Hang on, and play ball!

Baseball in an age of anxiety

Roger Angell, the great New Yorker writer, describes how sometimes baseball can offer us moments of pleasure that linger, or even stretch out inside us, if we let them. This doesn’t happen if we force the issue — or ladle out the superlatives promiscuously. But for many among us who, throughout our lives, have found enjoyment in camping out in the bleachers with a beer or two, or puttering around the apartment as a game unfolds on radio or TV, the phenomenon is real. We know that the sense of wonder — or of plain old fun — that is part of being a fan has a way of welling up and making other concerns recede. Speaking as one American who fought back tears on the night of September 11, I have never been happier for that possibility than I am at the outset of this year’s baseball playoffs.

I know, I know — there’s a lot to worry about. Bombs may still be falling on Afghanistan when young Mark Mulder, the Oakland A’s left-hander, takes the mound at Yankee Stadium for Game 1. But based as I am in Europe, where Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and Jacques Chirac have all been urging that US military retaliation be “targeted,” I am going to insist on optimism. Maybe the comforting narrative of balls and strikes, strikeouts and home runs, can offer a respite from the sickening chain of events set in motion by those planes crashing into those skyscrapers, and everything that has tumbled to the ground since. If a national and international catastrophe like the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon does not give us license to cherish what gives us pleasure and balm, then what does?

It may have to do with watching from my apartment in East Berlin, but I do not think I have ever felt more alone than I did during the infinity of hours crammed into the day we call September 11. I am sure a lot of people had that feeling. Exes who had sworn each other off for good somehow ended up back together, and family ties suddenly seemed more important. That was why it was so appropriate that in the days that followed, we took a break from sports. There was no time for it. No room for it.

But in the weeks that have followed the crashes, as we work to reconstruct our lives, it’s worth remembering that sports have always offered a bridge, a means for all sorts of people to connect. Out there, jostling and absorbing random conversations, we can share in a group excitement — the way Oakland and the East Bay can right now in this year’s Oakland A’s team — that’s about as unalloyed a pleasure as the sports world presents.

This year’s baseball playoffs offer a rich palette of reminders that baseball, like all sports, is a collection of stories, the stories we see unfolding before our eyes, and also the larger stories we can’t see but know are there. The story of this year’s A’s team is, more than anything, the story of Jason Giambi developing into a front-line baseball star and clutch performer. Giambi is a force of nature, but he would never be where he is right now without his good luck in winding up with a first-rate mentor. That mentor was the man who used to hold the single-season home-run record, until last week, and I watched firsthand as the relationship between Giambi and Mark McGwire unfolded. This was back when it was my job to follow the A’s all over North America and write about it for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sometimes the most important developments in sports really are just as simple — even innocent — as we wanted them to be when we were younger. At least that’s how it seemed one night in 1995 when a few big-league ballplayers gathered at a Chicago bar. The bar was the Lodge, a saloon-style watering hole with peanut shells on the scuffed-up wood floor, cheap drinks, and a cramped back room called “the bullpen” where just about anything could happen, and has.

The Lodge is famous in baseball. It stays open until four or five in the morning, and for years both players and sportswriters have been coming there. It’s the only bar in the country where the two groups, natural antagonists, regularly drink and talk together. That’s why I was there with some friends one breezy, warm early-summer night when McGwire, longtime sidekick Mike Gallego, and a very young Jason Giambi took a table near us.

McGwire was going through a bad stretch of years. He kept getting hurt and his manager, Tony La Russa, had seemed to question his manliness. Baseball wasn’t fun for him anymore. He knew he had a gift for driving the ball deep. He knew with a little luck, he could get it together and earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. But at the moment that goal seemed mockingly remote. Making it through a single season without having his feet or his back give out on him seemed like a more immediate challenge.

Gallego was almost done, and he knew it. He’s a little guy, sometimes overmatched at the plate, but he was an artist with the glove. Watching him work at second base, especially when he played with that intense kid from Maine, shortstop Mike Bordick, any real fan of the game thrilled and marveled. But by then even Gallego’s defense was slipping. He took in the scene at the Lodge knowing this might be his last look around the inside of a big-league season. He didn’t seem so much nostalgic as already half-gone.

Giambi was something special — or so everyone had always told him. He grew up in Southern California, good-looking and athletic and happy, as adept as Eddie Haskell at saying the right thing at the right time. “It was always my dream to play baseball,” he told me one time. “Either that or be the Marlboro Man.” Giambi had the body for ball, and his left-handed swing was solid all the way. It was obvious that he was going to establish himself in the big leagues, and make a mark, but that time had not quite arrived. Meanwhile, he was as irrepressible as they came. He had a great time playing the game and wanted everyone else to have fun out there, too. He had the art of hitting all figured out, and he wanted to share his philosophy. Never mind that the two veterans he was addressing had won World Series rings and he was on his way to hitting .256 in 54 games that year, his first in the big leagues.

“You gotta feel sexy,” Giambi said, hopping off his bar stool so he could emphasize the point even more by flexing his knees and various other parts of his body. He pretended to be talking to Gallego, who was having none of it, but it was obvious to all of us that Giambi’s real audience was McGwire. The whoops and hollers that are a constant at the Lodge kicked up even louder as people tuned into the rare spectacle of a ballplayer rhapsodizing in public on the game. People pressed closer, eager to follow every word.

“You gotta feel sexy when you go up there,” Giambi kept repeating. “That’s the key. You gotta feel sexy. Like when you go into a bar and you know that every eye in the place is on you. Look at Mark. He goes up there, he’s got the tight uni going. He’s got the gel in his hair. He feels sexy. That’s the key to hitting.”

Soon Giambi and McGwire were inseparable. They hung out together on the road, they impressed each other with their sexual adventures, they talked baseball, and they talked life. Giambi learned from McGwire about weightlifting and beefing up. McGwire fed off Giambi’s enthusiasm and charisma; he started having more fun playing the game than he ever had, and he was glad to tell anyone who asked why that was. Giambi learned from a veteran who had learned from the great veterans on the old A’s World Series teams of a decade or so before. Two seasons later in 1998, McGwire electrified the nation by breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record.

“Mac and I, it’s rare what we had,” Giambi told me after McGwire had been traded to St. Louis. “We were great for each other. It was sad when he left. It was almost like a marriage, it really was. We did everything together. We talked about everything, not just baseball but life in general. I would tell him things and he would tell me things that maybe he wouldn’t tell anybody else. And that’s hard to do especially for a guy like Mark McGwire. He’s got problems and situations just like everybody else, but you don’t have a lot of people to talk to about it. It’s kind of different. You kind of seclude yourself from everyday life. He knew he could tell me things, and he knew I’d listen and he knew I’d be honest with him about how I felt about things. I didn’t just tell him things because he was Mark McGwire; kiss his ass and tell him what he wanted to hear. I would tell him truthfully what I thought, tell him this or tell him that, and I think that’s why we got along.”

Now the pupil has in many ways surpassed the teacher. McGwire handed Giambi the mantle of team leadership, of carrying on the Oakland A’s tradition, which has just about always meant something, even through some bad years. As soon as McGwire was traded to the Cardinals, Giambi took over his locker and set about showing that he had learned his lessons well, most especially about the difference between winning and falling just short. Last year, he single-handedly carried the A’s to the playoffs. This year, he has even George Steinbrenner casting a covetous eye his way, and if he does not have a rocking postseason run, a lot of us will be flat-out amazed. McGwire, on the other hand, has had but a few wobbly at-bats in the postseason since he left the A’s. Still slowed by injuries, he’s looking like a spent force. And truth be told, even at his peak, McGwire was never half as comfortable as Giambi now is with the role of clubhouse leader and team spokesman. Giambi throws off great quotes as effortlessly as he strokes doubles, and loves getting a reaction.

“Swing like an All-Star, party like a rock star, fuck like a porn star,” he once proclaimed as his motto to a startled group of reporters.

Besides Giambi, who was last year’s American League most valuable player, the A’s have the three best young pitchers in the game in Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito, a great shortstop in Miguel Tejada, and the best general manager in baseball over the last two years, Billy Beane. But this is Giambi’s team. His will and his style and his insistence permeate everything they do, which is why they look so unstoppable and why the New York Yankees, suddenly transformed from tired dynasty to hard-luck-team-of-all-time, did not want to face the A’s.

That these two forces will first collide at Yankee Stadium, the same place where the post-9/ll prayer service was held, shows just how amazingly vivid and unpredictable and compelling the drama that sports dishes out can be. The Yankees were lucky to beat the A’s one year ago, and they know it. There’s an excellent chance that if some hapless A’s employee had not put cocky young Eric Chavez’s pregame comments up on the big screen at the Coliseum so that the Yankees could hear him talking about how their time was done, the A’s would have knocked off the champions then and there. A year later, the A’s are clearly the better team, but are they the better story?

The Yankees, more than any other baseball team, win because they know how to win; they know how to fit in with Yankee tradition and be champions. In short, they win because they are the best story. And this year, when a Yankee World Series victory could trigger a ticker-tape parade down the ravaged canyons of lower Manhattan, they could be a story for the ages. But the young, cocky A’s, whom Giambi describes as “young, dumb, and full of come,” are their own story. Who has the better story? Baseball, the game itself, gets to decide that — or will if we are lucky and the two teams end up being locked into a series so good that each twist and turn demands attention. We need that now, and I for one fully believe we’re going to get it.PPeople in the Bay Area tend to have mixed feelings about sports. I understand that. I also have mixed feelings about sports — or at least about loud-mouthed, know-it-all sports fans. But the experiences I have had covering sports first for the Chronicle and then for Salon, which sent me to two World Series, have shifted my thinking.

I spent nine years working in the Chronicle sports department, including four full seasons as an A’s beat writer, but gave up my job so I could move to Berlin in early 1999 to write about politics and foreign affairs. It was, needless to say, a stupid move. That was what made it sound exotic to people: Dozens told me how much they admired my thick-headed decision to chuck a perfectly good job to run off to Berlin with some vague idea of foreign datelines dancing in my head.

I recall in particular the reaction of a San Francisco newspaper legend named Frank Blackman. Blackie, as we all called him, had sold shoes in Brooklyn at some point, and he was tough, smart, and ruthless in his criticisms, both in print and in the press box. He and I clashed and were not friends, though there were many Sundays when we would both be sitting there in Milwaukee or Detroit or Arlington, Texas, reading the New York Times Book Review, each alone with his newsprint. One of the strangest moments in my life came during those last days on the job when Blackie came over to me in the press box and announced, with not a shred of irony apparent in his voice: “You’re my hero.”

I thought of Blackie often the next couple of years, whether I was shivering among the anti-globalization protesters throwing snowballs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or traveling to Warsaw to cover George W. Bush’s first big speech in Europe. I could almost feel Blackie’s eyes following me as I headed down to the United Arab Emirates to write about something called the Dubai Internet City, or took an endless, lurching train ride through war-torn Bosnia to cover the Sarajevo Film Festival.

Blackie, I knew, had long nursed the worry that he had been wasting his time all those years, writing about sports, and that richer and more worthy pursuits could have been his but for a small change in course somewhere along the line. I was in some sense entrusted to prove out this assumption. I felt I was living out the dreams and inchoate hungers of dozens of sportswriters I knew as I filed stories about the Afghan Northern Alliance and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and tried to work out the logistics of getting to Tashkent or Dubai or maybe Tehran.

But you know what? Writing, as I have, from more than twenty countries for more than a dozen publications, has a way of forcing you to filter out distractions and look at what is. One of the things I’ve discovered is that Blackie should never have worried. Sports matter.

I started covering sports in the Chronicle in 1990, and by 1994 I was lucky enough to have a big story to ride, the San Jose Sharks’ breakthrough season. The year before, they had set a record for losses in a National Hockey League season and, believe me, they earned those losses.

Then, in the off-season, the Sharks picked up a couple of wily Russian veterans named Sergei Makarov and Igor Larionov, stars of the Red Army and Soviet national teams that had revived Russian honor after the humiliation of losing to the United States at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Larionov was a center, the same position as Wayne Gretzky, and he had that weird knack of seeing events a little bit before they actually unfolded. He helped hone this knack through years of serious chess-playing including, one time, taking on then-world-champion Anatoli Karpov at a Soviet training camp. The Sharks also had a goalie, named Arturs Irbe, who came from Latvia and had been the starting goaltender on the Soviet national team until 1991.

To anyone who says sports are something never to be taken seriously or given full attention, I say: Look at Larionov and Irbe and what they went through to be where they were that year. Larionov is an intellectual and a thinker, the smartest athlete I’ve ever encountered. He hated the lack of freedom imposed on athletes in the Soviet system. He hated sitting around like an idiot at the team training camp, eleven months a year, unable to see his wife for more than brief visits. So he rebelled. He published an open letter in the mass circulation Soviet weekly Ogonyok, the same publication that had finally brought Solzhenitsyn to the Russian masses. Larionov’s open letter railing against the system was the talk of eleven time zones when it came out. He said things against the system no one had ever said. It was a courageous act, and it was one of many protests that helped speed the end of the Soviet Union.

Irbe quit the Soviet team in protest after Mikhail Gorbachev, trying to fend off his hard-line critics, made the difficult decision to crack down militarily on the Baltic republics. First in Vilnius, Lithuania, on January 11, 1991, then a week later, in Riga, Latvia, troops were mobilized, shots were fired, and people were killed. Irbe was with the people, protesting near the all-important television tower, and to this day he is revered in that small country. I tell him he is going to be President one day, and he just laughs.

That year’s Sharks team, a motley collection if ever there was one, somehow made it to the playoffs — a first for the franchise — and then faced the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. The Red Wings were considered the best team in hockey, and no one thought the Sharks had a chance of winning. (Well, okay — I did actually write in the Chronicle that the Sharks would win it in seven games, but no one took that seriously.) The Sharks won Game 1 in Detroit, and the fans in the Bay Area were swept away by a kind of mad love seldom seen in sports. By the time the Sharks polished off the Wings in Game 7, sending goalie Chris Osgood to the locker room to cry, there was irrefutable evidence throughout the Bay Area that a sports team’s success really can envelop an entire community in a feeling that leaves it changed.

Not much later, I got stuck covering the baseball strike, and the sour taste of that time stays with me still. I understand how fans felt about the strike. I understand that people turned away from the game, and not all of them came back, even when Sammy Sosa and McGwire gave us that great home-run-themed summer carnival, a few years back. I understand, too, that the explosion in salaries makes ballplayers seem much, much more removed from the rest of us, and that it’s therefore harder to connect with them the way some of us did as kids.

On the other hand, I think what needs saying right now, as a shell-shocked America waves the flag like never before, is that it’s up to us what we want to make of our national institutions — including baseball. It just might be that we need baseball more now than we did a year ago, and if that’s so, can we agree not to freak out about that?

I know what I am going to do, anyway. Sure, I feel very drawn to Tashkent and Dushanbe right now, and hope to be able to do some reportage that will help make the unfolding drama along the northern Afghanistan border more three-dimensional to Americans following from afar. And yes, I really hope to make it to Tehran by late October for the third Muslim Women’s Games, where, I hear, auto racing will for the first time be among the sports being contested.

But first I am going to burn some frequent-flyer miles and fly to Oakland and find a way to get inside the Coliseum for at least one game when the Yankees come to town. That has partly to do with all the hours and days I spent with this team; it will be a little like making the high school graduation of a close friend’s son who I met as a kid and watched grow into the “best body” of Lowell High’s 2001 graduating class.

There is more to it than that, though. Like it or not, baseball is a part of who I am — and, I’m convinced, it’s also a part of who we are as a country. I have worried in recent years about the game declining. I have worried that young players do not talk baseball the way their counterparts did twenty and forty and sixty years ago. Spring training used to mean piling into the Pink Pony Steakhouse in Scottsdale , where trades were inked on a napkin in the corner, and up-and-coming players mingled with Hall of Famers telling and listening to baseball stories. I have worried that the Pink Pony and places like it will soon be gone forever, and with them the soul of the game.

I don’t worry anymore. I’ve learned that the game always finds a way. It continually finds new stories to tell. Take Barry Bonds and his graduation from moody genius to the latest savior of the game, a man who has now staked a legitimate claim on the title of Greatest Baseball Player Ever.

It has always troubled me that Bonds has had such a rough time in the press. I only talked to him a few times, but it was clear from those conversations that there was a lot more to the man than the picture of him that emerged in the sports pages and on talk radio.

One time, the A’s were playing the Giants over at Candlestick, and before the game Bonds was sitting on a table in the Giants clubhouse, swinging his legs forward and then backward, one at a time, exactly the way I did it as a five-year-old sitting on a picnic table. Bonds was bored. Another day at the job. He shot laser looks around the room toward anyone who looked his way, and seemed to have a special quantum-force death stare ready for any sportswriter who would dare interrupt his five-year-old’s game. There was something in his manner of the French wanker in those express-mail commercials who tells us he is “feeeeled with bore-dom.”

I walked up to Bonds and introduced myself. Approaching a sulky superstar is all about the eyes. You have to meet his stare and show no fear, not a trace, just the way a batter, standing up there against a pitcher who can kill him if he wants, has to show no trace of fear. Bonds was more extreme in his demands than some others, which is why a lot of sportswriters secretly hate him. He aggravates their insecurities. That’s fair enough, but also unfortunate, because recent years in Bay Area sports would have been much more interesting and enjoyable if fans had been able to see the Barry Bonds I found that day.

The rap star Tupac Shakur had been gunned down in Vegas just days earlier, and somehow we ended up discussing Tupac at length. Bonds considered him not just a friend, but a close friend — close enough that Bonds had warned him that the circle of violence Tupac embraced would end up getting him killed. He told me he had, in fact, relayed that message to Tupac on the phone the week before. Now his friend was dead, and Bonds was taking it hard.

The next time I talked to Bonds at any length was at the Coliseum. It was a strange experience. I started talking to him about fifty minutes before the game was going to start (that is, five minutes before reporters are booted out of the clubhouse). I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but Bonds and I ended up outside in the hall, next to an elevator ferrying sportswriters and various hangers-on up to the dorm-food fare waiting for them in the Coliseum press room. Bonds would not stop talking. Eventually, to my embarrassment, I actually had to mention to Bonds that, uh, well, the game was going to start in two or three minutes and they probably needed him.

I have no idea why he chose me as an audience. Maybe it was the ponytail I had in those years — the Latin players liked to call me “Steven Segal,” which I think they thought of as a compliment. Or maybe he sensed that like him, I was apart from my surroundings, wondering if I really wanted to be there. I have no idea. But on that day Bonds talked openly about how difficult it is for him to keep himself interested day in and day out. He told me, straight out, that he was often bored. He talked about feeling frustrated that so many of the things he did on the baseball field were not noticed.

I knew what he meant. Yes, Bonds has a way of standing statue-still out there when a no-doubt-about-it homer sails over his head. But that is partly because his baseball intelligence is so far off the charts, he knows where the ball is going to go before anyone else does — the fans, of course, but also his fellow players. Personally, I would like to see him trot back to the fence, to keep the ball company if nothing else. And you know what? I think if the fans better understood why Bonds does what Bonds does, he would be more willing to do stuff like trot back on a deeply hit ball, just because it makes everyone else feel better.

We live in an ESPN sports culture, where the oddball diving catches of less talented outfielders are much more likely to be showcased than a catch that a superb athlete like Bonds makes look easy. It is, I guess, the American way of life: He or she who goes about his or her business with quiet intensity and total capability will always be overshadowed by the self-dramatizing overachiever, the one who everyone expects to fail. Now Bonds has had an entire season of never ever feeling bored, and now he is being widely celebrated for his talent and the intensity of his commitment to that talent all these years. I think the whole Bay Area ought to take a lot of pleasure in that.

Then again, the Giants fell just short. They will not be in the playoffs. So these are days to celebrate the A’s, or to tune in to their frequency. That’s how it is in the Bay Area. Fans keep their distance and then, when the time is right, hit the Super Zoom and get as close as they can to what’s going on. They will find they have a lot to savor.

First of all, let’s remember that not so long ago it was assumed that to be successful, a baseball manager had to be a jerk, at least some of the time. When he was the A’s manager, Tony La Russa liked playing the jerk. It was one way he had of demanding respect, and respect counts more to him than anything, even winning. Maybe he’s right about that, but I prefer the Art Howe way. He is the second-most decent man I’ve met — Jimmy Carter has to rank first — and yet, Howe is now correctly seen as a great manager.

If the A’s win it all this year — and I, for one, think they have every chance of doing just that — it will be a validation of the dramatic story of their regular season. Consider this: Twenty-six games into this season, the A’s had won eight and lost eighteen. This was the same team that, the previous October, had roughed up Roger Clemens in the playoffs, embarrassed the most successful pitcher in the league, humiliated him. They had seen the fear in the eyes of these proud, businesslike Yankees. But less than a month into the season, the sense of promise that had lingered over the long winter seemed to have already been swiftly extinguished.

Did anyone think the A’s could turn their whole season around and sail into the playoffs as the team to beat? As it turned out, the A’s did, and because they did they went on to provide us a lesson in the need to try to reclaim the best pictures of ourselves, no matter what happens. The A’s filtered out the bad thoughts and the fears and insecurities, plugged away and became the best team in baseball the second half of the season, both in terms of the numbers and in terms of what it meant to opponents when they took the field.

Howe, the aw-shucks Texan with a steely resolve he keeps hidden from outsiders, deserves the lion’s share of credit for that turnaround. The man may not be the strategic chess player that other top managers have been in recent years. But he gets the job done. He learns from his mistakes — for example, on the necessity to get a man up in the bullpen, even if it might be hard on the morale of a faltering starting pitcher. Most of all, Howe means everything he does. He puts his heart and soul into it in a quiet, serious way that his players understand. He is with them, all the way.

Giambi explained the team’s turnaround recently to a friend of mine with yet another great quote: “We’re stupid,” Giambi said. “Ignorance is bliss.” And who are we to argue with that? But in a way, that’s a tribute to Howe and the tone he sets, too. The A’s clubhouse had an edgy, paranoid feel during the La Russa years. If something went wrong, and something always goes wrong when your fate depends on the bounce of a ball, it went without saying in La Russa’s world that someone was to blame. Players always wondered who was saying what to La Russa behind closed doors.

Howe may go too far in the other direction, letting the young A’s carry on in the clubhouse like cast members of Porky’s 6: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. But whatever Howe is doing, it obviously works. The Howe way is the way of trusting in the good you see in most everyone you meet, even if the person in question does not see what you see. There are worse ways to live, whether in the sports context or outside of it, and as someone who saw Howe day in and day out for three years, it’s refreshing to see what he has accomplished with the A’s. He has cast off his old reputation as a manager who could take a team from fair-to-middling to good, but not from good to great, and he’s done it on his own terms.

Some of us who got to know Howe his first couple of years in Oakland saw how unfair that old reputation was. I even did my small part to knock it down, using a Chronicle game story to blast as “vermin” the kind of loathsome second-guessers who wait for a team to falter and then play the game of let’s-ax-the-manager.

Howe actually used to credit me with having saved his job, which I think just shows how people like to exaggerate the power of the press. Still, I am glad the man still has his job, and is showing everyone that truly decent people can not just be good, but be great, even in sink-or-swim environments like professional sports. And I do know that it will be a great pleasure to watch Howe’s boys go out there and knock off the three-time defending champion New York Yankees, and that it will be good, not just for us but for everyone, all Americans, because these are times for regeneration and looking forward and celebrating that which we are, not that which we were. That which we were is over now.

Spectator sports are really just our way of giving ourselves alternative emotional dramas to follow.

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