Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Maybe Baseball Isn't Over

About a month ago I wrote a commentary (reprinted below) for National Public Radio about the end of the baseball season which was used on “All Things Considered.”

I didn’t expect much of a reaction – okay, I didn’t expect ANY reaction. I thought it was okay, but nothing special.

Yet as writers, once the words escape us, we know we are not in control and cannot foresee their impact.

Some people hated the commentary, finding it too syrupy, but others – and from what I could tell, a lot of others - really liked it. A minister used it in a sermon, surely a first for anything I have ever written. And one man wrote me that “. . . it really hit home. My dad passed away last year and the end of a season is a reminder of the end of life… and after the mourning… life starting anew.”

And then there was June. I received an e-mail from a woman named June who said that the commentary moved her to tears and that she wanted to send me a painting.

I was touched, but also embarrassed. I didn’t want her to go out of her way over something that took all of about twenty minutes to write and took up about three minutes of air time on NPR. So I tried to talk her out of it, but she was persistent.

Well, here’s the painting at the top of this post. It arrived yesterday I love it. And here’s the commentary that somehow inspired it:


Baseball is over again and - for a while - so am I.

As long as I can remember this game has been my companion. The maple trees in the backyard where I grew up were known only as first base, second and third. The clothesline was an imaginary Green Monster. I fell asleep each night to the static of a distant game on an old radio and dreamed of the roaring crowd. Even now, when I think of “home” I don’t think of a house. I think of the bare spot I wore in the grass while batting, the place I ran back to after every imaginary home run.

Now another season is ending. As the sounds that only baseball makes disappear, there is a stillness left behind that feels like nothing else, and I know again I am alone.

The days that used to start with stats and coffee turning cold as I perused the blogs and box scores are done. The morning doesn’t mean it’s time to “check the west coast scores.” It means “get up and go to work.” The news is not for highlights and home runs, but wars and famines and politics. The walks I took with the dog so I could throw the ball and pretend I was cutting down the lead runner at third become simple games of fetch. The phone calls with friends that started with “Can you believe that hit?” and “What was he thinking?” end quickly or aren’t made at all. I turn my car radio from AM back to FM. My wife and daughter control the television remote and I catch up on my reading. And instead of lying awake at night and wondering how in the world he could miss that pitch, I slip into a fast slumber.

It’s over, but we’ve been through this before, baseball and I, and I’m sure I’ll survive the winter soon to come. I know even as the whoops and hollers of baseball’s newest world champion fade that somewhere in the silence that follows, another season will start to make its sound.

There will be trades, Tommy John surgeries and free agent signings for too much money. Even though there will be snow upon the ground, there will also be talk about pitchers and catchers reporting, aging veterans and rookie phenoms. Something deep inside me will start to stir, and then I’ll hear it again; a voice on a playground, a bat meeting a ball, a cheer and a slap on the back. At first it will be faint and far off, but as the days get longer the sounds of baseball will be back beside me. Soon enough, we will both be ready for another season.

[Note: the version of the commentary reproduced above varies slightly from the broadcast version. You can listen to it here: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=141789780&m=141881232 . Glenn Stout’s latest book is the bestselling Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year.]

The Creepy Coach

It’s sad, but true and not uncommon. If you played long enough, you probably have a “creepy coach” story.

Predators are not stupid. They go where the odds are in their favor as authority figures without much direct supervision; the Catholic Church and youth church groups, the Boy Scouts and similar organizations, boarding schools. And, as the allegations against Jerry Sandusky attest, anywhere youth and sports intersect.

This is not to disparage the many fine men and women who give their time to coaching and working with children. Most think only of the kids and have the best of intentions. And in the decade or so I spent on youth league teams as a kid, and the five years I spent coaching as an adult, the vast majority of coaches I encountered were kind and caring and tried their to provide a safe and fun and positive experience. But . . .

Shortly after the charges against Jerry Sandusky were made public, I posted the following on my Facebook page for The Best American Sports Writing:

“Just watch. The narrative arc post-Penn State will follow that of the Catholic Church; the coaching profession has always been full of predators. Expect a decade long roll out of victims, not just PSU, but all schools/youth leagues, etc. Unfortunate, tragic and true.”

I hoped I was wrong, but in the weeks that have followed this scandal has begun to metastasize. Nearly every day one hears about another possible incident as victims, empowered by those who have come out of the darkness to reveal what took place under the sinister umbrella of The Second Mile and Penn State, start to speak out about their experience and lift the veil of shame and silence that has scarred the lives of so many. The allegations against Syracuse basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine are simply the latest in a trend I don’t see disappearing.

Since I wrote that Facebook post, I have spoken to many friends and acquaintances. Almost to a person, each has their own “creepy coach” story. While none, fortunately, have admitted being a victim of overt molestation, almost everyone has a story about the coach who was a little too familiar, a little off, who made them feel unsafe and uncomfortable and who now, looking back from adulthood, they now realize was probably coaching for the wrong reasons.

When I started to write this, I could recall in my experience only one such coach, one who was an alcoholic and often showed up drunk for games and practices. When he did, and when there were no adults around, he talked about sex and other adult topics he had no business talking about with us. When I think back now it seems to me that he got off on talking this way to us; that was my “creepy coach,” story. But over the past few days as I wrote these words, I recalled another incident far more disturbing.

As most young male athletes can attest, they have to wear an athletic supporter – a jock – and a plastic cup to protect the genitals. The wearing of a cup is mandatory in most youth sports, and should be. When I was a kid what was known as a “cup check,” was common practice, a way for your coach to make certain you were wearing your cup before each game or practice. Most of the time, you performed the cup check yourself, standing before the coach and striking your knuckles to your crotch so the coach could hear them strike the plastic and know you were wearing your cup. Nothing wrong with that.

But I have a memory, fuzzy and now buried so deeply that even now I not certain which coach I recall or even which sport I was playing at the time, a memory that even as I begin to write about it now produces a small wave of nausea and discomfort. I had at least a few coaches who performed the “cup check” themselves, going down the line striking your crotch with his own fist.

This was not rare and I remember never thinking much about it. If done quickly and lightly and with a sort of professional distance, while not really appropriate anymore, it was probably an act of innocence, and no big deal to most of us.

But there was one coach, one whose face, even now, I cannot see clearly enough to indentify, who I know went a little farther. He would strike you so hard that even if you were wearing a cup, it would bring a nauseating ache to your genitals.

He clearly enjoyed this. I can see the wide teeth of his leering smile, and hear his laugh, loud, and menacing. And then sometimes I think he did a little more.

Instead of striking you in the groin, or maybe after doing so and discovering you had forgotten that piece of equipment, he would reach and grope and squeeze. If you were wearing a cup, you avoided that humiliation, but if you weren’t . . .

I don’t recall ever being caught not wearing a cup, and I don’t believe that happened to me, but I do remember thinking I would NEVER, EVER forget to wear my cup. But I do have a recollection of seeing others doubled over as the coach squeezed their testicles long and hard enough to cause a howl of pain. And only then would he, still smiling, let go.

As far as I know, that was as far as it went. Whether that was enough to satisfy whatever twisted desire caused him to do this, I am not uncertain. But I do know that even this small humiliation can have an impact decades later . . .

When my daughter was younger I spent several years coaching and helping to coach her girls softball and mixed gender Little League team. For several years I did this either as an assistant coach or with someone else. Then one year I could not convince another parent or other adult to help out. During games practices, I was often the only adult left with a dozen or so kids, boys and girls.

At practice one day, one of our players, a girl of eleven or twelve, fell and scraped her knee, blood seeping through her uniform, and a wince of pain on her face. I dutifully got out my first aid kit, sat her down on the ground and helped her roll up her pant leg above her knee so I could clean and bandage the wound.

As I did so and my hand pulled her pants over her knee cap to expose the scrape and tugged it up a bit farther so I could clean the smear of blood on her inner thigh, it suddenly struck me that my hand was dangerously close to a place it should not be. With no other adult as my witness I realized that to anyone watching from afar (the field was near a playground), it might appear as if I was touching her – or trying to touch her - inappropriately. And then I thought how I might react as a parent if my daughter came home with a scraped knee and described a coach rolling up her pant leg and wiping blood off her thigh, and how depending on the way she described it, I might think that the coach was doing something he shouldn’t, something creepy.

I pulled my hand back, left the stain of blood alone and pulled the pant leg back down to the edge of the wound. I wiped it quickly with alcohol, smeared some ointment on a large Band-aide, placed it over the wound and asked her to press it tight, then told her to lift her pant leg over the wound before she pulled it down, so the bandage would stay on.

Practice resumed. Then later, as I thought about what took place later that day, as the only adult with a group of young kids, I made a decision.

At the end of the season, unable to insure I would have an assistant coach the following year, I quit coaching.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

And The Winner Is . . .

Received the good news this week that in addition to being a Boston Globe best seller, the best selling Red Sox book of the season and one of the best selling baseball books of the year and a finalist for Spitball Magazine's Casey Award, that Fenway 1912 is a finalist for best baseball book of the year from a major magazine and a prestigious library association. Even better is the reaction from the readers I meet.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Requiem for the Bleachers

In the winter, when it is cold and dark and the snow is blowing and blotting out the far shore of Lake Champlain in northern Vermont, where I now live, and I think of summer and Fenway Park, I do not think of 1967 or 1986 or 2004 or any other season best known for either victory or loss.

I think of 1982.

I had graduated from college only a year earlier and had been in Boston only a few months. Unemployment was pressing ten percent and there was no work worth doing. For only a few pennies more than minimum wage I spent most days doing crossword puzzles and reading the Herald as a security guard at the Harvard Medical School.

But I lived in Kenmore Square, and that meant I was neighbors with Fenway Park. That winter and spring my walk back and forth to work each day brought me past Fenway. I would tip my cap, nod a ‘hello” and with each step summer was a little bit closer.

I had first seen Fenway Park sixteen years before, when I was all of eight years old. My mother was a native of Newfoundland and we were, somewhat improbably, driving there from Ohio on vacation. My father had piled us all into the old Pontiac station wagon one summer afternoon and then drove non-stop through the night. As the sun peaked over the horizon at dawn, we entered the outskirts of Boston. I remember nothing of the city as we drove through but the light towers of Fenway Park looming over a distant horizon.

I had never been to a major league ballpark before and held out little hope of doing so anytime soon. My traffic adverse father frowned on trips to either Cleveland or Cincinnati, much less Detroit or Pittsburgh or Chicago, the other cities within a reasonable driving distance from central Ohio, meaning I missed opportunities to see most of the classic ballparks of the age – Crosley Field, Tiger Stadium, Forbes Field, Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park. Even Cleveland’s rusting Stalinesque Municipal Stadium, not really a ballpark at all, eluded me.

So when I moved to Boston nearly two decades later Fenway Park was both a reason for my pilgrimage and a destination. This time I promised myself would do more than drive by with my face pressed against the car window. I planned to spend the whole summer in my neighbor’s backyard, Fenway Park. . .

[You can read the rest of this essay appear in Richard Johnson's fine new heavily illustrated book about Fenway Park, Field of our Fathers. If you are going to buy one book on Fenway Park, make it Fenway 1912. But if you are buying two, please consider Richard's book. Esaay copyright Glenn Stout, 2011, all rights reserved.]

Thursday, November 3, 2011

On the Radio . . .

Because I had written Fenway 1912 I recently received a call from National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and was asked to write an essay on the end of the baseball season, something evocative, a sort of an elegy.

I poured a glass of wine, went down stairs, and after a few false starts, came up with something that felt genuine and seemed appropriate. It was accepted a few hours later, and the next day I went to Vermont Public Radio to record it. It evetually aired a few days later, on October 31, 2011..

I had been to VPR before. Bill Littlefield has been kind enough to have me on his show, Only a Game, several times, but Sam the engineer warned me that All Things Considered was pretty particular about recording their commentaries.

I have to say I wasn't worried. I usually write to sound, meaning that I write as much in regard to the sound of the word as I do to sense, a habit left over from the days when I wrote only poetry and often read aloud at various forums in college and later, in and around Boston. Besides, when I was younger I did a bit of theater. Although making a cold call for an interview gives me anxiety, public speaking has never bothered me at all.

They had me read through the entire piece twice, then had me re-read selected lines. The whole process took about twenty minutes.

The entire time I was reminded of the days when I was ten or twelve years old, and would go over to my old friend Richard's house for sleepovers. He was an electronics whiz and in his basement had effectively created a radio station, linking together several turntables and tape recorders, that did everything but broadcast over the air. We - or rather he - would make radio shows. I was just a reader and writer. We would re-enact and read and tape Mad Magazine parodies and until our bellies hurt, and wrote our own parodies and gossipy news bits about our elementary school classmates. We even published an occasional "underground newspaper," just having fun.

I've often thought of those days, because now I write for a living and Richard, to no surprise, is a radio and broadcasting techno genius, formerly NPR’s Master Control supervisor and technical director, and currently oversees Strategic Technology Applications for NPR labs.

Not that I know what any of that really is, but I suspect that,at its core its not all that much different than what he was doing in his basement some forty years ago, just as thew writing I do today is not all that much different. We were just having fun then, and, I suspect, we're both still having fun now.

Here's a link to the essay: