the resolve to avenge his injured pride. Such things happen all the time in bad neighborhood bars, do they not? “A 34-year-old man was shot and killed last night outside __________,” we hear so often on the ten o’clock news. “Witnesses said the shooting followed a quarrel between the two men.” It’s never between two women; it’s always a quarrel between two men (though frequently a quarrel over a woman). Have we progressed at all since founding fathers Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton faced off in a lethal pistol duel in 1804 provoked by insults to each other’s “honor”?

Human history, plain to see, is a long bloody chronicle of aggression and conquest, with modern civilization maybe just a patch hiding our darker DNA. Lately civility itself has lost definition. Manners left us some time ago, but what’s different today is the definite possibility – as demonstrated by this encounter – that even asking for common courtesy can be a dangerous act. The author Chuck Palahniuk wrote the novel “Fight Club” (adapted into the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt) after the experience of being beaten up on a camping trip following his complaining to some other campers nearby about the noise level of their radio.

CERTAINLY WE LIVE in a culture of violence, where Fox lights up the ratings with a show about Mixed Martial Arts pugilists kicking the crap out of each other. Images of terrible wars and weapons fill our 60-inch TV screens. Rage rules our roads. Politicians pose with rifles. Our current president signaled approval when, during the campaign, his supporters physically attacked a black protester. For decade upon decade the face-smacking, blood-letting mano-a-mano combat in countless movies has shown us how real men ultimately resolve conflicts. Real men hit each other. Apparently.

It starts early for boys, the macho thing. It’s in the air, huge and looming, waiting to slap a judgment on a young man. The first fight I ever saw was in the fourth grade on the playground at St. Monica’s School on Walnut Hill Lane. A crowd had gathered around two boys who were crouched and grappling with each other, and one boy I remember had his arm extended between the other kid’s legs from behind, the fingers of his right hand snapping like pincers in the direction of the guy’s testicles. Fourth grade!

War Without Guns

It was also at St. Monica’s that another boy asked me at recess one day if I wanted to play football. He said if I didn’t want to play football, then I was a sissy – maybe the first time I heard that word. I did eventually play football but only through the ninth grade, after which my peace-loving dad conspired with our family doctor and a high school baseball coach to discourage me from continuing. My father wasn’t only worried about me being seriously injured at a young age, he also (in keeping with his general world view and very much at odds with his adopted state of Texas) objected to the warrior culture of football. I didn’t understand at the time, but I get it now. Football can be exciting, but even the great New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff once described the sport this way: “Football is war without guns.”

SOME BELIEVE THAT watching the bone-crunching, brain-scrambling hits in football, like watching movie mayhem, is cathartic and mitigates the need for men to beat up on each other in real life. Either that is true or the opposite is true: That enjoying violence once removed cultivates an acceptance of it and reinforces the idea that violence is necessary, important and useful. Like in a nightclub when somebody asks you to keep your voice down.

Our former national pastime, baseball, is intrinsically less violent yet still honors the hoary tradition of the “bench-clearing brawl.” When, last season, Texas Ranger infielder Rougie Odor decked Toronto’s Joey Bautista after a rough slide at second base, Ranger fans went wild, appreciating the punch as payback for Bautista’s cocky bat flip in the playoffs the year before. Justice served, it was tempting to think. Just like John Wayne would have done it. The Code of the West.

How many times have we heard in both films and real life, someone say, knowingly, “He can take care of himself,” meaning a boy or man who, while he might be a fine musician or Rhodes Scholar, somewhere away from the library or the piano also got schooled in the art of manly self-defense. Whether a notion born in Hollywood or elsewhere, deep down we love this, don’t we? The idea that even the cerebral and mild-mannered can flatten someone if necessary. It evokes memories of the tough men and women who settled the American frontier and later defeated Hitler and Hirohito. But where does that swagger and firepower take us from here, in an age when presidents and world leaders saber-rattle with nukes?

MY FATHER DID NOT live to hear the phrase “think global, act local,” but as I sifted the incident at the jazz club, it occurred to me that his reasoned opposition to fighting was the very essence of that proposition. War begins at home, out on the highway, in a bar. Which is not to say we can stop it, anymore than we can deny who we are. The evidence suggests we are fighters. The evidence was staring back at me that night in the sockets of another man’s eyes. But to accept physical confrontation as the unchangeable natural order of things also requires fatalism beyond my grasp.

I’ve been asked – and asked myself – what I was thinking when I tried to stop the fight. I wasn’t thinking anything. No courage was involved. I acted on instinct, maybe triggered by an aversion to the ugliness of violence going back to the fourth grade. Some would say I should not have interfered, allowing for the possibility of justice to be meted out to the bully. But there was no assurance the good guy would win. After learning of the horrific incident on the train in Portland, I felt a shudder and thought back to the evening in Plano, relieved that my own encounter with an angry stranger did not end up as a story on the evening news or send anyone to the hospital. Another time, another place, it could be different. You never know.

 

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Down the Memory Hole with Evan Grant

MOST JOURNALISTS who have been arts critics or columnists will admit to being wrong on occasion about a film, a show, a book or performer they once championed or raked but with the passing of time have reassessed, for better or worse. Not so sportswriters, who amazingly are never wrong about anything or certainly never admit it. (Skip Bayless, for some reason, comes to mind.) Latest case in point in my local sports universe, now based in Dallas again after 30 years in L.A., is one of the guys who covers the Texas Rangers for the Dallas Morning News, Evan Grant.

At the beginning of the 2015 season, Mr. Grant wrote a column making the case that, statistically, Elvis Andrus was the worst shortstop in the major leagues. Ouch. No matter how much money you make, that’s got to sting. It recalled the ignominy once heaped upon that other Ranger shortstop, Mario Mendoza, who in late ’70s was presumed to have a batting average below .200, thus giving rise to the insult “below the Mendoza line.” Except that it wasn’t true. Mendoza was a light hitter but finished his career with a lifetime average of .215.

As for Andrus, Mr. Grant’s mean-spirited measurement might have made eye-catching copy, but it proved to be premature. Andrus, at 26, hit .258 last season while playing in 160 games, and, yes, made 22 errors, not in gold glove range. (A-Rod made as many as 24 twice, for the Mariners and Yankees.) In any case, he finished the season as MLB’s 7th best shortstop according to ESPN’s Rotisserie League numbers — out of 30. He was 8th and 11th in two other rankings I saw. The Rangers won the West and made the playoffs.

BUT IN THAT UGLY Game 5 that decided the division series against Toronto, ending the Rangers’ season, Andrus did commit two unlucky bobbles in the seventh inning that invited Mr. Grant to torch him again, not only for the loss but the loss of the series. A heat-of-the moment judgment that I’m sure Skip Bayless shared if he was near a microphone and that reflected Joe Six Pack’s instant POV, but one that conveniently ignored the Rangers’ poor performance in earlier games, particularly the quick collapse of sore-arm starting pitcher Derek Holland in Game 4.

After winning the first two on the road in a best-of-five, the Rangers essentially lost the series by dropping the next two at home in Arlington. They should never have had to return to the Skydome. But scapegoating one player is easier and apparently more gratifying than reviewing the full dossier. Welcome to the sports page and sports talk radio, where Attention Deficit Disorder is a permanent condition.

BILL BUCKNER, a terrific baseball player demonized for decades for a single miscue in the 1986 World Series, knows this all too well. Andrus, who makes a lot more money than Buckner ever did in that pre-monster-salary era, didn’t need our sympathy in the big scheme of things. Even if he had been traded in the off-season, as presumably would have pleased Mr. Grant, Andrus would have been pulling down 10 or 15 million per annum in a new uniform.

But, hey, as the Rangers ready themselves for the postseason once again after winning 95 games and the AL West, Mr. Grant just the other day wrote a column celebrating the career year Andrus had — yes! Well, hard not to notice that in 2016 Andrus hit .302, some key homers, etc. Guess what? No mention of blaming him for last year’s loss to the Blue Jays or two weeks into the season going out of his way to call him the worst SS in the majors. Down the memory hole! I got the impression Mr. Grant even thinks Andrus is pretty good now. But the playoffs are here. Tomorrow’s another day and another column.

 

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Unpublished Letter to The New York Times

Re: “Why Trump Is Not Like Other Draft Dodgers,” by Ted Gup (8/3/16)

To the Editors:

Like Donald Trump and Ted Gup, I was also lucky to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, but unlike Mr. Gup, I have never felt guilty about it. Without speculating about Mr. Trump’s motives, I would submit that for many young men there were others than “cowardice or careerism,” the two Mr. Gup cites in coming to his own reckoning years later. How about morality? Some of us had an ethical problem signing up for a military mission that seemed imperious, wrong and immoral – a view that history has not altered.

I rue the unequal access that draft-age young men in 1969 had to the resources of anti-war counselors, doctors, churches and universities. The war was a horror and tragedy, as we are reminded with each new book and documentary, its enduring cruelty brought home to all Americans of a certain age who visit the Wall. That said, I cannot see how those of us who opposed its carnage should feel compelled to atone for not participating in it.

Sean Mitchell

Dallas

P.S. While offering his op ed as a mea culpa for avoiding service in Vietnam, Mr. Gup doesn’t even mention the guys who went to Canada and prison. I wouldn’t call them cowards. I found it curious that some NYT commenters refused to accept his apology and fragged him for a different reason: the old red white & blue shaming for not taking up arms so that the rest of us can live in peace and freedom. Right. I guess not everyone has yet seen The Fog Of War or Born on the 4th of July or read A Bright Shining Lie, etc. etc. etc. The Domino Theory is still out there.

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Blackie

I regret I did not find a way to get to know Blackie Sherrod during my seven years at the Dallas Times Herald. He died the other day at 96. He was a huge influence on me, going back to my high school newspaper homage to his famous Sunday column opening, “Scattershooting while wondering whatever happened to…” At St. Mark’s, we changed the sports column lead to “Marksmaneuvering while wondering…” Blackie never filed a claim of plagiarism against us. I didn’t get to the DTH until years later, after marching against the Vietnam War in college and working for Dallas’ first alternative weekly. The generation gap had widened, and Blackie was on the other side of it — old school, gruff and indifferent to the new breed of journalists and east coast editors who began to show up at 1101 Pacific. He had the biggest office in the building, just off the newsroom, and it was missing a welcome mat, as I recall. I’m not sure he came out much to mingle and chat, but then the features section, where I labored, was down the hall, beyond the pale.

Blackie was a maverick in many ways, eschewing literary pretension and inventing (I think) the terms “The World Serious” and “Sports Elevated.” He was a master of the short form of the sports column, combining observation, reporting and opinion in pithy, memorable prose that carried a whiff of irreverence. He had been a tail-gunner on a torpedo plane in the South Pacific and like many sportswriters of his WWII generation, he was no fan of the counterculture and slow to accept Cassius Clay’s desire to be known as Muhammad Ali. He used the word Negro as late as 1976, when he wrote a column critical of an article I did on assignment for the Sunday Magazine examining the belated integration of Southwest Conference football squads. Without mentioning me by name, he gently dissed the article that had appeared in his own paper and questioned the evidence of local racial discrimination in athletics as being anything but a reflection of the state’s sociology and not so far behind the rest of the country. In other words, much ado about nothing.

The thing was, Mel Farr, Bubba Smith, Charley Taylor and other top Texas recruits had left to play college ball elsewhere because of the color barrier.  The Southwest Conference didn’t see its first two black football players until 1966, when Jerry Levias, a star split end, and John Westbrook, a walk-on running back, took the field for SMU and Baylor. Former SMU coach Hayden Fry told me, “we’ll never know all the bad things that happened to Jerry that first season.” When they traveled, Fry said, the team had to make special arrangements with hotels and restaurants because many were still segregated. Levias was spat on and received death threats. Blackie didn’t mention those details in his “we’re not so bad” follow-up column. “It was only four years earlier that the Washington Redskins integrated,” he reasoned.

It was my first year at the times-they-are-a-changin’ Times Herald, and in my hubris I took his public reproach as a badge of honor. But it did not make it easy to sidle up to him after that, and I wish things had gone differently. I wish I had joined the crowd at Joe Miller’s more often and maybe found easier access to him over a bourbon or two. He was someone worth knowing, a Runyonesque figure spanning decades of newspapering in North Texas, barnacled attitudes and all. Whatever his limitations, he and his estimable Times Herald colleague, the late Frank Luksa, now seem as giants compared to the the class of preening ESPN provocateurs like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.

Even if I did not win Blackie’s approval, I don’t regret getting that Sunday magazine assignment and a day-pass into the world of sports I might have chosen as a beat in another time and place. Some years after that article, when the Times Herald’s house organ interviewed me, I took the opportunity to say I had grown up thinking of Blackie as a hero. I hoped he might stop me in the hall one day and say, “Hey, nice of you to say that” or whatever. No way.

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Dave Henderson Meets Donnie Moore, Again

WHEN I READ that former Red Sox outfielder Dave Henderson had died of a heart attack at 57, I thought, well, he’s with Donnie Moore now. The two players are forever linked in baseball history by one of those game-changing reversals of fortune that can define a career in a moment both thrilling and cruel. It came in the 9th inning of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS between the Red Sox and California Angels that I remember watching in my apartment on Tower Drive in Beverly Hills. Moore was on the mound in relief, and the count was 2-2 on Henderson. The Angels were ahead 5-4, with 2 outs — 1 strike away from their first trip to the World Series. But with Rich Gedman on first, “Hendu” hit the next pitch deep to left, rising over Brian Downing’s head before clearing the wall. Al Michaels went nuts. I’m sure all the bars in Boston went nuts. I can still picture Hendu gliding around the bases as if on skates, head up and chin out, his center of gravity low to the ground like the smoothest running back you ever saw. He had such style, Dave Henderson.

The home run off Moore was redemption for an earlier defensive gaffe allowing a drive off the bat of Bobby Grich to bounce off his glove and into the stands for a round-tripper. For Moore it was the opposite of redemption. He stayed in the game, and the Angels came back to tie it, but in the 11th Moore faced Hendu again and gave up a sacrifice fly that scored the winning run for the Red Sox, who returned to Boston and won the final 2 games of the series, earning a chance to face the Mets in the Bill Buckner World Series.

LIKE BUCKNER, who let that damnable ground ball skip under his first baseman’s glove in World Series Game 6 against the Mets two weeks later, Moore was scapegoated by Angels’ fans thereafter as a symbol of failure. He pitched two more journeyman years in Anaheim, then was traded to Kansas City and sent to the minors at the beginning of the 1989 season. The Royals cut him in June. A month later, at home in the Anaheim Hills, he shot himself to death. He was 35. A native of Lubbock, Texas, he had compiled a record in the big leagues of 43 wins and 40 losses with a lifetime ERA of 3.67. Not bad.

You want to think there’s more to life than baseball and its statistics — or fame and fortune. Buckner, a very good player, suffered decades of media-enabled mad fan abuse until the Red Sox finally won a World Series (then another), and the merciless court of public opinion at last pardoned him. For Moore, sadly, the sting of Henderson’s bat on that October evening in Anaheim did not go away fast enough.

Henderson, a native Californian, batted .258 and hit 197 home runs in 13 seasons — not exactly all-star material, though he did make the American League squad as an Oakland Athletic in 1991. But the stats were secondary to his presence in a lineup. He was one of those beautiful players who brought an uncommon élan to the daily challenges of a game that is difficult even for the most elite athletes. He was fun to watch not just because he was good but because he always seemed to be having fun himself, not exactly standard modus operandi in today’s dollar-wise dugouts.

Donnie Moore might have been such a player at one time. It’s hard to know or even imagine in the aftermath of that fateful Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS. On the oversized stage it presents to the world in the playoffs and World Series, Major League Baseball giveth and it taketh away, as the careers of these two guys illustrate. You’d like to think Donnie Moore and Dave Henderson can finally talk about all that now in baseball heaven, where everyone hits .300 and the highest ERA is 2.75.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Brown at SMU, with Special Guest

Went to the Brown-SMU basketball game yesterday, got my first look at the new Moody Coliseum and actually first time I ever saw Brown play basketball. Somehow I managed four years in Providence without once making it to the gym. Sure, the revamped Moody with all the $$ accoutrements says “big time” (along with Larry Brown’s recruiting violations), but I can think of better uses for all that remodeling money. Maybe saving the SMU Press? Further adornment was provided by the sappy visage of fan #1 GWB, with Laura, projected on the Jumbotron. Seated next to them courtside was school prez R. Gerald Turner. I believe the term “courtside” in this case has more than one meaning. I understand the chief function of university presidents today is raising money, but with ISIS in the air and the debacle in Iraq resonating anew, I thought, how unfortunate for SMU that its president be aligned so publicly and proudly with the face of American infamy. Not that everyone in Dallas would share that view of course, including the sizable portion of the crowd of 6,000 that stood and applauded his introduction over the PA. What, did I think I was still in New England or California?

The game was a nice surprise for scattered alumni on hand to cheer their overmatched Bears. SMU is ranked #25 (and looks it) and I figured a final point spread of not more than 20 would be a good afternoon. But with luck and fruitful perimeter shooting, Brown took an early lead, led by Steven Spieth — brother of Masters champion Jordan — and managed to hang around against all odds until the end, losing only by 8, 77-69. SMU was missing its top player, someone said. No need to bring that up.

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An Utley Situation at 2nd Base

I love baseball but sometimes it brings out the stupid in the guys who play the game and later comment on it for television. Fresh example is Los Angeles Dodger-come-lately Chase Utley’s vicious “slide” into 2nd base in the NLDS playoff game that broke the leg of New York Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada, followed by the knuckle-headed remarks from MLB vets absolving the former Philly star of culpability. I have never understood why the baseball rule that states a runner is out if he strays outside the baseline or deliberately interferes with a defensive player fielding a ball is not enforced around 2nd base when double-plays are in progress. Sure, the runner coming down the line is entitled to slide legs high and spikes up, making it harder for the shortstop or 2nd baseman to execute an accurate throw to 1st, but umpires routinely allow runners to go well beyond that, targeting infielders for punishment who’ve already moved off the bag and even hurtling into them like a blocker in football. You hardly ever see a runner called out for this (and the double play made automatic) as the rule stipulates. It’s one of those mysteries that make you wonder if major league baseball is governed secretly by Skull and Bones or the Tri-Lateral Commission, whose grand wizards keep the unofficial rule book and definition of the strike zone in an underground missile silo in North Dakota.

The day after Utley flew over 2nd base and crashed into Tejada, the MLB jockocracy was at the mic debating whether his bone-breaking take-out of the defenseless shortstop was a dirty play or not. Really. This was a spectacle akin to U.S. military leaders trying to defend a drone strike that somehow killed the members of a wedding party or blew up a hospital. “It’s just baseball,” said former slugger Frank Thomas on Fox, upset that MLB ethicist Joe Torre meted out a 2-game suspension to Utley. “The rules have been there for 100 years.” Rather than try to locate the logic in that statement, I chose to see Thomas merely toeing the party line while upholding the hoary code of baseball machismo.

Amazingly, it occurred to no one, at least not on the Fox panel, to say, at least that, well, from the evidence, the rules have been ignored for 100 years. No, Eric Karros, the former Dodger whom I once respected, echoed big Frank’s analysis and affirmed there was nothing illegal or inappropriate about Utley’s violent maneuver, especially since it helped the Dodgers win! Oh, well, then. Fired them up! Next to Karros sat that paragon of virtue and finesse, Pete Rose, who famously dented Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse’s career by running over him in the 1970 all-star game. Pete seconded the motion that the game can be rough and what’s the problem? This was one for the time capsule, which will one day reveal these three geniuses to have a lot in common with the players of yore who greeted the introduction of batting helmets as something for sissies.

Over on the MLB Network, broadcaster Brian Kenny, tried to inject some actual thought into the discussion by digging out the rule about interference and concluding (logically) that Utley was in violation and should have been called out — and the batter Howie Kendrick as well. Which would have ended the Dodger threat with the Mets still ahead. Instead, Utley was called safe, and the boys in blue went on to score the tying and winning runs after Tejada was carted off the field.

But Kenny’s probing, sensible comments seemed to infuriate former Reds slugger Sean Casey, who vigorously defended Utley and repeated those same cliches about the tradition of the game and being sure Utley didn’t want to hurt anybody (right) and that you never wanted to be the guy going back to the dugout with your teammates asking you, “Why didn’t you break up the double play?” In other words, forget fair, it’s all about cojones and your band of brothers.

Kenny held up a piece of paper containing the interference rule, and said, “But Sean, he was out.”

“No, he wasn’t!” Casey shouted.

Possibly Casey was not on the debating team in college. He did hit 130 home runs in his 12-year MLB career, but I wonder if it’s possible his strong sentiments in this matter might be influenced by the fact that he grounded into 27 double plays in 2005, tying for the NL lead in that category?

When all-star Giants catcher Buster Posey was severely injured in 2011 after a violent collision at the plate, MLB decided to change the rules to prevent runners trying to score from flattening the often vulnerable catcher waiting for the throw home. Everyone, except maybe Pete Rose, agrees this has been a positive step for the game. Because of the Utley-Tejada incident, this winter the dons of baseball are likely to address the unnecessary carnage at 2nd base now as well. Really all they should have to do is ask the umpires to enforce the rule that’s been in effect for, like, a century. But that would suggest major league baseball has pretended not to know what’s in the official rule book for all this time. Inconvenient that. No, they’ll have to spin-doctor a new protocol, but however they do it, the long overdue protection of infielders from the malevolence of players like Chase Utley will be too late for Tejada and the Mets.

 

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Swooshed in Providence

I know I am in the minority in lamenting the commercialization of college athletics and for years have defended the far-from-the-big-time Ivy League idea of sports as a valuable extracurricular activity not to be confused with the main purpose of a university. The Ivy League, like Division III in the NCAA, does not even offer athletic scholarships (at least not officially). So I was less than thrilled to get a recent announcement that Brown, my alma mater and the nation’s eighth oldest college, founded in 1764, is joining forces at last with the billion dollar brand Nike. To wit, athletes from Brown’s 38 undergraduate teams will henceforth be wearing uniforms bearing that ubiquitous corporate logo that says, without words, “this jersey was provided in exchange for promoting a multinational corporation that has colonized American collegiate athletics for profit and market share.” The e-blast also informed me that, as a member of the Brown family I would soon be able to buy my very own Brown sports apparel with “the iconic Nike swoosh” through online stores that are Nike subsidiaries. I guess I was supposed to think, “Wow, cool.”

Instead, I was thinking it might be a good time to click the link at the bottom of the page to “unsubscribe” from future news about Brown Athletics, providing the simple explanation alluded to above. I copied my explanation to the office of Christina Paxson, Brown’s president. The next day I heard back from Davies Bisset, executive director of the Brown Sports Foundation (see below), who declined to address the issue I raised about the quid pro quo involved in corporate sponsorship of college athletes but volunteered that if I had “specific questions” about the Brown Athletics-Nike relationship I should contact the deputy director of athletics. I am not going to do that, but if I were to contact the deputy director of athletics, I would ask him the same question I subsequently posed to Mr. Bisset: What part of quid pro quo don’t you understand?

Here is my response to Mr. Bisset, followed by his earlier email:

Thank you, Davies Bisset, for acknowledging my email, but I wonder whether you or others associated with Brown Athletics see the problem here? Doing a little research online, I found an article from Harvard Magazine titled “The Professionalization of Ivy League Sports” in which former Harvard athletic director Bill Cleary stated: “Now, all the buzzwords are about sponsorship. I think it takes away from the whole spirit of athletics. Everywhere you see the Nike ‘swoosh’ — in my opinion, that means, ‘I own you.’ ”

Precisely. The article went on to say, “Sports apparel has evolved into a type of sandwich board, with vendors like Nike and Adidas eager to dress high-profile college teams in their clothing in exchange for promotional considerations. But Harvard adheres to another quaint idea: on the field, the athletes represent their school, not a corporate sponsor.” (Italics mine.)

Quaint indeed. That article is from 1997. I see that Harvard has since dispensed with such high-mindedness and welcomed the Nike branding of its athletes even before Brown could join the queue. Which made me realize Brown Athletics had a chance to be different, for a good reason, and stand apart from the herd. Instead we just went along with the herd. Not the way I want to think of my distinguished alma mater, but not much I can do about it. I am reminded of another article, in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, “How College Sold Its Soul and Surrendered to the Market,” by the former Yale professor William Deresciewicz. If you haven’ read it, I recommend it. Quite relevant.

Since graduation, I have regularly kept up with Brown teams — especially men’s soccer — more than most of the alumni I am touch with from my era. I have traveled to games and watched on television, checked the sports pages and website. I will probably continue to do so, but it won’t be quite the same, spotting that proprietary swoosh next to the word “Brown.” That will never look right, at least not to me.

Sincerely,

Sean Mitchell ’70

 

On Aug 28, 2015, at 2:15 PM, Bisset, Davies wrote:

Dear Sean:
I received a copy of your email message regarding the Athletic Department announcement of their new partnership with Nike Sportswear. Please know that the Athletic Director and the President’s office also received your message. I am writing to you from the Brown Sports Foundation, which is part of the Brown Advancement Office. The BUSF is the engagement and fundraising organization for Brown alumni, parents, faculty, students and friends who are interested in Brown Athletics.

I wanted to suggest that if you have specific questions about the Brown Athletics-Nike relationship that you contact the Deputy Director of Athletics directly. His name is Colin Sullivan and I have copied him on this message.

Per your request, we will remove your name from future messages from Brown Athletics. As a representative of the Brown Sports Foundation, I certainly hope that you will decide at some point to receive Brown Athletic messages again. There are many positive things happening with our student-athletes on campus, and President Paxson has been an active supporter of athletics and recreation at the University since her arrival. We like to keep our alumni informed and connected, especially when our teams travel to other parts of the country. (Our men’s basketball team will be in Dallas in late November, for instance.)

Please know that we appreciated you taking the time to contact us with your comments and that your message has been sent on to the appropriate contacts in Athletics. Do not hesitate to contact us again for any reason.

Best regards and Go Brown,

Davies Bisset ’85

cc:
Todd Andrews ’83, VP, Alumni Relations; Jack Hayes and Colin Sullivan, Athletics; Kim Roskiewicz, Office of the President

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Rain Barrel with Wood Slats

I attended the Texas A&M Agrilife extension class in Rainwater Harvesting on July 30 and came away enlightened and eager to build some rain barrels. The class cost $50, but for that you get a 55-gallon plastic drum to take home after listening to an informative lecture on the history and use of cisterns by Patrick Dickinson, the coordinator of the Urban Water program. As Dickinson showed slides of rain water collection systems from around the world going back to the Romans, I wondered why the great Southwest had come so late to this conservation method. He said it was because of the underground aquifers that long provided ample fresh water from wells. But those aquifers are now depleted and won’t be restored by normal rainfall for another 100 years.

Red Cedar Rain Barrel
Red Cedar Rain Barrel

What to do, other than move to Portland? One thing you can do, with the cost of water rising, is collect the water that comes off your roof when it rains. The volume is much greater than you might think. To figure how great, multiply the square footage of your house by .6 gallons for each inch of rainfall and then consider the result: a 1,500 sq. ft. home will generate 900 gallons of rain water for every official inch of precipitation. You would need 16 of these A&M rain barrels to collect all that. I decided to start with one, then I made two more. Ideally you need at least one barrel for every downspout coming from your roof gutter.

The benefits are at least threefold: 1) you collect free water to be saved and used on your landscape (through hoses) when it’s not raining; 2) you can prevent uneven drainage that plagues a lot of house foundations (ours, for instance) in North Texas; 3) you can help mitigate the massive storm runoff of chemicals and fertilizers washed from our lawns and driveways into rivers and streams.

It must be said that most rain barrels are not going to look as good on the outside of your house as a BMW parked in the driveway. You can purchase commercially produced barrels at Lowe’s or other home improvement centers, but if you get one of these basic drums from A&M (you have to take the class first) you can paint them pretty colors, put an image of Che Guevara on the side or sheathe them in wood to look more like a wine barrel or keg. The A&M-issue barrels are white plastic, and Dickinson said that a dark coating is essential (and black is best) to prevent sunlight from creating algae that can clog up the works.

Your Basic Black Drum
Your Basic Black Drum

After Dickinson’s hour-long talk, the class of 15 or 20 future rainwater harvesters moved outside, where all of us could pick out a barrel to take home, first making two basic additions — screwing into place the brass on-off spigots and pasting the nylon mesh filter over the 7-inch intake hole with silicone. We were given a handout with further instructions how to prep the barrels for use, including how to attach wooden staves, if desired. I suspect most people choose just to paint them, but what follows is my own variation on the wood option, using Western Red Cedar I bought at Cedar Supply in Carrollton.

You start with the challenge that the plastic 38-inch-high barrel is a rounded and tapered form while the wood slats are, yes, straight as a board. So, right away you know this is not going to be a real wood barrel where the staves (or slats) are steamed and bent at each end. Instead, we will glue the staves at a 90-degree angle to the two raised ribs that circle the midsection of the plastic drum, ignoring and hiding the underlying curvature. That’s a faux barrel, you say? Point taken.

Step 1. Spray-Paint the Drum with Rustoleum Primer and Paint black gloss ($5) in case the attached cedar slats do not all join seamlessly, forming a perfectly opaque surface.

Step 2. Cut the Staves to Size. Using a miter saw, I cut the staves to 39″, which will just hide the top rim of the plastic. The narrower the width of the stave , the better conformity to the lateral curvature of the barrel, but I decided to go with nominal cedar 1x4s, which at most lumber yards are actually 3/4″ x 3.5″ (at Home Depot they’re even more nominal — meaning less wood).

Table Saw Trimming
Table Saw Trimming

With true nominal (how else to put it?) lumber, the circumference of the barrel should require 21 staves, or a fraction less. You will likely have to “rip” or trim the last stave by less than an inch to fit tightly. This is best done on a table saw. You will also need to cut 1 stave 6″ shorter to accommodate the spigot.

To minimize waste, go to a lumber yard where you can buy 1x4s in 10′ lengths. You will get three staves from each 10-footer, so you need 7 of them. At Cedar Supply that comes to $38.

Rolling on the stain
Rolling on the stain

Step 3. Stain the Wood. I applied a Behr transparent cedar stain ($32/gal., used about 1/3). Grouping half the slats together at each end of a work table, I rolled the stain on — 2 coats for the exterior side and one for the rougher, hidden back side. To finish the ends and sides of the staves, I used a small brush.

Step 4. Attach the Staves. When the stain is dry, place the barrel upright on a flat surface and stretch 3 bungee cords around it, spaced evenly top to bottom. These elastic bands will hold the staves in place while the glue is drying.

Begin with the shorter stave that needs to be centered in place just above the spigot. Apply a gob of Gorilla Glue on both ribs at the spots where the stave will cross it, then slip the stave under each bungee cord and over the glue. You will square this “spigot stave” with the tops of the two adjoining staves once they are slipped into place on each side, which should be done next, pushing each full-length stave all the way to the floor or flat surface and making sure their contact with the spigot stave does not move it off center.

Also, this is the one stave that will not be held in register, so to speak, by contact with the floor, and it will possibly slip during the drying process from gravity. Just keep an eye on it as you’re inserting the other staves and pull it back up into line at the top as necessary. (By the time, you’ve got the other staves in, it should be fixed.)

Twins on the carport wall
Twins on the carport wall

Now, insert the rest of the staves beneath the bungee cords, progressing around the barrel, dabbing the glue on the ribs for each one. Gently press each new stave flush with the previous one so that it remains straight up and down. You can use a level to help with this, though the bungee cords get in the way of a precise reading. I didn’t find it to be much of a problem keeping the staves square as they went in. Make sure the smooth side of all the staves are showing.

When you arrive at the last space, measure its width, top and bottom, which you hope are the same — if the staves are in register. If not, you should be able to adjust them slightly, as the glue won’t be dry yet. My gap was 3.25 inches, which required trimming the last stave by 1/4 inch on the table saw to make it fit neatly in place, completing the circle.

Tips working with Gorilla Glue: It’s not only expensive ($16 for 8 oz.) but messy, and despite its apparent viscosity will drip down to the bottom of your staves and fuse them to the surface below unless you’re careful to keep jostling the barrel while the glue is drying. Most of the mess will be on the backs of the staves and not visible.

Step 5. Attach the “Decorative” Metal Bands

The curing time for Gorilla Glue is 30-45 minutes, but I waited at least an hour before removing the bungee cords for the project’s final step: attaching the steel hanger straps to further enhance the barrel’s resemblance to the real thing. I read somewhere that the metal straps are only for looks, but I would submit they are necessary to guarantee none of the staves will come loose and drop off, which, I assure you, can happen because bonding wood to plastic, even with this NASA-strength adhesive, is problematic.

Screwing on the straps
Screwing on the straps
Wrapping with a roll of steel hanger straps
Wrapping with a roll of steel hanger straps

Just to be safe, I would even leave the middle bungee cord in place while I attached the galvanized hanger straps, roughly binding the circle of staves together. You’ll need short (3/8 inch) wood screws and an electric drill. Hanger straps may not be the most photogenic component, but they have lots of holes for screws and come in a 25′ roll ($10.50) that should provide 2 bands for 2 barrels.

Finished product: Not a BMW but not bad
Finished product: Not a BMW but not bad

You want the band to be level all the way around, and one way to achieve that is to measure a distance (12″ for example) from the top on each stave and mark it with a crayon for reference as you circle barrel. You can also use a T-square, resting it on the top of each stave and pulling the metal band into place at the bottom of the measure as you go around. The straps are a bit unwieldy, and it’s good to cut a sufficient length off the roll and work only with that, rather than managing the whole roll (shown hanging in the photo).

Pull the strap as tight as possible and secure it with a screw, then another and keep moving. When you get all the way around, you might get lucky and be able to overlap the strap with itself, matching up a hole at the end with the one that held the first screw. If so, remove the original screw and re-screw it through the 2 overlapping holes, neatly completing the circle. If not, pull the band as close as possible to its beginning and simply screw it into place.

I used about 2 screws per stave — that’s almost 90 screws per barrel. They come in boxes of 100, about $3.

Rain! Downspout repositioned over intake hole, with filter
Rain! Downspout repositioned over intake hole, with filter

The barrel is now ready for deployment and only needs to be perched on a platform 12-18 inches high (4 cinder blocks will do), positioned so that its intake hole is under the downspout. The elevation will provide the water pressure necessary to disperse the contents.

Total cost of finished barrel, pro-rating the materials, was about $118.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Logic

IN A SCENE from the ongoing unmaking of a counterculture, Michael Martin Murphey, at his 70th birthday concert Saturday night in Oak Cliff, saluted the NRA and quoted Bible verses. The audience for the second show at the Kessler Theater stood and cheered the flag-waving patriotic sentiments he offered up in tribute to America’s ranchers, cowboys, military, police and others who were not such heroes to young musicians and their fans when Murphey first hit the stage in Texas in the 1960s and early 70s. Some might remember he was there at the birth of the Progressive Country movement when long-haired southwestern troubadours with both Woodstock and Lone Star in their veins were reinventing country music for younger, dope-smoking Texans who had never heard of Ernest Tubb. Many of them were Democrats and some even liberals.

Murphey’s 1972 album Geronimo’s Cadillac, its title song a rousing anthem lamenting the poor treatment of Native Americans, was new-found gold on the plains, evidence that Texas had smart songpoets and pickers as good as Neil Young and Roger McGuinn or whoever. It was Bob Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston, who found Murphey and made the album for A&M. That album was on my record shelf with Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua, Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages and B.W. Stevenson’s eponymous debut as the choice cuts of a soulful new sound that jumped the gap between folk and honky tonk.

With cover boy looks and a gospel church voice, Murphey had come back to Texas to do his own thing after writing songs for hire in Los Angeles. He got to Austin about the time Willie Nelson was arriving back from Nashville and both became chapters in Jan Reid’s genre-defining book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. But Murphey soon decamped to the high country of New Mexico and Colorado, leaving the urban and cosmic cowboys behind for various residencies in the rural West. His biggest hit, “Wildfire” (co-written with Larry Cansler) was about a ghost horse galloping through the Nebraska night.

I reviewed and interviewed him in the 1970s when I was a music critic at the Dallas Times Herald, but I did not keep up with him after moving away from Texas myself and had not heard him perform in decades. I knew that after “Wildfire” he had reached the charts with the Adult Contemporary love ballads “What’s Forever For” and “Long Line of Love,” and that at some point he turned his career toward the Western archive, rediscovering and recording authentic cowboy songs, like those once collected by scholars and shared at the annual meeting of the Texas Folklore Society.

SATURDAY NIGHT he came dressed for a John Ford Western — long coat, silk scarf, vest and watch chain, a black Stetson capping his golden locks. I was prepared to hear a new set list tailored to his outfit, but in fact he featured the old hits —  “Cherokee Fiddle,” “Cosmic Cowboy,” “Carolina in the Pines” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac” among them — in fine voice and backed by a virtuosic family band on mandolin, guitar, bass and fiddle. He did perform sterling versions of “Streets of Laredo” and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and closed with a rhapsodic “Wildfire” in which his lightening fast sideman Shaun Richardson keenly mimicked the late Jac Murphy’s signature piano intro on the guitar, note for note.

Murphey was raised Southern Baptist and was always inclined to preaching, but back in the day it was often about the evils of the record business (And the music gets sold by the lawyers…) Playing to the hometown crowd, he traced his ancestry here back to the War for Independence and got a crowd-pleasing whoop by referring to the Texas Republic as “the greatest beacon of freedom the world has ever known.” And you had to wonder if the slaves would have agreed. An astonishing statement really.

What is that about anyway? Some say he is simply preaching to a different choir now, the ranchers, cattlemen and cowboy wannabes who make up his target audience. And they are a politically conservative and staunchly Christian bunch. He had a lot to say onstage about the need to restock our ranges with cattle for the sake of the soil — an issue I don’t fully understand. But a knowledgeable friend in Colorado who remembers “Geronimo’s Cadillac” rolls his eyes and tells me Murphey’s got his facts wrong. One thing I do understand is that guns are a scourge to this society, and whether in the hands of criminals, wackos or clueless kids, they continue to take the lives of thousands of innocent people. And the National Rifle Association, through intimidation and campaign contributions, abets this carnage daily by blocking all legislative efforts at gun control.

IN A SHOW-STOPPING MOMENT, Murphey leaned into the microphone and cheerfully promoted an upcoming NRA event for “the ladies,” one where women will be taught how to shoot properly and “be safe.” I thought, holy shit, he’s right there with Ted Nugent! Hard not to recall the lyric from “Cosmic Cowboy” that “Up is not the way I want to shoot.” A whimsical song maybe, but at the time it suggested a newly skeptical view of the reckless gunfighters that Hollywood romanticized and celebrated.

That was then, and this is now. When Murphey was first singing and playing at the Inside Llewen Davis era club The Rubaiyat on McKinney in Dallas, folk music advocated peace, love and understanding and was politically distinct from the knee-jerk, fightin’ side of me patriotism of C&W. And while Willie and Waylon and the boys later made it safe for hippies to enjoy the steel guitar, the mindless red-white-and-blue Bible-totin’ chauvinism of Nashville country stormed back even before 9/11 and then provided a soundtrack for the U.S. military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lyle Lovett and Gary P. Nunn, the former Murphey keyboardist and “I wanna go home with the Armadillo” author, performed at George W. Bush’s 2nd inaugural ball. Enough said.

I was so rattled by Murphey’s rhetoric at his birthday concert that I went back to Jan Reid’s book to confirm that he wasn’t always like this. Sure enough, he referred to himself then as a hippie and had nothing good to say about “the life-denying generals in the U.S. Army” or Baptists, for that matter. But he was 28 years old. People change, and I can only conclude that time and the river — and guns — have come between me and Michael Murphey since then. Somewhere back there he did caution against placing too much faith in rock stars or expecting them to have all the answers. And given his unexamined pronouncements Saturday night, I couldn’t agree with him more. Why should anyone look to a musician for wisdom about anything beyond music? But I have to add that I will never be able to listen to any of his songs in quite the same way again.

 

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